I was on a train from London to Glasgow and I start to tell the passenger next to me about a strange incident that happened about ten years before. It came up because she was from California, and she mentioned that California has a bear on their flag but she had never seen one - a bear, that is, not a flag. The journey was four and a half hours, and while I like to learn about people’s lives, I was set up that day for talking rather than listening or reading or doing a cross word puzzle. I hate puzzles. There’s so much that needs to be solved in the world without inventing problems. And I was also fed up with other people’s problems.
‘We used to have bears in Scotland, thousands of years ago,’ I told her. She seemed unsure, possibly thinking there still were bears in Scotland. She had only been at the University in Edinburgh for a few months – post grad, seismology- so had barely escaped the library.
‘I met a man, Barry, who saw them when they reappeared.’ Then I decided to tell her the whole story. There were three hours to kill, and I felt she needed to know: not just as I had heard about it, but as I had also read about it and mainly as I wanted to tell it.
I thought at one time of making a film about Barry. Now the truth, the script and the reports had all become real to me: like Barry’s flat I had never seen, what his wife looked like but I had never met her, and what happened when the bears appeared in Glasgow that morning in 1992. I knew Barry, he became a kindof friend, right up until the end, and it was a sorry end.
‘I had been told about this guy by a cousin of mine from Glasgow who was visiting me in Vancouver. I was at the film school there for three years,’ I started. ‘He said at first he didn’t believe the stories but lots of people had talked about Barry, who had become some sort of national icon. Scotland loves an icon. So, when I was next back in Scotland I thought I’d go and have a look.’
It was spring and cool. Dampness from the Atlantic was channelling up the River Clyde bringing the smell of the sea. About a block from the railway station, in Sauchiehall Street, I saw Barry, sitting in a deck chair surrounded by old, split sandbags. Sauchiehall Street looked more or less as I remembered it as a student, possibly quieter, and there were fewer old Glasgow characters around shouting at passers-by or asking for money.
Barry wore winter clothes, and it looked as though he had also slept in them for months. His deck chair was filthy with scraps of food, old containers and beer cans under the seat, and the acrid smell of urine clung to him and, I felt, to me for days afterwards. His face was a racetrack of crevices eroded by water and wind, and his skin was bronze and dry. What grey hair he had was tucked under a blue cap and little uncombed streamers escaped like steam from a kettle. Shaving and washing had long been left behind and his eyes remained closed so that he didn’t see the street in front of him, nor me.
Nobody looked at this strange sight camping out on a busy shopping street. He had become engrained in the city, like a statue; stiff, grey and permanent but of no purpose. A few traffic cones diverted the respectable. Approaching him didn’t seem like the right thing to do, but I did anyway. That was the film maker in me. Zoom. Take One.
‘You were interviewed on TV. You’re known as ‘the first man who saw the bears’.’
‘Bears? Ach, that was just a dream,’ he said. ‘Like the river was a dream. Never listen to your eyes, pal, they just tell you what you want.’
‘So there were no bears?’
‘Aye, in another world, a better world, when my Anna was still alive. What you see is this world: empty shops, empty music halls, empty bars. They took away the river, yeh know, and the ship building, the boiler makers…’
I offered him some money, which he took in blackened hands as though unsure what to do with it. Then, as he had done many times before, he told me the whole story from when he walked into his bedroom at dawn.
Anna, his wife of thirty years and a grandmother for ten, was sitting up in bed lit by a dim, peach lamp shade, waiting for him since she heard the door of their first floor flat. He had woken early when the rain had stopped, like train passengers wake at their station. He had heard a sound like bone against stone, and he knew with certainty that he had to go outside, he had to see for himself. It was a place he was meant to be, he said, it was like his dreams.
Anna looked at him framed in the dark varnished doorway, his face already creased into old age he would barely see, pregnant with news or a secret he couldn’t keep.
‘You’ll put yer back oot carrying that ‘round with you,’ she said.
‘Seriously, Anna, there are bears in Sauchiehall Street.’
‘When has it ever been any different?’
Barry’s enthusiasm for the obtuse and bizarre, like Gaelic poetry or Japanese comic books, or any number of interests he forgot with the same energy he found them in the first place, was a magnet to Anna’s devotion. She unquestioningly followed his eccentricity to the street, it barely seven a.m. on a Sunday morning when many had just gone to bed.
Crossing the grand, deserted avenue of Sauchiehall Street that runs from city centre gateway to the West End of tenements and parks, through crass acres of bollards, bins and benches, and the flotsam of a Saturday night blowing between shopfronts and granite kerbs, Anna stood behind Barry as he watched a four hundred pound black bear clawing at the concrete pavers and digging in the earth below. Its magnificent body was held on four short, powerful legs and its head projected forward like it was barely attached to its vast bulk. Its rear quarters shuffled forward, intent on finding something that had brought it to the middle of the biggest city in Scottish.
‘Has it run away, do yeh think?’ asked Anna.
‘It’s a bear, Anna, no a fuckin’ convict.’
The black bear had two cubs; playing near Hope Street next to a shoe shop. Another black bear appeared from a narrow lane, walking without seeing the few early risers who, without the concern of American hikers, never for a minute believed that they were in danger, that the bears were real.
In the next hours more bears appeared. The biggest, a Grizzly, was digging up a young tree, root and all, following some instinct it didn’t fully understand.
A police car arrived but the doors didn’t open.
