"Bear Story" by Gabriel Smith
The bears started appearing at Christmas time. Just one bear then, the first bear. But more later. That first bear was walking, slowly, on all fours, through the office building opposite our apartment. We saw it out of our window. We were six floors up. It was raining.
‘Come look at this bear,’ my girlfriend said. She was standing by our bedroom window, smoking, looking at the bear.
I went over to our window to look because I thought she was joking, or something. But there was a real bear there. In the office building. We watched it for some time. I wanted to sit down, away from the window. I wanted to wait until the bear disappeared.
‘Why is there a bear there?’ I said. ‘It doesn’t make any sense.’
‘It must be an escaped bear,’ said my girlfriend.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Escaped.’
The bear walked into another room that we couldn’t see. We stayed by the window. We didn’t say anything. I was hoping that the bear would not reappear. But I could tell that my girlfriend wanted to see the bear again.
The bear reappeared after about one hundred seconds. It was two floors below the floor it had been on previously. The lights came on and we saw it there. Two floors below.
It walked up to a desk, and used one of its front paws to push the desktop computer and desk organiser which was full of papers onto the office floor. The papers from the desk organiser went all over the place. Then the bear walked back to the place it had appeared from. The stairs or the elevator area.
‘We should call the police,’ I said. ‘Or the RSPB.’
‘They would shoot the bear,’ my girlfriend said. ‘You can’t call the police.’
‘What if it kills someone?’ I said. ‘An office worker.’
‘You mean the RSPCA,’ my girlfriend said. ‘Not the RSPB.’
‘That’s what I said,’ I said.
‘The RSPB is for birds,’ my girlfriend said. I went away from the window and sat down on the bed.
I wanted to call the police to tell them about the bear, but I wanted my girlfriend to keep liking me more than I wanted to call the police. So I didn’t call the police. We just sat and looked at our laptops mostly in silence.
I imagined the bear exiting the building by pushing its stupid bear snout against the bar of a fire escape on the ground floor of the office building, and wandering out into London, through Farringdon first, and then maybe heading south towards the river, which seemed like a place more suited to a bear. My girlfriend came over to sit by me, and I put on my noise cancelling headphones.
The next day, my boss at the company I worked for told me that he was letting me go.
‘I’m letting you go, Harry,’ he said. ‘I’m really sorry things worked out this way.’
‘Why?’ I said. I knew why, though. I was terrible at my job, and I was always late.
They had warned me that I was terrible at my job, and I was always late, and needed to get better at my job and also to arrive at my job at the same time as everyone else.
‘You have not met the targets we set for you. You are still underperforming. It has become untenable,’ my boss said.
‘Is the company failing? Have you run out of money? Is that why you’re firing me?’ I said.
‘No,’ my boss said. ‘No, that is not it at all.’
I arranged to meet my brother at the Glasshouse Stores in Soho. That was our favourite place. My office, which was in Brixton, and wasn’t my office anymore, was only like 20 minutes from there. I decided to be early and just walk around for a while. I rode the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus and got out at the Argyll Street exit.
At Soho Square I saw another bear. Or the same bear, again. I was standing in the middle of the square when I saw it. At first I didn’t think that I saw it. But I did. I heard a moped, and turned my head, and saw the moped, and then I saw the bear. It was coming out from Carlisle Street. The moped passed and the bear stopped to give way to it, and then the bear followed the moped, walking quickly, almost trotting, on all fours, un-aggressively, like it was just another legitimate road user and not a massive bear.
The bear just went around the square, on the road, and then up Soho Street, past the Hari Krishna temple, towards Tottenham Court Road. It was out of sight pretty quickly.
I didn’t want to follow it. I wanted to call the police again. But instead I texted my girlfriend to tell her I’d seen another bear.
At the Glasshouse Stores I paid for the first two drinks. I looked at my phone right after we sat down at the table. There was a notification on my phone from my bank telling me about the purchase, and also telling me my bank balance. I didn’t have much money. I would not be getting any more money from my job.
‘I can’t stay long,’ my brother said. ‘I’m sorry you lost your job.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I saw a bear today. And yesterday, too.’
‘I didn’t know that was your thing,’ my brother said.
‘No - real bears.’ I said. ‘Real-life bears.’
