A childhood teddy bear is the lens through which romantic and familial relationships are explored, in this darkly comic and tender short story by Laetitia Erskine.
1. The teddy bear is cute, in so far as all teddy bears are cute.
Divorcees are the next rung up from widows. Not that I know a lot of widows. I met the last one in a forum for single women I tried. ‘Company is the best therapy,’ its tagline was. She cancelled me first. Something about me being caught in false assumptions that our lives were on a similar cosmic level, she said (I ask you). But I know enough widows and enough of human nature to see the way they are regarded with a mixture of pity and terror, as though widowhood is a poisonous condition. Stubborn and catching. Shocking and inappropriate. Divorcees however are brazen and free and worldly wise. Occasionally they may flip up their underbelly of jilted and unliveable-with (raw cheek!). But they still have status. Decision-making status. They have power over their lives, a shaping hand in their situation. They have options. They come scarlet-clad, driving their own vehicles. They wear hats and rehome their pets (Baxter really missed having a man about the house, it was cruel to keep him), they learn new languages and go on exotic holidays.
That’s my story anyway. Or it isn’t. But I’m going to claim it anyway, by rumour and hearsay, by meme, by hashtag and gif, and make it so.
I was thinking all this, catching sight of my unwashed hair and my hareem pants in the mirror, as I opened the ragged old ottoman we kept at the bottom of our bed. The marital bed, as was. The piece of furniture was variously known as a foot stool, a piano stool, our secret storage, a poof, and most facetiously of all as ‘my darling Turk’ (truly I was suffering an identity crisis during our marriage). Usually, this item was covered in at least a week’s discarded clothing. Heaps of it, constantly rotating and acquiring new rumples and layers, and for this reason our cat, when she was alive, shunned it as a place to nap. With fewer clothes let loose on it now, I opened it up, the determination to clear, confront and declutter in mind; to my find my husband’s worn lumberjack shirts, his little used cricket whites, faded denims for painting and gardening, and various sad T-shirts sporting forgettable logos and the cotton nibbled into at the neck. Not one to be put off by phantom threats, I lifted up the pile, intending to bag it up for his collection. I’d text him a time when I’d be out, I thought, rummaging again with renewed efficiency. Underneath, tucked between blue plaid shirt and old school tie, as if waiting his moment to rightfully don these garments and at last go and get the education he deserved, was Minkie. Minkie, that sorry old bear! In a world full of monstrous detail, he turns up, full of silent remonstrations. Minkie! Hiding in the poof all this time, only to face me alone and at my most vulnerable. He was split at the paw, the stuffing weeping out, accusing me of failing in my duties to fix him up and fulfil his destiny.
I slammed the box shut and sat on it, clutching my knees to my chin as if I could keep the nightmare jack-in-the-box from springing open and regaling me with high-pitched calls of, ‘Surprise, it’s your divorce-day!’ or should that be ‘Happy Divorsary!’ Scary, I think, and it makes me laugh like a drunk. I spend a minute thinking up other anodyne jingles for life’s milestones. Today is the beginning of the rest of your life! Every ending is the start of a new fantasy/emotional rollercoaster/avenue to the stars. Reach for them, go, GO!
2. Teddy bears are a unique and mystically sentient reflection of the human self.
When we moved into this place, it was the third time we had carried box after box upstairs and stacked them in corners. It was the third time we jangled a new keyring full of possibilities, then kissed, then dropped the keys, picked them up and kissed again. It was the third time we heralded a new home with the jigsaw of our bodies, revelling in our nakedness in pure daylight with no furniture or bedding to cushion us – this new time recalling the old time and the time before that, when we only had a room in a shared flat to ourselves.
(Love sometimes feels like a matter of repetition. This is not a belittling thought. Repetition is grand and infinite – living proof over mere words. Greetings when you come home. Tea-making in the morning. Undoing the other’s small bad habit as you go along with no further signalling. Simply erasing their ignoring the laundry basket, and the soapy shavings lining the basin, and the teabags in the sink. If you can repeat all these acts ad infinitum, clear them away with no bitter tinge to the detail, the repetition, the accrual and yet the attrition, then you are married in spirit above form.)
