Moving from the city to the country to live the smallholding dream is not always all it’s cracked up to be – especially for the less obsessed partner of the Foodie in the family. Telling it like it is, Good Life Wife watches Foodie get broody.
In the early weeks of the first winter I feel like an animal agitated by an unsuccessful zoo transfer. I pace around the blowy concrete yard up to the gate and back again, in a vain search for pavement and a journey I can make without a car. It is an uncomfortable surprise to move to the countryside after half a lifetime in South London, and find myself walking a lot less.
But there are also times when stopping still reveals unprecedented and unexpected moments of pure beauty. Sorting the endless debris in the yard on a still afternoon I hear a leathery flapping and look around for loose tarpaulin on the cottage building site, find nothing till I look higher and then higher again to see the black dot of a bird distantly overhead. I feel momentarily bionic – gifted with a new superpower to hear far-off flight.
It was Foodie’s life-long love of animals and cooking – and cooking animals – that had propelled our young family from a terraced house in SW9 to a farm in the South West. There we would plant apple trees and vegetable beds, get a dog and one day pigs and geese but first, of course, a small group of hens.
Helpful Middle (5 years old) diligently mucks out the ancient crusty manure from a large, old shed and six young hens settle into their new home. We don’t let them out initially because of the promised dog and their morning rush for scraps has the look of a Dickensian asylum – a headlong scrum for food in feathery straitjackets (why do they look like they don’t have proper wings?).
Once Dog learns to over-ride her profound desire to destroy them (though forever looking to us for a tacit signal to go for it) they are allowed out to roam the yard and thrive. Their bottom-heavy proportions lose that lunatic aspect as they set about purposefully bustling around looking for food and the big claws come into their own, scratch scratch peck, scratch scratch peck. Within a couple of days of getting their beaks on some fresh greens, the yolks of their eggs become much more domed and intensify from a regular yellow to marigold orange – it’s a vivid demonstration of the huge and rapid effects of diet. These free-range treasures are supremely delicious and we celebrate the timely news that eggs have the right kind of cholesterol with the freshest omelettes and most generous tortillas.
In the middle of the hens’ first summer Foodie is thrilled to see one of them become broody but I am non-plussed. There’s no cock so there won’t be chicks and we don’t need any chicks because we aren’t breeding chickens, are we? ARE WE? Foodie looks worryingly vague and then increasingly distressed by the lot of the broody. She is losing condition, eating and drinking barely anything and will have nothing to show for her privations. His empathic distress rises as she sinks lower over the growing clutch of destiny-free eggs. He cracks and returns from a local poultry farm with a collection of lucky-dip fertilised eggs. The kids will love it.
Lucky dip eggs turn into very cute chicks (and yes the kids do love that bit, for about two hours) which turn into scruffy indeterminate teenagers before maturing into a pretty strange new collection of chickens. A couple of marled grey ones similar to those we have already, an extremely puffy little white one like a coconut cake, a magnificent black shiny one dubbed Big Betty who looks good enough to eat and Metrosexual an elegant Lavender Araucana cockerel who I am grudgingly pleased about because he can produce the hens that lay the blueish eggs.
Big Betty keeps getting bigger and as she does so Metrosexual seems to shrink into poultry despond, beak down and feathers dishevelled. Betty then does a final stretch, her neck lengthens and new fluffy breeches drop down her fine legs. She puts back her head and crows and it’s clear that she is a he – I don’t know if I’m ready for this walk on the wild side. I may be mildly disturbed by this butch transformation but Metrosexual is literally devastated. I find him in a lifeless, crumpled heap one morning. No signs of violence it looks like death by a broken, redundant heart. There isn’t such a quiet letting go for Coconut Cake, apparently another funny-looking bloke – he has his head stamped-in overnight. I get adept with a shovel and sack at dawn, doing the deed before the kids’ breakfast and reflecting that this is not how I picture-booked it. It’s more Tarantino most fowl than Henny Penny.
Foodie tells me it’s amazing, did I know cockerels have something like twenty times the levels of testosterone relative to men? I find this fascinating fact more repugnant than reassuring. He-Betty stamps his claws with frustration when he’s first let out in the morning, spreads his wings like a pantomime villain’s cloak and leaps on any hen he can to relieve himself. Later in the day he appears to listen out for the cry of one that has just laid an egg and then jumps on her. Nice. Sometimes I’d like to kill him.
But as the shock of cockerel carnage and unexpected sex-change fades I come to reluctantly warm to him. He stops doing so much of his preposterous Rumpelstiltskin routine and even gains an air of chivalry as he ushers the hens away from the road with a wave of his gleaming black-green plumage ‘this way ladies, please’. I embrace his transformation, Betty is Bertie. Bertie Rooster.