It’s midnight and I’m awake, which is nothing unusual for a sleeping pattern dictated by late night shifts. I aimlessly browse the internet, wondering what TV show to watch next.
My bedroom walls start to shake.
Is that the upstairs neighbours having sex?
My entire bed starts to shake.
This isn’t normal.
I stumble out of bed, open my door and stand in its frame. My flatmates have mirrored my movements, we look at one another with wide eyes.
The entire apartment starts to shake.
“Come over here,” E calls, her soft voice spiked with a desperate panic, as she sees me alone in my doorway, at a complete loss as to what to do. For a moment, I cannot move and I worry my movement will upset the balance of the building. Yet I can’t stand to be alone so I dart across the room.
Within seconds the entire building is swaying from side to side. We all cling on to the door frame because if we didn’t we would fall over. I cling on to E as well. My heart is pounding so hard I can feel its fist size punching against my chest.
We could be on a boat, out at sea in the middle of a rough storm, we’re rocking so much but the fact we are in a building remains a concrete thought in my mind; the entire time we’re shaking I keep thinking the building will collapse. We are five stories up, with another four stories above us. With startling speed my mind conjures up images of concrete, dust and body parts. I grimace at the thought of what concrete falling would be like. I picture family and friends hearing the news. I feel helpless and I all can do is cling on to E as hard as I can, my heart still pounding so hard I wonder if it will bruise my skin.
The shaking stops.
Three of us stand in one doorway, and we call out to L to come and stand with us. I can see my panic reflected in her eyes and she looks helplessly childlike in her oversized pyjamas. With tentative steps, she makes her way over to us. We stand in the doorway, arms round one another, waiting to see what happens next.
There is a stillness, but we are still shaking.
My flatmates spring to action. Growing up in New Zealand, you learn what to do when there is an earthquake. I do what they tell me, unable to talk. I get warm clothes, blankets, get my jacket and shoes ready in case we need to leave. They get some food and fill pans with water.
We get our large dining room table and place it in the middle of the room. I FaceTime mum, wanting to tell her what happened before the news does but also desperately needing to see her face. A big aftershock happens as we talk, and I move underneath the table. Mum can see us all huddled under the table and they all say hello. We laugh, it is a pure but incredulous sound.
In the most British response to an earthquake, I offer to make everyone a cup of tea. I even use my precious Yorkshire Tea bags from home. We still have running water and electricity, which we’re all grateful for. Everyone is on their phones, checking in or reassuring loved ones. Then we try to find our what is happening across the city. What’s the damage, what do we do now?
It was a 7.8 earthquake, the largest earthquake New Zealand has faced in years.
As terrifying as our apartment feels, none of us want to leave for fear of falling buildings, shattering glass or cracks in the road. Plus going in to a stairwell seems like an awful idea. A tsunami warning is issued and we check the map of Wellington to see if we’re in an evacuation zone. We’re central, but our streets seems okay. I cannot shake the surreal feeling of it all.
The aftershocks roll in and the building shudders with them.
Time passes, the shudders become further and further apart until the stillness resumes. Two of my flatmates go to their bedrooms.
“Do you want to sleep out here?” E says and I nod. There is no way I am going back in to my room alone. We pull out the navy sofa bed matress and place it under the table, the whole thing doesn’t fit but at least we can have our heads covered.
I don’t sleep for the entire night. I can feel the resounding echo my heartbeat in my chest and every time I feel myself drift off, I jerk myself awake. My body is drowning in adrenaline and my mind feels like it needs to be alert, ready for whatever happens next. The night rolls on, for the most part it is still. There are a couple of big aftershocks and I try to tell myself it’s fine, it’s fine, I’ll be fine. If if I say it enough, perhaps it will erode the fear.
The room fills with light and its time for another day to begin. The council issue warnings not to travel to the CBD as post-quake assessments are carried out. Plus, with this being Wellington – the windiest city in the world – there is risk of gale force winds and falling glass.
We swiftly come to the decision that we don’t want to stay in our CBD flat.
“I’ll go mad,” I say, my words thick with exhaustion. Thankfully L has family nearby who we can stay with. We pack overnight bags and then her dad comes to pick us up to take us out of the city. My work is cancelled so I don’t have to worry about that. We go to L’s boss’ house as L needs an internet connection to carry on working.
For most of the day, I sit on the sofa and watch the news. There are still aftershocks, some of which shake the room, but being outside that apartment building has made me a little calmer. Bedrooms were offered earlier if we wanted to nap and eventually I decide to try and sleep. Despite no sleep for over 24 hours, my body is still reluctant to calm down. It takes time but I manage an hour or so of sleep.
“You look so much better,” M says, as I emerge back in to the lounge.
We spend the night at L’s gran’s house. I haven’t had the feeling of being looked after for so long, having lived independently in New Zealand for a year. I am taken aback by it and feel so wonderfully safe. Sleep this time around is not a problem at all.
We are meant to head back in to the city this morning, but it seems the earth has not quite settled down and now there is flooding. Roads to the city are blocked off. None of us mind the extra day off and our escape from the city begins to take on the vibe of a little holiday. When the rain stops, we go on a walk and get pizza. Later that night, we cook L’s gran dinner, as a thank you for looking after us.
I have another blissfully peaceful sleep and then it’s time to head back to reality.
My place of work, despite being right on the waterfront near a quarantined zone, had very little damage. It lost a few platters, plates and glasses. Work comes as a welcome distraction. Life is getting back to normal and living in New Zealand, you have to accept that earthquakes are part of normalcy. I just don’t want another one for a while, please.