|I'd Trade All My Tomorrows For One Single Yesterday
Though I didn’t know it right then, the Police special train back to Benalla had already left Glenrowan carrying Superintendent Hare, the wounded Ned Kelly, and the body of my Joe. I had left the Flannigans far behind and was standing in the middle of mud and guns and wafts of smoke and people, grabbing anyone I could to tell me where he was. There were too many shaking heads, too many sad eyes, and too many confused questions about “what should we do now?” as the coppers hauled people off for me to hold onto anything but a thin shred of hope. I got plenty of pieces to put together, about the coppers firing on women and children, how the armour that had the traps thinking they were fighting the bloody Monitor itself, about how the train hadn’t been derailed on account of that effin’ bastard Curnow, but nothing about what I was almost screaming for, “What about Joe?...Where’s Joe Byrne?”
“He’s dead, love, I saw them pull him out of there meself, before the flames took a hold, it were. Joe Byrne dead, now I’d not have thought it was possible, he could do anything, they said. Did yer know him then?” I can hear that voice in me head right now.
I couldn’t speak, just sank down into the water and the dirt and stared at the place he went, rocking and wiping me face, screaming in me head and cursing him. Joe should have let me…what?…should have let me do what? Well I didn’t know—stand in front of him, make him take me someplace different, love him one more time, let me hold his hand when he got hit…anything, anything, just so this wasn’t how this day would have begun. I couldn’t let me mind even touch it, not even the edge of the fact that he had gone and he had left me alone. Joe…he hadn’t had me there to hold him when he needed me most of all, and the grief of it split me heart in two. I would have laid down and died there too if I could have got me body to do what I wanted.
More and more people was arriving, coppers from all over New South Wales and Victoria and our folk too. There were legs brushing past me, some people trying to lift me up, but I couldn’t even think of standing up until there were shouts. People were shouting at the coppers to “give them back” and I half crawled and half stumbled to see, just a flicker of hope that maybe it was him. The rain had done a good job of dousing the flames and I had to turn me face away from what was emerging from the smoking pile of the Glenrowan Inn, two bodies…the coppers had two blackened bodies.
“Yer bastards...you’ll not have them too! Give us back Steve Hart and Dan Kelly!” There was movement all round me, a push of people that I stumbled away from and watched through a blur. People were shouting and pressing coppers who were unprepared for them. A wave of anger took the two Australian sons back home, two black lumps wrapped tenderly in blankets and spirited away, but Ned and Joe, well they were gone to who knows where.
Hours passed and I didn’t know to move. Well I was shivering and crying, just sitting there with no idea what I would do in the next minute apart from just exactly that, never mind the rest of me life. I couldn’t see how it would even have a shape without him.
“Evie, thank Christ I found yer.”
Holy Jesus! Aye, I know what you are thinking- I wished it were him too.
But it were just Jimmy behind me, his hands pulling me up. “Ma sent me to bring you home, the news is all over Victoria, and she said to bring back that horse belonging to the Crawfords too, says she will never live it down having a thief for a son, a husband, and a daughter too.” Me Ma, she sent Jimmy to get me, and a message too—me Da WERE a thief and she married him all the same, because she loved him.
Jimmy could have taken me anywhere, I didn’t really notice the direction until we approached our selection and I had to shut my eyes to stop meself from seeing the tree on the rise. Before I went through the door I begged him to go and get me stuff from Beechworth, no chance I would still have a job anyhow, even if I wanted to go back there, but what I did want was Joe’s letter and that egg. I think Jimmy would have jumped in the creek if he thought it would help, he could see me heart breaking, and he rode off to do me bidding.
The hours, days, and weeks that followed were like half living. Sometimes I would go for an hour without me heart being ripped out of me because I would not hear Joe’s voice ever again, and sometimes I would wake up in the morning and have a moment of bliss before I remembered the world didn’t have him in it anymore. But most times I didn’t, there were no let up in the rage and sadness I felt, I were completely powerless to stop it. And he wasn’t coming back no matter how much I cried or wailed. God weren’t gonna take pity on me and send Joe back.
