I travel to Geraldine where my friend, Esther, is there to greet me off the coach. I met Esther, like Tess, on a writer’s retreat in France. She is an impressive 77 year old who runs up mountains, follows her car-racing grandson around the world and writes a column, anonymously, in her local paper about aprons, the joy of grandchildren or anything else that takes her fancy. She lives with her husband, Bruce, in a lovely modern house.
We take a tour of Geraldine. It is a small town in South Island near Christchurch, inhabited by many retired famers. Bruce and Esther came here from Invercargill to set up a farm machinery business. Esther takes me to the local museum, run by 90 volunteers. It is impressive and well laid out.
She sits at an old telephone exchange, like the one she operated as a young woman in Invercargill. We admire an organ, similar to the one she had at home when a child. We look at some royal memorabilia.
“We oldies like the Queen,” she says.
Esther picks out a photo of Nga Hei who married Samuel Hewlings, one of the first settlers of Geraldine. Nga was Māori and bore the first child to be born in the town, an event that was marked by the planting of a native tree, the totora. Sadly, six of Nga’s and Samuel’s seven children died. When Nga herself died her body was taken up north to be buried according to Māori tradition.
“Where was Samuel buried? “ asks Esther. The volunteers look uncomfortable. Nobody knows. I learn later this small town relies on volunteers. Volunteer fire fighters. Volunteer ambulance men and volunteer litter clearers, the Wombles.
“My grandchildren love helping me when it is my turn to be a Womble,” says Esther.
Esther drives me up to Christchurch, my next port of call.We stop, on the way at one of her favourite places where the non-native Himalayan lilies are in bloom. It is near one of her favourite churches and graveyard.
“You need connections to be buried here,” she says.
Esther drops me off my hotel in CBD, an area she has not visited since the earthquake.
I walk to Quake City, a small museum on Cashel Street. I sit in the dark and am introduced to Rūaumoko, the son of that grieving couple, Rangi and his wife Papatūānuku.Their sons turned their mother face downwards, so that she and Rangi would not see each other’s sadness. But when Papatūānuku was turned over, Rūaumoko was still at her breast and was carried to the world below. Rūaumoko was given fire to keep him warm but it is his rumblings, as he walks around, that create such devastating earthquakes.
I listen to people’s experiences of that fateful day. About a woman running to her son’s school, chiding herself that she didn’t know his timetable. About a woman that was rescued from a tall building and another who screamed at the corner of her street until her husband answered. “There was so much noise,” she says. “The sirens, the ambulances. But there was a deathly silence too.”
That evening I walk around the deserted CBD.There is some life – bulldozers, relaxed but at the ready, some cheerful pop up shops in multi-coloured ship containers that are used elsewhere in the city to shore up falling cliffs.
Lively pubs and restaurants along Victoria Street and some art interventions, both spontaneous and sponsored, gross and gorgeous.
I walk back to the hotel after a paltry pizza between dilapidated buildings and over rough ground. It is getting dark and a deathly silence penetrates the air. An outline of a large ridge tent-like structure looms in front of me. It is the temporary cathedral structure by the ‘disaster architect,’ Sigeru Ban.
Then I see them. Empty, ghostly white chairs in the dark. I count them. 185, the same number as the people who died during the earthquake. In rows facing the cathedral. I scuttle back to my hotel. Those sons who turned Papatūānuku over while Rūaumoko was still at her breast have a lot to answer for.