Four hundred and forty three thousand, nine hundred and forty seven individuals were unemployed on the island of Ireland during the month of May 2011; and Abacus Ray was one of them. The country had fallen off a cliff. Businesses were imploding all over the place, properties crashing into walls and repossession orders flying off the rubber stamp like magic carpets. Families were being creamed, stripped of everything, skinned alive in their thousands, skinned alive! But there are many ways to skin a cat, or so the saying goes and recessions bring strange opportunities to the door. Abacus Ray was a strange person, an awkward person with a dour face and she walked around the streets of Dublin like a folded umbrella. To see her sitting at a bus stop on a rainy afternoon was to see glum squared. It was a look suited to recession. Abacus had never experienced a recession in her life, but recession was in her bones. This was her time.
The skinning of an animal is a straight forward enough business having been practiced for thousands of years, so why, when it comes to cats, is there need for such variety? Now a dog would give you no trouble at all, or a cow or an angora rabbit. They would just come to heel, lie there and be done with it. The question of alternative methods wouldn’t even cross their minds. But when dealing with a cat, nothing is ever straight forward. They tire easily, need new challenges and like to shake things up a bit. Not exactly dinner party conversation I suppose, but there is a certain car crash allure about the whole idea, a kind of leaning forward of the mind to take a sniff. What would motivate anyone to want to skin a cat in the first place? Boredom? Unemployment? And what did the cat do to deserve such creative attention? Appear bored? Unemployed?
Then there’s the question of what to do with the skin once the cat has been de-robed. There’s the option of going all surrealist on yourself by simply lounging around on a huge white bed, having breakfast in fur while the insulted cat streaks pinkly past. The cat of course, will never forgive such indignity and sooner or later it shall sip it’s vengeance from a chilled glass with a bitter twist of lemon as it reclines on a daybed wearing nothing whatsoever but a black velvet ribbon around it’s neck and a knowing sneer on its face, like the feline take on a Manet nude.
Abacus had a dream. Instructions on how to skin a cat. It came with a warning. Do not under any circumstances embark upon this project unless you intend to finish it completely, for once the experiment has been started there is no going back. Because; the dream warned, as soon as the results are logged and published, there would be an immediate and acute fallout. Her popularity ratings would plummet and the damage to her personal reputation would be catastrophic and beyond repair. But she shouldn’t care about what other people thought, the dream advised, people would gossip anyway and rumour would give rise to an urban legend that would expand with each telling until it grew into this enormous thing. Children would scatter when they saw her coming and she would eek out the rest of her thankless life in abject poverty. Abacus tossed and turned as the cruel dream continued. She saw herself from above now, an old woman collecting supermarket deliveries from an unwashed doorstep. Cardboard boxes containing multiple tins of own brand cat food which she’d spoon into a bowl to blandly eat on the floor along with her naked companion. The dream then whizzed far into the future and Abacus witnessed the moment when she finally kicked the bucket and wheezed her last rancid breath. The loyal pet, who had sat blithely by all this time, long surpassing its life expectancy by self medicating on single distilled, oak aged revenge, would sashay over on wrinkled paw, climb upon her sour remains and chew its just desserts until the neighbours complained about the smell and Abacus ended up being a footnote in the daily rag.
Oh no, Nothing good could ever come from experimenting with a cat, the dream warned Abacus; or could it?
This was the day that Abacus lost her job. The disturbing dream jolted her sleepy psyche and then an irritating noise woke her abruptly from her sleep. Tap tap tap! Something on stone, it came from just outside the window. She rubbed her eyes. What could it be in this redundant place, this dole queue of concrete, jobless houses? No one else lived here. She sat up in bed, what time is it? Tap tap tap. There it was again, a sort of knocking. She got out of bed, went over to the window and pulled the curtains across. Dawn, almost, and where a garden should have been there were breeze blocks, about six or seven in a useless pile with weeds poking out. Standing on top of these was a golden thrush. An ovenbird. It carried in its beak an unfortunate snail, and the bird was swinging its head around in a violent manner, much like a head banger and then bashing the shell against the blocks with incredible force as though it were christening a ship. The bird continued hammering until the shell was destroyed and the meat free to eat, then it moved around the wasteland, poking under metal sheeting and discarded planks for more of the same. She watched it for maybe twenty minutes before it flew away and out of sight.
