This summer, walking along Valencia’s picturesque Plaza de la Reina with a dripping ice-cream, I was surprised to note on a shop window a sign reading: “get your Christmas lottery tickets, now”. It seemed entirely out of place to be thinking of Christmas in the warm, gushing depths of summer. But for a lottery-skeptic like me, it is always important to remember the context. The Christmas lottery is almost sacred here in Spain, even more so since the heavy impact of the economic downturn known as ‘La Crisis’ in the country for the past few years.
How many families must be placing their hopes on a winning lottery ticket this Christmas? And how many individuals are scraping together coins to make ends meet and find that little bit extra to buy their ticket?
In the short story below entitled The Lottery of Life, which I’ve decided to post in this first blog entry, the lottery tickets are entirely free. Everyone enters the lottery. But the results are entirely surprising…
The lottery of life
By Matthias Krug
Everyone on the island entered the lottery.
It was not optional. What it was was futuristic. The Somali pirate who would later freak out about the lottery of life thought he had landed in some strange future world, in which social equality was an actually achievable norm, in which he would no longer have to spend his days being a pirate and could instead be a perfectly normal human being.
But even being futuristic, with all the associated modernity that word brought along, it was certainly not an optional lottery. It was not like the Christmas lottery, El Gordo, on the (somewhat) nearby Spanish mainland, where people queued stubbornly and incessantly around corners and into bustling main streets like the Gran Via in Madrid or onto the Plaza de Ayuntamiento in Valencia, and then you looked to see what on jolly jonkers was going on there and it was just people lining up for the infernal Christmas lottery.
This was different because you have an option to enter the Christmas lottery and another option to ignore it completely. Additionally it was different in that here on the island no one had to queue up anywhere. Everyone on the island entered because they were entered by the government. From the moment you arrived on the island you were registered already for the next annual lottery, which took place every 15th of December. This rather random date had been decided by the committee on the island which was responsible for the lottery: “the good gentlemen and gentlewomen’s committee for deciding matters related to the event of the annual lottery of life”. They decided in the first year of the creation of the lottery – that being the year 2008 when Spain won its second European Championships in football – that the words ‘common’, or ‘people’ should be studiously avoided in everything regarding the lottery of life. This was in order not to give it the air of a communist-tainted event, which it most certainly was not. Spain and all the related territories it possessed with varying degrees of political correctness had seen quite enough of the murderous bickering between Reds and, well, Blues, so to speak, and therefore it was decided rather unanimously (only one objection was heard, and this was a gentleman who was generally acknowledged to be something of a crazy bird) to steer clear of politics and just move onwards and upwards in terms human cognition.
So, according to the will of the ‘people’, ironically indeed without being able to mention that very word, the first sitting of “the good gentlemen and gentlewomen’s committee for deciding matters related to the event of the annual lottery of life”, on the decided that every member of the island community was entered into the lottery of life. For free. Not a single payment was required, which was a nice change for those poor souls who had been forced to scrap together their last ounces of coins and other sellable valuables (often also including their very own body) ahead of the annual Christmas lottery which could be entered into in the neighboring (somewhat) Spain, and which was always in the end a vain effort.
For no one from the island had ever won anything in a real lottery, as far as all records stretched back (although records were admittedly known to be kept without much passion for veracity on the island), and this even extended to the island’s very own internal lottery system, which was the predecessor of the lottery of life and always seemed to spew up numbers without actual owners to them, making the jackpot skyrocket into the billions of Euros. Since no one believed that no one ever won the jackpot, the island’s lottery chief was done for fraud and thrown in for a few years of jail ‘for making a screaming living from everyone else’s losses’. The autonomous judicial system which existed there allowed for such extravagant judgments.
In all honesty, it would have been a fine opportunity to make a great deal of money from the lottery of life too, given that each of the 15,000 souls on the island were obliged by law to enter, and the business community on the island protested bitterly at this missed opportunity. But their protest lacked in strength. Maybe it was because of their friend’s mishap with the lottery fraud. Maybe they were already busy preparing themselves for the larger frame of things and the next financial crisis which was already sweeping across many parts of the world for the first time again since the last time in the 2009/2010/2011 seasons.
So, lacking any real protest measures, the lottery went ahead as planned without any entry fee. There were also no numbers. Rather, it was just the name of the person which was entered into a giant yellow ball that was somewhat see-through to guarantee for transparency in the whole process. This gave the same opportunities to all, and they were also all promised a very unusual reward, which was not of monetary nature at all.
