Street View: The mathematics of fate

"If the numbers wouldn't come to me, I'd go after them in their den and drag them out by hook or by crook" – Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives

For someone who didn't have higher-grade mathematics, my grandfather was obsessed with numbers. His eyes saw numbers everywhere and in everything. Even in dreams.

Every morning he would quiz me about what I had dreamt. If you told him that in your dream there had been a man, in khaki shorts, chopping down trees, my grandfather immediately saw a seven in the axe.

When you told him you dreamt you were walking in a plantation of gum trees, he immediately saw a one and an 11 in the vertical trees. These are numbers that would be useful when he played horses, something he did all the time.

If you told him about playing a ball game, he saw a zero in that.  He would ask if you remembered how many people were involved in the match, if you had won or lost and by how much, further furnishing numbers for his adventures.

As you would expect of such a man, my grandfather had many other superstitions, some of which he tried to hand down to us. You couldn't, for instance, sit on the stoep of his family home as you would then be standing in the way of Lady Luck, who might sashay into the house at any time.

A superstition needs to be propped by another. For years, he kept the feather of an eagle in his wallet. According to Shona legend, the eagle is one of the stingiest of creatures and doesn't lose its feathers; possessing one brought with it inordinate amounts of luck. It is said that if, in midflight, a feather falls as it is about to pounce on its prey, the eagle will forego its lunch to retrieve the feather – which it will then chew up, perhaps in lieu of the meal. 

But one day the winds of ill fortune blew in my grandfather's direction. One day, as he was about to take out a note to buy something from a street vendor, the feather, stuck to some note, suddenly escaped into the wind.

Some family accounts suggest that my grandfather was a World War II veteran, a man who had fought for queen and (another man's) country, an adventure from which he returned with a slight limp. Still, he ran after the prized feather, which must have been a sight.   

The feather, perhaps tiring of its limping friend and accomplice on so many betting ventures for so many years, took flight with the wind.

The leaf was gone with the wind, and perhaps with it, the luck it brought.

When my grandfather told me this story, I was around 10 years old. I should have asked him if the feather had brought him any luck and how he had acquired the feather and kept it trapped in the wallet for that long.

I seem to remember, when I was growing up, the slightly ironic remarks – not without small concentrations of bile – from my grandmother about people who bet and never win.

There was a time when grandpa had been very well off, with lots of land. His homestead was the site of the grave of a rusted, metallic carcass, a car he had driven in the 1960s.

Much later, I would work with a man who reminded me of my grandfather. My grandfather had, by then, joined his sleeping ancestors.  Unlike grandfather, this old man didn't bet. He held a strange philosophy about Lady Luck and her hunchbacked cousin, Bad Luck. He never played the Lotto, he told me, because he was scared he could win. If this had come from the workplace eccentric, I would have waved it away as the ranting of a madman. Perturbed, I pursued: but what's wrong with winning? Isn't that the whole point?

Death and birth are twins, he began, and the same is true for good luck and bad luck. The Lotto winner, the person who wins millions, is the only person who will die when a bus, carrying 80 people, has an accident. The one attracts the other. So I don't play Lotto, he said. I don't know what ill south-westerly winds it will cause to blow my way.

But last Saturday, disregarding this advice, I went to a Lotto outlet on Bree Street. It was after 2pm and the horde of people in the CBD for their shopping was thinning but the queue at the Lotto outlet was still sizeable. I didn't have a pen so I had to wait as people meditatively transcribed numbers written on cellphones and scraps of paper.  These were, obviously,  significant numbers – birth dates or figures that had appeared to them in dreams. As I hadn't played the Lotto in a long time, I had to read up the instructions at the back.

Soon a roving pen – one moment with this punter and the next with another – became available and I began scribbling numbers. But as I was making my bets, the owner of the pen, at that stage close to the counter, asked for her pen to be returned.  Perhaps she had a late flash about a winning number. 

I thought, later, that there was something solemn in the exercise, in the ceremonial conviviality with which the pen went around, as if it were a calabash of beer. These people, I thought,  are poets – number poets – whose eyes are trained on some obscure point at which a collocation of six numbers will bring instant riches. These poets stand, pen suspended, looking for a mastery of numerical symmetry and rhyme that even the most brilliant of poets struggle to attain. How to pick six random numbers out of scores of numbers, to both anticipate the machine and beat it? And do both at the same time.  

Tired of waiting, I walked home a couple of streets away to fetch a pen.  I was soon back and there was, still, a small queue. I randomly scribbled numbers.

The following day, I bought the Sunday papers. The first thing I checked was whether I had won. No, I hadn't. Just two of my numbers were correct.

There wasn't a winner.

This week's jackpot is R16.5m.

If only my mathematician grandfather was around. His dream-number theories would have been handy …

Percy Zvomuya is the Mail & Guardian's arts and features reporter, who loves walking the streets of Johannesburg. Follow his column Street View to meet the characters he encounters.

Percy Zvomuya

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