I live in a village, an old sleepy Norfolk village – the watermill long since demolished. My house is one of the flint cottages that line the village green. In the narrow high street there are a few small shops, a tea shop, inn and a post office - that are just as much a meeting place for the exchange of news and gossip. Beyond the green is the church, an ancient flint building, typical of any that you might find dotted along the Norfolk coast. But this one is something of a landmark. It sits upon a hill, and is visible for miles across the flat open landscape.
As we near the green, the leaves clumped in piles upon the wet grass, the dog runs ahead. When I turn into the driveway, I can just make out her dark shape ahead of me. As I get closer, her tail whacks furiously, as if she is greeting me after a long absence. I open the front door and step forward, into the light. The dog’s nails make a click-click-click sound as she skitters across the wooden boards. In the hallway I heel off my boots, and hang up my jacket.
I move through to the kitchen, and cross to the sink. I wash a few dirty dishes, and start wiping and straightening, and tidying things away. When, at last, I sit at the table, Molly comes and leans against my thigh. I reach out and stroke her soft fur. When I stop absently, she nudges my hand with her wet nose. ‘Sorry old girl, but no more,’ I say gently. Molly blinks. She gives me a wounded look and turns away. As I watch her settle on the floor, I can feel the weight of my sorrow.
I push back my chair and step to the window. I look up at the round, shadowy moon, at the patterns of light shifting against the tall trees and the darkened rooftops. Though I try not to, I can’t help but think it reminds me of a time, when my life had seemed like the moon – bright and untroubled. That is before everything changed, of course.
It had been a bitterly cold winter, wet and windy, the sky a stubborn grey. It was the first weekend of March, when the trees were still bare, and the daffodils had yet to open. A heavy mist that had shrouded the village overnight, lifted suddenly, and the huge skies opened up into bright sunshine. I was leaning against the kitchen worktop eating a bowl of cereal. I heard Jack open the back door.
‘Hi,’ I said.
‘Morning beautiful,’ he answered. He crossed the room and kissed me lightly on the lips.
‘Is she going to be okay?’ I asked.
‘She’ll be fine Lou, just fine.’
My husband was a farm manager, born and raised in the country, in a village not too unlike the one that we lived in now. Farming was his life - it was part of him. And Sunday was his day of rest. But they’d been concerns for a dairy cow that had experienced a difficult calving the previous evening. So when I woke that morning, Jack had already left. He’d gotten up early, and driven back to the farm to check on her condition.
‘And how’s my other favourite girl,’ he said, bending down to ruffle the dog’s head, who’d roused herself from wherever she’d been sleeping.
I poured some coffee, and we sat together at the kitchen table. As he talked, I sipped my coffee and watched him. He had a wonderfully expressive face, a generous mouth, and bluish grey eyes that seemed to brighten or darken in seconds. ‘After all the trouble she's caused, they've decided to call the calf Precious,’ he was saying. We both smiled. Jack took a mouthful of coffee and set his cup down. After a moment he said, ‘Right. Now how about that walk we were talking about earlier.’
Jack parked the car and turned off the engine.
As I opened my door, the wind lifted my hair. ‘Ohh no,’ I cried, as I raised my hands to flatten it down.
Jack turned and looked at me. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, a smile playing around his mouth. ‘The wild look kind of suits you.’ I pulled a face and he laughed.
We crossed the car park, and turned onto the coastal path. A wooden boardwalk and a sandy footpath took us down to the beach. The dog lagged behind, stopping every now and then to sniff the ground, a post, a patch of grass – and a couple of times to pee. There was a wind blowing across the ocean, and soon the air thickened with the tangy smell of fish and seaweed. As we’d pulled into the car park I’d noticed two other cars besides Jack’s. But as far as I could tell, the beach was deserted.
Jack stilled for a moment. ‘Isn’t this something?’ he sighed.
I looked across the pale sweeping sands – that to the left and right of me receded into the distance. The ocean breathed rhythmically, and then surged against the shore, spewing swirls of froth and puffed up foam. Far out to sea the sun reflected on the quivering water. For a moment I had to shield my eyes from its whiteness.
‘It’s stunning,’ I said.
As we walked - we talked. Most of the conversation escapes me now – but I remember that I was happy. The dog ran and played, chasing noisy gulls across the sand, who seemed somewhat bored by her efforts. When I ventured too close to a wave, and ice-cold water soaked into my shoes, I let out a shriek. Molly ran over and barked at me, perhaps startled by my sudden outburst. As I reached down to settle her, she shook herself vigorously, showering us both with water and sand.
‘Jack,’ I cried. ‘Just look at the state of me now.’