This time, the time we moved into our future and forever home, Minkie stayed in one of the boxes for at least the first several turns of the seasons. Until we began to forget we had been there two, three, four years, until the melding of time began. In the beginning, we had no need of a teddy bear’s alphabet of love. Ours was already obvious enough.
3. Teddy bears are soft on the outside and hard on the inside.
You declared this day the perfect day to spring clean. Sunny, dry, and hungover. We would unload all the boxes stashed in the shed and sort through them. Keep, throw, or recycle. One or the other and no dithering.
‘You can wear those tiny shorts all day. And that vest and no bra. We can get sweaty together. Come, let’s get this place sorted.’
I’m not sure now if I had already begun to worry what the point was. Was it just us, and this? The house and garden? The grass felt cool and scratchy underfoot, the colours double vivid in the new season’s light. Our voices carried in the air with the deliberation of speech bubbles hovering on the low trellis, too audible to neighbours. We had no need to be covert. We had a prideful compulsion to be ordinary and exhibit ourselves as such.
You opened a cardboard removal box and discovered the old tools you’d been looking for. Glad I didn’t buy another drill, you congratulated yourself. Look how many screwdrivers I’ve collected in my time. I used to keep hash in here, and now look, we got billions of picture hooks, babe.
You opened another box with books in, then another of photos. We should start printing photos out again. Make some albums. You opened a box of old National Geographics. Well, this one’s easy. Why I bothered to lug these about… Straight on the recycling. You opened a box of board games, and Minkie was slotted down the side of one. Look, it’s your old friend. You said it in such tones of charm – as if by virtue of being mine, he was your bear too – and a sudden wave of nostalgia lurched me. Silly Old Bear, you said. Then you tossed Minkie at me as I was standing up from inspecting a box containing folded curtains of dubious floral design. The bear hit me surprisingly hard. Oi,I said.
That didn’t hurt.
It can’t have.
Well, it did.
Yeah, you should be.
Well, I said I was.
Mm, I said.
What does that mean? you asked me.
What does what mean?
Nothing, I said.
Come ere, you said, and you came up to me, took my hand, while in the other I held the bear, and you led me back inside. It was cool in the house and we realised how hungover we were from the night before, or maybe we were still a bit drunk. Minkie’s real fur pelt was so soft and cool from its hiding place, it felt almost wet as we passed from the heat of the day to the dim inside. I wiped the sweat down my nose with the back of my free hand.
Hot, hot, hot! you said.
As you moved in to kiss me, you prised the bear from my arms. I was reluctant to let go, but my desire for you was greater. You took the bear and held it at arm’s length, level with your face, like a patriarch surveying his offspring in all its frabjousness. Calloo, callay! You spun around, calling, What a bear! Look, it’s practically human. You stumbled between walls and furniture, the dance overspilling, pulling yourself together with the bear in both hands like the only still point and force capable of keeping you upright. When you recovered to standing, you held the bear up close to your face, its plastic eyes and nose out towards me. See my beautiful beard. So soft and slinky. Slinky Minkie. You tried to jam that bear face on mine, and as I resisted, another flight took you and you danced with it at arm’s length, then brought the bear back up to your face, made it a mouthpiece. Oh, dance with us do, my lady love, If only I were as human as you, you crooned. If only I was as hairless as you. This had you creasing in laughter, and as this madness took hold, and I stood on its threshold, I saw no other way than forward and began to laugh manically too. We were gasping and tearing up and doubling over. You saw me infected with it, saw how your ursine narrative had run away on its own short legs, and your gear changed. You transferred the bear to your crotch and began a hip sway and shuffle. Advancing at me with a leer, your two hairy faces drove into me, yours no longer so much human as bear’s. Come, my pretty, who’s been sleeping in my bed? Who’s been eating with my spoon?
Stop it, stop it, I shouted. Oh my god. I made a grab for Minkie, and slid down to the floor, holding him in the cradle of my body.
