Authors: Emma Bowd
First published in Great Britain 2009
Copyright © 2009 by Emma Bowd
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For Darcey and Max
The lights of my life
1. Shoe Love
Shoes, I am afraid to say, really do mean a lot to me.
You know how men seem completely incapable of going down a street without eyeing every woman in a fox-like flash? Well, that’s me – but with shoes. I simply cannot help it. It’s reflexive. Addictive. Compulsive. Trainspottingly, planespottingly mad.
Why the shoe bug bit me harder than most girls, I can’t say. Does anyonereallyknow what makes people the way they are? Is it nature 60 per cent, nurture 40 per cent? Or maybe the other way around?
Admittedly, Mum does confess to buying me an array of exquisitely pretty shoes, from the moment I could walk. But I suspect this had more to do with dispelling her own ghosts. After all, a woman denied the pleasure of new shoes an entire childhood is bound to ensure that her daughter never squirms in someone else’s ill-fitting, worn-out soles. Not a chance.
And as if to prove the ‘naturists’ right, both my big sister Kate and I were treated equally, and one can quite categorically conclude that she does not care an ounce about shoes. In fact, in shoe styles as well as lifestyles, no two girls could be more different.
From an early age, Kate learnt to tolerate me. In an affectionate way, I think. The sound-sleeping yin to her lying-awake-formulating-fire-exit-plans yang. And typically, in her uber PC fashion, she thinks that my shoe mountain is a tragic example of the modern woman’s sell-out to frivolous Western consumer excess.
You see, Kate owns precisely two pairs of shoes. When either pair wears out, she replaces it with an exact replica. Always wool for winter, and cotton for summer (‘Animals don’t need to die for your feet, Jane’); flat (‘High heels objectify women’); and from somewhere that also sells tofu and wind chimes. And she is supremely proud of this.
Our dad is of the I-walked-ten-miles-barefoot-through-snowdrifts-to-school-when-I-was-a-lad persuasion and, like Kate, is genuinely mortified by anyone owning more than one pair of black lace-ups. I don’t think Mum’s ever forgiven him for helping Kate with her first-year university Women’s Studies project: a rough globe shape, suspended from an apron string, made by supergluing twelve pairs of Mum’s shoes together and covering them in papier mâché (using theFinancial Times). A ‘symbolic reminder’ that the typical world citizen is female, illiterate and performing unpaid domestic duties.
Family shoe battles aside, Mum and Dad still live in relative harmony in our childhood home – a lovingly tended cottage in Oxfordshire. Not that Mum can be found there very often. She’s always off to one of her many groups or courses. While Dad is happiest spending his retirement within the comfort zone of his study, garden shed and cable TV sports channels. It’s not unusual to find him in awestruck reverence of the quasi-mystical genius of some footballer’s boots. ‘Just howdoeshe do it?’ The ‘it’ being the split-second calculation of the optimal trajectory of the ball during free kicks. Dad was a maths and physics lecturer for forty years.
Our suppertimes as children often involved Dad and Kate scurrying to the blackboard to draw convoluted diagrams of how a television worked, or an aeroplane stayed in the sky. To them, life is just one endless theorem or solvable equation.
Mum and I, on the other hand, seem to delight more in the chaos of the universe. Like Oxford Street on the first day of the post-Christmas shoe sales. I can still feel the snowballing excitement as the bus inched closer to Marble Arch. This was also my sacred ‘alone time’ with Mum, and always an adventure.
In fact, it’s probably true to say that all the most memorable events in my life can be linked with shoes in some way.
Definitely the canary-yellow patent-leather Mary Janes adorned with white appliquéd daisies and secured by chunky plastic daisy-shaped buckles, that I wore to Sarah Nelson’s fourth birthday party. They were like giant jelly beans – a constant source of temptation. I wore those shoes until my toes crumpled up so hard against the front that it was an art to walk without wincing. (A useful skill for my later stiletto-wearing life!)
First Great Feat
When I achieved the coveted life goal of learning to tie – without any adult coaxing, coaching, supervision or manhandling – my very own shoelaces. Scoff, you may. But to a five-year-old in the pre-Velcro era, this was the Holy Grail. My ascent into the world of grown-ups was deemed complete and fully accredited – in my eyes at least. And boy, was I hooked. No set of laces too difficult, no buckle too fiddly, no platform too high.
First Illicit Tryst
Secretly spending what seemed like hours hiding in the forbidden womb of Mum’s shoe cupboard, with my next-door neighbour and co-conspirator, Will – aged six. We took it in turns to try on four-inch red platform wedge sandals and fabulous black French faux patent-leather sock boots of 1960s vintage. Several years later, they made it into our dressing-up box; and we spent many happy hours dancing and miming the words to ABBA songs in them. And no, Will is not today a transvestite cabaret dancer at Madame Jojo’s. He is in fact a librarian.
It has to be said that I’ve always fostered an uneasy truce with life. Not in a sad way. More in an is-this-it-can’t-we-jazz-things-up-a-bit sort of way. And so it was that for my eighth year on this earth I chose to write letters to myself, Princess Sapphire of Shoelandia, and post them to Shoe Lane, in the City of London. I often wonder where those letters ended up, but more importantly, what a podgy, gap-toothed girl could have found so profoundly interesting to write aboutfourtimes a week.
Irish dancing (Ilovedthose laces), jazz ballet, classical ballet and tap-dancing. I was devastated when demoted to the free-dance class due to my motor coordination skills resembling those of a dyspraxic octopus.
‘Good grooming and good shoes hide a multitude of sins.’ Mrs Kitty Trigby, expert on all that is sparkly and gorgeous in the world,circa1980. Kitty is a widowed, childless aunt of Mum’s who wealwaysvisited on our trips to London. Now in her late eighties (I think, though I wouldneverdare ask) and in a nursing home, she is my shoe co-mentor with Mum. I vividly remember spending many happy hours perched on the edge of her chaise-longue, engulfed in an indulgent fog of Chanel No. 5, playing shoe shops with her sizeable shoe collection. But it was her shoe stories that captivated me most – of journeys to Harrods to get her ‘little Amalfis’ and ‘little Ferragamos’ or down to Chelsea to get her ‘little Manolos’ (decades before Carrie made them famous). I’ve certainly made a few more ‘little’ friends of this kind since then, like: Gina, Jimmy, Sergio, Anya, Christian, Robert, Chloé, Jesus, Patrick, Lulu, Kert and Jil.
First School Disco
Flat gold-lamé pumps at least one size too small. The only pair left in the shop; they were to-die-for. And I was not leaving without them, having saved three months’ pocket money for the pleasure of their company. I still have the pesky, tiny red mark from the ensuing blister permanently tattooed on my right little toe.
First Kiss (and I mean real kiss, not a fleeting peck behind the sports shed)
White Essex-girl court shoes, or ‘tart’s trotters’, as Dad used to call them. I really did think that I was rather foxy and grown-up. Perhaps it was the way they detracted from my definite lack of décolletage and screamed, ‘Look down here at me, I’m beautiful.’ Or then again, maybe not!
I perfected the Cyndi-Lauper-meets-Bananarama-occasionally-mutated-by-Madonna’s-latest-incarnation-but-always-involving-a-pair-of-Doc-Martens-and-ill-matching-fluorescent-rolled-up-
socks look. Incredibly ugly, actually. But at that age, any negative comments were nothing short of the highest accolade and a sure sign that you were on the right side of cool. Amazing really, what a lack of money and an excess of spare time can lead to. Law students had the lowest number of contact hours of any degree on campus; I may as well have studied via correspondence.
First Broken Heart (mine, not his)
Mr two-toned brogue, caddish rogue. I should have known not to trust such a show pony. Never madethatmistake again. Point to note: a similar theory applies to men wearing bright-red, yellow or purple shoes. Like a luminescent rainforest snake advertising his lethal venom, stay away from this predator.
First Big Job-promotion
Magenta Joan and David court shoes with two-inch stacked leather heel, dainty strap across the instep and square toe. These were later promoted to the esteemed status of lucky shoes, and have been resoled twice in an effort to eke yet more magic from them.
When I agreed, without a moment’s hesitation, to go on a romantic, post-dinner stroll along slushy, snow-covered streets in my kitten-heeled candy-pink suede slingbacks, I knew Tim was THE one. Shortly thereafter we moved in together – minus one pair of candy-pink suede slingbacks.
Sometimes I despair that I’m theonlyperson in the whole wedding-industry-world that understands the true importance of the wedding shoes. Quite simply, they dictateeverything. Like the style of dress for instance – hemline, cut, train, fabric and neckline. I could not possibly have been expected to decide on my dress without having first chosen the shoes. Have you ever heard of a skyscraper being built before the foundations are laid? I think not. And need I mention the impact of the shoes on the tiara (or lack of), the earrings, the table settings, the music, the candles, the church, the reception venue, the invitations, the cars, the cake, the dance, the whole damn shebang.
Hence the parade of wedding-shoe rejects and my final choice:
•Emma Hope Elizabethan brocade slippers. Tim was mortified by my suggestion of velvet pantaloons, trumpeters and a Gothic reception hall, grumbling that I wanted to turn the whole event into a ghastly costume drama.•White kid-leather Vivienne Westwood platforms, studded with chrome spiked hearts. Start as you mean to continue, I always say. Tragically, the junior bridesmaids would have looked a tad vulgar in their bustiers and matching three-inch platforms. Far too risqué for Dad and any attempt at dancing would have been suicidal,à laNaomi Campbell.•Vintage cream Chanel flapper shoes. The corresponding vintage gown gave me the allure of a flat-chested flabby-armed cross-dressing biker chick. Such a pity – as I had visions of booking us into some funky charleston classes for the bridal dance too.•Oyster-shell pink high-heeled satin mules. Big mistake. I couldn’t walk two steps without at least one of them slipping off, let alone attempting the forty vertiginous steps to the church door. Stunning as they were, I didn’t dare risk turning my hour of glory into a horrific Cinderella moment.•Classic white court shoes, adorned with a celestial spray of powder-puff marabou feathers, cinched in the middle by butterfly-shaped diamanté clasps. Pure confection. With each step, the feathers wafted in surreal slow motion. They obviously had a similarly hypnotic effect on Pierre, my parents’ dog, who duly mauled them. The shoes being one-offs (at more than considerable expense), the gown getting no further than the drawing board and Pierre quite frankly lucky to be alive.•I finally settled upon a pair of crimsony cerisey raspberry toned Ottoman-silk Manolo Blahnik court shoes, with exquisite skyscraper stiletto heels, lined in gold leaf with a delicate ribbon-tie across the instep. In turn, parting with more than a sizeable chunk of my last pay cheque as a single girl. They peeked out from underneath the hem of my full-length, silk organza Grace Kelly-inspired gown like the cheeky little courtesans that they were – a sure clue to Tim of adventures ahead.
Rather a disappointment. Thanks to the hiking boots from hell – my wedding gift from Tim. I was so sure that he was going to whisk me away to a sophisticated pamper-palace in the Seychelles, I had taken it upon myself to buy a full suitcase of coordinated resort wear and shoes. (The last-big-splurge-as-a-single-girl thing again.) Goodness knows, I had left enough brochures ofSix Star Resorts of the Worldaround the flat for him – with dog-eared pages and little yellow sticky notes with flight numbers and sample itineraries on them. Instead, we went hiking. In Scotland. NO ONE goes to Scotland for their honeymoon. Not even the Scots. It rained for ten days straight. I buried the boots in a muddy grave at the end. And didn’t speak to him for days.
Current count: fifty-five pairs of pink shoes – but thisdoesalso include multiply coloured shoes and some rather gorgeous jewelly slippers.
Pregnancy and Childbirth
How could I forget Clotilde! She was in my antenatal class, and defiantly wore clicky, swingy, sexy high-heeled shoes throughout herentirepregnancy. Not to mention effortlessly chic black Lycra tube dresses and G-string knickers (when we were all in granny maxi-supports) – to the jubilation of the dads each week. You really have to give it to the French – they know how to tie a scarf and not let little things like a gravity-defying watermelon stuck to your stomach get in the way of appearances. An inspiration to us all.
On the flip side, I discovered the hitherto unknown benefits of flat mules – at Tim’s insistence. He was so worried I’d take a tumble and squish ‘our’ baby in my usual spikes that he dragged me into town to trade them in. I’ll for ever remember the miles I walked in my red-and-white polka-dot flats during the early hours of Millie’s labour. Not to mention the succession of nameless bad-arse midwives in appallingly dire shoes (white cloggy things with impatient little snub toes).
By rights, I should today be sitting in the front room of my five-storey Primrose Hill town house. Kicking off my sassy yet sensible work pumps and unwinding from a hard day at the London offices of the United Nations, where I head a team of lawyers unravelling the intricacies of international human rights in war zones. The peaceful karma of the house interrupted only by the rhythmical drone of the breast pump, and the contented gurgling of Millie and her adoringly attentive nanny in the nearby nursery. While the housekeeper cooks a scrumptious meal (and a snack for the night nanny) for me to share with Tim when he returns home from a day’s hectic auctioneering at Sotheby’s.
That’s what weCosmocareer-girls do, don’t we – have it all?
Funny how things pan out, isn’t it?
In the REAL world.
2. Head over Heels
‘I’m sorry we’re a little late, love. I got caught up with Betty Malthouse at our sewing class,’ says Mum as she trots down the hall to put the kettle on. Dad strategically slips into the front room and settles himself on the sofa with the remote control, until I sit beside him to breast-feed Millie and he hastily skulks behind the first opaque object he can lay his hands on – aHello!magazine (my ever-faithful font of anti-knowledge).
Dad’s valiantly clinging to his old-school-out-of-sight breast-feeding model and, like the rest of us, is rather shaken by my earth-mother transformation. I’m ashamed to admit that pre-Millie I had been known to tut rather loudly at the sight of mammary flesh daring to suckle a baby outside a darkened room.
Quite bizarrely, it feels like aeons – and not the mere ten weeks it has been – since Millie’s birth and this seismic changing of my sensibilities.
I truly shudder to think what I would have done without Mum’s help during those very early days (and nights) of elation, exhaustion and unmitigated cluelessness. Though I am fairly certain that Heathrow Airport had fewer security screens and disinfectant sprays than our tiny Kilburn (sort of like Primrose Hill, but without the Hill, or Jude Law) garden flat under her careful watch.
Mum comes in to join us, with a cup of tea in each hand. She gives Dad his Earl Grey and settles herself on the edge of a chair opposite me – tinkering with her teaspoon and not so subtly eyeballing Millie and me, and the general state of the flat. To see how we’re holding up, no doubt – which I have to say is middling to OK at best. For in true lioness fashion, she pulled right back on the day-to-day help some time ago – handing the mantle of motherhood firmly over to me.
Tim lollops into the room, gently reminding me that we’re late, while trying to tuck in his shirt and do up the buttons on his cuffs at the same time.
‘Ah, my favourite son-in-law,’ Mum beams. (This is metaphorical, of course – Kate’s so fussy about men she’s on roller skates to spinsterhood.) Tim’s immediately engulfed by her cardigan-clad arms.
Mum and Tim have always had this mutual-love-fest thing: the-son-she-never-had meets the-mum-he-never-had. Not that Tim’s mum is awful or anything. He just doesn’t know her particularly well – the old conceived-in-between-cocktails-and-boarding-school-at-seven scenario. As a result, he is perversely besotted by my family’s domesticated heart; and they in turn with him.
And yet tonight, it’s hard to know who’s more nervous about leaving Millie with Mum and Dad – Tim or me. You see, it’s our maiden solo outing since having her. We’re off to a dinner party at my best friend Fi’s – a beacon of light I’ve been looking forward to, especially after watching Tim skip out of the front door to work each morning or coming home from one of his many work dos.
I burp Millie, who gets chubbier by the day, and hand her over for Tim to place on the play mat for a kick. As I walk to the bathroom, under Mum’s strict instructions to put on a little bit ofcolour(code for ‘Go and brush your hair, and make an effort to put on a nice bright lipstick. And a dash of blusher wouldn’t go astray, either’), I can hear the ting of the overhanging bunnies as Millie hits them with her hands – a first today.
I can also hear Tim giving Mum the low-down on my newly stockpiled supply of expressed milk; and a demonstration of his (patented!) middle-of-the-night-broken-down-washing-machine-crossed-with-a-mating-blue-whale drone, which has to be coupled with gently pressing down on Millie’s mattress andalwaysgets her back off to sleep. And now he’s telling her not to forget his ‘bonding board’ – an A3-sized black-and-white photo of his grinning face that we have to show Millie atallawake times. (Something to do with implanting his image on her visual cortex when he’s at work, I think he said.)
Millie doesn’t last long on the mat, and is scooped up by Mum for a cuddle. As we make our way to the front door, I give Tim’s mobile number to her in giant print, while explaining how to use the digital thermometer, where the paracetamol is kept and what the symptoms of meningitis are. And last but not least, I kiss Millie. She already smells like Mum’s perfume and gives me a heart-melting smile.
‘You go and enjoy yourselves,’ says Mum as she snuggles Millie in a blanket and follows us out.
A last-minute rush of panic envelops me.
‘But what if she doesn’t take the bottle? Although, really, it’s just for back-up – she should settle down for a good sleep now. We didn’t have time for a proper practice run – it’ll only take a few minutes ...’
‘We’ll befine.’ Mum lightly places her palm in the arch of my back and shuffles us out of the gate.
We’re about three blocks from home when my feeble spaghetti brain realises that something bad is afoot. Literally.
‘Stop the car!’ I shriek.
Tim’s relief that smoke isn’t billowing from the engine soon transforms into an, ‘Oh, for Pete’s bloody sake, Jane,’ Mars-Venus moment. ‘You cannotseriouslyexpect me to turn around so that you can change yourshoes. We’re late enough as it is.’
‘They’reslippers.’ I ungraciously haul one mammoth-sized sparkly pink Moroccan slipper up on to the dashboard. He cannot do this to me. ‘I’ve been so looking forward to wearing myspecialshoes. This is myspecialnight. Remember?’ Fi and the girls have organised it in honour of my coming out. ‘Life after birth and all that.’
The mere mention of the birth gives me the get-out-of-jail-free card that I need. It’s still, thankfully, recent enough for Tim to remember my near-death experience (OK, I only fainted, but it felt like a near-death experience at the time), the blood transfusion and the refashioning operation (and I’m not talking Galliano) that I went through in order to produce our precious princess.
I sneakily omit that the dinner’s also to check out Fi’s new love target and boyfriend-in-waiting, Marco.
Tim turns the car around grudgingly.
Finally, changed into my black Chanel T-bar stilettos (one of my better shoe-sale purchases) and feeling more than a little relieved and excited, we cruise around the rabbit’s warren of Maida Vale streets trying to find a parking space near Fi’s mansion flat. A nigh on impossible task on a Friday night.
My eye is immediately drawn to a mum trudging down the street with six grocery bags tied to the handles of a rickety pushchair, a baby rugged up inside it, and a little girl skipping next to her in Barbie-pink Mary Janes with multicoloured tights. (I just adore how little girls bypass the whole walking malarkey.)
I wonder if I’d even have noticed them, pre-Millie?
‘Don’t you feel the world has changed?’ I say. ‘Like everything you knew before Millie doesn’t count any more? You might as well throw it all out of the window and start again.’
I really have to pinch myself sometimes when I think about the Millie-effect – how she’s turned our world head over heels. I can feel the tears well. Damn these hormones.
‘Mmm,’ Tim ponders, while expertly reversing the car into a space that appears ten times too small. ‘Everything seems to make sense now – in a weird sort of way,’ he finally responds after a long silence.
‘Yes, itdoes, doesn’t it?’ I say affectionately, and lean across and snatch a kiss from him before he gets out of the car.
Rain suddenly sweeps across the windscreen, and I find myself paralysed from the ankles down. What to do? Click my heels three times and magically fly to Fi’s flat?
As I sit and dither, regretting my choice of non-wet-weather shoes, I’m snapped back to reality by Tim tapping on my window. He opens the door wide, and grinning, motions me on to his back, while holding his enormous golf umbrella.
‘Well, we can’t be getting thosespecialshoes wet, can we?’
A tidal-wave smile washes across my face (I always knew he was my knight in shining armour!) and I gratefully jump on board. A black cab whizzing past gives us a couple of cheeky beeps. I break out in a fit of the giggles as I struggle to hold on tight. Which sets Tim off too.
I really can’t recall the last time we laughed so much. In a spontaneous, infectious, belly-laugh kind of way. Well, not since Millie was born.
It feels lovely.
3. Fancy Feet
A full rain-sodden block later, and finally at Fi’s, we follow the waft of vanilla-scented candles up the two flights of stairs to her flat – the last to arrive. Tim fabricates an excuse about working late, which is waved away by Fi, who welcomes us warmly.
We both have a soft spot for Fi – having witnessed many kitchen-table-tea-and-tears sessions over the years. Due mostly to the fact that, gorgeous as she is, she has NO idea when it comes to men.
She leads us straight into the large open living area, which is bursting with dozens of pale-pink helium balloons tied with organza ribbons that hover just above head-height, and giant white lilies in sleek glass vases.
This is aspecialdinner for another reason too: pre-Millie, we girls – Fi, Liz, Rachel and I – would normally meet for lunch or drinks after work. This is one of the rare times that we’ve brought our partners. And apart from Liz and I, I use the word partner loosely. Very loosely indeed. For vastly different reasons, it’s a full-time job keeping up with Fi and Rachel’s love lives.
