by Anne Campbell
By the time my father had come home from the war—World War II that is—we knew he was never going to hold down a job and support us. Because of his mental state (“paranoid schizophrenia” my mum said), he not only made our lives miserable, but managed to put off anyone thinking of hiring him. He hadn’t even tried for the past two years and my mum was always nagging him to earn some money and buy us clothes or food. This time she said he’d do better to buy me shoes than spend a few pounds he’d get on junk.
My father got angry and said, “Put yer coat on. I’ll show her I can buy shoes.”
Now we were on our way to the shoe shop. He was marching ahead in his usual way, his chin in the air and his chest puffed out like a rooster. I was dragging along behind, worrying over what would happen when we got there. I wanted new shoes really badly— the ones with rung over heels and holes were my only pair—and the snarky remarks from the girls at school were worse than the damp feet. I’d been asking for a new pair for ages, although I felt guilty when Mum said, as usual, that there was no money and too many other things needed for my brother and the baby. She was right, but I still wanted them.
I would have given anything for shoes like the other girls at school had, light-weight ones that wouldn’t make my feet look big. I didn’t think we’d find them at the shoe shop in our pokey High Street, but I’d been afraid to suggest we take the train to the next town where they had more shoe shops; he might decide not to go at all. He might have what we called “some of his funny ideas” about trains, or about the next town. You never could tell.
When we got to the store I looked around carefully so he wouldn’t notice. They actually did have a few pairs of shoes that weren’t too bad, lightweight and fairly neat, even with the flat heels they made us wear with our school uniforms. That cheered me up a bit; maybe it would work out after all. If only they had some nice ones in my size…and if my father didn’t have any funny ideas about shoes. Better to not hope for much; then I wouldn’t be disappointed.
“I want some good strong shoes for her,” my father told the salesman. The man smiled and started to lead us to the ladies’ side of the shop, where they had shoes with high-heels and pointed toes and sandals that were mostly straps, along with the “sensible” kind of shoes I’d spotted.
Turning around slowly, I couldn’t help staring at the picture that filled up nearly all the back wall. There was a woman in what must have been a New Look suit. The jacket fit like a glove, she had a tiny waist and the full skirt came nearly down to her ankles. How I would have loved to look like that. Her ankles were thin as bird’s legs and her stockings were so sheer they must have been those new fifteen-denier nylons. As for her feet, they were tiny—about size four—like the feet on that top fashion model that all the girls at school wanted to be like! I knew I would never look like that, however hard I tried But decent shoes might help.
When I looked around for my father I saw him heading in the opposite direction. “No, we’ll look over here. These look as if they’ll last longer,” he said.
The salesman smiled even broader, I think he thought my father had made a mistake.
“Those are our men’s and boy’s lines, sir. The young lady would be better suited over here in our ladies’ department.”
I was just enjoying the “young lady” remark when my father said, “No, these will do.”
A big lump like a cannonball dropped down through my chest to my stomach and sat there. My father had picked out three or four gigantic heavy shoes, all black or dark brown and all with those thick soles with little lines along the edge that only men and boy’s shoes have. They all had six pairs of holes for laces, and even the worst girls’ shoes never had more than three or four. When he asked to see them in my size, the salesman looked upset, although he tried to hide it. I had to blink hard not to cry.
“We really do have some very well-made, durable styles in our ladies department. Perhaps something more suitable,” the salesman said.
But my father insisted, and after trying a few more times to change my father’s mind without losing his job, the poor salesman slipped one of the heavy boy’s shoes on my foot. He laced it up really carefully, as if he could make me feel better by being really gentle.
He tried hard, but my father had put on his grimmest face and refused to look at even the clumsiest girls’ styles. I didn’t say anything. It’s no use trying to get through to him, let alone talk him out of anything he’s set his mind on. I was hoping that somehow I could save my old shoes and keep on wearing them, or find some way to wear out the new pair really fast. If I walked to school and back every day and took long walks after school, it might only take a year. Maybe even less.
The salesman disappeared into the back room where they had all the boxes of shoes. I could see through the door that he was talking for a long while with an older man—you could tell by the way he listened carefully to him that the older man was probably the boss—and came back with the least horrible of the boy’s styles he’d shown us.
“This is a very well-made shoe, and a very good buy, sir. The manager reduced them in price just today.”
“Right,” said my father. “You can throw those old ones away and we’ll take three pairs of these new ones, in the size she’s wearing now and in the two next larger sizes—you’ll know what sizes she’ll grow into—she won’t need any new shoes for a while then.”
When we got home Mum looked at the shoes and said “Hmmmph,” but said nothing else. She must have thought it was too late to do anything. My father took out his shoe-mending kit and hampered twenty-six big metal studs into the sole of one of the smallest new shoes and twenty-three into the other. He had those shiny curved metal plates for the toes and heels too, but Mum said it was time for dinner, and after dinner he forgot.
When I wore the shoes to school the next day they banged and clanged on the floor and I got the usual remarks from the other girls:
“You sound like the whole British army regiment. We can always hear you coming, like a herd of thundering elephants.”
“You wouldn’t catch me in clodhoppers like that if I had feet as big as hers.”
“Why’d she get boys’ shoes?”
“And she’s got those studs in them too, that’s simply stupid!”
“My father bought them,” I said through gritted teeth, “and he put the studs in them, too. And he got two more pairs so I’ll never grow out of them.”
They went quiet then, horrorstruck, and left me alone after that.
My mum was able to get my brother to wear one pair, so I only had to go through two pairs. By then, I was fifteen and was working in Woolworth’s on Saturdays. The first thing I saved up for was a pair of ladies shoes. They were dark green, very smart, with low fronts; my first high-heels. I only got one-and-a-half-inch heels because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to walk in anything higher.
Soon after that, my father waas going downstairs after keeping us up half the night “ranting and raving” as we called it, all about just how evil we were and how we were plotting to kill him, and I’d just about had it. I reached for the first smooth hard thing I could find and hit him on the head. I’d gotten hold of one of my new shoes, and it hardly hurt him.
Next day my mum said, “Good thing it was the new shoes and not one of those others with the studs in; you could have gotten us all in real trouble with him.”
Born and raised in London, Anne Campbell worked as a fashion sketcher before immigrating to the States in her early twenties. She lived in California and New York before settling in Minnesota, where she has worked as a university lecturer and psychotherapist.
She has written a memoir and two novels. Her latest work, Ssylka; Exiled to Siberia is published through Amazon’s Createspace. Set between 1898-1905, it’s the story of a family of privileged political exiles coping with life in an isolated Siberian village.