I wrote a Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries story for our birthday, and then a few people - namely ijemanja and blithers - demonstrated for the umpteenth time how awesome fandom can be and helped me out by betaing this beast. This is Jack's story, told through his interactions with and memories of three women: his sister Tabby [made up by me and in my head she's played by a brown-eyed Yvonne Strahovski], Rosie, and Phryne. The Phryne parts are in chronological order and the rest skip around in time as Jack's memories dictate. The first case mentioned is the Rene Dubois case (1x07), and the last is the Sanderson and Fletcher case (2x12). I could not get the timing of the Christmas special (2x13) to work for the story, so I ignored it entirely. This fic uses canon from the show only, not the books as well.
Even Mum had got him wrong. "Like to make life difficult for yourself, don't you, Jack my lad?" she'd say, stroking his cheek with a bemused fondness. It wasn't that, not really; Mum could bury her nose rapturously in the weekly posy Dad brought home for her, revelling in the love writ large in the gesture, and while Jack could admire the sight, only thinking about what it all meant seemed to unlock all the levels of delight for him – his brain and heart had to work in tandem, it seemed, though his mind always took the lead.
It was most inconvenient.
Or it had been, until he'd met Rosie. Her keen intelligence made her quick and sharp, her bright eyes sparkling with pleasure when he jousted his wit with hers. He loved the sudden dimples that flashed out around her dazzling grin when she scored a hit (a very palpable hit) and the habit she had of lending him her books as soon as she was done with them and quizzing him on them until between the two of them they'd wrung every drop of meaning from the spent leaves. Rosie understood how words could shake, could rearrange, could charge and change everything, and he spoke his most carefully considered ones on the night he was made a Senior Constable. She needed no words at all to give him her answer; she turned her smiling face up and he closed his lips tenderly over hers.
They set up housekeeping with more books than cups and plates and sheets combined, but they had a kettle and a bed, and besides, Rosie had style and a way of making things comfortable so that they suited him exactly. He'd married the right girl, and they'd come to each other secure in their love; they'd be married thirty years in the blink of an eye, he was sure, and still be looking at each other fondly over toast and tea.
He'd never been much of a man for the pleasures of the table; a steady diet of ideas was more nourishing sustenance for him, and it bothered him not one whit to have to find his own bread and cheese of an evening when Rosie'd sunk deep into a book instead of cooking a proper roast. They had long, lovely evenings of sitting together, her feet in his lap, his fingers tracing her delicate ankles, his eyes closed as she read to him (much did they travel in the realms of gold). They had long, lovely kisses, like the sweethearts in stories, and his hands gathered her up like she might trickle through more careless fingers.
That his heart lifted at the sight of her was more important than his failure to feel a frenzy at the thought of having her – he'd decided after a fair number of unenthralling and awkward nights that he simply wasn't built for such purposes; how odd a notion it was that the best expression of his love for her, their steady union of hearts and minds, should be made with his ineloquent, gangly body – and she seemed content with lying in his arms, her loosed crown of curls tickling his chin, making him feel like a king.
He was seven when Tabby was born, and he had no notion then that she'd be the one to survive when both of the brothers between them had not and were in the ground, their places marked with bright sprays of flowering bushes. He should have realised much more quickly, as she was a spitfire from the word go.
She had a lot of name to live up to, Mehitabel Robinson, but she only ever responded to the diminutive he'd first given her because she was as cuddly and as clawed as any tabby cat. She attached herself to his hip as soon as she could walk, ending up as the mascot for his footy teams and a permanent fixture on the handlebars of his Malvern Star. He threatened every night to chop off her hair if she couldn't pin it in such a way that the mass of gold wouldn't stream into his face when they'd achieved a respectable velocity, and she'd wind her sleek waves round her finger before plaiting it all up in a shining braid that would start to pull apart immediately.
"You old hen," she said affectionately the one time he'd tried to sort her mane out himself instead of allowing her to pester Mum, who had just one more night to set the house to rights before Grandmother came for a visit. He'd always been neat-handed, perhaps as much because of the piano lessons – Dad said Mum had grand plans for her children to keep her entertained of an evening – as his determination to keep his bicycle in good nick, but he'd made a terrible mess of the plait. Tabby hugged him anyway, hard enough that she carried the imprint of his button on her cheek. When Mum did her daily sketch of Tabby that night, there was a shadow on her cheek that might have been caused by the loosened waves of her hair, but Jack saw his button's lingering mark, faint but unmistakeable, in the morning.
Grandmother saw it too, and pursed her lips the same way Mum did when she didn't know whether to scold or laugh. She warned Mum that she was raising a hoyden, but nodded approvingly at the way Tabby nestled confidingly against him, making his wondrously uncomfortable starched shirt scrape against his skin, and ate half of everything on his plate, even the bun with lemon curd, which she knew very well was his favourite.
When he closed his eyes that night, he saw Miss Fisher's eyes, red from weeping. He could hear her ragged breaths again, and once again his heartbeat mimicked that irregular rhythm, leaving him gasping in his bed.
She'd had no words for what that despicable man had done to her. She was usually so unabashedly voluble that her silence on this point had rocked him back on his heels. All of her words had been for her tormentor, Dubois – "I am not afraid of you," she'd sworn while her voice shook as if it were a lie, though her voice usually rose when she stretched the truth – and Jack had been sprawled on the floor, wondering when he had lost control of the situation, if indeed he'd ever had it.
He hadn't wanted to open the door to further improprieties of the kind she revelled in by kissing her, particularly not with the taste of snail in his mouth, but he'd been frantic to drag her staring, opaque eyes away from the doorway, and he'd lunged at her with all the finesse of a shark. He knew what would have been a liberty with any other woman would be taken by this one, warm and experienced, merely as a welcomed prelude, but he'd frozen as soon as their mouths met – before he could register what hers felt or tasted like – and his hand on her waist became fearfully tentative and the hand on her face eased back from her cheek as if it needed to be free to wave away her shock.
