Posts Tagged ‘Christchurch’

the teacher from Christchurch

August 25, 2011

First thing in the morning – and getting ready to leave was unexpectedly coming to feel urgent.  I was catching my plane out of Nelson, and G. was driving me to the airport.  The hurry was puzzling – could the airport be so far away?  We drove the scenic route – a farewell to Nelson – up and down hills and through suburbs; past tiny old weatherboard sailors’ cottages of the late-nineteenth century.  I remembered those replicas of the Endeavour, and how we marvelled at the amount of kit that could fit into those narrow cabins.  These cottages put that into some perspective: they are not much more spacious, and whole lives were conducted in them.
We had things to see, and a stop to make – now the hasty departure made sense.  High up on the ridge, in a well-to-do leafy suburb above Nelson, G.’s friends have a must-see view over the beach and bits of the harbour.
They had a friend staying.  A friend of a friend.  An acquaintance, really.  A woman of a comfortable age, and figure – well-dressed, nicely made-up, and sensible-seeming: one of the many who had left devastated Christchurch
for a time, partly for refuge, but also because their absence was the best help they could give to the overstretched facilities.
We all chatted and smiled, drank coffee and went out onto the deck to admire the view.  Running stick figures, the few early risers, traced the sands, and a few dogs pranced along the wide acres left by the low tide.  When we asked her how she was doing her story began slowly, not yet routine.

‘We were so lucky.  We’d given them a late lunch hour so they were all still outside and we were having a staff meeting.  So – well – (and a pause) – we felt it starting and we did what you do.  We got under the big table and we were crouching there. (The penny dropped.  I could see smartly-dressed New Zealand primary school teachers – unwontedly helpless but totally practised, informed, disciplined.  Health and safety a deadly serious necessity.)  But they were all outside – and so they were safe. She didn’t have to say that the whole building had collapsed around them.
I think she planned to stop her story at that point – it felt like a climax, and a happy ending.  But we were quiet and attentive, and she went on.  ‘Then when the main shocks were over we went out into the playground.  They were crying of course and hysterical.  We got them into circles on the grass, everyone rubbing the back of the one in front – and they started to calm down a bit.  The ones who were really upset stayed close to me.
She made a little brushing gesture at her skirts, touching the memory of those little clinging sobbing children.  ‘ – and not one was hurt.  Then we took them up onto a little mound where it was safer.  As the story brought the children back to that safe place all over again, tears came to her eyes.  And again she had reached a place where the story stopped.
Did we prompt her to go on?  I don’t remember now.  Maybe I said ‘How did you get them home?’ (a stranger, I had nothing to lose and I really wanted to know).
‘Then we had to wait for parents to collect them.  Lots of cuddles and back-rubbing and singing (did she say singing?).  But with the traffic in the city centre . . .(a pause, when we saw again that live TV footage of bridges buckling, and cars tipped up, and the gridlocked streets liquefying).  Parents couldn’t get out of the city centre for hours.  In the end everyone was collected by a parent or a relative.
When did the last one go home?
‘About six thirty she said (or something like that).
She had kept those terrified children sane and comforted for over five hours, this stoic, utterly professional, cool-headed genius.  Is back-rubbing in a circle her own invention?  Is it written down in some teachers’ manual for disaster management?
On TV they were advising us all to let people talk it out, to listen as many times as needed.  I hope she has been listened to again and again – and somehow I feel confident that she has.

on, on!!

August 25, 2011

Well now – there’s been a long gap, but here I am, back at last.  I wonder whether I’ve been avoiding writing the next pieces: they involve some tricky stuff, and I want to get it right.  Talking to an earthquake survivor; leaving Nelson (and therefore New Zealand); arriving in Canberra; spending time with my one identifiable reader.  What’s more she is a wonderful blogger (Scary thought –  she’ll read about herself in my blog. Hi there Walküre!!)  But if I don’t write up all this, for good or ill, I won’t feel as if I can go on to anything else.  At least we are still in the same year – only many months late.

Enough of this wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Enough of this cowardly navel-gazing.  On, on!

Nelson, South Island – 21st-22nd February

May 5, 2011

Nelson was like another world.  My friend in Nelson  (I’ll call her G.) has a remarkable talent for integrating her houses with their surroundings.  Any work of art requires more than just talent, and G. has studied and thought carefully about architecture, art and function as well.  Her style is about ideology almost as much as it is about taste. Books on her shelves include the inspiring How Buildings Learn by  Stewart Brand (1994).  He made a six-parter with the BBC, based on the book.  Beware, though: this clip is half an hour long:
 Just now, looking him up on Wikipedia I discover that this is same man who was responsible for the famous Whole Earth Catalog (sic) back in the seventies, well known to anyone interested in self sufficiency at the time.  At G’s, over time, one notices more and more of the details that she has wrought into her home.  The bathroom floor of this seaside house swims in the sea: a subtle linoleum (specially imported) in complex shades of dark blue-green – the colours of the deep.  It’s not Brand’s ‘low road’, but it is immensely thought-filled: effort that creates a relaxation.  The house is bedded into a hill at the back, and looks out over the broad expanse of  Tasman Bay to the mountains on the opposite shore.  Windows everywhere make it wonderfully light and construct fabulous views.

view west (?) to the mountains behind Nelson

(Unfortunately these photos below don’t show the mountains across the bay too clearly – it was a misty day.  But it’s my first ever attempt at a collage panorama! Should look good when enlarged, I hope. That’s how to see the mountains.)

 The house is reached by a steep-ish winding path, through wooden gates painted bright red – the colour of a Japanese tori-i.  They form both a boundary and a welcome, she says.  The garden, burgeoning but welcomingly slightly scruffy, mingles flowers and vegetables.  The slightly New Age garden sculpture wouldn’t be my choice, but its tone does feel appropriate to New Zealand.  Somewhere in the middle of all the moments of delighted appreciation, I realised that the house follows feng shui principles.  Maybe that was the source of its profound sense of peace and order.  It may have broken the bank to renovate this little old house with such care and attention to detail, but it was surely worth it.
And then the structures fell apart, because Tuesday was the day of the earthquake.  Christchurch heaved and tumbled while we, trivially unaware, scooted around Nelson’s art galleries and coffee shops, in and out of random showers.  At least, this was until G. (who knows everybody) ran into a friend in the street who said: “There’s been a quake in Christchurch.”  We took this calmly – a quake can mean something quite small, after all – and then she said: “It sounds serious – there’s been deaths.”  That was obviously worse, but even then we went on with our lightning-swift tour of the lovely Victorian gardens (the Queen’s Gardens), the Suter Art Gallery Museum, and its cafe.  
Only when we were back at home and turned on the TV did we understand the scale of the disaster.  I can’t begin to rival the descriptions given by others, or the footage that was shown at the time.  Camera crews were showing us events in real time.  We sat and watched the darkness of dust clouds, wrecked buildings still toppling and moving, the fires and smoke that were impossible to put out.   We watched for hours, G. weeping, while I (as always in troubled times) felt nothing.  That’s my survival mechanism, I guess: the feelings come later, once the emergency is over.  It grew dark and the news crews started repeating the most dramatic moments.  Eventually the same clips had come round once too often, and we switched off, saturated, to make contact with friends and family, and donate online to the Sally Army.  Nothing else to be done for the moment, but deal with the helpless agitation that television coverage creates.

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