You can get Bleak City in Kindle eBook format or in paperback form, on Amazon.com:
For other purchasing options, click here.
Cold winds off the Pacific Ocean batter the city of Christchurch every winter, blowing their bitter breath across the Canterbury Plains from the east and south. During Alice’s first winter away from home, these winds carried more moisture than the ground could absorb, filling gutters and leaving pools of water that persisted even on dry days. The air was always wet or damp, never dry, never warm. In her cold flat at the end of each day, Alice despaired. She would tuck down into her bed, weighed down by her duvet and two blankets. Why had she thought leaving home was a good idea? There she would be warm and dry, maybe studying in the lounge in front of the wood fire rather than spending as long as she could each day in the warmth of the university library.
Alice was eighteen, nearly nineteen, and in her first year at university, studying engineering. In high school, her maths and physics scores were excellent and her teachers had encouraged her to study engineering. It was good advice, better than she got at home. Her mother had completed a single year of a law degree, sitting her exams while pregnant with Alice, and the only real advice she offered was ‘Don’t get pregnant’. Her stepfather was a painter and plasterer and had done trade courses at the local polytech. University was, he said, an alien planet he knew nothing about. Alice enjoyed her courses, they were hard work, satisfying when she got it right, motivational when she didn’t.
She saw her family at least once a week. She had worked with her stepfather in his painting and plastering business during weekends and school holidays since she was fourteen, and she continued to work with him on Saturdays if he had too much work on, which he often did.
On those evenings when she buried herself in her bed trying to stay warm, she told herself being away from home was a good thing, she was getting along better with her mother and was missing her little sister and brother, rather than finding them annoying.
Living with people she wasn’t related to and learning about how they looked at the world made her think about her own world. That was another good thing, maybe it was helping her to grow up? Mature? Whatever it is that people do in those years when they’re not really teenagers any more but they’re not adults either. At first, she couldn’t put her finger on what was missing, only that something was. Whatever it was, it made her restless, as though the ground under the feet of her life wasn’t nearly as stable as she had grown up thinking it was.
After a couple of months away from home, Alice had decided to look up her father. It wasn’t hard finding him on the whitepages website, after all, his surname was the same as hers and Moorhouse wasn’t all that common. He was listed with an M, for Michelle, his second wife. She did remember that much, him remarrying while he lived in Auckland. She had seen him a couple of times while he lived there, flying up to stay with him for long weekends. He and Michelle had moved back to Christchurch and she had seen them once after that, then nothing. At first, she asked her mother when she would see him again, but after months of non-specific answers, she stopped asking.
She decided it was best to ring him one evening, but each day she would talk herself out of it, her stomach pitching with the weight of the decision. Should she just leave things as they were? Finally, though, her curiosity overwhelmed her caution and she made the call.
A woman answered and Alice could hear children in the background as the woman called for Andrew. More brothers and sisters? She wasn’t ready for that. She was about to hang up, concluding that calling was a mistake, when there he was, an oddly familiar voice on the other end of the phone line.
‘It’s Alice,’ she said.
‘Alice.’ It was all he said, drawn out, like he was mentally flicking through all the Alices he knew.
‘Your daughter,’ she said, cringing, wishing she had thought to hang up when the woman answered. Or not call at all.
‘Yes, I know,’ he laughed. ‘I’m just surprised. I didn’t think…’
‘I’d like to see you,’ she blurted.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘How about lunch one day next week? I’m in the city. If you’re nearby, of course. Where are you?’
‘In Christchurch,’ she said. She told him she was at university, what she was studying and where she was living. And there didn’t seem to be much else to say at that point, so they agreed to meet the following Tuesday at a café near his office, not too far from the Central Library.
It was an awkward meeting, and short, just long enough for each of them to study one another’s features, looking for commonalities and differences. She had his hair, dark and curly, although the length and weight of hers pulled the curls out into waves. His eyes were darker than hers, as much grey as blue. Andrew was working to a deadline he had forgotten about the night she called, and he said he didn’t want to cancel on her or postpone them meeting up. But it was a start, and for the next few months they settled into a pattern, meeting for lunch every second Tuesday at different places near the law firm where he worked.
Those lunchtime conversations became more comfortable, but were never deep, always skirting the topics Alice had started thinking about more and more since the night she first called Andrew’s house and heard the sound of his other children in the background. Why had Andrew been so distant, missing for all those years when he had been less than ten kilometres away? Why hadn’t she been reintroduced to Andrew’s second wife? Why didn’t she know her half-siblings? There were four, three boys and a girl, but she hadn’t met them yet and Andrew never gave any indication of when she would. But they were slowly getting to know one another. After more than a decade of no contact, she told herself, of course it was going to be slow.
The last days of summer had quickly cooled into autumn, which had then faded into winter, grey days, the sky heavy with clouds that dumped their rain until the ground was sodden, and then kept going. The ground was too wet to take any more, and pools of water formed in parks and yards all over the city. Drains clogged with autumn leaves regularly backed up, flooding gutters and sometimes roads.
It was a Tuesday in August and they hadn’t agreed on a place. Instead, Alice was to meet Andrew outside his office at a quarter to one. But it was getting close to one o’clock and there was still no sign of him. Alice was outside, where it was raining and a cold wind from the east made it impossible to shelter from the rain. Her layers of clothes weren’t enough to keep her warm and her feet were icy, in spite of the thick socks and boots she was wearing. Alice went into the building and brushed off her raincoat as best as she could before getting into the lift.
