Farming in a complex

James Clarke

I talk these days, rather pretentiously, of “going down to the lands”. In truth it’s in my 950 sq m property in a Fourways estate – just a small corner next to the shed where I have a row of beans and some spinach. The spinach keeps me and my neighbour supplied the year round.

Amazing how much one can grow in a suburban complex.

All my adult life I’ve had an urge to farm and for years, when in a larger property, I grew my own vegetables and really enjoyed watching my cabbages grow, and the turnips.

I used to talk to them when I came home from the office – though I was at a loss as to what language to use when addressing French beans or Brussels sprouts.

It never really paid to grow one’s own veggies because nurseries sell a dozen seedlings at a time at quite a price, and one suddenly ends up with 12 football-sized cabbages. A family of four or five people just cannot eat 12 cabbages over a few days, not without dreadful effects. I used to toss them next door thinking they’d appreciate them, but they’d throw them back.

Despite the enormous energy expended in my vegetable garden – both manual and cerebral – the grocery bill remained high. It was, I realised, due to the price of protein. Ipso fatso, I explained at a family assembly, we would have to raise chickens.I bought six pullets and soon they were laying six eggs a day.It gives one a great thrill to harvest (as we farmers say) one’s own eggs. I took to reading Farmers’ Weekly while leaning over the front gate.

The only trouble is that by the time the chickens were ready for slaughter my daughters had given them all names: Pinkie was one; Blackie another. They would cuddle them and talk to them in shrill motherly tones.

When I announced at the table that we would have to start harvesting the hens my daughters looked up at me wide-eyed. What did I mean by harvest?I explained. They screamed at the tops of their voices and rushed out to reassure Pinkie and co.

The problem was, how to kill the chickens. Do I make clucking noises and call “Pinkie! Pinkie!” in an imitation female voice and then, when Pinkie came over, grab it and wring its neck?

Farmer have to be tough. There’s no time for sentiment.

I went to Sam, our gardener. Sam was tough. On Sunday’s he would go into town and hit his friends with manhole covers. And he knew farming. His people farmed.

“Sam,” I said. “When I am away today I want you to kill a chicken. Oh, and pluck it too.

I must confess I did not meet his eye.

“Sir?”

“Kill a chicken – today, Sam.”

“Shall I kill Pinkie?” he asked quietly. “Or Cluckie.”

Sam was staring down at his size 14s.

Sentiment, like a double-thick strawberry milkshake, began filling my head and clouding my vision. Sentiment and farming go together like Albanians and Serbs.

“No, kill one of the others,” I said.
“Pecky-wecky?” He was now looking straight at me.
“No, not Pecky-wecky.” I said.
“Miss Muffet?”
This was a ridiculous conversation for a farmer to be having with a farmhand. I said: “All right, Sam. Forget it.”
“Don’t even pluck one.”

The hens died years later of high cholesterol. The first was Pinkie who had become a fat, bald, screeching old crone. The death occurred one Sunday morning. We were awakened by a small weeping daughter standing at the bedside.

As my left eye slowly became unstuck, ready to meet whatever the day might fling at it, I found it focused on another eye – the glazed-over eye of pinkie. It looked like a rotten pearl.

We went back to Woolies for our eggs and roast chickens.

To see more of James Clarke’s writing, click www.jamesclarke.co.za

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