THE BEARS OF THE OLDER COUSINS
Had he been born some five years earlier, some ten years before – had he been born in the decade prior to his own, his parents would have bought him a different teddy-bear and his whole life’s values would have been otherwise placed. Our obsessive temporal organisation of the world shunts history into tidy epochs like lead soldiers into toy boxes; gives decades fixed sentiments like the personalities behind the faces of blown-vinyl dolls. This is Judith she is caring; these are the nineteen-nineties they are caring also. It leads often to one self-defined generation reacting in opposition to the one before it; and he knew from the pillowcases of his elder cousins that his position in the world was more fulfilling, was more of substance than their own. For there, in these half-familiar bedrooms that had awakened to the moon landings or – though muffled – had quaked to a neighbour’s first discovery of Judas Priest, sat bears in pelts of purple and electric blue. Sat bears with glass eyes of vibrant orange. Sat bears with limbs that were not jointed, but presented outwardly as if for crucifixion. They bore little to the naturalist representation of the grizzly; they bore little, indeed, to the artful representation of the teddy-bear. The bears of the older cousins, a species apart from his own, were mindful of the furthest reaches of imagination. They were produced by brains that assumed spectacle; whether in landing on the moon or in the stuffing of kapok into stitched, plush templates. They were vibrant, but they were cheap. They were often, as it turned out, extremely flammable.
LANCELOT IS A FAWN BEAR. HE IS 43cm TALL
His bear, was not like this. Lancelot stood at forty-three centimetres, a height he was comfortable in assuming, born when he was, and unaware of any other measuring system that may have been used before his time. His fur was synthetic, but was a skilled approximation of mohair. He was not electric blue. Lancelot was a beige bear – or fawn – he would learn to say. ‘Lancelot,’ he would say, ‘is a fawn bear. He is forty-three centimetres tall.’ Lancelot’s limbs turned on axles at the joints. His head also turned. Lancelot’s eyes were chocolaty brown, with large, dark, penetrating pupils set in his wide, open face. His muzzle was a pale cream, the pads of his hands and feet a soft, buttery velvet. He had large ears much like the boy’s grandfather’s; and he wore a sky-blue tank-top that his mother had made as her only experiment on the electric knitting machine. Around his neck was tied a purple ribbon, once flat and silky, but which curled with wear into a thick, stringish loop.
Put short, he was the best kind of bear.
Not all bears were so well produced as Lancelot at this time. The concerns of the age lay traceable in the dull button eyes and poorly stitched expressions of his contemporaries; in the commercialisation of their form, and the notion that they must do things. But a trend was visible in each, a conservative reaction to the gaudy emptiness of his forebears. Lancelot was a bear of tradition, a bear of security; or so he appeared.
He was only imitation mohair, after all.
THE BABY AND THE BEAR
What a responsibility a bear is given when they are presented to a child. In that moment as they are unwrapped from their paper, they are at once enthroned as lifelong companion, confidant, confessor. The child, barely old enough for memory, will later never know of this moment, there will not be a time before the bear. It will seem as if they were born together. The baby and the bear: like the mixed-up twin children of Dorian Gray. One set to grow and develop in beauty; the other to remain stunted but prematurely go bald. They are bedfellows, they are brothers; and yet in those early years the bear in his deep unfathomable stare has more knowledge of the world than the boy ever can hope for. He is invested with the character developed by the parents’ understanding of how things are. They tell the boy what Lancelot is like. They build for him a self-image that the boy might look up to; take aspects of Winnie the Pooh, of Badger from Wind in the Willows, things that fit those penetrating brown eyes, and stitched pursed mouth. Lancelot emerges as complex as any character from a realist novel.
Of all things, he is inscrutable. He is sensible. He is indignant. Lancelot is a noble bear. He is proud. He is the best sort of bear, and the boy looks up to him.
THE STOICAL BEAR
In the shifting uncertainties of his youth; the foul moods and tempers of the adult world, the rages and tears of the grown-ups he encounters; Lancelot’s steady gaze is a welcome comfort to the boy. Before the television’s onslaught of dangers beyond – the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, the unintelligible punctuation of the IRA’s many bombs – the boy clings to Lancelot’s quiet stoicism for support. He tells the bear everything. He lays beside it every night, and unfolds his many concerns into its empty, velvet paws. The bear understands what he tells it, and he listens with the considered concentration that adults rarely show. The constancy of this bear constructs for him a benchmark for his fellow man. He tells Lancelot:
‘I love you.’
Yet as much as the bear is a partner, the bear and the boy are as one. They are inseparable. At times, in their opinions, it is hard to tell which is bear and which is boy. He builds upon his parents’ depiction of his companion’s character; he shapes him with his own understandings of what is what.
‘I love you, Lancelot. I love you.’
These are words that he only uses for the bear, but he means them with his entire mind. The boy is not soft. He is not soft, as the bear is soft. His head is not filled with stuffing. He knows that the bear is not alive, and any projection he makes upon it is only an extension of his self. There may have been a time when he believed his parents’ stories that his toys came awake when he was asleep, but the boy did not hold that thought that for long. He knows that the bear is merely an object. Yet knowing this does not diminish the power of that inscrutable stare.
The constancy sticks fast. The bear is, and remains, a fixed mark against his changing self. As he creeps longer down the bed, his twin remains seated at the pillow, indignantly refusing to join in the growing game. As his opinions and interests shift, the bear looks on judgementally, reminding him of what he always is.
How the boy changes. He lengthens into a man. He discovers books that he knows the bear will disapprove of, and for the first time he begins to keep secrets from Lancelot. He sometimes turns his bear to face the wall and discovers new things his body is capable of.
These are the nineteen nineties, also. At some point, the boy and the bear become separated. It is a Saturday afternoon and while a Sara Lee Black Forest gateau defrosts on the worktop above the fridge, and the football results creep monotone through the cork-lined hall, the boy is at work tidying his room. Dinner will be ready in five minutes, and isn’t he a little old to be sleeping with his toys? Maybe he would prefer the bed to himself; give him more room. It is put to him like that and the words do not leave much scope for discussion.
Lancelot is put away in a cupboard above the wardrobe, and though he knows it foolish, he seats the bear and apologises to him – apologises perhaps that his childhood had to ever end, apologises maybe that it went on far too long. Apologises that so much feeling was placed upon the bear for it to come to only this. He shuts the door and hopes he has enough air to breathe.
The following years are a distant rumble inside the cupboard. Were the bear to hear, he would hardly notice when the boy goes away searching for answers, out out, into the following decade.
DISCUSS THE INTERPLAY OF SENTIMENTALITY AND REALISM IN COVENTRY PATMORE’S POETIC DEPICTIONS OF CHILDHOOD
‘What I think is underappreciated –’ he once would say, ‘what I think is underappreciated –’ he found himself saying one night after too much whisky, laying on some other man’s bed, ‘what I think is underappreciated is the strength of those bonds and affections that we develop with inanimate objects in our formative years.’
He rubs the back of his hand across the man’s belly, and stares back at the dark moon through the skylight.
‘Don’t you think it’s weird,’ he says, ‘how parents give their children objects through which to explore ideas of interpersonal love? Dolls, bears, they’re the taxidermy of human emotion – that’s what they are. Just think about how long a child must spend with a favourite toy; going to sleep with it every night, staring into its eyes, expressing love and care for it. Which is all well and good, but it bears little resemblance for what human relationships really are. Children bestow identities upon their toys, yet that’s not how it works with people, is it? Those feelings of warmth and affection that are created in the relationship with the toy – that’s the learning that the child has for what they will seek out in their life. I mean that, I really do. I just think it’s natural that if we’ve felt a strong and intense love as a child, we will attempt to seek it out again in adulthood – but the basis for that love, the love felt between a child and a toy, it’s a flawed model – do you see what I’m saying?’
