Robins and Ravens

Robins and Ravens

 

Extracts from The Wonderful Life of Fungi and Mushrooms by Dr Hyung-joon

…Mushrooms are heterotrophs and heterotrophs, like animals and humans, have a hunger and must devour other living things in order to survive. Cordyceps, for example, are parasitic mushrooms that live on hosts by slowly absorbing their life until the host dies…..

…Mushrooms are superb communicators. They speak with other fungi, plants and animals, they also learn and adapt to changes. They manipulate plants and trees by sending signals, some false and some real, so as use them for their own selfish purposes… 

…Often other plants would die without them, they give life and they take it away. Fungi are the Gods of nature … 

….Fungi are so skilled that scientists use them, like mercenaries, to kill other organisms….

….Any organism, with the ability to communicate, that is vital to the survival of life and needs to kill other things in order to live itself, will develop. Or should I say has developed. Fungi are naturally surreptitious and disingenuous. You can’t defend against an enemy that no one knows to fear and no one knows, yet, to fear fungi.

 

Dear Key Holder

Note to whomever or whatever finds this horror. Now it is your turn to keep the peace

Please understand that from the outset I did everything with the best of intentions …… and I am so terribly sorry…

 

Chapter One - The Wider View

Park Life 

Outwith its gloomy south eastern corner Princess Street Gardens are always busy. Even on dreich and gusty days, like this day, the day that changed Edinburgh for good, joggers, footballers, children, office workers, lovers and tourists make their daily pilgrimage to the most dramatic park in the world. Everyone has their place in park life even, or especially, those who have fallen off the back of life’s peleton. Alcoholics, homeless, hopeless and the addicted, such as Gerry and Julie who fitted into all those unfortunate categories, make that foreboding south eastern corner a special place of their own. 

A stray football hit Gerry’s left calf. ‘Piss arf,’ he shouted while attempting to boot the ball over the fence to the railway lines. He missed. His foot sliced the ball towards a tree, unbalancing  Gerry who near went on his arse. 

The ball’s owner shouted, ‘hope yer liver bursts ya dirty minger.’ He scarpered pretty quick as Gerry tried to give chase. The lad had little cause for fear as the unshaven, crazy haired, Gerry might have looked and smelled fearsome but he was a skinny mess under his layers of dark charity shop coats and jumpers which he wore whatever the weather because whatever the weather Gerry had nothing else to wear. It was a half hearted chase. Indeed, Gerry was incapable of chasing anything but a beer with a dram. Anyway, he had other plans, like the six pack of Special Brew swinging in a plackie bag in his left hand. His misses, Julie, laughed at him and called him an ‘arsehole’. 

They passed Marvin’s mobile guitar shop always parked just below the art gallery. The sun made an appearance and taking a queue from that glimmer of warmth, and from Marvin’s playlist, Gerry and Julie danced to Zombie by Jamie T, while sharing a tin of Special Brew and enjoying the attention from the tourists. A few kids joined in their jig and a gamut of Geordies up on a stag weekend, dressed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, performed a robotic zombie-like dance, in front of a group of elderly ladies tapping their feet to the music. Several business men in navy pinstriped suits glared at the antics in condescension and disapproval as they finished their Pret’s avocado and chicken bloomers. A window sticker on Leroy’s van summed life up for Leroy. ‘Dancing looks like madness to those who can’t hear the music.’

Julie removed her grubby wooly hat for applause and in response received a few coins, one Walter Scott and one ‘fuck off ya clatty slag.’ Julie didn’t care, she had long lost her pride the day she gave away her personal choice and her career as a teacher to the hooks of cheap drink.

Marvin bought them a coffee and a sandwich each.

‘Thanks Marvin,’ they both said at once. He always looked after them. Then, they headed on their way to the corner of the park which was spared from this influx of happy park life. In the lee of Edinburgh Castle to the south, the austere Kirk to the west and a shroud of heavy set trees just about everywhere, was a sanctuary for anyone seeking privacy. It didn’t lead to anywhere and even on sunny days the air felt damp and the light dim. There was no reason for anyone to visit, except to get pissed or high on cheap anything out of sight of anyone likely to care. And if you passed out, even in the lashing rain, the walls that supported the graveyard above were in turn supported by buttresses that provided shelter sufficient for anyone desperate enough to sleep there.  

