By Philip Hall
It was the Albanian maid, Meera who discovered it.
‘There is an animal in the water butt.’ she said, agitatedly. ‘It’s black and big like this.’ She held out her pudgy hands. Her smile, which at first she offered, now drooped like a cut flower.
‘Show me.’ said Rose.
Meera opened the lid and Rose peered in. At the bottom a turtle waded in five centimetres of water, its shell was a mossy green.
It felt Rose’s stare and pulled itself up to the side. It craned to see who was there
‘How did a turtle climb into the water butt?’ said Rose, distressed. ‘It really shouldn’t be here. Take it out please, Meera?’
Meera fetched a chair from the living room, put it next to the barrel, stood on it and leaned over inside on tip-toes, reaching down.
‘Be very careful Meera, please.’ said Rose.
Meera murmured something. Her voice boomed softly, against the plastic so that Rose couldn’t make out what she was saying.
Meera straightened up. In her hands was a turtle, dripping with the rainwater from the water butt. Its feet waved slowly, tensely, its neck stretching out of the shell.
‘But what do we do with it?’ Asked Rose. ‘What do you do with a turtle?’
Meera was still and waited for Rose to tell her what to do:
‘Not that cupboard the other one, Meera. Did you buy the asparagus? Real coffee for our guest, not instant coffee. Meera.’
Rose said nothing for a while. Then murmured to herself: ‘What are turtles for?’
I could have told her to phone Auntie Li. Li’s turtle was her close companion. It loved Li and followed her everywhere, even into the bathroom. Every time Li took a shower the turtle would pull himself over the edge of the low ceramic basin and positioned himself so that the soap from Li’s body would miss him, but not the stream of warm water.
I could have told her about the turtles we lost in Guadalajara; playthings that were bought at a fair, that instead of dying escaped into the garden one day and hid in the bamboo thicket at the back of the with the rats and black widow spiders and stayed there.
One day, when the dry lightning had coughed enough and finally sputtered into a storm, the turtle crept out into the rain. We saw it from the big window. It was as large as a tortoise.
Rose took the turtle onto the patio. It did eat the bananas; mush leaking from its beak. It ate the costly pepper ham Meera had bought (which was bound to go to waste, anyway. Meera had bought too much). But the turtle didn’t eat any cabbage and only half the leaf of lettuce – perhaps it didn’t like the dill dressing.
When Rose went to the shop to buy the paper and find out what was happening to the Greek deficit and the Euro, she walked past a poster. There was a big picture of a turtle and the poster said:
If you have any news of our beloved turtle, Putzi, let us know.
Number 3 Stohr Strasse
The Hahn family
Of course Rose went round immediately with Meera, the Turtle like a present, in a pretty little basket lined with plastic. Inside, it was munching on the pepper ham.
Mrs. Hahn was overjoyed.
She took Putzi out, stroked the turtle under the chin. The turtle jerked, biting her affectionately on her thumb, but without drawing blood. Rose watched, surprised. Those were tears on Mrs. Hahn’s cheeks.
‘Turtles are very sociable. They get very” lonely Mrs. Hahn said. We were so worried. Thank you so much Mrs. Freidrich. Putzi has her partner out at the back in the garden, Mutzi.
‘Please wait for me. I’ll be back in a moment, as soon as I have reunited them.’
It turned out that the whole street had been informed except for Rose. Everyone had been looking for that turtle. In Germany turtles are very expensive.
It was a small street. Taxi drivers could never find it. On each side the gardens adjoined and the turtle had obviously managed to crawl through into Rose’s garden.
How had it climbed up into the water butt? Over coffee and a very good Kuglehupf – light, dry and not too sweet – Mrs. Hahn and Rose sat in silence and thought for a while.
It didn’t take long. ‘Those boys’, said Rose. ‘Last week they built a little bridge from their garden into mine. It must be them.’ The 11 year old and the 8 year old were the children of the neighbours on the other side of the Hahns.
Mrs. Hahn’s eyes sparked with fury: ‘You’re right’, she said. ‘Who else could it be?’ The boys had been seen trespassing in several Stohr street gardens.
After Rose had left, and after she had thanked her again, Mrs. Hahn, marched over to the boys’ house and pressed the bell five times. A forty year old woman, wiping crumbs from her mouth, appeared at the door.
Mrs. Hahn demanded that the mother bring the boys out and that they explain why they had put the turtle into the water butt.
‘What turtle? What water butt? What are you talking about? We’re in the middle of afternoon coffee. said the mother.
Your boys will know perfectly well that I am referring to the turtle they dropped into the water tank and left to die! said Mrs. Hahn.
‘Kindly leave.’ Said the woman. ‘I am sure our boys would never do such a thing to a turtle … if they ever found one. They like animals.’
She closed the door with a bang in Mrs. Hahn’s face.
Mrs. Hahn went round from door to door to thank the whole street for helping her and to explain what had happened.
‘Those boys!’ said one of the neighbours. ‘How could they be so cruel? They are liars, too.’
“I saw one of them come into my garden, too said another neighbour sympathetically.’ ‘You are right.’
He had just had his house rebuilt from a catalogue. It looked beautiful. From the outside it was like a country cabin, but inside it was spacious and tasteful. It was a prefab, so he had had it built in only a few months. But, unfortunately, before it was ready his wife was dead. She had died of a cancer that first started clawing at her breast and then at her liver.
After her death people had started to look up to him. He pronounced.
‘That’s just wrong what the boys have done. That’s not what you do with turtles.’
Later on, when we were drinking our coffee, Rose explained: ‘The whole street is in uproar now. They are demanding those two boys admit they are liars.
Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.