Like a Small Shingle Tide…
They seemed like a bargain. I mean it like it is; they were a bargain – three pounds for a pair of uncomplicated brown brogues. I don’t usually wear brown shoes but they were for a funeral – a funeral for a lady who thrived on autumn colours. It was as though she collected them. Each of us was asked to bear this in mind when dressing for the departed. I had a russet coloured tie to bring some colour to my charcoal black suit and the shoes were just an attempt to earth myself.
I had bought them from a charity shop. It was a shop that raised money for a hospice; selling items often donated from a hospice. Like the staff in most charity shops they were kind and unassuming. This shop also had a marmalade cat snoozing amiably in the window. Like many charity shops they had a glut of vinyl copies of Queen’s Day At The Races, dusty board games, all the world’s mug trees and enough Jackie Collins and Nick Hornby to build a small literary (and I use the word lightly) cottage. I think that a cottage built from the work of Jackie Collins could make for interesting Friday night dinner parties, guests losing themselves within the glamorous, raunchy brickwork. A construction made from the works of Nick Hornby could be like an oubliette filled with a pretentious, jaded silent scream.
The tie had also come from the same shop. It cost one pound and came with a free brown stain. It might have been coffee, but then again, a long time ago it could have been the surprise of a nosebleed; blood tears spilling through mis-timed fingers.
The shoes had been on the floor, lined up side by side with a precision that caught my attention. Penny (she wore a name badge), who was behind the counter tallying jigsaw pieces, said the shoes had been in a week or so. She said she thought them very nice shoes. “Perfect for a wedding,” she offered. I asked her if she knew where they came from. She mentioned they had belonged to Belvedere Heron. She said his name as though I should know him as by all accounts he was something of a local gentleman who regularly left a bin liner of assorted items for the shop.
“Did I want his encyclopaedias?” Penny had asked nodding toward a waist-high stack of around fifteen volumes. She was persuasive, but in the end I explained there was little I could do with fifteen encyclopaedias at a funeral. She had laughed with such enthusiasm she ended up having to adjust her glasses.
I tried the shoes on. They were warm and at the time I had assumed there might be under floor heating or a radiator nearby. They fit very well; like the memory of returning to school each September. I bought the tie, the shoes and a plastic yellow tulip I thought I might take to the funeral. Walking home I decided that the plastic tulip was somewhat tacky for a funeral tribute and so, with some aplomb, I tucked it beneath the windscreen wiper of a gunmetal grey Porsche Boxter.
Later, having gone at the shoes with spit and a cloth they shone like newly popped conkers.
The following day, or rather the evening before the funeral, I tried the shoes on once more, this time with the whole outfit. I have one large mirror, in my wardrobe. It isn’t one of those that is bolted or glued to the inside of the door, it’s just that I prefer to keep my mirror in the wardrobe. I’m not one for dressing up and find something solidly lonely about standing before a mirror. It’s like looking down at a me that has drowned.
Apart from the elbows winking thin, the suit was good. The tie sat easy against the backdrop of a black shirt. Then I settled into the shoes, one at a time. Once again they felt warm, as though someone had been recently wearing them. Immediately my feet felt relaxed and rejuvenated and this feeling quickly spread throughout me. As I looked myself up and down I felt my right foot tapping softly against the worn, tea-coloured carpet. It had taken up a reasonable tempo, moved by an internal percussion. The tapping increased until the left foot joined in with a backbeat. As the beat took over suddenly a shimmy took over both feet, not unlike the motion of grinding out a cigarette. Rippling through my legs I felt my hips grasped suddenly and before long I was in the grip of a full blown Mashed Potato. The man in the mirror now started bobbing his head a little like a pigeon. Only more awkward.
As I danced a song came into my head, or rather part of a chorus of a song, something heard somewhere and nowhere...a mighty band answering to the name Sad Claude, words from 'Dangerous' rinsing beautifully around and around my head like water seeking a plughole...the tune looping in and out of me, before mingling with stranger rhythms, fragments of other songs and I fell into it like a swing.
An hour later I was still dancing, having moved from one room to the next, accidentally sparring with a small vegetable rack in the kitchen during a particularly frenetic burst. By now my limbs were mixing together in an enthusiastic mess of styles. I was sweating and a few shirt buttons had been undone in a hasty tribute to disco. In the end, the only way I could stop this, was to take the shoes off. Immediately the inner percussion ceased, the music in my mind ceased.
I was suddenly, very much me again, without even a whisper of a tempo.
The following morning – the morning of the funeral – I was still thinking about the curious dervish movement from the evening before. It looked like a pleasant spring day outside and I dressed thinking about the funeral. I hadn’t known the woman whose funeral it was well. She was a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. I had listened to her at bus-stops and I remembered the names of her grandchildren and her late husband. It meant she could slip straight into repeating herself over and over without having to teach me the names each time.
