Stinking Yarra: a contemptuous phrase
addressed to Melbournites by Sydney folk in
return for Melbourne’s sardonic comment on
‘Our Bridge’ and ‘Our Harbour’.
—Sidney J. Baker,
A Dictionary of Australian Slang
Sydney struck Phryne Fisher, quite literally, in the face.
Up to then, the journey had been uneventful. She had alighted from the train at Central Station, collected her maid, her baggage, her two attendant young men, Jocelyn Hart and Clarence Ottery, and her shady hat. She had surrendered her ticket and was standing in the street while one of the young men found a taxi. The heat was oppressive. The air was heavy with dust, smoke and incipient storm. Phryne was scratchy from lack of sleep and the difficulties consequent with washing and dressing in a confined space. The city seemed crowded, noisy and more than a little grimy and she was not disposed to like it.
Then a beggar woman, hefting a whimpering baby, whined for a penny. Phryne obliged, and the woman, laughing, thrust a handful of flowers into her face. They settled on her bodice, yellow and white.
The sudden sweetness was a shock. They were frangipani, seen only in florists in Melbourne. They were scented like lemon chiffon pudding and, ever after, when Phryne thought of Sydney, she smelt frangipani.
The day began to improve. The square black cab drew up and Phryne and her party were whisked away, tracking round a rather pleasant green park and up a narrow street.
‘This is Pitt Street,’ volunteered the first young man, Joss. ‘We thought that you might like to go to your hotel first, Miss Fisher, and then we could take you for a bit of a tour after lunch.’
‘Very kind,’ murmured Phryne, who wanted a bath. Sydney appeared to be composed of begrimed yellowish stone. The side streets were steep and crooked. She was passing theatres—the Ascot, the Lyceum—clearly built by people who really appreciated decoration and couldn’t have enough of it. The taxi came to a sudden halt in a precipitous street lined with blocky banks.
‘What’s happening?’ asked Clarence of the short, sweating man at the wheel.
‘Arr, they ain’t got the sense God gave to geese,’ snarled the driver, mashing his cigarette butt between his teeth. ‘Moving a thing like that at nine in the morning!’
Crossing Pitt Street was a truck carrying what Phryne was sure was the biggest bronze bell she had ever seen. It proceeded with casual grace, unconcerned at the increased level of tension in the city, which could almost be smelt like ozone after lightning. Taxis revved engines and swore. Omnibuses seethed. Passing small boys gaped.
‘It’s a church bell,’ she commented.
‘I can see that, lady, and they didn’t ought to be moving it at this hour!’ returned the driver. ‘A man’s got a living to make!’
Interesting, Phryne thought. A Melbourne taxi-driver would never have spoken to her so freely. The bell trundled on to its destination and the cab resumed the road with a jerk. Sydney went past in a cloud of oily dust and Phryne decided she could see it later.
In all, it was something of a relief to be deposited alive at the solemn doors of the Hotel Australia. A young man paid the driver and Phryne ascended the steps to receive the bow of the bemedalled individual who minded the door.
He saw a slight, small woman in a natural cotton dress with a dropped waist, pale stockings and shoes, a natural straw hat with a harlequin scarf in pink, black and green and the set expression and black fingernails of those who had recently detrained from the Limited Express. He estimated her ensemble at more than a year’s pay and deepened his bow. Phryne nodded and went past, trailing an unmistakeable maid carrying a soft leather vanity case and three hotel porters bearing her luggage. Monogrammed, of course, thought the doorman.
The expression did not noticeably relax until Phryne was lying full length in a bath scented with Rose de Gueldy, scrubbing her neck. She twiddled a gold-mounted tap with one foot.
‘I don’t know how one gets so filthy travelling on a train, but one does,’ she remarked to Dorothy Williams, her personal attendant. ‘How are you, Dot dear?’
‘Hot,’ replied the young woman. ‘But this tea’s a treat. Nothing like a nice cuppa. And this is a real nice apartment, Miss.’
‘It is rather spiffy. You can rely on the Hotel Australia—or so they say.’ Phryne gazed complacently at her splendid bathroom, built in the days when having a bath was a major and possibly life-threatening event. The bath was raised on a platform of polished marble. The walls were tiled with marble in a soothing dark grey and the cool floor was as smooth as ice. A bank of mirrors reflected Miss Fisher’s admirable form, getting cleaner by the minute. A marble Roman boy stood on a plinth, taking a thorn out of his foot. Ferns sprouted from a brass jardinière. In addition the water was hot and the feeling of ground-in grit was leaving Phryne. A multitude of the fluffiest towels awaited her emergence. Bliss.
