By Maxine Meixner
It was said in East Lowsham that if one had a good pair of shoes, one could travel to all the known corners of all the known world and break bread with a queen. Like most adages of old, you shouldn’t look too closely to make sense of it. But it was an odd saying, especially for a town where nobody ever seemed to go anywhere.
Despite this, they all had rather lovely shoes.
And the shoes themselves lasted for years and years. One could attribute this, at least in part, to the insignificant number of steps taken by the wearers, but the residents of East Lowsham never seemed to acknowledge this. Mostly, they credited their long-lasting shoes to the honesty of the local shoemaker, the skill and repair of the local cobbler and the care that they themselves gave to them. As soon as a shoe showed the slightest sense of wear, the owner simply trotted down to the cobbler’s, which was a small building fronted with brown bricks and nestled between the bakery and the butchery. A rusted iron sign of a shoe beneath a hammer hung lopsided above the door, and often creaked tiredly in the wind. Here, the residents of East Lowsham brought their poorly shoes to be tended to by the cobbler and his apprentice, a young boy with deft hands and no family. And so it went.
It was a simple way, here in East Lowsham. Everyone had their trade, and they plied it each day. With the day’s work done, they would eat the food they bought from the baker and the butcher and drink warm pints of Arbinam’s at Jolly Malone’s, only for it all to begin again the next day. And there was no need to leave East Lowsham, the residents often remarked (although, of course they could very well do so if they wanted, what with their wonderful shoes!), when everything one could ever need was here in this very place.
And this was how things were, until one day they weren’t.
The cobbler died one autumn evening, quietly and alone. He was wrapped up in a blanket by his fireplace thinking about his sole - the left one on his boots needed some attention, the gentle friction from scuffing about his workshop had created the most miniscule hole in the bottom. But he died that night, and his sole was left holey. He was found by his apprentice the next morning. The cobbler was buried that very afternoon, the entirety of East Lowsham coming together to mourn him and his expertise. The town was apprehensive - after all, who would tend to their shoes now? Was the apprentice ready for such a responsibility?
The apprentice was small and round and wore wire frames with thick glass to help him see. He was at the age of in-between, hovering around being boy and man and filled with the fumbling awkwardness that comes with being not quite either. And though the town was wary, they soon found that he had been trained well, devoting as much care and precision to his repairs as his mentor had before him. The apprentice – for this was still how he was known – missed the old cobbler, but did not have much time to give to these thoughts, what with the seemingly endless number of shoes that required his attention. He had a purpose to fill, after all. Time passed, and this was how things were. Until one day, they weren’t.
It was said in East Lowsham that if one had a good pair of shoes, one could travel to all the known corners of all the known world and break bread with a queen.
She had a bright yellow ribbon in her hair and tears on the cuffs of her shorts. She was perched on the brick wall across the street, focusing intently on the small, tattered book that she clutched tightly in her hands. Her bare feet swung beneath her like pendulums, the soles blackened with dirt.
The apprentice saw her through the window as he was stretching out the leather of the milkman’s boots. His hands stopped what he was doing as he stared at the girl, curious and confused. He knew everyone in East Lowsham. It wasn’t hard, after all, having lived here all of his short life, in a small town out in the far reaches where nothing ever changes. The girl looked of a similar age to him. It would be rude, he told himself as he downed his tools and placed a hastily scrawled sign on the door which he shut firmly behind him, it would be rude if he did not introduce himself. No one in East Lowsham should ever feel lonely – and he imagined knowing no one must make one feel incredibly alone.
And so, feeling proud of his manners and kindness, he puffed up his chest and he swaggered across the cobbled street to say hello.
‘Hello,’ he said. The girl looked up from her book and closed it, her thumb remaining between the pages to mark her place.
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘What do you want?’ The apprentice blinked. ‘To keep you company.’ He said it as if it were obvious.
‘I don’t need any company,’ the girl said, and she opened her book and began to read once more. The apprentice blinked again, this time in confusion. His face was hot and his arms felt too long – he suddenly didn’t know what to do with them. He clasped them behind his back and hoped he looked polite.
‘What are you reading?’ he asked.
‘Epfaltus,’ she replied, not looking up.
‘Wow,’ he said. The apprentice turned over his shoulder to glance back at his store where he saw his arithmetic teacher on the street peering through the dusty window, her one hand cupped over her eyes to shield out the sun and the other clutching a pair of battered boots. Her foot tapped a staccato beat as she checked her wristwatch. The apprentice sighed. He took a few reluctant steps back towards the shop but then paused, wrestling with his curiosity. He turned back to the girl.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked her.