Shock not just that he kissed her, but for his very evident and clumsy desperation; he knew how Miss Fisher's mind worked by now. Jack knew she suspected, to the point of near certainty, that the transformation of fear into intimacy he'd wrought in that French café was an echo of some strange alchemy he'd last known on the battlefield – that he might have kissed a comrade so, some soldier-boy he'd saved from being cut down in the flower of his youth – or did she think he'd been the boy, his cheek pressed with maddening desire to some officer's epaulet? For Phryne, who lived her life by her desires, such a wartime love would go a long way to explaining why Rosie had left, Rosie, whom she thought had no experience of war's horrors.
Jack lay in his narrow bed (come, poor Jackself), muscles tensed and tendons pulled taut around brittle, crumbling iron bones, and willed himself to regulate his quiet breaths, forget Miss Fisher, and push all memories of the battlefield (by day his limbs, by night his mind) away.
He woke to his own hoarse shouts. It had not been love he'd found on the battlefield.
He was glad, when the call to arms came, that his fumblings hadn't left Rosie saddled with a child. Jack didn't think he'd have had the strength to leave both of them; the flesh was willing, but his mind would have been weak.
It didn't seem to matter that they'd never been blessed, that he'd never smelt the milky sweetness of his own babe's breaths or felt the dense weight of his child's downy head in the palm of his hand, because he became Dad to the lads in his unit without being consulted in the slightest. Too big for dandling, they were, but frighteningly fragile nonetheless, these boys who'd never had thoughts beyond their farms, their games, and their sweethearts, being handed weapons and told to stare down Death with a smile. Even those his own age seemed so young.
The stripe he wore on each shoulder – he wondered if he'd been made lance-jack as much for his name as his temperament – seemed to his men to confer upon him a wisdom he knew to be entirely unearned, a fatalistic calm that had no relation to the way his innards knotted up, his body as treacherous as always. He mustered enough artificial tranquillity to nod approvingly at the lads when they got through all of the field exercises under the hot Cairo sun, playing his part as best he could.
The lads liked him, said he was easy enough to jog along with, and teased him for his lean build, pretending to marvel that "Jack Spratt" could shoulder the packs of equipment and rations, could hold the stiff length of a fixed bayonet without tipping over. Their jokes were just a way of staving off the darkness and nothing personal to him, really; they'd given their lives into his keeping, as per commanding officers' orders, and he'd had nothing to do with that. He sat apart, trying to give them a little unsupervised space, and ran his fingers over the soft plait of Rosie's hair that he'd pinned inside his uniform shirt.
It was easy to forget, sometimes, out here under the blistering sun, that he had a sweetheart-turned-wife waiting for him too; he could still hear the words she quoted but couldn't recall the precise depth of the dimples that popped up when he caught her allusions and returned them in kind. He had to turn his tunic inside out to remind himself how ruddy her autumn-leaf hair really was, kissing the little plait with lips gone numb from fear and grief.
The butcherbirds that sang outside his window woke him with their melodies. Their songs always reminded him of Tabby, who sang like they'd hatched her themselves, and he was pleased they liked to hop around his yard, small and unadorned (the autumn trees but bare ruined choirs) as it was. He stretched, glad of the release to the tautness of his limbs, and arose, whistling a variation of the melody as he walked to the bathroom. The butcherbirds must have followed him and settled in the spouting, he gathered as he drew scented lather across his cheeks with his shaving brush; they'd taken up his variation and run wild with it, delighted by their own creativity and sounding close enough to touch from his window.
Time was, he wouldn't have been in the mood to whistle of a bright, crisp morning. Time was, he wouldn't have been able to shave his own face without danger.
Then again, time was, he'd had his sister to sing so sweetly of a morning she could charm the sun to spill its honey only on her (like gold to airy thinness beat). Jack owed her a telephone call before too many more cases went by, but while he waited for a more hospitable hour, he sat at his upright piano, running a caressing hand first over the warm gloss of the wood and then over the yellowing keys. He could carry a tune – if he had a bucket handy – but far preferred to play than sing; he'd counted himself lucky that the spells Tabby wove with her voice extended far enough to make her faithful accompanist feel as if he'd been part of the magic too.
He sat in the sunlight, considering. The chime of the piano would break the harmony of the morning. He drew the cover closed, shut his eyes, and tilted his face up to the bright warmth before entering the butcherbirds' game again, whistling a new variation on their playful theme.
It would be the work of a moment to fall in love with this Phryne Fisher. Not the vixen who'd drawn an alluring finger down her cheek within one minute of meeting him; not the master strategist who'd unveiled her nude portrait, waiting for his blushing confusion, ready to tighten her net around him – and surprising that Phryne by leaving her and her painted naked glory was one of the only pleasures he'd got from that damnable case; just this Phryne, who acknowledged a kinship with him. It had been a long time since he'd felt anyone standing at his shoulder, equally as ready to protect as be cherished, and he felt his heart crumble in her careless, covetous grip.
"You never listen to me anyway," he said, the truest thing he could muster, with her looking wide-eyed and achingly vulnerable in front of him (to hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit).
He couldn't have said so much had she still knelt at his feet, playing the beggar-maid she might once have been, though he was no eloquent King Cophetua. When had she told him of her sister, of what Janey meant to her? When had she expected him to understand how fierce a current was her sister's pull? He'd never mentioned Tabby to her, never spoken of his family other than Rosie, and yet she had perfect faith that her sister's name would be understood by him as a talisman, the key to her deepest self, which lay lambent, waiting, under the shards and facets of what she chose to display in the light (extreme and scattering bright) as if the world itself were a jewel-case fashioned to show her off.
"You know what to do," he surprised himself by saying, belatedly recognising its truth. Phryne would know, had proved she already did by laying her temptation in front of him and trusting in his sternness to check her. He did not want to be her foil, her disapproving dullard, but such was the role he'd evidently carved out for himself in her life. She had a steady stream of lovers, and he'd lose all his effectiveness if he joined their ranks, swelling their numbers; better to be singular, that his voice might be heard.
He had to be much sterner with himself than he ever was with her, to govern his heart. He prayed she never knew.
Rosie's hand trembled and her fingertips lingered on his lips. It had been years since he'd seen her well-loved face, and now he couldn't bring himself to meet her eyes; let damnation come, and welcome, before he opened up the hellish abyss within himself to her trusting gaze. He couldn't shake off her touch, and he read wonder on her face, wonder that her husband had come home to her, whole and hers.
