Joe moves, silently, through the moonlit scrub of Byrne gully. As he edges closer toward the clearing, curls of smoke drift through the swaying limbs of macrocarpa, marking a home, he knows, he is no longer welcome. Joe stops and surveys the familiar land before him, leaning his frame against a dew dampened rock; he takes out his whiskey flask and takes a swig. The amber liquid is warm against the August chill, numbing his bearded cheeks, as it drifts through the Woolshed Valley.
As Joe nears the door, his ears catch on the soft chatter of Kate and Paddy, as they converse the day’s happenings, while the clack of Margret’s rocking chair resounds as it creaks, backwards and forth.
Joe inhales deeply and knocks at the rough wooden planks of the door, “Patsy it’s me old man, it’s Joe.”
Joe listens as Paddy’s footsteps edge toward the door. He takes a step back as the door is pulled slightly ajar, yellow light seeping into the muddied earth at Joe’s larrikin heeled feet.
“Joe?” Paddy whispers, uncertainty lacing his voice.
“Aye”, Joe quips, “who else would I damn well be?”
A rush of warmth greets him as Paddy reefs open the door; a broad smile paints his countenance, “You bloody stranger! Christ it’s good to see you!”
Kate looks up from her book and gasps, “Joe!”
Brother and sister embrace, as Paddy nods toward the cast iron pot hanging by the fire, “Kate, fetch Joe some of your stew.”
Kate beams warmly, “It’s almost as good as yours Joe, isn’t that right Ma?”
Margret looks up from her needlework, acknowledging Kate with a smile, before her eyes are drawn back to the needles in her hand. Joe shakes his head and glances over to Paddy who smiles sorrowfully and turns his back, staring blankly into the flickering flames of the fire.
Joe steps forward, the floor creaks sharply under his weight, breaking the stifled silence that resounds. “How have you been Ma?” He inquires.
Margret’s eyes flash coldly up at him, “I’ve been good Joseph. We survive as best we can, given the circumstances that have been thrust upon us, it is our only choice.”
Joe sighs, “Look Ma, I didn’t come here to bring any trouble. I just wished to check up on you.”
In reply, Margret stands and takes a plate from the side table and hands it to Kate, “get Joseph a bit of bread to go with his stew would you?”
Joe shifts his gaze to the rocking chair, surveying its worn edges, his eyes resting on the scrawled signatures of an eight year old and his father
“I remember helping Da build that chair…” Joe breaks off and shakes his head, “seems like a lifetime ago now…”
Margret hands Joe a plate brimming with stew, “have your dinner then be on your way Joseph…You bring too much trouble upon us.”
Kate looks up from the slice of bread she’s buttering, her face stricken with emotion, “ma you can’t, it’s near snowing out there.”
“Hurry up with that bread would you girl!” Margret snaps, before turning to Joe, her voice as icy as the wind that rattles through the gully, “Joseph made his bed long ago, now he must lie in it, however cold.”
Joe holds her gaze, searching for reason, but her steely grey eyes are void of emotion. Past reprimands flicker, uncomfortably, to the surface of his memory, “You’re too much like your father; you think dreams will get you places. Well they won’t Joe. You sneak up off to Beechworth every chance you get, busying yourself in that library, dressed in your Sunday best, while Paddy stays here, working for the both of you!”
Joe shakes the memory from his vision and turns to see Kate, holding back tears she passes him two slices of bread and disappears into the bedroom where Joe’s younger brother and sisters sleep, innocent to the coldness their mother exerts.
Margret takes a damp cloth and begins wiping the strewn crumbs into her palm and moves to the hearth, brushing the bits of bread into the crackling amber of the fire.
She glances up at Joe, her brow furrowed, “you’re not going to eat?”
Joe looks down at the plate of stew in his hands, his ears catching on the muffled sobs of Kate, he swallows the pain that builds in his throat, “I see I was mistaken in coming here…”
“You were.” Margret coldly asserts, her lips tightly pursed.
Paddy looks up from the bridle he’s oiling, his voice shaky, “steady on Ma.”
Joe’s eyes drift back to Margret, the woman who had given him life, yet had denied him the warmth he deeply craved.
Margret twists under Joe’s heavy gaze, “I don’t know what you expect Joseph? Should I be proud of your actions? Do you wish me to say I am happy that your life has been outlawed?”
Joe shakes his head solemnly, “no Ma…”
He turns his back and takes a seat at the wooden breadth of dining table. Joe’s eyes run along its surface, falling on a faded inkblot. A memory of him at thirteen flickers amid his vision…Joe sits next to his father, Patrick, writing verses to cheer him from the illness which has gripped Patrick’s heart. As Joe moves the fountain pen in his best copperplate handwriting, the table begins to shake, knocking the inkwell across the table, leaving bright red ink seeping through the chinks and onto Joe’s tweed trousers. He looks up in horror, his father slumped, motionless, beside him, his knuckles white as he grips the edge of the table, gasping for air…
Joe rakes a hand through his hair and closes his eyes to the pain which glistens, like shards of glass, in his eyes. Taking a fork from the centre of the table, Joe begins filling the cold emptiness that resides in him with forkfuls of warmed stew. When he is finished his meal, Margret clears the plate and cutlery and wordlessly disappears down the kerosene lit stretch of hall.
Joe takes out his whiskey flask from his tattered breast pocket and nods in the direction of the bedrooms. “How can you and Kate continue to live here?”
Paddy looks up at Joe and shrugs his shoulders, “what other choice do we have?”
Joe grips his fingers around the flask and throws his head back, swirling the whiskey around in his mouth, letting it burn at his gums. His eyes catch on the clock above the fireplace, Maggie would be waiting for him.
Joe rises from the chair and extends a worn hand to his brother, “I’ll be seeing you Patsy.”
Paddy grasps Joe’s hand, his brow furrowed in apprehension, “stay safe, brother.”
Joe tips his head and moves toward the door, the wind of the gully lashes at his face as he sways out into the night.