Blue Bear

BlueBearTextureFORWEB“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.”

“I hibernate.”

“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!”

“What?”

“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!”

“What???”

“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.”

Bear frowned.

“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.

“What?”

“I’m worried.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“Sure?”

“Sure.”

“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.

“Let’s.”

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?”

All I want for Christmas

XmasTExtureFORWEB

December had been full of unfortunate incidents.

In fact, the trouble began on 23 November with the switching on of the Christmas lights. By the middle of November, Bear had already spent so long talking so gloomily about how little he was looking forward to Christmas that Salmon had decided desperate measures were called for.

She’d seen the illuminating of the Christmas lights advertised. There was to be a performance of carols from a local choir. So she disregarded Bear’s world-weary declaration that no one celebrated Christmas like the Russians and organised them both onto a 26 into town at the allotted hour.

The bus was packed. Bear had to cover the tank with its canvas cover and pass Salmon off as a baby with a dangerous sensitivity to light to secure their place amidst the throng. (They’d never yet succeeded in evicting passengers from seat space when Salmon was in full view.) And things weren’t much better when they clambered off the bus on George Street amidst the seething shoppers.

But at Salmon’s insistence, Bear was persistent. So they trundled their way through the sea of people taking photos of The Dome’s pillars wreathed in Christmas lights to get to the site of the switching, St Andrew’s Square.

A light rain was falling. So the children with upturned faces glowing gently under the Christmas lights promised by the event brochure had been replaced with a stamping, squalling pack of grumpy damp kids, shushed by exasperated parents hoping this would be worth it.

The choir shuffled on to a makeshift stage. More grumpy damp kids. “They do not sound like the Orthodox choirs in Russia,” sulked Bear. A grimacing businessman confusingly named Farmer flicked a switch and St Andrew’s Square sputtered into bright life to aaahhhs aplenty from the now less grumpy children.

A sudden spotlight on a previously un-illuminated part of the square and a choir boy was revealed in front of a nativity scene. “Once In Royal David’s City” floated over the now open-mouthed crowd.

Bear moved too quickly for Salmon to react. The lamb was crouched at the foot of the manger containing the (plastic) Christ child. Until a flick of a paw flung it up into the air. It was caught in a pair of strong jaws and – the crowd gasped – borne at a Bear’s lollop down North St Andrew Street, across Queen Street, over the fence into Queen Street gardens and tossed in the air once more.

Then Bear realised the lamb was plastic.

The crowd previously clustered around the lambless Nativity scene had dispersed by the time Bear shambled shamefaced back to the Winter Wonderland. Salmon swished up and down and up and down in the tank with the righteous anger of the abandoned.

Bear sheepishly replaced the lamb at the foot of the manger. Its hind leg was missing and an unusual jaw shaped hole exposed the empty plastic shell to appalled onlookers.

“It is time to go home?” said Bear.

Salmon’s silence was haughty.

Bear walked all the way.

Just after lights out in their flat that night, she heard a whispered but insistent “Salmon, Salmon, what do you want for Christmas?”

Still furious with him for his vandalism, she pretended she was asleep.

**********

On Thursday 4 December, Portobello cast open the doors of the various small shops along the high street until later than usual to facilitate Christmas shopping.  Salmon wasn’t a great fan of shopping – hoicking the tank in and out of particularly small shops usually resulted in precious water being gratuitously sloshed. But Bear continued to insist that he didn’t feel Christmassy. And although Salmon was sceptical after her previous attempt to fill Bear’s heart with Christmas cheer, Bear was stubborn as only a bear can be.

“I get some ideas for gift for Christmas,” he said with a very un-Russian shrug.

“But you don’t have any money, Bear.”

“Where there is will, there is means” said Bear with a glint in his eye that made Salmon shudder.

“You know shoplifting is illegal, don’t you, Bear?”

“Lift the shop?” said Bear. “Why I do that?”

“Don’t be disingenuous, Bear!” cried Salmon. “You know exactly what I mean. And I don’t want you to get arrested!”

Bear looked at her.

“Not before Christmas anyway,” she added hastily.

So it came to pass that on the evening of 4 December, Bear ladled Salmon into her travelling tank, set it gently into the postman’s cart and they sallied forth into the dully sparkling winter frost to point out presents in Portobello’s shops.

