Salmon and Bear were loitering with hesitant intent outside the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. They were nervous and shifty. Indeed it would be fair to say that their loitering bordered on lurking, and furtive lurking at that.
They affected an unconvincing nonchalance in a vain attempt to reassure themselves that their plotting and scheming was latent rather than blatant.
It wasn’t working.
“I have bad feeling about this,” said Bear in his usual broken English and Russian accent.
Salmon masked her own misgivings by chiding Bear for his.
“You always have bad feelings. You feel bad about anything and everything. Your pessimism is so ingrained that you feel bad about feeling good. In fact, when was the last time you had a good feeling about anything other than elk jerky? I’d go as far as to say that bad feelings for you, my dear Bear, are pathological. Fretting and foreboding, doom and gloom, are the ursine condition.”
Nine times out of ten Bear would have happily gone off on a mental tangent at the mention of food, but his heavy heart ruled his hungry head on this occasion. He should have been salivating at the thought of dried meat. Instead of which his anxiety had given him a dry mouth and a dried tongue. His neck was stiff too. Nervous tension is a highly effective appetite suppressant, even for a bear.
“You have done it again,” he said.
“You have lulled me.”
“Yes. You know you do. You lull me with lull-a-bear lullaby voice of yours. And oh-so-plausible story about wanting to see fish ladder. What fool! Any sense of security concerning you is bound to be false but I still let myself be lulled into one. I hate being lulled like I hate being hapless. I hate more than padlocked rubbish dumpsters. I am just hapless lullee. Urgh.”
“But we are going to see the fish ladder. There’s nothing false about that,” said Salmon, with just a hint of a simper.
“You would not get away with that under oath. It is not whole truth. I doubt it even qualify as half truth. Maybe one day, just one sweet day, the plan of action will consist of truth and nothing but truth. National No Dissembling Day. Now that would be something,” said Bear.
“If I told you the whole truth we’d never do anything. It would be all plan and no action. It would be a plan of inaction,” said Salmon.
“That not fair,” said Bear.
“No it isn’t. It’s not fair at all. Not only do I have to hatch the plan, I also have to protect it from you and your borscht bowl half empty attitude. I’d love to tell you the whole truth but you’d just veto it,” said Salmon.
“Usually with good reason. Take this morning’s insanity. There is big difference between observing exhibit and swimming in it. Or is that just minor point of detail to you?”
“No, it’s a big deal,” said Salmon, “and we wouldn’t be here if I had told you would we?”
“You are damn right we… ”
“That was a rhetorical question. Now c’mon. It’s time to boogie. We need to get in and out before the museum gets too busy.”
That Autumn the natural history section of the Museum featured a temporary exhibit about the life cycle of the salmon.
The centrepiece of the display was a working scale model of a fish ladder. It stood three metres tall at its highest point and it occupied a large section of the east end of the museum’s main atrium.
At the base of the display was a pool of authentically peat-coloured water. Its bed and banks were made of rocks and small boulders and it was a reasonable approximation of a small section of Scottish river.
Into the pool, from the top of the display, poured an impressive waterfall. Hundreds of gallons of white water tumbled over the edge in mesmerising fashion every second. The resulting spray created a fine mist that hung over the pool at the base of the falls. And the crashing torrent filled the three storey atrium with white noise, which muffled the sound of the hard-working pump that recycled water from the pool at the bottom to the pool at the top.
One side and the back of the falls were clad in stone, into which had been planted small ferns and heather. On the other side was the model fish ladder.
The ladder climbed from the bottom to the top of the display in six steps. Each step consisted of a metre long tank made of thick glass. Water cascaded down the ladder, overflowing from tank to tank until it reached the main pond at the bottom.
Under each step of the ladder was a sensor that detected when someone was standing in front of it. Once activated the sensor would trigger a three dimensional projection within the water in each tank.
At the base of the ladder three life-size holographic salmon jockeyed for position, apparently daring each other to be the first to make its run.
Standing in front of tank two would cause another salmon to appear suspended in mid leap to tank three.
In the next tank two salmony apparitions rested, gathering their strength for the final few jumps.
