My early memories of the house by the river in Christchurch are gravel, grass, and leaves. When it rained for more than a day, the bottom of the garden turned into a swamp. Chickens named after All Blacks and English matrons scratched and blurred the edges of the flowerbeds. Every summer, the cricket-pitch would be manually rolled flat and football boots were swapped for bats and stumps. In the autumn, leaves and slaters all over the trellises. Conkers out in the street, spiky green shells, squished underfoot to reveal adequate ammunition. A crew of similarly scrappy kids to cycle about and stay out past sunset with. All stages of schooling within walking distance. Bookcases, dark wood, guinea pigs and rabbits. Some friends affectionately referred to our home as The Burrow, both in childhood years and as teenagers on the cusp of six beers and fancying Emma Watson. It was a social house, always bubbling with noise and people.
We had lived there since 1999, after moving from Timaru. My parents had settled in Christchurch once before, and my older siblings were born there before any mention of Timaru was made. But the Timaru hospital was desperately understaffed and the idea of buying a home in the big city was still slightly out of reach. So I was born closer to the mountains. I don’t remember much about the move back north, other than our big tabby cat Keith yowling from his cage on the back seat. I remember even less about our home in Timaru. Wooden floors? A carved bedhead? The dog and I, hiding under the table, because she had just crapped on the floor and wanted to implicate the only other member of the family not confidently able to use the toilet?
When the 7.1 hit, I was not wearing pants. I stumbled out of bed, vaguely aware of my mother calling from the next room, and tripped over the bedside cabinet, which was notably, ambitiously, no longer next to the bed. I huddled in the doorway, oversized Beatles t-shirt I had stolen from my father pulled down to my knees, and hung on. Downtown had been dead for about thirty minutes but my brother still made no appearance in his doorway. When the rocking subsided, my mother hauled him, still drunk, out of bed and downstairs. My parents had been awake in the dark when the quake had started, having been serenaded some twenty minutes earlier by the after-effects of beer and dancing hitting the bowl of the toilet. My brother slept through the rest of the morning, wrapped in wool and alcohol under the kitchen table, a solid oak creation from a previous life in another city. All in good faith, Radio New Zealand National was playing ‘Good Vibrations’ by The Beach Boys, until the severity of the event was comprehended, and probably Catriona MacLeod interrupted the song with the news. All of the cats in the neighbourhood went missing, an elderly lady around the corner had to be rescued from her collapsed porch, but otherwise all was well. Someone started a barbeque and the excitement of the morning was washed down with breakfast.
Like every other building in the city, our home was mangled by that inevitable snap and backfire of tectonic plates, and like many of our neighbours, we continued to live there for many months after the quakes. Everything was on a slight, forgivable lean. My bedroom wall was blessed with a large bulge, as if the September quake had been some strange act of insemination, and a demigod of gyp board and plaster was soon to be born through the wallpaper. But we didn’t lose our chimney – a mark of distinction for our street. The cat also returned, 14 days later, but no thinner than when he had left. I built an elaborate blanket-fort in the lounge, which we slept in when the aftershocks came in flurries.
Two separate generations had now lived through terrifying times, just under 100 years apart. In 1931, my grandmother narrowly avoided death. The chimney of her family home in St. Albans, Hastings, came galloping headfirst through the roof and just missed her bassinette. 130 kilometres away, in Wairoa, my grandfather’s cot shook in a wooden villa by the river. Many years later they would kiss during a blackout at a dance, much to the irritation of the boy who had been my grandmother’s date. The unfortunate boy was forced to dance with his mother, who proceeded to glare at my grandmother for the rest of the night. That kiss would turn into five children and three dachshunds, and one of those children would turn into my father, with a strong aversion to little dogs.
Our dog was usually the first member of the family to sound the alarm when an aftershock hit. The order generally went; the dog barked, the cat’s bell tinkled as he dashed across the room and out the door, and then the whole house creaked. We got good at recognising the far-away rumble which preceded the awkward shimmying of the paddocks to the west of the city, but the dog always beat us to the warning-shout. Those acres of dairy land, inconspicuous, in that shade of John-Key’s-major-priority-green, had quivered and burst, like a child trying to keep a secret. It was now known that Christchurch was sitting on a plate of tectonic spaghetti. The Greendale fault had marked the surface of the earth with an unsettling crack, like the trail of some gigantic mole trying to run from the ghost sheepdogs of the Canterbury plains.
