They are plucky little buggers, my padders, my feet, but they are not pretty. 

Being somewhat short and overwide, they end abruptly with a set of stubby toes. The heels are shallow so that socks and the backs of high-heeled shoes slide off.  Pregnancy saw that proud insteps collapsed into humbler shapes over time.  The tops of each foot are not only criss-crossed with knarly veins but also sprout vertical hairs.  Thankfully these are blonde so it’s only when light catches that an unsuspecting observer gets a sudden shock of follicle horror. The toes are perhaps the worst; oblong in shape with tiny toenails, set at odd angles, and each little toe on the outside shares the family curse of a knotty claw-like substitute for a nail.

“Oh, Come on…!” I hear you protest, “No  one has feet like that… they sound like trolls feet…” Whereupon I raise one sardonic eyebrow in your direction and leave you to your own conclusions.

Twas long ago confirmed that I have unlovely padders.  In 1978, by Mrs Hurst. She, the proprietor of The Sheffield Modern Dance Company whose lessons I attended each Saturday morning (the dance studio being accessed through a converted garage, lined with School benches and pegs for the students to change and await their lessons). 

Mrs Hurst took a dim view of my feet. Despite gaining distinctions and Highly Commended grades in tap and ballet exams, she decided that I would never ‘Make it’.  She drew my mother and I aside after lessons one week, to explain why my feet were unsuitable for a lifetime career in dance. The problem, she explained, was my toes. The lady removed one of her own shoes to reveal a not-pretty but considerably longer proportioned fleet of toes.

“Julie’s toes don’t point properly.  See how mine point like this?” She extended those podiacal digits an unfeasible length. My mother and I couldn’t help but acknowledge the extent of her improbable pointing. 

“Well, Julie’s don’t do that. Show them dear.”  By which time we had a small crowd and I reluctantly allowed Mrs Hurst to securely embed my humiliation as she said:

“Now point yours and compare them to mine.”

There was no favourable comparison to make and the audible tittering just behind me confirmed the fact. I had I’ll-shaped toes. Images of my prima ballerina tutu on a floodlit stage instantly receded, replaced by a picture of tears by the dance bar and unending mockery for the shape of my feet.

Which, in my book was a completely unnecessary conversation. The alternative cosy chat could have been: “Really Mrs Sterling, your daughter has no more than a modicum of talent at dancing and you share the same level of ability in paying my fees. I suggest an aspirational change to long distance running; which should sufficiently remove you both as far as possible from my door.” It would have been no less disheartening and would have hastened the end of my dancing days almost no quicker.

Mrs Hurst’s message about my lack of sporting prowess was echoed by other voices, and by the age of eleven I knew for a certainty that I was “not the sporty type”. My feet then, went untested. Other than nightly Jane Fonda workouts on my bedroom floor, it was clear to all that I wasn’t meant for exercise.  Fifteen years later, on the way out of an unhappy, lonely, first marriage was when these prodigious wonders came into their own.

I was SO angry. 

I tried walking to dispel the rage, but it didn’t take even the skin off my fury. Occasionally, I broke into a trot, as long as there was no one to witness. I knew and everyone else would instantly recognise that I couldn’t run if they saw my angular loping.  If anyone appeared on the horizon, I drew back the throttle on my medication, slowing to a walk. Until I couldn’t anymore. The further I ran, the more I needed to keep on going. Eventually, careless of the audience or my ineptitude, I just ran.

My marvellous, wonderful, stoic little padders held me up. As if they’d spent one and a half decades waiting for me to get on with it. They ran over the South Downs; kept me upright as I furiously paced up and down the length of Eastbourne sea front. I pounded the ground anywhere I could get up to speed, working out my pent up exasperation and disappointment. My hardworking padders took me in every direction they were pointed.

Aged 26, like a newborn who discovers their appendages in the pram, I made friends with my feet. 

Which is when they really got to work. Wrapped in bouncy trainers I jogged my way to half marathon distances. Training with my fearless daughter we splashed, mud soaked together to fifteen miles.  Learning to climb, squished into bent-over climbing shoes, I would balance my weight on tiny slivers of rock, trusting my toes to keep me stable as I groped my hands across a rock face hunting for somewhere safe to place my hands. Encased in heavy walking boots, I not only hiked but discovered how limited were the boundaries set in place by others over what I could achieve. And each discovery broadened the horizons of what I would next require those padders to do. 

Invited to do the Yorkshire 3-peaks, 24 miles in a day and it was my knees that I fretted over, not my stumpy feet. By the end, grumbly arches muttered rebellion as I pushed to the finishing point, but we made it, those padders and me.  They didn’t much care for spiky crampons and rocking at violent angles to maintain a desperate stability on ice and snow, but they complied and carried me down slopes of white without mishap while my brain was screaming “Lunacy” In my ears. An expanding set of expectations took me to Nepal, to 200km of dusty track walking up hills and down vales. They picked me up each morning and together we saw the Himalayan peaks scraping the top of the sky where the air reaches up to the rest of the universe.

