A Sanitaria Springs Story of sorts, in which two people from ‘The Tourist’ meet again.
"Six-six-two, four-double two."
"Hi there, Mr Peter Lawson?"
The cheery Trans- Atlantic accent put Peter on the defensive. It was going to be another call-centre slave trying to put the 'con' into 'telecon'.
"If you're trying to flog me summat, bugger off!" Well, they say attack is the best form of defence.
"Hey, that's a bit blunt, even for Yorkshire! No, I'm not trying to sell you anything. It's Lukas Schmidt, we met in Sanitaria Springs."
Peter picked up on the disappointment now evident in the caller's voice. Thankfully the events surrounding their meeting were sufficiently memorable that he didn't have to blag it while he worked out who Lukas was.
"Gordon Bennett! That's a while back! I'd given over expecting to hear from you.
"Oh! Sorry for my opening gambit. I've been getting a lot of cold callers lately, including some Yankee 'boiler room' outfit trying to sell me dodgy stocks and shares. There always seems to some part of no they don't understand."
Lukas was relieved that Peter now sounded pleased to hear from him. People didn't always mean it when they said to give them a call if you were anywhere in their area, and it had been some time since they had met in Roxanne's coffee house.
"That's okay. I get them myself all the time so I know what you mean. But who's Gordon Bennett? Is he your partner?"
"Gordon Bennett? Ah, it's just a thing some of us Brits say for emphasis, sort of swearing without the four letter words. I could have said 'bloody hell' or even 'Gor Blimey' if I was from down south."
Peter decided that for now he would not mention that his partner had passed away just before Christmas.
"Anyway, to what do I owe the pleasure of this call? I presume you're over here in the UK on business, doing the 'Seagull' bit! You still have contacts in Sheffield?"
"Yes, I'm in Sheffield now. I'm here for a week, sorting out a few problems that have arisen between us, our agents and their customers. I've got a meeting with the last of the customers next Tuesday. I had planned to have it all done and fly out Friday, but it turned out they couldn't do this week and I have been fouled up by what you Brits call a Bank Holiday on Monday. So I've got the long weekend to occupy myself. "
"Sounds as though you are definitely doing the 'Seagull' thing," Peter said as he chuckled to himself, "and I think you are trying to sell me something!"
"No, I'm not,"
"Yes you are. You're trying to sell me the idea that we should meet up!"
"Okay, you win! Normally on these trips I don't get time for anything other than work, which is why I haven't contacted you before."
"I understand." said Peter. "Everyone thinks overseas trips are fun, living the high life and visiting exotic places, not that I would call Sheffield exotic. The reality is they are usually hard work with little or no time to relax. By the way, where are you staying?"
"Well, it looks as though it should be called the 'Beau-chief', but that's not how they say it."
"Ah, Sheffieldish, the local lingo. You mean the 'Beechiff'!"
"That's it. How do you know that?"
"I used to live just up the road in Millhouses. Interesting though, I thought it was just a restaurant. I didn't know they did rooms."
"They've only got one to rent, and it normally only gets used as a bridal suite when they have a wedding booked. One of the guys I work with uses the place as his local bar, so he knows the manager, and got me fixed up there as it is convenient for a lift to the office. There is a snag though. They have a couple of weddings on, so I can't stay there this weekend."
"Sounds like you've just invited yourself to my place for the weekend. I warn you though, it's nothing special, definitely not a five star hotel, and is about as tidy as a teenager's bedroom. But you're welcome if you are happy to slum it a bit!"
Lukas laughed at that, which Peter took to be acceptance of his offer.
"I live in Wensleydale, about two hours north of Sheffield. Have you got transport? I suppose I could drive down and pick you up, although I don't fancy it in the Bank Holiday traffic."
"Wensleydale? That's where the cheese comes from, isn't it?"
"Yes, in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. Now about transport?"
"I might be able to organise something there. I'm sure one of guys said he was going up North for the weekend to visit family or something. I'll ask him tomorrow and let you know."
"That would be great. If I give you my mobile number he can give me a bell and we can work out where to meet." They exchanged numbers and a few more pleasantries before they hung up.
Peter sat for a while mulling things over.
'Talk about blast from the past. He's got a bloody cheek though, ringing up out of the blue angling for an invite or at least hoping to meet up. God, it must be nearly three years. Or was it four. Still, it'll be good to see him again. I know we only met briefly, but I did quite like the guy.'
He stirred himself to go and dig out the photos and other souvenirs of his trip to the U.S. including the copy of the Sanitaria Spings free rag 'Hollows Hollers' that he had picked up in the coffee shop in the town. Taking the CD from his collection, he settled down to revive the memories of the trip and his meeting Lukas, the Bach Cello suites as accompaniment to his thoughts.
"Yes!" Peter snarled in frustration as he fumbled answering his mobile.
"It's John here. Lukas' colleague. He asked me to give you a ring about getting him up to the Dales."
"Oh! Hi. Nice to speak to you. Would you be able to give him a lift then? He said something about your heading North for the holiday weekend."
"We're off to see the wife's parents in Sunderland, so we'll be going up the A1 Friday evening. Do you know a good place to meet up or drop him off?"
"I was going to suggest Wetherby services as it's not far from work, but it will be busy. I don't think I would find him in the scrum. What about the little services at Leeming, on the Bedale turning? Just before the roadworks start. It's small enough to be able to find him even if I don't recognise him."
