This story is loosely based on a passage in The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey in which a similar scenario is viewed from the perspective of Ned’s pity for the girl, in that case Aaron’s sister. In reality since Joe and Aaron’s sister were long acquainted, indeed at one time engaged, the pathetic figure she cuts in his company in that story is almost as certainly fictitious as what follows here. For anyone who ever lay in a strange bed and wondered how they got there.
“If you want lass, you could come with me now.”
Leaning one shoulder against the dirty slab wall, hands slumped in pockets, exactly the right kind of clothes. Exactly the right tone of challenge and humour as he spoke.
Staring hard into the darkness as I remember his voice back there makes my eyes burn and the tears dry cold on my face.
I think about all the miles of desolate red soil and windswept scrub that now lie between me and that place. The place where my sisters’ warm, soft-breathing bodies have slid gratefully into the extra space I’ve left them in our bed. I wonder where they think I am. I wonder how it came to be that I am here and I am not there.
“I can bring you back in the morning.”
His eyes were mesmerizing, teasing and beseeching at the same time. He didn’t quite plead but somehow it sounded like the most important thing to him that I say yes. Beyond flattered, that just what I did.
Here in the cave someone coughs obliviously and the sound fades uneasily into the dank air above us. Behind me Joe shifts in his sleep, hunching on his side into my back. Our bodies are touching all the way from our shoulders to our knees. One of his arms drapes heavily over me. You couldn’t slide so much as a newspaper between us, which strikes me as funny because we are – and I know this now – almost strangers and there is certainly a big space here which has nothing to do with the way in which we are lying so intimately.
He feels very different from my sister Annie; larger for one thing and harder, and with an alien smell of the bush and of tobacco, as well as something more innocent and boyish now that he lies so unconscious and vulnerable. Very carefully, so as not to disturb him, I turn over to face him. The sudden relief to my skull when I do this makes me realise that the hard ground has been boring into the back of my head.
The lantern in the corner is failing now, but its death throes still illuminate hanks of black curls spiralling untidily from his scalp. His face is concealed from me, his breath steadies on my arm and somehow I know without being able to quite see, that he is frowning in his sleep.
Why wouldn’t he? He’s lying next to the biggest fool in Australia.
There’s a painful moment of clarity as I see myself through his eyes. Too young, too breathless with excitement and my own daring, giggling too loudly as he helps me onto his horse. If he knew then how it would end then he’s treated me poorly. If he didn’t, then he’s a fool too.
The thought makes me sigh and I inhale the scent of the slumbering unwashed men around me and the spores of harsher, foreign air above. I tug the mean blankets resolutely around my face, an attempt to befriend them so that I can sleep peacefully under them.
My mind still races.
I didn’t expect that we would travel quite so far. I didn’t even realise it would be dark when we arrived. There were plenty of other things I didn’t expect either, and I reflect on the yawning chasm between the me who knows all this and the me that I was when I woke up this morning.
By the time we reached the last half hour of our journey, the rest of the world seemed to be sleeping, vast and dark, with only the sounds of the bush as an uneasy lullaby. Even against that eerie backdrop though, the mouth of the cave was easily visible, black and silent, waiting to swallow up any unwary passers-by. I was only just sliding off the horse and realising that this was our final destination when Joe tugged on my hand and I suddenly, finally understood that he meant us to go in and lie down together like man and wife.
“I don’t want to go in there Joe,” I said and he looked at me thoughtfully. Then he took out his tobacco tin and removed a cigarette from it. I heard the sound it made as he tapped it on the lid. He said nothing.
Slowly, he lit the cigarette, the match flaring orange in the cup of his hand, and then there was just the point of glowing ash and the softly curling smoke between us. He reached out with his free hand and touched my cheek with his thumb.
“C’mon Sarah,” he said in his quiet, coaxing way. “I thought you wanted to be with me?” His face was only inches from mine, his eyes heavy as they regarded me closely.
His thumb drew broad, soothing strokes across my cheekbones, and the air was so unmoving that I could hear the faint crackle of the cigarette as it burned in his other hand. He gazed out over my head as if waiting for me to speak. When I didn’t, I heard him give a little sniff and then he said, “I’ll look after ye. It’s a long time til morning, and I wouldn’t recommend ye sleep out here, hmm?”
He stepped away then, just far enough so that he could smoke, and waited for his soft repetitive voice, the shadowy form of him and the reminder carried by the chill air to do their work.
I didn’t know what to say, and my heart was beating so hard it seemed that he must be able to hear it and was choosing to ignore it. All I could think was that out here, he was the only friend I had, and it didn’t seem like he was going to offer me any other choice, so I screwed up my courage, or perhaps just bowed to the inevitable, and slipped my fingers back into his hand to show him I’d go with him. And there I was, no-one to see us, holding hands with Joe Byrne, the handsomest and wildest lad in the whole of the Woolshed.
He dropped the cigarette then and ground it into the dust under his heel, and I could see he was smiling.