Upstairs, the receptionist took an instant dislike to Alice, carrying out a survey of her from top to waist, which was as far as the receptionist could see over the giant stone reception desk that arced across the foyer. The woman was about a decade older than Alice, maybe as old as thirty. Her long blonde hair had been fiercely straightened and swung like a pendulum as she turned her head. She was wearing enough makeup that Alice could see it lying over her skin, lining her eyes, dusting her cheeks, making her delicate features appear older. Maybe she was closer to Alice’s age than thirty, all that makeup made it hard to tell. The woman’s head came to just above the edge of the desk and Alice pulled herself up to her full height. She said she was there to see Andrew.
‘Can I say who’s here?’ the receptionist said, reaching for the phone. There was an edge of disdain in her voice, and she studied Alice the way someone might study an enemy, sizing them up, assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Alice wasn’t used to be examined in that way, of seeing someone try to determine how she fit into their agenda. She decided not to play.
‘Alice,’ she said, ending her single word firmly, indicating there wasn’t more to come.
The receptionist looked at her sharply, waiting for more, but Alice wasn’t going to give her full name, that would give the game away. She simply stared back.
‘Alice who?’ the woman finally said, the edge in her voice sharpening up a notch. Alice couldn’t understand why she was being perceived as a threat, but then realised: every second Tuesday afternoon for three months Andrew had been going out of the office for lunch. The receptionist wanted to know who his regular lunch date was. Was it normal for receptionists to be so nosy about the people they worked for? To feel so possessive of them?
‘Just Alice,’ Alice said, keeping her voice even and non-threatening. ‘Andrew knows who I am.’ She gave what she hoped was a knowing smile, and the receptionist looked down and away, uncomfortable in the presence of her apparent rival. Bizarre.
The receptionist dialled the number, said only, ‘Alice is here to see you,’ and Alice noticed that her voice softened, that of someone wanting to please. At this point, she wouldn’t have been surprised if the woman had added ‘darling’ to the end of her message.
The receptionist hung up, then said, ‘He’ll only be a minute, you can wait over there.’ She pointed towards a sofa placed to look out onto the city, over the bare branches of the trees lining the river, stretching up into the grey sky.
‘Thanks,’ Alice said and remained standing at the reception desk, looking down at the receptionist. She wasn’t blocking anyone’s way, so why not?
It was only a minute before Andrew was walking down the hallway towards her, pulling on a raincoat. She met him halfway, over the receptionist’s objections, and kissed Andrew on the cheek before turning to walk alongside him out into reception. Andrew stopped at the reception desk, where the receptionist smiled up at him, demurely, like some wife-in-waiting in a Jane Austen novel. To Alice’s surprise, Andrew smiled back broadly. ‘I’ll be back in an hour, Kate,’ he said.
‘Thank you, Kate,’ Alice called back as she and Andrew walked away towards the lifts. Andrew gave her a funny look while they waited, but then the bell rang and the doors slid open. They said nothing inside. Alice was thinking about him flirting with the receptionist, because that was what it looked like to her. Why would he flirt back if he wasn’t interested? When he talked about his second family, he seemed happy enough, well as happy as Alice’s mother was with Kevin and the little kids. But who could tell? The next door neighbours seemed happy until the day the husband left to move in with some woman he had met through his job. ‘I know what it’s like,’ Alice’s mum had said to the wife. How had she known? Was Alice’s dad someone who would cheat? Who had cheated?
At the building entrance, they both stopped, pulled their hoods up and zipped their raincoats, readying themselves for the outdoors. ‘Where to?’ Andrew said.
‘Japanese,’ Alice said. ‘Just around the corner. The one we went to before.’
Andrew nodded. ‘Sure.’
Outside they walked quickly, keeping their heads down until they reached the restaurant. There was only one occupied table, which was typical for a winter weekday in Christchurch. The weather discouraged people from coming into the city and encouraged the city’s workers to stay in their warm, dry offices.
A waitress seated them at a table for two by the window and before they could ask there was a pot of tea and two cups on the table. Alice was grateful for the hot drinks, said thank you and quickly poured them both cups. She wrapped her hands around the hot cup and watched as Andrew browsed the menu. Alice had already decided, she was having the same thing she had last time they were there, but she glanced down at the menu as though there were other choices she was interested in. She wanted to observe his reaction to what she was about to say.
‘She’s got a thing for you,’ Alice said.
Andrew looked up from the menu, then around the restaurant, confused.
‘The receptionist. Kate.’
‘She’s like that with everyone,’ Andrew said dismissively. He looked back down at the menu.
‘Not with me she wasn’t,’ Alice said.
‘Everyone male,’ Andrew said. So he did see it.
‘It’s not exactly a great idea to flirt with someone like that,’ Alice said.
‘I wasn’t flirting.’ He folded the menu and put it aside. She had annoyed him.
The waitress interrupted them and they ordered, handing back their menus. Andrew poured more tea for each of them.
‘Yes you were.’
‘No I wasn’t. How are your studies going? Holidays in a couple of weeks, isn’t it? Lots of studying to do before exams start?’ His voice was light, he definitely wanted to move on from the topic of Kate or flirting or something there he wanted to avoid. Which was probably normal for any man talking to his daughter. Maybe.
Alice took a sip of her tea. ‘I’m looking forward to a break,’ she said.
‘I’ll work,’ she said. ‘Save up for next year.’ But in her head it was niggling. She wanted to know. ‘Did you cheat on Mum?’
He was sipping his tea when she asked and nearly choked on the mouthful. ‘Wait, what? Is this about me flirting with the receptionist?’
‘So you were flirting?’
He sighed deeply, exasperated. ‘No, I wasn’t. And even if I was, it was nothing. There’s nothing wrong with flirting, and I wasn’t flirting.’
