Through the dusty road filled with concrete pebbles and strewn dry leaves of the trees that flanked the pathway, a bus passed and creaked to a halt under the tin shed of its stop. A woman, clad in a long grey tunic and wearing rope-soled espadrille shoes, stepped out of the bus.
A swirling dust devil formed just a few steps ahead of her, picking up dry leaves and pieces of old paper in a whirlpool of dust. The stinging hot afternoon wind blew across her face. She wrapped her stole around her head and walked towards the shambles of an old house with dilapidated yellow walls, its crumbling plaster in whose rubble a group of kids were playing. Far in the background, she could see a murky blue strip of the ocean and sky-puncturing towers of the metropolis on the other side of the sea, protruding like upright needles into the dull grey sky.
Most of the houses in this village were over a century old, made of brick and concrete with large windows where flawless glass had been and the steel doors that were now rusted dark brown. A century of neglect had made the roofs plunge into the ground; and people made their way about by building roofs made of straw and when the straw become hard to find, the roof had to be gradually replaced by the haphazard patchwork of waste paper, old leather and plastic.
This village used to be a popular town in old days, a bustling marketplace where all sorts of merchants and vendors came from different places to set shop and sell everything ranging from fruits, vegetables and grains to clothes, shoes and cheap makeshift jewelry. It was the time of hope, prosperity and development. All that had changed after the new government took over the world.
Now there weren’t any shops as far as she looked, just rundown walls of what used to be shop-buildings stood along the broken concrete road. “Ah, nothing has changed in last many years since I left home,” she thought, not being sure whether this all too familiarity was comforting or it was disquieting that nothing had changed at all.
Nearly a score of dandelion flowers floated in front of her, flying on the wings of hot afternoon wind; and there came a small boy running towards the bus. He stopped for a second to look at her and then climbed the stair-gate to peer inside. There was no one inside except for the driver who immediately told the kid to get out of the bus, and then the bus was gone in an uprising of dust and smoke with a creaking metallic sound of an engine that was probably a century old.
The boy stood there, with a dry face and parched lips, looking at the swirling dust long after the bus had disappeared beyond sight. She thought the boy could have been sad, but it was difficult to read his expression on his dust-lined face. He turned around and his attention was caught by a flimsy white dandelion moving with the wind. She caught it, handed it over to the boy and smiled, “Are you waiting for someone?”
He took the dandelion with a faint smile on his face and then, without answering, ran away to join the group of kids who were playing. She saw him standing a little afar from them, it seemed that they had already formed up teams and he was told to wait for his turn for the next game.
Apart from the occasional cackles and quibbles of the children playing in the rubble, there was not a sound to be heard nor there were any people to be seen. The whole village seemed abandoned or in deep slumber on this hot May afternoon. She noticed an old cobbler sitting in one corner of the tin shed, fiddling about with his cleat and pliers, lost in his own thoughts paying no heed to the passing of the bus or the woman who was walking towards him.
“Hello, Dana uncle,” she said, “Can you repair my shoes? The sole seems loose.”
The cobbler didn’t respond. It was as if he didn’t hear her.
She sat on a nearby stone bench, undid the tie-up straps of her shoes and threw them on the cobbler’s mat. He looked up in surprise as his pensive daydreaming was disturbed, frowned at her audacity for a second and then picked up the shoes.
“Oh, Polina, it’s you. After a long time. What’s wrong with the shoe?” he asked while tugging at the straps of the shoe.
“The sole is loose,” said she, swinging her legs about. “Would you believe it? I just bought them a few days back at the Supermarket in the Shining City and now the sole is loose.”
Dana winced at the mention of Shining City. He looked towards the great towers of the city which could be seen from there, silver-blue skyscrapers gleaming in the fierce sunlight against the ashen sky. There was a multitude of floating air-cars scurrying about on their business, one tower to another at blazing fast speeds, high up in the air above the myriad glass towers. He kept fiddling with the rope sole of the woman’s shoes and scowled at the vision of the city, his furious expression inconspicuous on his wrinkled face and the irreverence of his gaze hidden behind the cataract of his eyes.
