The Tiger Who Came To Tea has always been one of my favourite books. It might even have been my very first experience of magic realism. The world is a much better place for having had 95 years of Judith Kerr and I miss her incredible wit and imagination already. So, for the day that it is, here’s a wee piece of “Tiger” fan fiction I wrote a few years back. RIP Judith Kerr
The baby is finally sleeping. Sophie is pouring herself a coffee. When the doorbell rings she is contemplating a biscuit, and afterwards, a shower. Ideally she’d like a bath and the chance to dry her hair properly with a hairdryer. Since the baby such luxuries have been beyond her.
The doorbell is an old-fashioned one. It sounds like a small gong struck twice in quick succession. Ding Dong. Far too loud for a house containing such a little baby. Sophie keeps asking Graham to take the batteries out. Graham keeps saying, “good idea, Soph. I’ll do it at the weekend.” He hasn’t got round to silencing the doorbell yet, or to hanging the baby’s mobile. Graham is the sort of man who requires nagging.
The doorbell makes Sophie start. She spills a tiny slurp of coffee. It leaves a brown stain on her shirt. Later, she will notice it and wonder if it’s coffee or just more of the baby’s runny poo. She’ll sniff at the stain cautiously, like a bloodhound nosing for clues. These days she often finds herself sniffing at unpleasant things.
The doorbell rings a second time. Sophie glances at the baby monitor. She’s wearing it on her wrist today, attached with elastic bands. This way it shouldn’t end up in the fridge again, or swimming round the washing machine with the baby’s vests. The monitor grumbles and flashes urgent red, its tiny dots dancing like the blips on a hospital heart monitor. It falls momentarily silent. Upstairs, in the Nursery, the baby is deciding whether to howl or not.
Sophie sets her untouched mug on the counter and bolts for the door. She must intercept the ringer before he makes another assault on the bell. Today she’s running on caffeine and a half hour’s sleep. No part of her is working properly. But suddenly she is all go. She is meat and muscle; hard, pumping legs, scooting out the kitchen door, past the downstairs loo and along the hall, not even caring about her swollen breasts, lolloping about in their maternity bra, not even feeling the dull throb of them. Sophie will do whatever it takes to keep the baby sleeping for another hour.
The baby is not a bad baby. He is placid like his father and blessed with the same gummy grin. He is plump. He is adorable. He is like the infant Jesus on Christmas cards, napping in his crib.
The baby does not sleep.
This isn’t entirely true.
The baby occasionally sleeps.
For ten minutes right in the middle of Eastenders. For a single blessed -but rather inconvenient- hour between three and five. For hours and endless, awkward hours every time Graham’s mother comes round for a cuddle. The baby isn’t particularly keen on sleep. When he does drop off he holds himself like a hairline fracture. The whole house eggshells round him. Quietly. Gently. On sock-soled tip toes. The slightest noise makes him wake suddenly and scream. The full-lung shriek of the baby isn’t human, more like an industrial machine. Anything can set the baby off. A telephone. A light turning on next door. A dropped shoe. The doorbell ding donging on a Tuesday afternoon.
Ding dong sings the doorbell for a third time. Sophie hasn’t been quick enough. The monitor on her wrist hesitates a half beat then goes hysterical. She doesn’t need disco lights to tell her the baby’s up. She can hear the loud howl coming through the ceiling. But, she’s at the door now and it will only take a minute to sign for the parcel, or accept the flier, or say, in a somewhat strained voice, “I’m afraid we’re not interested in tarmacking the drive at the minute.” Just a few seconds. Then Sophie can go upstairs to the baby and try to coax the sleep back into him before he arrives at that purple-faced point of no return.
Sophie slips the monitor off and gives the door her full attention. The hall is darker than it should be. Something enormous is blocking the light. There is a heaviness in the air, like the moment just before thunder breaks. Sophie knows it’s him. For years she’s been waiting to come into the hall and find his orange shadow furring through the frosted glass. She’s rehearsed this moment a hundred thousand times. How she will be standing when he sees her. What she will be wearing: a purple dress, a blue sweater, the adult version of black buckle-up shoes. The way she’ll say, “It’s you. I always knew you’d come back,” and open the door wide enough to let him in.
