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CHEEK TO CHEEK
 C.G. Harris
from 'Kisses from the Sun'

 

 

It was not a shoe shop, and he did not go in to buy shoes.  But then he saw the Derbys, undeniably worn yet buffed with care, and he was drawn to them. They were two-tone, of light brown calf leather, saddled with beige canvas on top, and evocative of past sophistication; if they made him think of evenings that comprised dancing and wine and conversation it was not because he himself had experience of such things, rather, they were things to which he aspired.

 

His full name was old fashioned – Kenneth – and in fact he had once thought of changing it, but he had not enough conviction to believe this would affect his life for the better, so he merely shortened it to Ken. In any event, it was the name that his mother chose and he would not defile her memory; she had given much and if the last absent-minded year of her life was a burden to him when he cared for her alone in Tudor Terrace, Clapham, he had not shown it. Rather, he viewed it as a privilege to feed her and watch old movies with her and make her smile and laugh; these were the last knockings of an unselfish, brought-down, and ultimately care-worn life that deserved to be honoured and shared with love and in dignity.

He thought he had misheard her last words. She looked at him gravely but with the vestige of a smile before she finally closed her eyes and whispered so that he could barely hear: “Now…create yourself…”

Of course, she said “Be yourself;” anything else would not make sense, would it? But she had held his hand so tightly that afterwards the thought of it impelled him to revisit those words. Yes, perhaps he would ‘create’ himself anew or, at least, kindle something fresh from the embers of the person he had become in his dull, now middle-aged life. And he was trying; he really was.

Ken admired the shoes, which were set slightly apart and elevated from the surrounding bric-a-brac. The shop was of the small, flea-market type but not devoid of items of interest and even value. He picked the shoes up and looked at the soles.

The small metal tips on heels and toes told him they were for tap dancing and even as he thought this a soft, well-spoken voice said from behind him, as if to elaborate: “They are known as co-respondent shoes.”

He turned and smiled at the reason he had entered the shop. She was small in height but certainly not petite, and she stood stoutly in front of the counter. Her fair hair was parted in the centre and to his eyes he felt that it would shine were she anywhere else but here, well back from the window where he had seen her setting out wares whilst he meandered dolefully in the winter sun.  The cornflower blue eyes, however, were bold enough to be seen in any light and the little confidence he had felt upon entering ebbed away. With her round face and stature, she was not beautiful in her early middle age, but the features he admired were more than enough to make his pulse quicken.

 

“Oh… er, do you know why?”

She looked and sounded a little vague but, believing it was to do with the corresponding colours on the shoe, she said: “My father is the one to consult really; he is in the rear but is not… hasn’t been…  himself for a while. He leaves the shop to me now.”  And before he could politely enquire further, she came towards him and with a: “May I?” gently took one shoe and examined it. “It is a beautiful shoe.” She admired the brogued brown leather on the uppers and then turned it over to view the worn metal tips. “They have been used of course and many times; this is a shoe that is made for those who love dance…” She paused. “…for those who love life and living it to the full.”

She fell silent again, and it seemed to him that, although he did not fully understand the circumstance, her fervent words had brought home the realisation of her own situation: she was minding, possibly tethered to, a small shop of dubious curios, in South London. The sun was shining outside, albeit weakly - and here she was. The Saturday evening would draw in with its promise of gaiety, for some - and here she would remain. He glanced sideways into those blue eyes, which now saw beyond the shoes to something else. They held a look that said there must be so much more – he knew that look because in the small, gilded mirror at home he had seen it himself as he shaved, at the same time humming tunes to which he did not know the names or how they ended.

To hide the unexpected closeness he felt, he peered inside the shoe at a price tag that brought him up and made him blink. “Goodness, why so expensive?”

She looked inside and raised her eyebrows. “I see what you mean… in all honesty, I do not know. Allow me, for a moment…” And she took the shoe and went behind the counter. Her feet trod heavily on wooden floorboarding, a door opened and he heard a chair scrape backwards and the murmur of conversation.