And so it went on, up to the glass-sided top pool where a final pair of projections completed the salmony circle of life. One could be seen spawning into a hollow in the gravel bed of the pool. The other was lying on its side, spent and adrift, abandoning itself to fate and the current, its translucent ghost-like appearance adding to the sense of a creature in limbo between two worlds, an accidental holographic tableau of piscine Purgatory.
In theory the exhibit was an elegant example of modern museum interactivity, engagingly bringing to life the symbiotic relationship between man and fish.
In practice, when the museum got busy, the exhibit unintentionally doubled as a psychological experiment, perfectly designed to bring out both the best and the worst of humanity.
Most people waited their turn to move in orderly fashion from step one to step six, sensitively gauging the appropriate amount of time to spend absorbing each scene without creating impatience or frustration in the folk behind them.
But the system was fragile and prone to disruption. Ill-disciplined juvenile runabouts, spoilt, sticky-fingered and snotty-nosed, would run up and down the ladder, triggering the projections in random order. Oiks and urchins, whose parents were oblivious to or powerless to prevent the anti-social behaviour of their offspring, would run amok with no consideration for the majority of well-mannered patrons.
Pretty soon indignation would overcome restraint and normally compliant families would employ quite extreme physical tactics – elbows out, tight ranks – to defend their territory and protect their experience. Polite museum society would quickly degenerate into a dog-eat-dog bun fight.
There was no mob to greet Salmon and Bear. They were the first entrants to the museum on this damp Monday morning. They had the exhibit to themselves and only their apprehension to contend with. They shared some moments of quiet contemplation as Bear wheeled Salmon’s handcart around the installation.
“Right,” said Salmon, “No time like the present. Let’s do it. Chuck me in the pool at the bottom and stash the trolley against the back wall. I’ll do a few quick circuits up the ladder and down the falls and we’ll be on our way again.”
“A few?” said Bear, “You said one. You said one lap. For once in your life can you not just take inch that I give you and be grateful?”
“It’s just a few laps. It’s hardly taking a mile. I doubt it counts as taking a furlong. And I need the exercise. I feel as flabby as a farmed fish. A bit of circuit training will do me good.”
“What if someone comes?” said Bear, “Place is empty now but this is main exhibit in main hall. It can not last.”
“As soon as I’m in the pool, take off your clothes,” said Salmon, “This is one occasion when it suits us for people to see that you are a Bear. If anyone does come by, whip me out of the water, give me a quick dry on your fur so that I’m not conspicuously dripping and then stand absolutely still as if you’ve just caught me and are about to eat me. That way we’ll look like part of the exhibit.”
“Take you out of water? Will you not suffocate or choke on air or do whatever it is that fish out of water do that is opposite of drowning but with same effect?” said Bear.
“I’ll be fine. I’ve been out of water before. It’s uncomfortable for sure but a few minutes won’t do any lasting damage. The difficult bit is keeping my gills still. That ‘pathetic gasping thing’ as you so delightfully call it is not quite a reflex reaction but it might as well be. It’s a huge effort to stop them flapping of their own accord.”
“Ok. I give up hoping you know what you doing. You do not. You improvise. You make it up as along you go. On hoof. On fly. And you lucky. Or at least have been so far. Whatever. Is your funeral.”
“No it’s not. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s my chance to live a little,” said Salmon, “So please, pretty please, just plop me in the pool.”
Bear lifted Salmon out of her tank and placed her gently in the water at the base of the ladder. Then, as instructed, he parked the trolley in the shadows and took off his clothes. He felt intensely self-conscious. He was b-a-r-e naked. He caught himself stooping self-consciously as he turned back towards the exhibit. The only consolation was the discretely hirsute nature of being b-e-a-r naked. He consoled himself that his thick fur made it unlikely that his state of undress would cause offence, conveniently overlooking the fact that the site of a fully grown apex predator on the loose in a museum was much more likely to cause terror. People don’t look at your bits when they are worried about being eaten for breakfast.
Bear checked the atrium for people and strolled back to the ladder, affecting the most nonchalant gait he could manage. He had taken just a few steps when Salmon launched herself out of the pool in front of the waterfall.
She appeared out of the standing wave at the base of the falls and propelled herself to a height of about eight feet, maintaining her powerful swimming action all the way up. Then she appeared to hang in mid air before falling tail first back into the mist.
