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    northie
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Never Too Late To Believe - 7. In Contact

First moves are important.

After a glorious weekend, Monday dawned grey and cooler, though there were breaks in the cloud. Claire Watson flung open a window to welcome the reduction in temperature – A Helping Hand's office didn't run to air conditioning. Sat at her battered desk, she opened the laptop and debated what to tackle first out of that day's to-do list. The media attention, together with the videos had resulted in a satisfying trickle of potential volunteers. Should she sort through those, or turn to the much longer list of suggested new clients?

There was little point in deciding on new clients if they didn't have the case workers in place. Another question lurked in the background – how many volunteers could she and Mike, her deputy, cope with? She suspected the two of them were close to capacity. With a sigh, fundraising was added to the list of tasks. A steady income stream would be required from somewhere before they committed to another paid member of staff. The small spike in online donations over the weekend didn't cut it at all.

“Let's look at the latest batch of hopefuls.” She thought there might be space for another couple of volunteers – just. “Must talk to Mike about that.” Claire scribbled a reminder and stuck the note onto the laptop screen. Clicking on the first résumé, she settled down to take notes.

The desk phone rang. She blew out a long breath before answering.

A man's voice replied. Hi, could I speak to Andy Harper, please. I understand he's one of your employees.

“Andy's a volunteer worker with the charity.” Conscious of the media coverage, she took care not to let the guy's soft, warm baritone lull her into saying things that were inadvisable. “As such, he's only ever here when we have monthly update meetings. I'm Claire Watson, his boss. Is it something I can help you with?”

Err… maybe. I'm actually trying to reach Eric Whitehouse. It appears he's one of your clients? My name's Rob Bairstow. Eric and I worked for the same employer many moons ago.

“OK.” Claire waited for more information.

He may not remember me – we didn't work together as such, we were just in the same extended team. It's taken me a while to hunt the memories down. Funny how someone you've not thought about for decades can pop back into your head. Now I can visualise Eric from that time as clearly as someone I saw a couple of months ago.

She dragged a pad of sticky notes nearer and jotted down the relevant points. “So what is it you'd like to do, Rob?”

I'd like to get back in touch, if Eric's willing. Starting out as a craftsman then, I moved around to find work. At the end of the eighties, it was a lot harder to keep in touch. Kept meaning to drop him a line or two, then it got too late for that. We were mates, I think, though he never had much to say. And he must've been a number of years older than me. Shy or self-contained would be the way I'd describe him then.

Claire sensed there was more to come. His description of Eric tallied, though it was quite general.

Ehm… you never advertised yourself as gay at that time either. I was too busy sorting myself out anyway to take much notice of anyone else–

“Maybe that's a topic to explore further with Eric, if he agrees to meet you?”

The man coughed self-consciously. You're right – no need to take up your time.

“I'm not bothered by that, Rob – it's more the personal aspect. That sounds like a topic for you and Eric to discuss.” Claire retrieved the pen and tore another sticky note from the pad. “OK – if I could take some personal details, followed by the all-important phone number and email. We'll also need a recent photo.”

She wrote swiftly, stopping only to underline the most relevant information. “Great – when we receive the photo, I'll pass all of this onto Andy, as Eric's caseworker. They'll talk it over, then you'll hear back from Andy or Eric, depending on how Eric wishes to proceed.”

Thanks - I appreciate it.

“No problem.”

Claire minimised her current work with a sigh. Opening up the browser, she went in search of a man called Rob Bairstow.


A pensive Rob kept hold of the phone before letting it drop onto the table he used for designing. “First step taken.”

Would he be allowed any closer? What awaited him if he was? They'd hardly been bosom pals, the two of them. Getting any conversation out of Eric Whitehouse was always difficult, as he recalled. The other man had been something of an enigma – a good plantsman, hard worker, knowledgeable, but otherwise he had little to say for himself. Mostly accepted by the other estate staff, Eric lurked on the fringes nonetheless, quietly going about his business. Rob grimaced. There had been reports of trouble with some of the younger workers – usually those with the social attitudes of cavemen – but he couldn't bring anything specific to mind. The rare social events passed the other man by.

Rob took a long breath. On the surface, he, in contrast, got on with everyone; his own personal issues bubbled underneath. He hadn't exactly spent the time minding other peoples' business. Still, it pained him a fellow traveller had been left behind. Would they become friends?

“It'd be good to have another gay friend locally – not in Bristol, Birmingham, or Cardiff.” Out of necessity, most of his social circle weren't queer; not that it bothered him. Football mates were a prime example, and his neighbours in the village.

“Video calling's not the same and Prides only happen once a year.”

