Stripes by Julie Hayman

He’s drawn a tiger in crayon. White paper shows through the orange and black stripes. The eyes are slanted and green, malevolent as poison ivy. Broccoli trees surround the tiger, and a sky-blue river meanders from one side of the page to the other.
     He slaps it onto your lap, his signature wild as Dali’s. Throws himself down on the sofa, loose-limbed and soft, as tanned as you are from the long summer. ‘I want cake and orange juice, Grandmama.
     ‘Just a minute.’ You pick up the picture, study it. The tiger’s facial proportions are human. He’s captured a kind of sneering expression. Blood drips from the tip of a sharp tooth in a flamboyant scribble and scratch of red wax crayon.
     ‘I like this,’ you say. ‘It has life.’ Then you hesitate. Ask: ‘Do you remember the tiger at the safari park?’ 
     Last year. He was five, belted into the child’s seat in the back of your car. All windows safely shut, the car paused in the tiger enclosure, purring, hand-brake on. Nothing moved except the leaves on the trees but, all at once, a tiger condensed in the shadow of the bushes. It sauntered towards your car and swaggered past, imprisoned in black stripes, shoulders rippling fire along the flank, the amber-and-white head swaying heavily, so close that you longed to let down the window and stroke it. The boy stayed silent, still as death in his seat, neck bent, eyes to the floor – where had he learned that survival response?
     ‘It’s ok, darling, it can’t get you, we’re safe in here,’ you’d said, but he wouldn’t raise his head, wouldn’t move until the tiger had entirely gone. 
     ‘Do you remember it, sweetie?’
     He shakes his head, eyes empty of memory.

*

She likes playing near the river, under the trees that sway and rustle and shiver overhead. The river giggles with darting minnows and sleepy freckled trout and, once, in the deepest part, under the bridge, a grinning, leopard-spotted pike, its tail-fin a rudder. Midges flirt above the surface, and the water is so clear that she can see clumps of reeds waving long and green as witch’s hair on the bed. Farther on, past the bend, is the weir – she hears its roar. Mummy and Daddy say she mustn’t play by the river, it’s dangerous, but the words melt and drip as they reach her and she shakes them off like raindrops. ‘Kathy? Kathy? Where are you?’ Peter’s voice has that whiny note in it she doesn’t like, the note that comes just before he starts blubbing and runs home to tell on her. She crawls in backwards under the laurel bushes and peers through the shiny green tongues that lick the ground. The river goes guggle-guggle, slop-slop. A blackbird throws up an alarm call. A goldfinch signals yellow. A pigeon cries: She’s in the laurel! She’s in the laurel! Roast pigeon, she thinks. Goldfinch soup. Blackbirds baked in a pie. Here comes Peter.

*

You get migraines sometimes that come from nowhere, dark as thunderclouds, with flashing electricity that unzips your mind and scours it. When this happens, you close the blinds, lay on the bed, face the wall, wait for it to pass, as everything does. You’ve always liked thunderstorms, the percussive crashes, the pitchforks of lightning, the instant illumination of what was dark, except when they’re in your head.

*

The day is as hot as any in the tropics. That’s what Daddy says. One minute pouring, the next sweltering. He lived in India for ten years, so he knows. It’s typical late English sum-mer weather, Mummy says, turning her face away from him, her mouth sour. Mummy has lived in England all her life, so she knows. Things can be one thing and another, at the same time. A hot, wet day in India; a hot, wet day in England. It’s cooler by the river but even so her dress sticks to her thighs and her fringe to her forehead. Her underarms are sticky and her feet sweaty in the frilly socks and black patent T-bars. Mummy will slap her leg for getting them dirty and it will leave white stripes on her thighs. Where did you get them muddy? Mummy will ask. She will not answer, ‘The riverbank’, because then they will know she has been there, and tell her off again. She will say something else. She will say, ‘At the swings’ or else, ‘I don’t know.’ She wants to splash in the river this hot day. She watches it from beneath the laurel. The goldfinch has flown off. The blackbird is quiet. The pigeon sits high and plump in the beech tree. Crickets saw their violin legs and leap away. Peter is calling.

*

Your grandson has come to stay for the summer while his parents finalise their divorce, while his father moves his possessions out of the family house, while his mother rearranges things to her liking. While they decide how they will share him. He thinks it is because the house is being redecorated that he is here. The summer has been long and hot and sultry. This August day has been long and hot and sultry. ‘Will you take me swimming?’ he asks. You shake your head.

*

She is almost asleep on the spongy earth under the laurel when Peter finds her. ‘I’ve been calling you,’ he complains. ‘Where have you been? I want to play. Can we play?’ Peter’s shoes are muddy like hers. She knows that Mummy and Daddy will say it is her fault because she is three years older than Peter. He’s in school shoes and white socks with orange and black bands around the ankles. His knees are fat and there’s a scab on one of them. His shorts are khaki. She raises her head from the pillow of her forearm and looks up into his face, shadowed with the sun behind it. ‘How did you find me?’ she asks. He points to the footprints in the mud.

*

These are the facts. For a long time, you resisted having children. Your husband took precautions in his punctilious, civil servant’s way but, eventually, a daughter came along anyway. By that time, you were living in London where it was easy to procure an au pair. Your daughter was docile, good-natured, kind to animals and you couldn’t recognise her as your own. Your husband died a decade ago, quietly, of an unassuming, punctilious disease. You moved to the Surrey countryside and have stayed, hidden, alone, in this out-of-the-way house, Mrs Katherine Dixon, widow, ever since.

*

‘What shall we play, Kathy?’ Sunlight through the laurel leaves pattern her arms in stripy shadows. ‘We’ll play we’re in India,’ she says. Every evening, Daddy tells them another tale of India, of Ranis and Rajas, of battles and campaigns, of elephants and panthers, while her mother tuts and says he’s filling their heads with nonsense. Peter’s legs are scabby as a crocodile’s. ‘Come with me,’ she says. She crawls out from under the laurels and heads to the river bank. Peter waddles alongside, has trouble keeping up. ‘Carry me,’ he says, ‘Piggy-back.’ ‘No.’ A thunderstorm is coming, she can feel it in her head. Her feet squelch and slide on the mud. Peter slithers onto one knee. He sobs. She hauls him up by his arm – one whole side of his shorts is muddy. Mummy will shriek and Kathy will get in trouble. She will get the slap that leaves stripes on her legs. ‘Piggy-back,’ Peter says, exhausted, his fat cheeks pink. ‘Please.’ ‘No,’ she says. The riverbank is steep. Reeds cling to the slope down to the sliding water which has a sheen on it like Mummy’s silk moiré dress. The water looks oily, green and blue and silver and brown and grey, moving in swirls and eddies like a living thing, coiling like a serpent in one of Daddy’s stories. Cool, full of secrets. Peter leaps unexpectedly for her back, and misses. He stands, stumpy legs caked in mud, arms out to the side and mouth open in a howl. Mummy will hear and Kathy will be to blame, unless she shuts him up. ‘Shut up!’ she says, but he goes on howling. She shoves him backwards. He topples, arms flailing. He splashes and gulps like a fish, once, twice, just like bathtime play when she dunks him under the surface when Mummy’s back is turned. The slippery water swallows him. No bubbles rise though she watches for a while. Downstream, the weir laughs. Or perhaps that’s not right. Perhaps Peter leaps, unexpectedly, to get on her back. Taken by surprise, her legs buckle. He flips over and lands in the river, water chinking and chortling around him, over him, and Kathy reaches desperately for him and screams his name. She tries to get him, she reaches for him, she does, and that’s how her patent shoes get muddy. She sees the white striped socks on Peter’s plump legs upside-down in the middle of the river, borne fast away towards the snarling weir. She’ll tell Mummy that. An accident. An accident, not on purpose. She waits until she’s sure there’s no more to see, then hurries home, patent-leather T-bars slapping the ground one after the other after the other after the other as the thunder rumbles overhead. Mummy will shriek.

*

The migraine comes on fast. Lightning begins to zing. You sit, the tiger picture in your hand, your vision clouding, and say to your grandson: ‘You don’t remember the tiger, do you?’ ‘No,’ he says. He sits beside you now, leaning an elbow on your lap. ‘I drew this pic-ture for you. Look - it’s eyes are like yours. Can I have cake and juice now?’ You stare at the picture and then knock him off your lap more harshly than you meant to. You rise and bring him cake, a drink. Once he has eaten, you sit him in front of the television and, pleading a headache, go to your bedroom, close the blinds on the afternoon’s glare, and lie in the shade on your bed. The weather is too hot, too humid for England. The first claps of thunder peal. Short, fat legs pad up the stairs. Your grandson cracks open the bedroom door, leans against the jamb. ‘Found you, Grandmama. You’re not very good at hiding. I’m hot. Can we go swimming?’ You reach for him and nod as light slashes through the gaps between the blinds, casting bars of shadow across your tawny skin.

About the Author

Julie Hayman’s short stories have appeared online, in magazines and on radio, and have received recognition in national competitions including the Bridport Prize, the Costa Short Story Award and The Times/Chicken House Fiction Writing for Children Award. She has worked as both a dog trainer and a university lecturer in creative writing in the south of England. Her areas of interest include polar writing and animal studies.

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