Given more information than he needs to know - Howard Jacobson comes across a 'most unforgettable character' carrying some rather strange baggage
Do you remember "My Most Unforgettable Character"? An ancient feature in the Reader's Digest, along with "Life's Like That" and "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power". Well, I recently met him. My most unforgettable character ever. I was sitting outside a cafe in a cobbled lane where I routinely hang out when I'm in Melbourne. It's a young person's neighbourhood - recycled clothes, replayed records, regurgitated ideas. I go there to be serviceable. You never know, someone might want me to explain what the Vietnam War was. There I am, anyway, looking on, listening in, marvelling that creatures so new-born have words already, when a man my age sits down beside me and starts telling me the story of his life.

He is from the Potteries, looks like an engine driver and used to work for one of the public utilities. Could be electricity, could be gas, I'm not telling. He was a foreman. Loved his job, job loved him. Then the breakdown. Overwork, the doctors told him. You can love your job too much. But would they retire him with a decent pension? Ha!

"So is that why you came to Australia?" I ask him.

"No," he says. He is a big, shapeless man in a white nylon shirt and old-fashioned grey flannel trousers. Potteries trousers. Too warm for the day which is 24 degrees in the shade, and we're not in shade. He carries an armoured attache case and wears glasses. Potteries glasses, through which I see that his eyes are very blue, very sad, and entirely without memory of mirth.

"No," he says. "I came to get away from the dragon - though I mean no disrespect to any fictional creature."

"Your wife?"

"The mother-in-law."

Readers of this column will know I have a soft spot for my own mother- in-law and, by extension, mothers-in-law in general. So I won't allow dragon talk.

"In what way was she a dragon?" I ask.

I think this is a bit personal once I hear myself say it, but he is the most unforgettable character I have ever met and part of what makes him unforgettable is that he doesn't take offence. "Well, for example," he says, "she once told me in no uncertain terms what she thought of the way I handled a screwdriver."

"Aha," I say.

"What you need to know about me," he continues, "is that I'm a collector. Or I should say I suffer from don't-throw-anything-away syndrome. I collect screwdrivers. For this particular job I was using a yellow- handled number, twisting it with my finger-tips, waiting for the screw to bite. I suppose I should have used a small-gauge gimlet to start the hole but I couldn't be bothered. 'That's not how you hold a screwdriver,' she said. 'You grip the handle with your fist.' Now I used to be a chief engineer for Rolls-Royce, so I think I might know how to use a screwdriver."

I wait to hear the rest. But there isn't any rest.

"And that brought you to Australia?"

His eyes don't flicker. They register nothing except sadness. They never registered me when he sat at my table. He had never asked if he could join me. He just started to relate the story of his fascinating life.

"Then we had some trouble on Pendle Hill," he says. "You won't have been up Pendle Hill."

"In Lancashire? I have, actually."

"At Halloween?"

There he has me.

"Well I have. And put it this way - two of us went up and three of us came down."

I make eyes because I believe I am meant to.

"As we were crossing Mother Demdyke's stream, Estelle said she had this queer feeling. You know Mother Demdyke's stream?"

There he has me again.

"Mother Demdyke was a witch. They threw her in that stream. No scientist has been able to discover its source. They've tried measuring it with sonar equipment and they still can't discover how deep it is."

"Gosh," I say. "So that was why you came to Australia?"

"Then she followed us," he says.

"Mother Demdyke?"

"The dragon. She followed us here, rang from Perth airport, then disappeared. Fortunately someone I knew in the CID was working in Perth. I've lost my mother-in-law, I told him. 'Leave it with me,' he said. The following morning we knew her passport number, her visa number, her telephone number, her room number. There you are, I said to Estelle, you've got your mother back. Estelle said, "How did you manage that?" Friends in high places, I told her."

"So you're all here happy together?"

"No. The dragon returned to England and remarried. Nice bloke. Died emptying his car of anti-freeze. Swallowed it by mistake. Two weeks later they found her dead in bed."

This seems enough family conversation to me. "So now," I say, nodding in the direction of his armour-plated case, "you're a photographer?"

"Now," he says, "I make these ... "

And there on the cobbled street he shows me what he makes - nipple-clamps, ball-bearing dildos, steel-shafted crops, bull-whips, manacles, instruments of torture for parts of the body I never knew existed. "Toys," he calls them.

"Ouch!" I say. "They must hurt."

"Guaranteed," he tells me. "I try everything out myself."

"On yourself?"

"Or on other people. I don't mind switching. I'm an all-round player."

He doesn't look a player. I've read the literature. I know how sado-masochists are supposed to look. Not like chief engineers for Rolls-Royce. He lays out a selection of pear-shaped cast-iron thingummies for me to look at. "Scrotum-weights," he says.

A person can be too unforgettable. I go inside the cafe to pay my bill. When I come back out he is sitting with his nylon shirt open, staring at nothing, two beautifully machine-tooled bull-dog clips clamped to his nipples. The kids nearby take no notice - "Unforgettable character? Where?" Not brought up on the Reader's Digest, you see