Christchurch quake: Time passes slowly for survivors

The gossip round the water cooler at the office has been exchanged for gossip at the water tanker, as we queue up with our plastic bottles for what we are most short of - water.

Image caption For many people, the garage is the safest place to sleep

Who has left town with who? Who is sleeping in a tent? Who is sleeping in the garage?

Few people here - along with Lyttleton, the worst affected part of the city - want to sleep in the house, if they can avoid it.

Water is heavy and I haven't quite got the knack of balancing it on my head, but I am certainly adept at carrying three very large water bottles - one in each hand and the third in between, supported by both sets of fingertips.

Everything looks grey, the colour of the liquefied earth squeezed out of the ground like toothpaste by the earthquake.

It has been shovelled into piles by our fantastic student army, but it has dried in the heat and the dust is picked up and blown around by the strong north-westerly winds, covering everything.

Stomachs in our throats

The fruit on the trees no longer has an autumn ripeness, but is also the colour of grey.

This greyness is punctuated by the odd moment of colourful humour - usually about the way we are getting rid of human waste. Drains and sewers are broken, so gardens are invaluable now.

And the aftershocks keep coming. Someone in England asked me, "Do they feel like little electric shocks?" No they damn well do not. They are small earthquakes that follow the big one.

They throw our stomachs into our throats and in a split second I am taken back to where I was when the big one hit - the cathedral cafe, ground zero for all of the destruction. I felt it coming and screamed to everyone there to get down. The events from there are still too cruel and too raw to talk about.

The aftershocks still shake rubble from our homes and have a noise and movement under our feet that confirm there is no such thing as terra firma. Our nerves are frayed, our sleep disrupted, our tempers frazzled and we live on a diet of all-day earthquake news and another tin of cold food. (We are part of the 5% of the city that still lacks electricity.)

Thank goodness we had the rehearsal with the 4 September quake, otherwise I don't think we would be doing as well as we are. Did I really say that! This one was big, and it was as though we had been hit by an atomic bomb.

Time goes slowly

With our landmarks no longer there it was hard to recognise Sumner or Christchurch in the first days after the earthquake. Is this really our home?

Image caption Liquefaction was scraped up into piles by student volunteers

Going up our road, coming home from the water tanker, we cross crevices in a domestic car that might challenge an all-terrain vehicle.

Road cones, danger tape and yellow paint mark the cracks, humps and road edges where the cliff has fallen away. You need nerves of steel to navigate it all - waiting for another aftershock to drop you into a hole or dislodge a boulder to land on your head. It's like a war zone.

We find ourselves doing strange things. I stand in the middle of a room piled high with debris and pick up a screw. I look at it for a long period wondering, "What is this off?". It is as though in this heap of damaged possessions I will ever find where it belongs. It is all headed for the dustbin.

I talk to my neighbour, who says she has spent 10 minutes just looking at a butterfly when she should be tidying up. Life seems unreal and time seems to unravel.

We keep telling ourselves time will put this right. With time, the aftershocks will lessen. With time, power and water and sewage will be restored. With time, our roads will be repaired. With time our houses will be rebuilt. With time.

But at the moment time goes slowly. Time brings us pain and anguish - and fear that we might not have the strength to get through this. Time brings despair because all that we have built up has gone and our future is in jeopardy.

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