Archie Wright may not remember much these days, but he knows his wife better than anyone. He knows that when she gets confused and irritated the whole world sees it on her face. Her nose scrunches into a hot little red ball, forehead folds over itself, hands just slightly shake, eyes turn cold and hard.
If he was here at this moment, on this autumnal morning, instead of wallowing in bed, he might spare a chuckle at the poor young man and the sweat on his brow, the young man who only got a job at the pet shop so his mother would buy him a car, who is vastly unprepared for difficult customers like old Jill Wright, and also for life.
– What are you trying to say? Tell it like it is, boy.
– It’s actually quite simple, ma’am, like I said –
– Don’t “ma’am” me. I know what you’re doing. Don’t condescend to me.
Here a list of expletives plays through her head which she manages to refrain from saying out loud. Things about how she’s been alive longer than this shop and all its workers, and certainly much longer than the little boy in front of her, who hides behind his uniform and nametag and counter, whose little nostrils keep flaring the more stressed he gets, whose acne looks like it would catch fire if he heard the things old Jill is calling him in her head.
– . . . I’m not sure how to explain this to you in another way.
– You haven’t explained anything.
– We have three tortoises in stock. They are all infants.
– They’re all babies.
– That’s no good! I can’t do with a baby one. He may be losing his marbles, but I bet you he could still tell his old friend from a baby one. Haven’t you got a fully grown one? It’s got to be around the same size, or he’ll notice. He may be losing his marbles but he’s not all gone yet.
– Like I’ve said many times already, ma – uh, no, I’m afraid we don’t. We only have infant tortoises in the store at this moment in time.
– Can I speak to your manager?
– . . . Excuse me?
– She’s not here.
– Well can I speak to a grown up then? Who’s in charge of this bloody place?
– Hey, I turned eighteen two months ago.
– I’m sure your mum is proud. But you don’t seem to understand me. I need a fully-grown tortoise. Today.
– I do understand. But I’m afraid I can’t help you.
– You must have one! This is a bloody national chain-link. Can’t you check your stock markets or something? On this thing, the bloody computer? Isn’t that what they’re for? I don’t know what they’re for if it’s not for checking.
The thinly moustached adolescent behind the counter lets out an unsubtle sigh. This furious little old lady has taken up most of his morning already. But here he will learn a valuable lesson about customer service: it is not about helping people; it is about adding enough credibility to the lies you give as reasons why you can’t help them.
He nods his little head.
– Sure, I can do that for you. I’d be thrilled. Just try and stop me.
He jabs at the keyboard with his knuckles – JHCVKHBC – then waits for what feels like an appropriate number of micro-seconds. Old Jill looks at the floor and chews her upper lip. The adolescent sighs again and surprises himself by actually feeling something akin to the disappointment he is showing – probably more about the turnout of his life than his imaginary search – and shakes his little head.
– I’m overwhelmed with sorrow. But it’s like I said, over and over. We only have baby tortoises.
– Well. That’s not good enough now, is it?
– Can I interest you in one of the infants? They’re quite cute.
– Too bloody small! What do you think he’ll say if he sees a baby one in the garden? He may be losing his marbles but I think he’ll know the difference. What do you think he’ll say?
– . . . I honestly don’t know how to answer that.
– What am I supposed to do then? He’s given up, you know. Wouldn’t even get out of bloody bed this morning! Now Tony’s gone, it’s, it’s like, like he’s just given up. Sits all day in his chair, drinking his brandy, waiting to join his old friend . . . Oh, for goodness sake . . .
Old Jill wipes away the terribly rude tears that have invited themselves onto her face. The pubescent employee of the pet store feels an unexpected pang of sympathy for this old lady, and lowers his head and his voice, inviting her to come close.
– I’m not supposed to tell you this. But there’s another pet shop in town. They may be able to help you.
Old Jill has to stop herself from gripping the young man’s hand; the intensity in his voice seems to suggest she should.
– It’s in the shady part of town, you know, where Blockbuster used to be. Here’s the address.
He rips off a scrap of paper from the receipt roll. He scribbles down the name of the street where he used to go with his grandmother every Sunday for a film and chocolate. It was their little ritual, before economic downturn brought most of the businesses down and left only empty buildings and grandma died.
– Go, now. Who knows who’s watching.
Old Jill thanks the young man no fewer than twelve times, shoves the precious note in her handbag, then leaves the pet store.
