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    northie
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Never Too Late To Believe - 9. Past, Present, Future

People can be so damn elusive sometimes.

Balanced on a ladder, Rob Bairstow steadied himself by leaning both elbows on the loft's flooring. A torch lay close by. The flimsy, pull-down ladder was far from his favourite place to be. The treads were more rungs than anything else and his size nine feet didn't fit. He tapped on his left trouser pocket to be sure the phone was secure. Hardly an effective insurance policy in his current position, but it was better than nothing. Living in an historic building undoubtedly had its pleasures – contemplating the sheer age of the blackened structural timbers that held his home together never failed to give him a shiver of delight.

He grimaced. Shivers of a very different kind assailed him when it came to the list of possible accidents the same aged house could cause. Uneven floors, reduced height door frames, and a narrow, steep staircase were all potential candidates. Would he prefer a bland, predictable box as a home? Every fibre of his being said 'no'. He wasn't getting any younger though, football or not. Extra care had to be employed when tiredness or a bad night's sleep made him clumsy.

With a shrug, Rob concentrated on the job in hand. A cool, bright Saturday morning had seemed as good time as any to search boxes in the loft space. Enough heat from the previous few weeks hung around to make his skin prickle. An old, battered tee and disreputable shorts felt like overdressing. He wiped a lightly-tanned forearm across sweaty brow.

“Hope this isn't some fool's errand.”

The previous evening, half-watching some film on TV, he remembered a photo-album from years back. Eric Whitehouse's time, in fact. Most of the estate workforce had gone through a brief phase of taking a group photo on almost every possible occasion. There must've been a new camera around, or some other fad. Whoever was responsible had slipped his mind as well. He could visualise the shiny, blue-covered album he bought specially.

“Not even sure I kept the damn thing.”

After he left the estate, there were regular moves across country in the chase for jobs. The album might have been discarded during any of them. Stuff that didn't make it out of the packing case on one occasion, often didn't survive to be packed again. Rob let out a long breath. He'd spent more time thinking about that period in the early 1990s over the past couple of weeks than he'd ever done in the preceding decades. All because of one photo in a Saturday newspaper.

Far below, the landline rang. Its chirpy electronic jingle was scarcely dimmed by distance and it irritated him as always. He waited out of habit for the message to play before turning on the torch. A cool, pale beam roved in his raised hand, mapping out the general landscape before he started the search proper. The last time he'd been in the loft after something, a wretched bird had left its droppings everywhere.


Holding the phone tight to his ear, Eric listened carefully to the message: Hi, you've reached Rob Bairstow. For information concerning my joinery and bespoke woodcrafting, visit robinwood.co.uk. Otherwise leave a message, or you can phone my mobile on...

When Rob's recorded voice stopped, Eric waited for the click before ending the call. He had nothing ready. Why hadn't he thought of that possibility? He chewed his lower lip. The next couple of minutes were occupied in muttering two or three sentences; on each repetition, he changed things around so much, he forgot how they'd started out. Settling on a version, another call was made. Again, the message. His heart raced; the wait for inviting silence seemed to never end. At the right time, his mouth opened and every word died on his lips. Before he recovered, the phone cut him off.

The old man slammed the receiver down in frustration. “Hell and damnation!” There he was acting on the previous evening's resolution, after several days' hesitancy, and each time a machine answered. “Useless.” Other people managed to leave messages. “I'll leave it for a few minutes and try again.” He wasn't convinced success would result from a second attempt.

Looking away, the all-important piece of paper caught his eye. He knew there was a mobile number but baulked at calling it. If Rob met up with his friends or was waiting in a supermarket queue, Eric cringed at the prospect of his stuttering, embarrassed overtures being overheard by the world at large.

“Maybe that's what it'll come to.” One way or another, he was going to make contact before the end of the day.

Seeking a means to occupy himself, Eric spotted the thick, glossy brochure of bathroom fixtures and fittings Andy had dropped off during the week. Having money felt wrong; having money which he hadn't earned was worse. He expected a queue of people to appear at his front door, demanding their donation back. Both Andy and the young lad who organised the whip round assured him that wouldn't happen.

Flipping through the pages, he acknowledged some folk would say he'd won it. Their jealousy might make them bitter. He shrugged. A little over four and a half thousand pounds was hardly millionaire territory. One of Andy's comments rang in his ears: Give it away if you wish, but bear in mind, your bathroom's unlikely to get done any other way.

