Jean Rhys

Tigers are Better-looking

“MEIN LIEB, MON CHER, MY Dear, Amigo,” the letter began.

I’m off. I’ve been wanting to go for some time, as I’m sure you know, but was waiting for the moment when I had the courage to step out into the cold world again. Didn’t feel like a farewell scene.

Apart from much that it is better not to go into, you haven’t any idea how sick I am of all the phoney talk about Communism – and the phoney talk of the other lot too, if it comes to that. You people are exactly alike, whatever you call yourselves – Untouchable. Indispensable is the motto, and you’d pine to death if you hadn’t someone to look down on and insult. I got the feeling that I was surrounded by a pack of timid tigers waiting to spring the moment anybody is in trouble or hasn’t any money. But tigers are better-looking, aren’t they?

I’m taking the coach to Plymouth. I have my plans.

I came to London with high hopes, but all I got out of it was a broken leg and enough sneers to last me for the next thirty years if I live so long, which may God forbid.

Don’t think I’ll forget how kind you were after my accident – having me to stay with you and all that. But assez means enough.

I’ve drunk the milk in the refrigerator. I was thirsty after that party last night, though if you call that a party I call it a wake. Besides, I know how you dislike the stuff (Freud! Bow-wow-wow!!) So you’ll have to have your tea straight, my dear.

Goodbye. I’ll write you again when times are better.


There was a postscript:

Mind you write a swell article today, you tame grey mare.

Mr Severn sighed. He had always known Hans would hop it sooner or later, so why this taste in his mouth, as if he had eaten dust?

A swell article.

The band in the Embankment Gardens played. It’s the same old song once again. It’s the same old tender refrain. As the carriages came into sight some of the crowd cheered and a fat man said he couldn’t see and he was going to climb a lamp post. The figures in the carriages bowed from right to left – victims bowed to victimized. The bloodless sacrifice was being exhibited, the reminder that somewhere the sun is shining, even if it doesn’t shine on everybody.

“‘E looked just like a waxwork, didn’t ‘e?” a woman said with satisfaction…

No, that would never do.

He looked out of the window at the Lunch Edition placards outside the newspaper shop opposite. “JUBILEE PICTURES – PICTURES – PICTURES” and “HEAT WAVE COMING”.

The flat over the shop was occupied by a raffish middle-aged woman. But today her lace-curtained windows, usually not unfriendly, added to his feeling of desolation. So did the words “PICTURES – PICTURES – PICTURES”.

By six o’clock the floor was covered with newspapers and crumpled, discarded starts of the article which he wrote every week for an Australian paper.

He couldn’t get the swing of it. The swing’s the thing, as everybody knows – otherwise the cadence of the sentence. Once into it, and he could go ahead like an old horse trotting, saying anything that anybody liked.

“The tame grey mare,” he thought. Then he took up one of the newspapers and, because he had the statistical mania, began to count the advertisements. Two remedies for constipation, three for wind and stomach pains, three face creams, one skin food, one cruise to Morocco. At the end of the personal column, in small print, “I will slay in the day of My wrath and spare not, saith the Lord God.” Who pays to put these things in anyway, who pays?

“This perpetual covert threat,” he thought. “Everything’s based on it. Disgusting. What Will They Say? And down at the bottom of the page you see what will happen to you if you don’t toe the line. You will be slain and not spared. Threats and mockery, mockery and threats…” And desolation, desertion and crumpled newspapers in the room.

The only comfort allowed was the money which would buy the warm glow of drink before eating, the Jubilee laughter afterwards. Jubilant – Jubilee – Joy… Words whirled round in his head, but he could not make them take shape.

“If you won’t, you bloody well won’t,” he said to his typewriter before he rushed down the stairs, counting the steps as he went.


After two doubles whiskies at his usual pub Time, which had dragged so drearily all day, began to move faster, began to gallop.

At half-past eleven Mr Severn was walking up and down Wardour Ster between two young women. The things one does on the rebound.

He knew one of them fairly well – the fatter one. She was often at the pub and he liked talking to her, and sometimes stood her drinks because she was good-natured and never made him feel nervous. That was her secret. If fair was fair, it would be her epitaph: “I have never made anybody feel nervous – on purpose.” Doomed, of course, for that very reason. But pleasant to talk to and, usually, to look at. Her name was Maidie – Maidie Richards.

He had never seen the other girl before. She was very young and fresh, with a really glittering smile and an accent he didn’t quite recognize. She was called Heather Something-or-other. In the noisy pub he thought she said Hedda. “What an unusual name!” he had remarked. “I said Heather, not Hedda. Hedda! I wouldn’t be seen dead with a name like that.” She was sharp, bright, self-confident – nothing flabby there. It was she who had suggested this final drink.

The girls argued. They each had an arm in one of Mr Severn’s, and they argued across him. They got to Shaftesbury Avenue, turned and walked back.

“I tell you the place is in this street,” Heather said. “The ‘Jim-Jam’ – haven’t you ever heard of it?”

“Are you sure?” Mr Severn asked.

“Of course I’m sure. It’s on the left-hand side. We’ve missed it somehow.”

“Well, I’m sick of walking up and down looking for it,” Maidie said. It’s a lousy hole anyway. I don’t particularly want to go, do you?’

“Not particularly,” said Mr Severn.

“There it is,” Heather said. ‘We’ve passed it twice. It’s changed its name, that’s what.”

They went up a narrow stone staircase and on the first landing a man with a yellow face appeared from behind drawn curtains and glared at them. Heather smiled. “Good evening, Mr Johnson. I’ve brought two friends along.”

“Three of you? That’ll be fifteen shillings?”

“I thought it was half-a-crown entrance,” Maidie said so aggressively that Mr Johnson looked at her with surprise and explained, “This is a special night.”

“The orchestra’s playing rotten, anyway,” Maidie remarked when they got into the room.

An elderly woman wearing steel-rimmed glasses was serving behind the bar. The mulatto who was playing the saxophone leaned forward and whooped.

“They play so rotten,” Maidie said, when the party was seated at a table against the wall, “that you’d think they were doing it on purpose.”

“Oh stop grumbling,” Heather said. “Other people don’t agree with you. The place is packed every night. Besides, why should they play well. What’s the difference?”

“Ah-ha,” Mr Severn said.

“There isn’t any difference if you ask me. It’s all a lot of talk.”

“Quite right. All an illusion,” Mr Severn agreed. “A bottle of ginger ale,” he said to the waiter.

Heather said, “We’ll have to have a bottle of whisky. You don’t mind, do you, dear?”

“Don’t worry, child, don’t worry,” Mr Severn said. “It was only my little joke… a bottle of whisky,” he told the waiter.

“Will you pay now, if you please?” the waiter asked when he brought the bottle.

“What a price!” Maidie said, frowning boldly at the waiter. “Never mind, by the time I’ve had a few goes at this I ought to have forgotten my troubles.”

Heather pinched up her lips. “Very little for me.”

“Well, it’s going to be drunk,” Mr Severn said. “Play Dinah,” he shouted at the orchestra.

The saxophonist glanced at him and tittered. Nobody else took any notice.

“Sit down and have a drink, won’t you?” Heather clutched at Mr Johnson’s sleeve as he passed the table, but he answered loftily, “Sorry, I’m afraid I can’t just now,” and passed on.

“People are funny about drinking,” Maidie remarked. ‘They get you to buy as much as they can and then afterwards they laugh at you behind your back for buying it. But on the other hand, if you try to get out of buying it, they’re damned rude. Damned rude, they can be. I went into a place the other night where they have music – the International Café, they call it. I had a whisky and I drank it a bit quick because I was thirsty and feeling down and so on. Then I thought I’d like to listen to the music – they don’t play so badly there because they say they’re Hungarians – and a waiter came along, yelling ‘Last drinks’. ‘Can I have some water?’ I said. ‘I’m not here to serve you with water,’ he said. ‘This isn’t a place to drink water in,’ he said, just like that. So loud! Everybody was staring at me.”

“Well, what do you expect?” Heather said. “Asking for water! You haveat got any sense. No more for me, thank you.” She put her hand over her glass.

“Don’t you trust me?” Mr Severn asked, leering.

“I don’t trust anybody. For why? Because I don’t want to be let down, that’s why.”

“Sophisticated, she is,” said Maidie.

“I’d rather be sophisticated than a damned pushover like you,” Heather retorted. “You don’t mind if I go and talk to some friends over there, do you, dear?”

“Admirable.” Mr Severn watched her cross the room. “Admirable. Disdainful debonair and with a touch of the tarbrush too, or I’m much mistaken. Just my type. One of my types. Why is it that she isn’t quite – Now, why?” He took a yellow pencil out of his pocket and began to draw on the tablecloth.

Pictures, pictures, pictures… Face, faces, faces…. Like hyaenas, like swine, like goats, like apes, like parrots. But not tigers, because tigers are better-looking, aren’t they? as Hans says.


Maidie was saying. “They’ve got an awfully nice ‘Ladies’ here. I’ve been having a chat with the woman; she’s a friend of mine. The window was open and the street looked so cool and peaceful. That’s why I’ve been so long.”

“London is getting very odd, isn’t it?” Mr Severn said in a thick voice. “Do or see that tall female over there, the one in the backless evening gown? Of course, I’ve got my own theory about backless evening gowns, but this isn’t the moment to tell you of it. Well, that sweetiepie’s got to be at Brixton tomorrow morning at a quarter-past nine to give a music lesson. And her greatest ambition is to get a job as a stewardess on a line running to South Africa.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that?” Maidie said.

“Nothing – I just thought it was a bit mixed. Never mind. And do you see that couple over there at the bar? The lovely dark brown couple. Well, I went over to have a change of drinks and got into conversation with them. I rather palled up with the man, so I asked them to come and see me one day. When I gave them my address the girl said at once ‘Is that in Mayfair?’ ‘Good Lord, no; it’s the darkest, dingiest Blomsbury.’ ‘I didn’t come to London to go to the slums,’ she said with the most perfect British accent, high, sharp, clear and shattering. Then she turned her back on me and hauled the man off to the other end of the bar.”

Girls always cotton on to things quicker.’ Maidie asserted.

“The social climate of a place?” said Mr Severn. “Yes, I suppose they do. But some men aren’t so slow either. Well, well, tigers are better-looking, aren’t they?”

“You haven’t been doing too badly with the whisky, dear, have you?” Maidie said rather uneasily. “What’s all this about tigers?”

Mr Severn again addressed the orchestra in a loud voice. “Play Dinah. I hate that bloody tune you keep playing. It’s always the same one too. You can’t fool me. Play Dinah, is there anyone finer? That’s a good old tune.”

“I shouldn’t shout so loud,” Maidie said. “They don’t like it here if you shout. Don’t you see the way Johnson’s looking at you?”

“Let him look.”

“Oh, do shut up. He’s sending the waiter to us now.”

“Obscene drawings on the tablecloths not allowed here,” the waiter said as he approached.

“Go to hell,” Mr Severn said. “What obocene drawings?”

Maidie nudged him and shook her head violently.

The waiter removed the tablecloth and brought a clean one. He pursed his lips up as he spread it and looked severely at Mr Severn. “No drawings of any description on tablecloths are allowed here.” he said.

“I’ll draw as much as I like.” Mr Severn said defiantly. And the next thing he knew two men had him by the collar and were pushing him towards the door.

“You let him alone,” said Maidie. “He hasn’t done anything. You are a lot of sugars.”

“Gently, gently.” said Mr Johnson, perspiring. “What do you want to be so rough for? I’m always telling you to do it quietly.”

As he was being hauled past the bar, Mr Severn saw Heather, her eyes beady with disapproval, her plump face lengthened into something twice the size of life. He made a hideous grimace at her.

“My Lawd,” she said, and averted her eyes. “My Lawd!’

Only four men pushed them down the stairs, but when they were out in the street it looked more like fourteen, and all howling and booing. “Now, who are all these people?” Mr Severn thought. Then someone hit him. The man who had hit him was exactly like the waiter who had changed the tablecloth. Mr Severn hit back as hard as he could and the waiter, if he was the waiter, staggered against the wall and toppled slowly to the ground. “I’ve knocked him down,” Mr Severn thought. “Knocked him down!”

“Tally-ho!” he yelled in a high voice. “What price the tame grey mare?”

The waiter got up, hesitated, thought better of it, turned round and hit Maidie instead.

“Shut up, you bloody basket,” somebody said when she began to swear, and kicked her. Three men seized Mr Severn, ran him off the pavement and sprawled him in the middle of Wardour Street. He lay there, feeling sick. listening to Maidie. The lid was properly off there.

“Yah!” the crowd round her jeered. “Boo!” Then it opened up, servile and respectful, to let two policemen pass.

“You big blanks,” Maidie yelled defiantly. “You something somethings. I wasn’t doing anything. That man knocked me down. How much does Johnson pay you every week for this?”

Mr Severn got up, still feeling very sick. He heard a voice: “That’s ‘im. That’s the chap. That ‘im what started everything.” Two policemen took him by the arms and marched him along. Maidie, also between two policemen, walked in front, weeping. As they passed through Piccadilly Circus, empty and desolate, she wailed, “I’ve lost my shoe. I must stop and pick it up. I can’t walk without it.”

The older policeman seemed to want to force her on, but the younger one stopped, picked the shoe up and gave it to her with a grin.

“What’s she want to cry for?” Mr Severn thought. He shouted “Hoi, Maidie, cheer up. Cheer up, Maidie.”

“None of that,” one of his policeman said.

But when they arrived at the police station she had stopped crying, he was glad to see. She powdered her face and began to argue with the sergeant behind the desk.

“You want to see a doctor, do you?” the sergeant said.

“I certainly do. It’s a disgrace, a perfect disgrace.”

“And do you also want to see a doctor?” the sergeant asked, coldly polite, glancing at Mr Severn.

“Why not?” Mr Severn answered.

Maidie powdered her face again and shouted, “God save Ireland. To hell with all dirty sneaks and Comic Cuts and what-have-yous.”

“That was my father speaking,” she said over her shoulder as she was led off.


As soon as Mr Severn was locked into a cell he lay down on the bunk and went to sleep. When they woke him to see the doctor he was cold sober.

“What time is it?” the doctor asked. With a clock over his head, the old fool!

Mr Severn answered coldly “A quarter-past four.”

“Walk straight ahead. Shut your eyes and stand on one leg,” the doctor demanded, and the policemen watching this performance sneered vaguely, like schoolboys when the master baits an unpopular one.

When he got back to his cell Mr Severn could not sleep. He lay down, stared at the lavatory seat and thought of the black eye he would have in the morning. Words and meaningless phrases still whirled tormentingly round in his head.

He read the inscriptions on the grim walls. “Be sure your sins will find you out. B. Lewis.” “Anne is a fine girl, one of the best, and I don’t care who knows it. (Signed) Charlie S.” Somebody else had written up, “Lord, save me; I perish.” and underneath, “SOS, SOS, SOS (Signed) G.R.”

“Appropriate,” Mr Severn thought, took his pencil from his pocket, wrote, “SOS, SOS, SOS (Signed) N.S.” and dated it.

Then he lay down with his face to the wall and saw, on a level with his eyes, the words, “I died waiting”.


Sitting in the prison van before it started, he heard somebody whistling The Londonderry Air and a girl talking and joking with the policemen. She had a deep, soft voice. The appropriate adjective came at once into his mind – a sexy voice.

“Sex, sexy,” he thought. “Ridiculous word! What a give-away!”

“What is wanted,” he decided, “is a brand-new lot of words, words that will mean something. The only word that means anything now is death – and then it has to be my death. Your death doesn’t mean much.”

The girl said, “Ah, if I was a bird and had wings, I could fly away, couldn’t I?”

“Might get shot as you went,” one of the policemen answered.

“This must be a dream.” Mr Severn thought. He listened for Maidie’s voice, but there was not a sound of her. Then the van started.

It seemed a long way to Bow Street. As soon as they got out of the van he saw Maidie, looking as if she had spent the whole night in tears. She put her hand up to her hair apologetically.

“They took my handbag away. It’s awful.”

“I wish it had been Heather,” Mr Severn thought. He tried to smile kindly.

“It’ll soon be over now, we’ve only got to plead guilty.”

And it was over very quickly. The magistrate hardly looked at them, but for reasons of his own he fined them each thirty shillings, which entailed telephoning to a friend, getting the money sent by special messenger and an interminable wait.

It was half-past twelve when they were outside in Bow Street. Maidie stood hesitating, looking worse than ever in the yellowish, livid light. Mr Severn hailed a taxi and offered to take her home. It was the least he could do, he told himself. Also the most.


“Oh, your poor eye!” Maidie said. “Does it hurt?”

“Not at all now. I feel astonishingly well. It must have been good whisky.”

She stared into the cracked mirror of her handbag.

“And don’t I look terrible too? But it’s no use; I can’t do anything with my face when it’s as bad as this.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Oh, well,” she said, “I was feeling pretty bad on account of the way that chap knocked me down and kicked me, and afterwards on account of the way the doctor asked me my age. ‘This woman’s very drunk,’ he said. But I wasn’t, was I?… Well, and when I got back into the cell, the first thing I saw was my own name written up. My Christ, it did give me a turn! Gladys Reilly – that’s my real name. Maidie Richards is only what I call myself. There it was staring me in the face. ‘Gladys Reilly, October 15th, 1934…’ Besides, I hate being locked up. Whenever I think of all these people they lock up for years I shiver all over.”

“Yes,” Mr Severn said, “so do I.” I died waiting.

“I’d rather die quick, wouldn’t you?”


“I couldn’t sleep and I kept on remembering the way the doctor said, ‘How old are you?’ And all the policemen round were laughing, as if it was a joke. Why should it be such a joke. But they’re hard up for jokes, aren’t they? So when I got back I couldn’t stop crying. And when I woke up I hadn’t got my bag. The wardress lent me a comb. She wasn’t so bad. But I do feel fed up…”

“You know the room I was waiting in while you were telephoning for money?” she said. “There was such a pretty girl there.”

“Was there?”

“Yes, a very dark girl. Rather like Dolores del Rio, only younger. But it isn’t the pretty ones who get on – oh no, on the contrary. For instance, this girl. She couldn’t have been prettier – lovely, she was. And she was dressed awfully nicely in a black coat and skirt and a lovely clean white blouse and a little white hat and lovely stockings and shoes. But she was frightened. She was so frightened that she was shaking all over. You saw somehow that she wasn’t going to last it out. No, it isn’t being pretty that does it… And there was another one, with great hairy legs and no stockings, only sandals. I do think that when people have hairy legs they ought to wear stockings, don’t you? Or do something about it. But no, she was just laughing and joking and you saw whatever happened to her she’d come out all right. A great big, red, square face she had, and those hairy legs. But she didn’t care a damn.”

“Perhaps it’s being sophisticated,” Mr Severn suggested, “like your friend Heather.”

“Oh, her – no, she won’t get on either. She’s too ambitious, she wants too much. She’s so sharp she cuts herself, as you might say… No, it isn’t being pretty and it isn’t being sophisticated. It’s being – adapted, that’s what it is. And it isn’t any good wanting to be adapted, you’ve got to be born adapted.”

“Very clear,” Mr Severn said. Adapted to the livid sky, the ugly houses, the grinning policemen, the placards in shop windows.

“You’ve got to be young, too. You’ve got to be young to enjoy a thing like this – younger than we are,” Maidie said as the taxi drew up.

Mr Severn stared at her, too shocked to be angry.

“Well, goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” said Mr Severn, giving her a black look and ignoring her outstretched hand. “We” indeed!


Two-hundred and ninety-six steps along Coptic Street. One-hundred and twenty round the corner. Forty stairs up to his flat. A dozen inside it. He stopped counting.

His sitting room looked well, he thought, in spite of the crumpled papers. It was one of its good times, when the light was just right, when all the incongruous colours and shapes became a whole – the yellow-white brick wall with several of the Museum pigeons perched on it, the silvered drainpipe, the chimneys of every fantastical shape, round, square, pointed, and the odd one with the mysterious hole in the middle through which the grey, steely sky looked at you, the solitary trees – all framed in the silver oilcloth curtains (Hans’s idea), and then with a turn of his head he saw the woodcuts from Amsterdam, the chintz-covered armchairs, the fading bowl of flowers in the long mirror.

An old gentleman wearing a felt hat and carrying a walking-stick passed the window. He stopped, took off his hat and coat and, balancing the stick on the end of his nose, walked backwards and forwards, looking up expectantly. Nothing happened. Nobody thought him worth a penny. He put his hat and coat on again and, carrying the stick in a respectable manner, vanished round the corner. And, as he did so, the tormenting phrases vanished too – “Who pays? Will you pay now, please? You don’t mind if I leave you, dear? I died waiting, I died waiting. (Or was it I died hating?) That was my father speaking. Pictures, pictures, pictures. You’ve got to be young. But tigers are better-looking, aren’t they? SOS, SOS, SOS. If I was a bird and had wings I could fly away, couldn’t I? Might get shot as you went. But tigers are better-looking, aren’t they? You’ve got to be younger than we are…” Other phrases, suave and slick, took their place.

The swing’s the thing, the cadence of the sentence. He had got it.

He looked at his eye in the mirror, then sat down at the typewriter and with great assurance rapped out “JUBILEE…”



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