Lament of a numbers whizz

It was fairly early on in my life that I realised I had only one genuinely demonstrable skill. I had been hoping a few more might emerge as the developing years unfolded, but no, I had just the one. I could add and multiply numbers really fast.

Of course this was a towering skill to have at primary school where numbers were so important in earning classroom attention and rewards. But as each year went by, this skill became less and less useful, until by the time I reached high school, where mathematics contained little arithmetic, I sank down to the ranks of classroom grunter, the kind of woeful wretch I had academically knuckle-dusted in standard 3.

It is entirely possible this skill is congenital, going back centuries.

My cousin in Melbourne has done all the family tree stuff, and he is emphatic Louis XIV's legendary numbers man Jean-Baptiste Colbert is the source of this ability. Indeed, my cousin worked with numbers in Paris for years, in banking, and he even had the outrageous temerity to challenge me to a speed contest in 2004. I have stood beside Jean-Baptiste's tomb in Paris' Church of Saint-Eustache, and I would be taradiddling to the point of absurdity if I said I didn't feel a spine-tingling affinity with the great man.

But I also became fast through one of the most nonsensical pursuits ever pursuited by a child in the history of life as we know it: I added up cricket scorecards all day long. Had I been normal, I could have learned to ride a bike, swim, or even talk to girls.

But no, I added up cricket scorecards. My grandfather had a huge collection of Wisden cricket almanacks, one thousand pages plus of scorecards each. I would add every single one up in the hope, I think this was the reason, I would find a mistake.

Because Wisden was cricket's bible, and let's face it, finding a mistake in a bible is pretty damn smart. Every nine months or so, I would find a mistake, not a printing error, a genuine mistake in addition.

There were very few people who were truly appreciative of this achievement, certainly none of the girls at school, but I would be crazy-eyed and screaming when it happened.

I was an unusual child.

Since those halcyon days, the skill has proved as useful as the forehead's third eye: I know it's there and potentially stunning, but it is just never called into play any more.

However last week when I was buying two 50-packs of blank DVDs to house the thousands of photos from Chicago showing the two grandchildren, my sole skill finally burst back into life. The DVDs I had chosen were discounted 30%, so the sum I did in my head in less than one second was $85.90 less 30% equals $60.13.

"$69.90," said the checkout woman. "No," I said, "that's wrong." "No," she said, "it's right, look at the screen." "Woman," I said, "the screen is wrong." "I will get the supervisor," she said, in a voice that sounded like she would get Captain America.

The supervisor ran the numbers on to the screen.

"$65.30," he said. "No," I said, "that's wrong." "Look at the screen," he said. "That's what I told him," said the woman who had come up with $69.90.
I looked at the screen. "The discount is 30% not 25%," I said, even though I had already done the sum using 25% and got $64.45. "Oh, sorry sir," said Captain America.

"There you go, $58.80." Bwahahah! I was $1.33 in front.

"Whatever you say," I said, trying with all the strength I could muster to sound resigned.

So, $1.33. That is all I have made from this incredible skill in the 49 years since I left primary school. For all you numbers people who have kept up, that's 2.71c a year.

Parents, please, keep those cricket scorecards well clear of your children.

Roy Colbert is a Dunedin writer.


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