Paul watched them carry the straw man to the patch of ground between the train bridge and the factory, dumping it on a spot with no grass, just pebbles and the burnt out ends of cigarettes. He looked different now he wasn’t in the field on his pole, weak and sad, and the smile made from an old hair ribbon was hanging loose at one end. Paul had liked to stop as he and Mummy passed the field, wave and shout hullo, even though the straw man never said anything back. He didn’t like to see him dragged from his pole and dumped on the floor. A lot of people – he wasn’t sure if it was twenty or thirty or even more – stood in a rough circle as Daddy and his friends stood around the straw man and stretched their arms and touched their toes. A little cheer went up from the crowd and Daddy put his hands together and shook them first on one side then the other, smiling like it was a big joke, and some of the crowd laughed. Then Daddy shouted “Are we right to go?” and he his friends picked up the straw man by the arms and legs. At first they lifted him up and down like they were giving the bumps at a birthday party, but then they threw it in the air and as it fell they all began to kick and punch.
“It’s alright darling. It’s only a straw man.”
They kept kicking and punching from below and Paul realised that they were trying to keep the straw man off the ground. Daddy looked angry and happy at the same time and kicked and punched harder than his friends, and laughed and shouted at them to “Get stuck in!” Some of the people watching cheered while others talked to each other without seeming interested in what was happening.
“Kick out the bad! Kick out the bad!” one man shouted.
“We’re kicking! We’re kicking!” Daddy shouted back.
The straw man hit the ground but one of the men grabbed his arm and threw him straight back into the air so they could punch and kick it again. Pieces of straw were spinning away from the head, hands and feet and one of the legs began to tear loose. Paul felt scared and didn’t want to watch any more.
“What’s the matter Paul?”
“Wanna go home!”
He turned and pulled at Mummy’s arm.
“It’s nothing to get upset about.”
“Don’t like it! Wanna go home!”
He tugged again. Mummy looked at him like she was annoyed and worried at the same time, then back towards Daddy and his friends, then back to Paul.
“Come on then. Daddy won’t miss us. He’ll be off for the evening once this is over.”
They walked towards the arch of the bridge as a train moved very fast along its tracks. At first Paul didn’t say anything because he was still scared and sad. He didn’t know what the straw man had done to deserve being kicked and punched until it fell apart. Mummy seemed to guess how he was feeling and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Why do they hurt the straw man?” he asked.
“They’re not hurting him … it. It’s only straw darling.”
“But why not leave him alone?”
“They’re beating out the bad.”
“He was the bad straw man this year; most of the cabbages in his field spoiled. Every year they find the bad straw man and beat him, so he doesn’t take over more fields the next year.”
“But he’s not bad!”
“Well, no, but it’s a custom, and it’s harmless.”
“But they hurt the straw man. Daddy shouldn’t.”
Mummy was quiet for a moment, then Paul heard her say something quietly, like she was only talking to herself.
“Rather the straw man than me.”
She pulled him to walk a little faster.
“Come on. Home to tea.”
A couple of hours later she tucked him into bed. Paul felt better as they had egg, beans and chips then Angel Delight for tea, then he had watched a funny man on the telly and Mummy had cuddled and told him the story about the teddy bear who lost and his eye but found it in a jar of honey. He had stopped thinking about Daddy and the straw man when he drifted off to sleep.
When he woke up he was still in bed but couldn’t see the door, so got up and walked towards where it should have been and realised there was straw under his feet. Then he realised the room was much larger, with big wooden doors and a high ceiling and bales of hay stacked at its sides. Two thin shapes stood against one of the bales, and he took a couple of steps to see they were a shovel and rake like the ones he had seen Daddy use in the fields. He looked back and saw that his bed was still there, and didn’t know if he should be pleased or scared that he had woken up in a barn. Then he heard a noise from somewhere in the dark.