As old Jill soldiers on through her humble little Welsh valley town, she gets sentimental, like she often does, as she recalls the things her husband brought her back from his many voyages at sea. An engineer in the Royal Navy in his youth, Archie visited all parts of the world, and always made a point of finding something unique to bring home for his darling wife. Earrings from Singapore. Satin pyjamas from India. A photography collection from Malaysia. A hat from Hong Kong. Flowers from just about everywhere. A brooch from Australia and a pendant from Argentina, and too many other things to remember.
In the late 1950s, Archie set sail on an expedition to the Galapagos Islands. He would be gone for six weeks. The time apart was always difficult for them, but Jill got through it by dreaming of all the things her husband would fetch for her. Her husband, the globetrotter, who made the world look small and her heart feel huge.
She pictured all sorts of things; a rare oyster pearl, an exotic, one-of-a-kind flower, a coconut shell filled with a youth-giving elixir.
She was surprised when her husband returned home this time, not with any rare artefact, but accompanied by a giant tortoise. He had smuggled it onto the boat and back into the country. She was at first, unimpressed. She quizzed the man on what kind of fever must have set in on the seas and what medicine he had been taking for it. He told her to shh, and help him get the animal inside before anyone noticed.
– Archie. It’s a tortoise.
– Yes. His name is Tony.
– Why is there a tortoise in our living room?
– I found him on the beach. He was standing there, just, staring out to sea. I sat with him for a while, and we both felt this . . . I don’t know what it was. Peace. An understanding. We just listened to the sea.
– So you brought the bugger all the way back to Wales?
– What was I supposed to do?
It was decided. Despite Jill’s protests, Tony would stay. Archie built a greenhouse shed in the back garden for him, while Jill complained of his madness to her friends.
But after a while, she began to understand. She saw the way the man and his shelled friend spent many warm nights together in the back garden, quietly sitting under the stars, together, content. She had never encountered a love quite like that between her husband and his tortoise.
It was, in fact, almost definitely because of Tony that they never had children. Not that either of them regretted it. Jill had never felt that maternal yearning, and Archie had already found his heir, the giant, silent creature that was likely to outlive them both.
In many ways, Tony was better than a child. He certainly made less mess and noise than children. He didn’t ask for anything, only his heated greenhouse at the bottom of the garden and the wordless company of his human friend.
That was how it was; Tony was no one’s pet, he was another co-inhabitant, the third member of the marriage. And the three of them shared their life together for six consecutive decades, until, a few months ago, the old tortoise started getting sick.
They took him to all the vets they could, but no vet could save him.
When Tony died, Archie went over a cliff.
He had, as old Jill had noticed even before Tony’s passing, been growing more and more forgetful in his old age, more easily confused and agitated and querulous, and the death of his best friend seems to have to put a permanent puncture in his mind.
Now he no longer has the routine of feeding and sitting with his old pal to guide him through the days. All he does is sit in his chair and drink the pain away, taking his anger out on his wife, shouting at her whenever she comes near, or, even worse, refusing to look at or talk to her altogether, choosing to bury his nose in the bottle. Old Jill passes the night-time by crying, for when Tony died, her husband’s spirit seemed to pass away with him.
On the morning of this particular day, when Jill finds herself walking through town, looking for a tortoise to replace their old friend and hoping beyond hope things can go back to normal, the bitter old man refused to even get out of bed. Jill tried her best to coax him, but it was no use. In all their years of marriage, through all their ups and downs, she has never seen him like this. Limp, defeated.
She knows the end is close, unless she can find a way to bring their old friend back.
At noon, as her soles start to burn and her joints audibly creak, she finally reaches it. The old shopping street, where she and Archie used to come every Saturday, now made up of a few kebab shops, a sex shop, and otherwise, mostly vacant buildings.
She enters the exotic pet shop. Inside it is dark, the only light a low purple fluorescent beam. A shirtless man stands behind the desk, staring off into space. When old Jill enters, he is brought back into reality. Bald, goateed and covered in tattoos, to old Jill he looks like the sort of person who gets put behind bars at the end of the investigative programmes she and her husband used to watch before he lost the capacity to follow televisual narratives.
– Can I help you?
– Hello. I need a tortoise.
The man eyes her up suspiciously, as if he believes she has some hidden motive. He blankly gestures to the cages all around them. Spiders, scorpions, snails, snakes, eels, jellyfish, crabs, and some other animals old Jill cannot identify.
– . . . I need a tortoise, please. And not a baby one. I need a fully grown one. Preferably at least fifty-five years old.
The bald man scratches his head, then inhales sharply, between his teeth.
– . . . Nah. Got nothing like that. Sorry, love.
Jill turns to leave. She has nowhere else to go but back home, to her dying husband, whose only illness is grief (well, and also what looks like symptoms of dementia, but as far as she is concerned if the grief can be cured then so can everything else).
– How about a terrapin?
Old Jill stops before she reaches the door and turns around.
– A what? A terror pin?
– You know. A bit like a tortoise. Smaller though.
He shows her to some terrapins, climbing over each other in their small cage. She shakes her head.
– He may be going dumb, but he’s not that dumb. Not yet.
– I can get you a tortoise. Give me a week.
– I’m afraid that won’t do. I need it today. He won’t even get out of bed. He may not last a week.
– Oh, you need a today tortoise? Hm.
– Yes, it’s an urgent tortoise.
– How about an echidna? They make for great pets.
– No, it really must be –
– You’d be surprised how affectionate some tarantulas can be.
– Heavens, no –
– I’ve got a baby jaguar coming in next week, you can impress all your little old lady friends.
– Terribly sorry to waste your time, but no thank you.
– Has to be a tortoise, eh?
– Yes. Yes it does. He was . . . He was our best friend. Archie’s been a wreck since he left us.
The bald man bows his head in sympathy, but sympathy is not what old Jill wants, she wants a fully mature Galapagos tortoise, one whose calm, quiet presence will bring her husband back to life, and why is that so hard to find?
Her back hurts.
– Have you tried the market?
She wonders why on earth she has not thought of this already. She nods her head repeatedly.
– Oh. I didn’t think.
– Tell you what love. My mate Sahin, he’s a good lad. He might know how to help you. He runs the fish stall. You know it?
She is not immediately familiar with it but reckons she can spot a man standing with a pile of fish, so she nods.
– Tell him Ricky sent you. Tell him what you need. He’ll take care of you. Alright love?
She does her best to retain all the information. Sahin. Fish. Ricky. Names and places. She is tired and in pain. She wants nothing more than to sit down with a cup of tea and a mystery novel, the way she has spent her Saturday mornings for the last few decades. But she will not give up. If her mind was crumbling, due to impossible grief and sadness, Archie would not give up on her.
She may not know much, but old Jill knows this, for sure.
She thanks the shirtless bald man and heads for the market.
As she walks, she lets her mind wander and it goes where it usually goes, back to warmer times.
One summer’s day, thirty something years ago. They were walking in the countryside. The three of them. They’d had a nice day out, walking through the fields, the trees, eating ham sandwiches, listening to the birds. They stopped for a while on a hill to look out at the green patches of land . Jill took her husband’s hand and asked him something.
– Do you think he ever wants to go back?
– Back? To where?
– You know. To the wild.
Archie considered this while stroking his chin. He looked to Tony, by his feet, then out to the big green world in front of them.
– Let’s see.
They walked Tony to the edge of a forest, and waited. The married couple looked down at him, standing in between them. They could see deep thought in his old eyes.
Jill took a deep breath and asked another question.
– If he wanted to, should we let him go?
Archie said nothing. Jill knew exactly what he meant.
Tony did not move. His feet stayed planted in the grass. The three of them stayed like that, perfectly together, for a long time, until the sun started sinking into the hills before them.
– Guess he knows where his home is.
Archie let out the faintest smile.
– Also he’d probably die quite quickly.
Old Jill’s back is on fire by the time she reaches the marketplace. She usually avoids the bustle of this place, but today she will tolerate it. She marches her way through the vendors and their shouted offerings.
She smells the fish before she sees it.
The man at the stall is overweight, with thinning black hair, a thick moustache and a gold necklace. She walks right up to him with a disregard for her usual manners, something she is finding strangely refreshing. She has no time for pleasantries.
– Are you Sahin?
The man shows a glimmer of recognition, flicking his eyes and back forth.
– . . . No. Who’s asking?
– Oh. I’m looking for Sahin. The fish man. Dicky sent me.
– He runs an exotic pet shop. All sorts of foul creatures.
– Oh, you mean Ricky?
– Excuse me, yes. He sent me. He said you might be able to help me.
– What’re you after?
– One tortoise please. Fully grown.
Sahin stares at the old lady blankly, unsure if he has heard correctly.
