It is 1942, and Mary Crawley is arguing with her daughter about a bicycle and musing how the world has changed. Mary/Matthew, PossibleFuture!fic, spoilers for s2.
Somewhere in the house, one of the maids was listening to "When the Lights Go On Again" on the wireless and singing to herself. Mary might not have heard her in a different time, but this was 1942, and Downton Abbey was not nearly as bustling or busy or, well, noisy as it used to be, and as a direct consequence of this, Lady Mary Crawley, who in her youth was not used to being disturbed in the early evening hours by a singing maid, cocked a careful ear upstairs and tried to determine who it was who was singing. Marjorie, probably. A nice voice, if not exactly Vera Lynn herself.
There's a war on, the old housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, was wont to say during the last conflict when Britons had found themselves fighting in defense of Belgium and the free rights of men, and things can't be the same when there's a war on. Well, there was a war on, again, and a Depression before that, and between one and the other it was nigh impossible to find good help willing to undertake the gargantuan task of keeping up the part of the house that was still kept open – a very small portion, compared with the whole, but still a great more than most were willing to take on with the wages being offered. And if letting her turn the wireless on and sing while she dusted was one way to keep little Marjorie Baker on as a parlormaid, then Mary Crawley would bear it and what was more, she would bear it gladly.
In older days, Carson would have come down harshly on any maid presuming to sing while doing her work, upstairs or below, but Carson, too, was gone along with the halcyon days of old when the house was fairly alive with people, retired to a small cottage on the estate where he was often found trimming and tampering with his garden and reading all the novels he had never had time to consume as the butler of the largest house in the county. Now Stanley was the axis on which the world of the Earls of Grantham turned, and if he was a little lax in his discipline with the singing members of the staff, Mary wouldn't know what to tell him about it except that they needed Marjorie almost (but not nearly as much) as Marjorie needed them.
There was a sound very much like a herd of elephants trampling down the stairs, temporarily drowning out Marjorie, who had moved on, with the radio program, to "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries." Mary sighed and glanced towards the library door and the clamor outside. That, too, had changed. Once the young ladies of the house had descended the stairs with grace, charm, and exceedingly light footsteps, but Julia Crawley had places to be and things to do, and going down the stairs slowly, or, indeed, quietly, was something she could not be bothered with, and, while we might be on the subject, 'lady' was not an appellation she was particularly fond of.
The seventeen year old breezed, unladylike still, into the library with dark curls flying, causing her mother to look up for a moment from the desk by the window and follow her daughter's flight into the room.
"Julia, where were you this afternoon? We were supposed to go to Mrs. Gardiner's for a meeting about organizing that rummage sale. I had to call her and tell her you were ill."
"Oh, was that today? I went into Ripon for a book," Julia said blithely, flopping down on the couch in the sitting room with an abandon that would have upset her great-grandmother, who was always very peculiar about the way one composed oneself onto a chair.
Mary frowned. "Did you have Speakman take you in the car?" she asked, trying to work out how her youngest had gone into Ripon and back without anyone noticing.
There was a heavily pregnant pause. " I took Daddy's bicycle," Julia said quickly, tucking into her newest acquisition and proceeding to ignore her mother. Mary Crawley, however, was not to be ignored.
"His bicycle?" she repeated, trying to remember where (or when, for that matter) such an article existed. Finally an image surfaced. "That bicycle? Julia Roberta Crawley, that machine is thirty years old if it's a day!"
"Don't get your knickers in a twist, Mum, I had Speakman look at it before I went out. We put air in the tires and adjusted the brake. Oh, and the chain needed a little oil, but Speakman did that for me."
It was bad enough that her daughter was using expressions involving underclothes and filling her own bicycle tires, but Mary ignored that for the moment to drive through to the bigger problem being discussed here. "If you need to go into town that much, Julia, we can buy you a new bicycle – or for heaven's sakes, let Speakman drive you. I'd feel safer with that, in fact, and it is what we pay him for."
