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Storyteller: The Shoe Tree

I'm in an awful writing slump. Despite having projects on the go that I'm really excited about, I just can't get anything done in them. So instead, I'm transcribing stories from a collection I've had - well, all my life; they were published when I was one and two years old.

I know they're not as good without the illustrations and the narration - they came with audio tapes - but I hope someone enjoys them a little.

John and Marion were watching their father dig the garden. It was hard work and after one very big spadeful he stood up straight and mopped his brow.

“Look, Daddy has dug up an old boot,” said Marion.

“What are you doing to do with it?” asked John.

“I’m going to bury it right here,” said Mr Martin. “There’s an old wives’ tale that says if you put an old shoe under a rhubarb plant it grows much better.”

Marion giggled. “Will the boot grow?”

“Well, if it does, we’ll have stewed boot for tea.” And he buried it.

Later in the spring, gales blew down the rhubarb and Mr Martin went to pick the broken stalks. He noticed a new plant growing in the rhubarb patch. He didn’t pull it up, though, because he wanted to find out what it was,

He looked through all his gardening books but he couldn’t find anything like it.

“I’ve never seen a plant like this before,” he told John and Marion.

It was a rather interesting plant, so although it had soon pushed away what was left of the rhubarb, the Martins left it to grow. It grew very well and by the following spring it was like a little tree, over a metre high. In the autumn greenish-white fruit appeared and very strange it was - all knobbly and funny shapes.

“That fruit reminds me of something,” said Mrs Martin. Soon afterwards she realised what it was. “It’s like boots - boots hanging up in pairs by their heel-tabs!”

“Did you say boots?” said Mrs Tripp, the next-door neighbour, peering over the garden wall.

“Yes, our tree’s growing boots!”

“Why, my young Bobby’s getting old enough for boots,” said Mrs Tripp. “Can I come over and have a look?”

“Of course. Come and see for yourself.”

Mrs Tripp came around with her baby in her arms and held him up under the tree, upside down. John and Marion held a pair of the fruit against his feet. “Not quite,” said John. “Why not come back tomorrow and see if they’ve grown any more.”

Mrs Tripp brought Bobby round the next day but the fruit was still too small. By the end of the next week, though, all the fruit was beginning to ripen to a shiny brown and one day a pair seemed just the right size for Bobby. So Marion picked them and Mrs Tripp put them on his feet. They were the perfect fit, and Bobby toddled up the garden path.

John and Martin told their parents about it, and Mr Martin said that anyone with babies who needed boots should come and pick a pair from the tree.

Everybody in the village soon heard about the amazing shoe tree and the next day there were crowds of women jostling through the garden gate with their children.Some lifted their babies up high so their little feet could be eased into the shoes to see if they fitted. Others helf their children upside down to measure their feet against the fruit. John and Marion picked those that were left over and laid them on the lawn so they could put them in matching pairs. Then the mothers who had come late sat down with the children on their laps and John and Marion went back and forth, bringing pairs to be tried on, until every child was fitted and every shoe fruit was taken. By the end of the day the tree was stripped bare.

One of the mothers, Mrs White, brought her triplets and fitted each one with a pair of shoe fruits. When she arrived home, she showed them to her husband.

“I got them free from the Martins’ tree,” she said. “Look, the skin’s tough like leather but inside it’s really soft so the shoes are good for children’s feet. Isn’t that clever?”

Mr White stared long and hard at his children’s feet. “Take those shoes off them,” he said at last. “I’ve got an idea.”

The next year the tree produced bigger fruit, and because the children’s feet had grown, they all found shoes to fit. And that’s what happened every year - the shoe fruit grew to match the growing feet of the children. Then, one year a huge sign appeared outside Mr White’s house: WHITE’S HOMEGROWN SHOES LIMITED, it read, in large brown letters.

“He’s been very secretive about that field at the back of his house,” Mr MArtin said to his family. “And now I see why. He’s planted all those shoes we’ve given his children in the past few years and now he’s got dozens of trees, the sly fox.”