All of our time spent on that fun-filled family activity of stripping flocked wallpaper and repainting bedrooms had been reversed. Every ceiling in the house sported cracks and great ripples of rifted paint. Night after night of staring up at my flaking ceiling while trying to sleep took its toll. I started to have dreams about The Big One, that once-in-a-thousand-years event in which the whole of the fault line says ‘fuck it’ and the Southern Alps slide into the sea. Some nights I would dream that those pinched-up mountains were right at the end of my street, beckoning and menacing in equal portions. Other nights I would dream that it was morning, and I would be opening my eyes, only to feel a quake start, and to watch my ceiling come crashing down around me, and then I would be lying awake in the dark of my shattered room, calling for help, pinned down by the beams of the roof that gave up. Sometimes this dream was triggered by actual quakes, and my mother would come crashing upstairs shouting ‘Did you feel that?’, ending the dream before the claustrophobia kicked in.
February. It had been a half-day at school, so my sister and I were making lunch with our friends and watching Black Books. I remember putting down a cup of tea, only to find that the table had risen up to meet me, and splashed the contents of the mug all over my sleeve. Then I remember the television and the lights going off, and that great thunderous symphony of waves, waves of terrible energy breaking through the surface of the earth and splitting the land in all directions. Our house shuddered and jumped, sending the glass light fittings straight up into the ceiling, and then down over our heads in a shower of shrapnel. We ran for the front door, halting at the threshold as tiles spilled from the roof and sank into the mud that was bubbling up around the house. I remember grabbing the dog’s collar and reining her in, startled pony that she was. We huddled in that corner of the house, afraid to go outside or stay in. The dog whined and twisted. I remember the desperate sense of loss on our faces, the fact that not everyone could have escaped that, and people we knew were probably dead.
During a lull between the shaking we hurried out to the street, only to be greeted by an enormous pool of briny mud, a metre deep in some places, climbing up onto the earth, as if someone had popped a great grey blister in the underworld. The neighbourhood dogs thought it was fantastic. They chased each other through the sludge, taunting the cars that couldn’t exploit their usual shortcut. A neighbour from across the road attempted to join us. He sank halfway across, losing his gumboots and perhaps a bit of dignity as two schoolgirls rescued him with a piece of rope. My childhood friends came by on bikes, telling tales of houses that had slipped off the hills. Mother Nature had rolled her heavy shoulders and stretched her back, trying to relieve the ache from carrying the wriggling baby on her hip.
My mother was in town during the quake, meters from a palace of glass that was home to her dentist. The building shattered and fell in on itself, while my mother looked on from the vegetable shop across the road. She dropped two lost old ladies home and then slowly drove towards the hills, caught in the traffic of panic and rubbernecking. Meanwhile, my father was up to his shins in the water that had burst from every pipe in the hospital. It was pitch black, half of the ceilings were on the floor, and frightened patients were calling from every direction. He and his colleagues evacuated people in the dark and wet, before rushing to treat the many injured arriving outside. He didn’t make it home until much later that night, and even then it was only to sleep for four hours, before going right back into the heart of the mess. I remember watching him walk down the street, one pale orange streetlight flickering through an unusually cold February night, smoke curling slowly from a cigarette glowing in his hand. Tobacco was something he kept for times of crisis, with his wooden pipe reserved for the special anxiety of trying to catch a fish.
We slept in a tent out in the garden, not because we were worried that the house would fall down, but because the shivering of wood and glass made a noise that set the skin alight. When the next grey day rose up over the dust, we started to dig. In hindsight, it should have been entirely the EQC’s problem to get rid of the mud that flooded up from under us, but school was shut and we had no other way of helping. So, we dug. First around the house, then the street, then the school. It felt good to be doing something. My father came home from one of his 18-hour shifts and tried to join in. I flicked mud at him with my spade until he gave up and went back into the tent to sleep.
The aftershocks were vicious. In contrast to the deep rumbling of the Greendale fault, every time the Port Hills twitched we bounced and swore and stayed away from windows. They were now coming from a shallower fault. There was less warning, more power being released, and a dramatic increase in fear. People were trying to mourn. Relatives and workmates and friends had died. There is a number, the same way that there is a number for the amount of quakes that have struck the region and the strength of those quakes, but so much of Christchurch has been put into numbers in the past few years that it pains me to do it. Grief doesn’t want to be a statistic.
Fallen buildings coughed out flames. Cliffs fell face-first into the sea. Rivers broke their banks and reclaimed the swamps and lagoons of the region. Homes split in two. Things changed. The adjustment back into daily routine took a while. Landmarks were gone. The skyline was full of holes. For a long time, looking down on the city from the hills at night, the CBD was a big dark pit, the remaining buildings lit in a ghostly way by the spotlights being used to deter looters. We tried to pick up from where our narratives had been before the quakes. There was work to do. Groceries to buy. A future to think about. Never mind the cracks in the walls, we’ll get to those when things settle down.
