It was one of those days that seemed so close to perfect it was hard to know whether to glory in it or not quite trust it. The mid-morning May sunlight was clear and warm, but there was just a little breeze to stop it being too warm, especially when it was filtered through the burgeoning crowns of the trees just come into full, hopeful, rich springtime leaf and it made little dapples on the sandy paths in the woodland. To the left and right of the paths, in both shade and sunlight, the bluebells clumped together as if rejoicing in each others’ company in their own mild, ardent beauty.
I’m coming over all poetical, thought Philippa Conway. I virtually had to be bribed into this. Well, come to think of it, if you count a bottle of that gorgeous wine Hannah swore she got in Portugal for a couple of Euros, there was no virtual about it.
Even the children’s behaviour was as close to perfect as it was reasonable to ever expect from a group of excited four and five year olds. The reception class at High Hill Infants School (which was not on a hill) were out for their teddy bears’ picnic. It might have been thought Health and Safety gone mad to put them all in dinky little miniature High-Viz jackets, but they almost looked like daffodils amid the bluebells. From time to time some of them burst into song and not even with their own versions or the ones that (one hoped) they had overheard and not understood.
“It’ll make I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here look like a glass of warm milk,” her cynically-inclined Aunt Agnes had warned her. And generally, Philippa paid heed to Aunt Agnes, who often said she was like a younger version of herself. She wasn’t wholly sure she wished to be, but she quite liked Aunt Agnes, who had surprisingly broad tastes in TV shows, saying it.
Hannah was something of a traditionalist, but was open to persuasion and had finally agreed that teddy bears were not compulsory. Indeed (and this cost her a great deal of effort and inner compromise) other soft toys were acceptable. Along with the teddies there were rabbits and tigers, not to mention an occasional unicorn. And Stephen Benson appeared to have a snake. If anyone was going to have a snake, he’d be the one. It had probably started off life as a door-stop.
But Hannah and Philippa, as befitted those setting an example, stuck to teddy bears. And not ones newly bought for the occasion either. They were carrying the old-fashioned (fair enough, it was from Asda, but it looked old fashioned) picnic hamper between them in their right hands, whilst their respective bears were in their left hands. Hannah sometimes let Bobby Bear dangle in the bluebells, but more often, she held him protectively clutched to her side. Bobby had seen better days. Or as Hannah put it, he had been well-loved. He had balding patches and his once scarlet waistcoat had faded to a dusty shade of pink, but he still looked frank and friendly and slightly quizzical. Hannah wasn’t a sentimental woman, as perhaps she said rather too often, and though she had never heard her views on the subject, Philippa suspected that she had her own views on adults who bought new bears, and they weren’t complimentary. But Bobby was different. Bobby was cherished and treasured.
Not letting the side down, Philippa had dutifully brought along her own childhood bear, though it had taken her nearly two hours to find him in the cellar. She had never been that wild about Toby even when she was a child.
That was the kind of thing you never admitted to. Or you did, before you knew any better, convinced that it would be like saying that you hated dinner parties, or thought that National Treasure on TV was actually intensely irritating. People’s faces would suffuse with relief and they would say, “Oh, thank goodness you came out with it! I feel just the same!”
Teddy bears were different. Saying you never liked your childhood teddy much was Beyond the Pale and Going too Far and all the other sayings that seemed so portentous they required capital letters.
Philippa’s previous Significant Other, Nigel, had looked at her with an air of betrayed disbelief when she mentioned her indifference (and at times that was putting it mildly) to Toby. And there was nothing whimsical about Nigel. He had built up his own hardware business from scratch and didn’t suffer fools gladly. But he still came over all misty eyed when he remembered whispering his secrets and his troubles into Bruno’s soft, threadbare ears.
Toby wasn’t bright pink and shiny with a gold heart (not real gold, of course) on his chest saying, “A special bear for a special you” like her friend Tammy’s bear. Her friend Antonia had a bear that she had brought back from a holiday with her relatives in Germany, and he had a button in his ear. Privately, Philippa thought there was something a bit silly about a bear having a button in his ear, and that the bear in question was a bit ugly, but that wasn’t the point. The adults all fussed over him and all over Antonia and told her that she was a very lucky little girl and she had a very special bear.
There was nothing special about Toby. He wasn’t exactly ugly, but that might even have been preferable. There was something about a bear that was slightly cross-eyed or had one leg longer than the other, or some of the stuffing coming out that could be (she didn’t know the word at the time, but she knew the meaning) endearing and make you feel protective and different from the rest. Toby was a uniform colour that came somewhere between sludge brown and rat grey, and though he wasn’t hard to the touch, he wasn’t soft and shiny and silky, either. He didn’t have a button on his ear, and he didn’t have a gold heart on his chest. He came with a pair of britches in some kind of nondescript check, and Philippa thought he looked daft with the britches on and vaguely – well, common, with them off. She went through the motions of whispering things into his ears, but he remained unresponsive, and before very long she was whispering things like, “You’re not like other bears! You’re not the kind of bear I want at all!”
