My father, especially later in his life, took to collecting stuffed animals that did things. He had a pig that sang, a monkey that alternatively clapped cymbals and screeched, and a Dachshund that sequentially walked, yapped and wagged its tail. As the dog’s battery ran down its actions became random, giving it an eerie gift of choice.
When people grow seriously old, giving them birthday presents creates difficulty and sometimes anguish for their families. Anything long term can be seen as a joke-in-a-box and anything short term, like food, can be taken as a measure of how long the old person is expected to live.
In my father’s case the choice was easy. I’d simply buy him another stuffed animal that did things – different things to those already in his collection.
That’s how I came to buy the bear. It was a neat size – about that of a leg of lamb – and it talked. Its conversation, however, was strictly reflective. It could do no more than repeat what was said to it, in the same voice as the speaker.
Being childish, I wanted to play with it before I gave it to Dad for his 88th birthday. I lifted it out of its box, being careful not to damage the tabs and wrapping so I could later return it to its packet looking pristine. It took two fat batteries up its rectum. They promised hearty volume and longevity.
I turned it on, looked into its button eyes, and said hello. It said hello back. I said “I love you” and it immediately responded that it felt the same way about me. I tried a couple of news headlines, which it repeated back to me, and then I discovered that it could speak French as badly as I could.
But I quickly became disillusioned with my purchase. My father would like it, I supposed, and he could show it off to his friends, but for me the bear lacked independence. Good stuffed toys that did things had to be in control of themselves. They had to do their thing without participation from onlookers.
I was about to return the disappointing bear to its box when an idea hit me. I needed a second bear.
I went back to the toy shop and luckily there was one left. They had been popular, the sales girl told me, because people loved hearing their own voices.
Back home, I took the second bear from its box and fitted its batteries. Then I sat the two bears facing each other on the dining room table. I turned them both on and positioned my mouth very close to bear number one’s mouth. Its shiny acrylic fur tickled my lips. In my best bear’s voice I said to it “get fucked”. When it repeated my insult the second bear, thinking it was being spoken to, became instantly offended and told the first one to get fucked too. I stepped away from the table as they went at it, telling each other to get fucked until the quality of sound deteriorated through exponential distortion and they were simply growling at each other – which was more suitable for bears anyway.
My father liked his single bear and I gave the other one to the child across the road. I felt as though I was in the sad part of a wildlife documentary as I separated the bears. They would never speak to each other again – or any other of their species, for that matter.