Lyla has just started her second year of high school when a magnitude 6.3 earthquake shakes Christchurch to pieces. Devastation is everywhere. While her police officer mother and trauma nurse father respond to the disaster, Lyla puts on a brave face, opening their home to neighbours and leading the community clean-up. But soon she discovers that it's not only familiar buildings and landscapes that have vanished - it's friends and acquaintances too. As the earth keeps shaking day after day, can Lyla find a way to cope with her new reality?
A detail from the book cover
We got to the designated pick-up point just as Joanne’s mother pulled up.
‘Colombo Street lights okay, you lot?’
‘Sure. Great. Thanks.’
Joanne spent the trip swivelled around helping to plan what we’d do once she was free from the eye-man.
Her mother dropped the three of us off at the lights.I pointed ahead of us to Victoria Square.
‘Look – they’re putting the Chinese New Year lanterns in the trees.’
We watched for a minute or two before wandering on to the centre of town where Cathedral Square still had displays from the Festival of Flowers. A couple of tourists knelt behind an elephant made of wire and greenery, trying to get a picture of it with the cathedral in the background.
‘Sweet,’ Shona said.
‘Lots of tourists around,’ Katie said. We scuttled out of the way of a Japanese man with a thousand cameras round his neck lining up a shot of the cathedral. He looked to be having trouble getting the spire and the rose window in the same shot.
‘I hope they fix it soon,’ Shona said. ‘It’ll be good to be able to go inside again.'
I laughed at her. ‘And you were such a regular churchgoer!’
She gave me a shove. ‘You know what I mean. That cathedral – it’s the heart of Christchurch.’
Katie started walking. ‘Yeah. True. But I need food.Let’s do it.’
She towed us down High Street until I hauled her to a stop. ‘Not the food hall.’ I waved my hand at the sky. ‘The sun’s out. It’s a sit-outside day, not a food hall day.’
‘There won’t be any empty benches,’ Shona said. ‘Look around you, Lyla. The whole city’s in town today.’
‘Fine! You go to the food hall. Come and find me on my sunny bench.’ We kept walking and arguing – food hall or sun. Sun or food hall.
But we didn’t get to the food hall. We were still walking down the mall when the world around us shook itself to bits.
We were used to aftershocks. This time when the shaking started, for a nanosecond we thought it was just another one – nothing to worry about.
It wasn’t just another one. The shaking knocked us off our feet before we had time to panic, yell or think about what we should do. We huddled together as much as we could with the ground going crazy beneath us.
I don’t remember hearing screaming. I had no breath for screaming. I remember jagged thoughts – it’s never going to stop. We’re going to die. Stop. Please. Just stop.
But the ground didn’t listen to prayers or pleas or screams. It just kept on bucking and buckling and heaving. So much noise. Earthquakes are loud. The earth shrieks as it tears itself apart. Buildings moan before they give up and crash to the ground.
This time the noise and shaking seemed to go on forever. Fifteen seconds felt like fifteen years. And when it did stop we were in an alien place full of chaos.
For seconds after the ground quieted we waited, not believing it was over, before we clambered to our feet. I didn’t trust the ground. I expected it to go crazy all over again. We looked at each other and maybe my eyes were wide and shocked just like my friends’ were. I wiped at blood on Katie’s neck with my finger. ‘You okay?’
She shook her head. ‘Yes. No. I’m still alive. I think.’
‘It’s foggy,’ Shona said. ‘Why is it foggy?’
We couldn’t see much through the swirling fog but we could hear buildings all around the mall collapsing and dying, their bones shattered. Car alarms and building alarms shrieked, all adding to the racket.
‘The buildings. They’re falling down.’ Shona scrabbled for her phone. ‘I’ve got to call Greer. Mum’ll be okay, but . . .’
‘There’ll be aftershocks.’ Katie grabbed our hands. ‘Let’s get out of here. Greer will be fine. It won’t help if you get yourself killed.’
Mum? Dad? Blake? Was Joanne okay?
We stumbled along over the uneven road. There were sirens now. I tasted grit. The white stuff in the air wasn’t fog, it was dust. I looked around. There were lots of people.
