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Fiction: Home to Roost
If her second cousin hadn’t died, Melanie would never have gone to Suffolk to see the cottage he’d left her, with a view to selling it. The smallholding was self-sufficient with a neat vegetable garden extending across half an acre and another half given over to chickens, ducks and two sheep.
The estate agent promised a quick sale, but on the trip back to London, Melanie wondered for the first time where her life was going. The commuter crush on the Underground, pressure from Head Office; even her hectic social life had become hard work. Some mornings she was so tired from late nights, her eyes refused to open until she had stumbled into the shower. All could be exchanged for a new and better existence in the fresh air. She couldn’t help picturing herself in green wellies and Barbour, scattering grain to the grateful chickens in exchange for fresh eggs before going to her vegetable garden to pick sweet peas. Freelance work would be easy enough and, while she wouldn’t make what she did in the City, her expenditure would be drastically cut without a mortgage or the London lifestyle. The more she thought about it, the more appealing life in the country became. In the end, she decided she just had to try to live the dream. She handed in her notice at work, but her boss refused to accept it.
‘Take a year’s sabbatical,’ he suggested. ‘That way you can come straight back if you want.’ Reluctantly, she agreed.
Free at last, Melanie stood in the middle of her vast garden and breathed in deeply, the fresh country air filling her lungs, making her giddy. The vegetable garden had a small section devoted to fruit and Melanie helped herself to a handful of raspberries. So juicy, she nearly moaned out loud in ecstasy. You could never buy anything this delicious in the shops. She picked more, but drew back in horror when her hand felt something slimy. Gingerly moving aside a leaf, she saw to her disgust a massive fat slug smearing its way across her raspberries. Queasily, she thought of the unwashed fruit she had just eaten and looked down at the ones in her hand. The unmistakable trail of slime stretched across the raspberries.
‘Yuk!’ She threw the berries to the chickens who ran over clucking in excitement. As an afterthought, she carefully picked the leaf that housed the slug and threw it after the ruined raspberries. It gave her a sense of justice to watch the cockerel gobble the slug.
She would have felt less smug if she had known what a spiteful creature that cockerel was and it was not long before she felt the full strength of his resentment. After the gift of the slug, there should have been a clear establishment of pecking order but there was no gratitude in the wretched bird who used every opportunity to attack her. Collecting the new-laid eggs was like running a gauntlet of death with him lying in wait, seeming to bide his time for when Melanie was at her most vulnerable. Then he would charge, beak and spurs flying like knives. She named him Damien, after the devil-spawned child in “The Omen”, and if she had dared to go near him, Melanie would have cheerfully wrung his wattled neck and had him for the next Sunday dinner. As it was, the best she could do was to aim her wellied feet at him whenever he came too close. Defiantly, Damien strutted cockily among his harem. He had the upper hand and he knew it. On warm nights, Melanie hated him even more because his sarcastic crowing would wake her up at 4 am unless the window was firmly closed.
Damien’s fate was sealed by Stan, a handyman of considerable years whom Melanie had employed to help her. She was not so naive to think she could run a smallholding on her own with no experience, and so Stan became her mentor. If ever the term “son of the soil” could have been applied to anyone, it was him.
One lunch time, Melanie was cooking a fry-up for Stan and herself when she called him over to the griddle.
‘I’ve been meaning to ask you to look at some of these eggs for me, Stan. Are they still OK?’ she asked him.
Stan peered into the pan. ‘Look all right,’ he grunted. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘That spot on the yolk they all have,’ replied Melanie, pointing. ‘Does that mean they’re off?’ She received no answer and looked around at Stan, expecting a reply. He was opening and shutting his mouth and his face was growing pinker by the second.
‘It’s...that’s...When you’ve got...I mean...’ he stammered. Melanie was horrified. She had been eating these eggs for a month now. Had they got some dreadful strain of salmonella?
‘What is it?’ she cried. ‘Are they lethal?’
Stan, his ears flaming crimson, muttered something she couldn’t catch.
‘What did you say? It’s Damien’s fault? Why?’ she whimpered with frustration.
Stan, his eyes fixed firmly on the floor, coughed and muttered, ‘When you have a cockerel, they fertilise the eggs. That spot becomes a chick if you let the hens incubate.’
