– Lyttelton, Canterbury, New Zealand

And so, it begins again.. Dec 23rd
A new swarm, a new cluster. “I felt like moving away rapidly as if I had disturbed a swarm of angry bees,” as one person put it when interviewed by National Radio.

There had been mutterings around the city in high places about another big quake expected. Mr Brownlee said it was a low probability, others said 50%, and my favoured probability table indicated an 85% of something up to a 6.0 in the region. I was not too surprised when the first big one hit at 1.58pm. I had been sort of expecting it. I was on the second floor of a building in the suburb of Merivale, having my pre-Christmas maintenance done. As a special treat, I was having a paraffin wax treatment on my hands, rough from gardening and cooking, when wham. “Oh no”, says Sinai, the seasoned earthquake girl from Japan. I don’t remember getting off the bed as the room started to wildly sway. The quake grew in size. It was a swinging motion more than the violence of previous bad ones.

Some members of the staff were crying in the reception area, as product crashed around them from the shelves. We helped others down the stairwell and poured out into the bright sunshine of the beautiful Cantabrian afternoon. There was another significant shock and we all moved across the road to a more open area away from buildings. A repeat of earlier scenes from the previous big earthquakes, followed, of people clustered in groups, looking shocked, some crying, and staring in disbelief at the buildings they had just fled from and the realisation that “it” had happened again. The traffic built up as people attempted to get to their homes. Remembering the pattern in June, I felt instinctively there would be another big one. However, after this big quake, there is definitely a different attitude.

It sounds insane now, to remember how people, after the initial shock, concentrated on getting their afternoons back in order. After all, it was Christmas in less than 2 days and earthquakes or not, we had to get through the ‘To Do’ lists. For me, I am embarrassed to recall, this meant getting the toenails painted. That is, after all, what I had come for. After being on the side of the road, trying to recover for maybe ten minutes, the shaking seemed to have stopped and I suggested to Sinai that if she was brave enough, we could go back and pick up some nail polish from the floor of the shop and paint my nails out here on the wall. She was agreeable and so off we went, back inside. It was a shambles but we chose some polish from the crashed products and I sat and she painted. The ground was still wobbling, but not too badly. She was fast and it felt mad and crazy, but positive too. I had my red painted nails for Christmas despite all! I hugged her, thanked her and wished her well as today was her last day in this job. What a way for her to finish her time as a beauty therapist in Christchurch, New Zealand. Something she will never forget!

The ground shook some more so I went to my car, feeling emotionally wobbly and lost. I drove to Victoria Street where my hair appointment was supposed to be. All the hairdressers had gone home, leaving women, I hear, with foils in their hair, standing on the pavement outside.

I went back to Merivale again, all the while trying to respond to texts from anxious people – children, husband, friends from overseas etc. I actually wanted to turn my phone off and not respond to anything. I sat in the car, not sure what to do. What about all the Christmas shopping not done yet? What about the fruit and vegetables? What about the ham and the turkey?

If I can’t get my hair done at least I can get some hair product. The Merivale salon I went into was so busy. Product littered the floor but none of the staff had time to pick it up. I purchase some mousse from the floor where it lies, and leave.

Then there is another quake, much worse than the first. I am horrified how the car is tossed from side to side, lampposts wildly swaying and buildings too, and how all the moving traffic around us is brought to an abrupt short stop. We look around us, the drivers stunned and dazed. Will we tip over? The cars start to stabilise.

Suddenly I am crying. I need human interaction. I climb from the car and look into the eyes of the driver nearest to me, a man who gives no response. I turn to the car behind. A woman meets my gaze, climbs out from the driver’s seat and puts her arms around me. I cry, she comforts and then starts telling me how over it she is. What will I do next? I climb back into the car. I turn on the radio. I can hardly bare to listen to the voice of the National Radio announcer, usually so comforting, as he talks about us, poor Christchurch people and our plight. I do not want us, to be the subject of more earthquake news.

