“What’s that godawful smell coming from the pantry?” my mother asked, of no-one in particular as she walked through from the living room to the kitchen.
“I don’t know,” my dad called through, from where he was sitting at the table drinking a cup of tea. “I noticed it this morning.”
“And you didn’t say anything?”
Dad shrugged. “I didn’t think,” he said.
“You never think,” Mum said. “I keep track of everything in there, dates-wise. What’s gone off?”
I was in my own world at the time, just about hearing the conversation from where I was lying on my belly on the living room carpet, playing with my Fisher Price Airport. I was busily entertaining myself by imagining the plane crashing, killing all the plastic passengers except for just a handful of lucky survivors who would go on to take refuge in an abandoned Fisher Price Garage. In comparison, anything adults were talking about was guaranteed to be Very Boring Stuff. I paid them no heed, until my mother’s hand appeared in front of my face.
“What the hell is this?” she challenged me.
She was holding a cardboard box lined with toilet paper, in which had been placed three eggs. She waved it a little, then turned to hand it over to my father, who took it outside.
This caught my attention. “Hey!” I said. “I was hatching those!”
My mother took a step back. “Hatching?”
Dad had made it to the back door by now and I stood up, my intention being to rescue my babies but Mum stopped me with a gentle but firm hand on my arm.
“Oi,” she said, quietly. “There’ll be no chicks from those eggs.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They’ve gone bad.”
“What do you mean they’ve gone bad?” I asked, incredulous. “They’re good eggs.”
“I don’t mean wicked,” said Mum, who couldn’t help smiling. “I mean it’s them that’s stinking up the place.”
“Oh,” I said, my face obviously crestfallen because she took pity on me then.
“Look,” she began, “you’ve obviously gone to a lot of trouble. You gave them a nest out of toilet paper but why did you hide the shoebox right at the back of the pantry?”
“I didn’t want predators to get them,” I explained, my voice sad.
“That’s a big word,” Dad said, entering the room. He tapped Mum on the shoulder. “I’ve put them in the bin,” he told her.
“It means something that would eat them,” I said.
“I’d have eaten them for my tea if some bugger hadn’t nicked them and let them go off,” Dad said.
“I honestly thought Jean had an omelette,” Mum told him. “I never even thought Andrew might have taken eggs. I mean, what would he want with eggs?”
“To bloody hatch them, obviously,” Dad pointed out.
“I know that now!” Mum snapped. She turned her attention back to me. “Look, those eggs were never going to hatch. You need a mummy bird to sit on them for weeks, or an incubator.”
“That’s what the box was!” I said. “An incubator!”
“No, love,” Mum said. “It was a cardboard box that used to have a pair of Clarks shoes in it. Incubators use electricity. There’s not even a socket in the pantry.”
“Did I kill them?”
“No, they were never alive.”
“Can I grow some real chickens then?”
“No dear, you can’t.”
“Because we don’t run a farm,” my dad said, as curt as ever. “And we’re not starting one, either.”
Mum cast a warning glance at him.
“What?” he asked. “Am I not entitled to an opinion in my own house?”
“It’s not your house or mine,” Mum said. “It’s the council’s.”
“I want some chicks,” I said, persisting.
“Your grandfather had chicks,” Mum announced. “Well, we did. As a family. We used to keep chickens in the backyard. Everyone did, back in those days.”
I looked up at her, interested. She’d never told me this before.
“The kids – your auntie, uncle and me – we took some stuff to the rag and bone man when he came calling one day. He gave us chicks in a box and, when we took them home, your grandad went mental. He was angry, said the man had no right to give living creatures to children like that, they had feelings and weren’t toys.”
I should say at this juncture, I never met my grandfather, my mum’s dad. He died several years before I was born, by some strange celestial coincidence on the exact same date as my birthday – February 27. Both grandparents on my father’s side, they passed away before I was even conceived. I only had one grandmother, and she lived in Horwich. For years my mum and her never spoke, having had a massive falling-out. I don’t know what it was over but it meant I was five or six years old before I even met the woman. I never warmed to her, finding her unfriendly, bad-tempered and somewhat cold. She never did me any harm but my mum said she could be cruel and merciless when my mother was a little girl.
My grandfather, by my mother’s account, was a very different person and not dissimilar to myself. He was kind to animals, musically gifted (I played violin for years at school but gave it up before my GCSEs, something I’ve regretted my whole life but hindsight as an adult is a pretty useless thing when looking back at the decisions you made as a schoolkid) and he was very much inclined towards the arts in general. If creativity is passed on in the DNA, I’ve no doubt it came from my grandad. Sharing my birthday with his deathday, albeit with a divide of years between the two, only served to make me feel close to the man, as did my mum’s stories about him.
I’ve felt close to him my whole life, like he’s watching over me. For all I know, maybe he is.
“What happened to the chicks?” I asked. “Did they die?”
