A librarian and a carpenter become friends.
|If Music Be the Food of Love|
She watched the old man as he plodded toward the music section. There was something about his slow but determined tread that seemed at odds with the apparent frailty of his frame. His back was bent as though with years of carrying a heavy burden, yet a serene aura radiated from his expression.
He disappeared behind the stacks and Millie returned to the matter of the books the old man had left on the counter. The first announced itself to be an Introduction to the Theory of Music. She scanned it into the computer and turned to the next. Old Musical Instruments was this one’s claim and she dealt with it in similar fashion. The third and last was How to Play the Harp. She stacked the books beneath the counter, ready to be returned to their places in the music shelves.
In half an hour, the man was back at the counter with another three books to be checked out, all concerned with music. This had become the weekly ritual over the last few weeks. Every Monday he would return the three books borrowed before and select three more for the coming week. Millie was so used to the procedure that she had no need to glance at the membership card he presented. His name, Henry Nesmith, was engraved on her memory.
She knew, too, that he was seventy-three years old, a fact he supplied voluntarily when he first registered at the library. Eleven years older than Millie, in fact, though that hardly mattered these days, she told herself. And then admonished the very thought as reaching far beyond the real possibilities.
“Do you play?” she asked as she checked out his latest selection.
He smiled politely. “I’m sorry - I don’t understand.”
“A musical instrument,” she explained. “All these books on the subject…” Her voice tailed off as she waved vaguely at the books between them.
He shook his head and looked down modestly. “Oh no, I’m just learning. Perhaps, if ever I feel I know enough, I might try something simple.”
“I see,” said Millie. Then, wishing to break the slightly awkward silence that had developed, she blurted out, “Well, I think it’s admirable. That we should seek fresh knowledge at our age in life. I mean, not that we’re old or anything like that but…”
Henry did not seem at all put out by the suggestion that he was old. He smiled again and rescued her. “I’m not exactly what anyone would call young, I know. It’s one of the advantages of old age that I know who I am at last.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Millie gathering the books together and handing them to him.
From that moment, the weekly exchange of books assumed a different flavour. It was as if their brief conversation had released a mutual secret that allowed them miniature insights into each other not granted to the other denizens of the library. They remained deeply respectful of the other’s privacy but little assumptions were made that they could smile over in silence.
Then came the day when Henry’s face was guarded as it had been before they knew each other’s names. He said nothing as she attended to his latest selection, merely nodding his head at her assessment of the beautiful weather they were having. No more was said until she handed the books over to him.
“Would you have lunch with me today?” he asked.
This was so unexpected that, for a moment, she was unable to frame a reply. It had never entered her thoughts that their relationship would ever progress beyond the brief encounters at the library counter. When she became conscious of how stolidly he stood, awaiting her reply, she rushed to reassure him.
“I would be very happy to, Henry. In fact, the library’s not busy so we could go now, if that’s okay.”
His relief showed in his eyes more than any inflection in the word he spoke. “Perfect,” he said. She understood then how much he had risked in presenting his invitation. As they walked out into the sunshine, she became aware of how alike in their bent-backed posture they were, like two letter Cs out for a stroll.
Lunch turned out to be a shared hamburger and fries taken to the park and pecked at on a bench in the shade. The world passed by as they spoke of their lives up to that point. His had been spent in constant labour from the age of twelve. His father had died that year and his mother needed whatever extra money he could bring in. A succession of jobs had followed, until he was taken on as an apprentice to a local carpenter. It was hard work but kept him and his mother well enough through the years. Now he was retired and had just enough savings to get by.
For Millie’s part, the library had been her world since leaving school. Shame at the insignificance of her experience kept her from saying too much. No trips to interesting places, no marriages, no drama at all to report. The inevitable consequence of living through others’ accounts, she reasoned.
That lunch became the first of many and, when the winter came, the venue changed to a nearby coffee house. In the more densely-populated location, they were thrown closer together and the friendship deepened. Millie found his brief descriptions of a lonely life very compelling and he seemed to find peace in their intimacy, as though it were something new to him. He smiled more often and, at times, laughed so soft and quietly that Millie felt new emotions stirring in her soul.
Their meetings still centred around his weekly visits to the library, as though both were afraid to risk their relationship to other causes. He still worked his way doggedly through the music section, never showing any inclination to extend his research to other subjects. Millie wondered what he would do when he had exhausted the library’s resources in his chosen field.
In the spring, when they had moved back out to the park and their favourite bench, she asked him about it.
“Henry, why this fascination with music? You don’t play an instrument so what makes you want to know so much about it?”
He looked at her in silence for a while. When he did speak, it was slow and hesitant, as though it were difficult for him to talk about.
“I never had a chance to study in my life. There was never a moment to think about education while I had to work so hard to keep the family alive. And then carpentry demanded so much dedication that I had not the energy for reading or learning. So, when I retired, I needed something new to fill the gap that work had occupied for all those years.”
He fell silent then and she risked a question. “But why music?”
“That? Oh, that was a bit silly really. You don’t want to know about that.”
She grabbed his hand. “Yes, I do. It’s important to me, Henry. I want to understand, to know everything about you.”
“Slim pickings there,” he said. “But, if it’s that important, this is my thinking on the matter.”
He settled himself and began. “As I said, I never had a chance to prepare myself for life. To learn what I wanted and needed to know, to make sure I was some sort of a success. I fell into carpentry and that’s what I ended up as.
“When I retired, I looked around and realised there was little time left. Having messed up on my first life, I reckoned it would be a good idea to prepare for the next. To get a head start in heaven, as it were. Thinking about what would help the most, I realised it would be music. And that’s why I’m trying to know everything about music and maybe even learn to play before I die. If I can learn quick enough, that is.”
He stopped then, clearly believing that his story made perfect sense. Millie pressed him further.
“I still don’t see why it had to be music.”
“I thought it was obvious,” he said. “In heaven they sit around all day, playing harps, from what I’ve heard. It’s surely gonna be a help if you know what you’re doing in that case.”
“Oh, you great, big, wonderful goof,” she declared, throwing her arms around him and kissing his cheek. “That’s the most beautiful story I’ve ever heard. So logical, so sensible and so, so, oh, so Henry!”
With that, of course, Millie broke the last invisible barrier between them, the fear of physical contact. They were married in the summer and, it gives me great pleasure to report, they lived together for many years in a state of bliss that no young couple ever managed to understand.
And yes, in the end, Henry did learn to play the harp.
Word count: 1,499
For What a Character : Official Writing.com Contest, May 2023
Prompt: An opsimath is someone who begins to learn or study only late in life.
Write a story about an opsimath of an unusual field or subject matter.