Shocks are on-going and I drive back to Victoria Street. The shops are trashed this time and lovely Christmas decorations lie broken, the streets almost empty, with sirens still going off and firemen and helicopters doing their thing. It’s a repeat, repeat, repeat. We have been here three times before.

I feel tired and defeated, and then I see some young staff outside another café. Suddenly my hunger comes again and I enquire if anyone has any food. Someone gives me a ham and tomato bap and then a shop owner, Lynn W, is standing there. I am so happy to see her and I remember my Christmas dress, the one I was going to the city pop-up mall to pick up. “My dress, oh I wish I had my Christmas dress.” “But you will,” she says. How ridiculous to be contemplating the purchase of a dress in these circumstances but it is certainly a better option than focussing on the shaking and there is this mad thought, fleeting as it is, that things might get worse and we may not even see Christmas, so why not have a bright orange celebratory dress. “Here, have a wine,” says Lynn as she retrieves a bottle of wine from somewhere in the depths of her shaking shop. “Sit down out here on the wall and I’ll ring and see if I can get the girls from the other shop to bring over your dress.” And they did. I could not believe this was possible in the circumstances. It was amazing that her phone was working, mine wasn’t, again, a surreal combination of earth shaking and then normal activity despite it. I felt safe with these people, mostly strangers. The accountant from upstairs and the pale faced young boy just arrived in Christchurch by bus en-route to Dunedin, unlucky enough to be hit by two quakes as he arrived in the north of Christchurch. He was hungry so I gave him the other half of my bap and a glass of the wine. I could not drink mine. The first sip had gone straight to my adrenalin-filled body. We shook hands and he wished me well. I wonder if he ever got to Dunedin. Sometime, much later, the dress arrived.

I am writing this account early on Christmas Eve, looking back at the events of the day before. What a terribly bumpy night. The birds are waking up. I’ve hardly slept, so much shaking that I lost count. Somehow Christmas Eve and its traditional activities of preparing the food for the feasting the next day, did happen, in a blur. The family flew in from Australia and from Auckland and the trauma from the previous 24 hours was kept in control.

Now it is Christmas night 11.30pm, I’m lying in bed in the sitting room thinking back over Christmas day 2011. Incredibly, the day was beautiful, sunny and warm, and although a lot of shakes registered, not many were felt. Delicious food was consumed and the weather was great for outside activities including badminton. The highlights of the day were the balloon water fights, fantastic fun, and therapeutic as stress relief. I am lying here now looking over my gift from daughter Aimee – Artists Impressions of New Zealand – and my attention has been arrested at the pages of Christchurch. Looking at the beautiful images of buildings Christchurch City has left me incredulous, yet again, to realise that the detail in these buildings is all gone. My god, it is all too weird.

It is indeed a second seismic Christmas with 42 new events over the Christmas Day 24 hour period. I’m woken again Boxing Day, this time Boxing Day 2011, by yet another shake. I feel very anxious, tonight after such a beautiful Christmas day. Something feels lurking again and it is so strange that nearly every one of the 80 or so events since the big two on the 23rd have all registered in the same location, just off Marine Parade/ Brooklands/ Brighton, in the sea in Pegasus Bay.

It seems with shakes it takes a 4 or more now for us to notice. We’re becoming strangely reprogrammed by these constant earth movements. Two years ago, if we had been confronted by even one isolated event of a 4 or 4.2, we would have been all talking about it. It would have been an event.

I know now, that a 4.0, although distressing, is still nothing compared to the big ones. To see the earth move in front of you so violently, the lamp posts sway, the buildings violently swing as if to touch each other then swing back, to see cars and large trucks and buses come to abrupt halts and then bounce and swing from side to side, to watch the footpath wriggle and roll, is totally unnerving. To see people’s faces as they cope in all their different ways, some contorted with fear and screaming, others numb and calm but drained of colour, others empty, their ghost like eyes not seeing. This level of shaking has been experienced by us all more than 7 times now , and we have, according to the Press, had an earthquake over 3 on average every four hours every day since these events began in 2010, 500 plus days at the time of writing this.

