The Life and Times of a Graveyard Bear


by Tom Moorhouse






He sits with a perfect attitude of slumped arms-trailing-by-sides tragicomic dejection. You would be forgiven for thinking that he is an ornament. He is just the right shade of light sandy-yellow and grey, and the dirt and moss are properly ingrained. He has a small patch of lichen on one paw. He looks just like a stone model of a small teddy bear, no bigger that your two clenched fists. He sits on top of a small, flat grave which has a rectangular, marble border. The headstone against which he leans is difficult to read. The letters are the type that peel off over time.

You try reading the script, tracing its course with eyes worried by the possible intrusion. You are aware that you are leaning over and into someone else’s grief. Your curiosity may be wrong, here. Nevertheless you lean in and learn that the occupant of the grave died at the age of two-and-a-half and over fifty years ago. A slight relief. It shouldn’t really make any difference, but it does. It is well-aged grief. The bear seems old, but not that old. You would expect more damage than just the traditional missing eye. You touch him, cautiously. His cloth gives slightly beneath your probing fingertip. He shifts position. You hastily withdraw. A real teddy, then, faded and besieged by assorted plant-life, but miraculously nearly whole. Someone must have loved the someone who loved this bear. You pause there, for a second. Then the rest of your day beckons and you leave.


The bear has spent fifty years staring at the strip of graveyard before him, just next to the footpath. He has had little choice. People find the churchyard a convenient, leafy cut-through, linking two roads and eliminating a noisy pub. They often see the bear sitting on his grave. He evokes a mixed reaction, as you might imagine. Or maybe it is the same reaction but just expressed differently. He wasn’t really placed there for the public, anyway. But then many things change.


The first years were a whirl of colour and sensation. Bought from the shop and dunked into happy chaos. Continually plucked from whatever position he had last landed in and then mauled, grasped, chewed, pulled, dribbled-on and, on one memorable occasion, used as a hammer. Full days with few minutes of respite. Longer periods of safe dark cuddling or immobility in some night-time corner. Little sense but so many new things.

            And later on, trips across the floor, gripped in a moist hand, legs trailing and head or button eyes whacking on the linoleum with every lurching movement. At some stage he gained a name.


Not particularly inventive, but a name is important and it suited him perfectly.

Later still, he would find himself held miles (or so it seemed) above the floor over a particularly unsteady pair of feet. The world staggered and swayed beneath him. Such trips usually ended with a fall, either alone, cushioned by his stuffing, or the pair of them at speed. The latter was commonly accompanied by ear-splitting wailing and the rushing of large feet and consoling hands.


And then there were bad times. There were days in bed with a fever which got worse. Then an unfamiliar, starchier bed. There were tubes, nestling, tossing, hurting, crying, subsiding and, ultimately, silence. It is all best forgotten, really.


It was a beautiful day: blue sky, birds singing and a hot sun beating down on the black-clad crowd. He spent most of the time in a stuffy pocket, head just poking out from the lining. He listened to the quiet service and then watched at a slant as the grass and legs pitched and strode past him. Eventually he was carefully fished out. He felt the tremors in the hand that held him around his middle. A gold ring was cold against his belly. Then he was turned to confront the lips that managed to say:

            ‘You look after her.’

            He was lowered so gently until his back was to the cool marble and there was gravel beneath him. He was placed with his legs stretched before him, arms dangling onto the ground, head slightly pitched forwards. The hand slowly withdrew and then paused for the longest time. Other hands helped her to stand and four feet walked slowly away.


He was alone for some days and then two familiar faces appeared and laid flowers in front of him. A lot had changed since the last time they had visited. He felt like a bear of the world. He had never before been wet (except for the occasion when he had been dipped in food so badly that a good scrubbing had been the only recourse). Now he had been soaked by the rain, dried by the sun, crawled over by slugs and investigated by the rooks. The rooks had, after a few experimental pecks, given him up as a bad job and let him be. He quite liked them. They had such complicatedly simple lives.

It was nice to see the faces again, though. They squatted before him and held hands, sadly. They had nothing to say and neither did he. Sometime later they left, leaving the flowers.


Through his narrow slot of world he watched life clicking along. It was a fuddling mass of snatched conversations and small dramas approaching or receding down the footpath. He had seen the very drunk staggering, the very old hobbling and the very in-love walking with a strange, swinging gait. He had caught the pitying looks and the unthinking words cast in his direction. He didn’t really mind. He had a thick skin. It was the way he was made.


The family returned some weeks later. The flowers were gone. They laid the next bunch down anyway. It had been long enough that they might have wilted and been removed by the groundsman. The bear knew that they had actually been picked up by a well-meaning but hurried and slightly cynical youth as a gift for his girlfriend.

[He presented them to her that evening and his more-deserving young lady had loved them.]

