Tess Leonard thought her marriage vows to Barney were for life. But when he leaves her for a busty young secretary, Tess realizes that she needs to rethink her idea of happily-ever-after.
Tess is falling apart-until she sees a life raft on the horizon. It's called the Divorce Survival Class-something like boot camp for the broken-hearted. As Tess gets to know her classmates-and their Machiavelian tutor, William-she sees that life will always continue to move forward. As William leads them through bizarre yet effective methods for healing their broken spirits, the entire group begins to believe again in the one thing they all long for-love.
About the Author
Kate Harrison was born in Wigan, England. She has worked as a reporter for the national tabloids, and as a researcher, correspondent, and producer/director for the BBC. She now lives in London and works for a team that comes up with new ideas for television. She also writes for several women's magazines and websites.
Read an Excerpt
The Starter Marriage
By Kate Harrison
Ulverscroft Large PrintCopyright © 2006 Kate Harrison
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen Barney came into the kitchen on Boxing Day and told me he was leaving me for his secretary, I didn't cry. I didn't cling on to his ankles, begging him to stay. I didn't attack him with the Le Creuset pan I was drying at the time (the thought did occur to me but it was part of a set of five my parents bought us as a wedding present and a gap in the display rack would have added insult to injury).
All I said was, 'Let's try to make sure things don't get messy.'
He laughed, a dry, coughing sound that made me wince. 'No, of course not. There'd be nothing worse for Tip Top Tess than to make a mess, would there?' And he left the room and the house and our marriage. I finished drying the pan and hung it up before I burst into tears.
Tip Top Tess. It's not a sexy nickname, but it is accurate and if wanting things to be neat and tidy is my only fault, I don't think I'm doing too badly. I give to charity, I'm kind to animals and small children and I remember all my friends' birthdays. Since when has tidiness been a crime?
So when I spent the first New Year's Eve of my life alone, my resolution was to avoid nastiness, to stay as civilised and proper as I would in any other situation, to keep things shipshape. Ready for whenBarney came back.
And, as far as my nearests and dearests are concerned, I've been pulling it off. Somehow I've managed to maintain the status quo, or at least the illusion of the status quo, for five months.
Only I know how far I've slipped. Until tonight. Then the doorbell rings and it all falls apart.
I tiptoe into the hall and peer through the spyhole. Mel's face looms up at me, distorted by the fisheye lens so she looks all eyes and nose ... exactly the features I don't want scrutinising my current living arrangements.
I wonder if she's seen me through the glass panel? I'm trapped now, unable to escape upstairs in case she catches a glimpse of movement and realises I'm here. Maybe if I crouch down behind the door and wait, there's a chance she might leave. No harm done.
The reproduction Edwardian bell rings again and I feel the reverberation through the wooden frame. Of all my friends, Mel is the least likely to give up easily. After fifteen years as a reporter, she's used to hanging about on doorsteps, playing cat-and-mouse with the criminals or adulterers inside. They always break before she does.
She sticks her hand through the letterbox, so I try to manoeuvre my body out of range. This means crouching down even further so that my head is on my knees and I get a close-up view of the carpet. It's worse than I thought. There are grey clusters of dust gathered like storm clouds at the edges of the skirting board and a pair of worn tights under the console table. She definitely can't come in.
But my faint hope that she might still get bored and settle for leaving a note is dashed when she screams 'HONEY! I know you're in there! You forgot to turn the telly off.'
Oh God. The duh-duh-duh of the EastEnders theme tune booms from the living room, reinforcing my basic error. I feel like a character in a French farce, playing hide-and-seek with my best friend, only I don't feel any urge to laugh. Crying seems the more appropriate response, but my biggest fear is that if I start, I will never stop.
'Come ON, Tess!' she shouts. 'I'm not going anywhere so you might as well open the door.'
My legs are aching now: I might have had a chance of sitting, or rather crouching it out before Christmas, when I was going to step classes three times a week and had thighs of steel. But then again, before Christmas I had no need to avoid Mel or anyone else.
On my hands and knees I reverse away from the door as far back as the stairs, stand up and then pound loudly on the bottom step as if I'm walking down. I put the security chain in place, take a deep breath and finally open the door a few inches.
'About bloody time! What the hell have you been up to in there?'
'Um ... Sorry, I was in the bath.' She stares at me through the gap in the door. I'm still wearing my work clothes, there are biro marks all over my hands and my hair hasn't been washed in a week.
'Really?' She says. 'Well, now you're out of the bath, don't keep me standing here like a door-to-door salesman. I've brought a bottle of wine.' She waves an Oddbins bag at me.
'It's not a good time.'
'Don't be daft, honey. I'm fed up with you not returning my calls so I thought it was time to take affirmative action.'
'Honestly, Mel, I'm not in the mood ... I appreciate the gesture, but why don't we arrange to go out next week instead?'
'What, so you can cancel on me again?' Her face takes on the same determined expression she used to adopt on anti-apartheid demonstrations when we were students. She was always getting arrested, though I never was: a bolshie busty black woman is bound to attract more attention from the cops than a tidy, skinny white one. 'No way. I am going to stay here until you let me in.'
