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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 - 15. Return Match

Eric and Rob meet up for a second time.

The Departure list of trains on-screen in the waiting room refreshed itself. Eric glanced, then stared at the display, annoyance spreading across his face. The next train to Leominster – which he was due to board – had vanished from the listing. Not quite believing its absence, he retrieved a battered pair of reading glasses from his bag and studied every line on the screen.

A ding-dong from the PA system made him pause.

Transport for Wales regrets to announce the 11.03 service to Manchester Piccadilly, calling at Leominster, Ludlow,…

Eric filtered out the following few seconds as the automated female voice ran through all the stations the train purported to stop at. He frowned. What was he going to do? A change in the voice's rhythm made him tune back in.

…has been cancelled due to resourcing issues. Transport for Wales regrets any inconvenience caused.

“Damn!” Looking back at the screen, he tried to work out the next departure.

It wouldn't matter so much if it was only his time that would be wasted. Typically, it had to happen on the day he was meeting Rob in Leominster.

“Just as well I decided to leave early.” A sigh of frustration followed. What was the point of upsetting his usual Friday laundry routine to sit for an hour or more on hard, moulded plastic seating?

Absently, he rapped the plain, concrete floor with moulded end of his walking stick. He'd been in two minds to leave it behind. At their first meeting, the stick had been there, signalling old age and infirmity. For a short trip like that, he'd picked it up out of habit. A talisman or safeguard he couldn't risk being without. That day's expedition was different. Having to stand for long periods or general tiredness were real issues – ones he couldn't ignore. He sighed. Rob would soon see the stick as part of him.

Eric thanked his foresight in aiming for an earlier train than he strictly needed. The next one – assuming that too wasn't cancelled – would get him to the Duke's Head in Leominster with five minutes to spare. He'd suggested there for lunch because it was from that pub he'd first spotted the other man however months ago it was now.

He looked out at the train-less platform. A damp, overcast day discouraged any thought of sitting on the equally uncomfortable metal seats outside. Why hadn't he picked up one of the free papers on the bus?

A couple of young women, dressed with complete disregard for the weather, squeezed through the waiting room door. Both clutched a phone in one hand and a takeaway coffee cup in the other. Breathless, non-stop chatter, interspersed with giggles, seemed to bounce off every surface.

The logo on the cups jogged a memory. An article in the local paper had announced the reopening of the station buffet. Someone evidently had money to burn. Or maybe they were in league with the wretched train company. Cancelled trains meant more custom. Eric grunted. Despite any misgivings, breakfast had been a long time before and he was thirsty.

Gathering his stick and bag, the old man levered himself upright and shuffled towards the door.

“Morning, love!” A cheery, middle-aged woman filled the narrow gap between a cash till and a long display cabinet set out with ready-made snacks and sandwich ingredients.

Eric looked around. Not that there was much to see. The entire operation was fitted inside a rectangular sliver of space fronting onto the railway line. He noticed two single tables squeezed in at either end. The rest spilled out onto the platform.

“What can I get you? Tea, coffee? Cans are over there in the fridge.”

“Err…” Scanning the contents of the display, his eye was caught by a succulent-looking sausage roll. Tempting golden-brown pastry encased a filling which bore little resemblance to the pink, processed offerings he bought occasionally from the supermarket. He pointed. “One of those, thanks. And a tea.”

“Locally-made, those sausage rolls are, One of my best-selling lines.” She placed it into a small paper bag. “You off out somewhere?”

“Hnh. Yes, despite the train company's best efforts to thwart me.”

“Oh, dear. You must've missed the text. They get lost so easily amongst all the marketing stuff, don't they?”

Not for the first time, Eric noted the assumption that everyone owned a mobile phone. It made him feel more at odds with the world than he was already.

The woman pointed to a brightly-coloured display of packaged teabags. “Which one would you like? We've camomile, peppermint, chai–”

“Tea. Proper tea.” He watched as she fished an unadorned bag out of a catering pack and dumped it straight into the cup. Although the water steamed and hissed, he suspected it wasn't boiling. Any hopes of a strong, refreshing brew faded.

“That'll be five-fifty, thank you.”

“Err… what did you mean about the texts earlier?”

“Apparently, drivers are refusing to cover for absences and holidays. There'll be rolling cancellations throughout the day. Just sign up from the company's website and they'll send you the alerts.”

Eric's mood darkened. How would he get home? Preoccupied, he gingerly picked up his drink, wondering if he could get it to a table before one of his fingers burnt through. A cough made him look up.


