Based on the real life character of Joe Byrne and an OFC/OMC
A mix of reality and fiction and legend and fantasy…dedicated to Gem (for reasons that will become obvious) but for all the Kelly girls as well, of course. I said I wouldn’t revisit Joe, and didn’t intend to, but I dreamed the basis of this last night, and woke in the middle of the night and started writing it in my head – was hard to get back to sleep. So, of course, I had to get it out today, otherwise it would have driven me nuts. I hope you like it…
Thanks to Erendira for this wonderful banner - as generous with her creativity as ever *hugs*
“And then, even after all that and nearly running the organization into the ground, he leaves with a $15 million payout. Now, even I think there’s something a little wrong with that!”
The braying laugh that followed set my teeth on edge and I glanced accusingly at Tanya sitting across from me. She was laughing along with the rest of them - joining in, cementing her place as one of them, or so she hoped to be - until she caught my vibes from across the table and sobered a little.
Her face fell slightly, settling into lines of guilt, wrestling with herself and her loyalties between career and friendship. No, to hell with that, it wasn’t about that at all, what I thought was of no consequence. She was rightly battling her own conscience; her desire to fit in and be accepted by her peers versus her true principles - long held principles that were being slowly eroded by the very society she was so desperate to join.
I sighed and looked away, easing up on my disapproval and trying to close my ears to that haughty laugh. It was a guffaw, in the true sense of the word, a sound that owned the moment, smug, content and confident with its place in the world, the kind of bray that could so easily turn cruel. What the hell was I doing here?
My eyes roved over the table, taking in the diners, all of them in designer labels, dripping with jewels, the gems tastefully worn and modest in their size and yet still screaming money and prestige with their settings and brilliance. Beautifully manicured hands, both male and female, toyed with the finest crystal; not a hair out of place despite the cold winds blowing outside that had greeted them upon arrival, clouds of expensive fragrances battling quietly in the air and adding to my nausea. I tried to keep a smile plastered on my face, if only to keep Tanya happy and support her as best I could. I was only here for her after all, and she was so desperate to do well and land that promotion she had her heart set on. I was her best friend, and wouldn’t let her down. I’d promised and I meant to keep that promise - unlike her lousy boyfriend who’d dumped her only the night before, leaving her in the lurch and dateless for this important evening.
I sighed again, toying with the rich food on my plate – the morsels adorning a gold rimmed Royal Doulton china service that I was almost too scared to touch – and felt the man beside me lean in gently and murmur quiet words in my ear.
“It’s nearly over, only dessert to go. I always find that the wine, and lots of it, helps enormously. Top up?”
I looked up to find a pair of startling blue eyes settled rather intently on my face and smiled my agreement. His eyes crinkled back at me as he raised a hand, and gave a casual gesture. A waiter was by my side immediately filling my glass with the finest of ruby reds. He watched the wine chug, and I took that opportunity to watch him. I’d noticed him upon my arrival, immediately caught, not just by his good looks, but by an almost unconscious and instant recognition of a comrade in arms. He no more wanted to be here than I, although he was far more experienced at hiding his discomfort than I was. He exuded only a controlled aura of quiet patience to all outward appearances.
He’d settled himself beside me at dinner, whether by intention or at the direction of our Hostess and her dining plan I didn’t know, but he was beside me nonetheless and his presence had certainly managed to settle my nerves simply by being there. I didn’t know who he was, as we’d arrived terribly late, and only just in time to be seated and therefore had missed introductions - but it wasn’t important in the scheme of things. Melbourne traffic was hell on a Saturday night and Tanya already knew everyone in the room – I didn’t, didn’t want to, and I didn’t really care, truth be told. I’d kept to myself most of the evening, letting the small talk wash over me around the table and trying to keep my head down. I was merely there as her fill-in date, to keep the numbers even and stop the Hostess from spinning out with a last minute cancellation. Society types can tend to the slightly hysterical side, after all.
“Thank you,” I murmured to the waiter as he stepped back, following his movements as he reversed away and smiling at him for his service. I was acutely conscious all the while that the man beside me had turned his attention once more to me, and those eyes were once again fixed on my now slightly flushed face. For wont of anything better to do, I buried my nose in my glass, keeping my eyes averted and hoping that my cheeks would not betray me any further. I was terribly self-conscious and shy, well, around men anyway, particularly good looking ones, and the scrutiny I was currently experiencing was rather disconcerting. I glanced quickly across to Tanya, my eyes screaming for help, but she was hanging on old Edwin’s words and deeply engrossed as he held court, and I knew I was on my own.
