Based on the character of Joe Byrne as played by Orlando Bloom and an OFC
This one is dedicated to Nuit - for reasons that will become obvious. But again, for all the Kelly Girls - a little blend of fact and fiction again, with some links to 'Heirs & Graces' & 'Serendipity' thrown in for good measure - you know how much I like to crossover my stories...I suggest you get a cuppa and make yourself comfy.
Thanks to Erendira yet again for another exquisite banner - hugs xxxx
The bell chimed above the door and in my mind I murdered an angel.
I was honestly getting more like Bernard from that ancient TV show ‘Black Books’ every day – the door would open to my bookstore and I’d all but snarl at the customer. It wasn’t that I didn’t want their business; I just didn’t much want company disturbing the solitude of my shop…my sanctuary.
It was only a passing reaction, I’m not really such an ogre, but my patience was short these days and I had other pressing matters to mull over than answering asinine questions like whether Bella from the old classic ‘Twilight’ (that was enjoying yet another revival for Pete’s sake, didn’t anyone write anything captivating nowadays?) should have chosen Jacob over Edward and whether Stephanie Meyer’s estate was ever going to release the completed ‘Midnight Sun’. Like I knew, or cared?
The bell chimed again as the door closed behind my last minute visitor as he moved into the store and I plastered a welcoming smile on my face, even as I buried that Angel under a tonne of rocks in my head. “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets it wings” – huh, not in my store – here there was only murder and mayhem on the agenda at five minutes to closing time.
I sighed and waited patiently for my new customer to come into view around the bookcases piled high with tomes of various sizes. I was so crabby today, and wallowing in it, but we’re all allowed an off-day aren’t we? And I had a good excuse – it was Ultra-Chem day tomorrow, not something that filled me with joy. I had been so looking forward to flicking that ‘closed’ sign on the door, and spending a couple of quiet hours just breathing in the air of wisdom and knowledge around me as I meditated quietly in the middle of my most favourite place in the world. Who couldn’t just relax and chill out and get in touch with one’s inner-self surrounded by quiet books watching from their shelves, their rigid spines as strong as I wished my own. Bone cancer had other ideas it seemed in my case, but I wasn’t beaten yet. Nearly, granted, but not quite. It sucked that even now, after all these years, they stillcouldn’t beat this insidious disease, but I was giving it a good run for its money.
I pushed my irritability to one side, cataloguing the last of the new arrivals with the swift precision of long years experience and wondered who would be ambling into an old second hand book store, well off the main street, at this time of the evening. It wasn’t like I got a lot of passing traffic, and most people preferred the Vidbooks and Digimags these days, and it was all but closing time for the late night shoppers. My eyes flicked up to the wallscreen – yep, four minutes to go precisely. I hoped whomever he was, he would be quick about his business, I had some serious healing to get to – an hour of deep meditation cajoling my body into fighting as hard as it could, an organic dinner of vegetables and free-range protein washed down with a raw juice concoction straight out of my liquidizer, a last lavender soothing-soak in the hot tub and then an early night for good rest, recovery and strength -building prior to the onslaught I was to receive tomorrow from those trying to prolong my life. I think we all knew I was beyond saving by now. But as long as I felt okay and was upright and functioning and going about my daily life as best I could, I was content with that. After all, I was already eight months past D-Day and doing quite well so far, considering. Small mercies and all that. I was grateful for whatever extra I could squeeze out of life, and that was simply the truth of it. I’d accepted the finality of the outcome a long time ago. Now it was simply a matter of putting it off as long as possible. At least modern medicine could certainly help somewhat with that!
A head popped into view around the side of a bookcase, followed quickly by a tall, lean body once the owner of the head had discovered where I was hiding out. My desk was set in the middle of the store - a little labyrinth of tunnels walled with books eventually led my customers to me. I didn’t suffer from shoplifters though there were so many opportunities to grab merchandise without me seeing. No-one bothered too much with books these days unless they were the tactile kind that loved them simply for what they were and loved to hold them and leaf through their yellowing pages. Most were content with their palm digiscreens or holodisplays when they wanted to read something. It was mostly the collectors that sought me out, or the researchers, and they were usually the honest kind. And I liked being tucked away and leaving the browsers to do what they liked doing best, until they needed me.
The young man approached me slowly, his eyes roaming around the store, stuffed to the ceiling on all sides with books of all shapes and sizes, and it gave me time to study him.
He was definitely young, probably early twenties judging by that mischievous grin he’s thrown me when his head first popped into sight, the squarish face outlined with a slight shadow of beard and topped with a mop of unruly dark curls, most of which had spilled over his forehead, almost into his eyes, and this eased further years from his face – it was almost impossible to tell how old he was – he could have been twenty, he could have been mid-thirties. It was the jaunty, 'no-cares-in-the-world' air he had about him that screamed youth at me, his hands loose in his pockets as he sauntered over, his pants just that tad too long as was the fashion these days and loose around his slim hips.
He finally drew his eyes away from the books that cocooned us and flashed a brilliant smile in my direction, all white teeth and wide, pink lips with angled cheekbones slashed above. He was incredibly handsome and had I been forty years younger, well…what was the point of going there now, but still. I might be old, but I can still appreciate a handsome man. And this one was beyond handsome, even for my personal standards of beauty. Suddenly I cared less about the time and more about how long I might be able to enjoy his company. I’d even give up my bath time if needed. Hell, were I younger, I’d have probably offered to share that bath time…but there you are, age putting a spanner in the works again.