He waited rather awkwardly, one shoe in hand, and as he did, he viewed himself in the panes of a tall, French-style display cabinet. The reflection was unkind to him. Something about the glass made him appear even smaller than his five feet eight inches though he could not argue about the tight look of his trousers; rotund may have been one way to describe him, although perhaps too uncharitable given the efforts he had made to lose weight. Nature, in her indifference to any individual’s aspirations and desires, had assigned to him a pair of small but protruding ears that supported unfashionable black-rimmed spectacles (without these he would not have been able to see his reflection in the first place). On the plus side, she had allowed him to keep most of his tight, dark hair and all his teeth. There was a display of capriciousness, however, in giving him a kindly and generous nature, which was in itself something double-edged; his experience was that nice guys found it hard in life compared to those who were driven.

The woman returned and when she put the shoe on the counter, he placed his beside it; their perfect tones attracted him and he idly wondered what size they were. Suddenly, disbelieving what she said even herself, she remarked, “They once belonged to Fred Astaire.”

A small tremor ran through him. And yet, he was not surprised that it did; of the many films that he sat through with his mother the musicals of the Hollywood Golden Age were those that energised her. She was soulfully captivated, for in her youth, during the post war years, she had been a fine singer and dancer. “Really? Fred Astaire?” A man who embodied the very elegance and style he sought.

Having just asked why the shoes were so expensive he laughed as he said: “Why so cheap?”

 “No provenance, you see? It’s what Dad…my father… was told. I suppose it is possible they belonged to a famous dancer…” Then she smiled and looked at him. “Or could do…”

“Oh, I think that’s unlikely!” He reddened slightly but she continued to regard him, then said quietly: “Why don’t you try them on?”

Ken looked down at his feet. They were small – but so were the shoes, and he found himself bending down, undoing his laces. The woman drew up a chair and as he sat and removed his own plain, black loafer shoes, he felt uncomfortable but strangely moved when she knelt and, loosening the Derbys, assisted him in putting them on. With her head bowed, sunlight through the window, still yellow but gradually reddening, suffused her hair from the crown to the ends, brushing her shoulders. Everything in the shop beyond this seemed, to him, to be of contrasting obscurity and no importance. They both stood up together. She seemed smaller, though the heels were of no great height and the shoes themselves felt comfortable, so very comfortable, in fact, that he felt they could not have fitted more perfectly had he visited a store in Oxford Street. He wanted them, though he could not conceive of any occasion in his immediate future when he would use them.

She enquired of him what he thought with a look and raised eyebrows.

“Yes,” he said, “yes, I like them, but really they are rather…” He thought of the legacy that his mother had bequeathed, small enough for she had little, but it would be fitting if he could purchase these in memory of her. However, clerking for the council paid badly and it would not do to waste money; there was the rent, bills to be paid…

He took the shoes off without speaking and passed them to the woman, who looked hard at him.

“How much would you pay for them?” she said.

Ken blinked; he was not used to haggling. He thought for a moment and then said the highest figure that he could afford but which was still less than half of the ticket price.

  She nodded and, walking behind the counter, reached underneath, bringing out some strong, brown paper. In silence, she wrapped the shoes and tied the package firmly with string. “Make good use of them.”

He did not know exactly what to say but when he saw how she looked at him he knew it was incumbent upon him to do what she asked, though he had no idea how; he felt it inside, it was a bargain between them, a mark of trust, and he took the shoes. As he left and walked out into the still bustling street with its stalls and clamour, he merely said: “I will.” And for once he believed what he said.

