The first time Nick saw the sign he was cycling, on his way to a job. Only a minor miracle – bringing a pet goldfish back to life, a failing grade converted to a pass, an ill-judged text unsent – he couldn’t remember the details. Just another £10 gig, scarcely worth the time it took to ride there, once the GOD app took its cut. He used to think it sounded cool: Miracle Worker, employed by Global Optate Deliveries, GOD for short. Then, of course, it turned out he wasn’t really employed by GOD, only subcontracted to them; and as well as taking a cut of the income from every miracle worked, they also charged for the initial cost of installing the Miracle software on his phone, plus ongoing use and maintenance fees. Before he finished his first week, Nick knew that GOD was just another tech start-up with some flashy algorithms and a dodgy business model. But Nick’s options were limited. “What I really need,” he thought grimly as he pedalled through the grey drizzle, “is a miracle. A real, honest-to-goodness, £500 miracle.”
That was when he saw the sign. It was hanging above the door of an ordinary corner shop on an unfamiliar street, and was printed with clear black ink on a pale, faded board. There was nothing really remarkable or memorable about it, except that it said: THE MIRACLE YOU ARE LOOKING FOR IS HERE. Beneath the text, an arrow pointed to the shop door below. “That’s a coincidence,” thought Nick, before promptly forgetting all about it.
Two days later, Nick was on his way home from another job when his eye was caught by a billboard overhead. ARE YOU STILL LOOKING FOR A MIRACLE? STOP HERE! it read. Nick suddenly remembered the first sign, then frowned and pedalled faster.
The following afternoon, Nick was sitting in the window of a cafe waiting for a date who hadn’t shown up. He glanced up from his phone just in time to see the advertisement on the side of a passing bus: LAST CHANCE FOR A MIRACLE. 301 ALBERT ROAD. Albert Road was three blocks away from the flat Nick shared with two Portuguese kitchen hands and a junior doctor. He left the cafe feeling unsettled. “Probably part of some big media campaign,” he thought. “Some religious thing. Or a new reality show.” He tucked his chin inside his jacket and turned his collar up against the cold.
For the next four days, Nick found it convenient to change all his usual cycling routes. He tried a new chemist ten minutes further away than his regular one, and walked a longer path to the nearest underground station. So it happened, purely by chance, that he never found himself in the vicinity of 301 Albert Road. At work, he miraculously returned an old lady’s missing cat; cured a woman who had been hiccupping without pause for two full years; un-smashed a broken Charles & Diana commemorative dinner plate; and manoeuvred a too-large sofa through the too-small door frame of a new apartment.
He began to feel sheepish about avoiding Albert Road. It was absurd, childish, superstitious. He would walk down Albert Road this very morning, would even look for number 301, to work out what type of TV show they were filming there. The clouds had cleared, the sky was blue, and Nick set off with a whistle. The familiar sights of Albert Road greeted him. The chemist on the corner, terrace houses smiling in the unexpected sunshine, cars and buses grumbling along beside him. Glancing at the street numbers, he realised he must go past 301 almost every day, though he wouldn’t have guessed it. He couldn’t remember anything down this way that could be a film studio, or a church.
At last he reached it. Or rather, he reached the space where it ought to be. Between 299 and 303 ran a narrow laneway, with no sign of 301. It looked dank and uninviting, and Nick was on the verge of turning back when he saw a small sign painted on the footpath: YOU ARE GOING THE RIGHT WAY. With a sigh he stepped into the passage between the buildings.
Immediately, the light was diminished and the noise from the street behind him was muffled. He crept forward between the high brick walls. There seemed to be nothing but bricks all around him, and he had just convinced himself that the lane was a dead end when he noticed an open doorway in the gloom. Inside, a flight of carpeted stairs led him up past hideous wallpaper to a landing which terminated in a single, closed door. Beside it, a smart silver bell rested on a hall table. A neat sign the size of a business card read: PLEASE RING FOR SERVICE. Nick reached out and rang.
“Come in, come in,” called a voice from behind the door, and the next moment it was opened by a friendly-looking gentleman in a flannel waistcoat. Nick was ushered in, and he found himself in front of an enormous, richly polished wooden desk in a warm and comfortable private office. The shelves were lined with books, except where piles of papers had formed themselves into little stacks, apparently at random. On the mantelpiece, a clock with several rotating spheres in its glass base ticked loudly. The man in the waistcoat closed the file that lay open on his desk and placed it absent-mindedly on top of a pile of identical documents. Removing his half-moon spectacles, he gestured with them to the leather chair on the opposite side of the desk. “Won’t you please sit down?”
Nick sat down awkwardly. Something was bothering him about the desk. Then he realised why it looked so odd: there was no computer. He had a sudden new idea about the meaning behind the signs, and the miracle business model. “This must be real black-market stuff,” he thought with a shiver. “All off-line. Completely untraceable.”
“How can I help you today?” the man asked.
“I mean, I guess I’m here because – I need a miracle, man. I’ll be real straight with you. I know I can’t afford much, anything decent costs way more than I can pay, but I just thought, maybe, you’d have different rates or something. I dunno. I saw the signs, they said to come here. Whatever miracles you’re selling, though, you should know I can’t pay for them upfront. Not for the kind of thing that I need.”
“What is it that you need?”