“Evening,” he said in a voice that was pleasant and gently accented, “sorry to bother yer so late, but I travelled all day to get here, and was hoping you’d still be open. I’d’ve been here sooner, but I had trouble. Anti-grav cylinder coolant problem…that’s the trouble with those cheap hire hovercars, just can’t rely on them.” His voice wound down as I watched him and he grinned again. “Sorry, you don’t want ter be hearing my problems. Is it still convenient to have a look around?”
I smiled, I couldn’t help it. He made me smile. All that youthful bounce and vibrant life radiating out from him, his open, guileless face and air of politeness – it was an endearing package and I instantly warmed to him.
“Of course, I’ve got a few things to do still, have a look around while I finish up.” I moved out from behind the counter and walked swiftly to the front door, flicking the ‘open’ sign to ‘closed’ before anyone else wandered in. I could have easily programmed a digi-display outside, but I was rather fond of the old fashioned shop window signs from half a century ago and preferred them. It added to the oldy-worldiness of my little shop “Bound to Please – the Novel Hovel”.
I made my way back, watching him smile at me the whole time, and I found my own cheeks responding in kind. Really, you just couldn’t help yourself around him, he was like a big, happy puppy and you just wanted to pat him and make him wag his tail in delight. I bet the girls just loved him.
“Are you after something in particular? Maybe I can help you. Cut the time down, seeing as you’re running behind time. Have you come far?”
“Aye, you could say that, and then not far at all really.”
“That’s very cryptic.” I watched him break into an even wider smile.
“It was wasn’t it? Sorry about that, I was just musing aloud really. Ah, but then I’m sure you’ll not be wanting to hear my life’s history. Let’s just say I’ve moved down from Sydney today and your shop is on me way to new digs in the city.”
“So, new to Melbourne then?” I piled the catalogued books beside me for future shelf filing as he watched and he settled a hip comfortably against the table and crossed his arms. It was nice having him leaning there, like he was as instantly at ease with me, as I was with him.
“Ah, again with the cryptic.” I laughed and so did he – it was a nice laugh, rich and deep and free of anything but genuine mirth. No edge, no hidden baggage. Just joy.
“I’m really not of a mind to be so, Miss…um, I’m sorry, I don’t know yer name.”
I was still smiling as I held out a hand, and he clasped it warmly in his own. “I’m Ellen. Ellen Byrne. Pleased to meet you…”
“Get along there now, surely yer having a jest with me!”
“Um…pardon? I don’t…”
“Yer name. Yer see, I’m Joseph. Joseph Byrne.”
“Well, what a strange coincidence. Who would have thought it?”
“Strange indeed. My friend’s call me Joe. I’d be rather pleased if you did too.”
“Well, thank you Joe, I will. Call me Elly. Wow, fancy meeting another Byrne! Not the most common of names, well, not around here…anymore.”
“Ah, but I’m not from around here.”
“Yes.” I laughed, “so you almost said.”
“Shall I start again then? So I’m not quite as mysterious as I’m leading you to believe? What I mean is, that my family hailed from here some time in the past, so I’m returning to my roots.”
“Your roots? With that accent?”
Now it was his turn to laugh first, running a hand through those curls and scratching them up slightly. “Aye, well, I’ve come a long way, to come home. I’ve been in Ireland for the most part, but decided to come home here again, well to Melbourne at any rate. I was born here you see, so …”
“I get it, far, and yet not so far. Well, you’ve a little way to go yet, this being Benalla and all. Where are you staying?”
“With friends. In the city, they’ve offered me their apartment in town, until I get myself sorted.”
“That’s nice of them.”
“I’m a nice fella! They know I’m trustworthy.” He winked and those deep chestnut eyes danced with mischief again.
“Well, we’d best get you sorted then, if I can help you at all. It’ll be really late by the time you arrive otherwise, new city, unfamiliar place. And driving in Melbourne…” I shuddered, not my most favourite thing to do.
“Now that you mention it, I’m a bit tired after all that driving and mucking around today. I had considered staying somewhere here to break the journey, and then head off again tomorrow. Anywhere you might recommend?”
I thought about the city that sprawled around us and frowned as I mulled over the possibilities. An idea came to mind and I gave him the once over again. If I’d ever seen a less threatening human being, I was yet to meet him.
“Well, there are Bed and Breakfasts all over that cater to the travelers and tourist trade, but honestly, they’ll rob you blind and if you’re travelling on a budget…”
“Ah, so what gave me away? My department store wardrobe?”
“No…no. Not at all, I was merely speculating, you being so young and all and hiring cheap transport. I just assumed. Look, the hotel down the road a piece is fine, but honestly, I have a little granny flat that I hire out to holidaymakers and it’s free for the moment. You’d be welcome to that.”
“Well now, I’d hate to put you out, but it’s real nice of you to offer, like.”
“No, you’d not be putting me out. Not at all! It would be nice to have some company, if you’re up for some conversation over dinner. You haven’t eaten yet I take it?”
“And yer offering me food as well? How can I resist a tempting offer like that, from such a lovely, generous soul as yerself.”
