Jess of the dairy fields
by Jessica Miller; the illustration is by Becky Blake
Published in May ’13
I awake on May Day with a sense of gloom – not just because it is the first anniversary of the chicken house/tree-felling incident, but because it is my 35th birthday. I am officially in my mid-thirties, an unwilling passenger on the non-stopping train to middle age. I will, I thought grimly as I opened the bedroom curtains, be forty in five years’ time. Not even the sight of the sun rising behind Bulbarrow could cheer me up. I glanced across to the orchard – and my heart stopped. Beneath an old apple tree stood a brand-new, hand-carved, wooden hen house, complete with pitched roof, heart-shaped windows and shiny brass hinges that twinkled in the early morning sun.
I was beside myself with excitement as I threw on my dressing gown and charged downstairs to inspect it. I whooped with glee, charging barefoot across the dew-drenched lawn followed by three frantically barking dogs. It was magnificent, the poultry equivalent of the Playboy mansion. I ran my hands over its superbly crafted contours. I oohed and aahed as I peered inside at the four roomy nesting boxes lined with sweet-smelling hay, the sturdy perches and the little sliding window at the back.
I should explain that I had eschewed Jasper’s half-landmark-birthday offering of a pearl necklace in favour of a permanent fixed abode for the remaining two of my fifteen hens. For a year they had been slumming it in a rabbit hutch in the stable yard, and a rabbit hutch is not a suitable dwelling for a pair of matronly Brahmas. For a start, there are no perches on which to roost at night, neither are there any nesting boxes in which to lay their eggs. They had been compelled to sleep on the floor and suffer the daily indignity of having to lay their eggs in full view of the world. The dogs would stare in at them with their noses pressed against the mesh. Being shy creatures by nature, this invasion of privacy must have been mortifying for the hens, the human equivalent of being caught squatting with your knickers around your ankles.
As Matron or Betty would push out a double-yolker, they would cluck crossly at the canine Peeping Toms. I observed their predicament with growing sympathy, until one day I could stand it no longer. I rolled up my sleeves and marched out to the yard, determined to improve their standard of living.
First, I sawed a hole in an old wooden blanket box, before finding a wide section of drain to form a tunnel. I then made another hole in the rabbit hutch and connected hutch to box with the tunnel. I filled their new egg-laying area with fresh wood shavings and stood back to admire my handiwork. Whenever the chickens wanted to lay, all they had to do was simply stroll down the tunnel to the luxurious privacy of their new nesting box. Perfect, I thought happily, as I topped up their corn.
They wasted little time investigating their new extension. They inspected the pipe with gimlet eyes and, after a brief discussion about who should go first, Matron stepped cautiously into the tunnel, closely followed by Betty.
Their nervous clucks echoed loudly in the plastic tunnel. I crouched down and peered eagerly through a small hole in the top of nesting box, waiting for them to emerge. Of the hens there was not a sight, but there was plenty of sound; the clucks grew louder, their pipe-amplified squawks rang out around the stable yard.
‘Come on girls,’ I cooed encouragingly.
The clucking continued, now accompanied by a desperate scrabbling sound from mid-way along the pipe.
I kicked the pipe out of the box, lay face-down in the dirt and peered into the tunnel. Two uncomprehending eyes peered back at me through the gloom. I caught a glimpse of a scaly foot trying and failing to gain any purchase against the slippery sides. They were stuck like two corks in a bottle. I scurried across to the hutch on all fours and was attempting to pull the end of the tunnel free when Jasper drove into the yard in the tractor.
‘What on earth are you doing now?’ he asked wearily.
‘They’re stuck,’ I wailed, wrenching the pipe free. The violent jerk prompted a frenzy of disembodied screeching to come from the pipe.
‘Who’s stuck?’ he asked.
‘Matron and Betty,’ I panted, peering into the tube.
‘Why the hell did you put them in a drain pipe…, are you bloody mad?’
‘I didn’t put them in there, they were trying to get to their bedroom.’
‘Their bedroom…?’ he repeated. I could sense his eyebrows rising and his eyes rolling heavenward without turning to face him.
‘Oh never mind, just help,’ I pleaded.
He stomped off to the tack room and returned with an assortment of tools. After a prolonged operation, involving first a broom handle and finally a chain saw, the two chickens were finally liberated.
Their trauma long forgotten, I watched Matron strut proudly up the ramp to their new home, clucking encouragement to Betty. I shuddered at the memory of their former shantytown hovel, then smiled wistfully as my hand moved to where my birthday pearls were not. I realised that, although I had chosen property over British bling, age really is just a number.