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    northie
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Never Too Late To Believe - 10. Making An Impression

Everybody wants to make a good impression. Eric wonders whether he has.

Dazed, Eric put the receiver down. He blinked several times before clambering slowly to his feet, one hand on the desk for support. He'd been too long in one position. His stomach gurgled, a sound more demanding than usual in the quiet that followed on from the chat with Rob Bairstow.

Out of habit, he wandered through to the kitchen and mechanically assembled a cheese sandwich from ingredients he'd left out previously. All the while, his mind replayed segments of their talk. He'd done pretty well in keeping up with the conversation until, that is, he now heard the echo of himself stuttering and repeating things.

The kettle boiled unnoticed.

“That's how you always speak. Nothing the matter with it.” He wasn't so sure deep down. Rob's voice had come across with warmth and confidence.

An empty teapot received its water. Eric didn't realise the mistake until a teaspoon stirred clear, colourless liquid which smelled of nothing.

He shook his head. “You've lost your marbles.”

It wasn't as if they'd discussed anything earth-shattering, anything for him to get upset about. They'd kept things safe, exchanging potted work histories at Rob's suggestion and then each described their current life. He sighed. Of course, it was only the second part for which he contributed anything much. Still, they talked for thirty minutes or so. Eric frowned. Throwing a teabag into the now stale hot water, he found a plate for his sandwich. However interesting Rob's life sounded, not many people had money to burn on gadding about; though his own two young men did. What would society be like if everyone had the urge to change jobs at the drop of a hat? As he struggled to keep track of so many moves around the country, Eric recalled stealing a glance at the clock on the wall. Minutes ticked by. If it had been on his bill, he'd have finished the call then.

Moving to the other room, he took his first bite from the sandwich. The Leicester cheese tasted heavenly – tangy and rich. He chewed slowly and swallowed. “Sometimes, I think everyone's had a more exciting life than me.”

It wasn't true – quite. The past nine months had made up for several decades of nothing much. He'd enjoyed the catch-up with Rob, talking about things on the surface, without delving or details. When the other man moved on to focus on their old workmates, Eric had used his lack of lunch as an excuse to stop. They'd spent an hour nattering – that was more than enough. He'd almost talked himself dry.

“Why do folk think old times are good times?” Eric chewed morosely, the bread in his mouth dry all of a sudden, and washed grey thoughts down with insipid, under-brewed tea.


At home, in the garden, Andy stretched out both legs, took a deep swig of his beer and relaxed. Working Saturdays was far from unusual but any free time afterwards always felt more special. “This is the life.”

“Hmm?” Adam, fresh from the shower, occupied the other seat.

Late afternoon sun and a cooling breeze made for a soothing combination.

Andy eyed his companion's short, light, towelling robe which did little to conceal a pair of tanned, muscular legs. “So if I were to pull on that cord there–” His voice trailed off suggestively as he pointed.

A smirk appeared opposite. “You wouldn't see anything new or unexpected.”

“But if a neighbour happened to glance over the fence at that point?” His eyebrows emphasised the the question's faux innocence.

“They'd do better to mind their own fucking business.” One hand tightened the knot.

Andy snorted into his beer. “And there's me thinking we could give demonstrations.”

“Of what?” There was a laughably suspicious look on Adam's face.

“Gay making-out. ”

“Eugh!” Horror replaced any other expression. “Where d'you get that idea from?”

He shrugged. “Purely for educational purposes, you understand.”

“I wonder about you sometimes.”

“Maybe we should increase the height of both fences – give us the privacy to do what we like.”

They looked at the decorative barriers, both made of proper, well-seasoned wood.

Adam shook his head. “They're the perfect height – enough to give cover while we're seated, yet still allowing our neighbours to see your handiwork. I like the idea of them hiring my future husband on the basis of–”

“His impeccable physique and renowned lovemaking abilities.” Andy finished off. He leapt up to rescue a half-empty glass of cider which dangled perilously as his fiancé choked and coughed. “You OK?”

