Standing in the cavernous, gold-leaf rococo reception room of a legendary athlete’s Palm Beach residence, with a rare chance of an interview was a rich prize sending an email on a whim at 3am.
For once the word “legendary” is not hyperbole. We all grew up hearing about that race, imagining what it must have been like to be there in the crowd, or even to be in the race itself. I was no different, so seeing the very plimsolls worn by Mr Tortoise all these years later was a moment of quiet reverie. I don’t know why, but I never imagined he wore four.
“The boy done good,” I whisper to under my breath. From humble beginnings in Stepney Green, East London he ends up in this place. Yes, the boy really did done good. This is the residence of a true victor, with splendor worthy of the Sun King himself, and a small army of attendants, and its very own nine hole golf course. The golf course is all the more luxurious because Mr Tortoise, being a tortoise, is unable to play golf.
One attendant, a woman in her 20s, beckons and I follow her down a hallway. It is lined with pictures of the world-renown resident pictured celebrities and politicians. It begins with shots of him alongside Marie Lloyd, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, Mohammed Ali, Ronnie Corbett, Sue Barker, Desmond Lynam. Tortoises live a very, very long time. Luckily it is a very long corridor.
We make it to the conservatory, or should I say, one of 15 conservatories, fierce tropical heat being his preferred climate. It must be well over 30 degrees. I find Mr Tortoise in a tracksuit on a towel on a sun lounger. Without a word he motions for me to sit on a wicker chair opposite with a slow but authoritative sweep of a front leg. The air is not only stifling hot but thick with smoke from a hookah from which he sips smoke every minute or two. This is no ordinary athlete. He eyes me with one jet black eye, then moves his head to fix me with the other.
“So, whadda you wanna to know?” he says, in a curious american-cockney draw; which combined with the tracksuit makes a menacing combination. I ask him to tell his story from the beginning. describing in great detail what I imagine was the life of an East End tortoise born around 1910. Nobody knows exactly the year.
For a physically slow creature he is a surprisingly fast talker, but evidently tortoises apparently live not only long but largely uneventful lives. Or, at least, their perception of what may be interesting is not necessarily shared by other species. But, after many stories of lettuces, carrots and hibernations, and just as I was close to passing out from heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, it finally started getting interesting. This comes from a transcript of that tape.
“… We were friends, me and Mr Hare, good friends. Not a lot of people know that. We grew up in the same area, and had the same taste in food. And it was over a meal he suggested he would put me in touch with with Aesop, ‘Aesop the Greek’ they called him, or just ‘Aesop’, because nobody knew any other Aesop. He was the local fixer, this Aesop, small time stuff, you know, getting in extras for music hall gigs, arranging stuff. And, to cut a long story short, this Aesop agreed to take me on his books. So he is managing both me and Mr Hare.”
“But there was not much call for tortoises in those days. We do not have much stage presence, they say,” I shrugged. “Nobody wants to see a tortoise pulled out of a hat, do they? Nobody pays good money to see someone tame a tortoise,” I said I might. “Well, things might have changed, but I can tell you, back in those days they did not. Did you ever see a tortoise on stage?”
“Only the ones on Blue Peter,” suddenly regretting my ten minutes of research.
“That BBC thing for kids? Goddamn amateurs,” he said, with chilling venom, coughing violently. The room went silent for a second or two. A pendulum of phlegm hung from his mouth. I dare not mention it. I had not expected him to be quite so cranky. Still clearly agitated and rumbling with catarrh, he continued.
“So, anyways, a few weeks later Aesop finally has something for me. He tells me he is putting on a series of skits, little shows, and had one he thought would be good for me and Mr Hare. It was some kind of race. It must be some kind of betting racket, I thought. Who ever would put a hare and a tortoise in a race?”
“What kind of betting racket?”
“I don’t know, like that old Xeno’s Paradox scam. Roll up, roll up, who is gonna win, folks? Achilles, literally the fastest man alive, or this lousy tortoise, top speed 0.5 miles an hour. Luckily for Xeno there was always some smart-ass who bets on the goddamn tortoise.”
I would google it later, I told him, provoking a bronchial rumble.
“Anyway, you learned not to ask too many questions in that neighbourhood where we grew up, so long as the money’s good you say yes and keep your thoughts to yourself,” he extended his neck from its shell, tapping his nose. “All I knew was it was five hundred big ones between us. We would be set for years. You can buy hell of a lot of fruit and veg with five hundred quid.” He was right, and you still can.
“The story was simple, he said. We show up. We race. I get beat, but I keep going on to the end. The payoff of the story being to keep on trying, do your best, it’s not the winning but the taking part, yadda, yadda, that kind of thing. People love that kind of thing, especially parents.”
“We settled on 300-quid for me and 200 for Mr Hare, on account of the extra hours I would have to put in. We would both go home quids-in. Simple. Easy money.” He paused and fell back on his lounger, exhausted from the effort of telling the story. Then leaned back up again.
“Well, you know what happened next,” he says, taking another pull on his hookah. “It all goes to plan up until the point Mr Hare—who was out the night before having a couple of drinks—sneaks off for a kip mid-race, because he’s feeling lousy. And, yes, he is out cold for hours! So I am there plodding away as usual, not realising the thing has gone haywire. I must have passed him. It gets dark and then light again. It’s only when I get in the last few hundred inches that I see the finishing tape is unbroken, and that I am about to win the damn thing. I looked over my shoulder and there was Mr Hare maybe a quarter of a mile away, desperate to catch up.”
“I didn’t know what to do. I would have stopped. Nobody would noticed. But then I heard Aesop in the crowd shouting, ‘Keep going, Tortoise, I have an idea for a brilliant rewrite.’ So, he is the boss, so I carry on and maybe a minute-and-a-half later I am over the line, flashbulbs popping.
“The whole thing is crazy, absurd. A tortoise winning a running race! I had not even done a minute of training. Why bother. If you are as slow as me it hardly matters.” Mr Tortoise is glassy-eyed, his head outstretched moving from side to side, as if stretching for the line. Then he fell silent again, thoughtful.
“Our lives were never the same again, not mine, not Hare’s, not Aesop’s even. In that moment I went from an unknown heavily-armoured, reptile bit-part player to being a global megastar. Aesop started cashed in millions on his royalties for the story, the book and movie rights. And, Mr Hare, well, poor old Hare was the eternal laughing stock. The poor bastard. He even had to plead with Aesop to get his 200 quid.”
I asked him why he didn’t speak up at the time to say it was a mistake?
“I was too ashamed to admit I was the unworthy beneficiary of what was simply a terrible mistake by Mr Hare. And, let’s face it, I was having too much goddamn fun being that beneficiary. A tortoise winning a running race with a hare? Are you serious? It is outrageous and I felt like the luckiest tortoise ever. And, let’s be honest, I really was the luckiest tortoise ever. Who is going to pass that up?”
I was unable to contradict him. Did you ever say sorry to Mr Hare, I ask him?
“Of course, I wanted to. I was his friend. Imagine being a hare who is beaten in a running race by a tortoise. What does that do to your self-respect? He was completely destroyed. He wanted a rematch but Aesop wouldn’t have it. The money was rolling in. The last thing he needed was to kill the story. He did give hare a payoff to keep quiet. Hare was never short of dough, but he never recovered either.”
A darkness had come over Mr Tortoise.
“I loved that hare, like a brother, but we never spoke again, not really. And then he went on that TV show and made such a damn fool of himself, ranting and raving. He was dead within weeks. They live such short lives, hares. He never, ever forgave me. I am not sure if I ever forgave me either, or Aesop for creating this mess, for that matter.”
Without warning, Mr Tortoise waves his arm dismissively, his watering eyes close and he slips back into his shell, from which a wisps of hookah smoke slowly rise. On the wall above his chair I notice a framed image of Mr Tortoise on the front cover of Time magazine. On a cabinet silver-framed black and white photograph of him outside a two-up two down in Stepney Green. A few minutes pass. There was a polite cough at the doorway and I turn.
“Sorry, he does that,” says the assistant who showed me in. “He gets terribly upset then goes into his shell,” She looks upset too, but not quite so upset. “It could be days.” The interview is over. She asks if I might like a round on the golf course? I decline. It feels like an opportunity missed, but I have too much to process to play golf. ■
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