This ambition proved short lived. On arrival at the crossroads at the High Street, Salmon spied, and Bear just about heard, a ramshackle collection of children clutching red buckets and caterwauling their way through Jingle Bells at the foot of the outsized Christmas tree erected by the Council a few weeks before.

They crossed the High Street just as the song came to an end and the knots of harassed parents broke into sporadic applause. Suddenly a ginger cat shot out from underneath a nearby bench and disappeared up the tree.

“Marmalade!” shrieked a child in a great wail.

“It’ll get electrocuted,” tutted an anxious woman in tweed who surely worked in Health and Safety. At which point the child burst into noisy heartbroken sobs.

“Marmalade, oh Marmalade, please oh please come down!”

If salmon had eyelids, our Salmon wouldn’t have had time to blink before Bear had streaked past her and started scaling the Christmas tree.

“Bear, I don’t think…”

Her voice was lost in the general hubbub. The choirmaster, in a wistful bid to distract the child from her vertiginous cat, had started to lead the disinterested choristers in a chorus of “Frosty the Snowman”. The parents pretended to train their eyes on their little darlings though most eyes peered up at Bear’s ascent between the fir tree branches.

Salmon sloshed angrily in her tank. Had Bear not learnt his lesson with the plastic lamb?

The tree trunk listed threateningly.

The onlookers gasped in a single voice.

The ramshackle choir broke off from Frosty’s heartfelt plea to “run and we’ll have some fun before I melt away” and spun round to stare at the tree.

Bear had emerged above the spindly branches at the top and was within paw’s reach of the unfortunate Marmalade.

“He’s going to eat him!” cried one of the choir.

“Police!” cried the Health and Safety expert.

Salmon wished the sea would swallow her up.

Marmalade looked around in panic. A bear below her. The stars and some lacklustre rain above her.

Bear made a precarious swipe with his paw.

Salmon fancied his claws glinted in the light of the crescent moon.

The cat took a deep breath, seemed to muster her strength and leapt.

A universal intake of breath.

The cat landed three feet away on the skinny top of a very small, very spindly tree. Sank her claws into the trunk, streaked down through the skinny branches, darted across the pavement, across the high street, down Bath Street past the supermarket, past the public toilets and returned to sit in state on the steps of the bingo hall.

“Marmalade!” howled the child.

“Must notify the Council about this. Danger to public health. Could have got tangled in the lights. Fused the entire area. The whole of Portobello without lights for Christmas. No electricity to light the ovens for turkey….” An irate tirade from the queen of Health and Safety.

Bear’s shoulders slumped. He grasped the tree trunk, listing less without the cat weight and clambered back down to earth.

The choir looked on stupefied, Frosty long forgotten.

“Cat killer!” hissed a boy in a tiger hat as Bear padded across the pavement.

Salmon turned her back on him when he took the handle of the postman’s cart.

“I get the cat down,” said Bear. His tone was pleading. “I help. It is Christmas spirit. I try to feel like Christmas.”

“Home,” said Salmon. “If it isn’t too much trouble.”

**********

As December slid past in a riot of Christmas jumpers, Bear was increasingly absent from home.

He was conscientiousness bear-ified, rising punctually every day for the morning constitutional with Salmon along the windswept seafront. He would sit down politely with Salmon at lunchtime to snack on the results of his foraging, making delicate conversation with her about crossword clues while he ate. He was always home in time for Countdown and sometimes even offered to set Salmon her own puzzles, peering at the second hand on the outsized wall clock in the flat opposite to measure her performance.

They would eat an evening meal together. He would ask her, increasingly summarily, what she wanted for Christmas as she nibbled weed and he gobbled down whatever he’d been able to find in the bins at the back of the butcher’s. And sometimes he would disappear for another two or three hours before they settled down for the night.

When questioned about his absences, he’d mutter only “I is seeking inspiration”. But Salmon couldn’t help but notice that on his return from these trips, he would always disappear into his bedroom with a clank and a clatter before emerging to enquire after Salmon’s health.

She also noted that he had stopped muttering about how little he was looking forward to Christmas. But as the clanking echoed around the flat after Bear’s late evening rambles, she was never quite sure that this was a good thing.

**********

Six days before Christmas, Bear arrived home with two large blue IKEA bags brimming with foodstuffs. In the middle of the afternoon.

Salmon was instantly suspicious.

“Why you look that way?” said Bear in tones heavy with reproach. “I do something right for once. I stock kitchen for Christmas.”

“You stock the kitchen?”

