Numbers

J. was here at the weekend. He’s eight and he’s a numbers boy. He assessed my fuel gauge as we drove out towards the coast.  It’s shaped like a clock, with twelve rays fanning out in a circle, all of which light up orange when it’s full, then each ray is stubbed out as the fuel runs down.  ‘It’s fine,’he assured me, ‘no need for petrol, you’re three fifths full.’  I needed J. last night to help me catch some of the numbers that were being served up faster than tennis balls at Wimbledon.  It was my first in a series of inductions into becoming a Festival City Volunteer, a role to help the thousands who descend on Edinburgh in August to enjoy its festivals.  B., who told me about it, said I would be perfect, that there were no qualifications required other than an ability to linger on street corners.  He’s a nice man, really.  He undersold it, though, as I’m finding out there is more to the role than loitering.  Yes, the main requirement might be a willingness to engage with strangers with general affability, but some local knowledge isn’t going to go amiss.

Before long, numbers large and small were being batted at 120 of us, all there to learn.  Facts were lobbed, sliced, volleyed, fired with topspin forehand, and I, bewildered, wondered how I was ever going to retain it.  Here we go: the number of stops on Edinburgh’s tram – 16; the number of gold post boxes in the city – 2 (both for Chris Hoy); the length, in yard, of the Royal Mile – 1,867 (107 yards longer than a mile); the number of Scotsman Steps – 104 (a permanent legacy of the 2010 Art Festival, thanks to Martin Creed who sourced the marble from across the globe).  They were only getting started.

Talk soon turned to the festivals themselves.  The International Festival (the daddy of them all) was established in 1947, runs for 25 days, and uses a modest 18 venues.  The Fringe Festival (the overgrown, rowdy teenager) comprises 3,900 shows, which are run across 390 venues, and it also takes place over 25 days.  The Book Festival (determined to be different) runs for 17 days, is contained within one huge site (at Charlotte Square Gardens), where there are 8 venues within close proximity.  (Surely I can remember this?)  The Edinburgh Art Festival is in its 16thyear, has 300 artists, will show 50 exhibitions, 140 events, 85% of which are free.  Finally, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is the biggest Tattoo in the world with an attendance of 220,000 over 25 nights.  It’s definitely notfree, but it’s already 85% sold out and they raise £1,000,000 a year for charity. Phew!

Next week the training is on buses. I’m dreading it.  I occasionally catch the number 7 when I need to get from Pilates to the other end of town in a hurry.  The odd time I’ve been known to ride number 5, if I’m wearing heels (very odd) or I’m laden down and it’s raining; but take me out of my comfort zone of that small selection of two bus routes and I’ll lose myself, never mind Diego from San Jose or Jose from San Diego.  I know not buses.  I could always fall back on the apocryphal story of the old farmer walking the lanes, and a stranger pulls in asking him directions only to be told,‘well now, if that’s where you want to be going, I wouldn’t be starting from here.’  Maybe, like a politician, I’ll not answer the question I’ve been asked but the question I would like to have been asked.  ‘Yes, that’s all very well, I understand your show at Teviot Row House starts in ten minutes but how about I direct you to Hanover Street to see a gold post box?’

 

Numbers, by Mary Cornish

I like the generosity of numbers.

The way, for example,

they are willing to count

anything or anyone:

two pickles, one door to the room,

eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition—

add two cups of milk and stir—

the sense of plenty: six plums

on the ground, three more

falling from the tree.

And multiplication’s school

of fish times fish,

whose silver bodies breed

beneath the shadow

of a boat.

Even subtraction is never loss,

just addition somewhere else:

five sparrows take away two,

the two in someone else’s

garden now.

There’s an amplitude to long division,

as it opens Chinese take-out

box by paper box,

inside every folded cookie

a new fortune.

And I never fail to be surprised

by the gift of an odd remainder,

footloose at the end:

forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,

with three remaining.

Three boys beyond their mother’s call,

two Italians off to the sea,

one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.

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