Read a sneak peek: The Long Road Home by Fiona McCallum

You can’t find where you truly belong until you discover who you really are…

Alice Hamilton is enjoying her new life in Ballarat with the freedom to explore her future now she’s stepped away from the constraints of her upbringing. She’s learnt the hard way that knowledge is power, and is looking forward to her legal studies, then making a difference as a lawyer with heart.

But while Alice’s life is looking up, back in Hope Springs the world of her former husband Rick Peterson is unravelling. After a chance meeting a few months earlier, Rick and Alice have reconnected. And it’s fortunate they have, because Rick is about to need Alice’s friendship like he’s never needed it before.

Rick has always felt a bit lost – as a farmer, he could never admit he didn’t feel the deep connection to the land that the only son and third generation farmer should. And now he’s suddenly being forced to come to terms with just why his heart isn’t in it and what’s behind his fractured relationships. Has his whole life been a lie – and if so, where did that lie begin?

From Australia’s master storyteller comes an inspiring story about how when your life falls apart sometimes help can be found where you least expect it.

Chapter One

It was a quarter to six when Alice’s bosses closed and locked the door of the office of the law firm Baker and Associates behind her. They each gave her a hug.
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like us to give you and Bill a ride or call a cab?’ Peter Baker asked.
‘Thank you, but we’ll be perfectly fine, won’t we, Billy boy?’ she said, looking down to the Jack Russell sitting to attention at the end of his lead.
‘Okay, if you’re sure. Stay safe,’ Peter said, surprising Alice with another hug. ‘Congratulations again on getting into your course.’
‘Yes, we’re very proud of you. Walk carefully, now,’ Lyn said, also hugging Alice again.
‘See you tomorrow at ten at the end of the market, almost-birthday-girl,’ Ashley Baker said. And Alice received another hug. She didn’t think she’d enjoyed so many platonic hugs in her entire life as she had since moving to Ballarat. It was lovely.

‘Yes, you will. Come on, Bill,’ she said, and set off down the street with a wave of her hand. As she walked, she marvelled at having forgotten about her birthday amid the excitement.
The early evening sun and fine weather caused the Ballarat central business district streets to glow yellow around the long shadows of the old buildings. Even if it hadn’t been a perfect spring evening, Alice would have still been smiling – she hadn’t stopped since learning of her acceptance into the Juris Doctor postgradu-ate law course she’d applied for. Her smile and the warmth in her heart had been increased when her new employers, and now firm friends, had insisted on diverting the phones to message bank a few minutes early and celebrating with champagne. It was further confirmation she’d done the right thing moving to Ballarat from Melbourne when practically everything had gone wrong all at once, just a few months earlier. Now, outside in the fresh air, her legs, actually her whole being really, felt spongy, even heavy, but oddly light and buoyant all at once. She was happy. Though, a little tipsier than she’d realised.
As she walked, with Bill trotting alongside her, Alice tried not to think of the last job where she’d had after-work drinks. But there it was. At least she no longer shuddered at the thought of the awful weeks when she’d been bullied and manipulated almost to madness by the great Carmel Gold of Gold, Taylor and Murphy Real Estate.
A tiny part of Alice was angry that she’d only lasted four weeks and that Carmel had triumphed over her, but an even bigger part knew she had the nasty woman to thank for where she was now and where she was heading. I’m going to be a lawyer, and a damned good one! I’m going to be one with heart and compassion – there for those who, like me, got bullied out of occupations because management wouldn’t do the right thing and put dollars and profit and earning power ahead of common decency. She hoped one day Carmel would get her come-uppance, though it was doubtful Alice would ever know about it. That was the frustrating thing with karma – it never quite seemed to happen right when you needed it to. Oh well. Alice wasn’t a vindictive person.
Of course, that was one of the problems and how she’d come to be a survivor of Carmel at all – and the latest in a long line of executive personal assistants who had left abruptly. Well probably now maybe not even the latest – about two months had passed. For all Alice knew, more had bitten the dust. God, how much must they actually be losing in advertising, interviewing and retraining of staff …?
The great Carmel Gold, indeed, she thought, and actually snorted aloud. And giggled, noticing the sideways look Bill gave her.
‘Sorry, Billy boy, too much champagne,’ she said.
Her legs were feeling heavier as she stood at the kerb waiting for the buzz and flash of green to tell her she could cross the street. She eased her scarf up and over her chin for more protection against the chilling air before bending down to give Bill a pat. He looked adoringly up at her. Alice’s heart surged. He was such a darling, perfectly behaved dog and she was so lucky he’d been there at the RSPCA shelter when she and David decided they would now have a dog along with their new home and sizeable mortgage.
Oh dear. She so didn’t want to think about David either. That was the champagne. A slight melancholy was laying itself over her and sapping her buoyancy and contentedness. She’d thought they’d be together forever. Well, she’d hoped.
It had taken her four years to realise how different they were and that they didn’t share the same values – the import-ant ones. She’d thought he was everything her husband Rick hadn’t been – driven, ambitious, city through-and-through. Alice  had now realised she’d run to David from Rick and before that from her mother and family to Rick. Thankfully she’d stopped running now.

