Helen Cross

Who Wants Tortoise?

It was a hot summer Saturday and I had to get home to my parents. I’d had an abortion three days earlier and suddenly, urgently, needed milky tea, a super- soft settee and an endless supply of Aldi’s imitation Kit-Kats. ‘I’m thinking of coming to see you,’ I said, already at Kings Cross, my overnight bag at my feet. ‘But I’m only staying for the weekend.’

‘She’s lonely, she’s coming for the weekend!’

Only! Not lonely, Dad.’

‘Rosa?’ I heard my mother say, advancing closer, slippers slapping.

‘Of course, Judy. She’s lonely.’

‘Of course she’s lonely, Tom!’

‘Dad, I’m not lonely. I said only. Only staying for the weekend.’

‘And I’m not surprised,’ my mother said. ‘She works too hard,’ and taking the phone from my father, added. ‘She needs to come home.’

My parents, despite being communists and joint life members of the city’s Philip Larkin Society, place a great deal of faith in home, family and parental responsibility. It’s an unshiftable hangover from their Methodist upbringings. They’ve been married fifty years, still live in the house they bought in 1964 and even still nurture Tortoise, who they bought for my tenth birthday.

‘Come back. Let us look after you,’ my father cried, with such passion that I thought he might be really crying. ‘We haven’t seen you for ages, baby girl.’

It was true that I hadn’t been home since Christmas, and the accepted reason was my demanding job two hundred miles away. The truth was that somehow, this year, their stable, long, loving marriage had suddenly, out of nowhere, made me, aging, unmarried, childless, itch and ache. ‘Yes, come home, darling,’ my mother said softly. ‘You need to be here where you belong.’

‘When we’ve been to Aldi.’

‘We’ll collect you from the station.’

‘Please don’t turn the heating up,’ I pleaded but they’d rushed off to prepare.

I bought two doll-sized bottles of red wine in the buffet car and wondered if, more than I wanted to see my parents, I wanted to be away from Doug as I recovered from this latest abortion. Not that there was much recovering to do in 2014. This termination was little more than a free pill and hearty private bleeding. Quite unlike the ruinously expensive abortion I’d had twenty-five years previously, which had required a general anesthetic and a secretive overnight stay in a remote private clinic, (beautifully located in a grand stately home, which if I’d been able to stand up straight, or move without vomiting I would have liked to explore). There had been another mid-priced abortion ten years ago, when termination science had advanced to just a half-day stay, with a local anesthetic before a mildly uncomfortable, and worryingly quick, womb hoover. As I told Doug, ‘Next time I’ll be expecting the checkout girl at Boots to wave a wand across my waistband and poof, voila, done.’

‘Cool,’ Doug said. Who is fifty and goes to work on a skateboard.

At Hull station a pair of brightly garmented hobbits waved wildly from the ticket barrier. Each time I see them they are shorter, slower, deafer and wearing more eccentric clothing. They drink more wine and lose their glasses, keys, purses, and pills and fight weary battles with their expensive new technology (their knowledge is so scant and their public sector pensions so generous that department store salesmen see them coming a mile off). These hobbits have flat-screen interactive TVs, laptops, sat-navs, Ipads, Iphones, Kindles, – none of which they can satisfactorily use. My three brothers pay their children to deal with the daily appeals for I.T. aid.

My father hugged and kissed me but my small, impish mother just patted me on the shoulder and took my bag. Marxist Yorkshire ladies don’t kiss on the cheeks. ‘How’s Doug?’ she asked. ‘How’s the fromagerie?’ I rolled my eyes and my mother cackled happily, but today I didn’t want to entertain her with tales of Doug’s ineptitude. Instead as we walked to the car we talked about the grant my organisation was applying for, which gave my mother the chance to argue that the national lottery had acted like a sedative on the poor who otherwise would be impaling the heads on bankers on fence posts. My father didn’t mention Doug at all. Perhaps my parents could tell that our love was now a frail and wobbling shelf that couldn’t be trusted to hold anything valuable up. I could argue that this was why I’d had the abortion, but that wouldn’t be true.

My father drove home faster than might be expected for a man his age (the fact that he’d bought a Saab in his seventies embarrassed my mother – ‘Why not? No one’s getting any return on their savings.’ ‘Because I’m still an anti-capitalist, Tom. Who now feels like a footballer’s wife!’). She handed out sweets from the little tin they had always kept in the glove compartment. It is the exact same butterscotch tin they’d had when I was a child, now filled with Aldi budget mints: the cheapness of modern foreign supermarkets being their favourite perk of modern life.

