The moment I knew: ‘He raced over to help some hapless hikers. Their tent was up in minutes’

Though she’d known Ian for years, it was only out in the bush, free from any social pressure, that Tara Wells could really see him for the first time

The night I met my husband I came home disappointed. Seated on the edge of the bed, I removed my earrings, puzzled. I had been so sure I would meet someone that night; there was a buzz in my body, a little hum of excitement. Tonight is special, it whispered.

I’d spent the evening at a long restaurant table, celebrating my friend’s birthday. Sitting diagonally opposite was a guy a few years older. He was, I assumed, the unremarkable husband of the woman seated beside him. I was wrong, but still, the noisy restaurant meant I gave up on finding out more. Afterwards, my friend urged me to continue on at the pub with them. “No thanks, I’ll pass,” I said.

Years later I found out that, for him, the moment I walked into that restaurant was a vibrant shot of colour. Ian saw me that night, marked me out as someone special, while I continued on blindly. How could I have met my soulmate and not known? It’s not that I thought badly of him. I just hadn’t thought.

Over the next two years, we bumped into each other at mutual friends’ events. Each time the pressure: “Wellsy likes you.” I admit to taking a while to warm up to new people, especially in group situations. (He says, “cold” and “aloof”; I say, “guarded” and “unsure”.) There was an added element of pressure: we were the last two singles in a room of couples, all of them pretending not to look when we said hello. It was all too much.

The Ian I know and love today can, and does, talk to anyone. For a while there, it was even his job. He was a tour guide, taking people on hikes of Sydney’s national parks. No matter their background he could chat away, make someone feel comfortable, find common ground. But there was nothing like that in our few polite exchanges. His beating chest dammed the words from pouring out. As for me, I was still, unfortunately, me.

Finally at another shared event, Ian found me near the kitchen – the predictable place for an introvert at a party – and made an effort to chat, asking questions and really listening to my answers. I left thinking, “I could keep talking with him.” My eyes were opening.

Ian’s guiding business took people walking along one of my favourite tracks in Sydney’s Royal national park. It had been a while since I’d hiked. My friends’ boots were temporarily discarded under prams and nappies, so I contacted Ian and made an offer: could I come on one of his guided walks in exchange for photographing the tour? Yes.

“It always rains at Easter,” is a truism campers learn the hard way. A few days before the two-day trip, I rang Ian. “Rain is forecast,” I said, “and your photos will look bad. Do you still want me to come?” Yes again.

Tara and Ian on their first time hiking together in the Royal National Park, Sydney.
Tara and Ian on their first hike together in the Royal national park, Sydney. Photograph: Tara Wells/The Guardian

There were seven people in that weekend’s tour group and Ian, as the guide, could give me no more attention than the others. When I say the walk was perfect, I don’t mean the magnificent sandstone cliffs, wheeling sea eagles and deserted walk-in-only beaches. No, the walk was perfect because there was no pressure. Ian and I didn’t have to be anything other than who we actually were. Walking is a better social lubricant than alcohol. The conversation – as well as companionable silence – was easy.

Out there in the bush, in his favourite environment, doing something he loved, Ian’s presence extended far outwards from his physical body. By lunchtime on the first day, I was a goner. When we walked into camp that evening, I realised my camera lens had caught only Ian. It had taken two years for me to see him for the first time. Now, I could see nothing else.

The rain came that evening, as the weather forecasters – and the Easter long weekend – had promised. Some random bushwalkers arrived, having left home without learning how to put up their tent. It became a wet pile of polyester and poles. Meanwhile, the tour group’s marinated lamb was being slow-cooked on the barbie and we were dry under a gazebo. Ian raced over to help the hapless hikers. The tent was up in minutes. His generous spirit meant everyone was all smiles, despite the damp. That was the last nail in my seven-years-of-singledom coffin.

Twelve years later, on another Easter long weekend, our three young boys and I stayed bundled in a tiny rental camper van. It was bucketing down, of course, but Ian was outside. The boys looked out into the dark, curious. They wanted to know what Dad was doing.

Next to us a group of newly arrived campers had left home without learning how to put up their tent. Ian had it up in a jiffy, smiles all around, shaking off the rain. I see him still.

Tara Wells

The GuardianTramp

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