“I’ll take them,” I hear myself say, and suddenly, my heart is fluttering randomly like a butterfly in my chest. “I’ll keep them on.”
The two young sales assistants exchange snooty glances, rolling black-rimmed eyes at each other. One of them goes to get a bag for my old grey trainers, while the other processes my purchase at the till.
As I teeter out of the store on my new high heels, I hear the ring of their mocking laughter, and my spine stiffens.
I glance down at my feet. Four hundred euros of Swarovski encrusted soft silver leather now adorn each one, balanced on a perfectly crafted, needle-thin mirrored heel.
I push back the panic which is welling into my throat, locking away the guilt for later. I just want to enjoy the elation which is coursing through my body. It is a long time since I have felt the excitement which accompanies an illicit act. I am appalled, and enthralled, by my own audacity.
I don’t just walk around the shopping centre, I float, basking in the admiring glances of passers-by. I may be a woman of a certain age, but in my skinnies, and with a heel, my legs still look good. I drop my trainers in a bin.
It is Culchie Day; December 8th, the day when traditionally, all the country folk visit Dublin for the big Christmas shopping trip. The shops are crowded. The decorations are overblown and gaudy. The seasonal songs are grating. The eagerness to spend, spend, spend is impulsive and overwhelming, a mass frenzy which has people competing to snap up bargains, splash out on luxuries, and procure what will be St Stephen’s Day’s unwanted gifts.
I am swept away on this tide of consumerism, happy to flow for a while in this vast sea of human flesh. I drift where it takes me, like flotsam in the current.
After a few hours, it washes me into Starbucks. I queue for coffee, squeeze onto a vacant bar stool, and with that first bitter sip, acknowledge the uneasy feelings which push against the edge of my euphoria.
I have done a terrible thing.
Emboldened by admission, my guilt breaks free of its bonds, and I am seized by sudden trembling. I set down my cup.
I can feel something unravelling deep inside me, and I don’t know how to stop it. It has been threatening for years, ever since that day six years ago, when the doctors had handed back my new mystery child and washed their hands of us.
They had done everything humanly possible to wrench him from the doors of death. They had fixed up his weak, malformed little body as best they could, leaving me to rear a child so rare, so complex, so unfathomable, no one knew how to help me, or him.
But it’s Ok, because I am strong, so people confidently tell me, while telling themselves I am the kind of woman who can cope with any truckloads of shit life throws her way.
But they’re wrong. Their expectation only piles the pressure on a woman who is already overloaded. I smile and agree, while all the time shoring up the gaps as another piece of me crumbles. It looks solid and immoveable, this great wall I have built. Little do they know it is built on foundations of sand, and now the sands are shifting.
The money I blew on shoes was all I had to buy Christmas gifts for my children, who are eagerly eyeing the advent calendar every morning, counting down the days till Santa’s visit. This year, what will they find beneath the tree? Mama’s glittery shoes. My gift to me.
I feel my mouth run dry as bile rises in my stomach.
When I saw those shoes, twinkling with allure on their own stage beneath their own spotlight, I was immediately star-struck. Before I knew it, they were on my feet and I was strutting up and down, throwing my hard-won cash at the staff with imperious hand.
What had I been thinking? I was just a woman past her best with lines of tiredness in her face, and the flat gaze of hopelessness, sporting the hoodie, jeans and old trainers of someone who didn’t care too much about herself any more.
Feeling the heat of shame burn in my cheeks, I raise my cappuccino to my lips, but it has gone cold. I set it back down on the counter, and take a deep breath. I rummage frantically in my handbag for my purse. A few coins are all that remain. I’ll need them for the car parking.
I grab my phone and check my bank balance; less than a hundred and fifty euros left until pay-day. I feel so faint, I think I am going to fall from my stool. My coffee-swigging neighbours glance at me in alarm. I smile wan reassurance at them.
Inside, I’m panicking. How am I going to create Christmas for my family on that?
My husband will hit the roof. I can’t expect him to understand something I can’t even comprehend myself.
Beneath the table, the first faint throb begins to pulse through my feet. I slide out of my beautiful new shoes, sighing with relief as I spread my cramped toes. I reach down to the tender buds of blisters blooming on my heels, and realise that the more expensive the shoe, the less likely they are to comfortably accommodate anything foot-shaped.
And suddenly, the crowded café with its warm coffee-scented air and its cloying Christmas music is too stifling for me. The more deeply I breathe, the less oxygen I seem to take in.
I stab my feet back into my shoes and stumble out into the mall. I’m no longer floating on cushions of air, but hobbling across a hotbed of nails. I take the pain as penance. I barge through stressy, spent-up shoppers, searching for an exit. I need fresh air.