‘Miss, I can’t find the present for the Vice Chancellor,’ called Dot. Phryne rose, shedding foam. The Roman boy would have recognised Venus Anadyomene. ‘Now, what did I bring?’ Phryne asked herself, reaching for a towel. ‘I was tossing up between the Roederer Crystal—the ’22, of course, and the Laphroig single malt. The whisky, Dot, it’s packed in its own box. Try the trunk. I decided that the champagne might get bruised by travelling. I’m a little bruised myself.’
‘Me, too, Miss. I know I’ve stopped moving but my feet think they’re still on the train.’ Dot laid aside a shoe-bag and found an oblong wooden box. ‘Here’s the whisky, Miss. That’s a relief.’
‘Even more of a relief that someone hasn’t pinched it. Well, here we are, Dot. Sydney.’
‘Yes, Miss.’ Dot was dubious about the merits of the journey and of the city. It had seemed too big, too loud, too noisy and too thickly inhabited to be really respectable or safe. In any case, out of her own area, Dot felt acutely uncomfortable.
‘Cheer up, Dot dear! This ought to be fun. What could be more pleasant than a few days at the Test cricket, dinner with the Vice Chancellor, a little sightseeing, a trip on a ferry, and the Artist’s Ball with that up-and-coming young modernist Chas Nuttall? A pattern young woman could not occupy herself so politely.’
‘And no murders, Miss,’ said Dot cautiously.
‘No murders at all,’ Phryne assured her. ‘Now, a nap, a little light lunch in due course and Joss and Clarence are coming to take me for a walk around the city this afternoon. It will be all right, Dot, you’ll see. A nice, peaceful holiday.’
Phryne flung herself down onto linen sheets on a well-sprung double bed, cast a bolster onto the carpeted floor, and was asleep in seconds. Dot looked at her.
‘I do hope so, Miss,’ she replied. She went to close the shutters against the roar of traffic in Castlereagh Street preparatory to taking her bath.
An hour later Dot was still leaning on the windowsill, staring at the harbour. It was fascinating. She had consulted the Guide To Sydney, which the Hotel Australia supplied to all its first class patrons, and was beginning to have a rough idea of both history and geography.
From her view above the warehouses of Circular Quay she could see constant traffic moving on the water under the half-built claw shape of the bridge. Devastated areas attended each end of the structure, which was crawling with life. Dot supposed that they must have demolished a lot of houses both on her end and at Milson’s Point. She was not deceived by the statement in the Guide which told her that this was ‘a much-overdue slum clearance’. Dot herself came from a slum. Where did the people go when they tore down all of those little houses, she wondered. Were they living in the street, like the beggar woman with the baby? Sleeping on the beach? Banished to the bush? Who cared about them, now that everyone was hungry? Who cared about them, now that Sydney was building a bridge?
But the bridge was interesting. It vibrated with activity. The ant-workmen moved all the time in ordered lines, pushing barrows and hauling steel joists. At The Rocks she saw lines of matchbox-sized trucks and even drays, bringing in more timber, more steel, and drums of metal cable. Hanging on strings like spiders, the riveters dangled over the edges, held up by cobwebs above the barely wrinkled satin cloth of the harbour.
Across that fabric moved the green ferries, puffing white smoke, their wakes following behind as straight as set-square lines. Pleasure craft wafted effortlessly under the black iron claws. A steamship butted in, its black funnel embossed with a golden bear, pulled by a yellow tug sitting down on the water like a duck.
‘It’s a patchwork quilt,’ thought Dot, elbows on the sill. ‘A huge, beautiful, complicated appliqué that changes every minute.’
Taxis hooted bitterly in the street below and carters bellowed. A newspaper boy screamed ‘Extra!’ in a voice which suggested that he had some internal amplifying system. ‘Yuxtry!’ yelled the newspaper boy. ‘Sinny Morn’n Hairoild!’
Dot was reminded suddenly that she was dirty and tired and now she had black grime on her forearms as well, and she really needed a wash and a bit of a lie down. Even then, she was reluctant to close the window and shut out the harbour. Promising it that she would be back, she released the shutters, closing out the noise and the light.
• • • • •
Miss Fisher had picked at a poached trout in the luncheon room and was engaged in cutting up a peach and watching Dot struggle through a mountainous roast beef salad which she had decided she needed and now would rather die than waste. Jocelyn Hart and his best friend Clarence Ottery came in, doffing panamas, wiping foreheads and exclaiming about the heat.
‘Is it often this hot in Sydney?’ asked Phryne, smiling slightly as Dot managed to swallow the last mouthful and sat back, laying her cutlery across a triumphantly empty plate. ‘You must have taken all those sermons about the starving children in China to heart, Dot dear.’
‘And I had to put a penny in the Missionary Society box every Sunday, Miss,’ Dot agreed. ‘So many people hungry, it’s a crime to waste food. Especially food like that,’ added Dot, as the beef had been tinged pink and moist, the salads appropriately crisp, the pickles piquant and the bread and butter so good as to almost reconcile her to a foreign place.
