I found myself steering the conversation towards furniture ever more frequently. This question of how we would furnish our new house seemed an easy thing for the two of us to discuss, and now that we were spending so much more time together, shared interests that kept the conversation flowing felt important to cultivate. It was probably these long discussions of ours concerning our future furniture that led to me driving us to a small coastal town one Tuesday morning in May, to attend an auction of second-hand household items.
I think I imagined that we might visit plenty of such auctions in our time as newlyweds, and that this specific one might be unremarkable, in simply being the first of many. I’m not sure I had many hopes or expectations about what the morning might entail. Only, perhaps, that we might come away with a new sofa, so that we would be able to sit together in comfort during our evenings in the living room, instead of always facing across from each other on the upright dining chairs until it was time to go to bed. But if we didn’t find that sofa at this particular auction, I reasoned, that was all right. We’d have plenty of time to find the right one.
A few unremarkable ornaments and picture frames were brought out before us, none of which my wife or I ventured to bid for. Then the auctioneer’s assistant wheeled out a silver trolley, on which was balanced a bear. I say bear – clearly it wasn’t a real bear, come to terrorise the meagre population of this small English town. It wasn’t even a taxidermy bear. I only hesitate to use the word teddy because although that would aptly capture his button eyes and furry coat and his too-small, stitched-in mouth, it would also belie the full extent of the bear, which was considerable. It was as big as me, more or less. Not quite in terms of height, perhaps, but what it lacked in stature it made up for in girth. If, for instance, someone were to chop me in half at the waist and then set the pieces side by side, that would give you some idea of the overall mass and scale of the bear.
I almost laughed aloud in the hush of the auction room as this ridiculous creature was put before the crowd. It seemed absurd – this bear, appearing in this context – a scenario so perfectly attuned to causing merriment that I wondered if the auctioneer had meant it for a joke. And yet no one else in that room seemed to share my amusement. Not even my wife, whom I had thought, up until that moment, had the same sense of humour as I did, exactly. We had laughed together so very often in those heady, hectic days before our wedding.
And so I felt obliged to suppress the smile I felt playing on my lips at the appearance of this giant creature. Everybody else around me – the auctioneer and my wife included – was simply watching it in perfect quiet, with expressions that varied from impatience to unconcealed boredom.
‘One bear,’ the auctioneer said. ‘Stuffed, soft, in fair-to-good condition. Slight wear on the upper right shoulder, stitching a little frayed on the right leg. Going for fifteen pounds.’
I looked behind me, turning in my seat to survey the hall and see which of these small-town people might go so far as to bid for such a monstrous thing. Their expressions, however, remained as listless as ever.
‘No one? No one at all? Not one amongst you who would bid fifteen pounds for such a magnificent bear as this?’ The auctioneer’s voice echoed in the hall. ‘Twelve pounds, then. For twelve pounds. Giant stuffed bear, going for twelve pounds.’
I craned around in my seat again to study the hall behind me, feeling sure some poor soul would respond to this new starting price. It was just too awkward, seeing that creature slumped there, brought before us on its trolley, heavy head lolling and limbs akimbo. Surely someone would crack?
And then I felt movement in the chair beside me, and my wife was raising her hand.
‘For twelve pounds, yes, that lady in the blue.’
I turned to my wife, expecting her to smile, to show some sign that she, too, had seen the grotesque comedy of the bear, and that this bid of hers was a kind of prank. She looked, though, as serious as I’ve ever known my wife to look, her grey eyes flitting back and forth between the auctioneer and the bear itself, her hand still raised.
‘Going to the lady in blue for twelve pounds.’
I didn’t understand what was happening. We’d come here for furniture – for useful things to fill our home. This bear was vast, impractical, ridiculous. It wasn’t at all the sort of thing we wanted. But then, thank god, unexpected blessing, here was another woman – not my wife – here, in fact, were two other women, one at the back of the hall and one at the front, also raising their hands to make known that they were willing to pay for and take home this bear. Both of these women were, like my wife, over thirty but under fifty. Neither was particularly glamorous. One of them wore a hat. My wife turned to me at that point, her eyes sparkling.
‘Should I do it?’ she said. ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to win this one – you’ll see.’
I didn’t respond in any way. I was too taken aback. The auctioneer called twenty pounds, and my wife raised her hand. Then she raised it again at twenty-five, she raised it at thirty, she raised it at thirty-five. And yet the other women proved reluctant to yield. I stared at my wife, trying to catch her eye, to signal something of my apprehension, but her gaze was fixed forward, intent on the auctioneer. Forty. Forty-five. Fifty. We by no means had money to burn, being comparatively young and so very new to married life, and yet still my wife raised up her hand – steady, reliable, her grey eyes clear and watching the auctioneer with quiet resolution. Fifty-five. Sixty. Sixty-five. Eventually the other two women became intimidated by the strength of feeling that flowed between my wife and the bear, growing stronger with every number uttered by the auctioneer. For a moment I was almost proud of her, even if it did mean we had to bring back this vast sixty-five-pound bear, to share our home with us.
