Start counting- one, two, three...

Years ago, when I was just big enough to start riding a proper bike (with stabilisers) I discovered how numbers work. Small numbers- one two three- I already knew about but I held them separately in my head like names. That is a cat. That is a house. That is three apples. But either at school or from television (probably from television) I then learned that to get past ten, which seemed a huge and impossible feat, you started again. It seemed like a clever trick. You left a mark to show you had reached ten, and then once more went one, two, three... This shook me a little bit. What once appeared simple and comprehensible and contained became unruly and slippery, dangerous almost. How far up could you go? After ten, I soon discovered, was twenty and fifty hundred. One hundred again seemed a safe stopping point, a neat end, but numbers slipped away once more and began climbing higher. one hundred and one, one hundred and two, one hundred and three...

For a reason I couldn't really understand I felt that this was a loose end that I had to knot so as to return the world to an ordered state. So at night, as I was lying in bed, after the lights had been turned out and I had wished my parents goodnight, I began to count. I counted until I fell asleep and the next night I carried on from where I thought I had left off. Eventually, I was sure, I would reach the final number and solve the puzzle. I might even be doing something useful for mankind- maybe no-one else had ever counted up this far before. It was a quest.

This went on for weeks. Sometimes I would worry that the number I remembered reaching the night before was a bit beyond where I had actually got to so I started from a safe place and counted some of the numbers again. Counting every number in turn was as important as playing every note in a tune. If I missed one the numbers after it might be wrong.

The higher I got up the number chain the stranger and less familiar the numbers felt. They took longer to say, and seemed to refer to things far outside my range of experience. Three was touchable, was knowable, was useable. That is three apples. What is seventy-five thousand four hundred and ninety-two?

There came a point when the numbers began to feel heavy and tired. I was confident then that I was nearing the end (I think it was around two hundred and forty thousand). I wanted to share my achievement and perhaps gloat a little bit so I disturbed my dad after dinner one day and coyly asked him if he knew what the last number was.
"The last number?"
"Mmmhmm, like one is the first number- what's the last one?"
"He smiled in that way parents do when their child says something cute.
"What's infinity?"
"It means there is no last number, they just go on forever."
"Yes, forever."
I swung on my left leg and started kicking the carpet.
"How do we know?"
"How do we know they go on forever? Has anyone ever counted up that far?"
"No-one's ever counted that far, no. We only need to count so far and then we can assume the rest are there."
"But that's cheating!"
He chuckled and probably patted me on the head. He used to pat me on the head a lot when I got angry for no reason.

This made things much worse. I went upstairs in a foul mood and shut myself in my room. Numbers forever. I slowly realised I could count constantly from now until I died and still numbers would carry on slipping away. This left a frayed edge in my previously tidy universe in an oppressive and distressing way. I pictured men in caves rocking back and forth, counting for eternity, kept alive by the hope that there must eventually be an end. And an hourglass filled with all the sand from all the beaches in the world which discharges one grain at a time over thousands of years, only to be turned over by an invisible hand when the last grain falls.

But no-one's ever counted them all. So we can't know for sure...

From my schoolbag I pulled a brand new exercise book, blank apart from my name written in block capitals on the front page. I opened it and wrote a neat number one in the top left hand corner of the first page, following it with zeros. I kept writing zeros until the line was full, and then the page, and then I turned over to the next page and carried on. I worked fast and flicked the paper quickly when I had filled all the lines. After a while the lead of the pencil wore down to the wood so I took another from my case and continued. When I reached the last line on the last page I slowed down. The final few zeros I drew with tender care. The very last one must have been a perfect circle.

The book was a comfort. I kept in in the bottom of a drawer and remembered it whenever the numbers seemed to be slipping away. I think I still have it somewhere. After I shut it up I ran into the street and rode my bike around all day, and the next day too, until eventually I was skilled enough to take away the stabilisers.

What do you think, did we get it right? Comment here...