Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Fox In The Chicken Coop

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes
Henry David Thoreau

I only began to suspect that I’d been misled by the local representative of the poultry industry after I’d arrived at the allotments. There had been little time to give much thought to why I was needed there and my eagerness to see where I’d be staying for the night meant that I when I finally found Gabby’s shed, I hardly expected it to be set in a scene of such utter tranquillity.

Cool yet bright, it was one of those perfect spring evenings. The shed was painted green to blend in with high ivy-covered walls that surrounded it on two sides, while standing beside it, a brand new chicken coop gleamed yellow in the last rays of sunlight. The acrid smell of the weatherproofing had come to rest in the yard and now mixed with those aromas of the fresh oil, still damply oozing on the coop’s clean timbers. Ominously, there was no sign of the hens but for the occasional irritated cluck that came from behind the little door that shut them off against the world. For the first time, I wondered why exactly I was spending the night protecting them when a fox had about as much chance of getting into the coop as I had of getting a good night’s sleep among the shed’s fertilizer and forks.

I put my doubts aside as I dumped my kit in the shed and set to clearing a space for myself in one corner, as far from Gabby’s old still as possible. As you’re probably aware, the processes involved in the manufacture of potato gin leave behind a smell somewhat like a muddy field and petroleum; which are oddly enough, two of the key ingredients of potato gin.

I laid my bed out across the back of the shed with a headboard snugly made up of piled bags of John Innes No. 2 compost before I decided to make a circuit of the yard before closing the shed for the night. As the last of the daylight steamed in through the shed’s door, I checked my emergency torch a final time before I went out to patrol my small protectorate.

There really wasn’t much to see. A wheelbarrow with a squeaky wheel was the cultural highlight of my tour, followed by a patch of ground which hadn’t been turned over since the last potato harvest. The evening was also developing the sort of chill that does nobody any good, least of all a man in a thong, so I was really quite happy to get back in the shed and slide the bolt across the door.

Adapting to life in the shed was surprisingly easy. There’s a comfort to be found away from luxuries. I remembered a quote by Thoreau, who famously went to live amongst the raccoons and squirrels in his local woods: ‘a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone’. Well, I felt rich enough. I’d abandoned every luxury of the modern world except for a thermal thong, which as I’m sure you’re beginning to realise is one of life’s essentials.

I then thought of another quote by Thoreau: ‘men have become the tools of their tools’. I confess, this had me thinking for quite a while, and by the time I’d finished working it out, a total darkness had descended. Perhaps I too had become a tool of my tools. Or, I suppose, more specifically for a man in my line of work I had become a tool of my tool. I lit my torch and scribbled the aphorism down on the flap of a box of weedkiller in case I forgot it in the morning.

Men have become the tools of their tool.
Chip Dale

Only an hour into my retreat from the modern world and I’d already hit a rich vein of wisdom. Soon, I had another little chunk of the wise stuff ready to note down:

All of life’s answers can be found in a potting shed.
Chip Dale

I really was quite pleased with myself and I reflected on how this break was so clearly what I’d needed. A night away from the TV, the internet, this blog… I was instead happy to listen to nature as it prepared to nest down for the night. My supper amounted to a few cheese crackers and a can of Tango, which felt oddly out of place in such a rustic setting. Sometime around nine thirty, some large creature visited the allotments and relieved itself noisily in the darkness before sauntering off singing Phil Collins’ ‘You Can Feel It’. My torch lit up for the briefest of moments, just long enough to write out:

Phil Collins makes wise men of drunks.
Chip Dale

With all this mental exercise, I was beginning to feel extraordinarily tired and I decided it was time to get ready for bed. The absence of light drains a man in a more natural way than I would have expected. My mind drifting on the smell of potato gin and linseed oil as I slipped down into the bottom of my sleeping bag. I drifted off to the occasional cluck of the chickens next door.

A noise like a rusted gate opening woke me some time later.

I grabbed my glasses and checked my watch. It was still only three thirty.

I blinked back my sleep and the dream I’d been having about Felicity Kendal. It had been some inspired nightmare about ‘The Good Life’ and I’d been Tom Good, trying to milk a zebra in the in Margot’s shrubbery. I damned my cheese crackers and swung myself out of bed. My torch lay beneath my hand but I stopped myself from turning it on. I was sure there was something moving around outside the shed.

I looked around in the darkness, seeking out something I could fashion into a crude weapon. I then damned myself for not sleeping in my clothes. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might actually have to act and if it was a fox, I didn’t think it wise to chase it dressed only in my underwear.

That worry retreated as I realised that the thing out there was bigger than a fox and with a tread louder than the noise of my heart, hammering inside my skull. Thoughts of foxes retreated even more once the door began to rattle and an anxious voice whispered: ‘Anybody in there?’

‘Who is it?’ I said, now holding the torch like a club, half expecting the bolt to give way.

‘Is that you Mr. Dale?’ said the voice. The anxiety had disappeared and had been replaced with a gruff humour. ‘Aren’t you going to let me in?’

I stood up and turned on my flashlight before I slid back the bolt.

Standing there in the dim moonlight was the figure of a man; the same man who had sold Gabby her hens that morning.