Bear was stunned by the frantic, elegant grace of what he had just witnessed. Could this possibly be the same sluggish, serene (and occasionally sarcastic) Salmon that he was used to seeing in the tank under the window in their Portobello flat?
There she was again! Not quite so high this time, maybe seven feet, but just as beautiful. There was something poetic about the urgent, thin-air thrashing with which she appeared to will herself up the face of the waterfall. Once more she appeared to slide backwards whence she came, like a rocket that has failed to clear the tower collapsing back onto its launch pad.
Salmon surfaced at the base of the ladder, near to where Bear was standing with dropped ursine jaw.
“Not bad huh?” said Salmon, “A little rusty but there’s life in the old dogfish yet don’t you think?”
“I am so impressed that does not even pain me to say so. I could not find faint praise even if I want to,” said Bear.
“I’ll be damned,” said Salmon, “Praise indeed. Thank you.”
“Do you think you can leap falls?” said Bear, “You come pretty close with first jump.”
“Wouldn’t that be something?” said Salmon, “But, alas, no. I’d need to break all kinds of records to do that, even without the muscular atrophy that comes from living in a tank. I’m feeling it after just two jumps. Pathetic.”
“It was anything but pathetic, I promise,” said Bear.
“Thank you. I’ve had my fun and it’s time for those few laps. Then we can make an exit. Let’s see what I make of this here ladder.”
Salmon disappeared into the froth and Bear took up position in front of the ladder, triggering the projection of the leaping salmon. Bear was singularly unimpressed. He had just seen the real thing and this was a pale imitation in every sense. He checked that the atrium was still clear and turned back just as Salmon made her own laddery leap right in front of him.
She materialised as a silvery blur and she speared straight through the ghostly hologram. Bear marvelled at the cinematic combination of refracted light, illuminated spray and the fleeting unison of real and virtual flying fish.
Salmon ascended the ladder like a skimming stone, a single flick of her tail in each pool propelling her up to the next level before she fully submerged in the one before. There was a slight delay as she tripped the projection at each level, thus creating a holographic wake, and she shot from bottom to top like a tracer bullet.
Bear tried to catch a glimpse of Salmon diving down the main waterfall but all he saw was a momentary grey smudge that may or may not have been her.
Then there she was again in the ladder, a barely identifiable low-flying object. Bear caught his breath once more. It was poetic, balletic, athletic and Bear felt ashamed that he had tried to deny her the opportunity to enjoy this simple pleasure.
He was startled out of his reverie by voices, many voices, many approaching voices. He had to get Salmon out of the water, and quickly. But she would be blissfully unaware of their impending discovery. She was enjoying fishy frolics. And, inadvertently, she would make it very difficult for Bear to fish her out. But fish her out he must, before they were both outed.
What happened next was either a fluke, divine intervention, or an impressive ursine reflex reaction, passed down through generations of successful fishing-in-the-wild ancestors, a well honed manual angling technique hardwired into Bear and buried deep in his subconscious until triggered by a huge surge of adrenalin.
Bear would claim later that it was the latter, that he didn’t see Salmon so much as sense her. He was intuitively aware of the moment at which she would emerge from the bottom pool and make her first leap into the ladder.
However it happened, it happened that Bear shot out his arm at the exact moment that Salmon shot out of the water. In one fluid movement he caught her in mid air, swept her across his chest to dry and held her, stock still, in front of his mouth.
It was probably a combination of shock and presence of mind that allowed Salmon to freeze too. She even managed to still her gills, which was just as well because the first of a party of school children appeared on their side of the exhibit just seconds later.
You would think, wouldn’t you, that given the choice between a state of the art interactive installation featuring a real ten foot high waterfall, and an apparently stuffed bear holding an apparently stuffed salmon, any self-respecting school child would surely gravitate to the former?
Well there was no such luck for this apparently stuffed bear and apparently stuffed salmon. On one level it warms the heart to see that kids today still like to make their own interactivity. But on another level it was highly unfortunate for Salmon and Bear that a holographic fish ladder did not provide as compelling a self-portrait photo opportunity as they did.
