Mussolini for Lunch

I’ve never been much of an animal person. Dogs, cats, small things with teeth that invariably bite, the little caged monsters I call them. To be perfectly honest it’s the wicked little tar stained teeth that give me the heebies. The tiny monstrosities all sport forty a day smokers smiles. I feel sick in the pit of my stomach when I see this in my minds eye. And anyway, where does a mouse, a hamster or most dreaded of all a rat buy cigarettes, or are they obsessive tea or coffee drinkers. I’m sounding weird aren’t I. Ah well, get used to it. But, and it’s a peculiar but I’ll grant you, I’m alright with chickens… No, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I’m alright, was alright with one particular chicken.

Never trust the easy option. Can I explain a bit more? You ask. How about never trust a simple request. You can hide a world of mystery behind the word simple. Simple is a smokescreen for both idiots and kings, as nothing in the world is simple. Is it? Really…

Could I feed Mussolini while my aunt was away in Spain on a divorcee’s fortnight, there would be a twenty pound note in the equation, perched neatly upon her dinning room table. Genuine solid mahogany, an antique, don’t you know. That’s the table not the twenty pound note. Honestly, are you paying attention to what I’m saying. A reasonable, simple request, wouldn’t you agree. Especially the bit about the twenty pound note. She certainly knew how to flick my switches, but that’s aunts for you, probably got the insider info from her sister, me mum that is.
“Betray you in the end your parents do, especially when they don’t want to do something,” said in a Yoda like voice.

Since, at the time, we lived quite close by, I didn’t really have an excuse not to do it, and did I mention the twenty pound note. Well they were quite an item of interest when I was young, having not really seen all that many of them. Aunt Bet was not really a favorite of mine. She had a voice like Minnie Mouse and Kenneth Williams combined, was bony enough to make rakes feel anorexic and stuck up in that way that only a person of council estate origins can be. She made me feel like I’d done something wrong before I’d even done it, and had an etched scowl that she reserved just for me. I tended, very politely, to totally avoid her. But there was that twenty pound note. So I agreed to do the deed, look after Mussolini the cat for a fortnight.

She owned her own house, a Victorian Semi, that had been tarted up to look like a, er, a Victorian Semi, in only that way that a person can who knows very little about real Victoriana can. Coal scuttles, huge fireplaces, carriage lamps, euch’. I entered her house with a lent key, avoiding fragile vases on pendulous stands, aspidistra’s, and retrospective designed curtains, behaving as if to touch would pollute them. Creaking across dark polished floor boards (the real thing, not the modern laminated stuff every bodies keen on nowadays) I relieved the dinning room table of the fiscal artefact and scurried into the kitchen.

The kitchen was the only room I felt even remotely comfortable in. With it’s low slung porcelain sink, big enough to bath a Shetland pony, and rider for that matter, and a purposefully tatty looking salvaged agar. Terracotta floor tiles worn by the passage of scuffling of forgotten slippers, and a stuffy old larder she kept the washing machine in. The only room in the house that was in any sense of the word original, and even remotely lived in. The rest of the house, with it’s stage set pieces of furniture and no go body language felt empty even when it was full. It wasn’t just me either, whenever she had a party the kitchen always filled up like the brimful steaming kettle, whilst the rest of the house was ever so subtly abandoned.

What, no cat food tins, or bags of biscuits, and come to that no cat flap. I was shocked. Did I have to pay for the food out of the twenty. Had I been paying attention during the scratchy phone call desperately made two weeks earlier. Obviously not, the only bit I really recalled involved the now safely secure twenty pound note. I hadn’t got that bit wrong. As for the rest.

