One of the pleasures of travelling is, once you are back home again, being able to return to a place in your memory. Sometimes images of particular places will flash up in my thoughts: a certain street corner or train station or building, and I’ll think of it far away and wonder who is there now, inhabiting it.
Every night since the Tuesday the earthquake happened I have been unable to stop myself walking around the Christchurch that exists in my memory. I was there last November, on my way further south to Dunedin. It wasn’t the focus of my travels but Simon and I explored the city nonetheless, in a few of those long travelling days where you stretch time to its greatest possible extent.
Haunted by the city’s destruction, I can’t help remembering it and feeling a kind of horror that what I am imagining is now in ruins. Surely this kind of thing doesn’t happen to cities, cities are forever growing, they are complex, strong structures. This is how it feels to be inside one, on its trains and in its buildings, one tiny part of its complexity. When cities fall apart, so does our confidence in their power.
On the day of the earthquake I watched a lot of news. Having spent many years not watching television apart from the occasional glimpse, this was rather a shock. Every station was broadcasting live from Christchurch, with reminders every now and again that the footage was not edited, with apologies for the “graphic nature” of the images. This was interesting – watching news before edits and voiceovers told us about “the extraordinary courage of…” etc. One woman, outside the collapsed Pine Gould building (which the news presenter insisted in describing as “pancaked”) was asking to have her rings cut off her finger, which was poking out askew, broken. Her high voice trembled her request a few times, like this was the only thought she could allow herself. This woman was lucky – she was alive. Her injury was minor. She wasn’t one of the people chosen as the human face of the tragedy, she only appeared on the television for this moment.
On the afternoon we got to Christchurch last November, we were wandering around performing the role of lost tourists perfectly – I think we were standing on a street corner, looking at a map, then up at the street signs – when a woman came up to ask if we needed help. She turned the map around and showed us where we needed to go, and then said “Do you need a ride? I’m just going to my car now, I’m on my way home from work.”
We declined her offer, though were touched by her generosity. Yes, we decided, we were definitely somewhere different to Sydney. When I think about the earthquake, I wonder about this woman, and hope that she made it through okay. I wonder this too about the checkout girl at the Pak ‘n’ Save supermarket, who was yawning and when I asked if she was about to finish a shift she said no, just started. “Well, I hope it goes quickly,” I said, which Simon later told me was an odd thing to say. I wonder about the woman in the Honeypot café who went out to buy me soy milk for my coffee and was gone for a long time before coming back with some bricks of Vitasoy. That part of the city had been quite damaged by the September earthquake and very little was open, I wondered whether she enjoyed going out to buy milk, imagining it to be one of those times when your work day ruptures just a little bit, and you get to step outside it for a moment.
All these people, their faces fixed in my mind by travel’s deeper imprint on memory, float around my thoughts. They, like the woman with the broken finger, have lives that will only intersect with mine once, yet they have already become a part of me. Their faces might appear in my thoughts at any moment, like the city as it was appears: sunny streets, full of details which now exist only in people’s imaginations.
Then I think about Sydney and how when I am in it, I so often see it as it was when I was a teenager, before it became such a big, glossy, global city. Walking around it begins to be an exercise in locating where things once were (now it’s a… Cotton On…a City Convenience Store…a Westfield…) The details endlessly change, and once they are gone, it is as if they never were. The land we are walking on, under all the concrete and wires and steel and pipes, is so far lost beneath all this. To be reminded that it is still there – by an earthquake in a city far, but not so far, away – turns the built world into cardboard.
This afternoon, walking back from Marrickville Metro with groceries and a bag of lucerne hay, watching couples post-Mardi Gras leaving the shopping centre with their bags of recovery supplies, I feel so strongly the tininess of my time here in the world, the world with all its stuff. What, then, is my memory? It is invisible, with its collection of things gone and past doubly lost, unless I write it.
(The photographs in this post were taken with a Lomo LCA in Christchurch last November. When I took the one of the window above, we were standing outside a derelict house on a street corner, and I said to Simon, “I’m going to take a photo of it because it won’t be here much longer”.)