Well, here we are at the end of my story. When I started writing it, I never dreamt it would be 18 chapters long or that it would write itself in the direction it did. I think it surprised me more than you.
I have really enjoyed the experience, which was made all the more pleasurable by your heartening words. It was encouraging knowing that you stayed with the story, despite its sometimes dark content, so a heartfelt thank you for taking the time to say such lovely things, especially to you, S and E.
Jack braked gently as he came to the turn in the road and continued slowly towards the entrance to the drive. As the car slowed his heartbeat increased and he felt beads of sweat start to form on his brow. It had been a while since he felt this way; in the last few months he had managed to avoid almost everything that reminded him of those few weeks of hell, but he couldn't put this off any longer. He wanted and needed his sanctuary back.
He came to the letterbox and turned into the drive and continued slowly towards the homestead. He didn't wind down the window to sniff the eucalyptus-laced air as he did all the other times, but he suspected he could one day soon. He drew to a stop about half way down the drive and let the car idle. He took a deep breath to calm his heart, which was beating more strongly now. He felt a trickle of sweat slide down the side of his face.
He sat in the car with both hands on the wheel and relaxed just a little as stared at the new bend in the road that was constructed by his family soon after the incident. They had rallied around him the best way they could under the circumstances: rather than pushing to change him or hurry his healing, they changed the property. A large gum tree was regrettably felled to make way for a new bend in the drive to avoid that place of horror, which was transformed into a garden. It had been planted with species that grew in the area so it would, over time, be reclaimed by nature, which seemed to heal its wounds faster than he did.
He had spent the last year coming to terms with what happened that night. He had the occasional nightmare, which was manageable, but he was worried that coming back here too soon would flood him with memories and trigger a relapse so he waited until he felt ready.
So far so good. He didn't want to push it by rushing his journey down the drive to the homestead so he cut the engine and sat there for a while, thinking. In truth, he had taken this place for granted before the attack, but now, as he sat sweating in the car and staring vacantly towards the bend in the drive, he wanted to remind himself of why Ulumbarra was so special to him. He had always felt so connected to this place, and he desperately needed to get that connection back before he could put the events of that night behind him and move on with his life.
He had a lifetime of memories to choose from so he focused on how this place had shaped him in the hope that his fond memories would push the images that still haunted him into the furthest recesses of his mind. This place was about family, which was everything to him, especially since he didn't have one of his own. Although he grew up in Richmond, he had always felt he belonged here, surrounded by his family's rich history. Four generations had been shaped by this place and although he didn't share the same name as his mother or grandparents, he knew he was one of them: they were all quietly determined, sensitive people, with a passion for nature and the arts. It didn't surprise him that he too loved to draw and read books and poetry; he belonged to their clan.
But this place was more to him than just a family home, it was his refuge from the troubles that had plagued him since he was a boy. He always knew he was different from his siblings and the others at school, but he didn't feel that here. As a boy on the cusp of his teens who was confused by the world and struggling with feelings, he would find comfort in exploring the bush, or being tucked into the corner of the lounge in front of the fire with his nose in The Jungle Book. He would dream of forever living that life, where he could be one with nature, free from the shackles of his crippling emotions, so he could escape from the schoolyard taunts, the complications of friendship, and the confusion of puberty. My lovely sensitive boy, his mother would say as she ruffled his hair and drew him to her breast for a hug. His propensity to feel deeply, too deeply at times, had caused him much angst in his life, but he had made peace with that now. He had painfully discovered what it felt like to be disconnected from all that was meaningful and he no longer wanted that life that he dreamed of as a boy; nature existed but he wanted to live.
It was here, as an awkward teenager with an interest in science, that he developed his understanding of nature, discovered the majesty of the heavens at night and learnt about clouds. Here, he could escape from reality in some of his favourite books: Cloud Studies, Flora Australiensis, and the battered but precious volumes of Encyclopædia Britannica that his grandparents had brought with them on the ship to Australia. He loved the photographs and illustrations in these books, but it was the words he found solace in. The language of science was his special language and he would get lost in the syllables of his favourite words: cumulonimbus, conglomeration. When he accompanied his mother on her trips to collect specimens they would talk in the language of botany: dioecious, floriferous, hemiparasitic. These were words that he shared with his mother, and an elite group of scholars and naturalists to which he ached to belong, but were out of reach of his siblings and the dim-witted bullies he encountered at school.
