Monthly Archives: October 2013

Leaving the Building

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I love being in a town when no one knows you’re there. Not that I’m avoiding anyone but there’s something magical about wandering with no plans, seeing what you see, being a stranger in a strange land.

Maybe the quiet and anonymity is made more delicious by not having the constant 5 year old with me….free of the burbling chatter and desire to climb on my shoulders I feel light and invisible.

This ‘strange land’ is my old home town, which I left nearly 20 years ago. I visit it many times a year even though almost all the strands of my family have also departed. I have friends and memories I need to revisit and grow.

They say you can never go home and that is certainly the case when the city you grew up in is smashed by a cruel and unexpected shrug of nature.

Christchurch has looked like a 20th century war zone for over 2 and a half years; the central city especially so. Life is creeping into the empty spaces with all its quirks and colour but it will be decades before it functions again as it once did.

With a couple of hours free before I have to work then fly home, I’ve come to the Lyttleton market, looking for coffee and an artisanal snack. But it is too early so, like the handful of other tourists, I am loitering, watching the stalls being set up.

For many years I had a job setting up the market at the Arts’ Centre. I could write a novel about what I saw. Maybe all markets are so. I feel the ’90s flooding back. It’s a bit much.

A coffee chain place was open so I’ve grabbed a macchiato while I wait. The barista asked for a name even though the only others in the cafe are a mother and daughter, probably touristing, too, as they have full make up at 08:30 on a Saturday; it is too fresh to be from an all-nighter.
Latching onto my feeling of anonymity, I said the first name that came to mind, Elvis. That made the daughter look.

So, with caffeine fixed into my system and these words tapped out of head and into my device, this big fat Elvis will leave the building, buy some pastries for lunch then head into town to wander the erstwhile ‘red zone’ of the central city, taking photos of the broken, beloved Cathedral & have a real coffee at C1 (the best cafe in Central Chch, recently re-opened).
That is, once I try a Vietnamese pork belly sandwich.

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Well, C1 was looking pretty flash in it’s post-quake building (the old Alice in Videoland…in an old Post Office building).
It sits amongst a sea of empty lots and broken buildings where the city used to be.
There’s always plenty of parking in Chch these days thanks to all the stony gaps.
However, the queue in C1 was massive so I headed on to check out more sights.

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As I stood by the fence surrounding the broken, ubiquitous symbol of my home some tourists were arguing over which way was west. It felt nice being able to put them right, reassuring them the cathedral was indeed laid out on the same axis as all other cathedrals. That it didn’t fall because they put it up wrong.

I could say so much about what it felt like to stand in the Square for the first time since the earthquake. In one word, it was ’emotional’. Not unlike viewing the body of a loved one. Familiar but wrong. Reassuring and disconcerting.

Afterwards, I went to see the temporary Cardboard Cathedral. Funny, it looked more plastic from the outside. But the giant cardboard beams are beautiful.
It is very light inside and, as the old Rev who approached me pointed out, the concrete floor is heated, unlike the beautiful mosaics and tiles of Christ Church Cathedral.
It is warm and looks out on the green of Latimer Square where an elusive horse has been seen grazing, he said.

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When the old Rev asked me where I was from, I said Christchurch. I considered saying the town where I live now. But this is my home town. It has changed (as have I); more buildings have ‘left the building’ than have stayed.

I feel sadness, loss, hope and happiness. A stranger amongst the new and familiar. A visitor with an assumed name.

I wish I was staying the night.

The Story of a Notebook

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I love notebooks. I have had one at hand since I started my first one about 25 years ago. Since then I have always carried one with me no matter where I went in case I needed to jot down an idea, draw a picture or make a list. Even in this digital age when so much of what I once jotted down in my notebooks is now tapped into an app on a smart phone I still carry a notebook.

I am a writer. I would be lost without blank pages to scribble across.

Yesterday morning I happened to look through an old notebook that wasn’t mine but which now belongs to me.

It belonged to my father who died last year, and about 90% of the pages are blank. It’s no writer’s journal so any stories I seek to read must be inferred.

Dad got this red spiral-bound notebook after he got a computer in the late 1990s. At 75 years old he was long retired but the computer had been bought with a payout from his job as a post-office technician. The government of the day had done a swifty when they sold off Telecom, failing to include the rights to free phone-calls for ex-employees included in many redundancy packages. Dad was part of an action that resulted in a payout of about $5,000 to each of the claimants, as long as they told no one.

I was quite surprised by his interest in the internet at the time but he was keen to learn so we had many sessions getting him up to speed and the notebook was part of his methodical way of writing down a step-by-step guide to navigating the digital world.

The first page has a key to all the functions on the tool bar and what they mean.

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Pages 2 and 3 are covered with the addresses of all the websites he liked to look at. They are crammed in making a patchwork pattern added to as he found more sites. He clearly didn’t understand the concept of bookmarks.

Page 4 has a step-by-step guide to forwarding a message followed by a guide about how to restart in safe mode.

Page 5 is how to surf with Explorer. Page 6 is about Microsoft Works.

Pages 7 and 8 give detailed instructions about defragging and clearing the cache.

All is written in Dad’s characteristically left-leaning hand. Whether he was writing in capitals or lower case, it always leaned to the left.

Apart from a list of personal email addresses at the back (and some other addresses I shall, er, address shortly), that’s all he wrote in the 12 or more years this notebook sat next to his increasingly antique computer.

It’s tempting to see the sudden halt in his meticulous note-taking as a sign of the on-set of the disease that would take so long to kill him.

They say that Alzheimer’s takes about 12 years to do its thing, and for half of that time it does quite well at remaining hidden.

My sister talks fondly of noticing that Dad really was far gone when he happily sat in the computer nook in the lounge looking at internet porn while she and Mum sat behind his back watching the telly.

A list of his favoured girly sites is written inside the back cover, explaining in retrospect the numerous viruses that kept infecting his computer.

At the front of the notebook, on the first page added after Dad stopped writing, is a full page written in my sister’s hand. It leans to the right (as we were taught at school) and is a mix of upper and lower case, and includes pictures and symbols.

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It’s a 1-page guide showing Mum how to use the internet now that Dad was in full-time care. A grand-child has scribbled all over it in pink pen at some stage and Mum has written my sister’s address and phone-number in Australia once she returned there.

Mum didn’t take to the internet like Dad. Although my sister’s instructions were clearly written Mum just didn’t get it. When I tried to help her her eyes would endlessly hunt the keyboard looking for the key I was telling her to punch. It just wasn’t her thing.

Her one contribution to the notebook came immediately after my sister’s guide: recipes for White Bean and Chorizo Soup, and Savoury Pinwheels, both of which I got to eat. Both were delicious.

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The other story unwritten in the notebook is that Mum got to visit my sister at that new address in Australia, having a blast before the disease that would kill her in a few short months made itself known.

There are 2 other random notes added amongst the overwhelmingly blank pages. One is written softly in pencil in my youngest sister’s hand: a step-by-step guide how to look up Russian adoption. Since my sister clearly would need no such guide I can only surmise that she wrote this out for Mum so she could follow what my sister was investigating.

The other is a single word, written at an angle on the bottom right corner of an otherwise blank page. It simply says “experience”. It could be a random note jotted by my mother, or either of my sisters, maybe while on the phone, but when I saw it I immediately thought of that man who spent decades writing “eternity” on the streets of Melbourne trying to communicate something larger than the 8 looped letters did.

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Does this random word in the lost corner of a notebook have a meaning? As much as eternity.

I couldn’t throw out this notebook when we divvied up my parents’ things last year.

I can be quite sentimental, and I realise you can’t keep everything, but the writer in me knows that notebooks aren’t for throwing away. Like everything, they contain stories and moments awaiting a curious eye and the gift of meaning.