The Dancing Bear by Jack Paton

Miss Margaret McTuckleberry is incredibly tall, incredibly thin, and incredibly strong. Strong enough that, if she wanted, she could pick up a troublesome visitor to her pub by the scruff of his neck and throw him out of the front door from several paces, sending him sailing straight over the porch and onto the gravel just outside “The Dancing Bear”, perhaps the toughest and most notorious pub of all the pubs in perhaps one of the toughest and most notorious counties of the entire United Kingdom, the county of Kent.

Although she is very capable of throwing people out of the bar by their necks, Margaret much prefers to use her two pronged pitchfork to get rid of unwanted visitors. When she stands behind the bar, her pitchfork can reach all corners of the room thanks to its length, and the reach of her unreasonably long arms. And so, when someone in the bar is talking nonsense, or causing a problem, they will always find a pitchfork pointed at their belly, or their back, held from afar by Margaret, the curly-haired-no-nonsense owner. And then they know that they must leave immediately, the two prongs following them all the way out.

She does not speak much. She looks stern. But she is respected, and it is considered a prestige if she allows you to drink in her pub.

She has exactly one friend, who visits the bar every day. His name is Benedict McPhearson, but she calls him Tommy, for short. And he calls her Mag. No one else refers to Margaret McTuckleberry as Mag. Even if they are completely alone.

He is incredibly short, incredibly fat, and incredibly, perfectly round. So much so that he gets around mostly by rolling instead of walking. But occasionally, if it is a short distance, he will walk in a penguin-like waddle. He grew up in a castle in Scotland, the middle child of seventeen. He owns a business which he runs from the seventh floor of a nearby hotel. He owns the top floor of the hotel, and the roof. It is rumoured to be a spectacular penthouse style apartment, although very few people have ever seen it from the inside. Margaret of course is one of those people. And nobody really knows the nature of the business that Benedict runs. On the rare occasions that he does actually talk about his work, he speaks with absolute clarity and perfect obscurity, so that anyone who hears him comes away feeling like they fully understand the nature of his business, only to find themselves completely unable to recall any of the details.

They are very close, Margaret and Benedict. Mag and Tommy. But nobody knows the true nature of their relationship, and so fierce is the reputation of the two that no one dares to talk about it unless they are certain of their privacy. And although their relationship is mysterious in many ways, two things are clear; that Margaret’s cold, hard and stony gaze will soften into an almost smile for nobody other than Benedict; that Benedict’s face, which is almost always inscrutable – poker like – becomes animated and cheerful, even playful, when he speaks with Miss McTuckleberry.

She was married once, a very long time ago. But the man to whom she was married disappeared one day when they were out in Africa, on Safari. It was on this very Safari that she met Benedict. The story goes that as soon as they met, it was as if they had been friends since childhood, and in each other’s presence, they would act in ways that shocked their acquaintances.

And on days when they had no acquaintances, or any sort of person nearby, and it was only the two of them, they would speak to one another of their childhoods, and of their childhood dreams. And a tall gangly misfit girl would have strange dreams at night of a rotund boy who could roll before he could walk, and who always seemed to be very busy doing something, although it was never clear what that something was. And the boy dreamed also, on the same nights, of a stick figure girl who passed her time learning to throw garden implements like they were spears, and who could throw them farther than any grown man. And so in these dreams they learned of each other. And one night, as they dreamed together, their minds occupying the same dream space while their bodies slept many miles apart, they decided to swap minds. And so she became him, and he became her.

In the Dancing Bear, there is an ancient but well looked after Grandmother clock that counts the seconds with ticks and tocks, and that strikes a strange tune on every hour. And above the clock, upon the wall, there is a photo of the two companions standing side by side on the African plains, Margaret with her pitchfork, Benedict with a peculiar long piece of tubular wood and a belt around his round waist attached with many little pockets. The rumour is that soon after they met, Benedict and Margaret decided to walk into the wildest, hottest and most dangerous savannah of Africa. And they stayed there, in the open plains, for many months. And when they came back many people believed it could not be the same two that had entered the plains so long ago, because surely no-one could have survived that. But survive they did.

Nobody knows what really happened to Margaret’s husband. She has always claimed, on those rare occasions when she speaks, that he simply stayed in Africa, and she was happy to leave him there. But there are a few, a very brave, or perhaps a very foolish, few, who claim that Margaret and Benedict might have had something to do with the mysterious disappearance of Mr Velvet. Although, they are not so foolish as to make such a claim anywhere in Kent other than in the most secret of locations, and only to the closest and most trustworthy of friends.

Behind the bar of The Dancing Bear, the floor is made of an exceptionally hard kind of stone. And set into the middle of this stone floor, directly underneath the photo from the African plains and the Grandmother clock, is a trapdoor, made of the same stone, and inlaid with a handle and a keyhole. It is not for storage, because the storage area is in a different cellar, elsewhere in the building. Nobody knows, actually, what is under this trapdoor.

