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The Testimony of Clodagh's Shoes
Jess Blatchley

1. Flip-Flop

She treasured me for a short while; a single flip flop, with fragments of Sardinian sand still wedged between the circular ridges of my rubbery sole. She kept me under her pillow imagining I would somehow sweeten her dreams. Eventually she stuffed me into the bottom of a bin bag and threw me into her mother’s loft, along with a broken hairdryer, a St Patrick’s Day mug, a pair of candyfloss leg warmers she’d knitted herself and other life crumbs.

 

The previous summer in Castelsardo, Clodagh had chosen us from a rack of glittery sandals outside Bella Moda shoe shop, overlooking the beach. We stood out because of the plastic sunflower stuck to the strap, which she thought was cheerful and a bit quirky. She tried us on while Gianni, the shop owner’s son, admired her alabaster legs and showed off his pidgin-English.

“I buy you, bella signorina.”

“Oh….you mustn’t… per favore,….no thank you.”

“Si, si, I pay, I pay, I pay.” His portamento made her feel wobbly and as she slipped us in-between her pigeon toes, he pinged the till shut. “Andiamo. I go you Cathedrale.”

 

Before she had time to be sensible, Clodagh jumped on the back of his Vespa, clung to his waist, and gripped us with her halluces, not caring about the blisters that would swell up the next day, not caring where he was taking her. They mosquitoed up to the old town with its crooked steps and its basket-weaving widows who shook their heads and rolled their eyes when Gianni greeted them. She followed him into a crumbling church that felt creepy and dark like a mausoleum, the walls lined with stony-faced statues and although she lit a candle for her Granny, she was glad to get back outside and into the scalding sunshine.

 

Clodagh looked up at a sky darted with dressmaker chalk clouds. She thought about the number of times she had walked past the travel agents on Panna Street and stared at the pictures of sunsets and skies just like this one. Now here she was, arm in arm with a handsome Italian, strolling into Tino’s bar in her trendy, new flip flops, just like the glamorous women in those posters. She felt sophisticated under the Campari umbrella, even though she was drinking warm Coke, and she pushed her sunglasses out of her face like a hairband, while Gianni lit a cigarette.  He picked a piece of tobacco out of his teeth, then leaned across and kissed her marble shoulders. Clodagh shut her eyes and shut out her mother’s voice while she enjoyed the tickle of his breath on her neck and softness of his thumb on her thigh.

 

Later, on the sunless beach, Clodagh and Gianni had uncomfortable, pebble-dashed sex. She lost her other flip flop in the grey shingle, and walked barefoot back to her hotel, alone, because Gianni had something molto, molto importante that he needed to do.

“Tomorrow, tomorrow I buy you more,” he said as he zoomed off, but the next day his Dad said Gianni wasn’t there and made a shooing motion as if Clodagh were a fly on a sandwich. Clodagh didn’t understand until he said the word “fidanzata” and jabbed his ring finger in her face, which Clodagh realised meant that her new boyfriend was either engaged or married.

Back in Cork her mother asked why the only souvenir she’d brought back was a single flip flop.

“Ach I was too busy having a lovely time Mammy,” she said, but she didn’t know about the souvenir that later would leave a creeping circle of dark blood on a sheet.

 

2.Brogues

She bought us from Roches Stores in Cork because her new boss, Mr O’Leary, said it was inappropriate for the secretaries to wear anything other than sensible shoes. He also banned skirts above the knee, v-neck tops and foreign perfume, which meant all the girls in the office felt like they were still stuck at school. Mr O’Leary’s wife had him on a short leash, everyone said. Clodagh didn’t particularly care about any of it. She had other things on her mind.

 

It took her two weeks to wear us in, on account of her middle toe being longer than her big toe, but after that she was grateful that we were comfortable and practical. She did a lot of walking back then. She scuffed us on her way to the office, splashed through puddles of regurgitated Irish Sea water, then buffed us to a sheen in front of the gas fire of her bedsit, while she tried not to picture the judgmental faces of people who’d never walked in her shoes.

 

We developed creases across the toe box from the hours she spent on her knees in the back pew of Our Lady of Grace, trying to get her head straight.  She wore us thin with the weight of her questions: how could something be legal and morally acceptable in one place, but just four hours away, be illegal and morally unacceptable? She thought about her friend who hadn’t been seen since she went to have her baby at the Magdalens. She dreamt of Gianni’s carefree voice singing I pay, I pay, I pay, the irony of which was not lost on her.

 

After a few weeks, Clodagh decided what she needed to do and wore us on the day she took the ferry to Liverpool.

“But who is this friend you’re visiting at University?” her mother said on the phone.

“She’s someone I met on holiday Mammy,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back on Monday.”

