Joe held aside the dirty curtain for Claire then followed her in, carrying the candle in its tin holder. The wavering ochre light it threw on the walls gave her a fair view of the narrow space, and as he fumbled to set it down on the small washstand, she looked around with interest at the place where they were going to spend the night. It was almost entirely filled with a bed. To be fair to Aaron, it was a normal sized double with a large iron headboard, old and poor looking but certainly nothing like the straw mattress on the floor she had been anticipating. Where it fell short however was more a matter of maintenance. Two ticking pillows blighted with dark grease-marks and dreary with age lay askew at one end, and an untidy pile of rough charcoal-coloured blankets were heaped atop the rumpled sheets like rocks emerging from a choppy grey sea. Clearly whoever had last climbed out of it – probably Aaron, possibly other company, certainly nobody with much of an interest in laundry – had not troubled themselves to touch it again.
Before she could think too much about this however, Joe, oblivious to the room’s failings as guest accommodation, grasped her shoulder so that she twisted against him, feeling his belt buckle sharp and hard against her stomach. The sudden taste of his mouth on hers, warm breath, faint fumes of brandy, the prickle of the hairs on his chin, the even, heavy breathing against her cheek, his unhurried hands sprawled idly on her bottom; all these things were a timely reminder, if she needed one, that it would take something far worse than Aaron’s dirty bed for her turn him down.
“Well, this is an unexpected pleasure,” he said, half to her mouth, half to her ear and hair, his fingers happily reacquainting themselves with whatever they could reach. “I don’t know about you lass, but it’s bloody months that I’ve spent just thinkin’ about this.”
He stepped his foot between hers, shifting her balance backwards onto the bed. As she sat down heavily, it welcomed her with an appreciative loud creak. They glanced at each other. Joe shrugged and began to pull his shirt free of his trousers. Claire, her fingers eager, tingling outposts of her readiness, tugged at the fold of soft leather looped carelessly through his belt buckle. As it dropped apart on his hips, he pulled it free and threw it aside where it hit the headboard with a discordant jangle and slid down behind the bed to the floor. He leaned forward, his knee between hers so that she lay back for him. The addition of his weight brought forth from the springs another loud groan that was impossible to ignore. She gasped, and Joe flopped down next to her with an equally audible sigh. The bed responded enthusiastically and they both giggled.
Claire pictured Aaron, just the other side of the curtain, stretched out by the fire and smiling to himself at the noisy preamble he could undoubtedly hear. He didn’t seem like the sort of person who’d bury his head under a cushion – should he have had such a thing – or go outside for a decently long smoke. She prodded her chin thoughtfully with her finger and turned to Joe who had sat up and was scratching the back of his head and observing her consternation..
“We can’t!” she mouthed at him, unconscious that her hand was rather contradicting her words by resting firmly on his thigh.
Joe, laughing silently at her horror, beckoned her to him and cupped his hands around her ear.
“We could ye know. On the floor maybe, if you want to be particular. But them terrible loud noises ye always make’d give us away anyways,” he told her in a whisper.
She pushed at him playfully and the bed joined the joke with an obliging squeak. Joe winked at her and tried a few experimental bounces that brought forth a symphonic protest of creaks and groans. Beyond the curtain, Aaron coughed.
“We’ll have to wait until he’s asleep,” whispered Claire.
“I don’t suppose there’s the slightest use in me tellin’ you that Aaron couldn’t care less?”
“No!” said Claire indignantly, dimly aware that her own ideas of privacy and discretion were probably very different to his. Nevertheless, her refusal was emphatic, only slightly compromised by the way she licked her lips as she spoke, and by the unconscious journey of her hand from Joe’s knee to his groin.
Joe smirked and changed tack.
“Maybe we should give the whole thing a miss then?” he suggested. “Poor old Aaron’s given us his bed and he’s a terrible light sleeper. We can’t be disturbing him now. I reckon,” he continued, warming to his theme, “That it’d be just fine to lie here quietly with you. Will that be alright?”
Claire brushed her fingers across the front of him, riding the bumpy contours of fabric and flesh, and pressed her lips to his ear.
“If that’s what you want Joe Byrne, then fine,” she told him. “But I’m guessing I can hold out longer than you.”
The room was cold and the bedclothes didn’t seem to make much difference. Spooned behind her in the long underwear that she had found so comical, however, Joe gave off enough heat for the two of them. Claire, in her own underwear which had been designed to a very different specification, nestled back into him, sinking into the pleasant feel of his palm on her breast, his regular breathing and his apparently permanent erection resting on her spine. They had taken possession of the bed – Joe had ignored the grimace on Claire’s face as she gingerly stretched her legs into the unseen, crumpled depths - and made it theirs so that the musty smell, thoughts of unwashed sheets and blankets and the pervasive sense of Aaron faded comfortably into the background. It had become very quiet now and it was a few minutes since Joe had spoken. His breathing seemed to be deepening.
“Are you still awake Joe?” she hissed into the night air.
