Slowly, the thought crystallised that I was feeling pretty much exactly the same feeling of utter cluelessness that I’d felt shortly after the arrival on planet Earth of Betty Button. That feeling of being totally, viscerally responsible for another life, feeding it, keeping it warm, and happy, and safe, a feeling that I had assumed would not come around again until, or unless, grandparenthood descended.
I am glad to report that the feeling did not last long – these were ex-battery chickens, retail value £1, and given to us by the neighbouring farmer so we had even saved ourselves that four pound outlay. It really didn’t matter (apart from to the chickens themselves, and even then, after what they’d been through, it was 50:50) whether they keeled over and died right there, or were savaged that night by a crazy rampaging gang of foxes and badgers, or flew out of the cage to begin a new, free and short life in the field over the way. These were not actual human beings with a genetic link to myself and the rest of my family, in whom god or someone like him had placed a precious charge. No, these ladies could fend for themselves or they could face the consequences.
Thus, at least, ran the rational part of my brain. Yet the old familiar feeling niggled. I had just gone through the mostly enjoyable palaver of putting Betty and Dolly to bed, so perhaps I was feeling overly parental. I watched the hens strutting around, descended from jungle fowl, weird and bald from their lives in an absurdly cramped factory farm. I had thought I’d have a hell of a time herding them into the shed, up the crap ladder I’d cobbled together one evening, the sound of whacked nails echoing across the valley, but as I watched they took it in turns to scramble up the ladder and explore the inside of the shed. They seemed genuinely taken with the stick I’d wedged in as a total afterthought of a perch. I felt like cheering. Soon three of them were in. A fourth continued outside and I decided that this would be the problem bird. Things had gone too well and I had visions of cramming it into the shed only to have the other three escaping and so the Benny Hill style routine would carry on until dawn. But then, only a short while later, that last one stalked up the ladder and into the shed. I whipped away the ladder and closed the hatch. They were in. I braced myself for squawking chaos but none came. They were silent. Happy? Hard to say. Asleep? Unlikely at such short notice. But as I strode away from that chicken run, there was an undeniable stirring at a gut level, some atavistic satisfaction at having put a series of creatures to bed.