‘You haven’t answered my question.’
‘Where’s this coming from? Did your mother tell you something?’
‘No, she never says anything about the two of you.’ Alice realised he had just said that there was something to say on the topic, and Andrew realised it too. He sat back in his seat, resigned.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘That’s why we split up.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘I’m sure it mattered to Mum.’
‘Of course it did, but after all this time,’ he said, ‘it really doesn’t.’
His tone was final and the look on his face set, challenging her to continue, warning her not to. It annoyed her, especially as she recognised the tactic she used on her mother when Lindsay was trying to get something through to her by repeating the same thing over and over again. Alice knew that being direct with Andrew wouldn’t work, just as it never worked for her mother. She needed to try a tangential approach.
‘More tea?’ she asked. He was surprised that she had given up and he looked at her suspiciously. But he pushed his cup across the table. She filled it and he took it back, then sipped from it.
‘The questions eleven-year-olds ask are much easier,’ Andrew said.
‘Well I’m not eleven,’ Alice said sharply. ‘You need to get used to that.’
Andrew nodded. Their meals arrived, and starting to eat gave them both the opportunity to collect their thoughts.
‘Was it Michelle?’ Alice asked.
‘No, it wasn’t Michelle,’ Andrew said, without looking up from his lunch. ‘It’s not relevant so I’m not going to talk about it.’
She felt her face start to go red. How could he just shut her down like that? Andrew didn’t seem to notice, just kept tweezing up bits of chicken with his chopsticks and directing them into his mouth. Was he unaware? Or ignoring her the way she would ignore her mother when she didn’t want to ‘talk things through’? Alice felt the words boiling up inside her and wanted to smack him with them.
‘You guys split up and changed the direction of my life,’ she said. ‘I think it’s relevant. Was it serious? Or was it just a fling? Why did you get to walk away from being my dad?’
‘Alice,’ he said, looking up at her, bewildered at her obvious anger. ‘It wasn’t like that.’
‘I wasn’t trying to get away from you. I was just…’
‘Immature? Confused? Blind and mistook some other woman for your wife?’
Andrew sighed, appearing to wish he was anywhere but where he was, having lunch with his daughter, who couldn’t help but ask difficult questions about why he had gone missing from her life.
‘It was Vicky,’ he said, giving an embarrassed shrug.
‘Vicky?’ Alice said.
‘She lived in the neighbourhood, she was going to university and nannied part-time. She would pick you up from kindy and look after you until me or your mum got home.’
‘It wasn’t an ongoing thing.’
‘That’s such a cliché,’ Alice said. She could feel her anger spinning out of reach of her ability to control it. She tried to reel it back in, only to find it skipping off again. ‘You’re such a cliché. You’re probably screwing the receptionist, too, you’re such a cliché and that’s what clichés do.’
‘You’re being unreasonable,’ Andrew said. ‘Calm down.’
As is so often the case when men speak that pair of words to women, the effect was the opposite of that intended. Alice stood up from the table, grabbed her handbag and raincoat and prepared to stalk out of the restaurant. But that would leave him to pay for her lunch, and she didn’t want that, she didn’t want anything from him, so she stopped at the till and paid for her half-eaten meal, fumbling at the eftpos machine and then fumbling again as she wrestled her way into her raincoat before fleeing out into the rain.
Andrew had sent her a text message the evening after their last lunch together, just the words ‘I’m sorry’. Alice hadn’t yet replied. She wasn’t sure how to or if she even wanted to. She wanted to ask what he was sorry for, cheating or not being there for a decade, but wasn’t sure either answer would make a difference for her. She didn’t know what she wanted from him, certainly she wanted to move on from the superficial lunchtime conversations, but she didn’t want the out-of-control argument of their last lunch to be the way they dealt with each other. And, she had to admit, she was probably the one who was out of control.
University holidays started and Alice was working for Kevin. She needed to save money for her next year if she wanted to keep flatting, which she did, she was enjoying the taste of independence. She was studying for an hour before work each morning, during her lunch break and then again at night, and the rhythm of prepping, painting and cleaning up gave her the mental space to turn what she was learning over in her head, make better sense of it all. It had worked for her mid-year exams and she was feeling comfortable about the end of year ones. Not over-confident, just comfortable knowing that if she kept up her routine she would do all right. No need to panic, just keep learning and it would all be in there, waiting to be retrieved.
Alice’s flatmates were all away and she was enjoying the quiet. It reminded her of the years when it had just been her and her mother, before Lindsay met Kevin. Not that Kevin’s appearance in their lives had made things worse, in many ways they were better. But there was a camaraderie between mother and daughter that had changed, and Alice was never sure if that was just part of growing up or if she had actually lost something when her mother remarried.
Between work and study and getting home to see her family every few days, Alice didn’t have much time left to think about what she was going to do about the situation with Andrew. She had mentioned to Lindsay that there had been an argument, but she didn’t say what about and Lindsay didn’t pursue it. Lindsay had always seemed reluctant to say anything about Andrew, either positive or negative, but she hadn’t discouraged Alice from getting in touch with him.
Two of Alice’s flatmates were back from their holidays when she arrived home from work Friday afternoon. Ben and Chloe had decided, in her absence, that they were going out for Thai food that night, which was fine by Alice. She had been busy for two weeks solid and could use a break. There was a place in the city that had good food and, more importantly, was cheap, so they walked into the city, stopping at Ben’s mates’ place to pick up a few more people. Alice could tell it was going to turn into a boozy night, which she wanted to avoid as she did have to work the next day. After the Thai place, she and Chloe walked home together, watched a video and crashed into their respective beds at around eleven.