Gerry and Julie were in good form having cashed their weekly brew cheque. Their mood darkened as they arrived in the gloom to be met with the smell of rot and death and frowns of their usual happy drinking buddies. The smell stuck in their noses and throats like it was something they could more easily chew. Nevertheless, in morbid fascination Gerry and Julie joined the four others, Charlie Hawk, Billy, Mac and Sam who all stood about the corpse in the copse.

‘Yon thing’s fecken minging,’ said Julie, stating the obvious.

‘Aye, I noticed like. What is it?’ Sam asked, wiping her face as if to rid it of the stench.

‘Looks like a badger.’

‘Didn’t know ya got badgers in Edinburgh.’

‘I didn’t know badgers stank like that.’ Gerry retched. They all continued to look in wonder at its remains. Probably the most exciting thing that had happened down there for a while.

Julie passed the tin of Special brew. ‘Here that’ll take the smell away, Gerry.’

‘You’re a good’n Julie.’ Gerry took a swig.

‘Aye we may get badgers but what the fuck did that to it? I didn’t ken ye got badger eaten creatures in parks,’ he laughed with a grimace as the badger’s body had been gutted, ripped open and torn apart.

‘A fox?’ suggested Charlie Hawk.

‘How big do you think foxes get? Ya wasocok.’

‘A fox would do that, it would, honest like,’ Charlie didn’t convince them.

‘That musta been some fox,’ Julie laughed.

‘Don’t you tease me, fecken bitch,’ yelled Charlie.

‘Knock it out you two. Maybe something escaped from the zoo.’ Mac swigged his vodka and Gerry returned the special brew tin to Julie. The rain returned heavier than earlier and they retreated to the shelter of the wall overhang. 

‘They have big mountain cats in Scotland, maybe one of them’uns come down here.’

‘Like Dick Whittington, ya mean?’ Gerry’s pissing himself laughing. 

‘You’re fecken Dick Head, bastards.’ shouted Charlie.’ You bastarts always have a go at me. I’ll fecken stab ye, arseholes.’ He pulls out a wee pocket knife and jabbed it towards Jerry who laughed even more.

‘Yer making me need to pish myself,’ Gerry wandered off towards the dark corner leaving the others to calm Charlie down. He grabbed a tin of Brew, just in case the thirst hit him on his short trip of relief. He stuffed his tin into his overcoat pocket as he wandered to the trees under the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. He found a spot, rummaged around and ‘…ahhhhhhhhh.’ The others could be heard laughing and grumbling about the rotten badger, their voices becoming dimmer as they moved further away from it and Gerry moved further away from them. Creepy flippen thing he thought. Whatever killed that, mauled it, he hoped it was long gone. He finished his business, tidied himself away, picked his tin out, cracked the ring pull, took a long slug. As his neck bent back to let the liquid in, enjoying it’s calming effect he closed his eyes. They opened suddenly as he heard branches break above him, a conker hit his head and he staggered back in surprise. Too little too late, for a body crashed through the trees landing right where he stood, flattening him to the ground. Stunned, it took a few minutes for him to realise he was conscious, he crawled out from under the body. ‘Urghhhh,’ he said in revulsion at the mess. He stood and stared for sometime in shock. He looked in horror at the blood all over his only coat.

‘Holy shit,’ he said. He repeated the words several times in whispered panic, ‘Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit….’ He glared at the mess. It was the body of a woman. He shouted to the others. No reply. As he thought about going to get them he heard a muffled voice.

‘Bloody hell, yon thing couldn’t still be alive, could it?’ He should have asked the same question of himself. He shuffled the few feet to the body. He heard the whisper again. Gerry’s mouth goldfished. He didn’t know what to say or do. He was no doctor, but he could see that bloody body shouldn’t be whispering. He looked up to the far away castle walls. Nothing would survive that fall.

He knelt. The face on the body smiled. It was a weak smile, but a happy one. Bubbles of blood formed and burst on the lips of the fallen woman. Gerry reached out to try to reassure her. A whisper again, Gerry leaned in closer. 

‘Thank you,’ it said.

‘For what, like?’ Gerry touched the woman’s shoulder.

‘You’ll see,’ she said and it jumped and grabbed him.

