Prodigal Daughter by Jane Carter

Twenty years ago, in a hot-headed rage, Diana Crawford left the family farm to build a new life in London. Now, following her husband’s fatal accident and unable to find respite from the barrage of guilt-inducing and heartrending memories at every turn, she runs to the one place she feels Charlie’s ghost can’t follow her: Mog’s Hill, the Crawford family farm in New South Wales. There, among the smell of lanolin, the dust of the sheep yards and the beauty of the land, Diana hopes she can regain her strength and put her life, as well as those of her three shell-shocked kids, back on track. But home isn’t as she remembers, and her return cracks open old family wounds.

Stella has longed for her prodigal daughter’s return for years. Now if she can convince Diana to open up and let them back into her heart, she might just be able to keep her grandchildren close by and find the family peace she craves. But Stella already has her hands full trying to hold everything together, and now the Crawford family is a hair’s breadth from shattering forever. Can Stella keep the peace? Can she make Diana see the strength in relying on family, or will Diana leave them behind once again?

Enjoy a sample of Prodigal Daughter by Jane Carter.


Chapter One

Gospel Oak, London, February

The pub was still crowded. Colliding with the wall of hot thick air, Diana stopped, weighing up her options. At least it was alive with human body-warmth and deafening noise. Pushing her way through padded bodies, she undid the but­tons on her coat and loosened her scarf and let the sympa­thetic glances thrown her way float right over her head. A couple of Charlie’s football cronies were arm wrestling over in one corner, encouraged by a few enthusiastic support­ers. It looked more like a party than a wake. Good. It was what she had wanted. Was it time to get Bart, the publi­can, to stop the tab? She looked over towards the Suttons, Charlie’s parents, who sat in a booth, talking quietly with a few friends. They were the only oldies left and they looked exhausted. It had been a horrible day. The Suttons were not a demonstrative couple but she watched Bill’s arm slide round his wife’s slim shoulders and give her a little squeeze.

‘You should be pleased, it’s a great send-off, Diana.’ Sebas­tian handed her a half pint of Guinness.

She studied the clover leaf embellished in the creamy head. ‘Charlie would have loved it. I know I should be pleased, I’m just wondering how I get them all to go home.’ She put the glass back down on the small high table in front of her, untouched.

‘They’re all having a great time.’ Sebastian grinned, then leant over and patted her hand. His hands were soft and milky white with the nails neatly buffed, and she wanted to pull her hand away. ‘Turn off the tab, my dear.’

‘That’s what I thought.’ She’d never felt so tired in her life.

‘Don’t worry about that consignment for the Japanese family. There’s time, I can put them off. And you know the lad’s paintings have just doubled in price.’

Diana looked blankly at the gallery owner who was also her agent. Sebastian could have been talking Japanese for all she knew. God, he was a heartless bastard. Money was what drove him. Since her pots had taken off and she’d become known in the art world she’d left most of the organising up to him. And paid him the fifteen per cent quite happily.

She also knew that however tired she was, turning around, walking out that door and going home was going to be hard. The numbness would help. Honestly, if someone pushed a pin into her right now, she wouldn’t feel it.

Okay, she would do the walk and not think about it. It would only get worse, thinking about it. People were look­ing at her, ‘one tough lady’ they were saying. Well, she was tough enough to take the pitying looks.

It was walking out the door alone.

She’d just gone to say goodnight to the kids. She hadn’t let them come to the pub; she hated the way people had looked at them this afternoon. She’d spent half an hour with Sienna before she’d dropped off to sleep. The kids were so lost. Milo and Saskia had gone to sleep immediately. But not Sienna. She’d just stared at her—her eyes wouldn’t shut. As though if they did, her mother might disappear. Bridie would ring her if any of them woke.

She studied the bottles over the bar. This was her sec­ond funeral where she’d been personally involved. If anyone cared to ask, she could tell them that it didn’t get any easier. But for this one, the wake was different—a real party. A hell of a send-off for one of the great partygoers. She was going to do it even if it killed her.

Although that wasn’t an option, Diana took a deep breath. Then she smiled vaguely, careful not to make eye contact.

Why had she come back? Simple. For Charlie. Breathe.

She watched Janet Sutton get up slowly and come towards her. Usually tall and upright, her mother-in-law had shriv­elled over the last few days. So had Bill, Charlie’s father. He was one of those round-faced, silver-haired Englishmen with a belly laugh. Charlie was their only son, so Diana had been surprised they’d left the decisions this week to her. But she could see how they’d reached the end of their limit now. Having the wake here at the pub had been her idea, not theirs, but they’d come round. So many people had turned up. Oh Charlie, why am I surprised?

