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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Twelve Fifty One

Twelve fifty one

Last updated 05:00 26/02/2011
OPINION: When I shut my eyes I see green and grey, writes Sarah McCarthy in this week's Uptown Girl.

The green of the willow branches along the banks of the Avon that lay twisted and torn on the cracked road, and grey, the colour of slabs of concrete, of dirty water, of drawn, shocked faces.

I was out for lunch with some family after a wedding in Christchurch. Walking back to the car park on Lichfield St in the city centre, I said to Amy, "Did you feel the wee earthquake this morning? I'm so pleased I felt one."

I thought of the twisted bridge we'd seen the day before, the blue plastic on so many rooftops where chimneys had once been. Lucky old Christchurch, putting it all behind them – the earthquake now a mere inconvenience to a visitor like myself.

We walked to the car on the 10th floor, remembering my glee at climbing higher and higher in the building as my cousin Tracy, a frustrated backseat driver, kept pointing out parks that I ignored, laughing.

Started the car. Backed out. Drove downwards. Radio on. Amy and I talking about something, something forever forgotten.

And it began.

It was like four strong men were on either side of the car and were shaking it up and down with murderous intent. It was swift and violent, I was thrown around in my seat as I gripped the steering wheel.

My vision narrowed, there was only the windshield and the bucking concrete ahead of me.

The lights went out and it was dark. I turned on the headlights.

Later, Tracy said the darkness wasn't just the lack of lights, the building was moving so much the gaps at the end of the storeys were closing and opening, like the lid of an eye. I imagined the floors collapsing on top of each other and saw my own, horrible death. I kept driving.

We came to a corner where two cars were stopped on the way up. I stopped. So did the shaking. I kept driving downwards and finally saw the exit, the beautiful exit. Convinced in my panic this was just a mild aftershock and that it was business as usual I tried to put my parking ticket into the machine. I gave up, threw it away and drove out into hell.

I slowly became aware of the clouds of grey dust, bricks spewed across the road, a truck at an odd angle.

People on the street were running or just standing, shellshocked. A car just ahead flattened by a slab of concrete that had fallen from the building we just drove out of.

We drove for a thousand years through the ruined city. Buildings being repaired were dust. Scaffolding hung like metal vines. The road had risen to greet us, as if some great thing were just below the surface, clawing its way out.

Grey water flowed unheeded through streets.

Everywhere there were sirens, car alarms. Packs of terrified people headed for open areas. Houses were dust or firewood.

Great gaping holes leered from a church.

A chemist drooped, twisted and torn.

Outside the Arts Centre a group of children with white faces floating above their red jerseys sat on the lawn.

Then an aftershock, violent and growling. The children were screaming. I became convinced that this was the end of the world. I thought of Phil and all of our precious plans for our life together.

After another thousand years we made it back to our hotel, guided across the road and though the line of traffic snaking out of the city by the owner, who looked after us all afternoon even as he and his wife tried frantically to find their son.

Ten thousand years later aftershocks and the lack of food, water and a sewerage system helped make the decision to leave the city in its ruin and we drove through the night, spurred on by guilty thoughts of an intact home and a future that I am so lucky to have.

Every day is a blessing. Every minute a gift. A gift wrapped in the green and grey that will now live in my mind forever.

» Sarah McCarthy is a Southland Times staff member.

- The Southland Times

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