Posted on: 2009-04-25
'The problem with the rat race is that, even if you win, you're still a rat' Lily Tomlin.
Sometimes I wonder at myself. I wonder at my intelligence, I wonder at my character, I wonder at my stupidity. And on the odd occasion I am even lucky enough to be able to wonder at all three at the same time. Like the day I met Elizabeth Bennet.
I suppose I should give you a bit of background info first. My name is Fitzwilliam Darcy and I am a biomedical engineer who started my own company. Sounds high and mighty, doesn't it? Actually, I make prosthetics and equipment for hospitals. Glorious job, producing catheter bags and prosthetic arms, but it is quite satisfying to see the kids at the local disabled school racing each other in my wheelchairs. Anyway, hence the 'biomedical' epithet to 'engineering.' But I digress. What was I saying?
Right, I was telling you about the day I was fortunate enough to doubt myself on all three accounts. Come to think of it, the accounts are exactly what got me into the situation in the first place. If it weren't for my delightful accountant barely even knowing what a balance sheet is, I would never have met Elizabeth. Not that meeting her was a bad thing, but if I hadn't, my life would have been nice and predictable, as I always intended it to be. But predictable is boring, right? Who wants predictable when you can have Elizabeth? I'm digressing again, aren't I? So let me start at the beginning, and hopefully progress in some sort of intelligible order.
It all started when my accountant, who was supposedly qualified in business, threw my company, BioWorld, out of the loop. Please don't comment on the name; my darling sister Georgiana came up with it. Anyhow, we ran into some major difficulties, partly because he knew nothing about his field, and partly because he knew even less about ours. So I got rid of my childhood friend George Wickham and started looking for a separate accounts firm to do our books, and a medically qualified business manager to work for us. Needless to say, I was being a bit over-ambitious. It was easy enough to find an accounts firm (my best mate Charles Bingley runs one), but to find a manager for us was another story entirely.
Eventually, three months later, a suitable candidate presented herself. Or should I say, a candidate that was suitable for the position--because she completely turned my life upside-down. Her name is Elizabeth Bennet. She is a trained ICU nurse, with an MBA (don't even ask! Who does a nursing degree, plus specialisation, and then goes into business? Only Elizabeth!) Anyway, when I saw her credentials, and I interviewed her myself, I snapped at the opportunity. As it turns out, she is the sister of my public relations officer, Jane Bennet. (I didn't even know Jane had a sister like that. The other three are a bit odd. Apparently Elizabeth has been doing humanitarian work for the UN for the past year.)
Elizabeth was given an office between mine and Jane's, and she set to work immediately. She found nothing wrong with anything, although she managed to make everything run like something else. She is spunky, lively and more than a bit cheeky, but she quickly developed a rapport with the entire staff, from the factory workers to the designers to me. She was everything I could have hoped for, although nothing I could have wanted. She was my right-hand woman, she was my rock, she was my conscience. She was also my fiercest opponent, and nothing I could do was good enough. I was slowly becoming enamoured of her, and it was abundantly clear that it was not mutual.
Those dreary 'executive' meetings became a blast. Jane would bake cookies, Elizabeth would make salad, and Bingley and I would supply pizza or pasta, depending on who was buying (if it was Bingley, it was pasta for Jane, and if it was me, it was pizza for Elizabeth.)
And to my great surprise, we started doing really well. Within a month our profits were up. Our new designs were sleek, efficient and well priced. We hired more designers. Bingley left his firm (after a fight with his sister and co-partner, Caroline) and came to work exclusively for us. Our cross-country branch became viable. And I was bitten by the bug. The 'I-have-to-have-more' bug.
They say that success breeds success. Well, I beg to differ. Success breeds the obsession for more success. I became a man possessed. Ignoring the blossoming romance between Jane and Bingley, I kept them both late, every single night, and then sent Bingley cross-country to supervise the other branch. I pushed the designers to the very edge of their capacity. I gave one of the receptionists a nervous breakdown. I worked from 7 till midnight, almost forgetting about my poor sister, a really scummy thing to do after what she went through last year. And I almost blew it with Elizabeth.
I should be completely embarrassed about this, but I'm not. I suppose that's because if I had not acted like such a donkey we would never have got to where we are. I mean, sometimes you just have to take a couple of steps back, out of the quagmire, before you can start going forward again, around it. So you'll be wondering what I did that was so obscenely horrific at the time but paved the way for progress?
I asked her out.