This was really the first time in her adult life Alice was truly living a life for her and really felt free at a deep, soul level. On the surface she was almost broke and living alone in a tiny one-bedroom flat in Ballarat, starting all over again at nearly thirty-one. Fear gripped her every now and then until she reminded herself that was just the lifelong conditioning of her mother – aided by her younger sister – poking through her newly acquired armour. No, she didn’t need a man and there was so much more she could contribute to the world than as a wife and mother. Thank goodness she’d seen it in time. Thank goodness for Carmel Gold. Oh dear, I must be more than a little tipsy!
But it hadn’t just been Carmel’s illuminating behaviour. It had taken her dear friend from university, Brett – now her best friend Lauren’s boyfriend – to open her eyes to what Carmel was doing, what she was, and that in turn had made Alice see the truth of her own past.
She still marvelled – more so cringed – at how similar her mother was to Carmel. Alice had spent her life seeking Dawn’s love, acceptance, approval. And failed. She’d have settled for the occasional compliment and nod of approval, but even when she’d succeeded in graduating from university with stellar grades, she’d been warned not to get too above herself. Just daring to leave the tiny rural town of Hope Springs on South Australia’s Eyre Penin-sula meant, they said, she thought herself ‘too good for us’ and ‘all high and mighty’. Now she knew she really had spent her life striving and failing in the eyes of her family. Her father, who had been gone for around nine years, would never intentionally have made her feel like that.
She continued to miss him every single day, but she didn’t blame him for resorting to suicide. She hadn’t ever, but now, with what she’d learnt about narcissists, she had a new appreciation of how hard it would have been for him living with Dawn, who possessed most indicators of the personality disorder: someone who was obsessed with themselves and achieving dominance while disregarding everyone else’s wellbeing. Someone who lied, cheated and manipulated in order to receive the adoration they craved. And, perhaps most difficult of all for Alice to come to grips with, was that they weren’t capable of having empathy and because of this didn’t care who they hurt or destroyed along the way.
Alice shuddered at wondering what gaslighting her dad might have undergone – the feeling that something felt ‘off’ but you weren’t really sure why. Carmel Gold had managed to have Alice questioning her sanity in a matter of days and nearly sent her completely mad in just a few weeks – imagine living with it twenty-four/seven for years, decades … she was so grateful to her father for the neutralising effect he had provided for so long. If she hadn’t had that she could quite easily have turned out to be the sort of person who didn’t cope at all well with life – an addict or someone with other serious problems – which, apparently, was a common outcome for so many left feeling they’d never be good enough, no matter what, which was the ultimate indoctrination of a narcissist parent.
Goodness only knew what Dawn was doing to Frank – her husband of around seven years. Alice loved Frank to bits and she’d quite recently found an ally in her stepfather after tending to always hold herself back with him. She’d assumed that was because she’d already been an adult when he’d joined their family or because he hadn’t had kids himself and she didn’t feel he’d understand her. She’d also wondered if perhaps she’d kept him at arm’s length as some sort of loyalty to her father. Now, with all she’d learnt this past year, she suspected she’d been subcon-sciously protecting him. If Dawn knew how much Alice liked and respected Frank, her mother might just turn on him too. Alice couldn’t bear it if another kind, gentle man chose to leave her the same way her father had.
Though why did Frank stay with Dawn? She thought about it. For as long as she could remember she’d watched her mother be attentive and super friendly to guests at dinner parties and custom-ers in the shop and then cold and critical to Alice out of sight. She’d thought for years her mother simply didn’t like her. She probably didn’t, but Alice now understood all too well how the narcissists could switch their charisma on and off at will. Sadly, only their victims saw the truth and were often not believed. Alice hated being referred to as a victim, but she was. But she was also a survivor. What about Frank?
Dear Frank, Alice thought, smiling, remembering how good he’d been to her when she’d made the difficult trip ‘home’ to her dear friend’s funeral. It was probably the most time she’d ever spent alone with him – it was certainly the closest she’d ever felt to him. And she’d seen a glimmer that he too saw some of the truth of what Dawn was.
Alice shook it all aside as she pushed the button on the next pedestrian crossing and then began to cross.
But the thoughts refused to leave. She longed to tell Frank her news about being accepted into law but wasn’t prepared to have her bubble burst by one of Dawn’s cruel comments – one of her few certainties in life. Alice longed for the time to come when she could laugh off the things her mother and sister said and did. Better yet, shrug them off and not give them any more negative air.
But she wasn’t there yet. Her mother’s comments and unspoken criticisms, sneers and general lack of support still hurt Alice as much as a knife to her heart would. She knew she shouldn’t seek Dawn’s approval or love, but still she did to some extent. Some-times it wasn’t intentional – was just a passing comment here or there from the down-to-earth open-book Alice. But always she was swiftly reminded of her place – or lack of – in her mother’s heart and affections.
Alice didn’t hate her mother. Sometimes she hated what she did and how she treated her, but now with all she’d learnt about narcissism she just pitied Dawn. Apparently, the barbs and manner-isms of a narcissist were deliberate and by all accounts they weren’t capable of changing because the ego was so strong that they saw nothing wrong in their behaviour. So it was those around them who had to adjust – usually by resorting to going ‘no contact’. Alice wasn’t there yet, either, but she felt close. She was currently avoiding her mother’s calls as much as she could and keeping her responses confined to text messages. She’d been doing that for around a month. Alice wasn’t sure how long she’d be able to keep it up. It was important for her healing. Unfortunately, Dawn had a knack of luring her in thanks, damn it, to all the years of condi-tioning, especially that family is everything! Brett was so right about that being a load of shit.
Alice turned into the small cul-de-sac of five updated and well-maintained single-storey brown brick units. She felt a little surge of something – she still did every time she came home after being away. Excitement? More like peace? Contentment? Maybe a mixture. Freedom? But was that really an emotion? Ah, it didn’t matter. What mattered was she liked her little home.
Hello, house, she silently said as she put her key into the lock of the cream gloss painted door. As with the outside, the fully furnished inside was nothing special. It was all neutral tones, but clean and fresh. Alice longed to add some touches of her own colour to the space but was still keeping a tight rein on her spending. She probably always would – she was that sort of person. She was working full time for now, but next year she’d have to cut back her hours to fit in her study. Thank goodness she had employers keen to do everything they could to help her succeed. It would all sort itself out. It had already, she thought, as she stood at the small hall stand inside the front door.
She put her phone and keys in the wooden bowl on top and her handbag on the shelf underneath, and hung her coat and scarf on the hooks above. She’d always been tidy, but now had to be more so because the smallest thing out of place made the flat look clut-tered. Bill’s bed in the corner of the loungeroom was bad enough. She loved this little ritual of settling herself back in too.
Several times she’d marvelled at how, despite the whiteness around her, it didn’t feel at all cold and sterile like the house she and David had bought in Melbourne had. She hadn’t realised just how much she hadn’t liked that place until she set foot in here for the first time. It was as if the tiny space wrapped itself around Alice in a comforting hug right when she’d needed it and had never let go. Even when she was out she often longed to be back here. For the first time in her life she was alone. Completely alone and free to make all her own decisions – not waiting for her husband Rick to come in from the paddock or the shed or David from a long day at the office or an overseas trip. If she wanted to eat a bowl of cereal for every meal for a week she could and there was no one to comment or scowl.
