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Cinderella's Slipper

By David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
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The mourners have left my mother’s house. I stare for a while at the debris of beer cans and uneaten sandwiches and the little stack of condolence telegrams on the kitchen table, the coffee mugs and glasses piled in the sink, then walk through to the lounge. Tasteful floral remembrance cards with black borders are arranged along the mantelpiece and on the table a bouquet of white lilies still tight in its presentation wrapper waits to be put in water. I select my mother’s finest chair, the one reserved for important guests, and sit back to think.

I find it hard to reach my own feelings. In the morning I must return to England and my other life. How many years has it been since I even visited here, the back-street Belfast house where I was born and passed the first two decades of my life?

My mind is dragged to the practicalities. Death Certificates and Letters of Administration. Disposal of her house and her modest savings. Making sure everybody has been informed. Is there anything I have forgotten? I try to pull myself back to where I am, to what I am feeling right now.

This doesn’t seem like a part of me any more. For over twenty years I have worked on becoming somebody else, somebody educated, middle class, a speaker of standard English, able to move amongst the intelligentsia of London’s self appointed artistic elite. I remember the times when I have tried to steer the conversation away from everything that this house represents. I belong in this chair now. It is where my mother would have asked me to sit. I feel like a traitor to my own roots, an impostor attending my mother’s funeral in disguise, with a false beard and a patch over one eye. Which of them is really me, I wonder? Have I become that which I have aped?

I make my way upstairs, to the room that was once my bedroom. Dust particles dance in the narrow shaft of sunlight streaming in where the heavy curtains don’t quite meet. In the bottom of the wardrobe is a cardboard box filled with the things I owned when I left home, things my mother would never throw out. The bric-a-brac of my teenage years. I pull it out now and lift the objects on to the bed one by one.

Copies of the school magazine, photographs, a penknife, an Airfix model of a Russian Mig fighter, a plastic telescope, a pile of old vinyl records, a box containing medals won for the high jump at the school Sports Day. I was light and had very long legs back then. A single blue plastic beach shoe. How strange, I’ve no memory of it, I’m certain I didn’t put it there. It isn’t very big - it would never have fitted me. Where did it come from? What on earth would I have kept it for? Suddenly a numbness enters my stomach and the memories leap up before me.

I am leaning on the railing of the deck of The Manxman, a barely seaworthy rusting passenger vessel that operates a shuttle service for holidaymakers between Belfast and Douglas, Isle of Man. It is a glorious July morning and the little Manx seaport is rising up before me, sparkling in the sunlight like an illustration from a book of fairytales. I am vaguely apprehensive because this time I have come alone, and the Isle of Man seems almost “abroad”, a place of limitless potential without parents or teachers or busybodys who know me to report back if I step out of line. Coming here is a brave, perhaps reckless thing to do. I feel a welling up of a sense of freedom and infinite possibilities. I seem to be standing for the first time on the brink of the adult world. Behind me families push forward, eager to watch the tying-up at the quay, eager to be among the first to disembark, dispose of bags and suitcases and stake out their spot on the beach. Children chatter excitedly to their parents, try to elicit promises of visits to the fairground or the Witches’ Museum or boat trips in the days to come.

I turn around and find myself looking straight into the face of a girl slightly younger than myself with long straight black hair. She is wearing a skimpy almost see-through yellow summer dress and has a small rucksack over one shoulder. She smiles back at me. I feel my heart flutter and a lump come to the back of my throat. A great wave of tenderness passes through my body. In my sixteen years on the planet I have never seen a human face as beautiful as this, have never been affected by somebody in this way. I stare, tongue-tied and motionless. She is with her parents, seemingly she is their only daughter, and, horror of horrors, her father is wearing a clerical dog-collar. She giggles at me and I drag my eyes away from hers. I discover that I am shaking and my vision has become a little blurred. Also that a purpose has entered my life.

Time has passed. I am lying on a thin foam-rubber mattress inside a small ridge tent pitched in a sandy hollow a little way back from the beach at Ramsey on the north east coast of the island. The girl with the long back hair is in my arms and the skimpy yellow dress is by our feet, together with a pair of blue plastic beach sandals. It has been the most amazing day of my life and I am exhausted and totally besotted. My head is swimming and I am fighting to retain consciousness. “You’ve never done that before,” she whispers, “have you?”

“What? Of course I...” there seems no point in the lie. “No. Never. It was fantastic. Unbelievable. We can do it again, can’t we? I never want you to go away. For the rest of my life. You’ll always be with me... Won’t you?”

She seems to consider the question. “The rest of your life? That sounds like a long time.”

“I don’t want anybody but you... Ever. I don’t care if you’re pregnant or...”

“Pregnant! Do you think I’m a fool?” She strokes my face. “Listen, you’re nice, okay? Really nice. But I’m going home tomorrow, and I’ve already got a boyfriend. He would make mincemeat out of you if he knew what we’ve been up to.”

My eyes widen. This just can’t be happening. She’s even younger than I am, how can she have a boyfriend? How can she make love to me like that, drive me insane with pleasure, if she hasn’t the same feelings for me that I have for her? How could somebody so beautiful and loving and wonderful hurt me like this?

I sit up and watch in numbed silence as she dresses. She slips on her swimming costume and bundles her dress and the rest of her things into her beach bag. “I’ve got to go now,” she says cheerfully, “Dad might get suspicious. Maybe I’ll see you again before we leave.”

Suddenly the tent is empty. In my shocked state I haven’t even said goodbye. I sit there for a long time before I rummage around for my own clothes and start to put them on. As I clear up the floor of the tent I find that single plastic beach sandal. Its owner I never find again.

In those few moments, without knowing it, I have learned several profound lessons. Expectations and long term patterns of behaviour have been laid down. I have learned that my love for women is fated to be unrequited. I am acceptable for a short term holiday fling or its equivalent but as long term boyfriend material I have been tried and found wanting. A real boyfriend would make mincemeat out of me. I will always occupy second place or lower in the affections of the beautiful. I should be grateful to make the list at all. My status is allocated to the region of lightweight summer diversion. I must make no demands, I must be grateful for any crumbs that may come my way. In the romantic stakes I categorize myself as an also-ran.

As I remember that summer day so long ago, I have a daydream. Superimposed on the face of the girl in the yellow dress, one by one, I see the face of every woman I have ever thought that I loved.

As I sit on my old bed in my mother’s house I try to remember what I did with the sandal, so much time has passed it is an enormous effort of memory. I have a dim recollection of my mother coming across it in my luggage as we unpack. A half remembered conversation.

“Whose shoe is this?”

“Nobody’s Mum. Throw it in the bin.” She looks at me, says nothing, takes the shoe away.

“Your parting gift to me, Mother,” I whisper, turning it over in my hand. The crystal slipper of Cinderella. Whomsoever this slipper fits... I put my fingers inside it. A spell seems to have been broken. I smile without knowing why. There seems to be somebody else in the room.

“The false beard and the eye patch never did fool you, did they Mother?”