conker

Despite it being mild for this time of year, the weather has been somewhat gloomy. A thick fog has enveloped the county; the sort of mizzle that seems very light, but ends up socking you through to the skin.

I decided to embrace it and headed towards the woodland that backs onto the Helford Estuary to try and spot wading birds. The walk down was quiet and calm, droplets of water collecting on my jacket as I made my way through the windy paths. The floor was littered with a mosaic of colour; the ash tree leaves had turned beautiful shades of yellow and ochre, interspersed with touches of red and orange, leaves in their different stages of death.

Ducking beneath low hanging branches, attempting to avoid fat droplets of water which had collected at the twigged ends. As I walked I saw little wildlife; the occasional slug, galls attached to leaves, tits sneaking hurriedly between branches, gathering up food morsels as the cold weather sets in. I noticed in one area there had collected a large amount of conkers and I stopped to inspect them. These were the first conkers of the year I have seen, something which strikes me as odd suddenly; normally at this point I would have seen lots of them. I picked a couple up, rubbing their smooth surface between my fingers, that familiar feeling which takes me back many years to hunting out the biggest one possible. I noticeed one which grabs my attention; it is medium-sized and symmetrical, an exact sphere. A specimen of absolute perfection, produced flawlessly by nature, I picked it up, smiling, as I think it would make a sweet little gift. A colleague of mine recently took part in the World Conker Championships. She didn’t win, but really loved it and plans to do it every year. I had an idea about making a little trophy out of it as she was given nothing for her participation in the competition, and slip it into my pocket. I manoeuvred it around as it is sticks into my skin, finding it most comfortable nestled just near the top of the pocket.

An opening in the trees signifies the river is just below and I made for it. The space opened out suddenly, the river marked by neat rows of trees on each side of the bank. The river is tidal and the tide was low, leaving the grey mud flats exposed, just a small trickle of brackish water running through the middle and off into the distance. Somewhere, it meets the sea.

I moved slowly to peek down the valley and spy wading birds; turnstones, redshanks, curlews, shelducks and a cormorant were all in viewing distance, beaks poking around in the mud, looking for the worms and insects that live beneath. The mud is rich and thick, with a clay consistency to it. It is filled with delicious invertebrates which attracts the birds at low tide, and when the water comes in, the grey mullet will come with, gasping at the surface with their giant mouths.

I watched the birds as they stalked up and down, their wide feet designed perfectly to cope with the soft ground. Suddenly, I saw a flash of blue head into the trees near me. I have never seen a kingfisher up close and, mesmerised, I made to follow it. I took a few steps, my wellies supporting me over the wet ground. I avoided the mud, walking over the area blanketed with the leaves. My left foot went down. Suddenly, I felt myself falling, face hurtling towards the cold, wet floor. I thrust my arms out and my hands made contact with the mud first, splattering thick clay droplets up towards my face. I laid there for a split second; caked in mud, cold water seeping through my open jacket and jeans. As I drew myself up, I saw a wriggle in the mud below, and even though I love invertebrates and enjoy handling them, my mind flips back to dissecting rag worms at university and a shiver ran down my spine, causing an involuntary convulsion through my body. I sat up and assessed the situation – I had lost a leg, to above the knee, into the mud. The ground had given away, a secret trapdoor of dirt, hidden by a carpet of leaves. The sludge oozed in my welly. I secured my other foot on solid ground and heaved hard, attempting to pull my leg out from it soggy prison. It didn’t move, stuck in the vacuum of silt. I wriggled the leg side to side, slopping more mud down into the boot. I pulled again, and my leg finally came free with a great ‘schlep’ sound. I stood on solid ground for a minute, attempting to remove some of the mud but simply spreading it around in the process. Down the river, the birds had all vacated, startled by the cry that escaped me when I went down. I made for the car. Instead of admiring my surrounding this time, I sort of limped back quickly and uncomfortably, not in pain, just discomfort. I thought of nothing but home.

I drove home perched awkwardly on a bin bag. When I got in, I peeled my outfit off, threw it into the bath to attend to later, and after a quick clean up, was snuggled on the sofa in fleece pyjamas, a cup of chamomile tea in my hand and a dog curled at my feet. It was warm and cosy, and I laughed at the thought of myself just an hour ago.

It is a while before I suddenly remembered and ran into the bathroom to search my jean pockets, scrabbling around the dirty pile in the bath. I felt a small knot of disappointment when I realised; the perfect conker was gone.

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