Soraya O'Malley | You can’t walk off with just one shoe

You can’t walk off with just one shoe

Greta smiled and looked out at the activity and movement around her. People were shuffling boxes into new positions and angles; or refolding tea towels so their shapes matched, getting ready for the morning ahead. She was standing under the raised boot of her car, sheltered by the dappled light of tall gum trees that lined the inner fence of the field. She placed her hands upon her hips with her elbows out, arching her back slightly in a pose that seemed to suggest she was about to roll up her sleeves and knead bread, or carefully arrange flowers. In a moment’s time she would busy herself with things but first, keeping this pose, she smiled in the direction of the other stalls nearby, to the woman next to her, and the whole day it seemed.

At a stall on the other side of the grounds, Matthew was trying on a slightly worn camping jacket, tugging the collar up and down, then holding his arms out at full length. As he paid for it in coins he lingered, commenting to the stall owner on how the rain had cleared up and how blue the sky was now, he realised how long he’d left the jacket on. It was getting hot and the kind seller of the jacket was vaguely unsure if the conversation had ended. Matthew straightened his back, put his almost empty wallet in his pocket and looked up.

‘Goodbye, thank you!’ he said, nodding slowly and smiling as he shrugged out of the jacket.

‘You need a bag?’

‘No thanks, I’m good.’ He walked over the field towards the gum trees.

Greta was leaning over some bags stacked against the side of her car near the back wheel and typing a text message. He started combing through some clothes hanging on a rack. ‘Hello!’, she called out to him over her shoulder, ‘One thing about running a stall by yourself’, she said between typing with her thumbs, ‘is that you need to plan breaks!’ She’d be with him in a minute, she added, ‘I am just asking a friend if they can come and mind things for a bit’.

The last time she had run a stall was in the Southern Tablelands at a place called Braidwood, East of Canberra and midway to the coast. She’d moved there after rents in Sydney got too high, as had her anxiety. Even then, it had taken up to a year to be successful in a rental application due to others like her seeking a similar change from the city. The community was more open in Braidwood, and she thought it attracted more creative people because they could afford it, similar to the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. She had been a television editor, sitting for long hours in a small dark room kept at a temperature that was good for the films, not so good for people, then moved to a little cottage on a cattle farm in order to heal.

It had taken a good year to adjust to being back in Sydney.

‘How much are the shoes?’ came a loud, emphatic voice. A young girl with straw-coloured scruffy hair wearing jeans and a t-shirt was holding up one black ankle boot, peering up at it with humorous squinted eyes as if it was a beer glass being polished and held to the light.

‘Oh, they’re two dollars’, the woman replied, enjoying the girls light-hearted, belligerent air.

The girl plonked herself down on the grass, tugged off one sneaker and declared, plainly but with a sense of irony, ‘I want them’. The boot went on too easily as her smaller foot failed to fill it. Her older sister was standing over her, noticing.

‘Does it fit you?’

It clearly didn’t.

‘She’s got two thumb spaces!’ the older sister reported the distance from the girls’ toe to the tip of the shoe to the woman.

‘No!’, the younger girl yelled defiantly. ‘I can tighten it.’ Followed quickly by, ‘No, I can’t.’

The girl had attempted to adjust the decorative buckle in an early stage of denial, the one where your first belief is that you can change reality and secure your desire by pure force of will. Greta was laughing aloud by now and suggested with a lack of conviction that an inner sole might help? However, the young girl was already entering the next stage of denial; the one where you believe if you give some kind of personal concession, perform some token gesture while still refusing to acknowledge reality, things will change for your benefit. Her approach was to suggest hopefully, ‘What if I wiggle my toes?’ It was over.

The older sister asked for permission to take one of the boots to show her mother and the woman agreed. Greta turned to Matthew and said, ‘The younger one will probably get to wear them eventually.’ He nodded back in silent agreement and pondered how it is often the case that the things you want so deeply don’t come to you when you most want them, but in their own time. And the younger brother in him wanted the girl to have them now, or first.

The girl called out before she left, ‘I promise I won’t take it.’ The woman laughed and said warmly that she trusted her and didn’t think she could walk off with just one shoe.

Yet, she herself had.

She’d left Sydney for Braidwood and then left Braidwood to return to Sydney. She’d felt overwhelmed when she first got back. It wasn’t that Sydney had changed, more that she wasn’t coping in the way that she used to. But there can be the pace of a city and a pace that is the one you choose. They needn’t be the same. It was good when she remembered to keep her own time.

Things were better now though, more settled and she was thinking about doing a new type of work, something outdoors and more with her hands. And there were also successes, like today. She felt a sense of accomplishment only having to take half the stuff home, and she’d made a couple of hundred bucks.

Her friend hadn’t made it to the market after all, so she asked Matthew if he would mind the stall while she took a short break. He said yes and gladly stood there, earnest about not letting a sale go by and yet entirely uninformed about the value of each item.

As he stood there, the older sister returned and he excitedly prepared for his chance to land the sale, but the woman arrived back at exactly the same time, causing him to laugh at his sense of disappointment. The older sister got the boots and waved goodbye.  

Matthews eyes landed on a photo album that had chalk blue paper and looked handmade. It had small orange flower petals that had been dried and pressed onto it. He bought it from Greta and felt happy as he tucked it under his arm and left. She smiled and waved at him before turning to a woman who was trying on a thick coat and mumbling to herself, ‘Well, the only thing is I am from North Queensland, so I won’t get that much use out of it. But… for seven bucks’, she paused, ‘maybe who cares? Or, maybe I could visit Melbourne more?’ 

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