*

It is close to midnight. The Grandmother clock is ticking and tocking gently in the silence.  The Dancing Bear has been closed now for some time. Everyone has left, the lights are off, and Margaret is sitting at the table in the centre of the main room, waiting. She hears a faint sound, like that of a soft round body rolling quietly along a gravel pathway. The rolling approaches the pub, and then it stops. As the clock strikes midnight, a faint tapping comes at the door. A very particular and precise sequence of knocks, that follow the rhythm of the strange tune coming from the Grandmother clock. Once the tune and the rhythmic tapping come to an end, Margaret stands and goes to open the door, quickly ushering her friend into the darkness. Then, in two enormous, striding steps she covers the distance from the door to the trapdoor behind the bar, as Benedict rolls along behind. When they meet above the trapdoor, they each reach into hidden pockets and withdraw one half of a large metal key. Benedict owns the front half of the key. It’s more of a third than a half, really. The front half of the sequence of bumps and dips that fit the keyhole. Margaret owns the other two thirds. The back half of the bumps and dips, and the handle. Benedict offers his portion of the key, in both hands, and she carefully, respectfully, accepts it. It was Margaret who broke the key in two, many years ago, with one twisting bite of her bare teeth, and she cleaved it in such a way that the two pieces come together to make a single unit that is strong. And this is what Margaret does, before fitting it into the lock, and turning it twice. Then she removes the key, and together they grasp the handle and heave the heavy stone trapdoor up and over, revealing a steep staircase hewn into the tough stone. Benedict takes a lamp from behind the bar, lights it with a match, and descends into the darkness below. Margaret follows, heaving the immense trapdoor shut behind her with her remarkable strength, and locking it from this side. After it is locked, she dismantles the key and hands Benedict his half, the front half, and they both secret the partial keys about themselves once more. And they descend the staircase, Benedict lighting the way, as they go down.

After some time, the staircase begins to have less form, and the stone becomes less like stone, more like rock. And a muddy, fresh scent begins to emanate from the rock, and it becomes wet to the touch, and the sound of dripping water also comes. The walls widen, and the two friends find themselves in a huge underground cavern, filled with twists and turns and uneven ground. But they know where they are going, and Benedict lights the way as he rolls forward over the rocky terrain. A soft ball barrelling through a deep cave, sending light from a lamp spinning in all directions, followed by a tall, lanky figure that could be mistaken in the darkness for a collection of walking bamboo shoots.

And they start to slowly go up. Taking lefts and rights and rights and lefts through the intricate labyrinth; a labyrinth so winding and complex that only a perfect memory could save you from wandering its twisting turning paths for eternity.

The sound of dripping water begins to be accompanied by that of a little stream, running over rocks. The new sound bounces and echoes around the walls of the cavern, becoming louder as they walk, then quieter, then louder again. Sometimes the sound seems to come from a particular direction, down this or that rocky tunnel or muddy cave. But they don’t always follow the sound. They know where they are going. Eventually, the echoes begin to fade away, and the sound of the stream becomes stronger, and comes from only one direction.

They reach the surface yet again. No trapdoor at this end, only a small exit through which one can see the faint light of the stars and the moon, and one can hear and smell the flow of fresh water over rocks and silt. Just before the exit, Benedict stops and rolls his head down next to a large chest upon the floor, which he unlocks, with another key. From the chest he removes two items. A large, brown furry piece of cloth, and a pink tutu. He passes one of these to Margaret, and then, under the light of the lamp and the night sky, they change clothes. So now, when they finally emerge from the cave, coming out of the rocks adjacent to a freshwater stream, they cannot be recognised as Margaret and Benedict, the two most recognisable figures in the whole county. Instead, anyone who looked would see a fat man walking with remarkable grace and confidence in a pink tutu, accompanied by an enormous brown bear. And it is like this that the two of them make their way to the midnight circus. The show has already been on since midnight, and will continue until the night becomes morning and the morning becomes day. And the bear is fearsome, and as it appears in the centre of the stage it terrifies the spectators with its size and the power of its walk and its gaze; yet it is also gentle and friendly, and adores being stroked and groomed. And the bear takes the  warmth and admiration and fear from those that touch it, and savours these feelings, before letting them go.

The man in the tutu cuts a ridiculous figure. He is laughed at almost as soon as he is seen. Until he dances, whereupon he takes everybody’s breath away, so quickly and so absolutely that he is able to capture their breath before it disappears into the air; he stores this breath in little jars, that he can take home with him for various purposes.

And so Margaret and Benedict take their place in the midnight circus. With their own performances they make the people laugh and scream and cry and cheer. And for the finale they perform together, the dancer and the bear, and once more they take away the breath of those that watch. And when the performance is over and the circus begins to close, they leave again, carefully taking jars of astonished breath; the breath of ridicule, laughter, admiration, fear and wondrous joy. And they replace their costumes in the little chest and head back the way they came, back to the Dancing Bear.

 

Jack Paton 

Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer from Pixabay

6 thoughts on “The Dancing Bear by Jack Paton

  1. Upon reading this story the little jury in my head retired to the little jury room, also in my head. It took three votes, but the little jury found this story guilty as hell of being interesting and worth while.
    This might seem an odd response to the piece, but WTF fiction warrants WTF comments. So, in that regard, Mr. Paton and I are even.

    Like

  2. Hi Jack,
    I am a sucker for a fable, normally the darker the better. Even at 52, I fall back and read Grimm every now and then. I am a bit jealous for anyone who can write in this style.
    This is brilliant. I enjoyed it because I don’t normally enjoy the lighter fables.
    The story is inventive, vivid, descriptive, magical and a lot of fun!
    Hugh

    Like

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