Benedict developed backache shortly after Eloise had gone. He paid little heed to it at first, but, after a time, it became so persistent and so disruptive that he took action. The osteopath, a solid grey- haired woman, did alarming things to him and at the end, when he was lying face down, with the moistness in his eyes well hidden, she said, ‘Would you say that you were grieving? I mean, suffering from a loss of any kind?’ Benedict’s back tautened. ‘The reason I ask is that, here,’ and she laid one hand on the little quiet land between his shoulder blades, a spot he’d never paid much attention to before, ‘Here, you seem very troubled.’ She told him they call this place the grief spot: apparently, grief settles in and makes its home there. Just before she closed the door on him, she said that he might want to think about his mattress. Time for a new one, perhaps.
That night, he inspected the mattress and found it very much misshapen, riddled with craters and marred by what felt like great calcifications inside. So not long after, he endured a painful twenty minutes at the bed store. Everyone around him there seemed to come in pairs, and the salesman had a face full of innuendo and sold the mattress to him like it was a car. It said Silentnight on its quilted insert and, though Benedict felt foolish for being swayed by such an insignificant detail, he couldn’t help believing that buying it was a kind of magic act. (He’d slept in turmoil now for a great many nights.) But, as it happened, little changed: the ache persisted—and the nightly turmoil.
What hadn’t properly occurred to Benedict, what hadn’t fully inflicted itself upon him, was the fact that Eloise had gone. He’d entered an abeyance. His wounded self was lodged in some shadowy place: spectral, but visible all the same. He could feel it there: always present but not available to him. Doubtless, he’d been inching his way towards eventual acceptance of her going, but one particular event jostled him closer to full awareness.
He had for the last several minutes been standing at the front window of his third floor flat. It was winter and he’d felt the cold breath of the glass settle on his face, like a sigh. Through the ragged-edged view he’d cleared for himself, his eyes drifted down to the street below: nothing of note to be seen there. It was Saturday and he was restless, painfully in need of distraction, despite its being only 5.10 in the morning. He had, unknown to himself, been busy tapping on the windowpane with the fingers of one hand. It was, in fact, a short history of his heart that he’d been tapping, a history of the reign of Eloise: from pizzicato, to throb, to a flat line—almost.
And all of a sudden, as if a spring had sprung inside him, he remembered his find from the train the day before. Then came the relief of certainty, of having something deliberate to do, a mission for the day: to take himself to the
Lost and Found.
He arrived minutes after opening hour and stood in line at the counter— second from the top. Here was a rousing place and its smells of waiting easily won him over. The great towers, ceiling high, of this and that, instantly set him thinking of a metropolis; they drew him up and out of himself, as a vast cathedral might, all scale and majesty. His eyes roamed around, grazing on the sight. Compact, ordered and strangely harmonious, bay after bay of superfluous things, the ordinary and the extraordinary together, and arranged like that they formed a beautiful and sad abstraction. Here was stability installed on the chaos of abandonment. He felt an uncommon kinship with what he saw. And most pleasing of all—and where his eyes chose to nestle— was a deliriously assorted miscellany of the unexpected: a coat stand, a crystal bowl, a Paddington Bear.
His attention was caught just then by the concluding exchanges of the customer ahead of him.
‘A great job it is you do.’ (He was old, and dressed in clichés.)
‘We try our best.’ (He was pert, blond, and rosy in the face, much like a cherub.)
‘Wish there were more like you,’ came the old man’s voice, ceremonious now, as though full of prayer.
‘You’d better wish not,’ the young voice came, much higher in pitch than before and silly, with a little warble. As the old man thumped his fingertips onto the countertop with a sound that more properly belonged to a fist, Benedict noted the sores on the back of his hand: some moist, some crusty.
‘Well, I can’t thank you enough…’ and the voice tailed off into an indistinct matter of rumblings. And then, rather without warning, the old man spun around on his heel, clasping to his chest a very fine hat indeed. He’d misjudged his strategy somewhat, for his spin—very brisk for a man his age— came to a hasty end, with his face appearing just inches from Benedict’s, and Benedict’s, naturally, just inches from his. The man laid his affected hand on Benedict’s sleeve.
‘Good day to you, sir. And the Lord bless you,’ and then he sidestepped out of sight to let the blond shoot into view.
‘Lost or found?’ he said to Benedict, with a soulful, lingering turn of the head, and when Benedict failed to answer, repeated it, ‘Sir, lost or found?’ Seeing that he had again failed to reach his customer, he moved in closer and—softer and slower—said it again. ‘Lost or found?’ and his blue eyes turned dreamy and Benedict became fully aware of them, as blue and dreamy and dazzling eyes. But then, something dreadful came upon him: a strange and horrible noise, much like the croak of a frog, was expelled from his throat. He had not even felt himself submit to it, so abruptly had it come upon him. And his trouble did not stop there, for next he doubled over, folding across the middle as if someone had punched him, and he was propelled forwards onto the counter by an urgent need to breathe.
‘Oh my lord,’ said the blond who instantly sprang from his revolving stool only to freeze entirely to the spot, fascinated and terrified in equal measure by the afflicted man, who continued to surrender to this grotesque onslaught of feeling.
Then, as readily as it had started, the strange attack stopped, and Benedict buttoned himself up again—as it were—with tremendous efficiency, desperate only to survive the awfulness of this spectacle. ‘Lost,’ he said, almost without thought. ‘I’ve lost my Paddington Bear.’
‘This bear?’ said the blond, walking backwards now, horribly boyish and obliging. Benedict nodded. The blond lifted the bear with undue reverence and set it before him, straightening the blue coat, quite unnecessarily. ‘There you are, sir. Reunited.’
‘Thank you, indeed,’ said Benedict, the heat under his coat like a furnace. ‘A great job you do.’
‘We try our best,’ came the reply in sing-song.
‘You must be… very proud,’ and Benedict now was struggling to find an end to the encounter. The young man raised his head and fully availed of the opportunity to survey—at length and in silence—his strangely compelling empire.
‘That’s very kind of you to say so, sir,’ he said a little after. ‘It feels good at the end of the day, if you know what I mean. Difficult work it can be when the lost thing hasn’t been found. Much consolation required, like an undertaker, I fancy. You understand,’ and he signalled to Paddington with his eyes.
‘And everything here is lost, is it?’ said Benedict, circling Paddington with his arm and drawing him in closer.
‘Every single item.’
‘So … where do the found things go?’ Blondie threw a glance at Benedict.
‘The found things?’ There was a little pause. ‘Nowhere, sir. They go off again, with their owners. Like you, sir.’
Benedict smiled, hiccupped, and turned to go. And as he went through the narrow door, out again into the brightly lit station, he remembered the lost board game, under his arm and still in his keeping.
That night, tormented again by the firm, ungiving self of his new mattress, Benedict once more forsook it. In the hallway, he came upon the unfamiliar shape of Paddington Bear, hat and coat and suitcase at the ready. And, under the bear’s boots, he found the scrabble box. Taking both bear and box with him into the living room, Benedict sat on the floor, attempting anagrams from the letters in their names. He shuffled letter tiles around, staring and thinking. Paddington waited beside him, only staring. They carried through like that till morning but met with little success.