Bear awoke to the sound of the salmon humming. It took him a little while to identify both the sound and the source, as Salmon wasn’t prone to humming. In fact, Bear would be so bold as to suppose that Salmon had never once had a hum within his earshot. Hence the time lapse before diagnosis.
“Salmon?” said Bear, when he’d traced the moderately mournful sound to the tank sitting at shadow’s reach from the window. “That is you? You are in pain?”
“Pain?” said Salmon, somewhat incredulous. “What makes you think that?”
“That miserable sound,” said Bear, shaking his heavy head in confusion. “It is dirge? Or funeral song?”
“Nothing of the kind!” retorted Salmon, in such a disgruntled tone that Bear knew he should leave well alone until she was ready to speak.
The following day, Bear endeavoured to exercise cunning. He awoke, scratched, wriggled in the patch of sunlight to ensure as much of it as possible bathed his tummy in cosy heat, flopped his arms out to a position that allowed maximum back scratching – and then lay, listening.
Salmon always awoke at the arrival of the bin vans. A rumble and a clatter and a groaning metal joint hoisting the bins towards the yawning mouth of the lorry. A flick of Salmon’s tail for her morning stretch. A brief snack-filled silence. And then he heard it again.
A low bubbling drone.
He listened harder. Impossible to make out any notes but he could discern a sort of rhythm that wasn’t a million miles away from the wild Russian ballads he’d grown up with in the windswept forests of Taiga in the east of Siberia. An insistent thrumming that demanded attention.
He clambered to his feet as softly as he was able. Which, for Bear, involved a bit of a calumph. And he shuffled through to the front room.
Salmon was – there was no other word for it – swishing in her tank. Tail whipping, fins oscillating, gills slapping gently against her side. Emitting this curious call. Oblivious to him until…
“Salmon!” said Bear sharply. “What you are doing?”
“Seizing the day!” cried Salmon, jubilantly. “We may not know what’s round the corner for us. But we can make the most of the moments we have!”
Bear was suspicious. Salmon was rarely euphoric. But he let it lie again.
On the third day, Bear awoke to – silence. He leapt up from the bear equivalent of bedding; a Turkish rug purchased at the Istanbul markets from a grateful dwarf in his distant past.
Silence was ominous. He’d only encountered Salmon Silence once before – and that had ended in the most horrific instance of self-mutilation that Bear had ever encountered. Even allowing for his time with the Omsk Circus.
He raced down the corridor, heart thudding in his big bear chest.
“Salmon? Salmon! What is it? What is wrong?” he gasped, claws skittering to a halt on the polished wooden floor.
Salmon turned a listless head in Bear’s direction. And then, with a flick of a fin, turned away.
“Salmon? I have done something to upset you?”
Bear ran over the events of the previous day with his sluggish but dependable brain. Song. Breakfast. Beach walk. Lunch. (Lunch was for Bear’s benefit. Salmon tended to watch her weight but would nibble a piece of weed for the companionship.) Nap. (Also for Bear’s benefit. He’d leave her with a book propped up alongside her tank.) Crossword. Always The Guardian. (For Salmon’s benefit. Bear had provided an answer to a clue once. Dinner for bears. Six letters. Second letter: A. It still made Salmon shudder.) Countdown. (Also for Salmon’s benefit.) The five o’ clock news on the radio. Bear had stepped out to forage for leftovers. And then dinner, chat and bed.
Salmon had seemed in good spirits. She was certainly no less chatty than usual. So being confronted with the sight of a cold salmony shoulder made no sense to Bear at all.
“Salmon!” he barked with frustration, “What is it?”
She turned to him. “I’m sad today, Bear. Please leave me be.”
She didn’t even rise to the intellectual bait of the crossword.
Bear went to bed that night, his stomach lurching with steely Siberian anxiety. Was Salmon preparing to find another trolley pusher?
The fourth morning. Wake. Scratch. Listen.
The tune was back. Salmon was singing again. Or maybe gurgling was more accurate. And this time, he thought he discerned some sort of – melody would be wrong – as would recognisable tune. Recognisable rhythm maybe.
“Salmon!” Bear burst into the front room. “You humming these Rolling Stones?”