Shameful, isn't it? What? You think it's not so bad? Well, you're right. Asking a young woman out should be embarrassing at the most, but not catastrophic or revelatory. The problem was with the way I did it, you see. Instead of pandering and flattering, I insulted. I told her that I couldn't control myself any longer, and even though she was just my employee, I had to have some kind of relationship with her. I'm leaving out the most unflattering bits to protect my male ego, but I'm sure you can extrapolate a bit and get the general idea.
Anyhow, and I suppose this is the reason I was attracted to her in the first place, she threw it all straight back at me. She accused me of being every foul, disgraceful thing short of being an adulterer and a murderer. Elizabeth screamed at me for separating Bingley and Jane, knowing how they were just starting to date, and said I was thoughtless and inconsiderate. She attacked me for dismissing Wickham, and said I was thoughtless and inconsiderate. She yelled at me for becoming too absorbed in the business, and said I was thoughtless and inconsiderate. And then she did something amazing. She quoted.
She quoted Lily Tomlin, who said 'The problem with the rat race is that, even if you win, you're still a rat.' And just to rub it in, Elizabeth said she would never be seen with a rat.
I was hurt. I was offended. I was angry. I was indignant. I was shocked. I was concerned. I was humbled.
Because, when I actually thought about it during the several hours it took me to fall asleep, I realised that, as usual, she was right. And then I thought about her quote. I got out of bed (even though it was 2 am) and wrote it out (of course I remembered it). And if Elizabeth was right, which as I said is most of the time, then I had become a rat. I know that I'm not, but even a cursory look at my actions, all of them, showed that I was doing a very good impression of it.
So I sat up and wrote her a letter, explaining everything. I pointed out the fact that, while I didn't mean to cause anyone pain, Jane hid her emotions very well. I detailed my dealings with Wickham. I admitted that I had become caught up in the swell of success. I wished her well. Then I booked two tickets between here and cross-country: one there for me and one back for Bingley.
I spent three months cleaning up, sorting out, and trying to forget the woman who had the audacity to stand up to me. Surprise, surprise, I couldn't. Thoughts of her plagued my every waking moment. (I would say every sleeping moment, too, but I can never remember my dreams, so even though I'm sure they were about her, they don't count.) Everything I did was in the hope of one day becoming worthy of her. I worked like a monkey at BioWorld, but to make life easier for my employees. I went into special-needs schools and hospitals, trying to find what they really needed, rather than just what would bring us profit. I organised drives and funds, and donors who would help us provide equipment, far below cost, to third world hospitals. I spoke to my sister every day, even though we were a thousand miles apart. And I did it all picturing Elizabeth's smile.
Eventually I wore myself out. It wasn't the work that did it. I was well used to working hard for months at a time. It was my thoughts, and my endeavours to change myself, that finished me off. I didn't realise that self-evaluation could be so exhausting. And I certainly didn't think that picturing the most beautiful smile on the face of the earth could be draining. So I did the logical thing and took a break.
Once that was decided, there was only one place I could possibly go. Our family has a cabin in the mountains. We used to go there for a couple of weeks every summer, and for weekends during the year. It was far away from everything, except for a gorgeous, quaint little town. We used to hike the trails, swim in the lake and eat at the tiny restaurants. Then when mum and dad died, Georgie and I hid there every weekend for about two years. But the real world did eventually call us. She went to college, and I started BioWorld. Now we go there in the summer, and for long weekends, and it remains a retreat that is balm to my soul.
For some reason, this time was different. Well, not all that different. The cabin has always conjured up memories of our parents; happy, contented memories. It started with thoughts of dad. I remembered playing baseball with him in the yard. I remembered throwing pinecones for the cat to play with. I remembered eating in Maddy's. And then came thoughts of mum. I remembered walking the trails with her. I remembered the scent of her fresh-baked oatmeal cookies. I remembered learning to swim in the lake.
I started wondering if I would ever have children to share that with. I walked around the cabin, lost and confused in my place of safety. I ran my hands along the kitchen table, and felt puddles of milk from kids' cereal. I sat at the dining-room table and tasted fresh-caught fish. I lay on the couch and saw Barney on the TV. I walked into my own room and I smelled the scent of baby powder and shampoo. And I walked into the master suite and heard Elizabeth's laughter.
Suddenly, everything became clear. I saw my life through a new pair of glasses, one with Elizabeth emblazoned into the frame. Everything came into focus. I could feel her presence in every corner of the cabin, and I understood that she and I were inextricably linked. I just had to make her understand, too.
