He was hunched over a desk like he had been half their lives, it seemed. She rubbed his back and peered over his shoulder as she came in, doing that for half their lives, too. They had certainly fallen into routine but it was nice to have that, to have something so long to find routine with it – to have him so long that it felt a natural thing, as if she always did have him.
The house was quiet, for much had changed and many had gone, from staff and family. They had raised their own children up in the grand Abbey, though as the years passed the Nannys became fewer and by their fourth, Mary nursed and rocked the baby on her own. A past version of her would be startled at who she was now, but the years changed them, and while she was no less of a Lady, she was more of a mother, more of a woman involved and she was glad for who she became.
Her Papa had gone on, and her Mama was to the Dower House, for Violet had gone on, as well, but lived a long life nonetheless. They were Earl and Countess now, and it was bittersweet, something Mary had longed for but something that came at the loss of her father. She shone brightly at the title, at the knowledge that things had come down to the rightful hands, that she hadn't been pushed out, but it became less important the older she grew, and the more openly she loved those around her.
Carson had died, too, and while reflecting on it seemed like everyone around them had passed, it was just the natural way of things. Their eldest, George, was twenty-three himself! To count them all off was overwhelming, but it had happened gradually and as time ebbed and flowed. They were all changed for each loved one lost. Oh how long ago it had begun, Patrick and James and then Sybil…
But she still had Matthew against all odds, it seemed. At least they'd lasted so long together.
When Carson went was when things changed, when the staff became fewer, the house less of the orderly operation it had always been. They realized just how much had hinged on Carson, how much he put into the running of things, his labour of love. Mary was at his bedside when he passed, old and grey and having seen all her children born. It was a loss, a tragedy, a struggle – More had gone than came and the house was nearly all their own most days.
Matthew wore glasses now, and Mary would borrow them when reading especially fine print, and it was a middle-aged bond of theirs. His hair was shorter, parted and smoothed, and silver shone through the blonde. His forehead was creased more permanently, but he kept his hair, thinning some, and he was still so very Matthew to her. She could still see the man she met and fell in love with through the veil of age, and he still warmed and loved her the same.
"What's that you're buried in?" She asked, and he turned round, her hand still rubbing between his shoulder blades. He was a dashing fiftysomething, smart and funny in his glasses, she thought.
"This and that, you know," He smiled, then sighed, removing the spectacles and rubbing his eyes. Little lines pulled at the corners, and he looked more serious now they were old, than when they were young. Concern was etched in his features, something born from war, death, taxes, children, and marriage. He had gotten briefly political, though never quite Lord Chancellor, and had success there, but also was fraught with nerves during that time. Yes, he was most pleased as a solicitor, husband, and father – and, eventually, Earl of Grantham.
"You look lovely, darling," Matthew said, when he took her all in, eyes focused on her instead of the papers and she softened at the endearment. "That colour always suited you."
She wore burgundy, and smiled at him, feeling strangely intimate with him there in the big library, and there was a hollowness in the house that wasn't always there, but when it was it just reminded of all the horror they'd seen.
It was 1945 and the world was a new place, a ruined one, but changed and evolving through it all – the war, the atomic bombs, the masses dead. It was September, six years after it all started, and it was ending – Blessedly, desperately ending. George had went, her dear boy, when his sisters were still so small. Mary stood at the same train station, saying goodbye to her traveling soldier, like she had many years before, when his father had gone, when Matthew was not quite hers and goodbye was more painful than anything…
But he had lived, the heir, their son, and he would be coming home. It seemed impossible, too good to be true, too fragile a wish to dwell on too long.
"Thank you, and you're quite dashing whilst bespectacled." She bent to kiss him quickly, and he gaped at her like a younger Matthew once had, still taken with her.
"Tomorrow will be a happy day, won't it?" Mary mused aloud, moving across the room, smoothing creases in her blouse.
"Indeed, the family all coming round, our boy home again."
"I feel weak with it all, really." Matthew stood up as Mary sat down on the chesterfield; the dread that had settled in her chest lightening the closer they came to this day and now – now – would life just go on and on? Oh, all they had seen…
"Are you quite fine? Relieved or worried, or just damned well drained like I?"
