Johnnersintheraw's Blog

June 17, 2010


A Little Man and His Perfect Retirement

There was a little man named Bobby MacFee who lived in a tiny two-room stone cottage on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.  Bobby MacFee was in many ways a very ordinary little man.  But he was also a very simple man with simple tastes and he only asked out of life what was his by right.  For nigh on forty-five years this little simple man had worked in an ironmongers in a small town with a population of less that two thousand five hundred.  This shop in which he had worked for so many years was an old-fashioned shop and was, in fact, the general store for the village.  In addition to the usual hardware supplies as is to be expected of an ironmongers, it stocked  pots and pans and dishes and appliances big and small, as well as furniture and lumber and gardening supplies and practical items of clothing and every type of feed for every type of domestic animal that was to be found in the area. As its centrepiece it had an ancient pot-bellied turf-burning stove, surrounded by comfortable, sagging bentwood chairs, as well as by low tables on which customers might set their cups of strong inky tea whilst they waited for their orders to be filled.  It was also the preferred place for a poor soul to warm his or her bones and pass the time with friends before boarding the community bus or driving the family car or van back to house and home and hearth and fields of rugged and weather-beaten mountainy sheep.

Next door to the ironmongery there was a small postoffice-cum-habberdashers-cum-stationers.  And next to that was a small but well-stocked green grocers.  A few doors down, next to the veterinary surgery was a butcher’s, and then came the baker’s and then, right at the end of the street, a small all-purpose grocers with a caff in the rear.  Fresh fish was brought in twice a week in a small refrigerated van driven by a local lad named Charlie MacFee (one of many MacFee cousins).  In the town there were two pubs (one with set-dancing on Friday nights) and one off-licence. And also a church of the established religion, but which also served the needs of the opposition at given times on a Sunday afternoon.  Around this small ancient stone building – inside its lynchgate and fanning out in every direction until there was little empty space left within its confines to play hide and seek or to feed the birds – was the graveyard, in which the ancient families whiled away the decades and centuries and served as welcoming committees for newcomers taking their first tentative steps towards eternity.  

The lending library had long-since been forced to close its doors due to lack of funding; however, the librarian – a local woman with a thirst for books and brimming over with community spirit – had used her severence pay to fund a mobile library which was open ten to five four days of the week, plus another five hours on Saturday.  The librarian also gave workshops and classes on local folklore on Saturday afternoons, for which the ironmongery gladly provided its back room.  And on the one workday of the week when the mobile library was officially closed, she and her colleague – a lad named Colum MacFee (another MacFee cousin) drove a book-laden van around to the outlying reaches of the island, delivering books  as well as food ordered from the grocery store over the phone by those more elderly souls who were increasingly housebound and unable even to withstand a journey on the community bus.

And when Marion the Librarian (who was herself a MacFee, but who – for her sins – had been married to a man named MacElvey (another MacFee cousin) until he  had up and left her high and dry after twenty years of marriage) was unable to make all the deliveries herself, Sean Ross the postman (who had moved to the island with his wife and two kids from the mainland and one one of the few residents who was in no shape or form kin to the MacFees) took up the slack and made the deliveries on her behalf.

There was no school in the town, and what children there were were transported across the channel to the mainland.  At one time the librarian and other interested parties had advertised in papers far and wide, hoping to attract new families to the area.  They had been assured – somewhat optimistically – that if they could bring in a least fifteen additional families they could possibly re-open their small primary school. After all, as the librarian had pointed out to the educational authorities, their school had a good record when it came to turning out pupils who were both literate and disciplined.  Needless to say, the success-rate was due in part to the work-ethic of the islanders, for on this tiny plot of land in the north sea, life was hard, the hours were long, but everyone pulled their weight.  Alas, while the locals were successful in opening a creche and a pre-school in an adjacent building, the school had to be placed on a back burner; all the older children continued to be ferried to the mainland.  Those  of secondary school age had to go even further afield to the county town.  And as often as not their families sold their farms or let them to holiday-makers for the summer months and joined their young ones – never to return (except for funerals), never to look back (except at funerals), and leaving one more abandoned croft to furze and weeds and to sink into the damp earth of the island.  Why suffer from chilblains and aches and pains when it was so cheap to relocate to Croatia or one of those other countries. 

The island could boast of one doctor and a part-time locum and a matron and a nurse at a local cottage hospital-cum-nursing home.  The doctor’s surgeries were scheduled on Mondays and Thursdays and on the other days he and/or his locum cheerfully paid housecalls wherever and whenever.  But any cases requiring special care were referred to the mainland.  There was, however, a small and expert residential-cum-outpatient facility for those with special needs, but the only reason it was there at all was that its patron – a rugby player who played for his country – was from a local family.  This local hero had had a younger brother of his own who had ‘lived’ with autism, and who had died in a accident that could have been prevented if only his family had been able to secure the services of a part-time carer to spell them every so often when they were so tired they couldn’t watch his every move.

