Claire’s head was filled with Joe. If she’d struggled to dismiss her first meeting with him as a dream, how much harder it was this time around, and she found herself wondering constantly and impatiently if it would happen again, and if so when and how. Her mind lingered on the way the fine planes of his face and body balanced the harsh landscape of his environment, how he stood at one with his surroundings, entirely unconscious of his own beauty. She thought about how her fingers felt as they fitted into the hollows beneath his hipbones, about his touch on her and the low, private sound of his grateful pleasure. This obsessive daydreaming also led her occasionally into dark cul-de-sacs of questions about the reality of her own existence in relation to Joe’s, not to mention the fact that whatever kind of existence, he had, it could quite conceivably be terminated before she could find a way to help him.
It was perhaps not surprising that all this thinking made her somewhat withdrawn. Any man she met, she compared to Joe, they all fell decisively short and she pushed them away. This was not necessarily their fault, she acknowledged.. It was just that most of them were adapted to twenty-first century urban life, and this was not an environment that held much attraction for her any more. Work felt futile, people began to remark in a worried way that she was getting very thin and although she tried hard to take these concerns on board, she lacked the will to do anything about any of it. Sadly, if Joe really was just a figment of her imagination, the pull of the fantasy was becoming greater than her desire to retain a place in her real world.
So, with an underlying anxiety that she might be slowly going mad, Claire counted the days until she could see him again, without even knowing that she ever would. The months dragged by until eventually there came an day when she knew it was time to give up and make a genuine effort to engage with the here and now. Whether ceasing to try was the key to it, or whether it was her lack of expectation, or whether it was something to do with Joe, this of course was finally the moment when it happened again.
This time there was no sleep or dreaming. She was a hundred miles from anywhere even vaguely associated with Joe. She was not even alone. Quite the opposite in fact. It was a busy house party and she was outside talking to a man whom she knew slightly, and of whom she harboured a few vague but encouraging thoughts of being finally stirred from emotional apathy. One minute she was feeling indulgent towards his rather obvious intoxication as they discussed a mutual acquaintance. The next he had changed the subject to his own optimistic stirrings – in this case the things he hoped she might do to him later. Keen to leave her in no doubt, he illustrated his suggestions with his hands, both on her and also on himself in a crystal clear demonstration of the effect her charms had on him.
“Oh, fuck off Alex,” said Claire, at once deeply irritated and not short of crystal clear clarity herself.
Several people turned to stare and to laugh. Unwilling to make it into more of an incident, she turned on her heel and walked away in the opposite direction to the house, towards the bottom of the garden where few people had yet ventured and where there was a small copse of trees. Although she wasn’t entirely sure where she was going, she was anxious to put distance between herself and Alex for the time being, and so she walked purposefully and briskly, heedless of the half-hidden stumps and tussocks of rough grass between the trees. Alex’s comprehension might be currently impaired by too much beer, but with her clipped, angry dismissal ringing in his ears and her tense retreat, he would no doubt grasp that whatever possibilities had existed for them, he had, at least for now, blown it.
She found her thoughts wandering to Joe. Just for a change, she thought wryly. She may have dealt with the situation easily enough and indeed would have been offended at the suggestion that she needed any assistance, but really, where was a handy bushranger when you needed one? She felt certain that Joe, would never dream of approaching a woman so crudely. A pleasing vision drifted into her mind of him witnessing the scene that had just taken place. One finger trailing subtly but unmistakeably in the direction of his gun, some pithy comment she couldn’t quite formulate now, but possibly involving the fact that he, Alex, had heard refusals from her many’s the time. There would be a cold, hard stare, and Alex’s swagger would vaporise permanently under the coating of frost that would form over him.
“C’mon Claire, we’re leaving,” Joe would say dismissively, perhaps placing a proprietary hand on her shoulder, and…
This satisfying train of thought broke off rather suddenly as it occurred to Claire that she had been walking for some time without reaching the boundary of the garden. Surely by now she should have reached the fence and the path that would take her back around to the side of the house and the other partygoers? Yet she was still in amongst the trees, and curiously out of earshot of the pounding music. She hoped she wasn’t walking around in circles – because if Alex saw her doing that her dignified exit would be shattered.
Just as she was wondering whether to re-trace her steps and let her dignity take care of itself, the trees petered out and she found herself in a small, flat clearing. A few metres in front of her was a row of rounded wooden posts of freshly hewn timber, shoulder height, standing sentinel in the hard ground at regular intervals. Beyond them, a little further on, was a huge, shabby garden shed, presumably part of the neighbouring property. Sitting on a bench outside in an attitude of weary relaxation was a man of about her own age. He had obviously seen her emerge from the copse and now he watched her with interest, drawing heavily on his cigarette and waiting to see what would happen next. Claire took a couple of steps nearer until she could see his face clearly in the fading light.
