“What has it come to? Are these my feet that have to find their way into these slippers. The years have come and gone and now I need time to put my shoes on.”
He thought back to the days gone by, remembering his father’s feet in their heavy leather boots. It was the first memory he ever had. There was a knock at the door and he ran as fast as a three year old could, ran to see who was there.
“Strange man at the door” he said to his mother who was getting ready to tell her son he should not open the door but wait. You never knew who it could be. England had just survived four years of World War One. The surprise was great when he saw his mother put her arms around the stranger at the door.
“Who’s that man?”
“It’s your father” said his mother with tears in her eyes.
He was so happy to have a father. He had seen that other children had one and often wondered why he never had one.
“At last I belong to a mum and dad” he thought.
“Hello son” said the tall man dressed in uniform, “your dad is now here to stay” and that was the truth.
Reflecting on his father’s heavy boots, he remembered the day when he had to wear such boots, for at least five years. When he also became a soldier fighting for his country in a five year Second World War, but there were other shoes before he got those boots.
Growing up in a poorer area of London there was never really money to spare. His father was one of the lucky ones and had work waiting for him after returning from the 1914-18 war. It was work as a night watchman in a large company in the city of London. Shoes were not something he remembered seeing his father wearing during the day, for the simple reason that his father usually slept when others were working. In the evening after eating the meal that his mother had cooked, his father would say goodbye and go to work, returning in the early hours of the morning. Fridays remained a happy memory. His father would then take him and his mother as well as his brothers and sisters out in the evening before going to work. A visit to a picture palace and oyster bar was made before he brought them home and went to work. How things changed.
Today the picture palace is known as a cinema and oysters are something reserved for those that had money, a luxury, but during the first half of the twentieth century they were one of the cheapest foods you could buy. Sometimes his father might even treat the family to fish and chips. Today it was all Chinese take away, most of the fish and chip bars had closed or had been taken over by people speaking a foreign tongue and no longer with European roots.
So the days went past and until the next war started his children’s shoes had changed and were now leather shoes with laces, which he had to wear for his daily work. Memories of his first paid work returned. Through the connections his father had in the company where he was employed as a night watchman, he could start work as a messenger boy in the City of London in the same place. The family were so pleased that he had the chance, although he was not very happy with this work. With his nicely polished leather shoes on his feet, he would have to walk many miles in the city bringing documents to other offices and returning to his workplace with other papers in exchange; the daily walk to the local post office with the correspondence and picking up the mail in the morning. He was not satisfied and the chief clerks, for whom he worked, had to be addressed always with the title of “sir” although he noticed their shoes resembled his own, only larger of course. Then the memorable day came that he was never to forget. His brother also worked in the same company, but was a so-called maintenance man, dealing with repair work to the building. There was an accident in which his brother was involved; the brother who was two years older and had been more than a brother to him over the years. Many were the football matches they had watched together at the local club, troubles they had shared and fights they had. This brother was injured so badly during his work repairing a lift, falling into the shaft, that within a week he died.
In this connection he also remembered his older sister. She had lost her leg in the First World War through a bombing raid at the post office where she worked. She always wore the same shoes, Black with a fixing band across them . There was no other shoe she could wear with an artificial leg.
The clouds came slowly on the horizon to darken the European continent and it would soon be another war. The work at the office no longer suited him and he began to work in a gentlemen’s clothing shop. It was the time of the fifty bob tailor, a special chain of shops where a man could buy himself a suit for only fifty bob, which was the way of saying two pounds ten shillings in the English currency of the time. This was work where he was happy, and he enjoyed the contact with the customers, not having to say “sir” to everyone, perhaps just now and again to the clients.
