Along the A40, between Stokenchurch and Studley Green, is an ash tree covered in shoes. There are plenty of theories as to why it is there, but no-one really knows for sure. Some say it’s a pagan ritual for fertility, or just youthful high spirits that have continued down the years. So far there have been three such trees, as one is cut down or taken by the wind, another appears. We may never know why, but against the odds the shoe tree remains, destined to live on in legend, each pair of shoes holding on to its own story. This is one of them.
‘You’ll never get them up there,’ Tim said. ‘It’s too high.’
‘It’ll be fine,’ Rob replied, although privately, he wasn’t so sure.
He was standing with Tim under an old ash tree on the A40. It was past midnight and the moon was bright. No-one was around. They weren’t likely to be at that time of night. It was just them, a bottle of Strongbow cider, their bikes chucked to one side on the pavement, and a pair of old work boots belonging to Rob’s dad.
Alfie had died a few weeks earlier, and it had hit Rob hard. He was close to his old man, and had been working for him as an apprentice at his builder’s firm since his 16th birthday. Alfie had set up the firm after coming out of the army, and he’d done very well, working constantly to give his four boys a decent living after he had gone.
But he was out of shape, and refused to give up the ciggies or the full English breakfasts. After a lifetime of hard work and unhealthy habits, it was inevitable that his heart would give out at some point. When he died, Rob’s eldest brother immediately took over the business.
An hour after they buried Alfie, he told Rob he had to “grow some balls.” It was then it hit Rob that all his protection had gone. He felt as naked as an unwilling streaker on the pitch on Cup Final day; terrified, exposed, thrown into the spotlight as people waited for him to fall on his face.
Rob took the cider from Tim and swigged at it. The bottle had been left over from the wake and had been hidden under Rob’s bed for the past few weeks. He knew his mum wouldn’t find it, and probably wouldn’t say anything even if she had.
She was good like that. Both his parents were. They had supported him through all the bullying at school, all the crap he had been given by his older brothers. They didn’t understand why he was like he was, but they accepted it, and loved him all the same.
He felt a stab of guilt. She didn’t want him to leave, but had accepted that he wanted to go to college. His life was being made a misery by his eldest brother, now his boss, and he wasn’t cut out for the building trade.
The next morning, he and Tim would be on the bus to London. They had found digs and would be living together, out in the big wide world. He had recently got into college, against all the odds. He was the first one to do so in the family, which only made him stand out even more.
‘You’re a queer one,’ his mother used to say when he was younger. And she had been right.
Shivering, he pulled his bomber jacket closer around him. Tim’s David Bowie tee-shirt gleamed in the moonlight, under his sheepskin coat. He looked like Marc Bolan with his curly black hair and dark, kohl-ringed eyes. Tim had far more courage than Rob did, walking around the village like that. He didn’t care what people said and knew how to throw a punch when it was needed. Rob wished he had half his courage, but right then, he sounded like his mother.
‘Why are we buggering about out here? I’m bloody freezing,’ Tim moaned. ‘If we miss that train tomorrow…’
‘We won’t. Stop whinging. You didn’t have to come out here.’
‘You knew I would, you rotten sod.’ Tim shoved him and Rob shoved back. They tussled until the beam from an approaching car appeared around the corner, and hid in the ditch until it had gone.
‘Get on with it then,’ Tim sighed. Rob picked up the boots. They felt heavy, tied together by the laces and bearing the hallmarks of Alfie’s trade; brick dust, cement, scuffs and scrapes. The leather was hard, the toes steel-capped.
Years before, Rob had painted “Dad’s Boots” on them in white emulsion so they were clearly identifiable in the jumble of shoes and boots that regularly adorned the back porch. Rob’s three strapping brothers were all labourers, so the fight to find two matching boots was a daily ritual.
At the time, Alfie had been as mad as a bull, threatening to tan Rob’s hide, but he couldn’t stay angry with his youngest son for long. Although he never admitted Rob’s idea had been a good one, he let him refresh the paint whenever it began to fade, and he never wore any others.
All the men in his family had feet way bigger than Rob’s. It was something else he was teased about every day. They’d called him Fairy Foot for years, abbreviated to Fairy once they knew what he was. His mum said they didn’t mean anything by it, but Rob knew better. Apart from his mum and dad, everyone else in the family treated him as if he was a freak.
And all of Rob’s workmates called him “Fairy” as well, teasing him about his fear of heights, telling him to use his invisible wings. They were always pulling his leg, sending him to the yard for “sky hooks” or a “long weight.” He fell for it every time, and the blokes at the yard would grinningly put him right.
Rob gritted his teeth and got on with it. He knew his dad had his back when it got too much. Alfie would tell them all to ease off a bit, and he never forced him to go up a ladder, but that was as far as his pandering went.
Although he never showed it, Rob knew he was disappointed. You couldn’t be a good builder if you couldn’t climb a bloody ladder, after all. Now his life was a daily trial of ribald comments and insults. Without Alfie to keep a lid on it, it was only going to get worse. He missed his dad with an ache that physically hurt; the shuffle of him taking off his boots when he came home, the smacking kiss on his mum’s cheek, the smell of Old Leather soap in the bathroom. Visiting a stone in a graveyard just wasn’t enough.
He stood at the bottom of the ash tree, staring up at the long-reaching branches. Then he bunched himself up and threw the boots. He and Tim dived out the way as they hurtled back down towards them. They had drunk enough to find it funny.
‘I’ll do it,’ Tim said, reaching for them.
‘Nah. I have to.’ Rob picked up the boots and threw them again. Not even close. There was only one thing for it.
‘I’m going up there.’
‘Don’t be daft. You hate heights.’
