Fic - The Remains of the Day - "Evening"
Pairing: James Stevens/Sarah Kenton
Timeline: Alternative ending, set just after Mrs Benn gets on the bus.
Disclaimer: The Remains of the Day belongs to the author, Kazuo Ishiguro. The film adaptation belongs to Merchant Ivory.
I wrote four little Remains pieces, yonks ago. They have resided here at the FFRC for a while. They're my weakest work in this fandom, preliminary sketches as I tried to get a handle on the characters. The conclusions are too pat, too convenient, and do little to acknowledge the driving motivations of the characters. I include them here because they've been polished, and for completeness.
As he watched her ride away on the bus, James Stevens's heart shuddered in his chest. Sarah's face was contorting with the effort to hold back tears. Much as their final words had been polite and well-wishing, they both knew that this repetition of the events from twenty years previously, when she had first turned her back on him and made another life for herself, was the end.
"Goodbye!" he called into the night, and raised his hat. As Sarah Benn receded into the distance, his breath snatched in his throat and he swallowed hard.
It was over.
It had never begun.
It was time to go home.
He walked back to the Daimler, feeling like an old man. He was an old man. His seventies beckoned ominously and he saw so much of his father in himself that it frightened him. He would die as his father had: alone, with only his service left to order his day and separate the one from the next. The choices had been made long ago.
James opened the car door and climbed inside, pausing for a moment to sigh and recollect the last glimpse he would ever have of Sarah Benn's face. He needed to imprint it on his memories, never mind how much it hurt, because he owed her that much.
Why had he never told her?
Well, that was easy. He had never told her because the idea terrified him: not just the intimacy it might afford, but the way everything he considered predictable and comfortable would change. He'd been unable to see how to reconcile his duties as butler with the demands of a marriage. He had convinced himself that the latter was an impossibility.
And he'd been furious when Sarah Kenton had not come to the same silent conclusion: to devote her life to Darlington Hall in the same way he had done. It had taken him a long time to understand that he not only had no right to be angry, he had every right to feel ashamed.
What might have become of them, had he let her push those few charged moments they'd shared to a more natural conclusion? If he had kissed her instead of sending her away, the afternoon she'd discovered his penchant for romantic literature? If he had confessed that the idea of her marriage to Tom Benn filled him with such desperate rage that he could barely think coherently? What would have happened if, the night he'd found her crying, he had talked not of dusting, but of the content of his heart?
James frowned into the rainy night. He knew what would have happened. He'd have made Sarah Kenton into Mrs Sarah Stevens, and the daughter now expecting Sarah's first grandchild would be expecting his, too.
Suddenly, James wanted to follow that bus all the way back across Clevedon.
He gunned the engine and turned on the headlights, convinced that he should do just that. He had travelled this far to put right a mistake, not make it all over again. He should at least give himself the opportunity to declare his feelings to Sarah, before life tore them asunder once more. To do that much might at least allow him some peace.
But he stopped as he put the Daimler into gear. Because racing towards him, though the rain, into the beam from the headlights, came Sarah Benn.
James blinked for a moment, wondering whether he was seeing things again, but the figure didn't fade from view. She was running awkwardly, stumbling, and her eyes squinted against the light. Something inside James's chest constricted his breathing.
She had always been possessed of a far greater courage than he.
Fumbling for the door catch, he opened the car again and stepped out into the wet. She was close, now. The bottom of her coat was soaked, no doubt from the leap she must have taken from the bus when deciding on one last throw of the dice. James stepped towards her, then found himself walking, until he was running too, and the pain in his chest was overwhelming but it didn't matter because she was so close now, and the need to wrap his arms around her and hold her against him was too sweet to ignore.
When their bodies met, their combined momentum made the resulting embrace fierce. Sarah's face pressed into his neck. She was weeping, anguished and yet elated.
He was crying too.
He held her tightly and turned his face up into the rain, gasping in release. The sound was raw and uninhibited. He didn't care. He'd waited too long and come so close to a lonely grave that he couldn't find it in himself to bother about his appearance.
When the initial surge of emotion had lapsed, he lowered his head to look at her, and she pulled back to return his gaze. They were both drenched, but he barely noticed. With a shaking hand, James reached to brush the backs of his fingers over her face. Sarah managed a watery smile and leaned in to the touch.
"I couldn't leave you again," she said brokenly.
