Before I left New Zealand, in 2010, I picked up a bunch of souvenir-type things – you know, paua earrings, keyrings with sheep on them, that sort of thing – to give to people in America. Most got given away over the next six months, although the penguin-can opener keyring promptly got absconded for use in our own kitchen. One teatowel never got given to anyone, for no particular reason; it was a cheap, quickly-printed thing, probably made in eastern Asia somewhere, with blurry pictures of the Sky Tower, the Wellington cable car, Mitre Peak, a jetboat, a kiwi, bungy jumping.
Six months later, I hung it up on a wall of our flat, because the other badly-printed landmark on it was the Christchurch Cathedral.
I’d look at it, from time to time, over the next eighteen months, and think about what that view looked like now – the square empty and the cathedral broken – and most of the time I’d just pass it by, and sometimes I’d have to stop and sit on the bed and take a moment to stop thinking. The distance between what I knew it had become and my memories was so vast it seemed unbridgeable; like if I never saw it again, it would never have changed.
In July, of course, we came home for two weeks, and drove down the South Island, past the saltworks at Lake Grassmere and the cliffs along the Kaikoura coast, over the hills near Cheviot and beside the sheep farms of northern Canterbury, and eventually we came back, again, to Christchurch.
That’s what everyone said to me, over and over again, in the three days we spent there; and they were right. As we drove in, through the less-damaged north and western suburbs, the earthquake was in the new metal chimneys in place of brick, the cracked garden walls, the sudden empty spaces where a shop or a house had been. In Redwood and Northland, Sockburn and Riccarton, it was easier; I could see the context and say oh, that’s where the jeweller’s was, those shops on the corner used to have the billboard advertising the choir, I remember that house was there. After two years of absence, that wasn’t as shocking as it could have been. You expect places to change, when you go, and the broad outlines of the city we had lived in were there still – the university, even if the central library was clad in scaffolding, the malls, even if the odd shop was gone, the streets, even if the footpaths were a little more cracked, the Student Union, even if walled off by containers and fences and dust. The bones of the city stood.
They didn’t, in the central city. I was hard-pressed to remember, in sections, blocks, streets, what had stood there. I knew it once.
We took the bus tour, past the broken Cathedral, the parking lots that were streets and shops and homes, the tentative ruins of the Octagon, but I didn’t cry as much as I might have. I’d done that earlier, when we went into the partially opened Canterbury Museum and found our way to the earthquake exhibit, and I saw the Lyttleton Timeball and the Cathedral cross and John Robert Godley, lying on his side in a glass case, and I cried like I was watching the first pictures all over again. There were some schoolkids in there, doing some assignment, giggling and gossiping like they’d seen it all a hundred times, which I suppose they had; I could hardly stand to hear them.
The Arts Center remindedly weirdly of the Unseen University paper model I’d bought as a student and never quite got around to finishing, the assembled pieces carted from flat to flat in a shoebox, waiting for the rest that never got put together. Like those lonely cardboard spires, pieces of the Arts Center sat on the footpath, waiting to return to their towers; waiting, not gone.
But the CBD is only half of what’s happened to Christchurch, these past two years, so that afternoon we drove out towards the sea. Two years before that we’d had lunch in Sumner with my parents and brother, just before we left the country, walked past Shag Rock and visited the Sumner community museum. The museum’s gone, of course, the volcanic rock cliffs I sketched in geology classes exposing fresh faces, the old ones crumbled, Shag Rock itself no longer a beautiful example of octagonally-fractured basalt, but a pile. Sumner is the only part of Christchurch where you can see the earthquakes in the land as much as the human structures. But the scope of the damage, compared to the solid line of the Port Hills, the beach and the wide Pacific Ocean, is so much smaller; the place hasn’t sunk into the sea, after all. It’s still there.Finally – and I wasn’t sure about this, but I thought we needed to – we went up, across the marshes and oxidation ponds, to the heart of the residential red zone. I was keenly aware of not wanting to seem like a disaster tourist – couldn’t exactly slap a sign in the car window saying “we used to live here and we’ve never seen what happened” – so we stuck to the bits that had mostly been abandoned. It was eerie, post-apocalyptic; holes in the road, driveways with grass two feet tall in the tracks, interrupted rarely by the odd house with a mown lawn and a car parked outside. It was hard to place this abandoned suburb in the same city as the busy western suburbs, the same country I’d grown up in. Avonside, where Mike grew up, was less damaged but worse in some ways. Broken houses were lived-in; corner shops were boarded-up; and everywhere, you came suddenly upon the gaps, sections where houses had been demolished. Most of them had nothing but a rotary clothesline twisting folornly at the back of the section, grass growing up around it, a space where a home had been and where nothing was left but the metal clotheslines, like markers. Then, around the corner, a whole street would be untouched, apparently exactly as we’d left it; if you ignored the benches on the riverbank opposite, thrown up at an incredible angle.
But after all that – all the grand destruction of the central city and the quiet desolation of the red-zoned suburbs – what I want to see, more than anything, is Christchurch recovering. I want to come back and see new houses; new buildings; new spaces. I want to see the city growing. I worried, when I went back, that I’d stop being able to remember Christchurch Before, when I’d seen it after. And some places, I couldn’t; some streets I couldn’t place. But most of it is there, in my memory, the place it was. The next time I go back – in a year or two or three – I hope, for the sake of everyone who’s still there, dealing with the aftermath day by day, that I’ll be seeing the place it’s going to be.