A/N: This Secret Santa fic is for you, Magfreak! Merry Christmas!
Magfreak's request was a story about Tom and Sybil's first Christmas as a married couple and they agree to not spend any money, but just "make" each other gifts. This is a period piece set in the same AU as my other "Non-Home" stories ("A Frenzied Drum" and "All that Jazz").
Hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season!
Sober, dark gray,
Quiet little mouse,
That belongs to Sybil,
Of all the house;
One stocking left,
Whose should it be?
Why, that I'm sure,
Must belong to me!
~ Margaret Sidney, "Song of the Christmas Stockings" (1883)
Dublin, December 1919
Since their marriage in June, Tom and Sybil had settled contentedly into Dublin life. Sybil's job as a nurse at the Rotunda Lying-In Hospital was one she desperately enjoyed, despite its long shifts and her spot near the bottom of the pecking order. Tom's own position at The Observer, one of several small republican papers that emerged during the country's upheaval, paid little but expected a lot. But then again, Tom expected a lot of himself, and so found little to complain about, except for the hours that kept him apart from his wife. Married life, too, was a new but exciting experience, equal parts trial and error. Politics at its most basic level, Tom would often tease when they'd come to loggerheads in a spat. Negotiations often landed them in bed to iron out the details, a part of marriage Sybil had come especially to enjoy.
At Downton, their respective positions often allowed frequent interaction, whether by chance or, late in the war, by manipulation. But here in Ireland, their time together was even more precious, judicious moments carved amongst the long hours and fatigue. On that first Friday in December, Tom left his office on Harcourt Street south of the Liffey and rode the tram north to Rutland Square, where he surprised Sybil at the end of her shift. He greeted her with a kiss (in front of Sister Feeney, who tutted disapprovingly) and suggested they enjoy the unusually fair weather and stroll somewhere for dinner.
"Will your mother come up for Christmas or shall we go visit her?" Sybil asked, as they turned the corner onto Sackville Street. They'd already turned down an invitation to spend the holiday at Downton, telling her own mother their employers wouldn't allow ample time off, which was very much true, but in reality, neither she nor Tom were keen on returning just yet.
"We'll visit her," Tom replied, dodging an apple cart. "Since the trains won't run that day, I'll arrange for a motor and we'll drive down."
"So it will be just the two of us on Christmas Eve?"
His hand curled into her waist as they veered around a burly man with a briefcase. "Are you disappointed? It will certainly be different than…"
"I'm not a bit disappointed," she interrupted with a laugh. "In fact, I'm rather eager for an unstructured holiday, without all the fuss."
They supped at a newly opened pub, recommended to Tom by his colleagues, called The Confession Box on Marlborough. After, they wandered past Nelson's Pillar toward Henry Street where they were told the storekeepers were festooning their facades for the upcoming season. Arnott's was ablaze with lights, its broad awning draped with a fluffy white material – Tom presumed it to replicate snow – on which workers were arranging a life-size display of C. Clement Moore's A Visit From St. Nicholas. At present, the reindeer were jumbled like deck chairs after a tidal wave and Jolly Old St. Nick had capsized on his ear.
Tom glanced up and laughed. "I think Father Christmas should ease off on the Guinness!"
"If I had his job on Christmas Eve, I'd certainly stop for a pint or two along the way," Sybil told him, her eyes drawing towards one of the large plate glass windows. Inside, a man in a garish plaid jacket was scratching his head over a festive display. His female mannequin was bedecked in a bright red dress, one of the new so-called flapper designs, cut low at the bust and shoulders, with black beaded fringe swaying at the thighs. Around her neck was a black lacy collar, and a feather shot skyward from a gold ringlet in her hair.
"Oh, Tom, look, isn't it simply smashing?" She glanced at her husband, who seemed at once amused and sympathetic, and was instantly mortified.
