The seminar room was packed with standing room only.
Donald Bryan stood facing the sea of eager faces. Sixty of them sitting in ascending rows. During his six years lecturing at Oxford, his classes had attracted – in equal measure – a coterie of curious etymology and theology students and the envy of the University’s 130 resident lecturers. Almost three years ago an educational magazine had featured him on the cover with the embarrassing sobriquet: ‘The Million Dollar Words Worth.’ The picture they had chosen was taken from a recent hiking expedient to the Andes. It showed Donald, 39 years-old, a full head of jet black hair, prominent dimpled chin and, despite his string of academic qualifications, defiantly ruggedly handsome.
In the picture he had been photographed clinging to a dry rope and grinning confidently into the camera. A British Indiana Jones minus Harrison Ford’s trademark Fedora.
Donald felt uneasy with nicknames but recognised their value. Looking around the room he tried to pick out familiar faces from the previous year. Here and there among the 60 or so students he spotted a face with a familiar name.
He cleared his throat, a dramatic gesture that signaled the need for silence. Almost instantly the hubbub died down. A few coughs and shuffling of feet and then silence. He had their attention. ‘This must be what a rock star feels like,’ he thought. ‘Well hardly.’
Turning to the white board behind him he wrote the words: ‘English And What We Think We Know.’
‘So, ladies and gentlemen, what do we know about the English language?’
There were a few murmurs as the students glanced curiously at each other. From the far-left corner of the room a hand was raised. A Japanese student, probably no more than 23, wearing a bright red jumper offered hesitantly: ‘It’s mostly Latin and German with a bit of French thrown in to spice it up.” This brought a faint ripple of laughter from the other students.
‘Good,’ Donald said with a smile, ‘what else?’ This time a blonde sitting third from the front piped up: ‘It’s a member of the Indo-European family of languages. Which sort of means that it includes most of the European languages we speak today.’
Donald nodded. He recognised the student from last year. At least she’d taken notes.
‘Yes, that’s absolutely right. At the last count there are 300 million native English speakers and 300 million who use English as a second language. A further 100 million use it as a foreign language. It’s the language of science, aviation, computing, diplomacy, and tourism. But the real question I’m asking is why? Why English and not Mandarin, Latin or Greek?”
This time an expectant silence. Donald had been leading them by the hand to this crossroad and it was clear they didn’t know which direction led to enlightenment. Turning back again to the whiteboard he wrote: ‘English Gematria.’
‘What I’d like us to explore is how the language of a small island off the coast of Europe became the language of the planet.”
This time the Japanese student half raised his hand, uncertain but determined to make an impression on the class. ‘Has it got something to do with religion?” Again a few smirks and from somewhere a male student offered: ‘yeah, right’ to the amusement of his friends.
Donald silenced them with a hand. ‘Yes, it has everything to do with religion. You see, ladies and gentlemen, there is a theory held in many circles that English is the Holy language of His word. Many believe, with great conviction, that the development of English has been divinely controlled since the invention of the first alphabet.
“It’s been accepted for many years that Hebrew and Greek, the languages of the Old and New Testaments, have an in-built code. The use of the numerical values of Hebrew, Greek and Latin letters to change words into numbers is an ancient science. Is it likely that plain old English, the main language used by God to communicate His Word for the last 400 years, would also be divinely patterned?
‘During the last century, one of our greatest scientists, Sir Ambrose Fleming, proposed that English might have a numeric basis. He suggested that our alphabet enshrined the simple, straightforward, logical code running from 1 to 26; the letter A having the value of 1, B=2, C=3 down to Z=26.
‘Others who have made a study of English Gematria have concluded that the English language gives irrefutable evidence of being part of a gigantic numeric pattern, unplanned by human minds, and being perfected over the course of centuries.’
Donald paused for effect as he allowed the words to sink in. This was why he became a teacher.
This precious moment of silence. When a truth is revealed to a hungry, inquisitive mind.
Better than being a rock star.
A hand. This time a black bald headed student wearing a diamond earring stud. His voice was impeccably English blue blood. ‘Are you saying that all of our words add up in some way?’
‘Much more than that. Much more. But lets test the theory.’
Turning to the board he wrote out the alphabet and numbered each letter 1 to 26. ‘Lets take some words which are commonly associated together.” On the board he wrote:
Ocean (15+3+5+1+14)=38…..tide (20+9+4+5)=38
Someone whispered: ‘Holy shit.’
Without turning, Donald smiled: ‘Holy shit indeed. There are four main rules of Gematria: Either the word total is the same; The word total is consecutive: human 57, beings 56; stock 68, exchange 67; sun 54, shine 55. Or word totals have 100 between them. For example, inch 34, measurement 134; Bible 30, Holy Writ 130.
‘Or, in some cases the word totals are reversed: such as: son 48, daughter 84; spark 65 plug 56. And for all you aspiring capitalists, its worth pointing out this:’ He wrote quickly on the board: TRADE 48, buy 48, sell 48, but profit=84.
This time the laughter from the class was genuine. Donald folded his arms as he continued: “Ladies and gentlemen, the hidden code in the English language goes back as far as the Medieval age and today our modern language is filled with…” He was interrupted mid sentence by the classroom door opening. Almost on cue the students turned their heads to follow his gaze.
The school bursar, a slightly built dark-haired woman in her mid fifties stepped through the door. She apologised to the class and whispered in Donald’s ear. “I’m sorry to interrupt your class but you have a most urgent call. I did explain that you were lecturing but the caller insisted that this couldn’t wait.” Donald quickly assigned the class a chapter from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream to decode while he followed the bursar out of the room.
At the University administration office, the bursar apologetically handed him the phone. The voice on the other end was hurried and spoke in short bursts as though gasping for air. ‘Donald, thank God you’re there. It’s Simms. We have to meet.’
Steven Simms was a former field agent for M I 5, the self-styled piercing arm of British Intelligence.
He had accepted a desk job after working with Donald in deciphering Russian documents being passed by double agent Robert Hansseen in 2002.
Shortly after Hansseen was jailed, the public outcry over his antics encouraged MI5 to change its title from secret service to security service and even publish its phone number on its website. Simms had called it a day and opted instead to chase paperwork rather than international criminals.
The tone in his voice made it clear this was far from a social call. Donald, wary of how much couldn’t be said on the telephone, asked: ‘Is everything alright?’ Simms replied: ‘Donald we have to meet. Tomorrow night at Claridges. 9.30. Please come’ and hung up.
This is the first chapter from the novel Heavens Fire by Kizzi Nkwocha. Pick up your copy by clicking here.