The toad-in-the-shoe post-it
The first sighting of the toad in the old slip-on loafers that my dad uses for gardening occurred towards the end of last summer. “I’VE GOT A TOAD LIVING IN MY SHOE,” he explained, getting straight to the point. “I’VE STUCK A POST-IT NOTE ON THE SHOE WITH ‘TOAD IN SHOE’ WRITTEN ON IT SO I DON’T FORGET.” Had it been made by most other parents, this might have seemed a fairly outlandish story, but, since it came from my mum and dad, I was unfazed by it.
Situated at the end of a grassy track in the North Nottinghamshire countryside, their garden is a haven for animal life, whether it’s the heron that constantly attempts to steal my dad’s beloved koi carp from his pond, next door’s spaniel standing sentry at the entrance to a marquee and proprietorially greeting the visitors to my mum’s garden sale, or the woodpecker who eats from their bird table and reportedly once prompted the life model at my mum’s drawing class to exclaim “Look! A puffin!”
Where my dad is concerned, though, I feel it’s more than just a typical case of wildlife being attracted to a garden jam-packed with flora, backing onto a meadow near a river. My dad and animals have a uniquely intense relationship. It sometimes almost seems that, because my dad is such a force of nature, they view him as one of their own, for better or for worse. This is perhaps most evident on the country walks my parents take. “YOUR MUM AND I STOPPED FOR A NAP IN A FIELD AND A COW LICKED ME,” he told me recently. “I THOUGHT IT WAS YOUR MUM KISSING ME BUT IT WAS A COW LICKING ME." For me, a dog or a horse in the countryside is just a soft friendly face to admire and say hello to in a pretend posh voice, but for my dad every one of them is a potential personality clash. “THAT HORSE IS A RIGHT YOB,” he will say. “WATCH OUT FOR IT.” Or: “WE GOT CHASED BY A LABRADOR LIKE THAT ONE THE OTHER DAY, SO BE CAREFUL.” Last summer, when the heron caught one of the koi, and dropped its corpse on the flagstones by the pond, he marked the occasion by drawing a murder scene-style outline of the koi’s body in chalk.
“I’VE PUT SOME NETTING OVER THE POND NOW,” he said. “IT’S REALLY ANNOYED AND SQUAWKS AT ME EVERY TIME IT FLIES OVER.”
My dad’s relationship with toads and frogs is far more amicable. Before the toad in the shoe, there was another toad that lived on his compost heap, which he would “TUCK IN” under a blanket in the evening as the nights drew in, and a frog that made friends with a mouse in the same corner of the porch where he keeps the toad shoes.
The toad took a break from living the shoes during last winter, but turned up again this May and set up residence in the shoes for the next three and a half months, except for the occasions when my dad was gardening, and a brief spell when it decided to occupy one of his running shoes instead. Of course, there is always the possibility that it was a different toad that had just heard on the toad grapevine that the loafers made comfortable accommodation. Nobody could say for sure.
When my parents visited me in Norfolk last week, my dad brought the gardening shoes with him. My parents only stayed for just over twenty-four hours, but in that time, my dad managed to cram in the same amount of exercise and anecdote as most almost-63 year-olds do into a whole fortnight. After ordering a new suit in a shop in the town of Holt at such extreme, indecisive length that the fitter admitted to him later on the phone that she had to “go upstairs and have a lie down and some ginger nuts” after he left, he demolished a whole chicken in the dining room of my local pub. After this, he drank a quarter of a bottle of whisky in my living room, and fell asleep halfway through telling my girlfriend a tale about the time in 1963 that his mate Mick Gallagher threw him into a hedge on the outskirts of Nottingham. Nonetheless, he was up before dawn the following morning, already throwing himself into the garden work we’d planned.
“I’VE BEEN UP SINCE FIVE,” he told me. My dad tells me he’s been up since five a lot, but in this case, the information was superfluous. I already knew he’d been up since five, as I’d been up since five too, having been woken up by the sound of him loudly clucking at next door’s chickens.
I looked at my cafetiere: in the bottom of it was a thick slick of coffee, suggesting my dad had done his usual routine of grinding five times the amount of beans that I normally do. In the Asterix comic books, Asterix’s friend Obelix has no need for the magic potion Asterix’s tribe drink, owing to having fallen into a cauldron of it as a baby. My theory is that a similar thing happened to my dad with an unusually large pot of coffee, meaning he now operates permanently on the level that most people would operate on after six or seven cups of the stuff.
It’s in the morning when this is most exhausting to deal with. “CAN YOU SWITCH ROLLING NEWS ON FOR ME?” he asked, as I shuffled into the kitchen, looking for a quiet place to get my head together for a taxing forthcoming day of tree-chopping, weeding and 1950s working-class storytelling. “HAVE YOU SEEN THE TROWEL ANYWHERE? WHY IS THAT LAMP THERE LIKE THAT? DID YOU KNOW I’M THE SAME AGE AS MARTIN AMIS? WHEN HE WAS LITTLE HE USED TO SEE HIS DAD SHARING PROFOUND THOUGHTS WITH PHILIP LARKIN. WHEN I WAS LITTLE I USED TO SEE MY UNCLE KEN SHARING SOME CHEESE WITH HIS ALSATIAN, BRUCE.” This would have all been discombobulating enough, but seeing a small toad hopping across the kitchen floor in the direction of my cats’ biscuit dispenser made it more so. “BLOOMIN’ ‘ECK,” said my dad, as my mum, my girlfriend and I watched the toad, dumbstruck. “IT MUST HAVE BEEN LONELY AND WANTED TO COME WITH US. IS IT OKAY IF I GARDEN IN MY PANTS?”
Later, after my mum and I had caught the toad and placed it in a damp corner just outside my conservatory, my mum would tell us that she was convinced that she’d checked the shoes thoroughly before leaving. Clearly, though, somewhere between then and the loading of the car, the toad had snuck back into the furthest recesses its favourite loafer, then, after its long journey, got a little peckish, and decided to check out its new environment.
We placed the shoes outside with it, but it didn’t return to them before my parents left. Four days on, I still find myself worrying about it fending for itself, 116 miles from home. What if it misses the spaniel, the koi and the three evil sister frogs who live under the rock by my parents’ pond?
Last night, I went outside and placed an old pair of my own loafers not far from the spot where I left it. My reasoning was that perhaps it was a rite of passage: at some point a man must let the toad who lived in his dad’s shoes live in his. They’re a little roomier than my dad’s, but in the eight years since I bought them, they’ve served me in a manner that’s belied their £18 price tag in the Next sale.
I don’t hold out much hope, but there are worse places for a stranded amphibian to set up home.
Read more stories about Tom's dad in his latest book, Talk To The Tail (Simon And Schuster, £8.99)
Read about Tom Cox's childhood holidays with his Loud Dad in the August issue of Saga Magazine.