In the winter of 2013, I made friends with many of the Kythnos high school teachers. Mostly in their late twenties and early thirties, they were around half my age, but in no way did they ever patronise me or refer to me in the third person saying, does he take sugar, do you think?, and is that some offensive ruminant cud drooling from his whiskery old mouth? First of all, on the Lavrio boat, I met five-foot two-inches tall Anna aged 31, who subsequently became my excellent Greek tutor. I told her she looked about six years old to me, and she hooted hilariously. During our lessons she kept telling me teleia, John, excellent, you are almost a proper Greek! One basks in that kind of thing, does one not, even though one knows it to be effervescent and kindly hyperbole. We did the teaching in her house, and I always took her some posh chocolate biscuits or sweets, and told her it was so she wouldn’t shout at me or rattle my ear for any errors. She guffawed at that and she also laughed when I invited her to arrange a dinner party on my behalf and invite as many of her colleagues as possible. She blinked and said she could bring along twenty if I insisted. Sure I said, bring them all on, bring the bloody lot, Anna. In the end she managed to bring ten, and we had a hell of a time eating my Indian vegetarian food of bindi with ajwain, kela kari, chakunda chawal and khajur raita. Later we cleared the floor and danced Greek, Irish, and, what’s more, and objectively very impressively, jigged along to John McLaughlin’s Indo-jazz fusion band Shakti. The only hitch was most of them smoked, and did so on my front balcony, leaving the sliding door open for handy converse with their non-smoking mates inside. After they had gone, and even though it was November, I realised I now hosted the entire mosquito population of the port, and I literally did not sleep a wink that night. At the next dinner party I exercised some sense, and made them go and smoke outside on my landing…
One thing many of them had in common was they were interested in astrology. At least half of them asked me what my star sign was, and I would play the idiot and say I’d forgotten, but it was either Kawasaki or Yamaha. I studied Sanskrit at university, and of course astrology is ultra-important in pious Hindu culture, especially when it comes to marriages and other celebrations. The Sanskrit word mangala or ‘auspicious’ features largely, together with the word for ‘inauspicious’. My gut instinct is to be sceptical of anything allied to the paranormal or the occult, and for that matter, to have what I regard as a healthy spiritual anxiety about such things. Of course Hindu astrology is a sober and dignified and hallowed tradition, but if 14 year-old Western schoolkids, especially girls, were encouraged to have the same self-protective spiritual anxiety, they wouldn’t end up having horrible nervous breakdowns after amateur Ouija board sessions. Nor would they be so hungrily buying books on Do It Yourself Witchcraft (white or black, kid, take your pick) which in the biggest Carlisle bookshop was always placed under Religion, sometimes close to the Bible, after which observing, I would say, Oh, God help us…
At any rate, I have three significant examples of what I would regard as unusual, possibly paranormal coincidences from my own life. One of them is farcical, one amusing, and one is very serious, so we will start with that one first. It concerns two very important women in my life. The two longest relationships I have ever had, are with my late wife Annie for 31 years from 1978-2009, and the 3 years with my teenage girlfriend Edith Sanchez from 1967-1970. Annie died at the age of 54 on the 4th December 2009, from secondary breast cancer and Edith Sanchez died on the 15th November 2013, from bladder cancer, aged 61. Annie was buried on the 10th of December 2009 and Edith was cremated on…the 10th of December 2013 (meaning an anomalous 25 days after she died, connected to some mourners coming from abroad). So the two most important women in my life, both had funerals on the 10th of December. That is a 1/365 or 3/1000 chance or more likely a 1/313 chance, as I doubt whether anyone ever has a church or a secular funeral on a Sunday. I can’t say it gives me the serious creeps, but it does mean on the 10th of December every year I have a considerable quantity of mourning…
On a similar tack, but less poignant altogether. Somewhere around 2000, 15 years ago (would you credit the hideous passage of time?) I was driving into Carlisle from my farmhouse near Brampton, North Cumbria. It is a distance of 12 miles. There was an open fast stretch round about the Crosby-on-Eden area, where there was a petrol garage which I never ever used. Instead there was a far bigger and more accessible garage a few miles further on, and that was my regular petrol stop. About 50 yards short of the first garage, there was a sudden explosive ping sound inside the car, and when I moved my foot fearfully down below, I realised the clutch cable had snapped. If not massively technically minded, you maybe don’t realise that a car will not drive in such frustrated circumstances. Luckily the garage I never used was up ahead, and there was no traffic coming the other way, so I could glide across the 50 yards into its forecourt. There I could ask the friendly mechanic if I could use his phone to ring the AA. Right enough, he handed me his mobile which I simply did not know how to operate. But guessing I was somewhere close to 50, and it was perhaps high time I became a proper man, instead of doing it for me, he smiled and said amiably, ‘There’s a first time for everything’ and he intoned the necessary instructions.
