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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

Never Too Late To Believe - 12. Table For Two

Rob and Eric meet.

In a brief lull before the lunchtime trade, Brian Metcalfe satisfied himself everything was ready. Fillings, garnishes, bread, all awaited the rush of orders. He'd even allowed Sandra to add home-made pea and ham soup to the day's menu. August was no protection against cool, wet and windy conditions. He eyed the floor and employed the mop again before more wet things deposited water everywhere.

A moment spent with his head stuck outside revealed a shaft of sunshine and sounds of dripping. Taking a better look, Brian noted blue sky amongst the clouds. Some of the cobbles were already dry. Satisfied by the prospect of better weather, he returned inside.

Wednesdays were Morris days. Brian smiled ruefully – as if he needed more time on his feet. He found the sessions fun and they continued an age-old tradition. One which many people mocked. Wearing the white and red costume suited his colouring, though Sandra loathed ironing the light cotton trousers. He wasn't convinced about the decorated straw hat though. The side were learning a new dance. Standing at the serving counter, he mentally took himself through the unfamiliar moves.

A savoury waft of soup broke his train of thought. Sandra emptied the contents of two commercial-sized flasks into the black and stainless steel tureen.

“That smells good.” He sniffed again. “Really good.”

A couple of customers perked up, their thoughts turning to lunch before setting out again.

Sandra beamed. “Pea and ham's one of your favourites. Don't worry – there's enough left over if you want it later.” She gave the soup a good stir before allowing the tureen's lid to close. “You were away with the fairies just now.”


“I could've raided the till without you noticing.”

“Rubbish!” Brian shrugged. “Well, we've got a new routine. Some of the lads are finding it difficult. Thought I'd better be sure someone knows what they're doing. I bet Fred'll get his knickers in a twist.”

His wife tilted her head. “Maybe he's getting too old.”

“Sometimes I think that's me.”

“Don't fish for compliments.”

“You haven't heard my knees click.”

An exaggerated sigh followed which gave little promise of sympathy.

“Anyway, some of his attitudes are out of the Dark Ages.”

“Hmm?” Sandra gathered up the empty flasks.

“The Joint Morris Council put out a statement recently condemning the continued use of blackface by some sides. Not that it's part of our tradition here.”

“I should hope not.”

“Fred hasn't shut up about it since.”

That got a true sigh. “We've got a couple of members like that in the WI. And I'm talking simple female empowerment. Do they think the Women's Institute is only about the jam? The people I'm talking of pretend matters of gender, sexuality, and race don't exist.”

Brian matched his wife's raised eyebrows. She shook her head briefly in despair before climbing the stairs back up to their flat.

Outside, a burst of chatter increased in volume as the first of several shop workers entered the cafe. Brian assumed his professional smile and prepared for the rush.

Eric hurried away from the bus stop, hardly stopping to check before crossing the main road. He cursed. Despite having combed his hair specially before he left home, the wind was blowing it in all directions. One stray strand got in his eyes. Panting hard, he ducked into the narrow alley and pushed the cafe's door with sufficient force to make it slam back against the wall.

He jumped. “Err… sorry!”

Only a few heads turned – lunchtime was in full swing. Eric stared. He'd never seen the place so full. A queue at the serving counter allowed more time to look around. Both shoulders dropped in relief when it became apparent his guest wasn't already seated. He imagined the other man staring at the old wall clock, fingers drumming on the table. Why did the bus company take such perverse pleasure in a late-running service just when he needed it to be on time? The old man gave himself a shake. Why assume Rob Bairstow would act like that anyway? He'd always appeared a pleasant, even-tempered man when they worked on the same estate.

Brian Metcalfe looked at him with interest. “Unusual time of day to see you, Eric – though it's always a pleasure. Don't think I've ever noticed you having lunch here.”

Eric shrugged. He stared at the well-used lunch display.

“What can I get you?”

“Err…” Eric was torn. Breakfast had long since disappeared yet he knew it wouldn't be polite to eat before his guest arrived. “I, err… I'm expecting a friend.”

“Is that so?”

“Thank goodness he's not here. Thought I was going to be late.”

