Tigerlady – another scary story this week.

This is one of my earliest short stories, another winner in the Yellow Advertiser competition.

TIGERLADY

Mr Amberley’s wife chose to turn herself into a tiger on the very day he was expecting three of his young lady students to come down for the week-end.

As he raced round the garden, with the transformed Mrs Amberley hot on his heels, he reflected that it was just the day she would choose. She had probably been planning it for weeks. He dodged wildly to avoid his cherished rose bed and almost tripped over a concrete gnome. Mrs Amberley’s little snarl of excitement gave him fresh impetus and he ran round the lawn again, cursing all jealous women. His wife was gaining on him as the initial unfamiliarity of four legs began to wear off. He swerved desperately and caught at an overhanging branch from the solitary apple tree, wondering if Maud had been nagging at him to trim it for so long because it might offer a refuge in just such a situation. He swung himself up to safety with an agility that was as surprising as it was creditable in a man of his age and weight, and then, clinging to the trunk, he reviewed his situation.

There was no doubt that, aesthetically speaking, the change was for the better. The tiger, its superb muscles rippling under its heavy, glossy fur, was a magnificent sight as it paced about, lashing its (or, he supposed he should say “her”), tail, and, he was sorry to see, crushing the herbaceous border under great bunched paws. Maud had been a thin, yellowish woman, dried up by all those years in India. The climate there did women like her no good at all, though it had seemed to do no harm to beautiful glossy-haired apsaras who had thronged his classes in English Literature at a quite distinguished university in his glory days.

Of course, it was a surprisingly good transformation. Maud had been dabbling in witchcraft for years, but she had never managed anything quite so spectacular before. There had been the odd Visitation, more irritating than alarming, once you realised where the black beetles, or the luminous tarantulas, or whatever, were coming from. There had been an ill-conceived attempt to turn him into a dog, after the misunderstanding about his mending Mrs Williams’ fuse at two o’clock in the morning (out of the goodness of his heart, because her husband was away). This attempt had merely caused him some minor inconveniences whenever he saw a cat, but his wife had never, so far as he knew, succeeded in transforming herself before. Of course, she could have been practising. He was away for most of the week, teaching in London, and Maud would have had ample privacy and leisure to work on her shape changing.

He wondered what had made her choose a tiger. It was not an animal that he would normally have associated with her. She was much more the rodent type. Perhaps it was the influence of the correspondence course in Oriental magic, offered by that disreputable guru, which she had begun while they were in India. A tiger was, after all, an essentially Indian animal … he had never approved of that course and how right he had turned out to be.

He glanced round, carefully, still fervently embracing his tree-trunk, to see what Maud was doing. He had a sudden horrific notion that tigers could climb trees. Or was that leopards? He dug his nails into the rough bark, and hoped it was leopards. Maud was showing no disposition to climb as yet, but she was peering up at him with a very nasty gleam in her eyes. He looked down into those yellow orbs, set slightly slantwise in the square, fringed face and decided to try to reason with his wife. Setting aside as irrelevant all questions of aesthetics and magical skills, he could foresee nothing but inconvenience if she insisted on retaining her present shape. Reasoning with Maud was not a process that had ever done him any good in the past, but this was a unique situation.

“Maud,” he began, trying to sound firm but kind, “Maud, I know that we have our differences … my behaviour has not always been,” he coughed uneasily, “not always been what you may have thought you had a right to expect …”

Maud stopped pacing regally back and forth and came close to the foot of the tree. In spite of himself he drew back a little and the voice he used for his next attempt came out as a sort of thin squeak.

“Maud, please be reasonable …” he broke off as Maud reared up on her hind legs and reached upwards with her front paws. He was just in time to draw his feet up towards his chin and he was forced to continue his one- sided conversation in an uncomfortable fetal position, perched on his branch like a roosting pelican (or, indeed, like any large and clumsy bird not adapted by merciful nature for the purposes of roosting.) He wished, that, over the years, he had made some attempt to share his wife’s interests, He might have been able to turn himself into a bird, and fly away, or, he thought, vengefully, recalling childhood picture books featuring tiger hunts, an elephant, and either escaped from Maud, or dealt with her according to her deserts.

