Roxy was my first-ever disabled chick. They can hatch in a worse state than she did. In fact, you couldn’t tell anything was wrong with her at all, not at first, not for several weeks. But, eventually, I noticed there was this one chick, gender still unknown, that was looking obviously smaller than his or her siblings.
That size difference only got more obvious as the weeks went by. If she was having epileptic seizures from the day she hatched, I didn’t see them happening. I only know that when I first saw Roxy thrashing around on the ground, it was an awful shock. I’d never even thought animals could have epilepsy, just the same as humans. Why would I? I mean, I’m not epileptic. I’ve known people who were. I’d never heard of dogs, cats or any other animal suffering from seizures. I now know that epilepsy is evidenced throughout the animal kingdom.
I don’t, as a rule, name chicks when they hatch. Even with our best efforts, chicks often don’t reach adulthood. If something bad happens to a baby bird – if it becomes ill and dies, is going to be sold and/or destined for the table, or gets killed by a bird of prey or rat – then you will be more emotionally affected if the chick had a name than if it didn’t. You’ll still get upset when unnamed animals die or get sick, of course you will. I do. In my experience, though, it’s just a little bit easier on your heart when it comes to dealing with nameless losses. Not a lot easier, mind.
So, the chick that wasn’t growing as much as the others had no name. I began to keep a careful eye on it. And, even though it had no name, I began to feel a certain affection for it. I guess I’ve always been drawn towards caring for the vulnerable and mistreated. That’s certainly how I came to keep chickens as pets. Chickens are the most routinely abused creatures in the whole world. Most of the time that abuse is legal and sanctioned. Who gives a damn about chickens, anyway? I’ve lost count of the number of times some fool has posted onto Facebook or sent me a message via Twitter along the lines of ‘chickens make good eating and aren’t pets’ or ‘when you’re bored of them, you can kill them and eat them’. It doesn’t offend me, although the intention is nearly always, I’m sure, to cause offence. If I were to get offended by people who think they’re funny when they’re not, though, I might as well get angry at the rain for falling from the sky.
I don’t understand people who like to hurt the feelings of others, nor do I ever want to. We are unlike and I’m glad of that. I choose to focus on the positive, on those with whom I can make good connections; I’ve learned not to waste time being aggravated by people choosing to be combative and nasty.
My care for the abused without voices dates back to when I was bullied at school. I know what being picked on feels like; I remember the isolation, the pain of being the odd one out. As an adult, I’ve zero tolerance of cruelty towards people and animals alike, both because of how I was raised – to be compassionate and tolerant – and because of what I went through myself.
Some of my earliest memories unfortunately count among the most painful. I recall, when I was five years old, there was this group of older boys who decided to pick on me. I was a very creative, highly imaginative kid, keeping mostly to myself. My best friend was a tiny yellow teddy bear called Aloysius. I carried him around in my pocket. I still have that teddy bear. He’s well over 40 years old now, has very little fur and has acquired the status of a totem, representing survival and triumph over adversity. There have been many times in my life when I’ve held Aloysius in my hand and looked at him, thinking to myself about all that I have been through and here I am, still breathing. Anyway, these bullies decided to rob me of Aloysius (you know, to this day I still don’t know how he got that name). They snatched him from my pocket, in a smoothly-executed operation that had obviously been planned.
“Give him back!” I yelled, but they had no intention of doing so.
Jeering and mocking me, the gang of boys ran over to the toilets. We didn’t have lavatories inside the school, not in those days. Whatever the weather, we had to go outside to do our business in brick-built sheds. In my memory, those toilets are forever dark, smelly and damp, miserable outbuildings with ghosts in them. I imagine children in later years cheered their demolition when the time came. I’ve driven past the school as an adult, and there’s no evidence that those toilets ever existed, just smooth tarmac.
I feared for Aloysius’ safety as the boys disappeared into that hideous building. I followed them. Next thing I knew, I was trying to rescue my teddy bear, fighting and shouting but being held at bay by two of the boys while the other two were standing on either side of a toilet, one of them with his hand on the flush chain and the other holding Aloysius by one of his tiny teddy ears, waving him over the toilet bowl.
“Don’t you dare!” I hissed, my eyes smarting.
“Or what?” sneered the boy holding Aloysius. “What are you going to do, kid?”
“I’ll tell,” I said.
“You tell and we’ll beat the crap out of you,” said one of the boys holding me.
I didn’t know their names or, if I did, I have forgotten them. I remember being very scared, not only for Aloysius but for myself. These boys were making me feel ashamed of having a teddy, and I hated them for it.
“Little baby wants his teddy-weddy back,” lisped the boy with his hand on the flush.
“What will Mummy say if he doesn’t take teddy home with him this afternoon?” said another of the boys keeping me just outside the cubicle.
I could feel the tears starting to overflow and trickle down my face.
“The little pansy’s crying!” laughed the boy holding Aloysius hostage.
I burned with rage. And then he let go of my teddy bear.
“NO!” I cried, pushing with all my might against the boys whose hands were gripping my arms. Somehow, I managed to break free and lurched forward to look into the toilet bowl.
Aloysius was there, floating on the top of the water. Thankfully nobody had used the toilet. I reached in to grab him. None of the boys tried to stop me. They’d got what they wanted, which was to make a boy much younger than themselves cry. I fished Aloysius out of the toilet and shook him gently. He was soaked right the way through.