“Oh, it’d be at least three grand, I reckon. New job, new flat – a flat of my own, maybe, and that’s five grand already, ten if it’s in London. But then I’d probably die of a heart attack a week later, so the next sucker with 10k and a GOD subscription can miraculously inherit their miracle flat. I don’t know what I want, man. What are you selling?”
“What is it that you need?”
“I told you, man, I need a miracle. Just one miracle, any miracle – no, not any miracle, none of that £5 bullshit, I make the train even though I’m running late, I get handed a free movie ticket, none of that. A real miracle. Something good.”
“I see. Well, thank you for letting me know.”
The man smiled benevolently at Nick and replaced his glasses on his nose. On the mantelpiece, the clock ticked its way towards the hour.
At last, “Is there something else I can help you with?” the man asked.
“Wait – is that it? Don’t I have to pay, or something? You haven’t told me how much you charge!”
“Young man, you are labouring under a misapprehension. We don’t sell miracles here.”
“You don’t – you don’t sell miracles? Then what the fuck am I here for?” Nick rubbed his face in his hands. “Look, old man, I don’t know what the racket is here – are you filming this or something? Is there a camera in here? I never asked for anything illegal! Just a miracle, I said, I never specified – you’ve got nothing on me! Nothing, you hear?”
Nick thundered down the stairs, swearing. Below the office, a door slammed. The clock ticked. The man hummed to himself as he retrieved the file from the stack on his desk and began making unhurried notes in the margin.
Nick’s palms were sweaty and his heart pounded as he retraced his steps home. Whatever was going on at Albert Road, he wanted no part of it. He raced up the grim stairwell of his apartment block, let himself into the flat and closed and locked the door behind him. Cup of tea, that’s what he needed. He checked the door was locked, then made a bee-line for the kitchen.
From the hallway, he heard a voice murmuring and the sound of a spray bottle squirting water. His flatmate, Annette, was already in the kitchen.
“Hey, Annette, can I ask you something? Do you believe in – wait, were you talking to that pot of dirt? Hospital bureaucracy finally sent you over the edge, huh?”
“It’s not a pot of dirt, it’s a maidenhair fern. I rescued it from one of the other JDs.”
“Aren’t ferns supposed to be green? And have leaves?”
“It was all rotting, I had to prune it right back. But it has got some fronds now – look.”
Nick had to get down to plant level to see where Annette was pointing. There, at last, from inside a woody brown mess the size of his fist, he spotted tiny curls of new growth peeping out.
“What were you saying to it?”
“It’s a gatha, a mindfulness poem.
Don’t think you are cut off, dear plant.
This water comes to you from the earth and sky.
You and I have been together since beginningless time.”
“Oh. Cool. What does it mean?”
“Well, why don’t I teach it to you, then you can say it to the plant yourself?”
“Why, you late for an important business meeting or something?”
Nick cast a glance back at the locked door and shrugged. After a few minutes, he had the gatha by heart. Annette handed him the spray bottle and left the kitchen, closing the door behind her.
“Um...don’t think you are cut off, dear plant,” Nick mumbled self-consciously. The brown stump seemed to be staring at him. Nick put his face close to it again so he could see the tiny green shoots. Each furl was perfectly formed, and seemed to contain within itself all the life force of an unspooled frond. The plant seemed poised on the edge of awakening. Nick felt as though any one of the tightly wound coils could suddenly sprung out, a burst of vibrant green.
Don’t think you are cut off, dear plant,” he murmured. He wondered as he had never wondered before what it was like to be a pot plant. What was it like to have roots that never felt deep earth? To live in potting mix, in a kitchen two floors above the ground, that after all wasn’t really ground but concrete, and under the concrete layers and layers of dead city? How did it feel to eat sunlight filtered through a window pane grimy with generations of traffic fumes? To be, for hours at a time, the only living thing present, kept alive by the spaceship in which you were transported, a plastic pot full of dirt? Maybe the plant did think it was cut off. Nick felt cut off most of the time, and he had access to the internet.
This water comes to you from the earth and sky. Nick had never really thought about where the water in the flat came from. He had always assumed that he preferred not to think about it. The water that made rivers and lakes and rainforests and vast silent icebergs was a different element, a different category of substance, from the stuff that came out of his kitchen tap. One was nature, wild and pristine; the other was what you filled the sink with to wash dishes, or made coffee out of. In a flash he understood that he had been living under an illusion of separateness, and that the water that pumped inside his own body was the same water that moved inside the clouds in the sky, and in the sludgy Thames, and in the Amazon, and in the roots of the maidenhair fern. You and I have been together since beginningless time. Is that what that meant? That he and this plant had always existed together, because all the events and happenings and little evolutions and material conditions that had led over millions of years to this plant being here, in this kitchen, were the same ones that had led Nick to this same point, to this moment of insight? Everything in the universe that had contributed to produce Nick had also produced this plant, these minuscule, tender, fragile fingers of green, reaching out in trust towards the water he was misting.
It seemed to Nick that he had lived his whole life inside a locked room, cut off from meaning, cut off from the earth and sky, cut off from other people, and had only just noticed that he could fling wide the window. He was not happier, exactly- happiness was the wrong word – but he was free. He felt as though a sea wind had blown through him. For a long time he did nothing but kneel before the plant, observe it, witness his own gratitude for its existence. In his cluttered, dirty kitchen, Nick knew he was living through the slow unfurling of a patient miracle.
Behind his desk at 301 Albert Road, a man laughed.