The relationship’s been difficult. Reportedly, my shoes weren’t upsized regularly enough when my feet were pre-school, so I developed two bent toes on each foot. I have long toes (and fingers). After the age of nine, a visit to the shoe shop was an occasion to dread, because my stepmother decided the best correction would be boys’ shoes. There was a ‘Start-rite’ poster on the shoe-shop door – a picture of a boy and girl holding hands and walking away up a path. It reminded me of my brother and myself, but also of Hansel and Gretel, or Austria (not that I knew anything about Austria – but I did know about Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm).
My husband has good feet – surprising for someone who played football, but they are white – so pale, except for a few blue threads of vein, visible where the skin is delicate near the ankle. In short, his feet never see the light. Except for bed, they are permanently covered. He is a fine example of that masculine fashion faux pas – socks with sandals. This saddens me, because I like bare, suntanned feet – they symbolise qualities I value and find attractive.
…And one of my girlfriends has perfect feet – smooth skin, straight toes and a faultless pedicure. When I first met her, her toenails were painted in a pale glossy caramel. She laughed when I later told her how I covertly admired them.
So, as a child, I would be fitted with boys’ lace-up square-toed leather shoes, in black, made by ‘Tuf’. I’d look over the displays of round-toed girls’ shoes with their shining buckles and patent leather – maybe an embroidered or punch-worked pattern. ‘Well, do they fit?’ my stepmother would demand. I’d merely regard my feet dismally – sullenly, and she’d have to summon the shop-assistant to press around my toes, then I’d be commanded to walk up and down to ensure the heels didn’t slip. I was made to wear boys’ long grey scratchy woollen socks, while all my schoolmates skipped around daintily in short white ‘bobby-socks’. To complete the look, my stepmother had my long hair cut short.
One evening when I was chopping old pallets for kindling (a regular on my list of after-school chores) I stood on a 3-inch nail. It went through my frayed slipper and my foot. I put all the weight onto my other foot, and a nail pierced that too.
After I ran away from home, I worked with horses. My feet were sixteen hours a day in rubber riding boots. After six months, I developed so many painful verrucas I couldn’t walk, and eventually had to be carried to the doctor’s to have them removed.
In the 70s, I began to wear the latest fashions in footwear. Back then, it was the platform, although when I first saw them, they reminded me of the special medical shoe I’d seen on a boy with a clubfoot at school. My Estonian grandmother needed a size 9 shoe. My feet reached size 7 (41 in international). Although that’s quite normal now, the largest size in a fashionable shoe then was 6, so I spent the next fifteen years crushing my feet like an Ugly Sister into the most outrageously high and, I thought, sexy, shoes I could find and afford. There was pain. And eventually there were bunions, leading to more pain – also embarrassment. On the beach, forced to be barefoot, I would wriggle my toes into the sand, hoping no-one would notice these (to me) terrible deformities.
Eventually I visited a specialist who prodded and poked, scribbled on a form, and told me I would be put on a waiting-list for an operation. I married, and my husband wouldn’t accept my hatred for my feet. He massaged and kissed them. I was astonished when the pre-natal doctor asked me the size of them. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘that means you have a good pelvis for childbirth.’ Ten years had passed. I’d begun to wear more relaxed footwear. There was seldom pain. Then a letter arrived giving six days’ notice of the op. I’d forgotten all about the specialist and the waiting-list. I wasn’t sure if I still wanted the op.
I was admitted into hospital healthy and pain-free, but woke in agony with both feet in plaster. Recuperation was long, and when the casts were removed, my leathered soles came away too, leaving my feet newborn and tender, but with lurid scars. But more than that – I seemed to suffer a change in personality. The thought of returning to the marginally glamorous job I held in P.R. became a source of horror. So I gave up the work that provided us with a good Thatcherite lifestyle, and decided a more rustic way was for me – that, and at thirty-five, it was now or never for another child.
I wore men’s shoes to go window cleaning. I liked the simple immediacy of the work – you provide a service – you get paid. No backbiting or office politics. Ladder climbing had taken on a new meaning.
After the second baby, and by the time of my divorce, I’d begun to wear hippy clothes. They were long and flowing, ornate with fringes, jingles, mirrors and embroidery. And on my feet: nothing – nothing but nail-varnish and a silver chain. Once, when I was running across the road in sandals, all dressed up and ready for a summer wedding, I tripped. It dislocated my second toe, making it stick up vertically. I went to A&E and was given gas and air while the joint was relocated. It made me giggle. I still made it to the wedding.
Now? Shoes are a necessity for uneven, cold, or wet surfaces, but whenever I can, I kick them off. Now I’ve learned to accept these feet. They’ve carried me well, considering. Last year I met a Compostela pilgrim on his way, and felt drawn to the idea of that walking – not to a physical destination, but with the mantra of steady footsteps – to an inner knowledge. Maybe… one day. In the meantime, I just keep putting one in front of the other. The results expand my exterior and interior world. And the scars? They faded.