Disclaimer: Gosford Park and all related elements, characters and indicia © Sandcastle 5 / Chicago Films / USA Films / Capitol Films and the Film Council / Focus Features / Universal 2001. All Rights Reserved. All characters and situations—save those created by the authors for use solely on this website—are copyright USA Films / Focus Features / Universal.
Please do not archive or distribute without author's permission.
Author's Note: Written for Kitrazzle for the Yuletide 2011 Challenge.
Keep The Home-Fires Burning
Mary Parks, née MacEachran, believed she could handle anything. Grumpy scheming selfish dowagers, rationing, even the nightly bombings were manageable so long as she kept her wits about her and a cool head.
At the moment, however, an angry four year old girl was pushing her patience to the limit.
"But I don't want to go," Jane said, digging her heels in. "I want to stay with Nanny Gresham and Robbie and James."
Mary pulled Jane over to the side of the train platform as families milled around them, and dropped to her knees.
"Mrs Gresham and her boys have gone away to her family the country because of the bombs. We're going to the country too, and stay with Nanny Wilson. No more smelly Anderson shelter, no more smelly gas mask. Won't that be better?"
Jane shook her head, her dark green eyes filling with tears, and Mary sighed.
"Jane Alice Parks, what would your daddy say, if he saw you being such a bad girl?"
At the mention of her daddy, Jane's lower lip began to quiver, and Mary steeled herself for fresh floods of tears. But Jane lifted her chin and clutched her doll closer to her chest. Mary stood and half-walked and half-dragged her daughter to the train. Only when they were tucked into a hard wooden seat in the Third Class section of the carriage, did Mary begin to breathe again.
The pale green rail ticket was clutched in her fingers, and she smoothed Jane's dark hair back from her brow. There was a dozing elderly couple opposite them, and the rest of the four seats were taken up by a large family, the eldest boys refusing to hold still despite their mother's pleading.
As the packed train pulled out of the station, Mary allowed her thoughts to wander. The last time she'd been on a train had been when Robert had finished basic training at Aldershot, almost eight months prior. They'd met up for a single night in a hotel, while their landlady, Mrs Gresham, minded Jane for her.
Robert had looked so smart in his uniform, and he'd been in good spirits. He'd been offered a position as batman to one of Lord Stockbridge's cronies in his regiment, as trained servants were in high demand among the gentry. But Mary had still been terribly frightened for him.
It had been his idea to have little Jane evacuated to his mother in the country. After the shock of learning that his mother—the mother he had set out to avenge—had given him up, the two had become quite close. Closer than Mary had thought possible. Once Robert had learnt to forgive his mother, and by extension, himself, it had almost been like a fairy tale. Mrs Wilson, who had mourned the loss of her son for thirty years, was able to get to know her grown son. As for Robert, he gloried in suddenly acquiring a family. He seemed to shine from within, and all of the darkness that had plagued his childhood and youth was extinguished by the fierce, quiet devotion of Mrs Wilson and even gruff Mrs Croft. Mary supposed it was every orphan's dream: to discover they were in fact loved and wanted, and to be rescued of a life of loneliness.
When Mary had given her notice, the Countess had been furious. She'd felt abandoned and had somehow wasted all that time training Mary up as a lady's maid, all her "charity work" for naught. She hadn't even given Mary a reference, despite the fact that their relationship had warmed considerably after that horrible house party at Gosford Park.
Mary had landed on her feet however. The network of upper servants, to which Mary had been so hastily introduced, proved to be her salvation. She found a place almost immediately at a Bond street shop opened by a well-known former lady's maid. She'd made more in a week, selling hats and gowns, than she had in a month as Lady Trentham's lady's maid. But it was such a different life than she was used to. She was both excited and terrified of the idea of striking out on her own. For good or ill, life in service had been like remaining in the bosom of a family—even if they had not been her own dear family.
