July. Long days. Short nights. When it wasn’t raining, the chip-shop-lined beach in Portobello was packed with blistered humanity. So Salmon and Bear would seek out the local park for their morning constitutional.
Bear tended to grumble. He hated getting up in the morning, particularly if there was nothing in particular to look forward to that day. He loved to sleep. And daytime sleeping was far more enjoyable as their flat faced east, making it easy to find a patch of sun for basking purposes.
Salmon had an infuriating habit of waking up happy. If, indeed, she ever slept. Bear wasn’t convinced. He’d tried on numerous occasions to catch her asleep. Prowling through the flat as quietly as a seven foot six bear was able. Forgetting that every thud of paw on floorboards sent the surface of Salmon’s tank into a gentle slosh.
But once Salmon was awake, she would sing. Once Salmon was singing, Bear would start stirring from sleep. Salmon wasn’t very good at doing nothing so before long, she’d start crooning to Bear to leap up. To jump up. To get lively and enjoy the day. In such an insistent voice that Bear found her impossible to ignore.
For the sake of an easy life, he’d wrestle the postman’s cart down two flights of stairs to the ground floor. He’d decant the salmon into an insulated Tesco’s bag. He’d carry the shoulder bag downstairs and hook it carefully onto the postman’s cart. He’d retreat up two flights of stairs and fetch the portable plastic tank and two (once petrol) cans of water. Pad back down the stairs. Decant water into the tank. Conceal the petrol cans underneath the shelves of gardening equipment lined up against the back door. Tip Salmon gently from the shoulder bag into the tank. Conceal the shoulder bag under the gardening equipment. Unfold a large piece of sacking from the (blue IKEA) emergency shoulder bag. Lay it across the tank to prevent unexpected incursions into Salmon’s temporary playground. And off they’d go.
Thanks to an initiative from the Council, the upper meadow in Figgate Park was festooned with wild flowers. Poppies, cornflowers and something small, tall and yellow that Bear had never seen in Russia.
Salmon loved being wheeled past the flowers. She could imagine she was leaping through meadows. In reality, she could only actually see the cornflowers on account of the wavelength of the light through the tank’s water. But Bear had described the reds and yellows to her. And explained that most of what she could see in summer in the park was green.
Once Bear got up and out, he loved wheeling Salmon past the substantial pond while trying to pretend he wasn’t peering out for plump and tempting fish. Not that he would ever succumb to his primal instinct in front of Salmon but it reminded him that despite his recent suburban civilisation, he was first and foremost a bear.
One morning, Salmon’s beady eyes spied a poster tethered to the railings at the park entrance. “Bear! Bear! Stop the trolley!” she cried. Bear hauled the cart to a standstill. “What is it, Salmon? Are you over-heating? Maybe we need to think differently about this morning walk. Or the tank it needs a shade?”
“Go back! Go back!” Salmon urged, uninterested in the prospect of a parasol.
At Salmon’s insistence, Bear retraced their steps to the railings.
“Race! Wild swimming contest to find Portobello’s champion. Two widths of Figgate Park Pond. Prizes for the fastest times. Saturday 19 July. 12 noon. ” read Salmon, her usually melodious voice shrill with excitement. “Bear! Bear! We have to come.”
Bear wondered how he would break it to her. “I do not think you can enter, Salmon. It would not be a fair contest.”
“Of course not,” scoffed Salmon. “That would be ridiculous. I’m thinking of you, Bear. You can enter the competition. No-one can swim faster than you.”
“I cannot enter the competition, Salmon. It is a competition for people. And how would I look in the swimming trunks? Some person, some human person would tell the zoo-keepers straight away.”
“But Bear, read what it says. It says wild swimming. That means swimming for wild animals. You’ll romp home.
Bear’s head filled with pictures of himself, standing atop a podium in a perky pair of red shorts, arms triumphant above his head. Salmon’s head was full of early morning walks with a happy Bear, a Bear who didn’t have something to prove to himself after years of obedient, obsequious captivity. So both accepted the picture painted by Salmon of an eclectic menagerie, battling it out for supremacy of the Portobello pond.
* * * * * * * * * *
“You’ll need a wet suit!” cried Salmon, suddenly as they were finishing tea one evening. Vegetable cannelloni. Bear had excelled himself.
“What is this wet suit?” said Bear.
“It’s something that human people wear. So their hair doesn’t slow them down in the water.”
“Human people only have hair on their head. Why they need a whole suit?”
“Haven’t you ever brushed against a human in the water?” asked Salmon. “Some of them can be downright gristly. Especially the male ones.”
Bear bowed to Salmon’s superior wisdom.
“Besides, it’ll give you a competitive advantage,” suggested Salmon. “We don’t know who you’ll be up against but say it’s a donkey. Or even a horse. Or a cow. Four legs to your two. You don’t want the drag to hold you back.”
“But Salmon, where I buy a wet suit? I have not seen a shop with wet suits for bears.”
“You’re pretty nifty with your paws, Bear. We just need a piece of fabric. Something waterproof so it doesn’t absorb the water and drag you down. And you can make one.”
