At the Door
In the days before his outlawry, Joe along with Ned, Aaron and others including Ned's stepfather, made money stealing horses. Their methods included obtaining clean documentation by visiting remote farms, posing as sellers and buyers and asking the farmers to witness the apparently legitimate transactions. I like to think this was one of the happier times of Joe's life - freedom of the countryside laid out before him, good company and, no doubt, sheer exhilaration.
Banner by Spkles
At the door, fine gentleman’s clothes and the first thing I want to say is, Why! You’re Beautiful. The hat sweeps low with his little bow and there are curls too, blowing in the breeze. He thinks I’m the mistress of the house, only he doesn’t really, just enjoys the flush on my cheeks as he flatters me. I know this because the minute he’s seen me and I’m just a girl, he leans on the door frame, one long arm stretching to the heavens above, even though there is enough heaven for this world right there in his laughing eyes. I say I’ll get Father. And then it’s man’s business. He has horses for sale, but he doesn’t want Father to buy them, he has a buyer, just needs our stockyard for an hour while they conclude the transaction. He reads Father just like he read me – he’s earnest and knowledgeable and the eyes don’t laugh any more and that’s how I know he’s lying. That and the hat that goes round and round and round in his brown fingers while he talks in a quiet, Irish voice. But I can’t work out what it is he wants. Where’s the harm in what he asks? And I can see Father wonders the same.
He has a boy – maybe only a few years younger – lead the horses in. Five of them. Droopy and dusty-coated from the drive up from Melbourne, but fine, high-stepping animals and I can tell he knows horseflesh. The pole bangs down with a bounce across the gate and he and father lean on the rails and talk horses, and I sit on the step of the verandah and watch them. He has one foot on the bottom rail. I can see his boots have strange cutaway heels and I wonder what that signifies about him. The buyer, when he arrives, has a boy with him too, a boy who smiles shyly at me, like he wants to be friends, but I look away with my nose in the air and instead watch the two men argue and point and go round in circles about the price. Finally, a frown clouds his face, he shrugs like he’s giving up and goes to walk away, then they’re suddenly shaking hands and smiling and it’s all over. And I’m still sat there on the verandah, like I’m watching a play, and it strikes me that maybe I am.
The buyer goes off with his boy, something to do with the money I suppose, and the stranger sits himself down on the verandah to wait, not so near me, but on the same step. There’s a thin line of hair around his jaw, like someone’s taken a black crayon and drawn it there. He’s not so grown up either, maybe he’s twenty? He lights a pipe and watches the wind bend the trees and he never looks at the horses. He doesn’t look at me either when he asks me what my name is and he tells me he’s called Billy King and he’s pleased to meet me Emily. Then I stand up and he stands up too, closer to me, so close that all I can see are the buttons on his waistcoat because help me, I can’t look at those eyes and keep the breath in my body. He wants to know if Father will lend them his office to sign the papers and be their witness, and I can hardly speak because it’s like he’s asking me so many other things I don’t understand and can’t answer. I don’t know how he does this, but I know it isn’t the sun or the wind burning me up like this.
There’s a moment, just one, before Father comes back and the buyer returns, and he catches it and gives it to me. He touches my face, and Oh! I say before I can help myself, and that makes him smile. Not a big smile but one where he twitches the muscle in one hollow cheek and the side of his mouth turns up, and there’s a faraway look to him. He’s thinking about other girls who have said Oh! when he touched them, and I suddenly understand that amongst the petticoats and giggles and promises and sighs, there is an instant when they have to say it, and maybe he says it too, and this knowledge, such as it is, fills me with hot shame that floods all through me.
Goodbye Emily, he tells me when he leaves, tipping his hat politely and giving me a secret wink. I’m sure we’ll meet again. And it’s like the horses – I know it’s not true, and there’s something terribly sinful about what he’s saying, but for the life of me I can’t work out the harm in it.