His arms were around her, his hand on her wrist and his head resting lightly on her shoulder to get a better view. It was clear he was doing his best, but it was hopeless. Try as she might, Claire simply couldn’t skim stones. As her latest attempt spun wildly out of control away to her right and plopped unimpressively into the edge of the water, Joe broke away, laughing. He bent down, choosing a stone at random and sending it effortlessly from his fingers, skipping and dancing over the water, five, six, seven times before it vanished gracefully.
She laughed at her own comparative ineptitude.
“It’s no good. I just can’t see how you do that!”
Joe squatted on his haunches and began to pick through the pebbles, a workmanlike expression on his face as if it really mattered, as if finding the right stone would allow him to somehow bestow on her the gift of being able to throw properly. He laid aside a few possibilities then weighed and tested each of them in his hand until he found the perfect shape. He stood up and squinted out across the creek as if getting its measure.
Claire smiled to herself. He could apparently perform the trick with any size or shape of stone, and the sight of him so seriously considering how best to help her do it at all both touched and amused her. In fact, she thought to herself, as the day wore on everything Joe did, from scratching his ear or lighting a cigarette to enthusiastically making love to her she found increasingly touching or amusing and infinitely fascinating. Maybe the real reason she couldn’t skim stones was that she couldn’t take her bloody eyes off him long enough to look at what she was doing.
“Come on now, this time it’ll work.”
He folded her fingers over the stone and bent to match her line of sight, narrowing his eyes to calculate the throw. Claire stole a glance at his profile in the late afternoon sun and swallowed the sigh that rose to her lips. Joe would have been surprised to learn how stirred she was by the distant concentration on his face when his mind was occupied away from her. Given the opportunity, she felt, she could happily follow him around for a week, just watching him be himself. He glanced around and smiled upon catching her gaze.
“Are ye ready now? Just remember to let go of it a bit sooner this time. Go on, you can do it,” he said encouragingly. “Aim over there a bit.”
Claire felt the warm smoothness of the stone under her fingers. She took a deep breath, flicked her wrist straight as he’d shown her and opened her hand. The pebble sailed forward, flat and true. She held her breath as it hit the water, but this time instead of sinking instantly, it kissed the surface and rose again. Twice more it bounced before finally disappearing from sight.
“Yay! I did it!” she cried in surprised pleasure. Joe picked her up and swung her round delightedly.
“See, I told ye!” he laughed, pleased with himself. “For me next trick, I’ll have ye being a dead shot with a pistol!”
“And how do you know I’m not already?” she teased him.
Still laughing, he bent and picked up his gun from the grass beside them. He eyed her speculatively, cocked it and handed it to her.
“Go on then. Prove it. Shoot that tree over there.”
Claire composed her face into an expression of nonchalance.
“Ho, whereabouts she says. Anywhere. See if ye can hit it.”
The weight, as she took the handle, surprised her. This was not a skill she possessed or desired to possess, and one to which she could transfer no other existing skill. Merely having a loaded pistol put in her hand would have set her heart racing in any circumstances. Being handed one by Joe, with all the baggage that entailed for her, was distinctly unpleasant. It didn’t feel much like a game to her, but Joe was treating it with the same levity he’d applied to slinging rocks in the creek. She hesitated, tempted to drop it on the ground. The only thing that stopped her was the idea that it might go off. At least this way it was pointing away from them both. Not that she could be sure, but it didn’t even seem to have a safety catch, and the way Joe casually stuffed it down his trousers alarmed her every time he did it.
“I don’t believe in guns,” she said firmly, holding it a little way away from her as if it were contaminated.
“How d’ye mean?” asked Joe, interested.
“I mean I don’t think people should carry them…use them.”
He regarded her thoughtfully, amusement discarded for the moment.
“And ye think that I do? You think I do it for fun, that I choose to do it?”
He was not annoyed – Claire had learned to spot the telltale signs of his irritation – on the contrary, he seemed fascinated to know what she thought. There was an intelligent expression in his brown eyes as he waited for her answer.
“Well, no.” She picked her words with care. “Of course I don’t think you do it for fun, or that you necessarily like it, and in other circumstances you probably might not. But I do think, although it’s not for me to say, along the way there’s…there must have been choices you made. For good or bad they probably aren’t the same ones I’d make.”
