Ruler of the Roost -Short Fiction by Rachael Murphy

I stole a hen. Not a nice hen. Oh no! Not a cute hen, not a posh hen. A pure useless brown hen. Scrawny. Ugly. Scraggly. 

And now he’s staring at me—balefully. I didn’t know hens could stare balefully. I didn’t know what balefully meant until the hen started staring at me. 

Balefully. I’d read the word somewhere. It’s a Good Word. I looked it up on the Google. He has been staring at me balefully for the last fifteen minutes. 

I know, he’s not a he, he’s a she. Hens are shes. But he’s a he in my head. Tommy. I’ll call him Tommy. He looks like a Tommy. He is a Tommy.

“Quit staring at me.”

I look away. Pretend he isn’t there. I look back. He’s still staring at me. 

“Seriously, quit it. Cut it out, I rescued you.”

Well, morally I rescued you. Granny liked morals. Her beady eyes shone when she was going on about them. She was a very moral person, so she said. Her eyes shone a lot.

Legally, I stole you. Granny wouldn’t have approved.  She wouldn’t have got the difference between moral and legal but I looked it up on the Google and there is a difference. I know the difference. But now I know that I could get in Big Trouble for stealing Tommy. But Tommy needed to be stolen. Try and make sense of that between morals and legals. I haven’t a notion.

That one didn’t look after you. I seen her. Every day on my way home from the shop. She’d be out rounding up her hens. She never seen you hiding in the bushes. Well, I think it was you but you all look the same. Brown, scratching, scraggly, scrawny, ugly thing. And baleful. Tommy, you were full of bale. 

I’ve never liked hens. I hate the fuckers. That’s a Bad Word and I shouldn’t say it but hens are fuckers. 

Granny liked hens. Well, I think she liked them. It was hard to tell with her. She didn’t like me. She was nicer to her hens than she was to me. I’m not making it up. Swear to God. She told me when I was five “I don’t like you, you’re pure useless – you should’ve been born a boy”. Not my fault—I’d no say in it. 

“Only child after years of them trying,” Granny said. 

I don’t know what they were trying. Then five years later the boy came along and Mammy went. She stopped breathing. You need to breathe to be alive. That’s what Daddy said.

Whatever chance I had of Granny liking me went with the birth of the ‘Blessed Child’. That’s what she called him. I called him ‘Bastard Bog Baby’. But not out loud. Bastard is a Bad Word. I looked it up on the Google. He wasn’t actually a bastard but he was a Bastard.

He was never sent to clean out the hen house. Granny saved that job for me. The Blessed Child went to school.  And University. Granny said school didn’t agree with me so I stopped going.  Daddy didn’t notice because I did Important Jobs around the house. That’s what Granny called them. Important Jobs. Like cleaning the hole of a hen house. 

The bockety split shovel with the scratchy shaft scraping against the solid floor of the hen house, scooping up the acidy hen leavings and straw and mouldy food and slinging it into the stinking heap of ever increasing hen shit outside the shed. Shit—another Bad Word.

She never sent the Blessed Child out to collect the eggs even though I was scared of the hens. The pure useless, ugly, scrawny things pecked at me when I reached underneath them to get their eggs. A Good Morning was when the hens had gone out already and I just had to collect the eggs from the nesting box without one of the fuckers being there. 

A Double Yolker. The Egg of eggs. I never got one, even though I’d collected it. Always given to the Blessed Child. Bastard Bog Baby.

It was a double shit day when there was a double yolker on a Sunday.

We used to go to Mass on Sunday. We went to Early Mass. Up out of bed and straight to Mass. Granny used to puck me when my tummy rumbled. It wasn’t my fault—Communion doesn’t fill you up. Eggs do.

We used to have a priest all the time in village. The first one I remember was a Canon. He was really old, maybe 100 years old. I don’t know his name cos everyone called him The Cannon. 

