There was a little boy called Sammy. His Mother and Father made him wash his hands, brush his teeth and scrub his big, round face before and after every meal. And before going to bed.
Sammy liked chips with tomato ketchup. But one time he dropped them and made a mess of the carpet. So he wasn’t allowed them after that.
He also liked Ribena. But he spilled his cup on the table-top and left a red stain. So Ribena was also banned. And Sammy really liked chocolate biscuits. But he couldn’t have them inside the house in case he left grubby marks on the furniture.
“We’ll know it was you because of your fingerprints,” warned his Father.
Sammy was allowed chewy sweets – the type that don’t melt or get sticky. So he ate a lot of them. Although, after, he had to brush his teeth until his gums hurt.
He was also allowed pizza. It was his treat on Sundays if he’d been good all week, kept himself clean and didn’t have a snotty nose. But he had to be extra careful not to let the tomato sauce dribble down his chin and onto his jumper.
“It’ll be a devil to clean if you make it messy,” warned his Mother.
One day at school, Sammy’s class had a swimming lesson. His Father ordered him to wear blue plastic socks, “to guard against verrucas.”
All the boys in the changing room laughed at Sammy’s socks. Mark O’Connor said, “Sammy Brannigan has to wear blue socks coz his feet smell.” And some of the boys tried to push rulers and pencils into the socks. They scratched Sammy’s ankles and left red marks on his skin.
So, Sammy learnt to hate swimming. And he found ways to get out of it. Sometimes he would forget his kit on purpose. Or he would pretend to be sick. The more swimming classes he missed, the more having to go filled him with dread.
But he couldn’t get out of it forever.
One day his Mother came into school with his swimming kit. Sammy had hidden it under his bed before leaving the house that morning. Now he was stuck without an excuse. He tried to make himself sick. He tried to make himself faint. But he couldn’t. He had to go to the swimming class.
“Blue socks, poo feet,” laughed Mikey Monroe.
“Blue socks, poo feet,” laughed Johnny Ritchie.
“Blue socks, poo feet,” laughed Mark O’Connor.
And the other boys in the changing room all smirked. Sammy could feel their smirks tickle his feet and ankles, run up his legs and shiver his back until he started sweating. The sweat felt like pins being stuck in his neck. His big, round face turned bright red.
“Blue socks, poo feet!”
The following week he thought of something.
“Where are your blue socks, poo feet?” asked Mark O’Connor.
And so he ran out of the changing room with the other boys and they all jumped into the pool together. He wasn’t very good at swimming but he wasn’t the worst in the class. Poor Stephen Piris couldn’t even swim a length without getting out of breath. He had to hold onto the side while the teacher fetched his inhaler. Sammy was saved.
“You’ll get a verruca, you’ll get athlete’s foot,” scolded his Mother when she discovered his blue plastic socks were still dry.
Sammy asked his Father, “how can I get an athlete’s foot from going swimming?”
“It’s a fungal infection – it means you’ll get mushrooms growing between your toes. You don’t want that, do you?”
“Mushrooms growing between my toes,” thought Sammy to himself,”I do like the sound of that.” But he kept the thought to himself.
So, Sammy didn’t get pizza that Sunday. And his Father came with him to school on Monday morning to hand deliver a letter demanding the PE teachers, Mr Ham and Mrs Battle, made Sammy wear his verruca socks to swimming.
“Blue socks, poo feet,” gleefully returned. Soon even the girls were calling him ‘poo feet’. He got used to it. He still hated it but he dreamt about mushrooms growing between his toes and bursting through the blue plastic socks.
That dream grew in Sammy’s head. It sent out filaments through his body and found warm places to fruit. But the little boy’s dream was an adolescent’s nightmare.
Sammy grew into a short, slightly fat but scrupulously clean teenager. A teenager with a secret.
In the dark, hidden parts of his body were mushrooms. Chestnut mushrooms grew under his arms, oyster mushrooms in the small of his back, ceps sprouted from his pubic hair and in between his toes like little marbles, grew round, white baby button mushrooms.
Now, all these mushrooms weren’t bad for Sammy’s health. And they weren’t there all the time. He picked them off and flushed them down the toilet. But they would grow back in a week or two. He couldn’t get rid of them for good, not with talcum powder nor salt nor vinegar. And a fungicidal spray brought him out in a bright red rash and hardly touched the mushrooms – they just oozed a little liquid from their gills.
All this meant that Sammy covered himself up. He wore baggy tops and socks even in summer. And of course he didn’t go swimming.
For a few weeks he had a girlfriend called Elise. She was pretty and clever but shy. She was only sixteen and Sammy was her first boyfriend – she would have better ones.
They held hands when he walked her home from school, and on the waltzers at the fair. They kissed in the cinema and Elise let him stroke her breasts. She stroked Sammy’s big, round face and well-scrubbed neck. But he wouldn’t let her go further. He was too ashamed to take off his clothes or let Elise’s hands explore beneath them.
They would share punnets of chips, with salt but no sauce, and then go home.
Even after picking off his the mushrooms, Sammy still sensed them. They were still in him, you see. Their hidden filaments fed on his hormones and were always ready to sprout back.
And so Elise got bored. She convinced herself that Sammy must be gay. Or there was something wrong with him. Or maybe he was just not that into her. Anyway, she thought, they’d be better off as ‘just friends’. He felt relieved.
So Sammy grew up, passed most of his exams and got a job as an ‘Inventory Manager’ in a small factory. He rented his own little flat – 33 Albion Villas.
His work involved assembling kits of tools and materials, maintaining stock levels, placing orders and taking deliveries. Sammy worked conscientiously and was good at his job. Especially at being organised and keeping the store room tidy and clean.
Sammy earned praise from his boss and was friendly with his colleagues and the delivery drivers. Helping them unload and putting everything away in its correct place was his favourite part of the job.
He also liked the showers, in individual cubicles, and used them every day, sometimes two or three times. In his flat, you see, the hot water only worked in the morning. He had to boil the kettle to wash in the evening and during the day at weekends.
Still the mushrooms grew. Every Sunday evening he picked them off, threw them in the bin, shaved all his body hair and scrubbed his skin raw. And still they came back.
One day a slim, dark-haired woman wearing tight jeans and a thin top knocked on Sammy’s door. She asked, “have you got any issues you’d like the Tenants’ Association to raise with the Management?”
Now, Sammy was shy and tongue-tied when it came to talking to attractive women – especially if they were older than him. So he just shook his head at first.
But as the woman turned to go he mumbled, “my shower. Doesn’t work. Sometimes.”
He cleared his throat, “my shower doesn’t work. Sometimes.”
“Oh dear, poor you. When doesn’t it work?”
“Evenings. Afternoons. It just works in the morning.”
“How do you mean, ‘doesn’t work’ exactly?”
“It’s cold. It’s only hot in the morning.”
“Oh I see,” she exclaimed, “you’ve only got hot water in the morning? Well, that’s not good enough. Maybe we can get them to put in an electric shower for you. Then it won’t matter if the hot is off.”
“Thank you,” Sammy smiled sweetly. For a second he actually looked quite attractive, with a strand of hair curling above his grateful eyes, and his body mostly out of sight behind the door.
“In the meantime, if you need a shower when you get home from work, you can always knock on my door. Number 2A, ground floor,” she narrowed her eyes, sending kind, smiley wrinkles out to the sides, “it says ‘Medved’ on the sign but my name’s Jacqui.”
“Thank you,” Sammy blushed happily. His big, round face shone. He held out a slightly sweaty hand to shake but Jacqui had already turned away to continue her door-knock of residents. But never mind, it was the offer of his dreams.
So he started showering at 2A Albion Villas. Some days Jacqui would be out when he got home and other days he would be too tired, or feel droopy and self-conscious, and go straight up the stairs to number 33. But most week days, he used Jacqui’s shower to wash himself.
At first he made sure he’d picked any visible mushrooms first, just in case she caught a glimpse of them.
But she didn’t try to. So after a while he stopped being so careful.
He showered at Jacqui’s with chestnut mushrooms hanging from his armpits and tiny white button mushrooms emerging from between his toes. But he was still scrupulous about removing the ceps from his pubic hair and scrubbing the oyster mushrooms off his back with a hard-bristled brush.
And he started dreaming about Jacqui walking in on him. He dreamt of her watching him in the shower, naked with water running down his chest and legs. He dreamt of her thinking he was clean and beautiful.
Who knows whether Jacqui ever thought of him like that but she certainly never saw him naked. What Sammy should’ve done was spend a bit of money on food and wine from Marks and Spencers, light a few candles and invite Jacqui up for dinner one night. She would’ve liked that.
But Sammy wasn’t smart in that way. He kept dreaming of her but couldn’t tell what she really wanted and became insecure. When Jacqui went on holiday, “with my good old friend Bill,” Sammy got jealous.
He posted a note through the door of 2A. When Jacqui got back a week later, she picked it up and read it: “Dear Jacky. It is time to agree a schedule for my showers. So that I know when to come round. It is difficult you being away. I hope you are back soon. When you read this you must knock on my door.”
Now, Jacqui thought this was really rather strange, not at all like the sweet, shy young Sammy that she had grown fond of. She thought he was her friend. But this was not friendly at all.
She knocked on his door the following day, “hello Sammy.”
“When did you get home?”
“Why didn’t you knock on my door?”
“I was tired from the flight. I needed my bed.”
“I needed a shower.”
“Sorry Sammy, you’ll get your electric shower on Friday. The management have confirmed it, that was what I came to tell you…”
“Can I have a shower now?”
“I have to go out…”
“Just a quick shower…”
“No, look Sammy. You can’t use my shower anymore. Management also told me that it was against regulations…”
“I could lose my deposit.”
A shower was installed on Friday as Jacqui promised. Sammy cried. He moved out the following week to another block of single occupancy flats. It had better plumbing than Albion Villas but Sammy felt lonely when he got home from work each day.
Life carried on though and at work he got friendly with Danny Fairclough. Danny played guitar in a band every Saturday night. So Sammy saved up and bought himself a guitar. He watched YouTube videos and taught himself to play.
“You’ll have to come over Sunday mate,” said Danny one day. He had taken a shine to young Sammy, “we can jam. I’ll show you some tunes.”
Now, Danny’s wife Gina was a pizza chef. She had no idea it was Sammy’s special treat but for a guest she always cooked her best – and that meant pizza. It was delicious. And they all drank cold beers and sang Danny’s songs. It was a lovely, innocent evening.
Sammy’s guitar-playing improved and his confidence increased. He practised hard so he would be better the next time he went round to Danny and Gina’s.
He enjoyed the feeling of the tight metal strings against his fingers, the way the tips on his left hand went white as he pressed against the fretboard, and the way his thick, stumpy thumb seemed to become light and raw after hours of strumming.
But Sammy was nervous when Danny asked him round again. He was improving but still felt slow and clumsy compared to Danny.
Gina wasn’t in but Danny called out for pizza: pepperoni for him, quattro formaggi for Sammy. But she was there for his third and final visit a few months later.
His guitar playing was much improved after several hours of practice per day. He was changing chords without thinking, keeping time, and the skin on his fingers had toughened. Danny let him try a solo in the middle eighth of one of his songs. He wasn’t very good but his confidence was so high that he was able to laugh at his own mistakes. It was all going so well.
Gina made two beautifully fired pizzas – one meat, one veggie. She was feeling pleased. These were the most perfect she had ever made at home. In her opinion they were the very best possible in a gas fired oven. The base was wafer thin, crisp with specks of charcoal, no holes, no sogginess. The tomato sauce was fragrant with oregano and basil, the mozzarella was fringed and peaked with a dark crispiness yet was still soft at its heart.
Pepperoni with artichoke and poached egg was Gina’s signature pizza and looked like a work of art. On the veggie option, the garlic butter on the mushrooms was rich with an aroma that was pleasantly soft, not at all burnt or harsh like it can be.
Sammy sensed the mushrooms before he smelled the garlic. By the time he actually saw them it was too late.
His big, round face turned white. He felt his throat contract and his guts empty. He stood up, tried to get away, stumbled on the carpet. His head was spinning. Then Sammy vomited all over Gina’s neatly laid table, into the bowls of chilli oil, flaked sea salt and pepper ground fresh just minutes before.
His face had gone from white to burning red by the time he got home. He felt every pore on his body itch as if the filaments of fungi within were suddenly sprouting.
Sammy rang in sick to work the next day.
Danny and Gina hadn’t said anything to him. They just let him run home. But he could imagine them talking. He could imagine what they were thinking. And he couldn’t ever go back to work, couldn’t think of what to say to Danny, couldn’t bear the feeling of eyes upon him as he walked in. He stayed sick for a week then emailed his resignation. No explanation given. And no communication with Danny.
No job. Running out of money. Sammy needed to find work. He needed someone to pay him. Anything, anyone, anything.
But he was anxious. And his anxiety fed the mushrooms, his shattered confidence fed the mushrooms, his fear of what others thought of him fed the mushrooms. And the mushrooms fed all three back to him. Anxiety doubled and tripled, confidence was all gone.
Job applications came and went. Benefit applications came and went. Questions and rejections, interviews and rejections, and threats of eviction piled up. Hunger pangs grew.
