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Choosing Shoes

I'd like to own a shop that sells shoes. Not any shoes, only men's shoes and even then only certain men's shoes. My shop would sit neatly between two larger enterprises, standing either side like protective older brothers. It would be on a road with wide pavements and an open, impersonal vista - probably in a city somewhere, maybe Edinburgh or even York.

     Quiet self-assured quality would surround my shop, confidence and elegance would ooze out of the door and dance enticingly in front of the shoppers walking by. And those certain men would be caught, entranced by my shop and drawn to admire the carefully spaced displays in the window. Hand-made soft Italian leather; carefully crafted stitches and individually chosen dyes; the hues and the labels of quality, individuality and exquisite comfort.

*

My husband is a builder and buys boots from a supplier with a catalogue. They're on the last page but one - the boots - and come only in black. There's a choice of whether to have reinforced steel in the toes alone, or in both the toes and the heel. Whatever he chooses will look the same and then look the same also as those of his mates - the others on his site. Big and heavy with rounded toes, a dull black colour with a leathery distressing. Only they're not leather, they're man-made; not hand-made, just man-made.

     Nobody cared while they were put together; no time was spent in craftwork or with skill. They don't even come in a box - just a clear plastic bag with a knot tied at the top and the laces supplied free, as a bonus.

*

I go out one night a week and it's always on Thursday. I leave my world behind on Thursdays, starting at around three in the afternoon. My cleaning is done by midday that day and Gloria drops me off at the end of the road. She drives away in her little mini-van with her arm waving out of the window as she turns the corner. I'll have a mini-van when I'm a supervisor, as well as a team of my own and a weighty bunch of keys hanging from my belt.

     I always run a little on Thursdays, down the length of the road to my shiny red front door. I painted it myself and it always makes me smile, the colour, but Dave likes it too so he never asks why red.

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     I'm rushed then between midday and three, 'cos I like to get the whites washed before I start. If it's nice I'll hang them out in my neat little back yard and they'll fight me in the wind, until I win and persuade them that it's ok to flap crisply in the sunshine. If it's raining it'll take me longer, with the airer and the radiators, and on those days I never get started until at least 3.20 pm. Before that, while they're in the machine, I whisk round tidying and dusting my own house. I have to leave it neat and always hoover before I go - I'm certainly no slut.

     Dave goes for a pint after work on Thursdays, which works well for both of us. I'd be distracted if he was home and my escape would be delayed. Instead, between three and half-past, I run my bath - deep and hot, full of creamy bubbles. I light my candles and I lay out my 'tools' - the same tools that women have used for hundreds of years, to trim and pluck with; to smooth and soften with; and to scent and decorate with. I enjoy the ritual. It's soothing and transitional.

*

Dave goes out on Tuesday night, every week. He goes with Pete from next door and sometimes with a chap called Mark from the next street along. They change into jeans with a sweatshirt or t-shirt and a leather bomber jacket, like all the young men round here. They still wear their boots though - not the same working pair of course - but the spare pair they all buy, from the same catalogue supply company which issues receipts that can be put through as work gear when the taxman gets his return.

     They go to the Herald in New Eltham High Street and they have done for years. I know they go there because he always tells me, but also because Gloria works there three evenings a week, starting on Tuesday. They play darts; sometimes snooker and they drink several pints of beer. Afterwards they go for a curry or a kebab but this depends on how much money they've each got.

     I don't like kebabs and I don't like the man who works in the kebab shop. He wears cheap loafers that are shiny but creased and reddish-brown in colour. The tassel on the left shoe is missing. Sometimes I give Dave a fiver from my purse just to know he'll have curry instead. Once he asked why I'd money left over and I told him it was a tip from someone who liked my cleaning. He smiled at me nicely then 'cos I know he likes the way our own house is always clean and tidy.

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     Dave always has just a little too much and I know to expect a fumble and a quick fuck when he climbs into bed. I've told him I don't mind and it's true that I don't. I love Dave and a quickie on Tuesday nights, even with the beer, fags and curry seeping from his pores, is an easy way for me to show him how I feel.

