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Looking for Mushrooms

Rose Malone


‘The field below is white with mushrooms’, the great-aunts said, over the heads of the children, during the evening meal. The nieces, the chidren’s mothers, exchanged secret, gleeful glances. Madeleine and Annette, here for a summer holiday with their respective broods, while their husbands remained in the city, immediately formed wordless plans for a child-like, but child-free adventure. They crept downstairs in the dim light of the following dawn. Being here for a summer visit in what had been their grandmother’s house seemed to bring them straight back to the summer adventures of their youth. They shushed each other, which brought on an attack of giggles. Annette had to shove her T-shirt into her mouth. Madeleine reminded her to avoid the creaking stair and the memory of illicit returns in the summers of their teens reduced them to such helpless laughter that they had to hold on to the banisters as their legs gave way. Their normal lives, their real lives as they thought of them, had been lived in Dublin: the old house had been the place of summer visits and sentimental education.


It was no longer the great-aunts that they were scared of waking: Madeleine’s son and daughter and Annette’s two girls were asleep in the attic room. With luck they might all sleep till ten if no one disturbed them, and give their mothers a break from the ceaseless round of activities necessary to pass the time in this remote rural location. The sisters reached the ground floor, tiptoed through the kitchen and sneaked out through the back porch. They sat in Madeleine’s car and closed the door so they could at last release their laughter.


‘Remember the night we snuck in from the carnival dance at five in the morning’, Annette said.


‘Yeah, you got a shift off that creep, Liam from up beyond the hill.’


‘Jesus, yeah. He was a slobbery mess. Who were you with?’


‘The fella who drove us home. Remember, we got him to leave us back down the road so the engine wouldn’t wake anyone. A fella from Knockmurray, the back of beyond. What was his name? Mick? Marty? Something like that. I wasn’t all that interested.’


‘He had a car, but.’


‘You’d have to have a car if you lived over there, or spent your life talking to the trees. We had to walk the last quarter mile in those crazy shoes.’


‘We took them off to crawl up the stairs and you dropped yours and they clattered all the way down.’


The bounce of the dropped shoes echoed step by step in their memories and they could scarcely breathe for suppressed laughter. They managed to get control of themselves and headed out on their expedition. The light was growing and they could see their way without headlights.


‘I’m not going to start the engine. I’ll just let off the handbrake and let it coast down as far as the bend in the lane’, Madeleine said.


When they got to the bend, she started the engine and drove down the steep half-mile to the field overlooking the sea. They pulled into the gap and stopped to lean on the field gate. A fleece of white mist cocooned the field. The hedges were a mesh of dark, indecipherable shapes. Cattle were lying down, their dull bulk like ships floating low in a sea of white. They turned and looked behind them at the thin line of lemon-coloured light which marked the horizon between sea and sky.


Madeleine shivered slightly in the cool damp and began to climb the gate. It was rusty and sunken on its hinges and swayed beneath her. She jumped off, spread her arms wide and ran into field, like someone breasting the waves of a cold ocean. Her mouth opened in an involuntary howl of delight. She kicked off her sandals as she ran and felt the delicious coolness of the damp grass between her toes. The cattle looked at her skeptically and continued their patient chewing. She turned around and looked back, using her hand to shade her eyes from the strengthening light.


Annette stood leaning on the gate and watched her sister cavorting across the field. Madeleine was the elder by some fifteen months and had always been the self-appointed leader. Also the more responsible, censorious one, not given to kicking up her heels in fields. Annette was usually content to follow, but now she stayed where she was, held back by some strange gravity. Her small, sharp upper teeth chewed on her lower lip. She turned away and began to walk along the road, back towards the house.


Madeleine frowned in puzzlement. This whole expedition had been Annette’s idea. She started to walk back more slowly towards the gate. The damp grass now began to feel cold and slimy under her feet. It took a surprising amount of time to find her discarded sandals. She realized that the description of the field as “white with mushrooms” was a bit of an exaggeration. The outlook remained resolutely green. She honed in on some white dots to discover that they were daisies. Other pale patches turned out to be white clover, or yarrow. Her euphoria had evaporated, and she felt shivery from lack of sleep.


Annette crossed the road, away from the mushroom field and looked out towards the sea. She tasted salt on her lips, smelt it in her nostrils. Then the sea was in her head, warm against her face. She walked slowly, deliberately scuffling her feet in the gravel at the side of the road, like a bad-tempered child. The words not fair repeated themselves in her brain in the rhythm of her steps. Why was Madeleine suddenly so carelessly exuberant just when she needed her intuition and support?


Madeleine’s gaze suddenly focused on the pale dome of a new mushroom thrusting its way through a mesh of greenness. She stooped to pick it and felt the tiny moment of release as the stalk came loose from the soil. She turned it over in her hand. The underside was almost hidden in a thin veil of white, which she parted with her little finger to reveal the pinkish-brown, intricately pleated surface of the gills. Its musky smell spoke of decay and earth and deep, secret places. She looked down and immediately saw another mushroom and another one. They were everywhere, tiny ones just above ground, larger white domes, big flat ones beginning to turn brown. She began to gather them and piled her hoard into the lap of her long T-shirt. She looked back at the field from her new perspective and suddenly, she couldn’t not see them. White mushrooms, hiding in plain sight. She hurried back to the gate to show her pickings to Annette. The lane was empty. She felt irritated and for a moment was tempted to empty out the mushrooms and just drive back to the house. What the hell was wrong with Annette anyway? She always was the moody one.


