Chapter 23.    Tragedy Strikes

While the bin raiders had been sitting around their campfire, Nanna Cuthbert had been watching T.V. She had heard during the afternoon that A Current Affair was doing a report on the bin raiders at 7:30pm. She tried to call the group on their mobile, but they must have left it in the van while they were at McDonald's, because there had been no answer.

Nanna fretted about her inability to warn the others, but she determined to act as their eyes and ears in case anything important was said in the report. All alone in her house, she pictured herself as a sentinel, standing guard over the reputation of the tiny band of faithful believers who had become her closest friends. She turned on the TV and lit the lamp beside her armchair, so that she could see to take notes. She had a pencil and a pad of paper to keep a record for the others.

The report included footage of the bin raiders carrying boxes to the van, as they packed up in Redfern. It also included several shots of Sean at play in the yard. In fact, Sean was the main focus of the report, which hinted from the start that he had disappeared to face some vague indeterminate fate that would be worse than death.

"Silly people!" Nanna muttered to herself as she scribbled information down on her notepad. The TV commentator went on, and as she did, the picture being painted grew worse: "The Department of Community Services tracked the cult to a small cottage in Redfern today. But they were told that the young boy was not at home. An elderly woman answered the door, and said that she did not know when he would be returned to the group's headquarters."

Nanna had not realised that, along with a police officer, the social workers had brought a secret camera crew when they visited her home earlier in the day. The camera showed Nanna Cuthbert's house from across the road, and then zoomed in to show a close-up of her talking to the officials. Next to her head was the house number. This, together with reference to the street and suburb enabled viewers to locate the house precisely if they were interested.

The commentary continued: "Investigations have shown that the owner of the cult's new premises is an elderly woman, known locally as Nanna Cuthbert. The woman is alleged to have actively recruited children from the local primary school. Neighbours reported that a steady stream of children visit the house after school on weekdays, and at all hours on the weekend. School authorities said they had no knowledge of the woman's involvement with the cult. She had, over many years, gained the complete trust of teachers and staff at the school."

"Oh, my goodness! Oh, my goodness!" Nanna repeated to herself as she jotted down the gist of this latest distortion.

The report then switched to John Groenig. His imaginings about the bin raiders took on a new lustre each time he told them. The emphasis this time had a decidedly sexual slant, apparently to make it blend with the muck flavour of the moment. Groenig had a talent for using words in such a way that they could have two different meanings, and of putting them together in a way that could mislead the public without technically being termed a lie.

"Children are shared between adult members," he said, "with no one taking full parental responsibility. The group has a bizarre approach to sex. It is forbidden for adults. But they have a much more liberal approach to sex with children. Group literature includes articles about masturbation, and naked pictures of the human body. We have grave fears for the moral and physical welfare of young Sean."

Comments from the Department of Community Services were only slightly more restrained. They focused mostly on Sean's physical well-being. A representative of the Department said that their biggest concern was simply that Sean could not be located. The impression given, however, was that the mere fact that DOCS could not locate a child meant that the child must be in grave danger.

"This is not good at all," Nanna said to herself as she continued to write.

The media, DOCS, and John Groenig were all fuelling each other's outrage at something that existed almost entirely in their own imaginations. But they each were getting so much satisfaction from their own indignation that they could not see how cruel and unfair it was becoming.

Nanna turned the telly off in anger when the report was finished, and cried tears of frustration as she sat there, alone in her lounge room. "Why are they doing this?" she sobbed. "Why?" Some time later, when she had gathered her composure, Nanna tried phoning the bin raiders once again. The others were already setting up their tents, so that Sean could go to bed, and Dave and Cherry were getting ready for an early night in the van when the phone rang.

"It's Nanna. Nanna Cuthbert here. Is that you, Cherry?"

"Yes it is. Is something the matter?"

"Did you see the report on Channel Nine?"

"No. What report? We don't have a TV, remember?"