Later that morning as she picked her way across the abandoned estate she discovered a whole escargatoire of tragic snails crushed to death on the pavement and she smiled at the thrush and its enterprising way, all this abundance in such a dead place. On the train she remembered her dream, frowned and picked up a discarded newspaper. An article about the zoo. What with all the budgets, wage freezes and national cutbacks, the food bill for the animals had been dramatically slashed, and they could no longer afford to feed the polar bear his diet of wild Atlantic salmon, served au natural. He had refused point blank to even touch the farmed trout that had been presented instead and showed his displeasure by sitting down with his back to the wire fence, lowering his head, examining his paws and engaging in an epic sulking session. Not again, thought the keepers and they braced themselves for a long wait. The bear budged not a jot, not even to go to the toilet, which ended up being a very effective deterrent for the general public. After several days, and when the salmon still didn’t appear, he began tearing his nails down the wire fence and glowering at the terrified seals in the pool beyond, one of whom was pregnant. There was a staff meeting. These sulking sessions were very bad for business and lets face it, the animal was plain lazy, he hadn’t performed at peak for years now and couldn’t even muster up a good roar every now and then. Take the meercats as a comparison; now they just kept on giving, didn’t take up too much space and lacked mood swings. Plus, their short life span meant that cranky old age wasn’t something that needed to be considered. Even when the bear wasn’t in a bad mood, he would just lie there as far from public view as possible and the most the customers ever saw of him was a bit of white stuff in the distance which could have been anything. There was no other way around it, the bear had to go, his behaviour was completely unsustainable and he had become surplus to requirement. In any case, it was unethical to keep him any more and economically unsound. They were flying him out at the end of the month. Done and dusted. It would be a lesson to them all, the committee decided. Desperate times for desperate measures etcetera, etcetera. Meeting adjourned. Most of the birds were expected to stoop to own brand cereal from now on, and the exotic canines would be eating tinned pet food instead of the usual meat and 2 veg. But the animals; not being of a domestic persuasion, didn’t take too kindly to being regimented. They began stalking their enclosures. The flock of pink flamingoes, which had always been an elegant, slightly kitsch addition to the zoo, took matters into their own hands, after a passing seagull gave them the skinny on their new menu of surimi sticks, instead of the promised plankton patties. They simply flew off over the Dublin skyline and were never seen again, which was inexplicable as their wings had been clipped.
Abacus put the paper down and got off the train. She thought about the suffering animals in the zoo and then she thought about the ovenbird as she left the station. Later still, as she moved through the noise of the city morning she felt the stalking heart of a tracker rousing in her chest and she liked that twilight feeling; going feral.
Everyone was busy in the office preparing for the Monday morning meeting. An older woman with Margaret Thatcher hair was calling the shots. She smelled tumble dried in a boxy suit as she led them all up to the office on the top floor. Everyone sat down at a large table; the woman cleared her throat and shuffled some papers. There was a big frown. After the announcement was made, the older woman removed her shoes and tights right there in front of the staff, put on a pair of socks and trainers and left the office immediately without any explanation. Along with the others, Abacus packed away her few things and walked out of the building, never to return.
