After I was born, Ma walked across the road and got herself a job as a cleaner at the Hotel Allen. The manager let me sit on the carpet, with a spoon and an ice-cream tub, next to the poker machines, so I imitated the rhythm of the lights flashing and the sound of the coins dropping. When Step came into the pub one day, I thought he was another mental patient from Ward 10B who’d wandered over to wash down his medication with a beer, but he said he was a travelling salesman. The manager wasn’t interested in vacuum cleaners but Ma was interested in men with white Ford Transit vans. He paid our rent and moved in with us whenever he came to town.
On the only road trip that Step ever took me with him, a cyclone twisted towards the coast of Capricornia, and the Bruce Highway got washed out, so the two of us had to stay outside Cairns at a place called the Bruce Highway Motel. The room smelled of paint and crushed ants. There was one double bed and a big General Electric television and a bar fridge. There were no pictures or decorations on the walls. Everything, including the curtains and the concrete floor, but not the bed or the TV screen, had been slapped with whitewash. There was no air-conditioner, and the fan only worked on the lowest speed. I followed each blade, grinding through the odour. The world outside was full of cane toads croaking because of all that steaming tropical rain.
Step piled two late model vacuum cleaners, which he’d refused to sell that day, by the bathroom door. He was afraid to leave them in the van with the other models because he thought that his competitors might try to steal them. After combing his hair, and warning me not to touch the merchandise, he took off to get drunk. I switched on the TV and tried to watch the original Frankenstein, but couldn’t sit still for long because those new boxes with new instruments, an exotic cargo of plastic and electric, were too good an opportunity to pass up. I unwrapped the vacuum cleaners and plugged them into the wall so that I could play my own version of Frankenstein and the monster. I lay on the bed with the vacuum cleaner hoses ready on each side of my skull. I hit the buttons with my heels.
First nothing happened, then there was a flash, and then the vacuums came to life. It worked. Both of the vacuums came on. But unfortunately, both hoses fell straight off the bed and snaked around on the cement.
I played dead for a while, listening to the noise.
When I opened my eyes, and scanned down my body, I felt something moving in my grey school shorts. I took off my shorts to have a look. My penis was stiff and throbbing. The vacuum cleaners told me to put my penis in their holes.
A moth hovered around the bedside lamp, leaving its shadow on the whitewashed motel wall. I was asleep on the bed when Step walked in and switched on the overhead light. He thumped a bottle of Johnnie Walker Scotch next to the lamp, pulled me up by my hands, and dragged me towards the bathroom. I struggled and got a cowskin boot in the back. I hit my shoulder on the door and my tailbone and spine on the bathtub. I got concrete burns and tile scratches. Urine ran beneath me.
Step walked around in circles, an imitation of a deranged barnyard dance, and nearly slipped over because he was so drunk. The TV illuminated a strip under the bathroom door. I watched it glimmer and shift with the changing scenes.
I could smell perfume wafting in from the bedroom.
The pacing led Step out of the bathroom and into the bedside cabinet, searching for that Bible, and, upon finding it, back into the bathroom. He sat on the toilet and skimmed the soft pages, looking for something to instruct him, the heel of his cowskin boot tapping on a broken tile like he was about to burst into a country song. He couldn’t concentrate to read or sing because there was giggling in the bedroom, so he got up off the toilet, leaned the Bible on the cistern, and took off his bull’s head belt. I thought he was going to beat me with the big horns because I’d seen him beat Ma with them before. But he grabbed my hair, wrapped the belt around my neck and the soap dish, and threaded the buckle. Then he took a glass from the shelf and a razor from his travelling toilet bag. He unscrewed the razor, took out the blade, and washed it under the bath tap. The tap dripped slowly after he turned it off. It was the rhythm of water torture.
Step put the glass on the tiles under my right hand and took the razor to my index finger. It didn’t hurt. “This will cure you,” he said, squeezing my finger until blood ran into the glass. Then he sat on the floor with his head on the toilet seat and mumbled some drunken gibberish from a zombie movie or an African voodoo ritual.
When the glass had enough blood in it to drown a mosquito, he put my arm back into the bath. He forced the glass to my mouth and told me to drink. It tasted like rusted metal, thick in my throat, but pleasant. After that, he made me drink some Scotch, and it tasted worse than the blood. It was the first time I’d ever tasted alcohol.
I put my big toe in the spout, to stop the tap from dripping, and went to sleep.
When Step opened the bathroom door, in the morning, I noticed a blonde wig sticking out from under the bed. I couldn’t get my toe out of the tap, and the wig frightened me, so I started to cry. Step couldn’t get my toe out either. He used soap and shaving cream and hair grease. Then he bandaged my finger and called up the manager, who called the maintenance man, who didn’t get there until lunchtime because the road was flooded.
We headed back to Townsville singing along with Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three. We stopped at Ingham where Step bought me a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. After the meal, while I was licking grease from my bandaged finger and wiping my face with a moist towel, he said that if I ever told anyone about what happened during Cyclone Mahina I would go to jail or die from a disease called AIDS. He said that Johnny Cash was the real saviour, not Jesus Christ. A month later, Step gave me the cowskin drum. Something must have happened to him, when he was a kid, to make him do what he did to me at the Bruce Highway Motel, but I never found out, and I never wanted to find out, and anyway it was all worth it just to bang on that cowskin drum.