by John Lane
Tue 27th Jan 2015
There are many ways in which numbers assume a significant role in our lives; and sometimes one number may come to seem, or to be, more significant than any other. Before it does, we have to experience, or enjoy, or endure, a plethora of what may seem to be unique registers of the value or location of something that comes to be , or to seem to be, of great importance; or at least, in some way, worth receiving a place in one of the scales with which we register what has been interesting, or important, or by some measure lacking in value or resonance in the story of our lives. There are firsts: the first time we did something, or encountered someone, and there are lasts, the moments in time when we lost contact with what could have been momentous. The simplest of all numbers are perhaps the dates which enable us to make a mark, in time, to record one of the experiences which have made us the person that we are. Thus we make note of birthdays, our own included, and at some point in our lives, the days when a death reminds us that all numbers are followed by yet more in an unending series; something which forces us to accept that our numbers are at once the most and the least significant of all that we ever think of as special. And sometimes, of course, we forget a number that we should really have remembered.
In around 1962 ( this is a number of which only the last digit is the one of which I am uncertain, and only because it might actually be the one which immediately precedes it ) I descended into the lowest part of the industrial maze which was the Courtauld factory in Coventry. Through iron doors and down iron staircases dripping with foul chemicals which should not have been there ( and which nowadays would not be permitted to be ) I made my way to a dimly lit room which housed a number of mysterious pipes, drains and quietly strumming machines, which seemed to have been set in motion long ago and which appeared not to need human intervention in order to continue doing whatever it was they did. Only one man was present; he sat on an iron stool placed, seemingly deliberately, in a pool of oily, scum-covered liquid in which one of his feet was resting, with the result that one of his shoes was completely wet just as the other was totally dry. He seemed indifferent to this lack of symmetry, and also – I could not be sure of this, but I felt that it was so – to the existence of the company of which he was obviously an employee. His own existence seemed to be focussed on, and indeed regulated simply by the rhythms of the obscure machines of which he was clearly the custodian. I remember feeling that it was impossible to guess how old he was, despite the fact that the lines on his face had the look of marks that had been etched by something more than simply the passage of time.
In the brief conversation which we had, I guessed ( or perhaps I was informed by him ) that he was Polish, and that he had arrived in England after the second world war. He spoke largely of numbers; the duration of the various phases of the mechanical actions of the machines; the times by which they were calibrated to carry out these actions; the values – temperatures, revolutions per minute, and other graduated workings that related to some productive terminus which I cannot now recall but which seemed, at the time, to be the be all and end all of his life. I can, though, remember remarking to him that his working days were obviously governed by these various numbers. He responded by showing me a number that he said was the only one which had ever been of any real consequence to him, in the manner of a man who despite his relatively humble situation was very well aware that he was speaking to a young and very inexperienced lad. I cannot remember the number, so it has to take its place as one of those which I cannot recall. But I have never forgotten that it consisted of six digits, and that it was tattooed on the outer side of his left forearm. Three thoughts about the mathematics of the world became apparent to me: the impossibility of subtraction; the stupidity of division; the endless pain of addition.