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It is the summer of 1959 when forty-two-year-old Barbara Beeching, a married mother of two grown-up children, meets Alexander Liberty. Adored by her family and admired by her friends, Barbara never imagined that an unexpected and surprisingly passionate relationship with a much younger man was on the horizon.
Forty years later, thirty-five old Siena Grant is immersed in her challenging, exciting career as a television fashion consultant, Siena does not believe that happiness – necessarily – includes having children. But her husband, Charlie, disagrees.
Decades separate Barbara and Siena – years in which the lives of women have changed substantially. Or have they? Barbara and Siena’s experiences prove to be surprisingly similar as they try to negotiate the demands of marriage, the deep feelings – and the children – which are the focus of our lives.
Read An Extract
I must have fallen asleep, for I found myself watching a dream television documentary about Bill and Lola’s orchard. It had been transformed into an industrial factory field, patrolled by machine dragons. I was busy writing out headings in my notebook. Under ‘Birdsong’, I entered ‘None’. Under ‘Butterflies’, ‘None’. I added: ‘No scutter of life in the grasses.’ When I looked up at the trees they were hung with tidy, obedient, brightly coloured same-sized apples.
Confused, I woke up, rolled across to Charlie and slid my arm, oh, so gently, round his waist. Instantly I knew he was awake. ‘I think I was having a nightmare about GM apples,’ I said. ‘They all looked the same.’
‘ America ’s my big chance,’ I said quietly. ‘I might never get another. It will only be a one-off.’
‘If it works,’ Charlie murmured, ‘it will not be a one-off.’
A girl may dream. First series, third series … tenth series. Club and first class, weekends in the Hamptons, interesting people, interesting ideas, a new look at a different set-up … So many possibilities were scrambling to take up residence in my head. ‘It’s difficult to turn down such an offer.’
‘Yup,’ he agreed, with the same controlled articulation, but he was not agreeing.
‘You wouldn’t pass it up.’
‘OK, Siena ,’ he said quietly. ‘How do we resolve this?’
Charlie has learnt the art of holding silence in court, silences filled with more meaning than any words, but I was not so good at them.
‘When do we have children, Siena , when do you think?’
‘Charlie, as soon as there’s a gap in my schedule, then we can have a try. I’m so sorry but a book, an idea, a programme, a project, has come up … The magazine wants a weekly column, not a monthly … I must concentrate on that.’
‘ Siena , time is ticking past…’
‘I promise to think about it.’
Did he believe me? Probably not, for I had ducked and woven so often through the aforementioned thickets.
Charlie sat up in bed and switched on the light. He cupped my cheek in his hand. ‘Do you mind me pointing out that you will be thirty-six next birthday?’
He reached for the glass by the bed and took a sip. I imagined the water trickling down his throat to a stomach churned by our late-night conversation.
‘Charlie, I don’t want to lose all the ground I’ve made.’
‘But you’ll gain,’ he said, and stroked my cheek. ‘You’ll be a beautiful, wonderful mother.’
A flicker of impatience shocked me. That kind of thing was so easy to say – and took no account of my instinctive cowardice. I drew a deep breath. ‘I’m frightened, Charlie.’
‘But I’m here.’ He put down the glass and sent me a grin: so wry, it was almost bitter, definitely mocking and … boyish. Like the son he craved. All I wanted was to make Charlie happy, which seemed simple enough. Except that it wasn’t.
Guildford was changing rapidly. We all saw it and sniffed it and remarked on the pace. The mood was quickening … The streets were becoming a magnet for shops and shoppers. There was an influx of new and ready money, a civic bustle, prising the city away from its sleepy past.
I liked it.
It was only ten thirty when I reached the high street but it was already crowded.
Recently, and to great excitement, a boutique had opened opposite Holy Trinity Church, which sold gramophone records in brown paper sleeves, and a larger one beside it, which specialized in electric lamps. Bunty and I inspected the window minutely.
‘I’m going to have to buy one,’ she announced.
‘But you don’t need a lamp.’
‘I know, darling, but it’s so exciting to have a choice.’
During the war there had been nothing much, apart from whisky and cigarettes. We made do and mended furiously, patriotically, and did not allow ourselves to think about colour, variety, the pleasure of making up one’s mind. The appetite for those returned afterwards, in the dull, deprived, dun-coloured peace when there had been nothing to look at and nothing to buy. Now it was different.