The island also sported a large circle of women who volunteered to take hot meals to homes three times a week.  And the members of this selfsame circle acted as home help and did the washing and polished the floors and washed the windows for all those who were not always well enough to do it themselves.  They also helped paint the small cottages and farmhouses during the months when the weather was sure to be less (or slightly less) rambunctious.

A number of men – often husbands of those civic-minded women or retirees with a certain amount of time on their hands once their own chores were done – volunteering to mow the lawns and trim the hedges and undertake household repairs for those selfsame pensioners.

On his seventieth birthday the little man retired from the ironmongers.  It was not a voluntary retirement, nor was it a willing retirement.  It was the way of the world.  In other words, progress had caught up with the island and to the town and to every man and woman and child within it.

A year before his seventieth birthday, Bobby MacFee received a letter.  The letter was  to inform him that a certain national farm supply and DIY and supermarket had bought the ironmongery as well as the grocers and the butcher’s and the baker’s and the stationary store and were planning to build a large one-stop mega-emporium a half mile north of town. The post office would also be relocated to a niche in the store, right up front next to the tobacconist’s.  The letter explained in reasonable words that in order to serve the community better and to promote a more competitive retail climate, Bobby  MacFee’s experience and expertise would no longer be needed.  It had been noticed that he was past retirement age; the policy of the corporation was to look to the young in order to revitalise the communities, and although it was unfortunate, the little man did not fit into their demographics.  He was, however, given a generous golden handshake – although it was not nearly as generous or as golden as they made it out to be.  When the time came, the incoming general manager presented him with a parchment scroll, a testimonial run up the night before the presentation on a computer. And that was that.  Bobby MacFee was left – with all the other employees over fifty years of age – with nothing with which to fill the empty hours but a feeling of uselessness and loss. And in the case of most of them, many more hours per day to drink in the pub.  Bobby MacFee, however, did not hold with strong drink unless the occasion warranted it.   His employment was to terminate on the day the new facility opened its doors.

The new SuperCentre was duly built and opened in the presence of all the local dignitaries and members of the business communities and movers and shakers – each and every one a MacFee and no further away than first cousins twice removed from Bobby MacFee and the other enforced retirees. On the day of the grand retirement party, after first depositing into his post office saving account the generous bonus given him personally by the – also – forcibly retired former owner/manager of the ironmongery, Bobby MacGee wandered back through the gardening section at the rear of the store and out into the greenhouses.  Although he was by custom a cautious drinker who never liked to progress beyond the stage where he was warmed by the flames of gentle mellowness, this day – of all days – was a day when it was permissible to progress to the realm of merriment normally reserved for Christmas and weddings and for funerals of his old friends and of members of the clan MacFee.

Whilst meandering through the greenhouse and with his mind occupied with thoughts of the gaping hole in his life now that he no longer had to spend his waking hours serving customers and passing the time of day over cups of tea with neighbours who had dropped into the ironmongery for a chat and to pretend they had something urgent to buy if only they could remember what it was, the fingers of Bobby MacGee took it upon themselves to make a certain purchase.

Unusually for that time of year, the morning had begun with an inpenetrable fog which enshrouded the land and squatted like a toad on every inch of the island.  It was not the sort of mist that heralded a rare day of brilliant sunshine. It was black and oppressive and stank of the bottom of the sea, forty fathoms down where all the dead things rotted and where phantom galley slaves were said to be shackled to their ancient oars of ships that had sunk before the dawn of memory.  It was, in short, not a fit day for man nor beast.  A day when the mountainy sheep crouched low under the protective dry stone walls of their fields until such time as they could be herded into the sheltered paddock between the barn and the door leading to the mudroom of the house.  It was the sort of evil day when even the most diligent of housewives drank tea in the warmth of a turf fire and forewent the pleasures of washing windows or even hanging out the wash.  For on a day such as this, the unhappy unclaimed souls of those buried unbaptised at midnight on the hill were sure to be wondering about and looking for warmth and light and a place to remind themselves of what could have been but which never was and never would be. On such a day one did not leave the kitchen door ajar, neither did a right-thinking person venture outside without a reason. Not on a day like this.

