Daisy Benetto blurted out her big idea before it was quite ready.
For days, the plan had circled harmlessly in the privacy of her own thoughts, safe yet cheering, a useful distraction as she’d bravely, finally, begun to sort through Leo’s things. Such a difficult process that had been, deciding what should go to Vinnies, or into a box in the garage, and what needed to be binned.
Each sweater, shirt or jacket had been laden with memories. Daisy could picture Leo at a party, sending her a covert smile, his eyes bright with secret amusement over some crass remark a slightly sozzled friend had made. She saw him dressing for a night at the theatre, lifting his jaw, just so, as he adjusted the knot on his tie. Leo, coming through the front door, sunburnt but satisfied after coaching their son’s soccer team.
The images of her husband, so alive and well, had been too painful, and Daisy had been forced to drag her thoughts elsewhere. Anywhere. Cautiously, she’d toyed with her bright, shiny idea, allowing herself to imagine how each of her children would react. The proposal was still in its infancy, of course. Daisy hadn’t made any proper plans.
She was confident, though, that Marc in America, in Silicon Valley, would welcome the chance to visit his father’s birthplace. Marc’s only problem might be taking time off from his very important IT work. His wife, Bronte, wasn’t too enamoured of life in Palo Alto, though, so she would no doubt embrace a European getaway.
Daisy’s middle child, Anna, was bound to love the idea too, but she would also have to juggle time off between her acting gigs in London.
At least, taking time off shouldn’t be a problem for Ellie. Daisy’s youngest was pretty much at a loose end, enjoying a gap year before starting uni, working in cafés at night and surfing or sleeping most days.
As for Daisy herself, after long months of feeling as if she’d fallen through the cracks in life with no one to catch her, this lovely new scheme helped her to feel ever so slightly more normal. In time she hoped to be one of those very capable widows she admired in books. Perhaps planning this holiday could be the first step. And it would bring her family together again.
For a few precious weeks, the Benetto kids would be under one roof, laughing, joking, teasing . . . like the old days.
Just the same, Daisy had no intention of mentioning this plan when she went to lunch with her two best friends. She had tried to argue that turning fifty-seven wasn’t a milestone worthy of fuss, but they wouldn’t listen to her protests.
Just a small lunch, Daisy. Just the three of us. You know we never miss each other’s birthdays.
This was true. Daisy, Freya and Jo had been celebrating each other’s birthdays now for more than twenty years, ever since they’d first met in a beachside yoga class and, of course, Daisy appreciated that her friends truly cared about her happiness. In the end, the day turned out to be spectacularly beautiful.
The trio dined on a sunny terrace overlooking the Noosa River where, after a long, hot and gruelling summer, the first hint of autumn had arrived overnight, creeping into Queensland from the south. Despite the pleasantly warm sunshine, Daisy could sense the nip of a cool change in the crisp, dry air. And when she looked out at the blue and cloudless sky, at the familiar, sleepy river, dotted with small boats and lined with stately, white-trunked gumtrees, she felt her shoulders relax.
She took a sip of sparkling wine and, without warning, the words she hadn’t planned to utter just tumbled out. ‘I’m thinking about shouting my kids a trip to Italy.’
Freya and Jo stared at her, clearly too surprised, or possibly even too stunned, to speak.
Panic flared in Daisy’s chest. Why on earth had she spluttered her crazy scheme out loud? She looked at her friends. Both, like her, in their late fifties, middle-class, stylishly dressed – Freya in dark green with a multi-coloured scarf thrown just so, and Jo in smart, smoky grey, with a touch of gold at her ears and throat.
These well-meaning, sensible women would almost certainly try to talk her out of her plan, telling her it was too expensive, or too soon, or even too dangerous to try to hang on to her adult children after they’d flown the nest.
The problem was that even Daisy’s closest friends could not really understand how lonely and scared she’d been these past months. They couldn’t imagine the terror of having the future she and Leo had so carefully planned – or rather, the future that Leo had planned and Daisy had happily agreed to – suddenly disappear.
Neither Freya nor Jo could be expected to know what it was like to wake in the middle of the night and to reach out, expecting to touch a warm shoulder, or to rub your foot against your husband’s ankle, and to find a cold, empty space beside you. They couldn’t imagine the sickening slam of anguish that came every time you remembered that space would always be empty.
