Down a path through a neat front garden in the South Sydney suburb of Beaconsfield, community worker Julianne Szabo welcomes me into a home that is awash with sunshine yellow.
“They’re my favourite, how did you know?” she says kindly of the bouquet of jonquils I have brought as a token from a virtual stranger, intruding on a person’s grief.
It’s ten years and counting but Julianne Szabo says she still replays in her mind the sequence of events on the day that changed her life forever.
It was Good Friday and her 13-year-old son Arthur was on his Easter break from school. “He loved going to the Easter Show, and his mate’s mother had offered to take the boys together,” she says. “She suggested Arthur sleep over so they could get an early start.”
“If only I’d said no. If only. You don’t know how many times I’ve thought that,” she trails off, looking away.
Arthur was sleeping in a room on the top floor of his friend’s three storey terrace in Waterloo, when a molotov cocktail crashed through the kitchen back door. Within minutes the house was ablaze, with Arthur trapped upstairs.
Arthur eventually got out of the house but died in hospital from his injuries almost two months later. “The rest of the family were sleeping on the floor below and they all managed to get out ok. By the time they realised Arthur was still inside, it was too late,” she says, slowing shaking her head.
“I know my boy. Arthur was a heavy sleeper. He would have woken in a daze and made his way downstairs. They say he came out with no protection, on fire. He was wearing no shoes, no shirt – only his favourite blue denim jeans,” Ms Szabo says, closing her eyes against the horrific image recreated.
Having spoken to grief counsellors before meeting Ms Szabo, they were quick to point out that parental bereavement is different from other losses in that it is intensified and prolonged.
“It’s a heartbreak like no other,” says Anne Giljohann, manager of counselling and support services at the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement. “For parents who have experienced the death of a child there really is no more devastating loss,” she explains.
What makes this type of death particularly difficult to come to terms with is that the death of a child is a contradiction to everything that we believe to be true about life; a child’s death disrupts the normal order of life.
“There’s an unwritten law that a child should outlive their parents,” says Anne Neville, director of counselling and education services at Open Doors, a Christian based charity.
“There’s a lot of questioning and conflict with parents asking ‘Did I do something wrong?’ It’s one of the most difficult areas of grief because parents are trying to understand something that is just not supposed to happen,” she says.
While Ms Szabo goes to the kitchen to attend to a whistling kettle, seated at her dining table I more fully take in my immediate surrounds and realise I am sitting in what could be described as Arthur’s shrine.
On all the walls, the mantlepiece and sideboard, are a myriad of framed photos of Arthur at various stages of his short life. From Ms Szabo looking down at the bundle cradled in her arms, to the glee-filled blue eyes of a curly haired toddler being guided in his first steps and splashing in the shallows of the sea.
There are family gatherings, birthdays, school photos and holiday snaps. A large portrait dominates: Arthur with his arm around a younger boy, standing beside a Christmas tree. With one foot on a soccer ball, he looks so handsome and serious, soulful eyes this time, and is making the V peace sign.
“That was Arthur’s last Christmas,” says Ms Szabo returning with a tray of tea and cake. “He loved his younger cousins and with most of my family in Darwin, we would see them at Christmas. Usually it was just me and him and we were happy here. We kept pretty much to ourselves but Arthur was getting older and started wanting to spend more time with his friends.”
For Ms Szabo, grief at the loss of her only child is compounded by the fact she does not have the “closure” so often cited as necessary for healing. The person or persons responsible for deliberately lighting the fire that caused Arthur’s death have never been found.
Arthur’s young life was cut short senselessly, in what turned out to be a feud between neighbours that spread until until it divided an entire street. The Coroner’s Court inquest seven years ago into Arthur’s death heard that the feud in Walker Street, Waterloo began between Janine Masuda, the owner of the house Arthur was staying at, and her neighbour Fay Dwyer.
It allegedley spread to Mrs Dwyer’s sons and daughter Sharon and her defacto husband Greg Walker, who lived down the road, and a raft of others who lived on or regularly visited the street. But when residents and visitors to Walker Street were summonsed to explain the firebomb at the inquest, most chose not to name names.
“Everyone was scared and there were protection orders and threats made against witnesses, anyone who might speak up. People were worried about their kids, I can understand that. But Arthur was my family. He was the innocent one caught up in all that rot and now most of the families have moved away”, Ms Szabo says.
Police re-examined the Walker Street case four years ago in a bid to identify new witnesses, but said then that investigations had again been hampered by “several members of the local community reluctant to provide information.”
“The police have told me it will take a miracle for someone to come forward, now that it’s a ‘cold case’. I will never give up hope that we find the people responsible because for me all it takes is for someone to have a bit of heart,” Ms Szabo says.
Like many parents who have lost a child Ms Szabo has sought to create a lasting tribute to her son. Each year she holds a memorial service at the site of his memorial tree and plaque at Tobruk Reserve in Waterloo, the local park.
Arthur’s tree is a Kurrajong, or Illawarra Flame Tree, native to tropical regions on the east coast of Australia and famous for its spectacular red bell-shaped flowers.
She also continues to produce flyers calling for information from the community, reminding people on noticeboards of the $100,000 reward that has been offered for several years.
Ms Szabo works at Wyanga, an Aboriginal aged care program based in Redfern that provides home-based care to Indigenous elders. “We help with meals, cleaning, house maintenance and transport, so that our elders can stay in their homes as long as possible,” she says.
She also organises gatherings and outings and in the process, her own home has become a popular community gathering place. “But don’t go writing I’m some saint,” she says. “There have been plenty of dark times where I’ve been no good to anyone at all. I’ve battled with drink and feeling there’s no point in going on.”
“I thought about moving away too but I could never leave this house; it’s so full of memories. I had it all painted soon after Arthur passed away. He was the sunshine of my life,’’ she says, before warmly thanking me for my visit and wishing me well.
– Linda Daniele
*Submitted as part of Advanced Print Features unit for postgraduate journalism studies at UTS.