Although it was only a little after six p.m. it was already dark. Claire glanced out of the wide window at the front of her apartment at the windy street outside and decided she might take a jacket with her after all. She returned to her bedroom, reaching automatically for the light-switch on the wall. Her mind idling on the errand before her and the whereabouts of the right jacket, it was almost a second before she realised that there was something on the periphery of her vision within the room. Something that had not been there five minutes earlier and something that oughtn’t be there. She took a cautious breath as a favour to her thudding heart and forced herself to look at whatever it was that had attracted her attention.
On the cream bedspread lay a pair of worn and filthy heeled-boots, their upright aspect indicating, if indication were needed, that they contained feet and were attached to a pair of legs. Claire was interested to discover, as if observing someone else rather than herself, that she wanted very much to scream, but although her dry mouth peeled open, no sound came out. She stood perfectly still, her mind unable to function, but apparently searching for some alternative part of her that might know what to do. It struck her, not very comfortingly, that it was unlikely that someone would break in and lie down on the bed - and that therefore whoever it was must have been in the apartment for quite some time. Who’s been sleeping in my bed? The words of the old story sprung ridiculously into her mind, although from the size of the boots, it was clearly not anyone as physically manageable as Goldilocks. She wondered if he was asleep. It was almost certainly a he. The terrible possibility that he was lying there, wide awake, waiting to see what she would do, finally galvanised her into action. With nothing to lose and her eyes fixed on the unmoving boots, she took a cautious step around the door and into the room.
Still the boots remained motionless. As she moved forward with infinitesimal care, so her field of vision broadened and her eyes travelled inch by inch up the legs. They were gracefully folded legs, slender but encased in rough, dark fabric that was not quite dark enough to disguise a filthy black stain which grew wider the higher it went. The trousers had some kind of cobwebs ground into the grain nearer to the ankle she noticed, and were also wet around the tattered hems. In the tense atmosphere, these pointless details flooded her senses as if attempting to hold her fear at bay. She wondered why she was inching forward like that. If he was awake, he would be aware of her presence already. If he slept, it would make no difference if she just took one bold step forward.
Heart in mouth, Claire finally abandoned the shelter of the door that and stepped into the room. She noticed two things at exactly the same moment. It was Joe. And he was asleep.
She was so astonished that she stood stock still in the middle of her bedroom and stared. There was a hissing sound in her ear, and she realised that she must have been holding her breath and had just started to finally release it. Finally, she composed herself and walked over to him.
Although sleep seemed the most obvious explanation for his stillness, now that she was closer she began to wonder if there was a more sinister reason for the way he lay there. His face was smudged with dirt that clung to patches of dried sweat, but even so she could see that the skin draped thinly over his fine cheekbones was a sickly green colour. His eyes were closed, black lashes unmoving on his cheek. If he was breathing, it was so shallow that even close to it was hard to detect any telltale signs of a rising and falling chest. Claire had never seen a dead body, so drawing, perhaps appropriately, on knowledge gained from films, she approached the bed and reached gingerly through the greasy curls to feel for a pulse in his neck. It was there. She wasn’t sure how strong it ought to feel, but it was slow and regular and after feeling her own for comparison, she felt somewhat reassured. She released another held breath.
Either the touch on his neck or the draft of warm air stirred Joe and his eyes opened partially. For a moment they flicked fearfully around the room, but swiftly they came to focus on her, whereupon the alarm disappeared to be replaced with something softer, something very like relief.
A sliver of pink tongue emerged and passed briefly over parched lips.
“Well Claire,” he said in a quiet voice that revealed a trace of his customary wryness. “It looks like against all the odds I’ve fetched up in heaven with me guardian angel after all.” He closed and opened his mouth once or twice, licking his lips, then closed his eyes again.
The first time Claire had ever touched Joe’s face, it was to push back a stray black curl. She did this again now, pausing to gently smooth the puzzled frown on his dirty forehead. She spoke soothingly, her joy hidden by concern at his poor condition.
“It’s alright Joe – you aren’t in heaven, this is my bedroom.”