Mr Burkett the butler was the stern and staid father, Mrs Darrow the housekeeper a mother to all the girls in the house. Mrs Neelan the cook was always a bit harried, but cheerful despite Lady Trentham's constant demands. Merriman the chauffeur was like a crafty old uncle, and the two footmen, Fred and Michael treated Mary like a sister, right down to gentle teasing about her accent and funny Scottish ways. And like a family, not everything was wine and roses. The senior housemaid Sarah was jealous and mean-spirited at the idea of serving morning tea to a lady's maid four years her junior, so Mary had always taken her tea with the housekeeper in the Pug's Parlour. She found out later it was because Sarah had assumed she would become Lady Trentham's lady's maid, rather than a girl from an agency. But the two junior housemaids were nice enough—if cool to her—and in their looks they reminded Mary of her own sisters, whom she missed terribly. She'd hated London and her gloomy attic bedroom at first, but after three years, it had become home.
Of course, the close-knit family of Lady Trentham's household made it difficult for Mary to have much of a personal life. Having a "sweetheart" had been novel for Mary, and she had to admit, having to keep it a secret made it all the more thrilling.
Mrs Darrow had always been quite firm about the servants having no followers, but as a lady's maid Mary wasn't under as tight scrutiny as the housemaids. While Lord Stockbridge was in the City, Robert and Mary were able to share rare evenings twice a month when they could arrange it. They wrote letters constantly, and on the rare occasions the Carton sisters' families gathered together for shooting parties and holidays, weddings and funerals, they were able to meet under more relaxed circumstances. Visiting servants were allowed that bit more freedom. Having escaped the watchful eyes of their respective households, there had been many a stolen kiss or quiet conversation over cups of tea. The valet and the lady's maid was hardly a scandal—in some houses where the butler and housekeeper were married, it was in fact a common tale.
Robert had made it clear from the start that he wished to marry her, and Mary wanted nothing else. But her own family had come first. Most of her wages were sent back to her mother in Glasgow, who was bringing up Mary's young brothers who were born shortly before her father's death. As the eldest, it had fallen on Mary to go into service after her father had died, and help support the family.
She had only been able to leave the Countess' employ when her two younger sisters had gone into service themselves—one as a dormitory maid in a school in Glasgow, and the other was a maid of all work with a family in Newcastle. Secure in the knowledge that her mother and siblings were taken care of, Mary MacEachran could finally begin living her own life for herself at last.
Her mother had been shocked when Mary had written to tell her that she was engaged to be married to another servant. It was only after Mary and Robert had taken the train up to Glasgow that Mrs MacEachran had relented. Robert had put by enough that they could rent a bedsit in a respectable part of town, and Robert had taken a job at a fashionable London hotel. It was something her mother could boast of, then, having a son-in-law at the Savoy, which sounded like a palace from the way Robert described it—particularly after the King dined there.
Once Mrs MacEachran had given her blessing to the proposed union, Robert and Mary had finally married in the spring of 1934. It had been very quiet—just the two of them in a London registry office, with two of their single friends from work as witnesses. They'd had a photograph taken, and Mary had posted a copy to her mother. Robert had done the same, addressing it care of the hotel in Margate Mr Probert had purchased with his legacy from Sir William, where Mrs Wilson and Mrs Croft had taken places.
No-one had been more surprised than Lady Sylvia when Mrs Wilson and Mrs Croft left the Gosford estate for Margate. Robert had read his mother's letter aloud to Mary as they sat side by side in Hyde Park, smiling broadly and with no small amount of schadenfreude. Mary had teased him, but she had been glad that the Park sisters had finally got out from under the shadow of their pasts and were moving forward as friends once more.
As little Jane was rocked into a fitful dozing slumber by the motion of the train, Mary smiled down at her daughter's dark head. She was Robert in miniature, with her bobbed black hair and merry green eyes. The only reflection Mary could see in the child was the shape of her face, and her full mouth.
The first two years of their married had been blissful. The hours they worked had seemed like heaven after a lifetime in service. No more were they expected to toil twenty hours a day, seven days a week for their "betters" with no lives of their own outside of a free afternoon twice a month. There was time to go to the cinema, stroll in the park; read in the evenings before the gas fire, and Sundays afternoons to take the train to the seaside. Free to be people, instead of pieces of furniture. Highly polished and appreciated furniture; but furniture, nonetheless.
