Tag Archives: New Zealand

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 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

our house

My childhood home still seems such a huge part of my life. It has already shaped so many of my memories and I think in some small way it will stay with me forever, endless and omnipresent. We lived in the same house my whole life, a big red one on a hill, just like a storybook. So many births and breaths and parties and tears, all seen by these four unseeing walls.

Come with me if you like, I’ll show you around.

HomeSee here? These are the old couches that we pushed back together, four little girls, Vanya, Gemma, Grace and I, and played a game called hey-boomfa, which involved launching ourselves across the room and into each other, padded by eight or nine cushions.

This carpet is where we danced maniacally to Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album, or mum’s Jesus Christ Superstar CD. We set up a stage, just here under the stairs, and charged mum and dad fifty cents each to endure our terrible stage shows. We strung a swing up around that beam once too, and sang loudly to our Lion King CD as we took turns swinging, kicking our feet higher and higher into the air.

And over here, this is where Santa crept in each Christmas, sliding down the floo and emerging from the fireplace, to where the cookies and milk sat waiting for him, above five limp stockings, ready to be full and crackling with secrets and wrapping paper the next morning. And just here, this is where Grace and I lay mesmerised one night, staring up at the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, having crept back down the stairs well after bedtime.

Handmade Christmas stockings - Vanya's and mineThrough here is where we had to hide while the Easter Bunny was in the garden, peeking through gaps in the curtains and fizzing with excitement, waiting for a glimpse of a big white rabbit with a basket, hiding fat chocolate eggs in amongst the dewy garden.

This is the house in which I reread countless Harry Potters, lying upstairs in a sun-strewn bedroom, a half empty pack of chocolate Girl Guides at my side. Where I read aloud to Grace on the bunk above me most nights, only to find out that she had fallen asleep several painstaking chapters earlier.

And out here, this is the garden where Witchy-Poo chased us. She always arrived in a heightened mess of confusion, Witchy-Poo, with nobody quite sure where she would appear from. Then suddenly one of us would spot her, all in black, creeping around the side of the wooden fence across the lawn. And then the chase would begin, children screeching with terror and delight around the garden, running as fast as we could. Witchy-Poo’s visits always coincided uncannily with our Aunty Rhonda’s, and it was some years before I figured it out.

Foxgloves and fencesOver there, that’s the driveway that we walked everyday from the bus, shivering and hunched when it rained, and strolling happily when the sun shone, picking tart apples from our trees to eat along the way. We caught blue butterflies with mum’s sieve in the bright garden, and trapped birds in lunchboxes rigged with a string-tied chopstick. See that huge gum tree? That’s the tree that Gemma fell from when she was just little, climbing higher and higher and falling, flailing through the branches, landing flat on her back and screaming for mum.

From the haybarnGracey and I sat on top of that old concrete water tank when we took our first drag of a badly rolled cigarette, coughing and spluttering as the harsh smoke tore down our throats, and exclaiming incredulously at each other afterwards. Down the hill there, you can see from over here, that’s the kiwifruit orchard that we pruned, pollinated and picked, year after year, season after season. And lining the driveway is the olive grove that we spent one whole holiday planting, dad hammering in each post with the rammer, his shoulders heaving and sweat running down his face.

Our viewInside are the stairs that Grace used to climb each night with her glass of water and ice, the tingle of the ice against the glass becoming synonymous with her footsteps, and bedtime. And at the bottom of the stairs, in this room here, this is where mum and dad sat us down to tell us that they loved us, and that they were separating. Through there is the kitchen where dad and I tried fruitlessly to learn to cook, and ate pork chops and bacon each night, and cried while we did the dishes.

And through here, this was Alex’s room, always shrouded in warm yellow light from the pulled curtains, and full of the milky, apple-sweet smell of a sleeping baby. This is the bath where Grace and I tried to shave our legs as children, pushing the razor the wrong way and jumping guiltily when mum caught us.

There’s the pool that we spent every day of summer in, and where we jumped in at midnight on each New Years Eve. I found out when I was 23 that ‘midnight’ was actually only 10pm, and that everyone present at the party would do a fake countdown just so the children would finally go to bed. It’s the pool that dad broke his nose in playing ‘sharky’, smashed clean into the wall whilst trying to catch our slippery legs.

And out there are the paddocks where I learnt to drive, hiccupping along in an old Subaru named Betty and feeling as though I owned the world.

This house has been part of the family for as long as I’ve been alive, almost a living, breathing thing, the eighth member, now the twelfth member.

Buffet tables and photosNow when I visit, the floors are bare and hardwood, a huge buffet table sits astride the lounge and historical family photos line the walls, with shearing handpieces and dried hydrangeas in tasteful vases. It is strange, to come here now and open doors and cupboards, finding only stacked chairs and the musty smell of uninhabited rooms.

It’s almost as though I expect to find a seven year old Grace in the linen cupboard, asleep behind a pile of towels in a long forgotten game of hide and seek. She always seemed to win, somehow.

