Living only a few minutes from the shoreline, the three children, aged nine, seven and four, jumped on the bus for the short trip down the road. Bus fares in their pockets, they promised they would be home in time for lunch.
The eldest, Jane, was considered responsible enough to care for her younger siblings and her parents were not overly concerned. Whilst seen by a number of people on that busy Australia Day public holiday, they failed to return to their Somerton Park home. They were never seen again.
In spite of one of the largest police investigations in Australian criminal history involving a local and national search with thousands of police hours and hundreds of volunteers following up every conceivable lead and false witness, the children disappeared without a trace.
The case is seen as significant in a change in Australian society. It was the end of the innocence whereby parents routinely allowed their children such freedoms. Children were no longer presumed to be safe alone and without adult supervision.
Time’s Long Ruin
Adelaide-based novelist Stephen Orr uses the framework of the tragic event to explore a fictional “what happens when children disappear?” But it is also an exploration of both the disappearance of a way of life, of an innocence of 1960s suburban Australia and the underlying undercurrent of violence, domestic abuse, racism and deceit.
The novel, shortlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award, opens with our narrator, a nostalgic Henry, looking back to 1960 and the time of the disappearance. He still lives in the Croydon suburb of his childhood, but is not what it was. The ghosts of the past surround him, the unsolved loss of his best friend and her siblings continuing to weigh heavy upon him some fifty years later.
Nine year-old Henry Page sits to one side, watching his friends at play. Club-footed, he has become a loner, spending his time reading or collecting shells on the beach whilst next door neighbours Janice, Anna and Gavin Riley surf the shallow waves.
Janice is Henry’s only genuine friend. Intelligent, something of a tomboy, she takes charge of her younger siblings and arranges backyard games where Henry will not feel left out. Like their parents, living as close at they do with no fence to separate their yards, they are completely familiar with each other’s lives.
The Rileys and the Pages holiday together at a local caravan park, the kids all attend the local primary school. Bob Page is a local detective with a “not quite right” wife whilst Bill Riley, a travelling sales rep, stores “samples” of his linen ware in the back shed and is prone to abuse his wife Liz when too much beer has passed his lips.
The first half of the book is reminiscent of Tim Winton’s Perth-set seminal Australian novel Cloudstreet, with Orr creating a perfectly ordinary world of backyard barbecues, games of cricket, bad television and the intense heat of an Adelaide summer.
Little happens as neighbours become involved in arguments over petty theft from the local milk bar, trees overhanging property fences. When not with Janice, Henry patrols the local streets dressed as his father’s assistant, helps the local doctor sort out his second-hand book collection or spends time with Con, the elderly Greek neighbour, who mans the manual train crossing.
But Orr is not trying to present an idyll – ‘time’s long ruin’ is also about the slow passing of time, the boredom and mundane. A sense of foreboding is in the air – we know what happens next – but there is also that undercurrent of threat. Con and his wife Rosa are singled out by racist behaviour: domestic violence is ignored.
Then, on Australia Day 1960, the three Riley children disappear from the beach, never to be seen or heard of again.
As a result, the second half of the book picks up its pace significantly, although as the fate of the children is never discovered, there’s no climactic scene.
Instead, Orr superbly explores the desperate waiting, the unknowing, the blame, the suspicions. From an anxious Liz waiting for the train they promised to be on through to the calm yet devastating realisation that the children were unlikely to be seen again, hope remains tantamount.
Orr weaves into this the (real) stories of the leads and hoaxes received by the police over the course of a number of years – the sightings, the possibles, even hoax letters sent under the penmanship of Janice – and the need by Bill and Liz to cling to the off-chance that everything would turn out well.