“Yeah, I’m gonna have to redo the sole. Undo the whole winding of the ropes and tie them again,” he said sourly, “Twenty bucks.”
“What! That’s too much. Five, maximum.”
The old cobbler stared at her. “No,” he said, and put her shoes down on the ground outside his mat.
“I bought them for a hundred, I saved up entire year to buy them, paying twenty for just a loose sole is too much,” she picked up the shoes and put them back again on the mat, “I’m no stranger in this town, this is straight-up robbery if you ask me.”
“You know it ain’t a town anymore, woman,” the cobbler grumbled, “and nobody’s gonna rob drudges like you who slave in the city for nickels. Twenty it is. For three days I haven’t got a single penny.”
Polina was visibly offended. “You don’t know everything about the Shining City, old man,” she said with a sigh of exasperation, “Ten bucks. Get on with it.”
Dana seemed pleased with deal he had struck. He got on to working. Polina noticed his wrinkled face contorting as he tried to concentrate, his old veinous hands quivering as he grasped the needle and started to unwind the rope soles. There was dust in the creases of his face, on his white brow and on his sparse hairline. His worn-out robes were yellowish grey, although the seams betrayed the hint that the robes had been originally white. The cobbler, Polina noticed, was a very old man, almost on the verge of being senile.
“Twelve. I’ll give you twelve,” she said softly, “But please make it fast.”
The woven soles were undone, a substantial length of thin rope separate from a sheet of suede that formed the sole. All he had to do was to keep one end of the rope at the center of the sheet, sew it tightly with a nylon thread and then keep sewing the rope as an elongated spiral that coiled outwards.
His needle moved nimbly but his fingers were clumsy, and he pricked himself trying to wind the thread around. His veinous hands trembled and he squirmed in his seat.
“You know, there are machines in the Shining City that can make new shoes faster than you are repairing it,” Polina spoke while sitting on the stone bench and swinging her legs.
“Then why did you bring it to me?” asked the old man resentfully. He was beginning to feel irritated with this young woman who was obviously very fond of the Shining City. All the young folk from the village were fond of the new city and the jobs, albeit menial, it brought for them. Most of the young people weren’t unemployed any longer, the new regime had found use for all of them in some way or the other. So all the young people headed towards the city and only the children and the old remained back in the villages. But all this had come at a cost, a cost that he was not sure was justified. He knew that Polina did not know all that. No one in the new generation knew. And those who knew, they chose to not remember it.
“I am on a vacation,” she said excitedly, “I finally got a day off from work. You see that tall building with a spike and ball on the top?”she pointed and not altogether without a hint of pride, “That’s where I work.”
“That’s great,” he said flatly. “What work do you do?” He asked without any actual interest. He just wanted to focus his attention elsewhere while trying to sew the rope back into the shoe. His hands were unsteady, and and the needle he was holding had missed the thread loop fifth time in a row. He was afraid. Afraid that he might not be able to do it, after all.
“I work with machines that make things. I actually get to run those machines,” she chirped.
“Oh, that reminds me. How is Dopu? He also runs machines with you, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah, but he was in a different department. I got the news that he got injured and so company had to replace him. He doesn’t work there any more.”
“Where is he now? ‘Cause sure as hell he didn’t come back here. His kid waits for him everyday here at the bus stop.” Dana had an inkling of the notion where Dopu could have been sent to, if he had gotten indeed injured: where all the incapacitated people were sent to, where their healthy organs were harvested and their blood was drained out for the perusal of those who would pay for it, and then their lifeless bodies were fed to the fishes. Of course, all of it could have been his paranoid imagination. Or it could have been one of the inconvenient truths of the new world that most people pretended to not know.
“He’s been incapacitated. Company quarantined him. They are keeping him someplace safe, he is being treated.”
“Is he now? So you really don’t know where he’s sent? The chambers?”
