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The Numbers

by Tony Nunn 3 months ago in humanity

13 days could make all the difference - or not

Stilchester, England – Tuesday 6th June 2018

Two minutes’ brisk walk brought Lucy Whimple to the St Maurice tram stop. On a sunny Summer’s day she might walk to work – a pleasant one mile stroll through Erasmus Park, past the Quiritic Almshouses and across the ancient Gnashing Bridge to St Cedd’s – but today, with a cool breeze and ominous looking clouds, was definitely a tram day. A number 3 came along. She could have waited for a 4 but on a whim she took the 3 to Stangley Walk and changed to a 2 in the opposite direction.

Lucy liked trams. Stilchester trams looked old and rather splendid in their dark green and gold livery but the technology had been subtly upgraded over the years, so the ride was smooth, unlike some of the old boneshakers that ran along the Promenade in Brobmore Regis. Route 2 was also known as “Academic” because it served all three of the University of Stilchester’s colleges as well as the Stilchester Academy.

The tram was quite full, with the usual quota of students and college employees like herself plus a group of Japanese tourists. As it hummed and clicked its way around the western fringes of the city, the announcements – St Xavier, Stangley Hall, St Thomas, Crayfish, Chaddlestead Road, Holy Rood Lane – sounded almost like poetry. Lucy loved the way that stops were often named after pubs and churches, Crayfish being an example of the former, along with Millstone and Rabbit Pie.

As the tram rounded the sharp bend at Water Meadows, the Japanese tourists got very excited at the magnificent view of the Cathedral and surged to the left, cameras clicking furiously. Lucy smiled and prepared to get off at the next stop but one.

At the gatehouse she bade a cheery “Good Morning” to the Porter who touched his cap and replied “Morning, Miss Whimple” as he always did. It was only 8.50 so she stopped off at the Refectory for a coffee and a croissant before making her way to the Library.

They were in the middle of the annual audit and maintenance session. All the really ancient manuscripts were held in a secure vault with controlled temperature and humidity, but there were still tens of thousands of relatively old books scattered throughout the building. The room in which Lucy stood was part of the Old Library, built within 20 to 30 years of St Cedd’s foundation in 1311. Most of the books in here were between 200 and 400 years old – and seriously dusty, since they seldom left their shelves, apart from an occasional request for a particular volume from a Don or a PhD student.

Lucy picked up one of her favourites. It was a rather plain looking treatise on philosophy, published in 1730, but on the flyleaf a long-forgotten student had drawn a sketch of the collapse of Old College tower in 1742 with a rather rude caption in Latin. There had always been intense, but usually good-natured, rivalry between St Cedd’s and Old College. Visitors are aften surprised to learn that St Cedd’s is the older institution by two years. It is said that when Erasmus Sprunt announced his plan to endow the city with a seat of learning, Bishop Avunculus was somewhat peeved at not having thought of the idea himself, so he quickly followed suit and named his foundation “Old” in the hope that people would assume it predated St Cedd’s. Stangley Hall is a comparative upstart, dating from 1537.

She put the book down, thinking of the controversy that had raged just recently. After Old College tower fell down during a violent storm, the stones had lain untouched for over 250 years – until a wealthy alumnus offered to finance the rebuilding of the tower as a Millennium project. Opinion was bitterly divided, not just amongst dons, students and alumni but seemingly half the population of Stiltshire. One faction thought the project a wonderful idea; the other side were of the strong opinion that the venerable heap of rubble had become a feature of the building, treasured by generations of students, and should not be tampered with.

Eventually a compromise was reached, although not in time to celebrate the Millennium: the ancient stones were left in situ (or, if necessary, moved temporarily and painstakingly reinstated in their original positions) while a replica of the original tower was built, albeit on the opposite side of the chapel. And it now boasted a fine ring of eight bells (though not quite as fine as the ten at St Cedd’s).

While these thoughts drifted through her head, Lucy had been working her way along the shelf, examining and dusting. She picked up the next book, a weighty leather-bound tome, and noticed something odd. At the top there was a clear gap between the stiff leather spine and the canvas backing of the heavy vellum pages, but her fingers told her there was no such space at the bottom. She turned it over to find there was something wedged under the spine. It looked very much like a tiny book.

Lucy wondered what to do. She could try to remove the object but that probably wasn’t wise – it could damage the old book or its smaller companion. Meanwhile it was feeling very heavy in her hands, so she replaced it on the shelf. As she did so, whatever it was that hid under the spine came loose of its own accord and fell to the floor.

It was indeed a small book, a couple of dozen pages of coarse paper about two and a half inches by four, held together by a motheaten black leather cover. Maybe it had been a student’s notebook. Lucy picked it up with gloved hands and skimmed through the pages. The contents, written in faded ink, seemed at first glance to consist mostly of mathematical formulae, although some of the symbols were more like runes.

