|“Ah come on now, yer promised!”
“That I may have Joseph Byrne, but firstly I didn’t sign me name to any papers, and secondly I reckon you extracted that promise when I was not thinking straight. There’s no court in the land that would say otherwise!”
Joe grinned and took a moment to look at her illuminated face, flushed with the closeness of their hips and memories that she had just pulled out into the morning sun. Warm sex memories. “And you are willing to stand up in the dock are yer? Tell the good people of Beechworth why it is exactly that you weren’t of sound mind, when you gave yer undertaking, yes me darlin’ your solemn undertaking, to come with me this very mornin’”
“I might!” Her eyes fired back at him, a little lick of her lips though suggested she was once a gain a little distracted.
Joe held his arm out for her to slip her hand through, pressing it against his waist “Aye, right, I can see it all now.”
“Aye well I have a good case! They will be sure to understand that I had no choice, in the face of such a dangerous outlaw and on account of being so preoccupied with his fingers, but to agree to his every demand”
Joe laughed and leapt up on the ridge of a stone water trough, his balance established he winked “I will be reminding yer of that later… But now Miss O’Leary are you really asking us to believe that you didn't give this undertaking of your own free will? Did you not consort with said outlaw; indeed on many occasion previously accede to his advances voluntarily and without a single word of protest? Are you asking us to believe that you didn’t – like every other time just say ‘yes’?”
“I protest Sir! My morals are not in question here; thank the Lord! The case rests on my temporary insanity in agreeing to accompany the outlaw to the studio of Mr James Bray for the purposes of obtaining a photograph.”
Glancing around at the passers-by who were beginning to take notice a frown clouded her smile and she grabbed his hand with some urgency. He watched her harden under the stare of one in particular. “Hellfire. Sure now Joe, these people don’t need to hear our business eh?”
His shrug suggested the more devil may care acceptance of being outsider to this daily life, this particular street, these particular people, but it was she after all that had to walk these paths every day. Stepping down he grinned at an older woman whose scowl seemed to know no bounds, a conversation across miles of holy lands and pulpits that it wasn’t worth even starting. Her mouth mean and thin, she muttered a word he just barely grasped and for a moment could not believe. Harlot.
“What did yer say?”
The woman glared back at him, contempt in her eyes before they flickered to the body next to his. “You heard. No decent woman would be seen with the likes of you.”
Like a spring day suddenly turning back to pale cold again. Joe blew some air to clear his mind. “So we are both damned then, before we take a breath? Is that what you are sayin’ Missus?” Beside him Brenna was standing stock still, her hand holding tight to his fingers and her breath shallow in her mouth.
“I can’t speak fer yer souls, it’s not my place”
“Aye but I bet you are willin’ to venture an opinion eh? What makes you think you know anything about it all in any case?”
All the while Brenna was nudging his arm, pulling on his jacket “let’s go, it doesn’t matter, Joe.” Around them a few of the good citizens of Beechworth had stopped to see what would become of this spar. “Come on now, someone will be running to the coppers already…”
The woman nodded “With just cause too!” A slight ripple of consternation spread in the gathering- something’s evidently were beyond the pale to most, but she was not deterred. “I’ll tell yer what I know Joe Byrne since you are asking. Far be it for me to comment on what yer poor mother is suffering with all your ways- drinking, whoring, smoking that stuff like you are a dirty china man, thieving and stealing as if the laws of the land don’t apply to you and your mates- that’s between you and her and God. But then here you are…parading through the streets in public with…” her hand briefly flicked in Brenna’s direction as if it might become infected if it lingered “another one. And one thing I know is that it’s an affront to common decency!”
Anger and outrage swept through his head and yet years of deference to women, to his mother, to all of them, had him struck dumb and impotent for a moment or two. Observing the small woman in front of him, birdlike and fragile and yet jabbing with her words, he fought the urge to respond to her in kind. With a darkness in his voice that spoke of constraint he bent to say “I’ll ask yer kindly to leave her be. You know nuthin’ about me mother, and nuthin’ about this woman here neither.”
