ONE feature of the council year that all parks department freelancers looked forward to was the annual council sale. This was a fundraiser to give the council a bit of a boost for the next financial year and took place in the last week of February at Boon Street Depot. Any old machinery that had been scrapped by the mechanics was laid out in the yard for the public to come bid on.

By and large, if something had gone through the mill with the local council, there wasn’t much life left in it and most items were sold for parts. But for the canny parks employee seeking cheap replacements for his or her sideline business, there were bargains to be had.

The sale of 1990 was particularly significant as it was rumoured to be the last ever as the council was getting increasingly jittery about the health-and-safety aspect of selling unreliable machines to the public.

Thus, as the new year began, Malcolm found himself increasingly inundated with suspicious breakdowns. Hedgecutters, chainsaws and stump grinders that had worked perfectly all winter suddenly started to give up the ghost.

“I dunno what the problem is,” Vannie sighed, as he presented Malcolm with an unresponsive, four-year-old Husqvana chainsaw. “Maybe we should scrap it.”

Malcolm gave the machine a look-over. It didn’t seem in bad nick. He had used it himself not long ago and it had worked fine then. Vannie was far too keen to let it go, which made Malcolm suspicious, but the machine certainly failed to start. Malcolm pulled and pulled, till he was blue in the face. He checked the fuel and spark plug, checked the exhaust to see if it was coked up, but no matter what, he couldn’t get a peep out of it.

“I’ll run it down to Les at the workshop, see what he can do,” he said.

“I can do that if you’re busy,” Vannie replied, with an eager grin.

Malcolm cocked an eyebrow at him. “You can’t drive.”

“I can get Nat to drive me,” Vannie almost pleaded.

Malcolm was suspicious. “I’ve got to see Les anyway. I have to take him some machines for the pool.”

“I can take them too, if you like,” Vannie said, bobbing back and forth.

That was the clincher for Malcolm. Vannie was never this keen unless there was something in it for him.

“No thanks. I’ll see you later.” Malcolm hopped into the van and left for Boon Street.

The ‘pool’ was really a shed at Boon Street where all scrapped machinery went prior to being sold off. Next to it was Les Berry’s mechanics workshop.

The workshop occupied the end section of a block of roll-door garages and had an interior of marine plywood, constructed by Les himself, with the help of Handbridge Park carpenters, to make a combination of workshop and home from home. 

Malcolm entered via the side door and immediately felt the blast from a large industrial heater. The heart of Les’s den was as hot as a sauna. A voice droned out from an old radio on the workbench, which Les kept tuned to Radio 4. Les himself lay reclining in a high-backed armchair, his eyes closed and arms folded across his greasy blue overalls.

Malcolm coughed, at which Les opened one eye and looked at him with a frown. “The answer’s no,” he said.

“You don’t know what the question is,” replied Malcolm with a grin. Les never liked being disturbed on his break.

“The answer’s still no.”

Malcolm ignored him and placed the chainsaw on the bench. “It won’t start.”

“Is this for you or the parks?” said Les, not stirring.

Malcolm knew the right answer to that question. “It’s for me.”

“I’ll have a look at it then,” Les said, easing himself out of the chair. He was an eccentric sort of chap with a bald head, bushy beard, glasses and a penchant for expressing odd notions that Malcolm never knew whether to believe or not.

One time he had said to Malcolm, “You know, the world is a strange place. You think you know it, then along comes something that challenges the core of your understanding.”

“Such as?” said Malcolm.

Les stroked his beard. “Well, I was reading the newspaper the other day and it said they had discovered a London bus on the moon. There were pictures and everything.”

“What? No way. Which newspaper was that?”

“The Sunday Sport,” said Les.

Malcolm laughed. The Sport was famous for its spoof news items, such as ‘Man from Atlantis stole my pint’.

“You don’t believe that, do you?”

“Well,” said Les, with narrowed eyes. “It’s a strange world.”

While Les gave the chainsaw the once over, Malcolm took a look around. Ostensibly, the workshop and Les were in the employ of the parks department, but you wouldn’t know it from the cosy bolt-hole he had constructed.

There was a half-dismantled Ariel motorcycle in a state of being restored, hand-made walking sticks hung from the walls, alongside prints of the Lake District. The only concession to work was a clutch of abandoned mowers sat forlornly by the door. But the pièce de résistance was Les’s workbench. It sported a bookshelf filled with a mix of novels and mechanical manuals, two faded armchairs, carpet, cooker, kettle and radio. The walls were soundproofed and Les had been known to lock the doors if he didn’t wish to be disturbed. 

