Thomas Barrow, George Crawley, Original Characters, Downton Abbey
Title: The Lonely Sea
Length: 4 Chapters
It's 1954. The last of WWII rationing has just ended. Elizabeth has been Queen for only two years. And Thomas Barrow's life has changed.
Thomas made his way down the steps to the seaside promenade. When he retired four years earlier he had surprised everyone by not staying near Downton, but instead moving to a town on the Irish Sea. He had considerable savings and a decent pension from Lord Grantham so for once he could choose what he wanted to do with little worry about the outcome. --- It wasn't that his life at Downton had been all that bad in the end. When Carson finally retired after a couple of years, he came into his own as butler. As memories mellowed and people died and staff moved on, the old Thomas - the deceitful, spiteful, out for himself Thomas - faded away. There were times a part of him regretted what he had become, knowing his younger self would have mocked him mercilessly, but it had been one of his few choices and it had provided him with security he doubted he would have found elsewhere. He had come to terms with the fact that he had settled for a lonely life and over time he came to believe he didn't want anything else. In the end though there was nothing to keep him there. He went back each year to visit Daisy and Andy on the farm, usually at Christmas because they insisted, but they were all that he missed. Other than George Crawley of course, but George, the current Lord Grantham, spent less time at Downton as the years passed and left the successful running of the estate to an agent. Thomas knew he had been kept on as butler as staff dwindled and then got an early pension in 1950 only because of strength of his relationship with George. George even helped furnish his flat with some pieces from Downton There was no particular reason he had decided on this town. He had just been thinking about a place near the sea, not a city, but at the same time somewhere completely different from Downton, and he had read something in one of the papers about "forgotten gems" that mentioned Tardon-on-Sea. A visit the year before he retired was enough to tell him it wasn't quite a gem, but it would suit him just fine. He learned that as expected it was busier in the summer, the seafront guesthouses filled with holidaying families, although it was no Blackpool, while in the off-season it became like any other quiet seaside town. Over the next year he had visited twice; the final time just two months before he retired. Luckily there were a few places for rent and he chose a spacious two room flat at the top of a large Victorian with only the unused servants' quarters above him. Because it stood on the slope of a hill he could easily see over the houses to the promenade and the sea beyond from its front window. His new landlady was a friendly, rotund, red-haired woman who reminded him, for better or worse, of Mrs. Patmore. She also rented out rooms on the floor below to two lodgers, providing them with meals, which meant for a few extra quid Thomas didn't have to worry about where he was going to eat or even worse, about learning how to cook. Since money wasn't a concern, he paid two months' rent and a bonus to ensure the flat was painted before he moved in. --- The breeze off the water was cool but not unpleasant and Thomas had come prepared anyway. As he rounded the bend at the south end of the promenade some distance from the main section he saw that the both benches were unoccupied. It always surprised him that even at the height of summer few people came this far; they didn't know what they were missing. The benches faced south overlooking the sea and were sheltered; more than once he had drifted off as he sat there reading. He spread out his blanket then after he sat, draped it over his legs. Pretty decent for October. I won't be able to do this for much longer this year though. He set his book and the thermos of tea his landlady had given him on the bench beside him. At the beginning he had told her that he didn't mind making his own tea, but she wouldn't hear of it. --- "You will not, Mr. Barrow. Just tell me when you're going out and I'm often in the kitchen anyway. You would just get under my feet." Their relationship was a strange one; a mixture of some formality and a great deal more familiarity. Shortly after he moved in they had taken to having tea once a week at the table in her kitchen. It was always Mr. Barrow and Mrs. Purdy, but they got along more like brother and sister. "Will you be back for lunch?" she asked as she screwed the top on the thermos. "Or will I just be setting places for one the boys and myself?" She always called her two lodgers, Allan and Ted, "the boys" despite their being well over thirty. "Not today, I'll get something along the High Street. I'll be here by dinner time, but I won't want anything. Lord Grantham is passing through on his way to London and he's asked me to meet him for afternoon tea. The usual tea and biscuits later in the evening will be just fine." "To London? He's chosen a roundabout way to get there from Yorkshire, hasn't he?" "What can I say, Mrs. Purdy, I'm a man who Lords go out of their way to see." She laughed as she slid the thermos into the bag beside his blanket. "Off with you and don't forget your scarf like you did yesterday. You may need it " --- Thomas shook his head as he poured his tea. I do seem to be more forgetful at times. I still have all my wits about me though so I'm not going to start worrying just yet. He glanced up as a gull swooped in and then away. He had stopped bringing food for them long ago, but he sometimes wondered if some of them remembered. Now that's downright silly. He took a sip of tea as he settled back to watch the sea. On days like this, with the sunlight dancing on the waves, he understood what people meant when they said it could be hypnotising. During storms, of course, it was something else entirely, but he never tired of watching it when he could. He had been there for some time, book in his lap, staring out to sea, lost in thought, and didn't notice when someone sat down beside him. "I knew I'd find you here, Mr. Barrow." The voice startled him and he jumped, splashing what was left of his now cold tea from the cup onto his lap, narrowly missing the book. "Jesus!" he muttered as he looked over. It was Allan, one of Mrs. Purdy's "boys". He didn't know him all that well despite his living there a little over six months. Thomas preferred to keep to himself most of the time. "Oh God, I'm sorry. I didn't mean for that to happen." He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and tried to mop up the tea. "Stop that! It's already soaked into the blanket and you're not helping in the least." "Sorry." Thomas replaced the top of the thermos, putting it back into his bag. "What are you doing here, Allan?" he groused. "Shouldn't you be working?" "Half day closing