by Sandra Arnold
The Shoe Polishing Shop had stood empty for many years on a windy corner in a street of derelict buildings. Years ago it had been part of a thriving marketplace where schoolchildren jostled for space between the fishmonger’s and the butcher’s and the glowing braziers tended by mahogany-faced men roasting chestnuts. Where thrifty housewives ducked under the rows of secondhand clothing dangling from lines strung between stalls laden with fruit and vegetables. Old men gathered around Joshua Shippe’s shoe‑polishing box to enjoy a gossip while he mixed the dyes and waxes and flourished his dusters. A visit to the market was not complete without an inspection of Hannah Shippe’s Bargain Basement where she sold china tea sets and secondhand ornaments. In the window of her shop stood an alabaster statue, a child, quite valuable. But despite the offers that came her way that was one ornament she would never part with, though she would never say why. She kept it waxed and gleaming, taking care to prevent the inscription at the base of the statue from filling with grime.
When Joshua and Hannah died, their son Benedict moved the family business into spacious premises vacated by the greengrocer who had opened up a real estate business in a better part of town. The stock in the Bargain Basement was sold off to help finance the new shoe‑polishing shop, which he called The Last Footwear Company, but the alabaster child couldn’t be found. Which was a pity, said Benedict, as the money would have been useful. Inevitably the stalls diminished in size and number. Young women shopped in the new supermarkets and children watched television after school. For Sale or Rent notices flapped on empty shop windows, until the vandals moved in and there was no glass left to stick the notices to.
Benedict conducted market research and concluded that there was no demand for a shoe‑polishing operation. He’d always done some cobbling, but with the advent of instant heel‑bars in the malls he couldn’t compete. So he shut up shop and planted his vegetable garden at home and smoked his pipe in the sun. Rumours circulated about property developers acquiring the old market place site for a motel development and though a handful of people protested about the loss of character, the majority said it was an eye‑sore anyway and ought to be demolished.
Isobelle Shippe planted a herb garden and sewed clothes for her family. ‘We must diversify, Benedict,’ she said and rode on her bicycle to the fashionable part of town to sell her garments to a children’s boutique and her home‑made soap to the craft shop. The woman running the craft shop mentioned that there was a demand for organically-grown vegetables and Isobelle arranged for Benedict to bring his cabbages and pumpkins to the back of the shop each day. By careful management, they saved enough money to send their daughter Becky to a private girls school.
When Becky left university with a degree in English and a baby girl called Septigissima, her careers counsellor advised her to take up teaching.
‘Think of the security,’ said Isobelle.
‘And steady income,’ said Benedict.
‘Nice short hours and long holidays.’
‘And you can combine it with raising a family.’
‘But I don’t want to teach,’ said Becky.
‘Well… what else is there for a girl in your circumstances to do?’
‘I want to open the old shop and start a shoe‑polishing business.’
Benedict fainted and after only the briefest hesitation Isobelle reached for her cheque book.
With her mother’s cheque and the cash the relatives coughed up for her twenty‑first birthday, there was enough money to buy paint stripper, roofing iron, weatherboards and wallpaper. Becky rounded up her friends and coerced them into service. Work began at the end of winter and by early summer the shoe‑polishing shop was open for business.
The first customers were the relatives and friends who had supported the venture, but word‑of‑mouth spread the news and more people dropped by out of curiosity.
‘The shop looks delightfully colourful now,’ people commented to Isobelle as she handed them a cup of coffee while they waited for their shoes to be shined. ‘But surely there can’t be any call these days for a specialised shop such as this?’
I wouldn’t have thought so either,’ confided Benedict. ‘And I worry that she has sunk so much of her capital into improving the look of the place.’
‘It’s important to diversify,’ smiled Isobelle. ‘So she’s torn down the outbuildings and added a bookshop at the back where parents can browse while their children play in the kiddi‑corner. And soon she’ll set up a health food bar.’
‘But who cares about a shine on their shoes?’ persisted the doubters.
‘If they don’t already they soon will,’ said Becky, ‘when they see what a difference a professional shine can make.’
And as green and blue summer slid into red and gold autumn and indigo winter, the customers who had dropped by once a month for a professional shine began to come in every week and then every morning before work. And back again at lunch time to sit in the health food bar and gossip over hearty soups and wholemeal sandwiches.
A group of artists formed a collective and set up stalls for pottery, stained glass, hand‑woven clothes and tie‑dyed jeans. A French bakery rented premises across the street, followed by a toymaker from Switzerland who made exquisite hand‑painted wooden toys. As all the shops filled up the street became a focal point for locals, and tourist bus companies began including it in their itineraries. By the end of the following year there was a waiting list for crafts‑people who wanted to rent premises.
One day a beautiful young cobbler with soft amber eyes wandered into the shop and asked for work. Becky looked at his references and hired him on the spot. She didn’t regret it, for over the following weeks Costa did wonders in increasing the demand for quality shoe repairs, despite the heel‑bar in the mall.
On a bright sunny day in spring Becky went to the pre‑school at the end of the street, to collect Septigissima. Hand in hand they strolled among the stalls, examining rainbow wool jerseys, re‑cycled wood crafted into satin-smooth fruit bowls and admiring hand‑painted silk scarves and stained-glass mobiles. Septigissima held up a ruby glass butterfly to let it sparkle in the sun. Becky looked down the bustling street and at her child’s bright face and let herself savour the feeling that she had never been so happy. For a long time afterwards she blamed her complacency at that moment for what happened next.