Joe stuck his hands in his pockets and turned away towards the water. He gazed out across it, oblivious to the wind blowing his combed curls into fresh disarray. After a moment he turned back to her and smiled cheerfully.
“Maybe, eh? Who’s to say?” he said in a friendly but dismissive tone. “Now, are ye going to shoot the tree or shall I put it away and be done with it?”
“I’ll shoot the tree,” said Claire. “To show you I can, but you won’t persuade me to like it.”
“Go on then.”
Claire clasped the handle and folded her other hand around it for support. Very slowly, she lifted the gun and pointed it in the direction of the tree. It looked very narrow and very far away. She closed one eye. The barrel wavered uncertainly in her line of sight as she fought to hold its weight steady. It didn’t look this hard in the film. In any film in fact.
“Are you sure about this Joe?” she asked, turning her head. “Meaning it’ll make a hell of a noise.”
“Will it now? Well, I reckon at least the tree’s safe enough.”
Claire returned to her task and closed her eye again. She tried to concentrate on preventing the gun moving from side to side, figuring that if it moved up or down she might still hit the target. Slowly, she fingered the trigger, some dim memory telling her to squeeze it gradually. All at once there was a deafening explosion close by her ears as it went off and her arm jerked painfully into the air. For a second, the world was smoking grey and soundless; it was like being stunned. Then the smoke cleared and Joe was gingerly retrieving his gun from the ground in front of her.
“I can see I’ll have to mind meself round you a bit more in future,” he was saying.
“Oh shit! Have I shot you?” she asked stupidly in her confusion.
“No,” he laughed. “But you put a bloody great hole in that tree.”
“See! I told you I was a good shot.” She was pleased, despite herself.
“Now be honest Claire, a moment ago ye thought you’d shot me even though I was stood behind ye when you fired. I think I can tell beginner’s luck from judgement there.”
He reached forward unexpectedly and stared intently at her mouth for a moment before kissing her, pulling her tight against him, basking in her surprised reaction, drawing it out until she became breathless and broke away giggling.
“What was that for?” she heard herself asking him, even though they had kissed each other on and off all day.
Joe looked at the ground and shrugged a brief laugh.
“I dunno. Maybe to say thank you. Bein’ with you these last few hours, it’s been like having a holiday. You make me laugh, and I don’t do that so often, lest from the bottom of a whiskey bottle, that is.”
“Well, I’m glad,” said Claire, feeling her heart overflow towards him and wriggling her fingers into his hand to express just as much of this as she dared.
Joe sat down, pulled his tobacco tin from his pocket and lit a cigarette. After sharing such sentiment, he seemed to have sunk into deep thought. Claire sat down next to him and looked through the late afternoon haze to the hills beyond.
“Where did you go?” he asked abruptly, eyes on the horizon. “That morning when we had the tents. You just disappeared.”
Claire sighed to herself. She’d known this was coming. Joe was not stupid. He might be relaxed about accepting her for herself, but that didn’t mean he took everything at face value. And what was easy to accept about a girl who just appeared in front of him and vanished again - at least she hoped she would vanish again; she wasn’t sure she was quite ready to live here permanently – who had either the wrong clothes or no clothes at all and seemed to have no visible means of support? And yet how could she tell him? What exactly would she tell him? Even the little she knew would simply be beyond his comprehension. It was certainly beyond hers. And of course, even if she could explain about the film and the story and where she came from, Joe’s first question would surely be to ask her what would become of him. She didn’t know if she might be able to change anything, but she did realise that she didn’t have the right to rob him of whatever vitality and hope he was hanging on to.
“What did you think happened?” she countered, deliberately looking away towards the creek.
Joe exhaled smoke and then laughed sheepishly.
“I decided I must have dreamed ye.”
“Perhaps you did.”
He touched her face and grinned at her.
“Ah no. I’m not so sure now I’ve seen ye again. There’s not much you can tell me about dreamin’, I’ve seen it all. You’re real enough.”
“You were dreaming last night,” said Claire, deliberately veering the subject off-course. “You were talking in your sleep and I wondered what you were dreaming about.”
