A sympathetic stranger
Lights a candle in the middle of the night
Her voice cracks
She jumps back
But she moves on
She moves on – Paul Simon*
Melbourne, Feb. 1924
It was the usual for a Thursday night. A drunken man and a tired wife, trying to get him home with as little fuss as possible. Sergeant Jack Robinson had seen plenty of that in the last three months. Ever since the end of the police strike he had been on the graveyard shift, following an extended suspension, and he had no illusions that would change in the foreseeable future. It was his punishment and he took it with stubborn stoicism. He still had a job after all, which was more than a lot of other good men could say. Sometimes, in the dark hours of the night, when even the drunkards and johns were fast asleep, he felt guilty about it. He hadn’t deserved to keep his job any more than most of the others, but because George didn’t want his daughter to be married to a disgraced copper, he had extended what influence he had to keep Jack in the force. For which Jack was grateful, even if he didn’t regret partaking in the strike for a second. He was still convinced of the cause, even if his father-in-law thought him reckless and an idiot. Jack had to admit he wasn’t happy with some of the events that had taken place, but he couldn’t help being proud that they had stood up for what they believed in, and they had achieved something after all. But George had been seething and Christmas had been a rather tense affaire.
Rosie of course was on her father’s side. Jack couldn’t blame her, or rather he didn’t want to. Rosie was another thing to feel guilty about. He knew she was trying, but she couldn’t understand and he could not and would not make her. So he was sometimes almost glad for working the nightshift, which meant that he was spared the embarrassment of waking her with his nightmares, which still even after almost five years haunted him more nights than not. And since he now slept mostly during the day he was also saved from attempts at conversations that were superficial at best, awkward at worst. So he was glad and felt equally guilty about it. As a result he accepted his punishment without complaint, but without any sign of being contrite either, and spent the nights subduing the drunks, whores and mobsters of Melbourne, instead of attempting to give his wife the child she was probably hoping for.
The customer currently disrupting his circles was a regular. One of those men who never had any money and as soon as they got their hands on some they drank it to distract themselves from their poverty. This particular one, however, was also a low level con, which meant he had a bit of change more often than was good for him. Jack felt bad for his wife more than anything. She came in every time he got arrested, paying his fine when she had the money. When she didn’t, she came anyways. Tonight she had the cash.
“Are you sure Mrs Fisher?” Jack asked her as he handed her the necessary paperwork to fill out. She could probably do it in her sleep by now. “He’ll be released in the morning in any case. There is nothing other than drunk and disorderly charges tonight.” he told her. And you can probably use the money ten better ways, he added mentally.
“I’m with him.” a voice from the door agreed. A young woman entered the police station with some determination and headed for the woman filling out the form. For a moment Jack wondered, if this was what Margaret Fisher had looked like when she had been a girl. The younger woman had the same pitch black hair, tied in a loose knot in the back of her head, the same long elegant neck and pronounced cheekbones. Her daughter, no doubt. But other than her mother, she had bright porcelain blue eyes, which were currently glittering angrily, and she was a good deal taller. She was rather pretty, Jack found himself thinking. He averted his eyes.
“Sergeant Robinson, my daughter Phryne. She only returned to Australia recently.” Margaret introduced them, as if they were at a tea party rather than a police station, completely ignoring the comment. Phryne, what an unusual name, tilted her head in recognition, but wasn’t deterred from arguing with her mother.
“It’s a ruddy waste of money. Which we can’t spare.” she pointed out.
“Phryne!” her mother admonished her “You can’t seriously leave your father to languish in a cell.”
“I can hardly think of a more suiting place for him to be.” she replied snarkily.
Jack decided that this was the right moment to leave the two women alone and retrieve Henry Fisher from the cells, since Mrs Fisher had finished filling out the form.
Getting the older man up the stairs took a lot longer than the trip usually would, because Henry was still heavily inebriated and not very steady on his feet. He had at least sobered up enough to stop whining, but not enough to walk without help. Jack had to half drag, half carry him up to the reception area. The two women had apparently finished their argument, even if Miss Fisher’s defiantly crossed arms and the grim expression on her face indicated that the last word had not been spoken in the matter.
