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First Friends
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First Friends

3.7 3
by Marcia Willett

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Cass and Kate meet at school--and are firm friends for the rest of their lives. Both marry naval officers, but Cass's infidelity has far-reaching consequences for her children--and Kate's. Many of the characters in First Friends (published in the UK as Those Who Serve) reappear in later Marcia Willett novels, and we meet their children as well. As


Cass and Kate meet at school--and are firm friends for the rest of their lives. Both marry naval officers, but Cass's infidelity has far-reaching consequences for her children--and Kate's. Many of the characters in First Friends (published in the UK as Those Who Serve) reappear in later Marcia Willett novels, and we meet their children as well. As always, Marcia Willett's wise understanding of love, loss, marriage, and parenthood is conveyed with honesty, generosity, and compassion.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
There's a solid story to be found in this novel, the first of Willett's 11-year career (in its first American publication), but there's also a lot of clutter. The book follows best friends Kate Webster and Cassandra Wivenhoe from 1964 to 1981, as they endure boarding school, the courtship of British naval officers and less-than-satisfying marriages. Willett details life for the navy wives while their husbands are at sea, fraught with loneliness, drab quarters, frequent relocations and even more frequent extramarital affairs (by sailors and spouses alike). Promiscuous Cass thrives in the arrangement, but Willett doles out punishment through the death of Cass's 15-year-old daughter-revealed in the prologue but unexplained until the end of the book. Staid Kate, meanwhile, remains true to her cruel, loveless husband, witnessing the infidelity of those around her. Willett has a tendency to tell certain dramatic scenes rather than show them ("By the time that it was all over-and just as dreadful as she feared-she was relieved to see him go back to sea"), which confuses and frustrates. (July) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt



The Isle of Wight, ghostly and featureless, seemed to float on a sea of liquid glass. A faint, thin pencil line of silver indicated the horizon where it merged with a sky of a uniform grey-white. There was a brightness, a gentle glow to the late-autumn afternoon, a promise of sunshine yet to be fulfilled. Kate, scrunching slowly across the beach at Stake’s Bay, was gradually adjusting to her new surroundings. Accustomed to the sandy beaches, rocky outcrops and towering cliffs of the West Country, these shingly flat shores and broad esplanades, with the worn stretches of grassed areas behind them, seemed tame to her. Even the behaviour of the sea itself was much more domesticated here. It lay placidly against the land, retreating calmly, advancing demurely, quite unlike its boisterous, wild poundings on the north Cornish Coast.

Kate glanced into the shelters that were placed at intervals along the esplanade. She was beginning to recognise the elderly regulars who sat there like so many spiders waiting to trap the unwary victim with friendly little nods and bravely pathetic smiles. They were lonely, of course, and so was she, but she knew that if she went too close she would be drawn in by the flying strand of a casual greeting and caught in a web of gently banal conversation which would wind inexorably around her independence, curtailing the freedom of her walk. Almost it was tempting. There would be a certain companionship in sitting idly, half anaesthetised by the gentle hum of reminiscences, knowing that any half-hearted struggles to escape would be obstructed by the sticky flow of talk flowing over and around her.

Kate hardened her heart and turned her head away. Her husband, Mark, had gone to sea for seven weeks and it was early days. Remembering all the advice and warnings that she had received from well-meaning friends on her wedding day nearly two months before, Kate stuck her chin out, thrusting her fists more firmly into her duffel coat pockets. She had no intention of admitting defeat and rushing home the first time that the submarine sailed although it would have helped to have known a few other people in Alverstoke before Mark had left. He didn’t know anyone either. How could he when he had come straight from Britannia Royal Naval College and Fourth Year Courses to HMS Dolphin, the submarine base at Gosport?

Watching the Isle of Wight ferry ploughing out from behind the sea wall, Kate let herself realise how much she missed her closest friend. Cassandra and she, both twelve years old, had first met at boarding school on the north Somerset coast on the edge of the Quantock Hills. The friendship had meshed smoothly and firmly at once. Kate, coming from a home overflowing with brothers, a sister and dogs and presided over by two loving generous parents, had listened, eyes stretched, as Cass, an only child, talked about nannies and Army quarters and her father—now a General—at his wits’ end after her mother’s death in a car accident.

‘Rumour has it,’ disclosed Cass, biting into a forbidden doughnut, ‘that she was eloping with her lover.’

Kate’s eyes grew rounder.