‘That’s a nice name,’ the apprentice said, twiddling his thumbs and glancing shiftily back towards the shop as he waited for her to ask him his name. She didn’t.
‘Thank you,’ Juniper said, and she looked up from the pages of her tatty old book to beam at him. Tiny little wrinkles appeared at the corners of her eyes and a solitary dimple popped in her cheek. ‘It was my grandmother’s name,’ she told him
‘I don’t know any other Junipers,’ the apprentice said. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Where is that?’
‘Not here,’ she shrugged. And she closed her book with a thump and rested it on the brick beside her. Out of the pocket of her patched and fraying shorts she pulled out a small brown bag. ‘Want one?’
‘What are they?’ he said, gingerly perching on the wall beside her. He watched as his arithmetic teacher let out an exasperated sigh and flounced down towards the market, but told himself he would think about that later. He turned his attention to the girl, Juniper, who was holding the bag out in front of him. She shook it lightly.
‘Rustie Nibs. Sweets. You don’t have them here. Try one.’
Juniper pulled a small orange orb out of the bag and held it up to his lips. The apprentice opened his mouth and she gently placed the sweet on his tongue. His eyes widened as a tart, biting flavour filled his mouth. He spat out the sweet, where it clattered a few times on the cobbles and shattered.
‘You said these were sweets!’ he spluttered.
And Juniper threw her head back and laughed, and that was one of the sweetest things he had heard in his short life.
Time passed, and this was how things were. Until one day, they weren’t.
There is a place in the woods just outside of East Lowsham where nobody goes. Not for fear or caution, more for the (as previously stated) notion of nobody going anywhere outside of East Lowsham. And besides, the mud and dirt would ruin one’s good shoes.
The trees twisted together closely and only thin beams of sun were able to find their way to the forest floor. It was soft under his shoes, so soft. The apprentice felt uneasy amongst the rich, damp green of the woods and missed the reassuring clip clop that normally accompanied his steps on the cobbles. Juniper marched ahead of him, clutching a long stick in her hand which she was using to thwack aside bushes and plants that had had the gumption to grow in their path. She trod confidently on twigs and stones. The apprentice winced each time her bare foot struck the earth, but Juniper showed no sign of discomfort.
‘Where are your shoes?’ he called after her, panting slightly as he climbed over a fallen log.
‘I don’t like wearing them.’
‘That’s ridiculous!’ the apprentice puffed. ‘Everyone likes wearing shoes. They keep your feet clean, and warm, and - dry. And they’re practical, but also - pleasing on the eye too. They can bring - a whole look - together.’ He stopped and doubled over, his breath coming in short gasps. The sun, which had felt mild when they set out from town, now felt fierce and oppressive.
Juniper looked back at him thoughtfully for a moment before marching on in silence. The apprentice groaned, wiped the sweat from his brow and dutifully plodded after her.
They soon emerged from under the canopy of trees into a small clearing. The grass was long and swayed in the gentle wind. They had to stomp about like giants to make their way through it. They almost crossed the clearing when Juniper stopped suddenly, closed her eyes, and tilted her face towards the sun. She inhaled deeply. The apprentice watched as a gentle smile lifted the corners of her mouth. The breeze felt cool on his skin, soothing.
She opened her eyes, found him staring. He quickly looked away. She squashed down a small circle of grass with her feet and sat on it, gesturing for him to do the same.
They sat facing each other, knees close to touching. Overhead, a distant bird called as it wheeled in the sky above them before disappearing over the treetops.
‘Close your eyes,’ Juniper said. He did, peeking through his eyelashes for just a moment to see that she did the same.
‘You can feel the sun on your face,’ Juniper said to him. ‘You can feel it warm the top of your head so sometimes it feels like you’re burning, like a candle. You can feel it, can’t you?’
‘And you can feel the wind, how it tickles the tiny little fuzzy hairs on your cheeks?’
He nodded again.
‘And you can hear the birds in the branches, and the leaves whispering to each other, and the crunch of sticks and stones when you step on them?’
He nodded once more.
‘But you can’t feel the earth between your toes.’
The apprentice frowned.
‘Or the soft wetness of leaves underfoot. Or a stone stuck into your hard skin.’
