We were eating breakfast in McDonald’s when my parents told me they were going to Rebecca’s funeral later. I wished they’d said something earlier. I wanted to go, but I wasn’t dressed properly: T-shirt, distressed jeans, filthy canvas sneakers. My cultivated slackness was completed by long, greasy hair — an emulation of my art-heroes, The Beatles — and doubtful patches of facial hair. I had just returned from a quixotic spell teaching in South Korea, where I’d been delaying the real and imagined strictures of adulthood. It was 2004, and I had just turned 23.
When I returned, everyone was talking about the murder. I had temporarily moved back in with my parents in Perth’s northern suburbs. A week before, just a few streets away, a young woman’s body was found on the grounds of the primary school. Rebecca Ryle had been strangled, her body found at sunrise and damp from sprinklers. Her cardigan was torn, her bra twisted, and her pants flung up onto a classroom roof. Her pink underwear lay beside her, and the scene was dotted with the contents of her handbag: ATM receipts, hair scrunchie, broken sunglasses. Rebecca Ryle was 19, and her home was just 50 metres away — the length of a swimming pool lay between her body and her front door.
My parents hadn’t known Rebecca Ryle or her family, but my brother knew the man who had already been charged with her murder. Cameron had known James Duggan for years. They were both 19, and had once chugged beer in car parks and pulled bongs made with punctured Coke cans. They had once joined house parties swollen with aggression, where one’s personal worth was expressed by a capacity to withstand or commission violence.
They had never liked each other. They had, in fact, grown mutually contemptuous. Years later, Cameron would tell me, ‘It wasn’t long before I figured out he was someone I didn’t want to be friends with. He was a bit loopy. But for the next five or six years he was still friends with my friends, so I was always in contact with him, one way or another. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me. We were quite honest about it. Of the people we were hanging around, and the sort of environment it was, everyone had their tough-guy acts on, but after getting to know people, that would sort of break down. But with him it never did. He never seemed right to me.’
Cameron and James orbited each other anxiously, tethered by peer groups and suspicion. My brother despaired of his mates’ tolerance of him. The last time Cameron saw him, James had uttered some sullen obscenity at him. Cameron turned and felled him with a punch. ‘I was standing over him,’ he told me. ‘James sort of cowered, and everyone else laughed, and I remember someone else saying, “I told you he was a pussy”, because he always had this guard on; but when it came down to it, he stayed on the ground. And that let me know he was a lot weaker than he put on.’
Cameron hadn’t seen James for almost two years when he heard about the killing. He was on a bus heading home to Mum and Dad’s that was tracing its way around the school. The scene was teeming with authorities, and the bus’s usual route was blocked. As it made its detour, Cameron stared curiously at the police tape. He realised what he’d seen when he watched the six o’clock bulletin that evening. ‘James was the first name that came into my head when I heard. And I said that to a friend of mine. I saw it on TV, and my friend called straight after. There was certainly shock. James had popped into my mind, but … it’s a natural reaction to guess when you hear it’s someone your own age who lives down the road, but I guess I didn’t really believe it could’ve been him, even though I had guessed it was.’
The murder aroused tender instincts among locals, and the proximity of the victim’s home became a source of sombre astonishment. The Ryles’ front lawn was quickly carpeted with bouquets, and they were brought meals by neighbours. If the murder hadn’t quite galvanised the community, it provided a melancholy focal point. The local newspaper shared the Ryles’ decision to hold a public funeral, and my parents felt obliged to attend and bear witness. In retrospect, it was touching. My parents aren’t very social. Growing up, I don’t recall any sermons about the importance of community. In fact, I suspected that ‘community’ for them was an irritatingly vague and fatuous concept. But in McDonald’s that morning, they surprised me with their commitment to this imagined community and to subtly enhancing the dignity of Rebecca with their presence.
The fact we were in McDonald’s appalled me. It was a reminder of the casual vulgarity of the suburbs I had once escaped: first, via university; second, by the more elaborate rejection involved in moving to an outer district of Seoul. I was bothered by the white noise of the wastelands — a studied indifference to culture and enlightened ambition. I was of these suburbs, but the very thing my parents had desired for me — a university education — had transformed me into a relentless and obnoxious critic of them. They were unimpressed with my cultural cringe, and how it implicated them. I was an awful snob. And as I sat there eating my sausage and egg McMuffin, I assumed that this vast ocean of banality had somehow contributed to Rebecca’s death. James’s milieu had been mine.
I was supercilious. My thinking went something like this: McDonald’s represented immediate and witless pleasure. And in my head, it was all messed up somehow with high school, which, with a few years’ hindsight, I now detested as a locus of bigotry, boredom, and violence. It was also much more than that, of course — often quite safe and stale and normal. While my brother knew James Duggan, I thought I knew many just like him — dull kids content to practise their cruelties in car parks and at house parties. Here were the Badlands: a place not materially impoverished, but haunted by low expectations. Homeowners might have been shocked by the killing, but my brother and I weren’t. Cameron had been whipped with bike chains, nearly run over, and had seen his mate’s head scrambled with a baseball bat.
My theory of the killing as a symptom of a broader psychic despair was startlingly pretentious. I had adopted snobbery and cultural theory to misdiagnose whole expanses of suburbia. I had mistaken my rebellion for insight. And never mind that there were murders in the inner-city suburb I would soon move back to. That nearby corners were bubbling with addicts and streetwalkers, or that I had been jumped by four guys a block from home, their bejewelled fists remaking my face. All this was just colourful embroidery, a part of the cherished, edgy dynamism of my new neighbourhood.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I wanted to attend the funeral — like my parents, I felt the pull of obligation — but thought that my clothing was improper, even offensive. There wasn’t time to go home and change. My brother was in a worse position. Cameron knew his presence might cause trouble. Many who had known Rebecca at Mindarie Senior College now loathed the Clarkson High kids associated with her alleged killer. At a house party not long after the murder, old friends of Duggan’s — who were now furiously renouncing their past friendship with him — were confronted by some Mindarie boys. ‘It nearly turned into a brawl,’ my brother remembered. ‘There was that sort of tension for a while. People were scared to be associated with him.’
Cameron knew that his longstanding suspicion of Duggan — and his assault of him — wouldn’t be known to the aggrieved at the funeral. The Mindarie College boys might recognise Cameron merely as a Clarkson boy, and assume an automatic connection with Duggan. Questions of punishment and honour are not well answered by grieving boys.
I went to the funeral. The chapel was full with about 300 people, and I stood discreetly among a large group of mourners at the back behind the pews. At the front was a projection screen upon which were beamed images of Rebecca. She was smiling in most of them. As we stared at the photos, one of her favourite songs played: ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis.
What to say of a funeral for a teenage murder victim? The hushed solemnity of the congregation rubbed weirdly against the shared feeling of obscenity. There were no answers here — just a macabre numbness, through which the community bore witness. While the Ryles consoled each other, I shuffled out with my parents and exchanged platitudes. What else was there to do?