See How the Chickens Run by Clayton Lister

If this was a holiday, school was infinitely preferable and our Leeds council estate outright homely. But rain had shifted, clouds lifted. For the first time since our arrival Wallops Roost stood bathed in sunlight. From the open window of Mother’s bedroom of confinement all the valley below was shown for the rural idyll it could be. Rising on the air was the heady scent of wet earth and greenery warming.

Dotted about the hillside opposite lambs teetered on the edge of plangent tunefulness. And along the valley’s bottom, twinkling where it wound into view, a stream bordered Granny Wallop’s hen paddock.

‘Why don’t thee go join Jake?’ Mother asked from her bed.

That idyll didn’t cut such a pretty picture that I felt inclined to enter it. From point of introduction to our Granny Wallop and baby Clifford’s pretty much simultaneous entry into the world I myself had been laid low. A hot mustard compress was Granny Wallop’s remedy, applied three times daily. Raw cloves of garlic mashed in a dessertspoonful of cod liver oil also three times daily. If I didn’t like the flavour I could chew on parsley. I was also denied visiting rights to Mother.

Not that our mother was the mollycoddling type herself, understand. But rights newly re-conferred, why should I want to relinquish them now to go join Jake —Jake and my nemesis Granny Wallop, I should say — amongst chickens? I thought she must have cast some sort of spell on my brother. How else to account for their inseparability?

‘Is Granny Wallop a witch?’ I asked. I’d wanted to all week.

Mother laughed grimly. ‘Aye,’ she said. ‘Ah reckon. Just don’t let her see theur flayed of her.’

That was advice more easily offered than followed. I would have opined as much, only turning from the window I found Mother at just that moment in the act of baring her breast to baby Clifford. Now this might be a state of nature not commonly known to mothers. Mine seemed unaware. But the mere notion of breasts will give any lad pause for thought — lactating breasts, all manner of unbidden thoughts. Even against his wishes the actual spectacle — that of his own mother included — will prove a diversion.

‘Thirsty?’ mine enquired.

I knew that tone, and duly took my cue.

The stair and hallway at Wallops Roost was dark and treacherous, even in fine weather the scullery not much brighter. A brief period of adjustment to the sun-drenched yard I’d have thought a not unreasonable allowance. I’d also not been in the best of health, remember.

‘Eyup,’ Granny Wallop said from somewhere between me and the sun, ‘’eare ee is, moithered by daylight. Ah’m not surprised.’

Doggy Ned found my palm with his wet nose. We’d not got off to the best of starts, Doggy Ned and I. I’d not easily be reconciled to his smell or his oily coat or the sores around the base of his tail. And no matter how high Mother’s purported affection for him as a pup, I could not see the honour in being named after him. But we did, it seemed, suffer an equal share of Granny Wallop’s contempt. I supposed that was something to build on.

Silhouetted squatly against the sky, basket on arm, ‘’Appen, Jake’s collectin’ eggs,’ Granny Wallop said. ‘Commin’? Or dassent thee, f’fear o’ clarty dawks?’

She had observed, no doubt, my aversion to the fur behind Doggy Ned’s ears. It’d caught beneath my fingernails. But I thought of what Mother had said about not showing fear of Granny Wallop and said, ‘Nay. Ah mean, aye. Ah’ll come.’

Right answer. For, ‘Ee,’ Granny Wallop nodded appreciatively. ‘Some spirit in’t lad yet.’

I followed the old woman across the yard down the path to the paddock, Doggy Ned trailing.

‘Put wood in’t ’oile!’ Granny Wallop hollered when she saw I’d left the gate open. ‘Does thee want a massacre?’

It was hard to imagine Ned shifting fast enough to catch an egg rolling around a mixing bowl let alone a running hen around a paddock. But I did as I was told. And so alerted, Jake appeared from behind one of the several hen houses dotted about. Not ordinarily one for excesses of emotion, our Jake, he could on occasion be stimulated most curiously. ‘There’s two!’ he cried. ‘Two in this one!’

Indeed there was. Slap in the middle of a nesting box, sat one tan-coloured egg, one white — the white egg with a red feather on top stuck by poo.

‘In’t skep, then,’ Granny Wallop said.

But fussing around the eggs was a big bird with a sharp eye and beak a good deal sharper still. Whatever purpose it might serve, I didn’t much like the look of its wattle either. Evidently, Jake neither. He reached out gamely but recoiled as the bird set to sparring with him.

‘Ee by . . .!’ Granny Wallop elbowed the pair of us out of her way. As unceremoniously, she swept the hen aside. ‘N’arn try.’

Jake waited for its clucking to abate, feathers to settle. I don’t know if the hen would have pecked him. But if it wasn’t going to, no sooner had he laid his fingers on that first egg than it rushed him and bluffed impressively. Jake flinched, clenched his fist. Yoke spurted.

‘Thee cag-’anded claht’ead!’ Granny Wallop said. ‘Wipe dawks on’t grass.’ Then, turning to me, ‘N’arn, thee try.’

Despite my two year seniority I was not used to succeeding where Jake failed. I bore him no ill will, but at last saw opening before me an opportunity to start winning some favour with our Granny Wallop.

