"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Jane Austen
Although my full name is Elizabeth, no-one has called me that for years. As far as I can remember, my friends and family have called me Lizzie. I have quite a large family, especially for this day and age. There's my parents and, much to my father's horror, my four other sisters and me. Jane is my only older sister, who's twenty six now. Then there's me, just turned twenty four, then Marie, Kat and Lydia. My father was really hoping for a boy I think, and I'm probably the nearest he's got to one. I'm not exactly a tomboy, but I like sport and I'm not into the colour pink. That was close enough for him. My mother is…well, for want of a better description, a drama queen. Of course, I love her with all my heart, but sometimes I do wonder about her.
Ever since my sisters and I were tiny, she's been pretty much obsessed with marrying us off and playing matchmaker for us with her friends. Lydia doesn't mind it too much (she's only seventeen and boy mad) and the others put up with it, but me – well, I hated it.
I was a late bloomer in the hormones department. Boys didn't really grab my attention until I was about eighteen. By then, I already had the title of frigid and a prude. So I decided it would be easier to stay away from the male population, who I generalised as being more trouble than they were worth. At twenty four, some would be ashamed to say that they had never been in a relationship, but not me. I wore that status like a badge, proud of the fact that I wasn't conforming to society's derogatory and crushing rules.
I would learn, that summer, that maybe I didn't have to go through life as an old maid, that I didn't need to be lonely and that I could find love in a species who I thought weren't good for anything except farting.
Being a teacher, I do get absolutely fantastic holidays. The summer bought with it a deliciously long eight week break. The holiday mood, however, was tinged slightly, because of my mother's birthday. This involved going back to my parent's house for four days and being completely surrounded by family. No doubt there would be overly nosy questions about my love life – there always was, and no doubt, there would be lots of disappointed faces when I said that I still hadn't found anyone.
"Jane? Are you nearly ready?" I shouted from my spot on the sofa, where I was waiting for my older sister to lug her suitcase downstairs. Jane had been staying at my little house in the middle of London for about a month now while she was looking for her own place.
"Yes! I'm just coming," my sister called back. I heard loud irregular thumps and hoped that that meant she was ready.
I went out into the hallway to open the front door and begin to load up my old car. My mouth fell open when I saw her luggage.
"Jane, we're only going for a fortnight! You have enough baggage to see to the needs of a third world country!"
Jane shrugged and waved an impatient hand in my direction. "You wouldn't understand," she said.
"What is that supposed to mean?" I asked, poking out my tongue and opening the front door. I tugged my miniature (in comparison) suitcase to my car, absentmindedly making a mental note to see to the rust that was beginning to form on the side. It's an old car, alright? There was a disturbing groaning noise as I piled bag after bag in the trunk of the car, but finally it was all packed in. I couldn't see out of the rear windscreen very well, but hey!
"Right then," I said, clapping my hands together. "Ready for a road trip?"
Before turning on the engine, I started skimming through my in car CD collection.
"Oh god, please let me choose," Jane said, a worry crease forming above her eyebrows. "I can't sit through two hours of your choice."
"Hey!" I said, eyes wide. "What is wrong with my music choice? It's incredible!"
Jane arched a perfectly plucked eyebrow. "It's very…loud," she said eventually and all too diplomatically. Loud is pretty accurate though. I love Led Zep, The Stones and Queen. I would have fitted right into the 80s.
You would never guess that Jane and I were sisters. She is willowy, very fair and the kindest person that I know. She was always the sister who got all the dates in school and the one who everyone loved. I am 5'5", brunette and a grumpy old bitch. I've only been on three dates in my entire life and I have a hate list. I teach primary school kids. They're all going to grow up like me.
"Fine," I said, with a pout on my lips. I slumped back into my driving seat. "Put on Classic FM or whatever it is that you listen to."
"You're so dramatic," said Jane. "I don't listen to classical music, unless I'm painting." Another thing about Jane – she's arty. Not quite hippy, but not too far off from it. She fiddled around with the dial while I reversed out of the parking space a little enthusiastically.
"Are you sure you don't want me to drive?" Jane asked.