It wasn't the first time she'd caught herself fawning over some trivial thing. Her old world – as much as she'd resisted it – where one only had to ask or buy, indeed sometimes simply expect such things, often reared its head at the most inconvenient of times. She and Tom had just spent the previous Sunday budgeting out this month's expenses and, if they were careful, they'd have enough to put a little away at the end of the month.
"I'm sorry, love."
Now she felt like the most wretched wife on the planet.
"Don't you dare apologize, Tom Branson, when I'm the one clucking over some stupid dress."
"It's not wrong, you know, to want beautiful things," he said, and then gestured at other working-class couples who were window gazing as well. "Even I wish for a better suit on occasion." He never thought he'd say such a thing, but it was true, especially when he found an ink splat or fraying stitch that would no doubt give dear old Carson an apoplexy.
"Wrong, no," she replied, "but impractical, at least as far as this dress is concerned."
Taking her hand, Tom led them back towards the nearest tram stop. "Speaking of Christmas," he said, "I'm rather at a loss as to what to get you! I even wrote to my mother and the only recommendation she had was what not to get – kitchen things and the like. Da got her a new mop bucket one year and she didn't speak to him for a week!"
"I don't blame her," Sybil laughed. And she was just as baffled as to what to give him. There were several books he'd circled in a magazine, but he'd grumbled about the price. He also needed new ink ribbons for his typewriter, but that was hardly sentimental enough for her taste, especially as a first Christmas gift. "I have an idea!" she finally declared when they stepped aboard the tram. "Why don't we make something?"
"What do you mean?"
"Just as I said – instead of buying something, we make each other a gift."
He gave her a sideways glance. "I'm not very creative, love, not in that way at least. I could cobble together an engine, certainly," he laughed, "but I don't know what you'd do with that!"
"It doesn't have to be complicated, or grand for that matter," she told him, "Just something from the heart. Something we'll always remember about our first Christmas together."
Tom still seemed unconvinced, but she set her chin, smiling confidently as the tram dinged north toward home. After all, who needed overpriced frivolous trinkets from a store?
Mary disagreed of course, when Sybil wrote of her plans. Darling, do you not recall what happened when Fräulein Schafer suggested we girls do that one Christmas? Granny thought it positively plebeian and even Mama put an end to it when she found out Edith was writing me that so-called "play."
Sybil had laughed at the memory, thought about correcting Mary in her response that it wasn't as bad as all that. Then again, Edith had perhaps been a trifle too descriptive in her tale Sisters of Light, Sister of Darkness, especially when a certain dark-haired sibling met a ghastly demise in the great house boiler room.
Honestly, darling, it's your first Christmas together. No harm done in spending a small bit on your new husband, although I'm not sure what your dear Tom might appreciate. A watch perhaps? New cufflinks? A tie pin? Then Mary landed her presumptions too far. If money is the problem – and I suspect it might be – I'm happy to help…
That's not who we are, Mary, Sybil furiously scribbled in reply. Tom and I live delightfully simple lives, where value comes not from things, but from what we share. And while I will miss my Downton family this first Christmas away, my heart will be more than compensated by the memories Tom and I will make together as husband and wife.
Still, she thought, stuffing the envelope, making memories is well and good, but it's not what Tom and I agreed to! She rattled her brain as Christmas drew near, drawing a complete blank for potential gifts. A cake? A pie? Gifting food seemed entirely too domestic and besides, she'd already planned to attempt something for their Christmas Eve dinner. To make matters worse, Tom had apparently decided on her gift straightaway and needled her daily with a wink and smile.
"I didn't spend a penny," he bragged one morning at breakfast, not a week before Christmas. As she deposited their dirty dishes in the sink, she glared over her shoulder. "And it will be, without a doubt, your most memorable Christmas present ever!"
She threw him a sunny smile. "That's wonderful, darling!"
"It was a brilliant idea, love," he said, coming over to smack a kiss to her neck. But he must have sensed her simmering doubt. "What's the matter?"
