practice – not long now

We’re going to South America soon. Our tickets are booked and waiting, a space for us reserved on some LAN Chile manifest sheet. Our backpacks are empty and expectant, a smug 38L, ready to be carted across insanely expansive plains and up the mountains of the Andes. I haven’t thought much about it until now. It hasn’t felt real. South America to me is just a massive expanse of land on the other side of the map, sketched scribbles tracing far away mountain ranges and coastlines, like a figment of a particularly geographically gifted kid’s imagination.

But it is starting to whet the appetite for adventure, writing this. I am beginning to imagine landing in Santiago, to a cold, sprawling city, filled with a language that I love and people who will speak it much too fast for me. My own rusty Spanish will be dusted off and I will try, shyly at first, perhaps to a shopkeeper who might smile bemusedly and step closer to lend me his ear. But it will get better, along with our pathway across the continent, and by the time we hit Santiago again I will make that same man laugh and nod with some witty local repartee. That’s the plan anyway, so here’s hoping.

I’m not taking a laptop – hell I’m not even taking face wash, obsessed with that elusive minimalism as we are – so I am practising by writing this with pen and paper, scrawling black lines of ink across the pages of an uncharacteristically girly Typo notebook. My hand has already started to cramp – I’m going to have to get better if I’m going to document this trip properly. But the thirst has begun now, almost like the ink that has unlocked it, my sense of adventure has begun to flow.

We are travelling there in August, the South American winter. Working for a New Zealand skydiving company, it’s hard to get time off in our shared summer. So because of this we are starting north – after a quick stop in Santiago we hit Colombia, then down to Lima, then Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Patagonia. Places that up until now have just been names and learned capitals, a word to pull out at a pub quiz with an ‘aha!’

I’m still getting my head around the fact that we will actually see these places, do mundane things like eat breakfast and wash our clothes in these far away cities. I guess that’s what travelling is about, really. The wonder, the thirst to keep going, see more, the absolute beauty and surrealism of the experience and the landscape, accompanied by everyday things like showering and clipping nails, those things that keep you tethered to home, to the person you are.

I can’t wait now. Time for the expired passport to be renewed, the Mini sold, the tiny backpack packed. My hand is killing me now. I’ll be back for more practice soon.

rain spattered windows

The car stopped with a soft lurch, leaving a residual shuddering that was like an almost imperceptible vibration through my body, a memory of the last constant hour of movement. The drops pattered on the thin roof and I looked sideways, down the rain slashed streets. Street lights gleamed on the wet windows, smeared into messy crosses of phosphorous flare. The red traffic light shone thickly in the empty night, a silent sentinel of an abandoned, forgotten bridge, shining loudly into the wet black dark.

I waited. There was no one else for miles.

stuck – part six – epilogue

I broke both of my feet, but that’s all. The wound to my head was only superficial, caused by a flying shard of glass from the window I had been sitting beside. I had been struck pretty hard by the wall opposite me when it fell, but that’s what saved my life. The angle of the wall in front of me and the wall behind created a perfect triangle of safety for my breakable body. The bed beneath me managed to save my fall, even though I fell through about five storeys.

The clicker was my neighbour, Johannes. He had the clicker he used to train his dog in his hand at the time, they had been practising tricks. His dog was killed instantly by a falling light fixture. He had only been little. It took Johannes longer to die. He had been crushed by a bookshelf, with only his hand free. He died of internal injuries, they said, hours before we were found.

No one got my emails. The network failed around the whole Wellington region after the quake.

I still shake every time there’s an aftershock. Most people do, especially the long ones. My concussion is still healing, it’s only when I sit up now that I feel dizzy. It takes me a few seconds when I wake up each day to realise that I can move, that dust isn’t clouding my breath and blood dripping down my back, or shards of pain shooting from my mangled feet.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. Over six hundred people died that day, the biggest New Zealand disaster on record. And I survived, all because a drunken wall decided to lurch for me.

~

Read from part one here

stuck – part five

Voices. I can hear voices. My eyes pull open again and I am unsurprised to find that I am in the dark, unable to move. It’s as though this is my reality now, I’ve come to terms with it. But there are definitely voices. They sound loud and rough, somewhere to my right. I turn my head sluggishly to stare into the darkness at the sound. There is quiet for a while, then a definite word.

“Hello?”

