We had just got on the Ballantynes bus to Timaru when a fellow traveller came down the aisle and asked if we were with the fire service group.
"No, we're with the Mongrel Mob," I replied.
As we pulled out of Burnside Park at 9am on a Sunday, Anne, the extremely affable bus guide, accessorised to the max and made up expertly like a porcelain doll, teased us by asking if we wanted to stop off at Dressmart for two hours, while Graham, the driver and only man on the bus, alleged it was his first trip to Timaru - "so don't be surprised if we end up in Picton".
We had chosen a spectacularly sunny day for the journey, but the frost that morning had been particularly white and crunchy, leaving our trotters as frozen as ice blocks.
Anne assured the packed bus that logs would be thrown on the fire in a jiffy and we'd soon warm up, as a chorus of "Put another log on the fire, fix me up some bacon and some beans" started up. Good grief, singing on the bus already and we'd only just pulled out of the car park.
Our host informed us that throughout the morning we would be treated to talks from guest speakers - ie, staff members who have been ring-bolting from Christchurch to Timaru many times a week since February 22, all happy to take their turn at the talking stick to tell us about products.
Anne told us a staff member, "who is our French girl - she's from France", would teach us how to pronounce French apparel labels. Another staff member delivered a pillow talk about the longevity of different types of pillow and passed around paper and pencil, instructing us to draw a pig for a personality analysis. If you drew your pig at the top of the page you were positive thinking, if your pig had no legs you were stupid, and the length of your pig's tail was commensurate with your sex life.
By the time we piled off the bus at Ashburton for a comfort stop, Graham had been awarded the French name of Gigi and was dispensing free ankle rubs to ladies still complaining of cold feet.
All this for 20 bucks there and back, with a lunch thrown in and a couple of glasses of bubbly on arrival - talk about value for money. Finding Ballantynes in Timaru like the Christchurch store, only smaller, was like reuniting with a long-lost chum.
How well I remember the childhood pilgrimages to the Christchurch store with my mother to choose material and a Simplicity or Butterick pattern, and perching on the tall beige stools as the lady in black sent the docket and money up the chute to the change department, before it shot back down again. All the rites of passage took place at that emporium - meeting Mum after school in the downstairs plush green lounge before getting fitted for the first bra, selecting the first makeup, sauntering around the china department whispering of Spode, and the descent into the bowels of the building to spend a penny.
Anne told us we had three hours to shop up large.
Before Ballantynes' Christchurch store closed abruptly at the end of February, two trucks of merchandise were regularly dispatched to Timaru; now 19 are sent to cope with the demand from Cantabrian shoppers.
Anne told us that, all going to plan, the Christchurch store will reopen on October 29 with a footprint about two-thirds of what it once was. The part of Ballantynes that spread to the Guthrey Centre and the original stables area will not be rebuilt in the meantime.
A huge revamp is under way in the cosmetic department, with white-tiled counters being built to make it look glamorously international. We were assured the inner core and the foundation resting on plates specially designed to move in four different ways and flex as much as a Ballantynes card is extremely stable.
Meanwhile, JDs cafe has moved to Riccarton, there is a Ballantynes kiosk at Merivale, and brisk business is being done online. All staff have been kept on since February and have become mistresses and masters of multi-tasking, showing a real talent for entertaining the troops. However, there will be restructuring.
After shopping in the Timaru store, there was plenty of time to wander along the gently curved main street and envy the fine old buildings, which we all imagine coming a cropper if tested by a decent-sized quake.
Once back in the bus, the fire services ladies wave their purchases - bras and frocks - in the air, and one of their gregarious number takes the microphone and entertains us with jokes delivered with professional skill. We all roar with laughter while the sun pours into the left side of the bus.
The Ballantynes staff members have a palpable connection with their customers and well know the tonic a trip away from Christchurch offers.
A comments book passed around for passengers to write about the experience, reflects the joy of escape.
A few days later, I am invited to join the local Frocks on Bikes tour to ride the circumference of the inner cordon and observe the central city before the bulldozers take it all away. The organisers call the outing "pelotonic" as in: "Pelotonic - a ride together in a therapeutic emotionally supportive environment whilst viewing some sad scenes".
Frocks on Bikes was formed in Wellington back in 2009 by a couple of women who turned up at a cycling event to find they were the only ones not swathed in lycra and realised they were a breed apart. The Frocks on Bikes movement has since spread to other regions.
On Saturday, 18 turn up, including a Mum, Dad and nipper on a tandem, a chap on a unicycle, and a genteel noise of women on contemporary versions of sit-up-and-beg bicycles with baskets on the front.
One basket is covered with a tea towel covering muffins to distribute to security staff.
We have been invited to wear black and red and have complied with that wish.
Apparently, frocks are not essential but you get the feeling that lycra would be frowned upon.
Frocks on Bikes rides take place about once a month. I am sorry to have missed the spectacle of the previous one, which had a tweed theme.
Having just taken up cycling again in the past year, having not ridden a bike since school days, I realise the joy of cycling in a group. And because our trusty steeds are not of the heads-down, bums-up variety, there is no need for haste and it is easy to converse.
The next day at the corner of Kilmore and Barbadoes streets, I see a Gap Filler experiment under way in the vacant lot that once housed the Herbal Dispensary. Members of the local community have been invited to donate a book, especially one that has influenced them, and take one in return from an old fridge standing in the middle of the lot. I go back to the flat and rummage through the shelves, wanting to contribute to prove that life in the fridge still exists.
- The Press