Ghosts Dancing On Water by Patricia Bernard
When the heart is destroyed, the mind is capable of unspeakable things in the name of love…
Stevie loves his little sister Lily and will always protect her. As children, he was the one who looked after her. If anyone threatened her, she could always depend on him. Protecting her from Roy was the most difficult of all. He had too much power over both of them…
Stevie wonders why his sister isn’t turning to him for help now. Where is she? Who’s stopping her from contacting him?
Determined to find her, Stevie won’t be distracted from his single-minded purpose. He and Lily have to be together for always. As for the other bodies? When Stevie is crossed, people don’t live long…
GENRE: Psychological Thriller Word Count: 101, 150
(ebooks are available from all sites, and print is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and some on Angus & Robertson)
Excerpt not suitable for children, or people easily upset…
The Yarra River
So they found her. I’m not surprised. It’s because of the drought. The newspapers said her body was caught in a submerged tree and that when the water level dropped, there she was spread-eagled on a branch for all to see. Well, enough of her for two cyclists to get off their bikes and prod her with a stick to make sure she was real.
I wonder what she looked like. I wonder if her hair was still ash blonde, or if she had any hair left. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it gets torn out as they pass through the submerged branches or sometimes it just falls out from being under water too long. I’m always curious about what they look like but only a relative is allowed to identify a body. I know this because I identified my mother’s body. She identified Roy’s.
I would have liked to have seen Roy laid out on a slab, naked and covered with a sheet the way they are on television. But I was only eleven years old and they said I was too young to go to the morgue, even though I begged and begged. In the long run, it didn’t matter because my mother told me what he looked like. Told me and told me. As if by describing his bloated blue flesh, or how the fish had eaten his eyes, or how his fingernails and toenails had turned to jelly, I would admit to having killed him.
I never admitted anything. All her ranting and raving did was drive her crazy. Crazy enough to put her head in the gas oven and end it all? So the coroner said. But what would he know about being crazy? The craziest people are the ones who look the most normal. They’re the ones who smile at you and say “good morning,” when you get in an elevator. They wear navy blue or grey suits, and red “winner” ties. They belong to Parents and Friends of the School Associations and do-gooder clubs, and raise money at their socials for starving children in Africa.
The crazies who sit on the trains scratching and talking to themselves or to other passengers or the ones who hit their heads on brick walls and play with themselves – they’re not really crazy. Their brains are deranged or rearranged by alcohol or drugs. But they’re not harmful. They’re just mentally off somewhere with the pixies or on some other planet.
I turned to another television station to see if there was any more news about the body. But it was as if they shared the same reporter and photographer. I wonder if the river drops any further, if they’ll find the others. Probably not! Certainly not Jean Paul, who was in six pieces. He’d be nothing but bones now. Bones scattered along a riverbed all the way from the Pipe Bridge to the port. Bones and toenails, nipples and belly button, lying tongue and hard working penis…all gone. Bye, bye Jean Paul.
I like the Yarra River. It is slow and muddy with bends that are dark, deep and mysterious. The keeper of secrets, that’s what the Yarra is. Meandering through the city like a flat brown ribbon, it’s too easy to reach, too convenient not to use. Who notices a splash among the many plop, plops of the polluted fish as they leap to catch a mosquito? No one. The Yarra eats up bodies like an enormous watery Minotaur. Mine aren’t the only sacrifices it hungrily gulps down. I’m not the only one who feeds it.
I know this because I have seen the other feeders’ victims while walking along the bicycle path planning my next punishment. They float up from the surface to greet me. They wave at me as if they know me or know of me. Then they call to Jean Paul and the others to come and see me.
“Come on, hurry up, your friend is here,” they shout with their slack, gaping mouths and hollow, waterlogged voices. “Hurry or you’ll miss him.”
They’re all sizes and types. Clusters of day-old kittens, their eyes still glued together with transparent mucus. Newborn pups and ancient dogs, remnants of the sacks and plastic rubbish bags they were imprisoned in still hanging around their necks. Small children accidentally drowned, their bodies never found. Newborn babies not so accidentally drowned. Teenagers, drunk and stupid, who have fallen or been pushed. Men with bullet holes in their heads, or chains around their ankles, their startled eyes popping in surprise as if they’d never understood the deadly game they were involved in. Murders sink to the bottom to be greeted by their triumphantly smiling victims. And then there are the women.
There are always women. Some still bleeding from the wounds inflicted before they drowned. Young women and old; naked and dressed. The old ones lurk among the willow trees, embarrassed at how terrible they look, vain even in death of their sagging bellies, empty buttocks and drooping tits.
