Jimmy collapsed into a chair and gave a self-pitying sigh; his feet hurt, his back ached and he was exhausted. Lady Grantham had decided today was the perfect day for re-arranging the furniture upstairs, so he'd spent all morning lugging around sofas, dragging tables into new positions and carting objects to, and from, the attic. He sighed again, hoping someone would ask what was wrong so he could bemoan his lot - instead of indulging him, Miss Baxter simply picked up her sewing and exited, leaving Jimmy alone in the servants' hall.
"Ugh," Jimmy muttered - he plucked the neatly folded newspaper from the spot Mr Barrow had left it in at breakfast, and opened it to the entertainment section. He skimmed through the film reviews - there was a new Valentino flick he was dying to see, but it would have to wait for his next half-day. Perhaps he would ask Mr Barrow to accompany him - it would undoubtedly be more fun than going alone and honestly, there wasn't another person in the house Jimmy could abide spending time with; his colleagues' qualities paled in comparison to Mr Barrow's. Jimmy smiled to himself at the thought of it - of himself and Mr Barrow sitting side by side in the red-velvet chairs, sharing a packet of peanuts or popcorn and laughing derisively about everything and nothing. He found the more time he spent with Mr Barrow, the more time he wanted to spend with him. When they weren’t together, Jimmy’s mind still always seemed to be on the dashing under-butler.
Dashing. Had Jimmy really just thought that? Well, Thomas – Mr Barrow – was undeniably handsome; he had the look of Valentino about him, Jimmy mused, and he cut a better silhouette in his livery than any other servant Jimmy had laid eyes on.
Not that he went around appraising the relative attractiveness of male servants.
Well, a little, but only to decide if he was better looking than they were – which, nine times out of ten, he indisputably was. Mr Barrow was the exception of course – if Jimmy was handsome, Thomas was stunning. It was his angular features and his singular, blue-grey eyes that seemed to look right through Jimmy and make him worry that Mr Barrow could look into his very heart and see exactly what lay there.
Ruffled by his own thoughts, Jimmy leaned back in his chair and with a quick glance around to check he wasn't being watched, he plonked his tired feet up on the servants' hall table.
"James Kent!" Carson's unmistakable voice boomed from behind him, "Take your feet of that table this INSTANT!" Jimmy dropped the newspaper and nearly tripped over in his rush to jump to his feet.
"Sorry Mr Carson," Jimmy said with thinly disguised insouciance; he was sorry, but only that he'd been caught.
"I don't know where you think you are," Carson continued, his face turning a violent shade of purple, "but that kind of slovenly behaviour is not acceptable in the servants hall."
"Sorry Mr Carson," Jimmy repeated, "it won't happen again Mr Carson."
"I should think not," Carson harrumphed and left, a scowl still pinned to his forehead.
Jimmy waited a good ten seconds, until the echo of Carson's heavy footsteps were no longer audible, before sitting back down and propping his feet up on the table in a display of petulant disobedience. He grinned to himself, disappointed that there was no-one present to witness his insubordination - although had he not been alone, he probably wouldn't have had the nerve to be so obviously defiant. He pushed back, swinging out from the table, balancing on two chair legs in a manner that made Anna nervous and caused Mrs Hughes to scold him if ever she caught him in the act: "You'll fall and crack your skull one day," she always chided, "and don't come crying to me when you do."
Jimmy rolled his eyes - as if he'd be so clumsy or stupid to do such a thing. He'd barely finished the thought when someone dropped a pot in the kitchen with a heavy, metallic clang that shocked Jimmy so entirely that he released his grip on the table, forgetting he was suspended in mid-air. His chair slid out from beneath him and Jimmy fell in slow-motion - he had enough time to swear once, loudly, before his back connected with the floor and his head bounced painfully off the tiles.
"Oh, ow, bloody hell!" Jimmy yelped, clutching his head.
