The Tortoise and the Writer

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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

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About the contributor

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

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