I was working part-time in my village library, eight or so years ago, just one day a week to help pay the bills. It was in a tiny room adjoining a church hall, with a roof that leaked when it rained heavily and old-fashioned wooden bookshelves that took all my strength to wheel out from the yellowing walls and into position in readiness for opening time. Being such a small establishment meant it only needed one member of staff there at a time. It could be a lonely job, but I did get to look at a lot of lovely books.
Visitors were few so I made sure everyone got a warm greeting; a bit of chit-chat helped my day go faster. When one elderly and very well turned out gent came in one afternoon I gave him my sweetest smile and we soon got into conversation. He asked a lot of questions, but that was ok. I somehow ended up telling him about the part-time course for which I was making the long journey down to Chelsea School of Art each week, and what I was doing to try and earn a bit of money here and there. He liked that I was doing something artistic. “Perhaps you could draw a picture of my house one day?” he enquired. I said yes, that would be great, I’d done some work like that before and would be happy to discuss it further.
The next time he came in I noticed his thick, shiny white hair looked even neater than before – as if he’d just combed it in the hallway – and his clothes were even more dapper. Perhaps he’d been somewhere special before coming here – the strong scent of his aftershave suggested that too. We had another pleasant chat, about the weather and keeping chickens, and his son who was a pilot, and so on. He told me he was 86, had lost his wife some years ago and was new to the area. Ah, seems like a nice chap, I thought.
I felt a bit uneasy accepting the box of chocolates he brought with him on his next library visit but he insisted. I took it as just his way of saying how much he appreciated some conversation and company. They were very tasty, by the way – Belgian.
“Do you like poetry, my dear?” was his opening line the following week. Before I had chance to answer he went on, “I’d love to read some to you one day!” How sweet, I thought. What a sweet, romantic old man. I feigned a vague interest – well it seemed rude not to – although to be honest my knowledge doesn’t go much beyond Spike Milligan’s 'Silly Verse For Kids'.
Looking back I think it must have been him I saw sitting in a car right outside the library when I came out at the end of work on one occasion, but whoever it was had their nose buried deep in a book. I had come out unusually early that week, though, and they didn’t notice me as I walked past.
On his next visit he reminded me about the picture he wanted drawn of his home. He described it – a charming thatched house with lots of rooms, a rambling garden and a private courtyard. “The courtyard is wonderful - great for sunbathing in,” he informed me, “so if you ever want to just relax somewhere on a hot day, let me know”. I laughed and made some joke about how easily I get sunburnt and turn red, blushing as if to prove the point as I did. I was quite looking forward to drawing the house, though.
A week later he suggested going for a coffee to dicuss the finer details of the picture commission. Great idea, I thought, easier than trying to discuss it here at work. “Your husband won’t mind, will he?” the sweet gentleman asked. I assured him that my husband was very laid-back about that kind of thing and so we arranged to meet down at The Boar’s Head that Wednesday at noon.
I thought it was a bit strange that he took me into one of the little lounges off from the bar as soon as I got there but then he said he had a proposition for me: “I’m going to buy you lunch today,” he announced, “and you mustn’t say no!” I laughed, and felt embarrassed, but it would’ve been rude not to accept. “And that’s not all…” he continued, patting my knee. With his other hand he reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope. “I want to help you,” he said. He thrust the packet into my hand, his gnarly fingers lingering against mine for a moment. A moment that felt too long. “Open it…”
I was starting to feel rather uncomfortable now. “OPEN IT!” the old man insisted, his eyes darkening. He suddenly seemed larger and stronger than his physical presence suggested. I did as he said. The envelope was stuffed full of £20 notes. £800 worth of £20 notes.
The explanation followed – calculated and confident: “This is just the first payment to start you off” he said, “and after that I’ll give you £200 each month.” I was, naturally, speechless. “It’ll help pay your train fare to college, I want to help you get through your course” he smiled, but there was something not entirely altruistic about it. He went on “and….I want something in return.” I still couldn’t find any words, but a slight knot was forming in my stomach.
“I want you to be my, erm, my companion. Come with me to art galleries and the theatre and trips into London. Spend time with me. You know, just two or three times a month. Cinema trips and restaurants. You'll come to my house. I have a beautiful bedroom, you must see it. I’ll buy you jewellery too – you like silver, don’t you? And we can travel…I know a great hotel in Greece…” He pulled up even closer, and started to stroke my knee.
I didn’t know what to do. I’m not one for big, dramatic gestures or conflicts, especially in public, so I wasn’t about to make a scene in the middle of The Boar’s Head. I moved away from his groping hand and said, trying to keep as cool as possible, “No, I can’t take it… no…” But he was insistent. “Think about it. Take it for now and think about it.” Not knowing quite how to tackle the situation I shrugged weakly. I guess it was the wrong thing to do but I was in shock, so, playing for time, I assured him reluctantly that I would at least have a think, and unwillingly put the envelope in my bag, a million thoughts jostling around in my head.
Lunch was a complete embarrassment. My companion carried on as if everything was normal, like nothing was odd about the proposal he’d just made to me, while I found it hard to swallow the smallest morsel, let alone speak. I longed for this to be over and to get home.
Of course I didn’t keep the £800 or enter into a paid, ahem, ‘companionship’ arrangement (in spite of my husband thinking purely of the financial benefits and saying, “Take it!”…) Instead I sat down and wrote a carefully worded letter to the ageing lothario, refusing his offer as diplomatically as possible. The next time I was at the library I took it with me along with the envelope of money and waited for him to come in.
The smell of his liberally applied aftershave signalled his arrival… then in he walked, beaming a big smile, came right round behind my desk, put his arm tightly around me and said, “I assume one may give the librarian a kiss?” I recoiled and shook my head, “No…no…I’ve explained it here,” I replied nervously, trying to look kind and handing him the letter with his envelope of cash. He could tell from my face what it said. His expression changed dramatically – once again his presence suddenly seemed larger, stronger, darker – as he snatched it from me. Then the unpleasant accusations came – I can’t even remember what he said now, but I know it was bad and unfair. I felt a bit sick. Finally he stormed out of the library, slamming the door behind him. Immediately any doubts I’d had about his intentions were confirmed by this angry reaction alone. I exhaled and shuffled some books around, longing for another customer to come in and for some normality to be restored.
Some months later I saw him in town, looking small and unassuming, neatly turned out, just as he had before. Just a sweet old man, eh...?