Here’s a short story I wrote this afternoon from a word prompt chickens!, provided by Vickie Jones ( @VicksG ) on Twitter (thank you so very much!… ) and Rosie ( @ciderwithrosie ) who suggested using the prompt webbed toes (good grief!)
Vickie and Rosie, I dedicate this story to you:
You won’t know how happy we were to find that house. You can’t know. It won’t have happened to you, so how can you know? Have you ever dreamed of something for twenty years? Something you thought was impossible and then it materialises perfectly, exactly as you imagined it, in one day? No, I didn’t think so. It just doesn’t happen. Even if you win the lottery and never want for anything ever again (other than all the important stuff like love, happiness, an end to starvation in third world countries, world peace, a cure for cancer, a way to keep babies happy every night – all that stuff money can’t buy) even then you won’t have got it as perfect as we did.
We were giving up, to be honest, on our dream house in the country. We were like the most impossible clients on Location, Location, Location.
‘You’re going to have to accept, Dawn and Tom, that the house you want just doesn’t exist,’I could hear Kirsty Allsop saying.
We wanted to stay near the pubs and the school, still have access to bus stops and village-life; we wanted country living with all the comforts of a local community. It had to be a property that kept us close to all we knew and loved. We only had three hundred grand and we wanted land. But we didn’t think we were crazy. We kept dreaming, kept hoping, kept looking. Our vivid little imaginations had caused us to sketch our dream home on paper at the kitchen table with labels and codes for all the essential extras like a chicken run, a veggie plot, a play area for the children, bee houses, access to woodland for kindle and even a pony paddock.
That was in 1991, before we got married, before we had children and before we lost our youthful optimism. The picture stayed blue-tacked to the kitchen wall, yellowing and curling until it could only be seen by pressing and smoothing it with two hands. And I was the only person that did that these days. I knew Tom wanted me to move on and look at other houses outside of my distinct criteria but I didn’t see the point.
To move somewhere else would be like dropping the dream, being unfaithful almost. So we stayed in the same rented house for twenty years and kept saving and I held on to my dream. Milly, Ben and Dottie were born, became toddlers, preschoolers, went to the local primary school and then Milly became a teenager. I secretly worried that my dream was more and more out-of-reach and my children would all soon be gone.
And then there it was in the local paper, ten days before Christmas: ‘Halfacre Farm’, a recent repossession after the Fox and Hounds’ landlord went bankrupt. Just half a mile from the school with it’s own private lane and immediate occupancy to the highest bidder at an auction the following week. We went round to have a look. Perfect. Simply, truly, perfect. Inside it was the most tasteless hideous monstrosity of a home needing to be totally gutted. It looked like a swingers’ den (Yes, I don’t know how I would know either!) from the seventies. Who else would want to take on such a job, at this time of year, in this ‘current financial climate’? It wasn’t even a farm to be honest. The landlord had just been pompous by renaming an old carpenter’s cottage. And, outside… well… Outside was my dream. The size and shape we needed and South-facing with a wood behind the house, a neglected veggie plot and even evidence that a previous owner had kept bees and chickens.
Had I been here before? I wondered. It all seemed so familiar.
We stood facing each other in the icy December rain, grabbed each others arms and jumped up and down yelling:
‘Yes! Yes, yes, yes. Bloody yes!’
‘This is it Tom!’
‘This is my dream – our dream.’
‘Exactly what I wanted.’
‘Well not the inside.’
‘I didn’t imagine an inside. Remember? We never drew an inside? The house was always just a box in the middle of a small field.’ I had the picture in my jacket. ‘See? Remember?’
As I uncurled the paper the rain flooded our drawing and the coloured lines slid off the page onto the ground at our feet. It became real right where we stood.
‘So Dawn…’ Tom slid his arm round me, pointing. ‘Bees?’
‘Yes! Oh how fab! I can get those ex-battery rescue hens from the Internet now. Chicken, chickens, chickens! We’re going to have chickens!’ I pulled Tom into a dance.
‘We’re going to have eggs – fresh eggs for breakfast! We did it! We found it! And before the children grew up and left home too!’
‘You two must be getting cold?’ The auctioneer came out from locking up the house, grinning at us. ‘I’ve got a good feeling about this. You’re in a good position. I suspect it’ll all fall into place quite easily for you.’
He was almost right.
The auction was a quiet affair; no one else had the time, money or confidence to take on a renovation at that time of year. While we waited for the solicitors to get on with the paperwork after Christmas and make unnecessary work for themselves, we bought bee houses, garden tools and five chickens. The chickens arrived before we moved and we made a makeshift pen for them in the garage. Not ideal, but better than they were used to. We got on the phone to nag our solicitor.
‘Oh just a few more forms to sign. We’re nearly there,’ she said. ‘I’ll send them out and we’ll be all done by the end of February.
‘End of February? Another month?’
