BY JAMES BEMBRIDGE
‘You seem an odd choice for a guard,’ I told the chap on the door to no reply. He stood pressed against the railing, dressed in Victorian finery and smelling of mothballs. His silence I put down not to rudeness but to his being a stuffed bear.
‘James!’ some lovely voice called from inside. ‘Oh, you’ve met Monty! I’m so pleased.’
This was Susan Perry-Smith, a woman just on the right side of mad and far on the wrong side of time. Her time – I reasoned, looking at her evening dress under the light of midday – would have been early 20th century Paris, mingling with artists, or perhaps roaming the stages of Weimar speakeasies. Any time but this. This creatively ravished time.
‘Here they are,’ she said, pointing to the antique cupboards and shelves where the teddy bears had made home. Above them hung grateful letters from the families their brothers had gone to. One from a young girl made sad by bullies, but whose sadness was cushioned by her new bear.
To a child, a teddy bear is more than just a comfort; it is a friend, confidant and ally against the uncertainties of the adult world. And what handsome partners Susan’s bears make. Rendered in the finest mohair with costumes unique to their character, one has the strange feeling when looking at them that they aren’t quite inanimate; that when the humans are away, they might just picnic. Eyes stare at me from all corners of the room and I feel I am actually being observed and judged.
Moving to the living room, I saw an old hatbox upon which a Bengal cat sat bearing fangs at my presence. This meant it liked me, Susan assured, and I was sure I wouldn’t like to see what it would have done had it not. The living room doubles as a studio where people pay to be photographed in Victorian dress against the backdrop of a gothic film set: a 19th-century dresser, a typewriter, a piano and strange shadows flickered by candles.
It was when I sat down on her blood red chaise lounge that I knew not everything in her living room was living. Feeling a hand caress mine, I looked up to smile at Susan only to find her at the other end of the room. ‘Oh, that’s just one of the ghosts,’ she said in a tone so casual as to render the paranormal normal.
‘One of the ghosts?’
In 1849, a terrible accident occurred in the sewers beneath Susan’s house. Noxious fumes robbed five men of their lives, and for this injustice, their souls remain forever vengeful.
‘I’ve seen their faces,’ she said, steeling herself with a swig of tea. By the nervous trembling of her voice, I gathered these were not nice faces to see, and her description confirmed so. Horribly pale faces imbrued with blood and dirt and eyes full of murder.
‘When I saw them, I knew that they wanted to harm me, James.’
She stared into the tea like it were a void before again bubbling into her warm laughter.
‘What is it?’
‘Well, the other day, two Chinese tourists came here. I told them the place was haunted, and I could see they were fascinated by that, so I told them they could stay the night to witness the ghosts if they wanted. The following day, I’m away for a work meeting, and my boyfriend calls to say there are twelve tourists at the door wanting to see the ghosts!’
Susan’s stories flowed as freely as the tea for the next three hours. How she had photographed the fashion rogue Vivienne Westwood, how she had photographed an actual rogue (an ex high profile cat burglar) bare breasted on the Thames, and how the coast guard’s boat mysteriously slowed down when passing the shoot.
As I was about to make my leave, Susan gasped in wild excitement, ‘We forgot to talk about the bears!’
‘Well,’ I said, noticing one on the mantlepiece that looked as bedraggled and follically challenged as myself, ‘Why not talk about this one?’
‘That’s Filly the war bear. She’s 94 years old and her family have trusted me to restore her. Strange story, actually. During the Blitz, the family heard their baby crying, so they went to his crib to find Filly there with him. But Filly wasn’t there before, and the baby obviously had no way of reaching him. Somehow, the family took this to be a sign that they had to flee the building. And it’s a good job they did, James – it was bombed minutes later! The family think Filly saved them.’
Yes, to a child, a teddy bear can be more than just a comfort.
James Bembridge is Deputy Editor of Country Squire Magazine.