‘Or the bugs bursting when you squish them,’ the apprentice retorted.
‘Would you rather have nothing?’
The apprentice stayed silent, unsure where she was going. Juniper was silent for some time. He slowly opened his eyes and stared at his shoes, crusted with mud, scuffed, twigs wedged between the laces.
‘Unless you feel all of it, you aren’t really alive,’ Juniper said eventually. She was watching him closely again.
‘My heart is beating, I am alive,’ the apprentice scoffed.
‘Is your soul?’
‘They’re fine, they’re well-mended and looked after.’
She didn’t laugh. He supposed it wasn’t funny, and tried not to think much of it.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘People wear shoes. It keeps them safe and unhurt. That’s the way it is.’
‘Well maybe everyone is wrong. Maybe everyone doesn’t have to wear shoes.’
‘That’s not possible.’
‘Because it’s just how it is.’
‘Have you ever tried not wearing shoes, even for a day?’
‘No, but –’
‘Do you want to be a cobbler?’ she asked him suddenly. She shimmied closer to him, so close their knees rested against each other.
‘That’s what I am,’
‘That’s just how it is.’
‘Things always are the way they are. Until they aren’t.’
‘Things stay the same here, mostly.’
‘So go somewhere else.’
The apprentice laughed so loudly Juniper jumped. ‘You’re funny,’ he told her. ‘That doesn’t ever happen. People don’t leave East Lowsham.’
‘People should do what they can to feel alive,’ Juniper murmured, frowning. She tore up blades of grass from the earth, twisted them between her fingertips. ‘And for me, that’s not wearing shoes. I like how it feels. I like how high I can skip and the jolt of the landing – how I feel it roll all the way from the balls of my feet up my calves and through my heart and out the top of my head. My toes tell a story, they do. I like feeling the world through my feet. I like feeling the world completely. Nothing between me and everything. It’s real, it is.’ She scrutinised the apprentice, her eyes filled with something he couldn’t quite name. ‘Promise me something?’ she half-whispered.
He nodded, squinting at her in the sunlight.
‘Try it one day.’
Juniper left East Lowsham the next week. She didn’t say goodbye; the apprentice simply went to open the shop one morning and found a small brown bag of Rustie Nibs on the doorstep.
Every day, he mended shoes.
The thing with mending shoes every day, the apprentice soon realised, was that you get rather good quite quickly. So good, in fact, that soon he didn’t have to think about it at all, which left far too much time to think about other things.
Like the ribbon in her hair. The frayed clothes she wore. Her dirty feet. Mostly, he thought about her smile, and how he didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone here smile as much as she did.
He hoped that one day he would see her again.
Time passed as it does in East Lowsham – slowly. The apprentice grew taller, leaner and changed the style of his wire frames but for the most part felt the same. He worked in the day and drank at Jolly’s in the evening. He made friends with the apprentice shoemaker and the butcher’s son and they would laugh together, sometimes. He polished shoes and stretched leather and patched holes. He thought, a lot, but he tried not to.
He was in his shop on a grey day some springtime after, when he suddenly saw a flash of yellow out of the corner of his eye. He turned towards the window, heart jittering, half-expecting to see her with her bright ribbon in her hair at last, back after so long and smiling just as wide and as freely as before – but it was only the shopkeeper with a crate of lemons. The apprentice watched as the shopkeeper stumbled and cursed, the odd lemon rolling from the crate to bounce down the street. One ambled clumsily through the open door into the shop, rolling along the mottled wooden floor before coming to rest against the counter with a soft thunk.
The apprentice sighed. He turned back to the pair of shoes he was working on, and as he stared at the shiny smooth leather, he saw a future spool out in front of him like the laces that lay tangled on the side of his workbench. He saw his place here in East Lowsham, clear as day. An easy, dull place, but a place molded to him. A place he knew and had always known. A place where he could fit just right, and be.
Or he could go.
Maybe he would find her. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he would be an apprentice elsewhere. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he would starve. Maybe he wouldn’t.
So many possibilities.
A loud greeting from the doorway. In walked the tailor, shoes in one hand, money in another. The apprentice shook his head to clear the clutter from his mind and greeted his customer with a smile that almost looked real, if one didn’t look close enough.
And that’s how things were.
He never saw Juniper again. But he went to the woods sometimes. And there, and only there, he would take off his shoes and feel the grass between his toes, and wonder.