It all started in Trowbridge. Well, hang on, maybe it started before then but only as a nagging irritation that something wasn't quite right, something that my unconscious mind was unsuccessfully trying to fix with small stamps and scrapes along the ground. I was on rough terrain and it could have been that, or something I'd picked up and couldn't dislodge, something that would sort itself out in time. But it was in Trowbridge that it became something I could no longer ignore and would have to deal with on a conscious level.
Trowbridge station car park
I'd been to a job interview and had suited & booted for the occasion, the boots in this instance being my shiny black smart shoes that only came out for weddings, funerals and job interviews. Having been blessed with (somewhat) regular employment and a (relatively) healthy, low-risk social circle these had not seen much usage and normally dwelt way back in the dark corners of my wardrobe, slowly gathering a patina of dust. Until recently that is, when my insecure job and subsequent unemployment had sent me out on the recruitment trail again. The freshly polished (well, swiftly dusted) shoes joined my suit & tie as rather more frequent sartorial choices than in previous years.
The interview had gone well and I was making my way homewards in quite an optimistic, even slightly euphoric state of mind. Having been in many interviews over the years - on both sides of the desk - I'd seen how typical British humility could come across as a lack of confidence or ability and that it was better to be considerably more forceful & extrovert than would pass for normal in regular, day to day interactions. Not to the point of frightening the prospective employers but enough to make an impression. The residual adrenaline from this was still coursing through my veins and encouraging my surging ego to consider the job already in the bag, although the voices of restraint & moderation were starting to be heard as my endocrine system began to dampen down the glandular fireworks. The timing of the interview had meant I'd missed out on lunch so I decided to treat myself to something special on the way home.
Which brought me to Trowbridge. The railway through my home town was being worked on as part of a regional electrification project (although the line itself wasn't getting electrified, it was just something at the Bath junction) and trains were being replaced by buses for a month. Trowbridge was the nearest station that still had working trains so I'd made it that far and had decided to get something to eat in the town before catching the bus for the final step home. This wasn't a case of wandering around and seeing what delightful little eateries presented themselves - something that had not worked out in my previous visits - but of finding the branch of Wagamama that I'd heard had opened a while previously. A quick Google with my phone revealed the location and I soon found myself enjoying a splendid, if late, lunch.
It was on my way through the car park to the awaiting bus that things came to a head. I'd been aware of an unevenness in my stride on and off along my homeward journey but had put it down to something stuck to the sole of my shoe, hence the stampings & scrapings. Finally it became just too irritating to bear so I lifted my foot and discovered that rather than acquiring some pedestrian detritus I had lost part of the heel of my right shoe - what had appeared to be a solid sole had disintegrated to reveal a hollow core with some sort of cushioning pads inside. As the outer shell flaked away the heel just collapsed, leaving me with an exaggerated up & down motion as I walked. And so I made my uppity-downity way home.
A humble cobbler's in Bradford on Avon
The heel had gone but the rest of the shoe was in excellent condition, as was its mate. The next day I headed off to see about getting a repair.
Bradford on Avon is a small town and nearly all of the traffic is funnelled through a mini-roundabout at one end of the old town bridge. Getting to one side of it on foot (even with properly functioning footwear) can be a bit of a heart in the mouth experience at times and so it tends to attract shops that don't rely on passing trade. Currently it houses a sandwich bar that delivers lunches to local businesses, a tattoo parlour and a tiny little shoe repair / key cutting shop, nestled into the point where the pavement peters out beside a fiercely contested roadway. Inside it's like entering something from a previous century, dark & cramped with a rich smell of leather, oil and metal filings, every surface (including the walls) crammed with arcane items from a bygone age. A high counter fences off the tools & machines from the waiting customer and a shady doorway leads off into who knows where.
The cheery shopkeeper greets me as I enter and turns off some loud leatherworking device he'd been using. I hand over my wounded shoes but as I start to explain the problem he's already shaking his head - the soles are (apparently) made from some modern plastic that cannot be bonded with more traditional materials and neither a partial or total replacement is possible. I am disappointed but not overly surprised. Rather than take them away with me I ask if he will add them to his discard pile and he casually tosses them onto a variegated heap.
An Ecco shoe shop in the centre of Bath
Despite my unflagging optimism I wasn't offered the job. With the prospect of more interviews in the immediate future I needed a new pair of smart shoes and as my previous pair had, until their sudden & dramatic demise, been very comfortable I decided to stick with the same brand. A short train journey (they were now running again) brought me to Bath and on foot I made my way to the Ecco shop in the centre of the town. The range wasn't extensive but it was expensive and although they had some nice, well fitting designs they were all a bit too sensible & dull for me - if I was going to stretch to over a hundred pounds for a pair I wanted something special. I'd just about decided that I could make do with my second-best shoes when my wandering gaze fell upon a pair of hiking boots on an opposite display shelf.
