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Fiction

Neil Leadbeater – fiction

Order Before Midnight For Next Day Delivery

Dummer had an eagle-eye to spot a good purchase. He had a lion’s heart and a nimble hand, was good at collecting bric-a-brac and all for a solid purpose.  Which is why one day when he clapped eyes on an old plaid shirt, a rake handle and a garden pole he got the idea of constructing something to scare away the crows in the cornfields at Badger. It didn’t take him long to make a burlap head. There were other possibilities which meant that he had to experiment with a number of different ideas – a pillow case half-filled with straw or a pumpkin from which he would carve out the facial features of a personality that would assume a life of its own.

Every scarecrow that he made – for it was now turning into a cottage industry – had its own personality. He gave them Shakespearean names and with them he realised a recreation of all the comedy of low-life direct from Shakespeare’s time.  He liked to pay attention to the facial features…would draw the eyes, nose and mouth using a black magic marker, cut out shapes from coloured felt and sew them on the eyes and nose, use coloured buttons for the eyes, a carrot for the nose, bits of pipe cleaner for the eyebrows and an old mop for the hair. The more dishevelled it was the better. Sometimes he would go for optional extras – a red bandana around the neck or a bright handkerchief spilling out of the breast pocket, an old pipe in the mouth, flowers in a hat. Individualism was a necessary part of it all. It was important that there were no look-alikes.

He dabbled in haberdashery. He had drawers full of caddis-ribbons (worsted tapes for garters), sleeve hands (cuffs for a sleeve), squares for covering the bosom, cony skins, laces, bugle bracelets, tight-fitting caps, plackets, aprons and skirt pockets….yes, some of his scarecrows were female.

He used a square to test the exactment of his work, a ruler of some kind, in particular, one made to measure a right angle. Indeed, it was said by all the local inhabitants that he did everything “by the square” meaning “with accuracy” or “precision.”

When the tape-recorders played, they resounded with the noise of black-letter ballads, organ grinders, pedlars songs…Autolycus’s lyrical accounts of retribution descending upon the heads of hard-hearted Hannahs.

Some of his creations were dressed in skins to resemble satyrs with tawny wrists and shaggy thighs. These figures were sufficiently scary to do the job remaining at rest. They were no longer leaping but he still managed to make them so that they looked as if they were full of gesture and swift motion but in reality they were just a jumble of still figures blown about by the wind.

The black scarecrows were known as “Ethiopians”.

He didn’t want the birds to get complacent. All he needed was a great deal of imagination, an electric drill, a screwdriver, a hammer, a pair of pliers, scissors and a needle and thread. That was the sum total of his workshop…that and the props and the old clothes. One thing they all had in common was the sign they held up on a plank of wood that ran from one outstretched arm to the other and read from left to right “Order Before Midnight for Next Day Delivery.” There was something theatrical about it. And it caught on.

Before long, farmers all over the countryside were wanting to buy these characters to place in their fields. There were a lot of birds about and there were a lot of crops. The two did not mix and one of them had to go.

The mobile ones were in great demand…also the ones that emitted sounds at regular intervals…tape-recordings of texts from Shakespeare. That would surely scare the birds. I can’t tell you everything. That would be giving away secrets. Some things you will have to guess. For example, we are never told what Florizel and Perdita had forgotten or what he said to her in Act IV Scene IV of The Winter’s Tale….or what Banquo said to Ross and Angus in Macbeth.

Standing out in the fields, miles from London, made a change from cony-catching, hanging around kiln-holes, gossip places, hovels. Larger than life characters like Falstaff, buzz-flies like Moth, ones who pretended towards the scholarly like Holofernes, ones who liked to police the fields like Dull, enjoyed their new-found life in the quietness of the fields. Even out there, in the sweltering sun, their inner meteorology was still the fog of London. They still thought honesty a fool. It made a change though, from robbing those listening to ballads. Resurrected, there was a part of them that still remembered all the tips in Greene’s Cony Catching pamphlets…especially the importance of working with a nip for it was in this way that they became acquainted with what they most desired. Their powers of observation were second to none. They spied what everyman had in his purse and in which sleeve or pocket he put it when they stood to hear the songs…in the same way, they spied every bird that came within their field to make off with corn seed. Autolycus will tell you what a fool honesty is. He of all people knew how to cut a purse from the front pocket of a pair of breeches.

Dummer’s next labour of love was Moth: He lavished straw, hay, leaves, grass clippings, wood chips and rags on him. They all went into his innards to puff out his stuffed shirt. He tried not to have favourites because they were all characters in their own right but it has to be said that, deep down, Moth was very special to him. What to call him was the biggest problem. He had so many names even though the plot was quite simple: my tender juvenal; my well-educated infant; my sweet invocation of a child; my tenderness of years; my handful of wit; my imp…He was a character full of paradox…the little Moth that played great Hercules…a character who got the better of his other fellows…especially the educated ones.

