Claire was thunderstruck. Last time they’d met, Joe had told her that he accepted she must have a good reason for refusing to discuss anything personal about herself, so she'd assumed that his easy acceptance of her unexpected appearance at Aaron’s had been deliberate. It was unlikely he’d been able to put it out of his mind entirely she reasoned, but he’d certainly kept to the spirit of her request. For her part, her resolve to keep what she knew from him was undiminished. Unless she was able to change the outcome for him, what right did she have to strip him of all hope? Besides, his belief in the reality he inhabited was unshakeable. How could she expect him to accept that as far as the rest of her world was concerned, he didn’t exist? Far easier not to begin to go there.
His question hung in the air. Her first thought was to do some hasty sums and lie to him, but the problem with that was that she had only the haziest idea of the year in this place. She knew the events depicted in the film took place around the late 1870s, but since she was not, strictly speaking, in a historic place, she couldn’t be sure that was true. No, best hedge around it and pray he dropped the subject.
“I’m sure you were good at arithmetic at school,” she suggested.
Joe’s fingers didn’t pause in endeavours with her hair. “I was,” he said, and she could tell by his voice that he was smiling. “But you’re almost as smart as I am.”
Now what exactly did he mean by that, Claire wondered. She feigned a yawn. Joe, undeterred or unconvinced, tried another tack.
“C’mon Claire. Tell me now, that day we first met, there you were, lyin’ on the ground, bang on the head, and yet the first thing ye say is me name. If you were from round here, I’d know someone what knows you, but I don’t. All the same you knew me. What’s it all about?”
“You’re famous!” she suggested.
“'Infamous' is the word you’re looking for there lass. But it’s not as if they have a likeness of me to put in the papers. Besides, in that case, why did you keep saying I was a dream? I don’t know about you but I’ve never seen or touched a dream the way I see and touch you. Nor a ghost neither.”
Claire rolled over to face him and then sat up, pulling the sheet around herself. Evasiveness and jokes obviously weren’t going to do the trick. She would have to spell it out to him.
“Look Joe, I told you before - if I could tell you, I would, but I can’t. I know there’s stuff you don’t talk to me about either, things you keep to yourself. I don’t go asking you all about that, so why can’t you do the same for me?”
She paused to let this point sink in, hoping her growing agitation wasn't obvious to him. Paradoxically, the more intimacy they developed, the more of an enigma she was becoming to him. She had to draw a line between them that he would not cross, but she had no idea how she might accomplish this.
“You said,” she continued, deploring a hint of anxious whine in her voice, “That I was a good person who must have a good reason. Well I do! You’ll just have to believe that. Please stop asking me.”
Joe, still on his back, looking up at her, raised his hands in a gesture of surrender.
“Alright! I’m sorry! Ye can’t blame me for askin’!” he said, but he sounded amused and he was tugging at her arm in an invitation to lie down again. Apparently he still wasn’t taking her seriously enough.
“I’m not blaming you,” she persisted, pulling her arm away, “But I am deadly serious. You have to promise me you won’t do it again. It’s just that…”
Tears began to prickle her eyes. Shit. She wanted to be strong and firm, yet here she was about to weep and beg him. Surely there must be a happy medium between assertiveness and tearful desperation?
But Claire had underestimated Joe, and without realising it she had played her trump card. Certainly he wanted very much to know what she was hiding from him, but the sight of her fighting back tears was too much. If the price of her secrets was her obvious distress, then he couldn’t do it. He struggled up on his elbows into a sitting position and put his arms around her.
“Hey, Claire! C’mon, please don’t cry about it! If it upsets ye like that, on me honour I won’t ask again. I’ll make you yer promise about that. Please stop.”
“I’m not crying,” lied Claire into his shoulder, even though he must have been able to feel the smudgy, blotted tears on his skin. “But I do mean it. Seriously. I won’t talk about it.”
Joe leaned away and looked directly at her. For once as he studied her, there was no wry half-smile dashed across his features. Instead, his gaze fiercely pierced the fog of half-truths and evasions and private thoughts that swirled between them. It was impossible to look away. Under her fingers, his muscles were tense with concentration. This, she thought, was how you forced someone to pay you attention. Never mind pointing a gun at them, this look was a far superior weapon. She swallowed nervously and waited for him to speak again.
“I’ve had to tell a few folk myself that it’s, uh, in their best interests to stop askin’ questions,” he said in a low voice, never taking his eyes off her. Claire had no idea what he was talking about, but she felt certain that most people after such an instruction from Joe, would probably never again so much as seek the time of day from a fellow human being.
“I reckon if they can do it, I can too,” he was saying. “I’ve done some terrible things Claire, things that will keep me awake at night the rest of me life, however short that is. So because of that I’ve got nothin’ I can give ye other than me word. I won’t ask you again. Sure there’s things I don’t tell you neither, but that’s not all about secrets. Leastways, not my secrets. Some things I just don’t want to talk about when I’m with you. I want to be away from it all sometimes.”