He turned to look at the bush beside him and thought about how this place had continued to shape him as he grew older. Life here was complex but not complicated and made more sense to him than life in the city. Violence and suffering and death and decay were an integral part of life here at Ulumbarra, where entities do what they can to survive. After death, the body gets eaten or decays into the earth, which is necessary for life to continue. The idea that nature maintained a delicate equilibrium so everything had a chance at survival resonated strongly with him, and as strange a decision as it was to his family, his mother in particular, this is why he became a policeman. He wanted to help maintain the equilibrium of the society he lived in so everyone had a chance at survival; someone had to keep the predators in check.
He had a decade of memories of how this place had helped him cope with his post-war existence and his struggles with Rosie, but he didn't want to think about that. He distracted himself by winding down the window to let the soft breeze blow over him. The smell of eucalyptus was strong and he closed his eyes to breathe it in. He was feeling a little less anxious now and it felt good to be reminded of what made this place so special to him.
He gazed at the bend in the drive again and thought of the last time he was here with Phryne. He knew it now: she was the real reason he was here. He had always thought that he truly belonged here, but he knew now that it wasn't quite true. Even though this place was his history, his home, it was who he'd become, never had anything felt so right to him as those few days with Phryne before the attack. She was that last little weight that would balance his scales, the last piece in his puzzle. She was the dot of his i and the cross of his t; she completed him. It didn't matter to him that she didn't feel the same way, this was about how he felt, and it was only when he brought Phryne here to unite his two loves did he feel true belonging: they belonged here together.
Jack slowly exhaled. Those important memories of those special few days had been faded by the attack. They were a glorious beginning to a tumultuous year and he desperately wanted them back again.
It had been almost a year since Jack stood hesitantly on Phryne's porch. She would have read his poem by now and he desperately hoped that she was still willing to give them a chance at being together. He took a deep breath and knocked. He eventually heard her footsteps and his heart thumped in his chest as she opened the door and took a few steps back to look at him. They stood there, forgetting to breathe and gazed at each other. Jack anxiously studied her face. She had been crying. His heart sank and he steeled himself for rejection.
Phryne stared back at Jack standing on her porch and watched as he nervously fingered the rim of his hat. He looked so different to last time she saw him when he was dishevelled and pale from grief and exhaustion: he wasn't so gaunt and had colour to his cheeks again. She was struck by how handsome he looked dressed in his customary three-piece suit with his hair groomed immaculately into place. She had spent months wanting to see him just a little undone: his tie removed and his collar open, revealing his jugular notch; shirt sleeves rolled up so she could see his forearms; an unrestrained lock of hair on his brow, but now, as she stared at him in her doorway, she was thrilled to see him like this. He was buttoned up and contained and he looked like the man that she had fallen in love with all those months ago now.
Only seconds had passed as they gazed at each other but it felt like an eternity for Jack. He took a few small, tentative steps towards her.
He was trying to decipher the change in her expression when she launched herself at him and flung her arms around his neck.
"Yes, Jack! My answer is yes."
Jack breathed out her name and wrapped his arms tightly around her as he buried his face in her hair. He kicked the door closed with his foot and tossed his hat towards the stand so he could properly hold her. They stayed like this for a while, gently rocking.
He gave her a squeeze before loosening his grip on her and pulled away slightly so he could look at her. He smiled, which quickly turned into a grin. Phryne grinned back at him and they chuckled softly. He drew her to him and touched his forehead to hers so the tips of their noses were touching.
"I am very, very pleased to hear that, Phryne."
They drew apart slightly and gazed at each other. Jack reached up to push her hair from her forehead and tuck a strand behind her ear.
"We are alone, Jack," she whispered.
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Well, I am very, very pleased to hear that too."
They gazed lovingly at each other. Jack threaded his hand through her hair at the back of her head and drew her in for a kiss. Their kiss was slow and tentative at first but soon became passionate. Phryne pulled back to look at him.