The Zoo was nearby, she could hear the monkeys screaming at each other and she’d never had a chance to visit before, so she went in. It was bizarre to think of orangutans living in the inner city and of penguins hiding from the urban fox at night. Of wolves riding the Dublin air and of snow leopards sitting on the grass, blending perfectly into the background of an Irish field. She watched the seals sliding in and out of the water and the elephants drawing round shapes on the cement beneath them, with the knuckle of their trunks, as though they were holding a crayon. She passed the hairy back of the polar bear as it sulked in its space and she yawned with the cockatoo and stretched with the puma. And then Abacus went home to the wilderness of Ballypuca estate, but her heart wasn’t heavy, it was filled with animal magic. She stepped through flat puddles and over mounds of rubble, past the half built houses and the rusty railings, knowing that all around her there was plenty, the very shell of the snail itself was a horn of plenty and she heard it now, sounding out like a bugle, calling her to come and get it, to take her fill.
And so she did. The next morning she woke with the ovenbird and watched it making breakfast outside, then she went down stairs and out into the wasteland. The morning peeled back and a soft drizzle fell over her face as she searched under the metal sheets and planks of wood and began filling a bucket with juicy snails. They were everywhere.
She took them home and washed each snail under the kitchen tap, then she starved and fasted them like early Christian monks, for three whole weeks, before allowing them to feast on oats, wild garlic and parsley and they fattened up before her very eyes. At night, by a roaring fire she read books on classic French cooking and researched the dining habits of rural Europe in the last century. She ate snails for breakfast, lunch, dinner and tea and even kept a few clacking around in her pockets for a tasty treat when she was on the move.
The days moved into weeks and the weeks into months and the year grew colder and older. Abacus went out into the howling winds and shielded herself against the driving rain as it jailed down onto the empty roofs. Sometimes she would just stand there in the wilderness and remember. Listen. A drip of moisture would slip down her nose and dangle precariously from the tip like the sword of Damocles, but it never fell, it just swiveled there like a compass until she wiped it away. And then she would go home and spend her time standing on a stool by the cooker, stirring a big pot and looking like a witch as she tossed flour, sprinkled in herbs and hot top shelf spices, and the scent of snail soup or escargots Bourgogne wafted through the deserted estate and on past the bus lanes and the train tracks, across the well worn river, past the canal and into Phoenix park, where it followed the herds of deer and circled the great monument. It wafted through the wood walks near the old barracks and into a place where tropical sounds were heard, and it crept into the nose of a tiger twitching its ears and sleeping off the boredom and the bad food in Dublin zoo. The tiger lifted its head.
A few of the keepers had sensed a change in the air as soon as the new menus were unveiled. There was tension in Dublin zoo and the tiger had been stalking for days now, over and back and over and back with its amber eyes sparking as it brooded on something desperate within. Then one hazy afternoon it backed into a corner of its enclosure and sprang forward with all its force, effortlessly vaulting the glass wall and landing onto the tarmac and the general public below. Ice cream fell out of wafer cones, the monkeys panicked and everyone stopped in their tracks, too shocked to move. But the massive tiger just swifted away with absolute grace. It walked out through the turnstiles and into the park beyond. It had no interest in people, evaded their gaze, it had had enough of people. The tiger pounded down through the polo field and rounded the chestnut trees in full bloom, onto the pavement it went, passing the stunned joggers and the startled rush hour traffic, all the while its tail cleaving like a water pump, urging it on. It sprang past a newsagents in Castleknock, knocking over a stand of papers and ruffling the people at a bus stop waiting for the 39A; all jumped back in astonishment. The tiger ran on through the houses and past the cars, on an on into oblivion. Even the helicopter buzzing in the sky with the traffic news couldn’t follow it; it just disappeared into the Dublin landscape. It knew to disappear, to hide out.
And the tiger hid well in Ballypuca estate. Abacus realized that something had changed when she hadn’t seen the ovenbird for a while. She came across soft paw prints in the mud outside and thought of a dog. Some Great Dane no doubt, let loose in the estate to do its worst, as its owner sat in the car and sheltered from the rain. But there were other clues. There seemed to be fewer snails for example, and at night there were new sounds to be heard. One morning she found the tail of a squirrel on her doorstep, left there like a gift and on several occasions she thought she could hear a crunching sound, as though the snails were being eaten in their jackets nearby. And then one morning; they met. She saw it first like the dawn sky, a flash of orange low down near the ground, black mourning clouds slashed across it, still as a statue. It was sitting in an unfinished porch and watching her from behind a concrete wrecking ball. A breeze moved through her. Community.