Daisy had lost her husband and her dreams. She couldn’t bear to lose her children as well.
Marc and Anna had come home for the funeral, of course, but they’d been as dazed and shocked as Daisy was. And in no time they’d left again, flying back to their important jobs, to their new and exciting lives on the other side of the world. Meanwhile Ellie, to Daisy’s huge surprise, had hunkered down to study especially hard for her final Year 12 exams.
The intense loneliness that followed had nearly consumed Daisy. On a scale of one to ten, she would have put her happiness quotient at sub-zero. But just lately, this new holiday plan had given her such a lift, a glimmer of hope.
That was hardly an excuse for giving voice to her half-baked idea now, though, on her birthday, before it was anywhere near properly planned. If she’d learned anything from her dear Leo, it was the importance of looking at a decision from every angle and carefully calculating the pros and cons before taking any kind of first step. Leo had always been so clever and steady and reliable. Possibly, the only careless, unplanned act the poor man had ever committed was to drop dead of a heart attack six weeks before he was due to retire.
Daisy stamped down on that gut-wrenching reminder before it set her crying again. The last thing she needed today was another bout of tears. She’d wept so much in the past twelve months she’d probably caused permanent damage to her tear ducts.
Now, here she was instead, all smiles and drinking champagne. And spilling the beans on this crazy scheme, when she hadn’t even spoken to her accountant to make sure she could cash in those spare shares of Leo’s.
‘It’s just a crazy, silly thought,’ she hastily amended, absorbing her friends’ surprised expressions and charging straight into damage control. ‘I seem to be having all sorts of weird ideas lately.’
Freya, however, was shaking her head, making her hairdresser-enhanced auburn curls bounce. ‘No, Daisy, I think it’s a fabulous idea.’ After a beat, Freya added, ‘If you can afford to be so generous.’ But then, almost immediately, she gave a cheeky grin. ‘Actually, no, I take that back. It’s still a fabulous idea even if you can’t afford it.’
‘And it’s probably just what you need,’ added Jo, although she spoke more carefully. Then again, Jo was always careful, just as Leo had been.
Daisy looked from one friend to the other. ‘I was sure you’d both tell me I was being ridiculous.’
‘Oh, darling,’ laughed Freya. ‘Even if your scheme was totally harebrained, it’s put a sparkle back in your lovely blue eyes and that has to be a good thing.’
‘Oh.’ Daisy couldn’t help smiling at Freya’s warmth and enthusiasm, even though harebrained wasn’t exactly reassuring.
‘So, how would your plan work?’ asked the ever practical Jo. ‘Would you find a hotel or perhaps an apartment that would take all of you?’
‘Yes, I suppose so,’ said Daisy, wishing that she’d already thought through these finer details.
Planning had never been her strong point. She’d relied heavily on Leo for that, and for so many other things, really. Caution and precision had been Leo’s watchwords, whether he’d been planning a family camping trip or balancing their budget. It was why he’d been such a good structural engineer, ensuring the safety of major building projects.
Daisy, on the other hand, had always preferred to follow instructions, rather than taking on too much responsibility. She’d had a range of jobs – as a teacher’s aide, an assistant in a garden nursery, and as part of a landscape design company – and she’d prided herself on being a team player, both at home and at work.
She’d seen her role as the family’s troubleshooter and nurturer, and she’d never really taken charge of planning anything more serious than their Christmas dinners, birthday parties for the kids, or which annuals to plant in their garden. If she went ahead with this mad idea, she would definitely need to find a nice, friendly and, most of all, reliable travel agent.
‘Would you go somewhere in Tuscany?’ asked Jo. ‘That always seems to be popular. I think you can get villas there, can’t you?’
Freya gave a knowing nod. ‘Like Under the Tuscan Sun.’
‘Well, yes, I know Tuscany’s very popular,’ Daisy agreed, and she could easily picture her family on a Tuscan hillside, gathered at a long table draped with white linen and laden with fresh bread or pasta and bottles of rich red wine. The setting would be a cobblestone terrace in front of an ancient stone farmhouse, with views of green hills and valleys dotted with olive groves and striped by rows of grapes. ‘But,’ she added, ‘I was actually thinking of Venice.’