Not only that, but she no longer had to wear the same black crepe dress every day, with its little black apron like a housemaid. She wore skirts and cardigans during the day, but hanging in her closet were colours and prints she could never have worn while in service. Robert's favourite was a smart blue dress with white lace collar, but Mary's favourite was a dark green dress with pleats. Her Sunday best was just as stylish as the other young ladies she saw in the streets, rayon crepe with a skirt below her knee and trimmed with handmade lace. Her dark green felt hat cost her three guineas, which had seemed untold fortune to her when she was a slip of a girl newly down to London from Glasgow. Lady Trentham's heart would have stopped to have seen her in Hyde Park in her tweeds.
Mary had never thought she could be so happy. When she became pregnant, she'd worried that Robert would be angry because she'd have to leave working in the shop. But instead of being cross at the rapid change and the loss in income, he had been overjoyed, sharing round with all their neighbours that he was to become a father.
At night, as they lay beneath the coverlet, he would place a large hand on her abdomen, fancying that he could feel the baby. As she'd grown larger, her ankles swelling and toddling ungainly up and down the stairs, they'd moved into a new flat in Marylebone on Talbot Road near the Kensington boundary.
The birth had been hard, and Mary had wished her mam could have been there. But the district nurse was sent for to midwife, and little Jane was born healthy and strong in the spring of 1936. They had named her for Robert's mother, with her middle name for Mary's gran. Robert gave her a short string of pearls for their anniversary—the most extravagant gift she had ever received, even if she knew they had come from an East End pawn shop, and had cost no more than £5.
Her hand drifted up to stroke the pearls around her neck, as the English countryside flashed by outside the train carriage windows.
Robert would have spoilt Jane rotten, if Mary hadn't kept a firm hand. He showered all the love and affection on his own daughter that he'd been denied as a child, and Jane had him wrapped around her tiny finger from the moment she was born. Even the sleepless nights, pinching pennies, and on the whole losing so much of their hard-won freedom—their daughter's smiles and laughter made it all feel worth it.
Then, of course, there was the war.
Robert hadn't waited to be called up, but enlisted in the army within a week of war being declared. Mary was proud of him for that, but terribly selfish as well. She would have had him with her and baby Jane right up until the very last second. With all of London half-mad with fear of the Germans invading, it heartened her knowing that her husband was fighting for not just his family's freedom, but all of civilised Europe.
That didn't change the hollow feeling as she'd pulled back the coverlet on their bed each night, missing his warmth and bulk. How safe she always felt his arms around her. She slept with Jane curled in her arms now, and she hoped their daughter would remember her father when he finally returned home from the front.
Mrs Wilson was in the garden of the cottage when Mary and Jane arrived.
The train ride had been long for both mother and child, followed by the bus journey from Leominster rail station to the village. But Mary had kept Jane entertained by pointing out all the animals in the fields outside the bus' windows. There had been cattle and sheep, horses and goats. It had been like an outing to the Zoo for the little girl, who waved excitedly from the dingy windows at every four-legged creature they passed. The final walk to the cottage on Green Lane was blessedly short, and they arrived in early evening, just as the sky was beginning to darken in the East to a rich royal blue.
Mrs Wilson wore a smock apron over a print dress, and enormous straw sun hat. Her hands were protected by gloves, which she tugged off as she came down to the gate to meet them. Mary hardly recognised her, she was so changed from the last time she had seen her at Gosford. Gone was the severe grey dress and lace collar, waved bobbed hair, pale cheeks and thin-lipped smile. In their place was a cheerful older woman with bright eyes and a warm smile, her grey hair pulled back in a sensible bun with wisps that drifted down to soften the sharp lines of her cheekbones.
"Lizzy!" she called back over her shoulder. "Lizzy, they're here!"
