At school, she’d always been the best at arithmetic, at work she was the first to turn a string of digits into a solution. There was something that compelled her to play with figures, to build meaning from those markers of time and scale. She’d always known that numbers were more than just unrelated symbols; they were parts of patterns and shapes, and if she played with them for long enough, she’d always find an answer.
Each morning at her desk when she logged into e-mail, the numbers glared out at her; the total in her in-box, the boldness of the messages still unread. At the end of each day, she stared at the figures and compared the results; the achievements of her working life measured, not in terms of matters dealt with, but by the balances remaining. She notched up the completion of hours passed, counted the days to the weekend, the weeks until payday, the months and years to retirement.
When the money hit her bank account each month, there was no room in her thoughts for the anticipated pleasures of purchase; the new numbers in her online account trapped her, caught her imagination, kept her looking, counting and calculating. A mortgage payment meant the outstanding total was lower; if she paid a little extra there’d be less interest due. Pounds and percentages, totals and timescales, whirled through her brain.
Driving home, she looked at her milometer, at the gauge that told her how much petrol she had left. In her mind, she turned the fuel in the tank to a number of miles, the miles into minutes, the distance from home into a time of arrival. When she got home she turned the evening into the seconds before sleep, the hours before waking again.
When her 51st birthday arrived, she felt the stabbing pain of the single digit sticking out on its own from her strong half-century. “Only half-way to a hundred and two” Sophia consoled herself “only three times seventeen.” But it still felt wrong. Its unevenness unsettled her; it wasn’t a prime number and she felt beyond her own prime. She added and subtracted, multiplied and divided, but the numbers kept jumping; they wouldn’t settle, her life wouldn’t balance.
She started doing puzzles, writing numbers in squares, trying to bring order to the increasing chaos, if she could find the right home for the 1s to 9s, then surely the rest would find its place? But then she found she couldn’t bear to form the lines of a numeral. It felt as though each digit she wrote was a subtraction from the total.
She switched off the glowing red lights around the house, the timer on the cooker panel and the flashing digits of the bed-side alarm. She stopped winding the old wooden clock on the sideboard. She searched for ways to add back the numbers. She favoured clothes with no buttons or fasteners, elasticated waists, slip on shoes. She gave up going to the hairdressers, grabbed back the minutes spent on plucking her eyebrows, painting her nails. She began to eat meals that needed no cooking, then food that needed no chewing. Her sentences got shorter, her words monosyllabic. She forced herself to stay up all night, snatching at the moments that had previously passed unnoticed in sleep, counting and reckoning all that had been, totting up all that might be left.
As her weight dropped and her energy dissipated, her friends began to slip away. She couldn’t understand how the subtractions were adding up. She tried to crack the code and decipher the equations, but the patterns felt disrupted; she couldn’t solve the multiplying divisions in her life.
Then she began to wish for zero; the only figure that could add nothing and take nothing away. She lay on her bed, curled up in a tight round ball and dreamed of the glorious round nought without a beginning or end.
Finally, as she longed for and dreamed of her solution, Sophia slipped into oblivion.