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    northie
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Never Too Late To Believe - 1. In Demand

Eric's promotional work for A Helping Hand leads to a busy day...

On a damp, drizzly Thursday morning in June, Eric Whitehouse gathered up two shopping bags plus some other things. He kept a close eye on the time. If he missed the bus, there was no question of Andy appearing later to offer him a lift. The old man paused to re-read a postcard propped up by his laptop computer. A photo of some impossibly-fancy cafe in the centre of York looked back at him. On the reverse side, the two lads had written a message which was hardly original: Having a great time. Weather's OK for cycling. Would love to have tea at Betty's with you some time. See you soon. A&A.

Eric snorted. He'd found Betty's Tea Rooms on the web; every price on the menu made his eyes water. Customer comments on the site praised the service, surroundings, and especially the food. They could've only come from people with more money than sense. Or tourists – Andy and Adam were partway through a cycling holiday in Yorkshire. Eric smiled to himself. They'd already sent links to numerous photos. He liked views from the gardens they visited, though images of the two young men in their cycling gear held his attention almost as much. A framed photo of his friends taken the previous month at Pride gazed back at him from the same table.

Five minutes had vanished without him noticing. Eric cursed, struggling to put on his coat and cap. He liked to be there in good time – the bus company's timekeeping wasn't all it might be. Stretching out one arm to open the front door, the phone rang. Curiosity conquered any wish to ignore it. Phone calls were still enough of a rarity to warrant him answering them. Even if they turned out to be some wretched scam. Eric squinted at the clock; two minutes was all he could spare, regardless.

“Hello?”

Hi, Mr Whitehouse. It's Claire here.

“Err…” The name rang a faint bell.

Claire Watson from A Helping Hand? Andy's supervisor.

Memories of a supper at the lads' house flooded back. A strong, opinionated, pushy woman. And more recent events. “Of course. Ehm…” One eye watched clock hands moving round.

Is this a good time? I can easily call back later. I just wanted to have a chat about your videos.

“You caught me on the way out to the bus. Food shopping to do.”

Ah, yes – Andy's away, isn't he?

Eric opened his mouth to object to her assumption that he couldn't do his own shopping but stopped in time.

How about this afternoon? Three, suit you?

“Three o'clock. That'll be fine.”

Great. Talk later.

Eric dropped the receiver back down without bothering to reply such was his haste to get out of the cottage. One quick look around to check for his bus pass, money, and the bags, he left, shutting the front door with some force and hurried down the path.


During the short walk from the bus to the foodstore, several people seemed to glance at him. Ridiculous, of course, but that's how it appeared. A Helping Hand released the two short, promotional videos he'd recorded the previous month at the start of the week. Claire Watson's plan for their promotion seemed to be working. The local paper already ran the story on its website, together with links to the videos, and the actual newspaper appeared earlier that morning.

On entering the shop, Eric resisted the temptation to pick up a copy as he skirted the newsstand. He wondered how many of the town's inhabitants had already feasted their eyes on his self-conscious mugshot. Andy understood his reluctance to be bothered with the paper's photographer, suggesting instead they use a still from the video. A passing glance at the front page showed him it was hardly flattering. He told himself not to be so daft and produced a crumpled shopping list from his coat pocket. While he and Andy did a shop for the heavy and bulky items the week before, there was plenty on his list to be found.

Several minutes later, Eric stood in one of the less-familiar aisles. He peered at serried ranks of spice and herb jars in search of dried sage and thyme. With all the strange and unusual things needed for his new recipe books, he'd already cleared a shelf in one of the kitchen cupboards in preparation. He planned to buy them gradually as his finances allowed. Andy's promise to assist with the cooking of the first recipe remained unfulfilled. Staring at the display, it took a while for Eric to realise the jars were in alphabetical order. Shaking his head, he grabbed hold of one.

A high-pitched voice made him jump. “Excuse me.”

He turned round to see a small, ordinary-looking woman, somewhat older than himself.

“Are you Eric Whitehouse?”

A nod served as an answer.

“Oh, good.” She smiled sweetly at him. “Can I just say you're ever so brave to make those videos. I hate having my photo taken; I can't imagine having to speak at the same time. The charity benefits though, I suppose.”

