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Improbabilities, wine-hungover with nowhere to be — and a very unexpected sequel.
Once, years ago, I was sitting in the middle of the backseat of a taxi in a hot southeast Asian city. The taxi had no air-conditioning. Both windows were open but there was no cross-breeze.
A perfect dollop of white bird shit landed on my thigh.
The taxi driver turned around with a beatific smile and waggled his brows in an impressed kind of way. “That’s very good luck, you know.”
He did not have any wet wipes or napkins, it transpired, and neither did I.
I turned and looked out the window. A Korean fried chicken chain shop flashed past. The bird shit rounded my thigh and edged the seat. By the time I got to my destination, it had dried.
All that good luck baked in.
Now, I can’t calculate the odds of getting shat on by a bird while in the middle of the backseat in moving traffic. I imagine they’re vanishingly small. Certainly, if it was something you yearned for (for the dose of luck?), you wouldn’t be able to engineer it, wander into it fortuitously. These things just happen. The more you try to pin them down, the more they wriggle free, like this:
What are these things anyway?
They’re not coincidences. Coincidence means something good. Coincidences are pleasant, lucky. And there’s no word for a bad coincidence; it doesn’t exist. (I’m trying and failing to come up with one. Maloccurence? Misincidence? Malign-cidence?)
But what about when it’s neutral, neither good nor bad just … unlikely?
Improbability seems better, more accurate.
The only way for these improbabilities to alight momentarily on your brow (or your thigh) is to move through life, expecting nothing extraordinary and, every once in awhile, something might happen.
Getting shat on by a bird may be as wildly fortunate, or as wildly unfortunate, as you like. I understand why this Burmese taxi driver said it was lucky. All anyone wants in that moment is to feel special; to feel like this wild improbability carries with it weight and meaning.
But things only have the meaning we ascribe to them.
I’ve been thinking about improbabilities because I was in Paris this weekend and something wildly improbable happened. That thing was almost as improbable as getting shat on by a bird while sitting inside a taxi.
You might remember a while ago I wrote about going to see a comedian in London that Joel and I are a bit obsessed with. I wrote about it in A tale of two awkwardnesses. His name is Killian Sundermann and he’s brilliant, a German-Irish guy who nails cultural idiosyncrasy. For me (a weird US-Ireland hybrid transplanted to Oxfordshire), he captures the lunacy of the Irish but also what it feels like to observe a culture without ever really feeling properly part of it.
If you need a reminder, here’s what I wrote about going to see Killian Sundermann in London and how awkward I was when I met him at the interval:
I turned to him and said something that was supposed to be appreciative and complimentary but in hindsight was just plain old psychotic.
“We love you, we came just to see you.”
He smiled in a terrified sort of way. Then he gestured at the lad standing next to him.
“Um tanks he’s performing too?”
I had no idea who the guy standing next to him was and my abiding awkwardness prevented me from being able to stop the words flying (truthfully) out of my mouth.
“Nope! Just you.” With emphasis. “Just. You.”
Accompanied by a terrifying point of the finger, as if I might have duct tape and handcuffs in my pocket.
Why am I like this.
It’s a bit painful to read (and to recall, if I’m honest).
This is because, reader, I’m not cool. No one has ever said about me “there goes Jill, she’s pretty cool”. I have never been cool, and presumably at this advanced age of 38, never will be.
But that’s ok, I’ve made my peace with it. I learned recently that “weird” comes from the old English “wyrd”, an Anglo-Saxon personification of fate or destiny that means, essentially: unearthly, supernatural, magical. Like the wyrd sisters in Macbeth.
Isn’t that brilliant? I’m not weird, I’m magical!
Also, I’m self-conscious, stilted and have to work extraordinarily hard to convey “normal” in human interactions. More often than not, I fail.
Speaking of which, I’m writing this from the floor of the Gare du Nord Eurostar terminal in Paris. A homeless man just came past and asked for the last inch of my Orangina. I said sure even though I was still thirsty.
It occurs to me this quest for fluid is also an exercise in probabilities. For every ten people he approaches for the dregs of their drink, maybe one says yes. One hundred questions, one full bottle of fluid.
