IN the early autumn of 1998, I was taken rather by surprise by something that wasn’t supposed to happen, at least not until Christmas that year.

I remember the run-up to this event, as well as the aftermath, because as usual the whole thing was overshadowed by work. In the late summer I’d met with a director of a local groundworking company and another fellow, the churchwarden for a large parish to the east of here.

We’d been talking about tree planting and pruning, in a large field next door to the existing graveyard. It was a nice afternoon in mid-July, neither hot nor cold, I like to think a blackbird was singing, some baby foxes gambolled past and a red admiral butterfly danced low across the meadow, accompanied by the sound of grasshoppers and skylarks.

I can’t be sure, but I do remember the weather because it was making the churchwarden sweat. A lot.

He was a portly fellow, in his seventies or older, and was telling the groundworker, Vince, and myself about the proposed plans for the extension to the graveyard.

“Do you do turf as well as trees?” he asked, a drip of sweat trickling down the folds in the side of his cheeks.

“Yes.” I always said yes, and still do, which is why I buried a dog, put on a chimney cowl and re-roofed a shed last week. It’s never all been about the tree surgery, more the money.

“Oh good, I won’t bother getting another landscaper then,” said the church man, whose name was Donald.

I was pleased about this, it meant I could charge properly without worrying a rival landscape firm would get the whole job because they were better equipped.

Vince, who’d been on the phone and almost certainly had a headache from such, because early mobile phones seemed to do that, joined in the conversation.

“You’ll be working as a sub-contractor to me, if you get the job,” he said. “Do you have much plant?”

This was a tricky one for me. I didn’t; not for ground work. I was a tree surgeon with some mowers, not really a proper landscaper.

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, you won’t need it, we’ll do all the levelling and grading. You’ll just need to quote for the turfing itself and the seeding on the wild area.”

This was looking good and I walked away with a bundle of documents regarding the site, my tender information and some legal stuff about my obligations, which, importantly, I read carefully.

I’m glad I did.

At the same time, I was preparing for a job in October that required a major road closure in a town south of Devizes, again as a subbie to another firm run by a friend of mine called Mark, a thoroughly decent sort.

This was a big event. We were to remove some large limbs on very big roadside beech, with no MEWP, because I didn’t have one, traffic lights and a very tight time frame.
I hate those jobs.

Nonetheless, it was work and as always, I needed it. Also, Mark was very, very efficient and had done so much of the paperwork and form filling that there was little left for me but to show up, on October 1st, with some men and a woodchipper.

Back then I was doing a lot of climbing, but the events of that autumn day were of such magnitude that even now, I can barely remember them, it all being something of a surreal blur, so I don’t recall whether I did the tree surgery that day or not. 

I do remember being there though, because although that tree job wasn’t in any way linked with the graveyard thing, the two did come together on that autumn morning, just briefly.

As I said though, they weren’t the main things on my mind.

Meanwhile, back in July, I sat in the garden and read the specification, or ‘speccy’, as Vince liked to call it.

It seemed I was to tender for the tree pruning, which was easy. A bit of crown raising on a few field maple, ash and oak, some planting of container-grown sorbus and flowering hawthorn and the turfing and seeding I mentioned earlier.

Vitally – and this is important – the main contractor, not me, was responsible for all the site aftercare, to be carried out until the graveyard was consecrated and handed over to the parish church in the early autumn.

This mattered, because the place was a long way from home, some 45 minutes each way, and I didn’t know how to price in the watering of an acre of new turf and grass on a daily basis, with no access to a tap and no idea what the weather might do.

I’d been caught out by this before. I think I wrote about it, being blamed for not watering a landscaped lawn and consequently losing a fair bit of money in resolving the issue of who was responsible.
So, you can see why I read the speccy so carefully.

Vince was a tall weather-beaten and tough looking chap in his sixties, with white hair.

This he squashed under a baseball cap sporting the name of an American football team neither of us had ever heard of and he met me on site, a few days after I’d won the job.

He was a nice fellow, realising that I was a bit out of my depth and helpful beyond his responsibilities as the main contractor.

“Just cut the branches off the trees, don’t worry about chipping, we can push them up and burn the lot,” he said, saving me a huge amount of work with one gesture.

And so, we did, finishing the tree work in good time and enabling us to get on with the tricky bits, planting and turfing.

But the groundworker was ahead of us on that too, levelling and grading the whole site with his heavy machinery, leaving us to simply rake out the stones and prepare the fine tilth, if that’s the correct word?

He even dug the holes for the trees. I couldn’t fault the man, we’d more or less accomplished everything in the first two days, on a job that should have been two weeks and more importantly, was priced for such.

Rab, who was with me, was good at turfing, getting stuck in in his quiet, sombre way, earphones of his Sony Walkman plugged in, rake in hand and silently scratching methodically at the soil, like a modern-day peasant.