His sincerity in wanting to demonstrate his integrity was so tangible that Claire half expected him to parcel it up and place it in his hand. The glimpse it gave of a life lived in the shadow cast by disapproval and distrust was heart-rending. Poor Joe. Here he was, lost in the middle of other people’s opinion of him. For some he was a hero, carrying the weight of their expectations. To others he was a villain without merit as a person. She regarded him sadly.
The light in his eyes blazed a little less fiercely, his face visibly relaxed and he added in his normal voice,
“We don’t have to tell each other everything to have a fine time, do we?”
“No, we don’t,” said Claire weakly, feeling scorched by the emotion of the last few minutes. Having put his honour on the line and offered his word, Joe seemed to almost instantly feel the matter closed, but for her it was not so easy.
She tried to think of the perfect thing to say next. I love you sprung to mind, but somehow that felt inappropriate. If she told him that, it set up certain expectations, and the last thing he needed was another person he felt wanted something from him. Best to keep that particular little fact to herself. Instead they sat in silence for a few moments, neither quite sure how to move the conversation on, until finally Claire fell back on an old favourite.
“Tell me what you’re thinking.”
Joe laughed, a natural laugh, tinged with relief.
“What is it with women and always wanting to know what yer thinkin’? I dunno, nothin’ much really. Why, what are you thinkin’?”
Claire hastily pushed aside all incipient declarations and thoughts of beautiful jaw lines and drowning in eyes, and decided instead to confess to a little fantasy she often had.
“Only something stupid,” she told him with a timid smile. ““Sometimes, I know this is silly, but sometimes when I think about you I really think…” she trailed off wistfully.
“Think what?” Joe, intrigued, was paying proper attention now, mischief returning to his expression.
“What a good time we’d have if we could go somewhere, you and me.”
“How do you mean?”
She paused. What exactly did she mean? People like Joe, even if they weren’t being hunted by the police, didn’t really go out in the way she and her friends might. A hotel was a place with a basic bar, maybe the chance of a bit of a dance, not a luxury spa resort for a weekend mini-break. To Joe, shopping was the means of acquiring the necessities of life he was unable to provide for himself, not a leisure pursuit. Country rides and walks would hardly appeal, and most other activities she could think of barely had an equivalent here. As her mind ran through all the things that Joe didn’t, or couldn’t do, she wasn’t sure if she envied or pitied him.
“Just out somewhere,” she finished lamely.
He looked at her with affection. “Somewhere like we might go together seein’ as we’re… courting?”
“Is that what we’re doing? Courting?” asked Claire playfully.
Joe made a show of looking around the room, at the bed they sat in, their state of undress.
“I don’t know lass,” he said with mock seriousness. “What do you think? I know you’ve other words ye might prefer to use, but I don’t think me poor old mother would like to hear them now, would she? ‘Hello Ma, meet Claire. Me and her, we’re…’”
“Stop it!” laughed Claire, pushing him back down onto the mattress. “Maybe that’s why I would like to go somewhere with you. So it’s not just…that.”
“Where shall we go then?” he asked, linking his hands behind his head and stretching out his elbows as he prepared to enjoy her answer.
“Apart from it being four in the morning, that is, and me not in the way of being able to walk with you on me arm through Beechworth and take ye out for tea, anyways. And I don’t think the bars I visit would be very…suitable. Besides, I don’t have any money.”
He reached over the edge of the bed, retrieved his trousers and felt through the pockets, sliding the coins he found around in his palm to count them.
“Well, I’ve fourpence ha’penny if that helps. Yer welcome to help me spend that.”
“It’s not about it costing money,” said Claire, hastily and truthfully, although also secretly reflecting on how wonderful it would be to stroll down a busy street arm in arm with Joe, watching the girls turn green as they passed by.
Joe opened his mouth to reply, but at that very moment their conversation was cut short by a loud thumping against the wall, or possibly the door, of the hut. Before she could work out which, a voice, outside but uncomfortably nearby, bellowed out,
“Oi! Sherritt! Get the kettle on man. Thirsty work out here.”
Joe’s response was impressive. The sound of the knocking was still dying on the night air as he sprung up, shouldering the braces to his trousers and snatching up his gun. He moved to the corner of the room where he stood, breathing a little faster than usual but otherwise apparently composed. Claire, slower off the mark, made to follow him but he held his hand up and shook his head warningly. Aaron appeared at the doorway. He too was dressed only in his trousers. In his arms he carried the rest of his clothes together with the bottle and glasses from the night before. Claire watched a frantic, wordless conversation of nods and glances take place between the two of them as he thrust the bundle onto the bed and bent to pick up the rest of the clothes from the floor.
“Just a moment now Constable,” he called loudly over his shoulder. Will ye keep it down a bit out there? I’ve company that doesn’t need waking.”
Claire threw a panicked glance at Joe, but he seemed unperturbed by the comment. Aaron was now unceremoniously dumping all their clothes on the bed and rolling the whole lot under a blanket. She cringed at the sight of her discarded underwear in his large, square hand, but he seemed oblivious both to that and to the fact that she was sitting naked in his bed, the sheet clasped to her chest in an attempt to both preserve modesty and remind herself to breathe. As he turned to clump out of the room he gestured unsmilingly at her to get up.
