The woods

by Jenny

Colin’s nasal drone reached me, even after I’d dropped to the back of the group to put as much distance between us as possible. Until three Saturdays ago I hadn’t thought it possible for one human man to be so extraordinarily irritating, but until three Saturdays ago I hadn’t met Colin Sutherland, expert forager, misogynist and total fucking cunt.

“No, no Alison, my dear. I don’t have a fancy degree from a fancy University like you, but in my experience you often learn a little more from getting out there in the real world than you do from staring at books.”

I didn’t hear Alison’s reply over the grinding of my teeth. I tried to catch Mum’s eye, but she avoided my gaze and ducked away to gather some wild garlic from the hedgerow.

Mum and I had joined the Foraging Society in a desperate bid to start socialising again after lockdown. Neither of us liked sports or gardening, so foraging seemed like it might be a nice sociable activity that we could do safely outdoors.

And it would have been, if not for Colin.

As far as I could tell, nobody really liked Colin, but he was the group’s leader, so we were stuck with him. The women gritted their teeth and tolerated his patronising diatribes and occasional boob grazes at the post-forage drink because the rest of the group had, under Colin’s despotic reign, become a close little family.

You’d catch glances and smirks pass between members that spoke louder than words. Mum refused to meet my eyes for fear that she’d start laughing and not be able to explain why when Colin inevitably demanded to be involved in the joke.

I realised with a jolt that the group had stopped. Colin was crouching down to inspect a small white fungus on the ground.

“Gather round foragers, gather round. This is a very rare specimen indeed. This is the Guardian Angel - so called because of its wonderful antioxidant properties - it’s very good for you.”

Colin excitedly pulled out a mushroom knife from his pocket and cut it free.

“That will be lovely with my bit of dryad’s saddle and wild garlic. I might even microwave some leftover rice pudding for afters. What a treat!”

I saw Alison lean in and whisper something to him, but he stood up and replied at full volume.

“Oh, not I think not. While, of course, there are poisonous fungi, none of them are found in the UK and I have eaten Guardian Angel hundreds of times. I’ve never even heard of a Destroying Angel. And that’s arum in your basket, dear, not wild garlic. Never mind eh? You’ll get there - stick at it!”

Alison was desperate now.

“Colin, I'm serious. If you eat it you’ll die - there’s no cure. Look, I’ll show you. Oh crap - has anyone got their forager’s book? I’ve forgotten mine.”

Colin wasn’t listening. He’d forged on ahead, whistling happily to himself.

But I dropped back and slipped my Beginner’s Guide to Foraging from my back pocket and flicked quietly to the D section. I bent to compare the remaining mushrooms with the pictures in my book then quietly closed it and slipped it back into my pocket. I caught up to the group without saying a word.