I am not sure why I started wearing deck shoes. I am no sailor -I have been on a sailing boat twice in my entire life- so have always worn them with the strong consciousness that their function to me is far removed from their original purpose. They are what I wear in the gaps. Posting a letter; shuffling up to Ian’s wine shop; darting out for some milk; returning John Ash to the library: that’s when I wear them. They say: I am in a state of relaxed being. Whatever the season, I nearly always wear them without socks. Not for them the traipse round town in the rain (too permeable), the day-trip to London for a meeting (not smart enough). They live in a crate of shoes by the front door, always on top of the pile, in case. They are slip-on-able. They make no fuss. Just as easily I slip them off again, nearly always mid-stride as I re-enter the house, in search of their moccasin-cousins my slippers, only to surprise myself hours later when I find them a yard apart in the hallway, as though their owner has been mysteriously spirited away in some rapture. My father aside, I don’t think anyone else in my family has committed deck shoe. I have cousins who practically lived in them, but then they practically lived on boats (some still do), so fair play.
The first pair I tried belonged to my best friend at school, Charlie, when we shared a study together during our lower sixth form year. They were the most beaten up shoes I had seen that still performed the function they were intended for and yet which barely resembled anything close to a shoe. There were some laces, which may as well not have been there, so loose were they, all semblance of maintaining a grip on the foot all gone. There were soles, more hole than sole. And there were uppers, holes ditto. They looked as if Charlie had been gardening in them from the moment he pulled them out of the box. They were also extremely comfortable. Our shoe sizes were not identical -Charlie’s feet were bigger, if memory serves- but from the moment I put them on I felt as though I had come home.
I found a pair just like Charlie’s the other day, one I thought I had thrown out, at the bottom of the front door crate. Like Charlie’s, their heels have blown, revealing a small cavity into which have crawled several tiny stones. Like Charlie’s, they look as though they have been used exclusively for gardening, though I know at one point they were new, and fêted, and worn only to social events out of doors, the sound of white wine uncorked a mere stride away. I must have persuaded myself that they have one more season in them, though what I mean by ‘season’ cannot equate to daily wearing as they are now fit only for the garden. Or the bin.
But even these do not begin to compare with those I found in the garage last week. A lace-less pair of Timberlands, they were the pair I wore when I had cancer, literally shuffling around the house or into the shade, as my chemotherapy progressed. Why they are there I have no idea. They are beyond gardening, which is to say beyond all hope. If I was sentimental about them, I am no longer so. To misquote Charles Simic, they don’t just smell of nice nests, they have become one. Yet here they remain, keeping an eye on the hoe and the spade and the shears.
My current pair is manufactured by Sebago. They took an eternity to wear in (one of my feet is longer than the other, they told me in the shop) and cost me more than my house. Slightly more tan than I am comfortable being seen in, they now fit me like the proverbial. Perhaps I have come full circle. My first pair -the ones that began this fondness (I dare not say ‘craze’)- were also a label, Timberlands (again), picked out for me by wife, that seemed to go on forever, again with that sensation of coming home, for no other reason than she told me they suited me, not who I thought I was, or even what I thought I looked like, but me, though it took me a lifetime to believe it.