Winter 2013 — THE POTOMAC

Mark Nipple: My Life in Prime Numbers

  Robert Bagnall

It started when I was eleven. Playing Battleships.

One evening, whilst Mum was bathing my baby brother, my Dad said, “Why don’t we play a game,” and, without pausing because he knew exactly what he was going to say, “What about that game of Battleships that you got for your birthday?”

I pointed out it was Christmas.

“Well, there you are,” he said, as though that proved everything.

I brought it down to the kitchen table and slid it out of the cardboard sleeve. It reminded me of the sandwich toaster that was always getting in the way in the cupboard. Except it was red, made of plastic, and opened up into three sections, not two like the toaster, the middle section of which was meant to be a computer output. I wasn’t sure why they bothered.

“We used to play this by hand. With paper and pencil.”

Welcome to the twentieth century, I thought.

We busied ourselves pressing small grey badly moulded plastic ships into our small grey badly moulded plastic ocean. Then battle commenced. I began with A1. I could sense a slightly raised eyebrow from over the other side of my plastic computer screen.

A miss, which I recorded with a small white plastic peg.

Dad went with A2. Quite why that was the right opening and A1 wasn’t...

I fired my depth charges into B1 followed by C1, D1, E1 and F1. All in a line, just to make absolutely sure.

Dad aimed his at B3, D4, E5, F6. I could see what he was doing: firing a diagonal line of shots to catch any boats in the area. I could also see him beginning to grind his teeth in frustration at my strategy. We had a family games agreement which meant we’d point out beaches of rules, but never failures of approach. I knew what he would tell me about the probability of my hitting anything versus the improved odds of his strategy. Well, my approach was systematic as well. And, anyway, neither of us had hit anything.

And then I got lucky and hit one of his. You could see his eyes narrow and his jaw chew at the injustice of it. Of course, two goes later his diagonal sweep of the board found one of my ships and, instead of finishing it off, he continued his methodical march across the ocean, one step to the side, one step down.

Ten minutes later I had blown the living daylights out of the first three and half rows of the board sinking one of his ships, and hitting another. The rest of the rolling waves lay untouched. His strikes made a chequerboard of the ocean; one square hit, one square missed, one square hit, one square missed. He had four of my boats and just needed my destroyer.

My mother called down for my father to help. She actually put it more strongly than that, not seeing putting my baby brother to bed as equivalent to searching for a vicious and merciless enemy fleet on the high seas.

Alone, I sat and stared. We had to write a story that used the words ‘magician’, ‘rabbit’, ‘catacomb’, ‘honest’, ‘slightly’, ‘cross’, ‘chimney’, ‘run’, ‘rhythm’, and ‘transmit’. One hundred words. Easy, Mr Tyler had said, you’ve got the first ten; all you need are another ninety. Writing about a slightly cross magician with a rabbit was easy, but I wasn’t sure how to get the others in. I wasn’t even completely sure what a catacomb was.

Dad returned and sat down. I thought I’d mix things up, change my approach. “E9,” I said.
My father paused, with his facial tick beginning to show itself, and said, “Hit”.

Within three goes I’d destroyed his destroyer. His eyelid was flicking every now and again.

Let’s throw another rock at random, I thought. “G6.”

“You looked, didn’t you?” he growled, his eyelid flickering like a moth caught in a lampshade.

I hadn’t.

“You looked at my ships whilst I was upstairs. Didn’t you?” He was halfway out of his seat.

“It’s just luck. I got lucky, Dad. That’s all.”

He stared at the board. “There are seventy-odd squares left. You needed to find two ships. The chances of hitting the first is... It’s about the same as being hit by a meteorite,” he declared. “If you didn’t cheat then you’ve used up all your luck for life.”

My Mum said something about it being just a game, but my father was in a mood. I don’t think he knew what to think. He could usually tell when I was lying, but he wasn’t sure this time for the simple reason that for once I was telling the truth. He didn’t come out from behind the Transcript-Telegram for the rest of the evening.

The next day I found I’d be picked for the soccer team. Dad’s words, that I’d used up all my luck for life, hung at the back of my mind like a warning. No, more than that: a curse. But now I could breathe again. I’d been picked for the team; I hadn’t used up all my luck. I was being stupid.

As I studied the list of names Mr Coran passed me. He grinned at me. “You’re in the team because you’re good. But more than that, you’re lucky. Lucky for the team,” he added quickly to emphasise that he didn’t mean lucky to make the team.

The glow of finding out I still had luck to spare turned into a cold, distant feeling at the bottom of my stomach. I was lucky for the team. So, my job was to bring luck to the team, not just for myself. To be lucky for me was one thing, but I was expected to be lucky for and on behalf of others. That was a bit scary.

What if my Dad was right? What if I didn’t have any luck left for me, let alone others? The consequences were too horrible.

“Mr Coram.” I didn’t know how to start. “I don’t want to be in the team.”

A shadow passed over his face, the daily struggle of getting an eleven year old to join the mental dots. “Why not?”

I didn’t know how to explain so I just blurted it out. “I’ve used up all my luck.”

He just looked at me laughed and I heard myself, like I’d sidestepped out of my body say calmly and clearly that I was serious. He pondered and asked how I expected to get through life.

The answer is, exactly as I have.

By the age of thirteen my hair had gone an indescribable mousy mid-brown colour. Neither one thing nor another.

I got unexceptional grades at school, and by seventeen I was five feet ten and my skin had taken on a slight podge giving it the appearance of plasticene. It used to worry me. I could see my eyes receding slightly into my flesh, the shape of my face changing each time I looked at it.

When I was twenty-nine I ran into an old school friend, and I remember his blank incomprehension at me. His eyes didn’t lie; he had no idea who I was. Instinct cut in and I stammered an apology, although I was sure I knew him.

By thirty-one I could be absolutely certain over a number of things. My wife was ordinary. My music had always been ordinary. My children would grow up to be ordinary.

Luckless. Not that I’m unlucky. Unlucky people are those that have lost fortunes or survived bizarre accidents. There’s Major Summerford who got hit by lightning three times, a forth if you count his headstone being hit. My second favourite is Henry Ziegland who was killed by a bullet shot at him several years earlier. However, my personal favourite is Ann Hodges who, in 1954, survived being hit by a meteorite.

Google them; they’re all real.

Luck is what makes us what we are. It is our ancestor’s luck that defines the world we are born into; it is our luck that charts our destiny from there. Nature or nurture? No: luck.
Whereas I am luckless. It’s different. I’m beyond luck, good or bad. I only keep lucky numbers to confirm that they come up no more and no less often than random. In this I am perfectly average, and I mean that in a literal sense. My averageness is perfect.

What next? Approaching forty-three, I fear losing my name. I fear waking up and realising, not that I have no name, not that I had forgotten it, but that I never had one. I fear Anita not knowing who I am, denying that she ever had a husband. Or looking into my home and seeing someone else, another me, at the table, or slumped in front of the television.

I shared these nightmares with somebody once but all I learnt was they even they are nothing out of the ordinary.


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