Small standalone fic that started its life as part of While Away, but I removed it in an edit. I had to change it a little bit! Because the forehead kiss is *surely* the tender moment after Mrs P talks to Carson, and I daren’t write it! It’s too perfect!!!!!!!!!
Being alone was such a foreign concept. Those employed in service were rarely offered the opportunity of real isolation. Servants worked and ate together. Their bedrooms could not be locked, and were always on the same floor, separated only by a thin wall through which sound travelled.
As housekeeper, she had the small concession of a sitting room, but staff and family could, and would, approach her there at any time without invitation.
The long hours, the expectation that they would attend certain family events, the presumption of a strict moral code when associating with anyone outside of the house. It all attributed to the household staff gravitating towards each other naturally.
She’d thought a lot about being alone when Charlie had proposed they buy a house together. It was one of the arguments he’d used to convince her it was a good idea.
“I don’t think either of us will cope well living in one of the estate cottages. Dining alone? Living alone? I should probably have to visit you regularly anyway, just to overcome the sheer boredom of being alone with no duties to perform. So it makes perfect sense for us to save the bother by being closer, and turn it into some sort of an income.”
As if she needed any convincing… It was such a good idea, she’d clung onto it falsely for far too long.
“You’re wrong,” she announced.
They were walking along the path which curled its way to Downton’s stately towers, the gravel crunching beneath their shoes the only sound to interrupt their shared silence up until then. In his case it was a companionable silence; his mood was buoyant from their half day spent together. Elsie, however, was silently lost in her fears. Fear of telling him the truth about her lack of funds, fear of his reaction when she did, fear of losing this. Whatever this was.
“I am quite often wrong, but I will admit that only to you, Mrs Hughes,” he replied pleasantly. “And then only when pushed.”
She laughed despite everything. And it only made her heart heavier. She was usually the only one who understood his humour. When they parted ways would he become a sullen and cantankerous old man who everyone avoided at all costs? Thus, making him lonelier in the grand scheme of things. The idea didn’t sit well with her.
Her thoughts drifted to the reality of how her life would be when he retired. Thoughts of her future, still at the house, still working, without him. It would be then that she would truly be alone and lonely.
“Being alone and being lonely are two different things,” she rambled. “We might not have any chance to be alone in the house, but it’s very easy to become lonely when you’re a butler or housekeeper.”
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” he said, repeating the words he’d only half-jokingly quoted all that time ago when he’d let the young ones attend a visiting fair alone. “I’m still not following your thoughts, however.”
She stopped walking and faced him. “I just want to tell you… I want you to know…” She stumbled over her words, unsure how to explain her crowded thoughts. There was one thing she wanted to convey. “I’ve neither been alone nor lonely in my days at Downton from the first.”
Her parents had perhaps smothered her with love before her sister’s birth believing, with their ages, she would be an only child. With Becky's arrival not only did Elsie have the normal tinges of jealousy that came with a new bairn’s birth to contend with, once the extent of Becky’s limited capabilities became apparent, she knew her younger sister would always have to come first.
Elsie had given up everything for her sibling without hesitation, of course, but not one of her family or family friends seemed to notice when Elsie became more distant in their company. Not one of them noticed either how their lives completely revolved around the younger Hughes sister from then on.
Elsie was bitterly lonely. Especially in her tender adolescent years, with no possible way to admit it to anyone without seeming selfish and ungrateful.
It had been almost a relief to go into service, where she’d been too busy in her first few years to brood over her loneliness.
She’d not been physically alone as a wee lass that first time at Downton. Her room had three single beds. She had shared with Agnes and Petunia, both kitchen maids.
Then she’d returned after a stint in another house. And Mr Carson had become butler in her absence. If her loneliness was a fog, it had lifted immediately when he became part of her life. She might have found herself exasperated with him on many occasion, but she definitely ceased feeling lonely.
He held her serious gaze, having too stopped walking and turned his body towards hers. “Mrs Hughes, I--”
His next comment was cut off by a tooting horn, a warning of a motorcar rumbling up the driveway towards them.
They both jumped. Charlie also grasped her arm, guiding her to a safe strip of grass whilst calling out some sort of complaint about rudeness and impatience to the chauffeur.
Her boots’ heels wobbled on the manicured turf, leading him to keep a firm grip near her elbow even after the vehicle had passed. Later, she would check her skin carefully, sure there must be a physical mark on her to match the emotional bruising he unknowingly evoked each time they were near of late.
“Surely we weren’t that lost in our sentimentality.” He was no longer facing her as he spoke. He instead huffed the statement towards the rear of the auto, his irritation meant for its driver.
And whatever she was trying to say, whatever he was going to say, the moment, was lost. She let the lonely versus alone topic drop completely, and suppressed the pain of losing him to retirement.
But the subject was raised again, a few months after he proposed, during an argument.
“Can you not live alone?” she’d wondered aloud.
“Stop right there.” Any harsh words she’d been thinking disappeared as he suddenly grasped her hand, squeezing it reassuringly. “I’d rather be alone if I can’t be with you,” he vowed.
She took a step closer to his familiar bulk. “Then--”
She got no further. He’d kissed her. One of the first few they’d shared. It was slow and gentle. His lips had teased hers into responding with the right amount of eagerness. All awkwardness disappeared when they touched, their familiarity seemingly giving them a head start when it came to this new physical relationship, heightening their intimacy.
"It will always be you alone, Elsie Hughes," he whispered against her lips.
“You look a little lonely.” Elsie swung around, the pruning she’d supposedly been doing having long been ignored by her. He placed a tea tray on the small table in the corner of their garden. “And lost in thought,” he added. “Anything you’d like to share, Mrs Carson?”
Tossing the secateurs to the ground, she quickly approached him and looped her arms around his neck, leaning her head onto his chest and nestling beneath his chin. Death and despair had been her excuse to seek shelter within his arms in the past, but now she was free to express herself as she wished.
“What’s all this about then?” he murmured, brushing his lips along her loose greying curls.
“About never being alone. Or lonely.”
“Oh, love,” he whispered, holding her tighter.
“Yes, it’s surely about that too.”