After a hurried visit home for the aluminium deck chair with candy striped fabric that once belonged in his parents’ caravan in Saltcoats, Barry set himself up in the best spot in the street. From there, on a now late Sunday morning with a bright, milky sky, he watched the canyon of uprooted concrete slabs between cliff faces of classical stone facades. And when experts arrived from Edinburgh zoo and instructed engineers to open fire hydrants for water to wash westwards, Barry gave himself to this new world. He sank in its new geography, its new history, a world that had no reason to be. Unsure what was dream and what was reality, he remembered that in his own dreams his dead brother was always there, behind him, unseen, but there.
‘Can you believe this Tommy? Here, where we played as bairns, where we went drinking and winching, with the pictures houses and the old music halls. Bears, Tommy, in Sauchiehall Street. Hundreds of bears, like there used to be.’
The fire brigade were called to pump water back from Charing Cross to West Nile Street and divert river water from the Clyde. Fish, big Atlantic salmon hurriedly shipped from a fish farm near Skye, were unloaded by the truck full to wash down the street, diverted by lamp posts and benches. Sand bags were placed to protect shop doorways and even Barry’s deck chair after he refused to move, and sat like a toddler waiting for the tide to wash into his sandcastle.
Anna brought coffee in a tartan thermos and plain meat and rice in foil containers; all he could eat since he lost half his stomach to cancer. She stood with her hand on his shoulders, feeling him still but tense, being his shadow as she had been from the shipyards to the hospital wards.
‘Barry, come away home and get a sleep.’
‘And miss this, bears in Sauchiehall Street? Away ye go. It’s like ma’ dreams. I even remember the smell, peat and pine trees, and the wet sand, and the fish. It must mean something.’
‘Aye, bear shit up to yer eyes,’ and she headed home to get a blanket. ’Yer gonna be freezing if ye sit here ‘til winter. Yer gonna need some soup.’
Barry kept his vigil into the night and every night. After excitement settled to routine, he watched the bears develop a pattern and he watched the water rip up more and more paving and kerbs until he could barely see over the rubble. He fought against sleep, catching himself drifting when it was dark until he lost count of the days and the weeks. His hands felt cold and his feet numb. He danced round his deck chair like some strange ritual, dragging out the remains of the thermos contents between Anna’s visits. When new visitors appeared they looked alien to him, not from this place that was once full of people just like them. Regulars he would talk to also had no place as all signs of human interventions, like street signs and lights, started to metamorphose into a new ecology of rust, moss and mud. By late summer the smell of bears, fish and evaporating water could not be blown away by the Atlantic breeze and a sea haar hung over Sauchiehall Street like a giant balloon.
Shops allowed customers through the back doors so they could view the river and the bears from first floor windows. Cafes were set up on balconies and rooftops. Business was good. Television crews turned up from America and Canada. Experts were interviewed, or they spoke to Barry; the first man to see the bears.
Sauchiehall Street had its own distinct rules within the city: few walked across the street, preferring to watch from the bank or to speak to Barry who had taken to wearing a bobble hat with ‘Glasgow’s a Wild City’ on the front.
The blanket that kept him warm at night was replaced by a warm sleeping bag, thick gloves and hats, as Anna ferried his tea back and forth in ever slower steps. ‘Anna, get us some o’ they chocolate wafers, will yeh?’, and Anna did, as Anna had had always ‘done’ since they met as teenagers.
By October, Barry moved less and so did the bears. They predicted where the fish would land, where the berries and fruits would land, and they slowly got fatter, walking more slowly or little at all. One night Barry woke to see some bears sitting in a semi-circle looking at him, as though they had realised humans shared this world but were unsure where he sat on that divide, wrapped in his floral, polyester cocoon.
Trees drenched with water grew thicker and wider; planting troughs flourished into bushes; and weeds stretched the height of buildings: green algae going over to black stone.
Then in November, eight months after the bears arrived and the vicars and priests had blessed them; evangelists had called for contrition; new age hippies had set up camp in Blythswood Square like it was holy ground; and doomsayers predicted the end of the world (starting in Scotland), Barry awoke in the darkness with a cold wind in his face and the same sounds of that first day he had all but forgotten. He took a few painkillers and stood up to pee. The river ran slowly at night, just a trickle, and Barry could see a sheen off the concrete: a fine surface frost had started to descend. Gone, or feint in the distance, Barry could see the bears slowly walking west, towards America, he thought, full on protein, looking for a winter refuge.
‘Don’t go, yer safe here,’ he shouted, but he didn’t really believe. By sun-up they were gone. Then the Corporation turned off the water and the sounds of the city crept back: trains, buses, cars. People started to walk in Sauchiehall Street again and a neat path was built at the side of the deep river, now dry unless it rained. And through the winter disappointed visitors turned up, shook their heads and walked away, convinced it had all been a hoax, but happy to speak to Barry, or take a photo with him.
‘It was just like my dream,’ he would say, ’but this is no’ how it ends.’
Barry stayed in his deck chair facing the dry river, and no matter what Anna said he never left that chair again. Through the winter and the wettest spring for decades he sat there. As the first anniversary approached he leaned forward in his chair, staring into the distance with his thin arms braced on the aluminium frame like he was at a football match expecting a late goal. But nothing came. Even cynics were disappointed.
‘What was special about Glasgow had gone,’ I told the American student. ‘They lost their industry and many of the people that had made it special. The slums were demolished and now even the replacements have gone. And there is no sign of the bears.’
She furled her brow and took her umpteenth slug from her giant water bottle, ‘So he was mad, right?’
‘I visited Barry many times and never found him mad. He never remembered me but always told the story in the same way with the same details. With his eyes closed I often thought he could still see the trees and river bed, but then each time the story got slightly shorter and he spoke more slowly, finishing his words and drifting off to sleep in that deck chair with the last light of the day.’
‘Is he still there?’ she asked.
‘No, he died in that chair. They found him one morning. Or what was left of him. Bears rarely eat all their prey.’