★ ★ ★ ★
The veins on his cheeks were a vivid blue and he reeked of stale sweat and rancid cheese. His mean, pinched features, knarled fingers and short, wiry frame were evidence that he was a survivor. He wore two jumpers, both with the elbows worn through, a tightly wrapped grey scarf and faded red woollen hat, with tufts of greasy white hair poking through. It may be that his looks caused people to be wary or that their wariness caused him to be brittle and reticent, but conversation was never comfortable for him or them. He was an unlikely shopkeeper.
He kept the shop just warm enough so ice did not form on the surfaces. There was a small wood burning stove in the middle of the room with as little coal as possible to keep it alight. At this time of year, the stove was failing to do its job. The front of the shop had pale green glass windows with a few items displayed, faded by the light. And because he could not sell them, he never changed the display. Around the other three sides of the room was an ebony counter with a hinged panel that lifted to allow him to pass through to the workshop and behind it were drawers in the same oppressively dark wood from floor to ceiling. A high rail bent evenly around the corners of the shop so a ladder could slide around the whole room. Every surface was polished smooth by years of wear. It was lit by a single oil lamp hanging from the ceiling near the shop door and giving off its own stench of burning whale oil.
A combination of the darkness, the cold and the shopkeeper’s demeanour meant that visitors, finished with their business, left as soon as possible, not stopping to pass the time of day or gossip about neighbours. Customers knew though that he was the most talented artisan of his generation and so business was good.
It was just before 6 o’clock and he had been considering his supper for an hour or so when the bell above the shop door chimed loudly and as he came through from the workshop, he first noticed the steam coming off a skinny youth bending towards the stove. Was it a girl? Snow still perched on her hair. Her grey and brown rags, posing as clothes were sodden. Her legs were bandaged where leggings should be and her feet slipped around in cracked and saturated clogs two sizes too big. He was about to shoo her out when she looked up and sideways at him and her smile staggered him. He was anticipating fear and apology. She was angelic, radiant. Her face reminded him of the painting of the Holy Virgin above the alter at St Gregory’s. He smiled back. A rarity. He was instantly enchanted.
His food was ready in the back room and without a word he brought her a steaming bowl of broth, a rough wooden spoon sticking out of it. It smelled of meat and onions and cabbage and the aroma filled the room. He held it in both hands and offered it to her with a small bow and she took it gracefully. She did not snatch. Without taking her eyes from his she acknowledged his bow with a small nod of her own. He then fetched a low three-legged stool from behind the counter and placed it gently before her as he passed to lock the front door, turning the sign to say ‘Closed’.
She sat, quietly eating the soup, savouring each small mouthful. He joined her in companionable silence watching her feed. Nothing was said.
Eventually she handed him back the empty bowl and as he turned to place it on the counter he heard her say ‘Thank you sir.’ These were the first words to pass between them and her voice was as perfect and light as her face. In a gentle voice he barely recognised as his own he asked:
‘And how can I help you young lady?’
‘I need your best dancing shoes.’
‘Need, eh? And why do you need them?’
‘Because with them I will become the finest dancer in the whole principality,’ and as she said this she looked directly into his eyes. This could have been confrontational but it was not. It was simply that she saw herself as his equal.
He enjoyed her smile, her composure and her confidence. He believed she could become a great dancer. Anyone can learn steps and moves and follow instructions, he thought, but she had something else too. She could be the object of love and admiration from those who had never met her, just as the statue of Aphrodite had excited men for generations. He could not take his eyes off her.
‘And how will you pay me?’ he enquired kindly.
‘You have a reputation for accepting “unorthodox” payment for your “special” shoes. And I know this is the only way I could obtain dancing shoes from the finest cobbler in the land’. The formality of her speech was inconsistent with her impression of dire poverty, but it only caused him to be intrigued further. This girl had a story; he knew it.
He smiled again, but the kindness and gentleness faded from his face as stark reality settled on him. The spell had been broken. He looked hard at her. His eyes narrowed as if he were stalking a deer with a crossbow and this was the moment just before he released the bolt into the unsuspecting doe’s heart.
‘You know the price?’
‘Yes’ she answered in a firm voice. He had anticipated at least a small tremble.
‘Tell me.’ He demanded.
‘After I have danced for a year and a day, you will come for my feet.’
‘That is right.’
‘I agree, but subject to one small request; when you have taken my feet, may I keep the shoes?’
He thought for a moment. No one had ever asked that before. What could any of them have possibly done with dancing shoes and no feet to put them on? But the shoes would be frayed and dirty and he could not sell them anyway and so he agreed. He spat on the palm of his scarred and rough hand and she did the same and pushed hers, soft and pink, towards him. He shook it so forcefully her shoulder was yanked up and down. The awful bargain was struck.
After an uncomfortable moment he finally looked away, dropped her hand and peered up at the hundreds of small drawers on the walls. Eventually his eyes stopped on a drawer at the very top in the corner of the room.
‘Red, I think,’ he said more to himself than the girl.
He marched to the ladder which had come to rest on the opposite side of the room and once in position beside it, he took a huge breath and shoved it with as much force as he had. The ladder swooshed around the room and came to a gentle stop perfectly placed under the drawer he had been staring at moments before.
He scuttled up with the swiftness and familiarity of a chimp in a circus and stretched up to the drawer. He slid it open it and lifted out a brown cardboard box tied neatly with hairy string. He then amazed the girl by holding on to one of the railings, the box in his other hand, and hopped so that both feet touched the sides of the ladder at the same time. The result was that he slid to the floor in a second, blowing mites into the light of the oil lamp hanging by the door.