I tried my best to accommodate the bear into our lives, and for a while it wasn’t too difficult. We put him in the second bedroom, and since I almost never found myself in there I rarely saw him. I noticed, though, that my wife sometimes went to check on him, popping her head into that room after breakfast, or excusing herself from the dining table in the hours after supper (we still hadn’t found ourselves a sofa; our appetite for auctions had vanished as quickly as it had appeared). She’d go up and sit with him as he sprawled on the bed, his sagging body filling the small mattress. I started to suspect she was tucking him into the covers at night.
One Saturday morning in July, when we were sitting on our dining chairs with the newspapers spread out on the table before us, coffee brewing in the pot and all the windows open on the airless summer day, she said: ‘Darling, I’ve been thinking. I would like to see how the bear fits in a different place, if that’s quite okay with you. It just doesn’t feel right – don’t you agree – to have him shut away in that little room where you never seem to go?’
It seemed innocuous enough, this idea of hers. We had plenty of space, after all. I agreed, and that very day the bear came out to join us in the rest of the house.
She tried him in the living room, where he sat in the corner, lolling next to a vase of dahlias and watching us as we sat at the table and talked in the evenings. It seemed a perfectly fine arrangement to me at first – only a little eccentric, if we were to have visitors round. As the long summer days wore on, though, and the bear continued to sit in his corner – my wife often changing the flowers next to him, or rearranging his limbs from day to day – I became aware that somehow, I was starting to become inexplicably impatient with everything and everyone, particularly when I was at home. I snapped at my wife when she spilt gravy on the table cover, and then when one of my shoelaces broke I swore so loudly the glass seemed to rattle in the windowpanes.
At first I thought it must be the summer weather that was doing it, the gruelling lack of rain that was turning all the grass to straw and sending mosquitoes whining around our room at night. That is, until one morning when I looked up from my newspaper to face the round, glassy eyes of the bear – his smiling face flopping to one side as he watched us at the table – and I began to suspect that this new feeling I had was nothing to do with the weather at all.
When my wife came home from work that evening she found me sitting cross-legged on the floor (we still didn’t yet own a rug) opposite the bear, studying him with close attention. I had been trying to figure out just what it was that so disturbed me about him, and was in the process of forming a hypothesis relating to his superfluity, to the fact I simply couldn’t understand how such a thing as he could ever reasonably be wanted or loved by anyone, in any context.
The scale of him meant he would be useless as a sweet animal that might have sat in the corner of a child’s bed in a possible vision of the future, to be cuddled and petted while the child’s parents told the story of how the bear came to be brought into their home by the child’s mother, and of her steady resolve and enviable nerve at the auction house. And then the bear-ness of the bear – that is to say, his large, beaded eyes and tight, woven mouth – rendered him uncomfortable to use as, say, a beanbag or a futon, or a huge throw cushion for napping upon casually, as who could nap casually upon a thing like that? A thing with a look in its eye that you would feel upon you as you lounged and dozed. I didn’t know what my wife might feel about it, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable at all.
My wife flitted over to kiss the crown of my head when she saw me like that, sitting with the bear. And for a moment I thought that perhaps since I’d figured out something of what was troubling me about him, things might get easier again. That we’d laugh together like we’d used to do in the weeks after we’d first met, when I’d take her out to dinner, and then sometimes we’d go dancing.
‘Darling,’ she said, then. ‘How funny you look, the two of you there like that. I’ve been wondering, in fact, if you think he might like a change of scene. He must get so bored, just seeing the same thing day after day.’
So she took the bear to sit in our bedroom, talking to him as she moved him, saying things like, ‘That’s it, dear, a change is as good as a rest, you know,’ as she hefted him up the stairs, her slim arms wrapped around the girth of his waist.
And that was where the bear stayed, all throughout those airless summer nights, his drooping head and flopping limbs propped up against our bedroom wall. Over time, I couldn’t help but feel that his presence there disrupted my ability to conduct sexual relations with my wife. My wife had never been an overly demonstrative sort of a woman. Not for her were the moans and cries and hair-pulls of the less subtle forms of erotic fantasy. Before the appearance of the bear, in fact, it had been our natural pattern for her to lie still on the coverlet, watching with her small, grey eyes while I tried a variety of ways in which to excite her. And I feel sure that she enjoyed this approach of ours, because afterwards she would always, without fail, enfold me in her arms, holding my head to her breasts and stroking my hair as if to say, Well done, you poor, mad boy, well done. I felt ushered in, during moments of this sort. Sheltered. As if nothing in the world could do me lasting harm. With the bear in the room, though, I found it difficult to attain and to sustain the required levels of arousal. Probably, I know, it was unmanly of me to be put off by the presence of an inanimate thing, to be so unable to provide my wife with the satisfaction she deserved, simply because there was another face in the room, belonging to neither her nor me.
