I know the tiger is here. If I listen carefully, I can sometimes hear it panting on the other side of the door. Mr Samuels says I should mind myself and always be quiet so I don’t excite it. He says if the tiger gets too excited, it might knock down the door to see what’s on the other side, and then I would be in real trouble. He shows me pictures of tigers in a book, and reads out the text to me:
The tiger (Panthera tigris) is the largest member of the cat family (Felidae). Tigers have patterned fur that mimics shadows, so they are able (despite their large size) to be camouflaged when hunting prey.
I nod, and think hidden in plain sight.
Mr Samuels has been working with the tiger for years. He knows all about tigers. At least once a day, he says to me:
‘It’s my job to work with the tiger, and it’s your job to make the bracelets.’
But often, I feel sad and don’t want to make bracelets – I miss my sister. She left a long time ago. Sometimes I ask Mr Samuels how long ago she left. But he doesn’t answer me, just shushes me and gives me an energy bar. Mr Samuels makes the energy bars himself when he’s up in the lab with the tiger, and it’s funny – they make me feel relaxed, not full of energy. Sometimes if I’m really sad he gives me two, and then I’m allowed to lie down for the rest of the day and not work. I lie in my hammock and look at the patterns on the wallpaper and remember things. I feel fuzzy and floaty.
I remember when I was little and I wouldn’t eat my dinner and Mr Samuels put it on my head. Smushed it in so the mashed potato and gravy covered my curls. I locked myself in the bathroom that day and wouldn’t come out. Obstinate. That’s what he called me. It’s my earliest memory. I remember sitting looking at my reflection in the little mirror that was above the soap tray in the wall next to the bath. It’s when I first knew I was ugly. When I came out, red faced and crying, I remember that I asked to be allowed to grow my hair long like Jane’s. I wanted to be beautiful like her. My beautiful sister. But Mr Samuels said long hair isn’t for boys.
I remember how we used to be allowed upstairs. We had our own room to sleep in and to play in, and we could use the bathroom and the bath. I remember looking at the moon out of the bedroom window with Jane. It was up high in the sky, over the flats over the back. Everything was silver and grey and beautiful in the moonlight. Not drab and ugly like in the daytime. Now I am not permitted to go upstairs, and I sleep in a hammock in the living room and only use the outside toilet. The tiger came later. After Jane left. He lives in the upstairs now, and Mr Samuels works with him there.
Mr Samuels does very important work with the tiger. He is a scientist. He can’t tell me the details because it is very secret and important. But he does let me read his important biology textbooks and he explains the diagrams to me. Sometimes, I feel like I hate Mr Samuels. I hate him thinking he’s better than me. I hate him for how he hits me with the clothes hanger. It is a heavy wooden one, and it has a very big metal hook on it – oversized compared to the hooks on other clothes hangers. I think Mr Samuels tries his best to hurt me with it. He gets a very concentrated look on his face when he does it. He gets me on the soft parts with the hook – fleshy underside of my arms, my sides, the inside of my thigh.
I hate him when he has that look on his face. The look that means he’s trying to hurt me. But I don’t fight back, because he is very sensitive. If I fight back, I hurt his feelings. If I fight back, he knows I think badly of him, and then he cries. Mr Samuels has always been so misunderstood and I want him to feel safe with me. So I take the blows and I write I hate you with my tongue on the roof of my mouth.
I have to write I hate you to take myself away and stop myself fighting back. To stop myself from screaming at him. To stop myself from pushing him over. I try to keep my face impassive, but I must have a certain look on my face, when I’m secretly writing I hate you. Whatever this look is, it makes Mr Samuels shout at me for being supercilious and slap me on the face. It does not hurt when he slaps me when I’m secretly writing I hate you – I am far away from him then – so I stop. I like the slaps. They are not like the beating with the hanger. I like taking them and looking in his eyes when he slaps my face. It feels so good. I think of the crucifix that hangs in the living room. Of Jesus Christ our saviour, naked apart from his loincloth on the cross.
