Ian McMillan: The bus just sat there like a beached whale

One of the many and varied marking posts on our Sunday afternoon drive when I was a boy was The Bus Full of Chickens; it was, as I recall, a double-decker beauty in a farmer’s field on the left-hand side of the A635 just before you got to the Highgate end of Goldthorpe, and it was packed with the aforementioned fowl. My dad would announce it like he was a tour guide taking you through Paris: “And on this side we can clearly see the bus with the noisiest passengers in the world!” Me and my brother would gaze in wonder at the beaks poking out from the top deck and the occasional flutter and flurry of wings and feathers as, presumably, one or two of the chickens made their way downstairs to have a go at sitting in the driver’s seat.

I have a vague memory of the bus gradually falling into disrepair, as any of us would if we were full of chickens. I think I can recall it getting emptier over time, having fewer chickens in it, like a tower block earmarked for demolition that gradually loses its inhabitants as family after family go to live on the new estate. Eventually the bus emptied completely and for a while it just sat there like a beached whale with headlights and then it disappeared, presumably taken away for scrap, and the farm that it was part of went as well and some of the land was built on and some remained fallow, and after a while I almost forgot about the chicken bus, but not quite. Sometimes, in adult life, passing the field where the bus used to be, I would idly speculate whether the chickens on the top deck or the bottom deck laid the best eggs, and if any eggs fell out of the bus windows, hitting the farmer on the head as he wandered along with a bucket full of feed. The Bus Full of Chickens was an image that had lingered on for me from childhood to middle age, lingered like a ghost. Ah, a ghost. Except there’s no such thing.

Then, the other week, I noticed that they were going to build a supermarket on the site and after a few days chaps in hard hats turned up with JCBs and started to dig. I guess that in less time than you imagine there will be trolleys and tills and aisles full of chilled veg and bumper family packs of crisps on what used to be the field by the busy road.

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And what if, late at night, when they’re restocking the shelves for the next day’s rush, the workers hear the sound of distant yet distinct clucking? What if they notice a feather floating down from the ceiling like a single piece of confetti? One worker will turn to another and say ‘Did you see that? It looked like a double-decker bus over by the soft drinks’ and his mate will say ‘Don’t be daft. What would a double-decker bus be doing in a supermarket?’

And they would carry on stacking the shelves, until the eggs started to roll past them; first one, then two, rolling in a curve like rugby balls, then half a dozen, then a dozen until it seems that the toilet-roll aisle is full of eggs. The workers will look at each other nervously and start to edge away from the eggs, being careful not to tread on any.

There’s a double decker bus waiting by the door. They may as well catch it.

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