Chicken in a Cold Climate

The doorbell had been ringing for a long time. Florence and I sat, eyes locked across the table, challenging each other. The room was dark, lit only by candles, and extremely cold. We each wore several layers of clothing and were swathed in heavy blankets. On the table in front of us was a pot of green tea, two cups, and a lemon drizzle cake. I picked up the knife next to the plate and began to cut two slices of cake. Florence coughed.

‘The door?’

‘I made the tea,’ I said. ‘And the cake.’

‘I set the table.’

I shook my head and finished cutting the cake.

‘Fine,’ said Florence, standing up. ‘But if I die of exposure you’ll have only yourself to blame.’

‘More cake for me then.’

Florence stomped off down the hall and I could feel the rush of icy air as she opened the front door. I sipped my tea and started to make a mental list of food and other things we needed. It was my turn to go shopping at the weekend. I was not looking forward to it. It was a two hour walk to the nearest shops and it was forecast to snow again. Still, I had to go up a hill so I could at least take the sled for the way back. It was our best find of the year – we found it lodged in a tree coming back from the cinema one day and immediately rescued it to take home. The cinema was on the mainland so we didn’t manage to go very often but every month they had a special triple screening and we made the journey across. They were very random in their selections but the second film was nearly always The Shining. That particular day they had been showing it in between Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Shirley Valentine, which we’ve seen three times now. The first time we saw it, Florence spent the following week talking to the kitchen wall, while I gave monologues in front of the microwave. Then we saw Withnail & I and decided it might be a good idea stop having chats with the kitchen and actually clean it.

Florence returned with a puzzled look on her face. She had her blanket bundled up in her arms.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked, pouring some more tea. ‘Who was it?’

‘There was no one there,’ said Florence. ‘Just this.’

‘What is it?’

‘Lori, have you ever, um, wanted to get a pet?

‘A pet?’

‘You see, when I went to answer the door just now, there was no one there. Well, there was someone there, but not a person.’

‘What are you talking about, Flo? Have you got a baby in there or something?’

‘A baby is a person, Lori. This is a chicken.’

‘A chicken?’

She placed the blanket carefully on the floor and uncovered the creature. It stood there, bobbing its head uncertainly. I picked up my cup and moved to the other side of the room.

‘What did you bring it inside for? Bloody hell, Flo.’

‘I couldn’t leave the poor thing out there on its own. It’d freeze to death. Anyway, maybe we’ll get eggs?’

‘No eggs, no. That’s a rooster.’

‘Oh. What a shame. What shall we do with it then?’

‘How should I know? You found it, you tell me.’

‘We could eat it, I suppose.’

‘Florence! I’m a vegetarian, and even if I wasn’t, there is absolutely no way I’d kill an animal with my bare hands.’

‘You could bash its head in with a brick.’

‘Florence!’

‘Ok, ok. Sorry. Maybe we should take it to the mainland.’

‘But it’s Friday evening. We can’t get off the island until Monday morning.’

‘So we’re stuck with a rooster for a couple of days. How bad can it be?’

‘Fine. But you can look after it. I’m making some more tea.’

I walked backwards out of the room and went into the kitchen. While I was waiting for the kettle to boil I opened my laptop and logged onto the internet. I typed ‘rooster’ into the search engine and a list of sites came up, most of them about the band Rooster. I clicked on a link to an ornithology site and scrolled down to a section about caring for chickens in winter.

‘Yo, Flo?’ I called. ‘It says here that roosters are built for cold weather. He’ll be fine outside. If we keep him cooped up, so to speak, he might turn on us.’

Floored appeared at the kitchen door looking doubtful. The rooster was standing beside her.

‘Maybe. But he doesn’t have any other chickens for company. Or anyone to feed him.’

‘So we take him food. He can sleep in the garden.’

‘A fox could get him.’

‘When have you ever seen a fox here?’

‘I suppose. Ok. I’ll take him out now. Come on Socrates, let’s go outside.’

‘Socrates?’

‘Yeah. I thought he should have a name. Who do you think could have left him here? Do you think it could be some sort of clue?’

‘Clue to what?’

‘I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a code. Rooster could mean…well, something else. We have to figure out what it is and then that will lead us to the next clue.’

‘Hmm, seems unlikely. I just boiled the kettle, do you want some more tea?’

‘Yes please. Come on Socrates.’

I watched her go, shaking my head in amusement. Florence was always looking for mysteries to solve. When we moved in the previous occupants had left a key in one of the bedrooms. Florence spent weeks trying to work out what it was for. She was convinced there was some old trunk or secret door hidden somewhere. There would be maps and treasure and letters, all left by some brilliant and mysterious character who had been forced to flee suddenly, but left this key behind in the hopes that someone would find it and uncover his secret. It turned out to be a key for the old garden gate that had fallen off its hinges.

I was just refilling the teapot when Florence returned, Socrates still at her side.

