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    northie
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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 - 6. Weekend Puzzles

We meet Rob Bairstow for the first time.

At the start of the weekend, Rob Bairstow took his time. He did so during the week as well, but somehow, the release that Saturday brought when he was younger had never gone away. He strolled from the front room to the kitchen in search of more coffee. An automatic duck of the head avoided each age-blackened ceiling beam along the way. Drink replenished, he sat at the table by the front window and idly noted his neighbours' doings in the street.

Reading the weekend edition of the regional daily was a Saturday ritual he looked forward to. He never bothered with the Herefordshire Times otherwise. However, the weekend mix of property ads, features, personalities, and recycled news far outdid any social media thread. He smiled – people in all their glory.

What caught his eye on the table first though was a large manilla envelope, marked Confidential. Another young life in crisis, in danger of getting lost in the youth social work, or youth justice systems. He sighed and scanned sheets of paper, taking in their impersonal, observational language.


When he returned to Herefordshire, Rob wanted to give something back. Even with the wealth of online resources, he believed young people questioning their sexuality or gender identity were entitled to a safe, sympathetic, physically-present ear. Not something that was easily found in a thinly-populated, rural county. Plus, he hadn't exactly been the perfect teen.

Living on the fringes of the Black Country – sort of rural, ethnically diverse, becoming depressingly post-industrial – he'd often lurked at the edges of trouble. Nothing serious. However sullen and confused he was, he'd still retained some sense. But the chance of getting a criminal record had been there.

Mentor, guide, sounding-board – he could be any of those. What he wasn't was a push-over. Individuals who came from a dysfunctional, chaotic background were usually challenging in their behaviours. He grimaced, recalling one of many spats which could've led to a physical encounter. His latest client fitted the bill – father in prison, mother unable to cope. He re-read the few laconic sentences which detailed reasons why they thought the youth was uncertain of his sexuality. That appeared to be one of numerous possible issues.

What he offered teens was structure, engagement, and a safe space. Tuesdays were the day – usually mornings. The sessions took place in a small, semi-private meeting room off Leominster's public library. One of the local social work team checked in on them at the start and finish, and he always briefed the named caseworker. He had ten days to prepare for his newest client.


That didn't alter the fact it was Saturday. The newspaper sat on the sofa behind him. Leaning over to pull it closer, his phone rang. Rob rolled his eyes. “No rest for the wicked.” He fished around in one capacious pocket, then the other, of his baggy, well-worn cords.

A slurp of coffee disappeared. “Rob Bairstow here.”

Ah, yes. Any news on the garden seat?

He noted both the lack of greeting and the caller's name, though he knew the man immediately. That upper-class tone of languid entitlement never failed to rub him up the wrong way. “Is it the one in ash with a silver stain?”

Current orders numbered somewhere in the lower single figures – this client wasn't to know that.

Indeed. When will it be ready? The party's Tuesday. Absolutely everything's set apart from this.

Rob grimaced. Why did people think working in wood would be quick? “It's been a bit of a stretch but there's only one more stain to do and then the final sealant. It's a good-looking piece. You'll be pleased with it. Should be done by the end of the day.”

So I can come and collect it tomorrow?

“Imagine so.” The idea that a self-employed craftsman might like Sundays to himself hadn't occurred to his caller. Not that it was anything new.

I'll text you when I've arrived.

The call clicked off. He glared at the handset; a shrug followed. Bespoke pieces like the seat weren't cheap. Pity some were ordered by arrogant tossers.

Rob settled, put his glasses on, and got as far as opening out the newspaper. A photo on the front page caught his attention. He looked again, adjusting spectacles upwards. The phone's ringtone distracted him; one hand fumbled around on the table in search. With a grunt of irritation, he accepted the call.

Rob, darling? Zaf here. You remember, from the darkest pits of Brum.

All annoyance melted away. “Zaf, why do you always start out with the premise I've forgotten who you are?”

You neglected me this Pride. I missed you.

“I know, sweetie. Pride in big cities is often too glitzy and expensive for my tastes nowadays. I did say.”

Your loss.

“Maybe. I spent time with our community Pride instead. I mean, you could hop on a train and venture to Hereford?”

What? Like, the countryside? Eugh – no thanks. Anyway, I wouldn't exactly blend in.

“Pride's for everyone.”

Hmm…

Rob changed the subject. “Anyway, how's summer on the grim streets of Birmingham?”

