The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: Prose


Recently I was in Europe waiting for a bus, in one of the lengthy journeys which have punctuated my thirties. I was in Lille, the bus was very late, and I noticed that waiting with me – in the tiny waiting area, no more than a dias above an elevator – was a French family. They were a grandmother, a granddad and two kids, a boy and a girl. As other buses came and went, it gradually became clear that we were all waiting for the same bus to London.

Eventually, the bus did arrive, and even late we had to change onto another bus at Calais. Once the disarray of relocation had settled, I found myself sat next to the boy from that family, who, I deduced by his grandmother’s frequent address, was called Gaspard. First of all Gaspard was sat near the window, but after we went through customs twice, I ended up there. I asked the returning young man, ‘Vous voulez à la fenêtre?’ and Gaspard said it was no problem, which disposed me to him no end.

We made it through that tunnel. Occasionally, the grandmother would ask Gaspard if he was alright, and he would say he was; an hour passed, and when I looked over next Gaspard was sleeping. I looked down on him, this well-dressed and exhausted figure, and wrote him a poem.


Gaspard, tu dors.

Le monde est grand

Et tu sais bien que

Tu auras beaucoup à faire.

Gaspard, tu dors.

Tu as bien raison.


Doing this amused me. And with the poem being so simple, I decided to have another go at it in German.


Kaspar, du schläfst.

Die Welt ist ja groß und

Du weiß schon, dass

Du viel tun wirst.

Kaspar, du schläfst.

Du hast wohl recht.


And, as I was still amusing myself, I tried it in English.


Cuthbert, you sleep.

The world’s so big and

You’re well aware

You’ll have a lot to do.

Cuthbert, you sleep.

That’s probably right.


That was enough for now. But perhaps others might want to try translating the poem into their languages? It’s called ‘Gaspard’.

Approaching London 0n 26.02.2017.

Entering London 0n 26.02.2017.


Later we approached London in a storm. The night was vast and no ideas counted; I saw pubs dashed by rain and blistered neon. I thought, I want nothing more than to be here, seeing this, and in some way this child’s presence is part of my feeling. For his part, of course, it is unlikely he will ever read this tribute or indeed even know of its or remember my existence. Still he was cool guy. When we finally arrived I wished him ‘un beau temps a Londres.’ ‘À vous aussi’, he replied, to you too.


In a delightful addendum to the story, my friend Elo Zobel has now provided an Estonian version. Tänan väga, Elo.

Kaspar, sa magad

Maailm on suur

Ja sa tead et sa pead


Kaspar, sa magad

Ja nii ongi hea.


City snapshots


A friend wants to move to London.
‘Do you like talking about property?’
‘Well – it’s OK, I guess.’
‘No, but I mean – do you like it?’
‘I suppose.’
‘Do you love it though?’
‘I guess –‘
‘Do you love it above all things? Do you dream of it? Do you burn for it? Do you want to wake up in the night crying property, property, property? Do you want it to haunt your every waking move? Well?’
‘You’re scaring me man…’
‘Do you? Do you? Do you?’
‘Leave me alone!’
‘Come back here! You come back!’


Terry Robinson/Creative Commons/Geograph. Click images to access sources.


After the reading us writers were talking. The successful one spoke.
‘So I’ve been watching all the classics of the genre. Texas Chainsaw, Night of the…’
‘Human Centipede.’
‘Haven’t seen it. It’s the one where they sew people’s faces to each other’s bums, right? Sounds awful. What about you?’
They turned to me.
‘What about me?’
‘Well…’ I thought. ‘I guess my favourite horror film is a movie called Suspiria…’
‘Oh, is it? God, really?’
The successful writer literally arched an eyebrow.
‘Yeah – it is. It’s got my favourite scene in any horror film in it, where the heroine is fleeing an assailant and jumps through a window into a room of barbed wire. Heh.’
‘So,’ another writer said, ‘I’m really excited about the new Star Wars film…’


Nicobobinus/Creative Commons/Photoree.

Nicobobinus/Creative Commons/Photoree.