"Oh yes, of course. It was simply dreadful. They were going on about wanting to rescue Sean." She referred to her notes: "They said that I've been recruiting kids from the local school for you. They're trying to say that Sean is in moral danger because of what you teach. And Community Services says they're trying to find you, but they can't. I wrote it all down. Do be careful, won't you?"

"Don't worry, Nanna," Cherry said reassuringly. "We've counted the cost, and we're prepared for the worst. God won't give any of us more than we can take. We just have to trust him. Do you want us to come around?"

"Oh no. I don't think that would be very wise. They may be watching for you."

"Dave and I could come alone. We'll leave Sean here. Besides, we'll probably be contacting Community Services in the next couple of days anyway. We're not going to run for it, especially if it's going to make things worse for you. People need to know that you have nothing to do with us."

"No, no, no. I don't mind at all if they think I'm part of you. I think I am in a way. But I don't want them thinking that we have bad intentions for the children. We must show them that they have nothing to be afraid of. But I don't know how we're going to do it now." Cherry could sense the strong concern that Nanna was feeling, and she wanted to be near her, to console her. She asked Nanna to hold the line while she conferred with Dave, and then she returned.

"Just sit tight. Dave and I'll be over in about half an hour. Okay?"

"Well, if you think it's safe…" Nanna was obviously relieved to know they would be coming. "I'll put on a pot of tea and be waiting for you," she said.

Dave and Cherry quietly informed the other adults of the situation without letting on to Sean that there was anything wrong. A few minutes later they headed off in the van for Redfern. After replacing the phone, Nanna put water on the stove for tea. She thought she heard a noise outside, but then it stopped. Just to be safe, she locked the doors and turned out the lights. That way, it would be difficult for anyone to see in and know that she was still up.

There was no street light at her end of the street, and there was no moon tonight. The wind was blowing, and that made a few noises in itself. Nanna hoped that she was just imagining things. The gas flame of the stove was enough for her to see by while pouring herself a cup of tea. She was seated at the table, sipping her tea when she heard the noise again. It sounded like footsteps at the front of the house. She thought she heard a shout. And then a deafening crash drowned out any other noise. It was followed by running feet on the footpath.

But Nanna never heard the footsteps.

*    *    *

Dave and Cherry could see that something was wrong as soon as they pulled up in front of the house. The kitchen window had been shattered, and a curtain was blowing out through the hole in it. When they rang the bell there was no answer. The house was dark, and disturbingly quiet. "The door's locked." Dave announced.

"Try the back!" shouted Cherry. Dave was already racing around the side of the house, and Cherry followed him. The back door too was locked, but Dave easily kicked it in. Together they raced into the kitchen, and turned on the light.

There was Nanna lying in a pool of blood. Her eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. Dave made a desperate attempt to use CPR, while Cherry dialled the police emergency number. From the amount of blood on the floor, it appeared that Nanna had bled to death. There was a brick on the floor, a small cut on the side of her head, and a deep cut on her arm.

Shards of broken glass were scattered across the kitchen table and all over the floor. Nanna's teapot and cup were still on the table, although the cup had been knocked over. A severed vein or artery had spurted blood across the room. Apparently the brick had struck her in the head, knocking her unconscious, and she had bled to death from the cut on her arm.

Dave was covered in blood by the time he gave up administering CPR. He hugged Cherry, and some of the blood passed to her.

"How can people do such things?" Cherry sobbed.

Ever the rationalist, Dave tried to get things into perspective. "I don't think they intended to actually kill her," he said. "They probably just meant to break the window, and didn't know she was sitting on the other side of it. They probably thought they were making a statement for decency after the media got them worked up about how evil we're supposed to be."

"Ganley Toogood is the one responsible for all of this," sobbed Cherry. "They had no right to do this to such an innocent, sweet woman!"

Dave had no answer, and so they just hugged each other and grieved quietly over Nanna's body while they waited for the police to arrive.

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