*

Dave never sees me before I go on Thursdays. He did so only once, soon after we were married, but it unsettled him, I know it did. He's never said anything and he didn't at the time, but I saw it in his eyes, confusion and disquiet. Dave needs me to be who I am in reality. I'm a cleaner and I live in a terrace in New Eltham. I went to school but it wasn't easy for me - my Dad was in and out of prison and my Mum spent her days with a bottle hanging by her side. No one really gave me any trouble but no one gave me any help either.

     Now Dave looks after me and it makes us both feel nice. He wouldn't like it any other way so it's right how it is. I'm safe with Dave and that's how it's been since we first met, when I was sixteen and Dave was nineteen. He'd had other girlfriends but he was my first. I'm not pretty but I have got a good figure and my hair is long and slightly wavy. My nose is neat and my chin isn't too big, so with make-up and a hair grip I can look ok. Men do look - not many and not often, but they do look sometimes. Dave likes it when they do, and so do I.

     My Thursday escape is something different though, something that's only mine. It takes me to a different world. It isn't me, the cleaner, when I've finished my rituals and the image Dave saw that time left him not knowing how to be with me - not knowing what his role was for me, not that me anyway. He knows I go up to town and he knows I go to The Dorchester Hotel and so he accepts that I won't be me when I do this - 'cos 'me' wouldn't fit there and even Dave knows that.

<  4  >

     I wear my hair up, softly curled around a large and elaborate grip that holds it bread-like in a plaited bun. Tendrils escape, mirroring my purpose, and spiral gently down towards my neck and shoulders, spring-like, feather-like. My clothes are different - not jeans, trainers and sweaters, not even my going-out black pencil skirt with my fuchsia blouse or skinny-rib top - no, I have a special selection at the end of the rail in my wardrobe, specifically and solely for Thursday nights.

     There's a silk suit, smart and figure-hugging in a shot peacock blue. The jacket sleeves are short and the neckline sweet and I've learned that nothing is needed but underwear underneath. So really it's a blouse. My choices are all similar - they're classic pieces of quality clothing. Nothing gaudy, certainly not showy, and yet I know without doubt that I am attractive, even seductive, when I wear these clothes.

     I also know that Dave looks at them sometimes, hanging on their hangers, gets them out and holds them up to stare at them. I saw him once from the landing, through the door, standing very still and staring at the peacock blue suit. It seemed to me that he was trying to see who it belonged to - who it was who wore this suit - because I know he can't reconcile it with me, the me he knows and the me he loves. He moved it slowly towards his face and let it touch the end of his nose, holding the hanger high so that the bust level button was in front of his eyes. He inhaled deeply and then again and I saw that his body liked the smell, as he stood there in his boxers and t-shirt. I slipped away then, afraid of being seen, but I know he's done it again because the outfits are sometimes in the wrong order on the rail.

*

Dave knows I meet Sylvie on my Thursday nights out but he decided very early on that she's someone he doesn't want to know. Like the Thursday me, he met her just once and while he didn't say so, wouldn't say so, I think she scared him just a little bit. In fact she scares me just a little bit, but that's all part of my escape and it wouldn't be the same if it didn't feel so different. He's happy that it's only Thursdays and to be honest I don't think he thinks about it more than that. It's always been the routine, I've always done it, and Dave likes routine - likes things to be how they've always been. She's the only relative I keep contact with and again, that's right in Dave's way of doing things. There should always be someone, even someone like Sylvie, and he knows the others aren't worthy of the effort.

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*

Sylvie's not a relative in the accepted sense. She's the woman my Dad lived with until he died. After a while he drank away his enthusiasm for the effort of crime and this strangely lazy state led to his longest period out from behind bars. It didn't suit him though and he was lost, until he moved in with Sylvie. She was young, beautiful and smart and I've never had the courage to ask her why. We don't talk about my Dad on Thursday nights - never have and never will, and I don't mind.

     Sylvie is elegant. She's poised and she gives the appearance of being everything to men. Not women mind, just men. Women rarely like Sylvie and keep her at arm's length. But men are very different where she's concerned. Not men like my Dave I don't mean here, I mean those certain men - the ones with the certain shoes.