The young ones, their death screams still embedded in their unlined throats like sharp fish bones, signal to me across the expanse of water. Their helpless white hands stretching out with their nails broken and full of the skin of their attackers. Sometimes their fingers are broken, too, from being slammed in car doors or forced back, but always they stretch out to me.
I used to think they were begging for my help. But the last time I walked by the river, I knew they weren’t asking for anything. They were demanding more bodies. More sacrifices. These lonely handmaidens of the river god need company. They who were fed to the hungry Minotaur are now its feeders. Feeders of the rapacious Yarra River.
The Swan River isn’t greedy like the Yarra. How do I know? I know all the rivers. The Murray and the Brisbane are my least favorites. I’ve never used them. They, with their shallow stretches and crystal-clear potholes don’t love me the way the muddy Yarra and sandy Swan Rivers do. The Swan has never thrown up any of my bodies. Not once. I don’t know where they go. Sucked into the quicksand of the harbor most likely, or eaten by the greedy cawing seagulls that circle the cafes along the sea front.
I wasn’t always obsessed by rivers. There was a time I hated water. Feared it. But that was when it was used to punish me. No one likes the thing that is used to punish them. Children locked in cupboards grow up fearing the dark; children beaten by belts seldom choose to wear them; and children forced into water reach adulthood hating to swim and preferring showers to baths. Growing older doesn’t change our fears. It only intensifies them. For a long time I feared water, then I made it my friend, my compatriot, my weapon for punishing those who hurt me. Roy used to say that once you make a friend of your fear, you didn’t fear it any more. He was right.
Roy. D. Switch was my uncle, my father’s older brother. Only I didn’t find this out until after Roy drowned. I had grown-up believing Roy was my father. Mine and my little sister Lily’s. So I always stuck to his rules and did what he told me to do.
No, that’s not true. I always did what he told me to do after he had caught me doing something he’d told me not to do. Which wasn’t difficult, because Roy had so many rules that it was impossible not to break one or two a day. More if you weren’t taking special tiptoeing care, as Lily called it. Roy loved rules. He believed that without them we were no better than animals. Roy knew he was much better than an animal. He was an honest, law-abiding, God-respecting man. Or so he told us during our punishment sessions. Sometimes we had to repeat the words twenty or thirty times just so we wouldn’t forget them.
An honest, law-abiding man, Roy would say, had to have honest, law-abiding children. Had to have a son and daughter who lived by the rules of their home, parents, and life in general. And if his son and daughter didn’t abide by these rules, if they didn’t curb their wickedness (which Roy would insist ‘they’ had not inherited from him) then he would have to do it for them. He would have to train them in honesty. He would remold them into upright human beings.
When Roy talked like this he meant me, not Lily. I was the wicked one. I needed remolding.
I didn’t understand why Roy harped on the fact that my badness was not inherited from him until after his death, when I discovered that I wasn’t his biological son, that my father had been Roy’s younger brother, Kenneth Switch.
My earliest recollections go back to when I was three years old. There had been a car smash. I know this because the nurse told me so while leaning over me with her sour chewing-gum breath hitting my face. “Big bang,” she said, making her eyes and mouth large, round and scary. “Everything smashed up. But you’re all right Stevie, and so is Mummy.” She didn’t mention Lily because Lily hadn’t been born yet.
I don’t remember the smash, but I remember the hospital. It was in a country town called Swan Hill. I remembered the white bed, white walls, white ceiling and white uniformed nurse. I remembered my mother, sitting by my bed crying until her face turned red and blotchy. I remember thinking that she was crying for me. Then I thought she was crying for my father. My real father that is, the one who’d been driving the car. I was wrong. She was crying for herself and Roy. D. Switch. Only I didn’t know that until after I killed Roy.
Even as young as three, her crying made me angry. I didn’t like her crumpled face. It spoilt the white room. I remember screaming at her to stop, and when she tried to push my fringe back from my bruised face, I bit her hand so badly that the nurse had to smack my leg to make me let it go.
“It’s a reaction,” the doctor told her. “You mustn’t upset yourself, Mrs Switch, not with your time so close. No, of course he doesn’t hate you. He’s just a little boy who’s had a bad accident and a bad fright. He loves you. And he’ll love the baby when it comes.”
The doctor was dead wrong on both accounts. For a long time I hated the stupid, pink-faced baby and I hated my mother because she’d deserted me, leaving me in the hospital with the smelly-breath nurse. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” she’d promised. But she didn’t come back. Not for weeks. The nurses tried to comfort me by saying that she’d gone away to have my little baby sister and that there were problems due to the car accident. But I didn’t listen to them. In my mind my mother had abandoned me and even if she came back I knew she would abandon me again; small as I was I decided that I would pay her back for it one day. But then, I have always had a vengeful nature. I inherited it.