“Oh, yes. Sorry.” The cup nearly slipped from his grasp. Putting the bag back down, he dug in a pocket looking for his latest introduction to the world of modern technology.

Debit card at the ready, Eric followed what he recalled of Andy's demonstration earlier in the week. Despite the woman's keen gaze, he took the time he needed. Success hovered close until he stumbled at the point of putting in his PIN.

“Damn!” It contained one, two and five. One digit out of the three had to be doubled up. Or did it? He looked up. “This is all new to me.”

“Take your time, love. There's no-one else waiting.”

The number he'd chosen was supposed to be memorable without fail. What was the clue? “Ah!” Christmas – that was it. Forgetting Christmas – Eric shook his head.

Once the payment went through, he pocketed the receipt almost as a souvenir.

“You know tap and pay's a lot easier?”

Eric shrugged. He already deserved every pastry-covered, extortionate inch of that sausage roll. Moving to the far end of the cafe, he hunched over a rickety table and stirred his tea. It tasted of nothing much in particular. He dunked the teabag several times without much hope of improvement.

Maybe a mobile phone was something he couldn't afford to be without any longer.

Rob carefully settled himself onto a padded bench seat and tried to ignore any twangs from the muscles in his lower back. That would put a stop to any football training for the next few days. Not that he was hugely serious but the new over-50s season beckoned. Barry, their enthusiastic Welsh trainer, would have words. A sigh followed.

From his vantage point in the Duke's Head, he observed activity in the street outside. A mixture of locals and tourists amused him – the former dodging around the latter in a rush to get lunchtime stuff done. Rob took a gulp from an iced St. Clements before returning to his phone. With the potential for disruption from the industrial action, he'd better check with Eric everything was OK. The line from Port Talbot to Manchester had no need for a greater than usual share of trouble.

He composed a pithy, humorous message, found the perfect GIF, and stopped. “What's the point? Idiot.” Cursing his memory, he deleted the text. How long would it take him to persuade Eric Whitehouse to carry a phone? Forever, it felt like.

Both hands were now employed kneading his back. The recently-taken painkillers had dulled the throbbing only a little. He heard the pub's front door open.

A familiar rising sense of anticipation was answered this time by Eric peering round the corner and spotting him.

“Sorry!” The other man's normally pale cheeks were flushed.

“It's fine, Eric.” A wide smile bloomed. “The trains are all over the place.”

“What a palaver. I've no idea when I'm going to get home.”

Rob held an arm out. “Have a seat and get your breath back. I can easily give you a lift.”

“Would you? Thanks, Rob.”

He waited until his guest had got comfortable before handing over a menu. “Imagine you're starving. Shall we order now?”

Eric snorted. “If you like. I made the mistake of paying a small fortune for a sausage roll at the station buffet.”

“Any good?”

“Very tasty, which is more than I could say for the so-called tea that accompanied it. Dishwater.”

Another smile appeared. “I don't get the fascination with tea. I'm a coffee man every time.”

“Hnh – no accounting for taste.” Eric glanced up from the menu. “I suppose you have one of them fancy coffee makers?” A glint in his eye suggested the question wasn't entirely serious.

He played along. “I couldn't possibly survive without the coffee machine, darling. They sent the wrong flavour pods last week – I nearly died.”

They both smirked.

Rob thought it was the first time he'd got something close to amusement from the other man. “If it's a lazy weekend morning, I might brew a pot. Otherwise I make do with instant.”

Eric nodded. There was an element of approval to it. “I've a jar at the back of one of the cupboards. Probably stuck together and tasteless by now.”

Rob allowed his eyes to widen. “If I come and visit, you'll have to buy a new jar. Can't offer old, tasteless coffee to friends.”

“Will I now?” The glint was back. “When I had to stay with the two lads, I found their kitchen stuffed with gadgets.”

“Including a coffee machine?”

“Who knows. There was plenty in that kitchen I didn't use.”

The two men returned to perusing the menu.

Eric put his down first. “Despite that sausage roll, I'm sure there's room for a cheese and onion toastie.”

“Good. I'll go for the chilli con carne.” Rob shifted position. “Would you mind ordering at the bar for us both? I did my back in yesterday and today's painkillers are slow in doing their work.”

His guest blinked.

“They'll open a tab for us. It's table seven. We'll pay on the way out.”


For the third time, Eric attempted to get the bar staff's attention. A gap in the lunchtime throng brought him luck.