You have no idea, darling. It's boiling hot here, so all these gorgeous hunks parade around in shorts and open shirts. How's a guy like me meant to cope without exploding in frustration?

Loud sniggers demonstrated his lack of sympathy. “Avert your eyes, Zaf.”

What? No, no. You gotta be joking. Can't let that amount of fabulous talent pass by.

“OK – I forget sometimes you're nearly half my age. Looking for a fuck or something longer term?”

Either would do.

“Seen anyone you like?”

As in, really, really like?

Rob heard a long exhale. As he waited for the conversation to continue, his eyes strayed back to the newspaper. That teaser photo niggled. He leant closer.

Well… I met one guy at cricket practice last week. He's new and bowls like–

Rob only half-listened, catching the occasional word or name. That photo, nestled under a headline, 'Heartless thugs destroy OAP's new garden', kept drawing his attention. Of the two men shown, the older one's wiry, outdoor-hardened frame rang faint bells. His face was mostly hidden as he looked out at some of the damage. Rob whistled through his teeth – the younger guy looked good enough to eat. Out of his league though.

Silence emanating from the phone made him sit up.

Am I boring you, darling?

The lightness of tone disguised a layer of petulance, something he knew from experience. “Sorry, Zaf. Other things on my mind. Demanding clients, for one. I need to get on with the current masterpiece. Sweetie, anyone who resists those bedroom eyes of yours isn't worth pursuing.”

If you say so.

“I do. Go and get some iced chai or a mango lassi to cool down. I'll speak to you soon.” Rob's kissing sounds into the phone were returned two-fold, which showed he was forgiven.

A one-night chance encounter at Pride several years ago had somehow developed into a friendship, the stronger for being maintained at a distance. Rob smiled to himself. He swallowed the remaining coffee in one gulp. They fucked only the first couple of times they met up. It was pretty clear to him Zaf had a thing for older men, but he found it impossible to return the younger man's feelings. Fortunately, instead of an acrimonious split, they'd talked it through. Hence the friendship based on sport, men, and a distrust of organised religion

“We would've made an odd pair.”

He admired Zaf – even in more liberal Muslim families, being openly gay had to take considerable courage and staying power. Beyond a few passing references, his friend didn't mention that part of his life. Neither did he. Rubbing one eye, Rob finally gave the paper his full attention. He thumbed through several pages until he found the story itself.

“So what's his name?”

'Eric Whitehouse', the caption said. He read the name over several times, testing the two parts together and separately in his memory. Being a freelance craftsman for half his life meant meeting a heck of a lot of people on the way. Rob leant back in the chair and let his mind wander.

Ten minutes elapsed without any real progress – plenty of eliminations but no obvious leads. He focussed on the article and realised most of it was unread.

“You daft sod.”

Time ticked on. Rob allowed himself another five minutes. There were few concrete facts in amongst the journalistic fluff. The text centered on a charity's videos, people's responses to them, and some vandalism which the writer linked back to the videos' reception. All these apparently involved the old man, There was mention of an online fundraising page. A head shake displayed his wonderment at strangers' generosity towards the misfortunes of one random guy. A sum approaching four figures had been raised in a couple of days. Admitting defeat in the quest to link the name to some aspect of his life, Rob stretched and yawned. After a moment, he got up.

Picking up the phone, he ambled out into the untidy garden, towards a large cabin-cum-shed that served as his workshop.


Andy parked his bike to one side of the garage and pulled off his helmet. Adam followed on close behind. It had been a hot morning for a ride. Andy rid himself of the damp cycling vest and used it to mop up.

His fiancé made a loud smacking sound with his lips. “There's a sight to behold.”

One eyebrow moved upwards. “You see me often enough in this state.”

“Yeah, and it never grows old, no matter how many times it happens. There you are, all glowing and pumped up.”

“With a stomach so empty, there's a void beneath my ribcage.”

They both giggled.

“That week and a half in Yorkshire spoiled you.”

“Spoiled us, you mean.”

Adam took off his cycling shoes. “God, I found it grim being back in the office yesterday. Catching up's hell.”

With a broad smirk, Andy held out both arms. “Life's hell sometimes, isn't it?”

“And for that pathetic attempt at sympathy, I'm going to exact revenge.”

“Oh, yeah?”