The mother of Bobby MacFee had been swept away giving birth to her thirteenth child, a boy who had been officially been laid to rest in the graveyard under a slate stone bearing the legend ‘Cathleen MacFee MacFee, beloved daughter of Bertie MacFee and Annie MacFee née MacFee’, but whose tiny corpse had been mysteriouly ‘took’ from its mother’s bed and interred with those of its kind under the soft grass of the hill overlooking the sea on the farside of the shrine to St. Bridget the Wayfarer.  Sometime later in the same year, Bobby MacFee’s father, who’d taken to drink something fierce following the death of his beloved  wife and helpmate, was drowned not far out to sea in his tiny shrimping boat, and his body – or what was left of it – was washed up a year and a day following the death of his wife.  Bobby MacFee, who was the youngest child save the one who had been taken with his mother, was less than two years old at the time.

The many brothers and sisters of Bobby MacFee were either farmed out to the many MacFee cousins or – in the case of two, who were ‘not all there in the head’ and were taken to the mainland and put into care and were never heard of again.  Bobby MacFee himself was reared by his oldest sister Irene, and the two of them remained in the same tiny two-room stone cottage in which he was born.  The little boy grew up strong and dour and his muscles were hardened to stone herding the sheep and in the tiny shrimp boat that had been bought with the insurance money to replace the one that had been lost the day his father had been drowned.

Very few trees – if any at all – grew on the western part of the island, neither was it a place where any ‘crop’ save the verdant grass could withstand the constant battering of the Atlantic gales.  But the grass was such grass as was rarely seen any other place on the planet.  For it was fertilised by seaweed hauled ashore by the muscles and will of young Bobby MacFee and those of this father and grandfather before him.  And after each one of its five annual cuttings, the fields were spread with a thick layer of the finest richest slurry from the dairy farm over on the other side of the hill.

Except for the wild flowers that grew in abundance on the ancient, dry stone walls and the mustand-yellow blossoms of the furze that inhabited every inch of fallow land, it was not a place where flowering plants decorated the front gardens of borders of houses.  The wind would simply carry them away, just as they had carried away the mother of Bobby MacFee and his tiny brother.

However, his oldest sister Irene was a redoubtable soul, who – as she was fond of saying – was ‘partial to her patch of garden’.  Enlisting the help of her little brother she built up a tall stone wall around a sheltered glen behind the house and for as long as she lived in the house she grew every type of rose and sweetpea and flowering shrub and herb imaginable.  And in the centre of this miniature paradise she placed a bench. And on afternoons when the sun deigned to shine and the gales withheld their tantrums, Irene would sit on her bench and read one of her books of poetry, and all the wrongs in the world would disappear. 

A few days prior to Bobby MacFee’s fifty-second birthday, Irene marched into the ironmongery one rainy afternoon, just before teatime and while her brother was selling a rotary tiller to a mainlander who had built a small holiday home in the glen behind the church.

“Ted MacGrath, our second cousin once removed, has asked me to marry him and move to the mainland to take care of his seven children – left motherless when his own wife was took giving birth to her eighth child.”

Bobby MacFee looked up at her face and he reached up and kissed her on her forehead.

“You have given me a home for nigh on fifty years.  It is time you had your own life.” With that he gave her his blessing and exactly one month minus two days hence, Irene MacFee was joined in wedlock to Edward Angus MacGrath and moved to the mainland to care for him and his children with the same tough loving grace that she had previously shone on to her brother Bobby and to their tiny two-room stone farmhouse on the cliff overlooking the sea.

Life continued for Bobby MacFee.  He cared for his fields and his sheep and when the weather permitted we went out at dawn in his tiny shrimp boat.  Then, at half-past eleven – exactly on time – he would arrive at the ironmongery and put in a full day’s work and not return home until the clock on the church tower had struck half past six.

Bobby MacFee was not one who cared much for flowers.  “Give me a fine kitchen garden with potatoes and cabbage and turnips and that’s all a man every needs,” is what he would say to himself whenever Irene had spoken of a precious new hybrid tea she had ordered specially for that new arbour she was building next to the greenhouse inside the western wall of her garden.  But now that she was gone, he couldn’t bring himself to tear out even a single rose bush to give him the room he needed for even a sprout or two.  It was as though he was waiting in the off chance that his sister might change her mind and decide that the married state was not for her.  It was an unspoke thought.  Not even a conscious thought.  But, nonetheless it was there at the back of his head.

Thirteen months before his seventieth birthday, Ted MacGrath rang him with the news.  Irene had been ‘took’ with a heart attack.  So sudden it was that she had not had a chance to bid him  send for Father Sweeney to ease her on her way to the gates of heaven.

“The rosary’s tonight and we’ll be waking her the proper way in your front parlour,” said the widower in a still quiet voice. “She will be wanting me to say she’s sorry for not giving you time to paint the house proper.”


“Where’s the funeral going to be,” asked Bobby MacFee unnecessarily. “I’ll have to be letting everybody know.”

