It was a beautiful morning in Pimlico, and Captain Richard Fitzwilliam slept through his alarm.
This would have been a problem - he had physio scheduled in the late morning, and therapy in the afternoon; missing either would do no good for his prospects of returning to active duty, which were already pretty bleak - except that Richard’s family, a reliable source of upper-class English melodrama since at least the Tudors, blew up their WhatsApp group like a metal fork in a microwave. Richard’s phone buzzed like a constipated bee next to his ear for a full five minutes, resisting all attempts to snooze it, and forcing him to turn onto his back and recognise that the sun was up. Which meant he should be up.
Richard peeled himself out of bed and put the kettle on, swore at the clock on the kitchen wall, and went hurriedly back into his room to dress. This was harder than he thought it ought to be, with one arm still at about 60% strength. But the therapy homework - which he definitely hadn’t done, and which he would now have to do on the Tube - had included a lot of stuff about positive framing, so Richard tried to think about how much easier everything was than it had been four months ago instead. Shirts that did not button up the front were available to him, and he was now permitted to wear his favourite old leather cuff over his soulmark instead of the itchy disposable ones the hospital had required for infection control. Richard didn't remember much about either his injury or the associated Christmas season, but he did remember hating those bands so much he had tried to tear them off single-handedly, too badly fogged by pain and opiates to recognise that he didn't have other options.
Richard turned the bathroom light on and counted the products on the shelf instead of thinking about that.
He brushed his teeth, turned boiling water into coffee, and stuck a note under his flatmate’s door about the state of the kitchen. Mary Crawford was the kind of musician that either starves for lack of funds or enjoys an enormous inheritance; Richard had a full collection of her commercially available harp recordings and a great appreciation for her carefully invested stocks and shares. He was less keen on her habit of sharing midnight feasts with her girlfriend and leaving all the dishes in the sink. It meant he always ended up washing up, which he did now.
Richard had finished this task, shaved, and was standing before the mirror rinsing off the last of the shaving foam and mentally rehearsing his discussion points for the therapist when he remembered about his phone. He picked it up on his way out the door, glanced casually at it, and nearly fell down two flights of stairs.
The family group had so many notifications, he had to restart WhatsApp. When he did so, he realised he also had one notification from Sybil, three from Julian, six from his father, and twelve (and counting) from Honoria. Maybe her wife was on another artists’ retreat, because as a rule when Isadora was around Honoria confined herself to pacing the kitchen, shouting. This upset the neighbours, but not her soulmate, who invariably dealt with this by putting on the noise-cancelling headphones she carried everywhere like a talisman against idiot Fitzwilliams and their baroque feuds. This safety valve clearly did not apply now, because the message count from Honoria was mounting by the minute.
The group itself - The Family Fitzwilliam (heart emoji, family emoji, hug emoji; Sybil meant well) - had thirty-one new messages. It seemed to have stabilised at that point.
A message from Honoria flashed up: DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHATS GOING ON ITS 1030 AND I NEED A DRINK.
Richard scrolled briefly through her messages, and understood immediately that none of this would make sense until he’d spoken to Marjorie.
RICH I KNOW YOU SAW THAT
Richard opened the gif keyboard, and selected an image of Elmo shrugging. Then he put his phone on Airplane mode, and started playing Tetris instead.
His physiotherapy session went well, Richard thought, which made it all the more dispiriting that the uniform-clad sadists in charge of the physio gym made discouraging neutral noises when he talked brightly about how he would soon be fit for work. The contrast with their approval of his diligent home physio routine was striking, and made Richard think sourly that he was being off-ramped, nudged out the door as gently as possible. He went in search of lunch in a foul mood, and recoiled from the queues at Leon and Yo Sushi. They were the healthiest options available, and Richard had been sticking dutifully to their calorie-counted whole-food meals since he began his outpatient physio at the hospital nearby. But right now they seemed to be rammed with students and office workers, and the thought of managing his lunch and his bad arm in a packed shop where someone would certainly barge straight into him was not pleasant. Richard had realised, since being injured, just how little attention people paid to those around them. Worse, few of those that were thoughtful in the beginning remembered to be so later in your recovery. His own father - admittedly not the most observant of men - had invited him clay pigeon shooting the other week. Richard had been forced to point out that the kick would do his shoulder no good, and the Earl of Matlock had sighed and looked at him like a defective puppy that couldn't help not being up to standards.
