“WHAT!” cried Malcolm, shocked by the disturbing news from the memo Giles had just read.

“It’s true. The council are going to reduce the tree gangs,” said Giles, his supervisor.

Malcolm sat down with a thump. Tree work was not just his day-to-day job, it was his passion. The idea of it being under threat sent a chill down his spine.

“That’s ridiculous. It’s not like there aren’t any fewer trees in Hanbridge. What are they going to do? Cut all the buggers down and plant shrubs?”

Giles reclined back in his office chair reading, “I wouldn’t suggest that, they might just take you up on it. But relax, they are only going to get rid of one of the tree gangs.”

“Oh great! Well that makes me feel a whole lot better,” said Malcolm sarcastically, then added, “Which one?” 

So far, the eighties had been one long series of local government cutbacks and the gardening staff at Hanbridge park had gradually been whittled down from 28 staff to eight. At first it hadn’t really affected Malcolm.

There had been a lot of “dead wood” on the council staff and he remembered long winters when Giles struggled to find work for everyone. But now complaints came in thick and fast and everyone struggled to cope with the increased workload. This latest turn was a step too far.

When Giles didn’t answer, Malcolm felt a cold shiver down his spine.

“Who’s for the chop, Giles?” 

“We don’t know yet,” said Giles. “But top office is thinking of merging the two teams to cover the whole of the city. They want a first strike team to deal with complaints and to do additional paid contract work.”

“You’re kidding me?” said Malcolm.

“Half the complaints are due to the fact we can’t get round as it is and now they want us to be private contractors on top? It’s madness I’m already doing some of the gardeners’ work to ease their load.”

“This will be a specialist team, you won’t be doing the run-of-the-mill gardening work,” said Giles.

“Oh yeah? I’ve heard that one before. We’ll start off on tree work then it will be back to cutting grass because the gardeners can’t cope,” Malcolm grumbled.

“Well I don’t wish to add to the bad news, but I have been offered a new job in Scotland and unfortunately will be leaving soon,” said Giles.

“Oh dear. Well that will be sad,” said Malcolm, trying not to sound too cheerful. Well at least there was a silver lining.

Malcolm had never liked working under Giles. He was officious, arrogant and a right pain in the backside. But, more importantly, his leaving meant Malcolm had a shot at the supervisor’s job.

This was a natural career progression. Ever since he had started, the parks dept had operated on ‘dead man’s shoes’ in terms of career advancement. As one person left, another stepped up.

Malcolm wondered how they were going to amalgamate the two teams. Generally redundancies were still being selected on a ‘last in, first out’ basis. This suited the old hands with years of experience and for the management it meant less redundancy payouts. Malcolm had been on nearly 11 years in the summer of ‘89 so he wasn’t worried too much on that score. But one tree gang meant only one chargehand and that was a worry.

His rival, chargehand for the northern tree gang, was Barry Barber. Malcolm hadn’t heard much good about him. Despite his position, Barry was not an arborist. His post of chargehand had been acquired through contacts rather than qualifications or skill and he was renowned as something of a butcher.

Barry’s nickname was ‘Stumpy’ due to the state he often left his trees in. It was he who had pollarded a street of flowering cherries just before flowering and had removed a specimen tulip tree from Bursley Park by mistake instead of the self setter sycamore next to it.

“Dunna worry, they wouldn’t give that idiot the job,” said Ray when Malcolm told him the news.

Malcolm wasn’t convinced. “Are you kidding? Incompetence is practically part of the job spec on the council.”

Giles left the council in June of that year. He was not replaced straight away, however, and Malcolm was asked to stand in as a temporary measure. On the downside, Barry Barber stepped into the role of city-wide tree gang team leader. This being the new designation for chargehands. 

At first Malcolm was pleased to take over Giles’ role. It was a nice change to be in the office and away from the wind and the rain. But in truth it wasn’t as easy as he had imagined. He missed the tree work and, whereas before he had always been able to punt any problems up to Giles, now the buck stopped with him.

And one of those problems came in the shape of Barry Barber.

The trouble was Barry had no real passion for tree work and was frequently slapdash in his approach. Malcolm often found himself in conflict with the man. He left trees unbalanced with ‘coat hook’ stumps of branches you could hang a whole wardrobe on.

It irritated Malcolm no end that he couldn’t tell a maple from a sycamore.

“Aye’s worse than Dutch elm disease,” commented Ray on Barry’s ability.

Malcolm recalled that when a few weeks later Barry called him out to look at a tree with that very problem.