A nod was enough.

“We should probably add a rider that hetero-normative prigs shouldn't bother applying.”

Adam wiped his eyes. “You bastard.”

“Thought you'd agree. It's all true.” A wide-open stare accompanied this statement.

He handed the glass back.

Adam sipped a couple of times before taking a longer drink. “God… did that client of yours feed you some strange, noxious substance?”

“I don't know what you mean.” Andy sniggered. “Anything's possible. They're a weird lot around Offa's Dyke.”

“Cycled out that way earlier. Didn't get as far as the Welsh border though – too much for a leisurely trip.”

“Sure we could do it if I paced us. You know, put some backbone into the operation.”

Unsurprisingly, a raised finger was his only answer. He grinned.

Both men resumed scrolling through stuff on their respective phones.


A while later, Andy heard a loud snort. He looked up. “Yeah?” After a moment, a calculating, lawyer's gaze met his. “What?”

“Someone's quick off the mark.” Adam brandished his phone. “Either that or you've been putting ads out on social media without consulting me.”

“Huh?” The remark seemed to come out of left field. He'd been catching up with some messages from his parents. “Quick off the mark for what?” An evil glint emanating from the other man put Andy further on his guard.

“Only the first in a long queue of clients wanting to hire my Lothario of a fiancé for a night. Didn't realise you'd quoted me as your manager. What are your rates again?” Adam sat up, ready for instruction.

“Piss off!” Giggles threatened to erupt.

“I'm sure this gent will pay handsomely for your services.” He pretended to peer at the screen. “Pity he himself looks somewhat less than gorgeous.”

Andy reached round for the cushion and prepared to throw it.

The other man held his arms up in surrender. “Only taking your earlier remarks to their logical conclusion.”

An extravagant eyeroll was Andy's reply. He sighed. “And the proper answer to my question?”

“Is that Herefordshire Life would like to feature our wedding preparations in a forthcoming editorial. Something to do with broadening their readership apparently.”

“Just us?” Andy winced.

Adam returned to his screen. “No. We're one of four couples they're featuring in an effort to be more diverse and inclusive.”

“Box ticking?”

“Maybe.”

“Can't see them asking a Roumanian migrant fruit picker or the local Polish hairdresser.”

The magazine was a glossy, promo monthly with editorial pieces to break up wall-to-wall advertising.

“You mean spoil the idea Herefordshire is a perfect land of prime beef and cider?” A raised eyebrow offered Adam's real thoughts. “And home to the SAS, of course.”

“Hnh – why don't they get a squaddie to join in? I'm sure all the secret bullshit'll do wonders for their circulation. It's a rag aimed at tourists, or white, upper-middle class people who can afford to look the other way.”

“You have to admit we fit their demographic except for the fact we're queer,”

“And socially engaged.”

“Hmm.” Adam frowned. “I can just imagine my father reading it. Or pretending to. In fact–” He sat up straight. “That's as good a reason as any to take up their offer.”

“As long as we keep your mum out of it.” He wondered if it might still cause trouble.

“That's an excellent point. It'll be faction anyway. If we name the requisite number of suppliers, I can't imagine they'd care what we say.”

“So not reportage.”

“Hardly.” He pulled the robe closer. “Time for supper, I think.”

“Pasta OK?”

“Yeah, fine. Oh, and they'll pay a fee. We could give that to the local Pride.”

“And make it clear in the text.”

“Even better.”

After exchanging kisses, both men went inside.


Rob Bairstow kicked the solid, wooden front door closed with his heel, juggling a hot, paper-wrapped package. Its distinctive aroma whetted his taste buds. Saturday night fish and chips. It wasn't often his urge for a takeaway coincided with the mobile chippy's weekly visit to the village.

“My lucky day?”

He grabbed a knife and fork before settling down to eat the food straight from the packaging. There was nothing to stop him using his fingers except for the lingering stench of vinegar. After the first few mouthfuls, he wondered if Eric Whitehouse revelled in the delights a fat, crisp, flavoursome chip offered. His mind returned to their conversation.