Melanie sat down slowly. Not only did she feel a complete fool, she really didn’t fancy the fried eggs now. So all this time she’d been eating eggs containing Damien’s...it didn’t bear thinking about.
There was an awkward silence.
‘I see,’ said Melanie at last. ‘I don’t need chicks, so Damien isn’t any use to me. Would you like him?’
Still flushed, Stan shook his head. ‘Got enough of my own,’ he murmured. ‘He’ll make a decent meal for you. I’ll do the killing if you like.’
Melanie hesitated. She suddenly had a pang of conscience about condemning Damien to death, but she knew there was no way she could eat another egg until he was gone.
‘Thank you, that’s very kind.’ She reached up and grabbed Stan by the sleeve. ‘Am I some sort of city idiot, Stan? Do I have any business being here instead of selling to someone who knows what they’re doing?’
Stan’s eyebrows shot up into what used to be his hairline in his younger days. ‘You’re no idiot,’ he replied. ‘Just inexperienced.’
Melanie let go of his sleeve and sighed wistfully. ‘When I worked in London, I was good at my job and I knew what I was doing. Here, I haven’t a clue.’
‘That’s what you’ve got me for.’
‘So how long will it take me to become as knowledgeable as you?’
The handyman scratched his head in thought. ‘Well, I’m nearly seventy and my wife is constantly reminding me I don’t know everything, so you could be onto a loser there.’
‘Not consoling,’ groaned Melanie.
‘Take it a step at a time. At least you know a bit more about eggs than you did this morning. Now, I could show you how to kill...’
‘You’re right, Stan,’ interrupted Melanie hastily. ‘One lesson at a time. I’ll let you dispatch him.’
Damien was a big bird so he was frozen and saved until Melanie’s New Year’s Eve party for her city friends when he was casseroled and washed down with a nice Bordeaux. It was a pleasant evening and gave Melanie a chance to catch up on the gossip. True, she did feel a little envious when she heard that one of her friends had got a dream promotion, and another had just treated herself to a new car, but on the other hand it was nice to listen to their tales of office politics and ever-increasing sales targets without having to groan, ‘Me too!’ Here in Suffolk, she had none of the responsibilities that her erstwhile colleagues did. She went to bed with that happy thought.
It was a thought that bothered her the next morning. No responsibilities? Wasn’t there something she should have done? Her head felt fuzzy from the wine and she was grateful that Damien wasn’t around to wake her with his early alarm call.
‘Oh no.’ She shot out of bed as if catapulted. There were indeed obligations that went with the cottage. Foxes don’t celebrate New Year’s Eve. Carried away by the festivities, Melanie had forgotten to shut her birds away in their coop the night before and, without Damien to warn her, every bird had been taken.
She stood in the middle of her yard with her arms wrapped around herself, staring at the individual piles of pale feathers which were all that remained of six chickens and three ducks. Her bravest friend defied the bitter cold to commiserate.
‘Mel, come back to London with us,’ pleaded the girl. ‘It’s freezing and muddy here and now it looks like an abattoir.’ Melanie smiled sadly at her friend. No wonder the girl was freezing. Her tailored jacket was no protection against the cold and her Italian slip-on shoes were caked with mud, a few stray feathers stuck to them.
‘Maybe for the weekend, if that’s all right,’ agreed Melanie. She could do with a little sophistication after this disaster. Time to think everything over.
But London had changed since she’d left. Or she had. On arrival, the first thing she did was to make a beeline for the shower to wash the city grime, sticky with traffic fumes and the company of eight million other people, out of her hair. She’d forgotten how much rubbish blew over the streets, lining the gutters with paper and plastic. How the crowds on the Underground made her feel claustrophobic and how she hated being jostled and squashed just walking beside the busy roads. Even the food tasted different here; bland and sanitised. Melanie looked at her fried egg breakfast with dismay. Orange yolk full of chemicals with a frothy, tasteless white and a piece of plastic bread for company. She thought back to the eggs she had turned her nose up at - the ones Damien had fertilised. For a moment, she almost missed him.
One weekend was enough for her to make up her mind. As soon as she got back to her cottage she wrote the letter that would come as a surprise and a disappointment to her boss. Without even a pause to consider, she triumphantly posted it at the village shop and went directly to see the woman known by all the locals as ‘the chicken lady’.
‘I’d like six Rhode Island hens,’ Melanie told her. ‘And a cockerel, please.’