Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

The Brown Bear

Hannah Bowen


These were the days when I was fresh off the boat and lived out of a suitcase. One hundred pounds was hidden in a pair of socks at the bottom of my sleeping bag, and a battered copy of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy sat on top of a cupboard next to a rotting apple. The brick wall opposite my window proclaimed ‘Osama Lives in E1’ in thick black paint.

The pub downstairs was small, bedevilled by gloom during the day and mildly seedy at night. The bar itself was shaped like a horseshoe and the grain of the wood bore the round imprints of ales past. My new boss sat me down for a pint and a packet of crisps at the end of my first night. Finn was in her early thirties and wore colourful coats with fake-fur collars.

‘Forty people rang up for your job,’ she said, ‘and you were the only one who spoke English. Plus, you’re young and female. So it doesn’t matter that you’ve never pulled a pint before, or that you can’t change a keg. But you really will have to learn how to open a bottle of wine.’

We drank companionably. I was exhausted, and positively reeked of tobacco.

‘And another thing,’ Finn warned as we climbed the stairs. ‘Watch yourself with the men – don’t take any of them too seriously.’

I soon became proficient at polishing glasses, wiping down tables and cleaning ashtrays. I was slower at adding up prices and even worse at pouring a lager with a decent head. The regulars generously explained to me the mysteries of cockney enunciation and eventually divulged the contents of a St Clements. They convinced me to taste some scampi fries and pork scratchings, to my eternal regret. In the evenings I learnt to play darts amongst the brawl and roisterous banter of the men. In the blurry mornings I swept ash off the floor and fought the urge to retch whenever I caught the pungent scent of hops wafting from the cellar.

Two weeks later I called my boyfriend from a phone box across the road. Grey slush from the recent snowfall lined the gutters. The line wasn’t very clear and the machine chewed up my coins faster than I could poke them in the slot.

‘I’m starting to get jealous,’ I finally heard through the interference. ‘I’m worried you’ll meet someone else.’

I couldn’t tell him that I had never been subject to so much male attention in my life. True, the punters were usually twice my age, and I almost broke my neck trying to escape their field of vision. No longer could I bury my head in The Wretched of the Earth and hope it would all go away.

I had suddenly become aware of myself as female, hair scraped back in a pony-tail, sweating in a tight black t-shirt.

One night Jackson was the last customer left at closing time. He was Japanese-American and often bought me drinks. I liked his wry attitude.

‘When was the last time you had a decent meal?’ he asked.

We walked through the darkened streets of Wapping to his local Italian. I looked like Casper the Friendly Ghost from prolonged lack of sunlight. I tried not to devour my glorious food in too unseemly a fashion. 

Everyone could see I was just another bar wench.

‘Why did you join the army straight out of college?’ I said.

‘Because I thought it was the right thing to do.’

Jackson was a management consultant for a large company further up the street. It took me a while to realise that he had been flown over from the States in order to sack a third of the workforce. I was, as they say, a bit slow on the uptake.

After dessert Jackson wanted to read me some of his poetry. His new apartment was large and bright, but all the surfaces were completely bare. I was standing in a doorway when he leant in to kiss me. I experienced a sudden vertigo, and pulled back by instinct. I hadn’t thought this far ahead.

‘I can’t – I left someone back home.’

He gave me an amicable hug at the front door. The next day someone told me Jackson had a wife and seven-year-old kid back in LA.

On weekends the pub was closed, for there was no trade when the suits spent time with their wives or were fleeing to their second home in the country. The Square Mile emptied out entirely and I half expected to see tumbleweed rolling down the thoroughfares. Early on a Sunday morning I was woken by stones erratically hitting my window and Alex, the chef, calling my name.

‘Let us in, will ya? Lost my keys!’

By the time I had wrestled with all the locks and bolts he was skipping from foot to foot, heat steaming off his entire body from the cold. He hesitated at my unflattering flannel pyjamas and then changed his plan.

‘Throw on some clothes! I’ve got to show you something.’

The streets at this hour were composed entirely of shades of black, umber, grey. All was silent apart from Alex’s chatter, his eyes bright under his beanie.

‘Sorry darling, I’m a bit spangled. But this will be worth it.’

Beyond Whitechapel High Street and around a corner, fruit and vegetable sellers were arranging their stalls. A garish light bathed the scene, almost as if in a morgue. The clubbers were venturing outside again, and like homing pigeons were flocking to Brick Lane, hovering and cooing for salt beef bagels. I felt like an anthropologist. I felt like an anthropologist who did not know any of the rules.

A week later Finn had to let me go. The owners were coming back from the Algarve and the accounts just weren’t adding up. The profit margin had disappeared during late night lock-ins, evaporated in generous bottles of wine and carefree shots of sambucca. I could stay a few more days but had to be gone by the weekend: nothing personal. A chasm opened in front of me. I had just over £300 in my socks upstairs.

Four years later I returned, just out of mere curiosity. I was wearing a suit and an emerald ring sat comfortably on my left hand; things, I told myself, had changed. Yet at Aldgate East I kept taking the wrong exit, and Leman Street was wider than I remembered. My red phone box had been dismantled and removed. I couldn’t understand why my heart was beating so fast.

When I walked in the men all turned to look, trawling for fresh fish as ever. The barmaids were now from Eastern Europe, brash and street-smart, covered in war-paint. I wondered how much they were getting paid. I recognised only one of the punters, a salty sea dog who had taught me how to make a g&t. In the intervening years his face had bloomed red, mottled as if bruised, the tell-tale sign of an old soak. He had been kind to me. When I approached him now – bless him – he couldn’t place me at all.

I realised that the significance I had attached to this patch of earth existed only in the warp and weft of my neural pathways. I stood out on the pavement and gazed up at my old window and the flower boxes filled with ragged geraniums. Above the entrance a copper figure of a brown bear still swung in space. He was standing upright and his wrists and ankles were encircled by chains. They were kept here; I had studied fragile maps in temperature-controlled rooms. The bears had bellowed and pawed at the suppurating ground, almost within sight of the fabled white spires of the Tower. Once upon a time the thatched roof of the Globe had competed with the bear-baiting pits arrayed along the river, and the boatmen had endlessly ferried people to and fro.