Inheritance

She was being taken to buy new boots. She was always needing new things - she ran too much, grew too quickly, wore out shoes, clothes, her mother. It was a struggle, Marie knew by the time she was twelve, having a child whose feet grew a whole size every few months, and worried what size they made shoes up to, at what point did you have to go barefoot. She went with her Gran to the small parade of shops near where they lived, to the one shoe shop, the only one necessary. It had long curved windows polished so bright and clear you felt you could put your hand straight through and touch the plain black pumps, sensible brown leather courts, men’s working boots and a carefully arranged display of shoe horns, boot shapers and shoe stretchers hanging from plastic hooks in order of size. As they walked in following the long winding curve of the window down the black and white tiled corridor there were silver party shoes, high sling-back stilettos, and peep toe mules with diamante studded heels that curved into almost nothing at the bottom, shoes made for dance floors not pavements. Her gran dusted her coat down with hands that were pink and round with small fingers like mini pork sausages. Everything about her was round and plump, except for her feet, which, it was generally agreed, were very dainty, size three, small and lady like and her ankles puffed and spilled out over the tops of her brown ankle boots, making them look even smaller. At her last fitting, Marie was a devastating size five. She’d asked her mother why when she wasn’t tall and her mother had said, “ Don’t blame me, you get your feet off yer father.” She’d asked her dad and he’d said, “There’s nothin’ wrong with ye hen , its yer genetic inheritance. Be proud of it, and anyway, apart from those plates of meat, yer as dainty as a ballerina. And look at that Goldilocks hair, eh?” She’d let him ruffle his fingers through it, knowing it wasn’t gold it was gingery blonde the same as her mother and her gran, though her gran’s was pale now, almost white, and twisted with curling papers into crispy whorls that were stuffed under a black velvet cloche hat that was shiny with years of brushing up the nap and held on with a white pearl pin. Her coat was buttoned up tight around her barrel of a body, she moved with small quick shuffling steps as though it hurt her to walk. Her handbag, the size of a small case and made of battered black leather, hung on her arm, where she held it like a shield in front of the swell of her stomach and breasts. She dropped Marie’s hand and started to fiddle with the clasp, opening it, checking her purse, her door keys, her spare hat pin, running them through her fingers until she saw Marie watching and shut the clasp. As they went in a bell on a spring jangled. She could almost feel her toes growing, the joints creaking slightly and the bones springing forward like a transformation scene in a werewolf movie.

At first they brought out the girls shoes but as she had dreaded, she was already a six, too big and too wide for most of them, so they brought out the ladies boots, the sort of stuff her gran wore in the snow, with thick rubber soles and elasticated plastic tops, black wellington boots and galoshes, hanging big and ugly at the bottom of her legs . She started to ;put her old shoes back on, saying it’s okay, I don’t need boots, but the woman looked at her gran as though asking permission and pulled off a shelf a big flat box that had gold lettering on the lid and a soft black pattern embossed into the cardboard. As soon as she opened it and lifted one partially out checking first with a look to her gran that it was okay, Marie knew, they were The Ones. When her gran nodded, the assistant held them out to her – soft tan leather, knee high and shaped to fit slim legs and shapely ankles, with gently rounded toes and thin leather soles stitched neatly all the way round, and finished with a delicately tapered heel of polished wood.

They pulled on like a second skin with small almost invisible zips on the inside of the leg that made them snug. She stood up and put one foot slightly in front of the other, balancing perfectly on the small dark wooden heels. Somewhere in the background the shop assistant’s voice said the price. She sat down keeping her face blank and strated unzipping them. The shop girl asked her, How do they feel? She mumbled Nice, looking at the swirly patterned carpet, conscious of her gran silently opening her handbag, getting out her second purse, counting out notes one after the other. Her head started buzzing at the thought of having so much money spent on her – she knew she ought to say she didn’t like them or they were too tight in the toes, something that would let her gran put her purse away, but it was too late and the shop assistant was saying, Aren’t you a lucky girl , having such a nice granny and her gran was looking at her saying, If they’re the best fit ye’d better get them, hadn’t you?, then handing over the money to the girl who wrapped them in pale gold tissue paper and laid them carefully in the box.

