Thursday, October 28, 2010


That was when it happened. My hand rested on the glass and the window began to hum. I felt it pass through my fingertips, up my arm and down to my toes. The rest of the room began to gently rock, as if the house were a giant that I had disturbed from its sleep; it shrugged its body from side to side and my heart pumped so hard I could feel blood pulsing in my face. It was the sound that disturbed me the most, as it travelled across the plains towards me, was all around me for a second, then travelled on through, a low throbbing.

“Letting off steam,” I reminded myself and lay back down on the bed. Even though I knew it was an earthquake, I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that the house had caused it somehow.
No, this isn't one of my diary entries from the last few weeks but an excerpt from Magpie Hall. Rosemary is dogged by earthquakes, a (rather obvious perhaps) metaphor for her own sense of instability.

Then Dora, the wife of Rosemary's great-great-grandfather Henry, experiences firsthand the Canterbury earthquake of 1888:
Dora is startled awake by her bed shuddering across the room. In the fog of sleep she thinks she is back on board the ship that she and her father took from England last year, but within moments she knows this is not so. The earth, which had been shrugging and sighing the evening before, has finally given in to its anger and heaves the house from side to side. Its wooden structure creaks and groans; her washbasin falls from its stand and smashes. She curls into a ball and clutches her knees until it subsides.
The house she lives in survives the quake, but part of the house that is to become Magpie Hall falls on its owner, killing him, thereby freeing it up for Henry Summers to buy and repair it. I couldn't help think of Magpie Hall as I looked at pictures of the beautiful Homebush Station, brought to its knees. Magpie Hall would not have survived.

It's now October 28th, and I have been unable to bring myself to finish this post. Lack of time certainly, but also the enormity of writing about the experience. Here's what I wrote a few days after the quake: "It's taken a few days for my nerves to calm down enough to sit still and write some thoughts about the Christchurch earthquake that hit us at 4.35 am on Saturday. I am still in shock to be honest. We came out of it unharmed, with moderate damage to the house, but going through a 7.1 earthquake messes with you. It's hard to explain, but physically and mentally I have been feeling the way I felt in the days after my father and step-mother were killed in a car accident, and I put it down to the physiological effect of unexpected trauma. Long term, who knows? I will probably recover more quickly from this as there isn't grief on top of shock."

Well, I have recovered. I left town for a week with with my kids to calm my nerves, and it helped enormously. Now that the promised 6 point something aftershock is a distant possibility, I ride them with more excitement than terror. Last week, I was at the gym when the big 5.0 aftershock hit, and the plate glass windows flexed while the rest of the building jiggled around as though it was made of cardboard. The noise was nearly drowned out by women screaming but I felt oddly calm. I called my son's creche to be told they had all been sitting down to lunch and had dived under the table. There were no tears, thanks to the calming influence of his teachers. When I picked him up and asked him what had happened that day, he told me he'd had yoghurt for lunch. When I said "what else?" he said "oh, there was an earthquake." I am proud and thankful that my kids are not living in fear.

Elsewhere in Christchurch, people aren't so lucky. The houses in my neighbourhood have mostly just lost chimneys, but one of the things I mourn in all of this is the loss of the character shops, not just in St Albans, but all over Christchurch. You know, the little brick shops that in the old days would have been the butcher, the fish shop, the green grocer. Now, the shops that are gone are the dairy, the hairdresser, the shoe shop, the Thai restaurant. Around one corner from us is the the cafe I used to stop in on my way to the bus when I was writer in residence at Canterbury; next to that, the tattoo shop, Ink Grave, where I did my research for Magpie Hall. After the quake they looked like this:

Now they are gone. Thank god it didn't happen when all those lovely folk were at work. How could they have survived? This is the scene all over Christchurch, shops that for some reason seem to mostly be local fish and chip shops and Chinese takeaways, probably because the rent was cheap. I shudder to think what will be put up in their place.

