Ned felt happy inside. Or so he kept telling himself. He liked to present the face of remoteness, though, to the women who came calling twice a week to pick up the eggs and vegetables for the country market. In the early days, they'd tried to intrude on his life, to look after him somehow, but they didn't do that any more. What would he want with them anyhow? Didn't he have everything he could possibly want in his own little house?
But now, here was Kathleen McBride standing in his kitchen and commenting on it in a cheery voice. "It's like a little palace," she said. He hadn't meant to bring her in when she'd come to collect the eggs, but she'd stepped right over the threshold and followed him down the hall and into his kitchen.
Neither had she tried to hide her surprise. "Oh my, you keep it so well. And flowers in vases!" She had looked at him in a strange way as if putting flowers in vases was something unusual for a man to do. Well maybe it was, but he didn't care about any of that.
He followed her gaze to the kitchen window from where she could see his raised beds, his vegetables all aligned in neat rows. His potatoes were coming on nicely this year. The damp Summer had meant spraying more than he liked, but what could he do? The chicken coop just beyond was painted ultramarine blue and he wondered would she have a problem with that too, as well as the flowers in vases. Yes, he knew that some men let themselves go once they were left alone. But not him.
But really this Kathleen McBride was something else. The other women from the committee stood quietly outside his door every week waiting for him to bring the boxes of eggs, the crates of cabbages and carrots, the strings of onions, to the waiting van.
They had learnt not to speak much to him. Sure, he chatted politely, but he knew they talked about him, and called him unfriendly. He just liked to keep himself to himself. He went to Mass on a Sunday morning, tilted his cap at the neighbours, bought his papers and headed back home again. And that was the way he wanted it.
Nell had been the friendly one. It was she who had brought the neighbours in for chats, and any stranger passing by might find themselves tucked up beside the range eating apple tart with a hot mug of tea. He'd never minded any of that. Indeed, he'd liked it. But that kind of friendly chatting didn't come easily to him and bit by bit, people had left him alone. Nell's death had been a heartbreak, that was for sure, but he'd recovered from it, like he knew he would. It had just taken him time, that was all.
When he'd told the women's committee he could supply them with vegetables and eggs for almost all of the year, they had been over the moon.
They were looking for local suppliers, and his vegetables were what they called organic. But he had no time for any of those new-fangled descriptions; he just grew his vegetables like his father had done before him, with good farmyard manure and compost he made himself. Now all he had to do was pile the vegetables into the back of the van two days a week, and the women did the rest. They delivered his money back to him in an envelope on a Monday morning and nobody could have been any the happier with the arrangement.
And it wasn't about the money. Not at all. He grew vegetables because – in truth – what else was there to do? The little he ate hardly made a dent in the supply and he took no pride that the majority of them found their way to the restaurants in the area. He didn't care where they went. Mostly, he just loved being out in God's good air, his boots in the soil, a garden spade between his hands, his life dictated by the seasons.
Once the days lengthened in the Spring and he felt that first pulse of new growth, his spirits rose as if in harmony with it. And then when full Summer came, just like now, and his vegetables stood in rich full bloom, his heart was at its fullest. Even Autumn, with its mists, failed to dampen his mood and he delighted in the colours as his trees shed their leaves. Winter was the worst. Once he had covered over his vegetable beds with a good rich mulch and drew up the membrane over them, like a blanket over a sleeping baby, he felt his spirits plummet. That was when it was hard. That was when he missed Nell the most.
But really and truly, his life was ticking over just fine. And now, here was Kathleen McBride standing in his kitchen and commenting on how he kept things, as if he was some sort of halfwit who would be happy to live in a hovel.
"A blue chicken coop!" she said again, as if it had arrived like a spaceship out of the sky.
