Superstitions

Superstitions
(c) Andres Rueda
(c) Andres Rueda/Flickr

Ffion raises her head from the pavement, merely as a matter of experiment. The brain is a smart device, Ffion knows that, smart in that whether she lies with her head on the side, parallel with the flagstone, or slightly raised, as it is now, at what might possibly be thirty degrees from the horizontal, she perceives the world to be orientated the same way. The reality of Ffion’s perception is that the lamp posts in Fishers Way continue to point straight upwards, as does the step ladder above her and indeed the cat, who remains sitting obediently upright in its box, its black nose resting against the hole she cut for it to look out of.

[private]“Yo,” Ffion says, lying her cheek back on the pavement; the brain certainly is a smart device.

The other thing that Ffion has observed, about life and about nature, as she lies here, is that gravity sure is a major force. Quite how gravity works, Ffion is uncertain. She can describe how any two lumps of matter attract each other with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the distance between them, and she can come up with an absolute measure of that force for any two given bundles of particles, including her current attraction to the cat, given that she knows his or her weight. Oh yes, she can provide an objective measure for the gravitational pull between her and that cat, easy peasy. But what exactly is this compelling attraction between two bodies, and how does it work at a distance? Yes, that is the question she should really be considering; what on earth is gravity? Such a basic question.

Time to ponder. Ffion has time to ponder, and to lie, and to experiment with her visual perception of the street that she normally hurries along on her way to work at the university without giving it much of a second glance. All these things Ffion has time for right now.

A car turns the corner, then revs as it approaches the long straight parallel with her position on the pavement outside her house. Unnecessary consumption of fuel, Ffion thinks. Gentle on the gas; carbon footprint and all that. And, as if to obey her, the car slows as it passes, then accelerates away.

Her stars said that she should not venture out today. According to the advice for Leo she should stay in and adopt a more flexible attitude, the result of which will be that things will work out magically. Quite how the two actions of staying in and adopting a more flexible attitude hang together, Ffion isn’t sure; perhaps that was why Celeste the Psychic had needed to add a phone number after her advice.

Now, if Ffion were to assume that birth rates were evenly distributed across the year, probably an incorrect assumption but one that she will stick with for the purposes of her current deliberations, then a twelfth of the population would be covered by Celeste’s edict to stay in, and if they all obeyed that advice, what would happen to the economy? Hospitals would shut, children and teachers would be forced to play hooky, and by the time the evening ended there would be enough magically worked out unspecified things in the country to fill a rainbow. Tempting as it had been to engage in a live consultation with one of Celeste’s team of astrologers in order to define the abstract terms ‘flexible attitude’, ‘things’ and ‘magically’, Ffion had decided on her current alternative approach.

The cat mews. Ffion stretches out, feeling the gaps in between the paving slabs with her toes. Another car turns the corner into the street. That’s two cars in five minutes. She wishes she had kept an accurate count of the cars that have passed in the hour she has been here so she could assess the relative rates of bike and car usage along Fishers Way at 9pm on a Friday evening. The car slows, stops, then reverses.

“You OK?”

“Fine,” Ffion replies.

“Need an ambulance or anything?”

“No.”

“You’ll get cold.”

And that is true enough, in some ways. Certainly she will ultimately get cold, but she ate macaroni cheese before venturing out, the source of food energy which will keep her adequately heated for a while, despite the continuing flow of heat energy from the more warm her to the less warm atmosphere.

“Eventually, I will get cold,” she says, knowing that someone, somewhere will have calculated the time it would take for her to drift off into hypothermia, given the prevailing weather conditions and the temperature of the ground, and she gives some thought to what shape that graph of her declining body temperature would take. Does the body maintain its temperature for a certain time and then drop suddenly? Is sixty-two minutes on a side street on an average evening in May (temperature 10 degrees Celsius) long enough? The Nazis had carried out experiments dropping Jews into vats of freezing water and monitoring their body temperature. Moral issue: should those experimental results be used to design safety suits for people falling into the North Sea, given that they were obtained through torture and denial of humanity? Should some sort of positive come out of such cruelty or should those measurements be destroyed in recognition of the abominable suffering caused?

Oh dear, this is becoming hard; should she be including philosophy here?

The car engine falls silent. A door clicks open, clunks shut.

“Are you injured?”

“No.”

“Sick?”

“I’m very well, thank you.”

The man sniffs. Ffion is tempted to lift her head again, take a proper look at this man, but now someone is trying to interact with her she finds her situation slightly embarrassing. The cat has retreated to the back of its box.

“Nice evening,” the man observes.

“Average,” Ffion responds, for in terms of temperature, cloud cover and precipitation it is no nicer nor nastier than should be expected for the time of year. In many ways the evening is not noteworthy at all.

“Are you mad?” he asks.

Ffion laughs. That is a great question. She certainly isn’t mad, so she should say no. But wouldn’t a mad person, by definition also say no, since if they said yes they would have a sane insight into their condition which would negate a diagnosis of madness. For a moment Ffion considers the possible double negatives in this thought process before deciding that the logical conclusion of her argument must be that only a mad person would deny their madness.

“Yes,” she replies thus demonstrating not only that she isn’t mad but also that she has a keen sense of irony, which would be nice to have.

