Right now, deep in the pit of my belly, there are mushrooms.
I ate them some hours ago, a minor component of the leftover cheese and ham omelette I prepared for last night’s evening meal. You might think they had been digested by now, nothing more left of them than fungal nutrients in my bloodstream. But I am certain they are still sitting there. Trying to tell me something.
Only a few months ago I would never have voluntarily put a mushroom anywhere near my mouth. I have no idea when the phobia began. I was never attacked by a crazed mushroom as a child or given them in the place of birthday and Christmas presents every year by strange parents. My family as a whole probably has no strong feelings towards them either way. If you asked my father what he thought of mushrooms he would probably say, ‘Mmm, mushrooms. They’re quite nice.’
But they do not look quite nice, do they? Not if you really look at them.
Their bulbous little heads remind me of grotesque alien phalluses that squeeze their way out of the Earth in early morning, after the soil has had itself a dirty dream. That that they wriggle back into the ground when the sun begins to shine does nothing to redeem their reputation with me, I have never been able to trust anything that is scared of sunlight. Owls excluded.
But owls are beautiful, majestic creatures that swoop silently through the darkness, occasionally hooting to set the mood for campers. They do not have horrible little spores, Satan’s gills you could call them, ribbing their necks like accordions of dead flesh. Owls do not grow like a rash on the trunks of trees or by the base of the toilet in my friend’s flat in Edinburgh. Although admittedly I would like to see that.
Even their name fills me with revulsion. Mush Room. ‘Would you care to join me in the Mush Room?’ I suspect there are few who would enter such a place.
Growing up in a household where whimsical culinary objections fell on deaf ears, I learned to pick the creatures out of any meal they found their way into. So skilled with a fork I became, that no matter how creamy the Carbonara or sticky the egg noodles, at the end of every meal my plate would contain a little pile of fungi, stacked up like coal in a dock yard.
I left home and started cooking food for myself, safe in the knowledge that I would never need to eat a mushroom again. Unless, of course, I was eating food prepared by someone else. I would still play my game of discreetly weeding them from the rest of my dish, usually trying to hide them under a napkin so my host would not think me ungrateful. But during these occasions I began to notice a pattern emerging.
Gravy cooked with mushrooms tasted meatier, steaks were juicier and it turned out, much to my horror, that mushroom soup is really rather nice. Could it be that I had been wrong all these years? It was time to find out.
I cannot really remember dicing them up, I probably had my eyes closed every moment they were in my hands. I threw them in the pan with some garlic and an egg and prodded them cautiously with a spatula in case they tried to attack. Between two pieces of toast and virtually cremated, I could not taste any of their squidgy slimy horridness. Before I knew it the plate was bare and I was a mushroom eater. But afterwards something did not feel quite right.
A week later I was at the helm of an ambitious Sunday roast operation. The chicken was crackling away in the oven and the vegetables were all but steamed. The gravy powder, stock and flour however were nowhere to be seen. Instead, sitting silently in the fridge like the last child to be picked for the football team, were the mushrooms.
I remember feeling intense pleasure slicing through them, a samurai cutting up little clouds, the pile on the chopping board growing higher and higher. Huge chunks of my new friends were soon simmering away in a mixture of cream and wine and mustard. A tiny taste and they were sitting in a makeshift gravy boat on the table.
After politely gorging myself I sat back to reflect on the progress I had made. Had I transformed from a mushroom misanthropist to fully-fledged fungi fanatic? As I was mulling this over I began to feel rather strange. My bulging belly churning away, moaning and braying beneath my mustard splattered shirt. I excused myself from the table and went for a lie down in the darkness.
I lay still on the bed and tried to focus on anything but the intergalactic penises floating around inside me. But it was no use. I could feel the chewed up mushrooms reforming, their spores growing longer into creeping tendrils, feeling around my intestines. The little fungi were floating around my stomach like glowing jellyfish, pushing against the sides of my abdomen, humming like monks, communicating with their home planet, trying to escape. I have never had a worse sleep in my life.
The next day I decided to keep these observations to myself, lest I be judged as a madman. I would just go about my business and possibly sneak off to the hospital to get a quick stomach pump if the problem persisted. I vowed privately to never eat another mushroom again. Until last night.
When preparing the aforementioned omelette I found I was running low on suitable ingredients. I briefly toyed with the idea of adding sardines but the thought of them frying in egg quickly put an end to that. As I was whisking up the rest of the mixture my guest decided to poke around and look for something to make a salad with. After reaching deep into the fridge, she triumphantly pulled out an arm. ‘Look what I have found, a mushroom.’
I continued whisking in silence as she chopped up the bastard and threw him into the pan. Clearly one of the little boys had not made the football team first time around and had been sitting in the salad box like an unused substitute. I would be OK though, I am a master at avoiding them. I could find and discard every single piece, even if they were chopped up in an omelette.
Unless of course I forget that they were there, which is what I did this morning as I guzzled down the leftovers for breakfast.
Now I am at their mercy, hoping that they decide to leave my system naturally rather than wriggle through my body and wrap their tentacles around my brain, taking my body hostage for their own sinister deeds. Only time will tell.
But if you are walking through the woods one early morning and see me poking my head from the soil, growing on the side of a tree or at the base of the toilet in my friend’s flat in Edinburgh, please do not pick me and eat me.