It was after I left the hospital that Roy D. Switch came to live with us and became our father. Only I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that there had always been a Daddy sleeping in Mummy’s room and although I couldn’t understand why this Daddy was taller and broader than the other Daddy, I soon forgot the first. It was as if Roy’s big-boned face and blonde hair became super-imposed over my first Daddy’s dark hair and thin face. Very soon I believed that Roy had always been there.
For a while I loved him because every child loves their father. But one day, after he had beaten me with a branch of the Bougainvillea that grew outside our back door, after he had forced me to stand completely mute and still while the stings from the thorns burnt into the flesh of my bare arms and legs, after my dog had licked the blood from my ankles, I began to hate him.
No! ‘Began’ is too mild a word. ‘Began’ makes me think of something starting slowly then expanding gradually. That wasn’t how it happened at all. My hatred for Roy exploded through my small body with a force and strength that seemed to consume me, burn me up, and devour me. It was born out of my thumping forehead, fully grown and dressed in the armour of malice and loathing. This hatred deadened the pain of my mother digging out the Bougainvillea thorns and dabbing my cuts with disinfectant. It deadened the pain of the stinging antiseptic and of her soft, spineless voice rebuking me for upsetting my father yet again.
Hatred is so much nicer than love. It’s warmer, cozier, and more passionate. It burns away inside your chest like a tiny coal fire, but when it flames up it is much more powerful emotion than love. When you hate someone with all your heart and soul, it makes you strong, as strong as Superman. No one can hurt you. Not all the beatings, tortures, or humiliations anyone can think up. Not the constant disappointment of having a mother who never protects you. Who always looks the other way and never takes your side against the monster she adores. None of that hurt any more, not while I hated with my entire four-year-old-body.
My mother loved Roy like a nun loves Christ. She worshipped every bit of him. She threw nothing of his away. She collected his hair from the shower plughole and placed it in an envelope kept especially for that purpose in her dressing table drawer. She told him she was making a pillow-full so she could sleep on it. She thought him the smartest man in the entire world. She thought all his sleazy, five-cent deals were brilliant. That they were going to make him a fortune. They never did, and when they collapsed, usually with Roy owing other people money, we moved. So much for honest, law-abiding Roy D. Switch.
By the time I turned ten and Lily turned seven we had lived in every reasonably sized town or city in the country. We were always moving. Always starting anew. Often with new ‘bought on credit card’ clothes and furniture to impress our new neighbours. Roy was big on impressing strangers. My mother didn’t mind the moving. Roy was God to her, and wherever he was she was happy to be with him. If he arrived in the middle of the night and said that we had to pack up and go that instant, there were no questions. No recriminations about how she’d barely had time to put up the curtains or put down the carpet, but blind adoring obedience. Roy liked blind adoring obedience it fitted into his system of rules. As long as the wife obeyed her husband and the children obeyed their father, all was right with the world. If Roy had been anything in a past life, he would have been a Nazi.
My mother was what was called the perfect wife. She had no opinions of her own. Never asked for anything and always said the right things to Roy to build his ego. For instance, she was always telling him how handsome he was and complimenting him on his good taste in clothes and always urging us to do the same.
Tell your father how nice he looks, Lily.
Tell him how fine he looks, Stevie.
Tell him he’s the most handsome man in the world.
Roy liked to wear navy blue double-breasted suits and paisley print ties. And he always wore white shirts. “White shirts show I’m an honest man,” he used to say as he preened and posed in front of the long mirror.
My mother scrubbed her knuckles raw to keep those shirts as white as Roy liked them to be. Her hands were always in water for him, washing his clothes, washing his dishes after he’d eaten, bathing him. She liked to scrub his back, shampoo his hair and shave him. But he would never let him cut his hair. He went to a stylist for that. He was very conceited about his fine fair hair. My mother never went to a hairdresser. Her hair was auburn and wavy and hung to her shoulders. Roy liked it that way. A hairdresser would spoil it, he said. Anyway, he reminded her, with his famous car-salesman smile, he was the one who brought home the bacon, so he was the one who needed a stylist. She never argued.
So it was a pity that I couldn’t have seen his hair when they fished him out of the dam. I’d have liked to have seen it all covered in mud and weed. I would have liked to have pulled some of it out and spat in his handsome, vain face. But then I did that minutes before he died.
I hated Roy for a long time before I decided to kill him. By a long time I mean about five years, which would make me around nine years old when I made the momentous decision to do it. That was the year Roy devised his Chinese water torture. Until then he’d been more into your ordinary ‘beat the boy around the head with the telephone book until he collapses’ torture, or ‘drag him around the room by his hair’ torture, or the ‘burning candle balancing’ torture. He really liked that one.