As always, there was a queue in Sainsbury’s and I amused myself by mentally replacing the brown packets of tea on the shelf with the blue sugar bags. Two cartwheels of Cheddar and a mound of butter were being cut up by muslin-turbaned women. Yellow, satiny, rich, lush … painters had used those cheese and butter colours – the French painters who wanted to convey a new impression of what they saw. Throughout the war, my mother had worn a headscarf of that precise buttery shade because European Jews had been made to wear yellow stars, and she argued that solidarity had to begin somewhere. Busy with my children and focused on getting through the rationing and the bombs while Ryder was away on flying operations, I washed my hair in yellow camomile rinse to make it more golden and shiny. Surviving was all I could manage. ‘That’s fine, dear,’ my mother said. ‘Having principles is only possible when you’re older.’
Next door at the counter of Fuller’s tea-shop, there was a choice between a medium or a large walnut cake. Oh, the luxury of dithering, of weighing up the pros and cons. I hoped I’d never get used to it.
The shop assistant made a fuss of wrapping and boxing the cake (large), and I anticipated the texture of the thin, sweet icing and, underneath, the crumbling light-as-air sponge. A little impatient, a little too hot in my tightly belted coat, I glanced in the direction of the tables. The tea-room was full. Knives clinked on plates, conversation hummed and a queue waited for tables to empty. Then I saw him.
Alexander Liberty was sitting close to the window, talking hard to a companion, a dark-haired boy of his own age. They were dressed in tweed jackets, ties and Fair Isle pullovers, and a half-empty plate of cakes lay between them.
‘Madam.’ The sales assistant gave me the cake box.
As I handed over the money, Alexander spotted me. He got to his feet instantly. ‘Barbara.’ He held out his hand. ‘I was hoping I’d see you again. Was I rude to you at Mrs Andrews’s party? Or, worse, did I bore you to death? If I did, I ask forgiveness.’
‘No, no,’ I protested, ‘not at all. You gave me food for thought.’
He looked at me intently, piercingly, to see if I’d meant what I said, and – God help me – it was as if the shapes, objects and people of this familiar setting shifted and resettled, like the earth after a quake.
‘Amy tells me you walked her home from the cinema the other night. Thank you.’ I fussed with the cake box; its scent of spun sugar and walnuts sent saliva rushing into my mouth. ‘Walnut cake,’ I balanced it on my hands. ‘We’re fond of it – I eat too much, and I shouldn’t.’
‘Why shouldn’t you?’
‘No reason,’ I said. ‘Frugal habits from the war, I suppose.’
‘Of course,’ he said politely, and I wished I hadn’t mentioned the war. It was so weary a subject, and it made me feel old. ‘Would you join us?’ he asked. He indicated his companion at the table. ‘My colleague, Harry, would be delighted to meet you, particularly…’
‘Particularly as I think you’d be interested in some of the ideas we’re discussing.’
I would be interested. How delightful, and novel, it was to be included in such a conversation. Intrigued, I glanced down at the wretched cake box, and struggled with my conscience – there were chores to do at home. ‘Don’t be too long,’ Ryder had said. I noted the intricate seaming of my brown leather gloves, but also my surge of excitement, and that I no longer felt a bit old.
‘Thank you,’ I replied, ‘but no, I don’t have time. I must get home.’
He seemed disappointed but not surprised. ‘Harry and I were discussing Freud’s theory of the memory slip, and we could have used you as a guinea pig. You could give us valuable data.’
I could not resist it. ‘Such as?’
‘The theory tries to explain why we forget the names or intentions of people and events that are quite important to us.’
‘Excuse me.’ A woman edged round us.
Alexander glanced back at Harry. ‘It takes a little while to explain.’
‘Then why don’t you come and have Sunday lunch with us? Amy’s coming down from London, and I – I mean I’m sure she would like to see you again.’
Honestly explores the difficulties of marriage... while at the same time depicting the difficult moments of motherhood along with the quiet joys.
The Washington Post
With just the right blend of heartfelt feminism and humor, British author Buchan crafts another women's-crisis story that accurately captures the doubts and fears about personal fulfillment experienced and rarely resolved by two generations of women.
What makes Buchan such a joy to read is her ability to take familiar material and probe it for new insights. For well-done domestic drama, there is only one writer for this reader.