A photo of the author. (John Rice)

My geriatric "catfishing" cautionary tale

I thought catfishing was a young person's phenomenon. Then I met an elderly man whose story literally didn't add up


Nicholas Searle
March 5, 2016 5:00AM (UTC)

OK. Let’s first agree on this: We’ll change names to protect the innocent. And the guilty, too. I’ll change his name just because I’m feeling generous, although I don’t know why.

We are all too conscious of the perils the Internet, particularly its social networks, pose for young people—inexperienced and vulnerable, teenagers and twenty-somethings can be gullible and prone to rushing enthusiastically into something they later regret. Parents are constantly reminded to monitor their children’s digital activities: Who are they talking to? What are they talking about? Is the person on the other side of the screen really who s/he claims to be on a Facebook profile?

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Amid the hysteria, it’s easy to forget that any of us, no matter how old and “experienced,” no matter how savvy we like to think we are, can be vulnerable to digital dissembling. No longer shamed into the shadows, the online dating scene thrives, and more and more adults look to it to find love—and to find love again, after a divorce or the death of a spouse. These websites, many emphasizing romance and long-term commitment, hide lies aplenty—about height, weight, education, the real year a profile picture was taken—underneath their veneer of respectability. Your motives for signing up with Match.com might be honorable, but there’s no way to know if the same is true for everyone else. Yet just because the possibility exists, is it reasonable for you to assume that your divorced mother’s new boyfriend, or your widowed grandfather’s new companion, might not be who they seem? Even if something about a person doesn’t sit quite right, who are you to step into an older adult’s life and spoil their new chance at happiness? Surely they are capable of making their own decisions.

Having dismissed the melodrama of “catfishing” as a phenomenon of teenage pop culture, rather than an actual threat in the rational adult world, these are questions I never thought about. That is, until I found myself struggling for answers as I faced an elderly man whose story literally didn’t add up.

We begin in a picturesque English country village, where nary a car appears on the narrow road that snakes through it to disturb the peace. Thatched cottages, with roses climbing the walls. Quaint tea rooms serving scones and jam. Ramshackle pubs offering warm local ale. This is the village where Margaret lives.

She’s a second- or third-something, possibly a great-something? I’ve never really grasped exactly what those terms mean. But she is my relative, and I’m very fond of her.

When Margaret’s husband, Derek, died eight years ago, she was devastated. Though English by birth and upbringing, by then I’d moved to New Zealand, and I didn’t have a chance to visit her until I returned in 2011. Then in her mid-seventies, she seemed in reasonable spirits, all things considered; “on the up,” you might say. Margaret is resilient, full of positivity and warmth. As a child, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I remember her gathering as many family members as she could for long summer lunches, for which she would dress in vibrant, flowing robes and put the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin records on her oversize hi-fi stereo. We younger children played in the overgrown garden of the large house in which she and Derek lived while the adults boozed away the afternoon.

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She didn’t mention to me that she was actively seeking companionship through the Internet. But why should she? It was none of my business. We walked a while around her charming village and chatted over a cup of tea before I set off on my journey back to Yorkshire.

It was a couple of months later when Margaret called me, sounding slightly sheepish.

“Well….” A pause. “I’ve, um, met someone.”

Why on earth not? I thought. “That’s great,” I said. “Wonderful!” Though, as I spoke, some uncertainty entered my head. Margaret is a smart cookie, but her beloved Derek’s death had hit her hard. Even though she was lonely, was this—starting all over again with someone new—really what she wanted?

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“Who is this someone?” I asked cheerfully.

“Name of Roy,” said Margaret. “We met up in London the other day. I think you’d like him.”

“How did you meet him?”

“Through the Internet!” Imagine my surprise upon learning that Margaret is a first-league silver surfer, far more proficient online than I ever could be.

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“I look forward to meeting him,” I said, sincerely.

With the demands of my own work and family, it was another five weeks before I could make it down to Margaret’s village. By that time, as I discovered to my surprise when I walked through her front door, Roy had moved in.

Margaret ushered me through her small, dark hallway into the main room of her cottage. Roy, sitting in what had been Margaret’s favorite armchair, stood unsteadily, his cold, wary blue eyes fixing upon me. He’s nervous, I thought. Understandable.