Turning in his arms, she shrugged, forced another smile. "Nothing. Just tired is all."
He tucked a limp dark curl behind her ear. "You've been tired a lot lately."
"Yesterday's shift was a particular bear. Four new mothers arrived on our floor. Three delivered and two had twins."
"Dublin's been busy!"
"Apparently! But Sister Feeney rearranged several shifts and brought in a few retired nurses to help fill the gaps until the new training class is certified next year. She's a tough one, but wise enough to know a nurse dead on her feet is no good to anyone. Things should start to ease up this week."
"Good." Tom reached for his overcoat and cap, smiled cheekily as she bundled him up as she might a child. "I'll see you tonight," he whispered, kissing the tip of her nose, and then gave her backside a playful pat.
As the front door closed, she huffed out a sigh at the little clock snicking over the stove. Not even seven o'clock and already she was ready for bed again. At least she'd been given a half-day's shift today and could rest up. Then she turned round, saw the mess at the sink and groaned.
In most ways, she'd adapted to married life, but cooking while maintaining a relatively clean kitchen remained an unmastered skillset. Tom's mother, on the other hand, managed it all simultaneously, and was always quick to toss in a few digs when watching Sybil attempt the same.
She was midway through scrubbing a skillet when the aroma of charred bacon landed lead-like on her stomach. Retching over the dirty dishes – and the mingled smell of vomit and grease – only made things worse. She snatched up a towel, bolted for the washroom where she hugged the toilet and finished coughing up everything short of her toenails.
"Good Lord," she croaked, leaning back against the tub. As a child, her family had always teased her about having an iron stomach, something she relied on as a nurse. She rarely threw up, so her insides gyrating on a tilt-a-whirl was rather an odd sensation. Sitting up gingerly, she swished out her mouth at the sink and rested on the toilet seat. The flushing water echoed in the bowl as her mind replayed the previous minutes.
"Ugh." She twisted a hand against her stomach as a fresh wave threatened.
Then it hit her.
Not the nausea, which mercifully disappeared, but the reason for it.
Could she be?
She made a mental calculation. Two weeks? No, it had to be more than that – almost a months perhaps? – but golly, she should have noticed. Then again with her duties at the hospital ramping up over the past month, when would she have the time? But, even if she was late, did it truly mean anything? She remembered it happening several times during the war and she certainly hadn't been pregnant then. When she'd inquired about it once to Cousin Isobel, the older woman had chuckled in understanding. It's the near-constant stress and endless hours, she'd said. It's your body telling you not to overdo things. Go home, read a book with a long hot bath and things will soon return to right. And they had.
But now, a sudden thought struck her as she twisted the towel in her fingers. Do I really want them to?
She and Tom hadn't really talked about children, other than the occasional vague reference to someday, but then again, they weren't doing anything in particular to prevent it. And, truth be told, as she wandered away from Dr. Caffrey's office later that afternoon (it was a risk, to be sure, to see him as a patient, but she was quite fond of the old doctor and trusted him implicitly) Sybil was surprised it hadn't happened sooner.
Wandering down the stairwell, she heard the resonance of squelching babies from the floor below, and from somewhere up above came the cries of a delivering mother begging for divine intervention. That hackled the hairs on her neck. I'll worry about that next summer, she thought, and couldn't repress a smile as she began imagining a thousand ways of telling Tom.
Passing the bleary-eyed nurses from the previous shift, Sybil collected her clipboard and set about her rounds. The first was Mrs. Daly, who had delivered her second child two days before. When Sybil snuck in, mother and gurgling baby were negotiating a feed. Finbar was a stocky lad with a strong kick and had already earned the nickname "Bootless Barry."
"I see he's at it again," Sybil laughed, reaching for the pair of white booties on the floor.
"Bad stitching on my part apparently," the mother said.
Shaking her head, Sybil wrangled a tiny wiggling foot to slip the booty back in place. "Better than I could…" She stopped, gently rubbed the soft baby skin in her hand, and smiled. "Mrs. Daly, I have a favor to ask."