‘It’s very odd,’ she said. ‘He won’t go back out. He just keeps following me. Maybe there are foxes out there, we just don’t know about them. They’re cunning creatures, after all.’

I got two dishes out of the cupboard. I filled one with water and one with seeds and placed both on the floor. Florence and I sat huddled at the table, sipping our tea and wondering what to do. We’d never had anything to look after before, although we both loved animals. At least, we loved cats and dogs and other cute fluffy things. Roosters were a bit different. You can’t cuddle a rooster. You could try, but it would probably have your eye out.

‘I’ll get some food for him tomorrow, when I go shopping. And I’ll talk to that guy who works in the off license. He’s a keen birdwatcher, he might be able to give us some advice.’

‘Is he a birdwatcher?’ said Florence. ‘I thought he was just a pervert.’

***

The next morning I was up, washed and dressed at eight. I listened to the radio in the kitchen while I prepared a breakfast of porridge and coffee. A Velvet Underground song was playing and I sang along, quietly so as not to wake Florence up. Socrates had slept on the floor of her bedroom, on top of an old dressing gown.

When I had finished my breakfast and washed up, I put my transistor radio in my rucksack, along with a flask of green tea and a bag of chocolate raisins. Then I was ready to go.

 The supermarket was empty other than me and a couple of teenagers wandering round aimlessly, each trying to pluck up the courage to steal something, anything, simply to impress the other. Eventually one of them shoved a packet of instant mash inside his anorak and hurried towards to exit. His friend chose a tin of beans and quickly followed.

I took my groceries to the checkout, where a bored looking girl was flicking through a magazine. She gazed at me through narrowed eyes and began scanning my shopping through the till. I paid and packed everything into my rucksack, which threatened to unbalance me when I heaved it back onto my shoulders. I thanked the girl, who sneered in return, and went next door to the off license.

 A tall man with blond hair and glasses was stacking shelves with bottles of spirits. He smiled when he saw me.

‘All right, Lori. Not seen you around for a while.’

‘Hi Pete. How’s things?’

‘Not bad, you know, bit quiet what with all the snow. How are you?’

‘I’m good thanks. Listen, I was wondering if I could ask you for a bit of advice actually. You’re into ornithology and all that, right?’

‘That’s right, Lori. You got a bird question for me?’

‘Kind of. You see, we’ve got this rooster. It just turned up on the doorstep last night. Somewhere left if there, I guess. I don’t know who, or why, but we can’t get rid of it now. Any idea what we should do.’

‘Sorry Lori,’ said Pete, frowning. ‘Roosters aren’t really my area. I know a bloke over on the mainland though. Dave, his name is. Owns a farm. Bit mental but he’s an all right fella when you get to know him. He might be able to take it off your hands. I could give him a call if you like.’

‘That would be great, thanks.’

I wrote my number down on a scrap of paper. I was tempted to get a bottle of vodka but my rucksack was weighing me down enough already and I didn’t want to add any more to the load. When I got home Florence was in the kitchen preparing lunch. Soup and homemade bread. I unpacked the shopping and we sat at the kitchen table to eat, Socrates watching us from the corner. I told Florence about Dave and his farm.

‘You don’t look very happy about it,’ I said.

‘No, it’s good news. I just, you know, was becoming quite attached.’

‘To a rooster?’

‘I know it’s stupid. But I’ve never had a pet before. And he follows me everywhere. It’s like he’s adopted me.’

‘You’re right. That is stupid.’

‘Lori…’

‘Sorry. But look, we could get a budgie or something.’

‘What about a hamster?’

***

On Monday morning we wrapped Socrates in a blanket and set off to meet Pete, who would travel to the mainland with us, where we would meet Dave. On the boat, Florence sat with her arms wrapped protectively around the bundle on her lap, while Pete and I threw pennies into the water.

‘What happens to the chickens on Dave’s farm?’ I whispered.

‘Oh, they’re very happy,’ Pete whispered back. ‘Yeah, they have very happy lives.’

‘And then?’

‘And then…’ He grinned, then drew his hand across his throat in a slicing motion. I felt slightly queasy.

‘Right. Don’t tell me any more.’ I turned to Florence. ‘I’ve changed my mind.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘About the farm. I don’t think it’s the right place for Socrates. We’ll find somewhere else. He can stay with us in the meantime.’

‘Ok,’ said Florence happily. ‘Sounds good to me.’

When we got back home there was a note taped to the front door.

Thank you for looking after my rooster. I will collect him some time in the next 24 hours. Please await further instructions.

‘Well, what does that mean?’ I said.

We waited up all night, Florence pacing up and down the hallway, trying to work out who might have left the note. Who where they? What did they want? What would happen when they came to collect Socrates? Why had they left him with us in the first place? As time passed we got more and more anxious. We should never have brought the damn rooster into the house. The sun was just starting to rise when there was a knock on the door. We stood, frozen, staring at one another. Another knock. Florence took a step back.

‘I just remembered. It’s your turn to answer the door.’

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