A Substitute Passion

A short story by Fletcher Kovich

Substitute passion

Mandy Truman was forty-five and was wearing stilettos for the first time in twenty-two years. The last time she wore them she fell off them and broke her left ankle. At the time, she was arguing with the parking attendant who had ticketed her new car which was an affront to all she held dear—her hackles rose; her pulse quickened; her breast swelled; and her rising passion caused her to feverishly tango around the transfixed attendant, during which she tripped over a protruding paving slab and landed in the gutter. She sat there, nursing her broken ankle while informing the attendant—in much the manner of an impatient town crier—that she would not rest in her grave until she spent the remaining years of her life viciously and tirelessly suing the city council and anyone responsible for the attendant’s moral schooling, since they were both clearly negligent. However, six days later her only response was to borrow a hammer from her landlord and smash every pair of her stilettos into a mass of leather, wood and nails.

Twenty-two years later, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, Mandy left the office for a break and was carefully hobbling along High Street in her new stilettos when she came to a halt in front of a fat woman in a red dress. The woman seemed to be in her early thirties and had clearly been recently crying. Mandy stepped to the left just as the woman did, then Mandy stepped to the right just as the woman did. Mandy glared at her and sighed.

The woman, who was called Helen Jameson and had just emerged from her weekly psychotherapy session at 37 High Street—which she had attended now for two years and was just starting to make progress, or so her therapist felt—Helen looked shocked, for there was no reason for Mandy to have sighed at her in that offensive fashion, and she said, “Well, you chose to step there and back again,” pointing at the pavement; “I didn’t tell you to—what are you sighing at me like that for?”

To Mandy, this woman seemed even more offensive than a parking attendant. She felt like spitting in her face but decided to keep things civil, so she said, “What’s got up your nose—didn’t they have your favourite cake in the cake shop?”

 “What are you trying to say,” said Helen, “that I’m too fat? It’s the medication I’m on because,” and here she pointed at Mandy, “of people like you.”

“What are you talking about, you deranged hussy?—you’re so fat you couldn’t get out of my way.”

“I’m not a hussy.”

“Oh, yes you are; I’ve seen the way you look at him.”

“Look at who?—you’re deranged. It’s the shape of your eyes that does it—just look at them; they’re too far apart.”

Up until this point, Mandy was simply enjoying herself, but now the woman had gone too far. She pointed back at her and said, “People like you make me sick; you think you can just put on a red dress, which hides all your fat—little do you know,” pointing at Helen’s fat, “—and you think men will be fooled by it and come chasing after you.”

“Don’t you point at me.”

“My eyes are the wrong shape, are they? Well look at your ridiculous tits; they’re as fat as the rest of you.”

Some men like big tits.”

“Yes, that’s just what you think, isn’t it?—you hussy. People like you make me sick.”

Helen could take no more of this and moved forward to slap Mandy but Mandy stepped back and went to poke Helen in the eye but Helen managed to turn away and then went to push Mandy over but Mandy had already stepped aside and Helen fell forward, making a deep thudding sound as she hit the pavement, much as an adult walrus might if thrown from the back of a lorry by six burly men. Mandy decided to flee the scene while she was ahead and quickly turned away but in so doing, twisted her right ankle and fell off her stiletto. The force of her fall broke off the stiletto’s heel, which she bent to pick up as she made her escape. But before leaving the scene, she glanced down at the scarlet walrus and shouted at her, “I’ve won!” then limped on along the pavement.

Mandy tried a range of techniques to hide her limp and, while her mind was busy elsewhere, she finally settled on the technique of walking with her left leg bent, so as to reduce its length to that of her shoeless right leg, which meant her limp was neutralized and, to the casual observer, she may have appeared normal. However, this method had the unfortunate side effect of forcing her back into an unnatural arch which, after only a few steps, caused it to ache. But she persevered, almost unconscious of the increasing pain, since she was a woman and was used to making such sacrifices for the sake of appearance. Which brings us to that busy activity in her mind:

How could she go back to work with no shoes? What would people think of her? And, more importantly, what would Paul think of her?—Paul who had been her only source of joy for the past ten years, which joy was kindled by the mere sight of his smile, the sound of his voice, the nearness of his body as he stood beside her desk, critiquing her work, which situations she contrived specially or the purpose. On other occasions, her heart was warmed by the mere thought of him as she worked late and—the office being deserted—sat in Paul’s empty chair, which she accepted was probably the highest degree of intimacy she would ever achieve with him, to be bathed in some invisible essence of him that perhaps only she could detect.

