Fiction Contemporary Friendship

I first met Mr Sugiyama as he was hosing down his turtles in the driveway. Having come to expect the extraordinary from Japan, it took me a moment to register how odd the sight was. Two turtles flailed their flippers languidly on the hot concrete, each a little larger than my hands cupped together. An older Japanese man in suit trousers, white shirt rolled to his elbows and yellow crocs stood over them. In his hand a long, orange garden hose gushed water over the flapping reptiles. He smiled when he saw me staring, eyes glittering with amusement.

“They like the sun, but it’s too hot,” he said simply, gesturing to the hose. Gnarled hands gave away his age more than the short hair whitening at his temples; I had taken to watching people’s hands to gage how formal I should be. Heels squarely on the ground, he squatted down and beckoned me to crouch next to him. Taking my wrist, he guided my hand to pat the larger turtle’s shell. I expected it to feel smooth, but its ridged back felt more like hard, wet tree bark under my ink stained fingers.

“This one is a man,” he said. “And that is his girlfriend.”

“Amazing,” I breathed, ignoring his startled expression. “How old?”

“Eleven and ten,” he replied, grinning widely enough to show the crown of a golden-plated molar. “Your Japanese is good.”

“So-so. I’m learning.” Foreigners were so rare in this area of Kyoto that locals were often surprised by my ability to string shaky sentences together. I had lost confidence in the constant declarations of awe at my language skills when I accidentally told a crying child she was ‘a kettle’ instead of ‘brave’. I nodded my head in an awkward excuse for a bow. “I’m Jenny. New English teacher at the school. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you. Sugiyama,” he nodded back. “Do you like turtles?”

“I can’t see them.”

Mr Sugiyama screwed up his face in confusion and I knew I had said something wrong.

“I definitely can’t see them?” I tried again, tentatively.

His frown cleared and he grinned. “You’ve never seen one before!”

Rolling the words around my mouth to remember the taste, I nodded. With a patience I had not encountered at my workplace, Mr Sugiyama slowly built a picture of the turtles’ personalities in simple language and showed me how to tell their genders. The male’s tail was longer and he was a little smaller which the female took great advantage of, knocking his shell to push him about. Their flippers felt like chapped skin between fingers during winter. When I built up the courage to stroke their heads the female closed her eyes in enjoyment, but the male shrunk his head away into the recesses of his shell. How much extra space is there in turtle shells to accommodate for them hiding?

“Can you help me bring them inside? I have something to show you.”

Excited to see where the turtles lived, I agreed eagerly. He turned off the hose and showed me how to pick up the turtle, taking the larger female with ease. I struggled to lift the male, misjudging his weight.

“Hold tight - the shell is hard, you won’t hurt him,” he laughed.

He led me through the narrow front door, toeing off his shoes and stepping up onto the wooden floor. I faffed in the entrance, having to put down the turtle to untie my laces, cursing myself for wearing shoes that I couldn’t kick off. Retrieving the turtle, I was led through a tight corridor into the main room. The centre of the room was decorated in traditional Japanese fashion, with a low table in the centre and bamboo mats underfoot. The whole length of the wall, though, was taken up by a water tank as deep as I was tall and perhaps a metre wide. Seaweed swayed and tiny shrimp swam leisurely at the bottom, ducking behind rocks as we moved closer. Light from the window on the opposite wall streamed across the room to reach golden fingers through the water. At the top right corner, the tank protruded out above the water with a sandy dry area for tired turtles. Filters, thermometers, heat lamps and to my surprise a rubber duck crowded at the water surface. Mr Sugiyama stood on a stool to open the lid and plopped the turtle straight into the water. With a splash, it swam in joyous loops. Getting down from the stool, Mr Sugiyama waved me up.

“Careful,” he warned as I wobbled whilst stepping up, hands full of turtle. I lowered the male down - his flippers wriggling in every direction. A splash and a powerful kick later, he joined his mate chasing shrimp at the bottom of the tank.

With a huge grin on his face, Mr Sugiyama found a step ladder and placed it next to the stool. “Stand here and look,” he said, lifting the lid over the dry area. He scooped a little sand aside, revealing a clutch of mottled eggs. I went to cover my mouth with amazement.

“No,” he said, grabbing my wrist. “Wash your hands before putting them near your mouth. Turtles carry salmonella.”

He let go and pointed back at the eggs with a proud smile. “This is the first time she layed eggs. I have waited many years for this moment.” Delicately, he covered the eggs with sand again and after a stilted conversation I took my leave, thanking him for showing me something so special. He smiled and told me to come back and see the turtles again some time. I left with a grin on my face, looking forward to meeting him again.

A week later a large turtle appeared in the first grade primary class at my school. I turned up to teach and found all ten students crowded around a tiny tank, prodding it and dropping grains of rice from their lunches into the tank. The turtle struggled to keep its head above the water, flailing helplessly as they pushed it under again and again. Horrified, I told them all to sit at their desks, but English is no match for an exotic classroom pet. Without the vocabulary to explain that they were mistreating the animal, they didn’t understand why I was angry. The lesson was a disaster with distracted, upset children forced to sit at their desks by the evil foreigner. Their usual teacher told me off afterwards and the language barrier got in the way of my desperate attempts to ask if they would move the turtle into a bigger tank with a place for it to rest out of the water. “It wants bigger water with sand” did not get through.

Days followed of sick children with runny tummies missing school. Little hands that prodded the trapped turtle went into little mouths or onto door handles. I sat helplessly through morning meetings where teachers agreed that germs from the turtle would make the children stronger. My stuttered concerns were brushed off - no time to listen to the foreign teacher who couldn’t speak properly.