“You are full of the charm, aren’t you Joe?” I laughed, wondering at my out of character behaviour . It wasn’t like me to invite strange men home after all, but he was so likeable and harmless and my mothering instincts were kicking in. I didn’t like to think of him driving on, tired and unfed, when it would be so easy for us to close up and retire out the back of the shop, into my little house. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world for some strange reason.
“So the ladies say, though I don’t understand why meself,” he grinned, “but I think that sounds wonderful, if you’re okay with it.”
“Wouldn’t have offered if I wasn’t. Now, tell me Joe, what can I help you with in here? You obviously came in for a reason.”
He pushed back, away from the table and popped those slender hands back into his trouser pockets, his eyes wandering around the book-stuffed shelves surrounding him.
“Well, I’m actually looking for some books on the Kelly Gang – you know the old legend? Ned and the boys? I’ve a good collection, but every time I get the chance to ferret out something new for my research, I take it. I found your shop on the webnet and just had to stop on my way through. It’s just amazing by the way, I love it. I felt right at home and all kind of cozy when I came through that door, it’s just got that feel to it. Like I was all relaxed and home and peaceful. But then, I love books, so not hard to fall in love with this place. I figured you’d have a few books on the Kelly Gang, for sure. I was positive, soon as I set foot through that door – ‘this is the place for Kelly stuff’, I told meself.”
His words took me by surprise for a moment and I looked at him again, taking in the cheeky visage and wondering if there was any connection there, and my curiosity was aroused immediately. This was interesting, to say the least.
“Well, yes, I have a few, of course. Over here…” I led him through the stacks of books, around to the local area historical books and ran a hand along two shelves of various editions. “Have a look, I’m assuming you have the Ian Jones “Ned Kelly – A Short Life”…”
“Aye, corker of a read.”
“And “Australian Son” by Max Brown….”
“Peter Carey’s ‘A True History of the Kelly Gang’?”
“Okay then. How about ‘Legends Larrikins and Lies: Will the Real Kelly Gang Please Stand Up’ co-authored, that one, by two ladies – one English and one originally Finnish, no less, although she lived here and considered herself entirely Australia. Written from a woman’s point of view, and a fantastic read. I have an old 15th edition here somewhere - it was a limited release at the time, back in ’32 I think. I could let you have that at a good price. I personally have a First Edition, but I’m keeping that one, worth a fortune.”
“Now that I don’t have! Thanks.” I laid the book in his waiting hands and stepped away, giving him time to flip through it and run his eyes back along the remaining spines. He took a little while, but in the end only kept the one I’d given him, paying me for it with a wide grin, pleased with his new purchase. He disappeared out of the door for a time then, making sure his rented hovercar was secured for the night and returning with an overnight pack.
It didn’t take us long to close up and move through into my home behind the shop. I led him straight through to the flat, showing him around and leaving him alone to settle while I disappeared into the kitchen to prepare a meal, my meditation forgotten for the moment.
I had the potatoes boiling and most of the huge salad prepared when he wandered back, freshly washed and in a change of clothes and despite my protests, he set too, lending a hand to finish off the salad while I put the steaks on to grill.
It was nice having him there, we laughed often over inconsequential things and I told him how appalled my grown children would be to think their mother was bringing home strange men at her age. He gave me a wink then, and said it was lucky I wasn’t twenty years younger or they might have something to worry about. It was a silly comment, and he was so young and pretty and of course he didn’t mean it, and I laughed it off, even as my cheeks pinked over his words.
“Twenty years? Ha, try forty my lad, then there might be some gossip.”
“Oh no,” he corrected me, stealing a cherry tomato and popping it in his mouth, those white teeth biting down and his face showing pleasure at the burst of flavor from the fruit grown in my own little vegetable patch. “I love women. All women, they’re such fascinating creatures, so interesting and complex. All of them. But especially the mature ladies. They have so much wisdom, and so much experience…” He waggled those expressive eyebrows at me and laughed at my shocked response. “Ah now, don’t you be taking that the wrong way. A woman is a woman in my eyes, Elly, and they all need loving. Every one of them.”
“You are a tease and right enough, Joe,” I said, shaking my head at him and shooing him through to the dining room. “But you say it like you mean it, and that’s a good thing to hear. Men that respect mature women in such a way are few and far between. And to find it in one so young…”
“Not so young, I’m a quarter of a century now. And me mind’s almost as mature as me body.” He thumped his chest a little, and winked at the same time.
“Well, there you go, I pegged you for younger than that. And I’m well past my half-century, well well past,” I sighed and finished laying the table. “Life goes so quickly and then…suddenly you can see the end…”
I felt his eyes watching me, taking in the slight, almost thin body I now wore, some strange alien thing I was unused to living in, the generous flesh of youth rapidly melting from my bones with the advance of age and time and hovering death. I wondered if he’d seen my pharmaceutical stash in the bathroom and closed my eyes briefly. I hoped not. I wanted his company, not his pity. I started, realizing I had stopped speaking, his dark eyes still holding me, waiting patiently for me to continue. I drew in a breath and hoped the pause hadn’t been too long, and finished my sentence quickly.
“…and your children are all grown and fled the nest and are living their own lives with their children and suddenly here you are, all grown up and alone and wondering where the time went.”
“You have lots of children?”
He seated himself at the table, placing a napkin on his lap as I passed him a golden brown steak, perfectly done and still pink in the middle.