“Rather good, isn’t it?” that deep voice asked me quietly, “takes the edge off. Salute…” he raised his own glass and chinked it against mine, forcing me to respond and look at him again.
He had a nice face - open, honest, the chin hinting at a shallow cleft on a nicely strong jaw. I was strangely glad it wasn’t one of those deeply clefted chins; memories assailing me then of growing up with a boy in my class so endowed. He'd been tragically labeled “Bum-face” as a consequence for his entire school life – and probably beyond, knowing the cruelty of boyhood nicknames following you throughout your years. Mine had been “Rosey” due to my penchant for rivaling neon signs when embarrassed, but thankfully Tanya had let that one die a quiet death after we graduated. I smiled at the memory and he smiled back again, those eyes crinkling some more, adding kindness to his face as he watched me.
He was right, the wine was so good, the best I’d ever tasted and I was about to tell him so when Tanya interrupted me with a question and my attention was diverted.
"…don’t you, Nessy?"
I nearly choked – a mouthful of delicious wine and no idea of where the conversation had gone - and every eye at the table trained on me in expectation. God, Tanya, what are you doing to me?
“I’m sorry – don’t I what?” I asked, putting on my brightest smile and acting as though I wasn’t at all embarrassed at being caught out unaware. I heard a soft little exhalation of mirth next to me, and knew that Blue Eyes had seen right through me. My cheeks felt hot, damn the flare!
“Oh Vanessa – we were just saying that there’s nothing wrong with free enterprise and making the most of opportunities to get ahead. One shouldn’t be vilified for making a good living, and the Government’s current agenda of specifically targeting high earners in their new aggressive thrust to increase the taxation on those that can afford it, is counterproductive to encouraging those with the will to succeed. I mean, if you’re going to work hard and get taxed back to the poor house for your efforts, what’s the point? Why bother? And why would the Government want to ultimately cut it's own throat if fear of heavy taxation stops those that would otherwise try to make good profits? I said, even you’d have to agree with that, wouldn’t you Ness?”
Gods – why was she bringing me into this? Me, of all people? I owned a Pet Shop, with another about to open. I was a small business owner with no great desire to be a millionaire anytime soon. I sang in a choir, helped out at the local library on weekends and dabbled on the stock market with my small profits as a kind of hobby. I had a nice little portfolio, but nothing that would ever rival those currently joining me at dinner. I had no problem with earning a living and getting ahead, but I did have a huge problem with corporate types that got $15 million payouts – no-one was worth that much, in any job. Tanya knew that my views did not sit anywhere near those at the table and yet she was singling me out anyway. Maybe it was time to rethink those ‘best friend’ guidelines. I was only here to help her out, after all, not become her political stepping stone to higher office as she used me to garner support from her peers by holding me up as the ‘other side’ to their collective views.
“I hardly think that my views have any relevance here Tanya,” I remarked, smiling to take the sting out of my words, “but I have no problem with the Government taxing a $15 million payout at all. I have a problem with the astronomical payout figure in the first place…” I looked at High Court Judge Edwin Taylor, my host, and swallowed – ah to hell with it, I’d never see these people again, “and not just a little problem, rather a huge one actually. I agree that everyone should be in a position to earn a living, and if you work hard, you should be entitled to enjoy the spoils, and I believe in a flat, fair rate of taxation for all, but I also think that there should be a cap on the ‘spoils’, for instance with Executives getting their hand-outs in the millions, despite the job, good or not, that they might have done – that’s what their high salary is for during their tenure, after all. But then, I also think it’s ludicrous the amount that athlete’s earn, or are bought and sold for between clubs, when there is so much poverty elsewhere. I’m no Communist, but I believe in a fair go – for everyone, not the extremes that we constantly hear of in the media. I have nothing against earning a good living, and nothing against the rich, so long as the money is earned legally and the relevant taxes paid – fairly.”
Oh God, oh God, oh God. Why hadn’t I just shut up? I wasn’t a political animal, far from it, and I didn’t have the answers, I just knew what I felt in my gut. But the excesses of the night were beginning to make my stomach roil – Beluga caviar and rich truffles worth $3000 an ounce and wine from organic grapes probably pressed between the naked thighs of Mediterranean virgins, if there were any left – and Tanya dragging me into something clearly outside my comfort zone, and Blue Eyes sitting quietly beside me applauding me under the table (he was, wasn’t he? Wow…or was that just him doing a slow clap as I spiraled down into my own looming execution) – was all just too much. I wasn’t comfortable being put on the spot, and Tanya should have known that. And there is that little part of me, that although shy, does rise to a challenge when backed into a corner. Damn. I needed the bathroom. Right now.