I shifted around to try and get settled on the back seat. I didn’t want to bleed on the beige leather. I had no soreness this time, though I was also without the euphoria that had greeted my first abortion, or even the cool relief that had accompanied my second. Now I just felt carsick and so wound the window down and angled my face into the dusty Northern breeze.

‘Your mother lived not far from here when I met her,’ my father said. I sighed; I knew the story too well, and as I’d aged it had become grindingly tedious.

‘In those days they expected a woman to take a room with a landlady,’ my mother said, bumping the conversation onto its familiar track. ‘You certainly weren’t allowed to live with a boyfriend.’

‘Yes, you’ve told me this before, Mum.’

‘There was none of that girls getting a shared house all together either, throwing parties, getting drunk, having boyfriends staying over -like you did, ‘ my father said. Did I detect my mother shoot my father a warning glance? They never criticized me for not having wed or borne children but lately I suspected they discussed it. My mother certainly no longer opined so joyously about her role in the women’s movement and the many victories she’d secured for the female race. I suspected that, despite her faithful feminism, the more I earned, the higher I climbed, the more independent and distant from free-cycling, vegan cheese-maker Doug I became, the more my life bewildered her. My father often seemed confused by the level of freedom and opportunity I’d had; to travel, to over-educate, and to reach the very top of a profession where my pay out-stripped the combined incomes of my three cleverer brothers.

‘8 Mary Street,’ my mother said twisting back to smile at me. ‘We’ll never forget 8 Mary Street,’ my father said. ‘That’s for sure.’ ‘You’ve told me!’ I snapped and stared hard out of the window to try and discourage further confessions.

It was an airless afternoon and on the streets children played on bicycles and dogs curled around them and dragged their snouts along the gutters. In my area of London you rarely see children without their parents, and dogs are never stray. As I watched a child skipping I had a sudden aching lurch of witnessing a moment from my own past – or perhaps from an alternative future in which a child of my own skipped on a melting pavement in the heat. I had to ask my father to slow down. He glanced at me in the rear view mirror with concern. He’d refused a hearing aid though he needed one. Perhaps he’d taken my ‘Remember you’re in a thirty limit, Dad,’ as, ‘Remember I’m at my limit Dad.’

Perhaps I was at my limit. Who could ever know what their limit was until they bumped their forehead against it? Perhaps this trip home was me smacking up against it – it certainly felt like the end of something, definitely the end of my affair, maybe the end of Doug and me too, or perhaps just the end of being a wild career woman who had carefree abortions and, instead, the start of being – what? Who? I had no idea.

By the time they were pulling into their street my parents had forgotten 8 Mary Street and were again worrying about Ed Miliband, who they’d both voted for above his brother for in the branch elections but were now hugely disappointed by. ‘Why doesn’t someone help him?’ my mother moaned. ‘Surely they could do a make over.’

After a tour of the balmy summer garden, my father settled us at a newly purchased ‘garden sofa’ on their new outdoor eating area (paved at vast expense by ‘lovely men’ who’d turned up unannounced at the door). He poured three large glasses of Aldi’s finest red wine. ‘It’s such a bargain this booze,’ my father smiled. Of course my socialist parents hated waste, were keen recyclers and took an appropriate interest in environmental issues but this did not extend to paying high prices for food or drink.

When we’d drunk the bottle my father brought out Tortoise and I gave him a knuckle-knocking pamper. I stroked his wrinkled thumb-size head, and massaged between my fingertips his bony paws. Suddenly, as though the touch of those reptilian claws had cast a spell, I felt very sad. The wine, which was making my mother ecstatic about state education (as my sister-in-law grimly noted, the fact that she’d taken early retirement from teaching twenty years ago and hadn’t set foot in a secondary school since also helped), was making me regretful and emotional. I cuddled Tortoise to my breast and tried to hide my dampening eyes. It might have been the final splutters of foetal bleeding but there in their glorious garden I was pounded by sudden reckless urges; I wanted a new lover. A new house. I wanted to paint. I wanted a garden, to change career, Botox. I wanted to live in New York. I wanted everything my parents had. I wanted Tortoise!

Yes, that was it! Exactly what I needed. Several years ago my parents asked me to have him. Their winter foreign holidays were lengthening and they were running out of stably married Labour party members willing to take charge of the cardboard box. At the time Doug and I had to admit that we simply wouldn’t have the time to look after him. Doug was doing a night class in whey management and I travelled abroad frequently for work. During the week I was often not home until midnight – on account of the affair, which was then freshly raging – so no, we couldn’t take Tortoise on; he would have to stay in the marital home. But now I suddenly wanted Tortoise. I had to have him. Without him I was cooked.

