She sat at a window table, like she’d said she would, with her glass beyond halfway empty and her eyes on her phone screen. From the street it looked like she might be giving a date a chance to walk away and text a tactful excuse—a chance to cancel without hurtful words she’d no doubt add to a back catalogue to leaf through with regret on lonely, sleepless nights.

It was charity, really, Keith decided, that he chose to stay.

He eyed her again from the anonymous safety of the street outside the tall windows of the upmarket bar. The roots of her light brown hair betrayed grey. A deep crease between shaped eyebrows suggested a career that caused her to frown, perhaps teaching or nursing. To Keith, she looked like she would soak up a shower of compliments like thirsty ground, long deprived of rain. 

He gave his reflection’s pastel shirt and good jeans a once-over and sighed. He couldn’t be too picky these days. He went inside. 

“Sarah.” 

She looked up and smiled as he sat opposite. He slid a glass towards her, condensation beading on the cold surface and wetting his fingertips. “You must be Keith.”

“I got you Pinot Grigio. It’s what the girl said you were drinking.”

The line between her eyebrows deepened. “Thanks but—”

“My treat, gorgeous. And it’s a large one. Let your hair down.” 

She wasn’t his type. But there was no need to ruin the chance of an easy lay, and he’d learned from bitter experience that the kind of girls who usually caught his eye wouldn’t meet his gaze without a sneer. She was too old to be pretty, in his opinion, but maybe she’d make up for it in gratitude. He’d give her a couple of drinks then move in for a squeeze. If she brushed him off, he’d laugh and buy her another and maybe she’d say yes after that.

Keith drove the conversation with polite questions, pausing to let her reply, then gave answers as if the question had been for him. 

What do you do for a living? I’m a freelance journalist. I write for a couple of local papers, crime reports. Let me tell you, you ladies have to be careful! Anything can happen out there if you’re alone at night… 

Across the table, Sarah tipped her first glass of wine slowly against her lips without drinking and smiled as Keith boasted. When he got up to visit the bar again, she emptied the glass he had bought her into the base of a plastic plant and set it with the other empties on the table. 

By his third drink, Keith decided he was backing a winner when the girl asked about his family. She commiserated with sympathetic nods when he expounded on his shoddy treatment by his ex (who never understood him) and grown-up kids (who never called even though he sent them birthday cards). She asked where he lived then leaned in and murmured, “My place is closer.”

Keith excused himself to the men’s room, examined his teeth in the mirror, checked he had condoms in his pocket and grinned at his reflection. Back in the bar, he watched the girl take out a mirror, dab a finger on the tip of her tongue and smooth her stray hair. When she noticed him watching, she stood up to stretch and put her coat on. 

She could be fifty. Bit younger than you, mate, but no spring chicken.

In the taxi, Sarah slapped his wandering hand, twice, but she laughed and said, “Just you wait until I get you home,” in a voice that made his skin prick up into gooseflesh and his stomach flip.

Inside Sarah’s little terraced house, Keith’s heart sank when he saw the living room. Three cats glared at him from three different surfaces. Just his luck. He could have set up a date with anyone, but he’d picked the cat-lady. She poured two measures of something dark and handed him a glass in exchange for his jacket. “My profile did say ‘must like cats’. You’re not allergic, are you?”

“No.” Keith eyed the ginger tabby on the bookcase with suspicion. “I’m a dog person myself. Cats are sneaky. You never know what they’re thinking. How many do you have?”

“A few. They come and go.”

Keith tried to push a tuxedo cat off the arm of the sofa and received deep tramline scratches as reward. He yelped and dropped his drink. “Jeez! Maybe I should go.”

“Don’t go. Stuart’s the newest and still a bit jealous of visitors. I’ll fix that in no time.”

He’d guessed right about nursing. Sarah dabbed Keith’s hand with gauze and sprayed it with something that stung but stopped the bleeding. Then she led him upstairs. A couple more cats lazed on her bed and another vanished into the dark safety underneath.

Keith shook his head. “No. Not with them watching.”

Sarah laughed. “They don’t care, but I’ll evict them for you.” She clapped her hands three times rapidly and all but the under-bed cat stretched, yawned and sedately left the room. She knelt and looked into the darkness. “Colin, I see you hiding!” Three more claps and a shape shot through the door. Eyes shining and sparkling, Sarah grinned up at Keith. “Now, what am I going to do about you?”

Keith grinned back. This promised to be worth the expense of the wine and the taxi fare after all.

He woke up warm and comfortable. It must be later than he’d intended to stay, he thought, because sunlight filtered through the lightweight curtain and made him blink. He yawned, forgetting to cover his mouth. He heard a familiar sound, his name perhaps, and there was a light scratch on his head. It felt odd, but he liked it and angled his neck for more. He knew he should do something, go somewhere, but he couldn’t concentrate on what or where or why. He closed his eyes again, rolled onto his other side and stretched out long, feeling a soft caress from his shoulder to his hip. Nothing seemed to matter. Nothing at all. He’d stay.

Sarah regarded her new pet with a gentle smile, rubbing the short white fur under his chin. She lifted him up and cradled him in her arms, dropping a kiss onto the top of his grey, striped head. “Who would’ve thought a nasty old tomcat like you would turn out so handsome! Come and meet the others downstairs, Keith. There’s tuna.”

Ali Coyle

Ali is a science educator by day, a fiction writer by night, and has been an unapologetic daydreamer since birth. Whilst studying physics at university, Ali chose to interpret the “scientists can’t write” stereotype as a personal challenge and has been writing down their daydreams ever since. Ali can be found at @alicoylewrites on twitter, and at https:// alicoylewrites.wordpress.com.