Henry’s face lit up at the sight of her though. “Phryne, my dear.” he slurred, taking a wobbly step towards her, still being steadied by the policeman. “Come to free your old man from the clutches of the constabulary?”
Her look could have frozen a volcano.
“I came here for mother.” she stated icily. “And if she had any sense she’d leave you here to rot.”
Henry’s face darkened. “Is that so?” he asked and his voice took on a dangerous tone. “And who do you think you are, girl, to judge me?”
Jack was impressed with how little she reacted. A tiny flinch in the corner of her eyes, hardly noticeable if you didn’t know what to look for.
“I’m the one who holds the money to bail you out.” she informed him curtly. “And I’m still entertaining the option of not doing that.”
“Entertaining are you?” Henry snarled. “Ever since you’ve come back from the continent you think you’re so much better than the rest of us, don’t you?”
“Just better than you” came her cutting reply. “And that don’t take much.”
Jack was sure Henry had meant to take a swing at his daughter in that moment. Unfortunately for him his right arm, the one he had intended to throw the punch with, had, up until that point, been holding on to Jack’s shoulder. When he let go, he also let go of the steadying influence of the other man. The harsh movement of swinging said arm instantly caused him to loose his balance and he landed rather inelegantly on the floor. At least that was what Jack was determined to testify, should anyone ask.
Jack stepped around the man and helped him back on his feet “So sorry Henry. Must have lost my grip.” he said, not sounding sorry at all. Phryne had taken a step back when her father had charged at her. Jack noticed that she had gone a shade paler than before, but her head was still defiantly raised.
“You know mother” she said and stepped over to Margaret “I don’t think I have the money after all.”
Mrs Fisher gave her a pleading look. “Phryne, please.”
Jack dropped his load, reduced back to a blubbering mess again, on the waiting bench and turned to the women.
“I agree with your daughter, Mrs Fisher.” he said as gently as he could. “Why don’t you just leave him with me, give him a couple hours to sleep it off and you pick him up in the morning. I promise you he’ll be right as rain. I’ll make sure of it. As it is, he’s barely able to walk anyway.”
It took a few more minutes and the joint effort of the two younger people to finally convince Margaret, but in the end the two women left and Jack was faced with the task of getting Henry back down the stairs. He resisted the temptation to loosen his grip on the drunkard and let him slip a couple of steps. He had a fierce disgust for men who beat women, drunk or not, but he kept telling himself he had promised the wife he would make sure she could retrieve her husband in the morning in one piece.
Phryne didn’t join her mother in picking up Henry in the morning. She had an appointment to keep and she had the distinct hope it might be turned into a job interview. If last nights events had shown her anything, it was that she needed work. She didn’t believe for a second that this was anything but a regular occurrence, no matter what her mother said. That copper had been way too familiar with her parents for anything else. She frowned at the thought. What had he said ‘there are no other charges tonight’? Which meant on other occasions there had been. Other charges than drunk and disorderly meant other fine regulations, meant probably more money to be paid to get him out. She cursed under her breath. Phryne Fisher had no illusions about the fact that her father was a crock. The only thing she was a little fuzzy about was why her mother put up with him.
It hadn’t always been like that, she remembered. When she had been a child her parents had had regular rows of the kind of epic proportions that could entertain the entire neighbourhood for hours. She had vague memories of shattered pottery, banging doors and suitcases thrown out on the pavement. Margaret had thrown her husband out more than once in those days, only for him to come back contrite a day or two later, begging her to take him back. Which she always did.
It had all changed when Janey had disappeared though. The first few years it had been like all life had been drained from Margaret Fisher. Phryne had not seen too much of it, having been dragged off to Aunt Prudence’s house regularly then. Where she and Janey had freely roamed the streets of Collingwood before, she had then been hauled inside to spend time with her cousins and their friends. Safely off the streets, she thought bitterly. But when she had been home even the grief and guilt ridden girl she had been then had noticed that her mother had become a mere shell of herself. She had recovered her spirits somewhat in the meantime, but she now clung to Henry like a lifeline and he had reacted by running riot even worse than before.