On the way home I tried to think why the successful writer had reacted like that to my favourite horror film. But I couldn’t, except for imagining that the writer had some idea that a writer had to be catty, had to belittle, to denigrate. But I was too old to be anything other than loving, and knew the only way to approach life was with a big smile and my arms wide open, ready to take it all on. My door had always to be open; I had less time.


Kamal Hamid/Creative Commons/Flickr.

Kamal Hamid/Creative Commons/Flickr.

Yeah, she was at the gig.
The girl?
The one I went on a date with.
Who ghosted you afterwards.
Who ghosted me afterwards, right.
And I think that’s what got into me. You know, I was just determined to be really funny, because she was watching. So I just really launched myself into it, you know; I think I might have overdone it a bit actually, I was a bit frenetic.
Anyway, she just won a competition. Well – she came second actually. So now I’m going to have to win a competition.
Because she did?
But you can’t dedicate your whole career to keeping up with her. I mean, just because she turned you down once.
Why not…
… I mean, just because she ghosted you.
Why not?
I mean it’s not as if you want marriage and children is it.
(A pause).
No, I don’t. Not really.
Then what are you making a fuss about? If you don’t want marriage and children, you’re just messing around.
Yeah. You are right.
I know I’m right.
But she’s really pretty –
So, when are you next performing?

The border guard

I fell in love at the border crossing, which slowed down my passage somewhat. I lingered there for a few days, writing down my impressions, imagining our future. I had it all pictured – the suburban house, the cherubic kids, your face being told the news of my death. Somehow this was the most romantic moment. But the reality was the corridor, and men in khakis whose voices dropped as I passed, and gazing lengthily over empty offices. Where were you? Not at the compound, and not beyond, not in the fields where I walked – until the dirt caked my best shoes, and I decided suddenly one night to move out, through the fences, back onto that long new country road.

New short story

 ©Christoph Dobbitsch

                ©Christoph Dobbitsch


Happy Christmas everyone! My story ‘Trivia’, a comic look at the world of comedy, has been published by Susanne Boswell and the lovely folks at Station to Station here. Thanks to them, and enjoy the rest of the holidays.

Kafka at the RBS

Mildly-edited transcript of a real-life conversation, 17.09.2013.

O. Hello, Royal Bank of Scotland telephone banking, Omar speaking, how may I help?

J. Hi there Omar! I’ve just ordered a card reader over the RBS website and I’d like to have it delivered to my new address.

O. Right sir – I’m afraid you can’t change your address over the phone.

J. It says on your website you can.

O. Yes sir, but I’m afraid that’s only for our Level Two customers.

J. Okay then – how do I get to be a Level Two customer?

O. You need a card reader, sir.

J. But that’s why I’m phoning – so I can change my address and get the card reader.

O. I understand that sir. But you can’t change your address over the phone without Level Two access.

J. Then how do I change my address?

O. You can change it at any RBS branch with valid personal documentation, for example your passport or driving license.

J. But what about the card reader?

O. That will be sent to your current address.

J. But the address isn’t right!

O. I know sir; I can only apologize. If you do wait a second, I’ll see if I can get that card-reader stopped.

(Discussion in background).

O. I’m sorry sir, I can’t do anything. It will be sent to your current address.

J. My old address?

O. Yes sir.

Even if I ordered it five minutes ago?

O. Yes.

J. And I’m telling you, before it’s been sent, I don’t want it sent there?

O. That’s right, sir. The card readers are sent automatically.

J. Mmm. So there’s nothing I can do?

O. I do apologize sir.

J. Say, Omar, have you ever read any Franz Kafka?

O. Actually sir, he’s one of my favourite writers. In fact it was his masterpiece ‘The Castle’ which inspired me to enter into the world of telephone banking in the first place. Something about the protagonist K’s increasingly desperate attempts to be granted access to the titular castle or ‘lock’, a process Kafka’s plans for the novel suggested would only be approved at the very moment of his death, led me inevitably to employment in a call centre. I read him in the original German, of course.

J. Of course, Omar. I’m sure a developed sense of the absurdity of all human effort is most useful in your line of work.

O. Indeed it is sir. Essential in fact. Now sir, is there anything else I can help you with?

J. No thank you, Omar. Keep up the reading.

O. I will sir, and do have a nice day. Your card reader is on its way.