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    northie
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Never Too Late To Believe - 5. Consequences

Consequences don't just have to be bad.

Andy yawned cavernously and stretched as far as he could within the confines of the seatbelt. Sunshine pouring into the car from his side did little to keep him awake.

Adam glanced sideways. “Your idea to get up at the crack of dawn. That's pretty damn early at this time of year.”

“I know. It's the least we can do though. This way we'll be home about the time Eric'll have finished his breakfast.”

“Assuming he's had any sleep.”

“The shock will have left him exhausted. Even if he wanted to stay up all night, his body would've objected. Good thing too.”

They looked at each other.

“After we've spent some time with him, I'll go round and see exactly what needs doing, and how A Helping Hand might assist.”

The southbound M1 at something past six was mercifully free-flowing. Adam engaged cruise control. “Don't forget we can chip in ourselves.”

“Of course, but I'm keen Eric doesn't feel he's in debt to us yet again. If there's no other way, fine.”

“His new neighbour–”

“Emily Standish.”

“Yeah – she sounded more than capable.”

“But she isn't us. You know Eric – he doesn't take well to strangers interfering in his life.” Andy smiled as he recalled their first disastrous encounter. “We're close friends now; family almost.”

“I imagine Eric will have been grateful for help and support from any quarter.” Adam sighed. “I know I would have, in his position.”

“God, I'm so glad she was there to tell him, rather than Eric discovering it for himself.” Andy rubbed his eyes. “Pity it took Emily so long to reach us.”

“Hmm…” His fiancé concentrated on overtaking a clump of slow-moving trucks. “She did have her hands full – Eric, the police, asking the neighbours if they'd noticed anything.”

“Police!” Andy spluttered. “For fuck's sake. They eventually sent two community support officers who did sod all by the sound of it.”

Adam breathed out through his nose. “That's something it'll give me great pleasure to pursue. I hear on the grapevine, the area commander's an idiot.”

“But if there's nothing to go on?”

“Apart from the incident on Saturday.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Anyway, back to Emily. Eric didn't get back until one. Apparently, he stopped off at the cafe to have a chat, then there was a problem with the buses.”

“The delights of public transport. Then the mobile signal in Whitby was crap. Remember, I couldn't get Maps to load?”

“Yeah, and we had an early supper at that pub in the middle of nowhere. Think about it, love. Even if she'd contacted us then, we wouldn't have got back here until late in the evening. Eric's been in good hands.”

“Bet she didn't give him a hug. Or a kiss.”

Adam snorted. “You jealous?”

“Excuse me?” Andy sat up more before smiling sheepishly. “Well, maybe. A little.”

“Eric will welcome our kisses any time. Emily was on the ground; we weren't.”

Andy stared out of the side window. “It's the damage to the garden that upsets me most. Eric was so pleased with what we achieved.”

“Maybe it was the easiest target? Looks dramatic but isn't too difficult to put right. Emily kept apologising for the fact it was their mallet which was used.”

“Why wasn't there more damage to the cottage?”

Adam shrugged and shook his head. “Who knows. Lack of time, being spooked by something, or maybe a face glimpsed inside the cottage? Be thankful there were no smashed windows.”

“Thankful?” Andy scowled.

“Yeah. If they'd wanted to breach the cottage, there could have been an enormous amount of destruction inside.”

“The graffiti's bad enough.”

“It'll come off hopefully. Some people find it very difficult to stay in a place that's been burgled and ransacked. Eric's been spared that, at least.”

“Not sure he'll see it in such a positive way.”

“Maybe not at this moment.” Adam glanced at one of the roadside signs. “The M42 turning's next. Let's hope we beat the rush hour traffic around Birmingham.”


A couple of hours later, they pulled up outside Eric's cottage. No sooner did a weary Andy haul himself out of the car than a woman called his name.

“Coo-ee! Mr Harper!”

He spun round to see Eric's next-door neighbour hurrying down her path, the inevitable dog following along. The Pekinese yapped and tugged at its lead, rebuffing any attempt to calm it. The din made him wince. Out of the corner of his eye, Andy noticed his fiancé lock the car. Without pausing, Adam strode up the path towards Eric's front door.

Andy donned a polite expression summoned as the woman arrived, out of breath.

“Deborah Turner, Mr Harper. We have met previously.”

The dog growled and snuffled round his ankles.

