Collie is an ostensibly private and hardened mining town, but the death of a local child reveals its hidden sensibilities.
The police are at the Collie River, the message left on my desk said. A kid’s missing. There’s divers in the water at the weir.
It was the mention of police divers that got me out with the editorial camera on that cold July morning. The child would have been reported missing the evening before, the divers summoned from out of town at first light.
I pursued information with a detached air, with an affectation I thought might be a reporter’s tough shell. The early morning frost still lingered on the grass at the riverbank. I could tell this day would be a long way from the school carnivals and bake sales I usually covered. Police officers spoke in hushed tones. Early information: he was nine years old. They had volunteers walking the bush.
He might not have gone in the river, everyone seemed to be saying.
Police had set up a tent and media from out of town were arriving. Collie was the kind of town where ‘out of town’ really meant something. I had driven down from Perth especially for my job interview at the local paper, and stayed in a motel for a week or so while looking for a rental house. On my first day I was sent out with a sales rep to ‘meet the locals’, which mostly involved standing in business car parks and work sheds. Since March, I had lived in a three-bedroom house on a quarter acre block. Ridiculous for one person, but all I could find. I had struggled to feel at home there, but compared to the out of town media I was a local.
The section of river we were standing by was deep and wild, the weir and the rocks created a section of icy white water. Scraggly bush flanked the bank; further afield, gum trees stood sinister in the grey morning light. The scent of wood smoke from a thousand potbelly fires evaporated as the overnight stillness lifted and the sun fought through the morning chill.
The media crews gathered, in that wolf pack way the media has. Meanwhile family of the boy parked in a driveway over the road from the river. They hurried into the boy’s home in tracksuits and ugg boots. Pale, shocked faces, but dry eyes. I saw a woman who I knew from the office walk into the house and wondered how many of these visitors were welcome, how many were needed to share in the shock, the incapacity, the awful waiting. How many just wanted to be involved. I imagined them crowded inside, sitting vigil with the boy’s parents.
The media received updates from the same young cop who gave me my weekly report every Tuesday. She had chardonnay coloured hair and a dry sense of humour. She wore pale pink nail polish and had a firearm. We gathered under the police tent as she presented us with an image of the boy, and introduced him as Jayden. Sitting proud in his red school T-shirt. I knew immediately which school he went to. One of the national media outlets called the school that day and was scolded over the phone for its trouble. The boy’s still missing, they were told, have a heart. I had only been there six months but I had learnt that lesson well. For a tough mining town Collie had a surprisingly soft centre.
The day drew on. Scarves were stripped off as the sun warmed the street. The trampled grass on the riverbank turned muddy and treacherous. A neighbour had seen the boy playing with a soccer ball. She told the media there had been a drowning five years ago.
But this time he might not have gone in the river.
But this time he might not have gone in the river.
A neighbour came out with a Tupperware container full of fruit salad and offered it to the media and emergency crews.
‘Thank you,’ said a cameraman. ‘This never happens.’
The neighbour looked confused. Perhaps she believed him to be assisting in the fight to save the lost boy. Instead of just bearing witness.
It didn’t dawn on me until later, much later, that there’s a powerlessness that comes from striving to be impartial. From telling the story dispassionately, in newsprint that rubbed off on the reader’s fingers. As if anyone can truly be just a conduit for information, when confronted with the death of a child. The media is a grubby business, sometimes.
The river lay before us, swollen with recent rain, and icy. I could barely look at it, thinking of a slim nine-year-old frame falling victim to its indifferent power. We waited for news, too scared to look, focused our cameras but refused to stare.
In the afternoon, media crews took it in turns to find food. Out-of-towners didn’t know where to go for sandwiches. Where to find a recognisable coffee. The food outlets would have looked foreign. Collie was a hard town to get to know for an outsider: it kept its secrets close. Locals spoke with a strange, aggressive tone, as though defying outsiders to challenge them. But they would also greet pedestrians from moving vehicles, slowing down in their utes and grubby four wheel drives to give a nod and a wave. There were five pubs and one set of traffic lights. A handful of cafes with plastic tablecloths and daytime television in a corner.
If the reporters had ventured into the centre of town they might have heard the alarm from the old printing press that could be heard up and down the street on a clear day. Keep your hands clear, it said to anyone who would listen, as it pumped out copies of the Collie Mail and glossy advertising lift outs. They might have noticed the faces on people in the streets. Everyone had heard about Jayden’s disappearance, of course. ABC Radio was leading every bulletin with it. Dulcet newsreader voices used terrifying phrases like ‘rescue efforts’ and ‘fears grow’ every hour on the hour. But still, life went on, and the locals dared to hope. There was still the chance this time that he might just be lost.
But still, life went on, and the locals dared to hope. There was still the chance this time that he might just be lost.
After lunch, the winter sky turned to steel; a grim air settled over the street. Soon the search would have to stop for the night. The July days were cut abruptly short, the light stubbed out as the smoke from wood fires gathered in the valley. The divers could only spend so much time in the water. It was too cold, they said. In their full wetsuits it was cold. As the shadows lengthened we clenched our fists, and hoped along with everyone else.
