Sunday, 1 November 2009

In the Beginning There Was a Word. And the Word Was Egg...

The story so far...

'You can't start a novel like that,' interrupts Mrs Miggins. She is looming over my shoulder, mid-teeth clean. A blob of toothpaste dribbles from her brush onto my cardigan.
'Why not?' I ask. 'And do you have to clean your teeth so close to my ear? In fact, you're a chicken. Chickens don't have teeth.'
'That's no excuse for poor beak hygiene,' says Mrs Miggins. 'Now what are you going to do about the start of this novel? You can't begin with 'the story so far...' because your readers might not know that there has been a story so far. You are relying on them having a priori knowledge of your blog.'
'No, I'm not,' I say. 'That's why I'm starting with an update. To catch everyone up with what's been happening at Much Malarkey Manor so far.'

Mrs Miggins sighs. 'In that case, I've got time to redecorate the dining hall. There's only so long one can suffer the artistic merits of a woodchip and magnolia finish, don't you think? Call me when you're done. We'll do lunch.'

I watch her shuffle back upstairs to the bathroom. I think, she really shouldn't wear those slip-on mules on the stairs; she'll fall one day and break a hip and my days will be reduced to pushing a disabled chicken around in a bathchair. I hear her toothbrush buzzing for exactly two minutes. The toilet flushes. There are hisses - one, two - of deodorant spray and then she reappears in the doorway of my writing room, a ladder slung over her shoulder, a roll of Baroque-style flock wallpaper 'neath her wing.
'New overalls?' I say.
'Andy's pyjamas,' says she. 'How's the writing going so far?'
'Marvellously,' I say, glancing at the almost blank computer screen.
'I thought so,' says Miggins. 'See you in thirty days, or so.'

Maybe she's right, I think, looking at my opening sentence. Maybe 'the story so far...' is a dull starter, a bit cliche, even. It's not exactly grabbing-the-reader-by-the-throat-stuff. I press the delete button and start again...

'It was a dark and stormy night. Somewhere, a dog howled into the cavernous skies...'

'You can't start a novel like that,' interrupts Mrs Slocombe. 'Even I know that and I'm the maddest chicken to ever walk the planet Mars.'
'Oh, I don't know,' says Mrs Pumphrey. 'I quite like it. Reminds me of my youth.'
'How so?' I ask. I realise the chances of me reaching my two thousand words a day target are diminishing faster than a jumbo bag of doughnuts at the weekly meeting of the 'We Love Doughnuts More Than Life Itself Club.'
'Well,' says Mrs Pumphrey, 'I was born on a dark and stormy night. My first memory is of a sudden flash of lightning, brightening up the midnight sky as though it was day-time. Then it went dark, then it went light again, and then it went dark and then light and then...'
'Yes, all right, I get the idea,' I say.
'I think it's how I developed my love for showbusiness,' says Mrs Pumphrey. 'The flash of the cameras, the tracking of the spotlights across the stage. You know, 'Just like a super-trouper beams are gonna find me,' and she launches, unfortunately for me and Mrs Slocombe, into a three minute medley of Abba hits.
Mrs Slocombe rests her end of the trestle table she and Pumphrey are carrying, on the floor; I rest my weary head on the desk. A stray paper clip embeds itself in my cheek.

I decide enough is enough just as Mrs Pumphrey begins her rather dubious version of 'Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Cock After Midnight).'

'Actually, 'I say, 'I am rather busy. So if you don't mind...'
'Not at all,' says Mrs Slocombe. 'You carry on. Work fascinates me. I can sit and watch someone do it all day.'
'I need to be alone,' I say, in what I hope is a kind, but firm voice. 'And I think Mrs Miggins is probably waiting for you in the dining-hall. Won't she need that trestle table to paste up her wallpaper?'
'I suppose,' sighs Mrs Pumphrey. 'We've been roped in to being decorator's mates. It's very inconvenient timing. I've got fifteen thousand sequins to sew onto a new costume I'm making for my next showbiz extravaganza. Tango Pete and I are planning a dance tour. It's called 'Strictly Samba Cha Cha Cha - Come Up and See Me, Make Me Jive.'
'Sounds interesting,' I say.
'Sounds pants,' says Mrs Slocombe. Tact is not one of her strong points.

