I have these walking boots, I am wearing them now. They are heavy, tough thick-soled Salomons. Around the mid-foot and at the heel are bands of hard plastic and the toes are reinforced. The ankles are padded. The leather, once green, is cracked in places and there is paint splattered on them from various jobs on sites that demanded protective footwear. My feet feel safe in them.
I bought them eleven years ago along with a whole pile of other recommended gear prior to a three-month expedition to Namibia with a Youth Charity. I travelled along as artist and wore the boots nearly constantly for the months I was there.
It was not a success for me. I was in my mid thirties but all my adult life I had struggled with depression and self-esteem issues. I had and have no qualifications. The other people on the expedition were professionals, many with similar experiences behind them and most with appallingly high levels of confidence. I was way out of my comfort zone. I was on a different planet from my comfort zone.
It was not my finest time. I must have come across as moody, closed-down and hostile. Inside I was totally freaked out but more of all this another time. It is enough to say I was happy when December arrived and it was over.
After the expedition some of us retreated from the capital Windhoek to a hostel in Swakopmund on the coast, a town where many white Namibians gather at Christmas. After three months of rules and no beer and stress I felt like I was in heaven.
After we had been there a few days two Israeli boys arrived. When I first noticed Yair I was feeling a little delicate as the result of some escapades on the town the previous night. He was sitting across from me in the crowded common room where we had all gathered to see the latest Lord of the Rings instalment. He was dark-eyed with curly hair and his gaze was intense. He wasn’t watching the movie.
Being a terminal idiot I did not immediately recognise Yairs interest though I did chat with him and his travelling companion Omri who had long curly hair half way down his back. Both were a little shorter than me, strong, solid. Both were quiet, funny and smart. They were leaving the next day.
It was only as I sat in front of the hostel the next morning as Yair and Omri packed up their red station wagon that I realised I had missed something. There were driving east through Namibia and into Botswana.
“They were asking if anyone wanted to go with them,” said my friend Leigh as they pulled out. A Japanese couple were in the back seat.
Why hadn’t I gone with them?I felt a pang of deep regret but for once I chose not to dwell instead I thought…’next time’…and forgot about it.
After a day or two I returned to Windhoek and jumped on a bus going North to Zambia. I stayed in Livingstone in a hostel with a pool around which free pancakes and tea were served every afternoon and where the coconuts fell with resounding thumps on the tiles and occasionally on some tourists head. I saw the Falls and heard of another tourist, an Australian boy, who had been stabbed to death for some coins on the Zimbabwe side the same day. I traded in some clothes for souvenirs in the market. I played with the cats in the hostel but I was bored and lonely and after a few days I headed back to Windhoek.
In Windhoek I bumped into some of my expedition colleagues who were going to Pretoria in South Africa and I changed my plane ticket. When I arrived there I not only found that my expedition friends had come to collect me but that Yair and Omri, who were staying at the same hostel, were driving the car. Occasionally life does deliver a ‘next time’.
This time I was ready and agreed to go travelling into Mozambique with them together with three of the expedition people, a British couple, Chris and Sarah and Jo, a girl from Australia who lived in Scotland.
Yair and Omri were not like the expedition crew and after three months in the presence of those brash, confident, extrovert and totally alien people it was a balm and a blessing to be in their presence. They were confident of course as many Israelis are but they were also thoughtful. funny and self-deprecating.
They had both done their military service and both were uncomfortable with it but the situation back home was not a subject we dwelt on. It wasn’t that sort of time. I had a feeling of healing with them as if all three of us were recovering from some storm of life and the trip was our raft and the only important things were food and warmth and company.
They were generous, with their company, their car, their belongings, their time. They prepared many of the meals. I remember sitting outside talking to them as they prepared me food over a fire, refusing to let me help. I didn’t know where the others were and I didn’t really care.
Their generosity failed only once. We went to the market in one of the towns together. There were clothes which it was understood you bargained for and food which it was understood that you didn’t. Food was so cheap as to be practically free. After buying a sarong I found them at a stall haggling for some tomatoes which cost about .00001 cent.
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked, shocked.
Yair was deep in negotiations but Omri turned to me shrugging …
“We can’t help it, we are Jews…” and returned to haggling.
The first town we stopped at Inhambane where we pitched tents in a site on the beach. There was a bar on the dunes over looking the Indian Ocean. Walking out of this bar the first night I tripped on the ‘step’, a branch buried in the sand and re-tore some ligaments which I had badly injured a few years previously. The pain was ferocious. The expedition guys didn’t care but Omri and Yair looked after me.
The next day I sat on a dune with Yair nursing my foot and watching the sea. Chris, one of our companions, a huge and very confident Scottish guy was swimming in the gigantic rollers.
