Bear was looking at his newspaper but not reading it. The words appeared as a barely registered blur, his eyes focussed on a point beyond the page in front of him, to the far corner of the room in fact and the glass tank in which Salmon was being unusually quiet.
Most mornings, before Bear reached page two, Salmon would have piped up with some scale-brained scheme for seizing the day. The previous week they had snuck into the Museum of Scotland and pretended to be an exhibit for instance.
But today Bear was staring blankly at page six, oblivious to the headlines of debt, disaster and discord in front of him. His finely tuned ursine sixth sense, especially fine tuned when it came to river borne food sources, was on high alert.
There couldn’t be an innocent explanation for this departure from the norm. Salmon was never this quiet this long. Something fishy was going on.
Most likely it was some kind of devious, salmony prank. Salmon was trying to mess with Bear’s head. In which case Bear would not give her the satisfaction of rising to the bait. Rising to the bait was for fish, not bears.
But there was the slim possibility that something was genuinely wrong. Salmon might be ill. Salmon might be dying. Perhaps she had sleep-lept out of her tank and was lying on the floor gasping, her gills flared, flapping and futile. Or, worse still, Salmon might already be dead. What if, right now, Salmon was lying belly up and motionless on the surface whilst he wasted time worrying about his foolish pride?
He had no choice. There was no good outcome for Bear in this scenario. And with heavy Russian heart and no small degree of trepidation he slowly lowered the newspaper and peered over the top.
Salmon was lying belly up and motionless at the surface of the tank.
Bear experienced a full-body cold flush of panic. He dropped the newspaper and made to lever himself out of the armchair.
“I’m going to get a tattoo,” said Salmon suddenly, “Here on my underbelly. I’m a little worried about damage to the soft tissue but at least it will be discreet.”
The stunned silence that followed this announcement worked to Bear’s advantage. The conflicting feelings flooding his brain stopped him blurting out something stupid and he was able to collect his thoughts.
On the one hand no way was he going to give Salmon the satisfaction of knowing that she had wound him up. He would be cool, calm and collected. No mean feat this for an irascible Ursus Arctos Collaris, an East Siberian Brown Bear like him.
On the other hand he was desperate to know more. Why? How? In fact, how on earth? Or, if not on earth exactly, at least how out of water? And what? Just what kind of tattoo did Salmon have in mind?
“A tattoo eh? Interesting,” said Bear, “You having some kind of mid-life crisis? Some kind of existential dilemma? An emotional itch that needs scratching? I can take care of that if you like. It’s a speciality of mine. Just lie easy there, as you are, and I’ll give you a scratch.”
In one deliberate motion Bear extended his arm, opened his paw and made a menacing show of his claws.
“What do you say? I got my technique down and everything, I don’t be ticklin’ or nothin’. Might even be a good test of your pain threshold if you’re so set on being a pin cushion.”
“Actually my dear Bear it is highly debatable as to whether fish experience pain in the sense that a mammal would recognise it. Scientific opinion is divided on the issue. It is one our best kept secrets and I have no intention of letting you in on it.”
“And my only existential dilemma is having to rely on you for transport. I do appreciate the help but it must be difficult, not to mention demeaning, for an apex predator like yourself to assume the role of fish tank pusher.”
Bear bristled as he always did at the mention of mammal. Salmon never actually said the word “mere” but she was very good at implying it with her tone.
“Careful sunshine, you’re the one doing the pushing right now,” he said, “And remember it’s not easy getting that mass of water down the stairs, especially once it starts sloshing about. It wouldn’t take much…”
“Look, I’m sorry I let you get as far as page six. I thought I’d have your attention much sooner. I admire your willpower and I’m glad that you cared enough to look up…. eventually. Anyway we need to boost soon. I’m getting inked by Trevor at eleven.”
“Getting inked? How is that even going to work? No matter how careful this Trevor is, he’s going to turn your tank into a blood bath. I’ve seen what it’s like when a salmon bleeds. It tastes amazing but it sure ain’t pretty.”
If Salmon noticed Bear’s rather rapid transition from cool to curious she didn’t make anything of it. Fish-as-food was a subject she was always quick to change.
“Ha! Don’t worry my friend. Trevor has worked it all out. I’ll be out of the water while he works.”
“You’ll be holding your breath? I didn’t know fish could do that. They, you, always start that pathetic gasping thing straight away.”
“No need to hold my breath. Trevor found a video of a vet in Vancouver performing an operation on an Irish Lord Fish. They anaesthetised it and irrigated its gills through a tube in its mouth.”
“You’re going to be unconscious? It’s one thing to let some random lancer push ink into your belly. It’s quite another to let him knock you out and push a hosepipe down your throat.”
“Don’t worry,” said Salmon, “I’ll be fully conscious throughout, but thanks for your concern. And, besides, it won’t take long. A quick test under my tail fin to make sure the ink doesn’t bleed between the scales, and then the real thing. Trevor reckons we’ll be done and dusted in about three minutes.”
“Three minutes? That’s all? Sounds like you’re getting some real basic jailhouse tramp stamp or something. It can’t be anything intricate in that space of time. What is it?”
There, he had asked. The question hung in the air between them for a second. Salmon was not so crass as to actually smile, but Bear knew that she was smirking on the inside.
“Well that would be telling wouldn’t it?” said Salmon, “That would spoil the surprise. And we can’t have that can we?”
Trevor took Salmon into the back of his parlour, through a bead curtain that blocked Bear’s view but which left nothing to the imagination when it came to sound effects.
The horrible, gurgling suction sound of the hose that was hopefully keeping Salmon alive.
The rattling buzz of the tattoo gun.
Trevor’s voice, a low reassuring murmur, the words indiscernible over the background noise.
Bear was fidgety and agitated, at once worried for Salmon’s safety and miffed at being left out, at not being a protagonist in this particular adventure.
Eventually, after much crossing and uncrossing of Bear’s legs, after much picking up and putting down of various tattoo industry magazines, Trevor emerged from behind the curtain.
“You can come through now.”
Bear was pleased to see that Salmon was alive and that the water in her tank appeared to be clear and not tinged with pink. She was swimming a little gingerly though, obviously experiencing some discomfort with each flex of her body.
“Are you ok?” said Bear.
“Oh yes, I’m fine thank you. Trevor has done a great job. What do you think?”
With this Salmon turned onto her side, giving Bear a prime view of her underbelly.
There followed a pregnant pause of several seconds, the air heavy with expectation. Bear studied Trevor’s work for what seemed like an age. Salmon saw him gulp before he finally spoke.
“I’m sorry Salmon, I don’t know what to say. I’ve never been much good at appreciating art. I don’t see what more clever beings see. And all I see here is a random series dots. I’m sorry.”
“Oh Bear. These aren’t dots, they’re stars. And there is nothing random about their arrangement. It’s a constellation. Ursa Major. The Great Bear. I’ve done this for you.”