Banner by Krazymoonkat
Once I thought I saw you in a crowded hazy bar
Dancing on the light from star to star
Hurricane- Neil Young
I meant to leave Australia; well more precisely I never meant to stay. Perhaps there’s a difference. The trouble is that it is so far from anywhere and from whom I thought I was before, that stepping off that shore into vast blue sea was always something I would do tomorrow, or the next day, or when I was truly fed up with swatting flies and worrying about water conservation. But that day never quite arrived. Australia’s very best efforts to persuade those of us who had been foolhardy enough to travel here, voluntarily or not, to turn around and go home again often came to nothing. We failed to fuck off back to where we hailed from, failed to leave her parched land. I began to shrug and maybe even display some masochistic, or perhaps it was a macho-istic, delight in staying alive even while the Continent plotted murder. Flash floods followed by fires, biting, stinging things- all of it I just came to accept in much the same way as all of us who have chosen this sunburnt country as a kind of reluctant brooding home.
And of course I had felt him. Joseph Byrne. In two short days I had found and lost Joseph Byrne.
On dark nights when the oppressive heat had barely even dimmed or when the equally oppressive heat of another stormy relationship had set me pining for lush green fields and proper seasons, or men with the good sense not to tell it like it is, I would still return, frowning, to the central irrefutable problem.
What if he came back and he couldn’t find me?
Yes I know I said I didn’t want him to. I know I said that he wasn’t to come back and find me. Just like I know that he didn’t argue his case, with a “Don’t be daft Lass! Nothing would be different!” He was too fucking honest. But I was young then and if I had thought about it at all, it would have been that desire was, if not transitory, then at the very least at its peak. I imagined everything was just about us, overpowered by breathtaking open mouthed wonder and demanding bodies. I assumed perhaps that desire was not something to be felt equally by the middle aged woman whose skin has taken a ride down south.
If I had known that all these years later I would still want him so badly that I could feel all that same sharp jagged burn of unfulfilled desire even in this old body, perhaps, well perhaps then, I would have begged him to stay. Instead of the stoical and dramatically tearful goodbye, the altruistic thoughts about prison visits and his duty ‘back home’, there might have been something more of an unseemly display. A scene. Clinging onto his legs might well have been a feature. For better or worse even without the white veil.
Instead I had let him go, ‘let him slip through your fingers’, isn’t that what people say? And I had. Like the thin silk veil passing into the other side. Maybe I would have even begged him to take me back with him- I have cursed and wondered about that too. Could I have swapped my grey knickers for greyer bloomers? Swap an all too brief love affair for a few more months. And then perhaps to see him die, leaving me stranded there with no bolt holds, and no Joe.
I am still debating.
Jerilderie didn’t have much attraction, apart from that room, that bed and the company of Cat of course. Like us, those boys had just been passing through a place that tenuously held to its existence on the edge of orange dirt. Me and her, we had to recognise that they were gone eventually, had to ‘move on’ – how I hate that phrase. What if you don’t want to? In the end though the sheets had to be washed, their disappointingly cheery fresh smell had me throw them disconsolately across the room, raging against him, myself and that bloody kink in the universe that said he wasn’t to be mine.
We went to Greta and Benalla, Glenrowan and Beechworth, bored long distance family and friends alike with tales of heroic deeds and an old fashioned chivalry, honour and oppression, and each other with salacious details that were just about speaking it aloud, confirmation, making sure it wasn’t just imagination. We laid flowers and stones and drunk far too much whiskey, creating a world for ourselves that did have them in it. And we wondered whether one morning we would wake up and see them grinning at the end of the bed. “What? Did yer think we would be leaving yer?”
But they never did. Neither Joseph Byrne nor Edward Kelly ever arrived to make our day or our night. They were just gone, and history hadn’t changed a jot. The murals on the wall didn’t fade and alter like they do in those TV shows and bad films that explore the perils of interfering in the future or the past, which ever fucking way it is round. Clearly Joe hadn’t kept that close an eye on Curnow after all.
So as the years passed we parcelled it all safe and held it tight, perhaps too enthusiastically sewing a thread of impossible love into the tapestry of our own lives, taking it out to wrap around us, to relive or revive, as best we could while around us ‘life went on’. New lovers sometimes, new enthusiasms and even sometimes some men that tolerated less attention than they deserved. And all the while I would carry around that bit of rock. Hopeful co ordinates if you like, should he ever need them.
Of course my career at the Bank ended abruptly, I could no more go back there than I could swim the Pacific Ocean, though if I am honest I may have taken a peek or two into that alley. Sometimes I even squinted my eyes to see if I could recreate him standing there, catch the sun so as it went all hazy like anything was possible, see him leaning against the rough brick wall, a fag in his mouth and that look that had been about pure sex. I dunno if it made me happy or sad, but at least it was something. In the end me and Cat decided city living was best and off we went to find the Queen, or at least some lodgings in Melbourne, her with the last payment as manager of the Royal Mail, Jerilderie, and me with not much more than a tank of dreams.
When I started working at the bar I was already too old for the late nights and the necessary cheer, but in a cruel twist I was considered more stable, trustworthy and dependable. I needed the money, so had to swallow that insult. I was to be a mast for the pirating to swirl around, holding steady against the storm and always being ready to open up next morning in time for the next session. Great Eva. A fine goal to be sure- thank you Captain Jack.