“Yes, sir?”

Eric recited the order, proud he'd remembered it, but also slightly fearful something would be found amiss.

“Is that chips or rice with the chilli?” The woman stood with a finger poised over an electronic screen.

Caught out, he drew breath. Noisy conversations and all-round bustle meant he was on his own. Eric took a chance. “Rice, thanks.”

He waited for their drinks before ferrying each glass individually to the table.

“Good man.” Rob grinned his appreciation. “We're a pair of old crocks, aren't we?”

Eric never felt at ease discussing his various ailments outside of the doctor's surgery. They weren't a joking matter either. Yet… he wondered if Rob might lead him somewhere new.

“What did you do to your back?”

The other man gave a snort of disgust. “One of my neighbours asked me to help him move an old washing machine out onto the kerb for collection. Fair enough. When it came to it though, the lazy bastard decided his metier was supervision while I did the heaving. Should've left at that point.” He shrugged. “Anyway, it was all going fine until the washing machine got stuck on the front door lintel.”

A wince told Eric what happened next. “Did your neighbour complete the job?”

“Well, I sure as hell didn't. Last time he'll get my help.”

They both chuckled. Eric felt a tightness between his shoulder blades slacken. When the food arrived, he noted the rice went unremarked. His own plate bore a handful of crisps and a small mound of salad to accompany the toastie. They both set to, Eric surprising himself by the keenness of his appetite.

After a while, Rob looked up from his plate. “I never did find that photo-album, by the way.”

“Which album?”

“The very first time you rang me and you kept on getting the message? I was up in the loft trying to locate the wretched thing. In my memory, it would've contained a whole series of photos one of the guys took during a summer in the early nineties. Pity.”

That was not a sentiment Eric shared. He munched a mouthful of salad, taking his time.

Every summer, the estate took on temporary workers to help with basic outdoor tasks – mowing, hedge cutting, work in the walled garden. Often they turned out to be first year agriculture students in search of cash-in-hand and a line in a future CV. The young men were torture. Even though rugged, outdoor types weren't his thing, there was always the chance of being caught staring. Otherwise, their japes, wisecracks, and jokes were tiresome when they weren't hurtful.

He recalled one hot and sunny afternoon. To cool off, the students played at pushing each other into the reeds, often ending up flat on their faces in the lake's shallows. A couple of the younger blokes joined in, adding to the noise and hilarity. Meanwhile, he was a little way off, studying ripples on the surface of the lake. Thoughts on how to reproduce the effect with coloured pencils fled when he too was shoved from behind into the water. The hilarity doubled. Eric re-lived the humiliation.

He swallowed what was in his mouth and surprised himself. “I never found those summers enjoyable.”

“Hmm? Can't say they were my favourites either.” Rob used his fork to chase the last few grains of rice. “It wasn't long after my divorce. New place, new people, and I was still figuring myself out.”

Eric grabbed hold of one word in particular. “Divorce?”

“Don't look so aghast, Eric. There were still way too many gay men getting married as a way of denying their sexuality in the nineties. Or they did it to avoid being outed. Whatever. I went from thinking I was straight, to bi, and then decided I was maybe gay. Unfortunately, that journey also included getting married. It wasn't fair on either of us. Janice and I split up after six months. With my encouragement, she found someone else. After a while, there was enough 'evidence' so we could get an early divorce.”

Rob leant back from the table. Eric gave up the attempt to follow the other man's explanation through to its conclusion. That required a good long sit in his own armchair. He'd read the occasional report online but never really connected it to real life.

He voiced a thought that popped into his head. “So that would explain why I never knew for certain whether you were like me or not.”

Rob emptied his glass. “You could've asked. Not sure what answer you would've got.”

The tone was mild. Wistful, even. Eric bristled. “I only ever saw you in company with the rest of the blokes. Can you imagine me strolling up and dropping that question into the general natter?”

“No, of course not.” His lips pursed slightly. “You could've caught up with me on the estate somewhere.” A pause. “It's ancient history. Different times. Maybe it's just as well I didn't find those photos.”

Eric agreed silently. Excusing himself, he left in search of the Gents.

Rob collected a coffee from the bar. As was typical, his back now demanded he got up and moved around. It felt uncomfortable but not actually painful. After a short exchange in passing with a former client, he resumed his seat. He idly traced patterns in the milky froth with a spoon while rewinding some of their conversation. Eric would be back very soon.