Most of the afternoon following the phone call had passed peacefully enough with him concentrating on a design for a new made-to-order bird table. That sort of thing was his bread and butter – distinctive enough for people to know it wasn't from the local DIY place, but equally not bespoke, or the price that went with it. A quiet joy that came from the task allowed him to focus.

To answer his own question, Rob suspected the other man wouldn't revel in anything. Even during the comparatively short time they spoke, he gained an image of a man who'd lived a narrow, uneventful life without much happiness. Until that one phone call the previous autumn. Eric spoke of the gay couple who'd sort of adopted him with deep affection, almost love.

He savoured a forkful of mushy peas. What would his own life have been like if he'd stayed in Herefordshire? He'd returned some seven years ago, secure in his identity and knowledge of the whole gay scene. But otherwise… apart from anything else, his failed marriage would've followed him around.

“Nothing like local gossips to make your life hell.” A sudden thought made him stop. “I didn't arrange another time with Eric.”

The other man had shut down any talk about their mutual workmates with an excuse. Startled, Rob had backed off and just said, 'Bye'. As if they were old friends and their next chat would happen organically, as it needed to. He reached out for his phone, not caring about greasy fingers. It wasn't until he'd opened the messaging app and started a new thread that he realised the pointlessness.

“How can he not have a phone?”

Rob tried to imagine his life as a modern, unattached gay man without the full panoply of digital communications. A remembered passage from the newspaper article reminded him Eric had only recently gone online at all. He exhaled deeply. There was about a decade and a half between them, but what a difference it made. Both gay men, they'd lived such different experiences.

“It'll have to wait until I've finished.”

Fish and chips had to be eaten hot. There was no way he'd succeed in holding a sensible conversation while stuffing himself with fried potato. Out of habit, he turned on the TV, waited for the connection to buffer – another joy of village life – before choosing to watch the cricket highlights.


Howzat!

Andy stared at the TV screen with the same intensity as the batsman under sentence watched the umpire. After a heart-stopping delay, the finger went up.

“You gotta be joking!” His arms flung wide in disbelief. “No way was that out.”

The batsman strode from the crease, displeased yet accepting, and made his way off the pitch.

“What?” Adam appeared behind him, clutching a tea towel. “What did I miss?”

“Only the usual England batting collapse, helped at this point by a crap umpiring decision.”

“Let's see.”

Perching beside him on the sofa, Adam rewound the action and watched closely. They'd both missed the subsequent slow-motion replays and studied those as well.

“I'd call that a close decision.”

“Wrong, you mean.”

“No... LBW is always tricky.”

“Says the lawyer.” Andy scratched his beard – it needed attention. “Jeez – no sooner do England get themselves into a decent position than they bloody well throw it away again.”

He received a kiss on the cheek for his pain. “Hardly a new phenomenon, love.”

“True.” He sighed. “Don't know if I can face watching the rest of this.”

Adam sniggered. A few taps later, he waved a phone. “Want to know the final score?”

“No. … No? … No.”

“Sure?”

“Yeah. Allow my fantasy of an heroic fightback to linger for a few more minutes.”

“OK.” The phone vanished, leaving behind a smirk.

Restlessness overtook Andy. “I'll go for a quick run first.”

“You're only postponing the inevitable.”

“Fuck you.” Already dressed in shorts and a tee, he moved into the hallway to warm-up while Adam returned to the clearing up.

“Was that Eric I heard you talking to earlier?” A clattering of pots partially drowned out the question.

“Eric? Yeah.” Andy paused mid stretch. “Didn't I tell you?”

“No.”

“Oh.” He gave up to move closer, leaning against the door jamb to the kitchen. “Bizarre. Anyway, it's fab news.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. They've only gone and made contact.”

A beaming smile answered one of his own. “Great stuff. So what next?”

