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  • Paul Rutherford

THE THREE BEARDS


We were bunching on a rail platform, waiting for a train to London. We gathered into clusters, guessing where the doors will stop. The carriage would be almost full, and each of us wanted the last seat.

There was an elderly lady just to my left, with a person-or-two between us. She was the Piaf-sparrow type, head and shoulders shorter than the smartphoned, ear-plugged, texting commuters who hadn’t really seen her. Her invisibility gave me a mission. As the arriving train slowed to a stop, we collectively shifted side to side. We were hustling for the central spot where the sliding doors will part, forgetting - as we always do - that we’d have to step to one side to let some passengers off first. (’How can anyone want to get off here? Doesn’t the number of us boarding give them a clear signal? We’re going to where the action is, leaving where it isn’t. Come with us to the big city, losers.’) Because we shuffled to let the provincials off, the passenger pecking order shifted, minutely. The man-tower who was in front of Piaf had moved just enough for me to reach back and form a one arm shield. I said, loudly: “Come on, ma’am. After you.” Time stood still. The morning ruck froze in its moral quandary. ‘Should we A) do what we learnt as Cubs and Brownies, and let this old lady on first, or; B) trample this do-gooder into a pulp, and put his head on a warning spike at the front of the train?’ Or maybe both? Like all sparrows, the elderly lady was quick on her feet. She hopped into the space between us, then onto the carriage. She was two or three paces ahead before the crowd woke from its stunned state and boarded as if a simultaneous Black Friday and Boxing Day sale. Unexpectedly, I did get a seat that morning, and at a table. By the time we reached Paddington Station, I had a couple of papers out, was scribbling a few notes, and was in no great hurry. I stayed seated, finishing the work, while the carriage emptied. After a couple more minutes, I collected my chattels and walked to the door. Surprisingly, Piaf was waiting on the platform. “I just wanted to thank you for helping me at our station. So very few people do that sort of thing today.” I smiled and shrugged. She extended an arthritic hands, to shake mine, and looked directly into my eyes, saying: “It’s a real pleasure to meet you, sir. Thank you, Mr Corbyn.” * * *

A few weeks later, I was on another train, somewhat more civilised and certainly more sombre.

I was travelling along the South coast, heading for Southampton to attend a funeral. The deceased was the father of a long-standing friend, D. I was suitably dressed in a blazer, slacks, brogues, a double-cuff shirt, and a necktie. It had been a while since I had occasion to dress so formally. It was a beautiful day, the best that one can hope for at a funeral. The sun was filling the carriage with white light, so bright that it bleached colour and threw the darkest of dark shadows. As if the passengers had been over-processed in Photoshop. I sat on the sunny side of the carriage, gazing without focus at the passing fields and the backs of buildings, smiling about the ‘Mr Corbyn’ memory. While admiring my Windsor-knot tie, I noticed my reflection. ‘Do I really look like the Leader of the Labour Party?’ I wondered. ‘Just because I have a greying-to-white beard, how can I be mistaken as Jeremy Corbyn?’ I considered the cropped-headed, reading-spectacled, shadow-throwing-nose image looking back at me. ‘More like Sigmund Freud.’ * * * As usual at funeral services, the friends-of-friends (or in my case friend-of-offspring) sat at the back of the crematorium chapel. We stood when the funeral director and pall-bearers carried the casket to the front, followed by the immediate family: widowed wife, son (my friend), daughter, partners, grandchildren. After forty-something years of a relationship, one gets to know a friend’s folk pretty well. But as time passes, families beget families. The grieving daughter had a fifteen-year old, B, who I’d never met. When he stood at the front of the chapel to read a few words about his departed Grandad, then became overcome with emotion, I resolved to seek him out at the wake. ‘Seek’ was the appropriate verb. Although the pub/restaurant was large, the attendance was larger. Reassuring for the family, difficult for anyone seeking anyone. Between the bar and the buffet room, I fell into three or four conversations, so by the time I saw B, there were only a few minutes before a taxi was due to take me back to the railway station. I mentally ran through a couple of lines about meeting him, and how proud his grandfather would have been about him being willing to speak at the service. But B got in first: “Threefishfingers, please.” He grinned while I tried to understand what he’d just said. B continued: “Mum said you were coming and Uncle D has talked a lot about you. But I haven’t met you before so I asked her how to find you. She said ‘Look for Captain Birdseye’.” * * *

One common feature, three different look-alikes.

When you spot someone who reminds you of X - a personal acquaintance or a public figure - ask yourself, why is X now top of mind? Why does this or that feature (such as a beard) prompt such projection? There are a few very close look-alikes, but the day-to-day examples may have one attribute that is similar, then we filter out all the differences. It might just be a useful shorthand to find an unknown person in a crowded room. Or it might be that we want them to be someone we like or admire. In short, noticing a shared attribute says more about us than it does about the look-alike. And B still won’t get any fish fingers from me. I’m vegetarian.

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