Outside, the afternoon is dark, dreary, the pavement rain-washed and pocked with puddles. My shoes light up like a pair of constellations in the headlights of passing cars, but I am no longer dazzled by them. Now they have me gripped in their spell, I realise that theirs is dark magic indeed.
I lean against a wall and suck in damp, wintry air. It chills me, but clears my head a little. People hurry past me to the car-park, laden with bags and boxes, shoulders hunched against the elements. I lift my face, feel my hair pulled back by the wind, icy water tracing a route down my neck with unforgiving fingers.
Then I walk. I just follow the path in front of my feet. It turns intermittently this way and that, and so do I. I cross the car-park exit without raising my eyes, and don’t even flinch when a car screeches to a halt, beeping loudly. I just walk, splashing my designer shoes through dirty puddles with a perverse sense of satisfaction, while I get wetter and colder, and then find myself pausing outside the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
The entrance is brightly lit and welcoming.
I need a drink.
And once again my brain disengages, and I find myself in auto mode. I walk into the foyer, book a room at reception, then buy a bottle of Prosecco at the bar.
The room is a shoebox, dark, well-furnished but characterless. I sit on the sumptuous bed, shaking. I switch off my mobile, turn on the TV, and pour the wine. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but tonight I’m not going home.
I swim into consciousness, unsure if the noise I hear is the beating of my heart or the ache thumping in my head.
“Let me in,” calls a familiar voice, and I sit up, wide awake. I’m not sure which is worse, the dizziness and nausea, or the throb in my feet.
“Go away,” I mutter.
He hears me. “Open the bloody door, or I’ll beat it down.”
I let him in. I am afraid to meet his eyes, but he rushes forward and scoops me into his arms. I want to melt into him, but I push him away.
“Don’t,” I say, and retreat. I sit nervously on the edge of the bed. “Are the kids OK?”
He would be within his rights to retort, “As if you care,” but he doesn’t. He closes the door, follows me into the room, and sits beside me. He runs a hand through his hair, then lets it drop helplessly into his lap.
“They’re having a sleepover at Sally’s. Can you please tell me what the hell is going on? I’ve been out of my mind with worry.”
How can I explain something which is incomprehensible even to me? I say instead, “How did you find me?”
He sighs. “I rang all your friends, the hospitals, the police. I didn’t know what to think. Eventually I got in the car and drove down here. Your car’s still in the car park… it’s been clamped. I just thought I’d check the hotels…” his voice trails way, and I see his eyes move to the bed, then back to me. He frowns. “Is there… someone else?”
I almost laugh. Who would want me? Middle-aged, shapeless, invisible, depressed.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snap.
He takes my hands. “Then what is it?” I can hear the hurt in his voice.
“Why aren’t you angry?”
“I was. I am. I’ve been through the full range of emotions in the last few hours, believe me. I was so scared that something had happened to you, a car crash, or an accident. I even thought, you know…” he pauses and gulps loudly. “I thought maybe you had jumped off the bridge, or something.”
“I thought about it.” I meet his eyes for the first time. He kisses my hand, not knowing what to say. He looks worried.
“So what happened?” he prompts me gently.
I look away. “I bought shoes.”
He laughs. Just a gentle sound at first, but then his body starts to shake. He throws himself back on the bed and lets the emotion consume him, great guffaws of riotous sound somewhere halfway between hysteria and mirth. Then he lies still.
“I’m glad you find it funny. They cost me every penny of the Christmas money. I’ve just enough left to pay for this room. I can’t afford to get the clamp off the car. There’s nothing left at all for Christmas.”
He pulls me down to him. I resist at first, but he’s not taking no for an answer. “We can take the shoes back when the shops open,” he suggests.
“I don’t think so. I walked around in them all afternoon, and then traipsed through the rain.”
He kisses my hair. “Well keep them, then. Don’t worry about Christmas, we’ll have to tighten our belts a bit, but we’ll manage. I just need to know why. You owe me that much at least. Don’t you love me any more?”
But I am not able to explain. The bottle containing my emotion has been uncorked, and there’s no stopping the flow. So we just lie together through the dawn while my tears slide, silent and unrelenting, listening to the sounds of the world gradually wake around us, and I wish that time would linger and wrap us in a bubble and forget about us.
I am woken some time later by his voice, brimming with amusement. “Are these your Cinderella shoes?” He holds up the offending articles.
They look a little worse for wear after the abuse I put them through. The shiny mirror heels are scuffed, and a few diamantes are missing from the toes. The leather is soaked, discoloured. Their magic has worn off. They just look kitsch and tawdry.
“Not your usual style,” is all he says, setting them down on the dressing table. “I’m going to pay for the room. Meet me downstairs when you’re ready.”
I hurry into the shower, then slip back into my jeans. They are still a little damp from the rain. I sit on the bed looking at the shoes glowing on the dressing table like a glittering work of art.
Then I walk out of the room bare foot. I don’t need them where I’m going.