Friday, 8 June 2012

Of boots, escalators and photographers

This is a true story retold from 2007.

I have always adhered to the motto "Be prepared". And now I know I was right.

I had to go to London, for various reasons including a school event and a Times interview to promote The Highwayman's Footsteps, and an extraordinary photoshoot. This was to take place in a fake dungeonesque place in a museum, after dark, in Docklands, and a load of people had gone to extreme lengths to set it up. So there was no possibility of chickening out.

Anyway, 7am train from Edinburgh, into King's Cross, across to Liverpool St, left my suitcase in L'pool St, got the train out to Essex, did a school talk, back on train into L'pool St. Decided, in my infinite wisdom, not to collect my luggage but to leave it there while I rushed to Docklands for the photoshoot, because Paul, the nice-sounding photographer, had already been waiting a long time and probably wanted to go home, because Paul, unlike me, has common sense.

So, I hurry onto the Underground in the middle of rush hour. I can do this - I am strong and fit and I used to live in London. A long time ago. Before Docklands existed. I get to Bank and I hurry through more crowds to the Docklands Light Railway. I am slightly concerned, as I have not been on it before and it could very easily be dangerous. There are, however, no warnings about the type of danger I am about to encounter.

As I step onto the escalator, my foot kind of slides gently and undramatically from under me and I almost fall. But, being strong and fit, and desperate not to be uncool, I don't fall. I try to put my foot down again, but it doesn't seem completely to be there. This is a disconcerting feeling, as, last time I looked, it was. However, I look behind me and see an object sitting at the top of the escalator as I rapidly leave it behind. I put two and two together and realise that the heel has come off my boot.

Those of you to whom this has never happened need to understand: this is not a funny situation. It is not possible to walk properly like this. And my luggage, where spare footwear should be, is in Liverpool St Station.

But I was in the Girl Guides and we know how to deal with situations like this. In fact, I remember my Docklands Light Railway badge and one of the tasks was, quite definitely: carry a spare pair of boots in your handbag. This, naturally, I have done. Yes, really, I have a pair of red suede boots in my handbag. I am not joking.

So, end of story, you would think. But no, because I am in very heavy crowds on a very busy escalator, about to enter throbbingly full tunnels full of fearsome marauding Londoners, who are quite happy to laugh at me now, but will not be if I stop in the middle of them to change into red suede boots. I could be arrested. So I hobble. At first, people feel sorry for me because they think I am injured. Then they laugh. Then they get annoyed, as I am not walking fast enough for them. Or me.

This is not helped by the fact that, on the DLR, there are no friendly maps telling me where to go. I am like a tourist. I have to ask for help. But I can't, because I have only one heel and this renders me pathetic. Being in the Girl Guides did not prepare me for this. Luckily, a businessman, perhaps finding a woman with one heel worryingly interesting, asks if he can help. I want to ask if he is a cobbler but even if he is he is fairly unlikely to carry a spare heel and hammer with him. Unless he was in the Boy Scouts. I am disinclined to ask this. This is London. You don't ask questions like that. It's the sort of thing that starts incidents.

I pretend that I have not noticed anything amiss with my footwear, and I ask him which train goes to West India Quay. "This train," he says, smiling in the way that only businessmen who have other motives than cobbling do. He gets on the train with me, which is worrying. But I still have not managed to change my boots, which is more worrying.

I cannot change into red suede boots with this man watching me. I also cannot change into them because I have no idea whether West India Quay is one stop or ten and I might be caught mid boot. So, between each stop, I do not change my boots. I tuck my feet beneath me and pretend that I am merely demented, hoping that everyone will ignore me. This works disturbingly easily. This is, after all, London. I must remember that. That as long as you don't get in anyone's way, or ask for help, you can wear broken boots if you want to.

I hobble off with increasing and impressive agility at West India Quay, which was five stops away, which is annoying because I easily could have changed my boots. But the day hasn't been going my way so far, so why would it change now?

West India Quay is deserted. It is an unmanned and unwomanned station. It also has no signs or maps and I have absolutely no idea where I'm going. I need to find a really sleazy dark street corner at which to change into my red suede boots. Luckily, there is a wide choice. I manage to change without being arrested or propositioned, largely because there is no one around at all.

Docklands is like a sci-fi film set. There are looming sky-scrapers, distant lights, boats with no people, restaurants with no people, a creaking saloon door and tumbleweed tumbling along the dusty highway. I have absolutely no idea where to go.

My phone rings. It is Paul. "Where are you?" he asks. "I don't entirely know," I say, "but I think I'm here." We then do a passable impression of the Anneka Rice show from years back, and I find the Museum of London and, in it, Paul and Simon. I half expect to find Paul Simon, but that would not happen on a day like this. I would not be prepared anyway.

Paul is dressed a bit like a cat burglar so he is quite hard to see. Apart from this, he is very, very nice. He has no idea about my stressful incident. And I don't tell him. I prefer him to think that I am calm and cool, that I always wear red suede boots on sci-fi film sets and that I am not the sort of idiot who would lose a heel on an escalator. He photographs me in all sorts of poses in all sorts of varieties of dungeon, amongst the artificial smells of ancient life and strangely authentic soundtracks of 18th century people drinking mead.

Simon keeps holding a thing to my chin, flashing a light and reading out a number. This feels important but I haven't a clue what's going on. Paul doesn't ask me to smile, not once - because, as I say, he's very nice and nice photographers don't ask me to smile. He asks me to think about the characters in my book. I say, "But you said you weren't going to ask me to do anything, like act or anything." "I'm not," he says, smiling, "I'm asking you to think. I take the pictures, you think." This suits me fine and I think about the characters in The Highwayman's Footsteps.

It is an extraordinary experience, surreal, soporific. Oddly pleasant. At one point I nearly fall asleep, and at another point I start laughing. I try to explain to Paul that I have had a weird day. A few hours ago I was failing to understand the accents of some Essex convent girls and one hour ago I was legless on an escalator, and now Paul is taking photographs of me in a fake dungeon. I don't explain this well. I decide to shut up in case I am smiling in a photograph.

You may be wondering why I had red boots in my handbag. It's simple. I love boots. And I thought it might be a good idea to wear these red ones for the photoshoot but I knew it would really not be a good idea to walk around London in them. Those boots were not made for walking.

After all, what if I lost the heel on an escalator?


  1. I'm sorry but I did laugh,I know it's not funny at all but I don't know of anyone at all who would haave had a spare pair of boots in their bag.What a bit of luck. Did you manage to walk in them on the return journey? Why didn't they send a car to pick you up instead of having you traipsing all over the country? I've never heard of such a thing, don't they know who you are?

    1. Anne, yes I did - no choice! And I'm afraid that most writers don't get cars sent for them to take them to photoshoots :(

  2. I'm so impressed at the 'spare pair' in your bag, and the fact that they're glamorous ones too is totally amazing. I mean, I love boots, but Nicola I think you get the gold True Boot Lover medal for that one. Well done you!

  3. You must carry a very large bag. I looked at mine. It's average size and can carry a lot of things - keys, wallet, tissues, candy, etc. - but only a picture of boots would fit.

    I didn't laugh because there's nothing more aggravating as limping around with broken heels.

    But, at least you have a great story to share!


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