‘I can still picture the little white stucco cottage with the sunflowers,’ my mother said, recalling the farm her family used to holiday at in Abersoch on the coast of North Wales, distant summers when she was a child.
‘There was an enormous bull mastiff there named Cubby. He was chained up outside and we were told not to go near him. I remember he had a large growth on his chest. Something like a tumor. It looked awfully uncomfortable.’
One day she and her sister Diana and their cousin Wendy were running around outside getting into the mischief children will when on holiday. They were joined by the little girl who lived opposite. At some point the girl got too close to Cubby. He lunged and grabbed her by the face.
‘She was viciously mauled,’ my mother said.
Luckily my grandfather, an eye surgeon, was present. He would only visit on the weekends, traveling from Sheffield where he had an ophthalmic practice. He cared for the girl the best he could while the local doctor was fetched.
‘“STAY AWAY” father [they called him ‘father’] shouted at us. “STAY AWAY.”’
My mother remembers a growing pool of blood. The girl lying motionless in the dirt. The grandfather I never met (he died in 1973) crouched over her until Dr. Evans arrived. He had visited the farm before, when Diana, barefoot, trod on some glass.
‘Ive always wondered what happened to that little girl,’ she said to me. ‘It could have just as easily been one of us.’
My mother was 8 when this occurred. The year 1950. She never saw the little girl from across the way again.
Much as I love shoes, it is my preference, when on holiday, to go barefoot if I can. This works well in Malta where the floors indoors are mostly marble and the beaches smoothe limestone shelfs.
‘I love going barefoot,’ I told Emma as I sat in her Gozitan [Gozo is the small island off Malta’s north shore] courtyard. After a day in the sun the large, heavy stone tiles felt cool on my feet.
‘I love it too,’ she said. And then later she said that she loves, ‘…feeling the energy beneath [my feet], almost pulsating into your soles. The warmth, the sturdiness.’
I’ve always joked that Emma has a touch of the hippie about her, but as I’ve gotten older and I’ve tried to rein in my more cynical instincts I’m beginning to think she possesses a kind of wisdom, a certain organic ‘in touchness’ I am envious of.
Just yesterday, barefoot in my old university friends’ garden in Bournemouth on England’s south coast where I’ve stopped for a jag on my way back to Canada, the early morning ground was wet with dew.
‘It is almost as though our soles have memories of their own’ I told Monisha.
‘I used to go barefoot all the time when I was a child in Bombay,’ she said.
Like the sense of smell, our feet are such conduits, such triggers. I recalled then tramping around on cold, wet grass at a cottage in southern Ontario, flecks of cut grass and soil creeping up my mosquito bitten shins, and then the silty bottoms of Canadian lakes…
or the sharp gravel driveway of my childhood home,
the scorching sand on a summer beach,
slippery swimming pool tiles.
And all those months I spent on tall ships when I wouldn’t wear shoes at all. I was 18 and five months into a tour on a 115’ topsail schooner and the skin of my soles was so callused that when I stepped on a nail it made a popping sound as it punctured the ball of my foot.
‘Just let me know if your jaw starts to lock up,’ said the American captain to my horror after he examined it (lockjaw being a final and in old times often fatal symptom of tetanus).We were 2000 miles from the nearest shore. The abnormal anxieties I felt about my health were in full fettle then. Omnipresent. Often overwhelming.
It is rare, these days, that I am able to go barefoot. At work on cargo ships steel toe boots are obligatory and entirely necessary. At my home in Toronto the hundred-year-old wood floors have begun to offer up splinters should I have to nip to the loo barefoot for a midnight piss.
By the early 1970s my mother had emigrated to Canada. One of her close friends, Janet, another British émigré, had gotten engaged to the son of a Canadian author of some repute. A party was thrown and my mother suddenly found herself in a crowd full of the cream of Toronto society. Despite her privileged upbringing she was never aspirational socially and more importantly, and perhaps surprisingly, she has never been a snob.
‘It was quite a snooty crowd’ she said. She got to talking to a woman who it turned out was from Wales but presented a superior, icy exterior.
‘She really didn’t want to speak to me… She was very glamorous,’ Mum said, ‘but not very nice.’
My mother, never one to be put off, asked where in Wales she was from.
‘And where in North Wales?’
It turned out the woman was the daughter of Dr. Evans. Their whole family had emigrated to Canada sometime in the late fifties. My mother recalled the incident with the dog to her.
‘What happened to her?’ she asked.
‘Of course she was scarred,’ the woman said coldly. ‘She was terribly disfigured,’ she said.