Double visionThe train was almost empty when my journey started. A few stations later I looked up to find a woman sitting opposite. Though she looked familiar there was a problem. For years I have got into muddles when meeting people, so I needed to be careful. Here was a pretty, young redhead who I thought I recognised but there was equal possibility that I had never actually seen her before. From time to time she looked at me quizzically, even giving a hint of a smile. She was, perhaps, simply being polite. Nevertheless, my feeling that we had met before persisted. Perhaps she had been a student, a patient or a work colleague. It was even possible that she was someone from my neighbourhood. After the third smile I asked the rather awkward but inevitable male chat-up question, “Do we know each another?”

A few carefully-worded questions resolved it. Jacqueline was an actress with whom I had worked for several years before I retired. At the time I was organising the final exams for the medical students and she came to help by simulating patients – so one year she was a patient with schizophrenia, the next a distraught mother who had just lost her child, and so on. We reminisced about the exams, chatted about what had happened since and agreed how pleasant it was to catch up. Then it was a final smile and she was off. She had an appointment at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and feared she would be late. It was the time of their exams and she was due to play the part of patient with depression. Plus ça change…..

This chance meeting went well and, although different in many ways, it was rather better than the one I witnessed a year or so earlier. I was on my way to Oxford. The young, essentially nondescript man sitting across the table was plugged into his headphones and seemingly in another world. A woman who had already stared at him as she passed by on her way to buy a coffee tapped him on his shoulder on her way back. She introduced herself and started talking. He unplugged himself and responded to her various questions with nods and smiles. The conversation was very one way. “It’s been months since we last saw each other. How is Uni? I have moved flat and changed job. I thought about you last year when skiing.” Then came the dampener. “I think you must be confusing me with my brother Peter. I have an identical twin you know.” With embarrassment and apologies she quietly withdrew. He looked at me and smiled and before replacing his headphones told me how muddles like this were common, sometimes fun and usually embarrassing. “They go with the territory,” he added.

If one sees the events on the Oxford train as testing, think of the plight of six women in Marseille who were raped at the end of 2012. The evidence, which included DNA fingerprinting, led the police to suspect a particular perpetrator. It transpired that the suspect they wanted to question was not one man, but two – a pair of identical twins known as Elwin and Yohan. On being accused both denied the charges and since neither could be charged definitively in his own name, both remain as ‘innocent’ although still in custody awaiting further investigation. No matter the potential risk to the women of Marseille, their preparedness to conspire has got the legal system in a tangle. Interestingly, the same is happening at the moment in equivalent cases in several other countries. Until now the law, even with recent advances in DNA testing, has been incapable of resolving the dilemma.

Recognising people is not always easy, and the problem can affect young and old alike. Knowing that such mistakes can happen, the simplest solution is to be open and honest and declare promptly who one is if there is a muddle looming. There are those who are dishonest and prepared to take advantage of confusion and there seems no limit to what they can get away with.

Justice and society await a scientific breakthrough.


Illustration: HeLa cells stained with Hoechst 33258 stain.  TenOfAllTrades (From English wiki 1.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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