Via Twitter @SonjaBarfoed requested a yarn full of
Truffles + A library in Canberra + Vapour rising from Lake Burley Griffin
It all started for Jack with a visit to the library. Since Judy had passed, he had been searching for things to do, and one of his new favourite pastimes was his weekly Monday night “Read Around Canberra” book club. The group was convened by local author, Susan, who, as well as being a great writer, knew how to inspire everyone to discuss the books. Jack, who had always fancied himself as a potential Hemmingway, enjoyed chatting to a pro like Susan about the profession and art of writing. He had been working up the courage to share a piece of his writing with her, but wasn’t sure that any of his short stories were good enough. He had arrived early at Dickson library for the class, in the hope of finding some inspiration for a yarn amongst the thousands of published titles on the shelves. Inspiration did indeed come that night, but from an unusual source.
As he entered the library, his eyes were immediately drawn to a table near the entryway featuring ‘Books of the Month.’ The theme was truffles, coinciding with the Canberra Truffle Festival beginning in only a few short weeks. As Jack began flipping through some of the titles on the table, he was immediately drawn into the information inside, fascinated by the history and techniques of truffle collection; so much so, that one of his book club friends had to tap him on the shoulder fifteen minutes later to remind him the class was starting.
He and Judy had always been ‘foodies’ and had taken it in turns to cook an exotic dish for one another on a Saturday night. Judy had done truffles shaved over roast beef on one occasion, and ever since Jack had intended to experiment with the food himself.
He borrowed every book on truffles he could, and spent most of the next week reading them, as well as booking countless hours of internet time on the library computers to research truffle growing in Canberra. He was fascinated by their history: a food banned during the medieval period by the Church in France for being an image of evil. The climatic conditions in Canberra were similar to the South of France, and so it was the perfect spot to grow them in Australia.
The following week he joined a truffle hunt with French Black Truffles, held as part of the Festival. Whilst traipsing around the truffle farmers’ property, feeling precisely like a pig in truffles, Jack got chatting with a younger man also on the tour named Chris. After exchanging pleasantries, the two struck up a rapport, and they were still chatting at the end of the tour.
‘That truffle sample they gave us really was delicious,’ Jack commented as they both walked back to their car.
‘I know, but you better be careful getting a taste for those things; they cost a bomb.’
‘I know, but it’s just me at home now. I might spend some of the kids’ inheritance on a few nice meals. I can see myself searching the aisles of the Fyshwick markets in the next few weeks for the latest finds. Might even splash out on an Extra Grade.”
Chris nodded, and began opening his car door, before pausing and turning again to face Jack.
‘You know, I overheard a few of the other people on the tour talking. They were saying that supposedly one of the oak trees around the lake got infected with Black Perigold Truffle virus when it was a sapling. Part of some dignitary or royals visit. But now everyone has lost track of which one it was.’
Jack met Chris’ eyes, intrigued.
‘Do they have any idea where it is?’ he said.
‘All I heard was that it was somewhere on the Southern side, near the lake, just past Kings Avenue Bridge heading east.’
‘Still, it would take weeks to find it I bet,’ Chris replied. ‘Nice meeting you.’
It took Jack a moment to reply, as he had become caught up in his thoughts.
‘Umm yeah, nice meeting you too Chris.’
He was already considering the possibilities. After all, time was just the thing Jack had to spare.
Jack cashed in some of that time over the following days, scouring the area around Kings Avenue Bridge. He quickly discovered that there had been a large area of oaks planted further up Kings Avenue towards Parliament House in York Park for the visit of Prince Albert, who later became King George VI. That must have been the royal visit Chris had overheard others talking about. Could it be that one stray oak was deliberately planted closer to the lake and infected with truffles? One way or another, Jack was anxious to find out.
He decided to go early in the morning, to avoid embarrassment from passing joggers, and to simply identify the number of potential trees and then return with one of the truffleier’s dogs; if they would even lend it to him.
He knew the whole thing was a wild truffle chase, but that was the fun of it; and what would he do instead? Sit at home and pine for Judy.
And she would be supportive, wherever she was now. Her could still hear her voice:
‘Jack darling, all work and no play makes you a boring man.’
Well, work was a distant memory now and he wished he had spent less of those hours in the office, and more with Judy. All he could do was honour her memory by taking her advice.
So Jack spent every morning of the next week getting up early and walking around the Southern side of Lake Burley Griffin searching for truffles; and every day he returned home mid-morning, no closer to finding them. He couldn’t even find an oak tree in the area Chris had described.
He decided to go out one final time and then cease the escapade before someone saw him and reported him to the strange old people police; he didn’t want to end up in a home or somewhere worse. Jack remained intensely proud of his independence. He had always done strange things; just now he was an older man doing them.