We make our way over to Liz and her husband Harry while Fi sorts out the wet umbrella.
‘Wow, man. Congratulations!’ Harry earnestly shakes Tim’s hand while placing his other on Tim’s shoulder. Liz and I embrace.
I can’t help but feel unworthy when face to face with Harry and Liz – in their his ’n’ hers Tod’s loafers. It’s common knowledge that they’re desperate to have a baby, and have already tried two rounds of IVF without success.
You see, babies were not exactly high on our to-do list a year ago – filed neatly away under ‘on-hold’. Falling pregnant as I did (despite the birth control) was a real shock. Such unsolicited relegation from the fashionably childless to the mating masses was not supposed to happen in our iPhone-controlled world.
‘How’s it been?’ Harry asks, as Liz goes to fetch us a drink. The enthusiasm in his eyes is entirely genuine and drives a pang of guilt through me.
‘Amazing,’ Tim replies without hesitation. My heart swells to bursting point as I notice his heaving chest – testament to his recent conversion to besotted superdaddy. ‘The most amazing experience,’ he beams.
Amazing, wondrous and joyous, I can’t deny. But as I stand here, the lone female between two alpha males, I also find it hard not to begrudge the positively primeval angle to this whole having-a-baby lark too. (I certainly remember wanting to genuflect in front of every mother I passed in the hospital hallway after Millie was born.)
When Liz returns and hands me my drink, Isowant to tell her that giving birth was more like running the London Marathon while chained to a medieval torture rack, only to be run over by a double-decker bus upon crossing the finishing line. And that I’m barely out of the coma and able to walk in a straight line again.
In fact, if men had to give birth, I’m certain that multinational companies would have poured trillions of pounds into growing babies in plant pots decades ago. Well before nuclear fission, intercontinental ballistic missiles or plasma TV screens, that’s for sure.
But when I summon the nerve to meet Liz eye to eye, all I can see is Millie. At once, I break out in a broad smile. And say absolutely nothing – the myth of motherhood remaining firmly and rightfully intact.
As I take Liz by the arm and wander over to the fireplace, where Rachel is holding court, I can’t help but feel strangely empowered by childbirth too. Not in a smug, self-congratulatory kind of way. More in a humbling holy-hell-if-I-survived-that-I-can-do-anythingsort of way. And by the look of Rachel’s handbag for the evening, I’m going to need to draw upon all the inner strength I can muster.
‘Daaarling, congraaatulations,’ Rachel schmoozes. It’s air kisses all round.
Unlike Fi, who has an invisible tattoo on her forehead saying, ‘Doormat: commitment-phobes, love-rats and emotional-vacuums welcome,’ Rachel is the man-eater of our group. She took out three student loans at uni and discovered the power of posh clothes and hairdressers over wealthy boys-about-town. Basically, she gets laid a lot. She picks her men with the same strategic zeal as her accessories. A different one for every occasion. Of high quality. Always to complement her. And to attract compliments.
‘Hi. I’m Dan.’ A preened hulk of a guy inwhitesnakeskin loafers removes his arm from Rachel and confidently offers his hand. (Whatwasshe thinking?) He then takes a drag of his cigarette – exhaling over his right shoulder, and almost straight into the face of the guy next to him (who must be Fi’s man, Marco). All the while keeping one eye on his reflection in the mirror above the fireplace.
Within three minutes we know that Dan’s just got his helicopter pilot’s licence, is a semi-professional snowboarder, a black belt in karate and last but not least a podiatrist. Or rather, as he took great pains to point out, a ‘podiatric biomechanist’. (Like we’d know the difference anyway.) In private practice, of course – ‘Can’t fly like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys.’ And that if anyone hears a car alarm to be sure to tell him, as it’s probably his brand new Porsche whatsamathingy parked outside.
Ireallyhope the sex is worth it.
Rachel now has a high-profile job in advertising that affords her a serious shoe habit, and tonight doesn’t disappoint. She’s in bronze Prada platform spikes with ankle straps – ‘the shoes of the season’. Impressive. Come to think of it, the only monogamous relationship Rachel’s ever admitted to is with her ‘daaarling Enzo’ – a shoe-repairer off Marylebone High Street. It’s the best kind of relationship as far as she’s concerned, with no chance of catching her in the net of neediness and nappies.
I’ve barely warmed up Marco for my interrogation when Fi snatches him from under my nose and gathers us around the dining table. I make sure to keep close to him though, and jostle for prime position, while Tim chats with Harry and helps to organise drinks.
‘Ooh, look at the cloth,’ I coo, while stroking the tassels and silky velour. It’s stunning and looks like something straight out ofHomes and Gardens. Fi has placed a crystal bowl overflowing with roses atop an antique mirror as the table’s centrepiece. And scattered tea candles in tiny little crystal-encrusted holders around the edge. All the crockery and cutlery is mismatched – so perfectly ‘shabby chic’ it’s almost too good to have come from a charity shop. (Only Fi could pull that off so successfully.) And she has tied a delicate strand of different-coloured antique-glass beads around the stem of each wine glass – so that we know which is ours. ‘The love is in the detail,’ she always says.
Unfortunately, Fi’s gastronomic skills are no match for her interior-design prowess. Especially when nerves and copious glasses of red wine get the better of her. The dinner has gone up in smoke. It’s 10 p.m. and Liz, Rachel and I are in the kitchen trying to scrabble together a mealà la Ready Steady Cook. While Fi is at the table drinking with the boys. Except for Marco, who doesn’t drink because he says it ‘dulls the senses’.
‘So, what do you think?’ Rachel completely ignores Liz’s frantic instructions and cuts straight to the chase about Marco.
‘I think he’s sweet – in an old-fashioned kind of way.’
Liz also thought our simian geography teacher in chocolate-brown desert boots was sweet.
‘I Googled him before coming tonight. Not a thing. His surname didn’t even register – makes me think he’s an ex-crim with a false name,’ says Rachel.
The voice of experience?
‘At least he didn’t come up as a minor-league porn star, like that boyfriend from Merthyr Tydfil with the exceptionally large, err ... shoes!’ I remind everyone with a cackle.
‘Oh, you girls,’ tuts Liz. ‘He’s well dressed, polite –’
‘And has a hot body!’ Rachel can always be relied upon for the essential information. ‘Did you see his hands –yum.’ She rolls the stem of her wine glass wistfully between her fingertips. ‘And what about the accent? You can’t deny it’s bloody horny.’
‘He has got that whole tall, dark and handsome Italian thing going for him,’ I agree. When he speaks everything’s so measured and calm. Almost sensual.
‘But he does seem a little on the quiet side – you know, beautiful but boring.’ Rachel winks.
‘Oh, far from it,’ I say. Though admittedly, I did have to go through everything from my pidgin Italian to holiday destinations and supermarket reward schemes before hitting the jackpot. ‘He’s crazy about shoes. Can you believe it? I couldn’t stop him talking about them once he got started – he wascompletelycaptivating.’ Quite honestly, the best dinner party conversation I’ve ever had.
‘He’s very attentive towards Fi, too. He practically hangs off her every word,’ says Liz proudly. ‘And they have a lot in common.’
She’s got a point. Marco’s quite a departure from Fi’s usual fare – no Internet, lonely hearts or speed-dating. She met him in an antique shop in Church Street, while hunting for her latest acquisition. He happens to own the shop and is also an expert on eighteenth-century Venetian mirrors – Fi’s Achilles heel. So really, that’s about as good a start as she’s had in a long time.
‘Mmm. I don’t know. I’m always suspicious of a good-looking guy in his early forties who says he’s singleanddoesn’t drink at a dinner party. Hemustbe married,’ Rachel pushes on. ‘Then again, he’s so damn polite. And this whole “shoe thing” he’s got going – did you notice his shoes? He could be gay.’
Ah, yes. His shoes: John Lobbs. I spotted them a mile away – the luscious caramel swirl of soft brown kid leather, precise stitching and faultless styling.
You see, normally we can guarantee that any boyfriend of Fi’s who wears decent shoes is either gay, married or a gangster. (Yes, she has dated them all!) Our theory being that no straight, single, law-abiding guy would fork out that sort of money on shoes – when it could be better spent on stereo speakers or iPods.
‘It’s a tricky one,’ I admit. ‘But he told me he’s a fifth-generation cobbler from Milan. He’s totally passionate about the craftsmanship of a shoe, and I’m sure couldn’t care less about the brand or the logo.’
‘Well! That clearly throws the gay theory out of the water,’ says Rachel.
‘He’s set his sights on cracking the London shoe scene. He has a studio in the basement of his shop, where he works in-between customers and at night. Plus, he runs weekend shoe-making schools there. The antiques purely bankroll the shoes,’ I say, more than impressing the girls with my intelligence-gathering. ‘I think he’s just a workaholic –’
‘Who speaks fluent Italian, French, Spanish and English,’ pipes in Liz, his new best friend.
‘And speaking of shoes ...’ I’m now laughing at Rachel. ‘What’s with Dan the he-man and hiswhitenumbers?’
‘Oh. I know.’ She grimaces and takes a long drag of her cigarette. ‘He’s a back-up. Freddie had to fly to New York at the last minute.’
Thank goodness for that. I thought she was losing her touch.
Rachel takes another sip of wine.
‘Well, I think Marco’s too good to be true.’
The voice of envy?
‘He’s going to break her heart,’ she concludes bleakly.
Mmm, maybe I’ll have the Jaffa Cakes and teapot on standby – just in case.
Liz does a noble job with the meal. Though there’s only so much youcando with baby poussin, anchovies, tomato ketchup and Marmite. And nothing can disguise the fact that by now everyone, bar Marco and me, is legless.
Dan has turned out not only to have the shoes of a dentist (albeit a funky one), but the conversational skills of one too. He’s completely monopolised the table and finally goes one step too far when he pronounces, ‘Women’s high-heeled shoes are the scourge of modern-day society,’ apparently accountable for an abundance of bodily ills.
Pah! My hackles rise.
Tim gives me the evil eye from across the table, and would kick me if he could reach.
‘Absolutely. Women’s and men’s feet have exactly the same bone structure. The high-heeled shoe has no functional value whatsoever. Its sole purpose is to affix a permanent deformity, in order to make walking difficult and tiring.’
Rachel arches a semi-interested eyebrow.
It’s shoe-enemy propaganda like this that I blame squarely for Tim’s complete heel-neurosis during my pregnancy.
‘Why, yes, I’d never thought of it like that before. They’re asafety hazard,’ says Harry, lest we forget, the health and safety officer. ‘The stiletto heel decreases the surface area available for the creation of friction – between the foot and the walking surface. It’ssosimple.’ He seems blurrily enamoured by his own powers of deduction. ‘Slips and trips are the most common cause of major workplace injury in the UK, you know. And can even cause DEATH.’
Fi and Rachel simply burst into fits of laughter at his dramatic punchline, while Liz affectionately rolls her eyes skywards.
‘It’s no laughing matter,’ says Harry. He and Dan frown disapprovingly.
Oh, sothat’swhy I bought the pretty little flower-print mules with the scalloped edging and ten-centimetre heels. In order to self-mutilate or, better still, kill myself. Of course! I cannot believe I am hearing this.
‘Can I be so bold as to suggest the wild and crazy notion that most shoe-loving women knowexactlywhat they’re doing when they put on a pair of skyscraper heels or toe-pinching pumps. Theylovethem – the way they make them stand, walk, talk and feel.’ I’m on a roll now. ‘Do you honestly think we’re going to be fazed by blisters, bunions or hammer-toes? We have, after all, evolved to survive bloody childbirth.’
‘And Brazilian waxes,’ Rachel nods ruefully.
I note that these weapons of female mass destruction kindly fund Dan’s luxury London lifestyle. I’m furious. For some reason he’s really wound me up.
The table is heading towards a full-scale shoe war, when Marco nervously clears his throat and enters the fray, his heavily accented English immediately attention-grabbing amidst the drunken babble.
‘The high-heeled shoe: it issomuch more than a mere physical construct. It is just as much a psychological and emotional extension of a woman’sbeing, hersensuality, heressence,’ he says tenderly, and then eyeballs Dan. ‘A woman who wears a high-heeled shoe made by an artisan – respectful of the laws of physics and anatomy, fashion and sculpture – need not ever require your services, my friend. Nor should she ever need to, how do I say,souffrir pour être belle– suffer to be beautiful.’
Touché. And now he’s my new best friend.
Rachel leans over to me and whispers, ‘Who’d have thought Fi’s new man would be the champion of shoe princesses!’ At that, she slowly eases her chair back from the table and brazenly crosses one leg over the other (à laSharon Stone) in front of Dan. The surreptitious flash of the dagger-thin heels executed with the subtlety of a gangster tapping his violin case. Leaving Dan in NO doubt as to where he’s getting his dessert tonight.
He backs down like a cobra to its basket.
The last tea candle flickers out and an uneasy silence falls.
‘I think we’d better be making a move, Jane,’ slurs Tim, reaching for the mobile phone that he’s kept in front of him all night like a badge of honour and handing me the car keys.
‘Ohmygod.’ Fi hiccups and lurches behind her chair. ‘Not before we give you this. The girls pitched in and we bought you a little gift.’ She hands me an exquisite white box. ‘It is after all your coming-out night!’ They’ve gone all sentimental on me? I’m intrigued.
‘Something all nursing mothers should have,’ Liz says knowledgeably.
It’s heavenly. A soft, dusky-pink knitted shawl.
‘The new season’s must-have,’ beams Fi. ‘The Stella McCartney cable-knit cape.’
‘The shop assistant said The Cat couldn’t live without hers,’ says Rachel, clearly thrilled by the celebrity endorsement.
Dan’s ears prick up and my mood markedly darkens. (I simply don’t recall being this emotionally flighty before Millie. Maybe I’m just tired and irritable.) You see, I presume she means The ten-minute-water-birth-my-tattoo-hurt-more-supermodel-supermum Cat. Catriona ‘The Cat’ – so called because of her impossible and completely natural feline beauty. She’s the ‘face’ of Jolie Naturelle cosmetics and was all over the magazines this week. Most notably in a spread wearing little more than her trademark Christian Louboutin ocelot-print stilettos and her baby, Happy Sunshine (a boy the same age as Millie), sprawled across her bare sun-kissed midriff – completely ruining my mid-morning trash treat.
‘It’s for breast-feeding in public. You coverthingsup with it.’ Rachel vaguely gestures with her hands over the breast area. ‘Makes the whole experience more dignified, she said.’
‘Hmph. Like she’d know,’ I growl under my breath, while picturing Millie puking baby sick on it within two seconds of my wearing it. I can’t help but wish they’d given me something useful – like a month’s worth of cleaning vouchers. Or offered to do some babysitting, so that I could grab a nap, or get my hair cut.
No – this is not right. I’m an ungrateful cow. It’s not their fault. I know I’ve done exactly the same, pre-Millie – given something deliciously expensive and dry-clean only.
Everyone’s a little taken aback by my mean snarl, and I quickly pull my fragile ego into check.
‘I love it – really, I do. Thanks.’ Bizarrely I feel close to tears. ‘It’s just that anyone would think The Cat was the only woman on the planet with a baby at the moment. And the whole washboard-stomach-up-for-it-sex-kitten-mothering’s-a-doddle thing....’
‘Oh! Don’t go worrying yourself abouther.’ Fi’s relief makes her slur. ‘It took a team of four graphic artists fourteen hours to get those photos fit for print – airbrushing, digital touch-ups, you name it. Apparently, she looked more like what the cat dragged in.’ She cackles uncontrollably.
I stop dead in my marshmallowy-mummy-tummy tracks.
‘How do you know?’
‘Trash Queenz,’ Fi laughs, as if I’ve been on another planet. Which technically, I have. ‘You know, the blog dedicated to all the behind-the-scenes goss about the trash mags.’
More blank stares from me.
‘Everyone at work’s hooked on it. First thing we log on to each morning – TrashQueenz.com – with a “z” on the end of Queen. If you put an “s” you’ll get some hard-rock band.’ This inspires her to do a little air-guitar routine. (Boy, is she going to have one monstrous hangover in the morning.)
I feel a warm glow. Thank God for girlfriends, is all I can say! I vow to rediscover my love of trash magazines armed with the knowledge that the ‘dirt’ is only a mouse click away.
Dan, meanwhile, is gleefully bringing the boys up to speed on the many ‘assets’ of The Cat over a glass of port in the lounge.
Rachel’s suddenly animated,
‘If you’re into blogs, I’ve another that youmusttry: ShoePrincess.com. Now, I know what you’re thinking: every upmarket prostitute worth her salt’s doing a blog these days – it’s all so dotcom passé. But I assure you, she’s divine. Oh, and she’s not a prostitute – well, who cares anyway? Just go see.’
Needless to say, I simply cannot wait to meet the Shoe Princess when Millie is asleep tomorrow too.
My happy thoughts are short-lived, though, as I spy Tim motioning frantically across the room at me – slapping his hands against his chest as if he’s swatting insects.
Finally, I get it. He wants me to look down – at my chest – or rather at my Dolly-Parton-on-steroids breasts that have taken on a life of their own since Millie. Contrary to all expectations, rather than enjoying my newfound assets, Tim is truly scared of them.
I glance down and see two giant wet lily pads on my pale jersey top. I fear that, with all my expressing today, I must have tricked my breasts into thinking I’ve now got an enormous baby to feed on the hour. I can’t believe this actually happens inreallife – I was certain it was a joke made up to mock nursing mums. Yet another bizarre bodily experience to add to my growing list.
I’m immediately grateful for the cape’s covering-up capabilities and, with every painful minute that passes, wonder if it’s physically possible for human breasts to explode. With Millie at the forefront of our minds, Tim and I are suddenly in a rush to leave.
We try to thank Fi for a lovely evening, but she’s too busy dancing and singing incoherently to the deafening strains of her favourite Duran Duran CD. Marco manages to nab her as she whizzes by and, drawing her in a close embrace, commences a soft slow waltz. She instantly succumbs to the subtle rhythm and collapses on to his chest – with her eyes closed and an enormous smile from ear to ear.
‘Youmustget home to Millie,’ says Marco. ‘We’ll be fine.’ He lovingly kisses the top of Fi’s head and motions us towards the door.
Dear Liz and Harry offer to stay and help tidy up, while Marco puts Fi to bed. Rachel and Dan head for the clubs. And we beat a hasty retreat homewards.
We’re greeted at the front door by a frazzled Mum cradling Millie, who has not slept more than ten minutes, or taken any milk from the bottle all evening.
Oh dear. Oh bloody dear.
I eventually slide into bed next to a comatose Tim, our bodies interlocking in our own human jigsaw. My head is heavy on the pillow as I warm my cold (and unusually sore) feet between his.
I fall asleep quickly – sandwiched between Tim’s heavy breathing and Millie’s snuffles. Utterly content. And shoeless.
Who’d have thought?
www.ShoePrincess.com Are you a Shoe Princess? Have You Ever ...o Been frog-marched into your bedroom by your partner, during heated discussions about finances, to count the number of shoes in your possession?o Displayed your favourite shoes on a mantelpiece or kept your wardrobe doors open so that you could admire them 24/7?o Bought a pair of shoes while on holiday, and ever after referred to them as your ‘Berlin shoes’ etc? Do You ...o Remember more details about the shoes in your wardrobe than the men you’ve dated?o Find it impossible to walk past a shoe shop with a ‘SALE’ sign in the window?o Believe that stilettos are not a shoe but a way of life?o Own shoes that you have not worn because you genuinely don’t want to spoil them?o Always get given beautiful handmade birthday cards with shoes on them – the favourites of which you keep in a special box?o Find that buying a new pair of shoes always makes you happy? Would You Rather ...o Share a toothbrush with a friend than share a pair of your shoes?o Walk barefoot if caught in a sudden rain shower than ruin your shoes – especially if they’re suede?o Move house than get rid of any of your shoes?o Have a lifetime of happy shoe memories than a pair of perfect, non-mutilated feet? What are feet for anyway? If you’ve ticked ALL of the boxes ...Welcome, my darling subject, to my fabulous shoedom! And remember, if Madonna said that her Manolos are‘as good as sex ... and last longer’, they are. Email me to share your: SHOE STORIES – memories; favourites; dreams; dilemmas.SHOES IN THE NEWS – snippets that catch your eye.SHOE ALERTS – designer shoe sales; shoe exhibits.
5. Clever Clogs
‘It was genius, pure genius,’ enthuses Fi, as she thrusts a bottle of bubbly into my arms.
I must admit, itwasa personal career high point – sending the bid for the Jolie Naturelle contract in a Jimmy Choo shoebox.
For as well as being best friends since school, Fi and I are workmates at the global insurance monolith Asquith & Brown – as client-relationship managers. (All the buzz of wearing smart suits and mock-crock power points, yet none of the tedium of actually being a lawyer.) Fi’s been with the company for ages, while I only recently got my well-shod feet under the desk next to hers.
The Jolie Naturelle bid was our first project together and we were determined to make a splash. Ironically, it also became my last hurrah before going on maternity leave – well, four-months-at-home-without-pay maternity break. As I unwittingly signed on the dotted line with Asquith & Brown while two weeks pregnant – failing to qualify for the new paid maternity-leave provisions. (Such rotten luck.)
