Title: Rankine Brown

Author: Pip Adam

In: Sport 40: 2012

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, 2014, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Verse Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 40: 2012

Rankine Brown

page 367

Rankine Brown

No one entering the building looked up. A long shot across the second floor showed them though—the relatively deep ceiling recesses at regular intervals, like a large child lying on its back had pushed rectangular forms into the concrete as it set. Students and librarians are busy at work under giant, empty ice trays, the light plays into the hollows. People like space. They like to be warm and dry and safe but they also like space. They want to feel like they’re outside when they’re inside. No one likes low ceilings or an excess of walls. The waffle slabs act as broad, reinforced concrete beams which run to sixteen main columns. Steel reinforcing bars run in north-south, east-west directions through the slab. The concrete in between these reinforcing bars was removed to create a two-way concrete joist system but no one looks up.

‘Is it dreadful?’

Kate turned from the computer, taking out one of her earphones but keeping her eyes on the screen. ‘The building looks good, there are some nice shots of the waffle slab.’

‘Wait until you get to the bit about lower insurance premiums.’

‘Don’t ruin it.’ Kate yawned and stretched but still watched her screen.

‘You should watch it tomorrow.’

‘I’ve only got until tomorrow.’ She paused the video.

‘And you’ve had it for weeks.’

‘And I’ve had it for weeks.’

‘And you can’t come for a drink with me?’ She shook her head, starting the video again.

‘And I should leave you alone?’

‘And you should leave me alone.’ In the screen, reflected in the round face of a librarian, she saw William walking away, putting his jacket on. He turned out most of the lights in the office, then the light above Kate, then turned it back on again before it had fully finished page 368 stuttering off. The office was empty. There was only the librarian now. No ghosts. She rubbed her eyes again.

She wished they’d designed the waffle-slabs, wished she was fact- checking some clickety old Super 8 of the slabs going up. A man in a suit, maybe he’d be smoking. Hand-drawn diagrams of the height, the light, the span, the sharp end of the pen that drew it, the place where the draftsman pressed hard then lighter, something outside catching his attention, or he’d sneezed. Kate put her hand out and covered the librarian’s face, so she could feel the fuzz come off the screen; she turned her hand over and over, felt the synthetic material in her cardigan snap at it, like scrapping. She looked at the tiny split of a scar in between the knuckles of her hand. Every time she looked at it she could feel her elbow, the slightly new shape she’d made it, the way the ball didn’t quite return to the socket any more. Like she was Hephaestus. She laughed, remembered them laughing. ‘What am I? Hephaestus?’ If she kept at it she could make herself vomit, had made herself vomit—her stupid slapping, their faces, naked, her stupid shouting, punching the wall. She looked behind her; there was no one there, it was hours until morning. She paused the video again, wound the cursor back past the long-shot of no one looking up to the screen of white letters on black, SEISMIC RETROFITTING ‘EARTHQUAKE PROTECTION OF A LIBRARY BUILDING WHILE IN USE’.

They’d inserted seismic isolation units at the base of the sixteen main columns so that in the event of an earthquake the return period would be lengthened and therefore the shake Rankine Brown experienced would be less intense. Metal props on hydraulic jacks were placed around the columns, at their base and on the three floors above. The supports were raised until they took the weight usually experienced by each of the columns. They’d estimated the total weight of Rankine Brown at between 800 and 1000 tonnes. As they lifted the jacks a small horizontal crack would appear in the column as it shifted from compression to tension. Instead of shrinking under the pressure of the building as it had always done, it hung from the slab above it. With the column free of its responsibilities the thread of a diamond saw cutter could be wound round the base of the column to cut it through. A camera crew had caught it all. ‘Our patented seismic page 369 isolation units,’ the voice over said.

She’d been asked to check the promotional video before it was sent out. The librarian again, saying the retrofit project was relatively unobtrusive. Students taking books from stable shelves, working at computers and reading at desks. The librarian’s cheerful voice, the students happy, the staff happy. Kate had been there during the cutting. The librarians had put signs everywhere offering students earplugs which they could collect from the main issue desk on Level 2. They didn’t work. People mistook the vibrations for sound but it was a subtle returning shake. It was almost imperceptible on some floors and in some parts of some floors but it was there and would have been impossible to place if you didn’t understand it. It felt like an illness, like seasickness perhaps, and the students would go to the main issue desk and ask for earplugs and the earplugs would just lock the shake in. It came out of the student’s pores because that’s what waves do, keep travelling, but eventually the diamond saw would complete a cut through one metre of concrete and steel leaving a clean, wet gap, separating the base and the column with a sort of pop. The students above feel strange in their sea-legs then solid and surer but then it all begins to shake again as the men below begin the second cut a metre up from the first. This time the students check their chairs, the fittings around them and each other. They read the sign again, trying to believe it is sound until the second cut is complete and they feel the absence of it in their bodies, and they take out their earplugs.

There’s a shot of the saw being threaded through a small hole drilled through the corner of the column. Then of the contractors checking the metal supports with spirit levels. Plumb. There’s a rhythm to it all, the heavy work, an almost physical telepathy with the cutting, the raising. Kate had watched several of the columns cut, stood just behind, checking the containment of the dust, the path of the water. Supervising the contractors, shouting ‘Hang on’ when she had to, stopping everything in its tracks, feeling the concrete dust dough in her mouth despite the containment and the masks, flicking it off her trousers, stomping it off her boots. Then, when everything looked right to her again, ‘Okay!’

