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Chapter 55: Of Moles and Men
An amber bar hung over Shrewsbury. It cast a thin light like a TV in a dark room. A motionless freight train laden with pine trunks gave the air a resinous snap. It was night by the time I found somewhere to camp, at the top of a steep slope above the River Severn. A factory plant hummed nearby and my nose ran from hay fever.
I got going in good time the next morning. You tend to when you’re camping. Lie-ins aren’t really possible, especially when you’re not supposed to be camping there.
On the edge of town, an old boy tottered behind a walking frame. He pushed alongside a hedge and the wheels were shining with the wet grass. He stopped and stooped down, one hand clutching the handle. The other hand scooped soil from a molehill.
Good morning, I said. He looked up with a smile and held up the pan of a dustpan and brush. Inside was soil. He had a brilliance in his eyes and a softly joyous voice. He told me how moles reach down into the earth, bring the rich soil to the surface, and leave it there for us.
“This is the best soil you can get,” he glimmered, “I grow mushrooms you see, and this is perfect. Look at thaaaa’!” He crumbled it between his gloves, letting it tumble into the pan.
Keith used to forage for mushrooms right where we were. He’d come in the mornings and the verge would be rich with them. They ran all along the hedge. There were even more on the other side of the road.
“I used to get those red spotty ones,” he grinned, “Do you know them? I know the name but I won’t say it,” his look shone. “They’re beautiful! I just call them my beautiful red ones. You take ‘em home and dry ‘em and by Christmas, they’re ready to eat. Ah! They’re delicious they are. They eat them in Sweden and Denmark and the Netherlands, but for some reason… we always think they’re poisonous here.” He looked puzzled for a moment then pointed across the road.
“I’d come out under that oak tree there and ahh! They’d just be there. Hundreds of ‘em! I thought I’d found my dream world.”
I asked if he’d ever heard the word puhpowee and explained that in Potawatomi it describes ‘the force that pushes up mushrooms overnight.’ He thought about it a moment and smiled.
“One day I came to the oak tree and there were fences everywhere. They’d blocked it all off. I couldn’t get to my mushrooms.”
They’d built houses. Hundreds of them. They’d gone up in the last year, sprung up like mushrooms. Puhpowee of a very different kind. We laughed.
Not many mushrooms grow on either side of the road now. Keith had to grow them himself. That’s why he was collecting soil. But that wasn’t the only reason. He leant forward and confided, his nose pricked with mischievous, “You can grow cannabis in it too!”
Keith told me he had cancer six years ago. “I’m a chemo survivor,” his look showed he was proud. They’d told him he had 12 weeks to live, “But I’m still going. My son bought me some cannabis and I began to get better! People would say ‘Keith what are you doing…? Actually don’t tell us, just keep doing it!’ On a cancer measurement, I went from 137 to four. You're probably a four, that means it’s gone. All because of cannabis. It’s keeping me alive!”
Keith grew it himself now. His son bought the seeds, and Keith would plant them and harvest them after a few months. He’d cook it for 24 hours, make an oil and put five drops on his tongue. It was his elixir.
It was expensive, a single seed cost £120 and they were quite hard to come by. “If you were to buy Afghan or Purple Haze or one of those,” he said a little naughtily, “they only cost £4-5 a seed but mine’s medical cannabis. I have to get the right one or I’ll end up trippin’ and doing funny things! I wouldn’t want that.” Laughter held his eyes for a moment, then fell away. “Isn’t that sad? The one that saves you costs the most money. What’s wrong with the world that it’s like that?”
I didn’t have an answer.
He’d just run out of his cannabis. He’d managed to get some more seeds but they wouldn’t be ready for a few months. That’s what the molehills were for.
“Anyway, what’s your name, young man?”
“Nico,” I replied.
Keith smiled a warm smile from under his paper trilby. “I used to call my son Nico. He’s called Nicholas really. Nico! I’d call,” he chuckled, “He’s a gamekeeper on an estate in Scotland now. He used to come down and trap moles,” he motioned to the mounds by his feet, “But I don’t like that. We shouldn’t be killing anything. We’ve got to keep everything alive now, don't we?”
I walked along the road, buoyed by Keith’s gentle zeal. We’ve got to keep everything alive. I thought of the moles beneath my feet, patrolling their tunnels, catching tiny invertebrates: earthworms and insect larvae, leatherjackets, cockchafers and carrot flies. Each pile is a monument to the little creature. The mole under that grassy verge was playing its part in keeping Keith going.
It was a beautiful thought that reminded me of Charles Darwin and his book on worms. I once listened to it to fall asleep. I’m sure Darwin would have enjoyed the idea that Keith and the moles were bound in their small way. Darwin was after all the one who realised the importance of the tiny, seemingly insignificant creatures. The first in the West at least.
He was born just a few hundred yards away. I’d walked past the house, a redbrick pile with a plaque by the gate. There was a tiny picture of his infamous beard and questioning eyes. Maybe as a child he’d watched that very mole’s ancestors.
I walked a long way out of Shrewsbury. There was nowhere to catch a ride on the edge of town. In the next village, I waited outside a petrol station next to an old curry house with dusty windows. One of them was ajar.
A van turned around and came back to get me. The driver was stick thin and wore a black vest. He had tattoos up his arms and a black flat cap. He might have looked dodgy but he wasn’t threatening.
“I’ve always wanted to pick up a hitchhiker,” he told me. He spoke not too loud with a strong midlands accent, “So thanks for being there.”
We struck onwards away from Shrewsbury. The hills were low and wide and the sun was bright and fine. Ethan was driving to Wales to deliver garden furniture. He was fairly sure he was going through the town written on my sign. I didn’t mind either way.
Ethan loved being in the countryside, and he loved when he had jobs in Wales, “There’s just nothing,” he said gesturing to the hills, “Being in nature, it’s where we should be. Good for mental health innit.”
He drove all over the country. Sometimes he’d stay in hotels though usually he was back home to Nottingham for tea. The Nottingham he knew and grew up in was rough. He said it had been mad there these last two weeks. There was the nutter who killed two students then someone ran someone over a week later, intentionally.
He’d take his metal detector out to decompress. If he saw a good spot, he’d jump out and have a swing for half an hour. Usually, it lay on the dashboard but he’d left it behind today. Ethan had found several things: Roman gold coins and medieval broaches, once he found a bronze age spearhead. It was amazing to think it had been lying there untouched, among the moles for all those years.
“Trouble is I’m a stoner,” he laughed, “So I lost it after about two weeks. It was lying in the ground for 3500 years and lost it in two weeks!” It was somewhere in his house he was quite sure.
I asked if he’d always been a delivery driver.
“To be honest mate,” he replied, “I’ve been a drug dealer most of my life.”
“What kind of thing?”
“It was never the hard stuff or anything, just weed. I used to grow it.”
I told him about Keith and his cannabis but Ethan’s operation had been a little bigger. Hundreds of plants, fluorescent lights in houses, cellars and shop floors. It wasn’t so long ago that he was making 30k a month, though he didn’t have anything to show for it. In short, there were no molehills involved here.
To be continued…
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