"I know where you mean. We'll be coming straight from work, the wife will pick us up, so it'll probably be about six thirty when we get there. You'll recognise him, he looks like Gobby Gary off 'Football Today'. Anyway he'll be about the only one still in a suit and we can pin a conference name badge on him!"
"Brilliant, and that fits with the time I'll be leaving work. If you need to press on, just leave him and I'll pick him up. If we don't meet, we can sort out the return journey on the phone over the weekend."
"Ok. Cheers then."
"Thanks for doing this, I appreciate it. Bye."
Peter was pleased with the arrangements. He had no great wish to spend the extra time travelling down to Wetherby and hunting for Lukas in the services there. Leeming was so much more satisfactory.
His thoughts turned to John's mention of Gobby Gary. The nickname was a bit unfair on the man. It could be said to be in the job description for a football commentator, but the name was far more appropriate for most of his TV colleagues. Gary came over as a nice guy. He had been a star player in the First Division before it morphed into the Premier League, so he knew about the game from experience, not just talking about it. Peter didn't remember Lukas as being particularly like Gary although they were both good looking and both had a certain sex appeal. In Gary's case, Peter reckoned it was that strong, he could feel it through the telly screen! It was almost, but not quite enough to make him want to watch the football, or soccer as Lukas would call it. No, he would reserve judgement on John's comment until he had met up with Lukas again.
"God, I feel a right plonker! I could have sworn that was 'Our Gary'. I used to go watch him every week when he was playing for the team. I wanted his autograph. Turned out to be some ruddy Yank."
"Told you it wasn't him!"
Peter looked across the room past the two football fans, his line of sight guided by the direction they had come from. He spotted a man in a business suit and name tag, a bemused expression on his face. The fans had made it easy, it had to be Lukas.
Although he had identified his objective, Peter pretended to look around the room, giving himself time to marshal his thoughts and observe Lukas. He was a little apprehensive about having invited him to stay on the strength of that half hour meeting three or was it four years ago. He looked across at Lukas and decided that there was a resemblance to Gobby Gary. However it seemed to be more in manner and bearing than an actual physical likeness, although the latter was clearly enough to confuse the football fan. Peter did notice that neither man could be considered classically handsome. The best analogy he could come up with was that they were like impressionist paintings: the individual brush strokes, the nose, the ears, and other features were crudely rendered, but the overall effect had a definite beauty. Well in the eyes of at least one beholder! There was one point where they were not alike. Gary had had a reputation as a ladies man, although any hint of impropriety had been dispelled by the attention he was known to give to his family. On the other hand Peter had been there when Lukas had admitted publicly that he was gay.
Peter was drawn back from his thoughts when he noticed Lukas waving at him. He had been spotted. As he negotiated through the tables to join Lukas he realised that he probably wouldn't have recognised him without the clues provided by Lukas' colleague, John, and the football fans.
"Hi, Lukas? How are you doing? I'm sorry if I'm a bit late. Have you been waiting long?"
"Peter! Good to see you again."
Lukas rose from his seat and they shook hands. He did not move to sit down again.
"About half an hour. We got away early, and John wanted to press on before the traffic builds up, so he apologised and left me here.
"Unless you want a drink or something, do you mind if we go straight away?"
"Sure. Why?" Peter picked up Lukas' bag and they headed for the exit.
"People keep coming up to me and asking for my autograph. They think I'm Gary somebody, and get upset when I say I am not. It's getting to me a bit."
"I thought you looked a bit put out when I first saw you across the room! You do look a bit like him."
"Thanks, buddy. Who is he?"
"He's a former football star who now does commentary on the telly."
"Soccer to you. How long ha' you been coming here?"
They reached Peter's compact car. The bag was put in the back and they got seated and belted.
"I know it only small and a bit Spartan, but it does for me and it's economical if I'm not too heavy with my right foot." Peter fired up the little diesel engine and they set off.
Lukas was about to make a quip about Yorkshire folk being thrifty when he caught sight of the price banner as they passed the petrol station. John had told him earlier that to get a rough idea of dollar per U.S. gallon price from the advertised pounds per litre he should multiply by at least six. No wonder Peter wanted to be economical.
Their conversation was minimal as Lukas was looking at the town they were passing through and Peter was concentrating on the traffic. With holiday makers in the mix, you could never be sure what would happen next.
They turned into the High Street.
"I meant to ask you when we were on the phone the other night, what did you mean by me being over here doing the 'Seagull bit'?"
Peter was about to answer, but cursed instead as he had to stand on the brakes. Someone had just reversed out of a parking space into the traffic without looking, the felony compounded by a guy coming the other way, kerb crawling for a space, cutting across in front of Peter to take the vacant slot. No signals of course, never mind a wave of thanks.
"I swear all the drivers in this town have a death wish. Either that or the Council have a scam going with the insurance companies."
"As bad as that?"
"Pretty much." Another near miss demonstrated the truth of this last remark.
They managed to negotiate the rest of the High Street without the need for tranquillisers. Peter looked up at the church clock as they passed and did a rough calculation.
"What do you want to eat? We can either head back to my place, or I thought we could stop at one of the pubs I know that amongst other things does good fish and chips and they have decent beer. We should be able to get there before they stop serving food. Have John and the guys introduced you to proper beer yet?"
"Fish and chips sounds good. Beer? Only what they have in the hotel."
"Probably lager then. Dave usually has as least a couple of trad beers on, so you can have a tasting session."