Mrs Pumphrey and Mrs Slocombe resume their grip on the trestle table and bump their way up the hallway to the dining hall. I hear the moose's head being knocked off the wall, but I really can't be bothered to go and re-hang it. I can feel the stirrings of creative genius. I need to write.

'Ooh, by the way,' says Mrs Pumphrey, popping her head back around the door. 'Just in case you need a further kick up your creative rear, here's the diary I kept when I was a chick. Feel free to use any of the contents. I reserve the copyright, of course, and will want fifteen percent of the gross income of any sales your novel might make. Or a new leotard, whichever is the greatest value. See my lawyer. He'll fill you in on the finer details.'
'That'll be the Lycra option then,' I mutter. I pick up Mrs Pumphrey's diary. It is entitled 'All About Me. Tales of a Chic Chick, by Mrs Gloria Pumphrey.' The words 'Private' and 'Confidential' have been written in pink gel pen across the front with 'Subject to Contract' printed in small letters underneath.

I open the diary. Page one. I begin to read.

'It was a dark and stormy night. Or so my mother tells me, for I was too young to remember. A newly hatched chick's brain has less capacity for memory than a forgetful goldfish, or so they say, whoever they might be. My name is Gloria Demelza Portia Cordelia Viola Olivia Pumphrey. And I was born to be a STAR!!!!!!'

And Mrs Pumphrey has decorated the word 'STAR' with pink glitter and tiny white feathers. This, I think, is a hen who knows where she is going with her life.

'The storm raged outside, but it was warm and cosy in the barn where we lived. My mother was poor, but intelligent. The shelves of her bookcase were lined with a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Oft were the evenings we sat at our mother's knee, listening to her read extracts from wonderful plays like 'Henlet' and 'As You Cluck It.' My mother would act out the characters with such startling realism we only had to close our eyes to be transported instantly to the shores of Ilyria, or the Forests of Arden, or the battlefields at Honfleur, where Hen-Ry the Fifth stirred his troops into battle with his famous 'Once more, into your breeches, dear hens, once more. Or shore up the walls with your scrambled eggs.'
And sometimes, for a treat, we would dance a galliard, until the farmer came in and complained about the noise. Oh, those were the days, of carefree chicken games, of scratching in the sawdust, of moving from chick feed to proper grown-up layers pellets. But as we grew, my fifty sisters and I, the barn became somehow smaller and warmer. 'Why is this so?' I asked my mother one day as we sat, heads together, sewing ric-rac braiding on a tiny tunic for my first starring role in the barn's production of 'Thirteenth Night'. (Twelve is an unlucky number for hens - just look at the number of battery eggs in a supermarket carton if you don't believe me.)
My mother raised her head and stretched her wings. 'I don't know, Gloria,' she said. 'It happens every few months or so, just before my girls fly the nest. I often puzzle this strange phenomenon when I have no knitting to do.'

(Later, I discovered that the lessening space and growing warmth was down to our own rapid growth from chicks to hens, but not until after I had completed a short course of study in Life Sciences.)

'What do you mean, 'fly the nest?' I asked. My mother appeared suddenly flustered. But she quickly regained her composure, even though it meant introducing a split infinitive into the sentence.
'I didn't want to tell you this until the last moment,' she said. 'But I think you are old enough to know. The time is coming, Gloria Demelza Portia Cordelia Viola Olivia, for you to set off into the big wide world, to make your own life beyond the four walls of this barn, to fly the coop.'
'You mean, this isn't it?' I asked, gazing at my mother in wonder.
'Good Lord, no,' she laughed. 'There's Milton Keynes for a start.'

And so it came to pass that my flying day arrived. The farmer appeared in the barn, scooped me up by the legs so I was dangling upsidedown with my petticoats around my ears and bloomers on show, and I was placed into a basket to begin my life's journey.

'Dark in here, isn't it?' said a voice. I was not alone. I saw a glint of an eye, I flash of ginger feather.
'I'm Gloria,' I said.
'Laetitia,' said the owner of the glinting eye and ginger featherage. 'Laetitia Miggins.'

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