This is a short oneshot I wrote tonight, in the throes of reflection, so forgive me length, content, lack of editing, etc. I wouldn't post it but for the fact it tied itself up quite easily and everything. Sometimes these things write themselves and you're just along for the ride. It's totally corny and not what I'd ~normally write, by the way.
Thanks for everything.
Spring was slow that year, nature languishing in those few moments before rebirth, brown and lifeless, dull and lacklustre. The ground was stiff with the dewy frost of morning as she trekked across it, folding herself into her coat and scarf, inhaling an aching breath.
The morning was bright if not bland, and Mary slanted her eyes wearily against the pale sky, lines pulling at the corners, etching along the perimeter of her face, embracing either side of her mouth. She felt her age that morning, nearly fifty now, and she felt her cheeks pulled down, the youthful plump and glow gone from them as all that she once had was drained from her by the passing of time.
Robert, too, had been drained by the years, and died in the dark hours after midnight, after a spell earlier in the week. Mary felt the grief burn within her, scorching through her bones and veins, travelling slowly to her heart. She was weary with it all, having just made the call to have his body taken care of, and that her Mama was tucked into bed in a room away from the one in which he died. Edith was at her bedside, Anna, too, and the children were quiet, subdued, elsewhere in the house, likely being fed heartily in the kitchen.
Mary perched herself on the bench out in the grounds, underneath that tree with the first buds of leaves upon it, and she sighed, lips sticking together, her eyes dry and scratchy with tears. She had shed but a few in the couple of hours she spent in bed, quiet and away from the rest of the family. Sadness and mourning had become personal traits of hers in the last nineteen years, and to know that here they were again, she closed up and stuck her neck out, strength and grace in the face of yet another tragedy.
Thinking of the date, her lips tipped in a wry smile – April 15th, wasn't it? Yes, the 15th, the day the Titanic had sank, twenty-eight years after the fact. What a notion, she thought, what a damned thing. Her Papa's death on this very day, the one that marked the death of Patrick and James, brought the Crawley family into some odd, sad, cyclical pattern of mourning.
He had died, Earl of Grantham, in April, like two Crawley heirs before had died this day in April 1912...in icy Canadian waters, after the luxury liner that sank and killed so many. But Robert had died in his own bed, at least, warm and with his love...and perhaps he would greet them on the other side, the lost Crawley heirs...so much family lost. He was much younger than his mother, Violet, had been, but about the same age as his own father when he died.
It had been his heart, they said. And of course it was his heart, Mary thought, because it had bore so much in the last thirty years, that it couldn't possibly go on for thirty more.
The loss of his mother only the year before had been the last tragedy it could take. War was on, and he couldn't fathom of losing his wife, Mary's Mama, before himself, so, that was it, Mary suspected. He couldn't see another war, potentially lose another heir, lose his wife, watch Downton crumble around them, inevitably – So he died. Not even 70 years old and he had burned out, dead from a heart attack, a heart weakened by more loss in that tragic decade so long ago, than most experience in a lifetime. Her Granny was 95 years old when she died, and fully prepared to. Robert, her dearest Papa, didn't have it in him, for he had done so much, and seen so many come and go.
The Earl of Grantham was gone, and Mary inhaled deeply as she thought this – Her father dead, the one whom saw the family through so much hurt and loss. Gone, to be laid to rest in the graveyard that held all of their lost members, some much younger than others. She closed her eyes, exhaling long, focused on the pattern of her heart beating in her chest. Death was so unsurprising to her, even when it should have been a shock...it coloured the years of her life...shaped the way she raised her children...it was around every corner, lurking within every year and every one of them...she couldn't be surprised anymore.
Robert was different, though, for through everyone they'd lost, they never lost the head of the family – the Earl and estate holder and namesake. You expect to lose your father eventually, though, and your grandmother. So Mary knew her outward sadness was underwhelming in that moment, just for the fact she had been engulfed by it for so many, long years, that she was nearly relieved it was someone who had lived their life, and not...someone younger, someone on the brink of the rest of their lives. Surely, her Papa should have lived longer and might have done if his heart had been stronger, but at least he'd lived at all, at least he had raised children, grandchildren, and spent time in his marriage, unlike, well -
Out of the corner of her eye Mary saw someone approaching, and she blinked in their direction, before looking at her folded hands and composing herself. She wanted to be left alone, but could collect herself when needed.
