The Art Site

Monday, November 05, 2012

Cafe 1989


We met in Cafe 1989, one of the newest additions to the ageing Canterbury University after the earthquake of 22 February, 2011.  Gabrielle is small and slender and elf-like, with her sensitive, gently pointed ears and wavy, dark-brown, waist-length hair.  She is beautiful, but doesn’t try to impress her beauty on those around her with clothing or makeup, her expression of her own character being of greater interest to her.  With the gentle influence of the rich-smelling cafe and the joy of simply being students drinking lattés at a university coffee shop, the elf and I discussed our upcoming assignments.



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There was a man seated behind us and he was talking into his phone.  All day, he said, he had been travelling by bus through the city in pursuit of fish pieces for the lady on the other end of the phone that had wanted him to buy them; in almost every place he had been there was no fish to be bought.  Gabes and I looked at each other and we chuckled; I wondered whether the lady on the other end was his wife, and what she wanted the fish pieces for.  His voice shook; the two pieces of fish he had bought had cost him $7.80, he said.

My friend and I looked out of the windows.  An overcast sky hung lightly, gently wind-tossed; softened curves of pastel clouds at the horizon touched the darker sky, their contours illumined with afternoon light.

The trip had started in Avonhead; an appropriate name for so respectable a place: middle-class citizens living in an area entirely disassociated from ugliness and dysfunction; smooth roads, orderly trees shedding leaves quickly swept, large brick houses sheltered by private fences, gardens painstakingly trimmed and weeded.  I realized, shocked, looking from the influence of the sky to the area we were moving through, the difference in landscape now.  The upright, middle-class oaks and sycamores of Avonhead and Ilam had merged into storm-broken pines, stunted cabbage trees and dishevelled hedges.

Passengers started to be bumped and jostled as the bus turned towards Brighton.  When the earthquakes came unrelenting, the already broken roads in poorer areas such as New Brighton, Becksley and Southshore were peppered with potholes and cracks; lumps formed where the ground had spilled over and formed sandy hills over the tarseal.  Looking out of the front window I noticed the road ahead was broken and split; puddles had formed in the recesses of the road and over the road surface was the remnants of the gravel the council had spread to prevent cars slipping up in the sand-slime after the earth overspilled.

State housing lined the road.  Paint was cracked and peeling, curtains standing open at house windows allowing us to see the gray, empty insides; backyards in a riot of weeds and long grass; miry puddles making up the surface of driveways.  Between houses I noticed empty spaces where homes had been, now a mess of weeds and water.  Everywhere boundaries were dissolute: between two houses the cheap, high wooden fence had keeled horizontally; short brick fences had broken over the pavement, white and gray and red bricks with gray plaster.  Whole shopping plazas were red-stickered and abandoned, curving lines of broken-down shops awaiting demolition a year after their business had been disrupted.

On the corner of the road towards the town we thanked the driver and got off the bus; I'd noticed a little antique shop close by and was curious to see inside.  We walked towards the sea after that and we thrust our hands into our pockets as the cold wind penetrated our jerseys, determined to find stories in this dreary location.  Gabes noticed a bookshop and compulsively went inside, drawn by an attractive book in the window.  Sitting on a low stool at the back of the long shop was the owner; I briefly wondered about his life: surely boredom must follow a bookseller in a second-hand bookshop in a near-deserted town.  We paid for and walked out with the attractive book; then turned and went back inside: who better to ask questions of than a bored bookseller?

"We actually came to Brighton to work on an assignment", I said.  "We're asking about people's earthquake experiences - did you go through much in the earthquakes?"

The man had an attentive face and restless eyes; he was very willing to talk.  In the September earthquake, he told us, a whole side of his shop had fallen down and the books had fallen also - they went everywhere; the shop we were standing in was the third shop he'd moved to since that earthquake.  But the rent was so much higher in Brighton!  The business was not making enough money, not with a wife and three children and another child on the way to support.  I wondered aloud, curious, how he came to be working in a bookshop?  Was it his dream job?  The man's small face glowed; his answer was earnestly affirmative. Before the bookshop in Brighton, he explained, he'd worked near Perth as a technical engineer in data communications, but he'd done too well at his job and the company had promoted him to manager and it was all too much work and he was bored with it.  So he quit his job and moved back to New Zealand, to Brighton, and set up a retirement bookshop business where his work gave him flexibility and he could play computer games when he wanted or simply read good books while waiting for customers.  

