Tim Dowling: lessons in survival against the odds, from the tortoise

It’s a nice morning – nicer than predicted – and when I step into the garden with a coffee, I find the tortoise sunning himself on the bricks.

“What’s up?” I say, sitting on the bench. The tortoise fixes me with a reproachful look. It’s really his only look. “It could be worse,” I add. “It’s supposed to be raining.”

At this time of year I don’t bring the tortoise in at night unless an unseasonable drop in temperature is forecast, and he doesn’t emerge from his burrow under the ivy until it gets above about 12C, so we don’t see each other that often. Even so, I sometimes feel like he resents my fussing. It’s a lot more stewardship than he’s used to.

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My wife was given the tortoise as a present when she was eight years old. Originally he was one of a pair, male and female.

“Were they, like, a couple?” I ask my wife later that day.

“Yes!” she says. “They had an egg!”

In the end the egg proved unviable. One tortoise died. My wife’s parents split up. Eventually the remaining tortoise was taken to my father-in-law’s house in Cornwall, from which he promptly escaped. That should have been the end of the story.

“How long was he missing for?” I ask my wife.

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“I don’t know. Two years?” she says.

“That doesn’t seem possible,” I say. She shrugs.

Two years later – allegedly – a Cornish farmer hit what he thought was a rock while out combine harvesting. The rock turned out to be the tortoise, heading south, a mile from his last known address. He was somehow completely unharmed.

“Have you seen the blades on a combine harvester?” I ask my wife.

“Bits of this may be apocryphal,” she says. “I can’t remember.”

Wow, check out those choppers! Puppies have 28 teeth and normal adult dogs have 42.

After my father-in-law was alerted to the discovery, it was agreed that the tortoise would be adopted by the farmer. From then on the tortoise lived in a kennel with sheepdogs. According to legend he was very happy there, although this assessment is at odds with a narrative that includes regular escape attempts. The farmer painted a big white stripe on the tortoise’s back every spring, so he could be spotted at a distance before he damaged any more agricultural equipment.

That really should have been the end of the story. But many years later the farm was sold, and the tortoise was returned to my wife’s father, who was not thrilled about the reunion. Just a few weeks after getting him back, my father-in-law presented my wife with a large, heavy cardboard box.

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“It was the day of my mother’s funeral,” my wife says.

“I was there,” I say. At that point we’d been married five years, and I’d never heard anything about a tortoise.

“I thought he was giving me some kind of memento,” my wife says.

“He was,” I say.

When the tortoise emerged from hibernation, it seemed wise to let him do what he wanted. What he wanted was to thunk down the back step into the garden and destroy everything. That was 25 years ago.

After a couple of winters with us, the tortoise stopped hibernating, preferring a prolonged stretch of reduced activity in winter. We sometimes used him to prop open the kitchen door. But on sunny days he would stomp around, hoovering up grapes and biting the children’s toes.

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At some point we took him to a vet to make sure we were doing all we could for him, and that he wasn’t as disconsolate as he always looked. The vet examined the tortoise thoroughly and returned a diagnosis: he was a girl.

“I’ve never understood this part,” I say to my wife. “What made you think it was the female that died?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t think it’s that easy to sex a tortoise.”

When they were little the children called the tortoise Old Man. After the diagnosis we tried Old Woman for a while, but it didn’t stick. He’s just the tortoise.

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“She,” my wife says.

“Yeah,” I say.

Out in the garden the low morning sun slips behind a cloud. The tortoise is still eyeing me with reproach. I go back inside and return with some radicchio leaves, dropping them in his path. The tortoise likes radicchio; at least he likes it more than I do. But he continues to stare at me with something like boundless regret.

“Anyway,” I say, lifting my cup. “Here’s to another 25 years.” I close my eyes against the returning sun and think: you’ll be lucky.