ETCETERA / Other people's jobs: No. 2 The Bear Seller

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The Independent Culture
A SCHOOL governor comes into the shop. She has teddy bear-coloured hair although not the honey gold variety. It is more of a mixture of 'creme mink plush' and 'formal pink' - colour designations found in teddy bear directories. Teddy bears come in all sizes, shapes, fur-types and lengths, stuffings and smells; there is even a pot pourri bear that smells like a herb garden.

The governor tells us: how she loves this bear shop; how she had a bear-deprived childhood but is now making up for it; why she doesn't consider the toy panda to be a member of the teddy bear family; and how she has on at least three occasions raffled off teddies at school fetes. After delivering this bearishly comprehensive curriculum vitae she leaves, promising to call again soon.

'I don't see any problems with pandas,' says Kath, the teddy bear shop owner and a Bachelor of Philosophy.

A small girl walks dreamily into the shop and dreamily out again; her mother pops her head through the door: 'Sorry about that; she just saw the bears.'

'It doesn't matter,' says Kath, 'it happens all the time. Some grown-ups just walk past, jerk to a halt, say 'A bear shop', grunt once or twice, and carry on walking. '

'Is there some sort of correlation between bears and philosophy?'

'If som eone asks you what philosophy is about you could answer: 'If you have to ask you'll never know.' You could say the same about bears. If you have to ask, you'll never know. It's just one of those things.'

Kath directs me to a bear. It has chocolate-coloured bobbles of fur. 'Feel him. It's the latest thing. He's stuffed full of pellets rather than wood-wool or kapok.'

I grip him. (Most bears are male.) This bear is awful. Instead of having a hard beefy spring to his belly it feels as if I'm crushing delicate bird bones. I put him down next to a large Paddington wearing a cloak and cummerbund. Paddington's figure so resembles Pavarotti's that he's often dressed like this and sold to opera lovers.

'How did teddy bears come about?'

'One story is that American President Theodore Roosevelt was out bear hunting but couldn'tmanage to get a shot on target. So some thoughtful aides captured a baby bear and tied it to a tree so he could take a good aim. However, he said he couldn't do a thing like that and had the bear released. The press made a great joke of this and a cartoonist represented the President and baby bear in a way that was picked up by toy makers.'

A spiky adolescent dashes into the shop: 'Do you sellpigs?'

'No, we're a bear shop.'

'Oh.' He dashes out again.

'Is there a market for alternative bears?'

'How do you mean?'

'You know, like the slightly quirky, unusual bear. Um, let's say the transvestite bear, the bear into rubber . . .'

'We did once think about a line in under-the-counter bears. The sort people might take out wrapped in brown paper, the odd fish-net stocking and suspenders bear, but we thought it might go against the image of the shop. After the Gulf war the Americans came out with some sort of Stormin' Norman bear in fatigues but I think that's pretty sick. Bears shouldn't be politicised.'

As Kath says this she lifts, from behind her desk, a very war-torn bear.

'Who's this?'

'He's just called Teddy. Most people don't come up with special names for their bears.'

'What's happened?'

'Someone brought him in for surgery.'

It looks like an intensive care job. Teddy's been severely savaged by a dog. His snout's been bitten off; one ear is missing, not found; the other ear is badly mauled; a leg is half hanging off; one severed arm is in a separate bag.

'Abuse over a long period of time Kath?'

'More like a frenzied attack Tom.'

Kath cradles the poor snoutless thing. Holds him to her breast. His eyes are pitted, scratched, and flecked as well, but Kath tells me this doesn't really matter. It adds character. It's very important to preserve the character of a bear. The keyword is 'conservation' rather than 'restoration'.

Then, out of the blue, 'Did you have a bear as a child, Tom?' And the question, strangely, comes to me as a shock, with a built-in delay, like an echo, bringing with

it infinite smooth dark walls; the certain shiver of a void. Two hundred staring eyes; expressions ranging from the grumpily-

friendly to the pally-solicitous seem to be making the same inquiry:

'Did you have a bear Tom?'

'Er, no , no, I don't think I did. I would remember if I had had, wouldn't I?'

'It's important to have some balance

in your life,' Kath advises. 'We must remember there are other things in thisworld beside bears.'