Chapter 1 – Nora
“Are you sure this is the right bar?” Melanie grimaced as she scanned the camp tiki bar that was adorned with phallic, rainbow-colored Christmas decorations. “I definitely sense a gay energy in here, but not of the female kind.”
Nora checked the address on her phone again and nodded, her eyes darting to the sign above the bar that said I love anal. “Hmm.” She chuckled. “Yes, it’s here, according to my email, but it does seem like a strange choice of venue.” A man in a cowboy hat was sleeping on a stool, his head resting on the bar next to an empty glass. A group of men clad in sparkly purple tank tops were crammed into one of the booths, and male couples were scattered around the standing tables. Apart from them, she counted three women who all looked equally lost. “Women-only speed-dating event. Seven-thirty p.m.,” she read out loud. Jumping at the excuse to get out of it, she turned back to the door. “It looks like there’s not much happening. Shall we go for a drink somewhere else?”
Melanie took her wrist when she turned to the door. “No. You promised me speed dating and I want speed dating. This was your idea, not mine. You got me all excited and now you want to leave?”
“But I don’t see any women, and anyway, I’m not feeling it anymore.” Nora groaned. “I should never have told you about the invitation. It was a stupid idea.”
“Nonsense. You need the distraction, not me. It’s Thanksgiving, after all, so what better way to say fuck you to your ex than go speed dating on the night you were supposed to meet her family?” Melanie clapped her hands together when four women entered the bar. “See? Women. We were just early.”
Nora regarded the women with little interest. She wasn’t in a place to date yet, she knew that, but Melanie was right. She did need the distraction tonight. Two months ago, Barbara, her ex in Seattle, had ended their long-distance relationship. Apart from the fact that they were living on separate continents, she’d used just about every excuse under the sun to break up with her. Difference in interests, age, life stages… Nora didn’t blame her, but that didn’t make it any less painful. Some days were filled with hurt and regret, and she so desperately wanted to feel normal again. After she’d cancelled her flight to the US, Thanksgiving felt like a cursed date looming before her, so when she had gotten the invite for a speed-dating event taking place on that very same day, she’d taken it as a sign, even if it was only to stop her from thinking about her ex for a couple of hours.
“These guys seem to know where they’re going.” Melanie took Nora’s hand and followed the women to the back of the bar, where a semi-closed-off area sloped down into a cozy, long, and narrow makeshift living room with a fireplace, a big sofa, and small tables and stools scattered around. “Come on.”
“Hi, guys. Are you here for the speed-dating event?” A woman with a flipchart walked up to them. “I’m Sally. Sorry about the last-minute change in venue. The original bar flooded, so we had to find an alternative.” She pointed to the huge, wooden penis statue next to the fireplace. “Just ignore all the dicks. This is a men’s bar, and we didn’t have time to redecorate our little nook.”
Despite her sudden change of mood, Nora couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s okay. I didn’t even know there was a change in venue. Is this the Cupid event?”
“You could call it that if you like.” Sally smiled widely. “What’s your name?”
“Nora. Nora Bloom. And I’ve brought a plus-one. Melanie McDermott.”
“Nora Bloom…” Sally frowned as she scanned the list of names. “I don’t have you on the list. Can I see the confirmation email, please?”
Nora opened the email and handed her phone to the woman. “I received this yesterday.”
“Hmmm. The Cupid Event? I thought you were joking when you said that. That’s definitely not from us. We’re called LGBTQ Speed Dating London.” Sally shrugged. “It looks like a mix-up, but since we’re a little low on numbers tonight, we’d be delighted if you both joined. We’re expecting about twenty women, and we generally like to have a few more than that.”
“Sounds good to me,” Melanie said, taking the clipboard the woman handed her before Nora had time to change her mind again.
“Perfect. I just need your name, number, and email.” Sally pulled a sheet of blank labels out of her shoulder bag and scribbled their names on them. “You’re number twenty-one,” she said, sticking one of the labels onto the chest of Melanie’s top. “And last but not least…Nora, you are number twenty-two. Are you ready to find love?”
Nora let out a sarcastic chuckle as she stuck the label onto her shoulder. “Sure.”
“Hey, you need to take this seriously,” Melanie whispered when it was Nora’s turn to fill in her details. “Who knows, you might meet The One.”
Nora stopped what she was doing for a moment and stared at her friend. “Mel, I’m not here to find love. I’m done with that. I’m here to have a drink and talk to strangers so I can stop my mind from churning. We might as well go bowling or see a movie, it’s all the same to me.”
“Whatever. But we’re not going bowling and we’re not watching a movie. Tonight, we’re going to flirt.” Melanie’s eyes darted to a woman by the bar. “See that blonde over there? She’s totally my type. A little tough, natural, good smile, nice teeth… What about you?”
“I don’t have a type,” Nora said.
“I know that, but isn’t there anyone here you find attractive?”
Nora looked around and shook her head. “No. But as I said, that’s not the point. I’m sure we’ll have a good time.”
“That’s the spirit.” Melanie tapped her purse. “Now, first things first. I’ll get a round of drinks if you grab that couch by the fireplace.”
Chapter 2 – Cupid
Cupid observed the crowd, amused by the ignorance of the women in the pub. If only they knew what was coming. Were they ready? Some were, but others would need more time. For them, this was just the initial encounter, the catalyst of many encounters that would lead them to the right person eventually, because like love, heartache was part of life. The mistakes people made, and their failed relationships taught them valuable lessons and prepared them for meeting The One. Happily ever after wasn’t meant to be easy; it had to be earned, and Cupid’s interference was the ultimate reward.
Ranking directly under The Almighty—the maker of the universe and holder of higher powers that controlled destiny—Cupid followed orders and spread the love. Cupid wasn’t a cherub with a bow and arrow, and they weren’t male nor female. They didn’t have any physical form for that matter, but they were able to infinitely multiply and morph into any creature to help earthlings find love. They manifested in many ways, and tonight, in this obscure bar in South London, they were a chubby, ginger cat called Toby. The name was engraved on a silver tag attached to their sparkling, blue collar, and they looked too comfortable and well fed for anyone to worry about them just yet. The guests assumed Toby belonged to the pub owners, and the staff, who had never seen them before, was delighted to have some furry company. They’d discussed finding the owner but there was no phone number on Toby’s tag, so they’d left them to it for now. By the time the event was over, they would probably try to find their rightful owner, but by that time, Cupid—or Toby as they knew him—would be gone.
Cupid liked being a cat, and they were having fun with it. Out of all creatures, cats were the most comfortable skin to live in. They’d tried them all—dogs, insects, birds, and reptiles—but more often than not, they came back as a cat. Cats were able to adapt and blend in, so they could get close to people. They didn’t need to be in the presence of an “owner,” like dogs, and they were fast, agile, and experts at climbing trees and jumping walls.
Toby was purring, delighted with the premium spot on the sofa by the fireplace, and the petting was nice too, especially the scratching behind their ears. Cupid didn’t need to take on a form: they could simply be nothing; but earthlings needed help, and apart from being excellent conversation starters, animals tended to make them feel comfortable. Besides that, the old cliché was true. Lesbians loved cats, and this was a women-only speed-dating event.
“Oh, look at you. You are so cute,” a blonde woman cooed as she sat next to them. She leaned in to read their name on the tag. “Toby. You’re such a pretty boy. Yes, you are a very, very handsome boy.”
And you are about to have a very, very meaningful encounter, Nora. Toby purred louder, thoroughly enjoying the soft strokes of her hand. It was funny how women always put on high-pitched voices when talking to animals. They were perfectly able to understand them without the drama.
Nora was wearing jeans, a black sweater, and white Nikes, and her long hair was pulled into a messy top knot. People didn’t tend to “dress up” for speed-dating events, but they did spend hours in front of the mirror attempting to look like they’d made no effort at all. Earthlings were strange creatures; no one dared admit this was important to them, but Nora was an exception. She’d come straight from work to meet her friend here, and looking her best genuinely wasn’t important tonight because she had no desire to find love. None of that mattered, though, because The Almighty had spoken, and free will was debatable. So here she was, unknowingly ready for someone to leave a lasting impression on her.
Toby turned to the door as Yael walked in. As expected, she didn’t look too keen either. Tall, lean, dark-haired, with striking, almost black eyes, many heads turned her way, but she was on her phone and had no idea all attention was upon her. Following her friend to the registration table, she was still on the call as she scribbled down her details. Nora looked up at her but only for a second. She was too busy fussing over Toby to really notice her, and that was fine. They would soon have their three minutes of conversation; the catalyst that would change their lives forever.
“Have you made a new friend?” Nora’s friend Melanie, put two large gin and tonics on the table and joined them on the couch. “Oh my God, you’re so fluffy.” Again, the high-pitched voice, but Melanie was a good scratcher, so she was forgiven.
“His name is Toby,” Nora said.
“Toby, you are a chubby little boy. I just want to eat you.”
Please don’t. Your friend needs me. Toby licked her, then stopped themselves when they tasted the bitter liquid Melanie had spilt over her hand. Yuck. Gin. Why do people like alcohol? Their attention turned to the bar, where two men shared a portion of chicken wings. That would be nice, though. Or a bit of cream or some steamed salmon.
“What a good boy. Yes, you are the best, best, bestest boy,” Melanie continued, stroking Toby’s tummy when they turned on their side.
You have no idea how good I’ll be to you, Melanie. But your time has not come yet.
“It’s strange…” Melanie furrowed her brows as she studied Toby. “From the way he looks at me, I’d almost think he understands me.”
Nora chuckled. “Have you already downed one of those by the bar by any chance?” She pointed to their drinks. “They’re huge.”
“Animals understand more than you think, and no, I didn’t. But I did order a triple shot for liquid courage.” Melanie picked up her glass and took a sip. “Better have some before the first round starts.”
Chapter 3 – Yael
“We received your down payment, I’ll get back to you tomorrow with a delivery date.” Yael hung up on her client, then glanced at the women around her as she ordered beers at the bar. Her friend Jess had gone to the bathroom to check her hair for the second time since they’d arrived, and Yael suspected she was more nervous than she was letting on. But that was why she was here; for moral support. She’d practically dragged Jess along, insisting it was time she put herself out there after being single for three years.
“There you are,” she said when Jess reappeared. “Stop hiding and smile at people. Make eye contact.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re just my wing woman.” Jess looked terrified as she took a sip from her beer and followed Yael down into the lion’s den, as she called it. “I think I’ve forgotten how to look women in the eyes.”
“How about those two on the couch by the fireplace? They look friendly and approachable. And they’re fussing over a cat. You like cats, so that’s already one thing you have in common.” As if she could feel Yael’s eyes on her, the blonde looked in her direction, and so did the cat. The two heads turning simultaneously was such a comical sight it made Yael chuckle, and the blonde, who assumed she was smiling at her, smiled back.
“Everyone likes cats. It hardly classes as common ground.” Jess pursed her lips, then let out a long sigh. “Fuck, I’m so nervous.”
“Don’t be. You’re the most interesting person I know, Jess, so just be yourself,” Yael said. Again, the blonde’s attention turned to her, and their eyes locked. Hers were light, almost icy gray.
“Hey, the buzzer just went.” Jess nudged her.
“What?” Yael turned to her friend. “Oh. So, what do we do now?”
“We go to our allocated starting table, and we circle around. Three minutes each.” Jess looked at the list on the wall. “You’re number four, so you start by talking to number five, over there at that table.” She took a long sip of her drink and squared her shoulders. “Okay, wish me luck.”
“You can do it, charmer.” Yael grabbed her drink, stood up, and patted Jess’s shoulder, then went to her table to meet a petite woman with shoulder-length gray hair. Although the woman was already sitting down, Yael guessed she’d probably reach up to her chest with their difference in height. She was also the only one wearing a mask, and it was hard to read people’s expression when their mouths were covered. Not that it mattered; Yael wasn’t here to find a date, but perhaps she’d make some new friends. She didn’t feel like she was doing anything wrong by being here. A lot of people went to speed-dating events to support their friends, and the woman she was currently seeing knew where she was tonight.
“Hi, I’m Yael,” she said, reaching out to shake the woman’s hand as she took a seat.
“Sorry, I don’t touch,” the woman said in a strong German accent, leaning back before she adjusted her mask over her mouth. “Emma.”
“Hi, Emma. Sorry about that. How are you tonight?”
Yael waited for Emma to elaborate, but she remained silent. Okay. This is a bit of a rusty start. “Where are you from?”
“I live in London,” Emma said, staring at her stoically.
If she’s trying to be charming, she’s not going to have much luck tonight. “I mean your accent,” Yael said. “Are you German?”
“Okay. I’m from Israel, but I’ve lived in London for twelve years. What about you?”
Emma mumbled something Yael couldn’t understand. It wasn’t her accent but rather her whispering way of speaking that made it close to impossible to work out what she was saying, and with the mask, she couldn’t lip read either.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Again, something vague, but Yael was pretty sure Emma was asking about her age.
“Oh, okay,” she said. “I’m thirty-four. How old are you?”
“Does it matter how old I am?” Emma said, loud enough for Yael to hear her this time, and she sounded irritated. “Because it shouldn’t matter.”
Oh boy, this isn’t going well. Yael braced herself for a long night, and she was relieved when the buzzer went. “Well, it was lovely to meet you, Emma. Have a good night.” She slid off her stool without waiting for a reply and headed for the next table, where a butch-looking woman was waiting for her. Eyeing her hungrily, the woman introduced herself, and Yael felt mildly uncomfortable as she held on to her hand for way longer than necessary.
“I’m Jackson.” She looked Yael up and down. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes? I think we’re going to get along.”
“Uhm…I’m sure we will,” Yael said, shifting on her stool. “So, tell me about yourself.”
“Why don’t you start?” Jackson suggested. “That way, I’ll know where to find you in case I blabber on too much and our three minutes run out. Where do you live? Where do you work? Where do you hang out?”
“Oh, I’m actually quite private, so I’d rather not go into specifics, but I live in London and I’m in the jewelry business,” Yael said, trying to keep her information as vague as possible. Already regretting coming here, she reminded herself that she was here for Jess, and that she would just have to suck it up.
Did you enjoy this sample? Cupid is a Cat is out on 25/09/2022 and available for pre-order: