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Goodbye Joe


Companion piece to ‘Goodbye’, from Joe’s girl’s point of view.

goodbye joe
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Will there ever come a time when I will be able to think about him without crying? When the sound of hooves at night won’t quicken my heart in anticipation of his arrival? When I no longer wake up with my arms reaching for him, before remembering that he is forever gone? When I stop wishing that I had died with him, so that we could be together, somehow, somewhere? 

There are days when I curse the day I first laid eyes on Joe Byrne because that was when my fate was decided, unbeknownst to me. I did not ask for the worrying on his behalf, the constant fear that the police would get him, the hopelessness of loving someone who was never there when I really needed him, and this aching emptiness now that he is gone. What I wouldn’t give for one more time to hold him in my arms, for one more kiss, one more moment with our bodies joined... 

I knew Joe had other women; he never made a secret of it. I did not understand it nor like it but that was the way he was. Female company was as essential to him as food and drink, and later the opium. I think the opium helped him make it through the lonely nights when he was forced to stay up in the hills and there was no other comfort to be had. I did not want to share him – not with another woman, not with the opium. There was precious little time we had together as it was, and the thought of him with someone else was hard to bear. Sometimes I thought if he had loved me enough, he would not have needed the others. Maybe I was not worthy of him, maybe I did not understand him the way he deserved, I do not know. I only know in the end I was desperately grateful that he gave me even those brief moments, and I hope I gave him some comfort in return. And lately I have even found myself hoping that those others did too. 

When Joe was with me, he was always there completely, like nothing or no one else existed or mattered. When he stood at the door and looked at me, he saw me. When he loved me, he loved me. And that is why I was always there, waiting, for those brief, shining moments in amongst days that were becoming more and more filled with dark doubts and despair as time went on. 

I had enough experience with men to know and appreciate that Joe was different, especially when it came to intimate relations. He was not after quick relief for himself; he genuinely enjoyed giving me pleasure too. He loved kissing and he was very good at it, he had me tingling all over the way he held my head with his hands in my hair, and the first touch of his lips on mine, soft and tender, was enough to make me forget about everything else. He had the most beautiful hands; long, strong fingers with a horseman’s leather-toughened skin but so incredibly gentle when he touched me. I loved it when he undressed me, his eyes intent on the task of undoing all the little buttons and his hands brushing the cloth aside, his mouth reverently touching the skin and making me shiver in anticipation. I loved his mouth on my breast, the way he closed his eyes and sucked, and how I could feel my body making itself ready for him. The first time his mouth ventured lower, I was not sure what he was doing but I trusted him so I let him. No one had ever touched me there like that, it felt so good I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time, and I never wanted him to stop. And when he was inside me, may God forgive me but it was the most spiritual experience I have ever known; our bodies as close as they could be and our souls in communion. Never have I felt the touch of the Divine like that before, or since. 

Joe took everything I had and more but he gave me himself in return and that was something no one else had ever done. I cannot bear even the thought of letting anyone else touch me now, to soil that precious memory of him inside me. We never made any promises to each other but for me it is no different to if we had stood in front of God and men and pledged ‘till death do us part’. But now that death has parted us, I have no right to wear a widow’s weeds or to show my grief openly, for there is no sympathy for an outlaw’s whore, which is what I am in the eyes of those whose opinion matters. Heads turn away if I happen to cross their path, as if a mere glance upon my person might somehow taint them, and it is as if I do not exist. And then there are the men who think I should welcome their advances and be thankful they deign to favour me with their interest. None of it matters to me, I did not seek their approval before and it is worth even less to me now. 