I watch, puzzled. Is someone on the phone? Maybe there’s someone else with a phone, and they are calling for help. I watch the black some more. The word comes again. It’s a man’s voice, loud and abrupt. He sounds like someone who gets shit done, I think to myself. He probably wears overalls and fixes his own plumbing. And a hardhat. Something in my brain is trying to tell me something. I can almost feel pathways zig-zagging furiously through my head, but the thing I am trying to realise is just out of reach. My brow furrows, and I listen again.

“Hello? Anyone alive in there?” The voice is getting quieter.

An explosion of movement from my body as I realise they are outside, that it’s help. The pain sears through my legs again but I ignore it, gritting my teeth as I yell back.

“Hello! I’m here, I’m in here!” I scream until my throat is ragged and sore, the huge noise threatening to break my tiny space apart.

There is a moment of silence, then the voice again, a little louder.

“Are you in there? Yell again!” It sounds as though it’s above me, still somewhere to the left.

“Yes I’m here! Below you!” My heart is thumping in my chest and my throat constricting with the eagerness to be heard.

“Okay, we’re going to get you out. You’re going to have to keep yelling, can you do that?” His voice has changed now, it’s softer, gentle. This scares me, it makes me wonder how bad it is.

“Yes,” I shout, my voice breaking.

I begin to rant and rave, my voice dropping and cracking on occasional words. I yell to the clicker, but there is no answer. When the voices get quiet I panic, but they chat back mostly. I can hear things being moved, huge heavy things that sound painful and intimidating, scraping and heaving above me. There is a sharp sound of metal pulling against metal and a shaft of light enters my area, making me squint in pain.

“In here! I can see light!”

“Can you hear me now?” The voice sounds as though it’s right beside me, a disembodied sound in the semi-dark. The light dims as he speaks.

“Yes!”

More things scrape and bang and I can hear the talking and grunts of the people moving them around. There are screams in the background and sirens, and the jarring drill of a jackhammer from far away. With each passing second the light surrounding me gets brighter, until I can see the laptop on my thighs and my top soaked with blood. The thing against my head is the wall that lurched at me, lying on an angle from my feet to my face. The window frame that sat beside me is warped and twisted, shards of glass littered across the duvet beside me.

I know I should feel euphoric but I just feel tired and dazed, as though nothing is real. A face appears beside me beneath low angle of the wall and I turn to look at it, taking in only the white dust settled in his short beard.

“Hey there. We’re going to get you out, okay? Can you do that?” He says it gently, like he’s speaking to a wounded animal, or a particularly stupid child. Usually this would annoy me, but today I just nod.

“Good girl.” He looks down towards my feet, at where they trail into darkness. I see the shadow cross his face.

“It’s alright,” I say. “Just get it off.”

He nods briskly.

“Alright boys, she’s under here, so we’re going to lift this wall. Her feet are crushed underneath it so –“

I stop listening, my mind telling me I don’t need to hear what they are saying. The man with the white dust beard tries to warn me, to count down until they lift it but I shake my head, gritting my teeth. When the impact finally comes it is worse than anything I have ever experienced, ripping and tearing, like knives in my flesh and fire on my skin. The pain comes with a hyper-reality, a heightening of noises and sensations. The sirens blare from below and my scream hurts my own ears.

A light rain is falling and the drops kiss my skin, melding into the dried blood on my clothes. The sky above is grey, beginning to tinge black at the edges. Night is already falling, or is it finally? I watch the clouds as the men lift me, ignoring the red ambulance lights tossing their beams into the ruined street. I hardly notice the men’s passage over the uneven ground. It’s only when they have deposited me into the street, into an ambulance with a woman with a head of tight black curls and a hooked nose that I notice the destruction.

The street around us is gone. Crumbling ruins of building spill onto the neat yellow and white lines of the road, like Lego structures broken by a toddler. A needle punctures my arm and I wonder idly what it is. For pain maybe? I try to form the words.

“How long ago was the earthquake?”

The woman looks at me in surprise. She seems startled that I can speak. This makes me feel sick. How many others couldn’t speak?

“Ten thirty. Eight hours ago.” She returns to my feet. I don’t watch.

Eight hours. Eight hours I was stuck in that hole. I turn to look at what was once my building. Only a pile of rocks remain, just two storeys high. The man with the white beard is stepping lightly across the top stones again, ducking down into holes. From another I see a man and a woman pull a large, heavy shape from one of the pockets. I realise it is a body and the world spins for a second.

The lady with black curls tells me to shush, and I lie back. Within seconds everything goes black.

