It was a hot smudge of an afternoon and long-legged field flies drifted amongst the neat gardens. Along the terrace of twelve houses there was quietness to the air, broken only by bird chirps coming across the fields or the occasional, rolling hum of a car going through its gears somewhere further down the hill. Some people were gone for the day, eating ice- creams at the seaside; while others sat in their back gardens enjoying the shade and avoiding the hot indoors. Those who liked the sun lazed out front, reading a newspaper or listening to a faintly playing radio, then disappeared back inside every so often for a drink. In the kitchen of the third house, Kathleen pulled a chair to the sink and stood up onto it, taking bites of water from the tap and gasping in between. She grabbed her smooth stick of chalk and passed through the sultry hall, then out through the front door - wedged open to welcome cool air, a visitor that would never arrive.
Kathleen jumped off the step and kneeled in the warm grass, squinting as she wrote her name across the vertical boards of the fence, with a single, shaky white letter on each panel. As she paused to consider her next scrawl, Kathleen heard a low voice. She turned, expecting someone to have opened the gate and stepped into the garden, but the wood was still and the metal latch winked at her like a bright, silvery eye. It was then that she heard it again and her blue eye pulled to a gap in the timber panels to see the lady in the garden sitting as always, next door in her wheelchair, with her hair like suds and her glasses like swirls of liquorice and her blanketed legs poking out the bottom like sticks of rhubarb planted into frothy slippers. A wasp hovered around her bubble hair and Kathleen watched it land amongst the nectarless curls, then take off again in zigzag flight.
"I wish I was dead."
She pressed her face against the wood and tried to see who the lady in the garden might be talking to, for sometimes men with hairy noses and flat caps would stop by the gate for a conversation, resting their pale hands on the wood, squinting at the sun; or ladies with sagging tights and curling hairdos would step into the garden and lean in as they spoke, nodding and rearranging their handbags, then fixing her blanket before they left - but the gate remained on its latch and the path was empty and grey. It seemed like it could be one of those days when the lady in the garden sat an entire afternoon without interaction from another human being.
"I wish I was dead."
Kathleen watched the old shoulders rise up briefly, then settle down into a long summer sigh; and she thought that the lady in the garden was talking to either herself or God. She listened a moment, waiting for more old words; then held her chalk up to the fence-gap and shook it side to side, pretending to colour in the lady's hair and wishing that her chalk was blue or maybe green. She left the fence and crawled along the garden path then, drawing squares and writing numbers inside them.
One. Two. Three. Four.
When she had reached ten and almost ran out of room, up she leapt and started to hop and skip amongst them; singing a rhyme as she moved back and forth along the garden path - turning at the step, moving back through her squares, then turning at the gate.
She saw Mr. Taylor from the end house come idling up the road, tweed jacket hooked into his fingers and falling over one shoulder. He stopped at next door's gate and reached over, letting himself in and trying to blow his nose with a handkerchief at the same time. When he stepped in, the lady in the garden sat unblinking and grey, and Kathleen interrupted her game to kneel by the fence and pant and listen.
Mr. Taylor's voice sounded like machinery that was no longer running as it should, and in between dabbing his forehead and nodding, he leaned on a hip and stood like a teapot. The lady in the garden replied with words that were as soft as tall grass and few in their number.
Kathleen became disinterested then, and stood up to continue her game. She did ten runs of the path and sometime in between, Mr. Taylor had left and latched the gate again and drove off in his red car.
Sitting on the step for a rest, Kathleen tried to stand her stick of chalk upright and watched it topple over each time and roll towards the edge. As she examined its worn tip with a dusty thumb, the rumble of some distant plane swelled overhead and faces from gardens looked up to catch its snapshot against the blue satin sky. Just as its presence faded into warm summer hush, Kathleen heard something flick against the fence. She left her chalk upon the step and as she kneeled down at the fence, she looked along the timber boards and tilted her head until she saw train tracks. She paused and smiled about the train tracks running around all of the gardens and a mystery train choo-chooing through at night while people snored in their beds.
Something flicked again. She peered through a gap in the panels and saw Glenn McElroy in the next garden over, standing up smiling and taking aim, then throwing something tiny that landed right in the lady in the garden's frothy hair. Glenn disappeared and the lady in the garden didn't move. Then, up bobbed Ricky Harshaw with a smile across his lips. Kathleen watched him throw and miss, his object flicking against the wood not too far from her face. She spied it in the grass and saw that it was a peanut.
Kathleen crawled along the path like a crab and reached up to unlatch the gate, then made out onto the street, keeping low to avoid being seen by the lady in the garden. When she reached the next garden over, she crept along its path and there was Glenn and Ricky, hunkered down with their sweaty fringes hanging over a bowl of peanuts.