“There’s a good girl then, hmm?” he said in the same, careful, soft voice as if he thought a sudden noise might startle me and cause me to bolt. Then he let go of my hand and squatted down to light an old lantern which had been left on a rock by the entrance, picked it up, took my hand again and led me into the cave.
I don’t know why I was surprised, but his three mates were already lying in there, occupying, as far as I could tell, most of the space and sleeping heavily. We skirted as quietly as we could around their tousled heads, right to the back and he showed me the space where we were going to sleep, next to each other. He put down the lamp in the corner, twisting it on the sandy floor until it was stable, then he knelt on the ground and spread out the blankets for us. After that, he stood up and he kissed me.
I’d always wanted Joe Byrne to kiss me, ever since the classroom at school where I used to watch him bent over his slate, one of the big boys and me just a tiny wee girl he never noticed. Truth be told, from the moment he’d started to talk to me that afternoon until a few minutes ago outside the cave, I’d had that very end in mind. Now of course, even to someone as daft as I, it was quite clear that this was much more of a beginning than an end. He tasted of sour whiskey dregs and the cigarette, and for all the gentleness of his lips, his moustache prickled on my skin, but none of that stopped the kiss from softening my knees like butter on the porch, so that it was easy as peas for him to lower me to the ground.
Whether it was actually him lowering me or me falling over and him catching me, I don’t know. However it happened, I found myself lying on my side, right up close to Joe with him carrying on kissing me as he groped blindly for the blankets to pull over us. I could tell that my face must be starting to turn red and sore from the roughness of his whiskers, but the kissing still made me feel warm and nice. Even when he wriggled his tongue into my mouth, I had the strongest sensation of wanting him to stay close to me and to carry on. Under the blankets his free hand was stroking my waist and I yearned to reach out and stroke him too. Maybe it wouldn’t be difficult or wrong after all to do what he wanted.
After a while though, the kissing got harder, and with a great rustling noise that I felt certain would wake the others, he rolled his weight half on top of me. His hand on my waist – the hand that I had once hoped might pick me a flower, maybe dare to stroke my hair – began to bunch up the fabric of my dress and push its way up my leg. Part of me wanted him to do it, all warm and dark under there, Joe’s hand on my thigh where no-one could see it, just me and him sharing it. So I said nothing and I let him. Then because, I suppose, I did not protest, he dared a bit more, and only hesitated when I cried out in surprise, or it might have been pain.
I still didn’t say anything. After all, I’d flirted with him and I’d come away with him and he’d thought I’d understood all along what it was all for. By now I didn’t like it very much any more and the nice warm feelings had drained away leaving me frightened about what might happen next, and so rigid that I can’t believe he couldn’t sense the change in me. Even then I wasn’t sure I had a right to stop him. After all, nothing I had said or done so far, other than hesitate a while outside the cave, had suggested that I wasn’t willing to go along with it, so it wasn’t really his fault. Besides, I wasn’t sure what words I could use, whether it would be better to stay quiet. It was a little like being in a dream, observing this thing happening to me, to us, and not being able to call out.
I burn with shame, here alone in the darkness with four men. I burn as I remember those fingers that rubbed and probed and hurt and yet despite that, seemed to know more about my body than I did. I burn as I remember his voice, low and insistent in my ear.
“Help me with these buttons then lass.”
Hearing him speak somehow broke the trance, made it more ordinary and real, and I panicked, not finding my voice exactly, but pushing at his arms, squeezing my thighs tight together, flinching from that hand, twisting away from the reality of his excitement.
He rolled off me with a sigh.
“Oh Christ,” he said, and also I think, some worse words. There was a pause when perhaps he might have thought better of saying such things, and then he sniffed loudly and whispered, maybe a little stiffly,
“I’m sorry Sarah, I thought you…that is, did ye not want to then?”
Mother always said that the more difficult the situation, the more you could help things along by being polite. She said that good manners were about seeing the other person’s point of view and thinking about what would please them. This wasn’t perhaps the situation she’d had in mind, and certainly I knew only too well already what would please him, but I made a big effort to remember my manners.
“I’m sorry Joe,” I whispered back. “I can’t…we can’t do that.”
“It would be very nice if we could,” he told me, right in my ear, his voice all persuasive again, and that warm melting feeling came instantly flooding back again. And as if he knew that, he laid his hand, very gently, back on my waist where it had started out.
“Yes,” I replied, trying very hard to think of a reason that might suit him, “But then we’d have to get married, and I don’t think that would be right for either of us just now.”
There was a silence, then a little snorting noise, and I thought for one terrible moment that he might be laughing at me, but when he spoke again, he sounded very grave.
“No, no. You’re quite right.”
In the darkness beside me I felt him roll right onto his back and stick his hands behind his head. He sniffed again. I lay there and wondered if he might tell me to leave the cave and find my own way home. This was such a terrible thought – partly because I was scared and partly because I thought I’d made him angry – that presently I started to cry.
