A busy main street in Colombo, Duplication Road was always a swarm of activity. At most hours’ day and night, bodies and vehicles found themselves there, weaving together like a tapestry where concrete meets flesh. Mothers in printed saris held on to curious children, workers hurried on their morning commute, and sweltering tourists lugged backpacks full of packaged tea. It was often easy to get lost amongst it all, and find that the mere force of the street had pushed you- much like a wave- from one end to another, without even having to take a step.
There were those who passed through and those who stayed. Permanent fixtures included a mix of street sellers; the painter, the barber and most notably, the cobbler on Duplication road. Although he preferred to be known by his birth name ‘Sunil’, he understood the reduced significance of a name when you are a standard fixture, something rooted to the spot- referred to by proximity or distance from the nearest known landmark.
“Yes the cobbler! He is always there, a few steps by the bus stop.”
“The cobbler on duplication road, next to the sari shop no?”
To be the only cobbler on Duplication road demanded respect. Occupying a small portion of space, his small shop was positioned inconspicuously close to the footpath. Everything had its own place, and his tools, starting to rust, were placed neatly in an old wooden box. Having recently included the addition of an am/fm radio, at times the crackle of an old song or stern radio jockey could be heard in the background. The radio’s sound calmed the cobbler. The noise of the street was unpredictable. Car horns sounded as rikshaws weaved in and out of traffic, but the radio he could control, increasing the volume as he pleased.
Each day the cobbler worked in a timely manner adhering to a method he had developed over time. He would allocate fixed times for each ‘popular’ request, such as broken heels, and unusual requests were allocated a unique time. Wiping his hands across the stained t-shirt sitting taut across his belly, the cobbler would beam through betel leaf stained teeth.
“This is tricky you ssseee,” charming his audience “what has happened here is that the plasstick has come out of the eyelet.”
His voice would raise a little as he mentioned the eyelet, as to emphasize a certain advanced knowledge. Customer phones would be consulted, Google search opened and ‘eyelet’ typed in.
The cobbler always preferred to rely on his skills to impress, rather than his looks which he felt were fading. With a rounded belly and head full of coarse hair, the creases on his face had settled in comfortably over time, much like the folds in a worn leather shoe. Never married, the cobbler had now begun to invest in tubes of ‘fair & lovely’, hoping to reverse his ageing process, and purchase for his skin a certain glow. His small dark beady eyes contained a peculiar gleam. Glistening at their highest intensity when he spoke of how he boosted the world’s productivity- that he fueled life.
“Everyone needs to go places, and how do they go? They walk. Yesssss they may drive, but they walk to their car no? And how do we walk? With shoes on feet. Without me the world might simply stop moving, stop turning!”
One unassuming day his own world stood still. Duplication road was more chaotic than usual. The wet season rain began to fall in lumps from the sky. Through the blur a woman hurried towards the cobbler with a plastic shopper gripped firmly under one of her arms. Shielding her eyes from the rain, by the time she stopped at the feet of the cobbler the rain was no longer. Looking up, this was the precise moment that the cobbler lost his heart, and with that any sense of rationality.
He stared at her with mouth gaping open, feeling for the first time a sudden shame as the dark juice of the betel leaf curled around his teeth. A classic beauty, wrapped in a blue sari, he saw that her hair had become damp in the rain. Sharp black wisps sat slicked across her face, curled ends that seemed to be framing, no pointing to something. Her cheeks! Yes, her cheeks. Sharp like they were carved from stone, she had the kind of cheekbones a man could not fathom. Cheekbones that had definition even when there was no hint of a smile. How he longed to see her smile…imagining that it would create a kingdom of crevices, a landscape of lust. Absorbed in the thought, he felt his own cheeks flush.
“Hello missss, can I help?”
She produced three pairs of shoes and placed them in front of the cobbler:
1 pair black leather female slides, size eu36: broken strap.
1 pair small child’s sneakers, pink, with a male and female mouse dancing: worn soles need replacing.
1 pair size eu40, brown leather dress shoes: now too distracted to notice the fault.