Why did he make it sound as though the onus was on Eric back then? As the younger man, any age difference would've meant more to him, but even he noticed the other man stayed aloof, getting through the work in his own way. If they had spoken, he hadn't lied when mentioning the likely confusion.

A bleak smile appeared. Being sporty and more adept at fitting in, he'd kept up a straight persona with the rest of the estate workers. By joining the cricket team and playing occasional football matches, he avoided their more puerile plans without undue comment. A continuous whirl of emotions lurked underneath: relief at his escape from Janice, sexual confusion, doubts, and sometimes fear. And there were nights he jacked off in his small, rented flat to mental images of certain of the workforce.

His guest returned.

Rob searched for the right words. “Sorry, Eric. I was wrong to suggest you were to blame for us not connecting more back then. I could've made the first move. Guess I had more practice of hiding in plain sight. Blending in.”

The older man sniffed. “We both had jobs to keep.”

“True. As I said, different times. Some of the current farming generation don't care who knows they're queer.” He smiled. “Would you like to join me in having a coffee to finish? Or more suspect tea?”

To his relief, Eric's expression lightened. “Neither, thanks. Don't want to be needing the loo again at an inconvenient time.”

They spent the next couple of minutes grumbling amicably about the general lack of public amenities.

As they finished, Rob grinned. “A lesbian friend of mine, Jackie, would've put us straight in no time flat.”

Eric frowned.

“Provision for women is far worse than it is for us. She's quick to call out male privilege in any arena.”

“My next door neighbour's a woman. Deborah Turner's her name. She spends far too much time away on cruises going I don't know where. When she returns, first thing she does is to tell me all about it. As if I want to know. And she minds my business like it's her own.”

“You get on well, then?” He smirked. “Anything else to recommend her?”

The frown was replaced by a scowl. “A yappy Pekinese. Damn thing tries to bite my ankles and you can hear it a mile off.”

Rob's chuckle was soon echoed. With relief, he noted they appeared to be on affable terms again. The past was evidently territory to be explored with caution. “So if I have the opportunity to visit, my arrival would be noted?” He received a look in return which confirmed his suspicions. “Inquisitive neighbours can be good sometimes, though that's perhaps easier to say in the abstract than through experience.”

Eric shrugged. “There's a big, old house opposite me which is being done-up. The woman in charge, Emily something or another, is a better sort. Moneyed, of course, but she makes pleasant enough conversation. Still don't know what to say to her most of the time.” His face brightened even more. “I was responsible for getting my friend, Andy, a commission there.”

Pride in being useful, paying back, rang out through Eric's voice. It caused a faint lump in Rob's throat. “What does that young man do when he's not at your beck and call?”

“He's a gardener and landscape designer.”

“Up to your standards?”

“From what he tells me, he doesn't spend much time getting his hands dirty. Andy knows more theory and fancy terms than I do and how to use a computer, but there's nothing better than getting stuck in.”

“Means the work gets spread around. Plenty of other people use gardening as a way to get by. Did Andy go to college?”

“He studied for a degree in Birmingham somewhere.”

“Oh, yes?”

“Don't know how he learned outdoors in a great big city. When I stayed at their house for a few days, Andy showed me the folder on his computer where he stores all his diplomas and such like.”

Rob half hid a smile. In his cross-grained way, Eric was clearly proud of his young friend for all his grumbles about an apparent lack of spade hours. “I know it's different from the way you learnt, Eric. Andy's determined to outgrow the opposition it seems. I approve of that. Education doesn't stop when you leave school or college.”

Eric's thoughts had turned inward. The older man rubbed his chin pensively.

“I could show you my certificates any time.”

His guest looked up. “Could you now.” The glint was back.

“I'm most proud of my Fine furniture design and making diploma from the Building Crafts College.”

Eric didn't take the bait. He glanced at an old analogue watch before placing his cap on the table and checking the whereabouts of his stick.

“Want me to look up the trains?” Rob held up his phone. “Or how about taking me up on the offer of a lift?”

“You want me to live dangerously?”

“Why not?”

Eric relaxed in the front passenger seat of Rob's huge Volvo estate. As the countryside whizzed by, recollection of Rob's embarrassment at the seat's messiness made him smile. Apologies flowed while the younger man scooped up all kinds of rubbish from both seat and footwell before dumping it on the seats behind. Bits of paper, chocolate wrappers, maps, together with a brolly were all unceremoniously ejected. It was comforting to know not every social situation was a breeze for Rob.