Claire had never before experienced fear as such a pure, energised emotion. Quite unable to respond to Aaron’s instruction, she sat rigid in the bed. From the moment she had first met Joe, her main fear had been that he and his surroundings were figments of her imagination that might disappear at any moment. Now all of a sudden, she knew with shameful certainty that if she could pinch herself and guarantee waking up in her own bed she would. Unfortunately, just as the most fervent yearning always failed to bring her here, the reverse was also true. For good or bad – and she was aware it could get very bad indeed - she was marooned at least for now in this time and place. She flicked panicky eyes towards the corner where Joe stood but he was staring grimly ahead and didn’t notice.
She forced herself to concentrate. Outside she could hear that two, maybe three men had come into the hut. They were stomping about, apparently in an effort to get warm. There was the sound of the fire being stoked, of presumably, Aaron, setting the kettle to boil and much gruff conversation.
“Now boys, you know if I had a drop of brandy to warm ye up, ye’d be welcome, but sadly it’s tea you’ll have to make do with.”
“Ah that’s fine Aaron. It’s cold enough out there I can tell you.”
Then more casually,
“So what brings you up here tonight then lads?”
“Oh you know, reported sightings of Byrne in the district. Don’t know I believe it myself, but they have to be seen to do something don’t they, so it’s another freezing night in the open. Might as well be hoping to run into Graham Berry himself out here.”
“Aye well, that’s true enough lads. Now I did hear tell they’d been seen back across the river the last day or two, but it’s all rumour isn’t it?”
“You’ve not seen him then?”
“I have not.”
“And of course you’d tell us if you had.”
There was much laughter at this comment. Claire glanced uncomfortably at Joe, but he seemed intent on listening, wiping his nose on the back of his hand, his eyes fixed sharply on the curtain.
“And in the meantime while we’re sat out there like fools, you’re tucked up here with all the creature comforts. Not to mention female company?”
This last remark heralded a few ribald asides, plus sniggering from all three men. Claire shuddered.
“Well, she was asleep, but what with the devil’s noise out here, I don’t suppose she still is. Claire?”
Claire looked at Joe in horror. Surely she wasn’t expected to go out there, wrapped in a sheet to be inspected by the local constabulary? Despite his predicament, Joe smiled at her expression and nodded his head. He pointed to the curtain and indicated that she should peer around it to confirm her presence.
She had often wondered if she’d ever get the chance to do something to help Joe, and if she did, what it might entail. It was fair to say, however, that her fantasies had involved less fear, more clothes and perhaps something that played more to her strengths than pretending to be Aaron Sherritt’s latest conquest. Still, there was nothing for it. Swallowing nervously, she shuffled forward, ferociously gripping the sheet to her and trying to avoid tangling her feet in the trailing lengths. She took a deep breath and poked her head through the curtain.
In front of her and slightly to one side stood Aaron, beyond him two men. One sat in the chair, the other leaned up against the chimneybreast. As she’d listened to their conversation, her fear had sketched a mental picture of a couple of burly types, armed to the teeth and with the investigative instincts of sniffer dogs. One glance at her face, she had felt sure, would be enough to tell them that Joe was stood behind her in the darkness. Instead, they turned out to be rather poor specimens, pale and soft looking. The one in the chair sprawled in his seat, his long legs stealing floor space and suggestive of a lanky man somewhat over six feet in height. The other, who sported an unlikely bushy beard on a baby face, was shorter and broader, but plump rather than muscular. They both regarded her with frank interest as Aaron turned to her, placed one hand on her bare shoulder and kissed her on the lips. His eyes were dead, nothing in their expression or in the frankness of the kiss suggested anything of the charade, but there was a pressure in his fingers that begged for her compliance, and a faint sheen of sweat across his brow. Claire wondered if he could feel her heart thumping in her chest.
“Go back to bed love,” he told her. She nodded. Should she respond with some further gesture of affection she wondered, or would that be overplaying the moment? As she turned away, Aaron patted her bottom affectionately, provoking a guffaw from the standing man.
Grateful to be concealed again behind the curtain, Claire sat down on the bed, heedless of the noise it made. She stared in the darkness until her eyes ached as if this could help her ears catch every nuance of the conversation and maybe hasten the departure of the two men. Behind her, Joe remained standing, presumably prepared to shoot someone over her head. Being literally in the line of potential fire made her feel sick. What would happen if she died in this place? Would her family ever know what had happened? A whimper rose to her lips and she rolled them tightly inward to stifle it. As she did, she felt Joe’s warm hand come to rest on the back of her neck and his thumb began to circle against her skin, reassuring and intimate. Without turning, she reached behind her head and grasped his fingers, squeezing them as if she could offer him some comfort too, and they remained like that, silent and unmoving for what seemed like hours until the two men finished their tea and took their leave.