In Greenend me and John up the stairs shared a
garden. It was the early eighties. Everything was grey. The pavements. People's faces. The
buildings. The sky. The future. Nobody had a job. Not one solitary single soul. Men were
gathering in bigger and bigger numbers on the corner - passing buckie and dope. Unemployed
moulders and turners and puddlers tugging away at joints. It was one big party. But smack
was coming onto the scene. Bannan worked beside me and John in the Klondike. A money
lender. He took to dealing like a duck.
Things started to change. John noticed it before me. I
goes up for him this night - I had a bottle up ma jook. I was anticipating the first slug
burning its way down my gullet and hitting my belly like a mother's love.
I chaps his door and he peeks out the letter box. I
push the buckie bottle up till the golden cork's poking out ma jumper. But John wasn't
going down the corner that night. Or the next night - or any other night. The corner's
stepped over the line, he said. There's no way back now. I could see what he was saying.
Needles were on the corner. And last week Bannan stabbed a welder from the Whifflet trying
to move in on his patch. Hes in the Monkland - critical.
If John's not happy with the corner, I'm not happy
with the corner. So we sat in his scullery drinking. John says there's corners all over
the country like it. Men gathered up. And it's a holocaust - only it's not bodies that's
piled up and destroyed but souls. People's spirit. By the turn of the century the whole
countryll pay for it. Mark my words, he said.
It was making him angry so I asked what about the
garden -what's our plans? He looked out over the garden. Thinking. Then he turns and says
- Things're tight and they're not going to get any better. If you want to at least keep
your dignity you've got to have goals - long-term plans.
John thought we should get chickens. It was a great
idea. I took a swig and handed him the bottle by way of a toast. We figured we could get
six or even a dozen eggs a day. That with the carrots and radishes and spuds we were
already growing could save us a fortune. Soft-boiled eggs and omelettes were lighting up
in my head.
Next day we went round the Whifflet library and
researched on chickens and eggs and hutches. The hutch was easy enough to build - we got
the wood from the swing-park fence. Bannan's maw was looking out her back window wondering
what the sawing was and - hey! - off walks an eight-feet section of council fence. We
never thought we were doing any damage cos the swing-park had no swings - just some broke
slabs and a universe of smashed glass shrapnel. Sometimes on a clear night if you stared
into the particles starlight would be in them. You never knew if you were looking at the
heaven or earth.
A week later and four eight-feet lengths of fencing -
we've built a chicken run. In the book it says to hang a hundred-watt bulb inside so the
chicks can huddle round it. I ran the wire from my house cos I had my powercard meter
wired up to run for nothing anyway. John took the bulb out his back room that they never
used except if they got visitors - and I've never seen any of them the three years I've
lived in the bottom flat. All we needed now was the chicks.
We went down to Bankhead farm where they were doing
chicks for fifty pence each. Twenty we bought - a tenner - and that was a lot of money to
us. We put them in and watched the wee yellow cartoon characters buzz about searching and
pecking and sniffing in their new home. But they're not as daft as they look chicks - soon
they were all piling over each other to get below the hundred watt bulb. The cheeping and
the smell of sawdust and all them chicks squeezing into the light made me feel good. A wee
yellow ball of life. Me and John smiled at each other. It was a great feeling and we both
looked forward to omelettes and soft-boiled eggs. I know that because we talked about it
all the time.
At night I'd sit at the window looking at the slither
of warm light beaming across the garden. I'd imagine the quiet burble of the chicks
pressing round the bulb. Snoring maybe - if that's what they do. And then - now and then -
one of them falls out the bundle and scutters round the other side and launches' itself
into the pile looking for a place nearer to the heat of the great bulb sun god.
The spuds and the other stuff were doing fine in the
garden. We'd even took up some radishes and made pieces on margarine with a bit of salt.
The way they crunch when your teeth arrive through the soft bread - mm!
Well - the chicks soon passed that wee lovely stage
and turned into these pre-historic monsters. Their crazed gaze said they'd tear the eye
out your head if you gave them half the chance. Sometimes - if John wasn't there - and
they were all staring at me I'd get a bit scared and have to shut the lid. But if he was
there I'd not mention it and try to see if I could see it in his eyes. You can't mention
fear in Greenend.
On and on it went and they got bigger and uglier. Then
one morning in winter I went out and there was one lying dead. I chipped a few stones up
at John's and out he came with his maw's slippers squeezed onto his feet and her housecoat
wrapped round him. We held it up by the claw and looked at the white slither of death over
the ball of its eye. We were really worried that it could be some chicken disease and we'd
lose the whole lot.
In the library there wasn't much about chicken
diseases. It was mostly all good news about chickens - how to get the best eggs and stuff.
