I finally got to the till. After confidently entering my PIN the card was declined. It was the third time this had happened in the past month.
I sighed and wearily removed it from the chip & pin machine. Whilst doing so I noticed that the keypad had been worn smooth by thousands of fingers. Even the little notch on the '5' button was gone. I thought about the countless happy, cheerful consumers who had gone before me. They didn't need to worry about their money running out. I took a glance at the person behind me in the queue. It was a blonde woman in her early thirties. She looked awkwardly at the floor.
When this situation arises I get embarrassed. Then annoyed. I imagine that the checkout girl is silently mocking me for not having enough money to pay for my groceries. Her job looks very boring so I should think incidents like this help brighten her day up no end.
My usual ploy is to ask the shop staff to keep my chosen items in a bag behind the counter. I always promise to return with cash.
I have never once gone back.
Despite the short term shame it's important to be philosophical about these little incidents.
I try to remind myself that money isn't the defining measure of a man. My heroes died poor and still led fantastic lives. Joe Strummer travelled the world and inspired a generation of punks, not to mention played in the best rock 'n' roll band of all time. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime and that was for a pittance. Fred Dibnah was practically destitute but went on to become an authority on steam locomotives.
These thoughts provide a crumb of comfort when I can't pay for my pastry ingredients.
It's not how rich you are, it's how rich your life is.
If you don't agree with that statement I'd suggest you are putting too much emphasis on consumerism and should spend more time looking at sunsets.
Human beings make livings in different ways. Some people work in shops, others are doctors, some fly planes and others write things that makes people laugh. Some choose not to work and get their stuff by stealing from others. I try and stay away from them though.
I've never had a particularly traditional career path. I took all the usual advice at school but the best thing suggested to me was leather technician. I've got an eye for detail but am not very good with my hands. I am also allergic to the lacquer that manufacturers seem to put on leather products. I once bought a pair of Wranglers which came with a belt that made my stomach swell up and turn red.
But enough about leather.
I fell into my line of work purely by chance.
I enjoyed maths at school but wasn't brilliant. I wasn't bad either. Just very, very average. I was able to do most of what was asked but only really took an interest in prime numbers. For those who don't know a prime number can be defined as the following:
A natural number greater than 1 that has no positive divisors other than 1 and itself.
Once you get an eye for prime numbers you see them everywhere. The price of Warburtons loaves, your favourite TV channel, the date of your birthday and your wife's shoe size. My girlfriend's trainers are size seven. Prime.
I don't entirely know what it is about primes that fascinates me. I think it's something to do with their sheer abundance. No matter where you are in the world you surrounded by them. They just need to be looked for. I take comfort in this, much in the same way people like to drink tea when they are on foreign holidays. It is a familiar feeling. They are safe and all is well. They are in control.
People sometimes question my affinity with primes and wonder how my mind differs from theirs. Mr Pierce, my third year maths teacher, made the observation that my brain is like baroque music. I shall explain:
Baroque music can be seen as being highly ornate, lavishly texturized, and intense. It is characterised by rich counterpoint and a highly decorated melodic line. It's complex with lots of little things going on at once.
Most people have brains that are like medieval music. Medieval music is written vertically as a series of harmonies and relies on cadential motion. It is comparatively simple.
What Mr Pierce meant was that I am able to think of many different little things simultaneously. This handy when it comes to calculating primes.
Prime numbers have been a true rod of consistency throughout my life. I'm in my fifties now and they have been my friend since the age of fourteen. My parents worried that my interest was consuming too much time and could have implications on my future career. They tried to encourage me to pursue a maths-based profession like accountancy but sadly my passion lies solely in primes and nothing else. Company accounts and tax calculations do not come naturally to me.
They forced me to enroll on a maths degree at Leicester University but I just didn't have the passion to see it through. While my contemporaries were partying I was spending my time trying to find new primes. Sometimes this can take weeks and weeks. I have been known to spend a month on nine-digit prime only to find that somebody else has beaten me to it.
It's a beautiful thing trying to find them though. Governments have huge supercomputers and entire groups of mathematicians whose sole job is to look for new ones. To me, this is cheating. There is no elegance in using Cray supercomputers to bludgeon the rules of mathematics. I like to do it the old fashioned way with a scientific calculator, pen and paper. Just like Euclid. He wouldn't have had a calculator though.
