More in our series following one man’s sometimes funny, sometimes fraught, and oft-times very harrowing journey through a 20-odd-year career in arboriculture.

AS usual, in order to keep my fading memory accurate, I checked February 2000’s diary, to see what we were up to and to give my tales some factual basis.

Unfortunately, the pages were badly damaged by one or possibly both of my daughters. They are old enough not to scribble all over my stuff with crayons, tear up important documents and make nuisances of themselves in that way now. Instead, they return to my home and steal my chocolate crisp nuggets from the larder and, as in 2000, I can’t seem to stop them doing whatever they want.

Dougal, who wasn’t born in that year, doesn’t perform such acts. Perhaps he was better brought up, or perhaps it’s because he’s not a female.

Eventually, I managed to decipher one of the ruined pages, which refers to a customer I called Mrs Curried Egg. It was enough to recall the lady and more than enough to start me on a path of childish, giggling mirth at the bizarre nicknames given to the clientele (behind their backs, of course) over the years.

This awful behaviour is grounded not in any particular animosity to the unfortunate and blissfully ignorant victims. On the contrary, I quite liked a lot of them and still do, but the comedy does help with the tedium and general hard work of running a tree surgery business. You need a few laughs, or you probably won’t survive.

The one thing I can actually remember about the Curried Egg lady was that, in this case, I didn’t particularly like her, and the reason was none of my business.

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees: End of a Millennium

As always, I was on good terms with the gardener, on this occasion an elderly chap struggling on through his dotage labouring in the grounds of the Egg’s not inconsiderable estate. I suppose he was grateful for the money, and she was given the help she needed, but this situation never seemed right to me, and it is very common around here – the wealthy paying worn out old men a pittance to help maintain their grounds. But I’m no socialist, and it was, as I said, none of my business.

Come sixty though, I’m done. That old man will never be me. I hope …

I left my men (I can’t remember which ones) to get the kit ready for some belated hedge cutting and went to find Reg, the aforementioned gardener, who was in a work shed pottering about, quite obviously hiding from the weather and any actual useful work.

“Good morning, Reg,” I said, cheerfully.

The old fellow, who had the bushiest beard I’ve ever seen, looked up sadly from a strimmer he was pretending to repair. “What’s so good about it?” he asked, morosely.

I couldn’t think of anything, so I changed the subject. “How’s work?”

“Xxxx,” said Reg, using the exact phrase I’d heard from him so many times before when asked about his well-being.

I was just trying to think of something positive to say, when I was rudely interrupted by a loud clanking noise from the vicinity of the back door. It sounded exactly like an old-fashioned brass ship’s bell, which isn’t surprising, because that’s exactly what it was.

To my alarm, Reg uttered a few expletives, dropped his strimmer and barged past me, running as fast as his legs would carry him in the direction of the bell. It wasn’t much of a chat that I’d been having, so I didn’t miss it much, and after a couple of seconds puzzling about it, I stopped. We had work to do.

It was a tedious job, that one always was, and I didn’t shed too many tears when we were eventually undercut by one of those tree men who seems hell-bent on the race to zero, so far as quoting is concerned.

So, we slogged away at the hedges, raked wet bits of hedge cuttings from rain-sodden rose beds and generally just got on with it. The odd thing was Reg.

With ear defenders it wasn’t possible to entirely drown out the sound of the bell, but as it clattered away, every half hour or so, the poor old chap raced like a whippet to its source, dropping tools, wheelbarrows or anything else as he tore past us. It was mid-afternoon before I caught up with the old fellow, a brief interlude in the bell ringing giving me the chance to ask the gardener what was going on.

“Oh, that’s the lady of the house,” he said, sadly, referring to the Curried Egg. “Every time she looks out of the window and sees something she wants done in the garden, she rings that damn bell, so I have to go to the kitchen to find out what her Ladyship wants.”

He said this with such venom that I had to ask why he allowed such a thing. “Why don’t you make her wait, or not go at all?” I asked, astonished that this harassment could be tolerated even once, let alone a dozen or so times a day.

READ MORE: Tales from the trees: The customer is (not) always right

“Because she does it for my coffee breaks too. If I pretend I can’t hear it, she whittles down my quarter of an hour break times. They start as soon as the bell rings.”

I was outraged, but not so much as I was when I’d heard the rest of his sad story.

“I have to have my coffee and lunch at the kitchen table now. She stays in the room and times it to the second.”

I couldn’t imagine such a thing and asked Reg how on earth he coped. To my mind this was appalling, something that was barely acceptable a century ago, let alone in the year 2000.

“I’m just biding my time,” said Reg, looking towards the house. “I get my pension next year, then I’m out of here.”

I felt sad and angry, but Reg brightened a little bit at the thought of his future.

“I’m going to spend my old age in the pub,” he said.

It sounded like a plan, and I wished him well.


Mrs Curried Egg wasn’t the only victim of our secret weapon, behind-the-back nicknames. No matter how childish, I have never tired of it.

The rules are easy. You take the basic parts of somebody’s surname, then change them to make them more amusing. All you have to do then is to remember to use their correct name when meeting face-to-face.

Occasionally, if a customer is particularly irksome, I don’t bother with the second part. If they deserve it enough, I opt for the silly version. Sometimes I lose track of reality and get it wrong.

Worse still, the men adopt the new name, or I forget to tell them the correct version.

We had a female customer by the name of Mrs Tawny. Obviously when I told the chaps one morning where we were going, I’d had plenty of time to fiddle about with it.

“We are working for Mrs Owl today.”

“Is that her real name, or one you’ve made up?”

READ MORE: Tales from the trees: The Beech

“No, not this time, that is her actual name.” I don’t know why I said that, but I didn’t tell the chaps that do the actual work the proper version, so at the end of the day they were keen to tell me of their embarrassment.

“Mrs OWL?” shouted one of the chaps. “I called her Mrs Owl all day, until her husband came home and put me right.”

“Was he cross?” I asked, smirking.

It turns out he was, thinking the chaps to be flippant, rude or whatever. Oops.

We had a Mrs Saville, who didn’t need much imagination to become Jimmy, a Mr Waterboatman, whose real name I can’t remember, but much, much worse was an old fellow in a nearby village by the (actual) name of Cronk. He also had a big nose.

Anyway, I shared the very obvious and unsubtle joke with my wife, but rather than tell her the real version, as with the aforementioned episode, I simply left it at ‘Conk’.

At the time, another lady typed the quotes, before my wife took over, so the first contact she had with the clientele was when they rang the landline to accept the quotations.

I’d forgotten about Mr Cronk by then, but for some reason my wife had retained the name in her head, so when he called and introduced himself, she heard it as Mr Conk (the subliminal mind taking over, I suppose).

I happened to be listening in to the call and witnessed my wife’s anguish.

Apparently, he was good-humoured. “My dear,” he said, in that old-fashioned way the elderly use, “I’ve been cursed with the Cronk surname my whole life, please don’t make it any worse.”

The thing is, with tree surgery, it’s hard. Not just a bit hard, but very much so. Even when it goes well, it’s back-breaking, physically exhausting, sometimes tedious and usually carried out in some horrid version of the British weather. That’s why a bit of comedy doesn’t go amiss.

Over the years we’ve had customers by the name of Enis, Ball, Nutt, Stains and, to be honest, if you haven’t got variants on those open goals, you don’t really understand the game. I hope it isn’t classified as bullying these days.

We went back to the lady with the bell, who had morphed through ‘Scotch’, to ‘Mrs Pickled Egg’, before somehow becoming a pickled onion by the time we finished work there, due as I have said, to undercutting on price rather than a falling out.

It was about five years later that I saw a fellow outside a pub in Marlborough who I barely recognised.

READ MORE: Tales from the trees: Work, work, work...

The chap, who was supping happily on a pint, was very obviously at peace with the world. It was a sunny afternoon, I’m guessing the birds were singing (they were in my head, anyway) and I recognised the man, despite his considerably larger beard, so I stopped.

“Hello Reg,” I said. “It all worked out as planned I see.”

The ex-gardener wiped a bit of froth from his moustache and smiled. “I could barely wait to get out of there, Dave. It was that xxxxxxx bell, it drove me mad, but I made it. The only bell I dread now is last orders!”

I laughed, but didn’t accept his offer of a drink, and as I turned to leave, he grabbed my arm.

“It was you that kept me going there, until I was of retirement age, Dave.” He was serious now and I didn’t really know what he was getting at. I didn’t think he’d ever particularly liked me, nor looked forward to our annual hedge-trimming event.

“How’s that, Reg?” I asked, intrigued now.

“Well, that bell was driving me mad, but after you came and were talking one day you called her Ladyship, Mrs Curried Egg.” He threw back his head and chuckled a bit.

“It was just our silly joke,” I said. “Just a bit of fun.”

Reg looked at me more seriously. “Oh, it was fun all right, but I was a bit down at the time and when you said that thing about her name, I felt a lot better. From then on, every time I heard that bell I just thought of her nickname. It helped.”

I was secretly pleased and said so.

The retired gardener  took a sip of his beer and winked. I think the fellow needed his retirement and I’m pleased that a tiny part of our nonsense made his last year slightly more bearable.

I just hope the new help isn’t running to the bell. Perhaps I’d better call in and ask to see his boss. I’ll have to take care not to get her name wrong though, won’t I?

(Follow us on Facebook at DW Oliver Tree Services.)

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