I like speaking to old people. Especially very old people. You know… the ones with nuggets of time sewn into the folds of their face flesh.

Having lived much longer than I have, they usually have something to say, some knob of wisdom I can learn from. They are the hackers of life’s operating system, too old to be able to afford broadband, but with all the knowledge in the world.

Which brings me to the Mushroom Man.

I have no idea how old he is, but he’s looked the way he does now since I first saw him, twenty seven years ago. Every day he sits on the high street, at the makeshift market stall that he’s never paid for, washing his mushrooms, ordering them by size and waiting for the next customer.

To his left, these days, is Marty who runs the (second hand) book stall. I often drop by there on my lunch break to see if he has anything I fancy. I’ve been waiting for him to get that Philip K Dick biography that everyone was reading a couple of years ago. But he hasn’t yet.

On the Mushroom Man’s right is Sheleem. Sheleem is nice, and doesn’t seem to mind that the legitimate gap between him and the book stall is always taken up by the mad old Mushroom Man. Sheleem was born somewhere in the Punjab, something like fifty years ago. Sheleem has a cockney accent. Sheleem has no teeth.

So after browsing the books (still no PKD biography!) I decided today was the day I would talk to the Mushroom Man.

‘Hi there,’ is what I said at first.
‘Hello,’ is what he said back to me.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever bought mushrooms from you,’ is what I said next.
‘No,’ he said, ‘You haven’t.’

I thought about what he’d said, and the certainty with which he said it. While I was thinking, and saying nothing, the Mushroom Man’s hands worked away, washing mushrooms with water from the faintly mucky bucket under his table. He didn’t need to look at what he was doing, years of embedded muscle memory working their magic.

‘Do you remember everyone you ever sold a mushroom to?’ I asked him.
‘For sure,’ he said, ‘And you’ve never bought one.’

‘Who was the first person who ever bought a mushroom from you?’ I asked, my hackles unnecessarily raised.
‘Philip Green, the newsagent,’ the Mushroom Man said.
‘Who’s the tallest person to ever buy your mushrooms?’
‘Sandra Davies, she’s six feet and five. Easy.’ He said.
‘Okay, who’s the most famous person you’ve sold to?’
‘The Queen, twenty three years ago,’ he said without even time for a heartbeat to pass. ‘She don’t carry no money, so she had to borrow from one of ‘er body guards.’
‘How many people have you sold mushrooms to?’
‘Do returning customers count?’ he asked.
‘I’m interested in the number of discreet transactions,’ I said, thinking that this would make it more difficult for the old man.
‘A hundred and eighty three thousand, seven hundred and,’ he paused, almost uncertainly, then added, ‘ninety six.’
‘How many individual mushrooms is that?’ I pushed, knowing that he’d break eventually.
‘Nine hundred and twelve thousand, six hundred and seventy seven,’ he said.

I took a deep breath.
This geriatric bastard wasn’t going to be easy.

‘Which customer has bought the most mushrooms from you,’ I asked.
‘Fred McLintoch,’ he said, giving me a gummy smile, ‘And before you ask, he’s purchased nearly six thousand mushrooms from me over the years.’
‘Exact figure, old man,’
‘Five thousand, nine hundred and fifty three.’

I gurned. How did I know he wasn’t just making up all of these numbers?
‘How do I know you’re not just making up all these numbers?’ I asked him.

And that’s when he punched me. Square in the jaw. I have no idea how old he is, but he punched harder than an old man surely should have been able. For a second I entertained the notion that he was a young athlete, perhaps a boxer, who had been disguising himself as an old man, waiting for this precise moment – to strike with the element of surprise on his side.

Then I realised that this made no sense whatsoever, and I must have been suffering from concussion. I tried to counter his punch, but he then hit me with a battery of blows that left me winded, bleeding and confused.

Marty and Sheleem eventually had to restrain him.

‘How dare you question the integrity of my mushroom accounting, ya little bastard,’ the old Mushroom Man shouted, before shrugging off his fellow stallholders and returning to his little table.

It took me a half hour to recover enough to pick myself up and leave the scene of this epic battle. No one seemed to mind that I was blocking the pavement in the meantime, and generally they just stepped over me.

While I was down there, watching the feet of other busy lunch-timers as they marched towards their destinations, I wondered what I’d learned from this exchange.

Never counter with a left hook when your opponent is shorter, was the best I could come up with.

And the Queen likes mushrooms.

I suppose.

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David Baillie is a freelance writer and artist. Born almost thirty years ago in Scotland, he now lives and works in the East End of London.

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