Edna lived mostly in an armchair that used to be as red as a tomato. Now it was brown as her tea. Edna’s flat was on the top floor of a very tall old house. It was full of things that were at least as old as she was, and dustier. If she ever went out she needed a chair with wheels, but she was heavy to push and didn’t like to bother people.
Sometimes Edna’s words and sentences didn’t really belong together but that didn’t matter because she was the only one to hear them. She had neighbours below but she only saw them out of the window, setting off somewhere she didn’t go, and coming back from somewhere she hadn’t been. She paid someone to do her shopping and ask, “How are you doing, Edna? All right?” so she could say, “Still here, surviving. Did you get my ice cream?”
There was a cat that climbed the fire escape now and then and miaowed, so Edna let it in and called, “Coo-ee, come to Mummy!” If the cat padded over so she could stroke it, Edna purred too. But the cat didn’t stay long. It had places to go and things to do.
Winters weren’t as cold as they used to be and Edna missed snow like she missed deep sleep. One day when the frost was melting and branches were dripping outside her window, Edna turned to the fire escape and saw it was full to bursting with whiteness. And the whiteness was furry, with legs. It looked heavy enough to make the metal steps creak – or snap – but it made no sound.
“Oh my lollipops!” murmured Edna. “You’d better come in.”
She shuffled over to turn the key. The door wasn’t really wide enough for a polar bear, but like a bird through a hedge, it squeezed softly in.
“You’re as lost as a sock,” said Edna, back in the red armchair and trying to breathe the way the doctors liked.
Eyes like black ice met Edna’s. The polar bear was more like a giant fluffy toy than a photo, and when he opened his jaws she could smell vanilla. Or was it butterscotch? His teeth were as clean as his coat and he didn’t scare her one bit.
“What can I do for you, sonny boy?” Edna asked.
But the polar bear said nothing. Instead he snuggled up to Edna, and leant his head on her lap. He was a mound of fur that rose and fell as his heart beat against her sore, wrinkled skin. That made Edna smile. Inside her was the stillness she used to feel when she sat on Mummy’s lap for a story.
“Thank you,” said Edna. “I’m glad you dropped by.”
The bear rose and stretched up towards Edna’s ceiling. Then he lowered himself onto all four paws, and as Edna began to feel sleepy, he drifted away like a cloud.
When Edna woke she remembered the polar bear that needed somewhere to be. She felt excited, as if Christmas was coming and she had people to share it with. For the rest of that day the sky was milky and she could see through the window that the air clung with damp fingers, but Edna had her own sunshine. It made her tap old tunes on her knees. It helped her to imagine the girl she used to be, dancing around the room to be clapped.
All the next day, Edna looked out for the polar bear. Her fingers and toes were too stiff to cross for luck but she hoped very hard, like she had when she wanted Daddy to forgive her for showing off. She talked to the bear, in case he was listening from inside her wardrobe or up on her roof. Surely he hadn’t gone for ever? As the darkness wrapped the trees and the grass began to frost again, a movement caught Edna’s eye.
This time the polar bear was slow and thin, and his eyes didn’t shine. He looked as worn as Edna’s chair.
“Oh my heart, sunny boy!” cried Edna. “Who turned off your light?”
The bear’s head hung low. Stiffly Edna rose, shuffled to the freezer and opened the door on pistachio, chocolate fudge, caramel, raspberry ripple…
“You can scoff the lot,” she told him. “Let’s call it your birthday.”
She pulled off all the lids and arranged the tubs on the table like candles on a cake. The polar bear sniffed, lifted his head and let his big red tongue dip close enough to slurp the lemon surprise. He reached his right paw across to the toffee munch and his left paw scooped the coffee crunch. Soon he wasn’t very white any more, but it didn’t seem right to laugh at a polar bear so far from home. Especially when he was shrinking. When he cuddled up beside her, she stroked his head and the back of his neck until he closed his eyes. His breath was as cool as snow in the air.
“Dear boy,” she said. “I wish I wasn’t old and useless.”
Edna remembered climbing trees and waving to the things the world forgot. She remembered pretending to be a dolphin in the sea. And she remembered being a nurse, stroking the forehead of a child who didn’t get better. Edna knew the polar bear didn’t really need the ice cream melting in the tubs. He needed more ice than any freezer could make. What if his world wasn’t cold enough to hold together and the water carried him away?
The polar bear was very still and peaceful. Every time she stroked him, there was less of him to stroke. When he shut his eyes and curled up no bigger than a cat, she lifted him onto her lap and felt the rhythm of his heart against her floppy tummy.
“I’m sorry, old boy,” said Edna. “Don’t go.”
Still she stroked his fur until there was nothing to feel, and her eyes began to close. She felt her story drift quietly to an end.
When Edna’s ice cream delivery arrived next day, she was still asleep, and her skin was cool. Her heartbeat was lost as a sock.
Edna waved goodbye to the old lady in the tea-coloured armchair. She couldn’t be sure whether she was everywhere or nowhere but she wasn’t shuffling any more. She wasn’t stiff or sore and she wasn’t alone. She could probably swim for ever, unless she stopped for a dance – or an ice cream. Wherever she was, Edna liked it better than that creaky old flat and its dusty old treasures. It was a place to belong.
Something white, sleek and strong swam through mist, paws paddling. The polar bear rippled like raspberry sauce through vanilla, and Edna swam after him, into the light.
Sue with Arctic Roar by Greenpeace, outside the Shell Building in London, 2015