Numerology: Births Deaths and Marriages

I have always preferred even numbers to odd. This makes life difficult, this superstition, because half of our lives operate under the weight of odd numbers. Every second day is an odd day so it is not right to focus too much on this anomaly but I find whenever a number pops up for any reason whatsoever I first of all judge it by its odd or even nature.

My favourite number is two, preferably double two. Two hundred and twenty two is not so good because it is an uneven number of twos and two thousand two hundred and twenty two is too much altogether.

My analyst once suggested to me when I reported my love of the number two, that I chose this number because it is the number of coupledom, mother and baby, just the two of us. It’s an interesting observation. I had thought it might have more to do with the shape of the number, very much like the letter ‘s’ and also that the first house whose address I was able to learn as a child was that of 2 Wentworth Avenue where we then lived.

My address became a vital part of my internal world. I would explore its details regularly and roll the words over my tongue: Number 2 Wentworth Avenue Canterbury, East 7, Melbourne, Victoria Australia, the Pacific Ocean, the world, the universe.

Similarly I played with the multiple dimensions of time, the time of the day, the time of the day in relation to the time of my birth, the hours I had lived, the hours I might continue to live. But I was never good at sums. I failed mental arithmetic in grade six, much to my teacher, Mother Mary John’s expressed horror,
‘I knew you were bad, but not that bad.’ So I did not linger long over numbers except visually.

Numbers developed personalities in my mind and I had my favourites. I hated the numbers seven and nine and could only just tolerate the fives.

I loved the letter ‘s’, smooth, round and to my mind shiny. It was also the letter that distinguished my first name Elisabeth from all the other Elizabeth’s I encountered in my life, the ones at school who sported an ugly ‘z’ in the middle of their names. S was definitely the more beautiful and friendly letter, as well it was the first letter of my second name, ES.

I did not go in so much for the harsh letters of ‘H’ and ‘E’ especially in their capitalised forms, though in lower case ‘e’ could pass, ‘e’ for egg. Even now to me ‘e’ looks like an egg. But the letter ‘h’ could not redeem itself so readily, nor ‘f ‘even with the rounded dome of the top of their shape in lower case.

I am back to letters I see. It is easy to slip by numbers. My relationship to numbers was never so good. Numbers always frightened me. Multiplication, addition, subtraction and division.

My parents were always doing it. Adding babies and sometimes losing them. For the first ten years of my life, my mother was either pregnant or carrying a newborn.
‘What a woman,’ people said, ‘nine children.’ I soaked up the compliments as if they were directed at me.

There should have been eleven but two died, the first, my mother’s second daughter at five months, the second her last child, another daughter this time still born. There was a miscarriage as well, between the seventh and the eighth. In the end my mother was left with five sons and four daughters.

Some weeks after the death of her last leven los, my mother stood with me in the front garden of our house in Camberwell talking to a neighbour who was muttering condolences for her recent loss.
‘It must be very hard but you do have your other children to comfort you.’
My mother nodded and sniffled onto the back of her hand.

Mrs Bos had no children of her own. At ten years of age I was puzzled that any married couple could remain childless. My mother and I watched Mrs Bos, retreating up the street, click-clack on her stilettos, a string shopping bag bulging at her side.
‘Poor Mrs Bos’, my mother said, wiping her nose again on her hand, ‘she can never have children of her own.’

My mother offered no explanation and I was left bewildered about this sad Dutch woman who lived at the top of our street, barren and empty, unable to add, divide or even subtract.

Atonement

All afternoon I couldn’t get the images from the film of Atonement out of my head, the war and the death and the significance of a child’s lie.

The man beside me in the picture theatre belched three times, not once and seemingly not accidentally. I did not like to sit directly beside him but our seats were numbered 12 and 13. When I looked at the tickets as we walked to our seats, I thought we had an unlucky number , but I dismissed it. Besides, as luck would have it, my sister sat in seat 13, I would have had it but moved to fill the gap between myself and this chap in seat 12. I led the way into the theatre with my sister close behind.

I was conscious of this man from the start. He was alone. He sat arms folded over his huge belly. He seemed an unlikely man to see at a film like this – rough looking, but it was dark by the time we arrived and I couldn’t get a close look.

While the credits were rolling I remembered the story a friend once told me about her experience as a small child. She had gone to the movies with several of her siblings who sat in a row in the picture theatre. She was on the end. When the lights went out and the film began a man, a stranger sitting beside her put his hands into her pants and started to masturbate her. She was struck dumb with terror, unable to speak or move.

What would I have done, I wondered? Would I scream, make a fuss? Tell my sister we’re leaving.

I thought what a good thing it was that I was sitting beside this man, and not my sister, that I could manage this ordeal better than she. This might be more traumatic for her.

My sister might be like the little girl I have just described, paralyzed, unable to say no. Not me, I thought. I would put a stop to it.

Or would I? Helen Garner describes it in her book, The First Stone, her own paralysis in the face of sexual assault, unwanted sexual advances, from a masseur in one instance, from another person in authority in the other.

This memory rose out of the film based on Ian McEwan’s book Atonement.

Why wouldn’t it, sitting behind that old man in the picture theatre? He was not old. He was more or less my age, but in my little girl’s mind he was a ‘dirty old man’, given the belching burping noises he made, seemingly oblivious to them. I didn’t even sense him wince by way of apology.

What was an man like him doing in a movie like this? He may have appreciated it. When the end of the film arrived with my sister sniffling beside me and the names of celebrities and workers running down the screen and the beautiful background music fanning the sadness, this man could not wait to get out of the theatre.

And Briony Tallis’s words from Atonement ring in my ears still.

‘How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.’ (371)