After he beats me with the hanger and I make him mad by secretly writing I hate you; and after he’s finished slapping my face, Mr Samuels is always sorry. He reads to me then. About tigers or a passage from the bible. I like the New Testament but Mr Samuels prefers the Old Testament. I imagine that Mr Samuels is God and I am Jesus. That he is full of wrath and I am the saviour. I turn the other cheek, like Jesus. Perhaps Jesus secretly hated God, the way I secretly hate Mr Samuels. Perhaps Jesus liked it when God made him get crucified and the Roman soldiers thrust their swords into this side.
Mr Samuels has had a very sad life. His mother died when he was very young, and he was sent to live with his aunt. She did not want him there and he was treated terribly by her he says. And when his uncle came home drunk, he would beat him. That’s why Mr Samuels gets mad and hits me. Because he got hit. That is why Mr Samuels keeps me safe in the house. Safe and wanted. Mr Samuels wants me. He always wanted children of his own. He cherishes me. I am lucky he wants me. He tells me that all the time.
We live together in the house. Me, Mr Samuels, and the tiger. I am only permitted to go into the living room and the kitchen and the yard. Beyond, in the other rooms, is where the tiger is, and where Mr Samuels does his important work. We have a worn stone step outside the back door. Mr Samuels has shown me how to sharpen knives on it. I do it and think how lots of people have done this before me. The house is very old. I like to keep all the knives sharp. Sharp like the tiger’s teeth. Like the tiger’s claws. We have a yard, too. Mr Samuels brings home bags of compost and I fill planters and grow things. Rosemary, thyme, apple mint. Apple mint is good with little potatoes and butter. I grow courgettes and tall sunflowers from seed. In halves of old drainpipe, I grow radish and lettuce. In the sunniest spot in the garden is where I put the tumbling cherry tomato plants.
The yard has a high wall around it, but we get the sun from early morning until afternoon. There are lots of cats that come into our yard – Mr Samuels says they must be attracted by the smell of the tiger. I stroke them, and shoo them away when they try and shit in my plant pots. I don’t know what Mr Samuels does with the tiger shit. I will ask him one day when he is in a talkative mood. There is one cat that visits that is my favourite. It has a collar and a name tag ‘Fluffy Fluff Tail’. It is a good name for a cat. If I had a cat with a fluffy tail I would call it Fluffy Fluff Tail too. I wonder about Fluffy Fluff Tail’s owner. Maybe it is a beautiful girl with long golden hair like I would like to have. Maybe she looks like Jane. Fluffy Fluff Tail is soft and grey with fluffy white socks. I stroke Fluffy Fluff Tail and she nuzzles me and purrs. We sit in the sun and doze when I’m on my break. I feed her scraps from my lunch and keep the cream from the top of the milk for her.
One day, there is something attached to her collar. It is a note, written in pink ink on a piece of lilac paper, tied on with a piece of thin ribbon.
Hello kind stranger, I am glad you like my cat, but please stop feeding her. She has got fat and now struggles to get through the cat flap. Thank you!
Next to this note, which is written in curly letters, there is a sticker of a smiley cartoon cat.
Kind stranger. Kind stranger. I was sure now the owner of Fluffy Fluff Tail was a beautiful girl with long golden hair. With sharp white teeth and little sharp nails. I would like her to dig those nails into me. I could be her pet, too. Me and Fluffy Fluff Tail.
I find a pen. I want to write back, to tell the girl I love her, that I love Fluffy Fluff Tail. That I want to be petted by her. My handwriting is bad. I have never written much. I peel the label off a can of beans, to practice what I will write on the back of the lilac piece of paper. I print my letters carefully, but they are wonky.