“You’re lucky.” He went quiet for a moment and I filled in the silence.
“I am. Two boys, one girl, all beautiful souls. I have one son in New Zealand at the moment, my daughter is in Melbourne and my youngest is currently off travelling through Europe with his family.”
“Ah, and they’re lucky as well, to have you. I never knew my mother.” He piled salad on his plate and I watched his dark curls fall forward as he concentrated.
“That’s such a shame Joe, I’m sorry to hear it.”
“Yeah, but I’ve never known any different, so no harm done. I landed in an orphanage as a wee babe, after my mother passed on.”
“Oh, that’s so sad…”
“But I wasn’t there long. I went on to family in Ireland, and that’s where I grew up.”
“I’m glad someone was there to take you in, I hate the thought of a little tyke being left alone like that.”
“Yeah, well, yes and no. Didn’t quite work out to plan, but that’s life, eh?”
“What happened…if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Not at all. Me mam, me real mam, she had left Ireland with a lad and settled out here, against her family’s wishes. They said she was too young but she went anyway – she was in love and he was older than her and wanting to return home to Australia. So she kind of ran away and sent messages home saying how well they were doing and how his family were rich and how wonderful her life was, and how she had made the right decision. The awful truth, though, was that he’d left her once they got here, and she was quite destitute…and pregnant as she found out later. But she was too proud to beg their forgiveness and ask for the money to come home and made the best of it here as she could. I don’t like to think what she did to get by, but I found out later that she spent some time in shelters and the like. The end result was that she died right after giving birth to me. It might have been okay had she been in a hospital, but she went into early labour alone and by the time she was found, it was too late. I was there in a rush it seems, and she bled out after delivering me safely, and then suddenly I’m an orphan. My father never knew I existed and her parents later found out that the name he’d used when over there had been false. So, there I was, new-born and motherless. Child Services took me into care while they contacted her family.”
“Oh, the poor girl, to have that happen in this day and age, what a pointless waste. At least her family did the right thing in the end.”
“Aye, they did, but not for the right reasons. At first they still believed her tales of my father having money – I guess they thought they’d be able to tap him for some of that if they took me in. By the time I was settled in, they’d realized the truth of it - much to my Grandmam’s disgust, I’m told. They gave up trying then, never did manage to find him.”
“Well, at least you had a home, with family to raise you. That’s something.”
“And well it might have been…hey, these potatoes are great, would you be a love and pass the salt? Thanks…yes, might have been, if they’d kept me. But with seven children still at home I was just one more mouth to feed and they put me up for foster care. And that was pretty much it. Had a few families over the years, all of them nice, I can’t complain, and was then on my own once I hit sixteen. It’s been that way pretty much ever since.”
“Oh Joe…” I was appalled for him but he swept that away with a grin.
“Now don’t you be fretting any, I had a good life growing up. Me, I can fit in anywhere you know? Had good experience of doing just that and my last family were the kindest of all really. Took real good care of me, put me through school, sent me money after I’d left to make sure I continued my education. It wasn’t much though, despite being all they could afford and me grateful for it regardless. It didn’t last long, so I took what work I could, saved up and well, here I am, ready to hit University as an adult student.”
“You’re here to go to Uni? What will you be studying?”
The salad was rapidly disappearing so I offered him the bowl for a top up, my own meal pretty much forgotten as I got caught up in his tale.
“Art and Lit. At the Townsend Uni, hideously expensive but it helps if you have the right connections.”
“You’re an artist?” I looked at those hands again, so expressive and slender on his cutlery and wondered at what medium he might use. Sculpting Clay? Paint?
“I’d like to be. I like to draw, pen and ink, some watercolour, although I’d love to master oils. And I’d like to write, I’ve done some in the past, little pieces I could sell here and there for the Digimags, but I want to do something worthwhile. Something I can really get my teeth into. Got a few years of learning ahead of me though.”
“A few years? Well, that will be hideously expensive.” I knew how much, having put my first born through the Melbourne University when he was studying medicine.
“Aye, well, like I said. I have connections. I know the family, same one as gave me a place to bunk down until I sort myself out.”
“The family? You say it like I should know what you’re talking about.”
“Well, yeah. The family…the Townsends…Lance’s dad started it all rolling way back when, funded the start up initially and the trust still oversees the running of the Uni now.”
“You know Lance Townsend?”
“Aye. I do. He and his nephew, Luca, they’re good friends of mine. Met them skydiving in Switzerland when we were all about twenty or so and I was travelling stony broke through Europe. What a pair, those two. Mad as hatters. Well, Luca is, Lance is the steady one, like his Dad, although they still manage to get into some scrapes as a pair. Luca is an adrenalin junkie, drives his dad, Lucas, to distraction sometimes. But boys will be boys although even he’s starting to settle down now finally. Well, after what happened…it made him grow up fast.”
“The kidnapping? I read about that. I felt for the family, such a worry for them.”
“It’s been two years now and he’s got a fire in his belly since then, there’s no stopping him when he’s off on one of his crusades. He’s back in South America at the moment, much to Lucas’s utter panic, but things have settled down somewhat there now and he’s being real careful. He’s got the family drive to save the world that one, it just comes out differently to the rest of them. Anyway, yeah, here I am, all ready ter go and follow my dreams.”