James squeezed her closer and sighed. "I was a heartbeat away from following the bus," he confessed.
"Were you?" Sarah seemed surprised.
"Oh, Sarah," he murmured, savouring her Christian name for the first time. "Just because I'm not very good at showing how I feel, doesn't mean I don't feel at all." He lowered his forehead to nudge hers. "I love you," he whispered breathlessly.
She swallowed a sob, tears mingling with the rain. "I love you, too."
"I can't lose you again," James said.
"What about your marriage?"
"I've been thinking in terms of what Tom needs for so long, I've forgotten to think about what I need. I'll get a divorce."
"What about your daughter?"
Sarah slumped a little. "I had to find out about her baby from Tom. He'd only travelled down from Manchester to see me and yet he found out about it before I did. Catherine was always her Daddy's girl. She never really forgave me for leaving him the first time."
"I'm sure you could visit regularly."
"Will you come with me back to Darlington?"
"Will you marry me?" He watched as she pulled away, and wondered whether he was taking things too quickly, but he was enjoying a kind of displacement from his usual reticence on this sodden, freezing night. "I'd go down on one knee but it might take me a while to get up again."
She laughed, and the sound was girlish. She was the Sarah Kenton he had known twenty years ago. "You don't have to. I accept."
He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to taste those lips so badly that he could have howled. And from the way she looked at him, she returned this wanting, passion for passion. They studied each other for moments longer, by now soaked to the skin in the heavy rain, and then James moved his head falteringly, tentative with the unfamiliar gesture, and their lips came together.
The kiss lasted for several minutes. Cars passed on the other side of the road, but Sarah paid no more heed to them than he did himself, standing in the lights from the Daimler and sharing their desperate embrace. James's lips felt numb and swollen when they pulled apart, and he noticed with a flush of long-forgotten lust that Sarah's mouth looked as his felt. He had done that to her, had made the dark passion rise in her eyes.
"I think we should get in the car," she said after a moment.
"I think you're right," he returned, a little giddy.
Once seated inside the Daimler, he turned to look at her.
"What were your plans?" she asked tentatively.
"I was going to stay in town tonight, and head off tomorrow morning."
"Are you booked anywhere?"
"The place we met. The Sea View."
"Will you take me to collect my things? I'll take a room at the Sea View too, we can leave together in the morning."
James smiled at the idea. "I'd be delighted."
As they drove back down the promenade, Sarah stretched a gloved hand across and laid it possessively on his leg. The warmth which leeched through his clothing was delicious. She was quiet, allowing him to concentrate on driving in the treacherous conditions. When they arrived at the boarding house, James parked the car and grabbed the umbrella from the back seat.
"Just a moment," he suggested.
He got out, unfurled the umbrella and skipped around the car to the passenger side as though he were a young man again. He opened the door and sheltered Sarah as she stepped into the rainy night, and they made their way together up the steps to the front door. She let them both in with a key taken from her handbag. As he closed the door, a middle-aged woman came into the hallway carrying a tea tray. She took one look at Sarah's soaked clothing and set the tray down.
"Oh, now look at the state you've gone and got yourself into!" she scolded.
"Beth..." Sarah tolerated the way the woman reached to help her off with her coat. James peeled his own from his back. "Beth, I want you to meet an old and very dear friend of mine."
Beth turned to look at him warily. He understood her caution. A gentleman would hardly allow a lady to risk pneumonia in such a fashion.
"James Stevens," he said, and held out a hand.
"Mr Stevens," Beth replied, and shook it.
"Beth," Sarah said as the woman's hand was retracted. "I'm going to pack and then move to the Sea View tonight, so that I can leave for Darlington with Mr Stevens tomorrow morning. I'll be taking a position at Darlington Hall."
Beth paused and narrowed her eyes. "You're leaving him for good?"
"For good. Like I should have, a long time ago."
James watched as Beth turned to him with a genuine smile. "In that case, Mr Stevens, you're very welcome. I'll bring you both up some tea in just a few minutes."
Beaming, the boarding house owner reclaimed her tea tray and headed off to the kitchen. Sarah smiled at him and James felt his knees tremble at the unspoken message she flashed with her upturned lips.
"Come on, you can give me a hand," she decided, and headed off up the stairs. Grinning giddily, James followed her.
It was evening. It was going to be his favourite part of the day.