Alice heard Ben stumbling around about an hour later and she got up to find him sprawled on the sofa. She heaved him upward and walked him down the hallway, dumping him across his own bed, where he would have to clean up his own mess in the morning. It was her sofa, given to her by her grandparents, and no way was he going to be spewing on it. She went back to bed and quickly fell asleep.
She knew right away what she was hearing when she woke because the bed was moving, just slightly, but she was a light sleeper, she tended to notice what was going on in the house. The sound quickly became louder, like a train coming towards the house, and she leapt out of bed. She crouched down in the corner by the doorframe and put her arms over her head as the sound of the roar surged and the house began really shaking, up and down, up and down, and Alice could see the shapes of things around the dark room being thrown up then tossed off her desk and dresser, could hear furniture slamming into walls and glass breaking elsewhere in the house, and everywhere, the thud thud thud of the house itself being shaken. She heard something falling on the roof and closed her eyes, hoping for it to end, somehow, then something smashed along the side of the house. There was the sound of more glass breaking.
The sound of the earthquake eased and the shaking stopped. Alice stood up from where she had wedged herself against the doorframe and reached up to flick the light switch and survey the damage. Nothing. The power was out. She fumbled her way to the side of her bed, where her cellphone had fallen down between the bed and bedside table. It was 4:37. She wrote a text to her mother, fumbling the phone and mistyping. It seemed like an eternity to simply say she was okay and to ask were they. The phone was showing network service, so hopefully she would hear something back quickly.
The phone had a torch function that Alice used to find some shoes. She pulled the door open and shone the torch out into the hallway. Now that the door was open, she heard Chloe crying. The house felt cold, and Alice could feel a breeze coming from the lounge. She picked her way through the doorway into the lounge, where she saw the night outside where most of the wall had been. Most of the brick wall of the lounge had fallen, both inward onto the sofa and outward onto the driveway. She heard another quake heading for the house, which started to shake again, but stopped within seconds. More bricks fell onto the driveway and plaster dust fell from the ceiling. Alice stepped back into the doorway, she felt safer there.
Alice called out to Chloe, who called back saying she was okay. ‘Put shoes on,’ Alice yelled. Then Chloe was beside her, sniffing, trying not to cry.
‘That was so scary,’ Chloe said. She was shivering and Alice put an arm around her.
‘Do you think it was Wellington?’ Alice said, and immediately regretted it, because Chloe began to panic and start crying again, her family was in Wellington. Alice gave her the phone to try calling them, she would call her own family afterwards. She wondered about her parents, if the quake had scared Olivia and Jack. They were only five and three, they would either be terrified or see it as a big adventure.
Someone answered Chloe’s call. ‘Are you okay?’ she asked, her voice high-pitched and shaky. Then, ‘We’ve felt a big quake here, we thought it was you.’
‘It must be local,’ Alice whispered. Chloe shook her head furiously, but the gesture meant nothing to Alice. She decided it was best to be quiet, just wait until Chloe had finished her call.
‘Well I’m okay,’ Chloe said. ‘But the house is a mess.’ They heard another quake approaching and braced themselves as the house started to shake. ‘There’s another one now,’ she said, and her voice broke. ‘No, it’s stopped. I’m okay.’
Alice didn’t think she was. Chloe said goodbye to whichever of her parents she had woken and said she would call them later. Chloe passed the phone back to Alice. ‘There’s a message,’ she said.
It was from Alice’s mother, who said they were all okay. Alice took a deep breath, relieved. More rumbling, then shaking.
‘Ben!’ Chloe said, and they moved as quickly as they could to the bedroom at the end of the hallway and banged on Ben’s bedroom door. There was no answer. They opened the door and walked into the bedroom, stepping carefully. Books had slid from the desk onto the floor, landing on the shoes and clothes that were normally there. Ben was draped over the bed crossways where Alice had left him, snoring softly. Alice gave him a shove in the arm, which resulted in a mumbled grunt, but no signs of true consciousness.
‘Typical,’ Chloe said, and turned to leave the room. They heard the roar of another approaching quake and froze, but it didn’t last long, and there was no movement from Ben.
‘Let him sleep, I suppose,’ Alice said, shrugging. Her phone rang. It was her mother. ‘I’m fine,’ she said, ‘but the wall in the lounge has collapsed. I don’t think we can stay here. And I don’t think I’ll be able to get my car down the driveway.’ Her mother had been in touch with Alice’s grandparents and great-grandparents and everyone was fine, but scared. Lindsay said once they got the kids settled, Kevin would pick her up. They had power at home, but from what they had heard on the radio, not many in the city did.
‘Where was it?’ Alice asked. She put her arm around Chloe and pulled her out of Ben’s bedroom and into the hallway. Chloe was shaking again, she was probably in shock. They needed blankets.
‘Darfield,’ Lindsay said. Alice could hear Kevin in the background telling Olivia and Jack to stay under the table.
‘Darfield?’ Alice said. Darfield was a farming town on the Canterbury Plains, about forty kilometres west of the city. It was surprising because the Canterbury Plains were not an earthquake hotspot.
‘What about Darfield?’ Chloe said.
‘I love you, Mum,’ Alice said, and she started to cry. ‘No, I’m okay. I’ll see you soon.’ She ended the call and tried to think what to do.
