There was the shop sign just as I remembered it as a child. I must have come here with my father, though I have no specific memory of being here with him, or of walking this particular stone alleyway north of the river. The board was fashioned in the shape of an old cavalier boot, the kind you might see in the cinema version of the Three Musketeers. Above and along the eyelets was the name O’Kelly and near the instep a date, too faded to read.

           The little bell released its tinkle as the door opened in. Two chairs and a small square table between them lay in the light from the window but the place was cramped and sullen. The wooden counter running the width of the shop was tall, no doubt to accommodate the many shelves on the shoemaker’s side for the odds and ends underneath the countertop. And rising up from behind it was the old man himself appearing from the gloom, his face grey with stubble, and salt and pepper sideburns, and bristles out his ears the same. He didn’t say a word but may have raised his eyebrows behind his thick glasses which obscured his eyes almost entirely.

           Perhaps he uttered a question or perhaps it was just a “Hmm?” I was struggling to see his eyes in the dim and to press forward with the task, I lifted my sack up onto the counter like a fisherman offering his morning catch to a fishmonger.

           “Sandals,” I said and extracted them from the canvas. His eyes were sharper now, beady black peering down at the tangle of straps and soles. “This bit here…” I prodded my finger at a weathered loop of leather meant to secure the big toe separate from the other toes but which had torn loose. The shoemaker’s hands reached down and took up the sandals gently like they might have been museum artifacts. He cocked his head to the side as he turned them over examining their soles, scanning for wear and perhaps, as all shoemakers must do, estimating the peculiar gait of the owner.

           “I haven’t worn them in a long while,” I offered.

           I’d been back in town a fortnight having taken a ferry ride over from Liverpool. My mother had reminded me of this place after I rediscovered the worn out sandals in a box at the back of the hall closet. “Take them to O’Kelly,” she’d said. “Across the bridge, you’ll find it.”

           “Hmm, they need new heels, you see in here? And….” These were the first words from his mouth that I’d understood and I wanted to reply, but the shoemaker paused quite long, and I didn’t know what to say.

           “And they need some work on both sides.” He held the sandals in both hands just above the countertop and slowly raised his eyes from the sandals to my face and I understood the question I was supposed to ask.

           “Are they worth saving Mr. O’Kelly?”

           He took a while to reply and I thought perhaps the outing to this dreary little shop was for naught.

           “Where are they from?” he asked, peering closer down at them as if they were the strangest footwear he’d ever seen, caressing the fastenings and touching the patches at each heel where the pressure had compressed the cow skin into an entirely different substance.

           “Oh, they were a gift.”

           Twenty years ago, when my father returned from India, he went through Suez, and in Port Said or perhaps Alexandria he bought us all presents. The war was just over by the time he’d made it home in time for Christmas.

           “Egypt, I believe.”

           He nodded slightly. I’d thought they looked rather like women’s shoes, not something a colonial official brought home for his son. Indeed, I wondered if having to buy gifts for four women, my older sisters and my mother, had made him forget my gift, and yet they fit rather wonderfully. But I remember thinking from the look of them that unless cast to play one of the Disciples in the Christmas play it was impossible to imagine I’d ever have them strapped on beyond our doorstep.

           But I did wear them, and for several years. Each summer around the house, sometimes in the garden and to the bins in the alley, and even a few times along the towpath to the park to have a cigarette. But when I left home I’d left them behind, neglected and more worn out than I’d remembered.

           “Can you fix them then?”

           “Oh yes,” he said with a voice more robust than I’d have given him credit for ‘til now.

           The wind must have picked up as the shop window moaned underlining his answer. A shutter slammed, and banged a few times, perhaps at the window next door. The boot outside creaked and swayed back and forth like a pendulum, undulating the meager light coming in from the window.

           “How long do you have?”

           “I can come back at the end of the week, if that…”

           “No. I meant do you have time now? I can repair them now if you’d like.”

           “Ah,” and I turned and saw the chair crammed in the corner, the little black leather cushion upholstery with heavy brass tacks. “Yes, alright.” And just as I managed to sit down, wrapping my legs around the table leg, the wind outside blew up again, this time the moans turned to whistles and then what sounded like rocks clattered onto the roof toward the back of O’Kelly’s shop. He didn’t look up or seem to notice until I pointed out the noise when it came a second time, like grapeshot from a musket.

