Friday, May 17, 2013

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad--Guinea Fowl??

It's a Saturday afternoon in Sydney, I'm ten going on eleven, and creeping down the stairs to the laundry basement of our big old suburban house with the bucket of mash, hoping that Maman will see me and relent, hoping that no-one in the block of smart apartments next door has their telescope trained on us to check out what disreputable activity their noisy French neighbours are up to now. I've never liked the basement; never liked the whole of this lower level, with its damp laundry and creepy, mouldy-walled bathroom with the toilet you use only in dire emergencies. Maman says the extra bathroom was built for people coming to tennis parties here; but the tennis court, though carefully maintained by our father, never sees a player now, only us kids running up and down pretending we're in a prison, trying to get out. The little gazebo next to the tennis court is fine as a setting for our made-up games, and role-playing my creation Princess Alicia and such.
But the basement has no such possibilities. It just crouches malevolently there at the foot of the stairs. I half-expect some axe murderer to grab me by the ankles; some hideously evil presence to kidnap me and take me to another world. Once, Maman bailed up a funnel web in the laundry tub; its outraged, terrifying death-dance made my skin crawl. Maman knows all that. So why has she sent me down here, with the old bucket, to brave the horrors of the basement? I slide the door open, gently. There is a terrible screech from inside, and I quickly shut the door. Maman has said, 'If you let them out, Sophie..' letting the rest of the sentence fade into an expressive silence. I know I must not let them out, or I'll be in twenty sorts of trouble. I stand at the closed door, listening to them rummaging around behind, both querulous and frightening. You silly girl, why are you frightened of them? They're much more frightened of you, great galoot that you are, Maman has said, her raised eyebrow more than I can stand.
So I had grabbed the old bucket full of mash, and marched off down the stairs to where they waited. I could hear them behind the door, and I imagined them pacing, plotting against me. 'Now, as soon as she opens that door, we'll rush her, peck her to death with our terrible beaks, rend her with our terrible scaly claws!'
Don't be silly, I told myself sternly, they're not harpies, they're only pintades, guinea fowl, just weird-looking chooks, that's all! Ha-ha, you're going to be our dinner, before too long, I told the door, with bravado. But meanwhile, here was their dinner, and I was supposed to give it to them.
Dad had brought them home one day, eyes shining. 'Look, Gisèle, a treat!' he told our mother, rubbing his hands in satisfaction. He only ever seemed to call Maman by her given name of Gisèle in front of us kids when he was really excited, or pleased, or amazed in some way. 'My grandmother used to raise them. They're fantastic! Wonderful, subtle flesh..We'll feed them up for a short while, then we'll eat them!' He had got them through someone he knew at work, an immense Mauritian man called Pierre who was well-known as a gourmet and wonderful cook.
This man had come to our house to see the pintade installation; to my surprise, his eyes misted over as he watched the birds. His several chins wobbled. 'Poor things, they little know what's in store for them!' he had said. Dad had looked at him in roguish amusement. 'Ah, but we do, Pierre, and how we're looking forward to it!' he said. 'That's true,' said Pierre, brightening. Food was his abiding passion, one carried to such an extent that even my food-loving parents were a little disconcerted by it. When they were discussing him, Dad would shake his head and say, 'Ah, but then, you see, he is a bachelor..' and Maman's eyebrow would lift, and she would smile at him in a way that I could never quite understand, but that also, for some unfathomable reason, made me feel rather embarassed.
Dad loved keeping animals down in the basement. Not pets, mind you; (although he has a soft spot for cats and dogs, and bought us one later), mostly, he affirmed that pets were a waste of time, an absurdity. 'Animals must be useful,' he'd say, and we'd nod gloomily. In my books, in my fancies about other people, it seemed that to be a real, normal family, you had to have at least one pet. And it had to be, as Dad put it, useless. You had to buy it in a petshop, and buy cans of pet food for it, you had to take it for walks, or whatever. You most certainly did not plan to eat it!
But in the basement, there were no such privileged beasts. There was the occasional chook, just ready for the chopping block; fat rabbits we made the mistake of naming, although we knew their fate, in advance. And there were the pintades. Eventually, for all of them would come the last day in the basement. Ceremonially, they would be led off to the place of execution in the back yard. I always fled to my bedroom, when the hour came; but the younger ones would rush down, greatly excited, squealing in horrified, delighted fascination.
Once it was over, though, I had to help Maman with the disposal of the corpse. Pluck it or skin it, gut the animal, singe the plucked chicken over a gas ring, then put it in the fridge to cool. My mother worked quickly, efficiently; the job was not one that pleased her, but which she considered necessary. She had no feelings about it. It was food, that was all, and she would brook no delicate scruples about it. In the war, her family had had little to eat, so little in fact that her two year old brother had died of malnutrition. And if there was any mumbling from us, Dad would say, 'Well, if you want to eat meat, you have to be prepared to do this, occasionally, and not just buy meat from the butcher or the supermarket. It's only honest. And besides, you know exactly what they've been eating, this way, and how they've been kept.' Typical, I would think. No-one else I knew considered this a given. Other people bought their meat from the butchers'. They bought their wine from the bottleshop, they did not sit for hours every fourth Sunday rinsing out bottles and filling them with wine from a barrel. They bought stock cubes, they did not boil up chicken bones and fish bones. They bought brightly-coloured packets of cake mix, their cakes were white, not bright yellow like ours. They drank fizzy drink at dinner, not water--or on special occasions, water-and-wine, like we children did. I did not really want all these other things, as such; I loved the food my mother made. It was simply a matter of not wanting to be different, of not wanting the access to a whole lot of memories and experiences that I felt sure my schoolmates would not share.
 Later, that would change, but at present, as I dithered outside the door behind which the doomed pintades conducted their anxious confabulation, I wished that my parents would be content with buying plain, ordinary chooks from Coles.. 'Now, you sillies, I'm going to have to come in, you know.' I glanced down at the mash in the bucket. Maybe I could simply slide open the door a fraction, slip in the bucket, and run. But no. Maman had said, 'Bring back the bucket. Put the mash in their bowl,' as if it was as simple as that, merely a matter of feeding a couple of harmless birds. But with their turkey-angry heads, their big, fluffy black-and-white bodies, the pintades certainly looked capable, to my imaginative eyes, of making a rush for you, of pecking you, of getting you down on the ground, and pecking, and pecking.
 'What do you think you're doing? Are you manufacturing them, those pintades? ' Maman is on the steps, frowning. 'I haven't fed them yet,' I say. 'They..they tried to go for me.' 'Nonsense!' says my mother, coming angrily down the steps. 'Oh, you're hopeless. If it's not in a book, you can't cope. They're only birds, for heaven's sake.' And with a swift, crisp movement, she opens the door, marches in to the creepy bathroom without even checking to see if any presence of evil is lurking there, dumps the mash in the guinea fowls' bowl and then rinses the bucket in the laundry tub. The birds are not as big as I'd remembered them; screeching happily, they dive for their mash and eat greedily, while Maman refills their water bowl. She stands looking at them, then at me. Her eyebrows lift. She doesn't need to speak. 'I thought they might peck me,' I say, knowing full well how weak it seems. Maman shrugs. She has lost interest in, or patience with, my dilemma. She's peering at the birds. 'They're making rather a mess,' she says. She shrugs again. 'Oh, well, tomorrow, they won't be here.' The high sharp smell of the pintades fills our nostrils. I think of the sow at Monsieur Vaccarone's, at Empeaux, in the French village that is our other home, and remember how her sty had smelt of pork, in an indecent sort of way. Perhaps the smell of these living birds is the same as that of the roasts that will fill our plates, the day after tomorrow. I look at the heedless pintades, then at Maman. I think my eyes have misted over, at the thoughts that are running in my head. But Maman, not noticing, says, 'I'll have to do them carefully, Pierre is coming to eat them, he's been asking your father about them for some time.' I remember Pierre's remark about the guinea fowls, and Dad's amusement at his crocodile tears.
Maman frowns as she shuts the door. 'They'll take some plucking, I can assure you! There'll be no escaping into your bedroom, tomorrow.' 'Maman, you know I always help,' I say crossly. 'Hmmm,' is all she says, and walks up the stairs with the empty bucket, its sides swinging gently against her legs. I mutter, 'Anyway, how can I escape? You'd always haul me out,' but she doesn't hear, thank goodness, and I follow her up, glad to get away from the basement, up into the higher reaches of the house, where I can continue writing the next instalment of the adventures of Princess Alicia. Perhaps, I think, she has just taken delivery of some eagles, sent to her by her old friend, the Sultan. And she keeps them locked, behind a massive golden door. Not for eating, you understand, because who would be so crass as to eat an eagle--but for safety. 'Alicia approached the basement,' I write, safely back in my room. 'Her heart thumped a little, but she bravely kept on. It was the hour for the feeding of her eagles..'

1 comment:

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