Me Ma didn’t say much at first. She let me be, cooked for me, and let me lie in bed sometimes when there weren’t work to be done. But, well, she held me up for those demonstrations that followed, she let me cry all night in her arms, and she let me know that she weren’t really disappointed in me. Oh, she was never a woman to say she were wrong, and maybe she wasn’t really—she knew from the start who Joe was, and like any mother, she wanted to stop me from getting to precisely where I was right then. But now that it were done, she took him into her heart too. She were the one that added his name to our family’s prayers, and though I never went back to visit Father O’Donohue, Joe were mentioned on me mother’s insistence at mass.
Me Da, well he tiptoed round me, patting me hand and looking at me with those sad old eyes of his that made me weep some more. Between me and Maggie, there weren’t nothing we could say. I stayed with her sometimes, just because we both needed to hold on, we talked about him and cried together and to be truthful, I needed to be where he had been. I can’t tell ye how much I missed him, how much I wanted him back, how much I still do.
But I am getting all mixed up now. Benalla it was, that was where they took Ned and Joe to after Glenrowan. Ned was shot to hell, but they needed to save him so they could hang him…make us see him hang. I picked up more news as the weeks went on, more little details that I wanted desperately and didn’t want to know all the same. Rumours traveled fast in that web of Irish colonials, and I heard things that made me scream at God for letting it happen, for not striking them down for what they did to Joe.
Me Da burnt the paper that had a picture of Joe hung up like a dog outside Benalla police station. Aye they hung him up on a door and they tried to get a gun to stick in his hand, make him be an authentic outlaw for the photos, but Joe well he had a mind of his own even when he were dead it seemed, and he kept dropping it whilst they hoisted him up and down and tried to make it looked like he weren’t hanging. Those bastards! It were all about killing off our spirit, making us kowtow to them…I am glad I never saw it.
Me Da said an English artist there, fella by the name of Julian Ashton I think it were, turned his back to protest the barbarity of it, and well Mr. Ashton, if I had met him I would have shaken his hand for that small gesture, from the rest of us who couldn’t be there to stop them. I also heard that a woman ran up and hugged Joe’s body, pleaded with them to take him down, I don’t know who she was…Christ! I can’t bear to think of it, that beautiful man treated worse than an animal. I wish sometimes it had been me, that I had got to hug him, just for a moment, but well maybe she just carried us all with her that day, gave him a bit of love from us all, and I thank her for that.
Tom Lloyd he went to plead for Joe’s body, to bring him back home, but they already buried it, buried it behind the police station in a last insult to Joe, with none of us there to say goodbye. They even had the gall to say no one had claimed his body, but I am sure Ned won’t mind me quoting him, they were ‘the biggest thieves and liars the sun ever shone on,” and that’s how it was. Yes, we wanted Joe back and yet they buried him all the same, with no mark and no priest for whatever that was worth. They concluded in their joke of an inquest, which took all of a part of an afternoon that same day don’t yer know, that Joe’s death were a “lawful killing” and that was that. Aye they knew there were rumblings of discontent all over, and as I got me strength back I would be there too.
The police decided after all that they wasn’t gonna try and reclaim Steve and Dan’s bodies from their families…and it were an effin’ good job too, there’s no telling what would have happened. Whatever the coppers hoped to kill that day, besides my Joe and the rest of them, they didn’t succeed. Oh they were full of it then, how the wonderful police had caught Ned Kelly and put a stop to the gang. Well it were nothing like the truth, you’ve heard it from me own lips now, years it took, years where they didn’t know where Ned was gonna bite them next, the coppers had no hope of catching them until the gang themselves decided to put a stop to it.
But anyways the coppers was intent on revenge for all those years, and once they set the date for Ned’s trial, we started to organise ourselves. Meetings were held and lawyers were hired, though what good they did in the end I don’t know. The judge never even answered Ned’s charges at the trial. Two days it took, the trial, two days to condemn a man to death! And they weren’t intending on wasting any prison food neither, he were to be hanged 13 days later on Thursday, November the 11th, 1880. But the verdict of “guilty” well that got us moving alright, all over the colonies we had meetings and organised our people to get signatures on a petition demanding clemency for Ned.
Ah well, you can read all that elsewhere, there are plenty that remember the demonstrations and the procession. We collected 32,000 signatures asking for clemency, which when I think on it now, was a feat in itself. I even spoke at some of them meetings, me Da were so proud, and well I think me Ma too, though she didn’t say, but I could see her take his hand. But the law isn’t about justice, Joe knew that, and despite it all we were left to simply gather outside the gaol that morning, thousands of us there were, and be a witness to the hour of the murder of Ned Kelly. His last wishes for the release of his mother and to be buried in consecrated ground were denied him in a final act of their cruelty.
