"We should do a family kayaking trip."
Phryne looked up from her eggs to the teenager sitting across the table. Jane looked back with eager, hopeful eyes.
"Define 'family'," Phryne said cautiously, hoping but not really expecting that Jane meant herself and her biological mother. Spending a day in the hot sun paddling a boat upriver wasn't exactly Phryne's idea of a good time, but she didn't want to crush Jane's enthusiasm.
"All of us, of course," Jane said, confirming Phryne's fears. "You, me, Dot, Bert and Cec, Mr Butler, Dr Mac. And we could invite Jack and Constable Collins, too."
Phryne was momentarily distracted from the prospect of miserable outdoor recreation by Jane's informal reference to Jack. "Since when do you call Inspector Robinson 'Jack’?" she asked.
"Since he taught me to ride a bicycle," Jane replied, unselfconsciously piling more eggs onto her plate. "He doesn't mind, he told me, and I like to. It's almost like..." She stopped, suddenly aware of what she was about to say, and cleared her throat. "Anyway, he would love to come with us; you know he would."
Phryne did know — Jack would be in his element on a kayaking trip, and furthermore, his presence would help make it more tolerable for Phryne herself. But she wasn’t about to give up without at least a small resistance. "I'm not sure his work schedule will allow—"
"We can wait until he’s available," Jane said quickly. “I really don’t want him to miss it. When’s his next day off?”
“Whatever makes you think I know?” Phryne asked. Jane just leveled a look at her until she huffed. “Fine. A week from Sunday. But he might have plans.”
“You can ask, at least,” Jane insisted.
“What about all the others? Trying to coordinate everyone’s schedules…”
“Since when are you such a naysayer? You make your own schedule, and you also make Dot’s and Mr Butler’s and Bert and Cec’s, so you can just give them the day off. I’m on academic holiday so I’m wide open. Mac is also on academic holiday, so we don’t have to work around her lectures, and if she has any appointments, it’s early enough that she can reschedule them. And Jack makes Constable Collins’s schedule, and can just give him the day off. So Jack’s the only one whose schedule we have to coordinate around.”
Phryne sighed, but tried to be subtle about it. Jane was turning out to be a little too clever, it seemed. Phryne couldn’t help but feel a begrudging pride mixed in with the annoyance at being outsmarted by her own daughter. “I’ll ask,” she conceded.
Jack did not have plans, and in fact had looked so shyly pleased to be included that Phryne decided it was worth ten kayaking trips just to see that expression on his face.
Cec, Mac, and Mr Butler all jumped aboard (so to speak) with enthusiasm. Hugh asked if he could bring his fishing gear along, and Cec asked if Alice could join in too. Dot was a little nervous but trying valiantly not to show it. Bert, like Phryne, had no interest whatsoever in paddling, but was unwilling to disappoint Jane and so swallowed his protests and made sure to pack plenty of beer.
Jane had picked a spot on the Campaspe River just outside of Metcalfe, where the water was deep and slow-moving. Bert stumbled out of the cab, stretching after the long drive. “Why couldn’t we have done this on the Yarra?” he complained to no one in particular.
“Because the whole point was to get out of the city, silly,” Jane said, climbing out of the Hispano and starting to unload the kayaks. “And besides, where we’re going is something you can’t get on the Yarra, at least not without a much longer drive.”
Jack, who had driven up with Hugh, reached up to help Jane unload. “Are we going to Tur–”
“Shhh!” Jane hissed. “It’s a surprise.”
Jack clamped his mouth shut and looked suitably chastened.
“Good choice,” Mac said to Jane with a wink. Phryne wasn’t sure if she meant the destination or keeping it a surprise, but either way she had a feeling that, like Jack, Mac somehow knew exactly where they were going, and Phryne was a bit indignant about being left out of the loop.
“Why am I not surprised that both of you have worked out this mystery destination?” she asked with a rueful look.
Jane nudged her and grinned. “It’ll be worth it, I promise.”
Phryne was still skeptical on that front, but with all of her dearest friends surrounding her and so clearly enjoying themselves already, she decided that that, in itself, was worth it.
They had seven kayaks, and after a brief deliberation it was decided that Alice would share with Cec, Dot with Hugh, and Phryne with Mac, while Jane, Jack, Bert, and Mr B would be solo. Jack and Hugh helped the ladies and Cec get their kayaks into the water. Mr Butler didn’t need the help. No one actually saw him launch — he was on the shore, and then he was on the water, with no one having witnessed the transition.
Bert refused all offers of help, and as he was climbing into his kayak he flipped over the other side and hit the river with a flailing splash, holding his open beer bottle up above the water even as the rest of him plunged in. When he came back up spluttering, Cec added insult to injury by splashing him with his paddle. Alice slapped Cec lighty on the arm in admonishment, but was laughing with everyone else all the same. “Didn’t spill a drop!” Bert boasted with a proud grin, still holding his beer bottle aloft. He did, however, allow Cec to steady his boat as he tried again, and on his second attempt he tipped worryingly but stayed upright.
