I've been playing with a few ideas for shorter stories after working with the fantastic Nana Li. It's a real challenge; I've realised that I tend to treat short stories as if they are part of a larger work, assuming knowledge on behalf of the reader that they perhaps don't have.
This is a longer story, twice the length it needs to be. I will, perhaps, cut it down at some point. For now I think I'd rather look at other stories and see if I can make full, concise stories below a thousand words. Something there for 100 themes challenges!
UPDATE! This is now a podcast episode. Enjoy!
The White Tiger
My grandfather’s voice floated up into the loft. “James, you find anything up there yet?”
I waved my hand in front of my face to clear some of the dust floating in the air. There wasn’t much space to start with; cardboard boxes were stacked everywhere, leaving only a thin corridor. At least there was light; a single bulb hanging down, flickering but enough to read by.
“There’s… let’s see. This one says ‘magazines’,” I called back. The handwriting on the labels was old-fashioned, and I squinted closer. “I’ve got another that says ‘baby toys’… ‘toy cars’-“
“Ah, that one’s your inheritance,” he called back with a chuckle. “A few Dinky Toy cars in there that are worth a bit, or will be one day soon.”
I wrinkled my nose at the dirt-covered cars, their painted bodies chipped and dented, and moved on.
The next label was yellowed and I had to smooth it down to read it. “Newspapers – is this the one, grampa?”
“Aye, that it is; bring it down, then, let’s have a look!”
It was easier said than done to pull the heavy box down and maneuver it into the kitchen but the smile on grampa’s face was worth it. His stick tapped a quick rhythm on the bare wooden floor as I struggled over to the kitchen table and set it down. The smell of the fish and chips we’d had for lunch was still strong, vinegary and delicious.
“This is what I wanted you to see, lad,” he said. “I kept everything, y’know. Right back as far as me and Betty’s wedding announcement, and a bit before. Back then, it was big news.” He rested his stick on the table and lifted the first newspaper out. It was large, maybe twice the size of anything dad bought; the pages were yellowed and soft at the edges, as though they were worn. Sure enough, there towards the bottom of the page was the announcement. “John Farrin today celebrates his marriage to Betty Smith.” I checked the date. 1949.
“Ah, she was a beauty that day. And every day,” he said, and wheezed out a little laugh that quickly turned into a coughing fit. I got him a glass of water, pretending not to notice him drying his eyes. Gran’s funeral was still fresh in both our memories.
I forced a smile. “So gran was your assistant in your magic show?”
“Later on, aye,” Grampa replied. “But before that she was an outstanding athlete. She trained for the 1948 Olympics, right here in London, but she was injured just a few weeks before. We got together and I convinced her to come with me.” His wrinkled face creased into a smile and his little glasses shone in the light. “She was dynamite for my show. We played to packed houses from Aberdeen to Portsmouth and everywhere in between. One minute she’d be doing something ordinary like catching the scarves I was magicking out of thin air, the next she’d appear out of a tiny box, or from behind a pane of glass. She kept the crowd occupied between tricks, too, when I needed to set something up or change my jacket.” He waved at the box. “Take a look, young ‘un.”
It was hard to imagine grampa on stage as ‘Miraclo, the magnificent’, but as I leafed through the articles the story began to weave itself. Here was a very young man and his glamorous assistant, there they were older but in a much larger theatre. Here he was pulling a dove out from under a silk handkerchief; there, making rings magically lock together.
“Eventually of course, the dream came to an end. We settled down, had a child – your dad – and I got a real job. Postman wasn’t highly paid, but I wasn’t qualified for much else, and it paid the bills.” He shook his head sadly. “We sold the tricks and did alright, but I think that’s the thing I regret most.”
I looked over at the frail old man, not sure how to respond, and then the moment passed. He straightened up a little and clapped me on the shoulder.
“Still, it’s your home time. Getting dark already; I’ve kept you here too long.”
I stood and waited for him to shuffle to the door, then hugged him. “Thanks for lunch.”
I let myself out into the gathering dark. A mist had settled, swirling around my feet. It wasn’t a long walk home, about a mile, but the wind seemed to cut like a knife and I huddled my coat around me to try and keep the night out.
Over the sound of my own footsteps, I realized I could hear another set, almost in time. It wasn’t unusual; this part of the city was filled with houses and there was nearly always someone else on the street. Something in the night, though, started a small cold fire of fear in my heart, caused me to walk a little faster. My footsteps echoed off the buildings nearby, and I realized that whoever was behind me was walking a little faster as well.
I looked quickly back; there was a tall dark shape following, someone in a hooded jacket. I was almost jogging now, but he was keeping pace.
As I looked forward again, another man, taller than the one following, stepped out of an alleyway ahead of me. I stumbled, almost fell, and that was enough time for him to step forward and pin me to the wall.
The first man caught up, puffing slightly. “Gah,” he said, his voice rough and low, “thought you’d never stop runnin’.”
“You should get some exercise, Nick,” the second man said. I could see the outline of a smile in his cheeks, not quite hidden by the shadow from his hat. I pushed against his hand. “Easy, little man,” he said. “Wallet?”
More scared than I had ever been, I shook my head. The man’s smile disappeared.
“He’s dissin’ you, Dave,” Nick said. The taller man gave me another shove.
“Little fish, I’ve seen off better’n you before,” he snarled. His fist tightened on my jacket.
“F-front pocket,” I said weakly. I felt hands start to paw at my trouser pockets, my stomach churning.
A growl came out of the darkness.
Their hands froze on me. “What was that?” hissed Nick.
The mist was thicker now, curling up from the street, white tendrils burned orange in the dim streetlight. The growl sounded again.
From directly between the two men I could see yellow eyes in the darkness. Then, padding out of the mist, it came. A white tiger, as tall as my chest, its whiskers spread around its greyish snout, the black markings starting around its eyes and whirling all over its body. Its tail was high, swishing slightly, and one of its small round ears flicked. It blinked slowly, letting its mouth come partly open revealing two rows of razor-sharp teeth.
“What the-“ Dave whispered. I felt his hand loosen.
The tiger put one enormous paw forwards and opened its mouth and roared. The sound echoed up and down the street, seeming to go on far longer than it should. I dimly heard the two men scuffle as they ran in opposite directions; the tiger’s eyes held me rooted in place.
Then it bowed its head, turned, and walked back into the mist.
I almost sprinted back to grampa’s house, and I saw fear and worry cross his face as I collapsed through the door the moment he opened it. He took me back into his warm kitchen.
As I told him the story, I saw his face grow pale. A strange, faraway look came into his eyes, and for a moment I wondered if he was ill.
“I didn’t show you this one earlier, but I think you should see it,” he said, and reached into the box of newspapers still on his table. “It’s from just before I met your grandmother…” he handed me the old paper.
The article was about a gymnastics competition, but the picture and headline told me all I needed to know. There was a large picture of a woman in a leotard emblazoned with a tiger’s head, holding a medal. The headline read “THE WHITE TIGER WINS ANOTHER GOLD”.