‘Gosh!’ she breathed. ‘But can you elope if you’re already married?’

Cass shrugged, the details were unimportant. She licked up some jam. ‘Ran away, then. Anyway, the car was a write-off. I can’t really remember her. I was only two.’

‘Your poor father.’

‘Devastated, poor old dear. And he simply doesn’t know what to do with me now I’m growing up. That’s why he’s sent me out here, to the back of beyond, for the next five years. He thinks I’ll be safe from temptation.’

Even the way she spoke the word gave it a flavour of excitement and promise. Something to be sought rather than avoided.

The five years had passed, punctuated with crushes on Cliff Richard and Adam Faith followed by agonising infatuations with other girls’ brothers. They had played lacrosse and tennis, rode and swum, passed examinations by the skins of their teeth, chaffed over puppy fat and spots and then, one day, they had woken up and it was all over. The schooldays that had stretched so endlessly ahead were now a thing of the past.

‘But we’ll stay in touch.’

They stood together in the study that they had shared for the last year, their things packed, shelves and desk tops emptied, and looked at each other.

Cassandra, blue-eyed, tall, full-breasted, her long fair hair twisted into a French pleat, was elegant in a cashmere twin set and a navy blue pleated skirt, pearls in place.

Kate grinned. ‘D’you remember sneaking out to see Expresso Bongo?’

‘And that year I got twelve red roses and a Valentine card from Moira’s brother and they were confiscated?’

They roared with laughter.

Kate, with her mop of unruly brown curls and grey eyes, was shorter and stockier than her friend and made no attempt at elegance. She wore honey-coloured tweeds; going-home clothes.

They hugged and hugged.

‘You must come and stay. We’ll have lots of fun.’

They separated. Cass went to her father’s flat in London for a year of relaxation and to think—very vaguely—about getting some sort of job. Kate went to her home in Cornwall to think—very reluctantly—about attending a course on cookery or shorthand typing. Both thought very seriously indeed about falling in love and getting married.

At a party barely a year later, Cass met Tom Wivenhoe, a midshipman in his final year at Britannia Royal Naval College, and shortly afterwards Kate received a telephone call.

‘S’meee. How’s the typing course?’

‘Awful. Terrible. How are you?’

‘Never better. Listen, I’ve met this smashing chap. Now! How about coming to the Summer Ball at Dartmouth? You know, the naval college.’

‘Are you serious? The tickets are like gold dust!’

‘Aha! Trust your Fairy Godmother. You shall go to the ball, Cinderella.’

‘But who shall I …?’

‘Tom’s got a friend called Mark Webster. His partner’s broken her leg or something and he’s at a loose end. He’s nice. Honestly. A bit quiet but tall, dark and handsome. What about it? We’ll book a double room at the Royal Castle. It will be just like school. What do you say?’

‘Oh, Cass . . .

A year later, after Fourth Year Courses and a continual round of balls, ladies’ nights and parties, they were both married; Cass and Tom in August with Kate as bridesmaid and, two weeks later, Kate and Mark, with Cass as Matron of Honour. In a rapture of white silk, the thunder of the organ in their ears and a vision of married bliss in their dazed eyes, they passed beneath the arches of naval swords and out into the sunshine of Happy Ever After.

On their return from honeymoon, Kate and Mark had moved into a furnished ground-floor flat in a lovely Georgian terrace in the village of Alverstoke, one road back from the beach. Kate had spent many happy hours making it as cosy and homelike as she could with their few possessions whilst Mark, now a Sub-Lieutenant of sufficient standing for the single gold stripe around each cuff to have lost its obvious newness, went daily into Dolphin to complete his submariner’s specialisation course.

Cass and Tom were in Alverstoke too. He was the only other married man on the course and he and Mark were drawn together, more by their newly-married status and the long-standing relationship between the girls than by any similarity of character or outlook. They started to adopt a more serious and responsible air than the rest of the course who were living in the Mess and whose main topics of conversation were still parties and girls and arrangements for drinking sessions in the pub in the evenings. The four of them often got together for informal suppers at Kate and Mark’s flat or at Cass and Tom’s cottage and sometimes met late on Sunday mornings in the Anglesea Arms for a pint. Tom and Cass often had other members of the course round at the cottage for curry suppers but when Kate tentatively suggested that they might do the same at the flat, Mark said that he had quite enough of them during the day, thanks very much and, although Cass and Tom seemed to have a great deal of fun, Kate was pleased that Mark seemed content with her company.

