From the window of my room, I see my friend Paul coming towards the house. He had said that he would come over after school and hang with me for a while. I hear him greeting Mum in the kitchen but it is not followed by the sound of him clumping up the stairs. Mum must have held him up to interrogate him.
I am about to go and look for him when he appears with an excuse for his delay: two mugs of tea and a plate of the lemon bars that Mum got me to make made the other evening. She had said it would be good therapy to help me wind down after that day's exams before I started on revision for the last few.
Thankfully the GCSE exams are all over now, but as school doesn't break up for another few weeks, we, that's Year Eleven, are in a strange sort of limbo. It's all a bit of an anti-climax. We aren't doing much at school because our courses have effectively finished and we have been admonished not to cause any trouble that might put Year Thirteen off their A-levels.
Some of us have been set up with short term work experience placements. I am not sure how much you can learn about a job in a couple of weeks. Other than it's not the job for you, perhaps. Miss Rutherford has collared a few to help organise the school fete the weekend before the end of term. All of us are thinking about how we did in the exams and how long we have to wait for the results. You would think I would be pleased it is all over but in truth I'm finding it all a bit depressing.
Paul tells me Mum has said Dad is working late so supper will be late then he hands round the tea and lemon bars. As usual he takes command of my desk chair. I don't know if he is also suffering from the exam PTSD but he can't seem to settle and is swinging around in the chair, looking at the pictures on my walls. I can tell his eyes linger on the take-away menu for the Indian. Has he realised that it is where a photo that Tony gave me used to hang? If he does, Paul doesn't say anything and carries on looking around the room.
Eventually he settles enough to take a swig of his tea and a bite of a lemon bar.
Of course we talk about how well or badly we think we have done in the exams. Paul thinks that, because he took our friend, Virginia's advice at the beginning of last year to knuckle down and do some work instead of chasing skirt, he has done well enough to stay at school to do his A-levels and probably be able to go on to uni in due course. Me: I think I have probably failed the lot and will have difficulty getting any sort of job. Paul doesn't agree and tells me not to worry. We do agree that my boyfriend, Tony, will have done well - he is definitely university material.
We chat for a while about what we are planning to do during the holidays, and then Paul swills down the rest of his tea.
"Do you want to get your football and go down to the park for a bit?" he asks.
Normally my reply would be to use my best suggestive tone and ask him 'a bit of what?' Instead the best I can manage is a sullen comment.
"Sorry, I can't summon the enthusiasm. I'll stay and just mope around."
Paul shrugs his shoulders in understanding if not acceptance. He takes another look at the wall with the take-away menu as he stands up ready to leave.
"Have you and Tony broken up?" he asks.
"Nnoo," I draw out my reply hoping he will take the hint and expand on his comment.
"Oh. Just that I noticed that the photo Tony did is missing," he says. "I know you turned it to the wall last time you two had a lover's tiff. I thought this must be more serious."
"No, it had an accident," I reply, trying not to display any sort of emotion on my face in case it leads him to ask about what happened.
"Pity, I was going to ask you if I could have it if you have fallen out. I've always liked that photograph," Paul says, giving me a pensive look.
He breaks the eye contact, says "See ya!" and bundles off downstairs. He stops off to say his goodbye to Mum and then heads home.
It is true that Tony and I have not fallen out but it is only partly true that the photo had an accident.
Depending on my mood the picture stirs emotions in me that I find difficult to deal with. That is why it got turned to the wall when Tony and I had our last argument. Yesterday I had a bad patch and got myself so worked up about things that I took it off the wall and put it in my bin.
The accident happened this morning. I had woken up feeling a bit better so I went for a run that nearly made me late for a day of doing nothing at school. If I had remembered that I had taken it down, I would have fished the photo out of the bin. The accident was that I forgot about it. I also forgot it was dustbin day. It wasn't until I got home and found some clean washing, that I had left downstairs, on my bed and I looked around my room and noticed the bin was empty that I remembered. Mum must have gone into my room with the washing and seen the bin needed emptying.
Any other time, I might have had a rant about Mum being in my room without asking but when I realised the photo had gone it added to my downer and I couldn't be bothered. It any case it would only have got me a lecture about leaving my washing downstairs and an unsubtle dig about the state of my room and how it would be unhealthy to leave the bin un-emptied any longer. Probably followed by her going off on one about the council reducing rubbish collections to every three weeks instead of weekly a few years back.
I take the empty cups and the plate that had the lemon bars on it down to the kitchen. Mum gives me a quizzical look.
"Everything alright, dear?" she asks.
