The Christchurch Clock & Watch Co.
In the replica of the John Bain Toy Shop at the Canterbury Museum there is a doll house, known as the Historic Dunedin House, which on 22 February 2011 suffered damage in a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. Little replica people still look on in dismay at their knocked over china and chairs, frozen in time. One minute they were standing in their scale model cottage pouring scale model tea into scale model teacups and the next minute there were no teacups. Nor teapots. There still aren’t. The dolls’ expressions, once satisfaction and serenity, though unchanged, are now shock, frustration, and helplessness.
In this part, the whole.
The same quake shook the spire off the Christchurch Cathedral and levelled the central business district. One hundred eighty five did not survive.
New Regent Street still stands, more or less. It hasn’t been razed anyway and there are a few shops and businesses there. A café. A design firm. A souvenir shop. The pastel-washed Spanish Mission style buildings have been scrubbed to their brightest in years. No more loose bricks on the street. Fresh paint on the awning posts and the benches. A few planter boxes and oversized pots of flowers. Some closed down store fronts. Some urban stencil art. A clear blue sky.
New Regent intersects with Armagh Street, which was one of the main drags before the quake. It is dead now. I looked both ways for traffic before I crossed, but there was no need. There is no traffic anymore. A few buildings remain, but they are fenced off, shuttered, vacant. The remaining high rises have been vandalised. The windows that haven’t been tagged from the inside have been shattered, shards of glass and brick and the past swept behind the chain link barriers and posted warnings. The buildings fall eerily dark at night.
It is three years on and the tram is finally running again, but no longer on a loop. Damage to Armagh Street has cut the track in half. The tram route ends at the museum now. It starts in one direction at the intersection of New Regent and Armagh and ends on Worcester Street across from the Canterbury Museum. At that point the tram driver must exit the tram and swing the electric arm around to get the car moving the opposite way, just as we had watched him do at the corner of New Regent and Armagh as Noodle oohed and ahhed at the shining red and wood car.
Alan, the tram conductor, stopped at the seventh and final stop in front of the museum. He told us we would have continued down Rolleston Avenue to Armagh Street and loop back, before the quake that is. I remember this from our trip nine years before. Alan got out and swung the electric arm around and got back in and walked down the middle of the tram to the controls at the other end of the car, ready to make the run back down Worcester Street. The tram will pass the wreckage and construction and abandoned high-rises and vacant store fronts, giving way to traffic diverted from there to here after liquefaction undermined the streets, leaving them too lumpy and cracked for more than one lane in any direction. This would be Alan’s last run of the day.
Stop number six had been at The Arts Centre, which had been severely damaged in the quake. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority deemed all but one of the twenty three buildings unsafe. Red tagged. Originally the complex had been Canterbury College, where Ernest Rutherford, broadly regarded as the father of nuclear physics, first studied. By 1978, the now-University of Canterbury had moved to a larger suburban location, and the Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust Board took control of the original buildings. The Trust Deed sets out the central aim of the Arts Centre: “to foster, promote, facilitate and encourage the interest of art, culture, education and other related interests….” I can attest that in 2005 they were doing exactly this. It’s different now, and probably will be different until their planned reopening in 2019. Now they foster and promote restoration and hope.
A few vendors from the Arts Centre remain in a square of shipping containers across the street. The containers are painted bright blue and have been refitted with rolling doors, which two shopkeepers were shutting for the night as we arrived. Most have either packed up and moved on, or simply moved on, nothing left to pack. None stay past regular business hours. There is no more regular business.
Tram stop number five had been in front of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu which had only been open a year when we visited last. Now it is closed, but not because it suffered structural damage. In fact, Alan expressed his surprise that the glass atrium in front didn’t shatter in the shake. It remains without a crack. The trouble is that a corner of the building sank in the subsequent liquefaction. Now a contracting and recovery firm is working to jack the building, level it up, and install absorbing springs to help prevent future catastrophe. I’m still reeling at the idea of jacking up the corner of a museum. Alan treated it casually, a silent “of course” at the end of the paragraph in which he described the plan. I suppose the astonishing becomes pedestrian when you repeat the past present and future day in and day out.