“I’ll drink to that,” I raised my glass, filled only with filtered water sadly, and clinked it against his, the foaming head of his beer barely touched. He’d been far too intent on his food; his frame was long and lanky and obviously needed filling. I smiled - my youngest had been exactly the same at his age.
“Buy why choose to come here to study? Back to Australia… You have Universities in Ireland, good ones so I’m told.”
“Because I’ve always had a hankering to return home. Australia’s in my blood, you know, and it’s been calling me for years. And then of course I met up with Luca and Lance and it just convinced me further, particularly when they persuaded me to come here for a visit. After that, it wasn’t hard to know where my heart lay. This steak is unreal. Thanks so much, again, I haven’t had a home cooked meal for awhile now.”
“My pleasure Joe, really. It’s lovely to have some conversation over dinner again; it’s been awhile on that score for me too. So tell me, seeing as I’m on a roll with the questions here - why such an interest in the Kelly Gang? Does your surname have something to do with that?” I was extremely curious, us both being a ‘Byrne’, and wondering where he fit into the picture, if at all. Or it was just simply a name he’d inherited, another coincidence of life.
“It’s quite simple really, Joseph Byrne, you know, Ned’s right hand man.”
“Ah, of course…the whole name – I see. Well, he was an interesting man. Much like you Joe.”
“Interesting, definitely, on both accounts,” he grinned at me, those eyes dancing again, “but in truth, Joe Byrne was my ancestor. I’m a direct descendant, so naturally I’ve been more than a little curious to find out what I can about such a notorious individual in my family tree.”
I kept my poker face on. I’m good at poker, when I play, which isn’t often. But when I get together with my friends for an evening of fun and laughter and lightening of purses, I’m the one with no ‘Tell’ - the one who can keep her face straight no matter how perfect the winning hand or how shocked I might be in any given situation. Right now, it was coming in handy and saving me from giving away my confusion and surprise. There was something strange going on here, I’d felt it from that first time he spoke his name in the bookshop.
I pushed my empty plate away from me, sitting back with a refilled water glass and took my time sipping, filing through the information in my head. He was finishing up the last of his salad as I watched him; a neat eater with good manners and yet even thus engaged, that smile was still sitting on his face. A truthful young man and totally unaware of my roiling thoughts.
“You know, according to what records are available, Joe Byrne didn’t have any children. He died when he was only 22 and there was no record of any offspring.”
“Ah, but the lad got around, according to everything you read, eh? Have horse, will travel. And he liked the ladies too – and they liked him. It’s more likely there’s a whole battalion of us walking around now, I’m sure he left more than one lass in a delicate condition, and they were hardly likely to admit to it now, were they? Him being who he was, and all.”
“Well, no. You’re right there, of course. He was a bit of a rogue with the girls. But other than the name, how can you be so sure? It was all so very long ago.”
“I know – born 1856 he was, that’s two centuries ago now.”
He grinned. “Right you are, Ms Pedantic. I’ve been climbing the family tree for a long time now, filling in as far back as I could. Imagine my surprise when it led right back to him. Same name and all.”
“Extraordinary! Did your mother know, when she named you? Or was that just another coincidence?”
“My mother didn’t have time to name me before she died, or if she did, no-one was there to witness. It was her father, my Grandpap that bestowed it on me, her being Josie and lost to him. I guess he wanted to remember her that way, naming me Joe. He used to call her ‘Jo’, so he told me.”
“And he, your Grandfather, was a Byrne. And she never married that boy, did she, so it was still her name too?”
“No she didn't, I took her name, his name - my family name.”
“Wow, Joe, so much happened to you.”
“Well, I was too young to know at the time. But it certainly wasn’t a normal life.”
“No…but would you like something normal now? Like dessert? I have cake, healthy carrot cake, but cake nonetheless. And a stash of icecream in the fridge, to help it go down if you’d like?”
“I’d love, thank you.”
“Fine then. Let me clear these away and go make yourself comfy in the lounge, I’ll bring it through. Another beer?”
“No thanks very much…” He looked at my face and scratched his head again, fingers snarled in curls and his smile rueful. “Oh, alright then, just one more. You’re being very hospitable.”
“And you’re doing a fine job of keeping me company, worth some ice-cream too. Hold on, won’t be long.”
I was as quick as I could be, totally hooked on hearing the rest of his story or what there might be left of it. It was almost unbelievable, but I couldn’t ignore the timing of it all. An idea had begun forming in my mind as he’d been talking, and it was only growing stronger the more I learned. I’d wait and see, just to be sure, before I made any decisions, but so far, so far it was feeling so much like the right thing to do. I wondered what my children would think…
I made my way back to him, sitting quietly in the lounge his dark eyes taking in the comfortable, well worn surroundings, lingering on the frames on the dresser holding the pictures of my family, his attention held by the one large print that dominated the rest.
I handed him the cake silently and he took it, his eyes glancing up to meet mine and realizing that I was now gazing at the same picture, my face still under control but my heart squeezing a little. It always did when I looked at that photo.
“Yer husband?” he asked softly and I nodded, settling myself in the easy chair opposite him.
“Gerald. A good man, lovely man. He died, some years back. Strong mind, strong body…weak heart. Full of love but physically flawed. Family trait. I worry for my boys…”
“But at least they know and can take precautions. It’s a hard thing, not knowing where you come from, what makes up half your existence.“
“Of course, you never knew your father. Half of you is a mystery. No wonder you wanted to know what you could about the side you did know about.”
