George the Tortoise

You cannot imagine the feelings of guilt which sweep over me and make my life as grey as Keith Walker's duplicating when another Mota flops limply and accusingly upon the doormat. When I console my conscience with the thought that we trade, along will come another LOC from T. Hughes which seems really witty and perceptive until I spoil it all by opening the envelope – and I begin to feel this strange urge to respond. Normally I quell this with a quick OD of malt whisky, but I suppose I really should tell you about the tortoise.

(GLOSSARY for colonials ... TORTOISE (n) a non-amphibious turtle)

This enterprising beast appeared one day while a friend (of Hazel's) was digging her garden. Suddenly the earth cracked open before her unbelieving gaze ... a mud-caked reptile burst forth like a very low budget Tokyo monster, and sent the friend into temporary hysterics. She'd only acquired the house recently and was as affronted as if she'd found a dozen sitting tenants in the cellar; next day at work she accosted everyone with words of calculated subtlety like "I expect you've always wished you had a tortoise?" Hazel drew the short straw, and a barely animated clod of earth (the Friend hardly cared to touch it, let alone hose it down) was added to the Langford household. It was called George. Hazel explained that all previous tortoises in her life had been called George and she saw no reason to make an exception; I know that long ago when she collected snails her fourteen identical specimens were all called Fred. It simplified matters, since when you wished to summon a particular snail – "Here, Fred! Heel, Fred!" – there was no straining to recall its name.

George the tortoise sat around and did very little. Hazel took up tortoise-watching and would breathlessly report the beast's every move, which on the first day consisted of yawning twice (high excitement to Hazel, who as an Egyptologist has been trained in the still more ascetic discipline of pyramid-watching). At first I contented myself by giving George an austere smile when I passed him (or possibly her), but presently we were forced to take action: two weeks after his emergence, George had not eaten despite being surrounded with what to Peter Roberts would have seemed a veritable feast. I spent long minutes tickling him under the chin, at which his little jaws would move (perhaps he was grinding his lack of teeth in hatred), but not far enough to permit the insertion of lettuce, dandelion leaves/flowers, bananas, bread & milk, groundsel, vitamin pills, or even the tyre lever with which I hoped to bring him out of his shell open his mouth a little wider. From time to time he would snort in a disgusted Pickersgillian fashion, shoulder aside the proffered titbit and wander off to stand witlessly in the bowl of water Hazel had provided. Capillary action, that miracle of science, then drew the water through the wrinkles and crannies of his forelegs, leaving us with a dripping-wet reptile efficiently transferring water from bowl to carpet.

Of course we were showered with advice: tortoises eat when warmed up enough to set their metabolisms going, etc, etc, George tended to make kamikaze rushes towards the gas-fire, edging in so close that I had to wear asbestos clothing to retrieve him. The heat merely sent him to sleep. Him or her. Martin Hoare wanted to sex it with a pendulum: "if it swings back and forth over him, it's a male, and if it swings back and forth over her, it's a female."

Yesterday there was something of a breakthrough. Plainly George's look of concentration over the weeks had been the outward expression of mysterious tricklings within, for quite suddenly he delivered himself of an enormous flood of urine. Perhaps part of the strain had been due to a concern for our carpet, since this did not occur until we had experimentally put him out in the sun. Having irrigated the back yard, he stalked purposefully onto the lawn – into is more descriptive since it hasn't been cut for over a year – and bogged down like a lonely wanderer who had strayed into the great Grimpen Mire or a BSFA meeting. Hazel put him back in the outdoor pen she had contrived from bits which had fallen off our house; he made a purposeful circuit of the walls. Satisfied of privacy, he flung himself upon a passing dandelion and devoured it utterly. A swathe of devastation was cut through clover, vetch and grass; George, displaying a startlingly pink tongue, was actually foaming at the mouth. This taught me a deep moral lesson which I shall never forget; I was going to write it up for Readers Digest but couldn't think of a good punchline, so I thought you'd like to know instead.