Stop number four had been Cathedral Square. Alan pointed out an underground parking garage on our right, and on the rolling steel door in the bottom left corner under a devastating crack in the building was spray painted: UNKNOWN # CARS / UNRECOVERABLE / FLOODED. He reckons it’ll be a damned mess when they finally get down there. I thought how strange it must be to have your car submerged, trapped underground along with your compact disc collection and a change of clothes and a book of maps and maybe the last swig of a takeaway coffee that you’d get back to after lunch. Just sitting there. And you’d drive by every day in your now-three-year-old new car and this derelict building would remind you of those little bits of your life, tantalisingly out of reach, stuck in a structure full of if-only.
This was the point at which I thought I should write down Alan’s name, because it became clear to me that he was giving more than a tour. He was telling a story — a story whose narrator deserves respect. There aren’t many left to tell tales of this sort. Few people come here to listen anyway. Alan paused now and then when jackhammers ratted and tatted and rumbled and the diggers knocked against glass and concrete kicking up a crushing din. The air smelled of dust and damp buildings. On the horizon a crane quietly lifted a section of steel and concrete off the top of the tallest remaining structure. Within a couple weeks the whole thing will have been disassembled and the bits and parts will be on their way to other projects and purposes. Perhaps other buildings. So it goes.
At the front of the tram above where the conductor stands a sign says “Do not talk to the motorman.” I did anyway because I had a short conversation with him before we boarded and we were the only people taking off from stop one. We were some of the only people in the city, for that matter. On a Tuesday night around this same time of year nine years ago, this place was jumping. I remember.
I had asked the conductor about The Christchurch Clock & Watch Co., where I had gotten my wristwatch on the first Tuesday of April, 2005 soon after the shop had opened at nine in the morning. Somehow I had managed to hang on to their business card all these years and I was curious to see whether they had survived. Maybe show them that I still wear the watch and that it mattered then and it matters still. They would see there is something left and I will be its steward. The watch will remain.
Street View on the Internet shows the downtown before the quake, so I figured out from there where 184 would have been relative to the buildings at the corner of New Regent Street. Some buildings are cracked and crumbling, some are heaps of rubble, and some have been completely wiped out of existence and dusted up. Not a trace. 184 is the latter of these.
The buildings that were next to it are still there. To the right, at the corner of New Regent Street, was The Flying Burrito Brothers. They have relocated. The sign has been removed, probably moved to the new location I figure, but you can still make out the letters. The building is vacant. To the left was a bar and a bakery that had closed down not long before the quake, I deduce, because their sign had been painted over. Nothing has been painted since the quake. Certainly nothing red tagged. In the space between the two was one building with a Chinese Takeaway on the far right, an accounting and tax service to the left of that, and against a brick glass building vacant but standing, The Christchurch Clock & Watch Co. Its silhouette remains against the bricks of the adjacent building. It looks like a barn. When the shop stood, a dark red door led inside, set back from the sidewalk, tucked behind a couple of angled windows in which passers-by could browse for treasures.
Christchurch had been our first stop in New Zealand, and on the first Tuesday of April, 2005 we stood in front of Christchurch Clock & Watch Co. no more than a few hours after we had touched down. I realised that I had no way to tell the time but I needed a way. We had planned three full weeks of bed and breakfasts and homestays and hotels and day hikes and train rides and hired cars and water taxis and a tour bus and the Interislander that runs between the north and the south islands. With one form of scheduled transport after another, punctuality seemed a priority.
I had never been a watch-wearer, preferring to use public clocks throughout my university years, and I lived around enough chimes and spires to keep me on time. But here I was, six thousand miles from the familiar, starting an international adventure and a marriage, and I thought maybe I was ready to take on the responsibility of a personal timepiece.