“And the difference would be?” he joked feebly.
“What are you doing here? How did you get here? Did you...” her anxious questions tailed away as she realised that she sounded both panicky and rather silly. Joe looked as though it had been some time since he’d played an active part in anything that had happened to him. And her own experience of travel across whatever gulf separated them was not something easily controlled. He probably had not much more idea than she had. As her gaze dropped from his face in confusion, she looked down and noticed for the first time the iron plate over his chest.
“Oh shit,” she said, tears springing unbidden to her eyes.
He craned to look down at himself.
“Well, it works,” he said. “Which to tell ye the truth was more than I thought it would. I was thinking I’d been shot and that’s why I went down, but here I am and you’re telling me I’m not dead. I’ve a terrible pain though.” He indicated the right side of his groin, and then struggled painfully, not without some groaning, firstly to a sitting position and then to his feet. He began to remove the armour, fumbling awkwardly at the straps that held it. For a moment Claire continued to sit and stare at him, unable to absorb the reality of his presence. He glanced down questioningly at her and she pulled herself together to assist him.
As her fingers worked, Joe looked around the room taking in the smooth beech furniture, the decorative candles, piles of beads and earrings, cosmetics, heaps of clothes and the slick television screen on the wall. He sat back down on the bed and ran an appreciative hand over its coverings.
“If I’d known ye were so rich, I’d have been a lot nicer to you,” he remarked with a small smile. His voice was still faint and distant, but talking seemed to be, if not making him better, then at least keeping him conscious.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Claire asked.
“Sure I am. I’m a bit tired, and I’ve this pain, right here. I tell you, I don’t know how I got here, but I’m glad to be out of that place, the noise. Jesus. It was like hell.” He stared into space for a few moments, then a sudden thought seemed to strike him and he looked around wildly. “But… I can’t stay here. I’ve left the others. I must…”
“Joe, you can’t go back just like that. You’re in a different….place”.
He shrank a little onto the bed, defeated by her opinion as if it was a fact incapable of challenge. After a moment, his attention was caught by something else and he held up his bloodied hand. It was shaking.
“Look at that now!” he said, almost in wonder. “Ye wouldn’t have a drink about you would you? I was thinking I needed a drink a few minutes ago and then...” he put his hand over his face and shook his head as if trying to clear it and withdrew again into silent contemplation.
Claire left the room, returning a minute later with a glass of red wine in one hand and the half-empty bottle in the other. Brandy or even whiskey she had none, but she dimly recalled that there was meant to be something medicinal about red wine. Besides, the only other options were a cup of strong, sweet tea – surely not what he’d meant by ‘needing a drink’ - or ready-mixed vodka cocktails. Even in his most robust health it was hard to picture Joe doing much more to one of those than spitting it out in disgust. She sat beside him and put an arm around his shoulders and held the glass to his lips. With his good hand he took it from her impatiently and emptied it in one draught, handed her the empty glass and turned to lie down again.
“I’m sorry Claire. I’m feeling really tired,” he told her, apparently concerned that he was proving a poor guest. He nestled his head into the pillow and turned on his side, pulling up his legs a little – with some difficulty judging by the spasm that crossed his face. His cheeks, which had started to take on their usual colour when he was sitting up, resumed their grey pallor. In automatic response, Claire moved closer and began to stroke his hair.
“I need to rest a while before I go back,” he continued. “Lie down with me?”
Unhesitatingly, she climbed down beside him, curling herself into the front of him, heedless of the dirt and blood against the back of her dress. Joe smiled weakly, his eyelids fluttering shut in contentment as she lay down. He draped an arm under hers, over her body, his hand coming to rest around her right breast in some quest for familiarity and comfort.
“You look beautiful. Didn’t I always think you’d scrub up nicely? I’m glad you’re here,” he murmured into her ear, shivering into the bed a little more.
To a casual observer and also, she hoped, to Joe, Claire lay serenely at his side, her hand over his, her back against his chest, carefully arranged so that her bottom did not tuck into his lap, the site of the terrible wound. In reality though, her mind was racing desperately.