The silence was a little deafening to say the least, frozen smiles and quivering diamond drop-earrings the only outward signs of something amiss, as I felt Blue Eyes settle back in his chair beside me, the only movement for the moment at the table – his manner easy, relaxed and obviously thoroughly enjoying my discomfort. Or the discomfort generally. Who knew?
Eventually, after Tanya had nearly rolled her eyeballs out of her head at me with an accompanying “what the fu ck are you doing?” look thrown my way, Judge Edwin shook himself a little and harrumphed.
“Yes. Quite. Well said. Just the kind of response one would expect from one educated through the public system. One can only draw one’s conclusions from one’s own perspective and body of experience after all. Tell me, Tanya, do you concur?”
Every Lawyer, every Queens Council, every Politician and high ranking Civil Servant at the table turned their attention, with no great hidden relief, to Tanya and she took the conversation away from me, restoring smiles to faces and no doubt cementing her future place as one of them right there and then. She did it well, I’ll give her that, even as she sold herself to the devil in the process. Obviously she wanted that prestigious career more than she wanted to remain true to her principles. But I knew Tanya, and knew that she probably thought she could do more good from her high ranking position ultimately, than she could from her current one, so long as she didn’t lose sight of her goals along the way. I truly hoped she didn’t.
I went back to toying with my food, the attention once more thankfully diverted from me, and I prayed for the evening to close swiftly. I was totally uncomfortable and out of my depth, surrounded by more opulence than I’d ever seen in one place. The heavy brocade drapes hanging from their gold plated rails around the dining room alone were worth more than the entire contents of my flat and my stomach was beginning to rebel rather violently to the rich food I’d already consumed. Lobster and fish eggs and tender steak medallions and plump oysters and concentrated rich jus and creamy vegetable sauces were at war with my stomach juices, and adding my nerves to the mix wasn’t boding well for a good outcome. And the hostess had hinted at Soufflé and Bombe Alaska and other rich, creamy treats for dessert and that would simply be adding a match to the explosive force building within me. I knew it.
I needed a moment, and although I knew it was considered ill manners to leave mid-meal, I simply had to get away, have a breather, relieve the pressure in my stomach and find some equilibrium. I rose quietly, cheeks flaming once more and tried to offer my apologies as I asked directions to the ladies room, “… a touch of ‘flu, I think,” offered by way of explanation.
“Oh, yes, just down the hall, third door on the left, opposite the den – the main bathroom is being renovated, I’m afraid, so we’re reduced to using the study facilities.”
Tanya watched me leave, I could feel her eyes boring a hole through my back as I tried to walk with dignity while my stomach flip-flopped and gurgled. I managed to resist the urge to scurry away, but not by much. I didn’t dare glance at Blue Eyes; God knows what he must have thought of me by then.
The opulence didn’t change, the décor continued throughout the mansion, the deep pile Axminster carpet, the heavy wood paneling on the walls, hung with expensive works of art. China pieces worth small fortunes on display on tall plinths, large bouquets of fragrant flowers spaced evenly down the length of it. There were many beautiful homes throughout Melbourne, but this was something beyond beautiful. The whole house was entrancing, delightful, breathtaking and yet somehow almost sickening in its decadence too. So much, for so few. It was wrong to me, in some way, even as I admired it. I didn’t know why it was affecting me so much today, possibly because of where I’d been, what I’d seen, what I’d felt just that very day.
Strange timing really.
And about to get stranger…
I counted the doors, finally turning the handle of the one I thought to be the convenience and opened it onto a large, dark room. I fumbled for where I thought the light switch ought to be, locating it and switching it on, instantly bathing the room in a strong, golden light. I knew I’d made a mistake, even before my eyes took in the surroundings – our hostess would never have left the bathroom in darkness for her guests.
I had done my usual trick. I never have managed to figure out my left from my right without having to actually think about it first, and I had mistakenly and innocently turned the wrong way. I was in the Judge’s private study and that was a definite overstep of guest privileges. My insides shriveled some more at the realization and the explosive force within me only increased.
I was turning to leave as quickly as possible, hideously aware of the embarrassment I would suffer should I be found in a definite no-go zone, when my eyes fell on something across the room – halogen bulbs lovingly bathing it in a rich, yellow light, shining down and giving it a glow of almost religious reverence.
