Sport 26: Autumn 2001
Johanna Mary — The Tale of Pearl Pink
First I felt warmth. Then drifting.
After I was born I felt inklings of what security must be like in an occasional firm hand touching me, or a cosy voice wrapping round me like paper in the wind, but mostly the drifting, groundless feeling stayed.
I remember many things, even things that happened before I was conceived. My ancestors were plagued by groundlessness too.
After a voyage of one hundred days, Vernant Pink and his new wife Primula stepped ashore on a large island shaped like a winged sandal. They bought part of the left wingtip, then Vernant stripped off his waistcoat, Primula hitched up her skirts, and together they cleared a patch of bush and built a house. Primula named it Birdsong Cottage.
As months passed, the bush had to be hacked back again and again, and each time it regrew, it seemed tougher and more hostile than before. Equally menacing were the insects that inhabited it. Some were large and bold and had names that reminded Primula of the jungle—tigerbeetle, antlion, and elephant weevil. While these brazen creatures entered the house freely as if it were just one more hollow log, others had more secretive natures, like the robber flies who lurked in tree branches, and the ghost moths who knocked on the windows at night.
From time to time Primula and Vernant trekked through the bush to the beach and looked out over the sea. To Primula it seemed that the ground underneath them rocked. This land wasn't a sturdy isle like the one from which they'd come. It was flimsy, she thought, and if the sea buffeted it too much it might break up like a badly-made boat.
Over the next few years, surveyors and drafters carved patterns into the island like school children defacing a desk. As time passed, new settlers deepened the grooves of these patterns, and augmented them with doodle-like offshoots of their own.
Meanwhile, four generations of Pinks were born and grew old in Birdsong Cottage and the ground in front of it eroded until the house, still surrounded by bush, perched on the edge of a drop over a wide stream.
One day Turbo Pink had an idea. Why not attach a rope ladder to the front doorstep? This meant that he no longer had to take the long way into town. He could simply climb down the ladder to the public bushwalk beside the stream, and reach the outskirts of the city in half an hour.
Thirty years on, the city had spread and its edges were only fifteen minutes away. It was then that Tympany Pink inherited the cottage and soon, with birds whistling and cheering outside, and trees tapping encouragement on the window, she gave birth to a fair, wide-eyed daughter. The baby was soft in Tympany's arms, and gurgled like the stream below. Her tiny limbs seemed more to ripple than move, and her unfocused eyes rolled like pebbles in a current. Tympany named her Soss.
Nearly two decades later, during a shopping trip in the city, Tympany stepped onto a pedestrian crossing and was hit by a car. Rising into the air with her feet flailing above her head, the last things she saw were the chemist shop, the traffic lights, and a dog tied to the lamp post, all upside down.
Soss, orphaned at eighteen, inherited the house.
By then it was six minutes to the city from Birdsong Cottage, but Soss didn't leave the bush if she could help it.
Sometimes she lay in bed all day long. In summer she gazed out the window and through the trees at the clouds moving past, and she imagined that the motion she saw was the Earth moving through page 31 space. In winter she shut her eyes and felt the house quiver in the wind. Best of all, she liked storms. When rain battered the roof and lightning pierced the earth for miles around, she felt excitement then a deep calm. Once the storm was over, she fell asleep to the crackle of nearby rocks still crumbling into the stream below.
Rain or shine, one of her favourite amusements was opening the front door, standing on the doorstep above the seven-metre drop, and looking down at the rushing stream. It would be so easy to fall, she thought. And when a city person—often a jogger or a dog-walker—passed along the path below, she held the door frame and leaned forwards. Sometimes the person looked up and waved or called a greeting. Soss smiled and her body tingled all over as she imagined somersaulting through the air towards them, her dress billowing around her and her blonde curls flying. The person's mouth would drop. They would run forward to try to catch her but she would miss their outstretched arms and land with a crack on the rocks in the stream, flat on her back and perfectly arranged, with her hair radiating from her head like sunlight.
As Soss imagined the person screaming, she felt excitement running like electrical impulses through her body. All it would take would be the unclenching of her fists.
At night she left her curtains open so she could watch the chunks of sky where the dense bush canopy opened out. When the weather was overcast, the clouds were luminescent from the nearby city lights, but she preferred it when it was clear and she could count the stars. She liked the way they sneaked across the firmament night by night, ducking between tree branches. She knew those stars like she'd known the freckles on her mother's face. Her mother's freckles hadn't moved of course, but they'd darkened and faded according to the seasons, and from time to time new ones had appeared. Soss missed watching this, so she tried to focus all thought on the stars. She didn't want to think about the strange feeling inside her that was like empty black space with no stars.
One windy autumn night, Soss had a dream. In the darkness she saw a distant point of light. It grew to become a glowing disc. It was coming page 32 closer, and it had protrusions. Soon she saw that it was a rotating wheel of flesh, three metres high, and made entirely of male genitals. Multiple penises stuck out in all directions and hundreds of testicles hung off it like clumps of grapes. It towered in front of her, making the air hot and rancid. As it closed in around her, there was a roaring in her ears, and she felt as if she was going to choke.