Surely it was not a justifiable action to simply lie down and cuddle someone with a life-threatening injury unless they were about to draw their final breath? However, she was not sure that this was the situation. For one thing, surely in the film he’d died almost instantly? Joe might be pretty feeble at the moment, but he was both conscious and rational. Was he perhaps merely some ghostly vision? He certainly felt solid enough, but in the circumstances it was difficult to trust the evidence of her own touch.
She considered what was preventing her from summoning urgent medical help. Certainly as far as she could tell he could do with some. However, supposing the doctor came and couldn’t see him? Just because she was able to interact with people when she visited him, this was no guarantee that it would be the same for him. Put quite simply, in her time and place he was either a fictitious apparition from a movie or possibly an historical figure who had been dead for nearly a hundred and thirty years. This ghoulish thought sent a little shudder through her and she gripped his hand more tightly.
Of course, the risk of making an idiot of herself was nothing compared to the risk of leaving him untreated and possibly expiring on her bed. There were far more serious obstacles. For one thing, she was sure there was some law regarding doctors telling the police about bullet wounds. Joe Byrne, in any manifestation, was obviously no longer on any ‘wanted’ list, but persons without means of proving their identification certainly were. Especially those who had recently been shot. He could end up being deported, although she could not imagine where they might send him. Without enthusiasm, she contemplated a future in modern-day Ireland, although she doubted that the Irish authorities were any more likely than the Australians to accept immigrants who could not prove where, or even if, they had ever been born.
Before they even got that far, of course, there was Joe himself to consider. In his current state, what would be his reaction to being strapped onto a stretcher and placed in an ambulance in the dead of night? Quick-witted and self-contained he might be, but nevertheless that would be a pretty shocking introduction to both motorised transport and the neon-lit world of modern-day Melbourne. It would not be difficult for someone to conclude he was mad, and despatch him to the nearest psychiatric ward. Often as she had mused that Joe should lay off the narcotics and find himself a therapist instead, this didn’t seem much of a solution either.
Even if she could negotiate all these hurdles and get him treatment and he remained with her, what would he do? Even in his own place and time, outlawry aside, he didn’t seem terribly well equipped for earning a living. How would he go about making a life for himself here? Could she keep him? How? Shut up indoors like a kind of pet? And how would she explain that to her family and friends? Apart from anything else, with the attention of a razor and a pair of scissors and made over in suitable modern clothing, he’d bear a highly attention-drawing resemblance to the actor who, along with Claire’s own subconscious, had created him.
Her mind was racing so fast that it was a few minutes before she realised that she was getting ahead of herself. From her own experience of visiting him it was entirely possible that in falling asleep he would vanish from her bedroom and return to Glenrowan, which, unless a decent amount of time –several days at least - had passed, would mean certain death. Even if he stayed with her, her original question still remained. Might he die before morning without medical treatment? And what would I do with the body? she thought to herself with ghoulish horror.
It seemed to her that what she lacked was enough information to enable her to make a decision. Magical vanishings and government regulations might not be something she could research here and now, and she was no doctor, but at least, she considered, she could examine his injuries more thoroughly and assess the relative risks of summoning medical help or leaving it to fate.
Delicately she wriggled from under his arm, switched on the light then knelt beside the bed and began to check him over more thoroughly for signs of damage. He was certainly pretty knocked about, she decided, sweeping her eyes from head to toe. Flakes of dried blood across the rough surface of his right hand seemed particularly alarming, but on closer examination, the skin was only badly grazed and there was evidence of clotting already with no fresh bleeding to be seen. Other than that, his injuries seemed fairly superficial – cuts and bruises, not all of them fresh, were strewn across what flesh she could access without waking him. Below the waist however, she suspected it was a different story. The stained trousers were will still wet, presenting her with the possibility that he was slowly bleeding to death.
“Joe?” she said, shaking him in what she hoped was the gentlest manner possible that would still awaken him. “I need to undo your pants.”
“Christ, I’ve missed you, you bad girl,” he joked under his breath, almost to himself. She glanced up and saw him crease up his eyes in a semblance of a smile. He did not, however, move to help her.