 

At the clinic she was surprised to see a woman wearing a hijab, and a couple with a crawling baby, sitting in the waiting room. Clodagh was expecting a room full of single girls from Dublin, but nobody else looked even vaguely Irish. The Muslim woman smiled at her, and she smiled back. The couple were good-looking and Clodagh admired the way the girl did her hair in a loose side plait, that slid across her shoulder like knotted silk. When their baby screamed, its body rigid as a knitting needle, the girl made apologetic faces while her boyfriend tried to jiggle the baby on his knee. Eventually, it wriggled off and started to navigate the assault course of grubby chairs, the edges of which it sucked with its dribbling, gummy mouth. When it crawled around the room the smell of its full nappy made Clodagh gag. The man held his girlfriend’s hand and stroked the flesh of her palm with his thumb, which reminded Clodagh of a powder blue sky and flat Coca-Cola and Gianni whispering Italian words in her ear.

When it was her turn, the nurse had to call her name twice, because Clodagh had forgotten she’d signed in as Mary Travolta, the best name she could come up with on the spot. The whole waiting room stared at her as she walked out. Afterwards, she placed us neatly under the YWCA bunk while she sobbed and bled and dug her fingernails into her arm. The hostel charged her double for staining the sheet.

Back in Ireland she tried to live forgetfully, but everywhere she looked she was reminded of the terrible, unmentionable sins she’d committed. Eventually she made another decision.

“What’s the point of that?” her mother said as she sawed through a piece of cold ham and dabbed it in bright yellow mustard. “London’s full of Irish people anyway.”

Clodagh wiggled her toes against our leathery tongues.

“I’ll feel right at home then,” she said.

3.Ugg Boots

Clodagh was wearing us when, thirty-four years later, her daughter told her the good news. It was Christmas Day, and as they walked the dogs across Hampstead Heath, their bellies gurgling in anticipation of the meal the men were engineering at home, her happiness stung her throat like warm mulled wine. She felt as if someone had let some fresh air in after months of stifling, cobwebby, claustrophobia. Clodagh’s daughter had been trying for a baby for years and although she never said it out loud, Clodagh blamed herself for her daughter’s problems with conceiving. She shouldn’t have encouraged her to go travelling after Uni, or advised her to have a career before settling down, or insisted she go on the pill so young. Now suddenly, with some good news at last, it felt like everything was going to be OK.

“When?” Clodagh asked.

“June”.

“The weather will be too warm for bootees. I’ll make some bigger ones for the winter.”

 

She waited until April, then began knitting. She was starting on her 14th row of garter stitches, yellow, mixed with strands of apricot, when her son-in-law phoned. Clodagh heard the words hospital, bleeding and now. She tugged us over her pyjama bottoms and panic-drove in zigzags to the hospital, trying to remember the words to an old prayer she vaguely remembered, but only recalling something about the poor banished children of Eve. She rolled up the windows and screamed.

“Please don’t make her pay God. She’s done nothing wrong.”  

She found her daughter sitting up in bed, cup of tea resting in her lap, pregnant belly full, still kicking and wriggling with life. Everything fine. But now Clodagh couldn’t get rid of the idea that God might be thinking of getting his own back on her.  

“As soon as the baby’s here we need to get it christened,” she said.

“Fucks’ sake Mum. We’re not even religious.”

“You just never know.”

“Why are you so worried all of a sudden?”

 

Clodagh was surprised how easily and quickly the story fell out of her mouth, after all that time keeping it locked behind her purl-stitched lips and knotted teeth, after all that time wondering if it had really happened. Over the years, Clodagh had questioned herself. Maybe it had just been a miscarriage? But as she finally said it out loud for the first time, as the words tumbled out clearly and precisely as if it were yesterday, as snot hung from her nose in transparent, glutinous strands and as her daughter threw her jangling, inky arms around her neck, Clodagh recalled every detail.  

“You did the right thing Mum,” her daughter kept saying. “You’re not the one who should feel ashamed.”

Clodagh wasn’t so sure. But she did feel a bit better.

 

A year later she walks across the heath again and this time she sticks to the path, because she’d never get a pram through all that mud. She sings her grandson to sleep as she walks, one of the old hymns, and wonders what the words mean. She notices the seam starting to fray on the sole of one of her boots and feels a tiny squelch against her sock.

 

Rather than throw us out for a new pair, Clodagh will take us to the cobblers on Haverstock Hill and have Mr Thompson fit us with firm, new, rubber soles. After twenty years of fixing the heels on her shoes he’ll notice that she seems different and will ask if she’s done something new with her hair. She’ll say her grandson is keeping her young and she’ll lift him out of the pram so that Mr Thompson can admire the blueberry bootees with the snowflake trim that she’s knitted, without even using a pattern.

“He looks just like his granny.”

“Ach I’m not so sure about that Mr Thompson,” she’ll say, and she’ll feel her heart do a little cartwheel against her ribs.

 

Jess Blatchley grew up in London in a multi-cultural family. She had the misfortune of being recruited into a religious cult in her teens, and much of her writing is inspired by her survival of that experience. Jess’s flash fiction has been showcased on BBC Upload and published in WestWord and Riggwelter Journals. Her story “Variety” was recently one of the top ten winners at the Stroud Short Stories Competition.

 www.jessblatchley.com Instagram @jblatchley64

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