It went like this. On discovering I had broken a rule on purpose (for Roy it was always on purpose) he would make me strip off and put my hands against the wall. Then slowly he would push my feet further and further back until the only way I didn’t fall was to press down into the floor with my toes and up against the wall with my fingertips. Why didn’t I just fall? It wasn’t that simple. Roy never did anything that simple. I couldn’t fall because he always had six or more lighted candles between the wall and my extended feet. I can still feel the heat of the flames stretching up to scorch my quivering stomach, my testicles, my tiny, shriveled-up, terrified penis, while Roy talked about the latest book he’d bought.
Roy collected books on torture.
“Stevie,” he would say while my fingers and toes ached or went numb, “the ancient Chinese were masters. They turned torture into an art form. Their aim was to keep the victim alive and in pain for as long as they could. They could slice one thousand pieces off someone before they died.” Or, “Stevie, the Arabs used to put people in huge jars of oil where they’d swell up so that they couldn’t get out and they’d become pickled while they were still living.”
When I couldn’t balance any longer, I would twist and throw my body sideways in an attempt to miss the flames, but I always landed on two or three of the candles, squashing their wicks as the hot wax stuck to my thighs or buttocks. Then Roy would heave me up and we would start again. Hands pressed against the wall, feet pushed away from the floor, candles relit. This was his newest ‘you shall not lie to me’ punishment. It worked. I never lied to Roy but he didn’t believe me.
Roy didn’t punish Lily in the same way. Oh, he often stripped her and dunked her in a bath full of water bobbing with ice cubes the same as he did me, or he’d hit her repeatedly over the head with the telephone book, but he never burnt her with candles. He never blistered her skin or marked her, because she was his dolly. His naughty, little dolly. His silent, naughty little dolly. Lily didn’t speak.
She hadn’t always been silent. She’d started talking when she was about one year old. The burble, gurgle sort of talking that sounds so cute. Then she moved on to proper sounds and even proper words, such as Dada, Mama, Stevie. Then around her fourth birthday something happened and she became very sick and couldn’t get out of bed for a week–that’s when she stopped speaking. She understood though. She wasn’t deaf or stupid.
“She’s simply decided not to talk for the moment,” explained my mother, when people asked why they hadn’t taken Lily to a specialist. “She’ll speak when she feels like it.”
Which turned out to be true. The day Roy was buried, Lily began to talk. Talk and talk as if she’d never stop. Words came pouring out of her mouth in every which way, mixed up, back to front, gabble, gabble, gaggle. Exactly like the turkey gobbler our next-door neighbours, Mrs Zindler, had in the wire cage down the back of her yard. The entire day of the funeral Lily talked or babbled like a crazy person until she fell exhausted onto her bed.
The next morning the babble was gone and she talked just the same as anyone, but she only ever mentioned Roy D. Switch once. It was three days later on our way to school. She stood up on the toes of her new patent leather shoes bought for the funeral, put her arms around my neck, looked me straight in the eye and said: “He’s dead and I’m glad. Thank you, Stevie.”
She never said anything like that again. Not even when our mother died.
Killing a grown man when you are only a kid isn’t easy. It takes a lot of planning. It’s not as simple as killing a drug addict like Michelle Pascoe, who was practically begging to be put out of her misery. I mean Michelle knew what I had done to Louise and Jean Paul yet she tried to blackmail me. Now if that isn’t asking for it, what is? But Michelle was practically a skeleton by then. It’s much harder when the victim is bigger than you are. That’s why when women murder it has to be premeditated. Because they can’t hit back when they’re beaten or hurt. They’re too small, too weak. They’re almost powerless. Kids are even more powerless, they’re born victims. But I knew I could do it. I just had to work out every step of my plan in advance.
I’ve always been a long distance planner. I was one of those kids who could start saving up for a skateboard in January and buy it the following Christmas. So the amount of time it takes to accomplish something has never been a problem for me. As long as, in the end, I accomplish what I’ve planned, I’m content.
I was nine when Roy bought the Chinese torture book and eleven when I killed him. It was a two-year plan, with the first part of it consisting of my being the perfect son. Not to cause trouble at school. Not to bash the other kids because they wouldn’t let me play football with them. No more throwing of rocks onto Mr Peterson’s tin roof because he’d gotten me into trouble. No more stealing Mrs Zindler’s apples or teasing her chickens until the stupid pea-brained birds went hysterical. No more taunting the Chinese market gardener and busting his pumpkins because he chased me with his machete. And no more climbing through the Catholic Church windows and writing dirty words on the walls because I hated God. All of that was behind me. Roy was going to have nothing to complain about. I was going to make him my best friend, my buddy, my mate. I was going to make him trust me. I didn’t care how long it took. Because one day he was going to be so trusting that I was going to be able to snare him in a trap from which he would never escape.