Such was the old man’s disgust, he merely pushed the box at her. He could have fitted the shoes to her feet, but he could see her size and he knew his business. And something about the transaction had angered him. Was it that the love and admiration and the warmth he had felt for the poor girl had been broken? All she wanted from him were his special shoes and she was prepared, just like all the others, to sacrifice her feet. He knew the contract was wrong and made him sick, but he could not control his lust and anyway they all were complicit. He had wanted something different from this one. There was a hope. It was only for a short moment, but it had been real and she had taken that away. He felt like a betrayed lover. He knew she had not led him on. She had not done anything really, but her eyes had promised so much. The anger and sadness and the pain in his stomach were real though.
He knew he would not see her again until this time the following year. He stooped and unbolted the shop door. He looked and felt defeated by the transaction. As he pulled open the door he was helped by the wind and sleet as it blasted in, rocking the oil lamp, causing dancing shadows to dash about the room. The girl walked out and into the night with a straight back, head erect. He watched her from the doorway as far as the corner where she turned down a side street and was gone. She did not look back. As he closed the door, he leant down to re-bolt it but had no energy to straighten up, so, with his back resting on the door, he slid slowly to the floor, his chest heaving as he quietly sobbed. Nobody heard.
* * *
He knew the pattern and was not surprised to have heard nothing about her for the next three seasons. As winter growled back into their lives, he started to hear stories of a beautiful dancer who captivated everyone who saw her perform. It was not only her feet which moved in a blur of precision and speed, but the look on her face, and how every single man and woman who saw her thought she was dancing just for them. Men were embarrassed by their red faces as they left the theatres. They knew their wives could tell who they would be thinking about it in bed that night. But the wives too were consumed by thoughts of the girl.
Precisely one year and one day after her visit to the cobbler’s shop, the girl was to dance for the Crown Prince at the Royal Opera House. There was no greater privilege. This is what she had always dreamed of. The audience was aflutter. Those who had seen her before spoke so enthusiastically to those who had not, that the anticipation pulsated throughout the building. Stagehands, violinists and ticket sellers alike were eager to catch a glimpse of the girl who was already a legend. As the fine gentlemen and ladies took their seats and raised their opera glasses, they did not know whether they were more excited to finally see the new star, or to get home to share the highlights with their neighbours who were not fortunate enough to get tickets. What a wonderfully sweet advantage.
The lights dimmed, the chatter became a murmur and eventually a silence as the conductor raised his baton. No one dared breathe for a long second. The overture began on the gentle movement of the conductor’s arm with a single clarinet blowing a gypsy melody. Then another clarinet, and then violins. Musicians gradually joining the melody until finally the brass players blew and the hairs on everyone’s necks stood tall.
The curtains were pulled open and a spotlight caught her standing completely still while the music swirled around the auditorium. For an impossible instant she was perched on the points of the toes of one foot like a statue.
And then it happened; she exploded into a leap across the stage like a firecracker busting into light. She spun and swooped and jumped and then stopped completely still as the music paused, only her chest rising and falling from the effort. After three beats it started again, the orchestra and dancer in perfect unity.
The effect on those blessed to see her was the same as ever. Love, desire and admiration. She was dancing for him and for her. Alone.
It was like being caught in a breaking wave, they felt tumbled and upside down and disoriented, gasping for breath. And like being caught in a wave it lasted forever and was over in a moment. The curtains closed for the twelfth and final time; twelve ovations. She had made so many people ecstatic by her dancing. In this past year she had become familiar with the sensation and it was more profound than even post coital bliss. She was beatific. And adored. And now rich. All in one year and because of those red shoes.
A towel was dropped round her shoulders by a blushing stage hand and she pranced off the side of the stage and ran to her dressing room, filled with adrenaline and delight. As she pushed open the door with the silver star sparkling on it, she stopped. He was sitting facing the mirror. He looked up and they stared at each other in the reflection. On his lap was a small axe, the handle made of the same ebony as his shop and the metal made of purest silver. At his feet was a box also made of the dark wood. The lid was open and it was lined with the thickest blood red velvet.
‘How did you get in here?’ She was not panicked. She was merely interested, because she had left strict instructions that tonight no stage door johnnies were to be allowed to bring her flowers or champagne or jewellery.
‘Does it matter?’ he replied, coldly. ‘You know why I am here?’
‘I do. Let me help’
This last comment caught him. ‘Help.’ No one had ever offered to help before. He had seen tears, been deafened by shrieks, and watched horror and terror on their faces. He has had them begging to change the covenant. They did not believe he really would expect such payment. Not really. He had been attacked. He had been ambushed by the dancer’s friends. They had fled, but never far enough. He had always been paid in full.
She sat on a purple padded chair next to him and rolled down her stockings. Past her muscled, milky thighs, to her strong and supple knees. Now it is he who shrieked. He launched himself backwards, toppling his chair, dropping the axe and stumbling over the wooden box. As the scream descended into a groan, the girl unstrapped the timber legs, articulated ankles and wooden feet from the stumps below her knees and offered them to the cobbler, her lips stretched into a serene smile.
‘And I can keep the shoes, can’t I? she gently enquired.
Simon Fenton grew up in the city (London) but now lives in the country (West Berkshire) and is an employment lawyer. Simon has degrees and post graduate qualifications from universities in Birmingham, Cardiff and Leicester. He spends all day thinking, writing and dealing with conflict in his job and is kept sane by the constant presence in his office of his loyal cocker spaniel, Dusty.
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