“You just set a spell and have a cup of tea,” said Ted MacGrath.  “It’s already posted.  St. Brendan’s has already seen to that.  And the women are already over at your house getting it ready for her arrival at five this afternoon.”

Bobby MacFee hund up the phone and sat down on one of the bentwood chairs to try to collect his thoughts.  A wave of panic cracked though his heart and for just a second he was transported back to that day – so many years before – when he had been left an orphan and Irene had become the only mother he would ever really know.  And after the panic had settled the tears started to flow.  Even though he hadn’t seen her for many a year – accept for Christmases and birthdays – he could not think of life without her tough stalwart presence in his life.

And then he thought of her precious rose garden, and he wept some more.

The body was brought home, the rosary was said, and Irene was waked with the proper music and with the proper amount of strong drink from the one remaining shebeen on the island, and with the proper rough and stalwart food that Irene liked to cook for herself and for her family.  The wake lasted until dawn, at which time Bobby  MacFee washed himself in the usual way and dressed in the black suit he was keeping for his own funeral.  He then brewed a pot of strong inky black tea and poured out two cups.  One for himself and one which he placed on a lace doily on a table near the coffin for his sister – along with a fresh-baked scone brought by Mary MacInnerney his neighbour.  Something special to fortify Irene for her forthcoming journey.

The funeral mass at St. Brendan’s in the village was read by Father Donald Fraser. A young newcomer to the parish who had a twinkling eye and a nice manner with the ladies, young and old alike.  Father Donald had a very lovely clear tenor voice, and all in all it was the most beautiful and well-attended funeral seen for many a year.  And in a parish such as St. Brendan’s where everyone is kin, that is saying a lot.

The funeral dinner stretched out over the following three days. And when everything was finally over and Irene had been buried in her parents’ grave and had been reunited with her loved ones – including all her bothers and sisters save the one that still lived – Bobby MacFee returned to the small, two room stone cottage and sat in the rose garden and stared at the sky.

For the next year or so, the rose garden stayed as it had been when Irene had gone off to marry Ted MacGrath and live on the mainland.  Bobby MacFee continued to live his life as he had always lived it –  tending his sheep, caring for the land, taking out his shrimp boat when the weather permitted, and working at the ironmongery.

But then came a day shortly before his seventieth birthday and his subsequent redundancy.   Booby MacFee felt a certain restlessness he nad never felt before.  After living the same life for close on seventy years, he suddenly was overwhelmed by the desire to do something special for himself.  For days and weeks and months he had been mulling this over, but now it was time to ask himself what exactly he wanted to do. It was not travelling he craved.  He did not want to unroot and move to an untried country such as Croatia or Albania or Serbia or Poland or Lithuania as so many cousins and nephews and nieces had done.  He wanted to stay in his own tiny two-room cottage.  He wanted to live near the only family and friends he had ever known.

And then the answer came to him.  One afternoon while he stood in the rose garden a gentle breeze wafted over the wall and carressed his cheek.  “Thank you, Irene,” he said. And then one by one he carefully uprooted all twelve rose trees from the centre of the patch.  And lovingly, gently, he took them into the village and, with the help of Father Donald Fraser he created a rose garden in the centre of the graveyard, just beside the graves of Irene and his sisters and brother and his mother and father.  And when he had finished, he said goodbye to his sister, after which he started to plan the special new thing he wanted to do all for himself.

It was on the day of his retirement when Bobby MacFee wandered back through the gardening supplies of the ironmongery that would – at the end of the day – be closing its doors.  He bought three packets of seeds, and also two or three frames which he could place in the sheltered ground next to Irene’s old greenhouse.

Came the day when it was the right time to sow his new life, Bobby MacFee prepared the ground as carefully as if he was preparing his own grave.  He planted the seeds, and watered them and over the next few weeks and months he watched his new ‘life’ come alive.

Bobby MacFee had no plans for his new family.  Although they were by far the biggest and best on the island – and perhaps in even the county – he had no desire to cause them distress or discomfort.   Or to uproot them or show them off to strangers or to subject them to ridicule or jealousy.

And at the end of the season, Bobby MacFee quiety buried his children in the compost pile he and Irene had nurtured for more than fifty years.  He said a prayer over their remains, and his heart sang in a way it had never before been able to sing.

And come the spring and the time for sowing new seeds in his tiny garden, Bobby MacFee planted a brand new crop of vegetable marrows and lived to see them grow to splendid maturity and then to bury them in the dank, moist compost just as he had done their predecessors.  It may have been the last year of Bobby MacFee’s life on earth, but as far as he was concerned, it was the best year he had ever known.  It was, quite simply, the best time of his life.


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