I was looking for something for the office, something that implied control but not freak. Not that I believe a pair of shoes can reveal anything about anyone’s personality.
To get by, especially at work, I have to play the game, or at least appear to. Mostly I order whatever I need for this charade on the internet, to save the hassle of physically shopping. Unfortunately my feet, although a perfectly standard size five, are difficult to please. They have exaggerated arches and uncooperative bones that provoke chafing and blisters if not suitably housed. I need to do this the old-fashioned way.
Shoe shops used to be full of the scent of leather, and as hushed as a library. I’m not sure when this changed but when I entered Shoe You in the Tollgate Centre it smelled of plastic, sweat, and fake lavender. I squashed my distaste down. I’m not old enough to believe that all the best things are already in the past. Not yet.
I tried on a pair of black courts I suspected of being too high. Trying to move naturally, I took them for a walk over to the mirrors and circled the island of boxy seats. They looked smart enough but made me feel precarious, unbalanced.
‘They are so you,’ the assistant said, without inflection. Her elaborate eye make-up clashed with her grimy company shirt. The edge of a tattoo poked out from beneath her collar, a slender-tipped butterfly wing in dark cobalt. I checked her expression, hoping for sarcasm but detected only boredom. ‘Totally,’ she murmured, gazing into the middle distance and taking a nibble from the frayed skin around her thumb-nail.
Something felt wrong but it wasn’t only the shoes. I stared at the floor and the empty expanse of carpet. My shoes were gone; the shoes I’d walked in wearing, the ones I’d left right there, demurely drawn together next to the seats. Gone.
Apart from the bored assistant, there were few other people in the shop: a man in a suit trying on a pair of fur-lined moccasin slippers, a toddler flailing on the floor while his mother risked a black eye attempting to grip one foot and push a tiny Nike trainer onto it, a woman standing by a full-length mirror on the far side. She looked unremarkable in every way: mid-length brown hair clipped back from her face, nondescript mackintosh, black shoulder bag worn with the strap across her body, about my height and build. Just an ordinary everyday person, nothing special. I watched as she turned her back on the mirror to look over one shoulder then the other, twisting her calves this way and that. The shoes she had on were low and practical, a little worn, and unmistakably mine.
At first it seemed funny, if a little awkward. I smiled and hesitated over how best to approach her without causing embarrassment. Surely she must have noticed the shoes weren’t new? Perhaps she thought they were made to look that way: distressed, like pre-faded denim. I tried to catch the eye of the assistant but she was talking on the phone behind the counter. I was still dithering, running over possible opening lines in my head, when the woman walked straight out of the shop.
It was the calm way she did it that shocked me initially, left me gaping. I looked around, hoping for a witness, for corroboration, but it seemed nobody else had seen anything. I stood there, blinking in her wake for a couple of seconds before snapping to attention as if someone had shouted my name while I was half asleep. I crossed the threshold of the shop into the main concourse. ‘Oi! ’Scuse me!’ the assistant yelled, able to see me now I was leaving with goods I hadn’t paid for. Half a dozen heads turned in my direction. I kicked the shoes off and continued in my stockinged feet.
Visible through the beige nylon of my tights, my toes were horribly defenceless: likely to be crushed under boots, run over by shopping trolleys, whacked with walking sticks, bitten by dogs. I felt stricken by a sensation I had only experienced in those sweaty, shameful dreams of public exposure. And it wasn’t only the physical vulnerability. I realised people were averting their eyes from me, tugging their children closer. I had become someone out of control, possibly dangerous. A crazy shoeless woman.
The thief was almost out of sight, cutting through the crowd with long strides. I pursued her with a kind of skipping run which I hoped minimised the contact my feet had to make with the ground.
I had to catch her before she left the shopping centre. As we neared the sliding doors to the outside world, I saw it was still raining. My embarrassment evaporated, burned off by the rising heat of indignation. But still I didn’t shout out. I knew that yelling, combined with my display of shoeless derangement, would only appear even crazier. No one would help and in any case the woman would not stop. I had enough money to let her go, turn back, and buy a replacement pair of shoes, but my sense of outrage pushed me forwards.
