A scarecrow, fashioned from broom handles, hessian, straw and a grey charcoal suit, circa 1973.
Years later, on holiday in New England, with just the first child, the second one not yet planned, they, the picture perfect british family come across the picture perfect New England town and are just in time for the annual scarecrow festival.
Every house, it seems, has some form of cutesey, chintzy, gingham clad, broom handle skeleton, faces from the famous, the benign to the malevolent, even primitive, some harking back to another time when the straw men stood sentinel in fields, guarding the crops.
They walk around the neat streets, eat scarecrow shaped gingerbread, buy a gingerbread fridge magnet and agonise over over-priced hand crafted scarecrow dolls, she is secretly delighted when her husband, the holder of holiday money, decides that they are too expensive, too twee, not what their daughter needs at all.
She is back on the windswept Norfolk coast, the family caravan, buffeted by storms, baking hot whenever, if ever, the sun shone and prone to leaks, usually just above her pull out bed.
They holiday here, 3 and 4 and even 5 times a year, the car carefully packed, the caravan checked over, her mother simply transporting her domestic life into a smaller, less convenient, more time consuming shape.
And her father, holding the fort at home, somehow held up as bravely soldiering on without the women.
It was only years later that she realised that her father had managed to construct a summer life of solitary masculinity where no one asked wheat he had done, where food could be eaten in any room and where nobody interrupted the Saturday litany of the draws and wins and losses and points.
Their holidays, their female shaped days had a rhythm and routine all their own, the beach, the little shops, a day in Cromer and later as the caravan park moved up in the world, the pool, freezing in June and soupy by August and the club house for cola in real glass bottles and bags of cheese and onion crisps.
And they had their walks, on days, when even the most stoic, the most barricaded behind windbreakers and esconced in anoraks admitted that it wasn’t a beach day.
Her mothers’ walks tended towards the suburban, peering into the big houses,the burgeoning antique shops, the careful choosing of an ice cream parlour, a tea shop, even once, daringly, a wooden bench outside a pub, where throwing caution to the wind and without even her mothers’ assessment of the toilets before deciding to order food, they ate fish and chips and she, her fingers still vinegary, buried her face into a knickerbocker glory bigger than her face while her mother had a second half of lager shandy.
Her favourite walks were wilder, she would always choose cliff tops and beaches and those flat open fields which seemed to fall into a distant horizon, but she was easily swayed by the promise of horses, donkeys or goats, so there was a compromise walk…..the farm with the donkeys.
Over the years, as her legs got longer and the walks got shorter, they completed the donkey farm walk so often that they became, not friendly, but on nodding terms with the couple who lived there, who actually owned the 3 moth eaten donkeys.
When she first met them, all of them, donkeys and humans seemed impossibly ancient, moving with that slow care of the venerable who need to conserve energy, aiming for a marathon, not a sprint.
The donkeys press velvety noses against the fence, pull back lips to expose huge yellowed teeth, but they take the stale bread, the bruised apples, the past their best carrots carefully, gently and often stay close for a few moments after they have eaten, while she breathes in their musky scent, rubs her fingers against their soft hair and wants to tell them everything that is going on in her heart.
The scarecrow stands in the top of the hill, close to the walkers gate and stile which leads them back downwards towards the coast and through a small copse of stunted trees and springy turf.
They always stop and look at him, her mother calls out a cheery hello, has even been known to readjust his scarf, replace his faded sou’wester on his hessian head, but the girl looks away, keep her head down or fixes her gaze on the sea and the safety of the little beige caravan.
She is convinced that behind the hessian is another face, sometimes in the winter, even when the coast is far away, his face, his real face creeps into her dreams, leaving her in a wet and tangled mess, tiptoeing shamefacedly into her parents’ bedroom and her mothers’ side of the bed.
She knows that if he ever catches her eye, she will be forced to look at him, to see his unveiling, his true self and that will be more than she can ever cope with.
The scarecrows outfits change over the years, as clothes get damaged by the winter gales, the spring rain and the occasional blistering sun.
He has worn a black raincoat, an ancient cracked Barbour, one summer, unexpectedly, he sported a pair of bright red velvet trousers and she and her mother sometimes wonder what his outfit will be this year.
The donkeys get older, go down from 3 to 2, but still carry a hint of carpet, a vague, but not unpleasant mustiness.
The couple get a little older, a little stiffer, he, always wearing the same shiny, worn at the knees charcoal grey suit, moves a little less, but the relationship of nods, chatter about the weather, a brown face, impossibly lined, leaning towards her, asking about school.
And then one June, when she has begun to suspect that there might be more to both holidays and their weeks long absences from home , when they walk, she some way in front of her mother as she is taller now, faster, the farm is changed.
There are no donkeys, no gentle huffs and puffs of breath across the fence and the old man is not there, not seated on the wooden bench outside the front door, chickens scratching around his feet.
He has become such a fixture, simply part of the landscape, as unchanging as the pattern of fields that they both, mother and daughter, stop and stare into the garden, waiting for him to appear from some corner, but nothing happens and finally, her mother laughs self consciously and walks on, assuming that her daughter will catch up.
They start the climb up the hill and it feels tough, leg achingly tough as it always does at the start of their summer caravan time. The girl knows that in 2 or 3 weeks, she will be fitted, browner and this will be able to run up towards the stile and then downwards into the partial shade of the tiny woods.
But today, she is focussed on the climb, head down, breath ragged, uneven and her mother is silent although the girl doesn’t know, not then, not till much, much later , exactly why.
So, when they come across the scarecrow, both of them are surprised, almost as if they have never seen him before and it takes a moment of two before they notice his new outfit.
A charcoal grey suit, worn at the knees, the fabric shiny with age and the arms flapping empty, his straw hands somehow lost since they last climbed this hill.
The mother stops, covers her mouth with one hand and stares,but says nothing, but it is the girl who fill the hillside, the field, even the path back to the coast with noise, a scream that goes on and on. A sound that continues even when her mother shakes her, drags her over the stile and towards the woods and the little path and then the girl pulls free and begins to run, her breath too short now to hold a scream, just a keening, a wailing that somehow seems even louder.
The girl keeps running, looses her footing, struggles up and moves further away from her mother and away from the scarecrow, her face turned away, eyes half closed, the mantra, the chant running through her head, matching the pace of her pounding feet.
Don’t look back
Don’t look back
Don’t look back
Because she knows, with a absolute cold certainty that the scarecrows face, the true face under the hessian cover, can finally be seen and it is the face of the farmer, his eyes burning into her back.
ThIs picture, the running child, the mother too far away to help and behind all of that, the scarecrow, suit flapping in the cold summer wind, empty sleeves twisting round to grab and clutch, becomes her recurring nightmare. The nightmare that always wakes her, breath gasping, the sense of running down a hill so strong that she almost falls in the bed.
The first time she ever sleeps with the man who will eventually be and then un-be her husband, she has the dream and he stays awake all night holding her and waiting for the drawn.