     Men like my Dave are intimidated by Sylvie - confused and misplaced. They don't know who they are where she's concerned, their role isn't clear. The scent of sexual knowledge that wafts around her, intertwined in her hair and woven into her clothes, frightens and excites them; but it's more than their fragile, bloke-like bravado can bear.

     She finds me my suits and taught me how to do my hair. She spent hours selecting the right make-up for me too and showing me how to put it on. It's all very different and I was quietly keen to learn. She buys the sheer stockings that she said I must wear and also the underwear - the only thing I hide from Dave. I know he wouldn't like it and it would upset our routine.

     It's not overt, nothing like Ann Summers, but it's beautiful - truly, deliciously beautiful. It slides across my skin, wafer thin and ultimately vulnerable; the bras gently cup my breasts, cradling them like two exquisitely precious fruits held forward to be admired, loved and tasted, and the tiny French laced knickers gently crease between my thighs, the lace pointing toward my core and then rising up across the rounded cheeks of my bum when I spin round to see the view from behind.

     I love the underwear - the lingerie Sylvie calls it. It effects the greatest change for me on my Thursday escape. Once I have shrouded my body in these silks and laces - decorating my best features with this priceless jewellery - I become who I am in The Dorchester Hotel, sitting with Sylvie in the bar with my drink, legs elegantly crossed and head held high. A true lady - not a cleaner - my Thursday me.

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*

It works well with Sylvie and me. A mutual respect has grown up between us, evolving from the early tentative bond that we felt because of my Dad. I visited him for a while before he died and I admired Sylvie in her efforts on his behalf. Her flat is in town - not a good part but not too bad - and she saw something in him that I never did, something that made her care for him while he drank himself to death.

     I know she went out most nights, I know she still does, but to join her on a Thursday is enough for me. I'm not unhappy with my life - it's simple and uncomplicated and it's a reality that is wholly mine - but we all need an escape; drink, drugs, food or TV, they do it for some, but for me it's with Sylvie, in The Dorchester Hotel.

*

I'm never too late coming back to my life. I always try and be at my red front door by midnight at the latest. If we get caught up then Sylvie pays for a cab - it's happened before, with a man with black boots, shiny and hard looking but achingly soft, with elastic patches across the ankle bone and neat regular stitching around the sole.

     I know Dave will be in bed though, he always is. Without me there to keep him up he always goes to bed before 10.30pm - he says he misses me 'til I get back but I think he relishes the chance to stretch out across the bed, have it all to himself. It's a small bed - a small double - necessary to fit into our small front bedroom, with its window always bright because of the street lamp right outside.

     The beds at The Dorchester are much, much bigger. Big enough for three - or four even if you liked. Usually there's just us three though - Sylvie and me and the man with the nice shoes, whichever man with the nice shoes that she's arranged for that night. Thursdays are threesome nights, in Sylvie's working week. She works alone on her other nights, quietly unobtrusive in the bar at The Dorchester - not getting too greedy and not upsetting the concierge. She looks just right of course and no one minds - certainly not the businessmen with the hand-made Italian shoes and certainly not the management, who accept the bookings for these very full-priced rooms, for the drinks beforehand and the champagne to be sent up, with the food and the tips and the silence money which changes hands. It's all very quiet - very civilised and very smooth - and everyone one is happy, no one loses out.

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     I've watched it all with amused fascination - it's a different world for me - and for a while I was out of my depth, floundering, trying to make sense of the confusion. But then one night, a particularly busy night - the first in a run of busy Thursdays that have now become the norm - the rules became clear, the boundaries lit up and I knew then where I was. I got it.

     It was all about certain men and their certain shoes. The shoes were the key to this alien hierarchy and for me this was relief, it was sweet, orientating relief. It's been something I've been able to offer Sylvie too - the only thing that I have taught her against the myriad of life that she's taught to me - but it has often made her laugh and sometimes we've both laughed, elegantly behind our hands, attractively coy. Sitting there with our drinks in the bar, this laughing always brings over a certain type of man, with a certain type of shoe, attracted to us as surely as he was to his shoes. These are not men whose wives buy their shoes - no, these men choose their own particular shoes and on Thursdays, just sometimes, these men might choose their own particular experience, with Sylvie and me.

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