She kept track of their ages through their shoe sizes. The boy – younger and one size smaller than his sister – was easier to satisfy. The choice of boys’ footwear was limited. For him, Gloria opted for sturdy and reliable. With the girl she took more time. A wider selection and a variable price range, it required greater deliberation. Butler’s had come highly recommended.
Gloria pushed the door open timidly. The loud tinkling of the bell startled her. She was unaccustomed to such shops. The room was smaller inside than what she had expected watching from across the street. The corners were dark though it was only mid-afternoon. The smells of leather and shoe polish caught in the back of her throat, for a moment. As her eyes became adjusted to the dim lighting, a smartly dressed salesman emerged from behind a heavy velvet curtain at the back of the room. He sported a dog-tooth blazer. The seam of his trousers was razor sharp and his brown Oxfords reflected the light from the overhead lamp near the front counter.
The salesman nodded politely and motioned Gloria towards a long leather bench where three other customers and a child were already seated. A man in a pin-striped suit sat at one end, half-hidden behind that day’s edition of The Financial Times. He barely glanced up leaving it to a middle-aged woman and a young girl, who seemed to be her daughter, to make space at the other end of the bench. They moved closer to a woman in a polka-dot dress. Gloria perched on the edge next to the girl who looked at her with the discomforting clear-eyed curiosity that only children have. It was late summer, still a couple of weeks before the start of school.
Gloria glanced around the room. Neat rows of boxes were stacked two to three high on heavy wooden shelves alongside a polished display of the shoes they contained. Children’s shoes occupied a shelf near the plate glass window. Girls shoes, Gloria observed, accounted for two-thirds of those stocked.
The lone salesman periodically disappeared behind the claret-coloured curtain, returning with more boxes of different sizes and models not on show.
“Mr Smith, the Brogues you ordered last week are in stock. However, our delivery today has a new collection which you just might be interested in,” the salesman smiled at the suited gentleman. “Wonderfully, they’re on a special offer – for a limited time period only, mind you.” The man in the Fedora nodded appreciatively. He studied the footwear fastidiously before making a final decision.
“Mrs Wilson, you look charming – as always. Polka dot really suits you,” the salesman addressed the next customer, closing the door after the Fedora. “How can I help you today?”
“I will be with you shortly, Mrs Peterson,” he reassured the woman beside Gloria.
The friendly familiarity left Gloria feeling like an interloper at an exclusive club. Each customer was afforded individual and devoted attention. Comments about shoe styles, the weather or the latest political issue of the day were rewarded with considered responses. Time seemed of no consequence to either the salesman or customers as they deliberated at length.
“Young Miss Sophia, you’re springing up so fast, you’re looking quite the young lady,” the salesman said as both mother and daughter beamed in response. “I can see why you need a new pair of shoes so quickly. There are some delightful styles which have just come in. You’ll look as stunning as your mother in a pair – or two – of these. Come let’s try a few,” he winked conspiratorially at the woman.
“And how are things with Mr Peterson at the Home Office?”
As he closed the door upon the exit of Mrs Peterson and Sophia, the salesman turned the sign to “Closed”. Gloria was his last customer of the day – it was already past closing time.
“And how may I help you?” the weary words accompanied with a practised smile.
“I need school shoes – for a girl,” Gloria replied hesitantly.
With a flourish the salesman indicated an array of black shoes on display, selecting one closest to him. Gloria already knew the price. She had overheard him tell Mrs Peterson.
“Perhaps those in the corner …” Gloria said softly. She hoped they were within her budget.
A smugness crept over the salesman, “And the size?”
By way of response, Gloria produced a paper mould from her bag. The man took the plain outline of a foot between pinched fingers and straightened it before handing it back.
“Ah, a size 11,” he said, largely to himself. “What we need is a sensible pair for the first year of school.”
The T-bar shoe with a shiny buckle designed to expose sparkling white socks was popular, the salesman assured her. The perforated pattern on the toe box was indeed the latest style. He fetched a shoebox from amongst the array, diligently unearthing the contents from layers of tissue.
The salesman looked on, bemused, as Gloria inserted the mould inside a shoe to check the fit.
“These will do,” she replied, her choice confirmed by his slight nod.
“We do fittings and we do recommend the child tries them on in the shop to make sure they’re suitable,” he said. When Gloria didn’t reply, the salesman placed the shoebox in a large paper bag emblazoned with the store name. Gloria paid hastily. It was the first of what was to become an annual pilgrimage.
Butler’s Shoe Shop was across town and some distance out of Gloria’s way. However, the popularity of the shoeboxes at the homes where she worked, offered a steadfast endorsement. Butler’s boasted a more expensive selection than the popular chain stores. Despite the additional time and cost, Gloria relished the parental involvement of the activity. Even though she would never witness the shoes being worn, the enterprise itself was important.
Gloria carried the bag home from that first visit without once setting it down, careful not to knock the contents during her journey. In her room she gave the shoes a final shine. She tried not to think of the hug she would have preferred to have given. A comfort, to ease first-day-of-school nerves. Instead Gloria cradled the shoes tightly to her chest. As a final gesture she had included the photo-studio portrait of herself before gently wrapping the entire package in scented paper.