Malcolm was surprised to be summoned. Usually Barry would just wade in without a second’s thought. But, on arriving at the site in a private back garden, Malcolm soon saw why. A dead mature elm was shedding branches and clearly needed to be removed. However, there was a problem. A nest of rather angry wasps currently occupied a hole in the decaying trunk.

“’Ave we got any wasp killer?” asked Barry when Malcolm arrived.

Malcolm shook his head, “’Fraid not, it’s not something we stock.”

Barry sighed, “I guess we’ll just have to improvise then.”

“Let me give the top office a call. See if they have any in the store I can pick up.”
While Malcolm was on the radio, Barry went back to the van. 

The office told Malcolm there should be some in the main stores at Kilnbank depot.
“Great,” said Malcolm as Barry approached with a two-stroke oil measuring cup in his hand. He passed Malcolm and headed for the tree. Curious,  Malcolm followed after him.

Barry peered into the hole in the tree where the wasps were milling about and Malcolm came up behind him. “What are you doing, Barry?”

“Ah told you. Improvising.”

At that, he slung the liquid contents of the cup into the hole and within seconds a swarm of angry wasps emerged like a cloud of tiny avenging devils.

Malcolm legged it and the other lads followed, swatting at the wasps as they ran. But Barry paused long enough to light a match and lob it into the hole. Only then did the true nature of his improvisation become apparent, as the petrol ignited with a whoosh.

“You bloody idiot, Barry!” shouted Malcolm.

Too late. With the combination of petrol and a tinder dry interior, the dead tree went up like a Roman candle. 

The homeowner rushed to get a bucket of water to douse the flames but was hampered by the wasps that were still flying around. Everyone else had retreated to a safe distance. Soon the flaming tree was showering neighbouring gardens and sheds with burning embers and the fire brigade were called. 

The homeowner was livid. He called the tree gang a bunch of bloody vandals and acting supervisor Malcolm bore the brunt of it. By the end of the day he was sick of repeating, “I’m sorry” to everyone on what seemed like an endless tape loop. The thought of bloody Barry and his stupid ideas made his blood boil.

Back at the depot, Malcolm laid into him. “Barry, you are the worst tree worker I have ever seen but that took the bloody biscuit. You’re lucky no other properties caught fire.”

But Barry was unfazed. “Ah well, no harm done in the end, eh? And we got rid of his wasps too. We should charge him for that.”

“Are you mad? That’s not the point. You put everyone in danger and you can bet I’ll be writing a report on this for the director. Now get out of my sight, this isn’t the end of it by a long way.”

Malcolm was right, it wasn’t the end of it.

The following day, the lads were able to complete the job of removing the tree with Malcolm acting as peacemaker to neighbours who complained about ash in their gardens and the threat the fire had posed to their homes and sheds.

But, not surprisingly, the homeowner was refusing to pay for the tree removal and instead demanded compensation for his fence and border plants. As icing on the cake, the local papers got to hear of it and ‘Council in tree blaze storm’ was the headline of the week. 

An investigation was held and both Malcolm and Barry were called into the director’s office to give statements on what happened and to decide if it were to go to a disciplinary.

Malcolm laid the blame squarely with Barry and said that, in his opinion, the man wasn’t fit to run the tree gang. 

He was incensed when he later learned that Barry had done the opposite and placed the blame at Malcolm’s door, saying that he had approved and even suggested Barry’s action and therefore wasn’t fit to be a supervisor. 

With no clear person to blame, both Barry and Malcolm were let off with an informal warning. But the enmity between the pair festered and Malcolm decided that he would do all he could to get Barry off the tree gang.

A few months later, the office finally advertised Giles’ supervisor post and Malcolm applied. He was confident at the interview that he would get the job, as Giles’ chargehand he was the natural choice to step up. They told him he would hear the results in a few days’ time. 

He was delighted when rumours suggested that Barry was to be taken off the tree gang. He hoped they wouldn’t replace him with another idiot.
Then he got the letter.

It thanked him for his interest in the post and said that although he had interviewed well, on this occasion he had been unsuccessful.

Malcolm was devastated. He had thought it a done deal and blamed Barry and the flaming elm for his failure to land the post. But at least, as the only tree gang chargehand left with Barry going, he still had a job.

But worse was to come.

He was called to the director’s office and as soon as he entered the room his heart sank. There was Barry Barber, suited up and grinning like an idiot.

“Ah, Brown,” said the director. “I would like you to meet the new area supervisor, Mr Barber.”

If looks could kill, the new supervisor for Hanbridge Park would have left in a coffin.