As they walked home, she was thinking she would hide the box and the tissue paper, for then they wouldn’t look so expensive. They weren’t chatting like they usually did so she said, Thanks granny. Her gran nodded and smiled then went into the butcher and came out with a hough for soup, nothing else. It was wrapped in a piece of newspaper stained red with blood. Marie put the shoe shop bag down on the ground and wrapped her arms around her gran as far as they would go. Her gran tutted and said, They look lovely on you hen, you deserve them – just don’t tell yer Mum and Dad how much they cost.

When her mother came to pick her up after work, she took one look at the boots and without saying anything her gran stood up and they both walked into the kitchen together closing the living-room door behind them. Marie put her ear against the wall, heard her mother hissing “What were you thinking? How much?”, and her gran knocking a few pounds off the price and then they came back into the living-room and everything was normal - tea, biscuits, a word for word description of Mrs McLeod’s hysterectomy as reported by Mrs McLeod herself then a low-voiced murmuring she wasn’t meant to understand about what the Betterware salesman was doing with the new woman upstairs whose husband was away at sea. Marie lost interest and started to stroke her boots, until her mother gave her a sharp look so she tucked her feet under the sofa out of sight. As soon as they got home, her mother told her to hide the box under the bed, saying, Don’t let him see them and don’t say a bloody word, d’ye hear me?

Her mother never swore, so when she heard the bang of the close door and the rhythm of her father’s boots on the stone stairs, she went into the back room without being asked, got out her old toy box and played with childish dolls she hadn’t touched in months, dragging a plastic comb through Barbies hair extension while her father shouted “How much? ” and her mother shushed him as he shouted an amount several pounds less than what her gran had told her mum. Marie was still wearing the boots and she stroked them while her father said, We can take them back can’t we? and her mother didn’t answer and then he swore and she sat hugging her knees in the corner of the room until her mother called her in for dinner. When she opened the living-room door, he didn’t look up at her as he usually did, just sat by the fire, arranging his boots for the next day, then picking up the paper and flicking quickly through the pages, until her mother put three clean plates on the table. She could smell the potatoes burning and hear the last of the boiling water turn to steam, hissing and spitting on the bottom of the pot, which still sat on the stove in the corner on a low heat. Her mother lifted it and threw the potatoes onto their plates with sliced ham and they sat chewing in silence. She went to bed early without being asked, kept the boots by the side of her bed, her fingers slipping out from under the blankets every now and then to touch them, making sure they were still there.

It was warm the next day, but she wore the boots to school anyway. They were lighter, fitted her better than anything else she had ever worn, in the playground they said, No way your granny bought you those? You’ll get into trouble from the teacher, they’re grown-up boots, yer not allowed tae wear grown-up boots. She didn’t care, she sat in class with her legs crossed, ladylike. Miss Kerr didn’t say anything, but Marie saw her looking, a little half smile on her face.

There was Scripture Union after school, where they watched a film about missionaries and Miss Brown told them about The Children in Africa and said Scottish children didn’t know how lucky they were. On the way home, she wondered if she was safe, they couldn’t take them back now, she thought, but the scene at the shoe shop played in her head anyway - her Dad with his fists bunched and his jaw sticking out the way it did when he talked about politics or the Royal family and the shop assistant saying, I’m terribly sorry sir but they’ve already been worn. She let herself in quietly with the key she kept on a string round her neck, then took the boots off and left them beside her bed before going into the living-room. He turned from where he was sitting gazing into the fire, Where are they then? Bring them here...

She fetched them from the bedroom and saw that he’d got out the metal tin that he kept the shoe polish and brushes in. He took them off her and stroked them, I think Light Tan, eh? She nodded dumbly as he opened the tin, breathed the rich waxy smell while he worked the polish in, buffed them up with a duster and handed them over, Just make sure you look after them. She nodded and carried them back into the bedroom before he changed his mind. It was weeks before her grandmother visited their house and the boots were never mentioned, again, though Marie wore them right through winter and spring and into the next summer, by which time her feet had grown and they were starting to pinch. She’d developed a slight limp while wearing them and people had stopped commenting on how nice they were.

