“It’s like a cross between parkour and tag,” the young man explained. “Mostly tag.”
Like when you’re five, his friend had told me earlier. They were a friendly bunch – early 20s, mostly white, seemingly sober, and unfazed at being approached by a proper grownup while they ran, jumped, swung and clambered up workmen’s ladders in an activity that probably wasn’t strictly legal.
This game of tag was taking place in the dark on a weeknight, on a bunch of scaffolding and platforms that hovered above the river in the space between two sides of the Victoria Square bridge. Officially known now as Hamish Hay Bridge, after the former Christchurch city mayor, it has a hole in the middle, to reveal the tram railings that once carried traffic across it. It’s notable, apparently, for being the oldest iron and stone bridge in the country, all curlicued railings and sturdy sides. Normally you can look straight through to the water, not far below. Punts, kayaks and ducks are all that can pass under it. But, as my new friend points out, falling from the top piece of scaffolding onto the metal platform now sitting above the water could definitely do you some damage.
Young men are notoriously fearless creatures, thrilling at their own still-new strength, or so it’s always seemed to me. These ones move fast, bashing themselves heedlessly against iron, shouting to each other, landing with heavy clangs. It’s a refreshing change from what I know of boy racer culture – no cars, for one thing, obviously. No music, no booze, no drugs that I can see. Just adrenaline and laughter in the dark.
Nearby, in Victoria Square itself, another, larger bunch of people – also early 20s, mostly white, seemingly sober – practiced playing with fire. Kerosene made the night air tangy. Six, maybe seven young men and women took centre stage on the circular, paved section of the square, staffs and poi aflame. Ringed around them, friends and supporters watched and chatted. There’s invariably at least one person with a doumbek or a cajon at these things, playing vague undefined rhythms, so there was probably one there. They meet regularly and I see them often. Sometimes I watch. Mostly I just pass through. They seem like harmless kids.
Not so many years ago, before the quakes, when the Crowne Plaza hotel building still occupied what’s now called the Commons, skateboarders discovered that the circular, brick-paved section in front of it was an excellent place to ride and play. This spot was just across the bridge, within spitting distance of where these young men and women are playing now. Naturally the management of said hotel, which was a little bit flash, did not approve and there was a great deal of pearl-clutching about how the skateboarders’ wheel noises might disturb the sleep of international travellers 10 or 12 storeys above. Christchurch likes to think of itself as a tourist-first sort of place, which is why we run a dinky tram service for them even though the last real tram quit our roads in 1954, and once moved a quaintly hidden fountain to the edge of the street and painted it in brighter colours so they couldn’t miss it. Of course, all the best cities in the world pretend not to care about tourists at all, because they are largely focused on the needs of the people who live and work there, and the resulting textured human stew is what makes tourists want to visit in the first place. Imagine New York City if everyone had to go to bed at 10pm. Imagine London with nothing to do but look at Beefeaters all day. For that matter, imagine Queenstown with nothing BUT snow sports.
Late at night, on the Commons, there is sometimes music; the sound of someone flexing their fingers on the covered piano, retracing old exam pieces, perhaps, with no pressure to do it well. It’s haunting; magical.
People who don’t spend much time in here call this the dead centre of a doughnut city. But death is the fertiliser of life, after all, and here in our mucky dustbowl all manner of rare and lovely things grow, unconstrained as yet by the need for tidiness and cultivation. I fear we’ll lose them, when the rest of the grownups return and start laying down the law.