When I furnished my office shed, I deliberately faced the desk away from the window, so that I would not be distracted by the view. In practice, this means I spend a lot of time in an uncomfortable position, neck craned, chair twisted and leaning back, so that on sunny days I can stare balefully at an empty hammock.
While I am staring, the tortoise crosses my line of vision, left to right. If I am still staring in this direction after an hour I’ll see him again, on his next full circuit of the garden beds, the back steps and the side return. I like to imagine he’s enjoying the planting from different perspectives, but I know he’s just looking for a way out.
My wife opens the door of my office, enters, sits down on the small sofa behind me, and starts scrolling on her iPad. I can’t tell you how unusual this is.
“Was there something?” I say.
“I just need you to look at this,” she says, handing me her iPad. On it is a picture of a bungalow, apparently somewhere in the south-west.
“Nice,” I say, thinking: why is she showing me this?
She takes the iPad from me, scrolls for a bit and hands it back.
“That’s the view from the kitchen,” she says. It’s a landscape of rolling green hills divided by hedges, tumbling away into the distance.
“OK,” I say, thinking: oh my God, why is she showing me this?
Then she tells me the price.
“That’s all for now,” she says, standing up.
Later on that day we meet again, in the sitting room.
“The thing is,” my wife says. “I’m not sure I want to die here.”
“No, me neither,” I say, although from experience I know that by “here” my wife probably means “in London”, whereas I mean “in this chair”.
“This house doesn’t seem too big now,” she says, “because everyone’s still in it. But they won’t be here for much longer.”
“That’s true,” I say, looking down at the chair’s upholstered arms and thinking: actually, there are worse places to die.
“I’m just considering possibilities,” my wife says.
“Yeah, I know,” I say, thinking: the last time you said that, we moved.
Over the next 48 hours, this new vision of the future sharpens in focus, until my wife announces that she is going to look at the bungalow in the photograph on Monday, and then stay the night with a friend who lives near it. The next morning she comes down with a packed bag.
“So what am I doing?” I say. “Selling all our stuff and meeting you there?”
“Can you think of any questions I should ask about it?” she says.
“Yeah, find out what it’s made of,” I say. “That could be important.”
“Pardon me, but do we know what this house is made of?” she says.
“Also, what’s the foundation like, and is it haunted or anything,” I say.
“I’ll ring you,” she says.
That morning I sit at my desk, twisted to face the window as usual, but seeing nothing. I know that my wife’s response to any kind of restlessness is bold action, while mine is mute panic, and that in our history of big decisions her response has usually been the correct one. She was right about moving last time, when I made what was in retrospect an admirable decision not to cloud her judgement with my fear.
The tortoise crosses my vision from left to right, with a determination that belies the fact that he’s travelling in a crooked loop.
Much later, I find myself sitting on the edge of my bed, wondering if I should risk a short nap or just press on with my evening. The trouble is, under the circumstances a short nap could end up being the rest of your evening. My phone rings while I am staring at it.
“It’s a no, I’m afraid,” my wife says. For a moment I have no idea what she talking about.
“Oh, really?” I say. “Why?”
She explains about the view, the prospect of a development on the other side of the road, and the situation generally.
“Just not quite right,” she says, sounding deflated. “I’ll send you pictures so you can see what I mean.”
“Did they say what it was made of?”
“I’ll be back by mid-morning,” she says. “Please can you water my plants?”
When I go out to water, I notice the tortoise tucked into his spot under the ivy at the base of the garden wall, bathed in the last faint rays of the setting sun, home and dry.