At night the tiger walked through the abandoned estate. The place was dark and silent, set in aspic. None of the street lamps had ever been switched on and the only light that burned in the whole of Ballypuca housing estate, came from the direction of Abacus Rays home. The house had been part of a new build, this huge scheme, with shops, cinemas, parks and restaurants all mapped out for construction. She’d bought off plans in the late noughties and moved into a completely new town land. In the evenings she walked around the site getting to know the builders and estate agents and all the potential buyers calling to view. She’d offer them a clammy handshake or a toss of her dank hair. Later still when twilight came she’d peek through the windows of boutiques yet to be stocked, or a corner shop with the name plate still in plastic wrap and her imagination would take flight. The Supermarket had a sign in the window announcing its opening date and when she looked in she could see the metal shelving waiting to be unpacked. She peered into a future of bustling cafes, steaming Chinese restaurants, with the smell of crispy duck and fried rice floating on the air, and people, busy people all walking down the streets, shouting on their phones or tugging their dogs, carrying too much shopping and nagging the sticky kids. People getting on with things.
Except of course that’s not how things panned out, for soon after Abacus cracked open the champagne, the diggers and the cranes all stopped dead in their tracks. Everything changed in the blink of an eye. The migrating builders flew off home and the town of Ballypuca was left to the elements like a ghost ship, this ghost estate suddenly abandoned and set adrift on a penniless ocean. All the lucky passengers who had never bought a ticket. Abacus had been the only one. She wasn’t used to the quiet, wouldn’t have bought in such a quiet place. This place was like the Bog of Allen and the tiger stared across it, into the future as far as the eye could see with nothing but the Titanic on its mind.
Abacus didn’t change her habits just because of the tiger. When she went out into the rain to fetch her food, the tiger knew to stay behind the wrecking ball and it watched her going about her business, foraging like a deer in the dark mornings. Now and again she’d look up and around, listen, ears swiveling, aware that the tiger was close by. It studied the paths she took, knew when she was out and about, heard the glass and the shards of broken tiles crumble under her feet, and yet it left her alone.
In the end there came one night when Abacus couldn’t sleep at all. Emptiness had come once again to Ballypuca housing estate and she knew that her friend was gone. She got up and went out. The scent of the tiger was still there on the drizzly dawn, and on the ground she saw the prints that the tiger’s feet made in the mud. Beautiful big round pads, shaped like the three shallow burial basins found inside the tomb at Newgrange. She followed the prints across the mud, and then she noticed that one of them had blurred a bit, the foot had been dragged, an injured paw. As she moved towards the wreaking ball she could see the mound of the tiger behind it. There was no movement at all, no mist from its breath and when she stepped cautiously into its space, she knew that the soul of the tiger was gone. The animal was lying on its side, this huge exotic shape with its amber eyes staring blindly up into the morning drizzle. She crouched down beside it and stroked the massive face. Looked at the huge paws, the signature they made in the mud and noticed something. A large industrial nail was jutting out from between the toes of a paw. She tugged at the nail and pulled it out. Liquid came with it, the whole area was badly swollen and infected.
She went home and thought about the tiger. She hung the squirrel tail over the mantelpiece, then crept out again into the deserted estate. She walked over to the wrecking ball, her breath steaming in the cold air. In her pocket she carried a flint stone. She had no idea why, but the flint stone felt right, brought her back to the distant past, to the very beginning when the hunter knew it was the hunter, prey knew it was prey. She worked the flint into her grip until she had a good fit and then began to carefully unstitch the skin with the blade of the flint. It was like following a pattern and the hide came easily away. She left the carcass to the withering sky, and to the foxes and the dogs. At home she went online and read about tanning hides, and she tanned the skin until it was soft and supple, treated it like it was gold.
