It was Christmas, so nothing odd about encountering a turkey per se – but on top of a hedge separating a village road from low-lying pasture bisected by the River Medway?
We were on our way, the four of us, from our lodgings to our daughter’s for Christmas Eve supper, when, walking past the hedge, we saw the turkey. In the dark, with no street lighting, we only realised what it was when we came alongside. The suddenness of the encounter increased our wonder.
You might presume that the bird had leapt onto the hedge, having been curious at our approach, or startled. A turkey on the loose would have been notable, certainly, for turkeys destined for the oven are not great wanderers, unlike those young, fugitive pigs you may remember from a few years back, Butch and Sundance, the Tamworth Two. Turkeys are even reputed to vote for their own demise.
But this turkey’s leaping days were over. It had been killed, eviscerated, plucked and trussed, perhaps even basted, a fowl as ready for the oven as even Mr Johnson could wish. Glistening pale in the frost and starlight, it lay on neatly trimmed thorn and hazel as if on a pyre.
We speculated on its provenance, not on whether it came from Mrs Feather’s small-holding or from Farmer Giles, but on how it came to be there; a felonious origin, a political one, metaphysical or domestic? We came to no conclusion then or over supper.
That was a year ago.
In the dull days of January I slipped the story onto an on-line forum, just wondering.
A festive, domestic argument in a passing car was the first suggestion. ‘If you think after you copped off with that effing woman that I’m going to cook your effing Christmas dinner you’ve got another effing think coming. Here’s what you can do with your effing turkey …’
Could it have been ballast discarded from a hot air balloon in which a white-haired gent in a red dressing gown had been seen waving on Christmas Eve afternoon?
Had we been duped by a practical joker, or a freelance Candid Camera set-up?
Come April, poisoning – bait – was brought up, though there was uncertainty about the target. Human passers-by (Brexiters or Remainers), rats, foxes, consumptive badgers? But why displayed on the hedge, visible from the air? More likely, an attempt to keep down the population of kestrels and other raptors reputed to have decimated the local game-bird population. But wouldn’t a corpse this large better suit a vulture? Not many of those about.
In June, an old legend came to light. It involves a goose rather than a turkey.
In Saxon times the river Medway cut less deeply through the Sussex earth and chalk, but it was nonetheless the route along which dim figures wound their way on misty nights to the shutters of the young women and men of the village. Some shutters – those of the bewitched and the unafraid – were opened, and the guests welcomed. But by the first streaks of dawn, all had left, urgent to be down-river again before the sun was up.
Chad, the young blacksmith, not content with such sweet comforts only on occasional foggy nights, was keen to keep his love. When all his pleading could not persuade her to stay, his subtle mind and hands fashioned a latch for his shutter, a puzzle made of iron that needed intricate twists and turns to release.
Came one morning when Chad’s fair visitor made to leave, she could not, confounded by Chad’s invention. The young man would not release her, citing his love as a reason for her to remain. But, ‘I cannot, I cannot,’ she said, the tears flowing. ‘Much as I would, I cannot.’
Chad held her close, and in his embrace felt her change. In moments he had a white goose in his arms. But Chad understood the ways of the fay, and kept the bird hidden until nightfall, when she became his love again.
For the first days he kept to a routine, secret, obsessive, but as the weeks passed Chad became first content, then careless, and one morning, when he departed for the smithy, he left a door unlatched.
Edmund the hunter carried bow and arrow with him always, and on this frosty morning close to the feast of Christmas was alert to the goose as it flew, even though it came out of the village rather than across the fields. His arrow pierced the white breast feathers, and painted a ring of red blood even as the goose fell to earth.
Chad did not forgive Edmund. The two remained enemies for the rest of their lives, and their children and their children’s children inherited the hatred. For generations, the eldest of the blacksmith’s line placed a goose, torn in two, somewhere about the village at Christmas as a reproach to Edmund’s bloody haste. The practice continued long beyond the memory of the offence.
A tradition, a vendetta, but not practiced any more. The Great War put paid to the sacrifice of food, for Chad’s descendants were too afraid of starvation, like everyone else, to waste food on stoking bitterness. By the 1930s the distrust that survived the war had faded enough for Frank Smith to marry Ethel Hunter.
Across the summer and the autumn, I heard no further theories. Nothing, until a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled on a podcast about the Upper Medway chapter of Hell’s Vegans, animal-friendly folk with motorbikes.
In initiation rites a new member of the chapter is required to rouse the sensibilities of meat-eaters enough to spark debate, at least making the local paper online. Our discarded turkey, it turns out, was pilfered from their family kitchen by twin sisters recently converted to the merits of veganism. Because they shared a motor cycle and sidecar, Courtney and Taylor had applied to join the chapter, and had publicly displayed the fowl to prove their commitment to the cause.
Word of their action got about, and noviciates in Hell’s Vegan chapters throughout South East England began to compete for the most outlandish meat-themed protests. In one village the summer fair bunting was replaced overnight with strings of sausages. In another, two sides of beef got up as Mussolini and his mistress were found hanging from a lamppost. Only this month, raised pork pies have been impaled on railings, a plucked partridge has been lashed to a plum tree (sic), and a dozen quail have supplanted the figures, including the baby Jesus, in a parish church’s nativity scene.
Further afield, I hear dark mutterings about dramas that might be performed with haggis, but to learn more of that we will have to wait until Hogmanay, if not Burns Night. Something to look forward to?