If it's roughly 2pm on Christmas Day and the roast is almost ready to be served, then you can guarantee that yet again I will emerge none too briefly through the smog of sprout steam to stand at the kitchen door and bore my famished family with the parable of the disappearing chicken.
It was Christmas 1952. I was just a kid, overexcited by that year's present of a model, gold Coronation coach and a full Colour Party of Coldstream Guards, only two inches tall but equipped with rifles, flags and detachable plastic busbies. Throughout that morning, I had arranged them marching across the lino of our flat on the Pilgrim estate in Enfield, north London; I'd had them laying siege to last year's plywood castle; I'd had them marching in the lavatory towards the Queen's enthronement underneath the bath. So I was reluctant to abandon these battles and parades (and my sling of chocolate coins) to go across the entry for our usual Christmas-morning drink with the Bancrofts.
Charley Crace, my admirably taciturn dad, had already made his escape, of course. He was socially ham-fisted, and so had done us all a favour by rushing off to his allotment to pick the sprouts and curly kale. Couldn't I be taciturn, as well, and stay at home? But my mother, Jane, made it clear I had no choice. "Be neighbourly. Wipe your face," she said, "while I check the chicken and put the potatoes round." Ever the caterer; there was nothing she enjoyed more than feeding us. I could not imagine a Christmas roast prepared more lovingly than hers.
Except this year, I was dreading lunch. I knew that chicken personally. It was Ferdinand, north London's quietest cockerel . He had been pecking round the wire cold-frame in our shared garden for two years, growing fat and complacent on our leftovers. He had been, therefore, an uncomplaining bird, and cunning, possibly, determined to survive. He'd never upset our neighbours with any doodle-doos. He'd never pecked aggressively. In fact, he let me and my older brother, Richard (pictured with me, right), stroke and cuddle him. We loved and fed him like a dog.
And so, although he'd been fattened originally for the 1951 Christmas table, it had been no surprise when Dad, armed with a length of twine, a hatchet, a knife and a shaking hand, chickened out as it were and granted Ferdinand a stay of execution until 1952. He told our neighbours that we'd reprieved Ferdie for the eggs. "And for the milk," I used to add. So, for another year, our dinner pecked around our garden, living it up on Mum's best food. We'd bought him in the first place to save money. But Ferdinand too plump to move far, too spoilt to make do with toast crusts and dried porridge was costing us a fortune by now. I used to raid the fridge for him, behind Mum's back. This cockerel was very fond of corned beef, I discovered by experiment, and slices of tongue. He was not fond of tinned salmon or pickles.
Now 12 months on, as Ferdinand's second Christmas approached, Dad worked hard to feel ashamed of his previous soft-heartedness this was only a table bird, after all and finally plucked up courage. One late December morning when we were at school, he stepped into the cold frame with a sack and took Christmas dinner protesting noisily for once down to the shops where Ansell the butcher was happy for half a crown to do what Dad could not. By the time we got home Ferdinand was slaughtered, plucked, trussed and gibleted, and sitting cross-legged in the fridge.
The Bancrofts' Christmas present for me that year was a white Dinky ambulance. I'd hoped for a police car or a fire engine or at least a khaki military ambulance with a red cross on its side. "It can go behind the Coronation coach," I said, putting a brave face on my disappointment. "It can have the dead king inside." My successful joke only partly lifted my mood. I'd been dragged from my toys and my chocolate, I'd been forced to wipe my face, I had been given the world's worst Dinky and Ferdinand, dear Ferdinand, was crisping up for lunch.
I cheered up, though, when we got home. Again Mum checked to see how dinner was getting on. I can remember it exactly: the Cannon cooker leaking smoke, my mother opening the mottled blue-enamel door in her new oven gloves (my uninspired gift), her cry of baffled disbelief when she discovered that Ferdinand had disappeared and that he'd taken all the spuds, the stuffing and the roasting tin along with him. Dad was at the door by now, with his trug of winter greens. My parents knelt down on the kitchen floor and peered in at the oven flames. They even checked the oven with a torch, as if the half-cooked bird could have found a hiding place. But no glad tidings of great joy Ferdinand had definitely gone. We wouldn't have to eat our pet. Hosanna in excelsior.
Now, losing Christmas dinner was no small matter, especially in a one-income working- class family such as ours. A show of anger would not have been out of place, or a 999 call. Some tears, even. This was the meanest of crimes. But all my father did was laugh and wash the sprouts. And all my mother said was, "Never mind." She only wished that whoever it was that had walked in through our never-bolted door, whoever it was who had risked their fingertips to steal our Christmas dinner, and carry it piping hot away from the flats, really needed it: "I hope it's gone to someone poor."
An image almost out of Dickens came to me still comes to me, whenever I remember Christmas 1952: it's Ferdinand and our potatoes, lit by candlelight, surrounded by a throng of street urchins, about to have their first good meal. They're holding wooden spoons. Their mouths are watering. Oh, how I loved my Mum and Dad right then. How proud I was of them for their calmness and their charity. How I love them now though both are dead when Christmas comes and I can tell my family, as we prepare to eat, about the darling cockerel and what he signifies.
What did we eat that day? I hardly want to tell you, because it weakens everything I've told you up to now, everything except the love I felt. "I've got a bit of cold tongue," Mum suggested finally. "That'll have to do." Sprouts, curly kale and tongue. She went to get it from our big gas fridge. And once again, I heard her cry of baffled disbelief. We thought the fridge had been burgled, too. But, no, she'd discovered Ferdinand. "Be neighbourly," she'd said, as we'd prepared to go into the Bancroft's flat, an hour previously. "Wipe your face, while I check the chicken and put the potatoes round." She'd checked the chicken, yes. She'd put in the spuds. But then to borrow Gerard Hoffnung's celebrated phrase she "must have lost her presence of mind" and confused the oven with the fridge.
We all sat round our galvanised kitchen table not quite sure if our enjoyment had been saved or squandered, whether we would feel mean or generous to tuck into our meal. We certainly were smiling, though. And then I can't remember anything. Dad must have finally taken a knife to Ferdinand and filled our plates. My brother says he can't "recall the eating". Nor can I.
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