Checking on the turtle every evening was all I could do. A detritus of moldy rice gathered slowly at the bottom of the tank, with the occasional wilted lettuce leaf stuck to the edge. Over the next week, the water became green and opaque. One evening, in desperation, I removed the turtle from the tank after the children had left and took it to the playground. Exhausted and eyes gummy, the turtle did not move in the sand at all, even as I trickled water from a bucket over its flippers as I had seen Mr Sugiyama do. Smuggling it back to the tank, I was caught by a teacher who thought I was trying to steal it. Under the threat of losing my job, I left the turtle to its daily torture, watching with growing helplessness until I could stand it no longer.

I looked up the word for ‘mistreat’ in my pocket dictionary, whilst waiting at Mr Sugiyama’s front door after school. Shifting from foot to foot, I peered at the front window to see if anyone was in. I knocked a third time and hastily stood back as the door swung open. Mr Sugiyama wore a frown, which turned into disbelief at the sight of me fidgeting on his doorstep.

“Sorry,” I started and fumbled for the words I had looked up. My mind went blank and I found tears springing to my eyes as I mouthed wordlessly. Mr Sugiyama gave a kind look and ushered me inside.

“What’s happened?” he asked, leading me to the room with the turtle tank. He gestured to the table on the floor and sat down on the other side, tucking his legs into the dip underneath.

“There is a turtle at the school,” I managed to force out. “It’s sick.”

Mr Sugiyama frowned. “Then take it to the juui.”


“The animal doctor.”

“No,” how could I explain that wasn’t the whole problem? ”The children give it rice and -,” I mimicked pushing it under water.

“Only this much water and no sand.” I showed how wide the tank was with my hands, frustrated with myself. Mr Sugiyama’s frown deepened. I worried that he would say this was none of his business and throw me out.

“The turtle is this big.” Another gesture, only slightly smaller than the tank. “And children don’t wash hands. All getting sick. Dangerous.”

“What are the teachers doing?” He asked darkly. My heart leapt.


“This is terrible. That is no way to treat an animal.” He looked at his turtles worriedly as if to check they were still safe. The larger female was grazing on a lettuce whilst the male swam around the bottom of the tank catching tiny shrimp.

“Please go to school. I can’t speak,” the frustration of being unable to communicate on top of worry for the turtle made my throat burn and I could feel tears threatening to spill over.

Mr Sugiyama stood, determination flashing in his eyes. “Don’t worry, I will go now.”

He handed me a tissue packet as I scrambled out from the low table. He hurried me out the door, forgoing his yellow crocs for fancy black shoes. As soon as I was out the door, he speed walked in the direction I had come. I hesitated, wondering if I should follow. I dashed to catch up, but he stopped when he saw me.

“Better if you go home for today. Come and see me tomorrow after school.”

Wanting to argue, but without the words, I watched him speed up the slope to the school. The sky was slashed by overhead cables, and the setting sun swathed the narrow street in broken red as Mr Sugiyama’s silhouette faded up the hill. Swallowing once, I hoped it wasn’t a premonition of what was to come.

The turtle was gone the next day. I glanced into the classroom as I passed on my way to a different lesson and my heart stuttered. Unable to concentrate, the children ran riot. I was first out of the class when the bell rang, running down to the classroom where the turtle tank remained, drained and slick with green muck. The teacher eyed me strangely as I let myself in.

“Where is the turtle?”

“It’s dead. Someone came to look at it yesterday and said it was sick. He took it to the vet, but it died on the way back.” She stared at my devastated expression with confusion and shrugged. “It was only an animal.”

I don’t know how I made it through lessons that day. Guilt wracked me and I wasn’t able to keep up the ‘happy foreign teacher’ facade. I had failed to save a life. I should have gone to Mr Sugiyama earlier. I should have stolen the turtle ages ago and smuggled it to him.

When the final bell tolled, my last class shot me odd looks as they filtered out. I fussed with the endless papers at the teacher’s podium, dusting chalk from my hands and glancing about for things to tidy. The children had cleaned before leaving. Nothing was left to keep me and yet I dithered, finding busy work where there was none. I didn’t want to face Mr Sugiyama knowing it was my fault. Dragging my feet, I finally left the school after darkness had fallen. My feet were lead; every step a court sentence. I arrived far too late and yet painfully early to Mr Sugiyama’s door. He opened before I could knock and I waited in silence for his condemnation.

He studied my face with a blank expression and sighed.

“Come with me.”

I followed him quietly, slipping my shoes off and padding down the narrow corridor to his turtles.


He pointed at the tank. Both turtles were swimming in happy circles around the tank. I watched solemnly, wanting to cry. Mr Sugiyama shook his head.

“No, look!”

He pointed again towards the dry sandy corner and I gasped. A third turtle dozed on the sand under a heat lamp.

“The vet said he wouldn’t make it unless he was treated better. So I told the school he died.” He grinned at me mischievously.

I have never seen a Japanese man look more shocked than when I hugged Mr Sugiyama.

January 27, 2021 11:40

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D. Owen
14:43 Feb 01, 2021

An unusual setting and friendship. Well done. I had two small turtles as pets as a child. Their home in my room was a plastic pool with and island and tree.


Emily Trucco
10:12 Feb 04, 2021

Thank you very much, D I am relieved to hear that someone who has experience with turtles enjoyed this story! I honestly have no idea how to look after them.


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