Her old faded skirt bunched over expanding hips and swayed lightly in the breeze as she put one booted foot in front of the other on the well-trodden woodland path. God, it felt good to be out in nature after all that time in lockdown. Freedom felt delicious.
She hummed to herself, a dilapidated straw basket resting on her forearm, as she lurched forward, bending with difficulty to pick the buff coloured mushrooms from a particularly well-endowed patch of forest greenery. No one would have recognised her as the Head of Operations of a small multi-channel consultancy in Camden. She loved the fact that she could change her persona so effortlessly. All those Zoom calls required make up and a posh top. It was such a relief to leave off the layers of make-up and head outdoors now that self-isolating had been lifted. She pulled back her uncombed hair into a functional rubber band, put on her oldest and most comfortable clothes, and set off to putter around Epping Forest. Collecting mushrooms at 7:00 on a Saturday morning was her idea of heaven.
Some people would call it a double life. But she always felt connected to both sides of her character – the earthy peasant mushroom picker who could switch into her high-powered professional role with a flick of a hairdryer and a Hobbs black suit with self-stripe shirt. They were the office going days. Now working from home, she was more relaxed about her persona – sometimes when there were not Zoom meetings scheduled, she reverted to her earthy peasant – roaming around her flat in t-shirt and baggy trousers.
She wasn’t that old, didn’t really look her age when she tried hard. Although the multi-channel world was bursting with young highflyers, she still could hold her own and win respect from colleagues and clients. But at 51, she was aware of the culture gap and the pressure of staying youthful in appearance as well as in her thinking and ideas. They were all experts on Zoom, zipping in and out of break out rooms, pushing the mute button, even enhancing their appearance. She struggled to keep up, it was such a brave new world since Covid19.
But here in the midst of the tall leafy trees and woodland paths dappled in early morning sun, she felt mysterious, and a kindred spirit of the forces of nature surrounding her. Here she didn’t need Starbucks Coffees and Prêt sandwiches, facials and manicure, smart clothes and blow-dried hair. She learned in lockdown what little she really needed.
She was never afraid to be in the forest alone. Even as a little girl those woodland stories of Red Riding Hood and Snow White never scared her. Tunnels and caves – that was different – she hated taking the tube and being thrust underground. Trees were like guardians, they made her feel safe.
She set off towards another clump of mushrooms and cursed softly as she stumbled over a gnarled tree root, retrieved her balance and stood up straight. Then she spotted them. Two men stood talking, their faces turned away. They whispered and leaned towards each other in that conspirational way men have. Not letting their bodies get too close, but somehow conveying camaraderie, a shared joke, or a secret connection.
She smiled sheepishly, feeling foolish in her peasant mushroom-picking garb. She hadn’t anticipated handsome strangers in her part of Epping Forrest, the spot she always went to that other mushroom pickers hadn’t yet discovered. Or at least that was her fantasy. Maybe mushrooms just reproduced so quickly that there was a good crop here every morning through the season. She wasn’t an expert but knew the edible ones and always headed to her special spot.
Suspicion washed over her, she giggled to herself in nervousness. What were they doing here with no baskets? Standing so close together in these socially distanced times. She looked around for a dog, or dogs even, hoping to see a couple of rangy hounds bounding out of the bracken. Silence echoed back. Two finches chased each other through the tops of the oak trees. The smell of damp forest filled her nostrils and she noticed a film of moisture on the nearby rocks not yet touched by the early morning sun.
The last thing she saw were their shoes. Fresh mud crept over the soles like chocolate frosting, in sharp contrast to their slick polished leather. They slithered as in an intricate dance step and dislodged tiny grey and white pebbles sending them flying. A displaced beetle skittered away as she felt the throb of the blow and surrendered to the delicate strands of unconsciousness flitting in and out as her head met the mossy green ground cover beneath protective trees.
Would she make that Zoom call tomorrow? Who would find her and her mushrooms?
Who were they? she wondered.