‘It’s the way they give birth these days, that’s the problem,’ the older bear said. Morrgh didn’t argue: it was a supermarket line and it was mid-winter; the sort of time that brings out the worst in everybody
‘It’s the way they give birth these days, that’s the problem,’ the older bear said. Morrgh didn’t argue: it was a supermarket line and it was mid-winter; the sort of time that brings out the worst in everybody.
‘They used to give birth during hibernation, you see,’ the bear in the queue continued, opening the packet of ZigZag FireUp cigarettes he was about to buy. Morrgh looked at the floor, trying to shrink to invisibility, hoping that none of the females in the queue heard this guy announce how they should all give birth in a cold cave, mid-starvation.
‘Hospital births lead to a drop in mortality rates,’ Morrgh murmured eventually, just to show he didn’t agree with the stranger’s views. Then the till became free and Morrgh stepped forward, relieved.
‘Hello,’ the cashier said.
‘Hi,’ Morrgh said.
Two bears, Morrgh thought. It had to be five, every day, five bears to talk to or say hello to, from January to April. Once Morrgh hit April he knew he made it through another winter and something resembling normality would begin to stir inside him again. But April was a month and a half away yet.
Five wasn’t an official number, it was just something Morrgh read in one of those cheap-shot articles about mental health. Morrgh carefully built a system around this tip four years ago and he was now entirely dependent on it: on weekdays he made sure he said hello to five colleagues in the office and on weekends he had all day to go to cafes or shops to collect five hellos if his social calendar ever fell short.
This morning he received a text that the heating in the office was down and everyone had to work from home. He didn’t panic; he figured he could go to the nearby art gallery in the evening and have the security guards say hello. But there was a delay on a project and it was half seven by the time he logged off the computer. At that point he hadn’t spoken to a single soul yet.
The middle of February was not the time to break a habit that acted as the backbone of his mental health through four winters.
Facing the complete darkness and the howling wind outside, Morrgh forced himself to go to the supermarket. He’d then have to make dinner, eat, set all the alarm clocks and go to bed. In between all that, he’d have to find five bears to say anything to.
The bear who went on a rant about birth was Bear One. The cashier was Bear Two.
Morrgh paid and took his basket to the long counter by the wall and began to pack everything away into his bag. The bear behind him paid for the FireUps and followed Morrgh to the counter. He was holding a government leaflet about Weather Disorder; these pamphlets were everywhere and Morrgh now realised that that’s why the guy started ranting to begin with. The stranger chucked the thing on the counter, right under Morrgh’s nose.
‘Everything’s a condition these days,’ the guy said and walked out.
Morrgh looked at the familiar paper: the helpline number, 444-WD was printed across the top in green. Underneath, there was a picture of a bear hugging his own knees, next to a bullet pointed list of symptoms.
Adverts and leaflets about Weather Disorder always spooked Morrgh a little. January was hard, February even worse and by March he felt like he was slowly crawling along some sort of a sheer drop and the slightest breeze might blow him over. He didn’t know what would happen exactly if he fell. In his head it was like a classic film noir scene, when someone gets shot standing on the top of a tall building and they fall, their fur rustling in the wind, and there are violins playing and crows flying and his silhouette, with arms outstretched, is pasted over a bird’s eye view of the night city. It would be the end of the scene, or the entire film. Morrgh wasn’t ready to end anything yet, even if that meant he would be running up a gritty staircase for the rest of his life.
He put the leaflet back on the display. He needed to find three more bears to talk to before the day was done. He was looking at every bear that passed by and even threw change in the cup of a homeless bear but the bear was asleep or unconscious and so there was no thank you or hello.
Just as he was trying to think of three more bears, his phone went off. It was Bamba, a female friend who lived nearby.
‘Are you home,’ Bamba asked.
‘On my way, just around the corner.’
‘Damn. I’m out of speed. Thought you might pick some up for me if you pass a supermarket.’
‘I can head back, I guess,’ Morrgh said.
‘No, don’t be silly. I’ll just ask the neighbour.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yeah,’ Bamba said and she sighed. ‘I just want winter to end now. Summers are so much fun; warm evenings and getting drunk as a skunk and sleeping on the pavement. And, you know, the clammy bodies rammed against each other on public transport, like a big, controlled orgy. I can’t even remember whether it’s nice or gross but I want it back so bad.’
Morrgh knew what Bamba meant: summers were great. Bamba and Morrgh even had sex in the back of a bar once, and then they must have continued in the taxi because he woke up in her bed. Morrgh vaguely remembered how the sunrays tickled his fur that morning, through the palm-leaf print curtains.
‘I hate winter,’ Morrgh said. ‘The only thing that pulls me through is the alarms, the speed and the caffeine. Sometimes I think I’ll give in.’
‘You’re talking like a WD,’ Bamba said. It could have been an invitation to talk or an accusation or just a statement.
‘I’m fine, just had a tough day at work,’ Morrgh said. ‘Anyway, I heard that hibernating is meant to be having a comeback, like an extreme hygge-thing,’ he added.
‘Yeah, I have a friend who tried it, but to be honest, you never get anything done and you’re skint all summer,’ Bamba said. ‘I think you’ve got to have the highs and you’ve got to take the lows. You don’t wanna be a horizontal line, you wanna be a zigzag,’ Bamba said she thought this but it sounded a lot like a line from an advert for ZigZag’s PerkUp coffee.
‘Yeah, no, I’m not a fan of… sleeping through’s a fad,’ Morrgh said and he meant it. The folks who slept through by choice were worse than the ones diagnosed with Weather Disorder. WD bears were just self-hating and submissive but the hygge hibernators would take extended leave at work then appear in spring, eating locally-sourced raw meat and banging on about nature like they invented it. Knowing nothing about the latest movies, and somehow proud of it, too. Then missing all the parties in the summer because they haven’t got any cash after a four-month dent in their income. Of course they’d never admit it; they’d just make up some ideology on how walking in nature is more fulfilling than fucking in the back of a bar.
And it was a slippery slope, too: Morrgh knew a bear who went all the way and moved out to the hills with a like-minded female. They both died there within a year. She in childbirth, along with the cub. Him, shortly after, in a territorial dispute. Because the inner aggression gets unleashed as soon as they leave society: these hippies might be clean living and their lungs impeccable but they fight like they’re on crystal meth.
‘Are you sure you don’t want me to pick up some speed? I’m walking past the cornershop now,’ Morrgh offered to Bamba.
‘That’s the cheap nasty stuff; I’d rather dunk my head in the toilet bowl,’ Bamba said.
‘It’s exactly the same thing as your FantaSpeed, just different packaging, Bamba.’
‘So they say,’ Bamba said. ‘I have to go, I think I heard the neighbour get home,’ she added and hung up.
That was three bears. Two more, Morrgh thought and he smiled at the bear who was stood next to him at the traffic lights. It was a young female; she looked away and pulled her coat tighter around herself and when the light turned, she walked ahead as fast as she could.
Morrgh dropped behind so as not to worry her and hugged the groceries carefully because the biscuits were perched on the top, ready to roll out onto the road. He wondered if he should ring a friend, but they’d know, they’d know straight away, when he rang up for absolutely no reason.
When he got home he remembered that he still had the neighbour’s parcel; he had it since Tuesday. This is it, he thought. The neighbour had a dog who always came to the door and Morrgh decided that today the dog would count, too. So that will be five bears. He went over and knocked on the neighbour’s door but there was no answer, not even barking.
Morrgh sat down in the kitchen and stared at the photo he put on the fridge in the autumn. This was another tip he read somewhere; keep a memory of the summer. Morrgh looked at the photo every day: him and his mates, leaping over a bin, drunk on sunshine. His fur is sweaty and his belly shows under the open shirt.
The photo meant less and less to Morrgh each day. Today it finally emptied out of all meaning: it was just any bear with an idiotic grin and a pair of sunglasses. He took down the picture and dropped it in the bin. Sat on the kitchen chair, he pulled up his knees and hugged them. Then he looked up and caught his own reflection in the window, looking exactly like the bear on the WD brochure.
He didn’t even mean to do it really. It was going to be just a couple of rings like all those times before. On government lines you have all the time in the world to ring up and listen to the tone and scare yourself back onto speed and sugar and caffeine before they’d pick up.
Only this time they answered straight away.
‘Hello, Weather Disorder line,’ the bear on the other end of the line said. ‘Are you registered with WD?’
‘Are you calling to register?’
Morrgh stayed silent; he couldn’t get himself to say so. Once you say yes, that’s it, it’s on paper, it’s real.
‘Have you had a disciplinary at work yet? A performance review plan implemented?’ the bear on the phone asked him.
‘Have you been late for work or missed a working day over the last seven days?’
There was a knock on the door.
‘Hold on,’ Morrgh said to the bear on the WD line. Sometimes the cubs from the block would knock and then run away. He checked anyway, in case it was the neighbour for the parcel.
The young bear in the door was skinny and his fur had green frosted tips which a lot of kids had these days. He was wearing a shirt with the logo of ZigZag and its popular coffee and cigarette brands, PerkUp and FireUp.
‘Hello,’ the young bear said, without looking at Morrgh. ‘ZigZag has launched a range of speed called FastenUp. I’m giving out free samples.’
He held out a packet. It was a clear packet with pink coloured powder and a sticker that said FastenUp Raspberry.
‘Fasten-ating,’ Morrgh said. The young bear looked awkward.
‘Have you been late for work or missed a working day over the last seven days?’ The bear on the phone suddenly said.
Morrgh hung up. Five, he thought, exhausted. Five.
(photo by Jolanta Dolewska)