They cordoned off our broken streets because it hurt to remember. But still we climbed the fences. We walked in circles, amnesiacs and sleepwalkers, our landmarks gone or shifted like the dust of a dream in the mornings.
Friday was a hot bed without any cool corners. There was no wind. The air was heavy. Inside the mall was a riot of air-conditioning and shopping. I ran into an ex girlfriend and as I spoke to her I could see perspiration gathered above her brow, glistening along her collarbone.
Love runs deep and we sleep together naked near an open window, and then the tides pull us dry and we forget our promises and love songs, but we ask about work, and families, and it was good to see you, you’re looking good, and yes we need to catch up for a drink sometime.
At home that night it was still hot but the wind did dance near the edge of the curtain. I drank alone and drank scotch. I drank it over ice and ate salt and vinegar chips when my mouth became too numb and peaty. My thoughts receded to a crawl and I sank further and further into my seat and took small naps during the commercial breaks.
When I was seven I had a radio-cassette player. When I played it at night it washed my room in a thin blue light. For reasons unknown to me, late at night, I was able to pick up strange radio stations in the AM bandwidth even though we lived in a valley at the bottom end of the world. Sometimes these radio stations were foreign, and sometimes the music I heard pulled me into that radio. I found that there were still many strange places for me to swim and fall and find each night, I only had to close my eyes and listen.
Of course, the radio-cassette player was a phenomenal thing, it had the capacity to transmit these melodies into my room and also capture and record them on cassette tapes. Some songs became addictive, I played them repetitively, like a mantra; they became part of me. And there are some tunes, I came to learn, that were able to invoke a strong sense of longing or nostalgia for the place or person I associated with the song. Like a message in a bottle, or a shoe box of letters under the bed, in some songs I could hear the echo of the person I used to be. What a remarkable thing to discover in the dead of night, pulled out of the thin air by a box on the bedside table.
He stood at the front gate aware that if anyone could see him there they would make a note of it, they would remember how he stands, the colour of his skin, the cut of his hair, because it was late and he was alone and he did not move toward a purpose, he did not belong, because a man like that didn’t own things and naturally coveted what others owned. He could see from the gate the rotten weather-boards had been pulled and replaced with treated timber, the netting and curtains gone from the windows, the rooms inside unlit and empty.
He moved silently to the back of the property, almost as if he were drifting, until his toothache dropped him to the ground. He had walked there with an absent mind, wandering around the back of the house until he came across three plastic rubbish bags under the awning of the old woodshed.
I guess I write for the same reason a dog buries its bone. There are particular things I feel I need to save, these intangible things I need to be of the earth, these fleeting thoughts that I cover in dirt or words to keep them.
The outsider’s irony is lost along these dusty roads. Hard work gives us heavy limbs. Time is indistinguishable from weather. We mow the lawns and tend to our hanging gardens. We fall apart slowly at the edges and awnings, but only because inside we are brimming with simple content.
She sent me a post card from San Francisco: the corner of Powell and Market on a clear, windy day. Her yoga workshop in Big Sur was over and she was now on her way to Victoria Island. She was going to work in an organic food store. Life was beautiful.
I thought of kissing her, a year ago now, on the bank of the Heathcote River. Her eyes a sleepy green. I remembered the daffodil she gave me that afternoon. I had kept it dried and pressed flat in the pages of Ulysses on my bookshelf. A token of a kiss goodbye, a fleeting thing, yet held on to and kept safe, because of a dead flower hidden in the pages of a book.
There is something special in the smell of rain on warm cement.
I ran out of steam about 5kms into my run and ended up walking home in the twilight. I cut through Carmana Gardens on the way to steal a pear from Anglican Archdeacon’s back property. The rain fell light at first, and no one out along South Belt Road seemed particularly hurried to get home because of it. The day had been hot, the rain felt like the evening’s grace. Sometimes the weather at the end of the day can make us a wistful ceremony worth a long walk home.