They couldn’t do much while it was still dark and the power was off, and if she kept using her phone as a torch, it would quickly lose its charge. They decided to bundle up warm and go outside and see what was going on in the neighbourhood. Bricks from the neighbour’s chimney lay scattered on their roof. Out on the street there were no signs of activity, almost as though the quake had only affected them. There was a rumble coming from the west and it became louder and louder, and they crouched down, then felt the ground under their feet rise and fall and heard the house shaking, bricks coming off the wrecked wall. It was a different experience outside, in the dark, with all the street and house lights out and only the waning moon for light. Alice couldn’t decide whether it was more or less terrifying than being inside, surrounded by the sounds of the house shaking and wondering if something was going to fall on them. It seemed safer outside, but it was cold and so they went back inside. Chloe had a double bed, so Alice grabbed her duvet and they piled onto Chloe’s bed to keep warm. They tried talking about nothing to drown out the sound of approaching aftershocks, but it didn’t really work. Both read stories off different news websites, but the pages were loading slowly and it was the same information over and over. A 7.4 earthquake at Greendale, which neither of them had ever heard of, and lots of aftershocks. The slow network was draining their phones so they decided to turn them off, only checking every half hour or so.
Once six o’clock had passed and the news started spreading throughout the awakening country, their half-hourly check-ins had their phones constantly beeping as missed call notifications and messages came through, friends and family checking to see that they were okay. Alice was sending the same message over and over again, ‘Scary, but I’m ok, luv u.’ There was one from Andrew asking if she was okay, and she replied simply, ‘Yes.’
It was getting light enough to get up and have a better look at the damage, and so they wrapped themselves in blankets and walked tentatively around the house. The kitchen was a mess. The oven and fridge had danced across the floor and sat at odd angles, surrounded by bricks from the collapsed wall and food ejected from the kitchen bench and pantry. The place smelled of red wine and Italian herbs.
Kevin arrived just after seven o’clock, and the sound of voices finally roused Ben, who stumbled into the hallway, bewildered.
‘What’ve you done to the place?’ he asked, rubbing his face.
‘Had a bit of a party,’ Alice said, while Chloe said, ‘Earthquake.’
‘No way,’ Ben said. He seemed inclined to believe the party explanation until another aftershock rolled through, and they could hear more bricks clattering onto the driveway and something thudding on the roof.
‘That chimney is dangerous,’ Kevin said, looking up towards the ceiling. ‘And even if it wasn’t, you can’t stay here with that wall the way it is. You’re lucky no one was sleeping on the sofa.’
Ben went pale and slid down the wall to land sloppily on the floor.
‘Get your things together,’ Kevin said, ‘you can all come home with me.’
At the Bowens’ house, Lindsay ran out of the back door when the van pulled up the driveway. She grabbed Alice, her embrace like a clamp. ‘I was so worried,’ Lindsay said. ‘It was only a couple of minutes before we heard from you, but it was so long and I thought…’ She stopped and hugged Alice tight again.
Kevin wanted to go and check on Alice’s grandparents and great-grandparents, and Ben decided he would go, too.
Inside, Olivia and Jack were under the dining table, which they had covered with a sheet. Both ran out and hugged Alice, but then scrambled back under the table at the sound of another aftershock. Olivia reached out and pulled at Alice’s arm, dragging her down and under the table with them. They had pillows from the beds on the floor under the table and it was cosy under there. Alice drifted off to sleep with Olivia and Jack on either side of her, wondering if Andrew’s other children, her half-brothers and half-sister, were as scared as Olivia and Jack were. Alice was scared, and she was a lot older than all her half-siblings, so they were bound to be. She hoped they were tucked up tight with their mum and dad, and she thought about how nice it would be to have all of her brothers and sisters here, under the table with her.
When she woke, it was only half an hour later, but she felt refreshed. She gently untangled herself from Olivia and Jack and left them to continue sleeping. The television was on, showing the carnage in the city, where building façades had fallen into the street, crushing cars. Lindsay and Chloe were sitting on the sofa, watching, silent. One building, a Mexican restaurant the family had been to a few times, was open to the elements. Green, white and red flags were strung across the room, its tables were still set and bricks from its Manchester and Worcester Street walls were lying all over the street, where a streetlight had bent to kiss the ground. As the morning wore on, more images were shown and more stories told. The quake had been downgraded to a 7.1, and no one had died. The shaking, someone said, had lasted forty seconds. It had been the longest forty seconds Alice had ever experienced.
In the suburbs, something called liquefaction had damaged houses, a slurry of water and soil pushed up to the surface by the force of the shaking, forming sand volcanoes where there was nothing to obstruct their passage, but where a structure was in the way, strong enough to damage foundations and rip up footpaths and driveways. There was a shot of a petrol station where the forecourt and building had been pushed up out of the ground, its entire slab sitting above the surrounding ground by half a metre.
‘We haven’t seen the cat,’ Lindsay said softly, almost a whisper. ‘They don’t know.’ She nodded towards the table Olivia and Jack were sleeping under.
Alice nodded. ‘We’ll go look for him later.’
Alice texted Andrew to tell him she was okay. She had replied to his text earlier, but now she thought maybe she should say more, that maybe she had held on to her anger for long enough. She asked about his family, and he quickly texted back saying everyone was all right. ‘Glad you’re ok,’ he texted next. ‘I love you.’ She texted back saying she loved him too, and she realised that she did. It wasn’t the same as she felt for her mum or for Kevin and Livvy and Jack, but it was there, and maybe over time they could be more like father and daughter than what they were now, just related strangers.
Kevin and Ben were back just before lunchtime. Alice’s grandparents and great-grandparents were fine and although a lot of things had been broken, both houses had done reasonably well. Everyone was anxious from the aftershocks. Lindsay’s parents said her sister’s place was fine and she had power, but her brother Jason’s house was in bad shape from liquefaction. Kevin wanted to go around after lunch and see what he could do to help Jason clean up. Lindsay and Kevin’s own suburb didn’t seem to have any liquefaction, Kevin said, although it did have a lot of broken chimneys.
