Kate Carroll is a warm, positive person anyway, but she has a new reason to smile these days.
And it’s to do with the amiable, grinning gentleman who has just brought coffees and biscuits into her living room, proffering them with a humorous flourish, before leaving us again to continue our chat.
“These last four or five months Derek and I have been together, and we are officially a couple,” she reveals almost shyly, but still clearly delighted.
And without sounding trite, no one deserves the happiness a new romance can bring more than she does.
The 66-year-old brunette (in the flesh, she looks at least 10 years younger) has been a constant voice representing the victims of the Northern Ireland Troubles since her policeman husband Constable Stephen Carroll was murdered on duty in Craigavon in 2009.
The 48-year-old, who was gunned down by dissident republican group, the Continuity IRA, after being lured out with his colleagues to a call-out in Lismore Manor, was the first police officer to be killed in Northern Ireland since the formation of the PSNI.
His death sent shockwaves around the Province, and represented a low point in the history of violence here in Northern Ireland; indeed, just two days earlier, two soldiers had been shot dead at Massereene Barracks in Antrim by dissidents.
For Kate Carroll, the life she had led with her partner of almost 30 years in their Banbridge home was shattered.
Of all the people who rallied round to support her, Derek Egerton was one; he kept in touch with her via Facebook, and eventually, following her 65th birthday, rang her up and invited her out for coffee.
Kate agreed - but persuaded one of her sisters to come along as a secret chaperone.
The date went well, but the grandmother of eight was unconvinced that she had found love again.
“This went on for about eight months, and every time we met, he would say,‘do you fancy me yet?’ and I would say, ‘no, I don’t.’”
However, things started to change after they had a brief period apart, and they both admitted that they missed each other.
“He asked me if I would like to go to the pictures, and when he came up that Tuesday night, I looked at him in a different light,” says Kate.
“We get on like a house on fire. He’s easygoing, he puts no pressure on me whatsoever,” she continues, adding that he helped her choose a frame for a picture she wanted to place on Steve’s grave.
And Kate says that her new love reminds her of her late husband in many ways.
“He is so much like Steve in his mannerisms and his ways, and one of the things he said to me I will never forget to my dying day. He said, ‘do you know something, Steve Carroll sent me to look after you.’”
Kate has also had the blessing of Steve’s family in her new romance.
“They told me to go for it, they’ve always been supportive to me and I love them, they are such lovely people.”
When I ask her how she feels about the future now she has Derek by her side, she says she has “somebody to back me up now, the way Steve did”.
And she adds: “Derek has said to me that Steve would be proud of me because I was keeping his memory alive, and I always promised him I would. I promised at the graveside that I would never be bitter or bigoted.”
If anyone ever had cause to feel bitter about the hand life has dealt her, it’s Kate Carroll, but within just five minutes of meeting her, I can tell she’s not that sort of person. She’s been to hell and back, but clearly refuses to let the pain of the past be the chains that shackle her from enjoying her future.
Ironically, her relationship with Stephen got off to a slow start too. Because he was 10 years younger than her, she was always concerned that he would want someone else as they both got older.
“He said to me, ‘can you not just let things happen?’ And we were married 27 years when he died, and were still very happy.”
The couple got engaged just a year after they met, and married two years later. Stephen was originally from Epping Forest in England, although he spent his childhood living in Co Kildare, where he was schooled.
He was in the Royal Military Police when he met Kate, but decided that he wanted to be based in Northern Ireland after they wed, and so applied for a number of jobs here. The first one he landed was with the PSNI.
“He loved what he did,” Kate says of her late husband’s feelings about his career. “But he also loved trying to educate children. He always thought they could be the driving force for change here.
“He tried to get young people into sport, and thought that if they were playing sport they wouldn’t have time to get involved in crime. That was his thinking and it would be mine as well.”
She adds that the pair of them used to sit on a Saturday night and talk about such issues, setting the world to rights. In fact, they enjoyed an evening doing just that two nights before Stephen was killed, and Kate still has the half empty bottle of wine they had been drinking. She can’t bring herself to throw it out.
Life as a police wife, she says, was happy “about 99 per cent of time”, because there was that constant niggle in the back of her mind, that little voice urging, ‘watch out, watch out.’
She goes on: “There were places you wanted to go to but couldn’t because Steve knew people or might have been recognised. When we did go away, we went down south or to Donegal. It was horrible because your life was never your own.”
And she recounts having to tell people half truths, that Steve was a PE teacher, because they could never admit what his real job was, and then those same friends to whom they had ‘lied’ turned up on Kate’s doorstep when her husband was murdered, to pay their respects. One of the things Stephen had always told Kate was that should policeman and a policewoman ever arrive at their door together, it meant the worst had happened.
And on the evening of March 7, 2009, at 11.20pm, a silver car pulled up into the quiet cul de sac where the Carroll household was located, and where Kate sat alone watching wildlife documentary, waiting on the phone call from her husband to signal that his shift was finished and he was on his way home, and to get the kettle on.
That call never came.
Instead, Kate’s world started to implode, as the two police officers came into her house and told her that Stephen had been shot dead.
“It felt like my eyes were staring into a big black tunnel,” she says, her arms breaking out in goosebumps as she recounts the awful memory.
“All I could think was, please don’t let him have suffered. Millions of other things came into my head, like what I was going to do now without him.”
It was some time before Kate felt able to visit the scene of the her husband’s murder, which she did when she was invited to make a documentary about it with broadcaster Stephen Nolan.
She remembers how she couldn’t take her eyes off the hill where it’s believed the gunmen hid and took aim at her husband.
It was the murder of Steve and the two soldiers in Antrim that marked the beginning of one of the most intensive periods of dissident republican activity since the beginning of their campaign.
Ironically, on that last Saturday evening they had spent together, Kate and Stephen’s conversation had taken a brief and somewhat disturbing turn when they discussed what kind of funerals they would like to have.
Stephen had requested that Pie Jesu be sung, just as it had at the Requiem Masses of Kate’s late parents.
They spoke some more, and then Kate insisted that they return to happier subjects, and they reflected on how lucky they were in their lives.
Little did they know what was just around the corner.
“Until this kind of thing happens to you, you’ll never, ever know the pain it causes.”
How did she ever find her way back from the darkness, and try to get on with her life?
“I assure you, it was very hard,” she admits. “I can remember lying in bed with that picture (of Stephen) and just praying to God to take me because I didn’t want to live - I’ll just be honest with you, I didn’t want to live.
“And then I prayed to God, ‘why did you take Steve? Why did you leave me here?’ Eventually I just thought to myself, come on Kate, you’re here for a reason.
“Don’t let this be the end of Steve. Get out there and fight, girl. Get out there and stop wallowing.”
She adds: “We spent 27 years together and we were always in each other’s company. We were best friends. In one of his last cards to me he wrote: ‘You and me were always meant to be.’”