‘Anyway, it was hardly rocket science,’ I say. We’d desperately needed to make our bid stand out from the crowd, as it was common knowledge that all the competing insurers had cut their final figures to within millimetres of one another.
And that’s where the skill of the client-relationship manager came into play. Of the dozens of staff members at Jolie Naturelle we’d had to schmooze over the months, one thing had become crystal clear. They were mainly female, late twenties to early thirties, bright, well-groomed and ambitious. With a real sense of fun.
I had suggested to Fi that we slash the wording of the bid (without telling the consultants), roll it up in delicious crackly paper, tie it with a crimson, double-satin ribbon, and send it in one of Mr Choo’s shoeboxes (from my personal collection, no less). It was do or die.
Now, three months after I left work to have Millie (I can’t believe I worked right up to the week before she was born. I really cringe when I think of the tightrope I walked – doing the typical first-time-mum-working-girl thing and refusing to accept that I was different) my willing accomplice is here to tell me that our little shoebox has whizzed through the many layers of hoops at Jolie Naturelle to land us the contract. We won!
I’m over the moon. Truly. It’s actually quite nice to be reminded of my pre-Millie job – one thing at least that I know I’m good at.
I come down from my high enough to notice that Fi’s looking a little shocked, and I realise that the flat is a tip. Millie’s in a washed-out, slightly too small Babygro and I’m in my tracksuit and slippers. The TV’s blaring – I’m glued to the home-makeover cable TV channel, to which I’ve become perversely addicted – and Tim’s sprawled on the sofa sleeping off last night’s Comedy Club team-bonding session in honour of his new boss, Alex, thanks to a major restructuring programme at the bank. (To be honest, the IT department seems to get a new boss every six months.)
For my part, I’mmorethan a little taken aback to hear that my desk and my entire caseload of clients have been taken over (by Simon, no less). What did I expect, I guess? So much for my fervent belief in my own indispensability.
After filling me in on the finer details of the big Jolie Naturelle win – and of course all the office, Shoe Princess and Trash Queenz goss – for the first time Fi broaches the subject of my return to work in the new year.
‘One step at a time,’ I reassure her unconvincingly. For while the thought of getting dressed in a suit and heels and reading the newspaper on the tube, followed by sitting at my calm, organised desk with a cup of coffee in hand, isimmenselyappealing, I’m yet to get my brain around the logistics of actually making it happen. It seems nothing short of masochistic to return to work on the sum total of four hours’ sleep a night. (No man I’ve ever worked with would contemplate it, that’s for sure.) And then of course there’s the small issue of physically leaving Millie ...
I smokescreen my uncharacteristic fluffiness with a change of topic that’s sure to please.
‘So, how’s Marco, anyway?’ I know she’s dying to tell. ‘Is it official? Are you dating yet?’
‘No. Well, at least I don’t think so. I don’t want to ask him, anyway. Just in case I jinx it.’
‘But you see him practically every day, don’t you?’ And she’s always telling me it’s the best sex she’s ever had.
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m just not sure if he’s ready to move on to the next stage yet. I don’t want to pressure him.’
‘Sure,’ I agree reassuringly. I’m simply happy that she’s happy.
The doorbell rings and Fi lets Kate in (she’s here for her regular aunt’s Saturday-morning frolic with Millie) and brings me a letter that had slipped under the hall mat.
I hold the solitary envelope. The air-mail sticker and maple-leaf stamp send a shiver down my spine. It’s the first week of December, and our first Christmas card has arrived.
This is no ordinary card, either. It is Aunt Margaret’s – the official matriarch and family scribe of the Meadows clan. She is Tim’s dad’s eldest sister, who emigrated to Canada in 1956. And her card is always the first to arrive.
I will say one thing about Tim’s family: they may never win the Waltons’ Nuclear Family of the Year Award, but they are prolific and generous correspondents. He’s forever getting letters from his mum and dad in Spain (they’ve got a retirement villa there) and emails from his brother in New York (where he’s a museum curator). Must be all those years at boarding school. And thanks to Aunt Margaret’s enclosed festive newsletter, we’ll know all there is to know about most of Tim’s blood relatives. The six-page epic is the pinnacle of her year’s meticulous investigative journalism.
I place the card in pride of place at the centre of the mantelpiece, wondering when I am ever going to get around to our cards, let alone Christmas shopping.
Kate does a whizz round with the vacuum cleaner and folds the washing in my bulging basket (she got Mum’s cleaning genes that I missed out on), while I gratefully take the opportunity to play ladies with Fi and Millie.
‘You really should be putting her on her tummy more,’ Kate observes. And then gently rolls Millie over, placing some toys in front of her head as an enticement.
‘She’s three months now, and needs to develop her neck and upper-body muscles.’
Kate has made a recent point of pulling me kicking and screaming on to the mothering train. Her expertise comes from spending her gap year (and at least one weekend a month thereafter) volunteering at a small shelter for homeless single mums.
Fi and I, rather less nobly, chose to spend our year of ‘self-discovery and personal development’ packing boxes in a tiny shoe village just outside Venice (that’s where she developed her antique-mirror fixation too) in exchange for free board, Italian lessons (language, cooking, the lot) and more importantly access to cheap designer shoes. Let’s just say we were the only ones on campus to totter along to our first lecture in rhinestone-encrusted slingback stilettos. An impossibly high student shoe standard we were quite unable to sustain.
Though I am rather proud of the fact that at least we didn’t squander our gap year in a pair of those hideous rubber-sandal-come-flip-flop things with Velcro fastenings the size of half a Michelin tyre, gamely dodging toenail clippings and verrucas in some festering youth hostel.Euch.
Millie’s lying face down on her mat and looks like a newborn foal in an animal documentary – valiantly kicking and flailing. Only she doesn’t miraculously push up on splayed legs and trot away. She falls flat on her nose, time and again, finally letting out an almighty howl.
I leapfrog Kate’s disapproving glare to pick her up, and head for the kitchen.
‘Let’s have some tea. I made a date cake last night.’
Kate’s mildly impressed that I’ve at least managed to do that.
As I walk out, I notice that Tim’s awake and has been watching us. I also can’t help but notice his face change from a post-big-night-out liverish greeny-yellow to a ghostly white. And suddenly it all comes rushing back to me ...
1 a.m. Unmistakable chug of black cab up our street; stops with squeaky brakes outside of flat; husband stumbles out and slams door; black cab chugs off into dead of night; front door opens and closes with the elegance of a hippo on heat; more hippo tiptoeing down hallway; kitchen lights turn on; banging and crashing of doors and plates; ten minutes later husband falls into bed – pores reeking of alcohol – rambling incoherently that he ‘really, really, really, really, really’ loves me and Millie ... with breath that smells of DATE CAKE.
‘Well, it technicallywasmy dinner,’ he says sheepishly.
I amsonot impressed.
‘I tell you what,’ says Kate, ever the peacemaker. ‘Why don’t we all head down to Queen’s Park – Tim and I can take Millie for a stroll and see if she’ll have a bottle for her next feed, and you and Fi can stop off at the café for a girlie chat.’
She really is an angel.
‘That sounds great,’ I say, ignoring Tim.
‘Oh, before we go, I promised Alison at work that I’d pass this on to you.’ Fi produces a crumpled plastic bag and plonks it by Tim on the sofa. ‘Though I can’t imagine what you’deverwant from her.’ She laughs heartily.
The dull winter duvet of low grey cloud has momentarily given way to a sliver of crisp blue sky, and everyone seems to be making a dash for the park. We walk by rows of prettily painted terraced houses basking in the sun – the net curtains of the old-timers shoulder-to-shoulder with the frosted glass and wooden shutters of their gentrifying neighbours. But the mention of Alison’s name has completely thrown me.
Alison worked on the Jolie Naturelle bid, and was by implication important to me. It was my prerogative to know exactly what she was doing and when she was doing it. Alison also irritated me. A lot. Due largely to her heart-stopping ability to scrape througheverydeadline with only milliseconds to spare.
I tolerated her chaotic existence because she’s an excellent analyst. The best on the team, by far. But when I think back now to the laughs that Fi and I used to have at her expense, I am ashamed. At our bitchiness. Our basic ignorance.
Our game went something like this: each morning, we would have a bet on Alison. Just between the two of us. (Although it soon became common knowledge on the fourth floor.) The person with the most wins at the end of the week treated the other to a lunchtime sushi the following week. And so it went.
The betting hinged upon Alison’s arrival at work, which usually occurred any time after 9.30 a.m. And every day it was the same. The ting of the lift’s doorbell would announce the imminent arrival of hurricane Alison. Her detritus of dog-eared files and mishmash of bags and coats led a clumsy trail directly to the desk next to mine and Fi’s.
We’d all exchange surreptitious knowing little glances. Of course, we’d been in since 8 a.m. But the best was to come.
The secondary goal of our competition was to be the first to spot the ubiquitous smudge of baby sick, dried milk, jammy fingerprints or honey-glazed snot on the right-back shoulder of her suit jacket (or anywhere else).
A task made increasingly difficult when Fi swore she heard Alison telling our office manager that she didn’t dry-clean her suits any more. A fact that nearly made us wretch. (Alison had apparently considered buying out her local dry-cleaner in lieu of her monthly dry-cleaning bills.) So a bonus-point system was introduced for differentiating new from old stains.
The best day, as far as we were concerned, was when she turned up in mismatching shoes. I promise this is true. One black and one navy.And not even the same style. We both agreed that we would personally rather have feigned an epileptic seizure in the lift than hobble into the office in such a state.
We dined out on that one for weeks.
And do you know what the genuinely terrifying point to all of this is?
Wereallythought we were clever.
www.ShoePrincess.com Stiletto Stamina I’m perplexed by some bad press surrounding stilettos of late. May I gently remind my gorgeous subjects of the important role they play in our lives. Not unlike that of an illicit lover: the melding of two into one is at once irrational, adventurous, exhilarating yet ultimately (and consistently) not for long-term use. And that is OK. As my dear Swiss finishing-school tutor always said, ‘To avoid disappointment, one should never expect commitment from an electrifying lover nor comfort from a pair of spikes.’ So toughen up and enjoy the ride! Well-heeled There’s nothing worse than standing behind a SP on an elevator and glancing down to her beautiful shoes, only to notice that the heels are worn through, and the backs are scraped and scuffed. It is strongly suggested that SPs invest in a pair of driving shoes to be left in the car at all times, and make the acquaintance of a skilled shoe-repairer.
6. Arch Enemy
Once at the park, Fi takes microsips from the polystyrene coffee cup, as if sampling rat poison. It was always going to be dicey bringing her to a family-friendly café – but I figure she has to be exposed to them sooner or later.
I’m patiently listening to her dissect every word that Marco has ever uttered but my head is on a swivel. Each time a baby cries, I look around thinking it’s Millie. Suddenly, I spy Kate marching up the path towards us. Without Tim or Millie. And frowning. My throat dries and my heart goes all fluttery.
‘You’d better come. Tim’s in a bit of a state. Millie still won’t take the bottle and he’s talking to some woman who has really put the wind up him.’
We all rush out of the café and follow the sound of Millie’s bellowing to where Tim is being held captive by an impeccably groomed woman in a black fur-trimmed Escada ski jacket, and black skinny jeans that are tucked into ultra-pointy-toed, black-leather knee-high boots. She’s leaning on a red Bugaboo pushchair with a flock of those psychedelic mobiles that promise future Mensa membership dangling from the hood.
I hurriedly take off my beanie and try to fluff my hair from its matted mass, all the while wishing I’d changed out of my tracksuit. My face feels hot and blotchy from running in the cold.
‘This is Victoria,’ says Tim. He looks like a deer caught in headlights. ‘Her baby girl, Allegra, was born on the same day as Millie.’
‘Oh, how lovely,’ I say. Tim virtually throws Millie at me as I try to hack a way through my layers of clothes with one hand.
‘You’refeedingher,’ Victoria observes, with just the right amount of voice inflection and eyebrow gesticulation – in case I didn’t realise this was code forbreast-feeding. She nods approvingly. ‘I couldn’t help but notice your husband and sister struggling to give her the bottle – if she won’t take it now, she never will. Rod for your own back, I’m afraid.’
‘What centile is Millie on?’ Tim asks. ‘Allegra’s on the eightieth.’
‘Ninetieth,’ corrects Victoria.
‘Um, I don’t know. I mean, I’m not sure.’ I really can’t remember.
‘And did you know that there’s a new nursery by the park – InfinityPlusOne – for gifted children. Have you got Millie’s name down there ... I think we should put her name down ...’ Tim is almost breathless with panic.
All I care about right now is feeding Millie. Kate’s packing away the ill-fated bottle, and Fi’s texting Marco – both of them politely keeping out of the eye of the storm.
Victoria asks more questions about teething, neck-control, rolling and sleeping – all of which I seem to be doing wrong – before flying off on her broomstick.
I could weep.
Tim’s in full-on rant mode now, and decides to rub my nose in it a little more, bombarding me with questions, stats and more bloody stats.
‘Did you know that there is not one nursery within a ten-mile radius of us with a vacancy? Or a waiting list of fewer than thirty kids? And that they’re staffed by underpaid sixteen-year-old girls of questionable IQ and body piercings! Victoria’s friend in Notting Hill had to provide her nanny with a new Peugeot 206 and a flat for her sole use – otherwise she wouldn’t have got anyone decent. We can’t compete with that! How have we not thought of this? We need to redo our sums – maybe wecansurvive on just my wage for a year or so ... Do you use the sling much? Eskimos, whose mothers carry them around in slings for the first two years, have higher than average IQs ...’ Blah de blah de bloody blah.
Fi’s in shock.
Kate’s holding Tim by the arm and comforting him.
I’ve zoned out completely.
And Millie, thank goodness, is blissfully asleep on a full tummy of milk.
Bloody Victoria and her bloody perfect baby.
Mmm ... Maybe I should have taken more notice of Alison’s advice on organising childcare, and not spent my entire pregnancy coordinating Millie’s nursery with her silver-lamé baby booties?
From: Jane (home) To: Fi (work)Subject: RE: Team Xmas dinner – The Cube Dearest Fi,Thanks so much for coming and sharing the good news about Jolie Naturelle last Saturday. Really appreciated it. (Sorry haven’t emailed earlier – have had run of horror nights!) Thanks too for including me in the team Xmas dinner – thought you’d never ask, in fact. (It’s a bit tricksy, being on maternity leave, isn’t it?) Needless to say, I would LOVE to come. Slight problem with the date, though – no one to look after Millie. Tim’s in Bangalore for work and rest of family busy with own Christmas functions. So ... wondering if I could come with Millie for the pre-dinner drinks – should be pretty quiet. And then we’ll see how we go after that. If Millie’s in fine form, she could very well sleep in her baby capsule (it lies down flat) in the corner of the restaurant or even in her sling. Jane xx
I open the front door to take Millie for a walk and find a parcel with a note on it:Dropped by on way to work, but didn’t want to disturb you. My boss thought you might like to borrow this for your team Xmas dinner next week. She said she couldn’t have you worshipping at the altar of modern design in your saliva-soaked Baby Björn sling. Enjoy! (And sorry again that I can’t help with babysitting.) Kate x
For such a fashion freak my big sister never ceases to amaze me. I’m truly humbled, and open up the parcel.
I cannot believe what I am seeing. There is definitely NO way Kate could have known what was in here.
I hold up what is basically a chunk of incredibly fashionable, extortionately expensive andvery deadbaby lamb. It’s gorgeous, and naturally I try it on for size. I can’t help but giggle and tell Millie how fabulous she is going to look, bobbing along in her funky designer sling.
I feel almost Cat-like!
www.ShoePrincess.com There’s a little bit of Shoe Princess in all of us, my darlings – Shoe Are You? THE SP This princess (usually an international supermodel, society beauty) totally understands the sexual cocktail of upmarket shoes and good grooming, and uses it to ensnare her impossibly handsome and wealthy husband/lover/partner. She could not tell you how many pairs of shoes she owns – but it would be in the hundreds. Her maid may have a better idea, as she is the only one allowed to touch them. She only ever ambulates cab-to-door and enjoys the jet-set lifestyle. The only ‘casual shoes’ you will ever spy her in are her high-heeled towelling Jimmy Choo pedicure-wedge flip-flops. She often has personal relationships with some of the biggest shoe designers on the planet, and thinks nothing of having shoes couriered to her home direct from Italy for special occasions. She considers pedicures (French, of course) more important than food. Cosmo SP The thoroughly dedicated-to-the-cause, childless working girl who utterly adores shoes. She is known to ring up her best friend on her mobile in the midst of a shoe-sale pandemonium, seeking permission to blow her budget on a must-have pair of silver Sonia Rykiel 3-inch spikes. She always owns a pair of red Dorothy shoes and lucky first-date and job-interview shoes. She takes shoe shopping very seriously, and has been known to shop for 6 hours straight in a quest to find the right pair. Fashionista SP Is happy to wear her vertiginous cheetah-print platform wedges with her strapless sundress on a cold and drizzly summer’s afternoon in London. All because Vogue ran a series of pictures of The Cat wearing them in St Tropez. Her mantra is: ‘No pain, no gain.’ She has her name on at least three shoe waiting lists at any one time. She doesn’t do white trainers – unless at the gym – as it would be like wearing Crimplene trousers. There’s more to come! Or better still, send in your own ...
7. Click, Clack, Clomp
From:Tim (Bangalore)To: Jane (home)Subject:RE: Xmas Cards We must send Xmas cards. What will Aunt Margaret say? J T
OK. We appear to have a problem.
You see, sending Christmas cards just seems to happen by magic in our relationship. Sort of like the sheets on the bed getting changed. And the black scum line in the bath disappearing.
Hmm ... He’s seen me squat, butt-naked, giving birth to Millie – I think he can handle one more home truth, wife to husband: the Christmas card fairy is a little busy this year.
From: Jane (home)To: Tim (Bangalore)Subject: RE: RE: Xmas Cards Tim, I can’t believe I have to spell this out to you: I AM A ZOMBIE. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m SO exhausted from caring for Millie 24/7 and doing the domestic run of the house, that I have the memory and attention span of a one-celled amoeba. I backed the car into a fence this morning, and put my mobile phone through a cycle of the washing machine. But all is OK – was doing 1 mile/hr in the car at the time, and the phone still works (Ha!). On top of this, I have tonsillitis. And you are in Bangalore, AGAIN. I believe the armed forces call it torture (or is it death?) by sleep deprivation. Cut me some slack, will you? I simply cannot do the Christmas cards this year. I’m sure people will understand. Jane xx From: Jane (home)To: Tim (Bangalore)Subject: RE: RE: RE: Xmas Cards OK, if you feel that strongly about the bloody cards, why don’t YOU do them? I’ve attached OUR Christmas card list. You can do the necessary edits for this year – changes of address, births, deaths, marriages, divorces, trial separations, reconciliations, new boyfriends/girlfriends, sex changes (and no, I’m not being petulant; remember your dear Uncle Alan who became Aunt Ellen in 2005) – pretty standard stuff. And then write them – each night after work and in your lunch hour. Polish them off on the flight home from India, perhaps. I like to make sure that I write a personal message in each card – a little summary of the year’s events relevant to each person/couple/family. We normally send out about 60–65 cards. Don’t bother calling tonight, as I’m out at my team Xmas dinner. (Should give me enough time to calm down too.) J PS. Millie misses you. Never thought we’d get so much use out of the ‘bonding board’!Here she is: m,zs0–23., ,=c04n, r 9 j45i0–34
I bid farewell to our trusty chauffeur, Javid, from Reliable Minicabs, and totter off around the corner in my favourite Patrick Coxes with pink-ribbon ties on the sides. My back twitches, but I ignore it and stride confidently along the pavement – Millie in front, baby capsule in one hand and nappy bag in the other.
With each click-clack of my heels and swish of my skirt, I feel alive again. It’s great to be back. In decent shoes. In town. I really cannot stop smiling – how proud Clotilde would be if she could see me now.
I kiss Millie on the top of her bobbing downy head. Nothing is going to spoil our night. Not Daddy and his festering festive Christmas cards. Not Mary sodding Poppins the health visitor sticking her gargantuan no-name trainers in our front door, asking why we haven’t been to her Birkenstock-wearing-placenta-eating new-mothers’ group yet. Not the fact that I look like an actress from an oldCarry Onfilm squished into my pre-Millie clothes, all rolls-of-fat-poking-through-too-tight-fabric five foot four of me. Not even your explosive poo and complete outfit change in the back of the minicab and accompanying £80 fine for loitering on a yellow line. No, my dear sweet little baby girl, this isournight – at The Cube. Your very first experience of a glittering West End restaurant – with your mum.
And what an experience it promises to be. Tim and I had dinner here just before I found out that I was pregnant. It had only been open a few weeks and was the talk of the town – oozing stark white ultra-minimalist chic.
The vibe is palpable before we even enter the building. I desperately want to look around to see if I can see anyone famous, but decide to opt for the casual I-go-to-these-sort-of-places-all-the-time swagger – which is less than convincing with a baby attached to my front.
The double glass doors open and, oh? It’s black. Everything’s black. Still the odd twinkling of chrome. But no giant plastic Rubik’s Cube hanging from the ceiling or enormous white artworks splashed with large multicoloured dots. I do a double-take and wonder if I’m in the right place.