“Come away, Bella.” A nervous smile appeared. “I'm so glad to see you're both here. What dreadful times. Is Mr Whitehouse all right? I hardly slept a wink last night with all the worry.”

“As you see, we've only just arrived back from a holiday.” Andy indicated the cycles attached to the car's roof-rack. “I gather Eric's fine. A neighbour from across the road very kindly helped him yesterday–”

“Oh, yes. I've been away visiting my sister, so we've yet to be introduced. Who knows, maybe they'll change their mind now about staying.”

“Mrs Turner, vandalism of this kind might happen anywhere. I know it's upsetting; our town is still a very safe place to live. It's not a sign of drug dealing, gangs, or anything else you might think emanates from urban areas.” Andy looked up to see Adam going inside.

“But it's such a shock.”

His eyebrows went up. “Yes, I believe Eric is quite distressed. And that's why Adam and I are here now.” He edged past her.

“A police officer asked if I'd seen anything unusual. How could I have done? The taxi only dropped me back home half an hour before they came.”

“You must excuse me, Mrs Turner. Eric needs us. I'm sure there won't be any further trouble.”

“Of course.” Her disappointment was evident in the tone. “Please give my sincere commiserations to Mr Whitehouse.”

The final sentence was addressed to Andy's back. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement and kept going.


His brisk pace slowed to a halt as he came to the cottage. “Jesus!”

Even after the previous evening's descriptions and photos, the destruction made him stare. The foxgloves, all the shrubs in their first year, flattened or damaged beyond salvaging. And then there was the graffiti; fluorescent yellow streaks, lines, and curves, only sometimes forming themselves into words. Brickwork and windows, every flat surface within reach seemed defiled. He didn't stop to look further, but the 'Bitch!' scrawled over the front door and its surroundings did make him pause.

“Weird choice of insult.” As if the vandals had other issues in mind during the rampage.

Putting the thought aside, he entered the cottage. Adam bent down to Eric, seated in his usual chair, handing him a mug of tea. Pale and drawn, the older man appeared somehow that much more vulnerable. Spotting Andy in the doorway, Adam gently reclaimed the drink and placed it on the side table.

A weak smile greeted Andy as he crouched down in front of the chair. “You poor soul. What a thing to happen.” Straightening up, he hoisted Eric gently to his feet and enveloped the old man in a hug. Andy let his arms do the talking with their promise of reassurance and comfort.

It continued for a few minutes until a muffled “Gerroff!” made him stand back and loosen his grip. “Sorry.”

Eric's face wore one of its familiar frowns. “I don't know about you, lad, but I need to breathe occasionally.”

The first genuine smile of the morning lit up Andy's face. “Funny, that.” After a moment, he continued. “I've missed you, and then all this.”

“Well, you don't need to take it out on an old man. Half squeezing me to death won't solve anything.”

A snigger from the side where Adam stood, appeared to offer agreement.

Not giving up, Andy gathered his friend into a looser embrace. He planted soft kisses, first on each cheek, then on Eric's forehead. In the loving silence, a hint of tears gleamed in both pairs of eyes.

Eric wiped his away with usual brusqueness. “I'm over-tired.”

“And still upset, I imagine.”

Both of them sat down, while Adam returned to the kitchen for more drinks.

“How long did Emily Standish stay with you?”

Eric took a sip or two of his neglected tea. “Until late afternoon, what with all the comings and goings. Her boy, Tommy, offered to stay later, but I'd had enough of folk by then. Plenty to chew over without someone hovering at my elbow.”

Adam returned with a single mug. The liquid was about the same shade of rich brown as its container. He mouthed, “No milk left”, in a response to Andy's horrified stare.

Andy put the mug to one side. “When you've finished your tea, do you want to come and have another look round outside with me?”

A shrug was the only reply.

“I can do it by myself, if you'd rather.”

“What makes you think I want to see it all again?”

“We could talk about repairs and reinstating the garden.” Andy chewed at his lip. “Either way, I need to take photos for the police and the insurance guys.”

“Hnh.” Eric's face fell further. “And what insurance might that be?”

“You're not insured?” His eyes widened.

“What d'you think? Since when have I possessed cash to spend on something like that?”

Andy flushed red. “I'm so sorry, Eric. Another thing I never picked up on. Doesn't the estate insure the building?”

Another shrug was a clear indicator of Eric's state of mind.

