The clicking of the bright high heels on the pavement seemed to spark the street lights into action. Each one flickered on as she walked down the dusty grey street. The debris of the long, hot day drifted listlessly along the gutters: ragged plastic bags, bits of gnawed bone, broken bottles, yesterday’s newspapers fluttering like sad white flags, signaling surrender. Trying to keep focused, she lifted her eyes up to the sky – a smog-smudged patch of orange glimmering weakly between the buildings at the end of the street. Perhaps she should concentrate on the click of her heels instead. Left, right, left, right. Keep walking and it will be alright. That’s what her mother always used to say. Focus on the bright spots, she’d say. Like the shoes.
She remembered the day her mother had brought the red shoes home. All four children were scrunched around the paraffin heater in the shack when their mother arrived at first light. Her arrival after yet another long night out working was always filled with promises – just like the dawn, which was making a tentative stab at the day.
Smiling her smile which always filled them with the warmth of being home, no matter where they were, her mother held out the shiny new shoe box for their inspection. They forgot the loneliness of the night, they forgot their hunger and they huddled together in anticipation of a surprise which they knew they would love. She lifted the lid with a flourish to rival that of a show girl, and there, nestled on a soft bed of tissue paper, was the finest pair of red patent leather sling backs they’d ever seen. They gasped with pleasure. They knew how much their mother loved beautiful things. And she would look so lovely in the red shoes with her best dress when she went out again tonight. Their mother smiled at the children. These shoes, she said, were the start of better times. Things were going to be alright when she next walked down the street wearing these beauties on her feet. Finally things would work out for them. Soon they’d be in the pound seats. They’d see. They’d all see.
Nothemba thought of her mother now as the heels clicked under her plump feet. The red shoes were still a little too big for her. One strap slipped down her heel and she leaned over in mid stride to hitch the strap back up. Near the end, the shoes became too big for her mother too. Near the end, even her feet had shrunk into pale, bony ghosts.
A car slowed alongside her as she walked. She could see the man in the driver’s seat, even through his tinted windows. Self-consciously her foot twisted a little on a break in the pavement. Straightening herself, she tried to look as if she hadn’t even noticed the stumble. He mustn’t know that this was her first time. Keep walking, she thought. Left, right. It will be alright.
The car eased to a crawl. The driver rolled down his window and leaned out to look at her more closely. She steeled herself as she turned her head to smile at him. She smiled her mother’s smile, the one that made you feel as if you were home. She smiled as she thought of her two sisters and her brother in the shack waiting for her to bring home food. She smiled as she thought of her mother’s weak, gaunt face as she lay dying on the grass mat in the shack.
The car stopped. Nothemba did too. Taking a deep breath, she turned towards the car window. She smiled brightly.
The red shoes felt cold under her small, plump feet.
Nothemba is an African name which means “Trust.”