He places the cloth bag carefully on the kitchen table; Formica, worn and chipped. She had trained him in in the use of cloth bags. You would have thought the simple act of remembering to take a cloth bag to the shops was a panacea against climate change. More like a superstitious tick, like genuflecting at church or throwing salt over your shoulder. Something to make you feel like you are warding off an even greater calamity when the real damage has already been done. He unpacks the bag carefully: a hammer, a hatchet, some rope, an apple. The apple was impulsive, they looked fresh. Crisp and juicy. He tells himself he must eat it soon. He has his own superstitions and the longer an apple is the house the more he suspects that it is mealy. Many a good apple has gone to waste because he couldn’t shake the feeling it was imperfect in a sickening, unnameable way. Of course, you can never tell with apples, not until you take a bite, but he could never bring himself to take that risk.
He tells himself the plan again. The sweet peas will need something to grow over and the old trellis needs replacing. A simple task. Easy. Some stakes linked by rope will do nicely. Did he get nails? No, he’s got nails – will they do? The ones that are curved like staples. And the wood, chopping those stakes in half, was it? Yes, that will do the trick. Had you asked him two years ago what sweet peas smelled like he would have thought you daft. But her niece had bought some to the funeral, had remembered they were her favourite flower, knew that she grew them every year. She had taken him aside and told him of her earliest memories, picking sweet peas in the garden in an impossibly endless summer and had waved her bouquet under his nose. A smell he knew intimately but had never given a single moment’s thought to. It struck him then like a sudden violence. Sweet and deep, somehow startling that nature could produce an aroma so complex and intense; the wafting fragrance of grief, beckoning and pulling. It hooked a piece of him and now his dreams overflow with summer and sweet peas. Summer and sweet peas and loneliness like honey – so deep and sticky you can’t help but to drown in it.
He goes looking for the nails. He should get started as soon as possible. And the seeds! Don’t forget the seeds. Her niece told him the type to get, the type she loved, and he even got her to write it down. Then he lost the paper, of course. She would have rolled her eyes at that; she would have scolded, but the people at the garden centre were helpful and he had the seeds he purchased. He had them somewhere. She always kept seeds in a drawer in the cabinet by the back door. He probably put them there. Should have a rummage about. A lot to do though. The stakes, and the rope, and the nails like staples. He has a plan and if he stops for a second, if he concentrates, it will refocus in his mind. It always does, mostly. In the kitchen he fills up the kettle and puts it on the stove. A cup of tea is always a good idea. He has started using her mug and he is not really sure why. When they came to clean things out, he thinks he might have made a scene. It was too soon. He resented their briskness and matter-of-factness. It was just the face of pragmatism their sadness wore, but still, it boiled him up inside. He managed to hide her slippers under the bed when no one was watching but the mug was where he made his stand. Why get rid of a perfectly good mug, he had demanded, why does all evidence of her existence have to be erased? They looked at him quizzically, made him feel the fool and said they had no intention of taking the mug. It was, after all, only a mug. After they left, he had sat at the table and sobbed clutching slippers and a mug. But they had been tears of rage, not grief. Grief brought no tears. Grief was a still summer afternoon and the smell of sweet peas. Grief was a plan to rig up a frame with some old stakes and rope and reassure her that he was still an agent in the world even if only in this smallest of ways. While the kettle is on, he picks up the hammer and the hatchet and the rope and places them on top of the cabinet by the back door. Because the seeds are there. Somewhere. They must be.
He jiggles the teabag while staring out the kitchen window. The milk is off again. Black it is. He might go for a walk later. Just around the park. Not too far this time. So much fuss after the last time even though he assured them he was perfectly fine; that time just sort of slipped away from him. He joked that at his age he had accumulated so much time that some of it was bound to slip out of his grasp. A weak joke, told weakly, and no one laughed. There had been serious talks but he had mustered all his past authority, remembered the cadence and rhythm with which he addressed them when they were uncooperative teenagers. It had worked, just, but he knew it wouldn’t again.
He sips the tea and burns his tongue. Still too hot. And no biscuits. She had noticed, of course, before pain blinded her to everything else, that the walks were getting longer; the seam of relief which held his jauntiness together when, eventually, he got home. She had seen all the little things, the lingering moments it took to place friends and family. Almost half an hour with Mark’s wife once, before she quietly whispered the name to him in the kitchen. When you have been together longer than anything else you can recall, it is impossible to hide. You are joined like atrium and ventricle. Things may be unsaid or half-said but not hidden. When did he meet her? He remembers the vision of her descending sandstone steps and the way her shy smile jolted against the intensity with which she held his gaze. They were joined then, at that moment, and later when they promised themselves there would be an infinite tomorrow. They had told each other that lie for a long time, whispering it to one another like a spell. He shakes himself free from the tide of reverie. He’s never been sentimental and there’s no point starting now. Nothing to be gained. Not what she would have wanted. People pry into his business far too easily now, any weakness will only make them keener. He finds a newspaper and sits down at the kitchen table; Formica, worn and chipped. A single apple on the table. He eyes it suspiciously. He tries to remember how long it has been sitting there. It could be mealy. It looks good but you can never tell with apples, not until you take a bite. He sighs with a slight shake of his head and picks it up to drop in the bin. Probably been there for days.