In ones, twos, threes and fours the children posed and reposed for photographs next to the helpless pair. Some held their mobile phones at arm’s length to take pictures of themselves. Some posed to have pictures taken by a friend.
The groups arranged and rearranged themselves, seemingly determined to capture every possible permutation. Some stood next to Salmon and Bear with Victorian awkwardness. Others struck poses of fear or aggression, playing out stories with Salmon and Bear as very wooden supporting actors.
It was endless. At least it was rapidly feeling that way to an increasingly desperate Salmon. She was seeing red and her head was filled with white noise. If fish could faint she would surely have done so by now. It was an effort of supreme will to suppress the rising tide of panic that she was feeling. Surely this nightmare must end soon. She really didn’t want to blow their cover by leaping out of Bear’s paws back into the pool. Their incognito life in Edinburgh would be over. They would be driven out of the Portobello community that they called home. But she was reaching her limit. She wasn’t even sure if she was hallucinating when a ginger haired boy approached to take his turn for a photograph.
“You’re stuffed,” he said.
“I said you’re stuffed. And I don’t mean that some taxidermist has had his wicked way with you. I mean stuffed as in screwed. As in you two are in deep doo-doo, particularly the fish.”
Salmon and Bear both remained impassive although neither was feeling that way on the inside.
“I know that you’re real. More importantly I know that you’re both alive. You’re not stuffed but you are stuffed if you know what I mean. Well the fish will be if she stays like that for much longer.”
Salmon allowed herself to be impressed that the boy had correctly identified her as female. It distracted her momentarily from her predicament.
“Look,” said the boy, “She can’t take much more of this and I want to help. I know you’re alive because the bear is salivating.”
Salmon’s wary Bear-ward glance was barely perceptible but the boy noticed it.
“I knew it. I saw you look. Of course the bear is salivating. You are adjacent organisms on the food chain. Salmon is rich in nutrients and has a high calorie density, especially the bits a bear likes best, like the skin, eggs and brain.”
Salmon gulped and made no attempt to hide it.
“I meet your type before, “ said Bear suddenly, “You use lot of long words for one so young. It set you apart for sure, but in way that isolate you. I bet you struggle make friends. Or keep them. You obviously intelligent, but it not clever to be alone.”
“Thank you for your concern,” said the boy, “But you needn’t worry on my behalf. As you say most kids like me are high on intellect but low on emotional intelligence. They lack the self-awareness to appreciate the alienating effect they have on others. Not me. I have the street smarts to go with my IQ. I can dumb it down when I have to. Is that what you’d like me to do? To sink to your level?”
Bear bristled. If the circumstances were different he would have cuffed the boy half way across the atrium. But that would be counter-productive right now.
“Ok street-smartypants,” Bear hissed, “If you so clever how exactly you propose help us?”
“I’m going to create a diversion,” said the boy, “Something that is temporarily more interesting to a bunch of school children than a seven foot bear reverse waterboarding a salmon.”
“What do you have in mind?” gasped Salmon, “Are you going to pretend to faint or fake a seizure maybe?”
“No,” said the boy, “A fit or a heart attack would appeal to my flamboyant nature but I don’t want a fractured sternum from some over-zealous first aider performing over-vigorous and unnecessary CPR.”
“How then?” said Bear.
“I think I shall decry,” said the boy.
“Decry?” said Salmon.
“Yes,” said the boy, “It means…”
Bear cut the boy off in mid sentence.
“I know what it mean. In my country you be sent to salt mines, or shot, for decrial. Come think of it, that might not be such bad outcome…”
“Well I guess it depends on what you’re decrying and why,” said the boy, “Of course I could just forget about it, have my picture taken with a pair of dumb animals and leave them to, er, decry their misfortune.”
“Please,” said Salmon, “Just do it. I at least am very grateful.”
“Alright,” said the boy, “But don’t hang around to watch once the show starts. It will be a captivating performance. For this plan to work I have to be mesmerising. All eyes will be on me. But not yours. You must hasten away. Make yourselves scarce. My name is William by the way.”
“Thank you William,” said Bear, “And I sorry.”
“De nada. Пожалуйста,” said William, with which he turned and strode down the atrium. He took just a few steps before throwing both arms into the air and launching into his act.
