Elizabeth Buchan

Separate Beds

Elizabeth Buchan - Separate Beds

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Tom and Annie’s children have grown up, the mortgage is do-able and they’re about to get kitchen make-over. Life is good-or so it seems. Beneath the veneer of professional success and domestic security, their marriage is crumbling, eaten away by years of resentment, loneliness, and misunderstandings, and they’ve settled into simply being two strangers living under the same roof.

Until the economy falls apart, and suddenly their lives are upended when Tom loses his job.

As their world shrinks, Tom and Annie are forced closer together. For the first time in years, their home is filled with people, conversation, tears – and laughter. Is it possible, they ask themselves, to start again?

Read An Extract

“What’s this?”

Tom had returned home from the unsuccessful job interview, which had left him twitchy and humiliated, and was arrested in his tracks by the sight of a new, alarmingly expensive range cooker preening itself in the kitchen.

He dumped his briefcase on the table with a bang. “Annie, have you gone mad?”

Annie half rose from the table where, if he knew anything, she had been waiting for the storm to break. “I think I might have.”

“I thought we agreed . . . all the plans for the new kitchen were to be canceled. You said you’d done it.”

“We did. I did.”

“Well, that didn’t arrive here because it just felt like it.”

“They wouldn’t take the cancellation for the cooker. It was either that or forfeit the deposit.”

Tom glared at the cooker, which appeared to stare back, an assured arrangement of cooktops, ovens, and warming trivets. “You had plenty of time to tell me. Yes? More than enough time to beard me, the unthinking, uncaring dragon, in my den. The unemployed dragon. For God’s sake, you must have taken time off work.”

“Yes. But I also made the decision not to waste our deposit.”

“Are you sure? Wasn’t it that you wanted the cooker?” Tom kept his tone even.

“I wanted it, did I?” A dangerous look flew into Annie’s eyes.

She was clearly taken aback by the accusation, and he went in for the kill. “How much?”

She named the sum, and the breath whistled out between his teeth.

He bent down to examine a couple of scratches that had occurred during installation on the cupboards flanking it.

“It was a lot of money to throw away,” Annie had also modified her tone, “at any time . . . but especially if you haven’t got a job.”

“Throw that in my face, too.” He straightened up. “Go on.” He moved over to the sink and ran himself a glass of water. “This should have been a joint decision.”

“I suppose so,” she said indifferently, twisting her mother’s diamond ring around her finger. It was an old habit she indulged when she was tired-or at bay. “But I know you’ve got a lot on your plate.”

He pointed to the ring. “Bad night?”

She held his gaze, and the unhappiness in her gray eyes had never been so marked. “As it happens, yes.”

“Oven on your conscience?”

Annie spread her hands flat on the table. The ring glittered and she seemed totally absorbed in its beauty. “And who didn’t warn me that you were frightened of losing your job? Who went to see the financial consultant without me?”

“Okay. Okay. I was out of order.”

He inspected the cooker more thoroughly, and fiddled with a couple of the knobs. “You know, they never paint on the markings with long-lasting paint. It’ll wear off.”

“Is that so?”

He turned on one of the cooktops and a hollow popping noise filled the hush. “I haven’t told you things because you were unapproachable,” he confessed. “I didn’t want to worry you. You were so busy with the hospital.”

“I’m sorry you thought like that. . . .” She was growing angrier. “But what do you imagine I’ve had to put up with all these years while you set up camp in the BBC and proceeded to rule the world? You could barely be bothered to come home after the children got bigger.”

When Annie was angry the tip of her nose coloured up. Normally the sight amused him. Not this time. “No more than your bid to succour the huddled masses. And how well did you look after your family? And, by the way, your nose has turned red.”

Annie looked furious. She hated being reminded of her nose. “Who are you to talk? The great communicator who can’t talk to his family properly. You should hear . . . Jake . . . on the subject.” She folded her hands across her chest. “I did not neglect my children or the family.”

“This bloody cooker.” He opened and banged shut the door of the larger oven.

At moments like these Tom deployed the antidote of good memories-sweet ones, funny ones. Anything.

. . . Spotting Annie walking along the university causeway outside the library building carrying a heavy canvas satchel of books. The sun had been in her eyes, which made her blink. Her hair was piled high on her head, revealing the swoop of tender, unblemished flesh from neck to back, which he loved to touch. When she saw that he was waiting for her, she broke into a smile of such joy and pleasure that he’d thought his heart would crack . . .

Now he felt a sigh throttle up through him, from a deep, sad place.

Annie dancing. She had loved to dance. The honeymoon dance. Ridiculous. Sweet. How often had they made fools of themselves? Being silly, deep into being young . . . He had told himself he had a duty to dance until dawn, whether he wanted to or not, because his youth would pass.

Youth would pass.

He had been right. Why didn’t she dance now? Why didn’t he?

Annie looked shattered. “You see, we’re at it again.” She turned her head away. “We shouldn’t be. Not now. We should be facing the facts. . . .”

