Wherefore art thou, neighbour?

An old friend of mine recently recounted to me the terrifying experience of a home invasion, in which she and her boyfriend were beaten and threatened by two men.

It's a horrible story, made all the more unbelievable by the reactions of her neighbours, who did absolutely nothing to help. In fact, it's almost a modern parable of how we can put our trust in the wrong people because, when it came to the crunch, the most unlikely of heroes materialised to save the day.

My friend is not the sort of person you'd turn away from your front door. She's respectable, a former editor of a well known, national magazine; she's bright, polite and showers. None of that seemed to matter to the other middle-class professionals in her inner-suburban street that warm summer night.

It was about 11pm on a Sunday, when my friend - let's call her Anne - heard unfamiliar sounds from the rear of her house. Her boyfriend said she was being paranoid, so he jokingly crept out of bed to find the "spooky men", opened their bedroom door and was attacked by two hooded males.

The intruders proceeded to beat her naked boyfriend, dragging him down the hallway, as he screamed out to Anne to call the police. While she searched for the cordless phone in their bedroom, one of the men returned to menace her, telling her he'd kill her if she resisted.

"I never realised how powerfully terror manifests itself physically," she told me, "I started sweating like I'd been running - I stank of it for about five days afterwards.

"I was frozen. Time slowed down to nothing, sounds were weirdly amplified. I would love to see a video of what I was actually doing. It was sheer panic," she said.

The attackers dragged her boyfriend into the lounge room, smashing windows and destroying furniture, all the while kicking and punching the man, who fought them into the rear of the house.

Everyone was screaming, glass was shattering, objects were crashing to the ground and it was late at night on a Sunday. Theirs was a sleepy inner-city street, with little traffic, houses nuzzled up to each other, only metres apart.

"No one came to see what was happening; no one called the police," she told me.

Petrified her boyfriend was about to be killed, Anne bolted out of the front door in her bra and undies ("thank god, I'd worn them to bed") and ran to her neighbour's house, banging on the front door.

"They turned off their lights. I was screaming out their names. We knew them, we were friendly with them," said Anne.

She ran to her neighbour on the other side of her house.

"They turned off their lights as well. That was one of the worst moments of my life, realising they were going to do nothing."

Anne stood in the dark street in her underwear (an even greater terror for her under normal circumstances) screaming for someone, anyone to help, when "this crazy-looking man came running down the road at me".

"There were two guys coming behind him with missing teeth and beards, wearing footy shorts and thongs and I thought, 'Oh no, there's more of them.'"

Instead one of the men asked, "You all right, love?" then charged through her front door with his mates, scaring off the intruders, who escaped over the back fence, yelling "we've got a gun!" to discourage pursuit.

The rescuers?

They'd heard Anne's screams from up the road, from the halfway house for ex-cons just released from prison - the undesirables whom the middle-class professionals muttered about during the day and locked their doors to at night.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

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