Jack grinned stupidly, and we burst into laughter. Then he pulled me into his arms. We swayed for a moment. As he kissed me, I could taste the salt on his lips. When we stepped apart he said, ‘Mmm, I don’t know about you. But I think it’s time for lunch.’
Three days later, on Wednesday, Jack was dead. It happened in the afternoon, when the last of the thin winter light would have been fading from the sky. There had been no witnesses to the accident. But from an investigation, one that took place over the following days, it appears that as he’d driven a tractor-trailer across a field, one of the wheels from the trailer had dropped into a deep rut. The trailer had overturned, taking the heavy vehicle with it.
Jack was thrown from the cab and pinned underneath. A farmhand, working nearby, heard the commotion - and happened to look up just as the vehicle went over. Carl, a young lanky lad, had raced across the field, shouting for help as he tried desperately to free him. But there was little he could do. The following week Jack was buried in the small village churchyard.
In the days following Jack’s death I was inconsolable. In a way, I suppose, I fell to pieces. I felt overwhelmed by my grief. How could this have possibly happened I asked myself time and time again? The thought of Jack’s lifeless body, lying on the damp ground preyed on me, and I’d burst into tears. What had I been doing at the exact moment he’d died I’d wondered? I’d loved him so much. Why hadn’t I sensed it? – sensed that he’d left me. At times it didn’t seem real – as if it was some other’s life. And then I’d remember that it was mine – and it would start me off all over again.
After the funeral my mother had suggested that I go and stay with her. The last of the mourners had slowly drifted away, and we were standing together in the kitchen. ‘Just for a while...until you’re...well, until everything is more settled,’ she said at last. Her small pinched face frowned with concern. I could hardly bring myself to look at her. So I’d shaken my head and turned away. I heard her sigh. Then, trying to keep her voice light she said, ‘Right, I’ll start on the clearing up then.’
But later that evening, in the silence of the house, I couldn’t suddenly bear the thought of being alone. The next morning I’d packed a bag, and driven back to the city, to the grey terraced house where I’d been raised.
For the first few days, apart from when I needed to eat, use the bathroom or let the dog out, I hardly left my room. My grief seemed to claim me utterly. Molly seldom left my side. Whenever a door opened, her head would shoot up hopefully. And when she saw the person coming into the room, invariably my mother, she’d lower it back to her paws. It was as if she half expected to see Jack come strolling in. The disappointment in her eyes seemed to communicate itself to me, and I found it painful to watch her. It would fill me with an unspeakable sorrow, for her unfailing belief, that I knew would never be fulfilled.
My mother lived alone. In a way, it had always been just the two of us. My father had left soon after my fourth birthday. For a while there were the occasional weekend visits. And then he’d married again. He became a somewhat remote and distant figure after that. Years later, when my mother and I had spoken about it one time, she’d commented – it was as if we’d never been.
I'd been back at my mother's for almost a week. I was sitting at the table in the living room, in the middle of writing thank you notes to the numerous people who’d sent flowers or cards for Jack. I looked up to see my mother standing in the doorway. ‘What would you like for dinner tonight?’’ she asked. I was thinking about making a curry, or maybe we could have lasagne.’
Suddenly, I’m not sure why, I threw the pen on the table and burst into tears. As if my mother had been anticipating such an event, she slid into the seat beside me. She held out a tissue. And slowly it all came pouring out – the stuff I couldn’t hold back any longer. I spoke of my despair, and the feelings of hopelessness. And finally, what had been pressing on me the most. ‘God mum. I can’t help it…but I’m just so angry with Jack for dying...for leaving me like this.’ I could barely focus on her face through the tears.
She handed me another tissue. ‘Oh Louise,’ she sighed. She began to speak, telling me how I was being too hard on myself - that after such a terrible shock, it was only natural that I would have to deal with all sorts of strange thoughts and feelings. I blew my nose. My mother was still talking, saying it would take time - no one could say how long – to come to terms with my loss. ‘I think you're expecting too much of yourself, right now,’ she said. After that, she didn’t say much else. But from time to time, she nodded, or made soft reassuring noises.
Finally, when I’d stopped babbling and weeping, my mother looked at me. She smiled sadly. ‘If only I had the words to take away your pain…’ She reached over and placed her hand gently over mine. Her voice was gentle. ‘But I’m always here for you, you know.’ I looked over at her. And in that moment, I couldn’t remember a time I’d ever loved her more.
That night, the dog asleep beside me, I sat for a while, after my mother had gone to bed. I listened to the cars and voices in the distance, and a dog’s persistent barking, that seemed to be coming from a yard nearby. I thought of Jack, and of all the things that had been left unsaid, that could never be said. And I wondered how I’d ever make sense of it all. It startled me to realize that not all of my grief was for Jack. That some of it was for me – for the yearning of my old life that I could never have back. And I mourned that too.