The bear was undecided as to what he thought of the theft. Had he the means he would probably have shrugged. Maybe one gift is as worthy as another.


The next flowers wilted and were removed by the groundsman.


The frosts were pretty. Snow was a bit of a shock. He was buried for a few, white days, just a smoothed bear-shape beneath a prettily decorated headstone. The sudden thaw left him bottom-heavy with ice-water which drained down through his head and body. It felt odd but he was grateful to be out.


He really liked the carols. You could just hear them coming from the church. The other singing was also good but he felt that people sang the carols with more gusto.


The family still visited but a little less regularly these days. When they came, they stayed longer, to compensate. All three of them knew what was really happening. They kept quiet about it, though. Anyway, the bear had grown quite used to the peace and quiet. He still enjoyed the occasional strange punctuations when life reasserted itself. A ball bounced off his headstone, once. A child was accordingly scolded by his mother. The bear was not quite sure why. That’s just what children did.


One day three of them turned up with flowers. The third was smaller and less familiar. He was also bored and could not see why he should be there. He had been whining all day and had been told to please shush. The solemnity of the occasion was therefore broken by an aggrieved and misanthropic background muttering that brought reluctant smiles to his parents’ faces. The complaints ended abruptly with a delighted observation:

            ‘Look! Teddy!’

            Exchanged glances.

            ‘Can I have it?’

            ‘No, dear. The teddy belongs to someone else.’


The years piled up. He saw them both the same time each summer, less often accompanied by their child. They held hands and gazed down upon him, faces suffused with a strange wistfulness. He once heard her say:

‘Poor bear. Still here after all this time.’

He half hoped that she would pick him up, take him home, wash him and put him somewhere in the sun. She left him there, though. On reflection that was all right. He was supposed to be here and would have felt funny leaving his place.


The bear liked marriages. He never got to see them, but he heard the church bells and basked in the uplifting atmosphere of ritual happiness. It gave him an odd sense of balance, although it was funny in some ways. The brief union of two mortal souls was represented by bands of precious metal that would outlast the marriage by centuries. His cloth hide and rotting stuffing represented an eternal contract. That was just typical of people.


Time moved on ever faster. His two friends grew older and less familiar, but still came every year. Once they were a week late because they had been on holiday. That year they brought more flowers for the first time in a long while. The bear was a bit more slouched these days, and could not see quite as much of the world as he once had. He was grateful for the colour the flowers brought.


He rarely saw the son. Once, though, a man that looked a bit like him brought a girl to visit. He said:

            ‘This would have been my sister. She died before I was born.’

            The girl was pleased to have been included in this hidden secret. After the correct period of solemnity, they walked off happily.


One year, only one of his friends came to visit. He knelt a bit stiffly. He laid flowers and he cried, but only a little, and with dignity. The bear wished he could have helped. He had difficulties of his own, however. One of his eyes had fallen out six months earlier and now, although he still saw the world, he saw it in a different way. The snowdrops had been glorious that spring and his single eye had been perfectly placed to view them. He felt they probably looked better without the distraction of a wider scope.

            The next year, still only one visited. The bear wondered if one of the hundreds of funerals here might have held more significance had he but known. Possibly. These things happened. Man and bear were still able to provide mutual comfort: a gentle conspiracy against the bleaching of age. He caught himself wishing his friend would visit more often.


Inevitably it happened. His friend did not come. And although the bear waited expectantly, he never did. He eventually concluded that he had missed another funeral, or that the service had been held elsewhere. A real pity. He would have liked the opportunity to say his own farewell. He could say it now, of course. After all, one time was just as arbitrary as another. But it was somehow better to do these things at the appropriate juncture.

There was still the son. He admitted to himself, though, that it was unlikely that the lad would want to come and see a degenerating old toy that belonged to a sister he never met. Boys, even ones who are now men, are forgetful: out of sight, out of mind. The bear knew that everyone is like that in their own way. That is why it is important to have the small times, the remembrances that dissolve away the rest of the world for a minute or two.


And now the bear sits and supposes that he is free. Certainly he has little to do but to slowly lose himself in a million subtle but irrevocable ways. But life continues apace and continues to surprise. Only today, and for the first time since he was placed here by a shaking hand over half a century before, somebody reached down and delicately touched him. He liked the expression on the person’s face as they read the flaking headstone. He saw their understanding, the way they were gently but firmly linked to something that matters. The person smiled, softly, and walked off.

It was a good moment. There will be few more, he knows. Meanwhile he has other things. He has the morning sun, the cloudy greyness, the stars, rain, leaves, his moss, his burgeoning patch of lichen, the ponderousness of the snails, the sniffing of the dogs and the clownish antics of the rooks. He has the chatter of the people and a thousand million other fascinating irrelevancies. And a very few moments that are larger than everything.


©2008 Tom Moorhouse

Tom would love to hear what you think of his writing - email him now