For saying I’m a vehement atheist with a dislike of religion, I still have a very strong belief system. Like many religions, my beliefs are based on a handful of peculiar rituals and practices handed down through the generations. I believe in the power of the Magpie. Yes, I’m ashamed to say this; I’m an irrational superstitious person. Magpies can be very dangerous birds.
I touch wood if I say something unpleasant to stop the doom from descending. It only works if I do it with the index finger of my right hand though. It has to be a firm tap on the wood with the correct finger, naturally. I also get very excited if a black cat meanders across my path. Not just because I like cats a lot, but because it means joyous good luck for the next day. I never wash clothes on New Year’s Day. If I did that then one of my family members would be washed away too. Everyone knows that. I might just consider a quick wash if I could choose the family member and the severity of injury. The idea of your own personal Persil hit man could be quite appealing at certain times.
I spent years in my youth with crossed fingers, avoiding cracks in the pavement. I had to stop this. I’m clumsy enough without adding extra impediments to my already dangerous forays into the outside world. It’s bad enough that I won’t wear my glasses all the time through vanity, without me turning a walk into an obstacle course.
I’m ecstatic if I see a shiny new penny on the floor. I have to pick it up to ensure good luck all day. People seem to look at you oddly when you do this in the middle of a busy street or in the queue in the chip shop but I simply don’t care. I suspect they’re just jealous because I spotted it and consequently I have the good luck. I can’t help being lucky.
I even used to invent little fortune telling exercises. I’d set challenges. For example: if I can get up the stairs before the door swings shut then it’ll all be fine. If I can get coffee, milk and sugar into the mug before the kettle boils then I won’t be murdered today. I invented rituals, tapping things being a favourite habit. It had to be the right thing to tap. My preference was the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. It also had to be the right amount of taps. Three taps was lucky, four was deadly. Especially lucky was nine taps (3 times 3). Tapping the stair banister three times in three places ensured that I didn’t die in my sleep. Do you know what? It worked too. I didn’t ever die in my sleep.
A friend once told me that she never had the volume on the television on an odd number and that she believed that having it set to an even number ensured safety. Naturally, I adopted this habit too. She may have well been onto something there.
The scariest thing of all is the magpie. My mother taught me from childhood that if you see a magpie alone it’s very bad luck, unless you salute it and say “Good morning Mr Magpie. How’s your wife?” If you see two or more magpies it’s a harbinger of joy and good fortune. There’s no need for greetings. This was fine as a child but in adult life it gets trickier. Try being on a crowded train and spotting a solitary black and white fiend on a branch. The man across from you will always give you a very funny look if you shout out your greeting whilst looking like a demented boy scout saluting some imaginary monarch.
Maybe it was a bad mistake to take my hand off the steering wheel whilst driving along a busy dual carriageway on a driving lesson. The instructor told me off and was actually quite rude. He didn’t seem at all impressed when I explained patiently that in the greater scheme of things, the risk of doom incurred by me not saluting the bird was far greater than the risk of us crashing whilst I saluted. I was ensuring our safety. He didn’t like this explanation at all.
I’ve got better as I’ve got older. I no longer tap things so much. I don’t break into a sweat if the radio volume is at number 5. I still pick up pennies and salute magpies, but more discretely. I dive down with a nonchalant manoeuvre to retrieve the abandoned coins and silently mouth bird greetings whilst doing a casual salute, which to the untutored eye looks like I’m scratching my forehead.
I know what it’s all about. It’s my attempt to ward off anxiety, not evil. Like any belief system it can be pernicious and punishing too and I know this. If I say “Oh, I haven’t had a cold in ages” and then due to forgetting to touch a wooden item afterwards subsequently get a cold, then I feel bad and blame myself. If put my washer on on the wrong day and someone dies then I could feel very bad. It’s a silly business. This is what my mind tells me. My instincts tell me otherwise.
I’ll stick to practising my beliefs discretely and maybe remind myself when I laugh at strange religions that we all have our beliefs, some more absurd than others.