"Hi, Peter! Over here!"
Peter was in Sheffield visiting his late partner, Richard's family and had sneaked out to do some shopping at the Meadowhall complex. He wasn't expecting to meet anybody he knew but he still turned towards where the call had come from.
There was a man waving at him, beckoning him over to one of the sheep pens. Actually one of the coffee concessions corralled off in the middle of the mall. They reminded Peter of sheep pens but then his outlook was coloured by his feeling they were all run by national chains serving pretentious overpriced fancy stuff. Not a decent cafe solo to be had at any of them. Never mind at a sensible price.
Peter looked again at the beckoning man and the woman who was sitting next to him. It was John and his wife. John worked for the Sheffield agent for Lukas Schmidt's business and they had met about three months ago. Lukas had been over from the States and had invited himself to Peter's for the weekend. John had been the one to give Lukas a lift up to the Yorkshire Dales.
John looked like the cat that got the cream, so Peter guessed he must have some news about Lukas. He put on his best smile and went over to join the couple.
"Hi there. How's things?" Peter shook hands with them both and they all sat down.
"Fine thanks, Peter. What about you? Are you still living in the Dales?"
"Yes, and still working, although as I said to Lukas that weekend, I'm looking to downsize and hopefully stop work."
"Right." There was as edge to John's voice as if he was disappointed to hear Peter was thinking of moving. "But you haven't moved yet?"
"No, I haven't even got it on the market, it needs some work on it first and I've had other things to deal with."
"Good." John sounded relieved. "That means I won't have to try and explain anything to Lukas. Has he told you he is coming over next week?"
"No. Should he have done? I know he said he might rent a car and come and see me next time he was over, but I wasn't expecting him to if it was just going to be a flying visit. I haven't actually heard from him since that weekend apart from an email thanking me for my hospitality."
Watching John's face, Peter wondered if he might have given out too much information, but it was John who was concerned he had let the cat out of the bag.
"Oh! Perhaps I shouldn't have told you. He did ask me to see if I could find out if you were still around, but I hadn't thought that he might be planning a surprise. At least bumping into you has saved me the bother of trying to find your number and ring you. If he does contact you, please don't mention that I have told you he was due to come over."
"I won't say anything. How is Lukas anyway?"
"He is fine as far as I know, but he is up to something. I don't hear everything that's going on as he mainly deals with the boss. What I do know is that since he was last here, they have been talking a lot more than usual. I also get the occasional snippet from my contacts in the States, and they say he's been like a cat on a hot tin roof ever since he got back from his last trip. So something is going on over there as well.
"Now you've just said he was going to hire a car next time he was here. He's done better than that, we've had to find him one to buy."
"That would make sense if he was planning to be here for a while or make a lot more visits in future." Peter paused while he mulled over the possible implications of his own comment.
"When is the Seagull due in?" he asked just as John was drinking the last of his coffee.
John's wife and Peter used several paper napkins to clean up the resulting fountain of the vanilla-skinny-frappe-latte-with-chocolate-and-extra-cream concoction while John tried to regain his composure. John had been quick to work out the Seagull quip the last time they had met. Too quick. He had got a clip round the ear later from his wife for being rude to the boss. It looked as though he would be in line for another after this little performance.
"Tuesday." said John when he was able to breathe again.
"So we might know something by Wednesday, we usually have a full staff meeting the day after he gets here."
Peter wrote his number on the one remaining dry napkin and handed it to John.
"Do me a favour please and keep me in the loop. I wouldn't want to be away or anything if he decides he wants to come and see me. I won't tell him how I know."
"No worries. I'll give you a bell on Wednesday if not before."
Peter heard his mobile ring but was unable to get to it in time. He had been logic chopping with his colleague in the next office about the accounting treatment of their boss's latest scheme.
As he walked back to his own office, Peter told himself, for the umpteenth time, that he needed to get his house on the market and find something smaller. The equity released together with what he had inherited from Richard should be enough for him to stop work at a job he had been wanting to leave since almost his first week there. The trouble was, with the hours he worked and the commute and his ordinary domestic chores, he seemed to have little time for himself, never mind time and energy to get the house ready to sell. Not that he wanted to move. He liked his house and it was full of memories. Memories that included Richard. The idea of moving brought with it the feeling he was turning his back on Richard and abandoning those memories. But that was his heart speaking, in his head he knew the sensible thing to do would be to move. It would have to happen at some time as he got older and less able to manage so why not now.
Peter sat down at his desk and was trying to remember what he was working on when he heard his mobile chirp for a text. He dug the phone out of the pocket of the jacket on the back of his chair.
'news & no news ring bk when u have a min. john'
Peter wondered about leaving it until he got home that night, then he thought 'Sod it, the company gets plenty of extra unpaid time out of me, I'll do it now.' He got up and shut his door to increase his chances of making his call undisturbed and decrease his chances of being overheard. He returned to his desk and dialled. The person answering announced himself as John.
"Hi, John. It's Peter. I got your cryptic text. What's happening?"
"Hi, Peter. Thanks for ringing back. The 'no news' is that Lukas has arrived and we have had our staff meeting, but just the usual sort of stuff, no special announcements. What was slightly unusual was that we got a pat on the back for doing a good job instead of the normal brickbats. So we have been squawked at but not shit upon. But there must be some flap on, because he said he expected to have another meeting next week, before he flies back to the States."
"So what is the news then?"
"Well, it was sort of hinted that there might be something announced next week depending on the outcome of various discussions Lukas has during the next few days. But from your point of view that means he is going to be here over the weekend."
"I hope he doesn't decide to just turn up. It would be nice to know he was coming, if only to make sure there is enough food in the house. It's a long way to the shops."
"That's my other bit of news. He came in to my office after the meeting and asked me if you were still at the same place, so I told him yes and mentioned that we had bumped into each other in Meadowhall. He went all bashful-like when I asked him if he was planning on visiting you again. In view of what you said when we met, I did hint that it would be polite to let you know he was coming to see you but he said he wanted it to be a surprise. So act surprised if he does turn up."
"Don't worry, I will." said Peter, "but I might also decide to wind him up a bit. Tear a strip off him for inviting himself - again - and expecting to be made welcome!"
