Broken Hill G.J. Lewry Chapter 1
How do I begin to describe the way my heart has been devoured by vultures?
I guess I start from the beginning. As you may know, I was born in the town of Port Macquarie in New South Wales to as stable and as supportive a family as I could ever had hoped for.
As an only-child, there was just me for my parents to cherish, although that is now changed. To be honest with you, I was the definition of a normal person- a steady family, a typical circle of friends and a regular place to grow up. Exciting things happened to me, as with every child. I had adventures, accidents, problems, but in equal proportions to every normal child that leads a usual life on this earth.
We used to live in a normal bungalow down Club Street just a few streets down from the beach. The house had a metal wire fence around its perimeter and you walked along the cobbled steps through the front yard to reach the door, the entrance to which was covered by a porch where the cats used to sit and lounge about in the sun.
The exterior of the house was white painted wood, just like every other house on our street and although it was small, it was all me and my parents needed.
My story really starts when I was fourteen years old and my parents sent me to a drama summer camp in Wauchope. It was the start of the summer holidays and the thought of going to somewhere completely new to me and having to make friends made me resist this experience. It was a week long residential camp and I vowed to have the worst time at this camp just to show my parents how much I didn’t want to go. This had been a hastened decision, a way of getting rid of me for a week whilst they spent time in Sydney- reliving the days when they didn’t have me around I guess. Not that I was a particular burden-they just needed to get away- we all do sometimes.
Anyway, we loaded my luggage into our silver car, just my suitcase containing everything I needed for a week, and drove off, out from under the shelter that we kept our car out of the sun and along our street until we reached the motorway and the road to Wauchope.
We sailed past green forests, cut to accommodate the modern roads and as we rushed closer to the destination I could feel the ball in my stomach tighten, squeezing my anxiety and nerves, making me dread the time when our car would stop and I would have to get out and leave my parents for the first time in my life.
As my mother drove me through the gates of St Catherine’s Private School, I gazed out of the window at the smartly mown lawns, the mighty trees rustling in the rushing wind and then the magnificent gothic stone building to which we were heading. The knot in my stomach unravelled and I felt anticipation and excitement flood over me as I looked out of my window at the scenes all around us.
Gravel crunched as we stepped down from our 4x4. I stared intently at the sun-drenched playing fields to the side of the building. Girls, a lot older it looked from where I stood (though I later found they were my age), chased a small, running ball across the field, their silhouettes creating stretched shadows that copied their every movement. I stepped back into my own thoughts, whilst still entranced by the sight before me. Maybe this week won’t be so bad after all I wondered- although the nerves in my swelling heart told me different. The beauty of the place had struck me. I had never been to a school like this. My own school back home in Port Macquarie was tarmac jungle with dull, grey buildings enclosing us from early morning until 4:30pm but this was paradise enclosed in a shiny bubble, safe from the outside world.
My mother broke my day-dream, asking impatiently why I wasn’t helping her with my luggage. I heard her, but chose to wait a second before turning around and breaking my gaze over the fields. A smile crept onto my face, raising my cheekbones until it broke open my mouth and made my eyes squint.
With a sudden change of heart and nature, I spun round, snatched my biggest bag and almost ran up the brown stone steps to the imposing wooden door of the school’s entrance.
The door opened before I reached it, as if someone had been watching me run towards it. It creaked eerily as it grandly turned into the dark reception where a single desk sat at the far end between two flights of curving oak stairs that met together in the middle. A man and a woman sat at that desk facing me, dressed in yellow shirts and both wearing shorts and flip-flops under the wooden desk that I now approached, feeling the cool of the indoors on my sweaty, hot arms. The brief silence was broken by the sound of my mother entering the reception, my suitcase in tow, dragging along the varnished floor on its small wheels. My mother swept past me, marching up to the desk where the two young camp leaders rose up from their seats to greet her with a cheery yet well-worn smile.
