Lifesaving and Codebreaking

Of all the words in all the languages on Earth, “useful” is not one that is generally applied to me.

Today details one of those rare days when it was.

My neighbour and his wife stood in his front yard, staring around vacantly as I pulled up. Their car was parked half across my driveway. I carefully avoided both eye contact and car contact, and managed to park my car.

Pleased with my success in not glaring at them, I headed for my front door. Mr Neighbour ran up to me. “Please can you help jump-start our car?”

“Oh!” I said. “Uh. . . okay.”

I backed out and around, drew up next to them, and propped up my bonnet lid. He had his own jumper cables, so I simply waited. As he clipped the last jaws into place, there were sparks. He ignored them, and clipped on the cable.

See, here’s one of the grand things about poverty. When you’re so poor you need to save up for two months to buy a new battery, you get super good at jump-starting cars. Perhaps you even, in special circumstances, become useful.

My car began to smoke from the battery (which, sidebar, I bought a month ago – yay for CJ’s steady income). At first it was just a hint of heat in the air. Then it was a tiny curl of grey. Then it was chunks and gouts of “this is not right, by golly” and “uh-oh” spiced with “run away! run away!”.

I realised This Was Not Right By Golly and dived into the fray, unhooking the jaws deftly. Fortunately, I didn’t blow up. Nor did the cars.

Mr Neighbour and I looked at one another, and social awkwardness and fire-fear vied for prominence. “It’s red to red and black to black, isn’t it?” he said.

I was immediately suspicious that I’d finally found someone who knew less than me about cars. Given the logic principle that “once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth” I glanced around surreptitiously for any of the following:

1. UFOs hovering to take advantage of their human-disguised leader’s cunning ruse.

2. Brain-altering fungus spores making my neighbour stupid.

3. Punk’d cameras.

Since I found none of those, I was forced to conclude that, for this one unnatural moment, I was the most knowledgable car person around. I looked at his battery. Sure enough, he’d attached the cables between positives and negatives.

One of my friends had two uncles that did that. Apparently when they started the car a blazing arc of lightning slammed across the cables, melting both engines.

I reattached the cables to the correct batteries, Mr Neighbour successfully started his car, and I advised him and his wife on How To Jump Start Your Car Without Killing Folks.

He drove off; I parked and went inside. I thought my usefulness for the year was done, but I was wrong.

At work that day a student showed me the essay we’d worked on together. She’d done well. There was only one problem – the teacher’s comment was spectacularly illegible after the first two words.

I’ve seen some thrilling handwriting efforts in my time, but this one was so deep into “someone likes to drink while they mark, and I sure can tell” territory – the writing is actually SLURRED – that I took the liberty of tracing it for the internet’s benefit. Here it is:

For the next hour, pausing only occasionally to snarl, “Get back to work” at the student (hurrah for $40 an hour) I studied the mysterious message (and, by extension, the drink-addled mind behind it).

The first two words were “Well done” which gave me a baseline on which to decode everything else. The first word after that looks very much like “Zu” but was probably something else entirely. The middle word on the second line looks like “none” and the first three words of the final line look like “etc let is”. The final word on the second line looked like a field of poppies dancing in a breeze (another substance, interestingly, that may have been tangentially involved in the note-making process).

By careful observation, I learned that tall or long letters were considered distinctive by dint of being tall or long, and all other features were presumed irrelevent. Similarly, letters that were neither tall nor long might be represented only by the most subtle wiggle of the pen as it wandered to greener pastures. The most reliable letters in each word were the early ones, as the writer tended to lose enthusiasm for a word partway through, and simply not bother forming letters any more.

I searched through the essay and assignment sheet looking for key words that might have been used (people who mark lose originality fast). That garnered some useful data.

Dots and dashes tended to migrate, often by several letters. That was crucial, because it meant that something that was clearly a “t” actually wasn’t. For example, the first word on the final line looks like “etc” but is actually “the”.

