Just an observer, what else is there to be when the whole of the affected area has been cordoned off. A danger of possible buildings collapse and aftershocks, they say. As a human being it is hard not to able to give aid and succour to fellow human beings. Nevertheless, in our house, the TV stays on. This on the principle that you never know just when there might be a change of circumstances, that would allow us to be more hands on, play our part.
“I blame the forecasters,” a woman is saying, She’s somewhat the worse for wear, naturally enough, dust in her hair, and a huge, bruised lump on her elbow. “I mean where was the warning, they call themselves meteorologists, but when it really mattered…”
“Seismologists,” the young chap with the microphone corrects her, “you really think they ate to blame?” Behind them stands Canterbury Cathedral. Miraculous, right there in the epicentre, but it has survived the quake just like St Pauls in the blitz.
“I mean where was the warning, you know what I mean, so as we could have prepared ourselves. Made arrangements, provisioned public spaces. As it is, what a shock and my home…my home…I still can’t believe it.”
“A warning, was it possible? How predictive can science be? And had there been a warning, what difference would it have made, these are the questions to be answered?” The young man with the microphone says.
Of course, when the reconstruction process is underway, they’ll have to be an Inquiry: could more have been done, and what lessons can we learn, but to be fair to the boffins, the quake was literally a bolt from the blue. My wife says, As if those geological fault lines had gone on walkabout.
From what we can gather, the media presence is strictly limited. Today it’s been just the one young man. Not just the possible aftershock, they’re saying now, but the risk of some kind of epidemic, the sewage system in the hinterland of the Cathedral having been breached. But it is felt that despite the cordon, we have a right to know what is going on, and what is happening to our compatriots, that everything be transparent.
In the studio, the scientist, who is getting quite a grilling and no mistake, says nothing can yet be said for certain. “We are in uncharted waters and though we have the Richter scale reading for this very localized quake, measurements on a space-time continuum are yet to be made.”
“That’s all very well, you and your continuums, but are we expecting an aftershock?”
“Nothing is impossible.”
“And are these unexpected, localized occurrences about to become normal.”
“That’s why our on-the-ground measurements, and the statistical analysis based on them are now an absolute priority. We are not alarmists and we don’t see normalization of the event as likely, but we need to understand what has happened.”
My wife brought out one of our daughter’s geography books from years ago, when she was in school.
I must say that in the relevant pages, those tectonic plates do seem very far way.
There are priorities, and priorities. The scientists have theirs, and I, and my wife is in agreement, have our own priorities, close to the area as we are, as fellow countrymen, and most of all as human beings. Besides, just watching when it feels like there’s nothing one can do, it’s like being a voyeur, my wife said.
“You know, a Peeping Tom,” she said and laughed. “Not your style at all dear.”
“Indeed not,” I said and laughed too; said I was too old for all the hanging about it must entail.
It was not so far to drive to the restricted area. We’d packed some blankets and a sleeping bag our daughter had left behind and another that must have been from one of her student mates when she was at college. And just set off.
I had a rough idea of where we should head. It was cold but bright as we turned off on to the B road where the verges were covered in golden and brown leaves, fallen from the nearly bare trees. My wife said she found the sight reassuring, that the natural order wasn’t completely out of kilter, that autumn was behaving as autumn should.
The road block came as a shock. Police officers in what looked like parachutist uniforms manned a metal barrier. I got out of the car. Two of the officers were in a crouched position and another walked over to the car. I explained our purpose. He said it was good to know that such public-spiritedness still existed, but that no, I could not enter the area.
“It’s still a confused and fluid situation in there,” he said. For the time being it’s a job strictly for professionals.”
“But we wouldn’t get in the way,” my wife said.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t Madam, not intentionally, but we have to go by expert advice, and we still can’t guarantee your safety. We can’t be sure there won’t be any further damage, building collapses, falling masonry and so on.”
“Oh, so it’s not the danger of epidemic they’re talking about.”
“That I couldn’t say sir, but I wouldn’t believe everything you hear from the media he said,” and carefully winked at me.
We drove back home in silence. Feeling a bit sheepish perhaps. We are not do-gooders, we don’t make a thing out of it, but it may be that that’s how we may have been perceived. So it was back to the TV, the very least we could do was to give witness.
It was no longer the top story. There was a meeting of Finance Minister. They were worried about balances. A crucial election, they said, was taking place in Asia.
There was a young woman now with the microphone. She said emergency services were working flat out to secure buildings and care for the injured. She asked one man how he’d been affected. It was going to do great harm to their property values, who would want to buy a house in an area prone to quakes, and that he was very concerned about what the insurance situation might be. On the bright side however, the interviewer said afterwards, that as far as was known, there had been no fatalities. Well that was a relief. One or two friends and acquaintances from other parts of the country rang up to sympathize with our plight, and I had to explain that though we were relatively close to the area concerned, we were unaffected, but that we really appreciated their concern.
