My boots had moulded to me to the point where pulling them on was better than being barefoot. More comfortable, more natural. When I bought them, in Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest music festival before it was discovered by English radio stations, I worried that black lizard skin boots would be laughed at in the Suffolk village where I spent most of the year. I say that rather than ‘where I live’ because that is how I think of it. I live when I travel and in between I stay in Ousden . Once I had worn them though I realised that they were the most comfortable things I had ever owned and no-one commented. They ignored me as much as they always had and I was still the person who lived in the village but on the outside of village life.
I wear shoes heavily, even though I am not a heavy man, which I put down to my theory about elemental signs, everybody relating to air, fire, water or earth. Ok, I know it’s a Chinese theory but I’ve adopted it. Air people are of course light on their feet, imaginative and have bouncy walks, fire and water people show those qualities in their temperament and earth people, like me, are heavy and grounded in reality. My wife always said it made about as much sense as astrology but I told her that was because she was a fire person. After a frustrated pause she once asked how I had thought this up if I was an earth person to which I replied that I was on the cusp of earth and air, she threw her eyes skyward and huffed off, ironically towards the horizon. Permanently as it turned out, though I think there was more involved than just my theory of the elements.
So, because I wear out shoes quickly, I look after them and I have a repair shop I always use in Newmarket. Two months ago I was in a rush and stubbed the toe of the right boot against the stone border of the flowerbed on the way to the gate. I cursed myself for my earthy clumsiness. I threw the boots into the car and changed into a pair of brown brogues. This put me in a foul mood. I was heading off to Mexico in three days and I knew business would not go well if I had to wear the brogues all the time there. I know, it sounds a bit crazy, a bit anal maybe but they made me more reserved and that did not go well with the spirits dealers in Mexico. They would feel they could take advantage. I wondered if I would be able to buy a new pair as soon as I reached Mexico but equally I knew that was a long shot, my schedule was tight and even if I found some there was no guarantee they would have the same effect as my current pair.
I drove out of the village by my normal route and, as I took the left hand bend by the pub, saw a small cottage at the edge of the village advertising shoe repairs, keys cut and the other usual services affiliated by their lack of fit anywhere else. I had never noticed the sign before, in fact when I looked back later, on the way back in, I realised that I had never noticed the cottage previously and it was the sort of cottage you would expect to notice. Double-fronted with a double pitched roof, rather like those Dutch barns, with new thatch and walls painted eggshell-blue, it was the kind of picture that often appears on biscuit tins but not in Ousden.
I pulled up outside and walked through the door of the workshop at the side of the house that was indicated as the site of the services. It had one of those bells on a piece of sprung metal that wobbles when the door hits it and causes the bell to ring irregularly. Nothing else happened and no-one stood behind the counter so after twenty seconds I called out a very English village style ‘Hello?’ the sort of call that has an automatic, but unspoken apology attached. As the decision of whether to call again or leave quietly was about to become unavoidable, an inevitably small, be-goggled man with the original bedhead hair, a bow-tie behind his serge overalls and a Gepetto style moustache appeared. I think he came from the backroom but the door did not seem to have moved and, in the way of these stories, he seemed to be nowhere one moment and in front of me the next. He played with an unidentifiable piece of metal that, despite its mystery, had the air of belonging to a watch or other piece of delicate machinery. He peered at me over the top of his goggles, raised his eyebrows and his moustache as if they were joined by wires and effected what was probably a smile.
‘You would like your boots repaired yes?’ he asked in a way that was not unpleasant
but clearly expected only confirmation.
I was taken aback by both the prescience and the accent that sounded familiar but was tantalisingly unidentifiable.
‘How did you know?’ I asked with what must have sounded like the breathlessness of Little Red Riding Hood talking to the Grandma/wolf.
‘Sir, you are having a pair of, if I am not very mistaken, black lizard skin boots under your arm. I know this is East Anglia and many things are taken as normal that would produce comment in other places, but I think black lizard skin boots are not one of them. Also, I am mending shoes for long time and can see from here that the toes are badly worn, especially the right one, which is having the sole separate a bit so is likely you want repair yes?’
