DISCLAIMER: I don't own Downton Abbey and I make no money from this work.
"Dorothy!" Edith shouted as she almost bounced up the stairs with excitement. She had just returned from a meeting with her editor – her editor! – and she couldn't wait to tell Dorothy all about it. It had been nearly six weeks since Edith had had her first story published in one of the most popular women's magazines of the day. It had received such a good response from readers that the editor had asked her to do another, and then another and now she had just been commissioned to write one a week for the next 12 issues. Edith could barely believe it. The editor, a nice man called Edward Utley, had given her some of the letters that they had been sent by women who had read her stories. She had looked through them with tears in her eyes; she could barely believe that people had read the stories, let alone enjoyed them enough to write letters telling her so. One woman had told her it had made her remember life before the war, and another had said that her characters seemed so realistic she almost felt like they were friends she knew. Mr Utley had told her that she had a 'natural turn of phrase' and an 'unsentimental, amusing' way of writing about the past, and by the time she had left the meeting she was dizzy with praise, the like of which she had never experienced. In the taxi on the way back home she had kept thinking I can write. I can write. I can write. This is what she could do. This was what she was good at. Finally, after 25 years, she had established her worth in this world, and it was a wonderful feeling.
When she pushed open the parlour door she had expected to see Dorothy listening to the gramophone or dancing around the room or pouring herself a drink, but instead she found her lying on the floor in half-gloom. She was curled into a ball, her hair loose and covering her face. On the carpet beside her was a newspaper, opened to a page about a new exhibition of the work of a dead artist. Edith could hear that she was crying. "Dorothy?" She dropped to the floor next to her friend and put her hand on her back. "Dorothy, what's happened?"
Dorothy raised her head and pushed back her hair, the tears making it stick to her face. Her round eyes were a startling shade of blue and glistening with moisture and her cheeks were red and patchy with crying. She tried to speak but could hardly catch her breath between sobs, so Edith just rubbed her back in slow, soothing circles until she managed to regulate her breathing. "In the paper." She whispered, pointing to the copy Edith had seen earlier.
"This paper?" She held it up. "Which page?"
"Th-that p-page." Dorothy hiccoughed. She paused for a moment to compose herself and then said, "The painter. The artist."
Edith quickly scanned the article. The man was called Edmund Carpenter. He was an artist who had moved to London to find appreciation for his work. He had died in 1918, during one of the last battles of the war, at the age of 34. She couldn't immediately find anything that would upset Dorothy so much. "Did you know him?"
Dorothy nodded and pressed her lips together tightly to keep from sobbing. Tears began to drip down her cheeks again, and she pushed herself up into a sitting position so that she and Edith were both sat on the floor with their back against the sofa. She wiped angrily at her face and then spoke again, her voice now calm and controlled. "Yes. I knew him. We were in love."
Edith inhaled in surprise. "In love?" She paused, her mind racing with questions. "But how did you meet?"
"I used to come up to London quite a lot before the war to stay with my cousin Caroline after she had married. He came to dinner with one of her husband's friends one night – her husband is one of those bores who likes to have artistic, bohemian friends to make himself feel more interesting – and that's where we met." Dorothy pulled the sleeves of her cardigan down over her hands and sighed a deep, shuddering sigh. "It was electric. An immediate attraction, and we both felt it. We sat next to each other at dinner and he kept nudging my foot under the table when somebody said something ridiculous. At the end of the evening he told me he would like to draw me, and gave me his address."
"Did you go?"
"Of course. I went the next day, and told Caroline I was going shopping. When I got there he was painting a picture of a ballet dancer – I remember that he had her leg just right. It was as if you could see the muscle, but it was still graceful. He was surprised that I'd come, and he kept apologising for everything being such a mess, but I loved it. His bed was in the corner of the room, and it wasn't made. I could see how he had slept from the dent in the sheet." Dorothy bit her lip and closed her eyes for a moment. "He hadn't shaved. Everything smelled like paint and turpentine, and he had a little tinny gramophone in the corner playing Debussy."
Edith felt as though she shouldn't be privy to these details. They almost felt too intimate and personal; she was intruding on a private love affair. Yet Dorothy continued, losing herself in the memory of Edmund and his paintings, trying to conjure up all the little details that saturated her memory.
"On that first day he drew my face in charcoal. It wasn't like anything I had seen before. I liked how he made me look more than any photograph." Her speech was disjointed, and she kept taking breaths between each sentence to keep from crying.
"Did you go back again?"
"I went nearly every day. He would draw or paint and we would listen to music. He smoked cigarettes that he'd roll himself. His room had a big skylight, and we used to sit up on the ledge and look out at London as the sun went down." Dorothy lifted one of her thin fingers to her mouth and began to agitate the skin around it. "You're always asking me how I know all the writers and artists that I know; he introduced me to them all. Edmund was a wonderful person, and he was very talented, so a lot of people liked him and wanted to meet him. He took me to the most spectacular parties, nothing like I had ever been to before." She stopped talking for a while and Edith watched her pretty, delicate face twist in pain. "We would have gotten married. He loved me and I loved him more than anything. We had planned it out – I was going to go home and explain it to my parents and then we were going to have a little wedding in London. I was going to get a job as a secretary and he had had a big commission, enough for us to a buy a bigger flat with a proper bedroom and kitchen. I was going to learn to cook." She leaned forwards and pressed her hand to her forehead, crumpling with pain. "It would have been so perfect. Then the damned war started, and he wasn't like all his friends who didn't join up and spent the next four years dodging the draft; he said he had a 'duty'. A duty to fight for his country. I begged him not to go - " she hit her knees with her hands in frustration " – but he said he had too. He told me it would be over by Christmas and that we would get married then. A few months wouldn't hurt."
"When was the last time you saw him?" Edith asked.
"He came home on leave in November 1917. I came up to London and told my parents I was staying with Caroline, but I stayed with him instead. He was home for four days, and we spent all of it together. We didn't leave his rooms once. When he left he told me that he felt like he wouldn't be fighting much longer, and I thought he meant that the war would be over soon, but – " her voice cracked with agony " – but I wonder if he somehow knew what was going to happen to him."
"It was at Marne?." Edith asked, glancing down at the paper to check. There had been an officer at the hospital who had fought at Marne. It had been a nasty business, especially so near to the Armistice.
"Yes. David wrote to tell me. He was his best friend and because he didn't have any family Edmund had listed him as next of kin. I went a bit mad when I found out. I was in hysterics for days, and Mother thought I had lost it for good. I've never felt quite the same since. Even now, when I'm having all this brilliant fun I still feel like a part of me has gone for good." She looked down at the paper. "I wonder if I'll be in the exhibition. I doubt it though, I think I got all the one's of me. After he died, David cleared out his room, and he gave a lot of things to me. He had a whole sketchbook of drawings of me, and some canvasses that I had to keep hidden from Mother. They were nudes, you see."
"Nudes?" Edith gasped. She had never heard of anyone posing for a nude picture before.
"Don't be shocked, darling." Dorothy said with a small, sad smile.
"I'm not. Just surprised, I suppose. I can't believe you let him paint you."
"I let him do more than that." Dorothy whispered, looking at the floor.
Edith felt herself blush as she realised what Dorothy meant. "You mean you…?"
"But how did you avoid an… inconvenience?" Edith whispered this last word, as if the spectre of pregnancy was too frightening to be spoken aloud.
"He used to stop before he did… what would inconvenience me. It still counted, though." She added, almost defensively. "He was still my first. The Catholics say that means we're married. I like to think that. We loved each other. There was nothing immoral about it." Her face crumpled suddenly and she buried her face in Edith's shoulder, sobbing wild, angry sobs that hurt to listen to. "I miss him! I miss him so much!"
Edith wrapped her arms around her friend's thin body and held her as she dried. There was nothing else that she could do except this, and for Dorothy it was enough that Edith was there to support her and let her cry her bitter tears. This was a new situation for Edith. Mary had never wanted her comfort, and she had taken the role as Sybil's chief protector, so Edith had been left out of displays of sisterly affection. Here, with Dorothy, she was wanted and needed.
"I won't ever love anyone ever again. Not like I loved him." She physically shuddered with misery, and Edith could feel her shaking.
"I know." Edith whispered. She really did know how it felt to experience the death of the love of your life.
"And I don't even have a grave to go to. I have dreams about his body in some muddy ditch, rotting away without any flowers or marker or anything to prove that the he was a person who lived and was loved." Dorothy whispered, rubbing her eyes.
"If I should die, think only this of me
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home." Edith recited, quietly.
Dorothy looked at her. "That's beautiful."
"It's Rupert Brooke. He wrote it during the war. You see, there is some corner of a foreign field that is foreverEdmund."
The two women sat on the floor, huddled together, alternatively weeping and comforting for another hour. The fire flickered and outside the sky turned black, but they still stayed. Neither of them felt so alone in their private grief anymore, and that meant the world.