He ran his hand back and forth across the firm, soft flesh of the naked man’s stomach.
‘It’s like– as a kid,’ he said, ‘I mean, for most of my childhood this was, I had this bear. Absolutely gorgeous fawn teddy-bear called Lancelot. I’d go to bed with him every night, and my affection for him was no more or less than it was for my parents. In some ways, perhaps – in some ways, perhaps I’d even say it was stronger. The feelings I had from Lancelot were consistent. He was always there. And I think that now as an adult I’m looking for that again; I’m seeking out in guys the same steady, intense affection that that bear gave me. It’s so messed up! I’m looking for another Lancelot. Only that doesn’t allow any room for the man to have any personality of his own. I’m not looking for a real person at all. I’m looking for an inanimate boyfriend who will love me unrelentingly and upon whom I can place all my preconceptions of what a lover should be. Does that make sense? Does that sound totally mad to you?”
Only the man does not reply. He has been asleep for the last two hours.
THE SAME OBJECTS ARE BEFORE US
He was still seated as he had been in 1992. Little had altered. Bears do not move. He noticed that some of the colour had fallen away inside one of the dark chocolate eyes, a small fleck of clear glass now swam in the heavy brown pool. He took the bear out, and from the pit of his stomach the same emotions revealed themselves. They stirred themselves up and ran warm down to his fingers and his feet.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. The words were involuntary. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. That’s what he said, to the bear he said, ‘I’m sorry.’
Little had altered, but the changes were there. He noted the bear’s skin now sagged slightly, seemed softer than it was. The bright, cream muzzle hard turned a tired grey. He tried to mark the differences, but realised his memory of the bear spanned across many years. Though the bear had seemed never to alter to him, it was plain that as he was becoming a man, Lancelot had also been changing, balding, growing worn. He tried to compare the object in his hands to the memory of the bear, but which point of memory was he supposed to occupy?
He held the bear tight and told him he would never leave him again.
The bear will sleep beside him in the small, unheated basement flat not far from Gloucester Road tube. He will tuck the animal – that once, in its forty-three centimetres seemed almost life-size – beneath his arm and hold him tight whenever he goes to sleep. He will be astonished by the comfort that this small bundle of cloth is still able to give him when the entire world grows dark outside the rusty barred window.
Some nights he will stare back into the dark, round eyes, and the familiarity of the form seems to grip him as if nothing is different, and the innocence of those early thoughts of love still burned in his mind with the force that had conditioned him to them. Some nights everything is perfect.
And other nights, all he can feel is how much has changed. The bear is pressed against his ever-sharpening ribs, or is seated on the dirty bedside table guarding over the small stack of coins that must support him to the end of the month. He feels the changes in the bear itself, feels how the padding has broken down in the once stiff limbs to reveal the circular discs that connect them to the torso.
Most nights he awakens to find the circulation in his arm stopped from where the bear has pressed hard against his prominent bone. The bear begins to lose the familiar smell of his childhood. It absorbs the scraps of meals he cooks on the other side of the room. It acquires the musk of mildew that creeps up the basement walls. The bear sits through all this, indignant to the fate that has befallen him.
‘I’m sorry, Lancelot,’ he says, ‘I’m sorry that it has come to this.’
Beneath the duvet that has lost its cover, and has never been washed, he digs his fingers around the intersecting discs that allow the bear’s arms to pivot, exploring the mechanism of the toy. He wonders what they are made from, what keeps them in place. He is fully aware that though it is possible to turn the bear’s head a full 360°, he has never once in his life attempted it, for fear that the animal might somehow be killed.
When men come to the bed-sit, he places Lancelot in the small cupboard under the sink. He sits him upright with the bottles of Domestos and the small yellow bags of mouse poison. In part he does not want the men to see this much of him, does not want to reveal his whole life invested in the bear. He is for them an image of what they are seeking; they do not come to know the real man so he is careful not to offer it. More than that, he does not want the bear to see what it is he does with them. He stows the money the men give him in the cupboard with the bear.
There is often just enough.