Disclaimer: Don't own it! Not at all.
Disclaimer # 2 - I think as a former soldier, Bates has a very dark sense of humor which he keeps to himself.
Disclaimer # 3 - Just a free flowing exercise, written quickly. Excuse the Americanism.
Traveling by train was not all it was rumored to be.
It was cramped, and his bad leg was protesting every bump loudly, demanding that he stretch it. No, the penny bloods his mother had favored had made traveling by train out as the very height of romance. Obviously they had never been on a milk train.
Fortunately, his serious mien and the fear that his limp was contagious kept anyone from sitting next to him. Not that anyone would admit it, but still, they thought it. To keep his mind focused on something besides the ever increasing ache that was steadily creeping higher and higher up his leg; he began counting poles, cows, and trees, anything that could be counted.
Anything to prevent himself from thinking on he had ended up on the train. A politely worded request inquiring as to potential employment by The Right Honourable Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. It had been … difficult… to compose that letter. To reach such desperate straits; to call upon a glib promise of The Right Honourable Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, made a decade or so earlier. He had feared that the Earl had long forgotten his offer of a civilian job as his personal valet.
John Bates had been honest, but not completely so. He hadn't mentioned that he was nigh near lame, just a passing comment that his old war injury prevented him from pursing the more physical of occupations. He had also certainly not mentioned that he was a drunkard and had been imprisoned for theft.
The way the Right Honourable Robert Crawley, and Heaven forgive him for even mentally contracting the Right, Just and Honourable Robert Crawley's mouthful of titles into just Crawley… had gone on and on about Downton Abbey during the war, it was as close to Heaven as was possible on Earth.
Perhaps Heaven might accept the fallen, truly repentant angel known as John Bates. Let there be a feast with a fatted calf and much rejoicing.
Or at least, a spot of tea and a warm bed.
That would be enough.
Normally, he would have walked to Crawley's home just to prove he was capable. Instead, because his leg was threatening to go out on strike and collapse, he acquired a ride from a passing hay cart. Seemed the driver was a fellow veteran of the Boer War so he accepted the ride, made polite conversation and didn't reveal a single tidbit of why he was heading toward Downton Abbey.
As he had been instructed, he went to the back door and knocked. Bates waited, knocked again and waited still longer. Finally, he decided to enter as his bag was getting heavier by the moment.
Three maids spotted the stranger in the midst after a long wait. He greeted them and gave them, what was at best, a polite smile. It would be best not to be too friendly until John Bates determined if they were potential allies or enemies.
The older woman spoke first, chastising him for just pushing his way into the downstairs. She seemed bit of a shrew, John decided, not very friendly as she did not introduce herself. Instead the woman gave his cane a long, meaningful glance and her mouth tightened in disapproval.
Foe, John quickly decided. One of those souls, that pretended not to notice the elephant in the room, but one that immediately judged and convicted him as useless. He had met her like before, so he knew that he'd have to be on his toes… all ten of them… around her.
And it didn't help that she reminded him of Vera.
Turning his attention, he focused on the others. One was a slip of a girl, with blonde hair, probably half his age, who introduced herself. She was the Head Housemaid. He offered his hand to her and to his surprise, she shook it.
Perhaps… an Ally? Perhaps she was the rarest of souls, one that would give him the chance to prove himself capable… competent. Regardless of a gimpy leg.
Then the older woman, O'Brien… Perhaps Anne… Anna's manner prompted a reminder in the older woman's brain of acceptable behavior. O'Brien slowly and regretfully introduced herself. He offered her his hand, and the disgusted expression on her face said it all as she pointedly refused to shake his hand.
The third woman, a ginger, said nothing. She was neither Foe nor Ally.
O'Brien ordered him to follow her before disappearing at a fast clip that he and his bum leg couldn't hope to maintain, at least not for long. The ginger followed the older woman but the blonde… Anna… waited for him. He decided to unbend enough to give her a slight, crooked smile, to let her know that he appreciated her kindness and he was rewarded with her warm smile.
He met the General next. The Head of All the Allied Forces Downstairs was the General Mrs. Hughes. She was maybe his age, perhaps a little older, but one that was used to command and one that expected to be instantly obeyed. It also spoke volumes that O'Brien settled down when the General arrived to inspect the latest soldier.
Really, he was lame, not deaf. Did O'Brien not realize that he could hear every one of her mutters about 'this not working'? Then again, O'Brien probably wished him to hear her ridicule.
