Before we start, I must thank chelsie fan for being the most wonderful beta a girl could ask for. This story has been many many months in the making, and it almost certainly wouldn't be published without all her hard work and encouragment. She's lovely and so are her stories, so go read them if you haven't already. I'll wait here.
Back? Ready? Let's begin…
Yorkshire, November 1924
It happened quickly. From the minute she'd awoken that morning she'd felt that something wasn't quite right. She blinked repeatedly and rubbed at her eyes, but the brown spots dancing in her peripheral vision refused to leave. She had a splitting headache. Had she hit her head on the bedframe in the night? Leaving the lights off she gingerly dressed herself in the dark, trying to avoid moving her head any more than necessary.
She would go downstairs for some food and a headache powder; that ought to do the trick. No point in giving up on the day with it barely begun.
By breakfast the unnerving brown spots had invaded more of her field of view. The powder had alleviated the worst of her headache, but if anything, her vision seemed more obscured. Mr. Carson glanced at her curiously. She'd been awfully quiet this morning and seemed preoccupied. He noted that she blinked far more than usual and rubbed her temples repeatedly over the course of their short meal. He wasn't about to question her health in front of the staff, not if he wanted an honest answer at any rate, but he made a mental note to ask her later.
By midmorning she discovered that she couldn't read her day cards properly, and panic slowly started to rise in her chest. The words were blocked, hidden behind dark foggy clouds that refused to lift. She flung the paper down in frustration. This would never do. Resignedly she put her head down on her desk. She felt silly; with her headache gone she wasn't in any pain and there was no explanation for what was happening. It will pass, she reassured herself; surely it will pass. The thought did little to quell her growing anxiety.
The signs of her advancing years had made themselves known in little ways here and there. The pain in her back when climbing the stairs after a long day was more noticeable over the last few years. Her fingers stiffened in the cold more than they used to, and her body had long ago lost the ability to bear children. Despite this, Mrs. Hughes had never felt particularly old. The lines on her face when she looked in the mirror reminded her that she was indeed aging, but she'd always viewed it as a largely aesthetic component of herself, not who she was inside. The subtle changes had been slow and largely superficial. This was different. This was a sudden, debilitating change and it had the potential to ruin her.
Calm down woman, she thought; you're getting ahead of yourself. There was no reason to be distraught, certainly not yet. For all she knew it was a temporary little blip and by evening she would be laughing about it. She needed to do something productive; that would make her feel better. Casting her paperwork aside, she headed for the laundry. Not her usual prerogative, but she liked keeping the laundry maids on their toes.
Her visit had come as a surprise to the poor girl working the laundry, but thankfully everything was in order. Hidden away in a distant part of the house Mrs. Hughes busied herself with linens and towels, pretending to be making notes of what she wanted to put into rotation until it was time for luncheon. It was dull, but the physical labour suppressed her panic.
At luncheon she realized that she couldn't see her plate well enough to eat properly and she almost dissolved into tears on the spot. Hastily she put down her cutlery and made for the kitchen. She needed Mrs. Patmore. Mrs. Patmore would understand.
The cook had been surprised at being summoned out of the kitchen mid-meal, but offered no resistance. In the privacy of her sitting room Mrs. Hughes poured out the story to her sympathetic friend. It was obvious that the woman needed a doctor, but having someone else point it out was the push she needed to take action. Mrs. Patmore insisted they go to see Dr. Clarkson that very afternoon. If it really was as bad as all that then it was an emergency she'd said. Mrs. Hughes was forced to agree.
"Will you tell Mr. Carson?" Mrs. Patmore asked, once it had been decided.
"Not yet. Let's find out what we're dealing with first." She ought to tell him - she was sure he'd be sympathetic - but that wasn't what she wanted now. All he could do from here was worry and that would only make her feel worse. They would go on the pretense of an unexpected errand, and she would speak with him later, if necessary.
One hour later they were walking, arm in arm, towards to the village. Mrs. Patmore, in her infinite wisdom, had thrown together a sandwich for Mrs. Hughes to eat on the way. Mrs. Hughes insisted that she was not hungry, but the chiding look she received from the cook could have been seen for miles, poor vision or not. She ate, forcing herself to chew and swallow despite the growing knot in the pit of her stomach. The women walked in silence, Mrs. Hughes focusing her attention on putting one foot carefully in front of the other.
The déjà vu as they approached the Downton Cottage Hospital was overwhelming. She had been fine on each prior occasion; perhaps she would be lucky again. Mrs. Patmore, apparently having learned her lesson from last time, managed to keep her anxieties about the situation mostly to herself. She clutched her friend's arm tightly, trying to infuse confidence in the face of uncertainty.
The exam was simple and straightforward. Look this way, look that way. The doctor shone a bright light in her eyes and peered at them through his ophthalmoscope. There were a few routine questions. No, she didn't think she'd hit her head, certainly not very hard. No, she didn't feel any pain, just that her eyes were very heavy. Yes, it had started this morning. No, there were no other symptoms. The doctor's manner was deliberately neutral throughout, a model of professionalism. When he was finished and had reached a conclusion, he made a point of having her sit down in front of his desk to deliver the news. Mrs. Patmore sat next to her, uncharacteristically quiet.
He explained, gently and clearly, that her retinas were separating from the back of her eye. Both of them? she asked. That seemed patently unfair. Apparently so, although the right eye was visibly worse. It was uncommon, but not overly so. Perhaps she HAD bumped her head in the night? That would explain her headache this morning. It didn't make much difference, he was certain of the diagnosis. He informed her, as sympathetically as possible, that her sight would continue to diminish either to a very low level or completely. There was eye specialist in London if she wanted a second option, but Dr. Clarkson didn't see the need. There was no cure. Mrs. Patmore had gasped audibly at that, but Mrs. Hughes pressed on, ever practical.
"How long?" she asked him, fearing that she already knew the answer. Days, he told her, maybe less. She nodded. She appeared remarkably composed, but her hands trembled in her lap. The implications were clear, but there hadn't been time for it to sink in properly. It still felt surreal; it couldn't be something that was happening to her. Yet the evidence was right in front of her, in the shadows that obstructed her view of the good doctor's face.
He didn't have many words of reassurance; it was a very difficult thing to hear, and he had no medical recourse to offer. He tried to explain the anatomy behind what was happening to her eyes, but trailed off when he realized she wasn't listening anymore. She was in no state to make plans. Go home, he told her, and they would talk about logistics tomorrow. She would probably have more questions for him then. It was an upheaval of everything she knew; it would take time to figure out what she wanted. She thanked him, her voice as pleasant as ever, but it left him with the distinct impression that she wasn't quite there. He apologized sincerely that it wasn't better news and bid them farewell.
The two women walked out together arm in arm, much the way that had walked in, but now with the burden of truth haunting them. Mrs. Hughes tried to rationalize that it was better to know the worst than to fear it. It didn't help. Emotion threated to overwhelm her, so she returned her attention to walking, one foot and then the other, leaning on her friend to keep herself steady.
Only when they were safely back at Downton behind closed doors did Mrs. Patmore decide she could no longer refrain from asking. "Mrs. Hughes? What will you do?"
The simple question brought Mrs. Hughes's emotions finally to the surface. Her vision blurred, this time from her tears.
"I don't know."