I had been in Paris for only a few days, and was staying in a friend's compact apartment off the Canal St Martin before going on to Normandy. Earlier in the evening, I'd been visiting a friend who was living on the Northern side of the city, at Rue de Batignolle. One of the things we had talked about over a lovely dinner he too insistently and generously paid for, was to what degree we would be willing to allow chance to play a role in our life. Fergal believed it played almost no part in his: he was a well respected bi-lingual editor for a European Community publishing house, and thought there was so much cause and effect in his life that he didn't really believe in chance at all. He had studied at Trinity College in Dublin, had done post-graduate work in Paris, and then moved to Oxford to work for the university press there. He then spent two years in Edinburgh, which is where I met him, working for the publisher Chambers, and for the last five years in Paris working in the job he was in now.
And what about our friendship I asked him, was that not an example of chance? We had met after the closing film of a French film festival; a couple of his friends, my then girlfriend and I all found ourselves around a table discussing this difficult film that led to numerous walkouts. Imagine, I said to him, if the film had been facile, if everybody had gone straight home, we would never have met, and I wouldn't have been sitting having dinner with him at that moment.
That may have been so, but wouldn't we have eventually met at some social event at the French Institute, he proposed, and didn't we realize that night we had several acquaintances in common? I admitted he was right; and he said maybe the issue wasn't how much chance we allowed into our lives, but what we do with that chance once we find it. When I told him there were numerous moments of chance in my life he wondered whether I was profligate with them. When I said I felt little need to capitalise on these moments; he said did that not lead to a trivial life? What interested him was chance, also, he proposed, but chance encounters he would then insist on investing in. That he used words like capitalise and invest made me laugh at his too practical mind, and yet a couple of weeks later when we met up again, we both came armed with examples to bolster our own particular arguments.
That night after I left him outside the restaurant, I was hoping to catch the last metro at one o'clock, but arrived five minutes too late. I could have ordered a taxi - but they were on double-time - or gone back in the direction of Fergal's flat, or got a night bus. I instead decided to walk. It would take me about an hour to get back if I moved at a brisk pace through Clichy, Pigalle, Barbes and down Boulevard Magenta. As I walked I thought about why for my friend chance had little place. He believed in cause and effect, and didn't have the time to allow very much contingency into his life. We were obviously very different people - for I often thought my life possessed barely any cause and effect at all, and that I lived it looking for the chance encounter, and on that evening a chance encounter I certainly had.
As I approached Christophe's flat near Canal St Martin I realized that I couldn't find the card on which my friend had written the code, and I hadn't yet managed to memorize it. I searched my trouser pockets, my shirt pocket and my bag, but I couldn't find it anywhere. I thought about my options: to try and get in touch with Christophe, who was holidaying in Normandy - where I would soon be joining him - but while I had his mobile number in my notebook, which was in my bag, I had no mobile phone: a parti pris that for the first time was rebounding on me. I could also just play with the code - I knew it was two digits, a letter and another two digits, and I began to recall that the latter two were almost certainly 37. Maybe after an hour or two I would be able to crack it. In the meantime perhaps somebody would enter or exit the block and I could get in that way. After all, I had the key to the flat itself; it was only the code into the building I needed. Another possibility would be to walk halfway across Paris and stay at the very flat I'd just come from; or at least walk back in that direction and see if I could find the card on which the code was written.
Let's call these all examples of practical hope - I laid out all the permutations of a successful entry into the flat. But I sometimes look back and think that it is often practical hope that gets in the way of impractical hope. So, just as I proposed that Fergal had no room for chance in his life, was I in this instance also working through too practical a solution to my problem? Fergal's 'problem' was his whole life, mine was the immediate situation.
Nevertheless I worked through the practical hopes first, leaving the least practical option - of walking back to Fergal's with the practical probability of getting into his flat (I had the code if not the key), and I couldn't believe he would be that heavy a sleeper - with the least practical: that I might find along the way the card with the number on it.