The paved pathway around the side of the shopping centre was sheltered and dry but when she moved off across the car park, I paused. This was the point where I should turn back, I knew, but again I dismissed the possibility. The wet pavement felt coldly intimate against my unprotected soles. The feet of my tights blackened as dirty water crept between my toes but by this stage nothing could have stopped me.
I quickened my pace as she crossed the road but gained no ground on her. We continued, separate but together, joined by an invisible cord that neither lengthened nor shortened. I tried to picture her face, thinking that if I could remember what she looked like I would somehow understand her motives. But where her features should have been there was only a vague impression of a face – whatever it was that made her her was impossible to bring to mind. Whenever I came close, my recollection veered away as if repelled by an opposing magnetic charge.
I broke into a slow jog and she did the same. Without looking around she maintained the distance between us. The rain grew heavier, driving down in diagonal grey sheets. My fringe stuck in clumps to my forehead. I increased my pace and so did she. The race didn’t last long; I was out of shape. I stopped, pressed the heel of my hand into the stitch below my ribs, and sucked in air. The woman took advantage of the break to remove an umbrella from her handbag and put it up. I pushed the hair from my eyes and watched. She was toying with me. I started walking again and she set off too. We kept a slower pace this time. We walked, and we walked.
At some point the rain stopped and she folded her umbrella away. The sun came out, high and blind in a washed-out sky. We were passing through streets I no longer recognised, threading through the fringes of the city. The streets were hushed and an air of expectation hung over the houses. The glass in their windows flashed and glittered. There were no other pedestrians but even if there had been, I knew I couldn’t ask for help. The woman looked as composed and unremarkable as she had in the shop, whereas I was unkempt and sweating in my damp overcoat. Hoisting my bag over my shoulder, I removed it and slung it over my arm.
I lost track of how long we had been walking. It felt like hours, days. I should’ve turned back. I wasn’t especially attached to the shoes but it was no longer about them. I wanted to know why she had done it, why she was still doing it, but the distance between us remained. She was always just on the edge of disappearing from view. The sun grew hot and warmed the tarmac, releasing a heavy, oily smell. The soles of my tights wore right through, rolled up over my feet and encircled my ankles in ragged, bloody frills. I imagined the skin on the soles of my feet doing the same, the skin rupturing, peeling up and away from the flesh, leaving my feet a splayed mass of contracting muscle and bones. I pictured reaching down, grabbing hold of the loose flaps of skin at the ankle and pulling, rolling the skin up off the flesh of my legs, the thin connective tissue between skin and sinew like damp spider webs. In my imagination, I crossed my arms over and bunched the empty skin in my hands and tugged it up over my hips, like taking off a dress. I eased it over my shoulders and extracted my arms, my hands, each finger popping out as if released from a tight-fitting glove, leaving the complete skin draped around my neck in a heavy cowl. Finally, I dragged it over my head and dropped the whole lot in the gutter.
This scenario, this process, repeated over and over in my mind as I walked. It kept me going. There was comfort in the repetition and, with each reimagining, I refined the details: the delicate unfurling of the complicated areas between my legs, over my chest, around my mouth, the skin coming away in one unbroken piece. The satisfaction of that, like a single ribbon of apple peel. It began to seem real. I felt lighter, cleaner. The air on my exposed veins and blood vessels was cool and alive with something like electricity. I was pared down to my essentials, all branding removed. I was purely human.
How much better it would be. Better than any self-knowledge, to lose all concept, all memory of self, to lay that burden down, absolved of the responsibility. Here was an end to existence that was not death but a new kind of life. Life as a harmonious expression of a larger cosmic force that didn’t care about packaging.
And simply to keep walking, keep going, one step after another, feeling no pain. I glanced over my shoulder at the trail of footprints now drying to a dusky russet on the tarmac. They looked so old they reminded me of cave paintings and that idea seemed entirely fitting. If the first signs of individuality were hand prints, then it made sense that these footprints should mark my departure from identity; my exit from the stage of me.
We came to a bridge over a slow-moving river. The woman stopped on the far side. This could have been my opportunity to catch up and confront her. But now it no longer mattered. What need did I have for her, or what she had taken from me? I fixed my eyes on the horizon and let it draw me on, turning the world under my naked feet as I walked, rolling it gently from heel to toe. By the time I crossed the bridge and reached the place where she had stood, she was no more than a reflection dispersing in the water below.