Tree Gang

A journey up the ladder of council arb.

Pt. 23 Crash test dummy

The continuing story of Malcolm Brown and his transition from art student to arb expert on the local parks department.

Malcolm, by his own admission, had a tendency to be accident-prone. Where tree climbing and wielding a chainsaws at height were involved he was safe as houses but stick some wheels on it and he became a health and safety nightmare. In the early days of his career mowers were the bane of his life. Aside from taking the tops off his fingers, as mentioned in a previous story, he could also be a danger to the public at large. On one occasion he was mowing an abandoned plot of land in Hanbridge town centre. There were several such plots, with disputed or unknown ownership, dotted about the town. They grew long and lank, gathering rubbish and detritus, until some member of the public complained and the council stepped in to pick up the tab. Luckily, the Parks department had a very handy machine for the job – a Haytor Condor 30” rotary mower. Capable, so Frank claimed, of climbing a tree if you let it. It munched through long grass like a starving bull on amphetamines. The only down side was that it had a tendency to block up in excessively long grass. However, Malcolm, ever the innovative soul, had devised an ingenious way of curing this problem by using a length of rope to hook up the safety flap at the back of the machine to the handle bars. Thus the grass was able to fly out freely unimpeded, along with just about anything else that came out of the chute for that matter. The flaw in this cunning plan came to light with an almighty bang and a flash as a blurred object flew out of the back of the mower. His head swivelled to follow its flight and was just in time to see an old drinks can (one of those you had to work hard at to crush, not like the paper thin ones you get now) smack into the head of a passing pedestrian. The poor sod went down like he’d been pole-axed. Quickly Malcolm switched off the machine and dashed in panic over to see if he was OK.

“What hit me?” groaned the man, lying prostrate in the gutter. “Er… that can did, the one down the road there,” replied Malcolm, pointing out the battered object lying several yards away.

“Who the hell threw that?!” asked the man, starting to sit up groggily. “That machine over there,” answered Malcolm helpfully.

“And what bloody idiot is in charge of that?” demanded the man, rubbing his head. “Hi,” said Malcolm sheepishly.

On another occasion he missed a health and safety meeting because he was hospitalised after coming a cropper on his ride-on mower. He’d managed to stall it on the turn, having climbed up a steep grass bank in clear contravention of the instruction manual. It careered helter skelter backwards down the bank with Malcolm desperately trying to hang on. As it neared the bottom it struck a child’s chute (a fixture that took advantage of the steep incline) and flipped over to land on top of him, a stunt that luckily only earned him five weeks off with an injured leg.

When Malcolm joined the tree gang on a permanent basis he thought all his mower worries were over, but it wasn’t to be. He arrived at Limebank flats in the van one dinnertime surprised to find one of the gardeners standing alongside his lads. The chap had been cutting grass around the flats with a pedestrian mower while the tree gang had been stump grinding and cutting up the branches from a tree they had felled that morning. He was asking if they could take his mower back to the depot so that he could go up into town for lunch.

Malcolm had no objection to this in principle but they had a fair bit of equipment themselves to load up, including a heavy and bulky stump grinder. So, when the gardener went to put his mower in the back, as soon as the van pulled, up Malcolm leapt out to stop him. “Whoa, hang on a minute,” he said, grabbing the mower off the man. “This can go in last. We’ve got more work on this afternoon and I don’t want to have to unload the entire van just to take one bloody mower off.” The conversation was cut short by a shout of “BRAKES!” from Nat.

The crucial thing about Limebank flats which Malcolm had forgotten, in his eagerness to prevent mower priority boarding, was that they were built on the side of a considerably steep hill. So in his haste to vacate the van he had failed to engage the handbrake properly and now, with creaks and groans, the van was starting to roll back down the hill. The rest of the lads scattered out of the way but Malcolm, quick as a flash, let go of the mower and dived into the back of the van. It was open to the cab so he was able to scramble forward, reach between the seats and haul on the handbrake, just in time to prevent the van rolling back in to the car behind. He then collapsed with a pounding heart. His relief was short lived.

