1,331 words – approx. 5 minutes
It is unlikely that none of the other boys on that school trip had brought some sort of stuffed toy, but only Anthony was naive enough to display his openly, rather than hide it at the bottom of a bag to be quietly and unobtrusively brought out at bedtime. There he stood in the 4am cold, clutching his naked, threadbare companion as we waited, with intoxicating tiredness, for the coach to arrive.
Once our luggage had been safely stowed, we boarded and waved goodbye to our parents. Some of them had already left even in the short time it had taken Mrs McMillan to check our names off the register, presumably in the hope of compensating for a little of their lost sleep, but my father stood waving, and, as I remember, so did Anthony’s mother, a tight stiff smile stretched across her face.
There was little chance of us sleeping on the journey. We were, after all, 12-year-olds going to France, and the mood was one of high excitement. My parents had taken me to Paris for a weekend some years earlier, but for many of my classmates this was the first time they had ever left Britain, and a sense of adventure and freedom hummed through the coach. I was sat a few rows in front of Anthony, next to a girl called Lauren, whose surname escapes me, although I knew it at the time.
One of the boys must have seen Anthony with his bear either outside the gates or on the bus itself, because it was not long before the general chatter was spiked with a whispered message: Anthony has a teddy. It rustled round the seats – it was one of those things that everyone knew but no-one remembered hearing. Tom Stamp was the first brave enough to break the anonymity of rumour, or perhaps he was just the first to judge that he was far enough back for Mrs McMillan not to hear his question.
“Hey Anthony,” he asked in a low voice that was bright with false friendship. “What’s your bear’s name?” In my mind at this point Anthony fearfully brings his bear closer to his chest, but it is likely that I had, in fact, not yet turned round. I was near enough to hear his answer though, given grudgingly: “Bear.”
Again the stream of whispers travelled from child to child, and soon we were all aware that Anthony Hitchins had a bear named Bear. Inevitably the suggestions followed: Is he your best friend? Do you sleep with the light on? Does he protect you from scary monsters? This last remark was delivered by the boy next to Tom and was accompanied by raised arms with mock claws, an action that was enthusiastically taken up by several children towards the rear of the coach.
It is possible that I joined in with some of this unkind taunting, but I do not remember doing so. I certainly played no orchestrating part, and I was not among those individually reprimanded by Mrs McMillan when she strode from her seat next to the driver to tell us to stop being so childish and to try to get some sleep. There were a few half-hearted murmurs after that regarding Anthony’s status as a teacher’s pet, but the fun had drained from the game, and until the second night in the lodge it seemed Anthony and Bear would be left alone.
We were staying on the outskirts of a small wood in the south of France, in a building that had once been a boarding school. The first night had been a quiet affair, intended, I think, to get us used to our surroundings and catch up on the sleep we had missed on the long drive. The rooms were mixed and housed eight each, and, although I was not unpopular, my status as the new girl meant I was relegated to the room with the cast-offs, including Anthony who was in the bunk directly below mine. The lodge’s grounds were large and most of the boys had enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to explore its wooded area in the free time of that first day. I stayed indoors, however, and when I saw from of the corner of my eye that Anthony had tucked Bear up in bed I did not say anything. I am not sure whether he was aware I had seen him – I hope he did see me and interpreted my silence as conspiratorial support, but I have no way of knowing.
Some of the boys who had been outside took it upon themselves during the second day to warn us of the dangers of hogbadgers, a particularly savage breed native to France’s woodland. Their eyes glowed red, and Kyle Weston swore down that one had bitten a chunk from his brother’s leg. They were, by all accounts, highly dangerous, and while I did not really believe the reports, the lack of any dissenting voice did cause me to waver in my certainty. It was, therefore, with some wariness that we went into the woods that night for our nightwalk.
How someone got into our room is a question I still ask myself today. They must have excused themselves at lunch – perhaps they saw the door left ajar and found it just too tempting. There was certainly ample opportunity during the day to follow the route marked by that taut length of rope, although I doubt that even the culprit had expected Monsieur Remy, our guide, to have swung the beam of his torch so directly onto Bear, the stuffing oozing out of the tears in his damaged limbs.
There was an intake of breath and I think a shriek, then someone towards the rear of our group said, “Must’ve been a hogbadger,” shattering the tension into nervous giggles. Anthony had been ambling incuriously at the back, but he was soon propelled by a flurry of hands to look upon his treasured Bear, whose face stared shiny-eyed and uncomprehending up from the dirt.
Whether he cried openly after being hurried away I do not know. But when Anthony finally came back to our room later that night – after Mrs McMillan had comforted him and done her best to stitch and sew and clean Bear – he made little soft wet sounds into his pillow that still haunt me. I also do not believe that the perpetrator (I have come to the conclusion that there must only have been one, for any conspiracy would surely have crumbled at the sight of Anthony’s devastation) was ever identified.
I don’t remember Anthony’s face well after so many years; it is a shifting blurry smear in my memory. I tried to talk to him the next day at breakfast but he wouldn’t speak so, eventually, I left him alone. I remember when he looked up at me his eyes were ringed red – from tears, tiredness, or both.
The remainder of the trip passed uneventfully, but a shadow had been cast over it and we did not recover the exuberance of the outward journey. I suppose it is the sort of minor cruelty that children of that age routinely inflict, but in the cold light of hindsight it does seem particularly brutal. His family moved away around a year later – for reasons unconnected to the events I have described, I think – and I never saw him again. When I came home from the trip I gave my parents scant information other than to confirm that I had enjoyed it. There was little other option – and it was not untruthful – but I was keen to partition the events of that second night to an area of my mind where they could be allowed to fade rather than become emboldened by repetition. I do wonder, though, sometimes when the memory passes over me, what Anthony told his mother when she greeted him with her thin, tight smile; I cannot imagine he had the words.
Originally published as part of the Across the Ages anthology by PageTurners.
This is an old story, and one I wrote directly onto my laptop in a single sitting with just a bit of an idea. Normally that method gets me a couple of paragraphs and then peters out, but it seemed to work here, and this is the first story I remember completing and being pretty pleased with.
And it got published! That was very exciting – and thanks to Robin Lord for his editing. That gave me a lot of confidence, although I don’t think I finished another story for a couple of years, when I worked out a way to actually finish things regularly (the short version: a bit of planning, write longhand, type up and edit as you go, read aloud).
I think I’d been reading Kazuo Ishiguro when I wrote this, which probably explains the stiffly formal tone. Stories about hogbadgers terrified me on a cub camp once, although nothing this traumatic ever happened – I feel very sorry for Anthony, but there’s also something a bit nastily exciting about making such horrible things happen. Not sure if that’s what Graham Greene meant when he wrote that every writer needs a splinter of ice in his heart, but it’s true for me.