Mischievous, these feet of mine, they play tricks if perceiving neglect.  Dire the consequences of ignoring warnings; running with a tired frame. Twice my right big toe has spied the edge of a paving slab to snag on to, sending the rest of me hurtling forward and downwards to surgical interventions on my knees. After cycling sixty miles and then punishing the achievement with a jog, plantar tendons screamed in protest and insisted I be still awhile.  

I have learned respect for their opinions. I know I am lost without them, so take more care in latter years, though doubtless not enough. But they are on my side. With stumpy-1 and stumpy-2 I am rewriting my identity and how I view the world. It may be that at 50 I have started this journey too late. Perhaps my feet would tell you of their impatience to be getting along. 

Mrs Hurst, my padders did indeed fail at superlative pointing, but I would like you to know this doesn’t matter now. Because what’s really important is that my padders have made remarkable achievements possible. 

And for that, I thank my friends, my padders, my feet.

The Janitor

My ovaries have been, are, and struggle to continue being, my hormone factory. And the factory has a janitor. Now, as the factory nears the end of its useful life and the janitor approaches his retirement, he is cleaning out the cupboards.

Each time he discovers an old batch of eggs at the back of some dusty corner, he clears them out, regardless of how long it has been since the last one was moved from my system. Through calloused hands, he sweeps from the shoulder, pushing away the remnants of my fertility. Another space is empty and the door behind him locked.

We have never been great friends, this janitor and I.

Unlike other women, intuitive and in-tune with their body’s managerial systems, my janitor is huffy, easily upset. The slightest emotional disturbance and he took to his back room with a party pack of lager, settled in his saggy armchair, refusing to emerge from the sports channel. Whereas other women had punctual if punctilious carers, mine turned up when it suited, swept down my monthly if he felt like it and then wandered off to do something more interesting.  If, say, the cup match final was on, he disappeared, never mind the disarray created by his negligence.

And he extracts his final revenge now. Revenge? For having a female form to work in. Not for him a low-slung set of testes, from whence he could pump endless testosterone and exult in the power of the male form. This janitor has resented his lifetime and exacted petty vengeance’s from the start. Like giving me my first period, on horseback in a riding lesson when I was eleven. Having me heave with seasickness in pregnancy, leaving me bereft or mad with hormonal rage when premenstrual. His life-long employment has been my torment. All for being female.

And now that he and I are almost done, his ire knows no bounds. Some cupboards contain not eggs, but vats. These brown, nondescript tubs are tightly lidded. The janitor approaches his latest discovery with eager anticipation. His eyes gleam as he prises up the lid and light falls on the liquid emotion contained inside; shiny, unstable, volatile.

“GNah!” He shouts in glee. Other janitors might replace the lid, gingerly moving on one edge at a time towards the lymphatic drainage system that would allow all that pent up energy to harmlessly dissipate away. Not my man, oh no. He grins that gap-toothed malevolent smile, wraps knarled arms around the drum and throws the container with shimmering contents high up into the air.

Up, up, up and CRASH, down, down. With his movements up, up, up, go my emotions, utterly out of control and when anger over some indiscernible trifle is spent, then down, down, down I crash, dissolving into sobs; lost at my inability to control this rollercoaster that my janitor deliberately revels in creating. He stands triumphant at the chaos from his actions and steps over the damp patches on the floor. The puddles of spilt emotion will leave indelible salty watermarks, not dissimilar to those of tears. My janitor, free of concern, shuffles on his rounds.

I have not been the helpless victim of my janitor these four decades. I have strategised, planned, regrouped and tried again. When he pumped my muscles full of retained water, I ate cucumber and kiwis; natural diuretics. When he thickened my waist, I took to exercise, running, walking; anything my besieged body would allow me to do. When he weighted down my arms and legs so that even raising my head from the pillow was an effort, I pushed onwards, seizing what tiny medical help was available. I continued, despite his best efforts.

I have been waiting…

This last phase, wether it takes months or years are the foregone conclusion of womanhood. It is much documented, feared. There are patches, creams, pills, devices, but all invigorate my janitor and prolong the inevitable. Age now offers a promise of comfort. Additional wrinkles are the price of retiring my lifelong foe. This will end.

I look down at my janitor, leaning on his broom and glaring in my direction. We both know the truth; his time is shortly up. Soon he will sleep, somewhere in the mothballed factory halls, within his sanctuary, lager cans stacked and the TV remote resting on the frayed chair arm. I cannot predict how long our war will continue, but it’s cessation is nigh.

He raises his fist, shaking it at me in anger and I look up to the wall. There hangs a dial resembling a clock face. Where the noon-day pointer would be the face is deep red. It is paler at three, pale pink by nine and white approaching the vertical once again. I hear him growl from below, making my stomach ache and tender breasts sore. But I smile as almost imperceptibly, the single hand on that clock moves another notch closer from red-pink to white…

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