Surely it couldn’t be? She almost laughed aloud. He was pretty much unmistakeable, and yet she hardly dared believe her eyes. It was not impossible, she reasoned, that a well-known actor had moved into this pleasant suburb, erected a shed that certainly had not come from Bunnings and then decided to spend the evening doing a spot of fencing, but there didn’t seem to be any explanation for why he would dress up in costume from one of his roles to do so.
Claire glanced back over her shoulder, but the curtain of trees was drawn protectively around the place she had just left and offered no clues. Well, that was no problem. If there was the slightest chance that she had stumbled into Joe’s world, she had no intention of spending precious hours wondering yet again where she was and what was happening. So she faced up cheerfully to the thought that she was probably not trespassing on a neighbouring property in a prosperous suburb after all, and that the party, wherever it was going on, was out of her reach for now. As for Alex, well if it took that kind of emotional energy to jettison her into Joe’s arms, then perhaps she should look more favourably on him after all. At some point, anyway.
Struggling to contain her glee, she slipped between the posts and approached the seated figure.
“You must be Aaron Sherritt,” she said in a bright voice, wincing slightly as she waited for his reply in case she was, after all, making a terrible mistake.
“I may be. And how would you know that?” he asked pleasantly and without any visible surprise at being addressed by a woman who had just stepped out of the bush, apparently from nowhere.
Claire breathed a sigh of relief that immediately struck her as bizarre. Why did it feel better to have it confirmed that she was stranded in some kind of alternate universe than it would have done to find she had made a social faux pas, she wondered.
“I’m a friend of Joe Byrne’s,” she said with a friendly smile, answering her own question as well as his.
At that, Aaron shifted a little more upright in his seat and looked at her anew. His eyes travelled down to her feet and back up again, but he managed to very nearly disguise what he was doing by extinguishing his cigarette at the same time.
“Well,” he said with a laugh, “Now, I can’t say that surprises me altogether, eh?” He stood up and offered her his hand. “Aaron Sherritt, it is. And might I have the pleasure of knowing your name, friend-of-Joe’s?”
“I’m Claire,” she said, wilting slightly under his over-firm handgrip. “Is Joe about?”
At that, Aaron dropped her hand and sat down again. Some of the open friendliness of his expression evaporated and when he spoke again his voice was lower, suspicious.
“If you’re a friend of Joe’s, you’d either be knowing yourself where he was, or certainly knowing better than to be asking folk you don’t know who do know.”
Claire had to think about this for a moment. Apparently so did Aaron, who frowned deeply and looked at the ground as he waited for her answer.
“I’ve…been away a while,” she said finally. “We’ve lost touch and I thought…I thought if I called on you he might be here.”
“Well, as ye can see for yourself Miss Claire, he isn’t,” said Aaron, smiling again but with a slightly unpleasant emphasis on her name. “And I’m sure ye can see how I’m fixed here. If it was as easy as sending a pretty girl up here to ask after his whereabouts and me just telling them straight off, the coppers would be after doing it long since.”
Quite, Claire wanted to say, so obviously they haven’t. She sensed however that this line of reasoning would prove an intellectual dead end so she changed tack to a higher risk strategy.
“Well in that case,” she said politely, “I shan’t bother you any further. Of course I understand you’ve no reason to trust me, and perhaps you aren’t very sure where he is anyway. It was nice to meet you. If you do happen to see Joe, please tell him I was asking after him.”
She turned away and began to walk back towards the trees. She wondered what would happen if this rather obvious ploy failed to work. Either she would walk right back into Alex’s hands – literally – and miss the chance to see Joe, or she’d be wandering around the bush at night without a clue where she was going and with no immediate prospect of finding her way back. It was not a comforting thought that her fate rested entirely on what Aaron did in the next twenty seconds. She slowed her pace a fraction, added a little wriggle to her walk and fought the urge to look back over her shoulder to see what he was doing. At the very second she reached the edge of the clearing, he called out.
“Wait a second!”
Sighing with relief at her last minute reprieve and trying not to appear over-eager, Claire stopped. Aaron came hurrying up behind her.
“There’s no need to be hasty now is there? As it happens, he may well be comin’ by tonight and I’m sure he wouldn’t want to miss you. If you’d like to come in and wait a spell, we’ll see what happens. After all if it does turn out that Joe doesn’t know ye from Adam – or Eve as I should say – then seeing as you’re by yourself up here, it’s not like you’ll be able to rush off and tell anyone, is it? Would you like some tea, and,” he eyed her bare arms pointedly, “a warm by the fire perhaps?”