Janet put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Why don’t you go home, Diana? We can walk back with you.’

‘The kids have just gone to sleep; Bridie’s watching them like a hawk. I thought I’d stay a little longer. But thank you, Janet. Why don’t you go home.’ She gave her a hug. Oh God, Charlie was her son.

‘Ar—sen—al!’ A few people burst into raucous song and she caught Bart’s eye and made her way to the bar. ‘I think that’s it, Bart, if you want everyone to leave any time soon.’

‘Don’t you worry, Diana, I can keep the lid on this.’ He grinned, polishing a few glasses with his towel.

She smiled. ‘We’ve had some good times here, Bart, haven’t we?’ She felt her mouth tremble. Not now.

‘We’ll miss him, sure enough.’

Miss him. It was hard to know what that meant. It was so difficult to comprehend or understand the concept of death. Charlie was gone and she’d never see him again.

She should know, she’d faced it before when Cody died. Her baby sister, only six years old. That was what, twenty-five years ago? At least her family had been there to sup­port one another, kind of … now it was just her children and Charlie’s parents and they didn’t know each other well enough to share the grief. There was no one to support her. Her family wasn’t here. It was a long way from the farm in Australia to Gospel Oak, London. Too far. They’d offered, her mum had said, ‘We can come, Diana, if you want us?’

‘No,’ she’d said. ‘We’ll be fine.’

There was at least one thing she could hang on to. Diana looked around. Charlie, you’d have loved this. You really would. She picked up her glass. Breathe. Here’s to you, Char­lie! Here’s mud in your eye.

***

Two weeks later, Diana stood apart from the other mothers waiting for the end of school. It was interesting, the way the eyes didn’t quite meet hers. The faces were solemn; no one was behaving naturally. Charlie and she had moved here three years ago, so they were hardly strangers but they weren’t natives either. Probably being Australian didn’t help. She would have loved someone to bounce over and say ‘What a bugger,’ and give her a hug. Pulling the coat around her and burying her face in the tartan scarf, she couldn’t wait for the bell to ring. She missed Australians.

Children streamed past her, toting backpacks, coats and scarves. First off the block was Sienna, arm in arm with Polly, her best friend, and then Saskia trailing behind a group of classmates. Finally, there was Milo walking along in a dream, as usual. His face brightened when he heard her call and he picked up his pace as he changed direction.

‘Hey, had a good day?’ She hugged them and then they turned and were out the gate. ‘Bye Polly.’

It was only a five-minute walk from the school to their house and the kids usually did it by themselves, but since Charlie had died, Diana had been walking them all to school and picking them up in the afternoon. There was an almost drizzle in the air, not enough to wet them.

They hadn’t gone far when Saskia, her hand in Diana’s, turned, her face alight, and asked, ‘What would Daddy be doing now?’

Diana didn’t hesitate. ‘Today he’s having afternoon tea with my grandfather Frank. They haven’t met before, you know, because Frank died when I was only little and he wasn’t alive when Daddy came over to visit.’

She’d started this game a couple of days ago—What would Daddy be doing now?—to divert them all from falling into a deep depression. The girls had been listlessly watching the telly and Milo had just been kicking a ball relentlessly against the wall beside him. Diana was ready to try anything.

So far Charlie had eaten dinner with his own grandpar­ents and gone to kick a football with George Armstrong, the only Arsenal player she could think of who was dead. There were still a few to meet—her grandparents on her mother’s side, for instance. If she ran out, she thought they could always have a few re-runs. Bobby Charlton might be a good one, though he was from the wrong club. She wasn’t sure Charlie would have wanted to meet him.

‘What is he eating?’

‘I think they have special afternoon tea in Heaven. Daddy loved cinnamon donuts, didn’t he? I think perhaps they’d be eating a huge plate of them, don’t you think?’

‘That sounds good. Does Grandfather Frank like donuts?’

‘Actually he’s your great-grandfather. He was a farmer in Australia and he did love them. Peg used to make them. She’s your great-grandmother.’

‘What was the farm in Australia called, Mummy?’ Milo asked.

‘Mog’s Hill. I’ve told you before.’

‘That’s a funny name.’ Sienna frowned. ‘Who was Mog?’

Diana laughed. ‘I don’t know, but I think he found gold there.’

‘Wow, did you find any gold when you were growing up?’

‘No, I think it had all been found by my time. We were too busy looking after the sheep to worry about finding gold. Umm, actually Rosie and I did go prospecting once.’ Diana stopped, wondering if she should continue. It was one of the few times she’d been smacked. ‘I thought we should go look for some gold so Rosie and I went down to the creek with a shovel, a strainer and a bag, to hold all the gold. I thought it might be a good surprise if we came back rich. But I neglected to tell Mum where we were going. I got into some trouble that day.’

