On the Sunday afternoon, Eric sat at his computer table, one finger clearing the crumbs which remained on his sandwich plate. He puzzled over an email which arrived only a few minutes before. Although the information said it came from Andy, all it contained was an internet link. Several moments spent staring at the link didn't make things any clearer, so he went back to the email header: 'Andy has shared some photos with you'. Deciding the email's contents were probably safe – he'd read numerous news articles about online scams and computer infections – he clicked on the link. Over the next minute, the screen filled with images.
Eric's mouth hung open at the sight of so many pictures. The answer was Pride, as very quickly became obvious. The first couple of photos showed the two lads, standing close, beaming at the camera. His question of who held it went away when he remembered the existence of selfies. Their happiness made him smile. Leaning forward to inspect the second, slightly lower shot, he got an eyeful of Andy's naked, colourfully decorated chest. Both eyebrows shot up at the sight. Adam showed nearly as much flesh, wearing some curious, see-through waistcoat thing that hid nothing.
He forced his gaze onto other pictures: images of a large, mixed, colourful crowd; the parade in progress; close-ups of some participants. The over-the-top costumes worn by others made him shake his head. What were full-grown men with beards doing out in public, wearing clothes a pantomime dame would be ashamed of? Although the gay news sites were stretching his horizons, he still couldn't understand the desire to wear dresses exhibited by some men. Maybe it served as a reminder of how narrow his life had become?
Eric returned to those images that captured the crowd. The sight of their clothes, make-up, tattoos, and hair colours overwhelmed him. In some photos, he had no idea whether the person was a man or a woman. Glum eyes surveyed his own dull, over-washed garb. Did those young people wear boring clothes in their working lives? Somehow he suspected they'd never look as depressing as the sight he must present. The subject of clothes revived a fear about the following weekend and his own Pride debut. He couldn't attend looking like he did now. Could he?
Remembering to close the laptop's lid, the old man trekked upstairs. First he opened the wardrobe doors, followed by a couple of drawers. The same old stuff looked back out at him; even the few things he bought soon after he met Andy had now gained a patina similar to everything else. He sighed. Muddy, faded greens and browns would have to do. He was hardly some muscled guy, or a slender young thing keen to attract attention. He struggled to recall the word used to describe the second type. 'Twink' – that was it. Where it came from, he had no idea. As to being seen; on the contrary – standing inconspicuously at the back was more like him.
Leaving the bedroom as he found it, the close-up images of his younger friends came to mind again. In many ways, they were a gay ideal: handsome, in love, well-off, and happy to help someone less fortunate than themselves. A grimace followed; doubtless there were plenty more couples who argued, looked less than wonderful, and cheated on each other. Eric wondered about asking Andy for a copy of their selfie – a real one, not something hidden on his computer that he'd only see occasionally.
Once back downstairs, he put on a pair of outdoor shoes. The sun was shining; he needed a walk and some fresh air.
A couple of days later, Andy and Eric sat in West's car park, watching rain pouring down the windscreen. Such was the inauspicious start to the older man's birthday trip to buy plants.
“Bloody typical weather – sunny in the morning and then as soon we set out, it pours.” Eric sighed.
“It might stop in a few minutes.”
“Hnh.” His companion turned to look out of the window. “I've no wish to get soaked just to buy a few plants.”
Privately, Andy concurred. “There's a large-size umbrella in the back. In fact, let's see what the local forecast says” One hand dived into a trouser pocket to produce his phone.
“You and that phone are joined at the hip.”
The image that conjured up made Andy snigger. “You must admit it has its uses. Where d'you think those Pride photos came from?”
Eric shifted in his seat. The rain appeared to lessen slightly.
“Ah… it says the rain's due to finish within the next thirty minutes.” He glanced sideways. “How about we start in the café and do the plants later? There's plenty of time.”
Eric shrugged. “If you like. Folk seem to have coffee and tea with everything they can.”
Getting out, they hurried into the main building in search of refreshments.
Eric contemplated the large slab of orange drizzle cake sitting on a plate in front of him. “Don't know what possessed me to choose this.”
Andy smirked as he licked fingers sticky from his own chocolate and caramel popped rice confection. “It's hardly healthy eating. Who cares though, if it's only once in a while? Think of it as an extension to your birthday celebrations.”
The other man took a knife and cut the generous slice into more manageable portions. “Those interfering buggers in government think they know better. Next thing you know, eating cake will be illegal.”
Andy listened with interest – his friend rarely ventured into politics.
“They always know what's best for the likes of you and me.” Eric took a big bite of his cake.
“Tasty?” He got a nod in reply. “Well… the NHS has to spend an increasing proportion of its budget on treating diseases and other problems related to obesity and lack of exercise.”
“All these computers and other gadgets – that's what it is. Kids don't play football or cricket any more. And they get driven everywhere.”
