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    northie
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Never Too Late To Believe - 3. Encounters

A day of encounters. Some go better than others...

Drawing up to their new house, Emily Standish squeezed her car in between two contractors' vans. The Saturday morning traffic in and around the town had made her a good twenty minutes later than the ten-thirty she'd aimed for. Not that it created problems; it was more she disliked sitting in traffic jams, wasting time. Turning the engine off, sounds of metal implements hitting piping drifted down from the first floor. With the bathrooms being completely refurbished, it wasn't going to be a quiet day by any standard. She shrugged. The contractors could be trusted to get on until the next time they needed an executive decision.

A muffled ping from her trouser pocket announced the arrival of a text. A couple of moments later, she rolled her eyes – not for the first time, Tommy had already forgotten what they'd discussed at the breakfast table. She thumbed the call shortcut.

She was greeted by a suppressed squawk of outrage. Mum! I'm on the quiet carriage. No mobile phones?

“Hmm… that the only carriage on the train with space?” Her son, having spent an hour or two in Hereford, was now on his way to the house.

Yeah.

“Serves you right for texting then.”

Not so loud, Mum. Everyone's looking at me.

“Why don't you get up and move to the door area? Then we can have a proper conversation.”

A sigh and the sounds of various bags being moved were her only answer. Emily took the opportunity to get out of the increasingly warm car. Returning the handset to her ear, train noise announced that Tommy had accomplished the next stage. She bit her lip to suppress a snort and waited in the semi-shade of a laurel bush.

OK – what's so urgent you couldn't text?

“Sometimes it's easier to talk.” She heard a grunt. “You'll need to feed yourself later on. I said so at breakfast.”

Why?

“'cause I forgot to call in on Mr Whitehouse on the way home last night. We haven't met properly yet, and I want to warn him about those kids from yesterday.”

If he doesn't know about them already.

“Yeah, maybe. Afterwards I'm meeting a friend of a friend who lives locally. I hope she'll fill me in on the local do's and don't's.”

That's more important than feeding your son?

“Tommy! I'll leave you plenty of stuff in the carrier bag to make a salad.”

No pizza?

Emily sighed. “Anyway, to get this call back on track…” She gathered her thoughts. “If the washing machine or dishwasher are delivered while you're here, you'll have to message me. They shouldn't arrive 'til later, but you never know.”

OK.

“I may not reply immediately.”

Why?

Emily rolled her eyes. “Because I'm not fishing my phone out every two seconds to check. It's not polite when you're chatting to someone you don't know well.”

OK.

The hint of a sigh at the end was hardly unexpected. Sometimes she thought her son was still in his early teens.

“I'll see you later, darling.”

Bye, mum.

Emily checked she had everything, locked the car, and hurried across the road.


While waiting for Eric Whitehouse to answer her knock at the door, his newest neighbour admired the foxgloves growing along the path. A scattering of recently-planted shrubs further back offered a modicum of protection. The amplified buzz of bees delving deep into the enticing blooms produced a summery background hum. One fortunate insect emerged covered in pollen before diving into another flower. What she could see of the garden looked well-tended, though the grass was getting long.

The front door opened a little and a grey-haired head poked out. “I don't deal with canvassers or Jehovah's Witnesses.”

Emily smiled to herself; it was reminiscent of her late grandmother. “Mr Whitehouse? Emily Standish, from over the road.”

The door opened wider, revealing a gnarled, spare figure in shapeless clothing. Again, it reminded her of years ago.

“Hello again. I'm sorry to arrive unannounced. Is it convenient?”

A pair of eyes looked back at her guardedly. “Yes, I suppose so. You'll have to take the place as it is. I'm not one for faffing with dusters and such.” The old man stood aside. “I could make you a mug of tea.”

The offer was hardly wholehearted but welcome, nevertheless. She put on her best smile. “Yes, please. That would be lovely. It already feels a long time since breakfast.”


They went through to the main living area. A quick glance around noted the lack of modern amenities with the exception of a laptop perched on a battered wooden desk. She sat down in the armchair offered.

Her host disappeared into what appeared a small galley kitchen, though she couldn't see much beyond the doorway. A running tap and the subsequent hiss of the kettle proved tea was on its way.

She raised her voice. “You've had some work done recently?” The newness of the replacement window frames and clean guttering had caught her eye outside.

“Pardon?” He left the kitchen, closing the door behind him. “I can never hear anything over the kettle.”

“I said, the cottage has been worked on recently.”

“Huh!” A look of disgust appeared. “More like the landlord finally followed up on ten years' worth of repairs.”