The overpowering fragrance wafted throughout the small room. The perfume had been regifted, half empty, by a previous employer. The woman’s tolerance for it, and it’s original benefactor, had run its course. Gloria committed to wear the perfume faithfully every day as a condition of her continued employment. Stoically, Gloria had borne the discomfort of her employer’s unfaithful husband while dusting, cleaning and cooking. Even so, Gloria’s employment was curtailed a few months later by a hasty divorce. As she opened the window, Gloria now hoped the perfume would be more reliable than the job or the errant husband and survive the two-week transit.
She returned to Butler’s the following summer. An older child’s size one was purchased for the under-sevens track competition. Soft white leather with a blue tick which dominated its outer side and added interest to the shoe.
“Every child wants a pair of these,” the salesman remarked as he squinted to check the label on the inner sole matched the size stamped on the shoebox. It was the same salesman, though there was no flicker of recognition of her previous visit. The trainers were purchased in addition to the school shoes – the same style as the previous year.
“She’s fast,” said Gloria with a mother’s pride. “My daughter – I’ve been told she’s really fast.”
The salesman nodded, already moving to serve a woman firmly holding the hand of a girl in need of a similar size and style. “They’re our best seller,” he added for good measure. His smile was largely for the benefit of the other customers.
The running shoes yielded unseen school certificates and gold medals, Gloria learned. Each year, a new purchase, a half or full size bigger. Size four and a half black leather Mary Janes, marked her sixth visit. “Most girls like the wedge heel, it makes them feel like they’re growing up now that they’re in secondary school,” the salesman said reassuringly. He peered over recently acquired glasses as he threaded new laces through reinforced eyelets.
She was greeted with reorganised shelves and soft strip lighting had replaced single bulbs on her next visit. The changes made the shop appear bigger. The brightly coloured décor paid testament to the changing tastes of its newer, more discerning, customers. Comfy pouffes in pinks, yellows and blues offered a warmer reception to the worn leather bench. Framed photos of models of all ages cheerily adorned the walls, advertising the latest fashions. Gloria lingered longer than usual, eyeing the wider selection. The size six and a half black pumps with a small bow were enthusiastically received – “wicked” the letter said – as were the additional purchase of trainers with stripes for the netball championships.
“Hello, I didn’t expect to see you back so soon.” The salesman looked up briefly from fitting a young boy in a straw Boater hat complete with a navy ribbon and matching school shorts. It was late May and pink cherry blossoms were strewn across the pavement like confetti in the bright sunshine.
His receding hairline was more prominent now, longer strands of hair kept in place by thicker glasses, “Is it still six and a half or is it a size seven this time?”
Gloria was slightly taken aback at the acknowledgement and the salesman’s accurate recall. She smiled as she presented the paper mould, “Size seven – graduation.” The invitation card in her pocket was grubby around the edges from being clutched tightly. These were to be special shoes to celebrate years of dedication by the girl which, in coming months, would hopefully yield exam results to be proud of.
“Oh, in that case you’ll be needing something a bit dressier than school shoes,” he headed to the other side of the room. “Have a browse, I’ll be with you shortly,” he said, turning to another customer.
Gloria wasn’t prepared for the display of adult shoes with thin straps and high heels. Years had leaked from her life unnoticed. Time waits for no one. Gloria recalled her mother’s words as Gloria seized at the opportunity to seek her fortune abroad. She had planned to return in comfort having earned enough money. Decades earlier, the older woman had been too cautious to grasp such a chance herself.
Weak with the realisation of her unfulfilled “five-year plan”, Gloria sank heavily into a pink pouffe beside a full-length mirror. The reflection of her mother which stared back startled her. Streaks of grey hair highlighted the natural black, thin lines worried her forehead. Gloria tried to reconcile the image with the ageing woman she was becoming.
The minutes ticked by. Shoes were retrieved from shelves, tried on and correct sizes recovered from the store room for the steady flow of customers until finally, it was her turn.
“These are a delightful pair,” the salesman presented a stunning pair of two-inch block heeled shoes with spaghetti straps. “They should suit your daughter well.”
Gloria noted the fine workmanship and delicate stitching. They would indeed make the wearer feel very special. “I’m afraid these are outside my budget,” she smiled, handing them back with regret. The pair she chose was less showy with functional straps and a lower heel, “I’ll get you a pair which hasn’t been on display,” the salesman nodded.
He reappeared from behind the curtain minutes later. “You probably won’t see me next time,” he said as he placed the shoebox in a bag. He looked her full in the face and smiled. “I’m retiring in a few weeks.”
The silence was awkward. “I hope you enjoy your retirement,” Gloria managed eventually. As she left, the salesman bowed, eyes firmly on his Oxfords, an outstretched arm holding open the door for her one final time.
Gloria thought little of him during her journey home until she unfolded the handwritten note inside the shoebox. “I have enjoyed your custom over the years and I have come to look forward to your visits. I have not always been welcoming and I feel ashamed considering you are always polite and courteous towards me. I hope you will accept this gift – to a valued customer, William.”
Unravelling the tissue revealed the spaghetti strap shoes. She held them for a long time. Gloria doused the shoebox with the last remnants of the Eau de Cologne in preparation for the trip to the post office. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes as she reached for the colour Polaroid of herself taken days earlier. Gloria studied the photo with fresh eyes before storing it in the box with her daughter’s shoes.