"I wouldn't mind being a fly on the wall for that. He is always tearing in to us, today excepted. Seriously though, don't be too hard on him, the wife and I both think he likes you a lot, maybe even fancies you. You know he is gay, don't you?"
"Gay and fancies me?" Peter took the opportunity to practice acting surprised.
"Didn't you know? Shit! I shall be in for another clip round the ear from the wife when I tell her I've told you. Oh well, I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and tell you that he sort of outed himself about four years ago when he challenged some bigot in his home town who was making homophobic remarks. It didn't take long for word to get to us, but it's never worried us. He doesn't flaunt it and he has never been known to make a pass at anyone at the office. We've never heard anything about a boyfriend either, whether here or in the United States."
There was a pause as John chuckled and spluttered.
"Unless it's you of course!"
Peter had been going take pity on John and tell him that he was actually there when Lukas outed himself, but with that last remark maybe he did deserve a clip from his missus.
"On that note, it's probably time we both got back to work. I'll let you know if he contacts me. Would you let me know if you hear any more please? In the meantime I'll assume I can expect a visit."
"Okay then, see you." John was still chuckling from his joke.
Peter had his own reason to chuckle as he made his parting remark.
"Give my regards to your wife - before she clips you! Bye."
Peter ended the call. He lent back, put his elbows on the arms of his chair, put his palms together and moved his hands up to rest his fingers against his nose and lips. He contemplated the conversation he had just had.
'Gay and fancies me? Would I like to be his silver haired boyfriend?'
Peter decided that he could expect a visit from Lukas at the weekend and suspected that the outcome of the visit would affect somehow the announcement at John's office next week. Quite how or why it would involve or affect himself, Peter could not guess. He would have to wait until he could get Lukas to explain what was going on.
Friday evening and Peter's mobile rang just as he was leaving work. He retrieved the offending instrument from his pocket and pressed Connect. It was John.
"Hi. Peter. Just ringing to let you know Lukas left about twenty minutes ago. He did say not to tell you but I thought you should know in case he gets lost or anything."
"Thanks. Do you know if he is a fast driver?" Peter was trying to guess how long it would be before Lukas turned up at his house.
"I don't think so. He is still wrestling with 'stick shift' and driving on the 'wrong' side of the road. We also wound him up by telling him that if he gets caught speeding they'll cancel his visa!"
"He didn't fall for that one surely? What's he driving by the way, in case I have to go out looking for him?"
"We've bought him the same sort of thing as yours but the estate version, in red. He shouldn't get lost, we've programmed his satnav for him."
"Oh. He'll be listening to Doris and trying to turn into every gate hole instead of reading the road and watching the signs. Good job it will still be daylight by the time he gets here, and he has been before so he might recognise it."
"Yup. Anyway thanks for letting me know. I had better go or he will be there before me. See ya."
The sun had gone down and the twilight would only last another twenty minutes or so. Like a teenager on his first date, Peter was pacing around the house indulging in displacement activities. He had expected Lukas to have turned up at least an hour ago and he was getting concerned that Lukas had had an accident or got hopelessly lost. He was just thinking about calling John to see if he had heard anything when the doorbell rang. As he went to open the door he could tell through the glass panel that it was Lukas.
"What are you doing here? Invited yourself for the weekend again? At least last time you let me know you were coming."
Peter knew as soon as he said it that he had over done the Confrontational Hospitality. He should have known better. He never had been able to carry it off the same way Richard could. Poor Lukas looked crestfallen.
"I'm sorry, Lukas. Come on in. You found your way alright then?" The question received a pensive mumble as answer.
Peter stood there with his arms open offering to embrace Lukas. Lukas reciprocated, but as they clasped each other, neither man seemed to be able to relax into it. They broke the hold.
"Have you eaten?"
"Good. I haven't either. Bring your stuff in and get yourself sorted. You are in the same room as last time. I'll see what I can rustle up. Will fish be okay?"
"Yes, that will be fine, thanks."
Peter had taken some fish out of the freezer as soon as he got home. It would have saved until tomorrow if Lukas had said he had eaten. Peter checked the fillets were fully thawed then, after sharpening his knife, he quickly skinned them and checked for bones. He mixed up some batter and turned on the fryer. Within half an hour everything was ready, just as Lukas came down stairs. They sat down to what was once the traditional northern Friday night supper: fish, chips and mushy peas, with white bread and butter and a pot of tea.
Equally traditional was that the meal was being eaten in silence. Peter was worried that he had upset Lukas and destroyed their budding friendship. However he considered that Lukas had been visiting Yorkshire on business for long enough and should be used to the inhabitants' propensity for plain speaking. Peter decided try and clear the air.
"Lukas, I'm sorry if I upset you, when you arrived. I was only trying to have a bit of fun winding you up. I know it backfired, partly because I'd wound myself up wondering where you'd got to. I know you asked him not to, but John had called me to say that you were on your way and I expected you at least an hour before you got here. I was getting worried you were lost or worse. How was the journey? Presumably not that good given how long you took."
"It was alright until the GPS started telling me I was going the wrong way and should take exits that weren't there or were blocked off. Eventually I turned off the main road at what I think was called Scotch Corner and came through Richmond. At least I recognised some of it as we had gone through there last time I was here."
"They have been doing a lot of work on that stretch. Upgrading it and altering all the junctions. I suspect they have not done a new release to keep your satnav up to date with the changes. So it would get confused."
"It certainly got me confused."
"Well, at least you got here in one piece."
The conversation lapsed as they finished their meal. As on his last visit, Peter suggested to Lukas that he make himself comfortable in the other room while he dealt with the dishes.
Heading to his little cellar to retrieve a selection of single malts, Peter recognised the opening bars of Britten's War Requiem. He liked the work; a bit dour, but it seemed to fit with the sombre mood of the evening so far. It would have nicer if Lukas had picked something a bit more uplifting. Somehow Peter was not surprised when Lukas chose the more acerbic Islay malt over the rich sweet Macallan he had hoped might mellow the mood.
Peter was going to ask if Lukas had anything he wanted to do the next day as a way of starting a conversation when he realised Lukas was engrossed in the music, following the words of the Requiem and the interwoven First World War poems in the sleeve notes. He decided not to say anything, just listen to the piece himself. From time to time Peter looked across at Lukas and thought he looked troubled by something. He wondered why Lukas had come to see him. He would try and get it out of him in the morning.
