Even as Mrs. J. G. Morgan swept down our drive I knew trouble was brewing. Whether it was the rigid set of her jaw, military-style beret or determined crack of metal-heeled boots on paving slabs I realized that just crossing myself would not be enough.
“It’s your bloody chickens again,” she spat.
At such times, it is an instant judgement whether to return aggression for aggression, or to play the innocent choir-boy. My decision was for the latter.
“How nice to see you again, Mrs. Morgan,” I offered. “What can I do for you? And how is Moggy?”
With hardly a pause to confirm her husband Moggy’s health since retirement she focused on the nub of her visit. “I’m weary of being woken at the effing crack of dawn by one of your sodding chicken’s painful attempts at a crow,” she grated.
Playing the choir-boy card further, I foolishly succumbed to the temptation to suggest that the animal was doing its best and just needed time to get it right.
My wife, who is the font of all wisdom and good neighbourliness, had long warned me about adopting the role of an innocent. I should have listened to her as Mrs. J. G. Morgan suddenly unleashed her vitriol.
“Listen here, my young dozy neighbour. I don’t know if you’re playing the bloody fool or just trying to rile me.”
I felt a reply would not have added any warmth to the conversation and therefore remained silent.
“I previously suffered from your now departed cretinous rooster and I don’t now mean to settle for what sounds like one of your up-and-coming trainee male birds. If I have any more trouble I’ll broad-side you with my solicitor.”
With that she pivoted on her heels and rapidly disappeared up our drive. The sudden silence took me by surprise – well, apart from a dull, gargling, crow-like noise emanating from our back garden.
* * * * *
Steering our lives nearer to nature had long been our ambition and a few months earlier Suzie and I embarked on keeping chickens. Suzie’s sister, a guru on all things rural, provided a starter kit of a Sussex rooster and several hens for him to organize. And so rapidly did he impose his authority that we named him ‘Alfred the Great’. Subsequently, every morning he would stride among his ladies, crowing and revealing his presence for everyone to hear which, tragically, included Mrs. J. G. Morgan, who we were soon to learn did not take prisoners. Within a few days Alfred had to be sent on sabbatical to my sister-in-law’s rural retreat. This left six hens without a male caretaker and like many other groups of closely cloistered females they started to squabble and vie with each other to be top dog or, in this case, supremo hen.
* * * * *
Mrs. J. G. Morgan’s antipathy to men was legendary, difficult to explain but regrettably apparent. It clouded her life, like a Victorian winter smog. And no one escaped it.
“I still hear squawkings from your inept trainee rooster,” Mrs. J. G. Morgan railed a few days later as she leaned over our fence. “Shall I come over and wring his bloody neck?”
Even a choir boy has his limits of intolerance and at that stage Suzie and I determined to save Alfreda, our head girl, from expulsion. Her only sin, we reasoned, was being an alpha hen – perhaps paralleling Mrs. J. G. Morgan’s behaviour.
* * * * *
Several times we tried to convince Mrs. J. G. Morgan that the current noisy culprit was not a male bird, but one of her own gender. But she was so entrenched in her derision of all males that there was not a soupçon of reasoning left in her.
“Hens,” I hesitatingly proposed, “when not controlled by a rooster fight between themselves and usually the hen sporting the largest comb becomes dominant.”
I could not resist a fleeting glance at Mrs. J. G. Morgan’s stiffly upright beret badge, but a sobering stare from Suzie instantly stymied that offensive. Fortunately, I had other raw chicken facts up my sleeve and determined to reveal them.
“Do you know,” I began slowly, so that the sexual element of my disclosure had full impact. “Apart from imitating a rooster’s crow, a dominant hen often tries to mate with other hens.”
If the ground could have trembled it would have been in sympathy with Mrs. J. G. Morgan’s pulse. Ashen faced and drawn she fired another salvo at us. “It’s a bloody disgrace, a perversion – you’ve created a flock of chickens steeped in sexual depravity.”
“But this is part of chicken heritage, Mrs. Morgan,” I claimed. “And just consider this, a rooster does not have to be present for hens to produce eggs.”
She went quiet. The thought of hens not requiring the presence of roosters was a revelation; I could almost hear strains of the Halleluiah Chorus passing through her head.
“It’s a pity my sisters in the fight against male oppression can’t do the same,” she muttered under her breath.
And so it came to pass. For Mrs. J. G. Morgan the sexual frolics of an alpha hen without the necessity of a rooster to initiate the production of eggs more than compensated for a few diminutive crows. Surely, she no doubt argued with herself, hens executing their natural dominance is acceptable.
An offer of fresh eggs each week sealed her bond of tolerance towards our chickens. But perhaps I should have clarified that to ensure a clutch of young chicks the presence of a rooster would be essential. I consoled myself about this sleight of word; it had been in a good cause.
Thus, we had saved Alfreda from eviction and Mrs. J. G. Morgan from rooster dominance. Perhaps it was case of live and let crow.