NEW πŸ“—Story: School Photo ❌

Matching Sneakers

πŸ“‘Table of Contents

1. Prologue #

Beadie sat in the sun beneath the carriage window with her arm on the sill, flicking her fingers in the warm wind that rushed in. She’d sat like this every afternoon for the forty-five minute commute home on the Blue Line, which ran from the university at the port out to The Valley, where she was staying. She brought her arm in from the sill and rotated it in front of her, wondering if she was getting more brown, and then ran it along her forehead where sweat had beaded.

Three people sat opposite her, like an audience. One of the girls, short and dark, had put her tennis shoes on the empty seat next to Beadie, and the other sat straight up in the lap of a huge man, who held her arms and caressed her fingers like a lover. None of them was older than twenty-five but the big guy looked senior.

‘Did you think any more about it?’ said the short, dark girl, leaning forward. Her name was Anvi.

‘I don’t know, I think I’d rather just go to the lawns,’ Beadie said.

‘But I wouldn’t feel comfortable going by myself.’

The big guy with the girl in his lap spoke up. ‘Trixie and me’re going.’

‘So what? You say you’ll show up and have some drinks, then you go missing for a couple hours.’ Anvi said, putting on a posh voice that sounded a bit like Beadie’s accent. ‘I don’t know what you get up to, but you’re no good to me.’

‘It’s not my scene,’ Beadie said.

‘So make it your scene. It’s a good way to meet people, and I want to meet someone who isn’t Indian.’

‘George isn’t Indian. He’s Bangladeshi and you ought to know the difference,’ the Big Guy said.

‘It’s all the same shit!’ Anvi slapped her legs, then withdrew her feet from Beadie’s seat. ‘I’m sick of it, I swear to god I’m going to move to Oslola and marry a big, blonde viking.’

Beadie smirked but she didn’t feel like hearing this again. She looked out of the window and watched the rooftops fly past. The bright streets of Cama were mostly light stone cut up by canals, but periodically great big seagrape trees flashed past and cast a green shadow inside the carriage. Their leaves whipped the open windows as they passed and Beadie pulled her arm inside. A moment later the train slowed and turned, and she could see the locomotive ahead of them.

Today marked six months in Cama, a constituent republic of the great big Vekllei superstate. It was hard to believe in her grandfather’s time that these pretty little stone houses and courtyards had been wooden shacks and tin roofs. It was hard to believe it had once been called Grenada; that this all had been part of the British Empire. Britain had been her home six months ago. Now, in its former colony, it seemed as distant as the ghost of its empire.

She shifted in her seat and put her back to the window. Her connection to Cama was abstract and ancestral, and her relationship to Vekllei as a whole was basically administrative. She was part-Caman, and she looked like the people here. Maybe, in her British provinciality, she had thought that was enough. But she knew she was a foreigner. It was not that she believed in bloodlines or inherited memory; she was a social scientist, or going to be one. But if she indulged that feeling, she had expected this place to feel a little more familiar.

‘What about coffee, then, on the lawns,’ Anvi said, looking desperate. ‘I can get ice coffee from Morrison’s and we can study on the lawns.’

It was a pitiful compromise masking total capitulation, and Beadie laughed and accepted. Anvi smiled her big smile and put her shoes back on the seat across from her. She was funny, Anvi; a third-generation Tamil girl from Sri Lanka or some such. Vekllei people – and despite their exotic federalism, they did think of themselves as ‘Vekllei people’ – often had ancestry in random places. At one time it seemed like nearly every educated person from a poor or developing country was moving here; famous Vekllei; radical Vekllei; the country with no history, no race; no expectation of how you should live.

Anvi was short with rich, ocher skin and moles all over her arms. Her hair was short and dark and went every which way so that it looked like black flames around her head. She looked at you intensely and with all of her attention. Beadie watched her friend as she rummaged in her purse for lip balm. She didn’t know much about her; had never been to her home. She was studying mathematics, but who knows otherwise. Anvi did not really talk about that stuff.

Trixie sat next to Anvi in the lap of her lover, Gus. Vekllei people often had lovers; they were open about that sort of thing, and that’s what Gus called her. But Beadie suspected it meant something more for Trixie, because Gus was all she talked about. There was always the casual question, weighed heavy with implication – where would you like to go after you get your masters? It surprised Beadie, because the natural assumption about Vekllei’s ambiguous ’liberated society’ was that there was a lot of casual, polygamous and free sex. In her experience, they were not much different in desire to any Briton, although perhaps more successful at it.

She watched them play with their hands and the gentle way he touched her upper arms; she watched quietly, jealously. Beadie had never had a serious relationship; she was too busy. Anvi was looking in her bag but she knew it bothered her too. They suspected that Trixie and Gus liked the envy their affection brought on.

