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    northie
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Never Too Late To Believe - 16. Facts of Life

Eric is left wondering how many he actually knows.

Eric marvelled at the difference four months had made to Andy's garden. Though why he should be so surprised was a puzzle. He knew the seasons as well as the next gardener. A filled plastic salad bowl in one hand, he paused on the patio and looked around.

August's latter half was rarely a good time to view gardens. Many plants had lost their flowers and as for trees, their freshness was a distant memory. He spotted a couple of repeat-flowering roses, cream and yellow, further down and what he suspected was a clump of goldenrod, continuing a yellow theme.

He turned. “Andy, are we eating here on the patio?”

From the seemingly-dim recesses of the kitchen came his answer. “No – I thought we'd sit closer to the pond.”

The day, while bright, was also humid and overcast.

A knife chopped something. “The acer's still looking good and there're bees feasting on the hyssop.”

Eric nodded to himself. “Sounds good. I'll wander in that direction.”

“I'll catch you up with everything else.”

He raised his free hand in acknowledgement. It was odd not to have his walking stick – like part of him was missing. Seeing he had a lift there – and back – tiredness wouldn't be an issue and the garden was flat. Already he'd found himself looking around, thinking he'd left the stick somewhere, but really, it wasn't needed.

Eric took his time, gaze alive with curiosity switching from side to side. Sniffs, foliage inspections, and approving nods at Andy's plant care followed. He'd have to give thought to his own garden. Apart from planting a few annuals to replace those uprooted by the vandals, no work had taken place. He hadn't been in the mood. Then Rob appeared. Plus, Andy seemed more taken up with his wedding arrangements. October wasn't that far off.

“New clothes. And a present.” The refrain ran through his thoughts every day. Sometimes it got voiced. It wasn't so much a reminder as continuing disbelief, plus the fact he hadn't a clue what to get the lads. “Rob?” He made things. Maybe, if his new friend had time, but that didn't solve the 'what' question.

His dawdling was soon overtaken. Andy strode past, carrying a large tray with food and the tea things.

The young man grinned when Eric put the salad bowl down on the table. “That'll be warm by now.”

“Cheek. Anyway, it has more flavour if you leave it out for a while.” Andy's look pushed him to go on. “Only discovered it because I've dozed off a few times recently waiting for the kettle to boil.”

“You have been out and about recently. Not surprised you're tired.”

They both sat down. Eric noted the white-painted metal furniture looked past its best.

Andy stretched out long, lean, tanned legs. “I'd enjoy Mondays more if they were all like this one.”

“Sometimes I wonder whether you have a paying job.” His sideways look caught a pout that swiftly faded.

“That hurt.” Andy gave a shake of his head before leaning over to fill a plate with sandwiches and a couple of miniature pork pies.

“Don't forget the warm salad.” He also helped himself.

“For the record, I'm busy the rest of the week. Quite a lot of it with the work for Emily Standish.” The sun broke through finally. “Can't remember the last time you were here.”

For once, Eric didn't feel any need to answer. They munched contentedly in a golden light that held a not-so-distant promise of autumn. The young man yawned.

“What have you been up to over the weekend to make you so tired?”

A groan followed. “God... doing what felt like literally mile upon mile of hedge-cutting.”

“Here?” Eric turned his head this way and that to remind himself the only hedge was at the bottom of the garden.

“No – for work.”

“You getting your hands dirty?”

“Maybe lunch wasn't such a good idea.”

Eric lifted up a corner of his sandwich to determine the contents. A smile played on his lips. He felt safe teasing Andy. “I feed you often enough.”

“That's very true. As for hedges, I told Adam if he wanted something other than fencing, he could do the cutting himself. Soon sorted that. No, a client in the Wye Valley booked us for a weekend's worth of hardcore garden maintenance. Two of the guys bailed on Friday night, pleading other jobs.”

Eric tutted.

“It happens.”

“So you ended up doing it?”

“Yeah – we were stretched. The rest of the team got on with everything else.”

Tasting his drink, Eric was pleased to discover it was tea tea, not the stuff Adam preferred. “I mostly avoided hedge-cutting.”

“Arms not long enough?”

Andy getting his own back, accompanied by a snigger or two.

“You could say that.” And it was probably true. “It was a job the head gardener handed out to the students when they were there.”

“My shorts and sleeveless tee were studenty; less so, the safety goggles, gauntlets, and reinforced boots.”

An image of Andy as described hovered in his mind's eye. Eric savoured the creamy chicken filling of his sandwich, blinking at hidden sweetness and heat. “We had nothing of that sort in my time.”