He tried to shove her away, his face jammed against her own smashed cheek. Her eyes slowly shut, Gerry stared in horror as the strength to maintain that weak smile of hers left the body. Gerry felt a warm flush before he passed out. 

Four things struck him when he woke in a sticky mess and he wasn’t sure which one surprised him the most. The first was that he was alive. The second was the woman’s body, though it remained on his chest, weighed very little. It was light enough for him to throw off with ease. He jumped up in revulsion. The third thing that struck him was that he was sober. He hadn’t been sober in over twenty years. The Fourth, and most shocking, was that he had a voice in his head, a voice he had never heard before, a voice that knew him. 

‘Gerry, my lad,’ it said in cheerful manner. ‘Good to meet you.’

Having been possessed by alcohol for so long it was still a shock for it to be replaced by something just as enticing, yet he would soon discover, infinitely more terrible.

Gerry knew something had changed but he had no idea yet what that something was. He didn’t feel like returning to his friends He couldn’t ignore the rapidly decomposing body on the ground in front of him, for that was what it was doing, shrinking, disappearing, flesh tightening, splitting, bursting releasing liquid which in turn shrank back to nothing. He would read in the paper the following day about the strange case of the woman who jumped from the castle and whose body was never recovered. That the police would find only the bones of a women who had disappeared long ago from somewhere else altogether, covered in an old ragged coat soaked in blood. It would be a while before Gerry realised that the thing that kept that body alive was now part of him keeping him alive too. He would never accept what he had to do to remain that way, never stop feeling repelled, yet never ever stop doing what he had to do to keep living. He looked towards the sounds of his increasingly drunk friends, decided that he had to go anywhere but there. He threw his blood soaked coat over what remained of the woman’s body, climbed a fence, jumped over the other side and ran.

 

Chapter Two- Spoilsports

 

Nan smiles at me because I’m laughing for no reason. ‘Sorry Nan, just that, my only ambition today is to take an eighty three year old granny for treatment in a hospital for sick kids.’

‘That’s not funny,’ she says stifling a laugh.

‘Yeah, I know…Still, it is…’ we both giggle like wee bairns. They’re nervous laughs and I’m more nervous than she is even though she’s the one going for a scan. Her smile, I know, hides everything she doesn’t want me to know. T words, like tumour, therapy, terminal and terrified. Even though I know what she doesn’t want me to know, I smile back. The taxi stops at a red.

‘You alright son?’ asks the cab driver. His badge says he’s called Paul Phillips, driving Car 67. 

I’m in the floppy seat, Nan in the comfy seat, her wheel chair folded against the other side.‘I’m fine.’ I lie. ‘It’s my Nan…’ I shout through a hole in the perspex divider and over the noise of the babbling diesel engine. ‘…she’s got an MRI scan and she is claustrophobic so she won’t go in the adult one. The kids hospital has a bigger scanner so it doesn’t freak them out. They have a special adult day for big people and anyone scared of small spaces.’

‘Really?’

‘Aye, though Nan is just a big kid anyway. Aren’t you Nan?’

‘Don’t you listen to Paolo,’ she’s grinning. She’s always smiling at something no matter what.

‘I think your lad is right, love. You’re a big kid,’ Scott laughs loudly.

‘Don’t you call me big,’ she snaps. She smiles.

‘Yeah, Nan’s been waiting for nigh on 8 months for a scan. It’s a worry, you know?’ I shout through.

Scott looks through the perspex. I wish he’d keep his eyes on the road. ‘Well, son, you know what they say, if they want to see you quickly in the NHS you really are fucked.’

We all laugh at that truism as Scott pulls up kerbside at the hospital and helps us out with the wheelchair. We get Nan ready. I give the chair a wee shove to wind Nan up, the chair rolls forward a few feet and I jolt it stopped. ‘Wow, brakes! Nearly lost you there.’ I wink at Scott. 

‘Damn, I nearly got away,’ Nan says. ‘Spoilsport.’

I get money out and Scott tells me ‘It’s on me mate. I was going this way anyway.’ 

He’s lying. He knows we must have a real problem if they go to the bother of giving an old woman a special MRI day in the kids hospital. Maybe he’s touched at seeing a teenager taking his Nan to hospital. Either way, that’s been my life and I stumble an argument as I can’t live on sympathy. ‘Thanks Scott. It’s a good thought but …

‘Take care you two,’ he jumps in and drives off before I get further. Sympathy doesn’t hurt either, I think.

‘He’s a nice man,’ Nan waves. 

I look at the money. ‘Maybe get a pie….’

‘… from Levi’s for tonight’s super. You read my mind Paolo.’

‘That’s a treat to look forward to. Now, let’s get this scan over with,’ I say as the first heavy drops of rain fall onto the top of my head making me shiver.

I push Nan into a waiting room fitted with tiny seats and walls decorated with fairies, balloons, superheros and cartoon characters. Out of context with the happy child decor, the space is filled with large and/or claustrophobic adults in dull clothing and faces too tired to smile, all waiting for their MRIs. 

‘Will you look at these miserable feckers. Cheer up,’ she says, far too loudly. We get dirty looks. 

I shush her. 

She says, ‘What? I haven’t long left. I may as well enjoy myself. No point in boring the tits off everyone else. Eh Paolo? This lot should be grateful to have lived so long. Your mum and dad weren’t so lucky.’

I shrug, wishing that I was as positive as Nan always is. ‘We haven’t long left…’, I think.  Only Nan could see an upside to that. The words hang in my mind as I stand at the desk waiting for the nurse to log us in. Nan answers all the usual personal questions. Then we wait. 

‘You know why we’re called patients, Paolo?’ she shouts.

‘No. Tell me.’

‘Cause you need a lot of patience to go to hospital.’ She laughs too loudly. 

The shoulders on a big man to our right jump up and down as he stifles a laugh. ‘Aye you’re right there, luv,’ he says.

Some of the others tut at Nan’s japes. She doesn’t care and I know it’s just her nerves, a face to hide her fear of treatments and diagnosis. 

‘Mrs Black,’ shouts a nurse at last.

I jump up and push Nan into a holding room. Metal bits, watches, phones and rings all into a locker. I help her into a hospital gown and push her into the bright, clinically white MRI room. Nan flirts with the radiologist who introduces himself as Alfred as he packs sponges around Nan to keep her still. 

‘Oh Alfred, if only I were a few years younger…’

He grins at her.

I take a photo. ‘With all that padding you look like you could play American football.’

‘This’ll take an  hour. Do you wanna watch a film, love?’ asks Alfred.

‘Oh yeah,’ she nods.

What do you want to watch?’

‘Have you got Kill Bill?’ she jokes. ‘Or one of those dirty French films.’ She winks at him again.

‘Just child friendly films, Mrs Black.’ Alfred hands her a list of kid’s films. 

She tuts, ‘Spoilsports.’ She reads the list and says, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.’ 

Alfred sets headphones over her head, presses the remote and Nan disappears into the big donut. I sit on a hard plastic seat behind the machine where I have to stay until the procedure is finished. It takes two minutes before she’s singing.

‘….Chitty Bang Bang, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Here there in a motor car, oh what a happy time we’ll spend, Bang Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, my fine four fendered friend….’ Her voice is loud over the noise of the clicks and bangs of the machine. Nan hates having an MRI, even in the big ones. Trapped there, can’t move, tight chest. Even so I laugh at her singing as she has no idea she can be heard. The taxi driver is right, Nan really is a kid at heart. 

It takes an hour for the clicking to stop and then a whirring sound as Nan is slowly spewed out of the machine. The door opens and Alfred returns with Nan’s wheelchair. ‘You’ll be alright love. It’ll take a week or so for the report.’ 

I stand up at the back and take the chair from the radiologist. I help Nan in and off we go to get her dressed. 

‘He said I’ll be alright.’ She really is a big kid if she believes that. Apart from that optimistic note Nan is unusually quiet in the taxi on the way back to our flat. Her thoughts probably mirror mine and neither of us share them. I watch her dyed white curls, the false rouge on her cheeks that doesn’t match the pink of her lipstick, and think of the pale transparent skin hidden underneath and I know that I am counting days before she goes.

‘Aye, you’ll be grand Nan,’ I tell her.

‘Aye,’ she says, her mind elsewhere. She whispers, ‘spoilsports’.

I say nothing else. The taxi chugs its way home, our heads nodding in unison with the vibrations from the sodden cobbled streets, as if we are both agreeing with all the lies of the day.