Thady watched her in the garden. Strange how she seemed to belong there, darting from furrow to glasshouse, an expression of calm intensity on her face. The garden was different now, exotic, with hidden pathways, a pond, and bright flower beds.
He yawned. All day he’d felt exhausted but it wasn’t from the work this time. He’d slept poorly the night before, squirming in the bed as she slept soundly. When he finally drifted off, he dreamt about Mrs Roche, and the dream was so awful that when he awoke he did not know himself. He looked again at the figure in the vegetable garden. Every day he explained to himself the reasons for her actions and every day he reached the same conclusion. Life was easier now that Mrs Roche was gone.
He stood at the Arrivals gate, cursing repeatedly under his breath. With trembling fingers, he held the cardboard panel in front of his chest. How paltry it looked. He’d cut off one side of a frozen pizza box and written her name on it. Then he realised he’d misspelled it so he crossed out one letter. It looked terrible.
A small crowd of people had gathered around him, scanning the faces emerging through the gate. There were shy reunions, embraces. He swore again. He simply had to get back to the farm and the empty sloping fields.
None of the arriving women matched her description. He felt a steady, tribal beating in his chest. There was a gentle tug on his shirt and he turned around to see her—obviously her—grinning warmly at him and uttering a version of his name. He burst into a smile, the widest smile he’d made in years.
‘Alice?’ he said shyly.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
They shook hands. He immediately regretted the enthusiasm of his grip; his fingers wrapped around her little hand and he swung her arm dramatically up and down. When he turned around, the high glass doors of the exit looked unfamiliar and menacing. Eventually, he got his bearings.
‘This way,’ he said.
She looked very small in the front seat. Her description had said she was five foot four, but she was much smaller than that. Her hair was different too, cut now into a short bob turned across the neckline beneath her ears. She looked older than the age given in her profile.
His knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel. He turned up songs on the radio. Every gear shift and switch of the indicator was accompanied by a mutter, a sigh. He looked through the windows at the passing countryside. The afternoon sunlight clad the fields and hedges and hedgerow trees. They drove deeper and deeper into countryside, the roadsides becoming a tangled mess of brambles and spring flowers. He was thankful for the spell of fine weather; it would give her a good first impression of the place.
As they ascended the driveway, he saw the newly painted house and the farmyard. He had tried to put some order into it, knowing well he had a limited understanding of what that meant. He had finally got rid of the rusted machinery that had littered the yard for a decade, fixed the hinges on the broken doors of outbuildings, and brushed the concrete around the milking parlour, the cowshed, and the slurry pit. He could do nothing about the overgrown vegetable garden.
He had hired a local woman, Bernie Coughlan, to clean the house but not before he had taken the clutter from the rooms and burned everything in a monstrous pile behind the hayshed. He had waited until dark just to be sure. They were sending out helicopters now to scan the land for illegal fires. With the clutter gone, he had discreetly asked Bernie how she felt about having a stab off his own place. Bernie did not answer straightaway. She was no walkover, Bernie; she did not take on jobs if it didn’t suit her. But there flashed in her eyes something soft when he asked her and she eventually agreed. He wondered was it pity that drove her to say yes, but he didn’t have time to dwell on her motivations, and, besides, it probably had more to do with his promise to pay double her usual rate.
Bernie had done a fine job. The kitchen countertops gleamed in the afternoon sunshine, a fruity spray had done the rounds. The sun shone directly behind Alice, blurring her form against the window pane. To his relief, she was smiling and nodding approvingly.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s nothing really but a pokey old place.’
They climbed the stairs and stopped when they reached the small dimly-lit landing.
‘Here’s the bedroom,’ he said, pointing to a door. She frowned so he quickly added: ‘But if you don’t want to sleep here, that’s fine. I can put you in here.’ He pointed to another door on the opposite side. She looked even more confused.
‘It’s up to you, now. I’m not picky about it. You’ll be here and we can take our time or whatever you like. I don’t mind. We can see what happens.’
‘I don’t understand,’ she said.
He breathed deeply and in a much slower voice asked: ‘Where do you want to sleep?’
She pointed to his bedroom and said: ‘Your bedroom?’
‘Yes,’ he said and his heart pounded.
‘I sleep here,’ she said, pointing to the other room.
‘Right so,’ he said.
Mrs Roche’s porcine head appeared above the trimmed fuchsia bush.
‘You’ve cleaned the house, Thady,’ she said.
Thady had to marvel at how badly she concealed her hostility. No warmth, no widening of the eyes joined the smile on her pallid face. Over her shoulder, Thady noticed her husband carrying freshly cut fuchsia branches to a growing mound behind the house. He looked over furtively towards Thady as if to apologise for whatever menace dwelt in his wife’s words.
‘The place needed it,’ he said.
She looked at him skeptically then surveyed the land behind him and he knew at once that she disapproved. She flicked her eyes in the direction of the overgrown vegetable garden where wild flowers grew among thickets of weeds and grass.
‘Let’s hope she’s got some gardening skills,’ she said. ‘It takes a lot of work to tame a garden. I should know.’
Thady unwittingly glanced at the garden behind Mrs Roche. She was preparing it for summer. It stretched around the house so neat and clean and, like a raw recruit, it would do everything it was told; all it needed was the experience of sunshine.
Mrs Roche began to cough violently, and when it finally stopped there lingered on her face an expression of disgust as if she had tasted something sour.
‘You should get that taken care of then,’ said Thady.
‘I’ll be fine,’ she muttered.
As Thady returned to the house he saw Alice looking at him from her bedroom window. She waved to him. He pointed his thumb towards his neighbour’s house and raised his eyes to heaven.
Springtime brought with it new duties on the farm. In addition to the daily rituals of milking, there were the responsibilities of calving season and the urgency to nourish the grass ahead of the summer cutting. Thady could feel his own body warping over time, acquiring the misshapen forms that only unrelenting farmwork could carve out of the human body. Muscles did not move as smoothly anymore; he suffered from stiffness in his legs and lower back. In two years he would take the state up on its early retirement scheme. He’d been thinking about it for some time but what put him off the idea was the threat of boredom. The farm would be rented to someone younger and Thady knew he had nothing to replace a life that had always been tough but sometimes joyous too. That’s why he needed companionship. The notion of buying a wife was initially too bizarre to contemplate, but the more he thought about it the more obvious it seemed to him. Once he had decided to go down that road he was unwavering in his determination to see it through.
He got up at five-thirty every morning and it wasn’t long before Alice was getting up at the same time. It took him a while to explain to her that he didn’t expect this and, even though she claimed to understand, he returned every morning from the milking parlour to find breakfast waiting for him on the kitchen table.
To Thady’s joy and, he hoped, to Mrs Roche’s annoyance, Alice showed an aptitude for gardening. Together they cleared the matted thornbushes and weeds and dug long drills in the earth. Vegetables were planted and the greenhouse was cleared and filled with potted flowers. A quiet daily rhythm developed: while Thady tended to the land, Alice busied herself in the garden. Summer promised to be bountiful.
One matter weighed heavily on Thady’s mind around this time. A month had passed and still they were sleeping in separate rooms. He was prepared to wait but he needed to know for how long and he was reluctant to bring it up.
His head was crowded with questions. Was she prepared for it? Did she assume he was expecting it? If she did, would she just go through the motions? Would she think it was part of her duties? Would she refuse to do it and, if she did, what would he do then? And what if he could not do it? Would she think she had ended up with a dud of a husband? It bothered him that she might not realise he was content to wait.
He knew people were talking about them. It was inevitable. They’d love a story like theirs. He imagined them gossiping in hushed voices, the story getting more absurd with every telling. When they walked on the road together, the drivers of passing cars threw them that familiar glance, where the head stays straight but the eyes jerk to the side and then the fleeting but intense stare as though they were committing to memory as quickly as possible the full picture of Thady and Alice on the road.
There was a small circle of local women gathered near the door of the shop. As they approached, Thady thought he heard them hush one another. Mrs Roche was standing in the middle of the group. She looked terrible. Her face was yellow and her eyes were pink and watery. The women turned and the same tight-lipped vacant smile sped across all their faces.
‘Hello Thady,’ they said.
‘How are ye?’ asked one woman.
‘Aren’t you going to introduce us?’ asked another.
‘This is Alice,’ he said.
They all looked at Alice.
‘How are you settling in?’ asked Mrs Roche.
She had spoken too quickly and Alice did not understand. The question was repeated and again Alice did not understand.
Thady contained his rage. He turned to Alice and said: ‘She wants to know if you are well.’
‘Yes,’ said Alice. Then she wrapped an arm inside Thady’s and said, ‘Good husband.’
He commanded his heart to slow its beating. She might want to shift bedrooms soon, he thought.
The women’s eyes widened simultaneously and the faintest grins appeared on their faces.
‘I hear she’s doing great things to that garden,’ said one.
‘It’s coming along nicely now,’ he said. Then, squeezing her small bicep, he said: ‘She’s got the gift.’
Mrs Roche looked skeptical. ‘It takes more than a few weeks to make a garden,’ she said. Her voice was surprisingly hoarse and weak.
‘You don’t sound too well, Mrs Roche,’ he said.
‘I’m not,’ she said.
‘She needs to go home to bed,’ said a woman sternly.
Thady bid them a swift goodbye and entered the shop. The shopkeeper was standing behind the counter with a foolish smirk across his face. He nodded shyly at Alice and said: ‘How’re things?’
The sound of the women’s voices crept into the shop through a small open window. Their every word could be heard. Mrs Roche’s voice was the loudest. The shopkeeper blushed and served them quickly. Thady reckoned his discomfort stemmed, not from the women’s overheard conversation, but from the realisation that his own eavesdropping had been discovered.
They heard the women say goodbye to one another and Thady waited in the shop until they were gone. He waited because he would not have been able to control himself a second time. He would have told them that getting married was the best decision he ever made, and even though it seemed like she had some kind of a spell over him, what harm, let him be enchanted if it meant being contented too.
Back at the house, Alice shook her head and said, simply: ‘Mrs Roche.’ There was a hint of amused resignation in her voice.
‘Don’t mind her,’ he said.
‘She thinks I am a bad person.’
‘No she does not. She’s just—’
‘She doesn’t trust me.’
‘Will you stop? She doesn’t trust anyone.’
She gazed at a spot in the distance. ‘And you? Do you trust me?’
He answered rapidly because he needed to know where she was headed with this line of questioning. ‘Of course I do,’ he said.
‘But you worry.’
‘Worry? About what?’
‘About what other people say.’
‘No, no,’ he insisted.
She stared at him with coal-black, cavernous eyes. ‘You are happy?’
‘I am,’ he insisted.
‘Then why do you look like this?’ She furrowed her brow and tightened her lips. The impression was so good he wanted to laugh. How rough and sullen he must have seemed to her.
‘I just want to know when we’re going to—you know?’
Her lips formed a faint smile and she nodded. A lock of ebony hair escaped from the knot tied behind her head. She kept pushing it to one side but again and again it swayed across her face. He had not seen such a solitary thing before. He wondered how a man’s courage could be so solidly tested by a woman, so roundly defeated.
‘Soon,’ she said.
‘You know there’s no rush,’ he said.
She nodded and seemed momentarily lost in thought. Then she smiled again and touched his arm.
Mrs Roche’s condition worsened over the next few days and she was confined to her bed. When Thady spotted Mr. Roche in the front lawn he called to him. He was a slight man with a blade-like nose and lost eyes and he smiled a lot, a nervous impulse rather than an indication of his good humour.
‘How’s herself?’ asked Thady.
‘Bad,’ said Mr. Roche.
‘The doctor had his work cut out trying to persuade her to stay in bed. She’s not happy about it. The woman’s too headstrong for her own good.’
‘Indeed,’ said Thady.
‘You should call by later,’ said Mr. Roche. ‘She’d love the company. She was only saying the other day how she’d got off on the wrong foot with Alice.’
‘Where did she get that idea?’ asked Thady.
‘I don’t know but she wants to make up for it. She knows how she can come across sometimes. She doesn’t mean it really.’
Thady couldn’t believe his ears. The notion of a contrite Mrs Roche was beyond him. ‘I wouldn’t want to disturb her,’ he said.
‘You wouldn’t be, Thady. To tell the truth, I’m away this afternoon and it would put my mind at ease if someone were to check in on her.’
