There’s a wonderful old black and white Czech film from the sixties called Josef Kilián, in which an anonymous citizen discovers a dilapidated shop on a strange side street offering to rent out cats. Intrigued, he dutifully hires one, but when he returns the next day, the shop is closed and our hero finds himself in illegal possession of a feline. The rest of the film charts his increasingly desperate attempts to navigate an endless bureaucratic maze, attempting to either register or divest himself of said cat as best he can. No one is prepared to help him, but everyone requires him to justify his actions and account for his unsanctioned cat ownership. As you might imagine, things don’t end well.
Needless to say the film is generally read as a satire on communist red tape and servility, but the film’s deadpan absurdism – the harrowing sense of being unable to complete even such an apparently simple task – grants it a universal resonance, as familiar to anyone attempting to cancel their mobile phone contract as to Franz Kafka. It goes without saying that the presence of cats in my story, as well as the idea of a vanishing shop, owes much to Josef Kilián.
In the suburb of York where I grew up there was only one shoe shop – called, if I remember right, Mr Bean’s – and rather than a Kafkaesque labyrinth, shopping there could not possibly be simpler. When you entered, you informed the rather dour natured Mr Bean of your shoe size and colour (which is to say, brown or black) and then, a few minutes later, he would return with the said shoes in an anonymous white shoe box. What could be easier? No display cabinets, no advertising. No browsing, no comparing, no agony of choice. If one was particularly fussy then you could walk around in your new shoes from one end of the shop to the other (which is to say, roughly three strides) but this was, at best, a formality – one always said yes. And so the deal was done.
I like to think of the establishment in ‘No Refund, No Return’, as squeezed in between Mr Bean’s and the cat-hire joint, just as it’s squeezed in between the mundane and the fantastical. I would guess that René Magritte’s 1934 painting, ‘The Red Model’, is also in there somewhere, with its unforgettable image of a pair of stout boots ending in a series of all too human toes. I’ve always considered shoe shops as a little sinister: that strange guillotine-like device you used to have to put your feet into to have them measured, all those disembodied pairs of loafers lined up as if on some kind of melancholy parade. My brother used to keep his Action Men in old, unmarked shoeboxes (a perfect fit!) and they always looked a little like paupers’ coffins. So: death, feet, shoe shops, an object you just can’t get rid of – the essential ingredients of any anxiety dream, really.
© Alan Bilton, 2015. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2015.
Alan Bilton is the author of two novels, The Known and Unknown Sea (Cillian, 2014) and The Sleepwalkers’ Ball (Alcemi, 2009) as well as books on silent film, the 1920s, and contemporary fiction. His new collection of short stories, Anywhere Out of the World, is scheduled to be published by Cillian in late 2015/early 2016.