“Little Brown Shoe”

– Grace Phelan

A string of blue flashing lights in the centre of the road alerted Josephine to the checkpoint ahead. A squad car and an army jeep blocked both lanes of the road. She dipped her headlights as she braked heavily. Once she safely came to a halt, she turned off the radio and wound down the window. She’d had a drink earlier and her tax was out of date by a few weeks, but she knew that she would get away with both, given the circumstances.

“Is there a problem, Garda?” she asked, turning off the squeaking windscreen wipers. She constantly forgot to replace them.

“You’re entering the evacuation zone,” replied the guard. He squatted and their heads became level.

“I have to pick up my father. He lives on a farm about five minutes away.”

“You’re cutting it fine, the hurricane is going to hit within an hour and a half.”

She used an old sock to wipe the spray of rain from the steering wheel and the dashboard. “I’ll be up and back within fifteen minutes. I promise.”

He signalled to his colleague to move the squad car. “Okay, take it easy. The last thing you need is a blowout from hitting a pothole at the speed you were doing.”

The two soldiers returned her nod and continued their chatting and laughing while standing inches from the front of their vehicle, not even leaning against it. They seemed to be immune to the rain and to the pressures of an imminent emergency. Josephine envied them, wishing that she could embrace the present, no matter how dire or hopeless. Perhaps she would do that charity skydive a friend recommended after all. The high probability of having a clear, adrenaline-fuelled mind during those forty seconds would certainly entice her to jump from a plane. But perhaps she wouldn’t have to. Maybe her father would soon tell her something that would put her tormented mind at ease.

She turned the radio back on. She’d been listening to static since she lost the local station about ten miles back. It was easier to listen to than the evacuation order which played on a loop. A station playing jazz music was about half a megahertz away. The odd bar or two was becoming bolder with its intrusions. As she approached the turn off, the static was replaced by drums, a double bass and a piano. No melody. To her ears it was as chaotic as the static.

Once she left the main road the potholes became deeper, the rocks more abundant and lonely clumps of grass replaced the road markings. She dodged what she could, anticipating the peak of the hill ahead which was the frontier between this no man’s land which the county council abandoned years ago and her parents’ tarmacked driveway. She stopped on this crest and reached for a bottle of water, blaming the rain for making her thirsty. To her left was a narrow lane which led to her father’s fields where the dairy cows grazed. A little further ahead was the entrance to the boggy land that her father complained about being ‘more trouble than it’s worth’ when she was a child. If he wasn’t firing off a few shots to scare off misinformed trespassers who thought they could steal some turf here, he was hauling calves out of the seasonal lake. He eventually heeded his wife’s advice by building ten foot walls around the area. He then offloaded the key to its only gate and all the responsibility that went with it into her palm.

“Make sure you find out what plants will take to the soil before you pay for them,” he’d said with a wink.

“My own secret garden!” she’d said.

“Shush or it won’t be a secret garden for long.”

There was a large tree stump ahead on her right. She’d last been here during the summer. There’d been a row. Perhaps she had caused her temperamental father to pick up the axe. It had been a large sycamore tree, he couldn’t have hacked it down to a stump in one session. At least one of her five brothers must have witnessed these butcherings. But they wouldn’t dare mention her father and the tree in the same sentence for fear that it would remind her about something that she constantly thought of.

Her memories of that tree were as plentiful as its leaves. From playing with the helicopter seeds with her brothers to being marooned on a high branch until her father found her an hour later. She’d wanted to share the tree with her son, Jake. But it had grown too tall for anyone to climb. She’d had to think of some other way for him to play on it. Her father had come up with the solution—a tyre swing. She thought of how it soon became Jake’s favourite toy.

Snap out of it, she told herself, remembering that time was a luxury tonight, unlike the past three years when it seemed to stand still. She put the car into first gear and her overzealous feet caused a minor wheel spin. Her mother and each of her brothers and their wives had failed to persuade her father to leave the house. She’d told her mother that she was probably the only one who could get him to leave and that she’d give it a shot. But it was a lie. She couldn’t care less if he stayed in the house or not as long as he told her the truth before she left. Although she’d hate to have to tell her mother that her effort had failed. They still held hands at sixty years of age.

A gust of wind took the car door from Josephine’s grip and opened it further than its hinges were used to. After using both hands and her right hip to close it, she faced the front door to her parents’ house. There was no point in knocking as she could hear the television from the doorstep. She had a key but being a rare visitor, using it no longer seemed appropriate. She circled the house twice before deciding to have a walk around the farm. Procrastination came easy to her. It had taken three years and an oncoming hurricane for her to feel this determined to demand the truth from him. Once inside the house, she’d make it clear that she wasn’t here to persuade him to leave. All she wanted was to talk to him about what had happened that day.

