There are so many songs about number, but people think numbers just represent something else. Nobody ever thinks about the number itself.
Right from when I was small, I was obsessed with counting, fascinated with numbers. Not even mathematics, just numbers, counting. I can tell you what any number is in any base, pretty much, just like that. 101, I used to call myself - five in binary. There were five of us; I was the fifth, by five minutes.
I think a number is a thing in itself. Take Five; it links all kinds of concepts together. Fifths, in music. The five books of the Psalms, five books in the Torah, five pillars of Islam. Five points to a pentagram, five sides to a pentagon. The five-second rule. The Jackson Five. Johnny Five he's alive. Gary Numan has a friend called Five, in Down in the Park.
One, two, three, four, five. Once I caught a fish alive.
The fish was just small; I don't remember what kind. Two wanted to take it home, get Ma to cook it up so we could eat it. Da said it wouldn't even feed one of us, never mind seven. It looked at me, its fishy eye glazed with confusion at the airy world. I cried 'til Da threw it back.
This old man, he played five…
Da: good at some things. Bowling, mainly. He spent most of my childhood at the alley, or the bar next door. The only time he was an enthusiastic father was before the event. He sorted out the room as soon as Ma started to bulge, built a crib in the workshop, yellow to suit boy or girl. Ma told me about it once, about how it was before he had to take it back and remake it. Finely curved rockers, both exactly the same, delicate edging, perfect paintwork.
He didn't have the same enthusiasm for remaking it, though. The yellow pieces were dotted all over it -- both sides, the middle of the base and part of both ends were yellow. The rest was plain wood. There were no rockers. It's hard to blame him; who'd want five at once?
There were five in the bed and the little one said, "roll over."
But it wasn't a bed Three fell out of; it was a tree. We were in the treehouse at the bottom of the hill out back, and Two was trying to get him to shift over. One second I was looking at him, the next I was looking at blue sky, a small wispy cloud floating past like a cartoon, like he'd been Wile E. Coyote, holding an anvil.
Two was convinced Three was playing possum. He climbed down and slapped Three's still body as it lay there, but I could see that something was wrong with the angle of his neck. I looked down on them as Two's rage ebbed into shock. He was stiller after that day, distracted, like Three was whispering in his ear, but he couldn't make out the words.
The ants were marching five by five, hurrah!
We had names, of course, but I liked the numbers better.
The first time we went to the alley with Da, I fixed on the five pins at the back. I've had a recurring dream since that day. The rack comes down and sets up just five. Da takes his hopping run-up and lets fly the ball. Somehow it takes the middle pin and leaves the others wobbling; a 2-2 split. Da curses and hefts his black sixteen-pounder with purple flecks, his eyes never wavering from the pins as he runs again.
One got a job at the alley at fourteen, on account of his knack with a wrench. The accident didn't kill him, but it mangled his cheek and that fine-set square jaw that clenched in a way the girls liked, before they even knew why. I don't think he ever really got over the way he looked, after. He got into grunge, followed his hero Kurt in pretty much everything. Grew his hair like him so it would cover his face, wore clothes like him to fit in with his new friends. Then Kurt decided he'd had enough, and a few days later, One did, too. After that, when I closed my eyes, there were only three pins left, one on the left, two on the right.
Five gold rings…
Four was always the silent type, but he could get some drink in him, and when he did I didn't like to be around. He was like old Da, that way. Da's fists didn't often fly, but when they did, they'd whip out so quick you'd feel them before you saw them. I always wondered if Four hit his wife. He'd be fierce protective of Ma, but he was younger, then. His wife was a sweet thing, but sometimes I caught her looking at him with a kind of cold fury that scared me. One night, she took a seven-inch kitchen knife and put it through his left ventricle. He crawled as far as the Harley he'd lavished so much attention on, before he keeled over. She was waiting for the police when they arrived, hands held out for the cuffs.
Just a two-split, then. Da used to get them with one ball, sometimes.
This little piggy had roast beef, and this little piggy had none.
I used to chant those rhymes, mumble them as I went to sleep, whisper them in the playground. What they all had in common was they always counted down to one. I still have that dream. Just me and Two left.
I tried to tell him, the other day, after a few beers, but he wasn't having any of it. He doesn't look over his shoulder, he said, but he still has that distracted look. I thought, maybe the real Two went down that day with Three, but just didn't smash. Rolling around in the guttering, but not up on the scoreboard.
Last night, I had the dream again. This time, there was just one pin, right on the right hand side, and my Da, a glint in his eye, bearing down with that purple-black globe.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Terry Paul Pearce. All rights reserved.