It was about 3pm when Jayden was brought out of the river. He was carried up by emergency workers, on a stretcher, already in a black body bag that tried, and failed, to be anonymous. It was just too small. It wasn’t full of a man, with a life lived, and love shared. I was relieved he was put in the bag behind the riverbank. I was thankful to be spared any glimpse of wet blonde hair.
Family members poured out of the house then. To wail. To scream at the assembled media. I stood numb as I was called inhuman, a vulture. My editor put her camera away.
‘We don’t need to print that photo,’ she said, as the stretcher carrying the boy was wheeled into an ambulance.
Why should we be witness to a body bag so slim? Why should anyone?
The torrent churned at the weir, after which the aggression dissipated and it meandered more politely through the centre of town and down to the coast. The police had to assume Jayden had simply slipped. Of all the mundane things, he had tried to reach his soccer ball and fallen in. The water had taken him, a solid, icy force, and pinned him under a ledge just below the turbulent surface. It had taken the divers all day to find him, right by the riverbank, almost under our feet.
The sergeant gave a last debrief, not making eye contact. I wondered how she kept her voice so steady. Media crews from out of town packed up and went home to somewhere warmer. A place where they could go to the pub without encountering the grief of the day on the face of the woman who poured the beer.
Then there was just us, the local newspaper team. There had been no other news in town that day. Filing for the web was still an alien concept. Reporter counselling didn’t exist. Even if it had, I’m not sure I would have understood why. I was supposed to be hardened. I was supposed to be tough, like the coal mining community in which I reported. The small editorial team sat around silent gin and tonics at the pub around the corner. There was nothing to say.
At home that night I didn’t go outside and chop kindling. I didn’t light the wood fire, or eat dinner. I called home and asked my mum why I was mourning for a little boy I hadn’t met. She said she had imagined me out with the SES, walking the bush. No, I told her, I just bore witness, in my expensive office suit, the one she had bought me just six months earlier, saying how proud she was of me. She had hugged me roughly, as I stood clutching a suit bag on the Murray Street footpath, the lump in her throat taking her words. Since then I had learnt that an expensive suit was impractical in a town where I’d just as likely be taking photos in a coal mine as at a school talent show. Now, I had been witness to the death of a child, and I had just stood there, taking notes. How dare I take quotes from that?
‘Be kind to yourself. Let yourself grieve.’
‘Be kind to yourself,’ she said. ‘Let yourself grieve.’
Grieve I did, along with the rest of the town. My editor sought comment from the boy’s family. They declined. There was no anger, no confrontation. There was just a deep, cold sadness, a hollowed out interior you could see on the faces of the people on the street. The Australian described the town as ‘plunged into grief’. But no out-of-towner could know what that felt like. The community closed its doors to the outside. It held its secret sadness tight. For a small town there are surprising depths around Collie. A lot of bizarre events, deaths that come far too soon. For once, I saw the inside of that experience, by virtue of living there. I mourned, too.
There was a certain paralysis, it was too soon to talk about it for a long time. Then it was too late. Too late to change things. There had been an earlier death, another boy, Shannon Miller, in 1999. Shannon was only six years old. While one death could be viewed as misfortune, two seemed more like carelessness. From the well of shock, of sadness, the community demanded action. The river must be fenced. The Tuesday following the drowning, I stood up during a council meeting and, on behalf of the paper, asked councillors what they would do. Shire President Bruce Roberts said it was too soon to say.
Later Mr Roberts was quoted in ABC News as saying the riverbank was too long to fence. His confusion rings through the digital newsprint even today. Why fence a small section of a river that runs for kilometres? But grief demands action. Sorrow will name its own price. The Council didn’t have jurisdiction over the weir, it emerged. No one seemed to know who did. Local MP Mick Murray agitated, organised meetings with stakeholders. He demanded action a long time after community sentiment had moved on.
That section of the river is now home to a low log fence. Plaques commemorate the two deaths. There is an innocuous look about it all. A quiet patch of grass, a stone with the names of such short lives, a white cross and some flowers. The barrier stands quietly optimistic that no other child will be sacrificed to the river, no other family need lay their own tributes.
Months after Jayden’s death, the family home went up for sale. We speculated as to whether they would need to wait for someone from out of town to buy it. No one wants to buy into tragedy, except a certain few, the media among them. Rabidly covering the story and then moving on as time goes by. And some who never really move on, who always remember the day they stood and took notes on the death of a child.
The day after the boy’s body was discovered, a Friday, I had walked to the newsagent to collect the newspapers as I did every morning. There on the front of The West Australian was nine-year-old Jayden, smiling in his red school T-shirt. His blue eyes burnt a hole in the page, cutting through the heart of the small town. I turned it inside out for the walk back to the office. It seemed indecent, for a newspaper to wear a town’s grief so plainly. As I walked, the printing press warning bell rang. Get your hands out, it said to the street.
That’s all it ever said.