Sarah O'Brien was harder than most, but even she could not escape the realities of War. There was a big wide world outside the village of Downton, beyond the house she had reluctantly called home for eleven years now; they couldn't all sit around a dining table and darn their mistress' delicates. It seemed almost every bloody week they lost a footman, a hall boy, a groom, to His Majesty's service, and more often than not they were never heard from again. The rest of them fell into two categories; those waiting to be called up with bated breath, desperate to get out there and fight for king and country. She called that lot the stupid sods, and Thomas, daft bugger, had slotted right into that category. The second lot had her sympathy, and that was something Sarah barely ever gave, because they didn't want to go to war; they knew they might not ever come back.
Her brothers, god love them all, fell into the first category. She had five of them, each as stupid as the other and as bloody lovable, and only one of them had hesitated when the time had come to sign up. As always Alfie had been the one resist, but he'd always been a home bird anyway. He was never as happy as when he on the farm with Dad, smoking a cheeky cigarette behind the cowshed – silly sod still thought Dad didn't know – and working a hard, long day at home where he belonged. He was a strong young lad, but he had the softest of hearts, and he was still so young. She'd never been prouder of him when he'd said no, and there wasn't a thing wrong with being scared – those that got themselves killed were the ones who pretended they weren't. But more than anything, she was relieved; relieved for Alfie, relieved for her father and relieved for herself. She wasn't stupid enough to believe she'd be lucky enough to have all her brothers survive, and at least this way she'd still have one left at the end of it all.
Well, until conscription had snapped him up anyway.
Her dim-witted brothers weren't the only thing on her mind though – god forbid she'd ever be allowed a moment to think about herself. Whilst the stupid sods ran off to get themselves killed, she had a Countess to contend with, one who still behaved like it was nineteen-bloody-thirteen and swanned around in her evening gowns and pretty little robes and demanded even more of her than she had before. And strangely enough, she gave it. She gave every little piece of already stretched-thin self to the woman in the hopes of producing a smile, and more often than not she failed, and she knew exactly why because she'd been responsible for it all. It still haunted her, the cries of pain, the crimson on the floor, and the crush of her mistress' hand as she delivered the tiny, miserable thing that never had a chance to draw a breath but frequented her nightmares still.
Carson's familiarly gruff voice startled her reverie and thank god too; she'd been heading back into the dark place, and that always meant a nightmare or two, not that she didn't deserve it. Sometimes Sarah thought she'd be better off burning in hell, but being by Cora's side and seeing her pain was penance enough. Sarah soon noticed a pair of eyes fixed on her and looked up to meet Daisy's gaze; she pursed her lips and gave her the usual menacing stare. She was harmless enough, but it was times like these that Sarah couldn't bear the rest of this misbegotten lot.
"Shall I have a picture taken for you or would you prefer just to stare?" she drawled flatly.
The girl stuttered a response and ducked her head, and Sarah felt a small measure of regret. She didn't blame Daisy for staring really – she must look a right miserable cow sitting and staring down at her work and remembering that day of utter anguish – but if there was one thing Sarah didn't like it was pity, and certainly not from the idiots she worked with. She wouldn't have it from Thomas, not that he'd ever give it, and she certainly wouldn't have it from Daisy.
"That's enough, Miss O'Brien," Carson chimed in predictably, and held something out in her general direction. She felt her heartbeat quicken at the sight of it, and had pushed herself up and out of her chair before Carson could even announce it was for her.
Sarah practically snatched the letter from his hands, and Carson simply raised a brow before taking his customary position at the head of the table but she barely noticed. Her entire being was focused on the envelope in her hands. She briefly contemplated tucking it into her pocket and opening it later, but it had been so long since she'd heard from one of her brothers that she couldn't wait, and used the needle she had been using on her ladyship's lacy garment to slice it open, retrieving the precious scrap of paper inside.
She should have guessed really. The envelope hadn't been thick enough to contain a letter; the O'Brien brothers loved to bloody ramble on about nothing, and there was nothing in here but a single rectangular piece of paper. A telegram of course, from the war office, addressed to Miss Sarah Jane O'Brien.
