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U3A Writing: The Shoe Mender

...Winter or summer, Mr Ledger's shirt-sleeves were rolled to just above the elbow. His sinewy, hairless arms and hands moved with lightning speed from mouth to last, then back again...

Ruth L Ross recalls Mr Ledger the shoe-mender.

A Victorian country town in the 1940's and 50's

I always thought of Mr Ledger as old, very old, ancient in fact. Certainly that's the way I have remembered him. Not only did his physical appearance verify this, so too did the environment in which he worked. Daily, Mr Ledger stood behind a long bench littered with cobbler's paraphernalia. Scraps of leather, various tools, shoes and boots in different stages of disrepair, one or two shoe lasts, the inevitable packet of tacks….all these signified his trade.

Winter or summer, Mr Ledger's shirt-sleeves were rolled to just above the elbow. His sinewy, hairless arms and hands moved with lightning speed from mouth to last, then back again. His yellowed teeth looked like a row of battered fence pickets in miniature. The number of tacks clenched between these teeth never seemed to lessen. As soon as several were hammered into an upturned shoe Mr Ledger's blackened hand stretched towards a packet of sprawling tacks to replace those removed from his mouth. This action was rather like that of a crab, with its pincers shovelling food. Mr Ledger was a man of few words, maybe this was because he found it difficult to talk with a mouth full of tacks. Stained lips did not enhance his grisly face.

A leather apron protected his clothes, although it didn't quite cover his open-necked shirt. This apron must have seen hundreds of pairs of shoes over the years; it had long since lost its smooth surface. Cross-hatched with lines and welts, it had assumed a colour rather like that of over-worked plasticine, a colour which matched beautifully with the surroundings.

Mr Ledger seemed to have a permanent collection of dreary old men who sat quietly smoking in the sun outside his shop. It amazed me that the rickety bench on which they sat actually held their weight. Where their footwear hadn't worn grooves in the ground beneath them, a rampant growth of weeds encircled the bench.

It was always with a sense of anxiety that I climbed up the three or four grooved and splintered steps which led to the cobbler's domain. Would the shoes for which I'd been sent be ready? Somewhat fearful of this man, perhaps because of his abrupt manner, I would hope that I didn't need to make a return trip. Perhaps the fear also came from the fact that I thought Mr Ledger was quite wicked. After all, who else but a wicked man would work in a shed/shop which was unlined except for a collage of Tattersall's tickets covering two walls? An extremely strict Methodist Church upbringing during my primary school days dictated that gambling in any form was virtually a mortal sin. With so much evidence of gambling on his wall, this man had to be wicked, therefore feared….or so my childish mind reasoned.

Once inside Mr Ledger's shop my eyes would squint through fug. A table at rightangles to the workbench held mended boots and shoes. Each pair would be wrapped in newspaper and tied up with string. The name of the owner would be on a large cardboard tag tied to the parcel. As there were no biros in those days the flowing script must have been done in ink, or more likely a thick pencil. If I couldn't spot my family's name on a parcel, I'd be resigned to the fact that I'd have to repeat this journey again in a few days' time. If I did spot the name I was looking for I quickly made my escape down those rickety stairs and into the fresh air.

No doubt Mr Ledger wasn't all that old at the time. No doubt he was an upstanding member of the local community. A child's imagination tends to work overtime. I don't know if Mr Ledger was as I have described him, but I do know it's how I remember him!


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