Hello I am sorry I fed Fluffy. She is just so cute and soft and I love how she purrs when I feed her. She is the nicest cat I’ve ever seen and —
This isn’t the right thing to say. I want the girl to like me. I want her to like me enough that she lets me climb over the wall and live with her instead of Mr Samuels. I sit and think hard about what to write. If I want the girl to like me, I need to make her feel sorry for me. My break is nearly over. I must hurry. Mr Samuels will be in soon to check I’m working. I put the beans label with my practice writing in my pocket. Smooth the lilac paper out, look once more at what she’s written, at the little sticker. I write:
I am sorry I fed Fluffy. I am so very lonely and she is a lovely cat and I wanted her to be my friend.
Then I draw a picture of a cat with a stick man next to it. I tie the piece of paper back onto Kitty’s collar, and shoo her away.
Back in the kitchen, I run the tap on the beans label until the ink washes away. I can’t risk Mr Samuels seeing what I wrote. He would feel betrayed. He would say I was ungrateful. He would beat me with the hanger. I don’t want him to get upset. I don’t want the hook of the hanger hitting my weak spots, my soft parts. So I get to work, working quickly at my bench, to make up for lost time – the time I spent writing my note. By the time Mr Samuels comes in to check on me, I am on track to exceed my quota of bracelets for the day. He is pleased and promises me two energy bars in the evening because I’ve been a good boy. I’m pleased he is happy with me, but I feel sick because I have done wrong. God will know. He sees everything.
That evening, as we watch TV and I try to eat my first energy bar, I am uneasy.
‘Come over and sit next to me whilst I tickle your arm,’ he says.
‘I don’t feel like it tonight.’ I look at the floor.
‘But I always tickle you. You love it.’
‘I’m just tired is all, I want to go to bed.’
Mr Samuels is silent. He looks straight ahead. I can see the muscle in his jaw clenching. I feel sick. I should never say no to tickles. He changes the channel. A programme about cars. I don’t like programmes like this. Mr Samuels normally lets me choose. We watch reruns of The Golden Girls and Star Trek and cartoons. Rose is my favourite Golden Girl. She has a good heart, and I can see how pretty she would have been when she was younger.
He turns the volume up loud. Then without looking at me, walks to the kitchen. I hear him opening the fridge. He comes back with a can of lager. A large blue and yellow can.
‘I would have got that for you Mr Samuels.’
He ignores me. But I know he heard because the muscle in his jaw clenches again.
‘Please Mr Samuels, let me give you a shoulder rub.’
Silence. He changes the channel. It is a channel where you can ring in and talk to women, and they take their clothes off and say bad words. I don’t like to look at it. He hardly ever puts this channel on. We sit in silence. My energy bar hasn’t relaxed me, it’s made me anxious. I sit quietly and count the flowers in the patterned carpet. I start at the top right corner, count across, then down one row, count across. I estimate how many flowers are covered by the furniture. Eventually it will be time for bed.
Tomorrow I’ll make Mr Samuels his favourite breakfast – American-style pancakes. The secret is to make the batter ahead of time, so the pancakes are really fluffy. I’ll make it tonight before bed. The woman on the TV is rolling around. I don’t like it. I go back to counting the flowers, start again from the top right-hand corner. Mr Samuels sniffs, lets out a burp. I guess his can is empty, so I go and get him a new one. Hold it out to him. He takes it roughly from me, eyes still fixed on the TV.
‘This is what real men like. Look at her, she’s a proper little slut.’
He has never talked like this before. He doesn’t say bad words. He gulps down his second beer. This time he throws the empty can on the floor. I go and pick it up, and his other empty.
‘Mr Samuels, I think I would like a tickle now. Shall we put Golden Girls on and sit on the sofa?’
Clench clench goes his jaw. He is thinking about something. There is going to be a tirade. He is getting more and more mad. Then, quietly, he says:
‘Shut – your – stupid – fucking – mouth.’ He spits out each word.