Hearing a commotion behind him he turned to see other lads were yelling and running down the steep hill at top speed, chasing after the mower, which Malcolm had let go of in his haste to save the van. It hurtled down the hill gathering speed as it went. It bouncing off one car, denting the wing, then another, and another, setting off car alarms as it went until it finally ploughed into the front of a Ford Sierra parked in the cul-de-sac at the bottom.

Blood mowers were a liability in Malcolm’s view but if he thought that mowers were the only blight on his safety record he was sadly wrong.

One cold winter’s morning he called in on Eastwood Stadium, with new colleague Vannie, to get details of a job that had been phoned in to the office. Apparently there was a dangerous tree overhanging the path near the main entrance. The car park was empty on that chill day but Malcolm still parked in one of the middle bays and walked across the tarmac to the offices. He soon saw what the problem was, even before he reached the main office. A large sycamore was growing out of the grass bank above the line of the path and leaning at a considerable angle. He could see dead branches in the canopy and several had already fallen to the ground around it. Further more he noted that the soil was cracked and lifting around the roots at the base. He spoke with the stadium manager and asked him to cordon it off while he gathered his team and equipment. It wasn’t going to be an easy job. In a direct fall line from the tree was a shed for storing sports equipment, so straight felling was out. They would have to go up and take it down in sections and that meant working amongst dead branches in a tree that could potentially fall. He contemplated all this as he walked back to the van. Best to give his new tractor driver Clarkie a call and get him over. He was on the radio when he reached the van and climbed into the cab.

“Big job?” asked Vannie, who had been reading his paper whilst Malcolm was busy. “Awkward. I would say,” replied Malcolm, switching off the radio. “Clarkie’s on his way, let’s go and pick up the rest of the lads.” With that he fired up the engine and slammed the van into reverse. There was a sudden and unexpected jolt and the cringworthy screech of metal upon metal.

“What the f-f-flaming hell was that?” he yelled. “You’ve hit something,” said Vannie.

“I know I’ve bloody well hit something but what?”

They scrambled out of the van to see a blue Datsun with crushed doors and smashed windows up against the rear passenger side of the van. Malcolm had shunted it across two parking spaces. “What the hell! Where did that come from? There was no one here when we arrived,” declared Malcolm.

“Must have parked while you were in the office. I thought I saw a woman walk across there,” said Vannie. “And you didn’t think to tell me? Thanks a lot.”

Malcolm had little choice but to head back the way he had just come from and get the receptionist to announce that would the owner of a blue Datsun please come to the car park. When she saw what had happened the woman was incredulous. “How on earth did you manage that? I was only in the stadium to drop off some papers,” she gasped.

“I’m very sorry,” said Malcolm humbly. “I just didn’t see it.” “Didn’t see it!” She cried. “It’s the only other vehicle on the ruddy car park!”

“Can’t fault her observation, “ said Vannie. Malcolm shot him a glance, he wasn’t helping.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” The woman was getting quite worked up now, with good reason. Malcolm had given her car a proper pounding. He tried to calm her down, saying apologetically, “The place was empty when we arrived and I just didn’t notice you’d parked there.” Giles was going to haul him over the coals for this that much was certain.

“He’s always doing this,” said Vannie with a grin. He was loving this, anything to wind Malcolm up and blow the consequences. “They have accident sheets with his name and details printed on them to save time,” he added. “Will you shut up,” hissed Malcolm.

“Is that true?” said the woman, going red. “No it isn’t. He’s being an idiot. Please let me just take down your details and we can sort this out for you,” replied Malcolm.

The woman shook her head in disbelief, “All this empty space. You had all this empty space and you managed to hit my car. The only other vehicle on the damn car park.”

Malcolm kept calm. He could have said that she shouldn’t have parked in his blind spot, but he knew that he should have been more observant himself, if he hadn’t been so distracted by the job in hand. Arguing wouldn’t help the situation. So he decided to calm her down, he’d call Giles, get her details and fill out the paper work.

“What do you reckon then?” said Vannie leaning over as Malcolm scribbled down the top office number for her. “Shall we call it an act of God?” At which point the women went nuclear and started calling them all the names under the sun.

The upshot was a roasting off Giles for both of them and another round of accident forms to fill in. Malcolm was particularly disgruntled to note that the forms already had his name printed on them.