‘Yeah. That’s why I’ve gotta do it.’ It made perfect sense. It was the only tribute he could think of that would mean anything to him or his dad. He couldn’t bear to think of the boots going in the skip, where they were destined. He wanted them up there for all to see, to remember a good man and know that his queer son, who hated heights had put them there.
‘It’s a crazy idea,’ Tim persisted. Ignoring Tim’s protests, Rob scrambled through the hedge until he reached the bottom of the old ash. It stretched up, high above him. Tim followed.
‘Give me a leg up,’ Rob said. ‘I can make it to that branch at least.’
‘If you break your neck, I’ll have no-one to share digs with,’ Tim grumbled.
‘I’m not going to break my neck.’ Rob took the cider from him and drank some. Dutch Courage.
‘Daft bugger,’ Tim chided, swatting him. He was annoyed at Rob’s recklessness, but knew better than to stop him. He leaned down and made a stirrup for Rob’s foot, then propelled Rob up to the first sturdy branch.
The thick trunk was covered in ropes of ivy root, which helped Rob gain purchase as he made his way up.
‘Don’t look down,’ Tim called up.
‘It’s dark anyway, you moron,’ Rob called back. It was easier than he thought to get up to the branch he was aiming for. The boots were strung around his neck. He hoped they wouldn’t get caught and hang him by accident. His dad wouldn’t want to see him so soon in the afterlife.
‘Careful!’ Tim yelled as Rob stood up on a thick branch and inched his way along.
He wanted to put the boots somewhere obvious, so people could see them from the road, but not be able to get them. He didn’t want some little gobshite nicking them. The branch bounced as he moved gingerly along it, turning his legs to jelly.
‘That’s enough, lad,’ he heard his dad say. Wind blew through the leaves, making them flutter and rattle.
Reaching up, he hooked the boots firmly over another sturdy bough, round and around so they couldn’t be blown off or knocked down.
Just before he made his way back, he paused to stare out over the fields. The silver moonlight washed the surrounding countryside with a cleansing glow. Above, the stars travelled across the sky. One star was particularly large and bright, a planet no doubt, but Rob couldn’t help thinking it was his dad, beaming down at him.
‘Well done, boy,’ he heard him say. Rob knew that after this, he would never be afraid of anything again. Finally, he carefully inched his way back along the branch, and steadily made his way down.
Tim had spread their coats on the ground underneath the tree and was waiting with a celebratory smoke. Rob could see his dad’s boots, dangling for all to see, “Dad’s Boots” in white letters, knocked around and worn in, the perfect tribute to his old man. He took the cigarette from Tim and they smoked for a while.
‘Promise you’ll do that for me,’ Tim said quietly.
‘Don’t be daft. We’ll be old and creaky by the time you pop your clogs,’ Rob laughed.
Tim looked serious. ‘Promise.’
‘No need. We’re going to live for ever.’ As Rob said it, a shiver ran down his spine.
Years later, Rob drove back along the A40 with his partner, Scott. They were on a mission, to add another pair of shoes to his special tree. Scott held them on his lap, a pair of worn purple Doc Martins, the thin laces tied together.
Rob and Tim’s time up in London had been wild and carefree, yet had extracted a terrible price. Over the years, Rob had seen many friends fall by the wayside.
Tim had been last to succumb to HIV, after a battle that had lasted over a decade. Rob and Scott had looked after him in the last six months, and had been holding his hand when he died. Now they were about to fulfil one of his last requests.
It was midnight, and the moon was bright, just as it had been years before. He drove slowly, looking for the tree. It wouldn’t be hard to find, because it stood on its own, majestic and wide-spreading, yet he could not find it. Frost sparkled on the grass verges. The temperature said -1. The tree should have been easy to spot but it wasn’t.
At the Radnage junction, Rob turned the car and slowly retraced his journey, Scott staring intently out of the window. It wasn’t there. It had obviously been cut or had fallen down. Rob felt a wave of grief. He pulled over to one side of the road and stopped the car. With his head resting on the steering wheel, he sobbed. Tim had made him promise to hang his shoes on the tree. What was he going to do now?
‘Look.’ Scott gently shook his shoulder. He handed Rob a tissue and pointed out of the windscreen.
And there it was. Yet it was different. The original tree had been much bigger. This one still had some way to go before reaching true majesty, but it was still sturdy and high, with lots of branches, and they were all covered with boots and shoes.
Rob hurriedly removed his seatbelt and ran out of the car. He stared up at the tree with disbelief. His heart soared as he recognised his father’s boots, a little more weathered, the white writing on them faded to grey. Nearby were a pair of women’s walking shoes, the ones his late mother had always worn when walking the dog. With them were other pairs of shoes and boots of all sizes; children’s shoes, women’s shoes, men’s boots, sneakers and high heels, army boots, their stories unknown, all there as a form of remembrance for those lost.
‘You started something,’ Scott said, smiling,
Rob dashed the stupid tears away. There had been so many tears recently, and he needed to keep sharp so he didn’t break his neck. He took Tim’s DM’s from Scott and drew a deep breath. It was time to honour his friend.
He climbed, encumbered by the boots around his neck. As he inched his way along the branch, it creaked warningly. He wasn’t quite the slip of a thing he had been when he was 18, and these branches weren’t quite as supportive. Carefully, he put Tim’s boots where they could be seen by passers-by, before making his way back to the trunk. As he did so, he could hear their distant laughter, and smell cigarette smoke drifting on the breeze. He held onto the branch and closed his eyes, remembering for a moment his grief for both of his parents, and the exciting dangerous days afterwards, exploring what it meant to be young and gay in the 1970’s before it all came crashing down.
‘You’ve come home,’ he whispered, his breath dissolving into the cold night air.
After a while, he descended, down into Scott’s warm arms and they looked up once more at the tree of strangers, become family.