Why I always pay the tiger tax

The woman next to me in the waiting room is angry. She complains to herself, but loudly enough that I’m meant to hear her monologue ‘every tiger season, it’s the same’.  We’re here to pay the tiger tax but she doesn’t want to pay it.

Her friend told her it’s nonsense. She’s read articles.

Eventually, I can’t take listening to her anymore and turn to her and say:

I’m always happy to pay the tiger tax.

She looks at me with disgust. ‘Oh yes, why’s that?’

So I tell her:

Deep in the jungle, there is a small town. It is an old town. For thousands of years it has stood in its little clearing. It has never got bigger; it has never got smaller. Because the town has a problem: tigers.

Every day, the tigers that prowl the edge of the jungle kill and eat some of the children. It is a terrible thing to hear a dead child’s mother screaming with sorrow. It is heart-wrenching to see the little graves being dug and the bloody bundles that the town place there.

But there have been tigers for as long as there has been a town. The people accept that the tigers will eat many of their children. They tell themselves that it is nature’s way. They have charms and magic spells that they hope will scare tigers away. While they hope, every day brings patterns of blood in the grass and tiger tracks clawed into the mud.

It is like this for thousands of years. Then one day, someone says ‘let’s travel beyond the jungle and see if we can find tiger hunters.’ The town agrees. The town chooses two men and they pack small bags with food, kiss their families goodbye and leave the town.

They are gone for a long time. Years.

One day the two men return, bursting through the thick, green jungle. They are alone.

‘Where are the tiger hunters?’ the town cries.

‘It is okay’, one of the men says. ‘We travelled to a huge town, full of people. In that town was a school that teaches tiger hunting.

The headmaster took us in. And then over the last five years we learned the secrets of tiger hunting.’

The town is sceptical. After all, they are only the two men who left. Everyone was expecting experts.

After much debate, the town agrees for the two men to go in to the jungle and act as tiger hunters. The two hunters step into the jungle…

The next day, no one notices anything different, children are still being eaten. Mothers still sob; graves are still dug. But the next day and the day after that and the day after that, more children are coming home in the evening.

The sound of weeping becomes a rarity. Soon, every child who leaves in the morning comes home.

The tiger hunters are heroes! The town erects a statue in their honour.

People ask the hunters questions like ‘how do you do it?’ and ‘where are the bodies of the tigers for us to see?’

These are fair questions, but the hunters’ success has made them proud. Their knowledge and skills has raised them above the normal crowd.  They are also scared that telling people the secrets of tiger hunting will make them seem less special.

So, instead of explaining they say things like ‘you wouldn’t understand’ or ‘it’s too complicated’.

No one cares though. The town’s children are no longer being eaten by tigers. There is one thing though, the hunters say. We need to keep hunting for the tigers. If we stop, they will come back.

That’s great, the town says. So every day the hunters disappear into the jungle to work their mysterious ways and keep the tigers away.

Two hundred years passes. The original hunters are long dead. New generations of men have gone away to learn tiger hunting and returned to carry out their secret work.

The town pays these men handsomely. And since the original hunters returned, no more children have been eaten.

For two hundred years, no one has ever shivered at the sound of a throaty roar rumbling in the night. No one has dragged a small bundle of bloodied rags out of the trees.

The town’s playgrounds are full. Everywhere, people stop and listen. They can hear children laughing.

‘Tiger’ is now just a word and the town has forgotten how people would call their children close if they saw a flash of orange and black in the undergrowth.

Instead, people start to look at the tiger hunters and think to themselves ‘what do the hunters actually do?’

They are expensive. The hunters eat well and have nice houses. They disappear into the jungle each day, but for what? To protect us! We only have their word for it.

Look, how the mayor courts them. Listen to how pompously they speak. Such self-importance.

What do those greedy hunters actually do?

The hunters try to explain, but their answers are too technical. They give lectures full of the jargon of tiger-hunting. There are people who leave these lectures feeling less convinced by the hunters’ methods.

Some of these people find the old charms and spells their ancestors used before the time of hunters. They take them to show their friends and say ‘this is what we used to use to protect us from tigers’.

‘This town is thousands of years old. The spells and charms must have worked just as well as those useless hunters.’

A few weeks later, someone hears a rumour. One of the hunters has killed a child!

The rumour spreads. In the stories, the dead child – a little girl – is always the daughter of a friend of a friend. The grieving mother always lives several streets away. Yes, the family is local. But, no, you wouldn’t have met them.

