October had brought a snap of sudden cold to Downton, enough so that icicles had formed all along the guttering outside the servants hall and Jimmy had been sent up to the freezing attics to pull extra blankets and quilts out of the storage cupboards. There was no electricity in the attics and it was dark enough that Jimmy had needed to bring along an old gas lamp just so he might see his hand in front of his face. He was making his way back towards the ladder, arms full of musty blankets, when a great gust of wind had whipped around the Abbey and whistled into the attic with such force it had blown out the lantern.
“Shite, bloody hell,” Jimmy said, tripping over a dropped blanket. He peered through the gloom, his eyes slowly adjusting to the dark, when he saw...something. A shape, a shadow somehow darker than the room itself, moving across the attic in front of him. “Alfred?” Jimmy asked, his voice shaking more than he would’ve liked.
No answer. The shadow stopped and turned - it was man-shaped and bedecked in ethereal livery, but it was not a man - there were no defined limbs to speak of and instead of a face there was a dark hole. Jimmy felt a chill flood through the room, like an icy wave had just swept over him, and fear gripped his heart. The thing - ghost his mind unhelpfully provided - emanated hostility and Jimmy was deeply afraid in a way he hadn’t experienced since his mother died and he realised he was alone in the world.
“Jimmy? You up there?” A voice called from below - it was Thomas.
“Thomas!” Jimmy shouted and the spectre moved towards him menacingly. “Thomas, help me!”
The sound of Thomas’s feet hurriedly ascending the ladder only spurred the thing towards Jimmy - he screamed, all semblance of bravery gone, and threw the blankets at the apparition. They passed through it like it were made of smoke and fell to the dusty floor with a soft whump. Jimmy fell backwards, his spine connecting painfully with a storage trunk, and the thing was mere inches away from his face, hanging in mid-air like a ghastly marionette.
“Jimmy?” Thomas appeared through the attic opening, his lighter held aloft, and the apparition simply vanished, like an icicle melting before a flame.
“Thomas, Thomas!” Jimmy scrabbled up onto his feet and ran full-pelt into the under-butler just as he heaved himself into the attic proper. Jimmy clutched Thomas’s lapels, his dusty fingers making prints all over the black fabric.
“Jimmy, what’s the matter?” Thomas said, clearly concerned.
Jimmy squeezed his eyes shut and forced his breathing to even out, focussing on the feel of Thomas’s chest beneath his hands; warm, sturdy, real.
“The lamp went out,” Jimmy stuttered, “I fell over - I - I thought I saw,” he shook his head - it was impossible, “just got myself spooked, that’s all. It were nothing.”
Thomas just raised an eyebrow. “We’ll be sure to scream my name next time it’s nothing,” he smirked, “and I’ll come running.”
Jimmy flushed red, glad of the darkness for hiding his embarrassment, and said; “I didn’t scream.”
Thomas found the lamp and reignited it with his lighter, and together they gathered up the scattered blankets. Jimmy couldn’t wait to get back downstairs and made sure to go down the ladder first - he wouldn’t be going up in the attics alone ever again, if he had his way. And Thomas hadn’t teased him too badly, except to drop the odd sarcastic comment into conversation.
But the experience weighed heavily on Jimmy all day and he found himself jumping at the littlest things - a dropped knife, the kettle whistling suddenly, the wind blowing the back door shut. And every time he was startled his first thought was of Thomas.
He didn’t want to think about why.
That evening Carson announced, with obvious distaste, that Lady Rose would be holding a Hallowe’en party for some of her friends, and it had sparked a conversation about the supernatural amongst the downstairs staff. Jimmy pulled at his collar, the memory of the spectre in the attic still unpleasantly vivid.
“D’ya remember that spirit board Anna,” Daisy said, tidying away the leftovers from supper, “how it sent us messages from the other side?”
“I remember Mr Barrow and Miss O’Brien terrorising us with it,” Anna laughed and Thomas smirked at the memory.
Later still, when the sensible folk had long since retired to bed, Thomas, Jimmy, Alfred, Ivy, Daisy and a few maids were sitting around chatting. Well, Thomas was smoking by the fire and pretending not to listen. Jimmy, unhappy with the direction the conversation was taking, was subconsciously drawn closer to the under-butler for comfort. He loitered by the fire then eventually pulled up a chair and sat beside him, stealing a cigarette from his open pack.
Thomas gave him a sideways glance but didn’t comment.