“Was I?" He paused. "That’s not exactly the kind of dream I meant.”
“What kind did you mean then?”
Joe slung away the cigarette end and evaded her eyes.
“It’s no matter. I wouldn’t want ye thinking badly of me.”
“Aye well, perhaps ye wouldn’t. What with you saying I’m something you dream too, that makes me wonder... And judge not lest you be judged, as they say.”
He fell silent, mind working furiously. After a few moments, having apparently decided what to say, he spoke again,
“Sometimes I have to get away. D’ye understand that Claire? To keep on with it all, I have to know there’s other places, other things still there – like today, us here. And I have to just…leave it all behind and go away. Christ, sometimes it’s bad.
“So what do you do?”
He hesitated again, his resolve to tell the story apparently wavering, then he shrugged and continued.
“There’s this stuff, you get from the Chinese fellas. Keeps me going a bit longer. Less, as time gets on, as it happens, but it still helps. It lets me sleep, lets me think about things.”
Claire was puzzled.
“Stuff What do you mean, stuff?”
“You know,” he paused. “People call it all kinds of things. Opium? Laudanum?”
Whatever Claire had been expecting, it was not this. She felt quite shocked. It was not that she didn’t know recreational drug users at home, it was more that she had assumed that in this prim Victorian society where people wore far too many clothes, and sex was so hidden away, that this would be another area where she would automatically have more liberal ideas than Joe.
“But that’s illegal!” she blurted out.
Joe grinned. “Not that I ever heard tell. But if it is, I don’t reckon I’ll need to let that trouble me too much do you? Might even get the traps off me back rounding up all the Chinamen that sell it, and fillin’ up the jails with them instead of Irishmen.”
He shook his head to himself and looked at the ground, and Claire suspected he was laughing at her. Fair enough. She prompted him to continue.
“Just have a wee smoke and a sleep and it puts me mind in order for a bit longer.”
“Does it bother you that it might be…bad for you?” asked Claire tentatively, no longer quite so sure of her own superior understanding. Joe smoked a lot of tobacco, blissfully unaware that cigarettes were, as it said on the packs back home, ‘a leading cause of death’, so she might have thought that substance abuse and the damage it caused was not something he knew anything about, but she was growing increasingly uncertain of her assumptions. There was nonetheless something rather sad and honest about his confession, and she unconsciously reached out and put a hand on his arm.
Joe laughed, a little bitterly, and stood up, offering his hand to help her to her feet. It seemed the conversation was drawing to a close and she was pleased he seemed to have forgotten his original question.
“I stopped worrying meself about a ripe old age around the time half the country set out to track me down and shoot me. And as for the rest of it, if overdoing it means I end up with a vision like you payin’ me a visit now and then, then I can’t see the harm.”
Oh well, thought Claire to herself, if Joe half believed she was a drug-induced hallucination, she wouldn’t disabuse him. For all she knew he might be right. Although it didn’t really explain how it was happening to her as well of course. It seemed pretty unlikely that all this was a result of a few large glasses of Bannockburn Chardonnay in Hoo Haa’s of a Friday night.
While she was thinking about this, they had crossed a narrow strip of scrub to where Joe’s horse waited, nibbling at the scant grass, its reins looped over a bush. Joe retrieved them and gave a tug. The horse glanced up and moved towards them, its neck extended in reluctant compliance.
“I’m sorry to put an end to all this, but I have to go now,” said Joe, looking around at the dulling sky and then rubbing an anxious forefinger over the soft leather in his hands. “I need to make sure you’re alright first though. Are ye going back to the hotel?”
Although Claire had known all along that this moment would come, now that it had, she was thrown into a panic. Even if Joe deposited her with infinite care back in the very room she’d arrived in, she had no idea of how she might get home again. While she was with Joe this had seemed an unimportant detail, but his imminent departure had suddenly transformed it into an issue of massive, unfathomable proportions.
“I suppose so,” she said. She remembered books from her childhood where characters moved from one time or dimension to another but always had something concrete and definite to facilitate this – rings in one case, she recalled, or Alice’s looking glass. What did she possess that moved between their worlds? A pair of pyjama bottoms plus an old pillow that wasn’t going to be much help since it was sitting on her bed at home.