He wanted to have regular baths again. Replacing the bath was his only concern – he had no time for other fancy things he wouldn't use. There was no disguising he could bathe only when his young man was around. Their recent holiday reinforced that fact. Ten days of having stand-up washes reminded him of the days before Andy came into his life. He paid attention to the catalogue, returning to the front pages to find which section he needed. A glance at the wall clock settled it.

“I'll give it until eleven, then I'll try again.”

He soon got lost in a world of walk-in baths, safety rails, and powered seating.


Rob perched on the bare mattress in the spare bedroom. He held a batch of photos from the mid-nineties. Not the ones he was after but significant in their way. He smiled. Birmingham's Nightingale Club had been his intro to the gay night-time scene. Like many gay clubs, the unprepossessing, dingy exterior hid fun party times and acceptance. The snaps were taken at night – darkness and old-fashioned sulphur streetlamps softened some of the rough edges.

“God, I was so scared the first couple of times.”

A succession of jobs in Lichfield and wider Staffordshire gave him time to find the courage for a queer night out. He could see himself now, a nervous thirty-something sitting on the train, certain he wore the wrong clothes. When he found the club, he wondered whether they'd turn him away. After checking he knew what kind of establishment it was, they gave him free run of the place. Not that he took advantage. A couple of drinks gulped down at the bar while taking in everything he could constituted that night's entertainment.

Rob chuckled. It wasn't as if there were risqué things going on – just people dancing, kissing, enjoying being themselves. And of course, his first sighting of a queen. Soon after, he slid out of the club, having successfully avoided catching anyone's eye. He returned for one more solo session; the following time, a guy or two headed in his direction for a chat. Eyeing those men he found attractive from a distance, he never thought others might be doing the same to him. Happy times, despite the lurking threat of HIV and AIDS.

“This isn't getting the other thing found.”

He stood up, stretched in all directions, and prepared to resume. Again, the wretched downstairs phone broke the peace. “I'll get to it later.” He consulted the screen fished from a pocket. “Lunchtime soon – that'll do.”


Eric smiled in relief. Success was leaving a message as the machine instructed. One that ought to make sense when the other man played it back. He'd written it down first – a greeting, followed by a sentence or two. The finish was giving his own phone number and email address. Now it was Rob Bairstow's responsibility.

Bright, breezy weather tempted him outside. Eric hesitated. The only answering machine he possessed was himself. Talk over the winter of getting a new phone had come to nothing. Andy had most likely forgotten about it.

“As had you until now.”

He wondered if the donated money would stretch to something more modern. Reaching for the bathroom catalogue, he wrote 'new telephone' on the inside front cover.

A beam of sunlight mocked him for staying indoors. He decided to go for a quick walk – just up to the top of the hill leading down to the river and straight back. If the other man hadn't been around to answer the phone on either occasion, it was hardly likely another thirty minutes would make much difference.

“If he misses me, he'll just have to try again, like I did.”

His joints needed exercise, as did his guts. Grabbing a coat to counter the breeze, he set out.

No sooner had he turned left than his new neighbour – the woman's name escaped him yet again – spotted him and waved cheerily. “Morning, Eric!” She was dressed for gardening or maybe decorating.

He waved back, embarrassed he couldn't recall her name. Although keen to get on, he noticed her opening the gate as if she wanted to talk further. The woman crossed the road at a diagonal designed to catch him up. Eric turned and waited.

“Sorry if I'm interrupting.” Her smile was friendly. “Could you spare a minute or two? There's something I'd like to ask you.”

“Err… yes. I suppose so.” Caught unawares, a surly tone predominated. Eric chided himself. He should always be able to spare time for the woman who came to his rescue over the vandalism. “Though I don't know what I'm equipped to help you with.”

“Any number of things, I imagine.” The smile continued, unabated. “Tommy's around if you want to say 'hi'. He's off to Ecuador next week as part of his zoology course – studying insects.”

“He couldn't find enough bugs here?”

“Well–” She shrugged. “Different ones. He'll be away for several weeks.”

Eric blinked. “Blimey, that sounds expensive. What happens if you can't afford it?”

“You're quite right. Zoology's an expensive course in some respects. There are options here and in Europe, I believe.” She turned away. “Shall we cross here?”


They stood in the driveway, next to a large, shiny car. Eric's eyes kept being drawn towards tantalising glimpses of the garden.