"Let's go somewhere else so we can entwine our limbs," she whispered with a smile, pressing her body against his.
Jack chuckled at the mistletoe poem reference. "We have the rest of the afternoon for that, Phryne. Shall we toast our decisions first?" he teased, knowing that they would not be able to resist each other for much longer.
"Well, actually, we have the whole weekend to ourselves. And no, the toast can wait, I don't think you realise how long I have wanted to slowly peel you out of that suit."
Jack looked surprised and grinned at her. "The whole weekend? And how did you know I wasn't working this weekend?"
"Deduction, of course. I am surprised you needed to ask. I knew you would have organised the weekend off just in case I ... well, you know."
"Phryyyneee," he said playfully. "What did you do to Hugh to get him to tell you?"
Phryne huffed out a breath and rolled her eyes. "Jack! Oh, alright, but don't be too cranky with him, I harried the poor boy until he gave in."
Jack drew her close to him and whispered, "Is that what you plan on doing to me to get me upstairs?"
Phryne raised one eyebrow at him and reached up to loosen his tie. "Who said anything about going upstairs, Jack?"
Jack snorted out a laugh; it felt like they were back to their usual selves. He couldn't quite believe they had both agreed to give a relationship a go after all that had happened. He felt like the luckiest man alive again. He pulled her to him again for a kiss.
Phryne pulled back suddenly. "By the way, Jack, you win."
Jack looked confused. "Huh?"
"Your mistletoe poem is much more romantic than Shakespeare's woeful attempt. And your drawing is exquisite." She reached up to give him a kiss. When she spoke again, her voice was shaky with emotion. "Thank you, Jack. I will cherish them forever."
Jack pulled her back for a kiss that quickly became passionate. He backed her towards the stairs until Phryne turned and led him by the hand to her bedroom.
Over the next two days, they made love when and wherever they pleased. They talked about who they should tell and how their relationship would work, given society's views on unmarried couples, including how this would affect his job. They decided they would tell Hugh and her staff so he would feel comfortable staying with her when it suited but other than that, they would keep it quiet, at least until after the coronial inquest into the deaths at Ulumbarra. They knew that news of their relationship would get out eventually, and they talked of how it would affect the Sanderson—Fletcher case. Even though they were not together at the time of the arrest, they knew it would complicate matters.
When Jack stood outside her door on that Friday afternoon, his guts in a knot from anxiety, they were two people who loved each other but were unsure of their future together. By the time he kissed her goodbye to return to his house on Sunday afternoon, they were firmly entrenched as a couple. They believed that despite their one major issue that would no doubt test them, they were well suited: they shared common interests and enjoyed each other's company and were now able to talk more freely about how they felt. Neither had talked so honestly about their feelings with anyone and it was this that had changed Jack's mind on that day at his house three weeks prior. Despite this, they were both pragmatic and they knew that it still may not work.
A difficult year later, Jack sat in his car on the drive to the homestead and relived the wonderful weekend at Phryne's almost a year ago. He let out the breath he was holding and felt Phryne's hand on his thigh. He turned to see her looking at him expectantly, a gentle smile on her face.
"We don't have to do this, you know. Getting this far is a good start. We could stay in town if you like."
Jack smiled and placed his hand over hers and gave it a squeeze. Phryne needed no man to complete her, but she loved him anyway, and for that he was eternally grateful. He doubted he would have managed the trials of the year if it were not for her. She in no way diminished him but made him stronger and he thought fondly of how she had been there for him to support him through a very difficult year.
She stood by him at the inquest into the deaths at Ulumbarra, where the coroner handed down his findings that the heroic actions of Detective Inspector Jack Robinson were necessary to secure the lives of himself and the Honourable Miss Fisher.
She was there when he was put on the stand at the beginning of the drawn out Sanderson—Fletcher trial where they questioned his allegiances, his honour and judgement in arresting the dedicated policeman who was not only his ex-father in-law, but who they believed had assisted his ascension through the force. He had ground his teeth and bore the brunt of their smears. When Phryne was called to the stand, he glowed with pride as she made the seasoned defence team look like first-year law students.
