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caught with a sheep

It being spring we worked liked billy-o that next week, scraping and pulling at that earth, kidding ourselves that THIS year it was gonna make us something to spare. I worked as good as the boys, well I put me back into it anyhow, the grit under me fingernails and the ache in me muscles stood testament to that. And I seem to recall that despite the futility of it, I enjoyed meself, messing about with Sean, joking with me Da, and falling into bed right after supper without even taking me dress off. Funny enough, it made me feel better too, solid, like I knew what I was doing and the rest of it was in God’s hands, not that He’d showed us any great favours up to now. I did all I could to keep Maggie and Joe out of me mind, but all the same, I could have cried to think of her so upset. And him, well he just invaded me dreams whether I asked him to or not.

On the Wednesday I think it was, me Da says we need the hoes and knives sharpened and do we all want to come to town with him as he had heard the tinkers were there. In truth I think he wanted a drink since I was a dab hand with the sharpening stone, but of course we jumped at the chance. Me Ma put on what passed for her best dress and bonnet, she flattened down Sean’s hair with a dab of spit on her hand, and we set off.

Beechworth always seemed like a huge place, dusty streets lined with wood-fronted houses, most of them with a porch so as when it rained you could walk along the planks and not sink into the bog that the street became. But that day was bright and fresh, a proper dose of sunshine in the air, and it was like the whole town turned out. We had to wait an age for the tinker to get to our bundle, wrapped in an old shawl the knives were, all bent and blunt. Me Da gave the tinker a copper coin out of his pocket though, feeling generous and full of hope me Da was, spring being like that.

Me Ma took Sean and Mary off to the haberdasher’s for some cotton thread. We were in need of some new clothes for sure, but it seemed she had it set in her mind that with a few more “stitches in time” the clothes we had would last us awhile longer yet. Me mind was just wandering as I sat next to Da on the steps across the way when I heard me Ma’s voice across the street, “Maggie O’Shea! And how are you? Well, I hope. And you’ve been looking after my Evie.”

I swear me stomach turned a somersault right there and then. I looked to see, and if I didn’t flush bright red right then, it was a miracle. He was standing there with Maggie. “Evie! Evie, look who’s here now!” Me Ma was speaking from across the road, I could see her mouth moving, but I couldn’t quite hear her for the sound of me blood pumping at the sight of him again.

She was beckoning for me to come say hello, and I knew I had to do it. I was wincing every step—for the way I had left Maggie, for the fact I had watched them, and even more because I thought he would see it in me face. I once read about people walking the plank, a kiddie’s book when I was trying me best to put letters and sounds in order, and that’s what it felt like, walking straight across the street only to plunge deep down.

And I nearly did. Joe…Christ, the sun was on his face and setting it in a glow, setting off the darkness of his eyes, his hair, and his lashes. His hands were deep in his pockets, and for the life of me, I couldn’t stop images of the look of his skin and his arms and his mouth at her breast, and the sound of him on top of her from flashing into my mind.

“Hello there, Maggie,” me Da’s voice bringing me back somehow, “and Joseph. Well now, if that’s not a turn up. Will you give me best wishes to yer mother?” Well me head spun round quick as a flash, how did me Da know his name?

“Aye, that I will when I next see her.” Joe’s voice was so soft I could feel it, that and some bristle of skin and hair between me Da and him. But Joe was looking at me—weighing me with some other scales, only I didn’t know what the measure was. All I did know was that his gaze was making me feel hotter than I should have been.

Me Ma, who never could stand a silence however full it was already, was intent on jamming it with all sorts of words that I can’t now recall, but all I wanted was for Maggie to hear me out, to forgive me for leaving her crying and all, and for him to stop looking like that, stop being so beautiful in the sun, so that I could get on with the job of thinking about what a terrible thing he was doing to Maggie to make her so sad.

At last me Ma stopped, but her swansong just about knocked me off my feet. “Well I expect you will be having our Evie to stay again next Saturday, will you?”

I watched it like it was a dream I needed to pinch myself awake from but couldn’t move me fingers. I watched the frown pull his eyebrows together and saw the questioning look he threw at Maggie before he spoke, “Well now, Mrs. McBride, are you sure you’re not mistaken?”

Me Ma looked directly at him. “I can assure ye, Joseph Byrne, that I know exactly where my daughter spends her nights. The same cannot be said of your poor mother, I hear.”

“Ah now, Cathleen, there’s no need…the lad’s grown,” me Da trying to stop her flow.

