Sitting at Andy's kitchen table, Eric was pleased with himself. He managed to eat most of his portion of Andy's fish stew. Only a few of the tiger prawns remained. The taste of them was odd – unpleasant, to his mind. The others round the table ate them with gusto. It took all sorts. Andy and Adam helped themselves to seconds. The woman sitting opposite him, Claire, had also finished, though her plate was clear.
It was Andy. He was looking hopefully at the remaining, abandoned prawns. “Don't you want those prawns?”
Eric shook his head slightly in amazement. Anyone would've thought the two lads didn't get enough to eat. “No. I'm full, thanks. I liked most of the stew, but not those.”
“Ah …” Andy glanced further up the table. “Excuse me. It's a shame to waste them.”
He piled them onto his own plate.
Claire nodded in agreement. “Too right. The amount of food that gets thrown away is disgraceful. The latest statistics show fifteen billion pounds worth of edible food was binned over the course of a year.”
“Billion?!” Andy's jaw dropped.
As she continued to chat with Andy, Eric took the opportunity to snatch several glances in the woman's direction. She was pretty, yet appeared not to have given much thought to how she looked. Not that he was any expert. Jeans, a hooded casual top, her long brown hair bundled out of the way, she still drew his eye. She was confident, straight-talking, acting more like a man than a woman, it seemed to him.
Adam cleared his throat. “So, Claire, talking of food waste. Andy mentioned you'd had an idea?”
The woman turned her attention away from Andy. She pushed her empty plate aside. “It's nothing original. But why reinvent the wheel? I was thinking of setting up a foodbank here in the town somewhere. There's need – the rural poor might not be as obvious as those in the cities, but they exist.”
Eric frowned. Was she referring to him? Labels weren't something he liked. Enough of them had been applied to him during his lifetime – loser, recluse, weirdo…
He was spotted.
“Sorry, Eric.” The woman smiled at him in apology. “I slipped into work mode there. We have to talk in generalities to understand what's needed.” She turned back to Adam. “But the statistics back up my point. Fifteen percent of rural households are in real financial distress. Another seventeen percent struggle at various times to get through.”
“How does that compare with urban areas?” Adam was thinking aloud.
“It's less than in urban areas, especially after housing costs are factored in. But think how much more money central government pumps into those areas …”
“That doesn't necessarily mean the funding per capita's any higher, though greater population density makes it easier to run projects.” Andy was also getting involved.
“Yes. And the urban poor are possibly more vocal? But none of that detracts from the central issue of rural poverty.”
Eric looked on as the conversation became more animated. Claire, in particular, was getting fired up. He was fascinated by her hands, constantly moving, emphasising the points. No wonder she moved her empty plate out of the way.
“The countryside's a healthier place to live …”
“If you don't need actual health services.” Claire frowned at Andy as she spoke. “The urban poor usually have better access to health care, whether it's because a clinic is nearby, or because their public transport allows them to get to services.”
Eric spoke for the first time. “My GP's fine.”
Claire nodded. “Yes, we're lucky the local partnership has a good reputation. But if you need hospital care for any reason, it's a thirty mile round trip with no direct transport links. … Anyway, getting back to food. There's only one supermarket here, and that lack of competition isn't good for anyone.”
Andy objected. “There're other food shops.”
“Yes. More expensive, open limited hours, and only offering a focussed range usually. Whether it's the corner convenience store or the high-street butcher. I've noticed you in the butcher's, Andy. Who else do you see shopping there?”
Andy gave a wry smile. “People like me and Adam mostly, I suppose. Earning good salaries, or with a private pension. And the local landowners, as well.”
“So, not you then, Eric?” Claire looked in his direction.
Eric shook his head. “Even when I was working, I don't think I went in there. It never occurred to me.”
“Which brings us back to the foodbank.” Adam was steering the conversation back to where it started. “Would you use one, Eric?”
“Ehm… Andy explained a little yesterday, but I'm still not clear how they work.”
“OK…” The woman opposite him took a drink from her glass of cider.
Eric tried to focus on her face rather than her hands; he found them too distracting.
“Essentially, it's somewhere people can go to collect a free bag of donated food and other necessities.”
Eric didn't like the sound of that. “Can anyone get them?”
“No, no. Not at all.” Claire leaned forward across the table. “You must be referrred by a health worker, social worker, Citizen's Advice Bureau. Somebody official. Andy could do it for you.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Eric saw Andy smile in agreement. He still wasn't convinced. “What would I want with charity stuff? I pay my own way. Always have done. And I've never been in debt.”
“Not everyone's as prudent with their money as you are, Eric.”
He grunted. “More fool them. They shouldn't spend what they haven't got on fripperies. I've managed to get by without them.”
