I don’t know much about tortoises, or care much that I don’t know, but I shared six months of my life with one and I want to commemorate him. Or her. I never knew which.
I had this brilliant fifth-floor flat in Pangrati, Athens. Huge terrace, beautiful view of the Acropolis and Lycavittos. The flat itself was pretty ropey, but I filled it with plants, candles, shells, interesting pebbles from the beach and incense burners, and soon it was kippered in candle smoke and frankincense and felt almost like home. It just needed a cat. I had never lived without at least two cats, and a catless life for me is no life at all. However, I didn’t know how long I would be staying in Greece, so I had to content myself with petting the whorish cats in the Zappeion Gardens, who sprawl belly up on the grass on warm days, to be tickled by British tourists. The tourists go away all itchy.
One day, my then boyfriend Danny turned up at my place with a little tortoise. The appalling rich bitch he worked for had found it in the garden and asked him to chuck it in the rubbish, and so he rescued it and brought it to me. It was animate and four footed, was it not, so he reckoned it would do instead of a cat. I felt very foreign: a Seychellois boyfriend who thought a tortoise a fair substitute for a cat, and his gruesome Greek employer who got off on having a black ‘servant’ and thought it OK to chuck live tortoises in the trash to be burnt. I'm British and I tend to have greater compassion for animals than I do for most people.
Well, anyway. This tortoise seemed to eat bugger all, but produce prodigious amounts of crap. I didn’t catch on to this at first. I mean, I knew it must shit, but I imagined it would be like goldfish poop, extruded in a long pale string that would probably just dry up and blow away. It is not so. After a while I started discovering under chairs and tables pats of shite as from a herd of small cows. This little thing the size of a Cornish pastie could eat a lettuce leaf and then piss a puddle that would not shame a Labrador.
While the tortoise was hibernating, I finally got a cat, and called his name William. Cats respond, purr, talk to you, love being cuddled and played with, everything tortoises can’t be arsed to do. They are also vicious to other animals. William would exhume the hibernating tortoise and belt him round the marble-floored flat like an ice-hockey puck. I would get home from work and find the poor little reptile shut up like a spectacles case under a chair, or I would skid on him in the hall and measure my length on the cold marble.
My mother, on a visit, tried to establish a relationship with the tortoise. By chucking it under chin she got it to poke its round, smooth head further and further out of its shell. ‘Oo, that looks just like a penis, darling’ she said. I knew she was addressing the tortoise because she would never call me ‘darling’.
Then the tortoise disappeared for about two months. We lived on the fifth floor, and it was hard to fathom where it might have got to. It was eventually returned to me by the owner of the empty flat below mine, where it had been munching the plants on the balcony. Obviously the cat had kicked it over the parapet, in youthful high spirits. Finally one hot day, I came home and found Tortoise on the terrace, on its back, dead. It had fallen over backwards – or been pushed – whilst trying to climb over a brick. The effort to right itself, perhaps with the cat rocking it like a seesaw, must have brought on a heart attack.
Poor tortoise. If we had taken it to Zappeion Gardens when Danny brought it to me, it would probably still be alive, and still have a good eighty years or more to come. Or maybe not. Once they fall over backwards, tortoises have a hell of a job getting back on their feet, and thus mating season is a risky time for males. I wonder if my small tortoise was actually trying to give that brick a damn good shafting, and I hope he departed this life in a frenzy of reptilian lust.