Mrs Lawrence no longer wishes to leave the confines of her home. Not even for the shopping mall, where she spends a Saturday treating herself to an outing. Who can blame Mrs Lawrence. She was born in more genteel times. She has endeavoured to cope with a harsher, changing world and has - she says imperatively - reached a limit.

One recent brawl by biker gangs at Sydney's airport and three other totally unplanned public shootings in the US has caused her to bring her elderly foot firmly down on the brake pedal. Full stop, she says, with firmness and an accompanying touch of sadness that cannot be hidden for a pastime now forced out of her life.

She is currently working on the mundane business of reordering her activities, organising home deliveries. Her nephew has agreed to go out and pay her bills. Mrs Lawrence says she's quite composed about dying, especially at her age. But she wants to do it at her 'God given' hour, not from the bullets fired by an immensely discontented assassin intent on taking as many of the living with him.

The nephew, Alex, recently turned 20, is of a different mindset. Or, perhaps he's more resigned to the brevity of life these days, or the suddenness by which any of us may disappear at any given moment. For he says, "If you got to die, grandma, you got to die. Can't stay locked up forever".

That's interesting, because from his viewpoint he should be the one thinking life goes on forever. Caution should be his watchword, not hers. Usually, it's the elderly who sense how much closer they are to the 'finish line' and begin thinking, 'Okay, I'll now start living life to the fullest'.

But we are in changed - not changing - times. We will never know exactly when the change took place. History - past and recent - is littered with signposts along the way. Changing, we always said. But now, very clearly, things have altered. A fresh set of social norms for public safety appears to be in operation. People are no longer striding forward confidently, with purpose.

Even one's gait has altered. There's a tendency to peer quickly over the shoulder and search out darkened alleyways. A balloon in the hands of a toddler that goes off at a mall no longer reduces only the toddler to tears and a violent start. Here, too, the inclination is to dive for cover. For bullets make similar popping sounds. One no longer walks the public squares and thinks when a bang is heard, 'Oh, that's only little Johnny's balloon. Poor chap!' It is now well within the realms of possibility for a balloon to cause a stampede, with ensuing injuries, even deaths. It is also possible that all sales of balloons will be banned in future from public events and venues simply for the masquerade they provide the pop of real bullets.

And these depressed gunmen who attack child care centres, ambush policemen, walk into classrooms and shoot dead their closest classmates... what astronomic levels of hatred they must be carrying. What unimaginable insecurity when confronted with ending their own lives. The defining inability to go alone. A need to take others on the journey beyond. Perhaps as security blankets? How like shoppers to stop off at a public place and pick 'companions' at random.

Mrs Lawrence may not be the last of those abandoning the great, beautiful outdoors. She may just be at the head of a very long queue. Unless - ideologically unimaginable as it may seem - we find a way to make peace work for every single one of us and the politics of hate is interred with every weapon that fires a bullet. Impossible, on paper.

And then today I caught the snatch of a song's lyrics: If coal could turn to diamonds/And sand can turn to pearls/If the worm can turn into a butterfly/Then love can save the world. There's a kernel of hope there, I imagine.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.