Salmon smiled, a model for Da Vinci. “You can’t always get what you want.”
“I do not understand,” grumbled Bear. “It feels that you are shutting me out. This singing and not speaking and silence and then again singing. And I think I am recognising the tune but you tell me it is not that at all. You are hiding something, Salmon. And I must tell you I do not like it.”
Salmon chuckled to herself but Bear recognised in it a shadow of his homegrown brand of nihilistic despair. “I have been keeping something from you, Bear. But it’s definitely a nice thing.”
She shook her head violently.
“Probably a nice thing.”
She twitched. Bear could have sworn she shrugged.
“Maybe?” she finished.
“Nyet,” said Bear. “I do not like it one bit. We do not have the secrets, you and me. We agreed.”
“I can tell you today anyway,” said the Salmon. “Because we’ll find out today. Later today.”
“Find out what?” said Bear, with sharp anxiety. “Salmon, are you sick?”
Salmon swept to the bottom of the tank and the funereal chant resumed, bubbles bursting on the surface of her tank. “Listen closely, Bear,” she cried.
Bear listened. And eventually heard, to a tune by the Rolling Stones, a strange new song of Salmon’s invention.
“You can’t always swim where you want….” intoned Salmon.
“Swim???” said Bear.
“You can’t always swim where you want…”
“I do not know this song, Salmon. I do not know the words,” exclaimed Bear. “Tell me.”
“Sometimes you have to take a chance, right, Bear? You take a chance and you might find out something good. Sure, you might find out something bad but you also might find out something good. So you take the chance. Don’t you? You left the circus. You took a chance. I should take a chance, right, Bear? Shouldn’t I?”
“Salmon! I don’t know what it is you mean.”
“Anyway, enough of that. Pathetic existential angst.”
“We need to get a wriggle on. The 49 goes direct. More or less. Come on, Bear. We’ll be late. I don’t want to miss them.”
Bear scowled. “Who is it we will miss?”
“Please, Bear. I’ll buy you a hot dog,” said Salmon.
Despite his desperate, wild as the Siberian plains worry, Bear salivated slightly at the thought.
So off they went.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Salmon spent their section of the 49’s route in a state of extreme anxiety. Chance-taking was all very well. She’d recommend it whole-heartedly for any other creature crossing her path. But it didn’t sit wholly comfortably with her.
All was quiet as Bear trundled the trolley gently through the least cobbled streets he could find between Duke and Constitution Street. A splosh when Salmon first smelt the sea as he rounded the corner from the Post Office to the roundabout overlooking the two giant cranes and the docks. And then she sank low and silent in the tank again.
Until the trolley started to skitter and stumble over small stones – at which point, the fish started whirling like a dervish.
Bear snatched off the tank’s cover. “Salmon,” he whispered urgently, “everything is ok? You overheat? Is a hot day today. We can turn back, go home, I get ice packs and put them around to cool you down?”
Salmon laughed. A tinkling sound that sounded like glass breaking.
“Oh Bear, I’m well. Quite well. Just. Nearly here. I can smell the candyfloss. You must be able to, too. And you can see the Big Top. Just.”
She nodded her head in the direction of the gigantic shopping centre ahead.
“That means I’m about to discover – Neptune help me – I’m about to discover my destiny.”
“Destiny?” said Bear, blankly, unease heavy in his stomach as his fovial vision locked onto canvas. “What do you mean? Circuses only for clowns. And…” He couldn’t finish his sentence.
“I don’t know what clowns are,” said Salmon, a mite crossly. “But I do know that I will cross her palm with silver and she’ll tell me my destiny. She’ll tell me if I’ll ever get back home.”
“She?” said Bear, still bemused.
“Gypsy Lee,” said Salmon, with an un-salmony reverence. “The poster said she’d be here. Please, Bear, I know you don’t like circuses. I know you’ve only come here for me. Please take me to her and then we can go home.”
Bear conceded, internally, that they’d got this far so he may just as well hunt out this woman with a man’s name and be done with it. So they set off, wheels scrunching over the gravel, heading towards a cluster of caravans hidden in the shadow of the giant tent and the still more giant shopping centre.
