Thomas Barrow, Jimmy Kent, AU
Title: We'll Meet Again
Thomas carefully skirted the bricks of a wall that had tumbled into the street. He hated London these days, with it's bombed out buildings, wailing sirens, and perpetual night time darkness, but what he hated most was its ghosts. It was a far cry from the heady days of the 1920's and the excitement of the season. That had disappeared in the thirties of course when economy ruled the day. The London house had sat empty most of the time, furniture shrouded in white cloths; he never understood why the Granthams hadn’t sold it. Clinging to past glory I suspect. He was sent up on occasion to inspect the place and once or twice he accompanied Lady Mary for a day or so, but that was the extent of it.
Yet when Lady Mary heard the house had been damaged by a bomb she insisted on seeing it for herself and of course he went with her. Secretly he suspected that she wanted away from Downton for a while because it had its own share of ghosts. They had arrived on the morning train and after a long wait got a taxi to the house.
"Well, Barrow, it's not as bad as I was led to believe," Mary commented as he held the front door for her."
"No, My Lady, there's no evidence of anything major here. Some blown out windows on the front façade is all I saw. It looks like the bomb hit the houses across the street."
"Well, that's a relief, but will you check upstairs just in case and I'll have a quick look through the rest of the rooms down here."
"Yes, My Lady." Thomas found nothing upstairs other than the broken windows he had seen from the outside. Mary was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs.
"Is everything fine?" she asked.
"Just the windows."
"Good. When we get to the hotel you can arrange to have them repaired. We do have someone in London who handles this type of thing?"
"Yes, My Lady. We've used Mr. Barton for years to do anything we needed so I'm sure he can take care of it."
"Good, good." She looked around the hall once again before she left. "It's such a sad looking place these days, so empty." Thomas followed her out, locking the door behind him.
"I'll arrange to meet Mr. Barton here late this afternoon, My Lady. We'll discuss what needs to be done and I'll give him the spare key."
That was the reason Thomas was hurrying back toward the hotel in the dark, his way lit only by a torch. Mr. Barton, or rather his son, had been late. He apologised profusely of course, but that still meant Thomas was more than an hour later than he had hoped. When there were no taxis on the street outside the house he began walking toward the tube station, thinking that if he couldn't find a taxi on the way he would at least be able to get back to the hotel. Just as he was approaching the entrance, the air raid siren blasted and he was almost swept down the stairs as people seemed to appear from nowhere. Jostled by the crowd, he lost his footing as he reached the second last step and tumbled forward onto the person in front of them, knocking him to his knees as he pushed him into the side wall.
"Sorry," Thomas apologised as he straightened up. "Are you all right?" He took the man by the arm to help him up.
"Well, at least it wasn't a bomb," the man half-laughed as he turned around.
They both froze.
Thomas found his voice first. "Jimmy? My God, is that you?" He looked him up and down, taking in the suit that was showing signs of wear and a bit out-of-style, but clean. When he settled on his face he knew that it couldn't be anyone else.
"Thomas. I … uh." His face reddened and he nervously bent down to pick up his hat. When he straightened he didn't look at Thomas for a few seconds, but when he did his smile seemed shy and a little forced. "Now who else would knock me over in a London tube station but you?" He reached out his hand. "How have you been?"
Thomas hesitated for a moment before taking it. After all this time and just two letters that's what he has to say? "I'm very well. Nice of you to finally ask."
Before Jimmy could answer they were interrupted.
"Move along please. Don't block the entrance." They walked in silence as they were moved toward the platform, finding a less crowded spot near the end.
"I guess I deserved that," Jimmy said at last.
"You guess? Jesus, Jimmy, in almost twenty years and you answered only two of my letters." Thomas shook his head. "I kept writing for a few months after your last one and then I telephoned because I was afraid something had happened to you, but they would only tell me you had left." His voice caught. "'You've been a good friend to me, Thomas.' That's what you said, do you remember? Because I bloody do. It's burned into my heart. It seems that friendship was only one way."
"Quiet down, Thomas, please. People are starting to stare."
Thomas looked over his shoulder to glare at the couple behind him and they quickly moved away. In the distance he heard a train.
"Well, Jimmy, it's been nice seeing you, but that's my train." He nodded and turned toward the tracks.
"Let me come with you, Thomas. I'd like to talk."
"Why, Jimmy," he asked without turning back. "What could you possibly have to say that would interest me now?"