The Requiem came to its haunting conclusion and the two men retired to their beds. There was no suggestion that they might share like they had before.
Peter woke earlier than he would have liked for a Saturday. That he had forgotten to cancel the alarm he had set for weekdays might have had something to do with it. He knew that there was no chance of going back to sleep. He was still troubled by the coolness between Lukas and himself that seemed to be in evidence the previous evening. In contrast they had been comfortable in each other's company last time Lukas had visited.
Eventually Peter concluded that a bit of subterfuge was required to try to get Lukas relaxed enough to talk to him. He grabbed his tablet and fired off an email to Debbie, one of his neighbours. She would understand what he wanted her to do and why. She had been very supportive when Richard had died. Yes, Debbie would know just how to pitch it.
After performing his S,S & S ritual, Peter dressed and went downstairs to start on breakfast and other household chores. On his way to the kitchen, he detoured to open the outer front door.
Lukas and Peter were draining the last of the teapot. Conversation over breakfast had been minimal.
"Is there anything that you would like to do today?" Peter asked.
"I hadn't thought about it."
Peter could see it might be a difficult day. The doorbell rang and he was spared making any suggestions.
Peter rose to greet the visitor. He could hear the inner door being opened and the sound of feet bounding down the passage. Peter nearly lost his balance as the big dog bumped into him and fussed around him. It was Jack, Debbie's black Labrador.
Leaving Jack to introduce himself to Lukas, Peter stepped into the passage expecting to see Debbie.
"Oh, hello Malcolm. What can I do for you?"
Malcolm was Debbie's son and, rising eighteen, was in the flush of maximum male beauty. He would still be handsome after the flush was over if his father and uncle were anything to go by. Peter could not deny that he liked seeing the boy around.
"If I bat my eyelids at you and give you a kiss and will you have Jack for a few hours? It's no problem if you can't, he will probably be alright on his own, but he does prefer company and you sometimes take him for walks."
Peter did not hear the second half of what Malcolm had said. He was too busy trying to compose himself after hearing the first half. That wasn't in the script. He wondered if Lukas had overheard.
"I suspect that your mum actually said give me a kiss from her. I won't hold you to it.
"I'm not sure about Jack, I have a visitor here from the States. We were just discussing what we were going to do today. Come through and meet him."
Lukas was sitting there with a grin on his face so maybe he had heard Malcolm's comment. He and Jack were getting acquainted. The dog had his nose in the man's crotch. Lukas was gently stroking the velvet softness of the dog's ears which were laid across his thighs.
Peter made the necessary introductions. After a bit of a chat it was agreed that the dog would stay with Peter and Lukas and, as it promised to be a nice day, they would take him for a walk. Malcolm said goodbye to Lukas and Peter accompanied him to the door.
"That was very forward of you, Malcolm."
Malcolm had always seemed shy when Peter had cause to speak to him before, although admittedly he was usually with a parent.
"Mum said to bring the dog over and give you two something to talk about. Here have my number and drop me a text when you want me to pick Jack up."
Malcolm handed Peter a slip of paper, blew him a kiss and was off down the road before Peter could gather his wits to respond.
'Ruddy hell, Malcolm.' thought Peter, 'if you're not in the drama group, you should be. Either that or we had better have a talk about things that your father won't know you need to know.'
Peter walked back into the house and re-joined Lukas.
"He seems a nice kid. Is he gay, flirting with you like that?"
"I don't know. I suspect he was just pulling my leg. Either way he has certainly come out of his shell. Up until today I would have had all on to get a word out of him."
They cleared away the remains of breakfast and Peter dug out his small rucksack. He put in some chocolate biscuits and made a flask of tea. On the short walk he had planned he would not normally bother, but stopping for the snack would provide another opportunity for Lukas to start to talk about what was on his mind.
Peter asked Lukas if he had some boots or sensible shoes with him. Shoes. They would do, as Peter thought they would go up onto The Scar. Although the track was steep in places, it was easy going under foot. The Scar was a relatively level outcropping and Peter knew that the track on to it came out at a place where there were some rocks that made a good place to sit and admire the view.
They took the car to the next village and walked from there. It saved half an hour each way and the footpath across the fields would have been too wet for Lukas' shoes.
At first the track was wide enough for the two men to walk side by side. Jack was rushing about sniffing every blade of grass and covering at least three times the distance of the men. Peter had known the track was well fenced and the dog could be safely let off his lead.
Peter talked about his plans to downsize and retire and what needed to be done to the house to get it in a marketable condition. He was also dreading the thought of having to go through the all his stuff accumulated over the last twenty years to sort out what he wanted to keep and what could be sold or given away. If his experience clearing his parents’ house was any guide, he could also expect to be making regular trips to the recycle centre and the dump.
Peter tried to turn the conversation to talk about Lukas' plans. He learnt that Lukas' company was in the process of restructuring and as part of that they were planning to take over their agency in Sheffield in order to expand the UK operation. Although Lukas still had to work out how to handle some things he hoped to see all the details finalised in time for an announcement next week.
"You won't tell John or anyone else about this before the announcement, will you?"
Peter noticed the worried tone in Lukas voice. He was trusting Peter with commercially sensitive information on the basis of only a few days acquaintance.
"Of course not. My lips are sealed. After all I am supposed to be a professional accountant."
Peter would have liked to have learnt more about the restructuring. However, by now the track had got steeper and the easy ground narrower so they started to walk in single file making it harder to continue the conversation. As they climbed, Peter found out that he was even more unfit than he thought. He no longer had the breath to spare to keep talking. He would be ready for a break when they got onto The Scar.
Peter was leading and from time to time he looked back to see that Lukas was alright. He looked troubled, almost withdrawn from his surroundings. Jack seemed to have noticed too, as he kept running back to Lukas to walk with him for a while; at least until Lukas acknowledged him. Then he would run off and entertain himself chasing some interesting scent.
They left behind the trees that had been lining the track and stopped briefly to look back to see how far they had come. They followed the track for another furlong as it climbed to The Scar. There Peter steered them to where they could sit on the rocks and admire the views along and across the valley. He retrieved the flask and biscuits from his back pack. He had remembered some dog biscuits for Jack.