Soon after that, on the 21st of December, Abacus left the country. She posted the house keys back to the bank in a padded envelope and cancelled the phone, electricity and gas. She let the mail pile up at the post office near by and she never returned to Ballypuca housing estate. She bought a one way ticket to Timbuktu instead.
At the airport, this glamazon walked through the terminal. Stalked through the terminal, swayed like a cat, the eyes flashed like a cats. The security guards sucked in their stomachs and stuck out their chins. They glinted at this woman sparking through the airport in a floor length fur with a roll collar and a lazy belt. It must have been mink or sable dyed like tiger print, and they growled with pleasure as they watched her prowling on by. Around her neck was a long strand of bone and teeth and when she put her handbag in the grey plastic tray and walked through the metal detector, the security woman picked it up and commented. She liked the detail on the handle shaped like the tail of a tiger, the tale of a tiger, and then Abacus Ray hurried through the airport into the departure lounge with it’s worn out carpet and on through to the gate, and the engines of the aeroplane roared like an animal when they saw her chasing down the gangplank towards them. The plane raced like a cat down the runway and screeched into the air, fleeced the clouds as it shot through the sky towards the drum beats and the warm heart of Africa where there was no rain and no cold. It was an early flight, the red eye, and when the plane tipped its wings to bow away from Dublin, the morning sun scalded through the windows and lit up the entire cabin with a golden light, just as the ghosts in the burial chamber at Newgrange were living again with the light from the Winter solstice. A soft ping of announcements then whispered to the cabin crew and Abacus ate breakfast in fur and sipped her morning coffee. Afterwards, in the complimentary newspaper, she learned about a tiger that had been missing for some months now. The zoo was lost without it, it had been a major draw, and the general public was very concerned. Local Gardaí had advised against venturing into wastelands or of approaching any large animals, particularly if they had an exotic look to them.
Since its disappearance the rest of the zoo had gone berserk. The male silverback gorilla had smashed all the windows of his enclosure with his big fists and then began walloping his chest and shouting at the top of his voice and he hadn’t stopped since; night and day. He had boundless energy. The female gorilla and her family had to be temporarily re-homed in the Polar bears previous residence, until the silverback came to his senses. An elderly lion, which had represented the zoo for some twenty years, went on hunger strike and spent his days licking the glass walls and pressing his nose and lips against it like a child, whenever anyone approached. He had also stopped grooming and was beginning to molt. There was talk of retiring him; clearly he could do with some R&R. A few of the pelicans had banded together and were terrifying visitors by swooping the crowds and robbing burgers and chocolate from paying customers, then distributing the booty throughout the zoo, causing utter chaos. Experts complained that there were signs of severe food intolerance, allergies and hyperactivity amongst all the animals. The rhinoceros, which had been a star resident up until this point, went on a rampage and felled three mature trees. It had to be heavily sedated when it was discovered away from its enclosure and on the streets of Dublin city head butting a Mercedes 4 wheel drive and completely destroyed the expensive paintwork and chassis. The owner of the car, a resting property developer, sued the zoo for compensation and the management began to re-think the rhino’s position in a modern zoo. Perhaps it was a bit too Victorian, besides it just stood there, offered no value for money and was taking up valuable space.
Abacus realized as she put the paper down and as the plane was banking away, that there was now one less than four hundred and forty three thousand, nine hundred and forty seven people unemployed on the Island of Ireland and as she thought about this she took from her pocket a couple of little owner occupier, self contained, perfectly packaged, Winnebago, pay as you go, no debt, no down payment snails. She ate the meat and tossed the shells into the air like dice. The stewardesses turned around and locked on the airborne shells, while down below, a Polar bear slept heavily in a crate in the hold, with its eyes wide open and its tongue hanging out, waiting for the taste of a brand new town, a new place as the plane blasted away through the morning sky and vaulted the horizon like an athlete. All was in the air, all was in the air.