She didn’t remember falling asleep and for a moment when she woke, she had no idea where she actually was. It took her several seconds to place herself, the sitting room, the sofa, her parents’ house and breathe.
She sat up, cold, shoulders stiff from her uncomfortable nap.
Her sleep had been unsettled, dreams of tigers, of hot feline breath, the stink of caged animals and something else, something just out of reach, a story of cats and, no she cannot hold onto it.
She was not even really sure what time it was and was surprised to see it was light, for a moment she wondered if she had slept all night, slept into the next day, but untangling herself from the sofa, she checked her watch.
2 hours, she had slept for 2 hours, reassured, she stood up, stretched and headed back into the kitchen, trying to remember how far she had got on the tasks there.
The kitchen was surprisingly comforting, stacks of sorted stuff, bleached surfaces, the comforting thrumm of the fridge.
Automatically, she switched on the kettle and saw that she had left the little newspaper clipping, the carefully cut headline, on the work surface.
She read it again…a woman killed while she cleaned a tigers’ cage.
It still meant nothing, but did explain the tiger that had padded through her dreams.
Without thinking too hard, without examining this action too carefully, she turned away, reached into her bag and pulled out her moleskin notebook, her writing notebook and placed the little clipping inside.
She thought back to a recent class, the tutor had been clear, anything could be used as inspiration, as a starting point for creativity. He stressed the need for a notebook, a place to keep triggers, single words, overheard conversations and after the class, she had spent a happy hour in Paperchase, bought a notebook very similar to his, a selection of good pens and a pack of tiny highlighters.
In truth, she hadn’t used the notebook much, but kept it in her bag, carefully placed it next to her bed at night, but inspiration had, so far, been thin on the ground.
The little clipping, newsprint faded to a soft yellow, was almost the same colour as the butter yellow pages of the notebook. She dug around, find a paper clip and attached the slip to the page.
The words, the mini narrative had connected with her. She made a decision, she would spend another hour finishing off the kitchen and then she would try and write the story of the woman killed by the tiger.
And here, in the empty house, with only the kettle for company, she found herself smiling with anticipation.
THE FIRST NARRATIVE…..WOMAN KILLED BY TIGER
At first, the smell appals her, its musk strength, so strong that she can almost taste it. The smell of captivity and anger and sheer animal power.
But, like everything in life, she gets used to it, stops even noticing it and is slightly surprised when the audience come looking at the animals before the show and take one step into the tent before covering their noses and mouths.
But, she never gets used to the tigers themselves, never bores of looking at them, following the stripes and markings on their coats, never stops marvelling at them.
Sometimes, when she has finished work, finished all the mopping and sweeping and tidying, she stands, brush or shovel or mop in hand and just watches them. Stares into their golden eyes. Tries to make a connection. Wants to understand their snarls and growls, but they are almost completely unknowable, unfathomable, mysterious.
She wonders if they even notice her as she goes about her unskilled, non performer, non circus folk, non person day.
She knows where she fits into the circus hierarchy, just above the women who staff the box office and far below everybody else.
Sometimes, in the off season, when she returns home and old school friends ask her what she does now, she is tempted to embroider, to make more of her life, but her bone deep honesty means that she shrugs, mumbles something about being a skivvy with a circus, but when she looks into their faces, childhood memories ignited, she knows they want more, more glitter, more sparkle, just more, so she tells them about the tigers and she knows that they are grateful, taken out of their own lives for just a few moments.
She always promises tickets when/if the circus comes to town and is secretly relieved that this town is too small, too off the beaten track to be any part of the constant looping journey of the show.
And when she returns to the circus,she watches the woman who works the cats,watches how she moves towards them, notices how they, even as they snarl, step back and move away.
Sometimes, late at night, in the cramped and chaotic caravan she shares with 2 dressers and the girl who does the sound, she practises the tiger moves in her head. Imagines standing in the cage, the tigers backing away, eyes locked on her, tails twisting and turning in barely repressed anger.
She never goes as far as imagining actually performing the act with them, she knows she is not a performer, has no hunger for an audience, no craving for applause, for attention, but, she longs to be closer to the cats, longs to know them.
She gets told off for taking too long in the cats tent, being too slow, letting other jobs drift.
She feels the eyes of the cat woman burn into her back when she has to pause, has to look at the tigers,has to let her eyes burn in the orange of their burnished pelts.
She becomes more careful, more discreet, chooses her times to watch them more carefully, waits for the dead times, early morning, the gap between afternoon and evening shows, but she cannot keep away.
She likes to watch them, even when they sleep.
Even then, their tails flick in private exasperation, unconscious annoyance. She is entranced.
Sometimes, when she is sure that nobody will come, she sits beside the bars, fights an overwhelming urge to put her hands into the cage, to allow the biggest tiger to sniff and lick her hands.
She can imagine the roughness of her tongue, can almost smell the cloying stench of rotting meat from her mouth, can hear the purr of pleasure.
Instead, she talks to her, in a voice different from the real cat woman, less guttural, gentler, even sing song.
The cat begins to respond to her, seems to recognise her, even moves to the front of the cage, when on silent summer mornings, just before the sun comes up, she creeps into the tent.
On those mornings, the cat watches her, ears always flickering, hearing sounds that she cannot,tip of tail twitching.
They stand, one inside the cage, one outside and regard each other, carefully, with measuring glances.
At night, she dreams of sleeping between the tigress’ paws, claws sheathed, their weight on her shoulders, cat breath on her shoulders, warm, comforting and she wakes, completely refreshed.
She sings songs to the cat, songs she makes up, songs of cleaning and sweeping and mopping, songs of her day, her life and the animal seems to enjoy them. Her eyes half close, she hunkers down on her haunches, leans towards the singer and the song.
And then one day,they tell her that she will not be needed any modem that times are difficult, that the circus needs to cut costs, that they do not need staff who cannot perform too.
They tell her that she will finish at the end of the week.
That night, she sits in a dark corner of the cat tent, listens to the end of the show, the familiar sounds of the crew putting the acts to bed, the departing feet of the audience and then, quietly, carefully she stands up and walks towards the cage.
The tigers are dozing, knowing there will be no food, no demands on them for many hours.
She stretches up, undoes the top bolt, bends and pulls at the door handle.
As she opens the door, the tigress wakes, is instantly and completely awake and coils onto her back legs,eyes wide open.
The woman turns her back to lock the cage and at that moment, the tigress springs, a blur of black and orange and gold and the woman falls back into her embrace.