Much the way he looked at Richard's sister-in-law, actually. Richard remembered the series of untouched messages and winced.
Fuck good health and complex carbohydrates. Richard went to Starbucks.
Starbucks was no less crowded, but it had more seating space, and the baristas knew him. He used to meet Georgiana here regularly during the early stages of his physio, an opportunity for the two of them to talk that Darcy had cunningly framed as Georgiana helping Richard. Georgiana had been solicitous enough, and Richard had hammed up his injury enough, and their visits had been frequent enough, that the baristas still recognised Richard and hurried to clear a dirty table and bring him his drink, sandwich and slice of cake on a tray. Richard felt like a bit of a fraud, but was much too polite to say so.
Seated and halfway through his sandwich, Richard took a gulp of tea for fortification and turned Airplane mode off. His phone paused for a single, apocalyptic second, and then went completely bananas. Richard shut his eyes in silent frustration.
He put the stupid thing face down on top of the napkin, got out the French book of short stories he was struggling through in an attempt to develop suitable hobbies outside work, and tried to focus on deciphering the tale of a sweet (doomed) country girl who had come to Paris in search of her soulmate instead of listening to his phone throw a tantrum.
Three pages in, his phone had stopped buzzing. Richard finished the sandwich and the short story, and then tentatively turned over the phone to inspect the damage.
Honoria had now sent him forty messages, the last of which began with "Fuck this, I'm going back to therapy". The WhatsApp group was now on two hundred and six messages, a number of which - Richard skimmed quickly - seemed to have come from one of his evangelical cousins. A few of them had been added to the group in a fit of festive bonhomie a couple of years ago and never usually said anything, except when any Fitzwilliam had done something they considered unChristian. Since the immediate family included Honoria and Richard, respectively too gay and too bisexual for acceptability, Isadora, Honoria's soulmate, and Marjorie, who for some unaccountable reason would not resign her seat in Parliament and retire home to raise the kids she couldn't have, their charming cousins never had to look far to something to shout about.
Richard scrolled up until he thought he was going to sprain his thumb, and discovered to his surprise that his mild-mannered eldest brother Julian had originated the argument. Since Julian was seriously dyslexic, relied on autocorrect, and used both gifs and emojis with a virtuosity more usually associated with Carrie Fisher, Richard only understood the first sentence. It read I HAVE HAD IT WITH THIS SHIT.
Richard assimilated this, followed by the gif of a woman walking away from a burning car and a long string of emojis that included a lot of babies, and began to get an inkling of the issue. Instead of torturing himself by reading all the remaining two hundred and five messages, he muted the chat and opened Sybil's. It was commendably brief and straightforward, and had been sent at two in the morning, which was an occupational hazard of having a sister who ran a hotel in Tahiti; Sybil had gone travelling on her gap year, met her soulmate on a beach in New Zealand, and promptly moved back to Tahiti to help him run the family business. Richard often thought longingly of how much saner family life must be when you experienced it on the other end of a ten-hour time difference.
Marjorie is coming to stay, it read. Dad's been a bit much and she's really had it. Omai and I are treating her to a spa package with us. Julian's flying out later. If everything kicks off, ignore them. It's all okay!
She ended this message with an array of multicoloured hearts. Sometimes Richard thought Sybil was his favourite sister.
He checked Julian's message, just in case - this had been written in a calmer mood, going by the improved spelling and blurry selfie from the champagne and oyster bar of a large Heathrow terminal - and found it confirmed his suspicions. Julian had sent him the aforementioned selfie, a screenshot of his departure board with the flight towards Tahiti circled in rainbow colours, and the words:
Sorry for the (theatre mask emoji) i just can't stand b and watch them insulting them M anymore!! ITS NOT GER FAULT. I hope they choked on yet pamphlets!!!!
Autocorrect clearly hadn't had much luck with this one, but it was still easier to follow than the usual run of Julian's messages. Richard took another gulp of tea, re-entered the family chat, and scrolled back to Julian's original message. Just below it was a video, sent very late last night, presumably immediately before Julian's flight took off. Richard took a deep breath and pressed play.
