The plan was that in the morning we’d gather our wild foods from the woods and hedgerows, and in the afternoon we’d light a fire and cook and eat a communal meal. But if our survival had really depended on it, the first thing I would have done was to butcher and eat the little boy Zac.
He was about five years old, and he arrived at our base camp in the redwood plantation with his mother, two older sisters and older brother. His mother was a care-worn, ethereal, still beautiful middle-class woman and one saw immediately that she was a woman of new-age beliefs and sensitivities. You heard it first in her high, thin voice, which avoided assertive cadences. Then you recognised that her every utterance, from her ‘Sorry we’re late, everybody!’ to her ‘Wow! One...Two...Three buzzards!’, was a restatement of her helplessness before the unfathomable wisdom of the cosmos, which might have been admirable except that here it seemed tired and habitual rather than truly felt. And then you saw it confirmed in her refusal to exercise any authority over Zac, who demanded undivided attention from an audience every second of the day. This meant that when the teacher asked us to gather around a woodland plant and began to explain its uses, Zac thought he was being upstaged and would somehow contrive to step or fall on the plant in question, or to divert attention by falling down and crying, or by running a short distance away and making his mother anxious about his safety.
His repertoire was inexhaustible and his mother seemed awestruck by it, as though she was a particular admirer of monstrous egotism. Which was odd, because the three other children were silent and well behaved to an almost sinister extent, as though somewhere along the line they’d been traumatised or broken in some way. I was not the only one present who, instead of listening to the teacher explaining the uses of the hazelnut tree or the stinging nettle, tried to guess at the dynamics of this irritating family. Was Zac perhaps mentally disturbed? Adopted? Terminally ill? And the mother — she seemed drained of personality and vitality. Was she on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Lacking in normal intelligence? Extremely wealthy? Married to a violent criminal?
The teacher was a patient and kindly man, and underneath the wily bushman’s pragmatism was also, I suspected, a new-age believer in the inviolable sanctity and equality of all living things, and in the oneness and the wisdom of the universe. So he didn’t admonish the boy either. The rest of his class had only just met, and though appalled by the boy’s behaviour — glances and frowns were being exchanged — were loath to speak out for fear of being seen as intolerant. And I was reluctant to throw my hat into the ring because I had the mother of all hangovers and felt as enervated and feeble as Zac’s mother looked. And so, ashamed of ourselves for allowing the day to be dominated by one horrid five-year-old boy, we put up with it with thin smiles.
In spite of Zac’s every effort to disturb and distract, in the morning we gathered meadowsweet leaves, sloes, elderberries, blackberries, nettles, acorns, hazlenuts, plantain seeds and burdock and silverweed roots. Then the teacher led us through the woods and across fields leading down to the river, where some stripped off and swam.
While they swam, I sat on the end of a tree trunk and wrote up my field notes. The tree trunk was about nine-inches thick at the end and 20-feet long. It had been washed downstream in a flood and become snagged among boulders and was pivoted in such a way that the end on which I sat was suspended in mid-air and the slightest movement made it bounce evenly. Momentarily left with no one to antagonise except the solitary old reptile eccentrically balancing on the end of a suspended log and prissily writing in his small red notebook, Zac’s genius for disruption immediately spotted how best to get a reaction. He clambered up on the log, edged along it, then he made the log bounce wildly by pressing down with his feet.
Now I’d had enough.
‘F*** off, you little s**t,’ I said, and took a swipe at him with my notebook. At which precise moment his mother, anxiously looking for him, unfortunately arrived within sight and earshot. Her mouth fell open in astonishment (whether at my daring, or at the violence of the language, I couldn’t say), then she led him quietly away by the hand. And that was the last I saw of her and her four children, because rather than stay on for the meal, she took them home.