“Yes, it does.” He forced his lips into a smile. “Thanks.” Eric braced himself for a comment on the content, but the woman simply smiled again and headed off down the aisle, pushing her trolley.


As he decided which queue to join at the tills, Eric spotted the damned local paper in a middle-aged couple's shopping trolley. He swerved and used the checkout farthest away from them, feeling the wire basket getting heavier with every step. The assistant was one of the regulars, a motherly woman who always welcomed a few words of conversation. Even with his new friends, he still appreciated her kindness. The weeks when a short chat about the weather might be his only human contact weren't that far behind him. Yet again, he gave thanks for that one phone call when for once, he'd made the right decision.

The assistant turned to him. “Morning, love.”

“Morning.” He concentrated on getting the contents of the basket onto the moving belt. Looking up briefly, he noticed her speculative gaze fixed on him. After a moment, she started putting his things through.

As he walked to the other end to pack the bags, she smiled at him. “Where's your young man then? The one who comes with you sometimes. Andy, I think he's called.”

Struggling to get one of his bags to stay open, Eric frowned but didn't reply.

She paused the flow of items to weigh a couple of bananas. “Saw the local paper earlier. That front page is the best article they've done in a long time. Loads of detail and a serious topic.”

A faint smile replaced the frown.

A leek was next to be weighed. “I've a neighbour who'd benefit from someone helping her; she's getting on. When it's my lunchtime, I'll play the videos on my phone.”

Eric continued packing.

She sent the last items towards him. “So, how's it feel to be the talk of the town for a day?”

He shrugged. “Not something I expected. It's daft really.” The modest-sized bags were filling up; he made sure the one for his stick hand weighed considerably less than the other one. “Let's hope it's over sooner rather than later.” A fumble in various pockets brought his money to light.

“That'll be thirteen-twenty, when you're ready. Don't you worry; they'll soon be back to arguing about the bypass, or what to do with the empty shops.”

Eric handed over the money and waited just long enough for his precious change before making a beeline for the bus stop. Once there, he breathed out in relief; with the food, he'd have no reason to come into the town centre for next few days. Hopefully by then, all the fuss would've died down.


Recovering in his armchair, Eric took a bite from a freshly-made chicken paste sandwich – a recent change from the inevitable cheese – and chewed on it morosely. Why were people so interested in him and his doings? No answer made itself immediately apparent, so he swallowed and prepared to take another mouthful. The phone rang.

Muttering, he hauled himself out of the chair and went over to answer it. He wondered who it would be this time; Claire wasn't due to phone for another hour or so.

“Yes?” His wariness came through in that one word and he didn't care.

Is that Eric Whitehouse?

The female speaker sounded young and eager.

“Who's asking?” He was in no mood for any pushy sales talk.

Hi, Eric. I'm Briony Walker, a reporter with the Herefordshire Times.

“Hmm… and what might you want?”

The woman wasn't put off. I just love the story about you and A Helping Hand. Transformative is the word for what's happened to your life, isn't it, Eric?

Eric wondered where her chatter was leading.

Such a wonderful human interest story. Really special. Still, I'm sure there's been more to your life, Eric, in the past six months than can be shown in two short videos? Of course, there is. A momentary hesitation. Eric, The Herefordshire Times would like to offer you the opportunity to expand on what you said. I believe there are certain themes which would benefit from more exposure, more depth. I'm sure you'll agree, Eric. Feel-good stories like yours are gold dust…

Eric sat and rolled his eyes as the woman continued. The hopeful lift at the end of the spiel had no effect on him, and anyway, he somehow doubted the woman had finished.

Eric, our paper has a proven track record of covering LGBTQ topics appropriately and sensitively. You'd be safe in our hands. So, what do you say to tomorrow for the interview? Her tone was now brisk – still friendly though. I could pop in and have a quick chat; you'd hardly notice it happening. We'd take a couple of photos of course. What d'you think, Eric? A great story, and it'd only take thirty minutes of your time.

