From the Sussex County Magazine 1936
The Magic Mushrooms
A story founded on fact
By Elfreda Lucas
This is both a true story and a fairy tale.
There is a tiny village near the foot of the South Downs, so small that at first sight it seems hardly more than a cluster of cottages grouped round a little grey church; but a few yards away lies the rest of it.
Here is to be found the village inn which also incorporates within its walls the village shop and post office. A large flourishing farm completes the whole, but a broad highway has here been ruthlessly cut through the Downs so that the farm has been cleft in half, leaving the farmhouse and a few of the buildings isolated on one side of the road, the remaining sheds and land on the other. The house, seen from the roadway, presents a rather bleak exterior. It is built of grey stone like the rest of the village; the front view of it is plain and unadorned. Two bricked-up windows in the upper storey give it a curious appearance, as of a face with both eyes closed and an extra one open in the centre.
The rest of the farmland with its sheds and barns are on the hill directly opposite – above the Post Office – and secluded from the road by some cottages.
In spite of the invasion of that busy thoroughfare, there is a quaint old world look about this village still, and a brooding air of peace hangs over it.
The inn – which is more of a guest house than an inn, since it is only licensed for the sale of tobacco and mineral waters – has a rustic table and benches outside the shop on a convenient patch of grass. Here, one summer morning, the old inn-keeper was putting out a tray of tea-things, for the lorry drivers and busmen driving their huge drays to and fro along the road between London and the coast would often avail themselves of the opportunity for a little refreshment.
It was too early for much traffic as yet, though milk lorries rattled past with some frequency and one or two huge pantechnicons carrying their freight of furniture went lumbering past. Mus George Holder, as the village folk termed him, paused in setting out his tray load to watch the milk cans from the farmyard opposite being hoisted on to a lorry, when he became aware that a tramp was standing at his elbow.
He wore the usual garb of such wayfarers, that is to say his coat, two sizes too big for him, was so green with age that its original colour was indistinguishable; a grey felt hat pulled down over his eyes hid his face; round his neck was a knotted red and white handkerchief’ his corduroy trousers were ragged in parts and his boots were in holes.
At first he appeared very old, his shoulders were bowed and his unkempt beard obscured the part of his face that might have been visible otherwise beneath the hat brim. As it was only the tip of his nose was to be seen.
He leant heavily on a stout ash stick cut from the hedgerows.
George Holder waited for the usual request for a piece of bread or hot water – this last, because the man was fumbling in his coat pocket and tramps as a rule fumbled in their pockets in search of an empty tin and begged for hot water to fill it with, in hopes of hot tea being forthcoming.
This one, however, produced a handful of coppers and boldly asked for a cup of tea with bread and cheese. It was then the inn-keeper saw that he was not so very old after all, but he could not have said what age he might be, neither could he guess where he came from by his accent.
Then his eye caught sight of a greenbound pocket-book with elastic band which the tramp thrust back inside his coat after extracting his money.
"Queer bloke." He said to his wife indoors while she made the required tea. "Reckon he’s come over the sea on one of they boats and then walked on here." Then lowering his tone mysteriously, "carries a passport; saw him take it out."
The strange visitor was not very communicative as he partook of his humble meal, which was quite in keeping with his tramplike appearance; so was the fact of his placing some shag tobacco in his mouth as soon as he had finished his tea and proceeding to chew it pensively. He then asked if there was any work to be had in these parts, which was the question tramps always did ask. Yet George Holder still felt there was something foreign about the man. If nothing else.
He indicated the farm house over the way. The hay, belated by the recent heavy rains, was still being carried, and the corn, given enough sun, would be cut before the last wagon load of hay was safely in.
The tramp looked at the grey farmhouse, and the watchful eye of the house gazed down in return.
Eventually he presented himself at the back door and got the work he sought. The farmer very seldom refused such a request and just then extra hands were sorely needed.
"Old Sam," as he came to be known, was a thorough vagrant, choosing to sleep out of doors at night, a hayrick or thick hedge affording all the shelter he required. The children of his fellow labourers soon made friends with him, finding a delight in the stories he told them of their own Sussex Downs, which he had known from birth, and of similar downs across the water in France, equally well known to him.
They called him "old" Sam, but no one could conjecture his age with any certainty. He looked old at times, yet could work like a man in his prime. It was this strange agelessness and the unexpected pieces of knowledge that were stored in his mind that made him seem "queer" to other people.
When the harvest was over he begged to be allowed to stay on into the winter, and the young farmer, more from good nature than any other reason, kept him, and when the rough weather caused the old fellow to seek shelter beneath a roof at nights, gave him a mattress and some blankets for bedding in a disused cowshed.
Sam was pleased with this, and having accommodated himself at the far end of the long shed he bethought himself of utilising the empty cow stalls.
