I have something in common with Judy Garland, or more correctly, the feisty Dorothy she played in The Wizard of Oz. I have a pair of red shoes, although admittedly if I click my heels they won’t take me back to Texas, and frankly, I wouldn’t want them to.
I actually have two pairs, recently reduced from three. If I was being pedantic (nothing new there) I would say that I had three pairs but only two styles as I had two pairs of the same canvas lace-ups, what we called ‘sandshoes’ when I was a kid in the north-east of England, too many years ago to think of. I had two pairs of the same style because when I bought them I was planning for the future and knew that being canvas they would wear out reasonably quickly and would I be able to replace them? Yes, was the answer, you can find them all over the place, but not in Valencia, where I acquired the first pair three years ago.
They seem to have become my trade mark in Chaing Mai. I have the dubious claim to fame of being the first person to wear platform shoes in Manchester, chunky beige things with yellow heels and half-inch platform, very avante garde in the early 1970’s. People would stop me in the street to ask where I bought them. I’ve never considered myself as being at the forefront of fashion, but I was a representative selling them for a manufacture so wearing them myself was simply good publicity.
I don’t get stopped in the street when I’m wearing my red shoes, but they do get commented on. It’s got to the point where at one restaurant I go to the lovely young waitress always looks at my feet first to see what I’m wearing and seems mildly disappointed if I’m not wearing the red ones. When I wore my newly acquired second style – round-toed slip-on, slightly more muted than the pillar-box red of my sandshoes – a slight wrinkling of her nose showed, as if I’d arrived with a bad smell attached to me which seemed to say ‘Well, they’re okay, but I like the other ones better.’ But there again, when I was walking through the reception area of the hotel I live in wearing the muted style the manager was very taken with them. ‘They’re cool, Derek. Did you buy them in Chiang Mai?’ I did, and told him they were on sale at half the original price and he better get a move on because they only had a few pairs left and he might get stuck with black or blue, the only other colour options. I keep checking his feet but it looks like he left it too late. He’s thirty-five, I’m seventy, it’s rare that anyone half my age thinks that anything about me is ‘cool’.
I was in two minds whether to alternate the lace-ups or wear one pair and save the other until later. I settled on a compromise; wear one pair and as they began to show signs of wear start breaking in the other pair so that when the first pair gave up the ghost the second pair would still look pretty good. And they do.
The demise of the first pair came when I was on a trip to Penang. I knew I’d be spending most of my five days there walking so opted for the red sandshoes to establish myself as a man of style and comfort, and a pair of blue deck shoes for evenings. By this time the lining of the canvas shoes were in shreds but they were like gloves and I could spend a day on my feet and at least know they would be comfortable. On the third day I noticed a small hole had appeared in the front where my right toenail had worked its way through over the years. I was on my way to an interview so tried to conjure up a humorous explanation but no-one even noticed so I was quite relieved that my trade mark didn’t cut the mustard as far as the Malays were concerned. But at least they had a good send off.
The guest house I stayed at has a tiny courtyard garden and when I told the owner I was going to throw my red shoes away she asked if she could have them, not because she was enamoured of them but because in her small garden she had a pair of boots and a pair of carpet slippers in which she’d planted flowers. My red shoes with their white laces would live on as plant pots, and idea that appealed to me no-end.
And canvas pair number two are drawing attention. Some mornings I take a Thai coffee at a stall in the market close to home, thick stuff laced with heart-attack levels of sugar and Carnation milk. Run by a lady and her two daughters, they are the antithesis of the folk of the supposed ‘Land of Smiles’ (fake marketing speak if ever there was one) and I’ve never seen any of them with even a glimmer of a smile. Until today. Usually they are behind their grubby counter but today ma came out front to chat to a friend. She noticed my newly-washed red shoes, looked at me, looked at her friend and cast an eye in the direction of my feet and looked at me again. I gave her a big grin and her lips curved ever so slightly, not exactly a smile, but probably the best she could muster.
I need to plan ahead and buy a new pair of bright red sandshoes. What will happen when mine wear out? Can I face life as a total nonentity? Sadly, my red shoes will never fetch the $300,000 the Smithsonian museum is seeking to restore Dorothy’s original pair, but they don’t say if that price includes free transport to Texas at the literal click of a heel.