Peter poured the tea and handed it to Lukas. Now would be the time to get him to talk about whatever was troubling him. Peter waited until Lukas had swallowed the first sip of his drink.
"Are you still upset with me for last night when you arrived? I apologise, I shouldn't have been so rude to you."
Lukas let out a grunt of amusement.
"I'm not upset with you any longer. I admit I was at first, but I realised you were right in what you said if not in the way you said it. It's me that should apologise to you. John had warned me. I shouldn't have just invited myself expecting to be made welcome. As a general rule in running my business I expect everyone will go along with what I want. You know, the alpha male thing you accused me of last time I was here. I forget that outside of the business people may have plans of their own and I have to ask or be invited to join in."
"Well, if it's not me, there is something troubling you. You seem preoccupied. Is it to do with the Restructuring and the announcement next week?"
"Hm. You're right. I can't work out how to play the last few cards."
Peter was watching Jack playing with a stick and did not notice the serious look Lukas gave him as he made the remark.
"Would it help if you told me about it? I might be able to help you with a few pointers, especially if it is the UK end that is the problem."
A wry smile flitted across Lukas' face.
"Maybe. Give me some time to marshal my thoughts so I can explain it to you."
Peter threw the stick for Jack, then picked up his cup and sipped his tea and watched the cloud shadows crossing the valley below. After a while he turned and looked at Lukas whose stare seemed unfocussed. Jack had assumed the position, nose in crotch, ears being gently stroked as they lay on the man's thighs.
Peter saw Lukas' lips move as if he was testing the feel of words he wanted to say aloud. The tail did a single wag as the dog saw Peter looking in his direction. This time a mumble did escape from Lukas.
"Maybe we should get a dog."
Peter had the feeling a Freudian slip had revealed its contents.
"Sorry, Lukas, what did you say?"
"I didn't say anything, did I?"
"I thought you said 'we should get a dog'."
Lukas demonstrated bashful-like for Peter even more successfully than his demonstration for John a few days before. Amused by Lukas' discomfort, Peter decided it was now or never.
"Now then Mr Schmidt, perhaps you would like to explain the concept of 'we' in that statement?"
"Not really, but I suppose I had better. I am not sure where to start."
"Anywhere you like, but the beginning is usually best." Peter was not successful at hiding his amusement. He took pity on Lukas and continued.
"I'll make it easier for you. I'll tell you what think is going on and you can fill in the gaps. Firstly, I think this has something to do with the reorganisation of your business."
Lukas made a small nod of his head.
"Secondly, I suspect 'we' means you and me?"
"Which, if you want us to get a dog, implies you think we will be living together or at least seeing a lot more of each other. Some kind of relationship.
"And those things you need to work out how to handle, those last few cards you don't know how to play, some of that wouldn't be to do with telling me about it without it looking as though you are inviting yourself again? Expecting me to do what you want without having any say in the matter as if I was one of your employees?"
While he was talking, Peter decided that bashful looked quite cute on Lukas in spite of his age.
"Why don't you tell me the reason for the Restructuring, what it entails and how I fit into the picture? When you get to that bit don't bother to dress it up. Just say what you want to happen. I'll put you right if I don't agree. I had plenty of practice at that with Richard."
Lukas was still steadily stroking the dog's ears.
"You're to blame for the Restructuring. I set it in motion after I thought about two things you said last time I was here. One was your observation when we were talking about William Vernon having to sell up. You said that Owner-managers tended to stay on too long when they would be better selling up and starting something new. The other was your saying you wanted to downsize and retire or at least get a better work-life balance. I've decided to sell the business to have more time to myself. Get some other interests. Maybe do some travelling, see something of the world and find someone to share the experience. We have agreed a fair price for the business and I don't want to do what Vernon did; hang on too long until the business suffers and the price drops."
"But you said you were taking over the Sheffield agency. That sounds like more work not less." Peter chipped in.
"That's the starting something new. I am going to be over here setting up the branch. It uses my experience of the business and the products, but it will keep me out of the way of the new management in Sanitaria Springs. Stop me interfering. After the initial few months, I would expect to be down to two or three days a week, maybe for the next two or three years. By then I should have developed those other interests and will want to retire.
"What's your part in this? In the longer term I'm hoping you will be helping me develop those other interests and be encouraging me to retire. In the shorter term I want to have my base here with you, and just stop overnight in Sheffield when I have to actually go in to the office. A lot of my work can be done from home. I might want to run stuff past you to get a UK perspective on things I want done before I dump them on the guys in the office. I shall probably want some accounts help as well."
"I couldn't help you with your business and carry on working where I am now. I've already told you it's too much as it is." Peter felt worn out at the very thought.
"I was hoping you would give up that job and work for me until you want to retire. I would expect to pay you, you know. And before you ask I would expect to make my fair contribution to the running costs of wherever we end up living."
"Why me?" Peter asked.
"I like you, and I think you like me. We have some interests in common like our choice of music. I know things have been a bit strained between us this time and now you know why, but we did seem comfortable with each other last time. After all we did share a bed for two nights! We also said that neither of us wanted to be a lonely old man and, if you remember, after the conversation that we had, I realised I was lonely. I want you to be my companion. Please."
Peter knew that there was some negotiating to be done.
"That's a lot to think about. I won't give you an answer now. But I do have some questions already."
Peter thought he knew the answer to the first one from what John had said, but he wanted to hear it from Lukas.
"Is there nobody else in your life, either here or in the States?"
"My parents have both passed. There is only my sister, but we've never been close, and I don't get on with her husband. That only got worse after I came out that day in Roxanne's. Apart from Duane the only love in my life has been the business and I am ready to let that go now."
"What about friends?"
"Nobody really, mainly business acquaintances. They could come and visit couldn't ...Oogh !"
Jack had been getting restless and spotted a rabbit he wanted to chase. As he had lifted his nose out of Lukas' crotch he had caught him where it hurts.
Hiding a smirk, Peter apologised for not forewarning Lukas. He had been caught himself on more than one occasion.
When Lukas had recovered they decided it was time to move on. They would go back to the car a different way. The first bit was an easy, level walk along The Scar. Peter continued his questioning.