Over the next nine months Soss's stomach rose like bread.
She wondered what it would feel like to give birth. Once on television she'd seen a snake eating an egg. It dislocated its jaw so it could swallow the meal whole. Soss thought birth might be like that but in reverse; her hipbones would detach from her pelvis and disgorge the baby.
She went into labour late one summer night. A tightness clamped across her abdomen, and pain thrilled through her. She yelled. She was astounded by the power of her voice and yelled again. Soon she was lost in her own noise.
Though the baby looked a bit like Soss and a bit like Tympany, it seemed to Soss more like a wet, dirty stranger that she'd welcomed in from a storm. It had a thick crop of black hair on its head and dark, steady eyes. It didn't cry; it just stared at everything, unblinking. It wasn't a baby at all, Soss thought. It was a small, funny-shaped adult. She held it in a towel against her breast and it felt solid and strong. ‘My Pearl,’ she whispered.
So it was that I was born.
I remember I hated being a baby. My inept body was like a cage, a cage bobbing on the sea, because Soss seemed so watery. She gave me nothing to cling to, and no floor to stand on. She was just an unknown depth that maybe I could drown in.
Sometimes she cooed in my ear, ‘My pearl, my precious Pearl.’ Other times she hissed. ‘Do you know what a pearl really is? A little piece of grit, irritating as hell, that you just can't get rid of…’
I spent long periods of time staring with alarm at my pale wrinkly feet. They reminded me of the big, raw, white grubs that sat in rotten logs outside. Often the frightening floating feeling overcame me, and page 33 the walls of the room I was in would suddenly seem unbearably strange and far away.
It wasn't until soon after I'd learned to walk that I had my first real experience of groundedness.
We were in a secondhand shop in the city. While Soss rummaged through a box of old jerseys, I toddled to a shelf of footwear. Most of the shoes were scuffed and worn, but one pair, black and shining, caught my eye. I pulled them from the shelf and took them to Soss. ‘On! On!’ I cried.
She sat me on a chair, and pulled off the rubbery slippers I wore. She took the left shoe and inexpertly wiggled it this way and that until she managed to get both my heel and my toes into it at the same time. She repeated the process with the right shoe and then I stood. The shoes were hard and squashed my toes together, but they felt marvellous, like bony crusts for my larval feet. I crossed the shop floor, delighting in the clack the soles made as they hit lino. I sped up until I was running. Soss laughed.
I ran all over the shop. Until now I'd lain on our bed bathed in Soss's soft skin and hair, been swept along outside in the pushchair, and toddled haltingly in the flimsiest footwear, feeling the ground under my feet change with every step. It was as if until this day nothing had been solid. But now I had my very own ground: two hard definite soles that were like a home country for each of my feet.
‘Take your shoes off before you get into bed,’ said Soss.
‘No.’ I pulled the sheets close around me, and shut my eyes, wriggling my feet to feel the shoe leather rubbing against them.
Soss sighed and slid in beside me. I wrapped my arms around her neck and put my nose on her cool skin. She seemed as fluid as ever, but it no longer frightened me. I felt as if I were the parent and she the child. That night I dreamed I was going everywhere in my shoes; traversing deserts, climbing mountains, and skimming lakes.
Miss Martingale, a thin, pinch-faced woman with bright white shoes, gave five sharp claps of her hands. ‘Everyone, this is Pearl!’page 34
She showed me to a table with three other children sitting around it. They looked at me, I looked at them, and then I sat down and peered under the table at their shoes. I saw black sneakers, flat brown sandals, and blue thongs. I felt confident. I myself had on a new pair of red shoes with bouncing rubber soles.
Miss Martingale put a piece of paper on the table in front of me and pushed an ice-cream container of crayons in my direction. ‘We're drawing our gardens. Would you like to draw yours?’
‘We don't have a garden,’ I said. ‘We live on a cliff.’
Miss Martingale simpered. ‘Why don't you make up a garden then, Pearl?’
I sat for a while, listening to the sound of crayons scribbling. The blue thongs girl next to me was drawing big, droopy flowers with lots of petals. When she saw me looking she covered her work with her arm and snarled, ‘Don't copy.’
I stood and walked around the class. Everyone was drawing fences and trees, flowers and grass. I wondered what it would be like to be able to walk out of your front door in a straight line.
I sat in my seat again, took a red crayon, and started to draw my shoes.
In a short time I became exceptionally good at reading. Most evenings, I sat in bed beside Soss and read to her from shoe catalogues: ‘On-Air. All-day comfort, soft padded insoles. Beige, white, and grey. $39.95.’ I always held the catalogue up to show Soss the picture, the way Miss Martingale did, and pointed. ‘See? That's the insole there, and you can see how soft it looks, can't you?’ Then I continued reading. ‘French Toes. Black full-grain leather court shoe. Usually $100.00. NOW ONLY $79.95.’
