The seminar in the Cheltenham hotel was followed by dinner. “It’s never a bad day when you get a free dinner,” I joked with a colleague. The remark recalled a farmer who had enjoyed free dinners every Sunday for thirty-seven years.
He never have had to worry about cooking on Sundays. He would have gone to church and then gone to her house for Sunday lunch: there was an “understanding” between them.
His farm was on good Co Down land, rolling drumlin countryside. A neat dwelling house, regularly painted in a sober pale grey; solid and as reliable as its owner. Her house was a few miles away. A white slate roofed cottage at the end of a bumpy lane; at “the top o’ the loanen,” as it was described in the mixture of Ulster Scots and Hiberno-English that was spoken in the district.
They would be married one day.
Her mother was long lived and anxious not to leave the cottage in her advancing years (and equally anxious that no newcomer should invade her territory), and there would have been no question of the daughter leaving her mother alone.
In a tale like something out of William Trevor, the “understanding” continued. For thirty-seven years, he would call at the house on a Sunday and during the week would run “messages” for his affianced and her mother.
He was a meticulous man. Everything had to be done in an orderly way. He would advise others on the importance of keeping their affairs in order. “Make a will,” he would say, “I have seen too many rows caused by people who made no will.”
A healthy man all his days, he suddenly died after a short illness. There was embarrassment about the funeral. Gathering in the house, the object of his “understanding” sat at the fireside, the seat of the widow, but people were uncertain what to say to her. Reaching the church, the family filed into the front pews, the lady slipped into a pew a few rows back, not regarding herself as “family.”
A few days later, details of the will emerged: there wasn’t one. The entire community was convinced that there must be a will that rewarded thirty-seven years of “understanding” with at least the dwelling house, if not the whole farm. Solicitors were contacted, no will had been made with any of them. The man who had given so much advice had made no arrangements whatsoever; the farm went to a nephew, his intended wife received nothing.
“Understanding” meant misunderstanding; thirty-seven years of Sunday dinners going unrewarded; it seemed the stuff of fiction, a moment when truth wasn’t so much stranger, just more depressing.