           “Acorns,” he said summarily. I nodded, not quite knowing where he was headed by that remark.

           “You know the wind is strong this time of year if you hear them land like that. The boys over near the churchyard will sweep them up. Sell them to the pig farmers out by Drumcondra.”

           O’Kelly was making a tapping sound of his own now but seated on the other side of the counter I couldn’t make out much more than the top of his gray head. Straightening up I could manage to see his bushy eyebrows behind the top of his glasses, his head down at his work.

           “An American oak, they say. Planted by Owen Aherne after his return from over there in the last century.” O’Kelly laughed to himself. “They called him ‘Amen Aherne’ he’d come back so devout. Said neither the steamship nor the famine could kill him but that the Americans nearly did. He’d been all over that continent, they say, shot at in seven states or more, it being too vast to be one country but somehow their Lincoln managed it. Brought back a small fortune. Investments in railroads and gave a handsome gift to the diocese up St. Michan’s. They let him plant his acorns in the corner of the churchyard. Three great giant oaks they are now.”

           Just then another blast of buckshot and whistling, and the wooden boot outside swung precariously near the window pane. "Acorns a plenty. The wind springs them loose this time of year and they let fly, out across the rooftops all the way down here to my back wall, they come. Hard as pebbles from the shore. But I scarcely notice them anymore except as a reminder of the season, a course, like a first frost or the departure of the Dunlins for higher ground. Do you know them?”

           I wasn’t sure. Who were the Dunlins? But I’d paused too long and he was off again.

           “There, now I’ll just add some support to this stitching at the heel,” and he rose and reached for his largest awl on the rack and sat back down and I could hear soft snipping and poking and the sound of what could even be feathers and cartilage.

           “Moccasins. That’s the kind of sandals people bring back from America. All the rage, as they say, even over here. Beaded ones with tassels, you know, and a bit of bone round the topline at the heel. Apparently down on Henry street two or three shops are selling them. Strange tastes these days.”

           A fourth blast of acorns clattered at the back of O’Kelly’s.

           “A course these won’t be any use to you this time of year, unless you live in Egypt. Planning a little migration to get away sounds like a good idea these days, what with that madman in Berlin and nobody worth a damn in London or Leinster House.”

           I think he may have paused here to see if I would rise to the bait—a foolish young sea trout flying to the surface to snag a line-hooked morsel casually dropped in the Liffey—and say something to defend de Valera or even Chamberlain.

           “There you are. Mister…?”


           “Hmm, I see. Courtois is it? Now was your father the eminent judge? I must see you in him now, yes indeed. He was an honorable man, good customer, you must know. How long have you been away? Ah, that’s quite a spell. Egypt?” and he laughed to see if I would too, and I told him my plans for the winter months.

           “No, I see, well these will be good no matter where you’re headed, but that fight in Spain isn’t going well so keep your head down there, Mr. Courtois, will you?”

           I told him I would and that as a reporter I’d hope not to catch a bullet, only stories. “Mind you don’t, Mr. Courtois, mind you don’t.”

           I paid and thanked him and wondered why I could have thought my time waiting for my sandals would be dreary.

           “A course you’re most welcome. Let me have that,” and he took the beleaguered canvas shopping bag. Wrapping brown paper around the shined-up sandals, slipped them into the sack and handed it over to me. His fingers held onto them just a fraction longer and he said, “But a war is no place or time for sandals so keep these for peacetime young man,” and he smiled wanly but this time I could see his full face behind his thick spectacles, a glint in his black agate eyes.

           “I will,” and I pulled open the door and a rush of wind came into the tiny shop. I turned to catch his eyes again and give a wave goodbye but he’d already vanished behind the tall counter and closing the door, over the sound of the wind, I could just barely hear the tinkle of the bell at the lintel.

July 04, 2020 22:30

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H. Lee Russell
19:53 Jul 16, 2020

I really enjoyed this story. Your use of description and imagery are superb. I could feel the wind shake the shop and hear every acorn clattering against the glass windows and the roof. The only thing that could use some improving are a few pieces of structuring, like replacing a comma with a period to separate sentences that are too long or joining dialogue coming from the same person into one sentence. Otherwise, this story was awesome, from story to tone to characters. I was completely immersed here. I can't wait to read more from you! ...


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J Acheson
22:46 Jul 04, 2020

Owen Aherne is the name of a character in a story by Wm. B. Yeats. This story takes place in Dublin.


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