 

*

 

Ken had rhythm, but no grace; his mother had told him so, not unkindly, when during his youth she sometimes danced a few steps with him around the kitchen. He had not the frame for it, he knew, but she also told him that although grace came from within, it being a confluence of one’s inner rhythm and the music, if it was there, deep inside, it could be brought forth. This he had understood but he did not believe he could ever achieve such a thing. With this still in his mind it was for the first time in his life, a week after he had bought the shoes, that he attended a tap class at the Balham Academy of Dance.

Grander than it sounded, being in a community centre off Bedford Hill, the academy was run by Miss Martin, who was delighted to have a man in her adult class, filled as it was with ladies of a certain age. To be fair, it has to be said that some of them had danced very well in their youth and were returning to this love in retirement.

Dressed casually in brown flannels and a white shirt - he could not bring himself to wear a pair of jazz pants – Ken pulled on his Derbys and stood up, and all the ladies beamed at him with encouragement.

Miss Martin began. “We are going to start with a simple time step…”

At the end of the lesson, the same ladies were still smiling at him but this time with a sense of curiosity, and as he went to leave Miss Martin floated up to him. “Ken! For a first lesson you did marvellously; you are going to fit in perfectly here, I know it. You have such a good sense of rhythm, and…well, style and grace are the words I would use. I hope you will be returning next week?”

Ken looked astonished, then smiled at her. “I will,” he said. He looked forward to his future lessons with some excitement.

 

*

 

The following year, late on a winter’s day, when hanging, leaden clouds spluttered with rain and the cold had cleared the streets of all but the traders and the hardy, the door to an old curios’ shop in Clapham was pushed open. An elderly man, seated in a corner behind the counter, looked up absently when the bell jangled. The sound also drew a short, stout woman with fair hair from a room at the back. She placed her hands on the counter top and asked if she was able to help.

“You already have,” said the visitor.

  “Mary, who is it, Mary?” the old man called from the corner.

The woman saw an angular man, who stood tall and poised in a nicely cut camel coat with a navy suit, a crisp, white shirt beneath. His dark hair was short and neat and he had good-natured but determined brown eyes, possibly contact lenses, she thought, which declared to anyone inquiring enough to look that nice guys did not always finish last. He carried a brown paper parcel tied up with string.

“I wanted to give you these. I feel sure that someone will make good use of them.”

Something stirred within her and when she had unwrapped the paper to find a pair of beige and brown co-respondent shoes, she looked long and hard at the man. “Well…” she said, smiling.

“Well,” he replied, “that’s not all.” He hesitated only slightly before asking her out. “A dinner and dance,” he said. “The dancing is in the grand old-fashioned style, much like the hotel – but I suppose I am slightly old-fashioned myself with a name like Kenneth.”

She did not move, but when he saw she had closed her eyes he quickly placed his hands on her own. She did not remove them but eventually looked across at her father, who had risen and was shuffling towards the counter. “I… will have to get someone to look after Dad, but…”

The old man had reached them but did not seem to see Kenneth; instead, he rather shakily stretched his hands out towards the shoes. “Now Mary, those are good shoes… don’t let those go cheaply, my dear.”

“No, Dad, I…”

“Gene Kelly wore those, you know.” He picked them up and admired them dreamily. “Now he was a dancer.”

Mary turned quickly towards him. “But Dad! You said…”

For a second Kenneth’s legs turned weak, but, catching a glimpse of himself in the same French cabinet as before and in which his reflection now stood elegant and tall, he swiftly put a finger to his lips. Mary fell silent but in any event her father had forgotten them; perhaps in his mind he too swept across a dance floor with a woman in his arms.

“Will I be seeing you later?” Mary asked.

“You will.” Kenneth smiled as he left. And as the heavens opened and people stared, he gave not a jot and sang and danced in the rain.

 

***

If you enjoyed this story there are 17 more also in my book 'Kisses from the Sun' available on Kindle (£1.99) and paperback (£3.99) HERE. It includes 'The Pier' winner of the William Van Wert Award for a short story, and the title story, finalist in the Chester B. Himes Memorial Award.

More of my books HERE.

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