It was just like the one he had heard Daddy make the time he came home with a big bruise around his eye and a cut lip, and sat in the kitchen while Mummy pressed a flannel with ice cubes to his face. It wasn’t so much like the noise Mummy made when he had heard Daddy shouting and bumps on the other side of the door, because that was more like crying and had made him want to cry. At first he ignored it, but then he heard it again and realised it came from a gap between the bales next to the shovel and rake. Although he felt a little bit scared he walked towards it, looked into the shadow and saw a shape on the floor. It moved and he jumped back. For a moment he stood and didn’t know if he should run outside or dive back into his bed and hide under the covers. Then he heard the noise and saw something move again, and noticed a pair of trousers with string at the bottom and two clumps of straw poking out, It looked like a pair he had seen before, so he moved a little closer and saw the trousers had been split down the middle and one leg hung loose from larger bundle of straw wrapped inside a shirt. He heard the noise again.
Paul realised that whatever made the noise was in no state to do him any harm, so he took another step forward, and looked down on a head of straw with one blue marble for an eye and a ribbon hanging from where the mouth should be. It was the straw man.
At first Paul felt nervous. He didn’t know how the straw man had got there and why he was hiding in a dark corner, and worried that he might blame Paul for what Daddy and his friends had done. But then the straw man lifted his head a little, crinkled his face and squeezed out some words.
“Help me. Please.”
Paul didn’t move.
“You can talk!”
“Sometimes, to a friend, in the right place.”
“You can talk to a friend?”
“Or someone I want to be a friend. Can you help me?”
Paul moved to beside the straw man and helped him sit up. The straw man groaned again and flapped one of his arms.
“Is this because of Daddy and his friends?”
“Was one of them your Daddy?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, but can you help put me back together?”
“Will it make you better?”
“I hope so.”
Paul grabbed some of the loose straw on the ground and pushed it back into the arms, then took some more and pushed it into the bottom of the trousers. The straw man flapped at the loose leg and asked him to press it hard against the bundle wrapped inside his shirt. Paul pressed, the straw man groaned again, but when Paul let go the leg stuck to the body.
“That’s good,” said the straw man. “Now can we fix the trousers?”
He flapped at his middle and Paul saw there was a safety pin, like the ones Mummy kept in the medicine box, sticking out the waist of the trousers. He took it out, pulled the torn edges of the trousers together and pinned them into one. The straw man started to move at the waist, then wriggle around the floor, then pat the side of his mouth where the ribbon for his mouth had fallen loose.
“Hold on,” said Paul. He took the loose end of the ribbon and pressed it into the straw so that it stuck and gave the straw man a proper mouth. The ribbon twisted into a smile. Then the straw hands patted the spot where one of the eyes had fallen out.
“Not quite right,” said the straw man.
Paul looked around on the floor but it was hard to see in the dark. The straw man patted at the floor but had no more luck, and began to pat a little harder and faster and the smile disappeared from his face.
“Oh no!” he said. “I have to find my eye. I can’t do without the eye.”
Paul stood up, took a step backwards, and felt something hard and round press against the sole of his foot. He looked down and saw a glassy blue shape poking out of the straw.
“Is this it?”
He reached down and picked up a blue marble.
“That looks right,” said the straw man. “Can you press it in?”
Paul pressed the marble into the spot where the eye should be. It stuck and the straw man smiled again.
“That’s better,” he said. “I’m getting better.”
Then he dropped his hands to the floor, made another groaning noise, and pushed himself upwards. Now the straw man was on his feet, and looking better.
“I thought there wouldn’t be any of you left,” Paul said.
“There wasn’t,” he replied. “Well not much. But I think the way you found me just now was how I was when you walked away, so you can see me like this.”
“Is this how you really are?”
“It’s how I am to you, and that’s what matters.”
Paul didn’t quite understand, but he was glad that the straw man was in one piece and talking to him. Maybe it was making up for what Daddy had done.
“What’s your name?” the straw man asked.
“Well I’m pleased to meet you Paul.”
They shook hands. It made Paul feel very warm and happy, and that he wanted to be friends with the straw man. For a while he just enjoyed the feelings, and didn’t know if they talked a lot or just stood smiling at each other; and everything grew a little darker and quieter, and he began to think about his bed again. Then they heard voices.
“We finished the job!”
“Mark my words, there’s more to be done! I bet he’s in here.”
“Well we’re going home!”
“Go home then! I’ll finish the job alone.”