While they were having lunch they heard that the university wouldn’t open the following week. It was clear that the flat would be uninhabitable for some time and they would need to find another place to live. It was easy for Alice, she could stay at home if she needed to, but Ben and Chloe and the other flatmates would have to find something else.
Ben would stay another night or two and then drive home to Timaru, but Chloe had called her parents and they had booked her on a flight out of Christchurch the following day.
Kevin and Ben decided to go and help Lindsay’s brother with his piles of silt. Alice helped Lindsay clean up the kitchen, then the broken things in what had been her bedroom, what would be her bedroom for a little while once again.
Later in the afternoon, Alice took Olivia and Jack for a walk around the neighbourhood. They had finally noticed the cat’s absence and wanted to go and find him, in spite of Lindsay’s reassurances that he would be home when he was hungry. They walked along the street and down long driveways and cul-de-sacs calling the cat’s name.
There were, as Kevin had said, a lot of broken chimneys, bricks on roofs and driveways. There was one house where the chimney had fallen off the house in a big chunk and landed on top of a car parked beside the house. The car was a crumpled wreck, the front seats crushed into the tiniest of spaces. It would be impossible to retrieve anything from the glove box.
The neighbourhood was strangely quiet, it was like everyone was staying inside, trying to figure out how it was that The Big One that was expected to hit Wellington had hit Christchurch instead. It was something Alice was still trying to get her head around.
In the evening, with aftershocks continuing, Olivia and Jack insisted Alice sleep under the table with them, so Ben and Chloe each got a bedroom. It was a restless night, full of rumbling and shaking, clammy children and stray limbs. Alice’s head hurt and her mouth felt disgusting, a post-quake hangover. Alice extricated herself from the children, tucking the blankets around them like swaddling, then climbed out from under the table. In the kitchen, she poured herself a glass of water and quickly drank it down before remembering that residents were supposed to boil water before drinking it, until the city’s water supply had been thoroughly checked. Too late now.
She heard the thunk of the cat flap in the laundry, then a pathetic meow. The cat walked past his food bowl full of biscuits and up to Alice, rubbed up against her leg. She picked him up and buried her face in his fur, which smelled musty, like he had been in the crawlspace under the house. It was good to be home.
When the English first settled the Canterbury region, they tried to make it look just like home, planting English trees and releasing English birds and animals. Although flat and laced with streams in an England-like manner, the Canterbury Plains on which the city of Christchurch was built are not another England, they are, in fact, the product of mountain building. The upward growth of the Southern Alps is countered by erosion and glaciation, wearing away at the mountains and washing them down rivers and out towards the sea, piece by tiny piece. The finer soils of the Southern Alps are blown onto the plains by a regular, dreaded foehn wind that blows from the northwest. Two mighty braided rivers meander wide riverbeds, flanking the city, one some fifteen kilometres north, the other fifty kilometres south. Closer in, two spring-fed rivers flow from west to east, meeting in an estuary that empties out to the sea, the surrounding land soft, wet swamp overlying the river gravels. Then, south of the city, rise the Port Hills, the eroded remains of an ancient volcano cradling the city in a one-armed embrace. The contrast then is this: the swampy soils of flat parts of the city, soaked from a rainier-than-usual winter, and the hard volcanic rocks of the Port Hills.
A month after the big September quake, the people of Christchurch were getting used to living with cracks in houses, waiting for insurance processes to get properly underway and sleeping sporadically, plagued by hundreds of aftershocks that came at all times of the day and night.
Southeast of the city, tucked into a loop of the Heathcote River, a tributary cuts across the land. The area had been farmed by the early settlers, and the last farmer died in the old farmhouse shortly before the Second World War, leaving it and the land to his son, Bill Moorhouse. Bill returned from the war with an English bride, Marjorie, and a young daughter, and in the building boom of the 1950s, set himself up as a builder. He subdivided the land, in stages to avoid flooding the market, and kept the best of the land for himself and his family, raising a son and three daughters in the old farmhouse.
After Bill’s death in 1990, Marjorie had a new house built further along the stream, in her favourite spot. Bill had been planning to sell off the land before he died, and he and Marjorie had argued about it. When Marjorie finally moved into her new house and began planning its garden, she gave up the pretence of missing her late husband.
The house had been well built, designed by her son Gerald to take advantage of the beauty of the land, with views towards the stream along the back of the house and plenty of views towards the hills along the front. The house was timber framed with wooden weatherboards and a steel roof and like many of that construction, it had performed well in the September earthquake. Bill had remembered the great earthquakes of the 1920s and 1930s and had drilled into Gerald the need for houses to be built on strong, stable ground. That was why Gerald had suggested his mother build further back on the section, not right up near the stream. Her garden stretched away to the stream, blending in with the old oaks, where monarch butterflies spent each winter, lining the bare branches, their folded bodies like thousands of unnatural leaves quivering in an unfelt breeze.
Marjorie had heard visitors refer to the old oaks as ancient, but nothing was truly ancient here, a thought she kept to herself. Never give people too much information about you, that was a rule Marjorie lived by. She gathered as much as she could about them, but never gave away too much about herself.
Marjorie had turned ninety a few days earlier and soon the house would be teeming with family. It was her tradition, a springtime gathering of all her children and grandchildren, although in recent years, she had allowed her daughters and daughter-in-law to take responsibility for preparing the savoury dishes. The desserts, though, were Marjorie’s domain, and she had spent the last two days and much of the morning baking and preparing dishes. Now it was time to relax for a few moments and enjoy a cup of tea.