Several sensor lights helped her navigate her way around the farm but the sea had always been more appealing to her. Using her phone as a torch, she walked towards the cliff edge. A strong gust forced her to sit down on one of the eighty-six mossy stone steps that descended to a small rocky beach. She didn’t dare go any further. It was the first area she had searched. The faint slam of the back door and gravel crunching under heavy boots brought her to her feet.

She waited outside the garage for him, knowing better than to approach him from behind, especially in a dark enclosed space. Years of working with farm machinery had dulled the sound of footsteps.

“Josephine, is that you?” asked John.

“Hi Dad,” she said, catching one end of her scarf which the wind had freed from the collar of her coat.

“Your mother just rang and told me to expect you. Go on into the house. I need to put these sandbags where they belong. I meant to do it earlier but I nodded off.”

“I’ll give you a hand. I can’t stay long.”

“They’re heavy, Josephine.”

She picked up one of the canvas sacks.

“Don’t hurt yourself, girl.”

She picked up a second one. “Where do you want them?”

Josephine sat down in the sitting room, while John moved his car into the garage. Nearly all of the furniture had been moved upstairs. Layers of plastic sheeting covered most of what remained. She pulled one of the curtains to the side and saw that he had covered the windows with cardboard and more plastic. A torch and a bottle of whiskey were in easy reach of the armchair. The barrel of a shotgun peeped out from beneath it. Aside from the hurricane preparations, she noticed other changes too. A warm shade of yellow paint replaced the dark floral wallpaper. There had been a photo of Jake, encircled with candles, on a small table in a corner of the room. She wondered if the shrine had been moved upstairs because of the storm or dismantled after the row. She hadn’t even made it past the front door that day. Her mother had assured her that it would only be the two of them in the house. But Josephine had rolled her eyes and taken two steps back when John answered the door.

“Just say it!” he had lost his temper because of her reaction.

“Relax, John,” his wife, Liz, had said, running from the kitchen. “Josephine, come back!” Liz was out the door now, barefooted, disappointed that her well-meaning plan was being perceived as an ambush.

“Just say it! You think I murdered him, don’t you? Just say it to my face. But you can’t, you’re too weak!”

I’m not weak, she repeated to herself now. He carried two mugs of tea into the sitting room, not noticing or not caring about a few drops splashing onto the plastic floor.

“Thanks,” she said, realising that he knew she’d decline if he’d asked her if she wanted any tea.

“You know, Gavin helped me fill those bags. He only carried one.”

“Gavin has a bad back.”

“I never wanted to call you Josephine.”

“Why not?”

“Well, you were born after your five brothers. I was convinced that you’d be a tomboy and that everyone would call you Joe. God, I was wrong.”

“I liked climbing trees.”

“Yes, you were good at that. I remember you went missing once but we knew you’d be either on the beach or up in the sycamore tree.” She looked away once he said ‘missing’. She crossed her arms and legs at ‘sycamore tree’. “We found you. Turned out you’d been stuck up in the tree for over an hour.”

“What happened to the tree?” she asked, making eye contact, pretending to be stronger than she felt. “The last time I saw him he was swinging from the tyre. I wasn’t going to let him out of the car but he insisted. All the dangers that go with farms and the coast and that rumoured paedophile priest up the road went through my mind. But then you came down the hill and said you’d watch him while I came up here to dye Mum’s hair and find Jake’s lunchbox. I remember looking at him in the rear-view mirror. He was gripping the rope with one hand and banging the other against his tiny little chest, pretending to be Tarzan. That’s the last image I have of him.”

The doorbell rang, followed by a few knocks. A voice she recognised and dreaded. Sergeant Bill McCarthy. His tone never changed, from when he’d tried to motivate the search team to when he’d informed her that he was calling off the search, after only a week. John walked him into the sitting room. He declined a seat and remained standing, with that voice it was the most he could do to inspire a sense of urgency.

“Josephine, how are ya?”

“The same as usual, thanks,” she smiled sarcastically. “How are your kids?”

“Grand thanks,” he replied, his eyes swiftly examining John’s storm preparations and narrowing at the shotgun barrel.

“So what brings you here?” John asked.

“You know very well.”

“You’re wasting your time. I’m not leaving my home.”

“Where’s Liz?” he asked.

“She’s at Josie’s apartment in the city.”

“Why aren’t you there?” Bill asked Josephine, who was still stunned from being called Josie for the first time in years.

“Mam sent me to do what you’re trying to.”

“Listen John, there’ll be no silly risks taken among the emergency services. There’ll be no one to help you until after the hurricane. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I do and I respect that. But I need to be close to my animals. They’re my livelihood and they’re vulnerable. Four of my cows are pregnant and I have six calves out there.”

“You really are a stubborn so and so, you know that?” said Bill. John shrugged his shoulders and stood up. They shook hands. “I better see you at Dennis’s sixtieth next weekend.”

“You will,” said John.

Bill patted him on the back and turned to Josephine on his way out, “You’d want to be on the motorway within the hour.”

“Pregnant cows,” Josephine began once the front door closed. “Calves. In November? Why would he pretend to believe you?”

“I suppose he doesn’t want to know the real reason why I won’t leave.” John glanced at his daughter, her eyebrows raised interrogatively, arms folded. He smiled at a plastic-covered photo of him and Liz on the mantelpiece and sighed. “You know, the longer I live, the more I risk losing her love. I know that angel doesn’t and has never loved me half as much as I love her.”

“That’s not true.”

“I don’t think she would’ve done it for me, Josie.”

“Done what?”

“You’re here now so I’ll tell you everything. But you must know, I wrote a letter for you a few months after Jake died. I instructed my solicitor to personally deliver it to you after my death.”

“What’s in the letter?”

“Everything. The truth.”

“Dad, I’m scared,” said Josephine, a swell of tears forming in her eyes. “I don’t know if I want to hear it anymore.”

“You need to hear it,” he said, dragging his chair closer to her. “I found Jake, dead, in the bog a week after they called off the search.” Josephine closed her eyes, squeezing the tears onto her cheeks. “He’d drowned in the lake—well, it was more of a pond when I found him. I honestly believe that the heat wave was a factor in them calling off the search so soon.”

Josephine shook her head from side to side. “Mum always locked the gate behind her. In your statement you said that you found the gate locked.”

“I didn’t think that detail mattered. The gate had been closed but not locked. Jake knew he wasn’t supposed to be in there. I honestly didn’t think that he went in there. I searched everywhere for him before the guards arrived. I checked the bog. I didn’t want your mother worrying and being hard on herself for not locking the gate. That’s why I lied.”

“What happened then?” she asked.

“It wasn’t long after dawn when I found him. I had a few hours before your mother would get up. I guess I spent an hour with him, whispering, praying, trying to decide what to do. I went back to the house at one point. I picked up the phone to ring the guards but I just couldn’t do it. I’d lost Jake and I knew that I was losing you. I couldn’t lose my wife too. She’d never forgive herself. Never. It would have destroyed her.” Josephine lowered her chin in agreement. “I put the receiver down and I got a bottle of holy water. I carried him down to the beach. I thought about leaving him there. I wish I had. But instead I rowed out to sea, not too far. I blessed us both with holy water, I said a prayer, I removed one of his little brown shoes and I,” he paused to swallow, “and I lowered him into the water.”

“And you planted the shoe on the beach.”

“Three days later. I wanted to give the sea some time to bring the body ashore. But the coastal search only resumed for a few days and as you know, it was bloody useless. Almost as useless as the search of the bog. Of course, if they knew it hadn’t been locked, they would’ve searched it properly. I’m no fisherman but I thought I understood the currents better. I’m sorry, Josephine. Jake deserved a proper burial, not for one of his shoes to be put in a four foot coffin. And you deserved the truth from the start. I just didn’t trust that you’d keep it to yourself.”

“And what makes you think that I’ll keep it to myself now?”

“Because I’m going to die tonight. You’re not going to reveal something like this to a grieving widow.”

Josephine looked at her knees, “You know me.”

“You better go. She’ll be worried.”

He walked her to the doorstep and asked her to push the sandbags against the door once he’d closed it. There were no hugs or goodbyes. She pulled the car door open against the wind’s wishes, barely noticing its weight in light of a heavy truth. She closed it and took another look at the house. It was highly possible that she would never again see the house like that. She shuddered as she realised that she had just sealed her father’s coffin shut with a few sandbags. She thought about what he had spared her mother from and wondered if her ex-husband would have done the same for her. Not a chance, she thought, wishing that she would soon find someone who would. She marched back to the house and opened the door with her key. John met her in the hallway with eager eyes.

“Come on, Dad, let’s go.”

“But why, Josie?”

“Because you always do the right thing.”

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