Until six months ago we lived in what has been described as “a hard scrabble part of the town”. It’s not exactly the projects of Baltimore depicted in The Wire, but to have one drug house opposite you for 10 years is unfortunate. To move house and live opposite another drug house reeks of carelessness, as one might say.
Not so much a tough area as a tired area. Not so much the mean streets, as the meagre streets. Lots of police sirens and shouting matches.
So early this year when I saw five teenage indigenous boys furtively sneaking out of a set of retirement villas near us, all with backpacks on, before legging it like there was no tomorrow, I was angry.
Angry enough to drive after them, down a few side streets. Angry enough to nip down another side street to head them off. Angry enough to yell at the placid road workers to stop them if they could (No, holding up a STOP sign won’t do it pal!), and even more angry as they nipped across a vacant lot, over a fence and were gone for good.
I could have gotten out and run I suppose. Since I started running I’ve occasionally imagined chasing a bag-thief down the street and being the hero. But supple youth, lithe legs and the burst of adrenalin that the desire not to be caught gives you, would have been too much for me.
I was angry that in their latter years, older people in my street, who are the least safe demographic, would come home to trashed houses, broken heirlooms, or perhaps a thousand dollars they were saving for the annual trip to see their grandkids, gone.
Angry that those kids had gotten away with it.
Yet when, two days ago, I read online that just several suburbs away, slightly more salubrious suburbs further along the Swan River, two teenage boys had drowned, and a third one was missing after being chased by police following reports of fence jumping, I wasn’t angry. I felt despair. Deep despair bordering on agony.
I was thinking, “Please, please, please, don’t let this be as simple as a house break-in gone wrong. Please, please, please. Cos if it is, then that’s a dreadful price to pay.”
Despite my hopes (in what already was a hopeless situation), the news stories filtered out.
They’d been in a group of five teens reported to police, and, as we found out today, there was a ransacked house on the street where they were spotted. Not the kids I had chased in all likelihood, but same cohort.
But chased they were. By the police. What happened after they were spotted is where it gets tragic. With police in pursuit, including the Tactical Response Group, – which seems a trifle heavy-handed in the circumstances – the five headed towards the river, hoping to get across it and away.
They couldn’t have been thinking straight. As you don’t when panic sets in and your flight mechanism kicks.
Perth has just had its wettest winter in 52 years. 100 billion litres of run-off has re-filled our often depleted dams. Billions more litres has made its way down the river systems, into the Swan River and out into the Indian Ocean.
Billions of litres of run-off that has stained the river a deep tannin-brown: dark tea, lapping over the banks of the Swan all the way along the eastern suburbs.
The river’s edges have been tranquil enough. But the middle? As I walk or run along the river paths, dodging the overflow, I look to that middle, and it’s choppy, swirling and fast flowing. And cold.
A cold, engorged river has the ability to suck the life out of the limbs of all but the very strongest swimmers. All too late those young lads were sucked down into its depth, the chill pulling and entangling their arms and legs like tree roots.
There is grainy mobile phone footage of desperate calls for help, desperate and brave attempts by police who endangered their own lives to swim out to rescue, and heads going under for the last time. One boy was rescued, one was found alive after swimming the river successfully), and one was missing, and thankfully found alive later.
As I watched this news unfold I felt sick in the pit of my stomach.
Two teenage boys drowned. Families devastated. The pictures in the paper are of youthful lads, one playing football who looks fit enough to have easily outrun the police on any day of the week.
But not fit enough to out-swim a swollen river on a wet and windy day, a river that was even colder and deeper due it being dredged for boats.
The grieving grandfather of one of the boys said this:
“I just really hope, that while it is bad circumstances, that the wider community accept that this was a mistake and that he was a beautiful young man and he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a young bloke I got led astray by peer pressure and this is something that has happened with Jack Jack.”
I just really hope that too. I hope the wider community just grieves, and displays hearts that are warmer than that river.
The wrong place at the wrong time. We’ve all been there at some time or another. And perhaps we got away with it.
I hope we as a wider community in Perth can accept this as a mistake. And it’s comforting to see the owner of a ransacked home in that street showing deep concern for the families.
There’ll be a police inquest. There’ll be questions raised about the nature of the police response.
I sat in the car on the drive home with my 17 year old daughter and told her about it.
“I’m that age,” she said mournfully. “What if something like that happened to me?”
The anger and the agony.