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Torfaen Tales

Chickening Out

'I'm very grateful,' said Glenda. 'What time can we expect you on Friday?'

Suzy did a quick calculation. 'I'd say we'll be with you around six o'clock. Are you leaving on Friday night?'

'No, first thing Saturday morning. My brother's graduation ceremony starts at eleven. Again I apologise for the short notice, organisation isn't Jeremy's strong point. We can show you where everything is before it gets dark on Friday night. Look forward to seeing you then, Suzy.'

As she rang off Suzy smiled, anticipating a relaxing weekend in the country. She and Max had called in on Glenda and Dan on their way back from visiting Max's mum a few months back. Even though their friends had been in their new home less than two months it seemed they were old hands at country life. The big surprise had been the amount of poultry they'd acquired in such a short time.

'As soon as we viewed the place we knew we wanted chickens in the field,' Dan had explained. 'We started off with half a dozen Rhode Island Reds and two coops. A few days later we went to an agricultural fair and came home with about twenty more, all different breeds. I had to knock up some more accommodation quick smart. Then Glenda started rescuing battery hens. It's all got a bit out of hand, but we think they're great. The only trouble is finding someone to look after them when we go away.'

'I'm sure we could help you out,' said Max, ignoring Suzy's head shaking from behind Dan's back.

Suzy knew she would have tried her best to find an excuse, but Max had answered the phone and agreed to babysit their friends' chickens for the weekend. Subject of course to checking with Suzy, but how could she refuse? After all, it was only for two days, and Glenda had said they could help themselves to food and drink. As Glenda was a professional chef with her own business catering for functions their fridge was always stuffed with exotic fare. A treat for Suzy and Max who were mature students scraping by on loans and thoroughly fed up with baked beans on toast.

Despite heavy traffic on the outskirts of Leicester Suzy and Max reached Glenda and Dan's bucolic retreat in Suffolk just after six o'clock. The pair were leaning on the gate, their dog at their feet, and the early evening sun bathed the scene in gold. Suzy was glad to be getting away from their city flat, even though she'd had to bring a hefty folder of notes that needed going through before her lecture on Monday afternoon.

'Get down, Bagel! Sit!' commanded Dan as the dog leapt up on Max. 'Sorry, he's normally much better behaved.'

As the sun slid lower in the sky and their stomachs rumbled hungrily, Suzy and Max followed Dan from shed to shed, trying to take in how many handfuls of this and that had to be fed to the chickens. And the different breeds liked different things.

'I've written it all down,' explained Dan, noting their confused expressions. 'Let's go in and get a drink.'

Suzy was concerned that there was no smell of cooking evident in the house.

'I've ordered a take-away,' explained Glenda. 'I hope you both like Chinese.'

'Oh, we eat anything!' said Max, hoping the delivery was imminent.

'I'll show you to your room,' said Glenda.

Suzy felt a bit tipsy by the time the take-away arrived. That was the problem with drinking on an empty stomach. Then when she went to the loo Bagel snaffled her spring roll.

'I'm very sorry,' said Glenda. 'Here, have some of my spare ribs.'

Suzy was woken by Glenda at some ungodly hour. 'We're off now. Dan's left the instructions for the chickens on the kitchen bench. Ring me if you have any questions. Oh, and it's probably best to shut your bedroom door during the day otherwise Bagel will get up on your bed.'

'Have a great time,' said Suzy before turning over and drifting back to sleep.

She was woken some time later by Max bringing coffee. 'Come on, sleepyhead. We're running late. The chickens should have been fed and let out by eight, and it's already gone nine.'

'I'll catch you up,' sighed Suzy. 'I'm feeling a bit hung over.'

By the time she'd showered and dressed and made her way out to the field Max was just about finished.

'Can you believe Glenda and Dan have names for all these?' he said, surveying the groups of feathery creatures pecking contentedly in the seed containers. 'I don't know how they tell them apart. One grey fluffy bird looks pretty much like another to me. The only one I really know is that little black one, Dot. So named because he looked like a full stop when he was tiny. He's still not very big. He's an orphan, but he seems to have attached himself to that big brown feather duster over there. Now, can you put three scoops of premium grain in this bucket please love?' he added, consulting Dan's instruction sheet.

