Thomas Barrow, Downton Abbey
AU or maybe just a stop along the way to Downton.
Title: No Place For Me
Length: 5 chapters
Thomas Barrow wasn't always a malevolent schemer.
His father's belt buckle caught him in the ribs twice. He tried to get away, but the old bastard was twice as big as he was and much stronger. First punching him to the floor, leaving him with a black eye and cuts on his lip and chin, then putting his foot on the back of his neck to hold him down. The repeated blows from the belt hurt, but when he turned it around the buckle made him yelp in pain.
"Shut up you little whiner. Where's your no good brother?"
"I don't know."
The last time Charlie had seen his brother had been almost a week ago on Wednesday. He never came home after that; he had taken his pay and quit his job. Not that he could blame him. He had gotten the worst of it long before Charlie did. Except now, Charlie had to take the brunt of his father's drunken anger. A couple of more cuts with the belt then he stopped, but kicked him in the ribs before he walked away.
"Get up. I haven't had any food."
Charlie struggled to his feet. This had to stop. His father knew exactly what he earned and took it all, so he hadn't been able to put any money aside that he could use to get away. He would just have to do what his brother had, but he wondered if he had the nerve. If he kept his job his father would find him. If he quit it, he would only have his last pay. Nowhere to live. But that was better than putting up with this. If he didn't go, one of them was going to die.
As Charlie jumped down from the cart at Thomas's shed, he grunted in pain. His shirt rubbing against the welts on his back kept them sore. Every time he lifted a bag of coal his ribs ached making it painful to breathe. Last night had been the last straw. When he got up this morning he grabbed the few belongings he had and stuffed them into a paper bag. He could hear his father snoring in the corner so he moved quietly. From its hiding place he dug out his mother's small silver cross, the only thing that his father had never sold. He knew he had it, but for some reason that Charlie didn't understand, he never asked about it. Still he kept it hidden.
He loaded the coal into the shed, then knocked at the back door of the workshop.
Thomas got up from the bench and picked up the gloves before opening the door. Charlie was standing in the half shadow, only his lower body clearly visible.
"Charlie, come in."
"I really can't. I have to get going. Just wanted to let you know about the delivery."
He could see the disappointment on Thomas's face.
"Oh, that's too bad. But if you can't . . . Here, I want you to have these."
Charlie looked at the gloves.
"I noticed last week that you weren't wearing any and you aren't today either. It's too cold to be without gloves."
As Charlie stepped forward to look at them, Thomas first noticed he was still wearing the same clothes, down to the red kerchief around his neck. Then he saw the black eye, the bruises and the cuts. His first impulse was to reach out his hand to touch his face. Charlie jumped back, groaned and grabbed his side.
"What happened to you."
"It doesn't matter. I don't matter."
"Charlie, look at me. If I didn't want to know I wouldn't have asked. And right now, you matter to me."
Charlie hesitated. He had never had anyone he could tell. All the neighbours knew, how could they not, but none of them cared. Deep down, he knew that's why he had knocked on the door. He could have just put the coal in the shed and left. He was never going to see Thomas again so it made no difference. Yet he had knocked and despite saying he couldn't stay he had hoped that Thomas would somehow make him. Their eyes locked for a moment as recognition flashed between them.
"Charlie, please come in. It's colder than last week and you look like you need more than warmth."
"All right, but I have to get the horse and cart back to the yard and get my pay before they close."
"When is that?"
"It's five-thirty. How long does it take?"
"About ten minutes."
"If you leave by six you'll have lots of time."
He started to follow Thomas into the main work area but stopped.
"Are you sure? I'm still covered in coal dust."
"It's all right. There's nothing out that matters."
He pointed to one of the stools and settled into the one opposite.
"So, what happened?"
Charlie paused then told him the whole story. Not just about last night, about his brother leaving, but about all the other nights when he had been too sore or too afraid to sleep. How it has started after his mother died when he was six and how it only got worse as time passed. How he had walked by the river a few times and wondered what it would be like to dive in and never come up. How his life seemed nothing but pain and loneliness that he felt would never get better. When he finished he saw Thomas wiping tears from his eyes.
"Why are you crying? It wasn't you."
Thomas cleared his throat.
"It shouldn't be anyone."
This time when he reached out to touch his face Charlie didn't pull away. His fingers gently traced the bruise around his eye, then followed the scar on his cheek to his lip Charlie reached up to hold his hand there. It had been a long time since anyone had touched him without hurting him, even when they didn't mean to. They both jumped when the clocks began to strike six. Charlie stood up.
"I have to go."
"What are you going to do now?"
"Well, I'm not going back. I can't stay at the coal merchant's; my father will find me. I'm going to get my pay and see if I can find a room for the night. Then start looking for work tomorrow."
Thomas thought for a moment.
"Charlie, would you trust me?"
"I've told you all this and I don't really know you, so I guess I would"
"Why don't you stay with me?"
"At your house? Thomas, look at me. People like me come to your back door. I might step inside but I would never go anywhere else. I wouldn't expect to and no one would ask me."
"Didn't I just ask you?"
"What about your family? Would they want me? How do you know I won't rob you or kill you in your sleep? It seems like a big risk you're taking for someone who is a stranger."
"There's only my father and he's away until tomorrow. So there's no one but me at home and I'm willing to take a chance."
He reached up to touch Charlie's lip again. Neither of them was naive or a virgin. But Charlie's world was completely different from Thomas's. He grew up much faster and by the time he was twelve he knew what he was and what he liked. Still they both understood there was something else happening than just the offer of a bed for the night.
"Thomas, I . . . I don't think this is a good idea."
"It's just for tonight You won't have to look for somewhere to sleep. Tomorrow you can do what you want.
That wasn't what Charlie thought was the bad idea. Besides he suspected that it wouldn't be as easy as all that. But he needed somewhere to sleep and Thomas made him feel safe.
"All right, but I don't know where you live."
"I can go with you to drop off the cart. You said it wasn't far and we can walk back together."
"You can't ride in the cart. It's too dirty and I'm not allowed to pick anyone up."
"I can get out before you reach the yard and wait for you. No one will know. Besides you're quitting, what difference will it make."
Charlie realised he was fighting a losing battle.
"I'll meet you at the corner then."
"I just have to lock up."
After Charlie left, Thomas quickly checked everything and hurried out the door, trying the handle to make sure it was secure. As he walked toward the corner he saw Charlie waiting for him. When he had touched him the second time he had seen how he looked at him. He had read about people with sad eyes, but this was the first time he had ever seen them and he wanted to wipe that sadness away, even if only for a short while. He also sensed that they both wanted more; he had felt it when Charlie pressed his hand to his face. Each lived in a world of hidden loneliness. Tonight it would be different.
When he climbed into the cart, he saw that Charlie had put a shirt on the bench beside him to cover it. He went to lift it off.
"Don't, the seat's dirty."
"Is this yours?"
Thomas guessed that the shirt was probably one of the few he owned and understood what it meant to use it like that. He put it back in place and sat down. Sometimes what appears to be a small gesture is all someone has to offer.