“There are no such things. Leader says all of that is an old wives’ tale..”
She stopped mid-sentence as a flapping sound caught her attention, she gazed intently at one of the paper posters of the Leader that were pasted on the pillars of the tin shed, a full face with piercing eyes seemed to be covered and uncovered as the poster fluttered noisily in the afternoon gale. She didn’t want to talk about it any more.
“Can you do it faster? I have to go home.”
“Yes, yes,” the cobbler responded quickly. He looked at the single loop of the rope in the centre of the sole that he had made so far, ten more loops around it were yet to be done. This was the third day in a row when he couldn’t get his hands to do what he wanted. Today was the question of twelve bucks, and he wanted to do it. More precisely, he needed to do it. He held the needle and the thread between his index finger and the thumb, and started to stab and pull swiftly into the sole.
The needle pierced through and came out on the other side, he quickly hid it from her view and tried to pull it out. He didn’t want the girl to see her beloved shoes getting defiled by his clumsy hands. It would be for the best if she didn’t see it now; and if she noticed it later, he could always say that the hole had already been there. Now it was just a matter of taking the needle out without further damage, and being careful from now on.
But the needle was stuck and it took the whole insole out with it when he pulled it out. Polina jumped up in shock.
“What the hell did you do? What did you do, old man?” she shrieked.
“Nothing. It’s nothing that I can’t fix,” he said defensively while making a hasty and furtive attempt to staple the insole back in. He knew that it was a lie. He knew that he couldn’t fix it. Three days in a row he had spoiled the shoes he tried to repair. His hands had abandoned him.
“Oh I think you have fixed enough.” She snatched the shoes from him and put them on. “I’ll manage today. I wish I could make you pay for the shoes,” she eyed him disdainfully from top to bottom and then looked at his whole assemblage of tools, leather patches, threads, glue and other thingamabobs, “but there’s nothing you can give me, you rotten old hag.”
She stomped out of there, with lopsided steps and furiously mumbling to herself. She realised what a great task it would be to save again and buy another pair, and it might as well take months till she will be able to save up enough. Meanwhile she would have to make do with what she had with her, a broken shoe. “All courtesy of the useless old man,” she thought, “sometimes I wish those rumours were true, and useless old good for nothing people could be sent to the chambers.”
All this commotion had attracted the attention of the kids playing in the rubble nearby. They stopped playing and listened to what the woman was saying to the old cobbler. They never liked the cobbler, he was old, he was creepy and ugly, he was grumpy. They often threw pebbles at him, mimicked his way of walking and called him names. And he didn’t like them either. He occupied the nice and cool shady place under the tin shed all day long, and he didn’t let them play there. Whenever he found their rubber ball, he ripped it apart with his knife.
They heard the old man being called an rotten old hag, and erupted with a cacophonous laughter.
“Old rotten hag. Rotten old hag. Old rotten hag. Rotten old hag,” they sang. Dana was annoyed beyond measure, he picked up a handful of pebbles, hurled them towards the kids and shouted “Fuck off, ye rodents.”
That brought a barrage of pebbles from the kids and one of them hit him on the forehead and another on his bare foot. “This is it. Y’all are dead,” he stood up holding his skinning knife aloft and moved towards them. Shrieks of laughter and booing turned into screams of terror, the kids dropped their ball and ran away.
One small kid, the smallest of the lot, who was sitting away from the whole gang all this time, not partaking in either the mocking or the pebble-throwing, noticed the cobbler too late. He got up and ran, but he was much behind the galloping rabble of kids, and he froze with fear like a deer in the headlights when he saw the old cobbler still advancing with his rusted knife lifted high in the air.
The cobbler picked up the rubber ball, sliced it in half and threw it towards the kids who were looking at him from some distance. “Run! You son of a mother,” he barked at the little kid and turned around to go back to his place.