On the 23rd, my husband Mark was visiting the Art Gallery shop. As he approached, he felt the movement, looked out and saw the Arts Centre moving, the buildings swaying, “surreal”, he said, from the 5.8. He was on a mission for a Christmas card so un-deterred, he entered the shop, not surprisingly by now, the only customer. Then the 5.3 hit and they had to evacuate. “I’m sorry sir, those last two were over 5 and we must close the shop.” He managed to find the card he was after, the now classic “Keep Calm Carry On” produced by the UK Ministry of Information in 1939-46 for the public morale campaign; it is now being put to good use again to boost the morale of another population in another location, 70 years later. Mark writes on the back of this card “This card selected at 2.00pm 23rd December 2011 at the Christchurch Art Gallery Shop after a 5.8 quake, the first of a new series of quakes Christmas 2011.”

The gallery shop was evacuated 5 minutes later as aftershocks continued. We are Calm and we do Carry On.

That is what I; along with thousands of other Cantabrians also did that day. After waiting for the dress to arrive, I decided I was now brave enough to finish the Christmas food shopping if I found anything open, and I did. In Victoria Street next door to a building spewing forth water and opposite others that had trashed window displays, and broken windows was a green grocer. I saw people milling around and established they were still serving people. So I went in. There was a scene of calm chaos. Whilst staff were picking up and mopping up, customers were queuing and politely making their way around them, picking up the fruit and vegetables, milk and cream etc. I moved as quickly as I could, grabbing things, hoping that without a list I would choose what we needed. There were 4 days of public holidays ahead with many mouths to feed and a full scale Christmas feast to prepare and 2 days after that, an engagement event for my son and daughter-in-law to be.

When it shook, it was at least comforting to be with others, also doing their Christmas food shopping. We were all mad together. Mission accomplished, I started to feel better, knowing I had stores on board and then I had no more excuses but to head towards the Port Hills and home. I was very reluctant to see more damage at home and I did not know where Mark was. I did not want to be at home alone. The drive through the city revealed nothing dramatic except that some tall buildings looked on more of a lean and some areas that had been previously open, now had signs indicating they were being checked and could not be entered. The town was again eerily quiet. I drove on through to Sydenham. The old stone Post Office was down, too dangerous, it had been partially demolished between the two big quakes of the afternoon. And so to the bottom of the hill shops, the butcher boys, tired and pale, but doing a roaring trade as customers rushed to pick up Christmas meats, many with stories of fear in their families. A woman beside me tells me she has relatives just arrived from Singapore and they are so afraid they will not enter the house. They are huddling for comfort outside. Others who overhear the story concur, yes, we are going to be outside too, we’ll have some more sausages please and the sausages swiftly leave the cabinet to the bags of waiting customers. If you didn’t know there had just been two major earthquakes and you looked into this shop at this precise moment you would think you were seeing a normal pre-Christmas meat buying event. People were calm and focused. I purchased some small gifts in the florist and gift shop, thanking the people at each place for staying on to provide the goods so Christmas could happen.

It is the households in the east of the city, we think of as we raise our glasses to toast being together as a family on Christmas Day. We feel too fortunate here in Governors Bay with the beauty of the garden and the bay surrounding us. How will it be this time in Avonside, Bexley, Brighton and Brooklands, with the many, quakes all centred right on their doorstep; the sequence so unusual in that the shocks are consistently within a few metres/kilometres of each other.

There is liquefaction for a fifth time for some. We are so glad members of our family are no longer located in this region. Mischa tells us that even the large trees on his old red-zoned property have given up their battle to live and succumbed to liquefaction. When we asked him yesterday what he missed most about their old place, and he said it was the trees, especially the mature Lancewood. Daughter in law, Sol contacted us from Barriloche in Argentina. She and the children had arrived after an extremely long and tiring trip, the last part of the 24 hour trip being done on a bus because the airport is still closed in Barriloche from the effects of volcanic ash. She says the ash is erupting again. She has not told the children about the fresh spate of quakes back here.