“Christ lass, of course I bloody am.”
She wriggled around to face him, causing a fresh cry of protest from the springs. One in particular objected to her movement by lodging itself uncomfortably into her ribs. Their faces were inches apart in the darkness now, his hair tickling her, the buttons on his under-shirt pressing into her sternum, their legs entangled.
“I’ve no wish to be crude about this Claire,” Joe began in a low voice, slipping his fingers down the back of her knickers, “But let me tell ye the facts of life here shall I?” He began to stroke her bottom, large rough hand cupping her buttock.
“Sometimes weeks go by and I don’t even set eyes on a woman,” he said, as if settling in to tell a long story, “And when I do it’s as much as I can manage just to pass the time of day without…how can I put this? Without it being clear just how pleased I am t’see them. Then what happens but you turn up here and spend the evenin’ making all kind of offers to me with that little arse of yours and then you tell me to wait a while. So ye take yer clothes off and we lie like this. And then ye ask if I’m asleep? Jesus, I don’t know about where you come from but round these parts there’s a name for lasses like you.”
There was clear amusement as he said all this, but wedged between them, impossible to ignore, lay the truth of his words in rampant reproach. Claire experienced an overwhelming impulse to hook one thigh over him and give him what he – and she – clearly wanted and to hell if there was an audience of thousands, but the thought of Aaron next door was just enough to make her hesitate. Just. The fingers behind her were growing more adventurous with every downward stroke.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” she said instead, kissing his face randomly, and unexpectedly meeting the side of his nose.
“Aye, well, I hope ye know I’m glad to see you all the same. I’m only jokin’ ye Claire.”
“No you aren’t,” she pointed out.
“Well, no, maybe not entirely I’m not,” admitted Joe.
Claire wriggled her hand down between them and groped to hold him. Joe flinched at the touch and gave a low grunt.
“Did no-one ever tell ye not to touch loaded weapons less they go off accidentally?” he asked, pushing himself towards her encouragingly.
“I will if you want me to,” said Claire, the idea of Joe in her hand, stickily wet and helpless, doing nothing to quell her own desire. “But he might be asleep now anyway.”
Cautiously, Joe pushed himself away from her and crawled to the edge of the bed. The springs shifted uneasily but stayed muted. With one lithe movement he straightened up onto the floor and peered round the edge of the curtain. There was something about his determined pursuit of her body – not that there was much pursuing required, she conceded – that she particularly enjoyed. Here he was, spying on his sleeping friend and now apparently testing out the far corner of the mattress, first with his hands, and then when the bed failed to respond, by sitting on the edge and bouncing until he found a quiet place. And all because he wanted her and wanted her to be comfortable and he couldn’t bear to wait any longer.
He half turned, casual knee on the bed, and stretched out his hand.
“C’mere,” he said, and it was more a command than an invitation.
Claire moved as carefully as she could across the bed to join him. It was very cold. She stood on the rough floor, feeling the unpleasant rolled edge of the animal-hide mat under the soles of her feet as Joe rose and moved next to her, wrapping his arms about her. The warmth the two of them shared at the front contrasted uncomfortably with her chilly back and she shivered.
“What happened to you?” asked Joe suddenly, apparently noticing something different about her. “You’ve got mighty thin. Are ye not getting enough to eat?”
“I’m fine,” Claire told him truthfully, nestling against his body for warmth and reflecting that not one person at home who had commented on her weight loss had suggested for a second that it might be due to unavailability of food. Nobody she knew personally had ever lacked the wherewithal to acquire a meal of some kind more or less on demand. She wondered what Joe would make of the average twenty-first century western world supermarket.
“I was just pining away for you,” she explained.
Joe laughed as if he thought this was a joke.
“There’s nothin’ of ye to keep you warm. You’re like one of them little teal ducks. Do ye want to borrow me coat?”
She nodded into his chest.
“Only, it’s either that or one of them blankets, and I don’t think I could bring meself to make love to someone who smells like Aaron.”
As he was saying this he was reaching for his jacket and draping it around her shoulders. It was surprisingly heavy, and she slid her arms down the sleeves, the cheap lining freezing on her skin.
“Something that smells of yourself doesn’t bother you though,” she teased back.
“Aye, well,” said Joe with a brief laugh, settling himself on the edge of the bed. “That’s more or less how it is these days. C’mon, if you’re still worried we can be quiet here.”
He held out his hand and drew her to his side, then gently tugged at her knickers until they drifted to the floor and Claire could kick them aside.
“And that’s just one of the reasons that all of you is a much finer proposition than just yer hand back there,” he added thoughtfully.
The worn flannel on Joe’s lap was pleasantly soft and warm beneath her as she sat astride him. Between them, still buttoned away, she was aware of his cock lolling weightily against the fabric. She remembered how shocked she’d been when she’d first realised what Joe wore under his shirt and trousers. How she had found herself praying that the sight of him would not kill her passion. Now she just accepted it. Besides, she had his jacket. If she asked him to take off his underwear he’d freeze. And she didn’t fancy making love to someone who smelled like Aaron either.