"Mum," Julia said, sitting up and putting on that dreadfully determined face she'd inherited from both parents, the face she put on when she was about to give one of her little no-nonsense speeches. "We haven't got all the petrol in the world, and all I was doing was going to Ripon to pick up the post, get my book, and visit Grandma. I had the bicycle. I did not need to take the motor. And it's not patriotic to be buying new bicycles at the moment anyway." Sermon finished, she screwed herself back into the couch with the disdain common to all seventeen year old girls who think they know better than their mothers, and considered the matter closed. For a moment, no one spoke, and Mary returned to her balance sheet, aware that her daughter might have more to say but wouldn't speak unless she was allowed her time. "And besides," Julia put in again after she had been sulky sufficient time to make her point. "Dad wanted to keep the bicycle."
"Why?" Mary asked evenly, knowing her child enough to know Julia would need to tell this part of the story too in order to feel justified. Julia had inherited that from her father, too – a well developed sense of needing justice. True to form, Julia sat up a little straighter and explained.
"Well, Dad and I were looking around for scrap metal the other weekend, for the collection at school, and Grandma Isobel said we should look in the implement shed at the back of Crawley House, and we found the bicycle, and Dad got really excited, and said we should keep it, and I said he wouldn't use it, and then he agreed with me. But he looked really sad when he said that, so I said I wanted a bicycle, and I'd use it, just to cheer him up. But it's ever so handy, Mum, can't I keep it? Mrs. Mason found us some old pudding pans to give to the collection instead of the bicycle, so we evened it out."
Evened out, indeed. Mary had a sudden sense of concerted revolution directed at her from below stairs with the mention of Mrs. Mason's involvement in this little escapade, and wondered if her mother had ever felt the same way when Carson covered up for one of her many little childhood antics, or, heaven help her, when Anna was the only person thought suitable to hold a terrible family secret. But Mrs. Mason would have contributed the pudding pans anyway, surely – the woman who had started in this house as little scullery maid and worked her way up to cook remembered all too well what had happened during the last war, and she was fervent in her support of all measures of aid both foreign and domestic. A fervor, it was easy to say, that had rubbed off on Julia, but really, that could have come from a dozen places and people around Downton, Daisy Mason notwithstanding.
It was both blessing and curse to have had a firstborn son – Robert Crawley, proud grandpapa for the second time, was pleased as punch that his daughter would not have to suffer again the indignity of even suggesting passing the house to some other relative. But Alexander Reginald was followed, none too closely, by Julia Roberta, who adored her four-years-older brother in all things and was forever getting into the most ungirlish scrapes on his account. It seemed only natural that when Alex upended his scholarly stay at Oxford and turned in his cap and gown for a uniform in the Duke of Manchester's Own, Julia would follow him in some way, as she always did.
But there were no places for fourteen year old girls in wartime armies, not even armies as modern as Britain's, with the Wrens and their like in every corps and barracksroom. Julia took her Grandma Isobel's cue instead and threw herself wholeheartedly into her 'war work' – wrapping bandages with the WVF and packing Red Cross packages with Grandma and collecting everything –everything! - from cooking fat to scrap metal to paper and old clothes, for every scrap drive the school could produce. (While Mrs. Mason hardly had any trouble with the business of the cooking fat, and the whole house took the scrap metal drive in good stride and used it as an opportunity to clean various attics and storage shelters, it was Mary and her lady's maid Bates who put their foot down on the old clothing drive, which nearly took the life of several very fine old dresses Julia had dredged up from the attic, some of them dating back to the time of her great-grandmother Violet.)
Mary glanced at her daughter and sighed. Julia's enthusiasm was, if nothing else, always infectious, and her daughter did raise a excellent line of argument when put to it. "Oh, very well, keep the bicycle. But be sure to tell Stanley or one of the footmen if you go out on it, and be sure to come back before it's dark outside." The smile she got in return answered well enough. "And I'll be talking to your father about this when he gets home," Mary added with a gently menacing note.