Paul recognised Daddy’s voice, looked at the straw man and saw that suddenly he was scared.
“Can he come in here?” he asked.
There was a rattling from the end of the barn, then a long, rough creaking noise, and a shaft of light fell across the floor.
“Straw man!” It was Daddy again, sounding angry. “I know you’re there. I’m coming to finish the job.”
Now Paul was scared, thinking of the times that Mummy cried. He didn’t want Daddy to find him or the straw man. He looked towards the bed as the light from the open door spread across its covers and Daddy’s shadow filled up the room. His first thought was to run to the bed, but there was a tug on his arm and the straw man pulled him back towards the bales of hay and they stumbled and fell into the gap. Paul saw the outside light disappear as the door closed but heard Daddy’s feet crunching across the straw. He and the straw man huddled backwards and pressed themselves tight, the straw man gently pressing his frayed hand over Paul’s mouth. The crunching of footsteps came closer. The straw man was dead still but Paul could feel himself breathing hard and shaking. The straw man shook his head, but Paul couldn’t stop and there was a rustling noise just beyond the bales. Daddy spoke.
“What are these?”
He had seen the shovel and rake propped against the bales of hay. Paul realised that would bring him even closer and felt himself shaking even harder and began to snivel. The straw man shook his head again but Paul couldn’t stop, then the straw man fell limp and Paul whimpered. A big, scary shadow appeared at the end of the gap. Paul couldn’t see Daddy’s face but knew it was him, and tried closing his eyes and pressing his face to his knees.
“And what do we have here?”
A hand grabbed his ankle and pulled him out towards the opening. Paul wriggled and kicked and felt the shovel and rake fall over as he slid into the light.
“What nasty little creature is hiding in the dark?”
Paul rolled over so Daddy couldn’t see his face, threw out his hand and grabbed at a shaft of round wood.
A hand came down on his, pressing it to the handle of the rake. Then he could feel the body bending over him and hot, dirty breath sliding into his ear.
“What is this nasty little creature?”
Paul tried to curl up but two big hands took his shoulders and began to turn him around, then pressed him flat and pulled at his arms to get a look at his face. At the moment that Paul opened his eyes there was a crash. Daddy let go and pressed both hands to his own head.
There was another crash and Daddy fell to the side. Paul rolled clear, lifted his legs to get free, then looked up at saw the straw man holding the shovel above Daddy.
“Got him!” he said.
The straw man took Paul by the hand and helped him to stand.
“Are you alright?”
Beside them Daddy groaned.
“Is that enough?”
“I don’t know.”
Then Daddy rolled over, brought his knees up to his chest, let out a loud roar as he pushed out his knees and both arms.
“I’m going to ….”
The straw man hit him again with the shovel, this time in the face. Daddy went limp, spreading his arms and legs in the shape of a star.
“One more for luck.”
The straw man hit him again. That closed Daddy’s eyes.
For a few seconds Paul and the straw man stood over Daddy. There was blood around his nose and a little bubble that went in and out of one nostril, so Paul knew he was still breathing. He wondered if he should feel sorry, but for now all he really cared about was that the straw man was alright.
“Do you feel better now?” he asked.
“Much better,” the straw man replied. “I’m on my feet and in one piece.”
“When will he wake up again?”
“Not for a while.”
“But then he’ll be angry again.”
“I don’t think so. He won’t be strong enough to be angry for a long time.”
Paul took the clump of straw at the end of the straw man’s sleeve and squeezed. Then he felt the straw wrap around his hand and squeeze in return. He and the straw man smiled at each other.
“What are we going to do now?” Paul asked.
“You look tired to me. Maybe you should go back to bed.”
Paul felt a little cloud wafting through his head and realised that he was sleepy again.
“What about him?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll look after him, put him somewhere he won’t disturb you during the night.”
Next moment was Paul was in bed with the straw man pulling the covers up to his chin.
“Sleep tight,” said the straw man. “Tomorrow will be a nice day.”
“Goodnight straw man.”
“And thank you. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if you hadn’t put me back together.”