As I leave all the baby gear at reception, my casual investigations reveal that I am indeed in the right place, but that ‘black is the new white’. The Rubik’s Cube was seen as too Thatcherite for the ‘now generation’ (is it X, Y or Z?) and is being replaced with an ice-cube sculpture next week. Apparently all part of a rebranding exercise which will also see the name changed to The Ice Cube – representing fluidity, clarity and individuality.
Gosh – I’ve only been out of circulation for how long? I feel positively ancient.
I make my way down a wide, steep glass staircase into the basement restaurant. All the walls are covered from ceiling to floor with flat computer screens – each one showing a different YouTube clip. A handful of people are seated casually in Philippe Starck Ghost chairs around the sunken (literally – in water) bar in the middle of the room. The bar staff are bopping away to the muffled sounds of an ultra-hip soundtrack, setting up shop for the night.
I spy Fi and the work crew in the far-left corner, and make my way over.
Actually, they’re pretty hard to miss – it’s 6 p.m. and the guys are on to the tequila already, and having a hilarious time of it.
Simon, already smashed, keeps asking, ‘Why did we win Jolie Naturelle?’
And then the others answer in a high-pitched voice, clearly trying to mimic The Cat (from her Jolie Naturelle TV ads), ‘Because there’s a goddess in all of us!’ Accompanied by much pretend flicking of luscious manes of hair, and more hooting and cheering and downing of drinks by all.
(Were it not for our team winning the Jolie Naturelle account, and being crowned the top profit-centre in the company this year, we’d most certainly be enjoying the more downmarket ambience of our usual £10-a-head-Balti-restaurant Christmas bash in Covent Garden.)
Fi rushes over and gives me a huge, wide-armed hug (around Millie’s sling).
‘I’m SO glad you could make it!’ she screeches, before putting a hand over her mouth after noticing that Millie is asleep. ‘Ooh, she looks so cute in her scrummy little leather and sheepskin ...’ She’s clearly struggling to describe what she’s seeing. ‘Babybag ... with straps.’
‘It’s a sling,’ I laugh heartily. ‘Bill Amberg, no less. Kate’s boss kindly lent it to me.’ I do a little twirl for her. She’s sufficiently impressed and can’t resist stroking Millie’s leg, which is dangling like a floppy rabbit’s ear out of the corner.
‘Jane Meadows. Well, well, well. If my eyes don’t deceive me!’ Our boss, Richard, grabs a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and gives it to me. ‘My star recruit. We thought you’d got lost in nappy valley,’ he guffaws. ‘You haven’t brought little Molly in to see us yet – unlike Alison and her merry gang.’ More guffaws.
‘Millie. Her name’s Millie, actually.’ It doesn’t seem the moment also to tell him that she’s named after the great Emmeline Pankhurst, and is in fact asleep right under his disinterested nose.
Richard is not, shall we say, the mostliberatedof men. As long as his wife has his clothes washed, ironed and laid out for him at the start of the day, and meat ’n’ three veg on the table at the end, she is fulfilling her role in society. Paradoxically, he is a really exciting guy to work for – a brilliant mind. And incredibly motivating.
‘I’ve got a lot lined up for you, Jane. This Jolie Naturelle account, it’s bigger than big.’ It’s no secret that his promotion and stock-option package are riding on the back of it too.
He motions the team to gather near Fi and me.
‘Everybody, I want to propose a toast – to our dynamic duo – to Jane and Fi!’
‘And their bloody brilliant shoebox,’ chips in Simon. ‘To Jimmy!’
After the toast, it’s business as usual.
‘Now, ladies ... I spent the morning with Véronique at Jolie Naturelle HQ yesterday. We’ve gotbigplans.’ Big seems to be the word of the night. Richard pulls out his BlackBerry, checks some emails and then turns to me. ‘I want you on the ground running – day one. Do whatever you have to do, to keep Véronique happy. I’ve upped your travel budget – I want you to coverallEuropean work hubs, concentrating on HQ in Paris, of course. No expense spared. By God, if she wants you to floss her teeth or paint her toenails – you’ll be there to do it. One hundred and ten per cent – that’s our girl!’
Cue more excited squeals and air-punches from the team. (Everyone except Alison, of course, who has made a mad sprint home to sort out the babysitter.)
Now, the old me would have found Richard’s little ‘call to arms’ nothing short of orgasmic. Pinpoint attention to detail, ruthless efficiency and unquestioned commitment were my calling cards. My job was my life.
But the new me feels a little queasy. I can’t help wondering exactly how I’m going to wipe Millie’s backside and Véronique’s at the same time.
Though it seems Véronique is the least of my worries right now. I’ve just spotted Alison, making her way down the staircase.
www.ShoePrincess.com Now that the big post-Christmas sales are sneakily starting earlier each year, this is the perfect time for the humble subjects of my shoedom to restock shoe supplies: The SP Guide to Shoe-sale Shopping 1. Repeat after me: ‘I am a (your shoe size). Not a (two sizes bigger) or a (one and a half sizes smaller). Not even a (size smaller). I am a (your shoe size). No matter how divine the shoes. OK, if you really, really love them, buy them no matter what the size. And the matching handbag wouldn’t go astray either! 2. Plan your trip wisely, and always arrive early. I know, queue – no matter how common it makes one feel. 3. Wear thin tights and comfy mules or loafers – not glam, but easier when trying on shoes in a hurry. 4. Take a handbag with straps that go across your body – to keep both hands free for shoe-fossicking. And to country mice in town for the day, always pack your Longchamp fold-up travel tote in your handbag – to escort your precious cargo home in. 5. If in a large department store like Harrods (whose shoe sale is phenomenal and an annual must-do for shoe princesses) target key designers, rather than float around aimlessly – you’ll get pummelled in the crush otherwise. 6. Always be polite and courteous and never snatch shoes from another shoe princess. Ever. 7. Yes, you really do need satin lime-green stilettos and purple ankle boots. 8. Chant the mantra: ‘Why buy one pair of sale shoes when I can technically afford to buy five?’ 9. Have fun and hopefully you will find that couture stiletto which you would never have been able to afford otherwise. 10. And, last but not least, have lunch with a girlfriend to ogle and admire your newfound sole mates. (And help justify the amount of money you’ve spent!)
The team’s clearly out for a big night, with food not high on the agenda. My vision of Millie sleeping blissfully in the corner of the restaurant while I delight in the ultimate haute cuisine experience has disintegrated before my very eyes.
Millie’s been awake for about an hour now, and shows no sign of going back to sleep. As long as I keep moving, she’s happy to stay in the sling. Which is lucky for me. As I’ve been spending all my time sidestepping and dancing my way around the bar, catching up with people in ever-increasing states of inebriation, in an act of abject cowardice: avoiding Alison.
But eventually, I swivel around in response to a friendly tap on the shoulder, and come unceremoniously face to face with her and her sensible brown rubber-soled court shoes.
‘I amso, so sorry,’ I want to say. But the words get stuck somewhere deep in the toes of my shoes, and I affix a stupid grin to my face.
Ireallywant to apologise to her. And tell her that I now understand why she mistakenly put on mismatching shoes: because she has to get up at dawn (and most likely several times throughout the night), dress in the dark, and then single-handedly (her husband has to be at his desk by 7.30 a.m.) shuffle one baby to a childminder, one toddler to nursery and the other child to school, jump on the tube and be seated at her desk sometime around 9.30 a.m. If she’s lucky.
But I just stand, frozen with guilt and shame, while Alison makes a huge fuss of how pretty and alert and healthy Millie looks. She’s genuinely excited to finally meet her, and is keen to know if I found the small bag of things that she sent with Fi useful.
Oh? I’d completely forgotten about them. They’re probably still by the sofa or, most likely, underneath it. I fib, and say they were invaluable.
Alison relieves me of my misery by making a break for a gap in the bar queue, and I unwittingly find myself alone in a sea of suits. I shuffle along and find a quietish spot, and stand still for a moment, gently rocking my hips from side to side to pacify an increasingly fidgety Millie.
As I think about Alison, it all of a sudden dawns on me: maybe Richard isn’t the anti-feminist dinosaur, after all? The truth of the matter is he treats us three girls exactly the same as the twelve guys on the team.Exactly. He simply couldn’t give a toss who has children.
Richard only wants the old me. The Millie-less me who thought she knew it all. And had done it all. Beaten the men at their own game. Lived the corporate lifestyle. The travel, the boozy lunches, the deadlines, the buzz. Who was what herCosmoforemothers had raised her to be. A career girl. A success.
But I hadn’t beaten the men. I had just become one.
It’s so clear now: I love work, but work doesn’t love me – or rather, the-mother-of-a-three-and-a-half-month-old baby-me, returning to work in a few weeks’ time. If I don’t want to lose my rung on the ladder.
Hell, I even helped to create the Richards of this world.
The war is far from bloody over. (I have a sudden urge to burn any feminist book I own not penned by a mother.)
Then again, maybe Alison is the modern-day Emmeline? And I am a spineless copout, dithering about even getting back to first base. And not sure I particularly want to anyway. I can’t believe I am thinking this.
Mmm ... this is big. And more than a little unsettling.
It’s now 8 p.m. and Millie is tired, hungry and irritable. That makes two of us – my head hurts and my throat is sore. Though I’m sure the fact that I’ve been up since 4.30 a.m. and had nothing more than a glass of champagne and three morsels of sushi since lunchtime isn’t helping either.
Unnoticed by the team, Millie and I slip out. It takes us a good ten minutes to hack a path through the jungle of revellers packed cheek to jowl, and filling the whole restaurant and bar.
After I’ve collected all our bits from the front desk, the concierge walks outside with me to hail a black cab. We’re immediately faced with a large number of men in dark anoraks, milling around like an army of ants. Some talking on mobiles. Others huddled in small groups. Quite a few of them are playing cards on the pavement. There are even more across the road.
It’s a little intimidating.
The concierge picks up on my anxiety.
‘Paparazzi,’ he says glibly, and shoos a few of them from the main entrance area.
Of course. Duh! I now notice the massive cameras hanging from their necks.
I’ve never seen anything like this before.
Must be onemajorceleb for this amount of attention. My mind’s ticking overtime with thoughts of who we might run into – Robbie? Elton? Or maybe Sting and Trudy checking into the hotel to practise some tantric sex?
Ooooh, this is SO exciting. I can’t wait to tell Fi!
I ask the concierge if he knows who they’re here to snap.
His eyes widen and he grins broadly.
Make my day.
After a long bubble bath and much soul-searching I go to my shoe cupboard and do the blindingly obvious. I pack all my smart, high-heeled work shoes away at the back: ‘Goodbye my little friends ... Parting is such sweet sorrow ... but remember this is just for now, and definitely not for ever ...’
From: Jane (home)To: Fi (work)Subject: RE: The Cube – What happened to you? Fi, Wrong time, wrong place for mum with babe in arms! Speaking of which, you’re not going to believe what I found in Millie’s sling (remember the ‘babybag with straps’?): half-eaten sushi; a rolled-up £20 note; and scrunched-up dirty napkins. Did I look like a walking bloody dustbin to you?! Have a FAB Xmas/New Year break and phone me early Jan with all the Marco goss. Much Love Jane xx PS. Glad Marco made it to The Cube. And fancy having framed artworks attached to the ceilings directly above the beds ... only at The Cube! Take Care, J xx
I’m too spineless to tell her that I’ve just resigned from work.
My first Christmas as a fully-fledged, unemployed 1950s housewife is aptly spent in domestic purgatory – ping-ponging between my mad extended family in Oxfordshire and Tim’s barmy clan in Somerset. Millie’s so overtired and out of routine we’re pretty much back to the bad old days of demand-feeding – sob. And then, there are my gifts:
Tim(Everything was labelled ‘To Mum’ – has he forgotten my name?)•BMA guide to children’s health•Fire-blanket and fire-extinguisher for kitchen•Carbon-monoxide alarm•First-aid kit (size of Red Cross field camp)•Starter home-safety kit of door and drawer latches(Too much time talking to bloody Harry at Fi’s dinner party, it seems.) Tim’s Parents•Good-housekeeping guide and dinner-party planner•Set of hot rollers(Retro-chic gone mad!) Mum and Dad•Pinny (circa1953)•Iron(Why not throw in a repeat prescription for Prozac for good measure?) Kate•Twelve-month subscription toPractical Parenting(Marginal improvement on last year’s PETA gift-aid certificate, in lieu of present. At least I can use it.)
WHAT have I done?
I need a Shoe Princess fix.
New Year’s Eve shows all the promise of making up for our completely ordinary festive season, thanks to an invitation to a glittering black-tie ball – hosted by a large client of Tim’s company. That is, until Millie breaks out in a frightful fever an hour before Kate’s due over for babysitting.
We promptly cancel Kate (who’s grateful for the chance to stay at home and quietly meditate the old year out and the new year in) but decide that Tim should still go to the ball. As his boss made it abundantly clear that all of the team should put in an appearance tonight.
Too anxious to sleep, I spend the entire night making copious checks of Millie’s temperature and breathing; and looking for any signs of rashes. Filling in the rest of my time on the computer andfinallymastering the art of blogging, thanks to the wonderful (and patient) help of some fellow Shoe Princess tragics also online. (I wonder if Alison has web friends to help her through her day as well? Nah. Not enough time.)
Just before dawn, Tim stumbles home and finds me asleep at the desk.
Not altogether the best start to the new year. But then again, things can only get better!
www.ShoePrincess.com A huge thank you for the many stories, especially those from the designer shoe sales – surely the most exhilarating way for a SP to spend her day. Where else could one find office girls clad in jeans and armed with steely determination, side-by-side Gucci handbag-toting, 6-foot-tall Russian mannequins, in full-length (emerald-green!) fur coats? Fabulous! No doubt everyone’s heard of the unsightly commotion at the Manolo Blahnik sale in London – I hope none of my SPs were involved? Although, I will concede that anyone standing on a pavement for 3 hours in Siberian winds has the right to be peeved by ‘insiders’ taking photos of shoes on their mobile phones for people in the queue behind you – and then buying them on their behalf, so that nothing is left when you finally get into the store. Clearly a breach of SP shoe-sale etiquette. A gem of a Shoe Sale story from SP of Manhattan: The Scene: 11 a.m. Saturday morning. Peak hour at the Saks Fifth Avenue shoe sale. Two girlfriends are sitting next to each other, trying on several pairs of shoes. Chatting loudly, Girlfriend 1 leans over to Girlfriend 2 and says, ‘He stood in the lobby, took ONE look at my new shoes and said accusingly, “I’m not even going to ASK how much they cost!” And I said, “Good! Because neither did I!”’ Cue both girls howling with laughter. Sound familiar?
It seemed like a good idea at the time, giving up corporate life to discover my inner domestic goddess. But to my workmates it was nothing short of absurd. After all, maternal instincts were not something I was particularly known for.
Within a minute of my official resignation letter landing on the desk of ‘Patricia the Plague’ (head of human resources and so named for the speed at which she can spread anything from memos to STDs) the news of its contents ping-ponged from email to email throughout the entire eight floors of Asquith & Brown. Fi predictably phoned me, demanding the necessary counter-intelligence to keep the gossips at bay. But alas, I could not give her what she wanted. My stellar career at Asquith & Brown had come to an ignominious end.
After I’d detailed my childcare and bottle-feeding fiascos, along with chronic sleep deprivation and the fact that Millie had inconsiderately come into this world without a battery pack and self-help manual, I finally managed to bring Fi round to the fact that she’d be doing solo lunchtime dashes to Russell & Bromley. Well, at least to a point where she’s now vaguely supportive of my ‘new’ job – though I’m sure she thinks it’s all skinny lattes and walks in the park. (As is her prerogative as a childless working girl.)
Liz, on the other hand, has been a fantastic pillar of unconditional support. Openly saying that she would give up work in a flash if she were in my position, and that Millie is far more important than any monthly target or business plan. (I have no doubt that she is not just humouring me on this one.)
As for our families, everyone is completely over the moon. Unanimously informing me that these are the best days of my life. It does make me wonder what they would have said if I had gone back to work, though. Would they have feigned approval? Or bitten their tongues?
Nevertheless, I’m trying to think of my current lifestyle change as an adventure – a welcome relief from battling with the daily grind of petty office politics and London transport. Sort of like taking off on a last-minute City Break to a sunny foreign destination, accompanied by Tim and a newly purchased pair of striped canvas espadrilles, with two-and-a-half-inch heels and adorable ankle ties.
The only thing is, I’m quickly starting to feel that maybe Rachel is right: spur-of-the-moment adventures often fizzle horribly after the initial adrenalin rush of escaping. Her response to my big news was peppered with words like ‘lifestyle suicide’, ‘fat’, ‘boring’ and ‘penniless’. Oh, and ‘sexless’.
But let’s be honest, I’m not likely to get an objective reaction from someone who dry-retches at the sight of a car that’s not a two-seater sports convertible, am I?
‘I’ll work again,’ I assured Rachel defensively. ‘When Millie’s a little older. Maybe I’ll even do something completely different – something creative.’
‘Puh! You’ll need to,’ she said, looking rather frozen. ‘After Simon and his chums finish oiling the rungs on the corporate ladder, you’ve no hope of climbing back on again. How does night-packing shelves at the supermarket sound? Creative enough for you?’
Hell, shedoeshave a point. I’m such a cliché. A gleaming bloody trophy for my team and every misogynistic boss in town to polish and gloat over: ‘They’re all the same. Once the baby comes along – brains turn to mush. Can’t bear to leave the little sproglets. Seen it a hundred times before. No dedication. No work ethic. Blah de blah de blah.’
And I guess that’s how I got to today, sitting at my kitchen table with a fractious five-month-old Millie on my lap, frantically scanning the pages of Alison’s well-thumbed books – her gifts that are proving to be worth their weight in gold.
And what a truly pathetic sight I am: holding one book on controlled crying in my left hand, another on weaning in my right hand, and the telephone wedged between my ear and raised shoulder – as I enquire about the day and time for the local new-mothers’ group.
After all, there’s only so much sightseeing one can do without dealing with reality: Tim’s been called back to work and I’m adrift in a foreign city, unable to speak the language, and slowly but surely being crippled by my precious new espadrilles.
I need help. Fast!
From: Fi (work)To: Jane (home)Subject: Shoe School Hi Jane I’ve decided that the only way to see my two favourite people at weekends is to take matters into my own hands. I’ve booked you and me into Marco’s shoe-making school in 6 weeks’ time – second weekend in March – yeh! (Will also try and rope in Rachel and Liz, as can have up to five in a class.) So consider this prior warning and sort yourself out with Millie – no excuses accepted. Much Love Fi xx PS. So much for me thinking that spending Christmas with my parents and their respective partners in one big happy dysfunctional family would get me some Brownie points ... have just heard from Dad that I’m to keep a low profile with Annabel (his third wife). Apparently, they’ve just spent the night in Casualty after Hector, their 2-year-old, embedded a shoe in his ear from The Barbie Chic Shoe Store (or La Boutique de Chaussures) that I gave his sister for Christmas. (It’s SO amazing, by the way: comes complete with no less than ten pairs of shoes, shoeboxes, a Barbie-size seat, a working foot-measurer, display cases, shopping bags, four handbags, a cash register and a mirror. What more could a girl want? Have also put one aside for Millie – couldn’t resist.) Anyway, I thought I was rather clever, making sure that the box said it was for ‘3 years and over’ and that it would be perfect for Charlotte. It didn’t even occur to me that Hector would ram the sodding ‘tangerine twist’ mule in his ear AND narrowly miss perforating his eardrum. Like I was born knowing the bizarre antics of the human 2-year-old?!?! Must dash, Fi xx From: Liz (work)To: Fi (work); Jane (home); Rachel (work)Subject: RE: Shoe School Ooh, count me in! Perfect timing too, as Harry will be away at a health-and-safety conference all weekend. Please tell me I’ve done the right thing ... When Harry saw my VISA bill I got an attack of the guilts about buying 20 (yes!) pairs of shoes at the Selfridges sale (I only went in to buy coffee mugs – promise) and have just sold half of them on eBay. (And even made a small profit!) See you soon Liz xx From: Rachel (work)To: Fi (work); Jane (home); Liz (work)Subject: RE: Shoe School 1. I’m up for it – as long as I don’t ruin my nails.2. Will there be any men there (apart from Marco, of course)?3. Shame on you Liz – and you call yourself a shoe princess?!R x
Oh, how I wish a shoe surplus was a problem of mine. Tim’s recently banned all new shoe purchases. Not through any particular act of meanness, but more because he has slipped rather too comfortably into Mr 1950s mode, now that he is the sole earner and we are still living in London with a ludicrous mortgage.
He’s even taken to calling me from Bangalore, ahead of his flights home, and advising me of his food and laundry needs, before asking about Millie.
Pre-Millie, it would have been hints of a magnum of duty-free champagne, a bottle of expensive perfume and a sexy little number procured from Agent Provocateur. Followed by veiled suggestions of nocturnal activities with a pair of red patent-leather stilettos and fragranced body oil. Now, it seems, I’ve turned into the catering manager, launderette and chief babysitter.
Give me strength. One of the less empowering aspects of my new job, I have to say.
