SHAGGY BEAR STORY
“When did you realise you had this talent?” asks Nick. He’s grateful that a decade in real-life journalism has given him a world-beating poker-face. It’s a shame the Sport folded. This would have been right up their street.
The man peers across the crusty teak-effect table with reproachful eyes like a bloodhound. Also like a bloodhound, Nick can see the wet pink meat of the man’s inner eyelids.
Nick doesn’t like being reminded that eyes are also eyeballs. In fact, he’s downright phobic about this. He’s seen some sights in his time (he once interviewed a reclusive man whose rotting bed-sheets had grown into his skin), but his dinner-companion’s rheumy eyelids churn the mushroom risotto in his stomach. He looks hastily down at his napkin.
I can see you don’t believe me,” the other man sighs.
“I’m keeping an open mind,” says Nick automatically.
“It’s all right, old boy. It’s a pretty extraordinary whatsit. Thing. You know.” His hand – pale, fat and hairy – slaps at the fuggy air. “Claim.” He grins sheepishly. “Never was very good with words.”
“Can I see you – um - transformed?”
“Ah. Could I show you later?”
“Sure,” says Nick, forbidding himself to snicker. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“It’s quite a personal thing, you see. I’m not comfortable doing it in front of just anyone.”
“Tell me about yourself,” Nick proposes, reaching delicately for his notepad. There’s a tape-recorder tucked inside his (rather good) suit, but clients (he’s trained himself to forget the word victims) like to see pen and paper. He’s already noticed the other man isn’t wearing a wedding-ring.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed I’m not wearing a wedding-ring,” the man says, and in spite of himself, Nick twitches. “I don’t really know why I never got married. I wasn’t afraid of, you know, thingy. Commitment, I mean. Suppose I just never met the right lady.”
Nick looks at the other man’s squatness and the other man’s fatness; the other man’s hairy nose and balding head, and the other man’s thick red face. He reviews his own body – good muscles, low body-fat, well-cut hair, attractive face, tasteful platinum band on the wedding-finger – and feels glad he’s never had a problem meeting women.
“I bet you’ve never had a problem meeting women,” says the other man, and Nick feels the twitch again. “Lucky man. Make the most of it while you can, that’s my advice.”
“I’m married,” says Nick austerely.
“Ah, but what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her… now tell me, am I right?”
The man’s leer is like a pantomime villain. One weepy eye closes, one half of his greasy face folds up around the wink. One fat hairy finger taps at the bulbous nose.
“Am I right?” the man repeats, and contorts his face into another wink.
“Let’s take some personal details,” says Nick. The girl in the bar last night – blonde, thick, willing – wanders across his inner eye. He suppresses her with the memory of his wife Jennifer - the dark intimacy of the shower yesterday morning - then forces himself to forget her too. He’s a professional, even if the story is ridiculous. “What’s your full name?”
“Ah,” says the man. “Can we go with Mr Bruno for now? Like a, whatd’yemecallit? Pseudothingy?”
“Pseudonym? If you like. Date and place of birth?”
“Luton. Tenth of October, nineteen-fifty.” Mr Bruno’s hand reaches for the bottle. Nick shakes his head (the wine is disgusting) and Mr Bruno fills his own glass brimful. The glasses are wide-brimmed and flat-bottomed with short, stubby stems. Nick suspects them of secretly being jelly-dishes. He writes the birthdate on his notepad, followed by the number sixty-eight. Jennifer’s hopeless with numbers. Without him to keep on top of the bills, she’d be lost.
“They were my mother’s,” says Mr Bruno. “These glasses, I mean.” The twitch of his hand knocks his wine to the floor. Spilled Rioja sits on the carpet like an oil-slick.
Nick gets up, expecting to be told to sit down and not worry. After a moment, he realises this isn’t going to happen, and goes to the dank kitchenette.
“They’re not worth anything,” Mr Bruno calls, as Nick looks for a tea-towel. “She got them free with her whatsit. For the car. Petrol. I like them because they don’t break when you drop them.”
The kitchenette’s filmed with grease. Nick’s shoes stick to the floor. He’d like to show this to Jennifer, to demonstrate what happens when no-one’s on top of the cleaning. Spare risotto festers in a saucepan. He’s eaten five surprisingly good mouthfuls, but now he vows not to swallow another grain, no matter how creamy. With two fingertips, he carries the tea-towel back to the living-room.