“You tell me always, this is how they do it. This how the British people celebrate the Christmas. They buy a great lot of food before the day and then they eat the food that is left for the days after. Rachel say it too.”

“Rachel?”

“On the TV. On Countdown. She say I hope you have everything needed for Christmas in the cupboard. Been shopping and now I is stocked up.”

Salmon’s disbelief was palpable.

“How? How did you stock up? You don’t have any money. I haven’t given you any money.”

“I do not need money. It is like you said. Everyone giving the gifts. I go to the bank.”

“The bank?”

“The bank. There is a big heap of boxes and bags in front of the bank, all of them full of food and you can help yourself.”

“Help yourself?”

“Salmon, Salmon. It is not like you to be so stupid. You told me of this. You told me of a bank. And you go there and get the money and then you go and buy things. But this bank is better. Much better. This bank you go straight and get food. It is laid out on the street for you to take. The job is done.”

“This bank, Bear. What was it called?”

“I do not understand.”

“There must have been a sign. Some sort of name over the door.”

“Of course. It was how I knew. Food bank. It said food bank.”

If Salmon had had hands, she’d have put her head in them.

**********

His newly obsequious manner meant that Bear usually shuffled into the living room to bid Salmon good morning. But on Christmas Eve morning, he entered the room with a strut.

“Salmon, it is Christmas Eve!” exclaimed Bear before she was even properly awake.

“I know, Bear. I was enjoying some sleep.”

“But you need to get ready. Today, an excursion.”

“Of course. As usual. My goodness, I normally need to peel you up off your carpet to get you outside in the morning. What gives?”

“Today, I be the spirit of Christmas,” pronounced Bear with appropriate pomp and circumstance.

Salmon’s heart sank with dread but she persisted.

“The spirit of Christmas?” she enquired. “What form will this spiriting take?”

Bear refused to be drawn. Even when Salmon urged him to reveal the contents of the heavy looking box he’d hoisted onto the cart, struggling ineptly with its weight until he managed to lodge it beneath the tank in the space normally reserved for parcels.

“Today, our excursion has a purpose,” said Bear. “Today, I will be father of Christmas.”

And he refused to speak again.

They trundled forth into the pre-Christmas bustle of Portobello. The tiny blue tree lights twinkled tauntingly on the High Street’s Christmas tree. Though it was only mid-morning, the day was dingy enough to prompt the stars and candles strung from the lamp posts to illuminate. Shoppers darted through the streets loaded down with local, organic, lovingly reared meat from Findlay’s. Bear, to his credit, barely gave the walking feasts a second glance.

They trundled almost the length of the High Street until the shops petered out and Bear took a sudden sharp left.

“Are we heading to the beach, Bear? Why are we heading to the beach? What’s that box for, Bear? Are we nearly there yet?” Salmon, in her agitation, was reduced to hurling questions at her companion. Only to be met with silence.

A sharp right followed the left, a short trundle along the seafront, right up a small path to a large pub. The Dalriada, said the sign.

“Bear, why are we coming to a pub? I don’t think they’ll let us drink in here. We can have a drink at home, Bear.” Salmon flapped her adipose fin in agitation.

“Ah hah!” said Bear. And stopped the cart.  He lifted the tank out of the cart, carried Salmon up the steps of the pub, passed through a front door, an adjoining door, placed the tank on the hall floor, went back for the postman’s cart, replaced tank in cart in the hallway, stood for a moment in front of a long wooden staircase up to the first floor and – after a second brief but decisive “ah hah!” – turned right.

A long room with long windows afforded an excellent view of the sea. In front of the windows, a table flanked by a sign: The Atlantic Salmon Trust. A woman with a weathered face, a hearty cable knit jumper and a heap of untamed hair atop her head sat behind the table.

“Hullo, sirs!” she hailed them heartily.

“Madam, actually. She’s a madam,” Bear offered in hasty response. “I’m clearly a boy. Well, a male bear. But Salmon is a she.”

“I do beg your pardon. Hello, sir and madam. What ever can I do for you this fine day?”

Salmon appeared to be short of breath. Bubbles popped at timely intervals on the surface of the tank.  Bear made a sound a little like a purr. He gave the impression of being very pleased with himself.

“We have donation to make,” he said.

“Well, my dears, you’ve come to the right place. How would you like to make your donation to the Atlantic Salmon Trust? By cash, cheque or credit card?”

