“It’s just a quiet evening with friends, Jack. Please say you’ll come.”
“Of course, Phryne.”
It still gave her a bit of a frisson when he used her first name.
“Then tonight at seven. Dinner will be served at eight.”
“And knowing Mister Butler, it will be delicious.”
Jane was home from school and had shot up in height. He was very grateful that the current fashion didn’t emphasize curves the way the fashions of his childhood had. Jane might look like an adult in that style, rather than the girl she undoubtedly still was.
“Phryne let me wear one of her dresses tonight,” she said to him. “I don’t much go in for fashion and things, but it’s fun to dress up.”
“It looks lovely on you,” Jack said.
Jane’s eyes lit up, and it took Jack a second to realize that it wasn’t his compliment but a new arrival that had caused it. He watched as she ran to Doctor Macmillan and hugged her until she couldn’t breathe.
Mac said, “Phryne, what are you doing letting Jane wear fripperies? I always thought she seemed much more sensible.”
“Jane can wear what she wants, within reason,” Phryne added looking at Jane pointedly. “That includes tweed suits, if she fancies.” She began pouring cocktails for the adults and gave Jane fizzy lemonade in a fancy glass.
“Could I? None of the other girls at school is allowed to wear trousers, and they’re so much more sensible if we want to do anything fun.”
Phryne nodded. “Next birthday, then, we’ll see about having some made up. Extra deep hem on the trousers and cuffs, I think.”
Mac nodded back. “Based on my studies, if she continues to get good food she’ll be a least your height and probably a bit taller.”
“It’s amazing what good nutrition can do. I know what being hungry did to me, when I was a mite.”
Bert and Cec came in looking somewhat slicked down and polished. They were carrying glasses of beer that they’d obviously gotten in the kitchen.
“Well, what they’re feeding me at school is a lot better than I used to get, but not a patch on what Mister Butler can do.”
Jack said, “I know I look forward to eating Mister Butler’s meals. They’re much better than I get at the cafes.”
“You’re not eating at the right cafe’s, Jack.” She offered him a second cocktail, but he shook his head.
“‘Can show you a couple that have better fish and chips than you’ll ever get.” Bert said.
“But you might not want them to know you’re a copper,” Cec added.
Jack had long since gotten used to the way people mixed in Phryne’s life. He smiled a little and said, “I may take you up on that.”
Mister Butler came in and said, “Dinner is served, Miss Fisher.”
“Where is Miss… Mrs. Collins this evening?”
“Dot has been invited to the elder Mrs. Collins’ for supper tonight.”
“No wonder Sergeant Collins seemed so queasy today.”
Phryne arched a brow at him. “Dot is taking one of her sponge cakes along as a peace offering. I do hope it works.”
“It cannot fail to, Miss Fisher,” Mister Butler said. “Miss Williams’ hand with a Victoria sponge is even lighter than my own.”
“High praise, then.” Phryne glanced around. “Please everyone sit where you like. There’s no ceremony to stand on, thank goodness.”
“Why would that be?” Jack asked.
“Aunt Prudence and some of her stuffier friends were due this evening. Sadly, she caught a sore throat and had to cancel, so rather than let a good dinner go to waste…”
“Which it’ll never do ‘round me and Cec,” Bert said.
“I decided to make it an evening en famille,” she finished.
Over the soup and fish courses, the conversation was general. Janie was very interested in history, particularly recent history, and Bert and Cec were telling her the red version of it all, while Mac made certain that the suffragettes got a look in when they talked about Britain.
“Forgive me, Doctor, but I thought you were Australian through and through. Women had the vote here in 1902 for the most part.”
Mac looked at Jack and said, “True, we did, but I studied back in mother England. It was good to be able to show up some of the toffee noses. Still, the war did for us what peace never could.”
“Too true,” Phryne said.
Janie looked between them and said, “You’ve never told me how you met Doctor Mac.”
“Oh… Actually, I think Mac tells it better than I do.” The look of subtle amusement was back on her face and Jack found himself beginning to smile, too.
Mister Butler came in to take the entrée dishes and Phryne said, “We’ve gotten to the story telling portion of the evening. Do you think dessert can safely be served in the parlor?”
“Yes, Miss Fisher. The fools were set up in individual glasses.”
“Then let’s head for the parlor for coffee, fool, and stories.”
Once they’d all found their favorite chairs, Mac put her feet out toward the fire and said, “Janie, you’re the only one here that didn’t serve in the war.”
Janie nodded solemnly.
“Lost a lotta good mates,” Cec said.