“Oh… was that the charity's doing?”

“In a manner of speaking.” The old man turned to point at a framed photo sitting next to the laptop. “My young man's fiancé, Adam, did that. He's a city lawyer.”

Emily smiled. “Good for him. My son, Tommy, started the last academic year in a place that sounded like a deathtrap. He'd taken a friend's word as to its suitability.” She shook her head. “The landlord refused to get the gas boiler checked. Nigel and I insisted he do it; otherwise we threatened to get the local council involved. As it is, we've reported him to the university housing service as an unsuitable property owner.”

There was no immediate reply – the kettle had finally boiled. The old man merely nodded as he returned to the kitchen. Her tea had to be made.

A couple of minutes later, he emerged bearing a single enamelled mug. “You'll excuse me if I don't join you.”

She took the drink. Small chips out of the handle and fissures in the blue glaze suggested a mug which had been in use for a long time.

He sat down. “I've got errands to do soon. Another mug of tea'll make me want to go to the loo as soon as I get off the bus.”

Emily took a sip, blowing on the liquid to cool it. The dark, no-nonsense blend had a bitter, tannin taste. “I'd be happy to give you a lift into town.”

The offer received a cool reception. “Thanks, but I'm fine as I am. The bus takes me straight there.”

“That's OK.” She decided to broach another of her questions. “How often does your… helper visit? It's just we haven't noticed anyone parking at the cottage this week.”

A frown showed she'd touched another nerve.

“Thanks for your concern…” His tone suggested the opposite. “But Andy – that's his name – is on holiday for a week and a bit. I'm not some doddery fool who can't look after himself.” A glare headed in her direction. “While I appreciate Andy's help, I live my own life.”

“Mr Whitehouse, I wouldn't dream of suggesting otherwise.”

“Oh, call me Eric.”

Yet another source of irritation. Emily swallowed. “I want to be a good neighbour, Eric. I'd like to assist people such yourself who live on their own.” She changed the subject. “Those apricot-coloured foxgloves are lovely. And the cream ones – they make a nice change from the standard pink.”

That produced a small smile opposite. “I've recently rediscovered gardening. Another thing Andy's done for me. He organised the new path and the raised beds at the back,” One hand pointed through into the kitchen.

The pride in the man's voice allowed her to smile as well. “That's wonderful. Nigel, my husband, does the heavy duty work like hedge trimming; I merely get stabbed by rose bushes.”

A snort followed. “You should buy them thorn-proof gloves you can get.”

“I do, but they don't stretch up to my elbows.” She smiled with a shrug. “Daft of me not to wear proper clothes really.”

“You'll both have your work cut out getting that garden under control. It's been allowed to run wild.”

“Yes, I know. The house isn't in much better condition. We could do with someone to give horticultural advice – both Nigel and I are rank amateurs.”

The old man's face brightened. “As it happens, there is a chap I can recommend.”

“Oh, great. Who?” Emily relaxed a little – at last she sensed a positive connection between them.

“My young man – that's his day job. Though he makes it sound posh by calling himself a landscape designer and consultant.”

“I suppose he's making a distinction between somebody coming in to mow the lawns and a guy who'll do the thinking and planning for the whole space. Thank you, Eric. Do you have… Andy's details to hand?”

The old man levered himself out of the chair.

A few moments spent sorting through a heap of clutter and he produced a cheap, tatty notebook. “It's only recently I've had any need to keep names and phone numbers.” He thumbed through a number of pages – the notebook was evidently used for other things as well.

Emily contemplated having nobody to call a friend or even an acquaintance.

“Where is the wretched thing? … There! Finally.” He handed the book over, one forefinger showing her the place. “It'll be good to have another neighbour around, once you're settled.”

She noted Andy Harper's details on her phone. “It won't be for a while yet but I hope we'll to know each other better.”

The man seemed to gather himself. “I'm sorry for being bad-tempered earlier. I nearly drove Andy away at the start, though it was partly his fault. ”

“That's OK.” She took a breath. “There was another reason for checking you're OK.”

“Really?” Her host sat back down with the notebook clutched in one hand.

“Yesterday afternoon, a couple of our contractors cleared some youths out of your garden. It must've been while you out for a walk, I think.”

“The little bastards!”

“I meant to tell you on my way home, but it got lost, I'm afraid. Sorry. Have you had any issues previously?”

Eric tapped his hand against the arm of the chair. “Not for a bit. Andy saw them off the last time.” He sat up straight. “Never had much to lose before; I have now.”