"So we live together here in Yorkshire until you retire. Then what? Will you want to stay here or go back to the U.S.? Will you want me to go too, because I am getting too old to be at the mercy of your health insurance industry?"
"No, I like what I have seen of England and I hope we will still want to be together."
There was a break in the conversation while Jack insisted they throw a stick for him.
"I'm about ten years older than you. What will you do when I pop my clogs?"
"Pop my clogs?"
"Oh. Be lonely again I suppose, but I shall have the memories of the good times we are going to have together. At least I should be able to be miserable in comfort. I don't think either of us are extravagant. What I get for the business should be more than enough to keep us both to the end of our days."
They had reached the point where the path narrowed to single file and started to go steeply downhill. The conversation was put on hold as they negotiated the descent. Near the bottom they had to go over a stile. Jack had to be helped. That was when it was discovered he had rolled in something unpleasant.
"Are you still sure you want a dog?" Peter grinned as he looked at Lukas who had been the one to pick up the smelly mutt.
Peter knew there was a big pool at the bottom of a nearby waterfall, so they took the dog there. Like most Labradors, Jack loved the water and was in the pool doing circuits before the men had closed the last gate. It was ten minutes before he had had enough. At least he was now clean.
Peter had planned to go to the pub for lunch before going back to the car. Now he had a good excuse. The dog would dry off a bit while they had something to eat. He had not wanted a wet dog in the car. They did have to sit outside with Jack, but that was no hardship as the day had stayed warm and dry.
They ordered and Lukas paid. While they were waiting for their meals, the questions started again.
"Where are you proposing we live? Sheffield?"
"Wherever you want, but wouldn't you like to stay where you are now? There's no need to move unless you want to. As I said I can do most of my work from home if the Internet is good enough. I can help you with the garden and other chores. I know it is bigger than we might need, but we would have the room for visitors. Some of the guys from Sanataria Springs might like to come and see that England isn't only London."
"And when neither of us can manage the garden?"
"Don't be such a pessimist. We can move then, or get a gardener. No problem."
The meals arrived.
"Thank you for this, but don't think you can get out of your share of the cooking by taking me out to lunch. You can cook?"
Peter had asked the question with his tongue firmly in his cheek. That did not mean that he was not interested in the answer. Although Peter liked cooking, he did not want Lukas expecting him to do all the meals.
"Toast and jam."
Peter looked across and saw a different answer on Lukas' face.
"Don't worry. I can teach you. There are things you will be able to teach me, and things we can learn together." Peter smiled. His mind was no longer in the kitchen.
As they ate their meals, they watched the people coming and going, heading into the pub or the general store and the butcher's shop lower down the village green: tourists or locals doing their business or leisure. Peter introduced Lukas as a friend visiting from the States to those locals who had to stop to ask after his health. He wasn't prepared to let them, or Lukas, know more than that at this stage.
When they had cleaned their plates, Peter said he needed to go into the pub. He had had more than his share of the tea when they had their break earlier. He gathered up the empty plates and glasses to take with him.
"Once a landlord, always a landlord." he said to Lukas, referring to the time that Richard and he had had their pub.
"The car is down there beyond the shops. Why don't you head on down and I'll catch you up."
Peter headed in to the pub and Lukas picked up the rucksack and wandered down to look in the windows of the two shops. He tied Jack up to the strategically placed dog hitching rail outside the butcher's and went in. He had spotted some steaks that looked nice. Not the pink stuff you get in the supermarket but a good purple colour indicating the meat had been properly hung, In spite of some confusion over terminology and some polite enquiries as to where he was from Lukas was able to make his purchase then go to the other shop next door to get some more supplies and stash everything in the rucksack before Peter arrived.
"Sorry to be so long. I got waylaid by Marjorie. She's a nosey cow. Has to know what's going on. She asked me if you were going to be a regular visitor. She must have seen you and recognised you from last time you were here. I had to be careful what I said or she would have put two and two together and got five. Not only that, but the message would have got to the end of the Dale before we got home."
"Is it that bad round here? How do you put up with it?"
"Not really. It’s part of being in a small community a long way from things like hospitals. You look out for your neighbours in case they need help and they look out for you. Marjorie means well and would do anything for you, but she is a bit intrusive at times."
"I suppose I'd get used to it."
"Yep. Shall we go home?"
Peter texted Debbie to tell her she could pick up Jack whenever she was ready. Then he found a towel and started to give Jack a rub down. The dog was already nearly dry, but Peter knew Jack liked being towelled down and expected it every time he went swimming. It also helped reinforce the idea of Peter being part of Jack's extended pack. While those two were bonding, Lukas brought in the rucksack and stacked away the goodies he had bought.
Lukas made them coffees and, taking them, they went for a walk round the garden. The dog also wandered round sniffing at anything and everything. Peter had been able to keep the garden under control after the big clean-up they had done the last time Lukas visited. They talked about some of the plants and discussed some ways to reduce the maintenance work without affecting the restful feel the garden had. They sat down on the bench at the far end. Their conversation petered out as they relaxed and absorbed the ambience. They were both getting used to the idea, the possibility, the sensation of having the other nearby as part of their life.
As they sat in silent contemplation, Peter pondered on the possible reaction of Richard's family should Lukas come to live with him. Was it too soon at only nine months since Richard's death? He could say Lukas was just a lodger, but that would be unfair on all concerned, and the family would see through it soon enough.
Was what he felt for Lukas, for there was certainly something there, a rebound effect? Peter thought it more than that. After all he had made contact with a few friends who had lost their partners and in no case had it taken more than a few minutes for him to realise he had no wish to share his life with any of them. Keep in touch as friends, yes. Wake up with their head on the pillow next to him, no thanks. Lukas seemed more than that, and he had already passed the pillow test.
Lukas would have to be introduced to the family. It should be alright. Lukas was polite and pleasant enough and the Sheffield connection would stand him in good stead. As long as Richard's sister didn't get the idea that Peter was abandoning his memories of Richard. His life wouldn't be worth living if that happened. No, Peter thought the best thing to do, when it came to it, would be to sound out Richard's nephew first, then take his lead from there.
