Tim Dowling: the tortoise will not only outlive me, it’ll outwit me, too

My wife has had him since she was eight, but can still sometimes make him seem like a problem I have visited on her

Tim Dowling: the tortoise will not only outlive me, it’ll outwit me, too

It is just after 11pm and I am in the garden in a downpour that began precisely as I stepped outside, searching for the tortoise by the light of my phone. I lift wet leaves and push low branches aside, but under these conditions everything out here looks like the back of a tortoise.

I had just been putting out the downstairs lights when I remembered he was still outside. “Hmm,” I’d said to myself, peering through the back window. “I’ve got a feeling it may rain tonight.”

Earlier the same day, approximately 8am. As I walk into the kitchen, I see the tortoise in the middle of the floor, the size of a dinner plate, fixing me with an accusing look. I sense that he has been frozen in this position for some time, waiting for me to step into his accusatory line of sight.

“It’s November,” I say. “I don’t make the rules.” The tortoise blinks.

“You can’t go outside,” I say, opening the fridge. “You can, however, have some slightly limp rocket.” I put a handful of leaves in front of him. He steps round them, and follows me as I go to unlock the back door. When I kick it open, I am greeted by a waft of surprisingly warm morning air.

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“Actually, it looks like it may turn out to …” I look down to see the tortoise already halfway over the threshold, front feet paddling in midair.

“Really?” I say. The tortoise retracts its head slightly, in preparation for the moment when he tips forward and his shell thunks on to the step below. He thinks he has perfected this manoeuvre, but I’ve watched him perform it on countless occasions and I know that he ends up on his back about 10% of the time.

“Fine,” I say. “Have it your way.” I catch him before he falls and carry him to the end of the garden, where I deposit him in a patch of sunlight on the wet grass.

“Good luck,” I say. “Have a nice winter.”

The previous evening, just past sunset. My wife walks into the kitchen to find the tortoise in the middle of the floor, eating a single cherry tomato.

“What’s he doing here?” she says.

“It’s supposed to get cold tonight,” I say. “So I went out and got him.”

“And that’s it, is it?” she says. “That’s him inside for the duration?” She’s had this tortoise since she was eight, but can still sometimes make him seem like a problem I have visited on her; a delinquent child from a previous marriage.

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“He’s not happy either,” I say. “But he can’t stay out there.”

“But if he’s in here, he’ll be awake all winter,” she says. “Stomping around in furious circles and biting people’s toes.”

“Yeah,” I say. “So we have to keep feeding him.”

“I suppose it would be terrible if he were to sadly pass,” my wife says.

“He’s never going to die,” I say. “You should be making plans for his care after I sadly pass.”

“I already have plans for when you sadly pass,” she says. The tortoise lifts his head from the tomato and discharges a long stream of white-streaked piss.

Three weeks before that, supper time. The tortoise is stomping around the kitchen table in clockwise circles. The youngest one walks in; the tortoise stops, turns and eyes his bare toes.

“He’s inside?” the youngest one says.

“Just for the night,” I say. “It’s raining hard, and Mum’s away.”

“You should build him a rain shelter,” he says.

“I tried, but he won’t stay under anything I make,” I say.

“Now he’s shitting everywhere,” the youngest one says.

“Yeah,” I say.

Roughly this time last year. It’s late at night and I am in the garden looking for the tortoise, as I have done many times before and will do many times hence. As rain trickles down my neck, I feel for one sharp moment the unrelenting thanklessness of being me. Finally, I see the tortoise’s back sticking out of a pile of leaves, dimly reflecting the light from my phone.

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“There you are, you bastard,” I say.