One day he received a letter from the army headquarters and the day arrived for him to change his usual workday shoes into boots, similar to the ones his father was wearing on that first day he saw him. These boots were combined with an army uniform and were to carry him all over Europe. Many of his friends were also called to do their duty for the crown and country and it was one evening, dressed in the army boots and uniform, he visited a local public house for a drink with his colleagues before leaving England to do his duty in the war. This was a fateful evening when he met the woman of his dreams who lived in the same house as one of his colleagues. One week later he was on a ship on the way to Italy but never forgot this girl and wrote his first letter. Many letters were exchanged throughout the five years of war. The boots remained the same, but the countries changed. He fought in Italy, in Palestine, in Africa and eventually returned to England after five years. The only clothes he had was his uniform, but he had new shoes, nice leather shoes that he could wear on the day he married the girl he met at the beginning of the war. Indeed, he arrived home after five years of war on Friday and on Saturday they were married. This marriage was to last for many years.
During the war he also had the chance now and again to exchange his boots for something lighter. This was when he entertained the troops with two other members of his regiment. They were a singing group and soon became popular when the bombs and attacks were quiet enough to allow the soldiers to relax and enjoy some peace.
After the war he decided it was no longer necessary to wear the heavy boots, although his shoes were usually fitted out with metal tips on the heels and toes as the work he was now doing was in a factory. Every time he bought new shoes for his work, he would buy the metal tips and hammer them into his shoes. When the tips wore down, new ones replaced them and money was saved, not having to buy new shoes all the time. He had nice leather shiny shoes as well, but these were kept for Sundays and other special occasions. It was important that his shoes were always clean and time was always reserved for polishing. He had a tin of wax with the same colour of the shoe. With a cloth he would wipe the wax over the shoe and wait for it to dry. He would then take a special polishing brush and rub the shoe until it was shiny.
As he was getting older he decided that for home wear comfortable slippers were necessary. The cheaper slippers were made of felt and were very soft and comfortable and these type of shoes were reserved for home wear. Leather was expensive and something to wear outside.
Time passed and so did the shoe fashion. He had grown older with his wife, had a child who had also made her way in the world. The shoes he now needed were mainly for comfort. Factory work was a thing of the past and now he had begun the third part of his journey through life as a grandfather. He discovered that shoes were now made for comfort and not to look nice and shiny and well polished. They were now known as sneakers and had soft rubber soles and could be bought in all sorts of colours and material, although he found the highly coloured ones were something for the youngsters. Accompanied by his wife, they would often take a holiday, sometimes in other countries, indeed those countries where he once fought a war. These sneakers were very useful for taking long walks, be it in a town or in the country and he found them a good development in the shoe industry. They were comfortable and you did not have to “walk them in” as you did in the days of the leather shoes with their laces.
One day he was alone again. His partner of many years had passed on. At the funeral he wore again his shiny black shoes with the laces. It was a sad day and he stood a little bit lost at the side of the grave wondering how things would carry on.
After a while of grieving he found he had to pick his life up again and continue. On a memorable day at the local bus stop he met one of his neighbours, a lady that had lost her husband a few years before.
“What do you do to pass the time” he asked her.
She gave him a wise answer.
“Go out, don’t just sit at home. If I only have to buy bread, I dress up, take a bus and travel into town to buy it. I meet people, and do not feel so lonely.”
He took this advice as being very sensible. Meeting this kind neighbour once more he asked her if she would accompany him on a shopping trip. She said “yes” and it was the beginning of a long and wonderful friendship. He would put his sneakers on and go for walks with his lady-friend. They would go on excursions to the parks of London, to museums and perhaps to the River Thames. They were both older, but enjoyed life to the full. There was a day when he had to call his daughter on the phone to tell her of his new friendship hoping she would not be annoyed that he had again found a new partner after the death of his wife, but she was glad. Glad to know that her father was again enjoying life to the full and she welcomed his new friend into the family.
The years pass by and there he was at home. His lady friend was still there, but they were now both at an age where going out was something seldom. He made sure that he at least went out once during the day to keep in action, even if it was only to buy the daily newspaper. The shoes had changed a little bit over the years, everything had to be comfortable. He could not walk as fast as he used to and was glad to get home and sit down. The first thing he did when he was at home was to take off his street shoes, sometimes sneakers, sometimes leather shoes, and put on his comfortable leather slippers that his girlfriend bought him for last Christmas. He noticed over the years not only had the shoes changed, but his feet as well. They would still carry him, but not as fast as they used to.
I wrote this episode based on my father’s life.
Pictures to Words: Reflections