His companion noticed. “I had hoped Mr Harper would've replied to my enquiry by now. That's why I wanted to have a chat.”

“Your message was passed on.” The woman's name was on the tip of his tongue. “Andy's busy. He's off doing some work in Gloucestershire or thereabouts. Near to his parents, perhaps.”

“Busy's good.” A bunch of keys gleamed in her hand. “Would you excuse me for a moment, Eric? There's something I need in the house. I'd invite you in but the place is still a bombsite.”

He watched her hurry inside before inching along the gravelled area down the side of the house. An opportunity to see more of the garden wasn't to be missed. He ventured a few feet in. The lawn appeared freshly mown. Shrubs, borders, and the rest looked unkempt in comparison. He shook his head. There was far too much jostling and crowding going on.

“Everything needs a good pruning.” In fact, quite a lot needed to come out altogether. He peered into the distance.

The sound of feet crunching on gravel heralded his companion's return. He retreated.

“It's fine to look. Even I know it's not ready for an open day.” She brandished a sheaf of paper. “I printed off some photos of the garden. Quality's not as good as some – they'll do. Would you give them to Mr Harper next time you see him?”

Eric smirked as he took them. “Strikes me you're keen to have Andy as your consultant.”

“We are. My husband met an acquaintance who'd worked with him. She had nothing but praise. Of course, I won't stalk Mr Harper. We hope maybe the photos will whet his creative appetite?”

“There's a lot needs doing.” He sneaked a look at one sheet. There in the corner were contact details. Emily – that was her name. Eric repeated it over and over in his head with hope it would stick.

“In fact–” She moved past him to the edge of the garden. “If you could spare ten minutes, I'll quickly put the images into context.”

Eric paused. Then he decided it was only time he'd otherwise be using for a walk. “A look round'll be good. I have to get back soon as I'm expecting someone to phone back.”

“I'll be brief. Promise.”


Rob collapsed onto the sofa, glad to be away from cobwebs, the wretched ladder, and memories. The album he wanted to find had proved elusive. He'd uncovered various other mementos, good and bad. The shock of rediscovering papers relating to his divorce definitely came under the 'bad' heading. Life had moved on so much he rarely thought of that short, unhappy period of his youth.

“Where's Janice now, I wonder?” He didn't know whether she was alive or dead. No children meant little point in keeping in touch.

In his early twenties and confused about his sexuality, he'd found himself married. Family pressures and assumptions played some part; his self-denial also. The adage about repenting at leisure had never felt so prescient. Except it'd only taken a few months for him to realise faking straight was a recipe for disaster. A blue mood edged close. How many men had he known over the years in the same position? Many never escaped. Some didn't want or need to; others had been lost to suicide.

He sniffed hard. Possible messages left on the landline phone gave him an excuse to move on. Plus lunch wasn't about to make itself. Rob stirred, easing aching muscles as he did so. Football training of any kind would be hard work. Mindful of how much time he'd sat at a desk that week, Asian-flavoured beef strips and salad seemed for the best.

The phone in his pocket rang.

Sweetie! What you got on a week tomorrow?

Zaf's eager, slightly fem, Brummie tones made Rob smile. Contentment came from having friends in the queer world. Happiness, he was still waiting for.

“You mean Sunday.” He was teasing.

Yeah.

He heard the frown.

Anyway, cancel everything, sweetie, cos we're gonna have fun at Boltz.

Rob's cock stirred. Boltz was one of Birmingham's raunchier venues. “Fun as in–”

DaretoBare, of course. What else?

Rob's eyebrows rose. “OK. And the dashing cricketer you described last time we spoke?”

Straight, sweetie, like the rest of them. It's enough to make a Muslim gay boy weep.

“Did you ask him?” He thought it unlikely.

No. Zaf snorted. They kinda accept me on the team cos I'm good, but not if I go around asking stuff like that. Him sharing the arrangements for his marriage killed off any fantasies. And he included several photos of the nice, biddable girl selected by his parents.

“Poor you.” He returned to the main question. “OK – if I do go, it'll be because I fancy some action. Maybe I'll act as your wingman at the bar, but don't think I'll pretend to be your partner, lover, or fuckbuddy.” A sigh came through from the other end. “Zaf, darling, we agreed on this.”

Yes, I know. Another sigh. Sorry. Knock backs, sweetie, they take it out of you.

“I love you as dear friend, Zaf. You and I are still in the market for life partners. We aren't going to get them if we look paired.”

And you think Boltz is the place to start?

“Why not?” He wasn't being entirely serious.

If you say so, sweetie. An amused chuckle followed. Might not be top of everybody's list. Talking of action, let's have a head-to-head.

“Not fair.”

The chuckle turned snide. Why ever not?

“You're half my age? I'm not taking the little blue pill for your sake either.”

Spoilsport.

“Whatever.” Rob grinned to himself. Experienced at a distance, Zaf could usually be guaranteed to dispel any regrets or introspection. “Can I get back to you? Next week OK? I've some other things to deal with first.”

Don't leave it too long, sweetie. You might find yourself ousted.

“So I keep hoping, Zaf. Look after yourself, darling.”

Bye!


Rob stared at the wall. He would hate to live in a city. Herefordshire, and Leominster, had their drawbacks. When it came to companionship or play mates, queer lives weren't easy in rural areas. He got on with his neighbours fine – they chatted about this and that. If men were to be spotted visiting, each one different, there'd be talk.

“Chance would be a fine thing.”

Apps showed the same tired selection of men. He didn't like that mode of choosing someone to play with anyway. How many profiles were fake? Or downright dangerous. That thought predominated when he visited a city and checked his phone. A well-run club suited him.

“You're old-fashioned.”

Rob contemplated teasing his semi into something more. The possible phone messages nagged at him. It wasn't as if he had work coming out of his ears. With a sigh, he forced himself off the sofa to check.

He pressed the button for the first message, pencil in hand. Hello. Err… this is Eric Whitehouse.


Tired from concentrating as Emily Standish rapidly showed him round the garden opposite, Eric decided on a short nap before his sandwich. He left the ingredients out on the counter as a reminder he hadn't eaten. After a few minutes spent on the edge of sleep, he finally fell into a proper doze, head falling forward as he sat in his armchair.

Insistent, loud ringing from the phone jerked him awake. Ignoring the painful crick in his neck, he lurched over to the table, scrabbling to grab the phone. A knock to one knee from the table leg further increased his irritation.

“Yes?” His voice almost came out slurred. A dry mouth and tongue together with general confusion didn't make for a great combination. “Who is this?”

Hi. Is that Eric?

He blinked, one gnarled finger trying to rid his eyes of sleep. “Depends who's asking.” The warm, rich voice on the line snagged at his memory.

Well, it's Rob Bairstow here.

The old man straightened.

Remember me, from way back? I saw your photo in the local paper.

Eric gulped. “Yes, yes, I do.” He sat down heavily on the upright chair, heart thumping. “Sorry, you woke me up. Takes me a bit a time to get sorted.”

Same here. No need to apologise. Phones are good at sowing confusion.

His mind was blank. Why hadn't he rehearsed for this conversation? “Err–” Rob's recorded phone greeting popped back into his head. “Your message mentioned woodcrafting. Is that what you do now?”

Yes, it is. If you remember, that's how I spent my days off.

Scraping around for memories produced nothing. Eric swallowed a sigh. He wasn't ever involved in the lunchtime groups or post-weekend huddles. “You enjoy it then?”

I do, very much. Working with wood just feels right. I imagine that's how you gardeners connected with your work.

“Ehm–” Eric frowned. Couldn't he start any sentence without hesitating? “Yes, that connection's important. There's nothing like planting something new and watching it grow. I would hate to be stuck in one of those high-rise blocks of flats or working in a factory.”

Me too. So what are you doing with yourself nowadays?

He conquered an urge to say 'nothing'. A lot had changed in his life. It didn't matter that most of it had occurred in the previous nine months.

“Last autumn, I made a new friend.”

The guy with you in the photo?

“Yes, Andy. He's helped me make such improvements to my life.”

Eric launched into a shortened version of what he said on the video. For once, words came easily. It felt good talking to someone else who might become a friend.

If you're enjoying Eric's story, don't forget you can recommend it to others by using 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



So glad Eric finally picked up the courage to leave a message. I was afraid Rob would call back when he was out of the house, but at last they've had the opportunity to talk.

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14 hours ago, CincyKris said:

Eric keeps adding new accomplishments to his scorecard.  This was a big one! 

It almost feels up there with the phone call that starts the whole story off.

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4 hours ago, Mawgrim said:

So glad Eric finally picked up the courage to leave a message.

And despite the apparent obstacles in his way. As he put it: 'Success'.

