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FEEDING The Chickens
Where I Lived and What I Learned For. Part One: Growing Dumb.
Copyright © 2002 Peter Quartermain
First thing every morning before anybody else was up you’d hear a dull regular cheunk-bonk cheunk-bonk a bit like a ticking clock but a little bit faster, the first time I went to the farm it must have been late in the autumn I wondered what it was and Uncle Tom said “Why don’t you get up and see?” and everybody grinned and nobody said anything, and one morning in my pyjamas and dressing gown and slippers all sleepy-eyed I went down in the dim light, I couldn’t see very well, it was ever so early in the morning all the curtains were drawn, the noise was coming up the cellar stairs there was the glow of an oil lamp down there the noise was much louder but just as regular and I went carefully down holding my hand along the white-washed wall and there was Uncle Tom standing next to a pipe from the floor running up through the ceiling moving a wooden handle back and forth left to right, right to left, ktch-lunk ktch-lank, ktch-lunk ktch-lank his right arm steadily moving back and forth, “Want to try it?” he asked ktch-lunk ktch-lank and I said “what are you doing?” and he said “Pumping water. There’s a well under your feet, and there’s a tank at the top of the house. Want to try it?” and I put both hands on the wooden handle and pushed, I could hardly move it, “The water’s got to go a long way,” he said, “all the way up to the attic, it’s a deep well, been there a long time” and he chuckled, “it’ll be a year or two before you can do it, and it takes half-an-hour to fill the tank.” He told me you had to be careful, or the tank would overflow he’d done that once, that’s why there’s a stain on the ceiling in one of the apple rooms up on the third floor. I tried it again a couple of years later but I didn’t even last five minutes, my arms got so tired.
There was always work to do, we all had chores, and that second War-time summer, the first morning after breakfast, Uncle Tom said “Peter, I’ve got a nice job for you, you can feed the chickens,” and he gave me a zinc bucket half-full of corn. I knew what to do, I’d done it the last time I’d been here, and I really enjoyed it. You went out the back door and opened the gate into the back barnyard, past the pig mash cooking up in the shed next the pigsty, all the potato peelings and kitchen scraps cooking up with a mess of feed in a great big pot like the wash-copper in the scullery at Wheaton Aston only bigger, a small fire underneath, if I did a good job feeding the chickens then I’d have time to stand on my upended bucket and give the pig-swill a stir with the wooden paddle sticking out of the top. The swill smelled like nothing else in the world, a mix of garden and kitchen peelings, compost mingled up with all the dust of a granary, I loved the smell of the granary and years later in Lichfield walking to town I’d linger by the feed merchant’s and simply sniff at it it was such a warm and comfortable smell better than a bakery any day, the smell of seeds and hay and cattle feed, barley and wheat and oats, fields and harvest and livestock, horses and cattle, I thought of not just wheat but all those grains as corn, but underneath that astonishing rich blend of garden vegetables and grain the swill had a sharp almost vinegary sourish sort of scent, the whole thing just filled you up, not just your nose but your mouth and your lips, it felt as though it was in your clothes and your hair and even your skin, almost my favourite of all my favourite smells, satisfaction heightened by the scent and heft of the corn in the bucket, lovely and hard and golden, shifting and adjusting as I carried it, little cascades patterning corn over corn, slight swirls of corn rubbing against itself and with a faintly tinny sound along the galvanized wall of the bucket, grains rubbing against each other like the wind in the fields just before harvest. Last year’s corn, smelling like this year’s summer. Before I got to the gate I’d set the pail down and dive my hand into the corn, running grain through my fingers, take out a fistful and let it trickle back a hissing pitter-patter, light dust rising, and as I opened the gate I’d take out a fistful and scatter it broadcast ahead of me with a sweep of my hand across and away to keep the chickens back from the gate the way Aunt Dot had taught me the last time I was here, a lovely golden curve in the air as the grain scattered and then bounced on the ground, the hold of the grain and its smoothness rustling over my hands and between my fingers, a little sharp rattle as some of it fell against the side of the bucket, the softer patter as grains fell on the mass of grain underneath, and the colours, it wasn’t just golden brown, but with pale and dark bits, light gleaming as it shone off individual grains, bits of dust, a touch of white where a new plant could grow from, and cool, always cool on the skin, on a really hot day it was wonderful to stick your hand in, move it gently about in the corn, feel the shifts of warm and cool, little currents as you stirred it about. I’d take the bucket and open the gate, swinging a fistful of corn out before me in an arc, the chickens running towards me, “here chick chick chick c’m up here chick chick chick,” be careful to shut the gate so they don’t get out, take the hasp and hook it in the eye, turn the wooden catch, and parade around the yard scattering corn broadcast before me, lord of the hens as they all settled here and there to peck away, every one content including me, clucks and occasional flurries among the birds as they scrambled about again, watch to see that every one got a fair share, and I’d march round and round till the bucket was almost empty, my nails scrabbling on the bottom as I tried to get a last handful, I couldn’t pick up any more in my hand so I’d stand and fling the last bits in a great wide circle out of the bucket swivelling like mad, the grain rising in a high loop right across the chicken yard.
