Conker Season – new prose by Kris Humphrey

Conker Season

It was about seven years ago, before the drifting apart had even started, and Filby and me were over at Harewood House looking for conkers.

The season was pretty much over but we weren’t ready to give up. We’d talked about it on the way over; there was still time to find a good one, a big bastard to rival the ones people were bringing down from the woods up on Stickheath. So there we were, either side of the path, wading through leaves in search of the telltale shine.

The pickings were slim. Kids had been combing the place for weeks and all we were turning up was flat or mouldy ones. About half way up the path we stopped to compare. That’s when the old man showed up.

It was impossible to tell if he was in the process of moving or just standing there doing nothing; that’s how slow he looked. Probably shuffling home after a coffee morning at the House. Filby was showing me this conker he thought might be all right and we barely even noticed the man until he spoke.

He asked if we were collecting conkers. I looked at Filby; a question like that was asking for sarcasm. But the man was so old he could hardly move, so we just told him yes.

He smiled, or at least the lines on his face shifted round. His black dot eyes didn’t register a thing. It made me wonder if all old people ended up with stone cold eyes like that. Then he started telling us where we should look for conkers. He had a stick and he waved it in the direction of the tennis courts. He said they would all have rolled down the banks into the ditch around the courts.

Filby and me shared a glance. The man was right.

We said thanks and headed off towards the slope.

As we reached the top I peered back the way we had come and saw the old man hobbling off down the path. His progress was tortuous and he leaned heavily on his stick at each step. He really was pitifully frail but as I watched him shuffle away the lustreless black of his eyes hung strangely in my mind and somehow I was relieved to see him go.

We slid into the ditch and kicked through a foot or so of dead leaves, skirting round the edge of the dilapidated courts to the patch we thought would give the highest yield. No one played tennis in winter and the place was empty. The clubhouse was locked up too, and along with the tall row of conker trees it shielded us from view from almost every angle.

The strategy paid off instantly with even the briefest rummage through the leaves turning up a handful of bright, fat conkers. We filled our pockets and laughed greedily at the fact that nobody else had been clever enough to look there.

Then, after a minute or two of gathering I paused to rest my back and, for no good reason, I glanced through the mesh and across the courts to the one small section of pathway that was still visible between the trees.

The old man was there.

A jolt leaped through my chest. I’d thought he was gone. But he was there gripping tightly to his stick and looking back in our direction. I stared at him, for what seemed like ages, and he stared back. I couldn’t tell if he was smiling or not but I knew those eyes of his were pointed at us; like little glass beads. I carried on staring, and from the quiet behind me I could tell that Filby had stopped his searching too. We stood there, up to our shins in fallen leaves, unmoving until the man was gone from view.

Walking home we took a different path, past the clubhouse and across the field to the main road. Neither of us mentioned the old man, just delved our hands into the pocketfuls we’d come away with, wondering what it was we weren’t talking about.

• Kris Humprey lives in the South-West England and work as a cinema projectionist.

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