How they all ended up as friends she could scarcely remember. They had met at one of the university socials, and they all lived in The Valley, so it must have emerged organically on this train. The lovers liked the company, and Anvi had seemed like she wanted a friend. Beadie was the foreigner; and foreigners rarely choose their friends.

It was the early afternoon and the warmest part of the day, but the carriage was cooled by the open windows and swivelling fans mounted to the roof. They called these ‘student’s cars.’ The air-conditioned carriages up the front were more comfortable but sealed in. It was polite to leave them to the working public, and the students liked the fresh air rushing in anyway. At some point they started playing the same game they always did, where they all looked at Beadie and asked her about life in Britain. This game turned every competent Vekllei adult into a child, staring in amazement, shaking their head like the price of a television was a political revelation.

‘So a good television, like a really good one, is maybe twelve thousand dollars,’ Anvi was saying, since this was her favourite game. ‘Sorry, I mean pounds. Twelve thousand pounds.’

‘For a really good one, one with a big technicolour screen and classy oak panelling, maybe. But most people own a much cheaper one, for maybe a few hundred pounds.’

‘And how much work would you need to do,’ Anvi leaned forward and rested her mouth on her fingertips, ’to make twelve thousand pounds?’

‘That’s a lot of money. For an average person, that’s maybe eight or ten months salary.’

‘And salary is the total amount of pounds, correct?’

‘It’s what you get for working; your pay.’

‘Bwoah,’ Anvi said, smacking her head like she always did at this point. ‘I’d totally work eight months to have a television like that. That seems like a great deal.’

‘Yes, but Anvi,’ Trixie said, still using Gus as a chair, ‘you keep forgetting, we work half-days, they work full-days. They have televisions because they work so hard. So it would take you twice as long.’

‘Still,’ Anvi said, nodding, ‘I would really like to have a television.’

This kind of conversation was surreal to be having in English. These people were not destitute foreigners stumbling through the English language; Anvi spoke English fluently and with a clear, though implacable, Commonwealth-British accent. They were also, by many metrics, wealthy people. They had a developed society with good homes and schools. They did not, however, typically own televisions.

Anvi had no real idea about any of it. Britons did not simply save up for eight months to buy the best version of a product. Life in Britain was one of endless labour and consumption. It was not just televisions that cost money; it cost money to live. Electricity, water, clothing, food, housing – it all cost money and continuously. There were some measures to prevent you dying in the street, but Vekllei people had a much easier time imagining spending money on aspirational consumer products than on food or rent.

Trixie and Gus got up as the train slowed. They were going to see the afternoon news and film at the Georgian Cinema in Darbeau. Trixie patted down her skirt, which had wrinkled up the back where she’d been sitting on him.

‘See you tomorrow, ladies,’ Gus said.

Anvi brought her legs back down and shuffled over to where they had been sitting so she was opposite Beadie. She leaned forward.

‘You know, I’m really sick of them,’ she whispered, watching them leave the platform through the open window. ‘The way Trixie rubs my face in it, in having a lover.’

‘They like to see us watching,’ Beadie agreed. She wiped her forehead again. When the train stopped for any period of time you became aware of the heavy humidity in the air.

‘They do! She tells me about her dou-dou,’ she said, using the Caman creole word for lover. ‘They are filthy, I said to her yesterday, I said, I don’t want to hear about dou-dou’s cock anymore.’

Beadie laughed. ‘She tells you?’

‘With me, oh, yes. See, she’s nervous of you, she thinks you’re too cute. She’s very jealous. But I’m not a threat because I’m not pretty, so she tells me about the risky places they fuck, and how playing rugby gives him good stamina, about the romantic gifts he brings her.’

‘You’re as pretty as me or anyone. And you shouldn’t have to listen to that shit.’

‘Yeah,’ she said, looking out the window after them, ‘anyway.’

The ’lawns’ was what they called the grassy embankment out back of Beadie’s apartment block. It sloped gently towards a freshwater creek that widened downstream into St John’s River, which flowed past the University of Cama and out to sea. It’s a shame it didn’t flow the other way, thought Beadie, because it would be nice to float home after class in the cool water.

By late afternoon the mountains around The Valley had cast a cool shade across the lawns, and it was a good place to sit and work. Her desk wasn’t big enough; she was a messy worker. There was space to spread out on the lawns, and around her she had textbooks and papers and rulers. Anvi had gone to the coffee shop for ice coffee. Beadie smiled when she saw her return.

‘I was thinking,’ Anvi said, a little out of breath, ‘how did you get the name, Beedy?’

Beadie took one of the metal bottles from her hand and moved a book so she could sit down.

‘My parents,’ Beadie said, unscrewing the cap and taking a sip. ‘It’s my name. Beatrice Clarke.’