But Joe, well he must have picked it up from the pleading in mine and Maggie’s eyes of “Jesus, don’t say anymore,” and anyways cautious of stepping into a bog he was just beginning to see the edge of, he just nodded his head down for a second, “I am sure you do, Mrs. McBride. Sure it was me who got the day wrong.”

“That will be all that stuff you and those yeller men…”

But me Da had had enough. “Cathleen! Evie, you and Mary take yer mother and Sean home will you? I have some business with Tom.”

Me Da was already eyeing up the door to the bar where Michael and Jimmy were standing waiting for the turn of the key when me Ma opened her mouth, but I cut her off, “Aye, of course.” She wasn’t about to row in front of Brenda O’Shea’s daughter, and you could almost see the wheels turning in her mind about the things that might be whispered should she accuse me Da in public of been a drunk. “Good bye, Maggie.” I sent her the friendliest smile I could muster, but just a flash of me eyes at Joe.


It was too late into the night to think, but there I was awake and staring up at the ceiling, puzzling through me head that maybe Maggie thought it worth the tears to be with Joe that way, when I heard me Da and the boys winding across the rise that leads to our shack. By the sounds of it, Michael was worse for wear, and the other two intent on waking the dead. I could hear loud sshhes as they neared the door and I snuck out of me bed to light them a lamp or two. The walls were wood and hessian, and I had no desire for us all to go up in flames. “Ah Evie, that’s me girl!”

Da always got like that, and in truth, I didn’t mind at all, at least he was happy, it was better than those dark, depressed moods of his. He fell back into the chair, his boots covered in mud now all over the floor. “Jimmy will you help?” I called, but it was pointless, me brothers about fit for nothing, half asleep already, and off to bed.

“Oh, will you leave it, Evie, and see if there’s any ale left in the pantry, will ye girl?”

To my surprise there was one bottle left, his ‘in case of trouble’ supply I don’t doubt, and I handed it to him and brought a smile to his face. I knew this was it, the time to ask, when I could do no wrong, well at least I hoped as much. We exchanged a few words about how it had been in the town, and then I just blurted it out, “What do you know of Joe Byrne, then Da?” I thought I had blown it, his eyes looking intent and no sound from his mouth, “Only you know, Maggie and him are courtin’ it seems.”

He looked for all the world like I had just told him he had inherited the bar at Beechworth. “Well I am not sure that I know anything much, lass.” I thought that might be it, but me Da hadn’t finished, like it had taken a few seconds for his mind to cast back and settle down someplace other than now. “I remember now, he was a bright lad. Patrick said he was the sharpest in the class, ‘specially at reading, though that’s when he wasn’t out nicking with that friend of his, Aaron.”

I couldn’t help but smile to meself. So he wasn’t just handsome then. I think I had kind of guessed that anyways, well that and I had a picture in my mind of a boy with curls and dirty knees. But me Da sat forward all of a sudden, “Wait a minute now,” his brow furrowed, “I heard he just done 6 months in Beechworth Gaol, him and Sherrit for stealing a cow. Rough place that mind, Lass.” His thoughts searching back further, “That’s right, bastard coppers done them for ‘illegal possession of meat.’”

The look on me Da’s face I couldn’t right work out, so I just nodded and hoped he would go on. “Anyway, I knew his father, Evie, back in the ol’ country. Did I never tell ye?” and then I knew I was in for a night’s worth of all the tired eyes you could imagine.

“No, you never did.” I pulled me legs up under me and the blanket tighter round me shoulders and looked back at him straight. “Well I know there was that thing with the sheep stealing an all but not much more.”

Me Da kind of grimaced. “Ah well, you see Evie, that wasn’t the whole story.” His voice lowered a bit, “But you know what your mother is like, she’d rather have an adjectival sheep thief for a husband than…well…” I could see his mind wandering off over flashes of arguments and bitterness and disappointment.

Me eyes must have been as big as saucers, all kinds of things running through me mind, “Than what, Da?”

“Well, the thing is lass, I did steal a sheep or two, there’s hardly a soul that didn’t, hardly a table that wasn’t laid with ill-gotten gains from someplace. Some of us got caught and some didn’t, but the reason them coppers was after me was because of other reasons,” a conspiratorial glance around the room like there was someone hiding behind the door, “it were more a question of politics.”

Quite frankly, if he had said it were on account of Queen Victoria’s direct say so, it would have made more sense to me. “What do you mean, Da?”