Lucy’s first thought was to call the Head Librarian, but something held her back. She wanted to know more about the little book. It wouldn’t hurt to wait until she made her report next week before mentioning it. She popped the book into a sterile plastic bag and dropped it into her handbag before resuming her work.

At home that evening she took the little book out and examined it thoroughly. There was a small collection of students’ notebooks in the Library and she was fairly certain from its style that this one dated from the early 18th century. Her assumption was soon confirmed by a date on the first page: MDCCXXXVI - 1736. And above it was a name: Jacob Pillion.

The formulae which filled most of the book meant little to her; Lucy was not a mathematician. Among them there were a few curious drawings of pigs and other animals. But it was the last page that gripped her attention. There, in a cloud-shaped box above what appeared to be a crude drawing of a sleeping man, were six numbers: 6, 8, 17, 19, 23 and 42. Then followed some scribbled calculations and finally a date: XI Iunius MMXVIII. Lucy quickly translated – 11th June 2018 – that was next Sunday!

Thursday 8th June

During her lunch break Lucy found time to go to the Bursar’s Office where the recently-digitised records of student admissions and graduations were held. Jacob Pillion had entered St Cedd’s as an undergraduate in 1735 and graduated with a first in astronomy and mathematics in 1739. She made a mental note to look him up on stiltsroots.co.uk. There were Pillions in her family tree. Perhaps he was even an ancestor.

Friday 9th June

On her way to work, Lucy called at the newsagent’s and bought a lottery ticket. She normally bought a ticket for the Stiltshire County Lottery each week but this time, instead of her usual numbers, she put her cross against 6, 8, 17, 19, 23 and 42. After all, she told herself, her old numbers hadn’t won her anything in three years.

Sunday 11th June

Lucy returned from singing morning service at St Maurice, brewed herself a pot of coffee and logged on to the lottery website to check the previous evening’s draw. She hadn’t won. Feeling a little disappointed, but rather more foolish for even entertaining the notion that an 18th century undergraduate at St Cedd’s could have predicted the result of a lottery draw nearly 300 years later, she pulled a wry face and resolved to show the little book to her colleagues on Monday morning.

Sunday 25th June

In the event, Lucy had not got round to sharing her discovery with her fellow librarians until the Wednesday just gone. This morning she went to church as usual and, during the sermon, found herself thinking about Jacob Pillion. She had learned from the stiltsroots website that he was baptised at St Andrew’s Stilhaven on Trinity Sunday 1717 and his father Amos was a master mariner. He may have been the Jacob Pillion who married Elizabeth Nonce at Prokeworth in 1740 or the one who married Louise Blaine at Fritfold in 1748 – or possibly both. If the latter, he had a son called Moses, which meant he was almost certainly Lucy’s sixth-great-grandfather.

After church Lucy was again sitting down with her coffee and checking the previous night’s draw on her phone. It was a rollover week with a top prize of £20,000. She had played her “old” numbers.

Lucy sighed. She hadn’t won (surprise, surprise).

She hadn’t won because the winning numbers were: 6, 8, 17 (“Huh?”), 19 (“No!”), 23 (“Oh my God!”) and 42 (speechless).

Even as the now-familiar numbers stared up at her from the screen, a thought like a dark cloud drifted into her consciousness. The little black book had been written in 1736. England was still on the Julian Calendar then. Lucy of course knew all about the Calendar change and the “Give us back our 11 days” riots in 1752 but she hadn’t connected it with the date in the book. The Julian Calendar was now 13 days out of sync with the Gregorian, so the Julian 11th June was yesterday.

What was going on here? Incredible as it seemed, had Jacob Pillion, probably in a dream, been told the result of a lottery 282 years in the future, written it down and hidden it for someone to find - for his sixth-great-granddaughter to find – 282 years later? And she had blown it by using the wrong calendar.

Lucy could have cried! And she did – copiously.

An hour later she was sitting in the garden of the Flosswelle Arms with her second large gin and tonic, waiting for Georgia, her friend from the choir, and wondering if she could face one of the pub’s excellent but gargantuan Sunday roasts in her present state of mind. Georgia had just texted to say she would be about 20 minutes late. Then Lucy noticed another text which she must have overlooked last night. It was from her colleague Andy.

“Hi Lucy. You know that old notebook you found last week. Well, I’d been thinking about the numbers on the last page. You’ll probably think I’m daft, but I bought a lottery ticket with those numbers today. If it wins, I’ll share the prize with you. 😊 Andy”

She almost choked on her gin and tonic.

“Lucy!!” It was Andy, breathless with excitement. “I thought I’d find you here. You’ll never guess what!”

Lucy jumped up and hugged him. “We’ve won!!” they shouted in unison.

humanity
Tony Nunn
Tony Nunn
Read next: 'Chocolate Kisses'
Tony Nunn

Tony is the author of “The Great Bass Cookery Book” and “The Chronicles of Stiltshire”, both available from Amazon in paperback or e-book format.

He is an amateur singer (bass), an enthusiastic cook, a bell ringer and beer drinker.

See all posts by Tony Nunn

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