This was the first scarecrow that Tara had ever been compelled to make, but it was a masterpiece. Its limbs were not lumpy sausages, made from laddered old tights stuffed with balled-up pages of the Mail on Sunday, like those of the scarecrows of her detractors in the village; these limbs had muscles in the right places, were formed from brand new tights and stuffed with balled-up tissue, which allowed a level of anatomical accuracy previously unseen in the village.
The secret was in picking a hard subject. Traditional scarecrow design relied heavily upon lots of old clothes, stuff from charity shops that no one but a scarecrow would wear. Big baggy coats and fat-man's trousers, which covered up the shoddy workmanship beneath. There was no skill in such a scarecrow. But in previous years, years in which Tara had never competed because she hated crafts and local get togethers like this, the winning scarecrows were always those wearing the most clothes. In fact, the judging was not a question of discrimination at all, but of totting up the items of clothing: jackets, trousers, socks, neckerchiefs and hats, with extra points for stitched on gloves and carefully perched reading glasses. Tara's scarecrow did not rely on clothes at all, because it wore almost nothing.
'That's not what I think it is…is it?' Tara's husband, Ralph, said.
'What of it?' She said. Her words were disabled by the row of pins in her mouth, which she was removing one at a time to affix a muslin cloth about the scarecrow's hips.
'You can't enter that,' Ralph said, rubbing the furrows of his forehead with the heel of his palm.
'Of course I can,' she said.
'They'll string you up.'
Ralph looked about for somewhere to sit, but their sofa and both armchairs had been annexed as extensions to her coffee-table workstation, and were piled high with long rolls of tissue paper, curled sections of chicken wire and torn open tights packets. He remained standing.
'This isn't the way to do it,' Ralph said.
'He molested our boy!' Tara said. 'In front of the whole school!'
'He didn't molest him.'
'He molested Elliott and all the teachers and all the parents just stood there watching it happen as if there was nothing insane about it at all. Elliott hadn't even put his hand up. That man just picked him because he's the smallest and easy to lift. You weren't there. He held his arms out like this.' Tara stood and stretched her arms to the sides to demonstrate to Ralph. 'And then he grabbed both of Elliott's arms in front of the whole school at the end of term assembly they'd invited all the parents along to and lifted him up off the ground and said to our little boy, loud enough that everyone could hear: "Can you feel how hard it is to breathe like this?" that's what he said, "can you see how hard it is to breath?"'
'Well why didn't you get up and say something?'
'I was paralysed with shock, with the horror of it all. I should have done, but it was in front of the whole school, and everyone else seemed to think it was fine. It was only afterwards that I stopped questioning myself and realised how un-fine it was. That man is a psychopath and he should be banned from the school. He should be put on some kind of register. But they invite him in every year apparently. I can't believe he's done that before and isn't in prison. It's insane.'
'I'm going to pour some wine,' Ralph said. 'Would you like a glass?'
'Yes,' she said quickly, and then, 'that's not the end of it.'
'You've told me before.'
'Obviously you weren't listening, or you wouldn't be questioning me. This bastard held Elliott up by his wrists, asking him if it hurts, and then he said, "imagine if your hands had long nails hammered through them, and your feet. It would be horrible wouldn't it?" And our boy nodded. Fuck knows how he managed to nod, dangling in the air, but he nodded, bless him. This was their bloody Easter assembly. I thought schools weren't allowed to do religious assemblies like this. Why couldn't they have done an assembly about chocolate? I could have got someone in to talk about where chocolate comes from, the villagers that live in the forest, the importance of fairtrade, that sort of thing. There's real educational value in that.'
'Why didn't you just complain to the school?' Ralph said. He took tiny steps because the two glasses of red wine he carried back into the living room were filled almost to the brim.
'I did complain. I said if that bastard ever comes into the school again I'll report him to the police and I'll have the school shut down. But the head just gave me that face again.'