Jimmy reached out and grabbed his arm. "Please."
Thomas felt his heart sink at that touch. It was as if the years had disappeared in a second. The pain and the sense of betrayal remained, but the thought of being with Jimmy again, even for a few hours, was too much for him. The way he had felt about him, never entirely forgotten, flooded back. Jesus, I'm a sad bastard. He's done nothing but fucking ignore me and yet ...
When they got off the train the crowds had already begun to disperse.
"That didn't last very long, not like when I was here in November," Thomas noted as they started up the stairs.
"They've been like that for a while. I just hope the worst is over."
Thomas, torch in hand, led the way toward the hotel which was only a block or so away. Once there instead of going up to his room right away they stopped into the almost deserted bar and found a secluded table.
"So, are you going to tell me what happened?" Thomas asked, setting the beers down as he took his seat. "Two letters, Jimmy," he repeated, "and then dead silence."
Jimmy put down his glass and leant back in his chair, staring at the ceiling for a moment.
"I got fired. And before you ask, it wasn't my fault. Or at least not entirely."
"So who did you sleep with?"
"Ha," Jimmy snorted. "Not this time."
"So, why then?"
Jimmy sighed. "Can we not talk about that now? I mean it's been so long, surely there are other things."
Thomas blurted out a laugh. "Well, how about why it's been so fucking long? Would you rather do that? Did getting fired take away your ability to write?"
"I couldn't get anything for a long time." He sighed again. "Day jobs when I could find them. I worked on a loading dock; even played piano for the odd shilling. It was hand-to-mouth for more than a couple of years, one cheap room after another, scraping pennies together for food." He edged forward and lowered his voice. "I stole sometimes. Things I could sell on."
"Christ, Jimmy, you should have told me. I could have helped."
"That's the thing, Thomas." He half-drained his beer. "I couldn't let you know. I didn't want you to know." He smiled bitterly. "I know what people used to say about me – that I was vain and a flirt, a silly dreamer with my head in the clouds who thought he would drink champagne and travel the world, that I needed a comeuppance. And it was all true."
He reached across the table and put his hand on Thomas's. "But not you. You were the only person who saw all that, all my put-on airs, my hopeless dreams, and still didn't care." He pulled his hand back. "Yes, I know it was because you loved me." He shook his head when Thomas tried to protest. "Don't try to deny it if that's what you're thinking. And you would love me no matter how foolish I was. It just seemed that everything they said had come true and I couldn't bear for you to find out."
Thomas went to speak again, but Jimmy stopped him.
"I know what you're going to say - that it wouldn't have made any difference; that it wouldn't have changed how you felt about me. Sadly the only thing I seemed to have left was my pride and that stopped me. The idea that I had messed up my life again, that I couldn't fix it again and that you would know it … I'm the first to admit it doesn't make sense, not now, and I should have known it then, but I couldn't face taking charity, not even from you - particularly from you."
He finished his beer and stood up.
"I'll get us another, right?"
"I'll pay, Jimmy."
"See, Thomas," he snapped, "that's it. I've told you and even now, all these years later, you're reacting the way I feared you would. I don't need you to pay. I can buy us both a beer and not have to go without something."
Thomas watched as he made his way through the other tables to the bar. He still didn't really understand why Jimmy hadn't reached out to him; he knew Jimmy thought the reasons were good at the time, but they were friends after all and friends were supposed to help each other without judging – at least that's what he believed. But he had never had many friends; actually just Jimmy and at a stretch, O'Brien, so maybe he was wrong. He was still puzzling over this when Jimmy returned.
"I'm sorry, Jimmy I didn't mean …."
"No, Thomas," Jimmy interrupted as he sat down, "I'm the one who should be sorry. After saying that what I was thinking then doesn’t make sense now I go and prove that it still bothers me."
He moved his chair so they were sitting side by side.
"But 'why' is just one of the questions."
"Is it?" Thomas asked.
