Red Shoes

Word Count: 4,090 The coach trundled down the Spanish motorway on its way to Cuenca in the Spanish region of Castilla de la Mancha, just south of Madrid. As the old vehicle jolted on the potholed road, it bumped one of its passengers into undesired consciousness. As his sunglasses fell across his cheek, a ray of sunshine peered past a thin curtain and woke the Spaniard. A tall figure, his perfectly groomed features showed a hint of irritation at the reminder of his situation. Awake now, he peered around. To his left sat a plump Irishman, face laying on the window in a deep slumber, a hint of dribble falling down his cheek. A steady rythmatic breathing arose from his sleeping body. So the Spaniard looked through the crack in the seats to his front, where two young women sat talking quietly. One of them sat perched cross-legged on the seat with heavily braided hair and loose clothes. Her relaxedness was a sharp contrast to the woman at her side. With her perfectly styled blond hair and her crossed hands on her lap she had a properness that was somehow out of place. ‘Hey.’ The Spaniard spoke with an American tinge to his English. ‘Any idea how long?’ The two women stopped their conversation and both turned to take note of the handsome man. ‘I think we’re nearly there. We were told two hours, it’s been… One hour forty.’ The blond replied. ‘Really? That’s cool. My name’s Sergio by the way.’ ‘Sarah.’ Continued the blond, reaching an elegant hand across to be enveloped in a strong but soft embrace. The other woman pulled down a pair of dirty shades over her eyes and rested her head on the windowsill, feigning disinterest as the pair continued their conversation. ‘Excellent, pleased to meet you!’ Sergio continued, ‘Any idea what to expect?’ ‘How do you mean?’ ‘Well, will we be sharing rooms? How many kids will there be? What age? Have you been told anything?’ ‘Fifty teenagers, one university campus! That’s all I know!’ 1|Page

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Sergio laughed. ‘Fifty Spanish kids, five adults, in the middle of nowhere! Are we mad?’ ‘I think we must be!’ Sarah smiled in return, ‘I’m sure we’ll be fine.’ ‘Well, if we’re finding it a bit difficult we can always get rid of some!’ A voice called out from across the coach. Sergio broke eye contact with the blond woman to turn and register the new voice. Sprawled comfortably across two seats of the coach the prostrate man spoke with a loud confidence. The brashness grated on its recipients but he continued regardless. ‘My name’s Will!’ Will stopped to clear his throat, ‘I’ve worked for the company before, you’ve got nothing to worry about, it’ll be fun!’ ‘The children are ok then?’ Sarah asked. ‘The children!’ Will laughed, ‘It’s not the children you need to worry about! Last time I worked with Conner there,’ Will nodded in the direction of the snoozing Irishman, ‘He got so drunk that he started a game of tag in the town centre! We were picking kids out of bushes until the early hours!’ ‘Drunk?’ Sarah interrupted. ‘You can’t drink when you work with children.’ Sergio pulled down his shades with a smile and leaned back in his chair. ‘First time in Spain?’ Will asked. ‘Yes. But why. What. What has that got to do with anything?’ ‘Things can be a little bit different here!’ Will nodded towards Fran who was now gently snoring at her side. Sarah looked at her sleeping companion with a slight feeling of shock. ‘Look.’ Sarah said, ‘I’m a teacher! We’re here to work. We have a job to do, children to look after!’ An atmosphere slowly arose in the back of the coach and Sarah turned to face her front. Smiling to himself, Will leant back down on his crossed arms and joined the rest of his new colleagues in a gentle slumber. About thirty minutes later the coach rolled up outside an old stone building. Rising high into the sky with a nineteen-sixties efficiency the bland architecture spread its influence around to its worn gardens which encircled like a moat. Standing in front of a low stone wall was a small figure. Hints of grey matted the combed hair and a tight-fitting dress suggested a 2|Page

Red Shoes
combativeness to the inevitable onset of age. She leaned purposefully on the wall behind her, casting an appraising eye as each of the five young adults walked from the coach, retrieving their heavy suitcases from the luggage compartment. As they wheeled their possessions to stand across from her she greeted them with a beaming smile that betrayed her tightly controlled poise. ‘Welcome!’ She shouted in an Australian accent, ‘I’m Maria. You must be, Sergio, Will, Sarah, Fran and Conner?’ The woman nodded her head correctly towards each of the figures as she said their name. ‘The next three weeks will be hard. They will be long, they will be tiring, but they will also be fun! I have a few rules, if you listen, we will get along just fine! Firstly, you are here to work. When you are working, you are working. I don’t want to see any of you slacking. Understood? Secondly, there will be no drinking. In three weeks time you can do what you want, while you’re with me you will be diligent and you will be sober. Ok?’ The five figures nodded their heads up and down in shock at the forcefulness of their boss’s tone. As the words sunk in Maria walked up and down handing each of the workers a piece of paper. ‘What you have in front of you are your schedules. Read them. Once this sinks in the place will run like clockwork, then we can start to enjoy ourselves!’ Maria forced a smile and breathed out as she reached the end of her speech, ‘Now as you can see, you’ve two hours to find your way around, your rooms and settle in! See you in two hours!’ The five figures stared in bewilderment at the spider’s web of text written in front of them. *** Sergio’s t-shirt matted itself across his broad frame, glued on by the river of sweat pouring from his body. Although he had no problem holding the two crates resting on his shoulders, the fifteen minute walk through the bright sun was beginning to take its toll. As the late afternoon sun lingered in the sky it reminded him that he had not yet had a break today. Since seven-am in the morning he had been labouring and teaching until his mind had degenerated into animalistic simplicity, simply continuing to push his body further and further. And so, with a shaking in his hand that he barely registered he dropped off the afternoon meal by Fran’s class. 3|Page

Red Shoes
Sitting in the sun caressing paper with light stencils, Fran and her fifteen children could not have appeared more relaxed. It was only the hesitancy and quiver in their movements as they approached the chocolate sandwiches that betrayed their fatigue. Unable to summon any appropriate words Fran caught Sergio’s eyes sympathetically, it was a look that shared more feelings than words could ever have done. Sergio smiled in acknowledgement, picking up the sentiment perfectly. Several seconds later he scolded himself and turned to walk back to the campus. Swinging through some bland double-doors into the cafeteria Sergio staggered towards the water fountain in the corner to allow himself a brief reprieve. As the stagnant liquid splashed on his lips he sighed in almost depthless gratitude. It was as he lost himself in the water that he noticed two figures deep in conversation to his side. ‘Who do you think you are?’ Maria scorned, ‘I’ve been doing this job for twenty years. Twenty years! You’ve been here for all of a week, how dare you try and tell me what to do?’ ‘But please.’ Will spluttered, ‘Just look at my schedules. It can still work, it will still work. We can make this more manageable.’ ‘I didn’t have you down as the lazy type Will.’ ‘Lazy?’ Will looked down at his thinning unwashed frame, sweat rashes covering his body. As his did so, the light caught in the heavy rings around his eyes, betraying a chronic lack of sleep and a reddish tinge. ‘I’m anything but. I just want this to work, more than anything. Can’t you see what you are doing to us. Can’t you see?’ ‘Making you work.’ A flickering of her fingers against the table showed Maria’s irritation. ‘I have gone hour for hour with you all.’ ‘Maria, I know.’ Will tried to grab hold of the woman’s hand, but she flinched away from the touch. ‘But can’t you see what it is doing to you to? Who benefits, who wins from this barbarianism? Certainly not the kids.’ ‘Barbarianism? Who do you think you are? What right do you have to say these things? Who are you?’ ‘I’m a person. I’m a human being who can’t stand what you are doing to these people. To my friends. To me.’ 4|Page

