I was sitting in a Pizza Hut in the past, waiting to be disappointed. The conversation turned – as conversation inevitably does when I’m around Ben – to Doctor Who. Over a dozen years the programme has become the central tenet of our friendship; I assume he will spend the eulogy at my funeral defending his wrong-headed views on the Eleventh Doctor’s final costume. As we discussed its showrunner Steven Moffat and contributor Mark Gatiss, something peculiar happened: the pair walked in the door and sat down at the next table. The next table in a Pizza Hut. It was as if we had summoned the two most successful writers in television with our hunger for unexceptional Italian food.
This is far from the only incredible thing to have happened to me. Recently I woke up thinking about my first girlfriend, whom I haven’t seen in thirteen years. I spotted her that afternoon as she entered a sandwich shop. Once I lost my wallet on a bus, and a few hours later got on a seemingly different one to find the wallet sitting next to the driver. Of the 8,000 buses in London, I’d gotten back on the same one. When I was a teenager and landlines were still a going concern, I’d frequently pick up the phone to dial a friend, only to hear their voice on the other end of the line. They had called me at the exact moment I had lifted the receiver.
I’m not alone in being predisposed to experiencing uncanny events. In 1973 Anthony Hopkins was due to star in an adaptation of The Girl from Petrovka and spent an unsuccessful afternoon looking for a copy. On his way home he found one discarded on a bench in Leicester Square station. A year later, he spoke to the author George Feifer on the film’s set, learning that Feifer had lent his only copy to a friend who had lost it. It was the same copy. Or there’s the 2007 story of the local Idaho newspaper that happened to print photographs in two articles on its front page: one of a suspected thief caught on CCTV, the other of a sign painter decorating a shop window for Christmas. They were the same man. Or the episode of another rediscovered book: in 1929 the American novelist Anne Parrish visited Paris on holiday, popping into a second-hand bookshop to buy a copy of Jack Frost and Other Stories, which as a child had inspired her to become a writer. To her surprise, she found that the purchase had her name and childhood address written inside. The original copy she’d owned as a girl had somehow made its way across the ocean to the very shop she was standing in.
There is something satisfyingly ordinary about extraordinary coincidences. Life is peppered with them: in a foreign country you meet someone and find out they went to the same first gig as you, or the tiebreaker in the pub quiz is the fact you learned that morning, or the song on the radio seems to apply to your situation perfectly. Such incidents encourage superstitious awe, followed by reasonable explanations. If Ben and I constant talk about Doctor Who in chain restaurants, and Doctor Who writers are as susceptible to settling as the rest of us, then it’s not impossible that we’d end up in the same place at the same time. Likewise, there are only so many buses on each route, and in the days before the internet my friends and I had little to do except ring each other all the time. Maybe I’ve been in the vicinity of my first girlfriend on other occasions, but that day I was primed to spy her in a crowd because I’d thought of her. Even though the odds are still slim, with almost 9,000 hours in every year,sooner or later something spooky is going to happen.
Anything can seem like a miracle if it’s sufficiently improbable, but the truth is that our brains are built to recognise patterns in a world which sporadically throws a bunch of sixes in a row and is complicated enough to appear random. This doesn’t mean however that the eerily aligned can’t be significant. If, say, a swan takes sudden and dramatic flight at the end of a loved one’s funeral and it feels meaningful, then it is meaningful. What’s special isn’t that the deceased is saying goodbye via a random bird, but rather that in a difficult moment you needed comfort and your mind created something to hold on to. It was a sign: you made it. Powered by grief and love, you found your own way through the dark. Surely that’s more precious than esoteric divine intervention?
It is head-spinning to learn that a new romantic partner lived on your street for a year and you never ran into each other, but the true coincidences are of such a great magnitude that we have no way to process them except to take them for granted. Even just for me to be writing these words and for you to be reading them is an event so remarkable that it takes the entire history of the universe to properly explain it. Imagine how many things had to happen for us to be here on this planet, at this time, to be alive, to be aware, to expect to live a long life, to have access to modern medicine and Beatles records and cake, to be able to love whoever we want, to have the freedom to endeavour to make our lives exuberant and worthwhile. These opportunities aren’t shared equally, of course, and there are many, many fights worth fighting. We have barely begun. Although by most measures this has been a terrible year, it is a terrible year in a spectacular world. For us to be here, together, now: it is a privilege.
In 1980, the astronomer Carl Sagan released Cosmos, a book which explored the relationship between science and the universe. While filled with wonder at the scale and complexity of the universe, its most stunning idea comes even before the contents page, in the dedication to his wife: “In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie.” This notion has taken root inside my head. The thing that astounds, I’ve realised, wasn’t running into Steven Moffat as I was talking about him. It came a dozen years earlier when I met a skinny kid in a stairwell on the second day of university. Yesterday he got engaged and asked me to be his best man. What are the chances of that?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three. Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti.