My nephew has a pair of new trainers that flash red lights in the soles when he stamps. It turns out they’re too big, so his mother tells him she’ll put them away for a month or two, until he’s grown a bit. Sam’s four. He gets them back out to show us. ‘Look,’ he says, turning them over to display a large red silhouette stamped in the treads. ‘They’re dinosaur shoes.’ His eyes are big and shiny, and his mum laughs. They were the only ones in the sale, ‘Which is lucky, because he’s tried them out so much I could never take them back and ask for a smaller size now.’
I remember the first pair of special shoes I owned. They were patent black leather, with a narrow buckled bar across the front and broad three inch heels. I was about thirteen, and they were hand-downs from a more sophisticated cousin, but unlike the spiky court shoes I’d played dress-up in before, these matched the styles I had seen in my Jacky magazines, and they fitted.
My sensible, carefully chosen, flat shoes were cast aside along with all the warnings about broken and twisted ankles. I had a new view of the world, towering over my younger brother and measuring myself against mum. I could be banned from wearing them to school, or ‘as best’, but nothing could stop me clomping around the house and garden in them. The fact that nothing else in my wardrobe was suitable to wear with them didn’t matter. In those shoes, anything might happen.
And lots of other things did. I was still a child, not a fully fledged teenager, and heels do not suit tree climbing, long country walks or bike-rides. One day, I was cleaning out the cupboard in my bedroom, and I pulled them from the bottom of it without being able to remember when I’d last seen them. For a moment I felt the old excitement. I polished them up with my sleeve, took off my shoes and socks and put them on.
They pinched. There’s no give in patent leather, after a few minutes I had cramped toes and had to take them off.
As I threw them into the dressing-up box I pulled out some of those old pointy toed shoes I’d shuffled through my younger childhood in. There were several pairs that fitted, but none that I could imagine myself in.
Soon after that I saved up enough pocket money to choose my own special shoes. Perched on my wooden platform sandals I regained that view of the world from a different height, and I loved those shoes too, but not in quite the same way that those first, shiny black shoes mattered.
Sometimes important moments happen by accident. Sometimes the importance of the moment fades within hours and we’ve moved on. By this time next year, Sam might have forgotten all about the dinosaur trainers.
I don’t think Sam’s mum or my cousin could have guessed how much pleasure we would get from their gift. Shoes, after all, are pretty much a staple item of clothing in the Western world. Some of us might go barefoot for the summer, but it would take a hardened sole to survive our colder months, though I’ve seen pictures that suggest in times past they did.
We choose our footwear. It is part of the outer-expression of our ideas about style, whether we claim to follow fashion or believe ourselves immune to its dictates. These are the basis of first impressions. If it’s so in real life, how much more in fiction, where characters tend to have more extremes?
There are some lovely shoe obsessed characters, from Fairy tales, such as Cinderella, and The Red Shoes, to modern fiction, such as the stories of V.I. Warshawski, bySara Paretsky and Carrie Bradshaw (Sex and the City), by Candace Bushnell. Okay, so you don’t want to create a character-copy. I didn’t think you would.
I’m just wondering, if I asked you about the first memorable pair of shoes your character had, would you be able to give me an answer?