Mary barely got the gate open before she was swept up into a hug. She had never actually been hugged by the former housekeeper before, and colour flooded her cheeks while Jane fussed, unused to strangers. The little girl sucked on her fingers, and Mary pried them from her mouth.
"Jane, this is your grandmother. Remember the picture daddy has on the mantel? Say hello to Granny Jane."
"You can't be Jane. I'm Jane," she said, her little face screwing up with concern.
Mary flushed again. "Hush now, don't be rude."
Mrs Wilson only laughed, and took the girl's hand in her own, giving it a friendly firm handshake.
"That's right. You are Jane. You can just call me 'Nan'. Would that be alright, Miss?"
Jane buried her face in Mary's shoulder. "She's only tired," Mary offered by way of apology as she set the child on her feet.
"Of course. Goodness, you must both be. Come inside. We've a fire going, and Eliza has just put the kettle on."
Mrs Croft opened the cottage door, and Mary was once again struck by how different the older woman appeared, compared to the autocratic cook of Gosford she had met so long ago. Mrs Croft's blue eyes twinkled, and were the same blue as her wool dress as she took in the sight of little Jane.
"Poor little mite. Arms like twigs! We'll have to fatten her up. Clean country air and good food, that's what she needs."
Jane shrieked, and dove behind Mary, hiding her face in her mother's long wool coat.
"I don't want to go in the oven!"
"It's my fault—her favourite story is Hansel and Gretel." Mary struggled to pull the cringing child out from behidn her. "Jane, this is your Aunt Elizabeth. She's not going to eat you, you silly, silly girl! Come and say hello like a good girl."
Jane continued to bury her face in Mary's coat, but Mrs Croft took it all in stride, as if crying four year olds were no better or worse than new scullery maids.
Mary's case was put next to the stairs, and she hung her hat and wool coat with its grey fur collar on a peg next to the door. The cottage had whitewashed walls and wood floors covered in lovely braided rag rugs, with a slightly worn sofa dominating the sitting room. A fire blazed merrily in the hearth, and Mary noted it was wood rather than coal, though a copper helmet coal scuttle sat empty on the hearthstones.
Mrs Croft brought out a tray with teapot and china, and slices of brown bread spread thickly with butter. At the sight of food, Jane began excitedly tugging at Mary's sleeve. Mary pulled the girl up onto her lap, and tucked a napkin under her chin to catch the crumbs before she gave her a slice of bread.
Mary was given a cup of tea, into which she stirred a lump of greyish beet sugar, and a dollop of fresh milk. It took ages for the sugar to dissolve, but once it had, she poured a little of the tea into the saucer for Jane to sip.
Mary's eyes were drawn to the photos in their cardboard frames atop the mantel, bracketed on either side by china figurines. Mrs Croft's poor dead son, in a beautiful lace-trimmed Christening gown. A photo of Robert in uniform. Robert and Mary on their wedding day. Last was a photo of Jane as a baby, in her Christening gown which Mary's mother had made.
For all she'd never set foot in the Parks sister's cottage before, it felt like coming home. So different from their flat in London. So alien, compared to her mother's home in Glasgow. But warm and cosy, and welcoming.
"We weren't expecting you til tomorrow," Mrs Wilson said as she stirred her own tea.
"I hope it's no bother—" Mary began, but Mrs Croft, lighting a cigarette, waved her concern away.
"We're so happy to have you, child. The two of us knocking about on our own—it will be good to have you and the little one here."
"You've such a lovely home."
"We landed on our feet, that's for certain. The cottage was going empty, and so we pay a peppercorn rent of £1 per year, in exchange for keeping the place up."
"Have you heard from Robert?" Mrs Wilson asked, her anxiety making her mask of contentment cracking just a little.
"I've a letter from him," Mary said, fishing in her bag for the much-folded paper tucked safely in its envelope. She handed it to Mrs Wilson, who treated it reverently. "He's in France, and the letter was censored. But he said the Regiment isn't expected to stay there much longer."
"But he's well?"