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“Hello,” I said, full of artificial bonhomie, offering my hand. “I’m Nicholas.”

He examined my hand for a short moment, then he shook it.

“Roy,” he said.

Already, I didn’t like him. But I said, “Very pleased to meet you.” This, after all, is the English way.

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We sat down to eat in Margaret’s cramped little kitchen. As she strove anxiously to keep our plates filled and our glasses topped up, Roy and I eyed each other beneath the veneer of polite conversation. Before moving into Margaret’s cottage, I learned, Roy had enjoyed a comfortable, well-heeled pensioner’s life in the Kent town where he’d spent most of his adulthood. He’d grown up in North London, and served his country in the Second World War. His career had taken several turns; at one point he had been a financial services consultant, and, later, he owned a market garden and sold vegetables to a major supermarket chain. I found him interesting, but when pressed on detail, Roy became vague.

The discomfort in the air was palpable, but we parted on amicable terms, promising to meet again shortly. On my drive back north, I felt oddly uneasy at leaving Margaret alone with Roy. I’d thought she’d said he was 79, but a quick calculation showed that, by the end of the war, he would have been 14 or 15 years old. Had I got it wrong? Or had Margaret made a mistake?

The following weekend I traveled down again to Margaret’s village. By now, Roy seemed to feel fully at home; having sized me up the previous week, he’d clearly decided I was no threat to him. He was more affable and voluble over lunch, offering anecdotes about his time in the Royal Air Force in 1944 and his Islington childhood. He told me about his son and his wife, who lived only a few miles from his flat in Kent. Later, he sombrely described his wife’s painful and protracted battle with cancer.

“Things weren’t so advanced back then,” Roy said. “I had to nurse her through the last few months more or less single-handed.”

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Before I left that evening, I confirmed his age with Margaret. “Seventy-nine,” she repeated. I didn’t pursue the question of her arithmetic, but now I knew something about Roy literally didn’t add up. And I was concerned.

Margaret believes strongly in family. Even though we have all dispersed, making those glorious lunches of my childhood impossible, she is meticulous in remembering our birthdays, sending lavish gifts and cards that she illustrates herself. So, when it came to Roy, it was natural that she should want to meet his family.

She persuaded him to invite his son and daughter-in-law over for a weekend. I don’t know how she got him to agree. He must have understood the danger of her request, but I suppose he somehow thought he could contain it. My wife and I were also invited for dinner on the Saturday. We checked into a local hotel, where Graham and Janice were also staying, so we gave them a lift to Margaret’s cottage.

Graham and Janice were pleasant company, and dinner was congenial. We “youngsters” spent most of the time talking, with Margaret making several interjections to keep things moving nicely. Roy watched us, leaning his bulk back in his chair, slowly blinking like a lizard.

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On the way back to the hotel, I decided to cross-check some of my facts with Graham and Janice.

“So you’re an only child, Graham,” I said by way of conversational opener.

“No. There’s my sister, of course,” he said.

“Sorry. Of course. Remind me about her.”

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“He’s probably hardly ever mentioned her because she doesn’t get on with him. For a long while I didn’t, either.”

“Oh?”

“No. We didn’t speak for years after what he did to my mother.”

“Oh. I didn’t know about that.” I was beginning to feel very anxious for Margaret.

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“No. He wouldn’t have said anything. When I was about 10, he left us in the lurch. My sister was only 7. We had no money. Mum had to rely on welfare. It was a struggle.”

“Where did Roy go?”

“He went off with his fancy woman. Nottingham, I think it was? They had two kids. Then, after five years or so, he came back. Mum accepted him, she was that desperate. I wouldn’t speak to him for a while afterwards. But, you know. Time and all that.”

“A great healer.” Had he told the truth about anything?  “You must have all been so upset when your mother….”

“Pardon?”

“When your mother died. At least he tended to her in her final months. It must have brought you closer.”

“What’s he been telling you? He’s been at it again, hasn’t he?”