‘Hi there, welcome to Camp Destiny. My name’s Mikey; I’m Camp co-ordinator here’. He shook my mother’s hand before gesturing towards the folder spread open on the table in front of us- ‘if you could fill out the form there and sign it then we can get on with showing…?’
‘Rachel; Rachel Staitlin’ I said instantly to fill the expectant gap he had left to find out my name.
‘…young Rachel around the camp and to her dormitory for this week’ he continued, speaking to the top of my mother’s head as she bowed down to fill out the form.
Eventually after quickly scribbling her signature on the bottom line of the form, my mother turned to me, gave me a hug, said her goodbyes then turned round again to head back across the reception and out of the wooden door into the brilliant sunlight of the mid-afternoon. I watched her as far as I could before she disappeared down the stairs and moments later I heard a car door open and then slam shut before the engine started and the gravel crunched under the tyres that would take her away from me.
‘So’. Mikey said impatiently. ‘Shall we show you around the place? Someone else will take your luggage to your room whilst I give you the official Camp Destiny tour’. I sensed that he probably said the same joke to every kid that got deserted by their parents at this place, but even so I was dead keen to have a look around the place after seeing so much fun and nature when we had arrived in the car.
Mikey lead me back the way I had entered the reception through the ancient wooden door, down the concrete stairs and onto the gravel car park. I stared down the long road, flanked by trees, that connected the main road to the school spotting a silver car, a speck at the end of the road, stop and then turn right, disappearing out of view, blocked by the evergreen bushes that surrounded the entire estate.
Mikey walked ahead of me round the red-brick building and I followed him until we stopped, facing the sun-drenched playing fields that stretched out like a green carpet under the bluest roof I had ever seen. Figures were still running about on the field, kicking a ball between each other, their shadows chasing them as they darted about in every direction.
‘This, as you can see, is where we do most of our sport activities. Currently everyone is on mid-afternoon break, but you’ll be able to join in with the late-afternoon activities as soon as we get you settled in your room’. Mikey sounded as though he was reading his lines off a script and I was hardly listening as I watched the boys on the field kick their ball about. The sun was making it difficult to look directly at the field and I saw bright colours floating around the scene after glancing into the glare white ball of light.
We stayed staring for a little bit longer, Mikey talking almost to himself about how I was going to fit in at camp and if I had any problems then just talk to him, before we set off to explore the inside facilities. With Mikey leading just in front of me, we passed through the sports hall, walked down to the Astroturf pitches and then finally along the potted plants and garden to the two-storey house that contained the dormitories and the mess room.
‘Boys dorms on the right, girls on the left’ he said as he led me up the stairs to the left of the double-door entrance. We climbed the flight of stairs and quickly proceeded down the corridor before Mikey halted and searched in the pocket of his khaki shorts. He pulled out a key and turned it in the lock on the door before pushing the unlocked door open and inviting me into my home for the next week.
I turned into the room, eager but anxious to see where I would be sleeping, to find two red painted bunk beds against the walls with my black suitcase resting on the bottom bunk of the set of beds to my left.
‘Loos are at the end of the corridor’ Mikey mentioned, answering my queried look. ‘You’ll be sharing with three other girls of your age. I’m sure you’ll get on just fine with them. Do you need a hand sorting your clothes out?’
‘Umm, sure’ I murmured unlatching my suitcase and unzipping the top of the case to reveal neatly ordered clothes which Mikey helped to shove into the remaining space in the cupboard. I spotted the other girl’s possessions lying round on their beds and on the desk that was positioned under the window that looked out over the playing fields Mikey had just shown me. Fluffy white teddies sat on the bed opposite mine whereas clothes and a plastic bag dangled off the bed above me. On the desk sat empty coke cans, a rotting banana skin and a collection of huge pine cones all covered by a layer of sweet wrappers, a few of which had been left on the scratchy, grey carpet.
