I am moving house. Again. It happens all too often. As soon as I start to feel settled in a place, I am either struck with a sudden urge to up-sticks and travel or I find myself forced to move house. There is a familiar routine that plays out as I pack the same old things, reacquainting myself with all of my baggage, both physical and emotional.
This time I’m listening to a record by the first band I ever saw live – Number One Cup – over fifteen years ago now. I am acutely aware of the march of time, the paragraphs of my life piled around me, the grammar tumbling from a blue Ikea bag.
I am wearing a pair of bright green daps for what will almost definitely be the last time. I’m thinking about them, our time together, and the difficulty I had acquiring them. It is almost by recalling how we came to be together that I can make this final journey. The circle of life within a life.
I was in Kathmandu, Nepal. I had been away travelling for some months in south east Asia and was on my way to India. I had met a girl that I liked. There was only one issue, beyond my obvious character flaws, and that was my feet. At this stage in my travels, I had just four footwear options.
Option one – my walking boots. These intimidating things stank of decay. Being a size bigger than me – a twelve – they were enormous. Not only that but they were also extraordinarily wide with thick souls, a massive lolling tongue and laces a metre long. Just the sight of them sent children scurrying away down the nearest alleyway. They did not fit under tables. They did not fit on buses, trains, cars. These great bruised behemoths did not belong at the end of my slight, womanly legs. They belonged nowhere.
Option two – a pair of Velcro-strapped walking sandals. Even typing the word sandals makes me feel ill and these monstrosities really were on another level. I can’t imagine anyone with even a modicum of self-respect wearing them. When I bought them, I imagined that I would only wear them in very specific situations. All of which involved there being no one around me. They were for trekking in hot remote watery places where I would only be seen by poisonous reptiles and locals who would be too shocked to see a lanky white man that they would not have time to appraise the hideous sandals. It turns out that they did in fact come into their own in the north eastern Cambodian jungle which must have been where they also acquired a rare fungus. To attempt to impress a lady in these was not even an option.
Option three – barefoot. Yes, there are western men around my age in Nepal and India that walk around barefooted. These men are complete and utter knobs.
Option four – and the preferred option – flip flops. In public, in England, I would never dream of wearing flip flops. I have ugly feet; a hereditary curse. Long bony finger-toes, skinny slabs of grim. Flip flops for my feet is like spray-on leggings for a sumo wrestler.
So, in short, I was on a quest to find some new footwear and quickly.
There was, as far as I could ascertain, only one shop in all of Kathmandu that had a pair of trainers that would fit my feet and look good. And so began the process. The man in the shop knew all of what I knew and more. He knew I wanted to look good for a girl that I had met by a shrine. He knew that my feet were freakishly large and disfigured. He knew what I liked, he knew what his competitors had, and most of all, he knew I needed him and his bright green daps.
After visiting many, many shops, I went into his. I saw the green daps. I saw them in my size. I felt flushed with delight and then I asked him the price. He told me an amount that equated to about a week’s budget for my trip. I walked out of the shop in mock disgust. The battle had begun. That night I went for a drink with the girl and I wore my flip flops. In the evenings in Nepal, the temperature drops rapidly. My toes were painfully cold as we walked the glowing smoggy streets. I worried about her seeing my feet as much as I did getting frostbite.
I returned to the shop the next day. The owner greeted me like an old friend. In a way we were close, at least we had an understanding: he knew my predicament and knew me. I asked him the price again. It had stayed the same. I indicated a pair of trainers to the left of the pair I wanted and asked how much. He told me an amount that was less than half. I asked about the smaller sizes of the green daps which also turned out to be much cheaper.
“You have big feet, sir. Large. Twice the size of Nepali. Twice materials. Twice making time. Twice price.”
I told him politely that this was fundamentally not how shoe-pricing worked.
As we talked, he unwrapped them and I, without ever being fully conscious of the fact, had tried them on.Of course, they fitted perfectly and from the quick glance I took, they looked good too. I increased my offer but he knew too much.
“Maybe not in America, sir. But in Nepal, most definitely the shoe cost work this way. Twice the feet: twice the price.”
I removed the green canvas trainers and I left. For the next six hours, spurred on by his stubbornness and my own, I went to hunt out an alternative pair of trainers. I went to markets on the outskirts of the city, explored roadside jumble sales, and visited hundreds of shoe shops. It wasn’t that I was being fussy, there were simply no shoes in Kathmandu that would fit me. My feet were too big. Size 9 was the largest in most places. 10s rare. 11s a myth.
Later that evening, dejected and exhausted, I walked past the shop and noticed that the owner was not in his usual position but had been replaced by two women. Now was my chance, I thought. I walked up the two steps and into the shop. I pretended that it was my first time within these all too familiar walls. I picked up an array of different shoes, pantomimed my way across two solid walls of shoes before I even looked over towards the green daps. Two strides towards them and…
“You must be the man with twice big feet. Nice to meet you.”
It was futile.
I was seeing the girl again that evening. I did not know what to do. Risk frostbite. Risk ridicule. Eventually, the flip flops won out. That night, the ugly white peaks of my bony feet, like an Anapurna range in miniature, reflected the moonlight and caused at least one late-night scooter rider to career off into an ancient shrine.
I returned to the shop the next day. He knew I was desperate now.
“Mr twice feet – good morning! How are we today?”
“Very good, thank you. Yourself?”
“Yes, yes I am most well. Shall we now get you the twice big green shoe ready for a final purchase?”
I could only manage a pitiful yes. A squeak of agreement.
I wore those green daps all the time. Across Nepal. Across India. I loved them. They survived cities and villages. They glided across white marble at Amritsar, did battle with dust in Delhi, collected sand and camel sighs across the Tsar desert. Eventually, they came home with me. Moved two houses with me.
And now, the record has finished and the shoes are still on my feet. But not for long.