It seemed that Roy had once again left his wife after he retired. She’d had a number of “episodes” requiring psychiatric care, and he’d had enough. She remained in the family home, happier and better-adjusted than she ever was while she was with Roy.

And yet Graham still remained in contact with his father.

“Hard to explain. I’ve little to do with him really. Just the normal pleasantries. My sister doesn’t speak to him at all. But when Margaret invited us…. I suppose it was a chance to see whether he was up to his old tricks. This is what he does. He’ll be cruising the Internet just like he once would cruise bars and cafés. He can be very charming.”

Did Margaret suspect anything? Some of Roy’s lies she simply believed, that much was clear, but I wonder if some she simply accepted as the price she had to pay for companionship. I was paralyzed. What should I do? Margaret is, after all, many years my senior. It would have been impertinent for me to interfere, to tell her that she was wrong to trust the man who’d moved into her home. She seemed to be happy, and not in the path of any immediate harm.

I concentrated on being supportive, keeping in close touch with Margaret and visiting as often as I could. I took care not to appear judgmental of Roy in Margaret’s hearing, and was pleasantness personified with him directly. He was not difficult to catch out, but I was careful not to put him on the hook. I simply waited. It was for Margaret to make her choice. All I could do was to be ready if things changed.

About three months later, Margaret rang me, somewhat out of breath. My immediate thought was what has he done? But I didn’t need to be concerned. About that, at least.

Margaret had become wise to Roy. The accumulation of lies had grown so large that something between them had snapped. The old Margaret, sharp as a tack, was back—and annoyed at having been such an old fool. Angry at Roy for tricking her, but mainly at herself for letting him delude her. She wanted to end the relationship.

By this time, Roy had apparently sensed something was awry and was keeping close tabs on her. “I’m afraid of him,” she said. “Physically afraid. I don’t know what to do!”

Conflict avoidance is something of a way of life for me, often miring me in situations that could have been avoided had I been more direct from the start. I shun physical violence. I don’t get into “alpha male” one-upmanship. But a wimp’s gotta do what a wimp’s gotta do. Margaret needed my help.

She and I arranged covert meetings. She’d let herself out of the house for an hour or so on some pretext, and we’d meet in a local coffee shop to plan our next move in hushed tones. Margaret ran through the mental script of what she would say, and I tried out a couple of ideas about the part I would play. We talked timing and fallbacks. At home, I researched the legal position of the situation, and agonized over safety issues—for Roy’s sake as much as for Margaret’s.

Eventually, the day arrived. My wife and I turned up at Margaret’s cottage at a pre-appointed time, and she let us in. Roy looked at us suspiciously over the top of his newspaper.

Margaret delivered her short speech. It was over, she said. She’d enjoyed meeting Roy. It’d been fun getting to know him. But she’d grown tired. No, she’d become exhausted with worry, her blood pressure was sky high and she regularly had palpitations. She’d been foolish to let him come and live with her. If they’d had an arm's-length relationship, maybe they would still be friends. But suddenly she’d realized that almost everything he told her about himself was a lie, that he was sponging on her good nature, that he was idle and manipulative and cared nothing for her. There was no going back; this was the end of it.

I helped Roy pack, ordered a cab, paid the driver several hundred pounds, and Roy was on his way back home. All we had to do now, for Margaret’s peace of mind, was change the locks on the house and her telephone number.

Success, finally. I felt about as tired and down as I could possibly feel. Confronting an 86-year-old man and turning him out of his home is not an activity I’d recommend to anyone. But it had to be done, and it was.

I’ve no idea what’s become of Roy. If he’s still around, he’ll be well into his nineties. Despite everything, I honestly wish him no ill. I still wonder what his motive was. Very basic, I suspect: he simply wanted someone to look after him so that he could live out his final years comfortably. The easy life.

Margaret, meanwhile, is thriving. She regards Roy as a blip in her life, a temporary madness. I see her regularly and she remains as delightful as ever.


Nicholas Searle

Nicholas Searle’s first novel, The Good Liar, was published in February of 2016. He grew up in the southwest of England and studied languages at the University of Bath. He spent more years than he cares to remember in public service before deciding in 2011 to leave and begin writing fiction. Nicholas lives in the north of England.

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