She is peeling herself out of her swimsuit when the Yummy Mummies arrive. Glossy and stick thin, they surround her, talking loudly, rubbing expensive moisturizer into shiny legs, completely oblivious to her.
These are women with designer gymwear, perfect hair, and time for coffee. She imagines husbands called Rupe or Tris who carelessly toss envelopes containing awesome bonuses onto their Conran kitchen tables and sweep their wives into bear hugs before booking impromptu dinners out. These women do not have husbands who stay in their pajama bottoms till midday and look hunted whenever their wives mention having another go at that job application.
Gym membership is a luxury they really cannot afford these days, but Samantha is tied into paying for it for another four months, and Phil tells her she might as well make the most of it. It does her good, he says. He means it does them both good for her to get out of the house and away from him.
“Use it or lose it, Mum,” says their daughter, who eyes Sam’s increasingly indistinct hip-to-waist ratio with barely concealed horror. Sam cannot tell either of them how much she hates the gym: its apartheid of hard bodies, the carefully disguised disapproval of the 20-something personal trainers, the shadowed corners where she and the other Lumpy People try to hide.
She is at that age, the age where all the wrong things seem somehow to stick—fat, the groove between her eyebrows—while everything else—job security, marital happiness, dreams—seem to slip effortlessly away.
“You have no idea how much they’ve put up the prices at Club Med this year,” one of the women is saying. She is bent over, toweling her expensively tinted hair, her perfectly tanned bottom barely covered by expensive lace knickers. Sam has to wiggle sideways to avoid touching her.
“I know! I tried to book Mauritius for Christmas—our usual villa has gone up by 40 percent.”
“It’s a scandal.”
Yes, it’s a scandal, Sam thinks. How awful for you all. She thinks of the camper that Phil bought the previous year to do up. We can spend weekends by the coast, he’d said cheerfully. He never got beyond repairing the back bumper. Since he lost his job, it has sat there on the drive, a nagging reminder of what else they’ve lost.
Sam wriggles into her knickers, trying to hide her pale, mottled flesh under the towel. Today she has four meetings with potential clients. In half an hour, she will meet Ted and Joel from Print, and they will try to win their company the deals they’ve been working on. “We need this,” Ted had said. “As in if we don’t get it . . .” He pulled a face. No pressure there, then.
“Do you remember that awful place in Cannes that Susanna booked? The one where half the swimming pools were out of order?”
They are braying with laughter. Sam pulls her towel more tightly around her and heads to the corner to dry her hair.
When she returns, they are gone, an echo of costly scent lingering in the air. She breathes a sigh of relief and slumps down on the damp wooden bench.
It is only when she is dressed that she reaches under the bench and realizes that although the kitbag there looks exactly like hers, it is not hers. This bag does not contain her comfortable black pumps, suitable for pounding pavements and negotiating deals. It contains a pair of vertiginous, red, crocodile-skin, Christian Louboutin sling-backs.
The girl at the desk doesn’t blink.
“The woman who was in the changing rooms. She’s taken my bag.”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know. There were three of them. One of them took my bag.”
“Sorry, but I usually work at the Hills Road branch. You’re probably best off speaking to someone who works here full-time.”
“But I have meetings to go to now. I can hardly go in my sneakers.”
The girl looks her slowly up and down, and her expression suggests that wearing sneakers may be the least of Sam’s sartorial worries. Sam glances at her phone. She is due at the first meeting in 30 minutes. She sighs, picks up the gym bag, and stomps off toward the train.
She cannot go into this meeting in gym shoes. This becomes obvious as soon as she reaches the publishers, whose marble-and-gilt offices make Trump Tower look positively Amish. It is also apparent in Ted’s and Joel’s sideways glances at her feet.
“Going to wear your leotard, too?” says Ted. “Perhaps she’s going to conduct negotiations via the medium of freeform dance.” He waves his arms to the sides.
She hesitates, then curses, rummages around in the bag, and pulls out the shoes. They are only half a size out. Without saying anything, she whips off her sneakers in the foyer and puts on the red Louboutins instead. When she stands, she has to grab Joel’s arm to stay upright.
“Wow. They’re, um . . .not very you.”
She straightens, glares at Joel. “Why? What’s ‘me’?”
“Plain. You like plain stuff. Sensible stuff.”
Ted smirks. “You know what they say about shoes like that, Sam.”
“Well, they’re not for standing up in.”
They nudge each other, chuckling. Great, she thinks. So now I get to go to a meeting looking like a call girl.
When she emerges from the lift, it is all she can do to walk across the room. She feels stupid, as if everyone is looking at her, as if it is obvious that she is a middle-aged woman in somebody else’s shoes. She stammers her way through the meeting and stumbles as she leaves. The two men say nothing, but they all know that they will not get this contract. Nevertheless, she has no choice. She will have to wear the ridiculous shoes all day.
“Never mind. Still three to go,” says Ted kindly.
She is outlining their print strategy in the second meeting when she observes that the managing director is not listening to her. He is staring at her feet. Embarrassed, she almost loses the thread of what she is saying. But then, as she continues, she realizes it is he who is distracted.
“So how do those figures sound?” she says.
“Good!” he exclaims, as if hauled from a daydream. “Yes. Good.”
She senses a brief opportunity, pulls a contract from her briefcase. “So shall we agree on terms?”