“I’ll walk some of the way with you then,” said Joe, tugging the reins once more. “I can’t go all the way back, but I can put ye on the road. Maybe as we go you can tell me a bit about yerself. I can’t say as I’ve ever been quite so…intimate,” he paused and looked her up and down, finally meeting her eye with a mischievous smile, “With a lady about whom I know nothing ‘cepting her name.”
“Oh, I’ll bet you have!” teased Claire.
Joe winked at her.
“I reckon ye’ve had more than enough information out of me. I think I’ll keep the answer to that one to meself. Now come on, tell me who ye are and where ye run off to.”
The horse clopped along behind them and they walked for a few minutes in silence. Claire, who in principle at least, felt quite comfortable sharing almost anything about herself with Joe, didn’t quite know what to say. Having failed to get a straight answer to his question about where she’d disappeared to, he probably thought he’d try a more subtle approach, but she had to be careful. Viewed through Joe’s eyes, it was apparent that her very ordinary twenty-first century life would probably seem extraordinary and pique his interest further, and she needed to draw him away from that avenue. Just little stuff like her divorced and remarried parents; her job; her gay sister; the baby niece whose parents had no intention of marrying, to nobody’s particular remark or interest. What gulfs yawned between them! No, best all round to remain enigmatic. After all, it hadn’t done her any harm with him so far.
“There’s nothing much to tell, but I think it’s better that we don’t talk about that,” she said mysteriously. “It’s difficult.” It was the first time that she had drawn back from him, and she could see the surprise on his face, even as he hid it.
“If that’s what ye want,” he said stiffly. “But will ye answer me three direct questions? Like ones you can just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to?”
“The first one, don’t go getting mad with me now, I have to ask. Are ye anything to do with the police?”
“Oh God, no! On my life, I promise you.”
“Do ye have a sweetheart?”
It was an endearing question, made all the more so by his vocabulary. What a lovely word it was, ‘sweetheart’! Much more romantic sounding than ‘boyfriend.’
“Not ‘on yer life’ this time though, I notice, eh?”
Claire ignored this, but nevertheless enjoyed the thrill that he was interested enough to ask.
There was a silence.
“If ye tell me what town ye live in and I went there, would I be able to find you?”
It was a clever question that told Claire how engaged his mind was with the knotty problem of her existence: he didn’t really believe she was a hallucination but lacked any better explanation. However, she’d promised him three straight answers and two of his questions had been pretty easy, so:
“No. I don’t think so.”
“That’s not a direct question, and anyway, it’s your fourth, so I can’t answer it.”
“I’d hoped ye weren’t counting. Ah well, not to worry. If ye say you can’t tell me, then there must be a good reason for it. Whoever you are I think you’re a good person Claire. I won’t push you, but you won’t blame me if I keep on until I work it out.”
So intent had Claire been on their conversation and so absorbed in the problem of getting home that she didn’t realise how far they’d walked during this conversation. They were approaching a junction with another dirt track now though, and away to her left she could see a few buildings; the outskirts of the town. Joe stopped and pointed out the route she should take, explaining that she would be able to see the hotel within about ten minutes’ walk. It reinforced to her that he would be leaving her now and that she might never see him again, or as an alternative she might discover she was stranded here, never to see home and family again. At that moment neither of these scenarios seemed bearable, and she felt her throat close and her nose and eyes start to sting.
“Now listen to me,” Joe was saying, resting his hands on her shoulders and darting his eyes busily around the scene, “If by any chance you are, er…still here tomorrow, then just stay there. In the hotel. I’ll come back tomorrow night and look for ye, but it will be very late.”
“Joe, I don’t want you to do that. I’ll come and find you.” It was hard to speak now, she felt literally held up by those firm hands on her shoulders, by the strength of him, by his height over her like a protection from the threatening tears.
“And how do you propose to do that?” he asked with a gentle smile. “Ask a nice policeman to help ye? Or will you just strike off into the bush on foot and hope to bump into me after a spell?”
“I don’t think I’ll be here if you come back Joe. It’s not worth the risk to you on the off-chance. Anyway, even if I am, I’m not your responsibility. Please don’t.”