Her grandson Andrew, Gerald’s son, had arrived ahead of the rest of the family, bringing along his teenage daughter, Alice, who Marjorie hadn’t seen since she was a tiny girl. Her hair had darkened considerably since, to the same colour as Andrew’s, and Marjorie’s own when she had been young. Alice was blue-eyed, not the blue that changes, but clear and intense. She was taller than Marjorie and her daughters, something Alice had inherited from her mother’s side of the family. Alice sat down on the sofa across from where Marjorie was sitting. Andrew asked if they wanted something to drink and went off to fill their requests.
‘I remember when you were a little girl,’ she told Alice. The girl seemed surprised. ‘You came here with your father, and I took you down to the stream and showed you the butterflies.’
Alice looked out towards the back of the garden, confused. ‘I think I do,’ she said. ‘Would they be there now?’
‘It’s the wrong time of year,’ Marjorie said. Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of more family, but soon after, Marjorie saw Alice walking towards the stream, looking up into the trees.
They weren’t able to speak again until later in the afternoon, once most of the family had left and those who remained were cleaning up in the kitchen. Alice had brought Marjorie a cup of tea and was sitting across from her once again, sipping at a cup of coffee.
‘They’re a bit unnerving,’ Marjorie said. ‘This lot.’
Alice started to protest, but Marjorie cut her off.
‘Don’t worry about what they think of you,’ Marjorie said. ‘Their world is rugby and building, and a woman doing an engineering degree, well they don’t know how to handle that.’
Alice laughed. ‘Engineering’s not so different from building.’
‘It’s the woman part they’re uncomfortable with. As innovative as this family prides itself on being with regard to building, they’re in the dark ages when it comes to women.’
‘It’s different from my mum’s family,’ Alice said. ‘They’re so proud of having a girl doing engineering.’
‘That must be a lot of pressure,’ Marjorie said, peering at Alice, daring her to brush away the scrutiny.
Alice met her gaze and seemed to drop her guard. ‘Sometimes it is,’ she admitted. ‘But they’re really supportive, almost too supportive sometimes and I wish they’d just let me help them with the cooking.’
‘That’s a better reaction than I had when I said I wanted to go to nursing school,’ Marjorie said, smiling. ‘My father said what was the point, I was just going to get married and have babies.’
‘Did you?’ Alice said, then laughed nervously. ‘Because obviously… I mean, did you go to nursing school?’
‘I did,’ Marjorie said. ‘I was a nurse in the war, until Suzanne was born. It was rare for a woman to keep on working after she was married back then, but during the war, it was all hands on deck.’
Marjorie made sure to invite Alice to come around any time. The girl’s company was a refreshing change, she seemed able to talk to people of different ages, unlike Marjorie’s other great-grandchildren, who mostly seemed bored, anxious to get away from family gatherings as quickly as possible.
Later that night, Marjorie was alone in the house, which had been tidied within an inch of its life by her daughters and daughter-in-law. All very dutiful women, always asking if she was all right, making sure there was nothing she needed to do for herself, she could just relax and enjoy her twilight years. They actually used that term, ‘twilight years’, as though death was simply a dimming of light, a fading into nothing. Bill had died suddenly, away from their sight, so they didn’t really know the truth of it, that death is messy and ugly, and the common habit of romanticising death is all that protects those who encounter it from insanity.
From where Marjorie was sitting, she saw clouds coming over the hills from the south, piling up, then rapidly moving towards the city, bringing with them a wind that tore at the magnolia bush outside the window. The sky darkened with cloud, and she could see the rain like a veil, coming down on the hills and on the houses between her and them. Soon rain started to pick away at the window, getting louder and louder until she thought it might hail. She stood to check, but there was nothing settling on the lawn. The sky flashed and then thunder rolled across the city, a boom that spread, then broke up. It was a nice change from the rumbling that had been coming from under the hills in recent weeks.
One grandson, Tony, had wanted to move in with Marjorie after the September earthquake, not because his house was damaged but because, he said, he didn’t want her to be afraid. Marjorie knew, though, that Tony was seeing a business opportunity and was planning to rent his house to those whose houses were uninhabitable. Although she approved of his initiative, she wasn’t about to allow him to gain a foothold in her own home.
Marjorie had convinced her children that she would be fine on her own, she had lived through the Blitz, she said, and the earthquakes were much less frightening. Eventually, they accepted that and left her alone to the peace of her own house. But she was scared. It was unnerving waking in the night to a rumble coming from beneath the hills, hearing it before feeling it, then hearing the sound of the house’s joints creaking. The Blitz was personal, the Germans dropping bombs on them, wiping out families, neighbourhoods, livelihoods. And through the years, everything she had faced was personal, someone trying to take business from the family, someone trying to take advantage of one of her children or grandchildren, to get one over on the family. She could face those things, see the enemy, figure out a strategy, a way to turn the tables and get one over on them. But this quake business was impersonal, she just happened to be sitting atop a part of the earth that was breaking, slowly but inexorably, assuming a new shape, oblivious to the tiny beings scurrying around on the surface.
She had told her family she was sleeping well, and that was true, until there was an aftershock. Then she was wide awake, not waiting with dread for the next quake, but awake and thinking about her family, past and present, worrying about what the future held.
Marjorie knew she didn’t have much time left. She needed to make decisions about how her holdings would be distributed once she was gone. The question was: How did she want to be remembered? What sort of future did she want to set up for those she was leaving behind? She wasn’t sure. She had made too many compromises over the years to feel truly comfortable with the past, overlooked the decisions Bill had made that had disadvantaged others. Yes, he had made those decisions, but she had done nothing to stop him, because she didn’t want to lose everything.