"Yes. Well, really it's another why. Why all this time? It's not twenty years by the way, it's seventeen and a bit. Thought I didn't know, didn't you?" Jimmy smiled and nudged Thomas's elbow with his. "When I finally sort of got back on my feet it was almost four years. Things were still tough, but the wolf was no longer at the door, just lurking around the corner. I thought about writing then and, if I'm honest, quite a few times over the years, but I had no idea how to justify my silence. And if I couldn't do that after four years, how could I after eight or ten or …"
Jimmy went silent and Thomas watched him as he turned his glass round and round on the table. He still wasn't sure that the reasons were enough. After all, he would forgive Jimmy anything, give him anything without hesitation or asking why. But it finally dawned on him that it didn't matter what he thought. To Jimmy the reasons were valid. Maybe he was using them to justify what he did or didn't do, maybe he didn't know he was doing that, but just as likely he believed what he was saying. Thomas couldn't be inside Jimmy's head, he couldn't know how he felt, and if he was still going to be a friend - and he knew he wanted to be - he had to accept how Jimmy had dealt with his life.
He saw too that this wasn't the Jimmy of 1924. He was older of course, but he seemed weary, sad, as if the intervening years had taken their toll beyond his receding hairline. That hurt him almost as much as his absense had. He lifted his glass and tapped it against Jimmy's.
"We're here now, aren't we? Let's get caught up."
They spent the rest of the night talking about the years they had missed. Thomas told Jimmy about Lord Grantham's death, the Carson and Hughes marriage and eventual retirement, how Lady Mary never remarried and that she now lived in a much smaller area of Downton, having closed off most of the upstairs. About Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, Baxter and Molesely and anyone else he could think of.
Jimmy did eventually talk more about the hard years, but he wanted to concentrate on how things had gotten better. He had moved around a lot for work, ending up in London in the early 1930's and never leaving. Surprisingly, he finally found something that proved to be permanent and stable near the middle of the Depression.
"It was thanks to Alfred."
"Alfred? Alfred Nugent?"
"The one and the same. He has his own restaurant now, pretty successful too. There was an opening for a waiter - I didn't know it was his place though. The maître d' wasn't available to interview and I almost keeled over when Alfred walked in. Funny to say this, but he bloody saved me."
"I'll be damned."
"Yeah. I've been there almost 7 years. I'm the head waiter now, I should make maître d' in a year or two. The money could be better, but I know Alfred pays near the top. He even found me a flat in Battersea that I share with one his friends."
"So you're not married then?"
Jimmy laughed. "Who would have me?" He caught the shadow as it flickered across Thomas's face. "Sorry." He paused. "Did you ever … uh, find someone to make you happy?"
Thomas shook his head.
"Never that lucky."
They both went silent, lost in what might have been. Jimmy glanced at his watch.
"Shit. The underground's closed."
"Can I arrange for a taxi?"
"I don't … I don't have enough money, Thomas."
Thomas was going to offer to pay, but immediately thought better of it.
"Well then, stay here. My room's a double; there were no singles and Lady Mary said she wasn't sending me to another hotel."
He could see Jimmy hesitate.
"It'll be like Downton - sort of. Remember the nights we sat and talked until you fell asleep on my floor. I used to have to kick you out before one of the hallboys made his wake up rounds. Except of course you'll have a nice comfortable bed this time."
"I think that's a great idea." Jimmy looked around the still empty bar. "Does that mean we have time for another drink?"
Thomas stood. "I think we can manage that before they close."
"I need the loo while you're gone."
By the time Jimmy returned, Thomas was sitting at the table with two glasses of whiskey as well as the beers.
"Ah, a bit of a change is it?"
"Why not, neither of us is going anywhere."
Jimmy lifted the whiskey.
"What shall we drink to then?"
Thomas mirrored him and clinked their glasses.
"How about the future? We can't change the past so why torment ourselves with it. We've finally met again and we've made a new start. Friends once more?"
Jimmy looked at him and smiled, his first happy one of the evening. And with that smile he saw the years drop away. Jimmy was once again that handsome, young, blonde man who, as he stood in the servants' hall and introduced himself, had taken Thomas's breath away. The man he had fallen in love with, the man with so many dreams who couldn't wait for those dreams to lead him to the future they promised.
"I'd like that, Thomas. Friends."
The title is, of course, the 1939 Vera Lynn song that became famous during WWII.
The Blitz ran from September 1940 to May 1941, so this is set roughly 17 years after Jimmy left Downton.
Trains continued to run throughout the Blitz, leading to stations crowded with travellers and those seeking shelter.
I have played a bit with how the Blitz ended in May 1941. I did some research but never turned up anything firm other than they were less frequent in 1941 (see Wikipedia), so I decided the bombings would be shorter in length as well.