The kid slowly unfroze from his motionless posture and shot off towards the group of hiding kids. He tripped over a piece of broken brick and tumbled into the dusty road. His face was spattered with dust, and his forehead got scratched. A little drop of blood fell into the ground. He heaved himself up and bolted. He fell again.
The cobbler turned around and said, “I’m not gonna eat you, kid. No need to keep falling down. Just go away. Go home.”
“He can’t go home, old man. You broke his sandals. His gramma will beat the crap outta him,” shouted one of the kids.
Dana stopped and looked back.
The kid sat up there, gaping at his bruised feet and the broken strap of his sandal. Tears started to swell up in his eyes. Those were his favourite, just last month his gramma had bought them from the Shining City. He would get a good beating if he took them home like this. He lifted his gaze and glared at the old cobbler, trying to bring out a furious expression on his scared and grief-stricken face. He picked up the broken sandal and threw it at the old man.
His aim fell short, and then he picked up the other one and hurled it too. Dana didn’t heed the attack unleashed by the small child, his naked feet were burning on the searing hot ground and he just wanted to get back into the shade as soon as possible. He walked back to his place and sat down on his mat.
It was late past noon and the slanting sunlight peered at him from the edge of the tin shed. Dana looked up, shielding his eyes with his hands, to see how far west the sun had gone so that he could figure out what time of the day it was. Harsh and bright sunlight from the ashen sky glared at him, and gleaming in the white light he saw with squinted eyes a space shuttle being launched into one of its interplanetary voyage, leaving an icy white trail of smoke behind. A blinding white light filled the sky as the rockets fired and nuclear propulsion started in the rear engine of the shuttle to start its ultimate acceleration towards another sky of another world. Dana closed his eyes and turned his face away.
“How very convenient. They fly in the skies and never touch the ground. We crawl on the ground and we can’t even look at the sky,” he murmured. It was true. In the new world, there were too many people, so many that more than enough lived on the ground, travelled in old buses and trains, breathed the hot air and slept in the dust. And there were people in their glass towers, their nuclear-powered air-cars and space shuttles who knew not the feeling of the wind on their faces, or smell of the earth, the shine of the sun or the sound of the ocean. To be fair to them, it was a polluted world all right; not worth stepping out for anyone who could afford not to. Although, for billions of people who lived on pale yellow ground covered by the canopy of ashen grey sky, there was no other choice than to breathe the smoke in the air and tolerate the blistering sunlight. They were accompanied by a few trees here and there, fighting together a losing battle against the changing environment, and nobody knew which day could be their last.
At this time, humankind started to flee their dying home and make their abode amidst the clement worlds they had terraformed and fashioned among the stars. All those who could pay for it would save themselves, and the rest would perish here where they had been born and brought up, their lives didn’t matter. It was another one of the uncomfortable truths everyone knew but hesitated to address. People had become expendable. And that is why he knew that Dopu hadn’t been treated by the government. There was no time and no capital to spend on it. It was always easier and cheaper to hire someone else instead of bringing back someone who wouldn’t be at his best no matter how well they treated him.
Dana’s eyesight adapted to the shade, and he noticed that the kid had come here, and he was sitting on one of the stone benches on other side of the shed and looking earnestly at his tools. That was when Dana realized that this kid was the son of Dopu, the one who waited daily for his father to return from the city. Till now, he hadn’t seen the kid’s face clearly and now he saw the striking resemblance of the boy’s face with the face of the young man he used to know once.
It was all too bad, Dana thought there was nothing he could do for the boy.
He got up, pulled his mat inside the shade and sat down. At least he could fix the broken sandal of the boy, but he didn’t think he could do it; and it would be worse if he tried and made it worse. Last three days hadn’t turned out any good for him. He held out his hands in front of him and looked at them, trying his best to keep them steady. His wrinkled brown hands with bulging blue veins and disfigured nails were quite a striking sight to Dana himself, till now he hadn’t realised how old he had really become.
