Turning to the page marked ‘February 22, 2011’, Mrs. Jane Evangeline read the day’s message, and after reading the Bible, said a prayer. She switched on the TV and walked to the kitchen to prepare coffee. When she heard the word ‘Christchurch’ not once, but repeatedly, she froze. Walking back quickly to the living room, she saw pictures of devastation on the TV screen. An earthquake of 6.3 on the Richter scale had hit Christchurch at 12.59 p.m. It was Tuesday, a working day, and it had happened during lunch hour.
She stood rooted to the ground, dumbfounded with fear, seeing familiar places that had crumbled to dust as live pictures flooded her living room. It was the city where Belinda Veronica, her only daughter, resided with her husband Ryan, and their two sons Christian and Clement.
Last year, as soon as the September earthquake struck, Veronica had called her and had assured her mother that everyone was safe. But now there had been no phone call, even an hour after the quake. With trembling hands she dialed Veronica’s number… there was no ring, not even static.
After a long time, Clement called her. He was agitated, because he was not able to contact Veronica’s cell phone, or her office landline.
Veronica, had always been a very careful person, she made it a point to inform her family of her whereabouts, and it struck everyone as very odd that she had not called her family in Christchurch, or her mother in Hyderabad.
Mrs. Jane waited. And as she waited, she prayed.
“Look Rachel, they have cleaned the ground of all the debris,” exclaimed Belinda Veronica Ryan, to her colleague Merlyn Rachel as she looked out from the huge window of her office on the fifth floor, “It looks neat now.”
It was 12.30 p.m. and as her lunch was heated in the microwave oven, Veronica had walked over to the dining room window and saw that the three-storey commercial building opposite theirs, which had been destroyed in the September quake, was now cleared of all debris.
Veronica loved to enjoy her midday meal as this was the only time she could have a real hot meal. She used to get up very early in the morning when it was still dark, and gulped down a mouthful of milk and rushed to reach her office by 6.30 a.m. at Linwood, an inner suburb in the city of Christchurch.
After lunch, as Veronica was sipping her coffee, the earthquake struck. Both, Veronica and Rachel got up from their chairs in panic as the whole building literally shook violently, not the gentle sway they had felt during the earlier earthquake. They ducked under the dining table.
Then as suddenly as it started, the violent shaking stopped. As soon as it stopped, everyone rushed back to their cubicles and grabbed their bags and coats, and ran out. They skirted around fallen computers, gingerly stepped across broken glass panels, and shattered partitions, and made their way out. It was chaotic inside the office, but better sense prevailed as they were guided outside to the nearby Victoria Park.
As they assembled at the Park, they heard the rising crescendo of buildings falling down, and heard people scream. The police sirens blared away, the dust and the smoke rose from everywhere, and made Veronica weak in her knees. She tried calling up her two sons and her husband and found to her utter dismay that no calls were getting through.
It was like the worst scene from a disaster movie and it bewildered her that she was not safe on the other side of the TV screen, but was actually a participant in the movie.
Suddenly, it looked as if she would have to do something herself to get home. Home was where peace would be; home was where she would feel safe and comfortable; home was from where she could face any kind of disaster and be prepared to be brave amidst the falling rubble, glass, and broken water pipes.
Veronica knew that unless she started making her way back home now, she would find herself stuck here for hours, without the comforting touch of her husband, Ryan, without the chatter of her two sons, and the cosy comfort of her home. Without her cell phone, it all felt strange, like as if she was in a strange place, in a strange situation, amidst strange people.
She knew only one way home from the office, but she had heard that the road was blocked now by the debris of buildings. The bus service had yet to resume after several buses had been destroyed by the debris. Her manager, Mrs. Amelia Allen, told everyone that they could leave, but not alone. A colleague offered to take some of them in her car and drop them off at Riccarton, from where Veronica was sure she could manage to walk home.
Getting to her colleague’s car, which was parked just around the corner, took them a good half hour, as a cathedral had turned to rubble. Six people piled into the small car, which could comfortably accommodate only four. And added to that was Rachel’s bleeding knee, which made the journey a painful nightmare. The car virtually crawled, with traffic jams at every junction. Police cars and ambulances were given right of way, and it was an excruciating exercise trying to get through the jam.
Several roads were closed because of the debris strewn all across the roads, and the broken water pipes, that made driving a dreadful experience. Some roads were closed because wide cracks had developed in it; and in some cases, the cracks were one meter deep. People were walking in a daze looking at their cars that could not move because the tires were stuck in the cracks.
They tried to go towards Riccarton, but as a bridge had collapsed, they were asked to go in the opposite direction towards Linwood. Every road they took, they had to take a detour and they realised after a while, that they were moving further away from their homes. As soon as she reached Hornby Mall, Veronica got off, and wishing everyone best of luck, she began walking home. As she walked home, she prayed for all her colleagues and everyone in the city who had been stranded far from home. She prayed that her Mother stayed calm, and prayed that her small family and the home they had made with so much love, had stayed safe.
As soon as she saw her familiar gate, she heaved a sigh of relief. And seeing the parked cars outside, she knew that her family was safe and snug inside.
She called her Mother.
“Veronica! Imagine! Six long hours! It felt like eternity, waiting for this one call from you. It was one long prayer,” said Mrs. Jane, crying softly as soon as she heard Veronica’s voice. Veronica heard her mother cry, and wiped away her own silent tears.
“Veronica, as soon as I heard Clement’s voice, I was relieved, but when he said there was no call from you, I panicked. These live pictures on the TV added to the fear as one newscaster after another described the devastation, the number of fatalities, people trapped in office buildings… I went weak with fear. I didn’t know what to do. If I see the TV, my heart beats faster with rising fear, and when the phone rings, my heart beats even faster with hope, that it must be you. And those six long hours, I was with Hope, my God, my Creator, praying for you, for Ryan, for Christian and Clement.”
Veronica could hear only her mother’s heavy breathing and not the cries, she smiled.
Veronica heaved a sigh and said, “At such a time when you are alone and cell phones are down and you can’t contact anyone, you realise that only God is your strength and shield, always present in times of trouble.”
“Yes, only God is our strength and shield,” said Mrs. Jane, “When you are settled down e-mail me.”