“Enjoying the music?” Rob turned his head as they slowed down for a village.

Eric blinked. He'd assumed the radio, or whatever, was on for Rob's benefit. “Err…”

“It's David Bowie, from his Space Oddity period. Fantastic stuff. Don't you recognise it?”

“No. Music isn't part of my life. Never has been.”

“What?!” Rob took his eyes off the road for a second. “You shitting me? How can you live without music?”

He shrugged as much as the seatbelt allowed. “Soaps have theme tunes – they're OK. I've never owned a radio, never mind any of these expensive gadgets folk have nowadays.”

“OK – we can't have this. I foresee a voyage of exploration through all kinds of music – not just my choices. You know listening's possible via your laptop?”

Did he? “I've played videos.”

“You're nearly there then. The sound quality's a bit crap; a cheap pair of earbuds'll help.”

The next few minutes were spent directing Rob round the latest series of roadworks in the town. Eric only knew of them because of lifts with Andy to the supermarket.

They drew up on the road outside the cottage.

Rob peered up through the windscreen. “Nice-looking place. So, shall we book another spot in our respective diaries?”

Eric's mouth opened. Planning ahead remained alien to him. If he knew what the current week held, that was quite enough.

“Have a think. I'd be happy to invite you to my place. Pembridge is short on public transport so I could collect you from Leominster station.” Rob turned. “I enjoyed this afternoon, Eric – learning more about you, and myself, for that matter.”

He nodded. “So did I.”

“Good. Look after yourself and I'll see you soon.” Rob leant over and gave him a peck on the cheek.

Startled by the touch, Eric muttered a goodbye before hauling himself out of the car. He hobbled up the path, stiff from sitting, only turning at the top to give a wave.

When the younger man returned the wave, Eric smiled back.

After a short break, we're back on track. If you're enjoying Eric's story, why not join in the conversation or recommend the story to others.

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

I enjoyed watching Eric become less of a hermit and more human with Rob. His own warmth is increasing. 

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Tasteless railway station tea. Yuck! No wonder Eric was appalled at the cost. He's really beginning to find conversation easier now and to be considering a mobile phone shows how his attitudes are slowly changing. 

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Eric has made such tremendous strides. It must be such a strange feeling for him to be out in the modern world without things like a cell phone, yet he makes do quite well. What a wonderful meeting with Rob. There was that bit of a snag with regrets from days past, but they moved past it quite nicely. And then to end it with a peck on the cheek--why that Rob is such a sly dog! LOL   A really lovely chapter northie.   

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6 hours ago, Quixo said:

Eric seems to be relaxing a bit.  Slowly, but a bit. 

He does for things in the present. That's where he does best with Rob. The past might be a different story.

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4 hours ago, Parker Owens said:

enjoyed watching Eric become less of a hermit

Yes, the trip to Leominster is almost familiar to him now.👀 Who'd have thought that back at the beginning? 

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1 hour ago, Mawgrim said:

He's really beginning to find conversation easier now

He allows his dry sense of humour to show this time. There are still areas of conversation where he's not going to be at home. The past is one.

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45 minutes ago, spyke said:

It must be such a strange feeling for him to be out in the modern world without things like a cell phone

It's not so much a strange feeling for Eric, but those around him. Rob trying to send him a text; everyone else's assumptions.

47 minutes ago, spyke said:

And then to end it with a peck on the cheek--why that Rob is such a sly dog!

🤨😄 Don't forget from the first time they met, Rob uses a kiss as part of a normal greeting. 

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Small baby steps become larger steps into the periphery of the modern world, we learned much more about Eric and his life. While sad as it may seem to some, he was to a point self-contained and as we learn in later life to his detriment.

While no man is truly an island, it is gratifying to see Eric considering the use of some of the modern conveniences. This chapter felt just right and spot on!!! 

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11 hours ago, drsawzall said:

Small baby steps become larger steps into the periphery of the modern world,

Periphery is a great word to use in this context. And yes, it does represent progress for Eric. He's spent far too many years being entirely outside the modern world.

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I like the way they are slowly connecting and working towards getting to know each other. The kiss at the end surprised me as much as it did Eric, but I think he was OK with it.

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3 hours ago, Timothy M. said:

The kiss at the end surprised me as much as it did Eric,

Yes, not much kissing goes on around Eric. 😉 To Rob though, it's a normal part of his Hellos and Goodbyes. One of many differences that remain between the two of them, for all they've got off to a good start.

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