“Hmm? Definite improvements. Gardening can be dangerous.”

“I recall one bloke overstretching on an extended ladder. Trying to reach a tree branch or something. Fell off and landed flat on his back.”

“Owh!” Andy's face expressed the greater pain.

“Never worked again.”

“I rest my case. And I bet he didn't get any compensation.”

Eric watched as a complete miniature pork pie disappeared in one go, followed shortly after by a forkful of salad.

Andy wiped his mouth clean. “Going back to your neighbour. Emily told me she would love to invite you to their house-warming party. Has that come up already? Organising this damn wedding is frying my brain. Adam and I have got our final meeting with the venue next week.”

An invitation? It didn't make any sense. Eric frowned. “Why on Earth does she want me there? I'm hardly a social butterfly.”

“Why shouldn't she?” The young man cocked his head slightly. “It's neighbourly, for one thing. Anyway, don't you want to see all of their garden? It extends back farther than you'd think.”

He recalled tantalising glimpses of a garden gone wild. “Hmm… suppose I'd better see it before the grand Andy Harper makeover.”

“Makeover?”

More mock affront. He smiled. “From the TV shows I've been watching, it seems the right word to use.”

“Maybe.”

They ate and drank in silence, allowing birds and sounds from distant neighbours to fill in.

“How long since you were last here, Eric? You didn't say earlier.”

“My accident.”

Andy spluttered, putting a hand up to catch fragments of bread and lettuce. “Sorry. April was the last time you were here?”

Eric raised both eyebrows.

“Shit! You sure?” The young man used a sheet of kitchen paper towel to clean up.

“Yes, and I recall a promise of film nights. Happened once.”

A horrified expression opposite might have appeared comical if the emotion behind it hadn't been genuine.

“Fuck me. Why didn't you remind us?” Lunch forgotten, the young man scrabbled around for his phone. “You doing anything later?”

Amusement mingled with regret. “No. Do I ever?” The inevitable daily appointment with his ancient TV hardly counted.

Eric continued to chew – chopped and seasoned egg in mayonnaise this time – while watching Andy pace up and down, his free hand gesticulating as he spoke on the phone.

“Right. That's settled.” His friend resumed his seat. “Adam and I are your hosts for this evening. Supper and a movie?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“No!”

The fierce tone made Eric feel both awkward and wanted.

“You let however many months pass without saying anything? You're getting a film night.”

“A punishment, then.”

He got a glare for that before Andy, smile playing on his lips, reached over for the last couple of sandwiches.


Filled to the brim with pasta, tomatoes, meatballs, and one-too-many slices of garlic bread, Eric's head drooped. The fact he wasn't particularly comfortable perched on a chair from the kitchen didn't matter. He was used to telly that didn't demand anything. It was there to fill the silence and offer the odd laugh. An hour spent following a complex, fast-moving drama had left his head in a spin.

“So what did you think, Eric?”

He jolted awake, eyes bleary and feeling a little confused. “Sorry?”

The two lads were curled up together on the sofa in a tangle of well-toned limbs. They'd offered him any of the armchairs, but Eric remembered only too well the struggles to get up from his stay in April. Admittedly, he wasn't nursing a leg injury this time.

Adam had changed out of work clothes into a pair of dark green linen shorts and a Pride tee. “I know it wasn't the film we promised. Russell T Davies' TV work is fantastic though. A queer man writing unashamedly for a queer audience.”

Andy leant forward. “And it means we'll have to keep on inviting you back. How many episodes are there?”

“Ten.”

Eric attempted to assemble his thoughts. The other two started a pretend quarrel about first, the actual number of episodes, then, which was the writer's best work. Under the cover of their noise and giggles, he glumly assessed his opinion of the programme. What was the ridiculous name? Tomato? No, Cucumber.


The 1960s had seen him growing into his teens – old enough to legally have straight sex by the end of the decade. The thought made him squirm. Pitifully ignorant and gauche he might have been, but he still knew girls weren't for him. Faint memories stirred of a couple of runners, boys who were lithe, fleet of foot, and everything he wasn't.

Drugs, sexual liberation, anarchy, and anything else that decade supposedly represented passed him and his parents by completely. For his mother, keeping every social convention within her means was the goal. Eric remembered the chilly front room – kept for guests and hardly ever used. In addition, she avoided talking about any area of the body she found embarrassing or shameful. Reminding him to clean his armpits and feet had been enough to turn her face a glowing red. Even now, if he was having a wash, the act of soaping his privates felt different from any other part of his body.

