Fruiting bodies

It was the first week of October and the weather had just started to turn after an unusually warm and dry September. For Paul this was something to celebrate, as while it signalled the end of the fruitful late summer (which had been particularly fruitful this year), it meant the beginning of the annual fungal bonanza that was the highlight of his year. From the first serious autumn rains up until the frosts that heralded winter, most weekends found Paul trudging through fields, pastures, woods and public gardens, basket in one hand and knife in the other, eyes glued to the ground or leaping from tree-stump to tree-stump.

One of Paul’s favourite haunts, as he thought of it – always followed up with an unspoken ‘no pun intended’ and a goofy smile – was the long-deconsecrated Mile End Cemetery, a few minutes’ walk from his address just off Bow Road. From roughly midsummer onwards, this great entropic place of semi-legible, lichen-encrusted Victorian headstones, flamboyantly sombre Gothic Revival memorial sculptures and tangled vegetation was thick with berry-laden brambles; as September came on, these were joined by elderberries and sloes, and finally the many diverse fungi that made their home here leapt into action and produced a marvellous array of fruiting bodies, to the delight of squirrels, molluscs and beetle larvae – as well as Paul. He couldn’t be sure he was the only human to enjoy this free bounty offered by the old cemetery but of the various other locals he’d seen strolling there, walking their dogs or jogging, he’d not noticed any of them taking much of an interest in any of the wild edible things that grew there.

But then on a misty Saturday morning as he followed a path around a corner he saw what he’d never seen before: a fellow picker! A young woman, early or mid twenties perhaps, intently harvesting from the hawthorn hedge in front of her, with one basket full of sloes, elders and a few of the last blackberries of the season on the ground beside her, another containing what Paul guessed from a distance to be parasol and oyster mushrooms. Her face was half-hidden by abundant wavy hair of a deep chestnut brown, but what really made her stand out was her attire: a very old-fashioned white blouse with puffy sleeves, flouncy navy blue skirt, pinafore, opaque white tights and black shoes with large buckles. Her only concession to the chilly weather was a light shawl draped across her shoulders; indeed, she seemed to be perfectly unaware of the cold despite her notably willowy frame.

Paul was torn between intrigue at meeting someone else taking advantage of the fruits and fungi that grew here and his instinctive aversion to all things and all people he considered ‘hipsterish’ – which this girl’s affectedly retro dress sense clearly marked her as. While he prevaricated for a moment, the girl seemed to become aware of him and turned around. Pale, oval face dominated by large brown eyes; delicate mouth which broke into an uncertain smile when she noticed Paul looking at her blankly.

“Oh, er, hello”, hazarded Paul eventually.

“Hello”, came the reply. “How – how do you do?”

She seemed uncommonly shy, turning away with apparent abashment as soon as she’d spoken. Paul’s intrigue got the better of his prejudice towards her clothing and he said “So, you’re foraging too? It’s a great spot for it, isn’t it? But you’re the first other person I’ve seen picking anything here. Looks like you’ve got a good haul!”

The girl smiled again, perhaps a slight blush tingeing her pallid cheeks. She looked down at her own baskets and conceded “Well, yes, I’ve got a few things today! I’m especially fond of these parasol mushrooms – Agaricus procerus“, evidently taking pride in her knowledge of the wild species that grew there.

Paul thought it would be rude to correct her, but privately thought to himself: “Macrolepiota procera, you mean – it was moved out of Agaricus about seventy years ago, wasn’t it?”. Maybe she’d learned about mushrooms from a particularly antiquated book – ha, that would just fit with her retro image, wouldn’t it?

“I’ve only found these field mushrooms on the grassy area over there”, Paul said, indicated the western portion of the cemetery park, “but the sloes are coming along wonderfully this year.”

The two of them chatted for a few further moments until the girl announced (rather abruptly, Paul thought) that she had to go. He was about to introduce himself properly and ask for her name, but she just smiled again in an apologetic sort of way and smartly trotted off with her baskets, disappearing around a corner in the network of paths with the view on all sides obscured by the great tangled hedges of hawthorns, brambles, elders and ivy.

Puzzled by her sudden exit, Paul picked up his own basket and followed her around the corner, quickly coming to a junction with paths running off in three other directions, each of which soon vanished behind a curve in the matrix of chaotic vegetation that extended over most of the cemetery.

