The other day, the six-year-old went round to his pal’s for a playdate.
‘He’s got a tortoise,’ he declared. ‘Can I take some lettuce for him?’
When we arrived, the very sight of the knobbly reptile brought some memories flooding back.
When I was about nine or ten, we had a pet tortoise. I can’t remember his name because we didn’t really have time to get to know him too well. For on the first night in our garden, he escaped through a hole in the fence.
For a couple of days, we were distraught, until a couple of days later our Dad miraculously found him and brought him home. For a couple of months, we watched over him like hawks, blocking all potential escape routes lest he made his bid for freedom once again.
As Autumn bedded in, it was time for our pet to go into a box, surrounded by straw, ready for his Big Sleep i.e. hibernation. Dad explained we wouldn’t see him again until Spring, and so we kissed his shell, bid him goodnight, then got on with our lives.
After a long and quite harsh winter, March finally arrived and we urged Dad to open the crisp box which had been our tortoise’s home for the past 4 months, so he could stretch his limbs and munch some cucumber.
‘He must be starving by now,’ we reasoned.
Dad dutifully went to the shed, but emerged rather grim-faced.
‘He’s escaped,’ he said.
Again, we were distraught. But unlike the last time, there was to be no miracle recovery of our helmet-shaped friend. He never came back, and we never got another tortoise.
It was only a few years later that Dad finally came clean about our pet.
Our tortoise was not one tortoise, but two.
The first one HAD escaped, but Dad didn’t miraculously find him: he bought another from a pet shop and passed it off as the escapee.
Then this imposter hadn’t actually escaped from his hibernating box: when Dad went to check on him, he discovered the gruesome rotting corpse of our beloved pet, which had clearly died of cold and starvation several weeks before.
I think from that point on, my Dad had convicted himself as being Unfit To Keep A Tortoise and so we never had another.
I was thinking all of this as I watched my son offer a lettuce leaf to his pal’s pet tortoise (imaginatively called Tortoise) at the weekend.
Tortoise was 45 years old, apparently.
‘That’s quite an innings,’ I said to my son’s pal’s mum.
Bloody good job he’s never come into contact with my Dad, I thought.
My son looked up at me. ‘Da-ad, can we have one?’
‘We’ll see, Son. We’ll see,’ I replied.