Jane barely saw Peter before he left. He worked long hours Tuesday, preparing the office for his absence, and a taxi arrived Wednesday morning before Jane had woken. She felt Peter’s kiss on her forehead and wound sleepy arms around his neck.
“Take care,” she murmured.
“You too. I’ll phone when I get there. Love you.”
Then he was gone.
When Jane got up, the house felt cold. Wherever she went there was evidence of Peter’s absence. No razor on the shelf, only one toothbrush in the china pot on the windowsill. His dirty trainers, a constant source of irritation, were missing from the hall floor. As she prepared Christopher’s breakfast she saw Peter’s bowl resting in the sink. It was almost, she thought, as if he had died.
Abigail was having a day off school. Her teachers were having a ‘training day’, whatever that meant. It used to be called an ‘Inset Day’ and Abigail had insisted on calling it an ‘Insect Day’ to annoy Peter. Jane felt the teachers had more than enough days during the school holidays for training and resented the change in routine.
However, today they were to buy shoes. Suzie had agreed to collect Christopher from playgroup and Jane planned to take her daughter into the city. They could catch one of several trains and she found herself choosing one that would allow time to see the builders before she left.
Abigail emerged from her room dressed entirely in dark purple. She wore purple woolly tights beneath a purple skirt she had outgrown a year previously and which was now daringly short. A purple shirt from Daphne had been pulled in at the waist with a belt (also purple) and the sleeves rolled back to expose the purple cuffs of an old jumper. A purple scarf was wound around her head and finger nails and lips were painted to match.
“I gave birth to a witch!” thought Jane.
She was tempted to tell her daughter to change, to explain that she looked ridiculous and that a ten-year-old child should dress like a child, not a delinquent teenager. Many apt phrases came to mind. Instead however, as ever, she chose to avoid confrontation. It was easier to say nothing.
“Are you ready to go? Good. We’ll catch the 10 o’clock train. Don’t forget to clean your teeth and it’s cold today, so wear your long school coat.”
Abigail remained silent and moved towards the bathroom. Her eyes shone with the knowledge of a small victory.
As mother and daughter walked up the driveway, Matthew’s car drove down the road. He flashed his lights in greeting and parked behind the skip, which was now brim full. Jane frowned at the refrigerator perched on top of the rubble.
Matthew locked his car and smiled at Jane.
“Hello, are you out again today?”
“Just to buy shoes,” explained Jane. “I left the back door unlocked. You can help yourself to drinks, but please try to keep the dog in. We should be home by lunch time.”
Abigail was tugging at her hand and Jane allowed herself to be pulled along the path. “Bye,” she called. They began to walk towards the station.
“Matthew likes you,” announced Abigail.
“I expect he likes everyone,” said Jane.
“Yes, but he smiles at you all the time,” said Abigail.
“I expect he’s just happy to be earning so much money,” countered Jane. But she felt pleased. It would be fun if he liked her.
They arrived at the station with barely time to buy a ticket before the train arrived. They climbed aboard an extremely full carriage. They stood at one end, Jane holding on to both the luggage rack and Abigail, who refused to hold on to anything. The carriage was filled with retired people, most of whom seemed to know each other and were chatting whilst darting looks of suspicion towards Jane and her purple daughter. As the train jolted to a stop at the next station, Jane swayed onto an austere man reading The Telegraph.
“I am sorry,” said Jane, struggling to her feet. The man merely tutted, and shook his paper in annoyance.
“Honestly!” raged Jane as they disembarked and hurried from the station, “What did he have that we didn’t?”
“A seat,” muttered Abigail.
Jane laughed and caught her daughter’s arm. They headed down the crowded streets, avoiding people in suits carrying cardboard cups of expensive coffee. They passed brightly lit chemists, and dim newsagents that smelt of curry and dust. A gaudy sign filled a window promising half-hour photography processing and that they could unlock any phone; next door was a shop spilling plastic buckets of umbrellas onto the pavement. Warm sugar and onions wafted from a fast food cafe. A tramp was huddled into a sleeping bag, gazing at the world through glazed eyes, and a lady in stilettos was trying to remove her heel from a grate.
As they neared the main shopping precinct the atmosphere slowed. Large shop windows had been designed with care, each offering a storybook of colour and style. Cashpoint machines perched helpfully on street corners and a lone saxophonist filled the air with jazz. Fresh coffee and handmade chocolates fought with cosmetics to perfume the walkways and the shoppers became less purposeful as their senses were distracted.
