The Russian Point of View
1. At 7.30 am on Saturday morning my mother phones with news of the earthquake. She does not say that she was frightened. She talks about the cat, which is lost, and how cold the house is.
2. I have a new e book reader loaded with a hundred classics. e reading anywhere, anytime it says, as it powers up. It looks primitive, like one of those early mobile phones. Why do I always press ‘next’ before I have read the last three words on the page?
3. Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky has been carrying on an intrigue with his children’s governess. Dolly has found out and will not leave her room. What’s to be done? What’s to be done? he says to himself in despair.
4. Dolly, he believes, is a woman of limited capacity, but he needs her agreement now for the sale of a certain forest on her property. He may be sued by his tailor. That is how bad things are.
5. Stepan Arkadyevitch remembers the exact minute when he arrived home, happy and good natured from the theatre, with a huge pear in his hand for his wife, and found her in the wrong room, with the letter that revealed everything in her little hand.
6. Soon after I arrive, my mother tells me that the big earthquake roared like a wild animal. I assume a lion. According to the newspaper the roar of an earthquake is the sound made by the fault slipping. It makes this noise with no consciousness or purpose, my mother says.
7. I picture her waking to the roar of a lion. Stopping to put on her dressing gown and slippers and pick up her torch. No lights at the neighbours', no streetlights, no teeth. Broken glass under her feet. The bitter frost.
8. Stepan Arkadyevitch has summoned his sister, Madame Karenina.
9. ‘Do you know Vronsky?’ he asks his friend Levin over an excellent dinner. ‘Fearfully rich, handsome, great connections, an aide de camp, and with all that a very nice, good natured fellow.’
10. But Vronsky treats Kitty badly. He a man of the world, with two fine rows of teeth, and she a virgin in a ball dress.
11. Next day, Vronsky and Oblonsky are at the Moscow railway station to meet the Petersburg train. The hiss of the boiler on distant rails, the rumble of something heavy.
12. Vronsky steps into Anna’s carriage.
13. Several men run by with panic stricken faces. A guard is crushed. Perhaps he was drunk? Perhaps he was so muffled up in the bitter frost that he didn’t hear the train?
14. Each morning I inspect cracks in the concrete to see if they have grown. I take photographs of these cracks. I follow instructions for water sterilization and I clean salad vegetables in boiled water. I feel breathless, as if somehow I can’t keep up.
15. Bedrock gets loaded up with stress because it is being dragged on from underneath, says a lecturer in Geological Sciences. It’s beautiful, says one of his post-graduate students, one side insisting on change, the other resisting. Change prevailing.
16. Oh no!!! It’s Vronsky!!! I text a friend who knows the Russians. He doesn’t answer.
17. Please don’t fall in love with Vronsky, I say to Karenina, but I know she will.
18. The first duty of the duty seismologist is to offer reassurance. The more faults we find that have slipped, the better, he says. Strain on all the regions faults has been reduced. Etc. Sometimes the cracking can be a new fracture, but mostly, and always in large quakes, the ground gives along existing fault lines.
19. I meet a woman who keeps a turtle. On the night of the quake she found the turtle, wrapped him in a towel and held him on her lap. When daylight came, she saw that he was bleeding from a long cut on his neck. How strange, she says, that a sharp piece of glass found the only soft part.
20. A feature writer tells us she cried in the newsroom. The earthquake has fractured her real estate deal, leaving her in a landscape which no one had ever seen before. The most unfeeling of her colleagues asked her if she was all right.
21. The most unfeeling colleague of the feature writer who cried in the newsroom has his own column. He is not afraid at night. He goes with the flow. After all, there’s nothing that he can do to stop it.
22. Anna Karenina will be cut in half by a train. I know she will.
23. The feature writer who cried in the newsroom writes that she is not afraid of dying. She is afraid she will not be able to manage the repayments on five hundred thousand dollars at the current floating rate.
· The trend of falling newspaper readership among the young continues.
· The next edition of the Oxford Dictionary may not be published in book form.
24. Experts have come from many places to see the earthquake. Immediately there is conflict. The Australian geologists think the fault slipped east to west, like migration. The Kiwis think west to east, like the prevailing wind. The Americans think the break happened at the thin part in the middle.
25. There’s the excitement of the fault itself, but then I talk to people who were affected and it’s very sad, says a scientist for whom English is a third language.
26. Tolstoy helps. ‘The answer which life gives to all questions is: one must live in the needs of the day.’ I wonder if his flat tone, which I savour as a form of wisdom quite separate from his words, is an artefact of translation.
27. My bed floats like a dinghy in the turning tide. After three days the cat returns. Takes up residence behind the tv but comes out at night to sit at the window, staring in the direction of the fault.
28. You can almost give these things a personality, says the man who was duty seismologist on a night with twelve aftershocks. It sometimes feels like they’re out to get you.
29. Hyacinths. My mother’s brother died when he was thirteen. Hyacinths in the hospital.
30. Hyacinths on the kitchen windowsill.
31. According to the newspaper, there are two energy waves. The P wave is fast and travels through crustal rock. The S wave arrives later. It cannot pass through liquid or penetrate the earth’s outer core.
32. Sometimes there is no warning sound. The nature of earthquakes allows for this.
33. Two days after I left, my mother tells me that she sat down in her armchair, thinking to do the crossword, and found herself crying. Unable to stop.