Unlike at Downton, where the house tree glittered and towered proportionally in the grand saloon, the Branson's cottage on Fontenoy Street in North Dublin was modestly decorated. They hadn't the time to go out and find a tree, but had, on the previous weekend, collected trimmings from one of Tom's cousins who worked at the Shelbourne Hotel. Sybil had placed the greenery judiciously around the parlor: a little on the street-facing window sill, some along the banister leading to their cozy room upstairs, and the remainder on the small mantel above the hearth. Once she'd added a selection of decorations she'd brought from Downton and a few guttering candles, it had transformed their parlor into a perfectly festive space.
Work had ended early for them both that Christmas Eve and when Tom arrived home, he was humming a carol he'd overheard on the street. As he shook the cold rain from his overcoat, Sybil met him with a cup of tea.
"Bleak midwinter, indeed," she said, palming his frigid cheeks. "Did you get the motor?"
"I did, and she's full of petrol ready to go in the morning. Oh, bless you, love," he said, sighing at the warm cup in his hands. He took a long sip, leaned in for an equally long kiss. "Happy Christmas."
"It is now that you're home," she said, kissing him back. She plucked his cap, drenched from the rain as was his hair, which now dripped onto his cheeks. "Pull the side table by the hearth and we'll eat in here."
And so on their first Christmas Eve together, ensconced contentedly in their little cottage, they had a traditional Irish meal of haddock and roasted potatoes, which Tom bragged were particularly delicious. After, with the room alight with the spluttering candles, they lazed back on their second-hand sofa, socked feet outstretched toward the amber coals glowing in the hearth, and argued about the order of gifts. Tom finally surrendered (as Sybil knew he would) to present his first.
He faced them together, knees bumping, and his mouth simmered with a smile. "Now, my gift is something only for you and you must promise never to tell another soul."
"Golly, now I'm really curious," she said, giggling as she fumbled at the pockets of his waistcoat and trousers. "Aren't you going to let me see it?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's not something you can see," he said, taking her hands. "But I want you to close your eyes anyway."
She did as instructed, felt the brush of his mouth on hers, and, not surprisingly, found herself gasping after a few moments. "So what did you make me?" she insisted against his lips.
"The truth is, nothing I could think of seemed good enough for you..."
She groaned a bit. "Tom, darling…"
His finger went to her mouth, before replacing it with his own again. When he pulled back, he was wearing that impish grin that made her heart melt. "So I decided to make you this," he continued. "A promise…A promise that every Christmas from now on, no matter where we are or how many children or grandchildren are knocking against our knees, that I will make love to you."
She snorted on a giggle. "That sounds frightfully close to cheating."
A shade of uncertainty clouded his eyes. "Do you object?"
"Of course not!" was her immediate reply, and she kissed him again. "And I intend to hold you to that promise. Forever, in fact."
"I'm glad to hear it."
Her fingers inched into his collar. "Starting with tonight."
He'd begun nudging her back onto the sofa, one hand sneaking beneath her hem, but then she groaned and (reluctantly) flattened her hands against his chest, pushing him up again.
"But not just yet," she gasped.
She handed him a box wrapped in cheerily patterned paper and tucked her feet up beside her. Propping an elbow on the back of the sofa, she chewed on a trembling lip as he unfurled the glittering gold bow.
Inside he uncovered a pair of stockings, one cream, one gray, the latter of which he inspected suspiciously.
"Sybil, is this my sock?"
"Don't worry, I washed it," she giggled.
Turning it over, he then noticed his name embroidered on a cuff which was stitched in place with a strip of white satin trim. Tom smiled slowly in revelation. "It's a Christmas stocking!"
"Mine is in there as well," she replied. "Mama wanted me to pack it when we left last year. I thought it rather a silly notion at the time, but she said, There's a bit of child in us all, darling. So I made one for you." Sybil grinned. "To complete the set."
