Bare feet and new leather shoes were a mistake that he would later come to cherish. At the time, as the blisters formed, he could see no virtue in his suffering. Pain was not the outcome he had been aiming for. Those shoes, tan leather with only three lace holes and a smart heel that clipped the pavement as he walked, had forced him to abandon lunches for a whole week. Well, it had been a choice between lunches and his Friday night down at the Fox and Grapes and a man has to have some pleasures in life. But he’d invested more than simple cash in them; they were his great hope in a box, and there they were not a mile from his home, grinding his hope into his heels.
It was the lace holes that had sold him on them in the end. Three was her lucky number, he’d read it in an interview and if three was good enough for her then it was good enough for him. No matter that the five-hole version was cheaper and a better fit. The sacrifice was worth the initial sense of pride he’d felt as his feet tic-tacked along the pavement, perfectly presented, on the walk towards his goal. Walking was something Jonathan Asquith did a lot of; out of necessity rather than any environmental impulse. And so he walked towards her that evening, covering the languishing miles between his home and the theatre at a steady pace. He saw no need to ruin a good suit by sweating into it.
For a whole month those shoes had sat in their box, unworn but touched, daily. Every time his fingers rubbed across the softness of the leather (not nearly soft enough as he later discovered) a vivid image of how the night would go shifted reassuringly across his eyes, oozing through his finger tips, preparing the shoes for their role. Shrouded in the privacy of soft white tissue they had waited patiently for their debut.
Getting ready he had taken special care, everything pressed twice, even aftershave made an appearance, a small sample of something expensive he’d cajoled out of a tight-faced assistant in the department store. Unsure of where to put it he dabbed a little behind his ears, at his throat, under his arms and in a fit of wild hope around his groin. Better to be prepared he thought. Not that he considered her a woman of easy virtue. Lastly he lifted the shoes from the protection of the box with a reverence usually reserved for religious icons or small babies. To him they were the symbol of his success, a success not yet achieved admittedly, but they would take him to it in style. As a widely read man, he knew the power of appearance in the arena of romance.
Placing them on the cold lino of his bedroom floor he pondered the sock dilemma. He was a sensible man at heart who knew that socks and shoes went together. But a photo of a man, some director or other, posing with her on a lawn outside a grand home in the country, ankles crossed exposing the bare flesh beneath, plagued his judgement. Her eyes radiated pleasure in his company, one hand lightly resting on his knee. The socks were left forlornly balled up on the bed, abandoned in favour of her approval. No woman had ever looked at Jonathan in that way. If bare feet were all it took, he was willing to experiment.
Six weeks earlier he had found out she was appearing. Her smash play touring the country graced his small town with its tragi-comic presence. Soaking up the announcement his hands had shook as the realisation took hold that her flesh and blood would be surviving on the same air as him. Closing his eyes he savoured the luxury of seven whole days in her vicinity. Flickering beneath his lids her face encouraged his budding plan.
He’d decided immediately that he would be there on opening night. Not one moment of time could be neglected that offered the opportunity to bring them face to face. For five long years he had followed the ups and downs of her personal life, the happy tumble of her career. Each tiny detail absorbed into his blood stream, minnow like, quick and silver she flicked through his veins with a proprietary air. The lack of any real women in his life made it easy for her to take full possession.
A photo, signed, sent by her fan club, graced his bedside table. Framed in art deco silver, something he knew she had a passion for, it gazed on him as he slept and greeted him each morning, giving a subtle purpose to his days. He’d scoured every second hand shop and flea market within a ten-mile radius to find the ideal frame for her perfect face. Every hour of every day was whittling down the time to when that face would look at his and know – know that he was the missing slice to her otherwise ideal life. All he had to do in that time was prepare – be ready for her in that moment. And that time had finally come. She would be there, in his town, within his dreams reach.
watch them again and again. The freeze frame button got a lot of use as his collection grew. Oh he knew her intimately. Every nuance of every facial twitch, the unique language of her eyes, the coded messages in the timbre of her voice, nothing escaped his adoring attention.
And so he walked that night with a bouncing step. Proud in his outfit bought especially for her, right down to the underpants. He was ready for his moment. Ignoring the fight going on between the laced up leather and the skin living around his ankles he kept his pace steady – although fleetingly regretful at the socks sitting useless on his bed.
Walking to the theatre had been timed so that he would arrive shortly before the final curtain. No, he hadn’t bought a ticket. His money had been spent on getting his look just so, knowing that once they met he could sit in the wings and watch her every night, soaking her up from that privileged vantage. Besides, he wasn’t concerned with the actress; it was the person behind the charade that captivated him. He wasn’t really interested in all that make believe.
The plan was to wait at the stage door, to catch her coming out and introduce himself. After that, he knew precisely how it would go; she would ask him to join her for a drink. They would talk until the sun came up. And he’d only return home to pack his things the next day before slipping into her existence as easily as she slunk on one of her furs.