Jack helped Hugh and Dot launch, then boarded his own boat and pushed offshore much more gracefully than Bert had. Jane took the lead as the crew started making their way upriver.
It was a beautiful day, just warm enough that the water was refreshing rather than chilly, but not so hot as to be oppressive, with the trees along the banks providing shade. The boaters moved slowly, with the more experienced paddlers taking it easy to allow the others to get a feel for how it was done. Before long, Alice had grabbed a paddle and was trying her hand at it, with Cec calling out instructions and tips. Dot eventually decided that she, too, wanted to try, but instead of taking up her own paddle, she slid backwards so she was sitting right up against Hugh. He then reached around her and they shared a paddle, with Hugh guiding her movements by example, rather than verbal instructions.
Phryne, refusing to be the only one not paddling, demanded that Mac hand her paddle over. Mac, having foreseen this eventuality, simply grabbed the spare one she’d stowed away before they started and wordlessly handed it over before Phryne had even finished her demand. They found a rhythm quickly, with the ease of two friends who have known each other their whole lives.
Phryne, however, was almost immediately distracted. Whether by accident or kindness – she wasn’t sure which — Mac had maneuvered their kayak to be directly behind Jack’s, and Phryne found herself much more convinced of the merits of the trip. Jack was wearing the same sleeveless shirt he’d worn while dagger-fishing in Queenscliff, which meant she had a mouth-watering view of the way the muscles of his shoulders and arms flexed and moved as he propelled his boat upstream.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Phryne said to Mac without taking her eyes off Jack. “This is delightful.” She didn’t have to turn around to know that Mac was rolling her eyes with an indulgent smirk.
Jane had pulled up alongside Jack, and the two were chatting animatedly, with one or the other breaking into occasional laughter. Bert was keeping up a steady stream of complaints at his boat and paddle, convinced that they weren’t working correctly and that was why he had so little control. “Mate, you have to put your beer down,” Cec said, laughing.
Mr Butler paddled his kayak with the same competence and serenity that he applied to everything, looking as perfectly at home on the river as he always did in the kitchen.
After about an hour, Phryne heard a roaring coming from up ahead, and shortly after that, the river opened up into a wide, deep pool ringed on three sides by a sheer rock wall, and with a wide waterfall pouring over the edge of the wall. There were a few gasps from the group and Jane, who was still near the front, turned around proudly. “Turpins Falls,” she announced. “Told you’d it’d be worth it.”
While the others gazed at the falls, Hugh was already scanning the billabong for likely fishing spots, and before long he headed off to a rocky corner, explaining to Dot why that particular cove looked to be the best bet. Bert, realizing that they had reached their destination, made immediately for dry land, where he opened another beer and sat down on a fallen log. The rest of them drifted around the pool for a bit, taking a rest and enjoying the scenery.
Some adventurous soul had tied a heavy rope to a sturdy, overreaching tree branch, creating a rope swing that arced out over the deepest part of the pool. At last, Phryne thought. A hint of thrill. Jane, too, was looking at the rope with excitement, and had already changed direction to head straight for it.
Jack was eyeing the swing like he planned to arrest it as soon as he had worked out what to charge it with.
“You’re all going to try the rope swing, aren’t you?” Mac’s wry voice said from behind her with the air of a doctor who knows it’s only a matter of time before she has a broken bone to set.
Phryne didn’t bother to answer and instead dug her paddle into the water to follow Jane. Mac could have fought her, and likely would have won, but instead she heaved a long-suffering sigh and assisted.Phryne could imagine her thinking that at least she’d be close at hand when someone inevitably got hurt.
Jane had beached her boat and was already climbing up the slope toward the jutting ledge that served as the launching point for the swing. Phryne was right on her heels, and reached out to take hold of the rope before Jane could do anything reckless. “I’m going first,” she said imperiously, then added in response to Jane’s disappointed look, “To make sure it’s safe. Don’t have a go until I come back up. Alright?”
Jane relented with only a bit of mutinous muttering and relinquished her grip on the swing. Phryne gripped the rope in both hands, and with a few steps running start, launched herself off the cliff and out over the water. She released the rope with a whoop that was cut off as she plunged into the pool. To the immense relief of Jack and Mac, she reappeared only seconds later with another delighted shriek. She waved an arm at Jane to indicate it was safe to proceed, and immediately struck out for shore to have another go.
After Jane and Phryne had each jumped twice, Bert polished off the last of his beer and climbed up for a turn. Cec tried it next. Hugh and Dot joined them from the fishing corner, the ruckus they were making having scared away all the fish, and Hugh was coaxed into trying the swing, too, though Dot absolutely refused.
