One night, when I was ten, my father came home from work carrying a tortoise under his arm. With difficulty. It was the biggest tortoise I’d ever seen.
He placed it on the kitchen table and the seven of us watched as it slowly pushed out its ancient head and surveyed its surroundings. Then, faster than we expected, it extended its legs and tried to walk away, slipping and scrabbling on the plastic surface. My sister Ansie leaned forward and stroked its shell. A stream of yellow liquid trickled out from the rear end and she leapt back.
“Get that thing out of this house and into the yard where it belongs,” said my mother sharply. “Yirra, Jannie, where’d you find a such a big tortoise?”
My father looked a bit sheepish.
“This guy from Angola got stopped coming through today. His whole family, seven kids, dogs, chickens, the lot. Course he didn’t have any papers so they’ve all ended up at the Camp to get sorted out. The dogs had to go into the kennels and the chickens are in a cage there too. Then when I was parking his truck out of the way I found this big rock here sitting in a corner at the back. So I thought, shame man, he’ll probably die. They could be sitting in that camp for months.”
“Why didn’t you just let it go in the veldt?”
“Ag, I thought the kids might like it. He’s a big bugger, eh?”
My father was a policeman, at that time seconded to the Namibian Immigration and posted to the border post at Oshikango. His previous posting had been on the border of Mozambique in an even smaller town, where the families tried to come over at night, making chirruping noises like crickets to fool the customs officials.
They didn’t fool my father however, he could spot a moving shadow in the bush without his binoculars and soon got a reputation for being a good man to have on a border crossing.
But it had been a depressing post. So many of the people came over on one leg, the other a bloodied stump wrapped in filthy bandages, and my father who was a big softie at heart used to get the whole family loaded onto lorries and taken off to hospital from where, he know, many of them would melt away into the relative safety of the South African bush.
This secondment was meant to be a promotion of sorts, an acknowledgement of his ability to spot the unwanted shadows. My mother didn’t think much of it however. She found it difficult to make friends amongst the wives of the customs officials, who she thought were a rough lot. She disapproved of their drinking alongside their husbands of a Friday night and kept herself aloof from their raucous joking and coarse language. In the four years we’d lived there, she had never been invited for morning coffee and in turn, she had never invited anyone herself. She said we five kids kept her more than busy enough, thank you.
Our house which stood alone near the general dealers, was a standard government box with a red corrugated- iron roof and an outside long-drop, hot in summer and cold in winter and too small for five children. There was no place for pets in our house: my three brothers were allergic to cats and according to my mother all dogs were potentially vicious fighters, or at the very least flea carriers and hair shedders. Probably, we just couldn’t afford to feed a dog.
“A Portuguese tortoise!” I was enchanted. “Let’s call him da Silva.”
Mr de Silva owned the fruit and veg shop opposite the general dealer. He was the only Portuguese person we knew. The others who came across the border were in a hurry to reach Johannesburg or Cape Town, but for some reason Mr de Silva had stayed put, selling wilted turnips and soft, dusty oranges from their cartons. He made most of his money from the pinball machine that stood on the verandah outside his shop.
“He’s an illegal immigrant,” said my mother . “You’re not allowed to bring him home, Jannie, you know that. He’s livestock. We could get into trouble.”
We knew about illegal immigrants. Every day Angolans in heavily-laden old trucks and rusty sedans tried to cross the border to escape the civil war not far behind them. They were stopped at the Customs post, their papers studied. The lucky ones were allowed through, to a life full of more peaceful possibilities in the Republic. Many others were rejected, my father was called from his office and they were driven away to an internment camp close by to await their fate.
“Ag…” Pa smiled. “Nobody will mind if we just let it run in our garden .I couldn’t just leave it there in that filthy truck. He was hungry.”
“Hungry, my foot, ” said my mother, but she went into the kitchen and cut some slices of fresh cabbage. “Take this out to him and see if he likes it.”
