Kate Carroll’s friends don’t hear her dead husband's voice any more. They’d got used to it over the last five years; every time they couldn’t reach her, they got Stephen instead. But Kate has her own phone now, with her own answer message.
“I've just bought myself a new mobile,” she says.
“I’d been using Steve’s old one and everybody was making fun of me because it was in tatters. Then it finally stopped working ...”
It’s five years on and I’m back in Kate Carroll’s immaculate Banbridge home.
The house itself doesn’t appear to have changed much, but the person who lives there clearly has.
Kate Carroll will turn 64 this year; not that it shows. She could easily pass for someone 10 years younger.
She’s much slimmer now, and on the day we meet she’s elegantly dressed in black trousers and a black and white top, with flawless make-up and rich, long brown hair pulled back into a loose ponytail.
She’s more confident too, and when she recalls the brutal murder of her 48-year-old husband at the hands of dissident republicans, it’s clear that the passing of time has given her a harder edge.
The Kate Carroll of today is a stark contrast to the gaunt, shock-ridden figure I first met on the morning of March 10, 2009, a few hours after she had been told her beloved husband had become the first PSNI officer to be murdered by terrorists.
Within a couple of days, an unknown cleaner from Co Down had become the woman dominating news agendas throughout the world.
One of the first things she said to me that morning remains seared into the memory: “A good husband has been taken away from me and my life has been destroyed ... and what for? A piece of land that my husband is only going to get six feet of ...”
Those haunting words, repeated many times since, epitomised the bravery and dignity shown by the bereaved Kate when the eyes of the world were upon her.
After Constable Carroll’s funeral in Banbridge — a PSNI funeral attended by republican politicians — on March 13, 2009, the media disappeared with their notebooks, cameras and microphones, leaving a shattered woman to begin the process of getting on with life bereft of someone who, in so many ways, had made it all worthwhile in the first place.
But life is moving on for Kate — although there's no doubt ‘Steve’ is never far away from her thoughts.
“The minute I wake up, the first thing I do is say hi to his picture,” she says.
“Then I have breakfast and I plan my day as best I can, trying to keep busy.”
She has a lot of friends to occupy her time, as well as an ever-increasing family; there have been two more births — and another on the way — since her husband was taken.
Kate’s only son Shane (42), from a previous marriage, and his wife, Elaine, who is in her late 30s, are expecting a sixth child, but she’s already a grandmother to Dean (13), seven-year-old Katelyn, Jordan (5), three-year-old Skye and Carly-Rose (1).
“Shane and Steve were very close; it's very hard for me to grasp that Steve is missing out on all these grandchildren because he loved them all so much,” Kate says.
When I first knocked on the front door of her home on that bleak Tuesday morning five years ago, it was Kate's sister Marie who opened it.
Kate was inside, her life suddenly hollowed out by an atrocity for whom the Continuity IRA had just claimed responsibility.
This time, however, it’s a bright, breezy afternoon and I’m initially greeted by a rotund black and white cat named Charlie, who paid a visit 18 months ago and decided to stay, despite finding the homeowner in one of her darker moments.
“I was in the conservatory late one night, crying my heart out, when I spotted him and opened the door,” she says.
“Charlie came running in to the house and he’s been here ever since. It’s as if he was sent to keep me company.”
Kate hasn’t been short of company over the last five years; ex-PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde — who told an emotionally-charged funeral service in St Therese Catholic Church in Banbridge that his slain officer would never be forgotten — is among those who have kept in touch.
But her rehabilitation suffered a major setback in April 2011, when 25-year-old Constable Ronan Kerr was killed by a booby-trap car bomb outside his home in Killyclogher, near Omagh.
“That was like enduring Steve's death all over again. It was dreadful; they had deliberately set out to kill that young man — for nothing,” Kate says.
“At the end of the day there’s been nothing achieved by it.”
She adds: “Ronan’s mother Nuala and myself met and were able to console each other, and we’ve kept in touch. Nuala’s a friend. We’re there for each other.”
Constable Kerr’s brutal murder was another shocking reminder that the Northern Ireland peace process still has some way to go.