“By cash if you please,” said Bear, reaching underneath Salmon’s tank and heaving – which you didn’t see Bear doing very often – the weighty looking box on to the hale and hearty woman’s desk. Then he whipped off the lid with a flourish.

The woman gasped. The box was full to the brim with coins.

“Bear, where did you get that?” Salmon’s voice dripped with apprehension.

“I found it,” he said, with only a trace of defiance.

“Where did you find it? You know taking money is stealing?”

“I do not steal anything,” said Bear, with pride. “I have been out.”

“Of course. I did notice. But I didn’t know where you’d been.”

“I walked on the streets. I pick up the coins that the people drop. Small coins. But they soon add up quickly, I think.”

The hale and hearty woman’s face was now eerily reminiscent of Salmon’s gape.

“Well, we’re very grateful, gentlemen. Gentleman and lady,” she corrected herself. “This will enable us to work for Atlantic salmon and sea trout in all their natural habitats, both freshwater where the Trust’s work started out and more recently, in saltwater environments. May I give you a Christmas card to say thank you?”

“A card of Christmas?” said Bear. “I do not think so. What use would we have for a card?”

He turned on his tail and trundled the cart back into the hall, out the front doors, down the steps and onto the Promenade.

The sea was in fearsome mood, crashing gloomily onto the beach. So he almost didn’t hear Salmon when she finally spoke.

A small, very un-Salmony voice.

“Thanks, Bear. That means. A lot.”

“Happy Christmas, Salmon,” said Bear.

And they trundled home.

**********

Christmas morning dawned. Salmon awoke with a start, feeling predatory eyes on her.

Bear was spread-eagled on the living room floor, heavy head weighing on his paws, watching her with intent.

“Bear! What is it? You startled me.”

“You know what the day is,” said Bear, with a very un-Russian twinkle in his eye.

“Of course, it’s Thursday.”

“You do not make me fooled, Salmon. Which Thursday?”

“Which Thursday? That’s something of an existential question, is it not? There’s an easy answer. It is the last Thursday in the month.”

“And there is something more?”

“The last Thursday in the year?” suggested Salmon, with an insouciant flick of her fins.

“Salmon, you have no heart. Which Thursday is this? Is it not do you not think it is special day?”

“Special?”

“Salmon! What date it is?”

“Goodness gracious me, I’d need a calendar to tell you that. Keeping track of dates in my head. I have better things to do with my time than…”

Bear interrupted her. “Salmon, it is twenty-fifth December! That is Christmas Day! Do not you remember?”

“Christmas Day? Oh my goodness me, Christmas Day! What time is it?”

“I do not know, Salmon. What does it matter? Do you have an engagement?”

Salmon flapped her fins in agitation. “Yes I do, as it happens. And so do you. We need to get a wriggle on. We’re going out, Bear. Can you get us organised?”

“Going out? But is Christmas Day! Why we need go out? Can not we relax here for one time? Besides,” said Bear, with a glimmer of something like excitement in his weary Russian voice, “I have gift for you.”

“Don’t be silly, Bear. You’ve given me a gift. That donation to the Atlantic Salmon Trust was wonderfully kind. All that effort and time. You mustn’t give me anything else. Now it’s time for me to give something to you. Come on. We need to hurry.”

At Salmon’s insistence, Bear decanted Salmon into the cart-sized tank, lifted cart and tank down the stairs and hurried up Bath Street towards the crossroads.

“Why you bring me here, Salmon? There is amends to be made?” said Bear with an uncomfortable shudder when he saw the tree.

“We’re not there yet, Bear. Carry on, do. We can’t be late.”

“Late? What we late for on Christmas Day?” Bear’s hairy brow looked puzzled.

“You’ll see. Just keep going straight. After the crossroads. After the tree and the bank.”

“Salmon, it is very sweet of you. I am not sure that Indian food agrees with me.”

“We’re not going to Bonoful. Keep going straight. We’re nearly there. You’ll see.”

Salmon instructed that Bear stop the cart in front of a big stone building with a heavy wooden door.

“In there, Bear.”

“In here?”

“Your present is in here.”

“In here?” repeated Bear foolishly.

“Go on. Hurry.”

Bear squeezed the cart through the gate and across the flagstones to the heavy wooden door. It had a small sign to the right of the door listing days and times. And the door, though it looked heavy, swung back on its hinges surprisingly easily when he gave it a nudge…

To reveal rows of benches, rows of seated people, a platform at the front with a table on it and some big displays of flowers underneath a huge window made of coloured glass set into the darkened stone.