4. Teddy bears are hard on the outside and soft on the inside.
When I first owned the bear, I did not play with it, and so it did not become the sacred object I wanted it to be. By the time I received Minkie, it was too late. The order of things had lost their porous boundaries. Instead, it became a symbol of such an object, and that at least I appreciated. A symbol is a symbol is a symbol, after all. He sat on the bookshelf in my teenage room. These shelves had once held my sticker books, my jar of smelly rubbers, my lego creations and games stacked up, the boxes collapsed. Now those had dispersed, and books and files lined the space, with Minkie presiding over them, a silent avatar of all the toys gone before. Perhaps my parents had done something really clever in giving me this hard bear upholstered in an outlawed substance. They had zero tolerance when I tried to become a vegetarian. You can make up your own fads when you leave this house, but while you’re here and still growing, you can eat what’s provided. Minkie arrived not long later, come to think of it, sailing in on a wave of triumph, mute but eloquent. I shall wear real fur, and you shall love me despite all. You didn’t choose your parents either. But they chose me.
Sometimes I did stroke bear. Was that his name? His real name? Bear? More than any other name? Minkie never altogether caught on. But I did stroke him, for the comfort to be found in soft bodies and mammalian features.
5. Its eyes may be plastic, but its heart is warm and real.
‘Who’s this,’ he said. ‘He is a Beautiful Bear.’ University boyfriend walked around examining my room. He was a man who smiled often. He had big lips and burnished skin and an upright demeanour. He was not diminished by smiling. It gave him the air, the slightly superior air of bearing a secret about life. I caught myself wondering if all that smiling in non-humorous situations made him a bit of a clown, but that was another thing I was wrong about. Perhaps he understood bear’s secret, his power to bear a permanent and enigmatic smile, his magnificent forbearance.
He picked up bear and stroked his head. ‘So soft,’ he said. He lifted bear to his face and stroked him back along his own cheek. He did not have the teddy bear qualities my future husband sometimes had though, not inside nor outside.
‘Mary doesn’t like you touching her things,’ said my new friend Tishani. ‘She’s sensitive that way.’
‘Oh, I don’t think she minds too much,’ said University boyfriend.
Not too much. Not too much.
In bed after Tishani left, he was all tenderness and attention, and then all helter skelter and greedy. Feast or famine, the phrase presented itself to me as I pondered whether the Klimt poster of The Kiss I’d bluetacked to the wall was all too pretentious and predictable. He sat up and swung his legs to the floor with a sigh. Then he got up, displaying smooth butt cheeks and a mesh of hair that ended in a line at the top of his thighs, as though shaded on in charcoal or he’d forgotten to take his stockings off. He went over to the bear.
‘I think it’s charming you brought this with you from home. Where’s he from? Have you had him all your life?’
But I didn’t want to answer his questions. He was wrong to appreciate that bear. I was wrong to bring it with me too. The next day I stuffed Minkie in the back of my cupboard and didn’t return University boyfriend’s calls.
6. Teddy bears cannot withstand changes in atmospheric condition and the passage of time.
Later came the time (too much time) when Minkie sat on the bookshelf in our bedroom, staring out and occasionally given a little shove so his backside wedged between paperbacks pushed close to the wall. Then the duster came out, dusted the lot (although, like Minkie himself, dusting fur is a misnomer, an oxymoron; it doesn’t work), and every book was returned to stand in line three inches (or a teddy bear’s bum width) from the edge of the shelves. Then we ignored him again and he ignored us.
You went away for work for a week. You phoned me every night, even though I told you not to. I asked you about the conference, the bar, the dinners, the women. You were evasive and rounded the conversation back on me, but I suspected that was because there was nothing to tell. I sat on the ottoman at the end of our bed asking you questions back, staring at my ghost in the mirror, Minkie intermittently looming into my vision from his perch on the shelf. I was evasive because I had nothing to show you anymore. After the call, I stood up and went over to the shelf. For the first time in years, I picked up Minkie, held him and cried a noisy, hiccoughing downpour. My body was as empty as his, stuffing in my pants filled with waste. He had begun to split at the wrist, curls of putty-coloured fibres leaking out. I pulled the aperture wider, rubbed the stuff between my fingers, drawing it out. The ghost in my mirror put them to her lips. She began to stuff that stuffing in her mouth, more and more. But it was no good. It plugged a gap with only inanimate matter, and proved teddy bear was now, after all, inanimate too.