Since we’re here, have you ever looked up in Gare du Nord? Try it, next time you’re in Paris. If you’re expecting lofty vaults, soaring panels of stained glass — be warned. This is not why I’m telling you to look up.
This is why:
Don’t know what I’m talking about? Hard to tell, isn’t it. Let’s zoom in.
Now you see it, right? Those poles are coated — furry — with grime. Like bread mould, or the intricate, three-dimensional structures of ice adhering to metal.
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And I’m telling you, so heavy with filth are these poles that walking underneath you expect it to drip on you.
Probably every once in awhile, it does drip. And, probably even less frequently — but still, every once in a while — those drips land on someone sitting underneath, maybe someone feverishly tapping keyboard keys while their Eurostar back to London is delayed.
These improbabilities accrete over a lifetime. Every once in awhile, you will be the person the drip lands on.
Now, I didn’t get dripped on in Gare du Nord. That’s not the improbability I want to write about.
I arrived without incident on Friday night. I love taking the Eurostar from London, sweeping from city to city. Out on the Thames estuary leaving London, it’s bright and flat. Canary Wharf recedes in a haze of lofty triangles and the Thames curves, sinuous and broad, under the metal bridge at Dartford.
In Paris, as ever, I’m struck by (i) how fucking backwards the Metro ticketing system is, with its ridiculous tiny paper tickets, and (ii) how perfect the light is on a summery Friday evening. I convinced my sister (who lives here) and her friend to get drunk with me, first on the street at a wine bar in the 5th and then around her kitchen table until 3am.
The next morning, I had the day to myself.
A whole day! Nothing to do but wander, pleasing myself, through Paris. Quelling the nausea that threatened to overtake me in 36 degree heat.
I treated myself to an extended lunch at my favourite spot in the Latin Quarter and, hangover still rising, lingered for a couple hours. Eventually, when it became clear they had had enough of me, I extricated myself from seat and moved slowly down the street, parting crowds like an ocean liner.
I turned a corner and a couple was walking towards me. He was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt and looked familiar. I looked again.
He looked very familiar.
It was none other than the aforementioned comedian Killian Sundermann, the one I wrote about meeting back in March, walking along this street in Paris with his girlfriend. I shit you not.
Now. Take a moment with the odds here. In the whole of Paris, in the course of any one of the 60 minutes in any one of the 24 hours in the course of a single day in which I might unwittingly be in Paris at the same time as Killian Sundermann, here we were walking down the same street. Me, being enough of a fan that I not only followed him on Insta, had not only been to one of his gigs in London but had actually written a fucking Substack about the experience and, in particular, how awkward I had been when I met him.
Without wanting to do any disservice to his celebrity, I am reasonably confident that I was one of the biggest Killian Sundermann fans in Paris that day and probably one of only a handful of people who would recognise him in the street.
Now, I don’t know about you but I think that’s pretty fucking weird. Weird, as in magic, but also just fucking weird. Like, almost weird enough to make me believe in some unseen omni-presence with a really cracking sense of humour.
They walked past me without incident. I texted Joel “I just fucking walked past Killian Sundermann. I am not joking”. (He responded immediately “what?” which I ignored because I was busy having a meltdown in realtime.)
Was I going to let this moment pass me by on a street in Paris. Was I fuck.
So what happened? Well, I walked past them.
Then I stopped. Turned around and started following them.
Because, of course I did.
Another five steps and they stopped too.
I had no choice but to walk past them, literally stepping in the road to go around them.
I walked past them about twenty feet and stopped again, no idea what to do. This was not where I meant to be. I meant to follow them for a bit while I figured out a plan, a cool approach, a redemption of sorts. I did not mean to be here, in their path again, where they are about to pass me, for the second time, on the same street, in the space of about 45 seconds.
Then, he was passing. There wasn’t enough time to think this through.
“Hi, I’m sorry, I love you. I went to your gig in London.”
He, bless him, handled it without immediate alarm.
“Ah that’s nice, thanks. Do you live here?”