There had been the Drakes. Greg was a chippie and he and Bill had known each other from school. Bill had given him work over the years, but Greg had a drinking problem, as many did after the war, and he found it difficult to work consistently. Money was increasingly tight and so Bill offered to buy his house and land. It was a lovely piece of land at the bottom of the Port Hills, west of the city, land that had not yet been developed into housing. It wasn’t a great price, but it was enough to get Greg and his family out of the hole they were in and into a smaller property. What Greg hadn’t known was that the land was going to be rezoned, and Bill was able to exert pressure on his mates in the council and get it rezoned quickly once the sale was complete. Had Greg held on for another couple of years, the zoning change would’ve gone through and he would have been able to subdivide the land himself. Instead, it was Bill who made a killing on the subdivision and development of the land.
Until the earthquakes started, Marjorie hadn’t thought about Greg Drake for at least a decade. His son had come to see her once, in the 1990s, shortly after Bill died. He was angry. Knowing his parents’ financial position, the son said, Bill should have used his influence to push through the zoning change and let them profit from the sale of the land. They wouldn’t have ended up in their pokey, damp flat, Greg angry at being betrayed by a man he had thought of as a friend. It ate him up, his son said, and his health had suffered. Their retirement would have been happier if they’d had the opportunity to profit from the land, their land, instead of seeing it line the pockets of a man who had more than he needed, more than he would ever need.
Marjorie apologised. It was the polite thing to do, after all. She told him she was never privy to any business dealings, which wasn’t true, but he wasn’t to know that. Nor was he to know that it was Marjorie who first became aware of the Drakes’ financial problems and encouraged Bill to ask questions, subtle questions meant to draw Greg out so he would confide in Bill.
Then there had been Stan and Suzanne. When Stan Watson first started working for Bill, Marjorie had recognised that his charm hid a cunning nature and she had resolved to keep an eye on him. He could be good for the business, but he had to be reined in. Unfortunately, Stan knew how to play Bill and before Marjorie could encourage him to do otherwise, Bill had promoted Stan over the other workers and entrusted responsibilities to him that Bill had previously been reluctant to let go of. Marjorie was looking after the books then and had noticed that materials they were buying in were being charged out at inflated prices, not the usual markup, but actually stated as being something they weren’t. It would increase profits, but it had to be subtle or it would ruin the company’s good reputation. She wouldn’t let that happen, she dreaded being poor again, and she worried about the day when a particularly canny client would notice and call them out on it, she could see it all crumbling away.
She needed to find a way to control Stan, and it wasn’t long before she found her way in. Suzanne was working in the office, and Marjorie encouraged her to try out the fashions of the day, the miniskirts, the big hair, the dramatic makeup. She was a pretty girl, with Marjorie’s petite build but lighter colouring and the thick blonde hair of Marjorie’s own mother. Soon she had the attention of all the workers, and a few encouraging words from her mother made her realise that her father’s trusted foreman was handsome, that his ambition would provide her with a good life. Marjorie envied the girls of the 1960s. Although they had few choices, they had far more than she had at their age. In an ideal world, she would have encouraged a daughter to get an education and a career so she could support herself and not be dependent on a man, but she had to face facts, Suzanne wasn’t that kind of girl, she was silly, easily flattered, and the few shiny presents Marjorie encouraged Stan to give her were enough to convince her that he was her shining knight.
Stan was ambitious and had a feel for what people would believe, but he was also a bully, a fact Marjorie hadn’t recognised until it was too late. He enjoyed having power over those less powerful and took pleasure in forcing Suzanne into his mould, his idea of what a wife should be. Their son Tony was very like Stan, in both looks and temperament.
Suzanne was one of many Marjorie thought about late at night. The truth was it wasn’t the quakes Marjorie was afraid of. It was the past, out there in the dark, waiting for her, the ghosts of those she had pushed and guided into making decisions that suited her during her life in this new country. She couldn’t go back and change anything, but that didn’t matter late at night, wide awake hearing the rumble fade into the distance.
There were some nights she couldn’t get back to sleep at all, and what haunted her then was people from the deeper past, the people she had left behind when she married Bill and agreed to travel to the other side of the world with him. There were Walter, her first love, and her brother Edward, both dead in the trenches.
Andrew was like Edward. Edward had worshipped Marjorie, his glamorous big sister who had escaped the family home to a better life. When the war began, she encouraged him to go into the army. It was a way to get away from home, away from the angry drunk taking out the terrors of the previous war on his powerless family. Andrew had Edward’s dark, thick hair and his eyes were the kind of blue that turned to grey when the light changed. Like Edward, Andrew had been soft and easily led. But Marjorie had encouraged Andrew to conceal that, to hide any weakness, any situation where someone would try to take advantage of him.
Marjorie’s parents had been killed in the Blitz, but the others might still be out there, her other brother and her sisters. They had survived the Blitz, she knew that, but what of the years that followed the end of the war? What about their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren?
The war had changed Marjorie, the grief of loss had squeezed her heart and made her hard. Had these earthquakes reversed the process? She hoped not. It would take another lifetime to undo the regrets the young Marjorie would have felt had she known the choices the older, grief-hardened Marjorie was going to make. And Marjorie didn’t have another lifetime, she had, at most, a handful of years to decide what legacy she would leave behind.
Would you like to read more? You can get Bleak City in Kindle eBook format or in paperback form, on Amazon.com:
For other purchasing options, click here.