There were thirteen of them: the photographer, two wardrobe assistants, two hair and makeup artists, a lighting technician, photographer’s assistant, journalist, three wranglers for the tiger, and two extras who were either nannies for the photographer or the tiger.
The tigers. Donna, my publicist, hadn’t said anything about that.
‘You didn’t say anything about tigers,’ I said, phoning her as soon as it became apparent the tiger hadn’t been brought because the photographer was in some sort of intense relationship with it. Despite language barriers – he was Colombian – it was clear he expected Sara and I to be photographed with it. No cage. No protective gear. Not even a rusty Ned Kelly helmet.
‘I didn’t take you for being the hysterical kind Andy,’ Donna said. ‘It’s not part of our media strategy.’
‘But tigers – it’s a bit Vegas, isn’t it? It’s not like I’m an over-the-hill magician or balding crooner.’
‘It’ll be tastefully done, don’t worry. You want some kind of edge, some aspect of danger to cancel out the drug connection. And it ties in with your charity,’ she said. ‘Tigers in Rehab.’
‘I didn’t know tigers could have substance abuse issues.’
She coughed irritably. ‘Thought it up myself. We’re rebranding the existing tiger sanctuary in SwasiZimbabaBowana. Your face is already hanging on the gate.’
Somehow, that wasn’t very reassuring. I had a ploy up my sleeve, which involved my girlfriend, Sara. ‘Sara’s scared. She doesn’t want to do it.’
‘If you’ll pardon my French,’ said Donna, ‘that’s complete bulldust. This is right up Sara’s alley. She’ll be cuddling that thing like it’s a soft toy.’
She wasn’t wrong. Sara was immediately besotted with “Botticelli”, stroking it before anyone had said it was safe to do so, and pleading with the handler to give her its lead. Fortunately, he’d refused. She’d patted it, cuddled it, rubbed noses with it and if I hadn’t intervened would have shoved her head inside its mouth.
‘Look at him – he’s just a big pussycat,’ she protested.
Botticelli obliged by licking his front paw and artfully cleaning his nose, kitten-like.
‘He’s a tiger,’ I said. ‘He eats elephants for a snack.’
‘He’s tame, and he’s only a year old. Anyway, his trainer will make sure nothing happens.’
‘Really? Check out his arms.’
She was about to say something but clamped her mouth shut. She’d obviously already noticed his arms. They were criss-crossed with white, raised scars.
‘Kevin wants you and Sara on the settee and we’ll bring Botticelli up behind you,’ said somebody’s assistant. ‘If he growls, don’t move. It sets him off.’
I sat frozen on the cream leather couch in my matching cream mock-casual designer Armani suit and loafers, my arm stiff around Sara’s shoulders, waiting for Botticelli to rear up from behind at any moment and devour my head in a single, incisor-guided chomp.
‘Relax,’ said the South American photographer’s assistant, interpreting Kevin’s instructions, ‘imagine you on tropical island, drinking big pina colada. Viva la vida!’
I smiled into the camera, telling myself that myself that Botticelli had been reared in captivity, was a juvenile, had just been fed a huge meal, and was neutered. So even if he ate me he wouldn’t be able to impregnate me first.
Then it came. A force dragging the couch cushions backwards, a whoosh of hot hair, a tidal wave of bad breath.
‘Hello sweetie,’ said Sara. She wasn’t talking to me.
Click, click, click. I could hear the camera whirring.
‘Shouldn’t we be running away?’ I said, not daring to move my head. ‘Slowly, obviously.’
‘Look, he’s licking your hair,’ said Sara. ‘He likes you.’
There was a rabble of approving noises from behind the camera.
‘Kevin say, “Turn to lady and kiss”,’ the photographer’s assistant said. “For it is el amore, no?’
Big kitten, this is just a big kitten. Big kitten. Big tabby. Orange stripes. No probs. No big deal. Kitten, tabby, kitten, tabby. My neck as stiff as a flagpole, I turned my head slowly to see a huge vertical pupil looking into mine.
‘Isn’t that cute! He’s jealous.’
The last thing I remembered thinking before I slumped into the leather, was that with Sara and I both wearing cream clothes on a cream couch, the only one of us that would come out of this looking any good would be the tiger.