Today’s post is a wee fable I wrote today entitled Way Back When
Way back when there was no number nine. There were numbers 1 to 8 and 10 on but no number nine. People had no way of grasping what lay between 8 and 10. The question 3×3 hung in the air like a bad stink. Parents with eight children would become distressed as they knew upon the arrival of another infant they would have to describe themselves as being ‘a large family’ when asked and when pushed would reply that they could not be exact and if belligerently pressured would be forced to say ‘We have more than eight children’and would then say no more.
Back then people did not say cats had nine lives. Some argued cats had eight lives and others that cats had ten. The eights argued vehemtly, that while cats great at evading harm and escaping at the last minute, there was clearly a limit on the number of lives something ultimately mortal could have and stopping short of the abyss before ten made sense. The tens were defiant making ever bolder claims to the amount of lives these superstious animals could lay claim to. They would raise the stakes higher and higher making outlandish claims such as that cats always land on their feet. Hence why we think so today. Some even argued that cats had 11 lives. But that was considered really rather silly, even by the tens, and their theories were dismissed. After all some things are just preposterous.
Like the day Urania Simeon was born. This should have been a happy event for the bustling family of humble tailors but the day was clouded in gloom and unease. Urania, you see, had had the misfortune of being born after her brother Theo. This is not meant as a particular criticism of Theo as such (although Theo had a peculiar habit of collecting tea bags papers which he would then assemble in ‘mood group’ and deliver dry rather stern lectures about to his siblings which some people might consider unfortunate but in any event Urania did not mind all that much) it is just that Theo was the Simeon family’s eighth child.
It is difficult being a younger sister with eight older brothers nowadays but there were added complications way back when. Having eight older brothers and no older sisters meant you were a ‘more than’ child. ‘More than’ children were often at a loss, unsure where they stood and presented a quandary to their parents. Their predicament was changed however when, just after getting the hang of responding with ‘We have under ten children’, they were blessed with a tenth child! Another girl this time called Josephine. They did not realise initially, but not only did they have a new confident ‘We are the proud parents of ten children’ to hand, they were also spared the hassle of needing to say ‘We have one daughter and more than eight sons.’
So while the rest of the Simeons got on with the new arrangement and worked hard to sew enough clothes to make enough money to feed all the hungry mouthes Urania was left pretty much to her own devices. Before she could be identified sometimes as ‘the youngest’ or ‘the girl’ but now both those titles had been taken from her. She was the child who could not be singled out by her birth order. She was quiet and awkward anyway, partly due to the awkward way people related to her, and she slipped quietly into the background.
Now as anyone who has ever slipped quietly into the background can attest it is quite alright to do for a short time but can become tiring and even draining after a while. Urania was so quiet and out of the way she often ended up being spoken over and she even missed meals as no one would remember to remind her. It was clear that matters could not carry on like this so Urania started to hatch a plan.
It was the midpoint of the long year of being eight years old when Urania snuck out of the house (having breakfasted early on her own, often the best way of insuring that she got something to eat) with the family cat under her arm. Cats were not popular pets way back when due to the controversy over their mortality. They were rare and things that are rare often lead to adventures. This was the case for Urania as she scrambled up the hill that sloped away from the village. As she walked, fighting to keep the cat from wriggling, she thought about her birthday. By now she should have had at least eight but the reality was that she had had less. This was not because Urania was born in a leap year (years didn’t leap back then, they all just strolled about leisurely) but because her parents were self conscious about her being a ‘more than’ child and to make matters worse she was born on the ‘more than’ of September.
So preoccupied was Urania in thinking about her missed birthdays that she did not know she had arrived at the old chemist Daedalus’s house. Daedalus himself was sitting in front of his house on an upturned bucket staring into an un-upturned bucket with great concentration.
‘Away with you I’m concentrating.’
‘I just wanted to ask you a question.’
‘I’ve not got time for anymore questions. Go away.’
‘I brought a cat with me.’
Upon hearing those words Daedalus leapt (unlike the year) to his feet.
‘A cat. An actual cat?’
‘An actual cat.’
‘Brilliant, I’ve been looking for a cat so I can work out a philosophical problem.’
‘I know. You’re one of the people who think cats have ten lives.’
‘I’m not, I used to be. I’m not anymore.’
‘Well I’ll leave it here and collect it tomorrow as long as when I get back you can answer my question.’
‘What is three times three?’
Daedalus nodded and without saying another word took the cat that Urania was holding up.
The next day Urania returned to the house where she found Daedalus sitting on his upturned bucket petting the cat.
‘I’ve got your answer – it’s eight point eight!’
Walking back down the hill with her cat Urania knew that Daedalus had thought about it very hard but there was no way he was right. A number shouldn’t have a dot in it. Especially such an important number. Urania was almost back home when she saw Theo sitting on a low wall.
‘You missed today’s talk on Darjeeling.’ he said in a monotone.
‘Oh.’ said Urania, unsure what else she could say.
‘Mum and dad are in a panic.’ said Theo in the same monotone.
‘They have had a big order of woollen garments for the autumn jamboree and they just can’t get all the work done in time.’
‘How come?’ said Urania who had rarely had so long a conversation with one of her brothers.
‘They keep stitching and unpicking, leaving stitches too late and getting confused counting.’
‘That’s not like them.’
‘No.’ said Theo maintaining the same monotone.
Urania walked in to see her parents surrounded by piles of knotted wool, with bleary eyes and furrowed brows. Urania’s cat leapt out from under her arm and started clawing away at the wool.
‘No Nine! That’s bad, don’t do that Nine!’shouted Urania.
Urania’s parents were shocked. They had never heard Urania raise her voice. They watched with wide eyes as Urania walked over and picked up the cat. Their eyes grew wider when they listened to what she said next.
‘It’s number nine, that’s what’s between eight and ten, that’ll do.’
The Simeons senior said nothing.
‘It’s like between seven and eight. The same increment. That should help with all the stitching.’
The Simeons senior nodded at the practicality of what they were gradually realising was their ninth child.
‘Oh and another thing.’
‘What?’ her mum said.
‘It’s my birthday.’