"Farm living is the life for me"
I've always thought of myself as a city girl. Just give me a whiff of that acrid city air and it's like leaded petrol in my veins.
For three years now I've been out of my natural habitat, and bogged down in the countryside. Instead of taxi fumes, the air smells of wet grass, honeysuckle and the earthy tang of manure.
I've adjusted to clean air; I've come to love the quiet of the place; but the one thing that I cannot wrap my head around is the subject of animal husbandry.
I live next-door to a farm, and every morning as I depart for the school-run I see some unfortunate jodphured person mucking out the stables. It combines everything I like least: mud, stench and hooves. I'm deeply grateful for the work that farmers do, mostly because I'm glad that I don't have to procure my food the hard way. I know that I am like Marie Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon, dabbling in my strawberry plants and hen's eggs, but I'm content to rely on the grocery store as our primary food source.
Although I exist on the fringes of actual agriculture, occasionally I will wander into the trenches, and then be as surprised as an Alice who fell through the rabbit hole.
Last Friday night, my husband and I attended a Farmer's Ball -- my rather airy description of a fundraising event to help local farmers in times of need. (It's an emergency fund, really.) General impressions: Lovely Food (new potatoes and rare roast beef and properly sweet strawberries) but Worst Disco Ever. (The Nolan Sisters? The music was cheesy more than 30 years ago.)
I was sat by a German farmer and his wife; I will call them Hans and Helga. They are the most extraordinary pair: equally strapping and hearty, and always smiling and laughing. They are like a cross between an apple dumpling and an Oom-Pah Band. You might think that the stress and disappointments of farming would result in dour dispositions, but these two act like the world and everything in it is a great jolly joke.
I've no idea how Hans and Helga came to live in West Berkshire, but they've been local fixtures for two decades at least. I've known them for about a decade, and encountered them mostly at chilly "summer" barbeques and Bonfire Nights. Perhaps because I am usually leaning against the AGA, trying to stay warm, they tend to tease me. They treat me like a delicate flower or lace doily: something pretty, "precious," and ineffectual. Although I am usually wearing jeans and a fleece, they make me feel like Eva Gabor in a filmy peignoir.
Despite generalized good-will and a casual fondness, Helga and I tend to bring out the stereotype in each other. When I discovered that she was originally from Bayreuth, I immediately asked her if she had ever been to the Festival. She found this deeply hilarious. "But doesn't everyone ask you this?" I said. "No one! Never has anyone asked me this!" she replied. "Only YOU would know this," she chortled, and then leaned over to share with Hans this great joke. Then, widening her eyes, she confided me: "I did see The Ring Cycle once. Ten hours on a wooden bench. NEVER AGAIN."
At some point, the conversation turned, inevitably, to chickens. I have two hens; Helga has sixty, give or take a cockerel. She proceeded to tell me a lurid tale, sort of a cross between Chicken Run and The Exorcist.
For reasons which weren't entirely clear, Helga decided to "do away" with one of her cockerels -- a mean and stringy old fellow. First, she bashed him unconscious with a wooden board. Then, she cut his throat with a knife to finish him off. Finally, she buried him deep in the muck heap "so that the dogs wouldn't eat him." (Each stage of this murder was related to me with much chuckling and chortling.)
Has anyone guessed the punchline? It was the chicken who just wouldn't die. The next day, one of her daughters commented on the "strange chicken" walking around the yard like a drunken sailor. Like a grisly spectre, the cockerel had risen from the muck heap . . . and was listing around, head lolling at its side.
Apparently, he went on to make a full recovery.
Knife crime takes on surprising forms in the countryside.