There was a commotion in the street and people began running and shouting. Something black extinguished the sun and street stalls were trampled in the panic to escape.
Becky last glimpsed Septigissima standing alone in an empty street. Rapidly closing in on her was an enormous bull with two incredibly long sharp horns. Septigissima didn’t seem to notice. She was intent on selecting a piece of toffee from a bag. Becky tried to reach out for her and call her name, but Septigissima didn’t hear.
When the street lamps came on again Becky saw she had wandered far from home. Nothing was familiar in this landscape of derelict buildings. There was a light on in the one shop left standing in the street and she could see a man sweeping debris from the floor. Becky approached him to ask for directions, but the only name she could remember was The Bargain Basement. The man shook his head. His wife came out of the shop and heard Becky’s request.
‘Go back the way you came,’ she said.
Becky thanked her and started to retrace her steps. She could hear the couple arguing as she walked away. A couple of blocks down the road water was pouring out of the drains into the gutters. Further along still the road was flooded and people were rowing in boats or swimming. Becky started swimming too, being careful to keep away from the drains when she saw several people being sucked underneath.
Near the end of the road she was able to touch the bottom with her feet and walked out onto dry land. The sun had risen and was warm enough to dry her clothes to an endurable dampness as she walked on searching for recognizable street names. This area was bleak and deserted apart from the rats squeaking in and out of doorways. Becky remembered her grandmother showing her photos of European streets after the war with doorways standing alone and the buildings behind them reduced to piles of rubble and broken glass.
Then she saw it. In faded red letters above a doorway: THE BARGAIN BASEMENT. Becky ran through the door frame and climbed over the piles of bricks and rotting beams. She sat down by the remains of the fireplace and picked up pieces of broken willow pattern.
She remembered Benedict saying it was important to build on firm foundations and Isobelle reminding him it was equally important to diversify. Smiling at the memory, Becky stood up and began searching. Finding a hole in the floorboards, she squeezed through the foisty blackness under the foundations. She knew that if she decided to stay here no one would ever find her, but as her eyes grew accustomed to the dark, she saw a small statue lying on its side. Now, for the first time, she allowed herself to weep.
When she had no more tears left, she wiped her face and picked up the statue. She ran her fingers over its face and body and tried to read the inscription at the base, but it was too encrusted with grime. Holding the statue carefully, she squeezed back through the hole, over the rubble and out into daylight.
When people recognized her walking down the street to her shoe shop, they smiled in welcome, but knew better than to comment. Becky had expected to find The Last Footwear Company locked and empty and was surprised to see her staff still working as though she had never been away. They looked up, but only the cobbler made a movement towards her, before he checked himself.
She climbed the stairs to her flat above the shop and stood the statue on a table in a corner. Then, desperately weary, she sank into a chair and waited for nightfall.
At last came the expected hammering at the door. Word travelled fast around these parts.
‘Time to go,’ said Becky. She ordered her staff to lock all the windows and gather together in the bookshop.
‘I’ll stay with you,’ said the cobbler.
‘No,’ she insisted.
Becky stood in front of the door and watched the frame splinter. The door smashed open and a red‑faced man stood there grunting and snorting, his greasy red hair sticking up in coarse tufts.
Becky’s knees began to tremble. ‘Get out!’ she ordered.
His grin grew wider. ‘I’m evicting you!’
‘Get out!’ repeated Becky, knowing that one way or another it was over.
He moved towards her and she shot out her arms and pushed his belly. He burst like a balloon and pieces of torn red plastic floated away in the wind. Becky shut the door and leaned against it, exhausted.
The staff drifted back into the shop with frightened eyes. After a quick conference they decided to make beds on the floor of the shop, just to be certain. Becky started to select waxes and dusters from behind the counter. The cobbler laid his hand on her arm. ‘Tomorrow I want to talk to you about diversifying.’
Alone in her flat she cleaned the alabaster statue then polished it till it glowed. After that she began work on the inscription at the base and prised out the grime with a pocket knife. It was written in Greek. Tomorrow she would ask Costa the meaning.
Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She is the author of A Distraction of Opposites, Tomorrow’s Empire andSing no Sad Songs. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. Her short stories have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand, published in literary journals including Landfall, Sport and Takaheand anthologised in Social Alternatives, Dreadlocks and The Best New Zealand Fiction, amongst others. Her awards include the 2014 Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writers Residency and the 2015 New Zealand Heritage Week Short Story Competition. She was shortlisted for the 2016 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship. Her flash fiction won second place in the July 2016 The Short Story Flash500 Competition and the September 2016 Zero Flash Competition. She was long-listed in the 2016 Flash Frontier Competition, Highly Commended in the 2016 North & South Competition and was a Notable Contender in the 2016Bristol Prize. Her flash fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Flash Frontier, The Linnet’s Wings, Flashflood Journal, The Story Shack, Fewer than 500, Fictive Dream, Olentangy Review, Zero Fiction, We are a Website, North & South, Spontaneity, Spelk and The Baby Shoes Project. She is currently completing a new novel and a collection of short stories. http://authors.org.nz/author/sandraarnold/.