Sitting at the table is a huge black bear.
“It’s all right,” says the bear hastily, as the tea-towel falls to the floor. “It’s me.”
Nick’s heart pounds. If the carpet wasn’t so horrible, he might faint onto it. He can smell the bear – like a huge wet dog - from across the room, unsurprisingly since the entire flat is about the size of Nick’s parents’ drawing-room.
“I realise this is a whatsit. Shock,” says the bear.
“You’re not fucking kidding,” says Nick weakly.
“It’s actually the first time I’ve been a bear in front of somebody else. Quite a nice feeling. Doing something you know you shouldn’t really.” A paw like a Hallowe’en glove taps the side of the bear’s snout. “Like that young lady in the bar last night, hmm?”
“I love my wife,” Nick protests. “We have a very strong relationship.”
“Very passionate, I expect,” says the bear. If it’s possible for a bear to sound lascivious, this bear is doing so.
Nick remembers how Jennifer looked when he left her. Naked, slippy with soap, her dark eyes watching him from the corner of the shower. He kissed her lingeringly, already looking forward to the next time, even as he basked in the great peace that came after. Delicious –
Job to do, he reminds himself. Can’t be real. Looks real. Can’t be. No-one can – play along. Find out how it’s worked. Then write it up as a hatchet job. The thought of demolishing this ludicrous (if convincing) old fraud with his rapier wit steadies him, and he makes it to the rickety chair with the stained grey-green integral cushion.
“So,” he says, reaching for his pen. “When did you realise you could turn into a bear?”
“I was about forty-five.” The bear looks shifty. “I was… between residences, you might say. Circumstances, finances, a few lost forms, and – well, there you are! Out on the streets of the Big Thingummy. Smoke.”
Before he can stop himself, Nick wonders how a large black bear could possibly have roamed the streets of London undetected.
“Ah, but I didn’t stay a bear for long, you see,” says the bear. “Just a few hours.”
“And what exactly happened?”
“Now, this is interesting.” The bear rests its elbows on the table. “I’d found this nice spot behind a restaurant. Lots of warm air, you see, coming out of the vent from the kitchen. Quite cosy really, once you get thingy. Acclimatised. Only thing was, I was quite peckish. Funds were low, as they say. And there was this huge bin, you see, where they put all the leftovers. I was sitting there thinking, If I was a fox, I’d be in that bin like a whatsit, shame I’m not really, and then I realised a fox wouldn’t be able to, you know, get the lid open. So I thought, What sort of animal would be able to open that bin? And I thought of a bear. Next thing I know - whoosh!”
“Exactly! And then – you know - there I am!” The bear sits back triumphantly.
Nick waits a minute, in case there is any more. The bear’s stomach rumbles.
“Sounds a bit silly now I say it out loud,” the bear says gloomily. “Not really much of a words man. Expect you can do something about that. Am I right?”
“I’ll draft something up,” says Nick.
“I was right about the bin-lid, anyway. When I’m a bear, I can eat all sorts of things I wouldn’t touch as a human. I found myself a very good supper.”
“I see,” says Nick, distractedly. He’s watching the bear’s mouth. It moves in time with the words, but it can’t possibly be producing the sound; its muzzle is entirely the wrong shape. He’s clearly seeing some sort of convincing mask, synced to move in time with the man’s mouth. That SFX workshop in W3 – must call them - “And are you always the same sort of bear?”
The bear considers this.
“Yes, I think so.”
“And are you a specific kind of bear? I mean, are you a grizzly or a black bear or, um, I don’t know, some other sort? Or are you just an amalgam of what people think a bear looks like?”
“I can tell you’re a journalist,” says the bear, stretching. Its posture is entirely human, which does nothing to make Nick forget he’s looking at a man in a bear-suit. “As far as I can tell, I’m an American Black bear. But I’ve never really looked into it.”
Can’t even be bothered to hoax properly.
“Expect you think that’s very slack of me,” says the bear. “But when you’re a bear, you don’t worry about that stuff very much. You know. Thingummy. Taxes. No, no, no. Taxonomy.”
