by Kennedy Graham
From middle distance it looks ugly – alien and threatening. Something from another planet, menacing to humans. Actually, from Middle Earth.
At shovel distance, it starts to attain a character you can come to terms with. If that is a metaphor for this stricken city, then not all is lost.
This morning I volunteer to do some shovelling down at Beckenham Primary School, south of the city centre just below the Port Hills. I arrive at 9.00am with shovel and spade, and a touch of apprehension. I am told to ask for the school caretaker. A man is wandering around protectively. I ask if he is the caretaker. No, he is a board member: “Do I look like the caretaker?” I say he does. He takes it as a compliment. We are off and running. So are the kids. There must be 100 of us, young and old, shovelling. And we are having a good time. Because we are doing something. We are grouping, uniting, summoning our resolve. We comment on that. It is a catharsis. We shall not be daunted. Especially Rachel, another board member whom we instinctively look to. We all have to look to someone. Funny thing, leadership – uniquely individual. But it’s there in spades all around me (puns are being granted special licence today).
Liquefaction comes in three grades. When it spreads across the asphalt, it is almost normal black sand, West Coast style. Not unpleasant – easy to dig up. Grade A.
Grade B is wetter, and heavier, closer to clay. You only fill half a wheelbarrow and leave it to the younger ones to cart away. Onto the streets, that is, for collection next week. We dig channels between the mounds and the kerb, so water can run by when it rains. Eastern Terrace, down by the Heathcote River, is closed. Lateral spreading – you will know by now what that means. Too much water lying around won’t help.
Grade C is the least charming. It is sludge, and hard to get up. We are ankle deep in it by the tree outside the junior school, and suddenly a distinct odour arises. We clear the kids away. The imperative is to avoid dysentery among the young.
We work hard – men, women and children – between aftershocks. Not much is spoken. No elaborate introductions – I am Ken from Ilam, from the western suburbs, the best introduction a stranger can have.
The Herald on Sunday people appear. They photograph the kids and they interview Rachel. Then they leave as fast as they arrive – no time to extend a helping arm. A helicopter hovers above – no time to look up, and no point, really. It will be the Minister.
Tomorrow I have arranged for a Green group to be attached to Sam Johnson’s Student Army. It is not just young shovellers that are valued in this brave new world – it is the elders who can door-knock and listen to, and counsel, the traumatised. We have more than a few of this ilk, and so our Green numbers will be significant. The students are pleased; they have taken the initiative. So are the elders; they are responding to the call of youth. I now know we shall get to the anointed place. It will take time, and it is purgatorial, but it is no longer Hell while we are shovelling, at least where there is no death. We shall get there.