Dolores Martínez had lived all her life in Madrid, though she hadn’t always lived on Calle Cervantes. That privilege came when she met and fell in love with a shy, handsome banker, Alfonso Sánchez.
Alfonso began as a lowly employee at Madrid’s central branch of Santander, working assiduously in his own quiet manner, forging a reputation amongst clients and senior managers as someone who was both highly respected and thoroughly respectful. As a result, he was catapulted through the ranks of the Company, becoming the bank’s youngest manager at just twenty-seven years old.
There were some who thought Alfonso frugal and fastidious; Dolores preferred to define him as careful and conscientious. After all, it was because of him that they managed to secure the deposit for their family home in the exclusive literary quarter of Madrid. ‘Huertas’ was an area teeming with antiquarian bookstores and avaricious bibliophiles, perfect for Dolores, a self-confessed book lover. She’d grown up listening to the fantastical tales of Abuela, her beautiful Grandmother, and waited eagerly each birthday for the latest book on her wish list. Now she got to entertain close friends and raise her only daughter Clara in a residence much too big for three.
When it came to Dolores, Alfonso was anything but miserly and preferred to present his gifts discreetly, sometimes even secretly. Dolores had no shortage of expensive perfumes, silk blouses or designer footwear; it was always the shoes, however, that made her heart soar. From ribboned leather courts to strapless suede stilettos, the sight of a gift box under her dear husband’s arm sent her into a frenzy of unwrapping and modelling, then of deciding where they should go to show them off. It was because of her beloved Alfonso that Dolores had become used to a particular lifestyle that she was loath to renounce when he was cruelly taken from her.
They’d had little warning that Alfonso would be snatched away so suddenly. He’d had a few sleepless nights caused by random irritations in his chest before heart failure claimed him. He was discovered by his assistant, slumped across his desk, his face buried amongst reams of calculations that most probably computed his death.
That Dolores was saved from this discovery was regarded by many as a blessing, though she herself disagreed. She had promised to be with her husband right until the end; she would rather have nurtured the memory of the first sighting of Alfonso’s body stripped of breath and heat than someone else’s account of it. Perhaps that’s why, even five years on, a temporary bout of shame still struck her every day in its own authoritative way, usually early evening. It manifested itself as a pounding in her throat, rendering her temporarily mute, then descended rapidly into her heart with a dull thump.
Dolores soon established that a brief visit to her local chapel, the Trinitarias, to offer a candle to her husband and recite one decade of the rosary, would assuage pangs of remorse and restore her voice. And then, to keep herself on an even keel, she’d return home thinking about shops, new stock and special offers, rather than indulging in self-criticism. Shopping had become a daily morning ritual synonymous with survival.
It was a warm Saturday morning in June, four months before her seventieth birthday, when Dolores first encountered Pedro and the pink stilettos. In preparation for a regular morning of window shopping rather than spending, now that Clara had taken control of her accounts, Dolores began as usual with a conversation with the walls of her apartment. She was certain that the spirits of her ancestors, including that of Abuela, resided within them, offering her protection during the long, silent nights when she felt Alfonso’s absence most. As much as she yearned for those discussions to be at least two-way exchanges, the only voice she ever heard was her own, at times artificially cheerful, more often predominantly woeful.
“Anything in particular you’d like me to look out for today, Abuela? A special edition of something or other? What about you, Papá?”
Silence seeped out of the walls. Dolores shrugged, forced a smile, and hurried to the bedroom to select her outfit. She maintained the same pride in immaculate self-presentation that she’d mastered as Alfonso’s young bride. Stepping out meant dressing up; her wardrobe overflowed with exquisite dresses, topcoats and vicuña wool long coats that still flattered her delicate curves and slender waist. Time may have left vestiges of the transition from youth to old age in the gentle folds of Dolores’ wrists, in the soft wrinkles around her eyes and in the slight curl of her arthritic fingers, but it had made no claim on her figure.
She chose an A-line summer dress with scalloped sleeves and the print of a pale-yellow flower, a white trench coat and pewter kitten heels that matched her favourite bag.
“The last time I wore this outfit we went dancing in Toledo. Do you remember, Alfonso?”
