The Magic Boots

Photo by Ev on Unsplash

Chris stirs in the doorway as the early light wakes him. It flows about him, grey and icy. The hip that he lies on is painful but if he shifts to the other side, within a few minutes that will be the same. Lying on his back is worst of all – colder, more exposed, the pain more widespread through his body. He drags a corner of the old blanket over his face, because although the night is difficult, it is more difficult to face the day. He tries to tuck another part of the blanket under his hip, but it will not reach so far. Pain has many shapes and colours, it has techniques and methods, ways and means. He sits up slowly and clumsily, starts to rearrange himself and his belongings. He takes his old trainers from the large carrier bag that is now his wardrobe, suitcase and cupboard; folds the tattered blanket that didn’t quite cover him, and stuffs it into another bag. He pulls out the chunks of old newspaper that he keeps there and stuffs them into his clothes and his trainers where they are damaged.

Chris looks carefully about him. Sometimes he finds bits of food left here in the doorway – a sandwich box, past its date but the contents still edible; a packet of biscuits once, unopened. But sometimes it is just old wrappings, or other rubbish: empty cigarette packets, empty cans,old bus tickets. A pool of vomit, oddly coloured and textured.

He can see a little of the sky from his doorway; he sees a fragment of silver moon there still. Later, the sky is layered, as if an amateur artist had wielded his brush – a long scarlet streak at the horizon, paler clouds above, dusky pink, lemon-green, silver-blue. He notices the colours there, thinks about their names, as if it was the artist’s paint-box. 

It’s the best time now, in the early morning, before he is forced to seeonce more that everything close about him is soiled and shameful.

“Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Millie. Her real name was Melinda but everyone called her Millie because at first she was much too small for such a big name…” As he reads, the small face beside him changes from serious and intent to round and smiling. “Millie was very special, because she was born on Christmas Day, so that was a very very special day for her. And one year she had a very very very special Christmas present…”

The child presses into his arm, close against him. She is warm in her night-clothes, her copper-coloured hair still wet and dark from the bath.

“…It was from her Uncle Cuthbert…” The name causes a fountain of laughter, and she sits up straight again. “Daddy, there’s no such person as Uncle Cuthbert, you made him up!”  

But Once upon a time was once upon a time – a time that seems hardly real to him these days, unreal as a child’s story, and long ago. A time before he lost his job, before the drinking, before the slow break-up of his marriage: or was it the job, break-up, the drinking? A time before the long depression, the sleeplessness, the lack of any escape from the problems and the worry, even at night, so that eventually, drink was all that helped. Though it was a brief escape only from the downward track that led to a deeper depression. The depression, the drinking; drinking, depression…

Eventually, after many long months, Emma told him what in some part of himself he knew already. “You’ll have to go, Chris!” She was forcing herself to speak, standing very straight, her back to the kitchen wall, hands clenched by her sides as if for a fight. He saw Millie there for a moment, he saw the same spirit, the same fight.  “I tried my best,” Emma said, and he knew it was true. “But this is about Millie – I found her in tears the other day, curled up on her bed. It wasn’t the first time.” Emma had dyed her pale fair hair, he noticed, which was beginning early to turn grey – it was a bright, strong colour now, too bright, like a sunflower. Perhaps she was hoping to find someone else. She wanted another child, he knew, they’d been planning this together before things began to go wrong.

“You’re a waste of space!” she told him, angered by his silence. “Why don’t you SAY something, Chris? Why don’t you DO something, for heaven’s sake!” And still he could find no words to speak, no gesture to make. 

“What have you got to offer us now?” Emma asked after a while, more quietly, after another silence, turning away from him – though he heard the tears in her voice when she spoke again. “I’m very sorry Chris – but I think you’ll have to find some place of your own. The sooner the better.”

She told Millie that she wouldn’t see her father for a while, he was going away. But the little girl cried desperately that last time as if she couldn’t stop. Chris could not forget those sounds, the hiccupping, choking sobs and then the hopeless calling. 

He’d hardly seen Millie since then.

Chris takes very little space these days, and it is becoming less; he doesn’t waste it. He slept in the car for a while, but the windows were soon broken, and he left it where it was. After a few weeks it disappeared. He slept for a few nights on a bench in the park, until it became too cold. Once, he slept on a bus. Now, it is a doorway.

Slowly, Millie unwrapped all the paper and opened the big box. What could the present be?

Inside the box there was a beautiful pair of wellington boots, with stripes in all the bright rainbow colours, and just exactly her size! The box said that the boots were magic, but no-one understood why, except Uncle Cuthbert, and he wouldn’t say. After their Christmas lunch they all went out for a walk, and Millie wore the boots straight away because it was very wet and soggy in the wood near their house. It was cloudy and dull, the trees were bare, there were hardly any animals, no birds…

“Oh, I just wish there was something interesting to see around here!” she said to herself.

Then, suddenly, a most wonderful thing happened! It had grown quite dark, but there was silvery moonlight all around, and deep in the wood, Millie saw a lovely unicorn, purest white. Slowly, slowly, she came right out into a clearing, treading softly,and Millie could almost touch the silvery-white mane. And she thought it would be nice to climb on the unicorn’s back and ride with her through the wood and see magic castles and beautiful princesses, and many other wonderful things. She reached out her hand…  

“Millie? Millie, where are you? We must go home now!” Mummy called, from somewhere else in the wood.

And everything was gone, all at once, in that second…

Millie wondered if she had just imagined it all. But there was a patch of silver beneath the trees where the unicorn had stood – or maybe it was just a little piece of moonlight that was left behind there.

Once upon a time was the past, his thoughts of home, and warmth, family, work; his plans for a future that wouldn’t really be too different – promotion, another child, a new house one day. He is almost forty now. He’d married late, not sure even that it would ever happen for him. He’d had a broken childhood, difficult years, and later, a few false starts; but Emma, then Millie, had changed that. And now everything was gone, all at once…

Autumn seems long ago to him too – the sky and the trees like gold in the mornings, the early frost silver, as if the world’s wealth lay before him. He’d hardly noticed those things then; he remembers them now. That was a form of magic too, maybe. 

There is only grey damp and chill around him these days.

It is the women he sees here on the streets near to him who are the most pitiful. One has greasy dark hair, red skin, roughened and coarsened – she is like an old crumbling brick. There’s a young girl who rocks back and forth, her eyes blank. There are other men too; he knows that many of them drink, some take drugs at night – he knows the signs, the smells. He thinks about the hidden stories, pushed down like his own beneath the heavy weight of humiliation and failure, pride and guilt.

They glance towards each other, but quickly, furtively, assessingly; they avoid each other’s eyes. They only see themselves there, their eyes are mirrors.

In a shop window, a different mirror, Chris sees another man, his red-brown hair long and dark with dirt, an untidy beard; at first he doesn’t know who the man is, doesn’t recognise him. 

A few pages of the little volume are almost torn out, a few are marked by Millie’s fingers, or by drops of juice or milk. He’d enjoyed working out the story – it was not so different from many others that he and Emma had read to her, of course, but the drawings and sketches he’d done himself. They’d been a little rough, but Millie had loved them. There were pictures of the family, of Granny and Grandpa, all of Millie’s life that was important. His office colleague, Jen, in the Print Department, had helped him put it all together.

Some of Millie’s own scribbles and drawings are there too, in the margins, or at the bottom of the pages. The book has her scent, the scent of a child – sweet and soft, creams and powder and bubble baths. Or perhaps that is just his memory, or his imagination.

A few of the public are generous as they pass, digging into their pockets or bags and handing out a few coins, with a few generous words to match: “There you go, mate.  Take care now.” Once, he was handed a pair of gloves when it was raining and his fingers were cold and numb as they received the coins: “Better have these too, mate!” Another time, he found an old plastic mac left in his doorway, and he wondered who might have left it.

But other passers-by wear an embarrassed half-smile and hurry on: “Sorry” – and a quick shake of the head. Some avoid meeting his eye, while scanning the cardboard, the dirty blanket, the plastic bags, their faces disapproving or disgusted. Others skirt round him completely, looking straight ahead, or they cross the road, walking more quickly. Some, the worst, are aggressive: insulting, swearing or spitting. There was a gang of lads one evening, drunk, vicious, kicking and jeering. Chris is tall and fairly strong, and he managed to get rid of them: ways and means.  He doesn’t drink so much now. He defends his territory.

A woman and her daughter walk by one day, and Chris recognises them – the little girl is a friend of Millie’s. She stares, pulling at her mother’s sleeve. The woman glances at him, then looks again sideways, sharply, not quite believing. She catches hold of the child, mutters something to her and hurries her quickly by. That is worse than anything she could have said, any insult; worse than a kick, worse than vomit. 

“You have it, Daddy!” Millie said when he left. “I won’t need it any more, I’m much too big for it now! I want you to have it so you’ll think about me while you are away!” Emma tried to take the little book from her, but Millie was determined. She ran towards her father, her coppery hair wild; she pushed herself close, found his hands and folded them around the book. Then she rushed back into the house again, crying, banged the door shut.

Chris puts the volume under his head at night, between the old newspapers. The makeshift pillow is a little softer then. The words and pictures steal out from the pages and enter his mind; the child there tells her own stories to him and they become part of his thoughts and his dreams and help him to sleep.

In his bag, in the daytime, it is all that he has, and more real to him now than anything else– his memories of his child, the magical stories and pictures that he wrote for her – though he’s not sure now how he managed to write them – his hope that he’ll be with her soon again, somehow.The words are like leaves, like colours, the colours of Millie’s hair: like riches. 

Then all at once it was the end of the Christmas holidays. Millie went for a last walk along by the river with Granny, and she had to wear the new boots again because it was still very wet and soggy. The sky was grey, and there was nothing to see, only a man in a boat rowing by who waved to them and called Hello.

“Oh, I just wish something interesting would happen round here,” she grumbled to herself. And then, suddenly, the river got wider, and the boat was a beautiful ship with tall white sails and a flag fluttering above the mast. Sunshine lay like a golden coverlet across the waves. “Ahoy there, shipmate!” the Captain called. “Welcome aboard!” And Millie sailed away with all the other shipmates, and she explored unknown oceans and distant lands, and found golden treasure on a faraway shore.

But as she was looking at the golden treasure and wondering if she could keep just a little bit for herself, she heard Granny calling from a long way away, but still quite clearly:

“Millie, where are you? We must go home now!” And everything was gone, all at once, in that second…

Millie wondered if she had just imagined it all. But there were some splashes of gold on the water where the ship had been, as if a little of the sunshine had been left behind there.

Chris looks about his cluttered, filthy doorway – it is strewn with cans and bags and litter blown in from the street,as if all his failures and mistakes are scattered around him. For children, he thinks, there are magicians and wizards to make things possible, to make wishes come true with spells and wands and potions; there are magic carpets, magic doors, magic boots even, so that somehow, children can have wonderful adventures – for a while at least. Magic is somehow, perhaps–a way to move into this different world which they cannot choose for themselves; more hopeful, more full of possibility, more exciting.

But for grown-ups it is not the same – there are no spells or magic carpets, no stories – at least, none that were written for him.

There are visitors: sometimes the police come, or drug addiction officers, or community support officers – any number of officers. “Come on now, mate, you know you can’t stay here…” Charity workers come – one brings soup at night, one brings a thicker blanket. Another, Terry, says that he will pray for him, that God still cares for him. Chris finds these things difficult, though the soup is easier to accept than the prayers.

He thinks about kindness and charity, about faith, and miracles – are they only needs and hopes and dreams?

Terry tells him they can help to find a place for him, help him find some work, start again. “You want to call round, Chris, we can talk you through things.” He drops some leaflets in the doorway. “You know where we are,” he says. “Not too far from here, over the other side of the park, across the road – there’s always someone there. We’ll see you through it, Chris, we’ll get you back on your feet again.” But still Chris cannot ask for help, he does not know how to explain or make excuses – all the thoughts he cannot speak remain heavy within him.

The trees were on fire to the end – glorious old soldiers, fighting their last battle, strong to the last, Chris thought. There were dark berries, as if the goodness of autumn, of all the year, was held there, like the last drops of red wine. In the park he could walk away from the world behind the mirror, the depression and the shame; when he was there he could feel that his life had become almost normal again – for a while at least. But the colours are gone now, the leaves are broken and black beneath the trees, trodden by many feet. 

And it is too wet for him to walk there now, his old shoes have fallen apart, letting in the mud and rain.

He wonders briefly when Christmas will come – he supposes it must be soon.

He is shivering with cold in his doorway, coughing and shaking. As he tries to prepare for the night he thinks of Emma, of the home they shared, the little kitchen, warm and clean, the plans they had for their future; the tears in her voice when she spoke to him last. He touches the small, worn book beneath the newspapers, the magical stories that he wrote for Millie, stories that she loved and gave to him again when he left. He holds it close to his body, huddled and trembling. December stretches endless before him, a trial of endurance in a bleak, bare place. Perhaps this doorway is where it will all end; he cannot walk any further, and there is no other place for him.

He reaches for a bottle, drains it.

It is after midnight when he begins to stir again, the moon risen high and full. There is a rough package in the corner behind his head, left there while he slept – at first he hardly notices it among the refuse and the bags. He twists round, manages to sit and open it, only half-awake, his hands still shaking.

It is a pair of boots. Ankle-boots: they are a little worn, but solid, plain, real. He lifts them from the package. There is a stripe of faded colour around the heel, and they seem to be the right size, somehow; the soles are firm as he touches them.

There is a patch of silver moonlight in his doorway still. Chris sees the leaflets in the corner there, and he hears Captain Terry as he calls: “Ahoy there, shipmate! Welcome aboard!” 

He wonders who might have left the package. 

Maybe he will get to the park again, after all, if it is not too cold tomorrow – but it seems a long way to him now, and the path beyond, slower and more uncertain. The moonlight has gone, and in the darkness he faces himself and his future: he doesn’t know how he will find his way back, nor how long it might take. He is still shaking, sleepy and confused. Perhaps, after all, it would be easier to stay here, in this doorway – it is more difficult to climb uphill; easier always to slip back downwards.

Later, when he has woken fully, he sees drifts of cloud from his doorway– the colours of dawn, smoke-blue, dusty rose, but becoming slowly clearer, sometimes brighter, always changing: the magic of a winter sky.

And he turns, starts to arrange his belongings, clearing away the rubbish, folding the blanket.

He reaches for the boots and pulls them on.

About Frances Thimann

Frances has published four collections of short stories. ‘The Clock Museum’, the most recent, was published in June 2021 by Chaffinch Press, Dublin, and she is currently working on a new collection, and (of course) a novel. In 2017 she won the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon short story award. She completed the MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University in 2006, and is a member of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio and the Society of Authors.

Frances has published four collections of short stories. ‘The Clock Museum’, the most recent, was published in June 2021 by Chaffinch Press, Dublin, and she is currently working on a new collection, and (of course) a novel. In 2017 she won the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon short story award. She completed the MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University in 2006, and is a member of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio and the Society of Authors.

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