The exhibitionists.

ExhibitTextureFORWEBSalmon 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.

“Done what?”

“You have lulled me.”

“Lulled you?”

“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.”

Bear sighed.

“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.”

Salmon of destiny.

DestinyTextureFORWEBBear 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!

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.”

“Existential?”

“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.”

“Ohhhhhhh.”

A string of bubbles floated to the surface of the tank and popped pensively.

“Gypsy Lee.”

“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.

“Sploosh?”

“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.

“Really?”

Bear looked back at her.

“Please?”

“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.

“So, Fish…”

“Salmon. She is a salmon.” Bear couldn’t resist.

“You wish me to tell your future?”

“Duh.”

“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.”

“Salmon!” echoed Bear.

“Salmon. Ok. Let me see… Well well. The clouds are parting. I’m seeing..”

“What? What?”

“Keep interrupting and I won’t see anything.”

“Sorry.”

“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?”

“Sorry.”

“A long long journey. You will travel up the Water of Leith. You’ll be transferred to the Union Canal…”

“Transferred??”

“What did I say?”

“Sorry.”

“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.

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.

Blood Bath

bloodbathTexturesFORWEBBear 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.”

Salmon chuckled.

“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.”