Coincidences in a Dovetailed World
The other day, my wife and I were at Stansted airport with some time to kill before our flight to Tours. We were looking round a perfume store. The sales lady was a friendly middle-aged lady, and I happened to mention that I needed to go online to order a pair of roller skates, a comment that the saleslady overheard. The conversation then continued thus:
Saleslady: What kind of roller skates, inline or quad?
Saleslady: I sold over two hundred pairs of quad roller skates two weeks ago.
Me: I’m sorry?
Saleslady: This is a new job. Before this, I was the manageress of a roller skating rink in Tenerife and it had to be closed down.
We then talked about the relative merits of quad and inline roller skates, the kind of wrist, elbow and knee protection required, and so on. But clearly this was some coincidence, unless the woman was a spontaneous fantasist – though her obvious knowledge of the sport would not support this hypothesis. Apart from anything else, if I hadn’t uttered the words “roller skates” the conversation would never have happened.
I have personally experienced several other extraordinary coincidences of this type, including a series with my daughter Lizzie when she was young, all of which revolved around the number three. Here are the stories.
The Three Bikes
Lizzie, her godfather Dunstan and I were out cycling in Touraine one summer. Lizzie was about 8 or 9. We pretended that our rickety old bikes were horses. Dunstan’s was a big black horse, mine was a big brown horse, and Lizzie’s was a small white pony. This conversation was the source of much hilarity, at least for Lizzie! We arrived in Reignac, put down our bikes and sprawled on the grass beside the river Indre. After a while, I noticed something on the opposite bank of the river. Sheltering from the bright sunlight under a large oak tree were three horses, a big black one, a big brown one, and a small white pony. To add to the eeriness, they were all stock-still and staring in our direction.
The Three Nicknames
Lizzie was around the same age when we were in Amsterdam for one New Year with a friend. We popped into a bar to get out of the snow and the cold and had three drinks, each of which had a cardboard beer mat. Lizzie had a pen and started writing on the mats, then she shuffled them and made us pick out a different one. She had written little animal nicknames for us on the mats. Lizzie was a Lizard, Adrian was a Pelican, and the friend was a Little Ballerina. She continued playing with the cards as we walked out into the street, entering the area of the Keizersgracht where there are a lot of antique shops. We stopped at one and looked in the window. As ever with these shops there were many objects, but amongst them was a statuette of a pelican, another statuette of a ballerina (Degas-style) and a brooch in the form of a lizard.
Three Girls With Violin Cases
Lizzie’s scoliosis, when detected, needed treatment. In particular, she had to have a plastic corset made to correct the distortion in her spine, to be worn day and night. The chief maker of these highly technical corsets is the Espace Ortho Scoliose, 1 rue Jacques Coeur near the Place de la Bastille. At the time she needed fitting for one, we were in the country, in Touraine, and had to take the train to Paris. We drove up to Saint Pierre des Corps and waited on the platform. Curiously, standing beside us were three teenage girls, each carrying a violin case. We got on the train, and the three girls sat diagonally opposite us. At one point, one of them even exchanged a smile with Lizzie. When we arrived at Montparnasse Station, we went into the bowels of the Metro and took a train across south-eastern Paris to the Place de la Bastille, then walked to the scoliosis centre. As we entered, sitting in the waiting room were the three girls, each with their violin case. I couldn’t help blurting, “But you were in the train with us!” One of them remembered us and they smiled at the coincidence. They must have taken the previous metro train to be there before us. And one of them was also coming for a corset fitting, accompanied by her two friends. The violins were never explained.
G. K. Chesterton described coincidences as “spiritual puns”.
I am sure most of us can come up with similar tales, more or less surprising. I like the one about the 19th-century French poet Emile Deschamps which also involves the number three.
In his memoirs he tells how as a boy he was introduced to plum pudding by an acquaintance named Monsieur de Fortgibu. Ten years later, Deschamps saw plum pudding on a restaurant menu and remembered having enjoyed it. The waiter informed him that, unfortunately, the last piece of plum pudding had just been ordered by the gentleman in the corner – who turned out to be M. de Fortgibu. A number of years later, Deschamps, now in his 40s, was at a dinner party and learned that the dessert was plum pudding. He regaled the assembled company with his unusual experiences with the dessert and joked that the only thing missing this evening was M. de Fortgibu. Just at that moment, the door swung open and in walked that very gentleman. In his senility, he had wandered through the wrong door by mistake.
“Three times in my life I have encountered plum pudding, and three times I have seen Monsieur de Fortgibu,” Deschamps exclaimed.