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Echoes of a painful past

17 March 2011

Feet are all different, says the assistant, as a surprising encounter in a shoe shop changes the direction of Joan’s journey. A short story by Alice Bates

THE heel of Joan’s shoe snapped off as she hurried up the stairs of the Underground station. Joan always hurried, despite the fact that she always gave herself plenty of time, and was always early everywhere. She would have considered it unprofes­sional to do otherwise; and, in Joan’s book, that was simply unacceptable.

Joan was a punctilious woman. Her clothes were beautifully cut, ex­pen­sive, and perfectly pressed; she usually wore a slate-grey Jaeger suit with a silk blouse (today’s was a shade of green which exactly matched her eyes), silk stockings — she knew the places where you could still get those — and highly polished, black high-heeled shoes.

She said you could always tell a lady by her shoes. According to her definition, there weren’t many ladies amongst the women in the busy office where she worked, and she didn’t think much of them: lightweight girls, in her view, who didn’t take enough care.

Actually, they wouldn’t have spoken that highly of her, either, although Joan was the sort of woman everyone called upon when anything needed doing either immediately, or very well. She was infinitely dependable; but, as for the rest, there wasn’t much to like or dislike — she was private and quiet and didn’t join in.

Nobody knew anything about her personal life, not even her age: she could have been anything between 40 and 60. She was tall and bony and had that loose-limbed sort of body which should have been graceful, but there was a pinched fastidiousness about her which spoiled her movements. Nobody she worked with would have bothered to enquire why that was, but if anyone had asked Joan, she probably would have put it down to her feet.

JOAN hated her feet. They were ugly feet, and she was ashamed of them. The bones were squeezed together and they were disfigured by swollen bunions and callouses. She punished her feet by squeezing them into smart, shiny, high-heeled shoes, which she considered appropriate footwear for the legal profession, of which she was a proud represent­ative. And, since she scorned the modern fashion of “letting go” when at home, she wore them there, too.

So she was particularly irritated today as her feet let her down once again on the stairs up from the Tube platform.

“Damn!” Joan said, recovering her balance and picking up the offending heel. She was annoyed to see that part of the shoe itself had come away with it, so there was no possibility of repair. She hobbled up to street level and surveyed the shops opposite.

“Good thing I’ve got the time,” she thought, annoyance giving way for a moment to satisfaction as she con­tem­plated pointing this out to Margery at the office when she got back. Margery thought her time­keep­ing excessive, and said so. This was the perfect opportunity of proving Mar­gery wrong, and Joan felt a gleam of pleasurable antici­pation. Well, the brief she was de­livering was to one of their biggest clients; so what if she hadn’t allowed for emergencies?

As luck would have it, there was a shoe shop just across the road. It looked rather small and was clearly a private concern, but it would do, all the same.

ON ENTERING, she saw that it was, indeed, small inside. There was an older man who was serving a custo­mer, and a young man who came up to her enquiringly. Joan had rather hoped she might have been served by the older man — she wasn’t too fond of the young, especially of young men — but the older one was obviously busy, so she would have to make do with the other. She sighed. It was inconvenient; but although she had a few minutes, she certainly didn’t have all day to wait about.

“How may I help you?” asked the young man, courteously enough.

She gave him the broken shoe. “I’d like another pair like this, please, in a size seven.”

“Won’t you sit down?”

Surprised, she did as she was asked, and the young man knelt at once in front of her. “Would you mind if I looked at your feet?”

What an extraordinary question, she thought, surprise deepening into indignation. “That won’t be nece­ssary,” she said coldly, in a tone of voice that usually carried the last word. “I only want another pair like this.”

“I know,” he said, and smiled at her. His smile was disarming and utterly unexpected, and, despite herself, she looked at him fully for the first time.

He was fair and slight and spotty — totally unprepossessing, in fact — but he had not responded at all to her cutting tone, and, on the contrary, was still smiling at her, looking her fully in the eyes.

His eyes, she noticed, startled, were deep and warm, and just at present crinkled up in the smile, and really it was impossible not to smile back. She felt herself responding, tried not to, failed, and looked away. When she glanced back at him his face was in repose, and he was studying his hands.

HE RAISED his eyes, and said: “I know you’d like another pair like this, but if I might look at your feet I could give you some advice, perhaps.”

Joan was mistress of herself again, and cut him off smoothly. “No, thank you. Just let me have what I asked for.”

“Of course.” The young man got up at once and went off to the back of the shop. After less than the usual wait he returned carrying two long boxes, which he laid down on the floor beside her. Her attention was caught by the fluidity and gentleness of his movements. It struck her that he treated the shoes with reverence. Pull yourself together, she thought, what a silly idea.

He knelt in front of her, then opened the first box, lightly folding one sheet of tissue back on itself, then the other, and finally drawing out a glossy black high-heeled shoe — all but an exact replica of the one she was wearing.

“Yes, that’s it,” she said, eagerly.

