Vernon was probably about 70 when I first met him. A taciturn, socially awkward creature who found it difficult to meet your eyes. He would stumble into the tea room – he never seemed to be quite in command of his own feet; jacket akimbo – in dire need of a good woman to straighten it out and iron a decent collar for him.
He was harmless enough, though there were those who said there was a certain ‘whiff’ about him, and as is the way of small villages, there were plenty with incredible tales of Vernon’s background. He had, allegedly, gone to Australia as a young man, and there committed dastardly exotic crimes – murder/mayhem/grandiose bank robbery – depending on who was retelling the tales; and then returned to live with his mother in his childhood home in late middle age.
Who knows the truth? To me he was just a quiet and regular customer who paid his bill.
One wintry afternoon, Vernon was the sole customer; I took the opportunity to put my feet up with a cuppa and the newspaper. After a few mintues, Vernon spoke. This was a major event – I had never heard him string a sentence together before. ‘Would you do something for me?’ he said.
I couldn’t begin to imagine what Vernon wanted me to do for him. More sugar for his tea? The loan of a fiver ’til the week-end? I could never have guessed at the curious tale that tumbled out.
Vernon had indeed been to Australia; Opal mining according to him – I didn’t ask whether any of the stories I had heard were true, I didn’t interrupt at all. He merely said he had come home to care for his Mum when she took ill. He’d nursed her for some years, and then when she died, he carried on living in the cottage that had in turn, been her childhood home. I doubt it had seen a lick of paint since.
There was something that he had cared for though. That was ‘Ted’. ‘Ted’ had been Mum’s childhood toy and she had extracted a promise from Vernon that he would never part with him or let him come to harm.
So Ted had moved from Mum’s windowsill to Vernon’s. Now Vernon was facing the end of his life and he was sorely troubled by Ted’s future. He didn’t know how to keep his promise to his Mum, and didn’t know anyone he could trust to look after Ted. It seems that after coming for endless cups of tea at my place, he had decided that I was going to be Ted’s custodian in future.
There was something faintly ridiculous about this conversation with someone who was as a good as a stranger to me – but he was so obviously sincere and deeply troubled that I felt I could do nothing but give my solemn promise that Ted would be safe with me and I would never part with him – particularly, Vernon stipulated, to ‘anyone for mere money’.
Vernon died a few weeks later. Not before he had delivered Ted to his new home with me.
I’ve kept my word for 20 years – but now I too, am waking each morning and looking at Ted on my windowsill and thinking ‘what is to become of you lad’?
Ted has been to Portugal, Italy, Germany – France where he caught a nasty dose of Teddy Bear trench foot, courtesy of some foul continental moth. I had to repair his feet with the remains of an old French tea towel when I found him one morning with his stuffing oozing out of his left leg. If you really want to perfect your French try going into a Bricomarche and explaining that you want moth repellant suitable for a 100 year old Teddy bear…
I have considered each of my friends in turn – but they are all the same sort of age group as I; Ted won’t have a permanent home with any of them! Some of them have children – but the young today have no respect for an ancient artifact like Ted. The world is disposable, replaceable, eminently improvable. The ancient, the damaged, the care worn, only has a value if it is monetary.
Ted isn’t a ‘Steiff’ bear, not that he would be for sale anyway; he’s just a very old, rheumy-eyed bear, somewhat threadbare bear, with gammy feet, who has seen the world change beyond belief, and to whom I have made a commitment.
A commitment that I no longer know how to keep.
I’ve heard of old women fretting about the future of their cat when they’ve gone; well I’m fretting about the future of a Teddy Bear that belonged to a woman I never met.
Does anybody know of a Teddy Bear rescue centre? Is there such a thing? A quiet windowsill somewhere that Ted can continue to gaze out of? Preferably moth free – he’s got a bit of a phobia about moths. Especially French ones.