A helpful commenter has told us that the Kindle version of Cardboard Numbers was missing a few words from the end of chapter one. A stupid mistake that we've immediately rectified and, just to help anyone who has bought Cardboard Numbers and has noticed the problem, here is the first chapter:
Flick stared up at the white-board and set himself what was, on the face of it, an easy challenge. He was going to answer the question that he had been set without losing his concentration. Not once. For this one time, he would not get distracted. Nobody would shout, everybody would be proud and he could be sure that he wasn’t insane. Flick was determined to prove that he wasn’t insane.
His eyes trained themselves on the first word. There were five minutes before class ended which meant five minutes to answer the four questions opposite, just over a minute per question. In total it was the equivalent of the six hundred beats it would take to complete the average song or roughly the time it would take to cook one lasagne in the microwave. Five minutes wasn’t quite enough time to watch anything of any importance on television but it was sometimes possible on some providers to see a news article on a high numbered channel.
News seemed to lack the importance of lifestyle and music. If Flick planned channels, he would put the groups in order of actual social importance. That left news near the start and channels designed solely for reality TV at the end because he shouldn’t have to type a number that started with five just to find out how much closer to the end of the world it was on any particular day.
Outside the window, a bird started tweeting. It was a blackbird, Flick could tell by the song. At some point, he must have heard something about them and the information had stuck because he knew that there were five species of blackbirds under the genus Turdus. The one outside the window was a common blackbird, the one that would come to the front of most people’s minds upon hearing the word. Turdus merula was its proper name, a pointless fact for a nine-year old inside a classroom teaching nothing of the sort maybe, but something that he knew nonetheless. Three hundred and sixty-four days multiplied by nine didn’t mean more or less than three hundred and sixty-two or three hundred and ninety-four. It didn’t really matter that he was nine and besides, it wasn’t like he learnt it on purpose. Facts just seemed to stick in his head, in the same way that the Turdus merula followed him around in life. The birds served as a metaphor, thoughts following him around everywhere while never venturing close enough to grasp just like the relatively tiny black bird on the knotted branch outside.
He couldn’t keep hold of anything.
Flick stared up at the board once more, not needing to sigh because it was just so normal. It was white, snow coloured even, and the questions had been drawn on in thick black ink, which was the colour of the blackbird he could hear outside the window. Flick couldn’t help but wonder where the teacher had learnt how to do the curls on her letter a’s. There was no denying that they were much prettier than his boring circles but he just couldn’t work out how to do them. When you were taught your alphabet as a child the letters were always made so definite, meaning every child’s words looked the same. It made him almost distraught to think that his standardised symbol, his one standard in fact to live by, had so much variance.
It was no longer standard at all: his handwriting was a sham.
Flick started trying to draw the letter on the paper in front of him. It was lined of course, like the bars of a prison cell, locking the words away where they couldn’t escape again. Reducing all the freedom of language into one little sentence sat in the corner that didn’t quite make sense. First came one normal letter to be quickly followed by one curly one. It didn’t work. The curly ‘a’ looked like the sign for angle in maths, something that as far as Flick knew was a Greek symbol called theta. English people rarely used Cyrillic letters or one of the Asian alphabets but when it came to maths, Greek letters were used more than English. Rather than learning curly a’s maybe he should be trying to teach himself the Greek alphabet. Alpha, beta, gamma. There was an epsilon somewhere. His dad had taught him the phonetic alphabet, which started with alpha and then detoured all the way to Zulu.
That was the name of the film wasn’t it?
Flick was getting off target. With a sigh he tapped his pen on the paper and tried again, not really expecting that much more success but by the time Flick’s hand had finished moving there was a whole line of the letter ‘a’ and with a few of them he had actually got quite close. It made him feel quite proud of himself. Surely that meant he was now ready to answer the question.
If he kept telling himself that his handwriting was just a step on the way, he couldn’t be so disappointed in himself. He could blame the delay on the fact that his a’s didn’t look like swans facing backwards. First word: ‘how’.
Flick liked questions that started with how. It was his favourite of the question words, mainly because it was the least vague. If somebody asked him why the universe works or what makes the universe work, maybe even who makes the universe work, then even with another person involved no conclusion was ever going to be reached. The answers could go on indefinitely. And it was the same principle with when was the universe made. But if you asked how the universe was made or how it works the answers started to narrow because there was a ‘how’ involved. Despite arguments on what was definite and whether answers were true or not, the questions with ‘how’ at their start seemed much more answerable.