The road home is Lineside Road. It runs parallel to the railway line and some afternoons I’m lucky enough to be coming home when a train is rolling into town. I always have catch up and ride along with the engine, no matter what traffic I have to negotiate through to do it. I have to open my windows so I can smell it, the diesel and exhaust fumes. I need to hear it, the rolling wind, the roar and clash of the carriages, the silvery hum of the speeding rail-wheel steel.
A mild heatwave caught everyone off guard. Spring had only really arrived three weeks earlier and then we discover she was heavily pregnant with summer. Lifting a box could break a sweat. When I stopped for gas I caught sight of one person near the fridges, rolling a cold can of coke across their forehead.
In the early evening the sunsets smoldered over the alps in a purple and green haze, the colours distorted from the smoke of the raging bush fires across the Tasman Sea in Australia.
I moved in to a new place, an upstairs studio in a house where a young mother and her daughter live. The little girl asks me questions. She shows me things, her toys, her drawings, her collection of buttons.
Spring is the budding of things. But it is also messy and excitable. I call old friends and we organize BBQs. I run again, sweating, dazed, my lungs heaving and I enjoy the pain. I smile at how I feel myself becoming stronger. I call girls I’ve met at university or online. We meet in cafés and bars. We share pizza, wine, and honky tonk music. I text late in the afternoon sun and ask her what she is wearing.
In the Big Room was the Pot Belly Stove and that day it was Campbell and I who had to chop the kindling. We could see our breath outside and our fingers were thick and clumsy in the cold so we were careful with the axe when we split the wood. The woodshed was behind the school office and inside it smelled like the bush in the rain. Campbell curled his arms and I piled the split wood for him and carried two large blocks myself back to the Big Room for the fire. Inside everyone’s coats and bags were hanging by the door and their jerseys were all wool and coloured like a fruit bowl. Mr Climo wrote the morning down in white and blue chalk as Jenny rolled and balled the old newspaper for me. I was sure to build a tepee with the kindling so the fire burned quick and good. We all sat at the front of the room near the fire and sang our seven-times-table and when the questions started I hid behind Harriet so Mr Climo wouldn’t see me because I didn’t know the answers in sevens. At interval we piled our coats and gloves and gumboots and scarves back on and ran to the field to build forts and hurl snowballs at the Little Room toerags. As we rolled the snow into large boulders the crunching sound tickled the short hairs on my neck. The edges of our faces were reddened and our ears hurt in the cold but none of us cared. The snow had almost forgotten everything, the hills around the school were ghosts, and we dug deep to find the grass and shook the snow free of the evergreen branches. Some snowballs were too sure and Kelly cried but only because it hurt and not because she wanted to go back inside. The forts were all half-finished and the snowmen laughing and crazy eyed when the bell rang to go back to class. The Little Room came through and joined us on the mats by the fire and Mrs Stubbings brought the song sheets so they could show us all their singing. After she made everyone a hot chocolate as a treat and we all, each of us, got a shortbread to dunk in our drink. The cup gave me pins and needles in my cold hand and I held it close to my face. It smelled so good I had to close my eyes for it and smile.
I went for a walk through Gray Crescent on Thursday. This was the neighborhood where I was a teenager, where dad and I had lived. He had told me I needed to visit our old street, because it was something now that was difficult to express, something torn thin between nostalgia and loss.
It’s been three years since the earthquakes struck. Since then more than half the neighborhood has been condemned and torn down. My old street, my teenage haunt, is now an overgrown vacant grove, domesticated trees grow wild in the shadowed traces of where houses had once been. Like echoes in the landscape; pittosporum, ribbonwood and kowhai trees burgeon as the old neighborhood fades away.
Nature has reclaimed. The earthquake, like so much of the disaster I lived through in my teenage years, has ripped through Gray Crescent and erased indiscriminately. The memories now just empty shapes in the ground. The streets where we jumped curbs and chased girls have become a garden of semblance and echoes.