“Something like that. Where I fit in, who I look like, what traits I’ve inherited…that’s partly why I’m here too. Just trying to find meself I guess. There’s a piece of me missing, somehow. That’s what I feel sometimes, like there’s something I should know, and I don’t. Ah well, all part of the mystery of life, I suppose. Part of the journey.”
"But you’re helping it along. I certainly hope that book you bought this evening fills in some missing pieces for you. So tell me, how did you discover that larrikin, Joe Byrne, was in your family?”
He took a large spoonful of ice-cream, those full lips parting and his eyes closing in pleasure slightly before he shuddered and grimaced a little. “Ow…brain freeze. Tastes good though.”
“Serves you right, that was a big spoonful.” I laughed - so much like my youngest boy.
“You sound like a Mum!”
“I am a Mum, always a Mum. Can’t help it.”
He smiled and deliberately spooned another great scoop into his mouth. “And I’ll bet you were a good one and all,” he said, his voice muffled around the dissolving treat.
“Aye…well, if it gets me more ice-cream, chocolate being my favourite and all…” He stretched out, settling back happily in my husband’s old recliner, like he did the same thing every night, comfortable with habit. I liked that he felt so relaxed and at home and smiled again. I felt happy and relaxed myself, in good spirits and in a far better state right now than even after a long meditation. Young Joseph Byrne had done me the world of good tonight. I nearly laughed out loud as I wondered how many girls, past and present, had had that exact same thought.
"I was about fourteen when I first got real curious.”
I wondered if he were talking about girls, following on my from my last thought, but then realized he’d gone back to my last question, and I let him speak without interruption.
“It was a project at school, a genealogy main lesson and it got me interested. Fourteen, on the cusp of manhood and suddenly wondering where I’d come from. What started out at school soon became a kind of hobby. I started with the only name I had, me Grandpap’s, and went from there. He was a nice man, me Grandpap…”
“You’re very forgiving. This same nice man turned you away, in the end.”
“Nah, I can’t blame him too much for that. It was me Grandmam. Now there’s a woman of substance. Fair scares the bejesus out of all and sundry she does. Ruled with an iron hand, that woman, and none brave enough to cross her. Me Grandpap was kind of a shadow by the time I came on the scene, drained well dry of all life and fun…like the wind had been sucked out of his sails and he couldn’t be bothered to tack back into the breeze. All those kiddies, a farm that barely kept them …”
“What did he farm? Potatoes?”
I saw him trying to keep from breaking into a laugh and immediately regretted interrupting him.
“Now, why would yer go and say a thing like that?”
“I know, it was so stupid. I’m sorry, what a stereotypical question!"
“Yer know it! Contrary to popular opinion, Ireland is not quite as addicted to potatoes as one might imagine. We had cows. And some sheep, but mostly dairy. The only potatoes were to be found in the veggie plot the kids were in charge of. Not me, I wasn’t there, but the few visits home that I made were enough to have me quite knowledgeable about the harshness of their lives. I can well understand why she put her foot down over me. She’d warned her daughter not to go, and ended up saddled with another kid despite her efforts. But me Mam had gone against their wishes and being of strong, old-fashioned Catholic stock, they all but rejected her in the end, left her to her chosen fate - she's buried here you know? They wouldn't have her body sent home even if they could have afforded it. Washed their hands of the whole sorry business, the shame, and her name was never mentioned around me again. Well, not in me Grandmam’s hearin’, but me Grandpap, he used to talk to me about her sometimes, when he thought it safe to do so.”
“She sounds positively awful, your Grandma I mean.”
“She was…is…she’s old now, but still kicking. The oldest boy, Mickey, says it’s pure spite keeping her going, as though she’s determined to rule everyone’s life right up until the time they drop. And only then, when they’re all dead and gone, will she decide to call it quits and go chase after them in Heaven, make sure they mind themselves and don’t bring shame upon the family, even there. He’s a caution that Mickey, you’d like him. Very much like I think me Grandpap used to be, before she beat him down.”
“So you knew something of your Mother, thanks to him then.”
“Aye. Strong willed lass, he said, full of fun and light but desperate to escape her domineering Mam. He’d tell me tales of her growing up, and then some of the family history, going right back to when Joseph Byrne came into the picture.”
“Wow, the stories stayed in the family? All that time?”
“Yeah, father to son all the way down to me, finally. We were started here, our particular branch of the Byrne line, in Australia, when his son was conceived…ah, but are you sure you be wanting to hear all this? I’m not boring you, nattering on as I am?”
“No! Not at all, I’m extremely curious, please…”
“Right-o then.” He leaned forward, placing his now empty plate on the coffee table in front of him and then rested back with his fresh beer in hand, taking a long pull on the bottle as he gathered his thoughts He was looking tired now, and part of me was at war to just let him retire to his rest, but the other part of me wanted to know more, so I kept my silence. Soon…I’d let him go soon…
"Well, there was this family living here in Victoria, some area along the way the Gang used to range during their outlaw years. They were Irish settlers, a large family, all big and blonde by all accounts and ran quite a large spread, large for who and what they were back then, being Irish and all. Seems the married daughter had a bit of a tryst with Joe Byrne one day, and nine months later gave birth to twins. One blonde, one dark. They passed the dark haired babe off as a throw-back from some raven headed family member somewhere and never gave it another thought. But of course, they were fraternal twins and the woman only came clean to her son about his true origins when she lay dying, well after her parents had passed on. She’d named him Joe too, after his real father, long dead by then himself; well, you know what happened to him in the end. Anyway, after she died and his other siblings stayed on to take over the farm, along with their cousins, he decided to make a new life for himself. He travelled to America, took the name of his father over there as none would have been the wiser of the history of that name, and settled eventually with a wife. The family stayed there for awhile, I think it was his great-grandson that finally returned to Ireland and resettled there. And there they stayed, right down to my Grandpap – and then me Mam came back here, and now me.”
