Isabelle McNeur


The day of the quake, I brought two dollars to go to the Cathedral. I’d been once when I was 12 and I wanted to go again. But the people I was with that day couldn’t be bothered, so we didn’t go. Instead we went to the fifth floor and watched people play badminton. Someone was laughing just before the earthquake happened, and then it began and the laugh cut off.

For years after the earthquake I took pride in saying it didn’t affect me. I was fine, even if no one else was.

We were the only high school not to be sent home in a half-day, so it happened at the tail end of lunch. We were also one of the only schools smack in the centre of the city.

The rule was to leave everything and run, but everyone grabbed their bags. The people who didn’t would regret it, since none of us were ever let back into the building. We ran to the elevator before realizing there wasn’t any power, then we went for the stairs.

I walked through the broken city with my classmates, holding hands or arms or just clutching at whatever. We saw the spaces where buildings should’ve been, a gap in the distance, and didn’t connect the dots until later. There was a street filled with smoke and people were running out of it. I saw a dead man, maybe. None of us stopped long enough to check. We were told to keep moving, so we did. Still, there’s a memory so fuzzy I sometimes think it was a dream. I hope the man was alive. I hope he got up and wiped the blood from his head. I hope he went back to his family and they wiped away the new blood that happened on the walk home.

Anyway, I was fine. We stood in a carpark and got sent home in groups depending on who lived in what neighbourhood. When I got home my family was fine, technically. We were all fine. I helped clean up the kitchen floor, which was bleeding with the contents of the cupboard. Later, we went into the garden and shovelled away the grit that had burst from the ground. I never knew that was something that happened afterwards.

It took about a week for the power to come back and then a few days for me to find the news about the Cathedral falling to shit. I still had the coins in my purse ready for spending on that climb that didn’t exist anymore, those circular steps that went on for what felt like forever.

I was fine. I boasted this when school resumed in a place so far away they had to set up buses. We all sat on a trampoline and I told them I’m fine, yeah I was on the fifth floor, everyone fell over. We were having lunch, someone was laughing. I can remember what we were talking about just before even if I can’t remember who was laughing, and then suddenly there was an After.

In the new location of my school there was a room with a sliding door. Every time it opened, there was a rumbling just like the noise before a shake. Because there’s a noise, sometimes – during  or right before. It’s so fast and it takes long enough to realize what’s happening that you don’t know the noise until things are shaking, but later you think about the noise. That sliding door mimicked it to the point that every time it opened, the whole room went tense. Conversations paused and shoulders hunched, including mine. I was fine right up until I heard this door slide open for the first time and I cut off in mid-word, waiting. Nothing happened, but I kept the tightness in my shoulders for the rest of the day.

Years after it, after high school, even, I’m in Glassons with a friend. It’s one of many new shops in the central city, since most of the old ones fell down. After all this time there’s still rubble. Nowadays I can’t imagine my city without it.

My friend leads me up to the second floor of the shop. She looks out the big windows expectantly, then at me. I squint at the view and then say, oh, shit.

Yeah, she says.

This was-?

Yeah, she says.

She was there, but I don’t remember her. We didn’t know each other then. When I conjure up the memory of staring out at the view, this view, which is so different but still somehow recognizable, she is never there. But she was, and this image is imprinted on her mind too: that big tree enclosed by the planks; the buildings framing it on both sides. The buildings are non-existent now but the tree hasn’t changed.

I walk closer and look out. The last time I did this, it was after the mad rush down the stairs. All of us were waiting to know if it was safe to leave the building. Images came: that one girl standing under the tree crying, the classmate who got caught in the head with a falling brick and forgot all of last week. The smoke that was almost out of sight, but not quite.

I stand back. I didn’t know this was here, I tell my friend. I can’t – this doesn’t make sense in my brain, you know? It doesn’t feel like the same place.

Yeah, she says.

We don’t stand there for long. She starts digging her fingers into her palms and it takes my hands stinging for me to realize I’m doing the same.

I get halfway through Let’s go before she’s saying Yes.

We head down the escalator and I try to remember being fourteen and looking out at that view. I’d seen it before in cooking class, but now I could only imagine it in one hard context.

We head out to the street. I can’t stop looking around, trying to see it: that scene that existed, once, and it almost comes: the tree, the tram tracks, the skyline over the buildings that aren’t there anymore –

I hold my handbag tighter. Last month at uni we were told to leave our stuff and follow someone five floors up. Instead of leaving my backpack in the pile with everyone else’s, I heaved mine up all five floors. If something happened I wouldn’t be able to go back for it, and you never knew if they’d let you back in After.

My friend turns to me.

You okay, she asks.

I think about telling her I’ve never gone back to Cathedral Square.

Yeah, I tell her instead. Of course.

Isabelle McNeur

Isabelle McNeur studies at Victoria University, where she has completed several IIML courses. In 2015 she won the Margaret Mahy Award for Best Folio at the Hagley Writers’ Institute, in 2017 she won the Prize for Original Composition in at the IIML, and in 2018 she will be completing the Hachette Mentorship Program. She hopes to one day be financially stable enough to adopt a dog.