Adam nodded. “Yeah.” He propelled the other man back towards the wall of the garage. “And I think you're going to enjoy it.”


At lunch, cold roast chicken thighs, crispy bacon strips, a spinach quiche, and salad were consumed with alacrity. Soon there was nothing left on either man's plate.

Andy took a drink of his apple and rhubarb juice. The tartness made every tastebud tingle. “I reckon we're mad. No sooner do we return from a cycling holiday than you, an obvious glutton for punishment, haul me up hill and down dale. D'you know we covered three hundred miles in Yorkshire?”

Adam smirked. “So? Think of the gains in fitness and muscle strength.”

He snorted. “Even after the numerous teas chez Betty's? I wouldn't be entirely surprised if I've gained a pound or two.”

“The odd calorie might've escaped but we kept busy one way or another,”

A knowing smile caused Andy's cheeks to redden – making love used energy. They'd done quite a lot of that. One particularly energetic scene played out in his mind's eye; it had the usual effect on his nether regions.

With an effort, he changed the subject. “Going to see Eric after we've washed up. You coming?”

Adam hesitated. “I've a case to make notes on, but… I could spare an hour or so. We'll take one of the bikes in case I need to ride home,” He grimaced. “It's not as if I've anything good to tell him.”

“From the police point of view, you mean?” Andy stood up to clear the table. “Didn't you get through to the chief constable?”

“Nope.” The other man helped with the crockery. “Didn't mention it yesterday 'cause I was spitting feathers. They fobbed me off with the area commander.”

“The idiot?”

“That's the one. Didn't pretend to listen; instead he reeled off the official line.” Adam banged the plates onto the drainage area. “Stretched resources have to be focussed on the most serious crimes, and those where there's the most chance of a conviction being secured.”

“Can't we say what happened to Eric is an aggravated crime under the Equalities Act?”

“Where's the evidence? The graffiti didn't seem to be aimed at him. General railing against the world and misogyny were what I read.”

“Which reminds me, we need to get more of that remover.” He added the rest of the crockery to the pile.

“And borrow the high-pressure hose again from Emily.” Adam shrugged. “Anyway, our friend the superintendent chided me – didn't I realise they'd lost ten percent of frontline officers since the start of austerity?”

“So he doesn't give a fuck.”

Another shrug. “I think it's more operational reality. The West Mercia force covers a large, mostly rural area.” He snorted. “Those two community support officers must've been despatched to shut up Emily Standish.”

“So nothing doing?”

“Pretty much. Eric's attention will have to be on moving forward.”

“He's refused to accept the donations.” Andy put the kettle on.

“That's Eric for you. What about the garden? You're not going to be able to pull the same trick you did last time. And the bathroom needs a lot of work. Those wretched adaptive things from the council never turned up.”

“That's a good point; a really good one actually. While we've been away, he won't have been able to take a bath. Hmm… leverage.”

Adam spooned two heaps of tightly-curled, green gunpowder tea into the pot. “It's not like the money's a ridiculous amount. Emily's son reported a couple of grand earlier.” He poured the water.

“Yeah, but don't forget the news article will lift that total – they promoted the link. Even a few thousand pounds is a big deal for a man with very little.”

“Which is all the more reason for him to accept it. That argument's for later.”

After only a couple of minutes, the two men moved to the lounge with glasses of pale, light-tasting tea.

Andy picked up his tablet. “Meanwhile, back to your favourite subject. Felicity says if we don't make a decision about the cake by Monday, she'll decide for us. I've bookmarked some possibles. We've half an hour.”

“OK.” Adam rolled his eyes. “Let's get to it.”


Eric pushed the front door closed and stood in the blessed shade. Beads of sweat trickled down his back. He let the bags drop to the floor. Sun-dazzled eyes took some moments to adjust to their new surroundings. Once he was safe to move, the old man headed straight for the armchair and collapsed onto the seat.

“I'm never going shopping on a Saturday ever again.”

Large, noisy groups of youngsters and over-crowded shopping aisles had made the whole thing a misery. It had taken him twice as long as usual. Plus he'd forgotten Saturday was his second appearance in the newspapers. How had that slipped his mind?

“Getting old, that's what it is.”

It was long past lunchtime as well. Something that should have been a ninety-minute task had ballooned, what with one thing and another. Head leant back against the chair, his eyelids drooped, followed shortly by a soft snore.


At the cottage, Andy pressed hard on the doorbell for a second time.

