This piece was written in response to transgressions against the Muslim community on 15th March 2019 in Ōtautahi, Christchurch. Aroha nui, aroha mai.
All the world will be your enemy. Prince, with a thousand enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you… Be cunning, full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.
– Richard Adams, Watership Down
It was sparked by a macabre conversation with a Colombian artist, Carlos Zapata, who told me that wherever there were freshly dead people in Colombia – be it gang warfare or a natural disaster – there was always someone there selling ice creams.
The article ended like this,
‘So tuck away scenes that keep your heart soft. And nothing fills me with more genuine empathy than the image of a small child dropping their ice cream, lip quivering, eyes widening as they burst into tears. Except perhaps the mass casualty victims lying in the background. I remain dead serious; the living is funny.’
Twenty five days after ‘Never Too Cold for Ice Cream’ was published, my city set the scene for a sequel. This is ‘Too Warm for Ice Cream’.
And it’s not funny.
15th March, 2019. 7:30am
‘Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy bir –’
Hide under the covers from that third happy birthday note. It’s always the worst.
‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!’
Twenty-eight. Shite. Mum Dad and Jessie crowded in the doorway. It’s nice, being home.
I sit down for eggs, and open my laptop. I’d offered to be the media liaison for the school strikers this afternoon. Re-read a draft media release between mouthfuls. School Students to Strike for Climate in Christchurch. Send.
15th March, 2019. 1:00pm
Christchurch Cathedral Square is packed. Children and children and children. And teenagers and toddlers and parents and teachers and- holy shit; there must be thousands of them. Banners and banners and banners.
Climate change is worse than homework; I missed chemistry for this! One sign showed a polar bear forlornly painting another polar bear with black Panda markings. Marvellous.
As they entered the square, a group of students performed a haka, a fiercely captivating Māori dance. Hard to imagine, unless you’ve seen one. I found the reporters to interview student organisers. Lucy is twelve, Mia is seventeen. They were slaying it.
Lucy explained the ecological emergency calmly to camera, and the incompetence of the government’s response. The clean-cut news presenter from TV1 looked slightly awed. He’s thinking the same as me: we took poor quality drugs at school – they’re concerned about the colonialist roots of climate injustice.
Best birthday ever.
Mia was on stage now.
‘It’s incredible to see so many students and schools show up for this. Who was the school that did that amazing haka? Was it you guys? Te Pā o Rākaihautū…’
She stumbled over the Te Reo school name.
‘Wow. I butchered that. I am so sorry.’
Did I just fall in love? My phone buzzed in my pocket. Must be more media calls.
‘Siana? It’s Nicole. Where are you?’
‘Oh hey! Still at the climate strike, it’s huge…’
‘You need to get out of the square.’
A week earlier
Nicole skipped over to the door to meet me, bright eyed. We embrace.
‘How are you doing?’ We say at once. Then groan-laugh, eyes rolling.
Life. It’s a bit much.
‘So… Geoff?’ I inquire. Nicole shakes her head.
‘We broke up. Well, I broke up with him because he needed to end it but didn’t. It was super messy and sad and it sucks. Now I’m playing the avoid-him-at-all-costs game.’
‘Ouch. How does that work in your Civil Defence team?’
‘So far I’ve been skipping the trainings that I know he’s going to.’
‘Haha, oh dear. You know it’s going to work out like some dark sitcom scene right? Where the first time you see each other after the break up will be in the midst of a mass casualty event. Bodies everywhere.’
Nicole laughed. She’s good like that.
15th March, 2019. 4:00pm
‘Well, happy birthday…’
Police had cleared thousands of people from the square. My friend Shannon and I ended up in a nearby pub, on lockdown for hours now. Quiet voices. Dark wood and high windows. A mix of news and rumours crept through the room.
Clink. We lock eyes and tap pints together.
‘Must be a family thing – Dad’s birthday is 11th September.’
‘I know right.’
‘Should we order some bread and cheese?’
A week later
Nicole came into the lounge. I hugged her. Tightly. Her eyes were different. I searched them.
‘What did you guys end up doing?’
