|“And who was that I saw you with up on the
hill?” I can hear her even now, me Ma that is, looking up
from the pot hanging over the fire. She always had the ability to know
where you’d been, and what you’d been up to, only
this one time she just didn’t know who with. Trouble was he
seemed to have the ability to banish all the thoughts running through
me head and instead leave me smiling. I was standing in the doorway,
grinning like an idjut, thinking about the feel of him against me arm.
Christ, he’d had his hands so deep in his pockets that me arm
was resting on his hip, every bump in the road making contact, and
right now I couldn’t remember hardly a word he had said and I
was trying really hard. “Evie, will you answer me
“Joe…that was Joe Byrne,” and you would have thought I had said I was walking with the devil himself for the row she gave me. She carried on and on about “fellas like that” and what they wanted, and how could Brenda O’Shea let her daughter have anything to do with him, and how he was always off thieving horses and cattle, and how he had let good schooling go to waste, oh the list was endless, but mostly she went on about how he’d spoil me and I’d never get married proper after. Me “Oh Ma, don’t be acting daft,” only enraged her more, she even stopped stirring the stew to stand right in front of me. “You think I am daft, girl? Well I tell ye maybe I am, but I am not blind, that’s for sure nor deaf neither, and I know all about that Joseph Byrne, and don’t you be forgetting I know you, Aoife McBride. Cut from the same cloth as yer father, more’s the pity. Look for trouble and there you’ll find Seamus and Evie with Jimmy not far behind, I don’t doubt.”
Well, there was nothing I could say that would stop her, full pelt into me “crimes” which now I think on it were nothing more than refusing to be anyone other than meself, but then maybe for me Ma that was enough. After rivalling Father O’Donoghue on a Sunday—the church shoulda done itself a favour and let me Ma preach, she had enough hells bells and buckets of blood to fill many a congregation with fear—anyways, after all that she let me skulk off. I went to the fields and buried me head in that planting, but I was just waiting to get out of there, back to the bar, and if I am telling the truth, back to him.
Me and Maggie worked hard that night. The place was bursting with fellas and more than the usual number of coppers, you could feel the bristle in their beards though I hadn’t a clue why at the time. More and more people arrived until finally I asked Mr. O’ Leary what the occasion was. His face was a mixture of, well now, how to put it? He could see the till filling up and at the same time I couldn’t help wondering if he thought that maybe this was gonna be the last night he would make any money. “It’s Ned Kelly, lass. He just got out of jail, and the story is he is bent on celebrating in here tonight, and there being a whole bunch of folks who want to buy him a drink and a whole bunch who want to put him back there.”
The drums and the fiddles were building up tunes and letting them down again, competing with voices from all corners and from every table, and if it hadn’t been for those coppers sitting glaring in the corner, I am not sure you’d have found a better place. Hours seemed to pass in more and more rounds and tottering stacks of glasses and still there was no sign of him, and whilst everyone else was looking to the door for this Ned Kelly, my guilty glances were looking for dark curls and that smile of Joe Byrne’s.
I was down in the cellar fetching yet another crate—in truth I was taking a rest from work in the cool of the air, there were that many people in the bar it was hard to breath, well it was either that or the thought of him walking through that door at any moment—when I heard voices outside.
“That Kelly needs taking down a peg or two and no mistake.” I recognised the voice from someplace, full of whiskey and bitterness it was. A muffled response followed, and I squinted as if that would make me hear better somehow. I moved as quietly as I could to the doorway that led back up to the street when a sudden loud laugh almost made me leap out of me skin, and there was that voice again.
“Oh, I’ll get warrants alright, mind those thick fenians cannae read anyhow, so we’ll have no worries there.”
I could feel the hairs on the back of me neck rise, not sure whether to shout out “Oh yes we can, yer bastards,” but well, for once good sense got the better of me and I shut me mouth. They stopped laughing, and I couldn’t figure out what was happening, straining to hear, and then it was obvious.
“Here he comes now, acting like he owns the place. I tell ye he has only been out a couple of days and already the Kelly’s yard has more nags than it had a month ago. And I hear from Greta there are horses disappearing across the Murray into New South Wales. Him and his mates, that Tom Lloyd, Byrne, and Sherritt are behind it, I tell yer.”
A grunt from the other man, “Evidence is it we need, Alexander?” A gap in the conversation before I heard him again. “New to Victoria aren’t you, sonny? Well, they’ll not get away with it, I swear. Get one of those Chinese fellas, I will. One of them will confess to seeing Kelly rebranding them horses.”