“Maybe he's held up somewhere.” Brian cast an eye over the counter. “Well, the soup's selling fast. Sandra makes great soup. And I'm nearly out of chicken. You can have your sandwiches toasted, if you like. Bought the machine last winter – best money I've spent in ages.”

The menu complexities nearly flummoxed Eric. He swallowed hard.

Brian reached for his pen and pad. “Shall I take your order now?”

“I've no idea when he might arrive or what he'd like to eat.”

“How about I keep back two portions of the soup. Most people like pea and ham.” Brian came across as calm and encouraging. “There's plenty of salad left. I could even make up a ploughman's kind of thing, if your friend would prefer that. Apart from sliced chicken, there's enough of everything else to last.”

Eric ran a finger round the collar of his new shirt. What with that and the new, lightweight trousers, it felt as though he was wearing someone else's clothes. “Soup sounds good. Thanks, Brian. I'll just have a pot of tea for now.”

“Tea? Coming up.” Brian took his money. “You know, having a mobile phone would really help in this situation.”

Eric blinked.

“So you know what's happening to each other?”

“Oh. Yeah.” He waited for the tea. Why was his new life so expensive?

Rob Bairstow stared out of the carriage window. At least the train was moving again. Signal failures always caused disruption. Rural railway lines never received the investment they needed. A simple fifteen minute trip from Leominster to visit Eric Whitehouse had turned into a forty-five minute marathon. Every other passenger had their phone out, complaining or apologising to whoever was on the other end.

He had at least spent the time thinking about Tyler Jackson, his youth social work client. Reluctant, mouthy, and adrift, the young man hadn't exactly welcomed him for their two meet-ups. But there again, he hadn't stormed out or sulked for the entire time. They'd engaged. Sparred. Tyler had mocked Rob unmercifully about his 1980s music choices in their first full session. The youth's playlist consisted almost entirely of black, urban rap, grime, and drill artists – hard, in-your-face music for a supposedly brash, no-fucks-given het guy.

Rob wondered how much of it was self-preservation or camouflage. A market town in Herefordshire was hardly South London, but youth culture exerted the same pressure to fit in. To project the right image. Letting Tyler talk about the music, he'd noted a lack of genuine passion. The youth hadn't revelled in quoting the best bits, mimicking moves, or rubbing Rob's nose in the frequent mentions of batty boys and other homophobic terms.

While Rob hadn't yet openly declared himself to be gay, he'd intercepted enough assessing, challenging stares to assume he'd been labelled. Tyler had a brain, that much was already clear.

They'd swapped playlists, something he'd done with other clients. A shudder ran through Rob's body at the thought of sampling sufficient tracks to give him ammunition for their planned discussion the following week. Of course, he wouldn't just focus on the musical content. The point was to move onto challenging Tyler about their – and maybe his – homophobia. The even more prevalent misogyny might also feature but the social worker had warned him to tread carefully. That might be a step too far. He'd see how they got on.

His own playlist had been engineered to include queer artists representing as many genres as he could manage. Something in there had to tempt the youth into experimenting more. Tyler would also see that being gay wasn't a barrier to making something of himself. He could be proud of who he was. If, of course, that was one of his issues. No-one appeared to be certain. Rob sighed. It was hardly a question to be asked outright.

There were plenty of other things which might hold the youth back. Rob sighed again. He was one small cog. Retaining his focus remained key.

He sat up straighter and fished his own phone out of his pocket. A salacious message from Zaf had arrived earlier. “Randy sod.”

Their visit to Boltz the previous Sunday had been a success. Rob particularly recalled an able and willing ginger who gave excellent head. Later in the evening, they'd swapped round. Of course, the other guy's hair colour hadn't been a distraction in the semi-darkness. Dim outlines or silhouettes were as far as it went. At one point, they'd chatted at the bar; not that he had any recollection of what the other guy's name was. Sex without strings in a safe space – it was what he needed sometimes.

Screeching from the brakes announced their belated arrival. Rob piled out. Spending a moment on the platform to check the directions, he strode towards the exit.