Jack wouldn’t try the swing, either, too committed to his role as lifeguard for the rest of them, but he did get out of his kayak for a swim. He ultimately ended up in a ferocious splashing fight with Phryne and Jane that left them all half-drowned from laughing so hard.
Eventually they all made for the shore to rest and dry off. Hugh went out to make one more attempt at fishing. He had more luck now that the waters were relatively quiet and still, and this time managed to land himself an eight pound silver perch. The rest of them lounged on the shore and watched the waterfall as they munched on snacks brought by Mr Butler until the sun started dipping into late afternoon.
As they prepared to make their way back, Alice and Dot were feeling adventurous enough to join forces in their own boat, and Bert had had quite enough of trying to wrangle one on his own, so Cec teamed up with him. Phryne rejoined Mac in hers, and Hugh took the remaining single boat.
Despite their fatigue, it was easier going on the way downstream, and after a short while, Bert and Cec drew up alongside Hugh, and then passed him. Hugh started paddling harder and took his place back in the lead, then Jack dug in to catch up, and without anyone having said a word, they were all in a race. Jack had more experience in a kayak, but Hugh had greater upper-body strength, making them rather evenly matched. Cec had the advantage of a second person to help with the paddling, but the disadvantage of that second person being Bert. Mac and Phryne, while lacking the strength of the men, had the synchronization of lifelong best friends, and managed to pull ahead of everyone.
They had barely begun to celebrate their victory, however, when Mr Butler slipped past them, coming up from the back and cutting through the water with apparent effortlessness, ankles crossed at the front of his boat and not exerting himself in the slightest. The rest stared at him dumbfounded as Jane laughed and yelled, “Mr B for the win!” Mr B executed an elegant bow, then continued downstream at a pace that left them all in his wake, and the sound of their laughter followed him all the way back to their cars.
When they returned to Melbourne, Mac, Bert, and Cec and Alice all went straight to their respective homes. Jack and Hugh accompanied the Wardlow residents back to St. Kilda, Hugh to see Dot home and Jack because it was simply understood that he would share a nightcap with Miss Fisher before going back to his own house.
Hugh and Dot settled in the kitchen for a cocoa while Mr Butler went round the house completing his end-of-day chores. Phryne insisted that he needn’t worry about it – the house would survive without his attentions for one day – but he insisted that he couldn’t sleep without the ritual. After bidding the younger couple goodnight in the kitchen, Phryne and Jack retired into the parlor.
Jane hadn’t made it upstairs to her room; she had curled up on the chaise with a book, but was already asleep by the time Jack and Phryne came in, the book precariously close to tumbling to the floor. Phryne moved the book to the safety of the table, then snuck a pillow under Jane’s head while Jack gently covered her with a blanket. The two of them then retreated to the window seat so as not to wake her.
It was a nice feeling, Phryne had to admit as she poured their drinks; pleasantly tired, whiskey in hand, Jack sitting beside her, their daughter sleeping across the—
She stopped the thought hard in its tracks. Their daughter? When had she started thinking of Jane as their daughter? She glanced over at Jack, who was as relaxed and contented as she had ever seen him, watching as Jane settled herself deeper into the chaise, a small, tender smile on his face.
He must have felt Phryne’s eyes on him, because after a moment he turned to look at her instead. “Thank you,” he said quietly, mindful of the sleeping girl across the room. “For inviting me today.”
“You know I always enjoy your company, Jack, but today was all Jane’s idea. She was adamant that we would only go if you could join us.”
“Well, I’m grateful, though I can’t imagine why it was so important to her.”
“Can’t you? Jack, she adores you.” (Their daughter.) Phryne thought back to that day a few weeks ago when Jane had brought the idea up. I like calling him Jack, she’d said. It’s almost like… Like what? Having an uncle? A brother? A father? (Their daughter.) Phryne wasn’t sure, but she was sure that she wanted Jane to have a positive male role model in her life, someone better than Phryne’s own had been. Someone who could show her the best of what men could be. And she couldn’t think of a single better person for the job than Jack. (Their daughter.)
“I’m rather fond of her,” Jack said, with a cautious glance in Phryne’s direction to ensure he hadn’t overstepped by admitting it. Au contraire, Phryne thought. Au contraire.
She wasn’t quite ready yet to tell him that Jane wasn’t the only one who adored him, but maybe… maybe she was ready to start showing him.
She took a chance, and reached out her hand to him. He looked down at her open palm, then up to her face, trying to gauge the meaning of the gesture. Phryne just nodded; whatever he thought it meant, he was probably right. She smiled when his warm hand closed over hers, and she slid closer so she was pressed up against his side. To her delight, he didn’t tense up, but rather seemed to relax even more. They stayed like that for a long time, while across the room their daughter slept.
Jane was right. A family kayaking trip really had been a wonderful idea.