That morning began like every other. He paced up and around the lake, laboriously searching every new area. As he came closer to the new Kingston Foreshore development, it struck him that this infamous oak tree may have been cut down long ago to make way for the new apartments
Jack knew he should give up. It was late. The mornings had been frosty and foggy but that was clearing and he was becoming increasingly aware of the pedestrian traffic now making its way around the lake. A few joggers had looked at him inquisitively as they passed.
He had that feeling in the pit of his stomach that told him only bad things could happen from this point on. It was a feeling he had experienced countless times as a younger man, usually late at night and almost always accurately; but since Judy had come along his late night exploits had been few and far between. Remembering his younger days, and the influence of Judy, stirred bitter sweet memories. He had been a scallywag in his teens and twenties; days spent in pool halls and pubs, and he had enjoyed himself. But nothing during those times could compete with the wonderful days he had spent with Judy. Thirteen thousand, three hundred and eight in all; precious few really. He could have done three times that and then some.
But now she was gone.
Brushing a tear from his eye, he decided it was time to head back to the car. He turned in the direction of what he thought was the path back but was suddenly aware of of water vapour rising from the lake. The morning fog was suddenly returning. It quickly engulfed him and in a few seconds he became completely disorientated. He could barely see his feet, let alone what was in front of him. Thirty years in Canberra and he had never seen anything like this. It was a fog that made pea soup look like chicken stock.
‘Silly old fool,’ Jack muttered to himself as he stumbled around, with his hands outstretched. He heard a voice whispering to him from somewhere in the fog. It was so quiet as to be nigh impossible to make out.
‘This way,’ he thought he heard it say.
‘Judy?’ he whispered in return. Had he imagined it? Was that really her voice he had heard?
He groped forwards towards the mysterious voice, his hands still outstretched.
He was lucky they were, as otherwise he would have walked head-first into a large solid object his hands suddenly touched. He groped around it, gaining some insight into the challenges those with vision-impairment must face. He had to rely entirely on his hands to identify it. After feeling it up and down and around, he concluded it could only be one thing: a tree.
But not just any old tree. His hands may be deceiving him, and most certainly his eyes were not of much use, but this tree had the distinctive thick trunk of an oak.
Could this be the tree? And if it was, so what? He had no dog or pig to find the truffles. He should somehow mark it and come back. But how? He had no idea where he was.
He paused for a few moments and decided there was nothing to lose from digging. No one was going to see him in this fog and he might as well try now when he had finally found an oak tree.
He bent down on one knee, and began groping around on what he thought must be the base. He quickly began regretting his decision; a dull ache grew in his back almost immediately and grew worse as he continued. Nonetheless he continued digging, although without a dog what chance did he have? This was supposed to be just a recognisance mission. A chance to find the tree. But something told him he may not get a second chance.
The ground felt wetter and warmer than he expected. The soil was soft enough for him to dig quite deep, although he knew his success would be about direction not depth.
After a few minutes of blind digging and foraging, his hands and knees covered in dirt, he was certain he would find nothing. But just as he was ready to give him, his hands touched something hard and round
‘Surely not,’ he whispered to himself, although he wasn’t sure why he was whispering. He felt acutely alone in this mist, even though there could be people all around him. He gently eased the object out of the ground and brought it to his nose. He could still not see clearly amongst the fog drifting around him, but the smell was unmistakable.
Cradling it gently in his hands he stood up, his back feeling incredibly equal parts numb and sore. He stumbled blindly away from the tree and became aware of the fog lifting around him. He could now see the car park a short distance away. Without thinking, he quickly walked towards his car to deposit his precious cargo. He put it down gently on the passenger seat and turned to return to the tree. But for the second time that morning he was disoriented. What direction had he come from? He could see no oak trees nearby. With a sinking heart he realised he had no idea where the tree was. He stumbled around for a few minutes, now able to see clearly with the fog gone, but with no idea which direction he should go. He was nearly run over by a jogger and then a bike as he wandered across the footpath.
At last he gave up and returned to his car. He found his bounty was a near perfect round shape with a dark black colour, much like the Super Extra Grade he had seen photos of online. That night he dined on the second most delicious truffle he would ever eat. Despite the spectacular flavour of the truffle, he found the meal didn’t quite reach the heights of Judy’s roast beef five years earlier.
However, his adventure did stir in him a great love of the fungus, and he would join in every local hunt until his death, he would never taste one like it again. Every year he would return on the same date, to the same place on the lake, but the fog never returned and he never again found his oak.
And he would only hear Judy’s voice like that once more, on the day he died.
A week after he discovered the mysterious truffle, he again went to Dickson library for the weekly bookclub.
‘Susan,’ he said, approaching her at the end of the reading group, ‘Can I show you something?’
‘Sure,’ she replied smiling. ‘What have you got there?’
‘Oh,’ Jack replied sheepishly. ‘Just a story I’ve written down.’
Man in the mist photo kindly provided by Drew Sheldrick