The dissidents remain a tangible threat, although the widow of their first PSNI victim remains cautiously optimistic about the future.
“I like to think this country has moved on in tentative steps from when Steve was murdered,” she says.
“Religion and politics shouldn’t be used as flags to flare up hatred and distrust. A country is just a country; if you don’t want to live in one that’s torn apart by religion, then do something about it.”
Stephen Carroll, shot dead after responding to an emergency call at Lismore Manor, Craigavon, paid the ultimate price for trying to make Northern Ireland a better place, but Kate says she has forgiven the people behind the murder.
“Previously they had the power to make me hurt but, by forgiving, I took that power from them. I could then move forward with my life and try to regain some sanity,” she says.
In 2012, Brendan McConville, from Glenholme Avenue in Craigavon, and John Paul Wooton, from Collindale in Lurgan, were found guilty of Constable Carroll's murder and jailed for 25 and 14 years respectively. Both are appealing against their convictions.
Kate, meanwhile, is getting on with her life, and one of the principal things in her in-tray is the Steve Carroll Foundation, a cross-community charity which promotes equality, diversity and a shared future for Northern Ireland's youngsters — where labels such as ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ play no part.
This is a woman many still look up to and admire; a woman who once had First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness sitting together in her house, a woman who played a key role in pulling Northern Ireland back from the
abyss at a time when sinister forces were determined to push it over the edge.
Even now, people come up to her and commend her on the dignity, bravery and restraint she showed at the lowest point in her life.
That life is without a husband, but also without bitterness.
“Whenever there’s a lot taken from you, there’s a lot given back,” she says.
Kate looks radiant these days and is still an attractive woman; is there a chance that romance, like Charlie the cat, might come calling one of these days?
“I haven’t met anybody else and I’m not looking,” she says.
“It would need to be someone who matched up to Steve in every way ... Could anybody? No. There’s your answer ...”
Her late husband, whom she met on a blind date in 1983, would have turned 54 this year and the couple should have been celebrating their 29th wedding anniversary on August 24.
Shortly before a single shot from a high-velocity sniper's rifle took his life, the couple had planned to renew their wedding vows.
Kate — who once told me that, at the height of her grief, she'd considered digging up Stephen’s coffin just to be near him — has accepted that he’s gone, but |sometimes the mind plays cruel tricks.
“Last Christmas Eve I woke up and everything in the house was clean and tidy ... all the decorations were up and I thought: ‘Steve will be home soon’ ... and then I remembered that he’s never coming home,” she says.
“For that split second, however, I was so happy.”
She adds: “I’m afraid that one day I’ll wake up and he'll not be the first thing I think about. It’s a fear of forgetting what he looks like, how he sounds.”
That’s highly unlikely; at one stage, Kate points to skirting boards she says could do with a lick of paint — but that’s a job that Steve was doing when he was taken from her. It remains unfinished.
A tree that stood in the back garden five years ago has, however, been cut down.
And now, when Kate is hanging out the washing, from her garden she can actually see the grave of the man she had hoped to grow old with; an all too clear vision of the six feet of earth that will always be his.
DARK PERIOD IN RECENT HISTORY
The murder of Stephen Carroll came just two days after two off-duty soldiers, Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, were shot dead outside Massereene barracks in Antrim on March 7, 2009.
Constable Carroll died from a single gunshot wound to the head at Lismore Manor, Craigavon, after a terrorist gang had lured a PSNI patrol into an ambush by throwing a brick through a window of a house, knowing the police would respond.
The Continuity IRA claimed responsibility for the first PSNI officer to be murdered by paramilitaries. Two days after Constable Carroll's death, thousands of people attended silent protest rallies in Belfast, Lisburn, Newry, Downpatrick and Londonderry to show their anger at the three murders.
The following day, thousands lined the streets outside St Therese Church in his hometown of Banbridge where a funeral mass was held. Among those attending were An Garda Siochana Commissioner Fachtna Murphy, the then Secretary of State Shaun Woodward and a delegation from Sinn Fein.