He recalled some pointless book she'd left him to find in his room one day, explaining the biological mechanics of having sex with a woman. He'd squirmed at the thought. The line drawings had managed to be graphic – to his mind at least – without giving necessary details. Any fumbling questions about 'men's matters' – as his mother called them – were quelled immediately by his father, a taciturn, distant man. Eric wondered how the two of them had managed to produce him, or any offspring.

Maybe his father had expected the playground to fill in any missing details? Which ignored the fact his son was a loner. Not that he would've have been given the right details in any case. Or maybe his father hadn't cared. As a family, they never talked about school, or him, or what he wanted to do with his life. His mother turned up to parents' evenings out of duty. What she'd discussed with the teachers, Eric had no idea. There'd been no great expectations of him on either side.

At that time, the local secondary modern school existed to give dullards like him a practical education. As if failing the grammar school entrance exam at eleven had meant he would never wish to learn academic things. He'd attended dutifully until his escape, aged fifteen, led to a gardening apprenticeship. A love of working with soil, nurturing plants, had been his mother's only useful, lasting contribution to him. He thought back. School had been a lonely, painful time – most of it now mercifully blank.


He stifled a sigh.

How long a distance did both childhood shadows stretch? His mother's inhibitions lingered, as if part of his genetic make up. Much of what he read on the internet about gay relationships and sex caused a surge of embarrassment and disbelief. And feelings of being left far behind. The freedom with which people now spoke of their bodies and desires was jaw-dropping. They used language, words, which he barely understood. Some articles left him with the impression he was a gay man in nothing but name.

Eric became aware of a growing silence. Looking up, he caught the tail end of a mimed conversation between his hosts. Andy hastily removed the concern from his face, replacing it with a smile. Eric wondered whether pity was also an element. That stung. He shuffled in his seat, attempting to gather in the thoughts whirling around inside his head.

Andy leant forward. “We're both completely mad, Eric. Sorry for kind of abandoning you.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “Some are more mad than others.”

“Anyway.” Andy ignored the interruption. “How did you find 'Cucumber'? Did you manage to keep up with all the characters? It's always tricky in the opening episodes.”

Eric agreed – that was easy enough.

“Living a queer life in Manchester's pretty different from here, isn't it?”

Andy's comment brought on a “Too fucking right” from Adam.

A pause followed.

With a jolt, Eric realised he'd always assumed the two lads lived a perfect life, queer or otherwise. They had good jobs, money, a big house. He knew little of their social activities. Andy occasionally mentioned meals out or trips to the theatre, or a visit to his folks. However, their other friends remained a mystery to him.

Andy smiled at him. “Eric?”

“Err…” Sourness from regret and something close to jealousy lingered, clogging his throat. That took him back to the time Andy was nearly a stranger. He blinked. Telling himself it was only a TV drama had failed to quell a surge of emotions, some more unpleasant than others. “It was different.” He searched for other neutral words. “Interesting?”

“Great!”

“I also found it… ehm, uncomfortable in places.” One word surfaced which was not safe. “Err… lewd is how I'd describe some of the story.”

Andy's grin faded. “What?”

From an angle, he noticed Adam's keen eyes watching.

Doubting his ability to make sense, Eric took a breath. “Right at the start. I didn't know where to look.”

Andy's head turned away for a moment. “You mean when the main guy's checking out other men in the supermarket?”

“Focussing on their–” Eric's tongue was suddenly too large for his mouth.

“Dicks?” The younger man shrugged.

A rush of heat flooded through Eric. He looked away.

“Yes, it's shallow and objectifying,” Andy continued. “Happens all the time though.”

Adam stirred, focusing on Eric. “It's also Davis showing that nowadays gay men feel safer to have those thoughts. Not everywhere, by any means. But somewhere like Manchester, it's also a reflection that there's a high enough concentration of gay men around to give it possibilities.”

He blinked, not daring to reply. In much of his mind, sex was still… shameful. Something never to be discussed. Another part of his upbringing he'd never shaken off.

“It's part of queer culture.” Adam grimaced. “Of course, not everyone does it.”

Andy interrupted. “Not everyone admits to doing it, you mean.”

The two lads exchanged knowing smirks.

Eric risked a question. “Everyone?”

Andy shrugged. “Suppose it might change as you get older, but yeah, we surreptitiously check out new talent, whether they're straight or gay.”

“It's more fun at Pride, particularly the bigger Prides, when you know it's safer to do so and you're the viewed as well as the viewer.” Adam's lips thinned. “Not much scope hereabouts.”