Red Shoes
Sergio walked away from the cafeteria with the final box of chocolate sandwiches, walking up a cracked stone stairway. As he peered around the door at the top he spotted Sarah’s flowing blond hair. Her serious voice projected itself across the class with a thick Scottish accent, a strange contrast to her pretty feminine figure. As Sergio edged into the classroom to deliver the meal, she turned to register him. As her eyes fell on the thick box of chocolate sandwiches, the same meal for the seventh day in a row, a black spot began swimming around in her vision. She caught Sergio’s eyes to control her dizziness, placed a hand on the desk to steady herself and faced the class. She breathed in deeply to gather her thoughts. Then she carried on teaching. *** The flashing blue siren sent waves of light across the dusky sky. The sound had been silenced, but the ripples of blue cast an ominous hue on the tired policeman. Resting against the low stone wall, he breathed a deep sigh and held a dark cap tucked underneath his armpit. Across from him, Maria sat with her head in her arms, sobs wracking her body. Fran jogged past, barely casting a glance at the odd scene. As she rounded the corner of the stone wall the murky light silhouetted an old tree. Beneath it, Sarah rested her head on Will’s shoulders, a tired tear slowly forming in her eye and falling to the ground. Her striking blond hair splayed itself on his chest as she spoke. ‘I can’t believe… I can’t believe all of this. I didn’t come here for this.’ ‘Why did you come here?’ ‘It was supposed to be a holiday! A working holiday.’ Sarah chuckled, ‘Maybe do a bit of shopping.’ Will joined her as he too laughed at the irony, ‘Not quite what you expected then?’ ‘You could say that.’ ‘It’ll get better from now on,’ he stroked her hair tenderly as he spoke, ‘you’ll see.’ A ringing interrupted Will’s thoughts and he rose and pulled the phone to his ear. ‘The office.’ He whispered in response to a pinch on his calf. ‘Will, hi. Listen, erm, we’ve just found out what’s going on… things are obviously pretty bad over there…’ 5|Page

Red Shoes
‘Obviously!’ Will mimicked as he quickened his pace through the murky garden. ‘Just as obviously as yesterday when I tried to speak to you. Just as obviously as the day before. Why has it had to come to this? Why have you let it come to this?’ ‘Now come on Will. There is no way that we could have anticipated what occurred, we’re sorry about what you have all been through.’ ‘Sorry.’ Will repeated. ‘Now listen. How would you feel about taking on some extra responsibility, it would really help us out of a tight spot.’ Will stopped and looked over at Sarah’s gently resting figure and kicked a stone angrily into the distance. He lowered the phone to his side, and then with a quiver, he raised it again. ‘Ok. And Maria?’ ‘Just leave that to us, I’m sure that everything is going to be ok. Good luck.’ A dialling tone emerged from the phone, gently reaching Fran’s ears as she rushed past the tree, stumbling on a broken concrete step. She ran up to the top of a muddying hill, reaching the top panting for breath. Scanning the horizon she heard a gentle sobbing. Looking around her gaze was drawn to a row of thickets which were shaking in the breezeless air. Sighing with relief, she approached the bush. A mat of branches had been dragged away from the wall-like plant to form a circular entrance. Crouching down as she forced a reassuring smile, Fran poked her braided head into the bush. Lying there, resting his head on Sergio’s lap, Conner lay sobbing. His sixteen stone frame was rocking with anguish as his flustered red-face wept tears. Fran’s smile melted into a grimace as she listened to Sergio’s heartfelt reassurances. ‘None of us thought you had done anything. None of us. Honestly man.’ ‘How could… How could anybody…’ The sentence couldn’t force its way out between sobs. ‘Listen. This whole situation is just a complete mess. It was nothing to do with you.’ ‘My life… My life could have been…’ 6|Page

Red Shoes
‘It’s not worth thinking about. Honestly.’ Sergio caught Fran’s eyes in a soundless cry for assistance. ‘Conner.’ Fran began. ‘You have to believe us. No-one doubted you for a second. It was just the pressure. The tiredness. Things got out of hand.’ Fran rested her arm on Conner’s shaking ankle and curled up at their feet, the three of them laying wordlessly on the dry itching floor of the Spanish bush. Just fifty feet from them in front of the campus the policeman continued his laboured reprimand. ‘We take unsubstantiated claims very seriously. Your allegations were very serious.’ ‘But they weren’t unsubstantiated.’ Maria retorted with a grimace. ‘He had been drinking.’ ‘How old is he?’ ‘Twenty-six.’ The policeman didn’t even reply, he just looked at Maria with the answer she herself had given. ‘But he broke the rules.’ Maria spoke down to her clenched fists. ‘He broke the rules. He was drinking. He was hugging a child. Who knows what he is capable of.’ The policeman looked up with a reborn anger. ‘You do not make the laws of this country. He has done nothing wrong. You have accused an innocent man of terrible crimes. It is not your place.’ Maria looked away in defiance, causing the policeman to arch his head around to look in the eyes of the tiny woman. ‘Do not make this mistake again. Understand?’ A tear fell from Maria’s face onto her clenched fists. As the moon began to light the scene, a child’s face appeared in a bedroom window, watching the world go past curiously and ignorantly. *** The faint sound of music reverberated around the softly lit room. To the side of a leather sofa lay a chilled bottle of cider, the type which popped opened like a champagne bottle. A solitary wine glass lay against the green bottle. Will stretched out his arm across the sofa, pulling Sarah’s body closer to 7|Page