So I opened the gate and cast a handful of grain and blam! an explosion of great black cockerel flung himself at me, beak thrust out bright red comb puffed up erect wings outspread fierce black eyes starting out from his head bang! bang! bang! on the bucket the eyes as I lifted it up in front of my face, slam! went the beak so hard I thought it would break, slam! slam! slam! and I wanted it to break, this huge fierce bird screaming and charging at me in the air and on the ground the fiercest most terrifying thing I hoisted the bucket and lowered it again like a shield the bird was everywhere round and round determined to get at me I thought it was going to get my eyes it’d lunge up in the air toward me terrible clamour of screams from the bird as it clattered against the pail slam! bang! slam! bang! beak and claws after me the gate not shut properly behind me I didn’t think to cry out I was here to feed the chickens and I took handful after handful of grain and flung it with all my might at the bird I thought I could hurt it that way or make it see that I’d brought it food and it would leave me alone it’s so hungry I thought but it left the grain alone I never moved away from the gate the chickens all scrambling about in front of me after the grain I was throwing at the cock and it kept coming at me again and again bang! it went up against the bucket slam! and I was afraid it would break its beak what was I doing wrong? what would happen if it hurt itself so much it died? I wanted it to be dead and I was afraid it would be, what would Uncle Tom think that I couldn’t feed the chickens and the fierce cock died what would he do claws rattling down the side of the pail beak upthrust at me bang! slam! and slam! again I reached into the bucket and flung grain left and right as fast and as hard as I could left and right for the chickens and the cock flew at me again and again terrifying huge energy of battle and fight and ferocity at me in its yard with this bucket of corn I hardly noticed the chickens they were just clucking and pecking away at the corn and this big black frightening outpour of sheer threat got more and more fierce and more and more clamorous and I simply upended the bucket all over it and fled back through the gate, fumbling at the catch behind me opening it as little as possible and slamming it closed as I got through, blam! went the bird at the gate I’d hardly got into the chicken yard at all, I’d not even begun my grand parade of goodwill and generosity, I was breathless and sweaty, shaking so much my legs were all wobbly, arms tired from shoving the bucket about to keep the bird from me, my hair falling over my eyes my socks round my ankles I looked down my sock was torn a bit of blood where he’d pecked me. I went over and stood by the mash cooking for the pigs and simply smelled it till I calmed down, I don’t suppose I’d been in the chicken yard for as much as two minutes, one of the farm cats black with a white bib and two torn ears came over and looked at me and had a wash, paws round its face, Hullo, I said, but I was still afraid and breathless and he paid no attention to me and I knew better than to pet him. If he wanted some attention he’d come rubbing up, otherwise I knew to leave the cats alone.
When I took the pail back to the house Aunt Dot was in the kitchen and she said “Oh! Did you feed the chickens yet? Don’t go in the chicken yard, we got a new black cock and he’s so fierce I daren’t go in there, Tom will, but I feed them over the gate.” I must have looked pretty tousled because she took a longer look at me and said “Oh! he pecked you didn’t he” and got an elastoplast and some TCP for my leg, and I was pleased, secretly proud that I’d done something she didn’t like to do, I still had the shakes. “We’ll probably have to get rid of that bird,” she said, “perhaps we’ll eat him, but Tom wouldn’t have that, he’s wonderful for the chickens, they’re all laying like mad, we’ll have lots of chicks,” and I was glad. I didn’t want to eat that bird that had tried to eat me, there was something funny about that idea, a bit creepy, just the thought made me feel a little bit sick, a bit like wanting to eat something that’s still alive, a leg kicking and twisting in your hand as you bit into it. Perhaps I looked a bit funny. She said that since I’d already got the pail I might as well go into the orchard and see if I could find any eggs, the chickens got in there yesterday so there might be a few, look carefully, and if Brenda turned up she could help me before we went off to play. Don’t go into the henhouse, she told me, or the chicken yard, until Tom’s locked the black cock up in his own coop, and “then you can get the eggs,” she knew I liked doing that. I hadn’t when I first went to the farm, I was afraid of these big feathery birds, I didn’t like to touch them, and once there’d been a hen got in the kitchen when we were there and Tom said “Catch it, Pete” and I chased that hen about, bent over my arms stretched out in front, running in a funny doubled over waddle, waving my arms from side to side I got the hen in a corner and thought I’d got it but it scooted between my legs, I was afraid to touch it really, didn’t want it to peck me, I thought it might shit on me, I was just too squeamish, and everyone sat around the kitchen laughing their heads off, Dad and Our Kid as well as Uncle Tom and Aunt Dot and Brenda, Mum not so much, she was a bit afraid of chickens and couldn’t stand them really, shied away from it, I capered about until Aunt Dot simply walked over and picked it up holding its wings to its side, tucked it under her arm, a terrified but quiet and motionless hen, out the door. Brenda started to jeer at me but Uncle Tom soon put a stop to that, “You’re no better at it than Peter is,” he said, “and you’re two years older than him.”