“Those are factors certainly, but there's also the point that cheaper food is often processed and less healthy for you.”A raised eyebrow opposite warned him against being too didactic. “If you remember our discussion about the foodbank, that's why I'm keen to get fresh stuff as part of the offer.”
“I do alright.” Eric looked put out.
“Up to a point.” He smiled. “You weren't doing too well for veggies when we first met, were you?” He heard a grunt in reply. For a moment, Andy watched the cake slowly disappearing. “There's only you though. You're less susceptible to advertising, and kids don't pester you round-the-clock for the latest whatever.”
“Yes, the sugar tax is a bit of a blunt instrument. However, it has forced many drinks manufacturers into changing their recipes.”
Another raised eyebrow followed. Eric concentrated on drinking his tea.
“Anyway, talking of recipes. Have you tried something from one of your new books yet?”
Eric put his cup down. “You're keen. I've had them a week maybe?”
“Even from a quick look through, these cookery writers assume people have all sorts of things in their cupboards. I certainly don't.”
“Err…” Eric scratched his head. “Oh, any number of dried this-and-thats – all with fancy names. Spices, herbs and such. Olive oil. Pasta. A roasting tin.”
“OK.” Andy tried to retain the list in his head. “D'you have a recipe or two in mind? Something you like the look of.”
“Let's focus on those as a start. When we get back to the cottage, you can show me and we'll start from there.” His phone rang. A glance at the screen told him it was Felicity. “Sorry – I'd better take this. Won't be long.”
He moved off to the other end of the room where it was quieter.
Hello, darling. It's Felicity. Is it convenient?
“Yes, for a quick chat. How're you?”
Only a single word, but he couldn't detect any hesitation. “Good. I'm at West's with my social work client. He's more of a friend now to me and Adam. We're here to select some plants for his new raised beds.”
You're the best person for him, Andy. I'll keep it short. Have you reached a decision about the invites?
“Yeah – the least fussy ones. We both like the embossing, and Adam prefers a rich blue ink for the type.”
I know the ones you mean. Good; 'cause the next time I see you, we need to talk menus.
A whimper escaped. “God help us. When will it end?” His only answer came in the form of a chortle. “Anyway, have they taken our requirements onboard? Buffet-style, with vegetarians and vegans catered for, and a choice of cuisines? We're not having tired, over-cooked roast meat, or grey, rubbery mushrooms.”
Yes, dear. I think it's quite common nowadays. Some of the sample menus sound delicious. There was a pause. And the cake?
Andy subdued a groan before it could be heard. “I started out loving the idea of organising everything; now, I'm not so sure. Must we have a cake?”
It's not too late to book the church hall and the registry office.
“I'm slowly coming round to Adam's point of view.”
Rubbish! It'll be a wonderful, memorable day. If neither of you fancy death by icing sugar, why don't you have a look at alternatives? I saw one made with rounds of cheese the other day as I browsed.
“Cheese!?” Andy blinked. “Still, we'd better start looking.” He noticed how much time had elapsed. “Sorry, Felicity. I need to get back, otherwise my friend'll think I've bailed on him.”
Enjoy yourselves. Shall I ever meet this nameless friend, I wonder? Adam mentioned you held a birthday party for him.
“He's invited to the reception, so you'll be introduced then if not before.”
Lovely. Speak to you soon.
“Yeah – our next meeting won't arrange itself. Bye.”
As the call disconnected, Andy wondered what Adam's mother had to do for their assignations to take place. Lie? Concoct a separate genuine reason to be out? Or sneak away while her husband lived his own life? He sighed. Another part of the puzzle which needed solving.
A bead of sweat wound its way down Eric's forehead until a hastily-found hankie wiped it away. He emerged from a half-doze to discover sunshine blazing through the café's windows. A brief fantasy where he met and spoke to Rob at Pride vanished as he came-to. At least he could spend his plant money without getting soaked. He frowned. Where was Andy?
As if summoned, the young man hurried back to their table. “Sorry! It was Adam's mother about the wedding invites. One thing led to another. Right – shall we get on?” Andy glanced outside. “The weather's dried up. Good.”
He stood up and gathered his coat and stick. “This wedding of yours seems to need as much planning as a military campaign.”
Andy shook his head in disbelief. “Tell me about it. The wedding itself is pretty restrained.”
Eric decided not to voice his doubts whether his understanding of 'restrained' was the same as the other man's.
“It's the reception where we're spending the money.” Andy scratched skin at the edge of his beard. “Most of our guests won't be at the ceremony, so they deserve a great time later. Something memorable.”
“For all the right reasons.”
They exchanged an amused glance before strolling outside.
Andy consulted the signpost. “Where d'you want to start?”
He shrugged; the sheer size of the place overwhelmed him.