"No. I'm a perfectly capable driver."
"Sorry, can you remind me how many driving tests you had to take before you passed?"
"Was it four?"
My sister laughed. "I'm sorry Liz. You know I'm only teasing."
"Yellow car! I win, I win!" I shouted. We were playing my favourite car game. And, as usual, I was winning.
"You are so weird. Only you would take this game so seriously," said Jane.
"Whatever. What's the point of playing a game if you don't want to win."
"It's the yellow car game," Jane said slowly. "Honestly, I think all the kids you teach are starting to rub off on you."
I shrugged. "As long as I'm not rubbing off on them, I'm okay with that."
We were almost at my parent's house. It was a pretty house and growing up there had been great fun. The garden was huge and I had spent ages exploring it when I was a kid. It was a big country cottage, but not half as big as the huge mansion that was just along the lane from it – Netherfield Park. There used to be an old couple living there when I was young. Jane and I would visit them occasionally with our mother. A couple of years ago, the old woman died of a terminal illness. A short time later, her husband died too. My mother had always said it was of a broken heart, but I was far too bitter to believe that rubbish. It had been empty for a while. It was for sale, but in my opinion, this climate meant that no one would be buying it anytime soon.
So it was with a little bit of shock that I drove up the lane that lead to both abodes and saw SOLD stamped across the 'for sale' sign that was at the beginning of the lane.
"Jane, look!" I said, "Somebody's bought Netherfield!"
"Ooh, I wonder who," my sister said. "Another old rich couple do you think?"
"Yeah, probably," I said. "Although I'm hoping for something a bit more exciting."
"You're always hoping for something more exciting."
At that moment, just as I was about to pull into the driveway of our family home and off the joint lane that led up to Netherfield, a shiny black beast of a car over took me from behind.
"Shit!" I yelled, swerving onto the grassy verge to avoid a collision. As the car passed, I saw the heads of two men; the passenger, with auburn hair and the driver, a dark man. "Hooligan!" I yelled out the window, although the car was already fifty metres away. "There's a man with more money than sense, if ever I saw one."
Jane was clutching at her seat belt. "God, he's a worse driver than you are Lizzie."
I rolled my eyes. "Not funny."
I reversed off the grass and pulled into our driveway.
"Oh god, look, they're already waiting for us," I said.
Our mother was standing on the gravel, with a ridiculously large smiling. She was waving like one of those plastic cats in Chinese takeaways. Our father was behind her, looking at his watch. Poor dad.
I parked the car and we both got out. "Hello darlings," said my mother, Natasha. "Did you have a nice journey?"
"If by nice you mean Lizzie didn't crash the car, then yes, it was nice…just about," said Jane, the traitor. She kissed our mother on both cheeks. The latter then proceeded to hold her oldest daughter in front of her, hands on Jane's shoulders. "Are you eating enough?" Mum asked, her icy blue eyes stabbing at Jane.
"Yes, mother, I'm eating plenty," said Jane. "Probably too much. Lizzie is a bad influence in the food department."
"Thanks Jane," I said, going over to give my dad a hug. We had always been close and, despite the family reunion business, I was happy to be seeing him.
"Where's everyone else then?" I asked, looking round.
"Lydia and Kat are inside, probably doing their hair or whatever it is that they do. Marie is reading, as usual. The guests arrive tomorrow, except your gran and granddad, they come in time for dinner."
My mouth unwittingly turned down at the corners.
"I know love, but we have to put up with them so they actually leave us some money in their wills," said dad, not only surprising me with his dry humour as usual, but also with his uncanny skills in the field of telepathy.
I tugged out my luggage from the car. "So we saw that Netherfield has finally been bought again. Do we know who?" I asked over my shoulder.
I heard my father groan. "She's off again," he muttered and made to go back inside the house with some of Jane's luggage.
"Well," said my mother, "The man who has bought it is called Charles Bingley. His father is on The Times' rich list, would you believe!" Sometimes it really struck me how shallow my mother could be. "He's nearly thirty and very, very single," she looked pointedly at Jane. "He seems just your type darling, I can't wait for you to meet him."