She’s going to tell me it’s all over, the thought went through Tom, bringing in its wake a physical anguish so biting it winded him. Finish to a marriage that had started out so bravely and jauntily? The subject had been aired between them. When had that been? Ah yes, when they had quarreled so bitterly over a ready-made stew Annie had served up at dinner party for Tom’s colleagues. It had not been a good meal, and he had been embarrassed by what he took to mean as her noncaring attitude. He had accused her of not bothering and she had flashed back at him. “Do you know the hours I work?” Adding, “What happened to the man I married who wouldn’t have cared about the meal?”

Now he was the one to hit out: “What facts? There are no facts, except you’ve bought a cooker we can’t afford and somehow neglected to tell me about it.”

… “We should leave each other,” Annie had told him on that previous encounter as they had faced each other over the empty foil cartons of that disastrous ready-made meal. “And each take our bitterness elsewhere. . . .”

“Tom, I just want to help you sort things out. That’s all. Not quarrel over a cooker.”

“Sorry, sorry,” she’d apologized, when things had calmed down, as she had tamped the cartons from the ready-made dinner into the trash and out of sight. . . .

“Tom?” She pulled a strand of her hair straight. “Answer me.”

“Not now, Annie.” He felt too weary and beaten to respond. “Not while I’m like this.”

She bit her lip. “No. No, of course not.”

She had been wrong not to tell Tom about the cooker, of course she had, and it piqued her that she had been so high-handed.

“I shouldn’t have been angry,” she confided to Sadie on the phone. “He needs help. I must be kind. And there are the children to think about.”

“Here we go,” said Sadie. The childless Sadie, who had scolded her on more than one occasion for being all things to the family.

“It’s instinctive,” Annie endeavored to explain, “and you don’t mind, really. Putting yourself out for good reason has a purpose. It means a lot.” However, as the children had become adults Annie, who had frequently sacrificed her own comfort for them, felt less sacrificial and a great deal tougher. Something to do with the thinning of her female hormones, which, she gathered, happened as you approached the fifty,strait, before hammering down the highway to crotchety and demanding old age like Hermione’s.

But it was no excuse for taking advantage of Tom’s misery.

Sadie was on the case. “I expect you’ll be very British and tell me that you’d never kick a man when he’s down and it’s up to you to keep the show on the road.”

“I don’t want to end not liking myself.”

“What sort of reason is that?”

“An important one.”

Annie climbed into bed, arranged the sheet and duvet comfortably around her, and picked up a book from the bedside table. She was halfway through a history of the plague, which had excited her interest when she’d spotted it in a bookshop. She laid it on her knees. Once upon a time Tom had read poetry to her last thing at night. She would drowse as he read a Shakespeare sonnet, a sharp and funny poem by Wendy Cope, or a tough, highly wrought piece by Auden or Eliot. The sound of his voice, the occasional flash of his pajamas between her closed lids, his closeness-their closeness-had made her feel safe, and her love for him was almost a physical hurt. Sometimes he laid a hand on her cheek as he read. Sometimes she was curled up against him-and forever after she associated the poems with Tom’s feel and smell.

She couldn’t remember precisely when it had come to an end. Probably around the time Tom was promoted to a section chief – the beginning of his career climb and the gradual erosion of the intense, full-on accord of their early marriage, which had left Annie to bear the brunt of child care.

Nostalgia for that discarded intimacy was almost physically painful. Without it, life seemed bleak and troubling. Without it, the plans she used to make for Tom, herself, and the family were empty exercises. She laid the plague book aside, padded over to the door, and propped it open. The light from Tom’s room shone under the door and she observed it thoughtfully.

Leaving the door open, she went back to bed, switched off the light, and settled down.



A beautiful portrayal of family relationships.

Daily Telegraph


She understands perfectly the disappointments, compromises and challenges… as the passion and promises of youth are gradually eroded by the realities… an astute exploration of fragile relationships between husband and wife, parents and children which is timeless.

You Magazine, Mail on Sunday


Like Elizabeth Buchan's previous novels, a gem of a read: intelligent, deftly plotted, and uncommonly perceptive about the myriad emotional subtleties that underpin family life.

The Guardian


An intimate, compelling dissection of a family in crisis.

Woman & Home


She is such a sympathetic writer… Buchan provides a recognisable picture of our age of anxiety in this moving and often unpredictable novel.

Sunday Times


Another lovely slice of marriage, morals, of family and painful truths.

The Bookseller


A warm and timely reminder of the human capacity to adapt and survive.

Daily Mail


Her novels read lightly but they aren’t superficial. Her families seem real, raw, breathing things, whose deep history is as evident in the most casual seeming gestures as it is in the toxic no-go areas.

The Lady


A winning combination of asperity and warmth.

The Independent


An achingly touching portrait of a marriage and family in crisis... Buchan masterfully captures the Nicholson’s personal story with her richly drawn characters.

Publishers Weekly