Jeremy Rees: A low blow for Christchurch

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Nzherald.co.nz editor-in-chief Jeremy Rees was in Christchurch today. Photo / File
Nzherald.co.nz editor-in-chief Jeremy Rees was in Christchurch today. Photo / File

It hit like a low blow.

This city that had already suffered so much, was getting ready for Christmas. Perhaps not a normal one but as close as people could get.

Hairdressers were finishing their final clients, dreaming of camping in Marlborough or Kaiteriteri. Supermarket check-out operators were dutifully wishing harried customers a Merry Christmas. The malls were packed. Children kicked balls around in parks under a cloudless blue sky. Businessmen in suits were working through the last few hours before the Christmas holidays.

Christchurch airport was packed with people visiting family or flying out to Christmas elsewhere.

Then at 1.58pm came the jolt.

It started slow, a slowly building roaring. Then the shaking, like a dog refusing to let a ball go, whipping the city this way and that.

Christchurch was back where it had been too many times this year; putting on a brave face, trying not to show fear, contacting friends and family, texting so as not to jam emergency phone lines.

In the malls, packed shoppers were ushered or ran to the exits.

"I'm just so tired of this," an elderly man told me in Avonhead mall, right across the city from the epicentre near Lyttleton. "It pisses me off. But what can I do?"

Around the city, shoppers and shopkeepers acting as wardens gathered outside stores and malls, trying to text friends, reassuring each other they were okay, testing their resilience, fretting about Christmas lists that now might never be filled, wondering about elderly neighbours, checking with husbands the dog was okay.

Rumours spread quickly. More rock falls. The Grand Chancellor has survived - again. Power out. Liquefaction in some places but not too much.

"God, I feel for eastern Christchurch," said one shopkeeper. "Every time they seem to cop it."

A few minutes later, Christchurch was picking itself up. Engineers were out checking for cracks and students were repacking shelves that had fallen over in Countdowns and Mitre 10s and cafes.

At Ballantynes, so often an image of Christchurch life, the Christmas window displays of the Nativity played on, as if determined that no force of nature could ruin a cheery Christmas.

Then it came again. 3pm. Magnitude 6. A violent scragging of the city.

The terrible forces of nature, the slowly moving plates of the South Island, that have shaken this city again and again, moved once more, irresistibly flinging buildings and people one way then the other, one way then the other.

And this time, bravado turned to tears.

In Cashel St mall, rebuilt with shipping containers where buildings once stood and planted with sunflowers to wrest some cheer in the middle of the empty CBD, a young woman burst into tears as the shaking finally faded away.

"Please stop," she whispered. "Please stop it."

Her boyfriend tried to comfort her. Don't worry, Christmas will be good, he tried to tell her.

Over at Ballantynes, the Nativity scenes were turned off, the displays packed away. The cracked and broken windows were shuttered once again.

* Jeremy Rees is the editor-in-chief of nzherald.co.nz, and was in Christchurch for the holiday.

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