Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'The debate about Viscount Severn's title was ended by a bloodcurdling scream from upstairs...'
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The events of the past 24 hours have proved to me that even in the middle of the most appalling crises, there is still room in this house for dispute. Miles, my remarkable tortoise, was savaged by Steptoe, our horribly instinct-driven West Highland terrier, and I have been very insistent on taking the blame. I was clearly responsible because I left the sitting room door open while Miles was taking his daily constitutional.

Matthew, however, as we sat and waited to hear from the vet whether or not Miles was going to survive, argued with me on this point. He said it wasn't my fault at all and that Viscount Severn, the new-born son of the Earl and Countess of Wessex, was entirely to blame.

"No, no," I wailed (I was doing a lot of shaking and whimpering during the hours when I thought Miles's life was threatened), "we can't blame Severn for this, it is all my fault."

"Wrong," said Matthew. "If it wasn't for him, this catastrophe would never have happened.

Louis then pointed out that much of the blame must belong to Steptoe, for it was he who seized Miles between his jaws, shook him violently, and gnawed at him as if he was an old bone.


In order to explain why Matthew blames Viscount Severn I will have to recount the entire incident; something I hate to do, but Matthew says it is good therapy.

It was about two in the afternoon, shortly after lunch, and I had taken Miles up to the sitting room with me while I wrapped some Christmas presents. Matthew had passed us on the stairs and made his inevitable comment: "Aah, that fool of a tortoise is out again." It's a line from Alan Bennett's Kafka's Dick and he never fails to recite it.

I ignored him and, upon reaching the sitting room, I realised I had run out of Sellotape, so I put Miles down on the carpet and hurried back to the kitchen for fresh supplies. It was then that Viscount Severn made his entrance. "Splendid news, splendid news!" Matthew exclaimed, shaking a newspaper at me. "I see the Countess of Wessex has been safely delivered of a healthy boy child. His name is Viscount Severn."

I muttered something along the lines of "Ahhh!" and expressed my prescient feeling that Severn might buck the trend of centuries by growing up to be a useful royal. Matthew urged me to please remember to call him Viscount Severn, not just Severn. "I will not," he said, "brook the implied over-familiarity."

In response, I pointed out that so far as I knew, Severn's parents "Viscount Severn's parents!!" came the loud interruption had taken a stand against idiotic deference and that Severn "Viscount Severn!" exploded Matthew was not even to be known as His Royal Highness. I then said that, fascinated by the Severn (Matthew just glared) argument as I was, I must get back upstairs to Miles because I had left the sitting-room door open.

Matthew responded by ignoring the Miles issue and saying that he wasn't aware of any such decision on the HRH front. He said that before I went anywhere we must check the matter on Wikipedia and he then fetched his lap-top and delayed me even further. The Wikipedia entry, it turned out, was confined to just two sections: "Early Life", which tended towards the brief; and "Titles and Styles", which confirmed that I was right about the lack of an HRH. "Well, well, I'm not at all sure about that," said Matthew. "It seems like the worst kind of faddishness to deprive the Viscount of his..."

It was at this moment that the Severn debate finally gave way as a blood-curdling scream was heard from upstairs. Louis had wandered into the sitting room and found Steptoe with my beloved tortoise in his mouth. Poor Miles's shell was in a terrible, bloodied state although, luckily, his little tortoise body was unharmed.

I rushed him to the vet, positioning him safely on my lap as I drove to Holland Park, where Sarah, the assistant vet, who is an actual saint, reassured me that the blood was a good thing because it meant the shell was viable. She advised me not to wait because Mr Carmichael wouldn't be able to see Miles for a while, so off I went, leaving him in her saintly hands, back home to shake, whimper and argue with Matthew about who was most to blame; me, Steptoe or Viscount Severn.

"I refuse to hold Severn responsible," I said through the sobs. "Severn has nothing to do with this." And so moved was Matthew by my distress that he didn't tick me off for failing to use Severn's title.

I have no idea what kind of night the young Viscount passed, but I slept like a baby, waking up frequently and simpering. Shortly before nine the following morning I arrived at the vet's to hear the marvellous news that my remarkable tortoise was going to be all right. He had been given an antibiotic injection, and I was handed some wound powder to apply to his shell. It will take many months to heal fully but there should be no permanent damage.

Later that day, as Miles crawled happily about the sofa, helping himself to a mince pie from Louis's plate, Matthew read out a further newspaper report about the life and times so far of Viscount Severn. At one point Louis interrupted him because he wanted us to look at how very sweet Miles looked with a raisin balanced on his nose, but Matthew interrupted him to ask if he would please show some respect and keep quiet until he had finished the article. It was then, as I mentally reviewed the incident once again, that I came to an entirely new conclusion regarding who exactly had been to blame.