"I'll explain when we get the pub, but I warn you, my partner and I used to run a pub for nearly ten years and I can be a bit of a 'beer bore' when I get started. Just kick me if it gets too much."
It was twenty minutes to where Peter planned to stop, so he asked Lukas if there was anywhere he wanted to go or anything he wanted to do over the weekend. If it was somewhere 'touristy' they might be better going tomorrow, Saturday, as it probably would be less busy than the rest of the weekend. John had made a few suggestions to Lukas and Peter recalled some of the things an Australian friend had enjoyed on his visits to Yorkshire. As they drew into the pub car park it was agreed to make the final decision in the morning depending on the weather and what time they woke up.
The pub wasn't as busy as Peter had expected and they were able to get to the bar without pushing and shoving.
"Ruddy hell! Wot you doing here? Never going to spend money?"
"We've come for something to eat, that is if the Boss is still cooking."
"You're cutting it fine, she's just been in saying only five more minutes for orders. So don't be long making your minds up."
"Don't worry. I know her. I'll not let her get out of doing work by saying we took too long to order. We both want fish and chips please. Take the order in to her while we decide what we want to drink. Are all the hand pulls on?"
While Dave disappeared into the kitchen with the order, Peter surveyed the choice of beers.
"That one would be nice and citrusy, and should go well with the fish." He pointed to the pull with the badge of one of the local microbreweries. "The next is a bit sweeter, and the 'Old and Filthy' on the end, I think is just that, it's sweet and liquoricey. You okay with beer, Lukas, or would you like something else?"
"No, beer will be fine, but do they taste that different?"
"The Boss says you're living dangerously with comments like that." Dave had returned from the kitchen. "Have you decided?"
"Can you let my friend here have a taster of the three beers please? He doesn't believe me how different they are."
Dave pulled the samples, and Lukas pulled a face when he tried the third one.
"I see what you mean about that one. Why would you want to drink that?"
"It's nice on a cold winter night, or with a spicy pud like Christmas Pudding. What's it to be then?"
"As you said, Peter, the first one please."
"Pint and a half please."
"Only a half?"
"I'm driving, I don't want to risk more. Anyway I can't afford more at your prices!" Peter smiled at Dave to show he was joking and got his wallet out to pay.
Dave started clapping his hands at imaginary targets over where Peter was holding his wallet and looked at Lukas who was wondering what was going on.
"Aye, make sure you get 'em all, they're specially trained." said Peter.
"Killer moths?" asked Lukas, still not sure what was going on but realising it must be some kind of joke.
Peter pulled a note out of his wallet and handed it to Dave
"No, worse than that, Retriever moths, they'll have that note out of the till and back into my wallet before you know it."
Dave turned to put the note in the till.
"Hey, Pete, how long have you had that note? I'm sure I saw the Queen blink at the light as you handed it to me."
Peter flicked two fingers at the landlord and took Lukas over to a table to sit down and wait for their food.
"Is he always that rude?"
"That's mild. When we had our pub, my partner could be much worse than that. We called it 'Confrontational Hospitality'. The punters would lap it up. They would think you a 'character' and they were part of the act. As long as they could see there was no real malice in what you said."
"If you say so." Lukas was sceptical about 'Confrontational Hospitality' as a Unique Selling Point.
They talked about the beers Lukas had tried and the difference between British beers and the lager styles brewed elsewhere. By the time their meals arrived, Peter had covered top and bottom fermenting yeasts and realised he was now talking about 'fluffy bottoms'. He thought it was time for a change of subject.
"So how's things in Sanitaria Springs? What happen to that guy you outed? What was his name? Billy Vernon? He reminded me of a vindictive old queen I used to know. Did he ever try to get back at you at all?"
"No, I expected it as well, but nothing happened, or nothing that came to my notice. I think me outing him was only the beginning of his troubles. His business had already started to go downhill, when you saw him, but things got worse. Eventually he had to file for Chapter Eleven protection. In the end he sold it, I think it was about about two years ago. He only got a fraction of what the business was worth when he inherited it from his father."
"Owner-managers often hang on too long." Peter interjected, allowing Lukas to get a bite at his meal. "They would be better selling up and starting something new!"
"Anyway, he just about got enough out of it to retire, but has had to downsize to a cheap apartment and live a much more modest lifestyle. No more expensive suits or fine wines. It really got to him, having to sell up. Knocked his confidence badly."
"I can understand that, it hit me when we sold the pub and that was our decision, not forced on us by creditors. I was thankful I got a job straight away otherwise I think I would have got seriously depressed."
"However, a few months before Vernon had to sell up, George Cooper one of his homophobic friends had come over from Binghamton to visit. His son, Charlie had told him a few weeks before that he was gay. He had lost it and beaten the boy so badly that he was taken into care the next day. George didn't care, he effectively disowned Charlie. Billy was still in denial about his own orientation and had been supportive of George's actions.
"Unfortunately George was unaware that Charlie was being fostered in Sanitaria Springs. He had dropped into the store to buy something before heading back to Binghamton, and came across Charlie and his boyfriend fooling about in the canned veg aisle. George was fired up from his talk with Billy and lost it again, grabbing hold of his son. The boyfriend got involved and there was fracas, with the police being called. Out of that, a Restraining Order was slapped on George, which made him realise he might never see his son again, and sowed the seeds of doubt in his mind about whether he was right. George finally had to face up to what he had done when Charlie was killed in a car crash some months later. It affected him badly, so badly that he was fixed up with counselling. Because it was one of his closest friends it rubbed off on Billy too."