Adam interrupted. “That's a matter I can follow up. And I'll get on to the police.” He moved over to ruffle his partner's hair.

The reassurance calmed Andy though he still blamed a lack of thoroughness for the omission.

His fiancé appeared determined to lighten the mood. “Let's change the subject for a little while. Eric, how about you hearing some details of our adventures in Yorkshire?”

Eric gave himself a shake. “You mean there's things you haven't told me about? Why not? It'll do me good to hear about nice things for a change.”


A few minutes before nine, Brian Metcalfe was getting ready to open up the cafe. He saw no point in standing idle behind a counter for a couple of hours while commuters and office workers spent their money at over-priced coffee shops on the High Street.

Sandra poked her head round the door from the flat. “I've just seen a post on my timeline about Mr Whitehouse.”

“What?” He paused stocking up the pastry display. “I can't imagine him posting anything online. Unless it's about those videos he did?”

“No, it is about him though. Apparently someone's vandalised his cottage and the garden. Didn't you say the garden had been renovated?”

“Bastards! Yes, a bunch of students from the FE College spent a couple of days there.” Brian stared at his wife, only realising the tray in his hand was tilting when she pointed it out. “Whoops.”

“There isn't much detail of what happened, but there's a link to a donation page.”

“Who's posted it? Sounds like a scam to me.”

“Cynic.” Sandra came to give him a hand with the final touches.

They worked well, getting the job done between them by instinct.

“Anyway–” She gave the glass serving counter one last clean. “I checked it out. The host is one of the well-known sites; the appeal has information that's carried elsewhere but the picture's new. A couple of the supporting comments make me think the individual lives locally.”

“Hmm… still not convinced.” Brian pulled on his full-length, navy-coloured apron. “How much has been raised? Let me guess – a fiver?” He changed the door sign to 'Open'.

His wife smirked. “A couple of hundred.”

“What?”

“And more came in while I watched.” Sandra grinned at his look of amazement. “As people share the link, I imagine that'll not be the end of it.”

“Blimey.”

The first customers came in, keen for their morning pick-me-up. Brian blinked and hurried to take his place behind the counter. The day had begun.


“Mum!”

The call came from the kitchen. Emily gave up trying to decide between the various sample streaks of paint adorning the hallway. She sighed. Why was it so difficult to select just one? The fact they were all heritage shades didn't make her task any easier. Steam Engine's mid-grey was too dark and cold – she should never have bothered with that one. She quite liked the muted pink of Pavilion, though Ballet Shoes was also attractive.

She stuck her head round the kitchen door. “Yes, darling?”

“You've gotta come and see this.” Her son stared at the phone in his hand, a broad smile lighting up his face.

“What?” The day's resolution not to get distracted was already crumbling and it was only mid-morning.

“You know that status update of mine I told you about over breakfast?”

“Err–” Emily dragged her mind away from redecorating. “Something about the vandalism?” This was a guess.

“Yeah. Look!” He thrust the phone in her direction.

She resigned herself to getting involved. A squint at the screen made her stop and read as much as she could before returning to the first thing that caught her eye. “What's this four hundred quid got to do with anything?”

“Mum!” Tommy frowned. “Dad and I explained it to you.”

“Yes, you probably did. I've got a lot on my mind at the moment.”

“Details are on the screen.” He looked at her. “Pinch out if you can't read something.” Tommy jumped to his feet.

“Of course.” Hastily, she gave it a try and found the print easier to read. “Can't do this on mine.”

“That's cos your phone's ancient, Mum.”

Emily gave a quick eye roll before returning to the screen. “Gosh – so this money's for Mr Whitehouse?”

“Yep. What time's it now? Eleven?”

She nodded.

“So in, like, twelve hours, that's what has been raised. Most of it's been this morning.”

“The power of social media.”

“Great, isn't it?” Her son retrieved the phone. “It doesn't seem to matter that we're not an NGO or a charity. Dad helped me set up the account after you'd gone to bed.”

Emily took a seat; Tommy followed suit.

“OK… wonderful as this is, love, you need to keep track of all the monies and what happens to them.”

“Really?”

“Tommy. Yes – people have trusted you with their cash. What if someone decides to complain to the authorities?”

He shrugged. “They wouldn't give a toss.”

“That's not the point. You should be open and transparent about what happens to the donations. In fact–” She got her own phone out. “I'll make a note. Check whether there're things we should be doing.”