"Hi, guys. You look like an old married couple sat there next to each other, not talking."
The two men shook themselves awake after the rude interruption of their reveries. It was Debbie. She had let herself in and come through the house to fetch Jack.
"Looking at you two, I don't suppose he's done a thing you wanted him to?" Debbie asked as she looked at Peter.
"On the contrary, apart from rolling in something unmentionable, he has done everything required."
Lukas was not sure he got the full meaning of that exchange. He did not think Jack had been required to do anything. He had seemed to please himself.
Before he had time to think any more about it, Debbie had introduced herself to Lukas, who soon found he was being subtly interviewed by her. All kinds or personal questions were being worked into the conversation. He was expecting to be asked his blood group, when Peter took pity on him and intervened.
"Now then Yenta, you've interrogated him enough."
Peter looked around and saw the dog starting to dig in the compost heap.
"I thought you had come to collect Jack. Take him away before he digs up the whole garden."
"I can take a hint. Have you got his lead?"
Peter could not remember where he had left it, so he said he would walk up to the house with Debbie to look for it. When they were far enough away from Lukas it was Peter's turn to answer questions.
"So did Jack break the ice for you?"
"Yes, I think so. He helped Lukas relax a bit and gave us a talking point."
Peter told how Lukas had mentioned getting a dog and how things had progressed from there.
"He's nice, Peter. And he likes you. I could see it in the way he was watching you. He's a keeper. If you want another partner, go for it. Don't lose him. I'm not meaning to be rude when I say that at your age, you probably won't get another chance."
"I was right when I called you Yenta. Have you found anyone for that lad of yours yet?"
"Oh. I think he's got time to find someone himself. Although I'm not sure if he knows what he is looking for yet."
Peter wasn't sure if Debbie had intended the comment to have the meaning he took from it. He remembered Malcolm's behaviour that morning.
"What did you say to him this morning when you sent him over with Jack?"
"Just that the dog would give you two something to talk about. Why?"
"For a start he wasn't shy like he usually is when I see him. And he was almost flirting with me. I assume he was just having a bit of fun, to give us something else to talk about."
Peter was going to mention Malcolm blowing him a kiss but something about Debbie's expression made him keep quiet. The pause before she replied was slightly too long.
"He has got more self-confidence since he started going to the senior school this year and since he got picked for the badminton team. He wasn't taking the piss, was he?"
"No. Or if he was, it was in good fun. There was nothing malicious about it."
"Oh well. I'd better gather up my dog and go home and see what my son is up to."
She stood in the doorway and whistled to call the dog, then shouted her goodbye to Lukas who had been entertaining Jack by throwing a stick. As she breezed out of the front door, Lukas came in from the garden carrying the coffee cups they had used earlier.
"So now you've met Debbie. More subtle than Marjorie, so you tell her things before you realise you've been asked."
"You can say that again. I'm sure she should have told me my Miranda Rights. I was ready to tell her where to get off, then you called her Yenta. From 'Fiddler on the Roof'?"
"I only just managed to keep a straight face. Tell me did I pass the Matchmaker's test? Am I suitable for you?"
"Hey, I hope you don't think I asked her to sound you out. I'll make my own decision, thank you!"
Peter's amused tone belied the fact that he was quite pleased to have Debbie's independent assessment of Lukas.
Wanting to avoid Lukas asking again about Debbie's opinion, Peter changed the subject.
"I suppose I had better think about what we are going to eat tonight. Is there anything you particularly fancy?"
Peter saw an eyebrow twitch as a suggestive look morphed into a proper smile on Lukas face.
"You don't need to worry about that. I've got it covered. I've ordered some pizzas."
Lukas watched with amusement as Peter shuddered at the thought. He rubbed it in.
"With extra anchovies."
Peter realised he was being wound up.
"I don't believe you. The nearest pizza place is ten miles away. They won't deliver out here."
Peter could have kicked himself for being caught like that. He must be getting slow, living on his own. He could see he would have to sharpen his wit if Lukas did come to live with him.
"What are you going to cook then? Not toast and jam!"
"You'll have to wait to find out." Lukas thought he would get a dig in to help keep Peter's mind on his decision. "Like you're making me wait to find out about us! What time do you want to eat?"
They agreed a time and Lukas worked out when he would start the preparation of the meal. In the meantime they split up. Lukas had some papers to review for the reorganisation and Peter wanted some time alone to work up a list of things to discuss about their potential relationship.
Peter started on his list of pros and cons. He thought it unromantic, indeed mercenary, but necessary. Too many of his friends had been taken for an uncomfortable ride by tenants, lodgers or potential partners.
When he reviewed his list, Peter realised there were really only two things left to consider and the rest was detail that could be made to fall into place if these two could be resolved. The first was to do with the nature of their relationship. He decided a good time for them to discuss that would be over a brandy after their meal.
The other thing Peter had to decide upon was whether Lukas was genuine. Debbie seemed to think so and he was minded to agree. After all would somebody who was a bit flaky be prepared to out himself the way Lukas had when he was tackling William Vernon. He probably would not have said anything at all.
John, too, had never said anything against him other than a ritual moaning about the boss, and the Sheffield agency selling out to his business further confirmed Lukas' standing.
His review had not taken Peter as long as he had expected. He picked up the phone and called Richard's nephew to float the idea of him taking in a lodger. One that might become something more. It wasn't long before Peter was being told he was a daft bugger who should stop beating around the bush. Richard would have wanted him to be happy. If he had found someone he wanted to be with he should go for it. Peter was left with the instruction 'Roger, the Lodger' should be introduced to the family next time they visited Sheffield.
There was still some time before the meal would be ready and Lukas had told Peter he was not allowed to spy on him in the kitchen.
Peter had something else he thought he needed to do. He pulled on his boots, left the house and crossed the road to the field on the hillside opposite. He climbed up to a tree that stood a hundred yards away. From there he could see the pub and the house, the two properties in which Richard and he had spent most of their thirty years together.
It was by this tree that Peter had scattered Richard's ashes. That had been an emotional moment. Peter had felt he was throwing Richard away as something worthless. The emotion had been compounded by his being on his own at the time.
On the few occasions he had been up to the tree since that day, some thought had always caught him off guard and he would return to the house having been overtaken by a wave of grief.