Sometimes Soss watched my lips as I spoke, now and then reaching out her index finger to trace a line down my cheek or twirl a strand of my hair. It made me feel tender and strong. Other times her gaze slid off my face and past me to the wall, or to the window, or to nowhere in particular.
Ten years went by, and while I did increasing amounts of cooking and cleaning, Soss took to spending more and more time in bed. It page 35 seemed to me that her face was changing; her features were rippling round the edges, and swirling into each other.
One night after dinner she said lightly, ‘You've never needed me, have you?’
I felt she wanted me to say something, but I wasn't sure what.
A month later, it happened.
It was early in the morning—raining, and still dark. I woke with a start. Soss was no longer in the bed with me. This was nothing unusual in itself; I often woke up in the night to find myself alone, and at these times Soss would be walking round the house in the darkness, looking out the windows. But on this morning something was different. I could feel a cold draught and smell wet, outdoor air. I got up, filled with dread.
Soss stood at the open front door facing into the rain. Then she released her grip on the door frame and moved forward. First her feet disappeared, then her legs, her bottom, her back, her neck, and finally the crown of her head. I heard a distant crack and thud, and I ran to the door. Through the darkness I could just make out her figure, face-down in the stream.
Sometime later I found myself sitting dizzily on the hall carpet staring at the empty doorway. My hands tingled all over, almost as if I'd pushed her out myself. The sky was growing light, and the rain was heavier and louder. I stood and walked shakily to the door again. The stream water had risen. It was washing over Soss, darkening her hair and tugging at her body. It tugged so hard that it set her free, and she went sailing down the stream, her pale blue nightgown bubbling round her, and her hair swirling with slow-motion grace. Then, ever so gently, she was sucked under a large rock.
The rain continued to pound the roof as I sat at the kitchen table wondering what to do.
I left school and found work in a shoe store—part of a national chain. I loved the smell of fresh leather, rubber and polish there. I adored placing the shoes proudly out on their pedestals every morning like royalty and introducing them to customers throughout the day. I felt delight when the shoes and the customer were right for each other, page 36 and I could send the pair off to a good home, safely nestled in tissue paper and a cardboard box.
I didn't miss Soss, but I thought about her a lot. When I had to pass the big rock in the stream, I sped up, and when I looked at it out the window I shivered. Sometimes I fancied that I could feel her presence accumulating under it like gas.
Then the dreams started: dreams of Soss in which I only ever saw her from behind. In some of them she jumped off the doorstep over and over again in different acrobatic ways. In others I was sitting behind her on a bus, and she began to turn. When this happened I thought with relief that I would finally see her face, but her head seemed trapped in the act of turning, and though it turned and turned, it never faced me.
In all these dreams I knew there was something I needed to tell her. Exactly what it was I wasn't sure. Sometimes I felt the words beginning to form. I could discern their shape and texture, but I could never hold on to them for long enough to identify and say them.
I often woke terrified: I couldn't move my limbs, and the walls of the room seemed to be rushing away from me. Though I tried with all my might, it was always several minutes before I could regain kinetic awareness of the shoes on my feet.
During the day when my mind was clearer, I wondered if what I needed to do in the dreams was apologise—because however often I told myself that it wasn't my fault that she'd gone, I didn't really believe it. I felt that if I could have summoned up just a little bit of need for her at the moment she'd jumped, perhaps I could have sent it out like a rescue rope, and hauled her back in. And I thought that if I could say sorry to her in a dream, then the dreams might stop.
Of course once I was asleep, the word would never come.
One night, after waking from such a dream, I could stand it no longer. I lay very still, concentrating on the feel of my shoes on my feet. Then I got out of bed, went into the hall, and opened the front door. I braced myself against the chilly air that blew into my face, and began descending the ladder. The trees around me roared and swayed like demented giants. I reached the bottom and stumbled down the path towards the black hulk of Soss's rock. For the first time since page 37 she'd gone, I stopped there, not dreading her bursting out from under it, but longing for her to. The wind seemed to roar inside my head as well as around me. I took a deep breath and yelled, ‘I'm sorry!’
I waited. Why had I thought that would relieve me? It was like taking a spoonful of water out of the ocean.
After a time, I was bored of the chain store, and went for an interview at a better establishment—Pompey and Pshaw.
‘And what should a good pair of shoes be, do you think?’ asked Mr Pompey.
‘I believe shoes should be fine cars for the feet,’ I said. ‘Some need to be luxury sedans, others four-wheel drives, but all shoes should be vehicles that take you anywhere you want to go.’
He closed his eyes and smiled.
