The Starter Marriage – Excerpt

Starter marriage: noun. A first marriage that lasts only a short time, does not produce children and ends in a clean divorce. (see also: starter home.)

Chapter One

When 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 when Barney 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.’

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