It had been a funny sort of a week, all told, thought Michael as he took his place among the mourners. He slid a look at the shiny brown coffin at the front of St Joseph’s Church, but couldn't quite bring himself to think about what – who – it contained.
Michael ran a finger around his too tight collar and tried to distract himself with holy thoughts as Mass began. But this distinctly unusual week had been unsettling and it interfered with any attempt at serenity. He found himself trembling.
First, there had been the calf caught in the drain on Monday. He'd helped pull the beast free and got a bone-crunching kick for his trouble. He'd limped home for a cup of tea and a sympathetic scolding.
"You silly old fool," Mary should have said. "Getting yourself all roughed up like that at your age. Where are all the young ones to help? And now look what you've gone and done to your leg…" and she would have cleaned him up and made a cup of tea and slapped a thick slice of buttered brack down on the table in front of him.
But when he got there, she was gone, the kitchen cold and empty. He saw the note propped up against the tea caddy and he took it down and set it on the dresser before he brewed the tea. He’d been expecting it and decided he didn't need to open it just yet.
Patsy, a distant cousin from Charlestown, called in, on the pretext of collecting numbers for St Joseph’s Church Supper next week. "Mary not here then?" she asked, skimming expert eyes around the room, taking note of the neat emptiness. No doubt she saw the unopened letter too, but Michael wasn’t forthcoming.
"Ballina," he'd said, without further comment. He enjoyed thwarting her quests for gossip. She offered to dress his wound, but he couldn't recall where the first aid stuff was and he didn't want her rooting around, looking. He feigned wellness and so Patsy left after making a few lame remarks about Mayo’s chances next year and refusing a cup of tea. Funny how she can always be relied upon to sniff out a crisis, he thought, when he finally found the bandages.
But a damaged leg and a missing wife turned out to be the least of Michael’s problems, as it happened. Mattie, his long time friend and neighbour, stopped by next morning and found Michael down on his hands and knees trying to light the range.
"Hasn't gone out in years," said Michael, getting up. As he straightened, he winced at the spike of pain in his leg.
"Your leg bad then?" asked Mattie, master of the understatement.
"Ay," admitted Michael. "But I'll probably live," and the words rang in his ears as the two men headed for the barn. Mattie wanted to borrow the monkey wrench.
The sight of the boy in Mayo’s green and red dangling from the rafters above them as they swung open the side door would stay with Michael for a long time.
Later, Michael wanted to tell Mary about it, but of course, she wasn't there. Young Tom had been on work experience, part of an agricultural science programme. Michael always thought the boy had been getting on well. For months, he turned up on time, did what he was asked, didn't say much. He’d never been any trouble.
The Gardai arrived and then the boy's father, pale and red-eyed. There was a girl involved, a losing team, a failed driving test and poor exam results, and an entire bottle of Jameson’s missing from the press, it seemed. Whatever straw had broken this camel’s back, there were plenty to choose from. "My brother went the same way, this week three years gone," the poor man whispered.
Michael shook his head and made the sign of the cross. Mary might have known what to say to the family, but she wasn't here. Michael was at a loss, hanging his head in awkward silence while they dealt with everything.
When the phone rang later, Michael was vague about the day's activities. His daughter Meg always rang on Wednesdays, wanting to know what was going on. It didn't seem right to dampen her good humour. "It's been raining again," he ventured.
"Well, that's a surprise!" he heard her laugh at the other end.
"And I had a tin of soup for my tea!" No need to spread bad news.
Two more days came and went. Michael wanted his wife there to make the world right again. But she wasn't home. Instead, he'd stood next to Mattie and his wife Eileen as they'd paid their respects at the funeral home, and they'd talked quietly with their neighbours about the people who were no longer with them.
Michael caught another look at the coffin and glanced across at his friend. He sighed. He'd known Mattie all his life. They'd lived next door, been to school together, chased the same girls, farmed adjacent land. One way or another, they'd shared a life. It seemed so unfair that young Tom wouldn’t have the same chances.
He sat there and tried to control the trembling until a comforting hand reached across and squeezed his arm. He felt Mary's familiar frame press into the seat beside him, and suddenly he felt better able to cope with whatever life threw at him with this special woman back by his side.
Michael had not bothered to open the note on the kitchen dresser. He knew she'd be back, whether on Saturday or Monday, it made no difference. She'd been at Pauline's in Ballina, helping with the grandchildren. The note contained instructions on where to find things, what to cook for dinner, which day to put the bins out, what to feed the dog - when she'd be back.
He'd managed in the end. But he'd an awful lot to tell her about his week.