She was there for him when some of his peers gave him a wide berth at the Policemen and Firemen's Ball, but he took a deep breath and danced with her anyway.
He was there to support her when Jane was threatened with expulsion after punching a girl at school. I was defending you, she had told Phryne. They were saying awful things about you and the Inspector that they had read in the papers.
It had been a hard year, there was no denying that but they had survived it and here they were now, ready to move on and start thinking about their future.
"It's all right, I can do this, Phryne. I just had a few memories to get through."
"Memories of the attack?" she asked.
"No, memories of this place, actually. Good memories."
She scooted closer to him and turned his face to kiss him gently on the lips. She rummaged in her bag for a handkerchief and took off his hat so she could gently wipe the sweat from his brow. She ran her fingers through his hair and watched him as he closed his eyes and relaxed.
"Well, that's a good start. I love you, Jack. We've been through a lot together this year and we can get through this as well. We'll do this together." She looked up and him and grinned. "And, the sooner we get to the house, the sooner you get your presents."
They had timed their trip up here to coincide with their anniversary as lovers as a distraction from the other reason they were here. Phryne had made Jack close his eyes as Mr Butler placed the presents she had for him on the back seat of the car, which she then covered with a blanket. She knew she shouldn't rush him, but she was eager to give him her gifts.
Jack smiled at her and started the engine. He drove slowly, rounding the new bend in the drive and his heart skipped a beat when he saw the transformation. The garden beds at the front of the house were moved to the other side of the drive, where he had sat and watched Phryne sitting in the doorway on the night of the attack. The gravel and stones on the drive had been replaced with rammed earth.
He drove up to the house and parked. He got out of the car and stood quietly looking at the house with a hammering heart while he waited for Phryne to join him so they could walk in together. She held his hand as they walked past the wooden posts that were supporting the roof. The roses had gone and were replaced with a soft, thornless climber with pretty bell-shaped flowers.
Jack unlocked the door and they walked inside. He tossed his keys on the hall table, just like he always did and they hung up their coats. They walked into the lounge room and stopped to take in the transformation. The upholstery on the lounge chairs as well as the curtains had been replaced with more modern, brighter material. Colourful cushions were tucked into the corners of the lounges.
Jack turned to Phryne. "Something tells me that you played a part in this," he said smiling.
Phryne was relieved to see him looking happy. "Now what would make you think that?" she said, smiling back.
He cupped the back of her head in his hand and drew her to him so he could kiss her forehead. "My mother may have mentioned something about you two shopping for fabric."
Phryne rolled her eyes and twisted her mouth into a smirk. "Well, at least I now know she is hopeless at keeping secrets. What do you think? Do you like it? I know how you never liked change here."
He turned to her and smiled. "I like change if it is for the better and this is definitely for the better. It's really freshened the place up." He moved to sit on the lounge as Phryne drew back the curtains and opened the doors to the verandah. Jack smiled as he took in the view to the hill and he knew then that he could move on from what happened here.
Phryne turned to see him looking wistfully out the doors. She was thrilled that he wasn't disappointed by the change. Despite it taking time to convince him to come here, he seemed to be doing remarkably well. She walked to the back of the lounge and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Stay here, Jack, and I will bring in your presents." With a quick kiss on the cheek she was gone.
It took three trips for Phryne to bring his presents in. Her main gift to him had nearly reduced him to tears as he opened the elongated mahogany box to discover a beautiful bronze telescope. His hands had a slight tremble as he lifted it gently from the box to have a closer look. The second gift was the tripod, which he took straight to the verandah in preparation for assembly. Her third gift to him was a gift for the homestead. She had filled a small box with the finest art supplies in the hope that he might take up drawing again, and if not then his mother or anyone else in the family could use them when here.
Phryne was seated next to him on the couch. "Happy anniversary, Jack," she said with a grin, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek.
Jack needed a moment to compose himself. He was feeling overwhelmed with emotion and blinked back tears. He turned to her and drew her into a hug.
"Phryne … I …" He was lost for words and pulled back so he could kiss her. "Thank you, I love them. You couldn't have chosen more special gifts. I wish I had something to give to you."
