Frances Tate lives in the north west of England where she puts all that rainfull to good use growing tomatoes and chillies. She enjoys travelling and visiting historic sites such as romantic ruins and battlefield walks. She writes novels about vampires and short stories and flash fiction about all sorts of things. Co-writer of two self-published drabble books and published writer of drabbles and flash in The Dark Sire, various Black Hare Press antholgies, The Drabble, Elephants Never and Fiveminutelit.
The Teddy Bear Dilemma
On the top deck of the number twenty-seven bus, Clara’s reflection stared back at her. The interior’s harsh lighting performed the unappreciated public service of hiding everything dull and gloomy behind silvered window glass.
Welcome to mole season. It was dark when she left home and dark when she got back. If not for the half hour lunch break when she’d stumbled out into daylight from the windowless factory, she may as well work nights. The pay would be better, but childcare costs would go through the roof. Maybe she could take ironing in, work from home?
It was already late October and her Christmas fund was pitiful. Please let there be overtime soon. Isaac was five. Nursery had taught him to tie his own shoelaces and not to try to force the square peg into the round hole. It has also introduced him to competitive gift-getting. Isaac wasn’t a greedy child, but he knew he didn’t have half the things his classmates had. He often arrived in the playground breathless and rosy-cheeked, sometimes rain-soaked after a brisk walk and a ride on a crowded and frequently late bus. He didn’t hop down from a warm SUV at the school gates. And he never would.
Clara sighed and the bus stopped at the traffic lights on the slip road. It always took more than one revolution of the light sequence to get through. The illusory tunnel of the dual carriageway loomed ahead. Curved pale concrete barriers and endless tarmac stretching out below an arching street light canopy. It looked, it felt more enclosed, more oppressive than it was. If she worked overtime, she’d need a taxi to get home. There’s no way she’d walk this road alone. The sign at the top of the slip road warned that the street lights would be switched off at midnight. The Council was trying to save money. She didn’t dispute the intention, but it didn’t help her do the same thing. And there it is. Any chance of increasing the Christmas fund, any possibility of hope already sucked away.
Frustration prickled in her eyes. Better here than in front of Isaac. But better not at all. She dragged her coat sleeve across her face, experience evading the faux leather button at the cuff, and cupped her hands against the cold glass. She’d had enough of the sight of her miserable face. The non-judgemental gloom outside suddenly had much more appeal. Plenty of people are far worse off than we are, remember that. She glared down into the roadside scrub. The headlights of cars turning off the roundabout onto the slipway glanced too. The traffic queue kept light trained on the wasteland beyond the crash barrier.
A face stared back at her.
She blinked. The traffic lights changed. The bus lurched forward.
That was a teddy bear. Big and pale with half-moon ears and a gentle face. An expensive bear. Almost the size of Isaac. What child would throw away such a beautiful toy? What kind of parents allowed that behaviour?! Ones who could afford to.
She twisted in her seat, tried to catch another glimpse, but the darkness wouldn’t allow it.
That’s common land, isn’t it? No fences, no purpose. Even the heavy blackberry crop was loaded with fuel soot. Spoiled. The Council picked litter from there every few months. The public replaced it every day. Eventually everything ended up in the landfill. Some of it was sacrilege. Some of it bear-shaped.
There was a bus stop coming up.
No. The bear was dirty. Even if it wasn’t missing half its stuffing, it would be worse than buying Christmas presents—as well as clothes—from charity shops in the next town. Soon Isaac or Isaac’s classmates would catch onto her, and then the teasing would start, and it would last all of Isaac’s school life. Children’s cruelty knew no bounds. No. I can’t, I won’t add torture to poverty.
The bus stopped. Clara stayed in her seat.
She thought about the bear all the next day. Not from choice. That gentle face reproached her from frozen veg, stared back at her from congealed parsley sauce. In mashed potato, Isaac curled his arms around the bear, sharing his pillow and smiling happily.