I gave another start as a shout from upstairs broke the silence. “Will ye get up here, Evie? We are nearly drunk dry,” and I prayed the coppers hadn’t heard it too. By the time I got back up the steps I was met with a red-faced Mr. O’Leary and a redder-faced Maggie, though since she had Joe Byrne’s arm round her waist, I suspect it was for a different reason altogether. “About time too,” Tom flashed at me and waved a shoo to Maggie to get the drinks handed out to those thirsty hands waiting at the bar.
I just stared, only conscious of the door opening and I could finally put the face and the voice together—Constable Fitzpatrick, of course, with a younger copper whose name I didn’t know. I swear he fixed his eyes on me as he walked to the back of the bar, but then again it might just have been because, in the middle of all the movement, I was standing stock still. I couldn’t just go up to Joe and tell him what I had heard, those coppers’ eyes wouldn’t have missed a fourth leaf on a clover at 100 yards, but as I was thinking on it there was a shout from the dance floor.
“This one’s a request for Ned Kelly!” The band struck up and I watched a tall, loose-limbed man with the sort of strong body you got from hard work and not quite enough to eat spin a woman round the floor. Defiance in his eyes that reminded me of me Da that night he told me about the unions and the struggle back home and a smile that said he knew who he was in the world. I confess that I had a pang of sadness that you couldn’t quite say the same about me Da.
The dancing just got wilder, but by dodging the arms and legs and letting meself get spun around too I managed to behave like nothing had happened, like I didn’t have a thousand things raging in me head. I was loading another tray when Ned Kelly comes to the bar, a nod to me and then he holds out his hand to Tom O’Leary. I took me time swapping the glasses, seemed like this fella had some importance round here and at the very least he was Joe’s friend. “Well will you look at that, a full bar and the pumps still flowing. Quite a crowd you have in tonight, Tom.”
“Aye well, I want no trouble, Ned,” Tom leaning closer and I stopped breathing so as I could hear. “Between you and me I don’t like them drinking here either, but a bar is a bar, and you know they’d close me down if I refused them.”
“Well you’ll have no trouble from me,” Ned was so intent, and I have no doubt he knew I was listening, a crooked smile I just caught when I looked up to check if he knew I was there, “just here to enjoy myself. I met an old friend of yours as it happens, in the cells, he said to give you his regards.”
Tom looked more than a little bit alarmed, “A round on the house, it is then. Come now Evie, a drink for Ned here.” He gave me the sort of wink that held no threat nor suggestion as I handed him a pint, and he was off before I had a chance to say a single word.
At last I managed to at least get to speak to Maggie, hissing as we bent over a table to get the empties. “I have to speak to Joe, Maggie. I heard them coppers talking about him and Aaron and that other fella, something about a warrant.”
Maggie stopped moving for a second. “Christ, Evie, I don’t want him back in jail! Listen, will I tell him to meet you in the cellar? We are fair out of beer again anyhow.” Well I don’t think I need to tell you how that flushed through me, I swallowed hard and nodded. It would be easy for Maggie to talk to him, he wasn’t one to hide his affections it seemed, and the whole bar must have seen him with her.
I watched him bend to listen to Maggie’s whisper. Jesus, seeing him so close to her made me heart sink and soar at the same time…
ahh, even now he washes over me…
I saw his eyes search me out, just holding me for a second, I knew he would come. At once impressing Tom with me grasp of the depleting stock and at the same time me heart beating faster than clatter of wheels on those steam trains I heard about, I stepped down again into the dark damp cellar and leaned back against the cold wall, trying to stop me chest from rising and falling quite so much.
I was just beginning to think I had made a mistake, when I saw him come round the back door, a glance into all the corners of the cellar, even though he had already seen me. I think I said “I’m here” or something daft like that, and I swear I saw a little grin at the corner of his mouth but he was polite enough not to say “Well of course ye are.”
Instead he caught me arm and led me back to where it was blacker still. It wasn’t til me eyes grew accustomed that I could catch the lines of light on his cheek and the flash of his eyes as I looked up at him in front of me, a long way from that walk in the sun only this morning, in the dark now we were, just me and him and nothing else, and now I couldn’t quite breathe being so close to him.
Christ, he must have thought I was a soft in the head, I almost forgot to say anything. “Well what is it, lass? Maggie said you heard them coppers…” His eyes watching my face intent all the time I told him what I heard, little frowns between his brow, the skin around his jaw tightening, a shake of his head and the whisper of something I reckon was “bastards” on his lips. A nod when I had finished, just a moment before he spoke, “You’re a darlin’. If they think they got the better of us, they will have to think again.” A smile on his face, but I could tell he was miles away in the bush.
