It's been all-quiet with this story for a while because quite honestly I had no idea what to write for this chapter and ideas for other stories (which I wrote and put up) in the mean time. Mr LP (despite not having read a word of this, as far as I know – I must just rabbit on about fanfics too much) said I ought to pick this one up again after leaving you in the lurch with C30, so you've him to thank for what follows! Gave me the kick up the arse I needed! Sorry it took me so long! Hope you are all well; let me know what you think (goooo on, push me over the 200 reviews mark!). LP. x

Chapter 31

A quiet had fallen over the house, the result of another of Mrs Branson's letters. A letter bringing the news that Sybil had feared, had barely dared to hope wouldn't come.

Her father's reaction had hurt her in a time she needed no more hurt, the way he had sighed, the way he had looked and acted when her mother read him the letter, Sybil unable to bring herself to say the words. A sigh that said he had been proved right, one of the reasons he had opposed their relationship, the fears he had for her future had come to fruition.

"Oh Sybil, darling." He had come to her, sat beside her as she sobbed into her pillow, held her hand in his, his eyes apologetic. "I am sorry, my worst fears have come true – but you must know I never wished this for you. I could never wish hurt like this for you."

Christmas 1920

It was dark in the room but for the light that danced from the fire, it was midday and the curtains were still closed, blocking out the sunlight, which seemed too much to face right now. Everything else seemed so dark now; it only seemed right to surround herself with the physicality of darkness.

The baby lay against her in the bed, her face turned to Sybil, eyelids closed and face serene with sleep. Sybil envied her daughter, the way she could be oblivious to the pain, so completely innocent to all that was going on. She slept and she ate and she flashed her gummy little smiles; Sybil was glad Lillie wasn't hurting, but equally couldn't understand how it could be so – that a little girl who had lost the father who adored her could not feel it. Not realise the loss.

A tray of food rested at the end of the bed, Anna had brought it up hours earlier but Sybil had yet to touch it. She wouldn't go down for meals; the prospect of seeing them all round the table – seeing Matthew of all people – was unthinkable. Mary still had him, her future with him when everything she had of Tom was shattered, their hopes for their life together replaced with grief. The tray lay untouched, as the plates from the days before had also been. The meals that were brought up to her room were her favourites, the things she remembered most fondly from her childhood, things her mother and Mrs Patmore had planned no doubt to try and coerce her into eating something. Dr Clarkson had come the day before, after her mother had seen her undressing, seen the way her bones jutted out from her body now, he had lectured her about taking care of herself – for Lillie if for no one else. Her milk would stop soon if she didn't eat, her body would give up on processes that weren't vital to keep her alive as it ran out of fuel.

She had lain on the bed, staring blankly at the curtains drawn over the window through his examination and the advice that followed. Her mother had hovered nearby, Lillie cradled against her chest, swaying to and fro to keep the baby quiet. Cora had backed up Clarkson's plea, showed her concern for her daughter and her granddaughter, but it wasn't getting through. The wall of grief Sybil had built around herself was too much for them to infiltrate.

Robert was doing his best to get them to release the body, at least then they could give him a proper burial in Ireland, there would be a place she could go, to talk to him, to think of him. Not that she could do anything but think of him. But for the future, a place to take their daughter, to take Tom's daughter to tell her of her Pa would be healing. Something of a help at least. There was resistance though, to letting his body be released – they all knew too well it was probably because of the state it would be in, giving away the details behind what was probably a grisly, violent way to meet the end and not entirely true to the death the authorities had made them believe that Tom had faced.

Edith had taken to walking the baby outside in the perambulator, sometimes with Mary and sometimes alone, bundling the baby up against the December cold and seizing the opportunity to get the baby into the light and fresh air. But then in the week before Christmas Sybil had begun to grow anxious whenever the baby was out of her sight, waking if anyone tried to take her out of the bedroom while her mother slept. She was withdrawn fully into herself, consumed by the loss in a way that scared them all.

They took turns to sit with her, Cora and Edith and Mary, on a sort of rotation. Sometimes they would try and talk to her or get her to eat, others they would sit in the chair next to the fire and read – silent but present if she needed them, if she needed someone. But now, the afternoon before Christmas it was just Sybil and Lillie, the others called away to preparations for dinner and church. The planned festivities were not as extravagant they had been before the war, the legacy of the country's loss and now the shock of their own loss had made the Christmases they had had before 1914 seem garish and wasteful. There would be no ball with endless guests, just family, those they loved and dinner in each other's company.

