THE DAY THE QUAKE CAME
published in More 167 (June 1989):
84-88, as a More Book Excerpt.
“Eighty in the shade” was hot by Jove. You were brave to be living through it. “Ninety in the shade”, you were verging on the heroic, “a hundred” and you had joined a beleaguered elite. You stopped complaining; sticky all over, red in the face, you passed the news round the wilting drifters in the playground when you got back after lunch. “A hundred-in-the-shade, did you know?” “Oh, I’ll tell Madge.” “She says. Her mother told her.” It dignified us all. Nobody asked why it was always in the shade – surely if it was heat you were on about, in the sun was where you’d get it. But of course I never said so.
In February it happened a lot. The Sugar Loaf and all the other hills went brown, then lighter brown, finally almost white. It never rained. My brother Clive and his friends had bikes and after school they went for swims in the camping ground on the other side of Taradale. The Tutaekuri had good swimming holes there in spite of a few snags he told us, loftily. He did other remarkable things too – caught eels in the ditches near our place and brought them home and hung them on the fence, where he put a nail through the skin and peeled it off like a stocking. He caught them with a jag – a bent nail sticking out of the end of a broom handle, and was of course scornful to his sisters when we asked how the eels felt and why they let themselves be caught.
The morning of the earthquake was hot, and muggy as well – strange, thundery weather. The sun didn’t shine but it was all the hotter for that. It was Lindsay’s first day at school; when the bell rang for playtime I waited at the door of her room and hand in hand we went outside to play. Within moments the world began to blow itself apart in the most extraordinary way – the roof of the school flew off in a cloud of red brick dust, the walls subsided and the roof landed again with a roar on the heap they made. The ground rolled and surged as though it had become water, waves passing over and through the asphalt playground as we sat, or rolled about, on the grass by the fence. We’d clambered through the wire and were gazing in astonishment at that red cloud. Once the school had vanished before our eyes, turning itself into a heap of red rubble and dust, it was hard to know what to do. “We’d better wait here and see what happens,” I, seven years old, said to Lindsay. “Oh, no,” said she, six (between November and April she was one year younger than me), “we’d better go home. It’s no good staying here, it’ll take too long.” We lived five minutes’ walk down Osier Road, but we kept falling over because the ground still rocked so wildly. Just over the crossing we met our mother. She looked really mad – her eyes were wild and in her hand she clutched a young lilac tree we’d had growing just inside our gate. She shrieked and clung to us, crying that we must find Clive.
The pale broad figure of Mrs Pollock from next door loomed up; she had a faded cotton frock and bare feet and her face was red from crying. She left us and climbed through the fence into the paddock by the road, where she wandered off towards the trees calling “Billy . . . Billy . . . ” He was about our age, Lindsay’s and mine, and in the primers too, but we hadn’t seen him. As it turned out, Billy had stayed behind to help clean the blackboard, being a first day monitor, and was one of the three children killed by falling debris in the school’s collapse. If the earthquake had been five minutes earlier we would all have been crushed and the child population of Napier and Hastings almost wiped out.
We didn’t find Clive at first either, but he did appear among the swarms of mothers and children further down the road. He’d gone one better than us, naturally. He was leaning against the school wall eating his playlunch apple when the wall fell back behind him and the roof came down; he had just time to scramble clear and crawl away alive. Doubtless whatever had happened to Fatty Frederickson would have been better still. I had heard him saying to Clive that if a wild bull came into our back yard and he happened to be up on the roof at the time, he’d take one leap down, land on its back and grasp it by the horns and ride it away, tamed. Boys. That’s the way they talked.
Our father was a painter and paper-hanger, an occupation in which we all had some share. His clients expected him to be designer as well as decorator, and we helped to choose combinations of wallpapers and borders for the rooms he was to paper. The usual practice was to have a main paper up to about seven or eight feet, a narrow ornamental border that picked up on its strongest colours, then a different paper above. Houses in the ‘Thirties all had a twelve foot stud. The family conferences about these choices were long and satisfying. Mum and Lindsay and I said you couldn’t have a stripe on the bottom (stripes were popular) and a floral on top. Ugh! Nor could you have blue and green together, or blue and pink mixed with orange and brown – each was a separate camp. Orange and brown was our favourite (Mum wore them a lot); in their company were yellow and cream and fawn. A border that I loved to choose was a continuous twining garland of nasturtium flowers, yellow and orange and bronze, with the curving of the petals making its outer edge. All the papers were in large pattern books which Dad would bring home and open on the kitchen table in the evenings for us to decide. At times paper went out of stock and Lindsay and I were allowed to take the page out and cut it up to make pictures, or paper dolls’ dresses.
On the day of the earthquake Dad was up a ladder, painting tanks for a farmer on the hills towards Puketitiri. As he held up his brush to dip it in the paint pot that hung on his ladder, the tank leaped off its stand into the air and rolled down the hill. He was a phlegmatic man, my father, his main thought was that if he’d been in front instead of at the side it would have taken him too.
