Once upon a time there was a small number called zero. Sometimes he was called Nought. He lived in a big box with a display case in the lid. He was a very lonely number; nobody ever played with him or spoke about him. Nobody ever said ‘I bought zero sweets today’ or ‘I had to run nought metres to catch the bus.’ As each day passed Zero became lonelier and lonelier until one day somebody put their hand into the box. ‘Finally’ he thought ‘Somebody is going to put me on display’. But instead of taking Zero out, another number was being put into the box. Zero sidled up to the new number half afraid that he would get told to go away. The new number turned to him with a look of confusion ‘Hello’ he said ‘I’m number One. Are you a number? I’ve never seen anyone like you before.
‘I ..I ..I’m Zero’ Zero stammered ‘I am the first number.’
‘That’s silly’ said One ‘You can’t possibly be the first number. Everybody knows that I’m the first number. Why when somebody wins a race they say that they have come 1st or when anybody counts, they start with one.’ One wasn’t trying to be horrible when he said this, he was just trying to set this strange deluded number straight.
Zero wasn’t surprised that One thought this, everyone he had ever met thought that one was the first number.
Zero set about explaining why he was the first number with the patience of someone who had explained this many, many times before. ‘When someone marks out a 100m race track the start of the race is at 0 meters. When you are adding coins you start with zero pence and work your way up. The reason no body remembers me is that they just assume that I am there and move straight onto you, One. So you see, I really am the first number.’
One thought about this for some time (nine seconds to be exact) and then said quietly ‘I see’. One had never really boasted about being the first number but secretly he had always been rather proud of his status. The sudden realisation that he had been fooling himself for all this time was certainly humbling. One, being a fairly good hearted number however, did not take too long to brighten himself up. ‘Well I’m pleased to meet you Zero, how thrilling to meet a true first number.’
From that moment on Zero and One became good friends. Zero was still never talked about and from time to time he was left by himself while One sat at the end of the display lid. Zero missed him but never complained because a number had to do what a number had to do. Gradually over time Zero and One were joined by other numbers. Two and Three were friendly fellows. Four was pleasant enough but was a little boastful saying things like ‘Two, I’m twice the number you are.’ Which was of course true but most of the numbers were too kind to mention it. This went on until the arrival of Eight, who came and put him back in his place. Nine was the last number to arrive in the box and he was used for things like telephoning the Emergency services and buying an Ice Cream. Until one day One rushed up to Zero in a very excited manner. ‘Zero, guess what, I’ve been promoted, Nine isn’t big enough to cope with the work load. I’m going to have my own special place on the display lid and I’ll be known as OneTen or Ten for short. I’ll still have to do the odd job as One but that is only until there’s another One to replace me. Isn’t that just the most exciting news you’ve ever heard. Zero congratulated OneTen and was genuinely proud of him. The news travelled fast around the number box and everybody spoke to ‘Ten with the utmost respect.
‘Ten was now in a supervisory role and would say things like ‘Hurry along there Two, there’s a good fellow’ To which Two would reply ‘Yes Sir, thank you Sir.’ ‘Ten always treated all the other numbers most fairly and never used his superior status to make other numbers feel bad. When Ten was put on display he had his own special ledge which showed everybody just how much he was worth. Time went by and Ten got used less and less frequently. Sometimes he seemed to have more than enough work to keep him busy but lately there seemed to be a lull. Some of the other numbers, who really had been quite jealous of his promotion, started to stir things up. Nine in particular was overheard saying things like ‘He’s just a glorified One really.’ and ‘He doesn’t look any different from the new One.’ Soon enough the gossip started to have its effect and even numbers who considered themselves above such things started to believe what they were hearing. Things really came to a head when Three was wondering aimlessly around and generally tripping numbers up and Ten asked him politely to make some space for the other numbers coming through and added that he might want to find something useful to do. To Ten’s absolute astonishment Three replied ‘Why on earth should I do what you say, your just One.’
Ten kept calm for the rest of the day but when Zero asked him how his day had been Ten couldn’t remain quiet any longer. ‘You would not believe the day I have had. Insubordination in every direction. Do you know what that fellow Three said to me? He said I was just One. How dare he! It’s not as if I’ve just been promoted, I’ve been Ten for some time now, how could anyone possibly mistake me for One?’
Zero, who had been making quiet mumbley agreeing noises throughout Ten’s tirade, said very quietly indeed ‘Well of course we all know you’re Ten but sometimes in a certain light you do look very much like One. It is so difficult to tell you apart from One when we’re just sitting around in the box.’
Ten stood up and looked at himself in the mirror. There it was a plain as the frown on his face, a very cross number One glared back at him. He turned back to Zero and said forlornly ‘Oh Zero, what am I going to do? How can anyone really take me seriously as Ten when I look exactly like One. It’s easy in the display case because everyone can see that I sit to the left of all the other numbers…..’ Ten’s voice trailed off as he said this last word. He looked like he was on the verge of something. ‘That’s it. Of course. Zero you’re brilliant’ Zero was getting more and more confused. Ten continued ‘The reason numbers keep forgetting that I’m Ten is because they have no way of judging my position unless I’m on display. Zero how would you like to be my new assistant?’
Five and Three were running round in circles playing chase (Five always seemed to keep two steps in front) when they bumped into One and Zero. ‘Careful there you two, you’ll turn us all into fractions at that speed’ One said beaming with confidence. Three turned to him and was just about to snap back when he caught sight of Zero standing right next to Ten. ‘ Sorry W…Ten, you look different somehow.’
‘He’s right.’ Said Five, ‘It’s almost as if you were standing on the display case. How do you do it.’ Some of the other numbers who had noticed the altercation had started to wander over. ‘It’s all down to my new assistant Zero.’ Ten explained proudly. ‘From now on he’s going to come with me everywhere and he’ll remind you that I have a completely different position on the display case from One. With that he turned so that all the gathered numbers could see him and Zero standing closely together. It was true; he looked exactly how he did on the display case but without his special ledge. Zero had never been so happy. Finally he was being noticed and all the numbers started to show him respect because without him Ten could be just another one. It wasn’t too long before Zero started taking trips to the display case with Ten and he stood next to Ten in the space reserved for all the single numbers.
From that day to this, when people meet a zero, they know exactly how important he is.