“How about your family? Are they aware of what you can do?” Can he somehow touch the bear’s fur, see if it’s real? Might be an animal-parts smuggling angle -
“Touch away, touch away,” says the bear. “Oh, don’t worry,” it adds. “Another thing I find as a bear, I’m very good at reading people’s you-know. Thing. Body-language! Actually, these days I can do it even as a human. Extraordinary really, how much people tell you when you’re really looking.”
He’s a cold-reader, thinks Nick, surprised by his own relief. A cold-reader in a bear-suit. He reaches across the table.
The dog-smell grows stronger. His fingers brush past coarse guard-hairs, plunge into a thick underlayer. Burrowing deeper, he finds the warmth of living flesh, the throb of leaping blood, and then muscles contracting, flexing, and a paw swats his hand effortlessly away from the mighty chest –
“Sorry,” says the bear. “That tickles.”
Nick is breathing deeply, almost gasping. He’s experiencing something so long-lost he’d forgotten its existence; the authentic sensation of wonder.
“Hope you’re not allergic to fur,” says the bear, scratching.
“Um,” says Nick. How is this being worked? How? How? “Um – can I ask you some more questions?”
“Have at it,” says the bear, waving a paw in the same clumsy, spastic gesture that sent the jelly-glass tumbling to the floor earlier. It looks at Nick’s wine. “Do you mind - ?”
“Not at all,” says Nick faintly. The bear laps straight from the glass with a thick grey tongue. When it raises its face and belches, wine-drops fall onto Nick’s jacket.
“Sorry about that. I expect there’s a cloth somewhere -”
“Doesn’t matter,” says Nick, even though he and Jennifer have been known to come to blows over her lack of care for his expensive and well-maintained wardrobe.
“Better out than in,” says the bear, and belches again. A warm garbage-y stink mingles with the dog-smell. Nick swallows, and scratches an itch on his hand. Other people’s body-functions are another thing he finds repulsive. Sometimes just the reminders of them – a smell in the bathroom, Jennifer’s sanitary protection peeking coyly from its special drawer – are enough to turn him sick.
“You know what I fancy?” says the bear wistfully. “A nice brandy. Don’t suppose you’ve got any on you?”
Nick hesitates. There is, in fact, a flat silver flask nestled against his heart; a defence against Minibar prices and a treat for the train-journey home.
“It’s all right, old boy, I can smell it. Very sensitive nose, you know.”
“I don’t normally drink while I’m -”
“I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Nick’s hand is already reaching into his pocket, pouring a generous puddle into the jelly-glass. The bear laps greedily. Nick takes a temperate mouthful, rolling it around his mouth. Sometimes he finds it difficult to put the brakes on, but when he’s working he needs his wits about him.
“So,” he says to the bear. His hand is still itching. Does the bear-suit have fleas? “Have you tried making money from - this?”
“I suppose I could have tried a circus,” says the bear. “But I don’t like the thought of people watching me change, you see. Besides, there’s not much thingy, much mileage in it really, is there? I mean, once you’ve seen a man transform into a bear - ”
“Don’t sell yourself short.”
“Ah, but people get used to it, you see. Look at you. I only changed ten minutes ago and already we’re like old friends.” The flesh of the bear’s muzzle skins back from its mighty jaws, and Nick feels a shudder of alarm. Then the bright bead of the left eye disappears, and he realises the bear is only trying to wink at him. He pretends to make a note on his pad.
“Expect this isn’t the career you planned for yourself, is it?” says the bear unexpectedly. “Probably you want to be a proper writer really. You know, novels and everything.”
“Journalism is proper writing,” Nick snaps.
“Ah, but novels are what count, aren’t they?” The bear’s teeth are showing again. “I bet you’re working on a novel.”
“I - yes, I am actually.”
“Good for you. Important to follow your dreams.”
Nick wonders if his companion ever dreamed a future where he’d live in precarious East-end squalor and occasionally transform into a bear.
“That’s another advantage of the bear form,” said the bear. “You don’t mind a bit of filth. In fact you can really get to quite like it. What does your wife think of your novel?”
“She hasn’t read it, she wouldn’t understand it anyway – we’re supposed to be talking about you.”
