Mary Killen

Dear Mary | 8 September 2016

It’s time some online entrepreneur set up a ‘14th man’ agency, says Dear Mary

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Q. We recently stayed for a Saturday night with an old friend and were warned before we arrived that my husband’s carer would not be able to join us for dinner as that would make us 13 around the table. We are devoted to our carer and feel that his exclusion was much more to do with snobbery than superstition. For the rest of our stay, our host seemed to find him perfectly agreeable company and we wonder whether, in retrospect, he regretted the exclusion. Should we have insisted he join us, Mary? And do you agree that no sophisticated person could take this superstition seriously?

— B.T., London SW5

A. Even if the superstition was a pretext, your host had the right to exclude the carer — not on snobbish grounds but because conversation is stymied if one person at the table does not know the names being bandied. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Napoleon Bonaparte and Herbert Hoover were presumably sophisticates, yet all three were phobic about dinners for 13. And so widespread is this superstition at all levels of IQ that to flaunt the rules is to accept that half the things which go wrong for guests in the week after will be laid at the door of the host. In Proust’s day in Paris there existed a niche group of elegant and urbane men known as Quatorzièmes who were always dressed and ready for a last-minute invitation. Their presence would dispel any prospect of bad luck. Come to think of it, here is a niche job-creation scheme that someone with energy could well exploit in this era of online pop-up opportunities.

Q. My brother and I are on excellent terms, but I feel in my bones that he, my only sibling, may have cheated me of some of our late father’s legacies. I know, and he knows that I know, that our father loved me more than him so I suspect he found the temptation to ‘rebalance the books’ irresistible. I can take the financial hit but feel that, if I am right, my brother’s conscience will be tormenting him. How would you proceed, Mary?

— Name and address withheld

A. Rewrite your own will leaving, in the event of you and your family being wiped out simultaneously, everything other than a few mini-legacies to your brother. Why not, after all? Send him a copy and suggest that he make a similar provision. This will open up face-saving ways in which he can make recompense for any potential deceit.

Q. May I pass on a tip to readers? A really quick dish is to serve Waitrose tinned sardines in water mashed into two ping-pong ball-sized boiled new potatoes. It takes only 15 minutes to prepare and has less than 250 calories. Add a tiny bit of olive oil as a lubricant to make it 400 calories.

— M.W., Pewsey, Wiltshire

A. How very kind of you to share this finding.