A pair of empty boots sit waiting in a quiet lane. There is no one around. Cars pass steadily thirty yards away along the town road. But here in the lane you don’t really notice them. It’s out of the normal way.
I have already walked several miles to where the lane climbs steeply. It makes my chest wheeze, and sweat break out beneath my shirt. So I stop to breathe and to swig water. I lean against a mossy stone wall. And wonder about the boots.
They’re not new. Muddy toes and scuffed ankles, sandy coloured but with a darkening dampness dripping down towards the soles. Maybe they leak. But they’ve been set down with care not merely discarded. They are still a pair together, wearable, usable, recognisably what they are. They are not rubbish.
Are they forgotten? They weren’t here this morning when I walked my outward journey. But here they are on my way home lined up neatly, domestically like slippers. I want to try them on.
Would they walk me into the churchyard that I pass every day but never visit? Is that where their owner rests? Do they want to be reunited?
I imagine a Man sitting on a bench, smoking rollies and feeding the pigeons. He has a slight, hollow face that makes his eyes stand out. His gaze catches people from all directions but they hurry past with no time to spare.
He, of course, has all the time. From the pre-dawn chorus, through a golden sunrise to insects buzzing and the arrival of crows, investigating, probing the grass in purposeful teams – he has felt the whole summer morning.
The Man has lunch. A roll he fills with butter and jam.
A younger man, just a Lad, walks by slowly, turns round, walks back, pauses. Avoiding eye contact, he sits near the Man.
“Sorry to trouble you…”
“I haven’t got any money,” interrupts the Man.
“Do you want some?” laughs the Lad nervously, “if you help me, I could give you some.”
The Man is puzzled. No one has ever asked him that before. It feels strange, possibly dangerous. But he is intrigued. He doesn’t want money but he does want to know why the Lad is offering it.
The Lad nods to himself. He keeps his eyes fixed on the ground and breathes deeply before speaking.
“I’ve been told,” the Lad’s voice drops to a whisper, “that you can help find my dad’s ticket.”
“Yeah, lottery ticket.”
“Your dad’s lost his lottery ticket?”
“I’ve lost it.”
“Oh I see, and he wants it back?”
“I don’t know.”
The Lad edges close to the Man, whispering, “he passed on, you see.”
“After giving you his ticket?” the Man starts paying attention.
“Not really, but I need to find it. His number have come up.”
“Are you sure?”
“He always did the same numbers.”
“So that’s where your money is coming from.”
“Yes! If I find his ticket for him, he’ll win the jackpot.”
“I see,” encourages the Man, “so your dad didn’t tell you where he put his ticket and then he passed on. He didn’t have it in his pocket did he?”
“Maybe,” shrugs the Lad.
“Did you check?”
“No. No point. His numbers hadn’t come up then, had they.”
“When was that?”
“Twenty-first of October, two years ago. Now he’s over there,” the Lad points firmly to a row of modern, granite gravestones twinkling in the sunlight, “that’s why you can help me. Because you’re the churchyard Man.”
Of course the Man knows that whatever he does, he mustn’t find the ticket. It would end up breaking the Lad’s heart. But he does walk over to the grave, look and poke around as if he is one of the crows.
“It’s not here,” the Man concludes.
“Where is it then?” the Lad exclaims.
“We need to look for it,” insists the Lad.
So they tour the churchyard, rummaging and sifting through bushes and flowers, and lifting candleholders to see if there is a ticket beneath.
But there was no ticket in the churchyard. They had to look further afield.
Winding down from the lane is another lane, narrow, at every turn seeming to plunge into a tangle of hedge and bramble.
The Man leads. The Lad follows even though he already knows exactly where they are going. His heart beats stronger. But his eyes are still fixed to the ground. He is desperate to somehow find the ticket without going where they are going.
Goose feather, white and silver, lie in drifts on the shore. As if a whole flock was skinny dipping in the river. The water is nearly still, just the occasional stray feather drifting downstream to show the way to the sea.
“We need to swim,” asserts the Man softly, “take-off your shoes.”
The Lad struggles to untie his laces with trembling hands. Nothing is in focus, the know an intractable blur, his fingers numb. The Man slips his own Boots off and now gently unpicks the Lad’s shoelaces.
Looking up for a paused second, the Lad glimpses the secret Island where men found dad. The trees sway in a shiver of wind, branches reaching out across the water.
The Lad swims blind, eyes tight, muscles tense and awkward. But still he swims. And swims long enough to collide with the Island jetty. His hands slap against a rough wooden stake which takes skin off palm and knuckle. They sting like tears.
On the island is a derelict boathouse, built from the same rough wood as the jetty. The Man wades through nettles and scrabbles away ivy to find an entrance. A pale blue boat sits as if untroubled by time. Taking hold of its mooring rope, the Man leads it from the muddy dock-pool to the edge of the river.
The Lad watches.
The Man has never raised a sail before. He is a churchyard Man, not born to be a boatman. It is hard work but sometimes you must transform yourself for the sake of another human being. This struggle has to be won, the wind has to be met. With one foot in the boat, the Man pushes off with the other.
“You go home son, see that your mum’s okay. I’ll head down to the coast to find your ticket.”
And with that the wind takes hold of the sail and eases the boat downstream. The Lad stands waving. The Man tacks round a bend in the river and out of view behind overhanging willows. The Lad continues to stand, eyes wide open.
After a while, he swims back to shore at the point where the Man’s boots lie. The Lad picks them up carefully, tenderly. But he doesn’t want to keep them – just to return them. He hurries back, laces untied, to the churchyard as if the Man might be there waiting for them and places the boots near the gate so they can’t be missed.
The Lad begins a slow, thoughtful, vital walk home without looking back.
I don’t know what the river knows. It will take a lot of time to find out and right now I don’t have that much time. So I continue walking up the lane.
After not many steps, a young woman comes running after me. She is propelling a pushchair with a little girl who is swinging her legs with wild eyed excitement at going so fast up the slope. But that is not why her mum is running.
“I think you’ve forgotten your boots,” she says to me.
“Thank you, but they’re not mine. I hope their owner will be back for them soon.”