“Joseph Byrne is home in Australia again for good. Full circle.”
He grinned. “Yeah, summat like that.”
“That’s an interesting story, Joe, I like the symmetry of it all, that finally coming home again, back to where it all started.”
“Amazing that the story stayed intact and was handed down so well over the generations, I mean, it’s been so long.” I shook my head – and wondered how much had been distorted with the old ‘chinese whispers’ creeping in.
“That’s true, but then, I did have this.” He pulled at a necklace that had been hidden beneath this collar, a long silver chain that cleared his shirt finally, revealing a rather feminine looking locket hanging there and gleaming dully in the glow of the lamp beside his chair. He snapped it open, his eyes getting lost in whatever was hidden within for a moment.
“Me Mam had taken it when she left, a tie to the home she’d left behind, whether or not me Grandpap knew she had it he never said, but it was pinned to the sheets she’d wrapped me in after giving birth to me, before she died. Me Grandpap got it back, not the way he’d thought he would, granted, but he did, and he gave it to me on one of my visits, right before he died. Said it was mine more than anyone else’s and I should keep it by rights. I keep it close…it’s part of why I look so hard for my roots...why I seek out the Kelly records when I can…to try and fill that hole a little. I just look at it sometimes, and wonder. What was he like? Who was he, this man of intellect and passion and tragic circumstance? And how much of him is in me?”
His voice trailed off, his youth and vulnerability shining out from his face as I watched him. For all that he was twenty-five, he was still so very young.
I leaned forward, my hand outstretched, dying of curiosity now. “May I?”
“Sure…” he pulled the chain up and over his head with deft fingers, his curls caught momentarily on the locket before handing it across to me.
“He told me, she, the woman…Sianan was her name, Sianan O’Grady, that she had this done by someone she knew, someone who also knew the original Joe Byrne, and kept it hidden away until her husband, Seamus, died. She passed it over to Joe when she told him his true origins and it’s been passed down ever since.”
I took the round locket, it’s rather worn and battered casing very plain, just the initials “JB” engraved on the front in fancy lettering. I turned it over, finally getting a look at the interior, and gasped.
I had not been expecting that!
On one side there was an inscription in tiny lettering, crudely done but legible, that read:
‘My beautiful Joe’… and beneath it the words, ‘Norse Farm 1877’
Facing the inscription was a tiny oil portrait of Joe.
The one sitting opposite me now and watching my face intently.
The same curls, the same dancing eyes, the same jaw, the same full lips made for kissing. It was Joe...and yet it was not. Beautifully captured in miniature, but unmistakably the features of the young man gracing my living room.
The same features that had obviously graced his outlaw ancestor, all those years ago. There was absolutely no denying the lad’s claim. He was Joe Byrne all over, and no mistake.
I don’t know how long I sat there, gazing at it open-mouthed, my poker face betraying me finally for the first time that I could recall. My mind was spinning, ideas solidifying, questions asked and answered. I was immobilized for a moment by the sheer and overwhelming shock of things falling carefully into place around us, the quiet tide of fate flowing and gently molding events regardless of the monumental affect on me.
After a time I closed the locket, my hand curling slowly around the two halves, bringing them together with the tiniest of snaps as they hugged again. Without speaking I rose, moving away and into my room, the locket forgotten for the moment, still tightly clasped in my hand, and I felt his silent, questioning eyes on my back.
It took me no time at all to remove what I was after from my bedside drawer and return to him, reseating myself opposite him and resting the item I’d retrieved tenderly on my knees. Those thoughtful brown eyes dropped down to take it in, and I placed the locket on the coffee table between us, and then covered the item on my lap gently with both hands, palms down, fingers outstretched, hiding it for the moment.
He glanced back up at me, those expressive eyebrows rising to meet his fringe of curls but withholding those questions that must have been burning away inside him.
“It’s my turn to tell a story now Joe, if you don’t mind.”
His lips curled upwards for a moment, not speaking, obviously loathe to break the suddenly somber air in the room, his curiosity withheld with admirable constraint. He nodded and I looked down again.
At my hands.
And knew I was doing the right thing.
“We’re related, you and I, Joe Byrne. We don’t share the same surname out of coincidence. While you are quite clearly Joe’s descendant - and I don’t dispute that at all, not after seeing that portrait, how could I - I am not. My family descended from one of Joe’s brothers, Dennis to be precise, something we too have always known, because of quiet pride in the family of being part of the Kelly legend. But beyond this is another story, and yet another. My mother’s…and this book…”
His eyes, riveted up until that point on my face, broke away and fell back to the old tome resting on my knees. I drew my hands away so he could get a better look and waited for him to look up at me again.
