Henry sat on his old brown sofa and opened up the Leamington Observer which was creased and made a crumpling sound as he turned the pages. The writing was blurry and he squinted. ‘Blast,’ he said and then he realised his glasses were on the arm of the sofa. His finger followed each article to the bottom. His wrinkled hands were thick and callused from a life of carpentry work. He read it right though to the crossword pages but not the sports page at the back; they didn’t interest him, people running around after a ball on a field seemed, well, just that. He lingered on the horoscopes.

In love, you are ready to bloom, let your confident phase lead you to take the dive and capture the woman of your dreams, it said.

He frowned, his wide mouth pushing out his dimples. ‘Rubbish,’ he said, with a twinge in his stomach. He rolled the paper up and tossed it down on the seat next to him.

It was time to get Sweetcorn her breakfast anyway. He surveyed the living room.

‘Pssst, psst. Sweet, Sweet,’ he called with a soft voice. He looked under the sofa where he sometimes found her waiting to paw at his feet. Not there.

He checked the kitchen and the rear garden where he had let her out earlier that morning. She would usually saunter back in through the cat flap but there was no sign of her. Henry prepared the gravied chicken chunks and multicoloured biscuits anyway and left them in her ‘I’m the boss’ bowl on her paw print place mat in the kitchen. Hopefully she would come back to eat it soon.

He went back into the living room and looked out the window to check if Sweetcorn was in the front garden. Everywhere, it was wet from the night’s heavy rain. The sky was clear and it glinted off the leaves in the bed that Henry had planted a few weeks before. The cul de sac was quiet. A few butterflies with orange and black petticoats played around the pink and yellow roses in the garden opposite. His neighbour, Mrs. Bramble, was forking the soil ready to plant the pansies in a black tray next to her. That’s when he saw Sweetcorn. Her sandy coloured fur had a silk sheen under the morning sunlight. She was chewing on a lavender spear next to Mrs.Bramble, who was wearing a yellow summer dress and a straw hat. Henry smiled, watching them. Mrs Bramble stopped for a moment and stroked Sweetcorn’s head. Her mouth was moving as if talking to the cat. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Once, when he was walking past, he saw her talking to a bumble bee. It was buzzing noisily around her bed of poppies. She told it to keep coming back as there was plenty of nectar to go around. Her friendliness towards animals made him chuckle to himself – though he would never let her see him laugh as he could never upset her. She had been very kind to him after his wife had passed away during the first Covid 19 lockdown. There were days when he couldn’t get out of bed, when he laid there and felt chained down as though there was an anvil sitting on top of him, pressing into his chest. Mrs. Bramble would come round to check on him. He initially rejected her, feeling she was being nosy, but she was undeterred and he sensed she too had experienced loss in the past. She brought around cottage pies, stews and rice pudding. They talked about current affairs and gardening, subjects they were both interested in. In time he gained some semblance of a life and routine.

Sweetcorn was an inquisitive cat and many neighbours commented on having seen her in their garden. She was quite adventurous and would often end up going further and further away, forgetting where she was because a feather blowing in the wind had her full attention. But something was different. More recently she had been disappearing for longer periods of time. He told his sister about it that afternoon on the phone.

‘I’d be careful, Henry,’ she said. ‘There are cat-nappers who entice people’s cats into their homes everyday.’

‘Really? I don’t mind. She’s a very social cat and if it makes someone happy, that’s a good thing.’

‘You’re being naive, Henry.’ She was using her stern voice. ‘Some people just can’t stop themselves. They offer more and more attractive food, lots of cuddles and whatever the cat wants until…’

‘Yes?’ Henry felt heat rush to his face.

‘Until,’ she said and then with more emphasis; ‘Until the cat never comes back. She has a new owner, Henry.’

‘I wouldn’t let that happen. I’d go over there and explain the problem. I’d get her back.’

‘Well, these cat thieves are clever. But if you do find out where she has gone, do you have any proof that you are her owner?’

Henry went white as a sheet. He had nothing. Sweetcorn wasn’t chipped and the old receipt from purchasing her two years ago had been lost. Enid had taken care of all that and he’d probably thrown it away whilst sorting through her things. He felt like something gave way suddenly, a falling feeling, to know that someone could take his cat and he couldn’t even prove he owned her. That it could be so easy made him feel sick. He took the phone to the nearest chair and sat down, feeling light headed.

Then he turned his head to the right and looked out the window. Mrs. Bramble was no longer in the garden. It was overcast out there and the colours of the garden had dulled without the sun on them. An empty crisp packet rolled along the road. He saw Sweetcorn. She was sitting at Mrs. Bramble’s front door, looking up at it, as if expecting it to be opened.

‘I’ve got to go, Flo.’ He put the phone down, just hearing the quiet ‘OK’ from Flo slip out before the line was cut off.

He stood up quickly, put one arm into his coat and marched out the door and across the cul-de-sac. He gently picked up Sweetcorn and knocked on the door a little harder than he had intended. Mrs. Bramble opened it a few seconds later. Her brown wavy hair framed her face. A whoosh of soapy fragrance hit him as the door opened, it made his heart flutter.

‘Henry,’ she said and touched her chest.

‘Mrs Bramble.’ He nodded.

‘Oh. Henry. I’ve told you so many times to call me Virginia – Gina for short.’

‘Gina.’ He said and thought of flowers in her hair. There was a pause between them.

‘Ooh – and hello Sweetcorn,’ said Gina. ‘She’s a gorgeous one isn’t she. Getting a little tubby I see. Must be eating too much. You’ll have to put her on diet,’ she said, poking him playfully.

Henry cleared his throat. ‘That’s what I -‘

‘She loves my lavender, always chewing on it,’ Mrs. Bramble continued. ‘I checked, actually, to see if it was dangerous to her but no, it’s okay. Helps clean out their gut apparently. Anyway, what can I do for you?’ She said with a big smile, touching his arm again.

‘That’s nice but…’ he dithered, blurted out some ‘ers’ and ‘ums’. ‘l must ask you not to entice my cat, yes, she is my cat you see, into your home.’ He took a deep breath.

Mrs Bramble’s smile reduced. ‘I see. Well, you don’t have to worry. She’s a darling and an inquisitive thing, but, no, she never comes inside.’

‘Now look,’ said Henry. ‘Are you telling me you haven’t been enticing her in for grub and cuddles?’

‘No, Henry.’

Her denial diminished his confidence but pride replaced it and he wouldn’t be lied to. The cat clearly liked Mrs. Bramble and perhaps she was afraid to tell him the truth, afraid she would lose her friend.

‘Come on Gina, it’s hard living alone, I understand that. It’s exactly the sort of thing someone like you might do, it’s understandable.’ He furrowed his brow, feeling somehow that those words didn’t come out quite the way he had intended.

Mrs. Bramble stared in disbelief.

This isn’t the way Henry thought the conversation would go. He had to do something quick. ‘I’m sorry -‘ he said, and remembering his horoscope that morning, he said: ‘How about we have a glass of sherry tonight, Gina?’ Mrs Bramble opened her mouth in shock. ‘How dare you. Are you asking me out – out of pity? Because I’m a lonely little old lady, I presume. It’s an insult!’ She slammed the door. Then she opened it again and said: ‘And it’s Mrs Bramble to you!’

‘Wait, I didn’t -.’ Henry tried to explain, waving his free arm to get her attention, but Mrs. Bramble slammed the door shut again. He wilted, sighing. The last thing he wanted was to upset her. She was a nightingale in a soundless world. He turned and saw one of the roses in the garden had lost most of its petals. Without much thought he picked up the petals and placed them in front of the door before leaving.

The next day Henry went to the local newsagents and picked up a Telegraph; his usual routine. He sat on his brown sofa and opened out the inky pages. He read it all the way through, except the sports pages.

He glanced over his star sign and it said: Thursday sees a new moon in the area of your skies that rules your hopes and dreams.

‘Load of rubbish,’ he said, feeling sore inside and wondering why he insisted on reading it. Edith always read the star signs out to him in the mornings over breakfast. She seemed to like the idea of knowing the future. They both got the Covid virus but he survived and she didn’t. How could that be? They both had their health but for some reason it took Edith, not him. That surely wasn’t written in the stars.

He made Sweetcorn her breakfast. Meat, biscuits and a little side of tuna for an extra treat. Once again she didn’t come. He called her, checked the rooms of the house and the garden. He checked the neighbours garden too – no sign. He heard the metal sound of the letter box and the muffled sound of something hitting the carpet. He put the food on Sweetcorn’s mat and went to see what it was. On the doormat was a white envelope, a little torn at the edges from being pushed through the stiff letter box. He picked it up and the closer he held it the stronger the smell of soap became. He put it right to his nostrils, drew in a deep breath and smiled. Inside was a card fronted by the image of chaffinches on a branch.

Inside it said: Thanks for the cuttings. Don’t worry about yesterday. Always friends. Sherry would be lovely. Gina.

Henry heaved a sigh and sat down, feeling great relief as though something broken had been fixed. While he was sitting there he became distracted by tiny mewing sounds, like little mice, coming from underneath the sofa. He bent down and saw Sweetcorn in the darkness with lots of small creatures wriggling beside her.

Kittens. That was why she had been putting weight on. There was no cat-napper on the loose. He sat back and for a moment felt a cloud of anxiety rise in his stomach. What would he do with them all? Then he relaxed and realised everything would be okay. He’d sort it out.

by Jenny Harding

Jenny Harding is an unpublished writer studying for a degree in the arts and humanities with a creative writing specialism. She has previously had two runner-up positions in Writing Magazine competitions.

Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro