On his first day of school, five-year-old Daniel Rooke is happy to experience more of the world. He's already been reading for a year, and is very confused when his teacher shows him an engraving of a cat with the word "cat" written underneath. When he can't figure out what his teacher wants him to do, she hits him. Later, when his class learns their multiplication tables, he's entirely uninterested and instead collects "special numbers" in a notebook. His special numbers are prime numbers, though he doesn't know that name for them yet. When his teacher seizes his notebook, Rooke is afraid she'll burn it, but she puts it in her pocket.
At five years old, Rooke already knows that he's different: the text implies that it's not necessarily normal that he already knows how to read, and he's already interested in working by himself to figure out patterns. This shows that Rooke's scientific tendencies and impressive intellect are things he was born with, not things he necessarily learned—they're just a part of who he is.
Weeks later, a man from the Portsmouth Naval Academy named Dr. Adair comes to Rooke's family home. Rooke doesn't understand why Dr. Adair is there, but knows this visit is important since Mother dressed him up and sent his younger sisters next door. When Dr. Adair asks Rooke if he knows about numbers that can only be divided by one and themselves, Rooke runs upstairs to his room and returns with a grid he drew. The grid shows the numbers 1-100, and the special numbers are written in red ink. He explains his grid to Dr. Adair and asks if Dr. Adair might be able to provide him with a larger sheet so he can draw a larger grid and identify the pattern.
Rooke takes his love of identifying patterns to an impressive level for a child so young, which is again indicative of just how intrinsic to his sense of self his scientific mind is. Dr. Adair makes Rooke feel as though he's not just a strange, lonely child—he knows about the "special numbers" too. The fact that Rooke's parents can arrange for such a meeting is indicative of his family's relative wealth and status, something that will provide Rooke some privilege going forward.
Rooke's father looks uncomfortable. Dr. Adair asks if he can take Rooke's grid to show it to someone who will be very interested in it. When the neighbor woman returns with Rooke's sisters, she comments that Rooke looks smart. Rooke blushes and thinks that it doesn't matter if he's stupid or smart—either way, he's out of step with the rest of the world and miserable because of it.
Despite learning that Dr. Adair knows about the "special numbers," Rooke still feels fundamentally alone and misunderstood. This shows that as a young child, Rooke doesn't see himself as being a part of any one community. He's an individual in the loneliest sense of the word.
When Rooke turns eight, Dr. Adair sends a letter offering Rooke a place at the Portsmouth Naval Academy. Rooke thinks the Academy won't be much different from his current school, but he's very wrong. He's too shocked to cry his first night there. When the other boys realize that Rooke's father is a clerk, they take it upon themselves to make Rooke miserable. They bully him and destroy his belongings, and he feels as though his spirit is gone. He walks home every Saturday to spend Sunday at home. Though Rooke loves being home, he can't tell his proud parents that he's miserable. When he has to head back to the Academy, his younger sister, Anne, holds his hands and cries for him to stay.
At the Academy, Rooke no longer occupies a place of privilege: having a father who's a clerk is something to be ashamed of, not proud of. These early experiences show that though Rooke turns to science and math to avoid his sadness and loneliness, he still has strong emotions and wants to be a part of something bigger than himself. These experiences also show that Rooke tends towards silence when things are bad, which sets him up to not speak out about injustices later in the novel.
Nobody at the Academy is interested in math like Rooke is. Rooke soon learns that truly smart people hide their cleverness. Conversation proves especially difficult for Rooke, as he can't figure out a happy medium between saying nothing and saying too much. When he returns to the Academy on Sunday afternoons, he looks to see if the window of a boy named Lancelot Percival James is lit, because Lancelot Percival often hides and either punches or spills ink on Rooke as he returns. His family is involved in the sugar trade in Antigua and Jamaica, and Lancelot Percival often speaks about how the British Empire will surely collapse if they abolish slavery. Rooke can't quite figure out this logic.
The fact that Rooke finds Lancelot Percival's beliefs about the British Empire troubling suggests that even though Rooke has little life experience, he already has a highly developed moral compass. Interestingly, he primarily achieves this through his sense for math and science, as he sees through the logical flaws inherent in racism. In this way Rooke also acts as a lens through which the modern reader can view the prejudices and errors that were generally accepted as true in this era.
Rooke slips down to a beach near the harbor when he can, where he keeps a collection of pebbles. He talks to himself about his pebbles. His loneliness eases some as he begins reading. Rooke enjoys Euclid's theories in particular, and feels as though Euclid speaks the same strange language he does. Later, he discovers the joys of Latin, Greek, French, and German. His favorite subject, however, is astronomy. He loves learning about the skies, and wishes scientists like Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton were still alive so he could talk with them. Rooke loves the way the scientists write about the world, because their vision of the world is orderly and has a place for everyone, even Rooke.
Here, Rooke begins to create his own imaginary community of figures who can keep up with his intelligence. Notably, however, this doesn't give Rooke a true sense of community and belonging. Instead, it just eases his loneliness, while showing him what kind of a community is theoretically possible. Notice as well that though he learns four languages, he does so by reading—again, it's a solitary pursuit. This divorces language from its role as a form of communication between living, speaking people.
When the chaplain discovers that Rooke has perfect pitch (i.e., the ability to recognize the pitch of a note), it initially seems like yet another curse. However, once Rooke is tall enough, the chaplain teaches him to play the organ. Rooke loves the logic and the science behind music theory, as well as the organ itself. He spends hours playing Bach's fugues in the chapel, listening to the different notes speaking to each other. His classmates tire of hearing the fugues and say they have no tune, which is exactly what Rooke likes about the fugues. Rather than possessing a singular melody, fugues are more of a conversation.
Rooke's mostly solitary pursuit of music (something that's inherently mathematical in nature, particularly as it pertains to the theory behind it) allows him to experience a sense of community within the notes themselves. Further, when the fugues’ notes have "conversations" with each other, it suggests the true purpose of speech and conversation, foreshadowing Rooke's dive into language in New South Wales.
Rooke develops his conception of God while at the Academy. He realizes that for him, God isn't a father or a brother. Instead, God is in the logic of astronomy. Rooke comes to believe that since math is the key to understanding the skies, it's also the way to understand how God works. This leads Rooke to realize that everything in the world is unified, and to hurt one thing or person will inevitably hurt the entire system. Rooke dreams of one day leaving the Academy and finding a place for himself.
While others see God as a part of a very human community, Rooke takes comfort in seeing God and himself as parts of a rational system. This shows how Rooke seeks to understand emotional concepts through simplifying and rationalizing them. This system does in theory provide Rooke a place within it, though Rooke's desire to find a place for himself suggests that he still sees himself as a lonely individual, not as a part of a community.