She knew there were times ahead when she would crave some company. And of course making all the decisions all the time might become stressful. But plenty of other people managed just fine. Alice felt a heady level of exhilaration and pride in herself that she’d finally set herself free.
Yes, I have so much to be thankful for, she thought as she took her phone over to the couch, where Bill was already in position. She smiled and gave him a pat. He loved their home too. He exuded gratitude from every pore. And every paw! Alice smiled and then concentrated on reading the well-wishing text messages that had come through in the last hour and a half. All the important people in her life were cheering her on: Lauren, Lauren’s parents – Melissa and Charles Finmore – and Brett. Jared and Pip from Gold, Taylor and Murphy – though she felt she was losing touch with them a bit now she was living so far away.
Her heart sank a little. Frank. She brought up his name in her contacts. Her finger hovered over it for a moment. No. She’d update her online profiles instead. Put it off a little longer. Because as much as she wanted to share her news with Frank, she didn’t want to with her mother. And she couldn’t ask him to keep secrets from his wife. Thankfully, years ago, after complaining about how few people followed them or showed any interest at all in what they had to say on Facebook and Twitter, Dawn and Olivia had both flounced off social media for good. Alice had resisted pointing out they might have to show more of an interest in other people, but there was no telling either of them anything. Alice had blocked them both everywhere and kept an eye out in case they were still lurking about.
Alice updated her social media accounts to say she now lived in Ballarat, had been accepted to the course and worked at the law firm. It all felt good – like she really had stepped in the right direction of putting her life back together. Getting on with it. She felt a surge of pride … until a little voice inside her said she was getting above herself. A little voice that sounded just like her mother’s stern, condescending tone. No. What was wrong with feeling silently proud of one’s achievement? She’d earnt her place fair and square – her transcript from her Arts Degree with Modern History major was full of high distinctions and distinc-tions. She’d worked hard to achieve them. She was not boasting. She was stating facts. If her family – or anyone else – felt uncom-fortable with it, well that was their problem. Alice Hamilton was done with censoring herself to keep others happy or comfortable in their little boxes. She’d done that for most of her life and it had got her nowhere.
Nonetheless, she was pleased to see a heap of likes and comments appear. Seeing Frank’s love heart emoji appear under her Facebook post twisted Alice’s heart. She longed to pick up the phone and speak to him. But it must be almost dinner time in the once-Hamilton-now-Roberts household. No doubt he was being told off right then about having his head in his phone and not giving Dawn his undivided attention. Alice had actually forgot-ten he was on Facebook. She’d accepted his friend request years ago and had never seen him post anything, well, not that she could remember. Wary of becoming addicted and wasting too much time, she’d pulled back while at uni and not been a huge user of any social media for years. But recently she’d got more into it again in an effort to feel not quite so sad and lonely as she’d gone through the turmoil with her last job, leaving David and life in general. There were some things she absolutely loathed about it – the false façades people put up of how absolutely brilliant they and their lives were. And there were things she absolutely loved about it – posts of lost persons and pets being shared and hearing of good outcomes, people’s milestones and humour and connections, and valuable information from reputable sources. Since discovering the subject of narcissism, she’d been sharing the posts of several good pages in an effort to help spread the message. She figured if everyone knew the tactics and what to look for in these horrible people, perhaps the predators might eventually be stamped out or at least neutralised. Of course, a certain level of narcissism was supposed to be useful in the world, though Alice didn’t see why people couldn’t be strong and assertive without being arrogant wankers, which was what she chose to call them – at least to herself.

Chapter Two

Alice’s heart seemed to stop momentarily at seeing a notification of an email from David – the de facto partner she’d recently left – with the word ‘Settlement’ in the subject line. She held her breath as she opened it. She blinked, almost unable to believe what she was seeing. And then she let out a long sigh of relief. There was a bank receipt notification of transfer of payment – the full amount she’d asked for. She felt a pang of guilt. Not that she’d done anything wrong; she’d only asked to be compensated for what she’d actually put into the house deposit and his uni fees. She’d been fair. Ashley at work had told her she was entitled to a lot more. But Alice knew David would struggle as it was with what he had to pay her. He might even have to ask his parents – both civil servants in Sydney – to help, which would just about kill him. Money and reputation were everything to David Green. Alice had briefly thought about walking away without a cent and she might have if it hadn’t been for the fact when she left she had no job and no home and very little left in her own bank account.
When she’d left, and was house-sitting for the Finmores, he’d turned up with his version of a settlement and pushed her to sign it on the spot, but she’d been rushed into signing paperwork when her marriage to Rick had ended, only realising later she’d been ripped off. She wasn’t making that mistake again. The figure she’d calculated, which was almost twice David’s, Ashley had put in a letter on the company letterhead and sent on Alice’s behalf. This had prompted a nasty voicemail from David. The man who had always told Alice ‘we don’t raise our voices; we are adults and will discuss this like adults’ was severely pissed off that she’d ques-tioned him and that he might have to fork out more money. As much as Alice didn’t want to hurt him – she held him no malice; they were just too different – she had herself and her future to think of. And her own pride, when it came to it. If she were to be a strong, independent woman she had to start standing up for herself to David as she had Carmel Gold. It obviously helped that she had free access to legal advice and correspondence.
She hadn’t returned David’s call or any of his emails, in turn pathetic and pleading, manipulative and threatening. And now, three weeks later, she’d been paid the full amount she, via Ashley, had asked for. No doubt he’d been to see his own lawyer in that time and told he was damned lucky it was only this amount. She could see it.
Alice took several deep breaths. She was now really free of David. There was no need for them ever to have contact again. How did she feel about that? Sad? Relieved? Both, but mainly sad. She’d been here a month, but suddenly felt for the first time she was really here. Really alone. For the rest of the time she’d been avoiding thinking too deeply about her situation, her new circumstances and the abrupt end to her life with David. The end of her Melbourne life, full stop. She’d been kept busy with getting to know Ballarat streets, learning her new job, waiting to hear about her uni application. Settling in. Now as the tears prickled painfully in her eyes, Alice realised she’d been outrunning her feelings or shoving them down inside her.
She was scared. Maybe David was right. How was she going to survive on her own financially? Emotionally? Physically? She’d felt abandoned by him in her time of need, when her dear friend Ruth had died suddenly and she’d had to venture back to Hope Springs alone to the funeral. Perhaps, as he’d said, she’d made a hasty decision, been too emotional at the time. Had over-thought it. Could you be both over-thinking and overly emotional at the same time? Wasn’t that oxymoronic? Had she made the wrong decision after all? Tears streamed down her face and her insides felt both empty and painfully tight. Oh god. She pulled one of the cushions on the couch to her stomach and held on, hoping the lost, drowning feeling would pass. Maybe her mother was right: she shouldn’t be on her own; she’d be lonely.
The tears stopped. Alice blinked. And as her vision became clear again, so did her mind. She would never forget how she’d felt that day standing in the Hope Springs cemetery, surrounded by people she knew but feeling so desolate – sadness the likes of which she hadn’t felt since losing her father. She’d felt completely and utterly abandoned. No, she was just feeling sorry for herself. She was allowed such moments. But not too many or at least not for too long!
As her dear friend Lauren was always saying, she had to be kind to herself. She really had been through quite a bit recently and needed to process it in a gentle way. She wasn’t selfish and calculating like her mother and sister. She was deeply emotional and super sensitive like she gathered her father must have been. If only men hadn’t been raised to believe they couldn’t be emotional or shed tears. Oh how she missed him. But she did also like to think she felt him with her – urging her on to find herself, find her way – and soon. Thank Christ she’d left Hope Springs and the narrow-minded family that remained there. She had David to thank, though if she hadn’t had some courage of her own she would have said no.
Alice looked at the email from him again and wondered if she should respond. And say what? Thank you? On email it could sound abrupt – like she was being smug or victorious or some-thing. She’d sleep on it.
