He was sitting at a corner table near the open kitchen of the tiny cafe, bald headed, middle aged, opinionated, eating his way through a large breakfast. I disliked him on sight. He was looking round at the few other customers, talking to the owners, making his presence felt- one of those people who has an innate ability to know that something is of interest just because he said it. Not particularly pleasant but harmless enough. Then his face changed. He had seen someone outside the window. He raised his voice.
“That’s Jack Charlton just walking past.”
He had to repeat it several times before he could be sure he had everybody’s attention. He knew exactly what he was doing.
“I’m surprised he’s still alive.”
It was Jack Charlton. Jack is a very famous long retired footballer, a Leeds United hero and a former England international who was part of the 1966 world cup winning side. A Yorkshire legend. He has spent a lot of his time in our small town over the years as he likes his fishing and his son has a home here. He is well liked. That’s about as enthusiastic as we get here- it means a lot.
“I’ll tell you something now.”
The man started on a tale about a night in a pub, many years earlier, when Jack had been signing autographs for local kids. He was on the other side of the cafe but I could hear every word- as he meant me to.
“And do you know what he said?”
We didn’t- obviously. He paused to look round the cafe tables, enjoying his momentary importance.
“He said get your dad to buy me a pint.”
Another pause to let the sheer horror of this sink in.
“He said it to every single one. Landlord threw him out. Told him we don’t want your sort in here.”
There was no response. His face creased in dislike as he watched the elderly sportsman disappear out of sight.
I wondered what it must be like to be the kind of person who carried such bitterness around with them for years and felt the need to let it spill out over a group of strangers in a cafe.
I wondered how it must feel to be a great sportsman, just past your eightieth birthday, much loved, memory fading, walking around in the face of criticism from an unseen stranger. A stranger who can claim anything they like about you, unchallenged, because you didn’t hear it and those who did hear it say nothing.
A good humoured session in a pub, when a friendly young footballer had been having a joke with some of his teenage fans had been twisted- so many years later- to suit the needs of someone who had waited a very long time to stick the knife in. I didn’t believe a word of his story but what did that matter? It had been said. It was impossible to prove the man wrong, and he knew it. There was more to his vitriol than he was allowing us to see. I would have liked to ask him which team he had supported back then and I would have liked to tell him how very small he had made himself look. If it had been my cafe he would have been asked to leave.