From: Jane (home)To: Fi (work); Rachel (work); Liz (work)Subject: RE: Shoe School Consider it a date! Tim’s back from India that weekend and will delight in minding Millie. Will have to work out how to organise the feeding – but leave it with me, will sort out something. Am really looking forward to it – cabin fever well and truly setting in. Am DESPERATE to get out. Am actually off to join the local new-mothers’ group today – wish me luck. Ha! Am SO nervous – what if it’s full of earth-mother fascists and competitive supermums? Anyway, enough of my paranoid ramblings. Much Love Jane xx PS. Fi, at least Hector chose the funkiest shoes in Barbie’s shoe store to embed in his ear!
At the end of yet another day in domestic paradise, I huffily decide that the bulging laundry pile can wait, and make myself a cup of tea and curl up on the sofa to watch some crappy TV, while flicking through my latest trash mag (a small reward I’ve been saving all day). But an unsightly headline reaches up and grabs me by the throat before I even get the chance to relax: ‘Cat Got the Cream’.
It seems that The Cat’s not just a pretty face:Motherhood has unleashed Catriona’s creative energies and bold business acumen, and she has great pleasure in announcing her very own organic gourmet cat-food label, Mange Chat. Naturally, her feline clientele will be at the top end of the market. Orders are already streaming in from Europe, the US, Japan and Australia. She sincerely hopes that she can be a role model to all working mothers, as someone who balances brains, beauty and the nurturing of her baby, for the betterment of herself and the world around her.
I think I am going to puke, and I leg it straight to the computer to see what the Trash Queenz have to say about this.
Damn. They confirm it’s a done deal. In fact, it’s apparently one of the highest single celebrity endorsementseversigned, due largely to The Cat’s unique household-brand power. It seems the supermodel-supermum has just added superbusinesswoman to her name.
I read on ... Aha:Whispers abound, from credible sources within Mange Chat, that The Cat had absolutely nothing to do with product development and has simply signed her name for a truckload of money.
Now, that’s more like it.
I calmly make my way back to the sofa and take up from where I was rudely interrupted: ‘1960s Soap Star Marries Toy-boy Lover in Lavish Star-studded Balinese Ceremony – Exclusive Photos.’Aahhh, bliss.
www.ShoePrincess.com SP Survey Results Q: Why do heterosexual men think that women’s shoes should cost £10, and that any more than one pair in a wardrobe is a heinous crime? It was extremely tough picking a winner, given that most of you came up with the same answer: something along the lines of the hunter-gatherer conundrum, with men just not ‘getting’ shoes. So, I’ve decided to give the L.K. Bennett gift voucher to SP of Edinburgh who offered a very clever solution to this age-old problem (shoe-shop owners take note!): A: ‘If I owned a shoe shop, I’d call it Fruit ’n’ Veg, so that when it came up on VISA statements, my loyal customers’ penny-pinching partners would not realise it was shoes.’ A deserving winner, I’m sure you’ll agree! Shoe SOS I feel it is my civic duty to pass on to the powers that be at L.K. Bennett: The ex-pat Aussie SPs need you. Desperately!
10. Sole Mate
22, 20, 18, 16 ... 14. No. It can’t be. I double-check the address Mary (the health visitor) gave me, which I’ve scribbled on a scrap of paper, before noticing the sign in the window advertising today’s cooking demonstration and talk on weaning. This looks like it.
It strikes me that I must have walked past this building a million times in my pre-Millie morning sprints to the tube. Purposefully clip-clopping along, cappuccino in hand. Funny, I always thought it was a squat. I’m still not convinced, and spend the next few minutes loitering around outside, pretending to fix Millie’s hat and blankets.
I spy a likely suspect: a mum with a pushchair slows a little and then stops right next to me, giving me a kindly no-teeth smile. She then puts the brakes on, yanks on her nappy-bag backpack, takes her baby out of the pushchair, folds the pushchair with one arm and one foot, and then gamely carries the whole lot down the steep little moss-covered steps to the basement of the Victorian terraced house.
Blimey! I watch in horror. Could they not make it any more difficult? A moat to swim over, perhaps. Nevertheless, I follow her down, secretly cursing my stupid pushchair and its stupid metal framework for scraping enormous pieces of leather from the tips of my pointy pink mules.
Mary immediately spots me. She latches on to my elbow with an enthusiastic and welcoming tug, and guides me into the heart of the room. I feel eerily like the new girl at school, being dragged into the bowels of hell by a mad woman in size 11 white trainers andTeletubbiessocks. Whatever am I getting myself into?
I can hardly believe the sight before my eyes: there must be about a dozen women who lookexactlylike me – all with very bad hair, bulging bosoms, puffy eyes and babes in arms – sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a cosy and familiar circle. I’m gob smacked to learn from Mary that every one of them lives near by. They shuffle along to make a space for me.
Millie sucks her fist and peeks over my shoulder with interest. Clearly unperturbed by the slightly musty smell and dodgy magnolia paintwork, most of which is stained and peeling from the edges around the radiators. (A far cry from the smart meeting rooms at work.) There is a large hospital sheet on the floor in the middle of the circle, which Mum will be pleased to know Mary washes and starches after each session, and has done soeveryWednesday for the past thirty years. (Something tells me that nobody elbows in on Mary’s patch very easily.)
Some babies are lying on the sheet. Some are with mums being fed or burped, while others are asleep in baby capsules and pushchairs. The room is a simmering, bubbling soup of animated conversation.
I start chatting to the mum in a pair of trendy trainers next to me, though I forget her name as soon as she says it. But I remember the name of her baby – Hugh. (She says she’s always had a bit of a crush on Hugh Grant and made sure to ask her husband to agree to the name – which he detests – while at the pinnacle of her labour pains.) Hugh is one month older than Millie, and does have a bit of a cheeky Hugh Grant grin.
She catches me yawning.
‘Not getting much sleep, either? Don’t worry, you’ll soon find we’re all obsessed by it – or at least our memories of it.’
‘So nice to hear I’m not alone then.’ The relief in my voice obvious.
‘I complained to my mum only the other day that I felt tired, and she flippantly said that I’d spend the next fifteen years tired,’ she says. ‘And the scary thing is – she didn’t seem to be joking.’
‘Well, I think Millie was born with an altimeter in her head. She’ll be comatose on my shoulder, but the second I put her down she’s like, “I’m awake now!” Wide awake.’ I shake my head and give Millie a playful tickle for being such a monkey. She smiles and all is forgiven.
‘Isoknow what you mean. Hugh had day and night completely reversed when we came home from hospital. I thought I’d given birth to a vampire. I barely saw my husband for two months.’
‘I seem to have spent the last few nights sitting with Millie on the chair in our bedroom – and very gradually sliding down to a semi-horizontal position and transferring her to her crib. And I thought the chair’s only purpose was to display my collection of soon-to-be-covered scatter cushions.’ I laugh, and then explain how I went through a John Lewis scatter-cushion mania in the last trimester of pregnancy. But failed to get any covered – mostly due to Tim protesting that we could buy a car for the same price.
‘Men just don’t get scatter cushions, do they? Mine was handbags – the pregnancy mania thing. The only fashion item that truly brought me joy and fitted over any part of my bloated body.’ She giggles.
And basically, that’s all it took to start us off – sleep, soft furnishings and handbags. Sophie – I soon got to remember her name – and I barely stopped talking, managing to swap horror-birth stories, war wounds, makes of pushchair, colic remedies, addresses, telephone numbers and emails.
It’s a truly strange feeling to meet someone at this stage in life that I have so much in common with. And so nice, too.
Mary gathers us around the kitchenette for her cooking demonstration and talk on weaning. A scraggy, handwritten sign instructing us to wash up our cups, and place all food scraps in the bin to prevent rodents (I don’t even want to think about it), hangs lopsidedly above the sink.
I must say that Mary’s enthusiasm for puréed vegetables and the uses of ice-cube trays is admirable. As is her patience. At the end of it, we’re all filled with hope and confidence. I for one am counting on her advice that all Millie needs now is ‘something to stick to her sides’ and she’ll sleep like an angel.Please, yes. I make a mental note to walk home via the greengrocer, but need to feed Millie first.
As I stare aimlessly into space holding Millie on my shoulder with one hand while undoing the buttons of my blouse with the other, a voice from behind me says, ‘Stillfeeding. Good.’
‘Oh, this is –’
‘Hi, Victoria,’ I interrupt Sophie. I immediately recognise her black boots and clipped voice, though I’d completely missed her in the mix of women in the room.
Bloody hell ... I knew things were going too smoothly.
‘Just having some trouble remembering which side I last fed from.’ It’s the most cerebral activity I have to perform in my day – and I haven’t mastered it particularly well.’
‘Oh, Ialwaysswitch my Tiffany bangle from arm to arm when I’ve just fed,’ Victoria informs me. ‘You really must try it – it works a treat.’
The Tiffany bangle would be a nice start.
She then bleats on about how happy she is to have given up her high-profile job with a PR agency, how much she islovingbeing a full-time-stay-at-home mum, and the many virtues of breast-feeding.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spy one of the other mums listening to our conversation as she gives her baby (who looks a little younger than Millie) a bottle. Victoria continues to rabbit on about her voluptuous boobs, how Allegra never gets ill, how she feels so womanly and sexy, and how she has so much milk she feels it is her community duty to donate it to the milk bank at the local hospital. The mum’s eyes gradually well up with tears.
I try to sidetrack Victoria by asking whether she’s a ‘round-, pointy- or square-toed girl’ when it comes to shoes.
‘Points, of course,’ she says matter-of-factly, and somehow manages to steer the conversation back to ‘breast is best’.
The mum is now in floods of tears, and Mary leaps across the room to her rescue. They go and find a quiet corner. I think I’m the only one who’s noticed.
About twenty minutes pass before they come back, tissue box in hand.
‘I think it’s time I had a word with my girls,’ Mary announces and motions us all to move our chairs closer. ‘More of a little pep talk,’ she brightly informs us.
‘I’ve learnt a lesson today.’ She glints and turns briefly to the mum, whose eyes start to glaze over again. ‘And I want to share it with you all. See this.’ She holds up a piece of paper between the tip of her right index finger and thumb with disdain. It appears to be a certificate of some sort. ‘Bureaucracy gone mad,’ she says, and gleefully rips it up into tiny shreds.
‘What is it?’ I ask nervously.
‘It’s a declaration – on the benefits of breast-feeding – which I’m to get you to sign (in triplicate – hah) before letting you bottle-feed your babies. It’s in your new-mothers’ pack.’ Mary smiles and pauses thoughtfully. ‘Now, I know for a fact how hard every single one of you has tried to breast-feed. Some with greater ease than others.’
She is suddenly earnest.
‘All of you are good mums. Trying your very best, day and night, for your babies. Don’t youeverlet anyone make you think otherwise. You hear me now.’ She makes a point of trying to catch each one of us in the eye.
We nod meekly.
‘I’ll have none of it.’
‘No wonder women get post-natal depression,’ Sophie drily whispers to me as we sit and try to digest what’s just happened. ‘Howmoronicallyinsensitive. The sort of tick-list-league-table-trash only amalebureaucrat could have initiated,’ she hisses.
‘More like Nanny State gone mad,’ I add.
‘My friend has a theory that all first-time mums get PND to some degree. Notwithstanding the really serious stuff, the whole thing sort of strikes me as something that should be relabelled from being an illness to an entirely normal coping reaction,’ Sophie says.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, maybe it’s a natural reaction to finding yourself in extraordinary circumstances,’ she reflects. ‘Paddling like crazy to stay afloat with one arm, keeping the baby afloat with the other, whilst grappling with your husband (with what free arm?) to save him from drifting away in the tide of flotsam and jetsam that is your new life.’
At least I don’t have to worry about Tim – he’s been so incredibly supportive of my need to devote myself to Millie in these early months.
‘It’s true, though,’ I say, as I reflect on it a little more. ‘Especially for us modern-day girls – who often have no contact with babies before our own.’ Certainly not a day passes that I don’t think I’ve been given the chief executive’s job of being a mum, without the barest trace of skills and experience on my CV to back up my appointment.
Sophie wistfully strokes Hugh’s chubby, mottled cheeks.
‘Before Hugh, the sum total of my exposure to babies was watching two-year-olds unravelling rolls of loo paper with Labrador pups in TV ads. But don’t get me started ...’ And we break out into a fit of the giggles and laugh until our sides hurt.
I think I’ve just found a soul mate. Well, a new best-mum-friend and ranting mate at the very least.
As I push Millie up the hill towards home, there’s a distinct new spring in my step. Quite frankly, I am beside myself with excitement as I think about Sophie and the motley crew of mums. Even full-on Victoria has an entertainment factor – I almost felt like I was back in the office. I wish not only that I had gone months earlier, but that it was held twice a week – wild horses couldn’t keep me from it.
But most incredibly, I smile to myself in disbelief when I think of my newfound adoration of Mary. Maybe thereisroom in a shoe princess’s life for squeaky, smelly white trainers after all.
www.ShoePrincess.com Shoe Catastrophe First-time-mum SPs beware: Do not under any circumstances be tricked into wearing flat wide shoes either before or just after the birth. Unless you wish to go up a full (yes!) shoe size and consign your hard-earned shoe collection to a dusty death at the back of your wardrobe. It’s all to do with an overzealous little hormone that makes ligaments supple in preparation for childbirth (ha!). Regrettably, it takes the scattergun approach and softens all ligaments – and your feet are full of them. Boxing Clever For the legion of SPs that love a good shoebox, here are two special commendations: Emma Hope’s shoeboxes in high-gloss white, with black-embossed logo on the lid: ‘Regalia for Feet’. Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Wonderful. Prada’s multicoloured shoeboxes for their ballet slippers; and peep-toe and cut-away flats. Using different combinations of vibrant shades of cerise, purple, emerald, yellow and cobalt for the boxes and lids. Covetable.
11. No Mean Feet
Kate holds my A4 page entitled ‘Millie’s Day’ and studies it closely.
‘It’s a great little routine for a six-and-a-half-month-old,’ she finally says. I’m mildly spooked by her approving tone, so unused am I to hearing it. ‘Two sleeps – mid-morning, mid-afternoon; four milk feeds; nice variety of foods – chunky, not puréed; play time; quiet time. She’s even taking drinks from a trainer cup now – fantastic.’
Yes, it is, actually. Achieved through much perseverance. And the carrot of this weekend’s shoe school with the girls may have helped a teeny bit too.
Kate’s here with Mum and Dad to give Tim a hand looking after Millie.
‘She’s even sleeping through a lot more too,’ says Mum, who’s listening in on Kate and me. ‘I knew she’d get the hang of it.’
I’m glad she was so sure. But yes, I will for ever love sweet potatoes. Truly madly deeply.
As I watch Millie sitting and playing with her toys, I can’t help but be enchanted by how she’s blossomed. When she spots me she breaks into a gummy smile, and then blows a sloppy raspberry. We all burst into fits of laughter, which, naturally, heralds an encore.
I’m sure this is nature’s reward for all the hard graft of the early months – a socially engaging, utterly adorable bear cub.
The shoe school starts at 10 a.m. and Kate, feeling adventurous in light of the mild spell of weather, suggests that she and Millie join me for the short bus ride to Marco’s studio. This is lucky for Tim, as it enables him to spend the first morning of his ‘father–daughter bonding weekend’ flat out in bed (after having arrived from India late last night) in the warm knowledge that a fully cooked breakfast from Mum awaits him, as well as a comprehensive selection of weekend newspapers, courtesy of Dad. I’m sure he’d have been more than capable of looking after Millie himself – though I believe my family’s rally to his side is what he likes to call a win-win situation.
The only glitch to the journey so far has been nearly giving myself a hernia by lugging Millie’s pushchair on to the bus, while Kate nursed Millie. Oh, and then having to sit directly on top of The Cat’s pert breasts – yes – due to her neck-to-toe gold Lycra cat-suited body stretching the entire length of the bus’s upper deck in her new Mange Chat advertisement.
Once off the bus, we duck and dive our way down to the far end of Church Street, where the hubbub of the noisy market traders gives way to the more serene antique shops. I leave Kate and Millie, making Kate promise to come and see me before heading home, and follow the signs for the shoe school down to the basement of Marco’s Antique Mirrors.
I feel strangely lost not carrying seventeen bags, a baby and a pushchair, yet wonderfully liberated too. Fi is busy showing off her new toy – a 3G iPhone with inbuilt video camera (courtesy of Jolie Naturelle) – to a completely captivated Liz. Fi’s been emailing me videos of shoes all week from her lunchtime jaunts. (It’s almost like old times.)
Marco is speaking to a sandy-haired and not that unattractive (I really do need to get out more) guy, when Rachel makes her trademark grand entrance, a fashionable ten minutes late.
Fi immediately spots her metallic-silver ballet flats.
‘Ooh, do you like?’ says Rachel. ‘Trust me, they’re the nextbigthing.’
I’m bewildered. There’s not a knitting-needle-thin heel in sight. Though admittedly Rachel was way ahead with the wedge. And legend has it that Sienna and Kate sawherin Ugg boots on Ledbury Road – kick-starting the now infamous West London Ugg Boot shortage of Christmas 2003.
Marco, in his usual studied silence, moves across to put the finishing touches to our workstations at a large antique wooden table. There are five spots laid out – each with pliers, hammer, nails, scissors, heat gun and glue pots.
‘I see we’re already running a little late,’ he says, self-consciously fiddling with his watch. ‘If we could do the introductions and then get started. We’ll need all the time we can get this weekend.’
The sandy-haired guy takes up Marco’s lead.
‘Hi, I’m Ben.’ He flashes a boyish smile. Rachel X-rays his trendily tight long-sleeved T-shirt, baggy jeans and Converse trainers with a glimmer in her eye. He’s very young – maybe early twenties.
‘I’m a set designer. And before you ask, no, I’m not here to make a pair of shoes for myself. I’d like to try and make a pair of shoes for my girlfriend – actually, fiancée – as a special birthday gift.’
Blimey, Tim wouldn’t even know my shoe size, let alone make me a pair of shoes. A collective sigh of admiration ripples around the table.
‘Does she like shoes, then – your fiancée?’ Liz asks in awe.
‘Oh, yes. They’re her one real passion in life – apart from the kids at work. She’s a paediatric intensive-care nurse. I always like to do something special for her birthday – really spoil her.’
‘What else have you done?’ I ask. Tim is going to hear about this.
‘Um, let me think. Well, last year I did the Pru Leith cooking school and surprised her with a dinner party for her best friends. The year before that I did an Emma Bridgewater pottery workshop and hand-painted a teacup and teapot set. I always like to do something with my hands for her.’ He holds up a pair of large, muscular, veined hands.
Rachel is practically salivating beside me, and I fear she may faint.
‘Oooh! Come to Mamma,’ she whispers wickedly in my ear.
I shoot her a disapproving glare – for all it’s worth.
Marco seems a little flustered by our rather lengthy introductions and obsession with asking Ben all about his fiancée, and tries to redirect us back to the business of shoe-making. He firstly gives us a short talk on the history of the shoe and its various components, which I find totally fascinating. He then explains that we have a choice of two styles – both mules, as backs and straps are too complicated for beginners – one with a heel and the other flat. Rachel and I choose to make flats (sadly not because I’m a slave to her big fashion prediction, but because that’s all I have the need to wear these days), while Fi and Liz stick steadfastly to heels.
We select insole plates and a pair of plastic foot moulds (or lasts) in our shoe size. Marco proudly shows us some newly arrived leathers that we can use for the upper (the outside material of the shoe front) as well as some exquisitely soft pigskins in gorgeous colours like cherry and turquoise for the linings – which will give the shoes a distinctly upmarket look and feel. He brings out some sample shoes and photos from previous classes to inspire us – I can’t believe how professional they look. Definitely good enough to be shop-bought.
We all gather around an enormous antique sea chest with yet more pieces of leather and fabric to choose from – in every conceivable colour and pattern. The choice is too much and we dither about for some time, before I settle upon a textured fabric with a sort of lineny, raw-silk feel.
I get up from kneeling by the chest and am straightening my clothes when Rachel gasps alarmingly, ‘Jane!’
I jump a mile. What on earth.
‘What is it?’
She puts her hand to her mouth and points at my waist.
‘Eeeelastic.’ She spits the word out and then says in monosyllabic bursts, ‘Waistband. E-las-tic. Oh, Jane, do be careful.’
‘Well, I’m hardly going to fit into a pair of skinny jeans, am I?’
‘You don’t see The Cat in elastic, post-bambino, do you?’
I consider pulling her up on a technicality, in light of the gold Lycra cat-suit, but bite my tongue, sensing it could easily backfire on me.
‘One very slippery slope, my darling. Next it’ll be the three Ts.’ She’s already given me several lectures on these: T-shirts, tracksuits and trainers. ‘And then it’s, “Hello, mistress.”’
‘Oh, seriously.’ Liz pooh-poohs Rachel’s drama-queenness. ‘Not all married men have mistresses, you know.’
Rachel purses her lips. Her silence is discomfiting.
‘And anyway,realmums don’t have multimillion-pound slush funds to spend on nutritionists and personal trainers.’ I suddenly find my fight.
‘OR tummy tucks and boob jobs,’ says Fi, winking and quoting the latest Trash Queenz bombshell about The Cat.
‘Excuses. I’m just hearing excuses, girls,’ Rachel reprimands, and I know she’s not joking.