and the High Street's been dead all morning so I shut a bit early." "Keep doing that and you won't be much of a success." "It is October. Besides, I had an excellent summer I'll have you know," Allan offered testily. Thomas looked at him. I'm a bloody idiot. What real harm has he done? "Just ignore me, Allan. Crotchety old man and all that. You never did answer why you're here though. It's obviously not for my welcoming ways." Allan perked up at the reprieve. "Mrs. Purdy said I would find you here any good morning." "You and Mrs. Purdy have been gossiping about me, have you. What else did you worm out of her?" "Nothing. No, I mean we weren't gossiping. I was curious about you and you don't talk much so ..." He faltered and looked down nervously at his hands. "So you decided to come to the horse's mouth. Don't look so worried," Thomas laughed as he reassured him. "It's not a criminal offence to be curious. Why didn't you just ask?" "As I said you don't talk much and to be honest you don't exactly come off as approachable." Thomas knew that was true. Years of keeping people at arm's length was a habit that had been hard to break. He had managed somewhat when he became butler because he had wanted the staff to begin to trust and respect him. Still at the same time he knew his authority needed him to be standoffish. After he retired he withdrew more than he intended. Other than with Mrs. Purdy, this conversation with Allan was likely the longest he had had in four years. Shit, that's depressing. "So it would seem." He stood and folded his blanket into the bag as he contemplated his next words. "What do you suggest we do about that?" "I'm inviting you to have lunch with me." "Is it that time already? Thomas pulled his watch from his pocket. "Well, I have to be somewhere at three." "I don't know about you, Mr. Barrow," Allan said as he stood, "but it doesn't take me three hours to eat lunch." "No need to be cheeky." "A statement of fact, Mr. Barrow. Just a statement of fact." "And yet said with a smirk," Thomas chided as they slowly made their way toward to the High Street. "So does this mean you're coming for lunch." "I suppose it does." He paused. "Thank you." As they walked neither said much which gave Thomas a chance to consider what had just happened. If he were honest he had noticed Allan looking at him a few times across the dining room table, as if trying to decide something. He dismissed it as meaningless since it came to nothing, but he now understood that perhaps he just wanted to try to become friends. Although why Allan had chosen him when there was someone like Ted, who was closer to his own age and much more sociable, eluded him. Intentionally or not, his increased reclusiveness meant he was comfortable with his interactions with Mrs. Purdy, but not necessarily looking for anything else. Friends had always been few and far between anyway - he could count them on one hand; of those, Sarah O'Brien had turned against him and he had lost track of Jimmy long ago. For his part, Allan was happy with the silence. Thomas - Mr. Barrow's name as Mrs. Purdy had informed him - intrigued him. He wasn't used to being ignored, yet that's exactly how it felt and it was disconcerting. Mrs. Purdy gave him some details, but in the end it wasn't all that much. He had come from Yorkshire where he had been butler for a Lord Grantham, he had a sister somewhere, and he hadn't married, but beyond that not even she knew - or maybe she didn't want to say. Allan was sure his accent wasn't purely Yorkshire, but that didn't help. It went far beyond simple curiosity. Allan had never been all that interested in men his own age. In his experience he had always been attracted to and more successful with older men, men twenty or more years his senior, no matter how short-lived the relationship. The two men of his own age had been disasters. During the war one almost got him court-martialled and sent to prison. The second, and the most recent, had caused his unplanned departure from London the previous year, urged on by the large sum of money his own parents had given him to be rid of the problem he was becoming. Now in his early forties he still wanted to find someone who could make him happy and he was sure that person had to be older, but in choosing Tardon-on-Sea he had definitely limited his possibilities. He sensed - or maybe just hoped - that Thomas was one of those possibilities. The problem - or at least one of the problems - was that there seemed no way to break through Thomas's indifference to see if there was anything more. He was too remote, too guarded.. Conversations, what there were of them, were little more than brief pleasantries around the dinner table. When asked if he wanted to play cards with Ted and him of an evening, he always politely refused, usually choosing instead to spend time in his rooms reading. Ted thought he was just "a snooty, old geezer", but Allan knew that wasn't the case, thanks once again to dear Mrs. Purdy. When they arrived at the tea room, Allan held the door open for Thomas then followed him in. Today had been a gamble, but whether it was a winning one remained to be seen.
The title is taken from a line in John Masefield's poem "Sea Fever." It's not as foreboding as it sounds, but "the lonely sea" fits well with how I view Thomas's life. The poem later offers "a quiet sleep and a sweet dream" and although Masefield surely meant this as a reference to death, for Thomas I intend a different meaning. Thomas born 1887. I always felt he was a few years older than Mary Crawley
Butler 1925 - aged 37
Retired 1950 - aged 62
Set in 1954 - aged 66
Allan born 1912 And a word about age differences.
The same-sex relationships of everyday people of that era aren't well documented (Between the Acts: Lives of Homosexual Men 1885 - 1967 being the exception that comes to mind); however, there are other examples of better known couples. Photographer Montague Glover was born in 1898; his lover Ralph Hall in 1913. There was both an age and a class difference. Glover met Hall in 1930 when he was 17. They were together 50 years. Novelist Christopher Isherwood was born in 1904; his lover Don Bachardy in 1934. Isherwood met Bachardy in 1953 when he was 18. They were together until Isherwood's death in 1986. Novelist E. M. Forster was 51 when he met Bob Buckingham, a married policeman, who was 28. Their relationship lasted 40 years. The circumstances of each of these relationships are different, and I'm not trying to analyse what attracts younger and older men, but it existed then as it does now and the age difference seems to have had little impact. I will admit I would be hesitant about the power balance when you have a 17 or 18 year old, but the fact that these relationships lasted as long as they did makes me less so. When it comes to this story of course my intention is to show that Allan, who is no dewy-eyed youth, willingly sought out Thomas and not the other way around.