“Mum.” Both hands signalled his disbelief.

“That's not negotiable. When do you intend to tell Mr Whitehouse about his good fortune?”

Tommy drew breath and let it go. “Dunno. Tomorrow, maybe? Or perhaps this evening.”

“That'll be some good news for him.”

“Yeah.” The young man grinned. “Can't wait to see his face when I do.”


At the cramped, spartan offices of A Helping Hand, Claire Watson stretched and yawned. Even with the tatty window blinds down, the room was very warm. Lunch called, and several breaths of fresh air. She had the place to herself for a change – her fellow toiler, Mike, was out visiting potential clients.

Before getting up out of the chair, she allowed herself to replay snippets of the recently-concluded discussion with Andy Harper. Her head shook. There was no way the charity could be seen to favour one client above all the others. Only the other month, Mike turned down a request for assistance after a kitchen fire. They weren't a replacement for the council's Adult Social Care workers, or the government's tight-fisted emergency loan scheme. Not that Andy had really expected her to say 'Yes'. One finger stroked circles on a cheek while she thought. Maybe Andy was becoming too attached to his client? She made a note on Andy's record to remind him about professional separation.

Memories of a phone call popped up; one which involved a keen, or pushy, journalist from the regional daily. Then the discussion had centred on Eric Whitehouse and the new videos. She'd declined the interview, deciding enough publicity had already been garnered to last them for months. Might the paper be interested in a personal, hard luck story instead? She scrabbled around and under the laptop, looking for one out of many slips of paper which was the sole record of the number.

“Fuck. Why aren't I ever tidy?” The number eluded her. “Lunch first – that's what I need.”

Reaching for her sunglasses, the landline rang. She scowled before picking up with her usual efficiency. “Hi. A Helping Hand. Claire speaking.”

Claire? Great. Briony Walker from the Herefordshire Times. Is it a good time for you?

Claire marvelled at coincidences. “Yeah – I can spare a few minutes. I'll die of starvation if it's any longer.”

A chuckle. Busy morning? Without waiting for a reply, the reporter continued. Eric Whitehouse is in the news again. First there's the vandalism, then an online appeal has raised five hundred pounds in a little over twenty-four hours.

Claire's eyebrows shot up; Andy hadn't mentioned anything about collecting donations. She wondered who else could have put it motion.

I'm sure with the weight of the Herefordshire Times behind it, we could increase that amount substantially. D'you think Eric would agree to an interview now?

“I can try. Eric is a private man with little taste for publicity.”

He did those videos for you.

“Yeah.” Claire sniggered. “And I don't think he'd do so again.”

And we'd like to talk with Andy Harper as well. Obviously, Eric would be the story, front and centre, but other voices can help lift the piece. That be OK?

“You'd have to ask Andy. I'll pass your details on to him. He and his partner have only just got back from holiday.”

So he wasn't around when the incident happened?

Claire weighed the question before giving her answer. “Like all our case workers, Andy is a volunteer; he also has a job. He is entitled to time away like anyone else.”

Of course, of course. Could you contact Eric for me soon as? For this to be a successful story, we need to be in there, adding value to the tale as it unfolds.

“I'll try. Speak to you later.” Putting the phone down, Claire gathered her stuff and headed out, wondering how she might persuade Eric Whitehouse to give an interview.


At the end of a long day, Eric sat in his chair with the TV on. The drama being acted out passed over his head entirely. He stared at the screen without seeing it, occasionally taking sips from a glass of water. His stomach felt hollow, yet he scarcely had the energy to get out of the chair, never mind produce a meal.

“Maybe I could order something in?” Not that he had a clue how to do it. He recalled Andy clutching a bunch of menus when he first visited. “Or the pub?”

He decided against the pub. There were too many things occupying his mind, and he was likely to be a talking point. A bark of laughter followed. If he went ahead with the newspaper interview in the morning, that would be a shadow of what would follow. Unexpected determination rose up – people needed to see what vandalism did to others. A quiet voice at the back of his mind also wondered whether Rob Bairstow might read it. There he went again – building up expectations on the basis of nothing at all.

Giving himself a shake, he remembered the postman handing him the weekly dose of advertising rubbish. Surely at least one of those would be for a takeaway of some kind? He found a gaudy sheet promising swift deliveries of pizza. Equipped with reading glasses, Eric sat at the desk and studied the options. Writing down his choices, he picked up the phone, dialled, and took a deep breath.