It was another two weeks before I felt ready to participate in my life again. It rained the day I left, a heavy downpour that pounded the roof and splattered the windows. I watched as the raindrops dripped off the plastic gutters, into the sodden earth under the window – where, after the long winter, the daffodils had finally wakened.
I’d forgotten about the annual Scarecrow Festival, until a friend reminded me. I’d been back in the village for almost two months by now, and we were sitting on one of her deep red leather couches, drinking some wine.
‘Oh, I meant to mention this before,’ she said. ‘I’ve been asked to put my artistic skills to good use.’
I looked over at her. In her blue skinny jeans and paisley top she looked elegant and stylish. ‘Doing what?’ I asked.
Sally laughed. ‘It’s all in a good cause - for the Scarecrow Festival.’
‘Ah,’ I said. From what I could recall, the Scarecrow Festival had begun sometime in the sixties, but for reasons that I’d never unearthed, petered out again a few years later. Then, about eight years ago, in an effort to bring the villagers together, and raise money for local causes, it was suddenly revived. I sipped more of the wine.
‘It’s Tim’s idea really,’ she announced. ‘His first year on the fundraising committee - and he’s roped me in already.’ She gave a little laugh. ‘He thought I could give the villagers, well, the ones that are interested that is, a few ideas on how to make a perfect scarecrow.’
‘Well, he couldn’t have picked a better person,’ I said. Sally was an artist, and one of the most creative people that I’d ever come across. Typical I thought of her, to throw herself wholeheartedly into something or other.
I’d met Sally not long after we moved to the village, just over four years ago. At the time, she was dating Tim, a solicitor, though they now lived together. Tall and powerfully muscled, he played as a forward for the local rugby team. Jack, himself a keen player, had decided to have a run out, and was soon playing regularly.
More often or not, the player’s wives or girlfriends would tag along to watch the games – as a kind of moral support I’d always thought. After the match, we’d make our way to the nearest pub, or perhaps back to the village inn, where we’d huddle together with our drinks, and talk until late into the night. At some point the men would become engrossed as to who’d been the best, biggest, fastest, strongest, or dirtiest player of the game. And it would be Sally, the most amiable of the women that I’d turn to for conversation. Over time, we’d become good friends.
‘So,’ she said. ‘I’m in the process of setting up a couple of workshops.’ She explained that John Farrow, a local farmer, had offered to provide a barn for the workshop, as well as the straw for the scarecrows. And the villagers had been asked to donate old clothes and shoes.
I set down my glass. ‘Well it certainly sounds as if it’s all coming together.’
She grinned. ‘Well, I probably don’t know what I’m letting myself in for. But it should be fun.’
She glanced over to the coffee table where I’d placed my glass. ‘Another?’
I nodded. ‘Please.’
When she’d poured more wine she sat back in her seat. ‘So did you get over to see Jack’s parents?’
I nodded. ‘Last week, after I’d finished work. Tuesday I think it was.’
‘And how are they?’ She sipped from her glass and looked at me.
I could suddenly picture their anguished faces at the funeral service, as they’d leaned in heavily against each other. ‘Well, they seem to be holding up,’ I said. I picked up my glass and twirled the stem between my fingers. After a moment I said, ‘But you never really know for sure, do you?’
She shook her head. ‘Nope.’
The truth was that I’d begun to dread my visits. I’d assumed we’d be able to speak about Jack. But it wasn’t their way. They didn’t want to talk. And on a previous visit, when my father-in-law had gone out off the room for a moment, Jack’s mother had bent forward and whispered, ‘This has almost finished Len off, you know.’ I hadn’t known what to say. And later, when she’d asked, ‘Would you like to stay for dinner dear,’ I’d made a weak excuse about needing to get back for the dog. I could still recall the feeling of relief, to escape into the cool night air. And the guilt that came later, for feeling that way.
Sally said, ‘It must be really hard for them...for you.’ She gave me a sympathetic look.
I set my glass down. ‘Well, it will never be the same…not for any of us.’
There was a short silence. She looked down at her hands and back at me again. ‘No. I don’t suppose it will.’
The conversation lightened after that. We began to talk of other things: a new movie we both liked the look of, movies in general, her holiday plans and the weather. It had been raining on and off for days.
A few minutes later, we heard a car crunch over the gravel driveway.
‘Oh, that must be Tim,’ Sally said. She lowered her voice. ‘He’s not going to be too pleased with me.’
‘Oh. Why’s that?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ she said. 'The scarecrow I’m building needs a prop, so I’ve borrowed his skis.’ She threw her head back and laughed.
I laughed too.