A life-affirming novel about broken but loving families, people making mistakes but doing their best, grief and getting stuck – for readers of ELEANOR OLIPHANT, THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP and WHEN GOD WAS A RABBIT.
On her forty-seventh birthday, Sydney Smith stands on a rooftop and prepares to jump…
Sydney is a cartoonist and freerunner. Feet constantly twitching, always teetering on the edge of life, she’s never come to terms with the event that ripped her family apart when she was ten years old. And so, on a birthday that she doesn’t want to celebrate, she returns alone to St Ives to face up to her guilt and grief. It’s a trip that turns out to be life-changing – and not only for herself.
DO NOT FEED THE BEAR is a book about lives not yet lived, about the kindness of others and about how, when our worlds stop, we find a way to keep on moving.
Below is an extract from Do Not Feed The Bear by Rachel Elliott.
We are stupidly excited.
We have never been this excited about a holiday before.
Why? Because this one is going to be different.
The journey is long but we really don’t care. We have crisps, a Thermos, giant rolls full of ham and pickle, bottles of pop and the radio. Jason has recorded some of our favourite songs especially for the trip. He held his tape player up to the radio, made us a compilation.
This summer, we are not in agreement about music, not at all. Our tastes have diverged more than ever, especially since Jason developed a crush on Olivia Newton-John. He is deeply serious about Olivia and won’t hear a word against her. Dad had to have a little talk with him about this in the privacy of the garage, after he threw a chocolate bar at my head. Your sister is entitled to her opinion, he said. Not everyone has to like ‘Xanadu’. I love ‘Xanadu’, Jason said. Yes, we’re all very aware of that, Dad said, and that’s not the issue.
The issue is how you behave when someone doesn’t like it. You have to develop a little tolerance, all right?
When ‘Xanadu’ comes on in the car, Dad turns to look at me, just for a second. I know what this look means. It means please, for the sake of a quiet life, do not criticise Olivia Newton-John. So I don’t. Instead I sing along. Jason doesn’t like this either, he thinks I’m taking the mickey and ruining his listening experience. Sometimes I can’t win.
Near the end of the song, Jason can’t contain his emo- tions any longer. He starts punching the air with an intense look on his face. I find this so funny I almost wet myself.
Sydney, stop it, Mum says.
Dad looks at me again in the rear-view mirror. He winks.
Mum’s favourite track this summer is ‘Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime’ by the Korgis. When this comes on, the mood in the car changes. We all go quiet.
What’s this song about? I ask.
What, Sydney? Mum says.
It’s really sad, but I don’t know why it’s so sad, I say. Me neither, Jason says. And what has everybody got to learn sometime?
Mum doesn’t answer. She unwraps two ham rolls and passes them to us in the back seat while the song finishes and the next one starts. This one is ‘Could You Be Loved’ by Bob Marley. We eat our rolls and wriggle, because you can’t help but wriggle when this song comes on. This is why I think it’s brilliant.
You lot have no idea about music, Dad says. When’s my song coming on?
Soon, Jason says. Because he knows his compilation tape off by heart.
Dad’s favourite – ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ by Joy Divi- sion – is just as sad as Mum’s, but in a different way.
I really think Olivia Newton-John is much better than this, Jason says.
We play this tape over and over, until the sea comes into view.
I fucking love holidays, Jason says. Excuse me? Mum says.
Sorry, he says.
There’s no parking at the cottage, Dad says, so I’ll pull up outside to unload, then I’ll drive to the car park.
Yes, you heard that right. He did say cottage. This is why we are stupidly excited. We’ve slept in tents, we’ve hired a caravan, but we have never stayed in a cottage.
It used to belong to a fisherman, Mum says. Then it belonged to a sculptor.
Jason and I don’t really care who owned it before. What we care about is the toilet, the fact that it has one. Last year’s caravan was great, and so much better than a tent, but it didn’t have a shower or a toilet. The cottage has both, and it has a big TV, and it’s right in the middle of town, so we can go out by ourselves to look in the bookshop or, in Jason’s case, the hardware shop. He is obsessed with the hardware shop.
Actually, we have a bit of a surprise for you, Jason, Dad says.
Jason looks frightened.
You know Mr Trent, who owns the hardware store? Yes.
Well I spoke to him last week, Dad says.
Why did you.
I called him.
Why did you.
To ask if he needed any help in the shop this week. Last year, you said you’d like to work in there, remember? What did Mr Trent say?
He said he’d love some help, if you were still interested.
Seriously? Jason says.
Yes. He can’t pay you, but if you’d like to help him keep the place tidy for a couple of hours this week, you can take something away with you afterwards. As long as it’s not massively expensive, obviously.
Jason looks nervous and happy. I can tell that he wants to accept this offer, but doesn’t know if he is capable.
It might be overwhelming, he says. This is one of his phrases.
You could wear your headphones the whole time, like I do, I say. No one will speak to you then. You’d have time to look at everything properly.
That’s true, he says.
The car pulls into a narrow lane.
Blimey, this is a bit tight, Mum says.
Don’t panic, Dad says.
We turn a corner, enter another narrow lane, then stop. Here we go, Dad says. Your abode for the next week. Do feel free to use and admire the bathroom facilities immediately.
He wrestles with the front door, can’t get it to unlock. Let me try, Mum says, there might be a knack to it. She waggles the key about, and grins.
And we tumble in.
Jason and I run upstairs, fling open every door, poke our heads into every corner of the place.
There’s a bath and a shower, Jason shouts. There’s a cupboard with fishing nets, I shout.
There’s an ironing board, Jason shouts.
Mum and Dad aren’t listening. Much to our disgust, they are in the kitchen, kissing.
Gross, Jason says, I feel sick.
Go and unload the car, Mum says. Everything apart from the suitcases. We’ll make it worth your while.
How will you? 50p each.