For Whom The Bell Tolls, Page 333

Why, thanks to the number 333, Ernest Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War novel is my new best friend

A few days ago, I walked into a second-hand store in The Angel, London — the significance of this area will soon become apparent. From a dusty shelf of books (arranged, to my despair, in no order at all), I noticed a dog-eared copy of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’m generally not a big fan of war novels, but I do know this to be one of the American author’s finest works. You’re coming home with me, I thought.

As I rummaged around the rest of the shop, I leafed through the book only to discover a plane ticket acting as a makeshift bookmark. And so, reminiscent of the fluke involved in a recent charity shop find, began a spell of coincidence.

The ticket, you see, was for a journey from London to Edinburgh, the two cities between which I divide my time. It was made out to one Ms. Raphaelle Conte, which raised a smile because my partner, who was with me at the time, is named Raphael. And on our to-do list that day was sourcing a block of Comté cheese for a tasty fondue recipe.

Tenuous twists of fate, you might think — but wait, there’s more. At the bottom of the ticket sat an advert for mobile provider 02, promoting cheap travel data. “Text Europe to 23336,” the ad invited. This might seem like nothing to you, but to me, it means a lot, especially coupled with the fact that I found the ticket at page 333 of the book.

The thing is, I see the number 333 everywhere — I often open books like Hemingway’s at page 333, or sometimes they even have 333 pages in total; it features in lots of phone numbers like the one in the 02 ad; it’s the number of buildings I pass or buses that pass me; it appears to me in dreams night after night; I regularly wake up at 3:33am or glance at the clock at 3:33pm; and much more.

What, then, is the deal with this series of threes? Let’s take the number three by itself to start with. Three, as the 60s Bob Dorough song goes, is a magic number. And Dorough (whose cheerful tune was commissioned to teach multiplication on kids’ TV show Schoolhouse Rock!) isn’t alone in thinking so.

In fact, number three and its import have preoccupied humans for thousands of years. The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, for example, reportedly believed that all things were made of numbers, with three existing as the “ideal number.” Why? Well, in mystical terms, it’s the number of harmony, wisdom and understanding. With a beginning, middle and end, it’s also the number of time, denoting past, present and future, and birth, life and death.

What’s more, three is significant in religion, magic, fairy tales, ethics, astrology, and many other areas too.

And what about my numeric stalker, 333? Since I began to spot the number creeping around after me day and night, I’ve come to view it as a North Star of sorts — ironic really, because double that and you get 666, “the number of the beast.”

According to the all-knowing interwebs, unlike its satanic brother, 333 is a sign that my divine protectors (the angels, that is) are looking out for me — remember where I bought the book! Always good to know someone or something, earthly or otherwise, has your back, no?

Naturally, my logical side (which accounts for around 75% of me) suspects that these ceaseless visits have nothing to do with protection and everything to do with happenstance — even if they give probability a run for its money. But the other 25% (a true fan of the implausible) can’t help but wonder if there are perhaps transcendental forces at work that we, as rationally minded humans, can never fully understand.

Certain events (including the serendipitous second-hand store compound detailed above) threaten to top up my spiritual quarter and make it a weightier spiritual half — or at the very least a third. In particular, 333 started coming to me five years ago, right after my wonderful granny passed away — make of that what you will. Call me a loon if you please, but in my mind, this has to go beyond chance. Pythagoras believed the number three stood for good fortune, and increasingly, as the years go on, I think the same of 333.

It took me a good while to figure it out, but the number manifests only when I really need it, especially in moments of anxiety or uncertainty. While my guardian doesn’t give me solutions to the problems I face (after all, it’s no Magic 8-Ball or fortune cookie), its presence does help me calm down and focus on finding the right answers at the right time.

You might trust that 333 represents some kind of angelic security system (with or without my granny at the controls) or you might fancy that it’s the biggest load of mystical mumbo jumbo you’ve ever heard. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me. Back in 2015, it helped me grieve, and every day now it pushes me in the right direction — that has to count for something, right?

I may have no interest in wartime tales, but I will read For Whom the Bell Tolls with enthusiasm — if only for the reason it fell into my hands, thanks to fate, in this way. Right at the end of page 333, Hemingway’s character Lieutenant Berrendo utters five Our fathers and five Hail Marys for the repose of the soul of his dead comrade. Although I don’t believe in God, my granny did, and what a lovely thought it is that these gestures might (in some time-bending, other-worldly way) be for her.

London-based freelance journo (mainly film & TV), content writer & editor, ghostwriter, and blogger. Also currently studying to be a UX writer.

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