‘If you’re still offering I’m happy to have Tortoise,’ I said as my dad unscrewed another bottle of cheap wine.

‘Really!’ my mother exclaimed, grabbing the bottle by the neck and glugging out another glassful. ‘I’m so pleased! That’s wonderful. Let’s celebrate.’

‘He’s ever such good company, Rosa.’

‘I’m sure you won’t regret it. Cheers.’

‘And if you do need to go away we can always step in to help.’

‘Raise a glass to Tortoise and Rosa!’

‘Tortoise and Rosa. A fresh start’ my father said, squeezing my shoulder.

Reborn, we went indoors to their sauna-warm living room, where my mother enjoyed another rant about the banking scandal, and I munched a heavy slice of homemade seed cake, watched TV for two hours, then bled fiercely for three hours, after which we discussed the theatre. My elder brother had once said to me, ‘You’re living mum’s dream life,’ though this was not true. My mother thinks my career in arts management, no matter how elevated and lucrative, safe and disappointing. Once, fifteen years ago, at the age of 30, when I became the youngest woman ever to run a publically- funded theatre company I was photographed for Vogue. It some silly feature, about ‘key creative people who’ll rule in the new millennium’, which Doug said should more accurately have been called ‘Pretty young tarts in the arts.’ Mum had stared at my glossy, blow-dried, designer-clad self for a long time. Eventually she said, ‘Pah who wants to be in Vogue. Perhaps if you’d won an Oscar.’

I still wonder what she’d been thinking when she stared at that photo. She’d wanted to be an actress, and perhaps believed that if she’d not got pregnant unexpectedly age nineteen, at the fabled 8 Mary Street, she would have become one. Certainly when she sees Judy Dench and Helen Mirren on television she studies them as keenly as if she’s seeing a lost member of her own family.

That night, relieved not to be tossing around on a lumpy futon besides a sozzled, snoring old cheese-maker, I rested calmly in my childhood bed and enjoyed thoughts of my cosy new future with Tortoise. Even my moth-eaten collection of teenage vintage clothes, which still packed my old room’s wardrobes, and the sodden, slipper-sized sanitary pad pressed between my legs, didn’t summon lurid dreams. I slept safe as a loved child.

The next day, my last at home, when the bleeding was slowing, I agreed to go out for Sunday lunch. We were worried about leaving Tortoise in the car while we ate, and sure the Greedy Guzzler chain would not welcome genuinely reptilian diners, and so agreed that we’d return home and get him after the meal, before driving me to the station. I felt anxious about leaving him, worried that he might miss me or succumb to some tragedy while I was away. Beyond my childhood bed I felt weak, and middle-aged and alone. I wanted to cling to Tortoise like a life raft. But I agreed to the lunch without him.

If you can call those mouth-scaldingly oily chunks of unidentifiable bread-crumbed protein, lunch. Still, The Greedy Guzzler chain was their favourite eatery. It offers not only offers bargain prices, but primary-coloured spot-lit sofas, tall vases of pebbles on floating shelves and gaudily upholstered throne-style chairs. It has the general cheery air of a daytime TV studio. Being distrustful of pretty much all private enterprise and never having been known to shell out for an organic vegetable, they were never going to take to insanely expensive gastropubs, of the kind my lover and I obsessively crept away to on Sundays. Burdened with their embarrassingly lavish pensions, my parents dined like anti-royalist kings at The Greedy Guzzler at least once, if not twice, a week.

As we ate they cheerfully considered the secondary school anxieties that preoccupied their daughters-in-law. ‘So what if only 38 percent get grades A-C at GCSE? It’s still a damn sight better than they’re getting in New Delhi.’

‘We never worried about where you’d all go to school,’ my father said.

‘I was still in shock about actually having babies, Tom.’

‘Me too!’

‘I could feel my breasts tingle. That’s how you know, Rosa.’

Recently my eldest brother had confided a concern that my mother’s lack of inhibition suggested Alzheimer’s. I wasn’t sure; she’d always called a vagina a vagina and, without ever experiencing it herself, advocated free love over housework. Once, when I was thirteen, to my utter horror, she’d cheerfully advised me and a school friend to ‘learn how to masturbate so you’ll never need a man unless you really want one.’

‘And the sickness,’ my father said with a frown.

‘First your nipples go dark,’ she said, turning to me and nodding as she chewed.

‘Judy,’ he warned.

‘Sooty. Even before the sickness. And they tingle, like they’re sniffing, like dark little noses.’ She made her forefingers imitate those little noses and scrabbled them at her breasts. My father and I glanced at one another, but said nothing.

In the pub if I’d wanted the conversation to turn away from early pregnancy and return to me, I could have told them exactly what had happened with Doug, which was that a few years back we’d both started having affairs. Which is how I got pregnant. I couldn’t be sure that the baby wasn’t Doug’s but it wouldn’t have made any difference; for some years I’d had dreams of moving to a gallery in a North American city, while Doug dreamt of turning a dilapidated Highland croft into a creamery and maturing artisan cheeses. I accepted that now I’d agreed to have Tortoise my future plans would have to change, but this didn’t mean I wanted the three of us to live together on a remote Scottish island.

After a boozy lunch (‘Darling, you must have pudding, the crumble’s a steal at 99p!’) we set off home to collect Tortoise. All I had to do was put him in a box with some newspaper and a large green leaf and carry him to London. As we drove I pictured Tortoise and me in my living room snuggling up together in front of Newsnight.

‘Rosa, have I ever shown you where your mother first lived when we were courting? Now that was a poor area, wasn’t it?’

‘We could build a better world,’ my tipsy mother shouted, and began thumping the dashboard so the cheap mints spilled into her lap. ‘If only we could all just stop fearing the poor.’

‘Judy, I want to show Rosa 8 Mary Street.’

Inwardly I groaned; there was nothing I wanted to do less than tour the key sites in that crusty sepia tinged romance. I wanted Tortoise! Plus I was getting to that age when I didn’t like plans to suddenly change. ‘They’ve knocked it down, Tom,’ my mother exclaimed.

‘I thought so too, but no,’ he said with firm shake of the head. ‘ It’s a rough area but at the time we didn’t care what it looked like.’ My father gave my mother a knowing glance. ‘Did we?”

She nudged him playfully. ‘The landlady was very insistent that your father didn’t ever come upstairs. He had to wait in the sitting room and she’d come up to tell me that I had a visitor.’

‘I did break my way in a few times though.’ ‘Yes, Tom, you did, and look what happened!’

They both turned round to me and burst out laughing. ‘Your father’s such a wonderful lover, Rosa,’ my mother said, stroking his forearm.

If it were Alzheimer’s, would I give up my future to care for her? Would I move home to wipe her bum as Tortoise inched round the lawn and Doug stirred curd in the basement? It seemed unlikely. And yet, for the first time, also appealing. And Tortoise would be in familiar surroundings.

I stared out of the window at the family homes. In London I’d chosen a third floor city flat well away from the buggy blocked highways of nappy-valley. Tortoise would have nowhere to play. He’d need to be taken out for tiny walks on a long thin lead. Everything would have to change.

My father slowed the car and the two of them leant forward peering down side streets. ‘When I found out I thought my life was ruined,’ my mother said as she unbuckled her seat belt. We were parked behind a large yellow skip and I worried that this was a dangerous place to park an expensive car.

‘Did you know that this is where you mother found herself pregnant?’

‘Yes,’ I said, getting sharply out of the car and slamming the door behind me.

I could practically recite the tale verboten: she gets pregnant, her Methodist parents refuse to have anything to do with her, the landlady kicks her out, she has to leave her teacher training degree, and the attendant glittering opportunities with the university dramatic society. She weds my father with two witnesses dragged off the street and they settle down to married life in a single rented room on my student father’s wages from a part time job. They quickly have three more children and then she goes back to get her teaching certificate at night class. Cue mass national applause.

‘Of course it was all bedsits in my day,’ my mother said as she hurried into the rubbly cave that was 8 Mary Street. I followed them to the dusty bombed out shell, which was as skeletoned as a Viking boat hauled from the seabed. An ancient gas fire had been ripped from the wall and lay in the middle of the floor besides a wood-burner which was bubble-wrapped and waiting to be installed. Torn wallpaper revealed layers of the last century’s most fashionable flowers, vast orange marigolds, over pastel carnations over tiny pink roses. ‘This was Mrs Henry’s parlour,’ my mother shouted out and my father went through to join her.