This tale gathers momentum. At first, people react by crossing the street when they see a hunter coming the other way. As the story spreads it gathers details to it. The crime becomes more grisly and the number of victims multiply.

Angry citizens barge into hunters they pass in the street. Crowds gather outside hunters’ houses to chant and throw stones.

Who will protect us from the hunters? They are murderers! They are killing our children!

One day the hunters leave. The town decides that it will not send anyone else to the special school to learn how to keep the tigers away.

In the town, nothing happens.

Life continues much as it did before. The only thing of note is that the statue to the original hunters is pulled down. In its place, the town erects a new monument to the murdered girls.

Some of the townsfolk go to the edge of town to pin out the charms and spells.

Three months pass. One night, people on a quiet street stop what they are doing. They pause and look up from needle work, or with a dripping soup spoon almost at their mouth. A cry has echoed out from the last house on the left.

Where is he, where is he? A little boy has not come home tonight.

The townspeople form a search party. Torches are lit. Women gather round the weeping mother to tell her they are sure her son is only lost. There, there he’ll be back soon, grubby and hungry but no worse off for his ordeal.

In the jungle, the search party’s torches flicker. They cast orange and black shadows against the trees. They do not find the little boy, despite searching all night.

At dawn, members of the search begin stumbling back. They begin to gather in the town square.

After an hour, someone asks ‘has anyone seen the mayor?’

‘Where is the butcher?’

‘Weren’t they in a search group together?’

Everyone turns to look at the thick greenery that surrounds the town. Suddenly, from that deep green, comes the terrible rumbling of a tiger’s roar.

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Her two lovers

Moon

If she turned to me, half smiling, and stepped out of her lilac dress, the disappointment would kill me.

For eight years I have mooned over her from my table. Underneath her clothes, she is as prosaic and cream-coloured as the coffee cups she fetches from the kitchen.

I want to weep and press my face against her marble belly. My sylph. I am cursed by her perfection.

It is torture to think of her, rolling down her stockings. They might conceal a mole the colour of chipped plaster; a speckle of black hairs that fractures her calf’s cool alabaster.

§

Sun

The sweat on her top lip is erotic. I imagine when she touches her tongue to it, the taste is aromatic; spicy. When she leans against the bar to conspire with the other waitresses, she wipes her arm across her forehead. The movement pulls and lifts her lilac dress so that underneath the thin sheaf of fabric, her body is firm and substantive. Tonight after her shift she will go home and pull that dress off. Her skin will be warm, animate: soft and candid under a flourish of freckles. It says: touch me, I might shiver, but with laughter.

If you want to start what you finish

Questionnaires are the last place you should start. Especially if you’re trying to find out something extraordinary about yourself. In fact, no matter how hard they sell themselves, multiple choice questions can’t give you insights into your own life. Can they?

If it’s an online quiz, then I’m delighted to take it. Especially if it will help me find out which Friends character I’d be (Gunther), or if I’m good at grammar (mostly). Anything that might tell me something about myself that goes beyond the superficial? Sorry, no, my scepticism gauge just shot up to 100.

It was because of work that I first encountered Belbin and the realisation that, no, I wasn’t a completer finisher.

Doctor and monster

If you’ve not come across it before, Belbin is a personality test. It’s full title is The Belbin Self-Perception Inventory. Just as many people mistake Frankenstein to be the monster, it was Meredith Belbin who invented the test. Even though it’s the test not Meredith who wears the moniker.

Under normal circumstance I would have looked at its grand title then done some eye-rolling and hurried past. Much in the same way as you do when you see the guy wearing the Free Hugs T-shirt. After all, questionnaires are about finding out whether a website can guess my star sign from 10 simple questions. (It can’t.)

The position I was in though meant I couldn’t just ignore the test. I had just started a new job and they’d paid a lot of money for the training and tests. Like all good psychological insights, it was mandatory.

There’s no need to worry about your results

Calm should be the order of the day. Whatever you do, don’t try and over analyse these results. The trainer spent a lot of time going through this. Don’t panic. After all, Belbin is designed to tell you where you fit in a team. There’s no good or bad; right or wrong.

Then again, completer finisher was my lowest score. In fact, when I got my results, I had to check if the score had even bothered to turn up on the sheet.

It was official: I’m not good at finishing things.

There is something upsetting about finding that out. worse still, this was an answer that had come from myself. It’s not like when your friend says ‘the worst thing about you’ and you can just turn off.

This message was from deep within me. Not from the bit that knows how to work the coffee machine and loves Rachel. Or that knows ‘They’re waiting for their table over there‘ is correct.

