Buying the kids a pet without discussing it with his ex-wife wasn’t strictly kosher, but Mark knew it would earn him a lot of brownie points with Celine and Otto and if Jenny was angry… well, that was a not entirely terrible side effect that he could happily live with.
He bounded up to the ramshackle house that had once been his home, carrying a ventilated shoebox and certain that he would win this round of the divorce.
“Daddy!” came two shrieks, still both within the same octave as the door burst open and each of his legs was engulfed by a pair of arms.
“Hey monsters,” he said. “How’s it going?”
“I got a pogo stick!” Celine said.
“You did? Wow!”
“And I’m already better on it than she is,” Otto said, a little snidely.
“Sounds great!” Mark said. “I can’t wait to see you both have a go at it.”
He looked up and saw his ex wife watching them.
“How’s it been?” he asked and her roll of the eyes said it all.
“What have you got there, Daddy?” Celine asked.
“It’s a present for a very special girl who’s having a birthday today,” he said. “Do you know anyone like that?”
“Alright then! Let’s go inside and see what’s in the box, shall we?”
Brother and sister both exclaimed enthusiastic affirmative noises and charged towards the front room, where most of the guests were sitting. It was not a room that felt warmly towards Mark, as it was made up mainly of Jenny’s family and friends. There were few other children there, except for shy cousin Neal and an enormously fat baby belonging to Jenny’s old boss. Although there were no kids and it wasn’t much fun, there were streamers and balloons and cake, so it was officially a party.
Ex in-laws nodded hello from a distance, but Mark wasn’t bothered about them. He knew where his constituency was and he pandered to them shamelessly as he placed the box on the centre of the table, sweeping away some plastic princess crap given as something to give, rather than with any real care or affection.
“Now then, let’s see what’s in the box shall we?” Mark said to his enraptured offspring. “Celine, why don’t you take the lid off and look inside.”
Curious, Celine did just that and the expression of surprise and delight was everything Mark had hoped it would be.
“Oh my god I love it! Thank you daddy thank you thank you thank you!”
“Oh, cool!” Otto exclaimed. “A tortoise!”
Various glances were shot across the room, between Jenny, her parents and other friends who without saying a word all agreed that this was typical Mark.
“Pick him up gently,” Mark said, carefully instructing his daughter who was spellbound by the wrinkled amphibian now in her charge.
“What’s his name?” Celine asked, holding the creature up above her head so that she could see it from all angles.
“I don’t know. What do you think his name is?”
Celine thought carefully about this.
“George,” she said finally.
Mark clapped his hands with delight. “George the Tortoise. Perfect.”
“No,” Celine insisted (quite firmly), “just George Tortoise. That’s his name.”
“OK. Well, I stand corrected,” Mark said, playing to the adult crowd now. He was hoping for an indulgent smile or two, but all he got were frosty stares.
“Let’s take him out into the garden,” Otto said and Celine agreed that this was a good idea.
At this moment, Jenny came over with a tight smile on her face.
“Could we have a word?” she said brightly to her ex. “In the kitchen. Now.”
“Sure thing,” Mark oozed. She looked like she wanted to shoot him. It couldn’t have gone any better.
As the adults took their conversation to the kitchen, the kids took their tortoise to the garden. It wasn’t much, just a few concrete slabs abutted by a square of crabgrass and a small vegetable patch to the rear. It was to this that the children made a beeline.
“Come on, George Tortoise,” Celine said. “Let’s get you a nice tasty lettuce for your lunch.”
“You won’t get to keep him,” Otto said.
Instinctively, Celine pulled George Tortoise closer to her body.
“Mum’s cross with dad. She’ll take the tortoise-“
“She’ll take him away just to get at dad.”
“But George Tortoise is MY tortoise,” Celine insisted.
Otto shrugged. He was only eight – old enough to observe patterns in adult behaviour, but at a loss to explain them.
“What are we going to do?” Celine asked. “Otto! Think of something!”
In the kitchen, discussions were kept at a discreet volume, but their low amplitude did little to hide the venom contained therein.
“How could you do this?” Jenny hissed. “You know that buying them a pet is a decision we should have made together.”
“I thought she’d like it.” Mark said. “And to be fair, I was right.”
“That’s not the point and you know it. Taking care of a pet is a serious responsibility and you know what Celine’s like. One week she wants something and the next it’s on to something new.”
“That’s why I got it,” Mark said, fashioning an opportune lie, “to teach her that responsibility. It’ll be good for her.”
Jenny shook her head. “There’s nothing for it,” she said. “You’re going to have to take it back.”
“What are we going to do?” Celine wailed in the garden. “I don’t want him to go back to the pet shop. I love him so much…”
Otto remembered something he had once read in a book.
“‘If you love something,” he quoted, “‘let it go free.'”
Celine’s eyes widened, but she got the concept well enough and put George Tortoise on the ground.
“Go on,” she said. “Go back to the natures. Be happy, George Tortoise. Meet a lady tortoise and get married and have adventures together.”
Otto stood by her side and held her hand as they watched their new pet make his bid for freedom.
“He’s taking his time, isn’t he?”
“Come on, be reasonable,” Mark said. “It’s not like I brought her a puppy. It’s a tortoise for God’s sake. All he does is sit in a box and eat lettuce. You don’t have to worry about walks or cleaning up it’s mess. I mean, I don’t know if it even makes a mess…”
“Of course it does, you wally. Everything Poos. Remember the book?”
He did and that shared memory was enough to rekindle some small spark of what they’d had together.
“You need to move faster, George Tortoise!” Celine said, doing everything she could to encourage the ambling amphibian towards the end of the garden, short of picking him up and flinging him. Exasperated, she turned to her older brother. “What are we going to do?”
“Hang on,” Otto said, chewing his lip as he considered the situation, “I think I’ve got an idea.”
Explaining it would take too long, he decided. He had heard his parents hissing at each other and felt certain that they would be out soon with bad news. His little sister could be pain sometimes, but he didn’t want to see her upset, particularly not on her birthday. He told Celine to hold on and then rushed back into the house.
Without children present, the adults had opened a bottle of wine and greeted Otto more warmly than when it had just been tea on the menu. He brushed off grandpa’s invitation to do the hokey-cokey and quickly grabbed what he needed from the table.
“Look, it’s not so much the tortoise,” Jenny said. “Honestly, I quite like tortoises.”
Mark knew she did. His choice had been no accident.
“The thing is not talking to me about it. Just because we’re not together anymore, doesn’t mean we’re not on the same page where the kids are concerned.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Mark said. He could afford to be magnanimous, now that he had won. “I totally should have asked you about it. I just got caught up in the idea.”
Jenny allowed herself a little smile. In her mind’s eye she could see him in the pet shop, grinning to himself as he picked out George from the other tortoises. Not just George, she amended. George Tortoise.
Oh god. She’d used his name. It was game over, wasn’t it?
“Hurry up! Tie faster!” Celine whined. “I don’t want them to get him!”
‘They’ were her parents – her beloved mummy and funny daddy, both of whom she usually worshipped but who had, in extraordinary circumstances, become the enemy.
Poking his tongue out between his teeth, Otto did his best to maintain his concentration as he tied the strings around George Tortoise’s shell. It wasn’t easy and he nearly let the strings slip through his fingers more than once, which would have meant the end of everything. He was more focused than he had ever been in his short life. No video game, book or football match had ever held his attention like this and if he’d had the time or the insight, Otto might have realised that it was because nothing he had ever done had been for such high stakes.
“There,” he said. “I think that’ll do it.”
He let go of the animal, just to confirm what he thought was true, before holding it tight and taking it over to his little sister.
“You have to do it,” he said, peeking between the balloons tied to George Tortoise so he could look his sister in the eye. “He belongs to you. Only you can let him go.”
Celine nodded solemnly as she took George Tortoise and held him up above her head.
“I’m just tired of being the killjoy,” Jenny said. “I feel like I’m always the one who deals with nits and allergies and forms for school and you get to take them on bumper cars and buy them pizza. I don’t want to be the one who says no all the time, you know?”
And despite himself, Mark did. Thoughts of point scoring went out of the window as he remembered that they were both raising these kids and, perhaps, doing it well was within their mutual grasp.
“Fair enough,” he said. “Next weekend I’ll take them to a town planning meeting or something. You can take them to KFC when they get back.”
“Celine won’t eat KFC,” said Jenny and then, off Mark’s smile, added: “Will she?”
Mark shrugged. “One way to find out. Now, about the tortoise…”
“Yeah, of course she can keep it. I’m not a monster.”
“Great. Let’s go and see what they’re up to.”
“I’ll tell you now, though,” Jenny said as she pushed open the back door, “I’m not taking it for walkies. The neighbours already think in crazy as it is…”
Although Celine and Otto were both used to their parents laughing, it had been a while since they’d heard them do so together. They turned at this unusual (but welcome) sound.
“Ok then,” Jenny said, “where’s George Tortoise? I haven’t had a chance to say hello properly yet.”
The children looked at each other and then wordlessly pointed at the sky, where a shrinking dot was raising up into the clouds.
“If you love something,” Celine said. “You let it go.”
Her parents looked at each other, unsure what to say.
“I love George Tortoise,” she added, before heading back into the house for cake.