We woke up on Tuesday morning to find that our road was closed off by police – someone had apparently been assaulted on the street the night before. There were several forensic types in plastic overalls hanging around for hours, examining the bit of cordoned-off pavement where the assault took place.
I was quite light-hearted as I took the girls to the bus stop, more interested in the novelty of someone else manning a road closure – a hapless community support officer – and getting just as much grief as we do during play street closures, than in what had actually happened. Then I spoke to a neighbour who said the victim was woman and she’d been raped, and it all went a bit sour.
Of course no one knows if it was rape, but the need for such an intense forensic search suggests that it was. It made me realise that I’d choose being biffed over the head and having my bag nicked over THAT, any day. Thinking of what the victim might have been through – emotionally and spiritually as much as physically – almost hurt. That, and the sight of the cordoned-off bit of pavement, haunted me for the next couple of days. It seemed like a jagged wound in the fabric of our community, a dark place where the opposite of neighbourly kindness had taken place, and the worst sort of opposite at that. After the glow of winter street play and community carol singing, this was a real punch in the stomach.
This may sound overly dramatic but I think others felt the same way. The whole street seemed to be on edge. Four separate people posted on our Facebook page without seeing each other’s posts, asking what the heck was going on. Out on the pavement, I had several conversations with people who were anxious and shaken. One woman came up to me just as I was taking the girls to their school carol service. She recognised me as a neighbour and approached me saying she was a lone parent with a young son and the police had been unable to give her any reassurance that she was safe in her own home. As she got closer I realised there were tears in her eyes. I tried to explain that of course she was safe – no one was likely to break into her property – but she seemed too agitated to take it in. Another mum said that she now won’t be venturing out after dark at all. There was a sense of people losing their sense of security, their trust in each other and the world around them.
Over the next couple of days I tried to get more information from the police in order to reassure people. For instance, if it turned out that the woman knew her attacker, that would still be terrible for her but less scary for the rest of us. Otherwise the fear is that it was a complete stranger, lurking behind a hedge. But none of the police would tell me. I am less cunning than another resident on the street, however – a woman in her sixties who took various police officers nice cups of tea, and made a lot more progress. She claims to have discovered that the attacker was caught the next day. Good news, if it’s true. Then there were other neighbours who had seen the victim straight after the attack, sitting on the pavement being comforted by passers by while they waited for the police. It seems she didn’t need any urgent medical attention.
Of course, Tuesday happened to be the day of the atrocities against schoolchildren in Pakistan, plus the hostages killed in a cafe in Sydney – and the week was finished off by the murder of eight children in another Australian tragedy. I suppose we got a taste, however small and relatively trivial, of what some of those neighbourhoods were shaken up by. (And to top it all, at the school nativity that evening, Joseph threw up on his robes just before escorting Mary to Bethlehem and she had to go it alone. A single mum at the manger! ‘Very modern,’ commented one parent, but it kind of added to my general sense of ‘What is the world coming to?’)
It’s at times like this that a relationship with God comes in really handy. I was praying on and off from Tuesday to Thursday, telling him how rubbish I felt about what had happened in our street, and how it felt like a triumph of darkness over light. I kept asking him to bring healing to the victim – and to the perpetrator, who at the end of the day is just another kind of victim – and peace to my neighbours. I was able to reflect that we have a God who is no stranger to senseless violence, having experienced it himself, but who turned it round and used it to bring redemption and peace. Of course I’ll never know whether any of my prayers for people got answered, but at least I felt a whole lot better…
Having found out what I could, I posted it all on our Facebook page and to the street mailing list. I hope those scant facts were more reassuring than some of the rumours that were circulating (like one customer at WHSmith claiming he’d seen the police removing a body from a house!). I was also able to add the good news that we’d raised £70 for a local charity through our carol singing. Then I got this reply to my email from a fellow play street organiser: ‘What’s great is that we have a street to which we can send a big email like this and have a debate on Facebook to let the wider community know. We’re stronger like that and we shouldn’t let incidents like this undermine our general faith in the people we live with in the street and in the wider neighbourhood.’
‘We are stronger’. I hope so. Perhaps our street – with its community and playing out and people (not just me) who pray – might heal to be stronger than it was before. Perhaps even those involved in the horrible events of Monday night will one day look back and see that they had a redemptive side to them, one that they could not have predicted or imagined. I hope so.