“But how would I stick it together? In this shape?”
“You’d get the fabric and lie on it. And then cut it into shape. One of your claws should do nicely. Human people get a needle and thread and sew it together. That’s how they make all their clothes. You can look it up on YouTube. There’s probably even films about how to make a wet suit. You just need to find the fabric.”
Bear thought hard. But his thoughts about fabric were interrupted periodically with pictures of him on the podium, in a slim fitting silver suit that looked eerily like fish scales, arms aloft, the sound of cheering in his ears
“Alright, Salmon,” he said eventually, long after Salmon thought he’d fallen into a post-prandial sleep, “I make the wet suit.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Race day dawned bright and clear. Salmon awoke with the bins to see Bear spread-eagled on the living room floor, surrounded by scraps of coloured plastic and string.
“Bear, Bear? Are you ok?”
“I nearly done, Salmon. дерьмо! Do not look yet. Please do not look. I am wanting to give you a surprise.”
Salmon dutifully turned her back.
She heard grunts, a few savage words in Russian, some squeaking and stretching. And then a strange sound like a balloon – or something more substantial. A tire, perhaps – being stretched to the point of intolerance.
“Bear? What’s going on? Are you ok?”
And then a primal triumphal cry.
“Bear, I’m going to turn round. I don’t care what you think. I’m worried you’re in trouble. Bear, have you destroyed something again?”
“Look at this!”
Salmon turned, with something like trepidation in her gills. To be confronted with an extraordinary sight.
Bear stood proudly in front of her, fur hidden under a colourful plastic sheath. Even his ears were pressed close to his head by a snug balaclava-like extension to the curious suit.
Across his tummy was emblazoned “first Sat” and underneath this, “very mon”. He rotated slowly in front of her, like a giant plastic kebab. Across his shoulders sat two red apples and underneath them, “ganic mar” and “ocal produ”.
“Bear”, said Salmon, “where did you get that?”
“I make it.” Bear could not keep the pride from his voice.
“But before that, Bear. Before you made it. What was it?”
Bear looked at his feet. “I do not know.”
“Yes you do, Bear. You found it, didn’t you? Where did you find it, Bear?”
“It is just lying about.”
“The thing is, Bear, I’m only a fish and I only live in this rather meagrely proportioned tank but even based on my limited view of the environs, it looks remarkably similar to the sign on the railings of that grassy place we pass on the way to Figgate Park. The iron railing. That sign that says ‘Organic market. Local producers. First Saturday of every month.’ It’s an amazing coincidence because that sign has two red apples printed on it too.”
“It is funny.”
“And you really think that no-one, in a park that’s two streets along from the iron railings, will notice that you’re wearing their sign as a wet suit???”
“It. I think it is. The time! It is we should get going.” Bear’s tone was a trifle limp.
Salmon’s tone was cold. “Sure. Vamos.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Figgate Park, when they arrived, was thronged with people. An excitable man was shouting into a tannoy, his voice distorted out of all recognition by the amplification.
The field to the right of the entrance was thronged with people crowded around a cluster of children stumbling towards a finishing line, hampered by the fact that pairs of their legs were tethered together. The adults closest to the racing children were screeching advice to their progeny, fists clenched, faces purple with intent.
“They seem to be caring a great deal,” ventured Bear.
Salmon maintained a haughty silence.
The crowd thinned out as they approached the pond. A disinterested line of stragglers lined the walkway overlooking the central island. They paid no attention to the cluster of half naked people clustering at the edge of the far shore.
“What is the time, Salmon?” said Bear, his voice querulous. “This is another race. This is not the wild animal race. They are all human people.”
Salmon shrugged. “Not long before 12, judging from when we left the flat. They must be running late.”
The over-excited tannoy man’s voice boomed suddenly across the collection of spectators. “And we have two minutes to go before the race to find the champion of Figgate Park Pond. That’s two minutes, boys and girls. Any last minute entries should register on the viewing deck.”
“Salmon, Salmon, that is our race. But where the other animals? I do not want to be like a freak.”
“That’s the race, Bear. Lollop on.”
“Salmon, I cannot race – people! I thought I would be against, I not know, poodles and lions and ponies. Quick things. Things that have the four legs. It is not fair, it cannot be fair if I race against people.”
“Listen to me, Bear, Is life fair?”
Suddenly distant, they heard the tannoy man. “And can the racers please take their marks….”
“Is it, Bear? Is life fair?”
A growl of disappointment from deep within his belly. “Not always.”
Crackle and a hiss. “Get set.”
“Then go, Bear! Race! Life isn’t fair. You’ve got to take the chances you get. Goodness gracious, I’m a salmon living in a tank. Life sucks. Leap when you can. Now, race!”
And the tannoy roared back into life. “GO!”
“Quick, Bear! Quick!” Salmon cried. “They’re getting away.”
” I can not leave you here,” stuttered Bear, ursine eyes wide with panic. “What if someone kidnaps you? If the tank capsizes? If…?”
