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.
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.
On Saturdays Jon and I take the bus into town and go stealing. The bus chuffs and chugs, down the small country lanes, with branches lancing out of the hedges to clatter against the windows, while everyone sits wet and hunched inside, like unhappy chickens inside the damp swelter of the coop.
Town is 60’s bleak: a concrete scab amongst all the green. And there is nothing there: a Woolworths, five inhospitable pubs, a travel agents with bright, optimistic light spilling around the destination cards stuck in its windows; a three screen cinema with red velvet seats, the arm rests all worn down to the nubby beige thread. A set of concrete blocks arranged haphazardly beside the council chambers and county courts. All of it named after a forgotten saint.
We trek round Woolworths, stuffing penny sweets into our coats, steam rising from our damp backs. Jon always braver than me, acting like he had nothing to lose; a ruffian. Underneath his lank hair: a sneer.
Me, my reality is more prosaic: I steal nothing. Instead I follow Jon down the ranks of cheap kitchenware, winding through aisles of thin, polyester pillows, my heart furious and fiery with terror, because I am secretly a civilian, a citizen. I am no more likely to shoplift from Woolies than I am to rob an old lady at gun point. Not even a lookout, because later, in the corner of the grey echoing multi-storey car park, I am almost boastful in my tales of near misses: I would of, but the man in the blue shellsuit had the look of a store detective, else I definitely would of. My mouth working to convince myself as much as Jon against the cowardice that compresses my hypocrite heart.
And one day, I know that Jon knows it too. He says:
“This is bullcrap. You’re scared. You never do anything. You’re a coward.”
My mouth works up and down, supplying the mechanism to say the words that my brain won’t supply – a piston rasping away to itself; wearing down. Why won’t my brain pull the pin and provide the words that my piston mouth needs? Because they are words that could lead to terrible things: prison and ruination; tall policemen with black hats and boots who will treat me with the polite and courteous contempt that a criminal deserves. I see my mother weeping, leaning against a white institutional wall, while road safety posters and duty rosters glare down from overcrowded notice boards.
But I am trapped. The brave person’s option is to refuse. To confess: no, I will not steal from Woolworths because I know that theft is wrong and secretly I am ashamed that I associate with someone who would flout laws and moral codes so flagrantly just to acquire sweaty fistfuls of fizzy fish. Heroes would stand now and say “I am sorry Jon, but our lives are precious, our time scarce and there is so much more to do than pilfer for petty thrills. But I am not a brave man. It is 1993 and I am uncomfortable teenager with one friend and little imagination.
We head back to Woolworths.
Jon’s voice is low and bubbles with spite: ‘you better thieve something pretty spectacular, less on Monday morning I’m telling the whole class how much of a little prick you really are.” So we got through the double doors, with their chrome frames and finger-smudged glass, back into the rank damp stink of the department store. Up and down the aisles we go, Jon behind me, the rough feel of his anger pressing against me, pushing me up and down the corridors of goods, looking for something to rob.
And what to choose for this sacrificial offering? What token to propel me from the light into the dark of being a criminal mind? We cruise the shelves of music, but there’s nothing here – the cassette cases are all empty and the kiosk is too close. Perhaps I can snatch a batch of blank tapes – five Memorex cellophaned together. But no. These are kept in the cashier’s eyeline. Too risky and a sure sign that the company knows it is an easy victim of teenage crime and protects itself accordingly. From the corner of my eye I can see the bland but eloquent warning ‘Shoplifters will be prosecuted’.
Meanwhile, all this time, my minds is narrating its rushing stream of desperate logic. If we take too long, we will look suspicious; they have seen us leave and come back again; murders always return to the scene of the crime; looking too closely will make you look guilty; not stopping at all makes you look guiltier still. And then, there is was.
We are in the kitchenware section and hanging from a long finger of metal a solitary pairing knife dangles, beckoning. Cable-tied to a rectangle of white cardboard with a drawing of tomato slices on it, the knife is perfect. After all, what boy doesn’t appreciate the potency of a knife? Jon couldn’t argue that this wasn’t a suitable object to pocket. The sharp blade added its own danger – weapon. It is also on one of the end displays so out of sight of the tills and customer browsing mugs an aisle away.
I stand there and stare at the knife and it stares back, goading me. Its dull, black plastic handle and short snub-nosed blade are as distant and precious as the crown jewels. I feel Jon’s breath on my neck as he presses over my shoulder to see what I have decided to pocket. In his dsire to see more, or to intimaidate me and prove that this act of rebellion and danger is beyond me, he is jostling, pushing me into the display. An image flashes through my head of a startled shop assistant finding me impaled on rows of hooks that jut twenty centimetres from the metal backing.
I push Jon back and he wheels back. His reaction overemphasised, almost dramatic enough to draw attention. He’s having fun and more importantly, I suspect he wants me to get caught.
“Go on, grab it.” His hiss is stagey and in my ear sounds like a shout that should echo as faraway as bedding and light fixtures, over at the other side of this store. I tell him to eff off, and nudge him backwards again.
“Give me room you git.”