Diana looked down at her children. She could finally appreciate her parents’ concern. ‘Please don’t go anywhere without telling me, will you?’ She laughed, but caught her lip between her teeth. They were so infinitely precious, these children of hers, and this time they spent together … she well knew how quickly it could all be swept away. In a nanosecond their lives had changed completely.

Milo and Sienna were up ahead with Saskia trailing behind as usual. They were nearly home when the voice came from nowhere.

I’m not sure you’re helping. They have no idea what dead means, you know.

She glanced around cautiously. No, Charlie, you have the handle on that.

The trouble was, as she looked at the figures tramping ahead, she wasn’t sure she knew either. Not when Charlie was right there, talking in her head.

I’m not sure how to tell them the truth, Charlie.

Hey, that’s what I used to say. Telling the truth is hard, isn’t it? You used to go on and on about being honest with each other.

Never did me much good. You and I never saw eye to eye on the truth, did we?

My problem was always working out what was truth and what was fiction.

You just lied to get out of trouble. Remember that first inter­view I did for the art magazine?

She certainly remembered. She remembered how he hadn’t turned up.

***

Charlie was finally walking in the door, four hours after he’d promised.

‘Where have you been?’ Diana stood in the doorway, watching him throw his coat on the hat stand.

‘Sorry, I got caught up in a traffic jam, delivering those pictures round to that new gallery. How’d you get on?’

‘Luckily, the journalist was an angel. Walked in the door and straight away took Sienna, who was screaming blue murder. She’s had lots of experience with babies, apparently, and had her quietened down in a few minutes, thank God. I was going crazy.’

‘Interview went well then?’ Charlie turned on the televi­sion and sat down.

‘It would have been better if you were here. The photogra­pher pitched in and helped me move the pots around.’

‘When does it get published?’

‘Next month. “New Aussie Potter on the Block”, or some­thing like that. The photographer took some pictures of your sunset painting. I think he liked it.’

‘Good for him.’ Charlie got up and went into the kitchen and took a beer out of the fridge.

‘Have you been drinking?’

‘No.’

‘I just thought you might have rung and let me know.’

‘Bit hard when you’re stuck in three miles of traffic.’

‘I rang the pub and they said you weren’t there.’

‘Well, I wasn’t, was I?’

Diana shook herself.

You never owned up to it, did you, Charlie? But I found out later you were in the pub all afternoon. I just wished you hadn’t lied about it. You could have said you didn’t want to be there, at the interview.

I could have. If I’d wanted to start World War Three.

Why were all these negative thoughts popping up out of the blue? Why was she so angry? Where are all the funny, lovely memories of you, Charlie?

They hurt too much.

***

Six weeks now and she hadn’t slept again last night. Diana sat at her wheel but the shapeless lump of clay lay motionless. Out of the window, the tiled roofs stretched endlessly into the iron grey sky. April, and it was supposed to be spring, nearly summer, and there were floods and snow still in the north and murky, dark days. She walked down the stairs from her studio and pulled the sheets off the girls’ beds. She was running out of time. The kids would be home soon.

What was wrong with her?

Blankly, she stared in the washing machine and the full load of sheets, freshly washed. Then she looked at the pile of sheets in her arms. Seriously, she’d just done the beds and now she was doing them all again. She banged down the lid and ran back up to dump the sheets back on the beds as the phone rang.

‘Hi, Diana, just wondered if you’d forgotten something?’ Her friend Lainie sounded smug.

‘No.’ Her mind raced through various options. ‘Can’t say … Oh no, Sienna! Have you still got her?’

‘Yes, my friend, don’t worry, everything’s under control. We were hardly going to chuck her out in the street. She’s too nice. I had an interview at four but it was cancelled. The girls are okay, I was just wondering …’ A delicate pause.

Three hours late. How could she? ‘It’s fine. I’ll be there.’ She put the phone down, grabbed the keys and rushed out the door. She’d forgotten to check the fridge also. Never mind, Milo was on top of the stuff they were out of. Thank God for Milo.

The next morning it was raining again. Diana looked out the window as umbrellas pushed into the wind on their way up the hill. Everything was struggling—the hawthorns had their blossom whipped off before they’d come out. She was struggling. Where was her strength? She’d screamed inde­pendent for so long, it was her mantra, her flag, her cloak. Now look at her. Pathetic.

Charlie’s paintings were stacked against the wall, his brushes still in jars of turps, one of his rags on the floor at her feet. They’d always fought over rags—he’d claimed hers were always so muddy he couldn’t use them. They wouldn’t be fighting over them again.