“A Hallowe’en party will be right spooky,” Daisy said, “I wonder if Lady Rose would want to borrow the spirit board?”
“Me mam always said there weren’t no such things as ghosts,” Alfred replied.
“There’s definitely summat after though,” Daisy mused, “I just know it.”
“I don’t like thinkin’ on it,” Ivy visibly shuddered, “it’s like summat out of The Ghost Breaker.”
Jimmy must’ve visibly shuddered at the word ghost as Thomas cast an amused glance his way.
“What d’ya think Mr Barrow? Are ghosts an’ haunts an’ all that real?” Alfred asked.
Thomas huffed out at laugh; “Only in the imaginations of those with delicate sensibilities.”
Jimmy narrowed his eyes but Thomas just smirked behind his newspaper.
“Everyone says Downton is haunted though,” one of the maids chimed in, “me Pa used to tell us scary stories ‘bout it when I were little.”
“Oh, I’d love to hear one of them stories,” Alfred gushed.
Thomas folded his newspaper and set it down. “Well there is one story I heard,” Thomas smirked, “about the ghost of a footman.”
Jimmy wanted to protest or to get up and leave, but he knew he’d be opening the way for an awful mocking from Thomas, so he kept silent and pretended to read the front of the discarded paper.
“Tell us Mr Barrow, please,” Daisy said.
Thomas nodded. “There was a footman who worked here many years ago, a charming, handsome young fellow who thought rather highly of himself and his ability to make any lady, highborn or low, swoon.”
“Sounds like someone we know,” Alfred laughed and Jimmy’s cheeks burned at the insinuation.
Thomas coughed and continued; “He was always flirting with one maid or another - that was until the lady of the house had a child and they employed a beautiful young nanny to care for the babe. He fell in love at first sight with her and did everything he could to win her over.”
Daisy and Ivy aww’d at that and Jimmy pulled a face of disgust.
“Well, of course, the nanny fell for the footman in return - how could she resist? But the master of the house didn’t look kindly upon fraternising between staff, so they decided to keep their relationship a secret until they could save enough money to be married. They snatched little moments together wherever they could but,” Thomas paused for effect, “they loved each other so dearly it hurt them to be apart.”
“One evening, after everyone else was in bed, the footman crept up to the night nursery to see his lady love. The little baby was sleeping and the nanny didn’t want to wake him, so they snuck away to the attic and, as those under the thrall of love often do, they lost track of time.”
Jimmy’s stomach dropped at mention of the attic.
Thomas leaned forwards in his chair and continued; “When the nanny returned to the nursery something was amiss. The baby had died in her absence.”
Gasps from the girls.
“The nanny was devastated - she immediately resigned her position and left Downton, never to be seen or heard from again. The footman was heartbroken - he blamed himself for the baby’s untimely death and the loss of his true love. Wracked with guilt and despairing over his lost nanny, he took a belt and, the legend says he hung himself just over there,” Thomas pointed towards the corridor, “near the boot room. Sometimes, very late at night you can hear him crying. And he’s been seen roaming the attic and the corridors, looking for the nanny and the baby, and he chases errant footmen and housemaids to make sure they are seeing to their tasks. And if he catches them flirting or shirking well...” The wind picked up and dramatically blew a flurry of leaves against the servant’s hall windows, rattling them in their frames, and a door slammed shut somewhere upstairs.
Everyone jumped and there was silence for a moment until the group broke into nervous laughter. Jimmy gripped the arms of his chair and tried his best to look normal, even when his heart was hammering hard enough to break his ribs.
“Blimey Mr Barrow! I won’t sleep tonight!” said Alfred.
“That weren’t scary,” Daisy said, “just sad.”
“I thought it were plenty scary,” Ivy added, “for once in me life I’m glad I share a room!”
Jimmy rolled his eyes and pretended to be unimpressed.
“Right,” Thomas said, standing up, “I think it’s time we all went up.“
Jimmy walked up the staff staircase with the others, retired to his room and hung up his livery with shaking hands. Sleep was the last thing he wanted but he forced himself to get ready for bed, crawl under the covers and turn off the light.
The sound of the wind in the trees and the creaking of the old house kept him awake for a while, but eventually exhaustion won out and he drifted into a fitful sleep.
In his dream Jimmy was sitting at the piano in the servant’s hall, his back to the room.
“Jimmy,” came a voice over his shoulder - he didn’t turn to look but he recognised it immediately. It was Thomas.
“Not now,” Jimmy said, and started to play a complicated piece, his fingers struggling to hit the right keys.