No, this news had shot from my own unconscious. This wasn’t a proclamation from the loud, flashy king. It was a whisper from the hidden adviser who sits behind the throne and mutters in the king’s ear.

What I couldn’t work out was why this little bit of knowledge stung.

Stop me and ask

After all, I finish lots of things. If anyone wanted to stop me in the street and ask me to list something I’ve finished then I could get straight on that. Not top ten, admittedly. Five from the top? OK, it could take a little bit of thinking, but main three. Not. A. Problem.

Finishing matters. It’s achievement. It’s not glory. That’s winning. Finishing is wiping the sweat from your forehead and standing back to admire what you’ve created. Not finishing is losing.

At the risk of sounding like one of those pretend school teachers that the Daily Mail imagine cancel sports day, even coming last isn’t losing. You got there; you did it. Look behind you: those guy scratching their balls on the sofa. they’re the real losers.

Damn. While I was looking the other way, I accidentally became a motivational poster.  what next: there’s no ‘I’ in team?

I am a finisher. I am, dammit. My top three things I’ve finished are:

  1. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
  2. Underworld, by Don Delillo
  3. The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni

OK, it’s good and bad that my top three are all vast novels. It means I read a lot, which is generally good, but is that really the height of my achievement?

Surely, it’s a curtailed life if it’s achievements lie in consuming things other people have created? Also, it denies the longer list of books I have abandoned before the final page.

Or worse, let’s look through my computer’s hard drive. It’s an unholy rabble of deserted and forgotten writing projects.

Don’t go through my hard drive

I’m begging. Don’t try to read any of the two-page plays: the curtain falls with the pistol still not fired. Here, there’s a folder full of execrable verse. A whole folder full of poems, each of them half built. You can see the rafters and there’s no glass in any of the windows. All those novels that taper down to sketches and bullet points. One of them gets as far as ‘Once upon a time’ before deciding better and leaving the reader to fill in the rest for themselves.

Fine, I think. Thanks Belbin, you’re right. Look at that mountain of things that I’ve left undone. Every single thing just left to wind down, like a faulty clock.

Yes, okay. I get the point. (Part of me was desperate to just leave this denunciation here. Sort of on that bum note, with everything loose threads and out of shape. Like a badly made sweater.)

So, when I read my questionnaire results, I knew what that burn was. It was my own sense of failure, presented in full colour, on graph paper.  Somehow, I’d set myself a task that I was failing at. I couldn’t finish anything other than three books with large page counts.

But looking at the cases where everything fell off isn’t going to change that. That’s just looking at a whole heap of metaphorical ball scratching. You can’t learn anything from that.

Instead, look at the things you have achieved. There are a few finishing lines that I have managed to cross.

And if you’ve crossed them once, you can cross them again without tapering off. Even if it makes you sound like a motivational poster, every now and again.

Written in response to the daily prompt ‘Taper’.

 

Your hair, but louder

Women’s hair products used to be obsessed with volume. Each one boasting about its ever increasing achievements in the field of bulk. No self respecting shampoo would dream of taking a shower with a young lady, unless it could make her hair the size of a barrage balloon. Two barrage balloons; three! Just one wash will make your hair swell to a coiffured grandeur fit for a courtier of Louis XIV.

Thankfully that drive for volume has now shrivelled like a punctured souffle. Instead, modern hair products obsess about the nourishment they offer. As the way people eat has changed, so has the respect that advertisers insist we pay to our hair’s dietary needs.

If you were audacious enough, you could have placed something organic in front of 90s hair. I suspect you would have met with a blank look and the flick of a voluminous lock. No, what 90s hair wanted was quantity. For a small additional sum, you could go large. 90s hair wanted the fat.

Herbal Essence is a brand of shampoo named to associate it with organic, vegetable goodness. In the 90s its main concern was that ‘organics’ sounded almost identical to the word ‘orgasmic’. Adverts for this product had more moaning in them than an acrimonious episode of Points of View.

Natural was not important. Excess was. And shampoo wanted you to know it. It sprayed volume, moaning, hot oil at people, like Caligula for follicles.

Now, shampoo is different. It still makes blonds blonder, brunettes shinier. And now, for a small additional charge, it ‘feeds’ your hair. It is nutritious, natural, nourishing.

Shampoo’s urge to place itself as one of the major food groups is because people now care more about where their food comes from. There are thousands of websites that chatter endlessly about the benefits of eating clean. Lifestyle and food are now linked more closely than ever. A stray opinion on dairy can destroy a lifelong friendship. Therefore, shampoo steps up and steals these same ideas for itself.

