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

Pt. 44 Millennium bugs and other problems. 

MALCOLM felt as if his head were stuffed with brash and his stiff, rusted joints ached with the smallest of effort. A few days earlier, Phil Drake had sneezed, sending a fine mist of flu-bug-laden miasma into the cramped space of the crew cab van. Now Malcolm was reaping the consequences.

It wasn’t the only bug doing the rounds. As the century raced to its conclusion, Millennium Bug fear was flooding the headlines. Aircraft were going to crash out of the sky, bank accounts would vanish and civilisation would burn to a crisp in a techno

Armageddon. At least that’s how the media portrayed it. The council top brass, never ones to pass up the chance for a good old panic, were throwing money at computer-savvy whiz-kids in a bid to make themselves Y2000 compliant. Meanwhile, Malcolm had technological problems of his own.

“A simple update. How hard can it be?” 

READ MORE: Tree Gang Pt. 43: A journey up the ladder of council arb

He soon came to regret those words as he unwittingly unleashed chaos on his home PC.

‘Do you want to terminate your expensive magic box with extreme prejudice?’ is what the on-screen message might as well have said. Poor old Malcolm found it hard to keep up with the relentless advance of computer technology. He dithered for ages over the simple yes/no option, then with sweating brow pressed ‘yes’, more out of hope than reason.

The computer did various confusing things, which Malcolm tried desperately to correct by switching it off and on. It was hopeless. The big blue screen of death appeared and he sank into a pit of depression.

This was the culmination of a year-long downward spiral. His career had stalled, the secondment to the office had not been the step up he’d thought it would be. The career ladder he had hoped to climb had been whipped away in a flurry of reorganisation and restructures. Supervisor positions no longer existed and the gap between team leaders and management had become an unbreachable chasm.

Malcolm needed to do something positive and turn his life around. He needed help.

So he got on the phone to his techno-whiz friend, Lister, and said: “The bloody computer’s died. Can you come over and fix it?”

An hour later, Lister, so-called for his resemblance to Craig Charles, arrived and demanded coffee. Then he sat peering at Malcolm’s 16” monitor for what seemed like an eternity, rubbing his chin and saying “Mmmm” in a highly disturbing manner. This lack of communication did nothing for Malcolm’s confidence.

“How’s it going? Are you getting anywhere?” he would ask at frequent intervals, as minutes stretched into hours and his computer remained inert.

To each enquiry, Lister would enigmatically reply: “Mmmmm.”

At close to midnight he declared: “Your PC’s a goner. I can get your files off the hard drive but your motherboard’s corrupted, mate. You need a new PC.”

Malcolm groaned as he saw his meagre finances taking yet another dive.

A few days later, he was over his flu and back on the team. A huge pile of schedule rates work had accumulated in his absence. These were jobs in addition to his regular work, given priority because they pulled in revenue for the council.

“TREE!” cried Vannie.

Malcolm dropped his copy of Home Computer to the dirt as the upper branches of a young sycamore came crashing down in front of him.

“Bloody hell, Vannie. Try and kill me why don’t you!”

“Sorry boss. The wind took it.”

Malcolm saw they had dropped the wrong tree.

“You’re in a right daze these days,” said Phil.

Malcolm groaned. He was getting too wrapped up in trying to get a new PC. On the other hand, at least he was sleeping better. He had been living like an insomniac since discovering the immersive allure of computer games. Long nights spent just trying to get to that next level, build that last city or shoot a few more zombies meant he’d been spending too many days wandering about like a Doom villain himself.

By the end of the week the team was back to regular work, thinning out stands of trees on the park-cum-urban wild area known as Pit Park. Created out of the town’s many sprawling black acres of industrial slag, it had sprouted a fuzz of trees over the past 30 years. Birch, oak, chestnut and various other species, along with grass and scrub, graced what had once been industrial wasteland.

“You still after buying a PC?” asked Phil Drake, piling logs up off the track.

