"Life's altered you, as it's altered me. And what would be the point of living, if we didn't let life change us?"
A New Life
Carson gave a mental sigh at the recollections that had brought him to his present circumstances: uncomfortably situated in the Countess' lap, unable to extract himself without upsetting the tray of pastries clutched in his hands, and mortified beyond anything that had previously been experienced in his short but embarrassing life. His only consolation in all this was that his face planting tendencies had at last granted him an impact with something soft and supple, rather than the hard and sturdy surfaces of late.
"Your Ladyship!" Lucy cried, rushing forward and snatching the plate of cakes from Carson's hands. "Are you all right?"
The cook's order coupled with her Ladyship's near miss had brought the food fight to a swift close. The only thing Carson's eyes could behold at the moment was the swath of violet silk his head was currently embedded in, but he could hear the befuddled cries and pitiful groans of the other combatants in the impromptu battle. No longer forced to lay claim the offending plate of cakes, he felt safe enough to remove himself from his awkward position, and with hands that were trembling more than slightly and a cringe he was grateful no one could see, he gingerly placed both palms on the Countess' thighs and used the steady support to push himself back up to standing.
Lady Grantham had still said not a word. She sat poised and radiant, staring with penetration at a spot somewhere across the shop, and still fanning herself delicately –but perhaps a touch more rapidly. When Carson had completed his extrication, she turned and gave him such a piercing look that he was surprised he didn't turn to stone. She opened her mouth to speak and Carson was sure he was done for, but to his surprise she turned her regal countenance to the side and addressed the distracted Lucy.
"I'm perfectly fine, Lucy," Lady Grantham assured, smoothing the face-shaped impression out of her frock. She shooed away Lucy's ministrations. "Stop fidgeting over me, and kindly see to those other guests less fortunate than I," she ordered, inclining her head to the outraged customers that were milling about in a daze, drenched in copious amounts of cream and frosting.
Lucy didn't wait for any more encouragement, and hurried off to do whatever damage control she could. She ran frantically about the disheveled shop, hovering over each customer for half a second before moving on to the next; too short a time to appease the patrons, but just long enough to effectively annoy them.
This left Carson to the terrifying prospect of facing the Countess without a mediator. He wracked his brain for an appropriate segue to apology. What did one say to a person when one's head had just been exposed to the more intimate parts of their anatomy? And not just any person, but a member of the ruling class, a Countess of good breeding, who was unused to even being in a teashop, much less bearing with such untoward and uncomfortable manhandling. How could he possibly apologize for the affront to sacred personal space that any proper Englishwoman surely prized more than life itself? Like a swarm of bees the questions buzzed in Carson's brain, stinging his mental vortex and leaving him paralyzed.
"Young man," the Countess said sharply.
"Ye-, yes, m'lady?" he replied in quivering voice. She paused for a few moments without moving a muscle, still examining whatever captivated her interest from across the shop. Carson had the foreboding feeling that his time on earth was limited.
"That was an incredible save."
"I –" Carson had meant to begin a profuse and energetic apology, but was stopped short by the unexpected response. "Tha…thank you...m'lady..." he stuttered. His mind went blank, his powers of speech choosing at this moment to spitefully abandon him.
She disregarded Carson's blubbering, and with a crisp snap her fan abruptly closed and she began collecting her things. "A quick mind and a pair of steady hands are hard to come by," she explained succinctly, before gracefully tilting her head to look directly up at Carson.
"And so is good help."
Carson could no more make out the Countess' inscrutable remark than he could account for her lack of justifiable wrath. Hadn't he just spent several moments breathing in the creases of her dress? What was all this talk about "steady hands" and "good help"? He wasn't sure how to respond to such vagueness, but decided at this point that honesty would be the best policy.
"I'm not sure I understand your meaning, m'lady," he tentatively asked.
"Downton Abbey is in need of a new footman," she replied, rising from her chair. "You'll come by with an application for Mr. Hoover, our butler." And without any other instruction she began sauntering her way towards the exit, leaving Carson nonplussed and still entirely confused. He understood her command well enough, but realized that she must be under false impressions as to the true nature of his employment. With a fierce stab to his conscience, he called out after her retreating back.
"That's very generous of you, m'lady, but–" the negative conjunction halted Lady Grantham in her tracks "–but, you see, I've never been in service, and I don't have any previous experience. The truth is, these last ten years I–" he paused briefly to bury the lump in his throat, and his head hung in abject shame.
"I've worked as a performer. In the halls."
He knew his admission had sealed his fate. He waited for the Countess to proclaim her disdain and dismiss him unceremoniously. She didn't turn around, but deigned to at least crane her neck to the side and peer at him through her periphery.
"Never mind that. You'll have my recommendation, and that will carry far more weight than a thousand good references. I'm a woman of my word, Charles, I'll see to it that you get a fair chance," she said over her shoulder. Turning her head back around, she gave one final sniff before adding, "Now if you'll excuse me, I think I've exhausted my quota of teashops for one lifetime."