Peter stood by the tree and took in the view, picking out the pub on the other side of the valley, then his house in the village below. He pondered on what Lukas had said about where they would live. Although he had said it was Peter's choice, it seemed Lukas was expecting to stay here, in this village, in this house, almost as if that was what he wanted.
In any case, Lukas had said he would pay his share of the bills and help with the chores. The financial incentive for Peter to move was effectively eliminated; at least while ever Lukas was with him. If Lukas did move in, Peter thought they would know within twelve months if it was going to work long term. In the circumstances he could see no reason why postponing any move by twelve months should cause any problems, and there was the possibility, if things did work out, he wouldn't have to move at all.
Peter walked back down to the house. As he closed the field gate and crossed the road, he realised that he had not been troubled by an attack of grief. Indeed, he felt more at ease with life than at any time since Richard had died.
As they finished their meal, Lukas had instructed Peter to go and relax, he would sort out the kitchen and dirty dishes.
Peter did as he was told, but not before he had found two glasses and fetched his best brandy from the cellar. He thought Lukas' meal deserved to be followed by the best. He had been impressed. Not by the steaks themselves, which he knew would be good coming from Sam, the butcher in the next village. Only a complete incompetent would ruin them. No, he had been impressed that Lukas had prepared a sauce to go with the steak from scratch and had managed to get the accompanying vegetables just right. However the tour de force was Lukas' Gateau Pithiviers. Not only did it look and taste delicious but the filling did not leak all over the oven, something Richard's attempts nearly always did. Alright, Lukas had bought the puff pastry but Peter couldn't think of anyone he knew either at his end of the catering industry or as a private individual who bothered to make their own. Too much like hard work, all that turning and rolling.
After pouring two brandies in readiness for when Lukas came to join him, Peter put Dvorak's 9th Symphony on to play, then sat on the couch instead of his usual armchair. The second movement largo was getting under way as Lukas came from the kitchen. He smiled.
"Ah. 'From the New World'. Is that a coded message?"
"Could be. Come and sit here." Peter indicated the place next to him on the couch as he handed Lukas his drink. "Thank you for an excellent meal. Definitely better than 'toast and jam'."
"You're welcome. You did rather challenge me to make the effort when we were at the pub this afternoon. So now you know I can take some turns in the kitchen, although you might not let me when you find I have put everything away in the wrong place."
"I think I could live with that. In exchange for meals like tonight's." Peter smiled at the thought.
The conversation over the meal had been inconsequential, but it allowed the two men to get used to interacting with each other. Similar conversations they had had before had not been coloured by the possibility that they might soon be sharing their lives together.
They sipped their drinks and Peter studied Lukas as Lukas, savouring the brandy, studied his glass . Peter decided the mood was right.
"When we were on the Scar this morning, you asked me to be your companion."
He paused long enough for Lukas to answer in the affirmative.
"Over here the word implies any relationship is platonic or asexual. Is that what you want?"
"It means much the same to me; no sexual connotation. Yes, I want a companion to share my life with, enjoy discovering new things and places together and support each other. Something I have not really had since I left home. If, in time, things develop beyond that, well that's a bonus. Does that work with what you are looking for?"
"I'm not sure I was looking for anything until it was offered, but I do miss the companionship of having Richard around, so I would like that and, as you say, if anything else develops, and I suspect in the longer term, it might, all well and good. Maybe we could share a bed from time to time, like we did before. We both appreciated the relaxing effect and feeling of contentment we had."
"It could only be from time to time, at least while I am going to the office in Sheffield."
Lukas liked the way the conversation seemed to heading. He was watching Peter for clues about his decision and saw that Peter was studying him. Lukas thought Peter had the look of someone who liked what he was looking at.
In fact Peter had realised he had made his decision by the time he had visited the tree earlier in the day and was now allowing himself the luxury of reprising his thoughts as to why he found Lukas attractive. Although he felt sure that the relationship would come to have a sexual component, he was in no rush, and did not expect or want it to be anything more than the plain vanilla he had had with Richard.
Peter got up to fetch the brandy bottle.
"Lukas, are you sure you want to have me in your life, getting under your feet? You will find it something of adjustment after living on your own for so long. It will be easier for me, I know something of what to expect."
"Yes, I do. And I know, but I have to make an adjustment moving over here anyway, so that should make it easier." Lukas looked up at Peter as his glass was being refilled. "Does this mean you want me in your life?"
"Yes, it does."
As Peter put the brandy bottle down, Lukas stood and held his glass up.
"Here's to us!"
They touched glasses as Peter replied.
The glasses were put down and the two men embraced before they sat back on the couch, closer together than they were before. Lukas had his arm around Peter's shoulders. They stayed there, in quiet contentment, until the music finished and then some more. They would discuss the practicalities of their new arrangements in the morning after a good night's sleep - together. The same chaste rules as before, although hands found themselves on chests and backs, and necks and ears were nuzzled.
As Peter completed his morning rituals he thought he felt more of the relaxed contentment than he was expecting. It was as if he had received some subconscious approval of the new arrangement with Lukas.
When he heard Lukas finishing in the bathroom, Peter prepared breakfast and was ready to pour the tea as Lukas walked into the room. With a grin he handed Lukas the cup.
"See, there's one adjustment you've made already. Tea, not Coffee for breakfast."
Lukas smiled back at Peter.
"When in Rome. Anyway the English can't make coffee."
Peter wasn't all that sure about coffee in the U.S. either, but he let it ride as he recognised the truth in the quip.
Over breakfast Lukas and Peter discussed what they still had to sort out between them. Lukas also needed to fit the last pieces together for the Reorganisation. He asked Peter if he would look at some of the papers. Partly so that Peter could see what he was to be involved with and partly for any suggestions that Peter might have to ensure the changes went smoothly.
During the morning they worked on their allotted tasks and by lunchtime Peter had his list of suggestions and Lukas had his itinerary arranged for the week. If he drove down that afternoon, he should be able to do the final Sheffield negotiations on Monday, and make the announcement late in the afternoon or first thing on Tuesday, catch the lunchtime flight to JFK, finalise the U.S. deal on Wednesday, sort out his personal affairs on Thursday in time to catch the red-eye special back to Manchester that night. He should be back with Peter on Friday evening.