Falstaff, expansive around the waist, had his overalls tied with twine. Extra stuffing had been employed to give him a pot belly. Falstaff was a scarecrow fit for the company of a king in waiting. Dummer made him the epitome of the seedy underbelly of London society – a swaggering, laffing fellowe – the embodiment of a carefree wastrel, a kind of junkman’s obligato with old cigarette papers stuck to his pants and leaves strewn in his hair. All day long he would blink at the sun or be blown befuddled into a watery ditch clogged with autumn leaves. Winter’s were the worst…all that standing out in the wind and the rain. The sudden rush of air up his overalls was a shock to the system. It was like putting one’s hands into a Dyson airblade. The old work gloves barely kept his hands warm. If he could only make it to the telephone box for a little shelter and warmth.

On an off-day, when Dummer was not firing on all cylinders, he crated Dull. Dull was model number 4-21-12-12.  There was not much he could say about him for he was truly dull. His batteries were always running low which meant that he did not have the energy to police the fields or wave his constable’s baton at all the visiting crows. Whenever there was trouble, mole movements deep underground, bird trouble from the sky above, he failed to raise the alarm. The pee got stuck in his whistle. Indeed, many crows used his arms as resting posts. They were that comfortable with the law. Eventually, he had to be withdrawn from service.

Before his scarecrows left the barn, Dummer would give them an education. He taught them quarrelling lessons, devised duels with avian predators and offered instruction on how to conduct them in an orderly scarecrow fashion.

Mistress Quickly was his rag doll. She cut a pretty sight with her raggedy skirt blowing up a storm in the wind. His hempen homespun was the life and soul of her anatomy. These fields made a pleasant change from the Boar’s Tavern and all those women in green gowns. Pistol, the next scarecrow off the block, got a pleasant surprise when he saw her again. He thought his doll had died in the spital of a malady of France yet here she was, bright as a button and open for business as usual.

Holofernes was a stuffed shirt – a scarecrow full of his own scholarly notions. The size of his head was bigger than the rest and mainly full of air. Once he was out in the field, Dummer chuckled to himself at the thought of such a scholarly man lost for words. If he hadn’t spent so much time sewing up his mouth, he might yet have pronounced on all things worthy of speech. When the Ford tractor came into view, he imagined Holofernes giving a seminar to the birds: “Here comes an Antwerp, Belgium built Ford TW35 to plough our field. Observe how the 6.6-litre turbo inter-cooled diesel has been tuned to give more torque at lower engine revs, and how the new front axle driven by the shaft of the rear axle pinion gives a 50-degree turn.”  The birds wouldn’t pay the slightest bit of attention, preferring to fly in the tractor’s wake, grubbing as ever for worms.

Holofernes was the only one that let him down. He was too full of his own buffoonery and would have to go.  Dummer threw him into the ditch and vowed never to make another one like him again but Holofernes came back to life and Dummer had to eat his own words. It was possible that the wind had carried him, had got into his sails, or that children had moved him at some point…but it was beyond Dummer’s comprehension as to how the scarecrow had managed to stand up again in the neighbouring field. Holofernes had been too clever by half. Dummer treated him with some respect after that incident even though the birds continued to eat the crops at his feet. What can you do with a schoolmaster who thinks he knows everything? Dummer thought that the wind and the rain would drag him down but Holofernes would have none of it. He thrived in bad weather even though he was useless at his job.

Dummer tried some modifications. He fitted extra pieces of clothing in the hope that they would blow about more in the wind but even that didn’t work. They got tangled up as soon as his back was turned and did not sway about at all. In the end he decided that Holofernes was wired up wrongly – he was a square peg in a round hole – a one-off that had as much right to be in the field as any one of the other scarecrows but he was not for sale. If he let him loose on other farmer’s land, he could risk losing his business. What was the point of buying a scarecrow that could not scare away the birds?  He took down the sign and replaced it with another one that said “Not for Sale” – which had the unfortunate effect of elevating him to some kind of special status. Dummer spent a lot of time explaining that Holofernes was not for sale. Rather than let on that the product was useless, he simply said “I have grown rather fond of him and so I will not trade him in.” Holofernes lived to see another day and so did Dummer. They had this pact between them. “You keep quiet and I’ll keep quiet, and all will be well.”

 

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Neil Leadbeater is an author, editor, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books includeHoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey(Littoral Press, 2010), Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments(Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014) andFinding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017). He is a regular reviewer for several journals including Galatea Resurrects (A Poetry Engagement) (USA)and Write Out Loud (UK).  His work has been translated into Dutch, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

By Heavenly Flower Publishing

Bindweed Magazine publishes two anthologies each year: Midsummer Madness and Winter Wonderland. Bindweed is run as a not for profit, labour of love endeavour by an author/poet couple: Leilanie Stewart and Joseph Robert. Bindweed can be found at https://bindweedmagazine.wordpress.com

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