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Badly Stuffed Bear
November 26, 2012
According to the letter I am 'no longer welcome in 'Build a Bear outlets, worldwide.'
It started, like most terrible things do, with a birthday. On the recommendation of a friend I took my small daughter, with a posse of her kittenish friends, to an overlit shop in a noisy mall to build a bear. By which I mean take a flaccid bear 'skin' from a heap of what looks like faux fur roadkill, inflate it and bedeck it in,oh. about £100 worth of sparkly accessories. Turns out bears are surprisingly dressy creatures - opting for sequinned boob tubes , bear dude baseball caps, little paw-shaped high-heeled shoes, and, oddly, capri pants.
The bears I knew as a child were comforters: glassy-eyed, great soft vigilant guardians of sleep. Seeing them tricked out in these outfits is a little like discovering your favourite uncle is a transvestite.
I'm musing on this,when I notice that Bear Buddy – a shop dummy who someone has tricked out in custard dungarees and baseball cap – has convulsed into life and is plying the excitable little girls with accessories.
'For just £15 more you can get this cool skater bear,' he's saying to the fiscally imprudent kittens. My son, who was reluctant to come, is now entranced – “Can I mum?” I glare at Bear Buddy who doesn't quite meet my eye under his yellow brim. I hadn't bargained for the hard sell emanating from the Buddy and the glittering avarice in the children's eyes.
“Alright but just the skater shorts, no, no not the tiara too. Just one dress each girls. Gosh, that's more than I'd spend on my own clothes.” I see my tax credits evaporating .
“I wouldn't mind but why do they all have to look like Vicky Pollard on hen night?” I say to a woman holding a bear in a diamante thong.
“I think they look cute.” She says flintily.
I had thought that we parents would share a curmudegeonly moment over the accessory-pushers but, as always, I have misjudged the mood of the room. I am spoiling the sparkly, girly fun.
I look at the queue mothers and grandmothers in chipolata-skin leggings and sequinned tunics, hair pulled back, over-sized hoops in ears, little versions of them by their sides, and still littler furrier versions in the girls' arms.
“Right who wants to do some fluffing up?!' says the Bear Buddy. Isn't this is what happens in adult film-making. Clutching limp bearskins and armfuls of glittery accoutrements, the band troops over to the stuffing machine, a giant tumble drier filled with milky kapok fluff. A little girl uncertainly relinquishes her bear. Bear Buddy inserts a nozzle into the first bear's bottom and begins pumping a giant pedal, grinning lasciviously at the line of watching mums as the gears grind. He asks the little girls if they would like to have a go. The ghastly bearskin balloons, its head rears up and fixes us with glassy stare. The girls fall silent.. No one should have to see an engorged bear. Its all too much for my daughter who begins quietly to cry.
My son on the other hand is enthralled. He's onto the next stage. He's has picked up a gingham heart and is stuffing it into a bear's open wound while repeating a little bogus promise to 'cherish my bear'. I'm sure in the US, where Build a Bear originates, this prayer is intoned by some cheery white-toothed helper with some conviction. Here Bear Buddy mumbles it as if reading a prisoner his rights.
“Every bear needs a birth certificate,” he drones, as we move herd-like to a bank of bright yellow computers. Their big red buttons belie the complexity of the task ahead. Bear registration is immensely complicated - a little like applying for citizenship of Monaco. I strongly suspect that, as we type, these details are flying to a marketing.department in Cleveland setting off a tsunami of bear-related spam that won't stop til the children reached 18.
My daughter is hopping from leg to leg, it's not just the boredom of registration. We have to find the loo. Grudgingly we are led through a door to the staff room. Its utterly filthy. The walls are plastered with cheerleading posters – 'push the princess outfits – they carry a 50% commission!'Yay! well done Bear Buddies – 500% more sold last month.' To unsuspecting suckers! I made that last bit up. But you get the idea.
Back in the shop, I'm assaulted by the heat; the spotlit glitter, the screeches of hyped-up little consumers, the cacophony of the fluffing machine. I look at my daughter's bewildered face. This is meant to be a treat. It is not.
Quite suddenly I'm tired. Tired of the shameless salespitch, tired of watching my dwindling funds extorted by an over-dressed upselling bear, but mostly tired of the charmless Bear Buddy. This isn't a new feeling for me, I am carrying a non-specific resentment, as sore and chafing as cystitis. I resent being overcharged and under-served for sure. I resent the time I spend exiting through the gift shop – but its something larger too. I'm a woman, not a target market. Suddenly I know what I want . I want to 'stick it to the Man'.. Or the Bear. Really stick it. The difference is, this time, I have the means in my hands. In my hands.
“Give me the hose Madam.” Bear Buddy's listless tone is suddenly urgent.
“Not yet,” I hiss.
It isn't quite the revenge I intended. Surprisingly quickly we – girls and mothers, nanas and bears - are covered in a snowfall of stuffing. I'm pumping the machine's pedal, raking the shop with the foamy ejaculate. For a moment I feel alive, in control and sure of purpose. Accessorise that, buddy! Its tiring work, though, pumping. My foot slips from the pedal. The infernal noise abates. When I pause for breath I can see the queue of little girls gazing rapt at the scene, some lightly frosted with settling fluff. Their mothers' expressions are moving from shock to righteous anger.
My daughter's mouth is slightly agape and there is an expression I haven't seen on her face before. I'm thinking that she seems awfully young to be embarrassed by her mother, and that maybe she is quite precocious for her age, when I feel the hand on my shoulder.
My son, on the other hand, is clearly pleased with the way things have turned out and cheerfully pockets 'surfer bear' accessories as we are escorted from the store.
Happy birthday darling.
Of course there's shame. A petit mort. Your fourth birthday shouldn't end in such a way. Maybe when you're older you'll forgive me. Until that day, I like to think of my picture blu-tacked to the staff room wall – wild-eyed, foam-spattered and now banned.
I'm a single mother of two children aged 5 and 7. I work for a sexual health charity in London but I live in Lewes. Faced with a truly dreadful commute (thank you, Southern Rail) I bought a laptop and started writing. The enforced solitude of the train is a respite from chaos at home – it’s just me and the keyboard.. I started with journal entries at first, then short stories and songs. I like to write dark comedy and I find subversive humour lurking in most areas of life.
Some of my stories have been published: one in Sunday Telegraph magazine years ago, a short piece about by late father in Guardian Family section, and one short story for children broadcast on Nick Jr TV.
This article appeared on the Female First website 26th November 2012