Lukas had another go at his meal before continuing.
"But Billy got pitched a third strike. I don't know if you remember, but his grandson, Billy Carlisle, got sent to Juvenile Detention for beating up a kid for no real reason. He was released, again about the time Billy sold up. Billy went to see him, apparently with the intention of helping him get his life back to normal. But the grandson had been made to confront his actions and prejudices whilst in the Boys Home. When Billy went to visit and started one of his rants, the grandson had realised Billy was the source of a lot of that prejudice and hate and told him he didn't want to see him again. He just about threw Billy out of the house by all accounts."
"That would hurt. I seem to remember the emotion Billy had in his voice when he mentioned him that day. Something akin to pride I think."
"Well, to rub it in, word has it that the grandson is gay and that part of his problem was his being in denial. It's said that he even has a boyfriend although I don't know if that's official.
"So the grandfather has pretty much been forced to reflect on his own failings and come to terms with himself. He hasn't said anything publicly, but he has started dropping in to Roxanne's again having kept away since that day you were there."
"Does he still sit in that stool at the counter holding court and looking as though he owned the place?"
"No, when I've seen him in there he is just at one of the small tables, usually on his own. Some of the regulars nod to him as they pass but otherwise mostly ignore him."
Peter and Lukas had continued eating their meals between paragraphs.
"So Roxanne is still at the coffee shop? It didn't look a particularly thriving business when I was there."
"Funny thing that. Her brother, the bus driver, lost his job that day. He wasn't really supposed to stop for a break in Sanitaria Springs, but he used to stretch the timetable to stop there and give his sister some business. It didn't normally matter because the locals weren't usually wanting a connection beyond Binghamton and most others wouldn't know better. But, as you know, he was particularly late that day, and they needed his bus to cover a breakdown, so he got a full reception committee when he drew in."
"I thought he looked a bit worried when he saw all the 'uniforms' at the stand."
"Anyway he is now driving for the local bus company in Albany.
"After that we thought Roxanne would struggle, especially as they moved the Greyhound stop out to the Interstate interchange to save having to drop into town. But she got publicity out of the gossip around this and the Billy Vernon thing, and the atmosphere in the place brightened after he stopped going in. The regulars became much more chatty, and some of the local kids started going in, including quite a few gays. She's even bought an espresso machine, so the coffee's better too. In fact, it has become a good place to meet and catch up with the gossip. Roxanne watches what's going on and takes it all in but keeps it to herself. Oddly enough there's another independent opened in town and that is busy as well."
"Two coffee shops? The place didn't look big enough to support one."
"The way the bus used to come in you would have just seen the edge of the older part of town. There is a lot more in the blocks behind Roxanne's, including the main business district and the High School, and there are some outlying zones on the other side of the Interstate."
"That would explain why there might be 'quite a few gays' to go to Roxanne's! How many are there? I remember there was that Alec kid, who had the run in with Billy Vernon's grandson and was in the newspaper. I think I saw him with his boyfriend as the bus was leaving town."
"Well, that's Alec and Sacha, then there's their friends Kale and Chase. They've all gone on to College now. There’s Robin, Kale's brother and Lucien, and Damian whose boyfriend is thought to be Billy Carlisle. Then there's Travis and Zap, and..."
"Okay, I get the idea, and those are just the ones you know about. Is there something in the water?"
"That's what one of the guys said. But I don't think so. I don't think there's any more gays than you would expect based on the size of the town. Just if you know one you get to meet them all because they hang around together and seem to have formed a sort of mutual support group, almost a parallel extended family of gay brothers."
"Pity. Could have been interesting if it were true."
Lukas gave Peter a questioning look.
"If 'taking the waters' was part of the cure when the Sanitarium was running, it could have had some interesting side effects."
The idea brought a smile to Lukas' face.
They had finished their meals by now and Dave came round to collect the plates.
"Was everything all right for you?"
"Yes, thanks." Peter looked up at Dave as he replied.
"Sorry to hear about Richard. I didn't say anything last time you were in because I hadn't heard, and I don't think you've been in since."
"Thanks, don't worry about it. It was a bit of a shock but not entirely unexpected. At least it was quick, and he was at home and we had just been down to see his family."
"So how are you? Coping?"
"Yeah. I've come to terms with it, mostly. I'm still having to work for a living and that makes you realise the world goes on and you have to too."
"Well don't work too hard. There's more to life than work, at least that's what 'her indoors' keeps telling me when I try and take late food orders!"
"Go wind her up: tell her we want some puddings."
"Do you?" Peter thought he saw Dave go pale but it could have just been a trick of the light.
"Nah. But Lukas would like another beer please."
"Same again?" Dave looked at Lukas who nodded in reply.
"Please. Do us a favour and bring it round. Save us having to push through that lot at the bar." Peter nodded in the direction of a group, obviously tourists, standing by the bar, being loud.
Dave took the plates away. By the time he came back with the beer, Peter had coppered up and handed him the right money. Dave checked it and grinned.
"No tip for the waitress service?"
"You're no waitress!"
"Touché." Dave collected the empty glasses and went back behind the bar.
"So who was Richard?"
"He was my partner. He died in the week before Christmas. In his sleep, heart failure. We had been together 30 years."
"Oh. I'm sorry. Must have been a shock, suddenly like that."
"As I said to Dave, it wasn't entirely unexpected. He had had a triple bypass twenty years ago and his angina had started to play up again. But it is always a shock. Even if he had been ill in hospital for weeks and visibly failing, it would still have been a shock when the end came. Better for him that it was quick."
