No-one can shrug like a Frenchman

IN between showers, I was helping Claude sort out his henhouse. You must read his name with a French accent; many English people have a property in France, but Claude bucks the trend by having one in England. Claude was preparing for some point-of-lay pullets, which should arrive next week, and together we were attending to minor repairs, foxproofing, and a determined assault on any mites that could have survived the blowtorching and creosoting (you have to do this in the right order) that we undertook when the last of the previous incumbents died of old age.

Hens do not integrate well with strangers, so you are best not to try and add new fowl to an established flock, because they attack and can even kill each other. So his last flock depleted gently through the ageing process until the final hen departed, and then Claude had to be away a lot and it was not the time to get new ones. While I was happy to help out, I live a sufficient distance away that I could not commit to regular care, for hens have to be let out and shut in as daylight dictates, and generally supervised to catch illness early on when it can be treated. Eggs should be collected when laid and not left to build up; even half a dozen pullets will produce a lot of eggs once they get going. But now Claude would be here for a long enough spell to make the new flock worthwhile, and between myself and the neighbours, we could help out as needed on those occasions when he had to be away.

Diving indoors to escape a sharp cloudburst, we recalled the bantam cock that had arrived in the village a few years ago, round about this time of year. He was not one of those handsome bantams you see, but an ugly fellow, albeit with a certain roguish charm. An old bird by the size of his spurs, his comb was triple-layered at the top but falling over halfway down, giving him a piratical air. His feathers were scruffy and white, broken and stained, and his skin showed pinkly through threadbare patches here and there. He rapidly became part of the village, his crowing frequent but not all that disturbing, being more of a long croak with a gurgle at the end. He set up home in the main road through the village, dividing the inhabitants into Fors and Againsts, for people either loved him or loathed him, depending largely on the destruction he wrought in their front gardens. Some fed him, some shoo-ed him away; local cats soon learned to walk wide of him, for he knew how to use those spurs. He was more discreet in the matter of dogs, preferring to watch them from a high place. He liked to walk rather than fly, and was often seen strolling from garden to garden during the daytime.

Everyone had become quite used to him that summer, when an oaf driving too fast caught him up under their car while he was crossing the road, reducing him to a pile of tattered bloodstained feathers. He had been such a huge character that the whole village missed him, even the people who had suffered from his gardening. That throaty little crow left a big silence once it was no more.

The rain having eased, Claude and I returned to finish our work on the henhouse. Would you be getting a bantam cock with your pullets, Claude?

Nobody can shrug like a Frenchman. And I haven’t heard such an emphatic ‘Non’ since the days of General de Gaulle.