Feeling more of a fool in front of this gently mocking little man than I was comfortable with, I let out one of those throat clearances so beloved of men when needing to remind themselves of their own seriousness.
‘Yes, you are right of course, heels and soles please, no tips’
‘Of course no tips Sir, that would be, how you say, ostentious?’
I pondered this for a moment, realised we were missing an ‘at’ in the middle and gently pointed out the entirely understandable error, derogating the fiendish difficulty of my own language in the process.
‘Also, for an extra two pounds you can have the everlasting souls’ I heard and the loss of my Catholic background revisited me, chillingly.
My parents would have wept, especially my mother, at the cheapening of her faith. She had always assumed the knowledge of order, ceremony, arcane Latin phrases and how to swing incense burners to be central and essential to the avoidance of extended purgatory. Now there was a little man in a small backwater in Suffolk offering a similar service for two pounds. If she’d been dead she would have done the obligatory turn.
‘Everlasting souls?’ I croaked and stood wavering at him.
‘Yes Sir’ he replied after the smallest sliver of a pause and holding up the base of the shoe to my gaze, ‘if the soles are ever wearing out in the life of the shoe, you bring them back to me and I replace them for no cost’
Having regained a level of equanimity I smiled – weakly I felt – and agreed to the everlasting, as I had at communion so many years previously, left my boots and took the small ticket he gave, along with an assurance from him that the boots would be ready by Friday. Gepetto was true to his word and on Friday afternoon I collected my boots along with a feeling that this would be a good trip.
That Saturday I travelled to Mexico as planned, with my boots. I search for new spirits. I was one of the first people to import the real anejo and reserva Tequila to Britain, not the one with the worm, which is just a marketing gig. Since then I had found other spirits and other markets in Europe as it expanded. I had heard recently about a newly rediscovered spirit named after its source. It was distilled from the venom of a desert lizard and named after it, simply called Gila.
I had never seen one of these lizards and hoped that while in Mexico I might get a chance. I mentioned this to Paco, the Mexican in charge of the distillery and he nearly choked on the small glass of the spirit that seemed always to be in his hand. ‘Why you want to get hot and sweaty , trudging for days in the desert to see the thing that might hurt you very bad?’ he asked, not bothering to attempt to disguise his disappointment in me. ‘If you want to be uncomfortable and in the danger, I take you to the other end of town, to Lola’s house and I leave you there!’ and he burst into the sort of maniacal laughter I had thought only existed in the Mexicans in 1960s westerns. ‘Ok Paco’ I said, ‘back to business, how much do you want for this fire water if I take fifty cases?’ and we began our haggling.
The next day I was surprised to notice that despite keeping up with Paco the night before, as far as you can call me drinking one glass for every four of his keeping up, I had no hangover. I made a note of this as a useful marketing tool and went off for a final tour of the distillery and souvenir buying. That lunchtime I ate in my usual place, slept for two hours afterwards and packed for an early trip to the airport in the morning. As I was about to cast the final glance around the room that had become a habit since the occasion when I returned from Colombia and had to explain to my wife why I was without my wedding ring, there was a commotion outside the bedroom of a ferocity that made me pause. Then an urgent banging on my door and Paco burst in, an agitated look on his usually languid face, holding an animal by one end of its body, but I could not tell which end. ‘What the hell is that?’ I asked while trying to puzzle out which was its head and which its tail. ‘That is your monster that you wanted to see – the Gila’ ‘But you told me they only lived out in the desert’ I said, ‘No-one has seen one of these things in the town in the memory of the oldest person here’ Paco assured me in a tone that seemed to imply it was my fault. ‘It was scratching at your door, if we had not killed it you would probably have stepped on it when you came out and boof!’ ‘Boof?’ I enquired ‘Si boof, very poisonous lizard, he finish you off!’ ‘Paco, forgive me but you seem to be acting as if this is my fault and I don’t quite see how…’ Before I could finish he picked up my boots and held them next to the dead lizard, ‘You have his mother!’