Sometime between Christmas and spring, her gran stopped wearing outside clothes and sat all day at the table at the living-room window which faced into the street. Between spring and summer she took to bed. Marie kept visiting and always wore the boots regardless of the weather - she felt it was only polite somehow. She’d draw up a chair next to the bed, undo the zips to get a bit of air into her sweating legs. wriggle her toes and talk about school. By the end of June, she’d stopped talking and sat instead, scratching the insect bites on her legs while her gran slept. The last time Marie saw her was at the end of July. It had become a Freak Summer, pope developed lobster red suntans, men walked along the street stripped to the waist and the Daily Record had a photograph of a woman frying an egg on the pavement. She wore her boots with shorts and a halter neck top. Her feet throbbed as she walked to her gran’s house where she found her awake and sitting up in her crocheted bed jacket with a fresh nightie on, her face thin, her eyes bright. She smiled at Marie and told her to bring over a small jewellery box that sat beneath the dressing-table mirror, opened the lid, said Hold out yer hand, then placed in Marie’s palm an enamelled brooch in the shape of a butterfly, with the veins in the wings picked out in bronze metal. The pin was broken but she held it in her hand letting the light catch the red flecked wings until her gran said she was tired and it was time to go. Marie put the brooch carefully in her bag before zipping up the boots and hobbling out of the room.

Marie had never seen her mother cry before - she cried when the minister said gran was a Good Woman and Loyal Parisioner even though no-one in the family had been to church for years, she cried when they started singing The Old Rugged Cross, she cried washing dishes at the sink, reading the newspaper, stirring sugar into her tea, she cried until they’d finally eaten all the left over sausage rolls and salmon sandwiches from the funeral. Then she suddenly stopped and started eyeing up Marie’s boots and talking ominously about bunions, club feet and hammer toes. She put on make-up for the first time in weeks, shoved the boots in an old shopping bag and marched Marie down to the Salvation Army shop where the air smelled of the racks of old clothing, tweed coats, patterned nylon blouses and yellowing men’s shirts, swaying in the breeze from outside as if they were filled with the ghosts of the people who had worn them. Above the racks of shirts, someone had sellotaped to the wall a band of black paper with Bible quotes printed in gold lettering - ”Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth, Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven, Jesus said,”Today you shall be with me in paradise”

Her mother pushed her towards the counter, said in her best shop voice,

“These are too small for my daughter but they’re extremely good quality”

The woman behind the counter started to smile,

“That’s very kind...

Marie heaved the bag up, let it thump heavily onto the counter, turned and walked out of the shop without speaking. She walked past the stained glass windows of the chapel, past the cafe where they sometimes stopped as a treat, past the shelter where people waited for buses to take them into town and wondered if her gran was in paradise, if she’d been good and meek enough. She hoped that no-one at the school got the boots, maybe one of the kids who she’d been told were not as lucky as her. She heard her mother’s footsteps behind her but pretended not to hear, didn’t stop until they got to the corner of their own street when her mother caught up and shouted, What’s wrong, for goodness sake, you didn’t think they were going to last for ever, did you?” Marie clenched her fists to keep herself from speaking. Her mother reached her arms out and they hovered for a minute. Marie held hers straight by her sides and her eyes on the ground till her mother’s arms fell back again and she smiled too brightly and said, Tell you what, let’s go to Joe’s and get some ice- cream.

She had double scoops of vanilla with raspberry sauce, ate it in silence till every last bit was gone. They went home where her mother made dinner which Marie didn’t eat. No-one said anything not even her father. The cold sweet ache stayed in her stomach all night while she lay awake, her fingers stroking the smooth enamel of her gran’s butterfly brooch.

The summer went quickly after that later, she got new sandals, with gold straps, cork wedge soles and yellow suede daisies on the front - size seven. They got a colour TV, her hair got darker, when her best friend got back from holiday she’d grown breasts and was wearing a bra. It was as though someone had turned a dial on a time machine and life had speeded up – the straps on her sandals burst and the cork soles disintegrated, it was time to go back to school, her gran was gone and there was only the memory of her beautiful kid leather boots.


Morag McDowell-Smith