The feet back away. Nice shoes, sky blue, canvas baseball boots, not too shoddy, not too new. The cat’s nose appears at the opening in the box.

“That your cat?”

“No,” Ffion replies. Strictly speaking she should add that she has borrowed it, but she can see how that might be misconstrued in these circumstances, particularly as the man’s voice has a certain calmness about it, an authority.
“I am looking after it,” she decides to add to explain its presence.

“I’m thinking that you might have taken a tumble,” the man says. “Knocked into that ladder there, or perhaps the cat wriggled in its box and sent you off balance and you fell.”

“Oh, no,” Ffion says. “That didn’t happen.”

“A rather unlikely set of occurrences, I agree,” the man says.

He pokes his toe at the cat box, shifting it slightly. Then he says:

“When I see a cat in a box,” he pauses; perhaps she will look up at him, take a peek, “I always think of …,” he stops.

“Of what?” Ffion asks, her throat unusually tight, her heart rather more active than necessary for her current inactive state, as she hopes that that the word Schrodinger might be voiced.

“Forget it. You’re all right?”

“Yo, look at me. What could be wrong?”

Schrodinger’s cat. Why hadn’t Ffion revisited that whole excellent thought experiment as she lay here? She will give it some consideration now. A cat sealed in a box with a diabolical mechanism made up of a small amount of a radioactive substance and a phial of poison. If the radioactive substance decays, the phial shatters and the cat is killed. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory implies that after a while the cat in the box is simultaneously both alive and dead. Mad. Brilliant. The reductio ad absurdum of quantum physics. Ffion could happily spend quite a bit of time discussing that with the right person.

The feet step away, swish, swish.

Sod it. She has completed her task. She sits up, her back stiff from the stone pavement.

“Hey,” she calls. “Thanks for stopping.”

The man raises his hand, opens the car door. Then without getting in shuts it again and walks back towards her.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“Experimenting.”

He looks at the cat and the ladder.

“On what?”

Now Ffion has been asked the question, she wonders why she is doing this? An empty evening, an irritation with Celeste the Psychic and an unsettling urge for some magic in her life don’t seem very compelling reasons any longer. Sod it; he has asked.

“Friday the thirteenth,” she explains. “Walking under a ladder, touching the cracks in the pavement, being out against an astrologer’s advice, a black cat. I just wanted to prove that superstitions are bollocks.”

The man stands for a while.

“So, what is your hypothesis?” he asks.

Her hypothesis? Even thinking about voicing it feels stupid.

“You really want to know?”

The man flicks his hands as if to indicate that she doesn’t know what she is talking about.

“OK,” Ffion says, “I’ll tell you what my hypothesis is. To prove that being superstitious is ridiculous, I set the hypothesis of ‘If I breach at least five superstitions then I will meet the man of my dreams’.”

Why she had set meeting the man of her dreams as her experimental outcome, Ffion isn’t sure. Men had never been much of a feature in Ffion’s life, not even in her dreams. Not because of any particular aversion on her part, simply that it appears that her rigorously analytical approach to life isn’t something that the men she meets find attractive in a woman.

“Stupid, hey?” she adds.

“Yeah, really stupid,” the man says. “Unscientific too.”

The cat mews again. Ffion probably shouldn’t have picked a strange cat off the street and put it in a box.

“It lacks a quantitatively measurable outcome and as such is un-provable,” he says.

“I know,” Ffion stands up, rather stiffer than she had expected, and folds the step ladder.
She had pondered over defining the man of her dreams in absolute terms: a degree might be one thing on the list, but how much did that really matter; and then certain measurable criteria for the way he looked, height, eye colour and so forth. Someone who would talk and listen to her, perhaps, but that lacked the specificity of duration and amount of verbal interaction. So she had abandoned all that and decided that should such a situation arise, she would set her measurables based on whatever experience came her way.

“Still, eh,” she adds.

She lifts the step ladder onto her shoulder.

“What about the cat?” the man asks.

“I guess we can let it go now,” Ffion says.

The man bends down.

“But,” he says before lifting the lid, “when I open it, will the cat be dead or alive?”

It is now that Ffion decides that canvas shoes will have to be included in her list of measurables for the man of her dreams. Yes, sky blue canvas baseball boots; those are certainly a good start.[/private]

Ruth Brandt

About Ruth Brandt

Ruth Brandt is studying the MFA in Creative Writing at Kingston University. Her short stories have previously appeared in Litro and have been published in Gold Dust, Candis, Yours and Ireland's Own magazines. They have been included in the Take Tea with Turing and Bristol Short Story Prize 4 anthologies, performed by Liars’ League, and read at literary festivals. Her poetry has been published in the Irish Literary Review. She lives in Surrey with her two sons and is currently working on a novel.

Ruth Brandt is studying the MFA in Creative Writing at Kingston University. Her short stories have previously appeared in Litro and have been published in Gold Dust, Candis, Yours and Ireland's Own magazines. They have been included in the Take Tea with Turing and Bristol Short Story Prize 4 anthologies, performed by Liars’ League, and read at literary festivals. Her poetry has been published in the Irish Literary Review. She lives in Surrey with her two sons and is currently working on a novel.

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