“Plus, I imagine, we're not exactly low-profile queers.”

Eric was glad the conversation had moved away from the TV programme. He needed some time on his own to sort through the rush of thoughts. He stifled a sigh. For a woman meek and perpetually in the shadow of her husband, his mother's influence remained surprisingly strong. Or maybe, his version of her views hadn't been challenged enough.

A question popped into his head. “Have you had any trouble while living here?”

A half shrug from Andy was followed by a grimace.

“Depends what you mean by trouble.” Adam stirred. “Are you sure that seat's OK?”

Eric had shuffled his backside a little on the chair, trying to find a different, possibly more comfortable spot.

Andy sprang up from the sofa. “There's a flattish cushion we use for my mum when she's here. Won't take a moment.”

He wondered whether his two friends were avoiding the subject of his question.


When they all settled again, Adam returned to his question without prompting. “Like most queer individuals, Andy and I have encountered homophobia and aggression on the streets. You've had your own troubles, Eric.”

“For us, it mostly happens in Hereford or larger cities like Birmingham.” Andy's tone sounded more subdued than usual.

“Yeah – like that time a couple of weeks ago when we visited the tailor's. Bastards.”

Eric let Adam's anger seep into him.

“As if it should be enough they've graciously allowed us to be together, to get married.” A snort of disgust followed. “But no. Ungrateful sods that we are, we expect to be able to live those lives, to love whomsoever we wish.”

“It's way beyond where things were when I was young.”

“That's very true, Eric.” Adam relaxed a little, a brief smile crossing his face. “In a world that's truly equal in matters of gender and sexuality, it shouldn't matter who or what you are, or who you wish to live your life with.”

Andy joined in. “There's this feeling of having our rights on sufferance; things which might be taken away again.”

Eric frowned – more thoughts to be chewed over later. He risked asking another question, more directly personal this time. “Do you have many friends here?”

A wide smile appeared on Andy's face. “Apart from you?”

He felt heat rising to his cheeks.

On the sofa, Adam gathered Andy into a loose hug. “Our friends are widely scattered. Most of them were made at university. It's a common situation.”

“Birmingham…” Andy was counting on his fingers. “Manchester and Sheffield for me; London mostly for you?”

“Norfolk and Devon. And Brussels.” Adam appeared faintly amused. “It's much easier to stay in touch and it gives a great excuse for a short break away.”

Eric watched a look of concern settle on Andy's face. “Who's the friend in Brussels?” He looked over his shoulder. “Are they on the list?”

“Wedding invite list?”

“What else?” Andy gave his fiancé a poke in the ribs.

“Owh!”

Sourness faded as a mini mock tussle took place, concluded by a kiss. Eric coughed.

Andy surfaced, pink and flushed. “Sorry. Again. God – we've hardly been on our best behaviour tonight.”

Eric stood up, resisting the impulse to look for his stick. “Thank you for a… an enjoyable evening. You given me a lot to think about.”

Andy eyed him. “I think that's code for we'll choose something different to watch next time.” He frowned. “And don't let us leave it so long either. We love having you here.” He held out an arm. “Come on. Your car awaits you.”


Later, Eric lay in bed, listening to the wind blowing through trees, his mind refusing to settle. He'd changed so much during the previous year. When it came to sex and relationships though, he still found himself echoing his mother's attitudes. A sigh escaped into the darkness. Was it a good thing? Most likely not. Confused snatches of thoughts and that evening's chat swirled around. He stared at the ceiling. The gulf between him and the present had never been wider.

After a while, he turned over. Maybe some things about him couldn't be fixed.

As always, your comments and speculations are welcome.

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

Much to ponder here ... I wonder for how many of my generation sex was rarely discussed at home. It wasn't that it was shameful just not talked about. I came of age during the 70's in a conservative suburban/rural area. We did have a version of sex ed in gym class, a couple of basic explanatory military training films on how our bodies functioned; interestingly the less worldly farm boys had a much better understanding of the mechanics of sex than us townies. Definitely nothing same sex, though many of us had experimented with another boy even if we never admitted to it. 

I don't think Adam and Andy have any idea how their behavior together makes Eric feel so out of touch.

Eric has come a long way and has yet a distance still to travel. 

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1 hour ago, Ivor Slipper said:

Good to get back to Eric and learn of his childhood and upbringing - the things that more or less shaped the course of his future life.

Yes. Of course, if I'd constructed a proper backstory for him in the first volume, you would've got some (if not most) of it then. 🤨😄

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58 minutes ago, dughlas said:

It wasn't that it was shameful just not talked about.