‘I’m fairly busy myself,’ said Thady.
‘Then ask Alice to call,’ suggested Mr. Roche.
‘I’ll say it to her.’
Alice initially declined the invitation but when Thady explained that Mrs Roche was alone during the afternoon she appeared to reconsider.
‘Do what you want, love,’ he said, adding, ‘the garden can wait. That’s what’s bothering you, isn’t it? The garden and all your jobs.’
She looked at him. An eyebrow rose curiously and she said: ‘Yes, that’s it.’
Later, Thady was spraying slurry over a large meadow on the border of his holdings. The field crested in one corner, offering a broad view of the land unfolding restlessly beneath him. It took him the best of the afternoon to complete the job and when he was done he shambled towards the high crest to bolt the gate and survey his work. Something flickered in the corner of his eye and when he looked towards the house he saw the tiny figure of his wife in their neighbour’s driveway, then stepping along the stone path through Mrs Roche’s flower beds, through the twisted branches of the alder and around the house until she stood at the back door. He felt an overwhelming affection for her—and a hunger, too. Before he’d left that afternoon, she’d kissed him and he’d grabbed her round the waist, then raised his palm to her shoulder blades and wished he could leave it there forever.
By the time he returned to the yard, the daylight was waning and a warm light glowed behind the curtains of the kitchen window. His entrance startled her. She seemed flustered for a moment but then she gathered herself. It was over a month now and they were still so shy around each other.
‘How is Mrs Roche?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know,’ she said.
‘But you saw her today.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘All day in garden.’
‘I thought— ‘
Alice was upon him in an instant. She slung her arms around his neck and shook her head. ‘All day in garden,’ she repeated.
The next morning Mrs Roche was dead. The church could not hold the number of shocked mourners that turned out for her funeral. Thady offered his sympathies to Mr. Roche in the house afterwards and noticed how childlike he was in grief, how ruddy and distraught. Alice waited patiently for him as he drifted between hushed conversations. The deep ruby light from the Sacred Heart enshrouded her and glanced off eyes that stared at Thady and when he nodded she came to him and wrapped her arm around him and his heart hammered and he thought he would die and be laid out just like Mrs Roche.
On the dark road home he was touched with a sense of regret and he sighed deeply. Alice pulled his sleeve inquisitively.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I was just thinking, no matter how much I hated that woman, she didn’t deserve what she got. I could have been nicer to her.’
Alice stopped and looked up at him. Thady returned her gaze and battled to hold his tongue. He searched her eyes for an answer to the question that had been plaguing him all week: Why did she deny visiting the dead woman when he had seen her from the eastern meadow?
In the end it was simple. It was a week after Mrs Roche’s death, eleven o’clock at night with the daylight long faded and stars scattered across the sky. They were in the sitting room. Alice, as she did every night, rose first to go to bed and kissed him on the forehead while he dozed amid the neon glow of the television.
‘Goodnight,’ she whispered.
‘Goodnight now,’ he said.
He heard her slippersteps on the stairs. Then he summoned all his strength to hoist himself out of his armchair. He turned off the television and rolled his shoulders. The rituals of night. Fatigue seeped into his body as familiar as the creeping darkness and the dying embers in the fireplace. He opened the front door and listened for any untoward sounds coming from the yard or the cowshed. He took a last glance at the outbuildings and when all seemed in order he reentered the house. He ascended the stairs to the landing and stopped outside her bedroom. The door was shut and he did not dare to touch or even approach it. He opened the door of his own room and at first he did not see the little mound on the bed and the deep turquoise light pouring through the window. Then he did. He stood frozen for a moment—then, breathing again, he sat at the end of the bed and removed his slippers and socks; but because his feet smelled so terribly of muck and sweat he descended the stairs to the bathroom and washed himself in shallow tubwater. He was less nervous then he thought he would be—but he was still nervous. ‘Jesus, Alice,’ he muttered beneath his breath. He didn’t know whether he was cursing from the surprise of her final acquiescence or from the thought that she was somehow rewarding him for his silence. He returned to his room and the bed creaked under his weight and he pressed himself against her and she turned to him. It did not matter that her eyes were closed and that she did not see him smiling in the fading light.