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So. My venerable trainers were nigh unto falling apart, leaving my hairy toes exposed to the ungentle chill of the Edinburgh breeze. It was too hot to wear my para boots and too cold to wear my sports sandles. Thus, I was forced kicking and screaming into one of the great ordeals of modern life: the buying of the shoes.
There was once a time when shoes were made out of the flensed skin of brutally murdered Bovine Persons, or possibly from recycled rubber bands and canvas if you went in for sneakers. In those days, shoes were shoes and trainers were people who wore track suits and yelled at sportsmen a lot. And shoe shops were dingy wooden holes staffed by fifty-year-old ex-nuns, posessed of a dour disposition and a mean wooden horn with which to cram your protesting bunions into a slab of freshly killed leather. Those days are long since forgotten.
Today, the average shoe shop resembles a cross between a discoteque and Pad 39a at the Cape, T minus one hour and counting. Glaring spotlights hang from gantries under the ceiling, there's a background roar of technical-sounding white noise layered over yesterday's pop wunderkind, and the cash registers are on the internet. Gum-chewing bubble-brained blondes in high platform shoes with mylar uppers and kevlar soles point infra-red scanners at the stock and mutter into radio headsets. The shoes themselves are racked on mirrors, the better to display undersides that must have been designed by the bastard spawn of an ergonomist by whoever designed the Space Shuttle's tiled heat-shield. We are talking shoes made of every imaginable man-made material, and quite a few that must have been dreamed up by robots for their own amusement. We are talking shoes that have flashing LEDs, shoes that have built-in hydropneumatic suspension, shock absorbers, and microprocessors. Gone are laces and simple eye-holes; in come velcro tabs, weird suspension arrangements, and fasteners that seem to have fallen off of a ski boot from the 23rd century. We are talking shoes with the kind of eye-watering price tag that suggests you have to go to the moon to justify the expense. Entire families can be born, live, enjoy a tidy private income with servants, and die in the third world on the private income to be derived from the ownership of just one such pair of shoes.
We are talking trainers.
Now you may call me an old fogey, if you want, but I have a firm belief that one wears shoes in order to protect one's feet from, in order of priority, their immediate environment (that is, the ground), the risk of fallen arches and other ailments (that comes from walking on a hard surface such as the unpadded leather interior of a traditional shoe), and finally, a long way begind, from giving immediate offense to one's neighbours.
If fashion crimes carried a death sentence I'd long since have been shot. I'm the sort of guy who, in order to ensure a successful meeting with someone never encountered face-to-face before, will arrange to wear one red shoe, one green shoe, and a pink carnation in the lapel of a biker jacket.
I do not care that my footgear was not shuttled in from the Planet Reebok by a crack team of NASA mission specialists.
I have no desire to be lured up a dark alley and brutally mugged for the bits of plastic I use to protect the ends of my distal limbs.
Flashing in the dark like a pair of sex-crazed fireflies is an optional extra in my functional specification for a set of pod-protectors.
I do not give a flying Exon about the degree to which my shoes might be unfashionable, as long as their acquisition does not swell my cash deficit. All I require is that they are comfortable to wear, easy to put on and take off, and that they do not fall apart the instant I take the proverbial "one small step ..."
Back when I lived in Yorkshire I knew what to do.
At the back of Leeds market there are various open-air stalls. Go there on a Saturday afternoon and you can find about five places which are chock-full of year-old trainers; surplus inventory that is being liquidated at a fair price. This is how I clothed my pediments for many years, and it was broadly speaking a satisfactory arrangement. Back in those days, nigh upon five years ago, Nike and Reebok shoes were reasonably good value for money; their market base was one of durability and sporting wear rather than fashion frippery, so they were sufficiently durable that a good pair would last me for a year or more.
But then I moved to the south of England, and at about the same time the world and their dog decided they wanted to wear trainers. Kids started shooting each other with Uzis, to which they had easier access than a bank loan. Crazed female stock-exchange yuppies in skirted suits sprouted trainers for the subway commute to work, changing into high heels at the office door. War broke out between Freedonia and Monrovia when the shoe-lace crop failed. Incomprehensible adverts starring over-muscled sports-fellows jumping in slow motion began to appear in all the major media. The Soviet old guard failed to carry the coup because they all wore patent-leather jackboots. And the trainer futures market turned very bullish as Nicky Ingram got his start in financial speculation hyping the value of sports insoles.