I’m very patient. Michelle Pascoe would vouch for that if she were alive. It took me ten months to get what I wanted out of her. It took two years, three months and two days to get Roy. Two years, three months two days of being as perfect as an undersized, not academically bright, not sport-accomplished, naturally suspicious child could be. My teachers couldn’t believe the change in me. My mother said I had finally grown out of a bad stage, and Roy was sure that it was his discipline that had done the trick. Which meant of course that the discipline should have stopped. It didn’t.
Roy couldn’t stop disciplining me any more than I could stop hating him. It was part of his character make-up, his enjoyment of life. Rules ruled him and he ruled my mother, Lily and me. So I was still punished. The only difference was that I’d stopped fighting back. I accepted all the shit he piled on my head, all his confidence-stealing lectures, without a sullen look or argument. Roy was good at confidence stealing. He could remold words, sentences and thoughts until in the end my brain felt as if it had turned into mush and my tongue to sponge rubber. But I had my plan and so I suffered it all.
My being submissive took away half of Roy’s pleasure, a fact that I wished I’d realised at an earlier age. So he started punishing Lily more. But they were little punishments, such as having to brush his hair a thousand times, or having to rub suntan oil over his body so long that her little arm seized up with cramp.
My decision to kill him came about in the same month as our last midnight get-away from a demanding landlord. Roy’s tractor business had gone down the gurgler–at least, his backer’s money had–and we were obliged to leave the small town where we’d lived for the last six months, and disappear into the mighty metropolis of Sydney.
Sydney was the biggest city we’d ever lived in. I don’t know why it took us so long to move there, because Sydney was perfect for Roy. He went into selling used cars and within a year owned his own second-hand car yard. He always said his success was due to his charm. Women loved to buy his cars. They came back year after year. He boasted that cars were in his blood. Cars weren’t in my blood, but I still had to clean and polish anywhere up to twenty vehicles every weekend. And they had to be spotless, otherwise…the water torture.
Our first Sydney house had an aboveground pool, a round one with blue plastic lining and sharp aluminum rim. At first I loved splashing around in its shallow water. I couldn’t swim, but I intended on learning. That was until the first time I had to stand in the pool at midnight in the middle of winter, while Roy, wrapped in a blanket, smoked and explained why it was so important that his cars were spotless. After that, I wasn’t interested in swimming any more.
I spent a lot of cold nights in that pool. If I tried to get out, Roy would hit my hands with a golf club. If I knelt down to keep out of the cold air he would turn the hose on so that the water level rose higher than my mouth and nose, or he would force the hose nozzle inside my mouth and fill my stomach and half my lungs with water. The best thing I could do was to stand in the centre, wrap my arms around my goose bump covered ribs and wait while my legs turned blue, and plan how I would kill him. It had to be a slow and painful death and it had to do with water. And he had to be awake during it all. I wanted him to know who was killing him and why.
By the time I was eleven, Roy and I were best friends, although inwardly I hated him more than I hated God, who had failed miserably at protecting Lily and me. Even the punishments had dwindled off.
At least the physical punishments had. Roy had moved into jocular verbal humiliation and bullying. I was too weedy and short, too skinny, too ugly, too slow, too stupid, too brainless, too… He repeated this litany frequently always with a laugh, and always with a painful tug of my hair or a painful tickle or pinch of my thin upper arms.
If anyone said anything (such as one astute school teacher who remarked at a parent-teacher meeting that I had astoundingly low self-esteem for someone whose father had it in such abundance and she wondered why), Roy roared with laughter and said that it was probably because I was too dumb to spell self-esteem.
“I can too,” I’d cried, completely forgetting my plan to not break any rules “S.E.L.F.E.S.T double-E, M.”
“Good for you,” smiled the teacher, putting her arm around my shaking shoulders. She had long blonde hair. Natural, not dyed. Since then I’ve always liked girls with long, blonde hair. I’ve never hurt girls with long blonde hair and never will. Short or dyed blonde hair like Michelle Pascoe’s doesn’t count.
“He spells! It’s a miracle.” Roy tugged my fringe, his laughing face and teasing eyes daring me to show how much he was hurting me. When we got home he punished me for making a fool of him in front of that silly blonde bitch of a teacher.
The water torture caused me to have many colds, earaches and, sometimes a real bad case of the flu. I was hospitalized with pneumonia once. My mother visited the hospital every day, but she never told the doctors why I was sick. She never called a halt to Roy’s punishments. And she never came outside to the pool to drag Lily or me out.
All she said, when she rubbed us dry, was that Roy was a loving father who was trying to show us the right way to behave. That he wouldn’t do it if we didn’t deserve it. And why, oh why couldn’t we be good.