“You still don’t believe it, do you,” observes the bear. “I can understand that really.” Its gaze falls on the congealed mound of rice on Nick’s plate. “Could I finish that? Bears get much hungrier than people.”
“Please,” says Nick, with great sincerity.
He half-expects the bear to reach over and take the plate, but instead it drops to all fours and shuffles around the edge of the table. With its paws on the floor, the illusion becomes more convincing. Nick has to remind himself that nobody on earth has ever yet transformed into an animal. But still, but still -
“Jolly good risotto, this,” the bear observes. “Sorry you didn’t like it. Expect you’re used to the best, though. Is Jennifer a good cook?”
“When she makes the effort.” A brilliant new explanation has occurred to Nick. “I’m sure she’d like your recipe. What mushrooms did you use?”
“Ah,” says the bear. It grabs a chair-leg in its teeth and pulls it closer so it can climb onto it and sit by Nick, its legs sprawling wide. When Nick glances down, he glimpses the bear’s furry genitals. Body-hair is another thing he intensely dislikes. Once, he found three fat blobs of Jennifer’s pink depilatory cream, flecked with stubble and pubic hair, on the side of the bath. The argument had been so huge, the neighbours called the police. “You’re thinking this is a drug-induced whatsit? Illusion? Shamans, deserts, that sort of thing, hmmm?” Nick smiles, trying to look honest and sceptical at the same time. “Thing is, old chap, I noticed you picking the mushrooms out of your portion. And you didn’t finish it anyway.”
Nick remembers the flat, bitter taste of the Rioja.
“And I drank most of your wine,” says the bear, sounding smug. “Sorry.”
“I’m thinking of our readers,” Nick explains. “They’re going to be sceptical.”
A paw lands chummily on Nick’s knee. He can feel the heat of the pads through the fabric. All the money this bear-suit must have cost, but he’s making no effort to replicate the body-language –
“It’s all right,” the bear says. “For a long time, I thought I must be imagining things. I mean, turning into a bear… but now you’re here, that proves it, d’you see? I really can do it. I’m not just going mad.”
“We might both be going mad,” Nick says.
“Ah,” says the bear. “Hadn’t thought of that.” One claw catches in a fold of fabric, making a sizeable rip. Nick tries not to wince. “Do you think madness might be catching?”
“I don’t know.”
“How many people would have to see me as a bear to prove it?”
“I – I don’t know. I suppose a scientist, or -”
“Never got on with scientists,” the bear says. “This science teacher I had at school. Nasty old piece of work, he was. Used to beat us. For fun, you know, not just when we deserved it.”
A bubble of air rises in Nick’s throat. He puts a hand over his mouth.
“Goodness, don’t mind me,” says the bear. “Where’ere ye be, let your wind blow free.” It glances towards the jelly-glass. Nick pours another generous brandy-puddle.
“Of course,” the bear says, “these days they don’t let them, do they? Hit the kids, I mean, not burp. All seems a bit mad to me. Didn’t do us any harm - as long as we deserved it, of course. Not fair to hit someone if they don’t deserve it. But then, I’m old-fashioned. Expect you think we should talk about our feelings and whatnot instead of hitting each other, hmm?”
Jennifer, crouched in the corner of the shower, the way her wet hair lay in streaks over her face. Her mouth opening to say -
“It’s a very complex question,” says Nick.
The bear belches again. Nick tries not to inhale.
“D’you know,” says the bear, patting its midriff thoughtfully, “That risotto’s gone right through me. Scuse me just a minute -”
On two legs this time, it wanders to the corner of the room, and squats. Nick’s eyes bulge.
“Hope you don’t mind,” the bear says cheerfully.
“Jesus Christ -”
“No woods around here, you see.”
“But couldn’t you use the - ”
“Ah. Bathroom a bit of a disaster area to be honest.” The bear pauses, heaves, grunts, heaves again, sighs. “That’s better…do you need to go, by the way? I know what it’s like, you see someone else going and it puts you in mind, you can use this corner when I’m -”
Hand over his mouth, trying not to breathe, Nick stumbles across the room and wrenches open a door. A nest of nylon bedding moulders on a stained mattress. Openly gagging, he tries the second door. The bathroom is, indeed, a disaster area – sink pulled off the wall, bath ringed with yellow – but there is at least a toilet. Nick collapses by the bowl and heaves gratefully into it, realising too late he’s kneeling in a pool of ammonia and a large turd floats cheerfully in the water. The smell of the bear’s shit wafts in from the living-room. How did he end up in this nightmare? He’s years past doing this kind of crap -
“Need any help?” the bear asks. It’s leaning companionably on the door-frame, watching him.