Mr Pompey was good to me. He taught me about the special fitting requirements of people with bunions and hammertoes. He helped me learn to materialise at a customer's side at exactly the right moment. He showed me how to fasten a buckle in one swift nimble-fingered move. And though he never treated his other shop staff with anything but kindness, I could tell I was his favourite. I was pleased, but not surprised, when one evening he was holding a private showing for a wealthy client and he asked of I could fill in for the manager, who was ill.
‘We'll be presenting our shoes to Leeta Lapeeta tonight,’ he said, and waited for my reaction.
I think I looked suitably impressed. I knew the story well—who didn't?
The Tale of Leeta Lapeeta
Thousands of years ago, while the pale races were rooting themselves to the ground with stone monuments, a dark people began building boats, launching themselves at the horizon, and making the ocean's islands their own.
On one of these islands a woman gave birth to a baby girl. page 38 This girl grew up and gave birth to another girl, who gave birth to another girl, and so on, through centuries of famines, fights, and journeys, until a girl was born on the winged sandal island, and for reasons that remain obscure, was bundled up in a scarlet blanket and abandoned.
A man was walking through the park on the heel of the winged sandal when, glowing through the fog, he saw a spot of red and heard tiny, rasping cries. He ran towards the artificial lake, and there bobbing against the jetty was a large toy boat, with a swaddled baby inside.
Her racial origins were strangely unclear. She could have been a native of the winged sandal island, but she could equally well have belonged to a race from one of the other nearby isles.
The police at the station named her Leeta, and gave her the surname Lapeeta after the original people from whom all the island races were descended.
No one came forward to claim tiny Leeta, so she went to live with a foster family. And then another, and another.
As she grew older, her features became increasingly unique and guessing at her ancestry only grew harder. Leeta herself was proud that she had as many possible pasts as futures.
When she was eighteen, she moved to the big city on the wingtip and took a job as a stripper. She was good at it and became highly paid. She used the money she made to play the sharemarket, and soon demonstrated a considerable talent for finance. After four years, she bought her own strip club, then turned it into a chain. After four more years, she sold the chain and became a major property owner, buying, renovating, renting and reselling shrewdly.
It wasn't long before she was the wealthiest woman on the island, writing columns, appearing on television and receiving constant invitations to open festivals. By then her life story had become a tabloid legend.
At six-thirty a woman strode into the shop, followed by a valet. She was small with thick, dark brown hair pulled into a high bun, and she wore a red and yellow striped trouser suit.
‘Ms Lapeeta!” gushed Mr Pompey. ‘Welcome. I'd like you to meet the newest addition to our team, Pearl Pink.’
Leeta Lapeeta smiled at me. It was the kind of smile that compelled you to return it, and then to stay smiling for some time afterwards.
‘Oh, look at these,’ she purred as I handed her a pair of gold sequinned dance shoes.
Leeta Lapeeta shut her eyes. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘ I see them still glowing through my lids like some radioactive material.’
Kneeling in front of her, I noticed how pale her toenails were in contrast to her dark skin, and how perfectly smooth they were, quite unlike the lumpy ridged deposits that my own toes put forth. With the shoehorn, I guided her feet carefully into the shoes.
‘They feel wonderful,’ she said, flexing her feet.
‘She buys a lot of shoes, does she?’ I asked after she'd swept out, her valet behind her carrying six boxes.
‘Oh yes,’ Mr Pompey said. ‘At least thirty pairs a year. And it does our image wonders to have her wearing our shoes exclusively.’
When the store manager left to try his fortune overseas, Mr Pompey appointed me to the position. I was thrilled the afternoon he told me, and after work as I walked along the track by the stream, I looked up through the trees at the night sky covered in a silvery fur coat of cloud, and I barely felt my feet at all.
I didn't want to dream of Soss that night, so I sat in the kitchen until dawn thinking about how much I could do with my new job.
Mr Pompey approved of my idea for a new range, and I set to work on it straight away, contracting well-known artists to decorate plain shoes with wonderful mini-murals.
I organised a launch party, and invited our most important clients.
I felt sleek and successful that evening. I'd bought myself a new page 40 suit for the occasion, vivid purple with gold buttons, and slicked my hair back so it gleamed like my black patent leather shoes. However, it wasn't long before I was upstaged.
Her hair was a clump of thin braids entwined with orange silk ribbons. She wore a flowing orange dress with jets of flame-coloured plumage spurting from the sleeves and neckline, and her shoes were covered with fake orange and yellow jewels. From the instant she walked into the shop, Leeta Lapeeta seemed to be the star around which everyone else orbited. But how could I begrudge her this, when at every opportunity she effused so sincerely over the range of shoes, and my brilliance in dreaming it up?
By nine o'clock everyone had left. I was clearing away the lipstick-stained glasses and the plates of used toothpicks, and I must have left the back door open, because suddenly there she was, beside me. ‘Why don't you leave that and come in early tomorrow instead?’
Night had fallen; the air had cooled. But the sunroom at Leeta's mansion had obviously been hoarding warmth all day, and now as I sat in a wicker chair looking out of the huge windows at the blackness, I still felt the day's balminess.
