“January is гибельный month,” declared Bear, before heaving 180 kilos (his hibernation weight) of fur and ursine flesh onto his front paws and flopping onto his back.
The rain lashed spitefully against the front window. The sky outside was 50 shades of resolute grey.
“I turn fire up?”
“You don’t need to turn the fire up,” Salmon said, in what passed for her reasonable voice. “You don’t need to have the fire on. You’re a bear. Bears aren’t used to having fires. Your kind of bear is definitely not used to having fires. You don’t make fire in the middle of a Siberian winter, do you? And Siberian bears definitely don’t live in flats.”
“I acclimatise,” Bear retorted. “I become feeble since being here.”
“Feeble?” Had she had them, Salmon would have raised an eyebrow.
“I am not used to rain.”
“You might feel better if you ventured out and got yourself something to eat,” Salmon offered. “All this acclimatising is all very well but you’ll feel a whole lot better if you get some food inside you. Bear does not live on air alone. So I’m told.”
“Too weak to go outside,” Bear whispered, in tremulous tones. “Might collapse.”
“I hardly think you’ll collapse, Bear. Big strapping animal like you. The fresh air would do you good. And think of the Christmas leftovers at the Co-op.”
Bear’s hairy body shuddered.
“I know you had a bad experience with Stilton. But there’ll be pâté. Duck and chicken and liver and…” Salmon’s voice tailed off.
Bear’s ears twitched.
“What other kinds, Salmon?”
Salmon’s tail swished in momentary agitation.
“You know. All sorts. Mackerel. And. All sorts.”
Bear’s lips peeled back from his teeth in a rictus smile.
“They will have salmon pâté?”
“Disgusting,” hissed Salmon. “That’s just unnecessary. You know, Bear, I don’t care. You lie on the floor all you like, getting as weak as you like. I won’t miss you. I honestly think all you’re good for right now is a fur coat.”
She turned with haughty scorn and retreated as far into the furthest corner of her tank as she reasonably could, being a sizeable salmon. And that was that.
Many grey days passed. Some were grey and black. Some were grey and wet. Some were grey and windswept.
Occasionally, they awoke to rain-slicked, branch-strewn streets. A weather carnival.
Bear didn’t budge from the fireplace.
One day, they awoke to ice-sparkling pavements. And a thunderous sky.
“You know what they say, Bear?” said Salmon, voice choked with fake cheer. “If there’s enough blue sky to make a sailor a pair of trousers, the day will be fine.”
Bear was unimpressed.
“Why make sailor a pair of trousers? I do not even have trousers that fit. I will not waste my time making pair for a sailor I never met,” he grumbled.
“You’re being a bit literal, Bear,” soothed Salmon. “You don’t have to make the trousers. It’s just saying that if you can see a patch of sky, a stretch, an area, like a piece about big enough to make a pair of trousers,” (her grammar deteriorated in her quest to make her point), “then the weather will pick up. It will get better.”
“I doubt very much.” Bear was defiant.
“I’ve seen it happen before,” said Salmon, with an insouciant flick of her dorsal fin.
“Oh, you have seen this, have you? When you have seen this?”
“Plenty of times. Plenty plenty,” said Salmon, disconcertingly lost for words.
“Which times?” the bear persisted.
“Just times, Bear. I can’t remember dates. Take my word for it.”
“If you haven’t ever seen,” Bear started.
“Look Bear, I don’t know. It’s just what they say. It’s probably just an old wives tale. I’m just trying”
“Old wives?” Bear interrupted with a tinge of aggression. “Who is this old wive? Have you been married, Salmon? Have you had wives? And why not choose a more younger fish? Who is wanting an old wive?”
Salmon gritted her stout conical, eerily canine, teeth. “You’re deliberately misunderstanding me, Bear.”
“Misunderstand? Misunderstand? You misunderstand me, Salmon. I do my best to understand you, Salmon. But you speaking in riddles.”
Night crept in at ten to four in the afternoon. Considerately, Countdown intercepted their squabbles.
Six more days crept by. Bear still hadn’t left the flat.
“You have to eat, Bear. You can’t not eat.”
“You’re not hibernating. You’re walking and talking and laying in front of the floor a lot when you’re not staring out of the window at the sea you can’t even see from here. That isn’t hibernating. That’s just being lazy.”
“I am not hungry.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Bear. You’re always hungry. How can you say such things? Bear!”