“Eric didn't say. Don't think he knows really. Anyway, that's up to them.”

“You've done your bit.”

“Yep, I have.”


Having tidied everything away in the kitchen, Eric checked again he'd taken his evening pills. Getting the next lot out was a job for the morning. Mentally, he was better then even if his joints didn't agree,

He opened the front door to have a final sniff at the weather. “It'll be raining by tomorrow.” The temperature had dropped and the wind came from a different direction.

Retreating back inside, the Yale lock clicked into place, bright metal a testament to its newness. He stared at it. He hadn't yet gone out without his key; the prospect scared him. Crabbed, bent fingers rehearsed restraining the lock by pushing a little button upwards. Everything felt stiff and unused.

Andy had insisted on it being installed. You say yourself the door's still unlocked sometimes when you go to bed. Eric nodded his guilt. They'd talked about it several times but he'd never dipped a hand into his pocket. Justifying the expense of a locksmith went against the grain. Then the vandalism and graffiti changed his outlook.

Perhaps he ought to have a spare key hidden somewhere outside. Just in case. The shoe repairers he used in the town also cut keys. Maybe Andy should have one as well. He turned off the downstairs lights, annoyed he hadn't thought to ask earlier.

“Better make it two keys then.”

Halfway up the stairs, the phone rang. “Who the hell calls at this time of night?”

It was a little after ten,

He dithered, wanting his bed, but also reluctant to ignore the noise. In the end, he stomped back down, using the light from the upstairs landing.

Eric? Hi, it's Rob Bairstow again.

He waited.

Sorry to phone so late.

The apology struck Eric as an afterthought, brought on by his silence.

Earlier this evening, I realised we hadn't agreed on another time to chat.

“And you left it until now to phone?” He yawned.

Yeah, I got immersed watching the cricket highlights. Lost track of time.

“A few minutes more and I would've been in my bed.”

I tried to text before realising you don't have a phone.

“I do.” Eric felt foolish. Not that sort of phone.

Anyway, fish and chips got in the way.

“At least you didn't wake me up again.”

True.

Eric caught a chuckle from the other man. The mention of cricket spurred him to change the subject briefly. “Was it a test match?”

Yeah – first of the series against Pakistan. D'you watch?

“No.”

It's been on pay TV for a long time, so perhaps it's not surprising.

“I don't hold with all those gaudy, ridiculous get-ups they wear nowadays.”

You mean the county strips? It's part of making the sport more attractive to younger people. They're used to seeing opposing sides in different colours.

“I preferred watching the estate eleven in the local league.” A surprised chuckle greeted that comment. “Not that I went that often.” He recalled his envy of the popular young men and how handsome they looked in cricketing whites.

Maybe that explains why you don't remember me being one of their openers.

“Err.” Eric wondered if he'd said the wrong thing.

Don't worry – only teasing. By the time I worked my way up, I only played a couple of matches before moving on. Some people thought one particular position was theirs for life. That's amateur sport for you.

“Hmm.” He yawned again.

Right… another phone call or shall we risk seeing each other in the flesh?

That prospect scared Eric a little. “Ah.” He frowned. Actual words seemed impossible temporarily. What would Rob think?

I could come to you. Or how about we find somewhere good to meet-up? A pub out my way perhaps?

“Don't drive. Never have done.”

OK. You name the time and place.

Eric blinked.

I can do most days; not next Sunday though.

The mental blankness returned. With an effort, he pulled himself together. “Can I call you tomorrow? It's as much as I can do to stay upright. Now I know how to work that machine of yours, I'll leave a message if needs be.”

That's fine. Look forward to hearing from you. Sleep well, Eric.

Lying in bed, Eric listened to newly-arrived rain spatter against the window. The idea of meeting Rob was both exciting and acutely unnerving. He shifted uneasily. What would they talk about? Which of his few clothes would be suitable? Did he know somewhere they could meet? Would his usual cafe be OK?

The night stretched out ahead with few answers.

