Bear

It still happens, although the root of it all was almost twenty years ago I can’t shake it, and whilst it has been at times a claw scratching struggle, I would not want to have lived without the bear. For a time it was a smell that would creep on me, a wet sweaty reek that conjured up the end of hibernation in thawing deep forests. Those around me would recoil in confusion as I snuck into my suburban garden to rock and growl lovingly at the moon.

It’s more removed now, walking down a gentle English street lined with Victorian villas I asked my son if in one of the upper windows opposite he could see the bear just standing, looking out. Of course he couldn’t, but I saw it, looked into its huge lakes of eyes even from a distance and shared a sense of longing for cold darkness that propelled me back to a crumbling building in a distant city.

***

Going in I give my passport to a smoking security guard behind a yellowing screen, his growling wolfhound straining on a threadbare leash. He grunts as he scribbles the room I am visiting on a piece of squared paper and presses a button to release the turnstile. There are lifts but I have been told not to use them so lug my greatcoat up seven flights.

The lights in the corridor are dim, flickering like it’s a scene from some post nuclear orange meltdown. Along the way are abandoned fridges, cookers, broken shelves, cracked and open windows out to the knife of cold and the lights shining on the Shabolovskaya TV tower. Last time I came I didn’t notice, there were a few of us pissed and stumbling but this time I’ve come alone and sober for now.

I go to knock on door 706 but before I can a small greying man of Mongolian descent whooshes it open shakes me warmly by the hand with no surprise and rushes off down the landing. I go in and Aleksei and Volodya immediately grab me and throw me in the air “just you tonight Johnny?”

“The others are studying, bit rude of them when we were invited I know.”

They are in the denim and leather jacket combo as always and like a Slavic Tweedles Dee and Dum they seem both ecstatic and downcast. This had been an enthusiastic invitation to come round for vodka that had been accepted with slaps on the back. I thought it would have been culturally unacceptable of me to not show on this freezing Tuesday night.

“It is fantastic you are here,” shouts Volodya and pushes me into the room the two of them share where the table has been laid out with black bread, impressively girthed gherkins, bowls of chunks of pork fat and a plate of dark burger size hunks of meat. In the centre of it all are bottles of beer and vodka emblazoned with a machine gun. Aleksei puts him arm around me “the good stuff, only available in the special forces shop”

And so we raise toasts and chomp on pork fat as a mixture of Cave and Cohen coo in the background, the conversation spirals in and out of Russian and English and around the hatred of the army that drove them here studying at the aeronautical design institution to put off national service (both maintain they will have saved the bribe cash to be signed off as mad by the time they need to sign up). I find out there is another room that shares their kitchen itself inhabited by 4 Central Asian medical students who have been there four four years already. Sometimes they fight with them but only drunkenly and never to more than surface blood.

Later after trips to the bare brick toilet with a submerged wire flush things get serious. The tenth toast is poured and Alexei picks up the plate of meat, deep dark red patties of mince that have the richness of a velvet curtain quivering in anticipation that the opera is about to start.

“It’s from my last trip home to Tver, we go out in a mini bus to the forest and drink and shoot till one of us gets that bear. Then we all take our share of the meat.”

The taste is overwhelming, wrapping my mouth in a deep pungent clawing, as though I’m inhaling the bear and in so doing absorbing something that can never be shed or forgotten. It cuts through the vodka and you can sense it land with a heaviness in the gut that signals a determination to stick around.

Walking home through icy midnight slush I can still taste the beast and as my tongue jimmies at wedged globs between teeth I can feel fur trying push through the skin of my arms.

***

The bear has stayed with me ever since, maybe was there before but needed awakening, to linger at the back of the throat or in the corner of an eye. To bristle at enclosure and force a growl when threatened, or trigger an ecstasy when the temperature drops and the full moon is lighting the world.

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