Michael stopped at Kate’s desk and asked if she was ready to go. She nodded, looking at the clock on her computer and then at her watch. She bent under her desk to get her safety boots and hard hat. Michael leaned slightly on the top of the partition of the cubicle she and two other men worked in, waiting. Putting the hat on her desk, Kate slipped off her flat pumps with opposite feet, pulled on heavy socks over her black stockings and worked her feet into the large lace-up steel-capped boots. Michael talked to the man in the cubicle next to her. She looked back under the desk then started lifting papers and folders on top of her desk. They’d all been given new high-visibility vests when the company had changed its name, she’d had hers on a couple of times but now she couldn’t find it. Michael looked at his watch. She lifted her hard hat to check under it.
‘It’s in your hat,’ Michael said, raising his eyes to the man in the other cubicle.
‘Oh,’ she said, raising her eyes to Michael. She pulled it out as she stood up to make sure it was the vest, picked up a folder from her desk and they left the office. Another man was waiting at reception for them, he told the receptionist they were going to Featherston Street, she typed as he spoke and asked if they had their cell phones. They did, but it would be good if she could take messages.
The three of them walked together along Lambton Quay, through a channel of tall buildings which cast square shadows on them. The two men talked about the building they were visiting and another building and about a cement plant and the fissure in one of the basement columns. She nodded and said, ‘Hm,’ when they said, ‘You were down there, eh Kate?’ and ‘Yeah,’ when they said, ‘That’s how it is wouldn’t you say?’ She walked looking straight ahead, holding her folder, vest and hard hat by her side, swinging them slightly with the arc her arm made as she walked in step with the men. She would catch her reflection occasionally and adjust her dress shirt over her tailored skirt. Her hair was long and still slightly wet from the shower she’d taken at the gym that morning, it was pulled into a pony tail which flicked as she walked.
The building they were walking to could be seen from blocks back, all three of them looked up as it appeared from behind the line of buildings and grew as they got closer. The building was sixteen storeys high, the top twelve levels were office space then there were two levels of car parking and a ground level of retails space. It had about 3,000 m² of floor plate and in terms of floor area was the biggest in Wellington. It was L-shaped. Like a leg bent at its knee or an arm at its elbow. It strongheld the corner of Feathertson and Bunny Streets. The cladding was designed to break up the face of the building so it would read like three moderate buildings but for now it was huge. The roof was on but the building was still open so the concrete columns, beams and floors that held the building up stood uncomplicated, framing the sky like an exhibition of sky and clouds. Four cranes stood around the building and it was alive with workers in white hard hats and orange vests. The frames closed as the engineers got nearer until by the time they stood at the base of the building all they saw when they looked up was one tiny part of the building disappearing into the sky.
They turned off the footpath through the hoardings and past the risks board where all of them put on their hard hats as if they were part of a civil tattoo. They climbed narrow steel stairs set into the scaffolding which framed the building. The stairs led to a narrow scaffold bridge flanked by shipping containers which were being used by the construction workers as rooms to leave their things in: lunches, jackets, bags. They met several construction workers coming and going from the rooms, without looking they made way for each other in the close space, often touching, and carried on. Once past a few of the construction workers turned slightly to look at the three engineers walking away from them.
The site office was set up in what would be an actual office when the building was completed. The engineers stopped at a clipboard on a wall just inside the door and the two men stepped back without stopping talking to each other. Kate signed herself in and passed the pen to one of the men, she waited while they signed and together they walked to the site manager’s desk. He stood up as they came toward him. He was new and when the men introduced Kate he mistook her for an architect and immediately, realising his mistake, apologised. She raised her hand and shook her head and made a joke at her own expense about women and maths and heavy lifting.
They’d come to see a crack in the north-west side of the roof. No one was overly worried, they just thought it was a good idea to have a look at it. Kate said again that it seemed fine but she thought it was prudent to look at it for real as well, and the others agreed, everyone agreed. The site manager listened and nodded, there was a calendar behind him with a woman on it, and she peeped out from one shoulder then the other as he put on his vest and hard hat. Kate and the other engineers pulled their vests on too. Kate drew her ponytail out from under the vest’s collar as she made a comment about a game of rugby the others were talking about that made them all laugh and say, ‘Yeah,’ and nod.