It didn't say much, but what it did say was enough to stop her cold.
"Good news, Miss O'Brien?"
Sarah didn't hear her at first. She was too caught up in the grief slicing through her like a knife to give a damn about the rest of the people at the dining table, but she eventually became aware of a pair of curious eyes on her, and she looked up to Anna with a knee-jerk reaction of disdain.
"What's it t'you?"
But she couldn't know, could she? As far as Anna Smith was concerned, Sarah O'Brien was entirely alone in the world. She'd never mentioned her parents and she'd never mentioned her brothers and she was determined for it to stay that way. Besides, the girl hadn't meant any harm. Sometimes she thought she did, but that was all Bates' influence. Anna had been alright before he had come along, but now she was just another person Sarah didn't have the time of day for. It was just Thomas and Her Majesty these days.
"She was only asking."
Sarah scowled stood up abruptly with the telegram clenched in his fist. Never mind pity, the one thing she hated more than anything was John bloody Bates sticking his nose into her business – what did anything she said or did have to do with him, or Anna for that matter? She preferred to stay out of their business the best she could; the least they could do would be to reciprocate and leave her the bleedin' hell alone, especially now.
"Well she shouldn't have asked, and it's got nothin' to do with you either, Mr. Bates. Anna can speak for herself, y'know. She always did before you turned up."
She left them to it, fleeing the Servant's Hall for the familiar safety of the yard where she process the news in peace. No doubt she'd be the sole topic of their scornful gossip for the remainder of afternoon tea – and they thought she was bad – but she had an appointment with a fag.
Cora Crawley had taken to retiring to her room in the time between breakfast and evening dinner which seemed to endlessly drag. It was impossible not to make something of an appearance during the day, for the sake of morale - it would do Downton little good if its mistress was to shut herself away indefinitely. So she tried her best to be involved in things, and to limited success. Her lack of desire for Robert's company was better left unsaid, and lately even the girls exhausted her.
Sybil was filled with a boundless enthusiasm for the changes that were apparently imminent in society, and, though Cora tried to indulge her, she simply couldn't find the strength to long for a new world when all she really wanted was a return to the comfortable world she had known before. Mary was trying to fill the role Cora had left vacant by her physical and mental absence, finding time to deal with Mrs Hughes and welcoming visitors to the house with a courtesy and deportment she had learnt from years of observation, but Cora found her pride was not whole. She hated that her daughter was prematurely thrust into this role and a small part of her still longed for the child she had lost, her boy, her heir, and she wished in those moments that Mary would never be the Countess of Grantham, and that nobody but her son would be Earl. And Edith, her beautiful Edith who wanted nothing more than her mother's attention…Cora could barely stand to be in the same room with her.
The only face she seemed to want to see these days was the one belonging to the woman she was contemplating summoning well before the dressing gong, a woman who would probably have to drag herself from the comfort of the servant's hall and a cup of tea to attend to her, and would do so without the slightest hesitation. Poor O'Brien … she really was rather sweet in her own way, and Cora couldn't imagine surviving the last few weeks, months, years without her. She certainly wouldn't have survived the death of her child.
It plagued her still, more than she liked to admit, even almost two years later, but it wasn't just her that had suffered; Robert had grieved too, but not with her. The only person he seemed to let his guard down around these days was Bates, and she was damned if she knew why. Cora still couldn't fathom his fondness for a man who could barely do his job, Batman or not, even all these years later, when he had done nothing but complain about O'Brien from the second she had hired her! She was efficient, she was loyal, she was honest, and, if none of those other qualities were evidence enough of her worth, she had stayed by her side, holding her hand during every agonising second of her son's birth. It couldn't have been easy, but she had not complained once. She had stroked her hair and let her scream, all the while chanting comforting nonsense that Cora barely heard but that soothed her all the same. She had been different since that day, blaming herself no doubt and Cora couldn't bear the thought of O'Brien feeling even a moment of guilt over something she had not been able to prevent.
Maybe they could suffer together?
She rang the bell.