At home we passed the wrenched hole where our mother had grabbed the little lilac tree to steady herself, and the rocking ground, opening and closing, had delivered it into her hand. Inside there was unforgettable havoc. The broken glass of preserving jars floated in plum and apricot pulp with soot, broken cups and bowls, the nameless mess from mantelpieces, fallen kettles, ink pots, butter and jam, mingled with spilt tea and sugar to make a ghastly lake on the kitchen floor. There were broken mirrors and windows and light globes in every room, fallen wardrobes and dressing tables, smashed ornaments and clothes and bedding mixed up everywhere. But the thing that terrified us most was that the floor kept moving, it never stopped.
Ours was a wooden house, not brick, but we were afraid of it all the same. There was an open paddock next to us where Lindsay and I played in the long grass and some years my father grew lettuces for the market. There we sat, with a washing bowl of plums and peaches, picked from their trees in the back garden the day before – in another life – and salvaged from the wash house where there was nothing much to fall. When our mother got up, saying she wanted to look for bread-and-butter, we pulled her down with screams of terror at the thought of her going in there.
In the afternoon we drove to Napier to see if our aunts and grandmother, my father’s family, were safe. Or we set out. On the way we had to cross the innumerable bridges which cropped up on that road, winding as it did through five or six miles of inner harbour. There were cars everywhere, jamming the narrow road, all full of families going, like us, to find relatives in ‘town’ – though Napier, had we known it, was already beginning to disintegrate in the fire that eventually destroyed far more than the earthquake itself.
Just before one of the bridges there was a traffic jam; cars as far as we could see – slow-moving tourers with canvas roofs buttoned down, and a few sedans. Someone ahead of us had been caught in a crack in the road. It had opened with one earth movement wide enough to swallow the front wheels and closed again quickly enough to wedge them tight. We sat in the hot car for a while, Lindsay and Clive and I together in the back seat silenced by shock, then we found a way out of the confusion and turned back.
No telephones worked, but we found out in the next few days that Aunty Syb and Uncle Bert and Thelma, a glamorous cousin in her teens, were all safe. The other family was Aunty Grace, Uncle Will and a tribe of cousins I was to get to know much better after the earthquake because they moved to Greenmeadows and lived quite near us. Grandma lived with them; she seemed to be always in bed, sitting up with her long grey plait down her back and talking to us in a funny dry voice with a little cackling laugh. She did our family mending and I used to bike round to Aunty Grace’s with a bag of holey socks and torn dresses which she would restore with delicate almost invisible stitches. I would talk to her for a while, watch her take out her tobacco tin and roll one of her thin little cigarettes which she then smoked in a tortoise-shell holder, cackling and saying she was wicked and would go to hell when she died. She told me that because I was “good at school” I must have a career – be headmistress of a school perhaps. At the end of the visit I would gather up a bag of completed mending and bike home, half pleased, half sorry to leave that slightly musty bedroom. She smelt, like the Christmas cake that was kept in a cupboard for months, with the one bottle of port that we had in the house, of staleness, old clothes, the past.
But on the day of the earthquake we heard nothing of these people. Only that someone else’s grandmother had been in the bath in her house in Napier and the explosion of water pipes had floated her out into the street where she rode along in her white porcelain contraption, naked to the heavens, while the ruins of the city piled up around her. This was a spectacular disaster. We were glad she wasn’t our grandmother, for people to see her like that.
For weeks the ground kept moving, off and on. None of us slept in houses at first: we had a corrugated iron garage and some neighbours came and put their mattresses alongside ours and we slept there, huddling together and telling stories in the dark about the horrors we’d heard about during the day.
Going to school changed too. For a few weeks nobody went at all; a lot of families went away for a holiday, to visit relations in other parts of the country. Then it was arranged that we should join classes at Taradale school. Greenmeadows had been a side school anyway, the seniors had always gone to Taradale for their last two years. Some, who didn’t go to high school, stayed on and became known as Standard 7. People in this class were well into their teens and waiting to go to work, or in the case of one girl, to get married. Her name was Emily Waddell (pronounced “Waddle”) and Lindsay and I went and watched her wedding in the local Methodist church. As she walked past we stared with a kind of shocked awe at her rouged cheeks and frizzed hair and long taffeta dress. It was as though the still remote adult world had come in and performed a danse macabre for us on our own ground.
We had to walk a mile to Taradale school, a wooden building that had survived the earthquake. Taradale kids were snooty and I was frightened of most of them, most of the time. One day we had a memorial service for the children who had died in our school: a teacher who had been injured but had recovered spoke about their bravery and their devotion to duty staying behind to be monitors. She cried and was led away. I thought of Mrs Pollock going into the trees calling Billy and felt sick with the strangeness of it all.
We never lost our earthquake consciousness: the moment the light globe began to sway everyone went dead white; it was a kind of suffocating terror – you couldn’t breathe for a moment or two. Then you would find out if it was a false alarm – that is, a tremor – or if the slow beginning meant a big one was coming. Both kinds happened often and we learnt to know the difference between the main types, bumpers and swayers. The swayers were worse because you had longer to anticipate the worst without knowing how bad it would be. In May that year there was another severe one, in the late evening. It was nothing like the first, but it sent us all to gather in our mother’s bed where we huddled, teeth chattering for hours before we could be persuaded to go back to our own beds. The morning of February 3 when I had said to Lindsay “Let’s wait and see what happens” was a lifetime away. We knew.