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This story 'Chicken' by Dr Bob Rich was first published in the Canadian magazine 'Adbusters'in 1999. It will be part of an anthology titled 'Other Eyes', coming soon to CrossroadsPub.com.

Dr Bob Rich


Absolutely exhausted.

I’m so tired! I’m desperate to drag my weary way from car to couch, and flop. But woe, the lounge is full of noisy bodies. “Hi, darling! Surprise! Happy birthday!” Tammie says.

I don’t cry. I don’t explode. I even smile, sort of. But I’m now one of five, doing the work once done by fifteen. The rest have been economically rationalised. And they and a thousand others are waiting for me to falter, so they can kill themselves like I’m killing myself at the moment. At least, I only have an hour’s drive in peak hour. George travels ninety minutes.

No more needs to be said about the party. Somehow I survived it. But after the multitude has departed and the kids are in bed, I say, “Listen, Tam. Don’t ever do that to me again.”

She fires up, her cheeks redden, green eyes flash. “What? Do something nice for you?”

“Look love, when I come home from slavery, all I want is a bit of peace. Not a party, however well-meant.”

“Well, all I can say is, it isn’t worth it.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“The house, the cars, the things we buy. All this... junk. It isn’t worth it.” Tears wet her face. “You’re dead. DEAD. I don’t want to be a widow, either before you officially die, or after!” Suddenly, she is clutching me and we kiss, then desperately strip each other. Passion temporarily banishes tiredness and despair.

But tomorrow comes, all too soon. And all tomorrows are the same.


Today I fielded fifty-five feral customers, a record. Are there more stuff-ups, or are people more prone to complain? Once, I used to love troubleshooting. Now I’d prefer to shoot the troublemakers. Oh, not the complaining customers, or even the shoddy servicemen and silly sales staff, but the high and mighty Managers, dogs in the mangers who are INCREASING EFFICIENCY by shedding staff, for a leaner, more competitive company. Amen!

I’m thinking this while stopped at the third red light in a row in Ringwood. I follow an endless stream of tail-lights, past endless rows of car yards, ‘Warehouses’ and ‘Factories’ selling Direct To The Public, as if the imported junk was made there, MacDonald’s imported American culture and its clones, a myriad merchants desperate for a dollar.

And God forgive me, I’m one of them. Or at least, owned by one of them.


Weekend, blessed weekend. I get home at 2:25 on Saturday, have a whole day-and-a-half with Tammie and the three little strangers who idolise me: Martin aged 10, Julie, 8, and Carlie, 6. All three have their mother’s auburn hair. We weed the garden, chat about school, I take them rollerskating, read them a story at night. Martin and I work on his bike. Julie presents me with a draft of the play she is writing, to be performed at school, and we seriously discuss it. Carlie falls asleep on my lap.

Sunday night, I mutter to myself, “Maybe I’ll go on the dole. Then every day will be a weekend!”

Tammie hears. “Peter, I almost wish you would. Or at least get a less stressful job. Or go part time, and I’ll get a part time job, Carlie’s in school now.”

“You’ll make a great checkout chick!”

“Whatever. But I can still type.”

“Darling, realign with reality. Sixty applicants for every job. ‘Full commitment to the Company, or we’ll find someone more willing!’ And we do have a mortgage, and payments on both cars, and private health cover, and three very expensive little pets.”

“There must be a better way.” She is a general ready for battle, the explorer facing the jungle. Reality had better look out!


Tammie has been attending a word-processing course, and avidly studies the employment columns. I’m glad, it means that at least one of us has hope. But all I can do is continue to be a good little employee. Company, Rah Rah Rah!

When I get home today, she waits with a magazine clutched in her hand. “When you’ve had a rest, I want you to read this,” she says firmly.

I close my eyes, concentrate on ignoring her, but of course eventually give in. Some pie-in-the-sky stuff called Earth Garden. Greenie propaganda, self-sufficiency, do everything yourself. Luxury for the mortgage-free. As if I didn’t have three kids to save and slave for.

But over the weeks, it’s clear that Tammie has a new dream: we’ll become peasants, exchange exhaust gases for air, and presumably live on that. I prefer the evil I know to the one full of surprises.


Saturday night. I softly close the girls’ door behind me, having read them to sleep. Tammie waits, with cups of hot chocolate, and a nervous smile. She’s going to spring something on me. “Go on, love, out with it,” I say.

“Holidays in six weeks!”

“Yes, thank Heavens.”

“I’ve had an idea...”

“We’re just going to your mother’s, as usual?”

“Yes, but let’s hire a caravan, and drive, woofing on the way.” Well, that’s what it sounds like.

“I thought you were allergic to dogs?”

“No, silly, it’s got nothing to do with dogs. Its W-W-O-O-F, an acronym for Willing Workers On Organic Farms.”

“Well, I’m definitely an unwilling worker, and I wouldn’t know an organic farm if it bit me. If you ask me, it’s an anachronism, not an acronym.”

“Peter, the anachronism is you! You’re, a, a serf from the 19th Century, and whatever their Lordships want, you complain but take it!”

“They didn’t have serfs in the 19th Century, that was earlier.”

“Don’t quibble!” She’s furious by now, speaking in a passionately shouted whisper because of the kids. We have the usual argument. She lies on her side of the bed all night, an invisible wall between us.


