There was a story doing the rounds a few weeks ago about a newly-married couple in China. While going through old photographs, the woman found one taken fifteen years earlier of her posing next to a statue. This being China, the statue was a gaudy, red monstrosity, but that’s another story entirely. In the background of this photo there was one other person: a man, also posing with the statue. This man, it turns out, was the man that the woman would go on to marry over a decade later. He went back through his family’s snaps and found the ‘matching’ photo of him at the statue. The angle at which his photo had been taken meant that his future wife wasn’t in shot, so the story is missing that perfect resolution, but still.
It got me thinking that, while that was a lovely story and all, perhaps it happens more often than we think it might. This couple just happen to have photographic evidence of it. Last night, in Guilin, China, I met someone who had grown up in the same town as me. He was seven years younger, and we had gone to different schools, but what were the chances that our paths hadn’t crossed before? Our home town isn’t such a big place. When I was, say, fourteen, and he was seven, did we ever pass each other in the street? Did we ever sit at the next table over in McDonald’s? Ever sit behind one another at the Odeon? Ever stand next to one another at the Bonfire Night fireworks display? I’d like to know the odds.
And what would the reaction have been, had I been able to tell my fourteen-year-old self that I would meet that kid over there, the one chomping on his Big Mac, seventeen years later in Guilin, China, where I was spending a week travelling and he was just entering his second year as a teacher? Admittedly, us both growing up in the same medium-sized Scottish town boosts the chances of us having met pretty drastically. The Chinese couple from the story had taken their pictures at the statue while on holiday. They then went back to their hometowns, many miles apart, and got on with their lives for many years before meeting again properly. That’s much more remarkable than my theoretical McDonald’s scenario.
So let’s take it a step further. As I’m writing this, in a bar in Yangshuo (China again), there is a couple sitting in front of me. They’re French, I think. In their early sixties? I’ve been to France several times stretching back to when I was six or seven. Imagine seven-year-old me going to a restaurant with my family – we’re in 1993, now, or thereabouts – and at the next table are this couple, back in their mid-thirties. Maybe they’re with their own little seven-year-old enfant? Pierre, or Claudette (or any other suitably French name)? The chances are wildly remote, I know. But I like wondering. I enjoy not knowing. It’s fun to imagine us all as drops in a huge pot, constantly swirling against one another then away, away, away, until one day, for a brief five minutes in a cafe in south-east China, we are reunited without ever knowing it.
The French couple have gone, now, and have been replaced in their window seat by a younger, English girl. I’ve been to England many times – lived there for three years, in fact – and so I wonder…