Short Story: "Nothing Untoward" by Lucy Goldring

After an hour hunched over his kitchen table, Ron found himself jogging and unpleasantly out of breath. Jogging to a neighbour’s house suggested some sort of domestic emergency. This was not an emergency.

Ron didn’t understand cats – that instinct to thwart your every move. To chew the end of your pen when you’re trying to work, to wind themselves around your calves. Why didn’t more cat owners die falling down the stairs? His ambivalence towards the injured party made the situation even more ridiculous.

He knocked on the door, aiming for friendly, but hearing jaunty, insistent. Ron pictured himself as a Young Conservative out canvasing, then realised he was too old – not to mention scruffy and left-wing – to be a Young Conservative.

Through the frosted glass, a rippling shadow-woman was advancing towards him at speed. For a heartbeat, Ron considered running away, tossing a shouted explanation of ‘Sorry, wrong house!’ over his shoulder.

‘Hello?’ She had a small round face framed by straight brown hair. The height of the door chain gave the illusion of a cheap gold choker hanging at her neck.

‘Oh, hiya. Ron from down the road.’ Was it necessary to point to himself as if he were part of a line-up of possible Rons? He cringed, felt the familiar knot in his guts.

‘Oh, hello, Ron. I’ve seen you at the newsagent’s, I think. Is everything okay?’ She undid the necklace chain and, somewhat grandly, opened the door to its full extent.

‘This may sound a bit weird,’ – sure, Ron, why not point it out? – ‘but I’ve spilt something on what I believe to be your cat.’ If pompous with a side of Victorian detective was the plan, he was off to an excellent start.

‘Well, that’s certainly unexpected.’ Yet, she didn’t seem troubled by the information. Her eyes – hazel – were probing Ron’s aura, detecting shades of trampled self-esteem. ‘Where are my manners? I’m Mary.’ Mary gestured to shake hands but – waylaid by some post-pandemic reflex, perhaps – styled the motion into a prim little wave.

Ron put up his hand and wiggled his skull-adorned fingers, feeling himself foolish. ‘Nice to meet you, Mary. I looked at the tag, ages ago. Pretty sure it said 31.’

‘Marmalade tabby?’

A quick mental translation: ‘Yes, that’s the one. I – ’

‘Funnily enough, Nikki’s not here – ’

‘– it was vegan mayo of all things. Very sticky, I can only apologise.’ He could have done more, could have cleaned her up, had the cat not bolted at the sight of his massive plant mister. ‘Anyway, it’s nothing ‘untoward’’ – air quotes: the smooth touch when clarifying that you have definitely not ejaculated on your neighbour’s pet – ‘or dangerous. Unless you have an allergy to modified maize starch? Not that you’d lick your cat, obviously!’ Christ, why was he allowed to live?

‘Well, these things happen. Dear Nikki’s fond of nosing round other people’s houses, from what I can gather. Can I… offer you a beverage for your trouble, Ron?’

Mary was jarringly formal for someone roughly his age. Clearly, she didn’t do banter. She was improvising niceties, scrabbling for lines in a dubious script.

‘A cuppa would be nice, if you’re sure I’m not keeping you from anything?’ It was two in the afternoon. Mary was resplendent in a silk purple dress, gold ankle boots and a full face of make-up to match.

‘Not at all. Come on through, Ron.’

Ron waited for Mary to turn before smelling his armpits (acceptable) and scraping his tongue around his teeth. It was supposed to be ‘thorough brush and floss day’ but he’d got sidetracked having a half-hearted wank – his first since breaking up with Fiona and his first, it transpired, under the furtive gaze of a depraved orange feline.


*

‘So, what is it that you do, Ron?’ Mary’s eyes flitted between Ron and her phone, which she was tapping with impressive efficiency. Without warning, David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ lurched into life from a speaker behind Ron’s head. Satisfied, Mary set down her phone and looked over, intently.

‘Do Ron Ron?’ He laughed: breathy, forced, and wondering how he’d ended up with a glass of red wine in his hand. His neighbour countered with the barest of smiles. ‘Officially, I work in a record shop but it’s all moving online. I’m surplus to requirements, as they say. Haha!’ Was this his laugh now? ‘Anyway, too young to retire, obviously, so I’m embarking on a business venture.’

‘Oh, how wonderful. In what field?’ Mary’s lack of funny bone was offset by kind eyes and a face that was becoming prettier by the moment.

‘Dog-sitting essentially – walking and kennel services. Just sorting out the insurance and whatnot.’ Was it too late to decline the wine and ask if she had any real ale?

‘And do you have a dog yourself?’

‘I did. With Fi, my ex. We drew straws, basically – when we split.’ Ron hadn’t blubbed for

weeks, was surprised to feel his throat closing in.

‘Oh, that’s tough, isn’t – ’

‘– yer, I haven’t felt like replacing him, my Brucey. Now, I get to hang out with a bunch of other mutts till I do.’ He composed himself. ‘Do you work at all, Mary?’ Surely, she was the prized asset of some lucky bastard blue-chip corporation.

‘I manage the multiplex – the one off the ring road. Je suis un cinéphile!’ Mary flicked out her hand dramatically, causing her wine to sway, in kind.