And I realise that if I pull this stunt off, I have beaten him. Anyone can rob fistfuls of pick n mix: reach a grubby hand beyond the ranks of plastics lids to squelch together gummy sweets. But this. This is something real and serious, beyond playing at tough. An action that might even stretch outwards away from my awkward, sweaty, uncomfortable self and towards that shimmering other, the willow o’ wisp of Cool. Not cold, like September mornings huddling towards school. But Cool, with it’s capital C and its undefined promise of a sweeter life. What happens in Cool is nebulous and unreal on the outside, but it’s rewards and riches, I’m sure, would swim drastically into life once you have arrived there. A psychic Brigadoon that straightens your back, makes your long hair less greasy, clears the galaxies of blackheads that sprawled across the map of your face.
My hand travels a million miles to get to the knife. It takes years. Civilisations rise, prosper and crumble in the time it takes for my arm to extend and my fingers to open and touch the mat roughness of the card backing.
And the knife fights back. The friction between the card and the metal hanger it is suspended from, means I have to wiggle it along the length of the hook. At the end of the hook, it turns up slightly towards the bulbous rubber tip at its end. Like a tired child, the knife sits at the bottom of this small slope and refuses to go any further, no matter how hard I tug.
Suddenly everything, I mean everything, rushes in. Space puckers around me, the shop’s lights get brighter, the shushing noise of people shopping becomes a clamour. Above it all the PA system announcing “Patricia to Aisle 3, please” screams above everything else. Are we in aisle three? Have I been discovered? Patricia flashes in my mind as having forearms that bulge with muscles, like Popeye’s. In fact even the two anchor tattoos are there. Her hands like steel grabbers grasping me firmly by the throat. I gag as I feel them clamp down on me. Quick, my heart yammers, quick.
A final yank and the knife lurches over the upturn and rubber stopper and comes free.
In my hand, the knife and its packaging feel huge: too big to fit in any of my pockets. Pulling up my jacket and T-shirt to stuff it down my jeans seems too ostentatious a gesture, especially with Patricia and her car-crusher hands coming my way. Pushing the knife down my top also feels like it would draw attention as well. I curse myself for having not planned this better. There’s no option but to hold the knife in my hand as discretely as possible and just walk out of the shop. So that’s what I do.
With every step, the exit shrinks further away from me. Shoppers crowd aisles and lurch in front of me, like so many obstacles. Where’s Jon? I can’t bear to turn my head to see if he’s following me. I imagine him behind me, making exaggerated pointing signs, leaping and waving, miming look look, thief. Inside my chest I feel a flush of hatred. I hate Jon so much that for a second it’s so hot that the fear shrinks back, my breathing stills, I feel calm. Knowing that I am going to effing kill that prick becomes a boost, a charge of calm, and I am out.
Wet September rain slaps me, tugs my coat. I ma outside and still calmly walking – fast yes, but calm – past the butchers, past the Lord Harding public house, past the travel agent with its Corfu package holidays and cut out palm trees, to the carpark, lower level two.
“Man, that was a rush” Jon is shouting. My breath is coming in huge gasps, as if I have run miles. “Let’s see it,” Jon says, and I hold out my hand, with the purloined knife sitting on my palm. The card backing is squashed and soggy where I have grasped it so tightly. We both stand and stare at this stolen article, as if it was some alien emblem, out of place and disturbing, like a sunbather in the Arctic.
It is five o’clock and autumnal dark is seeping through the cloth of the sky. Our corner of the car park is becoming a square of darkness. As a car swings past, its lights wash us and Jon and I turn our faces up in surprise. The white Os of our surprised faces are a guilty white. We run to the bus station.
For days I wait to feel different, for the miasma to part like a curtain so I can enter the realm of cool. But the shimmer never recedes. Jon tells people at school. He at least is impressed, but no one else is. Sarah Black and Tracy Bills jeer ‘thief, thief, thief’ at me in the corridor on Tuesday as I walk past them on the way to Maths. The words tear at me and panic dives into my chest causing a splash I thing the whole school will hear. I look around to see if any teachers have heard, but the corridor is a huddle of children. Even so the fear continues to do back stroke up and down my heart for the rest of the day. Now I’m also terrified that Thief might become a nickname.
I’ve kept the knife in the back of a draw in my bedroom. It’s still attached to its cardboard backing. I’m unsure what to do with it. I worry that if I remove the packaing my mum might discover it in the bin. I can’t face that confrontation – why do you need a pairing knife? Me: wordless and shifting from foot to foot under her concerned gaze. It sits there like the key to a lock that has been lost. Somehow this cheap kitchen utensil grants me access to a place I desperately want to be but don’t understand. Sometimes I take it out of its hiding place and just stare at it. If it looks back at all, it’s to accuse me of some stupidity. It goads me, reminding me that I own something sacred and precious but am too callow, too ignorant, to know how to use it.
Jon telephones the next Saturday and the Saturday after asking if I want to catch the bus into town to go shopping. He adds an emphasis to the word shopping. I say no; make my excuses.
As a child, he’d always been told dolls were for girls. Which was why the collector made him uneasy, cradling the porcelain doll lovingly between his grey fingers.
Buster sensed the doll’s huge cash value and his greed had made him hunt out the collector.
He was beginning to regret having it valued in this squalid little shop. But it was called ‘life of dolls’.
Small, wet tuts of appreciation escaped the old man’s mouth..
“I love dolls. Especially when they bring me something so fun to play with,” the old man says. Slipping past Buster to lock the door.