They were all standing very close as the whine started up and one of the contractors had shouted to another, ‘Can she hear us?’ And the page 370 other man replied, ‘If she can, we’ll know.’ Kate had just got back from Christchurch, from Esk Street, from the ranting and the being big. She hadn’t slept, despite being right, completely right. She’d told the lawyers not to call her at work, she was busy. The concrete dust got under her wedding ring—she would decide when it was over. Rankine Brown was floating. There was a pop. She felt it lift under the pressure of so little downward force. Almost nothing. Like lightness was entering it from every direction—directions that hadn’t existed an hour before. And the lightness came into the spaces that had always been there. The hollow floors. Air. Light. The concrete in the columns opened tiny porous gaps out of which escaped dust adding to the lightness in infinitesimal and acutely noticeable ways. Dizzying ways. The steel, embedded deep in the concrete, lay suspended and barely stressed. Was this some slow creeping explosion? It steadied itself slightly. Kate saw pressure, in the corners, on several storeys where the forces fell out, washed out, fell, and from here down Rankine Brown was free, hanging now but with the promise of walking, running. An elevator arrived on the seventh floor. A live load transferred into the slab, half to the west, half to the east, travelling along broad beams into columns. Each column took its share and the load travelled down and down and in one column was gone. Lost to it, all in a split second. Kate looked up and through. The slab above the hanging column was four millimetres higher than the rest. It puckered, the other slabs shrunk around it, three point nine-nine, three point nine-eight. Kate watched the men move the diamond drill, moved to see it closer, and when they looked at her she nodded sending the waves into the floor plate and up and up and so it ran everywhere, shaking all the students and all the librarians and her and Rankine Brown until they were through.

Kate removed her mask and wiped her face. One of the people from the film crew was talking to one of the contractors, waving his arms about a bit, the contractors pointing at Kate. As many people as possible got out of the road so, now, it’s just a shot of the cut section contained in the specially designed cradle aligned with steel runners. The tonne of concrete slides out, you can just see one of the contractors legs behind it, pushing, then a second contractor walks in to pull. No one says ‘Ta-da!’ but it’s the moment the magician slides his assistant’s page 371 mid-section out from inside her. The whole process looks like dentistry in the video—clean, ordered, easy. The base isolation unit is fed into the gap at the base of the column. Cut to close-up. Cut to mid-shot. It’s fixed with grout and bolted into place separating Rankine Brown from the earth and the rock and the plates and a blonde woman reads a book under the waffle slab roof.

Kate writes an email: ‘It all looks fine. Nice work.’

It’s quiet and cold outside. She walks down Willis Street, Dominic and Honor asked her to leave the Wellington property. ‘Fine,’ she said, ‘fine.’ She’d rented an apartment on Webb Street, bought new things as she needed them, things she’d always meant to buy but had been too busy to get: a decent can opener, sharp knives, a couch she could sleep on. She’d be fine. She looked up at Rankine Brown on the hill, couldn’t help but, all freshly isolated. She slowed and stopped and turned. They’d done an amazing thing. They’d broken it and held it and fixed it again so that it could be different. She watched it, on the hill, lights lit, from here she could almost see how the others saw it—in pictures, in pretend. She tried to look at it like they would, tried to give it eyes, a mind. It heard floating now, it was free from the ground. ‘Can she hear us?’ Voices came and whispered, Skating and Flying and Kate watched it hear bigger. Saw it go somewhere bigger, somewhere so huge Rankine Brown was small in it. A town that got out of town. Some place where all the miles have dissipated and there’s no law except feelings and stories. Shell structures billow out, as they free themselves from their tension rings and become flat and slide under things. Tension structures slowly snap everything holding them to the ground. The centenary cables recoil slowly, deliberately and the tents float away. Rankine Brown under a sky of tension structure clouds and over a sea of shell structure. ‘Now like fish,’ they sing. ‘Now like fish.’ And why would she go home? Rankine Brown spends more and more time in the big place, the place where not one of them needs to stay what they are until one day she meets a large structure with a domed roof, it asks her who looks after where she is? Where she really is. He’s older, regular, he stays gravity-loaded. He stands, he says, because of gravity, not in spite of it. She discerns it immediately; un-reinforced masonry, each brick held in place by the weight of the one above it, in larger and larger circles until it all stands, falling from page 372 an opening in the apex of the dome. He’s grateful he says, so he comes here, keeping his shape to show his gratitude and talks to others, and he’s seen her here a few times, floating, moving freely and he thought to himself, when he woke, back in the embrace of forces, he thought, Who is looking after where she is and he thought, I will come back to this place tomorrow and ask her. He stands at once in front of her and around her and under her. This is how it is here. He holds his shape but not his position in space, not his size, or his orientation, and that is how he asks his question, by enveloping her. She is not sure if she will reply, if she can reply. He’s closer—closes in on her and says, don’t worry, just go back and look after where you are, be there just for now. Don’t come back.

Kate looks at Rankine Brown again, from the dark, from the cold wind around her and she just can’t see it, the mysterious place, the person inside the building. It was far more magical than that. It was material dug from the ground and remade. A mountain moved and made useful, then defiant in the face of even the mountains moving. The windows weren’t eyes; they were a slow moving liquid sand, pounded and heated into shape by machines built by men. It wasn’t robotic, it offered no refuge except shelter and storage. Ta-da, Kate said and turned and made for home.