Ida and Ken

Ida throws the last pair of shoes down the dingy anaglypta clad staircase towards Ken, who is waiting at the bottom with the hall door open.  He stands partly in the street, trying to protect himself from the onslaught of lumpin footwear.

“Is that the lot?"  he shouts up to Ida, as he retrieves  beige, brown and black shoes, bundled in pairs with large rubber bands.
“Yeah, thats everything.  You know what I think - we should get one of those chairlifts.  It’d work a treat for bringing the shoes up and down the stairs.”  Ida starts her own descent slowly and carefully on the steep narrow stairs - she has a dodgy hip, which has more bad days than good of late.

“Yeah its all money though - a commodity in short supply, what with council tax, the electric and the rest” Ken turns down the alley to a small yard behind the kebab shop, which is under the flat. Mr.Khan lets them use it for the storage of their one and only trestle table.

They are always the first stall holders to arrive on Selbourne Road - the pitch is after all only five yards from their front door.

“Who were you talking to at the front door last night?” Ida asks.
“When?”
“I was in the bath and I thought I heard you go down stairs.”
“Oh yeah, it was some chap canvassing for the BNP - asked me did I like living around here anymore, said I must have seen some changes.  Finished up calling Walthamstow “a multi- what do you call it - hell hole.”  Asked me could he count on my vote.”
“What did you say?”  
“I said I’d think about it - maybe they have a point - there’s very few like us anymore.”

Ida places the last pair of shoes on the table - rubber bands included. Rubber bands remind Ida of dusty offices and old worlds - when self-control and stiff upper lips ruled empires.  She had as a young woman worked in one of those offices, just off Chancery Lane, that was before she met Ken.
Ida knows she doesn’t feel the same as Ken, but she never knows how to respond.
“I’ll get us some tea and a couple of bacon sandwiches.”  She returns with breakfast ten minutes later.
“Bill in the caff says he had the BNP round his place, last night as well - he sent them packing”
“But there has been a lot of changes - look around - every colour, creed, language - we could be in downtown Karachi for all I know anymore.” She resists to urge to point out that Karachi may not necessarily be that mixed.

“Ken people are good to us round here and I reckon that counts for something these days.  Neighbourliness I mean - you don’t get that everywhere.  Mrs. Lawrence from Jamaica she bought round some ginger cake and a herbal remedy a couple of months back, when you had that chest infection.  Then there is Mr. Khan in the kebab shop - gives us use of his yard

They fall silent and sit and watch as the market unfolds - stallholders with white vans, bags, jackets, skirts, T-shirts and music begin to fill the long market street like a chaotic jigsaw puzzle - everything and everyone eventually fall into place. There is, however,  just one pitch remaining; this is to the left of Ida and Ken.

From one end of the street a bright red beautiful car roams into view. As it nears it gives  the impression of a mirage merging into reality. It pulls up by Ida and Kens stall; two young men spring from the car all elegant limbs, lyth and languid.  Dark floppy hair and  broad smiles reveal perfect teeth.

Like Mary Poppins carpet bag, objects spring forth that defy the measurements of the tiny boot from which they emanate  - fine carpets in woven silk, boxes of silver inlaid with jewels. intricate earrings and finally a table painted with delicate flowers. Not much call for that stuff around here Ida thinks,  the objects remind her of better times: she smells sandalwood.   The young men are dressed in white from head to toe. Small beautifully embroidered hats on their heads. They are truly more exquisite, she thinks, than the merchandise they possess.

“Hi”  one of the young men says as he walks towards Ida and Ken.  “My name is Amir and this is my twin brother Mo.”  They smell of fine aftershave and freshly laundered cotton. They somehow cut through the market smells - vague whiffs of stale vegetables, chip fat, kebabs, fish and bleach usually vie for space.

The noise from the market grows - the Cockney butcher boy stands chubby, fag in hand - shouting the odds about some birthday do he missed last night.  Babies cry and buggies move along - crawling like giant insects on recently acquired wheels.  Blond girls in puffer jackets.  Women, fine boned  with large dark eyes and embroidered shoes float. Skinny black boys with gold chains strut.  Tina Turner sings Simply the Best, jostling for space  with African rhythms, Asian sounds and Arabic voices.The shop behind the stall is bedecked with  shiney plastic grapes and pots and pans - a boy sits in the doorway just like his Dad; learning to be his father.  The 99p shop opens its doors and the fish shop glistens with ice and fresh fish skin.  All of life is here, thinks Ida.

Ida and Kens business is not really a business - they sit there staring at the scene as they always do and as the day wears on they become more silent, more hopeless.  The cheap dull shoes sit and sit - lumpin and awkward.  The puffer jackets and the bejewelled pass on by talking on phones.  Their meagre stall is dead - in the face of all the colour, all the glitz, however cheap - Ida and Ken fade.  Ida thinks the problem is their age - they are tired now and lately she senses anger in Ken’s voice.  