They walked from the office still talking about sport. There were no windows or walls, only concrete. Columns stood at regular spaces holding the long deep beams that ran over them which, in turn, held the Hollowcore floor slabs of the storey above, some of the timber infill was still visible and it broke the grey colour of the plane but not its geometry. It was a meditation on order; every regular framed shape tied back to the hybrid coupled shear walls which ran from deep in the earth to the sixteenth floor. The shear core’s position had been drawn and re-drawn so that now the building’s centres of mass and rigidity coincided as nearly as possible, in this way, the dog-leg could be a square. The lateral loads that tried to twist its wings off would be resisted here at the building’s point of highest mass and rigidity. They walked past the huge square core and without looking or a break in their talk were gently impressed by its weight and its power and the elegant solution it provided.
The floor would seem bigger when the walls and the ceilings and the furniture came in, that’s what one of them would have said if there was a visitor with them, some one who wasn’t an engineer or a construction worker, not in a worrying way just to make small talk as they walked the wide expanse to the caged lift. A visitor would comment on how odd the empty space seemed, they would get disorientated by it, turn left when they should turn right, looking at the small things, the hammer guns, the cords. ‘What I never get used to,’ one of the engineers would say, ‘is the way it actually looks bigger once everything is in here. It’s odd don’t you think? Like when you buy a house and you worry that all your furniture won’t fit, and it does.’ But it was just them so they talked about sport and other buildings.The lift arrived and they kept talking. The lift operator slid the steel door open for them and they stepped from the solid concrete to the cantilevered lightness of the lift. None of them looked particularly where their feet were going. They acknowledged the lift operator who pulled the door shut behind them and they moved toward the end of the large lift which hung out over the street. The lift stopped at each floor to pick up more men. Kate held her folder against her chest under casually folded arms and stepped back and back until she was resting on the caged wall at the end of the lift. The men talked and she watched the view. She was short amongst them, the lift was noisy and it was hard for her to hear. Most of the men from her firm had worked with her for a long time and they knew it was hard to join her into conversation when there were loud noises in small spaces, she would say, ‘Sorry,’ and ‘Pardon,’ and nod in a way that made them realise she couldn’t hear them, they didn’t talk to her, they leant into each other and shouted in deep voices and laughed but they never talked or laughed about her.
When they reached the sixteenth floor they had to push past the ball of men in overalls and vests and hard hats. Kate smiled looking each man she passed in the eye if he was looking. From the sixteenth floor they climbed more temporary steel stairs that rang under their heavy boots. Kate climbed the stairs at a pace and slightly away from the banister so her skirt wouldn’t catch. They stepped onto the roof, adjusting their final step to the slope of it and their eyes to the brightness of it. The wind was high and messy. Kate took control of the conversation, shouting without shrill above the wind about what she needed to see and asking the site-manager questions about aggregate sizes and dates, which he recalled from his head. She asked about the weather, he shouted, didn’t she have all that, she shouted that she did, but just, what did he remember about the weather, off the top of his head. The other engineers left Kate and the site-manager to look at the crack. They walked to the edge of the roof to look at the view.
Kate and the site-manager walked to where the crack was and looked at it, from standing first, then walked around it. Then, as they shouted things at each other, they looked behind themselves to see the wind coming, blowing originally from the North then worried into downwash flows off the large exposed buildings on Waterloo and Whitmore which channelled and intensified the gusts between themselves. It blew in their faces as they looked and took their words as they shouted about where the crack was sitting in the scheme of things, in the wind and the rain and the sun. It wasn’t large and it wasn’t deep she said, the site-manager agreed. It was there though. She bent to look at it, squatting with her knees together, her skirt stretching slightly to take the change in her shape. She touched the crack with her hand then lay her pen next to it, she stood and called for one of the other engineers to take a picture. She looked at the pen again, and it hopped slightly. All the sounds of the normal things were gone. All she could hear was the deepest noise of the Pacific plate locked against the Australian plate and trying to push under finally, suddenly rupturing and in one violent movement freeing the energy of the compressive and shear strain of ages and tonnes. Underground and along the ground vicious swells beat through rock and soil from the rip in all directions and at different frequencies reaching the Featherston building’s deep bore pile foundations animating them into a billow which the superstructure amplified. At once, and from the mass of every part of the building inertial forces sparked and resisted the drive to change. Kate looked up at the engineers coming toward her and they were oddly taller, then shorter. The roof plate surged and she was knocked forward onto her knees. Things began to fall and other things stayed put and shook. She tried to regain her balance and instead slid as if she were being grated against the concrete floor. She grabbed out for something solid, there was nothing. She thought calmly, Stay down, then one of the large air-conditioning units moved assertively with noise and she thought, Fuck.
