My son needs new shoes. He is down to wearing either his school ones or wellingtons and so on my way to collect him from school I swing by a local factory outlet to see if there are any bargains to be had.
I park my car and follow a small swarm of women in to the store. They look like a family group, a couple of grown up sisters with a cousin thrown in and a bunch of shared children. They are all skinny, and all are dressed in a uniform look of Ugg-type boots and tight jeans. The adults have punky dyed hair and hard tight smiles. Their jackets look thin and they walk with hands dug deep down into their pockets. They look cold. The children's hair is cut into similar spiky crops, there is a confidence in their look, a slight edge to their group mentality which means they feel secure. They are a tribe. But they are not my tribe.
We all go through the inner doors together. We all stare unabashedly at each other before parting company and going our separate ways.
I walk onwards and I wonder if they were summing me up the way I was them and whether I have a specific look, belong to a tribe like they do. Like them I am also wearing jeans but with an old shaggy jacket that looks as if it has come straight from a yaks back. Someone once said to me that the jacket had an 'earthy' look to it. I like this jacket but I don't like the signification of 'earthy', it makes me sound like a hippy. I don't want to look like a hippy. It's a look that worries me. But the weather is cold and the jacket is warm.
My son is just beginning to develop his own style. I couldn't tell you what it is and I don't suppose he could either but at the moment it quite naturally veers away from anything his father or I might wear. A few years ago he picked a pair of white trainers emblazoned with black skulls. It was a sort of 'goth plays tennis' look. His father, my former husband, visibly winced when he saw them. This is a man who wanted to have our son, by the age of 3, wearing a nice pair of slacks and a blazer. At 13 he was hoping this might slide comfortably into business wear, you can never go far wrong in life with a pair of highly polished shoes and a dark suit. There was never going to be room for any phrenologically-inspired intimidatory regalia. But his main concern was that they would be impossible to keep clean.
My ex-husband would make someone a very good wife. A man who likes nothing more than to spend his free time spring-cleaning his kitchen cupboards and lining up the contents of his pantry in precise militarian rows. He once suggested to me that I reference all the books on my shelves by the colour of their cover. And file them in a size-lead undulating continuum to create a more harmonious sloping wave effect. I said I'd just prefer to read them. It proved to be one of our sticking points.
He is late with his child maintenance payment again. Another size-lead undulating continuum. And another sticking point.
For my former husband, a day spent bleaching the net curtains, attacking the skirting board with an old toothbrush, and hand-washing his cashmere cardigans - Marigolds and Kath Kidstone pinny in place - is a day well spent.
He has admirable standards but it nearly drove me insane.
And the more my son wore those beastly trainers, the grubbier they became, until the white became grimy and impossible for even his father to clean.
Of course our son simply adored them and the filthier they grew the more joy he took in wearing them. They also had unexpected and rewarding side-effects from which he took deep pleasure. Towards the end of their life not only did they look appalling but they also smelt like death. On a warm day their decaying fragrance would rise into the air unbidden, fouling the formerly pleasant and sunny atmosphere with a heavy and densely overpowering pungency which caught in the throat and then took up permanent residence in the nostrils. Also, by dragging and scuffing his heels in a particular way he could create an almost uniquely shrill and intensely disturbing sound, similar to filed nails on a blackboard. I lived, breathed and heard those trainers, most days, for over a year. At least his father could leave the smell behind every week after his weekend access stays.
Eventually, of course, our son outgrew them and his father tossed them into a bin, happy to see them go. Our son was miserable for a few weeks. And then forgot about them.
I turn the corner. There, half way down an aisle, in the men's shoe section I spot a suitable pair for our son. I check through the sizes and find some that will fit, the price has been marked down not once but twice, they are a bargain. I take them over to the till and stand in the queue and then dig around in my bag for my wallet. The abundant shagginess of my jacket makes it difficult for me to reach where it is at the bottom and I have to keep grasping away at unseen depths. I feel like a big (earthy) potato.
In front of me, at the counter are the punky group of women and offspring. I imagine seeing myself through their eyes : I am in the commune barefoot and smiley and singing loudly with an enthusiastic but thin voice. I accompany myself with a touch of insubstantial tambourine.
One of the children ahead, a girl of about 7, jagged hair and jaded expression, is clutching a fairy dress on a hanger. It is a pink nylon sparkly confection of a dress. She holds it out in front of her to view it proudly. Suddenly I can see inside the cast-iron molding of her exterior. She wouldn't want to be viewed as a hippy either.
I place my sons new shoes on the counter to pay. I smile slowly to myself, a very childish but satisfying flush creeping through my mind. I have bought him a new and gleaming pair of white trainers with black skulls.