OK, shampoo has always led on the idea of ‘clean’ for a long time. In fact any claims that shampoo is a cleaning agent are so asinine that this benefit hardly gets mentioned.

The new vocabulary of health and well-being has come from the new food industry. In reality, fast food chains pay lip service to artisan baked bread and reduced food miles.

Behind their farmers’ market facade hides the industrialisation of the food industry. In just the same way, shampoo is still a brew of detergents and perfumes.  Yet, its colours are contours continue to become smoother and more soothing. Scientists in laboratories around the world are working double shifts to make sure your hair-cleaner look appealing and colourful enough to be served as a wheatgerm smoothie.

Before, shampoo wanted to be big and brash. Now it wants to be delicious. Shampoo wants to answer your primal urges, it wants you to feel sexy, powerful, hungry. Where next, though, spiritual? Wherever you go, don’t worry, shampoo will be there with you.

Written in response to the Daily Post’s volume prompt.

I remember the red mile

It’s a surprise to see him. We’re in DiscountCo. I’m starring at rows of tinned tomatoes, when he wheels his trolley around the corner and our eyes meet. Stacks of tins reach seven, maybe eight feet tall; shelf upon shelf of them. Every tin the size of  a man’s head, with identical pictures printed on their labels: piles of ripe, shiny red tomatoes.

I freeze, but Lafferty is smiling and reaching to shake my hand. He’s still in uniform, looking healthy, neat and pressed. his wife is with him. I am surprised at how young and pretty she is. Her straight, blonde hair tied back in a pony tail, her clothes casual but expensive.

They look happy.  A flare of nausea plumes in my throat, swells then vanishes. I panic: what will I say to him? Lafferty steals the moment, the momentum of our chance meeting. He fills the awkward moment I feel bubbling up and engulfing us with a slap on my shoulder.

How have I been? He turns his big smile on his wife and introduces me. She’s called Celine and her smile is as large as her husband’s. She’s honoured to meet any of Phil’s buddies from the service. She reaches forwards and squeezes my hand in welcome, just as Lafferty had done.

Yes, he’s an instructor now; on good money, working civilian hours, has a house in the country. They’re visiting Celine’s sister; nice to have met me again. He shakes my hand again and then stiffens and salutes me. Sir. He calls me Sir. His salute confuses me. I’m caught off guard and so the one I return to him is tardy and awkward, like a new recruit might deliver.

Then he’s gone and I am left surrounded by the blood red wall of tomatoes. A tower of crimson that reaches above my head, like a red wave ready to crash down on me. Water is pricking at my eyes and I feel absurd, as if I should chase after him and his pretty wife.

His friendly respect must mean something. An ingenious insult, a coded message that only I could decipher. The plainness of his formality full of subtle insolence. I leave my basket of shopping beside that long wall of red and stumble out of the market.

The way he spoke to me, it felt like he was telling me he had forgotten me. Through a force of will, he had screwed up his memory into a wad and just tossed it.

You bastard, Lafferty. I say it out loud and a group of teenagers laugh at me.

I hate you. I hate you because you know I remember. All that old comrades cheerfulness, but still you’re riding me for my failures. Your contempt is as obvious as that flame-lick of scar tissue that leaps from your collar to hairline. Obvious as the two missing fingers on the hand you saluted me with.

 

Skills

Today, we are practising Skills. Shopping! Gene’s favourite. He dashes down chalked aisles, swinging a basket piled with imaginary food.

Nurse pouts out advice from where she mopes against her magnolia wall.

“Christ. Gene, give her the money… The money.”

Outside, the world is a flurry. It roars; clashes. People scrape together. Doctor frets at keys strung onto a length of chain.

Everywhere people try to decide between choice and the illusion of choice.

Gene holds an empty packet of corn flakes, its top taped closed. He is basking in the blue of the ceiling and its fluffy, painted clouds.

The Devil’s house

The house at that corner sags into its tangled garden of brambles. Ivy strangles one of the windows and gropes towards the chimney pot. From where they stand, Suzanna can see a triangle of yellow curtain falling across one of the windows. Behind that only black shadow. That was a child’s room, Suzanna thinks and the thought causes cold to skitter across her skin. She shivers. Beyond that little sliver of yellow a void squirms. A huge, sucking mouth of wet blackness.

Suzanna’s grandmother suddenly curls her thin fingers around the little girl’s upper arm and turns her to face the old, abandoned house. ‘See the house there?’ She says. ‘See it; it is haunted; possessed’. Suzanna feels the same fingers of dread scrambling over her skin.