"When we met you mentioned that he wasn't fit enough to travel with you to the U.S."
"That's true, but also he wouldn't have enjoyed the trip although he did say he wished he could have been with us in Sanataria Springs that day, sorry he had missed the fun!"
Peter steered the conversation so that they chatted some more about the town and the antics of the gay brotherhood. When they had finished their drinks, they waved goodbye to Dave and went out to Peter's car.
"So how do you know so much about the 'Brethen'." Peter asked as they headed for his home.
"Brethren? Oh, I see what you mean.” Lukas grinned. “They call themselves ‘found family’. Theo Kutsenko does quite a lot of contract design work for us so I have got to know him quite well. He works from home mostly and I'm usually invited to his place for a meal when I am in town. He is Alec's uncle Ted, but I call him Theo as that's what he uses for business. Theo's partner, Dan, works at the gas station on the edge of town and when Alec realised he was gay, he used to ride out to there as a safe place to talk. Alec is still close to both of them and tells them what's going on. Dan also keeps tabs on all the guys when they visit the gas station. I get told some of the best stories as they know I won't tell. I'm only telling you, because it won't get back from here to hurt the guys."
It was only a few minutes more before they drove up the dark lane to the hamlet where Peter lived and parked outside his house. The night was clear enough for the moon to help them find their way to the front door. As he walked in Lukas noticed the carved date over the door.
"How old is this place?" he asked.
"About 1750, I think, why do you ask?"
"I thought it said 1812 over the door, I thought that was old."
"Oh, that was when it was remodelled, windows changed and things like that."
Peter noticed a pensive look on Lukas face.
"It's alright, the place has got running water and inside toilets. You don't have to go out in the yard and check under the seat for spiders."
Lukas was given the guided tour. Peter pointed out the various features that had led to the house being 'listed' as having historical architectural significance. He also showed Lukas the little cellar under the stairs and, most importantly where the makings of breakfast were kept in case he should be up first.
Although it was not particularly late, they had both put in a long day at their respective offices, so they said their good nights. Lukas went up first and while he was in the bathroom Peter set the machine so they could have fresh bread in the morning. As he pottered around finishing up and getting ready for bed, he reflected on how comfortable he felt with Lukas around. None of the awkwardness that he was worried might have arisen.
Peter slept later than usual. In fact he did not surface until after Lukas had got up and gone downstairs and made a pot of coffee and started to attack the fresh loaf.
"I'm not a very good host, am I?"
Peter joined Lukas at the breakfast table.
"Mm.. that coffee smells good, is there any left? I usually have tea, but maybe coffee will wake me up."
"It was the smell of the bread that woke me. I'm sorry if I disturbed your lie in, but I just couldn't resist any longer and you did say to help myself."
"No problem. It is time I was up and about."
Peter looked out of the window as he went to fetch a mug and a plate. He poured his coffee and helped himself to bread, butter and jam. He did remember to ask Lukas if he wanted more.
"It looks like it will be a reasonable day. Have you thought about what you might want to do?"
"John mentioned an old wooden warship at Hartlepool and I think you said something about it last night. Sounded interesting."
"It's very interesting actually. Supposedly one of, if not the oldest wooden warship still afloat. We took Bill, a friend from Australia there the last time he was over and had a great day. It is about an hour and a half run, but we will be going against the traffic most of the time. If we get away as soon as possible we should beat most the crowds. If you're interested we can go over the Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough. It's a strange cat's cradle affair that carries a gondola across the river. I think there are only seven in the world."
So that is what they did.
On the drive over, Peter mentioned some points of interest about the towns they passed on the way, but for some reason, mainly Lukas' doing, the conversation seemed to be about Peter and how he was managing on his own.
Peter explained that he didn't really like working for the company he was with, in spite of having been there nearly ten years, the longest he had been anywhere, longer than he and Richard had had the pub. The commute was beginning to get to him and the hours never seemed to get any less. Certainly the pay wasn't getting any better. The difficulty he had was that very few suitable jobs came up near where he lived and his age was against him.
"I like my house and I don't want to leave it, but with the big garden and everything it is getting too much for me to manage with work as well." said Peter.
"That would be a shame, the place has a nice feeling to it, and it would be a big wrench for you. How long have you lived there?"
"Nearly twenty years. The trouble is I can't afford to stay there and stop work, but if I were to move and downsize, I would probably release enough capital to be able to stop work or at least go part time."
"Don't downsize too much or I won't be able to invite myself to stay again."
"Cheeky sod!" Peter's laugh showed he was not serious.
At this point they had arrived at the bridge and they started their day's study of industrial archeology.
"Shall we retreat to the other room?" Peter suggested as he started to collect the dishes after they had finished the paella he had made for their evening meal. "If you want, see if you can find some music you want to listen to, while I sort these out."
They had had a pleasant and interesting day, although Peter had been troubled on a couple of occasions by a sense of grief as he remembered Richard's reactions to the exhibits when they had gone to Hartlepool with their late Australian friend, Bill.
Peter stacked the dishes in the washer and set it running. As he returned to join Lukas, he was pleasantly surprised to hear a Bach cantata playing. And loud enough to hear, but not so loud as to stifle conversation.
"I like your choice, I thought you might have gone for something more modern from over there." Peter pointed in the general direction of his small collection of 70s and 80s albums.
"No, I'm more a classical man. Like you are judging by your collection. I find The Master helps me unwind and relax, sort of reboots the brain."