Leeta sat in a chair beside me and raised her glass. ‘To Pompey and Pshaw's most gorgeous range of shoes yet.’
I leaned forward and touched my glass to hers. Clink. It was as an intimate sound.
‘Of course, I like these too.’ She lifted one foot a few inches into the air.
I recognised the first pair of shoes that I had ever helped onto her feet.
‘They're very sexy, these dancing shoes,’ she said. ‘Of course all shoes can be sexy. It's how you wear them.’ She smiled. ‘And how you take them off. Don't you think so?’
I wondered what to say. I wondered if I should admit to her that I never took my shoes off except to change them. And should I then describe the untethered feeling that came over me, even in those few seconds when my feet were naked and between pairs of shoes?
In my mind I heard again the clink of our glasses. ‘I would never page 41 take my shoes off to make love,’ I said at last. ‘They're too important.’
I laughed too. Watching her I saw the twists of her hair that radiated from her head as being like the sun's prominences, fiery tongues lapping at the space around them. I thought about saying, ‘I don't adore them, I need them,’ but I stopped myself in time.
I would stay for only one drink, I decided.
I loved my waking life. However, after bedtime nothing had changed, and night after night I continued to chase Soss's receding figure through my dreams.
It was midwinter, no one had much money, and we weren't selling as many shoes as usual. Then one afternoon I had an idea.
‘Brilliant!’ cried Mr Pompey when I told him. ‘But…you will contact her, of course?’
I looked at the phone.
Do you know what a pearl really is? asked Soss in my head.
I made a pot of coffee.
I made a list of things I had to do that day.
The coffee was cold. I made some more.
I looked at the phone.
A little piece of grit, irritating as hell…came Soss's voice again.
Go on, do it, I told myself.
Before Soss could say any more, I picked up the receiver and dialled Leeta's number.
I selected one of the most expensive fur-trimmed boots in the shop, and then I designed a poster.
THE SEARCH IS ON! THE FIRST PERSON TO FIT THE BOOT PERFECTLY WINS A NIGHT OUT WITH LEETA LAPEETApage 42
The Search would last seven days. We were looking for someone whose left heel, toes, instep, ankle and calf fitted it so exactly that they could have been the boot's last.
On Monday morning I looked nervously through the glass door at the crowd clamouring outside. I'd imagined a steady flow of people throughout the day, not such an immediate crush.
In one corner of the shop I'd set up a booth which people could enter to try on the boot. I'd hired a scrutineer to be there at all times, and at this moment I could hear him getting comfortable in his chair. I checked my watch; it was half past eight. I unlocked the door.
People burst in around me. ‘Line up! Line up!’ I yelled, to little effect.
By lunchtime the shop was still packed, but I'd instituted a makeshift system: everyone who wanted to try on the boot was given a numbered ticket from a pile that I'd had one of the assistants hastily cut up. Each hopeful then had to wait for their number to be called.
At the end of the afternoon we were all exhausted. However, we'd sold more shoes in that day than in the whole of the past fortnight. As I closed up shop, I felt a thrill of hope. I was going to pull Pompey and Pshaw out of their slump.
The second day of The Search went more smoothly than the first because I'd hired to extra sales assistants, just for the week. A few troubles remained inevitable though. For example, the scrutineer was always having to make sure that people whose feet were slightly too big didn't try to pull the boot on too hard. Despite our best efforts, one woman forced her foot in and then couldn't get it out. The scrutineer and I spent ten minutes kneeling in front of her, easing it off millimetre by millimetre. Then of course there were people with very small feet who slid their foot in and joyously announced, ‘It fits!’ only to have the scrutineer press round the heel and toes and say, ‘Actually…’ You can imagine those people's disappointment.
As the week went on the crowds and the sales never waned, but on Friday a terrible thought occurred to me: what if no one perfectly fitted the boot?
It was Sunday morning. The Search was due to end at five o'clock that afternoon. I stood at the counter and observed the hordes, my heart sinking. I'd generated the publicity I wanted, I knew, but it would all backfire if no one won; people would feel cheated.
Just then there was a yell, and around the booth a commotion broke loose. Some of the people in the shop were trying to run away from it, while others tried to rush towards it to see what was happening. I pushed through them all.
Inside the booth stood a man, his mouth and eyes open wide. In one hand he gripped a knife, and in the other he held a handful of toes. A puddle of blood poured from his toeless right foot and spread across the floor. The boot lay on its side nearby. The scrutineer was nowhere to be seen.
I felt as if all the heat in my body was being sucked out through the soles of my feet. I yelled to the manager, ‘Call an ambulance!’ Then noticing how the man was clutching his knife with white, quivering knuckles, I called, ‘And police!’
I tried to shunt the crowds out of the shop, but it was like chasing mercury. I shouted at the other shop assistants to help me.