For Kate, being a naval wife was endowed with far more glamour and responsibility than being any other sort of wife except, perhaps, a doctor’s or a vicar’s. Her mother—and others—had warned her about the loneliness of her life to come, the difficulties involved in dealing with emergencies and moving households from one base to another, often all alone. She had felt pride that she would be ‘doing her bit’ and making sacrifices herself in order that Mark might do a demanding job involving national security whilst having the comfort and support of a home and family in the background to which he could return.

Even so, Kate was beginning to realise how very long a day could be. It was so difficult to spin things out. She had always been an early riser and found it impossible to laze on in bed in the mornings. She would deal with the solid fuel stove and take as long as she could over her bath and breakfast. If it was as late as half-past nine when she’d finished, she felt that she’d done well but there were still twelve long, empty hours to be filled before the bedtime routine could be embarked upon. She made so little work all on her own that after a while she tended to let things mount up so that the jobs seemed worth doing. Preparing food took minutes—it wasn’t worth cooking elaborate meals just for herself—and took even less time to eat and she spent every mealtime with a book propped up in front of her plate. She had mentioned the possibility of getting a part-time job when the boat sailed but Mark had vetoed that at once: he wanted a wife at home when the boat was in, not off somewhere, working. Surely she could cope for a few weeks alone? he had said. After all they’d see little enough of each other as it was. And Kate, anxious to pull her weight—and who, at that point, had never been alone in her life—agreed that she could manage perfectly well and shelved the idea of a job at once.

At the end of this course, Mark was appointed to one of the older conventional boats as Fifth Hand: Casing Officer and Correspondence Officer. It was a proud and a solemn moment—Real Life had started at last. Within a few weeks of Mark joining, the boat had sailed for Norway to ‘show the flag’. Tom’s career, thus far, had followed an identical pattern and when his boat had sailed for Middlesborough, Cass had hurried down to Devon to help her father, now retired, settle into his new home on the edge of Dartmoor.

Kate trudged on. Mark’s letters arrived intermittently and she learned that it was difficult to get letters away from a submarine unless it was in port. Occasionally a helicopter would rendezvous with the boat to collect and deliver mail and then there would be a letter from him telling her how much he missed her and how he was looking forward to coming home. He wrote very little about his life on board but Kate didn’t mind that. It was so lovely to hear from him, to see the envelope with the familiar handwriting lying on the hall floor. She would carry it with her when she went out, to read it over and over, sitting in one of the shelters on the front or in the little cafe in the village. It made her feel less lonely, as she watched other women gossiping with their friends over coffee, to bring out Mark’s latest letter to read yet again.

Coming back to the present, Kate realised that she was hungry and, turning her back on the sea, she headed for the road which swept along the sea front and curved back into the village. As she turned into the Crescent a small car passed her and pulled up at her gate. Kate quickened her step. The driver of the car was getting out, opening the gate and going in. It could have been a visitor going to one of the upstairs flats or to the basement but Kate prayed that it was someone for her. To talk to someone other than at a shop counter or on a bus would be bliss. She hurried up the road. Hearing the gate clang open, the woman glanced back. She was short and slight, with sandy feathery hair and a dusting of freckles on her pale, small-featured face. She wore sailcloth trousers and a jersey and to Kate’s nineteen years she looked very mature, twenty-eight at least.

‘Hi!’ She was turning back from the front door, smiling. ‘Could you be Kate Webster? Do say you are. Oh, good!’ as Kate nodded breathlessly. ‘My mission is to track you down and take you home to tea. I’ve only just heard about you.’ She made it sound as though Kate were a new species, just invented. ‘I had a letter from Simon this morning saying that no one knew you were here. It was too bad of Mark to go off like that without introducing you to the Wardroom but he’s a new boy so we’ll have to forgive him. I’m Mary Armitage.’

Kate was aware that her hand was being pumped briskly up and down and that Mary’s smile had a fierce frowning quality, rather quizzical and assessing. Behind this, however, she felt a real anxiety. Simon Armitage was Mark’s First Lieutenant and, if Kate knew that submarine Captains were God to their junior officers, she also knew that First Lieutenants were the Archangel Gabriel. She prayed that Mary wouldn’t want to come inside. Housekeeping had ceased to be important with Mark at sea and she could imagine Mary reporting the cobwebs, the pile of unironed clothes and the lack of cake or biscuits to Simon. Mary, however, was moving back down the path.