"It's lovely," he told her with a kiss. "Thank you."
"Did you have one as a boy?"
"Nothing as fancy as this, of course, but yes. Shall we hang them at the foot of the bed?"
"I rather Father Christmas not interrupt your present," she laughed. "We'll hang them by the hearth like civilized adults."
After retrieving a hammer and tacks, Tom set about his work, tapping away above the crackling grate, and then lifting each stocking in place. Sybil had also surprised him with a pot of mulled cider, which she now sat pouring.
"Love, there's something lumpy in yours."
She hummed innocently. "What is it, darling?"
Tom reached within, extracted a smaller crocheted item, this one stitched with a mixture of emerald, white, and orange. He turned it over, brows thrust together, silent and curious, as if assembling an engine in his head.
"Sybil?" He cleared his throat, faced her, his hesitant smile trembling. "Does this mean what I think it means?"
"That depends on what you think it is," she teased, joining him by the hearth.
"Well," he cleared his throat again. "It looks like a baby's cap."
Sybil thrust a hand to her mouth, laughing hysterically.
"What's the matter?"
"Leave it to my atrocious sewing to muddle the surprise." Turning it right-side up, she said, "It's supposed to be a booty."
"But a baby booty?" he asked, still disbelieving.
Smiling, she simply nodded.
He made a noise then, half laughter, half sob, and drew her in his arms. "Oh my darling."
Clumsily, they swiped at each other's faces, laughing and pecking playful kisses on cheeks, noses, mouths, until she giggled out an apology.
"I'm sorry about your present. I wanted it to be perfect."
"You just told me I'm to be a father – there's no better present than that," he said, kissing her again.
Reluctantly, he pulled away, reached once more for his tools. After tapping one last tack to the mantel, he hung the little booty between their stockings.
"Looks perfect to me," he said, slipping an arm around her waist. His eyes twinkled as he leaned down. "And the best part of it is, we made the baby together."
"Quite so," she hummed against his mouth, nibbling his lip. "I'm ready."
"Are you sure?"
He sounded so uncertain, she had to laugh again. With one hand twisting at his waistcoat buttons, and the other at the nape of his neck, she pulled him to her and, tongue probing, assured him they would be making a very merry Christmas well into the night.
She awoke much later, the bare skin of her back prickling with bumps against an unwelcome draft. Their cottage was snug, but the bedroom, tucked away upstairs, was always the first to lose the heat. Already the almanacs were prognosticating a cold winter, which meant a premium for coal, according to Tom. He'd generally offer such facts with a gentle smile, as if testing her blue blood for regrets, but he'd also follow with little reassurances. A bit of stripping on the windows should help and we'll have a rolled towel at the front door, to keep out the draft. Those extra blankets Ma offered will come in handy and, of course, he'd winked, when there are other ways to stay warm.
Such had been the case earlier that night.
Even during her clandestine engagement to Tom, when they both stole the kisses and touches allowed by time and propriety, and when she occasionally braved thoughts to their future as husband and wife, she'd never fully imagined the calming satisfaction of physical intimacy. When they married, he was just as inexperienced as she, somewhat of a surprise to her, but an unexpected gift in that they learned to love together. He was both an attentive and eager lover, bringing her to such heights of sensation that at times it nearly overwhelmed her. Just as he'd done tonight, more than once in fact, his body thrusting against her in such waves of gratitude for not just a new life, but for ever entrusting her happiness to him. She'd savored every tremor as they came together and after, when they'd caressed patches of over-sensitive skin and giggled on the prospects of parenthood, she almost wished she could spend the morrow with her family, if only to tell them, once and for all, that hers was a heart not stolen, but freely given.
Despite their earlier ardor, and the flame-touched sheets that lulled them to sleep, Sybil shivered. Without him, the cold crept across the bed like an icy demon bent on revenge. Poking her nose above the covers, she saw a creamy hue leaking through the cracked door. She snatched up Tom's woolen socks, bundled in a thick quilt and wandered into the adjacent room.
