Eric wakes up on Christmas morning, wondering what the day will bring.
Eric lay in bed, listening to the distant sound of church bells greeting the morning. Christmas Day wasn't anything special as far as he was concerned. In fact, in a way, he thought it was likely to be worse this year. In the past, he'd had no friends, or plans, or hope even. The day had always been just another one to be got through, without even the shops or the library to go to. This Christmas, somehow, he felt more lonely because he had friends. The old man frowned and shook his head as he tried to fathom out that particular thought. Maybe it was because he was more aware of what he was missing? That particular emotion was well known to him by now.
Every time he'd spoken to Andy or had a visit from him recently, the young man had something different to tell him about the Christmas preparations he and Adam were working on. Whether it was buying presents, decorating the tree, getting the menus planned … Andy was clearly excited by the prospect of Christmas. Who wouldn't be, when you had someone you loved to include in your plans?
Eric sighed. Even as a kid, Christmas had been nothing to write home about. His mother had seen it a trial to be got through. She never had any extra money to buy presents or decorations. His dad wasn't interested – he ate the food, and sat slumped in front of the telly, but everything else about Christmas passed him by. Wrapped up in his memories, Eric sighed again. There'd never been anything remotely joyful or exciting about the experience for him.
He'd called into the café a couple of times since 'computer day' – as he thought of it – and Brian Metcalfe had made some time to talk to him on each occasion. Even he'd regaled him with a rundown of the festivities he and his wife had got planned. Why were people so keen on letting others know just how wonderful their day was going to be? One-upmanship, probably. Eric grimaced. That was unkind of him. It felt like it though. Didn't either of them have any idea what his Christmas was going to be like?
Brian and his wife – Sandra, was it? – were a happy couple, as far as he could tell. The second time he'd visited the café, it'd been quite busy and she was helping out with the food preparation. She'd jokingly griped at Brian 'lazing around', as she put it, when there was work to be done. They were good friends, and they needed to be. Running that café and raising kids? That must've been hard work. Or, perhaps the café had come along later in their lives? Even so …
Eric got out of bed and started to get dressed. The sooner he got the day going, the sooner it'd be over with.
Later, he was sat in his usual chair, drinking his tea and looking at the rest of the living room. The cottage was a Christmas-free zone usually – he didn't see the point in wasting money on a tree or decorations nobody but him was going to see. He was like his dad in that respect at least. This year, he'd actually been sent some cards – four cards. They were balanced on the small table next to the chair Andy usually sat in. He'd never got that many when he was working. But then, he never bothered sending them to the blokes he worked with. Why should he? He wasn't against Christmas or anything, he just never saw the point of sending cards to people just out of habit.
These cards were different – they came from people who cared for him. Eric leant over with his stick and dragged the table closer. He picked them up, one by one. The brightest one was from Andy and his fiancé. It wasn't really a Christmas card, he supposed, as it showed a picture of a garden in full bloom. Had they bought it for him specially? Just that one small act of kindness made him feel happier. Both lads had signed it and written short messages.
The other three were more traditional. The one from Helping Hand was a snowy local scene – he knew the place, but hadn't been there in a long time. Hazel Thompson's had a jolly penguin on it, and the card from his new friend, Brian Metcalfe, a Christmas tree with presents. Eric felt vaguely ashamed that he hadn't sent any back. He'd have to do better the next time around – he couldn't assume they'd continue to send cards if he apparently ignored them.
Another thing that wasn't Christmassy was the weather. It was one of those cold, dark days with the rain lashing against the windows every now and again. Great. He would have to keep the lights on all day, and the heating. At least Andy's work meant that he didn't need to worry so much about the cost. Eric was about to turn the telly on for company when the phone rang. He stared at it for a moment or two before slowly getting out of his chair. Who would be phoning him on Christmas morning?
As he picked up the receiver, he could hear a number of voices in the background and some music playing. Was somebody pulling his leg? He was about to put the phone down when a familiar voice came on the line.
Hi, Eric. Merry Christmas!
Eric felt his face light up with a smile. It was Andy. He was going to return the greeting when he heard Andy speaking away from the phone.
Adam! Come and say Merry Christmas to Eric.