“Bugger!” I muttered. There wasn’t a cat was there. Aunt Bet didn’t like cats. She avoided my sisters in that overly self conscious way that attracts cats like blood in water attracts sharks. Memories tapped on the window of my consciousness reminding me of anti cat anecdotes involving (A) the rather to often mention Aunt Bet.
“Bugger.” I muttered, again, but my heart wasn’t in it. I looked through the back door window into her ample rear garden and sighed with undeserved relief. There was a run of sorts next to her shed. I always loved her shed, it was vast construction that looked like an abandoned railway carriage, full of curios boxes and locked cabinets, a magnetic mystery to a young lad of fourteen. Unfortunately, I never found the keys during that fortnight and the shed would remain a mystery, as perhaps some things are meant to, for the better that is.. The run thing boasted what might be a hutch, and it dawned on me that Hemingway was possibly a Rabbit. Wrong again, strike two as the American’s would say, one more and I would be out.

I found the food, now that I had a clue what I was looking for. It was a large basic paper sack of pellets, bearing the legend ‘Dodson & Hormel’s Chick Crumbs.”
“A chicken!” I spluttered to myself. Well, it needed saying, and so did a few other expletives I shall let you guess at for a change. Well, muttering aside, I suppose I had better get on with it. I trudged down the dew flagstone path wearily, my jeans gathering the moisture from the un-mown lawn that clung to my calves as the sealed sack of feed weighed heavy in my hands. I can remember staring without amusement at the chicken run. Which was made from your actual chicken wire. I can remember thinking how odd that was, when it in fact wasn’t. I had seen chicken wire used for all sorts of purposes. Model making and the like, paper maché monstrosities, etc, but for actually keeping chickens, whatever next!
“Sacrilege.” I hissed under my breath. There was of course, as you would expect, no sign of Mussolini. Maybe the foxes had got him, with any luck. What a pity, it wouldn’t be my fault of course, it had happened before I’d even turned up. Well you can hope can’t you.
“Here Mussolini, here, er boy.” I mumbled. Well you do don’t you. Do chickens know they have names, do they care. Do they respond to their name. I didn’t know.
“Here chick chick chick, chickery roo. Chuck chuck choo, a wop. Er…” I said in a louder croon. Shrinking as I spoke, hunching my shoulders as if someone might hear. There was still no sign of Mussolini, and anyway, why Mussolini, did my aunt have a penchant for Italian fascist dictators, perhaps. Who knows what makes aunts tick.
I shall now, rather unexpectedly, speak of another fence. Tall, over six foot I’d say, going to green, in need of a coat of creosote, unloved, and perhaps forgotten, as is the way of fences. Why am I wittering on about this fence. Because, it grew a head, or more specifically a smile, that was connected to the head.

The smile had a name, Sidney, to be precise. It was a welcoming smile, venturing confidently into the cheesy realms. It was a smile that demanded reciprocation, as if the only defence was offence. So I responded with a smile of my own, a somewhat guarded affair, but I didn’t do smiles back then, it was a teenage thing I believe. But Sidney’s smile crossed barriers, broke taboos, and was infectious, to say the least. The smile belonged to a face, as I have said, Sidney’s, and it had the other usual facial characteristics; eyes, a dull green, hair, ginger and unfortunately balding, and a round openness that reminded me of a happy go lucky Victoria sponge. Sidney, at least I imagine, may well have had a body, but I never got to meet it, just the crowning glory, the bonce as it were.

“Shake the bag.” Sidney lisped effeminately. Was he being rude, I wondered.
“Ugh!” I responded, either at the comment or the gay accent, I don’t recall which. I was your average teenage bigot back then, when to be gay was an insult. And to talk to one was to risk being branded such.
“Shake the bag!” He said more sternly.
“Oh!” I responded, and rattled the feed sack self consciously, fighting a blush. However bigoted I was there was at least a fence between myself and the peculiar accent.

Out shot Mussolini, a black dart of motion that halted at the edge of the chicken wire and stood still, to cast me an interested glance. If a magician had shouted abracadabra and a budgie had flown out of my left nostril I would have been less surprised than at the appearance of Mussolini. I stepped back, my heart hammering as if a gun had been fired and promptly dropped the feed sack. The paper splitting and feed pouring over the damp turf. Whilst the coup door was rattling on it’s hinges like a set of wind up false teeth I gathered up the spilled feed, pea sized grey pellets of musky millet or god knows what and open mouthed cast curios sideways glances at the chicken.