A terrible thought popped into Salmon’s head.
“You’re not ill, are you? You’re not dying, Bear, are you?”
“Of course I am dying.”
Salmon’s small heart lurched in her throat.
“But only at usual rate. I have a few years left in me yet, Salmon. That is sure.”
Salmon tried to calm her racing pulse. But she was babbling.
“Then why not you could if you don’t that is if you really don’t mind, I was thinking you is maybe able to collect some money for the Atlantic Salmon Fund. Like you did before Christmas? That was so wonderful. That was like the most wonderful thing ever.”
“No point,” said Bear, stony-faced.
“You can’t say that,” cried Salmon. “You can’t be so defeatist. If you’d thought that before Christmas, you wouldn’t have gone anywhere and done anything and as it was, you gave me two of the most wonderful Christmas presents I could imagine.”
“You may not charm me into submitting,” Bear harrumphed. “No point is no point. In December, people they is careless. They spend so much, they scatter money as they go. In January, it is different. Very different. All change. Every penny they watch.”
“You don’t know that, Bear. How could you?”
I not like to think about the circus,” said Bear. “The bad old days. But it was the same. December, everything trodden underfoot in the Big Top. Popcorn and sausage dogs and floss and coins spilling out of the pockets. In January, all that is found is the stick from the floss from the boy with the birthday treat. All change.”
Salmon persevered. “Then how about the butchers, Bear? Burns Night’s in a couple of weeks. Everyone has haggis. You missed all the new year steak pies on account of your enfeebled state. You cannot miss the sheep innards too. Findlay’s make the best haggis in the whole of Edinburgh. They’re sure to be throwing lots of leftovers out. You should go scavenge, Bear.”
Salmon wouldn’t normally encourage such desperate behaviour but these were desperate days.
“Haggis? What kind of bear think you I am?” asked Bear, aghast. “Think you I am any old urchin bear, happy to eat leftovers unfit for even a pig? Salmon, you have no shame.”
He hoisted his hairy body onto his haunches, spun on his knees and flopped on his tummy in front of the fire. He refused to move for the rest of the day.
The next day did not dawn. It lurked into life with the same looming menace as all the other days that January.
Salmon tried a song to warm Bear’s dispirited Russian heart.
“Even when the darkest clouds are in the sky, you mustn’t sigh and you must not cry. Just spread a little happiness as you go by. Please try.”
“Please you shut up” barked Bear, who hadn’t moved from the fireplace for the past four days.
Salmon shut up.
Monday dawned, some grey days later, sharply insistent through the slits in the blinds.
Bear opened his eyes (from his eighth day on the living room floor) to an eerily cheerful song from Salmon: “if you’re happy and you know it, clap your fins”.
“I don’t have fins,” he grumbled before spinning his furry body on his behind to reverse his fireside position.
“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your paws?” Salmon tried, a little more tentatively.
“But I am not happy,” barked Bear and covered his face with his heavy paws as if to block out the light.
There was a silence, broken only by tiny specks of dust sinking through the sunlight and settling on the wooden floorboards.
“Hey! Hey, Bear!”
“Bear, hey, I was just thinking about all the fun we had when we escaped from the museum! Do you remember? What a close shave! I really thought we were for it then.”
“I wish that we had been.”
Silence enfolded the room again.
“Bear! Hey! Bear!”
“Remember when you were the champion? When you won the race across the pond in Figgate Park? I was so proud of”
“Did not win though,” Bear interrupted. “Did I? Some human person did.”
Salmon’s patience snapped as suddenly and sharply as a decrepit rubber band.
“Right, Bear, enough is enough. We’re going out,” proclaimed Salmon. “I won’t hear a word of complaint. You haven’t eaten for three weeks. Your fur is lank. Even I can tell that you don’t smell great. And I would like to see the sky through something other than a slightly soiled window pane.”
“Too feeble,” managed Bear, in a faraway voice.
“Too feeble my…” Salmon’s next words were lost in a flurry of bubbles as Bear snatched her with irascible haste from her tank. Shoved her into the carry case. And stumped down the stairs of their tenement, tank water sloshing, to the converted postman’s cart waiting in the hall.
They trundled up Bath Street to the crossroads.
“Right!” Salmon announced.
They took a right. Past the fish shop. Salmon averted her eyes.