Already he could feel his failure overtaking him, overtaxing his meagre strength. He would never be able to keep from her keen eyes his weaknesses, his knowledge of the men who had died so that he could live. Of the men he had killed. Worst of all, of the men he had doomed to death with his witless leadership.
Rosie kissed him then, her mouth searingly sweet, and he felt like a broken-down automaton, knowing precisely how he ought to respond but unable to complete even a fraction of the motions. All around them were the noises of life – cheers from the crowd, sobs from the tender-hearted, rowdy shouts from children discovering their fathers – and Jack closed his eyes and let go of anything anchoring him to this moment; with his wife's mouth on his, her tears on his cheek, her body under his hands, he simply drifted away. Death lay on his tongue.
"Gargoyle face, Jack," Mum said, and he obligingly pulled as hideous a face as he could muster. Tabby, who was humming to herself as she idly flipped the pages of his chemistry text, took one look and laughed. Her giggling was too rollicking not to light other flames; Jack could not hold his pose and Mum couldn't scold, not when she was quivering with laughter herself.
Dad grumped that he was the only one in the whole bally house with a lick of sense, then disproved it when he got close enough to Mum that she could draw a hasty stripe down his nose with her charcoal. Tabby laughed so hard she choked, going beet-red, and Jack found himself holding her quivering form, tucked up like a baby in his arms, and shushing her as best he could when he had his own fit of mirth to get past. She quieted, her nose pressed against his jaw, and he realised anew how very young she was, his small sister with the big unafraid eyes.
"Come on," he said into the shining tangles of her hair, getting up from his crouch. Shameless as a monkey, she let him lift her and then scrambled onto his back. He carried her into the kitchen and then loosed her still-chubby arms from round his neck, whistling as he filled the kettle and set it on the hob.
Tabby busied herself getting cups and the tray, fetching the sugar bowl and spoons. He took the poppy-painted cup from her and filled it more than halfway with milk; what she liked was mostly milk and sugar and could be called tea only by courtesy. His own cup was the chipped one with the blue stripe, and he pulled it toward himself. "What've you done with the sugar-tongs, monkey?" he asked. She was like a magpie with shiny, pretty things, picking them up and incorporating them into her fantasy life, and those tongs were chased with silver and very elegantly carved besides; they'd been a wedding present from Dad's boss.
Her brown eyes grew huge. "I don't remember," she confessed, her voice wobbling. "Don't tell?"
Not even another round of his gargoyle face would erase her anxiety. "You'll have to serve, then," he said, and she lost a little of her fear in her curiosity to see what would happen next; her nose twitched with her inquisitiveness. He took her hand as if it were the lost sugar-tongs and pinched her plump fingers around the topmost cube from the small heap in the bowl, then let the cube drop with a faint tap into his cup. She giggled, her worry allayed.
"I need sugar too!" she said, so he repeated the gesture with her cup, the sugar splashing into the milk, while the kettle whistled sharply behind them.
Phryne's grief was agonising to watch, and worse to listen to – those hoarse sobs racked her frame mercilessly. All he could do was reach out a hand when she stretched hers blindly back.
It was not precisely admiration he felt for her when she shook off the memories of her sister and stood to brighten her own birthday party, but he esteemed her élan, her absolute gallantry, in putting on a brave face for the sake of those who loved her. He wondered what Janey would make of her now.
Would Phryne have been as blithely dismissive of society's expectations of her, had she had a younger sister following in her footsteps? He could picture her as just as much of a renegade, assuring herself her parents still had one good girl upon whom they could impose their discipline; he could just as readily imagine her taking to heart the notion that her sins would be revisited upon her innocent sister, and toeing the line for Janey's sake. She might have got married, settled into a domesticity that could have been stifling or satisfying, even borne apple-cheeked children to plague her with their beseeching eyes. He felt his throat catch at the thought and swallowed hard.
Perhaps it did not matter what might have been. Phryne had been shaped (got by chance, kept by art) by sorrow upon sorrow into who she was now, the woman who hid her frowning lips in a champagne glass and danced alone, the woman whom he toasted with a raised glass and the beginnings of a smile.
It was Mum who'd taught him how to look, all without trying. Only when he'd seen the delicate movements of her hand, skilfully manipulating her pencil to complete the day's sketch of Tabby, posed as a caryatid, had he realised that the lines of his sister's eyebrows had the same grace as a bird's strong wings as it soared home. The shading of indigo into violet in a petal, the delicate tracery of a bee's wing that made it look like a stained-glass framework, the small carved details of the pilasters in an edifice Dad was building – all of them he saw first in Mum's drawings.
The carved lines that ran from the corners of his mouth toward his jaw had deepened as he aged; he saw as much in the successive sketches she'd made of him. They were the only things he recognised from his latest furtive glances at the glass. Leafing through the great sheaves that bore his youthful face, he couldn't connect that bright-eyed boy to whatever he was now. He felt hollow, his atoms too widely spaced to be coherent, as if he were a light bulb and that slender filament could produce only feeble flickers. Whatever was carving those lines could keep going, and cut him into tatters.
He could hardly blame Dad for sobbing at the sight of him, standing only because of Rosie's firm arm around his waist as she brought him home. Mum's eyes were suspiciously glossy, but her mouth was tucked up in a determined line, and her voice was steady when she stopped his flipping through her home portfolio. "I've forgotten," she said, putting her hand on his back and then clutching at Rosie's elbow, locked around his hip – all of these bodily sensations were exquisitely calibrated and unbearably agonising, but he could not protest when he had nothing to offer in their stead – "how you and Tabby used to eat these."
The sketch she drew out of the pile was of him and his sister, grinning at each other across the kitchen table, its wood and their faces smeared with fruit pulp. Jack felt his throat clutch, as if he were once again swallowing that thick sweetness, crunching the seeds with staccato pops. "We ate our guavas with salt," he said, surprised to find his voice actually working, his mouth producing the words in a coherent sentence; all too often, his brain had pushed different words off his tongue than he'd intended, and Rosie would grow pale and still. Indistinct, even, as if there were a cloudy glass door suddenly slammed shut between them.
Love had always been there, easily read like a sonnet known by heart, but it was Mum's lessons in looking that taught him to read the despair in his wife's eyes.