“Mr Whitehouse… Eric, call your friend, or me, or one of the men on site. I don't think you should tackle them on your own. In fact, here's my number.” Emily showed him the screen with her contact details.

There was a pause while the old man found his glasses and a pencil stub for the notebook. “Thank you.”

“It's my pleasure. With any luck, they'll bother someone else next time.” She stood up. “I won't take up any more of your time, Eric. I'm running a little late. Thanks for the recommendation, and the tea, of course.”

The old man mumbled something which she took to be a polite response.

“We'll see you around.” She held out a hand which was accepted this time. “Bye.”

“Goodbye.”


Felicity Partington sat in her usual spot at the back of the cafe, nursing a small standard coffee. That expense might be excused where another, more expensive drink wouldn't. A further glance at her watch told her that it was coming up to midday. Her guest was late. Lunchtime at home happened at one o'clock sharp. Fortunately today, it was only a salad, most of which she'd prepared earlier. She bit her lip. Oliver, as head of the household, would examine every detail of her Saturday morning shopping trip on her return. The chances of tripping up in her account would be vastly increased if she were late. She picked at a thumb cuticle.

The cafe's front door opened once more, letting in the noise from the street. A casually-dressed woman with a tote bag stood at the entrance, calmly surveying all the occupied tables. Felicity paid attention. Was this the woman? She grimaced. In the half minute or so that had passed, she would've said 'sorry' several times, apologising for standing there. Embarrassment would also have been guaranteed. The unknown woman finally looked in her direction, squinting into the comparative darkness.

Felicity half raised one hand before withdrawing it. The prospect of being faced by such confidence was unnerving. Too late – she was spotted. The other woman eased past other customers and their clutter with grace and good humour, getting ever closer. Felicity stood up out of courtesy, an uncertain smile hovering on her lips.

Arriving at the table, her guest spoke first. “Felicity?”

“Yes.”

“I'm Emily Standish. How lovely to meet you.”

An open, friendly smile was accompanied by a couple of light kisses aimed at her cheeks. Felicity couldn't quite stop herself from flinching as the other woman leant in close. She caught a flicker of surprise in return.

They both sat down.

“Thanks for making the time to meet me – I appreciate it. So sorry about being late though. I hope it isn't an inconvenience.” Another smile headed her way.

She shifted in her seat. “I am a bit short on time actually.” Another surreptitious check reinforced the fact. Her heart thumped. “My husband prefers lunch to be served when he's ready. I don't like to disappoint him.” An unwanted memory of the last time that happened ambushed her. Blood leached from her face. The table's shady location fortunately disguised most of the loss of colour.

“That's quite alright. I won't order anything then. My student son was outraged this morning when I suggested he make his own lunch. Men.”

Despite the innocuous reply, Felicity felt the other woman's scrutiny – friendly but not easily fooled. She sipped at the cooling dregs of her coffee.

Emily Standish took the hint. She produced her phone. “Let's at least make sure we have each others' contact details. Maybe next time we can do lunch?” The phone pinged several times. “Oh, I'm sorry – that'll be my son. Not about lunch–” She grimaced. “Just the never-ending series of deliveries for the new house.”

While the other woman chattered on, Felicity gloomily contemplated the minute chance of being able to eat lunch away from home.

“Anyway, he can wait. It's so nice to have a potential friend in a new town.”

They swapped numbers and email addresses. She'd already given this possibility some thought. Emily's details were to be spread piecemeal across several non-personal contacts. First name in one spot, surname in another, and so on. Saving one entry and opening the next, she became conscious of being watched.

She flushed. “Ah... err…”

“It's me who should apologise.” Emily held up her hands. “I'm just the same: no sooner do you open up your contacts than a sudden editing urge rolls over you.”

Once again, the save made Felicity wonder.

“Anyway, what kind of social media presence do you keep up, Felicity? Mine's minimal, but I find you miss out if you're not signed up to something. People expect it nowadays, don't they?”

Her flush reignited. “Ehm… I don't do anything. My husband says they're all a pernicious waste of time.” She shrugged apologetically. “I find it's best not to rock the boat.”

“Yes, I agree. Compromise is fundamental to a relationship. He does have a point – my son and daughter dedicate so much time to their lives online. If something hasn't made it to there, it didn't happen.”

Felicity laughed. “So true. Adam and his fiancé, Andy, are the same when they're not working.” She gathered her things together.

Her companion stood up, allowing her to follow.

Emily put her phone away. “By the way, your Andy isn't the young man whose client was featured on the local paper, is he?”

Felicity's glow was now more internal. “Yes, he is. Meeting Eric Whitehouse has changed both their lives, I believe.”