"Damned well drained, I'd say," Mary sighed and leaned back into the cushion, watching her husband with her eyes slanted warmly, still such a wonder to see him like this, this reluctant heir who became Earl in face of it all.
"We've done well, my Mary," He said and he oozed sentiment, even if he looked harsher and older now, the roughness of wrinkles and loose skin did nothing to hide the sensitive heart beneath.
"Well we've kept them all alive, at least, that's well enough." She folded her hands in her lap, not apt to brag too much, for there were times it felt they would fall apart at the seams, and times they fought bitterly over which direction to raise them, but they had done, at least.
"You don't give yourself enough credit. They're fine people, well-balanced, and smart. I couldn't be more proud of them."
"Nor I, darling, but the job is hardly done. The girls are still home for a couple of years yet, and George – oh, won't he be changed by it all…"
"He will," Matthew agreed, and he sat beside her with two glasses in hand, and gave one to Mary, a midday toast to all they had faced. "But now he has finally the chance to live life like a young man, and he'll thrive, I know so."
"I'm glad he has you," Mary said softly, linking their fingers, as Matthew leaned back, too. If they were younger people, with parents alive and well, they would tut and scold for their lack of posture, for their changed boundaries and priorities. But they were the parents now, and sometimes furniture was for leaning and putting their feet upon, and he kissed her hand gently as she sipped the dark liquor. "Sometimes I fret and dream of all those years ago, my mind still torments – wondering what would have come if I lost you."
"But you didn't, and nor I you,"
"No, but you were only spared this second war because of your back, and what if you'd gone? What if I'd lost you somewhere along this way? I couldn't have raised a boy alone,"
"You would have and done so wonderfully,"
"Oh Matthew, don't bombard me with empty sentiments. I truly wonder what life would have been like and I know I couldn't have done it on my own – or wouldn't have wanted to. I can't imagine sending George off to war alone, and bearing these last few years. I only mean to say that I'm grateful, darling, that I've had you. You fathered them all so well."
Mary turned to gaze at him, her cheeks warm with the drink, and she saw his eyes foggy with emotions from the past. It was not always simple or guaranteed between them, and those dark days, those lost years, haunted them both and tears blinked away as he came back to the present.
"It's not nice to think of, Mary, not amidst all the loss we've seen," He squeezed her hand, shook his head, mouth downturned with jowls and frown. It tormented him some, too.
"I know it's not but it makes me even more thankful for you," She touched his face and within her there was strength and warmth and all he had loved and needed – Mary had changed, they all had, but she was more the same than any of them. At her core she was untouched, so the young woman whom had met him in that riding hat. She knew herself well.
"Isn't it I who normally reminds you of how lucky and grateful I am for you? Has war's end found you soft, darling?"
"Hardly," She scoffed, even as she had felt the walls around her heart recede a great deal. "Just realistic." And tired of being fearful.
"What a hard earned life it's been." Matthew's turn to whisper through the empty library, the nearly empty house, and she brushed her fingers back through his hair, smiling as his eyelids fluttered at the sensation. She wondered what she must look like to him – kissed by grey and aged by worry, but their love still felt young, somehow.
"Aren't we selfish talking of us, when the world is changed, England will never be the same, so many have fallen…"
"Not us, for once, though, not us." He said and they drained their crystal and Mary set them aside on the table, burrowing her head into the crook of Matthew's neck as he welcomed her into his embrace, and they felt perfectly ordinary, strong and united, and somehow untouched by this war, by neither death nor financial loss. Their son was coming home, their daughters were safe at Downton, and whilst the storm of war had raged on in the world outside, they were safe and protected. Perhaps all their suffering as a younger couple had kept them from suffering this time around.
She closed her eyes as they breathed and sighed, he warm against her, a constant companion at her side all this time.
She recalled how odd but comforting it had felt, to see George off the first time, and then each additional visit, with Matthew by her side. It had seemed…had she not just blinked since it was Matthew boarding the train and heading to the front? She remembered that red mess kit well, had realized none of her love for him had faded as soon as she saw him again, wearing that. The Great war but, now, the second World War…how it had all passed quickly and yet torturously…
"I wonder if life is slowing down or we'll be caught up in all of the change that's to come," Mary murmured, a part of her younger self in these moments of reflection with him. She was not a wife, nor mother, nor Countess, just the Lady Mary she was most of her life, there with him, as had always seemed most natural.