She walked along the pavement, her left leg bent more than her right, wondering how on earth she was going to make her reappearance in the office. She held that broken-off heel in her right hand and recalled Paul’s words from a few weeks before.

“She has sexy shoes,” he said, referring to Susan’s stilettos, the new girl in the office, and when hearing that, Mandy reached for the edge of her desk to steady herself—certain that a mild earthquake had shaken the office. Perhaps it was at that moment that she became some sort of walking, talking zombie to whom the usual rules of humanity no longer applied—for, due to her loss, she no longer felt accountable to anyone or anything.

As she recalled Paul’s words now, she was aware of the connection between her own broken-off stiletto heel and Susan’s “sexy” stilettos; it was as though she held that woman’s “sexy” stiletto in her hand, the woman who had destroyed what meagre joy she possessed, had taken it with a few carefully timed glances at Paul and a single look at Mandy herself which seemed tinged with evil—though masked by the veil of that beautiful face; evil that Paul, being a mere man, would never be capable of seeing—she held that broken-off stiletto heel and knew that someone would pay for this crime, and pay for it today.

She became aware of her aching back and had to sit down. The hardware store was not many more steps away. For the moment she forgot about Paul’s words, about Susan’s veil of hated beauty, forgot, even, about the scarlet walrus whose presence standing there on the pavement—in the same red dress that Susan had once worn to the office—had seemed to represent Susan. She forgot about all this and focused on overcoming her aching back for just a few yards more, until, finally, she stepped into the hardware store, whose sign “Heels repaired while you wait” she previously noticed, having passed the store many times. She sat on the single chair in the store, having been told the owner was currently busy and would begin her repair in a few minutes.

She recalled red flashes which seemed to follow her as she made her way to the store. She did not even noticed them at the time but now, as she sat there, that same redness appeared before her and seemed to fill the whole store; it dominated her vision in the way an angry wall of water from a suddenly burst dam might as she looked up and saw the scarlet walrus standing directly in front of her, pointing at her and saying, “I didn’t wear this dress to attract men; I wore it because I like red. So, you’re wrong.”

Mandy’s mouth hung open.

Helen stepped even closer and went on, “And I didn’t like the way yousighed at me. You people are all the same—not me. Your mind is full of poison, and it’s yourself you’re sighing at, not me.”

Mandy said, in disbelief, “Didn’t like the way I sighed at you!” She stood up and, to make room for herself, pushed the walrus back as she got to her feet, telling her, “I’m sighing at myself?—what are you talking about, you deranged hussy?”

“It’s you who’s all the same, not me.”

“No, it’s you who’s all the same; just look at the state of you; do you honestly think men are fooled by this,” pointing at her red dress.

 “There’s nothing wrong with my tits,” said Helen, and she turned to the shop keeper who was stood holding a shoe in his hand as he followed their debate, rapt and somewhat in awe, as by an unexpected entertainment that had suddenly brightened his usually dull day more than he could have possibly hoped for.

“Do you like my tits?” asked Helen.

The shopkeeper’s head tilted to one side as he appraised her assets, then his eyebrows rose as though indicating that Helen’s tits were perfectly acceptable.

“This is ridiculous,” said Mandy and she pushed passed the scarlet walrus. She noticed one of her shoulder straps was broken and realized this must have happened in their previous scuffle. When she pushed past her, she deliberately broke the other, then quickly limped out of the shop, still carrying her broken-off heel.

Helen, holding the front of her dress in place, stepped to the door and shouted along the street, “You will apologize for sighing at me.”

End of extract
The full text of this story is included in Fletcher's collected edition of short stories, which can be purchased in paperback or Kindle format. Click here for details.


11 May 2010

See also

Read my sketchbook entry on writing of this story.

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