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?”

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.”

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?”