Very soon, all this will be amnesia, including my increasingly enfeebled attempts to hold it all in memory.
The buildings are razed, by machinery rather than by fire, and those that remain, damaged, are held up by nailed-on chipboard and large concrete blocks out of which steel poles extend.
In February, my friend Jane and I took in Julia Morison’s Meet me on the other side, my anxiety about venturing into the central city offset by the beauty of the NG building as a venue: not only the polished wood floor and plain walls, but the massive steel reinforcing beams that passed high above our heads. It was an exhibition of beautiful-ugly finished-abortive objects, so many of whose names evoked our common consciousness in this town, these days.
Thing in the making
Old birdcages and medical equipment encased and captured resistant, rebarbative sculptures in liquefacted silt, the last of which was the least of the uncanny. “The mud has kept coming, as it once promised it would do”, wrote Creon Upton in the programme notes. It was easy in our place and time to identify both with those mud formations that appeared to capture a moment in time (“Small triumphal thing”) and the hooks and ropes and crueller tubing that formed their containment and put both Jane and me in mind of the hospital narratives of Janet Frame, the fear of the known blending with the mind’s superlative abilities to conjure up a worse unknown. We needed this, we said. We are so happy to be here.
I am shortly due to give birth. In the foregoing nine months I have learned that past pregnancy is not the preparation for present pregnancy that I thought it would be. In my more inward-looking interludes, which these days are more accurately described as streams of consciousness, I think about the loss of our built environment between then (2009-10) and now. The absence of so many of the places we spent those months, the impasses on the roads we used to travel, is as effective a memory-block as any amnesiac drug.
Now we have so few referents for our memories to give to our daughters, I say to my husband. They are going to grow up the way I did with my parents: listening to them talk about places that no longer exist in destinations we can’t go to. We are forever going to be pointing out what isn’t there. Even on outlying, suburban Racecourse Road, Sockburn’s northwestern egress, the old trainers’ homes, the character cottages and villas that had stables behind them, are being pulled down, not by CERA but by developers buying up land for townhouses. The home to which we’ll shortly move, not far from here, still turns up discarded horse-shoes from the soil.
This pregnancy looms, although to the rest of the world it is me who does the looming. Tenuous threads of discourse catch my attention from time to time, but mostly, I am a nesting brood bitch. My toddler daughter sits on the end of my knee with an attitude of patient exasperation. Casual conversations outside the house concern the extent to which I have prepared her for what is to come. I’m not sure that can be done. My lap will not be any more free, and besides, she is old enough now to make her own earthquake-resistant shell as and when is required. I can suggest to her how, but the final form is up to her. The proportion of women I know who as adults cherish their sisters is greater than those who rue them, but when you are not-quite-two, the only time is the present. Her father and I are happier for our siblings and I longed for another baby, in curious simultaneity from more-or-less when she was born. Lizard logic, maybe, but that don’t make it junk.
I have not coped well with the gradual erosion of my pregnant mobility. The start of the third trimester, when this large baby was sitting breach in an excessively large water world, was particularly challenging. We had parked at the north-central end of Barbadoes Street and were walking the several blocks to see Pete Majendie’s temporary installation 185 Chairs at the former site of the Baptist Church on Oxford Terrace. This was my husband’s old neighbourhood for much of his teens and twenties, and as we walked he began to lament all the missing buildings: the empty businesses, the ruined footpaths, the fact that those who were still living there (and there were plenty of occupied homes) would have lost all their neighbourhood amenities and thereby their sense of neighbourhood itself.
As we walked, my uterus constrained my diaphragm and I began to feel that shortness of breath that in another context might signal the start of a crying fit: that feeling that the world of air is shortly to be replaced by the world of water. What would I do if there were an aftershock? How could I run? My husband carried our daughter who grizzled at the uneven trek. When we got to the exhibition we were in no fit state to see it and circled the outer edge of the gathered crowd. The chairs were stark, yet domestic, ritual yet casual, the kind of seating one might put down for a wedding, but here for a memorial. You didn’t tell me, my husband said, leading our daughter to the edge of the grass, that the chairs would be customised. You didn’t tell me some of the chairs were specifically for the babies who died. We walked back rather more quickly and my breathing became even shorter while I did the morbid third trimester calculations about viability in early labour that is the black maths peculiar to the pregnant woman, not least one for whom those three white chairs – infant carriers, high chairs – are too easily summoned in memory.
We still exude earthquakes through our pores; I think we may be like this for the rest of our lives. Our impending move sees us watching Grand Designs with a condescending, jaundiced eye: to those brick-framed homes in the west and southwest of England we murmur that a mere 3.5 would bring it all down, secure enough in knowledge of the unlikelihood of that. As Ann Brouwer noted, wherever we are, we scan the space in three dimensions: what will come from this side, that side and above. Unlike those we lost, we have a fair idea of what can hit us, and when. There are as many places we no longer go because we won’t, as places we no longer go because we can’t. Less frequent aftershocks rattle through with the familiarity of a rip-at-sea, with the unwelcome intimate greeting of an old, shunned lover.
I am so agitated to meet my new daughter that I wonder sometimes whether, like the child in this anecdote, I might in fact eat her. This longing absorbs all my creativity as the uterine wall absorbs a blighted embryo. More likely of course is that I will be the one consumed, and that is fine too: by the multiple pole points of partner, daughter, dogs and fetus I am largely made piecemeal anyway. For a person who suffered for too many years from too much time to think, it is a not-unwelcome dismemberment, though it hurts poetry and shrinks prose in the totality of its reach.
Family and earthquakes: two great binders and constrainers that for all their likelihood I would never have predicted. Beyond their semi-permeable walls is the strange, grim spectacle of the city as property-development, a macabre and indeed perverse playing out of the national infatuation with property values and Tory government. The fact that we are getting ready to move house ourselves brings a certain dramatic irony to domestic life too, not least because our wheel-within-a-wheel turns largely unimpeded by post-earthquake bureaucracy (the unearned privilege of moving from TC1 to TC1, a few hundred metres down the road).
In this frame of mind even a few months ago, I saw Tony de Lautour’s Recent Paintings at the Ilam Campus Gallery on the anniversary of the February earthquake, and found in it abstractions of property maps, red zone boundaries, hidden streams and sites of liquefaction. The grim satire in which “the jargon of the Real Estate Agent surfaces”, as Melinda Johnston had it in the programme notes, superseded for me at this cultural moment the wider struggle between suprematist modernism and the present that formed the philsophical backdrop for the exhibition (although this, in turn, reminded me of Michele Leggott’s return to more traditional modernist forms in her poetic volume on encroaching blindness, As Far as I can See). It had been a physical effort for me to walk to the campus gallery from my post-earthquake office in the village on that day, and I returned to my desk just as the anniversary minutes came around.
I act out my anniversaries and moments of significance these days through the almost-liturgical taking in of image and music. The foggy vagueness of late pregnancy does not seem to impair my visual or aural imagination in the way it does my higher linguistic functioning. I play the middle albums of The Strokes in the car and talk to my musical daughter about the importance of a strong, accurate rhythm section in any setting. I sing children’s songs and do actions and talk about colours and shapes. Our whole household runs on a dialect unique to the three of us and I wonder what additions might be made in honour of our new daughter. I wish, with all the wilfulness of a person living among the bereaved, for a live birth and ironise the wish back to tolerability through filters of old pop music and high culture. If I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody, baby. My G3, my darling P2-to-be, my little Thing in the Making.