"Thanks, Mum," Julia said, returning to her book with a much cozier note in her posture.
"I see you started reading the letter from Alex we got today," her mother said, trying once more to draw her daughter into something stronger than a mere thread of one sentenced conversation.
"Grandma wanted to know how he was doing," Julia said frankly. "I opened it at her house. I put it in your desk drawer – I thought we could answer it after dinner." She was silent for a few minutes more and then snapped her book shut. "I'm going downstairs for some tea – do you want any?"
Mary briefly considered raising the idea of ringing the bell, decided she didn't want a lecture on the plight of the working classes and thought the better of it, and replied with a simple "No thank you," before Julia bounded off towards the kitchen.
It was a modern girl she had raised – there was no doubt about that. A modern boy, too, she admitted, thinking of the letter in her drawer and the language it contained, language that would have sent her own mother and grandmother to an early grave had they been around to read it. Slang was not done at Downton – and yet, here it was, splashed with abandon over her son's letters. No, not for Julia and
Alex the world of her own childhood, a world of garden parties and long white dresses and a multitude of gloves for all evening occasions. All of that had changed with the last war, and it would never be the same again.
The last war. It was hard even for Mary to believe that they were in the middle of another war, three years, in fact, into another war that was, to an unschooled eye, merely a reappearance of the last one, an unwanted encore in which the audience did not cheer. The stage-set was slightly different, the props bigger and more frightening, perhaps, the actors less keen, but the audience…oh, the audience, who had once been on that stage themselves! And how they hated watching the play. Mary remembered with terrifying clarity the day when Alex had announced, quite out of the blue, that he meant to enlist in his father's regiment. How Matthew's eyes had turned to steel for a moment and then just as quickly turned back to love for his son, nodding and saying all the right things to support his firstborn's decision, if in his heart of hearts he did not really agree with it himself. It was not as if Alex was as vital as Matthew himself had been, a male to inherit the title, but still, one's firstborn was one's firstborn, heir to estates or no.
Her father had been different – he had already been too old to take a place in front of the limelights in 1914, and now, at eighty odd years, was comfortable enough with his place in the dress circle boxes, one more old warhorse encouraging the younger set to follow the rules and keep their chins high in the face of it all. But it pained Matthew to even look at his uniform, pained him even more to have to accept his colonelcy in the North Riding Volunteers, the same position his father-in-law had held with such pride. That was his great strength, and his gaping weakness, and the thing that, at the end of the day, made Mary love him all the more – that sense of duty that seemed to pull him into everything like a moon pulled the tide.
She had watched that sense of duty bludgeon and burden her husband for twenty years – had watched it hurt him long before that, too, and she had realized, long ago, that it came, more than anything else, from a very deep love. Mary did not consider herself anything of an expert on that, but she did know that she should count herself lucky to have found so vast an expanse of that precious commodity that is so often only bought and sold by those of her world.
A bell rang in the hall, stirring Mary from her reverie, and she listened for the sound of Stanley treading carefully across the carpet. Some things never changed, and even in the middle of war, it was still the butler who dropped everything and answered the door, even if the maid was closer.
"Good evening, sir," Stanley said decorously, closing the door behind whoever had just come in.
"Evening, Stanley. Busy day today?" He must have nodded or smiled, because the entrant did not wait for a reply. "Hello, one and all!" Matthew Crawley called from the hall, letting Stanley take his coat before going into the library to greet his wife. "How is my darling wife and her war work today?" He asked congenially, kissing Mary over her shoulder and glancing down at the facts and figures that littered the desk in front of her. "Found the answer to world peace yet?"
"No, but if I have these figures right, I should be able to write to the Anderson Committee and the Ministry of Health to tell them we can take ten or so children as soon as they want to send them."
