Michael Peverett: At the station cafe

I was in the cafe (the Lemon Tree) at Bath Station, talking to my daughter on the mobile. He materialized as a sharp hot stench, an open shirt in February, the anxious shuffles of customers, and a rant that rose into frequent blasts of high volume like a gale against a window.

But my sense of smell is so poor that I don't really notice a stench; in a way I quite like it.

"What I canna understand is why the FUCK you people all go around with those FUCKin things stack to your ears. Will you PLEASE tell me WHY..."

His name was John Joseph McManus. He had been a computer engineer (for Honeywell) in Motherwell. He had come south with a drink habit.

He liked Bath. But it had gone downhill in 13 months. "No-use-ers" (this rhymes with "juicers") had come down from London. He meant to move on to Taunton. Paignton was a good place.

I asked him if he'd ever been to Hastings. It seemed fairly clear that the answer was no, but (like a West African) he was reluctant to say "no". "Aye, I know it," he temporized.

He was bitter against the English. For him, the English were symbolized by Maggie Thatcher. They were not educated. He was angry because they talked so much shit. He thought for himself, but they didn't. That was why they used mobile phones. They just copied other people.

He asked me what I was. I didn't really want to say that I was a computer engineer too. That might get boring. So I told one of those lies that is, strictly, true. I said I was a doctor. Later, he asked me shrewdly if I had pretended to be what I wasn't. I braved it out.

He was 63 years old. I was fascinated by the fierceness of his face when he was disgusted by something. His nose bent almost in half like you can bend an india-rubber back on itself. I did not think he was really unkind, although he urged me to turn a deaf ear to those whining, hypocritical patients of mine. The world was full of timewasters, loudmouths, empty heads, pretenders. He stood firm with his own views. He was a Roman Catholic. Always had been.

"Like Mary Queen of Scots," I ventured. Aye. She was beheaded for being a Roman Catholic. By the English, by Maggie Thatcher...

He didn't ask me for money. He was unsure if I understood his words. He kept saying: "Do you know what a HYPOCRITE is? ...WANKERS. Do you know what that word means? ...JUMPING THE GUN, that's what we say in Scotland. ...Do you know what a NIGNOG is?"

(Smarting with embarrassment because of the Asian lady who sat close by and watched us, I nevertheless said No, guessing it wasn't what I thought. "A NIGNOG is a person who professes to be what he isn't." )

Every time he swore - well, nearly every time - he apologised. "I don't usually swear," he said. And, lest I mistake, I found him in an unusually down-at-heel condition. "I'm usually clean-shaven," he said, touching his face tenderly.

"It's because I'm FED UP. I'm FED UP with life."

"That's a bad way to be - with life itself."

"Yes, with LIFE ITSELF."

I felt the Asian lady wanted to join in. I could see she knew I'd been lying about the doctor stuff. Then she left. I left to catch my train, after many handshakes and best wishes for Taunton. John Joseph was left to bear the burden of Life Itself. I hoped I had cheered him up, but I rather felt he had given me more than I had given him. In four months of train travel he was the first person who had spoken to me, I could have kissed him.