7. The teddy bear is a gift from your parents, therefore it is good.
As I said, in some hinterland of my teenage years, my parents gave me a mink bear. If there was something contradictory in giving me a stuffed toy upholstered in real fur, I couldn’t define it at the time. Stranger to me was my parents going out together, noticing this object, and together deciding it was destined as a gift from them to me. ‘Just by chance!’, as they put it, marvelling at the genius-struck afterthought. Immediately, I had the image not of a hard ornamental creature studded with plastic eyes and nose, soft only in that the pelt of a more highly prized species covered its surface. Instead, I pictured my parents walking down rain-speckled streets, talking in hushed tones together, heels tapping on York stone pavements, stopping by the magical cabinet of a shopfront window as it winked its treasures at them. I was taken in by this, more than brought up short by the way they said, ‘It’s your last toy, darling. We bought it for you as your last toy.’
But of course, more than the last toy given to me, it was the last time they acted as parents in concert, together. Buying the last bear for me was valediction of themselves playing their role. It was exams and school-leaving and university after that, in one speechless parade. It’s a long way from Torquay to a daughter graduation’s ceremony, what with train strikes and mobility issues, especially when it’s so easy to get the hang of email.
I don’t know why I took bear with me when I left home. I suppose because it wasn’t his fault he was born in another animal’s fur and had to bear the name Minkie as if it were endearing. It was one distorted code of affection in a string of them. Difficult to break the string, difficult not to keep pulling and pulling at it, until you hold the pieces in your hand.
Now, my face is wet but Minkie is no good at mopping me up. I make myself fold the old jeans and cricket whites and t-shirts into a bin bag, tying it at the neck and folding this over like a school tie tucked in a blazer.
8. The teddy bear is both unique and universal.
Sweeping always gives me a curious satisfaction and now the storage box is empty, that’s what I will do. The brush is too crude a shape to get all the dust from its inside corners, lined with a waffle-textured cotton that seems particularly unsuited to a clean interior. But with shimmying and worrying the bristles into each corner, I find I do a passable job, an almost perfect job at giving the ottoman a new chance in life. It needs a new upholstery is what it needs. Comes a time, comes a time.
After the dirty work of clearing, and before I let myself sink hours into browsing patterns and textures and prices to recover the ottoman, I shall clean myself up. But the bear is more pressing. I twiddle his nose. Once you have done it the first time, and got over his nose not being of a piece with his bodily form, but stuck on, studded and glued, after that it is easy to twiddle and twist it. I stroke his ears, where the stitching is also coming apart, and then feel his arm where the stuffing has disappeared. Now it is more of a sleeve than an arm. How long is it before a teddy bear ceases to be one?
The nose twists easily and comes away leaving a small metal prong in my hand, frozen little legs or a useless pincer. He looks remarkably fine without his nose. It was always questionable whether he had needed moulded plastic nostrils added to a perfectly decent snout. But his eyes, I worry about his eyes. And they will have to be buried in the bin, if I know anything about what plastics are recyclable. The glue is stubborn, but I manage. Then, Minkie is almost surrendered to its parts. I regretted the maleness he claimed, and am now even less sure this projection made any sense. When he is nothing but a garment of fur, I take him outside and push him deep down into the compost. He is not edible, but one day he will disintegrate and he will be.
9. The teddy bear is a platonic embodiment of love and play.
If you go down to the woods today, carrying a hamper and chequered cloth, heading to the dappled clearing, bring a teddy by the hand. Spare a thought for the teddy who loves to sit by the brook, a paper plate propped on his golden, stodgy thighs.
10. If one teddy bear disappears, another will come along to fill its place.
On certain days, I notice a terrifying indecision as to whether I miss my husband or my teddy bear more. Minkie was equally monstrous as useless, and spent most of his life either hidden or ignored, but he has a stubborn habit of reappearing and intruding. A texture down the back of the velvet sofa, the stroke of a neighbour’s cat, the resistance of my pillow at night, which should be soft but needs to be wrestled with to make it so, and worse, an amorphous lurch of nostalgia and a twist of the gut I cannot see or hear.
As I said, I am not one to succumb to phantom threats, but it is worth listening out, making a wish and wishing well, in the spaces where new teddy bears constantly appear and newly-weds clasp their hands down the street.
About Laetitia Erskine
Laetitia Erskine is a writer based in London. She most often writes about love, loss, and women’s experience, and explores the boundaries between daily life and the metaphysical, in variously surreal, absurd, comical and poignant ways. Her poetry and short fiction have been published in Lunate, The Phare, Lucy Writers Platform and Popshot Quarterly. She is married with two children and a cat and is completing her first novel.