"Has my mother been at you again about that?" Matthew asked incredulously, settling into a chair and contemplating the prospect of Downton with ten school aged children from various parts of the London environs turning the house into a gigantic game of hide and seek. Matthew considered himself a man of mild needs when it came to space, peace, and quiet, but even that might be too much of a sacrifice to make. But once an idea got into Isobel Crawley's head, there was no shaking it, and if she would not be called upon in her "advanced age" to take a few evacuees from the bombed-out ruins of London, than she would be sure that everyone in Ripon with room to spare, including her son and daughter-in-law with their overlarge country estate, would know how to do their bit in her stead.
"No, but your daughter has," Mary said, turning around in her chair to fix her husband with a pointed look, remembering what she meant to talk with him about amidst a wave of relief that he was, indeed, home again in one piece. Matthew had the good sense to look astonished.
"What, my daughter? Has Julia stopped being yours too, or has she done something very contrary today?" Mary didn't answer him, and Matthew sighed – it was bound to come up again sooner or later. "Have you talked with your father about it?" He asked, changing the subject somewhat.
"No, and I won't talk to him about it until he gets back from London. He's meeting some of his old war colleagues and remembering the good old days and they'll talk about this and that and the last time, and he'll come home full of patriotic fervor. We'll tell him then," Mary said efficiently. "No use telephoning and having him trip the horse before it's out of the gate."
"Scheming woman," Matthew said with admiration in his voice. It was a good plan, however much it called for them to dupe Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, to give up what was still nominally his house. Mary and Matthew might live here, but it was still Robert who carried the title, and it was still Robert who controlled the house, even if his own wife had been dead four years.
This was Mary's newest project – evacuees from London as part of the Ministry of Health's plan. Her father would never have agreed to it, remembering far too well how turning his house over to strangers in the last war had changed his household, his family, and his marriage. Julia had been pushing for it for ages, since she had first heard about the plan, but her mother was more subtle, and if it took her three years to gently wear her father down about it, than three years she would take.
"Have you heard from Alex?" Matthew asked, glancing at the newspaper, folded haphazardly on a sidetable as a sure sign that his daughter had already taken her fill of the day's news.
"There was a letter in the post today," Mary said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the drawer where she kept all her correspondence with her eldest son. "It's over here, if you want to read it."
"Thanks, I'll wait until after dinner. Give me the highlights from Dear Darling Boy." Matthew asked conversationally, not wanting to disturb Mary's undoubtedly tedious mathematical fiddling by rummaging through her drawers. Dear Darling Boy was a joke between the four of them, an appellation Grandfather Robert had set in motion by unwittingly calling his first male grandchild 'Dear Darling Boy' every time they encountered each other. It was how Alex signed his letters home, and in consequence, it was how the letters and their news were titled – the letters from Dear Darling Boy, as if he were a character in a novel rather than a son and brother.
"He said Aunt Sybil sent him more socks and asked us to tell her he's in Egypt, not the Ypres Salient, and they don't do him any good. He thinks they're censoring his letters again, since Ireland is supposed to be neutral." Julia said, bounding back into the room to give her father a hug and a kiss. "Hello, Dad."
"Hello, Julie. What's doing at the War Office today?" Matthew asked his daughter, accepting her kiss on the cheek and allowing himself a chuckle as she bounced onto the couch next to him in her own singular fashion. Julia, never one to miss an opportunity to be contrary (much like many of the other women in Matthew's life, he realized happily and often) had pinned a large map to the wall of her room when her older brother had signed up and gone off to do his patriotic duty. Every day since, Julia followed newspaper and radio reports with a diligence that would put even the most hoary of armchair generals to shame, and, as such, her father and grandfather had started calling her room the War Office.
"Not much. They said on the radio there's a big battle going on in the Ukraine right now, and the Soviets are trying to take back Kharkov, but I'm not sure they'll get it done – everyone's saying it's too cold. I went to Ripon for my new book, and then went to Grandma Isobel's and ended up staying the whole afternoon packing boxes for the Red Cross instead of going to a meeting at Mrs. Gardiner's about her awful rummage sale." She paused, and Mary looked up from her figures and gave her daughter a look that very clearly said there would be no quarter. "And Mum found out about the bicycle," she added on quickly. "I tried not to tell her, Dad, I tried and tried!"