"But you have given me your gift, Jack. I only wanted to come here for our anniversary with you and I meant that. And here we are. Seeing you here like this is the best gift of all." Phryne reached up to gently cup his cheek in her hand. "Plus I expect another poem at some stage you know."
Jack smiled. "Speaking of poems and my mistletoe challenge, I believe we were rudely interrupted when I was trying to restore the romance of mistletoe for you."
Jack grabbed Phryne's hand and pulled her off the couch and onto the verandah. He stooped below the railing and jumped to the ground, turning and putting his arms out to help her down.
He took her up the side of the house to stand under the gum tree outside their bedroom. When they got there, Jack positioned them so they were standing under the mistletoe that he and his mother had sketched all those years ago.
Jack looked up at the mistletoe and Phryne watched him carefully. She detected a hint of sadness in his expression.
"Jack," she said gently, reaching up to put her hand on his shoulder, "are you all right? You look a bit … sad."
Jack gave her a small smile and exhaled. "I'm fine Phryne, I'm just feeling a little overwhelmed by everything, that's all."
"Jack," she said softly. She knew what was troubling him. Although they hadn't spoken of it since he had come to her house just under a year ago to learn of her decision, she suspected that he had hoped she would change her mind about marriage so he may one day propose to her here. She reached up and laced her fingers behind his neck.
"Jack, you know why I won't marry. It's not because I haven't found the right person," she said gently, "because I have. It's what marriage represents for a woman. I know you would never make me feel like you owned me, but I refuse to be part of a tradition that treats women that way."
Jack huffed out a small laugh. She knew him too well. "I know that Phryne, I just love the idea of being married to you. Don't worry, I won't let this change anything."
Phryne smiled at him coyly. "Well, I know it's not quite the same, but I will be your mistletoe."
Jack raised an eyebrow at her. He was smiling now, pleased that she had forced him out of his sombre mood. "What, to have and to cling to me until death do us ... "
"I do!" she beamed. Her smile was infectious and Jack couldn't help but grin too.
"Well, go on then," she said. When Jack looked a little confused, she added, "I think it is customary at this stage in the ceremony to kiss the parasite, Jack."
Jack laughed, a deep throaty laugh. Phryne laughed too, and Jack drew her closer so he could kiss her and they chuckled softly against each other's mouths. He tilted her chin up and looked lovingly at her as he brushed her fringe from her forehead, his hands coming to rest just under her jaw. He leant down to kiss her gently on the lips.
"I am utterly in love with you, Phryne."
"The feeling is mutual, Jack," she said, pulling him into a longer, more passionate kiss. "Now let's go and get our things from the car so we can have a whiskey and listen to music."
They grinned at each other as they remembered the last time they did that here. Phryne took his hand and led him around the tree to her car. She was so relieved that everything had gone well so far, and now they had three days to themselves to celebrate. And there was much to celebrate: their bravery and willingness to give their relationship a go; growing closer, despite their difficult first year together; and Jack agreeing to return here to make peace with his beloved and much-needed retreat. She was looking forward to swimming with him, climbing with him, dancing and drinking whiskey with him, and of course making love to him, but most of all, she was looking forward to just being here with him. He wasn't the only one that had longed to come back here to reclaim the memories of their time here together. Phryne too had felt the pull to return here, not just to help him heal but to relive those three special days that forever changed her.
Later, as she sat on the verandah and watched him assemble the telescope, she wondered if they would be together now if she had agreed to go to a safe house. She hoped that they would have managed it, whatever the circumstances, but at the time, with all that was going on in their lives, she knew that it took something special to bring them together.
She took a deep breath of the crisp country air and felt more content than she had been in a long time. Unlike Jack, she had never had a strong sense of belonging; she had changed continents and social status and she never quite knew where she truly belonged. As she looked at the man that she loved excitedly putting his telescope together, she thought she could feel the beginning of something stirring within her. It was the beginning of a feeling that would stay with her, and by the end of their three days here together she would have that sense of belonging that she had always wanted, and it would be with him, here at Ulumbarra.