"Oh," When the man reached her, it was not who she thought, and she gazed up at him standing in front of the bench, the sun suddenly blazing behind him and glinting off his blonde hair.
"Who did you think I was just now?" He asked, smiling slightly, one that Mary returned.
"George, actually. He looks so like you, I was simply mistaken – For it's been a long while since I've seen you." Mary said, brows knitting together with sorrow, uncertainty, desperation.
"I'm here when you need me, though." He said, and that was true enough, she supposed.
"I must need you now, mustn't I?" She asked, her voice rough with grief, but much the same as it had always been.
"I'm sorry about Robert. At least it was peaceful, but he should have been head of the family for much longer." Everything about him was bright, he nearly blended into the sun and sky, and she couldn't look directly at him, couldn't search for detail in the way he was dressed, or how he was styled, but blue eyes dazzled her, blonde hair parted like it had been back then.
"Yes, but the women in my family have a knack for outliving their male counterparts, it seems." She wore gloves on her hands and her palms were clutched into fists in her lap, donning a black day-suit, grey coat, and large scarf.
"It does seem so, I'm familiar with that." He said, and Mary's breath whooshed out of her, her stomach leaping to her throat, her heart pounding in her ears. Indeed, oh indeed, he was familiar with it – so was she, so had been her Granny, Isobel, too, and now her Mama, and -
"Matthew," The name left her lips, as it hadn't in such a time, and a chill ebbed through, her skin paling.
She thought she really saw him...otherwise she imagined or believed him to be there, she didn't know – perhaps she was on the cusp of finally losing her mind...But she spoke aloud just the same, staring at where he must have stood, eyes watering as they widened, unblinking.
"He's quite a man now, isn't he?" He said quietly, the man in front of her that she thought – she swore – she imagined was Matthew, and his voice held within it the weight of a father whom had lost all that time with his son.
"Off to war within the week." She said with a breath, and she finally realized it, and a lump settled in her heart, heavy and dark at the thought of her eldest child at...war...the second World War she would see. He had escaped it for a few months, but with winter done they were desperate for more soldiers, and so, he had enlisted before he was conscripted, freshly legal, and she could say nothing to stop him.
"Darling, you've raised a fine young man, and you must be frightened, but you raised him to handle all he will face." She couldn't – she couldn't know if it was his voice, or if this – or just what she was hearing, it was such a foreign thing to her now, lost on the wind, lost that September day when their son was born – the only one of her children to carry the Crawley name.
"I hope his grandfather offered him any advice before he passed, he must need some now." Mary said, thickly, shaking her head, teetering on the edge, overwhelmed with all she must soon face. Her dead father, her soldier, heir of a son turned – turned Earl over night, her widowed Mother, her emptying estate, their changing lives.
Earl at eighteen. Her dear, soldier son George, off to war days from then. Certainly, by 1940, Earldom meant something different than it had, say, in 1912, but it still mattered, and the estate still existed even as the world changed around them. Carson had died, the staff was smaller, but fewer people lived at the Abbey now, so it was just evolving, Mary thought.
"I'm sure he did, Robert wouldn't let him go at this blind. And wasn't your husband in the Great War?"
This struck her, and she looked up again at his face, one blurred and pale in the harsh spring sunlight, any age indecipherable, any features just barely there, but blue, blue eyes clear and watching hers.
"Yes," She breathed and she felt the heaviness of all that had passed them, all he had missed, and it lifted some as she watched him and breathed it out. "You were."
The man, or the figment, or whatever he was, said nothing, and for the first time she felt he must be real, because her response had impacted him. She heard the sharp gasp of breath between them, or perhaps it was the wind, or the tree branches, but she thought he was surprised, or suddenly sad and his eyes weren't sparkling so much as watering and he seemed taller than she remembered.
"You know what I meant, though." Finally, in a tone she didn't recognize, one she never had to hear because he was the one to leave them – it carried regret and remorse, pained affection, fatherly but empty.
Mary sighed and tears veiled her own eyes.
"He was," She agreed.
