Answering Mr Pitcairn
Joe’s mother, Margret Byrne, fascinates me. She confronted the police about their surveillance of her home during the outlaw years and stood up to them; she supported Joe and he visited her regularly at considerable risk to himself. She retained the unswerving loyalty of her friends and neighbours, even of the Sherritts when Aaron was known to be a police informer. She was widowed early and raised her large family alone, running a dairy farm. Joe was conspicuous by his absence at home even before he was outlawed. Yet she is frequently condemned for some of her coldness towards him, and for her refusal to add her voice to the request for the return of his body from the authorities after his death. Had she done so the police might not have buried him without ceremony in an unmarked grave. Nobody knows the nature of their relationship or what her reasons might have been. This story is inspired by an event from an earlier period of Joe’s life: remarks made during the trial preceding a jail sentence he served when he was about twenty, for illegal possession of meat.
"Is your son good to you, Mrs Byrne?”
Mr Pitcairn’s words are loud in the silent, polished courtroom, but still she takes a second or two to hear them clearly, and when she does, her heart gives an odd little thud. She wraps her fingers over the wooden rail in front of her and her mind flits for a moment to the luckless girl whose task it must be to rub the golden oak to such a deep and lustrous shine.
She wonders at the question, at its relevance and looks across at Mr Zincke who is defending Joe. Should he not be objecting? No, apparently not. He is assiduously scribbling notes, so assiduously that she can hear the scratch of his nib even though he sits some yards away. Her eyes travel further on to the dock. Aaron watching her steadily, no emotion visible on his usually open face, Joe’s head bowed, the thumb and forefinger of his left hand busily picking at the skin on the middle finger of his right. Pick, pick, pick.
When she had walked across to take the stand, she was aware of course that all eyes in the courtroom were on her, judging her, but it was a background awareness, a passing thought in comparison to the acute sensation of him watching her so closely. It had been like a physical pain to realise that he retained lingering traces of a child’s belief that its mother will always be able to help.
As she placed her hand on the Bible, it had occurred to her that she could say that she had killed the calf. That Joe had voluntarily tried to take the blame in her stead. Naturally, she had no real intention of lying under oath, and even if she had, the prosecution would have easily shown her evidence for falsehood. Nevertheless, she had considered the possibility in an abstract way, in the same way that she knew it was possible to jump in front of a moving train on the railway track.
There was nothing she could truthfully say that would save Joe and Aaron from the consequences of what they had done. She had not even known anything about it until afterwards. The thought was oddly comforting. It made it easy to respond to the questions because she didn’t have to think about the answers. Yes, she had been widowed a few years ago. No, Joe had not lived at home of late; she lived quietly, running her dairy farm with her five younger children – her eldest daughter worked away and brought money each week. It was not clear to them what Joe did to earn his keep and there had been no question of receiving money from him for some little time now. Yes, she was indeed on friendly terms with Aaron – why, with all the Sherritts in fact. No, it was not particularly usual for Joe to dine with the family, and even less usual for him to return the following evening with a half-carcass of cattle as a gift for the larder.
And as she spoke she was conscious of two things. Firstly, the nodding of the judge and the murmurs that went around the courtroom. Noddings and murmurings that told her that whatever Joe may have done, nobody thought badly of her or of her family, and surely that had to help him in some small way? Secondly, there was Joe. He had caught her eye as she began to speak, smiling timid encouragement, standing up straight. As her testimony had continued, he had gradually begun to slouch, the smile had vanished and he was carefully avoiding looking at her. It was around the time that Mr Pitcairn asked her about the money Kate brought home that he had begun to find the skin on his finger so in need of his attention.
“Is your son good to you, Mrs Byrne?”
She smoothes her skirt, folds of fabric under her palm, and touches her hat.
Well, no, he isn't! Has nobody heard what she has been telling them? But what bearing does that have on the charges laid before the court? And yet as the words ring out, she grasps that to confirm the harsh truth in so many words would indeed be to condemn him. She wishes the question were different.
Does your son love you Mrs Byrne? On the rare occasions he visits, does he embrace you? Does he respect you? Would he knock down any man who dared to criticise you? Would he understand if you chose to marry again, yet still honour the memory of his late father? Does your son break your heart, Mrs Byrne? Is he not clever and handsome and wild, and is that not part of the pain you suffer, the pain that makes you so cold to him?
Yes, yes, yes, he does! Yes he would! He does! He is, and, yes, I do suffer!
She bows her head and clings with all her heart to Joe, and with all the certainty of her mind to the stark reality that she knows she has already exposed, and she yearns for the two to be closer together.
There is a creaking sound as people in the upstairs gallery lean forward to catch her reply. She has waited too long; she has to speak. She takes a deep breath.
“I cannot say,” she tells them, looking defiantly about her. There is Anne Sherritt, a hand raised spontaneously to her lips. Mr Zincke closing his eyes as if in brief prayer, the judge nodding again and Joe, head no longer bent, staring straight ahead of him, unseeing now, the sentence already passed.
I have written some other pieces about Margret and Joe which are published here. One appears in the Twilight Vignettes section, although it is quite different from the rest of the Twilight stories. It's called Christmas Eve.