He could hear another, unknown, deeper voice asking loudly 'Who the fuck Eric was?', then Adam came on.
Eric? Hi, it's Adam. Merry Christmas!.
Eric managed to get his own greeting out this time. “And to you, Adam.”
God, it's a madhouse. Our parents are here. Andy and I are both looking forward to paying you a visit tomorrow …
Eric's eyes snapped wide open. For a moment he didn't know what to say.
“Oh … err … Yes. Ehm … So am I.”
He'd completely forgotten – well, he'd taken Andy's offer of food and some company on Boxing Day as well-meaning and unlikely to happen. Not for the first time, his lack of trust was finding him out.
We've masses of food here so I hope you'll accept some of it when we come over. It'll only go to waste otherwise.
Eric murmured his thanks while trying to come to terms with the idea of having Adam come to the cottage.
Anyway, I'd better get back to the kitchen. Guess who's chef for the day?
Eric found himself giving a brief snort of laughter in reply.
Still, Merry Christmas again! I'll get Andy to come back to the phone.
Eric remained standing, waiting for Andy to get back to him. He kept the receiver close to his ear and listened to the muffled sounds of a group of people enjoying themselves. Snatches of speech, laughter, the chink of glasses and bottles. He occupied himself by trying to identify as many different voices as he could. By the time Andy came back to the phone, he'd got to five.
Eric? I'm sorry to have left you hanging on. I couldn't get away – got caught up in a conversation. You know how it is …
Did he? No, that was a problem he'd never had to face. Part of his recent good mood evaporated.
You hadn't forgotten about tomorrow, Eric, surely?
Eric shamefacedly started to mumble something in reply, but Andy spoke over him.
Only Adam said you sounded surprised when he mentioned it?
Eric sighed. “I'm sorry, Andy. I … err …”
Andy chuckled wryly down the line. Don't tell me. It was something else you thought wouldn't happen.
Eric felt his insides squirm at this. He started to say something, an explanation, perhaps, when Andy cut him off again by continuing to speak.
Eric, I don't make a habit of promising things that I've got no intention of fulfilling.
Andy's tone was still quite light, but even he could detect a layer of hurt at his lack of trust. Eric gathered his wits and dived into the conversation before Andy could go any further.
“I'm sorry. I really am, Andy. I should know better by now. You, and Adam, of course, have done so much for me. And now Brian Metcalfe. My excuse of not expecting good things to happen is wearing thin. I'll do better in the future.”
Good, well, I'm glad that's cleared up. I know I forget things occasionally, but I don't make a habit of it.
Although Andy finshed off with a chuckle, he still sounded a little disappointed to Eric. He decided to make them both as welcome as he knew how on Boxing Day.
“I am looking forward to seeing you both. Adam said something about food, as well …”
Yeah, we'll come suitably equipped – there's always enough to feed an army here. And don't worry about how either you or the cottage look, OK? … We thought early afternoon, 'bout two o'clock?
As soon as Andy mentioned the state of the cottage, Eric's gaze wandered around the living room, gloomily stopping every now and again to stare at the state of it. He dragged himself back to the conversation.
“Yes, that's fine. I'm hardly going to be anywhere else … Happy Christmas, Andy, and to Adam as well. I hope you both have a good day.”
All the best, Eric. We'll see you tomorrow.
Eric put the phone down, and looked round the room again. It was certainly better than it had been – Andy had spent some time going round with the vacuum cleaner, so the floor at least, looked clean. He'd better get the duster out later and give the surfaces a going over. It showed willing, if nothing else, and it would give him something to do other than sitting in front of the telly, watching mindless Christmas tripe. This was a day he wished he owned a radio – he wanted some company, but not that sort of manufactured, forced jollity which so annoyed him.
Sitting back down in his chair, he thought about the possible seating arrangements for the following day. He only had two upholstered chairs, so one of the lads would have to sit on something else. There were a couple of elderly wooden dining chairs left from when he had a table. That had long gone, but he was glad he'd kept a couple of seats back. Only problem was, they were both partially submerged in the general chaos. That was going to be something else to do then.