“There’s your problem,” Les said, at last. He held a small wedge of paper. “It was rammed up into the spark plug cap.”

Malcolm frowned. “Bloody Vannie. I knew he was too keen to scrap that machine. The bugger wants to buy it in the sale.”

“Well he’s not the only one,” said Les. “I’ve had one or two asking me to ‘scrap’ a good machine so as they can buy it.”

Malcolm understood Les’s meaning. Plenty of good machines had been lightly sabotaged and scrapped in the past. Members of the public who came to buy them just saw a machine that wouldn’t start. But the parks employee who knew exactly what the problem was could buy it cheap, fix it up and have a perfectly serviceable machine to use.

“Anyways, if I were you I’d keep hold of these saws if you can,” said Les with a wink.

Malcolm looked hard at Les. “Oh? And why might that be? Have you heard something?”

“Not for me to say at this juncture,” said Les. “But I’d keep this one under wraps.” He patted the chainsaw and Malcolm nodded.

The sale came and went and lots of parks equipment found its way to new homes. In the aftermath of the purge, all the chargehands were keen to see what new kit they would be getting. 

A few months earlier there had been a mass demonstration of new machinery at Handbridge Park.

Management, charge hands and workers had all gathered with reps from an assortment of leading companies to try out the latest models. There were various things on show; chippers, stumpgrinders, mowers and chainsaws, all bright and shiny and sleek.

Malcolm looked at the new Stihls and Husqvanas on offer and felt a twinge of regret. He had kept his old model on Les’s say-so and hidden it away. The only place it showed up was on his inventory. The new models were lighter and easier to start, but Malcolm would only get one new chainsaw instead of two. 

Bloody Les, he thought to himself. Why had he believed him?

Then April came and the new assignment of machines arrived. Eager supervisors drove to Handbridge to collect their latest issue of kit, only to come away puzzled and disappointed, Malcolm among them.

He had a new chainsaw all right, but it was a dull grey and green with some unpronounceable script on it and weighed a ton. It certainly wasn’t any of those that had appeared during the big demo. 

“Where the hell did these come from?” he asked Giles.

His supervisor sighed. “Eastern Europe, apparently.”

“Eh? What about all those we tested? I filled out dozens of those bloody forms saying which models I preferred the council to purchase.”

Giles shrugged his shoulders. “What can I say? These came in cheaper. Our new director Tod Wilson has been singing their praises.”

“Wilson? You have got to be kidding! The man’s an idiot. I should know, I went to college with him!” Malcolm was aghast. He’d always known Tod was the brown-nose sort but he was surprised he’d leapt into the director’s chair so swiftly.

It wasn’t long before the new super-saver purchases came to grief. The safety bar on Malcolm’s new machine stopped working after a few months, so he took it to Les.

He found Les reclining in his chair as usual. He opened one eye when he saw Malcolm with the chainsaw and grinned. “Has it broken? Oh dear, what a pity. Never mind, put it over there with the others.” He indicated a pile of similar cheap chainsaws.

Malcolm put the machine down with its fellows. There must be half of the new chainsaws here, he thought.

“You’re wondering how long it will take to mend, aren’t you?” said Les.

Malcolm nodded. “Well I was, kind of.”

“Don’t know. It very much depends on getting the spare parts,” said Les.

Malcolm groaned. “And how long?”

“Now there’s a thing.” Les rose out of his chair and crossed to his store cupboard. “Here I have spare parts in abundance. Bring in your old Husqvana and I can fix it in half an hour or less. If I haven’t got the spares then I can order them and they’ll arrive in about three days or a week, tops. These buggers were made in the old Soviet block. Since the Cold War ended they took the opportunity to flog stuff to us. And the reason these were so cheap is, as far as I can make out, because they’ve been discontinued. There is probably some warehouse in the back of beyond that still carries spares for them but God knows where that is.”

“So what will happen to these?”

“Probably sell ‘em as scrap metal. They’re no use to us. Though that won’t be till next year now.”

Malcolm threw Les a smile. “Good job I’ve still got my old Husqvana isn’t it?”

“What made you keep it?” said Les, raising an eyebrow.

Malcolm held his chin and thought. “I guess I must have had a premonition.”

“It’s a strange world,” said Les, with a smile.