“Cluck, cluck”

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Since Granny died two years ago Granddad has grown increasingly eccentric. It’s become evident that our sensible, thrifty and conservative Granny was the force needed to keep him in check for the fifty or so years they were married. I’ve been told that at one time he had wanted to live on the Thames in a houseboat when my dad and uncle were still young boys. Needless to say, Granny put a stop to that, as she did to many of his zany- or what Granny would have termed ‘exotic’- ideas, and eventually he settled to retirement in a substantial detached 1930s house in Somerset.

The outward show of grief or emotion doesn’t come easily to Granddad, and when the palliative nurse informed him that his wife had just passed away Granddad let out a wail before charging away into a private room lest anyone should see him crying. His inner grief was only made visible in the crippling back pain of the following months, during which time he retreated from life, resigning himself to the same fate as Granny. He told Dad that he thought he only had a year or so left in him.

But soon there glimmered the embers of a rekindled youth. The first sign we should have heeded was when he began to grow his hair to the point where now long wisps of silver trail down to his shoulders making him look strangely feminine. This was followed by the sprouting of a grizzled moustache which was tenderly nurtured over several months. His semi-feral appearance is heightened by unwashed clothes, decorated by a patchwork of last week’s dinners, and falling cake or biscuit crumbs collect in the ancient thick-framed, veri-focal NHS glasses that hang pendulously from his hunched frame, looking like two miniature bird tables.

Granddad’s redeemed bachelorhood at the age of ninety means Sunday afternoons are now spent in the village pub getting trolleyed on one pint of bitter with his neighbour, Mick, before staggering back home up the country lanes in the dark (a change from his previous odd glass of wine with lunch). On one such Sunday, Granddad proudly reported that he’d been so drunk he mockingly praised an elderly woman on the growth of her beard, only realising the following day it was a friend from the village who, unsurprisingly, was mortally offended.

Still, Granddad’s new found freedom has mainly found expression in the garden which has long been the playground for his weird and wonderful ideas and contraptions, but increasingly acts as a stark warning of his peculiarity to passers-by. After complaining that the elegant Eucalyptus tree at the bottom of the garden was blocking his view of the Blackmoor Vale, Granddad employed some tree surgeons, who under his instruction, hacked away at it until only a cluster of wispy branches now remain oscillating in the breeze at the top: a 40ft ear-bud standing as a warning beacon to the surrounding low lying villages. Amidst the family’s collective dismay Granddad claimed that every morning, upon looking down the garden from his bedroom window, the erotically smooth barked trunk gave him a ‘lift’.

Then came a far stranger undertaking… After purposely felling a number of healthy trees Granddad began performing his own daily archaeological digs, painstakingly excavating the root system with a trowel before eking the remaining tree base out. These were then turned upside down with the web of roots extending into mid-air and dotted about the lawn like surreal, skeletal sculptures.

However, this has all culminated in the most recent (and perhaps less disturbing) venture of hen-keeping, first announced late last month in the following email:

“The Chicken idea has been voiced several times in the last few weeks, 8th and the 16th. You are reading my emails but they are not registering with you.

Of course I am going to have chickens. Four is the last figure pulled out of the air but with the ‘Madness of King Philip the First’ it could go with the same momentum of the fruit trees which at the last count was 21. I’m scared of going into Morrison’s now, just in case I’m confronted with another Apple variety that is not in my collection.

‘Dave the Chicken’ came to see me yesterday and we clucked on the idea again about a hutch on wheels which he has if only he could get it from under the beached carcass of a Morris Minor.

There are lots of ideas to play with Re Chicks. A Hutch on stilts to beat the Fox and adopt a chicken week. If we run out of schemes with chickens, how’s about getting a pond with ducks and frogs and stuff. There is no one to say “oh, you can’t do that”———I can do what I fucking well like as long as it’s legal. I’ve only got 10 years left and that’s a nice long stretch to really Fowl it up.

Dave took one look at the Vine-house interior and said ‘you could have chicks in here’ ——-I only thought of that myself yesterday, or the conservatory!!     Granddad”

Now, you might consider hen-keeping to be a relatively normal endeavour for an elderly man, but not with ‘King Philip the First’ who is sure to add a touch of his hallmark eccentricity to the whole affair, namely in the housing department. Not content with a conventional coop or ‘Dave the Chicken’s’ hutch on wheels, which was in a later email damned as ‘the black whole of Calcutta’, Granddad enrolled Uncle Mark from his hometown of Amsterdam to begin work on the hutch-on-stilts construction. After a weekend of busy labour I was sent a photo of the very homespun house set a metre or so up from the ground atop spindly wooden legs, with an inventively designed sliding poo tray made of corrugated plastic to ease cleaning. There was a point at which Granddad gleefully considered erecting a sign over the entrance to the wired run with the infamous words, ‘Work Sets You Free’ or ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ inscribed. This sparked untold possibilities of giving the hens suitably German names- Fritz, Otto etc. Coming from a WW2 veteran who survived the sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales in the South China Sea and engaged battle with the Bismarck, it’s difficult to condemn such black humour. In any case, Granddad quickly became engaged in a different idea involving his drinking chum, Mick:

“Hi, They should have been running around by now but apparently Chickens don’t travel on Bank Holidays, don’t ask me I’m new to this game although Rachel gave me a book on the subject. They should be here tomorrow so book your seats folks this is show time. I’m wondering whether I could train the smartest one to take to the Pub on Sunday and have it shit on Micks cardigan. Any road up attached is a shot of their home, more pics as they move around.”

I have yet to look forward to emails about hens shitting in the pub, but on the long anticipated arrival of the girls I received a photo and email herald pending my awaited visit:

“Well, here we are on Easter Sunday looking over our new place, the two blonde birds in front and Blue belle in the corner. It took us an hour and a half before we got the nerve to step outside but it seems a nice place, plenty to peck at so let’s get busy. Bye —Speckly Sue”