I think I even forgot to breathe, just for a moment, until my diaphragm kicked in again as the immediate shock dissipated slightly. I don’t remember crossing the room, but obviously I did, drawn to it despite my fear of being caught. It was right there, on display, no barriers between it and me and I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
The timing, too, of this discovery, was just as unbelievable.
It was a suit of armour.
Not a shiny, steel silver, multi-plated piece that could encapsulate the entire human figure and bring to mind scenes of jousts and tournaments and chivalry of old.
It was dull, and battered, heavy and crudely made. It was pocked and marked and studded here and there with ugly bolts along rough seams. A separate piece was attached below the main torso, dangling and held fast by metal strips, and a separate helmet hung just above. This piece resembled an upside down bucket shape, with a thin slit across the eyes that gave one impressions of posting letters, or olden day versions of automatic teller machines (if they’d been invented back then), where the card went in, or the money came out. The thought of wads of cash exiting through the helmet made me smile, and I nearly laughed out loud before I caught myself and hiccupped a little instead.
I had spent my precious time off that day at the State Library, just that very afternoon, indulging in a tour designed to educate visitors on the legend of Ned Kelly and his gang. I had spent a couple of hours studying the very twin of this armour that stood before me now, on display at the Library, beneath similar lighting and behind protective glass. That had been Ned’s armour, (though his came with stylish shoulder pads attached, making it slightly different to the rest of them), and the story of the Kelly Gang had come alive for me as the tour guide passionately shared her knowledge with the group.
I had learned things I’d never known and afterwards, on a whim, had walked across the city and down to the Victoria Police Museum to where Dan Kelly and Steve Hart’s suits of armour hung on display there. It saddened me to think of them separated like that, so close and yet not together and how powerful an impact it would have if all four suits of armour were on display for all to see, reunited again now as fully as they had been united in life back then.
But of course, that couldn't happen anyway; Joe’s armour was still missing. Joe Byrne, Ned’s best friend and right hand man and reported inventor of this very armour, had been killed along with Steve and Dan at the final siege at Glenrowan, but after his death, his armour had been taken and hidden away and lost to some unknown private collection.
I had just stumbled upon that very same private collection now and for some reason, tears flooded my eyes. I didn’t know why, I couldn’t explain it, but for all the wrongness that had assailed me tonight, this seemed like the biggest wrong of all.
I wondered what Joe would feel about that, living as he had with such frugality and poverty, fighting for justice and fairness for the downtrodden, only to find the symbol of his rebellion held deep within the bastion of all that he had been fighting against. A man of wealth, position, power – God, a Head Judge for Pete’s sake - owned it now. Owned it – like you could ever own the spirit of those Kelly boys and what they stood for. It didn’t belong here, it belonged to the people, it belonged with Ned and Steve and Dan, proudly on display as a living piece of history, a legend, a lost dream and a reality too, that meant so much to the past, and indeed, the future.
I forgot that I shouldn’t be there.
I forgot that my stomach was about to explode.
I forgot that time was passing and that it would be a terrible thing to be found trespassing.
I just got lost in the enormity of what I was seeing, what I had found.
I wanted to do something; tell someone. I wanted to take it, right now, and give it back to the people; leave it anonymously on the steps of the State Library for them to find first thing the next morning and place it immediately on display next to Ned’s.
I wanted to touch it, and connect with it, with him, the past, somehow - something that I had been unable to do with Ned’s or Dan’s or Steve’s armour, protected as they were behind their transparent, solid walls. I’m a tactile – I can’t help myself. I’m always getting in trouble at the Art Gallery when a sculpture catches my eye. The first thing I do is feel it, connect with it that way – and the second thing I do is apologise to the harried Gallery staff and promise to keep my hands away from the displays for the rest of my visit. Ask another tactile, it’s impulsive and all but impossible to resist.
I didn’t think. I didn’t think about alarms. I didn’t consider that it might be protected in other ways.
I just touched it.
I don’t know what I expected – be it the sounds of gunshots, or the scent of gunsmoke searing my nostrils, or the smell of the sweat of exertion and fear, or the grunts of pain or groans of death. I could imagine all that, but it was only in my head. The armour was cool to the touch, the surface uneven as though beaten into shape roughly with hammers, which is probably precisely how it had been made. There was no sudden rush of emotion, or any overloaded senses being bombarded with images of what had been suffered within the confines of the iron protection. Just a coolness, a realness – a feeling of being here and solid; a piece of history colliding with the present.
