Sometimes the end is just the beginning…
If she tries very hard, Ami can remember when she used to have a dynamic and exciting career and a husband who she loved more than life itself, and who was equally smitten with her…
Now she has two children, a terrifyingly large mortgage, and no idea who she has become – or why she and her husband can’t even be in the same room anymore.
With life as she knew it in tatters around her, Ami is heartbroken, and in no way pulling off ‘consciously uncoupling’ like a celeb. But she’s starting to wonder if she just might come out the other side and be… happier?
As funny as Helen Fielding, as poignantly touching as Marian Keyes, Fiona Perrin’s dazzling debut is a story that is as much about finding out who you really are again, as it is about the exhausting balancing act of motherhood. Unmissable for women everywhere.
Fiona was a journalist and copywriter before building a career as a sales and marketing director in industry. Having always written, she completed the Curtis Brown Creative Writing course before writing The Story After Us.
As a mother and stepmother to four teenagers while holding down a fairly full-on job, she wanted to write grown-up commercial fiction about messy, modern love and families – with all their heartbreak, humour and hope.
She grew up in Cornwall, hung out for a long time in London and then Hertfordshire, and now she writes as often as possible from her study overlooking the sea at the end of the Lizard Peninsula, back in Cornwall. She’s currently there, writing her second novel for Aria.
Lars left me late on a Sunday afternoon in January. He threw a couple of bags into his car and drove off with a puff of smoke that could have been drawn by Walt Disney.
I stood at the top of the steps of our north London house as he disappeared around the corner of the road. I felt as if I were looking down at a sobbing thirty-seven-year-old brunette rather than that I actually was her. There was an overwhelming sense that, after ten years, it was Just Me Again.
But, of course, it wasn’t – now I had the kids. I rushed inside and threw cold water over my face at the kitchen sink, drying myself with a tea towel before I opened the door of the playroom. Four-year-old Finn and six-year-old Tessa were sitting on the sofa, frightened by the rowing and confused by the fact that they were allowed to watch a DVD when the rule was only an hour of screen time a day and that was when I needed to moan and drink wine.
‘Is everything OK, Mummy?’ Finn asked, walking over to kiss me. ‘Jemima’s coming to my party on Saturday. She’s my girlfriend and so is Tallulah. I’m going to marry both of them.’
‘You can only marry one person,’ scoffed his sister. ‘Can’t you, Mummy?’
‘Well,’ I said.
‘Except for Henry VIII,’ said Tess, whose special topic at school this term was the fat, monastery-burning Tudor. ‘When he went off his wives he chopped off their heads. You could chop off Jemima’s head and then marry Tallulah.’
‘But Jemima’s got lovely yellow hair,’ said Finn, clutching me.
‘You’d still have her hair if she was dead. You could keep her head in a corner.’
‘That’s enough, Tess.’ My daughter’s current favourite game was burying dolls in graves in the back garden and topping them with twigs. She also spent quite a lot of time on the floor pretending to be a corpse.
‘Daddy might not be back in time for your party,’ I said in a mock-cheerful voice. ‘He’s got to go away for work again.’ In fact, Lars missing his son’s birthday party had been the reason we’d had the enormous row that afternoon when he’d said he was leaving me and our marriage for good.
‘Oh dear,’ said Finn, who was very used to his father being away for his web business.
‘Can we watch another DVD?’ said Tess, who could spot a weak chink in adult armour a mile off.
I put my head into Finn’s neck so that they couldn’t see my face. ‘Yes,’ I said. How would they cope if we really were getting divorced? I worried so much about the impact all our recent rows were having on them; Tess was already really macabre and splitting with her father for good could only make that worse.
I wanted to crawl under my duvet and stay there in the foetal position, but it was approaching Sunday evening. I needed to do what every other family was doing: find PE kits, pack lunches, move miserably towards Monday while still mourning Saturday.
I rang Liv. ‘It’s the worst row we’ve ever had,’ I said, ‘and he says he’s divorcing me.’ She immediately said she’d come round. Then, like a robot, I made fish fingers, gave Tess and Finn a bath, packed their school bags, put them to bed and read them The Cat in the Hat, making an extra effort with my snarky Cat voice.