He is staring at her shoes again. She tilts one foot and lets the strap slide from her heel.
“Sure,” he says. He takes the pen without looking at it.
“Don’t say anything,” she says to Ted as they leave, jubilant.
“I’m saying nothing. You get us another deal like that, you can wear carpet slippers for all I care.”
At the next meeting, she makes sure her feet are on display the whole time. Although John Edgmont doesn’t stare, she sees that the mere fact of these shoes makes him reassess his version of who she is. Weirdly, it makes her reassess her version of herself. She charms. She stands firm on terms. She wins another contract.
They take a taxi to meeting four.
“I don’t care,” she says. “I can’t walk in these things, and I’ve earned it.”
The result is that instead of making their usual harried, sweaty arrival, she pulls up outside the final meeting unruffled. She steps out and realizes that she is standing taller.
She is a little disappointed, therefore, to discover that M. Price is a woman. And it doesn’t take long to discover that Miriam Price plays hardball. The negotiations take an hour. If they go ahead, their margins will be down to almost nothing. It feels impossible.
“I just need to visit the ladies’ room,” Sam says. Once inside, she leans forward over the basin and splashes her face with water. Then she checks her eye makeup and stares at herself in the mirror, wondering what to do.
The door opens, and Miriam Price steps in behind her. They nod politely while washing their hands. And then Miriam Price looks down.
“Oh, my God, I love your shoes!” she exclaims.
“Actually they’re—” Sam begins. Then she stops and smiles. “They’re great, aren’t they?”
Miriam points down at them. “Can I see?”
She holds the shoe that Sam removes, examines it from all angles. “Is this a Louboutin?”
“I once queued for four hours just to buy a pair of his shoes. How crazy is that?”
“Oh, not crazy at all,” says Sam.
Miriam Price hands it back almost reluctantly. “You know, you can always tell a proper shoe. My daughter doesn’t believe me, but you can tell so much about someone from what they wear.”
“I tell my daughter the exact same thing!” The words are out of her mouth before she even knows what she’s saying.
“I tell you what. I hate negotiating like this. Do you have a window for lunch next week? Let’s the two of us get together and thrash something out. I’m sure we can find a way through.”
“That would be great,” Sam says. She manages to walk out of the ladies’ without the slightest wobble.
She arrives home after seven. She is in her sneakers again, and her daughter, who is just headed out, raises her eyebrows at Sam as if she is some kind of bag lady.
“This is not New York, Mum. You just look weird, like you lost your shoes.”
“I did lose my shoes.” She puts her head around the living-room door. “Hey.”
Phil raises a hand. He is where she knew he’d be: on the sofa. “Have you . . .done anything about supper?”
“Oh. No. Sorry.”
It’s not that he is selfish. It’s as if he cannot rouse himself to anything anymore, even the cooking of beans on toast. The successes of the day evaporate. She makes supper, trying not to feel weighed down by it all, and then, as an afterthought, pours two glasses of wine.
“You’ll never guess what happened to me today,” she says, handing one to him. And she tells him the story of the swapped shoes.
She disappears into the hallway and puts them on. She straightens a little as she heads back into the living room, injects a little swagger into her walk.
“Wow.” His eyebrows shoot up to somewhere near his hairline.
“I know! I wouldn’t have bought them in a million years. And they’re a nightmare to walk in. But I pulled in three deals today, three deals we weren’t expected to get. And I think it was all because of the shoes.”
“Not all of it, surely. But your legs look fantastic.” He pushes his way up so he is sitting straight.
She smiles. “Thank you.”
“You never wear shoes like this.”
“I know. But I don’t have a Louboutin-shoe sort of life.”
“You should. You look . . .you look amazing.”
He looks so lovely then, so pleased for her and yet so vulnerable. She walks over to her husband, sits on his lap, links her arms around his neck. Perhaps the wine has made her giddy. She cannot remember the last time she approached him like this. They gaze at each other.
“You know what they say about shoes like this?” she murmurs.
“Well, they’re not made for standing up in.”
She is at the gym shortly after nine on Saturday morning. She is not here to thrash up and down the pool or strap herself to one of their merciless machines. She has a different ache, one that makes her blush faintly with remembered pleasure. She has come to return the shoes.
She pauses in front of the glass doors, remembering Phil’s face as he woke her with a mug of coffee.
“I thought I’d start on that camper today,” he said cheerfully. “Might as well make myself useful.”
It is then that she sees the woman at the reception desk. It is one of the Yummy Mummies, her hair in a glossy ponytail, railing at one of the staff. On the desk is a familiar gym bag. She hesitates, feeling a reflexive clench of inadequacy.
Sam looks down at the bag by her feet. She will not come to this gym again. She suddenly knows this as surely as she knows anything. She will not be swimming, or sweating, or hiding in corners. She takes a breath, strides in, and puts the bag down in front of the woman.
“You know, you really should check that you pick up the right bag,” she says as she takes her own. “You have no idea of the changes I had to make to my day.”
Sam turns on her heel as the woman starts to stutter an apology. She is still laughing when she reaches the train station. She has a bonus payment that is burning a hole in her pocket. And a pair of very unsuitable shoes to purchase.
Paris for One and Other Stories will be released on October 18 and is available for pre-order. Jojo Moyes is the author of Me Before You and After You, among others.
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