The heels of Joe’s polished bluchers clip over the cobblestones as he walks up along Camp Street toward Bray’s Photographic Studio. His pipe hangs lazily from the corner of his lips, swirls of tobacco smoke drifting into the crisp autumn air. Feeling proud in his appearance, in tweed jacket and trousers, waistcoat and a crisp white shirt, Joe holds his head high, his blue eyes focused firmly ahead at the bustling cross roads.
Walking towards the opened doors of the Shamrock Hotel, he pauses and looks across at the post office clock, tossing up whether he has time for a drink and a chat with a blushing barmaid.
He waits while an older couple pass him and enters the hotel, his blue eyes focused on Emma Johnson as she wipes down the bar with a grey cloth, her blonde hair swept into a braid. She looks up and smiles as he nears her, a set of dimples piercing her rosy cheeks.
“What might you be after, Mr Byrne?” She asks pleasantly, tightening the apron strings at her waist.
“A nobbler of gin, please lass,” Joe responds, digging a hand into his pocket. “The good stuff though,” He adds mischievously, “I know the cheek of old Connolly.”
Emma laughs at the request and grabs an upturned glass from the shelf.
“What makes you think I’d offer anything less?”
“A fellow can make a request,” He answers with a grin, leaning his elbows on the bar, allowing his eyes to meet hers.
“I’ve not seen you here for a while,” She says reflectively, pouring the gin into the glass, “I was beginning to think you’d left without saying goodbye.”
“Oh, I’ve not had the time to be drinking lately,” He lies in jest, placing the correct change on the bar.
“I can’t say I believe that,” She laughs, sliding the glass across to him.
“And what else would be stopping me from seeing your pretty face,” Joe replies, tugging cheekily at her braid.
She tilts her head, allowing her cheek to brush against his arm.
“Are you and Elizabeth Sherritt still courting?” She asks shyly, her voice taking on a somber tone.
“Aye,” Joe answers bluntly, swigging the liquor with a slight wince. “We are.”
Emma’s eyes trail to the drawstring of her apron.
Seeing the hurt in her eyes, Joe touches her hand briefly.
“While you’re still employed by Mr Connolly, there’ll always be reason for me to stop in here for a drink, lass.”
She attempts to conceal her sadness with a smile.
“Anyway, you haven’t told me why you’re dressed so finely.”
“I’m headed to Bray’s to have my portrait taken. Thought it time I gift my likeness to ma, not that she doesn’t see enough of me already, but old Wick gave her one of his daughter Annie, so I didn’t think it would be long until she was in my ear about it.”
“Wick the German?” Emma asks, looking past Joe to two miners who enter the parlour.
“That’s him,” Joe replies, looking sidelong at the roughly dressed men, their sack coats smeared with dirt.
Emma nods in understanding and turns her attention to the bearded men while they request their choice of tipple.
The miners served, and his glass empty, Joe pushes it towards the barmaid and bids her farewell, promising he’ll be back before he leaves for Sebastopol.
Joe knocks at the front door of the house of photographer James Bray and glances towards the Hibernian Hotel, where hoots of drunken laughter resound. His lips twitch into a smile beneath his moustache as three flashily dressed larrikins are marched out of the bar by the publican, Joseph Wertheim. Watching while the three stumble their way past the bank of New South Wales, Joe’s attention is quickly brought back as the door is opened, the refined voice of James Bray beckoning him inside.
Closing the door behind them, James ushers Joe upstairs, where framed portraits hang on the claret coloured wall, a testament to his experience in the craft. He directs Joe into the sitting room and gestures to the ornate album which rests on the side table.
“While I set my equipment up, please feel free to look through the album,” He offers, his attention taken by his wife, as she hurriedly runs a feather duster around the studio in the opposite room.
Joe opens the album and turns to the first carte de visite, where a woman is captured seated on a chair, a tangle of jewelry is draped around her neck and shoulders in a show of wealth. Her ringleted hair is styled high on her head, a book grasped daintily in her gloved hand while her round eyes are focused towards the floor. Joe brings the album closer to his face, in an attempt to see if he can identify the woman, believing it to be Mrs De Jacques, who he and Aaron declared to be the finest dressed woman in Beechworth. However, even Joe has to concede that the wealthy shop owner has met her equal in the woman displayed in Bray’s album.