“How about roses? A patio-sized rose bush would look good and they don't need much looking after.”
Eric blinked. “Err… I'd never have thought of that. Yes, please.”
They turned right, away from the car park and the café. Everywhere they looked, there were people. He couldn't believe so many folk had money to spend on garden ornaments, never mind plants.
Andy looked left as they passed by. “Fancy a gnome or two?”
With a broad smirk, Andy pointed them out.
“I'd be no more likely to have gnomes than one of those pergolas.” Eric waved a hand in their general direction. “I want plants in my garden.”
Andy didn't rise to the bait. “A few foxgloves would look great along the path. They need no work, they self-seed, and the bees love them.”
They reached the rose section.
Eric eyed up the price of the standard roses and winced. “Before you get too carried away, let's see how far this money of yours stretches.”
“Oh, you'll be surprised.” Andy spotted the miniature plants. “Let's find you a good one.”
As so often since he first met his client, Andy sat in the cottage, waiting for the old man to produce a mug of his strong-tasting tea. A select group of plants huddled beside the doorstep – quite small in number but varied – waiting to be moved to their final destination.
Eric's head poked round the door from the kitchen. “I don't suppose you have a spare watering can in that over-stocked shed of yours?”
“What you been using up to now?”
A gnarled finger indicated one of the battered mugs. “Haven't got anything else. A pan's too heavy – I can't control the flow of water. Tried one time; first, I soaked my shoes, then I nearly drowned a couple of the plants.”
Andy sniggered quietly. “Yeah – I can imagine. Might a smaller can do? One designed for a greenhouse perhaps?”
“That sounds more like it. I don't mind having to go backwards and forwards to the tap.”
Once tea was served – without a biscuit, Andy noted – the conversation turned to Pride.
He put his mug down. “How're you feeling about Saturday?”
The only answer he got was a grimace. He also noted the other man's knuckles tightening their grip on the mug.
It looked as though he would have to initiate the proceedings. “I remember my first Pride clearly…”
Eric leant forward in his chair as if determined to catch every word, drink suddenly forgotten.
“I'd just finished sitting my A-levels; so some ten years ago or so. I came out to my parents a few months earlier and was determined to mark the occasion by going to my first Pride as well. At the time, my dad hadn't taken the news of my sexuality too well, so things were somewhat strained at home.”
The mug of tea opposite now sat on the side-table, undrunk.
“I didn't have a boyfriend, or indeed any gay friends at all. Our part of Gloucestershire was hardly an out-and-proud kind of place. Anyway, the nearest place with a Pride was Bristol. I caught the train wearing ordinary clothes and not a rainbow in sight. Even so, in my mind, a large arrow appeared to point straight at me labelled 'He's gay'. That simultaneously bothered me and increased my sense of defiance.”
Andy stopped to take a gulp of his own drink. Eric had barely moved.
“Thinking back, nothing would've stopped me. It was a rite of passage. Anyway, once there, I lurked on the fringes until finally I took the plunge and got my face painted. Just that one small thing helped me belong. Later the same day, I met two guys who became my first queer friends.”
A silence followed. Eric shifted in his chair. Andy noticed his hands gripped the sides.
“But… but you were young. You were meant to be at Pride. Can't imagine it mattered a jot what you wore.”
He waited for the other man to continue. Instead Eric's gaze settled on his clothes, then his battered, well-worn shoes.
Andy leant forward. “Eric, what really matters at Pride is the fact you're there. By doing so, you're making a pretty fundamental statement on one level or another. Whether it's only to yourself, or to the world, it makes no difference. Don't get wrapped up in all the rest of the hype. OK?”
The older man grimaced. “It doesn't feel right.”
Another plea for reassurance? Andy scrabbled around for what else to say. “Look – you said a lot of stuff, quite personal things, for the video dressed pretty much as you are now. Those were as important. And don't expect the local Pride event to be like the one in Birmingham. This one's more low key – people don't go to town in the same the way. Even Adam and I are going in our usual weekend gear.”
Eric's face brightened a little. “So you're not wearing those… shorts or whatever they were?”
“Didn't you like the cycling shorts?”
“Yes, though they were almost indecent.”
He smirked. “Good. OK… feeling any better?” After receiving a nod, he moved the conversation on. “Let's run through the arrangements for Saturday morning.”
This was it. Eric took a deep breath before clambering out of the 4x4's back seats through the door Adam held open. The low concrete ceiling of the small, multi-story car park trapped the exhaust fumes. His nose wrinkled. Soon enough though, the three men were strolling through the bustling, pedestrianised retail heart of Hereford, towards the spot Andy had decided was best to view the parade.