Shrugging to himself, Paul assumed she must be a proper local to have such intimate knowledge of the complex network of paths that existed here – some clearly laid out by design, others the result of the accumulated habits of decades of urban explorers – and decided to make his own way home, wondering as he did so what he’d do with the fruit and mushrooms he’d picked, and also whether he’d see her again.

It was the following Saturday before Paul next set foot in the cemetery, and if he’d been suppressing any hope of seeing the same woman again, he needn’t have, because she was there again at almost the same spot where they’d first encountered each other. The greeting this time was much easier somehow, as if they’d known each other for years, and they straight away started comparing what they’d foraged. Paul had a decent haul of elderberries but only a few blewits to show for mushrooms that day, while she had more oyster mushrooms, puffballs and a handful of bay boletus. He congratulated her on her finds, offered his name and asked for hers. She hesitated, as if something far more important were at stake, and eventually said “Charlotte. Pleasure to meet you.”

This time they sat for some while, talking not of themselves but only of the beautiful space they were in, which seemed to have such especial import and meaning for them because of their joint appreciation of the delicious things that grew there, that everyone else disdained as mere weeds, or the forms of decay and disease, or simply ignored altogether.

Once again, Charlotte rather abruptly stood up and excused herself, as if subject to a curfew, although it was barely 2 pm. Paul was about to ask her why she had to go, but she had already vanished around the curve of the path and once again, he was at a loss to tell which direction she had taken.

Paul felt something of a certainty that he would meet Charlotte again on that next weekend, in the very middle of the month, two weeks after they had first met. Yet this time he wandered around the old cemetery for a full hour and a half, half-heartedly picking what mushrooms he could find along with some sloes that represented the totality of fruit that was still to be found. Preparing to quit the cemetery and head home, he heard – just about – the sound of a soft little “Hello…”.

Spinning around on the spot, Paul was delighted to see Charlotte standing just across the small clearing he’d been about to leave, wearing the same ensemble she’d worn on each of their previous meetings. It seemed she’d had the best day’s foraging yet, and he almost ran over to congratulate her on her haul.

Sat side by side on the wooden bench at the edge of a clearing, oblivious to the occasional runner or dog-walker who passed by, they spoke of all their favourite things that lived or grew in that wild space – animals, plants, fungi – their conversation peppered with Latinisms and neo-Latinisms, resonant with mellifluous words like Rubus, Sambucus, Agaricus, Lepista, Boletus…

And all the while, Paul cursed himself for initially disdaining this woman for her ‘hipster’ clothing, seeing now that she was the only other person he’d yet met who had the same reverence for the wonderful variety of living entities that flourished here. As they talked, with the sky gradually reddening behind Charlotte’s head, Paul found himself more entranced than ever by her curiously old-fashioned, almost crystalline diction as well as her botanical and mycological knowledge, which was remarkably comprehensive if somewhat curiously outdated in places.

At length, Paul plucked up the courage to ask Charlotte if she’d care to meet for a drink some time.

“Oh! Oh, um, that’s terribly kind of you, but I don’t think… I mean, I can’t… it’s very difficult for me… I, I hope you understand…”

“What do you mean? Is there – is there something I should know?” said Paul, wondering what on earth it could be that seemed to have such a hold on this woman, to the extent that she seemed almost scared by the prospect of leaving the cemetery. Her eyes brimmed with tears.

“It’s… there’s a problem for me, with this place. I can’t leave it. That’s why I’m always here. Look just behind you, and you’ll understand. I’m sorry, I…”

But her words were cut short as Paul leant in to kiss her, and with just a second’s hesitation, she reciprocated. Paul was gripped by the impression of time standing still, and lost all sense of his physical self; after what might have been a second or an hour, the sensation of her mouth against his, the scent of her hair and the feel of her slender frame in his hands melted away, and when he finally opened his eyes there was nothing to be seen except a small pile of fruit and fungi on the bench just opposite him. Of Charlotte there was no sign, in any direction that he looked.

Turning around, he saw that immediately behind the bench where they’d sat was a severely weathered headstone that must have dated from early in the history of the cemetery. The name engraved on it was so eroded and concealed by lichen and algae that Paul would have had to walk right over to it in order to read it – but he knew, without having to look, what the name would be.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: