The Edges of Orpington by Eamonn Bhreathnach

A lonely man tries to reconnect with a stranger he encountered four decades ago.

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It was over forty years ago. I was hitch-hiking and he gave me a lift from the ring-road south of Edinburgh to York. He - whoever he was - was driving to his home in Orpington, which was then in Kent. He was making the return journey, having followed a girlfriend to Edinburgh who had told him she didn't want anything more to do with him. He was there one day, back the next. I wouldn't have remembered the lift but for that detail.

At that time, in my mid to late-teens, I was in the habit of hitch-hiking. It was not from necessity, far from it. My family were horrified that I did so when I had the means to travel first-class, but the fact was that I continued to do it for a good while even after I bought my first car. It was more for adventure than expediency; you never knew who might stop or what might transpire. I don't know how it is for straight people, but for homosexual men - for me at least - there was, then, always a frisson of possibility. And in respect of terminology, I am homosexual, not gay. It is a word I cannot accommodate and cannot attach to myself. I am rather more old school - not scene, as they say, queer at a push. And there were occasions during my roadside adventures when things did transpire; not usually, not often, but occasionally; often enough to continue the practice longer than would otherwise have been the case.

The thing is that for as long as I remember I have been lonely. I realise it now. I have craved companionship - a relationship as they say - but such a thing has eluded me. I have everything else needed to furnish a happy life, but not that. There is - there must be - something in me which doesn't allow it. Someone I met many years ago, and with whom I hoped there may be possibilities, said that I was too much of a closed book. He felt that he could not get close to me. I, not able to view myself from the exterior, had little idea as to what he meant.

It must have been sparked by something I read, or saw on television, or which came unbidden into my mind, but I recently did something very odd. I placed an ad in the Orpington Herald. It read:

This is a long shot!!! I am trying to contact a man who gave a lift to a hitch-hiker in the summer of 1971. I don't recall his name, in fact I may never have known it. He kindly picked me up on the outskirts of Edinburgh and dropped me at York Racecourse some three hours later. He was returning to his home in Orpington having been rejected in love.

If it is you, and if you share my curiosity and taste for unusual encounters, you may wish to call me and become re-acquainted. Strange I know, but there we have it.

I left my name and number. I knew it was mad, and even now I have little idea, other than boredom, or a yearning for something which might resemble a belated happiness, as to why I did such a thing. For all I knew, the person in question may have been working on a sheep farm in Wagga Wagga, or be involved in finance in the Montevideo region. Or he may have been killed in his car half-an-hour after I emerged from his vehicle.

A week later he rang. He remembered a detail - that I was returning from a concert in Edinburgh. That detail persuaded me that he wasn't a crank - him a crank, what was I thinking? What would he think I was? We exchanged some brief details on the telephone. He had worked in Australia for many years - although he made no reference to sheep or to Wagga Wagga - but was long resettled in his home town. He seemed amiable enough - his accent was not disagreeable as so many are - so I suggested that I come down and we get together - for old times' sake I said, which I hoped he would realise was tongue-in-cheek. 'Why not?' he said. 'There's nothing spoiling.'

So, two weeks later I drove the two-hundred-and-thirty miles south, booked into a Holiday Inn at the edge of the town, and following a shower and change, made my way to The Bo-Peep pub. From his self-description I knew to look out for a man of five-nine, thinning white-hair brushed back behind his ears, wearing Orford spectacles. There were only six other customers when I arrived, but from the description given I knew he was not one of them. I ordered my diet-coke and took a seat by the bay-window.

I recognised him when he came in, and he me - me being five-eleven, lacking spectacles, head shaven in order to beat baldness at its own game. I stood.

'Jacob?' I asked.


'How are you?

'Well. You?'


He bought a beer.

'Well,' I said when we were seated.

'Well indeed.'

'I hope I haven't inconvenienced you.'

'Not at all. So is curiosity satisfied. This is me, your lift.'

'Yes, I suppose it is. Thank you.'

'So.' He looked at my coke. 'You don't...?' He lifted his glass to indicate the word drink.

'Occasionally. Not often.'

I didn't care to explain to him that in my case the word occasionally was almost invariably linked to hospital admissions, stomach-pumps, pep-talks, and bewilderment. The fact is that, for as long as I can recall, I have not been able to have a glass or two with a meal; I was not, and had not been for many years, what is termed a social drinker. I was what you might more accurately call a determinedly unsocial drinker, always solitary, always to suicidal excess, and for some reason not yet fathomed, always to music, my preferences being Bach Cello Suites and Russian church music. I suppose they lend a grandeur to my weakness.

We recalled the lift he had given me, what we could recall of it. It seems that, with no further communication between them, the girl in question, the one who had rejected him, had stepped off the Forth Road Bridge a year later.

'That's sad,' I said.

'Sad indeed,' he agreed.

He had subsequently married, but had been widowed some eight years.

'Sad again.'

'Yes, very sad. You?' he asked.

'No, never married.'

'Are you...?'

'Am I...?

'You know. If you don't mind me asking, inclined otherwise.'



'I prefer homosexual.'

'Interesting. Did you know that when I gave you a lift? Your inclination, I mean?'

'Yes, I've known it for as long as I've known anything.'

'And were you back then hoping that I, or whoever it might be, might be similarly inclined.'

'I don't recall, I don't suppose I would have been disappointed.'

We found nothing more to say on the subject. So, we commented when something from our youth came through the speakers just above our heads, and we found some references to the weather. After an hour or so he stood and said, 'Anyway.'

I stood too and also said, 'Anyway.'

We shook hands, agreed that it had been pleasant to meet, wished each other good luck, and said our goodbyes.

My room overlooked the car-park which was enclosed by neglected bushes, KFC cartons and tin-cans. It was the kind of view which held a general appeal for me and I photographed it on my camera. Although I own a place in Tuscany - bought at a time when our currency was amenable to such purchases - and found the Tuscan landscape more than congenial, it was more often a landscape of the type which surrounded the Holiday Inn which found its way to my heart. There was something in its air of decay and desolation which sang sweetly to me.

As, ascending the steps, the condemned man can do no other than to look to the rope, I looked to the light of the mini-bar. The cabinet was full, every socket occupied; Palladian lines of beer, wines, spirits and mixers; virgin rows, awaiting violation. I took out the nearmost can and poured its contents into the clear plastic beaker. I switched on the news.

Beyond the edges of Orpington, it was war, and disease, and famine.


  1. I’m uncertain what to make of this tale. Is it a longing on the part of James for what could have been? The same might be asked of Jacob who, after learning that the other man never married, leaps to the conclusion that James is gay. But they don’t belabor the point. The only thing seeming to tie them together was a fleeting three-hour sojourn many years before and a snippet of curiosity about the other. When does this story take place? Uncertain. James refers to photographing the space beneath his room’s window with a “camera” but that could well refer to a cell phone. It is an issue only where James’s “old school” view of homosexual vs. gay nomenclature is concerned. What doesn’t appear to be within the realm of possibility is the MC’s willingness to self-describe as queer. But these are questions best answered by the individual reader, and not the author. In the closing paragraphs of the story, James cracks the seal on what will probably by the first of many drinks from the mini bar; we can only conjecture why this is. Was the result of his meeting with Jacob so disappointing that he fell back into the comforting arms of oblivion. Again, a good story asks as many questions – more – than it answers. And this is a good story. Good job, Eamonn.

  2. This line: “ There was something in its air of decay and desolation which sang sweetly to me.” I feel like the narrator has no social sense of direction. He longs for decay, and he longs for a relationship. But he can’t find hid way. He is a man with no compass, no true north. So he pursues this dead end, when he could be in Tuscany nurturing relationships and moving toward intimacy. But like his drinking…he is also drawn toward the morose. So his compass needle twirls between his loci of attraction, and he can’t move.
    Great story!

  3. I found this a very easy story to relate to. I, too, hitchhiked a fair bit, back in the same period, and have felt the loneliness James expresses. And, strangest of all, I often think back on such momentary acquaintances and wonder if a deeper connection might have been forged. I agree with Bill; your story raises quite a few questions, and leaves me intrigued. I wonder why James rejects the "gay" label, while accepting homosexual, for one thing. Is it that "gay" has, still, a certain implication of happiness that the MC does not share? Or is there some other point I've missed? The final, self-destructive, decision to open the minibar suggests a few possibilities, as well. Is he going to end up back at a hospital? Or will he, alone and lonely, end up succumbing to alcohol poisoning in the Holiday Inn, in a room with a view of a trash-filled car-park? One has to wonder if it is good to be so open-ended.

  4. At the risk of upsetting others, this is one of my favourite reads on the couple of websites I regularly comment on in a while. The down-to-earth narrative style and the attention to details, combined with the little moments of prose poetry works so well for me. I found this story beautifully subtle and I particularly enjoy stories which don't answer all the questions, that don't conclude, don't wrap up nice and neat - because that's what life is and so in that sense, I loved the honesty and truth in this. In short, superb writing in my opinion.

    1. PS - if you have links to other pieces of your writing, I'd be interested in reading more.

  5. This is a trial to see if my comment will be accepted. I can understand the choice of homosexual over gay, gay being a recent ambiguous term, homosexual being an established accurate term. The sexual orientation seems to be subordinate to the general lack of of connections and reason to be and as such does a good job of describing the condition.
    Doug Hawley

  6. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 25, 2024 at 4:59 PM

    The prose in this story is very natural and strong. One only sees the tip of the iceberg of James's isolated life. An interesting read. Well done, Eamonn.

  7. In my mind, the story coalesces if I believe that James and Jacob had a sexual dalliance during their hitchhiking episode forty years ago - though this is never stated explicitly in the story. To me, this makes the ending more manageable. Jacob is a Kinsey 1 and lived a primarily heterosexual life, whereas James is a Kinsey 6 and clearly has lifelong difficulties with emotional intimacy unrelated to his sexuality.
    It is a rather haunting sad tale.

  8. A nice, quiet story that I first read experiencing some menace, truly expecting the eventual encounter to result in some sort of violence, which it did in an unexpected sort of way when James was driven to the mini-bar, which we've already been told, can't end well. I liked this for some of the reasons Paul K. mentioned above.