Today will be the Boxing Day sales 2012. Will people run the gauntlet to go shopping! Where will they go! We will spend as much time as possible enjoying the outside while the weather is beautiful. With the light each morning comes a feeling of safety again.

This time I do not know much about what is happening for the eastern suburbs but from media reports, I know they are suffering badly. I know many have had no water, others no power and sewerage has been disrupted again for people in some areas and they are digging and shifting liquefaction for a fifth time. It feels like heaven over here, compared to this.

Between Christmas Eve when our first guests arrived and December 30th, there were dozens of shakes but none so large as to disturb the anxious visitors.

Then it starts again.

December 30th 2011 3.00am
We all are squeezed into the beds by the window seat. After the big hits in the last few hours, the children need to be close, not beside us on the stretchers but in bed with us.

December 31st New Year’s Eve, just gone midnight. We have counted in the New Year without too much enthusiasm. It is one week today since the last huge heaving’s and already we’re back doing relatively normal daily activity. Today, for me, that meant doing general housework, cleaning up after the Christmas week, and readying the house for the next four days of New Year’s festivities.

It is as if we are living in two time zones – on one level or zone we are having so called normal daily activity and carrying on. Work related tasks, house holding, child minding, recreating, and running concurrently and parallel to these activities is a constant awareness, alertness, a consciousness of earthquakes. When is the next one? What will it do this time?

I read with interest and amusement an article from the Press writer Charlie Mann, “Wobbly Ground Spooks Newcomer.” Lyn Anderson, CEO of Orana Park, described animal reactions to the quakes. “After the 22nd February, she described the sound of monkeys yelping in distress for three and a half hours and the image of Gregory Peck, the ostrich, running like a “crazy bugger” and the white rhinos huddled together, sitting down in the middle of the paddock in June, the Rhinos did two complete laps of the enclosure at full run.”

Whereas now, she says in the latest December quake, the reactions are different. “Oh well, there’s another one. It is no longer scary.” Anderson says in this interview, that most of the 400 animals at the park now barely react to the aftershocks. “It seems there is an adaptation taking place to living on shaky ground. They haven’t fallen through the ground and the world hasn’t ended. Clearly it’s something that initially is very different and feels like danger, but now it is just another thing. In some ways now our animals are coping better with the events of 23rd December than our people,” she commented.

“One day we will look back at the stories, documents and records from this seismic time and find it hard to believe any of this ever happened,” Says Press writer Phillip Matthews in an article titled “Who Were Our Local Heroes” December 24th 2011, as he reflects on the importance of material collected from writers, journalists and filmmakers.

Like many others in Canterbury, I continue to scour the Press articles and the Geonet sites each day, searching for comfort, for answers, for more understanding about what is happening to us. Is it getting worse as I originally feared it might? Are our worldviews shrinking and is our pre-occupation with this tiny spot on the planet now more and more focussed and intense?

As I drive to Sumner via Heathcote, to do some shopping and then back to the city I find myself no longer fascinated, horrified or surprised by what I see around me on the drive, just tired, eyes and brain fatigued, it all seems too much to solve. Thank goodness, I don’t have to be the one to solve it.

I read some other quotes from the Press article “The Year of Tested Stamina”
“Cherish the time you do have because you never know when it’s going to be up,” says Heathcote resident, Megan Lane. “No one in Christchurch will feel certain again.” A statement made by 74 year old Jan Young after the September quake and her 80 year old husband Ken’s comment that he wanted to “simply stay alive, and eat plenty of chocolate.” I liked this one.

Mark and I ate a whole box between us last night, and celebrated being together, being alive, having enjoyed Christmas and having enjoyed being to Sumner to a film at the Hollywood theatre.

Running the gauntlet of the road between Governors Bay and Lyttelton, the tunnel to Heathcote, the causeway to Redcliffs and the narrow roadway past Clifton into Sumner we finally reached Sumner itself, now framed by rock-face landscapes, looking clean and new in their recently re-formed states. We move between beacons of light, as new restaurants filled with happy diners stand alone on otherwise empty lots. The movie theatre is doing a roaring trade, small and unaffected by the shaking it continues and a fortunate restaurant on a corner just out of the fall-zone from the cliffs hovering nearby, has withstood the destruction and continues to serve delicious food to its faithful customers.