Sammy started eating chocolate biscuits for breakfast. They gave him a boost of energy. So he had them for lunch too. And for tea.
Now, he loved chocolate biscuits but they hardly make for a healthy diet. He got fatter – and hungrier. His complexion went from youthful pink to sickly grey.
Sammy had to do something. He didn’t really know what but did know he had to try.
So he enrolled at a free community college in a draughty hall. He took dogs for walks. And used half the credit to buy home made soup. Cashed the other half in towards his rent arrears. It didn’t go very far. He taught food hygiene to students. He scrubbed potatoes in their communal kitchen, scrupulously removing all the dirt embedded in the cuts and dimples.
And he signed up to evening forages.
A rosy-cheeked woman called Wendy led the foraging trips. She prepared her students with laminated leaflets showing mushrooms they should avoid. Sammy didn’t look at his leaflet. He concentrated on garlic, salad leaves and herbs.
Back in the hall, Wendy went through her students’ baskets with quick eyes – identifying what was good to eat and how to cook it. Sammy hung back. He looked away as she identified various mushrooms.
As everyone else headed home, Sammy stepped forward and dropped his basket at Wendy’s feet.
She looked through it, “mmm, plenty of garlic. Plenty of dock and nettles as ever. And chicory, that’ll add a decent slug of flavour. Hogweed, use it all – stalk and leaves. The others aren’t great – maybe to bulk out a soup but they won’t give flavour. Not bad for a first effort Sammy. But shame you didn’t find any mushrooms, especially with all those garlic leaves.”
“I can’t pick mushrooms.”
“Oh, why not?”
Sammy looked down at his feet and mumbled into his coat, “make me sick.”
“Are you allergic?”
“Yeah, guess so.”
“Oh, that’s a shame. I love mushrooms,” Wendy’s eyes wandered into the distance as she licked her lips, “I love the smell of them sauteed in butter with garlic, beautiful!”
Sammy felt his big, round face glow red with embarrassment. But he didn’t think Wendy noticed. She was lost in a garlic mushroom reverie.
Now, foraging gets your hands dirty, really dirty. And quite a bit of muck had gone up Sammy’s legs between his socks and trousers. When he got back to his tiny flat, he put all his clothes in the washing machine and had a shower. For half an hour he scrubbed as hard as he could until his skin was as red as his self-conscious face.
Sammy slept badly that night.
His mushrooms started growing quickly again. Maybe it was the late summer rain. Maybe it was his anxiety about what he should be doing. Maybe he wasn’t eating properly. Maybe the funghi was sprouting while his body still had the nutrients to sustain it.
He didn’t sleep well for a week.
Then one evening, feeling lonely in his flat after work, Sammy walked up to the woods. Wendy was collecting mushrooms in the twilight.
“Hello Sammy, have you come to forage?”
“Just out for a walk.”
“Oh, I see. But you do look hungry. Shall I walk with you?”
They went into the woods together. Wendy bent down to pick a large, flat mushroom – using a sharp knife to cleanly cut its stalk just above the ground.
“I’d like to do a risotto tonight,” she explained, “would be good to find some chicken-of-the-woods or maybe some oyster mushrooms, they’re always a good addition.”
“I’ve got oyster mushrooms.”
“Oh, at home? I thought you were allergic.”
“No, here on my back,” and Sammy lifted his t-shirt to show her.
Sammy just stood there with his t-shirt up to his chest. She stared at him. He didn’t move or speak. Something about his stillness calmed her.
Wendy continued to stare, “what? What are they?”
“I told you, oyster mushrooms.”
“Growing on your back?”
Wendy tentatively edged closer. She held a hand out. After what seemed an age, she touched one of Sammy’s mushrooms. And then another. And another. She gently lifted one to expose its underside and ran a finger across it. She enjoyed the feel of it. She enjoyed the way it yielded to her fingertip. She stroked its velvety soft, creamy gills – back and forth she stroked, back and forth.
“You can pick them if you like. For your risotto.”
Wendy really enjoyed her risotto. Sammy went home before she started cooking but he came round for tea the following night. She bought in a bottle of red specially and asked him what he would like to eat.
Wendy picked his mushrooms that night, all his mushrooms. She wiped them and sauteed them in a little garlic butter while Sammy put his clothes back on. Neither of them were repulsed by his mushrooms anymore.
Wendy placed them on her half of their margherita pizza and carefully sliced it. As they ate, they looked at one another with big, shining smiles. Tomato sauce ran freely down their chins.