Andy grinned. “People have more expectations nowadays, and of course, housing costs are so much higher.”
“And transport, particularly if you commute. Don't forget working-age people have to pay, Eric.”
Eric stared at the woman. Maybe she had a point?
Adam chuckled. “A foodbank's a good idea, Claire, but it sounds as though it's going to need an information campaign to gauge take-up?”
The woman shrugged. “Perhaps.” She turned to Eric again. “A foodbank is a lifeline when somebody's in debt, or their salary hasn't quite stretched to the end of the month. What's on offer is basic, own-label stuff – boxed, canned, dried. People still have to buy some of their own food as well. Particularly anything fresh.”
It sounded like most of the contents of his weekly shopping list. Eric frowned again. He didn't want to be stigmatised, to be dependent on charity. He managed OK, and he'd continue to do so.
Andy stood up and started to clear away the plates. “It's the lack of fresh stuff that bothers me. Eric? Wouldn't you like to have more fruit and veg?”
Eric thought for a moment. He bought the odd banana now with his increased pension, and a leek or two. Occasionally, a small cauliflower, if Andy was giving him a lift.
“Err … perhaps. Depends what was on offer.”
Andy put the dirty plates in the sink. He turned round. “I'd hope to persuade the local market gardeners and soft fruit growers to add something into the mix. Slightly damaged stuff, overstocks, anything that won't be accepted by the retailers. I think fruit and veg are at least as important as the other things. One of the aims of the foodbank should be to help improve people's health.”
Claire grinned. “You're getting as fired up as me.” She looked in Adam's direction. “Isn't he?”
He chuckled. “Yep. It's one of things I love about him.”
Andy rolled his eyes, but still gave Adam a kiss on the cheek as he returned to the table. “OK. Who'd like some afters?”
Eric raised a hand, as did Claire. Adam appeared to hesitate.
He eyed his partner. “This wouldn't be more of your special ice-cream, would it?”
Claire raised an eyebrow. “I'm curious.”
Adam grunted. “Hnh. If the idea of peach and sweet-cured bacon ice-cream grabs you, I'm sure there's some left.”
Eric stared at Adam. “Pardon?”
“Yeah. Exactly that.” Adam turned to Andy. “Please tell me it's something else.”
Claire sat back in her seat. “I don't know. I'll try most things once. Is there any left, Andy?”
Andy was now rummaging in the freezer. “Nope. Looks as though I ate the last of it. Either that or Adam threw it out.”
“Excuse me?” The snorts and chuckles from around the table made Adam shake his head in amusement. “Anyway, what is it you're offering?”
“Something acceptable to all, I hope.” Andy reached into the fridge and produced the dessert. “Apricot and frangipane tart with pouring cream. … Actually, I've just thought. Do you want it as is, or warmed through? It'll only take quarter of an hour.”
'Warmed through' was the verdict, so Andy put the tart in oven before returning to the table where talk had turned to roadworks in the town.
Eric only had a dribble of cream on his tart. Rich things like that upset his guts. He used his fork to prod the tart with caution. He knew of apricots from seeing them on the supermarket shelves, but the stuff they were in, he'd never seen before.
Again he was spotted – by Andy this time. “It tastes of almonds, Eric. A little like marzipan.”
That gave him a pointer, of sorts. Eric picked his fork up again with determination and took a piece of the tart. It was good. Very good. The flavours went together perfectly. He set to on the remainder of his portion, hoping the others would continue to carry the conversation without him.
It didn't last for long though before the woman addressed him again. “Eric, would you agree A Helping Hand has made a real difference to your life?”
In the spotlight once more, Eric glanced round the table. It appeared the two lads were just as interested in what he was about to say. Andy looked a little more pink than usual. Eric took a moment to decide what it was he was going to say. He moved in his seat slightly to favour Andy's end of the table.
“If I'd never met you, Andy, I would still be stuck in my rut. Living the same day over and over again: no purpose, no friends, no being the true me. Thank you.”
Eric looked first at Claire, and then for a longer time at Andy. “You rescued me. I am truly grateful.”
Andy turned a brighter shade of pink. His lips sketched a kiss in Eric's direction before he replied. “You rescued yourself, Eric. We helped, but you made that phone call. You made that all-important first move.”
Claire nodded vigorously.
Eric felt the colour rising in his cheeks – something that rarely happened to him. “It was one of those forks in the road. And I took the right one for the first time in my life.”
Adam reached over and stroked his hand. “No regrets?”
“No, not at all. … Well, the only regret is that I didn't do it sooner, I suppose.”
Claire looked thoughtful. “Hmm… but Andy had only joined A Helping Hand a couple of months before you contacted us. Yes, you might've found someone as good, but they would've lacked that certain extra something.”
