A snapshot: an out-of-place teen in rural New Zealand

1.

She was back.

She paused at the door to her form room, blue and white checked skirt neat just above her knees (not yet rolled up). Crisp white polo, bag over one shoulder, all with her latest accesories: sweaty hands, dry mouth, heart beating up in her throat. She is 14.

Pause. Open. Smile. (Uncertainly).

The first person she sees is her ex best friend. Years of dance, sleepovers, petulant fights and secrets is discarded in her quick up-down, a glimpse of surprise quickly masked by “Oh, look, Grace is in our form room”. She says this with overly sarcastic joy, and no eye contact, loudly enough so everyone turns and stares at her.

Blush.

2.

She had to ‘re-adjust’. Every adult said this to her. She had to find her feet again (where did she leave them?). She had to settle back in (as if she had been settled before). These contradictions stayed unspoken, mostly, and she nodded, smiled and hid into herself, wishing.

Grace’s wish list: I want to go back to England to live, for good this time, not just a year. I want to be ‘the kiwi’, the foreigner in a friendly country, and stand out in a good way, as the shiny interesting person, not as the weirdo who left for a year and was now back, with a slightly different accent and stories that no one cared about. I want to be with my old friends, my wacky, loud friends with their total disregard for personal space. I want to talk about snogging, and Muse, and wear flares, and fantasise about Josh Hartnett.

These wishes started to pile up, and she was surprised at the weight of them. She fed and added to them by writing long letters to these friends, in different coloured markers, folded into intricate squares that only they knew how to open. In moments of solitude (and she found there were quite a lot, now) she would paw through the mementos her friends gave her, the ankle bracelets, the goth necklace with huge spikes, the tie-dye tshirt and rings and earrings, enjoying the feel of the different textures on her fingers as she gently remembered.

Slowly at first and then with a rush, this wishing and remembering starting hurting. It was an ache, right beneath where her ribs joined, and it was too much, it hurt too much and she would cry, in her single bed each night, arms wrapped around her middle and hunched right over, hurting and rocking and aching and crying. And wishing.

Grace’s wish list: I want to stop feeling. I want to stop experiencing my life. I want it all to go away.

These new wishes overtook the old ones. They filled her mind, every lonely, plodding day through school, through the dusty bus ride home where she would shrink and hope not to be picked on, through the cycle back to her house along the flat, gravel road, through the absent conversations and zombie chores and half hearted homework attempts. They would fill her mind until she’d be alone in her single bed again.

One night she found herself digging her nails into the skin on the inside of her wrist, tears wet on her cheeks, and unable to look away or stop herself as she slowly dragged one nail down towards her elbow. Only a centimetre or so. But it was enough for the skin to scrape back, the pricks of red blood to turn into drops and the pain the radiate up her arm, through her chest and down into that hole of hurt.

And she felt so calm.

This continued, not every night, but most. Her days would be exercises in invisibility and survival until she could retreat to her cocoon and hurt herself. After a while her fingernails weren’t enough and she searched around for something sharper, fingers landing on the goth necklace her English school-girl crush had given her, black and silver beads interspersed with centimetre long silver spikes. That night she pushed the tip of the spike into her skin, wiggling it around until the pain became too much and she sank into a dreamless, numb, sleep.

3.

Tess saved her life. (She said this to her, once, sharing her double bed and whispering to each other: “You saved my life”. She laughed it off like she always did, but under the sheets, reached down and gave her hand a light, brief squeeze). Continue reading

An early sexual experience. Age 14.

Reflecting on it later, she isn’t sure how it happened. She remembers talking to one of the boys, and feeling a lot more confident than normal. (Maybe it was the memory of her sun-warmed nipples under her tshirt). She sat next to him, on a log and they shared a beer. They sat in silence mostly, watching the flames, laughing at the poor jokes made by the others. She learnt that he had recently broken up with his girlfriend, he was two years older than her. She heard one of his friends say “rebound”.

Later, back at the hut, her sister and parents had gone to sleep in one of the bunkrooms, so she and Tess lay their sleeping bags out in the other room with the group of teenagers. Part of her longed to go into her parent’s room, snuggle into her sleeping bag, fold up her polarfleece as a pillow and read her book, before blowing out the candle and saying “I love you” to her family.

Later, on the platform of top bunks, all linked up. Tess and her are separated. She’s between ‘her’ guy and the wall. Tess is two different guys away. She doesn’t know what Tess is doing. She hears lots of whispers and laughs. She doesn’t know what to do.

