It looked like a spaceship from the seventies. Bright yellow and black, with a clear Perspex panel in the top so that you could look in to inspect the eggs inside. Every so often, you could hear it whirring into action, turning its plates with a low rumble, from its corner in the back of the boiler room. It was the least maternal-looking mother hen
in all of history.
There was a countdown timer on the side, so you could keep track of how many days until hatching was imminent. As the green digits flicker lower and lower in number, we began spending more time hovering around, peering in.
Then, one day… a crack.
We began with Rhode Island Reds, and added to them a clutch of Buff Orpingtons. Whole summers in the mid- 1990s were whiled away basking in the paddock under the shade of an apple tree, surrounded by the broods we had raised. I could recognise each individual chicken on sight. But there was one who was special. The first born son of the metal mother in the boiler room: Eddie.
The first egg showed its first crack on the first day of March. A crisp, blue sky day with a gentle breeze teasing out the first white buds of apple blossom. We hovered, with bated breath, in the doorway of the boiler room, while Mum made her assessment of the crack. Was it time? She lifted the lid and reached inside. Yes, the time had come.
Cradling the egg between her hands to keep it warm, Mum led the way to the downstairs toilet, where she had rigged up a heat lamp for our expected new arrivals. There was a cardboard box, lined with a soft, warm towel, directly below the lamp. It was here we set the egg down, and watched.
The egg swayed a little from side to side every now and then. The tiny crack slowly grew, and eventually ruptured. A hole appeared, and something poked through. It wasn’t easy, at first, to tell exactly what it was. It was light in colour, about the same shade as the egg itself. Almost as suddenly as it had appeared, it vanished again. The egg wobbled, the crack widened, and little by little more ruptures in the shell developed, as that little beak drummed its way through.
Before the sun set that evening, the eggshell lay in pieces. In the middle of all those pieces, an exhausted baby lay, gathering its energy. Baby chicks are a symbol of spring- time, a celebration of new life and of fresh beginnings. But you rarely see them in their first, helpless moments, when the glory of life is little more than a stark example of how life has evolved.
What emerged from that egg was a dinosaur. Tight- closed, blind eyes, bald-looking. Reptilian. Nothing, in short, like an Easter greetings card. The abject, visceral, frankly biological, sight of fresh birth off s little spiritual comfort in itself. It is what comes after that rouses our higher instincts.
Once the enormity of his arrival had settled, there he was. The damp down that had, at first, been stuck to his skin, dried. His eyes slowly began to open. Now, he was yellow, fluff , soft and sweet. Now, he was the symbol of beginning, and the very sight of him became an unspoken promise on our part to nurture and protect.
Eddie followed my brother and me everywhere. He’d sit on our laps whilst we watched cartoons by the fire , scurry around the bathroom while we took a wash. He’d sit, cheeping in a pocket, and be sneakily let out onto the dining table to finish our peas when Mum’s back was turned. As he grew bigger, he’d perch on our shoulder while we did the washing up, or peck at our ear as we bent over our homework.
He’d even cosy up to Holly in her bed, snuggling under her tummy to keep warm, much to her confusion. This is a very strange puppy, her eyes seemed to say.
Of course, Eddie didn’t stay the only chick in the house for long. Before the first week was out, there were four more little voices tweeting away in the downstairs toilet. And they couldn’t all have the same special attention that Eddie had received.
We did try. We tried to keep on top of cleaning up the little pellets that appeared all over the blue carpet, and we tried to keep them out from under Mum’s feet. And when she said that enough was, most certainly, enough, we begged her to reconsider. But in the end, a little room at the back of the barn was rigged with heat lamps, and a proper nursery was formed.
They still all began their days in the downstairs loo, but after three days they graduated. Three separate pens in the nursery separated the age groups, until they started sprouting their first, comically ugly, adult feathers and could make their way in the adult world of the coop. Eddie, too, made that journey, but he never forgot.
He’d come running, first and faster than all the rest, when I came trudging round the corner with my bucket of feed and welly boots. He’d be the one at my feet as I mucked out the coop, and the one pecking at my ear as I lay in the grass, in the paddock, in the height of summer.