Diana now had no energy to fight and it was impossible to make a decision. Sienna asked her yesterday if she could go to the mall with Polly—by themselves. They were eight. And she’d ducked the confrontation and said she’d talk to Polly’s mum.

You should have just said no.

Ha. Now you’re the fired up authoritarian, Charlie. You wouldn’t have said no, not in a million years. I said I’d talk to Polly’s mother and I will.

Which she would now have to do.

She got up and walked to the window. The rain wouldn’t stop. Sluggish she felt, and useless.

‘Why can’t I pot?’ she railed.

But there was no answer.

It had never failed her before. It was her world away from reality. She made beautiful things, now they looked alien, like junk. If she brought up a hammer she could smash them all into pieces and start again. That was the beauty of clay. Who was the girl who wove all day and then undid it all at night? Ulysses … someone waiting for him? Diana couldn’t remember. What did it matter?

Six weeks since Charlie died. He might be a voice in her head but he wasn’t coming back, no matter how long she waited.

Australia was in drought, or so her parents said. The sun would have to be shining. Outside it was dark for nine in the morning, with more black clouds moving slowly in. What would she give to feel some sun on her face.

The kids were up. There were noises downstairs. Televi­sion, scraping of chairs, endless chatter. Milo didn’t want to go to Zack’s birthday party. She could hardly force him. Saskia on the other hand, desperately wanted to go to Far­ah’s party but hadn’t been asked. She was broken-hearted.

‘Can I cook pancakes, Mummy?’ The question floated up the stairs towards her.

‘No, Sienna.’ Not this morning.

‘Why? I can make you breakfast in bed.’

‘No, Sienna. I’m already up. But thank you.’

‘Why? You like my breakfasts.’

Oh, but she could really do without the unholy mess that magically appeared with it.

‘How much flour do I put in?’

‘Sienna won’t let me crack the eggs!’

‘Don’t Sassy. Put it down. Mummy, Milo’s taken the maple syrup.’

‘I’ll be there in a minute,’ she called down. Maybe they needed the diversion. She walked down the stairs to super­vise the pancakes.

After breakfast she found the tickets. She’d pulled open the drawer of the hall table looking for stamps, and there were five train tickets to Scotland. She’d bought them ages ago for the Easter break and totally forgotten. Her fingers were shaking. No, they couldn’t go. Not with Charlie, an empty seat beside them all the way to Scotland and back.

She wanted to go home and see her mother and her father and her sister, Rosie.

She ached to go home.

It was the first time she’d allowed herself to acknowl­edge it in ten years. What would her parents say if they just turned up, out of the blue?

Milo walked past her on his way upstairs. ‘Mum, what’s the Australian anthem, you know, like we sing “God Save The Queen”?’

Diana looked blankly at her son and then put the tickets back in the drawer.

He didn’t know the Australian anthem.

***

 

It was only three days later that she met up with Sebastian in a local cafe. ‘September—I can’t do it.’

‘Of course you can. That’s what I’m here for.’ Sebas­tian pushed over her coffee cup and passed her some sugar straws. ‘September is five months away and we’ve got lots done already. Come on, you’ll be back on track soon, this is an opportunity not to be missed.’

‘Damn you, Sebastian, I tell you I can’t. It’s not working. I’m not working. I can’t think, sleep or pot.’ She paused. ‘I’m thinking of going back to Australia.’ There she’d said it out loud. She looked around—the coffee shop was almost empty. It was nearly three, she had to go and get the kids.

‘Not a good idea, Diana. We’ve worked very hard to get you to this point. The children will be miserable. Anyway, you haven’t been back for twenty years.’

‘Ten.’

‘Whatever, they’ll be out of place and they don’t know your family.’

And wasn’t that the truth? ‘Suppose something happens to me and they don’t know my family, never met them? I’m feeling quite vulnerable. Just like that—poof ,’ she snapped her fingers, ‘and it can happen.’

‘Don’t be maudlin. This invitation to exhibit at the Ful­ham Gallery is not to be sneezed at. I was very excited when they contacted me. It’s the next step, my dear.’

‘I won’t do it unless they hang some of Charlie’s paint­ings.’ She looked at him.

Sebastian sighed heavily and lifted his cup. ‘You ask a lot, my dear.’ He examined her face. ‘All right, you have some for me to look at? Our Charlie was fond of showing me pieces that always had “just a little bit more” to do before they were finished.’ Another huff.

Diana closed her eyes, shutting out the piles of unfinished works leaning against the wall. ‘I’m sure I can find ten, fif­teen … please, Sebastian?’