"S'pose so," I reply. "Why?"
"Well," she drawls, "you have been in a bit of a funny mood this last couple of days."
"No I haven't."
That gets me the raised eyebrow - the one that means 'Really? Could have fooled me'. She changes the subject.
"Would you like a take-away from the Indian tonight? Saves us trying to guess what time Dad will be home."
I emit a non-committal grunt. That gets me a different raised eyebrow. This one means 'I rest my case'. She knows it is not like me to be non-committal about a curry.
I retreat to my room.
I am wondering how I am going to ask Tony for another copy of the picture when Mum shouts up the stairs.
"There are two girls here to see you." The way she emphasised 'girls' I am not sure that it is not Mum that is in a funny mood.
I just have time to hide anything really gross, including that week old pair of Tony's briefs, under the bed before the girls walk in. It's Mel and Virginia. I had heard Virginia was home from college.
They look around the room then look me up and down. What is it with everybody giving me funny looks?
"We bumped into Paul just now and he said he thought you were a bit down when we asked him," says Mel.
"We thought we would come and find out what is wrong with you." Virginia adds.
That's nice. Not only do I get the funny looks, I am now going to get the third degree.
Virginia makes a play of having another look around my room.
"Where is that brilliant arty picture you and Tony did when the park was flooded last year?" she asks. "You fallen out with him again?"
Trust Virginia to get straight to the point.
"No. I took it down and it accidentally got thrown away." I can feel myself blush as I answer.
"I thought you liked it and it reminded you of the fun you two had doing it," Mel says forcing me to remember the day.
Yes, we did have fun splashing about finding a spot where the flood only just covered the footpath enough to get reflections and ripples and not so deep that the water was lapping over my shoes. Tony must have been thinking about setting up the shoot because he came armed with his tripod and a tape measure to record the distance I was standing away from the camera.
He took some shots both with and without me standing in front of the camera, then we retreated to dry land and he made me toe off my sneakers without undoing the laces. He set up the tripod again and put my shoes down at the correct distance away. We then spent some time with me moving the empty shoes around and him taking a selection of shots until he was happy he had one where the shoes were at the same angle to the camera and each other as in the shot of me standing on the path.
By the time we were finished and I could put my shoes back on, my feet were freezing so when we got back to Tony's house, the first thing he did was push me on his bed and take my shoes and socks off and start massaging my feet. He soon got my blood flowing and it wasn't just to my feet.
When our therapy session was complete, Tony uploaded the photos from his camera to his computer and we spent the rest of the afternoon merging the images to get the final picture. Okay, so Tony did most of it. I just enjoyed watching him at work and was pleased that I had been part of his creative process.
"I do like it as a piece of art. I think it's clever," I say in response to Mel's comment.
"Why did you take it down then?" asks Virginia.
"Er," I mumble, stalling for time. I know the reason, having forced myself to think about it but I am not sure I am ready to share. As usual Virginia shows no mercy.
"Come on! Out with it! What is it about the picture that upsets you?"
"Nothing." My tone of defiance doesn't sound very convincing.
"Bollocks! If there wasn't something that upset you, you wouldn't have taken it down."
I look across at Mel for support. She is nodding in agreement with Virginia.
"It's the empty shoes," I finally force myself to say. "They make me feel uneasy. They goad me, telling me I'm going to lose Tony, that he will discard me like an old pair of shoes and all I will have left are empty memories."
"Why do you think you are going to lose Tony?" Mel asks as she moves in to give me a one arm hug.
"He's going to do A-levels and go on to university and move away and get a good job. I'll probably have to leave school and take some crap job - if I can get one at all - and stay here living with the 'rents. I won't be able to afford to move out."
"At least you get on well with your parents." Mel says.
"Never mind that. We haven't got to that stage yet." Virginia is being business like. "Firstly, if Tony is doing A-levels that means he will be here for another two years. That's another two years you can be together even if you do have to leave school. By then you will have been together four years. There are not many school age romances that last that long.
"Secondly, what makes you think you have done so badly in your exams that you will have to leave school? Mel says you were doing better since you started doing your homework with Tony. What did Miss Rutherford say at the last parent-teacher meeting?"
"You forgot to ask your mum more like," says Mel. "Knowing your mum, she will have been to the meeting. She takes an interest in how you are doing at school, which is more than some parents do."
Virginia wades in again.
"Miss Rutherford will have offered her an old fashioned 'off the record' assessment of your progress, not the meaningless PC crap the teachers all have to put on reports these days. Don't you think you should ask your mum what Miss Rutherford said? It might put your mind at rest."
