Issue #90

Spring 2024

The Mushroom Lovers

by Katy Wimhurst

After her bath, Bella notices a patch of grey-brown spots on her arm, the size of a 50p piece. The next morning, she wakes to find each spot has grown into the shape of a Chinese fan, 2cm wide. 'What on earth?' she gasps.

'Let's go to the doctor,' Button advises.

At the surgery later, Dr Khan stares. 'Never seen anything like it, but it's not a carcinoma. I'll refer you to a dermatologist.'

Despite it not being far, they opt for a taxi home. Button's arthritis is bothersome and Bella gets so tired since her double mastectomy last year. Raindrops speckle the taxi window, make the kerbs glint. Bella wonders, not for the first time, which one of them will die before the other. Her gaze drops to the growth on her arm and a shiver rises through her, making her heart speed up. Back at the flat, they sit together on their old green velvet sofa and drink a cup of hot chocolate while listening to Joni Mitchell's Blue, their favourite album.

The following day, more grey-brown fans poke from Bella's skin, each twice as wide as before and as thick as a knife handle. 'They're oyster mushrooms, aren't they,' she exclaims.

'Oh my goodness, yes,' he says.

They know this because they are keen amateur naturalists who used to run plant identification walks in the local parks. She uses a magnifying glass to examine the cream-coloured gills on the underside and then shakes her head in disbelief. 'How weird!'

'You know, oysters mainly grow on decomposing wood, Bella,' he says.

'Now isn't the time for your cheek, Button.'

He shrugs and grins in his playful manner.

They first coined their nicknames over sixty years ago, both chasing the last box of chestnut mushrooms on a market stall in London. 'Let me buy you a drink and it's all yours,' he'd said. They'd got drunk at The Duke of Wellington pub and had given each other mushroom-themed names. He was Button because of his nose, and she was Portabella—later Bella—because she rented a bedsit on Portobello Road.

With worry prickling her, Bella carefully monitors how fast the thing on her arm is growing. A day later, the mushrooms extend past her elbow and almost halfway to her shoulder, and a spotty lump has appeared on her other arm.

'Me, too. Look!' He lifts his white Peace and Guitars t-shirt to reveal his flabby stomach. Near his belly button is a little patch akin to hers. He breaks off a mushroom and sniffs it. 'Should we cook them later?'

'Urgh, no. That's cannibalism, surely.'

'When life gives you oyster mushrooms, make stroganoff.' He chuckles.

She can't help but laugh, too. It's a relief to know his body is also sprouting fungi.

She makes them a mug of green tea each and puts honey in hers when she normally has none. He eats a flapjack, then another. 'I'm craving sugar,' he says.

'How odd. So am I.'

The living room is cluttered with keepsakes from their travels since retirement—engraved gourds from Bolivia, hand-painted ceramic mushrooms from Mexico. The walls hold photos of their life: at the Portobello flat, her in a minidress and beehive hairdo and him in a Beatles-style dress shirt; outside their first cottage in Maldon, with baby Chanterelle; arm-in-arm in Blakeney, where they took teenage Chanterelle to see the seals; Chanterelle with her husband in Costa Rica, where they work in conservation. Bella sips her tea, looking from photo to photo, reminding herself how blessed she has been.

In a matter of days, the mushrooms engulf her arms and upper torso. His swarm over his belly and down the side of both legs. She isn't unnerved anymore. Though she can't fathom why, she welcomes it.

'If I had a choice, I'd become a tree,' he says.

'And I'd become one right beside you.'

'Should we tell Chanterelle what's happening?'

'I've been wondering that, too, but let's leave it. We don't want to worry her when she's so far away.'

It isn't long before they no longer fit into clothes. She finds it hard to stand upright because of the fungi mass and waddles slowly. She is so tired that she forgets words. An earthy aroma follows her everywhere.

One night, Bella lifts her lids to see a phosphorescent, pale-lemon shimmer. It is as if they are both bathed in fireflies. She wakes him. 'Button. Look! We're glowing.'

He opens his eyes. 'Or perhaps we're radioactive,' he says and laughs.

They hold hands, marvelling at their luminosity. The bedroom is filled with earthly magic, enchanting the world.

In her dream, they're young again. She skips through a moonlit meadow with him.

When morning light spills into the room, the mushrooms have attached his left hand to her right. Conjoined, they get up and lumber to the kitchen. With her free left hand and his right, they make tea and then totter back to the bedroom with mugs and biscuits. She eases her stiff body down on top of the duvet and feels a twinge of dread.

'I'm actually scared,' says Bella.

'Don't be. We're in this together. Literally,' says Button.

Bella drifts in a honeyed state between sleep and wakefulness, too drowsy to lift her head for more than a few minutes. She dreamily registers the transition from afternoon to evening by the shift in light.

Amid the darkness, she opens her lids wearily, peering at her luminous Button through the mushroom pads on her cheeks. Or is that herself? Who knows where she ends and he begins?

Night dissolves, as does consciousness. Mycelium binds them into an organic oneness of obsolescence.

Author Bio

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Katy Wimhurst's first collection of short stories was Snapshots of the Apocalypse (Fly on the Wall Press, 2022) and her second collection Let Them Float (Alien Buddha Press, 2023). Her fiction has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies including The Guardian, Writers' Forum, Cafe Irreal, Kaleidotrope, and ShooterLit. Her first book of visual poems was Fifty-One Trillion Bits (Trickhouse Press, 2023). She blogs at whimsylph.wordpress.com. She is housebound with the illness M.E.