Bert added, “Good working men at the mercy of the capitalist machinery of death.”
Jack said, “Usually, I’d say ‘don’t give me your red-ragger speeches,' but the more I look at what we went for and what we came back to, well, you’re still a red-ragger.”
“But he has a point?” Phryne asked.
“Exactly.” Jack nodded and waited while they were served their coffees and desserts.
“Yes, well, the call went out for doctors the first day after war was declared. I’d completed my license a couple of years earlier and kept thinking I’d come home to work here. Instead, I found myself working with poor women in some of the factory areas near Sheffield. Not a man willing to…” She caught herself and took a sip of her coffee. “Those stories are for when you’re a bit older, Janie.”
“Yes,” Phryne said in all seriousness, “but you mustn’t forget to tell her them.”
Mac nodded at her and took a few bites of her pineapple fool. “Mister Butler has a dab hand at sweets.”
“Please keep telling the story,” Janie said.
“All right. I’d gotten my degree and done my study at Bart’s, though that was a whole fight for another tale. Now there still aren’t many of us, women doctors, and we know that we have to keep ourselves together on things. The War Office was making a big ruckus about leaving the men to do the fighting and how much they needed doctors, so a large group of us volunteered, only to be patted on the head and told to run along a play with our dolls.”
“I can imagine how well that went over,” Jack said.
“After the second try, most of my colleagues thought 'to hell with them' and went back to their usual work. But some of us younger ones thought 'to hell with them' and caught the first train we could to France. The French thought we were English lunatics, but gallant ones. We were all competent doctors so we started to serve at the convalescent hospitals or some of the more distant field hospitals.”
She turned to Janie. “There’s a ranking, you see. The field hospitals, those were clearing houses mostly, especially in the early days. Most men stopped there long enough to be put on the right train or ambulance, because different hospitals specialized in different things, and the ones who were worse off were sent to closer ones. Things like that.”
Janie said, “I see.”
“Well, we were ladies,” Mac’s tone showed what she thought of that designation, “so the French wanted us farther away from the front.”
“Did it change before Loos?” Phryne asked.
“Nah, Loos was where they put us in the wrong place on the third day. They thought we were far enough behind the line, but we ended up as the front line field hospital on days three and four when the Allies were pushed back. And it wasn’t a clearinghouse, other than getting out the ones who’d died while they were waiting. It was back to back surgeries for those of us who had the experience. Nurses were doing some of the basic diagnoses by the end of the fourth day and there were never enough ambulances to get everyone to the recovery centers. They finally had to move us farther back. After that, though, I was put in charge of a field hospital, ‘bout a quarter mile from the trenches.”
“So when did you meet Miss Fisher?” Jack asked. At a look from Phryne he said, “Where did you meet Phryne?”
“Loos. Halfway through day three, I noticed that the number of men waiting had gone down significantly, which was a bit of a surprise ‘cause the battle was getting worse. Seems there was this one ambulance who’d put two stretcher cases in the top slots and then filled the bottom racks with about ten men a time. Ones who needed the hospital and couldn’t walk, but who weren’t going to die without immediate surgery. Anyone who could sit upright or who could be propped into a seated position by their mates. And this one kept coming back. Turns out it’s a girl who doesn’t look like she’s sixteen.”
“I was twenty: well, nearly,” Phryne said.
“I finally get to meet her near dawn on day four. I’ve been kicked out to get some kip before starting it all up again, and here Phryne is swearing in pure Australian as she changes the tire on her ambulance. I pull her in for breakfast with me, and after one long look order her to get at least three hours of sleep herself.”
“I got an hour and a half. Mac snored too loudly to stay asleep any longer.”
Mac helped herself to Phryne’s whiskey and poured one for Phryne and Jack as well. Bert and Cec were brought more beer by Mister Butler.
“How long?” Jack asked.
“How long what, Jack?”
“How long before you slept again?”
“Loos was mostly done by day five, the real battle. I kept running into Mac for those two days, we ended up eating bully beef together for a scratch supper that night. I grabbed another hour of sleep afterward and then began hauling men out of there.”
Janie said, “Why did the men have to be able to sit up?”
“If they could stand, most officers assumed they could walk,” Phryne said. “I ended up picking up a few from the sides of the road, laying them flat on the floor because they or their officers, or their mates had insisted they could walk when they really couldn’t. I didn’t pick up anyone who was already gone, but some of them died by the time we made it to hospital. Most of them lived. Those days, most of them lived.”