“Thank you Aaron,” she replied, suppressing an urge to skip as she followed him back across the clearing and wondering how to explain herself. Really, this was all very complicated. No sooner had one problem been solved than she found herself hoping that Joe would turn up before Aaron could ask her too many awkward questions. Already she couldn’t believe he wasn’t wondering how she knew the whereabouts of his hut, how she’d travelled there on foot and why she was wearing baggy linen trousers, the like of which she was quite sure had never been seen in Melbourne, let alone out here.
If Aaron was troubled by these thoughts, or indeed by any others, he didn’t show it. With an elaborate flourish, he escorted her into his hut and bade her sit down by the fire on the one available chair, which he spent a few moments fussily positioning for her. He did these things with humour; a wry comment, perhaps on the paucity of his home. Even by the standards of the dwellings Claire had encountered before in this place, it was inadequately furnished. There was almost less in it than Joe took about with him, and the atmosphere was dark and musty. To one side was an opening in a partition wall to which a shabby curtain clung perilously. This, she assumed, was the doorway to his bedroom. However, her host conjured the necessary equipment for producing tea, and within a few minutes presented her with a cup so hot and strong she felt like she should tame it before she sipped it. They both worked hard at keeping a conversation going, but as they each had their own reasons for circumspection, it ebbed more than it flowed, and Claire learned a great deal more about Aaron’s plans for his land than she cared to, and rather less than she might have liked about Joe.
After about forty minutes – it had grown quite dark outside and Claire was on her second cup of tea, having declined to switch to brandy – they heard the sound of a horse approaching from some distance. A soft but insistent thub of hooves on the ground, the jangle of the bit and finally the horse’s heavy, snorting breath.
“Ah, that’ll be yer man,” said Aaron heaving himself to a standing position and crossing to the door. Claire took a sharp intake of breath and realised that her fists were clenched.
“Aaron?” came Joe’s voice from outside, low and insistent and heart-stoppingly familiar. “Are ye there?”
Aaron pulled the door open a sliver and there was Joe in the cold air, all sinews and wiry energy and unruly curls, slipping inside and bringing with him a delicious taste of dark outdoors and promise. Claire stood by the fire waiting apprehensively and almost shyly as he briefly embraced Aaron, slapping shoulders, sniffing up warmer air. Her heart was beating too fast as she fastened her eyes on him, silently signalling to him to look up and notice her.
“Claire!” he said suddenly, as Aaron stepped aside. Shock, then a flash of something very like joy lightened his sombre expression, hastily replaced with a cheerful grin of unmistakeable welcome.
“You came back! Aw, Christ. I can’t believe it. Claire! What the devil are you doing here of all places?”
He threw Aaron a swift, questioning glance then hastened across the room and swept her up, pressing his cold lips to hers, pinning her arms to her side with the frank openness of his hug, then finally releasing her and feeling straight away for her hand and holding onto it as he turned to face Aaron again. Away from their moments of intimacy, Joe’s usual demeanour was quiet, restrained, distant almost. This enthusiastic, demonstrative welcome in front of his mate swept away anxious memories of last time’s irritated, suspicious greeting, and Claire, feeling increasingly like a schoolgirl with a crush, could only stand by him glowing with pleasure.
“Ha, best not ask that maybe,” he added, settling himself on the chair and pulling her onto his knee, an act of such gorgeous easy familiarity that she immediately took the opportunity of wriggling her way up his thigh until she was sitting fully in his lap and feeling the chilly fabric of his clothes against her. She draped her arm across his shoulders, slid a finger into a stray coil of hair at his neck and felt that her happiness was complete.
“I see you two do know each other after all then,” said Aaron dryly. “How come ye’ve never introduced us then Joe?”
“Ah well,” laughed Joe, his voice treacly and deliciously close to Claire’s ear, one arm snaking possessively around her middle, “This one comes and goes even more than I do. Never sure when she might turn up. I hope you’ve been taking good care of her.”
“I have that, even though she’s fair near drunk me out of tea,” said Aaron, winking at her as he turned to push the heavy door closed.
“Now, would anyone else care to join me in something a little stronger?”
