On The Precipice of Falling
There was a smudge on the tip of Thomas’s shoe. With every step upon the dusty path into town, the scuff mark grew. His nose wrinkled, and he rubbed at it with the toe of the other. Now the whole front of the shoe was muted grey. Carson would have his head.
Giving up, Thomas strode on, tossing the letters for the Post Office from one gloved hand to the other. The slightest of breezes, with a hint of the coming winter chill swept past, sending fallen leaves skittering across the path ahead of him. Overhead, a jackdaw cawed. He took a deep breath: damp earth, tinged with a vague sense of sharp pine. He could taste old leaves, slowly decomposing beneath bare trees, on the back of his tongue. God, it was good to get out of the House.
He rounded the corner, and the low, stone wall surrounding the village came into view. He drew his coat close to his body, as he drew nearer. It wouldn’t do for his coat, as well as his shoes, to be ruined on the walk in—for it to pick up dust and streaks of green lichen as it brushed against the wall as he moved through the gate. Once through, he let the cloth slip from his hands, where it fanned out behind him.
There was a chink, and a small stone skittered across his path.
His eyes swept to the left, as another, larger from the first, hit the ground inches from his foot.
A low chuckle sounded behind him. Thomas spun around.
Four men, with broad grins that were all teeth, sat on the wall, staring unabashedly as they dug each other in the ribs. Thomas only recognised one of them—Stewart, the baker’s apprentice, whose well-patched trousers were still streaked with greying flour. As he watched, Stewart slid down from the wall, pushing aside the overhanging tree branch that had previously hidden the men from view. Thomas’ hands slowly clenched into fists, crumpling the letters in his grip.
“Alright, Tom?” Stewart called, grinning back at the others. They guffawed, but their eyes were dark and flat, as they stared across at Thomas, daring him to say something.
“Very well, thank you.” He forced himself to loosen his white-knuckled grip on the mail, and turned back to the road.
“Oh, listen to his ‘ighness!” one called after him.
“What pretty manners,” said another.
Thomas set his shoulders, and walked on.
They were still there.
He’d loitered in town as much as he dared, but any longer and he’d be reamed out when he returned to the House. Some of the shopkeepers had started to give him odd looks by the time he’d made his third turn around the main square, anyway.
The men hadn’t seen him yet, too busy catcalling at a woman crossing the path a little further on. Brown bottles were strewn along the base of the wall, while two more lay smashed across the road. One of the men clambered onto the wall, swaying as he shouted out after the woman. She indignantly stamped off.
Thomas kept his head down, and strode along the far side of the path, hands shoved into his pockets. The man on the wall slipped down, and the others stood as Thomas walked past, an imbecilic collective.
There was a great belch, followed by another bottle shattering across the path. The trees were just ahead. Maybe they’d stay, drink some more, or—. His stomach twisted at the sound of boots trampling through the leaves behind him.
“Too good for a chat, eh Tom? Don’t pretend. You’re no better than us, for all y’ airs an’ graces.”
He was back inside the forest. Eyes forward. Not even half a mile and he’d be back at Downton.
“Let’s be fair, gents. If we’re honest, his type’s a lot worse than us.” They think that’s hysterical, practically falling over themselves.
Their laughter faded. The hairs on the back of Thomas’ neck rose. Then:
There was another round of laughter, but it was lower, menacing and the heavy tread quickened and grew nearer. Thomas’ whole body tensed, knees locking into place. It was that or let them buckle. His stomach clenched, a nauseating ache deep in his belly that threatened to send bile rising and burning its way to his throat.
He knew that there were some at Downton who knew. He saw the knowing glances and hushed, smug whispers (not so perfect, are you?) but did his best to brush them off, a supercilious smirk of his own in place. He’d found an upturned nose and a straight back was usually enough to fend off the worse of the innuendo-ridden glances. But he never suspected (not for a second, Christ) that their suspicions had spread even to the village. In Downton, with everyone living in such close proximity, true privacy was unheard of. The affairs and proclivities of the Family and their visitors rarely stayed secret for long, let alone those of the staff. It was inevitable that some would suspect him, at least, if not know for certain.
But to think word—vicious slander and underhanded gossip—had reached the village—. Jesus. He’d thought they’d just thought he was a snob.
A meaty hand clamped down on his shoulder. He swayed.
“Hey, freak. I’m talking to you.”
A flash of movement in his peripheries, a whisper of heavy cloth to his left, caught by heightened senses after years of avoiding exactly this type of attention. He closed his eyes, jaw tight, as the others closed in around him, a tight, towering circle of red, flushed faces, calloused skin and broken teeth.
He hadn’t chosen to—. For God’s sake! Didn’t they think he’d tried not to—?
He turned, an acrid denial ready to fall from his lips.