"I know what you mean. I keep a 'emergency' Bach CD in the car for when I have had a really bad day at the office! Changing the subject, before I sit down, would you like a single malt or something?"
"A whisky would be nice, please."
"Anything in particular? There is quite a selection in the cellar, Richard used to enjoy his malt, but he only indulged when we had visitors."
"A choice! Are you trying to spoil me?" Lukas laughed. "It's normally a case of take what you are given."
"Tell you what, I'll bring a few up and you can try them."
Peter retrieved four bottles from his little cellar and got some glasses from the cupboard.
"There is a range here, from a mild lowland to a heavily peated Islay."
Peter opened one of the bottles and passed it to Lukas with a glass.
"I suggest you start with this one, it's a light lowland. Help yourself, that way it's your own fault if you drink too much, or don't get enough."
Lukas poured himself a measure.
"Would you like a splash of water in it?"
"No thanks, the only thing you should put in a malt is another."
'Shit!' Peter felt a familiar tingling in his nose and his eyes started to water. As the wave of grief washed over him he couldn't hold back his sobs.
Lukas stood and took Peter into a hug, rubbing his back. Although it felt comforting to Peter, somehow it made it worse.
"Let it out." Lukas encouraged the sobbing man leaning on his shoulder.
Peter cried for a minute or so, before he got enough control to be able to speak through his sobs.
"I'm sorry, Lukas, but those were the exact words Richard used to use, and it just set me off. It's usually something comparatively trivial that does it. The big things you can usually see coming and brace yourself. Normally I can get it under control in a few seconds."
"Maybe that's what you needed. It sounds as though you have been bottling it up. I've noticed you tense up a few times as if struggling with something. Too much British stiff upper lip."
Peter recovered his composure and they broke their hug and sat down. He poured himself a slug of his favourite Islay malt. Relatively light but with a strong seaside tang, most of his friends said it tasted like antiseptic mouthwash, but he found it strangely comforting.
"Tell me about him."
"Do you really want to know about someone you've never met?"
"Well yes. Call me nosey, but I am interested in who he was and what you saw in him." Lukas also thought it would be good for Peter to do the telling.
So while Lukas worked his way through tasting the whiskies, Peter regaled him with stories from Richard's life. He came to a halt and passed his Islay over to try.
"So what did you see in him?"
"That's difficult. At first, when he was ill, I was just keeping tabs on him as a friend, and I think he read more into it than I meant. Then when he was looking to take on a pub I said I would go in with him. I had said to myself that I wouldn't do that, but somehow the words still came out of my mouth.
"It sounds unfeeling to say it, but I wouldn't say I was in love with him at that point. More a business partner with added benefits. I think he probably felt more for me. His previous long term relationship was drawing to a close and I came along and he swapped to the younger model!"
"Well, Richard was twenty years older than me. And I had been expecting to find someone my own age!
"When we left the pub I had intended that we both get our own places, although I hadn't mentioned it to him. Then I found this place and the only way I could make it work was if we stayed together and he helped with the bills."
"So you must have come to love him at the end, judging by the grief you still feel?"
"I suppose it was a bit like a successful arranged marriage in that respect. You can't live with someone for thirty years without feeling something. I also think I became more romantic and feeling towards him after I started reading some of the gay story websites.
"We didn't argue much, to be honest it was normally easier just to put a workaround in place, or ignore him until he had sorted it himself.
"All in all we had some good times together and my life has definitely been richer for meeting him."
"That's as good an epitaph as anyone could wish for."
They toasted Richard's memory, draining their glasses, and decided it was time to go to their beds.
Something woke Peter in the night and at his age he knew there was no way he would get back to sleep unless he went for a pee. On his way back to his room he saw a light under Lukas' door and thought he heard something.
He tapped on the door and went in. Lukas was sitting, hunched on the edge of the bed, looking like a kid who has had a bad dream.
"Are you ok?"
"I'm sorry if I disturbed you, but I was woken by a nightmare about Duane's suicide that I have sometimes."
"Do you want to tell me about it?"
"No, some other time perhaps." Lukas sighed before continuing.
"I probably picked up on your grief over Richard and you talking about him and I was thinking about what you had with Richard, that I have never had, and how it might have been with Duane had he lived."
"Are you saying you have never had a partner?"
"A few one or two night stands when I was younger, but never a long term, or even a short term partner. Is that sad?"
Peter ignored the rhetorical question and moved towards the door.
"Is there anything you want to help you sleep?"
Lukas blushed and looked down at the floor.
"Peter, do you think you could stay with me? Please?"
"Are you sure?"
Peter thought for a moment. It would be nice to have someone to cuddle a while and Lukas looked as though he could do with being hugged. Was it too soon after Richard's death? He was also ambivalent about the fact that he found the man attractive. He didn't want a one night stand, and with Lukas going back to the States, a long term relationship wasn't on the cards. Never mind that they had really only known each other for a day and a half. He decided to set a ground rule.
"Alright. On one condition, no matter that we will probably both bone up, just remember: 'No sex please. We're British!' "
Peter climbed into the bed and as Lukas turned out the light he spooned into his back. As he had anticipated he was hard within a minute, but determined to enjoy the sensation without taking things further. He discovered that Lukas was also aroused when he brushed against it as he put his arm across Lukas waist.
They stayed true to the agreement, and both soon fell asleep.
