‘Shoes: An International Episode’ by Elizabeth Bowen

When it’s hard to escape abroad is difficult, there’s pleasure be had in reading about the discomforts of holidaymaking. This story, written in 1929, centres on Dillie and Edward Aherne. They’re an affluent pair, two years married, who are travelling in the South of France. When Dillie’s “good brogues” in which her feet looked “a shade powerful” go missing at the hotel, frustration ensues. She has to totter over cobblestones “to inspect local architecture and other misadventures follow. Her husband Edward, a man with a roving eye and a love of liqueurs is little use. 
 
The heat is a third protagonist. At one point Dillie comments, “The glare is so awful.” There is a correspondingly harsh exposure about Bowen’s writing. In just a dozen pages, we are shown the Ahernes’ insularity and ignorance, their deep unease with one another. The story wears the mask of comedy. After Dillie’s brogues are restored Edward asks, “Wasn’t it like a French farce – not the improper kind?” And the ending, in which “Mr and Mrs Aherne, free, frank on terms of perfect equality, clattered down the corridor, disturbing some dozen siestas,” adds to the drollery.
 
But, as so often with Bowen’s work, there’s a sense of disturbance. The sun may be bright, but it is the lack of warmth which underpins this story. I kept harking back to an earlier scene where the Ahernes enter the cathedral. “Lost to one another, they went silently into the pointed chilly darkness.”
 
Picked by Sibyl Ruth. Sibyl reads a lot of short stories and occasionally writes them. Her flash fiction ‘The Rose’ was published in Litro last autumn. You can read her individual Personal Anthology here.

From The Collected Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin Books, 1983

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