I liked her: she had amusing and endearing tales to tell, of a life that seemed simpler, kinder and braver than most of us live nowadays. She smelled vaguely of old, trapped cigarette smoke and when she brought out a handkerchief more often than not it was filled with yellow mustard seeds; seeds she insisted on chewing on much of the time, her words coming around mouthfuls of seeds, rather than through them, giving all of her stories the air of an aside. I suspect that she had been wild in her twenties – and that life had never been quite the same since, somehow having lost its sheen; its capricious liberty.
I had planned to walk to the service. It was a local crematorium, a low building with beige brickwork and dead eyes that looked like a storage unit and – if previous experience was anything to go by – a biting wind and swift turnaround. The large slim chimney was blackened with the soot of many departed lives. The service would take around half an hour and having given myself enough time to go the long way, planning to walk through the edge of the woods, bathed in the cool emerald embrace of spring.
Even as I left my home, having waited until the last possible moment to slip into the shoes, I found myself at the mercy of a sudden Lawnmower. I gave in willingly to a few wobbling twirls in an attempt to get it all out of my system. I thought it had worked, but then found myself throwing in handclaps without a care in the world. I was a mid-morning flashmob of one.
A passing driver leant on their horn as I stumbled unexpectedly from the kerb. Having corrected myself I was able to stuff my hands into my trousers pockets in an attempt to quell the dance. Whilst it stopped the twirls, I found my head nodding, my shoulders rolling up and over like morning waves. I was in the grip of something I couldn’t stop.
Arriving at the crematorium I found it packed with neatly filed strangers. A tired woman with wiry grey hair struggled with extra chairs – thin, tubular and not too easy to fold (and the chairs). I took a seat at the back and noticed that the room smelled strongly of those hideous plug-in air fresheners. Sadness prevailed, but joy at a long life well lived sang out to be heard. The few remaining empty seats filled up and a little while later the doors closed noiselessly and the service started.
In the moments of silence my tapping right foot could be heard like a dripping trap.
I was alright holding it together through much of the service, as an over-earnest vicar reeled off a prepared list of frugally edited memories, scattering kind words over the congregation like black confetti. At one point I even eased myself out of the shoes, tucking my feet out of sight. As soon as I put them back on however, the tapping was awakened – and with it the urge to leap out of my chair and Worm my way toward the front. I was grateful for the wheezing hymns because as everyone stood up to move their mouths like nervous goldfish I found myself squirming with an urge to dance that became harder and harder to resist.
In the end I couldn’t fight it. As the final piece of music played for the coffin – an old ragtime tune chosen by the departed – it was all too much and before I was even aware of it I was up and out of my seat. I sashayed my way past the wide-eyed mourners until I was within a few metres of the dark wood coffin. Up close I could smell the brass polish.
In front of me some people wept, some smiled, but most looked confused as I gave in to a half-time Running Man, the worn soles of the shoes and the polished stone floor perfect partners for one another. Coming out of the Running Man a few minutes later I managed to coil the dance back inside of me until I was only rolling my shoulders, pendulum hips swinging like a grandfather clock. Gradually it faded until I was left with just a tremor, expressing itself as steady clicking in time to the music. I thought it was concluding and expected to be able to mutter and apology and sit down, but then – somewhat horrified by myself but entirely unable to prevent it – with the fingers of one hand I began drumming out a gentle march over the lid of the coffin, the notes ponderous as they echoed inside the box. It was as though I could see myself from outside of myself, but not stop myself…
But then something unexpected happened…
As the vicar cried out with “Can I get another Amen!” the crowd of people began to join in. It was like a small shingle tide finding faith in its own movement. Shoulders creaked like old paper as they loosened, knees crackled like kindling and limbs folded themselves out like delicate origami…as piece by piece, limb by limb, heart by heart the congregation began to sway together in a shared Watusi that was like a final curtain in a summer breeze.
At the front of the room beyond the coffin and unseen by all, an old woman smiled to herself, clicking her fingers as she moved on…
Two months have boogied their way past me since the funeral and I have had to limit myself to wearing the shoes once a week. I have lost three inches in height, having literally danced myself shorter. Sunday is now my dancing day. I dance the sun up, take myself off into the woods and cavort with the leaves, before winding it down to simple, rising and falling percussion in time for sunset.
I understand it now; am able to control it. It isn’t about the physical expression, that’s just how it comes out for me, it’s about the feeling of connection to something…the shoes are a crazy-paved path back to life – they are the joy of simple existence that thrives in all of us; that charm and vibrancy that becomes buried beneath frequent avalanches of responsibility, of fear, of doubt and of sadness…even now as I write this all down and try to make sense of it, I feel my foot tapping out a gentle call to adventure, a magical pace; a connection to something greater than all of us.