The sharp stink of campfires and the tang of eucalyptus and pine. The crunch of shoes on gravel in the dark. Rain on a canvas roof. The sound of nearby water, and the way it changed the feel of the air.
I was taller than the boys, mostly. Taller, heavier, thighs and hips ballooning. I don’t remember how my body felt before puberty, but I know I always felt older, and that it felt lonely. I tried to shrink myself to feel less awkward. I wanted to be small and pretty and graceful and rough and tough and hardy all at once. Sometimes, I still want that.
We were keen to win at games and campcraft, but more interested in each other. The adults knew this, and they took to patrolling the grounds after curfew to make sure kids weren’t in each other’s camps, each other’s tents, each other’s beds. One of those boys was my first kiss. Another, my first touch — a fumbling, confused, uncomfortable grope. I remember torchlights flicking through the dark. Hiding behind the trees to escape being caught in the beam, ants crawling over our hands. I remember the scrape of stones on tin. The sound of younger boys jeering at each other in the big tents not far away. Arguing over the rules of Cheat. A thick, wet tongue and a mouthful of spit.
Years later, we would all head out into the bush again in a convoy of beat-up old Toyotas and enormous four-wheel drives, with eskies full of booze and boxes stuffed with eggs, bacon, hash browns and maybe a joint or two. They weren’t parties so much as our own private festivals. We hooked up subwoofers and fairy lights to the generators, and sank gallon after gallon of beer and Jack Daniels and cheap vodka and terrible cask wine. We shared boxes of Barbecue Shapes and took turns doing the dishes, didn’t wash our bodies for days, and didn’t bother brushing our teeth before we kissed someone.
One year, I drank so much that I passed out in the bush with a guy’s hand down my jeans. He left me where I was, less than half conscious in the undergrowth, away from the party, away from the lights. At some point he found my best friend and said nothing more than, ‘Steph needs you,’ before turning back to the campfire crowd and forgetting all about it.
I ignored him whenever I saw him afterwards — which was often, given the circles we moved in — but the aftermath, as far as I can remember, consisted of little more than me feeling stupid, abysmally hungover, and in need of a bath. I was in love with someone else at the time, drowning myself in booze and kissing everyone I could get my hands on in order to forget about how I really felt.
It could have meant a lot of things. In another life, it might even have hurt. But to me, then, it was just another route to disembodiment.