Claire Bullen


Claire Bullen

Claire Bullen was born in Chicago and spent her childhood in San Francisco and Philadelphia. In 2007, she moved to New York, where she studied English Literature and Visual Arts at Columbia University. She has lived in London since 2013, where she works as a travel and lifestyle journalist. She is now at work on her first collection of short stories. She is a member of the Goldfish committee.
Contact: clairembullen [at] gmail [dot] com

The Golden Tiger


At the top of the road stood a golden tiger. They watched it, transfixed, barely noticing the cold that had sent them bundled up to the little restaurant on the corner. Streetlights played over the beast’s metallic exterior. Its goldness radiated in the night; it was a like a nugget made animal. 

“He’s big,” Peter said. Therese didn’t reply. The tiger moved, then: its tail gave a little swish and, with the sound of hinges shrieking and throwing off clots of rust, it raised one shield-sized paw off the ground. It stared at them, eyes beaming. It was bigger than any big cat either of them had ever seen, like a museum sentinel that had grown weary and wandered from its longtime post. 

“Is it some kind of robot?” Peter asked, fingering his knuckles. “A sculpture? Piece of art?”

“Whose robot would it be?” Therese peered at the animal. There was something about all that goldness, some stirring warmth that began deep in the marrow. Her blood giggled with it. She felt a wonderful, heady lightness, better than the wine they’d had at dinner; better, even, than if they’d had another bottle.

Therese approached the tiger slowly, heel-toe. It turned its head with a sizzle, throwing off sparks, but otherwise remained still. She raised a hand towards its flank, testing for heat, before pressing her palm to its surface. Delicious! Soft, pliant, sun-warmed steel prickling with goodness. A perfectly yielding peach. 


“It isn’t a robot,” she called back, feeling the beast’s tremble and spreading warmth deep under all those metallic layers. 

“It can’t be an animal,” said Peter, and she had to agree with that, too. Peter would not touch it or come near. Even this close, he was dizzied by the fug of jasmine and cedar that hung in the air around the tiger, as if an Indian orchard had been transplanted to a dim and humid London street. It was easy to lose track of time, buried amidst all these flowers.

Later, a taxi trundled up behind them, its lights sallow, its horn squawking. “Get out of the bloody road,” a voice issued from the driver’s window. Peter startled, noticing for the first time the evening stench of loam and gasoline. The driver leaned on his horn.

“Can’t you see?” Peter yelled in the direction of the taxi, gesturing to Therese and the tiger, neither of whom noticed the intrusion. His words were starting to slur together now, melting in the tropical heat. “I can see you’re in my fucking way,” the driver said. “Go home! Go away!”

Peter stumbled towards Therese, swimming through orchids.

“We can’t stay here,” he said. “But,” said Therese, who was rubbing her face back and forth along the tiger’s side, her gesture signaling no-no-no-no-no. 

Pressing a mittened hand over his nose and mouth, sick with flower rot, he took her hand and pulled her gently away, up onto the pavement. Votary gone, the tiger dimmed and disappeared. “Drunk idiots!” floated back to them as the taxi drove away, rubbish thrown airily through the window.


Three days later, the tiger returned. Therese had woken that day with a phantom of headache prowling at her temples. For a long time she remained flat on her back, playing dead, hoping it would find a new quarry. Peter’s breath whistled like a child’s toy, while wheelie bins growled outside. Gaggles of families marched up and down the street. “GWA!” a man’s voice said, and a child exploded in laughter. “GAAHR!” Therese rose, the change in level causing her headache to swell and distend, and aligned her eye with the edge of the blind; a little blonde creature bobbled up and down on its father’s shoulders, spasming with mirth.

Peter woke hours later, snuffling like a bear and full of cricks, which he freed from his joints one by one. They dressed slowly. Over lunch at the café down the road, their conversation flitted light as a shuttlecock. How had work been this week? When were they meant to have dinner with John and Christine? To acknowledge the tiger would be to acknowledge their world gone canted and queasy, so instead, they chimed their spoons loudly against their mugs. After the tiger, Therese had felt restless, hungry, pain like a burning pebble stuck in her throat. Peter could not explain his sudden certainty of impending loss. 

“I might go see if they can check my prescription,” Peter said after a long stretch of quiet, widening his eyes as he held his glasses several centimetres from his face. 

“We can walk through Regent’s Park, then.”

“You don’t mind?”

“No, a walk would be good, I think. Might clear the headache.” Therese sniffled and submerged her face into her scarf. Peter took her hand with his heavy, cold fingers.

The park’s winter fountains were like bones protruding from the sculpted gardens’ skin, drained now except for the dark ghost of rain. Along the paved path, dogs shot past their owners, sleek and silver. As she studied the mottled flesh of a plane tree, Therese felt her head clearing suddenly into swoony, restful unpain.

