I am a dog person.

By that I mean that dogs bring me immense joy, not that I consider myself one. So, when my girlfriend moved in with me during lockdown, I thought life had provided us with the perfect opportunity to adopt a new best friend.

I then calmed down and realised that, whilst I may be tremendously excited to finally own a dog, the logistics of such a pet were not really working in my favour…for one, we don’t have a garden, and whilst I know many happy dogs exist in gardenless flats such as my own, I just wanted to wait until we move somewhere with a little more green space. It seemed only fair.

I also had a vision of me having to run, dressed only in my pyjamas and coffee breath, a mile to the nearest park in the early hours of a mid-December morning for it to do its business and decided quite firmly, right there and then, that we had to postpone this little dream.

So, naturally, I went for the next best four legged pet…a tortoise.

I don’t know why I opted for a tortoise; I’d never owned one before, I’d never really even seen one before, and it wasn’t exactly what most people would consider an exciting new addition to the family. But, after a brief encounter with a random video that appeared on YouTube one day, I thought that a tortoise would be a great idea and, nearly two years later, I’m happy to say I was right.

And so, I think it only right that I share with the world what little Aubrey, as is his name, has taught me over the past 18 months…

Lesson #1 – More isn’t always good.

I like things. As much as I despise myself for liking so many things, I must be honest – I do have a tendency to acquire. These mostly aren’t expensive things by any means – but books, notepads, journals, pens, brightly coloured socks, old maps. The usual suspects. Mostly clutter – but clutter I enjoy nonetheless.

Aubrey does not like things.

He is extremely content with the basics: vitamin D, food, water, a daily bath, some space to roam around in, a back scratch every now and then. We buy him toys. He eschews these toys, waddling the opposite way, far too proud to play with such objects. He is a minimalist. I respect this – he knows to avoid the fleeting satisfaction of retail therapy.

Now, when I approach a new pair of crimson socks in Tk Maxx I back away, only too aware of what Aubrey would say if he saw them.

Lesson #2 – There is no obligation to socialise

Occasionally, I will walk into the living room and Aubrey will be stood in the middle of his enclosure. He will see me and walk toward the edge until I pick him up and scratch his back and muck around for a few minutes.

More often than not, however, I will walk into the living room and Aubrey will be burrowed under his bedding. On those days, he doesn’t give a shit about a back scratch and wants to be left alone. If you touch him, or really make any sort of effort to check if he’s alive, he will hiss dramatically and withdraw further into his shell.

I resonate with this version of Aubrey: the slightly pissy recluse.

I often feel the obligation to socialise – if I am asked out by a friend I often feel that I ought to go; it is what normal people do. They go off to cafes and bars and eat little biscuits with their coffee and pay £12.00 for a cocktail that tastes a bit like Robinson’s squash. I used to feel a little uncomfortable that this isn’t something I really enjoy or feel like doing very often at all, but now I try and emulate Aubrey, but with more “Sorry, I’d love to but I’m too busy.” and less hissing.

Lesson #3 – Slow down a little 

This is perhaps the most cliche and obvious of the lessons a tortoise can provide. I can tell you that Aesop wasn’t lying when he said that they’re slow. They are very, very slow. But that’s okay. It really is. We’re used to fast paced in our world, and this can accumulate into quite a frantic environment. This is where Aubrey comes in.

He sits. He sits and does nothing. He does it for hours. I think “what could he possibly be thinking?” and I watch. And then I remember that I used to meditate daily and it made me feel wonderful, and that I’ve no idea why I stopped. So I move on from watching a tortoise meditate and I decide to meditate myself. And suddenly, everything is more digestible.

Aubrey usually ends these periods of meditation by pissing on his bedding; I draw the line here.

Lesson #4 – Never compromise on sleep

Two years ago, my sleeping pattern was horrific. Screens on late at night. No regular schedule. No early to sleep, early to rise. I was tired from too much or too little sleep every day, and I couldn’t really be bothered to sort it out.

Then Aubrey came along. And Aubrey requires a heat lamp to be turned on in the morning and off in the night. I now had a reason to sort my sleeping pattern out, because the heat lamp must come on – there is a sentient being counting on me.

The day after Aubrey arrived, I set my alarm for 6am. I woke up, put the lamp on, and then couldn’t go back to sleep. By around 10pm I was tired from this early rise (I write this knowing that for many of you, 6am is a lie in) so I went to bed. Thus my routine was forged. After two weeks, my energy levels were amazing and I even managed to rid myself of my reliance on coffee to wake up.

Aubrey still sleeps most of the day, but that’s fine, because I don’t feel like I need to. Also it never made sense to me that I was also a sentient being and should sort my sleeping pattern out for myself…

Lesson #5 – Give people time

I must confess – when Aubrey first arrived and the novelty of having this tiny little shelled creature wore off a little, I realised that I was getting very little attention back from an animal that will likely live with me for many, many years. It didn’t really do anything. I was a bit let down. The thread on reddit said they were the dogs of the tortoise world… how could I have been so foolish?

Then a couple of months in, it seemingly started to recognise us. It would waddle over when we entered the room and, when my mother came over to visit when restrictions were lifted, Aubrey fled her foreign hands and ambled over to Amelia and I instead. We perceived this as the inception of a bond. We won’t hear any other ideas regarding this behaviour. A few months later and we knew what Aubrey like and disliked – we even figured out she loved listening to the radio.

A year on and we have actual proper interactions; it feels like a loving bond. A weird, reptilian kind of loving bond, but a loving bond nonetheless.

I think this is also, minus the reptilian angle, true of a lot of people who have become quite significant in my life.

Too often I have pre-judged or lacked patience with those that have turned out to be important friends to me later down the line.

Is that one a bit of a stretch to attribute to a mostly inanimate reptile with a rock on its back? Probably, but I started this out trying to milk five lessons from the situation and I’ve done it.

Anyway – I can safely say that I look forward to sharing a large portion of the rest of my life (Aubrey may well live over 50 years if properly cared for…) with my pet tortoise.

I hope the dog, when we eventually get one, is as good an educator – although I probably won’t care, because by then I’ll have a garden.