Chapter Six: Birds of a Feather
Big Mick, apart from being a good darts thrower was also an expert with anything to do with pigeons, in fact birds of all sorts. Not the ‘bird watching’ type of expertise – he couldn’t tell the difference between a sparrow and a blue tit; no, it was more to do with ‘useful’ birds. His family had kept racing pigeons for as long as anyone could remember. Over time Mick had become more adventurous branching out into the exotic; he had built an aviary in his back yard next to the pigeon loft and it was crammed with budgies and canaries. There wasn’t anything he didn’t know about them.
As we drove through the night he talked me through the fine details of budgie welfare.
“If y’ don’t give ‘em that green stuff they’ve ‘ad it. And water too, that’s important. That’s where Alan went wrong. I gave ‘im a lovely pair of canaries - Satinettes they were; they would’ve bred too, I’d sexed ‘em – he could‘ve made a fortune - I told im ‘make sure y’ give ‘em some o’ that green stuff ‘n plenty of water’. Dead as fuckin’ Dodo’s in two days”.
On the outskirts of Higher Ince the driver’s side windscreen wiper fell off so I was acting as navigator.
“How much can you make from budgie breeding Mick”?
“Oh shit loads if y’ know what y’ doin’, but pigeons is where the real money is. Do you know who the biggest pigeon fancier in the country is”?
“Well I’ll tell y’. It’s ‘er Majesty the Queen; ‘n she’s fuckin’ loaded”.
It didn’t seem worth mentioning that the Queen’s wealth had probably come from sources other than the proceeds of competing in pigeon races. We had driven on for some miles and were now on the outskirts of Westhoughton.
“Why couldn’t we just have taken an ordinary van Mick”?
“We needed a Luton for this job, a small one wouldn’t do”.
“Well just remember we need to get it back in one piece, so be careful”.
“Stop your worrying Spartacus - y’ startin’ to make me nervous - she’s in safe hands”. He hit the curb again. “Bollocks. I can’t see a fuckin’ thing”.
Mick had persuaded me to provide another van from the garage on George’s cryptic recommendation, “Spartacus for transport Mick, no problems. He’ll sort you out, believe me”, he’d said.
“So why do we need a big vehicle”?
“Because it’s a big job”. Big Mick took a sideways glance at me. “there’ll be a lot to carry”.
“What will we be carrying’ Mick”?
“Right, I suppose you need to know what it is that we’re up to. Do you know that Chinese chippy on Wigan Lane? “Johnnies” it’s called”. I nodded. “Well I’ve got an order from him for some chicken”.
“Bloody hell Mick how much chicken does he get through? This Luton will carry hundreds”.
“Shit loads every week. He’s always dead busy and I think he wants to pass some onto his mates in Chinatown in Manchester. If were gonna do it we might as well do it proper. We’re chargin’ ’im a pound a piece - he’ll be happy and so will we”.
The thought of actually stealing stuff – out and out theft - made me very uncomfortable; at least with the ‘bearings’ job there had been some spurious justification that it was a ‘victimless crime’ and all that, but breaking into a warehouse or supermarket and just helping ourselves was a serious prospect.
“Mick, you just missed the turning for Bolton, we’ll end up in Rivington this way”.
“That’s right Spartacus; we’re not goin’ to Bolton”.
“But there’s nothing in Rivington except fields and countryside...”
“Just be patient Spartacus, just be patient”.
The rain continued to lash down and as we drove along the vans headlights reflected off the slick road. Their beam picked out gates and trees and occasionally the amber eyes of rabbits caught statued in the field margins then released again into the blackness as we passed by. At last Mick swung the Luton onto an un-surfaced track. The hedges brushed the sides of the van as we rocked along from side to side.
“Where the fuck are you taking us Mick? We’re in the middle of nowhere here; don’t get this van stuck whatever you do”.
“Will you shut up about the fuckin’ van; it’s only about another mile and then we’ll be there”.
Mick steered around a tight left hand turn under the dripping branches of a big tree; a drum roll sounded on the roof of the Luton. We were in a wide yard. Off to one side were the shapes of two massive wooden sheds, they reminded me of the prisoner blocks in ‘The Great Escape’. I couldn’t help thinking that if I’d had a big motorbike like Steve McQueen I’d have jumped on it and scarpered.
“Here we are Spartacus. Welcome to the night shift. Time to go to work”.
“What’s in these sheds Mick, I thought you said we were after chicken”?
“We are after chicken, there’s thousands of ‘em in those sheds. I think we can manage about two hundred of the fuckers”.
“You what, are you insane, the hens in those sheds will still be alive. We can’t go killing hundreds of chickens”.