The young man put the shoe down and put out his hand for her stockinged foot. She lifted it and as his fingers closed around it, she became aware of the oddest circumstance.

He was holding her foot lightly and firmly, but it was the peculiarity of the touch that unnerved her. What was it? It took her some moments to understand that what she was ex­peri­encing was, simply, tenderness.

Hot on the heels of that realisation was the knowledge that he was trying very hard not to gain by stealth what she had denied him: he was trying not to examine her foot, even though just the feel of it in his hand was telling him things, which he was trying not to process.

This exquisite courtesy was agony enough; but it was the tenderness which broke her. To her horror, she felt the reluctant tears coming and a sob rising in her throat. Panicking, she pretended to cough to cover the sob, and looked away, muttering idiot­i­cally, “You can look at it, if you want to.”

THE young man took her foot in both his hands and looked down at it. She kept her eyes shut because she was terrified that if she opened them, the tears would all spill out.

He cradled her foot in his hands, turning it very lightly this way and that, and although he neither stroked nor pressed it, she was more aware of his touch than she had ever been of any touch in her life. Astounded, she opened her eyes, groped for her handkerchief, mopped up, and then looked back at the young man. His head was bent over her foot.

“You see, I wonder whether — well, whether you were a younger child with lots of older brothers and sisters whose shoes you wore.” He shot her a glance, and, taking courage from the naked shock on her face, went on, “and therefore, you know, you didn’t choose your own shoes then; so it’s hard to do that now, and I expect you always go for the same ones. But, well, I imagine they hurt.”

Joan attempted to recover some dignity. She said in a voice that was only slightly strained, “But you always have to break in new shoes, don’t you?”

He smiled at her again, that cheerful, crinkly smile. “Actually no, not if they fit you well.” He lifted her foot a little, presenting it to her in his hands as if it weren’t her own. “Look, see how the bones are crushed together here? That’s because the shoes you wore as a child were too narrow. And here — these bunions are because of pressure, here and here . . .”

HE WENT on to list her foot’s many imperfections, but she wasn’t listening any more. Awash with pain and self-pity, she was remembering the crowded council house, the shoving and bullying, the endless hand-me-downs, the battered, broken shoes. “But Mum, they hurt!”

“Don’t be stupid, girl, they’re fine. Just need a bit of breaking in. Think of the little children who don’t have any shoes at all, and be grateful!”

The young man in the shoe shop pressed gently on the foot he was holding, to get Joan’s attention. Then he laid it gently back down on the floor.

“These black shoes are not made for feet like yours. They are . . .”

“Oh, I know!” said Joan, bitterly. “They’re for the people with the nice feet!”

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean that at all. I meant they are made for thin, narrow feet, which in fact are usually much weaker than yours.” He smiled at her, very gently. “You have strong feet with good arches. They would respond well to shoes that suited them. And you are already tall. You don’t need the height of the heels.”

“But these are the shoes I always wear, they suit what I do. . .”

She stopped. Really, she didn’t know what to say. She realised there was a lack of coherence between her words and the reality she was now experiencing, and she didn’t know how to bridge the gap. It was like trying to eat soup with a fork.

The young man picked up the other shoe box, and and took off the lid. “May I show you something I think might help?”

She nodded, and watched as he unfolded the tissue on each side and drew out a very different shoe. It was a deep bottle green; it had a short heel instead of the high ones she was used to; its lines were altogether softer, and it had a more rounded toe. It was a beautiful, and somehow a chaste, shoe.

Wordlessly, he held it out to her. She gave a sort of shrug. She felt as if all her usual perspectives had collapsed into a straight line, as if there was no height any more — nothing to take one’s bearings from. She held out her foot.

The young man took it, and slipped first that one, then the other, into the new green shoes. Then he rocked back on to his heels, looked up at her, and waited.

SHE had never felt so self-conscious before as she stood to walk in a new pair of shoes. She had never felt so young, or raw, or new. She had never had so little idea of what to feel. She thought: I have never begun before. She walked a few steps, aware that she was carrying herself differently. These shoes felt altogether unfamiliar, but she understood that they weren’t hurting her. Almost, she wasn’t sure how to walk. She came back and sat down.

“How do you feel?” asked the young man.


“Do the shoes hurt?”


He leaned forward, and very lightly touched one of the shoes. “Every step you take in your life, you take with your feet,” he said. “It’s really important that when you walk, your feet don’t hurt. Because if they do, every step you take will raise echoes of pain, won’t it?”

“It certainly will.” Joan looked at him. “It does. What makes you so — so wise?”

The boy grinned, suddenly looking very young. “Oh, I like feet,” he said simply. “Feet are really interesting. They are all different, nobody is like anybody else, we all have a different walk. Nobody can walk your walk like you.” And, this time, she smiled back at him. “Thank you,” she said.

This is an edited version of “The Echoes of Pain: Be kind”, from Desert Wells by Alice Bates (Darton, Longman & Todd, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-232-52790).

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