Now, the Tiger is here, standing on her welcome mat, waking the baby with his persistent ringing. It is not as she’d planned. Not as she wants it to be.
She steps away from the door, back into the darkened hall. She needs a moment to remember herself. She doesn’t feel like Sophie any more. Since the baby all the confidence has dribbled out of her. She is like a slow puncture. She no longer believes in her own face. Sophie stares at herself in the mirror. She tries to smile and can’t manage it. Her mouth is a dropped stitch. She looks bewildered. Bewildered is her new look. She is just like Graham. Graham has always appeared bewildered and ineffectual and sort of vague. He is the kind of man who does not have a distinct outline. He begins every conversation with an apology. When they first got together other people said, “don’t be so hard on him, Soph. He’s really nice; so kind, so gentle. You could do a lot worse.” Sophie had thought kind and gentle might do for a season, just ‘til someone fiercer came along. But the baby came along instead. Now she is stuck with Graham and his vague kindness. It is beginning to rub off on her. There is no force in anything she’s done lately. She starts to say something and can’t remember where it’s going. She drops her sentences softly like a sweater you pick up and immediately think better of.
She is not the Sophie she once was. Bold mouthed. Wide-eyed. Ready to turn the house upside down, just for something to do. She sees herself as the Tiger will see her. The image grates. Here are the fines lines feathering her eyes and here the papery sag of her chin. The lank, ribbonless hair. Sophie is not a bold girl any more.
Perhaps the Tiger won’t even recognise her all grown up with breasts and hips, and a small child of her own. He will be disappointed. Sophie knows he will be disappointed. She wants to be different for him but doesn’t know how. Still, she tries with her hair. She pinches some colour back into her cheeks. She tucks her shirt into her jeans. The soft pillow of her belly avalanches out. Now, she looks like a fat rectangle: waistless and frumpy. Out come the shirttails in one frustrated tug; better to hide the flab than draw attention to it. There’s nothing more she can do without changing. She stands as tall as her heelless feet will permit and opens the door.
“It’s you,” she says, forcing her voice confident, “I always knew you’d come back.”
He is just as big as she’s remembered.
“It’s good to see you, Sophie,” he says.
He has a slight Yorkshire accent, soft and wooly on the longer vowels. All these years she’s had his voice wrong: louder, growlier, more like the actor, Liam Neeson. This has been the voice she’s always wanted in a man –confident, coiled, almost fierce- and has instead acquired Graham, with his nasally Birmingham accent and his need to be always apologizing. “Sorry” for not fixing the doorbell. “Sorry” for spilling the milk. “Sorry” for grabbing you with something approximating lust. So many apologies, when all Sophie’s ever wanted is a little wildness, a bit more fury.
“Would you like to come in for tea?” she asks.
The Tiger doesn’t answer. Maybe he’s gone off tea.
“Or something stronger?”
Sophie’s had a six pack of her daddy’s favourite beer hidden for years under the sink, right behind the Tiger food. Maybe she’d needed a reminder of him. Maybe she known he’d eventually come back.
“I don’t drink anymore,” the Tiger gruffs. Sophie catches a hot whiff of blood, rawing on his breath. She hasn’t smelt meat in months. Graham is a vegetarian. He won’t even allow pretend meat in the house. All the little hairs on her arms come suddenly up. There is a flutter in her chest like something live and frisky is trapped in there, trying to get out. She hopes the neighbours are staring, horrified, through their venetian blinds. She hopes they’re getting a good eyeful.
“I’ll come in for a second,” he says, “but I’m not stopping”
She stands aside to make room for him. This is only habit on her part. What Sophie really wants to do is plant her socked heels on the doormat and let the Tiger rush past her like a wild thing. She would enjoy this immensely. It is so very long since anyone bowled her over. Graham has never even tried.
