A/N: So Silverduck claimed (very kindly) that I could write about watching paint dry and make it interesting. Obviously I took this as a challenge, and this is the result! This one's for you, Silverduck!
N.B. You might want to brush your teeth after reading.
There is very little you can do when eight and a half months pregnant, so Mary sat in the nursery and watched the paint dry.
Originally it had been Matthew's study but, as it was the lightest, quietest room in the house and overlooked the back garden, it had been the obvious choice for converting into the nursery. Matthew had tried to object, thinking that he would need a quiet study even more than ever once the baby was born, but the combined efforts of his wife and mother had defeated him. They were both very talented at persuasion. In rather different ways. Only Lord Grantham had seemed at all sympathetic to his point of view and issued an open invitation to Downton for whenever he needed to get away.
Of course, the bookcases had had to go. (The drawing room, dining room and bedroom were now rather uncomfortably crowded.) With the room cleared of furniture, the dusty, streaked beige walls had shown themselves in all their unacceptable dingy glory.
"No child of mine is sleeping in a room that looks like Sleeping Beauty died in it," Mary had stated quite firmly with her hands on her hips.
So they had redecorated. Matthew had had some grand idea of doing it all himself so that the child would feel a greater connection to his (or her) environment. Or something like that anyway. Mary had found his reasoning utterly incomprehensible and had told him so frequently.
She had watched with fond amusement from the doorway as her husband and Molesley had donned aprons, put down old sheets on the floor and got down to the serious business of mixing paint. It was ridiculous in every way, but she could not begrudge them their fun, even if they found it in the oddest of ways.
Then her mother-in-law had swept in one Saturday afternoon and done a corner of the room - "And mind you remember which! I want my grandson to know exactly which bit I did!"
They were all assuming the baby would be a boy. Mary could not help thinking this was very unwise considering her family history, and was not at all convinced it would be. Not that she had any way of knowing, not really.
Then Sybil had come over and joined in too. Much to Mary's horror, she and Matthew had started flicking paint at each other and behaving in the most irresponsible way imaginable.
"Please!" she cried from her vantage point, leaning against the door frame, where she pretended not to be interested. "You're both behaving like children!"
"Don't you care at all?" replied Sybil. "I sometimes think I'm more excited about this baby than you are!"
It was strange, but recently Mary had started finding Sybil extremely irritating. Everything she said seemed to rub her up the wrong way. She was about to hotly defend herself, when she got distracted by Matthew. He was crossing the room towards her with a purposeful stride, and an expression filled with mingled affection and exasperation. This was not what caught her attention, however.
"You have paint on your nose!" she exclaimed crossly.
Undaunted he stopped right in front of her, looked her up and down then very deliberately and without breaking eye contact with her, smeared his finger with paint from his brush. Then he ran his finger gently down her nose. Mary shivered.
"So do you," said her husband, and grinned irresistibly at her.
"I'm in the way again, aren't I!" said Sybil quietly and left the room. Mary paid her only enough attention to consider that she was right for once and to be glad of her departure.
She grabbed hold of her husband's finger and waved it as he gently tried to pull it away from her. "What are you trying prove, Matthew?"
"That you have no excuse."
She allowed his finger to pull her a little closer. "Excuse for what, I wonder?"
He narrowed his eyes and leaned slightly forward. Mary felt her heart flutter in anticipation, when he suddenly stepped quickly back and held up his paintbrush.
"Your turn, darling!"
Mary sighed, wanting to be more irritated than she really was. It was very difficult to stay annoyed with Matthew. This was a new flaw in her character that she had only become aware of a few weeks into her her marriage.
She snatched the paintbrush from his hand with an upwards flick of her eyebrows, stalked across the room, delicately dipped it in the can of duck-egg blue paint and then, choosing a wall they had not even started on yet, drew a single line of paint right down the middle of it. She looked over at Matthew automatically, though definitely not for approbation.
"Very good, darling!" he said, looking as if he were desperately trying not to laugh. "Now let me show you how it's done!"
She glared at him. "You said it was very good!"
He came up behind her and took hold of her hand which held the paintbrush, his free arm sneaking round her waist to pull her closer against him. Gently he began to direct her hand and together they painted a few broad, slow strokes. Leaning his head against hers, he murmured, "I was being nice," and pressed a kiss to her temple.
They had not got much painting done that afternoon.
That was many months ago now. In her current condition, Mary had no interest in painting or in doing anything at all that involved standing up. She did, however, still love the room. So she sat quietly there in the rocking chair and thought about her life: what it used to be, what it was at present, and what it would soon become. As she reflected, she watched the paint dry for only the other day Matthew had had an idea of painting the skirting boards white, even though they had already painted them in the same colour as the rest of the room several months previously. He did not seem able to leave the room alone.
Sometimes she read, and sometimes she tried to knit, though more often she did not. Everyone had told her that expectant mothers ought to knit baby clothes. After several months of scoffing and resistance, she had one day woken up to the strange feeling that a little pair of soft, woollen booties would be just the thing and, with her nose stuck proudly in the air, had implored Isobel to teach her to knit. This odd maternal urge had passed soon enough though, it had to be said. Whatever the strange thing on the end of her knitting needles was, it certainly wasn't something that could be worn on the feet of a baby, or anywhere else for that matter. She scowled at the wool basket by her chair and decided she had no patience with what expectant mothers ought to do. So mostly she just daydreamed and watched the white, summer clouds drift by outside the window in the perfectly blue sky.
A July birthday. "You'll like that, won't you?" she found herself unable to help murmuring to her daughter (or son), her whisper sounding loud in the complete stillness of the room.
Then she looked up as she heard the click of the front door downstairs, grateful at being interrupted before she embarrassed herself further by talking to the unborn child who, even if by some strange miracle, could hear her, certainly would not understand anything she said. Sometimes, however, Mary wondered if that was truly the case.
"Mary?" came Isobel's voice, back from the hospital.
"Up here!" she called back, and presently heard her mother-in-law's footsteps on the stairs.
"Goodness!" cried Isobel, entering the room. "How can you sit in here?" She immediately threw up the sash window. "It stinks of paint - I can hardly breathe!"
"I didn't notice," replied Mary sheepishly. She supposed she must have been there so long she had grown acclimatized.
Isobel faced her. "How are you feeling? No pain? No nausea? No contractions?"
"No, nothing. I am quite well." She smiled up at her, used by now to the fussing, so long as it was kept to moderation.
"Very good. Well, you must let me know if there is any change. At this stage, you can never be too careful."
Grateful as Mary truly was, she was very happy at that moment to hear the front door bang open again and footsteps rush up the stairs with considerable energy.
Matthew appeared in the doorway, out of breath and with a new can of paint in each hand.
"Ducklings!" he exclaimed, beaming adorably at his two women (so far), then added, "Hello, Mary. Hello, mother!"
"Ducklings," repeated Mary, unimpressed.
"Ducklings! What do you say to a row of ducklings round the skirting boards? Look, I've got yellow and I got some black too so I can give them little beady eyes!"
Mary and Isobel exchanged a meaningful glance. Matthew had gone completely mad. His mother took a step forward and laid a reassuring hand on his arm. "My dear," she said very gently, "perhaps you might like to have a quiet think about why painting this room is so important to you. It's quite alright to be nervous about becoming a father. Reginald was-"
Matthew was staring at her blankly. "I'm not nervous! I'm overjoyed! Why would you think I was nervous?"
He shrugged her hand off, put the cans of paint on the floor and took Mary's hand, smiling fondly down at her. "To know that in a matter of weeks, my beautiful, lovely, charming wife will be bringing forth into the world the child of our-"
"Ducklings," intoned Mary again, though her lips twitched, cutting off his eloquence which she was not really listening to anyway.
The smile faded from Matthew's face and he crouched down beside her chair so he could look directly at her. "Do you really not like it, Mary?"
He glanced quickly at his mother and she took the hint and quietly left the room. She had got better at the art of disappearing over the months they had all lived together. (She had been very bad at first.)
Mary did not reply for a moment, but rested her hand lightly on the top of his head and swept back the hair from his face in a gentle caress.
"It's not that, Matthew," she answered eventually, her eyes soft before his anxious ones. "We can't be constantly adding to this room, and new paint takes a long time to dry - I would know, I've been watching it! Moreover, we're going to need to move the furniture in soon. Dearest, we could need to use it any day!"
For a second, a look of complete panic crossed Matthew's face and then it was replaced with a slightly forlorn expression. "No ducklings?"
Mary almost melted at his disappointment before he continued, "I was going to make a stencil and I thought you could go round afterwards and put in the eyes!"
"I'm not crawling around on the floor with a paintbrush!"
He glanced down at her belly and then back up to her face. "No, I suppose you're not..."
For a moment they just looked at each other, Mary's hand still resting on her husband's head. Then she smiled at him. "Why not delay the ducks for a few years, darling? You never know, Matthew Junior might be even better at painting beady eyes than I would be!"
"Matthew Junior?" exclaimed Matthew in utter horror, jumping to his feet and pacing away from her. "We are not calling my son Matthew Junior!"
As a distraction technique, it had worked perfectly. She could not help feeling a little smug.
"Mary," he said firmly, "I absolutely forbid it."
She nodded meekly at him, though her eyes danced with mischief.
"Anyway, I thought you said you thought it would be a girl." He frowned at her and then narrowed his eyes. "Are you teasing me, my love?"
She quirked her lips and shrugged slightly. It was hard to feel flirtatious when she felt like an elephant and her ankles were swollen to almost twice their normal size, but all the same she could not help herself. She never could with him.
"I think," said Matthew standing in front of her and pulling her out of the chair (a much less fluid and graceful action than it used to be), "that you have missed me very much today! Am I right?"
She shrugged again, playing with his fingers. "Well, you know how much I enjoy knitting!"
"Oh yes, darling," he replied, raising their linked hands before dropping them to clasp her upper arms. "I know very well!"
He kissed her softly, pulling her as close as he could considering the obstruction between them. She leaned forward, holding his face between her hands and stroking his cheek, the back of his neck, and finally tangling her hands in his hair and deepening the kiss, pulling away only when she felt herself obliged to breathe. He did not let her go far though, keeping his arms lightly round her and resting his forehead against hers.
"I do want you to paint the ducklings," she whispered presently. "Just not yet."
He drew a deep breath and released it. "Maybe I am a little nervous, Mary. Is that alright?"
She closed the small gap between them and brushed her lips lightly against his. "I would never believe you if you said you weren't."
She kissed him again, more lingeringly, wrapping her arms round his neck once more.
They did not get any painting done that day.
Happy Easter/Passover/St. George's Day/Shakespeare's Birthday/Spring Festival of Rebirth/Month of lots of bank holidays/Marriage (let me know if you're reading, Kate)! Reviews are better than Easter eggs... xxx