Sybil placed a hand on Lillie's chest, feeling the heaviness in her own limbs that came from her fatigue. She felt the baby's chest rise and fall with each breath, her little body warm beneath her hand. This was not how she had wanted her little girl's first Christmas to be; it should have been happy and bright and warm, Tom should have danced with her with Lillie held against his chest, he should have been there to see the snow of a white Christmas, to wake to on Christmas morning, to kiss under the mistletoe. She remembered last Christmas, it had been cold and she had felt awful as the nausea of pregnancy hit with full force, but she had been happy. They had crammed into Mrs Branson's front parlour with Tom's brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, they had laughed and played games and eaten – all happy to be together. It was a Christmas like she had never experienced, it was a truly merry Christmas – loud and bright and overwhelming in a wonderful way. And the two of them had had their little secret, the baby she carried that only they knew of. She had drifted to sleep that Christmas night listening to Tom talk about the baby and the way their next Christmas would be so different. Sybil could never have imagined it would be different like this. Her and the baby alone, without him there to realise his imaginings.

A knock on the door was followed by Anna's voice, gentle and quiet as always so as not to disturb if Sybil and Lillie were sleeping. She ignored it and kept quiet, playing up to the assumption that she could sleep – wanting to be left. There was an exchange of voices; she could hear Anna and her mother. Then a sharp knock and her grandmother's voice, Violet made no effort to soften her tone and the door was thrown open before she could respond.

"Oh my word, Sybil dear. I knew things were bad but no one told me you were still in bed." Her grandmother walked round the bed when Sybil gave no response and sat herself next to the baby staring down at her granddaughter's face. "I know how much you are hurting my darling…" Sybil's eyes flicked up to her grandmother, her brow creased into a frown, the sternness of her expression interrupted Violet. The dowager countess gathered her thoughts, "Oh Sybil, please remember that I have been through this. I have lost the man I loved, my husband; I know the despair you are feeling. You want to hide yourself away from the world, let them forget you and leave you to mourn. You see no point in catering for your own needs; you see no reason to go on. I understand, I do. But you have the needs of another to care for."

"I have been feeding her and caring for her, I've not let her want for anything." Sybil's voice rasped, the first words to have left her lips in days. She wouldn't be told she wasn't caring for her daughter.

"I do not deny that. You have been feeding her and keeping her warm and changing her, I know that my dear. But being cooped up in a darkened room is no life for a little one." Violet reached out a hand and placed it gently on top of Sybil's, shocked at the coolness of her skin. "She needs light and fresh air and to be cooed over and admired. This is no way to let her spend her first Christmas…"

"It ought to be with Tom, her first Christmas should be with him."

"And I know we cannot replace him Sybil, I would not dare suggest that, but she still deserves better than this. And so do you. It will never go away completely, the loss, the pain you feel now but it will get better. I am not asking you to forget him Sybil, for I know, despite our reservations, you loved him and he loved you very dearly, more than we can comprehend. But you need to begin to heal. And that will not happened looked away like the princes in the tower." Sybil thought about protesting, but could not find the energy, could not find fault in her grandmother's words. "Now, Anna has come to give you a bath and help you get dressed." Anna and Cora moved into the room, their steps tentative. "And you must come downstairs and eat something, soon it won't be you alone who is suffering if you don't." Violet stroked the baby's cheek, the age of the skin of her hands a stark contrast to the new, plump skin of Lillie's face. "You must think of what is best for her now, at this very moment and doing that will help ease the pain in your heart." Violet used a thumb to brush away the tear that was working its way down Sybil's cheek. "That man loved you a great deal, I saw it, I really believed it the moment I saw him when he thought he was going to lose you, when he was waiting for the baby to come." Sybil's eyes were wide, searching her grandmother's face. "And to receive love like that my dear, even if only for a little while, means it will stay with you for the rest of your life. Now you have to make sure you have one, that you live a life to make the most of that love." The room fell silent for a moment, as they found themselves lost in their thoughts. Violet coughed, pulling herself back into the present. "Now Anna could you open these curtains, the poor mite will think it is perpetually night time. My dear, your mother will take the baby and I will leave you and Anna to it." As Anna rushed to draw the curtains, throwing great bands of light across the whole room Violet rose, leaning heavily on her stick, and turned to make her way out of the room. "I expect to see you downstairs soon, your Aunt Rosamund will be here soon and I'm sure she will be a delight as usual." Her tone was clipped and sharp, back to normality after it's moment of sentimentality.

As Violet made her way out of the room Cora gave Sybil an apologetic look, her mother-in-law had been her last resort – the last of her weaponry, her last hope to pull Sybil out of herself and her pain. And as Anna helped Sybil out of bed and stood her, slightly shakily, upright she was glad of Violet and her particular brand of straight talking. A rare moment of appreciation.