Eric, a guest himself, welcomes someone else to his current abode.
Brian Metcalfe lay slumped on the sofa; the TV was on, but with the sound turned down. The better weather over the weekend saw an influx of shoppers into the town centre at the start of the week. Good for business, yes. Completely knackering for him though. He thought the afternoon would never come to an end. The 'Closed' sign hadn't gone up with such a flourish in a long time. His back ached from all the standing, and his feet hurt. Not for the first time, Brian wondered whether he was getting too old to run the place on his own. He had some help on Saturdays: a couple of youngsters to do the running around; otherwise it was him, with occasional assistance from Sandra. Maybe he ought to consider getting some lunchtime cover during the week?
Sandra stuck her head round from the kitchen. “Supper'll be ready in twenty minutes or so, love. Chicken casserole: your favourite.”
Brian managed a smile. “Thanks, dear. God, I'm tired, and starving.”
She snorted. “So what's new? I'll just quickly do the washing up, then I'll come and join you.”
“Hmm?” Brian yawned deeply. “Wake me up if you need to. I can hardly keep my eyes open.”
“OK.” With a sympathetic chuckle, his wife disappeared back into the kitchen.
Brian enjoyed being sprawled out, relaxing, his hands behind his head. His thoughts moved away from the café, onto Eric Whitehouse, as they did frequently since the older man's accident. It wasn't Eric's fall that preoccupied him, more the conversation they shared immediately preceding it. Brian sighed. How many times had he replayed it since? He wasn't proud of how he handled the other man's admission. Not at all.
Eric Whitehouse was a gay man? It was such a jaw-dropping surprise, coming as it did straight out of nowhere. Not a hint beforehand: in his gestures, speech, interests or anything. Brian hesitated. That smacked of stereotyping. It assumed that all gay men were like the cartoonish characters that sometimes appeared on the TV. Then he remembered talking to Andy Harper and Adam Partington on the same day. Neither of them sounded gay, and Adam was pleasant, business-like, and efficient when he arrived to take charge of Eric.
Sandra came back through and sat in the armchair. “Still awake then?”
Brian blinked. “Err … Yeah, just about. It was busy today. Hope it shows in the till receipts.”
His wife smiled. “I'll start on them later if I get a chance. Won't have time tomorrow, will I?”
Brian sat upright. He patted the now available half of the sofa. “Want to join me?”
They cuddled companionably for a minute or two.
Brian broke the silence. “Thanks for offering to be behind the counter tomorrow afternoon. I don't feel I can visit Eric in the evening, seeing he's not in his own home.”
“I don't mind. It's fine, love. I'm sure Mr Whitehouse is in good hands, you know. He needs rest more than anything else.” She looked up at the clock. “Another couple of minutes.”
Brian cleared his throat.
His wife looked sideways, raising an eyebrow. “Yes …?”
“Eric didn't leave the café in the best of moods. I think it might've contributed to him having his accident.”
Now both eyebrows arched.
Brian shifted uneasily. He felt embarrassed. “Eric said something which caught me completely on the hop. I didn't know what to say for the best. What I did come out with offended him, I think.”
He heard a deep intake of breath.
“Well, don't keep me in suspense.”
Brian stared at the back of his hands. “He told me he was gay.”
There was silence for a moment while Sandra digested what he said. Then she turned her body to face him properly. “From what you've told me about him, I can't imagine Mr Whitehouse saying that out of the blue?”
He sighed. “You're right, of course. The gist of it is, I was congratulating myself on working out who his 'young man' was …”
“Yes, you said. Andy Harper.”
“Yeah. Well … I sort of ended up warning Eric that Mr Harper was gay.”
Sandra was looking at him in disbelief. “What's that to you, Bri, or to Mr Whitehouse, for that matter? You wouldn't point out that someone was straight. What's the difference?”
As she so often did, his wife demonstrated her ability to get to the point.
Brian sighed again. “There isn't one, as you so rightly say. I don't know why, but I opened my mouth without engaging brain first. The poor man must've felt really put on the spot. So he said what he said, and I sat there like an idiot, thinking that somehow it changed everything. That the Eric sitting in front of me had morphed into somebody else. God …” Brian shook his head in despair. “I know we live in a small town, but I never before thought I had the mentality to go with it.”
Sandra gave him another gentle squeeze. “You don't have, love. Lesson learnt?”
“Well, I'm sure if you apologise to Mr Whitehouse tomorrow, things between you will turn out OK.”
“I hope so.”
Sandra sniffed the air. “Food's 'bout ready.”
“Great.” Brian stretched and yawned.
They both got up and went to eat.