When we'd finally herded everyone onto the pavement, I locked the shop door behind us. People were still knocking and pushing each other, trying to get close to the window to stare at the man, who just stood there in the doorway of the booth, holding his knife and his toes and bellowing into the air.
I turned and saw Mr Pompey staring at me through the crowd, his face purple with rage.
Later that night, after half an hour of police questioning and two hours of media interrogation, I returned to the shop.
The police had blacked out the windows with sheets of material, but a mob of people continued to jostle each other, trying to peep between cracks. I stopped when I saw them and hurried through the adjacent alley and round the back way.
I switched on the shop light and saw that the main puddle of blood was still fresh and red. The adrenaline of being caught up in a crisis had drained from my body, and I knew with miserable certainty page 44 that I wouldn't be welcome back here next week.
I shut my eyes and concentrated on the soles of my shoes.
I picked up the boot from near the blood puddle. Aside from a few dried brown spatters clinging to the fur, it looked fine. I put it to one side, then started mopping. Silence rang in my ears. Once the puddle was soaked up and I'd rinsed the mop in the sink out the back, I began to work at the remaining stain with a scrubbing brush. The blood had collected in little cracks so that the floor looked like the white of bloodshot eye.
There was a knock at the back door. I stood stiffly and went to look through the peephole. My gut shifted. It was Leeta, her face murderous. I steadied my feet in my shoes and opened the door.
She brushed past me. ‘That lunatic! I should have warned you.’
I shut the door and followed her into the shop. I was so relieved not to be the object of her rage that my knees nearly gave way. ‘Warned me what?’
‘Crazy people, obsessed with me. This one's been writing me letters for years.’
I sank back onto the floor and continued to scrub limply at the stain.
‘What are you doing that for?’ she asked, still sounding angry. ‘I've ordered a professional cleaner.’
She shook her head. ‘I can't believe I didn't think of something like this happening.’
She wore heavy black boots that I'd never seen her in before, and it touched me to think that she armoured her feet in a crisis.
I put the scrubbing brush down. ‘Just because someone writes you weird letters doesn't mean they're going to do something like this.’
Leeta sighed. She picked up the boot and crouched beside me. ‘Do you think it actually fitted anyone?’ she asked.
I felt tired and reckless. I took off my left shoe, removed the boot from her hands, and slid it on. Leeta looked at me expressionlessly.
‘I was sure there'd be at least one other person it would fit,’ I offered.page 45
Leeta put her hand slowly up to her mouth.
I looked down at the boot on my foot. Something has to happen now, I thought, but nothing did. Not until at least a minute later, when Leeta's arms slipped around me, and my body began crawling with desire.
The moonlight coming in the open window set Leeta's sleeping face aglow, and a breeze fanned the deep-blue veils that hung around the bed so that they licked at us like cool flames. I had never imagined Leeta asleep before, and the sight filled me with amazement. But now and again unease crept over me as, ghostlike, the image of Soss at the cottage doorway hovered in my mind. Whenever this happened I looked at the end of the bed, saw my still-shod feet protruding from the bottom of the sheet, and felt reassured.
I think of the months that followed as ‘the slide’—a time when everything fell away and apart.
For a start, my dreams of Soss took on a new intensity. The colours were brighter and more vicious; my need to see Soss's face was more desperate, and my desire to speak to her more urgent. Sometimes, waking in the night and feeling someone beside me, I thought at first that it must be Soss. Then as my mind sharpened into complete wakefulness and I realised the person was Leeta, one part of me breathed a sigh of relief while another began to weep.
Autumn came with its slanting shadows and its air clear and chilled as a glass of water. The last occasional glows of sunlight were like small melting sweets, to be savoured. Being in love at this time of year was almost unbearably poignant.
At night, I often lay gazing at Leeta's sleeping face without touching her, feeling that however much of her skin I covered with my own, and however hard I pushed my flesh into hers, I would never be close enough.
It was as if all the solid ground around me was sliding away, with just a single miraculous patch left where she and I stood together. But before long, that ground was uncertain too.
Since my firing, Leeta had supported me. I'd looked for other page 46 jobs, but who would have me now, knowing that I'd single-handedly orchestrated such a catastrophe? I hadn't been back to Birdsong Cottage for weeks.
‘I hate living off you,’ I said to Leeta. ‘I hate it that our relationship is about economics.’
‘Pearl,’ said Leeta, ‘all relationships are about economics—even when the currency isn't money.’
Soss made her presence known increasingly often. I would put my face close to Leeta's and her blur of eyes and nose would turn into Soss's. Or Leeta would begin peeling my clothes off, and suddenly it would be Soss trying to get me ready for bed, her fingers fumbling at my collar and yanking at my sleeves.
Then, early one morning, Leeta ambushed me.
The waving blue veils around the bed, our damp flesh—everything was deceptively soft, even her voice. ‘Pearl, can't you take your shoes off just once?’
My heart stopped.
‘And let's stay at your tonight,’ she continued.