It's a sad reflection on our abundant times that all too often a huge domain of choice results in spending most of the time wading through swathes of obvious rubbish, trying to sift through the dross to the golden nuggets that, surely, must be in there somewhere. Shopping goes from being a intriguing stroll through arcades of possibilities into a desperate hunt for something that's less than dreadful (subject matter for an article on the Tyranny Of Choice sometime, maybe). Which makes it even more delightful when something leaps out and proclaims its inherent wonderfulness, leaving the far simpler decisions of Do I Need It? and Can I Afford It? in its wake.
The boots were sturdy and fairly conventionally styled but came in a glorious yellow, closer to banana that the usual orangey beige shade that fake working shoes usually display (I'm looking at you CAT). I could immediately see myself in them, they were practical & functional enough to assuage my distain of frippery and at the same time unconventional enough to subvert the Expectations Of The Norm, a mixed message that I find deeply pleasing. Of course I was discovering this individualistic display in a high street shoe shop so perhaps my ideas of existential uniqueness were just part of a marketeer's Cunning Strategy but hey - sometimes the delight of a Shiny Thing is its own reward.
I was ensnared by the looks of these boots but there were several hurdles for them to clear before I would unleash my credit card. Did they come in my size? Yes. Were they comfortable? I expected an intolerable pinching of my wide feet but when I tried them on they gave a supporting but amply spacious fit, untroubled by walking round & round the shop. And they still looked really good. Did I need them? Not specifically but they were well made and looked like they would last for many years and sometimes it's necessary to go for something that makes a statement rather than just making do. Could I afford them? They were jaw-droopingly expensive but I like having well made things around me and it's been my experience that paying for quality is usually the prudent course in the long run. The test was passed and I reached for my wallet.
While going through the modern back & forth with the credit card machine I mentioned the sudden collapse of my interview shoes to the shop assistant. To my surprise she said that this had been a known problem with some Ecco shoes, apparently there was some sort of chemical interaction between the leather and the plastic material of the soles that was exacerbated when they were kept in an enclosed environment rather than being regularly worn. This would certainly describe the history of my poor pair who could easily have gone years between emergences from the dusty corners of my wardrobe. And then came the zinger - if I'd have brought them in to the shop they'd have given me a replacement pair for free! Sigh! I explained that they'd gone on to the netherworld of lost footwear and wryly accepted her commiserations but the euphoria of my new purchase by far outweighed the disappointment of this purely theoretical loss and I left with a smile on my face.
Bradford on Avon
A few days later I was wandering through town and found myself outside the little cobbler's shop. When I'd called in with my Achilles shoes he'd said that he'd seen a few pairs with the same affliction so I decided to tell him about the Ecco offer, it had come too late for me but might be a godsend for future victims. As I reached the punchline of my tale he tok on a thoughtful expression, raised a finger to pause my retelling and turned to a dark, floor-level drawer. After rummaging inside for a few seconds he turned to me, brandishing a pair of black shoes and a wide grin. Sadly they weren't mine. But, undaunted, he returned to the drawer and on his second attempt produced my hobbled pair, still in the bag I'd carried them in with. His Aladdin's cave had returned them, could I now hold the show shop to their 'new shoes for old' promise?
That same Ecco shop
Next day I was back in Bath, my recovered shoes in hand. Neither of the shop assistants from my previous visit were there but I was directed to a young man who was seemingly in charge, he examined my old pair, agreed that they would be replaced and invited me to choose from the styles on display while he looked up the original price of my shoes which would be refunded to me. The business shoes were as unadventurous as I remembered but the prospect of a free pair had rendered me much more tolerant and I'd soon found a smart & comfortable pair that would do quite nicely.
However the refund process had hit a snag. My shoes were so old that they no longer showed up on the computerised stock list and the manager apologetically explained that he had to go to the Other Computer to try to look them up before vanishing through Staff Only. The minutes ticked by but eventually he returned, saying that although he still hadn't been able to look up the shoes he'd found an updated version of the design and could offer me £100 credit against a new pair. This brought the purchase price down to £15 and the transaction was swiftly concluded. Once again I left in a wash of satisfaction.
On a mundane level this sin't much of a story - my shoes wore out and while in a shoe shop to replace them I spotted another pair that I liked. But the nuances made it much more than that from my perspective and highlighted some of the ways I interact with the world. It was nice to find my preference for high price, high quality vindicated and hats off to Ecco for replacing an ancient pair of shoes with not a quibble. My support for small, local businesses was rewarded with the recovery of my discarded shoes and my altruistic gesture to help other people led directly to my new, free pair. And most of all I was able to spot and go for something that was right for me without becoming enmeshed in dithering & indecision, something that has plagued me for a lot of my late adult life. It feels like I'm finding a middle path for the modern age, walking through the valley of consumerist delights and neither surrendering to wanton acquisition or bitter austerity, limited by my own choice rather than my credit limit. We can have nice things after all.