I thought of the chickens in the garage, I thought of the veggie plot I wanted to dig. I wasn’t waiting that long.
‘We’ll drive over to you and sign them there.’
‘So here, here and here, both of you please,’ pointed the solicitor with her cheap biro. ‘Boundary rights and upkeep, then permission for farmer to use the lane past your house and then just the silly pigs and chickens one.’
I looked up. ‘Pigs and chickens?’
‘Yes. It’s quite a common one these days. You just have to agree not to keep pigs and chickens.’ She laughed. ‘Silly huh?’
‘No chickens?’ I put the pen down and scratched the side of my face. ‘Tom?’
‘Excuse me one minute,’ said the solicitor leaving the room.
‘Don’t worry,’ mumbled Tom worried he might be overheard. ‘Just sign. We’ll sort it.’
‘I’m not saying I won’t keep chickens! It’s my dream!’
‘No,’ insisted Tom. ‘The house and the land are your dream. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Just sign.’
The solicitor came back into the room. We signed, shook hands. I left before she saw me crying.
We moved in with the children and the chickens. We set up the bee houses and the play area and dug over the veggie plot. We re-decorated upstairs and ordered a new kitchen. We bought wire for a chicken run and ordered a hen house, but we hid the chickens in the garden shed, afraid their noise might give them away to the people living in the houses either side of our hedge. The chickens looked well and I was pleased with the recovery from their former cruel lives. I wanted more chickens and a cockerel but that was looking impossible. Ben and Dottie fostered two Dartmoor ponies and the farmer came round to fence off a paddock area on his land for them.
‘You can’t keep chickens ‘ere,’ he said sniffing the air. ‘You’ll ‘av the council knocking on your door, soon as someone finds out. Tiz supposed to be unfair noise and smell for your neighbours in modern houses these days.’ He gestured over the hedge to the street of small tightly packed modern box houses with postage stamp gardens on our right. ‘There’s a covenant against poultry put in in the eighties all over yere.’
‘Don’t worry. We’ll sort it,’ Tom insisted again.
I said nothing. I’d seen this coming. I knew we wouldn’t get away with it. I sulked for weeks and looked on Google for someone to adopt my lovely newly re-feathered friends.
One early spring evening, weeks after we’d moved in I was just hanging up the phone and sighing regretfully after speaking to a potential chicken-buyer when Tom burst in on me.
‘Sorted.’ He beamed proudly. ‘Come outside and meet Rocky,’ he said pulling me out with him.
Rocky was a tall, skinny version of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, with messy, wiry hair that stood out from his head, specs and a large pointy nose. He wore a red neckerchief and brown cut off trousers – or maybe he was just wearing the wrong size for his extra-long, bony legs. He had a ruddy, wind-bashed complexion and I could tell – but didn’t look down – that he wasn’t wearing any shoes. ‘Dawn, meet Rocky – our local chicken expert and allotment campaigner. Met him in the pub.’
Bloody hell, it really was another Fearnley-Whitingstall.
‘Tell her, mate. Tell her the good news.’ Tom was rubbing my back enthusiastically as he spoke.
‘Well. First and most importantly, you can keep your chickens because they are ex-battery and not strictly livestock. It’s a bit of a loop-hole in the covenant.’
I loved this ugly, gangly man instantly.
‘Secondly, you won’t have any trouble from your neighbours, because I live over the fence in that tasteful mini-mansion there and I keep two ex-batts with no trouble at all from my neighbours. There is also a chance you could appeal against your covenant, especially if you were to change your garden use to smallholding. I’d look into it if I were you.’
‘Gosh… I… ’ I was lost for words.
‘So while I’m here… You look like you need a hand getting your run putting up. I’m a dab hand with the old hammer and nails.’
In the pink spring sunset I rushed off gleefully to fetch the nails with a renewed love for my dream home. This man was a Godsend. He had arrived, as if by magic, in our hour of need. I couldn’t believe that it was all coming together so perfectly at last. Where did he come from? Why had I never met him before? I wondered if it was all really happening. I skipped back out of the shed hurtling towards Tom and Rocky a little too fast for my thirty-eight-year-old legs and as I got close to them I tripped over my own feet and dropped a box of nails on Rocky’s left foot.
‘Oh my goodness. I am so sorry. How clumsy. Are you okay? Are your ’ …. I looked down at the damage.. ‘Are your chickens – I mean toes – okay?’ I put my hand up to my mouth in the horror of not only what I had just done and said, but at what I had seen…
In the darkening pink sky Rocky’s raised hair took on a red appearance, his pointy, sharp nose overshadowed the rest of his face as he picked at the ground rescuing nails in the half-light, his skinny legs stretched and jutted in jerking movements and yes, as he picked his way carefully over the ground in a movement that one could only describe as a strut, I looked again and saw that his bony white feet really did have webbed toes.