“Jimmy,” Thomas said, more insistent.
“I can’t Thomas,” Jimmy replied, “it’s too hard. It’s too complicated.”
“I’m not brave enough Thomas,” Jimmy continued playing, his hands now a blur, “I’m not strong enough.”
He stumbled and slammed his hand noisily on the keys, ruining the end of the piece, then stopped playing. Silence. He got up from the piano and turned to see Thomas hanging from the doorway, a belt around his neck. He was dressed in black livery and as Jimmy stared in horror his face twisted into a pool of nothingness.
“Thomas!” Jimmy screamed, but Thomas had gone, replaced by the thing from the attics.
“Tell him,” it hissed, “before it’s too late. Don’t lose him. Don’t lose him. Or else!”
Jimmy’s eyes snapped open and he fumbled desperately with his lamp for a moment before it clicked on and flooded the room with an orange glow. He was breathing heavily, a sheen of sweat sticking his pyjamas to his back.
Thomas. He had to see Thomas.
Mindless of the late hour he padded down the corridor to the under-butler’s room and let himself in. It was colder in Thomas’s room than it should be - the under-butler had the privilege of a little wrought-iron stove which he always used in bad weather, as the cold made his old war-wound ache. The twin skylights in the ceiling let in enough moonlight that Jimmy could see without needing to turn on the light.
He stopped, fear fixing him in place - floating on the ceiling between the two skylights and directly above the sleeping under-butler was the spectre.
“No!” Jimmy shouted - he flicked on the switch and bathed the room in garish light, then charged at the apparition, waving his hands. Thomas shot up in bed, startled, and the ghost melted though the ceiling.
“Jimmy?” Thomas rubbed his eyes, “What on earth’s going on?”
Jimmy swallowed and said; “I had a nightmare. About you. I had to check you were alright.”
Thomas gave him a sceptical look. “By frightening me half to death?”
“I were spooked by me dream and I imagined - I thought I saw...it were just a shadow, a trick of the light,” Jimmy finished lamely.
Thomas sighed. “Look, I’m sorry if my story made you nervous...”
“It wasn’t that,” Jimmy shook his head and sat himself down on Thomas’s bed, uninvited. “It was the dream. You were hurt.”
“I was - it was upsetting.”
“Would you just hold me or something,” Jimmy hissed, “I’m in a right bleedin’ state here.”
Thomas suppressed a smirk and warily draped an arm around Jimmy’s shoulders. Jimmy leaned into the touch and felt the knot of anxiety in his chest loosen a little.
“What happened in the attic today?” Thomas said, his body a warm, comforting weight beside the footman.
“I saw - Thomas, promise you won’t laugh at me?” It seemed ridiculous now, in the light of Thomas’s room, with the under-butler’s arm around him.
“When you’re this upset? I’d never.”
Jimmy took a steadying breath and recounted his encounter with the spectre in the attics.
“Bloody hell,” Thomas said finally, “no wonder you’ve had bad dreams.”
“You believe me?”
Thomas thought for a moment and said; “I believe you think that’s what you saw.”
“Oh, very bleedin’ diplomatic,” Jimmy huffed, shrugging Thomas’s arm off.
“Come on,” Thomas said gently, “let’s go make some hot cocoa, that’ll help you sleep.”
Jimmy made a noise of irritation but, not wanting to be alone, he followed the under-butler down the staff staircase and into the kitchens. Hanging about downstairs after hours was strictly forbidden, so they left the lights off and Thomas found the nub of an old candle to light their way instead.
Jimmy perched on the kitchen table - a move that would no doubt earn him a clip round the ear from Patmore if she saw him do it - and asked; “That ghost story you told - where did you hear it?”
“I read it actually,” Thomas said, stirring the cocoa powder and milk in a small saucepan, “in an old book about Downton’s history I found in the library.”
“So it’s true?”
“As true as any legend I suppose,” Thomas poured the hot cocoa into two teacups. “There probably was a baby that died and a footman who killed himself. As for the rest...” he shrugged, “depends what you believe is possible.” He sat on the table next to Jimmy and handed him a cup of steaming cocoa, which Jimmy accepted gratefully.
“Just - the thing I saw - ghost, apparition, whatever - it were dressed like a footman.”
“So,” Jimmy turned to Thomas, his face pretty in the candlelight, “it’s a bit of a bloody coincidence is all.”
“And that’s what it is,” Thomas shrugged and downed his cocoa, “a coincidence.”