Just then, Peter fell to his knees, doubled over, his hands connecting with earth with a zealous slap. He hadn’t tripped, had he? Before Therese could help him, an electron of pleasure rooted itself in the base of her spine, and she arched as it climbed, velvet-handed, upwards, scaling ladders of ribs and kissing veins, lapping its tongue across muscles, spreading to her warm, white neck, thrown back now, ears charged with it, volts bellying down, stopping to nuzzle her breasts, bathing her in milk, warm everything, a little death that five-finger coursed her breath into tatters.

Peter was on all fours, lowing like an animal in pain. He brought a muddy hand to his throat, leaving behind a dark shadow of human grip. He coughed until he retched. Therese was too held by pleasure to speak, put a hand on his spine but let it slide off; here was her tiger. Rain pinged off the cat’s back, pincushioning the ground. The golden tiger paced in a circle, trailing singe wherever its heavy paws graced the earth. It was bigger than before, sweeter, lifting her body from pain, and she threw back her head and laughed before running towards it. 

The air fizzed and popped. Like a lightbulb blowing out, the tiger vanished again, this time in a fit of smoke and sparks and heat. The air cracked into splintering ice and her headache gushed forward, swilling its dark liquid back up the walls of her skull, and she screamed as she was forced by the shock wave to the unyielding ground.


“Miss? Are you all right?” A round, rosy face peered into her own. A bald man in a taupe jacket, whose eyelashes lay dark against his soft, expansive cheeks, leaned over her, his hands fluttering above her shoulders, afraid to land. Was that a firework? he wanted to know. Had she burned herself? No, no, no, Therese had not burned herself. Had he not seen it? Had he not seen her tiger?

The man took a step back and puppy-tipped his head. “Tiger? Do you mean at the London Zoo? It’s up that way,” he said. His body swiveled at the hip as he threw an empty hand in its direction. No, that wasn’t it, no.

The man’s eyelashes twitched as he regarded Therese, then Peter, who coughed, still, on the ground nearby. “Do you want me to call an ambulance? Your head?” His cold fingertips dabbed cautiously at her forehead. 

A small crowd had gathered, tiptoeing, their hunger for some kind of hurt masked in murmuring concern. Therese leaned over and slid onto her side, curling her body away from them, from this man, from Peter, from that horrible smoking burn with its bloody stink of liquid iron. “Look at the trees,” a member of the crowd said, and indeed, the branches of the towering planes winked bright embers up into the air.


Grey bed. Everything angles, hard knuckles. Cold, bones near splintering. Therese’s memory was an oil-dark slick; she remembered nothing between earth and home, felt as swollen and pulped as a boxer. What keened most was the severe and unaccountable grief of someone who had been parted from a great love. Tiger. Her thoughts caressed the tiger’s ears and its fiery whiskers, and she felt sure, then, that whatever it was was less a tiger than another way of being alive. 

In the darkness of the room, a form slowly revealed itself at the other side of the mattress. Was it? Yes, Peter. Was he sleeping? She concentrated, narrowing her eyes, closing one to clear her vision of its sticky soft filter. No, probably not. His foot jogged in place and his chest rose in short bursts. She made a guttural sound and he turned, eyebrows raised, face fogged.

“What happened?,” she managed. She was groggy, dribbling into her pillow. Peter said nothing as he regarded her. “How did I get here?” she tried to clarify.

“Slowly,” Peter said, turning away, drawing his hips up so his body was poised, defensively, against her. 

“Are you hurt?” She placed her hand on his back. He neither accepted nor rejected the gesture, merely allowed the hand to rest, as inanimate as a bowl.


If I were a tiger where would I be, if I were a tiger where would I be, if I were a tiger where would I be. Therese chanted to herself, an incantation, as she walked, stopping in any places where a large golden tiger might like to go, willing it to appear, attempting psychic semaphore. Since she felt well enough to get out of bed, she had been pulled out into the city, discomfort vanishing in the wake of one singular thought: find me, tiger. 

She spent hours in parks, crouching under trees and dirtying her fingertips in the mulch, chasing acorns and thumbs of twigs, the occasional fan-gilled mushroom. The fiery pleasure of the tiger replayed itself in glimpses, momentary convulsions. Whenever she passed a little-used side street, she deviated off course, walked it up and down. She stood with crowds of tourists in the antechambers of skyscrapers, waiting to be passed through metal detectors and gestured at with beeping wands. During every body-compressing trip to their peaks, she anticipated looking out on the darkening cityscape, and finding, thanks to her vantage, that telling glow, so much brighter than any other light. Light of lights. It refused to manifest, never fizzed up like a bomb on any horizon. Maybe the tiger was seeking populations, she thought, so she shoved herself into the throngs of Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus, feeling closer with every shoulder that knocked into her body, all of them, together, saying tiger. 

Just in case, she travelled only on foot, miles every day, returning home mud-hemmed and shivering. She slept contorted in strange positions, pillowed on her limbs. She seemed taller, somehow. As if the muscles of her frame were rearranging themselves. 


