A Meeting in the Great Hall

Friday, 20 February

On the afternoon of Tuesday 9th December I left my lecture and made my way across campus towards the main university building. It was a clear and frosty day and the chime of the hour rang out from the clock tower as I cautiously climbed the icy stone steps into the Great Hall. Perfect timing. Leaving the bright winter sun outside and stepping into the large, dimly-lit foyer was like venturing into the depths of a subterranean cave. Although a constant hub of activity, the entrance area to the Great Hall maintained the reverential silence of a library or museum and the slightest noise echoed around the walls and carried high into the ceiling. Hushed whispers. The creak of a door. The click of heels upon the tiled floor. 

I spotted Leonard seated inconspicuously on a red leather cushioned bench in a corner like a nesting bird in the rafters, curiously watching students and secretarial staff hurry to and fro and attracting suspicious glances from the smartly dressed, middle-aged receptionist who peered at him from over the top of the large round reception desk that dominated the centre of the foyer. How out-of-place he looked in his scruffy brown corduroy jacket and canary-yellow jumper and surrounded by several supermarket carrier bags full of books. He stood as soon as he caught sight of me hurrying towards him and held out his hand and I greeted him warmly with a handshake that felt unnecessarily formal but I understood his uneasiness with physical contact given that we barely knew each other (the gesture must have confused passers-by who may have assumed that he was my grandfather on a visit to the university to see his granddaughter’s place of study). 

I sat beside him on the bench and we talked for a while about the architecture of the building and the bitterness of the temperature outside, then he began sorting through the carrier bags and handing books to me like an overenthusiastic child passing holiday photographs, allowing barely enough time for me to read the title and author. There were some eminent names - Bultmann, Schweitzer and John Hick to name a few - and this continued until the entire bench was strewn with books and we both sat poring over them with interest.

When the time came for me to leave, I thanked him for his generosity and offered to pay for the books but he vehemently refused any payment, telling me that he had mountains of books in his house and it was payment enough to see them going to a good home. He piled the books back into the carrier bags and we stood to leave and then, as an afterthought - although in hindsight I suspect that it was on the tip of his tongue from the very second that we met - he made a proposal. If I really wanted to repay him then he would like to invite me to sit for a pastel portrait. The portrait would require me to attend a series of sessions in his home studio and I could schedule these visits on days that were convenient to my lecture timetable. He would, of course, pay for my time and grant me access to his personal library and ‘the very little wisdom that a decrepit old man like me can offer such a beautiful and intelligent young woman’. Coming from anyone else this comment would have sounded cheap at best and devious at worst, but I was flattered by his eagerness to draw my portrait and he made me smile more than anyone that I had ever met. How glad I am that I said yes.