“Kill ‘em? You daft bugger we not goin’ to kill ‘em. Johnnie said he wanted ‘em alive; you know what these Chinese are like fer fresh food”.
“He what... wants them alive... ”?
“That’s what he said”.
“But they’ll shit all over the back of the van”.
“Ah, that’s what these are for”. Mick pulled a fat roll of builder’s rubble sacks from under his seat. “We’ll stuff ‘em in these”.
“They’ll suffocate Mick - by the time we get back to Wigan they’ll all be dead”.
“Not if we stab a hole in each one, I’ve brought two screwdrivers, just be careful of the hens”.
“Can’t we just do the lot in one go now”? I couldn’t believe that I had actually attempted to make a sensible suggestion but there was nothing else for it.
“Good thinkin’ Spartacus”.
With that Mick got one of the screwdrivers and forced it through the entire roll of bags.
“There you go, jobs a goodun. Here, you’ll need these as well”
He handed me a big bag of elastic bands,
"To stop ‘em cluckin"’.
Without any further discussion we hurried across the yard. Everything was pitch black and if anything the rain had got even heavier. I followed Mick up the steps of the nearest shed and tried to shelter as best I could while he inspected the door. It was locked. He sized it up.
“No problem Spartacus it’s on a slide. Give us a bit of room”
He put his arms at full stretch and gripped both sides of the door but instead of pulling he lifted it upwards and then out. It was swinging freely apart from the lock which gave way easily because of the leverage. Mick leaned the whole door off to one side. The smell was appalling.
“Come on then”.
The entire floor of the shed was a seething mass of feathers. The hens were crammed so close together that it was impossible to tell one from another, they were packed in so tight that it looked as if the shed had shrunk down from its normal size. If it shrank anymore they would have to start standing on each other.
“Ok; we’ve got a hundred bags apiece. Don’t hang about – bands on the beaks and bang ‘em in the bags”.
His arrival amongst the thronging hens set off a massed panic like a mexican wave made of chickens; the noise was horrendous and for a minute Mick as big as he was, disappeared in a blur of flapping wings and clouds of feathers. He looked like he was being beset by giant mosquitoes. Then the rubble sacks started to appear from the chaos, each thrown backwards, fat and heavy with a shocked silenced chicken.
“Come on then, get amongst ‘em and grab some Spartacus”. His shout was almost demonic.
There was nothing else for it. I jumped down into the chaos. I snatched one and tucked it under my arm, its head bobbing manically, accusing eyes beady and blinking. It was silenced with an elastic band shoved in a bag and then thrown towards the steps. I glanced up; Big Mick had become completely possessed, grabbing at the frantic birds. He looked like a manic shopper who’d won a ‘fill your trolley’ prize and had just found the booze aisle. There was feathers and chicken shit everywhere.
A few hours later Mick eased the van full of two hundred bagged chickens around the back of Johnnie’s chippy.
“Right then, let’s get rid of these fuckin’ chickens and get paid out”.
We went into the yard and Mick banged on the door. There was no reply. He was about to bang again when an upstairs window opened.
“Whah yoo wahn you fuckhen arssohle?
“I’ll fuck your arsehole in a minute Johnnie. It’s me, Mick. Now get down ‘ere we’ve got y’ chicken”
“Ah.... solly. Erro Mr Micky. I hope they weewy fwesh”
“They don’t come fresher, believe me”.
The window closed and then we waited as we heard numerous locks being unbolted.
“Hokay Mr Micky, I got yoo money, but first I wanna see wahn”.
I slid the door of the Luton up and passed a sack to Mick.
“You won’t be disappointed Johnnie, they’re beauties”.
Mick undid the sack and pulled out the hen. It flapped madly after so long being cramped up.
“Fuckhen Hehll – i’s fucken arrive Micky, i’s fuckhen arrive...”
“That’s right, just like you wanted ‘em – alive on Tuesday”
”Noh yoo cwazy bastard, I said I wanned dehm arrive on Tuesday”
“Don’t take the piss, there’s two hundred ‘ere at a quid each like we agreed”.
“I dohnt wan two hunned rive chicken yoo fuckhen roonatic”.
I could see that Mick’s patients had run out.
“Now listen here you little cunt. Go and get two hundred quid out of your fuckin’ till while we unload the van”.
By the time Johnnie returned all the sacks had been dumped silent and twitching in the yard.
“You wahn cwazy mahn Micky; eerers you money”. He handed the roll of tenners over as if it was a freshly unpinned hand grenade.
“Good lad. Oh and by the way I do want the bags back”.