Ben shuffled gingerly down the hill, trying to maintain a normal pace while simultaneously preventing his broken sole from slapping against the pavement when he put his right foot down. Though most of his peers had fled through the school gates shortly after the final bell, there were a handful of other students making their way home and Ben was desperate not to draw any more attention to himself. After a bit of experimentation he managed to establish a rhythm that largely eliminated the slap, even if it meant walking like he was nursing a sprained ankle, and when he realised no one was really taking any notice of him anyway, he relaxed a little and decided to focus on solving the most pressing problem: how he was going to get through the rest of the term with a broken shoe and stay unnoticed by his peers.
Buying a new pair was not an option. The money he received from his mother’s disability allowance was pitiful and barely covered his lunches. His mum believed the £5 she gave him each week paid for subsidised school dinners and that Ben and his sister were getting a proper meal every day, but Ben had quickly discovered that £5 would barely last 2 days at school prices and that the best way to ensure a full stomach was to buy a 59p loaf of brown bread and a can of corned beef from the offie and make sandwiches. He usually had a couple of crusts spare at the end of the week in case Emma had cleared out the fridge before he’d had chance to get the next lot of groceries on a Thursday evening.
Wearing the only other pair of shoes he owned – his PE trainers – would not work either. Gorton Vale had a particularly strict uniform policy which required black leather laced shoes and only allowed trainers to be worn during appropriate lessons. Scott Matthews had once decided to keep his trainers on after final period PE to attend the 5 or 6 minutes that constituted afternoon registration and had landed himself in a week’s worth of detentions for the privilege.
Could Ben repair his shoe once again? He’d already noticed a rip in the stitching appearing before the summer term had started and had developed painful blisters trying to work a thick needle and some nylon thread through the layers of leather and rubber. The fix had been of limited success – while he had indeed managed to reattach the sole to the leather, rainwater now easily found its way through the holes the needle had created and Ben had had to sit through French class a number of times with a soggy right sock as a consequence. But now, the thread he’d used was hanging in shreds around the rim of his right foot and he doubted any subsequent repair would last very long.
Ben sighed heavily. Not only did he have to repeat his maths homework – on top of the new work he’d been set – he now had to solve the problem of his broken shoe, and it was Thursday evening when he needed to do the groceries and there was likely nothing left in the fridge for him to eat before heading to the supermarket.
In the distance, Ben saw Craig, Shannon and Terry mucking around on the corner of the road, pretending to push each other into incoming traffic and causing vehicles to swerve. They were finding this hilarious and while they seemed fairly focused on this new game, he did not want to risk them seeing him walk past and shift their attention onto him. He darted down an alley, planning to wait there a while until they’d got bored and moved on.
The alley was cobbled, a remnant from when the streets had first been built. While the local authority had happily tarmacked over the cobbled roads, they’d decided to leave the alleys as they were to save a few quid. The bumpy surface caused Ben to notice that his right foot had started to hurt, probably due to blisters created by the unstable surface of his shoe. He untied it, and took it off. His sock looked filthy and a slightly musty smell wafted up his nostrils. Dejected at the day’s luck, he threw it down the alley. Why did you do that? Ben asked himself as soon as he’d done so, realising he’d need to go and retrieve it. He sighed again, steadied himself and hopped down the cobbled path towards a pyramid of black bin bigs sitting outside the yard gate of one of the houses. He held his nose as he stooped down to pick up his unwanted shoe, anticipating the stench of bags left out in the summer heat, but was relieved to discover no offending odour.
Retrieving the shoe, he slipped it on his foot and started to tie the laces, but as he pulled them, one of the ends broke off in his hand. Seething with frustration, he grabbed the bin bag on the top of the pile and flung it with all his might across the alley at the opposite wall. It burst open.
Ben closed his eyes and tightened his fists, about to shout, but caught himself doing it and focused on relaxing his muscles and counting slowly to ten. He recognised he’d been letting his emotions get on top of him, and from experience this only ever made things worse. In an assembly Mrs Crookes, the deputy head, had once encouraged the students to breathe slowly and deeply when things got on top of them. His peers had found the assembly hilarious and regularly mimicked her frail Scottish voice saying in – out – in – out – feel the release deep within you! as if she had informed the school on how she tended to speak to her husband while in the throes of passion, but Ben had actually found her advice quite useful and often found himself consciously controlling his breathing.
Feeling much calmer, Ben opened his eyes, and found himself staring at the pile of old clothes that had burst out of the bin bag. A hopeful thought entered his mind, and he slowly shuffled towards the contents. Crouching in front of the clothes, he pushed an old pair of jeans and a tatty brown jumper to one side and then stared dumbfounded as what looked like a perfect pair of black leather boots stared back at him. He picked them up and inspected them. No holes. No visible imperfections. No scuff marks. In fact, they looked practically unworn. This is too good to be true, thought Ben, as he pulled down the tongue to see what size they were. I can’t believe this, whispered Ben under his breath. Size 9! These are perfect! He quickly sat down on the cobbles, pulling off his other old shoe, slipping the new boots on his feet and tying the laces. They looked visibly too big, as he was a size 7, but he didn’t care. To him they were perfect: Size 9s meant he could wear them for at least a year or two and he wouldn’t have to worry about buying any more for a long time.
Picking up his rucksack and leaving his old broken shoes behind, Ben found himself beaming at his amazing luck. He even found himself feeling a bit of compassion towards the three bullies whose presence had forced him down the alley and towards this wonderful treasure.
He heard a noise in one of the yards and, looking briefly over his shoulder, saw the gate next to the bin bag pyramid opening. He picked up his pace. Oi!, came an angry female voice from behind him. What d’ya think you’re doing, ripping open bin bags in my alley!? Ben didn’t look back, but put his head down and ran across the cobbles and back onto the road as fast as he could. He wasn’t about to let some angry Mancunian housewife steal away his treasure.