"What on earth is going on?" Mrs Patmore asked, coming in from the kitchen to investigate the commotion. One look at the footman, flat on his back on the servants' hall floor, furnished her with an answer. Jimmy scrambled to his feet, despite the protest from his back, his face flushed with embarrassment. "Are y'alright?" Patmore questioned, trying and failing to keep the smile from her lips.
"Yes, I'm fine," Jimmy snapped, rubbing his head. His eyes widened and the blush drained from his cheeks when his hand came back wet with his blood.
"Oh my," Mrs Patmore said, her smile fading, "y'don't look fine. Sit down before yer pass out and I'll fetch Mr Barrow." She bustled out, ostensibly to find Mr Barrow. Perfect, now the under-butler-cum-medic would be privy to Jimmy's embarrassing situation too.
Jimmy gave the offending chair his most withering look, before picking it up and sitting awkwardly, as if he expected the thing to tip him back out at any moment. His head throbbed and he daren't touch it - Jimmy wasn't particularly fond of the sight of blood, even less so when it was his own. He recalled the first time he'd seen a man get shot in the trenches - he'd thrown up all over his boots, but that was probably as much to do with the shock of it as the blood itself. Mr Barrow hurried into the kitchen carrying a medical kit, followed closely by Mrs Patmore.
"Jimmy," he said - his complexion was pallid, worry etched into his face, "What have you done? Are you hurt?"
"I had an accident," Jimmy replied, feeling both dreadfully sorry for himself and ridiculously awkward. "Fell out of me chair," he paused, grimacing at the pain I'm his head, "an' cracked me head on the tiles."
"It were bleedin'," Mrs Patmore added, "so I thought you better look at it Mr Barrow, seein' as you were a medic an' all."
"Yes, of course," Mr Barrow said, "if you're alright with that Jimmy?"
Jimmy nodded tightly - honestly, he was glad it was Mr Barrow looking after him and not Mrs Hughes or, worse still, Doctor Clarkson. Mr Barrow would be gentle and would treat him kindly and wouldn't tease him - not too badly at any rate.
"Let's have a look then," Mr Barrow said, softly brushing Jimmy's hair aside and inspecting the back of his head. "You've a nasty gash there Jimmy - I don't think it'll need stitches but I should clean it and apply a bandage."
"I'll leave yer to it then," Mrs Patmore said. "Shout us if y’need anything," and she scuttled back into the kitchen. Mr Barrow opened the medical kit and fished out some gauze and a bottle of iodine solution.
"This'll sting a bit Jimmy," he said, "but I'll try to be gentle." He applied the iodine to Jimmy's head, much to the footman's dismay - he wondered if it would stain his hair horribly and he knew he'd smell like a hospital for days. And, despite Mr Barrow's warning, Jimmy gritted his teeth and hissed when the iodine touched the open wound.
"Bloody hell," Jimmy exclaimed, "that's a bit...tender Mr Barrow."
"Mmm, sorry," he replied, concentrating on the task at hand.
Jimmy noticed the mild tremor in Mr Barrow's hand - of course, it was probably awkward for him, to be touching Jimmy and all. He usually avoided physical contact as if Jimmy had some horrible, contagious disease - this was the closest they'd been since the unmentionable incident. It was stupid really, as Jimmy had forgiven Mr Barrow a long time ago for his indiscretion, and they were now firm friends. Jimmy even considered Mr Barrow to be his best friend - not that he had a huge circle to choose from, mind. And Mr Barrow's proclivities, the cause of their erstwhile enmity, no longer bothered Jimmy as it once had. It was probably far too soppy a thought and Jimmy would never admit it to anyone, but it seemed to him that love was love, regardless of gender. How could something so singularly good and joyful ever be wrong?
