Edition 10: Shoe Shine by Robert Datson
Sam keeps meaning to clean himself up and make a new start, but somewhere between the buff and the polish it all goes awry. There’s a wonderful subtlety in this supernatural short. SY
“Don’t criticize what you don’t understand, son. You never walked in that man’s shoes.”
—Elvis Presley, 1935 – 1977
The early sun glints off a silvered building. A cooling breeze soothes the streets, and Sam’s eyes flicker open. His body is warm and relaxed, oscillating between asleep and awake, and his mind is at peace with the day.
He turns his head to one side and sees his sleeping buddy tucked under thin grey blankets against the wall of the open verandah they had selected the night before.
Concrete lies under Sam’s thin sleeping bag and he keeps still, knowing the moment he moves, bones will push through the thin material and his comfort will disappear, bringing him firmly into contact with his current situation.
Birds chirp nearby and he remembers camping trips with his father more than forty years ago. On fishing trips into the mountains they would wake by clear streams in air as fresh as warm bread rolls from their local bakery. Later he would watch his father flick his fly-fishing line over the same mountain streams, luring fish for a fresh-cooked dinner.
At home his father would teach him the art of the shoe shine. He would show him how to condition the leather in readiness for polish. His soft, reverent voice would tell his own father’s secrets, of the deep shine that would last for days. Sam knows this is the end for his family’s heritage; their generation’s old secret. He has no son to teach.
He wonders what his father would think if he could see him sleeping in the front of a deserted townhouse in inner Melbourne. With reminiscent thoughts of his energetic shoe maker of a father he exerts himself into motion, easing up in his bag, exposing his faded check shirt. He reaches for his windcheater, a once warm garment, now thinning through the chest and with holes in the elbows.
In minutes he is up and rolling and tying his sleeping bag with a short piece of rope. It is the sort of day for doing things, for making progress, for getting ahead. In an hour or two people will be on the streets, heading for work, and he needs to be ready for them.
“Wake up,” he says to Jimbo.
Jimbo grunts in return.
“Come on, big fella,” says Sam softly. “We can’t stay here all day.”
Jimbo grunts again and an arm appears from under the blankets. Sam, satisfied that Jimbo is coming to life, bundles the rest of his sleeping gear into a hessian sack, and opens up his shoe cleaning case. There are several polishes; multiple shades of browns, blacks, and a couple of blues. Brushes and cloths for each colour are tucked into the side. There is a pump pack of wax for finishing off. Assorted laces are neatly tied and fitted into a variety of pockets.
His money jar has near a hundred dollars in it; his takings from the week. He considers for a moment his earnings from last week, but cannot quite recall what happened to them. He resolves that if things go well today then he will take tomorrow off, clean himself up, and visit Centrelink. He tugs at his shoulder-length, matted hair and figures a haircut and some new clothes would do the trick, and perhaps a sales assistant role in a footwear store would not be impossible.
Jimbo has not moved any further, and Sam kneels next to him. He lifts a blanket off and folds it up.
“Come on, old boy,” he says, and picks another blanket to fold.
Jimbo rolls over and groans. An empty wine bottle rolls from under him, clanking. A stale aroma of alcohol combats the clean air and Sam turns his head away and screws up his nose. An unwelcome churning happens inside him and he takes a deep breath of fresh air, and his insides settle again. He puts his arms underneath Jimbo and sits him up. Jimbo is old. He leans into Sam’s arms. The fog in Jimbo’s eyes clears slightly.
“How’d you do it?” he asks. “Every mornin’ you’re up, sprightly like, top of the worl’.”
“I sleep well,” replies Sam, “and I look after myself.”
“Today’s visitin’ day,” says Jimbo. “Gotta visit me boy in Fulham.”
“Come on then, old fella,” says Sam, and he helps pull on the old man’s shoes. His fingers caress the old white leather of the trainers, and he tugs gently at the laces, straightening them, and then tying them in a double knot. Jimbo watches Sam’s fingers in action, seeing the care and certainty as they tie the knot, and a sense of warmth steals over him, starting at his feet and working its way up through his ancient legs. He feels reassured, as though there has been a transaction of sorts.
Jimbo climbs to his feet and sees the open shoe cleaning case, and the jar of money. He looks away quickly, and then asks, “Can you spot me the train fare to Sale? Just ’til Thursday when I get benefits.”
Sam looks around at the open case. He too sees the money jar on display. Jimbo’s boy is in Fulham prison, and has been there for some years. Jimbo catches the train down and back once a month, when he can afford it. He hasn’t been the last three months, and Sam knows it hurts him badly to miss it. He has suggested that Jimbo could save his benefits so that he can get down there, but the money never seems to last.
“How much?” he asks.
“Thirty-eight,” says Jimbo. Sam has no way of knowing if that’s right. “Plus five bucks for a burger?” asks Jimbo hopefully. Sam looks at him for a long time. It’s near half of what he earned yesterday, and it could make the difference between a day off or another bent over shoes. Jimbo is focused on packing his things.