At this point a man wandered into the shop and inquired about books involving detectives and zombies; the book keeper promptly directed the man in the right direction and returned to us.

"We'll probably end up in Aus," he said, confidingly.  "Better standard of living over there, and just can't afford the rent here.  You know, there were families just up the road - houses all flooded out, they had to just move out, there are lots of people worse off."  Gabes and I nodded, recognizing the truth of this; still, I wondered about his comment, having heard it before from people who had lost a great deal in the earthquakes.  People weren't going to complain to those that asked them, and they were working on quitting their own secret complaints too; it was in some ways an accurate recognition of their suffering in the light of others, but I wondered whether people simply didn't allow themselves to realize how much damage had actually been done in their lives.  He told us his name was Andrew, and we thanked him and gradually moved out of the shop, looking regretfully at the books we had to leave behind.  

We noticed, walking down the main street lined with shops, how old fashioned Brighton was.  It was as though we had gone back fifty years simply by travelling from Avonhead to Brighton: there were shops like 'Aunt Betty's Crochet and Yarn Shop' and 'Brighton Coffee Lounge'.  

Close to the end of the street and the corner bar we saw a group of Polynesian men standing around.  In the centre of this group was a car with its radio on full.  They were big men, smoking and swaggering, wearing hoodies and caps, a formidable aspect to two middle-class, carefully well-dressed young women.  I had chosen with a greater deal of precision than normal what I wanted to wear to ‘interview’ the people we found on our trip, but I hadn’t been aware before now of the clothing I was wearing; now I felt painfully self-conscious.  I persuaded Gabes to come with me to talk to them, as I really wanted to get stories from different kinds of people to understand the earthquakes’ impact for the population.  

“Hey guys!  We’re asking people about their experiences with the earthquakes for this assignment we’re writing - can you tell us some stuff about what happened to you?”  I felt confident of my manner of speaking, that it was informal and less precise; hopefully this would put the men at ease.

The men became a little awed, and John asked whether we were writing for the paper; they were more ready to talk after we explained it was a ‘uni assignment’.  They all had different stories.  Rangi was ‘over’ the earthquakes because they had happened ‘ages ago’ and there hadn’t been quakes for a long time.  He was living in Aranui and whole streets were still closed; but the difficulty of his situation was over for him and a sense of normality had set in long before.  Mark told us that the homes in the Brighton area and surrounding suburbs had been without power for several months, and that the Earthquake Commission (EQC) was ‘screwing us over’.  His mate had pulled off the ‘red sticker’ from his house and was still living in it, as he had nowhere else to live.  Mark’s story made me wonder about how the classes in our city were split up and how the middle classes had been without power for a day or two at the most, while anyone who had lost their homes, or had their houses damaged in any way, had very quickly been given money to replace their houses, and repairs had been done rapidly.  

John looked at us both, and his face became friendly: “Do you guys have weed?” he said, and we understood by his intonation that he was asking whether we took weed.  I shook my head.  Gabes explained that she hadn’t, since she’d moved to Christchurch.  She’d told me before then that ‘everyone in Waipawa takes weed’.  “You want our numbers then?  Or can we take yours!”  John and the others laughed a little; Gabes and I also chuckled, then thanked them for their time and walked away.  We were a little tired of talking to people by this time and the Brighton pier was invitingly ahead of us; Gabes mentioned, when I admitted I felt we were being delinquent in our story collecting, that there were bound to be fishermen we could accost at the end of the pier.  

There were few people on the pier, and no fishermen on the end, though there were a few people wandering up and down.  Two couples caught my eye, the first tidily dressed: he in a shirt and jeans and she with straightened hair, holding hands.  The second pair were scruffily dressed and her face was plain, her hair untidy; they looked at each other and I think they were unaware of much else.  Gabes and I were on a mission and had predetermined that we would come to this town on this day; I was curious as to why these couples had chosen to come out and walk by the sea when it was so bitterly cold.  I remembered how I used to point out to my fiance how ‘cute’ other couples were that we saw on our walks together, and how he told me that I had only begun to notice other couples since we started dating.  





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