Man lives on in the red zone

CHARLES ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 28/01/2014
Kirk Hargreaves

Pensioner Robert Jemmett lives in the red zone, but hasn't engaged with the government over his property.

Robert Jemmett
Kirk Hargreaves/Fairfax NZ
IN IT TOGETHER: Pensioner Robert Jemmett with his son Ian, for whom he is also caregiver.

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Robert Jemmett stands shirtless in aqua blue shorts and surveys his domain. All around him is emptiness. His neighbours are long gone, but where, he cannot say.

For some reason they listened to the Government and not to him, he says. Now their houses are behind wire fences with warnings that hazardous materials lie within. There is broken glass, wrought iron gates off their hinges and crumpled roofs.

At the centre of his cul de sac is a grey Civil Defence port-a-loo - the last left over in the residential red zone.

At the front of Jemmett's home is a vegetable garden, a freshly mown lawn, an apple tree and a glasshouse with tomatoes on the vine. It is, Jemmett says, like an oasis in the middle of a desert.

After the mail stopped coming and the street numbers weren't important anymore he started calling it ''Twin Rivers'' - for the Avon and the nature of the street when it flooded.

''I've always wanted 10 acres in the country,'' Jemmett says, squinting into the sun.

''Why would I want to go anywhere else?''

But this is not the country. It is just off a main thoroughfare in Avondale where a long, blue water hose, put in after the Christchurch earthquake, winds down a road bearing a ''no exit'' sign.

It passes by folded orange cones lying in potholes and empty overgrown sections where the dried scum of liquefaction and mud settles at the kerbside. The hose ends at Twin Rivers.

At every chance over the past three years since the Christchurch earthquake Jemmett, who is in his 70s, refused to engage with the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority. In the beginning he received a letter from Cera - he threw it in the fire. He has not accepted a Crown purchase offer for his land. He has not refused one.

 He does not want anything to do with the process.

''No-one has come here to say I can't live here and even if they did I'd tell them to bugger off,'' he says.

''I am just living my life.''

He will stay there, he says, until Prime Minister John Key himself comes down and orders him out.

Jemmett does not have a phone line, or running water or a letter box. In the winter the water in the blue hose sometimes freezes. He does not mind. In the summer it comes out warm.

''Saves me having to heat it up,'' he says.

The only reason Jemmett has any electricity is because his daughter insisted on it for her hair dryer when she visited after the earthquake. He prepays it out of his pension - $45 a month. The leftover money he often gives away.

While Jemmett's neighbours have taken Crown offers on their homes, Jemmett is uninsured and happy.

But he is not alone at Twin Rivers. He lives with his son.

A fuzzy-bearded Ian Jemmett shuffles out of a back room and sits at a table poking pieces into a half-finished jigsaw. He is in his 50s and, according to the doctors, suffered from a lack of oxygen to the brain when he was born in the back of a taxi on Bealey Avenue.

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One day, about a year ago, Ian got it into his mind that he wanted to pull up every fence post in the deserted area. No-one could stop him. Insurance companies or the Government - it was unclear who those fences belonged to. By the time police were notified, the deed was done.

''We look after each other, don't we Ian,'' Jemmett says to him.

The pair put their arms around one another, press their heads together and laugh.

For 18 months, almost every day, Robert would travel down to Brighton dressed in bright colours, a fake wig and brandish his ''pooh-bah'' stick. It is orange and green striped with a hook and an old tea towel affixed to the end. It is a symbol, he says, that he would never have to do the dishes again.

The colours just expressed how he felt inside, Jemmett says. He felt like a freshly opened bottle of champagne - bubbling to the surface.

When he first started going to Brighton, police stopped him, thinking he may be a threat. Soon it was apparent Jemmett was simply an eccentric living a life less ordinary. Last week, Jemmett stopped the pilgrimage. He felt there was a change coming.

When he reflects on his life, Jemmett notes how there are no longer any tangible reminders of his past. The postal office that he used to work at on the corner of Colombo and Brougham St is gone. Across the road the church, where he and his wife were married, is gone. The first home they bought together in Avonhead - that, too, is gone. He grins.

''That's the way it should be, you shouldn't be hanging on to your background.''

Jemmett bought Twin Rivers 18 years ago after his wife died from cancer. He had always wanted to live in the country but his wife never liked the idea. One day he came down to the cul de sac to view an open home. He stood in its kitchen and looked across the way to another home with white stone walls.

''I knew then that it was for me.''

It would become the centre of his new empire.

Things have changed since then but it is still his home. And his empire has expanded.

He likes the quiet and the space. He is thinking about getting some sheep down there. Maybe some bees.

Jemmett always leaves his house and his car unlocked. He trusts people, he says.

''You trust people and you don't have any trouble.''

There are not many visitors now. The local neighbourhood watch still comes by and beeps their horn to make sure Jemmett and Ian are OK. His portaloo is still emptied most weeks.

A Cera spokesperson would not be drawn on Jemmett's lifestyle choice. They reiterate that the Crown offer of red-zone land remains ''voluntary'' but that they have tried several times to ''engage'' with him. The future of the residential red zone is still unknown.

In the early days after the quake the occasional news reporter stopped by looking for a sad dramatic story about a lonely old man and his disabled son living in post-earthquake squalor. Jemmett could not give it to them.  Things, he says, are just the way he likes them.

- The Press

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