At the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club event in April, Rebecca Starford will discuss her debut, Bad Behaviour. Read an excerpt below from this compelling and unflinching memoir, which describes the year Rebecca spent at a boarding school campus in the bush, with a group of vulnerable and aggressive students under minimal adult supervision.
It’s late, just before lights-out, and we’re all tucked up in bed. My book is facedown in my lap, untouched. It’s too cold to read; it is the dead of winter, my breath hangs like mist in front of my face. A few beds down, Ronnie is sniping across the aisle at Kendall – ‘Hey, KFC. Albino pubes. Have you wet yourself tonight?’ – and Portia, in the bed beside her, laughs.
All of a sudden Kendall throws back the doona and leaps out of bed, her feet slapping against the floorboards as she makes her way to the light switch. Next minute the dorm goes black and everyone shouts – fifteen voices in a peeved chorus.
Slivers of moonlight shine against the dusty windows. I can just make out Kendall rustling at her bedside table, then she is brandishing something – a can of Impulse. She stands at the top of the aisle, facing out over the beds, and begins to spray up and down her pyjama pants. The sickly scent of musk drifts through the dorm. I hear the lighter click like the sharpening of a switchblade and a flame shudders in the gloom.
‘Watch this,’ Kendall murmurs.
And I stare, transfixed, as she moves the lighter down towards her ankle, to the cuff of her pants. It catches the aerosol fumes, and with a great whoosh she is alight, enormous blue flames pulsing up her legs, her face caught in an obscene grimace, her arms thrown wildly in the air.
When I tell Liv I want to write about Silver Creek, she peers at me over her mug. We’re sitting at the breakfast table, still in our pyjamas, the weekend papers strewn about. ‘Won’t it be strange?’ she says, wandering into the kitchen to fix herself a bagel. ‘Writing about people you still know?’
Liv went to Silver Creek too, but she had been in a different house with a very different experience. Now, more than ten years later, we live together with another girl, Alice, in a brown-brick terrace in Fitzroy.
I shrug. ‘I don’t think so. I’m only in touch with one or two Red House girls now, anyway.’
When Liv comes back she looks thoughtful, a deep line etched in her brow. ‘It’s funny,’ she says, biting down on her bagel. ‘I can’t remember much about Red House, but I do have the clearest memory of visiting. It was really hot – near the start of the year, I think – and some of you were out the front, on the deck. And Portia, she was wandering up and down the steps. Or more like prowling.’ She pauses. ‘It was like she was the lioness and you were her cubs.’
I put down my coffee. ‘Where was I?’
Liv chews, her eyes narrow. ‘You know what?’ she says. ‘I don’t remember.’
The next morning I leave early, before the rest of the house is up. I drive through empty streets, over a couple of bridges and onto the freeway. After an hour or so, the morning darkens, angry stains against the sky.
Nearer to Silver Creek the landscape changes. The rolling green pastures wash out, as if hardened by the westerly winds. I pass the turn-off to Daisy Road and Cattlemans Flat, and the rock pools. They sound charming. But I know beyond them are other places with other names, like Hell’s Kitchen and Razorback Road.
Silver Creek hasn’t any signposts. You could drive by, in fact, and never know it was there – the school’s seclusion is one of its biggest attractions. So I keep an eye out for the familiar dip, the long sloping paddock and a hay-bale shed at the bottom of the hill. The turn-off torn away like a bite from a cake.
At the cattle grid I pull over and climb out of the car. There are sheep in the front paddock, dozens of them. Their lambs are bounding around, darting one way then another, bleating.
I wander towards the fence. The air smells just as I remember it: sharp, clean, the mildest touch of eucalyptus. And something heavier – earth, perhaps. The wind whips at the stray leaves around my feet.
During one agriculture lesson I was taught how to remove sheep’s tails. Docking, the teacher had called it. The class had broken into groups to gather up a few sheep, tethering their legs so they couldn’t kick or run away, before a thick elastic band was placed around the top of the tail. But I had stood off in the corner of the paddock, refusing to do it. I hated seeing the sheep writhing like that, their pained eyes.
‘It’s for their own good,’ the teacher shouted, throwing his hands up in the air. The rest of the class turned to look at me, surprised; it was, I think, the first time I was disobedient in a lesson.
I glance towards the car. My old Silver Creek diary sits on the back seat on top of a pile of sweaters and scarves. It’s an ordinary Collins day-to-a-page, with a picture of Little Miss Naughty pasted on the front cover, along with photographs of my friends.
The night before I’d sat down and read the whole thing through. It was unsettling to rediscover those words from so long ago, somehow invasive – that fourteen-year-old seemed a stranger to me. I had been a diligent diarist, writing entries most days, filling the pages with anecdotes, scraps of letters, recounts of conversations. Where the entries were short I had sticky-taped Cadbury wrappers, newspaper clippings or pictures of Prince William to the bottom of the page.
But what bothered me most were all the gaps in the diary. So many things had been left out entirely – arguments, sadness, misbehaviour. On these pages I’d instead pasted in photographs from hikes, to make it look like something else had happened. What, I wondered, was I trying to forget?
The sky is turning black, like ink spilt across a table. Rain will come – I can smell it.
Climbing back in the car I reach for the diary. On the inside cover is a photograph of the Red House girls. It is night; we are dressed for bed. Fifteen smiling girls. Portia isn’t in the photo. She must have taken it.
I trace my finger over each girl. Simone, Lou and Emma, Emma’s arm slung around Lou’s shoulder. Ronnie and Briohny, side by side in the middle, grinning like they’re sharing a joke. And Kendall, at the back, her white hair drawn into a loose plait. She was pretty when she smiled, I realise with shock.
The diary had hardly mentioned Kendall, or what happened to her. But I haven’t forgotten – how could I? Some memories are like bore water, cold and dark and deep beneath the ground. That’s the real reason I have come back: to understand where it all went wrong. Maybe if I’d known how much the events of that year would come to shape me I would have tried harder to change what happened. I hadn’t told Liv about that.
The girls in the photograph seem happy – smiling with their eyes. I look at myself, in the front row, dressed in a green-and-white cotton pyjama top. My hair is out, straggly, very blonde. I look boyish, my face young and round. There are bags under my eyes. I can just see the beginnings of my braces behind my lips. And I’m not smiling, not even with my eyes.
I don’t remember posing for Portia, or the night we all stood like that, so relaxed in each other’s company – I don’t remember any of it. But that girl in the photo is looking at me.
Reproduced with permission from Bad Behaviour: A memoir of bullying and boarding school by Rebecca Starford, published by Allen & Unwin.
Kill Your Darlings First Book Club: Bad Behaviour
Thursday 30 April
6.30 for 7pm
Readings Books Carlton
309 Lygon Street