I have often wondered if she was simple-minded. Or whether Roy had hypnotized her. Or whether she simply didn’t care for us. It was as if all the love she had in her was for him, so blindly did she agree to his every wish. Even his cruelty towards her children could go unquestioned, unseen, unstopped as long as he continued to love her.
We never told anyone. Not our teachers. Not Mrs Zindler, our neighbour, who was the kindest person I ever met. Not the hospital staff when I had pneumonia, or the doctor when I attended casualty with candle burns from, Roy told them, playing with forbidden fireworks. I’ve often thought about why I didn’t blurt it out and ask for help. I think it was fear and the belief that he and our mother were right. Otherwise, why would he do it? Why would she, who said she loved me, let him? Not only that, everyone liked Roy. All the people he invited to our house for a beer or a barbecue thought him a terrific salesman and a very funny fellow. And honest! Roy D. Switch was so honest that you could buy a car from him and know it would still be going five years later. Even the local police officer bought his wife’s car from Roy. So, I concluded, no one would have believed me anyway.
The year Roy died, he was rolling in money; or so he kept telling us. We’d moved from our rented house with the above-ground pool, into a bought with cash house with an in-ground pool. He had also bought a new Saab convertible and put a deposit down on a mountain weekender.
“My accountant says I have to show a loss,” I heard him tell my mother. “I’ve always wanted a Saab and a country estate.” He didn’t ask her what she wanted. He knew that as long as he was happy, she was happy.
In the two years since we’d arrived in Sydney, the Switch family had jumped from being close to poverty to respectable middle-class. I have often wondered why this was so important to Roy. It seemed to me that the middle-class weren’t anyone special–they weren’t the poor who lived off government handouts and did what they wanted all day, or the workers who went on strike whenever the sun shone, and they weren’t the rich who flew overseas for extended holidays if their businesses went wrong. So why was Roy so excited at being one of them?
All it meant to Lily and me was a bedroom each, a bigger swimming pool–one with a deep end, which terrified me–and another new school for me. Lily’s school always remained the same as she attended a special one for the speech-impaired.
“Everyone who is anyone has their kids in a private school,” Roy expounded when I mildly complained about the changing schools yet again. “All my customers send their kids to them. It’s a great selling point having boys in the same private school.”
Great for him! He hadn’t attended eleven schools in six years but I liked the Saab and I liked the weekender. It fitted into my plan.
It was a two-bedroom weatherboard shack just out of a small old gold-mining town in the mountains. The township boasted of about two hundred inhabitants, mostly unemployed, a twenty-four hour hotel and betting shop, a country store and a one-teacher primary school. I don’t know why Roy liked it. There was nothing to do there. I think he liked lording it over the locals. Betting up big with the hotel owner. Buying everyone beers. Going off shooting rabbits and kangaroos as if he were a real bushman instead of being born in an inner city suburb.
Within a few months he was driving up there every weekend. In the beginning we all went even though my mother suffered from carsickness and found the four-hour trip exhausting. Eventually Roy said that the drive was too much for her and that she must only make it once a month. That he would take Lily and me with him for company on the other weekends. This would allow her to get a good rest. She panicked. She said she didn’t want a rest. She wanted to be with him. She didn’t mind being carsick. But he insisted.
Lily hate going to the weekender without our mother. It had an outdoor shower and toilet, and because it was often cold at night, Roy made us all take a bath in a tin bath in front of the open fire. Both Lily and I disliked this because he never left us alone to do it. Instead he would sit in his armchair pretending to read while watching us and making personal remarks, such as, “You are getting to be a big girl, Lily. Look at those little, pearly, titty buttons.” Or, “I don’t think you are going to do any damage with that little twig, Stevie. I think we had better buy you a grown-up one.”
The first weekend without our mother, I had gone into the bedroom to read while Lily got into the bath first. I hadn’t always been a reader, but recently I’d discovered World War II prisoner-of-war books and was becoming addicted to them. I’d just settled down when Lily came running in. She grabbed me by the hand and dragged me into the lounge room, where she sat me down beside the bath. She washed so fast that barely a minute or so later she was out, dripping on the carpet, covering her nudity with the towel. But Roy insisted that she hadn’t done a good job. He made her get back into the water so he could scrub her himself.
After that she always faced away from him and scrubbed and scrubbed until she was rosy red before she got out. But she was never clean enough. Roy always insisted that he would wash her again to get to the little places she had missed.
The weekender was built in the middle of forty acres of soundproof, grey-blue eucalyptus trees; ten minutes drive from the town. It had a large dam close to the house and plenty of space for Roy to park his collection of old cars.
