Sunday, February 22, 2015

Four years

It's been a hot, dry summer and Thursday morning was another in a long series of blue-sky days. It was the kind of weather that makes water-blasting the house seem like a treat, compared with, for example, mowing the lawns or weeding. So that was how it happened that I was up close with the window frames and noticed that here and there the paintwork is starting to show sun damage. And although I struggle to remember where I've left my phone or what I had for dinner last night, I know exactly how long it is since the painter was here: four years.
Because four years ago today, he and I were standing in my living room at lunchtime, watching in disbelief and horror the pictures coming from Christchurch, my home town. Christchurch, reduced by a 6.3 earthquake at 12.51pm to a cracked and broken disaster zone where 185 people died, instantly or slowly, in nightmarish scenarios that seconds earlier had been boringly mundane: office, shop, bus. Christchurch, the Garden City, more English than England, a place of wide tree-lined avenues and willows dipping into the placid Avon River, stately mock-Gothic public buildings, neat parks and gardens, and an iconic Cathedral smaller than many English parish churches but truly the heart of the city. In just a couple of terrifying minutes, it became - and has remained - unrecognisable, buildings collapsed, towers leaning, roads cracked and manhole covers risen up, stinking grey liquefaction seeping everywhere like ectoplasm, and everybody's lives changed forever.
In the four years since, progress has been made in resurrecting the city, although shamefully slowly. Whole areas, like where I grew up and first went to school, have been abandoned to nature while new suburbs have sprung up on the western, safer side of the city. The CBD, though still characterised by too many bare blocks of dusty gravel, is taking new shape, coming to life, drawing back the people. John Robert Godley's statue has just been put up again in the Square, though it's a bit damaged and faces a cathedral still in ruins with a future under threat. In some areas, you wouldn't know anything had ever happened - except when you speak to the people living there. Even those who escaped major damage to their homes still see their lives as split into Before and After, and that will never change.
The old Christchurch has gone. The new Christchurch will be a different place: newer, flatter, lower, more spacious. Eventually the ruined suburbs will be attractive parkland. The remaining heritage buildings will be stronger and more valued. Will the Cathedral be one of them? I do hope so. Abandoned by the Church, it's up to the people to save it, which is how it should be.
And then there are the 185 lives lost: all ages, all sorts of nationalities, residents and visitors, some suddenly, some agonisingly slowly in unimaginable terror. They will always be remembered, and not only at the memorial that will be built in time for the next anniversary, beside the Avon as it glides slowly to the sea.

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