– . . . You what?
– I need a tortoise. Today.
– Ricky told you I could help you?
– He said you’d take care of me.
Sahin considers this for a few moments, looking the old lady up and down. Then he nods.
– Yeah, I think I can do something for you. A turtle, you said?
– Yeah, yeah. It won’t be cheap though.
– How much?
– Well, you’ve got to factor in transport, labour, risk, you know, you’re talking a good few hundred.
– The money isn’t important. Can you get it today?
– Hm. Might be a bit tough. It’s gone noon already. It’s an urgent tortoise you need?
– Yes. I need a tortoise. I can’t go home without one. He wouldn’t even get out of bed this morning. Not like him, not at all.
Sahin scratches his chin while thinking it over.
– How’s tomorrow afternoon? Twenty-four hours?
This is the best offer old Jill has had all morning. Her back feels close to seizing up, the soles of her feet burn, but she can feel herself getting closer.
She silently nods her head.
– Where do I find you? Here?
– Market’s closed on Sundays love, and it’s bank holiday, you know, so I can meet you in the pub. The Duke. On Windsor Street, not far from here. You know it?
She can vaguely recall the establishment, from the mid-seventies, when she and Archie would go there for quiz nights, when it had a different sign and everyone smoked inside.
She silently nods again.
– Thank you. Thank you ever so much.
– No problem love, no problem . . . Uh, the thing is, I’m sure you understand. A job like this, unusual, short time frame, you know. The cost is up front. I’m sure you understand.
– . . . You want the money now?
– Yeah, that’s the thing, for a deal like this, the cost is up front. I’ll need to pay my man to get the cargo, so, you know, I need to protect myself. I’m sure you understand.
– Hmm, well . . .
– It’s the only way I can help you, love.
Old Jill watches the man carefully. Her gut tells her to run, but her heart tells her this is the only chance of bringing Archie back, however slim it may look.
It is all she can do to drop her faith into the palms of this stranger.
She fetches her purse from her handbag and opens her purse.
– How much?
When old Jill gets home, exhausted, close to collapse, she finds that Archie has not moved from his spot in bed. He has spent the whole day stewing in his own despair. This is not the man she married.
She shakes him. He groans and swats at the air. His paw makes contact with her chin. She winces.
– For goodness sake, Archie.
– Get out of it. Leave me alone.
– Is this how you want to live?
– I said leave me alone.
Tears fill old Jill’s eyes.
She realizes she has no choice but to leave Archie, the man who has stood by her side for over sixty years, to rot in bed. She goes downstairs and pours herself a glass of milk. She is too tired to move to the living room so she sits down, right there on the kitchen floor.
Tomorrow, she tells herself. Tomorrow, it’ll be okay, Arch, just you wait, wait ‘til morning, Tony’s coming back, I promise.
She closes her eyes and nods off right there on the kitchen floor and dreams of the stranger she has entrusted her and her husband’s future with.
The Duke is usually quiet on Sunday mornings.
Quiet enough for old Jill to easily spot who comes in through the door, and who doesn’t. From her little spot in the corner, under the portrait of some noble figure, she waits while sipping her tea, one eye on the clock, the other on the door, just like they’ve been for hours.
It is still possible the unsavoury man she met yesterday is late. It is still, at this point, entirely possible that he is held up in traffic, banging the steering wheel in frustration, desperate not to fail on his promise. It is not beyond reason that at any given moment now, he will rush in through the door, frantically look around, and exhale in relief when he spots his appointment, patiently waiting for him.
Another hour passes. Then another. Old Jill finishes her pot of tea and stares at the floor. She is at least thankful she is sitting down and not being forced to walk around the whole town.
The pub landlord approaches and asks if she would like a refill. She declines and explains how she put her faith in the kindness of strangers and she got nothing back. The landlord meekly expresses his condolences.
They aren’t worth much.
Old Jill stays in her spot until the evening comes and the pub fills up. The landlord feels too bad for her to ask her to move, and she has no reason to go home. The man she loves is not there anymore, only a foul-mouthed stranger waits for her, a shell of a man who has lost his shelled friend, still stuck in his bed and in his head.
She is oblivious to the noise and people all around her. The herds of drinkers who treat going for a drink as more than a hobby. For them, the act of consuming alcohol together is a lifestyle, a status symbol.
She is thinking of ways she can finish it off and join Tony in the afterlife when a young man with a beard watches her, all alone, in the corner of the pub. The young man is getting married next week. He and his friends are out on the town, in the predatory way gangs of lads gather for mischief. The young man is curious as to why an old lady would choose bank holiday night to come and sit in the corner of the pub alone and stare at the floor.
He approaches old Jill.
– Are you alright, old girl?
She half lifts her face and sees the young man, his unruly facial hair, his exposed chest, his drunken swagger. She usually avoids these people religiously, the product of corrupted and softened generations, but she has no reason to be afraid anymore, no reason to care. She shakes her head.
– What’s wrong?
– . . . Honesty is dead.
– Oh. Shit.
– Is there anything I can do to help?
– No. Thank you.
– Alright. Maybe you should get yourself home.
The young man turns around and heads back for his cluster of friends who are deep in a serious discussion about where the best gash will be tonight.
Just before the young man is out of earshot, old Jill decides something.
– I don’t suppose you have a tortoise, do you?
The young man stops, presuming he misheard.
– What’s that love?
He turns around and nears her again.
– A tortoise. Do you have a tortoise?
– . . . Uh, no.
– Okay. Never mind.
– Any particular reason, or?
– My husband. He won’t get out of bed. He’s not the same, not since Tony died. He loved that tortoise.
– Oh . . . Sorry to hear that.
– What good is sorry?
– Hold on . . . Is your husband Archie Wright?
For the first time all evening, old Jill lifts her head to the world, and her eyes light up.
– Yes. Do you know him?
– Yeah, well, no, I mean, my dad did. I met him when I was a boy. The weird man with the tortoise.
– Yes, that’s him!
– Yeah, everyone knows old Arch like. Hard to forget a bloke sat in the pub with a giant tortoise. Sorry to hear the old git passed away. The tortoise, I mean.
– I gave money to a strange man at the market. He said he’d find me a tortoise. He lied to me.
At this point the gang of lads have noticed their friend is in conversation with an elderly lady. Jokes are made about his standards having dropped, about his tastes maturing, things like that. One of them calls over to him, asks what on earth he is doing. The young man gives old Jill an assuring look and promises he will return, then goes back to his friends. She is sick of promises.
The young man converses with his group for a few minutes. Jill thinks she might be crazy, but she is certain she has seen one of them before. That wispy moustache. That teenage face. Before she can place the face, the whole lot of them come over to old Jill in her spot. For a second she feels afraid, ready to scream danger, but there is no menace on their faces.
– Listen, love, we’ve thought about it, and we agree that there isn’t a much better way of spending my stag do than by sneaking into the zoo. Don’t worry. Leave it with us love. You’ll have your tortoise.
Sometimes, old Jill thinks, the world is not such a terrible place to live in.
– It’s got to be fully grown!
– Archie, it’s time to wake up. Come on now. You hear me?
The old lump stirs from under the covers. Old Jill whips open the curtains and evil sunlight floods the room, and in response, a long, vengeful groan. The sky is bluer outside than it’s been in a long time, old Jill is sure of it. She feels younger, bolder, and rips the blanket off the bed, revealing the shamed, hidden body of her husband, who is enraged at being dragged from his womb of self-pity.
– Get out of it woman! Damn you!
– It’s morning, Arch, and Tony needs feeding.
– Leave me . . . What?
– And Gary Watkins phoned, he wants to meet you in the pub sometime soon for a catch up. You remember him? I met his son recently. Very nice young man.
Old Jill sets the cup of tea she made with a smile on her face down on the bedside. Archie rubs his eyes and looks around, as if this is the first time he has seen this room in his life.
– He says everyone’s missed you.
– . . . Yes, Gary.
– Come on then, Tony wants feeding, or shall I do it?
– Tony . . .
– He’s outside. Getting hungry.
Archie sits up and rubs his face again. Jill can see something on his face; the onrush of colour, knowledge, life. It’s all coming back. As her heart is close to bursting, she kneels down and pecks the old man on the cheek, then makes her way to the door.
– Come on now. The day is waiting for you, Archie Wright.
Archie blinks somewhere between fifty and a hundred times, slowly nodding his head.
– Yes. Yes, you’re right. Coming, love.
Old Jill walks down the stairs, as tears form in her eyes again.
Her husband is back.
All he needed was his old friend.
Urgent Tortoise was published in The Moon and Other Tales in September 2020, the profits of which went to help the Australian wildfires.