‘Can I carry you off with me? I’ve got to pick my son up from school and I daren’t be late. First term and all that. Then we can go home and have tea. I can drop you back later although, to be honest, you could walk it in ten minutes.’

Kate found herself in the car and being driven away, schoolwards.

‘This is very kind of you,’ she began, rather shyly. ‘I’ve been looking forward to meeting some other wives. I wasn’t sure if there were any living near the base.’

‘You poor child. You’ll soon learn the ropes.’ Mary, sounding like a very senior Girl Guide, patted Kate’s arm. ‘There’s lots of wives to meet, all like you with husbands away. No need to be lonely again.’


‘BUT, HONESTLY, CASS, THAT’S what she said. “Learn the ropes!” I thought: it’ll be tying knots next. It’s the way they talk.’

Kate’s relief at the sight of her old companion had been overwhelming. Cass and Tom were living in a tiny cottage near the church in the village and as soon as Cass had returned from Devon, Kate had rushed round to see her. Her new friends were very ready to integrate her into their society but Kate could already see a requirement to conform that was rather terrifying. The sight of Cass, piling a most unsuitable-looking tea—crisps, sausage rolls and shop-bought chocolate cake—on to the old deal table that was squashed into the corner of the sitting room, was immensely comforting. Kate thought of Mary Armitage’s home-made scones and cakes and jams and experienced a sense of release from pressure. Being with Cass was like taking off a tight corset or kicking off a pinching shoe.

‘I know exactly what you mean.’ Cass crammed some crisps into her mouth. ‘Tom says it’s a wonder that some of them don’t have stripes on their handbags. You know, the ones who start a conversation: “And what is your husband?” Not even “who” you notice. Oh, well. We’ll probably be just like them when we’re old.’

‘I hope not!’ Kate looked horrified. ‘What a terrible thought. I just wish there were more wives of our age.’

‘Tom and Mark have married very young. It’s not at all usual. Anyway, much more fun like this. Just think of all those spare men! What bliss when Tom’s at sea!’ Cass disappeared into the tiny kitchen to make the tea.

‘You’ve only been married five minutes.’ Kate leaned against the door jamb to watch her.

‘I know that, but you must remember the Navy rule. Be prepared!’

‘That’s the Boy Scouts.’ Kate wandered back, sat down at the table and took a sausage roll.

‘Oh, well. Same thing.’

‘You’re hopeless. And you’ve eaten all the crisps, you pig.’

‘I haven’t.’ Cass put the teapot on the table. ‘Here they are. Listen. It’s Happy Hour at Dolphin tonight. Why don’t we go along?’

‘What? Without the boys?’

‘Can’t go with them, can we, lovey? They’re hundreds of miles away.’

‘But we can’t just go on our own.’

‘ ’Course we can. Lots of wives were there on their own when we used to go with the boys. Why not? All their friends are there. That’s one of the good things about having Dolphin just down the road. It’s somewhere to go when the boys are at sea. Like the curry lunches they have on Sunday after church. Everyone understands if you turn up on your own. It’s what it’s all about. Like having a big family round you. I’m not going to start behaving like a nun just because Tom’s at sea.’

‘But will there be anyone we know now that the specialisation course is over? All the boys on the course have joined boats and none of them were married. Everyone will be terrifyingly senior.’ Kate was very sure that Mark would be deeply disapproving.

‘George Lampeter will be there for one. I saw him in the village. His boat is in for a few weeks, apparently. He told me that it would be fine. He’ll be coming for us later to take us in.’

‘Oh, well.’ Kate hesitated. George had been at BRNC with Tom and Mark and they were all good friends. Surely Mark wouldn’t object? The evenings were so long and empty and it would be rather fun.

‘Well?’ Cass raised her eyebrows. ‘Squared it, have you?’

‘Squared what?’

‘That terrible conscience of yours. It must be hell having to worry all the time. Thank God I haven’t got one!’

MARY ARMITAGE INSISTED THAT Kate come with her to meet the boat when, finally, it docked at Dolphin. By this time, Kate had discovered the hard way that an ETA was truly only an estimated time of arrival and not by any means something to be relied on. Much to her surprise and delight, she had learned that the submarine was due back on Mark’s birthday and had decided that she would make his homecoming very special indeed. On the day before he was due home, she walked into the village with the birthday supper shopping list: steak, mushrooms and a bottle of Mark’s favourite wine. She went into the butcher’s shop.

