A village near Wigan, Lancashire, 2009
The professor sat in his usual chair, feet high on a matching stool, because they were playing up that day. Still witty and brilliant of mind, he was a stooped shadow of the man I’d met six years before. The Venetian blinds that were hell to clean were half-closed, thin lines of light hitting the horrible 70s carpet. I sat on the sofa opposite, in the front room of the house I’d lived in since leaving London.
‘I can’t do it,’ I began. ‘I do care about you, but….’
Which is how I broke my last engagement and he escaped becoming my third husband.
In English law, the condemned man who survives the hangman’s noose three times is set free – but I knew ‘third time lucky’ wasn’t going to work for me. I couldn’t risk another divorce.
Born in the third month of the year, I’ve had three different surnames and have always been drawn to this prime and pregnant number – odd and indivisible. And to the pictures it makes, suggesting the natural curve of hills and body or a half a heart on its side….
It’s not the world’s most popular number, which is 7. In China, 8 is the favourite, but 3 is lucky too, because the word for it sounds like the word for ‘birth’.
The mind meanwhile is enthralled by the simple 2 – thinking so often in pairs or opposites. Either-or, light or dark, right or wrong…. Sometimes a decision has to be ‘yes’ or ‘no’, when ‘maybe’ won’t do. But at more frequent moments, there are three or more prongs of the fork in the road….
It’s the first fruitful number, with an outward thrust. The seed of the family, the group, the tribe. One being – or idea – unites with another to create a third. It’s the number of possibility; the beginning of many.
It’s also the first figure to make a geometric shape: the triangle. The most stable shape of them all, yet with a latent power to disrupt and destroy. The introduction of a third party, in life as in fiction, can set a struggle in motion – one older than the pyramids. The new or old passion that can kill a partnership…..
A sense of number is deeply embedded in our nature and psyche. It was there in the very early man counting his fingers in a cave, then making tally marks on a length of bone. In the way a modern baby will hear a number and link it with a corresponding number of toys….long before he learns the spoken language and that the counted sound is also a symbol with a name we call a numeral.
If he’s lucky, the older child will be read the traditional nursery rhymes and stories about Three Bears, Little Pigs and Blind Mice – with an order and rhythm so easy to remember. He’ll meet the myths and fairy/folk tales about three tests, wishes, gifts or the girls in Cinderella. And later, at school, there’s bound to be the play about the witches upon the blasted heath…
When four is too many and two too few, three has a ‘just right quality – an elegance that lends itself to affairs of fashion, food, interior design. To style. It’s the perfect arrangement of portions on a plate, type of flower in a vase. The well-chosen colour in a room or outfit that balances and accentuates the other two. Yellow and grey, with a wall or scarf of blue equals – magic!
A friend’s teenage daughter, who wants to be a vet, overheard me talking about all this. Did I know that an octopus has three hearts, a camel three eyelids? I didn’t. Did she know how many slogans and speeches play on the persuasive power of three? Just Do It! Blood, Sweat and Tears. There was a pause, then she produced an example of her own. Black Lives Matter.
If we see our lives as stories in time, Beginning, Middle and End is an inevitable sequence – but the pattern is never complete, because new threads are spun and woven along the way. One story will always lead to another….
London, September, 1987
I was the oldest woman on the ward, but seething with energy, as if twice alive, which in a sense I was. I remember staring out of the hospital window, high above the city streets, the soft September light streaming through the glass. Then waddling along the corridors – a pumpkin on the move – down the stairs and up again, deep in conversation with my bump. I was a bit overdue.
‘Now listen – no induction, please. No caesarean, no epidurals. Just come quickly! I can’t wait to meet you, Marianne…’
But I should have known better, because at dawn the next day, my third beautiful son was born.