His eyes swivelled from side to side as they walked, though he tried not to make it obvious. In the bright, fitful sunshine, he wondered who he might see. And the reverse, of course. Sandwiched in between his friends, Eric felt protected: shielded. And proud. For all his jitters and an uneasy stomach, he was proud to be there. One of his friends carried a bag with filled with colourful something-or-others for when the parade started. They both sported painted faces but he turned the offer down. He was too old to look like a child who'd stolen some marker pens.
Andy looked across. “OK?”
“Spotted anyone you know?”
The thought still made his guts churn.
“Not far now – the parade starts over there.” Andy's arm pointed left.
Eric's head turned in that direction. In the distance, he spotted the first crowd members – or maybe the floats were their destination – sporting draped rainbow flags. The bright, unapologetic colours continued into their clothes and hair.
Adam gave him a squeeze. “Maybe we'll find you something suitably Pride-coloured?”
“What – like this?” He brandished his well-used walking stick.
“Why not? If they don't already, there's a sure-fire idea for a new line.”
The three of them laughed. Eric felt a little less anxious.
Adam leaned over him to address his fiancé. “It's a short route.”
Andy shrugged. “Road closures cost serious money, even if it's only for a brief period. This is a grassroots organisation; major sponsors are hardly gonna be beating a path to their door.”
“True. I wonder if we could help with that next year?” Adam's head jerked round. “Bloody hell – that's one of the guys from maintenance.”
“Where?” Andy was shown. “Escaped your notice then?” He grinned.
Eric saw more and more people amongst the Saturday morning throng who looked likely spectators. He gave up trying to keep count. Thoughts whirled around in his mind: they weren't all young; some were as grey as him; on the outside, nobody appeared reluctant or ashamed to be there. Would Rob be amongst them? The main thing that astonished him was how many they were. For so long he'd believed himself a freak; one of a kind. A half-sob escaped. Fortunately, it wasn't heard amidst all the other noise.
They arrived at the spot – next to a tree to give some shade and support. The two lads changed into tees with 'Love out loud' printed on them in bright, bold letters.
Andy held out a smaller, white shirt with a rainbow on the front. “Bought this just in case.” With a smile, he handed it over.
Eric stared at it, unable to reach a decision until impatience with his own hesitancy won out. Giving himself a shake, he took the shirt, though he very soon handed it back as he didn't have sufficient hands. Stripping off both coat and cardi, he fumbled his own shirt buttons until Andy helped him to pull it off over his head. Swiftly, he covered over the shabby, grey vest with the bright new clothing. Peering down, he admired the result until partially covering it up when he replaced the outer garments.
A few minutes later, they heard cheering. Sure enough, the parade of floats wound its way towards them. As they came closer, their own section of the crowd clapped and shouted their support. Eric stood in silence; tears streaming down his face and a tremulous, genuine smile both mirrored his tumultuous feelings. Andy drew him close, offering support and comfort. Eric's old, worn hankie had its work cut out, but finally he saw the parade clearly again. A tractor and fully-occupied trailer were opposite. He realised the young man blowing kisses in their general direction was the lad he occasionally saw stocking the shelves in the supermarket.
Once the last of the floats passed by, in amongst all the other emotions was a grey sliver of disappointment. No Rob. Why did he persist in thinking the other man was gay? He knew part of his excitement at being there came from the possibility of seeing him again. Well, it was no surprise life proved him wrong. Eric sighed to himself as they got ready to leave. A name suddenly popped up in his mind out of nowhere; a complete name this time. Rob Bairstow. As soon as the two halves clicked together, he knew they were right. He said the name to himself several times over in an attempt to get it fixed in his memory.
Walking back to the car, he let the other two carry any conversation while he considered what he might do with the information. If anything. Was there much point if Rob was straight? Eric shrugged – he shouldn't let it overshadow the fact he'd been part of Pride. A smile reappeared.
Andy turned. “Glad you made the effort?”
“Yes.” And he meant it. “Pride was overwhelming, and wonderful, and so very special.”
“I'm pleased. Not something you'll forget in a hurry. Bet you're tired though.”
He was – drained.
As the car accelerated out onto the road, a weary Eric gazed aimlessly out of the window. Unfocussed eyes let several groups of pedestrians pass by unnoticed until one man with a greying, ash blond, pointed beard snagged his attention. Rob? He sat up immediately, turning his body to keep him in sight. The car continued to gather speed. As the man's back view disappeared into the distance, Eric thought he'd glimpsed a painted rainbow.
Rob's face with a rainbow.
Parker Owens has travelled with me throughout the writing of this book. I thank him. Thanks also go to you, the story's readers, for similarly keeping Eric company..
If you have enjoyed the read, you might wish to comment on this, the final chapter. Or you could like the story; write a story comment; or even leave a review. If you have yet to comment, I encourage you to join in the conversation. Whatever you have to say is of interest.
Eric will return later next year. I will keep you updated in the story's 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