Red Shoes
him. As the sweet scent of perfume drifted over he leant in to kiss her cheek. Sarah flinched slightly in protest and reached over to unclasp his arm. ‘I,’ She stated rising to her feet, ‘have a class to prepare!’ ‘Do you have to?’ Will smiled. ‘Yes. Yes I do!’ Will sat back, reaching for the cold bottle at his side as Sarah left the small room that served as an office. As she walked down the corridor, she spotted Fran dozing in front of a group of twenty children composing a melody. Jokingly, Sarah poked a toe into Fran’s side, smiling as she watched her friend lazily acknowledge her with a grunt. As she jaunted outside Sarah came to rest in the doorway. Outside she watched Conner and Sergio chase each other in the brightly lit gardens. Amongst the two adults thirty children ran and shouted excitedly. For several moments Sarah simply leaned and watched the scene with a sigh. She felt a pang of regret as she watched Sergio’s happy face bounding about, his athletic body completely relaxed in the midst of the energetic children. But Sarah was shocked from her daydreaming as Maria burst past, angrily whispering into her phone. The shock pushed Sarah into the doorframe with a jolt and she frowned as the day’s tranquillity dissipated into the atmosphere. Maria rushed down the corridor, pausing only to take note of Fran’s lethargy as her class squabbled. The scene incensed the small woman further, forcing her to hang up the phone in her hand in frustration. She banged loudly on the office door. Clearly hearing the clinking of glass from within the room, Maria bit her lip as she tried desperately to control her welling emotions. Several moments later the door cracked open and Will’s face appeared. ‘Yes?’ He asked, a whiff of cider drifting towards Maria’s face. ‘This.’ She stammered, pushing the door open forcefully, ‘Is a place of work.’ ‘What is your point?’ ‘You’ve been drinking.’ Maria’s voice quivered. ‘Now now Maria.’ Will spoke smugly as he sauntered back towards his sofa and crossed his legs. ‘Haven’t you learnt your lesson about baseless accusations?’ 8|Page

Red Shoes
‘You scum.’ Maria screamed, leaning over the seated man. ‘There are children here, children that we have a duty to look after.’ A flash of anger opened Will’s eyes, widening the pupils into a fury. ‘Don’t talk to me about duty. The children are being looked after. They are being looked after by people who are happy and relaxed. By adults who aren’t being treated like slaves. Who aren’t on the brink of exhaustion.’ ‘They are being looked after by a drunkard. There is no control here. This place is falling to pieces.’ ‘Can’t you see?’ Will screamed. ‘Some things don’t need to be controlled. Some things require relaxation, freedom. Looking after children is the most natural thing in the world, it cannot be controlled. It must not be forced.’ ‘This is negligence.’ ‘No.’ Will retorted, quieter now. ‘This is natural. This is working. And you are just angry that you are not the one in charge.’ ‘You’re a dangerous man.’ Maria whispered, leaning in towards his ear. Will put his head closer still, and breathed in a voice that could barely be heard, ‘And you are the devil.’ The situation exploded in Maria’s head, she could cope no longer. Putting her head into her hands she broke into tears. Her knees buckled and she fell to the floor, a golden crucifix falling to dangle over her top. Grounded by her emotion she crawled towards the office door. As she stumbled to her feet she ran from the campus, again pushing her way past Sarah, who stood waiting outside the office door. Inside, Will’s phone rang. ‘Hello.’ ‘Will? We’ve been trying to get hold of you for hours. What’s going on there, we’ve heard there are problems?’ ‘What problems.’ ‘Classes not happening, the structure falling apart. We’re concerned Will.’ ‘There’s nothing to be concerned about, really. Everything is running perfectly.’ ‘That’s not what Maria has told us.’ 9|Page