I could feel the tears tickling my cheek, and I tried hard to stop the noise, because I didn’t want Joe to know and I didn’t want to wake the others either, but he realised straight away. He raised his head and looked over at me then rolled on his side and felt for my face.
“Hey, ye’ve nothing to cry about,” he said in a low voice, quite friendly. “You’re safe here. No-one’ll harm ye and I’ll take you home in the morning as I promised.” Then he kissed my forehead like he might have done to a child he was looking after who’d fallen and scraped their knee, and he stuffed his handkerchief into my hand.
“Don’t cry Sarah,” he repeated, and I swallowed a big sob and wiped my eyes and gave him back the handkerchief. Having him be kind to me made it worse rather than better.
“Go to sleep now,” he added.
It wasn’t that easy to fall asleep, but I curled up on my side and shut my eyes and did my best so I wouldn’t have to talk about it any more. I think he must have thought I’d gone right off because after a moment he rolled over, his long back like a wall between us, and said nothing further. I lay quite still, but my mind was so busy, I thought I might lie there for a week and not be able to rest. Everything I thought I knew seemed to have been turned upside down in the last hour. Ever since I’d first seen Joe I had wanted him to like me. And when he made eyes at me earlier that day and then asked me to go with him, I was so happy. I thought that lads who looked at you like that wanted to walk with you and they wanted to kiss you and if you made each other happy they gave you little presents and then after a decent interval of all that stuff, they married you. I thought only a very few very wicked people did those mysterious things together than even married people did in the dark. I thought those happy warm feelings I had when Joe looked at me were feelings of love and romance.
Now here, in the murky cave, I knew that Joe Byrne did not want to marry anyone, least of all me, and that he was quite happy that way. And I understood that when my cheeks flushed and my knees went weak when he talked to me, it was because somewhere inside me I wanted the touching too, that I was closer to sinning than I could have dreamed possible. All this knowledge made me feel sad and wise and stupid all at the same time. No wonder I couldn’t sleep.
Even so, I think I must have been able to doze off for a while, because the next thing I remember was that we were facing each other again, very close and very warm, the blankets right over our heads, and we were kissing once more. The warm yearning came flooding back, but now I knew this was not about love. It was about the feel of each other and the soft breathing and the secrecy of wanting in the dark.
I thought he might ask me again, but he didn’t. Maybe that was just as well. He was just slow and sleepy with me, like it was the most natural thing in the world, the two of us finding each other together. He helped me undo those stiff, unforgiving buttons at the front of him, there was a gentle bump against my hand and then I was holding him, a bit scared of what might happen but glad to be able to do something he seemed to liked so much.
It amazed me, this thing that swelled under my fingers and was so unlike any other part of a body I had ever seen or touched. For a while we just lay there with me holding it, neither of us saying or doing anything, then I grew a bit braver and felt for the top which was smoother and more moist. I could tell he liked that more because he pushed against my hand and made a little moaning sound. Then he wrapped his hand over mine and showed me how to move it. When I’d got it right, he let go and I carried on, listening to him breathe in time to the movements I made. If he’d asked me right then to let him, I think I would have said yes, but he didn’t. He just seemed absorbed in what I was doing. His breath got more frantic and he put his hand back on mine and made me do it faster. It was like he was striving for something, running up a hill to get away, pulling a stump out of the ground, swinging himself onto the branch of a tree. Then he sort of grabbed my shoulder and stopped moving very suddenly as if he’d been shot. I carried on but gradually I realised that he’d stopped for good and that the back of my hand was all wet.
The stuff that seemed to be everywhere, but Joe didn’t move or make any suggestions, he was just panting to himself very quietly, like he was out of breath. I decided to try to wipe my hand on the blanket by and by and hope he wouldn’t realise. Before I could do that however, the fingers that he had buried into my shoulder relaxed and he pulled himself away from me.
“Oh. Jesus. Sarah,” he said, and then he kissed me. Neither the warm kissing of a few minutes before nor the kiss on my forehead when I was crying, but this time sort of triumphantly. Then he felt for my hand in the dark and gave me his handkerchief again, so I guessed he must have known about the mess after all.
I wiped everything best as I could and wondered what would happen next. Perhaps we’d lie there and kiss some more, I thought. I waited a few moments but nothing happened, and then I realised he’d fallen asleep.
And so that’s the story of how I got to be lying here, next to Joe Byrne, listening to his regular breathing and trapped by his arm that weighs me down like a fallen log.
Me and four men in a cave. The shame washes over me. I wonder if the others heard us and knew what we – what I – was doing, and if so how I can look any of them in the eye tomorrow. Even if they didn’t, I understand now that they will all know what it was that Joe brought me up here for and that I quite brazenly came with him. It occurs to me that I could go and lie down with any one of them right now, move up close to them, and they would almost certainly let me do to them what I did to Joe. They would welcome it in fact and they would be grateful, but they wouldn’t like me any the better for it. Indeed, the next day they would look at me like I was nothing, and feel pity for me and be glad their sisters would never do such a wicked thing. All the same, they’d still let me, wouldn’t they?