Anvi stopped mid-sit, her mouth open. ‘Bea-trice? Are you kidding?’


‘I thought your name was Bee-dy, like beady little eyes or something. I thought there might have been a story about it.’

‘What’s the story behind yours?’

‘The story behind mine,’ she said, exhaling through her nose, ‘is that two short little Sri Lankans in the late twenty-thirties got a little too excited after dinner, and I emerged nine months later, and unfortunately for my parents I was a girl and not a boy, making a total of three girls and zero boys, and they called me Anvi, a name which means something only to people on a continent I’ve never been to and don’t intend to visit.’

‘Good story,’ Beadie said, and smiled. ‘You never intend to go to Sri Lanka? You don’t want to see what it’s like?’

‘I’m Vekllei,’ Anvi said, staring at her shoes, and looked up. ‘You have dark skin. Don’t you want to go see what Africa is like?’

‘You’re a racist.’ Beadie said, laughing, ‘My ancestors are from here, the Caribbean.’

‘Your grandfather, mine too. Everyone’s from somewhere if you go back far enough.’

Beadie nodded because she was right. Vekllei people were funny about ancestry. They liked to pretend it didn’t matter but you saw a lot more homogenous couples than mixed ones. Were people really so basic? On the other hand, everyone was mixed up here socially; everyone was from somewhere. That had an equalising effect. Speaking English probably helped, though it pained Beadie as an embarrassed postcolonial Briton to admit it.

‘Beatrice Clarke,’ Anvi said, lying back so she was lying across the cool grass. ‘That’s a nice name. Classy.’

There were a few others out on the lawn, enjoying the afternoon. All were students. Her apartment block was full of them – her housing was arranged by an agent of the municipality, so she guessed the building had some kind of arrangement with the university. She had not spoken to any of her neighbours. They looked foreign, but how could you tell here?

All the students were dressed basically the same. The student uniform for university was voluntary, but everyone wore it, including some of the professors. It was the same as the school uniform; unbadged and easy to wear. The native Vekllei people had owned some variation of it almost all their lives, and it was just as natural to them as bringing their pens and books. It reflected a broader observation Beadie had noticed about Vekllei people, and the quirkiness of their society, which could seem both advanced and backwards at the same time.

The basic components were all the same; white shirt and socks, navy trousers and skirts, leather shoes or sneakers. And in Cama, it was almost always sneakers. Beadie could remember asking about it shortly after she’d met Anvi. She had said something like, ‘I like your shoes,’ and Anvi had looked down.

‘They’re just Dunlops, you should go get some,’ she’d said, raising her foot. ‘We can match.’

‘Dunlops? You mean the tyre company? The British tyre company?’

It was the same company, via a subsidiary owned in part by the Vekllei government. Such was the new frontier of this liberated society – fucking Dunlop! In Britain, a common rubber tyre for cars and trucks, in Vekllei, the universal shoe of the anarchist.

She looked down at her shoes – Dunlops; bought after that conversation. She’d shown up to her first class overdressed and conspicuous, and quickly assembled the ‘voluntary’ uniform thereafter. She got them from a massive department store by the waterfront that masked its true nature as a distribution centre for ‘universal goods.’

She looked at Anvi, who had her eyes closed and held the metal coffee cup to her cheek. Beadie remembered her disappointment when she saw her new shoes. ‘Oh, they’re different – we could have matched. They look good on you, though.’

Beadie moved her white tennis shoe beside Anvi’s, comparing the colour of the candy cane stripe on the heel. Anvi had rolled her socks down so they looked like a donut ring, like she was twelve rather than twenty-two. She used to think that Anvi was a tedious hanger-on. Why would an adult woman care about whether her friend’s shoes matched? She enjoyed seeing her petty disappointment. Now she remembered it with regret.

In Britain, people talked about self-expression, but clothes serve basically the same purpose everywhere – they communicate things about you; who you are, who you associate with, what you value. Vekllei was a little more transparent about clothes as a kind of language; a social object rather than a commodity. She remembered being taken aback when Anvi had asked to borrow a shirt for a social. She had not realised it was a sign of respect.

It was absurd, to a foreigner – disappointment that your government-owned tyre company sneakers didn’t match those of your friend. Anvi probably didn’t even remember it! It was ridiculous – but Beadie also chose not to match, didn’t she?

Beadie nudged Anvi’s shoe with hers.

‘Anvi, did you want to go to that social? I’m almost done here. We’ve got time.’

Anvi didn’t open her eyes. ‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘do you know how many socials we’ve got in this country? Too many.’

‘What about your viking?’

‘He’s not here, he’s in Oslola,’ she waved her hand, ‘and he’ll wait for me, anyway. As long as I want.’