Marjorie opened the oven door and inserted a skewer into the dome of lemony sponge. “Done,” she announced.
Her husband Edward wandered into the kitchen of their tiny cottage. “Looks like a good ’un,” he said as Marjorie slid the cake onto a cooling rack. He licked a finger, pressing it into the stray crumbs that had fallen on the worktop.
“How many times have I told you not to do that!” Marjorie glared at him. Why did the silly old fool never listen?
As she turned to pick up the dishcloth there was a quiet explosion. Dignified, as befitted a lemon cake. She felt a warm splatter on the back of her cardigan and spun round. “What on earth?” Her mouth halted in the shape of a perfectly formed O as the evenly-browned sponge slid down the porcelain tiles.
Edward was staring at the ceiling. “How did that happen?” He wiped a blob of cake from his forehead and licked his fingers. “It was one of your best as well.”
Marjorie started scrubbing. “Go and see if that good-for-nothing hen has laid any eggs today and I’ll bake another cake.”
She watched him shuffle out to the garden and over to the chicken coop, where he reached inside the nest box of their remaining hen.
“That’s a surprise,” he said to Marjorie when he returned to the kitchen. “The lazy bugger’s laid 3 today.”
“Good,” she snapped, snatching them off him. “This one will have to be a chocolate cake, though,” she added, her face as sour as the lemons she didn’t have.
“I can’t understand why the chocolate cake exploded too,” Marjorie said as she climbed into bed and pulled the eiderdown under her chin.
“Perhaps it was the eggs,” Edward suggested. “They’ve been a funny colour the last 2 days.”
Marjorie sat bolt upright. “Yes – that’ll be it. Get rid of that hen in the morning!”
Their conversation drifted through the open window and settled in the chicken coop. Hen shook her head. It was bad enough the old couple hadn’t spotted that two of her sisters had Fowl Pox. Left untreated, it had killed them. Neither had they fixed the flimsy wire fence she had clucked and squawked about time and again.
To pay the couple back, she and her eldest sisters had spent weeks creating exploding eggs in their make-shift laboratory, hidden amongst the wood shavings and straw. But last week that wily fox had broken in and her sisters had been eaten.
Hen wiped away a stray tear. “Time for action!” she said, pushing at the fence, which still hadn’t been mended. She walked up the garden and crept inside the house. She strutted around the kitchen, her head working backwards and forward as she pecked at remnants of the two failed cakes lodged in the corners of the tiled floor. “At least I get to eat well today,” she muttered to herself. “I don’t know how they expect me to lay decent eggs on the scraps they feed me.”
She opened a drawer and chose a striped apron. She tied it tightly round her middle before pulling a mixing bowl and weighing scales out of a cupboard. She put butter and sugar into a bowl, beating vigorously until her wing ached. “They haven’t even given me a name,” she grumbled as she baked. “All my friends next door are called Henrietta, but I’m just known as ‘the hen’.” She beat in the eggs she’d produced especially and stirred in the secret ingredient that she and her sisters had also been working on.
“Date and walnut loaf,” she said, dolloping the mixture into a cake tin. She banged it into the oven, set the timer and sat down to wait.
“Here you are, Marjorie,” Edward said the next day as he handed her a china teacup and saucer. “Strong tea with a splash of milk.”
“Thank you,” she replied as she picked up a knife and started slicing the date and walnut loaf. She carefully placed two pieces on plates and passed one to her husband.
“Delicious,” he said. “You must have been up early this morning. I didn’t even smell it baking.”
She nodded faintly, placing each piece into her mouth slowly, savouring every morsel. She had been surprised when she had found it in her kitchen that morning. She couldn’t imagine who had left it, but she was going to take the credit because it was so delicious. There was an ingredient she couldn’t place. Cinnamon, maybe?
When she’d finished she dabbed the corners of her mouth with a handkerchief and placed her plate on the coffee table.
Edward crammed the last of his cake into his mouth and reached for the knife. “Another slice, Marjorie?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I think I will.”
Hen trundled up the garden dragging a coiled roped behind her. She let herself into the house and sneaked into the sitting room, where the man and woman were slumped in their chairs. The man was snoring like a steam train, but the woman’s breathing was soft and rhythmical, with just the occasional snort. Hen knew they would stay in this stupor for several hours, giving her just enough time.
It was hard work, but she tied the woman up first and dragged her through the opened French doors and down to the chicken coop. She stopped to catch her breath, wheezing slightly, and then lumbered back up the garden to do the same with the man.
She stood back, watching the couple snoozing on the straw. She then whistled loudly, prompting clucks of excitement from next door.
The Henriettas clambered over the low fence, feathers flying in their rush to be the first to see what had happened. They congratulated Hen and followed her back to the cottage, where she passed round cups of tea.
“Let’s taste some of the cake you’ve been clucking on about,” one of them said.
Hen chuckled. “I’d better make us a fresh one.”
She ambled down the garden, holding a basket under her wing. She wouldn’t be living in the cottage with her sisters as they’d planned, but she’d be happy with her friends. She wondered if the woman or the man had laid any eggs yet.
She stopped as she approached the coop. The chicken wire had been bent out of shape and the fox was sitting inside licking his lips, his stomach bloated.
He stood up and gave a low whistle. Instantly, five other foxes appeared by his side. “Come on boys,” he said. “I’ve always fancied having that old cottage as my den.”
The rumble of a car engine woke Fox from a deep sleep. He glanced around the kitchen at his sleeping mates – it had been another good night. He’d scavenged in local gardens for a takeaway and had then invited the lads back again to play cards. He’d lost at poker, but he’d win it all back tonight. He looked at the bodies lying amongst discarded wrappers, empty cartons and bones stripped of their meat. The weeks of collected debris had turned the air putrid. Yeah, life was good.
He listened intently before waking the others. “Human voices,” he said.
“They’re kicking the door in,” one of them replied. “Everyone up on their feet and looking mean!”
Two sets of footsteps echoed down the hall, stopping outside the kitchen.
“Oh my god!” a man’s voice spluttered. “The smell is rank. What on earth is it?”
“I don’t know,” another male voice replied. “I hope the old couple aren’t rotting somewhere!”
The first man laughed. “Nah – Bob said he’s not seen them for weeks. Thinks they’ve gone off to live with their daughter. He told me to get in quick before some other squatters come along.”
“Even so,” the first man said, “let’s just check round.”
Fox heard them banging around upstairs, opening and closing doors, then he felt the vibration of heavy tread coming down the stairs. “They’ll be coming in here next,” he told the others. “We have the element of surprise on our side. 1, 2, 3…”
As the kitchen door swung open, the foxes launched themselves at the men, teeth bared.
“What the—?” the taller man yelled.
Fox managed to sink his claws into one of the men’s legs, but the man was swift to react and kicked him hard before slamming the door shut.
“Quick!” Fox shouted to the others. “Round the back – we’ll get ’em before they reach their car!”
He opened the back door to find the men leaning against the wall. They both had shotguns slung over their forearms. As both men raised and cocked their guns, Fox’s five friends scarpered left and right, but Fox was determined to stand his ground.
“The thing is,” one of the men said to him, taking aim, “we really fancy living here.”
“Yes,” the other one added, “I’ve never had my own place before.” He glanced down the garden. “There’s even a hen house, Joe. We could keep chickens.”
Bio: Judy Bryan was born in Sheffield, England, but now lives in Berkshire with her husband. She has written three women's fiction novels: Playground Politics, Beyond the Clouds and Behind Closed Doors, which are all available on Amazon. She is a volunteer reader for a charity that helps children who are having difficulty reading.