‘How are you going to pay rent now?’ my brother said. ‘Are you going to fuck bears?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to fuck bears.’
‘I’ll let you know if I hear of any bears looking to pay to fuck you,’ my brother said. ‘But frankly I’d imagine they can do better. Especially if they’re paying. No offense.’
Leaving the pub, I looked at my bank balance on my phone again.
I thought about not getting any more money.
I felt dull and frightened. My bank balance would become like an enormous chess clock timer, I thought, counting down, without any hope of ever counting upwards, pause-able only by my own inactivity, and restarted, repeatedly, whenever my anonymous, multi-faced opponent had moved against me. It seemed bad. I decided to walk home.
My girlfriend didn’t text me back but she asked about the bear when she got in from work. She told me: you’re home early.
Then she asked where had I seen the bear.
‘I saw another one today, too,’ she said.
‘My one was in Brixton,’ I said, even though that wasn’t true. I didn’t want to tell her that I didn’t have a job anymore. ‘Where did you see your bear? What was it doing?’
‘It was just sitting in the Barbican gardens. On the side of the lake nobody can get to. Nobody else seemed to see it. It went away after a bit. Could anybody see the bear you saw?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so. I think only we can see them.’
‘That can not be true,’ my girlfriend said. ‘I am sure that there are other people who can see them.’
‘I feel like it should be in the news. Or on Twitter. That there are bears everywhere. Who were you with at the Barbican?’
‘They’re not everywhere,’ my girlfriend said. ‘Just here and Brixton. Do you want to order food to eat?’
When Christmas time actually came we both - me and my girlfriend - went back to our families. Separately. We were from different parts of the country.
I had still not told her I didn’t have a job. I just told her I was working from home a lot. If she didn’t believe me, she didn’t care enough about it to confront me. That suited me fine.
The train fare was £40.00, which seemed to be about 8% of all the money I had left. I decided not to pay it, and to pretend to be asleep if the conductor came.
I hadn’t tried to find a new job since I’d lost my last job. I didn’t want a job. I knew I needed a job. But I didn’t want one.
My dad picked me up from the station. He told me about a dream he’d had.
‘I dreamt we took all of the clocks out of the house,’ he said. ‘To avoid any social interactions.’
‘Wow,’ I said.
‘If anyone invited us anywhere,’ he said. ‘we’d just say: “sorry, we can’t make it. We do not have any clocks.”’
‘Okay, Dad,’ I said.
‘We would not know what time it was,’ he said. ‘No clocks.’
‘I keep seeing bears everywhere,’ I said. ‘They are just wandering around London. I think I need to call the RSPB. Or the Police.’
‘That is a strange dream to have,’ he said.
My mother had died the year before that. And then one of the two cats had died, too. So there was one cat and one parent left.
I’d said to my brother: I liked the cat that died more than the cat that is alive, and I liked the parent that died more than the parent that is alive.
‘Mum loved me more than you,’ he said, which wasn’t true, which was why it was funny.
That was the first Christmas without her. This was the second. We were still leaving gaps for her in the unspoken morning bathroom rota. And we were all drinking more, me and my brother and my sister, except for my father, who was drinking less.
We all got drunk that first night I got in, though. It was Christmas Eve. My father had bought twelve bottles of red wine and lined them up in two rows of six on the kitchen counter and we all took a small glass tumbler from the kitchen cupboard and, one by one, my father first and then my sister and then me and then my brother, assembled in the room that had the television in and sat in silence on the sofas and watched the television.
We watched World’s Strongest Man, which my mother had hated.
All of the bottles of wine were the same. The labels said ‘Med Red’.
Once we were halfway through the fifth bottle I went out to the back garden to smoke.
The garden ran downhill, slightly. At the bottom of the garden was a fence, and on the other side some suburban woodland. At the bottom of the hill in the woodland was a small river, and then the woodland went uphill again, until there was another fence, and then the back gardens of some houses that were the exact opposite of the houses we were in. The river was right in the middle.
The trees in the woodland were mainly ash trees, I understood. I didn’t actually know. But my mother had told me that they were mainly ash trees, so I believed that.