Amir and Mo’s stall attracts a lot of attention mainly from the young crowd, newly arrived in the area.  Ken remarked last week when he went for a pint in The Standard that these young trendy types; blow ins, had turned the pub into a lounge with jazz on a Sunday and gastro food on the menu.  The pub had been closed for a while - drug dealing apparently.  Now it has re-opened and everybody is completely different - all a bit snooty for Ken.  

Ida notices a young woman talking to one of the twins, like she knows him from somewhere else -her eyes are initially drawn to  the most extraordinary ruby red shoes poking out from under a pair of jeans. As she leaves, she shoots a  glance towards Ida and smiles a warm smile that makes the old lady glow inside.  For the rest of the day a blanket of calm lies over the couple, as they sit minding their unsold shoes.

At around five the market begins to dismantle and people grow thin on the ground. Ida and Ken start to move things towards their front door.  When they look up the young brothers have completely, as if by magic, packed up their stall and standing there is the red car, gleaming  They both come over to Ida and Ken “Let us help you with your things” and before Ken could protest (and Ida is sure he was about to - he is a suspicious bugger)  the brothers gather up the shoes in their arms and march up the stairs by the side of the kebab shop. Ida hauls herself up to the flat, grateful for the help - everything is cleared in five minutes.  The boys pile the shoes by the telly as instructed and are gone in a flash - Ida peers through lacy net curtains as the red car moves off into the distance.  It occurs to her that net curtains dull and mute the world - perhaps tomorrow she will remove them.

The shoes form a very large cube shape which encroaches into the room - darkening the space.  The couple have a fish and chip supper - watch Eastenders and a bit of news. Some soldier had been murdered down outside Woolwich barracks.  Ken stares at the telly and says nothing.  They go to bed leaving the shoes and the news for another day.

Wednesday morning is overcast and threatening rain.  The couple emerge into the the living room with cups of tea: they begin a repeat performance of the previous day. Shoes flying down the stairs to a waiting Ken.  Ida goes to retrieve the last couple of pairs from the living room floor.

Sitting, amidst the dull browns and beiges of the carpet, a beautiful pair of sandals - fine leather, jewels sewn up along the central strap, glistening. The smell of new shoes fills the air.
She thinks better of throwing them down the stairs -  they may not survive the landing.

When the stall is completely set up Ida places the sandals to front of the table.  Amir and Mo arrive and set about business as before with the world emerging from the boot of the shiney motor.  “Good morning” they beam to everybody around them.

A young woman comes up to the stall - asks how much the sandals are. Ida thinks for a second and says twenty quid, next thing she knows, there is another young woman saying I’ll give you twenty five for them then another saying thirty this goes on until  one hundred is reached.  The couple  cannot believe their luck.  The day on the market ends like no other day - Ida despite her hip floats up the stairs to the tiny flat.  Amir and Mo help the couple dismantle everything and as before carry everything upstairs.

The next day sees two pairs of beautiful sandals sitting on top of the dull shoe cube.  Ken scratches his head and proceeds with the morning shoe throwing ritual, apart that is, from the sandals.

People start bidding for the sandals just as before and the couple go home with pockets full of cash. Amir and Mo pack up early and apologise for not helping the couple with their stall.

“Its all right son” Ken says  “you’ve been very helpful the last couple of days - thanks”

Back in the flat, Ida makes herself a little gin and tonic.
 “Ken do you think we should bother bringing down the old stock tomorrow?  That is assuming we receive more sandals in the night.”

The next day the couple wake up to yet more sandals and diminishing shoes.  It takes a little time but they carry the new stock down stairs a pair at a time. Amir and Mo are there as usual selling and chatting - between their stall and Ida and Kens this end of the market is alive.  People crowding around money flying through the air.  

That night, Ken and Ida decide to stay up, to see where this fine footwear is coming from. They feel tentative - what if they somehow break the spell and wake to find the world unchanged.  Staring from behind the kitchen door,  midnight strikes and to their amazement, Amir and Mo appear, gliding around the room,  removing old shoes and replacing them with beautiful sandals, rows and rows gleaming and filling the room, catching the moonlight.   Fifteen minutes after midnight the clock on the mantelpiece chimes once and the twins disappear through the hall door, down the narrow staircase and out into the night. Ida glances through the window but all she sees is an empty street. The couple return to bed unable to sleep or speak.

The next day is Sunday and finally speech returns -  a knock comes to the door - Ken goes down its the man from the BNP.
“Hi Ken, have you thought anymore about joining us?” With what’s been happening down in south London its worth considering”
Ken looks at the young man - hard thin mouth, pallid skin and says “No thanks, I’ve thought about it and I’m not interested.  I’m proud of Walthamstow and the people in it.” and with that he shuts the door. Ida listens from the top of the stairs her heart bursting with joy and pride.  

She says nothing to Ken and after lunch she wanders out onto the stairs;  as she descends she notices sparkle on every step. Diamond dust, she fancies, fallen from the soles of shoes worn by angels: the trail leads out onto the street, to where their stall usually sits and lying on the ground she finds a business card for suppliers of fine footwear.  Ken appears beside his wife and they stand holding each other looking down the long empty market street: today  Ida feels is perfect - hearts and fortunes changed.

 

Frances Macdonnell