"Yes, and you and I are going to have a few words about that now, Matthew Crawley. Julia, go upstairs and change for dinner while I talk with your father," Mary ordered, setting her papers in order and rising from her chair.
Julia looked at her father for support, but Matthew sensed he was in enough trouble as it was about the bicycle. "Listen to your mother, Julie," He said blandly, earning a scowl from his daughter and a knowing smile from his wife.
Mary waited until she heard a bedroom door slam upstairs before turning the full force of her stare on Matthew. "A bicycle, Matthew? We have a hard enough time keeping her in the house as it is!"
"I thought it would be good for her," Matthew countered. "She's a busy little person, Mary, she's got a lot of places she wants to be! And she can't always be taking the car. B stickers only get one so much petrol."
"She said you wanted to keep it," Mary countered. "She seemed to think you were a little sentimental about it."
Matthew smiled at the memories the bicycle had called up for him when they pulled it out of the shed. "I have very fond remembrances involving that bicycle," He said solidly. "Coming here to Downton for dinner, scandalizing Cousin Violet, meeting you in Ripon after I'd come home from Manchester on the train and you'd tease me about having a real job…"
"Oh, stop it," Mary said, turning away from her husband so he could not see her smile. She loved and hated the way her husband could bring up the events of nearly thirty years ago and make her smile and cringe at the same time. And it did not help her argument. Oh, he had promised her arguments with a smile on his face, and this was, undoubtedly, one of them. Her husband, seeing his opening, pulled her into his arms with a wide grin, swinging her slowly around in the parody of a dance tune long gone by.
"I like to think I was quite dashing on that bicycle, you know. My faithful steed, ready to bring me to whatever Crawley sister needed rescuing that day. Come on, you know you always wanted to be rescued by a knight on a bicycle, Mrs. Crawley. Your childhood dreams were full of them, I know it."
"Never on a bicycle, Mr. Crawley," Mary admitted with a bemused laugh. "And you were never the knight I had in mind."
"It hurts now as much as when you first said it," he said dramatically. "I heard a new song on the radio today," Matthew said, still dancing to an imaginary tune. "It made me think of you. In fact, I loved it so much I had Doris run out and buy the record for me so I could listen to it again. " He pulled his wife closer and changed the beat, whispering softly in her ear. "Would you like to hear it?"
"I'm going to hear it anyway," Mary countered, still feeling a little cross.
"Maddening woman. Now, what was it again? " Matthew said, making a face and humming a little of the tune.
"Who wouldn't love you, who wouldn't care
You're so enchanting, people must stare
You're the dream that dreamers want to dream about
You're the breath of spring that lovers gad about, are mad about – Now, don't start laughing, I'm not finished yet!" Matthew interjected as Mary started chuckling into his shoulder, her tears of mirth unseen by her husband.
"Who wouldn't love you, who wouldn't buy
The west side of heaven, if you just winked your eye
You're the answer to my every prayer, darlin'
Who wouldn't love you, who wouldn't care?"
He continued humming, spinning them around the library, accidently knocking into a footstool with merry abandon and causing more giggles. Mary, still laughing and crying, was remembering – and maybe her husband was, too – so many memories of music – of a concert, when he had stolen her heart right out of her chest by telling her she was the only girl in the world , and a night, so many years ago now, when they had danced in the hall of Downton to a tune from some forgotten show about silver linings.
"I'm still angry with you about the bicycle," Mary said finally, trying to recover a little bit of her argumentative dignity as they stopped their circling.
"Of course you are," her husband said quickly. "Your daughter's going to wonder why we haven't joined her for dinner."
"My daughter?" Mary shot back with a smile, giving her husband a playful shove.