Who would ever know? There was no way anyone could guess where it came from. Lancelot Bears don’t grow on trees! They don’t land like windfalls. I didn’t steal it; I just didn’t waste it.
It won’t hurt to look. Then the bear could stop torturing her, stop teasing her with glimpses of her child’s pleasure. Her bus ticket was a Weekly Rider. She could hop off and on as she pleased anywhere on the route. The only cost would be arriving home thirty minutes later than usual and having to pay the babysitter for an extra half hour. Bruised pride, briar scratches and a few extra pounds, versus the priceless gift of a delighted child?
The next night Clara got off the bus on the dual carriageway. She ran across the four lanes two at a time like a frightened rabbit; her thumping heart climbing up her throat as cars roared by, whipping her hair and coat. They were so close. And much faster than she realised from the safety of the top deck. At least for the next part of the task she was well-prepared. There was a folded bin bag in her pocket and a small torch in her hand. Pulling herself out of clinging brambles and floundering across the unstable rubbish, she fought her way to where she thought the bear was.
If it was a bear.
If it still looked like a bear. A bear a child could love.
Having failed to convert passenger speed to pedestrian speed accurately, she was out by several yards in her estimation. Several painful minutes of refereeing synthetic wool versus all-natural thorns. She was out of breath -and belief- when she struck gold.
It was a beautiful bear. And she was right about the size. Balanced on its back paws, with Isaac supporting him, the bear would reach the little boy’s shoulder. A tad damp but looking almost straight out of the box, Sir Lancelot Bear beamed at her.
She beamed back.
She stuffed the bear into the black plastic bag expecting someone to yell ‘Oy! Pikey,’ or ‘skip rat!’ at her. But no one did.
Pirouetting clockwise to uncoil the persistent brambles clawing at her jeans, she spotted a bright red, Lancelot Bear-sized coat.
The familiar squeal of bus brakes pulled a memorised timetable through her head like a scroll. The Fifty-eight; early for once. Catch it and she’d get home just a few minutes later than usual and not need the babysitter to do overtime.
She grabbed the coat and ran.
After dumping the bin bag, top securely knotted, in the bath, she prepared supper. It was almost 9 pm before Isaac finally fell asleep. As though he sensed she was keeping a secret from him and desperate to share it with her.
Clara collected and opened the bag, tipping bear and coat onto the kitchen floor. All her initial assessments held. It was indeed a trademarked Lancelot Bear; this year’s must have toy, advertised on every bus shelter and commercial break. He was in excellent condition. She read the care label. He would tolerate the washing machine on its coolest setting. The coat would not. She pushed the pliant stuffed toy through the washing machine’s porthole, added a two-in-one washing capsule and closed the door.
As the squashed Lancelot began to rotate in six inches of soapy water, she picked up the coat and her coffee mug and turned off the light.
She put the coat in the bathroom sink with a little washing up liquid and warm water. The label said spinning was okay. So, after the current wash cycle finished, she’d give the coat a quick spin. Tomorrow, Isaac would be out all day. Both items could spend the next day secretly dripping off the airer into the bath.
Wiping her hands, she reached for the now cold coffee and headed into the living room.
The evening news had started. The lead story was halfway through. Uniformed policemen faced the camera looking uncomfortable and serious. In another shot, a panel of well-dressed civilians shrank behind a fence of microphones, dishevelled and distraught.
Clara’s stomach clenched. Her fingers curled around the mug at the universally recognisable sight of parents in hell.
The missing three-year-old was called Joshua. He’d been taken yesterday morning. His mother’s multi-ringed and manicured shaking hands held up a glossy 8 x 10 of a little boy with hair the same colour as his Lancelot Bear.
And he was wearing a bright red coat.
The mug fell through Clara’s numb fingers. It spun on the carpet as her foot clipped it. The last of the coffee flew out as, retching, she ran for the toilet. What had she done??