He was inching close to love, that much he understood. There seemed little point in not acknowledging the great gallop his heart gave whenever Phryne was near, now that he and Rosie had formally severed their paper bonds before kissing each other once for luck in the shadows of the courthouse (go gladder than you came). He had a feeling that Rosie would like Phryne, and he wanted desperately to see that slow dawning of approval on her face as she met the redoubtable Miss Fisher.
He wanted even more to know what Tabby would make of Phryne, and he wished for that small sister who had perched on his handlebars as straight and proud as a ship's figurehead, ready to hear whatever secrets he might whisper into her ear as he pedalled through North Richmond. Tabby had always been his best confidante – first to know he was planning to join the constabulary rather than university, first to tease him about how much of his time was devoted to Rosie Sanderson, first to meet his eyes when he spoke of enlisting. Her own were like a queen's amber, and he'd had the notion then, before he shipped out, that it was only in her eyes that any memories of himself were preserved.
Jack shook himself out of the dismal past, feeling Hugh's puzzled eyes on him as he smiled at the report on his desk, handed in by the rawest of the Probationary Constables, solving the rash of bicycle thefts. Hunter was sharper than he looked.
The seats were very good, which he supposed was only to be expected, since Tabby had set them aside for him and Rosie. The theatre had not gone in for garlands welcoming the local heroes home – or if they had, those tributes had since faded – and was retaining the chill of a notably wet autumn. Or perhaps he just could not get warm again, since the everlasting mud and muck of France, and would need to huddle under Rosie's heavy wrap to keep from shaking apart.
Rosie sparkled like the living ocean in the glittering green-blue folds of her new gown, which precisely matched the colour of her eyes. After the weeks he'd spent, at her suggestion, disciplining his trembling hands by tying his neckties into elaborate knots of perfect symmetry – the Windsor, the Eldredge, the Trinity – a bowtie posed no real challenge, and Rosie had insisted that a plain white waistcoat and black dinner jacket would suit him better than the new midnight-blue formalwear. "My handsome Jack," she'd said, smiling tremulously into his eyes, and he'd been moved to kiss his beautiful wife, who deserved better than a husband who spoke as if he were newly learning the language and shouted himself awake three nights of every five, his tears and sweat drenching their sheets. Rosie had clung to him and he'd thought blindly that for as long as the kiss lasted, they would be well. When they'd broken the kiss, he'd watched, fists and throat knotted, as she powdered away the traces of tears, and wished he could find some words to set her free of him.
No words would come; no words had come for years, uncounted aeons, when it had not mattered that he was loved and longed for, that he had lived a clean life, because the only way the world had found of moving forward was to tell its youth to turn on each other. The assurances of love Rosie had whispered against his cheek were pleasant sounds that flayed him anew. He had wanted to love her, to let words bubble up and spill forth as they once had, to sing in praise of not just her beauty but her heart too (a brightness unobscured). She had turned away, eyes overly bright, and fastened her necklace, knowing better than to ask for his assistance as she once would have; he'd recalled, with piercing clarity, the crown of cherry blossoms he'd made her while they were courting each other, how the coronet, far too large, had slipped and looped around her throat, setting them both alight with laughter.
As the theatre grew dark, her hand found his. When Tabby appeared on stage as Viola, shipwrecked and quite tatterdemalion, something akin to an electric shock ran through him. The dead space in his head, that large void ringed by forbidding doors, was abruptly filled with muffled murmurs like a Roman arena, graduating to comprehensible voices, and the words of the play – he'd rehearsed Twelfth Night with Tabby dozens of times, played Orsino and Antonio and Malvolio and Feste – came clear in his head, as if unfurling on a banner snapping in a brisk, living wind.
He watched his sister mourn her brother, squeezing his wife's hand all the while.
He was awake again.
Jack had known he would have trouble with George Sanderson – that very consciously righteous man – when the possibility of a strike was first bruited about; he'd already got an earful for signing Brooks's petition. Credit where credit was due, George had never indicated that he was less than pleased about Rosie's choice of husband, but they had never found a truly easy footing. Jack suspected that in his haste to climb the administrative ladder at Russell Street, George had forgotten the realities of a constable's lot, the very real dangers of the job, and the vagaries of working shifts.
Still, Rosie loved them both, and so Jack braced himself for their weekly dinner without protest. He'd never got used to the formality George insisted upon, but it was the man's right to translate his salary into whatever comforts he most enjoyed, even if the furnishings were so rich that Jack felt like an interloper in a museum.
Having Rosie by his side, gowned in silk and smelling sweetly of perfume, did help, at least through the carefully ordered courses of the dinner. They could not speak of books – George's library was an imposing collection of massive leather-bound tomes, meant for display rather than pleasure – and George seemed to feel that having an actress in the family was a disgrace, so the theatre was an equally taboo topic. Work – even without the looming strike – was an inconceivable subject for discussion in mixed company in George's mind, and so, for less lofty reasons, was football. The weather was always a ready conversational topic, and often the only one left, and Rosie broached it with alacrity. Jack mustered his enthusiasm and chimed in.
When her father nodded portentously at her, Rosie murmured something about going to speak with the housekeeper, and Jack followed George to the library, where the inevitable port awaited. He'd never developed a palate for it, despite all of the years he'd followed George to the same cut-glass decanter and tumblers, but at least it gave him something to do with his hands while George stood in front of the fire and declaimed about the short-sightedness of men determined to strike.
"I happen to agree with them, George; you know that," Jack said, trying not to bristle at the phrase arrant stupidity. George was a good copper – look at the way he was trying to rid the city of its favourite vices – but he'd not walked a beat in years, possibly decades, and his pension was assured. How could he possibly grudge younger men their right to earn a pension in such a risky job?
"Don't you do it, Jack, don't strike. You'll be tossed out on your ear, and what then? A man has to be responsible for his own wife. I took care of Rosie while you were off playing soldier, but I'll not do it when it's only your own stubbornness that means you won't be drawing a salary." George's tone was hectoring, paternalistic in a way seemingly calculated to get under his skin, and Jack's fingers tightened around his glass. He'd never had dreams of playing soldier, and the realities of lice and rats would have put paid to any fantasies in short order. He could not tell George that Rosie had written to say that she'd requested that he receive the full amount listed in his pay-books instead of having most of it sent home to her, because she knew very well how much she needed, and how capable her father was of supplying that reduced amount without a second thought. "What kind of husband are you, to jeopardise your career?"
