Valerie had always had a low opinion of feet. After all they were nothing more than mere functional appendages for standing and walking. Hardly objects of beauty. And then the very word ‘feet’ carried negative associations with verrucas, bunions, ingrown toenails, even athlete’s foot. Feet were feet. What else was there to say about them?
Which of course is why she was taken aback when Becky said what she did. It brought her up short and kept her awake that first night when she was already jumpy with jetlag.
It had all started on Flight BA010 to Bangkok. Valerie had surprised herself by responding to Becky’s invitation to visit her in Thailand by booking her flight before she had time to reflect and worry. The prospect of the twelve-hour flight was daunting but Valerie hoped to survive it with the help of a five-hundred-page crime novel and ear plugs. To avoid DVT Valerie had already swallowed two aspirin and a glass of red wine and had eased on her elasticated flight stockings, all before boarding the plane. Preparations made, once settled into her seat she felt surprisingly relaxed and soon abandoned the latest victim of the serial killer terrorising the suburbs of Glasgow to her sad fate, slipped her shoes off, tucked the checked blanket neatly around herself and sank into a deep sleep.
She had no way of knowing what time it was when she woke to find a man crouching in the aisle next to her holding her right foot in his cupped hands. Befuddled with sleep, she remembered thinking – he will need to wash his hands before touching food.
“I step on your foot. I apologise” the man said unconvincingly. Valerie peered at him, which was rather difficult in the dimness of the cabin. All around them people lay slumped in sleep.
“No no” she murmured politely.
“You are from London?” The man remained crouched beside her, still holding her foot delicately in his hands.
“Yes I am” she said, unable to think what else it was appropriate to say in the circumstances.
“I am from Norway. I go to Bangkok” the man explained. Valerie felt her eyes drooping and must have dozed off again, as the next thing she knew a drinks trolley was clunking past, the lights came on and the elderly man sitting next to her groaned in his sleep.
Becky paused as she ladled noodles on to her mother’s plate. “He was probably a foot fetishist mum.”
“A foot fetishist. You know – in Bangkok anything goes.” Which was why, stranded awake in the middle of the night in Thailand, Valerie tried to recapture the man’s face but only managed to conjure up an image of her grandmother lowering her feet with a sigh of pleasure into an enamel bowl of Radox dissolved in hot water before she had a go at her bunions with a razor blade.
Bangkok was frankly a shock. Even though she had studied the guidebooks, Valerie was unprepared for the frenzy that greeted them as soon as they stepped out of their hotel. The humid air hung yellow with pollution over a bewildering chaos of traffic that inched its way slowly along congested roads. She climbed gratefully into the back of a cool taxi and Becky got into the front. “Sawat-dii-kha” Becky said and then firmly “meter”. The driver grinned, flicked on his meter, and swung out into the gridlocked traffic.
Valerie remembered that first day as a confusion of movement as Becky guided her mother on and off perilous speeding canal boats, terrifying tuk-tuks and sleek sky trains. Valerie felt a giant among the neat Thai people and everywhere there was food – stalls crammed on pavements selling coconuts, fruits and sweets, noodles, and stir-fried meat.
On the second day Becky took her mother to the Royal Palace hidden behind its elegant white walls. Valerie watched her daughter with pride as she talked and laughed and bartered. Inside she gazed at the astounding buildings that shimmered with gold, mosaic, and glass. Huge mythical guardian statues flanked the gateways and carved gold cobras reared their jewelled heads as they coiled around the handrails. At the entrance to the temple of Wat Phra Kaeo the women removed their shoes and stepped over the high threshold into the blinding gold interior. Valerie copied Becky and sat on the marble floor.
“Tuck your feet behind you mum” Becky whispered. “Never point your feet at an image of the Buddha.” High above them, almost eclipsed by the ornate stepped altar, sat the tiny Emerald Buddha carved in jade. The silence was heavy after the thronging crowds in the courtyard and the air was thick with incense.
Valerie’s thoughts drifted with the clouds of incense. How strange to be here in this wonderful place. It was only a year since Robert had left and she was no nearer understanding why. When she tried to think about it, she felt bemused, unable to analyse what had gone wrong. For she did not see clearly that anything had gone wrong. She had loved and cared for him. She had kept their domestic life smooth while maintaining her own career. They had raised three children together and she had assumed they would go on to grow old together. Their routines were well established and familiar; sex had its place in the routine, admittedly less frequently as the years went by, but was that not only inevitable and natural? She had always believed companionship to be the compensation of the middle years.
Of course, she and Robert had had their disagreements but not on a scale to alert her to what would happen. He had come home one Friday and said, “I think we need a break from each other.” And then he had left, the very next day without further explanation. He had paused at the front door and looked at her – with pity, anger? and said, “do yourself a favour. Get rid of those bloody slippers.”
Valerie had begun to wonder if she had never really known her husband.
After he had gone, she had sat dry-eyed and had contemplated her floral velour slippers, as if they might provide a clue. But they didn’t and she had then gone upstairs and moved Robert’s pillows from the bed and put his toothbrush away in the bathroom cabinet. A year on and all she knew was that he was living in a flat in town. She felt she irritated Becky and the other children by not seeking to know more details.
Why had she never noticed feet before? Valerie found herself staring at the bare brown feet of the monks as they walked calmly along the frenetic streets, bright in their saffron robes.
On their visit to Wat Pho, Valerie promenaded slowly along the side of the huge one hundred- and fifty-foot-long reclining Buddha. She dropped a tiny coin in each of the metal monks’ bowls along the wall and listened to the delightful chink each coin made. But it was at the Buddha’s feet that she stopped to contemplate. Vast gilded toes, each bigger than a man, the huge flat soles of the feet inlaid with mother of pearl in intricate designs. Valerie felt she had never looked at anything properly before.
On their way back from the floating markets they took a river boat up the Chao Phraya River. After the meal Becky said, “they do Thai foot massage on board – go on, I’ll treat you.” And Valerie surprised herself by agreeing and submitting to the attentions of the charming young masseuse who first washed and oiled and then manipulated her feet as the big boat swung its way back up the wide yellow river. As the girl squeezed and prodded Valerie felt her senses tingling, her skin alive. She forgot to be ashamed of her lumpy feet, forgot that she had always hated anyone touching them and relaxed into the powerful sensations that swept over her. She felt her shoulders, her neck and back responding. She seemed to be floating.
The taxi took them back to their hotel for the last time. As they halted in the traffic under a knot of flyover junctions, Valerie noticed an area of derelict swampy land, neglected and litter strewn. In the gloomy dark water floated vivid crimson water lilies, shimmering in the darkness.
Valerie could tell Robert was surprised to hear from her by his tone of voice. Yes, he would like to come round to see the photos. Friday? Fine.
Valerie checked her appearance in the hall mirror. She was wearing purple, a colour she had always loved but had abandoned years ago. Her hair was shorter and sleeker and she had risked discreet highlights. As she opened the door her heart skipped to see Robert standing there with a bunch of yellow roses. He looked thin and rather nervous. She saw him register her appearance, but his face remained solemn until his eyes took in her bare feet with their painted toenails. They looked at each other and smiled.
Gwenda Major lives in the UK. Her passions are for genealogy, gardening, and graveyards.
Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous print and digital publications. Most recently her short stories have been published by the Fiction Factory, Retreat West, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Write-Time, and Cranked Anvil. Several stories have been broadcast on local radio.
Gwenda has also written four novels and three novellas. Her novella Offcomers won first prize in an Open Novella Competition in 2016 and others have been either shortlisted or longlisted in national competitions.
Gwenda has a website and blog at www.gwendamajor.wordpress.com