“This is wrong!” he cried, “Hear what I say. This is all wrong!”
William’s deranged voice reverberated through the atrium, drowning out the chatter and giggling of his classmates.
The talking, the laughing and the horseplay all stopped abruptly. A child’s ear is finely attuned to the sound of defiance. Like a shark can isolate the sound of an injured fish from the background noise of the ocean, a group of schoolchildren is hard wired to detect and instantaneously respond to a challenge to authority. The volume and timbre of William’s voice had an electric effect on his classmates. Like a pack of Pointer puppies they stopped what they were doing, looked away from their cameras and craned their taught necks in unison towards him.
William was standing in front of a large notice board. It was a temporary display whose purpose was to promote a forthcoming exhibition about the evolution of species, with particular emphasis on indigenous Scottish creatures. A life size black and white photograph of Charles Darwin looked on impassively as William launched a scathing attack on him and his work.
“Evolution is not a theory, it’s a myth! It’s a fairy tale! We shouldn’t compare Darwin to Newton or Einstein, we should compare him to the Brothers Grimm. He spins a great yarn but The Origin Of Species is a product of imagination, not science.”
William had everyone’s full attention. The clever kid had turned rogue and it was fascinating. His classmates had gathered around him, the fish ladder and the salmon and bear photo opportunity cast aside like broken toys on Boxing Day.
“Where is the evidence?” said William, “Where are the missing links? Show me a shred of scientific evidence for the claims of this heretic, a man who admitted himself that his theory was unsubstantiated by geological proof.”
William’s teachers had been slower to cotton on to what was happening than his friends, but they too were hastening across the atrium in alarm and consternation. And not far behind them were a couple of museum security personnel who were wearing why-me expressions and whose sense of urgency left a wee bit to be desired.
Bear fought back the desire to stand and watch. His years in the circus had conditioned him to respond to and respect a performance. And what a performance this was. It was car crash attention seeking of the highest order.
But Bear’s expediency won out over William’s exhibitionism. He scurried to the back of the atrium and placed Salmon back in her tank, where she greedily, desperately gulped water through her deflated gills. It appeared to Bear that she couldn’t draw the water in fast enough. Her mouth was wider than he’d ever seen it and her gill flaps were opening at right angles to her body in order to pull through the maximum volume of water possible.
Bear hurriedly put his clothes back on and pushed the trolley towards the exit with a feigned air of insouciance that he scarcely felt. William was still in full flow. The cordon of classmates had hindered the intervention of his teachers and he was clearly enjoying himself.
“How are we to believe that we are descended from sea creatures? How could it be that our ancestors dragged themselves out of the primordial oceans and breathed the air? Have you ever seen a fish out of water?”
William caught Bear’s eye and winked.
Bear shook his head at the reference, then nodded his thanks to William, before making his way to the exit.
It was only once they were safely outside that he checked again on Salmon’s wellbeing. She was lying on her side but appeared to be breathing normally.
“Right, I think that enough excitement for one day, do not you?” said Bear with faux cheerfulness.
“That wasn’t exciting, that was excruciating,” said Salmon, “It was the closest call I’ve ever had. It will take me days to fully recover I should think.”
“I was very worried. I think I panic as much as you,” said Bear.
“I seriously doubt that,” said Salmon.
“Well goodness thank for William,” said Bear.
“Indeed,” said Salmon, “Goodness thank for William. Do you think he will be alright?”
“Oh I expect so,” said Bear, “I think he talk his way out of anything that one.”
“I dare say you are right about that. Anyway, maybe we should have an outing next time rather than an adventure. Maybe it should be your idea rather than mine. How about that?”
“I do not know,” said Bear, “I lack your appetite and your ambition. I lack imagination.”
“Rubbish,” said Salmon, “I’m sure there are lots of things that you’d like to do.”
“Really?” said Bear, “I doubt honestly that anything I think of will interest you.”
“No Bear I insist,” said Salmon, “Anything that gets us out of the house without getting us into danger is fine by me.”
“Ok,” said Bear, “I see what I come up with.”
He paused and gave a smile that was a little too close to a smirk for Salmon’s liking.
“But do not hold breath.”