Next morning the there was no live footage, but the newsreader said that geological complications were hindering the search for those folk believed to be missing. Then Sally came round. Long Tall Sally she calls herself though she’s short and plumpish. We don’t need anyone to do the housework now that we’re both retired, but after 25 years you don’t just say goodbye to someone. The estate’s not that far away and now and then there’s something to be done that we simply can’t manage by ourselves.
She was worried, she said. We hadn’t known she had relatives in the affected area, but there was a nephew, a refuse collector with the council, and his family, and she hadn’t been able to get hold of him. The landline was down, she said, and not a squeak out of the mobile.
“Course at first,” Sally said, “I thought it was a joke, you know, earthquake, here. Earthquake, they’ll be plenty of work for you then, I was going to say to him, but now, and as for the official help line, it’s just engaged.”
We told her about our futile attempt to help the day before, and she said she’d a good mind to go herself. She was a relative after all. But she supposed the authorities knew what they were doing.
Over coffee, I said that there was no reason to believe they didn’t, but that she should keep in touch, to let us know if she learned anything, and that if there was anything we could do to help, not to hesitate.
It was on the fourth day my wife said, she saw through the glass darkly, and I knew just what she meant. There was no more live footage from the area, and the reports from the studio just repeated that the Emergency Services were working round the clock, and that emergency rations were being distributed to shocked residents. It was hard to know what to make of it, so my wife rang Sally to see if she’d heard anything. What she did know was that her nephew had not been reported missing. That was as far as she’d got, but that no one was able to give any information as to why no telephone communication was possible, or when it would cease to be a restricted area.
It was all very mysterious, and we debated as to whether we should make another attempt to visit the area, perhaps to try another route. We decided to give it another day or two, and that in the meanwhile we should try and live our lives as normally as possible, which is what our daughter said on the phone, was obviously what we should be doing. Chill out, she said, as if were being hysterical. Which we were not, my wife said in no uncertain terms. To which our daughter said with a sigh, “Oh Mum!”
To keep myself busy, I took myself off to the allotment with the polythene sheet I’d put holes in the previous month. My wife said she was going to try something ambitious from the cook book by one of those famous chefs our daughter had given her for Christmas. Esoteric some of them, but as I understand it just follow the instructions and you can’t go wrong.
We had already bedded in a row of leeks and I’d had it mind to do garlic and some winter lettuce. Bob Jackson was out on the next patch in his gumboots and his ancient mariner jersey with the threads lose. I said I was trying out this Meaviglia d’Inverno San Martino, under the polythene it was said to be hardy enough.
“Turning nasty down Canterbury way, you know, where they’ve sealed it off,” Bob said as his fork turned the earth.
I asked him what he meant, what was ‘nasty’ as he put it.
“Violence that’s what I’ve heard, a queue for rations that got out of hand.”
Hard to believe, I said, and just how had Bob heard, did he have relations there.
No, he did not. Rumour, it was rumour he’d picked up, stories of looting, vigilantes and God knows what. And whatever the truth of the matter well, it felt all the more important to get that lettuce in. When I’d finished sowing, I weighed down the polythene with a rock back by the fence and added heavy branch at the other end from when the sycamore in the corner had been pruned.
Rumour, didn’t Shakespeare say something about rumour. What you can say is that you can’t believe in them but then that’s exactly what does flourish when we don’t get proper information. For late lunch my wife had prepared a wonderful concoction involving courgettes and risotto. She had enjoyed doing it she said. It was some unspoken agreement I suppose but we chose not to talk about the Quake or anything to do with it and I was not going to be passing on something Bob had heard second-hand. We were just settling down to coffee when Sally burst in. Her nephew, her nephew she said, had been badly injured. No, not from the quake, he’d been beaten up.
What? How? Where? Where was he, what could we do?
All she could say was that he’d reached some safe place, he couldn’t say where; too risky he’d said but wherever he was, a phone call had been made. That was Sally’s story.
Why, why had he been beaten up was the obvious question but my wife and I both refrained and it was she who asked what could we do, could we help in any way. She didn’t know but if there was nothing on the News, perhaps I could phone the Help line.
The Asian finance ministers had agreed to a Form Of Words, the newscaster said, but no one really believed that any significant decisions had been reached. They never are, my wife said. I nodded in agreement but I was feeling tense, waiting, wanting to hear what was happening in our own backyard, whatever it was, to hear the truth. They now had a measurement for the strength of the quake; the consensus was that it was a one-off event; the area was still sealed off till a full inspection had been made.
Our first thought was to jump in the car but my wife reminded me of our promise to Sally. I got on the phone. A voice asked me to Press 1 if was seeking information about an individual named from A to E; E to J and so on. Of course I should have asked Sally her nephew’s name but I pressed 1 anyway.
On the telephone they are playing Mozart, or is it Beethoven, I never could tell. They have been playing it for over an hour now. Something is wrong. Something is very wrong.