And with that she swooped through the teashop door, only the faint scent of perfume wafting in the air and the tinkling of the shop bell giving evidence that her Ladyship had ever been there at all. Carson blinked in gape-mouthed awe where her Ladyship had just stood as the enormity of what had just occurred began to sink in.
A footman at Downton Abbey. Carson had never considered going into service before, but the more he dwelled on the idea the more he liked it. A permanent home. A steady income. A respectable job with respectable employers. All the comforts he lacked and all the talents he possessed came to an intersection at the Countess' offer, and while Carson stood in the crossroads of opportunity, covered in colorful pastry filling and clotted cream, he felt the void in his gut slowly begin to fill and his lips curve into a slow smile.
The smile vanished into a wide mouthed yelp as Lucy viciously assaulted the back of his head with a mop.
"OUT! Out of my shop! The both of you! NOW!"
The united forces of Lucy's mop attack and the cook's draconian face were more than enough to send The Cheerful Charlies scurrying out of the teashop with haste. Outside, Grigg began laughing uncontrollably while wiping cream out of his eyes.
"What did I tell you, Charlie? And to think I had to practically beg you just to step foot in the place. A lot of good memories this will bring us!"
In the past Carson might have shrugged off Grigg's careless comment; made excuses for his high spiritedness or relied on their long history to motivate forgiveness. Those days were over.
"Really?" he replied. His tone was more angry than sarcastic. "I for one didn't find it at all amusing."
"Could have fooled me. Saw you getting a mite cozy with her ladyship back there," Grigg teased, prodding Carson with a pointed elbow-nudge.
Carson's face softened at the mention of that grand lady. "Not exactly. She offered me a job," he said quietly.
"A job," he said again, this time louder. "As a footman. At Downton Abbey."
"A footman? You?" Grigg began laughing even harder than before. "What a lark, Charlie! I can see it now: dressed up in a penguin suit, opening the door for some hoity-toity gentleman, and handing old ladies cups of tea!"
He'd expected Grigg to find the whole idea ridiculous. His friend could never see beyond quick paychecks and the next good time. He lived in the moment, the thought of being bound to any kind of protocol or authority intolerable. Carson knew it would be useless to explain with words, and instead gave Grigg a look that said it all, before turning and walking silently away.
"You're not serious, are you Charlie?" Grigg asked following after him, this time without any trace of banter.
Carson stopped where he stood but didn't turn around.
"I am," he told him. "I'm tired of it, Charlie. The stealing, the lying, all of it! Nothing I say ever makes you see reason. I've given ten years of my life covering your back, and I'm not going to give one second more! I want a new life, Charlie, a respectable life. I've been given a chance to have one, and I'm going to take it."
It was said almost as much to himself as it was to his partner, and by the end of his speech Carson was breathing heavily, his jaw set in determination as he strode purposefully onward.
Grigg was also determined. He wasn't willing to give up without a fight.
He tried pleading.
"You can't just leave, Charlie! What about our act? The Cheerful Charlies! That's "Charlies", with an 's'!"
He tried doubt.
"So you'll throw it all away, and for what? To snivel over a bunch of rich lords and ladies who couldn't care less about you?"
He tried anger.
"Fine! Go on then! I don't need you!"
Grigg's words went unheeded and Carson continued walking purposefully away. His bag of tricks was emptying fast, and in a last ditch effort Grigg tried the one act that always managed to bring Carson round.
He tried guilt.
"You can't mean it, Charlie, you just can't!" Grigg said, warbling his voice with sorrow and mustering a few false tears. "I'm your friend, your partner. Without you I'd have no act, I'd have nothing! Is that what you want? To see me jobless and friendless, begging on the streets for my next meal?"
The slightest waver; a brief moment's hesitation as his steps drew slower. Ten years of memories flew by–most of them bad– before the resolve was back and Carson steeled his voice and looked over his shoulder.
It was the last thing he would say to his partner for thirty years.
A failed performance, a dine-and-dash, a teashop food-fight, and three face-plants. It was the worst day of Charlie Carson's life, and as fate would have it, also the best.
But it wouldn't be for long. Carson had a feeling there were many good days ahead.
He'd finally discovered something he enjoyed doing, something that wouldn't require him to act or pretend a part. A job that came with dignity and honor, where he'd never be forced to steal a meal or suffer the insults of fools.
As he came upon an intersecting lane, he looked up at the freshly painted street sign. Gleaming brightly in neat and tidy letters, white words against black painted wood, it sat there: Downton Abbey, straight to his left. He turned and continued on without once looking back, ready to leave the stage behind and begin his new life.
Whew! That took some doing! For those of you who have made it to the end, I salute you, and give a hearty thanks. I hope you enjoyed Carson's journey :)