Read part six here

Read from part one here

stuck – part four

I wonder how far away they are, if they are coming at all. I feel as though I don’t know anything anymore. There is nothing, except space and dust, the seconds ticking sluggishly past, like some thick, viscous liquid. Time has slowed and sped at the same time and I feel confused, dazed with the effort of sitting upright.

Whatever is pressing against my right shoulder has started to hurt and the ceiling above my head feels as though it’s slipping, millimetre by millimetre, as though determined to finish the job and crush me. It is dark now, the laptop long dead. I say long, but really I have no idea if it’s been a few minutes or a few hours since the white light flickered and died, leaving me sitting in the relentless dark. There had been no emails, despite my restless checking. Nothing came, and deep down I had known that nothing would come. Not in time. There haven’t been any clicks for a while.

My entire body feels as though it’s throbbing with numbness. The stress that has raced through my body wants me to move, but there is nothing, no movement. I am trapped in this tiny space, with nothing left to breath, and it is hell. I wait, terrified and pinned.

After what feels like twenty minutes I wake. I didn’t know that I had slept. The clicking has started again, a burst, then nothing, then a click each few seconds.

“How are you doing?” I know this is a stupid, unanswerable question but I have nothing else in my arsenal, no presence of mind to form a new sentence.

There are two clicks, then silence.

“I’m not good. I think I might go to sleep now.”

A frenzy of clicking. I don’t know what that means. I begin to monologue.

“My laptop died. I tried to call 111 but my mike’s screwed, so they can’t hear me.’ Even in my own voice I can hear the unstable sound of a person tipped over the edge, that insane hint of laughter, like the bad guy at the end of a movie, when he’s been mortally wounded and is reeling out his entire evil plan while waiting to die. That sick, scary insanity. I can hear it in my own voice now.

“So I emailed some people, so here’s hoping that someone has a nice relaxing coffee break soon and I haven’t ended up in their Junk folder.” I break off with a shaky laugh. More unhinged humour. “So I think we might be fucked! I don’t have much air left, I can’t breathe and I can’t move, and you certainly don’t sound very good, so we might be done mate!” I finish my sentence almost triumphantly. I don’t know why I said mate. I never say mate.

The world is beginning to swim around me, even though I can’t see it. Blackness swirls and dips in my vision and I try to focus, but my head hurts and I can’t see anything to anchor from. There are three slow clicks, then nothing for a very long time.

Read part five here

Read from part one here

stuck – part three

Now what? Facebook? Status update – “I’m on 116 Wakefield Street, somewhere between the eighth and the first floor, come and find me?” Skype? I imagine the emergency services are insane at the moment, with calls everywhere. How far did the earthquake spread?

People have been predicting it for years, that we were next. And they were right, whether they wanted to be or not. I begin to type, trying to keep the terror at bay. Strange, how it builds. When I first woke I was almost resigned to my situation, ready for death. But the longer I stay here the worse it becomes, panic and fear biting at the back of my throat, barely contained behind my clenched teeth.

My thigh is beginning to cramp and my left buttock has gone dead. I don’t know what has happened to my legs below the knees, only that the pain is enough to make me almost pass out when I focus on it. The clicking is still going, getting more erratic with each passing minute, which makes me envelop a tiny bud of hope that it may be human. The idea that someone else is alive and near enough to hear is strangely comforting. I call out.

“Hello? Is that someone?”

A few seconds of silence, then a click again. I wait, breathing slowly. Nothing.

“Are you alive? I mean, are you human?”

Silence. I feel solitude begin to wind its way down my spine, a trickle of fear. I am alone. Alone and trapped, with no way out and days and days before I am found. Another click breaks the long stretch of nothingness.

“Click twice if you are human!” Hysteria makes my voice break, and the knowledge of how stupid my sentence is makes me want to cry in a defeated, tired kind of way.

A click, followed shortly by another. My heart jumps and adrenaline spikes in my veins. I can hear my breath in the tiny space. The air is getting stale, like when I hold the duvet over my head for too long. I wonder how long I’ve been here. There is someone, a few metres away from me, hidden somewhere in the debris. I feel a huge surge of responsibility and an ice cold trickle of fear at the thought of how badly they must be hurt that they have to click to communicate.

“Are you okay? Click twice for yes!” I yell.

One click sounds. I wait, but the second doesn’t come. Terror threatens to take over again.

“I’m going to tell them we’re here, okay?” I shriek. My voice cracks with the strain. I sound like a crazy person, like the woman in the park my mother used to skirt us around. “I’ve got a laptop, and I’m going to tell them we’re in this building – that we’re alive. Okay?”