"The kind who makes up his own mind about what's right." He stood, setting his untouched tumbler down with a sharp click. Rosie's hand was warm in his when they left George's house, reassuring him that he still had her trust; he brought her hand to his lips for a long moment before starting the car and heading home.
Days later, when the city was abuzz with excitement for the Spring Racing Carnival, Jack stood with a few dozen constables and refused duty. Somewhat at a loss, he went home and found Rosie in a soft Indian-print cotton frock he particularly liked, making his favourite sandwiches. Rosie had never made much of her looks, but the sight of her lifting her face from a book was one that always gladdened his heart; just knowing she was on his side was equally compelling. He undid all of his gleaming buttons and sat at the table in his shirtsleeves, soothed by the quiet domesticity of tea and sandwiches and Rosie's bare feet.
"Good?" she asked, dimples just flickering into being. She stole a sandwich from his plate.
He hadn't thought he was particularly hungry, so there was no excuse for the graceless way he'd bolted down her offerings. He raised a hand to cup her cheek, smiling at the way her eyes sparkled at him. It must have hurt her to turn her back on her father, and even if she would never reproach him for that pain, he could at least show her his honest appreciation. "Very good. But you are still my hunger's rarest food."
She hooked a finger around his braces. "Were you not lovely I would leave you now," she goaded, and he rose and kissed her in one swift motion. She drew him out of the kitchen and into their bedroom, where they had lain night after night in trust and silence, and he paused, holding her face in his hands.
"Do you want a baby, Rosie?" he asked, watching as her eyes darkened and a pretty flush rose along her cheeks.
"I want you, Jack. I want my husband." He should never have left her untouched for so long, and he penitently let her push his braces down, undressing him before stripping herself. She seemed to have learnt the way of it and was bolder and surer than he'd remembered, tumbling them both down. He matched her actions, kiss for kiss, feeling that dangerous sense of his mind untethering from his body that he'd first known on charging with an unloaded rifle, bayonet fixed, at Gallipoli. He did not know what he was doing, only that Rosie was crying out – pleasure? pain? – and he wanted to stop, bury his face in her hair, and have her arms around him. But Rosie deserved this, deserved a child too, and he pressed his face against her throat and spent inside her.
She was quiet, after, one finger contemplatively drawing gentle lines along the sharp angles of his face. Her eyes were drowsy and her air of exaltation was sweet. Long moments slid by until she spoke, and he realised with a guilty start that she'd needed him to say something first. "Bodies unclothed must be / To taste whole joys," she quoted softly, her voice not quite steady, rising as if to question the poet, and Jack cursed himself for allowing his uncertainty to infect her as well. Just because he did not translate his love for her into sex did not mean that she was forbidden from doing so; she had given her happiness into his keeping, even when he had been hollow with despair and dumb from grief, and had never turned away from him.
"O sweet, O heavy-lidded, O my love," he said, letting her hear how much he meant the words, kissing her diminishing smile and spreading his hand against her, just where their child would grow.
"You're always suitably dressed, Jack, so we needn't worry about that," Phryne said, apropos of nothing, perching on the edge of his desk. "Tea tomorrow afternoon, for Jane's farewell party. She asked specifically for you."
It was kind of the girl to extend an invitation to him, given their rocky start. Were all children so resilient and forgiving, or was Jane something special? "Should I bring something?" he asked, watching a satisfied smile curl Phryne's lips.
"Her trunks are packed to the brim, so if you choose to bring a keepsake, for mercy's sake make it a small one." Phryne flitted off in a cloud of pine-coloured silk before he could ask how she had known that neither he nor Collins had a shift tomorrow afternoon, though he had a fairly good idea and he was willing to let her keep up the appearance of omniscience she revelled in.
So much for a leisurely bicycle ride after his morning shift. He would need to think tonight of what to get a precocious child to take with her to a posh boarding-school in France, and buy it tomorrow once his shift was over. From their time trapped together by Murdoch Foyle's mad whims, he recalled that Jane had an interest in history and medical practices; from the time she had spent worrying about her foster-mother, it was clear she adored Phryne. A text, either medical or historical, would be too dry and cause difficulties for Mr. Butler or Miss Williams, whoever was responsible for packing her trunks. Perhaps a small magnifying lens, a link between her and Miss Fisher, would suit Jane best?
He took the chance and bought a pocket-sized lens in a velvet pouch for the child the next day. The purchase made him late, and when he arrived at Miss Fisher's residence, the others were already partaking of the bounty laid out in the sun-drenched back garden. Phryne's bowl had more cream than strawberries, and Jane's fingertips were rosy from picking the fattest berries from her own bowl to dip gingerly in rich cream. He studiously kept his gaze from his constable tangling his fingers with his sweetheart's as they ate out of one bowl of dew-decked berries.
"Jack!" he heard Phryne's pleased voice ring out. "Mr. B., strawberries and cream for the Detective Inspector, please!"
"No cream, thank you, Mr. Butler," Jack said. He stood before Jane and offered her his handkerchief to wipe her hands clean before proffering his gift. "You needn't open it now," he said, suddenly shy, and she seemed to catch that bashfulness from him, nodding dumbly as her cheeks grew pink.
"Will you sit?" Jane asked abruptly. "I'll – I'll go keep this safe inside." She stood, and Jack took her seat. Mr. Butler returned, bearing a bowl of strawberries so lusciously ripe as to look unreal and a glass of champagne. The small silver spoon would only bear one berry at a time, and he savoured them, the lemon juice and sugar drawing out their natural sweetness. He was surprised by an arm wrapping around his shoulders and a "thank you" breathed in his ear before Jane ran off again to welcome the red-raggers to her party.
It was surely against their egalitarian principles, but the cabbies treated Jane like a princess, and Jack had no intention of investigating that particular hypocrisy.
He ran the bar of soap over his shorn head and down over his body, eyes closed against the weak spray of water and the sting of the carbolic. He had yearned for this shower for nearly a month, more than he desired chocolate or hot food or even word from Rosie, and he would live on the memory of these fleeting moments for the next month or more.