I laughed, possibly not the most tactful move but when someone suggests that a lizard is trying to break into your hotel room to avenge its mother who has been turned into your footwear, any other response seems worse. ‘These lizards never forget’ said Paco ‘I thought that was elephants’ I said, still with what must have been an irritatingly amused look on my face. ‘In Africa elephants, here, the Gila’ said Paco, as certainly as if he were telling me the day of the week.
I tried to remember that he was a useful guy to know round here and it would not do to upset him, even if his claims seemed to be the product of too many shots of the thing he was selling me, ‘So, does he have any brothers or sisters?’ I asked hoping, unsuccessfully as it turned out, that he would not take offence ‘You think this is not serious, it is very serious’ Paco said gravely, his mood swinging faster than I suspected a gila lizard could ever move. ‘OK but what can I do?’ I enquired, trying to buy time and, despite my scepticism, concerned about the lizard he was still holding like a blunt instrument.
‘Is only one thing to do, make apology to ancestors’ he said with the straightest face I had ever seen on him.
‘And how do I do that?’ I asked with the definite feeling that this was getting out of control.
‘Tonight we must go to desert and do special ceremony for this one’s body and pray ancestors will forgive us’
It’s funny but when you think, as I had until this moment, that you have an evening to kill in a strange place with no entertainment and the time seems to stretch before you like a fortnight in Wolverhampton and you think you would welcome a diversion, it never seems to occur to you to go out to the desert and perform an ancestor appeasement. Still, this was Mexico and I did feel I had got a particularly good deal from Paco on the Gila spirit so I agreed to go. He told me to make sure I brought along a few items and some money. ‘Why do I need money in the middle of the desert Paco?’ I asked. ‘First, is not the middle, that would be stupid, is too far and too dangerous, second just bring it, you will see…or maybe you don’t trust Paco anymore?’ he said
‘I will bring the money and the other things and I will meet you where?’ I said ‘No! not meet us anywhere, I will fetch you, bring you to right place, otherwise you wandering around for hours and never get there’ he announced indignantly and, after allowing a final harrumph to escape through his moustache, he strutted off presumably to prepare for the sacrifice of my money.
That evening, early for the first time since we had met, Paco came with a bag containing I didn’t know what and his cousin, who turned out to be a shaman and the reason for the money.
‘Paco, no offence to your cousin but I thought this was about you and me going out to say sorry to the lizard’s mother, why do we need a shaman?’
Paco raised his eyebrows and clapped his hands to his forehead in a gesture of utter despair, ‘Do you people know nothing?’ he asked, ‘You cannot just go and stand in the desert and say, “sorry I kill you please let me off” and think everything will be ok, we must carry out proper ritual to make sure you will be ok, that is why we need shaman, only he knows right way to do this and talk to the animals otherwise you make them more mad and then who know what happen’ and he raised his shoulders in the show of mystique and resignation beloved by peasants the world over when revealing the stupidity of foreigners.
‘Ok then, let’s get on with it’ I said but before I could move Paco put his hand against my chest and looked meaningfully at my wallet. I sighed, picked it up and counted out the money until he was satisfied, then he nodded at my boots and said ‘You must bring her too’
‘My boots? You want me to bring my boots?’
‘Of course, they are the problem!’
So I picked up my boots and started to put them on but Paco made me carry them and leave all other footwear behind. We headed out of town in his twenty-year old pickup truck, me squashed between Paco driving and his cousin who Paco had introduced as ‘Miguel, like the saint’ but who seemed to lack social niceties, such as making eye contact, talking or acknowledging that I was even present.
An hour later we were in scrubland, bare earth and agaves everywhere.
Suddenly, Miguel’s arm shot out in front of him and he grunted, in a voice that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside him ‘Pare, estamos aquí’
My Spanish is not great but I knew Pare was stop and the response of Paco who almost stood on the brakes confirmed this. The other two got down from the truck and Paco indicated I should follow and bring my boots. I started to put them on my feet but he hissed at me to carry them. I got down gingerly in my bare feet, feeling very vulnerable in this desert. Paco took my boots and handed them to Miguel who placed them on the ground a few paces away, raised his arms to the sky and began chanting.