But now I really liked handling the chickens and getting the eggs, there was something quite magical about going into the twilight of the henhouse, breathing through your mouth because of the strong sharp ammonia smell of the droppings, most of the birds would be outside but there were always two or three hens roosting on their perches, you ducked under them pretty quickly, and you’d see the dim shape of a hen in a nesting box, you’d slide your hand underneath, it’d cluck a bit grumpily and sleepily mutter away at you, sometimes quite annoyed but only half-heartedly pecking at you, they were used to us, all that lovely soft astonishingly warm warmth under the birds, the softness of the feathers enveloping the back of your hand, perhaps you’d brush the firm roughness of its claw, the firm warm roundness of the egg almost warm enough to eat, it felt alive and welcoming, you’d check to make sure you weren’t taking the china egg by mistake, sometimes your hand got into some goop under the bird too, but you’d fold your fingers round the egg and gently take it away, lay it in the pail with the eggs you’d already got and go round the other nesting boxes. The smell in the chicken house was pretty awful really, but so long as you weren’t there too long you got used to it, nobody liked cleaning it out. They laid their eggs all over the place, Uncle Tom told me to watch out for the broody hen over there, under the hedge. She’s got eggs there but she won’t let you have them, she’ll protect them, she can be pretty fierce. “They’ve been there too long anyway, and we’ll have to let them hatch, I don’t think they’re addled. And we could use a few chicks anyway, we’re getting plenty of eggs.”
But Mum didn’t go near the chickens, and she never got the eggs not even from the ducks, she was terrified of birds the way some people are terrified of spiders or snakes, but Phil and I never really understood that I think until one day in Lichfield, this must have been in 1953 or even after that, she was doing the dishes in the scullery with the back door open, I was in another room and I heard this crash as she dropped a plate, broke it, and she was standing there frozen perfectly still this funny look on her face, I came in and said “what happened?” and in a strangulated voice she said “bird” and gestured, just inside the door was a sparrow almost as motionless as she was, trembling minutely and trailing a wing, just outside the door was one of the cats. After I’d shooed Herman away and rescued the bird -- as soon as I picked it up and put it down again it flew away -- Bess and I sat down over a cup of tea and she told me that when she was about six or seven, this must have been around 1910 or so, her father had decided that this nonsense about being scared of birds and hating the way feathers feel had to stop. One day he brought a couple of chickens home from the butcher, called Mum to come here, hid behind the door and when she came in leapt out at her rubbing these dead fully-feathered birds all over her face and neck and shoulders and then chased her all over the house with them, her screaming in fear and him shouting “See? they don’t hurt you!” She said that he’d lie in ambush around the house and then leap out at her until after about a couple of weeks of torment everybody else in the house prevailed on him to stop, all he was doing was turning her into a nervous wreck, she daredn’t go anywhere in the house, upsetting the other two girls and the maids and generally getting the house in an uproar, “It’s not at all funny, Albert, so you can stop laughing,” Grannie had said. And even after that, every now and again he’d leap out from behind a door or out from under the stairs waving a dead chicken at her. It was just the shock of seeing the sparrow there inside the door, all of a sudden just like that, that had made her drop the plate, usually she was okay, but on the farm she never had to do anything with the chickens, she couldn’t pluck them or eviscerate them, it was the feathers that bothered her, not the bird itself, and much later in life, when she was living by herself on the Isle of Wight, she joined the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, I’d call it the Royal Society for the Prevention of Birds, she’d say “Ooooh, you!” in a cross voice and shove her thumb between her fingers in her clenched fist and threaten me with it, and then we’d both laugh, it may have been a sort of private joke but it quickly got tiresome.
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