The 15th of December came and went and the world did not take note. There were more important things to report on. But the islanders did not mind this because they were still reeling from having been the butt and also the pit of jokes for being the host island of that infamous meeting in which it was decided, with all of three approving voices, to illegally invade Iraq in the faraway dark past of the year 2003.
After the success of the first lottery, it was decided to have it on this day every year because the island’s most important football match, the Super Bowl of the island, so to speak, between the two only teams on the island, was held every year on the 14th of December. That way there was a nice double highlight before Christmas and no one was tempted to enter the silly neighboring lottery which was still focusing on monetary rewards.
Some local observers pointed to geography as a determining factor in the success of the lottery. The island was not far from the West coast of Spain, but really it was not entirely far from the East coast of South America either. Rumors had it that the great Argentine writer Borges had once been there to gather inspiration, whilst counter-rumors countered that it had in fact been the Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa on one of his research trips. A final, rather unbelievable rumor ran that Cervantes had written his Don Quijote there in a frenzied overnight visit to the prison to ascertain whether he would like to transfer there for the remainder of his sentence. Whichever one of the three it was hardly mattered, one thing was certain: the island was somewhere there in between that vast expanse of ocean and it took a whole many years for any sailors or pirates to come across it following that infamous meeting in which Iraq had been so fatally condemned.
When the first visitors did sail upon it, for there were no airports as such to speak of, only the military bases and their megalomaniac officers and generals and tea boys who had it in their interest to make the island the most forgotten place on earth, they found in every house a large smiling picture which featured the brilliantly out-dated faces of Bush, Blair and Aznar; three centuries old leaders. It was a lovely old gathering. But upon seeing those three faces it felt to the first newcomers as if they had indeed struck upon a tribe of Amazonian Indians who still started fires with stones.
However, it was not this picture cult which first astonished the group of twenty-five curious Australian sailors who set foot on that long-forgotten island one sun-streaming December 14th. Rather, it was that the inhabitants of the island all seemed to be either packing, or at the football game, or both at the same time.
‘What’s this then?’ the captain amongst the sailors asked with a heavy grey beard and a bushy Australian accent as they walked their first steps on the island. ‘Some kind of revolution?’
He was a seasoned fish, had witnessed some ugly little revolts and big revolutions and repelled a good number of fierce pirate attacks over the course of his fifty years at sea, and also braved the odd mutiny or two. Now, having considerably improved the conditions of his twenty-four strong crew members, they were something approaching friends, although tense friends really considering that their monetary relationship might change any day with a reverse in the financial tide of things.
There was no reply to his incredulous question from his sailors, nor from the locals, who all were in a terrible rush with a fine amount of packing left to do and the game already two minutes underway.
‘Let’s take a look at this game then,’ the captain pronounced as they sauntered up to the island’s only stadium, which was obviously in the fitful throes of a major sporting occasion, and the sailors chimed in with drunken shouts of ‘let’s, pets.’
The stadium was entirely sold out. This could be seen from the large sign reading ‘completo’ in Spanish which was hung above the ticket office. Captain Richard knew enough Spanish to understand this, and was on the verge of looking for some other temporary diversion until they set out to cross the Atlantic again. But as they walked around the gate with the number 24 on it, a man with a large and flat black moustache and purple-black eyes, which counted quickly the quantity of unexpected visitors with a brief glance, flitted nervously up to the captain and offered him ‘twenty-five first rate tickets to the game in exchange for taking me out of here on your ship as soon as you can.’
‘That would be in two days time,’ Captain Richard said, ‘we’re here for a break for myself and the crew. Is that ok?’
‘Fine, take them,’ the stranger said quickly, waving twenty five tickets the captain’s way.
Thinking the man a nutcase, and having first examined closely the twenty-five tickets which were thrust his way incessantly and entirely nervously, the captain agreed. With brothels evidently out of the question given that everyone, everyone, everyone was busily packing, he wanted to offer his boys some kind of manly entertainment. He gave the ticket man the necessary instructions on where to find the ship in a couple of days and then they walked quickly stadium-wards, because squeals of excitement were to be heard reverberating inside the crumbling walls of the stadium.
A goal was evidently just falling.
