Flying southward, I was surprised to hear the pilot announce: ‘Good evening, guests, we’ve just passed the township of Kaikōura. I can see, in the distance, the lights of Christchurch, and it’s gearing up to be a clear and mild night.’ I didn’t know you could see Christchurch from that far away. In my mind, Christchurch is such an extraordinary distance from Wellington. And even further from Hastings where the bulk of my family live. Whenever Mum organises a visit to my sister in The Garden City, you’d think she was planning a trip abroad. She books months in advance and packs so much gear you’d think she was relocating. I’ve acquired many welcome and unwelcome habits from Mum: loyalty to family, the afternoon nap, hoarding and a taste for gossip. Yet as worldly as I like to consider myself, I also see that I have acquired her fantastic and false sense of distance. According to the pilot, Wellington is only twenty-seven minutes’ flying distance from Christchurch. Really? Is that all?
Much to my own disappointment, I myself had packed so much luggage I was charged an excess baggage fee.
As the plane descended and I greedily sucked my green Air New Zealand lolly to alleviate my popping ears, I considered the earthquake. The iron-flat bulk of the Canterbury Plains seemed enormous. The jagged Southern Alps and a slew of low-rise hills seemed to contain a basin that stretched forever. And this was from several hundred feet in the air. I contemplated the enormous forces from deep below and out of sight that had conspired on 4 September to shake this fabulously big area. I enjoyed a wonderful feeling of smallness.
I agree with the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle who moaned, ‘Writing is a dreadful labor, yet not so dreadful as Idleness.’ On many given days, the only worse-sounding idea than sitting still for an hour or two writing is sitting still for a day or two not writing. There is a quality of satisfaction I get after filling a few empty screens with nouns, conjunctions and adjectives that I do not get after any other activity. The sore point seems to be the doing itself – the mechanical process of teasing out memory and imagination via words. The payoff may be orgasmic, but often getting there is like a session of very average sex; only slightly more pleasure than pain. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day, it is more like having a groin accident. So why even bother? Because if I wasn’t a writer, I simply wouldn’t be me. And writers write. So I keep writing because I am starting to like me.
Hell, it only took thirty years.
I had booked my trip to Christchurch long before The Big One. Months in advance in fact. (Drat! Mum’s influence is unstoppable!) When it struck, I kinda grossed myself out at how excited I was to be heading down there shortly to check out the lovely damage for myself. I even borrowed a digital camera for the occasion. My sister was to meet me at the airport. I feel so flash at airports – like a member of some kind of elite mobile class. I always feel like some kind of emissary. By the time our plane landed, night had dropped on a cooling Canterbury. My sister couldn’t afford the $6-an-hour airport parking so had been waiting in the Drop off/Pick up zone just outside the domestic terminal. For an hour. After a kiss and a squeeze, we sped off inland towards Lincoln.
Morbidly, I expected to see roads broken apart and Civil Defence operatives handing out flares. I expected to see lines of the homeless and evicted queuing for ration packs. I kept an eye out at railway crossings for tracks bent into unnatural S shapes. I even half-expected to see the Prime Minister surrounded by a retinue of crisis management folk surveying gutted-out neighbourhoods. Or at least Bob Parker. There was nothing of the sort.
Instead, I had to content myself with my sister’s dry story about how her hot-water cylinder had cracked and leaked a bit into her hot-water cupboard. I’m not proud of it, but I think I am drama slut.
Good for you, Christchurch. Bad luck for the inner disaster tourist I suspect lurks in all of us.
It’s this hunger for bold and broad-stroked drama that held my writing back for a long time. I remember telling my sixth-form English teacher that to be a real writer, I’d have to go overseas first. You know, where the really big, important and exciting adventures go down. At that stage, I had no appreciation for the small. I didn’t know how strong a frail moment caught on paper can be.
While sitting in the Lincoln University library on Sunday, fingers tapping and face twisted in my frustrated-writer facials, the building began to shudder. Aftershock, nearly one month on. Shelves of books hummed tremblingly and fluorescent lights shimmered. I gasped, gripping my desk. But to my surprise, the Cantabrians continued – business as usual. Boys and girls in their tiny Canterbury shorts and stiff-collared Aertex shirts kept studying and chatting and Facebooking right through the micro-quake. They’ve had over a thousand aftershocks since 4 September. I so admired their adaptability, their stoicism.
In these final eight weeks, this last lap around the course, I learnt something valuable that day down there, southward. Life can’t possibly be all earthquakes. That isn’t lifelike. Plots may pivot around moments of large drama, but it is the ever-decreasing ripples – the aftershocks – that are the bread and butter of everyday experience.
I’m beginning to believe that the devil lies in overlooking the details.