Not too long ago on my walk home from work, a girl strolled in front of me, brushing around the corner by the graffiti drenched phone-box. There was nothing of any particular interest about her. She wore blue jeans, a large coat, and was swaddled away from the screeching of a moped by her large headphones. There was nothing of particular interest about her, other than that she was wearing sandals.
“Are minor sartorial faux-pas really worth the characters you’re typing with (initially the ink I wrote with, but mediums change), I hear you side-mouth my way. Agreed, it seems a daft thing to notice. It wasn’t even that they were bad, they were perfectly fine sandals. It was that it was cold. I looked at her from beneath my two jumpers, two shirts, one scarf and one coat with my hands plunged into the disappointing warmth of the pockets. I considered her through the mist of my own breath and saw that her heels were worn down, blistered and scabbed, their visceral mauve to mud colour contrasting with the white sandals like a child’s grazed knees peeping from beneath a summer dress.
So that was it. Normal service had been eschewed for cold toes and slightly salved heels. Even though I’d found the answer to my inconsequential question, I felt confused and naked before the strange pseudo-epiphany that followed. Looking at the scabs on the cold feet on that January street, I somehow saw that time and events and thinking and pain and walking and meeting and life had gone into that need for chilly toes. Some series of events, which I would never know, had gone into the abandonment of appropriate footwear and led to her stepping out in front of me and me then writing all of this. As I walked behind this woman who probably (based on the headphone-centric obliviousness) didn’t even know that I was looking at her, much less re-considering the way I thought about every stranger, I (not for the first time) felt completely overwhelmed by how unfathomably huge the world is, how full of individual meaning and potential for interpretation every item, every brick is.
They (whoever the eponymous “They” may be) say that “everyone has their own Paris, and each is individual”. They say this, but how can that be when there is only one Paris? What they mean, surely, is that that city with its solid bricks, its ancient gargoyles, amber-lit avenues and swarming cafés was built from notions and ideas, and that it’s in those that it exists most fully. I could walk down the same street at the same time as someone else, and where I might miss the chips in the masonry on a veranda or the way that the sweep of a roof reminds them of their Grandma’s summerhouse, I’m instead absorbed in a blackbird fruitlessly pecking at the cherry blossom in the park opposite. We’re in the same place, but taking entirely different things from it. It’s a different film from the same set, each scene informed by the last, some shot through a haze, some in monochrome, others in bright, burning, overwhelming technicolour.
And if this is true, if the actual geography and intricacies of a street don’t matter, if directions and a sense of place only make sense from one point of origin – ever taken a turn where you normally don’t and felt off balance and a little nauseous? – if a dress can be gold to some and blue to others, then that woman’s cold toes and sore heels are the consequence of an entire, unknowable world. By that logic, there are six billion worlds and counting, all coexisting, all paradoxical, all unknowable. Where I heard the birds that day and felt snug in my socks, she lingered among melodies and discomfort just a few steps ahead of me. As many thoughts as I have had today in my brilliant, terrifying, cavernous brain, so had she, so had the father holding his daughter’s hand as they crossed the street, so had the driver who shouted them as they walked across for what seemed to me (but not to him) no reason at all.
The girl with the cold, bloodied feet heard none of this and walked away, oblivious and full.