I'm not well again. So for today you're only getting half a story. I'll finish it for tomorrow's post.
The following was inspired by the Sunday Assembly, Manchester. Partly. I was able to be there for their meeting last weekend. Unfortunately I couldn't stick around for cake. The subject of the meeting was luck and a fortune cookie was placed under each chair. I sneakily took two cookies away from me and as I waited for my coach back to Newcastle a story idea came to mind. What if someone believed such fortunes and took them literally? This is the first half of that story, based on the two fortunes I received.
Please excuse the bad focus on my photos - my phone wasn't coping well with tiny writing and bad lighting.
Mary woke up in pain. Her chest hurt more than anything else, as if an elephant had stood on her rib cage or a family of mice had burrowed into it, ripping through flesh with their tiny teeth. Her head hurt too as if she was subject to the worst of hangovers. Thinking about the pain only caused her more pain. Thinking about opening her eyes when there was obviously an intrusive bright light above her made the pain in her brain far worse. Mary lay there for a while. Maybe if she lay still long enough everything would feel much better. She didn't know how long it was but the torment inside her mind gradually subsided from hurricane force to just a severe gale.
Mary opened her eyes. She was in a hospital bed and her mother was standing over her. Staring at her with a very worried expression on her face. She had been crying.
"Thank God. You're awake. You're a fucking idiot Louise. What the hell did you think you were doing?"
The sound of her mother shouting made Mary's head hurt again. She closed her eyes for a while. Slowly it came back to her and she realised what must have happened.
"I was obeying it mum. That's all. I did what it said and you told me it was true didn't you?"
"What was true? Whatever possessed you Louise? You're bloody lucky to be alive. Could have killed yourself you dunce. And heaven knows how we're going to get the stains out of the carpet."
Mary's mum started to cry. "Just look at what you've done to your mum. I could have lost you."
Mary could only stare. It had all made perfect sense in her mind. Had she really almost died? How was that possible when she had only been walking in obedience?
"Mum, mum. Don't cry. I did it for you. Because you said to and you gave them to me. It should have been okay."
"Sod it Louise! Of course it wasn't going to be okay. And you'll be scarred for life. Scarred. I was so scared when I found you lying there. Thought someone had murdered you. Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph I did. And then I saw those knives."
She cried more and fell across Mary's legs, grabbing her hand and clasping it tightly.
"Mum? I'll be fine and we'll work it out. Maybe I did something wrong. Although I can't think what. And mum? My name's Mary now, do you remember?"
"God Louise, is this somehow related to that? I told you the first time that you didn't have to take it literally and act on it."
"Yeah, but mum, that's not what you said in the restaurant and it was such a special night and that Chinese man said it too and you said that he looked like some kind of prophet. I think he was. My name's Mary. I had to obey because you said and I did too."
Perhaps it had been a mistake from the beginning. Perhaps Mary's mum should never have agreed to take her to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate her twelfth birthday. At home they only ever ate good, wholesome English food and that's the way Mary's mum liked it. But then Mary had seen a programme on television about Chinese food and had spent the next month repeating those strange words over and over again and pestering to be allowed to try them. Chow Mein. Foo Yung. Wonton. What kind of words were those? Mary's mum believed only in chips, steak and kidney pudding and foods she could understand.
But Mary had gone on about it so much that eventually her mum could take it no more and said that they would try one Chinese meal. At a restaurant in town. When the day arrived Mary was dancing in excitement. She had been obsessed with the menu for weeks, downloading it from the restaurant website and learning it off by heart. All she could think about was what Kung Pao and Dim Sum might be. Her mum was scared. Scared of the new foods in the new place.
At seven o'clock they arrived for their meal. Mary's mum didn't know what to do or what to ask for so the waiter helped her explore the menu. She was relieved that the final section contained some English dishes so she settled on roast chicken and chips for her main course. Mary said, "Oh mum, that's so boring. I'm going to order a starter, two main courses and a pudding and you can try them too. You'll see. You'll like them."