“Moves doesn’t he.” Sidney said.
“Yes .” I said. It irked me right then, that smile of his. Just a single look and I could tell the volume had been turned up a notch, but as I recovered my dignity, and thought about it a little, it occurred to me that Sydney wasn’t even looking in my direction, he was looking at the chicken. Which was staring at me. Two dark little eyes, thinly ringed in white that peered at me as if in judgment. It reminded me of Bet, perhaps she had warned the bird of me. There I go again, anthropomorphizing. As far as I was aware Aunt Bet couldn’t talk to the animals, but all the same, I felt he wasn’t impressed. Ok, so it was an animal, and probably hungry, and here I was tipping it’s lunch onto the lawn. It was still staring, hadn’t moved, and now I was staring. Hands gritty with chicken feed and feeling a fool. It blinked, and then so did I. Slowly it turned it’s tiny head from side to side, and I had the impression that it was shaking it, as if in exasperation. I had been judged. The chicken flounced back and clawing the ground slowly pecked nonchalantly at something and I was dismissed. My head master could have done no better. I had failed to impress.

“O dear, not a good start.” Sidney lisped and then sneezed violently. I heard the metallic crash of an aluminum ladder and gentle cursing. The rattle of the ladder again, and then the head was back. I smiled at him, holding back a laugh.
“Nasty cold you’ve got there.” I said feeling a little more confident.
“No, not a cold, allergies, more that you could shake anything you fancy at.” Sidney said and the smile was back, only this times his eyebrows didn’t join in, arched in just the wrong way. His smile was happy but his eyes, just a little melancholy.

“He’s an Ancona, you know.” Sidney sniffed a huge sniff.
”Quite rare, quite rare, and a real old gent if you asked me.” I hadn’t but I ignored him hopping he’d go away, and knowing deep inside that he wouldn’t . I scattered some of the feed through the chicken wire and watched with interest as the smallish black chicken eyed the pellets curiously and after a few minutes ambled over to daintily peck. Graceful little pecks, like a ballet dancers attempt to portray a chicken rather than the real thing. It was a male chicken, and I’m sure we all know the word one uses for such, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be mention in polite conversation with Sidney, as I would have run a mile at even the slightest mention of it, especially with that lisp.
Mussolini had the darkest black plumage of any bird I have subsequently seen. Not the blue black of a magpie or raven , but a pure jet black. A coal black, matt and un-glistening but purer for all that. Except for the tips of the feathers, which appear to have been artistically dipped into a tin of magnolia paint. The overall effect was that of a slight speckling, like a countryside starry night. The tail feathers, were coloured similar but more exaggerated, climbing upwards in a rainbow shape, before falling back to the ground like water from a spent fountain. I’d seen them before, and struggled with the memory but then with embarrassment it came to me. I’d seen them before, on the ceremonial headdress of Italian officers, in an episode of ‘Allo, Allo’. Yes, yes, I had watched like, like everybody else had at the time, it was terrible but we’d all loved it, and lets move on. I’d always thought the hats a mite ostentatious, but on Mussolini they looked just fine. Not the hats, the feathers I mean. Perfect actually. Mussolini didn’t need a hat anyway. He had a blood red comb set at a casual but rakish angle and wattles of the same garish hue. Dabs of jelly like flesh that jiggled as he squawked in passing, doing his boy chicken thing, his strut.

As the days passed, somewhere between autumn and winter, some mornings brittle with frost, others pungent with forgotten apples rotting and formenting amongst the grass we ‘d all gotten used to each other. Mussolini would greet me with an impatient squawk and cast me his judgmental gaze before toting off for breakfast. And I would call him and talk quietly to him about my day at school, problems with mum, and tales of her new boyfriend. Yes everybody was doing it back then, divorce. It was all the rage! All the time waiting for Sydney’s inevitable appearance.

