Everything has shifted

03:57, Feb 24 2011

Nothing is where it used to be. For reasons best known only to my shell-shocked mind, this is the phrase that repeats in my head like a mantra, like a tattoo, as I trudge like an automaton eastwards down Cashel St. The Silver Fox and I are burdened with as many of my possessions as we could reasonably carry including a rugged chilly-bin on wheels. Usually it lives in the kitchen. Nothing is where it used to be.

This is true in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. Everything has shifted. Walls and floors. People. The world has gone loopy. Again. But oh so much worse than last time.

I had just returned from lunch with the Silver Fox in the CBD, on the corner of Manchester and Armagh streets. I had to be back at work by 1pm for a meeting so we said our goodbyes about 12.40pm and were both back at our desks when the quake hit. If we had dallied there is every chance that the Silver Fox would have been walking down a narrow alleyway when the 6.3 aftershock hit. That alleyway is now littered with fallen masonry.

Anyway, one minute I'm typing something, the next moment the solid, modern concrete building I work in has all the solidity of a bouncy castle...as designed by Satan.

I jumped up from my chair and bolted for the nearest doorway. And hung on. And, yes, screamed a bit. And I watched as the open-plan office was shaken around as if by some giant toddler with a Christmas gift trying to figure out what's inside.

I'm writing this by torchlight in a notebook at my mother's house where I have returned like the boomerang kid that I am. I am so tired. There are aftershocks every 10 minutes or so. Earlier I tried to sleep for a while on the mattress my mum and I have pulled out into the living room but the aftershocks are so regular that I've found it impossible to drift off. We have torches and a strange assortment of decorative candles.

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Because of the lack of power we have no usable phone. My iPhone is in my bag, which is next to my desk, which is underneath a cubicle wall and a toppled shelving unit, along with my wallet, my house keys, my camera. After the shaking stopped I lingered in the doorway (also a fire exit), waiting for my workmates to emerge from under their desks, which they all did, thankfully. I had no qualms about leaving without those things. They just weren't important at the time. We all walked down the fire exit stairs and out of the building with nothing.

The lack of telecommunications means our only connection with the outside world is a battery-operated radio. The lack of ability to talk to other people is frustrating but it's good to be able to hear other people's stories sitting in the almost dark. Though some of the stories are ones you really wish you hadn't heard.

As I live (lived) only a block or so away from my workplace, my friend Tulip and I made our way there once we'd checked in at our workplace's rendezvous point in a corner of the carpark/asphalt piecrust. Our first attempt is abandoned when we realise that Salisbury St near the Madras intersection is completely awash and impassable on foot (unless you happened to be wearing gumboots). So we turn back in the hopes of taking an alternate route. Then Tulip spots the Silver Fox across the street and he weaves through the already gridlocked traffic to get to us. It's unbelievably good to see him. After an appropriate amount of hugging he shows me some photos that he has taken on his phone of destroyed buildings in the CBD and I barely take in what I'm looking at.

When I opened the fire exit door upon leaving our building, the first thing I was struck by, other than the sight of terrified-looking people on the streets, was the amount of dust that hung in the air. In that moment I knew that buildings had come down. I also knew that people would have been inside them and that some of those people would certainly be dead. My brain computed this strange fact in milliseconds but it doesn't truly comprehend it yet. Not at that moment and not now.

The single-level wooden house I rent was munted. It had lost its chimney that survived the initial 7.1 quake and every other aftershock. The fireplace that was removed and boarded up had toppled out into the living room. But more than that, the house itself has shifted on its foundation. Just one look from the street and I knew that it would have to be demo-ed. The foundation is cracked. There's also water leaking from the ceiling. The front doorway is on a decidedly wonky angle. I'd left the 6ft gate open when I left for work that morning. In order to get to the front door I had to pick it up (it's not attached to anything anymore) and muscle it into a leaning position against the house. Nothing is where it used to be.

It was clear I would not be able to stay here so we quickly made the decision to pack up and move out. My formerly sensible list-making mind failed me completely and I spent far too many minutes just looking around at my various possessions where they lay broken and on the floor while the Silver Fox gathered up items like duct tape, tinned food, instant noodles, bottled drinks and so on and loaded them into my soon to be offroad chilly-bin. Eventually I started moving with purpose and sorted through the detritus on my bathroom floor to find my contact lens kit and toothbrush. I amwas completely rubbish at this and couldn't focus. It was like playing "Where's Wally" with toiletries.

I moved into my bedroom and gathered up my glasses, three or four T-shirts, a handful of undies, a wool coat and my most solid sneakers. I was still wearing my work clothes of a wool skirt, tights and boots so I changed into the sneakers before we left. I had to get the Silver Fox to help me right my wardrobe that had fallen over so I could get to a pair of jeans. I was strangely unaffected by the damage and destruction of so many of my possessions. They were just things and I didn't really care about them, not even the flatscreen TV which had fallen off the storage unit it usually sits on.

The Silver Fox (who was being seriously, usefully sensible) advised against including two bottles of his whisky in my emergency kit. I took them out. I kept the gin though. I also put in 3 x 3 litres bottles of water that I had stored at the bottom of the pantry, though I had to dig my way through packets of spice and pasta and bottles of vinegar etc to get to them. I moved from room to room in a bit of a dream as we continued to be rocked by aftershocks. At one point SF stopped me, took a whistle out of his pocket, told me to put it on my keyring and keep it with me at all times. If I'm trapped anywhere as the result of an aftershock he wants me to be able to signal to rescuers where I am. It was the most romantic givt that anyone has ever given me, and that's including wookiees.

We shoved as much as we could into backpacks and a plastic storage container that we duct-taped to the top of the chilly-bin, I grabbed my bike and we moved off to Tulip's house. Because SF's car keys were back at his work (multilevel concrete building in the central city that HASN'T fallen down, thank God) we couldn't drive but the traffic was moving so slowly it hardly seemed like it would be worth the bother anyway. After checking in at Tulip's the Silver Fox and I continued on foot. Both of our mothers live in Linwood in houses that didn't suffer too badly in the initial quake so we were hopeful we could stay there and that we wouldn't need all of the emergency supplies.

And so we walked the few kilometres eastward out of town like refugees. We were not alone. We passed barefoot office workers. People sat on their front fences in small groups, chatting, though mostly people looked haunted. Several people asked if we were all right but we were alive and walking around and had scavenged some possessions so I thought the all-rightness, in this context, was self-evident. The traffic moved at a snail's pace. I felt horribly tired all of a sudden. Each step was an effort. SF tried to cheer me on with the occasional grin but it required too much energy to respond in kind. At one point, while on Gloucester St, we passed a pile of bricks and wood that I remember as being a row of two-storey flats. A distant part of my brain registered that there might be people under all that. Another part of my brain just instructed my feet to keep moving in the same direction and not think about it. Nobody is searching through rubble so with false willful cheerfulness I assume that there was no one home at that place.

Nothing is where it used to be.

After that, my memory starts to become as fractured as the roads down which we trudged. I got no sleep to speak of on Tuesday night, though I have my scribbled notes to work from. More posts on day 2 and 3 will follow. In the meantime I am well. I have food, enough water for the time being, a bike to get around on, internet access and, most important of all, my loved ones. All of my friends and family have been accounted for, though the chances that an acquaintance or a friend of a friend has not been killed is fairly low. There are only a couple of degrees of separation in Christchurch. We all await the announcement of the names of the dead with great trepidation.

So far, we are doing as well as we can despite our world having tilted like a high-rise hotel. Thank you so much for your concern for my safety. Please hang onto that feeling in the months to come. We're going to need it.

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