“The woman who wrote this book was a friend of my mother’s. They shared an interest, in the Gang’s history and that led to a friendship that lasted their whole lives. A long distance one but a close one and they visited each other a few times during their lifetimes. That book I sold you today was the official release by the same author, the English lady I mentioned, and this…this was her unofficial work. Her treasure.
She knew all about the real Joe Byrne, studied him, learned so much about him and Ned and the history of the Gang and she poured all that love, all her knowledge, into this.” I patted the cover gently and sighed, remembering the few times I’d actually met her when she’d come to visit her favourite country, outside her own birthplace. So long ago now…
“The last time my mother went to England, the last time they were together, she gave this to mum. Time was moving on and although she had much in her life that she valued, this she treasured above almost everything. Her heart was between these pages, you see. A little piece of her soul, joined with his, caught between the binding and melded to each page, every loving word. My mum didn’t understand why she would gift her with such a thing, but of all those that had read and loved it, my mum represented that direct link to Joe, and she could think of no-one better to pass it on to. She didn’t care about much else, you know, material things that are cleared and taken and coveted and passed on after…well, just after. But she wanted this to find a home, a loving home, while she was still around to safely pass it on. Her choice. There’s only the one copy, you see, that’s why it meant so much. My mother realized what it took for her to part with it, to send it so far away, but it needed to be with someone who understood, someone connected, and she chose my mother as the guardian of her heart’s story. And then mum, of course, passed it on to me. My love of books, my understanding of where this precious book came from, my link to her Joe, it was fitting.”
I sighed and took it up, holding it gently for the last time.
“Joe is in here. The first Joe. The one you look like, the one who started your line, the man that seems to share your traits and could be you, for all that the years that have passed. You said you were looking to find yourself, a little piece that is missing. I’m rather hoping you might find it in here. She never knew the real man, of course, but if anyone understood him, inside, I think she did. Her words certainly express that and well…” I leaned over, holding the book out to him, resting on both palms, like an offering. “I rather think she’d like you to have it now. I know I would. You are you, Joseph, born here and now, and living in this time, but I think part of you might also be in here. I’d really, very much, like you to accept it…and find out.”
His eyes, those expressive chestnut eyes were wide and swimming gently with moisture as they moved down from my face to look at the book I held out to him, waiting for him to take it. I had never, in my life, felt more like I was doing the absolute right thing. I could picture Mum smiling at me and knew she would have approved.
He blinked a couple of times, clearing his eyes, and he moved forward slowly to meet me, those brown orbs riveted now on the book. He cleared his throat, twice, before he managed to get his vocal chords to work.
“Visions of Joe” He read the title aloud, his voice hitching on the last word, betraying his emotion.
“Yes. And it is, rather. When you read it, you’ll see why.”
His hands came out then, taking possession of the book tenderly and bowing his head to hide his face as he opened the cover, the old book almost creaking with age as the binding protested the movement. His finger moved delicately over pages brittle and yellowed with age and I gave him time to compose himself.
I felt a surge of happiness race through my body as I watched him, content that the book had found its rightful place. I was so thankful to have been given the opportunity to hand it on to the right person before…well, before the inevitable happened and the chance was taken from me. My children would never have understood the significance of it, they shook their heads fondly over my eccentric devotion to books and the love I held for my pokey little shop. They had their own lives, their own passions, as well they should, and I had never, for a moment, expected any one of them to want to follow on in my footsteps and take over the shop when I was gone. It had worried me some, just where my beloved books might end up…afterwards - “Visions of Joe” in particular - but now…now the book was safe, and now I had a plan.
I had family heirlooms aplenty to appease my children, a legacy to hand over and a little inheritance of carefully saved funds for them to share – but the bookshop - ah, now that needed to go to someone who would appreciate it, love it, nurture it, someone who’s world was tied up with the written word, and the wonder of imagination and love of old musty printed pages holding wisdom and adventure between creaking covers and paper leaves.
He was looking for a new start in a new country – and he was family after all. And he needed an income to put himself through University, even with the Townsend’s help, he’d still need money to live. A job of some kind. There was a home here, a business, a place to read and write and research and wonder and imagine and create…
I looked over at him - still held spellbound by the gift I’d passed on, those dark curls falling unhindered into shadowed almond eyes, hunched over the old novel, carefully leafing through its brittle pages and too emotional yet to offer the profuse thanks that I knew would come in time – and hoped that he would accept my legacy too.
Or maybe I wouldn’t tell him – just leave him a letter – a fait accompli after I was gone so that he couldn’t refuse out of politeness. I’d have to think on that…
He looked up then, the expressions warring openly on his face – astounded and shocked and pleased and grateful and excited, and those taut muscles jerking now and then as he fought back tears – and finally finding his voice, all ragged and choked, but filled with emotion.
“I can’t thank you enough – I’ll treasure it – always. I don’t know what to say...”
I smiled, my own tears finally falling free – tears for him, tears for Joe and Ned, tears for my mother and her friend, both now long gone, tears for myself and my weariness of battle, tears for his future happiness and that of my children and grandchildren that I would not be there to witness. Ah, they'd all fare well enough, if I'd done my job right...
I looked into those deep chestnut eyes, spilling over with emotion, and felt completely at peace.
“You’re welcome Joe Byrne, you are most very welcome…Cousin.”