EMILY AND THE GIRLS by Alison Wassell (3rd place, Prompt Mar22)

Emily’s colleagues, not one of them under forty, refer to themselves as the girls, as in “girls’ night out”, “all girls together” and “girl talk”. Girl talk, as far as Emily can see, consists mainly of discussions about men; husbands, both errant and loyal, ex-husbands, potential husbands, men who are sadly not husband material. None of the girls has a good word to say about any of them.

Emily is not one of the girls. A night out with them would be her idea of hell. She makes no secret of the fact that she prefers cats to people. At work, she uses a mug bearing the suggestion that the world would be a better place if all stupid people were turned into cats. This is not, to Emily, a joke, but a rather splendid idea.

The girls have no idea what to make of Emily, so they have decided to pity her, since she has no man to despise. They speculate about why this is and conclude that it must be down to the cats, and to the fact that Emily has let herself go, wearing unflattering leggings and baggy jumpers covered in cat hair and stubbornly refusing to dye her greying hair. None of them has ever been to Emily’s house, but they are certain that the smell of cats and their business would be enough to put off even a halfway decent man. Emily, they agree, is well on her way to becoming a crazy cat lady, feared and ridiculed in equal measure by the children of the neighbourhood, who no doubt think she is a witch.

Of course, the girls don’t share these concerns with Emily, but she hears them whispering behind their hands, and she is well aware of the way they suddenly fall silent whenever she enters a room.

To give them something to think about, Emily finds herself a man on the internet. Watching her colleagues grapple with the notion that she has finally joined their ranks will, she thinks, pass the time until she is allowed to retire.

The man Emily finds is not much to look at, but he seems reasonably well-groomed and she finds his name, Bob, somehow reassuring. She has, in fact, experimented with coupledom before, and found it not to her liking, but she resolves to give it one last try, just to be sure.

The girls are perplexed when Emily begins to drop Bob’s name into conversations. She shares his opinions on a variety of subjects, from the parlous state of the economy to the likelihood of platform shoes ever coming back into fashion, something in which, as a man of very small stature, he has a vested interest. She tells them he prefers beer to wine, a juicy steak to a plate of ‘rabbit food’ and Ant to Dec, although he isn’t overly keen on either of them. When she hears them questioning Bob’s existence she places a photo of him on her desk next to the one of her cats. When she catches them looking to see if it has been clipped from a magazine she gets him to collect her from work. The girls are, eventually, silenced.

Bob quickly makes himself at home. He declares that he is a dog person, but Emily isn’t convinced. He does not, for example, come when called, and the only loyalty he exhibits is to his darts team.

As the weeks roll by Bob starts to come and go as he pleases, returning only to eat and sleep and, some nights, not at all. Emily’s suspicion that he has a similar arrangement with Audrey from two doors down is confirmed when she finds hairs on his jacket, not from Audrey, but from her Persian cat, who never leaves the house.

When Bob deigns to honour Emily with his presence he invariably chooses the most comfortable chair and, if she happens to be sitting there herself, creates some disturbance to cause her to move. She always returns to find him snoozing, or pretending to snooze, as though the chair of choice has been his all along.

Bob is a man of few words, but somehow he manages to communicate contentment and displeasure. Occasionally Emily looks up from her book to find him giving her a judgemental look. Once, he allows her to bulk buy his favourite cereal before mentioning that he has gone off it. He is asleep more than he is awake, usually occupying at least three quarters of the bed.

‘Things are going better than I could have hoped,’ Emily tells the girls.

One evening she arrives home from work to find Bob lapping from a saucer on the floor. When she bends to stroke him he rubs against her legs and purrs. She smiles. The transformation is complete.

Emily places a photograph of feline Bob on her desk and slides the one of human Bob into a drawer.

‘Isn’t it a bit weird, naming a cat after your ex?’ ask the girls. Emily says she likes the name. It goes well with the others, who are Dave, Jack, Tom, Stan and Colin. She loves them all, and she knows they love her back, in their own way.

The girls return to giving Emily pitying looks. They ask her how she is with their heads tilted on one side and resume their whispering. Emily no longer cares. Not that she ever cared that much to begin with. Every day she takes a red pencil and strikes through the date on her calendar. Not long now, she thinks, until she is free from the girls.

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