The video began silently, with an unfocussed shot of Marjorie and Julian's kitchen sink. For some reason this had a Diptyque candle burning in it. Julian's hand appeared, bearing a sheaf of IVF leaflets - Richard sighed - and lifting them towards the camera. They went in and out of focus, but it was obvious what they were. One of them, Richard saw gloomily from the logo, was supported by a Christian organisation his mother had sat on the board of. One of her cousins still did.
On the screen, Julian lowered all the leaflets into the sink, and touched them one by one to the flames until they caught. It was a surprisingly slow process, but when they were all alight and burning merrily, Julian waved his middle and index fingers, and then his wedding ring finger, at the camera. Then the smoke alarm went off, spoiling the effect of the stern silence and crackling flames, and Julian said "Fuck!" very loudly and dropped his phone.
Richard sighed heavily and skimmed through Honoria's messages again, just in case there was something he'd missed that might have been covered by Honoria's rage précis. Once he'd stripped out several messages that were mostly keysmashing, and focussed on the distilled fury and dense analysis of the rest, he thought he had a pretty thorough picture of exactly what had happened.
Richard sighed again, and put his phone down. Strangely enough, his family had come up in therapy before, and Richard had a feeling he'd be talking about them again today, too. The therapist had used words like "seeking for acceptance" and "modelling others' wishes". Richard had been surprised to find that under tactful questioning he had admitted both to himself and to the therapist that he'd stayed in the army because his father looked at him as if he understood him again. That had been a rare and precious feeling since Richard had turned sixteen, and his revealingly ambiguous soulmark had pushed him into admitting he was bisexual long before he had been ready to come out. Assorted members of his family had been trying to talk him into one direction or another since that day, but most people had given up and dealt with it when he was in his mid-twenties. Not the Earl.
He hadn't given up on Marjorie's childbearing prospects either, which seemed to be at the root of today's melodrama smorgasbord.
The problem with the Earl of Matlock - one of several problems with the Earl of Matlock, if you asked Honoria, who had moved to be with Isadora in Glasgow for a very good reason - was that he was a convinced traditionalist. Largely politically liberal, and distinguished for that liberalism in the House of Lords, his belief in continuity was less obvious to the general public. That included the continuity of the earldom itself, which the Earl felt strongly should pass down through one of his sons. The fact that Honoria was easily the best suited to the time-honoured family sinecure of Unfireable Thorn In The Government's Side was acknowledged, but uneasily set aside. It was tradition. Which was why the Earl would have much preferred it if Bénet had been female, or (at the very least, and with a certain amount of harrumphing and reddening) if Richard and Bénet had been considering surrogacy to expand their family; it had been obvious even then that Marjorie was struggling to conceive. It was all academic now, since Richard and Bénet had broken up and both of them would have preferred adoption over surrogacy anyway, but it had happened.
The Earl also believed in soulmarks, which was why he had been so happy when Sybil had met Omai, Julian had met Marjorie, and (somewhat more grudgingly) Honoria had met Isadora. But he had some kind of hazy idea that soulmates should be able to procreate, and Julian insisted that he and Marjorie were soulmates and therefore - per the Earl’s thinking - they must be able to procreate. As a result, poor Marjorie had spent the last several years under siege from an ever-increasing barrage of unwanted medical advice, referrals, hints, and suggestions, often delivered by the Earl's female relatives who either agreed with him or weren't sharp enough to understand what was going on. Aunt Catherine, for instance, had been an enthusiastic participant, but Georgiana had become determinedly deaf, mute and stupid when the Earl tried to get her to say how much she would like a little cousin. And then, Richard remembered, had felt terribly guilty for not being able to defend Marjorie better.
Marjorie had tried all kinds of fertility treatments, Richard knew, including two excruciating cycles of IVF, and all she had got out of it at the last attempt was a heartbreaking miscarriage two months and twenty-seven days in. That had been only a few months ago, which was why Richard knew about it. He had lain in his hospital bed, floating in and out of a painkiller-induced doze, while Marjorie sat by his bedside and wrung the handles of her Furla handbags between her fingers, talking in a murmur barely audible above the machines monitoring his vitals. She had actually torn a strap once, which had roused him enough that he'd suggested a therapist. Marjorie, startled, had caught herself up on a false little laugh and said that she was just clumsy. In hindsight, perhaps Tahiti was overdue.