For me, I came from a family that thought it was both. Or at least, that's what I think in hindsight. I can't imagine Eric's experience was unusual. At a small town school in the 1970s, there was no sex ed, never mind relationship advice.

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I really hope that it is not too late for Eric - that he can have a loving relationship that can bring some colour to a life which has ironically for a gardener, been quite barren. 

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2 hours ago, Doha said:

can bring some colour to a life which has ironically for a gardener, been quite barren. 

An excellent way to put it. Yes, Eric's life has been colourless, flat, boring - everything a good garden shouldn't be. How much change is possible? We'll have to see.

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northie

Posted (edited)

14 hours ago, Mawgrim said:

Eric's backstory brought back so many memories.

I imagine it could do for a lot of people. That level of ignorance and shame (exemplified perfectly in Channel 4's It's A Sin) scarcely seems possible now. Is that good? Hell, yes.

Edited by northie
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As well written as the following was, it was painful to read, a reminder of times past in my family.

Drugs, sexual liberation, anarchy, and anything else that decade supposedly represented passed him and his parents by completely. For his mother, keeping every social convention within her means was the goal. Eric remembered the chilly front room – kept for guests and hardly ever used. In addition, she avoided talking about any area of the body she found embarrassing or shameful. Reminding him to clean his armpits and feet had been enough to turn her face a glowing red. Even now, if he was having a wash, the act of soaping his privates felt different from any other part of his body.

He recalled some pointless book she'd left him to find in his room one day, explaining the biological mechanics of having sex with a woman. He'd squirmed at the thought. The line drawings had managed to be graphic – to his mind at least – without giving necessary details. Any fumbling questions about 'men's matters' – as his mother called them – were quelled immediately by his father, a taciturn, distant man. Eric wondered how the two of them had managed to produce him, or any offspring.

Maybe his father had expected the playground to fill in any missing details? Which ignored the fact his son was a loner. Not that he would've have been given the right details in any case. Or maybe his father hadn't cared. As a family, they never talked about school, or him, or what he wanted to do with his life. His mother turned up to parents' evenings out of duty. What she'd discussed with the teachers, Eric had no idea. There'd been no great expectations of him on either side.

At that time, the local secondary modern school existed to give dullards like him a practical education. As if failing the grammar school entrance exam at eleven had meant he would never wish to learn academic things. He'd attended dutifully until his escape, aged fifteen, led to a gardening apprenticeship. A love of working with soil, nurturing plants, had been his mother's only useful, lasting contribution to him. He thought back. School had been a lonely, painful time – most of it now mercifully blank.

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A very strong chapter indeed.  Your well written journey through Eric's memories and out look were very stirring, not only for the insight into Eric, but also, that it makes us reflective about our own upbringing.  I'm sure you have readers of many different ages, and we each bring our own memories of the times in which we were raised, what we were taught, and what we have overcome on our own.  Very real and thought provoking.

 

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16 hours ago, drsawzall said:

As well written as the following was, it was painful to read, a reminder of times past in my family.

:hug:It wasn't that easy to write either.

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4 hours ago, CincyKris said:

This melancholic chapter is exactly what makes this story so real and so good.

👀 Thank you!  ☺️ I also find stories without shade or a little darkness ultimately unsatisfying.

4 hours ago, CincyKris said:

He may feel more out of touch now because he knows what he doesn't know

This is a perfect way of putting it. Yes. to be aware of what you've missed, what you can't have is painful.

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2 hours ago, Quixo said:

Very real and thought provoking.

Thank you. As I said elsewhere, if I were to write the first volume again, more of Eric's backstory would be already out there. This came out as a kind of infodump - relevant but still pretty dense. 

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This chapter hit very close to home. I grew up in the 1940s and 50s. This was a time before sex education in schools. Sex wasn't spoken of at home, by either my mother or father. (Nothing was even said about my stiff-with-cum pajamas in the weekly wash.) What I picked up on the streets was spotty, and I was too scared and ashamed to ask questions. I don't remember any specific incident or thing said, but I knew without a doubt that sex was dirty and shameful and that most shameful was to be homosexual. It was very stifling and confusing for a pre-pubescent and teenager trying to make sense of my sexual urges and fantasies.

 

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12 hours ago, frosenblum said:

This chapter hit very close to home.

:hug: I imagine it has for a number of readers. Inclusive, non-judgemental sex and relationship education is essential. The shame is that people have missed out on so much due to ignorance, discrimination, and a lack of empathy.

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