Fine place to grow mushrooms, he told his employer. He knew all about mushrooms. Finally, they made a bargain: Old Sam was to do the work of growing mushrooms and the farmer would supply the necessary manure and buy the mushroom spawn. Later on, when the mushrooms were marketed, they would share the profits between them.
So Old Sam set to work and before winter set in each empty stall was provided with a neatly earthed bed which contained the necessary spawn to produce white mushrooms. Beyond chalking up the date of spawning on a slate on the wall, the farmer was too busy, and possible not sufficiently interested, to interfere at all with the affair.
All daylight was then excluded from the shed by sacks hung over doorways and windows, leaving Sam'’ sleeping quarters also screened from the rest of the barn by sacking, without a chink of light or fresh air. Then all was ready. Winter came in earnest. Storms of wind and rain swept over the Downs from the sea coast, rattling against the windows of farmhouse and cottages. Mist and rain fogged the windscreens of lorries and buses as they ploughed and splashed their way up and down the broad road from London. Their mud-bespattered drivers would sometimes alight at the inn to drink a cup of hot tea or to buy a bottle of beer, or maybe to use the red call-box outside to phone for help with choked carburettors or burst tyres. Farm work, too, was speeded up to leave as little as possible to be done by lantern light. Nothing hurried or harassed Old Sam unduly, however; and nothing hurried the mushrooms either: as the months passed the beds remained as brown and barren as ever.
Spring came at last, and one morning, silently and mysteriously as he had come, Old Sam vanished. All that remained of him was a pair of boots that had been a gift to him, and his ash stick; no other sign and no mushrooms!
It was not until a month later that anyone had occasion to go into the old cowshed. Young Alf, the shepherd’s son, having acquired a motorcycle thought it might be stored there when not in use.
One evening before dusk he pushed it up the hill, followed by the inevitable crowd of admiring children who are attracted to a new acquisition of that sort as wasps to jam.
As the door was opened and the sack inside lifted there sounded a scuffle of light footsteps across the floor. Someone said "rats," but all stood spellbound on the threshold gazing at the white mushrooms that gleamed in profusion on the beds up each side of the shed.
From that moment Old Sam’s reputation was made.
It is true that among agricultural folk it takes time to make a reputation, but it is equally true that a reputation once made is never lived down.
Once let a ploughman win the annual ploughing match, or a stockman breed a champion heifer, and no subsequent failures will ever shake the faith placed in them by their mates.
Thereafter the sayings and doings of Old Sam were quoted almost with awe. In some mysterious way the extra good harvest of that year, the abundance of pullet chickens, the fact that twin calves were born to most of the cows, were all attributed to his presence among them.
At any rate there never were finer mushrooms, and they continued to grow apace. The bewildered young farmer was now faced with the problem of marketing this new produce, to which there seemed no end.
The growing of mushrooms as a side line had been entered into more out of good nature towards Old Sam than for any other reason, and personally he had long ceased to expect any mushrooms to come up. he was a busy man and he had expected to leave this all to Sam. It seemed, however, that his good fortune had not left him with the departure of this strange tramp.
One morning a car drew up at the farmhouse. The occupants hurried in; they had heard somehow, from someone – they seemed very vague as to from whom or how they had heard – that he grew mushrooms.
It transpired that they were mushroom growers themselves and anxious to bring in more. The demand far exceeded the supply. "We cannot understand it," they told the farmer on the way to the mushroom house; "there is no satisfying people."
They scanned the mushrooms with critical eyes and handled them with expert fingers, but there was not a flaw to be found. Snow white they were, lined with delicate shell-like pink. Perfect in shape, with stems firm and crisp, without the suspicion of a hole in any one.
As they filled their baskets to overflowing the visitors plied the owner with questions. Did he water them much? Did he use anything special to spray them with? Did he use artificial warmth? To all of which he said he had done nothing.
Then he told them the story of Old Sam, his sudden arrival and equally sudden departure, and drawing aside the sack at the extreme end of the shed he disclosed the bedding still there.
They gazed in respectful silence. There, a magician had slept!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Said one fairy to another as she tucked herself snugly into a purple Canterbury bell: "We can take a rest now Old Sam has left."
The second fairy in a neighbouring white bell did not answer. She was tired. She had been floating about in the air each day for weeks, alighting now and then on the shoulders of bus drivers, of rich folk in opulent cars, of humbler folk on bicycles and even whispering in the ears of pedestrians.
"Mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms," she had hummed without ceasing, till it sank into the minds of all who heard it and they each one felt an insatiable desire to have mushrooms for breakfast the next day and immediately went in search of some.
"Do you think they know he was in league with us?" asked the first fairy again, but the second fairy was asleep.
The tall Canterbury bells in the shepherd’s garden swayed slightly, rocked by a drowsy summer breeze.