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1 hour ago, northie said:

Ah... OK  😬 Make that 2 unhappy readers. 

3

Obviously you've been in contact with GA cliffhanger crew, LOL.

Seriously though, I am delighted that Eric made the phone call and left a message. The little hint of conversation that you gave makes it seem like they are on their way to a renewed friendship or maybe more.  I'm hoping for more!

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3 hours ago, spyke said:

The little hint of conversation that you gave makes it seem like they are on their way to a renewed friendship or maybe more.

Don't forget they're only at the start. Eric and Rob have lived and are currently experiencing quite different lives. There are points of contact of course. We'll have to wait and see.

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Another comment from my email correspondent:

Quote


I was kind of expecting more missed calls. 😉

But that would have been cruel. Not a very Northie characteristic. Even if you do have your own version of cliffhangers. 😉


So we finally got Eric and Rob speaking to each other! Eric is his usual awkward and uncertain self. I wonder how Eric would have reacted if a different former coworker had responded to the ad and/or the article? Someone Eric didn’t remember, but who had fond memories of Eric – the situation Eric had feared with Rob. 😉

I’m sure Eric would have been surprised and very disinterested if it had been a woman, intensified if she didn’t have a working class background. Some people build up fantasy romances with the strong silent-types from a distance.

Not that Eric really expected anyone to remember him from the past… 😉

 

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Just now, northie said:

I was kind of expecting more missed calls. 😉

But that would have been cruel. Not a very Northie characteristic. Even if you do have your own version of cliffhangers. 😉

Me - cruel? 🤨😄 And funnily enough, I didn't ever regard the ending as a cliffhanger...  😏😳

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Oops. I think I got ahead of myself here. I have to go and look, but I think I went with the link in my notifications and skipped a few chapters.

Anyway...um, difficult place to end this chapter! But I like a challenge! I need to see where I am, and get back on track.I probably will catch up some now, as I have some time off for the Thanksgiving holiday here.

Sigh. Let me go see what I did. :)

 

 

 

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2 minutes ago, Geron Kees said:

Oops. I think I got ahead of myself here. I have to go and look,

Been there done that more then once and it’s like what the heck I am missing something. This just doesn’t jive with what I read last lol…. 
 

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2 minutes ago, quttzik said:

Been there done that more then once and it’s like what the heck I am missing something. This just doesn’t jive with what I read last lol…. 
 

I had 116 notifications when I logged in today. Been a busy workweek, and I am still catching up. I forgot I was behind on this story, and went right with the link in the notifications.

So now I HAVE to catch up! 😃

 

 

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11 minutes ago, Geron Kees said:

Oops. I think I got ahead of myself here.

I saw the notification (here and email) and thought, What?!  Never mind - maybe by the time you get back to this chapter, I'll have resolved the 'cliffhanger'. 🤨😄

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5 minutes ago, Geron Kees said:

So now I HAVE to catch up! 😃

It's not a race, Geron. I look forward to your comments as and when you make them.

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31 minutes ago, northie said:

I saw the notification (here and email) and thought, What?!  Never mind - maybe by the time you get back to this chapter, I'll have resolved the 'cliffhanger'. 🤨😄

It's just four chapters. I'll catch up over the weekend. Just in time for chapter 10! :)

 

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30 minutes ago, northie said:

It's not a race, Geron. I look forward to your comments as and when you make them.

No, it's not a race. But having read chapter 9 now, I'd like to read the ones I missed to keep the continuity straight in my head. :)

 

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On 11/19/2021 at 8:47 PM, northie said:

I agree. Having spent a week avoiding the call, he's really knuckled down. Contact made.  ✔

of course you are!

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8 hours ago, spyke said:

3

Obviously you've been in contact with GA cliffhanger crew, LOL.

Seriously though, I am delighted that Eric made the phone call and left a message. The little hint of conversation that you gave makes it seem like they are on their way to a renewed friendship or maybe more.  I'm hoping for more!

Thanks @mayday and @JaySeale , it is a quick call to the cliffhanger police may be needed!!!

cary grant cliffhanger GIF by Warner Archive

Edited by drsawzall
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40 minutes ago, mayday said:

of course you are!

Is this your reply to 

On 11/19/2021 at 7:50 PM, northie said:

Never mind - Friday will come round again soon enough.  Am I forgiven? 

?  *Looks hopeful*  😏😄

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