They marched into the stands to this pig-sty-like squeal of busy expectation inside the big heavily perspiring stadium, which was delightfully steep. Having seen the home ground of FC Barcelona on a previous stopover in that deliciously naughty port city, the sailors and their captain were accustomed to marvelous football stadiums and fantastic atmosphere, but this was not far off.
Richard showed the tickets to a helper inside the ground, and found much to his disapproval that all the tickets were fake (but this mattered very little, as the helper closed two eyes to the fact), and also for different part of the stadium; some close to the pitch, others high up in the furthest stands which seemed almost to be a stairway to the rich blue sky, and still others in luxurious VIP boxes. In a gesture of impromptu modesty, Captain Richard chose the tickets which were furthest away from the action and let the junior-most member of the crew take the VIP box seats. He moved his ageing limbs up the 500,000 steps to the top stand and sat down heavily breathing to watch the remaining game, which was now approaching the 72nd minute.
To his side sat a young couple with a suitcase, stuffing things inside compulsively with one hand while popping popcorn mouth-wards with the other.
‘We left the packing too late,’ the young man explained with an apologetic shrug when he saw the captain’s continued incredulous glances.
‘But what on earth is going on here, why is everyone packing?’ Captain Richard asked.
‘It’s the lottery of life tomorrow, we have to be ready,’ the young woman said, kneeing down on the suitcase now in an expertly attempt to shut it, which she duly did. Captain Richard watched with excitement as her green underwear showed as her shirt zipped up her back a little at the quick effort she made, while her partner squealed in unison with half of the stadium as a goal fell. The other half of the stadium looked on glumly.
The game ended in an exciting 4-4 draw, with the top scorer of FC Island getting a fine hat-trick in the process, but the goalkeeper of Real Island certainly seemed to have saved his side the point with a series of fine stops along the way. There were no penalties. Instead both teams quickly marched off to pack their sports kit into their suitcases.
‘But why do you need to pack for a lottery?’ Captain Richard asked, perplexed, as the couple next to him left after the game with the suitcase smacking down the stoney steps behind them on its four battered wheels.
‘Will you be here tomorrow,’ the blonde woman asked, smiling a devilish smile at the captain.
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Then you will find out.’
The captain left the stadium with his sailors and they headed for the local pub, which was abuzz with talk about the game and the imminent lottery of life. There was a great deal of bickering about the refereeing of the game, and some intermittent hopeful prayers about the lottery of the next day. Captain Richard thought this entirely normal. Everyone wanted to win the lottery. He knew no one in all his years of travel who did not. He got well and thoroughly drunk, as did his sailors. The night passed with a smattering of kisses and a few innocent fist-fights and the odd oddity such as when a local doctor cried out that he would not have living in the city’s slums for another year, and really hoped for some finer luck in the lottery of tomorrow. There was general laughter amongst the sailors. The doctor seemed pissed.
At around 4 in the morning they headed for the local motel, and were entirely surprised to find no receptionist waiting there for them. They decided, in their drunken state, to head straight for the rooms, because it looked a lively motel and far from a ghostly establishment. In the rooms, which opened finely and without any need of barging or kicking or smashing, they were surprised to find families living there with up to three children.
Making use of Captain Richard’s tender Spanish understanding, they were told by one and all of those living in the motel to go and find some lovely family with extra rooms to room with for the duration of their stay.
‘Since that picture,’ the elderly grandfather of one hotel-family said in Spanish, pointing at the portrait of Bush, Blair and Aznar on the wall, ‘we haven’t had any tourists. It’s been like a plague. So we decided to use hotels and motels too for the lottery of life, so that homeless people might enter the fray.’
‘I see,’ the captain said, thinking he had probably overdone the glasses of vodka with fish spines dished out to him at the bar, ‘so there’s a lottery of houses here, is there?’
‘Exactly,’ the elderly man said, ‘at first it was merely an experiment to see how things would change. But now we like it. It gives life a new flavour, a new sparkle. The poor get to live like the rich for a year, and vice versa. The rich find a new inner wealth in the poor surroundings, and the poor have a whole lot of luxurious items at their disposal. And the middle classes have a bit of everything.’
‘But isn’t there any social unrest? Does no one protest?’
‘No, we find it innovative. And we are entered quite for free. Any new arrival to the island is automatically entered into the process.’