"Well, he'll give George some advice, don't worry yourself sick with it. He will do well. Just wish him luck."
"Such good luck, mmm?" Mary said, nostalgic, the memory of that train station nearly as painful as anything else. She could have lost him...oh, she didn't even have him then...he came back to her, though, they found each other but – what had it mattered?
"It worked for me."
"I lost you anyway."
"The way I see it, I lost you. I missed this life...you, my Mother, and George...all of the other children we should have had. I'm sorry I left you but you've lived, Mary."
She knew it was him, then, in whatever form, because the way she heard her name, for the first time in nearly two decades, caused the hairs on her neck to stand, goosepimples to prickle along her arms, and the aching wound in her heart to smart less. A peaceful calm washed across her, where the fresh loss of her father was, and the next breath she took was sweet and comforting. Oh, to think Matthew might be here, to think he might have been here before, had seen some of their lives, had known all his son had accomplished, how he changed and grew – What a nice feeling, where so few nice feelings remained, and perhaps it was foolish, or childish, but she soaked in the presence of Matthew that she had longed for, had missed so completely at her side.
Mary never knew for certain if she believed in God, not ever, and certainly Matthew had survived the war...but then, Sybil died, just 24, her newborn daughter in the next room...and then, Matthew himself...tragic and young, a new father, crushed beneath his car on the side of the road...and Mary never prayed again, never believed any higher being was watching over them, for how could there be? How could there be when life had turned so sad.
But now that George was off to war, one greater and more intimidating than the first, she pondered Heaven and God again, wished for some protection for her son, some way to bless and watch out for him. Before anything else, Mary was practical and she knew raising him the best she could was more reasonable than turning to a God she doubted. Privately, silently, when night was at its darkest, she would beg Him for safety as she slipped into the clutches of sleep, but she would not bow to her knees and fold her hands again.
And perhaps her husband next to her in bed, dark-haired and dark-eyed, different enough from Matthew that she could share her life with him, prayed enough for both of them.
Oh, and if this was some ghost, some apparition of her long dead first husband, the love of her life, father of her son, she would take it, she would revel in it, no matter how ridiculous and far-fetched the pragmatic heart of her knew it to be – She needed this, needed him, a salve for her blackened soul.
"Things have been sad at times, but gloriously happy too, haven't they?" He was beside her now, to her left on the bench, and they'd sat like this many times (but not enough), and Mary glimpsed him from the corner of her eye.
Sad but gloriously happy...she had raised a family, lived at Downton, managed to keep the estate afloat and successful all of those years. She had watched her mother and father grow old together, happy and secure, and she had watched those around her find love and partners. Edith, and Tom...their own beautiful children, Anna, too...and she was so happy for them, glad that misery didn't engulf everyone all their lives. Mary had met a man, found a husband, moved him into their home, bore children with his last name. She had aged as gracefully as she could, keeping active and horseback riding, gathering the family at Downton for special occasions, keeping everyone together, supportive, and loving. She had been places all over the world, had seen America, spent some of her summers by the ocean, the salt air and water healing more than anything else had ever. She cut off all of her hair, wore short dresses, and even pants, not unlike her sister had shown them to. She rouged her cheeks, lined her eyes, tried all of the looks with every new season. The Crawleys always had a dog, and the family had argued for days about what to name the two they'd had since Isis had died, more joy and companionship in the animals than each other, at times. Mary had kissed skinned knees and mopped feverish heads, rocked all of her babies, mended torn clothes and torn hearts. She was at Carson's bedside when he left them, peaceful and old, after he'd seen her children born, had taught them things she never could, had watched over her all of her life. She had lived, hadn't she? They had all lived, without him, without them, and it hurt but they were flesh and blood and laughed and cried, through it all.
"They have," Mary said, sadly, warmly, the breeze playing with tendrils of her dark hair, kissed with silver, and she felt the promise of spring in the air for the first time.
"That's it, isn't it? It's love and loss, curses and blessings. No one would deny you that the Crawleys have been particularly tragic, but your legacy still stands when many have fallen. New generations were born and have seen so much. So lucky you've been in some ways, darling."
It was strange to listen to his advice, his reflection on the life he hadn't lived with them, but Mary felt things were clear for the first time in awhile.
"Now just to get George through the next however many years." Mary blinked and gazed across the property, swelling up with pride and gratitude for all they still had, even after all they lost.
"He will get through them," Matthew's voice soothed next to her ear, for it was his voice, she was certain now, the familiar deep, affectionate rumble of her husband long dead. "So will you."
"You have more faith than I."
"That's what I'm here for, perhaps," And she could almost hear the smile on his voice, playful but reserved. "You must be thankful your others are girls, just for the fact of war."
"I am, truly. George is special and he knows so. Not for being heir or anything but – he's yours, and the only Crawley male left, now."
"He won't be the last. I remember the day he was born, that sort of happiness follows you anywhere. Thank you for caring for him, my love. Thank you, too, for letting Mother grandmother all of your children, not just him."
"We've needed her much ourselves. We're glad to still have her, too. Is that what you're here for, Matthew? To thank me for things you can't possibly know because you can't possibly be here?" It occurred to her she might be speaking aloud to herself, and she might have stopped if there was anyone around to see her. She felt angry, she bubbled with grief, and tried to remember herself in the moment. She was alive, Matthew was dead, so too was her father, and her son was going to war. Reality wasn't so kind just then.
"I'm here because when death looms over the household, it's easier to reconnect – to be here again."
Mary sighed, smoothing her flyaway hair, licking her parched lips, suddenly aware of her appearance after their morbid conversation.
"I must look so old to you while you're just preserved in time, aren't you?"
"You look exactly the same to me," He said, and she thought he touched her hand, faint through her leather glove. "Exactly like the day in that hat and riding coat...exactly like all of the mornings I watched the sun rise on you."
"Oh, Matthew." Her only benediction, and she turned to his bright face, hair and eyes still gleaming, the only distinguishable things about him, aside from his voice, and the calm, easy strength of his presence. She wondered if she could touch him, if she could ask him to stay, why he hadn't ever stayed...not ever, not even when he was alive, oh Matthew.
"Mother," She heard George's voice calling, and carry from the gravel drive. He had called her Mother since asking Isobel what Matthew had referred to her as.
Though he could not see them, down the little slope to the bench, they saw him. She watched the man, the figment, this version of Matthew, gaze up at the house and their son, and Mary watched as the father of her child saw him again for the first time since he was born. The look in Matthew's eyes was so the same as it had been eighteen and a half years ago that Mary thought she was back there, in some time warp, but there was a sadness tugging at the corners that only the lifetime they were robbed of could cause.
Then, as sudden as he had been there, he was leaving her, always leaving her. He reached toward her, and perhaps ghost stories or nightmares had made her expect cold, but she felt warmth as his fingertips, barely there, touched her cheek. His eyes still so blue and swimming with emotion that a dead man couldn't possibly feel, and her own eyes stung, then fluttered shut as she leaned into the strange sensation of an imaginary touch.
"Maybe I'll see you again." She whispered, and on the breeze, gentle and more in her own head than anything, she heard words of love for her, for George, and hope from him, and then Matthew was gone, never really there at all.
The day was dim when she opened her eyes again, the sun hazed over, and George was at the bench, dressed in black, too, and looking more like a man than she realized he had become. The only Crawley man left, she remembered.
Yes, Mary was coming back into herself, aware of the way her joints creaked with age, that her children were growing up, her father was dead – yes, this was real, Matthew was a figment of comfort in that moment, and she calmed her erratic breaths as George spoke.
"They just called and said the hearse is on the way."
"I asked for it two hours ago now, I should expect so," She huffed, dabbing her eyes quickly, then softened. "How are you, my dear?"
So it went, plans being made, the pall of mourning on their house again, and there was her second husband, daughters, and nieces and nephews, her Mama, sister – a family – to care for, and a son who looked so like his father that she would never let him forget it. George boasted Mary's cheekbones, though, and would marry a fine girl, she knew, when he came home from war.
For he would, he must, and Mary believed Matthew when he said he would be fine, and none of them had really been fine, but at least they were loved and loved one another. Even from the beyond, or wherever one might go, there was love, and that was the greatest comfort she could imagine as they buried their patriarch and said goodbye, another phase upon them in a world moving swiftly, and their way of life fading in the past.