‘It’s you,’ I said. ‘Thing One and Thing Two,’ and they giggled. After that I poured myself a giant glass of red wine and waited for Liv on the sitting-room sofa, rocking back and forwards, as I relived the last few hours.
‘That’s it. We’re getting divorced,’ Lars shouted. It was raining outside. He stuffed paperwork – bills, bank statements – from the kitchen dresser into a bag. I wanted to pull his shirt, tug him so he couldn’t move any more, but instead I just stood and cried.
The argument started because Lars claimed that I hadn’t told him the right date of Finn’s birthday party until it was too late to reorganise his trip to Russia.
It could, however, have been about anything – our arguments had been getting worse over the last few months, despite our going to marriage guidance counselling. They were always about one thing: how Lars spent so much time away for work and less and less time with us, his family.
I knew I’d told him about the party being on the afternoon of Finn’s birthday on Saturday. And why was it my job to remind him of stuff like that anyway?
‘I thought it was on the Sunday and I was going to be back for his birthday evening on Saturday. It’s obviously a mix-up but it’s too late now,’ Lars said. ‘I’ve got to go to Russia.’
‘But we’ve got the Animal Man coming and we’ve sent out all the invitations.’
‘Who’s the Animal Man?’
‘Who do you think he is? He’s a man with animals. Guinea pigs, God knows. He’s the entertainer.’ I sat down at the kitchen table and put my head in my hands. Then I took a deep breath. ‘Are you going to tell Finn?’
‘I’ll tell him the trip’s been booked for weeks and at least he’ll understand. Which is more than you do.’
‘It’s your son’s fifth birthday, Lars. For once, please put your family first. Come to his birthday party.’
‘I’ll be there as soon as I get back from the airport. I’ll still see him on his birthday.’
‘The party will be over by then.’
‘Ami, he’ll have other birthdays, with bigger and better parties. I’ll be at those instead.’
‘The trouble is you know damn well you won’t. You should stop pretending you’ll ever change because we both know it’s bullshit.’
My marriage had turned me into a person who spat out bile like rancid water from a gargoyle. Loving him so much had turned me into someone hateful.
‘That’s it,’ he shouted. ‘I’ve had enough. You go on and on about how bad your life is – so let’s just forget it, shall we? We’ll get divorced and you won’t have to tell me how awful I am to this family all the time.’
We’d both used the ‘D’ word before in the heat of the moment, but still it seemed impossible to me that it would ever happen.
‘How can it be a family when you’re hardly here?’ I whispered. ‘Even when you’re here you’re somewhere else in your head.’
‘I’m thinking about a future for you and the kids. But that’s not good enough for you, is it?’
‘What I want is for us to be equal. I’ve got a business to run too.’ That Monday, I was booked to see the finance director of the tiny advertising agency I’d set up the previous year and I knew he was going to tell me that my balance sheet was looking decidedly unbalanced.
I asked, ‘Lars, do you still love me?’ but he didn’t answer, just ran up the stairs two at a time and threw his clothes into suitcases. I thought I could cope with most things, but I didn’t know whether I could face the fact that he no longer loved me.
He turned from the open wardrobe door and said very quietly, ‘It’s not about whether we love each other any more – that’s not enough.’ This was somehow worse than shouting.
‘Please don’t go,’ I said, following him to the bedroom doorway. I hated myself for my lack of dignity in begging him to stay.
‘I can’t stand it – all we ever do is argue.’
‘We can try…’ I couldn’t carry on with this half-a-marriage, but could I stand to see him finally go?
‘We’ve tried everything.’ His voice was as wintery as the day outside. ‘It’s time to stop trying. I’m leaving, Ami, and I’m leaving for good.’
He said it firmly, as he always did when he’d made a decision.
He carried the bags outside and into the boot of his car, light semi-frozen rain coming down on his white-blond hair so that it stuck to his face. Then he opened the car door, jumped in and drove off.
He was gone and this time it looked as if there was no going back.