I first met her along the Woolshed Road, when the light of the day had just turned to dusk. She was sitting in the dirt of the road, the wagon she was riding in having lost a piece of iron from the harness. The blue of her eyes and golden hue of her hair are what tempted me first. For they were like the topaz of Reedy Creek and the hair that trailed down her back like ringlets of gold, kissed by the sun of summer. More beauty in a face I had not yet seen.
Ellen Salisbury is her name, but to me she is Elly. The name meaning ‘sun ray’, a fact I picked up while nose deep in a book at Ingram’s bookstore in Beechworth. Elly is my first love and love her I do, quite unlike any other. She makes my heart sing when we are together, either while sitting atop of the shimmering granite boulders at the Woolshed falls or when we are strolling beneath the verandaed footpath of Ford Street.
Recently, Elly has picked up work as a domestic servant for the Batchelors, neighbours of my ma’s, allowing me to steal a kiss as she goes to and from their house. The missus looks down her nose at me, scowling through the glass pane of her window until I am out of sight, but I pay her no notice. Luckily there are more secluded spots in Sebastopol for two lovers such as ourselves. Often, we steal away from the bustle of the diggings and lie together in one of the haystacks belonging to Richard Murphy. Here, we stay for hours, looking up at the vast stretch of sky, as clouds are floated along by the breeze. We talk of the future and the dreams we have. Elly desires a hut close to the creek, with a garden full of roses and trees laden with sweet fruit. I hope I can one day provide that for her, for she has had it harder than most. Having lost her own ma when she was only eight years old, Elly was soon after compelled to leave her lessons at the Sebastopol Common school, owing to her two older sisters being sent to the industrial school.
I dare not bring her home, as ma does not like her and it makes things tough on Elly. She becomes as skittish as a foal when in her presence and I cannot make ma come around to giving her a chance. She berates me for the time I spend with her and refers to her as “that sassenach”. She says she is not good enough for a Byrne, especially when her da is an Englishman from Norfolk, and ma, an Irish Catholic from County Clare. None of it matters to me, though, and having ma burn my ear off is a small price to pay for the girl that I love.
Without a lot of coin to my name, I am unable to select her a fancy gift from the shop window of Mrs De Jacques in Ford Street, so I procure gifts in other ways. Sometimes it is a jagged piece of quartz I have found along the banks of Clear Creek, or a poem I have written. On my last visit to Elly, it was pears from the orchard of Antonio Wick, the grumpy old German who lives close to ma. Seeing the branches laden with fruit, I seized the opportunity to do a bit of scrumping. Having nothing to carry the fruit, I removed my sack coat and used it in lieu of a basket. The wind was icy against my back as I made the journey with the pears, but the pretty smile that adorned her face when she saw them was worth the trouble. I must admit, my gifts are not always fruit, stones and poetry, for Elly is a great lover of animals. One time it was a pair of curlew chicks I took from a nest hidden in tussock grass. Unfortunately, the mother curlew followed and when nightfall came, they commenced to squeal, so Elly suggested we let them go. On another occasion, I gifted her a strayed lamb I found shivering in the gully after a recent downpour of rain. Being weak with cold and hunger, it was easy to catch and bundle beneath my coat. She named it snow and it follows her everywhere. Her da promised not to put it in the stew pot and he has so far upheld this promise.
Elly puts up with my ways of borrowing horses, it is a habit I cannot shake. On the nights I stay with her, her da often asks, “Whose horse have you got tonight, Joe?” And I tell him. Elly is afraid I will get caught, but as yet my wrists have remained free from the bobbies’ darbies. On some occasions, I am able to persuade her to sit behind me in the saddle and we ride through the bush along Stony Creek and across to Everton. When the weather is right, I take some string and a bit of meat from the cask, which I use to entice the yabbies below the Golden Ball Hotel. Elly finds it a great lark the way they dance and squirm on the end of the line.
The first time we laid together I was nineteen and Elly eighteen. She was shaking like a leaf, and if I am honest, so was I. We had found an old miner’s hut that served as our hideaway, well away from the prying eyes of the Woolshed and the fierce tongue of ma. The wood of the bunk was half rotted, but it served its purpose. Elly brought a couple of woollen blankets down, as she would not lay directly on the straw mattress for fear of fleas. It took me no time to pull of my bluchers and undress, but Elly was left to grapple with an abundance of hooks, buttons and lace. I helped her as best I could, worried that the ingrained dirt of my fingers would stain the crisp whiteness of the undergarments. When these were finally removed, she sat naked on the bed and I could not take my eyes off her. I laid her down and kissed her skin, revelling in the taste and smell of her. She giggled and writhed while I explored every inch of her with my tongue and a sweeter song I am yet to hear. Gingerly, I pushed into her warmth and she let out a gasp, pleasure or pain, I could not tell. However, it was not long before Elly relaxed and we were one, neither of us wanting to let go of the other. Afterwards, we stayed wrapped in each other’s arms as rain began to fall on the hut’s bark roof. I had nothing with me to light the fire, but convinced her to stay. When I arrived home the following morning, ma demanded to know where I had been and flew into a fury that I had neglected my duties.
I have no way of knowing what the future will bring, but I pray that I will at least get to spend it with Elly, the girl that I love.