One time, he called to the house and I thought Granny was going to take a fit. She went white and then red, white and red again and then let a roar out of her,

“Mick, The Cannon is here. Sacred Heart of Jesus! Holy Mary, Mother of God and sweet baby Jesus.”

Daddy came running from the yard and saw the car and blessed himself. He was in his shitty yard clothes. They always smelled no matter how often the clothes were washed.

Granny flung off her house coat and roared at me to get out of sight and then roared at the Bastard Bog Baby to ‘get his arse down here’. If the stuff she had said to Daddy wasn’t enough, roaring at the Bastard Bog Baby told me she was ‘up to high doh’. I’ve looked that up on the Google and that’s what she was.

I slipped into the house the back way and hid at the top of the stairs where I could see most things and hear everything. 

The Cannon went to the front door. He didn’t know that it stuck and the person on the inside had to shout at the person on the outside to ‘give it a good kick’ as the person on the inside tugged to open the door.

The Cannon didn’t kick the door. I think Granny must have found some kind of Divine help to tug the door open from the inside. Swear to God, I’ve never seen anyone open the door from the inside without outside help. I was disappointed that The Cannon didn’t kick the door.

After Granny got the front door open to The Cannon, she was all smiles. As if he hadn’t heard the roaring. And the bad words. And the Taking of Our Lord’s Name in Vain.

Daddy wiped his hand on his trousers and held out his hand to The Cannon. The Cannon’s face was a pure picture as he said, “Thank you for the welcome”. He didn’t shake Daddy’s hand.

There was a big fuss with the good china and making tea and putting the Good Biscuits on a tray. I knew the Good Biscuits were soft. I had tried them the week before. It was a good thing that Granny didn’t notice the missing pink wafers.

 The Bastard Bog Baby was left in in the room with the Cannon. He talked a load of rubbish to the Bastard Bog Baby. Turned out, he wanted him to be an Altar Boy.

Granny was made up—her Blessed Child was going to be an Alter Boy and serve The Cannon. Daddy wasn’t convinced but what Granny wanted, Granny got. 

So the Bastard Bog Baby became an Altar Boy. Granny was so proud seeing him up there serving Mass. She was able to go on about it to Smiley Mrs. O’Malley and Mrs. Reilly. 

The Bastard Bog Baby was even worse after that—there was no pleasing him. He even cried sometimes before going down to Mass and serving the Canon. 

Because of him being an altar boy, it meant we had to be at the church fifteen minutes earlier than we needed to be. After a while he became the Head Altar Boy. 

And when he got too old for that he used to read at Mass. Hah! I seen him out the back of the Church smoking fags with the other eejits and taking a piss in the graveyard.

The Cannon is dead now. 

Back home after Mass for breakfast. Sundays wasn’t porridge. Granny would fry up rashers and sausages and boxty and eggs and we’d have heaps of her brown bread and butter. After, I still had to clean up the hens—they’d no notion not to shit on a Sunday.

I was sent to Smiley Mrs. O’Malley on a Friday. I liked her. She lived halfway down to the village. Granny gave me her pension book and then I called into Mrs. Reilly and then Smiley Mrs. O’Malley to collect their books and then down to the post office to collect the three pensions. On the way back Smiley Mrs. O’Malley was the first to get her pension. She had a shed that was a shop that sold everything. I didn’t like the smell in the shop. It smelled dry and dusty—old animal feed, old paper, old people and old food. 

She used to give me Coke—the real stuff—and proper Tayto. The first time she gave me Coke it was in a glass bottle and she left me in the kitchen with it and a bottle opener and went to serve a customer. I’d no notion how to use a bottle opener. I thought I’d be in Big Trouble cos I’d look like I didn’t want the Coke if I hadn’t opened the bottle by the time she came back. I ended up breaking the bottle, catching it in the half-pint glass and putting the bottle in the bin so she wouldn’t know. 

She gave me tins after that.

In Smiley Mrs. O’Malley’s I’d to get a stone of chlorenda for the hens. I’ve no notion to this day what it is. I’ve looked it up on the Google since but can’t find it. Then again, I’m not great on the computer or at spelling—probably me. But I know what baleful means.