‘Oh, cool!’ She probably expected more but Ron’s mind offered only white noise. He was trying to work out what was strange about Mary’s house, apart from its discomforting tidiness. ‘So, Nikki? That’s not your everyday cat name?’ Aha! No photographs – not a single snap of family or friends. He tuned back in to his host, feeling ashamedly smug.

‘… Prince super-fan, for my sins. Darling Nikki – do you know it?’ Christ, wasn’t that the infamous masturbation one? Was this the theme of the day?

‘Erm… vaguely. Ich bin ein metalhead, as it goes, but I have been known to indulge in

The Purple One.’ The nerdy guffaw exited via his nose at reduced strength. It was progress, of a snorty sort.

‘I’ve just always loved that scenario. So bold of him – and her of course! So free.’

As well as humourless, Mary was plain odd – certainly lacking the usual filters. Ron found himself relaxing in the company of his own species for the first time in months.

'Well, it’s safe to say Prince and his purpley pals had a good time recording it.’

‘We take our pleasure where we can, don’t we, Ron?’

Ron had tried to take his pleasure where he could, before the razor-clawed perv had killed any flicker of a vibe. Ten minutes later, the ginger menace had leapt onto the kitchen counter, causing Ron to lose control of the mayonnaise.

‘People are taking self-care more seriously these days, I reckon.’ He laughed, sounding almost like himself, this time.

‘Yes, I think that’s probably true, Ron.’

Mary’s habit was to take everything in earnest and – after a respectful pause to allow for shared consideration – respond twice as seriously. Perhaps, if he steered the chat towards the outright ridiculous, she’d lighten up? Perhaps, Mary had watched the clip of the goat-riding cat?

‘Did you see – ’

‘I was raised Jehovah’s Witness so my pleasure allowance has been backdated.’ Mary’s attempt to wink was as distracting as her abrupt revelation.

‘Cripes… pretty strict from what I know?’

‘Spot-on, Ron. Absolutely no fun at all.’ She thrust her glass at him, a little too fast. ‘Here’s to making up for lost time.’ They clinked, awkwardly, the new information rattling round his mind like a dried out pea.

‘Cheers, Mary.’

Ron had a realisation – unobtrusive yet quietly significant – this was not his host’s first drink of the day. He sank into the lull, allowing Bowie’s celestial musings to cushion his mind. At the point of release, Fiona’s words came pouring back: You’re just too bloody weird, Ron... and so fucking messy. I cannot live on Planet Ron. I don’t think any normal woman can.


*

One bottle of Merlot and a passionate discussion about classic Japanese anime later, Ron excused himself. Mary’s toilet was the nicest place he’d urinated in a long time. In addition to the general cleanliness situation, it featured a selection of citrus-scented soaps, monogrammed hand towels and a bog brush holder in the shape of skull. Ron was inspired. Next weekend – if not, then definitely the one after – he would give his house a thorough scrubbing. In the meantime, he would treat himself to some nice soaps from the hippy shop in town.

When he came back, Mary was inclined against a heap of cushions, apparently fast asleep. Without thinking, Ron draped the gold fleece from the back of the sofa over her shoulders and tiptoed out of the room. He hesitated in the hallway. Watching a woman sleep was dodgy as hell but leaving without saying goodbye wasn’t exactly cool either. Ron looked around and spotted a mug of pencils by the telephone. Next to it, in a small brass frame, was a photo of Mary, dressed as an immaculate flapper girl. She was twirling a string of pearls around her finger and her smile was pure joy.

Hey Mary. Thanks for the drink! Ron

The crumpled receipt fished from his pocket wouldn’t fit any more words. Should he add a kiss? No: too much. He crept into the lounge and placed the note by the empty bottle on the coffee table, being careful to avoid the splotches of wine.

Ron was reaching for the latch when the Game of Thrones calendar by the front door caught his eye. Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, looked at him with knowing approval. He felt a tingle of delight; his next encounter with Mary would be a breeze. Without really meaning to, Ron read the neat purple handwriting under the day’s date:

EMANCIPATION DAY – 10 Year Anniversary!!

Mind whirring with speculation, he tugged open the door.

Before Ron knew it, the cat had slinked in and was rubbing her greasy flank against his leg. He barely registered the fresh pang of shame, as it dissolved in the vino and generalised feelings of affection. Ron reached down to give Darling Nikki a conciliatory stroke. She responded by sinking her teeth into his hand. Suppressing a yelp, he glared at Mary’s pet in a way that communicated unyielding supremacy. The reply began softly before rising to a ghoulish undulating yowl: part accusation, part warning, and all judgement.

Ron hurried out the house, pulling the door behind him. He broke into a jog and didn’t stop till he reached the newsagent’s.

The toilet cleaner and scouring pads were located just along from the ale.





Lucy Goldring is a Northerner in Bristol, UK. She’s been shortlisted by the National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD) three times and twice selected for their anthology. In 2020, Lucy won Lunate Fiction’s July flash competition and was nominated for Best Small Fictions by both NFFD and 100 Word Story. Lucy has a story forthcoming in Best Microfiction 2022. She distracts herself from climate angsting by watching an unhealthy volume of North American sitcom. @livingallover livingallover.com