The General was talking to him, so he needed to focus. He secured his emotional walls, pretending not to notice how everyone was staring at him and his cane. For added benefit, he ignored the whispered comments about his cane that he was heavily leaning on. It was time to be the perfect, polite cripple. Getting angry never helped his cause, or protesting that he was capable. Put the fake smile on his face; benevolently smile while they patronized the cripple.
"But how will you manage?" was her discreet question.
Ah, the General Hughes was one of those, one that didn't understand why he wouldn't just acknowledge that he was lame, and just retreat to a home for the feeble. If he could convince her that he was capable, she would be a useful Ally in the War of the Cripple against the Able Bodied Souls.
"I'll manage," he assured her. His assurance meant not a lick to her but she was too political to say it.
"We've got our own work to do," protested the cook.
Bates decided that he would need to sway the cook over to his side. It would be helpful to have her as an Ally. Perhaps not a full Ally, but someone disposed to look favorably upon him. It would also be helpful in case he ever wished a spot of tea.
Always get on the good side of the cook for she was the General of the Kitchen.
Then the Admiral arrived.
Carson the butler, ramrod straight posture. Who looked him up and down, approvingly noticed that his clothes were impeccable in spite of his travels. But John's cane made Carson quite uncomfortable as he fluttered his hands. Bates continued to smile, putting his weight on his good leg, so the cane would appear more of an embellishment, like the upper class' ornamental walking sticks rather than a necessity.
More introductions and he cataloged each one's reactions. William, a young man… a boy really, reminded him of far too many farm boys shipped off to the War. He might become an Ally, in time, but John was unsure of his effectiveness as such. But the lad appeared strong, honest and guileless, so perhaps… it would be beneficial to strike up an acquaintance.
Thomas didn't meet his eyes. He also seemed to be having a bit of strop over the fact that Bates was the new valet.
Dangerous, he thought to himself. He will bring you down to advance himself. You must not fail, for it will reflect badly on Robert Crawley. No…for love of God, man! You are now his valet, you must address him by the title.
He continued to smile, even while his bad knee throbbed in pain and his good hip chimed in with sympathy pains. Everyone nattered for a bit, then it was finally decided to show him to his room.
"But all those steps," chimed in the cook.
Perhaps, the cook would not be a good Ally. John Bates much preferred Allies that didn't constantly bring attention to his infirmity.
"I told you, I can manage," he said, slightly more forcibly than he wished. He was dangerously close to reaching a tone that most would not accept from a cripple.
"Of course you can," inserted Anna.
In spite of his best attempts not to appear desperate for support, he quirked her a grateful half smile in acknowledgement. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that O'Brien glared at Anna while the ginger… GWEN… blushed.
As he was leaving the kitchen, he heard the Oracle of Downton intone, "I don't think that will last long."
The Admiral wasn't having any of that, so the Admiral gave her a quick reprimand. Not because what she had said was wrong, but because her astringent comment reflected badly on the honor and glory of Downton.
He nearly lost his smile when he realized that The Right and Left Honourable Robert Bloody Crawley had never mentioned the fact that there was a blasted spiral staircase in Downton Abbey. However, Thomas was watching him so he continued to smile.
It was with extreme gratitude that he finally reached his quarters. They were small, but even with a roommate; they were far larger than a jail cell.
"I shall be quite comfortable here," he announced.
Thomas quickly reviewed what a proper valet would do. Really, there was a great deal of difference between being a batman and a valet, but not as much as John had feared. Except there hadn't been any blasted circular staircases in the Boer Republics.
He continued to smile even while he observed.
Recklessly, he decided to sit next to Anna during the servant's luncheon. His leg was aching and he wanted an Ally… a possible Ally… on at least one side. On his other side was the General Mrs. Hughes. She seemed a stickler for decorum so there would no loud declarations of sacking the cripple during the meal. Comments like that tended to ruin his appetite. Carson, dear, pompous Carson, was assuring him how jolly wonderful The-Right-and-Left-Honourable-Robert-Bloody-Crawley,-who-had-Never- Mentioned,- Not-Even-Once, the-Unholy-Spiral –Staircase-that-existed-in-the-Earthbound-Heaven- known-as-Downton-Abbey, when the ArchAngel of the Realm appeared. No trumpet fanfare, but there was a great clamor as everyone jumped to attention.
"Bates!" was the warm exclamation. "My dear fellow!"