Plenty of people have written about the earthquake, so I'm going to finish up and finally post this. It will make way for my blog to open up now that I'm writing again. I can stop thinking about it and turn my mind to book and writing related things. But first, I just want to mention the people who still can't flush their toilets, who still have to wash their dishes in a bucket because there is no wastewater, and those who can't return to their homes at all. I actually cried the other day when I walked past a beautiful two-storey brick villa in my neighbourhood. When I first saw it months ago, I thought, what lucky people, to live in such a beautiful house. That house now has yellow tape around it; one upstairs wall has fallen off, the others are cracked beyond repair.

I also want to mention the people whose businesses have suffered, either because their buildings are unsafe, or because their shops are right next to those that are being demolished. Because it must seem to all those people that to the rest of the country, and the rest of Christchurch, life goes on, while their's are still hanging in limbo. And I want them to know that I am thinking of them and hoping that things will get better soon.


Mary McCallum said...

Rachael, a stunning and timely post that takes those of us not living in Canterbury into the heart of the matter - how it felt, really felt. The stuff of great writing ... (the links with Magpie Hall are astonishing! How life reflects art eh.) And I guess over the coming months, more writing and art about the earthquake will emerge to take us inside the scenes we've seen in photos and on TV.

I'm so glad you can get back into writing - reading the Mansfield bio by Kathleen Jones (brilliant) you can see so clearly how Mansfield is silenced at times by what life throws at her, most especially trauma... and equally how when she does get back to it, she finds writing works to help excise some of the trauma. Here's hoping for you...

My heart goes out to you and yours and all Cantabrians.

Vanda Symon said...

Hi Rachael. It is so good to hear your voice, as I've been wondering how you and your lovely family have fared with the earthquake, and then life with the continuous uncertainty of aftershocks. Thank you for the eloquent reminder of how, for many people, life is nothing near to getting back to normal.

Great to hear you are writing, and hopefully blogging!

Rachael King said...

Mary - you are too kind. I didn't actually write about what it was like inside the moment of the quake, but the fact you didn't notice means I don't think i have to! It's weird - I have a love-hate relationship with Christchurch. The things I do like about it (the lovely brick buildings for example) are the things that are coming down. But the quake has definitely brought Christchurch and me closer together.

I should add a note to all my Wellington friends: for god's sake, if you're not using your chimney, take it down! Ours nearly came through #1 son's ceiling. I shudder to think about the lovely exposed brick wall in the living room of my first house in Berhampore, with crumbling mortar... anyone who has one, get it strengthened immediately!

Vanda - I've been popping up on Facebook and Twitter more, so that's why we've missed each other! Thanks for dropping by.

Rachel Fenton said...

As Mary says, very timely. That was such a powerful piece to read, made me cry, too. I can only hope things get back to "normal" very soon for all those still living in disarray.

Marianne said...

Beautiful post Rachael, thank you for writing it.

I just spend the weekend in a yoga workshop with a teacher from Christchurch who talked a lot about how the earthquakes have affected her and her students - the effect of no longer being able to rely on the earth beneath your feet to hold you. And that's just on an emotional/psychological/biological level. The very real impact on many people's material lives is another thing altogether.

It can take a long time to recover from an event of that magnitude, on all those levels, and I hope - as a country - that we come through with the support people need.

And now I look forward to reading more about what you are writing!

Anonymous said...

Rachael, ho letto il tuo romanzo "La musica delle farfalle" bellissimo, รจ stata un piacevolissima scoperta, grazie.


italia del nord

Anonymous said...

I have read your beautiful novel The Sound of Butterflies. It has been an utterly pleasurable discovery, thanks.



Rachael King said...

Thanks for your kind comments everyone. And welcome to my Italian reader!

Mark Hubbard said...

Good to see you back blogging again. Glad you got through the quake okay. (I'd forgotten about the earthquakes in Magpie Hall).

Anonymous said...

I visited Christchurch a couple of years ago and thought it to be one of the most beautiful quaint cities I had ever wandered around. Very British in theme, but quirky and embracing that unique NZ spirit as well.

I'm heartbroken at the damage done by this earthquake. Thank god no one was killed, and the thoughts of people - months later - are still with you all.