A few days after the September earthquake my partner mused, “If Christchurch had been flattened, I wonder what they’d build first. A church or a bank?”
She was speaking to her father yesterday when an after-shock came through. She could hear the house rattling around him on the other end of the phone. ‘I have to go,’ he said. Five seconds later the Dunedin book shop in which we stood began to tremble. The proprietor peered over his rimless glasses at the top shelves and lifted his fingers lightly from his desk as if it were about to dance into the street. Four hundred miles away something awful was happening.
So what indeed will they build first: A cathedral? A giant tilt-slab ATM? No, of course not. We all know it will be a Wilson parking lot.
The September quake was different. It was discriminate. It sent one of our hundred kilogram bronzes waltzing into the fish pond where it lay for three months in a bed of delicate weed flowers, staring up at the sky like Ophelia. Several plaster busts toppled from their plinths in the studio and turned to partial dust, my father’s among them, and a few bricks tumbled down the stairwell. That’s all. No great loss, just cracks in the infrastructure. And, of course, I have the original moulds from which to replicate them all.
But where are the moulds this time from which to press back into life the souls we have lost? How do we mend the delicate mechanism in our children who flinch when a door slams or someone bumps a table or sits down too suddenly? I imagine it will take a long time, already it has been six months. And unlike towers coming down in new York or civilian shelters blowing up in Baghdad, here there is no perpetrator. There is no zealot in a distant cave we can point to, no mad uni-bomber wiring murder under a desk lamp. That’s the very worst of it, the fact that there’s no-one to blame. We are hit and hit and we can’t fight back and it’s a very corrosive thing.
I was ashamed, I have to say, the way our broken streets were first portrayed six months ago. Our scattered bricks were made a stage for politicians to strut upon. And crow they did. “Look at us,” they said, “We are Haiti and Chile. We can suffer like the best of them.” It was embarrassing.
But this time the bricks are mortuaries and the play has soured, and the politicians would be well advised to stay at home. They should tend their own infirmities and leave us to those with quiet expertise; the surgeons, the civil defenders, and those shamefully underpaid to whom in desperate times we always turn. To put it in simple terms; when our cars break down it’s mechanics we need, not salesmen.
A handful of years ago a local aging poet, relegated now to the burial ground of talkback radio, remarked that we have lived too long in a culture of the individual, and that we need to rediscover our sense of social responsibility.
Well, perhaps the time is come. I don’t care for the news these days, especially the hyperbolic Sainsbury barking at us down the camera like an auctioneer and charging each scene with background music as if its all just one more reality show. But when I look past him into the raddled streets I notice something new, and it’s like blossom breaking out on a favourite tree you thought had died. Here and there, in groups and singly, people are holding out their hands to people they have never met.