It was true. Mary's mum did like the food and by the end of the meal was surprised that she regretted ordering chicken and chips. That char sui chow mein Mary had ordered turned out to be delicious even though it had such a strange name. She decided that one day she might risk a Chinese ready meal from the supermarket. Maybe they sold chow mein there too.
At the close of the meal the waiter gave them the bill on a little plate. There were also two little packages. Mary's mum called the waiter back, saying, "Er, excuse me, sorry. But what are these?"
"Madam, special gift from us to you. These are fortune cookies. Inside each cookie there is a piece of paper and it will tell your fortune or give you a special insight into your life. It never fails. It's almost as if the gods were inside the fortune cookies."
"Oh, I don't think I want to try that. It all sounds a bit superstitious to me. It's probably true if you say it is but I'll stick with my God thank you and trust him to know my fortune. I don't want my cookie. Sorry."
"That's fine madam. You don't have to accept the gift. How about your little girl?"
"No. I shouldn't think she'd want to have one either."
Mary piped up. "Actually I'd like to. The man said it never fails and you said it's true. Can I have your cookie too mum? Please. It is my birthday."
Mary's mum relented, saying, "Louise, Louise. You do have a lot of funny ideas. But I suppose it won't do any harm just this once."
Mary put the cookies in her pocket. "I'll read one tonight and then the other in a few days. Make my birthday last a bit longer."
That night Mary opened her first cookie. It didn't taste very nice. Nevertheless she ate the whole thing before opening the small piece of paper inside.
It read "A good name is better than riches."
She thought hard about what that might mean. She hadn't got many riches, just a few pounds in a piggy bank. She didn't think she had a good name either. Louise? In what way was that a good name? It wasn't in the Bible or any of the other holy books her mum had. It was a bad name and she couldn't begin to see why her parents had given it to her. Perhaps it was all her dad's fault. Mum often said he was a bad man and they hadn't seen him since Mary was two.
There was only one thing for it if she wanted to obey the fortune cookie. She had to get rid of her riches and change her name. Then her life would work out for the best. It was obvious. The Chinese prophet said so and he was obviously right.
The following morning Mary went down to breakfast with her piggy bank. As her mum served her with toast and jam Mary said, "Mum, can I give all my money into the second collection on Sunday. It's Peter's Pence isn't it? It'll all go somewhere worthwhile."
"I suppose so. If that's what you really want. But weren't you saving up for something?"
"Oh, that doesn't matter. It's only riches and there are better things than riches. Can I? Please mum."
"Okay. You're a kind girl Louise. I'm so lucky to have you." Mary's mum gave her a hug.
"Oh, and mum. I'm changing my name. I don't like Louise any more. I want to be called Mary. That's a good name isn't it? It's the kind of name you might have if you are pure like Jesus' mum."
"No you can't. That was your dear departed gran's name and she was a good soul even if your dad turned out to be a child of the devil. You're not changing your name. And that's final."
"But mum. I like Mary. It suits me because I want to be obedient too. And you said it was probably true and it is true just like you said so I've got to be Mary. Got to be. Please mum. I have to do it."
"Louise Baker you shut your mouth now. You're not changing your name. Not while you live under my roof."
Mary shut her mouth. It was all so unfair. The fortune cookie had told her to be called Mary, hadn't it? So that's the way it had to be. And since it was impossible to change her name while living under her mum's roof ... Later that day Mary wrote a note to her mother.
"Mum, I'm sorry but I am leaving home today. I have to be called Mary and you've made it impossible. So I've got to go. I've left my piggy bank next to this note. Could you see that the money inside, three pounds and fourteen pence, are put into the offering? Thanks Mum. I love you. I'm sorry to leave because I do love you ever such a lot and it was so funny watching your face when you tried that first mouthful of chow mein. Don't worry about me. I'll have a good name and that's better than riches. I have to obey and I hope you can see that I'm doing the right thing. Your obedient daughter, Mary."