Eric looked again at the state of his living room. He wasn't a hoarder. Well … certainly not like those sad individuals he'd seen and read about. Though looking around him, the cottage was far from being neat and tidy. His home-help, Hazel, had always been very brisk when it had come to disposing of stuff. He could remember having to justify keeping all sorts of things that would've found their way into the recycling bins otherwise. Thinking of Hazel always made him smile. He still missed her despite his new friends.
Eric stretched over and picked up her card again. Had she left her address anywhere? He turned it over. Yes, there it was, in a corner where he hadn't noticed it. He'd write her a note and tell her more about the changes in his life. Writing about himself was something that wouldn't come easily, he knew, but he was determined. It would still be easier than talking on the phone. The last time she'd called, he had been his usual tongue-tied self. He'd never said how much her help meant to him and she deserved that if nothing else.
Hazel would certainly be surprised, especially when the first piece of news about him would be the fact that he was gay. Would it throw her? He thought not – she'd always seemed totally unflappable. Maybe she'd guessed? Would he ever get used to telling people? No … He got up to make himself a sandwich whilst thinking about how he was going to break the news to her.
In the flat above the café, Brian Metcalfe was slumped on the sofa. He was nearly dozing off. God, he'd eaten so much. He wouldn't have to consume anything else for at least … a few hours. It was all Sandra's fault. He chuckled to himself, then made a supreme effort to raise his voice.
“Your food's just too bloody wonderful, you know.”
Sandra stuck her head round the door from the kitchen and grinned.
“'Too bloody wonderful'? Says the man who's indulged himself a little too much. Or perhaps, is feeling a mite overfed? Enjoy it, love. We work bloody hard the rest of the time.”
Brian patted the seat next to him on the sofa. “Come and have a rest, darling. Any other bits of clearing up can wait. It's nearly time for the Queen.”
His wife dried her hands, then pushed her hair back off her forehead. She gave a deep sigh of satisfaction. “That roast goose was fantastic, even though I say so myself. Just let me finish loading the dishwasher, then I'll join you.”
They'd invited a couple of people from their congregation to join them for Christmas lunch. It was the least they could do now both the girls had families of their own. Lunch had gone well and their guests had enjoyed themselves, but it was nice to have the place back to themselves. Christmas Day was the start of a week's holiday for them both. He'd been looking forward to it for ages – he loved running the café, but it could be a hard taskmaster at times. Next year would be the tenth anniversary of them taking it over. It was never going to make their fortune, still they'd made a reasonably flourishing concern out of it.
Sandra came and collapsed onto the seat next to him. Brian turned and gave her a quick kiss. They both sat there for a few minutes in contented silence before he stirred himself.
“I was thinking of giving Eric Whitehouse a ring later.”
“Hmm?” Sandra was lost in her own thoughts.
“You know, Eric. Anyway, I thought I'd offer to give him another couple of computer lessons. The library's open for a few days in between Christmas and New Year and he really needs to keep practising.”
Sandra smiled at him. “You're a kind man, Brian Metcalfe, you really are. It wouldn't bother me anyway. I'll be out and about, hitting the sales. Expect the credit card to be maxed out.”
Brian chuckled loudly. “Your idea of maxing out would be a shopaholic's opening move.”
“Don't encourage me – I might suddenly have an urge to improve …”
Sandra's sly smile made Brian grin widely. He was about to reply when the sounds of the National Anthem drew them both back to the TV.
Eric finished moving the last of the stuff from off one of the dining chairs. There, it was done. He hadn't really disposed of anything – it had been more a case of moving the heaps around. Still, even that somehow made the place look a little better. Right, he'd have a sit down for a few minutes before he started his evening meal. Nothing Christmassy – just Welsh rarebit again. He'd even treated himself to some bacon, specially.
Once settled back in his usual chair, Eric thought about his day. There he'd been in the morning, expecting that this Christmas would be worse than usual. He smiled to himself. How wrong could he have been? He'd had two phone calls. Two! And not only had the callers wished him a Happy Christmas, but they'd also talked about including him in their plans for the coming days. That was special. It made him feel wanted. Yes, he wouldn't be so happy the following morning when he was waiting for Adam to arrive, but he'd survive. It had been the best Christmas day for a long time.
My thanks to Parker Owens, my partner in everything I write.
This chapter is the first of three which will tie up this volume of Eric's story.
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