"Mmm, yes, your daughter," Matthew replied, his smile every bit as big as his wife's. "She gets her sense of fairness from me and her sense of everything else from you." He paused for a moment and studied his wife, making no move to answer the unasked challenge of going in to dinner. "Are we going to eat?" He asked quietly.
"Yes," Mary said, recovering herself and pulling away from her husband, straightening her skirt. "I was just…remembering." She smiled sheepishly and shook her head as if to clear her vision. "Go upstairs and change," she directed. "I'll come in a moment – I want to finish something up in here first."
It wouldn't take Matthew but a few minutes to change his jacket – dressing for dinner hardly meant what it had in Mary's childhood, when dinner meant a gown and jewelry. With just Matthew and Julia for dinner, it seemed hardly fair to heap more work onto Bates and Stanley. She would change her shirt and put on a sweater– there was ink on the cuffs of this blouse, and Bates would want to wash it immediately. And it would be cold in the dining room, for the sake of Julia's energy consumption campaign.
Her husband and daughter were talking as Mary passed her daughter's room – smoothing over the bicycle business, no doubt. Matthew always had a knack for that sort of thing, striking bargains and compromising and somehow, magically, making everything better between mother and daughter. Julia would be better after dinner – Matthew would see to that. Mary would be the first to admit that surrender was never her strong suit, even when it came to her children. Especially when it came to her children. Oh, she would protect them from the whirl of the world, but she would draw the line for them, too. Perhaps Julia did get her sense of fairness from Matthew, but mother and daughter shared the same iron-backed stubborn streak.
She was already in her room, changing, when she heard both husband and daughter go downstairs to dinner. She left the shirt for Bates, folded over the back of a chair where she could see the ink stain, and went back to the dining room as the single note from the gong shimmered belowstairs, signaling to all and sundry that dinner was ready to be served, one last vestige of 'the old way.' Matthew and Julia were still talking animatedly as Mary approached the dining room, her daughter's back towards the door. He was recounting to her the course of his own day at work, bright blue eyes full, as they had always been full to her at least, of a thousand unspoken jokes and ten thousand tender things to cheer her.
She had spent twenty years trying to prove herself worthy of it, the great extent of his love, and she hoped, in some small way, she was succeeding at putting back what the knocks of life took out of her husband. And yet, somehow, in spite of everything, there was still always this reserve within him at the end of the day to remember their son and laugh with their daughter, to tease her and shore up her own heart. For a moment, his gaze flickered over to the door, and Mary smiled, unseen, watching the two of the best things in her life simply be happy as her mind turned back to the song, still turning over and over in her own head as it had in Matthew's this afternoon.
"You're the answer to my every prayer, darling - Who wouldn't love you? Who wouldn't care?"
I have several 'time travel' playlists for my morning commute, and one of them is my 1940s mix, which I started listening to after wearing out the welcome for my 1920s playlist. I heard "Who Wouldn't Love You" and immediately thought of Matthew and Mary. Since I think "If You Were The Only Girl In The World" may outstay its fanfictioneering welcome soon, I thought I'd shake it up a bit.
The best version of the song, sung here by Matthew, is, I think, the version done by Harry Babbitt and Trudy Erwin. Kay Kyser's version is the original, and you can find both on YouTube, along with "When the Lights Go On Again" (Vera Lynn) and "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" (Jack Hylton or Kay Kyser). I would not mention or recommend any of these peices if I didn't think they were worth the time to listen to - the 40s were, I think, a very musically rich decade, and I wish more people knew that.
I am guilty of a great deal of sentiment when it comes to writing Mary, and for that I heartily apologize – I have an idea that two children and twenty years of good-humored marriage will have softened Mary up a bit. And I think that she, like the Matthew she describes here, is capable of a great deal of love but sometimes lacks the necessary repertoire of actions to show it.
A kind word of praise or a well-meaning criticism is, as always, heartily appreciated.