A Pair of Boots

March 2019
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In memory of Volodymyr Pavliv (1974-2017)

My Facebook page has been advertising dating sites, maternity clothes, theater performances and army boots. Size 8. It must think that I am a single woman of reproductive age, keen on theatre and army outfits. It also thinks that I have pretty big feet.

I don’t blame Facebook. I must have spent days looking at army surplus sites, hunting for a pair of army boots. I was desperate to get a pair that would be lightweight, waterproof, black and size 8. I soon realized that army surplus sites sell just that: surplus supplies. That meant that the most popular sizes—8 included—were very hard to find. I considered getting police boots, because they were super light, and I could get them in the right size and color, but they were not waterproof. I found a pair of army boots that were waterproof, black and size 8, but they were heavy, and the last thing you want when crossing the muddy fields of the Ukrainian black earth region is boots that weigh a ton even before the mud piles onto them.

After a week or so of inspecting hundreds of pairs of army boots on my laptop screen and, not finding what I needed, I started to despair. Every day I checked the main sites to see if they had any new additions, but with no luck. But then, suddenly, there they were: a shining pair of Gore-Tex Pro Combat British Army boots. I couldn’t believe my eyes! They were waterproof, black, a bit on the heavy side, but, most importantly, size 8! But wait, what’s that? The label said: "Size 8 medium"! "Oh, God!", I thought: "Is 'medium' good? What are the other options?" But I couldn’t face having to give them up and continuing to look for another pair. Luckily, there were no other options available and I thought that "medium" was better than "large" or "small," so I bought them. The special bonus for all my hard work was the fact that they were not "pre-owned," like most other pairs I looked at. They were brand new! I was very happy: my brother would have a brand-new pair of proper army boots, the envy of the whole company or maybe even the whole battalion! No one else would have such cool boots.

My order arrived pretty quickly. I was glad to learn that the boots were not too heavy. I gave them a wipe (there was no need to clean them, remember, they were brand new!), stroked them gently, whispered "good luck" to them, put them back in the shoe box and put the box in a bag, which already contained a full army uniform, a couple of army caps, army socks, t-shirts, a lightweight waterproof suit, lightweight jacket and trousers, a helmet liner, a bivvy bag, a genuine British army issue poncho, a few other pieces of army clothing as well as medical supplies, a Celox sachet (it’s this stuff that stops heavy bleeding), water purifying tablets, dry food survival packs, and lots of chocolates and flapjacks. Basically, all the stuff that the army doesn’t bother to give to its soldiers. There was also an MP3 player with my favorite music and some recorded prayers. I hadn’t been asked for it. I put it there on my own initiative. My mum added a few leather crosses on leather threads: "Maybe he’ll give them out to his friends and keep one for himself," she said.

Apart from the boots, which were a total pain in the neck, none of these items were particularly hard to get. My friend, a former soldier himself, made a list of the necessary items and the companies that made them. Other friends who had been volunteering for some time suggested some websites that sold these things. So, the process of getting all these army supplies was surprisingly straight-forward. Well, actually, that’s not true: I was also supposed to get a bullet-proof jacket, but that task proved to be beyond my ability. Looking at the large khaki bag in front of me I felt quite proud of myself for accomplishing my own army mission: getting all these things that would make my brother warm, dry and safe.

***

When I opened the same khaki bag with army supplies nearly two years later, I didn’t recognize many items: the uniform was not the British Army one I bought. It was made of thin, plastic-like material. Some of the t-shirts were the ones from my shopping list, but they no longer smelled of warehouse as they did when I got them in the post. Now they smelled of earth and damp. The helmet liner was there. The same one I bought. Except now it had a hole and several brownish stains. Some of the leather crosses were still there. Perhaps he didn’t offer them to his friends, or maybe they felt that if the bullet-proof jackets can’t protect them, nothing can. There were some condoms in a small pocket. I saw them and thought, "Shit! I should have bought the condoms when I packed the bag two years ago!"

There was a mobile phone. It had no lock, no password. I didn’t know if I should open the text messages, pictures and videos. They didn’t belong to me, yet I also felt that they could tell me something. I put the phone to the side and decided I would take a look at it later. There was also a folder with some paperwork: a brief autobiography, some military documents, vouchers for free train journeys for soldiers (most of them unused), the list of next of kin, some pictures of the sun and rainbows drawn by school kids for soldiers. And there was a book with missing pages. A weird fantasy book. I guess, weird fantasy is what one needs when weird reality gets too much.

And then I saw them: Gore-Tex Pro Combat British Army boots. Size 8. They were still in a very good shape, although not brand-new anymore. I guess now you would qualify them as "pre-owned." They were covered in mud. The fertile, sticky Ukrainian black earth. 

I took them into the hall of the flat we were in—it belonged to a friend who had brought the khaki bag back from the frontline. The hall was covered in other people’s shoes: some cleaner, newer and more colorful than others. The pair I held in my lap stood sharply apart from the rest. There, among civilian shoes, this army pair looked like it was from another planet. I cried for the first time since I received the bag. My tears started to roll down my cheeks and onto the shoes. I took a cloth and started to clean them. Gently, like I did at home after I received them in the post. First, I removed the mud from the soles, then cleaned the rest of each shoe, and gave them a shine. I stroked them, like I did two years ago, and whispered to them: "Good luck! You can keep someone else dryer and warmer now."

London, 2017.

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka