Dawn came early, her rosy fingers caressing renewed life into the farmyard cock who greeted the return of day with a cacophonic ejaculation. I buried my head under the pillow.
Farmyard cock? We live in the suburbs. Was I dreaming?
“Are you awake?” I nudged the beloved.
“I am now,” she glanced over at the alarm clock and sighed. “It’s only five thirty, what’s got you awake so early.
“Him again?” She grinned coyly. “Do you want me to take care of it, we might have just enough time before the alarm goes off.”
“I’d like someone to squeeze the life out of it.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers, dear. I’m the only one here at the moment … unless you’d like to take care of it yourself?” She reached for the waistband of my pyjamas. “Let’s have a look at the size of the problem.”
“Not that one,” I intercepted her hand. “Didn’t you hear the cock crowing? As loud as if the father of all Chanticleers has taken up residence next door.”
The hand withdrew. “Well don’t say I didn’t offer.” There was a touch of frostiness in her voice and for a moment I wondered if she was offended by my lack of ardour. Then I heard the deep, familiar chuckle and the offered hand ruffled my hair instead. “Of course I heard it, silly. I forgot to tell you last night, the neighbours have installed a rooster. It’s against council regulations, I’ll call the Ranger later, he’ll tell them to take it back. Or perhaps they’ll eat it.” She reached over and switched off the alarm. “Anyway, I do have to be at work early today, but I’ll give you a rain check.” She threw back the covers and headed into the bathroom. I heard the swish of water in the shower. And then deep throated laughter from behind the screen. “What is it your mate Steve says? A cock in the bush is worth two in the hand.”
Right on cue, the rooster repeated his cacophonic ejaculation. It was going to be a noisy day.
And it was, the morning punctuated by the rooster’s annoyingly frequent but irregular crowing. Like Chanticleer, he loved the sound of his own voice which he obviously felt was far too attractive to be reserved solely for heralding the dawn. I had intended to spend part of the morning studying Spanish. I’m not studying it for any particular reason, more as a precaution against the further atrophying of the few brain cells that have survived sixty odd years of neglect and abuse, than with any definite thoughts of spending time in Spain. Still, it would be fun to get the beloved to huskily whisper into my still eager, but increasingly deaf ears, the Spanish for “When you have finished your Horlicks, darling, can we please retire to the bedroom for some, not too strenuous, conjugal activity.” She humours me though; I’m sure she only pretends to believe that “per favore mi shagare” is the Italian equivalent.
Despite the interruptions I did, with some assistance from Google Translate, manage to work out the Spanish for, “I’m going to turn you into coq-au-vin.” And amused myself by shouting it over the fence in response to his more raucous disturbances of the peace. Until it occurred to me that the neighbours might also understand Spanish.
I tried to read. My writing tutor says that if you want to write well in a genre then you have to read well in that genre. The pile is growing. Tolstoy, Conrad, Hemingway, Enid Blyton. One might as well aim high. I picked up Anna Karenina. I can’t quite work out why Anna didn’t just take Princess Betsy’s advice and enjoy the fling with Vronsky. Why fall in love with such a hedonistic wastrel? It would have saved so much time and misery, as well as all that metaphysical moralising by Levin Tolstoyovich. But trying concentrate on the said Levin’s soul searching was well-nigh impossible and I found myself reading the same page over and over again, punctuated by ear-splitting bouts of Chanticleer’s heckling.
Finally I’d had enough. Throwing a final threat to his existence over the fence I locked the back door, put some food down for Jeremiah, the beloved’s melancholy, tortoiseshell cat, and let myself out the front. Val Doonican’ s soothing baritone lowered my blood pressure and by the time I parked at the Asylum I was almost back to my even-tempered self.
The Asylum? No I was not planning to check myself in for treatment, despite being shocked at the strength of my newly awakened gallocidal tendencies. It’s actually the Fremantle Arts Centre but it used to be an insane asylum and they say, and I take their word for it, whoever they are, that it is the most haunted building in Australia. Leave ghost-busting to the experts I say. Mind you I’m not surprised that it’s haunted. You only have to take one look at the place to realise it was purpose designed for supernatural activity, with its sinister, faux Gothic, Victorian workhouse architecture. It’s been an Arts Centre for over 40 years but it’s still referred to as the Asylum, particularly by the gang of sprightly, eccentrics who meet there on a Friday to practise their writing skills.
Two hours discussing crime writing together with short writing exercises on blood spatter and murder and I had quite forgotten Chanticleer. Day dreaming of becoming the next Dash Hammett, I was humming “Mack the Knife” as I pulled back into our driveway, relishing the “scarlet billows” and the body “oozing life.” Jeremiah deigned not to greet me as I opened the front door and I had made a cup of tea and snuggled down in my favourite armchair with Kay Scarpetta on my lap before the silence finally struck me.
I had not heard from Chanticleer.
I slid the delectable, but increasingly paranoid, Kay onto the floor, opened the back door and looked out into the garden, almost afraid to listen. But there were just the normal noises of suburbia. The distant burr of a lawnmower, the bark of a bored dog and the excited squealing of some kids in a backyard pool. But no farmyard cackling. Chanticleer was silent.
“That’s quick work by the Council Ranger,” I thought.