"As well as can be expected," Mary said lamely, smoothing Jane's hair back from her brow as the girl rested her head on her mother's knee, fingers back in her mouth. "He misses us—I write to him every week, but sometimes the letters don't get to him right away and they catch him up all at once. I was very worried about him over the winter, but he's the Major's batman, so that's a little bit more comfort than most of the men get, I expect."
"Yes, of course. I remember..." Mrs Wilson trailed off. "You're too young to remember the Great War. But I thanks God every day that he was too young. We lost so many young men."
"They keep saying the war will be over by Christmas."
"They always say that," Mrs Croft said, slightly bitterly, as she tapped the ash from her cigarette into a tin ashtray on the corner of the table. "But whether it is or isn't, what matters is that you're here, now."
"I'm so glad you're out of London, Mary, dear," Mrs Wilson said, leaning forward across the table to clasp Mary's hand. "We've been so terribly worried, haven't we, Lizzy?"
"I'm going to get supper started," Mrs Croft said, stubbing out her half-smoked cigarette. "And then tomorrow, we can get you registered down ion the village. We've milk and eggs, and plenty of potatoes, turnips, and the like from the garden. You and the child will do well here, much better than in the Smoke. You'll see."
After a filling dinner—much better than Mary'd had in a while—she got Jane settled into the narrow bed in the second bedroom and unpacked their cases. She hung her things in the wardrobe, and placed her framed picture of Robert in his uniform by the bed so it would be the first thing she saw when she woke. The blackouts were already up, and there was an extra quilt handing over the arm of the chair in the corner which she tucked around the sleeping girl.
She joined Mrs Wilson by the fire, each with their knitting and darning. Except Mary was no longer mending one of Lady Trentham's frocks, and Mrs Wilson was knitting socks—something Mary would never have been able to picture before.
"How are you family, then?"
"My sisters are working now, and my mam and the boys are still in the city. Jamie's been doing very well in school, but Fraser is still a terror. My mam's already arranged a place for him as a hall boy to start after the term ends. She thinks he just needs some discipline and responsibility. I wonder, sometimes, if it's worth it. "
"That's the luxury of choice," Mrs Wilson said with a rueful smile. "Well, perhaps things have changed since I was a girl. But the old ways are just that—the old ways. Gosford has been turned into a convalescence hospital for officers, did you know?"
"No! I only knew Lady Sylvia had sold it, after Miss Isobel married."
"Mr Probert keeps us filled in with all the gossip, bless him."
"I can never picture Gosford without Mr Jennings," Mary said with a sigh.
"I've asked after him, but no-one seems to know what happened to him. Although Dorothy the stillroom maid married one of the groundskeepers, and is still there. She took training as a nurse."
"Oh well done, Dorothy! I think of her every time I spread marmalade on my toast for tea. Isn't that mad?"
"Not mad at all. Her marmalade was a treat."
"What are you two gossiping about, then?" Mrs Croft asked as she came in from the kitchen with a steaming cup of tea.
"Reminiscing, and catching up on whatever happened to everyone."
"The past is the past, that's what I say. No use reliving it all the time."
"Now, Lizzy. No need to be so dour."
Mrs Croft stirred her tea, and gave her sister a dark look. Mary assumed this was an old argument between them, and tried her best to hide her smile.
"I had a letter just last week from Bertha. She and Lottie are at one of them big hotels, now. All my girls are doing fine. Most of them scullery maids carried on as if nothing had happened, and got places right off. People fight for girls I've trained up, you know."
"Mine as well," Mrs Wilson said, lifting her chin a fraction.
"I saw Janet Williams two months ago, in Hyde Park." Mary put down the jumper she was knitting, her knitting needles clicking as they fell in her lap. "She's head housemaid at Lord Trentham's house in London, and she said May took a secretarial course and works for Lyons teashops."
"Well wonders never cease! May was always a good girl. Clever, too."
"I always wonder what happened to Lewis, lady Sylvia's maid."
"She'll be with Lady Sylvia until the end, you mark my words," Mrs Croft said with a chuckle. "Thirty years, she's been with that horrible woman."