No cliffhanger this time. Honest.

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

Though all this clearly takes place in town and at home, Eric ends the chapter all a-sea. Slowly, so slowly, he’s learning the arts of human interaction. 

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1 hour ago, Parker Owens said:

Slowly, so slowly, he’s learning the arts of human interaction. 

But Eric is learning. Doubtless the journey won't be straightforward. 🤨😊

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Eric is certainly getting better at communicating slowly but surely. I think a meet up with Rob would do good for him. 

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Loved this chapter. Comments above are spot on, Eric communicates here, somehow less cautiously, less reluctantly. Is he more open or is that just my imagination?

 

Edited by mayday
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48 minutes ago, quttzik said:

Eric is certainly getting better at communicating slowly but surely.

He is, but I suspect Rob learnt nothing much really personal from him. Eric's guard is still up and likely to remain so for some time.

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38 minutes ago, mayday said:

Is he more open or is that just my imagination?

For anything personal, I imagine he's reiterating what he's already said on the videos. So, something rehearsed, in a way. Otherwise, the conversation remains factual, on the surface. Don't forget, when Rob tries to turn the chat to old co-workers, Eric shuts him down immediately. Eric is as far away from wearing his heart on his sleeve as he ever has been.

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Quote

An empty teapot received its water. Eric didn't realise the mistake until a teaspoon stirred clear, colourless liquid which smelled of nothing.

Several times I myself have brewed the most perfect, flavorful, award-winning  7 minute cup of water just like Eric. It's damn maddening when you come back expecting your first cup of tea in the morning! I love the way the conversation between Eric and Rob is going. Did Rob just ask Eric out on a date? Eric seems to be worrying about it like it was a date. We shall see.  

And Andy had a bit of the cheeky monkey in him, didn't he?  Making poor Adam choke like that! LOL

Edited by spyke
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Eric's holding in a flood of emotions the size of the iceberg that hit the Titanic...when his shield cracks...whoo boy...What a change will come when he realizes what he's been missing!! And I found my reading glasses just where I left them, on the top of my head!!!

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2 hours ago, spyke said:

Did Rob just ask Eric out on a date? Eric seems to be worrying about it like it was a date.

Not as we'd see it. They're more taking the first steps to friendship. Giving Eric's lack of experience when it comes to any social interaction, it's hardly surprising he's worried. Don't forget, Eric was like this on some occasions he met with Andy.

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1 hour ago, drsawzall said:

What a change will come when he realizes what he's been missing!!

Maybe. Maybe not. Eric has deployed many lines of defences, conscious and unconscious. They're never going to just crumble overnight.

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Another interesting comment from my regular email commentator:

Quote

It’s not really clear to me that Eric is aware of any potential romantic feelings from Rob. Eric is so used to minimizing the thought of any possible interest from an available man, that he seems to be pulling away to protect himself from rejection. I don’t think he’d actually recognize if a man were flirting with him. 😉

If Eric had been more tech savvy, he might have been one of your readers who fantasizes about meeting another man, but is too frightened of the possibility that he restricts himself to the anonymity of the internet. But technology scares Eric because it’s so foreign to him. Nothing in his working life prepared him for computers or smartphones. 😉

 

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Just now, northie said:

It’s not really clear to me that Eric is aware of any potential romantic feelings from Rob.

And of course, we've only just met Rob. We don't really know him that well. Although in an earlier chapter Rob talked about looking for a life partner, it was also in the context of talking about casual sex with strangers. Eric and he have led (and are leading) quite different lives. 

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I think Rob need to learn some patience. And they will probably do better as friends, at least at first. Eric has a long way to go, before he can think of anything more.

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9 hours ago, Timothy M. said:

I think Rob need to learn some patience. And they will probably do better as friends

Yes, Rob's going to find it very different. He's used to gay friends who know and are comfortable in their sexuality and who aren't afraid to put that knowledge into practice. Friends is probably enough of a target on both sides.

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