Enjoying a long lunch with friends, Ernest Hemingway once placed a wager for $10 each that he could craft an entire story using only six words. On a napkin he wrote ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ and collected his winnings.
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Be inspired by Adam Marek’s charming short story on a fraught negotiation.
Tommy spread a beach towel over Dad, who had fallen asleep, his face resting on the open pages of a fat paperback. After three weeks in Dalyan, they had only two days left and had agreed to spend them making the most of this magnificent beach: the steep wooded mountain slope to the left, which dipped all the way down into the ocean, where waves had gnawed caves into its skirts; and to the right, Lion Rock, its sandstone mane concealing the Kaunos amphitheatre. In this direction, where the beach gradually dwindled to a spit, there were white long-legged birds shimmering in the heat, and a little way in front of them, a boy kneeling on the sand, holding a translucent lunchbox up at face level to look at something inside. Something alive.
So fascinated was the boy that he didn’t notice Tommy till he was close by, close enough that Tommy could now see that the thing inside was maybe a big lizard, or even a coiled snake – and this made Tommy’s breaths quicken.
In his three weeks of exploring Dalyan, he’d found nothing this big. His belly was a whirlpool of excitement and envy.
‘What have you got?’ Tommy said, nodding at the box.
‘I just caught it.’
The boy was a little younger than Tommy, maybe 8 or 9, a local, but his English was confident. He wore a t-shirt that had faded to charcoal grey, the print of a skeleton riding a motorbike on the front almost entirely washed off.
‘Can I see?’ Tommy asked.
The boy held the box up towards Tommy, and he could see now that inside was a tortoise.
Tommy reached out to take the box so he could look more closely, but the boy snatched it back to his chest. The movement startled the tortoise, causing it to retract its head.
‘It’s injured,’ Tommy said, noticing the smear of green-brown goo on the inside of the box. On the lid, the boy’s name was written in thick black marker: Kadri P.
‘What are you going to do with it?’
‘You think your parents’ll let you?’ Tommy looked around. It was impossible to tell which of the people on the beach the boy belonged to.
Kadri rolled out his lower lip and shrugged.
‘How’d you catch it?’ Tommy said.
‘I eat my lunch over there.’ He pointed to the scrubby patch of reeds at the edge of the lagoon on the other side of the spit. ‘I hear a sound and see it just there.’
Amazing that something so rare and magical could be caught in this way, and not with weeks of patience and cunning.
‘Can I buy it from you?’ Tommy asked.
The boy leaned back, placing his hands behind him in the sand, arms locked straight. He stretched his legs out and rested his bony heels on top of the box. His skinny legs, like Tommy’s, were dotted all over with scabby mosquito bites.
“Amazing that something so rare and magical could be caught in this way, and not with weeks of patience and cunning.”
‘I don’t know,’ Kadri said.
Tommy put his hands into his pockets and pulled out two one-lira coins, plus eight or so tiny coins of little value. He held his coin-laden palm out towards the boy.
‘No,’ Kadri said, and shook his head. He gazed off towards the mountains, as if he had all the time in the world. Anxiety gripped Tommy. He leaned down to peer through the side of the box again, the presence of the boy’s feet keeping him from getting close.
‘It’s all I have,’ Tommy said.
The boy frowned and looked Tommy all over, giving him a shrewd appraisal. Tommy looked down at himself, at his badges, his red neckscarf, the Zoological Society of London patch that he’d sewn onto his shorts pocket himself and that he was sure could be unpicked in a hurry if necessary.
‘I think I keep it,’ Kadri said.
Tommy clamped his teeth down on the inside of his lower lip. ‘What are you going to do with something like this?’ he said. ‘It could be endangered. I know about this stuff. I know animals.’
The boy raised his eyebrows. ‘You don’t know this one.’
It was nearly lunchtime and across the way, the women in the stilted wooden hut were rolling out dough for gozleme and frying them on hot plates for a queue of tourists. The smell of sizzling butter and of cheese and spiced potatoes drifted across the beach.
‘How much do you want for it then?’ Tommy asked. What a thing it would be to take this creature back to the villa, under his control, where he could see it properly, take care of it, if only for a couple of days.
‘Twenty lira,’ Kadri said.
The boy held out both hands, palms upwards, and shrugged again, this gesture making him a half-sized facsimile of the market traders, who insisted on haggling for every purchase.
‘Twenty lira,’ Kadri said again. He sat up, crossed his legs and put both hands on top of the box, as if suspicious that Tommy might try to steal it, now that it had been transformed into a valuable commodity.