Annette picked her way along the uneven margin of the narrow road, which seemed to be unravelling itself into the vegetation of the verge. Sturdy stems of creeping plants were the only things holding the pebbles together. Her vision blurred as she blinked. She stumbled and pitched forward, saved herself by grasping a branch which left tiny thorns in her hand. She sucked at them and spat them out. When she came to a field gate, she pushed it open and followed a rough track towards the shore. The scrubby grass petered out and was replaced by tufts of pink-flowered sea-thrift and patches of yellowish moss. As the ground levelled and dipped, it softened and yielded to her steps and she noticed that her flip-flops were becoming muddy. She sat down on a jutting piece of rock and shaded her eyes from the glare of morning light on the grey sea. It seemed to hear that the light had a lurid quality, which must surely come from the radioactivity of the nuclear plant across the sea. Her hands scrabbled in the vegetation near her feet, she found herself holding a strange, bright green plant that seemed to be composed neither of stems nor leaves, but of interlocking pieces, like a child’s toy. She began to nibble at it, absentmindedly. Footsteps slipped and scrambled on the path behind her. Madeleine. She turned her head away and dashed her hair back from her face with a grubby hand.


Madeleine sat on a nearby rock and angled herself away from her sister.


Let her come out with whatever the hell is wrong with her. Don’t be manipulated into feeling sorry for her. Probably that bollix, Killian, is at it again. Why does she keep forgiving him and taking him back? Or one of the children, maybe Saoirse, who can be a right little madam, is giving her more grief than usual. Whatever, as Saoirse would say.


She knew that Annette could keep up a low-level, passive-aggressive sulk for days until it became everyone else’s fault for not shaking the truth out of her. Her sulking had always been done in plain sight, mutely begging for someone to ask: “What’s wrong?” Madeleine was not going to cave. She looked at her sister’s bent back, the pale knobs of her vertebrae visible through her T-shirt. How did she manage to stay so slim and youthful? Her waist was tiny, her breasts pert and pink-tipped, even after bearing two children. Madeleine was made of coarser stuff, her breasts pendulous, with dark aureoles, and her stomach soft with what she still called her “baby weight”, even though Damien was nearly seven. She watched the gleam of light on the sea until she felt so dazzled, she had to look away. A green after-image floated over her vision. How did the dawn light wash everything to newness every day? She knew, without looking around, that Annette had turned towards her. Perversity made her stay turned away.


Annette cleared her throat. Some words formed in her head, but they stayed stuck inside. She needed Madeleine to help her to release them. She picked up another piece of the strange, green plant and held it out towards Madeleine’s back.


‘What is this called?’ Her voice wobbled, half an octave too high.


Madeleine looked round, startled. Annette never took the initiative when she was in one of her sulks. Why would she be interested in the name of a plant? Annette had black smudges around her eyes. She put on mascara to go out at five in the morning? What the …? She looked at her sister and shrugged.


‘I think we used to call it seagrass, but I don’t think that’s the right name. Maybe something to do with fires? Fireman something?’


‘Samphire!’, Annette’s voice now came out as a shout. ‘You’re thinking of Fireman Sam!’


She turned away again.


Madeleine laughed. Damien’s current obsession. She looked at Annette’s implacable back and her irritation re-established itself. She would not ask Annette what was troubling her, although clearly something was. Maybe something significant. Maybe this was more than an attention-seeking sulk. She picked some of the samphire and nibbled at it. The salt taste made her mouth fill with saliva. She thought again about the mascara. Annette had always responded to stress by dressing up or glamorising herself – the direct opposite of Madeleine, who, in times of anguish, had barely the energy to wash or comb her hair. Madeleine sniffed. Yes, definitely, mingled with the salt scent of the sea and the earthy smell of mushrooms, a whiff of Annette’s signature perfume. She cleared her throat.


‘Annette …’, she began.


Annette responded by crossing her arms and whisking her T-shirt over her head in one swift movement. Her small breasts were lifted, and their whiteness seemed to glow. The nipples looked defiant in the cool morning air. It took a second for Madeleine to notice the medical dressing on the side of Annette’s left breast. Words slid over each other in her brain. She looked down at the mushrooms in the lap of her long, concealing T-shirt. The small, new ones looked exactly like Annette’s breasts. She drew a long breath and tried to formulate a question. Annette shook her head and her fingers tore at the samphire beside her feet. Her hair fell forward to cover her face.


‘Biopsy’, she muttered.


Madeleine bit her lip.


‘Results?’


‘Next week.’


Madeleine stood up and allowed her cargo of mushrooms to tumble at her feet. She reached out towards her sister and carefully drew her into the hoop of her arms.

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