Inside about half an hour, the bustling AA bloke turned up, botched up a temporary cable, and advised me to get it done properly. Fair enough. Now fast forward about a year to summer 2001. Again, I was driving the same car the same 12 miles of road from my house into fabled metropolitan Carlisle. I was on the same fast stretch but doing my usual vertiginous 35 miles an hour, and was whistling. Then, fuck me gently, there was that identical bastard of a ping! inside the car once more, and as I waggled my foot below, I realised that the See You Next Tuesday of a clutch cable had gone and snapped again! Now, and this is the really weird part, and be prepared to hold your loved one’s hand as a creepy sensation will attack you round the sensitive epithelial parts, especially those down below in the nether areas, and also close to the upper armpits. The clutch cable I swear to you, had snapped at exactly 50 yards, or as near as dammit, to the same bloody petrol garage I had never used! Thank God, as previously, no traffic was coming the other way, and I glided into the forecourt and there again was the same mechanic in the same greasy boiler suit and playing with his by now new and fancier mobile phone.
I leapt out and shouted, ‘It’s me, I’m back again!’ and of course he stared at me considerably bemused. He saw thousands of customers on his forecourt over any 12 month period, whereas I only saw him once every 12 months, starting last year, and then only when my brainless clutch cable had snapped. I might look distinctive with all the wispy hair and shaggy beard, but for his purposes I didn’t look that distinctive. He had no idea what I was talking about. I told him that my clutch cable had snapped a second time, and it had snapped exactly where it had snapped the first time, one year earlier. He nodded boredly and handed me his truly supersonic 2001 mobile, and again he had to give me an induction with the fucking thing. I rang for the AA, and guess what, it was the same brisk and curly haired AA geezer came flying up after about an hour. Once more I jested, it’s me again, but like the amnesic and indifferent mechanic, he had no memory at all of our previous rendezvous. He did though point out that it was now recognised as a specific design fault in my particular Renault, the pinging clutch cable, and I needed to get my garage to fix it on in a certain way, possibly, I conjectured, with UHU glue so the useless bastard never ever pinged again.
As for the odds of such a coincidence, I was at first tempted to do the sum with a calculator. And I always assumed I was a mental arithmetic whizzkid, but dividing 12 miles by 50 yards, proved to be harder than I thought. 12 x 1760 yards in a mile, divided by 50…ah, easy after all, if I divide by 100 and double it. Hence 12 x 1760 = 10 x 1760 + 2 x 1760 = 17,600 add 3520 = 21,120. Now divide by 100 = 211 and multiply x 2 to get the 50 yards odds = 422.