Red Shoes
‘Yeh. About that.’ Will said. ‘Maria’s gone.’ ‘Gone where?’ ‘No idea,’ Will spat, ‘but I suppose now is as good a time as any to discuss my contract.’ ‘Will.’ The voice paused. ‘You understand that you’re not in charge there, don’t you?’ ‘Well you understand then, that if I’m not, then no one is.’ He angrily hung up the phone, reaching across to top up his drink. Sarah rushed around the door to stare at Will’s figure which had sunken back into the leather sofa. ‘Look at you, you’re pathetic.’ ‘Pathetic?’ Will asked, a quiver of pain in his voice. ‘I’m just trying to make this thing work.’ ‘Work?’ Sarah shouted, ‘Look at you, look at what you’re doing.’ ‘What I’m doing?’ Will retorted. ‘I’ve stopped a megalomaniac driving my friends into the ground. I’ve created working conditions that won’t destroy a man. I’ve run myself to the floor to make this a better place for you all. All I want is some recognition for that. Can’t you see?’ ‘No Will.’ Sarah spoke with a weep. ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see that what you’re doing isn’t helping anyone, not least yourself.’ ‘I’m just trying my best. For you...’ ‘Try harder.’ She stated. ‘And Will?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Beware the man who would be king.’ *** It was a hot day and so the sun glistened from the bright blue surface of the Arroyo de Bonilla river. A hint of a breeze drifted down from the nearby mountains, funnelled by the rock’s twisting rippling descent into the valley below. The exhaust of the departing coach wisped up into the light air, signalling the departure of the children. The other adults had also left on the aging bus, leaving just two figures in the small town of Cuenca. Sarah and Will leant over a rusting rail overlooking a tiny waterfall in the river. ‘Do you regret being here?’ Will finally asked. 10 | P a g e

Red Shoes
Sarah stood staring down at the water below, breeze gently lifting up her blond hair. She thought carefully before responding. ‘It’s just that things have changed Will, surely you can see that?’ ‘I can. That’s obvious. I just don’t understand why.’ Sarah smiled sadly, ‘You’re just not the person that I thought you were.’ A tear rolled slowly down Will’s cheek, eventually dropping off and falling into the river below. ‘All I ever wanted was the best for you. The best for all of you.’ He choked. ‘Everything I did was to make things better for the people I cared about. I don’t understand...’ again he choked, ‘I don’t understand what it is that I’ve done wrong. What’s so wrong about caring?’ ‘The problem is...’ Sarah paused to gather her thoughts concisely, ‘not that you didn’t care about other people. You did. It’s just that it had to be you in charge, didn’t it. It had to be you who changed things. Every time something happened, it was always you, fighting.’ The breeze picked up slightly and wafted some fine blond hair over Will’s shoulders. As he reached to touch it Sarah flinched away. There was a long pause before she continued. ‘You keep asking about what it is that you had done wrong.’ Sarah looked down on the wet rocks below. ‘But think about it, it’s so simple. There were so many people at the camp, but once again, somehow, inevitably, it has come to be all about you.’ Sarah paused to run her fingers through her hair. ‘Why is it always about you?’ ‘I’m just trying to do what’s right.’ ‘Then stop trying so hard.’ Sarah smiled hopelessly. ‘I know you’re trying to do your best, and trying to do what is right.’ Will’s nose began to run as emotions flooded his body. ‘But for all you talk about making your friends happy. For all that you say you could make me happy. I can’t think of a single second when you have seemed content. You can’t fight the whole world. And far from help, you draw people in. You pull happy people into your endless fight against the world, and I don’t see how even you can think that is the moral thing to do?’ ‘So I should just give in?’ Will looked confused. ‘Stop trying to do anything?’ 11 | P a g e

Red Shoes
‘This is the problem Will. This is what you really need to understand.’ Sarah looked towards the man at her side with a now distant fondness. ‘Stop trying to take on all these things by yourself. Instead, why not try and help the rest of us. Then maybe you wouldn’t be on your own.’ Another silence arose between the two as they stood with the hot sun beating down upon their foreheads. After a while Will spoke. ‘I just came here to do the right thing. To try my best. To make a difference.’ Sarah laughed in desperation before trying one last time, ‘But Will. We didn’t come here for any of this, I didn’t want any of this!’ ‘So what did you want?’ ‘All I wanted. Was a pair of red shoes. Just a simple pair of red shoes.’ *** Come and visit us at www.thegreatenglishdinner.com www.valenciaenglish.com

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