“Mr Jenkins says he’ll sell us his cock,” announced my mother one weekend.
It turned out that Mr Jenkins was actually offering not only his cock, but some of his hens too. We all trooped down to see him; our attempts at self-sufficiency were about to break into the realms of keeping livestock.
Mr Jenkins lived at the very bottom of the village, near Waters Cottages where you could feel the air get damper and cooler in the lowest part of the valley. He wasn’t really known for his chickens so much as his large flock of white geese, which he penned up right where his farm gate opened onto the road. Most of the time the geese couldn’t get out, which was a huge relief to everyone, as they were nasty, noisy, honking, vile creatures with homicidal eyes.
On this particular day it appeared that my parents were intending to throw themselves at the mercy of the geese, Mr Jenkins’s horrible dog, and every other hazard in the farmyard by actually opening his gate and going inside. Even when I saw that someone had remembered to keep the geese’s door shut, and had tied up the dog, I couldn’t rest easy. Mr Jenkins looked at us with a funny smile on his face. He stood there in his flat cap and muddy boots and watched us come up the hill towards him.
“So you want some ‘ens then?”
“Yes!” replied my father brightly. “Half a dozen will do.”
“’aaaf a dozen.”
“Yes, that’s right. How long have you had them?”
“Oh, I’d say they’re most probably six year old.” A pause.
“You’ll want Thomas too?” Thomas stood in the middle of the flock, a tall white cockerel with scarlet comb and wattles (the floppy bits under the beak). Around him his harem scratched the bare yard in a slightly harassed way. There didn’t look to be much for them there apart from packed-down mud and chicken shit.
“Yes please, then we can produce our own chickens for next year.”
Mr Jenkins’s funny smile twitched, almost as if he found this a funny remark.
Undaunted, we paid him good money and trooped back up the hill, chickens, coop, cockerel and all.
The village seemed quiet. But it was watching us.
Now chickens are reasonably long-lived birds. There are tales of them reaching grand old ages, some well into their teens. Beyond the age of about two years, however, they’re not really that productive; one might even say that they are no longer spring chickens. By the time they are six – and in reality Mr Jenkins’s birds were nine years old if they were a day – they’ve pretty much given up on the stressful stuff like egg-laying and they’re ready to start knitting socks and pressing flowers, or whatever it is hens do in retirement.
Thomas, or Cocky as he was rechristened to make him feel part of the family, was a different proposition altogether. He didn’t mind grabbing the old biddies by the neck and raping them now and again, but the main focus of his considerable energy was hunting down, and maiming, little middle-class girls whose parents had foolishly ventured out of the city where they belonged. As you can imagine there weren’t many little girls fitting that description at that time in the village. So in short, his main focus was hunting down and maiming me. No wonder Mr Jenkins thought we were funny. We’d basically paid through the nose for a bunch of menopausal chickens and a psychopath.
My parents had bought a roll of fishing net, which they used to construct a square pen around the henhouse, so each day the flock could turn a different bit of the garden into the hard-packed mud and chicken shit environment they’d been used to at Jenkins’ farm. By day two Cocky had pecked through it and escaped; we found this out when he streaked across the drive, wings flailing, neck outstretched, heading straight for me. Day three, the net was mended (my parents got very good at fishermen’s knots); day four, he was out again. I lived in terror. When he connected with me, he was vicious; nearly as big as I was and armed with sharp claws. He didn’t just draw blood, he literally took beak-shaped chunks out of my legs.
The hens never really bothered to follow him; they didn’t even look up, they were too busy not laying eggs, or if they laid an egg by mistake in a last burst of youth, not sitting on it. No chicks hatched. We kept buying eggs from the shop, and I took to keeping a big stick with me at all times in self defence.
My parents were reluctant to say goodbye to Cocky. His energy lulled them into a false sense of security. They were sure that one day Cocky would have violent sex with one of the less ancient hens and bingo, little fluffy chicks of our own. Personally I wasn’t that convinced. Cocky was keeping me prisoner in my own home and I was getting a little concerned about it.
“It must be quite scary for you,” my mum agreed one day as she patched me up after Cocky’s latest attack.
"I suppose he must seem quite big.”
“Maybe we could get rid of him,” I suggested hopefully.
“Oh, we’ll make sure he can’t get out again,” said my mum cheerfully.
The fact that Cocky never, ever stayed where he was supposed to be didn’t seem to register with her, or if it did, she only thought about it for a second while she wondered where she’d put the net mending kit. If I refused to go outside her sympathy fizzled out. “Oh pet – he’s in the cage! He can’t get you, he’s safe inside. We mended the nets last night.” She’d wander off to dig something in the back garden. Cocky always started out, as advertised, in the cage. Then I’d venture out and like a bad horror movie he’d streak towards me from the opposite direction, shrieking. Or maybe I was shrieking. It’s all a blur.
“In the cage”, my arse.
Somewhere, deep in a cupboard in my parents' house, there is a picture I drew of Cocky and me. Hurtling towards the edge of the page is a stick figure in a skirt, blonde hair flying in the wind, gobbets of blood pouring from her leg. Following in hot pursuit is a huge, talon-ridden white vulture with an enormous beak. Imagine if social services saw something like that now. As it was, it was rural Oxfordshire in the seventies and nobody gave it a second glance. Cabbages are full of slugs; farms smell of shit; cockerels eat your children. Get used to it, townie.