“No, I’m just visiting.” Nothing further, didn’t say where from, in no way behaved like a normal friendly human.
Just a mute reddening.
“Ah that’s nice.” He was still smiling, bless him. “Yeah, so are we.” Indicating his girlfriend whose back was retreating up the street, oblivious to the carnage unfolding behind her.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Now that I’d started this, I just wanted it to be over as soon as possible.
“Please can I have a selfie.” I blamed it on Joel. “My boyfriend will never believe I saw you.”
He posed next to me, somehow wrapping an arm around my waist without actually touching me.
So. That was that. Did I tell him I wrote a Substack about meeting him before? That I had been so awkward that I had felt the need to record it for posterity forever? Did I mention that, of all the colossal improbabilities that might befall me that day, I felt this was one of the weirdest?
Nope. I just mumbled “thank you so much” and ran away.
Sitting on the floor of the Eurostar terminal just now, trying to get back to London, I am still thinking about the unlikelihood of this encounter. It is staggering. I am trying and failing to extract meaning from it. So utterly improbable that I should see Killian Sundermann on my random walk through Paris. So unlikely. Have I perhaps squandered some universe-bestowed opportunity? Should I have done something more momentous? Should I have tried to, I don’t know, hang out with him and his girlfriend? Maybe we could have been pals.
They called my train and I realised these were the unproductive thoughts of a psychopath so proceeded in some disquietude through customs.
Boarding the train, I glanced at my ticket. I am in coach 9, seat 19.
The queue to get on moves slowly and an American man behind me nearly falls in the gap.
Seat 19. Looking for it, I am counting seats. 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 ….. 21, 22, 23.
I stop. Backtrack. I must have missed it.
There’s 18. There’s 21. But there are no seats 19 or 20. They are missing, just not there. Completely, inexplicably unaccounted for.
I laugh out loud because it’s just brilliant, so typical. I’m already anticipating writing it down. The time I got assigned a seat that didn’t exist! What are the odds!
Catch the eye of someone already ensconced in their rightful seat.
“There’s no 19.” I said in a winking tone. Laughing, and inviting everyone to wonder and laugh with me.
Wow, haha, hilarious. Weird. One woman says “you have to run at it” which is just bloody brilliant. It’s like platform 9 and 3/4 quarters! It’s like the missing 19th story in Wayside School!
There is just no seat 19. What witchcraft is this?
Another minute of standing pointlessly in the aisle where seat 19 ought to be, I went to the dining car next door. The French-Vietnamese guy who works there was stacking drinks looking nonchalant and very Gallic.
“Do you know why there’s no seat 19? I’ve been assigned seat 19 — but it’s definitely not there.”
“Oh, how strange.” He’s surprisingly engaged and kind and helpful, despite being French. “Let me have a look.” He moves to his iPad, starts to plug in figures. “Can I see your ticket?”
I hand my phone over. He zooms in. “It’s because your seat is 31.”
“What?” I look, and it’s true. For some reason, when I look at it, the bit that says ‘Coach 9’ stacked directly above the 1 in 31 creates a convincing optical illusion of 19.
There is no seat 19. But it doesn’t matter because I definitely haven’t been assigned it.
I took my seat quietly at number 31. Everyone is merry at my return. “Ah found it have you?”
I have so many questions.
Why is there no seat 19 in coach 9? Of all the numbers to trim, why 19 and 20, smack bang in the middle of the run of numbers. Why not just, you know, take a few off the end and make the seat numbers lower?
Why, of all the possible seat numbers I could have misread, why did I light on basically the only seat in coach 9 that didn’t exist?
Why, of all the streets in Paris, did my wanderings cross me with the only famous person I’ve ever written about meeting and being awkward with? Why was the name of that post, about an encounter in London, written back in March, called ‘A Tale of Two Awkwardnesses’, a riff on Dickens’ two cities? Why indeed, if not in anticipation of a second installation from Paris.
And, finally, why do these kind of things happen to me, with impossible regularity, over and over and over again?
I know the answer to that last one, at least.
It’s so I can recount them, and ascribe meaning to them — weird, magical and totally improbable — right here for you.