The title of this piece may confuse you as it seems to be an alarming misrepresentation of what it actually contains. It got its name from a song by Elbow, from which I got the idea.
This is another one of my war-has-broken-out-and-people-are-a-bit-mad ideas, but with a bit of a different spin, at the moment anyway. It doesn't need to be a oneshot if anyone has strong feelings on the matter.
Also, this is particularly written for CrazyMaryT who is a very faithful reviewer and seems to be veritably in love with Charles Carson.
He had not been in a public house for years, not to have a drink at any rate; odd jaunts to the Grantham Arms weren't exactly in his job description. Yet here he was, perched on a stool at the bar of that very alehouse with a half empty glass of brandy in front of him.
Odd circumstances had brought him here to say the least. His Lordship had come downstairs to apologise to the staff for the problems and unpremeditated haste caused by the rather abrupt end to the garden party, when Thomas had taken occasion to announce well in their employer's earshot that he thought a trip en masse to The Grantham Arms was in order. Charles, appalled by the forwardness of his footman, had been about to issue a reprimand and decline his consent when his Lordship- looking weary- simply replied:
"Well, if Carson and Mrs Hughes consent to escorting you all..."
Charles was more than ready to refuse on the grounds that he was far too worn out to enforce any kind of order or decorum when he was cut across again. Elsie had previously been sitting silently in a chair at the edge of the servants' hall, but now she rose, picking up her hat from where it sat on the dresser and declaring flatly that she could murder a drink, before heading out of the room to find her coat. Such was the vehemence of her proclamation that it caused his Lordship to raise his eyebrows in her direction in something akin to admiration.
Upon their arrival at the pub, the young men had made it plain that they were in no need of a chaperone to help them find their way to some drink; and to be quite frank, Charles was in no mood to contest the matter. He was quite glad that they had left him alone, really. Anyway, there was little to worry about as the ladies didn't seem to have strayed far out from under Mrs Hughes' wing; most of them sat round a table at the edge of the room.
From where he sat, tucked quite neatly out of sight of most of the room, he could just see Elsie at the table. Determined not to spend the evening staring into his glass, he watched her, knowing that she probably couldn't see him. She had a far off look about her, gazing out of the window of the pub although it was black dark outside. He got the feeling that she wasn't listening to a word of what whoever was talking was saying. He could just about make out Miss O'Brien's mildly slurred tones over the rest of the noise in the room. Her hand nursed a similar glass to his. She made no movements nor did she speak; her silence was a doleful meditation, yet she looked rather alert next to her companions. Gwen- asleep, poor child- slumped a little against her shoulder, but she appeared to take it in her stride. The old beauty that she had been famous for in her youth was still there; he would always be able to see it, but at the moment he wished he couldn't. It resonated through her deathly pale skin; a vigilant entity in a room of dullness. But tinged as it was with sadness, it broke his heart.
In their youth, the other footmen had found it odd that he seemed not to be interested in girls like they were. He was hardly going to tell them that the reason was because he had found himself horribly in love with the head housemaid but couldn't bring himself to say it to her. So he pretended that he didn't want to be distracted from his career in service, and let whichever one of them wanted to pursue her that week get on with it. He could bear it because she would never allow any of them to do it for too long; she'd never had any problems asserting herself.
And he was willing to not pursue her himself to avoid being thrown back like the rest of them were. He was content just to go on as they were so at least that would be preserved. At least they would still walk down the corridors laughing at one another in turn; at least she would still playfully box his ears when he came and stood next to her when she was on a step ladder and he was still as tall as her. He had loved her too much to give all of that up. And now that they were growing old together, he supposed he had to admit that that really was the case, he couldn't give up the way that they were now; the implicit understanding they had as equals.
He realised that he was now staring at her. Oh, to hell if he was, she was stupidly stupidly beautiful to him, more so now than ever before. Apart from having no interest in any other woman, he considered the likely possibility that he hadn't really looked at another one these twenty years. When they had been discussing Anna's relationship with Mr Bates, Elsie had said that it was no wonder, really, a pretty girl like that was bound to attract a suitor sooner or later. He'd had to look twice to see what she meant.
And she was still staring, her eyes full of sorrow, her posture ever so slightly hunched in dejection. The candles burning low, dim light danced at the corners of her face, flickering in her eyes like tears would. Something in his throat seemed to be being compressed and curving to breaking point like a piece of cane, making him swallow painfully. He stared at the woodwork of the bar, needing to avert his eyes. It was only then that he realised there were tears on his cheeks. He brushed them away hastily, lest anyone should see. Rather ridiculous, really, how most of the world was mourning a deadly conflict, and here he was crying over a woman.
But, said, the voice in his head, this wasn't just any woman. In recent years the world hadn't been half as devoted to peace as he had been to her. Perhaps it was something to do with the brandy, how suddenly he seemed unable to breathe easily.
It took him by surprise when, still staring blandly at the surface of the bar, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see the face he'd been staring at for the past twenty minutes, watching him in mild concern. She looked as if she wanted to ask him something. He gave a half-hearted smile to reassure her.
"We should probably go home," she told him quietly, "Before Miss O'Brien drinks herself under the table."
The latter remark was made with the ghost of a rueful smile.
"I hadn't noticed her on the brandy," he remarked, trying to keep his tone light, not wanting to betray the thoughts he'd been having of this woman only moments before.
"Gin and tonic," she informed him flatly.
"I think she's single handedly sustained this places's profit margin tonight."
He got off his chair, convinced that it was probably time to go now. He felt oddly unsteady on his feet.
"Are you alright, Mr Carson?" he heard her ask.
He closed his eyes tightly, sure that she did not want an honest answer to that. Particularly if he went into explaining why he wasn't.
"Perfectly," he lied, his voice dismissive, before moving off to round up the male staff.
He did not see the concerned frown on her face as she gazed after him.