Although he slept fitfully, being unused to sharing a bed, Peter awoke the next morning with a feeling of relaxed contentment. Something he used to feel on the occasions he shared Richard's bed. They had not slept together on a regular basis since Richard had retired and used to watch the television until the wee small hours. Peter was still working and had to be more conservative in the hours he kept.
Peter eased himself out of the bed and headed for the bathroom. After completing the usual offices, he dressed and went downstairs. As he started on his daily chores, he thought of Lukas and last night and how he would be tempted by the idea of a relationship if the feeling was mutual. Realistically the idea was a non-starter. Even if Lukas was attracted to him, silver haired, slightly overweight and ten years his senior, Geography in the shape of the pond known as the Atlantic Ocean would make it impossible. Still, a little wishful thinking is permitted.
Hearing noises coming from the bathroom upstairs, Peter broke from his daydream and started work on breakfast. He had put the kettle on and marshalled the bread into the toaster, and was wondering if he should get the makings of a 'full English' out of the freezer, when he felt a hand on his hip and sensed Lukas close behind him, his head looking over Peter's shoulder. He decided not to read anything into the gesture, the Americans tend to be much more 'touchie-feelie' than the Brits.
"Would you like cooked breakfast, or just cereals and toast?"
"Cereal and toast will be fine. I get cooked breakfast at the hotel and it's nice occasionally but it's too much for everyday"
They got things ready and moved to sit at the table. Side by side so that they could look at the garden through the window. Their knees touched and neither moved to break the contact.
"Thank you for your company last night. I hope I didn't disturb you too much but I didn't sleep that well. I suppose I am not used to sharing. But I do feel more relaxed. Sort of at peace with the world. I can't think of the word I want."
"Contentment?" Peter suggested.
"Yes, I think so."
"Good, I feel that too. It's a nice feeling, isn't it?"
Lukas was chewing on a piece of toast and was unable to reply before Peter continued.
"Tell me, you're a successful businessman, presumably alpha male type, but you said you've never had a partner. How come? The stereotype would have a succession of wives, with lovers on the side!"
"Am I the full-on alpha male? Maybe I'm good at what I do, but I have to put all my energies into the business. It doesn't come naturally, I have to work at it.
"I think you know that Duane and I never admitted our feelings to each other. I was at college at the time and when he died I poured myself into my studies, partly as a way of dealing with the loss. By the time I put my head up to look around AIDS was in full swing and I didn't want to get caught up in that. As I said last night, I did have the occasional liaison, but I decided it wasn't worth the risk, so I went back in the closet. I was never much one for noisy nightclubs and seedy bars anyway.
"Then I started my business, my substitute baby! In the line I am in, it would have been a bad move to be known as gay when I started out. It doesn't matter so much now that I am older and the business established. And social attitudes have moved on."
"Do you have any regrets?"
"The stock answer is no, but then I wish I had said something to Duane, he would probably still be alive and we might have made a life together. Now I look around and see the best years of my life have gone, I've never had a partner and at fifty I am headed to be a lonely old man."
"Don't be so down on yourself, Richard was fifty when we got together."
"Do you still fancy a fifty year old?"
"I fancy that twenty-five year old at work but I know I couldn't stand the pace. I'm not even sure I could manage a fifty year old, but if they were as sexy as Gobby Gary I might be prepared to try!"
"Smart ass!" Lukas laughed at the reference to when they met up in the motorway services two days ago. "What about you? Have you any regrets?"
"A few I suppose, but two major ones. Like you, I had a friend at uni that I wish I had come out to, although I doubt now that it would have made a difference to our lives if I had. I never did because I didn't want to lose him as a friend. We kept in touch for a while after we left uni and I had just resolved to say something the next time I saw him when he rings up, tells me to sit down and then says he is getting married. Shortly after we both moved and lost touch, so I lost him as a friend anyway. I think he must have had some inkling of the way I felt for him by the way he way he told me of the marriage. Most days something will make me think of him for a few seconds.
"The other was about six months after I finally admitted to myself that I was gay and should do something about it. I met this guy in the local gay pub and we spent the weekend together. It could easily have turned into something longer. We might even have been still together now. He was pretty much my dream, a nice, good looking, pleasant Singapore Chinese student type about five or six years younger than me. But I was still a bit naive about people and relationships and I was frightened he would turn into a camp little queen. That blinded me to what was being offered and so I dumped him. I regret that I did, and regret even more the way I did it. I was a real shit about it and have felt bad about it ever since. About six months after that I got to know Richard and the rest, as they say, is history."
"So, do you think you want another relationship?"
"If the right person came along. I miss the companionship, someone to do things with, like going on holiday and sharing the chores. The sex side of it I am not too bothered about. I'm not going looking for one night stands. I can always have a date with my right hand. But, as you said, I don't want to be a lonely old man."
Peter picked up his mug of tea and held it between his hands, savouring the comforting warmth on his palms. He stared out through the window, focussed on that far point within himself.
Lukas who was actually looking through the window broke the ensuing silence.
"The grass needs cutting."
"Uh?.. Er, yes. You volunteering?"
"If you want. You haven't got anything else planned for the day, have you?"
"No. I did think you might want to go for a drive round and see the local area. But we can always do that later this afternoon or tomorrow."
"Good. I'll do the grass. It'll bring back memories, I haven't done any yard work since I left college. I've lived in apartments ever since."
They tidied away the breakfast things and Peter changed into his gardening clothes. He also found some of Richard's old trousers and a shirt that just about fitted Lukas and would do for garden work.