So with that resolve, I went to Maddy's for one last meal, convinced that the next time I went in there would be with her. I ate without really tasting the food, wondering instead what Elizabeth's favourite foods were. Would she like it here? Instinctively I knew that she would. She just belonged. I was so focused on the fact that she belonged there, with me, that I didn't even wonder at seeing her precious person in front of me. When I regained control of my faculties, I noticed that she was sitting with the proprietors, Maddy and Ed Gardiner. Maddy was like an aunt to me, so I ran over to say 'hi.'
It transpired that Maddy really is an aunt to Elizabeth. That should have been a good omen. Problem was that I wasn't really concentrating when I spotted her, so I didn't notice she was crying. I was already in front of then when I realised my error. But fate chose to work for me, not against me, for a change. As it turns out, she was crying over Wickham. That sounds terrible, doesn't it? No, Wickham had not done anything to hurt Elizabeth herself, but rather her silly sister Lydia. Lydia had been seeing Wickham without Elizabeth's, or Jane's, knowledge. They had been caught defrauding whatever unfortunate organisation he now worked for, and neither Elizabeth nor Jane had the money to bail her out.
Well, I am not the founder and CEO of a company for nothing. I did not study at Harvard for nothing. I did not move in the most powerful circles for nothing. Well, that's not completely correct. BioWorld, Harvard and high society did nothing to help me in this case. It was actually my cousin, Richard Fitzwilliam, who sorted it out. Good old Rich is a lawyer with rather extensive connections. In a moment of weakness I had already confessed my love for Elizabeth to him, so I thought it was only fair that I receive a little help in return for that privileged piece of information.
We found them, and, with Maddy and Ed's permission, I bailed Lydia out, although I left Wickham there to rot. Well, not rot exactly yet, but lie in his own bed for a bit. I warned Lydia not to breathe a word of it to anyone, and I returned to BioWorld, via the cabin to plan my strategy, of course.
I should have known not to trust Lydia to keep quiet. On my first day back, between congratulating Bingley and Jane on their engagement of the day before, Elizabeth made an appointment to see me. Why one of my senior executives made an appointment to see me, I have no idea, but she did. Bottom line is that she came to thank me for what I did for Lydia. As it happens, this did not suit me; I wanted to earn her love on my own terms, and my own merit, not because of her gratitude. So I told her so. And then the strangest thing happened.
She asked if I would be willing to meet her for dinner that night. Well, I was flabbergasted. I had expected to have to work for her approval, and here she was giving me exactly what I wanted. Well, not exactly what I wanted, because I won't deny that my objective was always to marry her, but a first step towards it.
So we went out for dinner. And we discussed everything that needed to be discussed, from her accusations to my letter, to everything before, after, and between. I can't even describe the relief I felt having it all out in the open, and peacefully, too. It sounds lame and corny, but when I looked into her eyes, I could see the baby that smelled of powder and shampoo, I could hear the laughter of the toddler watching Barney. My entire future was in those remarkably fine eyes. I would have been a fool to tell her so then, so I settled for asking her if we could go out again. We ended the evening at a small café with Bingley and Jane.
Once we established a rapport, it took almost no time for the relationship to take off. I introduced her to Georgiana and Richard, and she introduced me to the rest of her family. Dinner at my home was a regular event – Georgie, Elizabeth and Jane cooked while Bingley and I set the table. I had to ban her from my office except for lunchtimes and meetings, because we never got any work done. We discussed the 'ideal' number of children in a family. And within two months we were engaged.
That was more than a decade ago. We were married in a double ceremony with Bingley and Jane in the spring. Jane and Elizabeth both continued to work at BioWorld, until, within a month of each other, they both left on maternity leave. By then Georgie was qualified, so she stepped in. When Anne Bingley and Adam Darcy were born three hours apart, the whole of BioWorld shut down for a week because of the lack of executive staff. After that, the three of them seemed to take it in turns for maternity leave, much to my and Bingley's amusement and frustration.
My wife is an extraordinary woman, who has done many amazing things. Besides taming me, producing our four beautiful kids, and maintaining BioWorld, she started the 'Rat Race.' It happens every year on the anniversary of the first disastrous time I asked her out. I'm not being too clear, am I? It's a hospital bed race, and all the beds are donated to charity afterwards. Soon after our engagement, she shared her philosophy of life with me: 'Think of the past only if it gives you pleasure, or if it can be used to better the future.' She hijacked the first bit from the delightful Jane Austen, but the end is purely her own.
Well, my darling, armed with quotes from Jane and Lily, and of course, with your love, I'll never regress to being a rat again.