And, although it had made him feel rather discomfited at first, Jimmy had grown quite fond of the idea of Mr Barrow holding him in such high regard, for he was surely alone in his positive opinion of Jimmy. Ivy, of course, had been besotted with him, but she'd up and left for America at the first opportunity - it was a silly, girlish crush and nothing more. But, Thomas - that is, Mr Barrow - he'd risked his life for Jimmy, so deep were his feelings. He covered it now; the familiarity of old had all but disappeared - and Mr Barrow took on a business-like standoffishness when they were working - but Jimmy saw the softness in Mr Barrow's eyes and the warmth in his smile that indicated he still cared for, or even loved, the footman.
"Right," Mr Barrow said, "I'll bandage it up for you but I'm afraid you'll look like something out of 'The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari' for a few days."
"S'alright," Jimmy smiled, "it's my own fault. Carson won't be happy though."
"If Mr Carson has a problem with it then he can come to me," Mr Barrow replied defensively. "Accidents happen, you shouldn't be punished for it." He wrapped a length of bandage around Jimmy's head, smoothing the material down with his fingertips. Jimmy swallowed hard - Mr Barrow's touch was so kindly, so tender, that Jimmy found himself leaning into it and he was a little disappointed when the under-butler fastened the bandage with a safety-pin and removed his hands.
"Thank you Mr Barrow," Jimmy said, offering up a warm smile. Impulsively, he took Mr Barrow's hand - it was stained with iodine and a little of Jimmy's blood. "I - er - I'm very grateful," he stammered. "Perhaps - perhaps I can take you to the pictures when me head is better? I'm itching to see 'Blood and Sand'."
Mr Barrow blinked and carefully removed his hand from Jimmy's grasp. "You don't - you don't owe me anything Jimmy," he frowned.
"I know that," Jimmy shrugged, "I just thought it would be...nice. We're mates, aren't we?"
"Of course," Thomas schooled his face into an infuriatingly neutral expression. "And yes, I'd like that very much."
Carson had indeed been peeved at Jimmy’s appearance as it had rendered him ‘completely unsuitable’ to serve at dinner. Mr Barrow had calmed the situation by generously offering to serve in Jimmy’s stead – suggesting that the footman should rest up, as it was likely he had a concussion. Carson had agreed, but only after giving Jimmy a suitably long and stern lecture about taking one’s appearance and duties seriously. Jimmy had rolled his eyes and huffed a bit – enough to make Mr Barrow’s mouth twitch into a barely perceptible smile, but not enough to alert Carson to his insubordination.
Jimmy had rested – he’d sat in front of the fire all evening, relishing the chance to legitimately laze around – but his head still throbbed, even after the servants’ dinner had been dished up, devoured and cleared. He’d barely eaten, instead choosing to push his food around with his fork and pile his peas up into little green mounds – he was nauseous and tired, despite his inactivity. Jimmy propped his head up on his hand, his elbow resting on the table, and sighed – his head felt heavy on his shoulders, as if someone had filled the cavity with a dozen lead ball-bearings. He yawned widely and rubbed his eyes.
“You should get to bed,” Thomas said, his face partially hidden behind a newspaper. Silver wisps of smoke drifted up from his cigarette and hung below the ceiling light like a layer of fog over an autumn moor. Jimmy glanced at the clock – it was well before his usual bedtime but he conceded.
“You’re right Mr Barrow,” Jimmy rubbed his eyes again and his vision swam unpleasantly as he rose from his chair. “I – I don’t feel too well.” He groped for the edge of the table with blind fingers and swooned. Jimmy heard Mr Barrow exclaim “Jimmy!” before his knees buckled and he fell into unconsciousness.
Jimmy floated through suffocating waves of grey and heavy black, his mind adrift and anchored only by the bright spots of precious memories which shone like distant stars in the inky, velvet backdrop of his sleep. He saw each memory replay in silent washed-out hues as if he were an outside observer to his own past: his mother brushing his hair when he was small with her prim, pale hands; his father, seemingly as tall as a giant, each leg as thick as a tree trunk, sitting amiably at the piano in their parlour; tearing through cobbled streets as the cold rain ran in rivulets down his face; standing on the deck of a ship as it rolled in the waves of the English Channel, the first hint of the white cliffs of Dover on the horizon as he sailed home from the war; and Thomas – his pale eyes on Jimmy’s, his hand pressed to the side of his neck, his scent overwhelmingly wonderful.
