Leonard asked if I would like something to drink and I deliberated on the question long enough for him to surely marvel at the complexity of the question. I have never been a tea or coffee drinker and this invariably makes social gatherings very difficult indeed. Hosts look offended when I refuse a hot drink and I am left to explain, often with gratuitous and grovelling apologies, that I was simply bought up by a family of non tea or coffee drinkers and I am not advocating an anti-caffeine lifestyle choice or making a stand against global consumerism. The meeting was awkward enough without having to tackle the hot beverage situation so early on, but thankfully, while I wavered nervously over my answer, Leonard added orange juice to my list of options. Phew, offence avoided!
Leonard pushed past the dog and ushered me into the front room and as I stepped through the doorway I swallowed a spontaneous gasp of surprise. The room was considerably larger and brighter than the entrance hallway but every surface, shelf and niche from floor to ceiling was crammed with clutter like I had never seen before. All five walls had ceiling-high, hand-made book shelves that heaved with books protruding from the shelves at every angle. A number of threadbare oriental rugs were scattered randomly across the wooden floor and piles of books sat around the room like mini, makeshift coffee tables. Brightly coloured children’s drawings were pinned to the book shelves, many of which had turned a crisp yellow colour where they had been exposed to direct sunlight for some time. Most empty surfaces were populated by pot plants and a large cheese plant sat in the front window and blocked out most of the natural light that came in the room. That can’t be good for painting, I thought. And I presumed that he painted in this room because there was a faint smell of paint and turpentine in the air and I noticed that several blank canvases and frames were stacked against the shelving by the door.
Stepping carefully over the mounds of books, I picked my way over to a cream leather armchair adjacent to the window. ‘Is this Leonard’s chair?’ I thought, ‘should I sit somewhere else?’ Visiting someone for the first time can be a minefield of embarrassments and accidental faux pas. ‘Never mind,’ I reassured myself, ‘he’s a gentlemen and I’m sure he won’t mind. Besides, the green armchair in the corner looks very worn and I doubt that he has many visitors.’
The contents of the room were so fascinating that it was difficult to know where to look first. A large amethyst cave and a hefty chunk of rose quartz occupied the table to my left and an old typewriter, a supermarket carrier bag full of electrical leads and a small, old-fashioned television with large white dials and a muddy-brown screen were hidden away on the floor beside my chair. There were three clocks on the wall directly ahead of me that ticked out of sync in a syncopated rhythm and the only remaining wall space was filled by a round convex mirror with a frame of black iron flowers that peered down into the room like a giant fish eye. The books on the shelf nearest to me did not appear to be in any obvious order and books on Plato, literary criticism and horticulture stood alongside books on military history, Norse mythology and cricket, with corners of postcards peeping out from some of them presumably acting as bookmarks. The bookcase was also inhabited by a large collection of ornaments which included a selection of old tin toys, a set of Russian dolls and an assortment of glass bottles of various shapes and colours, all of which were coated with a thick layer of dust which suggested that the room had not seen a duster or a squirt of polish in a while. I noticed a very delicate but absolutely filthy bone china cup sat on the windowsill beside me and the bowl of sugar cubes next to it had attracted an impressively large collection of dead flies, but the sugar-bloated flies were not the only lifeless creatures in the room because Leonard appeared to have a penchant for taxidermy too - there were several framed butterflies around the room, I spotted a glass dome containing a stuffed stoat/weasel creature and a rather deadly-looking deer antler sat on the shelf to my left.
Upon hearing the clatter of cups in the kitchen I instantly felt guilty for not offering to help Leonard with our drinks but before I could shout and offer my assistance the workroom door creaked open and he entered the room carefully balancing a mug of tea, a tall glass of orange juice and a saucer of sandwiches on a small dinner tray. The dog followed closely behind, stopping occasionally alongside Leonard to look up at him and sniff the air. I waved my hand towards the lumbering animal for fear that he might trip Leonard up and he padded over and stood obediently by my chair while I made a fuss of him.
I took my glass of orange juice from the tray and searched my mind for a conversation starter while Leonard sat down in the green armchair and the dog wandered over and fell heavily at his feet. Discussing the weather was out as we had complained about that in the hallway. I could mention the state of the room but what would I say? Have you ever considered employing a cleaner? Or moving into a bigger house? I asked about the dog and Leonard told me that he was once a forlorn and bedraggled stray that followed him to the local shop each morning and a few years ago he decided to adopt him and take him in. He was given the name ‘Hooter’ when Leonard’s granddaughter amusingly mispronounced Leonard’s original suggestion of ‘Hunter’ and the name was particularly fitting because the poor thing is rather old and his bark has been reduced to a pitiful and laboured ‘hu hu’ which is more reminiscent of the hooting of an owl than the bark of a dog!
Leonard moved a pile of papers from a small occasional table to make room for our sandwiches and I quickly scanned across the book shelves nearest to me to identify an author or a title that I recognised and felt sufficiently knowledgeable about to drag clumsily into the conversation. Fortunately Leonard was keen to talk about his painting and photography work and we spent a good hour or so discussing the complex process of capturing emotion on film and canvas and the importance of proportion and the correct measurement of the body. Since these are subjects that I am not overly familiar with I was unable to indulge Leonard in a spirited conversation and instead I listened intently much like a student sat in a lecture theatre. After an hour or so he must have caught a glassiness in my eye or the flicker of a yawn because he reached down beside his chair, took out a small sketch pad and pencil and, after a moment or two of sharpening the pencil with a penknife, he began to draw. I gathered from his occasional measured and impersonal glance that he was drawing me and I was instantly conscious of my appearance and unsure whether I should continue to talk - or even move, for that matter – and so I sat completely motionless in my seat, barely moving a muscle and speaking out of the corner of my mouth like an extremely bad ventriloquist.
At one point there was a brief hiatus in our conversation and, although I knew very little about Leonard at that time, his sudden silence seemed out of character as he had spoken so freely throughout the afternoon. I had the unnerving feeling that he was politely skirting around an issue that was troubling him and he was looking for an appropriate way to raise the subject. After a few minutes of silence, he eventually relieved himself of his burden of curiosity and asked what had attracted me to the study of religion. I hated this question, but smiled and recounted a well-rehearsed string of excuses; an appreciation of church buildings and church history that had been borne out of regular visits to local churches with my grandmother when I was a child, an interest in the philosophy of religion that had been nurtured in my school RE classes and a love of choral and organ music that had sparked my curiosity in the language of liturgy. I explained that although I do not possess any personal faith, I have a keen academic interest in religious matters and I have attended a number of Alpha courses at various churches, however my appetite for theological enquiry has not been satisfied by these church-led courses, hence my enrolment on a university undergraduate course on the subject.
This is the standard response that I churn out each time I am asked to account for my interest in theology and it was perfectly suitable in this instance for a first conversation with a stranger, particularly since there was not a chance in hell that I would divulge my true motivations for studying theology at such an early stage in our friendship...
Edit: 25th February. This afternoon/evening I was able to grab a few photos on my mobile phone of objects in the room that have facinated me over the past few weeks...