The old man’s most powerful ploy, if you could call it that, was his ability to, with just a single lift of his brows or an almost imperceptible tilt of his head, sow a tiny but potent seed in you: doubt.
He was the wrinkled-faced, grey-haired cobbler that ran a business down my street. I didn’t know his real name, but there was an old, partly-faded inscription on the signboard above his one-room business premises that had missing letters in its two words. The longer I stared at it on most days, the more it seemed like the gap-toothed grin of a nonagenarian. I remember that my father once said the sign originally read ‘Solid Shoes,’ but in the mischievous imagination of my 10 year-old mind I coined a simile by connecting his wizened appearance and his trade for a rather fitting appellation: ‘Old Papa Shoes’.
I laugh now in recollection of a remarkable experience one Christmas at Papa’s. Even now, the lessons of that hazy, wind-spent, Yuletide morning are not lost on me. In defiance of the Harmattan, I sneaked out of the house to show off my Xmas finery – matching black jeans jacket and trousers, and brown moccasins.
Skipping and hopping – evidence of a full belly – I joined an enthusiastic group of two boys and a girl calling out Happy Christmases at bemused adults who either replied in kind or placed a few nairas in our willing hands. Encouraged by the response, we took our cash accumulation scheme to Old Papa.
Old Papa Shoes had two big wooden doors and a huge metal grill that unlocked outwards. They were always open and as we ambled nearer on this day, I saw him sitting on a wicker chair in the corner. He stared at us, tool-clad hands working deftly at a piece of leather.
“Papa!” we yelled as we barged in. “Papa, Happy Christmas!”
Old Papa looked up with a smile. “Merry Christmas,” he replied cheerfully. And then he looked down at our feet one after the other, paying compliment after compliment. I waited in anticipation as my shoes came under the know-it-all scrutiny of his time-improved gaze. That was when he did what I least expected. He frowned.
“My new shoes,” I declared defiantly. He glanced at them again; the puckered brow now more intense. I was confused. And then a bright idea flashed before me. I raised a foot to him. “Moccasins,” said I.
He looked at my feet again and his penetrating stare lingered.
“They’re nice,” he concurred, “although I prefer leather shoes.”
That hurt. “They are leather,” I blurted.
His forehead creased and his head shook slowly: “Imitation leather.”
Beside me, the other children sniggered. I was upset. Imitation? What did that mean?
Old papa sensed my discomfort. “Your shoe is made of a kind of material that’s like leather but is really not,” he explained. “It’s actually a kind of synthetic or plastic material, if you like.”
“You mean it’s fake?” one of the other boys teased.
To my horror, Old Papa nodded. “Yes, it’s a kind of fake leather,” he said. “It can be quite good too, but it’s not real leather.”
Imitation leather! Fake leather! My heart skipped. Instant tears stung my eyes. I fled the shop, with the sound of laughter in maddening pursuit. At home, nothing anyone said consoled me. All that mattered was that my father bought me fake leather shoes. My Christmas was ruined – unless I could do something about it.
Sufficiently rested from my exertions much later, I hoped to find the bright side of the whole episode, if there was any. I succeeded. Papa knew the genuine article, for one, and I could just fancy myself his student in my spare time. First, though, I had to find me leather shoes that were non-imitation, and Papa’s was the destination.