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.