And then came the shockwave, invisible to the eye but rebounding inside me, as though bouncing off the inside of my ribcage and colliding with the other wall of my chest – and back again. And my stomach joining in with fresh abandon. That was going to need some serious attention real soon, but I figured I had some leeway yet.
The tremors finally subsided, and I still can’t say why it all affected me so much, maybe the timing, maybe the romanticism of it all, maybe the screaming wrongness of where the armour now languished - but it did, and it took a little while to pass, my fingers still stroking the cool metal as I gazed at it. I still couldn’t believe it was actually real.
“So this is where you’ve been all this time, Joe Byrne?” I murmured softly, running my fingers over the rough bolts once more, before stepping back.
“Aye. And who might you be then, lass?”
I whirled. Literally. Ballerina style. My dress flared, my hair flared, my cheeks, never far behind, flared hotly as I realized I had been discovered. My embarrassment was acute, my face no doubt a picture as my shocked eyes fell on the speaker, standing at ease behind me, one hand thrust loosely in a trouser pocket, and piercing blue eyes smiling openly at my discomfort.
More blue eyes to make me squirm. Damn it.
“Oh…” was about all I managed, my breathless reply drowned in a rich chuckle from the smiling form regarding me with amused interest.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle yer.”
“No...no. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be here, I got the doors mixed up…”
I stopped, realizing he was all but outright laughing at me now, looking me over from head to toe and nodding his dark curls at me. Lovely curls, long and shaggy and slightly unkept, above a rather handsome face and old fashioned scraggy beard. I liked beards on men, but the short, well trimmed variety, that hugged those sharp jaw-lines I liked so much and enhanced dark looks. This was well grown out and needed a damn good trim, trying to reach down to his chest and certainly not the type of thing you saw on uber-chic Melbourne men of modern times. It wouldn’t take too much more growth to rival a Dumbledore beard, or a Gandalf Growth and I tried not to giggle. Embarrassment does that to me, along with my stupid thoughts that meander off into imaginative realms at inappropriate moments.
“Well, I’ve no mind to worry about that, and nor should you. What are yer doing here?”
“I…well, I was looking for the bathroom and came in the wrong door – oh God, this is so embarrassing, you won’t tell on me, will you?”
“Ah, I’m no dobber now, lass, yer secret’s safe wit’ me.”
“Great. Thanks. I meant to leave, but I saw this…” I gestured vaguely at the armour, not taking my eyes off him. He was somehow familiar, I couldn’t place him at all, but I knew I’d seen his face before and figured that he was somehow connected with the Big Ed and his entourage. Maybe a brother that was kept hidden away from the world due to his bad taste in facial hair…and clothes! God, they were so old fashioned – where had he been? The O.K. Corral? I shook my head, there I went again. Idiot.
“Aye. It’s been here awhile…” his voice faded as he looked at the armour, letting me go free from his scrutiny, finally.
“Is it Joe Byrne’s armour? Really?” I asked, knowing the answer, but needing verification anyway for some strange reason. It wasn’t like I was going to make good on my plans and nick off with it, the thing must weigh a ton. But I still needed my suspicions confirmed.
“Aye.” There was sadness there in his face for a moment, and I wondered if he were as affected by the Kelly story as I had been that very day.
“It shouldn’t be here,” I said automatically and then clamped a hand over my mouth, rather dramatically I thought afterwards, but certainly an unrehearsed gesture at the time.
“No,” he agreed softly and the sadness was in his voice now.
“I’m sorry…again.” I mentally castigated myself – honestly, I needed to watch my stupid mouth. “It’s not my business, nor my right, to question that.”
“Ah, don’t apologise to me, lass. You have the right to question everything, that’s what bein’ free is all about.”
“Still. I shouldn’t. This isn’t my house…”
“Nor mine…yet I would still question.”
“You don’t live here then?” I was somewhat taken aback. I’d just assumed he was a servant of some kind, or a mad sibling hidden away in the west wing, or someone to do with the actual family, to be in this room, standing there so comfortably as he was, like he owned the place.
“Kind of. Tell me, if it doesn’t belong here, where does it belong, in your opinion?”
Oh God, here we go again. Put on the spot – someone asking what I think. It sure didn’t go so well last time, but do I learn from my mistakes? Obviously not, because I couldn’t stop my mouth from answering as truthfully as is my wont.
