Ian McMillan: Left in the Lurch by animals that disappear

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I was thinking about Lurch the other day, just wondering where he’d got to, what he’d been up to, if you could still read his name on his back or if the letters had faded away.

Lurch was my pet tortoise, the one I had as a lad on Barnsley Road; I partly named him after the cadaverous butler on The Addams Family, and partly after his staggering gait. I painted his name on his shell after they’d painted FRED on the back of the Blue Peter tortoise. Later, of course, they had to change FRED to FREDA when she gave birth, and because I was a sensitive lad I spent a sleepless night trying to work out what the female equivalent of Lurch was. Lurcha sounded like a dog, and Lurchee was a kind of exotic fruit, as far as I knew.

It never came to that, because one afternoon Lurch simply walked out of the back garden and disappeared. I’d let him out of his hutch for his daily ramble round the lawn and I’d gone into the house to fetch a glass of dandelion and burdock and a bourbon biscuit and when I came out the lawn was just a Lurch-less expanse of green.

As we all know, tortoises move very slowly, so it shouldn’t have been hard to find Lurch, but it was. He wasn’t under Mr Page’s hedge, or Mr White’s. He wasn’t at the back of the garden near the garage and the shed, and wasn’t anywhere to be seen in the back gardens of Woodhall Road, the street that joined on to ours. I went into the front garden (I know, we had two gardens: weren’t we posh?) just as the Doncaster bus rolled by. Had Lurch somehow got on the 14, making a slow bid for freedom? Did he sit upstairs to enjoy the view? How could he reach the bell to ring it when he wanted to get off, or did he stay on all the way to the bus station? And that was it. Lurch had gone. I thought about Lurch the other day when the lads from up the street came looking for their rabbit, which had hopped away. Eventually they found it, but I started wondering about all the lost animals and where they might be. There was that pheasant that wandered about in what appeared to me to be a cocktail-induced stupor round our garden most mornings a couple of years ago, until one Wednesday it just didn’t turn up. There was that toad that just sat in our garage for months like it wished it was a car. There were those two rabbits who hung around in the cemetery at the back of our house for a few weeks like an old married couple on a walking holiday. There was that huge cow that loomed in the garden of the holiday cottage we rented in Galloway once, and then, by the time we’d got the camera out of the bag, faded, or walked, away.

I reckon they’re all waiting somewhere to reappear. Some nights when I can’t nod off I think I can hear them murmuring on the road outside the house. The rabbits, the huge cow, the toad, the pheasant, and Lurch. Lurch is at the front, like he’s some sort of leader. He’s older now, and wiser. He’s been all over the world, and he’s got lots of stories to tell. He’s even got some holiday snaps; I can’t wait to see them. I wonder if he got further than Doncaster?