It was hot, I remember that, but when the turf was finally delivered later the following week, the weather had changed to overcast, with heavy rain predicted, so we hastily laid the lawn, seeded the wild bits and stood back, our work done.

And it was good, the paths and edgings done by the groundworkers complemented our softer landscaping perfectly. I was very pleased with the result, and even happier with the profits, which were excellent.

If you read this column often, you’ll understand that this state of affairs was by no means commonplace, not by a long way.

Vince wasn’t there when we finished, late on a Friday night, tired and happy, or at least I was. It wasn’t always easy to tell so far as Rab was concerned, he wasn’t a great one for overdoing the good cheer.

The rest of the summer went by and I got paid quickly for the work, a complimentary letter accompanying the cheque that completed the all too rare perfect scenario.

And so, I forgot all about the site, concentrating no doubt on trees, squirrels, mowing and whatever else was going on with the business back then.

Lily was growing up, better now from her terrible illness, though a relapse or two kept us ever vigilant and probably under more stress than I can remember.

She was to have a sibling, due at Christmas, so I’m sure we were all pretty excited, Lily wanting a sister, though I wish I’d said ‘be careful what you wish for’, because she got what she wanted, and a lot sooner than expected.

Winnie had arranged a birthday party for our eldest daughter, who was three, and it was unusually at a sports centre in Marlborough, for a reason I don’t recall.

I was there, probably wearing a hat and eating cake, chatting with all the lovely ladies and enjoying myself, when Winnie suddenly spoiled the thing.

“I don’t feel right,” she said, holding on to her belly and puffing a bit.

I assumed she’d been hitting the egg sandwiches a bit hard, eating for two, and ignored her.
After a while she collapsed into a chair and did some gasping. This didn’t look good.

Somebody, I think it was my father-in-law, drove her to hospital, leaving me with a dozen or so three-year-old children and – thank goodness – their mothers, in the leisure centre.

I helped a bit, but being more or less redundant, decided to follow my wife to hospital to see what she was up to. Lily would have been eating cakes with some helpful mum-types, so I left her behind.

At the hospital, I joined Winnie in a small room full of people in hats and wellies, all of them doing something urgent around my wife, who seemed a bit distressed.

“The baby’s heartbeat is faint,” somebody said. “We’re going to get it out now.” Or some such thing.

This wasn’t part of the day I’d planned at all, and it was also jolly inconvenient. I needed to get all the kit ready for the big roadside job which was due to start at 7:30 am the following morning.

Still, it seemed they’d made their minds up and after a bit of cutting and poking about, they told me I had a new daughter, who cried and was immediately removed to another bit of the hospital.

Eventually, my wife and I were reunited with Daisy, who was to stay in a premature unit for a while, it being about 3:30 am before I finally walked out of the hospital and drove home.

After an hour’s sleep, I spoke to the main contractor for the roadside job, Mark, who was understanding and helpful, offering to help set up the traffic control, but the fact remained that I needed to be there, on site, to carry out the tree work at 7:30.

As always, I made it, the job went smoothly and I managed to stay awake, probably excited enough about the new baby to keep me going on adrenalin, and looking forward to going to see my family that night.

However, the day wasn’t yet done. As we cleared up and prepared to leave site, the phone rang.

It was Vince, from the graveyard job, which was a distant memory by then.

“You’d better come over to the site,” he said, and not much else.

It was with a heavy heart that I set off. I knew something was wrong, but poor telephone reception meant that I had to go over and find out for myself. Vince was there, it was instantly obvious what the problem was – drought.

All the turf had shrunk, the grass seed hadn’t grown and the trees were wilted and in poor shape, hardly fit for handover due later that month.

“You didn’t water, did you?” asked the groundworker, who I still liked, despite this accusation.

“You should have read the speccy,” he added, referring to the one I mentioned earlier, the one that said he was responsible for post-landscaping maintenance.

It was at this point I lost my temper slightly. I was after all rather tired and stressed, not even sure if my new daughter was okay yet, and having had less than two hours’ sleep.

“Maybe you should go home and read the ******* speccy,” I said, and instantly regretted it. Like I said, Vince was a kind and helpful man, but I knew this was his problem, not mine.

We parted company, slightly awkwardly and I never heard from him again.

A few weeks on, Daisy was allowed home. She was fine, just small and noisy, which she still is, 21 years later. Sometime later, I revisited the graveyard I’d help create on a day out for Daisy and the family, just out of curiosity.

Everything was green, the trees revived, the grass recovered, obviously Vince had got in there with the sprinkler system in the nick of time and saved the day. There was, however, one other difference that hadn’t been present last time I’d visited.

Walking down one of the paths, new daughter in her pushchair and Lily holding my hand, I looked to the far corner under an oak I’d pruned where there was now a single grave with a fresh headstone, that of Donald, the churchwarden.

I suppose that’s just the way it is.


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