One evening she staggered into their flat, practically feral, and Peter hardly knew her, could barely tolerate the body that was here but was already gone to him. A body that was choosing some vision, something crazy and barely possible, instead of this, their lives, their real, actual lives, the furniture that they had built together. Fury and pity and revulsion high-tided up to his mouth as quickly as they drained away, and he watched Therese, her wild thin limbs. What he wanted was to come home and find her there as before, wrapped up in a robe, waiting for him. He nearly said this to her. Together as the night darkened they would make pork with mustard sauce and steam tufts of asparagus and swirl their glasses of red wine in sync, leisurely, like before; and wouldn't that be nice, just lovely? Her eyes restlessly tracked around the flat like prey. How could you, he wanted to say.

Instead, what he said was: “Look what’s happening,” and pointed to the TV.

“LONDON BURNING,” the screen said, bright white text against a red backdrop that slashed the lower half of the screen. “A series of unknown arson attacks have been reported around the capital this evening, causing widespread alarm,” the anchor said gravely, her gaze heavy. “While there have been no reported fatalities, police are concerned about the number of these events, as well as the high-profile targets selected, suggesting the possibility of a coordinated attack.” 

A fire roiled a stretch of buildings abutting Grosvenor Square. Flames on London Bridge licked their way halfway across the Thames. South Kensington’s museums were at risk. The Globe’s thatched roof was the stuff of feasts. “The police have not yet made any arrests,” the anchor continued grimly. “And no group or individual has claimed responsibility. Witnesses say that the fires began suddenly, and grew very large in a matter of seconds.” 

The video cut to a man standing in front of London Bridge, his tie half-undone and the frames of his glasses tangled in his grey hair. “We were nearby,” he said, tipping his head to indicate his wife, “heading back towards the station.” Suddenly, London Bridge was pouring with flames before them. “It wasn’t like when you light a fireplace,” he said, nodding as he spoke. “The bridge was normal, and then it was like someone, I don’t know, pressed a switch, like a light switch, and there it was, going up in smoke. I’ve never seen anything like it.” His wife pursed her lips together in a deep frown under her damp hat, wringing her pink-tipped hands. Other clumps of onlookers stood behind him in the drizzle, and pointed at the bridge, squabbling; sirens warbled their two-note melodies in the background, a flock of tone-deaf songbirds.

Fire spread across the screen, videos of it carouselling past. A soap bubble of joy inflated itself in Therese, gleaming, many-hued. This could be nothing else but a sign of her tiger. Peter watched her. “Therese,” he said. “Your hands.” She looked down, where they now clutched the arm of the sofa. They were golden, glowing, luminous.


Out into the black night, out through brambles and empty parks and hordes of stalled cars that even now were profligately spilling their oil on the streets, out, out, pushing past the silhouettes of people rushing everywhere. The fires were not yet visible here, among the vine-cloaked cottages and cemeteries of North London, but it would not be long until she saw them, she was sure. Already a false dawn flickered on the horizon. Its amber stink hailed something just beginning. A little gaggle of girls in school uniforms hurried past, clutching the straps of their rucksacks. “Come along, now, girls,” said the woman guiding them, and they disappeared quickly around a corner.

She knew, now, where the tiger would be, felt its coiling claw tugging her close, and she followed the invisible thread, dutifully. It was a long walk down the hill, through Camden, which glittered like a silent arcade, back along Regent’s Park’s spine, a sharp left, roads full of abandoned cars, the flames visible, now. The day was in its maiden bloom by the time she reached the spires of the City, though the rest of London remained midnight-dark. 

As she stood looking upwards at the orange-lit buildings, a strong hand closed on her arm, and she turned to see a masked figure sheathed in soot, an axe in his hand. Firefighter. He burbled at her frantically through the tubes that hooked his face to the rest of him, but she just watched as he gestured, his hand flapping here, here, here towards his body. She laughed, reached out and knocked her knuckle against the clouded glass window in his mask. Tic tic. He took a step back in surprise and stopped, his arms falling momentarily to his sides. Therese shrugged and turned away, walked deeper in, feeling the spring tighten, the thread pull more insistently.

Winding through the buildings where millions of workers used to be, she came upon a courtyard and her tiger was there. Where it was once the height of a tree, now it had the proportions of a titan. The waves of heat and swarms of sparks that crescendoed off its body were monumental, physical things. As if glimpsing a nebula through a telescope, she could not quite demarcate its form, separate tiger from not-tiger. But why separate? She looked down and saw tendrils of smoke curling up her own body, saw a giddy bundle of flames roost at her feet. It began to track upwards, encasing her in its pillar. 

The tiger was inside her, now, and it settled in so comfortably along the previous Therese. To think, how many people had fled from them, afraid! It guided her limbs, swaddled in burning, to the center of the courtyard. She might fall down the crater that rumbled into life before her, or wing off into open space. Either way, she was poised, surely, on the lip of paradise.