“So it seems.”

“Sorry this has been so rushed…”

“That's quite all right. Next time, we'll get to know each other better.”

“I hope so.” A genuine smile broke out despite her reservations. “Bye, Emily.”

“Bye! I'll be in touch.”

Felicity allowed the other woman to leave the cafe before she hurried out towards the High Street. Thoughts, impossible thoughts, of a new friendship swirled around. Could she take the risk?


The following day in York was one of drizzle and low cloud. After a leisurely brunch, the two men wandered around the narrow, winding streets of the mediaeval city, browsing shop windows. They paused outside an independent men's outfitters.

Andy peered closely at an embroidered waistcoat. “I love that. Look at the colours – they're so jewel-like.”

Adam eyed the price tag. “So they should be. Handmade or not, that's one expensive piece of near-useless clothing.”

“Spoilsport. I wonder about our wedding. That'd look great with a plain suit. Maybe in one of the highlighted colours.” The smirk that accompanied this thought showed it not to be entirely serious.

Adam rolled his eyes. “Hmm… we haven't really discussed that part of the day yet. Let me just say, if you propose we wear matching anything – other than our rings – I'm out of here.”

A look of horror passed over the other man's face. “You can't possibly mean that! I was going to surprise you with–”

His attempt to describe some sartorial monstrosity soon dissolved into helpless giggles. Pulses of loving affection rolled through Adam. A quick glance confirmed the street was too crowded for him to kiss his lover. Even touching felt too demonstrative. Andy's comedic streak never failed to hit him in the heart.

“You daft bastard.” He examined the waistcoat again – it was a brilliant display of applied craftmanship. “Look, if you really like it, I'll gift it you as a wedding present.”

Andy's jaw dropped. “I was only joking.”

“I know.” They connected momentarily, eyes never leaving the other's face. “But I recognise that expression. You'd really like it, wouldn't you?” Two quick, shallow nods comprised the answer he needed. More love and affection blossomed in return. “Let's continue having a look around; we can pick it up on the way back.”

As they turned away, Andy frowned. “What should we get Eric?”

“Oh, love. I imagine the best present Eric'll get will be your return.”

“What d'you mean? He's sounded fine, apart from you know what.”

Adam shook his head. “Eric's proud and in his limited way, resourceful. But I bet you, he's counting the days until you're back. Although he'd never admit it, you're woven into the fabric of his day-to-day existence.”

“Dependent, you mean?”

“Well, that's one word for it.”

“Shit – I'd never thought of it in that way.”

Adam shrugged. “You're part of each other's life now. An important part. It's not surprising he misses you.”

“He'd let us know if he was in trouble though.”

Adam didn't trust himself to say 'Yes'. He smiled instead. “Meantime, I know what he'd like: a couple of Yorkshire Fat Rascals.”

“Betty's!”

He rolled his eyes. One of Betty's many specialities was an enormous rock cake with candied peel, decorated with glacé cherries and almonds. “Yes, another excuse for Betty's. But that's all we're buying.”

“No, we're not. All this non-shopping is exhausting. I need tea.”

“You always do.”

If you're enjoying Eric's story, please consider recommending it to your friends or by clicking the button on the story's front page.

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

dughlas

Posted (edited)

Eric knows and admits he's a bit irascible, it's part of his charm. I imagine the connection with the new neighbors to be a plus for him. While Andy is his mainstay someone nearer to hand is a godsend. I'm waiting to read how he and Tommy get on, well I suspect, though it might take a little to and fro at first.

I hadn't thought things quite so desperate for Felicity. Seeing her thus was alarming. I don't think Adam realizes the extent of his father's abuse. Hopefully Emily can aid in bringing closure to that relationship.

I have a fondness for waistcoats. I'm thinking this one would bring a smile to my face as well.

Edited by dughlas
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The extreme skittishness made me think the woman was Adam’s mother long before she was identified. I was surprised that she was waiting for Emily. I don’t get why though. Is Emily some sort of social worker sent to contact Felicity (why do I immediately think of Felicity Kendal – I never watched the US TV show, Felicity) about her abusive husband.


For Eric, that was an incredibly warm welcome to the neighborhood to Emily! 😉

Eric is making progress, inviting Emily inside for a cup of tea (is that his only mug?). Emily doesn’t know that one way to break through Eric’s tough shell is to talk to him about gardening. It’s a topic he feels comfortable talking about and has expertise on. 😉

 

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7 minutes ago, dughlas said:

I have a fondness for waistcoats. I'm thinking this one would bring a smile to my face as well.

