I have been invited to a Christmas afternoon tea dance up at the Abbey, and so has my friend Ginnny. I must say it is most gratifying to be finally recognised as a person of quality. Ginny is not so sure. She thinks the Crawleys are a bunch of toffs and she only agrees to come when I point out that it is a perfect opportunity for us to practise the new dance craze, the Charleston. But disappointment lies ahead. It seems two separate events are being planned: the ladies are to have a tea dance while the men go on a shooting party, worse luck! It sounds a terrible bore. But Ginny has a plan. “I think you should come to the tea dance anyway, as Lilly!” she suggests. She is convinced that I could ‘pass’ and so we make plans.
Ginny buys a gorgeous little black dress covered, from top to bottom, with fringes that dance and jump as she moves. She has lovely long black velvet gloves up to her elbow, a long silver necklace down to her waist that swings madly as she dances. I buy a slightly longer, beaded and sequinned black dress with a taffeta fringe along the hem. We think the fringe looks odd and take it off. Ginny lends me a pair of black tights and a feather boa and I choose from my collection a black wig cut in a bob. We twirl around in our outfits, feeling quite the flapper girls.
The day of the tea dance arrives. Arm in arm, Ginny and I march down the drive to the big front door of the Abbey. Lady Crawley’s maid, Anna, opens the door. There is a huge christmas tree in the Hall and gramophone music coming from the parlour. We are immediately swept up into a whirling mass of ladies, laughing and chatting and dancing. Everyone wants to meet me, it seems – a new face ‘on the scene’. Their smiling friendliness as they greet me turns to looks of mild anxiety as they search my face and hear me reply to their questions. They look at each other, a question in their eyes. I am starting to panic but Ginny, as ever, has a stroke of genius. “Oh, she’s Norwegian!” she says to their concerned questions.
“Oh how lovely!” everyone declares, and I am taken up as quite the lady of the hour, whisked around by the Crawley sisters and introduced to all their friends. “Don’t worry”, they keep whispering to each other, “she’s Norwegian”. All the attention, the music and the dancing and perhaps a little bit of the champagne is going to my head and I start to explore my character to the full.
“We simply love dancing in Norway, you know!” I say to my circle of fans around me. “And Norwegian girls are so beautiful! Their dresses! And, Oh their underwear… !” Ginny sees where I am going with this and jumps in.
“Come on, Lilly, let’s dance.” she insists, digging me pointedly in the ribs. “Behave!” she whispers! So Ginny and I do the Charleston, hopping madly from one foot to the other, kicking out our heels and twisting our hips like we were born to it. We are having a ball! The ladies around us clap in delight and soon the whole room is at it. But I have to go and spoil it. “Oh dear, Ginny, I seem to have spilled Champers all down my dress!” I cry. She glares at me and is furious but it is too late.
“Oh you poor thing!” cries Lady Mary, “your lovely dress! Come! Sit down with me. We’ll sort you out. Anna, a cloth!” And before I know it I am perched on the edge of a chaise long, my dress is slipped off me and I am surrounded by a circle of giggling fussing ladies.
“Now darling!” they say, “we simply love your Norwegian bloomers, and that gorgeous brassiere!” Ginny sees the danger and tries to come to my rescue. She knocks against a Chinese vase on the mantelpiece and down it comes crashing to the floor. Lady Crawley is mortified. “What have you done, girl? That vase was priceless. It has been in the family the centuries, you careless fool!” Oh dear, she should not have said that.
Off Ginny goes: “Well you shouldn’t have such valuable things just lying about like that. And why have you got something so valuable, anyway, you should sell off these things and give the money to charity. There are lots of poor people in the world you know. How about thinking of them for a change instead of wasting all this money on parties and dancing!” The whole room is transfixed in silence. Lady Crawley is apoplectic. The ladies close rank behind her.There are mutters of, “Revolution! Bolshevik!” Oh dear! But just when I think things can’t get any worse, Lady Edith, who has been standing admiring my undergarments, has noticed the inevitable.
“Good Lord! Her brassiere is stuffed with stockings!” she cries, “Why, she isn’t a woman at all, SHE’S A MAN!”. There is general pandemonium. Women scream, some faint.
I grab Ginny by the hand. “Come on!” I shout, “Run for it!” We dive through the nearby French windows and dash across the terrace, heading for the garden and the gate into the lane. Angry screaming follows us, joined by a deeper sound as the men, returning from the shoot, hear of the scandal and take up the chase. Angry shouts and even buckshot fly past our ears as we leap a low hedge.
Ginny is shouting at me, “You just couldn’t your keep your clothes on, could you?” She screams.
“Why couldn’t you keep your socialist views to yourself, just for once” I rejoin. But fear is a sharper spur than indignation and we leave the baying lords and ladies behind us and make our escape.
Of course we cannot stay – for us life in Downton Village is over. We move on… to make a new life in California. Ginny becomes Professor of Social Justice at the University of San Francisco and teaches the Charleston in her free time. I decide to stay in character, as Lilly. I take a job in the Ladies’ Fashion section of a department store and teach Norwegian whittling at an evening class. A year passes. We feel bad about that vase Ginny broke and put a little money aside. We buy a $1 enamel tin of tea, printed with Chinese motifs, and send it to the Abbey. “Happy Christmas from Ginny and Lilly”, we write, “from the New World to the Old”.