* * * * * * * * *
The caravans were modern. The garlic bulb shaped models that crouch like fat white pupae alongside each other in the grass.
Bear wasn’t prone to nostalgia but did feel a flicker of regret that these caravans were so far from the wooden, ornately painted vehicles that had rattled, horse-drawn, at the head of the convoy in his homeland.
One of the caravans, on the outskirts of the enclave, featured a succession of brightly painted signs. GYPSY LEE, the largest sign cried, PALMISTRY AND CLAIRVOYANCY. Readings in strictest confidence was promised in smaller letters underneath. And finally, patronised by notable people.
Bear could hear Salmon sloshing impatiently. “Bear! Bear! Don’t stop,” she called, “we need to hurry. We need to find Gypsy Lee.”
Bear lifted the cover from the tank nestling in the resourceful grip of the Postman(woman)’s trolley. “Look, Salmon, look,” he said, trying to smother his modest sense of achievement at his navigating prowess, “we are here.”
A string of bubbles floated to the surface of the tank and popped pensively.
“We have to go in?” said Bear, with some trepidation.
Pop! An air bubble burst. “Please!”
Bear started forward towards the caravan. Despite not being of the painted wooden variety, it still had two low aluminium steps leading up to its door.
The trolley stuttered.
“Steps, Salmon. Is steps,” stammered Bear foolishly, his furry face full of puzzlement.
Salmon was a study in serenity.
“It’s ok, Bear,” she said. “Gypsy Lee will come to us. Just call her.”
Bear cleared his throat, uncertain of what to say.
But the ominous rumble proved quite enough for a frowning faced woman wearing a floral apron appeared in the doorway. “Wot yer…. Excuse me. You are perhaps s’il vous plait here to see the great Gypsy Lee?”
“She is here?” Bear blurted, anxiously.
“She was just about to have her dinner as it ‘appens. Even the greatest clairvoyant in the land must eat. Il faut souffrir pour etre belle, ne c’est pas?”
“We see her when she has eaten it? Her dinner?” said Bear, fearful that the 49 had been in vain.
“My dahlink, you are looking at her,” said the dumpy middle-aged dowager. “Je suis Gypsy Lee.”
“Where is your, how you call, bib? Apron thing?” said Bear, in confusion. “In Ruski, the fortune tellers. Scarves and sparkles and rings at your ears.”
“You want mysterious?” said the lumpy cook. “I can give you mysterious. Momento.” She waddled back into the caravan.
“You? What? I do not understand. We cannot. Get up the steps. My friend. Her fortune. Will you? Mrs Lee, please….?” stuttered the anxious ursine.
The fortune teller reappeared. Floral apron flung to the wind, a scarf shrouding her world-weary face, hoop earrings that grazed her shoulders and something precious concealed by red silk clasped in her hands.
“Ma petite,” rasped the fortune teller to the substantial bear, “I shall give you mysterious.”
“The steps,” repeated poor Bear, miserably.
“Ma petite, should I say mon grand ami, vous n’avez pas besoin de l’escalier. You do not need the steps.”
“But my friend….”
“If you cannot come to the great Gypsy Lee, then Gypsy Lee will come to you” murmured Mrs Lee and she shuffled down the two aluminium steps of the caravan to meet Bear on the stony ground.
“So. My hairy fellow. First thing, first of all, you must cross my palm with silver.”
Bear was stumped. He knew fortune teller speak in Russian but his grasp of English didn’t extend to palm crossing. He took this as a sign that he should unveil the destiny seeker. So he lifted the cover to reveal the salmon, flollopping anxiously in the tank.
“I’m sorry, monsieur. I do not take payment in fish.”
A stream of bubbles issued from Salmon’s mouth and burst rat tat tat on the surface of the tank.
“No! That is not. This is Salmon. I am not giving. I am not a monster! You do not understand.”
Mrs Lee looked from the anxious hairy face of the tall guy to the rolling fish. She was used to strange sights in her line of work. And she was also used to – as Salmon might say – going with the flow. So she thought she understood.
Bear looked back at her.
“Please?” repeated Salmon, rigid with frustration.
Mrs Lee, born and bred in the south east of London though her accent was a patchwork quilt of Europe, permitted herself a zut alors. Retrieved a chair from her mobile office and placed it squarely opposite the tank.
“Alors, mon petit poisson, you would like your fortune told?”
Salmon nodded frantically. ”Please. Please, lady.”
“Well, this is extremely unusual. I might look at your palm and see what the hand tells me. Or look into your eyes and see your fate in the crystal ball.”
Salmon swum in three tight circles and raised her mouth to the surface.
“Look into my eyes.”
“Look into your eyes?” said Mrs Lee. “Well, stranger things have happened.”
She lowered her head to the surface of the tank and peered at Salmon’s hopeful face. Then she whisked the red silk off the something with a flourish to reveal a glass sphere, nestling in her lap.
“Salmon. She is a salmon.” Bear couldn’t resist.
“You wish me to tell your future?”
“There is no need for sarcasm, Fish. It does not help the mysterious truth of the future to be revealed.”
“I’m sorry. I do understand. It’s just I came all this way. Bear brought me all this way. I saw the poster. Months ago. Saying the circus was coming. And I saw your name. And your reputation. I’ve always wanted…” Salmon was crestfallen.
And the cook was mollified.
“It’s not. It is very unclear to me. The crystal ball – it is struggling to see…”
“Please. Look harder.”
“You’re a very insistent young fish, aren’t you?”
“Salmon!” echoed Bear.
“Salmon. Ok. Let me see… Well well. The clouds are parting. I’m seeing..”
“Keep interrupting and I won’t see anything.”
“You will take a journey. A long. Very long journey.”
“Call yourself a fortune teller? She is Salmon. Of course…”
“Do you want to hear her fortune or not?”
“A long long journey. You will travel up the Water of Leith. You’ll be transferred to the Union Canal…”
“What did I say?”
“Transferred to the Union Canal. You will pass through Linlithgow. You will arrive at Falkirk. You will swim in a gigantic wheel, you will cross a bridge, a tall bridge over the roads, you will pass under the shadow of Stirling Castle and you will end up scaling a ladder. In a place called. I can’t quite see. A place called Pit Lock Ree. And then…”
The fortune teller fell silent.
“What?” asked Salmon, in a small voice.
There was a pause before the mysterious lady spoke.
“Then the ball goes dark.”
“What does it mean?” Bear asked gruffly.
“A hundred and one things. Nothing. It means I don’t know what happens next.”
Salmon turned and swam slowly to the bottom of the tank.
A string of tiny bubbles burst like tiny exclamations on the surface.
Bear scrubbed at his eyes with a heavy paw.
“What does it mean? What does dark mean?”
“It means, my hairy friend, that I cannot tell miracles. I am a clairvoyant. I am not God. I see what I see. And that is what you have to live with.”
“But you tell miracles. That is what you do. You saw. You can tell us what happens. Please…”
“No, my friend. That is all I know. I am sorry.”
“And can you tell me. Tell us. When?”
“The ball, he does not do timescales.”
Bear felt his legs wobble and thought he should sit down. Bringing him face to face with Salmon.
And to his great surprise, she smiled. “It’s ok, Bear. I knew it would happen. I don’t need to know when. I just wanted to know whether I’d get back home.”
“But she not tell you. She did not tell you that. Pit Lock Ree. It is not a place.”
“Yes it is, Bear, Pit Lock Ree. Pitlochry. That’s where I was born. That’s where I grew up. That’s the home of the ladder. My mother leapt up it to have me. And I’ll leap up it again before.”
“I’m going home, Bear.”
Bear thought his heart might burst.
“But not yet. We’ll have our adventures first. We made a pact, remember? You and me. Fun first. The rest of life later. Carpe Diem. Agreed?”
The Bear growled at the tank and Mrs Lee thought the dour fellow even smiled. The fish circled the bottom of the tank and seemed to bask in the fronds of weed waving gently as the water settled.
“Then I thank you, Mrs Lee,” said Bear. “You a good woman.”
He carefully covered the tank. Doffed a cap he wasn’t wearing to her. Picked up the handle of the postman’s cart. And as Salmon crooned a (clumsily metered) “and if you try some time, you might just find, you’ll swim where you need”, they trundled off into the diesel-fumed night.