Your comments, reflections, and anything else you may have to say are always welcome. Join in the conversation.

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

Sad to see the destruction.  But great to see some chipping in to help. Tom and his father starting the donation site and bringing in som 500 pounds. The newspaper wanting to do the story that should help garner even more donations and maybe put some motivation behind the police the won’t want to be seen in the media as not doing anything.  Great chapter looking forward to the next.

 

Q

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While the vandalism is awful, it's heartwarmimng to see a wider circle of support developing around Eric. How fortuitous that Eric and Emily had met earlier, had it been this event that brought them together Eric might have been less open to their help.

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5 hours ago, quttzik said:

But great to see some chipping in to help.

Yes, indeed. A part of the internet Eric doesn't know about at all. 

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5 hours ago, dughlas said:

How fortuitous that Eric and Emily had met earlier, had it been this event that brought them together Eric might have been less open to their help.

Yes, we all know Eric's reactions to strangers. 

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An email comment from a regular reader:

Quote

Eric is a good example of some of the pitfalls of being old and/or poor. Until Andy started helping him, he didn’t have a computer or internet access – many efforts to publicize programs to assist the needy are done online (such as rental assistance during the Covid pandemic) because the people in charge really have no idea what it’s like to be poor. There is a San Francisco Supervisor who attempted to reach every single resident in his district to let them know what kinds of benefits were available to keep them from being evicted due to Covid – he actually got volunteers to knock on doors in an effort to avoid missing anyone.

There’s a meme about the US that suggests that Republicans want to make sure that not even a single person receives benefits they don’t ‘deserve’ while Democrats want to ensure that not even one person is denied benefits they need.


It’s been pointed out that the ‘heartwarming’ stories about social media fundraising to assist the needy are really exposing the cracks in our social safety net that fails to provide that help. Unfortunately, only the internet savvy can take advantage of these new strategies. And People of Color are disproportionately ignored in missing persons cases that become viral. There was an apparent spate in the media of white girls who were kidnapped in the Bay Area in the Eighties, but numerous similar cases of Black and Brown people were never reported on during that same period. LGBTQ+s are similarly marginalized. All of these are examples of the entrenched and institutionalized levels of racism, homophobia, and whatever they call discrimination of the poor.

 

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Just now, northie said:

Eric is a good example of some of the pitfalls of being old and/or poor. Until Andy started helping him, he didn’t have a computer or internet access

There are still gaps though - insurance, for example - but Eric's in a much better position than he was.

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14 hours ago, CincyKris said:

And he's going to order pizza to be delivered! 

Yes, indeed! In some way, that's one of this chapter's highlights for me. Right back at the beginning, if Eric had been the same position, he probably would've gone to bed hungry. 

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Seems like simple serpents are the same all over the world...

“Fuck. Why aren't I ever tidy?” The number eluded her. “Lunch first – that's what I need.”

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2 minutes ago, drsawzall said:

“Fuck. Why aren't I ever tidy?” The number eluded her. “Lunch first – that's what I need.”

Yep, I think people the world over will recognise that.  

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25 minutes ago, Timothy M. said:

Ordering pizza :) 

Yes. What kind of pizza though? I'd imagine something small and pretty plain. 

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Yes, this is real progress.  I feel that the old Eric would have had to withdraw and would have become even more isolated if this had happen before.  He wouldn’t have had the capacity to deal with it on his own.  The changes in his situation have made him stronger personally and given him the strength that comes from community. He’s really growing ! 

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12 hours ago, clairvin said:

He’s really growing ! 

He is. Change is both possible and can be embraced, whatever your age.

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I don't think I have ever been so happy and relieved to read that somebody orders pizza...

Incredible, how Eric has been evolving - not sure that's the right word...  and he has something like a network now to help him. And although I am pleased that so many people care about others and help, I would expect the state itself to look after its people, especially the vulnerable ones. Hopelessly idealistic - I know.

And the same goes for that boy, who definitely needs help as much as Eric has done, perhaps more so. Though in totally different ways.

 

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13 minutes ago, mayday said:

And the same goes for that boy, who definitely needs help as much as Eric has done, perhaps more so.

Yes, with all the attention on Eric, it's easy to forget the other person in all this. It may well be difficult to feel any sympathy for Tyler but, as you say, he needs help as well.

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