“By getting them away from the field hospital, she made my work easier. I wasn’t distracted by the easy cases and had more time for the really bad ones. She also kept them alive. The wait was the hardest part for so many of them. Pain hurts worse when you can’t see it ending. Men who were traveling to a hospital could hold on better than the ones just lying on a pallet. Conserved anaesthetic, too.”
“Mac was wonderful. She didn’t take any guff from anyone, not even some of the more obnoxious officers. I remember hearing her telling one of them that since she wasn’t in the military, he had no authority over her and to sit down and wait his turn.”
“What happened to that one?” Mac asked.
“I let him sit up front beside me in the next ambulance I loaded out. He complained about you all the way.”
“Can’t imagine you takin’ that, Miss Fisher,” Bert said.
“He did quiet down a bit after I threatened to strap him to the roof.”
Jack was surprised by his own laughter. “I can just hear you, very matter of factly giving him the choice.”
“Was it awful?” Janie asked. “I mean, you’re all laughing, but it sounds terrible.”
Bert and Cec knocked back the last of their beers. “Will you be needing us in the morning, Miss Fisher?” Bert asked.
“I’ll call your caf if I do. Otherwise, enjoy the day. Pick up some fares.”
“Thanks for the tucker,” Cec said.
“G’night, Miss Fisher.” Bert followed him back to the kitchen to let themselves out.
Janie looked a little panicked and Jack said, “Remembering it can be hard. Remembering it right is even harder.”
“We can laugh because we’re still alive,” Phryne added. “In some ways, we’re laughing for all those poor boys who died and can’t laugh anymore themselves.”
Mac nodded. “It sounds terrible, Janie, but the fact is we snatched what happiness we could whenever we could. Sometimes it was an hour’s sleep in the middle of battle or getting to hear a familiar accent over a tin of cold salt beef. Phryne changing that tire was the silliest thing I’d ever saw. She looked like she’d snap like a twig. Found out later, that she’d pushed out two gallant sergeants who were completely cackhanded with machinery and did it herself quick time.”
“And Mac, she looked like a medical Valkyrie. Some of the officers were scandalized by her trousers. Some of the men had qualms about a woman performing their surgery, but most of them thanked her at the end. Even if they’d lost an arm, they thanked her for saving their lives.”
Jack had long wondered if there had ever been anything between Phryne and Mac. He saw the look they gave each other and recognized it for passion of comrades-in-arms. It burned just as hot as any other kind of passion, but it was as close to innocent as people could get in this world.
Phryne caught Jack’s glance and smiled. She turned to Janie. “I can’t explain it better than that. We were two Australian women doing jobs that most people in England would have said women couldn’t do -- Mac more than me, of course. After Loos, some of the VADs became ambulance drivers and the whole Women’s Ambulance Corps came over -- some of them were obviously already there, like me. But before Loos, ambulance drivers were men. After Loos, most ambulance drivers who weren’t military medics were women.”
“I should have cadged a ride with Bert and Cec,” Mac said.
“I’m sure they’re still in the back seeing if Mister Butler had leftovers of anything,” Phryne said. A quick walk confirmed it, and Bert and Cec left with Mac in their back seat.
“Why didn’t they stay with us?” Janie asked.
Jack said, “They were in some of the toughest battles, saw a lot of death. They came through, but sometimes that’s not easy. You remember a man walking beside you who’s no longer there or… there’s a lot a man can’t say about his war years, especially in front of a lady.”
“Phryne wouldn’t have minded.”
Phryne chuckled low in her chest. “Jack meant you, sweetheart. I’m someone who remembers those who walked beside me.”
“Did we win? At Loos?”
Jack and Phryne exchanged a look. “The generals said we did,” Jack answered.
Phryne nodded quietly. “Time for bed, Janie.”
Janie smiled and kissed her on the cheek. “Think I can convince Mister Butler to make fool for breakfast?”
Phyne laughed. “The optimism of the young,” she said as she shooed Janie to her room.
“I should,” Jack began.
“You should stay, Jack.”
He glanced at the door which had just shut behind Janie.
“Are you ashamed to be seen with me? Or are you worried about Dot?”
Jack sighed. “A little worried, but never ashamed. I like definitions.”
“And we don’t really have many. Janie will be pleased that we’re together. She worries about me.”
Jack smiled. “I cannot imagine why, Miss Fisher,” he said in his most solemn tones.
Phryne chuckled again before becoming serious. “Besides, Jack, it’s easier not to see the ghosts when you’re here.”
He kissed her. “Then I’ll stay.”