He did. Da Silva settled down in our back yard, the perfect pet. Days would go by when we forgot about him, then we’d see him heaving his ponderous shell out from under a bush and greet him like a long-lost friend. There was no emotional response from da Silva but he accepted cabbage, fruit or whatever else could be spared from the kitchen, and if we forgot about him, he foraged for himself. In winter, he disappeared underground, only digging himself out when he could feel the warmth once again.
The year I started high school, my father joined the Railway police and we moved down to De Aar in the middle of the Karroo. Da Silva came too, travelling in the boot of our green Valiant, completely filling a Sunlight Soap carton with holes punched in the lid.
The move meant a bigger and better house on the outskirts of a proper town, with a supermarket, which pleased my mother. But at the same time it was decided that Ansie and I would go to a Cape Town boarding school, and we were worried that in our absence da Silva would be forgotten completely. We appointed our youngest brother Frikkie to make sure he couldn’t escape from the new garden and to feed him his usual titbits. Frikkie was seven at the time and happily accepted the responsibility. Da Silva became histortoise and he hotly defended his right to be the sole feeder and caretaker of the family pet.
Frikkie took to studying da Silva.. He borrowed books from the library and announced that he was a male Leopard tortoise, the biggest kind you could get in Africa, and a very large speciman at that. Da Silva was 60 cms from end to end of his shell and too heavy for Frikkie to pick up. He polished his yellow and brown patterned carapace with furniture wax so that it gleamed, and made him a strong wooden box in which to hibernate. He even did a school project on da Silva, for which he got an A, with the remark “Very well observed” at the bottom of it.
“That’s nice,” said my mother approvingly. “Pity it had to be about that blerrie tortoise though. You should get interested in sheep, man. Then you could get a job with Mr de Witt or Mr van Zyl and learn to be a farm manager one day. They train school leavers all about sheep, no need to go to agricultural college. Mrs le Roux’s son Hansie is doing very well with Mr de Witt, he’s even has his own house on the farm.”
“I don’t want to work on a farm, Ma,” said Frikkie softly. “ I don’t like sheep. They’re stupid and they’ve got funny yellow eyes.”
“Course he doesn’t want to work with sheep,” said my father heartily. ‘Unless you’ve got your own farm, you spend your whole life dipping sheep and washing their backsides for blowfly. No, Frikkie’s going to be a policeman like his Pa, eh Frikkie?”
“A policeman? No, he’s not! D’you think he wants to spend his life in some miserable little dorp like this? Working with all these drunks and skollies? No, Frikkie’s going to do something to earn decent money. He gets an A for his school work – he’s going to get a good job somewhere far away from this hole. Think he wants to end up like you?”
My father sighed and shifted his paunch uneasily. We recognised the beginning of a fairly regular one-sided conversation between our parents and so did my father. He got up and went to the door.
“Think I’ll check the chickens before I turn in.”
My mother clicked her tongue with annoyance.
“You concentrate on sheep, son,” she said. “There’s good money in sheep.”
My mother always liked to have the last word.
One evening during the winter holidays while Frikkie was at a scout meeting, my father was reading the paper in front of the fire. Suddenly he gave a loud exclamation and snorted with laughter.
”Listen to this!” he exclaimed. “Those clever buggers have started using tortoises for smuggling diamonds! “
It was reported that some Angolans, who were now leaving their country in their thousands and were officially classed as refugees, had taken to sticking uncut diamonds onto the shell of a small tortoise, then gluing the shell of a larger tortoise on top. These were then packed snugly at the bottom of a cardboard suitcase or in the centre of a cloth bag and took their chance going through the border, presumably taking care of the stones until the time was right to sell them on. Nobody knew how many had made it through into South Africa undetected , but in the past month, no fewer than four specially doctored tortoises had been found. One of them had uncut diamonds valued at half a million rands glued between the two shells. The give-away had been a double ridge at the bottom edge where the top shell fitted less than exactly over the other.
“Bloody marvellous!” chuckled my father.
The same thought struck us all simultaneously.
Da Silva. Diamonds. Could he have …?
It was night time, as cold and dark as only a Karroo night can be. I fetched a flashlight from the garage and we walked out into the back garden, the frosted grass crunching underfoot. We found the rounded shape of da Silva under a pile of hay in his box. I felt a bit doubtful. If da Silva had been harbouring any diamonds for all these years surely we would have noticed it?
“Quickly, bring him into the light where we can see him properly,” said my mother, her voice shrill with excitement. “Don’t drop him now.”
We had barely got da Silva onto the kitchen table when Frikkie came home.
“What’re you doing with da Silva?” he demanded, glaring at all of us. “He doesn’t feel like coming out now, he’s hibernating. I never said you could play with him.”
“Don’t worry, Boet, we’re just checking his shell,” soothed my father.
“There might be diamonds under there,” added my mother, flushed with the thought of sudden wealth. “Uncut diamonds.”
“Oh, come ON Ma,” retorted Frikkie, “ You don’t get diamonds from a tortoise! You get them from under the ground!”
“Don’t get cheeky with me, young man, “ she snapped, “ da Silva is from Angola, isn’t he? They’ve been smuggling them out for years. His shell could be STUFFED with diamonds.”
We peered intently at the edge of da Silva’s shell and in the dim kitchen light, it suddenly seemed to me as if there could be a double edge to it. If I looked at a certain angle, there was definitely a thickness above the outer edge. This could easily be another shell, one that had been expertly glued down ten years before. How could we not have noticed this until now?
“Jannie,” said my mother, ”You’ve got to try and take this off. Shall I fetch the claw hammer for you?”
“MA!” Frikkie was horrified. “You can’t smash da Silva’s shell off! He’ll die!”
“No, Boetie, not smash it off, you Pa is just going to.. sort of.. LIFT the top shell off,” soothed my mother. “He won’t hurt de Silva , now will you Jannie?”
I saw her wink at my father.
He studied the tortoise, who by this time had sleepily poked his head out and was staring around him with his beady little eyes unblinking in the light.
“I tell you what, skattie,” he answered, “Let’s leave this till tomorrow morning when it’s properly light. I’ll go down to the hardware and see if they’ve got anything that can dissolve the glue. I wouldn’t want to damage the shell now, Frikkie’s right, it could kill this animal.”
“ If you crack a tortoise shell they can die. They get infections, Ma,” said Frikkie in a strangled voice. “Leave da Silva , he’s not hurting you. He hasn’t got any diamonds anywhere.”
“Okay, Frik, put him back outside,” said my father. “We’ll look at him again tomorrow.”
“Yirra, just think if that tortoise has been carrying uncut diamonds all this time!” said my mother dreamily. “You know it’s not hard to sell those things. There’re IDB men everywhere, you just have to know the right person. They pay you cash, no questions asked and even one little diamond can make a person rich. A big tortoise like ours can be carrying fortune. We could move to Cape Town near Auntie Hazel and we could buy a house there. And get a new car.”
But in the morning, da Silva was gone. His wooden box was empty.
I suspected that Frikkie had taken him somewhere else until the diamond rush was over, but my mother was furious. She suspected da Silva of foul play, of knowing what our plans were and of deliberately foiling them.
“He’s here in the garden somewhere,” she muttered, her bony face alight with frustration. She was on her hands and knees, brushing aside the shrubs and poking a garden fork in between the cabbages. “Or maybe someone came and stole him in the night.. if they read the paper they’d know he could be a very valuable animal.”. Considering there were about a thousand Karroo tortoises within a hundred metres of the town borders, I thought theft was unlikely, and we continued to search for da Silva until my father burst our bubble. He told us not to be stupid, that having uncut diamonds was a crime and that there was no point in looking, as we’d all go to prison if we found any and didn’t hand them straight to the Authorities.
A man with a strong respect for Authority, he wasn’t going to lose his job just because his wife and a bunch of greedy kids wanted to try a bit of illicit diamond selling.
Frikkie watched us from a distance, taking no part in the search for de Silva , which I thought was proof enough that he knew where he was. But we never saw him again and over the next few months the completely tortoise faded from our lives. Ansie thought he might have fallen in love with a lady tortoise and followed her into the veldt.
My mother referred to him bitterly as ‘that tortoise that could have made us rich’ and for a long time afterwards I found her intently sweeping aside the bougainvillea branches and peering underneath the aloe bushes.