We browsed the clocks and watches in the window and I said to my wife that I’d like to have a quick look. We pushed the dark red door open and a bell chimed and Lynn walked out from the back and asked if she could help. As all honeymooners do, I said that we were just married and travelling. I explained that I didn’t have a watch, but here we were and I needed a way to track the time. Nothing too fancy. I don’t remember exactly, but the Olma Allmaster might have been the first one she showed me. It had a plain pearl face with silver numbers at the twelve, three, six, and nine and two silver hour marks between each and four small minute marks between each of those. The case, lugs, and crown were all stainless steel. You could see where the radium had flaked off the hands, but no matter. Once Lynn explained that it didn’t need a battery because it wound itself kinetically, I was sold. She asked me which band I preferred and I picked a black leather one and she installed it. When she was done we paid and I buckled the watch to my wrist and it felt strange as my wedding ring still did. I’d get used to both soon enough. At this point, visiting Christchurch again nine years later, after all that all of us have been through, I can’t imagine my life without either.
Everybody, including me, thought the shop was on the other side of New Regent Street, but it turns out that had been a bookstore and a men’s shop. Now the bookstore is trees and planter boxes of flowers. A couple of kids in school uniforms sat there in the sunset, flirting over homework.
The spot that used to be the watch shop is now an information site and I talked to the pretty girl who ran it as she swept some scuffed gravel off the sidewalk, the sun setting behind the rubble. “This was a Chinese place and an accountant, I think.” I snapped a picture of where the building used to be.
I caught back up with the family on New Regent Street and Noodle asked me to hold him up to the potted flowers so he could smell them. Potted flowers in the midst of this, I thought.
Then the tram dinged and rumbled to the end of the street and Noodle shouted that he wanted to ride it. The conductor said he only had time for one more run and that it’s usually ten dollars for the whole day, but he’d charge us half price at this hour.
The conductor was smartly dressed in a white shirt with a name badge, charcoal trousers with a cherry red stripe up the side, a precisely squared hat, and shining leather shoes. Across his chest was slung a leather satchel of tools and in it, among tickets and maps, was an antique set of side cutters and a hole punch. He issued our tickets and punched the days and months and handed them back and fiddled with the side cutters as we talked outside the tram.
I asked him about the watch shop and he knew the place. He remembered it being next to Petersen’s Jewellers at the corner which used to be the bookstore. He said Petersen’s planned to return to New Regent Street after their temporary lease ran out across town. Three to five years. Then I told him I had gotten my watch at The Christchurch Clock & Watch Co. on the first day of our honeymoon and I was here to find the spot because, well, it made a difference. It was my first memory of New Zealand. My home now. We paused a few seconds and looked around together at what remained and what was yet come. I held up my left wrist and tapped the watch’s scratched up face and said quickly “ev’ry day.” I couldn’t muster any more words. He looked at my watch, then at the tram, then at New Regent Street, then me.
The conductor’s voice crackled as he told of the shop owners whom he knew by name and that they hadn’t relocated but he’d heard maybe one employee was still working on timepieces from home. The conductor was not a man prone to crackling. His conduct is his job, after all. He collected himself and his speech was steady, unaffected, professional. I probably looked a mess to him, scruffly next to his neatly-trimmed white beard, my watch face banged up with memories, my eyes tired from all this life, all this rattling and frustration.
We looked at one another and passed an emotion back and forth as we’d pass a parcel in a birthday game. I looked away from the conductor when I saw his eyes, great and blue and full as mine. Full of sadness. But goddamnit just as full of hope because I’m still wearing this watch and he’s still giving this tour and the two of us are standing here in the sunset on a warm Autumn evening surrounded by a skin of rubble in the heart of a healing city. I saw my son’s little green shoes kick against the seat in the tram while he looked out the window at the pastel-washed Spanish Mission style buildings, scrubbed to their brightest in years. Dazzled by the diggers just behind.
“Shall we carry on?” one of us asked aloud. We answered with actions and I felt I knew this man as I know myself. Connected in purpose. We live a certain way. We simply do as we must, called by memory and answering to fate.
We climbed the lacquered wooden steps into the tram and I took a snapshot that didn’t capture the moment and the conductor edged the car forward and spoke into a microphone, his stories amplified across the car and out the windows, drifting into the empty streets, the day fading from evening to night. He paused now and then when jackhammers ratted and tatted and rumbled and the diggers knocked against glass and concrete kicking up a crushing din. The air smelled of dust and damp buildings. On the horizon a crane quietly lifted a section of steel and concrete off the top of the tallest remaining structure….