I also carefully traced, with an unclicked pen, the shape of the “Well done”. When it comes to profiling, I’m with the method school – I needed to get into her head and hand. And I did. The blurring of letters was a significant clue. It was also clear that some blurring caused other letters – irrelevent letters – to appear. It was a trap for the unwary, and it nearly got me.

By far the greatest challenge was the mysteriously poppy-like final word on the second line. I spent a long time trying to think of words with an early “th” followed by two ls (or ts) later on.

The join between the two tall letters and the previous letter was too long. It didn’t match the hurried pesonality of the teacher. That meant only one thing: something was there. Something invisible to the naked eye, but clear to a linguistic psychologist such as myself – another tall letter. The early “th” wasn’t two tall letters in a row – it was three. With that final crucial clue, I mentally scoured the English language. It seemed an impossible task. But. . . I did it.

Here’s the full note:

Well done – you have provided some well-formulated analyses and made relevent references to the texts as evidence.

Agatha Christie, eat your heart out.

Published by Felicity Banks Books

I write books (mainly adventure fantasy for kids and young adults), real-time twittertales, and a blog of Daily Awesomeness. @Louise_Curtis_ and My fantasy ebook is on sale at

14 thoughts on “Lifesaving and Codebreaking

  1. I worked out everything but “well-formulated analyses”. I have had some trouble deciphering my own writing in the past.

    I’ve also had to decipher my own writing for my students. *blush* When I’m writing on the whiteboard, my words often disintegrate after the 5th letter. Thus “disintegrate” would become something like “disinte{squiggle}”, with the “te” being decipherable but considerably devolved.

    1. W: Well done (I’m assuming you didn’t take an hour, like I did). I wonder if people with sprawling writing are better at deciphering it. I think so – sheer practice, if nothing else.

  2. in about 30 seconds i got ‘you have provided some ? analysis & ? relevant ? ? ? ? as evidence’ then I gave up.

    I wonder if providing this teacher with a bottle of booze before those exams would helpful…….

    1. Ann: Ask W. He’s confessed elsewhere to drinking red wine when he marks.

    1. Ann: I’d rather make a new friend (or, these days, replace the battery) than wait for the NRMA. The funniest line ever in their ads was a woman on the phone saying, “Already?” in tones of delighted surprise. I don’t think that’s ever happened in real life.

      1. I’ve had to call them several times…. They have always been very efficient. The call centre staff are hopeless though.

      2. Ann: Not as efficient as a person standing next to you, though. Jump starting literally takes two minutes. You can’t beat that without teleporting.

  3. Mmm. Ever since having to have my car jumpstarted, I’ve kept a pair of cables in the boot. They help to ward off evil car-spirits – I’ve never had to use them 😉

    As for the note – I heartily reccommend a glass of port while grading. I just wish I had that bottle with me now…

    1. Jolyon: Yep, jumper cables are the biz, especially for an absent-minded driver. A glass of wine while marking is pretty close to a requirement. (Just not a bottle.)

  4. Confucius say: Man who buys jumper cables is advised to learn how to use them. My old jumper cables (which I assume are still in your boot) have a handy diagram in case one forgets.

    Nice work saving the day 🙂 Simple skills are so satisfyingly useful when you’re the only one around in possession of them. Did you know that most Americans don’t even know how to drive a manual car? Madness.

    By the way, your incendiary jump-starting experience was brought to you by an old steampunk friend – hydrogen!

    1. Nick: Yes, your cables are still in your/our car. Should be an accessory in every car (and they nearly are, too).

  5. “How To Jump Start Your Car Without Killing Folks.” – there’s a book title right there.

    …Also, I’m certain that the word that you’ve rendered as ‘well-formulated’ actually says ‘Cthulhu’ (Have a look – yes, it does…)

    I would therefore like to offer the following alternative reading: ‘Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!’

    …Yep, teachers of the world, don’t drink and mark – you’ll summon something!

    1. Ben: A certain tall maths teacher from our mutual high school DID look a bit like a camel, it’s true.

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