A flash of blinding white exploded behind his eyes, as the fist slammed across his cheek. His head snapped around, the pain darkening to a quickly-blurring red. He hit the ground, hard.
The voices of the men around him, still spitting slurs, seemed to filter in on the very edges of his red-tinged awareness. It was as if he lay in the midst of a murky fog, tendrils of which slipped their insidious way down his throat with every gasping, burning breath. He felt his body jerk with a renewed attack, as the fog remained, dulling him to all sensation save for the spreading pain, slowly bleeding into white at the edges of his vision.
How could they possibly—
The white spread, the world around him fading out. His face was wet. Red momentarily dripped into view, before being blinked away. His body jerked feebly with every new boot to his ribs. His eyes closed.
As a boy, growing up in a village even smaller than Downton village, he’d watched his peers’ clumsy attempts at flirtation and May Day fumblings with, at the time, an inexplicable level of detachment. He’d spent most of his youth standing on the fringes of his friends as they’d laughed and bragged of their conquests, trying to feign interest or jealousy as was called for.
That wasn’t to say he’d tried, of course, assuming that his disinterest was due to higher standards on his part. He’d always known he was destined for bigger and better things than a village that prided itself on holding the county record for the greatest number of twin calves born in one season. However, his stilted courtship of Abigail, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer abruptly culminated in an exceedingly awkward, absolute mess of a kiss. He’d felt an overwhelming desire to push her to the hay—a natural and appropriate reaction, yes—and run away as fast as was humanly possible—which was, he understood, a less common course of action. When he finally managed to extract himself from her tightly-clutching (and wandering, good God!) hands, had given his excuses and returned home, he felt he’d learnt as much as he probably would from the experience, namely:
1. Her incessant giggling, a sound other boys seemed to find charming, was just shrill and loud and quite frankly endlessly annoying.
2. The sensation of her tongue forcing its way towards his throat was easily comparable to the time his cousin had poured an entire bucket of slops over his head, leaving him shivering and slimy all over.
It was, in short, a complete debacle. He began to think that perhaps there was more to his inherent disinterest than he had initially thought.
His suspicion was confirmed the instant tall, blond Samuel Trill, up from London to visit his Great-Aunt, pressed him against a tree in the orchard a few months later, and whose clandestine and bruising kisses left him flushed and wide-eyed, gasping for breath as he leaned back and tried desperately to quell his quite unexpected and overwhelming arousal.
Not that that solved anything. With the discovery of this dark, secret part of him came crippling self-disgust and an overwhelming terror that someone would only need to look at him to know. Like Downton, Thomas’ home village was small, and secrets rarely stayed silent for long. It took only a few well-placed whispers following a foolish, less-than-stealthy youthful encounter for people to start taking notice of Janet Barrow’s quiet, strange son. The rumour mill (based unsurprisingly at Annie Wilson’s pub) went into overdrive. Two months later, sick and scared of the hostile, suspicious stares, he was headed for a junior position at a great House in the next county, and a fresh start.
But all the fresh starts in the world couldn’t mask the underlying problem. It was a dark, visceral need that grew inside him the more he pressed it down, growing like a cancer deep inside, in a small dark place by his bowels and intestines, and other unthinkable and disgusting parts of him. It was only a matter of time before it escaped, twisted and grotesque, to destroy him and everything he’d worked so long for. Inevitable. Stupid of him to think otherwise. And his dalliance with Crowborough, of all the mindless, idiotic things, had only hastened the way to a fall. Over-confident, arrogant. It wasn’t something you could hide, or brush under one of Downton’s expensive rugs, to be forgotten with the dust. Pemuk was right. It would ruin him. Stupid. Stupid.
“Oi! What do you think you’re—”
There was blood at the back of his throat. Dully, he registered that his nose must be broken. He was on his back, one eye already beginning to swell shut, the other closed against the blinding light that was making his head ache worse than ever. His ears were still ringing, and something was blocking the left one, but he could vaguely make out angry shouting somewhere above him.
“—involved, old man.”
“—your nancy-boy, is tha’ it?”
There was a sudden scuffling, and he braced himself for the next round.
Crack. There was a thud, and a pained groan. He turned his head and squinted. Stewart was lying in a crumpled heap, knuckles bloodied, with a large stripe swiftly reddening across his cheek. Spitting the blood from his mouth, Thomas turned to the right. He was at eye level with four pairs of shoes. The polished brogues were incongruous amongst the mud-stained, poorly mended boots. The cane should have been even more ridiculous, but when one of the men swayed forward to snatch it, it flicked out and cracked him neatly in the kidneys, once more putting paid to any misconceptions of weakness. The remaining two men milled around, eyes flicking between the interloper standing in parade rest and their fallen comrades, groaning in the dirt.
