The Muse - Jessie Burton


Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve. Many moments that change a life’s course – a conversation with a stranger on a ship, for example – are pure luck. And yet no one writes you a letter, or chooses you as their confessor, without good reason. This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play.

When my day came, it was so hot that my armpits had made moons on the blouse the shoe shop supplied to every employee. ‘It don’t matter what size,’ the woman said, dabbing herself with a handkerchief. My shoulders were aching, my fingertips chafing. I stared; sweat had turned the pale hair at her brow the colour of a wet mouse. London heat; it never has anywhere to go. I didn’t know it, but this woman was the last customer I would ever have to serve.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Just said,’ the woman sighed. ‘Any size’ll do.’

It was nearing closing time, which meant all the crumbs of dry skin – toe jam, as we called it – would have to be hoovered out of the carpet. Cynth always said we could have moulded a whole foot out of those scrapings, a monster to dance a jig of its own. She liked her job at Dolcis Shoes, and she’d got me mine – but within an hour of our shift, I craved the cool of my room, my cheap notebooks, my pencil waiting by the narrow bed. ‘Girl, you got to pick your face up,’ Cynth would whisper. ‘Or you working in the funeral parlour next door?’

I backed away to the stock cupboard, a place where I would often escape, immune as I was by now to its noxious smell of rubbered soles. I thought I might go in and scream silently at the wall of boxes.

‘Wait! Oi, wait,’ the woman called after me. When she was sure she had my attention, she bent low and slipped off her scuffed pump, revealing a foot that had no toes. Not one. A smooth stump, a block of flesh resting innocently on the faded carpet.

‘See,’ she said, her voice defeated as she kicked off the second shoe to reveal an identical state of affairs. ‘I just . . . stuff the ends with paper, so it don’t matter what size you bring.’

It was a sight, and I have not forgotten it; the Englishwoman who showed me her toeless feet. At the time, perhaps I was repulsed. We always say the young have little truck with ugliness, have not learned to mask shock. I wasn’t that young, really; twenty-six. I don’t know what I did in the moment, but I do recall telling Cynth, on the way home to the flat we shared off Clapham Common, and her whooping with delighted horror at the thought of those toeless feet. ‘Stumpy McGee!’ she shouted. ‘She comin’ to get yuh, Delly!’ And then, with an optimistic pragmatism; ‘At least she wear any shoe she want.’

Perhaps that woman was a witch coming to herald the change in my path. I don’t believe so; a different woman did that. But her presence does seem a macabre end to that chapter of my life. Did she see in me a kindred vulnerability? Did she and I occupy a space where our only option was to fill the gap with paper? I don’t know. There does remain the very slim possibility that all she wanted was a new pair of shoes. And yet I always think of her as something from a fairy tale, because that was the day that everything changed.

Over the last five years since sailing to England from Port of Spain, I’d applied for many other jobs, and heard nothing. As the train from Southampton chugged into Waterloo, Cynth had mistaken house chimneys for factories, the promise of plenty of work. It was a promise that turned out to be harder to fulfil. I often fantasized about leaving Dolcis, once applying to a national newspaper to work as a tea-girl. Back home, with my degree and self-regard, I would never have dreamed of serving any soul tea, but Cynth had said, ‘A one-eye stone-deaf limping frog could do that job, and they still won’t give it to you, Odelle.’

Cynth, with whom I had gone to school, and with whom I had travelled to England, had become besotted with two things: shoes, and her fiancé, Samuel, whom she had met