atty has a small roller charged up with orange paint. The rest of the can is sitting behind the electrified fence. So he reaches through, and carefully – oh so carefully – pulls it past the humming wire.
The button on his cuff picks up a fuzzy, whining sort of noise, as if it’s about to take one hell of an arc. He’s wearing a bizarre concoction of claw-proof materials – American football shoulder-pads, a catcher’s face-guard, a camouflage jacket stuffed with newspaper (Sunday editions, mostly, with all the rend-resistant supplements). More important, are the trainers so he can run fast. Really, really fast.
Now where the hell is it? That’s the most pressing question.
Away from the tarmac paths, and the warning signs – four foot across, with their dire prophecies and enthusiastic exclamation marks – he’s in Sumatra: a rocky, mountain scene with pine platforms, striped, long-leaved undergrowth, and the dark, concealing cascade of a waterfall. Truck tyres drift gently on steel wire, lazily – at some point – punctured and pulled into ovals.
That’s just a clawed-up stump, scored to its heart-wood.
The distant drone of an aeroplane…
Quiet. So quiet, in fact, he can hear his trainers creaking. Creak. Creak. Creak.
His heels are slipping because his socks are sweaty. Sweat seems to be gathering between his toes; toes that slide into interior slices of sodden foam with every surreptitious step. The only islands are his instep supports.
As he sneaks around the enclosure’s pool, he discovers a couple of huge, articulated beef bones draped over a boulder, not five yards away. Somewhat akimbo, they could be the legs of an unsuccessful tourist sitting back in a lounger. They look desiccated and horribly organic in the sun.
White cartilage is surprisingly shiny and white.
A fly or two circles lazily. A cricket chirps.
There’s a muffled, clothy bang back at the observation window. A small girl is making pig-noses on the glass, stretching her snout one way and then the next by pressing it against the glass. Her brother, a good two feet shorter, is making his own ice-creamy, snotty smear at her knee. Child flesh goes squeak.
This is exactly why you need to do this, he considers. Tigers – tricky critters, always with the pouncing and the rending and the clawing; always with the clawing. He gulps and his throat bobbles.
And there. There? Yes. A sloppy, ruggy, sprawled out tiger noozing in the noon-day sun. Big as a sofa with all the extra seats; its tail flicks out onto the concrete like a paper party hooter with a feather at the end, black and fluffy, though the rest of it is napping in the grass – tiger bulk crushing those stems, tiger teeth exposed in a gnawing position on a meaty bone. One corner of its lip is hitched on an immense, scythe-like fang it could drive into a railway sleeper.
It’s as if it heroically expired eating its midday meal. But the tail goes flick, flick, flick.
No sign of a cracky, amber eye. Could it be true that they don’t sleep with one eye open? It’s… it’s true. For now.
Creak. Creak. Creak. Frisk. Frisk.
Matty is standing within arm-yanking reach of meaty, rendy death.
There is a musky, animal reek that stinks like a discarded jock strap. The beast – for it is, at least a beast and then some – is likely to be dreaming about that happy day when somebody with a paint roller got into its enclosure. It’s front paw, the muscles in its flank, twitch, as if running something soft and fleshy to ground.
Sweat blisters on Matty’s face.
There’s that first black stripe wandering like a river channel.
As he extends his hand, one drip of paint hanging like orange syrup, all he can smell is emulsion. Make sure you stay within the lines…
Contact. Soft, fluffy resistance, with muscley steak underneath.
Snooze goes the tiger. Squeeeeeeeeak goes the tiny roller wheel. Squerkkkk. Christ, shut up! But… Oh my God, it’s working. Look at that! It really is.
Tiger pelt is pretty fibrous and hairy, and the wheel is a bit slippy, but if he presses the foam cylinder in just so, and moves it slowly enough, it rolls out an even strip about two inches across; that forces paint in between the hairs and tufts.
His movements are so quiet, and yet so delicate, and that faint squuueak. Back in the can. Splunch. Doonk. Doonk. Clunk. More paint.
Zzzzzz goes the tiger.
Matty takes a stuttering breath. The first one in, what, the last ten minutes? Maybe longer. Sweat in his right eye.
Why da little cutie-pie-ting. The tiger seems to be enjoying it. Its flattening out some more in the sun, exposing more of its paunchy belly – the leafy shadows branching across it, spreading out – it snorts, shifts a little. Sque… … … … … … and settles gain. Squeeeeeeeeeeak. Splitch. Dink. Bloop. Reach…
Black stripes are vanishing one by one.
The tiger starts to purr. It’s like a rumbling volcano and a toiling truck, all in one, rising up through Matty’s sweaty trainers; the vibration hanging in his gut like a refrigerator coil.
So what’s that? Twenty five to thirty percent of its left flank now covered? That’s one orange tiger.
Now, another thought occurs. Car jack? To get the bugger to roll over? And face? Could’ve done with a smaller brush for the details: those tiny stripes over its eyebrows and cheeks; around its snout. And while there is some black and orange highlights in the whiskers, is that just the reflected tiger light, or do they count too? Painting whiskers? Now that really would be crazy…
Still, gotta ask.
An ice cream cone, sloppy like a wet turd, arcs through the air and lands on the tiger’s head.
There is not much to be said about this for a split second or two.
The bulge of ice-cream starts to run, which may be a good idea…
“Whot you doin’ mister?”
Matty’s beautiful line is suddenly crazy, polygraph-wobbly. He turns horrified. That snotty goddamn kid – the girl, not that other snotty goddamn kid – has petulant knuckles pressed to her hips. There is ice cream on her hand, her brothers head and most of the glass, but the rest of it – oh my god, the rest of it – has, in one long sloppy, pink, ice-creamy streak of doom, left a trail across the enclosure in drips and blops, and arrived, with horrible, child-like precision on the tiger’s napping nonce.
There is a moment of congratulatory horror: that child’s a demon genius. Freakish aim. Arrived like an Exocet.
Matty is running like an Ethiopian sprinter covered in BBQ sauce, while five hundred pounds of part-painted Sumatra bounds after him as if its tail has been flambéed in petrol.
The kids, behind armoured glass, scatter, screaming, creamy paws to their faces. Orange paint is slopping down Matty’s thigh; he’s already bleeding orange.
The change in the tiger is woefully incomplete. It’s still a gnarly, claw-wielding, steak-snapping, maniac. But at least the end will be easier to see… at the right, part-painted, sort of oblique, angle, that is.