What Sarah wouldn't give for Thomas now. A fag in the yard and a good old rant about Bates and Anna would do her the world of good, but instead she stood alone, with her last bloody cigarette for a while – this rationing was already doing her head in – and the content of the miserable sodding letter ringing in her ears. Her brother was dead. Her youngest, favourite brother that had never wanted to fight in the first place was dead. And he wouldn't be, if they hadn't sent him home from the front with shell shock and sent him right back again! She screwed the letter up in her hand and took an unnecessarily long drag of her cigarette, but it was all she could do to quell her nerves. She couldn't stop her hand from shaking though, or her heart from racing as she thought about her brother lying dead in some makeshift hospital, or being tossed in some grave in the middle of nowhere. Had he died immediately? Or days, maybe even weeks later, after suffering from his wounds? Had anyone even be there for him at the end? As fond as she was of Thomas, if all army medics were like him she didn't reckon Alfie had much in the way of comfort at the end.
She thought about her father. If she'd got the telegram from the war office, did Melvyn O'Brien even know his son was dead? He'd been working so bloody hard since the boys had gone, but always with the hope they'd return. The first O'Brien casualty, and Alfie too, would hit him hard and it would fall to her to tell him; Sarah didn't even know if she could bear the look on his face, let alone the questions.
How the bloody hell would they keep the farm going?
She could hardly see her sisters-in-law picking up their skirts and muddying their boots; they were the ditzy kind, who wouldn't be caught dead milking a cow, and the oldest of her small army of nieces and nephews was twelve. Young enough to avoid the call thank god, but much too young to be put to work on his grandfather's land. And they could hardly hire workers; the family barely had enough money to support themselves, never mind strangers! Sarah sent almost every penny she earned back to her father, and it still wouldn't be enough.
She could ask for a raise. Cora would probably give it to her too, but it wasn't up to her, and his lordship would rather have her sacked than paid more money, and she would never give him the reason he needed to have her tossed out and away from her lady. Anyway, it wouldn't be enough; what her father really needed was experienced hands that would work for nothing, and who was there?
Her mother would have never stood for this. Madge O'Brien would have been on the first bloody ship out to give the Germans a piece of her mind; Sarah would have rated their chances of winning the war highly if she had. She'd never been one to mess with, and maybe if she'd lived Alfie would have stood a chance of survival; she'd gone out of this world giving him life in the first place, was it really likely she'd let King and bloody country take it away?
She closed her eyes. What the bloody hell was it now? She took a long drag of her cigarette for strength and expelled the smoke in a sigh.
"Yes, Mrs. Hughes?"
Who else would interrupt her mid-afternoon cigarette without blinking, and no doubt she'd heard about the mysterious letter that had shaken up miserable old O'Brien herself. As usual, Hughsie looked mightily pleased with herself. What did she have to be so pleased about? What did anyone have to be pleased about these days? The older woman rounded the corner with an arched eyebrow and pursed lips, briefly looking disdainfully in the direction of the cigarette before meeting her eyes.
"It's her ladyship's bell."
It wasn't even close to the dressing gong; what could Cora possibly want at this time of the day? She felt a prickle down her spine. She wasn't ready to face the other woman yet, not least because she stank of smoke, but her ladyship was sharper than she looked and she didn't have a chance in hell of hiding her misery from her.
"Now, Miss O'Brien," Hughes echoed dryly. Her lips were a thin line. "Unless you'd prefer me to tell her you're much too busy?"
Sarah tightened her jaw. The last thing she needed right now was sass from Elsie Hughes, but at least that was one thing in this house that hadn't changed. Everything else had.
"I'll go up," she muttered, taking one last puff and stubbing the cigarette out on the nearby bench. There was no way Cora wouldn't know she'd been having a fag, but if she didn't know by now then she really was a daft cow.
She couldn't summon up anything but fondness for the other woman though, and let the extinguished cigarette fall to the floor with an irritated sigh. When had she become this simpering woman who dropped everything to attend to Cora's needs and was glad to do it? She'd just lost her brother but she still ran to her mistress' side like she was all that mattered in the world.
When had she started caring so bloody much?
When you killed her child, you miserable cow.
It was deeper than that, but she was hardly going to analyze her deepest, darkest feelings now when she had a job to do, and she owed Cora punctuality at the very least.