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:

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Her two lovers


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.

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.

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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.

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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.



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.