Nick’s stomach clenches and relaxes, clenches and relaxes. There’s nothing left to come up, but his body keeps trying.
“No thanks -” he splutters between dry-heaves.
“Shame that lovely wife of yours isn’t here,” the bear observes. “To rub your back and so on.”
Nick thinks longingly of his own immaculate bathroom. The memory of Jennifer in the shower is like a dark talisman he carries with him, reminding him that he is loved, is important, has power. If only he was back there now -
“Ever hit a woman?” the bear asks.
“Excuse me?” The vomit-storm has passed; Nick rises to his feet, grimly ignoring his ruined trousers. This is all Jennifer’s fault. If she’d done as she was told and let the answerphone pick up, instead of taking that message from this madman, he’d never have ended up here –
“Wondered if you’d ever hit a woman,” the bear repeats. At its full height, it towers over him. “Following on from our conversation about thingummy. Violence.”
“Let’s stick to talking about you, shall we?” says Nick. He longs to mop his face.
“It’s all right,” says the bear kindly. “I understand. Sometimes you don’t have any choice, do you? It comes over you, sort of thing. Not your fault. Like me, when I’m a bear. In my human form I’d never dream of going to the lav in the corner like that. But, you know -”
“I – I never -”
With a look of infinite cunning, the bear’s face crinkles into that terrible wink.
“No need to be shy,” it says. “Bears don’t really have much of a whatd’yecallem. You know. What’s the word I want?”
“She just - she knows it upsets me when she has people round – those fucking harpie friends of hers - I don’t bring other women back to our flat, why should she?”
The bear waves a paw. “Don’t worry on my account. Now, what is the word I want? Something about navigation.”
“And yesterday – the phone’s for work calls only, I can’t have potential clients speaking to some stupid bint who can’t take a message properly -”
“Moral compass!” says the bear triumphantly. “That’s the one. Bears don’t have much of a moral compass. We do really like our food, though.”
“I’m going to get help,” says Nick.
“Of course you are.”
“I mean it. I really love her. If she just wouldn’t wind me up - ”
The bear hooks a paw around Nick’s left calf and tugs, and now Nick is on the ground and one massive paw presses on his chest.
“Thing is,” says the bear, “I don’t think I’d get on with being famous. You’ve probably noticed I don’t have much of a thingummy. Way with words. But I do want to make more of a living from my talent.”
“I can help you,” says Nick desperately.
“So I thought, what are bears actually good at? Took me a while, but I never said I was the sharpest whatsit in the box. Tool, I mean. Thing is, bears are fantastic at mauling humans to death.”
“Oh my God…”
“I met your wife in a café, you see.”
“Jennifer doesn’t go to cafés, I don’t - ”
“Yes, I know, you like her to stay in. Specially when she’s got a black eye or a broken wrist or whatever. But sometimes she sneaks out when you’re away.” Again that monstrous wink, and the terrible pressure of the bear’s paw leaves his chest as it taps its muzzle. “You see? You were right! She does need keeping in bounds!”
“I swear I’ll never touch her again, just let me – I’ll be the best husband ever -”
“I like the sound of your flat,” says the bear. “Looking forward to moving into it. See, I wasn’t sure how much to charge for a contract killing, so I asked her what she thought was a fair price. And she said, I’ll give you everything I have. Seemed a bit rude to haggle with a lady. So I accepted. And here we are!”
“They’ll catch you,” Nick whispers. “My editor -”
“Ah, but she won’t know where to look, will she? I never actually phoned you, you see. I just told Jennifer to pass on the message. No what’d’yecallems. Records.”
One final time, the teeth are bared, the left eye disappears and the paw taps the side of the bear’s muzzle.
“Besides,” it confides, “I’m planning on eating the evidence.”