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10 Sep 2009 06:00
I was lying on a blanket about three metres from the new, brightly coloured plastic play structure at Zoo Lake, watching my five-year-old scream with joy along with dozens of other children, when I noticed a guy leaning up against a tree behind me.
He slid in—too close, I thought—and sat between me and another woman who had three children with her.
Some people have no sense of space, I thought.
He sort of bugged me.
I quickly spotted her and headed back. And there he was: legs slightly open, fly unzipped, flaccid penis in hand, stroking himself in front of hundreds of people—the bulk of them children—less than five metres from the play structure.
I blinked. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I turned to the two men standing closest to me, their hands on strollers where their babies quietly slept. I spoke as calmly as I could.
“Have you seen the police?” I managed. “Because that guy right behind us has his dick out of his pants — in his hand.”
One of the men, with strong, defined arms built up at gym, glanced around. “Maybe I saw them over there. Not sure,” he replied, giving me the once-over, as if to question my sanity.
I panicked. I turned towards the wanker, who had, by then, zipped up his beige Dockers and folded his hands in front of himself like a well-behaved child. “You need to leave,” I blurted out. “Now. You need to leave now before I call the police.”
He said nothing. Didn’t even look me in the eye. Just casually got up, swept the dry grass from his body and strolled away. Right into the play area. I watched him walk to the opposite end of the structure and followed a length behind him.
Nearby, I found two police officers. “That man,” I said, pointing to the wanker as he crossed the road, “was masturbating in front of the play structure.” The officers stood there staring blankly at me. It was though they didn’t understand what I’d said. I tried again. “You need to get that guy and take his picture and post it up around the park so he never comes back here again. That man is a child molester!”
Another man overheard our conversation and came over. He nodded his head in agreement. “Yes, I saw him. I saw him doing that.”
I wondered why he hadn’t reported it before. Then his friend chimed in: “You know, he took that child’s hand and was walking away with her,” he said, pointing to a small child in a red-and-white dress standing between the two officers. One of the policemen took down my number, achingly slowly, watching as the man walked away.
By then, the wanker had disappeared into the masses of children playing ball, eating ice creams, their parents lounging on blankets and braaing late-afternoon lunches.
Finally one of the officers went off in the direction of the wanker, with no intention of catching anyone. I returned to my blanket and packed my bag. The man with the strong arms came over to me as I put my things away. “You were brave to say that to him,” he said.
I said nothing back.
As my daughter and I walked towards the car, I reminded her not to talk to strangers. Not to take candy from them, not ever to go with anyone except mommy and daddy. I spoke fast, was nervous and scared and alone in that sprawling park filled with people. I knew that even if I was with my child all day every day, I couldn’t protect her from everything.
Because the sad fact is that although I hope Sunday was the closest she will come to a molester, I know it’s probably not so. Although the heinous crime goes largely unreported, statistics say anywhere between 5% and 25% of people have been victims of child molestation—and I say those are the optimistic numbers.
In the middle of the night I woke with a start, remembering that before the wanker sat down, he was with a woman who disappeared after they spoke for a few minutes. She never returned. I kept thinking of what someone said before I left the park. “They work in packs, you know.”
On Monday I called the police. They had no record of the incident; I knew that. The police did not question me and did not phone me afterwards. I phoned the parks department in my capacity as a journalist. They said they had never heard of any complaints like that—not recently, not ever. They said they would put up signs, that someone would phone me to follow up.
But I won’t be back at Zoo Lake with my daughter for some time. While we worry about crime behind our high walls and electric fencing, hold our bags close to our bodies and set the alarms on our cars, maybe we have forgotten about the more insidious criminals that lurk among us. And as with all kinds of crime we hear about when it happens to our neighbour, we hold our breath and thank God it hasn’t happened to us. Yet.
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