– Swannanoa, Canterbury, New Zealand

22 February 2011

It was an ordinary day. I had a day off work and was watching the Food Channel to get me in the mood for lunch. All of a sudden, the room juddered. The water sloshed in the fish tank. I gave it a few seconds to stop, then got up and walked to the sliding door to get out. It was locked, so I took a few seconds to do my best stunned mullet impersonation, and with the room still shaking strongly, I went to hold the TV to stop it falling over.

I knew it was a decent-sized aftershock, but I didn’t know where it was centred or how big. While I waited for the TV and internet to catch up, there was a text from my younger two son’s school saying everyone was OK, but the kids were scared. Could parents please pick them up? Radio Live was in the car, talkback radio, as the calls came pouring in, I started to realise that it might be a bad one.

I arrived at the school to the kids sitting on the netball courts, a bit like sports day, but with the sound of sobbing. My 6-year-old ran up, holding his shoes, a big smile on his face. “Are you taking me home? Can we ask my friend over?”. Then my 10-year-old appeared, grinning. “That was AWESOME” he said. We had no idea at that point that our city was in ruins.

Back home, I got a call from my husband. He’d been waiting at the traffic lights in Riccarton at the time and thought he’d got a flat tyre. Then he saw the car in front rocking from wheel to wheel, and watched as the streetlights flexed in a wave that reached the traffic lights, making them smash together. That’s when the walls started tumbling on the buildings around him.

I drove to Rangiora to pick up my 13-year-old son from high school. The high school kids were on the rugby pitch, laughing and talking. A cheer went up when the guy with the loud speaker said that those who could walk home could go. My son said that when the quake hit, he had just started science class. A pen had fallen off the table.

My 13-year-old couldn’t understand why another student who was listening to the radio on headphones, was crying. I told him that there had been a lot of damage in the city, that they thought people would have died this time. Looking pale, he asked whether his Dad and his two friends that go to school in the city were OK. I reassured him that they would be fine, but in my mind I pictured the old brick building across from the Arts Centre where his Dad would probably be, the school in Cashel Mall where his friends were. Thankfully, we heard they were all OK by the end of the day.

Back at home, we sat glued to the TV for the next two days. Friends from Brooklands came to stay – they had no power or water. We watched agape, along with the rest of New Zealand and most of the world, the destruction a few seconds of strong shaking – over twice the force of gravity in places – had wrought to our city. A landscape, so familiar just a few days before, turned into an unrecognisable war zone.

And so the slow, hard process to recovery began. Normality is warped for many. Our city, where we shop, dine, dance, have our eyes, teeth and accounts sorted, is under a heap of old bricks.

Physically, the only damage on our property suffered is a bigger crack in the concrete. We hare very, very lucky and we know it. Yet the earthquakes – the memories, the uncertainty, the adrenalin rush at every rumble – have become embedded in our psyche.

Life will never be the same in Christchurch. But it will go on.

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