I take the empties to the kitchen, get him another beer. Normally he has one beer on a Friday and one on a Saturday. I hand him the third can. He snatches it this time. Then he gets up, turns off the TV. He takes his can with him, slams the living room door. Then I hear the front door open and close. I wait for the sound of the lock turning, but it doesn’t come. He’s gone out and the front door isn’t locked. I sit and look at the carpet. I count the flowers again, starting from the top right, and pick up my second energy bar. I should drag the sofa across the living room door because that isn’t locked either, and it’s not safe and the tiger could easily open the door. I should eat this energy bar, and feel fuzzy and relaxed and go to sleep. I can’t eat. I do not feel relaxed. Every single nerve in my body is twitching. I am on fire. My heart has swollen in my chest. I have a big gaping hole running through me where my heart should be. The edges of the hole are on fire.
I think of Fluffy Fluff Tail and her owner, picture them in a house like The Golden Girls. I would be happy there. I wouldn’t feel anxious. I wouldn’t have to let Mr Samuels tickle me. I stand very still by the living room door. I hold my breath. I listen for the tiger. Everything is quiet.
I turn the doorknob carefully, open the living room door smoothly. I peer into the shadowy hall, looking for the big cat hiding in plain sight waiting to pounce. For the tiger camouflaged by the shadows from the spindles on the stairs. It is too dangerous, I must go back into the living room. Then something takes over my body, propels it forward. Lights seem to flash around me. I’m at the front door, I fumble the catch. I am through, on the other side. I slam the front door behind me, expecting to hear a furious roar from the tiger, to feel his weight slam against it. But there is nothing. I can’t get my breath. I slump down, put my head between my knees. When I look up the moon is just rising above the houses opposite and everything is silver and grey.
It is twenty past four in the morning and it is winter and I’m standing in the dark on a corner just by the block of flats I live in, waiting for the minibus to pick me up. This is the first pick up stop, and there’s three of us that get on here: me, a man with a neck tattoo who never speaks, and a woman – Sandra – who has hardly got any hair. Sandra talks to me non-stop every morning. Sometimes, when she’s looking away, I look at her hair. I’m fascinated by it. She has thin strands of it, dyed a purplish-brown colour. It’s scraped back into a scrunchie on top of her head. She looks ill. She must have lost her hair from being ill. I feel I know everything about her, that she is my friend, but I don’t tell her about Mr Samuels or Jane or the tiger. Not even about Fluffy Fluff Tail. Sandra tells me how she’s getting her life back together. Three of her kids got taken off her. They’re in care. But now, she says, she’s got a good fella and she’s clean and she’s going to get the other kids back.
Sandra tells me how her mum’s boyfriend was a bad man. She tells me how she ran away as soon as she was old enough and lived rough. She tells me she’s still got the two wee ones, and she’s not going to lose them, and she’ll get the others back. Her new fella minds the kids while she goes to work. He can’t work because of his anxiety. Sandra says she knows that if she keeps working and keeps her fella and keeps off the gear, she’ll get her other kids back.
This morning, Sandra isn’t talking. She must be tired, I think. She keeps her head down while we wait for the bus. When the bus arrives, she hangs back, finishing her ciggy. I get on, and then I turn and look round at her, ready to say let’s sit at the back and have a good natter. But she’s got a black eye and a split lip, and I don’t know what to say. So I keep my stupid fucking mouth shut.
I got this job with the help of my work coach at the jobcentre. She is called Audrey and she has very black hair, set in stiff curls around her face. She smells like hair spray and she has a pointy nose. Audrey says to me, ‘The thing is, get a job and work hard, and you’ll see that everything is ok in the end, and hard work pays off.’ On her desk, there is a photo of her with her two dogs. They are white and curly and have reddish-brown marks around their eyes. I think they look very ugly and that they must yap and bite a lot. She sees me looking at the photo, and looks over the top of her glasses at me. All confidential like, she says, ‘Dogs are better than people.’ I am not a dog person, but I nod.
