|[Photo credit: Tim Flach, via Pinterest]|
Miss Olivia Shoreditch had been in her bed for three days straight. She had her reasons, though reason itself had deserted her. There was nothing about it she could recall through any medium but her gut instinct. A terrible thing had occurred, she knew, though not what; she was attempting to recover, and she must get up slowly as there was an angry bear in the corner of her room.
I will describe to you the bear.
If it were in front of us now the first attribute to draw our attention would be the phenomenal size of it. It was standing upright, its head curved along the ceiling, hunched from the shoulders. Darkly purplish fur, thick and warm looking, the texture attractive, imbued with an aroma of stale blood, rank and coppery. Claws, lacquered black - hiding any sort of dirt - light slid along the curve of them. Teeth in dark gums were creamy coloured, stained in rusty blotches. Saliva hung pendulous, a burgundy tongue loitered. Eyes were discernible as glints. A rumble emitted from it.
Olivia gets out of bed, slowly, as her gut advises. The rumble is giving her a headache, the smell makes her feel sick. She puts her feet on the floor. The bear growls. Olivia feels her bladder pressing full. So she stands up, punches that bear in the centre of his belly, runs downstairs to the bathroom. The door is not strong enough to hold out an angry bear, but by the time he has made his lumbering way down the small staircase she is done in the bathroom and has dressed herself in some old overalls that had been conveniently left on the towel rail. They glower at each other for a moment.
‘I can’t be bothered with breakfast,’ she snaps, ‘let’s just take this outside!’
But the bear sits down, and opens a canvas bag he has strung across his shoulders. He takes out a leg bone, strung with pink stringy scraps, and begins to crunch it up.
‘Well,’ says Olivia, ‘that’s just passive aggressive!’
She has a glass of water, sips it loudly. She drinks only half then slams the glass down on the kitchen worktop.
‘I don’t want a bear! Can’t you listen? You don’t even wrestle, why are you here?’
Nonplussed, the bear continues to chew. Olivia wants to hit him. She wants to hear his bones wrench. She wants to fasten her teeth on his claws and pull them out. She turns her back on him. She sees how nice the kitchen is looking in the morning sun, with washed up mugs standing on the steel drainer, a fresh tea towel hanging on a peg, and those tiles - those tiles with the glint of gold, the exact shade, the exact luminosity of her favourite festival lights. Does she remember? Not quite. A sense of something bright, something elusive, claustrophobically lost under time. She stares. Her eyes become dry then, by recompense, they flood. She is floating in gold flecked water when the bear presses his teeth to the back of her neck. Olivia screams. She runs out of her front door to the yard, the beasts’ claws puncturing her overalls, catching at her skin. Her caterwauls will not stop - she’s made of sharp noise - trapped by a wall she turns, throws herself at the stinking bear, unmatched in strength or size, possessed by survival: she wrestles.
She finds ribs to hit, and soft points of belly and throat. He smothers her, batters her, dots her in flesh wounds. Flowerpots crash. A drainpipe is knocked from the wall. Bins tip and they fight in trash. She throws dirt in his eyes. He throws her to the wall, she can’t breathe. He waits.
‘I’m actually very hungry now.’ Olivia says.
She feels bruises growing, little buds about to bloom, purplish and fierce like the bear himself. The bear nods. His eyes are scratched and sore, the left one weeps a drop of blood.
‘I suppose I should offer you some toast?’
The bear stares. Olivia shrugs, limps back into her house. She cuts two slices of bread while the bear scuffles in his canvas bag. He pulls out a jar of berries, slowly unscrews the lid.
It’s all very well, Olivia considers, while he has food he need not eat me. But how much food does he have? If I cannot defeat him, I had better feed him! But - what shall I feed him? Bones and berries, and what?
Walking to the library followed by a hulking bear she draws some nervous attention. Olivia glares but the animal won’t wait outside. He squeezes in, rumbling, knocking over chairs. She approaches the librarian.
‘I’d like to borrow a book about the diets of bears.’
The librarian stands up carefully, edges around the desk, backs away to the nature section.
‘Here,’ he whispers, without looking at her. He looks only at the bear.
Olivia huffs, scans the shelves. She finds a book on bears, there’s a whole chapter on their eating habits.
‘This will do,’ she says, but instead of showing her library card she pushes the librarian over and just steals the book.
I don’t know why I stole the book, Olivia says to herself. I don’t know why the bear is here! Was it something I did?
She kicks at stones, feels tears brewing back.
Culpable or not, there was still a bear. Fault had little to do with it. She was indeed a book thief - she didn’t know why she had done that. Perhaps she had simply resented the librarian’s bear-free life.
She walks home, the bear lumbering close. She crosses roads recklessly; the bear scares the traffic. A lorry slams on brakes, the car behind skids into it. Olivia supposes that might be her fault too. If the bear is her fault, then the consequences belong to her. But she does not know why the bear is here. She kicks at an empty drinks can. It bounces harmlessly against a wall.
Why is there a bear here? Olivia’s head thumps from thinking. She looks to the sky; it’s a sky with a bear under it. She stares at her feet - feet followed by a bear. Tears roll down her cheek. There is no respite. She doesn’t look at the thing, it makes no difference. No respite.
At home her hands wobble as she fills up the kettle.
‘I will have a cup of tea,’ she says, ‘a nice, normal cup of tea.’
She can smell the bear, it destroys her appetite for a biscuit.
‘I’ll read my stolen book,’ she says, tucking it under her arm, carrying her cup to her most comfortable chair.
She settles herself, putting the cup then the book down on a side table. She will not look at the bear. She pulls her legs up, props the book on her lap, opens it. A piece of paper slips out, a handwritten note. She reads it.
‘If you feed the bear, dear, it will never leave.’
‘I can’t feed it, I can’t not feed it, I can’t defeat it, I don’t want it, I can’t even eat a biscuit coz it smells so bad! What is going on?’
She cries until her tea is cold.
And what does the bear do?
He curls up and sleeps.
Olivia is hungry and tired. Her mind is a mess, even her gut instinct is puzzled. She sees that the bear is deep in sleep.
She will sneak away, she thinks, get some distance between them, then she might be able to think and feel clearly.
She tiptoes out of the house, down the road. How lovely it is, just to walk. Birds in trees are singing, not fleeing; no traffic screeches to a halt, no one is staring. She strolls, hands in pockets, finds enough change clinking there to buy lunch. She orders at the counter, pays, chooses a table.
How lovely this is, she is thinking, how lovely, how lovely. I shall probably have an idea any minute now.
She says yes to mayonnaise, and heaps of black pepper. She eats the little biscuit that perches on her saucer. She’s aware of the sky outside, cloudless, and how the trees are turning their leaves to gold fire, and children in wellington boots are fire walkers, and everything is magic when there’s nothing to infuriate.
The bear is waiting for her, on the pavement.
‘Dammit,’ Olivia sighs. Her stomach is heavy, she does not feel ready for a fight.
They stare at each other for a while. Olivia puzzles over her brief escape - if she had enjoyed the bear not being there, was that, in a way, still thinking about the bear? The absence was bear shaped, so she had not entirely left it behind?
‘I suppose I have to defeat you then,’ she says.
They begin to circle. The bear growls. Olivia shows her teeth. Dark claws flex. Fists are clenched tight. Their circle changes direction, they pace, slow, edge closer. Olivia brings her elbows to her ribs. As the bear makes its leap, she punches out, feels her hand squash the dense fur, then her face is in the fur, the bear has her in an embrace, he means to suffocate her. She twists her face free, and kicks the bear in his groin. He yelps, she pushes, kicks more, bites his paw-knuckles - but he hugs back, pulls her up. She kicks him in the belly with little effect, then seizes his throat, finding his windpipe with both her hands. At this, he drops her, she jumps back. A crowd has gathered, and - a gun - she sees that a gun is pointed at the bear.
Olivia stops. She looks at the bear. He tips his head, which makes him seem puzzled.
‘They’ll shoot you,’ she tells him.
The bear sits down.
‘They’ll shoot you,’ Olivia repeats.
She imagines the bear lying bloodied and dead, all the glint gone from his eyes. She looks into his eyes. She sees, reflected, autumn leaves, and herself, like she is gazing on the surface of a lake, and the leaves drift there, and perhaps it is midnight and the stars are mirrored too. The whole universe, drifting over an infinite lake, all in the eyes of this: my bear. She feels as though she is floating, in the lake, in the universe, held in that calm night.
‘I’m sorry I was angry,' she whispers, ‘it’s just been a difficult day.’
‘Don’t shoot my bear.’ Olivia faces the crowd. ‘Honestly, I’m fine. We were just being boisterous.’
‘It’s dangerous,’ someone says.
‘Well, of course. He is a bear. I shouldn't have brought him out here. I’ll take him home. Come on, bear.’
She walks away. The bear follows.
‘I still don’t really want a bear,’ she says, ‘but I’m sort of getting used to you, I suppose.’
He scuffles in the leaves, snorts companionably. They fall to walking side by side. She opens her garden gate to let him through. He turns his head to the woods; he looks back at her, and she sees none of the universe, only his usual sly glinting, before he turns away all together and hefts his bulk towards the trees.