Sarah O'Brien sat at her usual spot at the table in the servant's hall and mused upon the newest member of their team. The moment Ivy Stuart had arrived in the kitchens of Downton she was an instant hit with the younger lads, including her own nephew Alfred. Sarah could see why, not only was she pretty but the young woman was keen and had a thirst for life. As usual the Lady's Maid left the youngsters to it and remained as aloof and brusque as ever. She was more dedicated to Cora than she had ever been before; the Spanish Flu episode had only heightened the guilt and her complicated feelings for her mistress. Even Thomas was mooning over the other new footman and it only served to make Sarah feel more alone. She and Thomas had begun a strange friendship, but nonetheless it had been a comradeship borne of necessity. Unfortunately things hadn't been so good between them recently and Sarah had all but given up on any hope of them reconciling and had sought payback instead. Thomas's efforts on wooing Jimmy might be irrelevant anyway; the young footman seemed far more interested in Ivy, so it was a moot point really. Speaking of whom, the girl had been trying to get her attention for most of the afternoon. Lord knew why, she was a kitchen maid and Sarah certainly didn't speak to anyone just for the fun of it!
It was early evening and Sarah was back in her spot after attending to Cora and sat darning in peace. The dregs of a cold cup of tea stood on the table next to her button box. She could hear the creeping footsteps in the hallway long before the intruder appeared at the door. Ivy spied the tea cup and immediately offered to make Sarah another. The Lady's Maid sighed inwardly; she was to get no more peace tonight. After making quick work of pouring out the beverage, the young woman sat down beside her with her own cup of tea.
"I honestly don't know how you do that so neatly. It's quite a skill, one that I'm terribly envious of." Sarah smirked, no one used flattery unless they wanted something and Ivy hadbeen pestering her earlier.
"What do yer want?" Sarah said in her usual no nonsense manner and hadn't even taken her eyes from her work, knowing that Ivy would be watching her fingers anyway.
"I want to learn how to sew." Sarah's eyebrows shot up, it would be highly unusual a girl like Ivy wouldn't already know the basics of sewing.
"I mean like you, so neat, almost invisible like. And I'd like to be able to make
dresses, proper beautiful ones, not just smocks to work in."
"Have ideas about becoming a Lady's Maid do yer? Bit late fer that you know." At the age of twenty one, if Ivy wasn't already nursing calloused fingers then she had no hope of a career in mending and making clothes.
"No, I just thought it would be useful to have a range of skills." Sarah finally looked at the kitchen maid and saw how earnest she appeared. There was most definitely a certain sparkle, a 'joie de vivre' about her. That 'something' made Sarah's mind up for her.
"Alright, we'll start with something small. How are you with buttons? There's more to it then threading a needle through the holes you know." Ivy's face lit up and she clasped Sarah's hands in her own.
"Oh thank you, thank you! I'll be a good student I promise." Sarah was startled by the unexpected contact. No one touched her, only Her Ladyship and that came with all sorts of hazardous feelings she'd rather not think about at that particular moment.
Several weeks later Sarah had sat with Ivy every other night since that first one and had helped her to develop her sewing skills. As expected, the younger woman had been quick and keen to learn, absorbing everything that Sarah had taught her. At first Sarah had commanded silence and concentration as she found interaction with the young woman awkward and somewhat stilted. However, it was difficult to keep up indefinitely and conversation had eventually begun to flow. Tentatively at first, but as time went on Sarah discovered that for such a young woman she was incredibly wise and mature. She had obviously found time and means to educate herself and paid attention to what was going on in the world outside of Downton and England. Ivy had been thoroughly shocked to have made Sarah laugh one day. Barely just a snort of amusement, but it was more than anyone seemed to get out of the sour-faced Lady's Maid, with the exception of Her Ladyship of course.
Sarah measured out the right length of cotton with practised judgement and snapped it from the reel on her teeth. After threading the needle with it she set to work on the repairs to Cora's favourite chemise. She barely looked up from her work as she addressed her protégé.
"Our Alfred's got quite the crush on you, Jimmy too if I'm not mistaken." Ivy blushed furiously, but it didn't appear to be from flattery. She shuffled from foot to foot as she waited for the kettle to boil at the stove. She was clearly uncomfortable with the turn of conversation.
"I suppose. Let's fix that lace hem shall we? I feel confident enough to give it a go now." Tea forgotten in her haste to change the subject, Ivy took up her seat next to Sarah and inspected the torn lace in order to work out the best way to start her mending. Sarah eyed the young woman with intrigue but let the matter drop for now.
Another few days went by and Ivy was relieved to find the subject of Alfred and Jimmy had not been brought up again. She'd taken the time to scrutinise her mentor carefully, watching her interactions with the other staff and the household with interest. Several things in particular drew her attention and focus on the Lady's Maid more so than before and Ivy had to find out the answers to the questions she now had.