Alice returned to the Instagram app and smiled at all the well-wishes from her friends and acquaintances. She wasn’t alone.
She laughed aloud at Lauren’s gif of people waving their arms and cheering. No, she wasn’t alone. She might not have blood relatives she could count on, but the Finmores were amazing. If she had a car she could have driven out there for a hug. They would completely understand what she was feeling, even if she couldn’t express it herself. They never said, ‘Oh, Alice,’ in that condescending, sneering tone her mother and Olivia used. And they certainly wouldn’t tell her to pull herself together or that she was an embarrassment for being emotional. God, how had she got through her childhood and early adulthood? But at least she was tough and capable.
‘Well, when I’m not blubbering like an idiot and feeling sorry for myself, huh, Bill?’ she said, ruffling the ears of the dog lying beside her. He turned and licked her hand and flapped his tail. How do people get through this stuff without a pet in their lives? She turned back to her phone and felt both affection and apprehension – the latest comment was from Rick, her ex-husband: Awesome news. Well done! Xx ♥
She stared at the two Xs and the heart. Oh shit. Perhaps she shouldn’t have agreed to connect again with him online after all. He’d asked after Ruth’s funeral when she’d been so vulnerable, and she couldn’t have said no after he’d been so good to her that day. But oh dear, maybe she’d opened up a connection better left closed. He was single again and vulnerable. So was she. Alice pressed the home key on her phone and turned it over.
As she clicked the TV on she wondered if she should, could, buy herself a house-warming-slash-celebratory gift. Nothing too expensive, but something for herself. Should she think about buying a cheap car too? She didn’t like feeling she couldn’t just go somewhere for a drive when she wanted to. But she reminded herself she liked the idea of an extra buffer in her bank account more. One of the Finmores was in Ballarat several times a week and their home was really the only place she couldn’t easily get to in a cab. And they were only about half an hour away. Charles and Melissa had said plenty of times she was welcome to call them if she wanted to visit. They were both retired and could come and get her. And there was always their farm manager Blair.
Ah, the intriguing, very good-looking Blair … She’d met him at dinner at the Finmores’ and he’d brought her in the day she moved into the flat. She’d also thought she’d seen him at the market the other day, but she could have been mistaken. She’d spent time sitting beside him in his ute and at the dinner table, but didn’t know anything else about him beyond the fact he seemed friendly, was olive-skinned and muscular, judging by the bulges under the dress and polo shirts she’d so far seen him wearing. She’d had to forcibly avert her gaze from the huge brown eyes, the broad smile and the thick dark hair, which might be wavy but was kept trimmed a little too close to his head to really tell. She’d snuck more than a few covert glances at his rounded backside and long lean legs. Hmm, annoyingly, he’d piqued her curiosity and distracted her far too much, despite her telling herself he was most likely married and she was certainly not looking for a love interest anyway.
Alice brought up her favourite online homewares and gift store and clicked on throw rugs, taking the red sale signs plastered over the site as a good sign. Her mouth practically watered at seeing a magenta wool throw staring back at her. She went into her bedroom and tried to imagine it on her bed and decided it would look perfect on both the navy sofa and the grey waffle quilt cover. Did she even care if it worked or not? She almost pressed the add to cart button at thinking how much David would hate it. He was all about grey and white and everything minimal. It was still very expensive at half price, though … no, she’d sleep on that too. Your ex hating something was probably not a good enough reason to buy it.
She’d also have a look at the stores in the mall tomorrow morning while she was there with Ashley for the weekly market. After that she and Bill were being collected and going out to the Finmores’ gorgeous historical home – Toilichte House, which apparently meant happy in Scots Gaelic. They were English and might or might not have Scottish heritage – she’d never asked – but the house had been already named when the Finmores bought it quite a few years back. Speaking of mouth-watering. She just loved being there. She couldn’t wait to see Lauren and Brett, too. Then she’d really get stuck into her reading and get a jump on her course. She had a few months yet but figured she could never be too organised or well prepared. The challenge had her fired up. So what if she lived in a tiny rented flat? She had a wonderful life and exciting times ahead. She would make sure of it. She was in charge now. And it was going to be a great birthday.

Cover image - The Long Road Home

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Posted on February 10, 2020 by

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"Read a sneak peek: The Long Road Home by Fiona McCallum"

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