The Tiger bows his enormous head, lifts his enormous paws and slinks inside. He’s not used to indoor spaces. He struggles to control his own bulk. Sophie catches the briefest crush of him as he passes. His fur is not fine like human hair but rather rough like the swept ends of a yard brush. It scratches. It leaves marks. His tail collides with the coatrack scattering anoraks and umbrellas. What a mess he is making. He is bringing his chaos into her house and Sophie is thrilled. The Tiger isn’t. He apologises, attempts to right the coatrack and accidentally snaps one of Graham’s ski poles clean in two.
“I’m so sorry,” he mumbles.
Sophie wants to say, “don’t apologise. You can destroy the whole house if you want too. I’ll help.”
Sophie is ready to ruin everything, but the Tiger seems a little reluctant.
Crouched beneath the hall lights, she notices he is older now. The fur around his mouth and eyes has lost its fiery redness. It is thinner and flecked with silvery threads like the hair of an elderly man. She can see the cage of his ribs lining through his loose flesh. His breath rattles. The Tiger holds his head like it is a drag on his shoulders. He will not look her in the eye. Even when she says, “what’s the matter Tiger? Come into the living room and have some beer. It’ll be just like old times.”
He isn’t stopping. He’s only come to say sorry.
“Sorry for what?” asks Sophie. She hates how the word sits on his enormous lips. It sounds meek. It sounds shriveled. He might as well be sporting a bow tie or some other humiliation.
“I’m sorry for coming into your house before,” he says, “breaking stuff and eating all your food. I was wild back then. I was so selfish.”
Sophie looks long and hard at the Tiger. She thinks carefully about what she will say next. She has been practicing, for years, inside her head.
“I liked it,” she says, “It was exciting.”
“It was wrong. It wasn’t polite.”
Above their heads, the baby makes a final attempt to be heard. He opens his lungs and shrieks like a fire alarm.
“What’s that?” the Tiger asks.
“It’s the baby,” says Sophie.
“You have a little one of your own now?”
“A boy. He’s four months old.”
“Oh, Sophie,” says the Tiger, “I’m so pleased to see everything’s turned out well for you.”
Sophie could easily shoot the Tiger. Sophie could weep and weep for days. It’s not as if she wanted him to eat the baby. Or destroy the house. Or tear Graham into bloody pieces. She only needed to know him capable of it. The Tiger is no longer capable of any fierce action. He is soft and placid. He is vaguely kind. Sophie wonders why she has waited all this time for a Tiger to come. Surely she could have been bold without him. She could have taught herself how to roar.
“I’ll let you get back to the baby,” the Tiger says. “It was nice to see you again, Sophie. Will you pass my apologies on to your mother? Tell her I’ve changed.”
Sophie nods slowly and opens the door. She can’t bear to look at the Tiger, so greatly reduced.
“I’m glad you came,” she says, “not today. The first time. The time you destroyed everything.”
The Tiger bows his enormous head, lifts his enormous paws and backs slowly out. Sophie closes the door and listens to him crunching up the gravel path. She feels very angry. She wants to break many individual items but settles for the second ski pole. It will not snap in her hands because she isn’t as strong as the Tiger. The fury is all stuck inside her like a hiccough that won’t come up. She lets the baby scream for ten more minutes while she finishes her coffee. It is almost cold. It isn’t even refreshing.
Then, she lifts the baby from his cot and bundles him into his pram. She pushes him howling, down the street, to the café on the corner. She orders chips, and, with her chips, four fat sausages which she eats slathered in red sauce. Later, when Graham returns from work, she doesn’t mention the Tiger or the broken ski pole. But, she does get right up into his face and say, “I had meat for lunch, Graham; four whole sausages AND they were delicious.” She does this just to prove that she is still the same bold Sophie, still ferocious. Still capable of destroying things.