‘It’s not worth twenty,’ Tommy said.
‘It is to me.’
Tommy flicked a wave of sand over his own knees in exasperation. ‘Two lira is all I’ve got.’
‘It is not enough.’
Tommy leaned in to take another look at the tortoise, as if with a more thorough assessment he could prove to this boy that two lira was a fair price, if, say, it really was injured. If only he could see it more clearly. The details of its body were tantalisingly few.
‘Can you open the lid just a little so I can see it better?’
‘It will escape,’ the boy said.
‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a tortoise.’
Kadri shook his head.
‘Well I’m not going to buy it unless I’ve had a proper look. Can I just hold the box for a moment?’
Kadri thought about this, and then handed the box to Tommy. The tortoise had surprising weight. Tommy wondered whether the boy was a fast runner. But he decided against stealing the tortoise; even if he felt that this wild creature did not truly belong to Kadri, the boy did have a legitimate claim on the lunchbox. The tortoise could not be taken quickly without the box, and Tommy was not about to become a lunchbox thief.
He held the box so close to his face that his eyebrows brushed its surface. From here, he could see that the smear inside the box was not tortoise blood, but faeces. Did that mean it was distressed? He had to have it, at any cost.
‘Five lira,’ Tommy said. He didn’t have five lira, but already he was thinking he could maybe negotiate next week’s pocket money early with Dad.
‘It’s not worth more than seven lira. It’s almost dead.’
‘Twenty lira.’ The boy took the box back and gave Tommy a wholly adult look of disapproval.
‘That’s not how it works.’
‘Twenty lira and the tortoise is yours.’
‘You know, tortoises have a poisonous bite. The second you let it out, it will bite you.’
‘I wait till it’s dead,’ Kadri said.
He was just going to let it suffocate in the box? Now, suddenly, this was a different kind of transaction. It wasn’t about mere ownership, but rescue. A rare creature’s life was at stake.
‘Eight lira,’ Tommy said. ‘My final offer.’
‘This is ridiculous. You have to come down. I’ll meet you at fifteen.’
The boy shook his head, then looked at his watch. ‘I have to go now.’
‘Wait,’ Tommy said. The possibility of losing this creature forever, created by Kadri’s turned back, suddenly made the boy’s asking price seem reasonable. ‘Fine, twenty lira.’
‘Do you have it?’
‘Give me two minutes,’ Tommy said. ‘And be gentle with that.’ He pointed at the box. The boy was holding it sideways and the tortoise was piled into the thin end of it.
‘Two minutes, don’t move,’ Tommy said, and he ran back across the beach.
“It’s not worth twenty,” Tommy said.
“It is to me.”
Dad was still asleep and had pulled the towel up to cover his head. His shorts were crumpled beside him, and inside the pocket, his wallet. This wasn’t stealing. Tommy was just taking his pocket money in advance. But still, he moved with stealth.
He had the wallet open and the notes half out when Dad awoke and said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’
‘I need my pocket money early. I have to rescue a tortoise.’
Dad rolled over onto his side and took the wallet out of Tommy’s hands. ‘What tortoise?’
‘You don’t help yourself to my money.’
‘This is really important.’
If this were the first time Dad had caught him stealing something then maybe he’d have been able to get away with it, been given the benefit of the doubt.
‘You’re not spending 20 quid on a damn tortoise.’
‘But this boy is going to kill it.’
Dad put the wallet back in his shorts pocket, then tucked the shorts under his hips, pulled the towel back over his head, and rested his face on the book.
Damnit. If only he hadn’t blown his integrity with Dad last year at the Natural History Museum on something as frivolous as a pteranodon eraser.
‘Fine. If you won’t give me the money then you’re forcing me to steal the tortoise.’
Dad’s voice was sleepy and muffled by the towel. ‘Don’t steal the tortoise.’
Furious, Tommy ran back up to the little beach café. This would require cunning and surprise. He crept round the back of the showers and the toilet block, then edged along the side of the gozleme hut – the point from which he would launch his attack. He crouched down in the burning sand and slowly peeked around the edge, heart thumping, ready to pounce.
But the scrubby edge of the lagoon was empty. The boy was gone.
Award-winning short story writer Adam Marek’s work can be found everywhere from The Sunday Times Magazine to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story. His inventive titles, ‘Instruction Manual for Swallowing’ is one of them, certainly mark him out from the crowd.