Suddenly Yair grabbed a surf board and sprinted down the beach. He had seen what I hadn’t, that Chris was in trouble. By the time Yair got to the sea two other people were already in the water and others prevented him from going in. The first rescuer turned back in exhaustion and Rudi, the Dutch bartender, who reached Chris could do little more than tell him to hang in there.
These two were eventually spat out by the rip, half conscious, onto the beach and taken to hospital. Soon afterwards Chris was making light of the incident and Jo was out swimming in the rollers alone. Both seemed like children who think they are invisible if they cover their eyes, as if death could not see them. Sarah had seen nothing at all.
Yair, Omri and I, we had felt the shiver as death himself had come close, touching shoulders as he moved past on the beach in the sunlight. The green frayed tubes of water, the white sand, the palm trees, all were paradise and none of it beyond his reach. In some strange way it felt like a jest on Deaths part or a demonstration of strength.
“Look here, see me,” he grins. “I decide when you leave. You have no power here. Or anywhere.”
It shook us, pulled us closer together to see how near the other side is, that in fact that there is no other side at all, no division between light and dark, here and there. Death walks with us all the time, grinning.
Chris and Jo and Sarah were in a hurry to move after that though they denied the presence of the ghoul. They wanted to see more beaches. We moved north to Vilanculos. We stayed in a hostel there in round white huts capped with pointy straw roofs . Inside under the rough ceiling mattresses lay on the floor arranged like the spokes of a wheel and draped with mosquito nets that hung from uneven beams.
One morning I woke on my mattress which was beside Yairs. As I lay there his hand slid out from under his mosquito net. I looked at it for a moment or two then slid my hand out too and we lay there in silence holding hands as the light grew.
I had developed a tremendous crush on Yair by this time and though he told me he had a girlfriend back home the connection was so strong that in the evening after a beer or two I asked him for a kiss. He turned me down in the most gentlemanly way. He would have kissed me in Swakopmund he said but since then he had realised he loved his girlfriend very much.
Though he had framed it gently it still hurt and on the boat trip we took the next day to an outlying Island I thought the best way to deal with it was to separate from the group, to get some alone time. The island was a mere sand bank, white and melting in a vast turquoise sea under a turquoise sky as if we were suspended in water and light and heat. It should have been paradise but as the sun beat down on me I was miserable and my heart hurt. Lord, I do have a talent for being miserable everywhere.
I tried to rise above the hurt and by the time the painted wooden boat slid back up the beach at Vilanculos I was managing to be more sociable again but Yair thought I was angry and avoided me. I started to wish I had never asked for that kiss.
We spent the rest of our time in various ways. I talked and swam with Omri and went to the market with Jo. Chris and Sarah went diving. We all dined together or had beers. The thought swam into my head that maybe Omri liked me the way I liked Yair but I dismissed it because I did not want to think about the ridiculous ways of the heart.
Four of us left a couple of days after our island trip. Chris and Sarah stayed behind. We spent that night in Maputo before crossing the border back into South Africa. Myself and Yair talked there, cleared the air. I explained I wasn’t angry at him, just sad. Somehow every feeling I have seems to come across as anger, dark ink billowing into water, staining everything. No light pigments for me.
We left Jo in Nelspruit to travel alone, something she felt she had to do. Yair decided at this point to return to Israel to attend an anniversary service for his sister who had died in their war instead of continuing on to surf the South African breaks, a long time dream of his.
The three of us drove on to Johannesburg and my flight home. The boys were on a flight the following day. I was in the back with my boots off. It became quieter and quieter in the car. As we got closer I began to get my stuff together.
Omri says, “There will be no crying. You will get straight out of the car and you will not look back.”
Yair is silent.
I tie my boots, my feet jammed in the space between the front seats, the laces, the eye holes, the cracks in the leather, the stained plastic all coming into sharp relief.
Traffic increased and then we were there. The airport, in my mind now, is nothing but a concrete gully glaring white under a merciless sun. There are no people, nothing, just us. I am out of the car. Omri gets out too and practically shouts across the roof “Go!Now!No tears!”
I go but there are some tears.
New Years Day nearly a year later I am back home in Ireland. It is cold but I am warm as I am for once, for a short while anyway, in the arms of someone I love. My phone rings and it is Yair. We talk a little, my lover snoring beside me. Yairs English is even worse than it was the previous year. Finally he says..
“I wish I had kissed you. I wish I had kissed you that time…”
My heart twists and breaks a little then the way it still does, even now, every time I lace up these boots. It feels the way a muscle might when it throbs along the fault line of an old injury, sometimes even tearing again. The layers upon layers of hurt and pain with a little healing in between remind me that the past is never quite past, that there’s no division between here and there.
These boots have carried me far, up and down mountains, across beaches and deserts, up scaffolding, through warehouses, across theatre sets and stages and from here to there, their thick soles like magnets holding me to the world.
They become more scored, cracked, stained and spattered with the passing years but somehow they are still whole, still strong, still making my feet feel warm and safe.