In a dark and fusty corner of the reptile shop, there was a tortoise that Adrian loved.
“Good morning, Betty,” he would say to the tortoise each day, when he opened the shop between noon and one o’clock, squinting against the clang of the shutters, his nostrils twitching to adjust to the smell. “Did you sleep well?”
Betty would shuffle and bump against the plastic walls of her tiny enclosure, looking prehistoric and sad.
At the start of the new year—the Year of the Horse—Adrian had discovered a packet of stick-on crystals at the cosmetics store where he went periodically to replace his mother’s electronic eyelash curler, which she continued to lose in her room at the old persons’ home in Lai Chi Kok. (Adrian imagined the gadgets piled up under her bed, their miniature battery-heated tongs broken and glinting, swallowed by time, confounding future anthropologists). The following day, he placed a pink crystal on one panel of Betty’s shell.
Visits to his mother took up Adrian’s mornings. She was a small woman, not yet seventy, crumpled and proud, otherwise beset by the mortal flickerings of Alzheimer’s disease. The old persons’ home seemed made of linoleum and tattered brown blankets with high, yellow windows and the smell of ammonia in the hallways and rooms.
When Adrian left, he often had to stand outside and focus on his own breath before he was able to walk on.
The journey from his mother’s home to Happy Chameleon Palace took Adrian one hour and twenty-five minutes on a series of underground trains and aboveground trams, pressed against people who kept their heads down and stared mutely into little glowing screens. Adrian spent his commutes cataloguing the behaviour of his fellow passengers, willing it to change.
They wouldn’t even notice if they started to forget things. They would trickle on through the days of their lives, scrolling and scrolling, avoiding the dangerous thoughts that might come from a lucid interaction with the world.
Morons. He preferred the company of reptiles.
For three years, Adrian had managed the shop in Happy Valley, which occupied a patch of pavement opposite the Hong Kong Sanatorium. During that time, he’d marked up Betty’s price every time a customer showed interest. Betty was a Central Asian tortoise, an ordinary species, who now cost 168,000 Hong Kong dollars.
Adrian’s boss had not said anything about it so far. He was a fat man who lurched into the cramped space on occasional afternoons, wearing cheap sunglasses and reeking of cigarette smoke and old food, translucent stains streaking the legs of his jeans. He often cooed at the chameleons, but was otherwise wordless.
Adrian knew Larry hoarded the “Live Animals” stickers that were plastered on the crates that came into the warehouse in Mong Kok, from places Adrian had never heard of and which sounded unreal, like Quito, Ecuador, or Albuquerque, New Mexico. One of the drawers in the office was full of these stickers, each annotated with neat script in black marker to show the species, its date of arrival, and its place of origin.
Adrian had discovered that Betty had been in the shop, bumping against the edges of her pen, for nine years. That day he’d picked up the tortoise, who drew in her head and legs, and stepped onto the street with her tucked under his arm. So that she could experience light. But it was one of those summer days, when the sky was hazy with chemicals and dull with the threat of rain.
When Adrian told his mother about Betty, the old woman believed the tortoise was a girl, and asked her son questions in a manner that made clear she had rehearsed for the occasion: Was she Chinese? Did she come from a good family? Did she speak English? What did her father do? Adrian knew his mother would forget the conversation almost as soon as they’d finished it, so he’d played along for the moment, allowing himself to pretend that the relationship was true.
But Adrian’s mother didn’t forget, and continued to ask him about Betty. The tortoise’s name remained lodged in a smoky corner of her mind, solid among the crumbling parts. Even on days when she wasn’t sure who her son was, she would ask him, “How’s Betty, young man?”
So Adrian continued to pretend, because he couldn’t bring himself not to. And because when he spoke about Betty as a person, warm and alive and free, he found that he was able to smile, and the weight of the day shifted off him, just a little.
Late at night on his nineteenth birthday, Adrian had come home to find the front door of his apartment wide open. He’d shared the subdivided space with his mother since his Ba had passed away. Warmth from a lone heater skittered into the empty hallway.
“Ma!” Adrian yelled, his fingers white against the peeling door frame. “Mama!” He shouted, hunched over, as though the apartment were large. It was easy to see she wasn’t there.
He’d read once that “Mama” is a universal word, the only one that means the same thing everywhere. He thought of this as he ran through the blurred orange streets of their neighbourhood, yelling it over and over again. It occurred to Adrian that everybody who saw him would understand that he had lost his mother.