“You sure it's working?” Adam joined him on the doorstep.

“Yeah – I can hear the buzzer. Don't think the battery's been changed in a while.”

The door opened. A bleary-eyed Eric peered out.

“Only us. Can we come in?”

With a shrug, the older man turned and left them to find their own way in. Andy exchanged glances with Adam. His client's mood had become more unpredictable since they'd returned from holiday.

Eric stood in the kitchen, emptying packets and the odd can out of a shopping bag onto the counter.

“You just got back?” Andy grabbed a few items and opened the appropriate cupboard to put them away. A grunt was all he got to start with.

“No such luck.” The older man banged a drawer closed. “Soon as I sat down, I was out like a light.” He peered at the clock. “Half-three's too late to bother with lunch.”

Andy paused. “It's never too late to eat. You need to keep healthy.”

Adam nodded in the background.

“Look, why don't we have a chat next door while our resident chef produces something tasty such as–”

“Welsh rarebit?” A ghost of a smile flickered across Eric's face.

Adam's eyes widened at the surprise announcement.

“Not sure I trust a strange chef to cook Welsh rarebit as I like it.” He eyed up the other man.

“Insults!”

“Or maybe reality?”

Andy and Eric sniggered at Adam's fake expression of horror. The younger man gave his partner a few moments of instruction – mostly showing him where stuff was – before following Eric out into the living room.


They had just got settled, Andy sprawled in the other armchair, when a thought occurred to him. A smile of apology headed in Eric's direction before he opened his mouth to shout over the sounds coming from the kitchen. “Two teas would be great as well, thanks. You know how we like them. Add it to the tab.”

No reply was forthcoming; water pouring from a tap and the click from a kettle being turned on told its own story. Andy grinned and lifted an eyebrow.

His attention returned to the older man. “OK, Eric. So what have you been up to that's made you so tired?”

“Hnh! Why can't an old man get on and do his shopping in peace?”

“Ah…well. You are a kind of minor local media star, aren't you?

“And I don't like it. Folk stopped me in the street and got in the way as I went round the supermarket. I had no idea who most of them were.”

“Were they OK towards you, apart from being a pain?”

“Yes – mostly I didn't stop long enough to hear them talk. Apart from one chap who offered me a year's free supply of perry as long as I mentioned him in any other media interviews.

“Other media interviews?” Andy was startled.

“Don't worry – there won't be any others. And I can't stand perry – pears and alcohol don't work.”

Adam produced two mugs of tea. “I quite enjoy perry, but it's an acquired taste. I take it you declined his offer.”

“Daft, some people.” Eric shook his head.

“Or too focussed on grabbing every promotional opportunity, real or imaginary.” Adam returned to the kitchen.

Eric sniffed the air. “Smells right, what he's doing.”

“Adam's a perfectly reasonable cook; he doesn't put his talents into action often enough.”

“Likes yours better?”

“Maybe. Myself, I get a lot out of cooking.” Andy blew on the tea before taking a sip. “OK, once your food's settles, d'you want a bath while I'm here?”

Eric grimaced. “It was back to the bad, old days. Did my best with a wash but there're parts of me I can't reach any more.”

“Bet we both remember the first time I helped you.”

“I've never enjoyed being in the water so much before or since.” A slow smile of contentment appeared. “And, I recall, that was when you first introduced me to a Welsh rarebit.”

“So I did.” Andy took a breath – now was the time. “If you were to have the bathroom properly done out, there wouldn't be an issue.”

A pair of faintly amused eyes regarded him. “Which brings us back to the subject of money, however much it is you said those people have donated.”

“I make no apology for raising the subject.” Andy leant forward. “Many people have dipped a hand into their savings and sent it your way. You can't expect Tommy Standish to give them all refunds.”

“He can have it.”

“No, he can't. It would be an abuse of trust, and quite frankly, he doesn't need it. It's not a stupid amount – I need to check the total – but it'll be enough to restore the garden and hopefully refurbish the bathroom. These things don't come cheap.”

“Hmm…”

Adam entered, bearing a plate of food. He evidently sensed the tension. “Everything OK?”

Andy gave a slight shrug.

Eric took the plate and stared at the steaming cheesy topping. “This looks good. Thanks, Adam.” He picked up the cutlery. “I'll think about what you said, Andy. No promises, mind.”

Then he tucked in.