A wry smile appeared. The small, leaded panes of the black and white timbered houses effectively hid their occupants from prying eyes. He turned to look out of the cabin's window. The neighbours might have something to say about his gardening abilities. A strimmer rather than any lawn mower was his implement of choice when it came to grass cutting. Everything else he left to fend for itself. Occasionally, he chopped lumps out of the few shrubs when they became too unruly.

He chewed his lower lip. Their first meeting would be… interesting? Possibly difficult, or just a non-event. He recalled trying to strike up a chat one Christmas Eve. The estate staff were graciously allowed to finish at midday. Everyone else was full of their festive arrangements; Eric Whitehouse had shrugged, muttered a few generic sentences and moved away.

“I'll have to make the running.” Chatting was simple enough – in normal circumstances anyway.

After more time wasted staring out of the window, Rob gave himself a verbal kick up the backside. “There's work to be done, you lazy fucker. Be glad of it.” Reaching over, he pulled closer a sketch for a garden pergola and allowed himself to concentrate.


Adam stretched out both legs and leant back against the garden seat. Dappled shade from a long-established, Japanese acer stopped the early evening sun from being too strong. Work in the city had been hot and stuffy despite the cooler temperatures outside. He admired a flowering something in the bed opposite.

On the phone, his mother chortled. Darling, do you know how many red flowers there are? You'll tell me it has leaves next. How can I deploy my gardening knowledge on such meagre information?

“Isn't colour a vital piece of the jigsaw? It'd be cheating to send you a picture. Anyway, it's all Andy's fault. A proper gardener would have put those embossed metal tags everywhere.”

Rubbish. The garden's not open to the public. She paused. Maybe one year, you'll offer it to the Red Cross garden scheme.

“On its own?” Adam wondered how long it would take a visitor to get from one end to the other.

Why not band together with some of your neighbours? What other horticultural delights are there in your street?

“Err… not sure. We don't socialise much – the odd 'Hello' in passing is about it.”

Find out, darling. It would be a good ice-breaker; might bring in more work for Andy. And you can all indulge your nosiness. What's not to like?

Adam rolled his eyes. “OK, I'll mention it. Right, having got the cake question out of the way…”

I love the idea of two cakes – both rainbows, but with otherwise so different.

“Andy's version will get the 'Oohs' and 'Aahs'.”

I don't know. Yours will look really dramatic with that matcha green frosting and those restrained rainbows; if you go ahead with sage-infused butter in the sponge, and a dash of sea salt elsewhere, it'll taste that way as well.

“Haven't decided how far to push that. The filling would have to change as well. Weird – the idea of savoury tastes in ice cream baffles me, yet there I am.”

It's not the same as having bacon and whatever else Andy mentioned.

“We'll have to taste a sample first. Can't have the guests gagging on camera. Anyway, what's next?”

Quite a bit: menus, preliminary guest list, and getting the invites sent. I'm seeing Andy at the end of the week, so–

The front door slammed to. He sat up. “Hang on, Ma. Speaking of the devil has had its usual effect, I think.” Adam strained to distinguish sounds until the back door was flung open.

“Adam?”

“Down here.” He cupped his hands to make the sound travel further.

Impatient footsteps, first on flags, then gravel, caused mild surprise. “Sorry, Ma. Sounds as though Andy's excited about something. Better give him my undivided attention.”

Hope it's something good, darling. Speak to you soon.

“Bye.”

As he put the phone down, a pink-faced Andy appeared, panting a little.

“You'll never guess what's happened.”

The grin from the man opposite allowed Adam to content himself with a smile of encouragement.

“You know that guy Eric talks about – the one from his past?”

“Vaguely.”

“I was going to help Eric trace him. Well, the guy – Rob Bairstow's his name – has beaten us to it. He's made contact through the charity. Isn't it wonderful?”

Adam tried to ignore the lawyer's voice in his head, listing the various ways in which it might not be such good news.

“And he's gay – that's confirmed.”

“Wow! Although it did seem likely after Eric thought he'd spotted the guy at the local Pride. Good news. Don't know why you're looking so pleased.” A teasing smile softened the final sentence.

“Wretch – I'm pleased for Eric. There's a chance for him to have a gay friend more his own age.”

“Playing matchmaker? Don't forget they haven't met up yet. A lot has happened since they worked together.”

“I know.” Andy attempted to squish himself into the unoccupied sliver of seat. “Budge up.”

Instead, Adam grabbed hold, manoeuvring them both until they were in a mutually pleasing position. “Better?”

“Much.” Andy snuggled a little closer. “Should I tell Eric this evening?”

“No. There's supper to prep and eat. Afterwards I thought maybe some playtime?”

“Did you?”

Two pairs of eyes connected. A long kiss followed.

Adam continued where they'd left off. “Perhaps give Eric a quick call. Press him for a decision about the money. In the morning, you can sweeten the aftertaste by giving him your news.”

“I'm bursting to let him know now. Another few hours won't make any difference, I suppose.”

“Nope. Telling Eric in the morning will give him the whole day to mull over his response.”

“He won't need that long.”

“You think?”

Andy frowned. “I'd be on the phone in no time.”

Adam gave him a squeeze, as much as muscle and bone would allow. “Yeah? You're not Eric, as we've found out before.”

“Which translates as don't put your foot in it again.”

“No – bear in mind differences, that's all.”

Snuggles somehow morphed into armchair wrestling. A halt was called only when the seat tipped up, depositing both men onto the grass.


Eric returned from an early morning walk weary but a little more at peace with himself. Even after a cooked breakfast, his energy levels weren't great first thing. During the warmer weather, he preferred an outing at cooler times rather than being roasted alive in the afternoon.

He produced a hanky. “I'm sure we never had summers like this when I was a lad. Except for '76, of course.”

Dropping a tea bag into the pot, he recalled the parched, yellowing landscape from that famous summer. Water restrictions limited what they were able to do for the smaller plants. Established trees had mostly survived.

“And we thought that was a once in a generation event.”

The kettle had boiled without him noticing. With a headshake, Eric made the tea. A loud knock at the door further dispelled his reverie. “That'll be Andy.” He raised his voice. “Come in – it's not locked.” More water made its way into the pot.

Turning, he noted Andy's shorts and polo shirt suited him well. “I've only been back from my walk a few minutes.”

“Morning, Eric. That's early for you.”

They exchanged a brief hug.

“It is, but this bloody weather's too much. If I wanted to be hot and bothered all the time, I'd go and live in Greece or Spain. That's me done for the day.”

“This is the last of it for a while. According to the forecast, it'll be cooler and showery by the end of the week.”

“About time.”

Andy excused himself to go back to the car briefly. He returned carrying two brightly-coloured folding chairs. “Let's have our tea outside.”

“If you must.” Eric sighed inwardly as another ill-tempered response escaped before he could stop it. “I mean, if there's somewhere cool enough.”

“On the grass outside the kitchen should be fine – the sun's not got round there yet.”

He followed the younger man outside, carrying both mugs, each only two-thirds full.


They sat in companionable silence, listening to chirps and squawks from the garden birds. Andy deliberated on how to deliver his news; he decided being direct was the only way.

Eric turned his head. “I hope you're satisfied, young man, badgering me yesterday evening into accepting that money.”

Andy rolled his eyes. “All I did was to remind you how much kindness that money represents. And what uses you could put it to.” Exasperated affection welled up. “Eric, I wish you'd be less stubborn sometimes and not so doggedly independent.”

“It's how I've got through life.”

“I appreciate that.” He turned to face Eric fully. “Now that times are better, might you want to lower your guard a little? Reach out occasionally – like you did at the start.”

A faint smile lurked behind Eric's expression. “You'd like me to change who I am again?”

Andy sensed a teasing tone. “Why not? You've been pretty successful so far. That winning streak hasn't finished yet.” Now was the right time. He took a breath. “I've more good news for you–”

Eric's “Really?” didn't display wholehearted interest.

“Yes, really.” He ploughed on. “Earlier this week, a guy contacted A Helping Hand asking for me. He cited the newspaper article for stirring him to action.”

That made his companion pay attention.

“Turns out he's after you, not me. His name's Rob Bairstow.”

Eric gasped. “Well, I never!”

“Is he your old work mate?” He waited.

Mouth agape, Eric nodded.

Andy felt he was on firmer ground. “OK… Rob would like to get in touch. My boss took his details and checked him out as far as she could.”

“Rob Bairstow's sought me out?”

“Yep. Recognised you from that photo in Saturday's paper apparently. He phoned first thing Monday – shows he's keen. I'd say he was acting in earnest.”

“Oh.” Eric's face was now unreadable. He stared at a patch of grass.

“The choice is yours, Eric, whether to reach out or not.” He glanced at the other man. “If you decide against it, I'll contact Rob on your behalf. Otherwise, whenever you're ready, you can make a move. I've all Rob's contact details here.” Andy held out a piece of paper. “I'll drop you an email as well, in case you lose it.”

Eric took it without a word.

“Bit of a shock?” Worry encroached on Andy's elation.

“I'd say so.” The other man stared at his writing without seeing it. “I always imagined this happening the other way round. What business has he remembering a nonentity like me?”

“You're not a–”

“I was then.” Eric took a deep breath. “Frightened of my own shadow.”

“Rob Bairstow doesn't seem to agree you were a nonentity.”

“We'll see.” A tight, closed-in expression appeared on the other man's face.

Andy recognised the signs he'd outstayed his welcome for the day. “One last thing – there's a photo on my phone. D'you want to check it's him?”

“Can do.” The tone was almost surly.

Andy gathered up his stuff, then spent a few seconds showing Eric Rob's image. All that got in return was a grunt. Without pushing it any further, he left, deflated.


Late in the evening, Eric sat in his chair, watching shadows gather. He hadn't been able to concentrate on anything. One of his favourite mugs had smashed onto the tiled kitchen floor; the first lot of bacon for his tea came out of the grill burnt. He returned to one basic question. The answer seemed as far away as ever. That photo hadn't helped.

“What's to like in a washed-up, disappointed old fart like me?”

Rob's cheerful smile and bright eyes mocked him. His hair and beard looked well-trimmed and added much to his appearance. A man at ease with the world and his place in it. Not for the first time, a tear oozed out.

Eric brushed it off angrily. After nearly a day of feeling sorry for himself, that was enough. He turned a light on. Washed-up? Point by point, he reviewed the changes in his life since the previous November. Disappointed? He might've been before then; he had no reason to be so now. And who'd started the ball rolling? He had. The past few days had been crap, but that was no reason to sulk, or take it out on Andy, and most of all, to pass up the opportunity to meet Rob Bairstow. How many times recently had he wished for a response from Rob? Eric stood up. He put Andy's paper with the contact details on top of the laptop, then went into the kitchen to take the pills he'd forgotten earlier.

If nothing came of it, so what? He would lose nothing but the odd hour out of his life.

For those who might be curious, here's Andy's cake: https://images.app.goo.gl/QT3969epZD3ocE1U7 and Adam's: https://images.app.goo.gl/mQMXCyknjp6TQ1na6 (imagine a subdued rainbow, savoury buttercream layered inside).

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

13 minutes ago, drsawzall said:

Let's hope that the hour out of Eric's life is profitable, lucky and a chance to reconnect!

Eric looking at his meeting with Rob in this way is a way of him concealing his nerves and fears.

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Good thing Adam prevented Andy from calling Eric at once with the news, or Eric may have been unable to sleep or gone to bed in a bad mood. I'm guessing it's deliberate Andy does not reveal that Rob is gay for sure. But Eric did see him at the pride.

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This is too exciting! Reuniting with Rob has been a long time coming. I hope when they meet, they do reconnect. I don't expect a romance. Rob sound a bit younger than Eric, but they could become friends. Eric could use more people in his life. I think Rob's new client is the kid who trashed Eric's garden. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes of it. Thanks. 

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14 hours ago, Timothy M. said:

Good thing Adam prevented Andy from calling Eric at once with the news, or Eric may have been unable to sleep or gone to bed in a bad mood.

Yes, indeed. Andy's impulsiveness isn't Eric's. As we've discovered before...  

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4 hours ago, JeffreyL said:

Reuniting with Rob has been a long time coming.

Aren't authors mean? 🤨😁 I'm glad you find the prospect exciting.  

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Here's our regular email correspondent again:

Quote
Eric is acting frightened of his own shadow again. He had a difficult time understanding just how much progress he’s made since he decided to contact A Helping Hand and, especially, since Andy & Adam became his friends! He needs someone to remind him how closed up and restricted his life used to be. He thinks the tiny, incremental steps he’s taken don’t add up to much. 😉
 
And he doesn’t stop to think that he’s really refuting his own arguments. Rob went to quite a bit of effort to contact him. If Rob really had thought of him as insignificant and unworthy of notice, he wouldn’t have bothered to reach out. It’s not as though Eric’s name and image were publicized because he won a huge lottery or inherited incredible wealth.

 

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Just now, northie said:

And he doesn’t stop to think that he’s really refuting his own arguments.

That's very true. I think Eric's spent so much time visualising this interaction as being initiated by him, to have it happen otherwise is a shock.

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Coming to this later, the comments are pretty much my thoughts. I actually reached out as if to stop Andy from calling right away. 🙈 
Eric’s reaction is not unexpected, but no matter how slowly he comes to the realisation, he’ll soon understand that he’s worth so much more than he knows. 

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6 minutes ago, Defiance19 said:

I actually reached out as if to stop Andy from calling right away. 🙈 

😄 This really made me smile. It's great my writing has drawn you in so far, Def. 👍

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