The Centre for New Writing at Leicester University has commissioned a number of poems and pieces of flash fiction and twitter fiction for a project called Sole2soul. They're based on the exhibition of William Falkner's shoe workshop at Market Harborough Museum.
I'll be reading my poem on Thursday at the museum, with Kate Ruse, Jayne Staunton etc.
The workshop's full of tools and machines from the mid-19th Century until about the 1970s. Karin Koller and I visited, and did some research in the local history library to find out more background before visiting a tea shop near the original site of the shop, on High Street.
Four generations of William Falkners ran the business with their family, making bespoke shoes and boots and mending them. My poem comes from the reported fact that Lady Zia Werhner, who lived at Luton Hoo, once ordered a pair of velvet evening shoes from the shop. I wondered how the meeting between them went, the master craftsman and the descendant of the Russian Czars. The story in the poem is entirely imagined.
Her man came in the shop first. Leant on my counter
in navy blazer, gold-type buttons, looked at me
like I was dirt. "In the car," he pointed to the Jag outside
jamming up High Street, "my lady. She's waiting."
"What lady?" said I, looking at his leather gloves,
poor quality, cracking at the seams. More than one
lady's last line my back wall, and they're my regulars.
"Lady Zia Wernher." He cleared his throat, "to say it right,
Anastasia Mikhailovna Lady Zia Wernher Grafin de Toby
Von Romanov." Like announcing her at some society ball.
"Who's she when she's at home?" He checked his cufflinks,
looked around him, sighed. "Daughter of Grand Duke Michael
of Russia. Don't know why she'd come in here.
No need, with London so nearby."
He stepped towards the door. His heels were down, ready-mades
like most these days. Favoured the right, the left turned out.
"William Falkner. Good enough name for me,
for my dear father, and for his, and his before. Making and mending
for all the gents round here. She's more than welcome."
He left. The door swung shut.
Before I could even dust the customers’ chair, the bell rang
and she walked inside. Took all my breath. “Your ladyship,"
I stammered, hiding the old cloth, half-bowing.
"Please, sit down." She hovered for a moment.
Her eyes slid across the dark high counter, the tools
our family saved for, smoothed by our own hands.
She sat. Her body hardly touched the chair. I knelt before her,
felt better somehow, kneeling, and the apron was long enough to shield my old knees
from the floor. She slipped her shoes off,
Foster and Sons of Jermyn Street, embossed gold in the sole.
A silken foot, long, narrow-heeled, faced me on the fitting stool.
My hands shook on the measure, but I did the job,
asked her to stand to finish off, wrote numbers with my pencil stub,
marked them L and R. Still have that label. ZW at the top.
Her perfume as she stood, faint rustle of her dress.
Those ankles. Fine straight toes. No feet like that
round here, and I should know.
“What would your ladyship like?” “An evening shoe.”
“I could do kid for you? Or velvet, maybe?” She chose
the coloured velvet from the swatch, a midnight blue.
We spoke of shape and heel; no more, and she had gone.
I put the sign up, ‘gone for lunch’, dropped by
the Duke of Wellington for a pint. “My lady,” I called her, after.
Those shoes, they were my best, the best of all.
Lady Zia Wehrner ordered a pair of velvet evening shoes from William Falkner’s shop - the date isn’t recorded. There were four generations of William Falkners who ran the business. Foster and Sons has been a bespoke shoe shop in London since 1842. The story is imagined.