“No,” Mum said, surprised at the question. “Can you guess how he kept them warm?”
I shook my head. I’d no idea.
“He opened up the oven door and he popped the box just inside, with the gas on low so as not to cook the poor little buggers. He fed them, I don’t know what, and he gave them water. They grew and he made a shed in the yard for them to live in. Only one of them turned out to be a boy.”
“That’s right. A cockerel. He was lovely. He used to greet your grandad when he came home from work but your gran did a terrible thing one Christmas.”
I didn’t want to ask but Mum was intent on telling me.
“She took that cockerel to the butcher when your grandad wasn’t around and had him killed, plucked, the lot. We didn’t even know until he was served up for dinner. She took great delight in telling us it was our cockerel and all us kids started crying, bursting into floods of tears. Well, your gran was furious. She said, ‘Stop your bloody crying, it’s food isn’t it?’ but none of us could eat our pet. He was a pet, that bird. For sure. There was a big argument between your grandad and grandma. I remember it well. I thought he was going to hit her and he never hit anyone. He didn’t, though. He was so hurt. We all were. She was sat at that table, carving that bird and eating it all by herself. Most of him ended up in the bin.”
I was too young for my mother to be telling me this story. She could sometimes get carried away and just not think. This was one of those times because, to a small child, the story of a pet that got eaten was a horror tale on a par with Dracula and Frankenstein. I am quite, quite certain this sad tale contributed to my becoming a vegetarian in my adult life. I tried to stop eating meat when I was just twelve years old actually, but being that age I never cooked for myself and my mum refused to go to a great deal of trouble to serve me different food to everyone else at the table.
“I’ve enough to do without catering to your whims,” she said.
So I got beans on toast. Or spaghetti hoops. Or tomato soup. In short, I got a very limited diet until I grew tired of the same old things night after night and gave up on being meat-free. It was when I left home and became a student that I finally turned veggie, because I was cooking for myself by then and, what’s more, going vegetarian makes food cheaper for a cost-conscious undergraduate.
I burst into tears when Mum finished her story worthy of being written up the king of macabre children’s fiction, Roald Dahl.
“That’s terrible,” I blubbed, my Fisher Price air disaster completely forgotten.
“What did you go telling him that for?” Dad asked angrily.
“I didn’t think I’d set him off,” Mum pleaded.
“He’s a boy who leaves notes for the fairies at the bottom of the garden in a Fisher Price camper van, offering to let them live in it if they need a place to stay,” Dad reminded her. “I’m really not surprised he’s crying after that tale you’ve just told. Even if he was into football he’d have been crying, for God’s sake.”
“I hate football,” I sniffed. “And I hate people who are cruel to animals too.”
Mum gave me a hug. “You’re a good lad, that’s why,” she said. “Maybe you’ll have chickens of your own one day.”
Dad snorted derisively. “Yes, if he can afford to buy a farm.”
“I want goats too,” I announced, my tears drying up. “And sheep. And a donkey.”
“Just the one?” Mum asked, a twinkle in her eye.
“No,” I answered, after a moment’s consideration. “Two.”
Mum laughed then, and I laughed with her. I could see Dad was doing his best to suppress it but his shoulders were going up and down. Eventually he gave up and joined in.
“Mind,” he said, “you can shear a sheep. You should never have gone near that cat with them scissors.”
He was referring to Minnie, a beautiful black-and-white stray we’d taken in after her previous owners moved away and somehow ‘forgot’ to take their family pet after years of loyal companionship. Minnie was a lovely, gentle cat and quickly became an important and much-loved member of our own family. One day, when I was in the house on my own, I got up to the sort of unpredictable no-good that little boys and little girls alike are inclined towards whenever they get the chance to run free and feral without supervision.
As soon as my parents walked through the door, they saw Minnie’s face and my mother screamed.
“Oh my God!” she hollered. “He’s shaved the cat!”
She was exaggerating, of course.
I hadn’t shaved the whole cat. Just her eyebrows.
“Good grief,” Dad breathed. “The miracle is, she didn’t cut him to ribbons.”
I didn’t have a scratch on me. I don’t remember doing it. Or why I did it. I think I mumbled something to my mum about making it easier for Minnie to see. The story of Minnie’s shaved eyebrows has come back to haunt me time and again as an adult, it being one of my mother’s favourite tales of mischief committed by any of her children – even better, she says to this day, than the story of when my sister tried to pee against a wall like a boy and came home with wet knickers. When I trained as a hairdresser for two years upon leaving school, it was said to be because Minnie gave me my first taste of haircutting all those years previously. I, however, protested otherwise because, although I also studied manicure and beauty therapy, I hated plucking eyebrows.
Minnie, by the way, lived to a ripe old age and was never approached with scissors again. I don’t remember her ever bringing in birds, either. I think she was already old when she came to live with us, so chasing birds was too much bother for her, especially when she had all the food she could possibly want, plus a roaring fire, indoors with us.