Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

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.

out walking with the dog

June 9, 2011

She was sitting on the concrete wall outside the parcels bay at the Post Office, smoking a tiny roll-up.  My dog brushed past her, rushing up to the door of the collection office, where we’ve been before.  She reached a vague hand towards him, as people sometimes do.  So I called him back, and got him to stand nearer to her.  It took a little doing, but eventually he was there and quiet.
‘Beautiful dog,’ she said, patting and stroking.  ‘Lovely coat,’ she said, ‘really soft.’
‘He had a bath the other day.’  I felt a need to explain.
‘He’s a . . . .?’
‘Border Collie.  . . .  You’ve got a dog?’
‘I’ve got a Springer.’  Pause.  She was a little, slightly hump-backed woman in a navy body-warmer.  Looked like a hard worker, and her accent was pure Midlands – somehow a very familiar voice, sharp-edged but comforting.
‘But it’s hair isn’t it, not fur?’  I wasn’t too sure what she was saying.  ‘Well – they don’t moult, do they?’
‘Oh yes he does – there’s hair everywhere.  You only have to turn around and there’s huge skeins of it.  Have to hoover all the time.’  (Exaggerating – those dusty skeins don’t get hoovered enough – they roll about the corners of the kitchen like tumbleweeds.)
‘Do Springers moult?’  (My turn to take an interest.)
‘Not much.  Hardly at all.’

 And then her punch line:  ‘We had an old dog used to moult everywhere, trails of it all up the stairs, wherever he went.  And then he died.  But then one time I was decorating and I started to find little bits of his hair.  So I just tucked it under the skirting board.’  (a little sliding, scooping gesture of tucking)  ‘There you are: you can stay there.’

She was showing me a private moment, masquerading as tidiness, when she gently made a memorial to the dog, to the nuisance of keeping a dog, to not minding about the nuisance. There was something slightly wicked in her voice: narrating a secret.

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