So much dust. It swirled and lifted in great clouds. Sheets of paper from shattered offices flew and fluttered. I couldn’t see up or down the street, but the dust didn’t hide the destruction on both sides of us.
Katie headed towards the square. ‘Come on.’
It was what we’d been told, time and again: head for open space away from buildings.
Shona was crying. ‘There must be people under the rubble.’
The Japanese man? The giggling couple behind the elephant? How many others? Were they hurt – or worse?
A woman holding a toddler’s hand stumbled along through the rubble a few steps ahead of us. They were both crying. ‘Why isn’t she carrying him? She should be carrying him.’
Shona tried to hold me back. ‘No, Lyla! We have to go home. Follow the quake plan.’
‘I will. But I’ll just . . .’ I caught up with the woman and saw she was very pregnant.
I picked her kid up, tears, snot and all. She took hold of my arm too. ‘Thank you. I can’t . . .’
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘What’s his name?’
Eli put his arms around my neck and hung on. Great. Survive an earthquake and suffer death by toddler.
‘Up ahead, Katie stopped. Her voice floated back on the dust. ‘The cathedral! The spire’s gone.’
The air had cleared enough to give a view down the street to the square. She was right. The spire wasn’t there. It lay on the ground, just a pile of rubble now.
I couldn’t bear to look at it. There had to be people under those heavy stones.
I led the woman to a bench. She took Eli onto her lap. ‘Thank you.’
‘Will you be okay? D’you want . . .’
‘We’ll be all right now. My husband – we’d arranged to meet here at one o’clock.’ She pulled out her phone. ‘It’s nearly that now.’
But it looked as though she was only just holding it together. Her face was pale and strained. It was the tear tracks through the dust on her cheeks that got to me. She shouldn’t be by herself.
‘I’ll wait with you.’ I took out my own phone.
‘The network’s jammed.’
‘Like September.’ I sent texts to both parents and Blake. I’m ok. You? It could be hours before they got them and hours before I got theirs. If . . . don’t go there.
The square was a mass of people, ghostly shapes in the dust. I couldn’t see Shona or Katie. A man stood near us, his hands over his face and blood pouring down his fingers. I jumped up and ran to him. ‘Come over here. Sit down.’
He came with me, as if on automatic pilot. The woman patted the bench beside her. ‘Sit with us.’
Weird. It seemed to help her, being able to do something for somebody else. He peered at me through bloody fingers. ‘Thank you, young lady.’
He wasn’t doing a good job of stopping the bleeding. Even less when he dropped one hand to steady himself on the bench. The woman took it. She didn’t seem to mind the blood and she didn’t seem to understand he needed more help than just having his hand held. I’d have to do it.
Apply pressure to stop a wound bleeding. But if I put my hand over the cut, germs would get in. Both my hands felt gritty from the dust, and they sure hadn’t been sterile before the earth moved. But he was going to bleed to death if somebody didn’t do something. The woman – if she’d had a nappy bag for Eli once, she didn’t have it now. There was nothing I could use for a dressing.
‘Move your hand,’ I told him. ‘You need more pressure on that.’ He dropped his hand and blood spurted. The cut was jagged and it looked deep. Please, don’t let him die. I pressed my palm over the wound, then wriggled around to stand behind him. ‘Lean back. It’s okay. I’ve got you.’
At a rough guess he was in his seventies – about the same age as Grandy. How much blood had he already lost? I wanted Katie and Shona. We needed help, but nobody seemed to see us. I looked towards the police kiosk – it seemed undamaged and people were milling around it, but nobody even glanced at us.
Eli’s mother was talking. ‘It’s all right,’ she kept saying to the man. ‘You’re okay. You’re going to be all right.’’
Another wicked aftershock hit. First the roar, then the shaking. My hand flew off the man’s head. I was on my knees, and I wanted to scream and scream and never stop screaming. Eli did scream. Blood cascaded from the man’s head. More bricks and chunks of concrete peeled themselves from high on buildings.
The woman was shouting. ‘It’s all right, Eli. We’re safe. Don’t cry. It’s okay. We’re safe.’
We weren’t safe and we never would be ever again.