It was a fine day. Lukas mowed the lawn and strimmed the edges while Peter started weeding and tidying the borders. In fact they pottered about in the garden making the most of the day for most of the day. They broke off only for a light lunch of soup and sandwiches. By the time they finished the garden was looking better than it had for a long time.
"Thanks for helping and for your company. Richard was never fit enough to do any gardening, well that was his excuse."
"Pleased to be of service. Actually I've enjoyed it and it's helped take my mind off work for a bit."
"Good. Now I suggest you go and soak in a hot bath for a while. Otherwise you will find out you have muscles you didn't know you had. That goes even if you work out regularly at a Gym.
"While you’re doing that, I'll think of what's to eat, then I can have my soak after you've finished."
Peter had dug a selection of his home made curries and samosas out of the freezer and had put together some onion bhajis and other bits and pieces. He also found a suitable vino plonko to go with the meal. He did remember to warn Lukas that the beef curry and samosas were pretty spicy, but they were not hot enough to stifle the conversation.
Lukas started by asking if Peter and Richard had had any trouble being accepted in the pub. Peter's comment was that they tried not to rub the locals noses in it. In most cases the desire for a drink and the social aspect of a trip to an English pub overcame any reticence on the part of the locals. He also thought the age difference helped to disguise matters. Richard had known several gay couples who had run pubs, both in town and in the country, so they had not really expected any problems.
The conversation broadened into a discussion about the changing attitudes towards gays generally, particularly with the acceptance that there was a genetic component involved.
Oddly enough they discovered that they had both read a recent paper by Leicester's Nigel Gordon, entitled 'The Right Genes.'
"I thought he had some interesting things to say, especially on the epigenetic factors that might come into play." Lukas said.
"Yes, but I was more interested in the reasons why he thought homosexuality would develop as a genetic trait in social animals. My feeling was always that, in the case of males it was a counter-weight to the statistical tendency of populations to produce more males than females."
"But is that not itself a counterweight to the higher rate of male infant mortality?"
"I suppose it could be. There again if you have a pool of males not competing for females under normal circumstances, the tribe has extra workers or fighters without the strain on resources of extra offspring. Female homosexual members of the tribe presumably occupy a similar position to post-menopausal women, although probably better able to undertake physical work. In any case, in the event of trauma to the tribe, the homosexual members might become heterosexually active to ensure the survival of the tribe." Peter expounded.
"The first part of that sounds a bit like a variant on Gordon's position, the last reminds me of aristocratic families where there is pressure on heirs to ensure the line continues whatever their predilections."
"I think what worries me more is the recent advance in techniques for modifying genes and correcting abnormalities. I can understand the desire to correct for things like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anaemia and haemophilia. But is that the beginning of a slippery slope? What happens if homosexuality is determined as a correctable condition? Especially if some god-bothering politicians of whatever flavour of God, declare that because it can be corrected, it should be. What else will be affected in the process? Where do you draw the line?"
"One thing is for sure, wherever the line is drawn to start with, it will move over time. There are plenty of ethical issues as example of that." Lukas replied.
They kicked things around for a bit longer, before Peter decided it was time to close the subject.
"Whatever happens, we're probably too old for them to bother with us. Anyway they should be encouraging homosexuality to help keep the population down.
"Let's get these dishes dealt with and settle down with a night cap."
Once again Peter broke out the single malts and they started talking about Lukas' business. However it was not long before all the fresh air earlier in the day as well as the meal and wine caught up with them and they decided it was time for bed.
Neither man could remember how the subject had been raised or the decision made, but they found themselves sharing a bed under the same rules as the previous night.
Morning came with its own sense of déjà vu as breakfast was made and eaten.
Peter sorted out what they would have later for lunch, before they set off for a little triangular tour of the part of the Dales where Peter lived. He thought Lukas ought to see something of the area before he went back to Sheffield and then home.
Over the pass to Buckden then back over to Hawes, where they stopped at the factory so that Lukas could see where the Wensleydale Cheese was made that he had asked about in his first phone call to Peter. Lukas bought a small Truckle to give to John to thank him for the lift. He would have bought another to take home if Peter had not reminded him that they would take great delight in confiscating it at JFK on his way back into the States.
After lunch they drove down the Dale, back to the Leeming Services, where they had arranged to meet Lukas' colleague John, and his wife. As they parked up, Lukas reached across and took Peter's hand.
"Thanks for the weekend. I have enjoyed it and it's been good to see you again."
"You're very welcome. Promise me you won't leave it another four years."
Lukas leaned in.
"Next time I'm over, I'll rent a car and come and see you." he whispered. His breath was like a soft kiss in Peter's ear.
Peter was surprised, embarrassed and elated in equal measure. He wondered about asking Lukas to knock him up - the same double entendre he had used at their first meeting. He settled for something simple.
"Good, I'd like that."
They got out of the car and headed into the cafe. While Peter went to get some drinks, Lukas found John and his wife.
Peter joined them and there was the usual round of introductions and polite enquiries as to how the weekend had gone. They were finishing their drinks and getting ready to move out, when Lukas looked at Peter.
"You still haven't told me what you meant by saying I was over here doing the 'Seagull' thing."
"Ah, that's easy." said John, "You fly in, squawk at us, flap about a bit, shit on us, squawk at us again, flap about a bit more, then fly out back to the U.S.."
© Copyright Pedro 2016
Photo: Seagull Flying (Lesser Black Backed Gull) by Maximillian Albert, Public Domain.