Nearly at his destination, Rob swiftly assessed the pub adjacent to the cafe. He was always keen to add to his roster of great places for a pint. Well-maintained, venerable surroundings were a definite plus. A quick peek at the interior had him nodding – sympathetic restorations cost money. While none of it guaranteed decent ale, chances were good.

The cafe however, possessed a 1990s or even 1980s vibe. That didn't bother him. As long as the coffee tasted of exactly that, he was happy. Any drink made with hot milk was an abomination. Well-used to scoping a bar, he gave the place a practised look over. His eyes paused to the right of an old-fashioned wall clock. A single, older man sat drinking tea.

Rob did a repeat sweep of the room just in case; his gaze returned to the same spot. “That's him.”

He would've known Eric Whitehouse without the newspaper photos. His compact, wiry frame appeared superficially the same. Rob recalled the smaller man holding his own when it came to lugging tools and equipment around.

A walking stick propped up against the table suggested a level of illusion. Rob gave thanks he'd spent the last ten years working for himself. The choice of working environment was his, and his alone.

Eric looked up. Rob gave him a cheery wave. He waited for a response before weaving a route through the last of the lunchtime throng. The other man remained seated.

“Eric! How wonderful to see you again.” Prevented from offering his usual hug – sometimes it came with a kiss or two – Rob stuck out his hand.

A pair of alert eyes regarded him. “It's been a long time, Rob.” There was a hint of wariness in the way his handshake was accepted.

“It has indeed.” His own beaming smile was met by another dimmer version. “So sorry I'm late. Wretched trains.”

“I thought my bus would never arrive.”

“The joys of public transport. Have you eaten?”

A frown darkened Eric's face. “I'm not a great follower of social niceties but even I know not to eat before my guest arrives.”

The comment reminded Rob to take care. No making jokes or taking the piss – he wasn't at the bar amongst a gaggle of his football mates. “Very true. Given you had no idea of my arrival time beyond what I'd told you, any eating would've been forgiven. Let's see what's on offer.”

Though Eric employed the table edge as an aid, he rose without noticeable trouble. Rob wondered about arthritis. The other man's finger joints – gnarled and swollen – were unmissable. Decades of horticultural work in all weathers was bound to leave its mark.

They approached the serving counter, Eric leading the way. “Brian's kept us back some of the soup. There's plenty of other stuff as well, though none of it's fancy. This is my kind of place.”

“That's fine by me.” He squinted at the small, handwritten card in front of the soup tureen. “Pea and ham? Soup's a good standby, I find.” When he could be bothered to make it, which wasn't often.

A nod was his only response.

The guy behind the counter smiled at Eric before turning his attention to Rob. “This'll be your friend then?”

“Yes. We're ready to order now. I'm starving – we both are, I imagine.” Eric turned. “Brian's another of my friends. He owns the cafe.”

Deciding he was likely to remain nameless, Rob introduced himself. “I'm from the Leominster area. Got held up by signal failures.”

“Oh, that line.” The guy shook his head. “You should hear my other half, Sandra, on the subject. When will they ever upgrade the Hereford to Shrewsbury line?”

Rob snorted. “Just before the end of the world, I reckon.”

“Not that the work'd be finished by the time the apocalypse wiped us out.”

All three of them laughed.

Rob steered the conversation back to business. “Anyway… food.”

“There's soup for both of us.”

The owner grinned. “Just as well I kept that back. Nothing like rain – it increases my hot food sales no end. And though I say so myself, Sandra makes a mean soup.”

Rob smiled. “I'll take the soup together with a cheese and tomato toastie on brown and a glass of apple juice.”

“Locally produced, that is.”

The cheese was a catering block of something anonymous. A plastic tub holding cherry tomatoes gave Rob more hope for discernible flavour.

His order taken, their host turned to Eric. “You decided, Eric? There's bread with the soup at no extra charge.”

“That'll do me, Brian. A glass of water as well, thanks.”

“OK. Thank you, gentlemen. I'll bring everything over when it's ready. Shouldn't be long. Pay on your way out.”

At their table, silence prevailed. Eric had no idea how to break the ice all over again. He cleared his throat. No words appeared. All his practice beforehand deserted him.