Yes, it was a risible piece of piss after all, and I can throw the stupid calculator away. Now you are able to see that the odds of the clutch cable snapping in the identical location, the same 50 yards from the same garage that I never, ever visited, was 1/422…
And I hope you are impressed…
Finally, the best of the lot and the most comical, and alas the least credible. It concerns my first ever date with my soon to be wife Annie. It was late December 1978, when she was 23 and a half and I was 28 and a sixth. A few days before, we had met surreptitiously on an enormous dance floor, clandestinely because she was going out with someone else who she was tiring of, and he happened to be there at the same entertainment venue. Luckily the place was crowded beyond belief, and we were at the far end, away from the entrance, and well away from the visual field of her unfortunate and unsatisfactory bloke. She and I already knew each other in the roles of lecturer and student, with her as the student and me as the WEA lecturer. The course was called Radical Alternatives (Ivan Illich, Erich Fromm, John Holt, RD Laing, David Cooper etc) and it is true to say that apropos the guy she was tiring of, I was undoubtedly a Radical Alternative. We fixed a secret date at my house, and she duly turned up there looking unbelievably handsomely blond , quite impossibly attractive, so that, guess what, as with the reckless hideaway manoeuvre on the dance floor, I couldn’t keep my hands off her. Nor indeed could she off me…
We went with no scant alacrity to bed, as one customarily does on these occasions. One of the books we had studied in the course I taught was called Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich. Annie and I in my bed discovered that we had some most apposite and sweet little ( no, I mean very big) tools for conviviality. The important thing to note is that, as ever, I had BBC Radio 3, the classical music channel, playing in my bedroom. The mad scene that follows was ultimately fictionalised in the first few pages of my 2006 novel A Gentleman’s Relish, but I doubt whether anyone who read and possibly laughed at that bedroom scene, would ever guess that the prototype scene was not that of two London Bohemians called George and Franny in the 1950s, but actually that involving the author and his soon to be wife in the late 1970s.
Some wonderful early organ music was playing so smokily and sultrily and sweetly on good old Radio 3, as we ascended the ecstatic scales of amatory passion. We were engaged in passionate amorous dalliance with our non-exploitative tools for conviviality, and how can I put it, it was better than Maths or even bloody old Woodwork homework, by a long way. As we rose to such dizzying climactic heights, so too did the gorgeous resonant organ music, and unlikely as it sounds, those wonderful Life beyond Death and Death beyond Life spiritual intimations, that you get from the likes of Bach or Buxtehude and their organ musics… worked almost as an added aphrodisiac.
At length we reached the climax of our aspirations and lay back panting, with faces as red as plum tomatoes or alternatively like smacked arses. Exactly simultaneously, the organ music had likewise come to its own serene and ineffable conclusion. Perhaps a half second followed, and then the Radio 3 announcer who I believe in 1978 was the decorous and always sober Victor Hallam, said very audibly to our extremely astonished ears:
“Well, that was shite…”
Can you imagine? The word ‘shite’ of all words on Radio 3 in 1978, or even for that matter in 1988, or 2001, or 2015? Perhaps to be sure it was permissible in a modern confrontational play on its regular Sunday night drama slot, but this was a classical organ recital of a Saturday teatime?
“No it wasn’t, “I snorted back at Victor Hallam. “As a matter of fact it was anything but.”
Victor answered me obliquely and as with many oblique answers, he cleared things up for both me and my wonderful new girlfriend immediately.
“Samuel Scheidt, who was born in 1587 and died in 1654, was at one stage a pupil of Sweelinck. Later he became Kapellmeister to the Margrave of Brandenburg…”
I lay there in stupefied wonder for perhaps twenty seconds. Then I earnestly asked Annie, what were the arithmetical chances, the impossible odds, of us coming to our first ever joyous sexual climax, and immediately we did a Radio 3 announcer apparently uniformed us that the experience we had just had was ‘shite’. Of course, I hastily qualified, he didn’t actually say that, but fleetingly we had thought he did, and we had thought he had said it with exact and paranormal and unworldly acuity. I mean he obviously couldn’t see us there naked in bed in bloody old West Cumbria, because he was there in his broadcaster’s duds and spats in a BBC studio in London, and as sure as Samuel Scheidt, he hadn’t got such a thing as second sight. What were the odds, I interrogated her there in our delightful little bed of love, what were the odds of such a coincidence?
Annie had a great idea, just as she always had lots of great ideas, which partly explains why she was such a genius as a consultant trainer, and as an Organisational Transactional Analyst.
“Let’s do it again, and see if it happens again,” she said, deftly twiddling something that definitely enjoyed being deftly twiddled. “Get my drift?”
Enough said. What a woman. To quote her favourite writer, Flann O’Brien, assuredly her like will not be seen again…
I said, “You mean when we reach the orgasmic pinnacle again, Victor will start talking about ‘fucks’ as in the Austrian composer, Johann Josef Fux? Seventeenth and early eighteenth century, as far as I remember. Victor will clear his majestic old Radio 3 throat, and say to us, ah, all too typical fucks…you might say absolutely quintessential fucks...”