Jimmy clawed and grasped at the memories, hoping to catch on to one of them and be buoyed up to consciousness, but each one seeped through his fingers, as intangible as the smoke from one of Thomas’s cigarettes.
“I’ll drown here,” Jimmy said into the void, “I’ll – I’ll forget myself.”
“Jimmy,” Thomas replied, his voice muffled and distant, “Jimmy.”
“Where are you Thomas?” Jimmy cried, fumbling in the darkness.
“Where I’ve always been,” Thomas said, appearing suddenly before the footman. He smiled softly, his eyes bright in the gloom, before placing one hand over Jimmy’s heart. “Right here.”
Even though Jimmy’s fall had seemed to be in slow motion, Thomas was still powerless to act to stop it.
“I – I don’t feel too well,” the footman had said before swooning away and collapsing heavily on the servants’ hall floor.
“Jimmy!” Thomas exclaimed, scrabbling around the table and to Jimmy’s side; he was unconscious. “Mrs Hughes!” Thomas shouted down the corridor, hoping to raise the housekeeper from her sitting room. “MRS HUGHES!” he repeated.
“Goodness me, Mr Barrow,” Mrs Hughes started to scold as she appeared in the corridor, but she stopped in her tracks at the sight of Jimmy. “I’ll call the doctor,” she said.
“Jimmy,” Thomas said softly, his hands hovering above the footman. He wanted to hold him, comfort him, but it was beyond the limits of propriety when it came to himself and Jimmy. Thomas patted Jimmy chastely on the shoulder and repeated his name in a vain attempt to raise him from unconsciousness. Mrs Hughes hurried in to the servants’ hall with Mr Carson and Molesley in tow.
“It’s probably just a concussion,” Thomas said uncertainly, “he should have gone straight for a lie down. It’s – it’s my fault I mean I…” he trailed off, shaking his head.
“It probably is a concussion,” Mrs Hughes reassured him, a kindly hand on his shoulder. “And you weren’t to know Mr Barrow.”
“Well,” Carson said, peering down at Jimmy as if he were suspicious of the authenticity of Jimmy’s condition, “Doctor Clarkson is on the way – let’s get James up to his room, shall we?”
The wait for Doctor Clarkson to arrive seemed like an eternity – Thomas maintained a grim-faced vigil at Jimmy’s bedside with Mrs Hughes, his fingers itching for a cigarette and his nerves frayed. When the village physician finally arrived, his opinion held no great revelation – it probably was a concussion and James should be just fine.
“He’ll wake up of his own accord, I’d say,” Clarkson added. Thomas gritted his teeth and fought the urge to tell the ‘doctor’ he was an inept quack. Since the incident with Lieutenant Courtenay Thomas had harboured an indignant ill-will towards the incompetent Clarkson.
“What can we do for him?” Mrs Hughes asked.
“He’ll need someone to keep an eye on him until he wakes up,” Clarkson said. “Barrow could do it – he was a medic.”
“Mr Barrow has got other duties to attend to – he’s too busy to play nurse,” Carson bristled, clearly uncomfortable with the thought of Thomas being left alone with an unconscious Jimmy. Thomas scowled inwardly – he was hardly going to molest the footman, was he? Although he supposed he probably deserved a little of his dark reputation.
“That’s as may be,” Mrs Hughes interrupted, “but we can hardly ask a housemaid to attend to James, can we?”
“Well no, but,” Carson started, only to be silenced by a severe glare from the housekeeper.
“Then it’s settled,” Mrs Hughes finished.