I wasn’t a cruel child, she told herself, rather gingerly dangling Toby now, and hurriedly adding in her thoughts, not that cruelty came into it, he wasn’t an animate object, any more than Tammy’s Rosie bear (apparently there were female bears, too) and Antonia’s Fritzi Bear were. Or that Bobby was! He couldn’t care less. He couldn’t then, and he couldn’t now.
All the same – had she really needed to tell him she hated him and she hoped that if she left him out on the lawn the birds would peck his eyes out and that if she let their dog play with him, he would tear his stuffing out. The birds weren’t interested, and Della the Dachshund (of whom she’d always been rather fond, but now christened Della the Dopey Dachshund) played with him gently and appreciatively.
You’re welcome to him, she’d thought.
Aunt Agnes understood. Not that she mentioned it to Aunt Agnes in so many words, rather suspecting that redoubtable lady might have found it all rather trivial and not worth getting het-up about. But she would have understood. Aunt Agnes liked dolls, even at her age, it was true, but she liked immaculate china dolls with wax faces that Philippa doubted even the most well-behaved of Victorian children would have played with. Privately Philippa thought they were a bit creepy and didn’t need to be told not to touch them, but she had a certain respect for them.
Look, I never actually threw you away, thought Philippa, telling herself she didn’t deliberately trail Toby through a patch of nettles that had most inconsiderately invaded the Eden of achingly beautiful bluebells and dappled sunlight and reflected greens and golds. “That counts for something, doesn’t it?”
Throwing him away, though, would have at least accorded Toby the drama and dignity of being a participant in a rite of passage. Sort of. Not if she’d just tossed him in the skip, true. But knowing my luck, thought Philippa, some well-meaning employee of the refuse collection firm would have retrieved him and I’d have been expected to pose for a feel good picture for the local newspaper clutching Toby to my bosom.
There was something indestructible and undisposable about Toby. He didn’t even have that threadbare, frayed look other old childhood bears had. What Hannah, who would surely have never entertained such words on her lips about anything else, called the over-loved look. Philippa’s mother, a keen gardener, was wont to say at times that there were plants that seemed to thrive on neglect. Well, Toby didn’t exactly thrive on neglect. He had not miraculously become brighter or shinier or softer, or grown a button in his ear or a heart on his chest. But he weathered it. He had the same bland, irritating expression now that he’d had thirty years ago. His eyes were just as unblinking. Now logic told Philippa that though she supposed there were teddy bears with eyes that opened and closed, they were the exception, and it was part of their very appeal that they were always on guard, their eyes open, for their young or not so young owners.
I never threw you away, but I don’t know why.
She and Hannah had periodically admonished the children to remember to keep to the paths and not to wander off. They were not sure if they technically had enough adults per children, or if Mandy from the local sixth form college who wanted to do childcare and wasn’t terribly bright but was very willing and who had come along counted as one.
Philippa realised that far from the children straying from the path and getting left behind, she was the one who had been daydreaming (even if they were not necessarily the kind of daydreams you associated with a glorious spring day, even though it did seem decidedly more dim now – perhaps they had gone further into the woods) she had been guilty of that offence. Well, that would earn her a lecture from Hannah afterwards if she didn’t manage to slip back in unnoticed – which was not going to happen.
There is a split second, when you stumble on a loose paving stone or skid on a patch of ice, when time seems to stand still and you are sure that it will be fine, the situation will be rescued, and your dignity and knees will emerge intact as you regain your balance. Just occasionally, this is true, but more often than not it is not, and though Philippa remained bolt upright (well, apart from ducking to avoid the low-hanging boughs that threatened to scratch her face) she realised that nothing was going to check her fall. “Hannah!” she called, “Mandy – this is so embarrassing, I seem to have got lost, I know the children will have a good laugh!” A few minutes ago, she had heard the children singing “This Old Man” in a knowing or unknowing echo of that famous scene from the film about the missionary rescuing children in the war in China. The woodland birds had joined in, and even the most hardened of cynics might have reluctantly felt their heart warming. Now both birdsong and childsong had faded into the distance and disappeared altogether. I am well and truly lost, thought Philippa. I mean, I can’t be that lost, it’s hardly the Amazon Rain Forest, is it?
There can be something claustrophobic about trees when their canopies thicken and their branches grow darker and grow damp moss as well as fresh spring leaves. What next, she thought, do I stumble upon the gingerbread house? She would have preferred it if that thought hadn’t occurred to her.
She did not chance upon a gingerbread house. Nor a house of any description.
But, initially to her relief, she did realise that the trees were thinning once more, and that the sunlight was clearer and brighter once more, and that she was emerging from the wood into a clearing. That’s more like it, she thought. And that noise – is it a stream? Or no, maybe it’s a car on a main road, and come to think of it, that will be much more use. There was quite a spring in her step again, and she no longer needed to duck her head to avoid being scratched. No need to bow because of the boughs, she thought, pleased in passing at her own wit and word play, before she realised that the roaring she had heard was not water, and it was not a road, and there was no stream, and there was no car.
But, circling round her, padding and slavering, in a rhythm both lithe and lumbering, were the bears, in a uniform colour, somewhere between sludge brown and rat grey, and Toby had slipped from her grasp to join them, and his expression was not bland anymore, but it blazed with the cold fire of the decades of neglect and spite and contempt that he’d had to endure.
It was payback time.