‘But it's so small and shabby,’ I said. ‘It's nothing like yours.’
‘What does that matter?’
‘I lived in a shabby house once too, you know,’ she said.
‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I know.’
‘Of course you do.’ Irritation was starting to reveal itself. ‘Everyone does. But I don't know anything about your life. Is that fair?’
I thought about Birdsong Cottage and about Soss's rock. My guilt at having never needed Soss seemed to ooze blackly through that patch of bush. It dripped from the leaves, and filled the air. I didn't want to take Leeta into that. In fact, doing so would make the guilt thicker and uglier: I needed Leeta, and by taking her to the rock I would be flaunting that in front of Soss. It was not that I didn't need anybody, I would be announcing, it was just that I never needed Soss.
‘Well?’ asked Leeta.
I put my hand out and fiddled with a veil, curling an edge of it round my finger, and then releasing it.page 47
Leeta's voice grew low and angry. ‘I don't know anything about your family, you won't let me come to your house, and I've never seen your feet.’ She waited several more seconds for me to say something, then snorted disgustedly and stood to dress.
There was Soss's voice again. Do you know what a pearl really is?
Autumn deepened. Though Leeta didn't press me for answers again, the questions now hung over our relationship like the low clouds that were gathering above the winged sandal island. And then the storms came.
One wild evening I decided to return to Birdsong Cottage. I climbed the ladder, hauled myself onto the rough, cold carpet of the front hall, and threw off my dripping raincoat. The air smelt of damp wood and stale food. ‘Hello!’ I called to the insects.
I went to the kitchen and switched on the light. Beetles, now unaccustomed to the sudden blaze of artificial light, darted out of sight.
Birdsong Cottage shook in the storm, and I heard the whoosh and crackle of earth from the bank crumbling into the stream below.
It was no use. I didn't want to be here. Pulling my coat tight around myself, I descended the ladder again and hurried back through the rain into town, my shoes no protection against Leeta's pull.
In her bed I slept fitfully. First I dreamed I was sucking at Soss's breast, my cheek against her forearm, my neck tense because her arm wasn't holding me comfortably. Her milk dribbled into my mouth like water from a tap with no pressure, and I pumped my tongue furiously to try and increase the flow. Then I was being pulled away—Soss was sick of sitting still and irritated with the cannibal tugging at her nipple. I craned my neck forward to try and stay latched on, but my lips popped off and Soss's blonde hair swung over her breast like the curtain falling on a show.
Then everything froze, the hair dematerialised, and the breast was in front of me again. I nuzzled my face closer, until I realised this breast didn't belong to Soss at all. It was smaller, firmer, muskier-smelling. It was Leeta's, and I was awake.page 48
I lay motionless, concentrating on the shoes on my feet, then drew back from Leeta and watched her sleeping. Moonlight fell at such an angle that I could see minuscule grooves in her skin leading away from her closed eyes like a network of roads on a map. Each time she breathed, her chest rose slowly, her breath came out in a huff, then there was a stillness before her lungs again heaved.
I listened to the rain on the window, and sleep soon reclaimed me. Once again I was a baby, this time stretching my limbs up towards Soss. I was trying to part the wall of her hair, to reach for her eyes and mouth. To my joy her arms began curving towards me. They moulded around me, and pulled me upwards. I felt elation. But then her hands melted, and I was falling. ‘Mother!’ I yelled.
This time when I woke, my heart was pounding. The word seemed to hang in the air. Had I really yelled? And then I stared wide-eyed into the darkness, struck by a new thought: maybe I had needed Soss.
Maybe I had.
I looked across at Leeta. Her eyelids flickered and I thought that I detected a change in her breathing.
I got up very gently, pulled on my dressing gown, and padded down the stairs. Through the dimly lit hallways I went, my mind alive with my new realisation. I opened the back door and looked out through the sheets of rain at Leeta's expansive lawn. It was painstakingly well manicured, and even outside her mansion, there were no insects visible. There were just worms, lots of them, oozing onto the path, washed from the earth by the downpour.
I sat on the doorstep. For months I'd imagined Leeta was gouging out caverns of need within me—needs that only she could fill. Now I knew that they'd been there all along, and all she had done was shovel away the rubble blocking their entrances.
I'd been born with these needs, but Soss, weak and shifting as she was, had been so incapable of meeting them that I'd had no chance to even become aware of what they were. In their place I was left with the amorphous drifting feeling. Until Leeta.
I heard footsteps behind me, and turned.
Leeta glowered at me.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘All right.’page 49
By morning the rain had stopped and the sun glowed fitfully through the clouds like a lightbulb nearing the end of its life.
The forest smelt richly of rotting leaves, and the stream rushed passed us swollen and gushing.
‘How far in's your house?’ Leeta asked.
‘Not far.’My mouth grew dryer as she and Soss came closer to meeting. We rounded the last bend in the path and I looked at Soss's rock.
It wasn't there anymore.
