It's not just the dancing that's demanding, but that, as I only realised at the class yesterday evening, my first three months of tango have also been my first three months of wearing high-heels. Or rather, being worn by them, for it's touch and go who's in charge. Never mind doing everything backwards in high-heels (to quote Ginger Rogers), I'm struggling to master the precarious art of merely going forwards. Because, up to this point in my life, high-heels have either passed me by or been by-passed by me.
My mother was dedicated to "sensible" shoes. At least, when it came to her daughter. Sensible shoes were resolutely flat, with staunch rubber soles. They were black lace-ups for winter, and brown Clarks sandals for summer. I've ransacked the net for an image of these things, with their sober cut-outs on the instep, but Clarks no longer seem to make the kind of sandal that several generations of us English kids wore.
What's offer now would have dismayed my mother.
For a start it's white. And would you look at that heel! And that sling back and those open toes! They would have been pronounced highly unsuitable for growing feet, and I would have been removed from the shop as swiftly as if its offerings were a first seductive step into the white slave trade.
She herself loved high-heels. She swore she could barely walk in flats. But I could never be entirely sure she knew this for the spurious justification it was. Being five foot two with a six foot two husband must have been some incentive to wear heels, but she was also very ... I was going write "girly", but was brought up short by the realisation that she gloried in being womanly. So much so that she was determined no one else in the family should dethrone her from this position. Particularly a teenage daughter. Luckily for her I was small-breasted so she had no competition in that department, and ensured I knew it. But I was tall and I was stroppy - I longed to wear stilettos. No chance. They would "ruin" my feet.
Ironically, and in spite of her best efforts, my feet have been ruined anyway - by the bunions I inherited from her. As she aged, her feet appeared more and more tortured. Her big toe bent sideways at nearly ninety degrees so that it sat partly on top of the second toe. And her little toe also bent inwards - a less common condition apparently called a tailor's bunion (which I like because my mother's father was a tailor). All her shoes were distorted by the demands of her bunions but I never once heard her complain of their unsightliness nor of any pain.
Slowly but surely, genetic programming kicked in for her daughter. As each bunion enjoyed a growth spurt it would ache, and sometimes cause shooting pains through my foot. Then it would settle down again. My bunions only hurt now if I'm foolish enough to buy and wear shoes that cut across them, something I avoid doing, no matter how tempting the shoes. So it's now my feet that ruin my shoes.
Until we arrived in New Zealand in 1964, I was firmly under my mother's sartorial control. Then, for my seventeenth birthday, T bought me a pair of pointy, white slingbacks with slender high heels. I wrote a version of this episode into Good at Geography:
This is one of the few occasions in the novel when the father is roused out of a chronic emotional absenteeism. And it's shoes that do it. The power of their symbolism for once expressed by him rather than the mother.
The shoes were the sort Lurlene wore. Isobel could not remember exactly how they found their way from the shelf to her feet and
wondered if Clyde were trying to turn her into a girl like Lurlene, a girl who would. She had tottered around Edser's Footwear section under his glittering eye, said thank you when he handed her the box, and half hoped to lose it on the way home.
"Look,' she said, wobbling across the lounge where both parents were
installed in their armchairs. Clyde grinned from the doorway.
Her mother gave Isobel's feet a fleeting inspection. "Very generous of
you, Clyde. I hope you said thank you, Isobel. Look, Daddy, what Clyde bought Isobel.' Clearly she disapproved of their spiky heels and pointed toes, equally clearly she had decided it would be bad manners to say so. The newspaper rustled minimally. Isobel veered in the general direction of the door, uncertain whether she could make it down the
hall, let alone onto the street. Maybe Lurlene would give her lessons.
'Isobel!' Her father's road threw her off balance and she clutched at the door post. He crushed the paper in his lap and rose abuptly in a shower of ash. ...
'Get them off,' he thundered.
Astounded, she flicked the shoes from her feet. ...
'Here, young man.' He jabbed the shoes at Clyde. 'Take my advice, return these to the shop and buy Isobel something more suitable.'
Clyde's bewilderment stung her. 'You can't say that! They were a present. How can he say that?' She appealed to her mother's code of etiquette.
Her mother looked equally stunned. 'If Daddy thinks ...'
Isobel stood her ground as her father loomed over her. His face was
black, his tone icy. 'In my day we only gave presents like this to girls we slept with.'
The shoes were real, and so were the parental reactions. The shoes were duly returned to the shop (although I'd have vastly preferred to return the parents), and T bought me a hideous paste necklace that I never wore and have long-since mislaid (although it's crossed mind recently that it might have done for tango). They were - to put it offensively - Hutt Valley shoes. They were T's notion of what a girlfriend should wear, and it was just as firmly rooted as my parents' notion of what a respectable child should avoid wearing.
No one asked what I thought. With encouragement I might have been able to say that I didn't care for either view of the bloody things - I simply didn't like them for their own sake. They were already old-fashioned. What I did like, and what I'd chosen to buy in England and bring with me in July 1964, was a pair of blue patent, low Louis-heeled slingbacks, with uncompromisingly round Mod toes and a bow - ironic of course - on the instep. So it was inaccurate of me to claim that my mother had me under her sartorial control until I arrived here - I had those six months alone in England, on a weekly allowance out of which I bought any clothes I needed without maternal supervision. Those little blue shoes were the purest expression of a delicious albeit brief autonomy. I would give a great deal to still have them, or at least a picture of them. And of the dress they "went with".