He looked down at his wet limbs, at the mud sloughing off his skin in great dark drips. He scrubbed harder with the soap, desperate to kill the vermin living on him and to feel himself at least close to clean. He couldn't use too much – that bar had to serve the entire decimated Company – and he handed it off to Martin, next in line.
"D'you need another go?" Martin teased, his ebullience rising to the fore now that they were on divisional reserve. Martin's grimy finger pointed at Jack's shoulders, where the last of his childhood freckles evidently lingered. At least he hadn't had them on his nose and cheeks, as Tabby had, though she'd never seemed bothered by them, and on her they'd been drops of pale gold.
He desperately wanted another go under the water, this time with the comfort of a clear cake of Pears, back in Melbourne, where he could put out a hand to find a fresh towel waiting for him. There was no telling when this damned war would end.
Jack wrapped himself in his filthy overcoat and hastened out, nodding at Nannup, next in line after Martin, and went to fetch the cleanest clothes he could find. There was a letter from Rosie waiting after all, a pair of lumpy knitted socks in the package as well, made by Tabby if he could trust his memory of Grandmother trying – without notable patience or success – to teach Tabby the art. Rosie wrote of his parents and his sister, but little of herself. The rites for which I love you are bereft me, writ large, was the only crossed line, as if its meaning should stain the rest of her letter with its significance.
The green envelope was at last his, and he fished for the words that were swirling in his head, like the adulterous lovers of The Inferno, unable to stop and touch. He could not write the simplest of lines – I love you was more coherence than he could manage – and then suddenly his hand was moving in a frenzied rush across the page, spilling out words, confessing that he got dizzy all over again every time he looked up at the night sky over France, because the Southern Cross was nowhere to be seen. The constellations were uncanny, wrong in the same way that any poet of England, writing about the heat of July, was wrong; he had to adjust his reading, and that he could not do, not with the pall of death hanging over the world, and it mattered to no one but him that Cassiopeia was overhead and that July should be the coldest month of the year, the time when his skin grew dry and cracked.
His eyes were wet when he finished, feeling utterly wrung out. He flipped the page over, intending to write to his sister, at least to thank her for the socks, or to tell her he'd heard some of the French songs she used to sing here in the trenches as he huddled under the parapet, but all he managed was her name and his regular admonition: be good. Just before he stuffed the evidence of his state – cowardice? madness? what was proper when the world was drowning in death? – into the green envelope, he inked I love you crosswise, cutting through his ramblings, making it dark enough that it would jump to greet Rosie's eyes, dark enough to bleed through the other side for his sister's sake.
He had played the Major-General in The Pirates of Penzance for Tabby's sake. Billy Glaisher was a foolhardy daredevil who fully deserved his broken leg, but Tabby had been crestfallen because he had no understudy. While he'd never had a burning desire to go on stage, Jack had not put up much of a protest; he knew it was true that Tabby had him wrapped around her little finger, but what else were big brothers for, than to make sure their little sisters were happy? Tabby had brooked no excuses when it came to rehearsals, and he'd been heartily sick of the smell of greasepaint within a day and known the entire book before the week had lapsed.
Knowing it hadn't translated into performing it, at least not for him, and he hadn't been able to grasp what it was he was missing; he could see that Tabby shone in her role, though she had no more in common with Edith than he had with her father. It was not worth getting frustrated over, and yet he did.
Tabby had said, definitively, the role didn't suit him, that he simply could not comprehend how to play someone so fundamentally idiotic. That was a new light on the matter, he supposed, and rather a flattering one.
He remembered his sister's words at a most inopportune time: watching Phryne Fisher, by turns concealing and displaying her body – for an audience larger than just those who'd paid their fee – with the aid of some ridiculous pink-feathered fans. It seemed he knew quite well how to behave like a half-wit, that he needed a notion to literally dance half-naked in front of him before he understood its truth; Phryne did what she liked, what she felt was best, and had no intention of deferring to anyone else's judgement on the matter. If she deemed the quickest course to justice for a dead prostitute was to mimic one herself, she would do so, and she would enjoy herself in the process. She'd taken no husband or steady partner, and she'd long since abjured her father. No man had any right to dictate to her what was proper.
He had no rights in the matter, except to repudiate her or enjoy the ride. His only claim on her was one of friendship. Any aesthetic appreciation – a private matter that certainly would not be included in his final report for the Chief Commissioner's eyes – that he knew was regrettably evident from his flushed face was entirely beside the point.
He knew he could lose his lance-corporal's stripe for failing to report his men's contraband, but he was not about to confiscate the only thing that had boosted morale for weeks; it would do more good in hands other than his, in any case. It had even warmed him, a bit, to know that his men considered him one of their own, a bloke as much in need of cheering as they, and that they had not discerned how far off the mark they were with the form of that comfort.
Pornography was not going to harm anyone whose life hung in the balance. Asher proffered the photograph with an air of pride. A woman, not far out of girlhood, slender in a way that seemed unreal, posed completely naked with her eyes modestly down. Her fair hair was mostly straight, the end of one fine lock curled as if to cup her breast, and one hand, weighed down with rings, was laid flat on her belly. She looked like nothing and no one he'd ever known, and it was hard to equate this pretty sylph with any of the motions the lads made as the picture made the rounds of the trenches. They didn't want her face-down in the mud – they wanted her clean, in some featherbed – but they'd take what they could get. Jack did not wish, precisely, that he were of their mind, but rather that any of this were intelligible to him, capable of stirring him in the slightest.
"Not your speed, Spratt?" Lincoln asked. "Try this, then." The next photograph was weathered, edges curling – a cheaply made postcard, though it had probably cost Lincoln or some dead man dearly when they'd been posted in Cairo for training manoeuvres – but remarkably clear. A sloe-eyed Egyptian girl, dark hair tumbling to her naked hips, was staring defiantly at the camera. Her gaze was arresting enough that Jack kept returning to it, between glances at her breasts, her cunt, her open and empty hands. He'd never seen such a scorching look before, not even from the prostitutes he'd surprised with their clients, his first year on the beat. "You can hold onto that, mate," Lincoln offered, but he shook his head and handed the photograph back.
He'd heard these men speak of their sweethearts, had had to censor their tender letters home to wives and daughters. They were making do as best they could, even if they were all – himself included – complicit in behaving as though these photographs were merely a wartime anomaly, something that would be unnecessary when the world reset back to normal.