I was now feeling distinctly uncomfortable, physically because of my bare feet and the cold of the desert night and some kind of spiritual discomfort caused by the chanting. My brain told me this made no sense but my insides kept winning the argument.
After about ten minutes of Miguel’s chanting he motioned to Paco who handed him the boots, my boots. Miguel chanted some more, reached inside the boots and tore out the linings, took a small knife from his pocket and cut a number of small pieces from the leg of each boot.
I shouted but was cut short by Paco back-handing me in the stomach and knocking the wind out of me. I stood bent over, struggling to breathe and watched, helpless, as Miguel scrabbled in the dusty earth making a small depression, placed my boots in it, covered them over with more earth and spread the small pieces on top of the mound. I groaned at the loss of my boots and the ache in my stomach, and was about to stagger back to the truck, when I was stopped in my tracks by a rustling in the bushes around us. A gila lizard showed its stumpy head from under a bush on the far side of where my boots were buried and started slowly to waddle towards the mound. Then another from the left, two more on the right.
Paco placed his hand on my arm, his other hand on his lips and indicated that I should stay still. I was pretty much incapable of movement at that moment anyway but when a lizard walked over each foot I would otherwise have leapt in the air. As it was, my teeth gritted and an uncontrollable shiver engulfed my body as their flaccid stomachs dragged over the arch of my feet and I felt their claws scratch the skin between my toes. The lizards converged on my boots’ shallow grave and after snuffling around each picked up one of the scraps Miguel had cut from the boots and disappeared again under the bushes. Paco and Miguel nodded to each other and began walking back to the truck, stopping only for Paco to look back at me and say ‘It is over, you can come now’, as if we were leaving a perfectly ordinary show. He had to come back and take me by the arm before I could move. During the trip back to the hotel our roles changed, Paco and Miguel talking at their normal speed, presumably about the evening’s events, while I sat speechless.
When they dropped me outside the hotel it was 3 a.m. and my flight was not until 11 a.m. In my room I packed my last few things and took a cab to the airport, which criminally over-charged me because of the time of night, but I didn’t care. I had to go as fast as possible.
In the thankfully anonymous airport lounge I avoided the tequila and ordered two double scotches and finally understood the phrase ‘barely touched the sides’. That was all I understood, not the night’s events, not the loss of my boots, not even my business anymore. I sat in the departure lounge feeling that all my old certainties had been laughed at and dismissed by some power I would never understand. Miguel and Paco, seemingly simple, lightly educated Mexicans, making a living from …well actually I wasn’t quite sure how they made their living since I was sure I had screwed them down on the price of the Gila spirit and they did not seem to do anything else, but they wore their working lives lightly, only coming properly alive outside, which was where life became important All the commercial gods that I had put my faith in all my life meant nothing to them. They seemed to have access to something else, a sense of belonging, physically and spiritually in that place. I had rejected religion in my early teens and had always been sure of the rightness of the decision until last night. I looked at the planes through the large window at the edge of the lounge and no longer understood how they flew, I saw the people booking in for their flights and did not know why they were flying, how the buildings stayed up or the airlines made money. All about me were mysteries; other people’s imaginings and inventions and achievements that I would never fully understand but now I knew that underneath it all lay a deeper something that I would never have access to either.
I ordered another double scotch to pull myself out of these thoughts and sipped it as I considered what to do next. My old life was meaningless, my new experiences I did not want to repeat. I was adrift. As I sat, outwardly calm and slightly drunk, inwardly panicking and helpless, I remembered the words of the old man who had repaired my shoes; ‘For an extra two pounds you can have everlasting soles’. Nothing would be the same again, I would never come to Mexico again and my business would have to morph again into a new venture but I was accustomed to that, it was how I had made a living for thirty years, belonging nowhere, moving house, town, business as necessary. Most importantly I would never again have lizard skin boots and I would always save the two pounds ‘for everlasting souls’, if my shoes wore out again I would keep repairing or throw them out. Through a flush of Scottish heather, malt and yeast my mouth curled and I began to chuckle to myself the way you do when you’re powerless.