Looking out my living room window I see a tiger.
I’m sitting with my feet up, reading a magazine, drinking the world’s most divine white hot chocolate, and there she is. I put the mug down slowly. Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? But I’m pretty sure I am.
She’s beautiful. You don’t mistake that. Her coat is bright orange, striped in deep black, and she’s all muscles, with gleaming eyes, liquid grace. On a grey day like this, with the clouds glowering low: she does look like a bonfire, out there, batting the see-saw with one great, powerful paw.
I call out to my husband: “I’ve got to go out for a bit.”
From the workshop, over the hum of a buzz-saw: “Where are you going?”
“Got to get some groceries.”
“Can you pick me up some chicken crackers?”
“Sure. Back soon.”
She’s moved away from the playground by the time I get outside, and I’ve lost sight of her. She’s exquisitely cunning: she hasn’t left any pawprints, hasn’t left any track of any kind. Hasn’t even disturbed the undergrowth. I more or less have to guess at what route she’s going to have taken. And naturally, it’s through the thickest part of the little wood, right where there’s going to be the most thorns, the most nettles, big bobbing thistles with purple heads bigger than my fist. I try to guess her name: “Lentil. Lentil. It’s all right. I’m your friend.”
Probably should have grabbed tonight’s roast from the fridge.
I can hear some movement in a thicket up ahead. Paper-like rustling. And when I pursue it there, there’s just a couple of kids playing under the trees. They have toy soldiers and they’re wrapped up warm against the cold. One has a black and orange scarf on, the other has a tiger’s head hat. She’s sitting with her legs crossed, in a pretty white dress, arranging the soldiers ready to assault an oak tree.
Jenny Lord’s two girls, I think.
“Hi, Mrs Tutton.”
“Hey girls, you be careful out here, there’s a big cat lurking around.”
The oldest – she’s Wanda, or is it Wendy? – ignites in a wild grin. “Ooh, can I find her? Can we pet her? Are you going to trap her?”
“I’m going to have a chat with her.”
“I want to adopt her.”
“She’ll be too big for that.” And what’s your mother going to say when she finds out you two want another cat? How many cats in that family? Five? Or is it six? The last thing they need is a tiger to have to feed.
“I like your dress, Mrs Tutton.”
I’m wearing bright red. A few sparkly bits. I really don’t give proper thought to how to dress when I’m out hunting. This couldn’t be any less subtle. I’m an idiot sometimes. “Thanks, Wanda. But I really have go.” I leave them planning their military expedition and hurry off into the trees again.
I come out of the woods at the path into Lydia Warren’s place. I love her place. It’s an old-world cottage, with a tiled roof almost obscured in lichens. The chimney hasn’t worked in years, and it blooms with grass and wildflowers. The garden is a blast of colour too, its flowers bloom all year round, carefully tended to, sung to, loved like children. Her garden path is studded with broken crockery, all kinds, pressed into the cement, royal Dalton rubbing shoulders with Willow Pattern; plates with cups, the handle of gravy boat sticking out into the air; a tiny figurine of an angel set neatly beside the curve of an egg-cup.
Birds line the windows, chirping.
I knock on the door.
Lydia’s not home, but her boarder is. She speaks next to no English, but she’s sweet and polite, she welcomes me in, offers me coffee – I shake my head, requesting hot chocolate – and invites me to take a seat. There’s biscuits, she manages to convey with gestures, and she hurries off to get some for me.
Lydia’s granddaughter, Emmalyn, sits in a patch of sun by the window. She has a book open in her lap. Lydia’s cats are positioned all around her, sharing the sun, drinking it up. A white and a tabby, a couple of gingers, a grey, a tortoise-shell. It seems like everybody in this town has a thing for cats.
I creep over to Emmalyn and sit down beside her, looking over her shoulder. “What are you reading, honey?”
“Library book,” she says, half listening.
Open on her lap is the picture of a tiger. Massive, beautiful beast. It seems a shame… But she could be dangerous. Not really meaning to be, just being herself, being a tiger. Not even knowing she’s doing it. So. “Close the book for a bit, hey Emmalyn? Why don’t you come over to the couch and talk to me for a while?”
“Okay, Mrs Tutton.”
We sit down on either end, neither one of us thinking twice about putting our feet on the puffy cushions. “Tell me how you’re going at school, honey?”
“School’s good. I like it. There’s this one girl who makes fun of me though. She thinks I’m a duck or something. She keeps doing this winged waddling impression when she sees me.”
“Now you know she’s just a child, right?”
“She doesn’t really mean any harm.”
“She’s just being stupid.”
“Yes, exactly. So you don’t go… doing anything to her, now.”
Emmalyn looks at me brightly. She’s a great girl. She says, “Oh, Mrs Tutton. No, nothing like that.”
It’s about then that her grandma comes home lugging a jumbo-sized tin of cat food.
While Emmalyn plays outside we sit and drink hot chocolates and coffees, we eat the biscuits Lydia’s boarder has brought out for us.
“Poor girl,” she says, “she can’t seem to follow the language. Well, when you think of how far she’s come. It’s hardly a wonder.”
“She wants to be careful, cutting her hair like that, shows her ears.”
Lydia smiles. “Yes, I’ll have a word or two.”
And our talk turns to Emmalyn.
Lydia’s smile fades. “I last heard from her mother two months ago. Doesn’t even mention the girl. I have to add a paragraph to her letters.”
“It’s heartbreaking. It is. It’s no wonder she acts out sometimes.”
“She’s getting older.”
“I know. It’s harder and harder to avoid the truth. It’s like Tamsin’s forgotten about her. Like she doesn’t exist. I don’t know whether to feel sadder or angrier or more ashamed. I raised her with all the love I had.”
“I know you did.”
“So why can’t she find that love to share with her own daughter?”
No answer to that one. We watch the clouds pink over as we drink and chat. We see how content Emmalyn seems, playing beneath a tree, building a little enclosure out of dirt, and watching insects as they crawl in and over it. No harm in that girl, an abundance of light. I can see it. Her grandma can. It’s just such a puzzle that her own mother can’t or won’t.
“Hope there wasn’t too much trouble,” Lydia says as I leave.
“No, no trouble.”
I enjoy the walk home. Dusk is always so lovely. Such a mix of rose and ink. I can see the children playing in the playground. They don’t care about the oncoming night – they know their world inside out, and we’re still small enough to offer some slim canopy of safety. There are times when I wonder if that can go on forever. But right now, there’s laughter punctuating the dark. And I know that from the lit windows running alongside the hill there are eyes keeping watch, smiling over them like guardian angels. There’s a moment too when I think I see a glint of golden eyes in the depth of the bushes.
I glance over, catching what might be those eyes. It’s late. It’s time for you to go home.
Picture Credit/Discredit: author's own work