Thus it came to pass about four weeks ago that I slogged around the centre of the capital of Scotland, vainly searching for a new pair of shoes. Every shop I ventured into was the same mixture of mirrors and robotics, walled in teflon and brushed aluminium with huge CAD monitors showing brilliantly rendered movies of just what happens when you drop the corner of a one-ton safe onto a human foot wearing the latest BK-400-ARRM kevlar-reinforced sprint-optimized all-terrain traction utility.
After three hours of goggling in stunned disbelief at the price tags, I finally staggered unintentionally into a dingy sports shop. I wasn't looking for shoes at that point, having long since decided to reconsider the idea of feet; I was looking for a bicycle to have surgically attached to my tibia and fibula at the pedals. Unfortunately bicycles seem to have taken off in merry pursuit of foot-gear, gaining an array of accessories as breathtakingly spurious to the act of getting from (a) to (b) with minimum fuss as can be imagined. But, to my delight and surprise, this shop retained in one dusty corner a display of last season's trainers. Shoes that were reduced to half price, merely a junior company director's ransom rather than an incitement to kidnapping and blackmail. One pair in particular looked quite attractive: black, suede-finished ankle-high shoes of that pecular strain that is the hybrid descendant of a walking boot and a trainer.
I trudged out of that shop wearing my spanking new trainers, wallet significantly but not critically lighter, blinking in the light of day. Those shoes were most admirable, everyone agreed; so encouraged, Feorag and I set out for an afternoon of heavy shopping on foot.
All was pedipedal bliss for the first week. No longer did my shoes slip on wet paving stones. Nor did they admit freezing drafts at unexpected moments. They probably qualified as a fashion misdemeanour, at the very least, but so much the better: so less the probability of being mugged.
But then the climate turned warm.
After a brisk morning's walk the next Saturday, I arrived home at the flat to be greeted by an aroma not unlike a month-dead fish. "What's the smell?" I asked Feorag. "Dunno," she said, and blew her nose for the third time that minute. (Yes, she had a cold.)
I opened the window, but the stale-sweet-rotten miasma lingered. I sat down and examined my feet: none of the toes were turning green or black, and nothing fell off when I shook them. Hmm. Then I made a pair of tongs out of a couple of household implements, picked up a discarded sock, and sniffed it. Hmm. Yuck. A whiff of essence de garbage, with a faint after- taste of stale urine and rotten cheese. I sniffed something else in a hurry, to clear my nose. Then I did something very rash indeed: I picked up one of the trainers and dangled it within a metre of my nostrils.
I woke up with Feorag waving a jar of smelling salts at me; for a while she'd been afraid she'd have to call an ambulance. "What is it?" she asked.
Biological warfare, thy name is "ellesse". If Saddam Hussein had stockpiled ten thousand of these suckers and had his soldiers march them at the Americans, Schwartzkopf would have had no alternative but to surrender. I will swear blind that those trainers stank of the worst putrefaction I have ever had the misfortune to experience close proximity to. I have sniffed dead rats decomposing in a heat wave. I have enjoyed the miasma of a week-dead sheep crawling with maggots. I have frollicked with the dog turds and inhaled hydrogen sulphide for kicks: all that was as naught before the olofactory abomination of my new shoes.
Urgent action was mandatory before the environmental health authorities discovered that I was in possession of a Class A toxic waste substance and declared an emergency, cordoned off Morningside, and phoned for backup from the biological warfare labs at Porton Down. Not being in custody of an autoclave or some other medical-grade sterilization equipment cramped my style: I settled for putting the shoes outside the door to fend for themselves, and holding my breath whenever I had to squeeze past them. Over the next few hours the reek faded away: a careful plot of odour against time revealed that the substance responsible for the stench had approximately the same half-life as technetium-90, and could penetrate roughly the same amount of sheilding. Exposure to dampness seemed to be the critical factor. Hmm again, and then some. My feet are not particularly odiferous, but they do perspire a little when walking.
A tentative hypothesis formed. Could it be, not the shoes, but some evil substance lurking in the insoles? Something that, on exposure to dampness, underwent some sort of chemical reaction to produce this most revolting of smells? And would it not therefore be practical to test this hypothesis by replacing the insoles?
Today I sallied forth upon the centre of Dunedin, in search of a pair of shoe-liners that would do the job.