The house flexed and shook in the wind and a sudden downpour of rain pelted the windowpanes noisily. A familiar wave of cold hit Jimmy and he shivered - Thomas felt it too, and he turned to Jimmy with a confused frown. It had grown so cold so quickly that their breath was now visible and the rain was freezing as it hit the panes.
The candle flickered and went out, leaving them with only the scant moonlight for illumination.
“Shite,” Jimmy said and grabbed Thomas’s hand, “Thomas, it’s here.”
“I - er,” Thomas hesitated - for all his dismissiveness, he was suddenly unsure. he hopped off the table, taking Jimmy with him, and the pair crept out into the corridor.
And there, standing in the doorway of the servant’s hall, was the shadow. It turned, its ethereal form billowing and twisting until it took on the image of a young man in black livery.
Thomas put himself between Jimmy and the ghost, as if he could somehow protect him from the spectre, and said; “Who are you?”
The ghostly footman didn’t answer but simply stared at them with sad, dark eyes, and started weeping softly.
“What do you want?” Thomas continued - Jimmy had been made mute with fear and was overwhelmed by the under-butler’s bravery.
“Don’t lose him,” the ghostly footman said, his spectral eyes on Jimmy, “tell him. Tell him or else.”
“Tell him what?” Thomas asked.
“He knows,” the footman said, “he knows.” And he turned his back and drifted away.
Thomas and Jimmy exchanged a look of horror as the ethereal footman continued down the servant’s corridor and through the wall, until only the sound of distant weeping could be heard, and then silence. Even the rain had stopped.
“Thomas,” Jimmy whispered and gripped the under-butler’s arm.
“I know.” Thomas hadn’t taken his saucer-wide eyes off the place the spectre had vanished, his face pale.
“Let’s go now, please,” Jimmy pulled at Thomas’s sleeve, dragging him towards the staircase. They ran, hand-in-hand, their slippered feet silent on the stairs, until they reached the men’s corridor, where they both tumbled into Jimmy’s room.
Jimmy shut the door and pulled his desk chair up against it, wedging it under the handle.
“Jimmy, was that...?”
“I don’t know,” Jimmy shook his head, “I don’t want to know.”
“But ghosts - ghosts aren’t real,” Thomas said, running a shaking hand through his hair.
“Then what the bloody hell was that?! A shared delusion?”
Thomas sat down on the edge of Jimmy’s unmade bed, his face pale, and fumbled around in his dressing gown pocket for a cigarette. It took him three attempts to get his lighter to spark, his hands were shaking so badly.
“You were brave back there,” Jimmy said. He sat down next to Thomas and stole a drag from his cigarette. “You were really brave.”
Thomas shrugged. “Only did what I had to. What do you think it meant?”
Jimmy was about to lie and say he didn’t know when the ghostly footman’s words echoed in his mind; tell him or else.
“He were talkin’ to me,” Jimmy shivered, “he knows I’ve been keeping’ a secret.”
Jimmy took another drag from Thomas’s cig and said; “I - I don’t really like Ivy y’know.”
Thomas raised an eyebrow; “Didn’t think your heart was in it, if I’m honest.”
“It’s not just that - I mean I don’t love her, obviously,” Jimmy picked at a loose thread on his sleeve. “I don’t even fancy her.”
“She’s a pretty girl,” Thomas said, “Is she just not your type?”
“That’s it, she’s really not my type,” Jimmy forced himself to make eye contact with Thomas. “That’s the problem. I’ve yet to meet a woman who is my type.”
“You’re just too young,” Thomas shrugged and stubbed out his cigarette, “the right girl will come along.”
“Thomas, there is no right girl for me.”
Thomas frowned, confused.
“Because I’ve found the person I want to spend me days with and,” he took a deep breath - it was now or never. Or else. “And he’s not a girl.”
Thomas’s usually stoical face went through about twenty different emotions as he struggled to comprehend what Jimmy had said. “Sorry,” he said finally, “what do you mean?”
“I mean,” Jimmy reached out and put his hand on Thomas’s knee, “it’s you.“
Thomas, well, the only word Jimmy could think of was melted.
“I - I had no idea,” he said, his voice rough.
“Neither did I until recently,” Jimmy smirked, “And I’m not sure how long it would’ve taken me to tell you if I hadn’t been threatened by a bloody ghost.”
Thomas covered Jimmy’s hand with his own. “I always thought my love for you was a bit supernatural,” he replied.