Counting Chickens

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EMILY ROSS used lockdown to fulfil a longheld dream of keeping chickens. Valuable lessons were learned …

The pandemic is a miserable experience, though I have tried to do my best. Some people are quite good in a crisis. Me, I like to solve problems, I’m stubborn and hard-working and would have called myself resilient, though now I am less sure.

When lockdown started, I kitted the house out like a field hospital and filled the freezer with batch-cooked meals. When the consultancy firm for fast-scaling technologies I founded lost half its revenue overnight, I worked twice as hard to get new clients, and new projects. When my husband started coughing in March and had to quarantine for two weeks, I left trays of food and scribbled lines of poetry outside the spare bedroom door until he got better. When the summer came, we planted a vegetable garden and bought a pair of laying hens.

I didn’t have the “moment of pause” that people talked about because I was too busy working, all day, every day. But it gave me purpose. My photographer friend Ciara took a series of “doortraits” during lockdown. We needed haircuts for sure, but we were doing ok.

We got to know our elderly neighbours for the first time, and swapped seedlings over the back fence. Everyone seemed to get a dog, but we were pretty happy with our birds. Sourdough starter trended. Foxes made an appearance in the garden, so we fortified the coop and bought a pellet gun. (I’m a good shot.)

In 2020 I was booked to work in Vegas, London, San Francisco, Toronto, Berlin and Austin but they were all cancelled. Travel used to be one of the great things about my job. I have a supportive husband who does the lion’s share of the parenting. I am incredibly lucky.

Despite the lack of airplanes, I still find myself in the thick of things from a technological perspective. Cybersecurity, IoT, machine learning, ecommerce – these knowledge areas have been accelerated by crisis and are seeing giant leaps forward in both innovation and opportunity. It is petrifying and exciting in equal measure. Sometimes I turn away from my bank of screens just to remember to breathe. All through the summer, when I needed to do just that, I would take my coffee and sit in the garden. I would talk to the chickens. And they would talk to me.

Chickens are fascinating. Tiny dinosaurs. They have a certain cluck for when they are happy. Another for when they want to lay, and a very proud contented cluck once they have done so. They like porridge oats and apple cores. On a good week, you’ll get double-yoked eggs more often than not. They lay at the same time every day. In a dusty beam of sunlight, wings tucked, they will purr contentedly, like cats.

In August, five months into the pandemic, I was able to take stock. The business had survived, and we even made some new strategic hires. We won major new contracts and things looked, for the time being, to be safe. My photographer friend took some socially distanced headshots in the garden, for our revised website. Afterwards she snapped me with the birds, for fun.

The summer waned and the children went back to school. Autumn rolled in. A dog off his lead bit our eldest son, necessitating a nerve-wracking trip to A&E. Storms took down old trees, and a lengthy powercut saw a month’s worth of dinners defrost over one weekend. Our lovely neighbour had a fall and was admitted to hospital. There was a drowning in the lake. We had our first Covid scare and test. Halloween was cancelled.

In October, the weather finally turned. One wet and miserable day, a strange dog burst into our garden. He went straight for the coop and managed to tear off a panel. The frantic noises made us all come running. Our boys, 14 and ten, tried their best. Neighbours on both sides yelled – threw shoes at the damned dog as it continued to chase and tear at the terrified birds. Blood and feathers and screams. It was short and surprisingly violent. That night, both boys both crept into our bed. Our youngest cried in his sleep.

Life continues, but the everyday sameness and the rain combine to make things feel heavy. There are still a few eggs left in the bowl on the kitchen counter, and this makes my eyes fill up unexpectedly. I take my coffee out into the garden. There’s a bite in the air, and a definite smell of winter, with a significant absence of chicken.

My pandemic has forced me through intense periods of adaptation and change, punctuated by moments of horror. It is dawning on me that things are not going to get better. I am tired, and I wonder how much longer I can continue to work this hard, all the while feeling like I’m standing still.

Then I give myself a shake and remind myself to count my blessings, of which there are a many. We are utterly privileged to have a roof over our head and a garden to sit in, to have each other. To have our health, and unlike most of the world, access to healthcare. To live in a country that doesn’t have a deranged cheesy wotsit still clinging on to power. Yes, winter is here, and the chickens are dead, but there is food in the freezer, and there is work to do. I will hug my children. I will tell my friends I love them. I will wear a mask. I will carry on. And maybe, when spring comes (because winter is not forever) we will get more chickens.

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