I called him on a Monday morning. His business card read ‘Felix’s shoes repairs’ in block writing, under a picture of a boot and a high heeled shoe.
‘Hello?’ he said. ‘Hello?’
I could hear Russian music playing on the radio in the background. I told him my name and he did not remember me. I told him my mother’s name and he did not remember her. The Russian music played on. I persisted.
‘Ah, yes!’ he finally said. ‘Not today.’
‘That’s fine,’ I continued, ‘just if there was another day I could interview you, maybe next week…’
Eventually we settled on next Saturday morning.
I first met Felix when I was nine years old. I interviewed him for a school project about migrants. His store was around the corner from the terrace house we lived in in those days, and my mother would visit him regularly for repairs. She liked being a regular at places, perhaps trying to draw upon some sense of community she had lost leaving her country town. My mother told me Felix had made shoes in Russia for the KGB. I didn’t know what the KGB meant, seeing him simply as the man with the accent who gave me Milky Ways.
I visited him last month for the first time in years, with my mother. He had fixed my leather bag, the one I bought in Greece. He was exactly as I remembered. In the centre of the room was his wonky cabinet of shoes and he stood before it at the counter, in paint-splattered overalls and a hat that would have looked hip on a long-haired teenage boy. He remembered me. I was taller now, and more self-conscious, but all at once it was a dozen years ago and I was a little girl in a musty room, surrounded by the smell of shoe polish and shadows.
‘I remember!’ he yelled. ‘She came in, she is little girl.’
He demonstrated this by waving his hand down below his waist.
‘And now,’ he announced, without pause for breath, ‘this is thirteen years ago, I remember, thirteen years. She is how old?’
My mother’s sudden laugh echoed in the small space. ‘Twenty-three!’ A pause. ‘So she was nine then.’
‘Nine!’ Felix speaks everything like a prayer. ‘Only nine. And we talk. And now my grandson is ten years old.’
‘Yes!’ exclaimed his wife, sitting by the sewing machine. Thread dangling from her lips, she cried out, ‘he is ten!’ She seemed delighted by this fact, as if the passing of time is something remarkable, special, something to be remembered and creased over.
‘Twenty years this shop…’ Felix looked around proudly at his cosy little space. ‘Twenty years,’ he repeated, shaking his head.
On Saturday morning I arrived to find a child standing at the counter. His head reached just above the counter top. Felix gave him a shoe horn. ‘I can use it as a slide!’ the child exclaimed. His father laughed. I watched on with a strange feeling of resentment.
Felix ushered me to a Nescafé machine in the back of his shop. ‘Ten years I have had that coffee machine,’ he told me. He seems to measure everything against the formidability of time. Ten years, and still the same machine. No easy feat − so many things break, or are replaced.
We sat together by the shopfront window, holding our paper cups. I felt strangely safe there, like the feeling you get in a warm place on a cold day. He took my sheet of questions and began.
Felix was from Leningrad. In 1994, after the Soviet Union crumbled, he and his wife decided it was time to leave. Since the collapse of communism, everyone was losing their jobs and society was changing in a way he did not like. He referred to the old regime as ‘military capitalism, with big guns’. I hadn't heard Gorbachev's reforms discussed this way, nor the Soviet Union reminisced about so fondly. But then, the only other Russian I’d spoken to was a strange young man at a bar in the CBD who kept yelling about ‘our wonderful leader, Vladimir Putin’.
Felix’s family were the last Russians to be granted an Australian visa under Paul Keating’s leadership. In 1995, they arrived in Melbourne, not to return to Russia for eighteen years.
As we spoke, customers came in and handed Felix their shoes in need of repair, and he would smile and give them Milky Ways from the drawer. They all seemed to have a special relationship with him. ‘Shoes are all I know,’ he told me at one point. Standing up, he said humbly, ‘I know everything with shoes.’ Felix started picking pairs up and showing them to me, explaining the intricacies of each lining, each sole.
We walked behind the counter and looked at piles of shoes together in silence, all lined up in rows. He showed me certificates for qualifications in shoe production and shoe engineering from the 1960s, for four and five years respectively. I imagined him spending nine years studying shoe production in Russia, and wondered if people have this knowledge anymore.
Before leaving, I shyly asked if he was happy here and he smiled. ‘When you are young ... I explain with Russian phrase: when you are young, you see the world in pink colour.’ Maybe the Russia of his youth really was better than what it has become today, or maybe he didn’t see the cracks. He didn’t explain what changes when you grow old, but I could guess.
In September, his shop will have been here for twenty years. He has built a life and a home in Melbourne: ‘My parents are buried here. My family is here. My shop is here. My daughter is here.’ Felix is happy just to sit in his shop, miles from Saint Petersburg, mending shoes and belts and bags, weaving days, and weeks, and years.
Before I leave on that crisp morning, he gives me a Milky Way. I eat it on the way home, and it tastes just like it used to.
Caitlin Cassidy is a freelance writer and Masters student in Global Media at the University of Melbourne. She works at Readings.