Opposite, Rob smiled. “How's the cottage now? Have you been able to clean up? The pictures in the paper only gave an idea.”

Eric blinked. “Yes. My two young men found some fancy stuff to get the spray paint off. The garden's not so easy. The shrubs'll have to be dug up and new plants put in.”

He got a sympathetic grimace in return.

“Nobody's been charged?”

“The police couldn't give a damn.” Eric bit down; more words emerged nevertheless. “And that's despite my neighbour being told a name of a local lad. Useless – the lot of them.”

“It must've been very upsetting.”

A pause drew out.

Rob produced his phone. “You remember I work with wood, Eric? I've got a couple of orders on the go. Like to take a look?”

Relief came. Eric nodded.

“There're plenty of photos on here. You never know when a potential client might ask to see them.”

“I've forgotten my reading glasses. Not that they're much help.” Eric frowned. “I need new ones really.”

“God, aren't glasses expensive? I accept the lenses might be worth it. But how can a few bent pieces of metal and plastic cost more than a hundred pounds?”

Eric paled. “That much?”

“Of course, you get them cheaper. I think standard, uncoated lenses and unbranded frames come in at fifty pounds or less. The major chains usually advertise their best deals.”

“We've only got the one chap further along High Street.”

“That's often the case with small towns, though Leominster's still managed to retain a Scrivens. You'll get a better deal travelling to Hereford.”

Eric grimaced. “I've spent more time, and money, there this year than I've done in the past decade.”

“From what you've told me, isn't that a good thing?”

The question made him pause. “Yes, you're right – it is.” A smile grew. “I've been so used to leading a boring, restricted life that the past few months have shaken everything up.”

“So what's one more trip?”

The fact he would have to return to the city for wedding stuff loomed large. And he would need a present. Eric smiled his agreement.

“Be grateful you don't have my optical bill.” Rob sat back in his seat. “Varifocals – what I'm wearing at the moment.” He counted them off on his fingers. “Another pair for reading, special close work lenses, and I prefer specific driving glasses. Jeez – it costs a fortune when my prescription changes.”

“So your business is doing well?” A small glow in the pit of his stomach was the reward for finally directing their chat.

“It'll never make me a fortune, but I get by.”

Eric drew in breath for a reply. Brian bustling up with their food meant he didn't bother.

“Here you are, gents.” Brian concentrated on off-loading their order and handing over the right food to the person who'd ordered it. “Hope you enjoy everything. Pop over to the counter if you need anything else.”

Eric and Rob both nodded their thanks, keen to get started on the steaming soup.

A few minutes later, two soup bowls stood almost empty. Eric carefully ran the spoon around the inside of his, seeking every last drop. Somehow, he'd already eaten the bread.

Rob smacked his lips. “That was proper, well-made soup. Just the right balance of salt, and sweetness from the peas. D'you cook, Eric?”

“Ehm… not really. My two lads got me a couple of recipe books for my birthday.” He'd introduced his other friends into one of the earlier phone conversations but hadn't gone into much detail. “What with one thing and another, Andy's not had time to spare for cookery lessons. He thought next week maybe.”

“You'll end up knowing more than I do. I enjoy throwing stuff into a pan and seeing what results. Sometimes it works; on other memorable occasions, it doesn't. Like when I doused a chicken breast in jerk sauce.” Rob winced. “A – the bottled sauce was disgusting, and B – I'm surprised the roof of my mouth survived.”


“A fiery combination of Jamaican spices and chillies. It works well with chicken, just not the way I used it.” Rob took a large bite out his toasted sandwich and chewed vigorously. “So, what did you do for your birthday?”

Eric hesitated, before deciding honesty was best. “Usually, nothing. What's the point when you're alone? This year though, the boys insisted on making a fuss. Andy's a fan of birthdays.”

“Good for him.”

“They took me to dinner at The George–”

“The George?” Rob rescued a fragment of toast from his beard. “Jeez. They know how to treat a friend. I've read the reviews. What did you have?”

Eric recalled the dishes exactly. Their names were another matter. “Err… paté on a fancy slice of toast and–” He fished around desperately. “A beef dish with wine, button mushrooms, and little slices of fatty bacon.”