He wore nice trousers but a soft sweater, and while she didn't wear trousers as often as, perhaps, dear Sybil might have, it was a fashion she did explore. The change was gradual and strange but they had seen so many things develop in their lifetimes, and when it wasn't threatening, it was exciting, it was enlivening.
"Whatever we want, I expect. We're nearly old enough that we can hum and haw over television and whatever more is to come,"
"Yes, at times I feel like Granny must have with all the newness abound,"
"All the newness abound and then there's you and,-" He was tickling her wrist and palm, lethargic and comfortable, but she snapped it away and glared at this silver blonde Matthew she had grown old with.
"I beg your pardon, you were about to call me old!"
"You didn't even let me finish, Mary." He rolled his eyes like she might have, and her elegant brows knit in a frown.
"I didn't need you to, there's not much else to go but to compare new to old,"
"If by constant and comforting and fulfilling, you think I would have meant old, then so be it," He plucked her hand back up from her lap, kissed her cheek, and she settled in again. He smelled of the fire he had stoked and the brandy they had drank, and she loved him. "But you've enriched my life, and each day feels new again, so surprising and wonderful our lives have been."
"I suppose somewhere in there, yes, it's been surprising and wonderful. We've made it, oh Matthew."
"Indeed, we have, and at times I wondered…"
They lapsed into quiet, and that was the thing about the house in the afternoon – So damned quiet and empty and Mary at times longed for those glory days before the first war, when Earls and estates thrived and the world was the type that had and needed them. She longed for her whole family, her sister dead far too young, her grandparents and Papa, Isobel – even Carson, a father in his own right. But now, two world wars in, their families were an endangered kind, and the Crawleys were struck with dumb luck to still be hanging in there – luck and good investments, and substantial time spent at a smaller home in London. Oh but that golden age, that untouchable something that lived at Downton Abbey when times were good and the nation's soldiers were alive, so too were their family members…
She supposed there was no going back, and an evolving world was a sustainable one, but she would fondly think of her youth at Downton, well spent and spoiled, dreaming of a life outside of those walls, the ones in which she could now never imagine leaving.
"I know we go on about all the things we've seen and done, all that time has stolen and gave to us, but you should know I can still look at you and be struck with how the same you are. You even stand the same, fold your hands the same, same expression of polite tolerance when you're actually annoyed. Some mornings I walk in the room and it's as if I'm seeing you for the first time again – how good you are at that, Mary, taking me aback even though we've been married quite long now. Just like that day at Crawley House, I made a fool and you looked like a Queen of the county." Her sometimes-poet of a husband rambled on, stroking her hair, still brunette but shorter and worn down now, coarse with grey and the shine gone from it – the shine gone from much of her, she sometimes felt.
Oh but then he'd talk, like the dreamer he was, and he would convince her that she had not lost an ounce of herself, was only greater and lovelier than ever. She knew him an idealist, honourable to a fault, but she found she believed him, for he must mean it.
Matthew had changed through the years, too, he was a darker man at times, and they balanced each other well – for what would she have done without him, and he without her?
What a strange, important blessing it was that they had made it all this way together. Light or dark, pragmatic or hopeful…it had been a life together, and at one time that was more than they dreamt of or believed would happen. They didn't have to fight for one another anymore, it was just the way of life, and they were a predestined and fateful pairing, she felt it in even the most reasonable part of herself.
The next day they would collect their son at the train station, and he would be home to stay. They would bring their daughters, reconnect with Edith and Branson, the nieces and nephews, and the Crawleys would celebrate as they had not in years. Life would go on, as it always did, and always would – no matter what.
Mary kissed her husband in the library, dear Matthew, nearly sixty now, and her innards tumbled in a familiar and pleasant way as she brushed her palms across each side of his face, fingers sliding to his ears. He sighed into her kiss, and their hearts beat a fast rhythm.
She thought, briefly, detachedly, of a different version of herself, one without him, and if that woman existed, if there was a different ending to her story in some other world, she felt sorry indeed for all a Mary without Matthew would miss out on. But she was certain, too, if ever she or any part of herself in any world, had to live without him…she would, for she was never down for long.