Our school stayed shut for a month, and when it did reopen we were on site from 8 til 12, and then shooed out so another school could use our grounds in the afternoon. It suited me fine. I’m a morning person. My walk to school was amended by the pre-sunrise hush of South Christchurch. Along that path by the Heathcote River, it was easy to forget anything so tremendous had ever happened. For my senior years of high school, it felt like everything might work out well in the end, if not better than it had been. My parents patiently awaited the assessment of our house, and we got on with our lives as best we could. The ceremonies rolled on. The council gave my father an award for bravery. We were making history. We were optimistic. The world was looking at us.
I look back on my fifteen-year-old self, and I’m uneasy about some of my coping methods. In the days immediately following the February quake, my brother and I played computer games until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. When school started up again, I plunged back into my habit of participating in every extra-curricular activity that I physically could. I made friends, I unmade friends, I failed a maths test and started writing songs. The aftershocks kept rumbling along underneath. I have a video of the time a 5.1 hit in the middle of my band’s performance. The drummer keeps going. I lose my footing for a moment. The lights in the hall sway and waver. The band doesn’t lose a beat, and when we’ve finished our song the audience clap and yell and swear and we bow, grinning, shaking, airborne.
I spent the rest of 2011 up to no good, depending on who you ask. One night my best friend and I snuck down the street, dressed in black, with two brushes and a pot of white paint. We spent half an hour frantically dashing in and out of a bush, attempting to revamp the dark-blue portaloo at the end of my street without being seen. A few days later, our TARDIS appeared in the newspaper, and we revelled in our poorly kept secret. We did a lot of revelling in those months. There was no town, and no desire to go very far, so we hopped from house to park to house, drinking and smoking as only teenagers are able, with a can-do attitude and a close group of friends in tow. We had two snows that winter. For the first one, we jumped the fence of the bowling green and made snow-angels, rolling off the low-roof into the drifts and eventually triggering the alarm. We ran along the river, howling and coughing in the dark. The second time, I led our midnight convoy through the quiet streets, strumming on my old nylon-string guitar, the pied piper guiding the bored middle-class kids down from the hills. Someone held my hand as I did my first, and last, bong-hit. We lay on the field of my old primary school under the clear, freezing sky, convinced the stars were coming to get us. They were exceptional times.
But while we were finding fun where we could, families across town went without water or roofs, and our parents faced the rigid rules of the assessors. There was no doubt our house had suffered significant structural damage. One side of it hung lower, the doors all swung on their hinges and wouldn’t keep still. A large black crack ran through every house on our side of the road. One day, a few (too many) months after the February quake, a man in a hard hat wearing a safety vest and holding a clipboard appeared. He followed my mother around the house. She started off by pointing out the places where the ceilings and joinery had been cracked, to which he uttered that ominous refrain, ‘just needs plaster and paint’. This was the expected reaction for the cosmetic damage, but when she came to the larger cracks around the outside of the house, and he didn’t change his tune, she began to bristle. When she voiced her frustration, he said ‘Don’t worry princess, we’ll take care of it.’ We were written off as under The Cap and told to sit tight. My mother stood in our sloping doorway, and watched the man practically bounce down the driveway with glee. He probably thought he was doing the community a great service, one less house to be bowled down in a desirable suburb.
Pre-Richter scale, there was a large jolt in Marlborough, 1848, that resulted in a day of fasting and fervent supplication. In the Wairarapa, 1855, a quake estimated to have been an 8.2 pushed the earth 20 feet up into the air and left it there, causing tsunamis in Wellington Harbour and a feeling of relief in the colony when no one attempted to loot the town. In 1888, 100 kilometres north-west of Christchurch, a 7.0 struck the region. It was foreshadowed by three weeks of little quakes that steadily grew into the deafening roar of the actual event. The Southern Alps were like lovers trying to share a bed after a major disagreement; a cough, a rustle, a mountain coming down. The top of the Christchurch Cathedral collapsed into the street below. In 1931, as I mentioned before, a 7.8 hit Hawkes Bay and claimed 256 lives. Flames spread through the rubble, rescuers were severely hindered by aftershocks, and one injured woman, trapped in the ruins of St. John’s Cathedral, was administered a lethal overdose of morphine as the surrounding area started to catch fire.
In August 2014, my parents were forced from our home. They had taken a hard line with their insurers after years of vagueness, and finally the bear seemed to have awoken. With three weeks’ notice, they found a rental on the hill and packed up everything. And then, they waited. And then, they argued. The crack that ran through the house was at the maximum measurement of lateral and vertical spread, but not over it, and therefore the foundations only needed to be repaired instead of replaced. The engineer who had assessed the house had used some discretion in regards to what part of the crack he measured, but the insurance company didn’t seem to care about this. My parents argued, all the while paying rent and living elsewhere because the builders had stripped the house of all its fittings and made it uninhabitable. The rent subsidy ran out. The council shook its head. The house sat empty until one year, two lawyers, and three engineers later, a decision was ‘agreed’ upon. The great wooden skeleton was going to be raised up, her petticoats high, and the foundations would be rebuilt. We could have been back in our home by April, but that’s not the way the song goes.
