‘Slippery Jack’

‘Aunt Lily will be cross with me,’ thought poor Tess when she caught sight of the black smoke puffing from the chimney. ‘The sausages are frying already and we’re still twenty minutes away.’

Indeed, they would be late for supper, but the day’s excursion had been rather fruitful, and Aunt Lily would surely forgive her. Tess and her three cousins had filled the wicker basket to the brim with wood ears, chanterelles and penny buns.

“Don’t dilly dally, John,” Tess hissed at her smallest cousin. “You must keep up or I’ll lose you, and then you’ll get no supper.”

“Well, if I were to get lost I shouldn’t be hungry, ever. I’d live on mushrooms.”

“Would you now?”

“Yes. And blackberries. And chest-”

“Look at that monster,” William shouted. He had already forgotten the promise he had made to Tess not five minutes earlier: to walk calmly, in silence, like proper foragers do.

The boys gathered eagerly around a rotting log. A large growth bloomed from its centre.

“It’s… deformed,” Richard sniggered. He contorted his face.

“Just like you,” William teased.

Cousin Tess knelt down and inspected it closely. The cap must have been eight inches wide. It was a mustard yellow colour. And strangest of all, it had grown in the shape of a perfect figure of eight.

“Don’t touch it! You’ll get poisoned!”

“Oh, boys,” she said. “It’s not poisonous. It’s just Slippery Jack.” Tess cut each stalk gently with the pocket knife, then turned it upside down to reveal the whitish gills. It resembled a flatfish, she observed, and it felt as slimy as one too. “You see, when one mushroom is very close to another, sometimes they end up growing into each other.”

The children noticed the sticky yellow residue that collected on her fingers as she handled it. Their eyes widened. They glanced at each other. This was the most dangerous fungus they had encountered all day.

“Quick, run! Slippery Jack’s going to get us,” three shrieking voices called out. They ran and ran all the way home to the cottage, and when they burst, panting, through the back door, mother was just dishing up.

“Good day boys?” she asked. “What’ve you done with Tess then?”