He came to stand beside her. Her face was lit up from the window and he could see she wasn't as young as he'd first thought. He had to admit, though, as he followed her gaze down the garden, that the blue chicken coop did look unusual, with the window box tacked to its side and it filled to the brim with red begonias that billowed frantically over its edge. He'd built an ingenious shield around the window box too so that the hens couldn't flap up and scavenge for grubs. Unusual too was the sight of those hens, allowed out of their coop to do their foraging in the long grass he kept especially for them. He loved the hens, their brown feathers, their beady eyes, their bright red wattles.
Sometimes Nell would scoop up a hen and hold it in her lap, like a mother would a child. He used wonder would she have done that if they'd had a baby of their own? Would she have lavished such affection on a mere hen if a baby boy or girl filled that corner of the kitchen where they'd always said, in the early days, a pram would fit? But it was not to be. That, and a lot of other things, were not to be. You just had to get on with life. What other choice did you have?
"Why did you paint it blue?" Kathleen McBride was asking him now. There was a scent coming from her as she stood by his side at the window. What was it? Had her clothes been dried on a clothes line out in the fresh air? Nell loved that scent, and their sheets had always smelt of it. Seamus Heaney had a poem about sheets, didn't he, about folding them with his mother in the kitchen?
"I think the hens like that particular shade of blue," he told Kathleen McBride.
She laughed out loud. It was a strange sound in his kitchen, and he wondered, suddenly, why it was that he'd pushed people away from him. Why it was he'd cut himself off from this kind of feeling. In fact, Kathleen McBride was one of the few people to be in his house since Nell's wake two years ago. He didn't mind, either, that she was studying the garden so intently. It was interesting to look at it from this angle and see it through her eyes. He wondered, for one foolish moment, if he could possibly tell her how he sat in the evenings looking down the garden marvelling at the loveliness of the blue chicken coop as the light faded. How, only last night, he'd read his favourite Heaney poem and he'd had to stop when he'd got to the last two lines. For he could never read those two lines without his eyes filling up.
Kathleen McBride turned to him again. "Did you go to art school when you were young, Ned? Your garden has an artistry about it!" He looked at her to see if she was laughing at him. Nell was the only one who knew that he longed for art school in an era when young men with no money didn't go after such foolish things. No, a trade was the only thing he could have hoped for. And, in a way, carpentry was a kind of artistry. He'd been able to create things with his hands, even if it wasn't always exactly what he'd wanted.
But, if it was canvas he'd yearned for when he was young, it was words he yearned for now. And, funnily enough, that was the one thing that Nell and he hadn't shared. "I've no time for all that nonsense," she'd say if he tried to read to her.
"Listen to this, Nell," he'd say. "Listen to what Keats has to say about Autumn!"
"I'll Autumn you with your poetry!" she'd say, but she'd say it in a loving way, and not in any way to belittle him. Yes, she was the one with the good head. What was he anyway only a foolish man who wept at the sound words made?
Yes, Kathleen McBride wasn't laughing at him, and so he told her. "I never did go to art school. Always wanted to, mind you."
"Well, it shows!" she said.
Her eyes moved away from the window and fell on his Heaney book which sat open on the table beside his chair. He didn't mind this intrusion; in fact, he wanted, suddenly, to read her the last two lines of that poem, about catching "the heart off guard". But her eyes moved passed his book, on around the room and came to rest on the empty chair that stood on the opposite side of the hearth.
"You must miss Nell very much," she said.
He moved away from her to gather up the eggs from the table.
But she didn't follow him; she stayed where she was by the window. "Have you ever read what Blake has to say about grief?" she said. Something about "Joy and woe" being "woven fine".
He turned to face her again, his mouth suddenly very dry.
He shook his head. "I don't think I've come across that one!"
"I'll bring you his book next time! You could keep it for a little while."
"Thank you." he said. "I'd like that."
He picked up the eggs from the table and she followed him outside to the waiting van.
Down the garden, the hens pecked noisily around the blue chicken coop while the sun struggled to come out on this damp Summer morning.