On the wall was stuck a large poster of Craig Finson, the soap star from Cobbers, who I took to be an idol for one, or perhaps all the girls that I was sharing this dorm with. I rarely watched Cobbers, yet I knew who Craig Finson was from the amount of talk about Cobbers that circulated my school back in Port Macquarie. A toothy white grin was etched across his face, his eyes twinkling with the look of confidence, supremacy in knowing that he was the star of the show and the picture he was posing for would be adorned on girl’s bedroom walls from here to Perth.
Underneath the bed, tucked out of the way lay the other girl’s suitcases, their contents, like mine in the large wooden drawers or else on their unmade, dishevelled beds. I looked around the room, not in disgust like I imagined my mother would, but with excitement, expectation and with a smile that expressed my utter delight of the anarchy and mayhem that I knew would come when I joined with my roomies.
Mikey gestured for me to follow him back down stairs and I suddenly felt a pang of nervousness stab me as I realised where we were going. Mikey lead me across the gardens and past the potted plants to the field where I now saw thirty of or so people gathered, some clumped together, others spread out all over the place. I soon realised, as I grew closer that they were playing a game of rounders. Girls and guys my own age, all dressed like me in t-shirt and shorts, looked round as me and Mikey approached the clumped group who were apparently waiting for their turn to bat. Cries of ‘Mikey!!’ were issued as we arrived at the group of batters.
‘Hey guys’ Mikey answered their excited shouting of his name. They quietened when his attention turned to me. I could feel the revealing spotlight of people’s eyes shine on me as I stared downwards at the green grass, avoiding their gaze and the shine of the sun that was now flickering through the dark fir trees at the border of the field.
‘Guys, this is Rachel. She’ll be with your group for the week and in your dorm’- he pointed and looked at three girls standing to the left side of the group who immediately flashed welcoming, kind smiles at me.
The girl at the far left was blonde, smaller than me, her hands on her slight hips, hair shining gold in the sunlight. The middle girl was obviously the leader. She was tall, brown hair tied back into a ponytail, tanned arms folded, but holding a stance that told me she was in charge. The third girl, at the far right was the medium of the other two girls in terms of height, but first when it came to looks, her hair, the same colour as mine, was braided and she had the most tanned complexion of the three, her hands in the pockets of her shorts creating a slouched appearance.
‘Bronwyn, Francesca and Mel’ he reeled off their names pointing from left to right at the three girls he had pointed at before. ‘Hi’ they chirped in near unison, smiles still intact. ‘I’ll leave you guys to it’ Mikey said, turning away and rushing back to the red-brick building at the front of the estate where another car had just arrived, the sound of gravel crunching a distant sound.
I tentatively walked over to the three girls, feeling as though this was my destiny, the natural thing to do. ‘Hi’ I replied. ‘I’m Rachel’.
‘Do you want to join in with the game? We’ve just started batting’ gabbled the girl I remembered as Francesca.
‘Have you been to camp before?’ asked the girl named Bronwyn.
‘No’ I answered just as Mel asked me if my name was Rachel or Rach- ‘both, either, I don’t really mind’ I replied trying to keep up with their questions.
The rest of that glorious afternoon was spent playing Rounders with my new found friends, meeting other people in my group before dinner time in the canteen next to the dormitories. We walked into the canteen, the cool of the shadowy room a relief to my sweating humid skin, and sat down at one of those fold-up tables that every school has. The canteen was smaller than I had imagined it to be, the many tables squashed up together to fit in as many people as possible although at this moment there were only a few groups of people dotted around the various tables, creating an echo with the scraping of their utensils and hushed conversation.
We went up to get our dinner after reserving our seats with whatever loose items we carried with us, mainly waterbottles or jumpers. Having never been away from home before, my dinner always carried to my place at the table by my mother, I was dazzled by the freedom of being able to pick from such as wide selection what I wanted to eat. There was everything I could have hoped for. Meat pies, casseroles, fish; I looked around the canteen with glee revelling in the independence of choice.