We convinced ourselves it was natural causes and erased one soft-boiled egg each from the
future menu in our heads.
But when we got home and lifted the lid there was
another one dead. Eye pecked out. Bloodied stalks hanging out the socket like fibre
optics. So that's it. Fights. These chicks were now teenagers. When we looked about to see
who was responsible every eye was evil - every eye intense. Like when I got my video
knocked - every guy grinning on the corner the next day - I thought it was him. It's not
easy to spot evil.
We talk about separating them into two groups and see
what group's got a dead one the next day - but John makes an intelligent point - what if
they're all killers! And there's no getting by that - if they're all killers we'd need to
put them in solitary confinement and I don't think the burgh fence could take another hit.
We went to bed that night a bit subdued but took the curse off it with a bottle of
Buckfast between us.
Although John hardly ever got out his bed before
twelve I wasn't surprised to meet him in the close at half nine the next morning. He'd
been up all night same as me - worrying.
We opened the lid together. Looked. Two dead. The rest
chattering on the corner like Bannan and his mob. John shakes his head and leaves me to
close the lid. He walks to the other end of the garden and kicks this old shed. He puts a
hole right through it in fact. But that's nothing cos it's all rotted away. Just like this
whole place - disintegrating. And he never says much John but when he does it makes a
difference. Men don't lay eggs! What? I goes. Men don't lay eggs, he says with his palms
firing out the meaning. I get it. I go and have a boot at the old shed myself. He's right
- we got all them chicks but we never checked to see what ones were hens. For all we know
it's all cockerels we've got.
What to do? The book wasn't much help - we looked for
dicks and stuff between their big rubbery claws. But there was nothing to see. Then John
came up with a great idea. His best yet. He's a bit of a psychologist. What applies to
human beings applies just as well to chickens, he says. The ones that've already died are
probably male. All this territorial shite that goes on down the corner. Like Bannan and
his drug-dealing. The cockerels are probably killing each other for control of the hens.
It's a sex thing. Great! he says. And I give him a how's that great look when he explains
it to me. Well - how many of the corner team d'ye know that attack lassies?
Exactly - so if we let things take their course we'll
be left with one male and the rest'll be hens!
That makes a lot of sense. For the first time in ages
the whole thing takes on a happy glow. And something else John says too - the male that's
left - that'll be the Bannan of the chicken run. If we start a breeding programme we'll
have the best genes in the pool. Christ - things were getting better by the minute. Half
of me wanted the weak chickens to be dead already.
By the end of January the happiness of that day had
faded. There was only one chicken left. And it was a big Rhode Island Red. Male. Me and
John couldn't believe how unlucky we'd been we'd bought twenty chickens and they'd all
been male. The very last omelette went pop in both our heads at the same time.
Then it started cock-a-doodle-dooing at four in the
morning. There was nothing you could do. People were starting to make comments. Not bad
stuff - Is that your chicken I heard this morning? - stuff like that. I discussed it with
John but he seemed to have washed his hands of the situation. I knew he'd finally let go
when the bulb went on the blink. Even though my electricity was stole it was still me that
was providing it for the chicken hutch. I felt it was morally right that John should
provide the bulb. When I asked him he never said no - he just said that his maw had asked
where the bulb was in the visitors' bedroom and he'd to go and nick one out the doctor's.
I looked at him. He looked back. There was no bulb coming out of him so I used the one out
my toilet although I felt a bit resentful at the whole thing by now. And it's hard to
shake off a resentment when you're getting woke up at four every morning by a big red
I decided not to fall out with John. So we chewed the
fat as if the chickens had never happened. And we carried on drinking in his scullery cos
by now the corner was a no-go area. The red rooster ruled the garden.
That's why I was surprised when my door goes at half
nine this morning. It's John - and he's got the Advertiser. Wait till you see this,
he goes. And he lays it out on the floor. We crouch down and he points to a wee advert.
Blue Hen - three pounds. Apply Headrigg Farm Plains. I took in a big happy breath! John
was back on the breeding programme - and we had the top dog male out there ready to go to
town. And - and this is important - and! - we know this one's going to be a hen.
Plains is six miles from Greenend. Six there and six
back. I chipped in two quid and John chipped in a quid he stole out his maw's purse. And
just to show me he was serious he brung a bulb down - he hands me it - Spare! Is all he
says. I put it in my toilet and he waited in the close. We had to act fast - there's no
telling that a blue hen won't get snapped up.
It was freezing. One of them days when your shoulders
rub off your ears. Our words were muffled by the fog they came out in. On the corner
everything was arranged around Bannan. Like he's the hub of a wheel. Power - that's what
it was. A few of the boys looked over. Some nodded but Bannan was staring us out. Don't
look, says John, keep walking. Bannan shouted a few things but we kept going.