‘It’s summer, Miss Fisher,’ Joss pointed out. ‘And you’re a lot further north than you’re used to. We were thinking, being as it’s so steamy and all, perhaps you’d like a trip on a ferry. What about that? Cooler out on the water, and we can go to Manly and buy an ice-cream and have a stroll on the shore.’
‘Sounds lovely,’ Phryne agreed. ‘Would you like to come, Dot?’
‘No, Miss, I’ve got to call my sister. I’ve got a telephone number for the shop she works in. If she can get away early I might go and see her.’
‘Take a cab there and back, Dot dear, or you are welcome to bring her here, there’s plenty of room.’ Phryne stuffed a crumpled banknote into Dot’s hand. ‘We’ll dine in tonight, order whatever you like. Don’t know when I’ll be back. We don’t have any engagements until tomorrow, which is the Vice Chancellor’s dinner. A little cricket and a nice trip on a ferry is just what we need, eh?’
Dot smiled. Despite this strange anthill city, she didn’t think that even Phryne could get into much trouble on the Manly ferry. She handed over Phryne’s shady hat and went off to reason with the telephone, an instrument which she viewed with grave distrust. It didn’t seem natural to carry voices over wires.
Phryne took the arms of both young men as they stepped down into Castlereagh Street. ‘Well, gentlemen, here I am, as you wanted me to be. I am in Sydney and I am dining with the Vice Chancellor at the Great Hall tomorrow night. While this street is full of people I don’t think any of them are listening, and I have even ventured forth in your company without my confidential maid. Now, perhaps, you can tell me what this terrible event was, why you went to the trouble of finding my dear Peter Smith in his cane-fields and getting a letter of introduction, and why you wanted me to come to Sydney and scrape acquaintance with the University elite?’
‘It’s complicated,’ began Joss, avoiding a clanging tram.
‘A bit difficult to explain,’ agreed Clarence, as they gained the other side of the road.
Phryne looked into each sweating, desperately earnest face and relented.
‘Very well, then, let us get to the quay, find a ferry, and you can tell me when we have somewhere to sit down. Which way?’
‘To the water,’ said Joss. ‘Circular Quay.’
They crossed several smaller streets, a patch of green with a large sandstone monument and an anchor on dead grass, and then emerged into a broad sweep of quay and an expanse of water. That’s Sydney, thought Phryne. The harbour is an imperative; one must see it. And even then it always catches us by surprise.
‘There’s a ferry,’ exclaimed Joss. ‘Come on—we’ll just get it.’
Much against her will, Phryne grabbed for her hat and ran, pacing her escorts and diving between a man with two greyhounds and a stout woman carrying a basket of pineapples. Phryne paid for tokens and they raced through the turnstiles, up the gangplank and landed on deck out of breath and scarlet with exertion just as the steam whistle shrieked and the Dee Why pulled out of her mooring.
They found a seat at the prow, where the smoke poured back over the ferry’s roof and the brass rail was smeared by thousands of hands. They had been right. It was cooler on the water and it was pleasant to be moving. Seagulls flicked effortlessly past, hanging for a moment as though they were on wires: clean and perfect from curved beak to fanned tail.
‘She’s bigger than the K class Lady ferries,’ commented Joss. ‘She has to cross the heads, which are open sea, so she has to be stronger. The Lady ferries are confined to the inner harbour. Though I don’t know what’ll happen to the ferries after they finish the bridge. All go out of service, I expect.’
‘That would be a pity,’ commented Phryne, fanning herself with her hat. ‘What about the bridge? It’s huge,’ she said, as the Dee Why puffed importantly past the open spans of the uncompleted structure. They looked like claws made of black iron and they made Phryne uncomfortable.
‘Been trying to build it for decades,’ chuckled Clarence. ‘Sir Henry Parkes declared: “Who will stand at my right hand and build the bridge with me?” Took so long to get it going that the wags reckon someone was standing on his right hand, all right. But they call it “the iron lung”.’
Phryne cocked an eyebrow.
‘Because it keeps so many people breathing,’ explained Clarence. ‘Four thousand men work on the bridge, and then there’s the feeding, lodging and clothing of them and the horses and the mechanics and all their wives and children. God knows what’ll happen to the poor labouring classes when it’s finished. We’ve already got slums worse than anything you might have seen in Fitzroy,’ he said, almost complacently.
Phryne had seen slums in Paris and London which she thought the equal in squalor of anywhere in the world, but she did not reply. The movement of the steamer was comfortable, gently swaying on the flat calm, but the air was getting heavier and heavier and clouds were building up behind the claws of the bridge.
‘Surely it’s going to storm,’ she commented.
‘Before evening,’ agreed Joss.
‘And me without an umbrella. I wondered why so many people were carrying them. Oh, well, never mind. I’m waterproof enough. Now, gentlemen, if you please. The story. However complicated, however difficult.’
