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.”
“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. 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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”