Second Prize Story Winner
2020 Cooney Insurance Short Story Competition
By Laura Thompson
It was 3am when I realised that my wife had left me.
I’d woken to find myself twisted up in the sheets like an intricate napkin folding, legs sweaty, dreams evaporating. I began disentangling myself quietly so as not to wake Angela, before noticing she wasn’t there.
My first thought was that she was in the bathroom. I sat up, but I couldn’t see any light coming from the en suite. My second thought was that she was down in the lounge, unable to sleep but not wishing to wake me, possibly huddled on the couch with a book.
I headed downstairs. A lamp or two was on, but the seat cushions of the couch were smooth and free from insomniacs. The lounge felt different somehow, but I couldn’t place it.
I went into the kitchen. No-one. I imagined her standing in front of the fridge, hand on hip, or tipping on the bar stool as she gesticulated wildly, or flicking dismissively through a recipe book before throwing it aside and saying, “Let’s get takeaways”. All very typical Angela actions that I had watched her do countless times, so familiar I felt like I could press play and make them happen. Too bad I couldn’t find the remote.
I continued to walk through the house, past the downstairs bathroom, the laundry. Then I let myself into the garage.
Her car was gone. So, she was out. A nighttime drive? Or an emergency? Strange that she didn’t wake me.
I went back into the lounge where I’d left my phone on charge, but there were no messages. I sat down on the couch to call her, and then I finally realised what was wrong with the room. It was the light. It was different.
The turtle tank was gone.
Angela bought the turtles the same year we got married. Marriage came first – our wedding had a surprising turnout considering both our families were famously homophobic. We made a point by inviting them, and they made a point by attending. If I were to summarise our relationship with our families, that would be it: pointy.
We’d been living in the house for six months together, dating for twelve. I proposed in bed, both of us naked and hungover after a night of truly excellent sex and too much red wine. I’d just brought her coffee from the kitchen, and a plate of plain brown toast. I set the tray down on the bed, coffee slopping a little, and went to the window. I opened the curtains, to which Angela responded with a growl, and threw open the window to drag some fresh air into my lungs.
“Did we smoke cigarettes last night?”
“J*sus. My throat feels like a corpse has been stuffed down it.”
Angela giggled. “Do another one.”
“OK.” I felt around my mouth with my tongue. “My teeth feel like mouldy crockery left to rot in a dishwasher.”
“Hmmmm, too wordy. I liked the first one better.”
I climbed back into bed with her. She was sitting half up, balancing the coffee on her hip, squinting out the window. Looking at her, I felt I could see her at every age she would ever be: forty, with creases around her eyes; sixty-six, finally conceding to grey hair in spite of her vanity; ninety, still with that vibrant, ringing laugh. She took a sip of coffee and spilt some on the sheet.
“Ah, f***. Sorry.”
“Will you marry me?”
Angela stopped scrubbing and looked at me.
“Will I marry you?”
She stared at me, burst out laughing, then said, “Go on,” and gave me a wink.
And so, we were engaged.
Two days later, we were sitting in the kitchen having breakfast over the paper, me finishing off a Sudoku, she pretending not to read the Entertainment section. Scenes like this had taken on a strange air of self-satisfaction in the wake of our new engagement, as though we were kids play-acting marriage.
Angela finished with her section, closed it with a flourish and said, “Oh, I forgot to mention, I have a condition.”
“A condition? What, like a medical condition?”
“No. A condition of marriage.”
I filled in a 2. “All right, then. Name it.”
“I want turtles.”
I put my pen down. “Turtles?”
“Yes. Two. I’ve always wanted turtles, but I’ve never been in a position to have them.”
“And what kind of position is a turtle-owner required to occupy?”
Angela shrugged. “Well. Being a responsible grown-up who lives in one place indefinitely, I suppose.”
After confirming the difference between turtles and tortoises to ensure I was not committing to flatting with a living boulder for the next forty years, I agreed. We were married in spring and Angela had her turtles by summer.
“I’ve decided on their names.”
Angela descended the stairs dramatically. In fact, she did everything dramatically: washing the dishes, writing an address, rolling over at night. All were done with huffy flamboyance. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.
“I will not.”
“With the names.”
She approached the tank. It stood on a specially built shelf beside the couch, wider than the television and glowing with an eerie blue light, as much a sea creature as its inhabitants.
“May I present: Pickled and Tickled.”
“You’re naming your turtles with past participles?”
Pickled and Tickled leant a charming oddness to our newly married life. Not only were we the married lesbians (“the hot married lesbians,” Angela liked to remind me, “no-one would accept us if we were ugly”), but we were the married lesbians with pet turtles. When asked at social gatherings, I would assure earnest enquirers that yes, it was a gay thing, while Angela choked on her drink laughing.
We were happy. Until, it seems, we weren’t.
Three weeks into my wifeless, turtleless existence I was lying in bed, watching “Silence of the Lambs” on my phone. At the sound of the rubbish truck I heaved myself downstairs to put out the recycling. The sweet stench of trash made my stomach squirm. I hadn’t been drinking, but my insides felt pickled.
Pickled. Sitting on my doorstep in a patch of sun, waiting for me.
Of course, Angela was not happy.
It took several phone calls to convince her that I had not staged a kidnap. She was too outraged to accept my invitation to come and collect him, too offended to believe he might prefer living with me. There was nothing I could do but wait for her to calm down. In the meantime, Pickled and I flourished in each other’s company. I’d come home from work, crack open a beer and lift Pickled out of his tank to play in the rock garden I’d made for him in the bottom of a laundry basket. I’d pop an old rock concert DVD into the player and we’d sit back and enjoy a low-maintenance evening, both of us slowly coming out of our shells the more time we spent with one another. Angela had always had trouble convincing Pickled to allow her to pick him up, but the two of us built up trust over a couple of days. The key was consistency; something that Angela (and, from what I gathered, Tickled) lacked.
After several weeks of no contact, I received a call from Angela. She sounded much calmer, or perhaps just tired. She informed me that Tickled had died two days ago; a nasty case of shell rot. She wanted to know if she could come and visit Pickled.
“And you, of course. I’d like to see you too.”
The day came and went, but Angela didn’t. I phoned a lawyer friend of mine and asked her professional opinion on pet custodianship following a separation, but she assured me I had nothing to worry about.
She was right. It’s been two years now. I’ve got a new girlfriend, who Pickled likes. She’s got a cat, who Pickled doesn’t like. But we’re taking things slow. Living with a turtle is pretty inspiring that way.