"I feel knackered, just thinking about it." Peter said as they had a lunchtime snack.
"It's not as bad as it sounds. Most of it is in place ready to go, just a few i's to dot and t's to cross, primarily my contact details here to add and a couple of signatures." Lukas made it sound easy.
Lukas made ready to leave and they embraced as they were saying their goodbyes. Peter admonished Lukas to take care and to stay in Sheffield next Friday if he felt too tired to drive home.
'Home. Home with Peter. I like that.' thought Lukas as he drove off.
Malcolm, who had Jack with him and had seen Lukas drive away, walked over to Peter.
"I was just coming to ask if you wanted to borrow the dog again, but I see your friend had gone. Will he be coming back?"
"Yes. I think so. Next Friday."
"Oh." There was a pause before Malcolm continued.
"Why did you text mum to fetch Jack?"
Peter remembered that Malcolm had asked to be told when he was ready for Jack to be taken home. He wondered if there was a reason Malcolm had wanted to call round, and he had Jack with him now as a possible excuse for visiting.
"I wanted her to meet Lukas." This was the safest answer. It was true, but not the reason Peter had texted her. That was because he had forgotten Malcolm's request.
"Oh, right." Malcolm sounded disappointed. He started to turn back towards his house.
"Malcolm, was there something you wanted to talk to me or Lukas about?"
Peter thought that response ambiguous. Maybe the boy did want to talk, but didn't want to do so in the street. Peter noticed Jack's lead was slack. He knew how to get them both in the house. He started towards his door then called out.
"Jack, do you want a biscuit?"
No contest. Jack was up to full speed before the lead went taut. Malcolm was caught off guard. With only two feet on the ground, the boy could not get sufficient leverage to check the dog. He had no choice but to follow Peter and Jack into the house.
Jack got his biscuit.
"Malcolm, what was it you wanted to ask?"
The boy blushed.
"Are you and Lukas boyfriends?"
"That's not quite the word I would have used, but yes, it looks that way. Don't tell your mother though. She'll be crowing she guessed right."
"No, I won't tell her." Malcolm was sounding sad again. Peter took a guess at the cause.
"Have you anyone you feel is special in your life yet? Girl…or boy?"
"Maybe, I haven't talked to them yet."
Peter took note of the use of the gender neutral pronoun.
"There's time yet. I didn't meet Richard until I was nearly thirty."
Jack had finished his biscuit and was pulling Malcolm to the door.
"Remember, Malcolm, you're welcome to come to me and now Lukas if there is something you want to talk about, especially if you feel you can't discuss it with your mum and dad."
Peter had had his evening meal and was contemplating how quiet the house seemed when the phone rang. It was Lukas.
"I just wanted to let you know I made it to Sheffield. Took me just over two hours instead of the three and a half on the way to you."
"Thanks for ringing. By the way, you are going to get them to take you to the airport on Tuesday and collect you on Friday morning, aren't you?"
"I hadn't thought about it, I was going to drive."
"Apart from the fact that you will probably get lost going to the airport, I don't want you so tired on Friday night that you have an accident on your way here. Get them to take you. Please."
"Remember I have a spy in your camp, I'll check with John!"
Peter laughed before continuing.
"Good luck for this week. I hope everything goes alright. See you Friday night."
Peter's day had started with a bad case of Monday blues and gone downhill from there. At last he had got to the point where he could set the backups running and think about heading home. His mobile rang. It was John.
"You kept that quiet. I thought you were going to ring me when you had anything to report."
Peter guessed that Lukas must have got the Sheffield business dealt with in good time and made the expected announcement.
"I'm sorry John, I couldn't tell you because anything I said might have had an impact on the deal. Commercial confidentiality and all that."
"I'll let you off, this time. He's off to the States tomorrow and planning to be back here Friday. Do you know anything about that?"
"Only that he has some deal to do over there. Presumably something to do with what he has announced today."
Peter made it sound like a question. Hopefully John would think that was all he knew and would not press the point.
"I know one thing though, with all this running around he will be knackered by Friday and he is thinking of driving up here Friday night. Has he arranged a lift to the airport tomorrow?"
"I see what you mean. I'll check in the morning and get it organised if necessary. At least he will have the long weekend with you. It's August Bank Holiday next Monday."
"Gawd, I had forgotten that. He'll be driving in the holiday traffic after the delights of the night flight from the U.S."
Peter remembered John had given Lukas a lift last Bank Holiday, three months ago.
"Are you visiting the wife's family again next weekend?"
"Yes, more's the pity."
"What do you mean 'good'? You haven't met the 'In Laws'."
"Not that. I'm worried about him driving in the state he'll be in at the end of the week. Do you think you could drive his car to Leeming, where you dropped him last time, and have your wife drive your car and pick you up there? I can meet him there and he can follow me along the Dale. He should be able to do that."
"You sound like mother hen! Still it's a plan."
"Thanks, see you Friday. I'll be there about six."
By coincidence all three cars arrived at the Leeming Services at the same time, so nobody was left waiting. They did all get out of their cars to stretch their legs and exchange greetings. Lukas and Peter embraced and whispered they had missed each other. A smile crossed John's face as he saw them. He and his wife followed Peter across to his car.
"I hadn’t twigged before, but the contact details Lukas has given as his UK address are yours, aren't they? He's going to be living with you when he is not in Sheffield."
"So you are his boyfriend?"
Peter thought he saw John's wife's hand twitch.
"Companion for now. Maybe more later."
"Wahey! Home to roost. The Seagull has landed!"
As he got in his car Peter looked across at John's wife and winked then turned to face John.
"I think you're in for a clip round the ear."
'Oh, shit.' thought John, as Peter and Lukas drove off to start their life together.
© Copyright Pedro 2016
Photo: Seagull, Tiel Corso 2004 © Copyright Pedro 2016
The city of Tiel is the centre of the major fruit growing area of the Netherlands. Every September they hold a parade. Each village in the surrounding area enter floats decorated with fruit and vegetables. There are three classes; Adult, Youth and Junior and the entries are judged by the Organising Committee. The picture shows part of the float entered by the village of Drumpft and which came second in the Adult competition in 2004.