On the phone to New Zealand, I listen as my friend Caroline talks about the recent Christchurch Quake.
We two met when I wrote a novella sat by the window of Caroline and Peter’s restaurant, Le Café; the view before me as close to any paradise I have ever seen on earth or even envisaged. She and her husband are European émigrés, a Swede and Swiss, respectively. They left in search of adventure and ended up in the queerest of places, Picton.
Picton is a small coastal waterfront town where the Wellington ferry offloads the channel crossers. It is the gateway to the South Island. Marlborough’s vineyards lie behind it and the magnificent Sounds, directly in front. There is a small marina where the Kiwi elite moor their yachts. In summer it bustles with tourists passing through, a mix of backpackers, day trippers, farmers, families and wine epicureans.
Friends now for some years, we have on occasion managed to escape our motherly binds and grab a couple of days to ourselves. We have climbed mountains, crossed rivers, scrambled over crevices, we have Thelma and Louise ‘d it across the top of the North Island, without it should be noted, causing injury to ourselves or others.
A couple of years ago we were off the beaten tourist track, climbing mountains. I was puffing and panting, miles behind Caroline who stormed ahead. The excess’ of city living slowed me down. Caroline was clearly unimpressed. On every trek undertaken she has mocked my fears which jump to the surface; my vertigo revealed at Harwoods Hole (an immense cave of 186 metres), the crevices I could only crawl over for fear of falling into the voids, the gurgling brooks I hesitated crossing, for fear of being swept away.
On this occasion we were on a visit to Maruia Springs. Despite my body being shamefully out of condition, I somehow, in the height of summer, made it up to the snow line – the vista was; never ending sky… mountains, valleys, forests – the force of the wind shook me, the air so pure I was dizzy on oxygen.
The scale of the New Zealand landscape is such that one quickly comprehends just how inconsequential one is. It is both inspiring and sobering. Momentarily the conquerer, I stood atop the mountain aware that in the greater scheme of things I was nothing but an outward breath.
Apart from those few snatched days, Caroline and I disappear from each others lives back to our realities as the vast geographical distance between us takes over – rarely do we chat but following the quake I called to check all was well with her and hers.
All was thankfully well but the immensity of the Christchurch Quake was clearly evident for the conversation did not veer off topic. She talked about the displacement of the people, the reawakened community spirit, of how almost everyone in New Zealand was tenuously affected, everyone knew someone or was a friend of someone, who was directly involved.
She spoke of a family from Picton who had recently moved to Christchurch. Two young girls went to school that morning only to arrive back to find their home a heap of rubble with no sign of their parents. She mentioned the recently completed modern art gallery. Constructed out of glass it had withstood the earth’s fractures and was now the administrative centre for the rescue operation. Caroline spoke of nothing but the quake, the ripple repercussions, the fears that even Picton may lie on the fault line.
She reckoned a natural tragedy was harder to cope with than a terrorist attack, the latter providing a ready enemy to focus on and hate. Gone are the days when a disaster such as this could be seen as divine retribution. There is little solace in the truth that the quake was unavoidable, nature will not be controlled.
Then Caroline said she had to go, adding… I told a friend about you, about oneoffkisses – she’s convinced it’s a front for an escort agency.
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