The whole village knows that the house is cursed. Indeed, many years ago, when grandmother was a young woman, she and some friends crept into the house jut before dusk and scattered flour over the floor in the top bedroom. ‘That bedroom there,’ says grandmother, pointing to the window where the tatter of yellow peeps out from behind rotten frames.

‘When we went back the next day, the flour was full of footprints. Cloven hooves, like a goats, but only one set’. Whatever had walked there that night had done so on two feet. ‘See’, says Suzanna’s grandmother, ‘that’s proof that the Devil strolls through that house at night.’

Suzanna is older now; a tall, blonde, elegant woman, who I have met at least twice at dinner parties. She lives in Britain and the possessed house and her grandmother’s small Polish village are anecdotes – dark-edged fairy tales to recount across the white clothes of Middle England’s dinner tables. Britain has a large Polish population, and the stereotype is a nation of dispossessed plumbers and builders. But you do not have to dig beyond this easy banality to find how readily we English will accept Poland as a land of dank pine forests, where silent peasants stand watching suspiciously from their austere doorways. We dinner guests all sit and listen, transfixed.

It is a perfect story. Suzanna tells it well. She tells it in a way that is half belief it, half gentle mockery. It is that dose of the incredulity that makes it all the more believable. She is reaching back to be the little granddaughter again, suspicious that her grandmother is pulling her leg. Yet that crust of disbelief is a thin veneer over her darker childish faith that eldritch forces stalk this world.

While I believe the story of the story is true, I do not believe that the old house was imbued with the presence of evil; that the devil was callow enough to trot his foot prints through the flour. Instead, this sounds like a mischievous tale told by a grandparent to scare and beguile a child. That malicious act of love: abusing your position of trust to tell a tale that will live with that person through their life – so much so, they are telling it to a relative stranger twenty years later, on the other side of Europe. Although I doubt it is a conscious thing, it is an amazing thing to transmit that feeling of wonder and the excitement of real dread to someone for whom those emotions are real and vivid and alive. Probably in the way that Grandmother’s own grandmother gripped her arm and pointed to a ramshackle old place, falling in to ruin, and told the story of the foot prints in the flour.

Then again, this is me placing my own reasoning on the tale. I would tell it because it was scary, not because I believe it. I think it’s fun to be scared. Nothing more. Perhaps Suzanna’s grandmother told the story because she believed it was true. It is not so extraordinary that people believe in the supernatural is empirical and real – a measurable and discoverable force. I work with a young man who grew up in a deeply religious household. He believes in spirits, in the real worldly existence of demons. So when Suzanna’s grandmother grips her thin arm, her fingers squeezing hard through the material of the little girl’s coat, and whispers a story of the little group hurrying from the house, their hands white with precious flour, it is not a story to amaze and startle. Perhaps the whispered words are a warning: stay away from the devil’s house. For what is more precious and irreplaceable in this world than your granddaughter’s soul?

Again, I do not believe that it was the devil’s feet, part of me does not even believe in the scattered flour. I think that we grant agency to things, motive and intent beyond their solid objectivity. An argument erupts, a disease strikes, people die. And why? The fact that there is no reason, no agency behind people’s lives can be more terrifying than a foolish devil, slinking back to hell to scrape flour off his hooves.

What sort of story is it to say that was the house where Patryck and Marta lived. He became sick and died. Marta moved away. See, there is his grave, there in the church yard. Now no one wanted to live in the house where Patryck died. So the house sits empty. Wood warps, the house begin to slouch on its foundations; it looks cold, untended. Now it is an unlucky house. Tiles slip from the roof, birds live in the rafters, people can sometimes hear their noisy avian lives: the sudden scratching and shuffling; the house creaks as it settles into its dereliction.

One day a board breaks with a loud crash. All of the people in the village freeze, caught by the sudden violence of a sound from such an empty place. It is no longer Patryck and Marta’s house, it is no longer unlucky. Instead it is cursed. Grandmothers clutch their granddaughter’s arms as they walk past. Beware. Three brave children steal a small sack of flour and the next day find the empty house is alive with creatures (who now sit in their nests licking flour off their feet). Our minds create their own uneasiness about a place where the humanity has left, but the structures remain. As if the house itself should disappear along with its residents.  But their own beliefs mean that they don’t see the birds, only the dark and sinister edge of emptiness: feel the shudder that says it is the devil stamping infernal patterns across the floor at night.