For all the tragedies brought by World War One, it also offered many women their first taste of freedom. I can imagine Anna would thrive in that new world.
As always, these characters aren't mine. But they'd be a lot friskier if they were!
This was going to change everything.
Anna would be the first to admit that she didn't know much about the world at large. She scanned the newspaper when she got a chance, but she had never been farther than London and even during her brief visits there she had never wandered more than a few miles from Grantham House. Somehow she knew, though, that things were never going to be the same. The world was at war.
She had expected the young men to go, expected there would be extra work, and expected that things wouldn't run the way they always had at Downton. She was ready, eager even, to tighten her belt and do her bit.
The first thing that changed, however, was the one thing she foolishly assumed never would. Silly girl that she had been, she had always believed their situation was only a matter of time. With patience and attention she could wear past his reserve and reluctance and get him to confess what she was sure was the truth; he loved her as much as she loved him. Little did she know the conversation they had during the garden party would be the last time he spoke to her, excepting when there were house matters to discuss or he needed the salt and pepper.
She was bewildered at first, and tried several times to engage him or catch him alone. But it seemed he always kept himself one step ahead of her, subtly excusing himself when there was even the barest potential that they could be left without company. He would hardly look at her, and when forced it was only for the briefest of seconds and always laced with regret. Regret and firm resolve.
It took three weeks before she would let herself acknowledge what was happening, and she cried that night after she was sure that Ethel was asleep. At first she thought it was her fault, that he really was angry with her for calling on his mother and so disgusted that he wanted nothing to do with her ever again. But something about that didn't seem right. She had saved his job. He said he didn't think she was wrong; had even sounded impatient at the suggestion. He mentioned that his mother liked her. It didn't strike her as the behavior of man who was offended, which left her mystified. She had no other ideas to account for his sudden withdrawal, though she racked her brain. A crushing weight settled on her chest as the days stretched on and each moment felt more miserable than the last.
When the United Northern Munitions factory opened in Harrogate, Anna was there to apply on the very first day of hirings. She had seen the posters in the village and something in her gut told her to go. They made her an offer and she jumped at the chance. The family and staff had been good to her, but she had also been quite good to them, serving well and taking care in her job. She considered it an even exchange and didn't feel like she owed them a debt. Plus, workers were desperately needed and the nation's needs had to take priority.
Mrs. Hughes hadn't been happy with the news, of course, but what could she say? Anna was going to help the war effort—she couldn't try to convince her to stay. The gossip quickly filtered through the house. Mr. Bates had been shocked enough to look directly at her when she came to supper, the first time he had done so in ages. He looked stricken, in the brief glimpse she got before he turned away, but it didn't seem to make any difference. Nothing changed in the two weeks before her departure. He was as elusive as ever and she'd stopped trying. All he had to say to her on the morning she left was "Best of luck." Two and a half years condensed into three trite words.
All things considered, Anna found her new situation agreeable. She started at 32 shillings per week, nearly triple her previous wage, and while the work was dirty and malodorous, it was really no worse than blacking grates and cleaning out fireplaces. Some of the girls complained about the dormitories or the 10 hour shifts with only Sundays off. She had lived in a shared attic room and toiled from sunrise to late evening with only a half day every fortnight. Her job here was done when the whistle blew and after that her time was her own. At the estate she could be called upon at any time, and even in her precious leisure hours her world was regulated-no privacy, no self-determination. And Downton was an exceptionally good situation for a position in service.
She worked hard, with the same diligence and determination she brought to everything, and within 6 months she had been promoted to supervise the girls on her line. Between her advancement and wages rising, she was bringing home almost ten pounds each month. When she took her new position she decided to leave the dormitories and find her own space. She rented a room in town from an older couple whose children had grown. It was barely more than a bedroom with a small sitting area, but it had its own side entrance and it was all hers. In all her years she'd never had her own room, and she was elated the morning she moved in.
Her time at Downton seemed very far away now. She occasionally sent a letter to Mrs. Hughes, for formality's sake more than anything else, but otherwise she tried to leave that experience behind her. It had been hard, but the distractions of her job, new friends, and setting up her own little life helped. She still thought of him often, but when he came to mind she aggressively pushed the memories back, reminding herself that it was not to be. The weeks faded into each other and one morning Anna realized that she was happy-maybe not overwrought with perfect bliss, but truly content in what she'd been able to accomplish and the possibilities that lay in front of her.
Satisfied as she was on the whole, this particular day was turning out to be a long one. It was the first warm afternoon of spring and the girls on her line were hopelessly distracted—their excited chattering and giggling was slowing things down and it had taken some stern words to get them back on task. She rolled her shoulders and pinched the bridge of her nose as the bell rang for their afternoon break, letting the crowd headed for the door pass before her. She stood alone in the factory enjoying a few minutes to herself before deciding that some fresh air might do her good, or at least stave off the headache that was threatening.
As she emerged from the building, she saw a man standing outside the gates, scanning the crowd. She didn't pay much attention at first, assuming it was the husband or father of one of the ladies, but something in his manner made her look twice. She saw a cane, craned her neck to see his face, and nearly fainted with shock. It had been almost a year and a half.
"Mr. Bates? Is that you?"
She walked over toward him. "This is a surprise. What brings you to Harrogate? Is everything all right?"
"Yes, everything is fine."
"What news from Downton?"
"Everyone is well. Lord and Lady Grantham have let the estate over to be a convalescent hospital, if you can believe it. We house over 80 wounded and ill soldiers."
"Amazing! They've always been fine people. It's good of them to make such a sacrifice."
"Things are quite altered these days. We've all got new jobs to do. Mrs. Hughes still runs the house, but she's also in charge of looking after the nurses who are staying with us. Mr. Carson works with the doctors to manage the stores and supplies. The rest of us try to keep up and make ourselves useful any way we can."
"Have you heard anything from the men away?"
"We don't get news as often as we'd like, of course, but as far as we know most everyone is all right. William and Branson are in Belgium, last we heard. Thomas, Mr. Crawley, and Mr. Molesley are in France. We did lose Jack from the stables two months ago. That was very sad."
"I remember him. We started at about the same time. That's terrible."
He opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by the bell.
"I need to go," she told him, unsure of what else to say. "We only get 10 minutes."
"I'd like to talk to you, if I might. Can I see you later? When you're done?"
She hesitated. It was nice to see a familiar face, and she could feel a stirring low in her belly as those same old feelings surfaced, but at the same time the hurt came back and she reminded herself firmly that things were different now. Still, he had come all this way and she didn't know why. In the end curiosity won and she found herself nodding, against her better judgment.
"I'm done at six o'clock. Will you be in town until then?"
"Yes, I'm not leaving until the late train."
"Can you meet me at the pub? It's The Lark & Rose, right there around the corner." She gestured across the way, pointing the building out.
"I'll be there."
And he was, as promised, even though she arrived a bit later than she intended. She'd had to sort out a scheduling problem for the next day, and had been vain enough to want to wash the dust from her face and hands before fixing up her hair again.
He smiled when he saw her and for a second everything was forgotten. She was a girl of 24 again, standing in a kitchen, staring at the first man who had ever made her heart flutter. Had that really only been a few short years ago?
He stood as she approached and held out her chair for her. When they were both settled he gestured to a waitress. "You must be hungry if you've just finished. Would you like to get supper?"
She agreed and they placed their order. Once that was done, he sat back, regarding her. "Your dress isn't the same as the rest of the factory girls."
"I was promoted about a year ago," she explained. "I supervise one of the lines."
"I'm not at all surprised. You always were a credit to anything you did." The warmth in his voice made her ache a bit for how things had once been.
They talked then, as they ate. He told her stories about their makeshift hospital—how they had set it up, how it was managed, and the new people who streamed through the estate. She told him all about things at the factory, the girls she supervised, and the home she'd created for herself in town. They were sipping tea, running out of news to share, when she finally asked what had been on her mind all night.
"It's been fun to catch up, but you still haven't answered my question. What brings you to town?"
He looked down, taking a breath as if to gird himself for something, and then met her direct gaze. "I'm a free man, Anna."
What was she supposed to say to that? What business was it of hers? "Oh," was all she could manage.
"I started looking for my wife right as the war was starting. It took a long time, and when I found her it took quite a bit more to convince her to agree to a divorce, but eventually she did. It wasn't a pleasant experience, and it was costly in many ways, but it's done and final. "
"That must be a relief for you," she responded awkwardly.
"I know I behaved badly before you left, and I apologize for it. Things could be different for us now. I finally have something I can offer you."
"Are you trying to tell me you came here to pursue an understanding with me?"
"Yes, Anna. With very sincere intentions."
She could no longer keep up the polite façade. Her temper flared. "Have you gone mad?"
"To come to me, after all this time, as if nothing had happened? The nerve—it's breathtaking!"
"You needn't be so blunt. If my attentions are not welcome just say so."
"The same way you showed such infinite care for my feelings when you tossed me aside like so much rubbish?"
"I regret that very much."
"Oh, well, now that that's sorted…" she shot back, sarcasm dripping from her words.
"Anna," he tried again, but she was only getting started.
"Would that be the life I could look forward to? Waiting until you decided what should happen and what's right for me, and being completely disposable if things weren't to your liking? I spent over two years waiting for any little …" she trailed off with a rueful laugh. "That's all you're going to get from me."
"You've changed," he observed, almost to himself.
"I finally took your advice. I dreamt of a better man. It turns out there is one I can imagine-one who doesn't shut me out. One who can't simply drop me and walk away without so much as a backward glance. It was hard, fairly impossible at first, but I managed. I made a life for myself. I'm not giving that up because today you think you fancy me."
"Is that really what you believe of me?"
"What were you expecting, Mr. Bates? Did you think you could just make up your mind that you wanted me and I'd be there?"
"My name is John. We're not below stairs, and we certainly didn't just meet in this pub."
She sighed and looked away. "I should go," she finally said, standing up. "Thank you for supper."
"That's it, then?"
"Goodnight, Mr. Bates. Best of luck."