In its place was what looked like a truckload of rubbish. I looked up at the cliff, and Birdsong Cottage wasn't there either. In fact, it didn't look like my clifftop at all; it was just a mess of raw, crumbling earth. I wondered how I could have lost my way. But as I looked down again at the heap of smashed wood and glass with dark, sodden dirt piled on top of it, I saw clearly what had happened.
I noticed a corner of my kitchen bench poking up through the debris. Then I saw a crushed lampshade and, a few seconds later, an old grey shoe. I stood stunned while the stream continued to rush round the wreckage, as if this was just another troublesome obstruction to its journey.
‘Pearl,’ gasped Leeta, ‘don't you want to do something?’
I shook my head dumbly. Nothing could fall any further.
Leeta waded into the stream and began clambering over the ruins, scooping dirt away with her hands. She dragged out the grey shoe, then a saucepan, a soggy purse, and another shoe. I wondered why she was bothering. The damage was done. I pictured Soss bursting from beneath the rock and, in a decisive act, reaching up and pulling the cottage down on top of herself.
And what of Soss? I stood beside where the rock had been, trying to feel her presence, but I couldn't. Maybe she'd been shattered, and piece by piece she'd be washed away, or perhaps she was now buried so deeply under the wreckage that, like a distant radio signal, she could no longer exert any perceptible influence.
‘Pearl,’ Leeta said, and I looked up. The tenderness on her face made me catch my breath. She removed her jacket and placed it on the log, then helped me it down on it. She put her arms around me, resting her cheek against mine, and after a while she knelt. She kissed my thighs and my knees. She rolled up my dripping wet trouser legs and kissed my ankles.
As my shoes came off in her hands I felt terrified, then dizzied and released. I slid off the log into the mud and lay there, looking at the bare clifftop, feeling my feet wave in the air, covered in her kisses.
I was in the middle of lake, not of water but of rippling blonde hair. There was a beach up ahead with shining brown sand. I swam towards it, until its smooth skin was just before me. I reached out my hand to touch it but the pale hair entangled my legs and tugged me back. I fought it off and clambered ashore. I rolled in the hot, wet, sugary sand, gouged ditches in it, held handfuls of it, and let it ooze between my fingers. It got in my mouth, in my ears, and in my eyes.
Over the next nine months my stomach rose like a new island. My body tipped and rearranged itself, and the fizzing inside my womb came to a rolling boil.
There was plenty to do. I borrowed piles of books from the library, so that at any time I could tell Leeta exactly what the foetus looked like and what its capabilities were. I bought scores of booties, and each night when Leeta came home from work, I diligently showed her the latest pairs. And I made myself birth shoes of black silk.
I went into labour late one autumn night. Pain curled through my abdomen, and my insides heaved. I held my breath and felt myself sucked into the pain. Hours passed, and then there was numbness. ‘You might want to start to push soon,’ said the midwife. But I didn't want to push at all. Soon I felt the baby moving through me of its own volition, like an air bubble surfacing after being trapped underwater in a cup. If Leeta hadn't been there to catch that baby, I think it would have flown up to the ceiling and bobbed there—a shiny, surprised angel, tethered by a twisting balloon cord.
Later, I held Seraph in my arms, and Leeta and I stood in front of the mirror, gazing at ourselves with this flyaway creature. Leeta stroked our baby's pale face and ruffled her halo of white hair. She looked into her own dark eyes in the mirror, and then into mine. ‘People are going to wonder who the mother is,’ she said.
For the first week of Seraph's life, I couldn't bring myself to take her outside into fresh air. It seemed to me that she herself was air, and she might simply dissipate. When, eight days after the birth, Leeta finally managed to coax me out of the mansion, I stood there on the doorstep, close to tears, looking up at the high roaming clouds, and holding my bundled-up baby as tightly as I could—unable to describe how if felt to so expose her to the world and all its possibilities.
Now Seraph is five months old. I carry her with me everywhere, hugged close to my body in a sling. I'll keep her with me for as long as she needs me to. One day the holes inside her will be filled, and she'll weigh enough to walk firmly on this earth by herself. I don't mean her body, for that will walk very soon. I mean her spirit, which will take longer. And as that happens, as she gradually comes down to earth, she will begin to move away from me of her own accord. But for now I am her ground, and I must be solid and constant.
I wear sturdy shoes for Seraph, and I look forward to the day when I will buy or make her some of her own. Sometimes when I change her booties, I pause to gaze at her naked feet, small and curled as autumn leaves, and I shiver, just as I still do when I see my own feet.
Never again have I been able to feel the same rapture upon having my shoes taken off that I felt in the bush with Leeta; I feel only the familiar drifting sensation, and I now think of that one afternoon's exhilaration as a kind of perishable gift, the true gift being not the thing itself, but the memory of it.
As I think about this, sometimes I listen for Soss's voice in my head…Do you know what a pearl really is? But there is only a glorious silence.