The girl in the red shoes

In Switzerland we lived in apartments in Nyon. I remember the buildings as clustered about a green area that was terraced and always sunny. A slide, swings, a paddling pool, children sitting on blankets in the sun: all bare impressions that linger when I think of Nyon. There were several apartment buildings, and a little shop for groceries and sweets on the ground floor of one of them. The buildings were nine stories high, and we lived on the sixth floor, and I remember them as concrete, with red or orange balconies, flashes of color in the green, gray and blue world that was Nyon. And I remember that the elevators rarely worked, and we got fit running up and down the stairs, and at Christmas we stole the Advent caledars from people’s mailboxes because we loved nothing more than to open the little flaps and peek at the images beneath, the surprise of each picture as sweet as chocolate to us, in our simple, pre-pubescent world.

But one memory prevails, and I wonder what it means, how real it is, or if I fabricated it. But why would I? Why would I pretend to have witnessed the flight of a little girl in high-heeled red shoes from the top floor of our apartment building, her hurtling flight down onto concrete, where she lay still?

She was an elegant little girl, maybe a little older than I was, and her mother allowed her to walk around in high heels. My mother, a kind but strict hippie, didn’t approve of high heels, especially for children. When we begged — “Camille’s allowed!” — my mother remained steadfast. “She’ll regret it. Those heels will ruin her feet.” My mother had a thing about feet, about making sure her children grew up with painless, beautiful feet. She brought us Clarke’s shoes from the expensive shop in Bray in Ireland every year, and a skilled shoe saleswoman measured our feet and fitted our shoes with precise, knowing care. The saleswoman had been to college for this skill, I’m sure, so determined was my mother that we would grow up with nurtured, perfect feet. Anyway, we were children in those Swiss years, and Camille — who is nameless but audacious in my memory and so must have a name — seemed to us as proud and elegant
and desirable as a princess.

But one day she fell, or climbed over the balcony, or tripped in her little red shoes, and we looked up to see her falling through the sky, a blur against gray concrete and red balconies, till she landed on concrete and lay still. We (I?), were gently drawn away from the gathering crowd. “Is she all right?” I asked. “Why isn’t she moving?”

“She’s probably sleeping,” my mother said. “Sometimes when people bump their heads they sleep for a while.”

In my memory, the little girl wakes from a sleep in which she dreams of flying, and sits up to put on her red shoes, and walks away smiling, rested.

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