Yes, they aren't really that much use except to lift an otherwise pedestrian suit. Like ties, they're a chance for expression. 

Felicity is one of the darker threads to this tale. She's taking quite a chance meeting someone new. It understandably makes her nervous if also excited.

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4 minutes ago, northie said:

The extreme skittishness made me think the woman was Adam’s mother long before she was identified. I was surprised that she was waiting for Emily. I don’t get why though. Is Emily some sort of social worker sent to contact Felicity

As I say in the story, Felicity's name is offered as someone to introduce Emily to the general do's and don'ts of small town life. A social courtesy, and a chance to make a friend on both sides.

I think Emily has now made the connection between Eric and gardening. 😉 Both in a practical sense and through his friendship with Andy.

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I suspect that if Emily ever gets inside of Eric’s defenses, she’ll find herself with a good friend. He’s not one to forget those who treat him with dignity and respect. I imagine he could give just as good advice as Andy; but leave it to his natural self-effacement to volunteer his young man. Great chapter!

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1 hour ago, Parker Owens said:

He’s not one to forget those who treat him with dignity and respect.

He's not. Whether it's supermarket checkout assistants, his former homehelp, or anyone else, Eric's had so few friends in his life, he values them all.

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Tea and a handshake. Emily is in good graces with Eric. I'm glad because I feel she'll keep an eye out for him. And I'm sure Andy will be working at her house shortly.  I do hope that Felicity takes a chance and makes friends with Emily. I had to Google to find out about the Yorkshire Fat Rascals and the second entry down was for a copy cat recipe from..............BETTY'S!  Another wonderful chapter @northie.  

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11 hours ago, spyke said:

I had to Google to find out about the Yorkshire Fat Rascals

When I'm on holiday in York, I can scarcely pass Betty's without going in to buy one (or two!) Fat Rascals. They're great. 😋

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I was wondering too how Emily got in contact with Felicity. Someone who knows both of them or in a more roundabout way ? If a mutual acquaintance, then it could be a plot to helt Felicity.

I'm glad Eric can make the effort now to accept a friendly contact. Emily could be a good resource for him, when the family moves in.

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1 hour ago, Timothy M. said:

I was wondering too how Emily got in contact with Felicity.

Hmm... my hint was obviously too throwaway.  🤨😄 Here's Emily talking to her son early on in the chapter:

Afterwards I'm meeting a friend of a friend who lives locally. I hope she'll fill me in on the local do's and don't's.

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On 10/10/2021 at 12:55 PM, northie said:

Hmm... my hint was obviously too throwaway.  🤨😄 Here's Emily talking to her son early on in the chapter:

Afterwards I'm meeting a friend of a friend who lives locally. I hope she'll fill me in on the local do's and don't's.

Yeah, but why did the friend (who herself lives locally, so she could give advice too) suggests meeting Adam's mother ? is it to help her by introducing her to Emily ? That's what I'm hoping.

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@Timothy M. Now I understand. Kinda.  🤨😄 It is the friend of a friend who lives locally, not the friend. I've looked at the sentence again and can't see any way to change it or the punctuation to make things clearer. 

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At any rate I think it will be with Emily’s help that Felicity will be able to make the break from her husband of course also A&A will be behind her as well.

I am glad Erik has allowed Emily to enter his home and offer tea it will be nice for him to have someone so nearby in case of trouble or if he needs a helping hand with something and Andy is at hand.

All caught up now I am. Looking forward to the next and subsequent chapters.  Your writing is engaging.

Q

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12 hours ago, quttzik said:

At any rate I think it will be with Emily’s help that Felicity will be able to make the break from her husband

I couldn't possibly say. :X You'll just have to keep reading, like everyone else.  ;) 

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I had forgotten about Adam's father, he deserves the same treatment those malicious teens deserve, only I'd see his bollocks were removed first!. 

Quite frankly, that man should be locked up and the key tossed in the bin...

I believe Eric just may have landed a gardening consultant's job...humm?

There goes the diet....

https://www.bettys.co.uk/cakes/fat-rascals

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2 hours ago, northie said:

😄  You and @spyke both? And me of course, whenever I'm within reach of York. Fortunately, I don't bake. 

Ha! You made me and @drsawzall curious and then hungry with that reference. I'll have to settle for baking because York would be a very long reach for me--a transatlantic reach! LOL. 

Edited by spyke
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3 hours ago, northie said:

So all my fault? That's OK - I can live with that.  😉😄

yorkshire-fat-rascal-box-of-4-2000703.jp

Yep, all your fault. LOL  All is forgiven as long as you keep gifting us with your wonderful stories. 

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