So first I stopped a couple of people and, in a mixture of French and English, explained to them the situation and asked if I could use their mobile phone. They both said they had no credit, and this may have been an excuse as I wondered whether my request was too much of a favour to ask. But then I saw a couple of people walking by smiling and laughing and I once again explained the situation, and asked if I could use their phone. They said that would be fine. I phoned but of course, and this confirmed my dislike of mobiles, Christophe failed to answer: his phone was switched off.
I thanked them for their generosity, smiled, and we all shrugged our shoulders, and then, pointing to the caf across the road, the man proposed we all have a drink, and perhaps wait for somebody to enter the building. It's a late night caf, they insisted, it won't close before 3.30.
As we talked I realized they weren't a couple. First because their body language made clear that though they were extremely familiar with each other, there was no suggestion of amorousness. Jean-Pierre and Justine explained they were cousins; she was from Normandy, and that they had always been close. His family was from Paris, but each summer they would spend their holidays with her family on the coast, at her parents' large holiday home about a mile from the sea, in a tiny village called Villette, near St Valery en caux. Her father was an architect who because of sporadic work given the idiosyncrasy of his vision, had to sell the very house that was the pinnacle of that eccentric achievement. It was a house they remembered so fondly partly, perhaps, because her father had built it, but also because they had also built into it such wonderful memories, memories that were almost designed to be housed in it. Jean-Pierre was himself an architectural student and said one of the biggest problems with modern buildings is how rarely they house memories. Are we not consistently drawn to old town centres, to ancient buildings and castles, because of the way they contain memory? Not just in the very fact they've been around for hundreds of years, he insisted, but in believing that they would be around for hundreds of years. Obviously Justine's father didn't necessarily expect the house to be around for as long as a castle, but he definitely wanted it to house a few generations of family memories. It was clearly a great loss to them, and so we found ourselves talking about the house as one might about a recently bereaved lover or daughter.
It was as they described the house to me that I had an uncanny sense of recognition. Perhaps I should have realized when I heard the name of the village, but I had an especially bad memory for French names, and couldn't recall the actual village in which Christophe was staying. But when they explained that the house was on two floors and was a converted, very large cow shed, I thought the place seemed familiar. As they explained that it had an open plan style, with the downstairs consisting of a large kitchen, with a dining area next to it that led into the sitting room, and that upstairs were three bedrooms that led through to each other with each door leading to the next bedroom, it seemed to match the very house that I wouldn't only be visiting in the near future, but the one I had visited some years ago, a visit that itself had come out of a chance moment.
Some years earlier Christophe, I and a few others were in the kitchen at our halls of residence at Stirling when we were all students and somebody asked him a few questions about France, one of which led him to mention that his parents had a place near St Valery en Caux, and I mentioned that it sounded like the town that was twinned with Inverness, where I had been born. He found this amusing, and we both agreed that we should visit each other's places. A month later when I visited my home town, where my parents still lived, Christophe came with me, and the following summer, when Christophe went back to France, I stayed with him in his parents' holiday home. They had bought it the previous year, but Christophe said they admired the way the architect had built it and even furnished it that they barely wanted to do anything to it at all. It was as if, Christophe said, his parents felt in some way as if they were overseeing it as readily as having bought it, and it was so simple, so 'natural' that to tart it up and redecorate would have felt like an act of disrespect. I remembered all those years ago asking Christophe about the former owner and why he had to sell it, but Christophe said he didn't really know.
And so I offered to them more or less what I've recollected above; and that they had described exactly my friend's holiday home. They couldn't believe the coincidence - yet I somehow found it almost inevitable. This may have been because, as I've suggested, I'm much more attuned to chance than many other people; and secondly in being attuned to the possibility, I suppose I go looking for these contingent moments in life. How often in our lives are there chance encounters, coincidences and unlikelihoods, made likely by a reasoning faculty applied to the apparently irrelevant rather than the always necessary? Whenever someone tells me about a story, an anecdote, a piece of gossip, I listen not only or especially with the avid curiosity of someone being told a tale, but also looking to see how it fits into a wider world of connections.
Anyway, after this revelation, and as the caf was beginning to close, Jean-Pierre suggested, no insisted, I should spend the evening at his place, and we could phone Christophe in the morning, get the code and tell him about this crazy encounter.