The next couple of hours passed in a haze of brandy and banter, leaving Claire fascinated by this new glimpse of Joe in company. Despite the free-flowing drink however, she noticed that his conversation was not completely unguarded. Whether it was for her benefit or for some other reason, the purpose of the visit was not discussed, although she could hardly suppose it was intended to be a purely social call, and rather curiously, apart from one or two veiled references to ‘trouble’, the subject of the gang was not raised. Instead, Aaron, his suspicions of her now entirely cast aside, entertained her with stories of their boyhood – some of the scrapes they laughed together over immoderately she found a little shocking, a reaction which did not go unnoticed by Joe who pulled contrite faces or nudged her secretly in the ribs to retain her favour. His open pleasure in her company echoed the best of the moments she spent with him rather than the coldest, and she hugged the joy in that to herself.
The distinct lack of furniture was an inconvenience for three people who wanted to spend an evening in the hut, but of course this was not the reason why Joe kept Claire on his lap, and neither was it the reason why she stayed. After all, he could easily have joined Aaron lounging on the floor and left her the sole occupant of the chair. Amused, not to say aroused, by the effect she knew she was having on him, Claire shifted her position regularly, backing into him and fidgeting, steadying her hands on his legs, earning herself little squeezes from him, and once, rather satisfactorily, a sighing grunt under his breath.
At one point, Aaron went to fetch more wood for the fire and she wriggled round to face Joe.
“Am I squashing you?” she enquired.
He regarded her with mock seriousness and gently lowered her between his legs so she was perched on the hard edge of the seat rather than his lap.
“I think ye know full well that it’s not squashing that you’re doing to me,” he said quietly, lips buzzing on her neck. “Leave me be for a few minutes you bad girl, unless you want me asking Aaron if he minds waitin’ while I take ye outside.”
Claire giggled and hooked her fingers over the top of his waistcoat as she kissed him, feeling the gentle swelling and sinking of his chest beneath her knuckles. How could this kind of pleasure be so elusive; how could it be anything but real?
After some time – Claire judged it to be about eleven o’clock – they came to a natural gap in the conversation and all three fell silent for a moment. She could tell by Aaron’s expression however that he and Joe were exchanging glances over her head. Aaron, who was still stretched out on the hard floor, swivelled his legs around, sat up and drained his glass.
“I’ve no wish to bring an end to this very pleasant evening,” he said, “But I reckon it’s near enough time for bed.” He smiled up at Joe and Claire, “And I’ve no wish to embarrass such a charming lady neither, but - and I’m hopin’ I’m not speakin’ out of turn here – if you two would care to take the bedroom, I’m happy to bunk down here for the night.”
“We can’t turn you out of your own bed!” said Claire, any awkwardness dulled by brandy and excitement and the promise held by Joe’s hard thigh underneath her.
“Ah sure we can,” said Joe lazily, fondling her bottom secretively in a way that made her want to rub herself against him. “Aaron likes sleeping on the floor anyways, don't you?” He brushed a stray hair from her face in a more public gesture of affection as he addressed his mate.
"It's no matter to me either way where I sleep,” replied Aaron dismissively. “I just want to be hospitable to me good friend, or should I say,” he added politely to Claire, “Me two good friends.”
He gave Joe the same curious look again, and this time Joe made a move to stand up and slide Claire to the floor.
“Me and Aaron,” he told her, “We’ve to go outside for a while. Will ye wait here for me Claire? I promise it’ll be only five minutes.”
Claire was very curious to know what the real business of the evening could be that it could not be discussed in front of her. She was tempted to ask directly, but Joe, maybe sensing the question on her lips and obviously not about to answer it, gestured back at the chair for her to sit down.
“There’s a good girl,” he added with a touch of finality, patting her arm as he reached over for his coat. Inwardly, Claire winced. Sometimes, she thought, she made entirely too many allowances for Joe. After all, there didn’t seem to be a shortage of feisty women in the film, and she couldn’t imagine Kate Kelly for instance responding placidly to being told to sit still and wait like a good girl. She wondered if she’d ever get the chance to meet her and compare notes. Briefly Claire speculated on Kate’s reaction to Alex. Somehow she couldn’t imagine it being very positive, even if he was on his best behaviour.
As she gazed into the fire and considered all this, Joe and Aaron, whose errand had apparently been even swifter than Joe’s estimate, came back inside again. Aaron bore a pleased look on his face, Joe, more pre-occupied, was pushing something deep into his coat pocket. Claire remembered his confession last time about the stuff he said he needed and she bit her lip. Well, if it was distraction and peaceful sleep he craved, maybe this would be one night at least when she could offer him a better alternative. She stood up and faced them.
“Well, I don’t know what you fellas are doing, but I’m going to bed,” she told them firmly in the certain knowledge that Joe, no matter what was in his coat pocket, would eagerly follow her. “Can I take this candle over here?”