By Tom Nestor
We were amongst that class of people, especially rural people, who ate dinner around one o’clock in the day. It was firmly formed and firmly adhered to. Even the horses knew too, they complied and were glad of it.
When the call came, my mother stood on the stile that entered the world outside the farmyard, and shouted. Sometimes, those of us in the fields heard the call – I was very good at recognising it. Whatever about the dinner, the respite was all important.
When the wind was against my mother’s call, whether she was shouting against the gale, or had lost her usual volume, the horse stopped dead. Whatever it be, ploughing or mowing, drawing hay, or spreading dung in the farthest away field, the horse stopped dead, and would only move again when whatever implement it was harnessed to was removed.
Dinner time was fraught. There were many of us, enough to occupy every space around the large table; parents, offspring and the hired hand. Every plate, except that of mother and father, was in serious danger.
Most of the time we ate bacon that was a complete homeland product. The pig was farrowed in the piggery, otherwise known as the pig’s place, was fattened, killed, cut into sections, and cured in a barrel of pickle that was kept in the scullery.
Potatoes and vegetables were also home grown, and together with chunks of bacon, was the diet that applied at dinner time for ninety percent of the time.
But sometimes, that regular fare bowed to a rare experiment. Something different was cooked, perhaps fried thin slices of bacon, or fried potatoes, or mashed with lots of butter and fried onions. Then one had to have the wits in perfect running order.
Even though you had fallen for some trickery once before, or maybe more than once, the delicacy of the diet confused your normal vigilance. Someone, usually an older brother, full of past knowledge and invention, would deliver some combination of words that smacked of utter wonder.
“Good God, who is that coming up the lane. Running like a bat out of hell.” In those early days I had no familiarity with bats out of hell, or how they ran. But the description was merely peripheral, what mattered was the utter combination of fear and amazement that laced the brother’s words.
I had swung around to see before caution hit and though the return journey was laden with alacrity, I had fallen for the trickery. I had been minding a delicious piece of fried bacon, keeping it away from everything, minding it out on the edge of the plate in case I ate it by mistake.
Now it was gone, whipped away and devoured in one unseen movement. And that last was my undoing. If I made a case to my father, the older brother knew nothing of what I was on about.
Okay, he would say, I did think that I saw a man running up the lane but it must have been that swaying branch from Barrett’s ash tree that confused me.
When I tried something like that to another offspring, younger and lower than me, I was told, ‘likely story, you must think we are all fools. Give your sister back that fried potato you stole from her.’ But ‘tis gone, the younger sister wailed, he has it gone.’
Okay then, ruled my father, the next time we have fried potatoes, you give one of yours to your sister, you bully you. It might be a couple of months when fried potatoes were on the menu again, but everyone round that table remembered that I owed, and was, in fairness, bound to be redressed.
Around that table I learned the lesson of status. Status falls unerringly on those who have been appointed to become important. It falls very precariously, and mostly not at all, on those for whom being important has passed by.
Once I heard a man declare that sentiment in another form. He said that ‘there were some for the saddle and more for the straddle’. The saddle represented those who rode to hounds and lived a comfortable life. The straddle was a piece of harness on a horses back that carried the weight of cart and load.