It was the last Thursday of the month and Geoffrey was due to get a haircut on his way home from work. He marched through the crowded streets of the city centre, each step accompanied by the rhythmic clip-clop of his brogues against the pavement. Clip-clop, clip-clop. That ceaseless noise. It was the tempo of his days, the metronome for his life.
Geoffrey had been going to the same barbershop for eighteen years. His barber was called Ian, a mild man who knew exactly when to stop making small talk and let Geoffrey sit in silence. Ian was also a fastidious cutter, and he took great care at the end of a haircut to brush down every inch of skin or clothing that might be harbouring those pesky clippings of hair.
The two men nodded respectfully to each other when Geoffrey entered the barbershop. Ian initiated brief pleasantries while he took Geoffrey's jacket and guided him to the empty chair. He adjusted the height of the chair, secured a silk gown over Geoffrey's clothes, and neatly tucked a tissue into the collar.
Their small talk soon petered out. Ian narrowed his eyes and began cutting, which usually signalled the end of conversation and the start of a long, comfortable silence. But today Ian had some news.
His daughter was having a baby, so he and his wife were moving across the country to be near their first grandchild. It was a momentous change for them, perhaps the most exciting thing to happen since their daughter left home and they'd faced the dizzying freedom of a house - a life - that was all theirs once again.
Ian nervously eyed Geoffrey's face in the mirror while he explained all of this. He was anxious to see how the news would affect his longest-serving customer.
"I see," said Geoffrey. And after a long pause, "Congratulations."
Ian exhaled with relief. He smiled at Geoffrey's reflection, a smile that he hoped would convey gratitude and his understanding of the disruption this change would cause to his customer's rigid routines.
Geoffrey, meanwhile, went back to staring at his brogues. A prickling heat was rising up his legs and back, and soon he felt sweat seeping out of his back and into the fabric of his shirt. He gripped his thighs as hard as he could under the safety of the gown. The haircut was nearly finished by this point. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on something else.
One of the first pieces of advice he'd been given by his manager at work, many years ago, was that you could tell a lot about a man by the shoes he wore. Geoffrey had taken this advice to heart and bought a pair of black leather brogues, which he had shined regularly.
The shoes had felt like a statement of intent, a direction he had wanted his life to head in, and when he took them off at the end of each day, revealing moist feet covered in red marks from tying the laces too tightly, Geoffrey always felt deflated, as if he'd shed his entire image. Who was he without his brogues? The tempo of his days, the metronome for his life.
Geoffrey had always suffered an instinctive uncertainty about his identity. He struggled to think for himself, instead following instructions without seeking an explanation, and he spent most of his free time hidden away in the ordered refuge of his house, surrounded by tasteful artwork and neatly stacked piles of unread books.
In fact, one of the only times he could remember feeling free to do what he actually wanted was as a child, when his family had gone on holiday to a remote villa with a big garden. Something had eased within him there. He took to walking around barefoot so he could feel what was under his feet, and he would run through the different sections of the garden, leaping over pebbled flowerbeds and low brick walls.
During one such escapade he had stepped on a bee that was nestled in the thick lawn. Geoffrey didn't notice being stung at first. It just felt like he'd trodden on a thistle. But the sting grew more painful and eventually so itchy that he had to sit down and scratch his foot. It was at this point he noticed the sting lodged in the soft flesh of the arch of his foot. He called for his mother who removed the sting and rubbed antiseptic cream on the small perforation. She also stuck a plaster on to stop him from scratching the sting.
Geoffrey had been subdued for the rest of the holiday. He despised the itchy sensation in his foot, which lasted for days, and how his mother scolded him whenever he reached down to soothe the irritation. He started wearing sandals instead of going barefoot. And whatever it was that had felt loose and at ease in his body was pulled back into place, like two pieces of wood that are squeezed together when the screw is tightened.
When the haircut was finished, Geoffrey held himself still while he was brushed down and the silk gown whipped off. He took the tissue that was handed to him and stood up slowly, careful to avoid the clumps of hair scattered on the floor. He pulled his suit jacket on to conceal his sweaty back and walked over to the till, where Ian was looking at the list of upcoming appointments.
Ian turned and held out his hand. Geoffrey shook it without making eye contact, instead looking down at their hands clasped together.
"All the best," Ian said.
"Thank you," replied Geoffrey. "I hope everything goes well with the move and your grandchild," he said, and he finally looked up to meet Ian's gaze.
Geoffrey walked quickly to the station. His brogues clapped against the sterile surfaces of the city: tarmac, concrete, cobbles, paving slabs. Clip-clop, clip-clop.
He didn't break stride when he entered the gaping hall of the station, and he didn't look at the departures board as he weaved his way through the debris of milling people, escalators, and ticket barriers. He walked all the way to the end of his platform and stood alone, separate from the huddle of other passengers.
Geoffrey stared at the empty track. He imagined a train, other than the one he was due to take, hissing to a stop in front of him. Any other train. A carriage to whisk him away to somewhere unfamiliar or forgotten.
He looked down at his brogues, those stiff leather prisons. "You can tell a lot about a man by his shoes."
The train arrived and everyone filed on board. Geoffrey waited to be last so he could stand in the vestibule next to the door.
The carriage was hot and crowded. Geoffrey loosened his tie and undid his top button, spreading his collar to allow his body a gasp of air. He shut his eyes and tried to conjure that image of a train to some far-off destination, a place where he could feel grass between his toes.
The conductor on the platform walked past the door of the train, waved to her colleague and blew a whistle. Geoffrey opened his eyes. He stared through the open door, suddenly feeling an urge to jump out. But he didn't jump. Instead he bent down, apologising to the elderly woman wedged next to him, and untied the laces of his brogues. He tugged the rigid shoes off his feet and instantly felt a pickled heat drain from his body. He excitedly pulled the damp socks off his feet too and wiggled his toes.
The alarm on the train sounded and the doors rattled shut. The engine roared, more whistles blew, everyone standing in the vestibule adjusted their stance in preparation for the tug of the train pulling away.
Geoffrey straightened up with his shoes in one hand and his socks in the other. The old woman was glaring at him, clearly appalled at his decision to remove his shoes on a crowded train. Geoffrey turned away and looked through the window, at concrete and metal melting together in a grey blur as the train gathered speed.
And then, without another thought, he slid the window open, held his brogues aloft in the rush of air, and dropped them towards the abyss that was now racing past below.