“What I think, young woman, is that if you use my name much more, you'll wear it out.” He eyed the part-eaten sandwich, just out of arm's reach. “Claire… err…” A moment's forgetfulness increased his irritation. “Claire Watson talks to people like you; I don't. Goodbye.” He slammed the phone down, glad the one-sided conversation was over.


When he'd finished his neglected lunch, Eric decided on a short walk to get rid of his bad temper. He eyed his stick. His ankle injury had healed up and the summer was usually a better time for his joints. Yet the walking stick remained a fixture. A nagging feeling persuaded him to pick it up. It was better he had it than not. Anything could happen on a walk.

There was plenty of time before his agreed phone call. If any other reporter or busybody tried to contact him while he was out, that was their hard luck. His elderly phone had no answering machine.

Fitful sunshine and its accompanying humidity made him feel uncomfortable in his coat as soon as he set foot outside. Walking down the path, his initial brisk pace slowed as he caught sight of the house opposite. Set well back from the road, the three storey, red brick building was a hive of activity: people, numerous vans, equipment and materials lying around everywhere. His feet stopped moving altogether. He was used to one car parked outside for part of the summer plus the odd weekend. Then he recalled seeing the house up For Sale in one of the local estate agents.

This bustle presumably came from the new owners. He wondered whether they'd live there full time? Eric's lip curled as he reflected on the injustice of his living conditions throughout a long working life and those of people like the previous owner who kept two homes. He closed the garden gate behind him and turned left for a walk in the direction of the river.

A middle-aged woman in messy jeans and a tee shirt spotted him and waved, crossing over the road to meet him. “Hi, there!”

Eric eyed her warily. “Hello.”

She held out a hand, smooth and well cared for. “Emily Standish. Pleased to meet you. You're our first neighbour.”

Eric felt surprise the woman didn't already know Bella, the yappy Pekinese belonging to his next-door neighbour, but then the dog's owner was away on one of her many holidays. He bristled at her confident, upper middle-class voice. Only for a moment though; he knew only too well the prejudices he'd held against Adam when they'd first met. Eric briefly considered walking on, giving only a grudging nod. The woman gave him an open, friendly smile.

Getting a grip on himself, a small smile appeared in return. “Eric Whitehouse.” Both hands remained by his sides. They told of a life spent working outside with their gnarled, swollen, cracked appearance.

She gave up on the handshake, lowering her arm with a slight shrug. “I do hope the work won't disturb you too much. It's a lovely house – late Georgian, we think – but it needs a lot of work to make it fit for the twenty-first century. The plan is to move in after a month or two; that's Nigel, my husband, and I.”

He listened carefully, not wishing to interrupt the flow of information. It sounded hopeful – the large garden also needed work. What he glimpsed of it, if he passed on that side, was plants and bushes left to run riot.

The woman looked past him. “These cottages are charming, aren't they? Though perhaps less so if you're living in one and there's a lack of mod cons. How d'you find yours?”

Eric shifted his weight from one leg to the other, keen to start his walk. He wasn't about to discuss the shortcomings of his cottage with a stranger. He shrugged. “It's a nice enough place to live.”

She met that with a smile. “Don't let me detain you, Eric. You look as though you're out for a stroll. It won't do to miss the sunshine. Oh… while I think about it, you may see my son, Tommy, around here as well. He's home from university and lends a hand as and when it suits him.” She looked back over her shoulder towards the hive of activity across the road. “I'd better get back before they carpet the utility room or block up the entrance hall. Very nice to meet you, Eric. We'll see you around, no doubt.”

She stood aside. With a nod and monosyllabic “Bye”, Eric bore left towards his destination, mind full of the new developments.


Later, Eric leant against kitchen top, waiting for his tea to cook under the grill – Welsh rarebit, one of his favourites. A pan with cold water sat on one of the hob rings. He'd start the frozen peas in a few minutes. It had been quite some day: three phone calls, and three unsolicited conversations, two with people he'd never met before. Snatches of their talk repeated in a loop inside his head. How did people manage, talking to others all day long? Part of him guiltily admitted to quite enjoying the attention; the rest was horrified at the media circus and its unending chatter.