“It belongs with Ned’s armour. Have you seen it? On display at the State Library?” I watched him shake those curls slightly, his eyes gentle on me but his face still caught halfway between sadness and amusement. “And Dan and Steve’s are in Police Headquarters. They belong together, like the Gang were. On display for all to see and so that no-one forgets what they stood for, what they died for. This doesn’t belong here, hidden away for private eyes to feast on and gloat over. It’s just wrong, and if I could change it, I would. I’m sorry, but that’s what I think – and you did ask.”
He was quiet for a moment, his eyes kind of weighing me up, studying me intently; perhaps investigating the passion behind my words and the depth of honesty there. And then they flicked over me again, and I swear his scrutiny had changed in an instant, from thoughtful consideration to outright male interest. I could be wrong, but his eyes had lingered on my chest somewhat, and I resisted the urge to tug on my neckline. Not up, mind, but down. He was cute, despite the beard.
“Right-o then. I’ll see what I can do for yer. Help yer along in that regard.”
“In what regard?” He’d lost me for a moment and it didn’t help that he winked right then, stepped in and placed a soft, whiskery kiss on my unprepared lips.
I fell back slightly, taken unawares for a moment and yet not displeased with his actions, just a little shocked, I guess. I’d forgotten my roiling stomach, I’d even forgotten the danger of being caught here, assuming I was already found out – so it was with a sudden surge of panic that I heard the door handle twist behind me and I did the whole ballerina whirl again. I looked back, briefly, wildly, hoping that he, whomever he was, would protect me.
But he’d gone.
Left me to fend for myself, all alone, to face whomever was about to find me out and label me a Trespasser and shame me before all the illustrious diners waiting for me, no doubt with great curiosity by now, in the dining room.
I didn’t have much time to wonder just where the hell he had gone, knowing this place, there was probably some hidden secret door. He’d managed to sneak up on me unawares to begin with, after all.
The door opened and I was suddenly pierced by a fresh, and this time, very familiar, pair of blue eyes.
“Ah, so this is where you’re hiding. We were beginning to wonder. Father sent me to find you.”
My dining companion stepped into the room, closing the door softly behind him, his eyes drawn immediately to the suit of armour, and then back to me. He pushed back questing tendrils of dark hair from his eyes and I watched it fall back around his face. It was nice hair, neatly short, though his fringe was thick and straight and slightly long, but not too long – it suited him. He didn’t resemble anyone in that other room, that I’d noticed, so I was a bit confused for a moment.
“Get out. The Judge is your father? Oh…I didn’t realize.” My cheeks flared again and I tried, unsuccessfully to dim the flame. It was futile, I knew that, so I gave up. “Look, I need to explain, about being in here I mean. I came in the wrong door…and then I saw the armour and I kind of got…sidetracked. I’m really sorry. I know I shouldn’t be in here…”
“The Judge is my stepfather, but my father for all intents and purposes. And I’m more the wayward son, than dutiful heir. I’m less about keeping up with the Joneses and materialistic pursuits and more living the moment, despite my father’s high hopes for me. I’m Michael, by the way. We haven’t been formally introduced…” He broke off and held out a strong hand (no manicured nails there, I noted happily) and I took it immediately, liking how his fingers folded warmly around mine, the pressure perfect and comforting. No overpowering manly shows of bravado there. I was liking Michael Taylor more and more. And I’m sure he could tell, my cheeks were fair giving it away.
“And as for the armour,” he sighed as those blue eyes scanned over it, “well, let’s just say it’s a secret and leave it at that.”
“How long have you had this…secret?” I couldn’t help but ask and he grinned at me, shoving that hair back again and I found the gesture quite adorable. Oh dear…not the Judge’s boy…heaven forbid.
“All my life. My Grandfather came by it, bought it really, private auction. He had influence and money and an interest in the Kelly Gang, although I’m not sure for the right reasons. Anyway, my father inherited it and so it goes…”
I studied him for a minute, the straight nose, the long lashes, the stocky body (but not too stocky, just kind of there and nicely robust…) and decided that I was already so well beyond disgraced with my actions this evening, that prying questions would hardly scratch his probably, by now, very poor opinion of me.
“So you will inherit it, in time then?”
“Yes.” His voice had taken on an edge, and I thought he might be angry at me. I’d overstepped the boundaries of good manners and I could have flogged myself.
“Would you stop apologizing? You haven’t done anything wrong, other than wander mistakenly into a private room, and quite frankly, if my father didn’t want people getting lost in this behemoth of a house, then he should have put up signs and locked his door.”
“I just thought I’d said something to upset you.”