“Ah – boeuf bourguignon by the sounds of it.”

“That's right! I've never eaten beef like it – so tender and full of flavour.” He didn't say that apart from dubious fillings in pasties, he hadn't eaten recognisable beef in decades.

“I've a couple of acquaintances in Birmingham who'd regard food like that as hopelessly old-fashioned. There's no artifice, no making the plate look pretty. I agree with you – great cooking is just that.” Rob wiped his fingers on the paper napkin. “OK – I was threatening you with my greatest hits earlier. You game? I can hold the phone at whatever distance suits you.”

“We can try.”

Eric peered at the phone screen. The images were somewhat fuzzy. He could see enough though. The lines were clean and modern – functional but still respecting the materials. Nothing like the touristy wooden knicknacks some gift shops in the town sold. Rob had evidently built up his skills over the years. “Is that last seat oak? I particularly like that one. What kinds of wood are best to work with?”

“Well, sometimes it depends on the commission.”

The two men became engrossed in the subject of wood, trees, and so, forest management. Neither of them realised Brian Metcalfe spent part of his free time watching them surreptitiously.

In the evening, Brian lounged on the sofa in the flat above the cafe. His own portion of pea and ham soup was on the hob to warm. “I haven't sold out of a soup that fast for months, love.”

“So much for the British summer.” Sandra bustled around the small kitchen. “Cheese and onion on toast with some more of ham do you?”

“Great. Thanks, love.” He stretched to ease muscles in his neck and shoulders. “Eric Whitehouse seems to have a new friend.”

“Hmm?” Sandra was chopping something – the onion, he guessed.

“Yeah – a chap from Leominster way. Eric's never mentioned him before. They hit it off, as far as I could tell.”

“Not that you were minding anyone's business but your own.”

“Well… yes, you've got a point. When I went to clear their table, the other man was showing Eric his phone. Explaining the basics, I think. Eric looked on with that kind of expression when you're interested but can't see the relevance to your own life.”

“Like when I explain the washing machine to you?”

Brian squirmed. “How many more ruined jumpers do you need as evidence?” He knew, without looking, Sandra would be rolling her eyes. “It's a blind spot.”

They both chuckled.

His wife came to the doorway. “Did you have to move them on to offer the table to someone else?”

“No – the lunchtime rush was pretty much over by the time they arrived. Eric disappeared off to the loo after a while, then they left. I imagine Eric wanted to avoid the school run bus. The two of them spent 'bout an hour and a half.”

“A good chat then.”

Toasting cheese melded with warming soup to make an aroma of the gods.

“Yeah, I reckon so. Eric's special. I like to look out for him.”

Sandra started serving up. “I know you do.”

So, they've met. What are your thoughts? I welcome comments, speculations, and random reminiscences.

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. 

Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

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

It seems Eric is getting better at communicating there were some rough patches but it seems once they really got into a subject it went well. Eric can be polite and he waited for Rob before eating even tho Rob was late. I am thinking over all the meet up went well and look forward to see what both thought and their next meet up.

So we finally see for sure Rob’s new case is in fact Eric’s vandal hopefully Rob is able to help the teen and he is able to be as happy as possible.

Great chapter @northie Looking forward to others 


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While they do seem like they're from two different worlds, there is enough mutual interest between Rob and Eric, that there is at least a future friendship starting to bloom.  Hope Rob can coax Eric a bit further out of his shell without shocking him too much.

Edited by Quixo
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1 hour ago, Parker Owens said:

Sandra summed it up for me: Eric is indeed special. Let’s hope Rob sees this too. 

You and I both know that. Rob? We'll see...

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1 hour ago, quttzik said:

but it seems once they really got into a subject it went well.

Yes, but it means that Rob largely directs their conversation. If Eric was left to it, there'd be long periods of silence. Maybe with more practice, Eric'll get better.

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54 minutes ago, Quixo said:

Hope Rob can coax Eric a bit further out of his shell without shocking him too much.