“We drowned your teddy!” barked one of the lads.
No you havent, I thought. He’s still breathing. I wanted to whisper to Aloysius to play dead, to tell him to stay very still until the bullies went away. I knew I didn’t dare say a word, though, and hoped Aloysius could read what I was thinking from the expression on my face.
“I’m bored now,” came one of the taunting voices.
“Should’ve flushed it,” said another.
“Nah, that would’ve been too much.”
“Because he might well have told the teachers. He’s not going to tell them now he’s got his stupid teddy back, is he?”
A hand, rough, gripping my neck hard, spun me round to face one of the perpetrators.
“Listen, kid,” the boy snarled, his face right up in front of mine. His breath stank of sickly-sweet chewing gum. “You mention a word of this to any grown-ups and we’ll beat you black and blue after school, do you understand?”
I nodded, feeling the dampness in the palm of my hand as I squeezed water out of Aloysius’ body. I just wanted the bullies to go away. Satisfied that I wouldn’t grass them up, they left me standing in that cold, always-twilight latrine, shivering but smiling because they hadn’t managed to murder Aloysius. I looked down at him and could see I’d already got a lot of the water out of him with gentle squeezing.
“We’ll be alright,” I told him. “I promise.”
I was telling the truth. Aloysius sits on a shelf near my computer, a constant companion while I’m working, sometimes an inspiration for a story. That wasn’t his last brush with death, though. After the incident with the bullies, I had stopped taking Aloysius to school with me. Instead, I looked forward to going home every day and seeing my friend waiting for me on my bedroom table or the bed. It was very hit-and-miss when, in the same year as his attempted murder, his head partially came undone. It might’ve been the dunking that did for his stitching but I wailed when I noticed there was stuffing coming out from under his chin. I ran to find my mum. She was, as memory claims she always was, in the kitchen, baking.
“Mum!” I cried.
“Whatever is the matter?” she asked, wiping her hands on her apron.
I held out my teddy bear for inspection. “Aloysius has had an accident, I think,” I said, sniffing.
“Well, wipe your tears,” Mum said gently. “It’s a good job your mum knows how to perform teddy bear surgery, eh?”
I looked up at her. “Do you?” I asked, impressed.
“I’ll just get my sewing box,” she said. “He’ll be okay.”
As my mum sat at the kitchen table preparing a needle with thread, I sat with my head in my hands next to her, watching intently. Aloysius was on his back, looking up at both of us.
“Will there be blood?” I asked.
“I shouldn’t think so,” said Mum. “A little teddy like this one doesn’t have a lot of blood and I don’t think the damage goes deep.”
“Does he need anaesthetic?”
“No,” my mum said, smiling. “He’s very brave and I won’t hurt him, anyway. You love this little teddy, don’t you?” I nodded. “What’s his name again?”
“I don’t know where you get your ideas and names from.”
“Books,” I answered.
“Yes,” my mum agreed. “You certainly like your books. And your comics.”
As she chatted with me, she stitched. Aloysius didn’t complain, not even once. He was very well behaved and I was proud of him. Like my mum said, he was being very brave.
“I like it when Dad comes home with comics,” I said.
My father brought me the latest Whizzer and Chips, and other titles, every Friday lunchtime. He worked as a production manager for a soft drinks company, and rode to and from work every day on his bicycle. He worked six days a week most of the time, and was sometimes called in for emergencies. One time, I was with him when he had to go and sort out the conveyor belt system, which had broken down and was spewing thick, sugary, purple liquid a foot deep all around the factory, while smashing glass bottle after bottle by flinging them into the air. I can still smell the distinctive odour of Vimto when I recall the memory. As a child, it was the closest I got to visiting Willy Wonka’s factory – all that sweet goo swishing around my ankles, the machine being imagined by me as acting gleefully and naughtily when breaking the bottles. My imagination often gave life to machinery, and voices to animals. I often pretended cars were alive as I walked past them parked on the street, and had conversations with everything from ladybirds to worms, our family pet dog to my grandmother’s canary, Joey.
“All done,” said my mother at last, holding Aloysius up for me to see. The stitches were neat and tiny. “He’s all better now.”
“Thank you,” I said, and strained upwards to give my mum a kiss.
“You’re a good boy,” she said. “Just look after him. He might be a little bit sore for a few days.”
“I will,” I solemnly promised. “Aloysius says thank you too.”
Looking back, I don’t think I was under any illusions. I knew full well that Aloysius was made from fabric, stuffing and glass eyes. The facts, though, were boring and dull. I liked the world as I imagined it to be. Unlike reality, my world was never cruel or lacking in colour. Everything was alive. The way I handled that bear, so lovingly and attentively, was a sort of template for how I would go on to treat the animals in my care.
Even though it’s a long time since childhood gave way to adulthood, and Aloysius like myself is showing signs of wear and tear not so easily stitched, I still love that bear. Come the day that my mother becomes only reachable in memory, I know Aloysius will always remind me of her kindness when I was a little boy – how she cultivated my sensitivity, understood my compassion for the small and wounded, encouraged my imagination, creativity and love of animals.
When I first started keeping chickens, my mother was delighted. For her, it was an indication that I was following in my grandfather’s footsteps, for he had kept chickens. How my grandfather became a chicken-keeper is in itself quite a story. I first became aware of it when I took it upon myself to hatch some eggs, without telling my parents what I was doing…