'Give me a second,' I say, pushing the door to, while I consider my options. They're not exactly promising. If I let her in, she'll see the shocking state of my house and, by implication, the even more shocking state of my mind. But if I leave her outside, it'll give the neighbours something extra to gossip about. I'm sure it's only a matter of days before they present me with a petition about the height of the weeds in my tiny front garden. Victoria Terrace is that kind of street. I can't afford to give the Residents' Association any more reasons to complain ...
'OK, you win.' I fiddle around with the chain, before opening the door. The sunlight illuminates a million dust particles in the hall: I dread to think what it's doing to my poor, tired face. As Mel steps into the hall, I brace myself. 'Don't say I didn't warn you.'
'About what?' She says, then stops short, looking around in confusion, as though she's walked into someone else's house. 'What the hell's happened to Tip Top Tess?'
I've been wondering the same myself. My latest theory is that my alter ego slipped away with Barney - since he walked out with his suitcases, simply existing has taken all my energy. There hasn't been any left for the housework.
But there's a difference between a dim awareness that I might have let things go, and seeing the reality through someone else's eyes. Which is why I've let nobody across the threshold for five months.
'Mel, it's not as bad as it looks, it's just I haven't had much time lately to do the housework, but -'
'I had no idea things were as bad as this ...'
'Yeah, it's a bit depressing, I grant you. But, look, as you've come over, why don't we go out, grab a pizza?'
'Not till I've had a proper look,' she says, stepping cautiously over the piles of project work and free newspapers I've allowed to build up in the hall. To my worn-out mind, it's a logical place - handy for me to grab what I need before heading to school, and close to the recycling box I keep by the porch. Except I haven't got round to recycling since ... well, since Christmas. 'At least now I can see why you haven't invited me round to supper for a while.'
I dash ahead of her to close the door to the kitchen. The mess in there makes the hallway look like Buckingham Palace. 'Well, I haven't really been up to a six-course dinner party.'
The living room presents the next logistical problem. Every surface is covered in stuff. These days I tend to slump onto a floor cushion as soon as I get home, but it wouldn't be polite to expect a guest to do the same. I calculate instantly that the armchair will take the least time to clear. It's only holding a few dozen Sunday supplements and an empty pizza box. At least, I hope it's empty. The sofa is a different story, the tan leather barely visible under crisp packets and clothes and exercise books and unopened post. And as for the coffee table ...
Mel pulls the tissue-wrapped bottle of wine out of the bag. 'I think it's time we had a little chat.'
My heart beats faster. Will I be able to track down two clean glasses anywhere in the house? Perhaps the tooth mug will do for me, the one Barney and I brought back from Corfu in 1994 because its cobalt blue sheen reminded us of the painted houses. It might look a bit less decrepit than the chipped black enamel camping beaker I've been using for all forms of liquid refreshment, from morning coffee to evening whisky nightcap.
Who am I kidding?
I scrunch the blue tissue paper into a loose ball, and bounce it towards the gap under the sofa. Now I've given in to slob-dom, I must confess there is the occasional frisson of pleasure to be had from adding to the chaos.
'Nice wine,' I say, reading the label. I retrieve the corkscrew from under an upturned foil box that once held chop suey. In the midst of the chaos, I've developed a kind of radar which means I can always locate my Waiter's Friend. The same applies to my other lifeline, the TV remote. I use it now to mute the ever-whinging cast of EastEnders and pass Mel the corkscrew. 'Back in a sec.'
It does pong a bit in the kitchen. I never quite got round to taking the rubbish out last week and this is the hottest room of the house. It's still only May but the slight whiff of sweet decay propels me back to the summers of my childhood, when the days were long, the tar melted beneath our feet, and the binmen went on strike.
There's bird shit splashed all over the window, just below the Perspex feeder that's attached to the glass with suckers. The few remaining seeds in the tray have sprouted spindly yellow shoots, like an experiment I'd do with the kids on photosynthesis. No wonder my feathered friends have taken out their frustration in a dirty protest on the decking. Judging from the kaleidoscope of different coloured droppings - black, green, mulberry-red - Spring has been and gone.
Some people wouldn't bat an eyelid at this level of mess, but for me it's damning evidence of my failure. I can't manage to keep my house tidy, never mind hang onto my husband. And worse still, I can't ever imagine having enough energy to clear up again.
I deserve a stroke of luck, and at last I get one: there's a clean glass right under my nose, the one I got as a free gift for buying six bottles of Grolsch in the supermarket last weekend. The beers are long gone - the empty bottles glint in the sunlight as they wait to make the perilous journey to the recycling basket all of six metres away in the hall - but I hadn't needed the glass because I'd drunk the contents straight from the chunky bottle necks.
I shut the door behind me again. Mel will never have to see the kitchen if I'm careful. If we need more booze, all the spirits are in the dining room, in what Barney used to call the drunks' cabinet. Food? I've got a collection of takeaway menus, which have the spooky ability always to rise to the top of the clutter in the living room, the same way scum always rises to the surface of a pond. The grease-marked photographs of pizza and curry tempt me night after lonely night, and my skin is suffering, pimples on top of my freckles, but what difference does it make? If anyone but me has noticed the state of my complexion, they haven't mentioned it. Perhaps they're just being kind.