So I stayed the night at Jean-Pierre's flat, which was up the road from Christophe's near Belleville, in Menilmontant, and the next morning phoned Christophe from Jean-Pierre's landline, and explained what had happened, that I'd just stayed the night at this person's flat, and that it was his uncle who had designed and built the very house that Christophe was presently staying in. Christophe also found it an astonishing coincidence, and perhaps because of this surprising chance encounter, or because of Jean-Pierre's hospitality, or most likely as a combination of the two, he insisted Jean-Pierre and Justine come with me and we could all spend the weekend together. After all, he said, he had just spent a week there on his own - the more company the better. Jean-Pierre accepted immediately, saying anybody who was kind enough to offer an invite so casually, and whose family had such good taste as to buy the house, then could hardy be turned down. He was sure Justine would agree, and he promptly phoned his cousin, whom we'd walked home to her flat at Belleville the previous night, and she said certainly -she'd been keen to get out of Paris, and was thinking of going up to Normandy to stay with her parents anyway. But certainly she'd spend at least the weekend with us.
I left Jean-Pierre's flat at around nine in the morning, intending to go back to Christophe's apartment and get a few more hours of sleep, and it was the following afternoon that the three of us took off for Normandy, where we spent a most enjoyable few days. Each day it was a beautiful morning, cloudless and with sharp sunlight coming through the slanted windows in the bedroom. After a couple of days Justine and I became close, but not so close that when I returned to Paris with Christophe, and Justine and Jean-Francois went off to spend a couple of days at her parents, that it would be any sort of loss, even if I would be back in Britain before they returned from Normandy.
Christophe and I drove back to Paris, arriving before mid-day on the Saturday (early that afternoon his girlfriend was returning from the south and he wanted to meet her at Garde de Lyon), and I asked if he could let me off near Rue de Batignolle, where I was sure I would find Fergal sitting eating his usual Saturday brunch. I wanted to see him before going back to the UK - I was due to get the Eurostar early the next morning. Fergal would regularly go to a caf at the square at the Rue de Batignolle/Rue Legendre junction, and he would usually be there between eleven thirty and one, eating and then reading the paper. As I walked along the road, I could see him in the medium distance, kissing somebody on the lips with whom he had obviously just had breakfast. I ducked into a door way and waited for a minute. I watched as the young woman walked past me on the other side of the road and saw someone not only extremely pretty, but also one whose exuberance may have resided in knowing she was loved. The way they kissed, and the way they parted, indicated to me a newly in-love couple. She also, however, looked very vaguely familiar.
As I approached his table, Fergal was sitting down with the paper spread out in front of him, but his mind looked like it was concerned with other things. As I said hi he looked up with a start and smiled broadly: usually his smile was small, as though an underlying tension kept him from living in the moment and a less appealing thought would pass through his mind and narrow the grin. Not that day, however, and as we sat and talked, as he ordered another cafe latte and I ordered a double espresso, I said to him it looked like a change had taken place in his life. He laughed, remembering our previous conversation, and said but was it chance or fate, was it pre-determined or accidental?
He asked me what I had been up to since we had last met, and I said that I had a chance encounter of my own, and explained what had happened, and how that morning I had come back from an enjoyable week with Christophe and my new-found friends. He smiled again broadly and said he admired how easy it was for me to generate contingent situations in my life, but he didn't envy me. He knew he would need to turn these encounters into meaningfulness, or ignore them altogether.