In any case, my wife began to sense the difference in my manner. She may always have been relatively quiet in the past, but I’d understood that she was far from unobservant. It was obvious, then, that she noticed this new discomfort of mine, or at least that she noticed the decline in the quality of my efforts to impress her. No longer did she cradle me at the end of our lovemaking; no longer was I afforded that brief moment of peace, that safety in the feeling that I was a person who was loved. Instead, after labouring and sweating and getting almost nowhere, I would lie next to her – the two of us there, side by side like dominoes – and I’d look over at the bear.
What was it about his presence that caused me such profound difficulties? It couldn’t simply be my dislike of his fundamental uselessness. I even forced myself to consider, during one of those too-hot summer nights, lying next to my silent wife, whether I was somehow jealous of the bear? And yet, as I stared hard at his woven, smiling snout and at the worn-out stitching on his shoulder, I simply couldn’t understand how such a pointless creature could provoke such a passionate emotion.
It wasn’t until the next morning – as my wife was pouring out the coffee and smoothing back my hair with an expression almost like concern – that I realised precisely what it was about the bear that truly troubled me. I nearly pushed my chair back from the table then, when it hit me – nearly walked straight out of our kitchen without explanation, leaving her to have her breakfast on her own. I took a quick sip of coffee to cover my alarm.
But could it really be – I wondered to myself that morning, as we sat opposite each other, buttering toast, passing the milk jug, trading sections of the paper as if nothing were at all amiss – that my wife saw very well the awkwardness of the bear? That she was, in fact, keenly aware of his internal incompatibilities, of the way that he could never be a creature of real worth, and that this was precisely what drew her to the bear, what had made her bid for him in the first place? What if, indeed, my wife was one of those women who took a shine to lost and pointless things: to things that were not broken per se but that rather had some flaw to their design or manufacture, meaning that they’d come into the world not fit for any purpose, destined from the first to be entirely valueless? Was it possible that she was one of those people who actually felt sorry for lost causes of this sort? Who loved them, even, for the very reason of their pointlessness, perhaps because she knew that if she were not the one to do so, then absolutely no one would. I had never noticed this tendency in my wife’s character before, but then why would I have done, when the only other thing before the bear that I’d been aware of my wife loving (aside from her family, who, of course, she’d been given at birth, with no real choice about whether to love or not) was me?
That thought returned an awful lot in the days that followed that revelation over breakfast, particularly in the evenings, when my wife and I lay side by side, the bear looming over us in the same way a crucifixion scene looms above the pews inside a Catholic church. So often did I worry about it, in fact – so much did I fear what the true nature of my wife’s love might be, and what might really have inspired that tenderness I had felt in her arms as she’d held me in the days before the bear – that I stopped being able to sleep at night. Instead, while my wife slept, I stared up at the bear, making myself more tired and doubtful and irritable with every hour that passed, and becoming less and less able to discern anything about myself a sane, right-thinking person could possibly find to love.
At last, when it had chewed me up so much that I was turned into a wreck, I just asked my wife, straight out, ‘Why do you love that bear so much?’
‘Oh,’ she said – and her eyes almost lit up in the way they used to, in those early days back in the spring – ‘it’s just a silly thing, really. Don’t laugh when I say this, darling, please. You have to promise not to laugh or think I’m being crazy, but I suppose that I just feel a kind of kinship with him. A certain sympathy. Sometimes I just can’t help but feel a little like the bear. Does that sound ridiculous? Really, I’m afraid it must.’
She was smiling, but the thought that in any of the days we’d shared together I’d let her feel that way – that she was something like the bear – that I’d allowed that to happen, unchecked and unnoticed, without even suspecting it might be how things were with her, even for a moment . . . it overwhelmed me to realise it. I had thought I understood pretty well the way she thought and felt, and I had hoped that our life together, though admittedly imperfect, was still on track to grow into something shared and seamless and miraculous.
She reached for my hand then, my wife. Her eyes were still laughing in that way I hadn’t seen for months, as if it had been a relief to her to finally articulate her thoughts about the bear. I thought perhaps I should apologise to her, or at least try to put into words the awful problem of the distance I’d suddenly seen stretching between us. And yet I found I couldn’t – I found I couldn’t even speak. So I simply caught her hand instead, and held it for a moment.
Image © Nahemoth