Jim gazed at the shrivelled tomato vines that lay limply across the ground amongst an ocean of weeds. Beyond lay row upon row of wilted spinach, whose leafy stems had been all but devoured by an army of slugs. The crimson rosebush was being strangled by angry briars, attempting to salvage it of all beauty.
Jim heaved a weary sigh.
This wasn’t the way things used to be, he thought.
He stood for a moment and reminisced about the past.
In the centre of the garden stood a quaint cottage where Jim and his wife, Máire, had happily resided for the last forty years. They were a popular pair in their home village of Oulart. Máire was a tender-hearted lady whose eyes radiated warmth. Jim was a hardy ex-farmer who was as stubborn as a mule, and equally as rugged. They were like chalk and cheese, and yet, they were inseparable.
As Jim and Máire never had children, they found an alternative hobby – gardening. What began as a modest row of green beans soon grew into an oasis of abundance. It took hours of hard work and Jim often joked to his neighbours that tending a garden was more challenging than raising a child. Yet, this did not dissuade the couple for they took great pride in what they had created.
In the summertime, when the sun blazed above in a sea of endless blue, Jim and Máire would sit together in the garden, admiring their masterpiece while sipping on ice-cold glasses of tangy lemonade.
Máire was a talented cook and Jim, her food critic. They made a great team. Máire delighted in using their homegrown produce to prepare wholesome dishes and Jim took great pleasure in devouring it all.
From Irish stews packed with softened carrots and juicy tomatoes to buttery apple tarts drizzled in homemade custard, he was spoiled for choice.
“I need to hire another taster,” Máire would chuckle heartily while rubbing Jim’s growing belly. “If I keep feeding you, I’ll be rolling you out to the garden!”
Máire cooked daily, and yet, the pair were always left with more fruit and vegetables than they knew what to do with.
“I’ve carrots coming out of my ears!” Máire would say, as she attempted to pack yet another sack of vegetables into the overflowing pantry.
Irritated by the mountain of fluffy tomatoes and mouldy potatoes that was accumulating, Jim and Máire were determined to find a solution. But what? The answer came to Jim one Sunday afternoon.
It was a cloudy, non-descript day when he saw Tom Edwards pottering across the road, laden down with heavy shopping bags. Tom, who was once an outgoing man, had lost his wife five years previously. He now lived a life of solitude in their stone cottage at the edge of the village. Until that moment, Jim had never thought about how lonely such a life could be. He pictured Tom in his kitchen, peeling speckled spuds and basting meat before setting a small table for one. He imagined Tom devouring gravy-soaked potatoes in silence, the chatter of the radio his only form of company. Jim realised that there was more than one person like Tom in the village.
That evening, Jim followed the herby aroma of roast chicken to find his wife in the kitchen. He loosened her hands from the pot in which she was stirring vigorously and took them into his own. He announced his news: he had found their solution.
Máire stared impatiently into her husband’s grey eyes, eager to learn more about his idea.
“I am blessed to have a kind and beautiful wife like you,” he began. “But not everyone is so lucky. Tonight, while I gorge on plump roast chicken and crispy spuds in your splendid company, there are people nearby dining alone.
“Why don’t we set up a community kitchen where they can come for good food and company?”
Máire’s crinkled face lit up. Jim wouldn’t expect anything else. Máire had always been a charitable woman who would put anyone before herself.
It was this considerate nature that made him fall in love with her all those years ago. Well that, and her delectable cooking!
The duo nattered on about the idea until long after the sun sank behind the rolling hills. They discussed everything, from what meals they would serve to where their kitchen would be located. Although they bickered into the early hours about minor details – such as the necessity of tea cosies – overall, their plan seemed feasible.
Unfortunately, their dream was never brought to fruition as Máire soon fell ill. She was feeling drained, with neither the energy to garden nor the appetite to eat. She remained in bed, her tiny body engulfed in a mountain of heavy duvets and soft cotton throws.
Jim delivered her breakfast on a tray, which he carried with shaking hands to their sun-drenched bedroom. He was anxious for his wife. Her illness was leaching colour from her rosy cheeks by the day. Yet, she had always been strong. He remained hopeful that this time would be no different.
As Máire’s health continued to deteriorate, Jim insisted that she pay a visit to their doctor. After several days of tests, coupled with endless poking, prodding and questions, they finally discovered what the problem was.
The moment the doctor uttered the word, Jim felt his whole world crash around him. Cancer. He always shuddered when he heard that word. Now it had become part of their reality. The doctor told the couple that there was nothing that could be done to save Máire. They allowed her to go home to spend her remaining weeks in comfort.
The following weeks were a blur. Night and day, Jim sat by his fading wife’s bedside, laughing, chatting, recalling the past and in the end, saying nothing at all.