‘Venice?’ Freya frowned as she digested this, and Daisy immediately began to worry. Perhaps she really should consider Tuscany.
But her friend’s frown was quickly replaced her by another warm smile. ‘Well, why not Venice? It’s beautiful. So romantic.’
‘And Leo was born there, wasn’t he?’ added Jo.
Daisy nodded. This was, of course, her sole reason for choosing Venice. Jo was probably remembering the funeral and the slide show of Leo’s life that Marc had quickly collated. There’d been a photo of a fat baby Leo, propped on his mother’s knee as she sat on a bench beside the Grand Canal. His mother had looked surprisingly young and rather serious, even sad, almost as if she’d known, way back then, that her son would pass away within just twelve months of her own death.
‘Leo’s cousin Gina still lives in Venice,’ she said. ‘I – I thought it might be good for the kids to meet her and learn more about their Italian heritage.’
‘Yes, of course, it would be fabulous,’ agreed Freya. ‘Just lovely.’
Encouraged, Daisy nevertheless felt compelled to justify her decision. ‘I mean, these days grandparents Skype with their grandkids all the time.’ She was certainly planning to do this when Marc and Bronte started a family. ‘But our kids never really knew Leo’s parents.’
And Leo was always promising to take me to Venice, she added silently.
A small part of her was angry with him for deserting her like that. Just when they were getting to the best years, free of kids, financially secure, ready to enjoy that most beautiful of words – retirement. And it bothered her, actually, that in all the years of their marriage, Leo had only gone home to Italy once, for a quick visit on his own, when his father died. His parents had, however, come out to Australia twice to visit them.
Unfortunately, these visits hadn’t been hugely successful, at least not from Daisy’s perspective. The first time had been just after Marc was born and the next, when Ellie was a toddler. Neither of Leo’s parents had spoken much English, and Daisy, busy and a tad flustered with caring for her young family, hadn’t found time to learn Italian.
Daisy had been tense and the children had somehow picked up on this and had become extra naughty and demanding.
Leo’s mother had, however, taught her how to make a perfect pea risotto, which was still a family favourite. In fact, Daisy’s freezer was chock-a-block with containers of pea risotto, as she had manically cooked up massive amounts in recent months and then had but Ellie to feed it to.
Venice had, nevertheless, always been at the top of Leo’s list for their retirement travel plans.
‘It will be so good to have all your chicks together,’ Jo said now. ‘They’re all so clever and they’ve done so well. You’ll have heaps of things to talk about.’
‘Yes, you must be so proud of them,’ added Freya, who had never been able to have children.
Daisy nodded again as she took another sip of her wine. She was certainly proud of her children, who had exceeded her humble expectations in every respect. Marc had always topped his year level at school and had done brilliantly at university, and now he was doing something even more amazing and incomprehensible in Silicon Valley.
And Anna had dazzled everyone from the moment she’d first skipped onto the stage as a flower fairy in a Christmas panto at the age of four and a half. In the local community, there’d never been any doubt that Anna Benetto would go on to become Australia’s next Nicole Kidman or Rose Byrne. And already, after blitzing drama school in Sydney, Anna was making waves in London’s West End.
Even Ellie, who for years had been happy to be the sweet, petted baby of the family and who’d never bothered to try too hard at anything, had suddenly pulled up her socks at the very last minute and scored a commendable Year 12 result. Although she hadn’t yet decided what she wanted to do next.
‘Venice would be wasted on my kids,’ Jo said next. ‘They’re not into the arts. They’re all too sporty and their idea of gourmet food is a hamburger with mustard and pickles at Grill’d. But your lot will soak up all that amazing art and history and they’ll appreciate that divine Italian food.’
This was Daisy’s dream, of course – her family bonding once more over delicious Italian meals and vino, visiting the famous art galleries, exploring the canals and winding streets of Venice, growing closer again, maybe closer than ever, despite living in separate hemispheres.
‘The family that plays together stays together,’ she suggested hopefully, but even as she said this, she felt nervous again. She was jumping way too far ahead, when she hadn’t spoken to any of her children or taken even a tiny peek at the costings. And lurking in the background was the uncomfortable fear that she was somehow trying to buy her children’s love.