If the plight of the humble shoe-purchaser suffices to apall in this era of high-technology footgear, how much worse that of the poor accessory-izer? The shoe shops of today are cunningly designed to conceal the fact that they are actually one-way hyperspace wormholes entering our spacetime nexus from another universe. I have deduced this by the extraordinary measures it took to escape their evil entrapments. For example: one noted shop on Prince's Street contains an escalator, conveniently labeled with arrows indicating that male persons would be advised to take it upstairs unless they are _really_ determined to look silly. But once I reached the top floor I found myself in the most bewildering hall of mirrors imaginable. Strange, elfin shop-creatures wearing walkie-talkie headsets buzzed around the merchandise racks, deliberately refusing to notice me. They carried handgun-shaped lasers and talked to the shoes. Finally I cornered one of them between a low desk-like structure and next year's Cray workstation. "Do you stock insoles?" I asked.
The shop-creature shrugged uncomfortably. "BK-400-ARRMs don't need insoles, on account that they confer upon the wearers the ability to walk on water. I think you want Boots the Chemists."
I looked around desperately for a way out. "How do I get there?" I asked.
The shop thing began to grin, revealing far too many teeth. "You take the Down escalator."
"But there _is_ no down escalator ...!"
The shop-thing pressed a button on its' Dick Tracy watch and started to rise, and I began to wonder what they kept in those platform soles -- but before I could find out the wall of the back of the shop irised open to reveal a fire escape and a group of shop-things carrying something disquietingly human-shaped up from the ground floor. I dashed past them, ignoring the fetching view of the huge ringed planet in the sky, and scurried out the front door before the alarm could sound. Then I resolved never again, in a million years, to enter a shoe shop, or my name's not Zola Budd.
But the problem remained; it's probably a violation of the small print in my contract to leave toxic waste cluttering up the tenement. In fact, given the prevailing winds and the strength of the odour, I wouldn't be surprised if I was responsible for the fishy smell in the state of Denmark. Hmm indeed, and a thorough scratching of the cranium ensued. What to do?
I had an idea. I went back to the shop I'd found the trainers in to begin with.
Sports shops are staffed exclusively by a different type of alien. I am sure that they are all androids, because it is clear that given the national diet the whole city of Edinburgh can't provide enough ubermenschen to staff just one such shop. The effect is augmented by their operational software, which resembles nothing so much as Microsoft Bob(TM), a vacuous but healthily bumptious AI with a yen to serve. "Can I help you sir?" asked the track-suited robot by the door, pausing for a moment as it casually power-lifted a 300-kilo weight with one hand.
"Do you do trainer insoles?" I asked, nervously eyeing the floor under it's feet.
"Sure. Ask at the back of the shop --" I felt a vibration in the balls of my feet and dashed for safety, an instant ahead of the crack of buckling floor-boards.
Once I reached the back of the shop I began to search the racks of sporting accoutrements for something approximating an insole. Unfortunately I found them. While I had been ignoring footgear, the aliens had gotten to the insoles, along with the rest of the shoes. I do not need Chobham armour for my calluses. Nor do I need expensive NATO-surplus radar-absorbent foam on the underside of my toes to keep Rupert Murdoch's Australian mind-control satellites from beaming lager ads at the base of my spine. Some of the trainers these days come with entire detatchable interiors, sort of like a rigid sock only far, far, more expensive. I didn't need them, either. All I needed was --
-- gathering dust in a dingy corner of a neglected display at toe level for a short dwarf:
A genuine pair of insoles, at a price not unadjacent to reality. One pair left in my size. I grabbed them, hurled a high-denomination bill at the shop-cyborg behind the Sun workstation with the cash drawer, and ran for freedom.
Of course I should consider myself lucky not to be (shudder) female, and in search of a new pair of shoes shoes. The plight of the fair sex is in fact quite unfair, and in the face of such relentless sadism as that inflicted on the female metacarpal by the fashion-programmed minions of the footwear industry the only appropriate response is to run barefoot to the top of the Eiffel Tower and start knocking off couturiers with a high-powered rifle. The trick is then to go to the designated meeting place and look for a stranger who's staring at everybody's feet. Answer: nothing, much, because (a) nobody except Bill Gates can afford a pair of BK-400-ARRMs, and he's got too much sense to drop a safe on his foot, and (b) if you're wearing them by definition you're travelling faster than the safe, so you can make a clean getaway.
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