The funeral was the largest the village had ever known. Friends and family squeezed tightly into pews and trickled out onto church steps. People shook Jim’s hand with sympathetic faces, mumbling their sincere regrets. When her coffin was lowered and covered with earth, Jim placed a bunch of their crimson roses on her grave and bid a final farewell to his beloved wife.
Following Máire’s death, Jim was a different man. He felt numb, hopeless, sorrowful. He ceased to take care of himself or his garden. In fact, he couldn’t even bring himself to venture outside. Until that day…
Jim had vivid memories of the old garden. Succulent raspberries dangling tauntingly from delicate stalks. Neat rows of bright orange carrots poking leafy heads out from the earth. The intoxicating smell of roses that hung lazily in the air.
Yet these were merely memories. His garden would never be the flourishing paradise that it once was, for plants need sunshine to grow. Jim had lost all sunshine from his life. He couldn’t go ahead with their kitchen plan alone. He wouldn’t do it alone.
Why should I help other lonely people, he thought bitterly as he gazed at the amber rust that sprawled across Máire’s old shovel. I’m lonely. People should help me!
Even the birds refused to visit the garden. Their fruity chortling had disappeared from Jim’s life just as Máire had. The garden had fallen into ruin but Jim couldn’t care less.
He turned his back on the tangled mess and strolled back towards the cottage, shoulders hunched. Just as he was nearing the door, he lost his footing on a crumbling step and fell hard on the ground. Jim winced as he felt a sharp jolt of pain shoot up his leg and right up to his hip bone.
He lay on the ground for several moments, helpless. How was he going to get out of this mess? He tried to lift himself to his feet but once he rested weight on his left foot, his knee buckled and he returned to the ground with a thud. As stubborn and proud as Jim was, he knew it was time for Plan B.
“Help!” he cried in distress. “Someone please help.”
Luckily, Jim’s neighbour Anna was out walking her dog when she heard the old man’s pitiful cry. She peered through the side gate of the garden and caught sight of Jim amid the towering grass.
She ran over and crouched down beside him while she called an ambulance. She clutched his hand to comfort him as they waited for the medics to arrive. Jim lay in quiet sadness. Anna’s soft touch and gentle voice reminded him of Máire. He wished that she was there to mind him. Jim’s leg was badly broken and so, the doctors persuaded him to spend several weeks in the hospital while he recuperated. Jim agreed, albeit very reluctantly.
He didn’t like the hospital. He loathed the cold hands, clinical bedrooms and tasteless meals. He hated it because it reminded him of death. He hated it because it reminded him of her. At least I have company here, thought Jim.
Following several weeks of solitude, he appreciated the friendly chatter of the nurses and the low hum of the frail old woman across the room.
In fact, he grew to appreciate the company so much that he felt a tinge of disappointment when he was given permission to leave. He didn’t want to face his empty house without Máire.
To help him to settle back into normal life, a nurse named Siobhán was sent to look after him for several days. Jim had grown fond of the young nurse. Her petite frame and dimpled smile gave her an angelic appearance but he knew there was no messing with her. She was well able to tolerate his stubborn temperament and that was what he needed.
The summer sun was beaming in the sky on the afternoon of Jim’s return. Still quite weak, he had been advised to use a wheelchair for several days.
“Let’s go to the garden,” insisted Siobhan.
Jim had no interest in spending time in his garden but he knew that there was no arguing with her. He sighed deeply but kept quiet.
As Siobhan pushed his chair along the pathway, Jim thought again of Máire. “…I will be rolling you out to the garden…,” she had said.
Jim managed a weak smile. He doubted that this was what she had in mind!
On reaching the garden, Jim was met with a pleasant shock. There in his garden stood all of his friends and neighbours. A colourful banner that read ‘Welcome Home Jim’ was tied to the trunks of the two apple trees. In the corner, a garden table was piled high with dainty sandwiches, decadent cream cakes and endless pots of freshly brewed tea. Colourful balloons tied to the edge of his shed danced in the gentle breeze.
Yet Jim noticed none of this for he was too busy taking in something else: his garden. Gone were the pesky weeds and knotted brambles. Lush green cabbages stood neatly in line in the vegetable patch. The branches of the apple tree bore small dappled fruit. Máire’s rose bush had been released from the briar’s snare and now flourished under the dazzling sunlight. The garden had been restored to its former glory.
Jim was still struggling to find words when he was approached by Tom Edwards.
“Welcome home Jim. We thought we’d help you to tidy up your garden,” he chirped merrily. “We can’t have you giving up on your plan! We’re all here to help. You aren’t alone you know.”
Jim beamed as he gazed at the gleeful faces around him before fixing his eyes on the crimson rosebush. Perched gracefully on a stem was a singing robin. As he filled the summer air with his rich warbles, Jim felt a rush of joy within him, as if Máire was there with him.
He smiled to himself and realised that Tom was right. He wasn’t alone. She would always be there beside him.
(First published in Ireland’s Own magazine: print edition. Also available online at: https://www.irelandsown.ie/original-short-story-the-living-garden/)