Somewhere in the world, every ‘how’ question had a concise answer, he was sure of that and it narrowed the concept into slightly more manageable chunks which somehow felt more provable, like someone could find a secret deposit of answers if given enough time.
Flick liked ‘how’ questions. He had a strange affection for the word but preferred it to be written in a very specific way because different coloured pens made different bits of the word stand out. Flick preferred red pen for how. Red pen accentuated the ‘o’ in the middle. Not like black. Black made the ‘w’ more prominent because, in his opinion, it was designed more for capital letters rather than lower case. That was why he avoided it generally; barely ever did the colour look quite right on prison cell paper writing seven normal sized words a cell.
While Flick considered the pen and the colour of its ink, the blackbird on its branch outside the window remained at the forefront of his mind as well. It had hopped over slightly so that now he could see it, velvety black feathers which looked so soft rustling slightly in a way that reminded him of something he couldn’t quite pinpoint. The bird was a unified and unhighlighted colour except for the bright beak which poked out from its tiny head.
The pen, unfortunately still black, had started to squeak again which masked the song from outside slightly but his head kept the volume high anyway, the floating song sounding out throughout the caverns of his mind so as the sound bounced off all the useless information each note was slightly echoey. As well as the obnoxious squeaking he could hear every note in pitch-perfect detail, every crescendo, diminuendo and modulation ringing out as a soundtrack for the lesson that he was struggling to pay attention to.
‘Does’ was a very confusing word and the spelling always made his head spin, even when his mind was at its most alert. It just didn’t fit with any other word except ‘does’ as in female deer which was the same word pronounced properly. ‘Weird’ was a word with similar problems. Why make a rule that was broken before you made it? or if the word came after, why make a rule if you were than going to break it? The logic was flawed. Surely there would be no problem spelling the word ‘weird’ as ‘wierd’. Who would get hurt by that? Sometimes Flick wondered if there was somebody playing a practical joke on him. Being quite a religious nine year old, Flick jumped to the natural conclusion that he’d done something to upset God but the point didn’t depend on that. His parents never brought him up to be religious, he just found it helpful and not in the ‘something to blame’ way. God was a force that he could ask questions to. Why have you spelt weird a different way from your rule? Why do tables generally have four legs?
Religious he may be but Flick would never call himself a Christian because he didn’t go to church. Once, when he was little, he sat through a service because although his parents might not believe in it they at least wanted to give him his own choice. It was just slightly disappointing to them when he made a different one from them.
Since that service he only stepped through the threshold when it was time to say goodbye to someone, in fact the only vaguely Christian thing that he did do was read the Bible and from that he took what he personally wanted rather than what he was expected to want. His parents laughed at him, they thought that it was funny to believe in something they couldn’t see. Flick couldn’t see the bath from the kitchen, that didn’t mean he stopped believing in it but his parents were atheists all the way and God appearing in front of them waving his hands and doing somersaults wouldn’t sway them from their beliefs.
When it came to religion, despite the fact that he studied the Bible, he was very confused about everything to do with his faith. Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, scientist. All of them schools of thought which claimed to know the absolute definitive truth about the world around them but they couldn’t all be right. Rather than just randomly picking one and seeing it as gospel, Flick openly admitted that he couldn’t decide what he thought so he wandered aimlessly between belief systems, the best word to describe him never changing from bewildered. He hated being forced to pigeon-hole himself but even at the age of nine, people always tried to make him say what he was.
Flick didn’t know.
As far as he could tell, considering his general inability to think, he believed in God. But that didn’t make him Christian or anything else. All it made him was somebody who possibly believed in the existence of someone that he would never meet.
How does water.
He had always wondered how water could taste so bad while having no taste. It was something that made no sense. But then all you had to do was make squash and you had a lovely drink. Every so often, it occurred to him that maybe they should consider providing water always mixed with squash. It would be brilliant; you could choose per household and have purple pipes for blackcurrant or orange for orange. Although, and this was the reason the idea always returned to latency, it would make washing very difficult. That was probably why they didn’t produce it like that. The Blackbird was mocking him.
The bell rang and Flick looked down at the page. He hadn’t even answered one question out of the six that were now written there in thick black ink, which made the letters blur into the black smudges known as words. Flick was just fortunate that on this one occasion the teacher chose not to check the work before all the students left.