But he had made no attempt to study magic, indeed he had been contemptuous of the whole thing, and now he was paying for it. Maud recovered herself gracefully, and lay down on the grass, gazing up at him, uncomfortably like a cat watching a mouse-hole. He decided to make another attempt at reasoning.

“Maud, my dear Maud, I beg you …”

Maud flexed one of her paws, so that the huge claws flashed in and out. The implied threat was plain. Mr Amberley decided to play what must be his trump card sooner than he had intended. His position was becoming more and more insecure with every passing moment.

“Maud,” he began with an attempt at sternness, “supposing the neighbours were to see you in this – this – condition?”

Maud opened her jaws and displayed her magnificent fangs in a tremendous yawn that indicated her contempt for the opinion of the neighbours more clearly than any words.

Mr Amberley did not want to call for help. He was not on the best of terms with his neighbours – that is the male element of his neighbours – who might normally be expected to intervene in this sort of situation.

However, he was beginning to get cramp in his right calf, and he dared not move to ease it. Besides his three young ladies were due in less than an hour and he could not bear them to find him treed by Maud. He began, reluctantly, to call in an uncertain and embarrassed way.

“Help! Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Help!”

The neighbours arrived on the scene quite quickly and left even more rapidly, exhorting Mr Amberley to “Hang on, and try not to excite it,” as they fled. He was relieved to know that they could see the tiger as well as he could. It would have been like Maud to make the thing an illusion visible to no one except himself, like the night she sent that Visitation of huge, hairy pink spiders to the bedroom of Norah, the red-haired barmaid of The Bird in the Bush, a Visitation which had caused him intense embarrassment at the time, and left him with a reputation for dipsomania with Norah, at least, that no amount of lemonade shandies could ever wash away. Nevertheless, irritation mingled with his relief. He felt they could have done something more for him, perhaps distracted Maud’s attention, say, while he climbed down and ran for cover. He only hoped they were going to call the police, or the fire-brigade, or whoever one did call in this particular emergency.

Meanwhile he concentrated on hanging on. He did not think that anything he could do was likely to excite Maud. Not after all these years.

He looked down at her. The ruff on the back of her neck was lifting and rumbling growl was beginning at the back of her throat. It was clear that she was starting to lose her temper. She had probably not counted on the intervention of the neighbours. She had probably meant to get him in the sitting room and she might have done so if something hadn’t made him glance up from his morning paper to see the Change taking place before his eyes.

A light sweat began to gather on Mr Amberley’s upper lip. He hoped help would not be too long in coming. Maud was bad enough when she lost her temper in her own shape, the devil only knew to what lengths she would go in her present form. Fascinated, he watched the shoulder muscles he had admired earlier bunching together as she gathered herself for a spring … but then he heard a curious soft thud, and saw his wife keel over slowly, a tranquiliser dart projecting from her left hind quarter. In relief and shock, he fainted.

The body of the unconscious tiger broke his fall.

He recovered his senses to find himself on his own chaise longue, being sprinkled with water by a morose man in a safari costume.

“Sorry about that, mate,” his rescuer said, “if I’ve told his lordship once, I’ve told him a thousand times, they’re dangerous. It had to happen sometime and I suppose we should be thankful that it turned out all right … it is all right, I take it? You’ve not missed anyone have you? No small babies, or dogs gone astray?”

“His lordship?” Mr Amberley repeated wildly.

“I’m from the Beverley Safari Park, sir. Your neighbours phoned us as soon as they saw the beast. There’s nothing to worry about, it’s safe in the truck, soon be on its way back to the Park. If his lordship takes my advice, he’ll shoot it before it starts teaching the others the way out. Cunning devils they are! Give me a lion, any day, they’ll look you in the eye and you know where you are, but tigers … yech!”

“Like women,” suggested Mr Amberley, wondering if Maud would, like the werewolf of Paris, resume human shape after she was shot, or even if his lordship should be warned to use a silver bullet.

“That’s right, sir. That’s very right. Like women. If you’ll give me your number his lordship will be getting in touch, offering you compensation for your fright, you know, hush-money. Don’t take a penny under a thousand. Good day, sir.”

Mr Amberley took a stiff whiskey to steady his nerves, then he went up to his wife’s bedroom, a place he had not entered for ten years, and smashed open her writing-desk. His suspicions were confirmed. There was the last lesson of Oriental Magic, and it did include instructions on how to turn oneself into a Bengal tiger.

His first peevish thought was to tear them up, but he knew Maud would have memorised them, as part of the ritual. Instead he read them carefully. He was disturbed to see that the transformation could be expected to last only for two hours at a time. There was risk that Maud might change back whilst still in the truck, and so escape being shot by Lord Beverley after all. Still he must look on the bright side, he decided, and went downstairs to prepare for the imminent arrival of Prunella, Melicent, and Amanda Jane.

Mr Amberley liked to give certain of his favoured students the opportunity of a weekend in suburbia now and then. He had an easy, familiar manner with his young ladies, familiarity that, under Maud’s eye, had never extended beyond fatherly pats and pinches, but now ..

He laid his plans as artfully as the time allowed. Two of the young ladies could share the room originally intended for all three, and the other … he thought carefully and finally decided on Amanda Jane, a plump blonde with a look of experience that belied her years … could take over the bedroom so providentially vacated by Maud.

He was raking the pugmarks out of the herbaceous border when the girls arrived.
The day went swimmingly. Amanda Jane professed herself delighted with the new arrangements and demurely hoped that Mrs Amberley would enjoy her holiday. Mr Amberley assured her fervently that she had needed a rest for a long time, and now, he hoped, she would certainly get it.

They worked through the afternoon, raided the freezer for dinner, then sat gossiping and drinking in a way that Maud would have thoroughly disapproved of until after midnight. There was no word from Beverley Safari Park. Mr Amberley was breathing quite easily as he mounted the stairs to bed. He lingered on the landing.

Prunella and Melicent had shut their bedroom door, but Amanda Jane had left hers half open … could it be an invitation? … as he advanced hopefully towards her room he heard her give a little coo of surprise and pleasure.

“Oh,” he heard her exclaim, “what a lovely tiger skin rug.”

And the whole sequence of events rose before him: Maud, changing back in the truck, explaining herself somehow, or simply escaping, making her way home, changing again, lurking in ambush …
He shouted, he ran forward, but he was too late.

There was a roar, a crash and a frightened cry from the bedroom. Then the unmistakeable sound of chewing.

For the second time that day, Mr Amberley fainted.

Beverley Safari Park paid Amanda Jane’s parents an undisclosed sum in compensation, and sacked Mr Amberley’s saviour for dereliction of duties, which included being caught transporting a woman in his truck for immoral purposes (the adept had, of course, to be naked for the transformation and Maud’s flight from the truck had been observed by an entire coach party of convent school children, and their attendant nuns), losing a tiger, and gross incompetence in failing to keep count of the tigers he did have.

He has taken up chicken farming.

Mr Amberley told his story to the doctor, who diagnosed a nervous breakdown and sent him away for a long rest in a private nursing home whre he spends much of his time searching the papers for reports of the creature which has become known as the “Surrey Tiger.” He has made several attempts to persuade the psychiatrist in charge of his case that the Surrey Tiger is really his wife, Maud, at it again … but so far that gentleman has remained unconvinced.

Maud, left alone, has blossomed. She acquired a taste for fresh meat and exercise on that eventful day, which she finds herself well able to satisfy. Mrs Williams was her last victim, and Norah, the red-haired barmaid at The Bird in the Bush often has the uneasy feeling that she is being stalked through the darkness as she walks home after closing time by something that walks sometimes upon two, but more often upon four soft feet.

Yellow Advertiser Dec 28 1984

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