He remembered the days when the Shining City was being made, and he was a construction worker who got hit on the head due to a machine malfunction. That was when the tremors started, and his hands trembled every now and then ever since. He remembered when they discovered about his tremors and planned to take him away. He was almost sure they were going to extract his organs and kill him, and he had run away. They didn’t pursue him beyond the confines of the city. It didn’t matter to them after he escaped the city; like all the people living outside, he was nobody’s responsibility, no one’s liability, nobody’s burden. People outside took their own responsibility, held their own liability, and carried their own burden.
This incident was still fresh in his memory, like a flashbulb burning in the distance it stood out among all the memories of his old forgotten life. He remembered it like yesterday, the joy he had felt when he was first going to the city as a young man not altogether different from the youth that Polina belonged to; and then the injury, the tremors and the betrayal of the trust he had on his superiors when he realised they were just going to scrape him like a faulty piece of a giant clockwork.
Now he knew that all the people like him were pieces of the worldly clockwork, and faulty pieces were to be replaced to keep the clockwork going. If you had at your disposal a pile of pieces, ready to be replaced, you didn’t spend time and effort on fixing the broken piece; you took a fresh piece and threw away the broken one.
He remembered it all like yesterday, although decades had passed between this day and the day he remembered as yesterday. He had settled down in this quaint village, fixing things for people who couldn’t afford to replace them. His hands always trembled, but he could do it. He had the strength of will, he still had hope for himself and his ilk; and he fixed every machine and tool and accessories he could. With passing time as the world changed for worse, his loathing for the regime turned into loathing for himself, his vision became faulty, his hands always trembled.
Now he had settled for crude fixing like shoes and bags. Even the shoes and bags had become dispensable now, most people just threw them away and bought new ones. It was rare that anyone would bring anything to him for repairing. He got used to no one turning up in front of him for many days at a stretch, while he came down here everyday merely out of habit, whiling away the idle time.
The times had changed and he had too, he grasped the change of time but he refused to acknowledge the toll it had taken on him. His shoes had withered away and broken beyond repair a month ago, and he hadn’t even fashioned a pair for himself because he couldn’t. There he sat, looking in disbelief at his old shaking hands and lost in the reminiscences of the past, forgetting the track of time at the present.
The westering sun had turned orange-red, hanging like a great lamp in grey dusk over the assemblage of towers on the other side of the sea. The last embers of the sun gently warmed his hands, casting long shadows across the coarse concrete floor of the shed. The old cobbler suddenly found himself aware, and looked at the reddened sun glimmering over the brink of the horizon; while a convoy of imperial jet planes swooshed across the western sky far in the distance and left murky trails of black smoke that looked like hideous scars on the face of the fat old sun.
It was surprising to see the great face of the sun being obscured by puny smoke trails, the same sun which burned relentlessly for greater part of the day. “Everything comes to an end,” Dana thought, looking at his hands. Even though he knew that the sinking sun would come out on the other side next day, young and bright; Dana decided there will be no dawn to his life that was approaching its dusk.
He looked at his hands again, in a vain hope that they might not tremble anymore and he could push his retirement to another day. He was used to not getting many customers but sitting out there and having a purpose in his life, however minuscule, kept him going. Every now and then, he had an occasional windfall when someone like Polina came to him. But he couldn’t do it now. His hands trembled terribly. All his efforts to hold them steady were useless.
He started packing his tools, vowing to never come back here again; when he saw that the little boy was still here, squirming in his seat, holding his sandals in each of his hands and looking at the tools that were being packed. Perhaps the boy hoped to get his sandals fixed, and he had sat there all day deciding how to approach the cobbler who was responsible for breaking the sandals. He obviously didn’t know that the old cobbler couldn’t cobble anymore.
The boy hesitatingly stepped down from the bench, and walked towards the cobbler, half-decisively and half-afraid; his head stooped low, his shoulders drooping, two sandals held by the straps in one hand and a penny clenched tightly in another. He stopped a few steps short of the cobbler’s mat and stood there, gaping stupidly at the sack of tools. Dana stopped packing and called the boy.