A little crestfallen, I skulk back to the table, where Ben is patiently waiting for us. He brought his own fabric along today – a microfibre that looks and feels uncannily like leather, in a pretty shade of pink. His fiancée is a devout vegetarian. He’s also got a suitable lining material and his own vegan glue.
‘Who’s his fiancée? Stella McCartney’s secret twin sister,’ whispers Rachel slyly before sidling up next to Ben, and coquettishly fiddling with her materials.
My first challenge turns out to be pattern cutting. I’ve already been given a gentle rap on the knuckles by Marco for wasting material – he’s extremely professional. I’m left with no doubt that this is no token craft class for bored housewives, and that in less than forty-eight hours the jigsaw pieces in front of me will resemble a gorgeous pair of shoes. I have a feeling it’s going to be no mean feat, though.
Kate and Millie take me by surprise when they peek into the studio an hour later, providing a welcome interruption to the gluing and sewing. I frantically motion to Kate not to come in, keen as I know she is to get a glimpse of Marco. But the fumes from the glue are headache-inducing and far too strong for Millie. I excuse myself and go upstairs with them. Fi promptly follows us with her wretched video phone and takes aim at Millie. She’s like a kid with a new toy today – I’ve already had to take numerous movies of her and Marco ‘making shoes together’. Though I should think it’s more ‘Marco making her shoes’ – she’s really showed minimal interest in the mechanics of it, preferring to dote on Marco instead.
When I get back, I’m surprised to find that Ben has finished off sewing one of my uppers – so that I don’t fall behind. He seems to be taking to shoe-making like a duck to water. And is similarly at ease with his handling of Rachel’s outrageous flirtations – politely humouring her and taking it in his stride.
The room is bustling with activity and shoe chatter, and Ben and Marco soon become privy to all of our girlie ramblings. Fi has tried to convert us to Iyengar yoga – as part of her New Year’s resolution to harmonise body, mind and soul. Hah!
We’ve dissected the Shoe Princess’s latest words of wisdom, as well as expanded our vocabularies, thanks to blogs posted by fellow SPs, with the likes of ‘choogasm’ (when one’s nirvana comes from wearing upmarket high-heeled shoes) and ‘sparklers’ (gold- or silver-lamé shoes worn in group sex so one knows where one’s feet are – Rachel, of course, obliging us with the logistics).
The table is unanimous on one topic, though – my sister’s choice of footwear. Ghastly! Unfortunately, Fi messed up on the video of Millie and managed to get Kate’s feet ineveryframe. I’m so embarrassed. They look uncannily like King Kong’s – and she’s not even wearing fur-trimmed Ugg boots.
After my slightly shaky start, I’ve become entirely engrossed in the work at hand, and am surprised to see that it’s 2 p.m. when Marco lets us out for a short break. (But not before chatting to each of us and inspecting our workstations to make sure we’ve made sufficient progress.) Much to Fi’s disappointment, Marco declines to join us at the local café – instead holding a meeting with some clients. He’s been in and out of the class all morning, talking to various people both in the studio and upstairs in the shop. Needless to say, Rachel and Fi have made great use of Ben in Marco’s absence, for all manner of queries. Rachel, for her part, is so outrageously transparent.
The afternoon session, Marco informs us, is the hardest part of all – joining the upper to the insole plate. We should get one complete today, and the other tomorrow. The trick is in getting the insole plate correctly positioned on the last (aha, so that’s what it’s for) and then shaping and tacking the upper to it. Followed by gluing it all into place.
I now know why the shoemaker left all the work for the elves – it issolabour-intensive. My fingertips are burning from all the nailing and tacking, and I’m finding it hard to manoeuvre everything perfectly into place.
Marco, sensing my frustration, offers to help me. He positions himself directly behind me – with one leg placed either side of me and both arms around me – leaning forward in order to reach the last.
Ohhh-K. Notquitewhat I had expected. The skin on my neck rapidly turns into a blotchy mulberry Turkish rug that creeps to the tips of my burning ears. My stomach does a complete flip. I guess it’s not every day a six-foot-plus Italian hunk engulfs me!
Marco then proceeds to finger the leather – kneading and cajoling it onto the last with the dexterous skill of a masseur crossed with a concert violinist. I’m trying to take careful note of how he’s doing it, but am finding it a smidge difficult to concentrate. Not helped in the least by the fact that he reeks of the most sublime aftershave – a light, citrusy mix with a woody vanilla undertone. I’m completely haunted by the smell. And then it occurs to me that it’s very like one I used to buy Tim when we first met – it brings back wild, delicious memories. A far cry from today, ironically, when we’re hardly in the same room (or country!) long enough for me to smell his aftershave. Sadly, I can’t even remember if he wears one these days.
I’m snapped from my daydream by the touch of Marco’s hand on my shoulder.
‘That should give you a good start. See how you go.’
‘Great. Thanks.’ I can barely meet him in the eye.Oh, get a grip, Jane. I’m a happily married woman. And a mother. Not a giddy fourteen-year-old schoolgirl. This is most peculiar. Not to mention completely mortifying – given that he’s also my best friend’s much longed-for boyfriend.
Liz has obviously witnessed the whole thing, and is standing open-mouthed and a little scarlet-faced next to me.
That’s it – from now on, when I need any help, I’ll be fighting Rachel for Ben.
The Marco incident has rattled me, and I’m anxious to leave on the dot of 6 p.m. to get home.
Rachel is clearly hoping for the elves to come in overnight and finish off her shoe, as she’s been seated at Marco’s desk for the past hour getting an emergency nail repair from Ben. He did a French polish course for his fiancée’s Christmas present and happened to have all the gear in his backpack. Why can’t Kate find a guy like him?
Fi nuzzles up to Marco.
‘Any exciting plans for tonight?’ she asks us.
‘My fiancée’s on night shift – from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. – so it’s pizza and a video for me,’ Ben says glumly.
Liz and I look at each other in alarm. And then at Rachel. Unfortunately, we knowexactlywhat she’s thinking.
www.ShoePrincess.com Shoe Are You? You can run, princesses, but you can’t hide ... Common Garden Variety SP This princess is genuinely interested in looking smart and stylish, and has a knack for buying mid-range shoes that can instantly update last season’s outfits. She is more likely to be spotted in a kitten heel than a 3-inch designer stiletto, and has serious shoe-credibility issues when it comes to spurning fake plastic imports – think Pied-à-Terre rather than Payless Shoes. She has years of shoe-buying experience behind her. And as she hits her mid-30s she’s finding it harder to get shoes that are wide enough (especially post-childbirth) or have sufficient padding under the balls of her feet. She bemoans always having to apply a non-slip rubber sole to her new shoes, and don’t even get her started on the total uselessness of plastic heel tips. She wishes that designers would bring out her favourite shoe styles, updated ever so slightly each season. She will always be able to justify blowing her shoe budget for a very special occasion! Persecuted SP Princesses with particularly small or large feet, who often find it impossible to get smart, fashionable, well-fitting shoes in their size. When they do come across either a supplier or a style of shoe that fits them, they will buy several pairs of the same shoe, often in different colours. These princesses always need container ships to store their shoe collections in. The Persecuted SP with large feet is quite adept at arm-wrestling transvestites for shoe bargains in the upmarket shoe sales. Petite SP Very high heels are a way of life for this vertically challenged princess. She would rather die than be seen in anything with less than a 3-inch heel. Her calf muscles are so shortened that even her slippers have heels. Her partner has never seen her barefoot, and she could easily run a marathon in stilettos. Her mantra is: ‘Why go to the gym when you can wear stilettos?’ Role models are Posh Spice and Carrie from Sex and the City.
In a rather cheery fashion, Mum’s always told Kate and me to expect the unexpected. As if by greeting the unfamiliar as the familiar we’ll deny it the full force of its intended blow.
The only thing is, I keep forgetting to do it.
It’s Sunday morning, and Millie is covered head-to-toe in spots. Actually, not spots, but a pulsing river of angry red pustules that the on-call doctor at the hospital last night assured us was a textbook case of chickenpox. Yes, her first major childhood illness. Coinciding with my first solo escape from domestic servitude.
What else should I have expected, right?
And now Tim, whose only form of daily exercise ever since I’ve known him has been walking to and from the tube and lifting a pint of lager, is lying face down in bed doing something he assures me is ‘the cobra’. A yoga asana that involves gently pushing up on straightened arms and arching his back and head, while breathing heavily. He’s eulogising the same mind–body–soul sound bites as Fi. I’m dumbfounded.
Not that I’m complaining, mind you. If last night between the sheets (before our sprint to the hospital) was anything to go by, I’m all for these asanas, or whatever they are. Scrummy.
He told me that the yoga’s one of the perks of the staff wellness programme in Bangalore. That was just before he dropped the bombshell that he’ll be working a rota of one week in London and three weeks in Bangalore for the foreseeable future.
Honestly, his career has gone into overdrive since Millie was born – what with the overseas travel, longer hours and corporate dinners. Never mind the ‘bonding board’ – I should think he’ll need to make Millie a life-sized bloody papier mâché dummy now.
My offer of applying for single-parent benefit was greeted with a major sense-of-humour-failure. As if my pathetic housewife brain couldn’t understand the demands of the big bad corporate world any more.
The trouble is, I understand them only too well.
I blearily step over Tim’s half-opened suitcase and start pulling myself together for today’s shoe school. Where to begin? I can barely think straight after numerous bumping-into-walls sprints to Millie’s room in the dead of night. I don’t exactly know how I do it, but I’m vertical and halfway down the hall within a hair’s breadth of her first muffled cries. And last night, there were many.
When I did manage to get back into bed and knit a few worried power naps into a continuous blanket of sleep, I was woken by Dad squirrelling up and down the hall between the spare room and the kitchen – tracking the course of tropical cyclone Dennis live on an Internet weather channel on his laptop as it hurtled into some remote Coral Sea island. The man’s positively mad. He has theoptionof uninterrupted sleep, and hechoosesto wake every two hours. Ever since he and Mum joined the Silver Surfers Internet Club, they seem to be permanently wired to their computers.
Mum volleys my suggestion of not going to the final day of the shoe school today straight back. Reminding me that she has two very healthy adult daughters to her credit, before jettisoning me out of the front door.
I force myself to focus on the clip-cloppy rhythm of my feet as I march mechanically to the end of the street. Desperately trying to ignore Millie’s wailing that blasts through the still morning air like an Exocet missile into my ears – completely scrambling my brain.
A few minutes into the bus journey, I hurriedly release my white-knuckled clutch of my mobile phone to read the text message:All gd. Hv a gr8 day. T J
Phew. I did not enjoy that one little bit.
As I stare out of the bus window, my mind wanders to Alison and how she does this every day. With three kids. And then turns up to work. Only to be sniggered at behind her back for being neurotic.
You see, Alisonalwaysseemed to be fretting over some drama, whether it was Joseph’s temperature and recurring middle-ear infection (‘The nursery will notify me if he comes out in a rash, won’t they?’ ‘How can I get him to the doctor after work to see if he needs another round of antibiotics?’), Lucy’s nits (‘It’s a national plague, didn’t you know?’), Tom’s diarrhoea (‘Could he have a food allergy? Or maybe a reaction to the MMR?’ ‘I hope the childminder’s giving him enough fluids’), or some other deadly infection they had contracted.
Sue, in front reception, was the only person mildly receptive to her obsessing. Due largely to the fact that she was a mother herself, and completely understood the need to offload such concerns.
But you know what? Alisonnevercomplained.
Not even when I supported the decision to refuse her (quite legitimately) a week’s leave without pay for a summer holiday. Because she’d just used up the final three weeks of her annual leave, when all three kids got chickenpox one after the other. (I needed her for the Jolie Naturelle bid, for goodness sake.)
So, no prizes for guessing my New Year’s resolution: apologise to Alison. Profusely. (After my feeble effort at the Christmas party.)
Whether I have the backbone to follow it through this time is another thing entirely.
It looks like I needn’t have worried about sprinting to Marco’s studio in my high heels, nearly spraining my ankles (I’m so out of practice) – only Fi and Ben are here. Along with Marco, of course.
‘Here’s the periodical I was telling you about,’ says Marco, handing me a thick glossy magazine with a shoe on the front. ‘Everyone in the trade buys it – it should give you a good idea of what’s out there.’ With Millie’s illness and everything going on at home, I’d completely forgotten that I’d asked him (almost in passing, actually) about learning some more about shoe-making. It really is very sweet of him to follow it up. And so quickly too.
I’m also pleased to say that yesterday’s embarrassing mini-case of wanderlust is history. Thanks to the well-timed return of my cobra.
Fi hands me a welcome double espresso from the coffee machine she’s set up by Marco’s small sink. (She nearly died yesterday without a decent coffee under her belt.) The rush of caffeine also helps me suddenly remember the whole Rachel-gagging-to-bed-the-spunky-young-and-engaged-set-designer scenario.
‘Where are the girls?’
‘Oh, Rachel called to say that she’ll be late,’ says Marco. ‘She said to start without her – but she won’t be long.’
I immediately dart my gaze over to Ben, and study him closely. He’s either very sneaky or very cool. (Or very innocent, I guess?) As he hasn’t flinched a muscle at the mention of Rachel’s name. Apart from a lazy yawn, which, given that it’s Sunday morning, I’ll let him get away with.
Normally, I’d bet my last penny on my granny’s grave that Rachel’s shagged him senseless, and is at this moment indulging in a post-sleep-in bubble bath and home-delivered Patisserie Valerie croissants (courtesy of a young, hunky pastry chef whom she ‘treats’ every now and then too). Rachel usually gets what Rachel wants.
‘And Liz called to say that she won’t be coming in at all,’ says Fi.
‘Why? What’s wrong?’
‘She didn’t really say. Just that she couldn’t make it.’
That’s strange, because Harry’s away at a conference too.
‘Did she sound poorly?’ Ben’s concern seems genuine.
‘No. Not really. A little tired, I guess.’
When I think about it, she was pale and drawn yesterday. The stress of trying for a baby is so all-encompassing. Every now and then it catches up with her – mentally and physically.
‘Well, the least I can do is finish her shoes for her.’ Ben goes over and collects her materials. He really is a darling.
In fact, Ben turns out to be our saviour, practically tutoring us the whole morning, while Marco meets yet more clients up in the shop. If Fi’s miffed by her plan to spend the weekend with Marco being scuppered by all these meetings, she’s certainly not showing it.
During our break, I ask her tentatively who the clients are.
‘I don’t mean to be rude, but they all seem to be, um ...’
‘Disabled,’ she says, matter-of-factly.
‘He’s making their shoes for a special one-off performance ofA Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. They’re from a disabled theatre company – every one of the actors has been affected in some way by a motor-vehicle accident. Marco’s doing it all for free. It’s going to be out of this world. You should see the designs he’s come up with – sort of Zandra Rhodes glam rock meetsThe Wizard of Oz!’ Fi’s glowing with pride.
Well, I never. Marco Delaserio – the intelligent, handsome shoe designer – now with a social conscience. Fi hastrulyhit the jackpot!
‘And Ben’s kindly offered to help out with the set designs too,’ she says excitedly.
I would expect nothing less.
www.ShoePrincess.com Ugg Boot Survey The results are in! And I have to say that it was a keenly fought battle between the European and Australian SPs as to who had the strongest views on the subject. The Australians, and in particular the Sydney SPs, assure me that only ‘Westies’ (from an allegedly outer-suburban fashion-challenged region) wear ‘Uggies’. And that no amount of ‘talking them up’ in Vogue is going to change their minds. A definite NO vote there. Meanwhile, the European SPs are happily toasting their tootsies from the King’s Road to St Moritz – a winter-wardrobe winner that I’m afraid seems to be here to stay. And with enough votes to push the poll result to a resounding win for the Yeti YES team! Shoe Shopping Hot Spot Tokyo is officially this month’s winner. Its star status achieved by hundreds of SP reports of shoe shops to die for! And not only is the shopping great, but the shoe-spotting is out of this world. The girls there are mad about shoes – especially platforms or prettily patterned shoes. And for my legion of SPs constantly complaining about shoes not being wide enough, the Japanese shoes are also made with more generous widths too. So, what are you waiting for ...
13. Kick the Boot In
Rachel graces us with her company just before midday, with a pounding headache and dark sunglasses. She vows that Liz gave her and Ben a lift home last night – dropping her off first. And alone. Ben corroborates the chain of events wholeheartedly. (In fact, he seems so clueless as to my line of questioning that I feel a tad embarrassed to have implicated him in the first place.)
I start to smell a rat, though, when Rachel says that she’s late because she’s had a huge night with a guy from work. Rachel’s always insisted that she’d sooner go hiking in Tibet than sleep with someone from work.
‘You’ve got a statistically higher chance of finding your life partner at work these days,’ says Fi, no doubt quoting from one of her trash-mag surveys.
‘Well, I can’t argue with that,’ says Ben with a smile. ‘I met my fiancée at the hospital when I was doing some volunteer work for the children’s ward.’
Rachel’s face turns even greener than it already is. And naturally, Fi and I quiz Ben some more about his fateful meeting with his fiancée.
‘I really think we should be getting on with things,’ says Marco anxiously, doing his best to jolly Fi and I along a bit, and leave poor Ben alone. I take his cue, and set straight back to work.
With Marco not racing off to a client meeting, Fi takes the opportunity to get some more video footage of them, and thrusts her phone into Ben’s hands. Marco looks slightly ill at ease, while I’ve never seen Fi looking so radiant. Rachel’s spirits suddenly rise too, as she takes delivery of a dozen red roses (with a raunchy little note that she won’t let us read) from her new lover. She’s floating on cloud nine.
Happily, we all settle down to a relaxed and quietly industrious session. I’m thoroughly enjoying the craft of cobbling today, now that I’ve really got the knack of it. And when we stop for a late lunch, and I’ve checked with Mum and Tim that all is OK at home, I even allow myself a little indulgence – I take up Ben’s offer of a French manicure. I made a special effort in the clothing department today too –justmanaging to squeeze into a pair of low-rise jeans (with the top button undone but cleverly covered by my knitted wrap top) and of course my high heels. Rachel and Fi are most approving.
By the afternoon’s end, and much to our collective delight, we’re admiring our very own pairs of handmade shoes. All in all, it’s been a brilliant weekend. Fi points out that, if we were to put our shoes side by side on the table, we’d be staring at mini versions of ourselves. And she’s not wrong: Rachel’s are in red satin leopardskin print, with gold-lamé lining. Fi’s are a funky denim, with fuchsia pigskin lining. And mine are mint-coloured with a flower sewn on to the side – a Cath Kidstony-type fabric contrasted with crimson pigskin lining.
And thankfully, with Rachel’s attentions elsewhere, Ben’s had time to finish Liz’s shoes. He’s done a lovely job on them too – they’re a beautiful cream calfskin, with classic cream lining. She’ll be thrilled.
I’m now more convinced than ever that shoes are worth every penny we pay for them. I’ll certainly not be able to look at a pair in the same way again.
‘You’ve got a good eye for shoe-making, Jane,’ says Marco, holding up my shoes and examining them closely.
‘Yes. I’m serious. I’ve seen several other students use this fabric – but none so cleverly. And you’ve made very few mistakes – not easy for a novice. Well done.’
I’m embarrassed, yet completely chuffed.
‘If you ever want to make more shoes, you’re very welcome to use my studio.’
‘Thanks. But I don’t really have the time at the moment.’
‘Don’t be so sure about that,’ says Marco supportively. ‘You can take the materials home if that suits you best. I made my first pair at my mother’s kitchen table.’
‘I guess I can’t quite justify bespoke shoes in my wardrobe these days, either.’
‘Well, make them for other people instead,’ pipes in Fi enthusiastically. ‘You could sell them – make some “shoe money” for yourself. Marco, tell her about the scouts – from the large French fashion house – who bought the entire Portobello Road market-stall collection from one of your students last year.’
‘It’s true,’ he nods.
‘Gosh, that’s amazing.’ Now that I think about it, Sophie and the mums at my mothers’ group are always complaining about a lack of fashionable, yet wearable, mum shoes.
‘Actually, you’ve all done magnificently,’ says Marco. ‘And thank you to Ben, too. I don’t know what I would have done without you this weekend. Extraordinary circumstances – I do apologise.’ Marco glances over in the direction of his own worktable, which is buried under sketches and shoes he’s making for the play.
Ben stares at the floor bashfully. He’s already boxed up his fiancée’s pretty pink mules in their crackly paper. Oh yes, Marco provides us with the icing for our cakes as well!
I’m still on a high when I get home. And excitedly tell everyone about Marco saying that I was the next Manolo Blahnik – OK not quite. But still ...
Unfortunately, Tim is about as receptive as a damp squid to Marco’s suggestion that I make shoes – openly querying the ‘business plan’ behind such a ‘folly’. He could have at least given me twenty-four hours to bask in glory before bursting my bubble. (He’s not normally so horrid.) I suspect he’s worried I’ll slip up on my ‘house duties’, now that he’s got me manacled in apron strings.
Mum, of course, is hugely impressed by my efforts. And even Dad urges me not to give up on any aspirations to make some funky mum shoes.
Folly, indeed ... I’ll show him!
And now, to top things off, it’s 10 p.m., and I’m home aloneagainthanks to Tim taking a call from work. He’s gone in to fix a system-test failure that his boss Alex says needs to be sorted by start of play tomorrow.