In the quiet of the following morning, after both his hosts had left for work, Eric sat in the kitchen, doing the ankle exercises his GP recommended. Or trying to do them. Even his good ankle wasn't that flexible. Being told to trace the alphabet with his foot sounded completely daft, but as he concentrated on remembering both the order of the letters and the movements, he felt his bad ankle move a little better. Everything was healing up after his fall – his bruises were more yellow than purple now. He wished his body would get a move on though. He still found walking difficult and Eric knew he wouldn't be allowed home until he could safely climb his stairs.
Andy and Adam were so kind and attentive to him. He appreciated that. However, their home wasn't his. Being at all a visitor in someone's home wasn't part of his normal life. Never mind staying in a strange house for days, possibly weeks on end. … Eric realised he'd stopped doing the exercises. He started at the beginning again, trying to clear his mind of other things. He got as far as 'E' this time before he lost the thread once more. His own home was what he missed, with all its familiar clutter, and the everyday jobs that gave the passing hours some meaning. Their house was huge, and it had attics; not that he'd been anywhere near them.
Eric sighed and decided to give up on the exercises. He would have to do better next time. It was sunny outside, if windy and cold for the beginning of March. He had some time to kill before Brian Metcalfe arrived. Unusually for him, Eric didn't feel nervous about their encounter. That day in the café, he only told Brian what was true: he was gay. It was a part of him like the colour of his eyes, or his tendency to arthritis. Neither of those things would affect a friendship; so why should what he said make any difference? Maybe he was expecting too much? Anyway, the ball was in Brian's court. They would have a chat over some sandwiches and a beer, and he'd have to wait and see what happened.
The old man levered himself up from his seat, using the table to take a large part of his weight as he stood upright. Gripping his stick tightly, he limped off in search of his outdoor shoes, coat, and everything else he needed. Once suitably dressed – his coat had miraculously survived the attentions of the dry-cleaner – Eric let himself out of the back door. He tried to remember what Andy had told him by way of instructions. Was he meant to lock the door even though he was only going to be in the garden? Eric frowned. No; he had no idea. Just as well the lads didn't think to burden him with the alarm code. He'd learnt so much over the past few days – new things, places, routines – his head hurt with it all.
He decided to make sure the door was fastened shut. It wasn't as if he was going far. Hobbling to the pond halfway down the garden, and back, would be his limit. And it was only yesterday he'd been able to achieve that much. Propping himself up against the rainwater butt, he looked down the length of the garden. It was long and fairly narrow, like most suburban plots attached to older houses. It still looked a good amount of garden, unlike the little he'd seen of modern developments.
Their gardens appalled him. Cramped, miserable excuses they were, with shoddy fences and little scope for creative gardening. The saplings put in by the builders weren't any better most of the time. The trees were planted too close to the houses or fencing; destined to be overshadowed by an existing, established tree; or simply shoved in the ground by someone who couldn't give a toss whether it survived or not.
As he let his eyes wander, Eric smiled to himself. It was funny. Somehow he imagined Andy's garden would be a kind of showpiece, a calling card. Instead, it was informal, an oasis for relaxation. That made sense, otherwise it would too much like bringing work home. He grimaced. Over the years, he'd got to know that very well. After a hard day's work, out in all weathers, the last thing he wanted to do when he got home was to start all over again in his own patch. The garden at his previous cottage had never been much to look at, even when he was younger and more fit. Eric smiled wryly. That word – 'fit' … From his explorations on the internet, he already had the impression it meant something else in the gay world. Tough. His head, his thoughts, with the words he wanted. Still, he had the perfect opportunity now to make his own garden something better.
Eric spent another few seconds surveying the view. Andy had done a good job. Well planted, it looked peaceful, helped by the cool expanse of the pond; it even appeared secluded in a couple of spots. The path meandered its way down through several different areas, each marked out by changes in planting or the furniture. 'Rooms' – that's what Andy had called them. Rooms? Eric shook his head. What would these modern gardeners think of next? Anyway, he reminded himself he was meant to be taking a walk, not lounging around. He pushed himself off the water butt and gingerly started out towards the pond. His gait was lopsided and he leant heavily on his stick.
Brian Metcalfe strode down the tree-lined street until he reached the right house. Interesting it was only identified by a number, not some pretentious name or another. He passed some prize examples on the way: The Laurels; Fairview; Orchard House. He stopped to have a look at the house before he opened the gate. It was large and no mistake. Quite a change of scenery for Eric.
Then he thought how the older man might feel, rattling round a strange house, all on his own for most of the time. Even the hedge looked posh – not the usual beech or anything else he recognised. He'd never had much interest in plants, gardens, or nature in general. Opening the gate, he made his way along the short path until he reached the front door. Brian rang the bell, then stood waiting, feeling uncharacteristically unsure of himself.