They exchanged glances. Nice young men, Phryne thought, one blond, one brown, with frank blue eyes and loose linen coats. Jocelyn tall and slim with a slightly hesitant air which was most attractive. Clarence dapper and alarmingly self-assured, languid and graceful, very conscious of his beauty. Both, she knew, students of the arts. Both a little disconcerted, now that it had come to the point. Fluent, polished, their public-school voices still a little foreign to her ear. They didn’t seem to know how to begin, so she spoke.
‘You are both at the University of Sydney,’ she began. They nodded. ‘You are both studying Arts.’ They nodded again. ‘Good. Now, has this something to do with the University?’ Nods. ‘With the Arts Faculty?’ More nods. ‘Tell me it isn’t a murder,’ she implored. ‘I promised Dot, no murders.’
‘Not a murder.’ Joss made a huge effort and began to speak. Once he started, he did not seem to be able to stop and delivered himself of the whole problem in one lump. ‘You see, it’s like this. There’s been a theft. From the safe in the Dean’s office. It’s a great big green-painted safe. In the office of the Dean of Arts.’ Phryne waved a hand to indicate that she had grasped the essential point, that the safe was in the office of the Dean of Arts. Joss crushed his hat between his hands and went on. ‘There were a lot of things in the safe. The Dean’s wife’s garnets. A bit of papyrus from Arabia. A lump of rock from the Northern Territory, some sort of Aboriginal weapon, belongs to Anthropology. An old, illuminated book belonging to some queen. Some money, not much. But the thing is, you see, there were the exam papers, the final exam papers, Greek, Latin, the notes for the viva voce, and they’re all gone.’
‘Well, then, the professors will just have to write themselves new papers,’ said Phryne, unable to see the problem.
‘Yes, of course, that’s all right,’ said Clarence easily. ‘I knew you’d mess this up, Joss, old man, you don’t have any talent for extempore exposition. It’s always been my main skill, as well as bluffing my way through exams with the minimum of effort. Effort is so bad for the complexion.’ He took Phryne’s hand confidingly. Phryne smiled. The affectation was practised and pretty to watch. Clarence continued. ‘It’s our friend. He’s been accused of the theft and is likely to be sent down. We know he didn’t do it, but we also know that the University Senate are very set against him because he’s a disciple of Anderson the Philosophy prof. The University gods think that Anderson is very unsound indeed. He doesn’t even stand to attention when the carillon plays “God Save the King” at noon. Sort of radical chap who might tell his students to steal exam papers.’
Phryne might have been annoyed by being brought to Sydney merely to recover a lost exam paper, but her companions were deadly serious. Both faces were turned towards her. Joss’s hand, hanging loose at his side, clenched, and then he snatched off his hat. Even the lazy Ottery was keyed-up and tense. There was clearly more to it.
‘See, our friend hasn’t got our background. He’s a scholarship boy with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Radical sort of chap, too, come to think of it. But he’s staked everything on graduating. He’s going in for academia. Just the sort of person we need, too, shake the place up. Everyone says he has the makings of a real scholar.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘Harcourt,’ said Joss, mangling his innocent panama. ‘Adam Harcourt. You see, we can’t call in the police, the University won’t allow it, and in any case they’d just leap to the same conclusion. And the U doesn’t have scandals, of course, so the Senate will just send Adam down and deprive him of his chance at a degree and there will go his chance of a career. And we’re afraid—he’s so serious, you know, not like us—I mean, the Pater’d be cross if Clarry failed or was rusticated, and my father doesn’t want me to go to University anyway, but if Harcourt is thrown out he might do something…silly.’
‘I see. Does he know that’s why I’m here?’
‘Of course not!’ Clarence was shocked. ‘You haven’t agreed to help yet. No use getting the poor chap’s hopes up.’
‘What do you expect me to do, Joss?’
‘Why, find him innocent, of course. If the U knows you and you’ve dined with the VC, then you’ve got the entree and can go wherever you like, carrying out your investigation and drawing your conclusions. It’ll be very educational to watch you,’ added Joss, seriously.
Phryne was about to instruct the young men to read more Greek and less Sexton Blake when she caught sight of a shore approaching. Manly, if she was any judge, source of a nice walk below the pines and, with any luck, ice-cream. The crossing of the Heads had been accomplished with such skill that she had only just registered the change of current.
‘How did they know—rather, why do they think that Adam Harcourt stole the exam papers?’ she asked as the landing stage, emblazoned with an advertisement for Fry’s Malteasers, slid into view.
‘They found them locked in his carrel at the library,’ said Clarence reluctantly.
‘Will you help us?’ asked Joss, taking up her hand and kissing it.
‘If you buy me an ice,’ said Phryne, ‘I’ll think about it.’