To be honest, I’m quietly glad to see the back of him. So much for radiating inner peace and harmony.
From: Sophie (home)To: Jane (home)Subject: RE: Saturday Night – Chickenpox Alert Hi Jane Thanks so much for letting me know about Millie – poor little darling. And poor you too with your shoe school – Murphy’s Law. Will be watching Hugh with baited breath now. Feel like we didn’t get the chance to speak much last Wednesday. I seemed to be constantly chasing after Hugh or dragging him off the tops of tables – how civilised our mothers’ group used to be when they all stayed in one spot. I sometimes wonder if we’re ever going to finish a conversation again. Thank goodness for email, is all I can say. I did have the unfortunate pleasure of sitting next to Victoria, though. I know Mary tells us that she means no harm. (Mary would tell us to give a convicted murderer standing with a blood-soaked axe the benefit of the doubt!) But seriously, WHAT is her story? She drove me insane, telling me how fantastic Allegra is – how she’s such an easy baby (is there such a thing?). And how she can’t wait until Allegra is old enough to bake cakes with her. All hell broke loose when she found out that I was going back to work. I’m due back in a few weeks (really can’t afford to stay out of the loop too much longer). They gave me the option of 4 days per week, so I jumped at it. Must admit, I’ve been looking forward to and dreading this ‘next big step’ in equal measure. Victoria made me feel so damn guilty, though. I don’t know what her husband does, but the bills at our place certainly can’t be paid by my husband’s town-planning salary much beyond April. (Nor can my sanity stay intact much beyond then either!) Have been sitting at the computer all weekend, trawling the Internet for any hints on how to choose the best nanny. Mind you, not sure it’s such a good idea, as have been totally transfixed by horror stories posted on noticeboards about nannies that steal your clothes and lock your kids in cupboards etc – have worked myself up into a real state. Have interviewed quite a few already – what an experience. Only proving that I can confidently advise board members of multinational companies, yet am reduced to a whimpering, indecisive idiot when it comes to who looks after our son. Had I gone back to work earlier, would I have found it easier letting go? Who knows? I guess it’s never easy. (Am constantly having these guilt-ridden rhetorical conversations with myself.) But I do know I’m being held to ransom by these nannies – all of them have ‘requested’ they be paid cash-in-hand. I’m so confused. Have fallen for the charms of the friendly and capable Oz/Kiwi/SA girls – but big drawback is their transience. I just want a simple life! Can’t wait to catch up and see your bespoke shoes – you clever thing. Hope Millie’s on the mend soon Sophie xx
Blimey, she sprang that one on me.
From: Jane (home)To: Sophie (home)Subject: Sunday Night Sophie ... you can’t leave me with Victoria ... Aaaaargh! Am starting to get a complex – as of tomorrow Tim’s spending 3 weeks out of 4 in Bangalore. (He’s been having a hellish time of it lately, ever since his new boss came on board. Sadly, no end in sight.) Can’t say I’m looking forward to yet more time flying solo with young bub at home. But we do what we have to do, I guess. Am amazed, actually, at how physically shattered yet mentally invigorated I feel, just from my weekend of shoe-making – ready to tackle the demands of mothering again. Am SO proud of my creations! Millie is soldiering on. Just difficult stopping her from itching, and keeping her indoors for now. See you in a week or so when she’s spot-free. And good luck with the nannies! Hugs to Hugh Jane xx
New Year’s resolution mark two: Get a life.
www.ShoePrincess.com I’d like to go out on a limb and share with you a shoe poem, sent in by SP of Dublin. If only for the sake of helping to mend a broken heart! (And as any self-respecting SP knows, there is no better remedy than a new pair of shoes.) OK, here goes ... An Ode to Shoes I love you more than cherry pies,You never betray me and go straight to my thighs,Or leave me once you’ve had your fun,Without explanation or so much as a so long.(All will become clear soon ...) The smell of your new leather, cheery colour and delectable touch ...Your illicit purchase brings no comparable rush.(I’m guessing cherry-red Marc Jacobs pumps?) Gobshite two-timing boyfriends may come and go,But we’ll be together for ever, I know.Ah, how I looooove shoes!
14. Soft Shoe ShuffleFrom: Sophie (work)To: Jane (home)Subject: RE: Fallen off the Radar Hi Jane So sorry I haven’t been in touch for ages. All is good, thanks. But have just survived my first nanny crisis – a mere 4 weeks back at work. Sharelle got a severe bout of gastro and had to take a week off! Thankfully, James has a brilliant boss who let him take 2 days off work (unpaid) to look after Hugh, then Mum came down from Cheshire and covered 1 day before dashing back for a specialist’s appointment, and I took a sick day. Felt like such a fraud – but was left with no other option. Then Sharelle called to say that she’d broken up with her boyfriend and was going back to NZ – the next day. Cue me taking the whole next week off work (from my holidays – who needs them) to interview more nannies and find one that could start straight away. (And I didn’t believe the agency when they said Sharelle would be the first, but definitely not the last, nanny I would ever hire.) Hence, my silence. The irony of all of this is that I’m really enjoying being back at work. Although can’t believe how efficient I am these days. No after-work drinks and pats on the back – just want to get my job done and get home as fast as I can (and hopefully catch Hugh before bed). James gets home before me and helps out with meals and bathtime. Which is fantastic – their special time together. (Doesn’t mean I don’t worry or still feel guilty – but I can’t be in two places at once, right?) Anyway, we’ve now got Rhiannon – who I’m happy to say is very single and very mature. She had the cleanest and most sensible shoes too – you’ve made me paranoid now about everyone’s shoes. Here’s hoping that the rest of May will be hassle-free for all of us. Hope to catch up soon (miss our Wednesday girlie chats) and much love to Millie S xx PS. How’s Mary and Victoria and the gang? xx
Ah, what a difference a couple of months can make. The gang has all but disbanded. Mary’s new-mothers’ group is just that – full of new mothers again. Every one of the old-timers, bar Victoria and me, has gone back to some form of work. And we were politely told to move on and arrange our own get-together.
Which Victoria obligingly did.
So now, each Wednesday, Millie and I sit on the rug with an assortment of nannies in the front room of Victoria’s massive double-fronted house overlooking Queen’s Park, while she runs her Musical Maestros group. (We had to make up numbers by placing an ad on the noticeboard at the park café.) And I must say, even though Victoria makes me feel hugely inadequate, she does a fantastic job of the group.
Each week she chooses a different composer and does a little spiel on why his (yes, unfortunately no females yet) music is good for infant-brain development. Usually quoting one of her notorious ‘research studies’ linking, for example, early exposure to classical music with increased spatial-reasoning abilities. (Something Victoriaassuresme Millie will need if she’s half a chance of getting into a decent school – not that I’ve thought that far ahead yet.)
The music group doesn’t have the same battle-scarred camaraderie as our old mums’ group, but the babies love it. And Millie and Allegra have become great friends too. Meanwhile, I think I’ve made friends with every white-van man in London – signing for an endless stream of home-delivered groceries, furniture, toys, designer shoes and chic French baby clothes for Victoria. She’s an Internet/catalogue fanatic. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to shop – the thrill of the chase and all that!
Outside music group, Millie and I muddle along in our own little way. Mostly involving rain-sodden jaunts around the park and trips to the high street and supermarket. (As well as a newly discovered affection for wellie boots.)
But we always seem to be busy. And I always seem to be in a permanent state of exhaustion. (We haven’t fully cracked the night-time sleep thing yet.) I sometimes think that it’s the constant second-guessing that frazzles my brain the most: is it teething (isn’t it always?); too much sleep; not enough sleep; dairy; immunisations; hungry; thirsty; too hot; too cold? I thought by now, at least, I’d have a grip on this mothering business. But it’s proving to be a little more slippery than that. What with the relentless pace of growth and change in this first year, I no sooner think I’ve got the hang of things and the goal-posts move again.
Mum and Dad are busier than ever, and only manage to pop down to London now and then. And Kate’s taken up a new philosophy course on Saturdays, so she doesn’t see as much of Millie as she used to either.
I also haven’t seen much of the girls since the shoe-making weekend back in March. When Fi’s not busy with work she’s surgically attached to Marco – they both seem very happy (an all-time record). I never did take Marco up on his kind offer to use his studio to make my mum shoes – though I think about it often. (The story of my life at the moment.) Liz’s gone underground – maybe starting another round of IVF? Not sure and not game to ask. And Rachel’s still slinking off to the stationery cupboard with her work lover – yet another record.
Oh, yes, and Tim. My husband. He’s also kind of deserted us. He phones daily when he’s in Bangalore (still three weeks out of four) and has set up a webcam on the computer for Millie. Poor little sweetheart, she’s gone from thinking her father’s a ‘bonding board’ to an interactive computer game. I do miss him terribly, but the sad thing is, we’re quite set in our own little routines now and actually getting quite used to it.
But that doesn’t mean we haven’t made some new friends too. There’s Florence, my ninety-two-year-old neighbour – a true local, who was born in her tiny terraced house and went on to raise six children there. I can’t believe I’d lived here for three years and barely said hello to her before now. Florence is always good for a pot of tea and a chat. As well as a gentle reminder of the layer of privilege that encompasses modern-day life, which is brought forcefully home when she recounts stories of far too many babies and relatives lost to disease and war.
And then, lest I forget, that wonderful world of daytime TV, where my home-makeover obsession is now in fierce competition withThe Wiggles, which Millie adores. (I must admit the tunes are quite catchy.) And then there’sBrunch with Britain– bursting at the seams with bickering and subliminal power-plays between the deliciously vacuous (and quite handsome) Gavin and the perma-tanned, perma-surprised (Botox-overdosed?) Tamsin. Live theatre at its best! Sophie used to call them our daily G & T – sufficiently mind-numbing, yet pleasantly addictive.
Thankfully, I’ve still got my faithful royal web family – the Shoe Princess and Trash Queenz. Florence can’t quite get her head around me needing to talk to women in cyberspace, especially when she had her entire extended family living within a one-mile radius. But they truly are a lifeline.
As is Mary the health visitor, I have to say. Ever since she found out about Tim being away so much, she’s made a concerted effort to pop in and say hello when she’s on her morning rounds. She’ll often call in to us at the end of her clinic days too and stop for a proper chat. I hadn’t realised just how much I looked forward to her visits until she took a few days off recently – I really missed her smiling face and genuine concern for our well-being. And, of course, Millie adores her.
So, what does all of this add up to? Well, that largely depends upon which day and which hour of that day the question’s asked: Lucky. Suffocated. Awestruck. Invisible. Proud. Bittersweet. Happy. Tired. Lonely. Content. Bored. Humble. Guilty. Challenged. Loved. Very, very loved. And in love. With Millie.
‘Jane, pick up the phone. It’s Fi. You have to be home. It’s 9.30 a.m. Friday morning. Please tell me you’re not at a baby group. Well, if you are, you’re becoming a ... a ... playgroup junkie. It can’t be good for Millie – all this Mozart whatsamathingy. Goodness knows, all we used to do was crawl around our mothers’ legs and play with pegs while she hung out the washing – and we turned out all right. Oh, come on. Pick. Up. The. Phone.’
‘Fi, hi. Lovely to hear from you. Where are you?’
‘I’m in the car. On my way back into London – I’ve had a week away with client meetings and –’
‘Great,’ I cut in. ‘You won’t believe what we’re watching? G & T got the big interview with The Cat.’ The nation’s been holding its collective breath over her ‘alleged’ split from Jeremy Jones, the football hero turned celebrity chef. (And incidentally, not Happy Sunshine’s father.)
‘Ohmy god. Even the Trash Queenz couldn’t scoop this. Do tell,’ Fi says excitedly.
‘Tamsin’s asking all the probing questions. And wait for it ... Blimey, yes, they’ve officially split. She says, “The single-mother life is best for me.” And while she can’t “confirm or deny” any rumours, she is “loving life” and looking forward to “juggling full-time motherhood” with her “business career”.’
‘Wow. Hedidsleep with her nanny!’ Fi can hardly contain her excitement. ‘And they were only crowned the new It couple last week.’ The curse ofHello!rides again.
‘The minx!’ I yelp. ‘She’s plonked Happy Sunshine on to Gavin’s lap and is now giving a pole-dancing demonstration. Coincidentally, a DVD calledCat-a-Pole the Pounds Away: From Mummy to Scrummy in Three Easy Weekswill be in the shops tomorrow.’
Damn, she’s good too.
‘And she’s wearing that bloody cat-suit again. It’s borderline soft porn. Gavin’s hyperventilating. Maybe I should turn it off – for Millie’s sake.’
‘Noooooo! She won’t remember it when she’s older. And if she does, I’ll pay for her psychotherapy.’
‘Oh, Fi. MAJOR Cat-astrophe. Happy Sunshine’s wriggled off Gavin’s lap on to the floor, picked up his half-finished mug of cold coffee, and tipped itall overTamsin’s cream suede Manolos. I can’t watch.’
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Poor Tamsin.
‘Euuw. Is she absolutely throttling Gavin?’
‘No. Not only has she picked up Happy Sunshine and placed him onherlap, but she’s kept smiling as ifnothinghappened. What a pro!’
‘Well, I wouldn’t like to be in Gavin’s size 10s after the show today.’
‘Nor would I. Not in a million years.’
After The Cat slinks out of the studio and we’ve calmed down, Fi eventually tells me that she’s phoned to coerce Millie and me into going to a shoe exhibition with her and Marco today. It’s at a hip warehouse down by Tate Modern, and is being staged by one of Marco’s old classmates from the Ars Arpel Shoe School in Milan.
‘But shouldn’t you be at work?’
‘Oh, don’t worry – I can afford to take the rest of the day off. I’m the new golden girl – thanks to all the income I’ve been generating on the Jolie Naturelle account.’ I feel a pang as I remember that Richard was certainly good like that – never a clock-watcher. ‘... Sorry, sweetie, for mentioning Jolie Naturelle,’ Fi says awkwardly.
‘Don’t be silly. I’m OK. Really.’ Well, sort of. I still have the occasional moment of regret when I see Fi glowing with success. (Particularly if I’m up to my elbows in poo!) But the harsh reality that, if I was on the Jolie Naturelle account, I’d never be able to care for Millie (let alone know or understand her as well as I do) is enough to put on hold any fanciful notions of smart shoes and PowerPoint presentations. For now.
‘And in any case, Alison can cover. She’s been doing some unbelievable work for Jolie Naturelle lately. They adore her.’
Oh, bollocks, she’s still there. Still stretched like elastic, no doubt. Still tolerating the banal antics of men and the childless, fertility-controlled females (the old me). Still very good at her job, it seems. Andstillwithout an apology from me.
‘And don’t worry about money either, it’s Aunt Fi’s shout.’ Fi’s well aware of my new pauper status.
She also tells me that an email-alert came through this morning on Shoe Princess, saying that a portion of the entrance fees will be donated to charity – as long as we’re wearing red shoes. So we have to go.
‘And I know you’ve got at least forty pairs of red shoes to choose from, Jane Meadows. And so has Millie, for that matter. It will be good for her see the creative toils of a living genius for a change.’
I mumble something about sleeps and routine, but Fi’s having none of it.
‘We’ll drop by your place around midday.’
www.ShoePrincess.com Gain Without Pain If your days of dancing till dawn in stilettos are fading fast, yet you want a statement-making high heel for a special occasion, go for a stiletto with a small platform sole. It makes for a much more comfortable ride. Most designers from the high street to Chanel have embraced the platform sole this season, so there is an abundance of style variations to choose from. They work particularly well with round toes and peep-toes, in satin for the evening. And a strappy sandal with a full-wedge platform sole is great for summer sundresses. But beware, SPs, if you’re over 35 years old the platform sole must not be higher than 1–1.5 cm to achieve the desired elegant silhouette. Any higher and we’re teetering into pole-dancing territory! Quite literally, given the propensity of PVC and perspex platforms on the shelves at the moment. Only younger SPs can get away with the glam, ridiculously high platform wedges with a bit more attitude – think purple luminescent Miu Miu party shoes! Pump Up the Volume A SP can never have too many pairs of shoes. The more you have, the longer they’ll last. Remember the three golden rules of shoe wearing: rotation, rotation, rotation.
15. Heel Heaven
Something’s been bothering me about Fi since we arrived at the exhibition. And when she lifts her trousers to present her red ballet pumps to the ticket attendant (who indeed gives us a special Shoe Princess ticket, emblazoned with the name of a charity) it hits me: she’s wearingflatshoes.
I haven’t seen her in flat shoes since about 1985. It’s almost unnerving. She was adamant that she wasn’t going to succumb to the fad, too. And at least Rachel has the legs of a giraffe to carry them off, whereas Fi simply looks like me now – plain, short old Jane.
‘So,’ I quiz, ‘what’s with the shoes?’
‘My yoga guru says that my stilettos are interfering with my mind–body energies. I need to be more “grounded”.’
Oh, not the yoga still. I was so sure she’d have tired of it by now.
‘Since when?’ I ask.
‘Last night. Today’s my maiden voyage,’ she says with mock trepidation and playfully pretends to lose balance.
As if it wasn’t bad enough back in March, when she gave up hair dye and ‘the world of illusion’. Her guru assuring her that mousy brown, alsocirca1985, was more conducive to inner balance and harmony than golden blonde.
I glance over to Marco to gauge his reaction. His continuing affection is, after all, the goal of Fi’s whole yoga farce. And try as I might, I just can’t get my head around the logic of seducing the demi-god of stilettos by waddling along like a flat-footed penguin. But then again, he clearly adores her, no matter what her hair colour or shoe style. There’s no telling Fi this, of course.
I’m mortified when Marco catches my eye, and gives me a cheeky smile and a wink, as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking.
As I watch him take Fi by the hand and walk up the small staircase with her, it suddenly strikes me: maybe this flat-shoed follywillwork. She’s certainly more needy and dependent on him, now that her centre of gravity’s entirely evaporated. Let’s hope so. Because I’d hate her to be trying to fix something that isn’t broken, particularly as it seems to be going so well between them.
We pull aside a heavy gold-mesh curtain in order to enter the exhibition, and the ‘wow factor’ hits us immediately. I feel like we’ve been entombed – or at least gone to heel heaven! The whole room is darkened and all I can see is a twelve-foot-high wall of perspex shoeboxes, stacked together like brickwork, and containing glittering shoes of every colour of the rainbow. Similar shoebox-walls separate each section.
I’m so glad Fi enticed me out of my Kilburn safe haven. It’s impossible not to be mesmerised by the vast showcase of colours, music, books, hand-drawn sketches and of course many, many pairs of shoes in countless styles and heel shapes, and not to forget fabrics. I really don’t know which way to look first.
Millie’s squealing with delight and pulling at the straps of her pushchair, trying to get out. Now that she’s crawling, she’s not so happy to be strapped in for very long. Plus, I know exactly what she wants to do – play with the shoes. Her favourite pastime at home and a definite no-no here.
After my humble foray into basic shoe-making with Marco, I can tell just how masterfully these shoes have been made. My favourite parts are undoubtedly the embellishments: jewels, fringing, fur, rivets, bells, eyelets, appliqués, pompoms, shells, ribbons, feathers, the list is endless. The shoes positively dance with the energy of imagination. It’s completely inspiring and fills me with a rush of enthusiasm for my mum shoes project. I stop to jot down a few ideas on the back of a scrap of paper I find in Millie’s nappy bag.
Marco spots me.
‘Ah! The sign of a true designer,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘I never go anywhere without my notebook.’ He holds up a battered leather-bound diary that he’s been sketching in too. We both laugh.
‘I’ll be seeing you in the studio soon, then,’ he says.
‘Maybe,’ I blush. And then Fi catches up to us and shuffles us along.
We’ve now done a full loop of the exhibition, and find ourselves back near the entrance in a darkened lounge area, where there is an enormous bright-red sofa along with a continuous screening of Carrie’s shoe-thief scene fromSex and the Cityon the opposite wall. Fi, Marco and I settle on to the sofa to watch it, with Millie beside us in her pushchair, when Fi suddenly spots Ben from our shoe school.
‘Ben, yoo-hoo! Ben!’ Subtlety has never been one of Fi’s finer points.
He’s with a group of women and has his arm around a slightly podgy, plain-looking girl. Funny, I’d always imagined his fiancée to be a bit more glam. And a bit younger. But that’s just like Ben, I guess, to go for personality over looks. He really is so mature for a guy his age.
Anyway, I always get a thrill, in a city the size of London, to run into someone I know. And Ben is definitely surprised to see us, hurriedly making his way over.
We both immediately spy his shiny red trainers.
‘You didn’t tell us you were a Shoe Princess convert,’ I tease. Fi cackles and we’re shushed by everyone reverentially waiting for the video clip to begin again.
We hastily agree a rendezvous at a nearby café before he goes off to rejoin his party and we skulk back on to the sofa. Marco’s decidedly unmoved when we gloat to him about our imminent meeting with Ben’s much-talked-about fiancée. I always sense that he frowns upon our overenthusiastic interest in her. He certainly never seemed to talk to Ben about her at the shoe-school weekend – but maybe that’s just a bloke thing.
Marco decides to leave us alone to watch Carrie, and darts off to do another quick round of the exhibition.
Fi and I had both forgotten how completely fabulous the shoe skit was. We’re sitting discussing whether to stay and watch it a second time when Marco returns, seemingly rather pleased with himself.