Sam reaches for his money jar and counts out forty-three dollars in notes and coins, and passes it over to Jimbo. Jimbo looks solemnly at Sam, and says, “Just ’til Thursday, Sam. Thanks.”
David’s stomach gurgles and flips over. His head is still, waiting for motion to set off its own insistent, painful beat. He pushes his pillow into a bunch, attempting a more comfortable shape. His arms and legs feel hot, moist, tied in sheets. He wishes he could close his eyes and retreat into sleep but no more relief is coming. He will have to tough out the rest of this hangover.
“Christ, David. Get out of bed,” says his wife.
“I feel sick,” he says.
“It’s your own friggin’ fault.” Wendy catches the stench of garlic, beer and sausage. She turns away, her face expressionless, back stiff, body as far to the side of the bed without falling.
David slips his feet out and as his head readjusts to its new orientation, a wave of nausea rises from his feet, and he wonders what Wendy will think if he heaves his guts up in the bathroom. He clenches his toes into the carpet and grips the bed, concentrating on sitting up, and nothing but sitting up. He holds this position for a moment, contemplating what the day has in store. Another nausea wave hits him, this time between the eyes, running down to the throat, and he remembers, “Shit. Meeting this morning to discuss the restructure. If it goes well, I could get Jim’s job.”
The bed bucks underneath him and this time he holds back the fart. He considers asking Wendy if she could iron a shirt but the walls close in on him as he follows that train of thought. He inches to the end of the bed and sees the charcoal suit, his best suit, in a rumpled pile and doubts it can be resurrected. He reaches forward to pick it up, immediately regrets the sudden motion, and sits up again. He picks up the jacket with his foot, exposing the black shoes underneath.
The shoes taper to a long toe, a fashionable design, but the leather is scuffed badly, deep scratches scoring the sides, victims of the noisy crowd at last night’s bar. One of the laces has lost its end and is wet and frayed. The heels are mud splattered, from some drunken step in a puddle on the way home.
“These’ll need a shine. I’ll get one on the way to the office. The bloke outside the station does a great job,” he mutters.
“What did you say?” asks Wendy.
“Have you got any cash?” asks Wendy, “There’s lunch after tennis today.”
Into the melting pot of his nauseous stomach and stressed, gyrating, balance worms a new, sickening emotion.
“Two hundred dollars.”
“What for? Abalone at the Park Hyatt?”
“Don’t be silly. I’ve got errands to run as well.”
David’s eyes flicker to the shoes, badly needing that shine, and then back to Wendy.
“We need to cut back,” he says.
“Did you decide this before or after you went to the pub last night?” asks Wendy.
“Shit, I don’t need this today. I could get a promotion out of the restructure. A bit of support might help.”
“Support. Like when I quit my job so you could take that promotion in Hong Kong? Or like the decision you made when we came back that I should stay home and iron your shirts?”
“I needed to spend some time with the management team. It’s part of the job.” David knew it was not strictly true, but his day had deteriorated badly after lunch, and he had desperately needed that beer before he came home. After that first one had gone down it was so easy to have a second and a third. He pulled his wallet from his jacket pocket and proffered two one hundred dollar bills.
“Leave it on the bed. I’ll get it later.”
“Can you iron me a shirt? If I get Jim’s job, it’s a forty thousand raise. I’ve got to look good.”
People walk past Sam bent over a client’s shoes. They try to avoid him but space is limited for all these people getting off trains and heading to work. He feels occasional kicks but is used to them and stays focused on his client.
The shoes are brown, matching an unusual suit colour of dark brown and black wool, finely woven. The socks are woollen too, also a dark brown. He does not say much as first he pulls on thin cotton gloves, then brushes dirt off the shoes, creating a clean canvas for his work. It is a five dollar polish, so he forgoes the conditioning stage, and reaches for the brown shoe polish. He rubs it in gradually with a soft cloth and then quickly brings a shine to the shoes with his polishing cloth.
He looks up from under his cap and greasy hair and ventures a smile at the client. He is rewarded with a return smile and accepts the five dollars. He puts it in the money jar, already halfway to recouping the loss of the money loaned to Jimbo.
He has a moment between clients and leans back on his knees, stretching up and uncurling his back. The early morning sun is now obscured by clouds and the breeze has a cold feel, pressing through the holes around his elbows and finding gaps through the thinning threads in his windcheater.
Charcoal suited legs take up a position in front of him. He looks down at the shoes and his practiced eyes can see that work is required to save these.
“What’ll it be?” he asks.
“They need to look good today.”
“They’re in a bad way.”
“I need your best efforts.”
Sam looks up from his client’s feet, past the rich material of the charcoal suit, albeit with an occasional crease, past the white shirt, pressed, but with wrinkles around the collar tips, in the difficult places to iron. His client’s face is bloodless, puffy, and his eyes are set back in the early stages of developing bags. Red blood vessels glimmer from around the pupils.
