Fifteen years ago my partner and I were looking to move house. We’d seen lots of places but none had clicked (although when your other half has taken against a house because they “don’t like the look of the skirting boards” you wonder if anything short of a palazzo will ever pass muster). Then, one morning, we went to view a house in London’s Islington and, after about one minute and seeing just one room, we both turned to the agent and said, “This is ours.” There was just something about the place that felt right: simple, sunny, a good garden. A feeling. And then? We lost it.
So, back on the hunt. A year passes. And then it happens again. It’s a smaller house in a different ’hood that has been empty for some time following the death of the owner. I see it alone the first time. But I know it’s right and make the call: “I’ve found it,” I say excitedly. And then? We get it.
Another year passes and we have some money to start changing things, to make it ours. The builders pull away a kitchen cupboard and discover that some letters have fallen down the back, via the narrowest of cracks. One of the letters is addressed to the former owner but has been forwarded from his previous address (said letter has been lost in this dark gap for a good decade by now). And his old address? The house we lost the first time.
Coincidence? Of course. I can whittle down the seemingly huge odds: we are talking about two houses in London, similar in style. And perhaps we responded to his taste in both places? But even so, when I tell people the story, they are convinced that “this is a sign”. And perhaps I am too.
I am writing this while on holiday in Chile. I landed last Sunday morning, checked into the hotel and needed coffee. The dining room was open and there were only two other people in there. I tuned in to them speaking Portuguese but there was something else about their voices that stood out. I stared: it was two friends from São Paulo. We got over the shock and then discovered that we had the exact same travel plans for the coming days, right down to the same hotels. Coincidence.
I can go on: a conversation with a man at another table in a New York café who says that, one day, he’d like to go to London. He has a friend there. Perhaps I know him? I explain that London is a big place. He tells me his friend’s name – it’s someone I know very well.
How, in a world with so many millions of people, are these coincidences so common? Well, lots of genius statisticians have looked at the world of coincidence and come to the conclusion that so many millions of people is precisely why these events happen. So perhaps a better question is why these moments of coincidence have such impact and resonate with us in a way that seems to matter. Now I promise it’s not the pisco sours at play, or the thin air up here in the Atacama desert, but perhaps – in what feels like a world where faith is diminished – these events make us see meaning in the everyday. They hint at things we can’t explain away with our usual cynicism. And beyond all that? Well, they make bloody good stories.
A real footnote: Last week I took a passing pop at slippers and have spent the past few days responding to the outcry. Next week, I will be back with more on the sins of the slipper sect.