I steeled myself. If that hen threatened, then I wilfully blinded myself to the danger. How much could a hen peck hurt, anyway? And no fuss, no hesitation, I did it. Dared and won. I placed the egg gently in our basket, and didn’t even wipe poo from my fingers — not that Granny Wallop saw, anyway. As she herself might have said, I were so reight chuffed I could have baked that egg with glowing pride.

‘N’arn f’ rest,’ she said, and we did the rounds.

Jake redeemed himself, but in the running count I remained one egg ahead. All coops inspected, eggs collected, we cleaned out the old hay for transportation by wheelbarrow to the compost heap and replaced it with fresh. Jake lacking the strength to push the barrow, that job fell to me. Not that I minded. Not in the least. We replenished the feed and water trays. I also handled heavier sacks than Jake. Watering cans, too. We sweated cobs.

And I would have volunteered for any other jobs that needed doing. But before heading back to the house, Granny Wallop paused to scour the paddock. I presumed she was counting her flock. But it soon became evident, no. She was very carefully making a selection. And I am bound to say that for an old woman easily as stiff as Doggy Ned she scooped up her chosen hen with real dexterity and nimbleness. I was impressed.

She didn’t hear, but Jake turned to me, and, ‘Mmm . . . supper,’ he said.

I’d not considered hens in the context of supper before. Eggs in context of breakfast, yes. But the chicken we ate at home came in either pre-packed slices or frozen nuggets with breadcrumbs on, not feathers. They didn’t have beaks and feet. They didn’t have wattles. And clucking softly, this hen seemed so at ease under Granny Wallop’s arm. So trusting.

We followed Granny Wallop with her hen back up to the gate. Doggy Ned wagged his welcome. That he never took to heart Granny Wallop’s curses and ill-aimed kicks I began to perceive spoke positively of my namesake. Recalling that a scratch behind his ears was not the most hygienic expression of affection, I gave him a pat. For once, he was not interested but ambled as quickly as he could after Granny Wallop.

In advance of us all, Jake dived into the scullery. Before Doggy Ned and I had caught up, Granny Wallop placed the hen on the cobbles at her feet. She spread its wings and stood on them. Jake re-emerged, wielding a small cleaver. I slowed up some.

‘Ned, ’od Ned!’ Granny Wallop barked. I do believe that was the first time she’d called me by my name. ‘“’Old ’im!” Ah said.’

I scampered forward to check Doggy Ned’s progress — greasy mane regardless, grabbed his neck. And I don’t mind confessing that whilst he whimpered his objections, I was none too sorry to have the excuse of half-hiding behind him.

‘Thee doin’ it?’ Granny Wallop asked Jake.

But there was something as compulsive as there was abominable about this scene unfolding before my very eyes. In a state of nervous excitement Jake twitched hardly less than Ned. Beneath and between Granny Wallop’s feet their victim struggled.

‘Tek ’od of ’eead,’ she instructed.

Jake did.

‘Pull neck good an’ taut. ’At’s it. N’arn, chop. ’Ard as thee like.’

As hard as he liked? As slight as Jake was, hen and head parted more easily than expected. On his haunches, he lost his balance and tumbled over backward. Granny Wallop stepped off the bird to catch Jake. So released, it reared up and charged.

They don’t run, headless chickens, so much as roll and tumble, head-(I should say gaping neck-hole-)over-heels, wings flapping. And despite its handicap of decapitation, this one knew exactly where it was headed — across the cobbles, straight for me and Doggy Ned. Naturally, I let go my embrace. As far as I was concerned, it was every Ned for himself. I up and ran.

All hell broke loose behind me, Ned barking, Granny Wallop hollering, Jake shrieking. At what I thought a safe distance, I dared turn around. But the only reason Ned had quietened? Still in pursuit of me his mouth was crammed full of flailing bird. Granny Wallop followed Ned. Although half-helpless with hysterical laughter, Jake followed her.

Whether I believed it me or Doggy Ned Granny Wallop was hollering at I cannot rightly say. All I know is I only stopped running when cornered between a wall and the paddock fence.

There Doggy Ned, in time, caught up. Growling in the back of his throat, he gave that hen such a furious shake he almost toppled himself. He dropped the bloodied corpse at my feet. It lay twitching. In revulsion, panic, I kicked it — a better boot than I ever gave a football. As for that hen, it soared like it never did in life, clear over Ned’s head toward Granny Wallop who caught it.

‘Thee gawby . . . Eeee . . .!’ I’d no doubt who she was speaking to now. Holding the hen by its feet, she shook it at me. Her green eyes flashed. ‘Leuk at state of it!’ she cried. I thought she was going to clobber me with it.

Behind her, Jake had I don’t know which, lost his footing or collapsed in breathless fitting. No matter. Hen-head in one hand, cleaver in the other, he pounded the ground with both fists.

‘By gad,’ Granny Wallop despaired, walking away.

Doggy Ned nuzzled wetly.

I’m sure it wasn’t movement at the distant window of Mother’s room that caught my eye. Clifford at her breast still, there she stood, though, watching.

‘Ah want t’go hooam,’ I mouthed — daren’t call up. ‘Ah want t’go hooam, Mam.’

Clayton Lister lives in Northumberland, England. This story is from his collection, The Cracked Objective Lens; he also has a novel living in his laptop, Tom Thumb's Chunky Blues. Both await re-housing to somewhere grander.