She gently patted the tears that threatened to smudge her dark eyeliner, applied a second coat of red lip gloss and gave herself a final once-over in the mirror.
“Not too bad for an almost septuagenarian!”
Dolores then stepped out into the crush of tourists along Calle Cervantes, strangers crammed together like best friends for the sake of a guided tour of Lope de Vega’s house. She walked briskly towards the district of Callao, determined to be at the Corte Inglés store within twelve minutes for its 10am opening. For as long as the arthritis danced around her fingers and didn’t creep into her knees, she was not prepared to reduce the pace of her walking workout, nor to abandon her favourite footwear.
She arrived just as the locks clinked open on the main glass door and a white gloved hand pulled it back to grant her access.
“Buenos días, Señora. How are you today?”
The voice was soft and unfamiliar, not that of Carlos who normally worked the Saturday morning shift.
‘Buenos días, Señor. I’m fine, gracias.’
“May I say you’re looking very lovely today, Señora.”
Dolores felt her cheeks flush and began to run her fingers along the lapel of her coat. It had been many years ago, on their fourth date to be precise, when Alfonso had first pointed out her tendency to smooth her coat whenever she got embarrassed. And it had been a long time since anyone had called her ‘lovely’.
“Gracias … are you new? Where’s Carlos?”
“Yes, Señora. This is my third shift, though the first daytime one. I think this will suit me better than nights – too quiet, too few people. Are you more of a daytime person yourself?”
Dolores looked at the stranger dressed from head to toe in white, his luminous blue eyes just visible under the wide brim of his hat. She thought he looked more like a sea captain than a security guard and that his question was too personal, impertinent even.
“I’m sorry, I must go.” She stepped onto the escalator that would sweep her away from his unsolicited probings and the compliment that had enflamed her cheeks.
“Please excuse me, Señora. I didn’t mean to …. I’m Pedro, by the way.”
Dolores pretended not to hear him as she began her ascent to the safety of the first-floor shoe department.
She hadn’t even stepped off the escalator when she saw the pink stilettos. Perched on a glass cube on top of the central display unit, they were surrounded by paper hearts of varying sizes in a matching shade of pink. Shafts of light pouring through the glass roof of the store made the satin fabric of the stilettos shimmer, as if they were bejewelled with invisible crystals. Dolores gasped as her fingertips caressed the delicate point of the shoe.
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they? Would you like to try them on?”
The sound of the shop assistant’s voice made Dolores take a step backwards; she felt as if her own private viewing had been rudely interrupted.
“Yes! No …. it’s fine, really it is. But may I take a photograph of them?”
Dolores had always been of the mindset that shoes were never to be tried on in public, certainly not before they had been purchased. She didn’t know from whom she had inherited such a superstition, nor what might happen if she broke the rule. Might the shoes cause an inexplicable foot condition, perhaps? Might a heel break and leave her with a fractured bone or two? Whatever the possible outcome, she wasn’t prepared to take the risk, regardless of the temptation before her.
“Of course, you may! Are they a gift for someone else?”
“Not quite,” muttered Dolores. She took three snaps on her phone and began to scroll rapidly through the images as if they might disappear.
She selected the second, pressed ‘edit’ and moved the cursor to intensify the colour. A few years of taking and editing images of potential purchases to send to Clara had turned her into something of an expert.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to call my daughter.”
Dolores watched the young woman move sideways towards the sale section before selecting ‘Clara’ from her contacts.
“Hija, how are you? Listen, you won’t believe it, but I’ve just found the perfect birthday present!”
“Where are you? Whose birthday?”
Dolores took a deep breath. She was used to being bombarded by questions from her daughter on the rare occasion when there was contact and had learned to keep her answers as succinct as possible. Less was definitely best when it came to Clara – less information resulted in less condemnation. Dolores often found herself wishing that her only daughter had acquired a shred of her father’s patience and sensitivity, not just his flair for numbers.
“Hija mía, I’m in the Corte Inglés, the shoe department, and I’m referring to my birthday.”
“But that’s months away!”
“Actually, it’s in sixteen weeks and two days. And I’d like some shoes.”
“You don’t need more shoes!”