Before her death my mother had been worried about the ash trees. There was a disease that was afflicting the ash trees. It was called ‘Ash Dieback’. It was a fungus. Once you saw the fungus on the ash tree you knew for sure that the ash tree was done for. All of its leaves would fall off and then tree lesions would appear and fill up with tree pus. And then they would burst. Then the tree would just die.
Before I moved away, my mother would check most mornings for the first signs of the fungus, as if there was some way she could prevent the tree from dying once the fungus appeared. I used to make fun of her for checking. But I secretly believed that she probably could stop the fungus, maybe, if she spotted it early enough.
The ash tree disease had already wiped out most of the ash trees in mainland Europe, and lots in England too.
The ash trees in the woodland behind the garden would die soon too. The fungus spores would get here. They would come on the wind. It was just a matter of time.
I went down to the bottom of the garden to look at the main ash tree that was behind the plastic chain-link garden fence in the suburban woodland area. I couldn’t see anything. It was dark, and the tree was dark too. Maybe dark with fungus.
I hated the tree for outliving my mother. I hated it for it just being stood there, unmoving, waiting for the fungus spores that would make it die. Then I laughed, out loud, and said: good job.
I had finished my cigarette when I first heard the bear. I could not see the bear but I could hear it, moving around in the floor ivy and pre-bluebells and knew immediately that it was a bear and not our remaining alive cat or a fox or some night-time woodland ground bird or just a rat. You could tell from the sounds that it made that it was big. Bigger than a person. I went over to the door in the fence that allowed people in the garden to go into the woodland area and just stood for a minute.
I heard the bear hear me moving. I heard it stop moving. Then I heard it moving towards me. I wondered if it was going to jump over the fence and kill and eat me. It could do that. I wanted to say to it: you could do that.
I was frightened. I wanted to move. But I just stood there as I heard the bear coming towards me, brushing against the woodland stuff on the other side of the fence.
Then the bear became visible. A black, bear silhouette against slightly lighter black, on the other side of the gate in the plastic chain-link fence.
I was so frightened that I did not feel drunk anymore. But I almost fell as I took another step towards the gate.
The bear was coming towards me, too, towards the gate in the fence that was between us. I couldn’t see the bear’s head, I could just see its legs and its body. Its head must have been pointed straight at me. Then it stopped. I knew it was looking at me. I imagined how I looked to it: silhouetted against the light coming from the house that had my family inside, all silent except for the television, motionless, lit up. The bear stood.
And I could see its head then. Tapering on the end of its long bear neck. And it was much taller than me: taller than two of me, taller than the fence, somehow almost as tall as the ash tree which was way off to its right, my left, just impossibly tall. And wide, too. But narrow the way fast wide things are narrow.
The bear reached out with its big stupid bear hand. It touched the door in the fence. Then it touched the bolt that opened the door in the fence. Its big hand was heavy. I thought it was going to pull the bolt across and open the door and then come into the garden. But it didn’t. It just pawed at the bolt a few times, and lowered its head towards me slightly. I reached out to the bolt.
The bear waited. I let my hand rest on the bolt, which was cold and felt rusty and wet. The bear kind of nodded. Then it touched the bolt again. Both our hands were on the gate. I could tell it wanted me to open the gate. I thought about my girlfriend. She would want me to open the gate too.
I took my hand away from the gate. Then I took a step back. The bear took its hand off the bolt then put it back on the bolt again. I took another step back, away from the gate and the bear and towards the house. Then I said, aloud: fuck you. Then I backed away, and turned around, and went back into the house.
I did not go for another cigarette that evening. Even though I wanted to. The rest of my family smoked, out back, but nobody mentioned seeing any bear under the potentially dying ash tree, or anything else. So I assumed the bear had disappeared like the other ones did.
But when I woke up the next morning and looked out of my childhood bedroom window the bear was still there, standing up. It was Christmas morning. So I called my girlfriend.
‘Merry Christmas,’ I said, when she picked up.
‘Merry Christmas,’ she said. ‘Is everything okay?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’m just calling to wish you a Merry Christmas.’
‘I thought there was an emergency,’ she said. ‘And that’s why you were calling.’
‘No. Only Christmas. Merry Crisis.’ I said.
‘Alright,’ she said.
‘I can see a bear right now,’ I said. ‘Out of my window. I saw it last night. At the bottom of the garden. And it’s still there.’