“It’ll take some time,” says Sam, a hint of roughness in his voice. “And it will cost twenty-five dollars.” Sam figures the time and the money will send him away.
“Take your time,” the man says. “Here’s twenty. And twenty more if they come up well.”
Sam looks at the twenty dollars offered to him. He looks at the money jar and remembers his plans from the morning. Forty dollars would let him finish early, get some new clothes, a haircut, and perhaps a bed for the night, before getting to Centrelink tomorrow for a look at the jobs. He reaches out slowly for the twenty dollars, surprised at his own reluctance, and tucks it into the money jar. He picks up the cleaning brush.
“No gloves,” says the man, “I want you to put everything into it.”
Sam removes his gloves, exposing his fingers to the bitter chill of the wind. He picks up the cleaning brush and removes the morning dirt from around the toes and the heels. He catches a whiff of alcohol from the leather, a stale smell of beer and carpet, and he covers his mouth with his free hand. The smell remains. He uses his pump pack to spray leather cleaner to remove any stains and residues and then cleans each shoe with a small towel.
The process is methodical, rubbing, cleaning along the sides and towards the toes. Sam sees his client lean back against the brick wall, senses his calf muscles relaxing, and curses under his breath. Some jobs are not worth it, but he has accepted the contract.
The cleaning exposes deep scars in the leather. Sam feels with his fingers, the last vestiges of their warmth passing into the shoes. He uses a cloth to spread leather conditioner over the toe box, rubbing in small circles, feeling the five bones leading away from the ankle. The conditioner fills the gashes in the shoes, softening the leather, and Sam feels life being restored.
He leans back for a moment, letting the conditioner continue its work, and straightening out his stiffening back. His client’s eyes are closed, and Sam watches his face, unobserved. The puffiness is already in decline and he can see the hint of a cheekbone.
He uses another cloth to remove the last of the leather conditioner and then applies his black polish, again rubbing in circles, pressing the polish into all the seams and cracks in the shoes, his fingers pressing through the leather to the tendons and muscles. He senses the blood flowing through vessels, his fingers soothing and repairing. His own heart pumps slowly, pushing his lifeblood down to his fingertips, down to the leather of the shoes. His hands work together, unconscious, practiced, and Sam looks up again. His client’s face is redder, his cheeks firmer, the bags under the eyes hardly visible.
He removes excess polish with a towel.
He polishes with a fine polishing cloth.
His palms work the cloth round and round.
His shoulders rotate with the motion, and his muscles under the windcheater move constantly, unseen by passers-by.
He adds more polish to the damaged sides and toes, and rubs again, building the shine up and up.
Faster and faster his hands move, almost blurring, yet nobody watches, not even the client with his eyes closed.
Sam sighs deeply, his arms slowing, and he leans back. The sudden exertion has left him tired deep inside. He feels a sudden ache behind his eyes.
His hands pick at the frayed laces, undoing them, pulling them out of the holes.
He selects another pair from his case, and quickly rethreads them, tying them into a perfectly positioned knot, ends at even lengths.
‘Water proofing?’ he asks hoarsely.
‘Yes,’ says the man, his voice clear as a bell. Sam looks up, into his eyes. Blue swims cleanly in white.
Sam’s elbow grates as he reaches for the leather protector. His finger joints ache as he presses the pump pack lever, and then he slowly rubs it over the shoe with the polishing cloth.
He almost falls as he leans back from the shoes. The man extends a leg and inspects the shoe. “Not bad,” he says. Clouds move on the surface of the shoe, shadows from passing people reflect back at him. The man pulls a ten dollar note from his wallet and hands it to Sam.
“You did well,” he says. “These will go well in my management meeting this morning.”
Sam looks at the ten dollar note, feeling something wrong, but unable to identify it. His brain feels fogged; his thoughts askew. He accepts the ten dollar note and pushes it into his pocket.
The man stands, picks up his briefcase, and stretches up tall. He moves away from Sam and joins the throng. They part before him and he cruises like a passenger liner towards the office.
Sam packs up his cleaning case. He feels numb, unsure of his plans, where to go. He fumbles the polishes, struggling to get the lids back on. He gets them packed up, crouches over the case and tries to stand. He feels pain throughout his body and needs to stop it. He looks around blindly, and then remembers where he wants to go. He sees the twenty-four hour bottle shop and staggers towards it.
Robert is a part time writer, and a full time seller of Human Capital Management software, living in Melbourne with his wife, two daughters, a dog and a cat.
He finally got started on his writing career after his wife told him to stop talking and start doing.
His creative inspiration comes from his employment in a large corporate entity, a place of excellence and community, but with a subtle twist of darkness transforms into a place of nightmare and horror.
He is a member of the Australian Horror Writers Association and Director of the Australian Shadows Awards.
You can find out more about him at http://robertdatson.blogspot.com.au/