The cobbler wondered if his disappointment was noticeable. He could picture her husband coming home from a custodial position in a lofty office, one that required shiny dress shoes. Their daughter would then run up to greet her dad, as he slipped his shoes off in the hallway. The smell of dinner would emanate from the kitchen. “Tsk tsk, don’t bother thathi, he just got home from work.”
All three shoes placed side by side in the entry way. The cobbler imagined what would happen if he were to replace the man’s shoes with his own. He stared down at his sandals, blackened toenails peeping through. Couldn’t anyone see that it was a great injustice that he couldn’t sit at their dinner table, enjoy a meal, and then later enjoy time in the bedroom with this beauty once the stars were in the sky?
Three pairs of shoes with the usual repairs. It would take 30 minutes in total, but he told her he would charge for 20, nerves causing his usual flair for accuracy to leave him.
“Pleassse tell me your name, I will keep it for the record.”
“It’s Aruni. I’ll be coming back tomorrow to collect them, there’s no time today.”
All three shoes had been fixed in an orderly fashion, in good time. The cobbler had mixed seeni sambal with dhal for dinner, and licked his fingers with the usual smack. He had tossed and turned the regular amount before finally slipping into a deep sleep, tool box by his side. However, before sunrise he awoke with a jolt. Sitting upright feeling decidedly unnerved, memories began creeping up the sheets.
Memories from some time back when he was a cobbler in another place, on a different street. When he had a trick that he felt was so clever, he should have patented it. Shoes would be fixed in the same way he did now, however once having amended the initial problem, he would plant the seed to create a new problem. A broken buckle would be fixed, but then the glue that bound the sole to the shoe would be compromised, stretched in such a way that a week later the shoe would split apart.
He would never see people trip a little as the shoe came undone, never see them stumble and curse under their breath, he would only see them return, requesting his services.
“It is an old shoe no? But worth repairing…who can afford to buy new shoes every time?”
What the cobbler did not account for was that people spoke, and those who had eyes beadier than his own also saw things. Word spread and the locals eventually became wise to his tricks. One pitch black night they had hunted him down as though he was a criminal, and in his escape, he slithered quickly into the night. This is how he had come to land with a sudden pause on duplication road.
This was all behind him, until suddenly sitting upright, he had an idea. The simple fact was that he needed to see Aruni again. The only way he felt this would happen, would be to create a new problem in one of the shoes. Surely there were separate rules for men in love, that old indiscretions could be revisited under the right conditions, and born from innocent intentions. Before the sun rose everything was quiet, expect for the animals and the sound of a cobbler’s tools as they worked on a size eu40 shoe that was being held hostage, a victim to old tricks.
Aruni arrived early the next morning to pick up the shoes. Attached to her delicate hand was a small girl in tow, all curls and with a hint of her mother’s cheekbones hidden underneath her youthful plump. As a western song came on the cobbler increased the volume and the little girl grinned and bounced, curls springing with each movement. He looked to Aruni’s face in satisfaction, but she was busy searching in her purse.
Rupees were exchanged for shoes, and the cobbler stared at Aruni with such adoration and intensity that he almost forgot what he had done. All mended, but one pair holding something else within it, a planted seed. As she walked down the street clutching the plastic shopper, Aruni did not know that she held a misstep.
Every day from that moment the cobbler awaited her return. He replayed the scene in his mind many times. Appearing innocent, with only a slight smile he would act surprised by her return.
“Oh missss, that is a shame. This sometimes happens with not new shoes, problems coming up againagain, what to do? One must live…shoes simply aren’t to be seen, but to be used and used well!”
He would then offer to repair the shoes at a discounted rate. Another strategic move he felt would ensure her regular business, and allow him to watch her striking beauty on different days, in rain or shine. All of this played out perfectly in his mind, but the problem was that the scene played out there for too long. Days and weeks passed and there was still no sign of Aruni. Maybe she had decided not to bring the shoe in for repairs and instead opted to buy new dress shoes for her husband? Surely not, he felt his Aruni could not be that posh and wasteful.