The coppers never gave any of them a fair go: Ned, Dan, Joe or Steve. You only had to hear what Judge Barry said when he locked up Ellen Kelly on the testimony of that self-confessed liar Fitzpatrick – if Ned had been there, he would have given him fifteen years. What hope have any of us, with no title or money to protect us, if those who are there to uphold the law of the land make statements like that? When your name alone is enough to condemn you, even more so if it happens to be Irish? Innocent until proven guilty certainly never applied to Ned, and that’s where all the trouble started. Joe talked to me about their plans for a republic and for sure it was a mad dream but how can you blame them for dreaming it? We were all born in this land, it belongs to us the same that we belong to it, so why should we not have the right to run it for ourselves? 

I think we all believed in that dream for a while; we had nothing else to hope for so why not? Only Joe never told me what it involved – that Aaron’s life would be sacrificed to set things in motion and to draw out the coppers into that final confrontation. The moment I heard that Joe had shot Aaron, I knew I would never see him again with a certainty that chilled my bones, and I did not even know what was happening at Glenrowan then. But I knew Joe, and I knew he was no cold-blooded murderer. For him to have done what he did, shot Aaron like that, in front of his wife and mother-in-law, he would have believed there to be no other way. I do not know what Aaron had done; everyone knew he was talking to the coppers but Joe himself had told me the information he passed on was on instructions from Ned and more often than not completely worthless. Joe and Aaron had grown up together and been friends for so long that I could not even imagine what it would have taken for Joe to look him in the eye and pull that trigger. 

The last time I saw Joe was the night before Aaron’s death. I was sitting on my bed undoing my hair and I remember I had closed my eyes, trying to imagine Joe’s fingers doing it for me instead, and when I opened my eyes he was there, standing behind my window. For a moment I thought I had dreamed him up but then I realised he really was there and I rushed to open the window and let him in, my heart bursting with happiness at seeing him again. 

Every moment of that last encounter is forever burned into my memory. The way he gathered me to him and kissed me, the way he undressed me, his mouth on my skin, burning and soothing at the same time, and then him inside me, hard and fast and desperate. Silent tears were running down his cheeks when he finally let go and I kissed them away, thinking he must have missed me as much as I had missed him. We drifted off to sleep in each other’s arms, and I woke up in the morning with the sun on my face, smiling and happy, only a little surprised that he had slipped away while I slept. 

Of course I know now that he was crying because he had come to say goodbye. He knew once he shot Aaron, there would be no turning back, and I think he also knew where he was heading. I was so angry at him at first, for not giving me a chance to say goodbye to him too, but then I realised that he had given me the biggest gift of all: a moment of complete happiness with him to remember him by, and thereby his love for all eternity. My heart breaks to think what it cost him to not ask for comfort from me for what he knew lay ahead of him, but maybe it comforted him more to know that I had no idea. 

As long as I live, I will never forgive them for what they did to Joe after his death. I have made sure I never saw the photographs they took of his dead body strung up on that lockup door, but the scene has been described to me in too much detail for me to ever be able to forget it. Sometimes I see it in my dreams, and I wake up with Joe’s voice in my ears, calling for me… I heard about that woman who rushed forward and implored them to stop it; I do not know who she was and I am sorry that she had to see it but I am also glad that there was at least someone there for Joe.  

The coppers buried Joe secretly at night in un-consecrated ground at Benalla cemetery. He was given no funeral rites, and grieving relatives and friends had no chance to say goodbye to him for the last time. It was only later that I found out what happened to his body. I have not visited his grave, not yet. I am afraid that if I do, it will make him truly dead and then he will be gone completely. Now I can still feel him sometimes; when I’m brushing my hair at night he stands behind me, his hands on my shoulders and I can feel him smiling. Or he comes to me in my dreams and we lie together, loving each other, and when I wake up, for a brief moment I remember again what it is like to be happy and I know I will be able to go on, one day at a time. 

I know Joe would not want me to let the grief overwhelm me, and I have come to realise that I can find a new purpose for my life in his death. I can make sure his name will not be forgotten and that people will know who Joe Byrne really was and what he stood for, even a hundred years from now. That will be my gift to him for what he gave me. 

Goodbye, Joe.

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