Gathering herself up, pulling her collar closer as well as her resolve, she pursed her lips “I see no ring on her finger, and there’s no secret where you spend your nights, well some of them anyhow!” A triumphant peal in her voice suggested she was already celebrating a knockout punch, if indeed she would have considered such a sport.
Joe, somewhat shocked with the vitriol of it, considered briefly how such things would never be spoken of even in the roughest bars he frequented, a sharp viciousness of opinion that yet was apparently acceptable in the mouths of women and in broad daylight too. He could feel Brenna beside him, the tenseness in her hand on his arm as she willed him to leave the ring.
He was still puzzling his way through to a response, when a surprisingly quiet voice spat “Who I chose to share me bed with is my concern, I’ll be the one responsible for me own soul. And just so as yer know - you can’t hold a candle to him even with all your bible words. Now get away wit’ yer, poisonous old trout!”
“You can be sure that I will be going, and the sooner the better!” She was determined, that was for sure. Her nose in the air she turned and stepped down off the kerb stone to cross the road, a gaggle of women scuttling after her.
A passer-by uttered some comfort to Brenna, a ‘never mind her, love’ in the smoothing of the air and Joe watched their accuser disappear into the darkness of the haberdashery on the other side of the street. All the while he could hear Brenna swearing, low conversations with people who remained in solidarity, his own sharp anger, shock and gratitude, love, recognition pride in the woman next to him yet to be dissipated or expressed. Perhaps in fact she did stand in the dock everyday.
“Brenna” His hands disentangled her from the little group and pulled her towards him, her face in his hands he resisted the urge to just kiss her there and then. “Who the hell was that?”
“One of the many fine upstanding citizens of Beechworth. I forget her name, though she evidently takes quite some interest in me. You should feel how much me ears burn when they have one of them church meetings!”
“Lass, you shouldn’t have to put up with all that on account of me!” Acutely aware that eyes still watched them he searched her face for anything to suggest she wanted him to back away.
Far from that her arms reached around his neck “Oh I think I am capable of getting’ meself damned to hell without you Joe. And in any case what would you have me do? Get meself a button up collar and a chastity belt?”
He laughed a little “Ah sure there’s no need for that.” His frown however belied his concern.
“I can look after meself, bit of name calling is all. What do I care eh? I have you. That lot can fill the pews and hear all about the sins of the flesh as often as they like.”
“Brenna me darlin’, you know…” he wasn’t quite sure what he was about to say- a protestation of his love and appreciation, an invitation to join the Kelly Gang should they need some advice on dealing with the so called fairer sex, a heartfelt thank you just being herself or a simple expression of how much he wanted her, it all seemed too much to say right there in the middle of the street.
“Yeah I do as it happens” She touched his face with an endearing sigh “but any ways it seems me bridges are burned today. May as well jump in eh? Let her choke on what she’s missin’” With that she pulled his mouth to hers, deep demanding kisses that had them gasping for breath and a little dizzy. Joe for his part caught up with her fire and brazen love, pressed his hand against her spine crushing the roundness of her belly and her breasts to him. Christ he could get lost in this woman.
“We should go” a groan more than words in his ear.
A thick voice however said he had other plans “Aye, to Brays Studio remember?” Wasn’t that what he’d planned this morning? It most certainly wasn’t first on the list right now, but he had set his mind on it. He had wanted a picture of her; he had allowed himself to imagine a slightly more bawdy photograph than perhaps was likely from the premier studios of Mr Bray if truth be told. He had wondered if she might be persuaded to lift her skirt a little to show that creamy skin, perhaps even a hint of those breasts above a lower neckline, maybe her buttons a little askew inviting further exploration, that asking, challenging, lustful look he knew so well… Joe cleared his throat and smiled at her exasperated face. “Yes a photograph Brenna”.
She moved fast to keep pace with his long legs striding with some purpose and in the seconds that passed a new thought was forming in his head. Much as he might like to slip a picture inside his jacket that might warm him, and much as he suspected she might even agree, perhaps this was his chance to speak to her in a way that his words could not. Tell her what they might have been. How he could, if he allowed himself, imagine all that they could have been. He slipped his hand around her waist to cross the street to the wooden built front, up the steps to the door which opened as he pushed to reveal a desk, an easy chair and a slightly wary looking man.