The rarebit was only slightly singed when he sat down to eat it. The old man stared at the plate, aware it lacked something. Peas. With his head full of such utter rubbish, was it any wonder the pan of cold water sat on the hob? Eric sighed. The sooner he ceased being some sort of town celebrity, the better.

Chewing slowly, he wondered whether Rob might see his picture in the paper. His lip curled. Why would the other man remember him? He'd hardly made an impression at the time, always watching from the side, too scared and unsure of himself to approach Rob. Something about the younger man had tugged at him. The way he got on with most people maybe, or the sense he took his work seriously. And his smiles – open, friendly, and only occasionally directed his way. Eric had ignored the urge to join in. Groups scared him. Self-preservation maybe, or a lifetime's reluctance to take a chance.

He sighed. There was no recollection of the attraction being sexual. It had been more the desperate need to meet up with someone like him. Or a man he thought was like him. Eric wondered whether that companionship might have changed his life. Another sigh escaped. He'd then buried the need so deep it had surfaced only the previous year and led to his friendship with Andy.

The tantalising glimpse of his former workmate hadn't yet produced any leads. In the week or so between Pride and the two lads going away on holiday, his friends had been busy with their own lives. Andy only visited the one time to help with the shopping. In the car to and from the shops, he chattered about the cycle routes they planned to ride and where they wanted to visit. And Yorkshire food featured a lot. Eric sighed; it almost made going on holiday worth considering. For those who had the money.

Meal eaten, he dozed in front of the evening soap, letting the latest over-the-top storyline wash over him. His head drooped into a deeper sleep until an urgent ring from the phone shattered his peace. He jerked awake, heart pounding, before hauling himself out of the chair to answer it.

“Yes?” He yawned and gave his head a shake to clear it.

Hi, Eric. It's Andy. Busy day? You sound tired.

He sat down at the computer table and wondered where to start. “The local paper's got me on the front page. I went shopping this morning and saw it.”

Front page! Wow. Exciting.

“Hmm… might be to you, young man.” He continued with a condensed version of the day's events, reliving each one as he spoke.

It'll be OK. Andy sounded sympathetic. I go with the supermarket cashier – it'll have died away completely in a day or two. Claire must be pleased.

“Yeah – she said both videos have been played a couple of hundred times.”

Already? Wow, again. Anyway, I'm glad you're managing without me.

Eric snorted.

I've given some thought to tracing your friend, Rob. It shouldn't be too difficult. We'll have a chat about it when Adam and I get back from Yorkshire. Tuesday or Wednesday perhaps. Maybe have a think about what you'd like to happen if we do locate him. Yeah?

Nerves unsettled his stomach. “I'll try.”

Good. OK, I'd better go. There's food to prepare and cook. We're both starving. Speak to you soon, Eric. Bye.

“Bye, Andy. Hope you both have a great time.”

Now thoroughly awake, Eric headed outside for a breath of fresh air and the usual inspection of his plants and flowers. Everything looked to be doing well until he reached the last of his raised beds. There, the soil was disturbed and a few of the bedding plants lay tossed to one side. Suspecting a dog of some kind, he inspected the soil gingerly for any partly-hidden shit. There wasn't any. A frown appeared as he replanted the flowers in the hope they'd survive. He hoped new neighbours didn't mean more dogs – the one he knew about was quite enough.

Copyright © 2021 northie; All Rights Reserved.
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Parker Owens has accompanied me throughout the writing of this story. He has my heartfelt thanks.

Your comments, speculations, and personal reminiscences all add to the conversation. Please consider adding your voice. 

Story Discussion Topic

This started out in late 2016 as my first attempt at a multi-part story. I remember pestering @Parker Owens for his agreement for me to start posting after I'd produced ... four chapters or thereabouts.   His wise counsel prevailed, and I've spent a long time both completing this part, and refining the writing so it comes up to my current standards.   The reception of the first two chapters has been such that I've ventured to start this story topic.   Feel free to discuss or

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Chapter Comments

2 hours ago, CaJu said:

So nice to have Eric, Andy and all the others back☺️

Can't wait for more

Thank you! I'm happy to share his story once again. 

