Friday afternoon, two thirty. Work complete, kettle boiled, my paperback waits for me on a rumpled mass of mustard-yellow fleece. I slide myself onto the window seat, slipping my bare feet under the contours of soft fabric, holding the coffee cup aloft. With my free hand I scoop the novel up like a pet kitten then nudge my thumb against the bookmark until the heavy covers heave open, exposing the text. Two hours cocooned in my fantasy world before the house becomes heady with noise once more. Two hours all of my own. Two hours of bliss. But not today.
My eyes slip over the words, breathing in their meaning, my lips pursed to the edge of the mug. I take a sip - mechanical, rehearsed - until my sight becomes distracted, my body jolts in response, drops of scalding liquid dribble down my chin. Thankfully, the cup itself does not spill, but my book tumbles from my hold and down to my lap then onto the floor too far from my grasp. I feel a flurry of panic. Everything is coming undone. I have been shaken, disturbed. I look outside.
Something is creeping. A dark blob against an otherwise green perfection, row upon row of rectangles divided by low oak fencing. The occasional flower bed, wooden bench, sprinkler system or pond add a little interest but from up here it could be a sports pitch or a farmer’s field. Yet there is the miniature mass again, moving. I slip on my glasses. I am not mistaken.
Crawling nimbly across the lawn of what I presume to be number thirty-four is Old Norm, beloved pet of the elderly Mr Henry Dunhelm.
An immense shell flanked by four stumpy legs ending in tiny claws, a shrivelled triangle for a tail, and a golf-ball-sized head as wrinkled as his owner’s with the same gummy grin and beady brown eyes. The tortoise has escaped again and is making his way across the garden in a bid for freedom.
I adjust my lenses, my book and beverage hastily forgotten in favour of this far more interesting distraction; a live break-out.
There is no sign of Mr Dunhelm and Old Norm is making fierce progress through the recently trimmed greenery. He has bypassed the border and is heading towards the stump of an aged and fruitless apple tree which shades a rugged bush, a compost bin, and the pond. I watch the branches reflected in the water's surface, suddenly realising the awful truth. My eyes are rooted to the scene as if on stalks, yet the act of observation makes me feel somehow implicated - an eye-witness to this poor creature’s plight. What else can be done? Should I run to help? Call someone - the police? An animal charity? Should I search online? How to rescue a suicidal tortoise. It seems hopeless. Helpless. Instead, I clasp my palms together and pray.
Old Norm ambles head-on towards the pond and gracelessly forward-rolls into the shallow depths without a sound. A miniature tide circulates, dampening the border of tiny pebbles, retreating back to cover the body. His stocky legs writhe around, his shell and head entirely submerged. It does not take long before he is still. Something dull happens in my chest, my heart and hope emptying as the little life ebbs away. I pray again, this time for a quick end to his suffering.
My muted incantations are wasted or perhaps answered; there is Mr Dunhelm. He is wearing a striped dressing gown and slippers, his hair a few wild wisps across an otherwise bald scalp. He shuffles at the same pace as his companion, finally falling to his knees by the pond as he scoops out the lifeless body. Without pause, he leans down towards the motionless mound and prises apart the animal’s jaws, descending his own pursed lips to meet them. His cheeks bellow with breath, blowing into Old Norm’s stiffened head, damp and crusted with dirt. I blink away my disbelief.
A few moments later, Mr Dunhelm rights the now wriggling creature, tucks him under one arm, and marches back to the house as if nothing has occurred. His expression is one of mild amusement, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. They will probably have a cup of tea and a leaf of lettuce together, watch television then have a long nap. All will be well. Instead, it is I who feels stricken. I have just witnessed my neighbour giving his pet tortoise mouth to mouth resuscitation.
I do the only thing I can think of. I abandon my afternoon of tranquility and return to my desk. I retrieve a sheaf of yellowed writing paper and my fine nibbed pen. Dear Mr Dunhelm, I begin, trying to steady the tremor of my hand, at approximately two forty on the afternoon of Tuesday 19th July, I saw what can only be described as a near miss. May I take this opportunity to urge you to take better care of your pet. I fear that a repeat of the incident might lead to an untimely demise for your companion, and I cannot bear witness to such an eventuality. Regards, a concerned neighbour.
I shuffle on shoes with the intention to deliver the envelope post haste, yet once again I am distracted. I peer outside; there he is. The reanimated body of Old Norm. A striped band runs around his shell, held aloft by a tottering Mr Dunhelm. His unsecured dressing gown tumbles in the breeze as he clings on to the belt across his gently straining pet. He turns this way and that, enjoying the warm air circulating through the fabric. I pray again, only this time for whoever invented flannel pyjamas. I crumple the letter into a ball, kick off my shoes, and nestle back down with my book.
(c) Rachel Wade