It wasn’t as if things had only gotten this way after Janey, they had only gotten worse since. Even before, Henry Fisher had been a scoundrel, a drunk and a cheat. But he had gotten near self destructive after and became much more volatile. Phryne had made her escape as soon as she could, running off to France the minute she’d been old enough to volunteer for the ambulance corps, possibly a little earlier, and after the war she had delayed her inevitable return home successfully for almost five years.
In the meantime Henry and Margaret had been stuck with each other, leaned on each other and ruined each other in equal measures. Henry kept gambling, cheating and drinking, wasting what little money they had. Yet Margaret put up with him, defended him and bailed him out. God alone knew how her parents had not starved in the last seven years she had been safely away. Although Phryne had a strong suspicion the sole reason for their survival started with Aunt and ended with Prudence.
Yes, she definitely needed work. If her mother insisted on fixing her husbands mistakes her French war pension would only get them so far and she couldn’t count on handsome coppers to get her to see reason every time.
Apart from that she had no intention of staying in her parent’s house for a minute longer than she had to. She was back not even a week and she was already fighting the urge to burn the place to the ground. She needed work, needed to take her life back in hand, before she started to believe the nagging voice in the back of her head that told her all those years of blood, hardship, fighting for her freedom and self-fulfilment had in the end only led her exactly to where she had started. The moment she had stepped inside that house, where nothing ever changed, she had felt like she was fourteen again and the woman she had made herself into seemed to evaporate like she never existed. No, she needed to get out of there as quickly as possible and the only way to do that was with money.
Phryne entered a building and asked the first person to come her way for directions to the office she was looking for. The man gave her a irritated look, but reacted well to her brightest, friendliest smile and gave her the directions she needed. Her goal was on the third floor.
She had written to Miss Charlesworth as soon as her mother had told her that her old school teacher had given up on teaching during the war and turned to journalism instead. She was now working for The Argus even, and Phryne hoped she could help her find her feet in her old hometown. The only alternative she could think of, was to pester Mac to help her become a trainee nurse at the hospital, but Phryne had seen enough injuries during the war to last her a lifetime and therefore that option wasn’t very appealing. Still better than marrying well, as her aunt had suggested in countless of her letters, but still not to be regarded as anything other than plan B or maybe C.
Miss Charlesworth greeted her kindly as ever. It was a little daunting meeting her old teacher again, but Phryne knew she had always been one of her favourites and after a few moments any nervousness fell off of her. She confessed her ulterior motive for the visit straight away. Miss Charlesworth wasn’t put out in the slightest.
“Of course you do, and you know what, I think you might be lucky.” she said with a warm smile. “Ah, just the man I’m looking for. Hector” she called out to a man who passed through the office, his head buried in a bunch of papers. “Hector Pierce, this is Miss Phryne Fisher, a former pupil of mine. Hector is one of our editors.” she introduced them.
Hector lifted his head for a split second from his reading. “Charmed.” he muttered.
“Miss Fisher is looking for work.” Miss Charlesworth prompted.
If his subsequent frown was caused by her words or by his reading was impossible to determine.
“Ads, page six.” he said absent-mindedly.
“I thought she could take over from Connie.” Miss Charlesworth suggested.
That got his attention now. For the first time since he had come in he properly looked at Phryne. His frown deepened. “Another bright young thing that gets married first chance she gets and leaves us hanging.” he said rather accusatory.
“I can assure you Mr Pierce, I have no intention of getting married at all, if I can help it.” Phryne said with a smile.
He looked at her sceptically. “Yeah, that’s what you say now and in two years we need to break in a new research assistant again.” He sized her up some more. “Can you type?”
He harrumphed dissatisfied.
“Good with people?”
Phryne grinned “Very.”
Hector threw Miss Charlesworth, whose grin was equally wide, a spiteful look.
“Women” he muttered under his breath, but still clearly audible “you hire one, suddenly you have ten. Just like the Mob.”