Months later the cobbler spotted Aruni carefully easing her way through the crowds. He marveled at how long it had taken for the shoe to break; for her to return requiring his assistance. As she came closer he fiddled with his radio dial, increasing the volume, his heart singing. He smoothed his old t-shirt out tucking it tightly into his belt and ran his hand through his hair. Having decided to wear a silver belt buckle in the shape of a cowboy boot, he was glad she had chosen this day to return.
Aruni’s eyes were fixed firmly to the floor as she moved closer still. Finally face to face, the cobbler inhaled sharply, Aruni’s cheekbones had disappeared, they had altogether vanished. He searched her face in panic, however banal supple flesh now camped in the place that once housed precision.
Aruni removed a pair of shoes from her bag. A pair of children’s sneakers, red with crackly velcro, meant to be fastened with chubby little fingers.
“This is a ssimple fix. It should take 10 or 15 minutes maximum.”
“I’ll be back in an hour.”
The cobbler had wondered what happened to the leather dress shoes, imagining them discarded by a rubbish pile. A few moments later Raj emerged from ‘Simply Sari’ next door, swinging the doors open with gusto. Holding an oily brown paper bag, he swayed it under the cobbler’s nose tauntingly.
“Fish roll? Fish bun? It’s fresh man…hey that’s her no?” Raj questioned.
“Aruni, yes!” The cobbler took a fish bun, biting into the softness.
“That woman is the woman you have been mad for? You saw the news no? Her husband had caused big drama, just down near the corner there, Duplication and Pearl Crescent, the roundabout there.”
The cobbler peered down the road, his eyes growing larger.
“That’s where it happened, didn’t you hear? Too busy fiddling with your laces old man! On the corner, few streets away there. The bugger seemed to throw himself into the oncoming traffic. Caused a big commotion! Few cars collided.” Raj swung his hands in front of the cobbler’s face and clapped his palms together for added effect. “They say he just flew in front of the car. Maybe he wanted to go, who knows?”
He went on to explain how an eye witness who was interviewed had described the chaotic traffic, it had been a stormy day. That approaching peak hour, drivers were impatient to avoid the rush. As the body had hit the car bonnet, screams pierced through the rain. A mother walking with her son had quickly tried to shield his eyes as an object landed near their feet. Speckled with blood the entire shoe was disfigured. Under detached from the upper, sole detached from its body. Flapping open like an alarmed puppet’s mouth.
By then the cobbler was no longer listening, and was instead slowly packing his tools.
“Better go, customers walking in all the time, I’m in demand old man!” Raj snatched the bag of remaining short eats as he hurried off.
The cobbler began to move with more haste, beady eyes darting as he watched for Aruni, hoping that she would not return early. Sweat seeped through his shirt, his face flushing the kind of deep crimson usually reserved for blood. All he had wanted was for Aruni to return to him, to become a regular customer, for there to be a kind of commonality between them.
The cobbler left only two things behind; the am/fm radio and Aruni’s daughters shoes, not yet mended. He remembered the soft curls bouncing in time to the music, a song which had now become the soundtrack to his hasty departure.
From a distance, the cobbler’s workshop looked like a mere bump in the road, and he felt his eyes moisten. He cried not for the misstep, but instead for the love he had felt so suddenly for Aruni. For the once beautiful, now drowned cheekbones, lost deep in the sea of Duplication Road.
Racing faster still, he ran straight into a family out for some afternoon shopping. Swiveling on his heels, a slim young boy snarled at him.
“Hey mister, watch your step.”
The cobbler just kept going, moving faster and faster down some nameless street.
Faiza is an Australian currently living in Hong Kong. With a Masters in Psychology, she has always been incurably obsessed with reading and creating stories. Her short stories have appeared online and in various literary journals including; ‘e-Fiction India’, ‘A Story in 100 Words’, and ‘Brilliant Flash Fiction’. She is currently working toward writing something longer with the help of copious amounts of coffee.
© 2017, Faiza Bokhari