A closeup of one of our four chickens (all called Gladys) who have just dined on cold pasta, custard, old quiche and lettuce. Chickens must be one of the most wonderful things in the world, along with onions, tea and most forms of cake.
Not only do they provide us with eggs in return for all their tasty scraps hurled out of the kitchen window but great entertainment: sunning themselves, squabbling over spaghetti, running in that eccentric side-to-side lolloping gait, and the noises – an extraordinary range of warbles, squeaks and squarks.
How terribly sad that many of their kind never get the chance to scratch in real dirt, lazily recline under the sun or stand in a tray of water. The following short story (from ‘Dog, and other tales’) was written after seeing a particularly haunting Facebook post, and months before we actually got our own chickens. If you have a space for a chicken or two in your life, and garden/yard, they are totally recommendable: in every way.
© Kate A. Hardy 2016
“Oh . . . oh . . . cockadoodledooooo!”
Margy shuffles up against the headboard and stares at me as I slump next to her.
“Ant – I’ve never in all our . . . God, how many times must it have been? – heard you do that. Oh, Baby, yes! Give it to me, etc, but not chicken noises.”
“Poultry, generally, then.”
She runs a hand over my chest and squeezes a nipple. I push her hand away.
“Stop that. You know it makes me shudder.”
The hand stops and moves back, stopping at my patch of chest hair that grows oddly like a small grassy hollow between two bald mounds.
“Your hair feels odd, Ant.” She leans over and peers closer: “Have you been taking some weird hormones or something?”
“These hairs . . . they’re thick, stubby.”
I sit up and stare down my nose at the patch. She’s right. The hairs look more like thin plant stems, although dark grey – miniature quills, almost.
I roll from the bed and pull on a T-shirt.
She’s looking at me in a peculiar way as she wraps herself in that absurdly expensive dressing gown.
“Sure. I’ll just shower.”
I walk into our new, sleek kitchen – bought with that bonus for another supermarket contract found and signed.
I’d walked around the plot with the boss late that afternoon; him pointing out where the next hanger was going to be built. He’d lit a cigarette, sucked hard and blown the smoke into the northerly wind screaming past the first shed. I’d held my breath not wanting to inhale his smoke but caught a full lungful of chicken shit stench instead.
“Yer’ a good worker, lad,” he’d said. “Keep it up and there might be a manager’s job for you – better car too.”
“Where’s the coffee, then?”
I jump back to the present; chicken molecules morphing into anti-bacterial spray.
“Sorry, Marg. Just thinking.”
“You’ve been doing a lot of that lately – gazing into nothing,” she says.
I have. It’s true. Since that evening I’ve told no one about.
Clopping a coffee capsule into the machine, I listen to its small macerations as my mind wanders again.
I’d stayed on late, trying to catch up on emails. Smyth had left, his pale blue Jaguar swishing from the forecourt to reveal my lead-grey Mondeo with its fake walnut dash and miss-matched hubcaps.
Better car too
Feeling nauseous after one too many machine cappuccinos, I had walked out into the dusk air. The wind had dropped. A faint tapestry of sound leaked from the main shed.
Man of office, I had never actually observed the birds, imagining some sort of chaotic but faintly pastoral scene of clucking and soil scratching.
I walked over, the sound becoming strident. The door was open. It should have been locked, surely. I stepped into bright light and sickening smell; white feather dust, a million desperate eyes. Someone else was in there with me.
A girl stood taking photographs. She turned to look at me without fear.
“Are you the owner?”
“No . . . how did you get in here?”
“Bribed one of them – ginger hair, stupid face. Anything for a quick feel.”
“What are you doing?”
“Obvious, isn’t it?”
She stepped carefully through the sea of bodies and showed me the back of her camera, passing a pale finger over the screen. Images of crammed birds passed: 1-2-3-4-5 . . .
“Pretty pictures, eh?”
“What do you intend to do with them?”
She ignored my question: “Have you ever seen chickens doing what chickens should do?”
Memories flitted in my mind: sandy soil, scaly feet raking, low contented warbles and squeaks.
“How can you work here, then?”
“It’s just a job. I have a mortgage to pay” –
She cut me short: “I’ll make you a deal. Quit this place and you won’t die unhappy. I’ll see to that.”
I had stared at her strange little sallow face, framed by yellow hair, and was unable to answer.
Margy is glaring at me, hands on hips: “Oh, never mind, I’ll do it.” She pushes me aside and deals with the coffee. She’s somehow got dressed during my memory wanderings.
“Margy? You know . . . I was wondering about a change of direction. Perhaps that idea of a café we used to talk about.”
She snorts delicately: “With this mortgage. Are you insane? Anyway, you said you’d support me while I had another crack at public relations.” Knocking back her glass of coffee, she clicks it onto the marble surface and picks up her car keys. “I’ll be back at about six. I’m having early drinks with the guy from Zoidion Media – says he might be able to put something my way. Ciao.”
Ciao. When did she start saying that? When did I start becoming unaware of trees, clouds, perspective, water? Those sketch books had been heavy with pencil; books she had beguiled me into throwing out.
‘You won’t die unhappy.’
The day passes uneventfully in the office. I frequently turn from my computer’s glow to look towards the shed. Yellow machinery has appeared on the proposed site where Smyth paces in a hard-hat with clipboard-grasping people.
Dawn, the sandwich woman, looks blankly at me on her lunch round as I ask for crudities rather than chicken. I take the limp, off-white bread and smell the contents. Ghosts seem to rise from it. I fling it to the bin and eat a Mars Bar.
Tonight I cannot stay late. We have people coming round. Margy is going to cook – risking blemishing the new black hob.
I excuse myself to Smyth. He nods, suggests I can make up the time tomorrow.
Back at the house I can’t seem to go in. The garden seems far more interesting. I take off my shoes and socks and investigate cool soil with my toes.
The earth is quite loose – newly turned by that landscaper she’s employed; turned in preparation for an olive tree and ornamental grasses surrounded by shale. An olive tree in the Midlands?
I point my foot, ballet dancer-like and pull back it, scooping the soil. It feels good; as satisfying as scraping out a cake bowl, like I used to with Gran. I do it some more: left, left, left – switch – right, right, right. A large worm is revealed under the flickering street lamp. I bend forward, stoop, cock my head and stab towards the earth. I fall, knees hitting a pile of waiting York stone.
Margy stands in the doorway wearing a never-before-used chef’s apron, hair freshly coiffured, new strappy sandals.
“Hi, just . . . dropped my keys.”
“Where are your shoes?”
“There, by the hydrangea bush. What time are the Frosts due round?”
“Eight-thirty. Look, do you think it might be a good idea to see . . . someone, perhaps.”
Half an hour later, mud is twirling into the shower drain. I rub a towel over the sink mirror prior to shaving and notice, not my face but my chest hair. The small ‘quills’ appear to have minute brown straggling hairs attached to them. Touching one, I observe iridescent green under the halogen glare.
Margy’s voice shrills from downstairs: “Nat . . . where are you? They’re here!”
After passing a hand once more over the hairs, I don the crisp, blue shirt and Armani jeans she has also bought on today’s credit card splurge.
A scent of roasting beast has infiltrated the air-freshener that she favours. Chat issues from the sitting room. I enter.
Toby Frost, a pale, wide person strides over.
“Nathan! Haven’t seen you for weeks. Champagne?”
Christ, she has been stretching the card: “Great, thanks.”
He slopes the glass and fills. His Aston Martin cufflinks glint under the chandelier light.
“Have you got the car to go with them yet?” I ask.
“Working on it – just the Porsche at the moment.”
We talk of cars and holidays. The women: hair and celebrities.
At some point, a forkful of chicken raised towards my mouth, I remember a beautiful field full of birds and wild flowers. The meat appears to writhe. I put the fork down.
“Nat?” enquires my wife.
“Sorry – what, Margy?”
“See, I told you, Sarah – he does that a lot.”