Joe pushed open his coat, resting his forefingers in the valley of her collarbone for a moment, then trailing them down, round and under her breasts.
“I remember these,” he said quietly, spanning the distance from outer curve to nipple and making her shiver. “They’re smaller too. If it’s pining for me that’s done this, I need to put a stop to that.”
He caught at her lips with his, distracting her with kisses as he unbuttoned himself. Claire, finally impatient with his one-handed endeavours, slipped her own fingers between them to free him, feeling his cock resist her grasp to spring back to attention against his body.
“Oh God,” she mumbled, turning her attention to the buttons at his neck. The too-long coat sleeves hanging limply from her wrists impeded her, and she pushed one out of the way in exasperation. As she did, Joe slid one broad, brown finger underneath her.
“Look at us,” he said, his voice strained, pushing the coat aside so he could kiss her shoulders. “Ye really ought to come back in the summer next time.”
The finger slowly submerged itself, a caress and an invitation.
“An’ I can take me time with all of ye in the sun.”
Claire sensed, rather than saw that he was smiling at her, pleased with his work.
“He’s definitely asleep by the way,” he added, jerking his head towards the curtain. “I meant to say.”
“I don’t care anymore,” said Claire truthfully.
“Fightin’ talk there lass. We’ll make an outlaw of ye yet.”
Joe leaned back, his stomach rippling with tension, so that he could watch her as they touched one another. His eyes closed unhurriedly.
“C’mon Claire. Tell me what it is that you want me to do,” he enticed, his features darkening with his own desire.
Claire loved this about Joe. He was not seeking validation or praise as other men might, he was simply indulging himself by coaxing her to voice ideas that other women would probably recoil from expressing. With the mindset of a different time and place, this did not present her with the slightest difficulty. Besides which, as a complete slave to his allure, she’d have happily agreed to a great deal more than a bit of mild swearing for the sake of helping things along to that sweating, taut-jawed rapture.
“I want you to fuck me,” she told him, breathing this literal truth into his ear and lifting herself onto him.
And Joe, who unbeknown to Claire was quite unable to resist anything she asked of him, let alone this, did.
* * *
Joe lay behind her again now, experimentally running thumb and forefinger over strands of her short hair, arranging it for her.
“What are you doing?” she asked sleepily in the stillness.
“Countin’ your hairs to try to keep meself awake.”
“Because I like being with you, and if I go to sleep ye might be gone when I wake up and even if you aren’t, I’ll have missed all that time.”
“What do you want to talk about?” Claire asked, almost as thrilled by his candidness as she had been by his several bouts of eager, thorough, lovemaking – after the first time she’d finally given up caring about squeaks or Aaron.
“I don’t mind. Anything. You choose. Sometimes I don’t sleep much anyway and I like to hear ye talk. Even if you do sound kind of funny.”
Claire decided to ignore this and concentrated on coming up with a conversation opener. She found herself thinking about the bed and then about the film.
“Doesn’t Aaron have…like…really young girlfriends in here?” she asked. The age of his companions did not make any difference to the unwashed state of the bed of course – it was nasty whoever had left it like that – but now she was lying in it again it was hard to get out of her mind.
Joe laughed. “Isn’t that grand now? Choose any topic of conversation in the world I say, and what do you come up with? Me mate’s love life! Don’t worry yourself,” he continued reassuringly. “I don’t know where ye’d get that from, but it’s not true. Aaron would never go with a schoolgirl, nothin’ like that.”
“Yeah, but a schoolgirl’s like about twelve years old to you, right?”
In the darkness behind her Joe sounded puzzled.
“I don’t know Claire! The girls he goes courting, I reckon some of them are maybe fourteen, fifteen? Old enough to wed. What’s it to you?”
“And Aaron is how old?”
“Twenty-three, maybe twenty-four?”
“Well, it’s just a bit off, isn’t it?” Although scandalised, in the face of Joe’s incomprehension, she could go no further than this rather inadequate expression. Fourteen year olds lured into bed and even marriage by what must seem to them like old men? It was disturbing to realise that this point was one of those gulfs between them that would take time and effort to bridge.
“How old are you?” asked Joe suddenly. Clearly he couldn’t be seeking to reassure himself that she was underage – whatever that might be, eleven or something - so Claire assumed it was idle curiosity.
“I’m twenty-three too. How old are you?”
“Me? I’m twenty-two, and before ye ask, I don’t mess with schoolgirls neither. You can see for yerself - I’m spendin’ the night here being taken advantage of by an older woman.”
Claire was surprised. If Joe ever displayed any naivety it was inevitably a result of the unfair knowledge-advantage that she possessed. Mostly he was very sure of himself, sometimes alarmingly so – touching once on his anger had been enough for her – and she had assumed from this that he was older than her.
There was a pause.
“So Claire, tell me then.” Another pause. “What year were you born?”