‘I figured you might try to sleep on duty,’ said Mr. Green, gesturing towards my thong. He held up a thermos flask. ‘Thought you might be cold and wouldn’t mind some company.’

‘It’s nearly three in the morning,’ I told him, now a little calmer but considerably more confused.

‘The time all us sensible country folk get up,’ he assured me as he gestured me back into the shed. He followed me in and closed the door. ‘I’ve been wondering if you’ve had any problems with the hens. And then I thought about a man like you, not used to the rough life… I thought you wouldn’t mind a bit of company.’ He looked down at my thong and experience that odd sensation I so rarely feel: I suddenly felt terribly naked.

I was tempted to reach for my pen and write out the new aphorism that had suddenly struck me.

Never strip down to your underwear in a shed.
Chip Dale

‘You know, it gets cold this early in the year,’ he carried on. ‘So I thought you might just like a bit of company. A bit of company to keep you warm?’

And that’s when he winked.

Beware of men bearing thermos flasks in the night.
Chip Dale

I grabbed my pants and had one leg in them when Mr. Green put his hand on my arm.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘Not what you think I’m about to do,’ I told him and quickly had my shirt on as well.

‘Didn’t I just explain why I’m here? I thought you’d appreciate a bit of company.’

‘So, this is you’ve come for, Mr. Green?’ I asked as I foolishly bent down for my shoes.

‘Well if you put it like that…’ he said and I felt a hand on my leg.

Things had suddenly gone beyond aphorisms.

‘You’ve got a damn cheek,’ I said.

‘You have two.’

‘I came here for the good of my girlfriend’s chickens.’

‘You seen any foxes, then?’ he laughed.

‘Just the one. And I feel really sort for it.’

‘No need to feel sorry,’ he protested. ‘This is Campbell’s soup. Only the best for you, Chip.’

‘Don’t call me Chip,’ I said.

He stepped across to the door and slid the bolt across.

‘At least have some soup,’ he said. ‘Then I’ll be going.’

‘I don’t want any soup.’

‘It’s tomato.’

Tomato happens to be my favourite but I remembered an aphorism of my uncle’s.

A man is weakened by his weaknesses.
Arthur Dale

Which is much more profound than you probably think it is. I had a terrible suspicion that this tomato soup had something more than tomatoes in it.

‘Why not try some yourself?’ I asked, seeing how he’d react.

His eyes widened momentarily before he adopted a look of hurt.

‘I don’t like tomatoes,’ he said. ‘And I brought if for you.’

‘Then you can keep your soup,’ I replied. ‘I’m off.’

‘Please stay, Chip,’ he said, a note of desperation now in his voice. ‘I get so lonely with my poultry. Farming is a sad and miserable life. I don’t have any friends. Nobody really cool and exciting to be around. Nobody like you, Chip.’

‘I thought a man can’t be lonely when he’s got chickens,’ I said. ‘I read it somewhere.’

He backed towards the door. ‘I’m not going to let you leave,’ he said. ‘You can’t leave!’

I had a flashback to a similar scene in coffee shop earlier in the week.

‘You don’t know a girl who looks like Amy Winehouse, do you?’ I asked.

He looked puzzled and I could see that he’d left his guard down as he pondered my question.

‘You mean the singer?’

It was too late. Quicker than he could react, I grabbed the box of weedkiller and threw it in his face before I threw him to one side and grabbed the door.

I blessed the darkness as I ran. The allotment had woken up to our argument but by the time I finally emerged onto the main road, the sound of frightened chickens had faded to silence and I had only the sound of a man, cursing his naïvety in all matters fowl, to follow me home.

This morning, I rang Gabby and told her the full story, as I’ve just told it you. Her immediate concern was for the condition of her chickens.

‘They sensitive,’ she said. ‘They need peace. They need quiet. You should have eaten soup!’

‘But this wasn’t about soup,’ I told her, but she wasn’t for listening to reason.

‘Soup good for you, Chip,’ she said and hung up.

‘And I suppose it’s good for the chickens too…’ I mumbled over the ominous sound of the dial tone.

5 comments:

Ms Baroque said...

No comments?? See, I go away to the seaside and this is what happens!

I read this before I went away but had no time to say anything. I found it very moving in its common humanity, its comedie humaine, and indeed admired the three- or four-post sequence that led up to it. It's clearly been one of those weeks in Bangor!

My mother used to keep chickens and ducks, and this post may help to explain why I never once heard of her sleeping in the shed. In the end the fox got them all.

Sorry for the ugly scar above; the typos were just too much.

Chip Dale said...

Like a plastic surgeon, I removed the scar with just a simply nip and tuck.

You have to forgive my self-indulgence. You're discussion about the relative ugliness of poets made me wonder if I'm too damn good looking to write.

I'm glad you see that my blog posts are about discovering the common things we all share. I should be sponsored by the UN as a good will ambassador.

rilly super said...

chip, there surely cannot be a wiser naked welshman in all the land. We who live in your shadow salute you!

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Big Chip Dale said...

You spamming swine. Do that again and I'll slap you around your head with my unwashed thong.