Well, God help me, whether he knew it right then or not, I had no notion of anything else but that his body was inches from mine, that I only had to move a little bit and he’d be against me. A magnet he was, and that is the only way I can think of to describe it, like he pulled me in just by standing there. But it was something like surprise that crossed his face when he looked down, like he just finished thinking about coppers and Chinese fellas and remembered I was there.
I didn’t know what to say and he seemed happy enough to reacquaint himself with me face, just a flick of his eyelashes to further down that I don’t think he meant me to see, and his hand moved to the wall behind me. Well me mouth went all dry, he was all around me, well that’s what it felt like any how, the warmth and the scent of his body hitting me as his jacket fell open. A flick of MY eyes down that, God help me, I am sure I did mean for him to see.
“Well now Evie, why would you be putting yourself out to help me and Ned and all?” He was teasing me and he knew I was sweating over me answer. “Granted I saved you from walking home with Aaron, and I didn’t tell yer Ma that it wasn’t just you and Maggie in that room upstairs…”
He let that hang in whatever room there was between us and no mistake, reminding me and himself of what I had seen, watching me squirm and look down at me boots, but for all the lies they ever printed about him, Joe was never one to see someone or something suffer for long. His fingers touched under me chin lifting me head up, brown eyes straight into mine. “Ah now, sure it’ll not be that,” another smile, “I heard yer old man has no love for coppers.”
And he bent to kiss me cheek, just stopping short of me skin. Jesus, I thought I might just reach up and pull him to me. He must've heard me breath catching, that was what he was waiting for, at last brushing his mouth over mine..
But he didn’t move away, not an inch, little kisses he gave me, little touches that I confess almost had me on my tip toes to reach for more. I never thought it would feel like that, he had hardly even kissed me! And then, Christ, the tip of his tongue was asking me…and I wanted nothing else right then. I had a last look into those eyes before I closed mine and parted me lips to let him.
Well, I might be doing him a disservice now if I made out like as if I did nothing except let him. I remember feeling his hand on me neck, non too soft hands just grazing across me skin, holding me so that his kisses could get deeper into me mouth, but in truth I was holding on too, caught up in what felt like a flash flood down the creek after a summer storm, taking half the bank and everything with it, grabbing the cloth of his jacket so as I didn’t get washed away from him.
His kisses..I have reason to pause still now.. the feel of his tongue pressing inside me mouth and how he tasted of the bush in the heat of a summer evening, scorched earth, and wild grass, well that all mixed up with beer and that tobacco he smoked. I could feel myself burning, and willingly throwing it all in to the fire
I felt his other hand slide down me back, and draw me into him, I know I made some noise in the second when me hips felt his, but then he stopped and I was left gasping into thin air, me fingers still gripping his jacket.
“Jesus! I am sorry, Evie.”
I could've cried, “What are you on about Joe?” but I saw him close his eyes and take a breath, and it was like someone turned the sound up all of a sudden, the noise of the bar which I swear had gone, now blasting back down the stairs and then it started cooking in me head, how he was sorry he kissed me. Oh, it was true enough I never did much kissing before, and anyhow Maggie was right up above us there in the bar and I had no doubt she knew how to kiss just fine.
He must have seen me start to crumple, “Ah no, lass, I don’t mean that,” his fingers ran over me lips, “I don’t mean that at all. Well I am sorry we just…ah Christ!” His arms all around me, and I thought I might just get through anything God decided to rain down on us.
“EVIE! EVIE! Where the hell are ye?” I could hear Tom starting down the stairs, and oh I didn’t want to leave there, but I knew I would lose me job if I didn’t.
“I’ll be right with you, Mr. O’Leary. It’s so dark down here is all.” I glanced around at Joe and just stood with me hands on a crate, ready to lift it. I just wanted to feel that again and he knew it.
I could only tighten me knuckles around that wood as he kissed me hair, I swear I could feel him smile, a whispered ‘Thank You Evie’ before he was gone.
I was surprised me legs worked at all up them stairs, just keeping me head down and taking a few trips to restock the shelves. I couldn’t help meself standing for a few seconds with me back against the cellar wall and wondering, wishing he would come back, looking at where we had just been, licking me lips to see if I could still taste him, and closing me eyes at the thought.
Back in the bar up I saw him in the corner talking quiet with Ned Kelly, watched his hands moving from his pockets to Ned’s arm to express some point or other and then back to his pockets again, watched him walk over to Maggie and tell her something she seemed to be less than pleased about, a hand on her shoulder and a kiss on her cheek, and then I watched him look up at me, holding me again with his eyes.
With a sudden movement they were out through the door leaving me with ‘Joe’ just a breath on me lips.