“Mother said you were coming,” said Cauliflower at last.
I wondered fleetingly if anybody knew Mother’s real name. Chatting obviously wasn’t one of Caul’s strong points, so Joe and I busied ourselves unloading the feeder, water container and boxes out of the jeep. Caul watched us, deep in thought.
We carried it all to the awning, where someone else had materialised. A woman, dressed in a sun bleached shapeless shift, leaned against the minibus, smoking a home-rolled cigarette. Stringy hair straggled down her back and her feet were bare. She swatted flies half-heartedly with a limp hand.
“Hello,” I said, trying to behave as though everything was normal. “I’m Vicky.”
No answer. She looked at me but made no reply.
“My woman, Nebula,” said Caul. “She don’t talk much.” I resisted the urge to point out that neither of them were sparkling conversationalists.
“Right,” said Joe. “Have you kept chickens before?”
Caul looked at Nebula. Nebula gazed back, impassive.
“Yeah,” he said a little shiftily, glancing again at Nebula. “Coupla years ago.”
“Oh, that’s good,” I said, too brightly. “If you’ve kept chickens before, you’ll know how easy it is to look after them. We’ve brought a supply of grain, but as you know, they’ll find plenty to eat in the undergrowth as well.”
“And the chickens are really good layers,” said Joe. “You should have eggs every day.”
“Eggs…” breathed Nebula. We all looked up. It was the first time she had spoken, but if we were expecting more, we were disappointed.
“Shall we let them out?” asked Joe. Cocky was scrabbling loudly in the box, claws scraping the cardboard sides.
Neither Cauliflower nor Nebula replied.
“Right,” said Joe, taking the initiative. “Out you come...”
I held my breath, praying Cocky would behave. Joe first opened the box containing the No-Name Twins. Utterly unconcerned by their new surroundings, they made straight for the feeder and water. Joe opened the other box and lifted Cocky out. Cocky took in the scene with one glance, ignored us all and strutted over to the Twins.
“Hey, man!” said Caul, showing more interest in Cocky than we had seen him take in anything since our arrival.
The journey had affected Cocky not at all. Quickly he mounted one Twin, bucked, climbed off and then mounted the other.
“Hey, man!” said Caul.
The brown dog came sniffing up. The girls carried on pecking grain. Cocky rattled his lavender feathers, stood on tiptoe and crowed. The dog wisely decided not to investigate further and slouched away to slump on the cushions again.
“I don’t think dogs will bother them, do you?” I said to nobody in particular. “Not with Cocky there on guard.”
“What about foxes?” asked Joe.
“Foxes…” whispered Nebula.
“No foxes here, man,” said Caul. “Too many dogs.”
Cicadas clamoured in the trees. The brown dog twitched and snored. The chickens scratched happily in the dirt. There seemed nothing else to do, or say. We took our leave promising to call in a few days to see how Cocky and the girls had settled in. We left Cauliflower and his woman in the heat and dirt and navigated the track back up to the main road.
Driving home, we fell silent. I knew I would miss the troublesome little cock we had just given away, and I was sure Joe felt the same. I already missed the incessant crowing. We felt curiously unwilling to discuss the rather surreal visit.
“I’m pretty sure I know where Cauliflower got his name,” said Joe eventually, breaking the silence.
“Really? So why d’you think he’s called Cauliflower?”
“Did you get near enough to smell him?” asked Joe. He had a point.
“Another thing,” I said. “Mother said she buys herbs from him. Did you see any cultivated areas there? Any kind of garden?”
Joe shook his head, then creased his brow in thought.
“No, but there were some very dodgy looking plants growing under the trees. I think Mother may have a little vice Judith doesn’t know about.”
“But Mother’s eighty-five years old!”
“Well? Good luck to her,” said Joe. “We won’t grass on her.”
We met up with Judith and Mother a few days later. Of course Cauliflower and the commune were the main topic of interest.
“Frightful way to live, isn’t it?” said Judith, shuddering. “But they seem happy enough. Damned cold in winter, though. Colder than a witch’s ti…”
“Judith!” said Mother. “Language!” Being in her sixties did not exempt Judith from her mother’s scolding.
“Have you heard how Cocky and the chickens are?” I said quickly.
“Well, dear. I spoke to Cauliflower only yesterday. Seems it didn’t take long for Cocky to settle in. Became a bit of a darned nuisance, don’t you know. But they’ve sorted all that out now.”
Joe and I cringed. We knew exactly how bad Cocky could be.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Well, dear, Cauliflower and his cronies have a little hut in the woods where they spend a penny, a toilet, don’t you know. That wretched Cocky of yours wouldn’t let them near it.”
Judith rubbed her hands together, relishing the story.
“Yes, but then they discovered that Cocky doesn’t like this penguin they’ve got.”
“Yes, dear, a stuffed penguin. A soft toy. Cocky hates the penguin. Probably sees it as competition, don’t you know. So they’ve put this ruddy penguin on the end of a pole. Whoever needs to spend a penny takes it with them. Works a treat, apparently.”
All four of us erupted. The vision of the hippies fending Cocky off with a penguin on a stick every time they needed the toilet was too comical.
“Well, that’s one thing we didn’t try,” said Joe, composing himself. “I’ll phone Caul tomorrow, make sure everything’s okay.”
Judith and Mother told us the chickens were free to wander where they pleased. Of course Cocky guarded them closely, but the No-Name Twins were laying eggs and all seemed well.
The next day, Joe phoned Cauliflower as promised.
“Er, Caul? It’s Joe. Just checking that Cocky and his wives are okay.” He didn’t mention the penguin.
“Hey, man, gotta bit o’ bad news.”
“Oh dear, what’s the matter?”
“Sorry, man, ’fraid Cocky and the chickens didn’t make it.”
“Oh no! What happened? Foxes?”
“No, man. A genet got ’em in the night.”
“A genet? What’s a genet?”
“Carnivore, man. Climbs trees. ’Bout the size of a cat. Drinks blood. Bit their heads off.” It was a long speech for Cauliflower.
“Oh, no! That’s awful.” Joe was shocked. “I’ve never heard of a genet before.”
“Oh well, nothing we can do about it. Pity.”
“One more thing, Caul. Those other chickens you said you had a couple of years before. What happened to them?”
“Genet had ’em too, man.”
Thank you to the many BYC people who have been following Cocky's story and telling me they enjoyed it. It's given me great confidence that the book will be liked when it's released later this month.
I have plenty more stories, if you'd like, just let me know if you'd like to read them.
Cocky's story comes from Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools now available from Amazon.
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