I had spent a decade successfully finding new primes when a friend suggested that I could turn this interest into a living. He had read in a science journal the American Government pays people $10,000 for discovering new primes over one hundred digits in length. I initially doubted the truth in this but after some research I discovered it was indeed a fact.
As I have already said the type of primes I seek are usually nine or ten digits long. I had to totally review my calculations to accommodate the new data load. My old methods had to be torn apart and reassembled like a complex piece of machinery. My goal was clear and my determination resolute. I was going to find a brand new prime number in excess of one hundred digits in length.
I knew this was going to take some doing. I started On my birthday - January 5th. Little did I know that this would consume my life for an entire year. I would live and breathe primes for twelve months.
At this point I should mention my day job. I am a clown. I mostly do kids birthday parties but can also be hired for carnivals and county fayres. My profession offers flexibility and a level of freedom that most jobs cannot.
I have done this full time since 1990. When my quest for a one hundred digit prime began I had to knock my hours down to part time though. There simply wasn't enough time in the day to entertain everyone and number crunch. Money was scarce and I ended up losing the house that I had fought so hard to buy. My wife and I moved to a small rented flat in a the Moss Side area of Manchester. It was totally different from Chorlton. Sometimes I used to come home and feel depressed when I saw gangs of youths riding round on BMXs with their hoods up. It broke my heart.
My daily routine consisted of getting up at six am and immediately carrying on with the calculations from the night before. Sometimes I would awaken to find that I had literally fallen asleep on the job, last night's mug of coffee still on the desk and inky numbers faintly visible on my cheek where my head had lain on the paper. I would work right through till eleven am then immediately head to my first clown booking. School holidays were a nightmare as I could easily end up working all day every day. As the fatigue wore me down I had to grit my teeth and put on a brave face for the kids. Nobody likes a sad, tetchy clown with numbers on their face.
I would work from whatever time I managed to get home until midnight. Then the whole thing would start again.
Around this time my personal hygiene was appalling. I had foregone all social niceties such as washing and shaving. The quest to hit one hundred digits consumed my body, mind and soul. My weight had ballooned to fourteen stone from the Hob-Nobs I was eating as I worked.
The strain on the household was immense.
I hadn't noticed my wife getting more and more distant until it was too late. In short, she left me.
I should have seen this coming. I had been selfish. I had been so caught up with my passion that I had ignored her needs, allowing the numbers to consume me like a creeping death. I didn't see it happening because it was so gradual. A bit like your hair growing from one day to the next.
I don't blame her for going. It was really hard explaining to my parents what was going on and their reaction somehow made the whole thing even worse. It tore me apart inside. Truth be known I think it tore them apart too. I remember the last day Deborah was here. She was wearing the summer dress I had bought her from H&M last summer. It was striped. She had seen Cheryl Cole wearing one in Grazia and liked it so I bought it for her. She looked great. She cried. We cried.
On January 5th - exactly a year after work had begun - I finally received a letter from the CIA. It explained that the prime I had submitted in November had been verified as correct. I didn't know how to react. I had dreamt of this day for so long and it almost felt like a let down. That delicious moment when my work had been checked and confirmed by experts was finally here and I felt empty. I was actually so underwhelmed that I left it a week before responding to the letter.
I spent months as Britain's saddest clown. I felt hollow. Looking back on this time now I think I was clinically depressed. It's very easy to rationalize these things in hindsight, but when you're in the middle of it it's no fun at all. I took long walks and spent a lot of time listening to Joy Division. I ate McCoy's oven chips frozen because the effort of cooking them seemed too much. Sometimes I would vomit them back up and just sort of look at the puke for a while.
Life is better now. I'm still living in the flat but I have got a new girlfriend and a baby is on the way. I don't like to talk about my passion these days. It reminds me of that dreadful January when I gained $10,000 but lost everything else.
People often ask me how I reconcile my two very different careers. Let's be honest, there aren't many clowns-cum-prime number experts. I try and explain it in practical terms. That my raison d'etre is looking for primes and the clown work leaves me free to indulge my passion. Some people work as software consultants and spend their weekends hang-gliding. What's the difference? I Sometimes I get the impression that people think I am a bit of a weirdo but I don't care.
I think it was Bernard Baruch who said the following:
“Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind.”
How true his words are. We must not forget them.
I often see people with desk jobs taking their boredom out on their families. I feel sorry for them. I try not to judge them too harshly though. After all, it's no business of mine how other people make their living.
Last time my card got declined it was for £4.99. 499. That's a prime number too.