“They say he’s going to make a fortune out of it,” said Mrs Martin bitterly.

It certainly seemed as if Mr White was going to make a lot of money. That autumn he hired three women to pick the shoes from the trees and sort them into different sizes. Then the shoes were wrapped in tissue paper, packed in boxes and sent to the nearest town to be sold at £5 a pair.

Mr Martin gazed out the window and he saw Mr White drive past in a brand new car. “I never thought of making money out of my tree.”

“You never have been much of a businessman, love,” said Mrs Martin kindly. “Anyway, I’m glad all the village children can have free shoes.”

One day John and Marion were walking in the field beside Mr White’s orchard. Mr White had built a high wall to keep people out, but on top of the wall a boy’s face suddenly appeared. It was their friend, Ricky. He lifted himself over the wall and jumped down beside John and Marion.

“Hello, Ricky,” said John. “What were you doing in Mr White’s garden?”

The boy grinned. “You’ll see.” And he ran about in the long grass, picking up shoe fruit until his arms were full. “They’re windfalls from the orchard. I threw them over the wall and I’m going to take them home to my Gran. She’s going to make another shoe fruit pie.”

“A pie?” said Marion. “I’ve never thought of eating it. What’s it like?”

“Well, the skin’s a bit too tough. But if you cook the insides with lots of sugar it’s very nice. My Gran makes lovely pies with it. Come round and have some if you like.”

So John and Marion helped Ricky carry his shoe fruit round to his grandmother’s caravan, and they all had a piece of her pie. It had a rich sweet taste, stronger than apples and very unusual. John and Marion thought it tasted lovely and when they went home they picked some of the fruit that was left on the tree in their garden.

“Let’s bake it,” said Marion. “I’ve just learned how to make baked apples at school.” Marion and John cooked their shoe fruit with raisins stuffed inside, and when their parents came home from work they served it up, topped with cream. Mr and Mrs Martin like the fruit as much as the children did. As he finished, Mr Martin began to chuckle. “Here, I’ve had a marvellous idea.”

The next day he drove his old car into town, the boot filled with boxes of shoe fruit. He stopped at the street market and spoke to a stall-holder. Then he began to unload the car. The stall-holder wrote something on a large sign and stuck it on his stall.

Soon a crowd of people had gathered around. “Look at that.” “Shoe fruit, twenty-five pence a pound.”

“I paid five pounds a pair for my boy,” said one woman. And she lifted up her child and pointed at the shoe fruit he was wearing. “Look, I paid five pounds for those at the shoe-shop. and here they are selling the same thing for twenty-five pence.”

“Only twenty-five pence a pound!” shouted the stall-holder. “Peel off the skins and eat the tasty flesh inside. Lovely in pies, baked or stewed.”

“Well, I certainly won’t go to the shoe-shop and pay five pounds again,” said another woman.

By the end of the day the stall-holder was very happy. Mr Martin had given him the fruit for nothing and now his wallet was bulging with money.

The next morning Mr Martin drove into town again. He saw the signs in the shoe-shop window that said: “White’s Natural Shoes - they grow with your children.” But new signs had been added underneath: ”Huge reductions! Prices down to 25p a pair!”

After that, everyone was happy: the village children still got their shoes free from the Martins’ tree and people in the town didn’t mind paying 25p a pair in the shoe-shops. And anyone could eat the fruit if they liked. Only Mr White wasn’t happy; he still sold some of his shoes, but he made less money than before.

“Do you think I should feel guilty about Mr White?” Mr Martin said to his wife.

“I don’t really think so. After all, fruit is for eating, isn’t it?”

“And anyway,” said Marion, “wasn’t that what you thought when you first buried that old boot? Don’t you remember - you promised us stewed boots for tea!”

Penny Ayers was following the local Cornish custom of burying an old boot under the rhubar when the idea came to her for a story.