At that moment a male stripper appeared in the room besides me. It’s the one who plays the character of the builder in the act; muscular, tanned and topless above faded, ripped blue jeans. To differentiate him from the fantasy fireman, the cowboy and the masked gunman he wore a hard yellow hat and had a leather belt of metal tools around his slender waist. He looked at me with a split second of interest and I hooked his gaze, until he slid it away effortlessly. ‘Thank you for letting them take a look,’ I said. My voice had slightly changed. ‘My mother used to live here when she was young.’ ‘Sure, ‘he said. ‘No problem.’ And he picked up a shovel and left. He was perfectly symmetrical, as if moulded in a factory.

I wandered through to where I could hear a faint drift of voices but in the back room there was no sign of my parents just a strange staircase floating like a trick on the fairground cakewalk. The swaying staircase led to an exposed landing. To the left of this landing there was nothing, to the right a room remained and my parents had disappeared towards it, their mutters studded with excited laughter. Somehow, emboldened by the return to the lost past, the hobbits had climbed up the rickety staircase. I looked around for the man. It wasn’t that I expected a man to help me. Alongside masturbation one of my mother’s earliest lessons was plug wiring – ‘Learn to wire a plug and you’ll never have to depend on a man for anything.’ She couldn’t be blamed for not imagining that by the time we’d grasped self-love and elementary electrics, men would have created the wireless world. No, to the best of her ability she’d ensured there was nothing I couldn’t do alone.

I looked out into the garden where the topless stripper was shovelling dirt into the wheelbarrow, his wide shoulders heaving so his nut-brown sculptured torso rippled. He was the original: the guy who the nervy beefcakes on reality TV shows wanted to be. In a different story the stripper would look up and see me watching, he’d narrow his blue eyes, beckon me outside, push me against a rough wall, lurch towards me, parting my quivering thighs with his huge denim knee as he surged against me. If there were a choice would I choose that over hurrying home to collect Tortoise? Was I choosing Tortoise because I was broken, and sure I had no other hope?

‘Rosa,’ my mother called, ‘You’ve got to come up here and see this.’ They were now grinning down at me, two happy ghosts. ‘The bathroom’s still here. I was always in there, either throwing up or poking inside looking for signs.’

‘Judy,’ my father warned.

‘We need to go,’ I said. I ached, either from fear or the abortion or for the builder, but either way I didn’t want to look at where my young pregnant mother had fingered herself. ‘Tortoise will be waiting for me!’

The builder appeared behind me. ‘I need to lock up soon,’ he said flatly. He was pulling on his T-shirt: the act was over and he was back in the dressing room.

‘Okay, I’ll tell them,’ I said. He did look at me for a fraction of a second longer but it wasn’t keenness or curiosity but something more mysterious. I thought of the skipping girl in the street: I reminded him of something lost. Or warned him of some loss to come. ‘Mum, we need to go for Tortoise,’ I shouted, and then I turned to the builder and added, ‘I’m having the tortoise. He’s coming to live with me in London.’

‘Lucky tortoise,’ he said, and left the room.

My father began to lurch creakily down the hanging stairs. There was no handrail and he had to take the middle wall-less section arms outstretched for balance. I reached out my hand for him but he didn’t take it, instead making a show of jumping off the second to last step and slapping his hands together in triumph. ‘Cliff Richard’s got nothing you, Dad,’ I said. ‘Pah, Cliff Richard,’ he laughed. ‘Paul McCartney at least, preferably Leonard Cohen.’ He clenched his fists; emboldened by his encounter with the triumphed-over past.

My mother was still at the top of stairs. ‘I wish I knew how to take photos on my phone,’ she moaned. ‘Do you know, Rosa? Would you come up here and take some with yours?’ Without thinking I pressed my palm to my forehead. ‘Perhaps we’ll come another time,’ she said quietly and moved to the stairs. I could tell she had been crying. Her knees were not as good as my father’s and she’d already had a hip replacement and an operation on her left ankle.

‘Careful,’ my father and I said in unison.

‘I’ll come and get you,’ my father said moving to the stairs.

‘No,’ I said. ‘It won’t take the weight of both of you.’ But he ignored me and threw himself onto the stairs, scrambling up. He was on the fourth step when there was a great crack and the step creaked open beneath him. I reached him in time and he fell against my arm and I helped him back down the last three steps. I glanced around for the young builder, though I had my father safely in my arms. We stared at the broken step, then back up at my mother. She was stranded above us as surely as a kitten in a tree. She rolled up the sleeves of her blouse like she was about to start a fight. ‘I’ll try backwards,’ she said. ‘Then when I get to the broken step you can help me down from there.’

In winching painful stages she made her way down onto her damaged knees. Her gnarled old hands were clawed on the floor, her skinny rump was pressed towards us, and when she turned her head perhaps both my father and I thought of one deep in Islamic prayer. Her skirt was rouched up so you could see her red polyester underskirt and a wedge of her wide white knickers. Her thickened ankles were my own most loathed body part. Blue veins, which threaded through the clotted cheese of her thighs, would soon be mine. She began to edge backwards towards the steps. Far away someone was hammering out a drum roll and outside a cloud crossed the sun like the stage lights dimming. Suddenly there was another ominous crack and, though the plank she was resting on held firm, she froze and began to whimper. My father and I reached for her but she was too high. We cooed and coaxed but she was rigid. The staircase began to sway and I looked up to where it was fixed with just two bolts from the landing. ‘Go sideways and drop down,’ my father commanded the seventy-three year old woman with the metal hip. Suddenly, without warning, she pushed herself off and, still gripping the wood with her hands, she released her legs so only her waist was still on the step and her legs hung free. ‘Good girl!’ my father said clapping his hands. ‘Now edge along.’ But she just hung there, her legs swinging, loose as a lady in a noose. ‘She’s stuck,’ my father said, reaching up for her dangling toes. ‘Dammit.’ Any other old lady would have been stuck but my mother began to edge her sagged and melted torso along to the end of the step like an FBI agent clinging outside a besieged embassy. Her head angled upwards like a ropey swimmer. ‘Drop!’ my father commanded. With heaves and groans and cries and our great chorus of encouragements, her misshapen softened carcass began to drop lower centimeter by centimeter until I could touch her thigh, then my head was at her doughy stomach and I was able to reach up for her armpits.

‘Let go, Mum,’ I panted and she slid against me, her legs gripping to my thighs, her arms clutched around my neck. I hugged her in, surprised to find that my abdomen wasn’t too sore to hold her. I was gaining in strength. I gripped her fiercely. She was breathing quickly into my shoulder. I could feel her love warming through me. As she tried to loosen her grip to drop down, I hitched her up higher so she was almost straddling my waist. Of course at that moment the stripper appeared.

‘Is everything okay?’ he said languidly looking at my mother, clung to me like a huge old baby.

‘Sure. Everything’s fine,’ I said, as though I cuddled my mother that way every afternoon.

‘Put me down,’ she whispered. ‘Put me down.’

He watched as I put her down and she sank back against the wall, trembling. ‘I tried,’ she said.

‘She’s tired,’ my father said.

The builder watched us for a moment longer, perhaps waiting for further explanation but when none was forthcoming he nodded, then drifted out of the house. Out of my dreams.

‘Mrs Henry always said you were out to get into trouble,’ my father said as we walked back to the car.

‘She said I was a rebel and a tart.’

We laughed and got in the car and began the drive home. ‘Rosa,’ my father said. ‘Compared to your mother you don’t know what an easy life you’ve had.’ My mother touched his shoulder to silence him. ‘You’ve no idea, Rosa, really.’ My mother tried to sssh him, but I smiled and nodded.

‘I know,’ I said suddenly, surprising myself. ‘Actually, I’m so used to the easy life I’ve realised I can’t even commit to Tortoise.’

‘What! No?’

‘Sorry. I’m just too busy.’

‘It’s okay, darling. We’ll look after him for you.’

‘And he’s always there if you change your mind.’

‘I don’t think I will, Dad. My life just isn’t tortoise-shaped.’

‘Are you sure,’ my mother said, looking me firmly in the eye. ‘It’s not too late to change your mind.’

‘Yes, Mum, I’m sure.’

‘Good on you,’ she said. ‘That’s my girl.’

By the time we reached the station the ache in my abdomen had almost completely lifted and already I was thinking about my visit to China later in the week and the grant application I had to edit before bed. There was a disciplinary hearing in the morning and I needed to check the emails from HR. Plus our marketing manager had been signed off with mental distress and I wanted to text her before bed. There was a meeting with an artist from Sierra Leone whose work I didn’t know and I would have to research on line before I called him tomorrow. Plus I needed to tell Doug to move out, or go into therapy or learn to drive or start wearing a tool belt and hard yellow hat.

As my train pulled out I watched the hobbits huddled on the platform chatting, probably rehearsing the sketch they’d make of the Stuck on the Stairs for their grandchildren on Skype later.

And again, just as I had when I first left for university from the very same station twenty-five years earlier, I glided away, thumbs-up and smiling. Off to control my destiny.











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