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Now If It Had Been 42 I Would Have Understood

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NOW IF IT HAD BEEN 42 I WOULD HAVE UNDERSTOOD

By Andrew Biggs

 

He appeared out of nowhere.

My personal assistant. He was dressed in his work uniform. I don’t know where he came from but he ran towards me.

As he neared he smiled and crouched down right before me.

He must have been about a meter away from my face. He didn’t say a word, just kept beaming at me.

With a flourish he brought his right hand up and displayed, prominently, the number four.

Then, not a few seconds later, he raised a single ring finger. One.

Four. One.

Forty-One?

That was when I woke up.

***

I’d forgotten about that dream until midday when my personal assistant waltzed into our office. Personal assistants apparently have pressing chores to attend to in the early morning, which explains why his 9 am start time progressively gets later and later.

It was lunchtime and I was sitting with my accountant and general manager, both older Thai women, enjoying some mid-priced pad kraphao kai dao. The maid was somewhere off in the background with a mop.

My personal assistant sat down with us.

“I had a dream about you last night,” I said.

“Really?” he asked. His eyebrows fluttered and he leaned forward. “Was it … erotic?”

It was a perfect moment to teach English vocabulary such as “nauseous” but instead I said: “You came right up to me and flashed a number at me with your fingers.”

The synchronized clink of two sets of cutlery was only superseded in volume by the rush of air as the office maid swooped over. It takes a lot for Thais to stop eating, but apparently I’d just precipitated that.

“What number?” the personal assistant, accountant, general manager and maid asked in perfect unison.

“That’s the thing,” I said. “I don’t know if it was two separate numbers, or a combination of –”

“What number!?” the personal assistant, accountant, general manager and maid asked again in perfect unison. Only this time there was something threatening in their collective voice. Eight eyes peered at me with arched eyebrows in a curious tableau.

“Forty-one,” I said.

If this were a cartoon, those four staffers would speed off in a puff of smoke like Wile E. Coyote. But they had questions.

“Are you sure about the number?” my accountant asked.

“Are you sure it wasn’t the other way around?” my general manager asked.

“Well the four was very clear,” I said. “You used your four fingers and hid your thumb. It was a sideways four. But then your single finger was upright.”

“Which finger did I use for the one?”

“Your ring finger. Or perhaps it was your middle finger.”

I said that to add a little levity to what was descending into a serious discussion, but it didn’t work.

“No! I would never use my middle finger in front of your face like that!” my personal assistant said. I appreciated his loyalty, though he cleverly omitted which digit he would employ had my back been turned.

Before 1 pm my four staff each had made their surreptitious phone calls to put money on number 41 for the next national lottery draw.

Here in Thailand, life revolves around the 1st and the 16th of every month. The national lottery is the single most important machine to ensure Thais remain familiar with the numerical system.

On the next 1st or 16th switch on Channel 11, NBT, and you’ll find one of the country’s top-rating TV shows despite it going to air in the graveyard timeslot of mid-afternoon.

It’s the Government Lottery Office draw. It features a row of six pretty girls with identical outfits and skin extracted from snails. They line up in front of plastic bubbles filled with bouncing balls and draw one out each, then solemnly hold the numbers up to the camera.

Don’t for a moment think the numbers are random. This is Thailand, where everything is predetermined, including the lottery, and it is every Thai’s mission in life to tap into the supernatural world to know what’s coming up number-wise.

That’s why number 41 was so important to know.

Lucky lottery numbers are often found in dreams. They can also be found in temple trees, too, deformed animals, strange-shaped fruit and plants the shape of everything from fairies to phalluses. Some of the richest monks in Thailand have accumulated their wealth from dropping candle wax into water, chanting something incomprehensible, then proclaiming what numbers are “holy” for the upcoming draw.

It is a national obsession. Every two weeks a total of 74 million lottery tickets are sold in this country. There are more lottery tickets circulating in any given fortnight than there are people in Thailand.

That’s just the legal lottery. There is a whole industry known as the “underground lottery” that some estimate to be even bigger than the official one!

It certainly is in my office.

The odds are dismal and in the seller’s favor. For example, supposing I gambled 100 baht on number 41 coming up. (“Coming up” here means it is the last two digits of the winning six-digit number). There are 100 different combinations of two-digit numbers that could come up. In a perfect world my winning should be 10,000. It’s not. It’s more like 6,500 baht, since underground lottery bookies give you odds of 65 to 1.

That night I found a (legal) ticket vendor with 41 at the end and bought three of them. Sad, I know, but when in Rome …

***

The winning ticket for the draw on October 1st was 452643. See those last two numbers? Forty-three!

The maid was excited. “That’s so close to 41!”” she announced the following morning.

“You may as well be 99 away,” I said.

“It’s a sign. Maybe next draw it’ll be even closer!” she said.

Despite the failure to find a bridge between my dream and instant wealth, my personal assistant was enjoying being the center of attention. He swanned around the office with his shoulders back, proud to have infiltrated the boss’s dreams.

“If you win first prize, you will need to give me a cut,” he told me.

“Dream on,” I said. “Get it?”

***

The winning ticket on October 16th was 200515.

“Your cut is zero,” I said.

“Did you notice that?” my maid said. “What’s four plus one?”

“Five,” said the accountant, who was good at such sums.

“Now look at the last number of that winning number. It’s five!”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said.

Late October I bought another ticket ending in 41. I couldn’t help it.

***

The winning ticket on November 1st was 149840.

Now my maid was writhing on the newly-mopped floor.

“We’re getting closer and closer!” she chortled.

No we’re not. The only thing we were closing in on was insanity.

I wish I’d never opened my big mouth. I wish that back on that first day, I’d laughed and said yes, personal assistant, it was an erotic dream and now let’s get on with our lives.

My office is now obsessed with number 41. So, too, is my personal assistant’s home village, located deep in the jungles of Buriram, where all the farmers are betting on number 41.

I will have to continue buying tickets ending in 41. I’m in this too deep now. To continue is madness. If I stop, I just know 41 is going to come up.

I am angry with my personal assistant.

I’m angry at him for coming into my dreams and flashing that four and one at me. Couldn’t he have just stayed away from me and my slumber?

And the most intriguing question of all; if it was the lottery, then what on earth was it?

/Andrew



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