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Image: Toby Morris
Image: Toby Morris

EssayOctober 5, 2022

The big snow: Christchurch, 1992

Image: Toby Morris
Image: Toby Morris

For John Summers, snow in Christchurch brings back memories of himself as a nine-year-old boy who took up little space and did what he was told.

I saw a photo the other day of the snow that covered Christchurch in 1992. “The big snow”, it was called. Airplanes were grounded, the river would flood and, out in the fields around the city, lambs died by the thousand. The photo omits this chaos. It was of thick drifts on the streets of Beckenham, cars stranded. But there is something wrong with the picture: those cars look too old, the shop fronts are dated. I know this because I was there, and those cars and shops were only as they could have been to me – not old, not new, just the cars and shops I saw every day.

I was nine years old, and the snow was thrilling. The silence, waking to see our backyard entirely white, the soft crush of it underfoot and air that stayed cold even as it entered your lungs. Nothing like it had ever happened before. Even adults thought so, and the normal rules were forgotten. School was cancelled. My brother and I ran about outside, jumping and rolling in it until my shoes were soaked through and my hands ached with the cold. And when I came inside, it was on TV too. I sat on our couch and I watched what I had already seen.

But at some point during all of this, I felt my breathing thicken, that cold air having an effect, and by afternoon I was struggling, wheezing loudly. I began to breathe in gulps, pushing my head up into the air like someone sinking beneath the water. None of this helped. I could take only one breath for every two I needed, and then for every three, for every four. I was losing. I lay on the couch, mum holding my asthma inhaler to my mouth. I sucked on it desperately. I got better, although not better enough.

In Christchurch hospital I was given a bed and a thing called a nebulizer. It created a medicinal mist for me to breathe, and I sat in its fog, my mother in an armchair beside me. Gradually my asthma become little more than a rasp. Even so, we were told I would need to spend the night, and my mother stayed with me and slept in that arm chair beside the bed. A curtain was pulled around us and through it I heard a girl somewhere on that same floor who cried loudly and frequently. Sometimes I heard the nurses too, talking amongst themselves, not about me, but something important and serious, something grown up.

I heard that the girl had lead poisoning from old paint her parents had scrapped off their house. I don’t know if this is right, but it is my memory, and it fitted the way I understood things to be: paint flakes fluttering down to inflect your blood, the snow appearing overnight, the asthma, the doctors making their pronouncements. Once a fortnight my brother and I went to our gate to wait for our father to take us to his house for a weekend. Stuff just happened, it came to you. One morning I woke up in my bed and when I went to sleep that night it was in the hospital’s sheets.

This was not unique to me. It is surely the way of all children, the world continually throwing forward new things to respond and react to. But I do think that this feeling was stronger, more persuasive for those of my nature. I was a “good boy”, I tried to do what mum and teachers and others asked, never attempting to have a say, and so all the while waiting for what next, to be told. I remember a hot day spent at my father’s house and there I told my sister that it would be great to go for a swim.

“Do you want to go swimming?” she said.

“No,” I lied. “I was just thinking about how good it would be.”

“If you want to go just ask.”

Unable to ask, to say what I wanted I moped under a tree with a book.

This was the way you were expected to be, were praised for being. Putting your hand up to ask permission, hurrying to class when the bell rang, speaking only at what our teachers called “an acceptable volume”. And yet, faced with this, there was an unease among those same adults, as if discovering it wasn’t what they wanted after all. It was in my sister’s response, and the teacher’s indulgent smile at the hijinks of the class clown – I knew I could never earn one of those smiles. And there was their shock too at my marks. Being a good boy didn’t mean, as they assumed, that I was a good student. It was purely the condition of toeing the line. Admirable but unenviable. I wonder why I was this way.

One possibility is that it was a response. My parents had divorced. And so, having already encountered much strife and anguish, why add any more? But then that divorce occurred when I was small, younger than three. The earliest memories I have come later and are of the house mum rented in a suburb called Heihei, a brick house owned by a man named Cooney. Once I saw a coiled snake in one of the bedrooms. The girl next door had a playhouse that was three stories high. These memories are vivid but not accurate. It’s possible that there is an explanation in there but I cannot find it. What I can find instead, from this distance, is that desire to be small, to not make a fuss. In my first year at school, we painted pictures of ourselves, the others filling their sheets of paper, outstretched hands reaching each margin, wild hair bursting to the very top. I painted a tiny me in the bottom right-hand quarter. I left the rest of the sheet blank, as vast and white as the snowy streets of 1992.

Mum had driven me to the hospital, but I must have been distracted by my asthma because the drive is a memory I no longer have. I can imagine it now though, having since had the experience myself of driving in snow, knowing the way the car dances, sliding on just a little further when coming to a stop, the turns looser, the roads greasy with churned snow. I can picture the route we would have taken too, down Columbo Street, through Sydenham.

In my imagination we pass a house that is no longer there, but where I once saw a boy and his mother walking toward the door, both carrying groceries home. I had seen them before, and knew that, like us, the boy’s father didn’t live with them. You could see it in his following just behind, dragging the bag over his shoulder in a practised way. This was a mother and son used to always being a mother and son. We would have also passed the intersection where I’d spotted another boy my age. We had come to a stop there one night, outside a boxy, weatherboard house, a state house, and I looked up to see him at the second story window, combing his hair.

Both of these boys were like me I thought, even though on the surface they were very different. The mother of the boy on the corner was a punk, her hair a lavish mohawk. The boy at the window was Polynesian. In these and no doubt many other ways their lives were different, but there was something that I thought was the same. Each was also a “good boy”, I could see that in the carrying of the groceries, the combing the hair. These gestures spoke to a gentleness, a wish to please. It was heartening to know there were others like me out there, and I would always notice those two houses when we passed them, until eventually both disappeared. The house of the boy with the groceries was demolished and the spot became a grassy vacant lot. A block of flats would replace the home of the boy with the comb.

I wondered and I worried about those two, my doppelgangers without resemblance, both somewhere else now in the city, thinking, feeling as me. Those brief glimpses had me convinced of this, when really there was only the one boy I knew anything about, and he lay in his hospital bed. The doctor came by and said he should be able to go home so he waited for his mother to gather to his things. He listened to the squeak of rubber wheels on linoleum and the rattle of cups as a woman came toward him with a trolley. “Do you want a Milo?? she said.

“No thank you,” he said.

She smiled, and he watched her walk on. The snow melted on the ground outside. He listened to the trolley rattle away. Maybe she would turn around and ask him again. Of course she wouldn’t. He knew that. He thought it anyway.

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