"You've worked for Her Ladyship a long time haven't you Miss O'Brien? You must have become very close after all these years?" The young woman said conversationally.
"Nigh on twenty years Ivy, but that doesn't count for owt when you're not one of them. We're certainly friendlier than some Ladies I've looked after in the past, I'll grant yer that, but friends? Certainly not." Sarah knew that wasn't quite true, but she had no intention of letting Ivy, or anyone else for that matter, think otherwise.
"But you'd like to be? Or more if I'm not mistaken?" Sarah whipped her face around to stare her protégé in the face. Had she been that readable? Or was Ivy taking a big stab in the dark about something she only suspected?
"I beg your pardon?"
"I've heard the way you talk about her and defend her to anyone who deigns to criticise her actions. And I've also seen the way you look at her when you're in the same room. Your eyes light up like nothing I've ever seen before. Only your eyes mind you, can't have anyone else discovering your secret, can you?" Those very eyes narrowed in barely contained anger. Sarah usually took her time to consider a threat but went straight to the point on this occasion.
"After all I've done to help you these past few months! What do yer want from me?" Sarah anticipated the blackmail that was to surely come. Why else would the young kitchen maid have befriended her, earned her trust and just when Sarah had been suckered in, hook line and sinker she showed her cards? Sarah felt such a fool. Ivy, to her credit, looked genuinely aghast at the change in Sarah's tone and at the display of defensiveness that had immediately arisen.
"Nothing, nothing…you've got me all wrong, I promise! I only meant…" Ivy put down her sewing and took Sarah's hands in her own, like she had done right at the very beginning of their sort-of friendship.
"I only meant that I see these things because I understand. Truly understand." Ivy implored as she looked right at the Lady's Maid. She was desperate to get through to the older woman. Sarah was still angry despite Ivy's desperate attempt to convince her otherwise. She was not going to let her guard down again, it would be risking too much.
Her words having made little difference, Ivy ducked her head and pressed a swift kiss to Sarah's lips. It went unreciprocated so Ivy instantly pulled back. The two women stared at each other in shock before Sarah went back to her work.
"I suggest you go up to bed Ivy and forget this happened. I'll say no more about it, to you or anyone." She didn't even look back at Ivy for fear of giving herself away. The younger woman nodded wordlessly and tided up her sewing things. She left the servant's hall quickly and quietly, only briefly pausing at the door to look back at Sarah with regret. She scurried away as though she had done something terrible and she supposed she had.
Once Ivy's footsteps were long gone Sarah finally put down her mending and sighed deeply. Her nerves were frayed by the thought at being discovered. She'd fought so hard to keep her feelings for Cora buried somewhere deep inside of herself. Oh she knew that there were times it had showed through, but they were usually fuelled by events that were beyond her control. No, to be discovered whilst doing her every day duties was something else entirely. Ivy had seen it and had seen it clearly enough to confront her about it. But then Ivy had kissed her and told her that she was different in the same way, hadn't she? How did Sarah feel about the young woman who had paid so much attention to her lessons and who had made her laugh? Nothing was ever going to cure her of her feelings for Cora. You didn't dress, undress and redress, bathe, soothe and flatter the woman for sixteen years with love in your eyes and care in your heart and forget about it in one evening. But Cora was unreachable, never to be hers outside of those tiny private moments. Ivy was so much younger than her and much more willing to dabble in the danger and excitement of an affair. Sarah had been around long enough to know that it never ended well. But then she would be lying if she said she wasn't at least tempted by the kitchen maid turned protégé. She hadn't been close to another woman for so long and it was a rather lonely existence pining after someone who barely noticed you for sixteen years.
It was no great surprise that two nights later, after some awkward tension and a heavy atmosphere, Ivy and Sarah gravitated towards each other in a deserted hallway. Ivy took the bold first move and kissed the older woman with decidedly more conviction than before. Once she felt Sarah respond, she settled herself against the Lady's Maid and kissed her more firmly. Sarah let herself get caught up in the moment and kissed the younger woman back. They breathlessly parted and rested their foreheads together.
"We really shouldn't have done that." Sarah huskily whispered to the younger woman. Ivy pressed kisses into the older woman's neck and trailed them up to her ear. She felt Sarah squirm ever so slightly against her.
"I want you Miss O'Brien, I've wanted you since the moment I saw you." Sarah snorted; she very much doubted that, but with her arms wrapped around the kitchen maid's body and the woman pressed tightly against her she couldn't refute it. Just like she couldn't deny that she wanted something to happen between them. Sarah gave a fleeting thought for Cora upstairs but it came with an image of her mistress in bed with her husband and all guilt momentarily left her mind. Sarah grabbed hold of Ivy's forearms to stop her ministrations. The Lady's Maid checked the hallway before she pulled the younger woman into her room and proceeded to finish what they had started.