Roy had discovered a plethora of old cars hidden in barns and milking sheds, or ditched in back paddocks. They were useless pieces of junk when he bought them. “Don’t know why I bother,” he’d tell the farmers. “Just hate to see them dying of rust, I guess.”
Those same rust-buckets became antique cars that sold for a fortune once he’d carted them back to the city, where their engines were replaced, their insides reupholstered, and their outsides re-sprayed. Honest Roy. D. Switch was onto a good thing.
I was not interested in old cars but I was interested in the weekender’s dam. It was very deep and had an old wooden jetty that extended almost halfway across because the previous owners had owned a boat. The hotel owner told me that the Fisheries Department would give any dam owner a collection of baby fish for breeding purposes all I had to do was apply. It wasn’t hard to convince Roy that fresh fish in the dam would be a great asset when he came to selling the property. Roy was always on the lookout for added profit.
The fish arrived and went into the dam where they grew rapidly. The only problem was the time it took to catch them. So I convinced Roy that we needed a large wire cage. That way I could net the fish each weekend, let the little ones go to grow bigger, and keep the big ones in the cage. When we needed a fish dinner, there they were, just hanging at the end of the jetty waiting for the frying pan.
Roy had the cage made up by the man who repaired his cars. It was exactly the way I’d drawn it. Large enough to hold a man with a metal lid that could be padlocked to both sides so that no one could poach the fish while we were away. It was a big success. Roy began bringing fish down to Sydney and giving them away as a bonus to his car buyers. It made him very popular.
We had been going up to the weekender for twelve months when the used car business began to go sour. According to Roy, it was the Koreans who were to blame. They had brought out a ‘look alike’ Toyota that was so bloody cheap no one wanted to buy a second-hand car. Not even his luxury ones. And curse the bloody stupid government for letting the Koreans dump their baked bean tin junk in our country. Some bloody politician must be getting a kickback, for sure.
Roy’s accountant told him that the weekender would have to be sold. Roy told my mother that he didn’t care because he’d bought up just about every old car in the district. Next year, when he was top of the heap again he would buy somewhere else; somewhere that had more old cars lying around in the sprouting grass.
My mother couldn’t have cared less about selling the weekender. She hated being left at home on weekends and of late she’d actually insisted…no, insist is too strong a word for her she’d begged for Lily to be allowed to stay with her. Lily had begged as well. Begged and begged in her own dumb way. So, to stop having to put up with her crying for the entire weekend, Roy had agreed. I didn’t know it then, but it was around this time that he’d discovered Pamela Service, the eleven-year-old daughter of the local schoolteacher.
With the idea of getting the weekender looking good for a quick sale, Roy took me up there for three days of clearing away the scrub so that the place would look safe from bushfires. He also wanted to clinch a deal on an Armstrong Siddely he’d discovered.
We arrived on the Sunday morning and I cleaned like crazy while Roy went to speak to the car owner. That night we ate at the hotel and the car owner and Roy got drunk. Roy always got drunk at the hotel. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have been considered one of the locals. And if he wasn’t one of the locals, people wouldn’t sell him their old cars no matter how much money he offered. So while Roy got drunk and clinched the deal, I sat outside on the hotel steps throwing stones at the lampposts and when the electricity came on, playing ‘chase the girls and kiss them’ games with the country kids.
I always chased Pamela Service. She was two years older than me and very pretty. She looked like the photographs of my mother when she was young. She had the same reddish hair, the same wide-eyed surprised look, although her eyes were green and not pansy brown. Pamela always ran slow and let me catch her and kiss her. Then she would giggle loudly and push me away so that everyone would laugh at me.
I liked her more than any girl I knew in the city and had decided that I would marry her when I grew up. I didn’t. But that wasn’t my fault. She shouldn’t have told me about her and Roy. She shouldn’t have compared us.
The night Roy bought the Armstrong Siddely he was so drunk that we had to leave the Saab outside the hotel. The farmer, who was only a few degrees less drunk, drove us home in his utility.
When we got to the weekender I waited until I could see the farmer’s headlights bobbing and flashing away through the tree trunks, then I told Roy that I’d heard someone down at the dam.
“The bastards! No one steals my fish!” he roared, lurching down the path, shouting and swearing. I followed with the torch.
Down into the shadows he staggered, then out along the moonlit jetty. I followed praying that he wouldn’t fall in before he reached the open fish cage. At the end of the jetty, he balanced on his toes, unzipped his trousers, threw back his head, and peed.
I smelt the acrid beer-laden urine as it arched like a golden thread and landed with a tinkle, tinkle, in the dark water. Then he turned, stumbled on the cage lid that I’d removed earlier, swore loudly, and bent down to have a closer look. That was when I pushed him.