The Earl kept talking about how Julian had always wanted children. This was perfectly true. But since Julian would be thrilled to adopt, and in any case was deliriously happy volunteering, pottering through work on the complex Matlock estates, and being the perfect political husband to Marjorie while she extended her reign of terror to the entire House of Commons, why continue to provoke him?
The Earl didn't really know how not to, the same way he didn't know how to accept not getting the perfect children and perfect life he somehow felt he deserved.
Richard picked his phone up again, stifled a third sigh, and glanced at Honoria's last few messages. His father's outraged response to Julian flouncing out of the country on a first-class flight, followed by confusion as the family tried to dissect Julian's Cher-inflected hieratic, and then the intervention of the wretched bloody cousin sermonising about faults, sin, and marriage having been ordained for the procreation of children - which had made Honoria flare up like an grease fire with a lid clapped on it - accounted entirely for Richard’s unusual wakeup call. Richard just wished it could have been something a bit less personal, like England losing at the rugby. Not only was this enormously painful for Marjorie, who had done nothing to deserve the family she'd married into, it meant the Earl now watched him for grandchildren. The Earl had three already, and loved them all with undoubted sincerity, but it was painfully obvious to everyone that he specifically wanted his sons' children. To carry on his line. And he expected Richard, fresh off a (Richard winced) possibly career-ending injury and an agonising breakup, to find a nice girl somehow called Bennet and provide them.
Richard practised self-care by muting all the relevant WhatsApp chats, eating cake, and playing Tetris until he judged it was time to leave for therapy. He ordered himself a coffee on the way out, and stepped aside as a bickering family of women descended en masse on the delivery station, waiting for their own orders. A graduate from UCL, her mother, and some sisters, Richard deduced. One of the younger women was wearing a cap, gown, and martyred expression, and trying to explain her undergraduate thesis to her mother, who was teetering on a pair of high heels and straightening her rose-pink skirt, while occasionally interrupting the graduate to scold a different daughter for wearing trousers. They were pale chinos, tapered and cuffed at the ankle and paired with a sea-green blazer, and they looked perfectly smart to Richard, but the woman's mother was complaining bitterly that Lizzy, you never have any sense of occasion, look how Jane dresses -
"Matcha latte, soy milk flat white, Earl Grey tea with lemon, and - uh - double shot caramel mocha frappuccino, coconut milk, extra syrup?" interrupted Emily the barista.
The four women took their drinks and shuffled slightly to the side. Only two of them said thank-you.
"- no wonder you can't get a boyfriend," the woman in pink continued, "considering -"
"Mum, the last person I went out with was my cousin, and he didn't tell me it was a date until I showed up at his house and there were roses! I was trying to interview him!"
Richard tried to dodge past the woman in pink, who was between him and Emily, already holding his drink.
"William Collins is a very nice -"
"Black coffee for Fitzwilliam?" shouted Emily the barista, waving Richard's KeepCup desperately over the graduate's head. Richard twisted to lean over, and reached for the cup with his bad arm unthinkingly.
Richard's world was suddenly full of double shot caramel mocha frappuccino, coconut milk, extra syrup. He dropped his KeepCup, which splattered all over his shoes.
"Oh my God," gasped sea-green, as Richard sniffed and tried to get mocha frappuccino out of his eyes. "Oh my God, Mum."
"Bless you!" said the sister known as Jane. "You must have sneezed! What awful timing! You poor man, I'm so sorry. Mary, go and get Mum a tissue."
"Just do it, Mary."
"Oh my God," said sea-green, suddenly much closer. Richard squinted through the run-off, and saw that she was standing right in front of him, offering him a handful of napkins. "I am so sorry. Really, I am so sorry. Please let me replace your drink, uh - Fitzwilliam? And pay for your dry cleaning. I'm so sorry, I hope you don't have an interview or anything."
"It'll come right out, I'm sure," Richard said, with a confidence he didn't feel, cleaning off his face properly and dabbing at his jacket. Sea-green had lovely hazel eyes and she looked like she wanted the floor to swallow her up. "And it's actually Richard; Fitzwilliam is my surname."
"I'm Elizabeth," she said. She was blushing so hard her ears had gone pink. "Bennet. Elizabeth Bennet. And I definitely owe you a coffee."