They walked past the fruit and vegetable shop. Past Popeye’s, Portobello’s finest bacon roll provider. Past the barber’s. Past McColl’s.
Past the police station. Bear averted his eyes. The Christmas tree incident still made him shudder.
And just as they got to Bear’s favourite shop on the High Street, Findlay’s the butchers, makers of the best haggis in Scotland,
“Left! Left!” cried Salmon.
“I must…” muttered Bear. And stepped away from the cart briefly to rub the tummy of the jovial blue-aproned model butcher permanently positioned outside the shop, his arms flung skyward in a year-round celebration of all forms of carefully chopped dead animal flesh.
“We move on,” he said, as sheepish as an ursine can get. “I have my luck for the day.”
“Then we’re crossing the road,” chirped Salmon.
Past the finest emporium of wines the neighbourhood has known. Past the bench, a long low block of flats. And just before they arrived at the bowling green:
“Right, right!” cried Salmon.
They stopped in front of an unassuming cream and green square building. A concrete ramp to one side of the entrance and steps at the other.
“Where this?” said Bear.
“This, Bear, is a library,” announced Salmon. “Drive on.”
Bear pushed the cart up the ramp. Shoved might be more accurate. He wasn’t wholly sure what a library was but it sounded dull. It sounded like it might be full of the sort of people that watched Countdown. The sort of people that Salmon would cavort and chortle with while Bear loitered in a corner feeling monosyllabic.
The doors hummed opened in front of them at the top of the ramp. And Bear peered into a large, brightly lit room replete with bookcases. And books.
Bear sank his neck into his shoulders a little further. Certainly Salmon’s kind of place.
To the left of the room, a circle of children clustered round a lady with effusive hair who was reading to them from a brightly coloured book.
The rest of the space was full of rows and rows of shelves.
“What is this?” said Bear, temporarily forgetting his bad temper.
“My hairy fellow, don’t tell me you haven’t ever visited a library? They look after books. Story books. Picture books, Books about the world and how it works. You can borrow them if you ask nicely. Or you can pop in, choose a book and sit down in the sun and read it. Wonderful things, libraries. Joining really should be compulsory. Now, head over to that desk, would you?”
Bear trundled the cart towards a man frowning over a blue book with a heart on the cover. Squirly red writing spelt out “Girl Online”. “Three reservations on the same day,” the man muttered. “All at 13:09. Prioritise the one made in person?”
Salmon swished her tail, the fish equivalent of clearing her throat.
“Excuse me, young man,” she said, a mite too imperiously for Bear’s liking.
“I’m sorry. Can I help you?” The man had a nice face when he wasn’t frowning.
“We’d like to know if you have any books on that thing that you get when it’s cold and dark all the time. Well, if anyone can get it apart from Salmon,” said Salmon. “It’s called something like Salmon Affective Disorder.”
“Salmon Affective Disorder?” trilled a precocious child in a newly formed queue behind the ursine and cart. The child looked suspiciously like the know-it-all in the National Museum of Scotland. “There’s no such thing as Salmon Affective Disorder. I suppose that you must mean Seasonal Affective Disorder.”
“Typical Salmon. Always so self-centred,” finished the kid in what he supposed to be an undertone that carried to the outer edges of the building.
The librarian’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” he said. “Let me take a look on the computer. I’ll see what we’ve got in stock.” He tapped at his keyboard and studied the screen.
“The most popular book seems to be something called ‘Winter Blues: Everything you need to know to beat SAD,’ by a chap called Norman Rosenthal. And you’re in luck. Our copy came back this morning. You’ll find it over with the self-help books.”
The man pointed over the top of the nearest book shelf. “It’s just on the other side of those shelves, up at that end. Do you see?”
“Off we go then,” declared Salmon peremptorily.
“Just one moment,” rumbled Bear. “Why we look for this book?”
“To find out how we can fight the symptoms,” said Salmon, as if it were obvious.
“The symptoms?” said Bear.
“Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that occurs every autumn and winter when the days get dark,” declared the kid, still waiting with a precociously adult patience in the queue of two. “It’s most commonly thought to come about as a result of insufficient exposure to daylight.”
“Salmon!” Bear was shocked. “You have depression?”
“No, Bear,” Salmon spoke as if addressing a frail invalid. “I don’t have depression. But I have to admit to wondering if there’s anything I can do to prise you off the floorboards and out into the fresh air. It’s been 9 days since you last left the flat. And that was when I told you that Findlay’s had just received a fresh delivery of venison.”
“There are five options recommended for the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder,” trumpeted the child. “Light therapy, stress management, exercise, talking therapy and antidepressants. They also think that holidays in sunny places might help. No s –“
“You’re very well informed on this subject, young man,” the librarian hissed. “As on all other subjects, luckily for us. But you really need to keep your voice down. This is a library.”
Bear looked puzzled. “You have this Salmon Affective Disorder?”
“Seasonal Affective Disorder,” trumpeted the child. “It’s Seasonal.”
“No, Bear,” began Salmon.
“You mustn’t be embarrassed,” shrilled the child. “There’s no stigma attached to mental ill-health these days. Mind you, they’re not certain that Seasonal Affective Disorder can be classed as mental ill-health so…”
“Young man! Can I help you?” The librarian’s eyes were less crinkled now. He looked decidedly irritated. “I think we should leave these two to their,” he hesitated, “discussions. And let me see if I can answer whatever interminably unimportant question you’ve conjured up for me today.”
“My turn. At last. Good,” said the child. “Well, today’s challenge. I’d like to know whether there are any animals other than sheep who can’t survive in the wild without human intervention.”
“I’m not quite sure,” started the librarian.
“Salmon, I am not sick,” said Bear.
“I’m not saying you’re sick.” Salmon chose her words with more than usual care. “I’m just wondering whether there’s anything we can do to give you a better quality of life.”
Bear snorted. “My quality of life, as you say, is fine. Better even than fine. Tickety boo, as you might say.”
“It is winter, Salmon. Given that you know answers to all things, I feel surprise that you do not know that a bear, he has to hibernate in the winter. So he does not do very much. If I was at my home, I would sleep. But I would not have anyone talking to me.”
“I know that, Bear. I do. Rationally. Of course I do. But I just,” Salmon tailed off.
“I don’t like seeing you doing nothing,” Salmon muttered. She couldn’t meet Bear’s eyes. “Bears are made to be outside. To be running and climbing trees and chasing, I don’t know, Portobello’s dogs. It makes me sad to see you just lying in front of the fire for days on end.”
“That is what we do, Salmon. Like you are made to leap up a ladder, I am made to sleep in the dark. It is not a bad thing. It is – you would say – cosy?”
“So no Seasonal Affective Disorder?”
“No Seasonal Affective Disorder. Definitely not.”
“We could get you a lightbox.”
“Very sure. Now we can please go home?”
Salmon cast a last longing look at the bookshelves and nodded.
They trundled towards the automatic doors.
“Try Tunisia. Or southern Morocco. Or the Canaries if you don’t want such a long flight,” called the kid, towards their retreating backs.
Salmon span in her tank. The librarian looked tired.
“Gambia’s a great mid-haul option,” drifted through the doors as they stepped into the street.
“Can we go back round the back of the butchers?” Bear sounded tentative.
“Now you’re just indulging me,” said Salmon. But she flicked her tail with a frequency that suggested that she was pleased.
Tuesday morning didn’t dawn. There was no light to dawn. The sky was wrapped in clouds that cuddled the edges of the rooftops and refused to admit a single beam of light.
Salmon was late to wake amidst the gloom.
She yawned and stretched her scales with soporific satisfaction. And eventually opened her eyes to see –
Bear poised in the living room door.
“You awake?” he asked, urgently.
“I believe so,” said Salmon.
“Good. I did not wish to go before you awake but now I can. I go. I walk. I run. I chase the dogs on the beach. I frolic. All the things you say.”
“Bear, this is very sudden. Please. You don’t need to go on my account. I understand you need to hibernate. You need to take it easy. Sleep. Turn the fire up, maybe, if you’re cold?”
“Cold!” Bear exclaimed. “But I love being cold! And look, Salmon. Look out of the window!”
Salmon circled her tank until her eyes faced the window.
White. The pavements were white. The scrubby plants in the garden opposite were white. The road was white. The window sills and the carvings on top of the fancy dancy windows in the building opposite were lined with white. The roofs were white. The sky was pale very pale grey.
“It snowed, Salmon! It snowed,” chuckled Bear with a very un-Russian glee. “Laters, alligator.”
The front door banged. And he was gone.
Silence aside from the dust softly settling.
“Sleigh bells ring,” sang Salmon, unseasonably, “are you listening?”