Chlorenda looked like Corn Flakes. Didn’t taste like them —I tried it. Granny made me eat porridge so I’d never had Corn Flakes. For years I thought that Corn Flakes tasted like chlorenda. Until I tried Corn Flakes. They don’t taste like chlorenda. They look like it though.  And a half a stone of the seedy stuff for the hens. 

Smiley Mrs. O’Malley would tell me to go home. I used to look back at her smiling but looking sad at me heading a mile up the road with a stone and a half of hen food. I don’t know why she was sad. I was grand. She asked me once why Daddy didn’t come with the car to carry the hen food up the road. 

Smiley Mrs. O’Malley is dead now. So is Mrs. Reilly. So is Granny.

Granny kept the hens even though Daddy gave out. What Granny wanted, Granny got. Daddy hated the hens. They were always escaping and scratching up the garden and shitting everywhere. Granny ignored him when he gave out about it. Laughed—cackled like the hens.  

The baby hens were cute. Yellow and fluffy with shiny black eyes. She cooked the eggs in the range. Kind of cooked them, got the eggs to hatch out by heating them in the bottom oven. Made the baby hens breathe.

One time for dinner we had chicken cooked in soup. I thought it was chicken. Daddy told me it was chicken. Granny told me after dinner it was an old hen that had died. I got sick—all over her. She slapped me. I asked Daddy if it was true. He didn’t answer but I knew then that it was. I’ve never eaten chicken since. 

Tommy’s done a shit! On the floor. I get some toilet tissue and clean it up. I’ve no chlorenda or the seedy stuff for him…I fill a bowl of water and another with Corn Flakes and put them in front of Tommy. He looks at them and then goes back to staring at me.

“Quit it. If I’ve told you once it’ll be the last time!” That’s what Granny used to say to me.

Tommy ignores me. Like I used to ignore Granny.

I don’t live at home any more. I’ve my own place since Daddy died. I work in the shop. Not the one Smiley Mrs. O’Malley had, that’s gone. The proper one in the village. I mind my own business. Daddy always said ‘say nothing and after a while say nothing at all’. So I don’t. Except when I have to cos it’d be rude not to. 

I don’t say anything to the yoke with the hens even though I have plenty to say. I don’t know her name cos she doesn’t come into the shop. Too good for the likes of me. But I stole her hen.

My place is nice. A bedroom, a kitchen that’s a sitting room as well and a bathroom. And a telly all to myself. Daddy got me my place. He said ‘sure what more would you need’. 

The Bastard Bog Baby lives at home. He comes to see me sometimes. I know he doesn’t want to but he does anyway. I give him tea and ginger nuts and tell him I’m grand. He doesn’t know I hate ginger nuts. I keep them specially for him.

He’s married to an awful yoke. She hates me. That’s ok because I hate her too. She’s full of notions. I went up there for dinner once and she said it was cock o van. It was chicken in soup and I didn’t eat it. The Bastard Bog Baby got all thick. I went home.

Tommy has scrunched down. His head is to the side. Still staring at me. But not balefully. I lie on the floor so I’m on the same level as him and stare back. He hasn’t touched the water or the Corn Flakes. 

Sweet Baby Jesus! He’s fallen over. He’s not moving. I poke him. Nothing. He’s warm. I poke him again. Nothing. I stare at him for a bit more. Not so baleful now. I don’t think he’s breathing. I don’t know how to make him breathe.

There’s a knock on the door. It’s the Bastard Bog Baby. ‘Christ Lizzie, why have you a dead hen in here? You’re pure useless, do you know that?’

I stare at him. Balefully.

MA in creative writing at Hull University

About the contributor

Rachael Murphy is self-deprecating, calling herself an unpublished writer. To date, her achievement as a writer is being longlisted in a flash fiction competition (there were 151 on the longlist out of 970 entries).

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