Not that I thought much about passing time, it just happened. I discovered perhaps that there wasn’t a huge chasm between youth and middle age, you didn’t die before you got old, face some big choice, have a cathartic moment when suddenly Department Store shopping seemed an attractive proposition. It just trickled past one year to the next and before you really noticed you were buying expensive face creams and making sure there was something in the fridge.
Anyway I got a job in a bar to supplement the pitiful day wages and at weekend I could be found pulling pints and laughing, by and large, with the ever open and unassuming Aussies I had come to appreciate. So what if most of the men wore mullets and bright shorts? They at least knew how to enjoy themselves. It is fair to say that the steady march of years had done little to improve fashion sense. Those visionaries of a sci fi future might have been disappointed to learn that far from us all walking round in tin foil and taking our sustenance in little pills, 7 pints of lager and men in flip flops seem to have withstood the test of time, and there was some comfort in that.
It was on one such fateful night- haa- don’t they always say that? On one such fateful night that I discovered the body of the third heir of Rochester bludgeoned to death with a candlestick in the broom cupboard. Some such thing. In fact I might as well have done for the way my blood stopped pumping. I had come in for my shift, left my smart jacket out the back, and stepped out into the Bar just as it was filling up for the evening. Not really there yet in my head - day dreaming as usual no doubt and in any case I could do this work on auto pilot. It was a good job I wasn’t holding a pint right then, because firstly I would have dropped it and secondly that would have made a almighty crash and he inevitably would have looked up to see some old bird teetering on the edge of a full-blown-pass–the smelling-salts faint.
A cause for some celebration you might think, Joe Byrne sitting in the snug of the bar where I just happened to work, sitting there looking every single inch as good as when I last saw him nigh on thirty years ago when he walked back into his real life or rather his death. Looking not a day older and as beautiful as the sun. A cause for celebration aside from the panic of horror and happiness that is.
And aside from the fact that he wasn’t alone, and I am not talking about sharing a Guinness with Mr Beard either. He had a woman with him - beautiful, long haired, perfectly tanned, painted and primed woman. As if I would have expected any different. He didn’t look too uncomfortable with the situation either…Not so much of the ‘No no Sophia, I must remain chaste for the one true love I have returned through the mist of time to find’ and more ‘yer think we should get a room?’ Hahah yeah.
It didn’t take me long to reach the Ladies. To bolt the door with a sharp bang and sit there hardly able to breathe, my hands like jelly between my knees and my guts on their own not so pleasurable roller coaster. What the hell was I going to do now? Walk up and say ‘I have been waiting 30 years for this! I claim my prize’? What if he didn’t recognise me, or worse, what if he didn’t want to recognise me? Fuck- I was about double his age, give or take a few. What was he going to introduce me to her as? His long lost maiden Aunt? Shit Shit Shit. I wiped my hands over my face taking a huge smudge of mascara for extra effect and I would have burst into tears right there and then, before running as far from the place as I could, had Tommy, the head bar man, not called through the door “Where the bloody hell are you Eva? The bar’s 6 deep!”
I managed to splutter something about being right there and emerged to peer in the mirror. It wasn’t a pretty sight frankly. Harsh bulbs aren’t the best for self confidence. But you know…it was kind of dark in the bar at least right? And despite that the first flush of youth had most definitely gone down the pan, it wasn’t like I was 70 or something. Hope began to wheedle a bit of the way in; well at least I could look eh? See what my move could be. As my heart gradually slowed down from the gallop in my chest I tried to think straight, ‘I will be alright, just stay back; he’ll not see me anyhow, while I decide what best to do.’ I confess I wanted to look at him again, fuel my dreams at least, and see those hands and those legs and that smile. It had been so long but I could do that surely?
And so the evening went on, me dipping down or behind if he happened to look up, or amble by in that way he did on the way to the john, averting my eyes from where he was so as I didn’t draw attention - somewhat ironic in fact that every other woman was looking at him. It wasn’t hard to hide on a Saturday night with the bar full to bursting, and any how he was busy, too busy with her to notice much. I couldn’t make my mind up if it was torturous or divine; sneaking peeks, or maybe longing stares, at him smiling and sparkling at her, half hoping he would see me and feeling the dread of that too. But he more I watched them together the more I couldn’t even contemplate the conversation that we would have. What if he felt sorry for me? What if he felt like he…what? Owed me something? Sex? What if he thought I wanted him to and he didn’t fancy it? Well, I couldn’t bear it. So I spied some more, unable to act, wishing that fate would intervene maybe and I wouldn’t have to decide to ruin his evening or make mine instead.
On my last trip out the back to get a crate I returned and almost dropped the whole thing, the upholstered seats were empty, half a glass standing abandoned on the table and a space so big it might have been a black hole. He was gone, that was it. I had completely and utterly fucked this up. Fate had intervened alright in the shape of a woman with a figure, and I had just held my hands up in surrender. The saloon door wasn’t quite banging but he, they, had gone.
“I am off home…I am not well” was all that Tom got as I ran out the bar door, through the staff room and into the street behind. Falling against the fire door behind I finally cracked, hitting the metal with a fist as it slammed shut behind me, turning my face to scream at the moon. The fucking moon that had waxed and waned far too often. I slid down the door and just sat in the dirt, unable to see much anyway aside from that numbing ache that had come back full force once more.
“Did yer not want to speak to me…?”
I thought my mind was playing the cruellest trick. Inventing his voice just to punish me for letting him go, out in a dark alley this time I was so far from that wet knickers breathless place that it made me scream. So I squeezed my eyes tighter shut and gritted my teeth.
A hand on my shoulder had me stop quite still “Eva, will yer not speak to me? I’ve come a long way…”