I arrived home before dusk, anxious in case the four new chicks a friend brought me earlier in a cat box wouldn’t know where to sleep. Little orphans, barely feathered out, rescued chicks, released into a strange flock that morning and pecked into their order. No clue where the bedroom was and no idea which perch was theirs. As darkness wrapped itself around us, they became blind, running erratically into bushes and corners and driven by instinct, peeping to each other in fear. The cats stalked them, I stalked them. All was terror. I cornered each bird one by one, capturing them in a flurry of feathers and squawks, their skinny feathery bodies trembling in my hands. The cockerel tutted inside the dark coop, he wasn’t coming out for a few tearways. The last one caught, I shut them all in safely, cussing softly, relieved at their capture. I waited in the dark until their peeps subsided. Turning, I caught the Hunter’s moon rising behind me, mellow, yellow and calm. My little drama was a scene the moon had witnessed millions of times before.
“Will you marry, me, Mrs Johnson? ” Ted asked, putting two milk bottles through the kitchen window, always ajar, one gold top and one silver top. He asked this every morning as he delivered the milk. My mother gave him a tired little smile and said what she always said “Oh Ted, I’m already married, you know.” Ted nodded at the customary answer and walked away with his head down, back to the milk van, his sadness palpable. I think he really wanted a wife. Ted was a “mongol” as we called a person with Down’s syndrome in the sixties. At eight, I wondered at the word. He lived alone with his mother and we never knew who his dad was, or cared. Ted was as much part of the village as the vast oak tree on the green, Mrs Hurley in the village shop, or the village vicar. He was always immaculately dressed in a clean, pressed checked shirt, a home knitted grey tank top and twill trousers. He had a job on the milk-round and everyone knew him. He commanded his own respect and only got angry if anyone was unkind to him. Ted and his mother taught me what Care in the Community should be.
I didn’t think I had five stray minutes, but why? Most of my minutes are stray. Stray as in “moving away aimlessly from a group or from the right course or place;” stray when I lean on the wall and strain to hear the song of the elusive oriole; stray when I pick up an old gardening book and lose myself in Victorian hot beds; stray when I lie on the sofa and stare out of the window at the clouds. I have an affection for stray animals, stray thoughts, stray people, those apart from the group. So why did I think I didn’t have five stray minutes? Probably because I’m too busy straying.
What if life was just a hologram, and we all created our own reality? A sort of Minecraft where you could recreate the real world, exploring it it all the while for entertainment and educational satisfaction, or even to score points. A game where we choose our friends and partners like chess pieces; a rook to teach us complex moves; a pawn to do our bidding? Maybe we are somewhere else, pressing our own buttons.
My littlest niece once asked me to play Minecraft with her. We built dens and fires from pixels all morning, sitting on the sofa. When I told her I used to do that at her age in real life, in the woods, she didn’t believe me.
She asked, “Real woods?”
“How do you know the difference between the real woods and the Minecraft woods?” I asked her.
She said, “I don’t know.”
Sometimes, nor do I.
On our way to Galway in the van, we saw him, black plastic cape flapping wildly, the wings of a monstrous crow caught in a squall. Soaked, he extended a bony thumb and as we passed, I saw he was an old man, maybe in his eighties, his lined face screwed up tightly against the rain. He was an unlikely hitcher but we stopped, brakes squealing in the wet. I shoved up closer to Joe on the bench seat. The man smelt of wet sheep. “Where to ?” I asked him, “Monroe’s bar, a few miles on,” he boomed out, surprising loudly and cheerfully after his drenching “Drop me there and I’ll stand you a drink and a game of cards.” Later, several pints of Guinness and an unfathomable card game later, he trapped me in a dingy corridor on my way to the loo and begged me to marry him. I told him I wasn’t very good at looking after sheep.