On the first sunny day of the year, I arrive at the allotment gates, a bucket bursting with kitchen waste swinging from my handlebars. The most stalwart diggers, old Jack and his mate, are already out on their plots. Along the road to my left a man is approaching with a clipboard…
‘Are you Julia Hollander?’ he enquires.
‘How the hell do you know that!’
‘It says here that I am to deliver a hen house to you. It’s in the van.’
‘Hah! You were meant to phone me at home first…’
‘I did try – looks like they gave me the wrong number…Anyhow, I’m here now.’
‘It’s a miracle we turned up together, you know – this is the first time I’ve been down here in weeks!’
In acknowledging the power of serendipity, the delivery man and I are now the best of friends. Off I go to deposit my potato peelings, and off he goes to collect the henhouse. When I return to the gates he is waiting there, a large parcel wrapped in black plastic balanced on his trolley.
‘Can you get it across the grass to my plot?’ I ask.
‘No bloody likely – it’ll sink in the mud.’
‘Are you insured to carry it?’
”Course I’m not – but that doesn’t mean I won’t! You take that end…’
I slot my fingers through the plastic and heave.
‘God – that’s much heavier than I was expecting,’ I confess.
‘There’s a pallet on the bottom.’
‘Can we take it off – make it a bit lighter?’
‘Nope – it’s strapped on tight.’
I heave again. So does the delivery man. The henhouse refuses to shift.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘I’m not up to this…’
‘That’s OK,’ he says, ’those two chaps over there – they look strong enough…’
I’m not sure what those two chaps think about keeping chickens. I have the nasty feeling it does not appeal. Now in his 80’s, Jack is an ex-Cowley worker, a man of very strong opinions; over the decades he has watched, appalled, as the allotment community has changed. A solid working class contingent of potato-diggers has gradually been replaced by namby pamby rocket-growers like me.
As I follow the delivery man across the grass, I can hear Jack’s mate asking what it is they are being asked to move. The word ‘hen house’ drifts on the wind towards me. I can see Jack’s face reddening in the sunlight; his ample form expanding like an angry cockerel. By the time I reach them, he is in full flow,
‘I heard you were planning to keep chickens. I’ve been onto the Council, you know – no livestock, that’s what the tenancy agreement says…no livestock – it encourages vermin….Don’t you take any notice of the rules?’
‘I’m sorry you feel like that, Jack…’
Jack cuts across my apology,
‘If I see one single rat on this site, I’ll be onto you, you know …’
On and on he rants about rats and foxes and how they will be digging holes and generally wreaking havoc. I try apologising a couple more times…I try to reassure him that I will practise excellent husbandry so as not to attract rats…I mention compost heaps and how they definitely already do…then I try to talk about fox territories (my zoologist friend Kate is a predator expert and says that foxes will already be policing the site); I try to ask what’s wrong with foxes from a vegetable gardener’s point of view. But I know it’s all too bloody middle class for Jack.
‘It’s against the rules – you’re breaking the flippin’ rules!’
‘I’m not, actually Jack.’
‘That’s the trouble with you posh people – you think you’re above the law!
‘I’ve taken advice from a lawyer.’
‘Like heck you have!’
‘Take a look at the Allotments Act 1950,’ I say, making my retreat. ‘It’s all there – section 12 – take a look at it, Jack, and you’ll see it’s not me, it’s the Council that’s breaking the law!’
I join my friend the delivery man who is sheltering behind the hen house.
‘Personally, I’m on your side,’ he says.
‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘Why do people see chickens as a threat?’
‘S’pose they’ve got used to them being in battery farms.’
‘I was planning for my hens to eat everyone’s slugs and snails…and the school’s leftovers.’
‘Ah. That’s a great idea – I hate all that food waste. Nice fresh eggs – I’d do the same as you if I had time.’
He has taken out his cigarette lighter and has managed to burn through the straps that connect the hen house to its pallet. We take off the doors and the sections of mesh and carry them separately to my plot. Now the main house is just light enough between the two of us. As we stumble along with it, Jack’s mate passes by. Using as un-middle-class an accent as I can muster, I call out to him,
‘I have looked into the law,’
‘I believe you,’ he says, grudgingly, ‘I’ve seen allotment chickens on the TV.’
Well, thank God for TV.
’But it doesn’t mean you won’t attract VERMIN!’