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2 hours ago, Parker Owens said:

Eric is back! And as wry and self-conscious as ever, it seems. Although he appears to make himself difficult to know, those who make the effort make a solid, enduring friend.

Whatever happens, that essential kernel remains. And yes, Eric does have friends, despite his best efforts. 🤨😄

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Bft

Posted (edited)

Thanks for an update on Eric’s life, looking forward to reading more chapters 

Edited by Bft
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12 hours ago, spyke said:

This just made my day @northie! It is so good to have this story continue. 

Thank you! You are very kind to say so.

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13 hours ago, dughlas said:

So very nice to have Eric and Co. return.

Thanks, dugh. You've been there from the start.

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8 hours ago, northie said:

Thanks, dugh. You've been there from the start.

I really like that curmudgeonly old man.

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1 minute ago, dughlas said:

I really like that curmudgeonly old man.

Yes, not your quintessential queer male lead. 🤨😄

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Here is a reader comment received by email...

Quote

I love how Eric is so curmudgeonly that I feel like a party boy by comparison! 😉

Because I worked retail nearly all my life, I was forced to interact with people all day. Even though I’m naturally a loner, I was able to make all sorts of friends relatively easily. And Coming Out in my twenties was much easier than i would be in later life. 😉

Living in an apartment building, I have to interact with my neighbors much more than Eric does. But I sometimes get the feeling that my neighbors think I’m more like Eric than I’d like. Unlike Eric’s situation, some of my neighbors don’t speak English very well, so I have a language barrier as well. So I only speak to a few of them, or in some cases, speak only brief, simple things so they know I’m friendly. 😉

It must be frightening to be Eric. Everyone seems to want to pry into his life. Things are not as quiet and orderly as his garden. 😉
 

 

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1 minute ago, northie said:

It must be frightening to be Eric. Everyone seems to want to pry into his life.

I think that's right. Having spent a lifetime being anonymous, it must be quite a shock to be the object of curiosity. I suspect Eric agreed to the videos without anticipating the interest there might be. 

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Timothy M.

Posted (edited)

I thoroughly sympathize with Eric's revulsion at being the centre of attention and spoken to by utter strangers. Although I suppose the new neighbor was just being polite.

Edited by Timothy M.
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50 minutes ago, Timothy M. said:

I thoroughly sympathize with Eric's revulsion at being the centre of attention and spoken to my utter strangers.

The attention is certainly more than he or Andy might have thought reasonable. As to being spoken to by strangers, that might be partly generational - the young are much more receptive to starting random conversations. At least his in-person encounters are all pleasant ones.

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After passing this by while reading the list of new stories, I suddenly realized I know these people! I am so excited to get to visit my favorite curmudgeon, Eric! I will read the next two chapters now and look forward to the rest. Thanks, Northie! This made my day.

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12 hours ago, JeffreyL said:

I suddenly realized I know these people!

You do indeed! They have been absent for a long while but now they're back. I'm pleased you're here to keep them company.

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I made it to the latest book.  I have hardly put my tablet down since I discovered the first book earlier today. I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to enjoy the story but I have to say halfway through the first chapter I was hooked. Loving this series and looking forward to more. 2 chapters to go to be fully caught up. 

Thanks for sharing your artistry with us.

 

Q

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13 hours ago, quttzik said:

Loving this series and looking forward to more.

Thank you for saying so. Eric's virtual friends are legion. 🤨😄

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Like Eric, I'm a bit late to the party and agree with the others...welcome back and hoping for only the best for Eric, everyone's, loveable cranky uncle!!!

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9 minutes ago, drsawzall said:

hoping for only the best for Eric, everyone's, loveable cranky uncle!!!

Thank you! Let's see how it goes for him. 🤞 

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I have some catching up to do. Eric hasn't changed a bit, I see. Good for him!

Blending crankiness with a sweet underlying heart ain't easy. Good to see you in action again!

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11 hours ago, Geron Kees said:

Eric hasn't changed a bit, I see.

Hmm...yes and no. Think of him as he was at the start of Book 1 and he has changed. A lot. However, his essential nature is still present and shows through despite any patina he might've accrued in the meantime. 🤨😄 

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