Claire stretched her arm as far as it would go, and then stiffened her fingers, wriggling her hand until it closed over the top of a wooden box which had been pushed under there. As she dragged it towards her, she could see it clearly in her mind’s eye – square, cheaply constructed in varnished plywood with a hinge fashioned from a glued strip of red satin ribbon and a lining of faux-velvet. She wasn’t entirely sure why she always hid it under the bed. Nobody, surely, was that interested in rooting around her possessions, and even if they did, what would they possibly make of the contents?
The contents. Ah yes. She sat back on her heels and opened the lid, bracing it gently, then with the air of someone conducting a well-rehearsed ritual, she sat down properly on the rug and cast her eye carefully over the jumble of items within, her hands folded in her lap. Everything that Joe had given her, or to be more honest, that she had acquired from him, over the last year. Together with the pillow that still sat on her bed, these were the things that anchored her to him, the things that told her when doubts prevailed that he did, in fact, live somewhere other than in her imagination.
She liked to take the objects out one at a time, a greedy lucky dip just for her. Today the first thing she pulled out was a small, round tortoiseshell comb. Quite how Joe had come to have such an unlikely object about his person she had no idea, and she wasn’t sure he was entirely certain either from the look of puzzlement on his face when he’d pulled it out of his waistcoat pocket one day. He’d laughed as he had handed it to her and told her she might find it useful if her hair ever grew. Defensively, she had raised her hand to pat her short, highlighted crop – at home she liked to think it looked effortlessly chic, but realised that to Joe’s eyes it probably looked as though she had met with some kind of agricultural accident. He had told her he was only teasing and that it looked grand just as it was. So she’d slipped the comb into her pocket and laughed too. A little smugly. After all, he was here with her while all the rest of the girls he knew with their waist-length tresses were probably at home figuring out how to rinse out the greasy suds of green soap, all they had by way of hair-care products.
Next out was a white envelope containing the remains of a flower he had once presented to her. Unfortunately, it hadn’t survived the day in her pocket, nor the week under the foot of her chest of drawers – a makeshift and unsuccessful substitute for a flower press. Each time she looked at it now, it seemed to have deteriorated further. She fully expected to one day open the envelope and be greeted by nothing more than a little heap of yellow dust, and so for this reason, she’d taken a photograph of it before it got too bad and kept a print in there as well.
There were a couple of other photographs as well in the box. She’d tried to take a picture of Joe on one notable occasion when she had found herself out in the bush ridiculously accessorized with a Prada clutch bag containing her phone, keys and wallet. A camera, a telephone, a clock and a diary was a large box full of cutting edge equipment to Joe, so a device which combined all these functions and yet could be concealed in the palm of one hand was something probably best left unexplained. Sadly this has restricted her to taking a surreptitious back-view shot of him, and another of him asleep. They were both rather blurry and underexposed and to be honest could have been almost anyone, but they remained a special treasure nonetheless.
What else was there? A vivid green feather and a small but sparkling piece of quartz rock were the only other things that he had technically presented to her, but there was a hasty note he’d written her once, signed, bizarrely to her way of thinking, ‘Yours truly’, and a button from his coat which she’d pocketed, telling herself she would sew it back on for him at some point. There were also a few pages of a diary, which he had started to keep and then abandoned - soldier-neat rows of spidery writing so small as to be almost illegible, marching over half a dozen pages of gossamer-thin paper. This, he’d asked her to keep safe for him and had yet to request back; maybe he’d forgotten about it, but it was certainly safe enough. She’d spent considerable time puzzling out what he had written. Disappointingly, there was nothing about her, or even very much about him, but there was a bit of a poem, with many inky crossings-out, about freedom and Erin’s Isle, and some stuff about politics. This part Claire found to be mostly impenetrable, couched as it was in what seemed to her to be a particularly contorted style, even without the additional hurdle of Joe’s old-fashioned copperplate hand.
Right at the bottom of the box lay her favourite treasure of all. Three rather dirty coins. There was a penny and halfpenny, clumsily large and heavy compared to modern equivalents. Each one had a picture on one side of an unfeasibly young Queen Victoria. The third coin, which was made of worn silver, also sported the same portrait, but on the reverse it showed a large number three with a crown over the top of it – a threepence. She’d found them slipped into her pocket when she’d got home from her adventure in Aaron’s hut. At first she’d been nonplussed, then when she realised they could only have been put there by Joe, she was offended, even going so far as to construct a little speech about giving women money, which she intended to deliver in haughty tones the next time she saw him. After a moment though, she’d recalled with a rush of shame how he’d told her that fourpence-halfpenny was all he had in the world and that she was welcome to it. Speech hastily forgotten, she’d shed a few sentimental tears over the coins instead and added them to the box.
There was another coin too, a much older one, about the size of the silver threepence, but with a small, squarish hole cut in the middle of it. She’d found it lying in the dust and had picked it up and asked Joe what it was. He’d looked at her a little oddly and asked if she’d never seen one before and when she shook her head, explained that it had come from ‘the Chinese fellas’ and although not real money in that place, coins like it were ‘everywhere’ and were often used as chips in games of poker. Although, he’d added with a wink, he wouldn’t know that on his own account of course.
Sometimes raking through all these things and rearranging them made Claire smile at the tangible connection they gave her with Joe. Other times, she turned them over repeatedly in her hands, marvelling at their solidness and wondering what it was – apart from Joe himself who never seemed particularly inclined to bend to her will – that stopped her from being able to haul him too into the relative safety of her world. Today, however, handling them all just made her sad. She gathered them together with a sigh, dropped them all back in a little more carelessly than usual and closed the lid. She looked at the box for a long moment and then pushed it back under the bed.
Although it was always at the back of her mind that any time with Joe could be the last, she’d grown accustomed enough to seeing him fairly regularly that this no longer pre-occupied her. At least, not on her own account. What was becoming increasingly harder to ignore however was the way in which Joe’s own story, like an out-of-control vehicle gathering momentum down a hill, was progressing faster and faster, leaving her unable to do anything but watch, despite knowing only too well how it would end. She had tried of course, but Joe did not care to hear her heavy hints and urgent suggestions that he should go away. She guessed that she was not the only person in his life who said this to him, and she knew it irritated him. He took it as a call to disloyalty and a reflection on the choices he made and simply refused to discuss it at all.
There was no particular incident that had caused her to feel that matters were coming to a head. However, it was clear that his friendship with Aaron had waned of late, and the last time they’d met, he’d mentioned that his friend had got married and the happy couple were expecting a baby. He had seemed saddened rather than pleased by this, and more thoughtful than usual. Claire had recalled a scene in the film where Aaron had given Joe and Ned this news, and although she couldn’t remember exactly what happened next and had no intention of watching it to find out, she knew that it was nearer to the end than the beginning. Joe was still as pleased as ever to see her and certainly no less attentive, but he’d changed of late. His beard had thickened and lengthened – he’d looked askance at her when she begged him to shave it off - and he seemed increasingly worn down by his time on the run, lacking the youthful vigour and enthusiasm she had once thought characterised his charm.
It was not that Claire lacked the courage to tell Joe what she knew. It was more that even if she did convince him, it was unlikely to change anything. It was not, after all, as if he considered his current course of action to be risk free. One way or another, perhaps, the die was cast, and the fact that she’d seen it in greater detail made little difference.
Claire knelt up and reached across her bed for her pillow. It had long since ceased to smell of Joe, if indeed it ever had, but she clasped it to her and buried her nose in it and for first time found herself half-hoping that she would never see him again.