“Bear, listen. What are Salmon good at?”
“Leaping, Bear. Leaping. If some malicious mischief maker does decide to walk past and cast my fortunes to the wind, I’ll leap the path and the grassy verge and make for the pond. Then I can cheer you on in person! It’ll be a small matter for you to grab me from the wide open water once you’ve claimed your prize and restore me to my compact container. No problem.”
The more or less bare swimmers were by now almost at the opposite side of the pond.
“Go on, Bear! The race is almost over. Do it for me. Run!”
Bear gave her a long, slow, anxious look. Then turned on his long bear legs and sprinted towards the pond. A powerful thrust from the hind legs and he dove, with extraordinary grace for one so broad, into the pond. And swam.
Bear arms, needless to say, even seven foot six bear arms, carve through water with greater rapidity than human arms. The almost bare swimmers had reached the far shore, turned and were splashing back toward their start point when the bear swimmer kicked off from the opposite bank, slid on his tummy along the floor of the pool under the bare people and overtook them with ursine ease.
Salmon watched from the shore, her gills fluttering with a painful longing for the impossible expanse of the pond. She managed a lacklustre “Go, Bear!” but the wind caught her words and whipped them away to the sea before they reached him.
Bear’s head broke through the surface of the pond and he took a long breath. And swam.
Distant cheering through his plastic-wrapped head. He imagined that Salmon was urging him on.
And his foot struck mud. The shore. A final dive, front paws propelling him up, back paws met the ground with all the force the quadriceps and hamstrings could muster after the unexpected exercise and he ran the final steps through the shallows to dry land.
Looked back. And the pink people were still sploshing laboriously two thirds of the way across the pond.
Bear punched the air. “Я выиграю! I win!” The crowd raised a collective eyebrow and looked back at the people splish sploshing through the giant puddle. Bear was too busy scanning the park to locate Salmon to notice. Until the first pink person dragged themselves out of the pond and the crowd erupted.
At first, Bear couldn’t make out the words but peeling back the vinyl hood revealed: “Champion! Champion! Champion!” Bear frowned. They hadn’t cheered him like this. And he had won.
A podium appeared from a thicket of bushes and the first pink person along with a couple of panting comrades stepped towards it. Bear advanced with intent. Winning had been done. There were prizes to be had.
A red-faced fellow with considerable moustaches seized hold of a megaphone and spoke to the expectant crowd: “In third place, I’m very proud to say we have number 21. My very own son, Justin Armstrong. I bet you’re glad you listened to your mother’s nagging when you were a boy, Justin, aren’t you?”
Bear clapped politely with his heavy paws, checking that Salmon was looking in the right direction to spy his great anointing.
“In second place, we have last year’s champion, number 33. That’s Sarah Jackson.” The crowd whooped. A stocky pink lady tried hard to look happy as she claimed her runner up prize. Bear cast a quick look in Salmon’s direction. She was twisting and dancing in her tank. Celebrating.
“And in first place…” Bear thrust his plastic-clad chest out. “…we have a brand new entrant to this year’s race.” Bear raised his arms aloft and began the walk towards the ramshackle collection of boxes that passed for a podium. “Ladies and gentleman, she’s only just young enough to qualify. At the ripe old age of seventeen, we have Miss Laura Carter.”
A long anxious looking girl shrieked and rushed into the water, followed by a pack of pouting teenagers. “If you’ll just come out of the water, Miss Carter, we’ll be able to present…”
Bear was no longer listening. He headed straight for the tank, muttering under his breath. As he drew near, Salmon heard a string of words in Russian delivered with a violent menace. Followed by “…and they’re being Bearist. It is unfair. This is extremely un not fair. They let a person win race. Wild swimming, they call it. Nothing is more wild than a Russian bear. What more do they want? A circus with hoops and dancing dogs?”
“Bear”, said Salmon.
“If it was a race for people, they should have said it was a race for people. Up all night. Stupid wetsuit. Fat lot of good it was for me.” “Bear.” “Might as well just burn it. Throw it in the sea. Fat lot of good…”
Bear’s response sounded more like a growl than words.
“I think you needed to register.”
“I said I think you needed to register. For the race. All the others had numbers on their backs. Didn’t you see? Like counting them out. I think you needed a number for the race. And then you wouldn’t have been disqualified.”
“Wild? If that is wild, then I am a pet poodle.”
“You won, Bear.”
“It doesn’t matter that you didn’t get the prize. Bear. It’s not like it was something really great like, I don’t know, fresh caught salmon. I saw you. You swam so fast. You swam like a salmon. I was proud of you, Bear. You won.”
“Don’t push your luck.”
“Did you see it? Did you see how I caught them, Salmon? Did you see how I left them all behind? How I outstripped them? Did you see how I cut through the water?”
“Once, Bear. I’ll tell you once more. I saw you. You won. You were amazing. Now, home, please, Bear.”
Bear allowed a small smile to creep across his bedraggled muzzle. He spun the trolley on its rear wheels and they headed for home.