A Tortoise Called Eccles

Tigh-na-MaraI’ve started working my way down my ‘To Do’ list.

It’s a thing of real beauty, written in neat capitals, logically laid out with the ‘Screamingly Urgent’ items at the top and the ‘When you get around to it” stuff at the bottom, and is – on the whole – a work of total fiction.

Human nature being what it is (especially THIS human’s nature) if the job at the top of the list doesn’t appeal much, and/or is likely to be expensive, I find something a little lower down that I hate the thought of less and which can theoretically be accomplished without any money changing hands.

Today was a case in point. At the top of the list is ‘Have Thatch Looked At’ – four words that contain the possibility of a whole world of pain. Thatched roofs, if in good nick and well-maintained, are wonderful things – waterproof, stormproof, cool in summer and warm in winter – but that ‘if’ is a loaded word. In his very carefully phrased report the Surveyor said that the roof appeared to be in reasonable shape for its years but he recommended calling in a thatcher to examine it properly, thus neatly discharging his duty to me as a surveyor and simultaneously whacking the ball straight back into my court.

Which is why I decided that what I really needed to do today was item number 5 on the list: ‘Animal-proof the garden’.

Confront most people with a young male Jack Russell, an elderly female Jack Russell and a tortoise of indeterminate years and then ask them which they would expect to be the hardest to keep in a garden, the vast majority would guess ‘the young male Jack Russell’, and they would be wrong. The answer is ‘the tortoise’.

My mother found the tortoise wandering across our lawn many years ago. It had a small hole drilled in its shell with a piece of frayed string threaded through it and it had plainly escaped from somewhere; but our enquiries locally drew a blank, so we kept it and christened it ‘Eccles’, just because we thought it was stupid name for a tortoise.

And here it is, several decades down the road, still with me, still taking its pleasures solemnly and still trying to escape at every available opportunity. I have over the years raked Eccles out of drains, from between rockery boulders and once, from part way up a chain link fence. I’ve chased him down the road, I’ve dug him out of rabbit burrows and I’ve found him stranded on his back on the patio – waving his stubby little legs wildly in the air and hissing in fury. Tortoise-proofing a garden isn’t a game for amateurs. It requires both low cunning and the ability to put yourself in the tortoise’s place, which is – of course – very close to the ground.

So there was a perfectly good reason why the Vicar found me flat on my stomach in the vegetable garden about three feet from the roadside hedge poking at the undergrowth with a broom handle. It just looked a bit eccentric.

“I’m Norman Ruskin. I’ve come to welcome you to Adverse Camber.” He tilted his head to one side, like a big, curious crow. “Can I help you with anything at all?”

“No. Uh … I mean – thank you, no.” I scrambled to my feet. “I’m just looking for escape holes for Eccles.”

I realized I could have phrased that more coherently, and had another go.

“I mean I’m looking for holes for Eccles to escape through – COULD escape to – escape THROUGH …. Hello Vicar, nice to meet you.” Desperately, I thrust my hand at him in greeting. “And I’m an atheist.”

I keep replaying it in my mind, over and over again. And every time, it gets worse.

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