“I’m starving,” declared Abigail as they neared a cafe.
“Let’s look in one shoe shop, then have a coffee stop,” said her mother.
They paused in the entrance to a fashion shoe shop. Jane hovered near a stand of black leather shoes with low heels and laces.
“Ace!” said Abigail, advancing towards some platformed purple sandals. “We just have to buy these, it’s a sign. Can you find my size?”
“No,” said Jane, not looking up. “Do you like these?”
“They are completely disgusting. Anyway, I want coloured shoes, not black.”
“But you need black shoes for school,” said Jane, “that’s why we’ve come.”
“But these are so nice,” she wheedled, “or those pink ones. Can I just try them on?”
“You can try them on, but I am not buying them.” Jane felt a headache was likely. She entered the shop in search of black shoes that Abigail might like, while her daughter tottered behind her in two left shoes, one purple and the other yellow. There was a section at the back of the shop labelled “School Daze” and Jane crossed the thin synthetic carpet hopefully. The shelves were full of clumpy dark shoes with fat soles and chunky heels. She thought of her daughter’s spindly legs and sighed. Abigail was now hobbling across the shop wearing red stilettoed boots. Her expression was one of stardom.
“Mind your ankle in those,” said Jane, “And where is your coat? Oh!” She went and rescued the abandoned coat from a wire basket of plimsolls while Abigail selected some silver sandals.
“Come on Abi, I think we need to go to a different shop. Where are your own shoes?”
Abigail waved an indifferent hand towards the doorway and tentatively stood. Her feet slid to the front of the shoes. She teetered, knees bent and shoulders hunched, towards a mirror. Jane picked up the gaudy shoes she had tried on initially, returning them to the display stand, and went to the doorway. There were several tubs of left shoes and a long stand announcing ‘Cut Price Bargains’ but no sign of Abigail’s own shoes.
“Abi,” she called,” I can’t see your shoes. Please come and find them.”
Abigail lurched towards her.
“These would be great for a party. Oh…” Her expression froze as her eyes went to the empty spot where she had left her shoes.
“I’m sure I left them there.”
For a second, she looked frightened. Her dark eyes widened and her lips trembled as the realisation of a probable theft dawned on her. Jane thought she was about to cry. Instead she erupted into loud peals of giggles.
“They’ve gone!” she squealed, “I left them right there and someone’s stolen them.” She collapsed into a heap and shook with laughter. “Someone stole my smelly old shoes!”
The moment seemed rather less amusing to her mother.
“Abigail, it is not funny,” she said.
“It is! It is!” laughed Abigail, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Come along, we’d better find an assistant. Maybe someone has handed them in.” This thought sobered Abigail sufficiently for her to follow her mother back into the shop. The shiny heels of the sandals dragged on the carpet and she concentrated on walking in a straight line.
The shop seemed rather lacking in sales assistants. Two bored young women lounged behind the counter. They were discussing their options for Friday evening, considering which clubs to visit and which friends to invite. One leaned sideways against the till, causing her dry blond hair to fall over her shoulder. She flicked it back with long pearly nails which were speckled with glitter. Her co-worker had frizzy brown hair and she was slightly too plump for the cropped top she had chosen to wear. Her pink flesh rolled across her low-slung jeans and a ruby coloured stone protruded from her navel. Their appearance did not inspire Jane with confidence.
“Excuse me,” she began.
Both assistants stopped talking and turned thickly mascaraed eyes to glare at the interruption.
“My little girl left her shoes over there and they seem to have gone. Has anyone handed them in?” It sounded lame even to Jane’s ears.
Abigail was scowling at the reference to “little girl” and the dark-haired assistant had raised carefully plucked eye-brows, and was surveying the shop. One elderly lady was looking aghast at the price of fluffy slippers, and a pair of teenagers were browsing the handbags. Neither party looked especially public spirited.
“No,” murmured the glossy lips, before adding, “sorry,” as an after-thought. She turned to continue her conversation.
“Oh,” said Jane, defeated. She considered leaving her name in case they were handed in later but quickly decided that was both pointless and slightly ludicrous. She turned away.
“We’ll have to buy these sandals then, wont we?” smiled Abigail.
“No,” said Jane, summoning energy. “We’ll find something cheaper and more sensible.” She turned again to the flimsy displays and began to search.