The straw man patted Paul on the head, then went to Daddy, put both hands around one of his feet and dragged him towards the door. Paul lifted his head a little and saw the straw man pull Daddy outside, turn, smile and give him a little wave. Then the door closed and Paul was fast asleep.
The sun was shining through a gap in the curtains as Paul awoke. Usually he still felt a little sleepy for a minute or two, but today he felt bright and ready to get straight out of bed. It took him a minute to get dressed, go to the bathroom and wash his hands and face. He remembered the dream clearly, and told himself that what Daddy and his friends had done wrong to the straw man he had been able to put right. Then he remembered it was only a dream, and felt a little sad. As he left the bathroom Mummy was coming out of the bedroom.
“Morning darling,” she said. “Have you been downstairs yet?”
“Daddy’s not been to bed. Looks like he didn’t make it home, or at least up the stairs.”
Paul stopped for a moment. He wondered if he should tell Mummy about the dream, but she might think he was being silly. So he just held her hand as they went down the stairs and decided he wanted sugar puffs for breakfast. He went into the kitchen, Mummy went into the living room, and he heard her cry out.
“What the hell! How did you get like that?”
There was a fussing and groaning from the living room. For a little while Paul stood still, then decided he should take a look at what had made Mummy shout. He went into the living room and saw Daddy lying on the sofa while Mummy kneeled beside him with a hand holding up the back of his head. Daddy had cuts and bruises all over his face and a big splodge of dried blood between his nose and lip.
“What happened?” Mummy asked.
“I don’t know,” Daddy said. “All I remember is leaving the pub.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? There’s blood in your hair. And look at your face. Somebody’s given you a beating. You must remember what happened.”
“Not a thing. Maybe I blacked out.”
“I’d had a few. No, I’d had a lot.”
“You’re always having a lot, and you’ve never blacked out before. You got into a fight.”
“Well if I did I don’t remember a thing about it.”
Mummy slid her hand down to Daddy’s back, placed the other around his waist and tried to pull him up. He made that noise.
It was a lot louder than the straw man had made it.
“If you can’t remember how you got like this you knocked back a lot more than a lot,” Mummy said. “And I bet you gave someone a reason to take advantage.”
Paul didn’t quite know what Mummy was saying, but he did know that she was annoyed. Usually when she was annoyed Daddy got angry with her and she cried, but he could tell that Daddy was in no shape to get angry. Instead he just touched his face.
“Ow! I’m cut!”
“You’re cut bad! It looks like it’s been hit by a shovel!”
Daddy’s eyes opened wider. For just a moment he seemed scared at the thought of something. Then he touched Mummy’s hand and spoke softly, begging a little.
“Please, ice cubes.”
“You need to go to the hospital.
“Maybe, but first some ice cubes.”
Mummy stood up, looked down on Daddy and let him see she was annoyed. Really, really annoyed.
“Please, just some ice cubes.”
For a moment she stood still. Paul could see that she was making a point of being really annoyed.
“Maybe you’ll learn,” she said.
Mummy still looked annoyed, but Paul noticed she was also surprised. He had never heard Daddy say sorry to her before. He was pleased.
Mummy turned towards the door and touched Paul on the shoulder.
“Come on darling, you don’t want to see this.”
Paul jerked his shoulder away.
“No,” he said. “I’ll stay with Daddy.”
Mummy breathed in hard, took another look at Daddy, then left the room. Paul stared at Daddy as he slid back on the sofa, touched carefully at his face and made the noise again. Then Paul noticed something sticking out of the lace on one of Daddy’s boots. He went closer, placed his fingers on the boot, and pulled out a straw.
“What are you doing?” Daddy asked.
“Found this,” said Paul. He held up the straw, moved towards Daddy and placed it close to his face.
“No!” Daddy turned his face away and held up a hand.
“It’s only a straw Daddy.”
Paul moved around and poked the straw at Daddy’s face. Daddy threw up both of his hands to keep it away.
“Don’t your remember anything Daddy?”
“No I don’t Paul. I really don’t.”
Paul raised the straw over Daddy’s hands and touched his head.
“No Paul! Please!”
Paul could see Daddy was frightened. It made him smile.
Well something really weird is going on in that Edward Burra painting