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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After five years, he just happened to be walking down her street?
He’d not noticed at first. He’d been following his feet.
As he rounded that familiar corner, passed McDonnell’s bakery, he realised he’d been footsore for a long time.
Your mind may wander on its own way. But feet, he thought, always want to bring you home.
What had been Bow’s Hardware shop was now a block of flats, but the creaking sign above of The Sailor’s Rest still rasped on its hinges.
By the time he saw number 15, with its blue door repainted red, he was running.
That day we reached Elysium’s front doors. Randall makes crude remarks to a waitress on the terrace.
Two burly men in black, tight-fitting tuxedos root themselves in front of us. Their solidity is immutable and we go no further.
I snatch one dismal glance past a rock-like shoulder. A young woman tilting her head back to laugh. Succulent light glosses her silk dress. Nothing more.
As we trudge back to our campsite, suddenly weariness floods out of my heart, like blood. It is a jumbling torrent and I almost crumple onto the dirt track.
But man, that waitress, Randall whistles.
He’d found it somewhere in the smashed up village.
A clown’s foam nose he shouts, popping the grubby red bulb on his own conk.
The younger guys laugh at Lafferty, in his greasy fatigues, the ridiculous nose stuck in the middle of his dirty face. But he and I, we’ve not been talking, so I ignore him.
Imagine that, he says, trying that hard so people like you; all that effort just to be an idiot.
Trouble is, he says, people fucking hate clowns. And he lobs the dirty orb back into the rubble.