‘Cleaning blood out of ambulances.’
We were quiet.
‘I can’t believe I made that joke about you and Geoff.’
Nicole paused, recalled. A hand went to her mouth. Eyes glinting.
‘Oh god. That’s right, you totally called it. It was surreal. He and I were restocking ambulances together – ’
‘Occasionally stopping to be like is this blood? And this – ’
‘And this, and this? Yes, yes it is.’
Laughing in agony. Nicole’s good, like that.
‘Helping in the tents set up for friends and families waiting for news from the hospital was worse though…’
Her face straightened.
‘That was bad.’
15th March, 2019. 5:30pm
At the door of the bar two men ask how far we’re going. Plain-clothes policemen or bar staff, I can’t tell.
‘Just a couple of blocks to my car.’
‘OK. Make sure you stick together.’
I laugh. I can’t help it.
‘To be fair, that’s not going to help.’
Being white does.
On the way home I pull into the garage for an ice cream. Stuck between two flavours. This one, or this? I grab one. It’s got sesame in it.
The guy at the check-out is telling a customer how lucky he is. He usually goes to Friday prayers at the Deans Ave mosque, but he’d been called into work. His family are OK. One friend is in hospital. I get to the check out.
‘I don’t know what to say, it’s too fucked… I’m so sorry.’
I gesture to the ice cream.
‘Might be a good time to get yourself one of these?’
Our eyes meet, alive with tragic excitement. He laughs. I get back in the car and wonder why he’s still at work.
Radio New Zealand crackles on. Unwrap the wrapper. Nice flavour. Cone is a bit stale though. Prime Minister Jacinda’s voice.
‘With deep sadness, I regret to confirm that 40 people have been killed in two mosque shootings in Christchurch. A further 90 people are injured…’
Last defence drops.
22nd March, 2019
Rolleston Avenue is packed. Children and children and children. And teenagers and toddlers and parents and flowers and- holy shit; there must be thousands of them. Flowers and flowers and flowers. Cards and paintings and teddy bears and candles for hundreds of metres. Pushing like a valiant tide against the realisation. Fifty-one. Gone is forever.
Black ink on white, red ink on black. Peace be with you and This is not who we are.
Oh, but it is.
It came as more of a shock to the white kiwi population than it did to any other. Those who experience racial discrimination are not surprised so easily. Disbelief is a privilege.
Down the wall of flowers people are kneeling, standing, staring, shuffling, hugging. Some Pākehā women are wearing hijabs in solidarity, perhaps in desperation. Some people are taking photos, arms extended to capture themselves and grief with a click. Trying to push through that invisible barrier that keeps us from… something.
Nestled in the flowers, a soccer ball.
Prince, with a thousand enemies.
Al Noor mosque on Deans Ave is being cleaned and replastered, so the call to prayer is held in Hagley Park. Twenty thousand people gathered. I had not heard the call to prayer since living in Abu Dhabi as a child. It is truly transporting. An ancient force of nomadic winds and gold and white sands, sharp edges of Bedouin belts, black dancing veils and dark-eyed dignity.
Al Noor imam Gamal Fouda’s voice carries over the speaker, addressing the dead.
‘Your departure is an awakening not just for our nation, but for all humanity.’
Imagination hits hard. Last moments of mothers and fathers. Not the dying, but the leaving.
And whenever they catch you, they will kill you.
Leaving this life knowing that side of the world you’re leaving your children in.
Weeks later, and I was fired up.
‘I can’t believe that journalist tried to ask the students about it. Did I tell you about that? At the second school strike, a few weeks after March 15th, this TV presenter asked Lucy how she felt being back striking for the climate after the shootings. She’s twelve! What kind of question is that? To be aired on national television? Journalists were so determined to keep the shooting central in the story of the next strike. The students were already talking about the strikes and climate change – which is heavy enough – then they were expected to answer questions about a mass murder. I got Lucy’s mum to withdraw consent for the interview – the presenter was so pissed off.
Another journalist from Radio New Zealand wanted to ask a similar question and I told him he couldn’t, that it wasn’t fair to ask a twelve-year-old to carry the emotional weight of the shooting in a traumatised community. He didn’t like that. He started talking down to me, doing that power thing. Just don’t ask young students about a massacre on camera. You’d think that’s pretty bleeding obvious. Why was I so polite? Fucking white men – sorry – but seriously. What the hell?”
Scott nodded, calmly.
‘Yeah, wow. That does sound completely inappropriate.’
He’s always so calm. I continued.
‘To be honest the students probably would have talked about it more sensitively than most adults—they’re all over it. That day was a metaphor for forces of care and connection clashing with cold detachment. Except the metaphor was real. And the two events are connected, just not in a way the media would ever articulate it.’
Those who benefit from environmental damage and those who suffer the first and worst effects – those patterns aren’t coincidence. It’s hard to tell racism and climate change apart when they’re so mutually supportive. Glance conveniently from the slave labour and ecocide that keeps us comfy, fondly laugh off grandma’s dinner-table racism (she’s old), we do our bit. Chip away, surely chips can’t hurt? Except there are tipping points. Tipping points for the Earth, tipping points for people. We push and push and push and we push. Pressure pressure pressure pressure; ignore the pressure.
Until there are fires. Until someone fires.
‘Through the night it’s there – waiting. Every morning it’s in my lungs and at the back of my head. Physical, disturbing. Like there’s no place to go from here. And I didn’t even lose anyone.’
Scott was quiet.
Whether the violence is fast or the violence is slow – does it matter? People lose their loved ones. But… fast feels different. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. In that split second someone decides to end your family, not a family, not anyone’s family – yours. Maybe that’s the difference. Someone chose that those people would have to miss their loved ones for forever, from then.
‘It’s just… it’s dark, Scott. So dark.’
Warm wet sobs wrack. Hand over mouth. Eyes darting wall to wall. Nerve pathways opening, into nowhere. It’s not a wound.
Open laptop, chewing on porridge. Type between mouthfuls.
‘Great to see you Connor! This is something I wrote a short while ago. The last paragraph is certainly haunting after what happened on March 15th…’
Attach link. Send.
‘I work with a woman named Fiona. She is an onion of a human. So many layers. She’s in her 60s and appears at the outset to be a rather boring, rather overweight, anxious, white office worker with more love for dogs than people. Over the last two years I’ve uncovered several layers of this humonionan. She once lived in the bush for 18 months with no human contact, eating rats and birds. She grew up in a brothel and taught pole dancing though she’s never sold her body. She honed her skills as an embroiderer, becoming one of the best in the field and being employed by international museums to reproduce historical pieces to extreme accuracy for extremely high pay.
‘After March 15th I uncovered another layer; her grandfather was an Afghani migrant who settled in Christchurch. His name was Sali. Sali sold ice cream from an ice cream cart in the city square. Due to the difficulty that midcentury Christchurchians had with correctly pronouncing the name Sali, he called himself Charlie, and thus became Ice Cream Charlie. The cart is no longer in the family, but the business is still in operation under the same name. After March 15th, in honour of Sali and the Muslim community, the Ice Cream Charlie truck spent a day giving out free ice cream.’
Be cunning, full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.
‘No way. This is fucking brilliant.’
‘Onion, I tell ya.’
Ice cream as the tide rises. Ice cream as the ice melts. Ice cream through fire. Ice cream for warm bodies and cold hearts. Ice cream for warm hearts and cold bodies.
I scream as tears run wet and rivers run dry.
Ice cream at marches and massacres.
15th March, 2020
A year on. Nicole and Geoff are back together.
A year on. Me at a screen, you in a cell.
It’s my birthday again. Twenty-nine. We’re the same age, you and I.
We grew up. With the same white privilege. The same racial malice running in our bloodstream. Circumstances of our births in colonised countries relied upon it – no escaping that. Our stakes look the same in an untethered future.
A year on – is it all you hoped it would be?
We are racist, but you and I differ, I think. The difference is smaller than I like to admit, but it’s there.
These words are older than us both –
So remember Me; I will remember you.
Should have done your research mate, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
I would simply give you an ice cream.
Ensuring our hands never touch.