"Mother…" Jane began, ever trying to take the peaceful route.
I cut right across her. "Mother, we're not interested in being set up. Even if it is your birthday."
"But Lizzie, Mr Bingley has a friend too! You two would be-"
"Don't!" I said. "Don't finish that sentence. We both know that you, me and dating do not mix. It's a proven fact."
Mum narrowed her eyes slightly. "Oh well. I have tried. I might just have to resign myself to the fact that I'm going to have an old maid for a daughter, whose only relationship is with her cats."
I shot her a sugary smile. "Damn straight, ma."
Mum tutted and turned to go into the house. "You know I don't approve of that…language."
"Sorry," I muttered.
"Girls!" Mum called from the bottom of the stairs. "Come and say hello to your sisters!"
I heard footsteps from upstairs. The first pair of feet I saw were bare, but there were a billion anklets on the ankle. Kat. The next was wearing a pair of pink flowery flip flops and bright purple nail varnish. Definitely Lydia. The last feet to trudge down the stairs were laced up in black Dr Martens, with a ratty pair of rainbow coloured stripy socks poking out over the top. Marie. Oh dear.
There was the usual flurry of hugs and kisses that come about if you don't see your family for months. Lydia was being overdramatic as ever (some day that girl will be on the stage). Kat was acting scarily grown up and Marie…poor Marie, she was nineteen but her hormones were still raging away like anything. Her skin was flecked with acne and her hair, that she hadn't bothered to wash, was tied up in a greasy ponytail. I winced. The thing is with Marie, is that you expect that she's going to be shy or at least timid. But no, she was loud mouthed and bossy and a complete show off. This plus the fact that she dressed like a cross between a hippy and an eighties punk meant that she was worse off in the boy department than me. And that really is saying something.
"When's lunch then?" I asked, patting my stomach which was rumbling and growling.
"But Lizzy, we stopped off at a service station like an hour ago," said Jane, shaking her head.
I stuck out my tongue, proving how mature I can be. "Just because you have the appetite of a stick doesn't mean that everyone else does too. I'm a growing girl, I need my food."
Marie laughed to herself. "Growing around the middle maybe," she choked out.
I shot her what I hoped was a withering, pitying look. I probably just looked like a gargoyle. But the effect was still the same – Marie shut up.
"We can eat in about fifteen minutes. You and Jane go and unpack now, okay?" said mum, shooing us in the direction of the stairs.
Jane and I were sharing a room but we didn't mind, it was plenty big enough for two. Jane unloaded her ridiculous amount of luggage and took up the whole of the big cupboard and three quarters of the chest of drawers. I rolled my eyes at her HUGE bag of makeup. She rolled her eyes at my little make up bag which only contained mascara, eyeliner and a tin of Vaseline.
During dinner, I got my first 'surprise'.
I heard Jane give a very unJane snort. "Hey, Lizzie," she said, elbowing me. "Guess who Mum has invited to the party?"
My heart sank. No, it couldn't be. "Mother you wouldn't…"
"It's Colin!" said Jane with a shriek of laughter.
I threw my head back in exasperation and disbelief. Colin was a long standing joke in our family. He is my mother's third cousin, twice removed or something ridiculous like that. I first met him at a different family gathering about three years ago and for some reason, he followed me around the whole time like a sick puppy. At the end of the evening (without my knowledge) he got my mobile number from Mum, who was all too happy to give it to him, finally thinking that her daughter had scored. How wrong could she have been. Colin practically haunted me for months until I saw him at a family wedding. There was a rather embarrassing confrontation that I had thought was a good idea. I had had a few too many champagnes, so sue me. Colin had tried to pull the Puss In Boots card, but I was having none of it. He toned it down but every time I see him at a family event, he still tries his disgusting one liners on me. It's actually painful.
"Mum, that's not even funny."
"I'm sorry darling," said Mum, in a voice that didn't sound sorry at all. "But I couldn't invite his parents and sister and not him. That would have been plain rude."
"There's loads of people coming," said Lydia, in her gossipy tone. "Has Mum told you about the new guys up at Netherfield?"