‘A night out’ has a completely new meaning post quaking. We feel very lucky.

On January 2nd I sit with some of our visitors (outside on a couch in the garden in the sun). We are relaxed after a delicious long lunch and I ask them how it has been for them, visiting the shaking city these past few days.

Daughter Aimee says, “I left after 22nd February and now I am back for Christmas. It’s made me worse, coming back. I’m not numb any more so I feel anxious all over again. I feel angry that what should be home, the place where I come to be grounded, no longer feels safe for me. It seems to me in my present state that there is nowhere that I can go on the planet where I will feel safe, I am angry and sad.”

K, a visitor from Australia said she had been in one earthquake in Christchurch over 10 years ago but boarding the plane, this time via Auckland to fly to Christchurch, she said, “I was nervous. I met a couple who had left Christchurch just before Christmas to go to Auckland to get away after the 23rd December quakes. I was talking to these people just before we landed in Christchurch. As we were waiting to get off the plane the guy said they had had more quakes the night before and his partner looked terrible, completely worn out, depressed, speechless, all the life gone out of her. I felt apprehensive and curious about how it actually feels to be in these quakes. I have also had a fear that as I land there will be a quake and what will happen to the aircraft? After landing and seeing family I didn’t really think about it again until someone at dinner that night said, “Don’t worry, this is a safe house.” In the middle of the night I was woken by the first quake a 5.2. My baby kept waking, then more quakes. I feel very vulnerable having a baby with me, wanting to protect her. You worry if it gets bigger what should you do. I stood up with the baby. Not a good thing to do. I realised then what Christchurch people had been going through. I wanted to go on National TV and tell everyone how amazing people are in Christchurch, for carrying on. They all deserve medals for staying here. I wanted to make more of an effort to be extra nice to people while I was here in Christchurch.”

Grace, now 6 years old, who had not been back since 22nd February, tells me, now on the last day of her two week holiday as we walk down Sandy Beach Road to the beach, “Well Granny, there’s been a few earthquakes, 10 or 12 or something, but I’ve still had a fablious holiday.”

I am happy and sad at the same time. Happy the family have come back to share in this beautiful environment for Christmas, but so sad they are leaving with another bunch of quaking memories, and probably even more resolve not to return here to live.

Listening to the adult children ‘jamming’ and singing outside on the patio area, just out of the cold wind, is a delight, a calm way to finish the day. We’ve all been a bit subdued today, quietish with exhaustion from such a bad night. I love having the company as we go through these crazy times. Although it is a lot of work feeding everyone and creating enough sleeping space each night without having accessible bedrooms in the main house, it’s so good to have people to share with. It is going to be very strange on the 4th when they all leave, so quiet, so empty, as we head into who knows what?

Here we are climbing into bed on the 2nd night of the 3rd calendar year of the Christchurch earthquakes. As with all nights we turn out the lights with a feeling of uneasiness, what will tonight bring? The grandchildren on the camp bed and the window seat kiss us goodnight as we hunker down, hoping for calm but having absolutely no idea what the night will bring.

The darkness breeds irrational thoughts again, and I start to think about how strange now is the pattern of the quaking, all within a very small radius, under the ocean off the coast of the city and I think about previous volcanic activity again and wonder if such activity, new activity, would ever be possible again. I wish Godlike powers could be enacted by geo science and that some definitive statements going forward could be made.

But that is pure fantasy and what we have is what we currently are told, which really isn’t that much.

Between the 7th and the 9th of January, we have some time out on the west coast but Christchurch is rocked by 2 more quakes over 5 . We even feel one of them during the night in Punakaiki.

This story is an extract from an unpublished manuscript written by Rosie Belton between 4 September 2010-22 February 2012. Read more of Rosie Belton’s writing here

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