Loudly he declared “Fine. Connie can show you the ropes starting Monday, but I can only pay you full when she’s out the week after. Two weeks probation, if you slack, you’re out.”
Phryne smiled radiantly. “Thank you Mr Pierce. I won’t disappoint you.”
It became clear very quickly that research assistant in Mr Pierce’s department was a euphemistic description for girl Friday. Or boy Friday in the case of Richard and Joe. There were a total of five of them in Hector Pierce department splitting the work, although Phryne soon picked up that each of them usually assisted specific journalists.
Her new duties reached from making tea, tipping and proof-reading whatever anyone put on her desk, and doing general secretarial work, to actual research in archives and libraries, and confirming facts, both in writing and with sources. It was a rather versatile job and Phryne loved it. However, the part where she had to go out, talk to people and dig up facts was easily her favourite part. And as it turned out she was damned good at it. Miss Charlesworth was full of praise and even Hector had on occasion indicated that she might not be entirely useless.
After Connie, a lovely and clever girl with a charming smile and legs to kill for, had left the paper to get married to her young man, she finally got full pay as well.
Phryne had shaken her head about the girl. Seeing her parents interact had only reinforced her own reservations against the constitution of marriage. But even if the idea of being forever tied to and all but possessed by a man had not horrified her, she thought the idea that women had to immediately stop working when they got married ridiculous. In nine out of then cases it was impractical as well as degrading, because most young men didn’t earn enough to support a family, especially not if they married before they turned twenty-five.
In this particular case it was good for her personally, because she could take over the freed position, but it was a shame for the world at large to loose a smart woman like Connie Henderson to the hearth. Phryne tried not to ponder on it. She had other problems to deal with, like how she could support her mother without letting her father get his hands on the money.
He had demanded she hand over her pay check the first day she had come back from work. Luckily she had convinced him she didn’t get paid on her first day already, which was true, but she failed to mention when her payday would be. When the day came, she hid a third of the money in her bra and another third in her knickers, where she hoped even her father wouldn’t think to look. The few shillings that were left she put in her purse hoping against hope Henry would either be reasonable enough not to take it, or already drunk enough not to realise it was not nearly enough for a decent wage.
After her return to Melbourne she had been forced to move back in with her parents. Despite all odds they still lived in the tiny ramshackle of a house in Collingwood they had already inhabited before the war. She had felt utterly defeated by the sight of it. Everything was exactly where she had left it all those years ago, as if she had never even been gone. As if nothing had changed.
And nothing had changed, apart from her. She had considered moving in with Mac, but her friend lived in a tiny apartment that consisted of two rooms and a kitchen and the room that wasn’t Mac’s bedroom was used as a make shift laboratory. So her first plan, after getting work, was to get her own place, and she would be damned if she let her father ruin that plan like he ruined everything else. She hid away her money to safe up.
It went well the first week and it went well the second week. The second time she was even able to safe more by pretending the first week’s instalment had been her full wage. Henry bristled about how these damned journalists were taking advantage of her and how he had never trusted that Charlesworth woman, but apparently he found it more believable that his daughter was being ripped off, than that she would be able to hide anything from him.
Before the third week Phryne took the money she had hidden in the house out. It was too great a risk. Her father hadn’t gone through her stuff yet, of that she was sure, but so far she had always locked her room. Now the lock on her door had developed a mysterious condition that didn’t allow the key to turn.
Of course her father had only shrugged when she had mentioned it. "It’s an old house, my dear. Things are bound to get broken." he had said lightly. She couldn’t be sure it was his doing, but the result was the same. So she grabbed her money from its hiding place under the loose floorboard one morning, while she could still hear him snore in the other room, and headed to a bank before work.
Her war pension was already being wired to an account, one her father didn’t have access to, she had made sure of that. Now she added her other savings hoping it would soon amount to a sum that would allow her to at least rent a place of her own. Hopefully soon enough, before she would have to stand trial for murdering her father. If she did it right he would never know about the money until she was gone. And even if he found out, she thought with a rebellious joy, there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. Now all she needed to do was find a way to give money to her mother in a way he couldn’t touch either. That was the much more difficult task.