The lazy flick of a tortoiseshell tail caught my eye and I saw Jeremiah, looking unusually contented, curled up in the sun beneath the gently dancing, orange tufted beaks of the Strelitzia.
“I must have locked you out,” I said, anthromorphically. And then, recalling the untouched bowl in the laundry, “You must be starving.”
“No, don’t get up,” I said as I bent down to pick him up. He regarded me through narrow, cynical eyes, his mouth turned down in its perpetual scowl. “Hello, what’s this?” I said, noticing a red feather on the mulch beside him. And then another. And another. “Have you been chasing the Rosellas again?”
I straightened up, swivelling my gaze in search of the incriminating evidence. There were more red feathers scattered across the patio, and then as my eyes swept over the lawn I saw it. The partially plucked and moderately gnawed carcass of a bird, mockingly slumped against the base of the Hill’s Hoist.
“That’s a bloody big Rosella,” I said, realising the stupidity of my words even as I voiced them.
Of course it wasn’t a Rosella. It was the mortal but eviscerated remains of Chanticleer.
“You murderer,” I said, ungratefully, to the now obviously replete Jeremiah. He raised a curled paw and licked it before stepping gracefully down off the flower bed and disappearing into the house. Dismissing me with an impertinent flick of his tail.
“What are we going to do?” I asked the beloved later, as we regarded the black garbage bag that respectfully shrouded what I had been able to gather of the scattered remains of Chanticleer.
“We’ll have to tell them.”
“But they’ll be furious. Can’t we just chuck him back over the fence? Then they won’t know who killed him.”
“You make it sound like it was our fault.”
“Well it was our cat. Maybe if we offered to have him put down. An eye for an eye?”
She gave me “the look”. Lowering her head and frowning at me over the top of her glasses. “What, you think we should hand Jeremiah over to be executed in order to avoid a blood feud with the neighbours?” I detected a mild note of sarcasm.
“Well they do grow olives and grapes and I bet they make their own wine.”
“I’m sure they’re perfectly nice. But to keep the peace we can offer to pay.”
“Blood money, so they won’t insist on killing Jeremiah?”
“No, you daft sausage, we’ll offer to reimburse them for the cost of the rooster.”
“But then they’ll just buy another one!”
“Mmm. That’s a point,” she said.
We sat and stared at the lump in the black garbage bag, waiting for inspiration.
“We’ll just have to go and see them,” she said, finally. “It was our cat.”
“Your cat,” I untactfully reminded her.
“Fine! I’ll go and see them. It’s probably better anyway. They’re less likely to attack a defenceless woman.”
Defenceless is hardly an adjective I would use to describe the beloved. I saw her once punch a spiteful horse after it tried to bite her. I made a mental note never to try anything similar.
“Okay but if you’re not back in half an hour I’m calling the National Security Hotline.”
In fact it was closer to an hour before she returned but the lack of shooting or of any other audible or visual evidence of affray – and I knew she wouldn’t go quietly – kept my mildly anxious fingers from dialling the local police station.
When she did return it was with flushed cheeks and a jaunty glint in her deep brown eyes. I eyed her suspiciously. “You were gone quite a while, is everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine,” she giggled. “I told you they were nice people. And it’s not wine they make with their grapes, its grappa. Zoran gave me a glass.”
“Don’t worry he’s well over seventy. Bit of an old rogue though. Running an illicit still.”
“But what about the rooster, how much did they want for it?”
“She drives a hard bargain does Dobrica. That rooster was a much loved, prize winning family heirloom. Irre - hic - placeable. Incon – hic - solable - hic - loss.”
“Do I detect a touch of irony?” I asked, as she struggled to stop the hiccups.
“Ha ha ha,” the hiccups merged into laughter. “They recently had visitors from the old country,” she said, managing to get her voice under control. “When they left they gave the rooster as a thank you gift - as you do, ha ha ha. Zoran and Dobrica know it’s against council regulations but they wanted to wait until their friends went home before getting rid of it, so as not to hurt their feelings. Actually, I was right, they were going to eat it.”
“Oh, so we can buy them a chicken from Woolies to replace it,” I said. “Do they still do those corn fed ones?”
“I’m sure they’d be happy for you to buy them a chicken for dinner, but it wasn’t Jeremiah that killed the rooster.”
“It wasn’t? But he’d eaten it, on our lawn.”
“It was a fox. Zoran saw it, bold as brass. Jump over the fence and grab the rooster. He tried to chase it away but it jumped over into our yard, dragging the rooster with it.”
“But there was no fox here when I got home,” I mused, realisation dawning. “Just a happily fed Jeremiah sunning himself.” I glanced over at the lounge where Jeremiah leisurely stretched out. His eyes were closed but his tail gave an occasional, contemptuous flick. I wasn’t fooled. I had newfound respect for that cat. Locked out of the house, miserable, deprived of his favourite cat food when a fox jumped into his territory dragging a meal behind him.
“Sounds like Reynard lost this one too,” I chuckled.
“What are you talking about?”
“Reynard, the fox in the story of Chanticleer the rooster. He grabs Chanticleer but the rooster tricks him into opening his mouth and escapes. Only this time both Reynard and Chanticleer came off second best against a hungry, miserable, tortoiseshell cat. No wonder Jeremiah looked unusually content when I came home. He’d robbed the fox of its dinner, sent the fox packing, and then eaten it.”