Toby laughs: “Been a long day, I expect. Merlot, Nat?”
I nod and he fills a glass.
A subject of conversation seems to be bubbling up within me. I can’t squash it. I glance around at all of them.
“Do you believe in reincarnation?”
Sarah giggles, wine-pinked face: “Why not? What would you come back as, Nathan?”
The quills itch.
“Some sort of bird perhaps . . . not in a cage. Free.”
The evening continues but I am not really there. Just a shirt, jeans and now-correct dinner party exchange.
I hang from one leg. Machinery grates; uncomprehending voices fill my ears, pleading, wailing. I pass through water that snickers with electricity. Agony. Dulled senses now, but not enough. I see white-feathered chests, sliced by a bladed machine. Scalding water beckons, the smell of seared flesh.
I heave myself up, pushing sheets back, shaking. Margy clicks on the bedside light and stares, dinner party makeup unremoved after too much alcohol.
“Dream . . . awful. I was . . .”
She grunts, slumps back under covers, reassured, while I sit motionless, looking at my feet in the street lamp-light blur. One of my ankles hurts, as if the muscles had been ripped somehow.
Shuffling off the bed, I limp downstairs and make tea in the darkness. The shipwreck of a chicken skulks in the roasting tray. I had said I’d make stock, but somehow didn’t, retiring to bed with a much-thumbed copy of some comfort book.
I sit for a long time, possibly hours. I remember where that field was – Dorset. We had hiked over hills, talked of a café where we would serve cream teas and keep livestock.
She didn’t speak to me in the morning. God knows what else I had said after the fourth top up last night.
Now I’m at work, looking out on a drear, grey afternoon. Smyth has gone out for a meeting, leaving his second in command – me, in control.
Sandwiches were chicken again. I’d asked Dawn if there was an alternative, and she had looked at me as if I had asked for a cheese and plutonium bagel.
The new hanger already has foundations. I can hear the birds even in this room, or perhaps in my head. This spread sheet could be in hieroglyphics. Maybe Margy is right; I should see someone.
Three hours seem to have slunk off somewhere, and all I have to show is a selection of half empty mugs of coffee. Other employees have asked me questions and I have supplied answers, none of which I can recall.
Smyth is back, the Jaguar beaded with water. He gets out, locks the door and strides over, head bent against the rain. I hear him wiping those grey, pointed shoes on the corridor mat. He opens the door.
I have to say it.
I stand up, bag already in hand.
“Mr Smyth. I can no longer work for you.”
He shuts the door calmly, hangs his coat on the rack and turns to me.
“You do seem a little tired today, Nathan. Perhaps we could talk about this?”
“No, really. I have to leave here, now!”
Striding forward, I push the door and am standing outside in an early summer storm. The rain feels good. I’ll drive, sit on a hill somewhere.
I catch sight of Smyth staring from the office window as my fingers scrabble with the car door handle.
I fall into the seat, jab the key into the ignition, reverse, turn the wheel hard and screech into the estate’s main road.
The rain is heavy now, wiper blades furious. A white van is heading towards Smyth’s. I glance at its windscreen. Three people sit in the front, faces obscured by masks. The person with yellow hair protruding from a parka hood holds a gun. She nods at me, gives me the thumbs up.
I twist my gaze back to the road as a lorry approaches, lights flashing. I swerve but meet the brick wall of Parker’s Plastics very, very hard.
The field is longer than I recall, but then perhaps these eyes view things differently. To strut within these flowers is an intoxication.
My friends scratch in the earth, venturing into the meadow with me to peck at froghoppers and spiders. Of course, before, I never knew what the clucking was about. It’s fairly similar to any contented human’s conversation – weather, relationships, food . . . not so much about promotion, financial standing or political instability though.
The quills advanced and multiplied nicely, and when I catch my reflection in a puddle, well, you could say I’m a pretty good specimen.
Morning sunrays have reached the top of the line of oak trees. Light fans out, the early sky opal-green.
I stretch up and make the sound that welcomes in the day.