‘I’d like some fillet steak, please. Enough for two.’

‘Well, you’re going it, aren’t you?’ The butcher beamed at her, used to her orders for half a pound of mince, one lamb chop or a few slices of ham. He was a fatherly soul and always felt sorry for these young naval wives, miles from their homes and families, struggling to manage alone. He leaned across the counter, resting his weight on hands almost as red and raw as the meat in his window. ‘Celebrating, are you? Old man coming home?’

‘Yes. Tomorrow.’ She beamed back.

‘Been away long?’ He flopped the steak down, cut two thick slices and threw them on the weighing machine.

‘Two months.’ She tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her pride in managing for such a long time alone.

He winked at her as he passed her the parcel and her change. ‘Don’t go overcooking it,’ he said.

Back home, Kate put the food away and cleaned the flat thoroughly. She put clean linen on the bed and laid the fire in the grate in the sitting room. Like Cass, she only had this one big, elegant room but at least her kitchen was big enough to eat in. For this occasion, however, Kate polished the big mahogany table in the sitting room and went to find her candlesticks. When everything was ready, she bathed and washed her hair and then wandered from room to room wondering if she’d forgotten anything.

She went to bed early to lay awake almost sick with excitement. She felt terribly shy at the thought of seeing Mark again. It was as if he had become a stranger to her and she could hardly bring his face to mind. She remembered their first meeting in the bar at the Royal Castle in Dartmouth when he and Tom had arrived to escort them up to the College for the Ball. They had looked so formal and glamorous in their Mess Dress uniforms. Mark had gone to get drinks and Tom and Cass had chattered away like old friends. Kate thought that Mark, with his tall, sleek, dark good looks, was much more dashing than Tom who was short and solid and whose brown hair was thick and tended to curl. Mark was much the quieter and more serious of the two and Kate felt rather flattered that he should find her interesting. Having been through three years of military training, these young men seemed years older than their contemporaries in civilian life. Her subsequent meetings with them underlined this impression although never in the year before their marriage did Kate spend enough time with Mark to enable her to discover what lay beneath the veneer that the Navy had given him. She and Cass had been to balls and parties, all imbued with an aura of glamour and a sense of sacrifice and even danger. They were so proud to accompany these young men who were prepared to give their lives for their country.

Meet the Author

Born in Somerset, in the west country of England, Marcia Willett was the youngest of five girls. Her family was unconventional and musical, but Marcia chose to train as a ballet dancer. Unfortunately, her body did not develop with the classic proportions demanded by the Royal Ballet, so she studied to be a ballet teacher. Her first husband was a naval officer in the submarine service; their son, Charles, is now married and a clergyman. Her second husband, Rodney, himself a writer and broadcaster, encouraged Marcia to write fiction. First Friends is the first of several early novels published by Thomas Dunne Books; her more recent novels include A Week in Winter, A Summer in the Country, The Children's Hour, and The Birdcage.

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First Friends 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous 5 months ago
Wish Barns@Noble would have all of her books. This was one of the 1st that start with the 2 friends Kate@Cass. They're mentioned in other books but each book stands on its own. If you loved Maeve Binchy or Rosamund Pilcher then you will love Marcia Willett. Give anything to find more authors like them. All they're books are like old friends, read them over and over.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In 1964 twelve year old Kate and Cass met at boarding school on the Somerset coast. They became friends sharing secrets, desires, and heartache over the years. Both wed British naval officers, but hate their unfulfilling marriages especially with their spouses at sea for long periods as life at home is dull and frequent affairs is the norm. Cass cherishes finding a new hunk while Kate remains faithful but unhappy.--------------- However, in 1981 Kate attends the funeral of Cass's fifteen years old daughter Charlotte that shakes both women to their core. Both feel guilty over the teen¿s death that may be the end of a seventeen year best friends¿ relationship as secrets are revealed about who slept with whom.---------------------- FIRST FRIENDS is a fascinating look at British military spouses, who stay behind with the children while their mates are off on military ventures that are often dangerous. The story line is driven by the two best buddies whose husbands¿ careers force them to constantly relocate and leave them lonely. How they react to their similar situations makes for an insightful look at the sacrifice of military families. Though lacking in any major excitement even with the death of a teen hanging over the entire novel and readers wanting to know what happened to cause Charlotte¿s demise, Marcia Willett provides a strong character study that spotlights the military family.-------------- Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago