Column: October 26, 2011

I DO not spend much time over the course of a year worrying about whether I have a hole in my sock, but the vast majority of that time is spent sitting on little leather banquettes in shoe shops.

The rest of the time I worry about having a hole in my sock is when I go to the sort of house where they make one take one’s shoes off in the vestibule – the sort of house where they put things away, are always dusting their ornaments, and never read books.

I am sure I would not thrive in Japan. I would have a nervous breakdown by the end of the first week. By the end of the second week, I would be a folk devil, akin to the bogeyman, inspiring films – Godzilla V Colossal Four-Eyed Shoe Man.

Allied to my genuine and deep-seated fear of the exposed sock fissure is my continuing inability to get to grips with fastening shoelaces.

I was not a dexterous or co-ordinated child – very different, of course, from the suave, competent, James Bond figure about whom you read in this space every week – and I was the last one in my class to learn how to tie my shoelaces. As a result, I overcompensate, with a double or sometimes even triple knot, pulled very tightly.

This is all very well, and there is little danger of my shoes flying off if I launch into a Riverdance routine, which is unlikely of me but not unprecedented. But I have a terrible nervous nail-biting habit, making it difficult for me to untie my shoes.

It is like picking up a heavy pallet with a fork-lift truck made from cotton wool.

By now, you are thinking that I am just a bundle of neuroses, but I assure you I do balance that with a relentlessly sarcastic attitude. A winning combination, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Anyway, I have developed a compensatory knot-loosening technique over the years. It involves the use of a sharp canine tooth and is not for public display.

So the last thing I needed, with my sock hole dread, and my knot difficulty, was the shoe shop assistant standing over me while I tried on a new pair of shoes at the weekend.

“Please look away,” I thought. She did not. I decided to kick off my untidy old shoes.

However, I had chosen a triple-knot. No matter how hard I pushed down on the heel with the toe of the other shoe I couldn’t get the shoe off. The assistant continued to watch, horribly fascinated.

I crossed my leg, and started to tug the shoe with my bare hands. It came off, but at a heavy cost. I strained my calf, causing a pain exactly like the pain of a calf cramp sustained in bed. In my head, I shouted, “Ooyah!” as I would have done in bed. But, watched by the assistant, I had to contain myself. A little tear pricked at my eye.

The other shoe came off more easily. I looked down, preparing myself for the worst.

Despite the heavy punishment of the preceding 90 seconds, my socks had held. A small victory. The assistant walked behind me, the spectacle now over. “Ha, ha!” I thought. “You have no idea how I’m going to undo these laces.”

I tried on the new shoes, forcing myself to tie them like a normal person. They fitted perfectly. Another small victory. I was on a roll. I slipped them off, and picked up my rubbishy old shoes, their knots bulging like hernias.

I gave the knots a cursory attempt with my useless fingers, for the sake of due diligence, then went straight in, like Dracula at a black pudding factory. And as my canine loosened the first knot, I was suddenly aware, out of the corner of my eye, that the assistant was standing behind me, from her perspective effectively watching me eat a shoe.

“Oh, please!” I said, my patience gone. “Can’t you leave me alone for a second? I’m not a thief. You don’t have to watch me all the time.”

I turned to face her. It was actually a customer, who wasn’t even looking until the man with the shoe dangling from his mouth accosted her.

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