Hearing the footsteps of James, Joe closes the album and rises from the sofa.
“Are you ready, Mr Byrne?” James asks, extending an arm toward his studio.
“Yes, I am,” He responds, the finely dressed woman fading from his mind.
Entering the sun doused room, Joe’s eyes settle on the tripod, draped in black, which stands to the side of the room in front of a cream coloured bureau, the backdrop a wall of emerald green. The skylight illuminating twinkling specks of dust which rise from the cluttered assortment of discarded backdrops, chairs and props.
“If you wouldn’t mind getting into position, sir,” James directs, standing beneath the black material.
Joe moves toward the bureau and stands beside it hesitantly, unsure of what is expected of him.
James lifts away the drape in slight frustration and flicks his hand toward the bureau.
“It is best to find a pose that is comfortable and natural,” He instructs, “And afterwards we will see if a prop is needed to level your shoulders.”
Joe nods and leans against the bureau’s top, his right shoulder sloping awkwardly due to the disproportionate height.
“One moment,” James says, fetching a book from the collection of jumbled props.
He waves it briefly in front of Joe, its pages dog eared and smudged.
“This will sort the issue.”
Joe attempts to grab a look at the title, but James swiftly positions it beneath his raised elbow, leveling his pose.
The photographer disappears back behind the black fabric, his hand placed on the side of the camera, extending the lens with a creak.
Joe stands, and looks away from the camera, his eyes fixed on the doorway, contemplating the life being carried out on the street below. He places his right hand firmly in his pocket, his fingers brushing against the remaining coins that will buy him another smile from Emma Johnson and rests his left shin over the right, exposing the heel of his polished blucher to the lens.
“Keep as still as you can, Mr Byrne” James instructs, sliding the plate into position and pulling the cord.
Walking back out onto the street, Joe stretches his arms in front of himself and yawns, feeling glad that he can move freely again without direction and looks toward a horse and dray that travels towards him, being driven by Archibald Batchelor.
Spotting Joe, Archibald slows his gelding and pulls up alongside Joe on the road.
“Young Joseph,” Archibald greets with a wave of his hat, “How might the day be finding you?”
“Good morning Mr Batchelor,” Joe replies, stepping forward and patting the bay gelding. “I’ve just had my portrait taken in here at Bray’s.”
“A gift for your mother I assume?”
“Aye, I thought it time I got my likeness taken. Cannot keep protesting forever.”
Archibald strokes a hand through his greying beard and laughs.
“That’s a good lad,” He says, taking up the reins, “You’ve always got to know your duty.”
Joe stands under the veranda of the Shamrock Hotel and peers into the window of the parlor, while Emma and another barmaid with heavy features and crow coloured hair serve a press of miners who jostle for their attention. Noticing him, Emma waves a hand in his direction, her weary expression lighting into a smile.
Joe moves forward and takes a seat at the bar, distancing himself from the crowd.
“You had your likeness taken then?” Emma asks, pouring a mug of foamy ale.
“Aye, should keep the old woman pleased for a few days at least,” Joe jests, watching as she deposits the money for the ale in a brass cash box.
Behind her, John Connolly, the publican, shuffles past, a case of brandy in his large hands. He stoops from the weight and places it with a thud on the end of bar. Catching Joe looking at the liquor, he straightens and rests his hand on his hip.
“If you want it, you’ve got to pay full price, Byrne,” He declares in his Irish brogue, his hazel eyes crinkling.
Joe winks at Emma and points a finger towards the bottles of gin on the shelf.
“If it’s a rough as the gin you serve, you shouldn’t be expecting a price.”
John smirks and leans toward Joe, his eyes flicking across to the miners.
“And yet those blind beggars keep requesting it.”
Joe laughs and reaches into his pocket, sliding Emma a collection of coins.
“A whiskey, please lass.”
“Anything for you,” She replies, her voice honeyed.
His eyes fix on her as she pours the amber coloured whiskey into the glass, her cheeks blushing from the strength of his stare.
She places the glass in font of him and he reaches his hand out, stroking his finger along the curve of her jaw, smiling at the warmth that radiates from her face. Her pale blue eyes looking back at him in reverence.
“You know lass, you really are the prettiest barmaid in Beechworth.”
Emma places her hand on Joe’s, her delicate fingers threading through his and for a brief moment, the bustling street outside and the chatter of the bar fades, and they are alone.