“I need to know if you’ve been shot,” she persisted, fumbling at the buttons until he rolled onto his back with a small grunt. Finally, she got them undone and gritted her teeth in frustration when she realised that he was, of course, wearing his customary long underwear underneath. Fortunately, however, it proved on this occasion to be a set of vest and long underpants, and with a lot of wriggling and tugging, which she knew must hurt him horribly, she managed to strip him to his knees. If nothing else, she thought, it was probably wise to dispense with the filthy, stained garments. Throughout this delicate operation, Joe remained stoically silent, but she could see the pain on his face. “Sorry,” she kept muttering, “Sorry.”
Fortunately, it did seem that wherever he had been wounded, the bleeding had stopped, even if fairly recently. Certainly, his entire right thigh was stained a dark rusty brown, the hairs on the skin stiffened with it, but just as with his hand, there was no apparent source of fresh leakage. Indeed, it was not even possible to work out exactly where it had come from in the first place. Claire closed her eyes for a moment and pictured Joe’s final moments in the film. The thought was almost more distressing than the reality of the man before her, but she forced herself to concentrate, to remember where he had been shot. She ran a cautious hand up his leg towards his groin, feeling the firm completeness of the skin under her fingers. There, there it was, just at the edge of the soft brush of black curls. A curious, perfectly circular red mark. Now she had seen it, she couldn’t understand why she hadn’t noticed it immediately. It gleamed wetly in what little light shone on it, but when she moved her finger closer to check the wound, the skin was unbroken over it. Not as if the blood had clotted, but almost like a transparent blister, as if a bullet had never penetrated in the first place. She pushed at it tentatively, wondering if she would be able to detect the deadly little metal cylinder that must be lodged in there. Under her fingers, Joe stirred again, flinching at her touch. His leg tensed.
“What is it Joe?” she asked, looking up at him in concern. “Can I get you something?”
“Just leave it. Leave me alone. It hurts so much and I just want to go to sleep.”
He had put up with so much pushing and pulling, not to mention the hours of pain he must have suffered before that, that this plea must have really come from the heart. She covered him up again and touched his face. She would not hurt him more than she needed to, but there was one other thing she couldn’t let him do.
“You mustn’t sleep!” she said desperately. “If you fall asleep, you might well wake up back there or maybe you won’t wake up at all!” Tears of frustration and sorrow began to roll down her face.
Joe opened his eyes and with a great effort, propped himself back a little on the pillows, panting with the effort.
“Haven’t I told ye before, some things are best left Claire? Like they are meant to be? We can’t just change everything to suit ourselves.”
“But Joe!” she took his face in her hands. “You can’t go! You….I love you.” There. She’d said it. The words had tumbled out her mouth so easily as a summary of everything she wanted to tell him that she wondered why she’d waited so long when it was such a simple truth. The momentary regret deepened when she saw how he received this news; he rewarded her with the little crooked smile that always melted her but it was the look in his eyes that told her more.
There was silence for a moment. On another occasion this time would have yawned like a chasm for Claire as she waited in trepidation for his response, attributing hesitation to a lack of similar feeling on his part. Now however, she didn’t care overmuch what he felt for her. She couldn’t be sorry she’d spoken so honestly at a moment like this.
“And I love you too Claire,” he said eventually, still speaking with difficulty.. “In fact, I reckon that’s what I called by to say. But that doesn’t change anything…now. It’s too late and I have to go to sleep now. Please.” Wearily, he slid back down again and closed his eyes.
“So don’t I get a kiss then lass?” he asked almost inaudibly. “I’ve wondered from time to time what it would be like to tell someone I love them, and I always imagined there’d be a kiss.”
Claire bent over and kissed his cold lips wondering whether it wouldn’t be easier to just to lie down and die or disappear along with him. His response to her gesture was barely detectable, and she heard the telltale signs of his breathing becoming deeper. She had no idea if this was a good sign of a better pulse or an indication of approaching sleep that would take him away forever. She lay down next to him again, facing him this time and pulling the bedclothes over them both in an attempt to keep him warm. Then she wrapped her over him and held onto his hand like she would never let him go.