“It’s not a question of need, hija, it’s a question of want. I’ve seen some pink ones …”
“I’m not buying you shoes, Mamá. Why can’t you choose something more … age appropriate …”
“Like a nice spa break.”
“I don’t want a spa, I want shoes. And besides, I’m not asking you to buy them. Let’s say they’re my present to myself. All I’m asking is for you to transfer eighty euros from my savings into my current account.”
“May I see the shoes?”
“I’ll send a photo. And you send me the money. Okay?”
“I’ll think about it.”
The line went dead. Dolores had become accustomed to her calls ending that way without as much as a goodbye. Minor disagreements or her daughter’s lack of time were normally the reasons. Clara was always busy; at least she always said she was. And Dolores had long given up on attempting to figure out her daughter’s disinterest, resigning herself to the fact that in her eyes, she was nothing but an irritant and a liability. If only Clara would give her back control of her accounts, she could spare them both the unwanted phone calls.
Dolores pressed ‘send’, waited for the ‘delivered’ message to appear on her screen, and then looked for the shop assistant.
“Excuse me, Señorita, do you happen to have those pink stilettos in a size 36?”
“Let me just check for you …. Ah yes, we do. Would you like to see them?”
“No, gracias. Is it possible for you to reserve them? Only … I’m just waiting for my daughter …”
“Why of course, Señora. Let’s say, one week. We’ll hold them until next Saturday morning. Your name, please?”
“Perfect. It’s Martínez, Dolores Martínez. Muchísimas gracias, Señorita.”
In all her excitement about the shoes, Dolores had temporarily forgotten about the man who had made her blush just a few minutes before. As the escalator transported her slowly back down to the ground floor, she examined his face, his broad stature, his white, starched uniform. She noticed how his blue eyes disappeared when he laughed at a customer’s joke, how he nodded gently, kindly, as the same customer continued to speak, and how he maintained the tautness of his frame. She assumed that he must be in his mid-fifties and therefore much too young for her.
“My apologies again, Señora. No offence was intended. I hope to see you again soon.”
“No offence was caused, Señor,’ said Dolores, ‘goodbye for now.” She smiled and stroked the lapel of her coat, then exited the main door which Pedro held open for her.
By the middle of September when the warm summer air was about to slip away, Dolores could scarcely believe that she was about to have her third meet-up with Pedro. He had mistakenly called it a ‘date’; after all, they were just two friends getting to know each other. Dolores sat at their usual table in Cafetería El Gato looking out onto the busy street, waiting for her first glimpse of him when he turned the corner. It had just gone 8pm, so his shift would be finished; he’d need a few minutes to change and cross the two narrow roads behind the Corte Inglés. She caught herself counting the minutes and smoothed the collar of her lilac dress coat.
“How are you, lovely Señora?”
Dolores inhaled the welcome, woody scent of Pedro’s aftershave as he kissed her gently on each cheek. Despite being sixteen years younger than her, he did not make her feel old. On the contrary, he seemed to have quite the opposite effect and edged her out of her shell a little more with every encounter.
“May I?” He indicated the empty chair next to Dolores and sat down before she could respond. He pulled himself close so that their arms were touching. Dolores joined her hands as if she was about to pray.
“How was chapel?” said Pedro, not taking his eyes off her.
“Fine, gracias. How was work?”
“More of the same. I wish I could be a bit more useful.”
Pedro had worked for years as a professional landscape gardener before he was forced to resign due to back problems. Doctor’s orders. The security guard position seemed a sensible alternative – lots of standing, but no digging or heavy lifting. Despite only knowing him for a few months, Dolores had already established that he missed both the autonomy and artistry of his previous job. He was not accustomed to standing still.
“Perhaps you could have a look at my courtyard sometime? There’s lots of potential for planting new flowers, … maybe I could even have a vegetable patch. It hasn’t really been touched since …”
“Since Alfonso passed away? I know how much you miss him.”
“Gracias.” Dolores suddenly realised that she was not yet ready to fill the silence of her home with a new male voice. She wasn’t ready to populate her rooms with an alternative male presence. As if sensing her disquiet, Pedro ignored her invitation.
“Not long now until your special day, my love. Just under four weeks, isn’t it?”
“Twenty-six days to be exact. Not that I’m counting!”
“Well, let’s order and you can update me on your plans. Dare I mention your pink stilettos?”
Dolores smiled as Pedro got to his feet and moved towards the bar. She was grateful for the change of subject.
“Actually, Pedro, no café con leche for me this time. I feel like celebrating. Make mine a nice glass of red, please.”
“Wonderful! I’ll join you.”
Within moments, they sat with their hands entwined, their throats warm from oaky Rioja.
“So, twenty-six days to go and still no shoes!”
“But she’s promised, hasn’t she?”
“She’s promised to think about it. I’ll keep prodding her. She’ll love me for that!”
They both laughed. Dolores saw how Pedro’s expression assumed a soft seriousness.
“Let me buy the shoes for you. It would make me very happy.”
“Absolutely not!” Dolores pulled away, highly self-conscious all of a sudden, and began berating herself under her breath for her foolish behaviour.
“I must go.”
“I said I must go.”
Dolores scrambled to her feet and rushed outside. She heard the clank of a few coins on the table before she felt Pedro next to her once more.
“I’m sorry, Dolores, no offence was intended.”
“So, may I?”
He held out his hand; Dolores felt an overwhelming urge to be wrapped in his arms.
“I suppose so.” She sighed.
“But you should know that I don’t give up on what I desire – I’ll find a way to try on those stilettos with or without Clara. Now, no further mention of shoes, okay?”
They walked silently along Gran Vía, close and content like a regular couple, Dolores thought, ignoring clashing accents and car horns. Pedro stopped suddenly and turned to face her.
“I can sum you up in three words.”
“Three dates and I’ve worked you out.”
“Not a single ‘date’ but go on.”
“My Dolores – Catholic, classic, capricious.”
“I beg your pardon. And I’m not ‘your’ anything!”
“I’m being complimentary!”
“I beg to differ. Except for “Catholic”. That’s important to me.”
“You can keep the rest!”
“Ah, let me explain!’ Pedro pulled her close. ‘Classic’ means elegant. That’s it, you’re an elegant lady.”
“Well, you’re changeable, but in a good way.”
“Café con leche one day, a fine Rioja the next. One minute you let me hold you, the next you push me away.”
“Hey!” Dolores struggled in vain to unwind his arms from her waist.
It was 10:05am on Friday 19th October, the day before Dolores’ seventieth birthday. She stood in the shoe department of the Corte Inglés in the same outfit she’d worn when she first caught sight of the pink stilettos. There was a nip in the autumnal air that made her shiver – her summer clothing hadn’t been chosen for practical reasons, but in the hope that it might bring her luck.
The pink stilettos in a size 36 remained in the store, no longer reserved for Dolores but on display. The bigger, more common sizes had been snapped up long before and the final pair, so urgently coveted by Dolores, had been discounted to sixty euros for a quick sale. Christmas was coming and with it, new stock for the party season in a range of trending reds and greys.
Dolores checked her phone again, though she knew it was impossible that she’d missed a call from Clara. Nothing. The last listing of Clara’s number was from two days earlier when Dolores had tried calling her and she had not picked up. Dolores sighed and dialled her number for the final time, expecting her daughter’s recorded voicemail message.
“Hija, it’s me again. I’m in the store. Have you done the transfer? Please, Clara.”
Dolores hung up and her phone rang immediately.
“Mamá, listen. You don’t need shoes. And anyhow, you’ll kill yourself. Have you actually looked at the size of those heels? They must be a good four inches.”
“Clara, hija, it’s not for you to tell me what I need.”
“Well, you’re not having them. I’ve booked you a nice hotel in Toledo. Two nights, tomorrow and Sunday, I’ll email the confirmation later.”
“But I don’t want to go to Toledo!”
“But you said you loved it there! That you and Papá …”
“Enough! Tomorrow is about me, no one else.”
“You’re making a fool of yourself, Mamá. I’m going now. Oh, and feliz cumple.”
Dolores slammed the phone into her bag, fighting back her tears. She didn’t want to prove her daughter right, to make a fool of herself in a public place. But how dare she deny her what she wanted! How dare she claim she knew what was best for her! And how dare she finish off with an insincere “happy birthday”, just so she did not have to bother calling back on her special day!