“No…no. It’s just that I hate it. The armour. I mean, I don’t hate it, I just hate it being here. It’s wrong.”
I held my breath, almost too scared to ask my next question, because if he answered the way I wanted him to, and he didn’t then ask me out and fall madly in love with me, I just might not make it to the bathroom in time. My stomach was still delicate, after all.
“Why is it wrong?” I waited, biting my lip, wondering if he was at all attracted to me because right now, I was really, really, really attracted to him. I couldn’t explain it, but as I’d said earlier, there was just something about him that drew me too him – my comrade in arms.
“Well, let’s just say, well away from my father’s hearing, that once I take ownership of the collection, it won’t be private any more. I’m going to donate it to the State Library, where it belongs. Mind you, knowing my Dad, he’ll live for decades just to thwart me, but that’s okay, because by then I’ll be Chief of Police, and then just watch me.”
“You’re a copper?”
He hesitated slightly, and then nodded and I shrugged.
“Well, that’s a good, honest job. Wait…you are an honest cop, aren’t you?” and I inclined my head towards the armour, hoping he’d get my little joke. He did, I could tell by the smile that hovered around his lips as he rolled his eyes and nodded his affirmation.
There was silence for a moment as we studied each other, the armour forgotten, our eyes locked and I swear I could almost read his mind.
“You’d like to reunite the four suits, wouldn’t you?” I asked quietly, and he nodded again, realising that I understood him perfectly. “You know, I could kiss you right now, I mean, I would, if I knew you better and wasn’t so desperate to visit the ladies room.”
He smiled, waving me towards the door and opening it for me gallantly, the hallway dim in comparison to the golden study, “You know, I’ve a mind to collect on that at some stage….”
My cheeks lit the way forward.
I waved at Michael across the crowded floor to help navigate him back, the narrow space pushing bodies together around the exhibits as he weaved his way nimbly towards me, a champagne flute in each hand held high above the crowds’ heads.
The bubbles threatened to tickle my nose as he clinked glasses and leaned in for a quick kiss.
“Happy tenth anniversary, my lovely,” he said in that rich, deep voice of his I loved so well. “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate, can you?” his eyes left mine, happily roving over the new display in front of us.
Four suits of armour, finally reunited, stood in splendor beneath new halogen bulbs.
It was a sight to behold and Tanya, now a QC herself and very dignified with her coiffed salt & pepper hair, caught us looking and raised her glass at us from across the room.
I’d spent a long time planning this, using whomever I could to further the cause, Tanya held to ransom over that awful, yet ultimately brilliant, night where I’d embarrassed myself so badly and still managed to snaffle myself a husband – she had owed me big time for going in the first place and I never let her forget it. She’d got the job, despite my efforts, and had used her position to do what she could to promote the Kelly Movement when it came within her sphere of influence.
Michael had risen through the ranks swiftly, just as he’d promised (and I’m sure that expensive education and network of contacts hadn’t hurt), putting pressure on the Department to release Dan & Steve’s armour.
Edwin, my old father-in-law whom I’d come to love over the years, despite his flaws (ah, we’d had some good set to’s in the past, neither winning, neither giving ground, but he’d come to respect my opinion and he’d certainly mellowed in his old age) had finally cast off his mortal coil and delivered Joe’s armour into Michael’s waiting hands, despite knowing our intentions. Grandkids blab something terrible. I think he rather approved in the end, so maybe I did rub off a little over the years.
Michael spotted Airi before I did, the State Library tour guide still firmly entrenched in the history and day to day workings of the Library, still imparting her wisdom to all who would listen at her daily tours. She and I had become fast friends, after I sought her out and explained my rather long-term plans, her desire to help coming to the fore immediately and she had been of enormous assistance over the years, ultimately leading the thrust and not a force to be ignored. It had been hard work, laboriously challenging the various powers-that-be to acknowledge the great service to Australian history that the Kelly’s had given in their own way, and that the legacy of their actions was a thing to be celebrated. We’d poked, prodded, leaned on, pushed, argued and charged ahead with our vision, a combined force marshalling an army of enthusiastic volunteers to help – an army that had finally won out. Michael had often remarked that it was akin to watching a toddler chucking a major tantrum over the coveted sweets at the checkout counter of a supermarket – eventually they had to cave, simply so we’d shut up and go away. We hadn’t done it alone; there was that whole army of Kelly sympathizers behind us, each doing their bit to help us achieve our aims. Everyone had played their part, even old Edwin, eventually giving in to the inevitable and coming to terms with Michael’s views that were so different, in so many ways, to his own. We’d only just got approval to take possession of Steve and Dan’s armour when Edwin decided it was time to give that last rap of his gavel and turn up his beautifully patented leather-clad toes. There was that strange timing kicking in again!