He'd seen firsthand how Miss Williams had come to be part of Phryne's cortège, and he had some notion of how the red-raggers had found themselves under Phryne's spell, but he would give a week's pay to know how she had come across Mr. Butler. The man appeared to be the ideal servant – discreet, resourceful, and capable. He was also, Jack had discovered, damn near impossible to scandalise, try though Phryne might.
Even when they'd arrived at the McNaster home at the first flush of dawn, Mr. Butler's reaction had been more concern that they should not catch cold than disapproval for their condition. Jack had not once been pressed to explain why on earth he had followed Phryne in dropping into the icy Queenscliff water; Mr. Butler, Jack felt, was a firm ally. He'd undertaken to launder Jack's dripping garments himself, and they'd been restored to near-new condition, even the tear in the flame-coloured lining of his overcoat neatly mended – though perhaps that was Dot's doing.
Neither of them indicated, by word or gesture, that his clothes, besides showing signs of wear, had never approached their mistress's standard. He dressed respectably, not fashionably, while Phryne showed up at the boxing ring positively dripping with finery from her jewel-bedecked head to the beading of her gown, the rich texture nearly lost in the folds of her furs.
The suitors she encouraged were, as far as he could see, more concerned with the cut and colour of their clothes than he could afford to be, even if he had been that way inclined. They must look odd together, she in her gorgeous plumage and he in his sober drab. And yet – and yet, he told himself, late at night when sleep would not come, she took his arm like nothing could be more natural and told him she knew how very deep his heart ran.
The Strombos horn sounded from at least three miles away, and in the seconds of scrambling to put on his mask, he could see the yellow-green cloud poisoning the air. Between the frantic cursing of the men and the harsh rattle redundantly warning of a gas attack, he could hear nothing, not even his heartbeat; he wondered if he were already dead, still standing and moving and keeping his men in line by means of some clockwork heart.
He did not want to, but found himself doing it anyway, counting down the minutes before the mask would prove ineffective. It took a long time for the shouts to penetrate, shouts from the sentries that the wind had wafted the poison gas away from their trench, that they could remove the masks that made all of them into ungainly, lumbering beasts in a hellish landscape. Wanting a deep breath of clean, cold air, he ripped his mask off, tearing open the long bayonet gouge in his forehead that had just been starting to knit itself back together. He jammed his steel helmet back on and mopped up the blood as best he could, staining his cuff on top of the discolouration it had already suffered from yesterday's charge, when his bayonet had got stuck in the leather of an enemy's pack, leaving him open to that enemy's weapons.
The Germans were coming even now, trying to snatch some victory from the jaws of defeat. He shouted orders to his men, eyes front on the advancing grey wall, but knew only those closest would have even heard him or been able to distinguish his words. He held his weapon at the ready, and was surprised when he felt a hard, sharp blow like he'd been struck by an incendiary brick; there was blood in his mouth, thick and hot, and the last thing he saw was the men around him, faces contorted in fear and rage and bloodlust, all of them tinted strangely blue, the same soft colour as ink that had been dotted by his mother's tears.
It was one thing to acknowledge himself honestly in love, as if his love were an Alexandrian sword of virtue, ready to slice any Gordian knot. But love, when its object was Phryne Fisher, was no enviable state. His hands had shook, when he had fished her soiled and ragged little garter from his exhaust pipe, with frustration and anger; for her to pay lip-service to the notion of collaboration whilst pursuing, with blithe determination, her own agenda was a slap in the face from which he was still reeling. That she had thought it better to trick him into "a small delay" than to speak honestly with him about her concerns, when he had always listened before, was more than a slap – it was a maiming blow.
It was hardly fair to compare the women he loved – for he did love Phryne still, for her bravery and joy and readiness to take on the world – but he could not help himself. Rosie had been shatteringly honest throughout their marriage, even at the point of ending it, granting him her respect as well as love.
They had waited, hoping that there would be a child to crown the winter of 1924, but Rosie's belly had stayed flat and unoccupied. "Jack," she'd said, reaching for his hands, "I don't think we're meant to be married." He had been startled into squeezing her hands, ridiculously reassured that she'd squeezed back. "We're meant to be friends, the best of friends."
"What is the difference?" he'd asked, honestly wanting to know. He had thought himself undeservedly blessed to have loved her as both friend and wife.
"Desire," she had answered, the word well-chosen, for he could have protested "romance" with no dearth of evidence (he'd written his adoration in huge cloudy symbols of a high romance). "We're no good to each other in that respect, Jack."
"I don't think . . . I don't think I'm good to anyone, Rosie," he'd said finally. If she gave him a chance, he would try to use his body to express what his heart felt so strongly.
"I know," she said. "Don't think I believe you've mistreated me. You've always been my faithful Jack." She'd held his face in her hands. "But there's no spark between us; I could be Tabby for all the use you make of my body." It had been an unsettling thought but an undeniable charge, a weapon she would never have used had he not pushed her past the point of endurance.
"What do we do?" he'd asked, wondering when he would wake from this nightmare.
"Divorce. The laws keep changing, and I have no intention of accusing you of anything, so desertion is our best course. I'll go live with Iris."
That detail had been an unbearably sharp barb; that she'd rather live with her vapid sister than with him had smote him. She'd caught his eye and smiled. "I know what I'm letting myself in for, but you've never been a coward, and I won't be one either."
Truth for truth. "I'll miss you."
"You're stronger than you know," she'd said. When she'd packed for her move, it was only her clothing that she took; her books had remained mingled with his, the amity on the shelves they'd shared unbroken.
The next time he took down the Complete Shakespeare she'd bought him (his book, laden with her own love) back in the days when he'd made her crowns of flowers and wondered if he'd have the courage to kiss her at the end of the night, he found it fell open to a certain page. He read Beatrice's declaration, I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest, remembered that he had once written her I do love nothing in the world so well as you, and realised belatedly, as his finger ran over a scrap of greying blue ribbon, that she'd taken all of his love-letters with her. He could not help but smile even as he hugged the hurt to himself. Such a strange desertion.