By the time I return from my sortie to the upstairs bathroom to collect my tooth mug, Mel has opened the Chianti. I hold out the mug - hoping she wouldn't notice the minty scum that a quick splash under the hot tap has failed to shift. 'Like being a student again, eh, Mel?'
'You were never like this as a student.'
The main problem with my best friend is that she's always right. The compulsion to keep mess under control started early for me, my plastic work tray in infants school was always beautifully neat, the pencils sharpened to the same length, felt tip pens arranged in the order of the colours of the rainbow. Tess is the most methodical child in her class, my teacher wrote in my first ever report.
Now I have a classroom of my own and it is the tidiest in the school. I'm not obsessive about it. A group of 23 ten-year-olds will always cause a certain amount of disarray and it doesn't phase me when a field trip or an art session degenerates into an all-round dirt or paint fest. But I love the feeling when we restore order, the transformation of a squirming mini-bus full of energy and mud into a semi-circle of calm and concentration, gathering round me on the floor to listen to a story. They might be nearly ready to move to secondary school, they might be more used to the instant gratification of Playstations and X-boxes at home. But this is my gift to them - the ability to be quiet AND enjoy it. A lifeskill, if you like, and one their parents thank me for. Self-control is an asset as far as I'm concerned.
'Well, maybe it was about time I let go a little, you're always telling me to chill out.'
'This isn't chilling out ... it's giving up the ghost. I mean, this is no worse than my place. You know, I'd live in a pigsty quite happily. But not you, honey. You should have said something. Asked me for help.'
But when you're the kind of person who only ever gives help, asking for it feels like an admission of failure. The only time I considered it was when I had that letter from Barney's solicitor and realised that I would need to engage one of my own. The first thing we could never share. The obvious solution was to call our university chum Sara for advice: she's always telling us that she's the best family lawyer in Birmingham. But asking one of our oldest friends to play piggy in the middle, seemed more likely to increase the mess and that was the last thing I wanted. Though I was hurt that she never called me to offer ...
The lawyer I picked from the Yellow Pages had a box of tissues on her desk, and tried to encourage me to 'let it all out.' She didn't seem to understand that spilling my guts in her burgundy leather-lined office would, for me, be as humiliating as appearing naked in assembly. Not to mention the fact that she'd be charging #150 an hour plus VAT for the privilege of listening. She'd suggested mediation, but that sounded even messier. So now Barney and I are in legal limbo, neither of us making the first move. And while part of me hopes that's a good sign, the organised side of me thinks it might be easier when everything's done and dusted. Especially dusted.
'I didn't think I needed any help.'
'What, you hadn't realised that you've turned into a candidate for those two battleaxes on How Clean is your House?'
'It's a gradual thing ...' I say. 'An untidy house is the least of my worries and anyway, how could I ask for help when there's nothing anyone can do?'
'The hoovering would be a start.' She smiles at me, and I try to smile back. The muscles in my face feel brittle, as if they might snap from this unfamiliar movement. Mostly these days I don't change my expression at all, it feels too much effort. Why pay for Botox when splitting up can paralyse your forehead for free? Only it hasn't made me look youthful. Instead, everything is slumped, like a stroke victim with the dubious good luck of finding that both sides have been rendered equally droopy.
I suppose that's the difference between a broken heart at 15 and a broken heart at 35. The elasticity has gone. Maybe my ability to bounce back has gone too.
We sit there for a while in silence. I don't do silence any more. The radio or TV always has to be on, voices in every room. Aural clutter, glorified white noise to stop me thinking about anything more meaningful than a soap opera storyline.
I go over to the stereo, open the CD tray to see what's in there. Something mournful by Annie Lennox. I swap it for the new Coldplay album that Barney overlooked when he separated our music collections. That must have been a hard task. We'd been together so long that it'd never occurred to me whose musical taste was whose. It was a joint thing, a shared consciousness. Only the techno stuff was obviously his, the most recent arrivals and the first manifestation of the fact he was changing ... I should have noticed that too.
I never, ever thought of myself as smug, but looking back on things now, I was insufferable. We both were. Joined at the hip from the unnaturally early age of 19. Mel called us the Siamese twins. Which we pretended to find irritating but would laugh about in bed when we got home from the pub, before falling asleep lying like the brand-new blue-handled spoons in our cutlery drawer.
'You shouldn't have cut yourself off from everyone, Tess. So many people care about you, but you have to open up, show us you need us.'
Excerpted from The Starter Marriage by Kate Harrison Copyright © 2006 by Kate Harrison. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Kate Harrison's The Starter marriage is a cute chick lit read about a divorcee's survival. This is a book about learning from your past and making a better future for yourself! This is my first book by the author, and I would like to get into her first novel as well. The characrters are fun, and the plot is very good. I would recommend it to all woman! Especially woman that are going through rough patches!
If you like the latest entries into the starter wife/genre, this is a good summer read. Tip Top Tess is coping with divorce from her lawyer husband who is leaving her for his secretary. While this is a fairly tried and true theme, the writing is lively and the characters interesting.