It was Singapore, 1972. The school holidays seemed to last forever that summer, and the highlight was the day I found Jimi Hendrix.
Carp bite best when the sun is still low and the water is cool. My brother and I had stopped on the way to the fishing pond and bought newly-baked bread from the Chinese bakery on Lim Chu Kang Road. We pulled big soft chunks of the bread and sprinkled it with aniseed-water and put half the bread onto the hooks and ate the other half. We could see the fish circling, the rings of water giving them away as they kissed the surface. It was a bit too easy. The fish liked the aniseed-bread too much and we liked catching them too much, so you could say it wasn’t really fair. But we loved doing it anyway. Later, when the sun was up and the dragonflies had started to dance, the fish would head down deep, into the cooler water. We tried more exotic fare in our attempts to entice them: mashed up boiled tapioca; corn; cubes of cheese; even worms; but we knew there were was really nothing for it, except to wait it out until the sun dropped again. We sat around for a while making up stories, trying to outdo each with the tallest tale, which we would always swear was absolutely true, till we got bored. Leaving my fishing rod under the eye of a curious kingfisher I went scavenging and came across a rusty old landing net, half-hidden by reeds at the edge of the pond. It was stuck fast and it took a few good pulls to get it out, but it was worth the effort, because tangled up in the net was a terrapin as big as a generous-sized dinner plate. We asked Mr. Lim, the owner of the pond, if he had a box. Neither my brother nor I were sure about the rules for taking terrapins on public transport so we covered him with a towel and hoped he wouldn’t make a noise and distract the bus driver. He never made a sound, as far as I remember.
When we got him home, I constructed a pen in the corner of the garden from bits of discarded wood and chicken wire. By this time, I had decided on his name. I rummaged around till I found a tin of red paint in amongst the gardening tools, and using an old, fat calligraphy brush made from bamboo and pig hair, bristles stiff with dirt and age, I painted his name on his back, painstakingly following the partitions on his shell to keep the lettering neat. Diet was a bit of an issue to begin with; he was a bit of a fussy eater. It seemed terrapins didn’t care much for hamburger, or cheese, or bread, or fried rice, or dried salted plums. At least, this one didn’t. After a bit of experimenting, I discovered terrapins were, on the other hand, rather partial to lettuce, mango, papaya, jackfruit, and more lettuce. Once he had settled in to his new home, I rigged up a harness from an old dog lead so I could let him out of his compound. I tied one end of a piece of washing line to the harness and the other end to a pole and lifted him out so he could roam loose around the garden. When he realised he had a modicum of freedom he clambered up onto the tips of his gnarled legs, like a boat raising itself up onto hydrofoils, and off he charged. People that had only seen tortoises crawling around had trouble believing how quickly a terrapin could move. He gave the dog a fair run for her money as she ran alongside, barking at this odd-looking intruder with the custom paint job. We had a great summer, Jimi Hendrix and me. He had real character, and you couldn’t say that about too many terrapins.
It ended as suddenly as it had begun, late on that year. I came out to his pen one morning with a bowl of lettuce to find him completely lifeless. No amount of coaxing and no amount of tears induced him to stir. My father told me sometimes these things are just meant to be and my mother told me how smart he had looked with his red name and she was sure he’d been very happy during his time with us. I found an old metal tin and placed Jimi inside, and taped the box up so the ants couldn’t get in. I took him to an overgrown piece of scrubland, where he wouldn’t be disturbed, and buried him.
I wish I had known more about terrapins then. I wish I had known how to feed him properly, and I wish I had known he needed shade from the height of the sun and access to water, to keep him cool. I suppose, looking back, I wish I had just left him where I had found him on that day back at the start of the holidays. But most of all, I wish I had known that, even in the tropics, where the temperature rarely dropped below 28˚C, some species of terrapins still hibernate, and when they hibernate they appear exactly as though they are dead.