It was like falling, trying to save herself from falling this way then that way with nothing to hold on to. She knew exactly what was happening, she knew every element, where it was going and how far it would go before it returned and it was no consolation; it shook and shook and shook from every direction, there was no ordering it and there wasn’t a part of her that wasn’t wanting it to stop. She tried to crawl to somewhere still then tried not to, tried to stay put, not move, move with the shaking but nothing was any good. She found herself close to the crack, it opened a little then folded over itself. The crack was fine, she thought, with a laugh, here it is being fine. She turned to show the site-manager. He was a metre from her smiling in terror, she smiled back trying to say with her smile and her eyes, Shit eh? Shit! Like she knew what to say, like when she was talking about sports teams, like even now, in all this, it was important to him and to her that she didn’t look like she shouldn’t be there. Shit, she smiled as she was thrown backwards looking quickly to see where she was going.
There was nothing to hold on to, she grabbed at the flat concrete but there was nothing to hold on to, below her she could almost feel the beam of a moment frame, she looked down and imagined the roof plate moving over it, she could see the bending moments shifted through the rigid joints from beam to column without rotation. The regular shape of the frame like a handle for her as it resisted the shaking in bending and shear. She reached for it and caught hold of a length of steel casing pipe but it wasn’t attached any more and instead of anchoring her it came effortlessly with her hand as her whole body was pushed again back from it forcefully toward where it used to be attached. She looked up and saw all the men again fighting the rock of the concrete slab, the ladders, the scaffold falling, most of them down flat on their stomachs grasping reaching, some shouting, holding their hard hats with their hands, flapping around, some private part of them all on display to all of them. She tried to get up again and one of her knees came down hard on the slab again and she again tried to reach for something that would hold her still. She looked over a concrete barrier to the sky and followed it big and over them, all the way over them. She felt suddenly ill, dry-retched, threw up and everything was still again.
All around her men found themselves, picked themselves up. The noise of voices replacing the noise of steel and concrete shifting. She wiped her face and shirt, pulled her skirt over her knees, one of which was bleeding and swollen and stood up, checking if she could help anyone. There was dust everywhere and men were making their way down the scaffold stairs which stood still braced firmly to the building. She wandered in that direction. ‘You all right?’ they said to each other as they waited for their turn to climb down the stairs and ‘That was a bit of a rock’. No one helped her more than any of the men, no one helped her less. Car alarms were sounding, there were new noises, odd noises, coming from the new place they were in. A fire had started in the high court across the road. They could see smoke coming from the building, no one pointed.
On the lower floors there were men shouting and some were panicking and everyone was shaking and cold and pale but they helped each other and before long all the men that had been on the roof and the upper floors and Kate were further down the building. They walked down and round, in stern slow lines. Kate felt sick again she walked out onto the eighth floor to throw up. The crane that had stood beside the western wall was at an angle lying down and against the building. She walked toward it, stopped and put one hand against a column. Resting all her weight through her straight arm she bent over and threw up. She straightened, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and looked at the base of the columns she could see. Most of the cover concrete had spalled off them, it lay in distinct, chippy piles, as if the columns had grown up quickly from the floors. With the covers gone she could see the closely-spaced spiral ties stabilizing the steel reinforcing bars and confining the cracked concrete so it didn’t fall out from the column core. The base of the columns had failed, like they were supposed to, sacrificed themselves in ductile yield so they didn’t shear and take the whole building with them. The floor plate was cracked a little, some scaffolding had come down, there were personal things lying around, dropped or shaken off people, she could see a safety boot someone had stepped out of, or fallen out of, someone’s cell phone, broken. She looked up, the beams looked in good shape. She thought how well they had done, all of them. Then the noise came again and the building rocked around her and under her. She could see the concrete shifting in the columns and thought of a heart without a chest in a Victorian book she’d seen – beating in a cage. Everything was plastic then ductile, she could feel the shear core holding the wing she was in from twisting like it was playing with someone bigger. It was coming from every where again and the building next door, an older, shorter building came closer and closer and as she watched, disappointed but completely resigned, its floor slab slammed over and over into the parameter columns of the building she was in.
Kate was thrown to the ground. She grabbed again at the flat floor which again offered no purchase at all. Like a train pulling out from a station she heard the columns finally shear at their mid-section then pull the beams with them, then the floors. Every second now the building was something new and the new thing finally twisted the floor open and pulled her down so she was falling and watching the building coming down on top of her exactly as she expected it would. Look at you, she thought, ‘Be monsters’ she said, and it was.