Once we cleared the corner I felt at ease. And so did
John cos his head came back up out of his jacket. We strode out towards Plains. The
snowflakes were coming down now and then like miniature saw-blades - they were cutting
into our skin. But that's nothing. With a wee bit of imagination you can think yourself
back into the Klondike at the furnace - me and John and big Bannan - having a laugh and a
couple of cans - and the snow biting your face becomes furnace heat. That cheered me up
and I imagined a year from now - hutches all over the garden and me and John out with
trays collecting eggs. Selling them round Greenend. All these boiled eggs and omelettes
rushed back into my head. I glanced at John and his thoughts were the same. We smiled. I
mind the exact moment John smiled a wee snowflake landed on the end of his nose and he
licked it off. Going cross-eyed at the same time. And we laughed. And he put his arm round
me and gave me a wee hug. And I gave him one back. It was the happiest time of my life. We
smiled on through the thickening snow. Two lights in the darkness of March.
When we got to Plains we paid three quid to a
thirteen-year-old laddie. We told him all about our bad luck and our new breeding plans.
He gave us a couple of tips and wished us all the best. The walk down the road was a lot
quicker. The snow had took the sting out the air and we kept swapping the blue hen. I'd
have her up my jumper for a mile then John'd have her up his. Chances each at being
pregnant with the future. The whole world was that warm hen. I love the way snow effects
sound - it was like beyond me and John and the Blue Hen nothing existed. The place was
white and our feetprints behind were driving us into the promise of uncharted lands of
We were back at the corner in no time. Bannan was
strutting about giving orders.
Cross over; John said.
We crossed over But Bannan seen us. Hey what's that
you've got! he shouts. Ignore him, John says. We marched faster. Bannan kept on shouting.
Stop! he shouts. We kept going. Out the side of my eye I could see him struggling in his
jacket for something. Some of the corner boys were scattering. Others grinned - black
holes for mouths. Stop!! Bannan had a gun. John - he's got a gun! But John pressed the
Blue Hen into his belly. Keep going, he said. This is your last chance! shouts Bannan.
That was the moment I seen what dignity was. It was John. It was the Blue Hen up his jook.
The palms of his hands pressing her soft feathers. Dignity was John keeping on walking
with that gun pointing.
The shot rang out the exact same time as this groove
made its way under the snow. A line like a pipe appeared between me and John. A pipe of
snow bursting open at the seam. And a starburst of slush exploded at the kerb. I could
feel the corner boys walking away from Bannan. I turned a bit as we walked. John never
even broke his stride. Bannan pointed the gun again. John - I'm telling you - Stop! he
shouted. We turned the corner as the shot went off.
When we walked into the back garden John was shaking.
That's when I realized so was I. We never said nothing about the gun. It was like it never
happened. The red rooster swung its head round but it stood well back. By this time it was
pretty adept at getting up on the roof and that's where it went. There wasn't another bird
up there. We put the Blue Hen in the hutch and watched. But the red rooster stayed on the
roof. Outwaited us. Watching. Glaring. We decided it was as shy as we'd be if somebody
brought us home a woman to marry. It might be bold and tough but - as John pointed out -
It's still a virgin and that's why it's bashful. Probably be all right in the morning.
I woke up the next morning about eight with this
racket - a squawking like I've never heard. I ran out the back and there's John and he's
just pulled the head off the red rooster Murdering bastard - murdering bastard, he's
shouting. The claws of the red rooster are still twitching but the blood's spurting out
its neck. Onto John's hands - dripping into the snow. I look in the hutch and there's the
Blue Hen lying stiff and dead beneath the ghostly daylight glow of the hundred-watt bulb.
Both her eyes are pecked out.
|© 2001 Des Dillon
This electronic version of "The Blue Hen" appears in The Barcelona
Review with kind permission of the author. It was first published in New Writing 10,
Picador, in association with The British Council, 2001. Book ordering available through amazon.co.uk
This story may not be archived, reproduced or
distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
Des Dillon is a fiction writer,
poet, dramatist and screenwriter. Born in Coatbridge, Scotland (1961), he studied English
at Strathclyde University and subsequently taught English. From 1998-2000 he was writer in
residence at Castlemilk, Glasgow. He won the TAPS (Television Arts Performance Showcase)
Writer of the Year 2000; and in 2001 (as well as 1996) he was awarded a SAC writer's
bursary. His novels include Me and Ma Gal, The Big Empty, Duck, Itchycooblue, Return
of the Busby Babes and The Big Q. He currently lives in Galloway and is
working on a screenplay for BBC Films based on The Big Q.