‘For you, Diana, I’ll do it. Now forget about going off to some far off country. How about a little car trip to Bibury if you need a bit of country air? That’s an enchanting little place.’

‘Honestly, Sebastian, I think I need a little more than a couple of hours’ drive out of London to get my head back together,’ she said.

‘All right. You go off to Australia and come back nice and refreshed. Two weeks, three?’

‘I don’t know.’ Diana sank miserably into her elbows. ‘I’ve got to find the passports and book seats. Get the Suttons to look after the house. Pack. Ring my parents and tell them we’re coming.’

Should she ask, or just tell them? Just tell them. She pushed the coffee cup to one side

‘There you are,’ said Sebastian, ‘You have a plan already, that sounds more like you, Diana.’

So she did. And didn’t it feel good? She stood. ‘Sebastian, thanks for the coffee. You’ve been a great help. Trouble is, I have no idea what they’ll say. It’s been so long.’

***

‘All packed?’ Diana stood at the door. Milo was a tight ball on the bed, facing the wall. The room was unnaturally tidy. She could see the floor.

A muffled ‘yes’.

She went to sit on the bed and reached out gently to touch him.

‘You’ve done a wonderful job in here.’ She felt bad for not coming sooner to help him. She’d been emptying the fridge. ‘Have you remembered your charger?’ Janet and Bill had bought him an iPhone.

‘Yes. What shoes will I wear on the plane?’

‘Trainers, I think. They’ll be comfier than your new rid­ing boots.’

‘Why do I need riding boots? Am I going riding?’

‘No. Everyone wears riding boots on a farm.’ Saskia had refused to wear them. They weren’t pink. So Diana had bought gumboots for the girls—pink gumboots.

‘I call your father Tommo.’ He turned to her restlessly. ‘And your mother Stella?’

‘Yep, that’s what they want.’ She bent over to kiss him. ‘It’s okay, you’ll love them and they’ll love you.’ No answer. Diana pulled up the duvet and tucked him in.

The girls were sitting up in bed intent on yet another change of clothes for their Barbie dolls. She noticed not a huge effort had been made to clean up the room. Diana sighed and started to pick up the day’s cast-offs.

‘Right, turn out the light. Could you please do a little tidy-up in the morning? This is a mess, guys.’

‘Are you sure I can only take one bear, Mummy?’ Saskia looked up. ‘I really want to take Horry.’

‘He’s too big—he’d need a whole seat to himself.’

‘He could have mine. I could stay with Polly or Grandma.’ Sienna didn’t look as though she was joking.

‘Listen, it’s going to be great. Your grandparents are dying to meet you, and I want to show you the farm where I grew up. Come on, kids, a little more enthusiasm.’

Sienna gave an exaggerated sigh and turned off her light. Diana went to sit on her bed and held her tightly for a moment, breathing in the scent of the freshly washed hair. God, she hoped she was doing the right thing. Five years since she’d seen her mum, ten since she’d seen her dad and Rosie. She would take the first steps and surely they would follow. They had sounded pleased. Would time have washed it all away? The past was a long time ago.

‘Mummy, in the plane, we’ll be awful close to Daddy, won’t we? Will he ask us for tea?’

Diana held her breath, not sure whether to laugh or cry. ‘I hope not, Sassy. But we can have a good think about him. It’s a special feeling being up there above the clouds. You’ll love it.’

Not sure she could physically do another thing, Diana turned off the downstairs lights. The stair light fell on her picture. The picture Charlie had painted for her, of her. Laughing, sprays of happiness—it was such a joyous pic­ture. In his favourite acrylics. He’d done it soon after they returned from Australia and their terrible trip. He’d set it around Mog’s Hill—well, his interpretation. There were a few sheep … she squinted. They could be sheep. It made her laugh, even now. Her dad would be horrified. But her Mum would love it. A Ned Kelly figure running down the hill behind her.

So, Charlie, you never told me who was that person in the body armour with a gun?

It’s not that difficult to work out, Diana.

And now you never will. She sighed looking at the picture. He’d said that the last time she’d asked.

Just a couple more days and they’d be there. She swal­lowed the nugget of worry that was worming around in her throat. It had to be all right.

Slowly she walked into the bedroom. Moved the suitcase and crawled into the bed, gathering Charlie’s pillow to her and rubbing her face into it, trying to catch the last lingering scent of Charlie. It probably wouldn’t be there when she returned.

Charlie had given her back herself. He’d helped her to crawl out of the wombat hole she’d dug for herself—that she was not worthy of being loved. Not deserving, not since Cody had died.

Without Charlie, who was she?


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