I’m walking Lola over the woods in the pouring rain, and I’ve stopped to collect some chestnuts, when I hear a sudden, peremptory pheep! – and then I see them, Molly and her GSP, Elliot, watching me from the path. I wave my bag as if to say Hello! and Look what I’ve got! in one go, feeling a little guilty for some reason. Molly raises her stick, Elliot, his nose.
I walk over.
Lola runs in the other direction.
Molly is about sixty. She has the kind of vigorous but off-kilter demeanour of someone who doesn’t know the war’s over. She’s wearing a khaki field cap, green waterproof cape and leggings, green walking boots, and she’s standing to attention with the thumb of her right hand through the V of her hazel walking stick. Elliot is sitting bolt upright next to her, appraising me with his golden eyes. I feel the urge to salute, but instead I say: ‘Hi Molly! Don’t worry. I’m leaving some for the badgers.’
‘Nonsense! There’s plenty for everyone,’ she says. ‘You’re welcome to them.’ Then adds, for the record: ‘Not that it’s any concern of mine, of course.’
Elliot can see Lola nosing around in the undergrowth a little way off. He follows her progress with professional interest, and gives a haughty little sniff.
‘I’ll tell you what I had the other day,’ she says, producing a handkerchief from deep inside the cape and blowing her nose so suddenly and violently it’s as if she’d whipped out a double-barrelled shotgun and fired it over my head. ‘Cobnuts!’ she says at last.
‘Cobnuts? Is that hazelnuts?’
‘Yes, yes!’ she says, stuffing the handkerchief back under the cape. ‘It’s been a good year. They’re not the dried rubbish you get in the shops. They’re a bit fiddly to open – got a splinter under my thumbnail and it hurt like the devil – but goodness me! So delicious!’
‘I’d love to try some.’
‘Well you can’t,’ she says. ‘The leaves have all fallen ‘orf and there’s none to be had.’
‘Oh. Maybe next year.’
She shakes her head.
‘Won’t be the same,’ she says, sadly. ‘This was a vintage year.’
The rain eases a little and we both look around.
‘There’s an awful lot of die-back in the woods,’ she says. ‘Have you noticed?’
‘Yes. Particularly in that far corner.’
‘You see – they’re just not managed as well as they used to be. Ash isn’t good for anything more than firewood, and besides, the volunteers have neither the skills nor the equipment. You can’t just cut it down and hope for the best, you know?’
I nod as if I do.
‘So what do you end up with?’ says Molly. ‘A lot of rotten trees just waiting to fall on top of you. It’s getting increasingly dangerous to walk in these woods. You wouldn’t get much warning. You’d hear a great big crack, then you’d have seconds to decide which way to run. Seconds! And you might not get it right.’
‘I suppose if it’s windy you’ve just got to be mindful of the hazards,’ I say. ‘Not walk under any rotten trees. Or any with big limbs. Like oak. Or beech. I suppose you do what you can to mitigate the risk.’
‘Hmm,’ says Molly. ‘Well – you know – there was a large oak went over a few months ago, and there was no accounting for it. It wasn’t exposed. Good firm ground. Tucked away in a sheltered spot. And yet – over it went! But then – you never know what’s going on under your feet, do you?’
She gives the ground a speculative poke with her stick. I look down at it. Elliot looks down, too, and even leans in to sniff. Molly blows her whistle. Me and Elliot look straight back up again.
‘Enjoy your chestnuts!’ says Molly, and they wheel about, and march off together down the path, side by side, perfectly in step.