‘Me too,’ she said. ‘There’s one out of my window too.’
‘Really? Where? Be careful. I think they’re dangerous.’
‘Can anyone else see the bear you can see?’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Me neither. I have to go. For breakfast.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Christmas breakfast. Merry Christmas.’
‘Yeah, Merry Christmas, etcetera,’ she said, then hung up.
We drove out to the forest the afternoon of Christmas Day to take a walk. My brother drove. My sister and I sat in the back. My father sat curled-up in the passenger seat that was my mother’s, sometimes looking briefly out of the window at the town and then the estuary which was covered in electricity pylons and then at the forest. But mainly he looked at the clock on the dashboard of the car.
The bear had been standing at the bottom of the garden all morning. I had looked several times.
‘We all should have driven in separate cars,’ I said. ‘That way we wouldn’t have to talk to each other.
‘You can’t drive,’ my sister said.
‘We wouldn’t even have to go to the same part of the forest.’ said my brother. ‘We could go to different parts.’
‘I could stay home,’ I said, ‘to guard the house from bears.’
The forest was full of families. They were the same as us and they were doing the same thing as us too.
But we looked different. With our one old man. And three kids. And no actual kids. I wondered if the other families noticed - whether they accounted for the mother-shaped hole in our shuffling unit.
I hoped not. I hoped that they imagined her ahead of us on the path or behind us on the path or maybe back at the car or maybe even at home, preparing or clearing up from some Christmas lunch element, or maybe just resting, which is what I hoped they imagined most.
But I knew that they would see my curled-up father and know that this was not the case. That this was not the case at all. And when, on the trail, the forest briefly opened up into icy meadows I could see a herd of bears on the horizon, and the bears were motionless, and waiting, and somehow sliding gradually toward me.
Halfway back to the car I slipped on a puddle that had become ice. I fell backwards and hit my head on a tree root or a bit of rock or something. I touched the back of my head and I was bleeding. It felt warm on my hand, which was cold. My brother started laughing. I did too.
‘Shut up,’ my sister said. She came over to me.
‘I’m bleeding,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ she said. She pushed my head forward to look at it. ‘It’s not so bad,’ she said. She put her arm out to help me up.
But when I stood I felt extreme pain in my right ankle. I fell back down. My brother started laughing again.
‘Ow,’ I said. ‘My ankle doesn’t work.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ my sister said, ‘does it really hurt?’
‘Yes,’ I said, because it did.
‘Okay. Go get the car,’ she said to my brother, who was still laughing.
‘You can’t drive a car here,’ he said. ‘It’s the forest.’
‘I’ll die out here,’ I said.
‘Go and get the car,’ my father said. And my brother did then.
Once my brother was out of sight my father and sister half picked me up, and half dragged me over to a tree that I could lean on.
‘I think it’s broken,’ I said. ‘I think I have broken my ankle.’
‘You haven’t broken your ankle,’ my father said, ‘it’s just a sprain.’
‘You don’t know me,’ I said, and touched the back of my head to check if I was still bleeding.
In doing so, I looked up slightly, and realised that I was sat under an ash tree. And I could see the far-away fungal spores coming for it, on the wind, but I also knew that it didn’t matter that the spores were coming on the wind because right then the ash tree was dark and leafless and alive against the white-grey sky.
My brother arrived with the car. My father and sister helped me get in. And once I was home my ankle barely hurt.
Once we were back in London, on the day after New Year’s Day, my girlfriend and I broke up. Then she moved away to a different part of the country. I found a new job and stayed where I was.
In an email, months later, she asked me if I still saw bears. Yes, I replied, which was a lie. I had not seen any further bears.
She replied the next day saying that she had not seen any since. She did not ask about the bears I’d seen so I was not sure if she didn’t believe me or just was not interested.
I drafted replies. One where I wondered whether the bears were something to do with climate change. And one where I wondered whether they were just here for the winter, and that was why she couldn’t see them any more. And one where I wondered why the bears had been invisible to everyone else in our city but visible to us - totally visible, and present, and extremely frightening to me, but somehow not frightening to her at all.
But I deleted all of those drafts and just wrote back that I hoped that she was well, and that we should have coffee next time she was in London. She didn’t reply, and though I checked daily, in the end I was grateful, I think.