Header overlay

The Tortoise and the Writer

Share this

The day before she died she was clambering over a pile of books on the floor of my study: novels used for teaching, reference books for the novel I was writing. She wasn’t used to being there. She clambered over the twentieth-century fiction, and a guide to Victorian china, in the same way she did everything: slowly, with a thoughtful curiosity, and a gaze as ancient as Greece.

Her name was Archimedes. Right face, wrong gender: she looked, said my son, like an Archimedes. He named her much larger mate Homer. Homer was out in the garden, fighting fit, but  Archimedes had been very ill; she was convalescing, put in a box of hay in here while I wrote, and kept an eye. Now she’d had enough of the box: she was getting out of it, getting better; I could hear the dry scrape of her feet over a little hill of paperbacks. It felt most companionable.

It had been a long cold spring. When the tortoises came out of hibernation in the cellar, they observed our London garden as they had observed it every April for the past three years, with an intelligent, clear recognition. And they set off steadily over the grass, stopping when they got tired, to go back into their shells beneath the flowering currant or forsythia. At night they slept in separate broken flowerpots.

Homer was a purposeful, active beast, always in search of food or sex; on hot summer afternoons I would hear the clack of their shells as I wrote, and look out to see them: a clumsy, extraordinary act, culminating in his clearly audible gasp. Not hers. Archimedes liked solitude. When she raised her head in the early morning air and took in the smell of wet earth, grass and compost, while the birds sang and the pear blossom spun slowly to the ground – then she was truly meditative, an ancient quiet presence that represented everything a writer needs: silence, seclusion, simplicity; time to dream.

Writers of fiction are strange creatures. We must be alert to, open to everything: each subtle shif

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

The day before she died she was clambering over a pile of books on the floor of my study: novels used for teaching, reference books for the novel I was writing. She wasn’t used to being there. She clambered over the twentieth-century fiction, and a guide to Victorian china, in the same way she did everything: slowly, with a thoughtful curiosity, and a gaze as ancient as Greece.

Her name was Archimedes. Right face, wrong gender: she looked, said my son, like an Archimedes. He named her much larger mate Homer. Homer was out in the garden, fighting fit, but  Archimedes had been very ill; she was convalescing, put in a box of hay in here while I wrote, and kept an eye. Now she’d had enough of the box: she was getting out of it, getting better; I could hear the dry scrape of her feet over a little hill of paperbacks. It felt most companionable. It had been a long cold spring. When the tortoises came out of hibernation in the cellar, they observed our London garden as they had observed it every April for the past three years, with an intelligent, clear recognition. And they set off steadily over the grass, stopping when they got tired, to go back into their shells beneath the flowering currant or forsythia. At night they slept in separate broken flowerpots. Homer was a purposeful, active beast, always in search of food or sex; on hot summer afternoons I would hear the clack of their shells as I wrote, and look out to see them: a clumsy, extraordinary act, culminating in his clearly audible gasp. Not hers. Archimedes liked solitude. When she raised her head in the early morning air and took in the smell of wet earth, grass and compost, while the birds sang and the pear blossom spun slowly to the ground – then she was truly meditative, an ancient quiet presence that represented everything a writer needs: silence, seclusion, simplicity; time to dream. Writers of fiction are strange creatures. We must be alert to, open to everything: each subtle shift of the human mind and heart, each complex interaction, each potential drama. This means, you might think, that we are sensitive. But writers can also have a cruel detachment and our self-absorption can be boundless. Dedication can mean exclusion: of other people, other lives. That spring I was working on a novel in which animals featured large: dogs taken into a rural sanctuary; the sheep and cattle slaughtered during the foot-and-mouth crisis. I was writing, I was teaching, I was, in true twenty-first-century fashion, rushing about. Out in the bitter April garden, Archimedes was freezing to death. I found her, one grey Sunday morning, on her side, tipped up as if in one last desperate struggle for warmth. If a tortoise could look ashen, she did. I knew she was on the point of death. The vet looked grave. We were given a sachet of mineral salts and a dropper, and instructions: she had to drink. She had to be kept warm indoors for at least a week. He didn’t know if she would make it. My son made her drink, prising her clamped mouth open, getting down water, drop by drop. On the second session, she opened her eyes. On the third, she opened her mouth as the dropper touched it. She was recovering; she looked about her. Caring for her became part of the day’s routine. We coaxed her, we talked about her, gave bulletins to my husband at work. And we grew closer, too. It’s not only animals who can be neglected when you are writing a novel. The weather grew warmer. Archimedes was alive and active, clambering over my books. She had been in the study for almost a week, and the garden was sunny and inviting. What could be more healing than warm fresh air? So we put her outside, for perhaps half an hour. When we brought her indoors she looked weaker, but that evening she was active again – so much so that I feared for her safety in that little box of hay. If she climbed out while we were all asleep, might she not fall, and turn fatally on her back? I put her in the cat basket, whose bars at the front offered air and safety. Next morning I found her, at the time when she used to wake and walk out on to the dewy grass and meditate. Now her neck was stretched out between the bars, her head hung down. We buried her beneath the buddleia, and the garden was a dreadful place. Homer walked round it over and over again. He took himself off to his flowerpot early, and his loneliness was like a shroud. Aesop made the tortoise an iconic figure: patient, steady, filled with powers of endurance and perseverance: all the qualities required to bring a novel to completion. But it wasn’t Aesop’s fable I kept thinking of, in the aftermath, but D. H. Lawrence’s poem ‘Snake’. In the Mediterranean heat, a snake comes to the writer’s water trough to drink. The writer watches, and then, on an impulse of meaningless cruelty, he picks up a stick and hurls it. The snake writhes, and is gone. The poem ends with a line that has always haunted me: ‘And I have something to expiate: a pettiness.’ I wasn’t deliberately cruel. Nothing in that small drama in a London garden was petty, any more than in Lawrence’s Sicilian landscape. But I have something to expiate: neglect; self-absorption; and I ask myself if these things must always be the price of writing.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 5 © Sue Gee 2005


About the contributor

Sue Gee’s new novel, The Mysteries of Glass, opens on the Welsh borders in the winter of 1860.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.