I groaned and slapped a hand over my forehead. "We were only here five minutes and she's already trying to set us up."
"Well," Lydia continued, "Once you see them, maybe you won't mind being set up with them. I sure wouldn't mind an introduction," she said, hinting hopefully at Mum, who tactfully ignored Lydia. Lydia was perhaps the exception to my mother's matchmaking schemes. If Lydia was encouraged in anyway with boys, then there would be chaos in the world.
"I was thinking actually," said Mum with a thoughtful expression, "I've been meaning to drop in on them to see if they would like to come to the party."
"Why don't you?" I said sullenly.
There was a pregnant pause. Jane's eyes met mine. "Oh no. No way. Do your own dirty work. I have no part in this."
"It would really help me out if you girls would just nip up the lane with the invitations," said Mum ignoring my protests. "I have so much to do here still." She turned her puppy dog eyes onto Jane, who she knew was weaker than me. It took Jane about five seconds to cave.
"Come on Liz," she said. "We could do with the walk anyway, I'm stuffed. It is Mum's birthday after all."
I rolled my eyes. "And this is why you'll always be her favourite daughter," I said sulkily.
And that was how Jane and I found ourselves looking for the doorbell outside Netherfield.
"God, it's been a long time since I've been here," said Jane, from the other side of the huge stone porch where she was looking for a button.
"Me too…ah! Found it! …I think," I said, pulling at a rusty metal chain. Deep within the house I heard a jingling noise.
We waited for a while. About thirty seconds later, the door opened. A main with auburn hair poked his head out. I wracked my brain to try and remember where I had seen that colour hair recently.
"Hi," he said to both of us, although I noticed his gaze float over Jane for a second time.
"Hi," said Jane taking the lead. I noticed that her gaze kept travelling up and down his body too. Well, shock horror, maybe Mum's practice of matchmaking was finally paying off. "Sorry to bother you-"
"It's okay," he said quickly. He then blushed a little, which even I have to admit was a bit cute. "I mean, er…yeah."
Jane giggled shyly. "I'm Jane Bennet, my parents live just down the lane in the cottage. This is my sister Lizzie."
"Hi," he said, for the first time really acknowledging me. He had a friendly smile which he was using to his full advantage. "Would you like to come in?"
"Oh," said Jane. "We didn't mean to impose..."
"Not at all," he said. "I'm Charles Bingley, but call me Charlie."
"Well…Charlie…it's a bit of a strange request, but our mum was wondering if you would like to come to her birthday party that she's hosting tomorrow. You know, neighbourly relations and all that."
We were following Charlie Bingley along a lavishly decorated corridor, that hadn't changed all that much since my childhood. He opened to door into a light, creamy coloured room.
"Oh, that sounds great," said Charlie. "But, er, I don't suppose it's possible for my friend here to come too, is it? Only he's staying with me for a bit and I couldn't really dump him, no matter how much I want to sometimes." He waved his hand in the direction of some chairs and for the first time I noticed another man in the room. He was looking at us with very little interest, a snooty expression playing over his handsome face. But I remembered where I had seen them both before as soon as I saw the little bugger.
"Hey!" I said loudly, pointing at the man. "It's you!"
He raised an eyebrow. "Yes, it is me."
"Shut up. I meant that you're the guy who nearly drove us off the road earlier," I said, with a glare.
"Oh shit," said Charlie. "It was you guys. I'd like to apologize on behalf of my friend," he said pointedly. "I wanted to stop the car and see if you were okay, but someone here was speeding. Would you believe he is a lawyer? Oh, sorry, I haven't introduced you; this is my friend Will Darcy. He's a demon driver."
"To be fair to me, you did say you needed to be back here quickly," said the Arrogant Asshole with an indifferent shrug.
"Quickly doesn't mean shoving cars off the road!" I snapped.
"Lizzie," said Jane, tapping my shoulder gently.
"You were going ridiculously slowly," Darcy said.
My mouth dropped open. "Because I was turning into the lane! Unlike you some of us are actually careful drivers."