By rights, it should have been hurtful, but Jack found himself laughing it off in private, when he was safely alone in his little house. His faithful constable asking him for romantic advice, when he was probably the only divorced person Hugh even knew, had to be prompted by a measure of fraternal feeling – perhaps, realistically, more avuncular – that Hugh sensed in him. The boy's bright shining face deserved to wear a smile permanently, as long as that smile could be awoken by Dorothy Williams, sweet and true, simply being herself.
For all of her dismissive protestations against the state of matrimony, Phryne seemed awfully eager to match her companion with his constable. He wondered if she'd given a thought to the days after the wedding, that Dot would live out, and would most likely bear children who'd take over the lion's share of her time and attention. Come to think of it, had Phryne ever lived with anyone on an equal footing?
Those idle musings were sharply interrupted by Dot herself, who'd been clear-eyed even in the face of Hugh's gallant romance, and had returned the boy's ring. Being told that his love, however sincere, was not a foundation for a proper, lasting marriage – now that was something with which he had experience, and he might have counselled Hugh had anything been able to penetrate the fog of the lad's misery.
When Dot decided to wear the ring again, that she and Hugh would make the time to solve their problems together, Jack was thankful that his reaction was one of unrelieved gladness; he hadn't wanted to grudge the sweethearts the happiness he'd let slip through his fingers, and the thought of Rosie was still a happy one, with just enough regret to make the sweetness all the brighter.
Jack opened the door of his office to find Phryne standing behind his desk, a piece of paper in her hand and an expression that took him a long moment to identify. So that was what honest surprise looked like on her. "Miss Fisher," he began cautiously before remembering that it was his private office and that she must have been snooping to find whatever it was that had startled her. "May I ask what you are doing here?"
She gaped for a second before marshalling herself for an offensive; he could see her square her shoulders and allow a hint of a smile to blossom on her face. "I realise that Bel Robins is a very beautiful woman, and it is of course the prerogative of a single man to pay court to the idol of his choosing, but, really, Jack, I would never have suspected you of harbouring a tendresse for an actress."
That had not been unalloyed surprise, then; there had been a pinch of jealousy there, perhaps uncertainty about whether he was truly available to her whenever she chose to reach out her hand. He was, of course, as the exhilaration of being with her was so heady as to drown out any concerns he might have had about his reputation, and there was no denying they made for a very effective investigative team. Still, there was no reason he could not give her the truth in the way that best suited him.
"She is very talented," he offered mildly.
"Indeed," she agreed with equal courtesy. "I saw her perform in New York. Lovely to look at as well."
He smiled to think of Tabby being counted as one of the beauties of the age, and saw he'd discomfited Phryne further with his refusal to rise to her provocations. Time for him to turn the tables. "Why were you going through my desk?"
"Oh!" She stalled with a brilliant smile. "I was looking for a pen to invite you to dinner." He could tell, by the way her smile grew fixed, that she'd belatedly recalled that he had two pens on top of his desk at all times, ready to be snatched up from their brass holders.
"You usually telephone with a summons," he teased, waiting for her frown. "I must confess, I'm still not clear as to how you came to be holding a piece of paper – that piece of paper – if you were looking for a pen."
"Oh, come off it, Jack," she said, grinning frankly at him. "You should be impressed that I was able to locate the one personal document in all the paperwork you're hoarding in your desk, and that too in one minute flat."
"Had I set you such a task as a test, no doubt I would, as invigilator, been most impressed. As I did not –" he left it to her to fill in the blank and gently slid the florist's bill from her grasp: paper daisies – Tabby had pinned the snow-white flowers in her hair every winter as long as they were in bloom – their crisp geometric petals a lavish background for one crowning tiger lily, a play on his pet name for her. The bouquet should have been delivered to her at the theatre by now, which meant her response ought to arrive imminently. "In any case, no matter the sincerity of your invitation, I shall have to decline. I will be attending the opening of Othello tonight."
"You did say you were a Shakespeare man," Phryne murmured, sounding dissatisfied, as she retreated.
The box opposite his appeared empty until the house lights went down, when he spied a very familiar silhouette in the dimness. Phryne had not been able to resist dressing to the nines as usual, and the diamante clip in her hair seemed to find every last beam of light. Knowing she would have her opera-glasses up from the moment the curtain rose, he struck an attitude of fixed attention whilst Iago and Roderigo cozened Brabantio, ready to assume an air of rapture when Tabby appeared as Desdemona, but he stopped acting when he saw the actor playing Othello; the man seemed utterly familiar to him, and Jack scrambled to think when they might have met. At long last, he had his answer: the actor closely resembled one of the American "men of bronze" he'd met during the war, when a gas attack had driven his men, the French, and the Americans into a single length of trench. The man serving beside him in France had had scars littering his dusky skin, and a voice more lilting, but otherwise the resemblance was strong.
He expelled a quiet, calming breath. The connection, it seemed, was not sufficient to hurl his mind back into the war, and he was grateful that at long last he seemed to be moving past what he had endured. When Tabby came on stage, one scene later, he smiled to see her, utterly convincing as a woman not blinded but strengthened by her love. She was magnificent.
The familiar words of the play unspooled without a hitch, and all too soon he was transported back from the Venice of several centuries previous. He stood and made his way backstage, where he was met by Tabby's dresser. "Mrs. Fanshawe," he greeted her, and she aimed an insouciant curtsey his way.
"Detective Inspector," she said with a cheeky mock-formality, as if to intimate that she'd known him since he was, as she liked to say, knee-high to a grasshopper, though they'd only met after he'd earned his Constable's stripes. He'd seen, even then, that she looked after Tabby like a second mother, and he decided on impulse to make her an ally.
"Mrs. Fanshawe," he said, "should a lady of title" – he had no doubt Phryne would conveniently remember that she was the Honourable, as she was apt to do whenever it would open doors – "attempt to enter the dressing-room, kindly foil her."
Amused, she dropped him a wink and nodded. "There's Bel's dressing-room, love, last door on the left." She departed, presumably to guard the backstage entrance like a particularly ferocious lion, and Jack could already hear Tabby singing sweetly as he knocked on her door.
"You beast," Phryne said, when he said something about fraternal pride as she brandished the glowing reviews printed in The Argus and The Age and The Herald, but she was smiling and her eyes shone. "Why didn't you introduce me to your little sister?"
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/445028.html.