Eric looked down at his empty plate. “I'm learning so much about what it means to be a gay man today. Out in the open. Or a little, at least. And to hope one day that I might become a part of a community… That would've been impossible without these two lads.” His voice caught at the end.
Adam gave his hand another squeeze which made him look up again. “It continues to be our pleasure, Eric. It really does.”
A tear or two threatened, but Eric blinked rapidly until the urge subsided.
Andy got up to clear the dishes. When he got to Eric's place, Eric felt a brief kiss on the top of his head. “Don't forget I've learnt a huge amount since you became my client. All sorts of things. I hope it's made me a better person.”
Claire let out a bark of laughter. “OK. Mutual appreciation session over? Seriously though, I think you're one of our more successful pairings.”
“Thanks, Claire.” Andy continued clearing up.
Adam got up and started preparations for a large pot of tea.
While only the two of them were seated at the kitchen table, Eric wondered if he should say something. What, he had no idea. He was spared from commenting on the weather by being asked another question.
The woman leant across the table. “Eric? May I ask a favour of you?”
Eric blinked. What on Earth did he have that she didn't? “Err…”
“Would you be prepared to repeat some of what you said on camera?”
Eric's jaw dropped. “Camera?”
She snorted. “Don't worry. It's not the movies. It'll just be me. And Andy could be with you for moral support, if that would help?”
Andy heard his name being mentioned and called across, “Yes?”
Claire beckoned, and he came back to the table.
“I was asking Eric if he'd be happy to do a short video for the charity's website.”
“Oh… OK.” Andy turned to Eric. “What d'you think?”
Eric tried to gather his thoughts. He'd never so much as had his picture taken, never mind anyone filming him.
Andy sat down again. “It would be a good way of showing your appreciation.”
“Err…” Eric considered that fact for a moment before looking at the woman. “What would I have to say?”
“Only what you'd feel happy with. We wouldn't give you a script of any sort. How we helped you. What changes have happened in your life. The sort of thing that might encourage someone else in your position to apply for help. Or indeed, inspire a volunteer.”
Adam deposited the teapot on the table. “Just caught the end of that. Sounds a great idea.” He went off to get the mugs, then returned and sat down.
Claire accepted a mug. “It'll only happen if Eric's willing. There's no pressure.”
Eric felt he was being observed from all sides of the kitchen table. He was in two minds. It seemed impossible that anyone would want to watch him, Eric Whitehouse, stuttering through his piece, dressed in his usual shabby clothes. But those who might know better, disagreed.
There was a welcome pause as Adam poured the tea. It wasn't tea as he recognised it. Eric peered at the pale, delicate liquid which tasted of nothing much in particular. Adam liked it, so in the evenings, this was what appeared. How much longer would it be before he drank a proper mug of tea? Eric missed that and many other things from not being at home. His ankle continued to improve, so maybe he'd be allowed home the following week sometime? Eric decided to ask once the other guest had left.
Andy repeated his question from earlier. “What d'you think, Eric?”
Eric clutched at the first of many questions that floated around inside his head. “Could I read from a piece of paper?”
He and Andy looked in Claire's direction.
“It would look more natural if you talked straight to the camera. Perhaps as if you were chatting to a friend, but we don't get to hear that part of the exchange.”
Another question. “What if I get my words mixed up, or I grind to a halt?”
Adam joined in. “Eric, it isn't on film, you know. It's all digital, which makes editing so much easier. … Look, how about I or Andy ask you questions off camera, and Claire records your answers?”
That sounded easier. Eric tried to make his mind up, though there didn't seem to be any rush. There was no fixed date or anything.
He decided to postpone the decision until he got home. “Ehm… I'd like some more time to think things through, if that's alright with you, Claire?”
“Yeah, sure.” Claire smiled. “There's no compulsion. It just suddenly came to me and I'm glad you haven't dismissed it out of hand.”
Andy passed his mug down the table for a refill. “Would Eric be the first?”
“Apart from me droning on, yeah.” Claire looked at the time. “I'd better be getting back. Busy day tomorrow.” She looked at Andy. “Thanks for inviting me, Andy. I'm really glad I agreed to come. And Eric …”
Eric raised an eyebrow – he still wasn't sure about Claire.
She laughed. “There's no need to look at me like that. It's been a pleasure to meet you, Eric. I hope you and Andy continue your excellent work together.”
Eric muttered a “Thank you” amongst the noises of the others starting to move.
Adam stood up. “It's been great to have met you, Claire. A fascinating evening's been had by all, I think.”
After a chorus of farewells, Adam showed her out. Eric and Andy were left at the kitchen table.
“Awesome! Eric, the trailblazer.” Andy grinned at him. “You should do it, you know.”
Eric stared back in disbelief. A trailblazer, him?