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“Oh, that’s great!” said a friend over lunch.  “They’re just like having an open fire in the backyard!”  With that I had the answer to one of life’s great questions – why on earth do human beings like to raise chickens in their gardens?  For decades I’d been thinking about embarking on my own poultry adventure, and now that I have an appropriate yard I’d been thinking about it more and more.  In fact, I’d become completely obsessed with the idea.  But I hadn’t known why.  My friend had helped me understand: chooks are comforting.

I googled, I read blogs, I looked at a thousand pictures, I sketched out a design.  In the local hardware store I got in touch with my inner handyman and bought what I needed.  By the end of the day I’d built what I rather grandly referred to as The Super Structure: four solid posts, eight bracing beams.  But the going got tough and my inner handyman went MIA, so I enlisted the help of my brother, who’s good with a hammer and a bit of four-be-two.  The next day, I stood in my backyard with a coffee and admired the handiwork.  After forty-two years my very own chook-house was taking physical shape.  I felt…validated.

A call came on my mobile phone.  Stunned, I listened as a friend told me how on the Sunday just gone two good friends, two great people, had headed off on a motorbike ride, they’d had an accident, one had died at the scene, the other was in a coma.

Twelve hours later, after He Who Too Was Stunned and I had huddled on the couch wrapped in a blanket and eaten leftover Easter chocolate, we received the second call – we were now mourning the loss of two good friends, two great people.

I returned to the coop and, alone, got to painting.  In silence I painted for hours, as though I would be painting forever.  I put the colour to the wood, dark red and pale green, to match the house.  I looked down at the bare earth at my feet.  Soon there’ll be clucking and scratching and dust-bathing.  Soon I’ll scatter feed and my hens will come running.  Soon there’ll be eggs.

My friend is right: there’ll be an open fire in my backyard.

I will – we will – need it for the winter that’s coming.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 21 May 2011.)

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The past