Friday, 16 September 2011

Europe after the rain: re-reading The Tiger Who Came to Tea, by Judith Kerr

Q. What is it, what is the matter?
A. I cannot say for sure.
Q. Then what is it that makes you say such terrible things.
A. I do not know.
Q. What is it that has caused you to become so distracted?
A. I thought I caught sight of something just then, something just leaving the room.
Q. And you want to chase after it?
A. Yes, I want to pursue this.

Later, I will see for myself and close at hand the straight-ahead stare of the marketplace crowd. Our restless shuffling amongst the shelved aisles. We move in coils and threads, it is as if we are starving. We are not starving. We are frantic. There is something we are trying to catch hold of. It is like we have forgotten what it is. It hovers at the corner of our sight, as we turn our heads. A clear voice which we cannot hear. Is this it? No. This is not it but it is close. It is something like this. Well, what is it then? I am not sure, it is like this but it is not this. Another colour? Maybe. In a different size? Perhaps.

But all that is later. For now the westerly gales are pressing their heavy fabric in folds against the windows. There is a fleeting sun before breakfast and then the shaking out of hailstones. I pick up the book, The Tiger Who Came To Tea and I read it through. Some galvanic charge passes out of it. I am quickened. I must read it again. Shhhh, child. I must look closer. What is it in here. Now I find myself studying the pictures, the pictures with my straight ahead eyes. 

I see a quiet arrangement between the woman and the child sitting at the kitchen table. It is 1968. I cannot imagine such balance today. The noise and the flight from the noise and the drowning out of the noise with more of the same. There is no sitting down to afternoon tea. The hours pass so much more quickly. But in this scene the quiet woman sits at the table with the child. Her neck suggests she is resigned to a regular pattern in the day, or she is concentrating very closely on pouring the milk because she is not sure of the spout.

It is 1968. It’s about twenty years from the European Hunger. And about twenty years from the German hunger. Twenty years since denazification. Mummy had been there. Daddy had been there. Mummy and daddy survived. 

The tiger appears confidentially, smiling. It is a tiger suit. Is it daddy? Is the tiger bad daddy? 

Sheer Khan in Disney’s Jungle Book manages to reconcile within itself both the voice of colonial rule and the sleek form of orientalist motifs. The tiger is ferocious and luxuriant, relaxed and frenzied. Is the tiger daddy? The tiger is an unpredictable, unknowable power. It is of the order of the inscrutable authorities. The tiger is what happens to us. Is the tiger daddy? 

Put a tiger in your tank. Hungry? Fill her up. Put a little by for a rainy day, for after the rain. This is only twenty years on from the European famine. The tiger is the frantic hunger for something. Is the tiger daddy? The cartoon colours, they’re Grrrrrreat, fixed to untigered objects. Note how jungle camouflage cedes into leap-off-the-shelf eye-catcher. 

Is it daddy in the tiger suit?  What does the tiger want? The tiger is very hungry. It is dark in the street beyond the door. Could mummy say no to a tiger at the door? She had seemed pensive before it came, perhaps expectant. Now the tiger has arrived she is smiling admiringly. Is she putting on an act to please the tiger? He is unpredictable. The tiger wants the tea. Mummy looks at the tiger. Does she look at daddy, or does she look away from him?

I remember midweek meals. Three sausages on daddy’s plate and two on ours. On mummy’s and mine. Daddy eats so much and I am hungry. The tiger doesn’t take just one sandwich. He takes, ‘all the sandwiches on the plate.’ He eats all the buns, all the biscuits, all the cake. The tiger is very hungry. Mummy’s face is a little flushed. The tiger drinks all the milk and all the tea. I think this is not a tiger. I think this is a tiger suit. Is it daddy? Is daddy drunk? There is a picture of daddy shaking keys, he is red in the face and smiling like the tiger. Has he been drinking? The tiger is drinking, all the milk, all the orange juice, all daddy’s beer, and all the water in the tap. Then he says goodbye. The tiger is a hunger. But a hunger for what? Or a memory of hunger.

We are not hungry. My frantic eyes, along the shelves, down the aisles. Our panic at repletion. Picking up first this sliding face, and from my grasp slipping to another. Flailing around myself. Is the crowd gripped by fat panic? Does it want to shake this out from its cloak, like hail stones, which cling to it? To punish itself, to erupt in roars, to punish itself, to erupt roaring, drunken, smashing the crockery, emptying the cupboards onto the floor. Averting its eyes. It won’t happen again, I don’t know what made it happen. 

What do all the layers of fat cover? 

Mummy stands amongst the wreckage, she is very worried. The tiger has undone everything. Just like after the war. It is a mess in the kitchen and what will happen when daddy comes home again? 

Daddy comes home. He comes in through the door like the tiger. He is not wearing the tiger suit. Let’s start again. Let’s put it all behind us. That nasty tiger. It won’t happen again. This shall be the new beginning. We shall go to the cafe all together and start afresh like the tiger never happened. Daddy looks sad when mummy explains what happened. Is he sad because he behaved like a tiger, or is he sad because he thinks mummy is lying? Mummy averts her eyes. Sophie averts her eyes. In the cafe daddy stares at nothing. Is he resolving something in his mind? Is it his resolution that all this should not happen again, no more empty cupboards, ever again? But is that even within his power? Can he really provide? 

Or has it been mummy all along? Was mummy lying all along, to cover for the problems she cannot admit? Was that why there was no food? She cannot face going out? Or the money, has it already been spent? Daddy forgives her but does he let her talk about it? It is over for now, there is calm and agreement to start again. But resolutions don’t make a difference because what’s driving this is deep underneath. 

It’s a new morning. We must buy more food. It is only twenty years since the European hunger. We must fill our cupboards, stock up. We don’t know when the next war will begin, and it all happens again. It is a new beginning and we will put on a brave face but we cannot really forget. We can make resolutions but we can’t forget what has happened before. We feel that something will go wrong again and we will not be ready. We are fat because we want to be ready but we don’t know how. It is not in our power to provide, to make provision, to get ready. We will buy some tiger food. Will the tiger come back?

No. The tiger will not come back. Is that because daddy has gone away? Or has he made a promise? Or is it mummy who is brave, has she promised the tiger will not come again? The tiger was not a tiger really, was it? It may knock on the door but we shall not let it in. It was really a tiger suit. Somebody was in the tiger suit, was it mummy? Or was it daddy? Or was it something else? The tiger was in the tiger suit?

Q. What was it then, what was it that so concerned you?
A. I am not sure I can tell you, I feel reticent at talking of it.
Q. But what was it that you felt, disgust, sorrow, what?
A. I think it was just memory, memory over a long distance.
Q. What was it that you saw?
A. For one moment there I was right back in it. But there are no clear pictures.
Q. Isn’t that but a small matter?
A. Maybe. The freezing and the thawing. A frenetic oscillating. Freezing and thawing in the January sun.

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