‘He leans down and, placing his hand on my forearm, says, ‘Jane, have you got a moment? There’s an excellent book on display I’ve just found – I’d love to show you.’
‘Ohhh-K?’ I glance at Fi.
‘It was a text that I used in my studies at Ars Arpel in Milan. I think it would be very good for you – if you’re serious about shoe-making.’
Fi relaxes back into the sofa and kindly offers to sit with Millie through another rerun while I quickly go and check out this book. Luckily she’s not the least bit interested in shoe textbooks or shoe-making, for that matter – Marco and Ben practically made her shoes for her on our weekend school – so at least I don’t feel guilty.
The book is back in the middle of the exhibition but, as it turns out, it’s well worth the trek. I love seeing it and hearing Marco talk avidly of his student days at Ars Arpel. He also tells me how he now goes back to give tutorials – arranging them to coincide with his visits home to see his mum and siblings – and that he could easily get me in on one of his classes, if I wanted. Dare I even dream!
As we make our way back to Fi we’re stunned to run straight into her – holding Millie on her hip – barging through the mesh curtain with all the grace of a bank robber.
‘Don’t say anything. Jane, follow me. Marco, go inside and get Ben to help,’ she says calmly yet purposefully.
We both know her well enough not to ask any questions.
Finally, out on the riverbank and well away from the exhibition, we stop. And Fi explains.
With Marco and I taking a little longer than expected, Millie started to get restless, so Fi thought she’d let her out of the pushchair for a stretch. Of course, in a split-second, Millie crawled straight over to the shoeboxes and with one dainty nudge caused the entire entrance wall to collapse. Leaving the remainder of the shoebox-walls wobbling precariously like the San Andreas Fault.
Total chaos erupted. Security guards streamed in and Fi and Millie slipped out.
We burst into fits of laughter and make our way back across the footbridge; the Thames’ dark inky water flowing strongly beneath us. I’m sure it’s seen worse crimes in its time than an inquisitive eight-and-a-half-month-old tumbling a few hundred shoeboxes!
Ben, I’m told, managed to use his best set-design skills to reconstruct the shoebox-wall. Aunt Fi needed a strong drink and a lie-down after almost crippling herself by running in flat shoes. And Marco stealthily took home the incriminating evidence – Millie’s pushchair – hand-delivering it back to me the next day.
Oh Millie. What a story to tell on your twenty-first birthday!
www.ShoePrincess.com My spies at the exhibition on Friday tell me it was a resounding success – despite the small shoebox earthquake! So thank you to all of my loyal subjects who went along, and helped to raise an astonishing amount of money for charity. Shoe Shame Like many of you, I find some of the images in the media these days very disturbing, and yesterday was no exception: I opened my newspaper to the horror-vision of The Cat sitting on the edge of a pool with her A-list Sardinian crowd – feet dangling in the water with her stilettos still on. Has this Cat creature no respect for the sanctity of shoes? She may as well have been holding her child’s head underwater. I had to tear the offending page out and banish it to the bin. And on the other side of the Atlantic, I’m hearing stories of shoe valets at pool parties in the Hamptons. Where they apparently take your bejewelled beauties from your feet and provide everyone with identical pool shoes. I don’t know what’s worse ... If I want to attend a party looking like every other person in the room, wearing standard-issue clogs, I’ll book into prison. Vive la différence! Footnote Not that a SP needs an excuse, but ... If a shoe is available for retail purchase, it is technically ‘on sale’.
16. Tread Carefully
I am aware that I’m a freak. Not a weirdo-harm-to-society freak, but definitely an on-the-edge-of-mainstream kind of freak.
Like wearing vintage black-and-white polka-dot platforms to my free-dress day at school, aged eleven. Or being the only person in the City not doing coke on a Friday night (kiss of death to the shoe fund). But I have to say, this stay-at-home-mum gig (not themostfashionable lifestyle choice these days) isreallytesting my mettle.
So it’s no surprise that I jumped at Marco’s offer to pay me ‘in kind’ (a pair of shoes of my choice from his collection) for helping him to finish the shoes forA Midsummer Night’s Dream– as Ben’s snowed under with the set designs and unable to lend him a hand. And with a strict five-day deadline that coincided perfectly with Tim’s week home from India, it was too good to refuse.
Of course, Tim thinks I’m insane, slaving all day at home with Millie and then again late into the evening at Marco’s studio, and keeps moaning that we barely see each other. His hypocrisy is not completely lost on me – given the enormous amount of time I’m left on my own when he’s working. Plus it’s all good experience for me. Especially if I’m ever to get my mum shoes project off the ground.
Fi annoyingly greeted the news of my job with lukewarm enthusiasm. As if I was somehow trying to sabotage her precious ‘alone time’ with Marco. Her insecurity radars are on full alert at present, due to the fact that she’s in uncharted waters. This is the most serious relationship she’s ever been involved in, by far. And while I’ve always been hugely tolerant of Fi and her dating neuroses – diligently patching and fluffing up her ego and sending her back out into the fray – I just don’t seem to have the emotional capacity for them these days. Particularly as this is something that Ireallywant to do, and an opportunity not to be missed.
Thankfully, Fi found a way out of her melancholy and has reinvented herself as Marco’s PA for the project. (Marco’s organisational skills are akin to those of a nutty professor, which is possibly why he’s in this predicament in the first place.) She’s absolutely thrown herself into the project – arranging fittings, and ferrying materials, shoes and people all over London each evening. Not a stone’s been left unturned.
In spite of Tim and Fi, my own slightly flagging spirits have been greatly boosted by Marco’s faith in my abilities. I’d almost forgotten how enjoyable it is to work on a project – with a team and a pressing deadline. I feel like the fire in my belly has been reignited.
My main task has been to make the shoes for Puck, the mischievous fairy helper – who’s incidentally being played by a woman. During her shoe fittings she’s spoken openly to me about losing her left leg (above the knee) in a car accident eight years ago. (She was twenty-three and hit by an oncoming car on her way to work.) She’s super-excited about showing off her new state-of-the-art false limb in her shoes too. The money from her legal case has just come through, which has allowed her to ditch her NHS tree-stump and get some glam shoes made at the last minute. They’re a slightly more difficult version of the mules that we made at shoe school – in white patent leather, with a Louis heel and large red sequinned bow on the front – and quite a challenge for me; but nonetheless exciting too.
Mum, Dad, Kate, Tim and Millie have all come along this evening to the Open Air Theatre, appropriately on midsummer’s eve, to admire the fruits of our labours. And after the fiasco at the shoe exhibition, they’ve been given strict instructions to keep Millie out of mischief – even if it involves Dad taking her for a walk around the entire Regent’s Park. I don’t want any extras on stage tonight.
Once seated, we find ourselves cocooned in an enchanted wood of lush green trees, rose-perfumed air and evening birdsong. The occasional hovering jumbo jet or distant siren the only clues to the bustling city beyond.
With only minutes to go until the start, my thoughts wander to the actors as well as to Marco, Ben and Fi all working frantically backstage. I can’t help but smile when I think about Puck, and how she will most definitely be creating havoc in the woods tonight. She’s a real pocket dynamo, and an inspiration.
‘Now remind me, what’s the play about?’ Tim poorly disguises the cloud of impending boredom looming over him.
‘Being with the one you love. Oh, and fairies. But mostly the power of imagination!’ I can barely contain my excitement, as this is one of my all-time favourite plays. Though I fully appreciate the latter two concepts may be a little left-of-field for my darling computer nerd of a husband.
With a wry smile, Tim kisses me and places his arm around me, squeezing me tenderly.
‘Let the magic begin, then.’
Mum gives us a little wink. She and Dad are sitting on a rug on the grassed section beside us, with Millie nestled in her lap – heavy-lidded and glazy-eyed in the mottled twilight.
As a wave of hush rolls across the audience, I spot Liz and Harry hurriedly making their way over to us.
A few weeks back, after months of little contact from Liz, I summoned the courage to keep calling until her answer machine was full and she had no choice but to pick up the phone. Sometimes that’s what friends are for, isn’t it?
Anyway, she dropped the bombshell that she and Harry had been having a terrible time of it – their relationship disintegrating under the pressure of IVF the past year or so. This newsreallyrocked us. We’d always envisioned Liz and Harry as the sweet old couple walking arm in arm along Brighton Pier. It was a given.
I guess, as Liz said, ‘Nothing turns you off sex more thanhavingto do it.’
But tonight Liz blushes uncontrollably when I whisper that I’m glad they could make it out of their bedroom to come along. For in a happy twist, they reached a watershed a few months back, and have been ‘going for it’ with little time for anyone, or anything else.
Harry’s beaming and I’m so completely chuffed for them.
In such a surreal setting, and with my loved ones around me, I can’t help but openly count my blessings. I turn and kiss Tim’s hand as he gently caresses my shoulder. It’s hard to think how life could get any better.
A warm breeze swirls around our feet and the play begins.
While I’ve been looking forward to seeing Puck perform, I’ve also been really nervous for her too. As she also suffered a mild head injury from the accident which affects her ability to plan and organise her thoughts. But she assured me that she’d been taught loads of tricks by the occupational therapists on how to memorise her lines. A gaggle of them are here tonight cheering her on from the front row.
I needn’t have worried. Puck’s a stand-out star! And if she has missed any lines no one is the wiser, as her stage presence and energy is infectious. In fact, all the actors have done a superb job, and by the interval the atmosphere is electric.
Tim, Liz, Harry, Kate and I are standing in the bar area when Fi comes rushing over.
‘Oh, Jane, great! We need you ASAP. It’s Oberon. He’s having amajormuscle spasm and I can’t get his boots back on. It’s at least a two-person job, and we can’t have the King of the Fairiessansboots. Everything’s gone haywire back there. Marco and Ben arefrantic.’
I glance quickly at Tim, who, seeing my eyes light up with the thrill of being needed for a shoe emergency, nudges me towards Fi.
‘I’ll be back as soon as possible,’ I promise.
‘Actually, Liz, I think we’ll need your help too,’ says Fi.
Liz splutters and chokes a little on her champagne.
‘Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t even finish my shoes at shoe school, remember. I won’t be much help.’
Her response gives Fi a visible shock; it’s most unlike Liz not to offer help. But then again, I notice her clutching Harry’s hand like a newlywed and it seems almost criminal to separate them.
Fi clearly doesn’t have time for polite parley and turns desperately to Kate, who is on her way backstage with us without even needing to be asked.
‘Oh my!’ Fi wasn’t wrong when she said it was chaos back here. She immediately darts over to Ben and the other set designers, who are in a complete tizz. It looks like some fairy lights have singed the props for the next scene.
Marco quickly nabs me, giving me instructions on how to restitch one of the gold-leather ties on Titania’s stilettos. Kate and I then help him get Oberon’s boots on, while he chats animatedly, seemingly elated by how well his shoes have fared. I’msopleased for him and can’t help but give him a congratulatory hug and peck on the cheek.
After a couple more frenzied jobs, and still high from the adrenalin of our backstage visit, we make our way to the audience. The next act’s due to start any minute.
‘So that’s THE Marco?’ Kate says inquisitively.
‘Yes, indeed.’ I keep forgetting that she hasn’t met Fi’s man yet.
‘Who you’ve been spending all the time with in the studio – making shoes.’
‘Uhuh,’ I nod. Though I’m not sure I like her tone and am curious as to where she’s heading with this.
She purses her lips and mutters a feeble, ‘Mmm.’ Ireallyhate it when she does this.
‘What?’ I say a little defensively. She’s giving me the spooks.
‘And Tim’s OK with this?’
‘Oh, bloody hell, Kate. It’s not Saudi Arabia. I don’t need my husband’spermissionto work with a man, you know.’
‘A very handsome man, who you certainly get on well with.’
‘All the hugging and kissing.’
This is slightly ridiculous.
‘He’s Italian. He’s very tactile. It meansnothingto him. And in any case, I was genuinely happy for him.’
‘Well, I’m just saying you looked a littleflirty,’ she says.
‘Oh, get a grip Kate,’ I say in exasperation. She, of all people, should know that I had a sufficiently misspent youth, and am hardly the most likely candidate for a miniskirts-and-disco-ball midlife crisis. No matter how often my husband buggers off to India.
‘And don’t you think Fi seemed odd too?’ she pushes on.
I have to say I’ve sort of got used to Fi being a little strung-out lately, what with the whole yoga-no-high-heels-no-hair-dye-uncharted-waters thing. And in any case, she’s got good reason to be stressed out tonight.
‘You know what Fi’s like when she’s under pressure. She’s so desperate to impress Marco and wants everything to be perfect.’
‘My point exactly. Fi’s your best friend, Jane. And Tim’s the best thing that ever happened to you. Tread carefully.’
I don’t even dignify that with a response.
The hazy twilight suddenly gives way to an ominous shroud of darkness and we march back to our seats in stony silence – only for me to find Tim’s empty.
Liz leans over and whispers, ‘Tim got an urgent call from work – Alex or someone or other. There’s a major computer glitch. He said it’ll probably be a late one, and not to wait up for him.’
Just great. I swear, ever since Alex came on the scene, Tim’s taken on the role of executive dogsbody, ready to jump at his every beck and call.
More than a little dejected, I jostle my way over to the grassed section and snuggle up on the rug with Mum, Dad and Millie. As I watch the remainder of the play, I can only conclude that Puck’s been rubbing pansy juice in Kate’s eyes too. I can’t believe she had me explaining myself about something that doesn’t even exist.
I am not attracted to Marco.
OK, I won’t deny that he is quitefanciable. And there was that littlefrissonat shoe school. But I purely enjoy his company for our shared passion for shoes. That’s it.
Well ... hehasfeatured in the odd X-rated daydream. But who doesn’t have fantasies? Maybe not ones involving their best friend’s boyfriend, I admit. (If it’s any consolation, Tim was in them too.)
And Marco most certainly does not fancy me.
Nah. This is real life, not theatre – people don’t magically switch affections.
I suddenly feel a little uneasy.
Puck delivers the final lines to rapturous applause:
If we shadows have offended,Think but this, and all is mended,That you have but slumber’d here,While these visions did appear ...
Yes, that’s it. I’ll wake up next to Tim tomorrow and this will have been nothing but a bad dream. And we’ll all live happily ever after.
I might just suss out Fi, though ...
www.ShoePrincess.com Shoe Are You? Cinderella SP The poor little overworked and underpaid housewife who can no longer afford to buy whatever shoes take her fancy. She sees her rapidly diminishing shoe collection as a metaphor of her current life horizons, yet takes meticulous care of the shoes she does have. Is mostly spotted in pram shoes (ugly with scuffed toes) or sensible flat driving shoes (school run). She has been known to skimp on household food items and transfer assets to a ‘secret shoe fund’. She asks her family to give her money at Christmas to spend at the shoe sales in lieu of presents. The Cinderella SP has several pairs of unworn, expensive high-heeled evening shoes in boxes – just in case she gets whisked away to that five-Michelin-starred restaurant for her wedding anniversary. (Ha!) Court Jester SP A close cousin of the Cinderella SP. So named because of the juggling act this working mum maintains. She spends so much money on childcare she can’t justify keeping up with the latest trends in footwear. Her shoes are usually purchased solely from sale racks and are comically out of date compared to those of the Cosmo and Fashionista SPs. Politically Correct SP This princess has strong socio-political beliefs which are reflected in her footwear; she will, for example, only wear non-animal products on her feet. She either has a keen and often quirky sense of style, or no style at all. She has been known to morph into the Earth SP and will only wear Birkenstocks or elfin handmade sandals from Neil’s Yard. Pauper SP Clever and resourceful student princess who scours funky and obscure flea markets for up-to-the-minute shoes or links up with fashion-design-student friends and makes her own. This princess can’t wait to earn real money and start investing in a proper shoe collection. But in the meantime, she’s happy to make do with cheap imitations and ALWAYS looks gorgeous.
17. Toe the LineFrom: Fi (work)To: Jane (home)Subject: RE: Play Hi Jane It was a FABULOUS evening, wasn’t it! Marco’s still on a high. Your instincts were spot on, of course. Sorry if I seemed a little weird. There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you face to face but, with everything going on and Kate being in the way, the right opportunity never came up. So, here goes ... I’m really, really, really sorry, but when you next log on to Shoe Princess, please don’t be cross with me. You may recognise a YouTube video clip (with music from the King Kong soundtrack!) of a certain person’s feet: Kate’s. (Remember from the day at shoe school.) I entered her in the Eliza Shoelittle competition, not thinking that it would go any further. But alas, I (or rather Kate) has just won a pair of designer shoes, plus a bonus 12 months’ worth of waxing and pedicure vouchers. (The Shoe Princess said she’d never seen anyone so badly in need of shoe therapy before!) I know it was very naughty of me – but I couldn’t resist. Must dash, chat soon Fi xx PS. Do you think I should fess up to Kate and share the prize? Then again, we could take Liz’s lead and sell the shoes on eBay (they’re an exquisite classic Salvatore Ferragamo court) and go out for a girlie lunch to a posh restaurant? F x
From: Rachel (work)To: Jane (home)Subject: RE: Play Darling Sorry I couldn’t make it – don’t do pagan festivals. Actually, got caught up at work. Glad all went well though, and that hunky Marco’s shoes were star attractions. You won’t believe it – have been seconded to Edinburgh office for 4–6 months with Mr X. An all-expenses-paid sex-a-thon. Not sure if will find it too suffocating though, without his wife to go home to each evening? Will see. R xx
Wife? Oh, Rachel.
From: Fi (work)To: Jane (home)Subject: FW: Fat Cat I really will do some work today ... this just came in. xxTrashQueenz e-lertFat Cat: Which supermodel-supermum (pictured) has been spotted frolicking in the park with her baby, looking decidedly chunky?
The photo’s grainy, but there’s no denying the feline: it’s The Cat. Or rather, The Fat Cat. She’sverybig. This is disastrous. (And yet more than a teeny bit enjoyable, too!)
I’ve barely had time to bask in the glory of The Cat’s calorific blow-out when an annoying Kate-thought bubbles to the surface and niggles at my conscience:Is it truly gracious to get morbid delight from someone else’s weight gain?
But after a nanosecond of contemplation, I decide that The Cat and I are about even. It serves her right for brazenly flaunting her way into my living room as a size zero immediately after Happy Sunshine was born, making me feel so bad.
From: Sophie (work)To: Jane (home)Subject: RE: Nanny Contract Hi Jane Here’s a copy of Rhiannon’s contract – good luck with it all. I didn’t realise you were looking for a nanny. (Does this mean things have settled down with Tim, and he’s back in London?) Trust me, you won’t regret it. Going back to work has been like plugging my brain back into the National Grid. And Hugh’s totally in love with Rhiannon – actually, we all are! S xx
Sophie, you star! Though my request has nothing to do with a return to workjustyet (nor is a nanny ever likely to be an option on my salary – ha). And it’s regrettably nothing to do with Tim ditching Bangalore either. (Far from it, in fact.) No, I need this to crib for Dad’s Home Parent Assistant contract. Mum and Kate want me to babysit him next month while they go off on their indulgent little August holidays (Kate, naturally, on a carbon-neutral biking tour of the Lake District with her philosophy group; and Mum to a cooking school in Tuscany) so I am going to set some ground rules.
You see, no matter how good it will be to have Dad to stay (given that Tim will now be in Bangalore for the entire month of August, thanks to the interminable Alex and that bloody company) I’ve already got one baby to look after, and that is quite enough. In fact, if it weren’t for the upcoming treat of a night with Tim at his annual luxury team-building conference in Oxfordshire, just before he jets back to Bangalore, I think I’d be in a complete state of denial about the summer altogether.
Home Parent Assistant (HPA) Contract
Employee Dad (HPA)
Employer Jane – Home parent (HP)
Place of Work Meadows’ residence, Kilburn, London NW6
Duration The month of August
Hours 24 hours per day, 7 days per week
Remuneration As per the basic salary, overtime, pension, incapacity, sickness and holiday entitlements of the home parent: NIL
Duties and Benefits
1. The HPA will be transported to the Meadows’ residence when the HP returns to London from her husband’s team-building conference in Oxfordshire. The HPA will be provided with free board and lodging for the duration of the contract, but is strongly reminded that he isnot on holidayand, in the absence of the HPA’s wife, is responsible for looking after his own health, safety and well-being.
2. The HPA shall carry out any duties deemed reasonably appropriate by the HP, including: playing with Millie and taking her for walks (especially between 10 and 11 a.m. and the ‘witching hour’ of 4.30 to 5.30 p.m); keeping the workplace clean and tidy (the vacuum cleaner is in the cupboard next to the cooker).NB:The HPA will not be expected to change dirty nappies, unless in an emergency – in which case a brief training period will be provided.
3. The HPA shall be allowed reasonable and responsible use of the family television (inclusive of cable channels),except during Brunch with Britain, The Wiggles, Desperate Housewives, House, and ALL reruns of Sex and the City and What Not to Wear. The television benefit may be withdrawn if excessive viewing of the following occurs:Antiques Roadshow, The Weather Channel, The History ChannelorANY sports channel(in particular, cricket).
4. The HPA will be allowed to bring his dog Pierre for the duration of the contract, and will be responsible for all feeding, hygiene, exercise and related tasks. If said dog destroys ONE pair of the HP’s shoes, he will be relocated to the nearest pound.