John noticed the disbelieving expressions on everyone's faces while the lord apologized for interrupting their luncheon. When the lord added the bit about the two of the being comrades in arms, it was quite satisfying… but just for a moment as he didn't like the look in his fellow servants' eyes. Carson and Hughes looked stunned, not good! And Satan's Two Vipers Nestled in the Garden of Eden, O'Brien and Thomas were Most Assuredly Not Pleased.
Then he made a tactical error and called Crawley, 'Sir' rather than m'Lord. And he noticed that Crawley focused on his cane and then the Lord floated away, uncaring… no… unaware of the turmoil he had just caused.
"You never asked," Bates told the stunned table. He tried not to smile, but he knew he failed.
Let Satan's Vipers suck on that apple.
Surprisingly, he quickly fell back into the familiar relationship with the lord. In the Boer War, Crawley had allowed him a bit of cheek, not too much, but some. Only in private though, never where anyone might overhear.
As he feared, he got questioned about the cane. With a smile, Bates smoothly glossed over the past few years as a bit of trouble that had had aggravated the old wound.
Yet there was a bit of unease on Crawley's part. Bates continued to smile, a far broader smile than he had given anyone in house yet, but still not a true smile. He didn't have any true comprehension of the political currents of Downton, so perhaps the Vipers had already spread their poison.
He would be fine, he assured the lord. He would be, because he had nowhere else to go.
Too much, too soon. The damnable, unmentioned circular staircase that connected Heaven and Hell did him in, as he dropped the silver tray in the kitchen. Damnable leg spasmed uncontrollably and he cursed as the silver ended on the floor. Damn it, only way he could have made a bigger scene was if he had gone arse over tit too.
Naturally that's when the Admiral came in. Admiral Carson came in, noticed the silver, catalogued how John was hiding behind his book. Bates was sure that the Admiral thought he was ashamed over dropping the silver.
That he was, but he was more upset because Anna had given him a smile full of commiserating pity.
Wonderful, in his pride, in his desire to prove himself capable, he had turned his only Ally who had been willing to give him a chance into a woman that pitied him.
Intent on keeping the weight off his bad leg, he failed to notice when the Two Vipers Struck. In front of the Duke, no less, he ended up in the dirt and dust after O'Brien kicked his bad leg.
"By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Really, Satan's own Vipers were taking that Bible verse to an extreme.
The servants' contempt for him was plain, as they left him in the dirt to struggle onto to his feet. Not even Admiral Carson deigned to give him a helping hand. Good Lord no! Not with a Duke at Downton!
Except for Anna, who brushed off his hands and straightened his clothes.
"Please, don't feel sorry for me," he protested.
As he had anticipated after John Bates' ignoble fall from Heaven, The Right Honourable Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham sacked him. Oh, the Lord tried to soften the blow, but it still stung.
To hell with his pride, there was nowhere else he could go. His letter to The Right Honourable Robert Crawley had been an act of absolute desperation. Struggling to keep his composure, he offered suggestions. He would take a pay cut as he was very eager, very eager to serve his Lord. Each suggestion was neatly dissected and shown to be infeasible. At last, defeated, he offered to leave immediately.
No, no. The Lord was munificent in his victory; he could stay the night and then leave in the morning. No doubt the morning departure was offered as a sop to his pride. If he left in the morning, the others wouldn't think that he had been tarred and feathered. Run out of town on a rail.
He couldn't face them. The Generals, the Admiral and Satan's Very Own Vipers. Best if he just stayed in his room and pondered his murky future. And steadfastly ignore the siren's call of the demon liquor.
Like a homesick farmboy, Bates was sobbing, when he heard someone call his name. It was Anna, so he struggled to regain his composure and dry his eyes. For now, he'd take her pity. Let her do her Christian charity for the less fortunate, the crippled and the unemployed. Then send her on her way.
Instead of pity, there was unexpected kindness; a dinner tray and a softly spoken request that he keep her informed on what would happen to him after he left Downton.
"There's always a place for a man like you," she told him.
Oh yes, m'lady. Drunk. In a jail cell.
"Keep me informed. Else I'll worry," was her request.
That nearly undid him then and there. When had he become so used to ridicule and scorn that he had forgotten that there was kindness still left in the world? His attempt at a smile failed miserably, but John believed that she understood how much he appreciated, how much he needed... her humanity.
Still the dutiful soldier, the next morning, he presented himself to be dismissed by his superior. They parted after they had wished each other luck, like they were proper British gentlemen.
The car had started to drive away when they were flagged to stop.
"Get out Bates," insisted Robert Crawley. "We'll have no more about this."
And the Gates of Heaven were opened once more for him.