When a group of Somali pirates were chased out of their mostly unknown and entirely murky waters by a large military flotilla pertaining to the Pakistani navy and finally waded tiredly ashore on December 16th at the other end of the island to find some much needed supplies, they found that there were a whole many people moving houses and amicably greeting new neighbours. It looked as if they had never seen their neighbours before. The following day, the pirates gave up plans to forcibly take supplies because of the extreme hospitality which was being thrust their way, even without anyone understanding a word of their Somali threats.
Each of the seven pirates was taken into a different lodging and provided with a fantastic array of foods and tropical fruits. The only strange thing was that the owners of the houses seemed to know next to nothing about their houses. A simple fruit salad took hours to make because things were not where they were expected to be. A lunch was not ready until dinner, and a dinner not until the following breakfast, causing the pirates to lose all sense of dangerousness and even letting them forget that they had left their weapons aboard the small wooden motorboat which they had arrived in.
One of the pirates, a certain Abu Bajr, knew some fragments of English, and it was decided to bring to his attention the only other person on the island who was known to talk flawless English; coincidentally it was his host, the professor of English at the island’s only certified university.
‘Why you don’t know your house?’ the pirate Abu Bajr asked, amused.
‘I’ll need some time to get used to it,’ the professor said. ‘It’s the case that we were just handed out our new homes for this year in yesterday’s lottery of life. You see that picture hanging there on the wall, that’s not my family. It’s someone else’s. They left it for me to get a taste of the house’s origins. Beautiful, isn’t it? This way the entire island get’s to know one another very intimately.’
Abu Bajr, with his limited knowledge of the English language, was confused at this concept of the lottery. He decided therefore to ask something much simpler.
‘Do you like picture of Bush and his dogs?’ he asked, pointing to the wooden wall of the modest hut in which he had been given a bed in the same room as his host.
‘Oh that. No, no. No, it’s an ironic gesture,’ the host said.
Not understanding the term ‘ironic’, Abu Bajr went to visit the second pirate in command, who was known to have powers of a witch-doctor. He had been given an entirely more enticing place to stay in a large mansion by the sea which rocked to the swaying tunes of the frothing waves. Abu Bajr entered the unlocked door and walked up golden stairs, which he touched with delight whilst analyzing how easily they might be dismantled and whether they might sink the motorboat with their collective weight. He reached the conclusion that they could indeed be dismantled with the assistance of a simple screw-driver, and that a pirate might have to be left here in order to account for the added weight of the stairs. When he entered the room of Abu Kamal, he saw that it would probably be the pirate lying sprawling in silk sheets who would be left here.
‘Abu Kamal,’ he said, relieved at reverting to his native language, ‘will you give me some advice. This island we’ve landed on is entirely crazy, in my belief they are all stealing each other’s houses and identities. That is crazy. We only steal goods out at sea. We don’t go to such extremes. We must get out of here. Or you must make a spell.’
‘Relax, Abi Bajr,’ Abu Kamal said, ‘the island is perfectly fine. They’re just rotating houses every year, according to a lottery system. They enter their name and their house number into a big lottery, and then for the next year they live in the address they are assigned to.’
‘By God,’ Abu Bajr said, ‘I think we might stay here. We’d just need to find a way to fix the lottery so that we end up in houses like yours here, and not little wooden huts in the mountains like mine.’
‘We always have our weapons,’ Abu Kamal responded wisely, ‘but let’s not cause a stir in our first year here. Let’s at least wait a year and see how we adapt to life on this island.’
In the harbor the Australian sailors were embarking on their sugar-steamer. In the bunk-bed of one of the small cabins lay the man who had given them the 25 fake tickets to the game.
‘Everyone on board?’ Captain Richard barked, ‘On we go then.’
‘Captain,’ one of the deputies called up to him from below deck, ‘it seems we’ve lost 15 men to the island.’
‘That was to be expected,’ Captain Richard said, looking at his remaining crew members with proud, tear-filled eyes. ‘We can’t lose any more time or sailors to this strange new world. Full steam ahead.’
From his bedroom on the second floor of the mansion on the beach, Abu Kamal saw the ship emit small white puffs of smoke into the tightly drawn blue sky and disappear slowly as a small dot on the wide horizon. It was precisely at this moment that he was stabbed fiercely and finally through the heart by his fellow pirate who, mistrusting the lottery of life, had secretly walked to the kitchen and pushed a large knife down his pants, almost cutting off his swaying balls in the process. There would be place in the motorboat for the golden staircase. But first, he would live here for a year.