The times at the Tames' are most unusual indeed.

Yes, the lawn's still a mess and the plasterboard has the same cracks as last summer, the same as February 2011. Mum still treats everyone to too much baking and Dad still refuses to buy a dishwasher. What's the point, after all, in some fancy dish drawer when you've got four perfectly able children?

The house is on a hill with a view across the city; a view barely changed in 20 years. Only a Christchurchian would notice the difference this summer: the missing domes of the Catholic basilica, the void where the Grand Chancellor once stood. We look down on what was once Lancaster Park, then AMI stadium and is now condemned as well.

If you drive by and peek through the gates you can see a rugby field, wild and overgrown. From my old bedroom, though, you might never guess.


Yes, appearances are deceiving at the Tames', for a shaken-but-standing home that once housed four rather boisterous children is in the process of quiet, dramatic change. Ours is a fast-emptying house in what feels like a half-empty city.

Sister Number One heads south in a few weeks, returning to study politics and binge-drinking in Dunedin. She hasn't lived in Canterbury for two years and few of her friends do either.

Sister Number Two is off as well, to try a new life in Australia. After a year's post-grad study and a year at a Kaiapoi primary school, few teaching opportunities remain in Christchurch and she's taken a job in Perth.

The one-and-only brother finished high school last year and is headed for Capital City. His friends will study at Victoria as well, taking subjects some could have chosen to study at Canterbury. Despite having been 18 for 10 weeks or so now, the brother still hasn't visited a bar. Nightlife options in Christchurch are noticeably limited, and apparently uninspiring. His friends prefer to socialise in their homes: this is a hard place to be young and excited.

The brother is preparing for his restricted licence test and rarely flickers above the speed limit when driving. Roadworks say 30km/h and he drives at 28, allowing his passengers plenty of time to survey a city's progress.

There are charming, clever efforts to brighten communities. Converted porta-coms have become fish and chip shops in Sumner, instalments and murals dot the streets in Lyttelton, and coffee shops are still well frequented.

But a drive through the one-way systems in the centre of town make a born-and-bred Cantabrian catch his breath. The vastness and emptiness of the cleared city blocks is humbling and shocking and depressing at once. Progress is exciting but slow.

I've not lived in Christchurch for five years or so now, and before leaving I returned to my favourite place.

Atop the Port Hills, on a walking track just reopened, I gazed down to the peaceful waters expanding through the bays of Lyttelton Harbour. I looked east to the surf of New Brighton beach and west to the grand Southern Alps. A geographical playground of sorts, Canterbury was warm and pure and splendid.

I hope to return in a year to visit Mum and Dad. Without children at home, they may even shell out for a dishwasher.

I cannot say with any certainty that any of us will ever live here again.

But I hope so, very much.