Saturday, 14 January 2017

Teddy Burns

22:00:00 Posted by Steve Rowland , , , , 1 comment
Your Saturday Blogger's teddy#1 was still quite young and furry when it met with a catastrophic end.

I was four at the time but I remember the events of that afternoon (nearly 60 years ago) quite clearly. Our house burned down and the bear (along with everything else apart from the clothes we were wearing at the time) was lost in the conflagration.

Backing up to set the scene, I was born and grew up in Nigeria where my dad was a missionary. We lived a couple of hundred miles up country from Lagos in a small village - dad, mum, myself, Pooh bear (named after Winnie the Pooh, whose exploits I enjoyed having read to me), my baby brother Paul and our pet peacock.

Me aged 2 with teddy#1
It was, I suppose, a somewhat unusual childhood but it was all I knew and it was a very happy one. By force of circumstance I didn't really have any playmates so Pooh was my regular companion and confidant (as you can just about make out from the grainy photo above). I think the only place he didn't join me was in the bath-tub - because bears don't like getting wet - though he used to grub around in the dirt with me most days, so I can only conjecture that my mother had a secret way of cleaning him up that I wasn't privy to.

On the fateful afternoon of January 10th 1958 I was sitting on the verandah of our thatched bungalow with my afore-mentioned younger brother and my heavily pregnant mother. I was told years afterwards that we had been playing Happy Families. For some reason Pooh wasn't with me. He was probably enjoying a siesta on my bed.

We suddenly heard this incredible roaring sound - like a group of motorbikes approaching at high speed - except the road was empty apart from a few wandering zebra. The next thing we knew, thick smoke was billowing down through the thatch above our heads and villagers were running shouting towards us. Within a couple of minutes, the whole tinder-dry roof of our bungalow was ablaze, burning thatch was tumbling down into the rooms and all we could do was retreat to a safe distance and watch in horror.

My dad arrived with the group of men who'd been helping him to burn the elephant grass in the plantation a quarter of a mile away. Burning down grass was the most effective way of keeping it tended. The idea was to choose a windless day and raze it by small fires in a controlled manner. Late on this particular afternoon, the Harmattan got up early, picked up some smouldering elephant grass and as bad luck would have it, wafted it directly onto our thatched roof. By the time my dad and his helpers could organise a human chain of villagers to pass buckets of water from the well to the house, the fire was raging and the water proved ineffectual.

People just couldn't get near enough. The heat was immense and the noise was deafening. I gave not a thought to Pooh, trapped somewhere within the all-consuming flames. I was too concerned about my parents who were discussing whether dad might risk getting into the burning house to rescue anything of worth. In the end, common sense prevailed and we stood under the nearby trees and watched helplessly into early evening as fire destroyed our home.

Our burned out house
The next morning we drove down to Lagos to stay in a mission-centre. Dad went to buy new clothes for us all from the American department store in Kingsway and he came back armed with teddy#2 for me. This one actually looked like Winnie the Pooh but I only ever called it Ted. My mum went into hospital and my youngest brother David was born three days later. (Happy birthday, David.)

Four months after these momentous events, in May 1958, we set sail from Lagos for a new life in England and I've not been back to Nigeria since. My mum was in perpetual fear of house fires for the rest of her life.

I can't leave this theme without telling you what happened to teddy#2. He was my faithful companion for the next seven years. His fur was worn dull and thin (except for the bright, fluffy folds where threadbare arms and legs joined threadbare torso), he lost an eye and his paws were re-covered with corduroy but he remained stout and true. Came my twelfth birthday and, for reasons too complex to explain in detail, I arrived at the momentous decision that I had 'become a man' and teddy#2 had served his purpose. In what became a rite of passage for both of us, I sent him off in the time-honoured fashion (at least as far as my limited experience of despatching teddies went). I built a fine funeral pyre at the bottom of our garden, doused Ted in petrol from the garden-mower and watched respectfully as the flames consumed his little body.

Cremating teddy#2
After cremating teddy#2, it was another twenty-one years before I bought another bear. That one was for my eldest daughter on the day she was born, but it's a whole new story. Growler is still alive and well.

As a mark of respect to my own two teddy bears, there is no poem today.

Thanks for reading. Keep your loved ones close and have a good week, S ;-)


Annie Walton said...

You never cease to amaze, enthrall, captivate indeed entertain !

Please tell me you are writing a novel, a documentary, a 1950's missionary kids account on life in have had such an interesting childhood Steve.

Just love! love! this story of your teddy bears....(you put the apostrophe in)

We meet soon for a catch up lad!
Lots love Annie xx