All the air was knocked out of her when she hit the floor of the hole she fell into and the building came down and down and down on her. Something formed a small roof long enough for her to roll onto her side and put her arms above her head to shield herself from it all falling on top of her. She shut her eyes tight, bracing herself and heard as it fell and fell and fell and stopped. She finally felt the weight of it, as she arrived in the tiny space that was left for her inside all the ordered things she said they needed to hold up enough space to put the cars and the people and all their things in, broken into small pieces finding their own way. She lay their unable to put her arms down, unable to straighten her legs, stiffening up in the cold and the dust. She tried to cough but the sides of her ribs and her stomach were pinned tight, she let out a tiny cough and took up shallow, steady breathes that make a tide in the fine dust floating in the space her arms made around her face. She opened her eyes and it was as if she hadn’t, except for the dust that floated into them, there was no change. She closed them then opened, wide, to see the darkness she was in. It was close and at the same time went huge distances in every direction, she looked as far as she could confused with the blindsight of her other senses, her arms pressing on her face and head telling her she was looking down the short tunnel of her arms and her elbows, but she couldn’t see her arms or her elbows, her arms and elbows simply disappeared in the darkness, spread out into it becoming black and then part of it. She knew she was caught, she couldn’t move but she felt like she floated in the darkness, like the dust. Smell called her back, the washing detergent she used on her shirt mixed with body odour and vomit and deodorant and blood coming from a new cut on her cheek. She could move her tongue and taste the blood. She couldn’t shout or speak, she could hear others shouting but there wasn’t enough room to take the breathe she needed, when she prepared to speak the broken concrete and steel around her choked the inhale and she coughed her tiny cough. She shut her eyes.
It was cold and then she was very hot. The arm under her head took her attention, everything was cramped but it was tingling with pins and needles. She moved her fingers slightly and a few chips of rubble fell a couple of centimetres. She opened her eyes and shut them again and she listened. Things that weren’t her pushed their way from lung to blood and then the blood raced round her, the dust was making her concrete. She stroked the sharp hard bits her fingers could reach as if to say hello. She laughed, the tight hiccup of a laugh the space allowed. Her hands, pinned behind her head, ran over the small space they had, her pinky caught on the smooth round of a steel reinforcing bar, it was bigger but now she had no idea which way it was bigger so it was only the reach of her smallest finger in the tiniest space, it was a smooth centimetre bordered by a skirt millimetres high. It was life-sized to her small finger, it was a bench that a sink is set into, a place to do dishes at. It was a desk her finger might sit at and work and take calls from and lose things on. She slowed the travel of her finger, it exhausted her. You can’t design for this, she thought as if she was saying it to someone, later, in a meeting room, where she was trying to explain, perhaps she was shouting, trying to save her job. It was a heap now, if they wanted her to design for this there would be nothing but heaps, heaps and bunkers, she couldn’t design for this. High above her through metres and metres of broken concrete floors and columns and beams and scaffold, more beams and columns and floors and scaffold fell and hard hats and thermos flasks and paper and nails all in the orange of the fires in the darkness of dust blocking out the sun. She thought about her parents and she thought about the others and how they got out, how she was the last one in the building and how that was symbolic somehow and it was dark and like a sleeping palace and she thought, It’s not as simple as this and she called herself back to the moment at hand, eight storeys up, shaking and pounded at, and tried again.
She got to all fours – hands, knees, the casing concrete raining around her, the outer columns pushing x-shaped belts in their mid-sections, everything shouting and shaking and failing toward the next door building’s punching at it with a rigid, solid fist. She got from knees to crouching still pushing at the violent floor with her hands like a sprinter at the start of a race, something non-structural and tube-like and heavy fell across her shoulders and winded her and she started. She fell and she started again and she ran for the shear core which rocked and shook as if it was going somewhere as if she had to catch it before it left. She fell and pulled herself along the ground until she could stand again and then she stood again and ran and when she was inside the core crawled to a corner of it and pulled her knees tight to her chest and listened to the parameter columns fail and the floorplate fall to them closing off the place she had been standing in. The shear core wailed a little toward it and the rhythm of it changed slightly but it stood, unaware of Kate, who all the forces tried to spit out of the corner. She pushed hard at the floor with her feet to hold herself there, and when she was thrown she would crawl back and hold herself there again. All around her elements were breaking free and rioting against each other, everything was louder and louder, then she heard shouting, heard herself shouting, loud wordless sounds coming from inside all the boom of the building resisting and the whine of the steel chafing and the ground moving under it all, oblivious.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pip Adam is a Wellington short story writer whose work has appeared in Sport, Glottis, Turbine, Landfall, Lumière Reader, Hue & Cry and Blackmail Press. Her first collection of stories, Everything We Hoped For, was published by Victoria University Press this year. She is currently completing a PhD Creative Writing at the IIML. Her project investigates how the language and experience of structural engineers might be used to write short stories about buildings. You can follow her at https://twitter.com/PipAdam