It were on that morning, in that crowd, where I was standing next to me Ma, that I was knocked sideways, the coppers pushing and shoving us, frightened they were that we would storm the gaol and take him back, even had extra gates built. Anyhow I were knocked sideways and onto the ground, and I could feel the box I was holding crush under me. I couldn’t move for dread of what I was going to find when I opened it…of course it were broken…little pieces of blue shell…the kerloo finally killed off that morning too, but wherever a soul goes to, well at least him and Ned, they went together.
Those next months there were something about us that were left being all together, I saw Kate and Maggie and Tom and even Mrs. Byrne on occasion, something about those that knew them being together, bringing us comfort. Ah and there were toasts and songs to the Kelly Gang every night it seemed in the Commercial, all over Victoria and New South Wales I don’t doubt, sometimes I sang them really loud too, and sometimes I just closed me eyes. We knew we wouldn’t forget, and it seems that the world didn’t either, that’s why you are here, isn’t it?
Anyhow will yer have some more tea? Aye well I know it’s yer favourite after all the time it has taken to tell yer this. You can see the egg now if you want, its here, along with Joe’s letter. I don’t open that letter much anymore for fear that the paper will tear, and well I don’t need to, I know it all by heart, I know the curve and shape of every word, the smell of the paper, his fingers held it and it is more precious to me than anything. Here, do you remember this bit?
My heart, my skin, my thoughts—they are all red raw, bruised, and in need of soothing. I can’t drink or smoke enough, and Christ, I have tried my best. All I can do while I sit here by this godforsaken dry creek listening for sound of hooves or guns is tell you what is in my head. I need to kiss you again, Evie, feel your skin under my fingers, and breathe that warm scent you have.
I always know where it is, this letter...I can’t speak a minute…
My Joe, well he weren’t ever just mine, he were ours—Ned’s, Steve’s, Dan’s, Maggie’s—ah Maggie, well that’s where I started this story. She told you how to find me so I could, didn’t you say? Anyhow Joe was also his mother’s and his sister’s, his brother’s and his Da’s too before they passed on, he belonged to all those other women he loved, and he was Aaron’s, I guess he were his too. He were a son of Australia and Ireland, and I wished he’d lived to see the uprisings all over the world, see ordinary shit kicker’s sons and daughters like us fight back some more, see how the world changed, sometimes for the better, and I wished he’d seen how him and Ned, Steve and Dan how they fitted into the tapestry of it all whether they knew it or not. Joe belongs to us all, all those lads do, none of them over 25 and Steve, well he were only 19, but they all made a difference.
Me Da, he lived to see a little, and he knew, he knew he had done something by stealing that sheep. He was a union man to the last! After we buried him I came here, worked me passage to America. I can’t tell ye the wonder in me eyes when I stepped off that boat, it were like the world was at me feet, no longer just in me head. I travelled west to where we are now, showed Joe a buffalo and all those ranches, showed him the lakes and the mountains and the clean new air. He would have been real happy.
Ah it hasn’t been all sugar and sweet flowers, I never got a house with stairs…Christ, I don’t think me shack here is much more than me Ma had, and well the Land of the Free, so it’s called, ain’t so free for some, but I got here, I brought him with me to America. I can see Joe sometimes when I ride hard across the plains, his curls all mixed with the air, his beautiful body braced against the wind, and the rushing speed of the horse…
Joe, he gave me something precious besides himself, he helped me be Evie McBride, be meself. He showed me how to stand tall, like he always did, and walk on this earth like I had every right to do so. He made me grab me life and me dreams and set sail to America. He could do anything, and he made you think you could too. He were a fire that burned bright and if you weren’t careful he would light you up too, ha, well you can’t say a better thing about a person than that!
Ah I will stop now, or else you will be moving in eh? Perhaps I just don't want to stop telling the story, for it to be done. I can’t tell you…I can’t say how much I wish I had one more time to touch his face or see him smile, just one more kiss…It is as keen as a knife still, but once more would never have been enough with Joe Byrne, he always left you wanting more. Aye well maybe I will send some money back one day, have that engraved on his headstone, he would have grinned at that. Will yer write that in yer book?...Ah grand, be good to leave it with him smiling.
People take flowers sometimes to his grave, so I hear, he would like that too…