The guy beside her leans in, and she assumes he must be going to kiss her, so she closes her eyes and parts her lips, like she’s seen. He pulls away, shakes his head slightly, but keeps coming at her. She lies still, as his hands explore her under her sleeping bag, over her tshirt and bra. She thinks about what she knows about this: women moan and arch their backs and squeeze their eyes shut. Men conduct, with grunts and say “baby” a lot. (When she was much younger, she thought it was lovely that so many men constantly sang and talked about their babies. “Such caring fathers!”)

She tries a moan. Just quietly, breathy, just enough for him to hear. He likes it, she can tell, because his hand is now travelling down, over the waistband of her shorts and over her thigh. She tries the moan again, and now his hand is between her legs, and then cupping right up there, right up there between her legs, cupping where no one else has ever touched before. Where she has only touched a few times herself,

secretly.

(The first time she did it, she didn’t know what had happened to her, she thought the orgasm that took her body by surprise was ‘having sex’.)

She decides to see how he reacts to a back arch, so she does, but without any sound it comes across like she’s uncomfortable and trying to move away.

(Is she?)

She tries the arch and the moan together, and this really excites him, and she knows this because his hands are now under her shirt, clammy and rough, sliding all over her belly and he can’t decide whether to go up or down. He tries up, and is stopped by her underwire, and this is too hard for him, so he’s going down, way down, underneath her shorts and underneath her panties, and his hands are scratchy and hard and his fingers are in a hurry.

(She’s not. In a hurry. For this. At all.)

Then, his fingers find her and push on her clit so hard she actually does gasp, not like in the movies, but a real gasp, one of shock and pain and bewilderment. And then his fingers keep going down and they push again and now one finger is inside her and it hurts and he’s pushing, his arm is pushing hard on her pelvis and he’s leaning over her, but looking at his hand under her shorts and breathing hard, eyes half closed, face frozen, eyebrows knitted.

(She doesn’t know what to do. So she…)

Arches her back. Movie-moans. Pretends. That she likes this, this violation.

He works his fingers in her for a long time. Any lubrication she had is long gone, and it’s feeling raw. She still continues with the charade, as long as he wants to, because she doesn’t want to make a

fuss.

Eventually, dawn is peeking through the matchbox windows. Like he’s been stung, he rips his fingers from her, she bites her lip to stop crying out, and he finally, finally looks at her. She makes one last grasp at intimacy, leaning forward for a kiss, and he turns his head aside, flops onto his sleeping bag, turns away.

She’s going to be sick. The nausea is quick and rising, and she can’t do it in the hut, she doesn’t want to wake everyone, so she’s climbing over the other sleepers, down the ladder, across the floor, out the door, across the lawn to the bush and then there she is, bent over.

Dry retching in the dawn light.

It’s misty. Mosquitos are still awake and start biting her, and all she can do is stare at her toes and feel a sharp ache, in between her legs, but also deeper than that, much deeper.

Pain.

Fault lines. A damp April in Christchurch, 2013.

This loss, this time, is something material.

Driving alone in her blue box car, the fish-bowl, viewing the infrequent traffic out of rain streaked, perfectly square windows. Tail lights squinting through the autumn dusk. The road is bumpy, potholes haphazardly filled, sections of gravel, men at work signs discarded and falling over at the roadsides. No one cares anymore.

I drive alongside the Avon river, following my childhood after school route. Past the fence where, as a screaming eight year old, mum once pulled the car over in a rush of annoyance and told me I was walking home. I walked half a block frowning until the tears melted my face, turned the corner and there she was, in our beat up red-orange Ford Cortina.

Past the playcentre with the witchy a-frame roof, past the school that wasn’t mine, and the yellow clothing donations bin with the blue children painted on it, holding hands in perfect symmetry. Past the place where on one Christmas Day, our whole family stopped on the way to lunch to push start a stalled car on the side of the road.

Past the house on the corner that was a ‘monstrosity to the neighbourhood’ when it was built. I remember walking to feed the ducks with Oma and stopping outside as she chatted to the builders, and then, silently amazed at her audacity, following her inside as she decided to ‘have a nose around’. White stark walls, two floors (a rarity in Christchurch in the nineties), open plan. On the second floor was a white and chrome bar and mini fridge, and this impressed the ten-year-old me immensely. How luxurious, to have your own in-built bar! All this white concrete monstrosity is gone now, no match for plate tectonics. The section is broken, rubbled and empty.