Of course, I’ve given in, as always. Partly, I’ll do anything that makes her happy, partly, I don’t have the energy for a marathon argument. Besides, I have no real objection to a leisurely drive from Melbourne to Adelaide, instead of flying as usual. One lunchtime, I slip into the newsagents and buy a book of word games and the like, to entertain the junior passengers.

The weeks pass, Tammie sends and receives letters. She tells my unhearing ears all about them, but of course I take none of it in. She is too excited to notice. Well, I care nothing about organic farms, or willing work, but love their effect on her. She’s like a girl planning her wedding. Every night when I get home, I see lists stuck to the fridge, neat piles of essentials ready for packing, new marvels like the child-sized overalls she’s whipped up on the sewing machine. The kids have caught her enthusiasm. Martin is doing a geography project on the Sturt Highway, even Carlie is drawing cows and sheep instead of the previously prevalent fairies and butterflies. I wish I could share their joy, their involvement, their dreams.


We’re off! The kids are playing word tennis in the back seat (the idea came from my book). I’m helping Carlie, Tammie is helping Julie, yet Martin more than holds his own. We whiz along the Calder Highway towards our first destination, near Hattah. This palindromic place is apparently famous for the waterbirds of its National Park. I offer to take the kids to the lakes while Tammie willingly works, but to my surprise, Martin says with emphasis, “No Dad, we’re all going to work.”

We follow the sketch map Tammie has spread out on her lap, bump along a ribbon made up of a lacework of potholes, then drive through an open farm gate. Another Km to the buildings, the usual country sprawl of sheds and barns.

Barking dogs announce us, and our smiling hosts emerge. Harold is a blond giant, about fifty, wearing an ancient copy of Martin’s new overalls. Beryl is a tiny roly-poly, long greying black hair, long green skirt and hand-knitted jumper. They shush the dogs, and next thing we’re in the spacious kitchen with tea and hot scones in front of us. Now, this room is from the 19th Century: slow-combustion stove, pots on hooks, garlic and chillies in garlands, glass-fronted dressers displaying crockery.

Harold is good company, intelligent, and patient with ignorant city bumpkins. He, Martin, Julie and I harvest a field of potatoes. He used to be a mechanical engineer, supplements the farm income by maintaining machinery in the area. They made the move after their kids left home.

But, in the evening, when I gently probe, it seems that Hattah is not heaven. Few youngsters stay. The long arm of economic irrationalism has hit the country like it’s hit me. Beryl is eloquent about what the Government should do, but the politicians aren’t listening.

“We belong to the Democrats,” Harold rumbles, “but the Victorian gerrymander ensures that small parties are kept out.”

I don’t give a stuff about politics. All politicians are the same.

“It’s sad,” Beryl says, passing me the tray of Anzac bikkies she, Tammie and Carlie have whipped up, “there are jobs going begging here. Jack the postmaster can’t retire. Australia Post can’t find a replacement.”

“Peter, a job for you?” Tammie asks.

I smile. Why would I settle in a hole no-one else wants?

“Oh, not everyone can be a country postmaster,” says Harold. “You need to be a real troubleshooter!”

“That’s what Peter does now.” Tammie is excited. “What about housing?”

“You can buy a good house in town for $10,000, five minutes from school and shops.”

I try to hide my lack of interest. Why dive head-first into a muddy creek? I don’t want to break my neck!


Mildura and Renmark are behind us. I am now an experienced WWOOFer. The blisters have healed on my hands, and I can split firewood with the best of them (after a trail of broken axe-handles, sorry!). I know all about clearing blackberry, and ragwort, and Patterson’s curse, can throw haybales and strain fencewire.

We arrive at a farm halfway between Taylorville and Cadell, near a great bend in the Murray River. Jim and Cathy are a young couple, eighteen-months-old twin girls instantly adopted by my daughters. Cathy is beautiful, long blonde hair, elfin face. Jim is small, wiry, a box of fidgets. Acres of grape-vines, selling organically grown wine to a specialist market. Crazy. I mean, alcohol is a poison, isn’t it?

We’re rigging netting over the grapes, to keep birds out. Jim is driving the tractor ahead, the reel up high. Cathy and I are on each side of the row, arranging the net and chatting. “I’ve just organised a prison escape,” she laughs.

“Tell me more.”

“The last lot of WWOOFs helped us to finish a large area fenced and roofed with chicken wire, to keep the foxes out. Yesterday I bought twenty battery chooks destined for the pot. You know they get rid of them after one year, when they no longer lay an egg a day, every day.”

I didn’t know.

In the evening, the whole lot of us visit the chooks. The enclosure looks magnificent, with lush grass and raider-proof defenses. A metal shed stands in a corner. “I’ve insulated the walls and roof,” Jim explains proudly. “I don’t want the heat to kill them.”

Not a chicken in sight. “Where are they?” Cathy asks. “Surely they couldn’t have escaped?”

We file in, Jim closing the gate behind himself, while holding Alison in the crook of his left arm. Julie lugs Annie, with less ease.

We approach the shed and look in. Big glassless, wire-netted windows admit the evening sun, because, as Cathy has explained, hens go off the lay when daylight shortens.

There is a huddle of white feathered shapes in the darkest corner. The ground is thickly littered with droppings near them, but clean elsewhere.

“Poor little buggers,” Jim says. “They haven’t been out all day. Paradise outside, but they’re too scared to leave the hell they know.”

Read Dr Bob Rich's Let the Punishment Fit the Crime


Bonnie Mercure, your Fiction Guide at the dowse Fiction Hub, is a dark fantasy author.
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