I had rehearsed it so often in my mind that I knew exactly where to push from so that he would fall into the cage. He toppled like a tree cut down by an expert lumberjack. His forehead hit the far edge of the wire, but his body fell inside. I didn’t wait to see if he went under. I dropped the torch and heaved the lid over the top of the cage. It landed with a bang, hitting Roy’s head as he came up for air. Then I jumped on it. But I wasn’t heavy enough. It bucked and heaved under me like a live creature as he pushed it up. I fell across it and lay there fumbling with the padlock. It slid into the loop. I clicked it shut, then slithered around to the other side, almost sliding off the lid as he heaved again. So I grabbed hold of the jetty and stamped down on the metal. Then I forced the second padlock through its loop. That’s when I heard him shouting. He must have been shouting all the time only I’d been concentrating so hard, I hadn’t heard anything other than my heart pounding like a bass drum.
“Let me out of here, you dirty little bastard!”
“Shut up!” I yelled back. Then stopped. Sound travels long distances at night, and even though we were surrounded by trees, who knew who might be wandering around. The drunken owner of the Armstrong Siddely for one.
I sat on the end of the jetty with my feet doing a tap dance on the cage lid. I was sweating from the excitement, soaked from the dam, and my teeth were chattering from the fear of being drowned when I’d almost slid into the water and from the fear of what he’d do to me if he ever got free.
The moon disappeared behind the trees and around me the night closed in, resting on my shoulders like a thick black blanket. Below my feet Roy was still yelling. But his shouts sounded more like the sick warble of a yodeler with a cold than the yell of a powerful used-car salesman. I banged on the lid to shut him up, and he stuck his fingers through the wire and tried to catch hold of my boot.
My torch had rolled into the water, but my eyes were used to the dark and I could see the stick I’d left on the jetty that morning. It was long enough to jab through the wire of the cage. So I jabbed him.
First he called me a filthy little bastard and threatened me with all manner of punishments ending with his promise to kill me when he got out. I told him that was unlikely because I intended killing him first. Then I lay on my stomach and, keeping out of finger reach, peered through the wire under the rim of the lid. He had less than a hand’s-breath of space to twist his bleeding face up for air. When he saw me he snarled. So I jabbed him again, making him let go so that he would sink. He splashed and floundered around trying to get out of my reach. He was drunk and his clothes were sodden, and even though I was sure he was supporting his weight by digging the toes of his shoes into the mesh, I knew he couldn’t last. Drunks don’t coordinate well and it was very cold in the dam.
“Rule number one,” I told him. “Shut up or I’ll stick you again. And next time I’ll poke your eyes out. Rule number two. Be polite or I’ll poke this up your nostril. Rule number three. No matter how quiet you are, I’m going to hurt you. Now repeat that twenty times.”
I jabbed each time he stopped repeating my rules. He cried out in pain and quickly changed his tune. He begged me to let him out. He promised me anything I wanted. Money. Half his business. A sports car. I told him an eleven year old wouldn’t know what to do with half his business or a sports car and that once he was dead Mum would get everything anyway. I’d get the sports car when I was eighteen. He reminded me that he was my father, mine and Lily’s, and that he loved us. He reminded me of how much he loved our mother and how much she loved him.
“Too much,” I told him and jabbed again.
Then it was my turn. I reminded him of how the ancient Chinese loved torture. “Remember the one about the rat?” This was the torture that had horrified me the most. The one I had been terrified he would try on me. The one I’d had nightmares over. “How they put a cage over a victim’s bum, then force a rat to climb up inside his shit-hole. Remember? It’s on page eighty-three. You showed me the drawing. Well, there are rats in this dam. Huge, sleek water rats with teeth as big as your thumbnail and they’re going to climb inside you.”
He began to cry. It was lovely to listen to. I even mimicked him and cried with him for a bit, but the dam was smelly and I was cold, so I left him to it and went back to the house.
I changed my clothes. Had a hot cup of cocoa and six slices of hot buttered toast. Then I went back to the jetty. He was still alive. I was expecting that. I presumed that he’d be alive for a few more days. So I would have to get my story right for tomorrow. I didn’t want anyone coming out looking for him just yet.
I rehearsed my story in front of him. Explaining how I wouldn’t let on he was missing until he’d sunk to the bottom and that he couldn’t last long because the water was too cold. Then I asked if he could feel the eels nibbling at him? “Eels are scavengers, they’ll eat anything,” I told him. “They’re worse than water rats. They’ll tear at your flesh before you’re dead. They’ll wriggle up your trouser legs and eat your dick. They’ll slither down the neck of your shirt and burrow into your heart. They’d push inside your ears, nostrils and gaping mouth. They’ll chew out your tongue and they’ll chew off your eyelids. But you won’t feel anything because you’ll be dead.”
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