A Mitford Novel
Excerpt from book:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 Jan Karon
His wife was determined to march him to the country club this Saturday evening. Worse, he’d have to stuff himself into his old tux like sausage into a casing.
The Irish breakfast—more properly, a resplendent banquet on a plate—was the culprit. He had tried to restrict himself to three such repasts during their stay in County Sligo, but ended up devouring seven, two of them out of view of his wife. He didn’t know about St. Paul, but the grim baggage of diabetes was definitely this cleric’s thorn.
‘I’m still jet-lagged,’ he said.
‘Jet lagged? After ten days? Try again, sweetheart.’
There was a busy silence. They sat in his study, finishing a second cup of coffee. Rain gleamed on the leaves of the maple outside the vast window; fog capped the mountains beyond. ‘Our observatory,’ he reasoned, when faced with the alarming cost of so much glass.
‘It’s an important occasion, Timothy. Your doctor is retiring after decades of sleep loss and patients who won’t do what the doctor ordered.’
So? Hardly anyone ever did what the priest ordered, either.
‘Then he’s volunteering to serve in one of the worst areas of famine in the world.’
She pressed her case as he wrestled an unsettling truth— with Hoppy Harper out of the picture, he would fall into the hands of Doctor Wilson, who, in his opinion, was yet the unlicked cub, medically speaking.
‘And Father Timothy Kavanagh,’ she said, ‘highly esteemed friend and long-time priest of the guest of honor, wants to sit home.’ The cocked head, the raised eyebrow, the gathering of hoarfrost.
‘You’re absolutely right,’ he said.
‘So you’re going!’
‘Cynthia, Cynthia. I didn’t say I’m going, I said you’re right that I want to sit home.’ He gave forth a sigh.
‘You’re so southern.’
His Massachusetts-born spouse was keen on the notion that southerners were over-fond of sighing, something apparently beneath the dignity of Yankees. ‘You won the war,’ his father would have said, ‘what’s to sigh about?’
Did she have so much time on her hands that she could spend it conducting his business? Since she had started a new book, she should be insensible to life’s vagaries for at least ten or eleven months.
‘I just read an article,’ she said, ‘on what can happen to priests when they retire. Some of them end up refusing to leave the house.’
‘I have left the house religiously,’ he said with feeling.
And there she went, hooting with laughter. It was very hard to have a dispute with a woman who wouldn’t stay aggrieved, but was ever looking to put a shine on things.
‘I suppose it doesn’t count,’ he said, ‘that I went to see Hoppy on Tuesday and we had a long talk and I prayed for him and wished him well and promised we’d stay in touch with Olivia and Lace whenever he’s away.’ He watched her eyes; this was clearly not enough.
‘I gave him a nice pair of nail clippers,’ he said. No need to say it was a pass-along gift from his cousin. ‘In a leather case.’
The blank look.
‘That was lovely, I’m sure, but it will honor him to have people there, like at a funeral. How would you feel if no one came to your funeral because they’d already said lovely things before you croaked?’
‘Ok, ok, I’ll do it. Peace be with you, Kav’na. Where are my studs?’
‘In the right-hand section of your top bureau drawer. And also with you.’
He thought she looked pretty pleased with herself.
He headed upstairs to try on the tux, to look Veracity in the face, and assemble the required paraphernalia.
His dog lay sprawled and oblivious on the landing, warming himself in a patch of sunlight.
Barnabas raised his head, blinked.
Soon, he would have to move the Old Gentleman down to the study, as stairs were increasingly non-negotiable for his twelve-year-old Bouvier/Irish wolfhound. He had put off doing it; it would be unsettling for all, even for his wife’s cat, Violet.
When Cynthia moved into his bed on their wedding night, Barnabas, ever sensible of common courtesy, had excused himself to the hall and staked new territory. Later, when they moved from the rectory to her house next door, Barnabas again established his night watch in the hall. Even with the increase of arthritis in his hind legs, he had lately made it home base, declining any comforts offered on the ground floor.
Perhaps he would engineer the shift today—carry down the water bowl, the dog bed and blanket, the raccoon with the stuffing gone. He squatted on his haunches, gave a good scratch beneath the wiry coat.
‘What do you think, buddy?’
Barnabas gazed at him, solemn—morning light picked out flecks of amber in the dark pupils.
He couldn’t do it today. He could not. They would make the trek again tonight, downstairs for food and a trip to the hedge, and up again, slowly, each step a challenge and then a small triumph. Tomorrow, then.
He stood, trying to focus his attention on the blunt instrument of retirement and how and why the blow still left him reeling. Five years had passed since he departed the active priesthood, and as busy as he’d remained, the stunned sense of loss or deficit wouldn’t entirely go away. Cynthia was right. If he didn’t keep after himself, he could easily disappear into his armchair in the study and not be found again. ‘To withdraw someplace,’ read a sixteenth-century definition of retirement, ‘for the sake of seclusion.’
Retirement, of course, hadn’t been his idea—he had been urged by his doctor for health reasons. Cynthia had agreed and in the end, so had he.
As for his retiring doctor, Hoppy was as fit as a forty-year-old with no such health reasons. Weren’t doctors, like clergy, called to run the race to the all-consuming end? Only then could the crown of laurels be legitimately received. In his own case, diabetes, overwork, and stress had forced him out to pasture at age sixty-five, though he’d supplied pulpits hither and yon ever since.
He remembered how things had progressed. When his bishop announced to the parish the news of Tim Kavanagh’s retirement after sixteen years as the chief laborer in their vineyard, he observed more than a few mouths dropping open like the doors of roadside mailboxes. He heard a sharp intake of communal breath, primarily on the gospel side; a polite handkerchief or two fluttered out. That was expected.
Following the initial shock, however, came something altogether unexpected: their yawning indifference.
At the coffee hour, everyone crowded around, laughing, slapping him on the back and wishing him all the best, and then, like a shot, they fled home to their pot roast, as if no central loss had just occurred.
Where were the emotional breakdowns he’d dreaded, or even, perhaps, guiltily fancied? Where was the long, mournful line at the end of the service, with at least one or two flinging themselves upon him, possibly sobbing, and begging a reversal of this cruel decision?
Dream on. In truth, it was goodbye, Charlie, and have a swell time lounging aro