Three Generations - That's us kids on the right!

Hardwood floors and historyShearing Exhibition - Historical poster for Garba's shearing Bowen Technique

the shearing shed

Last night I dreamed about our old shearing shed.  I sat on the ledge of a pen, peaceful and watching, my hands resting on the splintered planks beneath me. All was quiet and lazy in the afternoon. It was not a shearing day but later, weeks after the last tufts of wool had been swept to the corners and the dark patches of lanolin and oil etched into the absorbent wooden floor.

The sweating shearers and loud bang of the gates has gone, the jarring grind of the handpieces long faded into silence. The old wooden pens are stained with bird shit, blackened with the oil of the shearers’ hands and smooth with lanolin, brushed against by thousands of wool laden sheep.

The shafts of sunlight fall softly through the air from the old stuck windows, lighting the dust that spins like gold in the centre of the shed. The air is warm and smells of dust and old sweat, sheep and handpiece oil. I can hear the sheep outside, their baas rolling across the grass to one another, the rumble of the ground as they move as one.

The corrugated roof above is curved and painted red, an old photo of the highlands propped against a wall, faded with time and cracked with bird shit. This is my home. This warm air, those familiar sounds, the rustle of mice in the floor below. As the day wears on the afternoon sun fades, and so do I, smiling as I wake.

home

I’m home. But the rain is pounding on the roof. The dehumidifier runs constantly, trying somehow to keep the muggy damp out, the smell that creeps into our neatly folded clothes and our pillowcases. The moths flap feebly against the windows, hungry for the shelter hidden indoors. This is summer, the wettest I have ever seen it.

Our arrival home happened in a haze of teary embraces and shocked faces, so surprised were our families at having us home. I hid in my mothers’ garden on a Friday afternoon in mid December. I felt like a fugitive as I crouched there, breathing in the sweet sun warmed air, listening to the rustle of plants around us as they lifted to the sun. It was so strange to think that just a day before we had been in Paris, wrapped in scarves and gloves and jackets, drinking chocolat chaud under the Eiffel Tower.

My sister and her husband went in first, the only accomplices to our plan. And when I lifted the rusty latch on the wooden gate I heard the moment my mother saw me through the window, and the shout of disbelief that rose from my stepfather.

I had planned to say something witty as I walked towards them, but my voice disappeared as soon as I saw their faces, and I just laughed through the tears, feeling overly dramatic and so happy to see my family again.

A bottle of bubbles was produced from somewhere, and then it took a while before the shaky hugs and breathless laughter died down. It took a few weeks longer before I stopped exclaiming at how friendly everyone was, in shops, restaurants, on the street, in lines. And I think it will take even longer before I get used to the green again. Everything is green. Luscious and bright, the fields, the hills, even the sides of the road, everything is a vibrant, waving green. I keep proclaiming to my sisters that they should open their eyes, that everything here is beautiful. They think that maybe travelling made me a little crazy.

The week of Christmas came and went. I surprised my father and stepmother too, and was greeted with a shout of ‘What are you doing here!?’. On Christmas day the sun shone hot but unsure behind the thin clouds. Inside the lounge was a symphony of red, green and white; mountains of ripped wrapping paper. Flies wafted in and out of the open doors with the summer air, while outside freshly mown green grass baked brown under the heat.

Everyone laughed and called to each other, hysterical stress threatening to break through the high voices of the chefs, already stretched to breaking point. Someone’s grandmother sat under the verandah at the head of the table, pulling a cardigan closer around her shoulders, complaining to anyone who would listen about the cool breeze. The table groaned under joints of meat, lamb, turkey, chicken, a glazed ham, all brought from somewhere. Outside our puppy Sasha wolfed a kidney within seconds, a glorious castoff from the meal.

I didn’t know any of those people. There was another family there and their jokes were strange and sharp in our midst. They had different cheekbones, different hair, unfamiliar glasses. They had two dogs – stringy whippets – and soon our puppy was locked away in her kennel, dark eyes pleading as she watched the foreign animals range across her land, their sharp noses sniffing out her hidden bones. I furtively let her out again.

The meal took place in a flurry of photos and embarrassing jokes, bright sunlight and shutters clicking, while hundreds of different sauces were passed and drizzled and spilled on the white tablecloth. I smiled secretly at my sisters, and we giggled silently at the effort of it all, rendered blasé and amused by the many flutes of bubbles on the table.

Then the rain came. It came on Boxing Day, and it has been raining since. The grass is unbelievably long, shooting towards the sky, spurred on by the fleeting pockets of sunlight between the torrential rain. On New Years Eve we lit fireworks through the drizzle, and they sputtered and fizzed, exploding light against the blue dark. I imagined all those people at the many summer festivals around the country, dancing in plastic ponchos and knee high mud, undeterred by the rain that ran down their smiling faces.

