I have always disliked collective nouns, although what I mean by collective noun is more accurately known as a term of venery: any allegedly evocative name applied to a specific group of animals. I think it’s stupid to refer to a bunch of larks as an exaltation. Having a separate word for every type of animal get-together is a hugely inefficient form of classification; if it were up to me their use would be punishable by a fine.
So when I wake to the sound of crows tearing the air with their calls, and look out of the window to see several dozen black birds perched along the roofline of a nearby house, no specific word escapes my lips.
The other half of the bed is empty; my wife is already up and out somewhere. By the time I’ve dressed, made coffee and crossed the garden to my office shed, more crows are arriving from every direction. When the roof is too crowded they spill over into the branches of a neighbouring tree. Their intent is unclear, but I’m glad I’m not out lying in the hammock.
There’s something very ancient and English about the idea of selling dung on spec in the streets
After a further half-hour of incessant cawing, the crows take off and fly west. A few land briefly on my shed roof on the way, with a much heavier thud than you would expect. A little while later my wife calls.
“What was the whole thing about crows?” she says. “I got a text from next door about it.”
“It was ominous while it lasted,” I say. “But just a general massing of crows.”
“A murder?” she says.
“No, just a lot,” I say.
“More than a murder, or less?” she says.
“It was like an AGM,” I say. “Or a bad omen or something.”
“Anyway,” she says. “I’m out now, so I might go to the supermarket.”
“Milk,” I say. “Olive oil.”
I don’t hear the doorbell from my shed, only the dog barking in response. By the time I get there, the middle one has already answered it.
“Some men to see you,” he says. Beyond the front door I see a man in a flat cap and a waistcoat, and, behind him, an identically dressed man standing by the gate. I recognise the pair as a harbinger of autumn, and also of early spring, when they return.
“Morning, sir,” he says. “It’s normally the missus I deal with.”
“Yes, it is,” I say, stepping out. “But she’s not here.”
Terms of venery date back to the courtly hunting jargon of the late middle ages, which also gave us specific words for the excrement of different animals: dung, scat, spraint, drit. I believe I am being precise when I say that the collective noun for what these men wish to sell me is a shitload of manure.
There seems to me something very ancient and English about the idea of selling dung on spec in the streets, which is why I wish my wife was at home to handle it.
I tell the men I like their manure very much. The bad news, I say, is that I presently have nowhere to put it. The good news, they tell me, is that they have an empty 1.5 cubic metre sack in the truck, ready to fill, for a fair price.
By the time my wife answers her phone the deal is done.
“£120 sounds like a lot,” she says.
“He says that’s his normal rate,” I say.
“Can you at least tell them to put it where it’s not in the way?” she says.
“Of course,” I say, looking at the half-full sack blocking the side door. After I hang up one of the men comes through with another bucket load and restarts a conversation from the previous March.
“I was telling your missus about my wife’s arthritis,” he says.
“Oh yeah?” I say.
“They still ain’t got the tablets right,” he says. “She fell over and broke her nose the other week, big bandage. ”
“Oh no,” I say.
“We were supposed to go shopping the next day, and she says to me, ‘We can’t go out now – everyone’ll think you’ve done this.’”
“Right,” I say.
“And I said, so what? I know I ain’t done it.”
“A dilemma,” I say. He shrugs and heads back to the truck. Like me, he also wishes my wife was home.
Eventually my wife does come home, and the three of them have a nice catchup in the street, of which I understand very little. I’ve lived in this country for 30 years, and I still sometimes feel as if everyone is speaking medieval hunting jargon.
One man climbs into the truck and starts the engine. The other raises a thumb in my direction.
“See you in spring, sir!” he says.