On Saturday evening, Rob Bairstow sat outside with a can of pale ale. He wanted to concentrate on that newspaper article. Or rather, he was determined to nail who Eric Whitehouse was once and for all. There was still a slim possibility the man meant nothing. Rob knew his niggles though – they were hardly ever false alarms. Legs stretched out, the hand not holding his drink stroked his grey-blond beard.

Supper could wait. He wanted answers.

So, what do you think? Your comments, conjecture, and speculations are all part of the conversation. Do join in.

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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Eric has his pride but sometimes you just have to swallow it and accept the help. He didn’t ask for the money and people willing are donating it so he might as well make good use of it since the people that should be helping aren’t.

Rob seems to have the same issue as Eric when he was trying to remember Rob. I am looking forward to see how things will work out once they meet again. And hmm the confidential file would that happen to be on the teen that wrecked Eric’s garden? We know he needs some help for sure he is in a bad place but hopefully not beyond help.

Q

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Hmmm, seems as though Eric and Rob's reunion may be brought about by some wayward youth's transgressions. How fortuitous.

The weather here is dreadful, a plate of Welsh rarebit wouldn't go amiss. Oh, as to perry, yes, I'll have some of that too thanks.

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4 hours ago, quttzik said:

He didn’t ask for the money and people willing are donating it so he might as well make good use of it since the people that should be helping aren’t.

Very true but for someone who's spent so much of his life being doggedly self-sufficient it's perhaps hard to swallow. I suspect Andy will have to be persistent. 

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1 hour ago, CincyKris said:

So which disadvantaged youth is Rob's next project, hmmm?  Small world.

In a city, probably stretching a point. ;) Much less so in a rural county like Herefordshire where LGBTQ individuals willing to help out are going to be thin on the ground.

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28 minutes ago, dughlas said:

Oh, as to perry, yes, I'll have some of that too thanks.

Never tried it. I like pear juice a lot though it's easily swamped by what you eat. Used to be able to get it at NT places in Herefordshire / Shropshire until they decided corporate procurement was the way to go. 🤨

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QUITE A WONDERFUL WEB YOU HAVE SPUN ....................CONGRATULATIONS !                       STAN

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19 hours ago, DelrayDad said:

QUITE A WONDERFUL WEB YOU HAVE SPUN

😊 Thank you. You're very kind. 

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Yep, Tyler is headed for a Rob meeting - and we hope Eric is too. :) Andy should tell Eric the money can be used to pay the students to redo his garden, because they would be upset about the damage.

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9 minutes ago, Timothy M. said:

Yep, Tyler is headed for a Rob meeting - and we hope Eric is too.

I don't conceal things very well, do I?  😉😄 Let's see how thing pan out.

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I started reading the Never To Late series a few days ago and have now caught up to the latest chapter.  I admire your story telling ability and I am very interested in where things go from here.  I am in Canada but was born in England so the setting adds to my enjoyment.  I will read some of your other works while waiting for the next chapter.  I have also been reading Parker Owens's Double Concerto and enjoy that story as well and can see how he might be a good editor for your story.

 

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35 minutes ago, echo2003 said:

I admire your story telling ability and I am very interested in where things go from here.

Thank you! Eric's story spans pretty much the entirety of my writing journey so far. @Parker Owens has been my almost constant companion along that same road.  We mostly find ourselves similar but different.  🤨😄 

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Eric needs to listen to Andy regarding the moneys, as several; readers have pointed out, it isn't charity so to speak and I love the suggestion of redoing the bath and hope enough is left over to redo the gardens!

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3 hours ago, drsawzall said:

Eric needs to listen to Andy regarding the moneys,

He does, but there's a lot going on in his head.  His independence has been one way of getting through life.

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Wonderful story with thoughtfully realized characters and situations. There is hope for us “old men!”

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34 minutes ago, re2 said:

Wonderful story with thoughtfully realized characters and situations

Thank you. You're very kind to say so.

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Oh wow. It's about to come full circle so to speak. I like where I think this is headed, lol. I'm also loving how Eric's circle is widening. He's building quite a community, though not purposefully.. 

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19 hours ago, Defiance19 said:

I'm also loving how Eric's circle is widening. He's building quite a community, though not purposefully.. 

He does seem to acquire friends haphazardly. Rob is the first person Eric would've pursued with the purpose of friendship in mind.

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