Ansie and I went away to college after that, and slowly my brothers grew up and left home too. Frikkie, who turned out to be the brightest of us all, won a bursary to study zoology at the university in Port Elizabeth. He did his doctorate on the Chelonians of the Northern Cape and became quite famous at the university when he discovered a new sub-species of tortoise. The local paper ran a picture of him with a tiny black tortoise in his hand, and made him sound like a bit of a freak, enthusing over his tortoises and telling the reporter they each had their own personalities. My mother pasted the whole article onto a piece of cardboard and framed it. It joined his graduation photo on the mantelpiece, next to the wedding photos of the rest of us and pictures of her many grandchildren.
When our parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, all five families descended on the small house in De Aar. Ansie and her husband came from England and my brother Andre flew over from Canada. The rest of us came up from the Cape. The reunion was noisy and cheerful with many of the cousins meeting for the first time.
After a huge dinner at the hotel my father made a short, rather slurred and emotional speech which embarrassed my mother and then sat down gratefully to get on with some serious brandy and coke. The rest of us caught up with family news.
Ansie and I were chatting to Frikkie, sitting alone while his new wife showed off their baby to her in-laws.
“Hey Frik, remember da Silva?” I said idly. “Was it you that set him free that night? Ma was so cross, remember?”
“No, not me,” he grinned. “Didn’t you guess? It was Pa.. I saw him go out in the middle of the night. He put him in the bakkie and drove him off to the veldt on the other side of the railway line.”
“No! Did you ever say anything to him about it?”
“Ja, he told me the next day. He just said he thought it would get Ma off his back. He didn’t want to kill da Silva any more than I did! He never really believed they’d find any uncut diamonds, and if they were there, he certainly didn’t want to find them. It would have given him a heart attack just thinking about what to do with them.”
“That’s typical Pa,” said Ansie lovingly. “Peace at any price. I suppose da Silva is still wandering around in the veldt somewhere. Tortoises live a long time, don’t they?”
“He could live to be 60 years,” said Frikkie. “He’s a Leopard tortoise and they’re pretty long lived. He’s twice the size of the local tortoises around here. If someone found him they might have kept him too, although it’s so illegal these days they might not want to risk the fine. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.”
But in the end, I did. Four years later I was visiting my mother in the council retirement home where she’d moved after my father died. Age hadn’t softened her and she was one of the ‘more difficult’ residents, as the matron never failed to tell me. Now eighty- one and nearly blind, she missed the stimulation of married bickering and often sat for hours just staring out of the window, as prickly as ever with the other residents. Whenever I came, she demanded to be read to out of the Cape Town papers I brought with me, commenting crossly on everything she heard.
Politics – they’re idiots, the lot of them. What do they know about government, half of them are still in the trees. Sport – Naas Botha was the only one who knew how to kick a ball, why don’t they bring him back? International news – she just wasn’t interested. I searched for the shorter, human interest articles that she liked and had just finished reading aloud about a snake from Bloemfontein which swallowed a Maltese poodle. “Shame, that was somebody’s little pet, let’s hope it didn’t suffer too much, eh,” when my eye caught the headline below.
“Man found guilty after shaggy tortoise story.”
Something made me scan it before I started reading to her. It was about a man being tried for the possession of uncut diamonds. He’d attempted to sell them to an undercover policeman, who had looked at the stones he offered and promptly arrested him. In his defence, the man said he’d come across the squashed remains of a big tortoise on the highway between Johannesburg and De Aar, and he’d found the stones right there amongst the broken shell. He claimed the tortoise must have found them somewhere and eaten them and by rights, this gift from the gods was legally his. The policeman hadn’t believed a word of his story and neither did the magistrate. Five years and no option of a fine.
I must have made a small noise, because my mother snapped, “Come on, what have you found? Read it to me! Don’t skip the good bits!”
“It’s nothing, ma, just some man found guilty of IDB.”
“Only fools would get involved with illegal diamonds,” she said.
I turned the page and carried on reading aloud about a homing pigeon that came home