Claire could see Joe thinking about that one, piecing together what he could from the situation. Eventually he nodded. “Alright. But if you are, then ye’ll have to go and find Maggie. She’ll help you.”
Briefly, Claire pictured the scene and fervently hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
“OK,” she whispered.
Joe put his hand under her chin and lifted her sad, worried face towards him.
“It’s not easy to say goodbye to ye Claire,” he admitted.
Unable to trust her voice, Claire shook her head miserably.
“Will I see you again?”
“I hope so,” she whispered. Then forcing some strength into her voice, “If I have anything to do with it you will.”
“Well then, give me a kiss to seal the pact, and God willing I’ll see you soon. Promise me you’ll look after yerself, wherever you are.” He bent to her and pressed his lips against hers.
“Oh come on Joe, that’s not a goodbye kiss!” she said, trying hard to sound cheerful. “Come here!” And she flung her arms around him and hugged him to her, drawing him back to feel his mouth and face and tongue and the smell of him on her.
“Whatever happens, I’ll never forget today,” she told him.
“Me neither,” he straightened up and laughed, still standing so close to her that they were almost touching. “But if I do I can always ask Steve to remind me.”
Claire reddened, sheepish, and her mouth hung open. She could think of a few responses but none of them felt quite right in the circumstances.
“Yeah, well, sorry about that,.
“Ah don’t trouble yourself, I’m teasin’. I’ll just take care to keep me friends away from you next time. For their sake mostly.”
He smiled to show he was joking, kissed her again, and then with a swift, practised movement, swung himself into the saddle. Claire affected a return smile and then, as he reined the horse in, she turned with more reluctance than she thought possible and began to walk up the road he’d indicated, away from him and back towards the loneliness and uncertainty of the hotel. After a few yards, she started to walk backwards in order to see him for just a bit longer. He was exactly where she’d left him, watching her attentively, as if half expecting her to vanish in the dusk. He waved and then pulled the horse around and rode off in the opposite direction, first the sight and then the sound of him quickly vanishing in the fading light amongst the trees.
Alone with her thoughts, Claire plodded along the dirt track. Maggie’s boots which had seemed a reasonable fit when she’d first put them on were rubbing uncomfortably now, but watching Joe disappear had left her so distracted that she hardly noticed. It was with considerable shock therefore when, after only a couple of minutes, there was a rustle in the scrub and the sound of a horse picking its way towards her.
“Joe?” She turned around.
It was not Joe. Instead, before her was a small, heavily built man on what Claire could see even in the gloom was a very fine chestnut mare. His clothes were neat, much finer than even the good clothes Joe had worn that afternoon, and he wore a smart hat and sported shiny leather riding boots.
“I say! You girl. Stop there!”
Claire had never been addressed like this in her life, but the kind of response she might have made at home to such a command didn’t seem such a great idea here, so she stopped and faced him, her head slightly bowed in what she hoped was an appropriate manner.
“Who was that you were talking to at the crossroads?”
Oh fuck. The authenticity of Joe’s body pressed firmly and warmly against hers was one thing, the emotions she felt towards him about his situation were another, but this - this was a reality too far. Fear crept over her like seeping cold water.
“I don’t see that’s any business of yours,” she said bravely. The man gathered his horse in closer and glared at her but made no move to dismount. Bad move Claire.
“Less of your impudence young woman! I have reason to believe you were with one of the Kelly outlaws, so I ask you again. Who were you talking to and how do you know him?”
“Oh no, it absolutely wasn’t…sir.” she said hastily, hoping that by adding a respectful title she could quell his anger and buy Joe, if not herself, a bit of time.
She wondered if she made a run for it whether he would follow her or go after Joe. It didn’t seem worth the risk; perhaps it was better to keep talking for as long as possible. Who could she say she’d been with? An Irish name. Come on Claire. Irish names. Just pick one. Anything. Not too common or it might get someone real into trouble. Someone famous? There are hundreds of famous Irishmen, why couldn’t she think of one? One of U2? Oscar Wilde? Bob Geldof? All a bit Anglo-Saxon sounding.
“That was my friend, er…Eamonn de Valera,” she said eventually. A nice touch, which she felt sure Joe would have appreciated had he understood it.
“And Eamonn lives in Beechworth, does he?”
Claire was nonplussed. She had no idea who this man was, whether he had any right to speak to her like that and quite how much a refusal might offend. It was like being in a foreign country without a guidebook. The Lonely Planet Guide to Being Stuck in a Movie Dream. She might have to write one when – if – she got home again. And it was a tricky question anyway. He might know every soul in Beechworth – for all she knew there might only be a few dozen inhabitants. On the other hand, she was stuck for an alternative.
“Around there, yes. He’s a friend of my family and he’s a uh…” What did people do for a living here? Kept shops, built things, farmed? “A labourer,” she finished vaguely.
“You’re not Irish, are you?” asked the man.
“No sir,” she admitted.
“Well it behoves you to stay clear of their sort girl. Those of them that aren’t thieving, murdering scum themselves are likely to be offering up support to the Kellys. There’s been some news they were in the area last night and someone must know about it. It’s the duty of the rest of us to make sure they’re apprehended before they can kill anyone else.
Claire suddenly understood what people meant when they said their blood was boiling. Her entire body was heated by a whirling cauldron of conflicting emotions – anger, indignation, fear, confusion – none of which she dared to show. Her arm ached with the urge to slap the smug expression off his stupid, fat face. But this wasn’t her fight. Not in this place anyway. Getting herself locked up as a sympathiser wasn’t going to help Joe any. Still, every second that she could keep the man talking put another few metres between him and Joe.
“I don’t know the Kellys sir.” A literal truth, since she’d never even spoken to Dan and barely to Ned. “Are the police anywhere close to capturing them?” she continued sweetly.
“Oh yes. It’s only a matter of days now. Don’t worry yourself about that.”
“And what will happen to them then?”
“They’ll be given a fair trial under Her Majesty’s due process of course, and then they’ll hang.”
Claire didn't share his belief that a fair trial was one where the verdict was set in stone before it had even begun, but she nodded in what she hoped was an agreeable manner.
“So if you hear anything from your friend or elsewhere, you are clear what your duty is?”
“Very well.” He kicked the horse into a trot and then in a whirl of dust he was gone, up the road she was on, towards the town, perhaps to do his duty and ask the police to check up on Eamonn de Valera. It would take them a while. She wished them luck.
She stood quite still for a moment until her wildly beating heart had calmed, then slowly began to trudge after him. Without a method of telling the time, it was hard to judge the ten minutes Joe had estimated, but presently she saw a white building in the distance and recognised the hotel. As she drew closer she realised that being the evening, the bar would no longer be empty, and she wondered how she could get upstairs without being noticed and perhaps asked what she was doing. Now that Joe was gone, she had no reason to hang about in this place, and even less if the man on the road found out she’d lied to him and came looking for her. It proved easier than she had thought however, to slip between the tables of men deep in conversation, and then when nobody was looking, step quietly onto the staircase. Maggie, she was relieved to note, was nowhere to be seen.
The room was just as she and Joe had left it, the bed rumpled, the remains of their meal on top of it, the mirrored wardrobe door hanging open. It seemed much longer ago than seven or eight hours that they had been there together. Claire removed Maggie’s clothes and folded them, together with the boots and the water bottle, on the floor, and put her pyjamas on. What now? She felt slightly silly as if some unseen observer thought she was assuming some kind of magical set of clothes. Well, how was she to know what to do next? She tried pinching her own arm but nothing happened, so she climbed into the bed, trying very hard not to think too much about the way Joe had lain there that morning with her. She wondered where he was now, whether he had a place to sleep, if he was thinking about her, or if that was vanity on her part to imagine he might. Would she ever see him again? Last time she’d fallen asleep with him, she’d woken up at home. Perhaps that was the secret?
“Look after yourself Joe,” she mumbled as her eyelids finally grew heavy in the cosiness of the bed.
Her mind began to wander, thoughts of horses in the bush, stones twisting and turning through the air, boys playing patience, Joe’s strong hands on the reins of the horse, on her. She was still wondering what the morning would bring when an insistent, buzzing noise, talking and music, began to disturb her.
Shit, she’d left the TV on all night.