He took a swig of beer and looked at me straight. “You’re a good girl, Evie, know when to keep quiet. Yer mother would have me guts for garters, but I will tell ye anyways.”

“I met Patrick Byrne years before I was so graciously sent for this little trip by Her Majesty, the Queen of England.” The words almost spat out of his mouth, and I was just mesmerised, like as I was on the brink of something to see me Da so suddenly agitated. “Patrick’s father himself was deported out here long before. He’d been a rebel of sorts too, and the powers that be thought it better to let him go do his agitating on the other side of the world, more convenient wouldn’t you say? Anyways the rest of the family struggled on, Patrick said, though the landlords got greedier and greedier. These squatters that we have to put up with now, well they learned well the lessons from the old country about how to tie a man down to the land and then rub his face in the dirt.”

I could see me Da tense in the chair, he couldn’t look at me, and all I could think to do was just wait, another swig and he started again. “Soon as he was of an age, Patrick left County Carlow and came to Dublin. Well the countryside was no place to stay if you had two legs and half a brain, thousands dead from the famine and nothing save pious ‘you get your reward in heaven’ from the pulpit, bloody hypocrites they were. That’s where I met him, in Dublin, 1848 I think it were. He got a job on the docks and we just fell in with each other, in the beginning just drinking mates, and then, well the unions started organising in the docks, fellas campaigning for a vote were always round, and the Irish rebels were making a noise too, and we got drawn into it all.”

Me Da smiled, “Aye that we did, Lass. That’s when I determined meself to try and read, we had that many leaflets and papers and all, I wanted to find out what it all meant. All I did know was that we weren’t paid enough to feed ourselves, and that the bastards that owned the ships were swanking round town in smart clothes and with fat bellies whilst we worked like dogs in the holds of ships that were like adjectival tombs.”

“The next year though Patrick tells me that his Da has sent for him, wants his sons in Australia. I watched him sail off, I did, thought I’d never see him again neither. Anyways over the next few years we gave the bastards a bit of a run for their money sometimes and other times they would knock us for six. We heard stories of uprisings and trouble from all over, those lot in France at it again, and across the water in Manchester, that’s in England lass, they were fighting with coppers on the streets. By the time 1855 came, I was well known, people used to come to me room to find out when the next meeting would be and such, and that’s when I got caught with the sheep.”

Just a moment it took and then me Da laughed out loud and I did too at thoughts of sheep running round a tiny room.  “Course it wasn’t alive, just meat that was being shipped out that I had helped meself to, well I had nothing…”

He looked at me like he needed an excuse, and I almost burst into tears, “Da…”

But then his face turned, “I can hear the bastard now, ‘We got yer Seamus McBride,’ and see the smiles on their faces. If there’d not been four of them, I swear I would have killed him there and then.”

“Anyways, I was well and truly done for, deported out here in 1855, the 4th of August it were on The Havering bound for new South Wales under Captain John Fenwick,” he spat into the grate as he said it. “We docked that November, and I found me way here to Beechworth by asking around.” His eyes smiling again, “I couldn’t believe I had found Patrick again in this god forsaken hole, but I did, and with a wife too, Margaret. She was a pretty lass, and if I remember right, soon after I arrived she was expecting her first born, your Joseph.”

Me Da sat back in his chair, whisked away in his thoughts to a dark time much later. “Was a terrible day for sure when Patrick died, leaving his Margaret with all those young uns. Joseph can only have been about 10 years of age. Of course, me and yer ma tried to help as best we could, but Margaret’s had it hard, and I don’t suppose her eldest gallivanting off with those Chinese fellas nor getting himself caught by the coppers has made it easier on her.” Me Da stopped for a bit and took a breath. “And yer mother means well, Evie, but Tom says the lad is a bit of a scallywag. I reckon Maggie would be better off with our Michael.”

Luckily it was dark by now so he didn’t see me blush, but me Da’s thoughts had moved on.
“See if there’s anymore of them beers out there, will ye Evie? All that talking has fair dried me out.”

Well I scampered out to look in the store as fast as I could, not even the beginnings of questions ripe in me mind, I was just reeling from it all. It took me a while, searching in the dark with me thoughts not quite on it, and by the time I got back me Da was snoring in the chair. I swept up the mud around his feet, whatever else I knew he didn’t need a row from me Ma in the morning over mud, and I ran to get me blanket to cover him with.

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