The man moaned. I lurched to my feet. ‘Lie down. You’ll be safer lying down.’ I almost tugged him off the bench, slapping a hand against his wound – so much blood. I tried to wriggle out of my cardigan to make him a pillow and discovered I was still wearing my backpack. The woman pulled herself together enough to help me take it off.
A man running past stopped. ‘I’m a doctor. Let’s have a look at you.’ But there wasn’t anything he could do that we weren’t already doing. He didn’t have any supplies either. ‘Keep the pressure on that wound. Don’t let him go to sleep. Somebody’ll be along eventually to take him to hospital.’
How long would it take somebody to come? I didn’t want to stay. I wanted to find Mum and Dad. Blake was at uni – I just had to hope he wasn’t hurt, that the shaking wasn’t so bad out at Ilam. Here it felt like we were on a trampoline that just kept bouncing.
Katie and Shona would be following their family quake plans by now. Go home. Wait there. Stay safe. I should go home too. That’s what I was supposed to do. I didn’t want to be here with a bleeding man and a woman who might give birth at any second. She shifted on the bench, wincing. ‘Hey! The baby’s not coming, is it?’
She gave a tiny laugh. ‘No. I promise.’
Sirens. The throb of helicopters. Cracking followed by crashing as more masonry gave up and fell. Dust and grit and sheets of paper.
People walked by, faces blank with shock. A couple of boys in Boys’ High uniforms ran towards each other, arms out to crush each other in a hug. Still nobody stopped with offers of help.
A policeman strode through the crowd shouting, ‘Hagley Park. Go to Hagley Park. Keep going. Hagley Park.’
I ached to get up and join the tide of shocked, dusty people walking away from the desperate city. It was cold now. I wished the sun would come out again. I wished my cardigan wasn’t under the man’s head. His eyes were shut. The woman kept talking to him. She asked him his name.
‘Ian.’ Long pause. ‘Ian MacKenzie.’
‘Don’t go to sleep, Ian MacKenzie. You’re going to be okay, but you have to stay awake.’
He said something, or it could have been just a moan.
She took it for an answer. ‘Good. You’re doing well, Ian. My name’s Selina. And this is . . .’
Her husband arrived. He put his arms around his family. Tears from both of them. He squatted down to check Ian. ‘I’ll get help. There’s triage setting up in Latimer Square.’ Eli wailed as his father ran away.
Cathedral Square emptied. Eli watched the helicopters. Selina talked to Ian, nagging until he made a noise in response. I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. I was so cold. A woman hurried towards us, her arms full of a pile of white hotel bathrobes. She gave us one each. ‘It’s getting chilly now.’ She was gone before we could thank her.
Blood gushed as soon as I took the pressure off the wound. I slapped my hands back in place. Selina wrapped the robe around my shoulders and wiped blood from Ian’s face with it. It made a difference, being warm.
The ground kept shaking. Selina’s husband came back with men carrying a door. They lifted Ian onto it and told me to walk beside him. ‘Keep the pressure on as much as you can.’
I tried, but blood ran out from under my hand. My mind kept skipping ahead. Dad would be doing triage in Latimer Square. Mum would be helping people but I couldn’t guess where she’d be.
It was only two blocks from Cathedral Square to Latimer Square – but it was two blocks over broken roads filled with rubble and shocked people. Aftershocks kept the ground unsteady. I could only hold one hand pressed to Ian’s head. I hoped it would be enough.
We got there. The men lowered the door to the ground. One of them put an arm round my shoulders in a brief hug. ‘Well done, but you go home now, eh.’
A woman bent over Ian. ‘We’ll take over now. Good work.’ She had an Aussie accent.
‘Will he be okay?’ I could only whisper.
She didn’t raise her eyes from Ian’s bloody head. ‘Hope so. Time will tell. At least he’s got a chance, thanks to you.’
He had to be all right. He had to live. I stepped away to look around me. The square thronged with people: the injured, the helpers and those like me who were searching for family. The ground rolled. People screamed.
My parents weren’t there.
Reproduced from Lyla: Through My Eyes (Natural Disaster Zones) by Fleur Beale, published by Allen & Unwin NZ 2018
Lyla: Through My Eyes
by Fleur Beale
Published by Allen & Unwin NZ