He took the sandals from the boy’s hand and looked at them, he kept aside the one that was intact and held out in the dying light of sunset the one with broken straps, a small sandal that could fit inside his palm.
A pang of spasm passed through him as a forgotten memory rose slowly from the deep recesses of his mind, like wisps of lost nostalgia and wistful emotions uncoiling themselves and reaching out with caressing tendrils, finding their way up to the conscious recollection. To the days when he would not have been any older than the boy who stood in front of him, to the days of racing through the colourful medley of street shops as he used to whiz past the crowd of people, to the days when he used to wear sandals like the one he was holding in his hand at the moment. When life seemed long and time was inexhaustible; but that world, not untouched by the wheels of change that were turning tumultuously, had departed forever. Tears welled up in his eyes as this memories returning from the past overwhelmed him, reminding him of the lost world he was still subconsciously chained to.
There stood in front of him a boy who held in his eyes the promise of a world that was yet to be, better or worse, it couldn’t be said. Despite his meekness and resigned mannerism, the boy held hope in his eyes and an enormous amount of faith, coming down here at the bus stop and waiting for his father who may never return. And the same hope and faith he bestowed on an old cobbler, by handing over to him his broken sandal when Dana had believed that it was the end of him and what he could do.
It was a chance, alright, the one he had been looking for all evening. A last jab to see if he could continue. The boy’s unwavering optimism seemed to peer into his own sense of resignation and defeatism he felt, and a shiver ran through his body. “Someday someone’s gotta tell the boy his father isn’t coming back,” he thought, “or maybe the boy has been right all along.” After all, Dana wasn’t the first one, or the last one, or the only one to have escaped the terrible fate that he thought to have befallen on the boy’s father.
Dopu could still be alive. Dana could still fix stuff. The boy’s innocent optimism could not go in vain. Dana realised that, in a world that was running out of hope and the people who believed in each other, the boy deserved to have his faith rewarded. After all, in such terms of unflinching hope and innocent optimism lay the seeds of change that could make a difference.
Here was his chance to connect with the departed world he so terribly missed, in the little sandal that could fit inside his palm, in the hopeful eyes of an innocent child, the strength of beliefs shown by the boy, and his knack of seeing and expecting the best of people.
A weight seemed to have been removed from his mind, the past’s painful remembrance followed by the encounter with the boy cleared his thoughts and the silent tears he shed for himself demystified his vision.
He took out his needle and spool and started polishing the needle on a wet rock. A quick threading of the needle, swift stabbing through the sole and the strap, and a dozen of quick stitches were all it was supposed to take. And all of it was done during the awkward silence that ensued during the next few minutes.
Sandals were fixed. Dana grabbed the foot of the boy and shoved into his feet the open-toed footwear, closed the straps and then tugged it to check the fit of the sandal and the strength of his stitches. A big grin sprawled across his face. It was done perfectly. The little boy noticed the cobbler’s stained and crooked teeth through that conspicuous grin, and imitated it likewise, his little white teeth and tear-filled eyes glinting in the faint light of the dusk.
He grabbed the other sandal, put it on and held out his penny for the cobbler to take. “No, it’s okay. You must be hungry, sitting here all day. Go get something to eat,” said the cobbler gently. The boy cackled and made off for his home, running swiftly with light steps, as fast as his little feet could carry him.
Dana resumed packing. He stowed away all his tools into his sack, pulled the drawstring tight and with a single swing he lifted it and put it on his back. Surprised, he noticed in the twilight of the gibbous moon that had appeared in the east, that his hands didn’t shake anymore. He held out each of them in the shimmering moonlight, one hand after another, and saw the firm and steady hands of the man he used to be. It would be a while before the old age would take its toll on him. He decided to come back here again on the next day, and the next day, and however many days he could manage.
And while he walked over the broken concrete, the strewn pebbles, littered leaves and paper, the rubble of broken brick and cement with his bare feet; he decided that the first thing he would do in morning that he would make new shoes for himself.