We had a hangi in early January, smoky and delicious, everything infused with that unmistakable earthy flavour. We caught fresh kingfish out at sea up in Mangawhai, and ate it at home an hour later, first as sashimi with soy sauce and wasabi, then as fresh steaks, while the rest was smoked with manuka woodchips. We went wake boarding on Lake Whakamaru last week, and the water was warm and green against the cool air, like carving on glass when you were out from the wake. I smiled the entire time I was up, until I face planted into the smooth water. Summer has begun.

I am writing again now, and the tap of the keys feels good under my fingertips. There is still so much to write about my travels, so many cities and landscapes that we flew through on trains and in metros. There are so many photos to sort, and a million memories to write about, to record. They will keep the itchy feet at bay for a while.

The sun is out again now, and in the burst of happy sunlight I hear a Tui sing quickly, as though to capture the moment. It may be raining, but it is warm. The clouds will move come these next few weeks, and we will all be drenched in blinding summer sun. Our dub and reggae bands will tour the old iconic pubs of the country, and my short shorts will come back out of storage again. We will play backyard cricket and drink Steinlager Pure and eat freshly caught crayfish.

I love New Zealand summer. It’s good to be home.

memory keeper

When I was little I had so many books to read. Every Christmas and birthday I would receive at least four new books. It was an easy present to get me; I was always the nerd, the girl with her head in a book, the one who walked down the stairs reading.

I remember how I used to pick a book off my shelf, so full of hand me downs and borrowed books long left behind. I would turn them over in my hands, the cover art and font evoking vague memories – a funny scene, what cookies I ate while I first read it, where I was. I would choose a book to read with no less thought than choosing a movie, ignorant of the fact that whichever book I chose would influence my life for the next week. I still do that now; choose a book to read at a whim. Psychologists tell us that when we make a decision fast, we tend to regret it less and be happier with our choice than if we had agonized over it. If only I could do the same with ice cream flavours.

I love the way that the covers still evoke such memories. Even now, every time I see the metallic silver gleam of the Artemis Fowl books, I still think of lying on the bed in my tiny upstairs room, the afternoon sun streaming through the small window and eating an entire packet of Girl Guide’s. My favourite book when I was 13, Firebringer, always transports me to the grassy area around Room 9 from my intermediate school. I still have no idea why, but it happens every time. Tomorrow When The War Began, always of the shady clearing sheltering the shallow stream down at the back of our farm.

I love sand in books. It reminds me of where I was, the hot sun beating on my back while my head is in another world, where not only plot and characters, but also physics and even generally unquestioned laws of the universe are dictated by the author. I suspect The Help will always remind me of the sombrillas, the white sand and azure water of Formentor, Spain, despite the fact that it is a American book set in the hot dust of Mississippi cotton fields, written from the perspective of the black maids working in white-owned southern plantation houses.

But this doesn’t just happen through books. It happens through everything around us, every sense that we have, every pore of our body – just like skin remembers touch, we remember situations and imprint them onto substances.

L’Oreal Happyderm, a girly foaming pink cleanser, will always and forever remind me of living with my mother, when I was 18 and had just discovered the mysterious world of make up. Every day when I wasn’t commuting to the big smoke, I was excitedly driving the three minutes down the road to Raglan’s only miniscule pharmacy, to browse the L’Oreal, Mabelline and Rimmel stands hungrily, roving back and forth between them, torn between the two products in my hands. I remember the excitement that swelled in my stomach during that short drive, so huge I had to grin, knowing that I could buy another lip gloss, or bronzer, or foundation, to add to my small but growing collection. I remember the exact shape and colour of my first foundation, slightly orangey but so, so glamorous to my young inexperienced hands. And so began my obsession with cosmetics. I should have known then that it was the start of something special.

The Body Shop’s seaweed cleanser takes me back to my second year flat in the freezing, burnt-coffee aroma of North Dunedin, each and every time I smooth it on. I happily remember the stress, the inconvenience of having to return to my awkward, abandoned Castle street room, always clean and tidy but ultimately unloved, rejected and cold. I hated being there, but I looked forward eagerly to returning to Oli’s warm flat, always full of people and heat pumped air, a bag of clean clothes and toiletries in tow.

I wonder how I can remember this time happily all because of a cleanser, and recently I found out why. Nostalgia is always positive. It is a happy emotion, no matter what the context. Maybe that’s why we all love those old L&P ads so much.

These memories follow me around throughout my life, almost as though I had bottled them myself, to take from place to place as a sentimental keepsake.

Strawberries are another one that gets me every time. One taste, one smell, reminds me unconditionally of Christmas in Raglan. I imagine chopping them in half, the knife slicing through the seedy red flesh to meet my thumb, the fizz and bubbling of the champagne as the fruit hits the bottom of the glass. They remind me perfectly of a New Zealand Christmas with the family, happily raising our glasses, smiling faces freshly made up and shining with love, wine, and Mum’s inevitable camera flashes.