“I’ll ask you again, gentlemen.” The word was a sneer. “Leave. Now.”
The men glanced across at each other, waiting for the other to make the first move. Hands shifted around the cane, slowly. They shifted too, a collective sway backwards.
There was another whimper to Thomas’ left, as Stewart started to rise, one hand clutching his jaw. One of the men stepped forward, offering a hand, but Stewart shoved it away.
“Geddim, oo iddots! Two o’ you, arn’ there?”
The man looked at Stewart with wide eyes, then, uncertainly, glanced between his other friend, whose hand was hesitantly twitching for a loose, low-hanging branch, and Bates.
His friend nodded, and they both took one, slow step forward.
“He’s right,” said Bates, calmly. “There are only two of you,” and matched their step with one of his own.
They both stepped back.
Stewart spluttered. “Wha—”
One of the men turned back to him. “Just leave it, yeah?”
The other man stepped across, keeping an eye on Bates, and hauled the last of their fallen men, who’d turned quite white, to his feet. “Davey don’t look so good, either. We’ve gotta get ‘im home.”
“Come on, Stewart.”
Stewart finally stood, glaring equally at Bates and his own friends. “Bl’dy useless, oo lot!” he postured, as best he could while still holding his jaw, but even he could see that he was wasting his time, with his friends unwilling to help. They were already leaving, supporting Davey between them, who was still bent double over his stomach and groaning with every step. Stewart glanced between the retreating men and Bates, and opened his mouth, but as Bates adjusted his grip on his cane, he thought better of it. He shot a filthy look down at Thomas, and turned to follow the others. “Oo watch y’self, Barrow.”
“Filthy queers,” he shouted, as he rounded the corner and went out of sight.
Only once the sounds of the men’s retreat through the trees had finally faded did Thomas begin to stand, slowly levering himself upwards to rest on his elbows.
Thomas ignored Bates’ outstretched hand. “I’b fine.” He spat, internally cringing at his diction, as disjointed as his likely-broken nose. “Just—” He slowly rose shakily to his feet, wincing as he jarred a bruised wrist, gasping as a sharp pain lanced through his side. He slowly pulled off his ruined gloves, gingerly sliding the leather over the bloody grazes showing through tears in the palms. The gloves were carefully folded by his incessantly trembling, traitorous fingers, before being tucked into his coat pocket— even now, he was unwilling to further mar his rumpled clothing. He tried to busy himself with tucking in his shirt, but as it only served to smear blood across it, he instead buttoned his coat, fussily tugging it into place. He cast around for something, anything, else to do, fingers twitching at his sleeves, but finally, with no other recourse, he straightened his spine, ignoring the renewed flash of pain and turned to look Bates in the eye.
The look of sympathy—not pity—that he saw in the steady gaze was so unexpected, that Thomas’ haughty bearing wavered. His eyes flicked back down, and he twitched the hem of his trouser leg back into place. His sinuses were suddenly burning, and he blinked hard, as his shoes blurred into an indistinguishable mess. It was as ridiculous as it was horrifying, that he should become so overwhelmed, so—deplorably uncontrolled—and why was it bloody Bates, of all people?
He pressed his lips together, only to wince again as a small cut split. Bates shifted in front of him, and he glanced up at the proffered handkerchief.
“I, I’ve god—” He coughed, the blood running down the back of his throat threatening to make him gag. He withdrew his own handkerchief from an inner pocket, and held it pointedly to his nose.
“Of course,” said Bates, mildly, returning his cloth to a pocket.
His indifference, his bloody willingness to go along with Thomas’s pride, his damn—understanding—had Thomas suddenly gripping his nose with undue force. Why wouldn’t the man just go away?
Bates (finally) stepped back. He gave Thomas another considering look, his terrifying, damned genuine concern still evident. “If you’re sure that you—.” He paused. “I’ll see you back at the house, then.” He took another step back, but hesitated again. “I won’t—the others, I mean. I won’t say anything, about—Well. It’s nothing to do with anyone else, that’s all.” Point made, Bates nodded once, and turned back towards the village.
Seeing him limp away, once more leaning heavily on his cane, Thomas’ pride faltered.
“Ah—”. The sound escaped Thomas before he could think better of it.
Bates turned, eyebrow raised. “Hmm?”
The words stuck in his throat, clogged like coagulating blood. He paused. Was he really so far gone that even the simplest of words would render him so discomforted? He licked his lips, a quick, nervous movement. He opened his mouth, yet still faltered, eyes flicking anywhere but Bates. This was intolerable. He snapped his mouth closed, turned to face Bates front-on, and drew himself up as best he could.
Finally, jerkily, he inclined his head.
Acknowledgement made, he didn’t—perhaps couldn’t—wait for Bates’ reaction. He turned around sharply, and began to limp back along the path to Downton.