Two clicks, then silence. My head is throbbing with the effort of yelling. I begin to type an email, short but succinct. I send it to everyone I know, my mother, my lecturer, an old boss, someone I once bought a longboard from on TradeMe. Everyone on my contact list. I press Send, then feel the anti-climax.

It’s not enough. An email isn’t going to save my life. Our lives, now. I try Skype, but no one is online. I try to call the emergency services, my fingers desperately clicking across the keys. The phone begins to ring, the green spheres being linked by the black line as the call waits to connect. My entire body is tense with anticipation, with the imminent balm of being able to speak to someone who can do something. There is a tiny click as the call connects.

“Emergency Services, state your emergency.” The voice is female, crisp and efficient, waiting for whatever bombshell I have to drop.

“I’m stuck in a collapsed building! I’m on 116 Wakefield Street in Wellington, I was on the eighth floor, there’s someone – “

“Hello?” She interrupts me.

“Hello! I’m here, can you hear me?” I scream at the computer, willing it to work, willing her to answer. I hardly register the two clicks that sound from somewhere to my left.

“Hello?” She repeats. “I’m sorry, but I cannot hear you. Please hang up and redial.” She says it so coolly and calmly, as though this happens everyday. As though a life isn’t hanging on the other end of the line. The call disconnects. I stare at the laptop, horror dawning on my face. The microphone. It broke, two months ago, and I never got it fixed.

The horrible reality of this begins to dawn over me, the fact that help, whoever it may be from, isn’t coming. I, and someone who is in a much more dire state than myself, am at the mercy of someone languidly pulling their phone out of their pocket and deciding to check their emails, or slowly making a cup of tea before meandering over to switch on the computer. Every breath that I take is seconds off my life, off my breathing space and my state of mind. I can feel the terrifying helplessness beginning to wash over me. A pop up window appears. You are now running on reserve battery power.

A low howl escapes me, and I feel useless tears leak from my eyes. Incessant clicking fades into the background.

Read part four here

Read from part one here

stuck – part two

A click. Loud, and insistent. My eyes snap open from sleep. My mouth is dry and caked, the blood on my chest and back cracks as I move. I look to my left, trying to ascertain if I had imagined it, that loud sound in this tiny dark space. The space is dark now, my laptop must have gone to sleep. But my finger stays where it is, despite the temptation to swipe the trackpad. I know I can hear better in the dark. The darkness grows longer, the silence deeper, until my entire being throbs with the energy of waiting.

And as though something knows I am waiting and doesn’t want to disappoint, it comes again. Loud and metallic, striking through the silence. I jump. My leg shoots fireworks of blinding pain at my hip again and I yelp in surprise. It takes a full thirty seconds before the pain subsides and I am able to unfurl my knotted fingers. By then it has clicked again, methodical and perfectly timed. What is it? I listen for a few more minutes, and the click comes seven times.

I can hear sounds from what seems like far below me. Rescue crew? People removing mangled bodies, both alive and dead? I wonder idly how long it will take them to reach me. Wellington is a big city. It could be days. I’ll be dead by then. It both frightens and comforts me how calmly I accept this. I feel tiny, insignificant, one tiny pod of being in a world of billions of others. What do I matter, really?

Where will they start? How many high-rises are there in the CBD? The quake hit mid-morning, so every one would have been full of office workers, men in ties, water cooler chat and women who had kicked their heels off under their desks. Will they start at the bottom of the building, or the top? I think of the seven floors below me and the people crushed there. Panic begins to rise in my throat like hysteria. I squeeze my eyes closed and count, a technique my father taught me. I get to three hundred and six before I open them again.

The blood on my head has dried and cracked, the clotting mechanism finally kicking in. I swipe at the laptop and my tiny chamber fills with white light. I squint at the screen, trying to understand. The WiFi isn’t working. I hadn’t really expected it to, but I feel a pang of despair that one connection to the world is severed, one tiny way to light a flare for others to find me. But sitting on that list of connections is my iPhone. I can’t see it, and I can’t move to find it, but it sits there on the list, an available network for me to join. I click on it, my breath slowing until it stops completely.

It works, and the bars fill with black. The relief that floods my body is almost physical, as though I can feel and recognise the serotonin mixing with the cortisol in my blood stream. Somewhere near me, whether below my bed or digging into my hip, is the most breakable phone in the world, which just might manage to save my life.

Read part three here

Read part one here

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