“We’ve a booking for a photograph, seems we are a little late” Joe glanced a little apologetically at the clock, “some trouble with a woman”
Brenna snorted a laugh next to him as the man consulted his ledger studiously avoiding a comment. “I think there is still time. You booked for just the one- a Miss O’Leary?” His eyes questioned Joe over the top of his half rim glasses.
“Aye, I did, but if, it’s all the same to you I’d like a double portrait. Sure we’d use no more paper!”
“Well of course we do offer that service...” in the pause the man evidently thought twice about enquiring further as to the change of circumstances. “Will you be requiring to hire clothes for the occasion- something a little more formal perhaps? We have a range…for the lady…some come in eau de nil silk I believe.”
“She is just fine as she is, thank you, we’d like to proceed right away if you don’t mind”
“Quite…well come this way, follow me, the studio is upstairs.” Grasping perhaps that in lieu of a shotgun wedding, or perhaps even the pre nuptials, that time was of the essence he locked the door and proceeded to lead the way up the narrow hallway.
The light spacious room opened to the side of the house, excluding some of the noise from the street, and giving it a tranquil air. In the corner of the room several pillars and fireplaces, evidently light-weight props, leaned against each other, curtains and vases mingled in between. Once inside the man’s clear enthusiasm for his art and his skill took over from his slightly edgy sitters in the forefront of his mind and he busied himself with setting the backdrop to the photo with only minimal requests for opinion, clearly this was a matter for the expert eye.
“I might have liked an eau de nil dress!” Brenna whispered, her nose just nuzzling at Joe’s ear. Desire never seemed far away, a dull ache mixed with sharp breath taking pangs at the thought of what it was going to feel like. Soon. She could tell that his thoughts were straying in the same direction from the look on his face when her hand slid under his jacket to his perfect arse. She was still giggling when the photographer’s voice made her jump back into the room.
“So if you would like to take your places?” A chair stood in front of a cloth draped in huge folds, to one side a mantle with a candle stick, to the other a space where he indicated Joe should stand. Joe winced a little, something about the formality of the pose perhaps, but taking his instruction he took up position and rested his hand on her shoulder lightly as directed. Brenna, seated slightly at an angle, grinned up at him and winked.
“If you could hold that position please” The photographer disappeared under a huge canopy of heavy canvas, his hands only just visible as he turned dials and adjusted settings. It was easy to forget he was there in the absolute stillness of the room.
Leaning slightly back Brenna’s head rested against his side, a fixed smile on her face in case it was at that very moment that the lens would open, she considered what it would be like to see this picture. For it to be hers. She would have to get some glass to cover it. Put it over the fire or next to her bed. She had seen many like it, probably in the same studio with the same curtain and mantle, fixed eyes and aching faces. Married couples and warring families with kids all primed and curled for the occasion. A sudden impulse seized her, was considered, embraced and acted on in a flash. “Just a moment please”.
Standing, she lifted the chair to one side and stood as close as she could next to Joe, his body warm and familiar. A last minute thought though had her hands to her bodice and she tugged the neck line down just a little with a laugh like sunshine.
“This is most irregular…I think you will find that most prefer a more standard pose…” The photographer’s eyes widened as he emerged from the canvas, and he glanced to Joe, asking that he see sense and restore order.
But Joe’s attention was evidently elsewhere- she was smiling broadly now, her hand in his and her neck exposed as she looked up at her handsome outlaw.
Joe wondered for the second time that morning if he shouldn’t just kiss her, she just entranced him with all that she would give him. Not being one to ignore something like that twice he bent to find her willing mouth already expecting his tongue and his passion to come. “Jesus Brenna”
“If I could….perhaps…suggest we take the photograph now?” His voice hardly noticed at first became a little louder “it is imperative that you stand absolutely still!” The man shrugged with some resignation and retreated behind the canvas once more, his hand poised to pull the cord that would ignite and burn their image onto film.
They both turned to look full square at the camera. Last minute adjustments and a flash of magnesium as the moment imprinted - Joe and Brenna side by side and tousled. Perhaps not one for the family scrapbook but just as they were, as ever.