He found her kneeling on the pavement in her silk pajamas, trembling, with her fingers in a grate. Her mouth was gummy and her eyes glazed over. Oh my God. Oh, Ma. What’s wrong?
As Adrian hugged his mother, she was saying, “Help me find it. Could you please, young man? I dropped it down there.” That’s when the Alzheimer’s really began to show.
On the afternoons that Larry didn’t come in, Adrian allowed Betty to leave her enclosure, sliding back a plastic sheet so the tortoise could crawl onto the shop floor, which was often scattered with wooden planks from the collapsed crates, heaped on top of one another and interspersed with haphazard mounds of reptile accessories.
It was like selling animals out of a messy cupboard.
During Betty’s forays around the shop, Adrian would hold long conversations with her. He would even inject pauses, as though the tortoise were talking back.
My mother thinks you’re real. She thinks you’re human, I mean. A nice, well-brought-up Hong Kong Chinese girl with excellent English—that’s what I told her.
I said your father was a neurosurgeon, one of the best. I noticed that Ma, she paused when I said it, like she knew I was lying. So I said it again. I only got away with it because she doesn’t think well. She has a disease, looks at me some days like she’s never seen me before. My own Ma, can you believe it?
Sometimes, Adrian would squat on the floor, feet flat with his wrists hanging over his knees, and watch the tortoise creep towards the door. Sometimes, he would shine the flashlight of his phone at the spot on her shell where the crystal sticker was, and make it twinkle until he laughed. Sometimes, he would open the door and turn away, look at his watch and count four, five minutes—just to see if Betty could make it outside, how far she could go.
Sometimes, Adrian would watch as expensive cars across the road slipped down the hill from the Sanatorium, a private hospital with a lobby like a five-star hotel (his mother’s words) that he had been to only once. The wealthy family, on Deep Water Bay Road, they had insisted that his father’s body be taken there. Remains. That was the fancy word they had used.
Adrian’s father had been that family’s chauffeur for as long as Adrian knew. His Ba was always nervous in the mornings, anxious to be punctual, couldn’t bear to disappoint. The asphalt was wet one day after a rainstorm, but his employer had called and said he’d better hurry up. So he drove fast down the steep, narrow road. The car skidded around a corner, smashed through the railings and hurtled into a ravine, and that was it. Mundane, incredible. Adrian had not been allowed to see.
Then Larry would call to grunt about the day’s sales (usually a couple of terrapins, at most), or a customer would come in “just to look”, so Adrian would have to stop talking to Betty and put her back inside her pen. The clunk of her shell against the clammy wall made him flinch every time.
On a Wednesday night, at a quarter to eight, Adrian returned to the shop with his dinner—a Styrofoam box of char siu fan—to see a woman bustling out the door with a cat carrier, her black hair tumbling out from under a brown beanie with teddy-bear ears. Larry was standing in the middle of the shop floor, grinning.
“You’re a genius, son,” he said, and Adrian held his breath as Larry approached and clapped him on the back. “That tai-tai will tell all her friends now. Imagine, 168,000 dollars for a luxury tortoise! How gullible can you get?”
Adrian’s stomach felt cold. Betty. Obvious, impossible. He wanted to run after the woman, but wasn’t sure his legs would carry him, so he just stared at Larry, whose rows of yellow teeth didn’t part as he laughed.
“You sold her,” was all Adrian said.
Larry said they would close up early that night. Hell, might as well take the rest of the week off. Larry had in mind to raise all the prices in the shop, plaster the animals with crystal stickers, re-name it Swarovski Reptile Boutique. How about that, boy? Haha! Adrian was silent; he couldn’t tell if the man was joking. His dinner seeped out of its container into the plastic bag.
“Clean out the cage before you go.” Larry nodded towards the corner of the shop, flipped down his sunglasses, and was gone.
Adrian squatted, touched a finger to the side of Betty’s enclosure and watched it smudge. He tried to remember the woman’s face, but she was just a jumble of blurry details in a stupid hat.
Later, Adrian boarded the tram by the Happy Valley Racecourse, which was floodlit and teeming for the midweek pao ma. Even the crowds in the street, the echo of the horses running, could not distract him.
His Ba would have placed a kind hand on his shoulder. His Ba would have said, “Nevermind. It’s alright, boy.” As for his mother, what would he tell her, the following morning in Lai Chi Kok?
Samantha Leese was educated at Stanford University and the London School of Journalism. She was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she currently works as a journalist. Focusing on travel, arts and culture, Sam’s articles have appeared in magazines such as Condé Nast Traveller, Artforum and Time. “Betty” is her first published piece of fiction.