The next thing Claire knew was the harsh winter sunlight playing on her eyelids, forcing her to wake up. Before lifting her eyes open, she felt around her, considering her surroundings by touch. The bedclothes were over her, underneath them, her dress crumpled around her in the horrible manner of clothes that have been slept in. Although within the bed, she appeared to be hanging off the edge, suspended by the twisted quilt. One knee protruded into cold, thin air. What else? The events of the night before stole over her like a black cloak. Joe. Joe injured, Joe lying right there with her, catching his breath with difficulty and telling her he loved her. She turned over to face the middle of the bed and finally opened her eyes slowly in confirmation of what she already knew. There was no-one there. After all they’d been through together, all her thoughts of whether he was real, whether she could save him, she now knew the truth. It seemed she'd been his dream, finally his dying dream, and now he’d gone again for ever. There was no life left for him in the place from where he’d come. It was all over. The moment she had anticipated with such dread since she’d first met him was now here, far worse than her most lurid imaginings. It occurred to her that one thing she had never considered was that there would be no-one with whom she could share this terrible grief, this very real bereavement. Her eyes closed again, in pain this time, aching from last night’s flood of misery and unable for now to cry any more. She stretched her feet down the bed and wondered if she would ever get out of it again.
Suddenly she heard a door bang, followed by a familiar sounding cough. She sat up with a start.
“Jesus Christ!” said an even more familiar, cheery voice. “That’s one hell of a room Claire! Like, the water, out the taps, hot an’ everything!
He appeared round the doorway, incongruously wrapped in a bright beach towel, his wet hair slicked back behind his ears.
“Bit too hot if ye ask me,” he remarked to himself, examining his red knuckles and shaking his wrist impatiently. He glanced over at Claire and raised one eyebrow, clearly not entirely unaware of the effect his appearance was having on her. “Now are you going to wake up and tell me how I can go about getting a drink of tea ‘round here?”
He stepped across to the bed and sat down next to her, the bed dipping under him in welcome of his weight. He patted her hand and made a rather half-hearted attempt to smooth her hair.
“Mind you, the state of ye, how about I make some tea while you use the facilities yerself? Jesus, Claire, did nobody ever tell ye to clean yerself up a bit for guests?
Enjoying the situation immensely and warming to the theme as he observed her shocked expression, he kissed one tear-stained cheek.
“And when you’re cleaned up, I don’t suppose ye’ve got them little short blue trousers ye wear?”
“Not in the middle of winter,” said Claire faintly, still staring at him. She focussed on the tiny drops of water that still clung to his eyelashes, forming them into shining triangles. One larger droplet was drying on his cheek, magnifying the pores and the one short black whisker that protruded through it. His chest rose and fell, damp heat coming off him, his skin pink. Her eyes travelled to his hand. The bullet graze was still there, but cleaned and scabbed over it obviously wasn’t troubling him. He was not only alive but apparently in fine health, rested and cheerful. The events in this room of the previous twelve hours suddenly overwhelmed her and she felt desperately weary and emotional. Welcome tears of relief filled her eyes and spilled over. Joe reached out one finger and blotted her cheek, waiting for her to speak.
“You’re…better,” she said finally in awe, laying a tentative hand on his chest as if she still expected him to vanish again.
“Aw, c’mon now Claire,” said Joe, smiling at her with a tenderness that belied the joking. “Don’t be crying on me. I thought ye’d be pleased.”
“I am pleased, you idiot! I just can’t quite…” she trailed off and shook her head. “How?…”
“Aye, well, I’m not so sure on that account meself. Must be the air now, or maybe the expert nursing?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well lass.” Joe scratched his head. “I’m not sure I’d be the person to look to to explain it neither. I reckon the only thing to do is be thankful for it eh?”
He squeezed her fingers and winked at her, then leaned forward and kissed her, very gently, on her forehead.
“But I have to say Claire,” he continued, “You’re awful white. Are ye sure yer not going to faint on me now? Anyone would think ye’d seen a ghost.”