'Well I never,' says Mrs Miggins, looking around her and being quite surprised, which is unusual for Miggins because she has got to be the least surprised chicken ever.
We are standing in The Trompe L'Oeil theatre, because I, luckily, have found the keys in the drawer in the kitchen marked 'The Drawer of Keys That We Don't Know What They Open But They Might Come In Useful One Day.' It's a big drawer - not because it contains many keys, but because of the enormous label we had to put on the front.
Anyway, there were the keys and the whole company have followed me inside to gaze in awe at the actual theatre that has been hidden all these years behind the painting of the theatre on the wall that everyone thought was just a painting but wasn't; well, it WAS an ACTUAL painting, but it also wasn't JUST a painting, if you know what I mean.
So, there we all are including Mrs Bennet and Mrs Slocombe, and Primrose and Camilla who haven't been mentioned yet, not because I have forgotten them, but because Mrs Bennet has been teaching the other three how to dance a lobster quadrille just in case the panto takes on a hint of Alice in Wonderland. I have said it won't, but was roundly ignored, and anyone who has ever been in the company of determined hens will know this feeling well.
And Mrs Slocombe - mad, crazy, bonkers as a box of frogs Mrs Slocombe - is particularly excited by the revelation of the theatre.
'Ooooh,' she says, wandering through the stalls and up onto the stage, 'it has a proper atmosphere, doesn't it?'
'How do you mean?' says I. 'Sort of theatrical? Show bizzy? Grease-paint-and-roar-of-the-crowd-y?'
Mrs Slocombe turns slowly on the stage, wings akimbo, and when she faces front again she has a demented glint in her eye. Oh, oh, I think. I recognise that glint. That is the glint that preceeds a mad dash down the garden and a sharp peck on the ankle.
'Nooooo,' says Mrs Slocombe. 'Sort of...mysterious...spooky...ghostly...like there is... a phantom present,' and she spins and points dramatically upwards at one of the boxes, 'and he is THERE! Watching us! Directing us with his ghostly yet magnetic will and...'
'NO!' I say, loudly and determindly. 'No bloody phantoms! Absolutely NO!!'
'Ah, you say no,' begins Mrs Slocombe. 'But...'
'I'm sticking my fingers in my ears!' I trill loudly. 'I'm singing tra-la-la-la-laaaaaa!'
'She's in denial,' says Primrose, who is rather taken with the idea of a phantom, too. 'It's like when she found out there were over 650 calories in a teeny piece of banoffee pie. She just shut her eyes and ate it, then jogged on the spot for a minute and a half. Like THAT would make any difference.'
The surrounding cast raise their eyes heavenwards and deliver a collective sigh.
'Well, I can definitely feel a ghostly presence,' says Mrs Slocombe. 'There is a draft, and a strange smell...'
'Phoebe is in the kitchen cooking Sprout Surprise with the door open again,' says Mrs Miggins, who, after her brush a couple of years ago with the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet To Come, is not herself averse to a spot of paranormal acceptance. 'It could be that.'
'What's the surprise?' says Camilla, who is a bit fussy about greens, having been introduced to grapes, sunflower seeds, pasta and toast way too early in her chicken career and is therefore what is commonly known as 'spoilt.'
'If we knew it wouldn't be a surprise,' says Miggins. 'I'll go and close the door and see if it makes a difference to the smell and draft.'
It does, of course, but Mrs Slocombe remains adamant that there is an actual phantom very much in residence and we had better not do anything to rile him, or else.
'Or else what?' I say, because I've only just taken my fingers from my ears and have missed most of the conversation.
'Who knows?' says Mrs Slocombe, shrugging. 'Could be a curse come upon us, could be a crashing chandelier, could be the mysterious disappearance of all the cheese and onion crisps from behind the theatre snack bar.'
'Cheese and onion are your favourite flavour, aren't they?' says Mrs Miggins, astutely.
'Might be,' says Mrs Slocombe. 'Or might be not. I'm just saying that we had better do the pantomime the Phantom's way or else there'll be trouble.'
'Oh,' I say, 'so now he's a phantom with a capital 'P', is he?'
'Is it a silent 'P', like in Tolemy?' says Mrs Pumphrey, who is very much enamoured of our special guest.
'No,' says Mrs Miggins. 'It is a P with an unsilent F.'
'English is a phunny language, isn't it?' says Primrose.
'Oh for goodness' sake,' I say. 'Look, there is no phantom and no Alice in Wonderland. There will be an ordinary phantomime, I mean pantomime called 'Puss in Boots,' with possibly, and only just possibly, a little overlap with 'Aladdin' and 'Jack and His Beanstalk...'
'Is that a euphemism?' says Mrs Slocombe. 'Or a dooble ontondra?'
'Neither,' I say. 'And now I am going to have a bit of quiet time out in the garden with my knitting, if that's okay with you lot.'
And I throw the keys to Mrs Miggins.
'Lock up when you leave,' I call over my shoulder. 'And no more talk of ghosts, okay?'
'What about goats?' calls Mrs Slocombe. 'Can we talk about goats?'
'I can't hear you,' I shout back.
'Oh yes you can!' returns the chorus.