Ten minutes later, they were heading towards a coffee shop. Abigail was wearing pink wellingtons and a resigned expression. They were still early enough for the precinct to be relatively empty and they quickly wound their way to a large department store. They walked past glossy leather handbags and pristine white rugs to the escalators. Jane could not imagine ever owning a white floor covering.
The coffee shop was situated on the first floor between the furniture department and children’s fashions. Only someone who had never wielded a bulky pushchair with screaming occupant would ever place children’s clothes on the first floor, thought Jane. She missed many things from when her children were babies, but not shopping.
She selected a damp plastic tray and peered through the glass barrier to see what delights the coffee shop had to tempt her with. There were glazed buns, dry pastry wheels and some rather glutinous gateaux slices. Some fat scones sat heavily in a basket, next to thimbles of cream and tiny packets of jam.
“I think I’ll just have a coffee,” decided Jane. “What do you want Abi?”
“I’m starving!” she said, having spied an array of chocolate bars next to the till. “Can I have lemonade and some chocolate?”
“Please?” corrected Jane. She relented. “You don’t deserve any after losing your shoes but yes, you can.”
She paid the cashier and they moved to a table near the perimeter of the enclosure so they could watch the rest of the shop. Abigail unwrapped her chocolate and nibbled the caramel off the top.
“Eat that properly,” said Jane, wiping a smudge of chocolate from her nose. She sipped her coffee. It was strong and delicious.
“Thank you, God,” she silently prayed. “I really needed this. Please help us buy Abi’s school shoes, and if possible could we also find her old ones?”
Abigail was reading the menu card and wondering if they could come back for lunch. The puddings looked good. She looked out, over a sea of oak furniture and mountains of padded cushions, watching a young couple walk aimlessly through a display of coffee tables. Suddenly, she clutched Jane’s arm, spilling her coffee.
“You spilt my coffee. What..?”
“My shoes,” Abigail hissed, “That girl is wearing my shoes.”
Jane squinted to where Abigail was pointing, wishing she had worn her glasses. There was a young teenaged girl, and she did appear to be wearing Abigail’s shoes. They looked slightly small for her, and her heels were squashing the backs. She wore ripped jeans and a faded jacket, and carried a large blue carrier bag.
“They do look similar …” began Jane doubtfully.
“They are mine,” hissed Abigail urgently. “I recognise that sticker on the underneath of one. Look, you can see it when she walks. Quick mum, grab her. She’s ruining the backs.”
Jane half rose from her seat, unsure of her course of action. Then she sat again. The girl had been joined by a woman who Jane supposed was her mother. She resembled a sumo wrestler.
Dressed in a sleeveless vest that showed flabby arms, and an old skirt above stocky legs, the woman strode through the shop. Her short hair was matted, her eye-brows thick, and her mouth unpleasant.
“Wow, look at her,” whispered Abigail. “She looks like a man dressed up as a woman. Do you think she’ll hit you mum?” Her eyes shone in anticipation as she thought how interesting her news would be the following day at school. Not even Janine would have such a good story to tell. The same thought had occurred to Jane, though her response was somewhat different. She had turned away from the pair and was mopping coffee with a paper napkin.
“I think,” she said nonchalantly, “that that poor girl looks like she needs those shoes and they were getting a bit small for you anyway.”
“They’re too small for her,” persisted Abigail.
“Let’s go, and I’ll buy some sweets if you’re good in the next shop.”
They meandered through displays of pristine sports clothes and silk scarves, pausing to touch enticing fabrics. There was something irresistible about fluffy woollen shawls and languid satin throws, so they made many detours as they walked towards the exit. Abigail was keen to try on hats and had to be prised away from a stand of sunglasses.
Eventually they were back on the main street and Abigail tucked her hand into Jane’s arm. They chatted about school and Abigail gave hilarious descriptions of the less attractive members of staff. Jane led her to a shoe shop known less for its style, and more for its thorough foot measuring regime and high prices.
Abigail sat obediently on a green plastic chair while a grey-haired assistant moved the pink wellingtons to one side with distain, and began measuring her feet. In a short amount of time, Jane had bought a pair of extremely costly sensible shoes, and some jazzy socks to pacify her daughter.
There was time to buy lunch, but Jane was keen to leave. She told herself that she ought to collect Christopher fairly promptly, and that seeing Matthew was not a factor in her decision making, as they hurried towards the station.
To be continued on Tuesday