My job is an agency job in a food factory packaging ready meals. I wear big white rubber boots and a hair net and an apron. The meals come along the conveyor belt and we pack them into boxes. If we’re in the frozen section, we stand and catch the ones that have frozen funny and couldn’t go in a cardboard sleeve, push down the frozen lumps and put them on a trolley to go back to packaging. We do things like this, for eight hours a day. One day, one of the foremen says to me, ‘Job rotation, that’s job satisfaction.’ I don’t know what he means, and imagine spinning around the factory with ready meals in my hands. He has yellowed teeth with brown stains on them. He looks me up and down the way Mr Samuels did so I avoid him.
Us agency staff don’t get sick pay or holiday pay, and we don’t get double time on a Sunday like the proper staff. We pay eight pound fifty a day for the minibus to get to work – the factory is miles away – and they give us tokens to use in the canteen and deduct the cost from our pay. There are beans and sausages and food that didn’t pass quality control but is still fit for human consumption. After tax and travel and lunch tokens I get two hundred quid. After I’ve paid my rent and topped up the gas and the electric meter, I’ve got enough to eat and pay off my TV. But there is no nice cat to stroke, no yard to sit in, nowhere to grow herbs and vegetables. It turns out I didn’t get the right TV subscription package to watch The Golden Girls. Next year when it comes up for renewal, I’ll switch.
When we had the court case, I had to give evidence. I had a lawyer and they talked to me a lot beforehand, and wrote things down. Long speeches they gave me. It felt a bit like when Mr Samuels would be angry with me and lecturing me, but the lawyer never made me feel like I hated him. Every time he would talk to me, he would say, ‘Don’t be frightened, I’m on your side.’ The lawyer explained how I would have to stand up and say how my sister had gone away, and how I was scared of the tiger. It went on for weeks in the court, but I didn’t have to be there for all of it.
When I did have to be there, my lawyer was there too, and another one from Mr Samuels side. They both asked me lots of questions and I had to say how I made bracelets and how I had my quota. I had to tell about my energy bars and the tickles on the sofa. I didn’t tell on Mr Samuels for the beatings, how he got my soft parts with the hook on the hanger. I tried, too, to let Mr Samuels know I didn’t think badly of him, that I knew he was doing his best and that I knew he cherished me. But they didn’t give me a chance to say these things so I had to say them with my eyes.
A woman who was a psychiatrist gave a statement about me, but I asked not to be there when she was talking about me. It made me feel like a frog – like a line drawing of a frog from one of Mr Samuels important textbooks – waiting to be dissected. I had talked to her quite a lot, and she had sent me to see a counsellor for some cognitive behavioural therapy. The counsellor said she had given me the tools to control my intrusive thoughts but they didn’t work. The tools were about finding things to look at and touch and taste and smell. My tools were better. I imagined Fluffy Fluff Tails owner stroking me and biting me with her sharp white teeth.
At the very end of it all, the lawyer from Mr Samuels side said ‘my client pleads not guilty’ and ‘this boy is clearly a fantasist’. I thought hard about this, about being a fantasist, and decided it must be true because I didn’t recognise the version of events as told by the lawyers. There had been nothing told about my plants in the yard or Fluffy Fluff Tail or watching The Golden Girls. No one had wanted to know how I want long beautiful hair. How it was that now I wanted the tiger to lick my hair and to be the tiger’s pet. Then we went out and waited for a long time and then went back in again and the judge started to talk and he asked ‘what is your verdict’. All of it felt far away. I was further away than I had ever been from anything. I was floating above it all, holding onto a big helium balloon. I heard one of the jury saying ‘guilty your honour’ but it was hard to hear this far away voice.
The judge said lots of things, then. Things about Mr Samuels and how grave crimes had been committed. I didn’t follow most of what was said but I knew that Mr Samuels had told the truth. That Jane wasn’t dead. I knew she was somewhere safe, living in a nice house like Rose and Dorothy and Sophia and Blanche.
At the very end of all of it, the worst thing about it was never seeing Fluffy Fluff Tail again and never meeting his beautiful owner with the long golden hair and the sharp white teeth that she would have bitten me with and the sharp little nails that she would have dug into me. The worst thing about it was finding out that there was no tiger.