Just as he wondered whether to ring again, Brian heard a key in the lock. After a moment, it was removed, then apparently replaced by another key; that was followed by another, this last being the one that opened the door.
As it opened inwards, Brian saw the familiar figure of his friend. “Hello, Eric. How are you?”
The other man grimaced. “So-so. The ankle's still playing up. Otherwise, … I'm getting there.” He stood to the side, making use of his stick. “Come on in.”
As he walked past, Brian's eyes swivelled in all directions, taking in as much as he could. Sandra would be interested in every last detail, however loudly she might try to deny it.
Eric waved an arm towards the back of the house. “I'll be in the kitchen, making our lunch, if you want to join me.” He slowly locked up, pocketing the keys with a sigh. “There're so many keys – for all manner of doors, windows, and I dunno what.”
Brian smiled as they walked kitchenwards. “How are you finding it here, Eric?”
“I'll be glad to get home.” He shrugged. “I mean, both lads are very kind and considerate, and I'm hugely grateful for their help …”
“But it's not where you're used to being.”
“Any idea how much longer you're going to be staying?”
The other man shrugged again, not bothering to answer. “Here's the kitchen. It's got so many things and gadgets, I hardly knew where to start when I was first left to my own devices.”
Brian's eyebrows went up as he looked round. It wasn't a magazine article sort of affair, but it was certainly spacious, well equipped, and far beyond anything of which Eric had experience.
“Nice. Some good stuff. I wouldn't mind cooking something here. Sandra would be the same, I'm sure.”
“Hnh … I wouldn't mind not having to tramp about so much. 'specially at the moment.”
Brian winced internally at Eric's irritability. He hoped their chat would go better.
Eric started to get things out of cupboards, a little clumsily as he only ever had one hand free.
Brian stood and watched for a moment. Then he thought he'd better pitch in. “Can I help?”
“Yeah, if you'd like.”
Together they shared out the tasks. It wasn't long before they sat down to a plate of ham sandwiches – proper, fresh roast ham, he noticed – and a bowl of salad which he prepared. They allowed themselves a bottle each of some micro-brewery's India pale ale.
Several minutes later, Brian finished eating. Now was the time to take the plunge. He delayed for a few seconds more by helping himself to a little extra cucumber while trying to sort out exactly what needed saying.
Nervously, he cleared his throat. “Ah … Eric? I'd like to apologise if what I came out with last week offended you. That wasn't my intention at all. Your … Ehm. What you said took me by surprise, and I responded without thinking things through first. I'm sorry.”
The other man looked at him for a time, before finally putting the last of his sandwich back down on his plate. “Thanks, Brian. You're honest, at least. I'm sorry I put you on the spot. I don't want it to come between us. There's no reason why it should, is there?”
The question forced Brian into a reply. “I meant it when I said it wouldn't. It's just how out of the blue it was. I mean, since I've known you, you've never come across as being gay …” He stopped, wondering if he'd put his foot in it again.
“We come in all shapes, sizes, and colours, Brian. I've learnt that from the internet.”
Brian regarded the smaller man opposite with new respect. This was a side of Eric he'd never seen before. Not combative; more … settled, sure of himself.
Eric looked away slightly, with a small smile on his face. “It's only very recently I've felt able to say that I'm gay. And really, it's only been a month or so since I've discovered I'm not alone. There's a whole gay world out there, and I'm part of it. Andy and Adam have been very patient with my questions. … Now I find I'm proud to be queer.”
“But …” Brian hesitated, then curiosity got the better of him. “So you've never had a boyfriend?”
“No …” A strange expression of sadness and annoyance passed over Eric's face. “Even if I were boyfriend material, it would've been against the law when I was young enough for that. You know what I'm talking about?”
“No. Err …” Brian chased memories around inside his head. “Oh, yeah … Sort of.” He trailed off again, feeling inadequate.
Eric turned to face him. “Brian, I'm not having a go at you. But my history isn't yours – not all of it anyway. Look, even when being queer was no longer a crime, what do you think would've happened to me if I'd come out as a gay man hereabouts?”
Brian thought back to his comment about small town mentalities. He grimaced.
Eric started to clear away, still talking. “At the very least, I would've lost my job, and the cottage that went with it. … Anyway, enough of this.” Eric looked out the large windows facing onto the garden. He turned to face Brian again, this time with a smile. “Let's talk about something else as we have a wander round outside. I need some fresh air.”
Brian returned the smile. “So do I, I think.”
As ever, Parker Owens made this chapter better.
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