It’s more a village than a town. A compact smattering of fibro shacks and low-to-the-ground brick numbers, built along the banks of a languid river which feeds into the Pacific Ocean. It’s a quiet place, too small for too many tourists, but big enough to exude a quaint coastal charm, like it’s never really moved on from the ‘50s. It’s a place to which young couples look to move, the actualisation of the romantic notion of a sea change, somewhere you can bring up a family. It’s a paradise.
In the middle of this village live one such young couple. They recently bought an old weatherboard house, a small place just right for the two of them and their five-year-old son. They’ve started their own business, they’re active within the community, they’re well-liked and respected. They’ve found a home, and they’re happy.
Or they were, until their little slice of the perfect life was shattered with a single sentence.
“A convicted paedophile lives at ** ***** Street,” the letter began, having been posted anonymously from an outer suburb of a large city, a few hours south, the envelope’s bland, white exterior belying the earth shattering message contained within. “Watch and look after your children,” it added.
It was like a bomb going off. An ugly film seemed to settle over their lives, obscuring what they’d once regarded as somewhere safe and free. And not only was there potentially a convicted paedophile living in the area, for this couple and their young son, it went a step further – ** ***** Street is right next door.
The initial effect was one of shock. You never think something like this will happen to you, it’s always someone else, a regrettable circumstance that all too often pops up in the news. This was real though, and so close, the old run down house next to them taking on an aura of fear now, as opposed to old-world seaside charm.
The family who occupied the house next door were new to the area. They’d moved in a month or so before the letter appeared in the couple’s mailbox and had gone about their business, not very social, but not unfriendly. But now there was a suspicion and a fear. The couple curtailed their backyard activity, they kept a closer eye on their son, and they wondered.
They wondered if the letter referred to the house’s previous occupants. They wondered, if not for the fact the letter was sent to a number of residents in the area, that it was aimed to upset them personally. They wondered who on earth would send such a letter, one guaranteed to cause such distress and grief.
They took it to the local policeman. There was little he could do, the constable said, other than make a house call, check names against police records, that sort of thing. The residents next door sent out their own letter denying the original missive, said it was wrong and had impacted upon their lives as much as everyone else’s. The ugly film thickened, this little oasis seeming to turn bad almost overnight, people no longer so carefree or happy.
Time went by. For the couple, the shock wore off, but the long term effect settled in, The Fear. And not The Fear you might expect, that someone just next door was going to do something unthinkable to their son. No, The Fear was more one of trust, or lack of, as a result of this situation. Who is the janitor at their son’s school? Who is the gardener? They didn’t know, and so it brought on a heightened awareness of their surroundings, of what their son did, where he went, who else was there.
Friends of the couple, others who live in the village, are affected by association. They too have small children, and so they too feel this lack of trust, feeling they need to err on the side of caution when it comes to their family, rather than give the benefit of the doubt that’s assumed in a small community like this one. It’s not how they want to live, but they’ve been given little choice. Now it’s normal.
Except it isn’t. There will always be that doubt and suspicion, and not just of the people living next door. No one knows who sent the letter, or why. No one knows if it contained truth, and they likely never will. And so another family, another small town, another generation, sadly, finds paradise lost.
Samuel J. Fell