“What are we”

“Shhhhhhh,” hissed Salmon as several of the bowed heads lifted and turned. “You’re meant to be quiet in a church.”

“A church!” exclaimed Bear.

“Quiet!” snapped Salmon. Then in a whisper: “This is a church. Let’s take a seat – you can take a seat – at the back. You can wheel me alongside if I’ll fit.”

“I am not a religious Bear,” whispered the Siberian. “I thought we talked about this.”

“I know you’re not religious, Bear. It’s ok. I just wanted to bring you to Christmas.”

Bear eased himself down onto a bench at the back of the church, just as the doors to one side of the platform at the front opened and a procession of men in white robes emerged.

On approach, Bear saw that in actual fact, two of the men were more like boys and one of them carried a golden ball on a chain that he wafted as he walked.

“Take a deep breath, Bear. Breathe through your nose,” whispered Salmon, as the procession swept past them to head up the central aisle of the church. “What do you…”

“Salmon, it is Christmas! I smell Christmas!”

“Shhhh,” chortled Salmon. “You need to be quiet. That’s the condition of entry.”

“Salmon. It is just like home. The smell of Christmas in my land of home. In Russia.”

“We can sit here for a bit, Bear. As long as you’re quiet. Sit still and think of home.”

And so it was that Salmon and Bear went to Christmas Day mass and listened to the priest tell them about the baby lying in the manger with the ox and the ass. Salmon shuddered almost imperceptibly at the mention of the shepherds and the lamb they brought as a gift for baby Jesus. But brightened up when the three wise men arrived.

“They might be able to help you with the crossword,” suggested Bear, in a respectful undertone.

“Is that. Is that actually a joke, Bear?” Salmon almost forgot to whisper.

“I is Russian. We do not joke,” intoned Bear with a grave expression.

And then was lost again in a paroxysm of homesick ecstasy as the altar boy wafted incense to bless the holy book at the gospel’s close.

The mass drew to an end. The priest, altar boys and communion ministers processed down the central aisle, round the back of the benches and back to the sacristy to remove their vestments, don their street clothes and go eat some mince pies.

Bear took one last lusty lungful of incense.

“Salmon,” he said, as the final straggly few of the faithful abandoned the church for salted nuts, goose fat potatoes and far too much to drink. “For one hour, I is in my homeland. I thank you. There is no better present.”

“Not true,” said Salmon. “If I could’ve flown you back to Russia, to your real homeland, I would. But I don’t think they let bears on passenger planes.”

Bear smiled. “There is one more thing.”

He trundled the cart out of the church, down Brighton Place, down Brighton Place, carried the Salmon upstairs, into the hall – and instead of turning right to the living room, turned left to his bedroom.

“Wrong way, Bear,” chirped Salmon, full to the briny brim with Christmas spirit. “I think the incense has gone to your head.”

Bear chuckled to himself, pushed open his bedroom door and revealed, with an un-bear-like flourish, sitting in the great bay window at the front of the flat – a bath. Full to the brim with cool, clear water.

“For you, Salmon. So you can – how they say – chill.”

For once, Salmon said nothing. Just opened and shut her mouth a few times. Her lid-less eyes were very wide.

Bear frowned, his Russian brow furrowing. “You do not like?”

The pause was interminable. But eventually

“Oh Bear. I love it.”

“I spend long time looking. When I pick up the money. But I also looking for a bath. One with feet like this. And at last, two nights ago, I find. In scrapyard. I very lucky.”

“I very lucky,” said Salmon, faintly. “I is feeling like Christmas now.”

“I too,” said Bear. “I smell home. I smell Christmas. Thanks all to you.”

Salmon turned reluctantly away from the bath, momentarily, to face Bear. “Happy Christmas, Bear.”

Bear reached out to pat the side of her tank.

“And a happy Christmas to you too, fish. Now, you fancy a swim?”

The champion of Figgate Park.

SwimmingTextureFORWEB

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.

“Ya beauty!”

“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?”

“Just. About.”

“About??”

“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?”

“Swimming?”

“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.

He swam.
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!”

Bear’s response sounded more like a growl than words.

“I think you needed to register.”

“Stupid sh…”

“Bear!”

“Nggghghhh?”

“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.”

“Bear.”

“What?”

“You won, Bear.”

“What?”

“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.”

“What?”

“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.