New Scotland Street Chapter 41: The reading of shoes

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Well-shod in her new pair of Joseph Cheaney boots, with all the security and assurance – not to mention support – that ankle-length footwear can give, Domenica Macdonald made her way down Dundas Street.

As she approached the corner of Heriot Row, she glanced down at her feet, conscious of the pristine look of the fine brown leather – so subtle and yet so strong, and brogue too. Brogue boots, to boot, she thought, and smiled. There were some who thought of brogue as a statement, a political or social pinning of colours to the mast. But it was not that at all, Domenica felt, or not inevitably so. Some people might think brogue a bit … what? Old-fashioned? Domenica, though, knew several people who wore brogue shoes who were not in the slightest bit conservative in their outlook. Brogue shoes had nothing to do with how you viewed the world. Brogue was an aesthetic issue, and you should not judge people by their shoes’ aesthetic qualities. Except sometimes …

She found herself thinking of two-tone, black and white shoes – the sort of shoes once known as co-respondents’ shoes, because they were the classic wear of those who went off with others’ wives. That was absurd, and old-fashioned too – the stuff of a Noel Coward song or a Somerset Maugham short story. Yet black-and-white shoes were relatively unusual and must clearly be a matter of deliberate choice. One would not just happen to have a pair of two-tone shoes – wearing such shoes involved the conscious embracing of the shoes that were striking, were obvious – shoes that were the opposite of discreet or diffident. Shoes such as that said, with shamelessness, often with braggadocio: look at me.

There were other shoes that made a statement. Sensible shoes – that odd, pejorative category of women’s shoes – told you that their wearer was not concerned with fashion – that she preferred comfort to elegance. There was nothing wrong with that, of course, and yet there were limits. There was no reason why attractive shoes should not also be comfortable, even practical. Frumpish shoes, though, shoes that made no effort at all, signalled more than an attachment to comfort. They signalled a lack of interest in the whole idea of looking attractive.

Boots, thought Domenica, were a special case. One had to make distinctions when it came to boots, as there were different rules for men and women. There were also different issues with ankle and calf-length boots, at least as far as men were concerned. Domenica had not given much thought to this in the past, but now, as she continued on her walk home, a taxonomy of boots came to mind.

Ankle boots for men raised no issues at all. Chelsea boots and the like were practical footgear for men who wanted to avoid sprained ankles. They were also useful for those who had a certain level of exposure to mud. They made no statement at all – about anything. Calf-length boots – when worn by men – involved more complex issues. These were very practical for those who lived on farms or in the country. They were good for use in fields and on hillsides, and on the banks of rivers. But could you wear them in in an urban setting without making some sort of statement? The answer was probably no. Calf-length boots for men, worn where there was no practical need for them, were indicative of an authoritarian personality. Domenica was sure about that. A man in calf-length boots in a town or city would almost certainly be on his way to a meeting of like-minded authoritarians; the sort of people who drove Land Rovers without really needing to. In Domenica’s mind, that was beyond doubt. She would never be comfortable in the presence of a man in calf-length boots unless he could come up with a good reason for wearing them.

Women could wear calf-length boots with impunity, and such boots signified nothing, whether worn in town or in the country. As long as they were calf-length; boots that went higher than that were a sign of … well, she did not need to spell that out to herself. Similarly, workmen’s boots – rough, clunky boots with reinforced toecaps, when worn by a woman were intended to send a very clear signal that the wearer had no truck with femininity. The wearers of such boots would, in general, not wish to be misunderstood.

But these marvellous boots that Domenica was wearing – they went with everything, and spoke to nothing other than their wearer’s good taste. And they made Domenica glow with pleasure, even as she thought, When did I last glow with pleasure?

She paused. She had drawn level with Big Lou’s café, and she could see the light on inside, and a shadow against a blind that must have been Big Lou herself. Domenica hesitated – she did not really want a cup of coffee, but, slightly elated by the success of her mission, she thought that a conversation with Big Lou was just what she wanted to complete the day.

Big Lou, standing behind her stainless-steel coffee counter, a cloth in his hand, noticed Domenica’s boots immediately.

“Your boots!” she said, a strong note of admiration in her voice. “Those are definitely the boots, Domenica.”

Domenica looked down, as if noticing them for the first time. “Oh, those? Yes, I must admit I rather like them.”

“Like them?” said Bog Lou, with mock incredulity. “Those are boots to die for, Domenica. Those are … ” Big Lou searched for the right word. And it came to her – an old Scots word, the only one in the Scots lexicon, she thought, that could do justice to boots such as Domenica’s.

“They’re fantoosh,” Big Lou continued. “Pure fantoosh.”

Domenica beamed. “That’s good of you, Lou. I rather like them, I must admit.”

“I would have loved to have boots like that when I was back on the farm.”

Domenica smiled. “They might be a bit too good for the farm, Lou.”

“Oh, I know that,” said Big Lou. “Everything was too good for our place. We just had the basics.”

Domenica was struck by the note of wistfulness in Big Lou’s voice. Big Lou was not one to engage in self-pity, but what she had just said sounded rather close to that.

“Are you all right, Lou?” she asked. “Is everything …”

She did not get the chance to finish. Big Lou was shaking her head. “It’s not so good, Domenica,” she said. “It was – or it used to be all right, but no longer. Sorry.”

Domenica stared at her friend. Everybody was so used to relying on Big Lou, to taking her cheerfulness and robustness to heart. This was something quite unusual – a sort of defeatism that she had never seen Big Lou display before.

“Tell me, Lou,” said Domenica.

Big Lou sighed. “I’m selling the business. This is it. The end.”

Domenica drew in her breath. “But, Lou, we all … we all love you. Nobody wants you to go. Nobody.”

“Aye, well,” said Lou. “That may be so, and it’s good to hear it. But I’ve made up my mind. I need to raise some money and I’ve had an offer on this place. I’m going to take it.”