"You can't base this one experience on whether or not I'm a careful driver!"
I rolled my eyes impatiently. "That's beside the point mister. I could sue you."
"But you won't."
"That's beside the point too," I said with a pout, knowing that the Asshole was right.
"I'm so sorry about her," said Jane, with an apologetic grimace at Charlie Bingley.
"I'm right here!" I said indignantly.
They both ignored me. "No, I'm sorry," said Charlie. "It's completely our fault."
"Damn straight it was," I interrupted.
"Are you okay?" Charlie continued.
"Yeah, I think so," Jane said. "A little bit shaken after it maybe, but I'm perfectly fine now."
Charlie smiled. "Yeah you are perfect," he said.
"I mean – I mean you are perfectly fine," the man said, his cheeks the colour of his hair. I felt for him.
"Okay, I'm going to head back home now," I said. "I'm sure mother has some other horrendous chore that she needs me to do. I guess I'll see you tomorrow then Charlie," I said to the man, who nodded and smiled, then turned his adoring gaze back to Jane. I sighed. "It was so nice meeting you," I said sarcastically to Will Darcy, who had stood up from his chair. He was really, really tall and had deliciously muscular arms…STOP! This man is a menace.
Without even waiting for Jane, I left Netherfield and made my way back to the cottage.
I slammed the door behind me. That was a really bad habit I had, slamming doors.
"Alright mother," I called out. "You were partially right. Jane and Charlie Bingley are probably at it already. They're disgusting. But you are so, so wrong about that other one. Whatever his name is. Will Arse-y or something. He's awful. Not my type at all."
I didn't bother to wait and listen to mum's reply, but had the satisfaction of proving her wrong.
I went out into the garden to find Dad trying to put up a string of fairy lights in the row of apple trees. He was wobbling dangerously on the ladder. I went over to help him.
"Not for you then?" said Dad, with a grin.
"You know Lizzie, if men aren't for you then-"
"Ew! Dad! Stop! I like men! I have a poster of a topless Alexander Skarsgard on my wall, thank you very much."
Dad winced. "I didn't really need to know that."
"Grow up. You know what I mean."
"But honestly, your mother is panicking. She wants you married before you're too saggy to fit into a nice wedding dress."
"What happened to that childhood talk, 'all in your own time, sweetheart'?"
"You know what your mum is like with setting you girls up."
"Yes, but I thought she would grow out of it."
Dad climbed down the stepladder after making sure that the little lights were stable. "I doubt that will ever happen. She'll be at it until the day she dies."
"Great," I moaned. "A whole lifetime left of awkward hints and set up dates. What fun."
"You could always find someone for yourself. Aren't there any nice men who you work with?"
"The only guy who works at my school who isn't married, is Boris the Hungarian janitor. He's fifty two and smells of cheese. That's just foul."
Dad shrugged. "You know if it was up to me, you could stay single as long as you liked. But just try for your mother okay?"
In the evening, after we had had supper, Jane and I went back to ours rooms. She was getting changed into her pyjamas, but I noticed a soppy smile on her face.
"Please don't tell me that you're still thinking about that guy?"
Jane looked at me, as if only just remembering that I was in the room too. "Lizzie…"
But I could tell that it was Charlie Bingley that she was thinking about. "I'm not saying you can't like him Jane."
"I know but I want to take things slowly, y'know?"
I raised an eyebrow. "I should hope you would take things slow…you only met him this morning!"
Jane rolled her eyes at me. "You know what I meant."
I shrugged. "I can forgive you for liking the cute one. He's not my type, but I can see why you like him. His friend on the other hand…have you seen anyone more stuck up their own ass?"
"You don't know him Lizzie."
"Jane. You are allowed to be a bitch at least once in your life. It's quite fun actually. Admit that he's an arrogant bastard and I won't tell Mum that you like that Charlie guy."
"Lizzie, you can't tell Mum anything. You know what that would start and I would never be able to face this guy again. Okay, okay, I admit, the guy seemed like a bit of a douche. You definitely had right of way."
It was weird how much satisfaction I got out of hearing that I was in the right.