It was gone ten by the time they'd finished letting the birds out, feeding them and checking the coops for eggs. Suzy found the fresh air was restoring her fragile head.

'Look, six eggs!' said Max. 'I fancy scrambled eggs on toast for breakfast.'

'Just toast for me, please,' pleaded Suzy. 'Eggs fresh from the hen is a bit too much like eating someone's babies for me. Particularly when I'm feeling a bit fragile.'

After they'd taken Bagel for his morning constitutional Suzy and Max spent much of Saturday on sun loungers in the garden. As the sun sank lower in the sky they began making plans for an evening at the pub in the village nearby.

'We'll have to sort out the chickens before we go,' said Max.

Putting chickens back in their coops proved to be more troublesome than letting them out. The instructions said to put the same breeds together where possible, but as it grew darker it turned out to be near impossible telling them apart.

'I can't find Dot!' wailed Suzy.

Max went back into the house for a torch, and they searched high and low. However finding a small black chicken in the dark was a tall order.

In the end they gave up.

'I feel dreadful,' said Suzy. 'What if a fox got him?'

'We've yet to walk Bagel. Perhaps we'll come across Dot on our travels.'

'At this rate dinner's going to be very late,' sighed Suzy.

Unfortunately there was no sign of Dot around the lanes. It was gone nine by the time they reached the pub, but the lady behind the bar took pity on them.

'We normally stop serving food at nine, but you both look like you could do with a good meal,' she said with a smile.

They both felt better after sausage and chips washed down with a couple of glasses of wine.

When they returned to the smallholding they searched the field once more, but all was in vain. Dot was still missing.

Suzy and Max spent a restless night. At every little noise they shot upright, imagining it was a fox. Daylight crept across the fields shortly before six a.m., and Max awoke from a half-sleep to see Suzy pulling on her jeans.

'I'm going out to look for Dot,' she said with a determined set to her mouth.

'I'm coming with you,' said Max, yawning.

Bagel jumped out of his basket by the french windows, circling in expectation of a walk.

'Sit!' commanded Max.

They borrowed two pairs of wellingtons from the laundry and set off down the garden to the field. One of the roosters was crowing already from inside his coop. They combed the field relentlessly for over an hour, searching in the hedgerows, around and under each coop and feeding station. Still no Dot.

'Let's have a coffee, then come back and feed the others and let them out,' suggested Max.

'Should we phone Glenda and Dan and tell them what's happened?' said Suzy.

'I'm too tired to think straight. I need coffee.'

Bagel was bounding excitedly up and down the hall, and Suzy trapped her little finger in the french windows closing them quickly to keep him in.

'Ouch,' she squealed, noticing the nail was going black already.

Then Suzy noticed their bedroom was littered with chewed paper. They'd left the door open and Bagel had got in and chewed her study notes.

'Today seems to be getting worse by the hour,' muttered Max.

After a hasty coffee the pair headed out with Bagel for his morning walk, still hoping they might spot Dot. At least Bagel calmed down and ate his breakfast when they returned.

'Right, we'd better sort these chickens out,' said Max grimly.

A tear trickled down Suzy's face. 'I can't help thinking about poor little Dot, out there somewhere on his own.'

'Dry your eyes, love. There are chickens to be fed.'

The occupants of the coops burst forth and dug into the feed troughs, clucking contentedly. And when they opened the sixth coop who should appear but the little black chicken.

'Dot!' shrieked Suzy. 'How did you get in there?'

She scooped the fidgety little chicken up in her arms and kissed the top of his head, tears flowing down her face once more.

'Phew! That's a relief,' said Max. 'At least we won't have to ring Glenda and Dan now.'

It was a much more relaxed pair that returned to the house for breakfast.

Glenda and Dan appeared that evening just as Max and Suzy finished washing their dinner dishes.

'Hello!' called Dan.

'I hope you've had a restful weekend,' said Glenda.

'Yes, lovely thanks,' said Max with a grin.

Suzy caught his eye and smiled. What Glenda and Dan didn't know wouldn't hurt them. She only hoped they weren't planning any more holidays in the near future.

By Karenne Griffin

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