The ultimate, successful, outcome was finally being unveiled, and what a party it was! The old Library had never seen the like. There had been media attention, lots of it, and all handled beautifully by those in charge, and the Kelly tours were now fully booked months ahead. The display was contracted to stay with the Library for the next twelve months, ultimately moving to its new home in the Museum; a special whole-room display currently being developed, the four suits of armour together to be their pièce de résistance. Airi was going with them, contracted to the Museum for her Tours once the display was up and running.
The tour guide in question was beaming as Michael crossed the floor to her side, and I watched him go, resplendent in his dress uniform and every inch the man I loved. Strange how things work out.
I looked at the four suits of armour, standing to attention, side by side, beneath the golden display lights and raised my glass in quiet toast.
“To you Joe. And you Ned and Steve and Dan. But mostly you, Joe, it’s good to see you here, finally. Back with your mates, where you belong.”
“Aye, and it’s good to be here and all,” came a soft voice at my shoulder and I turned to look at that same scraggly bearded face I’d often dreamed about over the years. I’d always wondered if I’d ever see him again, once it had finally dawned on me just where I’d seen him before and exactly who my mysterious visitor had been. It had taken an upsetting picture of a body tied to a door to ram it home to me. I could never look at that picture again once I realised who the body belonged to, set up as it was in a ridiculous and belittling posture of a dangerous gun-toting bushranger. The disrespect they had shown him in death always made me feel ill. I would be sore tested soon, once that very door they had tied him to became part of the display at the Museum, but I tried hard not to think about that - certainly not tonight.
“You’re pleased?” I asked him quietly, aware that those around me were blind to his presence.
“More than I can say, lass. Yer’ve done us proud, all of you.”
“I’m so glad.” I took a sip and watched Airi and Michael embrace, smiles wide. “And thanks.”
“For what you boys did. Giving us your legacy. That indomitable Aussie spirit personified. You know...”
“I thought you were meaning him.” He inclined his head in Michael’s direction, now embracing Tanya, and smiled that twinkling smile of his.
“Michael?” I turned to him, surprised, not caring now if anyone saw and found me acting strangely.
“Aye. I said I’d help yer. I just gave a little nudge in the right direction. Can’t help mesel’ where there’s the chance of a little romance. I’m a bit partial to the ladies, and figured he was a little partial to you, and all. I saw a chance for a good union, a shared desire to right a wrong, a wrong that’s been nigglin’ me something fierce for awhile now, so I gave a little nudge. It wasn’t much, he didn’t need much…”
I smiled, watching his face beam at me, all mischief and mirth, no hint of sadness there now at all.
“Oh, you did, did you? Well, then I need to thank you for that, and all, don’t I?” This time it was me that leaned in, catching him unawares and kissing his scratchy cheek. Despite the coarse hair, it still felt soft and solid beneath my lips, for all that he really wasn’t there.
“Ah, was me own pleasure lass, and no mistake.” He shuffled his feet slightly, digging both hands in his pockets and turning to face me, full on. “And after all, I was hoping you’d follow through on getting my armour sorted. Right that wrong; I figured if you two were together, you could move mountains.“
“Well, not quite mountains, but almost,” I grinned, “and we had so much help, I think you’d be quite surprised and pleased with just how many people revere you boys for all that you did.”
“Aye, well, that be as it may, thanks all the same, lass.”
He looked around, watching the crowd briefly for a time, his eyes lingering on Airi and his smile widening for a moment as he watched her, before nodding his head, as if both in approval and finality. He smiled at me again, eyes bright, all shadows gone. His voice, when it came was soft and determined, as though a decision had been made, or a goal achieved.
“I’ll not be seeing yer around again now, I’m thinking. Time to be moving on.”
“I know.” Somehow, I’d been expecting it.
“So, well, thanks. Thanks a lot.“ He shrugged, nothing more needed to be said really, and he already knew how we all felt. I turned away, looking for Michael, wanting him to be a part of it, if possible, before he left. But I suddenly remembered what had happened last time, and turned back again quickly, catching that ever smiling face slowly fading away, those eyes twinkling merrily at me and those curls falling forward into his too-young eyes.
I raised my hand and wiggled my fingers at him, watching him copy my gesture, as he finally faded from view.