I chose a slice of meat pie with chips, I still remember that decision to this day, and sat down with my three friends, Mel to my left, with Francesca and Bronwyn opposite me and Mel.
It turned out that they had only arrived at camp yesterday and that they all went to the same school as each other in Kempsey. This daunted me slightly, knowing that they were all firmly established friends, but they welcomed me as one of their own and I tagged around with them when we had finished dinner.
We headed up as a group to our dormitory, passing by fellow residential campers on the stairs. ‘Is there anything happening tonight?’ I asked tentatively despite feeling part of their established group.
‘Yeah, there’s a disco at 8 and then after that it’s pretty much up to us until lights out’ Francesca replied, the intonation of her voice at the end of the sentence suggesting that they had plans for after the disco. I reflected on what Francesca had said, wondering to myself what the usual evening routine was like at camp. Usually at home I just had my dinner early then either watched TV or messed around with the cats for the rest of the evening, retiring to bed at about 10. I was a long sleeper and I never really stayed up late at home, but now that I was at camp, desperate to make friends with my room mates, I realised that sleep was going to be in short supply.
We changed into more casual evening clothes and then skipped our way down the stairs, heading towards the large hall which Mikey had pointed out as the social room.
Girls and Boys, some older, some younger and some around the same age as me, dressed in their evening gear, were walking up the steps into the pitch black hall. As we headed up the steps and into the dark hall, I followed the three girls round the corner towards the coloured light. Music, deep and booming, filled my ears, setting my heart to thud against my chest.
I looked up and saw hordes of people gathered, bouncing up and down in time to the music, mixed so tight together that they looked like the ocean, a wave swaying and splashing against the stage on which a man stood behind a laptop. The man I recognised was a camp leader, he had been on the other team in rounders and as I looked closely, advancing towards the crowd I noticed campers that had been on my team in rounders and a few that I realised I now knew the names of.
‘Hey look! There they are!’ Mel practically screamed pointing animatedly at a bunch of boys near the edge of the crowd. I recognised them instantly as the guys that we, or rather my friends, had talked to whilst playing rounders that afternoon.
There was Danny, tall and lean, surrounded by Sam, outspoken and a flirt, and their other mates who I had yet to be acquainted with but whom I knew the names of; Odyn, Ewan and James. They welcomed us with a hug and after a few words between Franceca and Danny, which I couldn’t hear because of the loud music, we proceeded into the centre of the crowd, our bodies directed by the movements of everybody else.
All I can remember of that evening now is that I came out of that dense crowd intensely happy with the way I had made friends so quickly and how much fun I was having. The evening passed so quickly that I was begging the DJ for another song by the end of the night and as we shuffled out of the social hall I had my arm around my new-found best friends Bronwyn and Francesca, with Mel safely in front of us, leading us towards the dorms.
The thrill of independence was still vibrating inside my body and I couldn’t help smiling all the way back up the stairs and into our cosy room. I was elated with the way in which I had fashioned three new friends and exhilarated by what great friends they were. I guess at my school in Port Macquarie I had never really made many friends. I was generally seen as a nice person, but not really that exciting, nothing special, a bit boring to be honest. I had a few friends who I spent lunchtimes with, but struggled to find anyone that I really cared about. Bronwyn, Francesca and Mel instantly became, in my mind my best friends after just that first night at camp and as I sat down on my bed I felt a wave of tiredness waft over me. My eyelids suddenly felt heavy and although the adrenaline of the night was till passing through me, it was way past my normal bedtime and I could feel my body lying down on the bed and my eyelids succumbing to close, sending me off to sleep.
Lying flat out on my bed I felt my quilt drop down, covering my body up to my head and distant voices uttering indecipherably around me. I could see behind my eye lids a sea of red before I heard a switch click and all I could see was blackness. Seconds later the door to the dormitory closed shut and the last thing I heard that first day at camp was the sound of three pairs of feet plodding down the corridor towards the stairs.