"S'pose so," I grudgingly concede.
"Well do so!" Virginia commands, "And when you get another copy of the picture, we'll come round and see if we can work out some more positive interpretations of the shoes for you."
"I'm not sure I can face Tony and ask him for a copy. He would want to know what happened to the old one."
"Wimp!" says Virginia. "Never mind. I can scan mine and print you off a copy."
"How the hell did you get that?" Tony was adamant he would never give anyone else a copy.
"Dead easy. All I had to do was threaten to kiss him. He still hasn't grown out of his fear of being kissed by girls. Or is it just me..."
"Just you, I think," I refrain from adding that she is enough to frighten any man - even Roger Prescott. I get a mental image of her beating him with Aunt Doris' wooden spoon that time we did the youth club thing. It is enough to put a smile on my face. Virginia notices.
"Mel," she says, "I think our work here is done for now. Let's go!"
As they leave the room Virginia fires her parting shot.
"We'll send your mum up for a chat."
Mum has enough tact to leave it a few minutes before she comes upstairs and knocks on my door. There is a glint in her eye as if she has a surprise for me.
"The girls said they have sorted you out but that you could do with a chat. Can I come in?"
I nod. I am not sure I could keep my voice steady if I say anything. Mum comes in and I get a hug before we sit on my bed, side by side.
"If it helps, the girls gave me a brief run down of what you were talking about so I have some idea of what is bothering you." She has her arm around my shoulder and gives a squeeze. "Shall we start with the easy bit?"
I have no idea which bit she considers the easiest but I nod anyway.
"Don't worry about your exams. Miss Rutherford thinks you will be fine. Good enough to stay on next year and do A-levels. Assuming that is what you want to do."
"I still think I have failed."
"Let's see what the results are before we decide anything final. Okay?"
"Now you're worried about losing Tony?" I am back to nodding. "If it happens, it happens. You could both go on to uni and find you are accepted at universities at different ends of the country. That would be difficult and it could be even harder when you are both searching for jobs that require a degree."
"I don't think I am university material."
"To be honest, I think your dad and I would agree. In some ways it makes it easier to stay with Tony. If you learn a trade, it is portable. You could move to where ever he is. There is always work for plumbers and electricians."
"You sound just like Dad!" I smile. It is a good point.
"If you are meant to be together, you will find a way. There will be times when it is hard work, your dad and I have had our ups and downs, but we have pulled through. But if it comes to an end you won't be the first couple in the world to break up. You may not know this, but I thought I had met Mr. Right before I met your father. It didn't work. I won't say any more because it still hurts a bit. If you want the gory details ask my sister, your Aunt Doris, she will take great delight in telling you about my discomfort."
"Aw! Mum. You know I wouldn't do that." Tempting though!
"Moving on," Mum says, "Paul and the girls all said you were upset about that photo you made with Tony. Let me show you something."
We stand up and Mum steers me through into her bedroom. Propped up on the chest-of-drawers is the photo.
"I always liked that picture," Mum says, "I saw you had put it in the bin and rescued it. You can have it back if you want, but only on the condition that next time you fall out of love with it, you don't throw it away, you give it to me."
"Mum, you're a star."
"You're only getting the chance of having it back because you didn't go off on one over me going in your room and emptying your bin."
I don't tell her that the only reason I didn't was because I was too down at the time. Instead I ask her why she likes the picture.
"Well, it's clever and artistic. I know it was a joint effort between the two of you to make it, so, in itself, it is a token of how you feel about each other. But I like the symbolism of your reflection in the water beneath your empty shoes. It is as though Tony, as photographer, can still see you and feel your presence in spite of you not being physically there."
"Thanks for showing me that, mum. I have never thought of it like that before. I've always thought of it as saying one of us will go missing."
"I think Tony is more likely to agree with my interpretation."
"What makes you say that?"
"I do talk to him you know!"
She hands me the picture and as I go to put it back in its rightful place, the phone starts to ring. Mum takes the call. It is Dad saying he is just leaving work and should be home in twenty minutes or so.
Mum gives me some money and tells me to go get a selection from the Indian. Dad should be home by the time it is ready.
Raj and Nav are working at the restaurant as usual. The place is full with several people waiting around for take-away. I stand at the counter waiting to place my order. I see Nav head into the kitchen with his arms full of dirty dishes. Raj comes over.
"Hi," I say, "looks like I am in for a wait for some take out. You seem busier than ever."
"Yeah. It's been like this all week and no sign of a let up. The uncles keep running out of stuff in the kitchen. We are here all the time. The uncles have told Dad he is to stop making us work in the shop. We need some time off. Anyway you've not come to hear our woes," says Raj, "Do you know what you want?"
"I was going to look at the menu and make a choice for the three of us, but it might be easier to let your uncles make something out of what ever they have left!"
Raj mumbles something about that being a good idea, then he gets that preoccupied look he has when he is thinking about something and wanders off into the kitchen.
I am about to take a seat in the waiting area when Nav comes out of the kitchen with a take-away order that he hands over to one of the waiting customers. He turns to me.
"It's a madhouse in here tonight. The uncles will have to get some help in the kitchen, they are really struggling," he says before he tells me that Paul was in earlier for some take-away.
"He said you were feeling a bit down after the exams. Anything we can help you with?"
"Thanks for asking but no. He put Virginia on my case so I wouldn't dare be anything other than feeling better."
The mention of Virginia draws the usual sigh and wistful look from Nav. He walks away to clear another table.
Raj brings out some more take away meals then asks me to go into the kitchen. He says the uncles would like a word with me. As I go through the door they see me and beckon me over to their workstation.
"Raj tells us you took some cooking lessons from cousin Kali and that she spoke highly of you. Would you like to learn some more?" one of the uncles asks. Lilat, I think. I have to guess that Kali is Raj and Nav's mother
"Yes," I stretch out the word, wondering where this is going.
"Good. There is an apron over there," says the other uncle pointing in the direction of the clothing rack. "Your first lesson is to cook your own dinner. Copy what I do with the next order. It is a good selection of dishes to test you and you will enjoy the combination when you get it home." He hands me spoons and knives and a selection of other tools and pushes some pans over to me.
The next fifteen minutes are intense as we work through the order, taking meats and spices from bowls of pre-prepared ingredients. He guides me through the various steps until he is ready to plate up the customers' meals and I have put mine in the foil containers they use for take-away.
"Well done," says Sabhya, "you followed me easily. I'm impressed. If you would like to learn more we can offer you a job. As you can see we could do with the help. Are you interested?"
"It would give you something to do to take your mind off your exams and you will be learning something that interests you and could be useful to you in the future," Lilat adds.
Does everyone know about me brooding over my exam results?
"It might only be until I go back to school," I reply, "Can I think about it and let you know tomorrow please?"
"How about lesson two, tomorrow starting at 4 pm," Lilat asks, "We should have more time to talk about what the work will be and how much we can pay you."
They usher me out of the back door so that the other customers do not see that I have jumped the queue. I haven't had to pay either!
Walking home, I realise that I enjoyed the buzz in the kitchen and learnt a surprising amount in that short time. I am surprised they offered me a job, but I suspect Raj put them up to it. I think I will take up the offer, although I might suggest it is part time. I am not sure I want to work the hours Raj and Nav put in. I am not sure I am legally allowed to either.
When I get home I have to explain that I have been such a long time because the restaurant was very busy. That busy that I had to cook our meals. Of course Mum and Dad don't believe me until I tell them that I wasn't charged and hand Mum back the money she gave me.
After the meal, which we all agreed was excellent, Mum finds something else to do and leaves Dad and me to talk.
"While we were waiting for you to come back from the Indian, Mum was telling me about your conversation earlier today. When she was telling you about learning a trade, you said she sounded just like me. You were right, it is exactly the advice I would have given you. Plumbers and electricians can earn good money, often better than some graduates, unless they are high fliers, and they start earning sooner too. If you learnt a trade you could find yourself supporting Tony while he is still at University," Dad laughs at that thought. I suppose it is mildly amusing.
"We think that you are at a loose end," he continues, "now that exams have finished and school is effectively finished for you for the rest of term. I have asked if you can spend some time where I work. They have agreed you can something a bit more that a work experience visit. You will do a short induction course to get a feel for the company and which bits do what, and then spend some time finding out about the various trades, although judging by that photo, you like messing about in the water, you will probably end up as a plumber."
"Ha, ha. Very funny, Dad," I say, "When does this start?"
"Monday." My face must have changed as Dad goes on to ask, "Is that a problem."
"It could be. They have asked me at the restaurant to work for them."
"That's great. You can do both jobs. Since you will be travelling with me, it means I will have to leave on time instead of doing extra. Brilliant," Dad grins, "Think of the money you will be earning. We can charge you board!"
'Slave-driver' and 'skinflint' are the only polite words I can think of in reply.
© Copyright Pedro August 2018
This story is part of the 2018 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Empty Shoes". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 24 August to 14 September 2018 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.
The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:
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