I said I suspected he now had an example of his own, and so he told to me what had happened. After he got home that evening after we had talked, he couldn't sleep. He felt lonely and isolated, and at that moment envied how casually I could allow and expect chance to come into my life. He had been considering on-line dating for a while, and had even come close to making arrangements with people, only to avoid finalising the meeting when they mentioned a time and a place. That night someone had e-mailed him proposing they meet the following morning at eleven thirty, not far from where he lived, though in a caf he wouldn't usually have frequented. He e-mailed back saying he would be there; but knew it was possible she wouldn't be available. He was e-mailing her at almost two in the morning; would she not by then have made other plans? Anyway, he went along and was sitting at a table outside this caf with its tiled floors, its corner location and its young and casually dressed staff who gave the impression it was a place they would hang out in rather than work at, and he waited. The picture in the e-mail made it clear what he looked like and he had explained what he would be wearing, but nobody approached him, and as he ate a brunch that was nowhere near as substantial and tasty as the one at his usual caf, so he became mildly irritated with himself for having come at all. But after brunch he sat there nevertheless, ordered another coffee, and started to read the paper. As the caf emptied, he noticed a young woman sitting alone inside the caf, and though she didn't look like the woman with whom he had been in e-mail contact, pictures are decidedly deceptive. Had his one been also?
He looked across at her several times over the next fifteen minutes, but couldn't quite go over and ask her whether she was his on line date. If she wasn't he would have embarrassed himself, and I knew Fergal's bashfulness: he was a man who though thirty two was still capable of blushing. So what happened, I asked. Well, as she was leaving, she felt sure she recognized me from somewhere, he said, and asked if he worked for the European commission in publishing. He said that he did; and she said that is where she recognized him from: she worked there also and must have seen him in the canteen. She assumed that he had been looking at her because he recognized her from work, and he saw no reason to state otherwise as he asked if she would like to join him. She said that she was unfortunately in a hurry, but it was said with enough disappointment that he asked if she would like to meet up later. He sensed in her demeanour loneliness, and her clear eyes and smooth skin indicated less happiness than regular, perhaps time-filling exercise, and he wondered how long she had been in Paris: her accent sounded Spanish. That would be lovely, she said in reply to his request, and they arranged to meet at a restaurant he liked up in Montmartre.
After he told me this I didn't need to know anymore; yet he still seemed to want to talk. He said to me that he believed the dicussion we had over a week ago impacted on him quite strongly, yet he knew he didn't agree with my position on letting opportunities into one's life. He suspected that I let too many in; instead of filtering out the meaningful from the meaningless - as though all such encounters were of equal magnitude. He wondered whether I was interested in chance almost for chance's sake: that it left me living frivolously. I realize that as I detail what he said to me it may come across as if he were being patronising or smug; but that wasn't the case. He knew that when we had first met I was with a girlfriend who shortly afterwards left me, and he knew that I was listless and dulled out for many months. Did he believe how I had been living since was too strong a reaction to that sense of loss; that it was a return to former ways after several years of meaningfulness with Catherine?
However, when he asked me about what I had been doing since we last saw each other; I left out the example of chance that I've detailed in meeting Jean-Pierre and Justine, and also another incident that seemed to fit with my outlook on the world. That morning, the morning after the night encounter, the very morning Fergal met the pretty young woman I had seen him kissing goodbye to earlier, I had actually walked all the way across Paris, expecting to see him sitting in his usual caf. One of the reasons why I decided to walk all the way back across Paris to join Fergal for brunch was to see if I could find the card on which Christophe's code was written; and sure enough, as I walked with my gaze lowered only partly to escape the harsh sun, I found it on the pavement not far from the subway station of Angers.
It was roughly at the halfway point between Christophe's and Fergal's flats. I kept walking across the city, but obviously Fergal wasn't where I expected him to be: he was at the other caf in the process of waiting for one person and meeting someone else. I instead sat and had coffee, read for an hour, and then walked around Montmartre before getting a metro back to Christophe's flat and prepared to go to Normandy with the others. Why I didn't mention any of this to him - why I didn't say that I had found the card, and walked all the way across the city hoping to meet him at his usual spot - I couldn't quite say. But it was at that moment I recalled where I had seen the woman he was now seeing. It was at a street corner somewhere between the cafe in which he would usually eat brunch and the caf where he had met her, and where she was no doubt going. I recall noticing her because I found her beautiful, but also because there was so much sadness in that walk and in those eyes I very briefly saw. I had momentarily wondered if she would find somebody who could alleviate that loneliness. Little did I know that later in the morning Fergal would be the very man who managed to do so.
© Tony McKibbin