"No-one else would put up with her," Mrs Wilson added, and Mary had to stifle a chuckle.
"I used to hear from Elsie now and then, after she went off to America. She wrote films—can you believe it?"
Mrs Wilson pursed her lips. "She's no better than she ought to be, that one."
"Now, Jane. Don't judge the girl for making the same mistakes we did," Mrs Croft said charitably. "Which films? I like a trip to the cinema, now and again, me."
"Well, she said they had her write some bits for a film set at a house party. And then she wrote two that they never made, for John Barrymore and Myrna Loy. Only they paid her anyway. Can you imagine? And she wrote a picture last year for someone named Vincent Price, only I've never heard of him."
Mrs Croft sniffed. "I always liked films about the cowboys and red Indians, myself. I sued to go to the pictures when I was at the factory, to see one reelers. We all did, back then. It was an escape from... well, from everything, I suppose. All those mountains and plains." She sighed. "Can you imagine, all that space?"
Mrs Wilson smiled as she picked up another sock to darn. "I never liked the pictures. But I do miss the theatre."
"Robert loves the pictures, but we haven't been since before Jane was born," Mary said, trying to remember when she'd last gone to the cinema. "We saw Garbo in Anna Karenina, I do remember that. I remember Lady Lavinia's maid saying one Christmas that Garbo used to stay with Ivor Novello. Can you imagine? She's so glamorous."
"That Sarah was always telling tales," Mrs Wilson cautioned her. "It didn't matter that Commander Meredith didn't have a cent—she was just as bad as anyone, parroting anything Lady Lavinia said like it was gospel."
"But I think it must have been true. I read in the papers that he has parties at his flat with all sorts of film stars."
The room grew quiet, as the memories seemed to thicken the air and catch Mary's breath in her throat.
She knew, of course, that Mrs Wilson had killed Sir William. But they never spoke of it. She supposed there was no point to it. After the lack of an inquest, and then Miss Isobel's marriage, it was all swept under the rug. Lady Trentham used to refer to it as "the regrettable incident" but that was all.
It was like a story she'd been told as a child—hazy and indistinct. It didn't feel real.
"Well, I'm off to bed. We get up with the sun, here in the country," Mrs Wilson said, and Mary recognised it was a dismissal as Mrs Wilson put her darning back in its basket and smoothed the skirt of her dress.
"Don't mind Jane, dear," Mrs Croft said once Mrs Wilson's footsteps had disappeared up the stairs. "She doesn't like talking about the past."
Mary tried to sleep, but the sounds outside the window kept her up. Foxes screamed in the night, startling her despite little Jane's even breathing next to her in the narrow bed.
Creeping back down the stairs in her slippers and dressing gown, Mary found Mrs Croft outside the kitchen door, the glowing ember of her cigarette flaring in the dark.
"Oh my—I've never seen so many stars," Mary gasped.
"Almost bright enough to read by," Mrs Croft said ruefully as she leaned against the doorjamb. Mary pulled a cigarette from the pack in the pocket of her dressing gown, and lit it with the proffered match. She almost never smoked, not even with the girls in the shop who smoked like chimneys. But ever since Robert had gone, she'd had a few each day. Otherwise she hoarded her ration so she could send them to her husband, along with letters and postcards. Always cheerful, always telling him how much they loved him. She'd stopped writing to tell him how much she missed him after the first month, worried that he might think she was being silly. But she knew, from his carefully worded letters, how much he missed them as well.
They smoked in companionable silence for a few minutes, and then Mrs Croft turned to Mary, her voice pitched low.
"We've been though worse than this, my dear. And what matters now is that we've got each other. You mark my words."
Mary nodded, feeling her eyes smarting until she blinked rapidly to clear them.
"Look how far we've come, eh, Miss Trentham?" Mrs Croft said, winking, and Mary couldn't help but laugh, then.
Tomorrow would bring what tomorrow would bring, Mary thought as she looked up at the night sky. She laid an arm across Mrs Croft's shoulders, and they went inside, to listen to the wireless and read by the dying fire.