Did I mention his strut, well I should. Mussolini strutted, when he could have walked, and when he could have just strutted he sauntered. Everything was theatrical about Mussolini. He had a walk, the walk that John Travolta would have been proud of. All he needed was a couple of tins of paint and he could have done the opening sequence from Saturday Night fever and put old Johnny boy to shame. He held his head high, his neck straight and marched up and down the coup making sure all who could were able to see him. Legs raised high in admiration of himself and chest puffed out like the Good Year Blimp, He’d parade up and down, for all he was worth and afterwards look around to see if he’d impressed any females. Mussolini always looked a bit disappointed afterwards, as there were none, but in those two weeks that never seemed to stop him. He wasn’t all black, he had two fingernail sized teardrops of white behind and below his eyes that were, Sidney informed me, his earlobes. Twins moons in the starry sky, I thought. Ha well, I’m getting a bit to poetical about an animal bred for eggs and destined for the plate. But he was a fine chap Mussolini. And why Mussolini, I asked Sidney. Yes, I inevitably started to talk to Sydney and my teenage ego melted a little.
“Mussolini was a trumped up little man, who marched about as if he owned the world, but in the end owned nothing, and one day was throttled. Good name for a chicken, especially an Italian one…” Sydney said. Something about the lilt of his voice striking me as a bit odder than the usual oddness I had grown a custom to. I nodded, it was a fine name for said dinner fodder and I agreed.

I kept the chicken run clean, a little straw, and a little grass, most trodden to mud, always bound up with the faint tang of ammonia. The genuine smell of the barnyard and one that became a fond memory. It was a real lived in smell, hardly pot pouri, but then, who the hell really likes those smells. It was the smell of life, and life, well, basically, it whiffs a bit doesn’t it. I remember one morning the autumnal sun had then put in a guest appearance, and flickering through the near bare trees set a patch of warmth in the chicken run which Mussolini strolled over to with purpose. He’d took a breath, stretching his tiny beak open and crowed. I wont try to spell out the sound, only to say it was the most unique I have ever heard. I won’t go as far as to say it was endearing, it was a combination of a smokers cough, a drunken yodel and an impression of a chicken trying to crow. It certainly let you know it was time to get up. Afterwards Mussolini had taken a wee drink from his dish and sat down for a bit of a rest, his feathers fluffed and out of place, his head resting on a wing. He’s looked knackered.

“He’s getting on a bit, but he’s still got it.” Sydney had said or something like that. Appearing like a more irritating version of the Cheshire cat. I’d agreed. Well what else could I do. What did I know about chickens, except that they tasted good deep fried or with garlic butter.

I remember fondly my two weeks with Mussolini, and whilst I can’t say I leaned much, except about chickens, I did enjoy myself, well sort of. On my last day, as I was about to leave I found myself calling out for Sydney, I hadn’t seen him and wanted to say goodbye. I couldn’t see myself coming back and it was the right thing to do. We said out farewells, innuendo-less, thank god and as I was about to leave I caught myself thinking and found myself asking him one more question.
“Sydney, if your so fond of chickens, why aren’t you feeding him?” It seemed pertinent in a worrying sort of way and I was at least a little concerned that I knew the answer.
Sydney had half laughed, a sound like a nervous turkey and I felt the hairs rising on the back of my neck.
“Mussolini is mine actually, but I discovered, rather late in life I think that I’ allergic to him, to feathers that is." He paused tears clearly forming in his eyes.
“So your Aunt looks after him for me. I couldn’t bare to see the back of him, he’s almost a relative… The Doctor said if I keep him he could kill me, what with my asthma.” Sydneys smile had `vanished and I saw him for what he was. A lonely man, a very lonely man and then it dawned on me. My Aunt hadn’t paid me to look after the chicken. The devious old cow. She could have got any number of people to do that, even her ex-husband, Steve. No, she had paid her young nephew to keep some peculiar old fart company. And do you know what, I didn’t mind.
Sidney was diferent, odd, well to the imcomplete boy I was, but no more so than Musolini, no more so than anybody.

From that moment on I think I actually started to like her, well, a little. Not that I would ever admit that to anyone. And as much as I missed Musolini, I also missed that silly old sod Sidney.

Mussolini for Lunch

JohnG

Westcliff One Sea, Southend, United Kingdom

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