Yes, they're from two different versions of the queer universe. Plus, they're men with dissimilar general lives. Keep reading to see how their interactions progress. 😉

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Despite their past as coworkers Eric and Rob live very different lives. More than might be if simply a case of city mouse/country mouse. Rob has moved forward with the times. Eric has not. He also seems the older of the two not only being retired while Rob is actively employed but also in his general manner. It will be interesting to see how this relationship develops.

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38 minutes ago, dughlas said:

Rob has moved forward with the times. Eric has not.

This is at the core of their growing relationship. And as you might expect, there'll be tensions along the way. We get a hint of them already in this chapter.

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Rob+Eric+one dysfunctional teen, what could possibly go wrong/right when and if they meet???

I am still very concerned about Felicity and the abusive A-Hole of a husband...hoping she survives and finds a door out of the situation she's in, if her son and partner have one iota of an inkling, of what she is subjected to, then shame on them for not taking the necessary/needed steps to help her...regardless of what is going on in their lives.

Another great chapter...thanks, keep 'em coming!!!!

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A slightly awkward first meeting for Eric and Rob, but it was promising. Can't imagine the 'old' Eric doing anything like that. I’m not sure what the age difference is supposed to be, but a lifetime of hard work outdoors can make a person age prematurely. Some people in their sixties act as if they are eighty and vice versa.

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12 hours ago, drsawzall said:

Rob+Eric+one dysfunctional teen, what could possibly go wrong/right when and if they meet???

👀😏 You'll have to keep on reading... 

Felicity is the only person who can take action. Will she? Same answer as above. 

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10 hours ago, jagboi said:

I just found this series and binge read the whole thing today.

Blimey. Thank you!  💜💜 Welcome to the Eric fan club. 

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5 hours ago, Mawgrim said:

I’m not sure what the age difference is supposed to be, but a lifetime of hard work outdoors can make a person age prematurely. Some people in their sixties act as if they are eighty and vice versa.

They're about 15 years apart. If it hasn't been stated in the story already, it will be soon. On your other point, as @dughlas put it:

18 hours ago, dughlas said:

Rob has moved forward with the times. Eric has not.

Their lives as gay men are wide apart.

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Here's some more keenly-observed comment from our regular email contributor:


Eric is unused to conversations since he’s only started to have them with Andy & Adam, and Brian. I got the impression that he really didn’t talk to anyone else before he called and got Andy’s assistance. I’m guessing that he mostly gave minimal responses to the clerks at the grocery store and not much more anywhere else.



To use another metaphor, while Rob chiseled away at the wall Eric has built to protect himself, Eric was slowly patching it up on the other side out of habit to prevent a hole from forming. But Eric didn’t chase Rob away from the wall. And Rob didn’t seem to be discouraged too much.


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Just now, northie said:

Eric is unused to conversations since he’s only started to have them with Andy & Adam, and Brian.

Yes, he is. And he's starting to learn how necessary a social tool it is to be able to start and continue them.

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2 minutes ago, northie said:

while Rob chiseled away at the wall Eric has built to protect himself, Eric was slowly patching it up on the other side out of habit to prevent a hole from forming.

That's an intriguing comment. What out of the conversations here gave that impression, I wonder? Rob's 'chiselling', yes. Eric's rebuilding? Not so sure.

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I'm encouraged by the fact they managed so quickly to find common ground in discussing wood and trees. As the more socially experienced person it falls to Rob to catch ric's signals, and so far he seems to be doing a good job. Eric is at least trying to contribute and show interest, which is something to praise. I hope Brian will confine himself to observing and approving, rather than ask nosy questions, or he may get Eric to clam up and stop visiting.

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2 hours ago, Timothy M. said:

Eric is at least trying to contribute and show interest, which is something to praise.

Yes, and he chides himself for letting go of what he'd practised. He's definitely trying. I think it helped to be in a space he knows well.

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For a first meeting, Eric did pretty well! I hope he and Rob can develope a friendship, and Rob becomes a gentle guide to the life of a gay man for Eric. Thanks. 

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22 minutes ago, JeffreyL said:

and Rob becomes a gentle guide to the life of a gay man for Eric.

Yes, Rob has the potential of being a guide, but his lived experience as a gay man is already looking pretty different from what Eric might expect it to be. We'll see...

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