She tried to compose herself by concentrating on what Abuela had repeatedly told her – that she was strong and assertive, that she was special. She had understood just how special she was when she turned fifteen and Abuela revealed that they both shared a unique talent. It had come out of the blue when they had been preparing a celebratory anniversary dinner for Dolores’ parents. Abuela spoke softly, almost in a whisper, so there was no risk of her daughter or son-in-law eavesdropping on the conversation.
She explained that she and Dolores had a rare gift that had to be treated with utmost care. And once she demonstrated how it worked, using the glass kitchen door as a prop, she made Dolores promise that she would never abuse it; if she did, great misfortune might befall her.
Dolores had been so terrified of inflicting bad luck on herself or her family that she had never made use of her gift. Indeed, she had not encountered any real use for it, until now. If she could walk through the glass doors of the Corte Inglés the way Abuela had shown her, she would be able to enter the store under cover of darkness and slip on the shoes. If she could not buy them, she could at least try them. One opportunity to try them on would satisfy her; she could then resign herself to the fact that they were destined to be taken home by someone else.
She glided down the escalator in a state of anxious happiness and ran towards Pedro.
“Are you okay, Dolores?”
“I’m fine, … better than fine. I need to ask a favour.”
“Anything for you.”
“Promise me you won’t ask any questions?”
“Okay … I promise.
She took him to one side and whispered into his ear.
“When you finish your shift tonight, can you please turn off the cameras?”
“Why would I do that?”
“You said you wouldn’t ask any questions.”
“But it’s my job.”
“Please, Pedro. Trust me. No one will ever know I was here.”
Dolores waited for him to fill what felt like minutes of silence. She knew that what she was asking was unfair, perhaps even unkind.
“Okay, I’ll do it. But I don’t understand.”
Dolores clapped her hands and embraced him before running towards the exit.
She waited until a few minutes past midnight, just after she’d wished herself a happy birthday, then ventured out into Calle Cervantes. Her walk was quick and light; in less than ten minutes she found herself outside the doors of the Corte Inglés. She scoured the plaza, checking that no one was lurking in the shadows, then took a step forward.
She heard Abuela’s voice loud and clear, as if the woman she adored was standing right next to her.
“Breathe in; lock your hands against your chest; empty your thoughts; focus only on what lies on the other side of the glass. If it’s working, you’ll feel a sharp stabbing pain from your chest to your stomach, but it will cease as soon as you pass through.”
Dolores forced herself not to wince as the pain tore through her body. Right foot, then left, and she was inside. The jabbing stopped, just as Abuela said it would.
Once at the top of the escalator, she rushed towards the pink stilettos and lifted them slowly, carefully, as if she was handling glass slippers. She felt the cool satin against the edges of her feet as she walked towards the full-length mirror to admire her footwear. The pale pink evening dress that she’d chosen especially for the occasion complimented the stilettos perfectly.
“You truly are things of great beauty!” she exclaimed.
She placed her right hand on her hip and proceeded to stride down the central aisle of the shoe department as if it was her very own catwalk. She gave a slight curtsy to her invisible audience, then strutted back to the display area.
“You look so lovely tonight, Dolores. Happy Birthday my love.”
Dolores halted and swung round to face Pedro. He was wearing a dark double-breasted jacket with a pink tie and white rose in his top pocket.
“What are you doing here?”
“You didn’t think I was going to leave you all alone, did you? This is your special moment. And besides, I thought you might like someone to record it.”
“No, you don’t!”
“No, Dolores, up here.’ He pointed to his temple. ‘That’s the only place it needs to be for me to share it with you.” He walked towards her and took her hands.
“Would you like to dance?”
“No, gracias …. Actually, I mean yes.”
Dolores laughed and pressed herself close to Pedro for the birthday dance she never wanted to end.
Originally from Belfast, Elaine Canning is currently working on her first short story collection and a novel and pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Swansea University. She is also Executive Officer and a Director of Swansea University’s Dylan Thomas Prize, one of the largest literary prizes in the world for young writers. Elaine is a member of British Council Wales’ Advisory Committee, a collaborator with the Jaipur Literature Festival and currently lives in Swansea with her son.