I indicate left at the old block of shops. The dairy is still there, the destination for bare-feet errands: tubs of icecream, milk, newspapers. All the rest- the hairdresser, fish and chip shop, bike shop- are all gone, so I’m surprised the dairy is still standing, but on turning into her street I see it’s boarded up and empty. Dusty Coke billboards curling on the sides.

Her street is unrecognizable.

The road is worse here. I slow to navigate a one-lane path through the sink holes, erratic humps in the tarseal. The houses that remain are gaping sadly at me, windows dark or smashed in, fences half torn down, weeds and bushes and trees choking out domesticity. I almost drive past hers, number 80, and at the last minute I recognise a tree in her front hedge and pull over. I get out, into the soft autumn rain.

Silence.

Everything is gone: her house, her garage, her mailbox and driveway, her vege garden, her sheds and sleepout, her immaculate front and back gardens, her brickwork patio and fence surrounding it, her shelves of bulbs, tools, gardening gloves and the occasional lost easter egg, her concrete paths, her bird bath, her weathervane, her lemon tree. This has all been replaced by a thriving blanket of weeds, grass and wildflowers.

I pull my jacket close and walk up the non-existent driveway, unable to cut across what would have been the rose garden. Someone has dumped an old washing machine on the lawn and it sits there, sad and rusting and lonely. I think of the washing machine obliquely observing, bearing witness to this empty property and this makes me cry and I stand there, where the front door used to be, and cry in the rain on my dear Oma’s bulldozed house in earthquake-wrecked Christchurch at the start of autumn. Bizarrely, there’s a car, and it’s turning down the driveway next to Oma’s house. I don’t want to be seen, so I duck down behind a holly tree, and listen to it drive down to the back section. Footsteps, voices, front door slamming. Imagine what it must be like, living in one of the only inhabitable houses in this red-zoned ghost suburb.

Shaking off the tears I pick my way across her section. Recognition of particular trees and bushes is bittersweet: I would ride my bike between these two, in a figure of eight. Here, I lay on the grass after my parent’s wedding, 14 and too cool, under the blossom tree. Here, I tried to bowl my Dad out in a game of cricket. In true kiwi style he responded by hitting it over the fence, roaring victory while others scrambled to retrieve our only ball. Twice. Here, my sister and I, in old paint shirts that reached our knees, painted two wooden chairs, and our arms, noses, hair, feet in a buttery lemon.

And here, after a whole family day digging up and transporting a native kowhai tree, Oma made a little seat out of two stones and a block of wood.

Amazingly, this seat is still here, tucked under overgrown ferns. I sit on it, cold wet wood seeping through my pants. This, this little seat makes all this loss okay. This seat is all that’s left of the lovely, beautiful, shiny childhood memories I have from my Oma’s house, but it’s symbolism is enough. I sit and think about the devastating earthquakes. I think about Oma, climbing out of her bedroom window in the pitch black, wading through mud and silt to find a safe place to sit until help arrived. I think about her, sitting on her lawn in the afternoon with her neighbour and her baby, drinking wine as the earth shook around them, waiting until help arrived. I remember our last Christmas at number 80, unfazed by the uneven floors, the doors that no longer shut and the complete unpredictability of living in a country built on fault lines. We were happy to be together, on this hot sunny day with good food and laughter and cricket and presents. I think about the devastation across the city, the lives lost and neighbourhoods abandoned, the long months of no electricity and heating and water. I think about the stoical, inherently brave kiwi attitude: “She’ll be right.”

And you know what? She is. My Oma is 87. She is the strongest woman I know. I love her fiercely. Last week she finally was able to buy a new house. She moves in next week. This house will be our new centre. And that’s okay. This loss is okay.

I’m wet and cold. I slowly walk back with determination across the site of the old patio, kitchen, lounge, conservatory. I nod to the washing machine: “Take care of the place.”

*****

Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand, was hit by a 7.4 earthquake on 4 September, 2010. This happened at 4:35am and miraculously, no one was killed. However it was the start of three years of aftershocks, of which the most devastating hit on 22 February 2011. This was 6.3 and killed 185 people, making it New Zealand’s second deadliest natural disaster. It caused widespread damage to infrastructure: 10,000 houses were damaged and 100,000, already weakened by the previous quakes, were demolished. ‘Red-zones’ were created; entire suburbs unsuitable for building. Now, although a significant rebuild and repair project is underway, Christchurch is a shadow of its former self.

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