The moon was half in, half out, a diplomatic light urging him forwards without making any promises. Straining to catch a star in the blue-blackness he was disappointed to find only shifting clouds. Hoping it wasn’t a bad sign he ploughed on. Originally he’d planned to arrive bearing flowers but decided that was too corny, besides which he knew she suffered from hay fever. Instead he carried nothing, he was going to give her a lifetime and that should be enough for any woman. He continued left-right, left-right towards the theatre as his feet reluctantly surrendered to the leather. To distract from this agony he went over and over in his mind the opening conversation they would share. The first words were crucial. For days he had practised in front of the mirror, ‘Hello Miss Moorefield, Jonathan Asquith, pleased to meet you,’ with his hand outstretched politely, ready to take hers. Keeping it simple he felt would give him more credibility, no gushing about being her greatest fan, everyone said that sort of thing. No, he was going to greet her like he would someone at a business meeting, respectful but firm.
A slight limp formed as he continued on his way, yet disappointment in the shoes performance bit harder than the leather into his skin. He carried on regardless, hope lodged like an infection in his chest, encouraged by the unseasonably warm evening air. Chin thrust out, he had a smile for everyone, although it was harder and harder to keep the smile from forming into a grimace as the shoes ate away at his feet. He even allowed a niggling doubt to enter his head as to the wisdom of socks with no shoes – but no – it was a thought that could not be given room to grow. At this point, her preferences ruled. Still, perhaps once they were together he could slyly start wearing the odd pair of socks; sneak a little practicality into her mix of glamour.
Finally he reached the hallowed pavements of the theatre, where her happily intact feet had trodden only hours before. Staring transfixed at the slabs of stone beneath him he wondered exactly where her shoe had fallen with each step. If he could, he would have echoed her steps precisely, fast-forwarding the moment of actual contact. Round the back the surprisingly seedy stage door entrance lacked the glamour of out front, no shiny paint, and only one big bulb in place of the hundreds making a sunburst of the theatre facade. He preferred it that way.
Only a handful of people milled around waiting for the door to abracadabra open and sprinkle some stardust onto the tired old street. That morning he’d phoned to check when the play would finish and was there with a good ten minutes to spare. Prepared in case she escaped immediately after curtain calls. Other people had obviously had the same idea, but unlike him, they clutched photos and magazines, cameras and old programmes. Haughtily he dismissed them as clinging fans, desperate only for a brush with fame. Whereas he was there for the lady herself and he wouldn’t care if she never appeared again in a play, film or magazine. He’d almost prefer it if she didn’t.
Placing some distance between him and the others he sat down on a step with a view to the door and gratefully took the weight from his feet. He would let the celebrity hounds go first. Although a mild evening, the hard concrete of the step was cold. He shifted trying to avoid the numbness building in his behind. In doing so the shoes jabbed deeply into his heel, releasing an involuntary ‘ouch’ from his lips. Damn the stupid shoes with their three miserly holes he inwardly cursed. And damn that director with his aversion to socks too. He was so close to her now and yet for the first time in five years he entertained the thought that perhaps he existed for something other than the dream of her. Was she really worth crippling himself over he wondered?
Unable to bear the discomfort a moment longer the shoes came off with a sigh of relief. Blood dripped slowly from his heels. The night air stung at the exposed raw skin with the irrational aggression of a horde of angry autumn wasps. Throbbing with the relief of freedom, his escaped feet seemed to double in size. He feared he would never get the damn things back on again and he could not present himself to her bare footed. That would be madness. Time would not deliver her to him twice; he knew that, he must speak with her tonight, fully shod. Grimacing he struggled to squeeze a shoe back on, doing a passing impression of one of Cinderella’s ugly sisters in the attempt. Recalling an old army tip his dad had taught him, he hunted through his pockets for a bit of card, anything to form a barrier between his wounded flesh and the vicious leather.
‘Excuse me, would this help?’ a tar edged voice offered, looming as if from nowhere. In an outstretched palm sat a box of plasters. The hand belonged to a woman, her face was hard, slightly defensive, but her eyes betrayed the kindness her gesture confirmed. There was no memorabilia waiting to be immortalised and he wondered why she was there. Not that it mattered; the plasters were enough of a reason for him. Accepting them gratefully he felt compelled to chat, ‘Thank you, damn stupid idea to come out without socks eh?’ Laughing she agreed, although admitted it was a mistake she’d made more than once. ‘It’s only skin, it’ll heal all right…’ She was refreshingly no-nonsense in her choice of words and he liked the way her laugh lightly bridged the air between them, softening the tension that lurks between strangers. Both lingered in a moment of shy silence, unwilling to abandon the small spark of conversation that seemed to hint at more to come. She lit up a cigarette to prolong the encounter. Neither one noticed the stage door open.