"What're you doing?"
They sniggered. "Watch this." Glenn grabbed a peanut, stood up and took aim, then landed it perfectly into the lady in the garden's hair. They all watched for a reaction, but there was none.
"Don't do that," said Kathleen.
Ricky stood up and threw his. It missed the lady in the garden and hit the fence. "Missed again!"
"You're rubbish!" said Glenn.
The boys ate a peanut and Kathleen had one too, then the front door opened and there was Glenn's dad stretching and yawning with his belly poking out from under his navy t-shirt.
"What're you childer up to?"
"Just eating peanuts, dad."
"Well, don't eat too many or you'll all end up with the shits."
Glenn's dad came out then, and sat on the low summer-seat under the window, where he put his head back against the brown sill and closed his eyes. After a few seconds, he opened them again and watched the kids sitting quietly, eating peanuts, before shifting his gaze to the lady in the garden.
"Can we all have a lolly out of the fridge, dad?"
He scratched at his unshaven face and crossed one leg over the other. His gaze seemed locked on the lady in the garden and even as the sun pushed into his eyes, still, he watched her.
"Did you offer Mrs. McEldane a nut?"
Glenn's eyes widened. "No."
"Right, well, away you go around and ask her if she wants a few nuts, son."
"I'll go later on, sure. I think she's maybe asleep."
"You'll go now.” Glenn's dad uncrossed his legs. “I’m warning you, don't be eating all them nuts or you'll be lying up later with sore guts and your ma will blame me!"
As Glenn stood up and started to climb over the fence, his dad leaned forward and flicked a finger towards the road, "Don't be so lazy and go around through the gate like any normal person."
Glenn got back down again and lifted the bowl of nuts, then sighed, and skulked his way up the path dragging his shoes along the concrete like they were made of iron. He opened the gate and stood out on the footpath, looking both directions and loitering like someone waiting on a lift.
Kathleen and Ricky stood up at the fence to see, resting their hands on the wood, while Glenn’s father shook his head and made a tutting noise, before leaning back with his head against the sill and his eyes closed again. Glenn made his way along the street and into her garden and shut the gate behind him, as though he intended to stay a long time or as though the lady in the garden were a small dog who might suddenly escape out onto the road to be run over by a tractor. He stepped onto the grass and held out the bowl and could see his reflection in her black liquorice glasses.
“Would you like a couple of nuts?”
She reached out and took the bowl from him, leaning in then towards the nuts as though she were searching for a particular one in the pile. As her bony hand, with its aqua veins and pallid skin selected a nut and placed it into her wrinkled mouth, Glenn noticed three nuts in her hair, then a fourth, then watched her finger hover above the bowl as if choosing another. She looked up at Glenn and nodded briefly, before shunting the bowl towards him and flinging all of the nuts into his face. He stood there with his shoulders arched and arms held out like he’d just been soaked by a bucket of water. A stray nut that had momentarily caught between his lips, dislodged and fell down into the grass.
Glenn began to cry and walked a slow walk out onto the road, then back into his own garden.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked his father, suddenly opening his eyes.
Glenn bawled past him and into the house, before slamming a door. His father looked to Kathleen and Ricky. “What happened?”
“I’ve to go home,” said Ricky, springing to his feet. He left the garden and ran away up the street.
“Did you see what happened, Kathleen?”
“They threw the nuts at her and then she wished she was dead and so then, she just threw the nuts back at them, to make it all even.”
“Who was throwing nuts? My Glenn?”
Glenn’s father stood up and went inside.
“Where are you, you wee shite?”
Kathleen sat for a moment, waiting, in case Glenn came back outside – then thought of her chalk and decided it was time to go home. As she stood up and walked the length of the path, the sun was hung high in the sky and made her squint. She glanced over the fence at the lady in the garden and thought she saw a smile on her pale, old face - but couldn’t be sure. As she stepped out into the street, Kathleen heard a dog barking and knew it was the tiny brown one from number seven, just by the pitch of its yelp. She thought she heard the lady in the garden laugh then, but was too afraid to look where she could be seen to do so, out on the bright, open street. By the time she was in her own garden again and had latched the gate, she could hear the laughter and it was real, and loud and rasping. Kathleen ran to the step and picked up her chalk, before kneeling at the fence to see.
As the sun caught the back of her neck and stung like a slap, Kathleen felt in her hand that the chalk was warm and it surprised her. She glanced at her white squares on the path knowing the rains would come sometime to wash them away, then looked between the boards at the old shoulders rising up and down, and listened as the sound of aged laughter filled the sultry summer air.