Environmentalist Felix persuades his young granddaughter Bee to accompany him on holiday to Malaysia, where they journey to Pulau Tua, a vast and sacred island some distance off the Malaysian coast. There they witness the kidnapping of 10 year-old Tuan, sole survivor of an indigenous tribe wiped out by disease. With a unique genetic profile and astonishing appearance, Tuan is a ticket to definitive recognition for his abductor.
The Last Tiger follows Tuan and Bee as they grow up together in England under the harsh spotlight of celebrity. But while the world watches Tuan achieve acclaim and success, privately he is beginning to falter, eventually crumpling beneath a betrayal unimaginably cruel. Meanwhile, best friend Bee has her own terrible secret. Life for them both is steadily spiralling out of control.
This is a compelling story of love and friendship in all its guises, of difference and acceptance, of betrayal and forgiveness. But how will it end? For love of every kind is rarely destined to be straightforward.
Long listed for the Exeter Novel Prize 2016
The Last Tiger by Barbara Jaques
He’d never read a single word save those few just noticed in passing. A kiss planted on the top of her head, he’d then wandered away to some other task; a heartfelt but odd I love you so much cut loose as he went.
Fingers ceased typing. The guilt was enormous, hanging heavy like the proverbial millstone, heavier still for this lingering statement which seemed tinged with some other meaning or message; guilt feeling obvious to all while, in truth, apparent to no one. The words considered unworthy of inclusion, that which he read but failed to absorb, described her emotions entirely and were not all the creative invention of an undiscerning mind. Lazily scanning the secret over her shoulder he had not fully understood the viewpoint nor seen the guilt between every line. Or so she thought.
To act on such a thing as was written would mean confession, bringing to an end everything rational. On occasion, as now, her most comforting thought was that in time an answer would present itself of its own accord; after all, it was always safest to wait. When had rational been anything other than a burden? The answer was a very long time ago, in a life before they met the boy that was to become the man, when just being a little girl in a happy family was more than enough to sustain her.
She highlighted the text. A finger rested above the delete button. To have written it was enough.
Something pulled sharply down over the boy’s face, encasing his head. The thing was white, a bag, the same he’d watched intruders scooping food from, small pale seeds running through fingers like sand. The thought fled. Violently, he kicked out his legs and twisted his shoulders, pulling away hard, swiping elbows, thrashing head. But the grip was firm. A scream came, an eerie wailing screech he did not recognise or know he could make. Cloth sucked into his mouth, urgent breath pushing it in and out, in and out, in and out as he screamed and screamed and screamed. Too quickly his hands were fixed behind his back, tied now despite the struggle. Somewhere, through the bellow of his own cries, he could hear the girl shouting, trying yet again to help him, the sound of her rushing feet suddenly so close.
He cried out for a moment longer but then fell silent; the guttural wind forced from her mouth announcing that her repelled body had landed hard nearby. Others were shouting, distant and removed. The boy stopped fighting and began to cry, wet black eyes frantic in the white light of the bag, nose streaming; open mouth sobbing silently now. Panic had morphed into dread.
Dragged across the hot sand, the man’s tight grip hurt his arm. The boy staggered to right himself and put weight on his own two feet. Allowed to stand, he was then guided forward but when the boy’s toes touched water a new burst of terror sent him floundering. The man shook him a little, mumbling something in a tone neither kind nor harsh, and so the boy stopped. Urine emptied, pattering on the gently lapping waves. Then his arm was pushed forward and so he began walking into the sea. Nausea rose. Not from this beach, it’s the wrong beach. Not here. Suddenly he was flying, effortlessly raised into a boat. Boats, the boy knew, were bad. He kneeled on the deck, legs unable to support his weight any longer. Someone touched his arm close to the shoulder and rubbed it. It felt cold. Then in the same spot came a stab of pain.
The boy came round in a simple hut of much the same size and dimension as the one he had be fleeing from before he was stopped, although this floor consisted of planks firmly butted together and not sand. Something he did not recognise hung from the ceiling, three flat pieces of wood spinning around a central pole, sending cooling air in waves about him. He was lying on a bed staring at it. The bed was not like the sort the intruders kept inside their huts. It was more solidly made than that, with a mattress and sheet, although the boy had never seen such things before so did not have names for them. The intruders used thin bags; he, finely stitched animal skins. Other than the fan, a closed door, a bowl of fruit and another of water, the space was entirely bare.
Arm sore from the stabbing and his body weakened through fighting and lack of food, the boy felt more stiff and tired than he ever had before. The worst part of it was not physical, however, since he was fit and strong, always busy with this or that, exercise something quite naturally part of his everyday life. It was not knowing, not understanding what was happening that presented itself as a perceptible ache inside him. He did not know the intruders, not the original ones nor the second group that included the girl, nor did he know those that had come by boat to snatch him away from his island. He did not know where he was or why.
Fear for now lessened, it was the gaze of calm eyes that drifted from the fan to the door. He knew what it was. He had passed through one only a moment before becoming trapped inside the hut on the beach and back through it just before capture. The question was, should he try and open this one when before doors only meant trouble?
Did another beach exist on the other side of this door, he wondered? He could smell the sea, albeit faintly. He thought for a moment before sitting up. Instantly his head felt light. Resting on the edge of the bed until he felt better, he then stood up and walked over to it. He pushed. The door did not give so he pushed again. Then again, harder. Another push, harder still, repeatedly shoving with the heel of his hands. He stopped only when he heard a voice and the sound of someone moving on the other side. Suddenly the door swung inwards forcing him back and a huge man entered, followed by the fat white man with no hair who he’d watched before on the island. A third entered, thin and short – shorter than the boy – but similar to the large man in his appearance, with mid brown skin and cropped black hair. All three wore green masks across their mouths and noses. The larger man took the boy’s arm and before he had time to react, the smaller stabbed something into it.
The next time the boy woke up he felt so sick it was all he could do not to vomit. The oppressive heat, smell of boat engines and rolling motion upset his stomach and in turn shifted his focus away from where he was and why. It was a different bed in a different room, a space so dissimilar from all he had encountered before he should have been interested. But he felt too ill to look. Pushing his face into a soft blue pillow, he tried to go back to sleep for sleep was escape; sleep meant a degree of peace. There, this strange and frightening world made way for the one he thought of as real, a place he could be with his family, his friends. There he could play. There, the boy felt he was free.
Before he could drift away, the door to the tiny windowless cabin opened. The boy’s eyelids raised, face motionless as he stared. The same three men entered, again with masks covering mouths and noses. The large man gestured for him to stand up before holding out an expanse of black cloth. Raising himself and climbing out of his bunk, the boy stared at it, unable to discern either identity or purpose. The large man again began to gesture and before long the boy appeared a boy no more. Body, head, face, all were shrouded in black, only his young eyes peering out in wonder as they left the claustrophobic interior of the boat for a ship. It was dressed in this burka, feeling utterly bewildered, that the boy made the slow, lonely journey thousands of miles to a place beyond his imagination.