The little space was a half the size of their bedroom, which was to say it barely existed at all, but served Tom well enough as a makeshift office and library. He'd not had time to build any shelves, so most of their books were still neatly piled in corners, and the desk was a third-hand oak table donated by one of his uncles. Whenever she found him here in these wee morning hours, he was typically snapping away at an article, but tonight the typewriter was quiet.
She watched from the door – he was so engrossed in his writing he hadn't noticed her – as he scrawled deliberately across the pages of a small book, his thoughts occasionally broken by a nibble on his pen or a glance out the ocular window that faced the back garden. It wasn't until she shifted a foot and a board creaked that he turned and saw her.
She smiled. "Shall I fetch another piece of coal, Bob Cratchitt?"
He chuckled. "None to be had here, milady, but I wouldn't object to sharing that quilt."
Moments later she was snug in his arms, the blanket wrapped around them both as he rubbed her arms, hips, thighs. He pressed a soft kiss beneath her ear and then nibbled on the lobe, his earlier task a distant memory now to awakening her senses.
"You didn't answer my question," she said around a little groan. "I hope you're not working at this hour, especially on Christmas."
He could have told her about the unbidden worries that crept into his dreams as the cold enfolded them, about how she might have to defer her work when the baby came, about his own meager earnings, barely enough for two, much less for three, but he didn't. Those worries would be real enough by summer, but tempered, he hoped, by the joy of new life. And it was the latter that prompted him to leave the burrowing warmth of their bed. He reached for the open book on his desk, placed it in her hands.
"Is this the journal Mama sent you?"
"I wasn't quite sure what to do with it until now."
She started to flip it open, but hesitated.
"You can read it if you like," he said. "I've no secrets from you."
As she turned the page, Tom nuzzled another kiss to her neck. Smiling at the opening salutation, she read aloud.
Christmas Morning, 1919
My darling child:
Your mother just told me about you, the announcement was her Christmas present to me, and I'm quite eager to make your acquaintance, which she expects will happen next summer. To be perfectly honest, I've never given much thought to fatherhood or what that truly means for someone. Then again, marriage – with all its joys, disagreements, compromises, and burned bacon – were rather a foreign concept as well until I met your mother. And now, I can't imagine life any other way.
My own father died when I was just a lad. Colin Branson loved his family deeply and worked hard to provide for his wife and sons. He was a fitter for the Dublin and Southeastern Railway, and his heart, or so I'm told, simply gave out one day. Once he was home, and Ma brought us to him, he was too weak to say much. But he told your Uncle Kieran and I something his own father had told him – that the greatest gift a man could give his children is to love their mother.
Like my father, and his father before him, I'm not a rich man, and likely never will be. But rest assured, my child, you will have a loving home, and I can promise that your mother will always have my heart.
Sybil pressed her lips to his cheek, muffled a pesky sniffle. "I love you, my darling, so very much."
"And I you," he said, resting his hand on her middle. "The both of you."
She stood then, letting the quilt fall from her shoulders, and reached for his hand.
His eyes, coveting her skin like an oasis in the desert, glistened with mischief. "Aren't you cold?"
Her teeth were on the verge of clattering when she stepped back into his arms. His hands drifted down, gently hoisted her legs around his waist. And as he carried her back to their room, she probed him for another kiss, whispering, "Who needs a roaring fire when one has you?"
A/N2: Sackville Street was renamed O'Connell Street in the early 1920s and Rutland Square (where the Rotunda Lying-In Hospital is located) was likewise re-designated as Parnell Square in the 1930s. The Confession Box pub still exists and according to one source was established sometime between 1919 and 1921, and was frequented by republicans. Arnott's Department Store was one of the more famous stores in Dublin and just this year was bought out by the Selfridges Group.