The loincloth was complete. Tara sat her scarecrow up, propping his back against the toolbox. With a couple of stitches, Tara secured the long wig and then pushed the crown down firmly onto the top of his head. The crown was the first thing she had made, using thorny rose stems cut from her own garden, at great expense to her fingertips.
Ralph's eyes went wide.
'Honey,' he said. 'You can't enter that.'
'They'll love it. He's all they talk about around here. Look, I even made the right kind of stand to mount him on.' She closed the door to the hallway, revealing behind it the two two-by-fours she'd nailing together. She took a big glug of wine, then lifted the stand and rested it proudly on her shoulder. As she bent down to pick up the scarecrow in her other arm, she thwacked the lampshade that hung above the coffee table with the top of the stand. The impact was just short of shattering force, but the gong-like sound it made was loud enough to make Tara and Ralph freeze for a moment.
Tara lifted her scarecrow, who was light as anything, and bent him over her forearm. The crown was not secured by anything, but its thorns were snagged deep enough to hold it firmly to the scarecrow's head, even as it dangled upside down, bouncing with each of her footsteps.
'What are you trying to do?' Ralph said, watching his wife head for the hallway.
'I haven't got long,' she said. 'The judges are walking through at eight.'
Tara opened the front door and went out into the garden.
It was approaching dusk. The white cottages bared their faces to the orange sun, streaming long purple shadows out behind. On the patio, Tara banged nails into her scarecrow's palms, fixing him to his stand. The sound startled sparrows from the guttering.
Ralph addressed her through the open front window. 'Please honey,' he said. 'Some people might not appreciate your sense of irony.'
'Our little boy was molested by a madman in front of half the village,' she said. 'The school have already made it quite clear there'll be no form of justice, which is proof that their level of consciousness needs raising. If I don't do this, then some other mother's kid is going to get the same next Easter.'
Tara went back into the house to get one of the dining chairs, and then the wooden mallet from the understairs cupboard.
At the top of the lawn, which sloped steeply down to the rose bushes and then the road, she stood on the chair and hammered the sharp end of the stand into the ground. She stepped down to admire the scarecrow.
'It looks bigger now it's up, doesn't it?' She said.
'Please take it down,' Ralph said. He was now on the front doorstep in his socks, so desperate had he become. She pushed him aside on her way back into the house.
'Just one last thing,' she said, and went into the kitchen, to the cutlery draw, which contained more odds and sods than utensils. She was glad when she saw the red candle stub, whose location her memory had correctly stored. The matches were on top of the extractor fan, far from Elliott's reach.
'You go ahead then,' Ralph said. 'I'll start looking through the classifieds for a new house, because one thing's for sure, when they see this, they're going to drive us out with pitchforks.'
'Don't be such a wuss,' she said. She climbed back onto the dining chair, struck a match, lit the candle, and dripped red wax down the forehead of the scarecrow. Her finishing touches were interrupted when Ralph came out into the garden to say: 'You're just mad at yourself because you didn't say anything at the time.'
'I'm mad because our son was humiliated in front of the whole damn village and if you weren't such a coward you'd be mad too!' She turned a face so red with rage upon Ralph that it sent him scampering back into the house. When she returned her attention to the candle, she saw that she'd let it wander too close to the scarecrow's wig and it was now on fire.
It spread quickly, the flames ravenous for the tissue paper and stockings.
Tara jumped down and pulled the dining room chair to safety. There was a lot of smoke. A thick black plume of it. And a foul smell. Something in there, she didn't know what, was popping.
Soon the whole thing was on fire, right down to the toes on which she'd actually stitched the shape of toenails. Ralph ran out with the water filter and hurled the contents up the scarecrow's legs, but the blaze was too strong.
The sight was impressive enough to pull neighbours and dog walkers and other people's children from all around. It pulled the judges' attention from the house four doors down and caused them to move past the scarecrows of Tara's nearest neighbours without a glance.
'Will you help for God's sake!' Ralph said, running back in for a refill.
'You'll not be able to put it out,' she called after him. She stood there with her arms folded, enjoying the force of its warmth.