I’m not a particularly superstitious person.
Except for the number 13. And the number 6. In fact, any odd numbers at all. Or salt and sugar being spilled (the latter is allegedly good luck, but presumably has to be accidental). Or breaking mirrors. Or…
But no, not really. My mother used to get the heebie-jeebies if umbrellas were unfurled indoors, knives and forks crossed, people passed on stairs, shoes were left on tables, ladders were walked under, and a whole host of others, which she used to say she’d got from her mother. But it is true about numbers, and I’m not sure what it’s all about.
The number ’13’ is the one by which I am oddly bothered. I wonder if it became unlucky because 12 was such a sacred number (apostles, months, juries, not that months and juries are very sacred); or whether it was something to do with having counted in twelves, as in twelve pennies make a shilling – which meant that we all had to learn our twelve times table. People who knew their thirteen times table were freakish, nerdy types, the sort you’d cross the road, perhaps superstitiously, to avoid. Yes, you’re right, I could do my 13 times table. It’s because I had an eccentric teacher, who delighted in such things. The whole school could say the alphabet backwards, too (it rhymes, so it’s easy: ZYX/ WV/ UTS/ RQP OMN/ LKJ/ IHG/ FED/ CBA). They can’t do that at Hogwart’s. As a teenager, I was once given the job of looking after an elderly lady: cutting her grass, that sort of thing. Passing the time. She made me a cup of tea, and sat me down and said, ‘Can you say the alphabet backwards?’ Without thinking, I said ‘Yes.’ It was a real gaffe. I’d accidentally cut off her supply of Things To Say To Teenagers, and it silenced her. Very embarrassing.
This is the thing about 13: I don’t like it when I am 13 miles from anywhere, and speed up to get to 12. I don’t like it when the milometer ends in 13 – or starts with 13, which never happens, because the cars I buy have always done more than 15000 miles. It is utterly, utterly irrational. Perhaps we fear prime numbers, since they are always odd, indivisible. I used to have a problem with 6 (as you might guess, this means I still do). I wasn’t afraid of it; I liked it. I liked it to such an extent that I would eat things (grapes, for instance) in sixes. This can look greedy, if you accidentally eat 7, and need another one to get the multiples straight. I still find myself doing it: it’s ingrained.
As a child, I used to have an obsession with balancing my footsteps. One large left, one small right, and I would have to compensate with one one large right, one left. Get this wrong, and a sequence of intricate steps would follow until balance was restored. I was good at fractions at school (I still prefer fractions – the fact that you cannot express a third in decimals is profoundly annoying, as is pi). This is just the same sort of thing as stepping on lines, as in the AA Milne poem. I once mentioned this to a class of teenagers, expecting cries of derision: but it turned out that they’d all done it – all except one, called Gael, whose jaw fell to an increasing degree. At first she thought we were all mad; then that she was. I brought in Jane Siberry’s song ‘Symmetry’, which is about this very subject (‘it’s the way of the world/people do it everywhere/if you’re going to do it over here/
then usually they do it over there too’) but Gael remained fundamentally aghast.
However, I have long since stopped setting myself targets (my group of literature students did this too) like, when walking, getting to a specific fence-post before the next car passed (death would follow if you failed). But if I go into a room in a left arc and turn round, I do turn back round before leaving, so that I go out the way I came in. Otherwise: no, not superstitious at all.