Everyone thinks of their dog as irresistible but in Cordelia’s opinion there was no question that Blanche was a canine cover girl. Burnished copper silken coat with long floppy curly haired ears, a feathered tail usually in motion, and a permanent smile. Blanche was a golden retriever and English springer spaniel mix. The common name for that hybrid is Spangold but it made Cordelia picture something worn by an Iron Curtain gymnast for the floor exercises at the Montreal Olympics. Instead, she referred to Blanche as a Retraniel even though that sounded like the name of a drug used to treat hair-loss.
Despite Blanche living in London, she was still a working dog, although unlike her country cousins who sniffed out dead game, Blanche had been trained by Cordelia to specialise in retrieving footwear. In particular solitary shoes, never a pair, laying in the street. What had happened for the owner to lose just one? Something nefarious? Flitting in the night? Drunk? Unlike the majority of people, Cordelia could discover the answers because of an extra sensory power she possessed. It was similar to psychometry but her version had additional elements and she called it psychomatricks. All she needed to do was hold the shoe, concentrate, and her preternatural ability disclosed information about who owned it, what they looked like, their personality, thoughts, how they lived, and episodes in their life. Cordelia could even hear conversations they had with other people. She was unable to interact with the shoe-owner and was an observer only but it was still the most entertaining show in town.
Cordelia had discovered her unusual talent, when, as a teenager at an exhibition of vintage shoes she picked up a purple snakeskin wedge formerly owned by Epiphany Montgomery, big band singer of the 1940s, and scenes of cocktails, cocaine and carousing flickered in her brain. Ever since, ‘reading’ shoes was her obsession and she went out early most days searching for abandoned footwear. Who needs to watch soap operas when you can stream one in your head?
That morning’s walk took her favourite route through an overgrown 19th century cemetery that was part nature reserve, and part Gothic theme park, with grand mausoleums, crumbling funerary architecture, and higgledy-piggledy gravestones as far as the eye could see. For students of symbolism as Cordelia was Victorian graveyards were a bonanza where ferns, doves, pentagons and other imagery carved into stone all had meaning. Urns with flames indicated everlasting remembrance, and an angel holding a trumpet represented judgement day. Cemeteries like this were referred to as gardens of sleep where forgotten worthies laid for eternity, although not in peace because as a popular location for music videos and fashion shoots, it sometimes felt like rush-hour for the free bar at a product launch.
Blanche disappeared into a clump of trees shading the entrance to the catacombs and minutes later trotted out with a fawn canvas sling-back sandal in her mouth, dropped it at Cordelia’s feet, and was rewarded with a tasty treat. Cordelia picked up the shoe, closed her eyes and meditated. Prickling waves of energy pulsed through her body, a surge she thrived on. Images flickered in her mind’s eye as information about its owner was revealed in moving pictures. ‘Poisonous Pauline Westwich, you saucy mare,’ she thought, then opened her eyes and said conspiratorially to Blanche, ‘This shoe belongs to one of the world’s great hypocrites.’ The dog wagged her tail enthusiastically as if to say, ‘Tell me more!’
‘No sweetheart, you’d be traumatised to hear about what’s been going on. Westwich has been taking dogs’ name in vain. If the tabs found out, she’d be ruined.’
Not that Cordelia would ever stoop as low as reporting someone to the tabloid newspapers. To her anything went, so long as it was legal, or at least legal-adjacent.
Westwich, an apt surname for an individual who was a human black hole sucking jollity out of life, was the founder of “Moral Universe - Society As It Should Be”, a campaign to publicly shame those who did not behave according to her world view. Pauline was appalled at this, appalled at that, and positively appalled at the other, and she travelled the country booking village halls and small-town theatres to sermonise in and used a bully-pulpit to whip up her multitude of followers into a permanent state of righteous indignation. Pharmacies could barely keep up with the prescriptions for high blood pressure medication that doctors routinely issued after one of her appearances.
‘They’d be better off prescribing dog-stroking therapy to reduce stress levels wouldn’t they my beautiful,’ Cordelia said caressing Blanche’s ears and singing one of the many nonsense songs she had made up especially for her pet before saying, ‘Come on Waggy, let’s go home.’
Turning the corner into the side street off the main road Cordelia stopped as she always did to admire the view. Her view. All eyes were drawn to an ornate pub, the Weasel, its façade covered by polychromatic ceramic tiles, a huge garden behind it, unusual in its scale for a private property in central London. Next door was a 19th century Italian Renaissance Revival palace with columns, pilasters, high arched windows and a colonnade on the ground floor, its grandeur belying the fact that it had originally been a millinery business which went by the splendidly monikered Plumage House, reflecting that century’s craze for feathers. Now it was House of Tanner, shoe purveyor of dreams. Not the feral footwear she chanced upon during strolls, no, we are talking Cordelia Tanner, designer of fashion for feet, high heels for high earners. It always thrilled her to walk into the majestic lobby, climb the imperial staircase with its polished marble balustrades, and feel the satisfaction of having worked for it all.
‘Wish my home was a palazzo,’ an associate had once commented, rather sniffily so Cordelia thought. ‘He thinks I live like a Medici. If only he knew,’ giggling at the thought. Like many people she lived above ‘the shop’. In her case on the roof. Good job it could not be seen from the street, because she did not have planning permission for an extension. ‘Out of keeping with the architectural integrity of the building,’ was the lofty response from the authorities when plans were submitted for a penthouse in the shape of a platform boot. Cordelia had gone ahead in any case, because ever since childhood she had wanted to live in a shoe and could not wait until she was an old woman. So far no-one from the council had noticed. Living in footwear-shaped habitation was totally impractical but she spent little time there. She was not domesticated, usually ate out, and used it only for sleeping in and to store her extensive clothing collection which was categorised by season on separate floors in the heel.
‘Today I shall be Rosalind Russell in “The Women”,’ Cordelia declared as she rummaged through her rails and chose a purple cashmere top adorned with three surrealist seeing eyes outlined in bugle beads. She paired it with a slim fitting violet coloured wool crêpe skirt to the knee and matching double-breasted jacket with such assertive shoulder pads it meant walking at an oblique angle through doorways. Every now and again Cordelia dressed up as a film star and challenged her staff to guess who she was channelling. Her shoulder length mahogany coloured hair and the figure of a golden age of Hollywood screen goddess made her a natural for Ava Gardner but with her vast collection of wigs she could equally be Lana Turner or Lauren Bacall, you name it. No wig that day though, her own hair pinned in a French pleat, upon which a hat that resembled a tiny salver trimmed with silk spring flowers rested at a jaunty angle. ‘Lady Looking-Lush!’ she said blowing herself a kiss in the mirror and mouthing ‘Phwoordelia’ as she did every time she saw her reflection, shop windows included, which, her being so stunning was hardly surprising. From anyone else that might have appeared vain, but Cordelia did everything with a light-hearted attitude so it was a joke.
‘Good morning my Sole Brethren. Is Rex around?’ she called out in her mellifluous voice that always had a smile in it, popping her head through the door of the House of Tanner studio to wave at the design team.
‘He’s having breakfast at the Weasel, Sylvia,’ Sebastian, her PA, replied correctly identifying the film character being invoked by Cordelia, who grinned and flicked an invisible pocket of air at him, which meant “Correct, you’re brilliant, and so am I for hiring you”.
Depending on who was looking, Sebastian, at six foot five with chunky muscles and long hair in an extraordinary shade of Titian rarely seen outside the fur of a red squirrel, resembled a wrestler, bodyguard, or a clean-shaven Neptune. Most people did not believe him when he told them what his job was. ‘You don’t look like a personal assistant,’ was the usual comment. ‘And what is a PA supposed to look like?’ he would respond. ‘Don’t know really, female?’ they usually muttered, embarrassed at being called out for gender stereotyping. Sebastian’s main reason for choosing the profession was that he loved being around women, and never missed an Association of Personal Assistants’ networking event where he stood out because men were the minority.
‘I’m off for brekkie too,’ Cordelia said. ‘Won’t be long.’
She sauntered into the pub, sat down at the table where Rex was inhaling a plate of kedgeree, picked up a fork, speared a succulent lump of haddock, and devoured it. ‘How do you do,’ he said shaking her hand. ‘How do you do,’ she replied. They often used the formal greeting, pretending they did not know each other. Strangers observing them might think it a coincidence that two individuals who seemed to be meeting for the first time looked so similar. They could be twins. Which, actually, they were. Like Cordelia, Rex was tall, with dark wavy hair, and a happy face that lit up when he spoke. He too commanded a room, not least because he was so dapper and his passion for bespoke suits that were so well cut they should have come with a safety warning paid his tailor’s mortgage.
‘You’re looking sharp my man,’ she said.
‘Yes I am aren’t I. Can I try on your titfer?’ taking her hat and balancing it on his head.
‘You’ll never guess what I’ve discovered about WestBitch. She’s been getting up to all sorts in a graveyard.’
‘Urghhh, don’t give me details. Oh go on then do, but none that will make me nauseous.’
‘Two words - dogging den. Puts on a disguise, films the action on her phone, and live streams it on a subscription site for voyeurs. That’s how she’s funding Moral Universe.’
‘Who told you?’ Rex asked greedily.
‘Her sling-back. Blanche found it this morning. WestBitch must have been disturbed and scarpered so quickly she lost it. Cheap and saggy. A few quid from down the market.’
‘Wish I had a superpower like you,’ he said sighing for dramatic effect. Several times over the years Cordelia had tested whether he could psychometrise but his analytical brain was unable to let loose and succeed in the task.
‘Effie darling, may I have a pot of Assam tea, and kippers with extra butter please,’ Cordelia called out to the young woman behind the bar.
‘Is she new?’ Rex asked.
‘Yes, she’s fabulous. And she has one of the greatest first names ever bestowed upon a baby.’
When Effie brought the tea Cordelia said, ‘This is my brother, would you tell him what you are called and its significance.’
‘I was named Effortless because my birth was so quick.’
‘I love a moniker with meaning. Mine is Rex, although I can be a bit of a Regina if the occasion demands.’
‘That’s a coincidence, my surname is Eze and that means King too – in the Igbo language. You should meet my sister Tranquility. She never cried as an infant, but now she’s lead singer with a thrash metal band and not living up to the expectations ordained at birth.’
Effie worked days at the Weasel, and in the evenings performed her own comic songs accompanying herself on a harpsichord and building a reputation in comedy clubs because her act was so singular. She was a master at improvisation and could compose a ditty about any phrase the audience gave her, even if they tried to flummox her by suggesting seemingly unrhymable words such as orange.
Cordelia tucked into her breakfast. ‘This is majorly scrum. Food of marine goddesses – the oil keeps their scales supple.’
‘What is the world’s leading shoe designer up to today?’ Rex enquired.
‘Magazine interview, then lunch at the Audley Collection, after that I have a meeting at the opera house to discuss the new production I’m designing shoes for,’ she said reeling off her appointments.
‘I’m ready to show you the final bit of Alibi,’ he whispered even though only Blanche snoozing by the fireplace was near enough to overhear their conversation.
‘How about this evening?’ Cordelia replied, excited that their plot was developing to schedule.
‘Date,’ he said, nodding.
Rex was rare among technology specialists in that he was erudite, sociable, and looked a person in the eye when conversing. Which he did a lot, being the loquacious type. He worshipped art and beauty but unlike Cordelia who genuflected to Rococo styling with her mantra ‘too much is never enough’, minimalism dictated his domestic and work surroundings.
Symmetry made him happy, hence living in a pared down mid-18th century Huguenot silk weaver’s house. His brain wiring made him an ace at implementation, computer coding, and - whisper it - hacking. Order ruled his life and he had a spreadsheet for everything, including his clothes so he could refer to what he had worn when and did not repeat an outfit too quickly. His favourite musicians were Handel and Bach because of the mathematical precision of their compositions. ‘Music and maths are both dominated by patterns and are predictable,’ he explained.
Rex called his office House of Hypatia in honour of the Greek astronomer and philosopher murdered by Christian zealots in 415 CE. He was determined to celebrate history’s overlooked female mathematicians so on the walls he had portraits of Marie-Sophie Germain, who in the 18th century was forced to assume a male identity to study at Paris’s École Polytechnique where women were not permitted to enrol, and Ada Lovelace, mid-19th century computer pioneer who collaborated with Charles Babbage on the first programmable computers. Her work was so ahead of its time that the practical application was not fully understood until a century after her death.
‘Not everyone’s brother is a feminist,’ Cordelia said proudly of Rex. ‘And not everyone’s brother has dead mathematicians as pin-ups.’
Like Cordelia he never ate at home. She had numerous excuses for not doing so including, 1) she lived in a shoe without a kitchen; 2) she could not cook and anything with more than two ingredients was beyond her, and 3) life was too short to chop vegetables. Rex’s main reasons were that cooking was so messy and made his flawless show-home smell. Besides, his dirty little secret was greasy spoon cafés and he was a ticker when it came to their traditional menus. Liver and bacon, tick; steak and kidney pie, tick; spotted dick pudding, tick. He had even built an app to help him keep track of where his top-rated dishes were to be eaten. He lived in hope that one day he would sit for breakfast inside one of London’s 19th century green wooden cabmen’s shelters but unless he spent several years studying The Knowledge and passed his exams to become a licensed Hackney cab driver, that would not happen.
While Cordelia was the creative director and public face of House of Tanner, a bona fide shoe-lebrity who described herself as having a duty to spread beauty, Rex worked with no fanfare behind the scenes, the non-glamorous aspect of the business. Seven years previously he had developed supply chain software that companies the world-over licensed annually which was so lucrative it sustained the financial foundation of their brand.
In the shoemaker’s Hall of Fame Cordelia and Rex deserved their own floor because they created footwear like no others. Roger Vivier invented the stiletto heel, Christian Laboutin made red soles a visual motif of luxury. House of Tanner, or HoT as people who worked there often referred to it, had not one but two unique selling points – one enchantingly whimsical and the other practical - reflecting the different personalities and sensibilities of Cordelia and Rex. Wearers of House of Tanner shoes were accompanied by birdsong as their feet struck the ground and trills were transmitted from tiny speakers hidden in the heels. The song could be switched off if desired, except that rarely happened because the whole point was for others to hear it and be impressed that the wearer could not only afford House of Tanner shoes but was deemed worthy to be a client. There was even a collective noun for the clientele - a Dawn Chorus.