Meanwhile, I was paying too much to live in a sloping two-storey house in the darkest pits of Aro Valley. No direct sunlight, no breath of wind, just a stagnant mouth of black mould and reeking mildew. When I moved out, I washed everything I owned. Mould was a new concept for me, having only ever lived in a sound house and a hall of residence. It made me very paranoid. I would lie awake in bed and feel it bloom in the room, blocking my sinuses and turning me into John Hurt as Caligula. Most days I woke up with a pounding headache, which I would exorcise by walking as fast as I could up the steps at the end of the street to Upland Road. Every day is Leg Day in Aro Valley. Above in Kelburn, muscles crying, gasping for air, the headaches would disintegrate, and I would be wet under the arms well before the anxiety of class could kick in.
On the 28th of November 2015, I had a strange dream. We were having a party at our old house, just like old times. Many of my friends from high school were there, and hanging out with drinks in hands in the lounge. I was talking earnestly with a friend about his recent scholarship to Oxford, when I heard shouts and screams from outside. I ran out onto the deck, into a cloudy summer night, and down the steps to where the commotion was. We looked on in terror as a red snaking hand disappeared under the house. In the dream, it felt like we had just witnessed the flight of some demon or ghost. I woke up, the terror still melting back into the dark. The hand had glowed bright red, like the early ink drawings of Smaug the Terrible in the edition of The Hobbit my father had kept on his bedside table. I texted my mother right away. She didn’t know what to think of it at the time. Maybe there would be something buried under the house that would only be found once it was lifted up on its piles?
Phone calls early in the morning usually mean something terrible has happened. When my mother called me at 6 am on the 30th of November, my clammy bed in Aro Valley turned into a frigid tarn, and I kept my eyes shut as I answered my phone. I couldn’t help myself from thinking, ‘who would it be this time?’ The voice on the other end of the line was low and rational. Our house was on fire.
I got out of bed and walked to the university, where my friends would be. The news broke quickly.
Two-storey Christchurch home up in flames
I coughed on my morning coffee as the image of my burnt-out bedroom stared back at me from the screen, the windows blackened and the roof gone, collapsed in on itself. The bedroom with windows facing in three directions, the gyp board demigod, the blue walls, the bedroom where I danced, read, talked, drank, the bedroom where I discovered love, sex, The Strokes, Emily Dickinson. I thought of my parents, standing across the road, watching fifteen years of domesticity blacken and burn, and all their years of pressure and patience cave inwards. What could this mean, but more waiting? More years at the whims of insurers who would take no responsibility, more men in suits and more of the stifling bureaucracy of post-quake Christchurch?
I keep saying out loud that it could have been worse, we could have been living there, we could have had things stored in the house – but this argument doesn’t stand, because the fire wouldn’t have started if we had still been there. A tank of petrol had been left on the premises for the generator that the builders had been using. Some bored fucks had doused the stairwell and the upstairs bedrooms, dropped a match, and jumped the fence. Our friends and family were incensed about our situation. We were just tired. There comes a point at the end of any given day after working, traveling, or studying, when you just want to go home. You want to sit in your familiar house, smelling familiar smells, with the usual pictures hanging on the walls and the books in the customary order on the shelf, and you want to know that you are home. The roof you are under belongs to you, and the things you have worked hard for surround you. An accumulated atmosphere of your life’s work. Maybe that’s materialistic, but let it stand. We go home to find what we know should be there. Our families, pets, belongings, our garden.
I feel a great pressure to end this on some profound note, a universal anecdote that will get people mmming, a lesson that I have learnt from all this, because I’m supposed to be young and optimistic. But I won’t, because I’m pissed off. I’m angry that this is how events have unfolded, and the great tragedy that struck my community has been further enhanced by stalling, meddling, greedy sycophants at office desks, while we pack up, and move, and pack up again. And for what? There is no immediate solution to the problem that we can supply. So I take the pittance the government allows me, I sleep in treacherous buildings, and I try to keep busy. I try to stay calm when I mistake the vibrations of people walking past for aftershocks, I try to forget the dream about the ceiling falling in. I do the visualization exercises, I take deep breaths, I go for long runs, I read other people’s accounts of anxiety, stress, and trauma, and I try to talk about it. I try not to think about what seemed like the definitive end of my childhood, up in dust and then in smoke, and I try not to think about the people who have profited from our distress.
Claudia Jardine is currently studying Classics, English Literature, Latin, and Creative Writing at Victoria University in Wellington. Her poems have previously appeared in Starling, The Spinoff and Salient. She was born in Timaru, grew up in Christchurch, and has now deserted the South Island altogether. Claudia believes that more people should listen to Simon & Garfunkel.