Malcolm gave a weary sigh. “Yes. I’ve spent God knows however many hours on the phone to Dell and other companies trying to find a spec I like.”

These days, one simply orders a computer, laptop, phone or whatever off the internet and expects it to arrive a few days later, working seamlessly from the off, but such luxuries weren’t available back in 1999. Mobile phones weren’t internet connected and with broadband still at least a year away, dial-up connections ran at glacial speed. Phone order or computer shop were Malcolm’s only options.

“You could try PC World down the hill,” said Phil.

“Oh?” said Malcolm, suddenly interested.

As luck would have it Pit Park was close to a huge new retail park, which, Phil informed him, had a large PC World store.

“Cheers Phil,” said Malcolm. “We’ll clear up here then I’ll nip down and have a butcher’s at lunchtime.”

As they cut and feathered trees, Malcolm counted down the minutes until he could get away. Then, while the others nipped off to the chippy, he took an extended lunch break to peruse what PC World had to offer. He was looking for something with a little more reliability and to satisfy his craving for the slew of RAM-hungry new games hitting the market.

The sales person seemed a little put out by Malcolm’s attire of sawdust and twigs, but an hour later had managed to sell him a shiny new Gateway computer.

He didn’t get it there and then, of course. It had to be ordered. Malcolm would have to wait a week to satisfy his craving for digital worlds.

On the day it was due to arrive, though, he was out of the area on a jolly at Haydock Park Horticultural Show.

Earlier in the year, Malcolm had been selected to join a Parks Focus Group and add his expertise to the mix of managers and admin staff. ‘Rewilding’ had yet to become a popular buzzword, but creating ‘space for nature’ was an idea Malcolm had floated to the park’s management as a low-maintenance option. It was he who had suggested the programme to thin Pit Park out and stack the logs for insects and wildlife.

The focus group meetings not only got him out of rainy days wading through winter sludge but also gave him the opportunity to attend trips out such as this one to Haydock Park.

“We want to generate exciting new ideas and invest in better equipment,” said his boss,

Dave Hulme, as they all piled out the minibus. Malcolm soon discovered this was management-speak for ‘find the hospitality tent and consume whatever drink, food and freebies are going’. At least Malcolm got to see the latest range of equipment from Stihl and Husqvarna and saw some interesting demonstrations.

Soon it came time for them to leave and they all piled back onto the bus clutching plastic bags full of leaflets and freebies. It was still early afternoon though, so Malcolm relaxed knowing he had plenty of time to get home for the arrival of his new computer. However, he had reckoned without the obligatory pub stop. Halfway home the minibus driver was instructed to call in at a country pub for a ‘quick drink’. The quick drink lasted three hours.

By the time Malcolm finally got home there was only a ‘we called to deliver but you weren’t in’ notice pushed through his letterbox. Unable to drive due to the pub break, he phoned Eddie in desperation. She reluctantly agreed to run him down to the post office before it closed. Eventually, by 6.30 pm, he was plunging into the little polystyrene bubbles covering his new PC.

He plugged everything in and loaded up his favourite games, but …

‘Norton Anti-virus has detected a problem. Do you want it to repair your computer?’

Already? Only just out of the box? Like a fool he pressed ‘yes’.

And then everything went black. He managed to re-boot but his games still wouldn’t load.

Frantic he called the PC World helpline, who told him to call Gateway, who told him to call Norton, who told him to call PC World. No one would accept the blame for what was wrong.

“Bloody hate computers. I hate them,” he said to Phil the following day, having spent long hours into the night trying to get his PC to load.

They were back on Pit Park and Malcolm was imagining the joy of dropping one of the trees down the bank to land onto PC World below.

Phil nodded sagely. “Same thing happened to my cousin. It’s probably the anti-virus.

They come pre-packed with free versions of expensive programmes in the hope you will upgrade to the full version. They do more harm than good in my opinion.”

“What did your cousin do?”

“Uninstalled it and got something better.”

Forestry Journal:

That evening Malcolm decided to try uninstalling the pre-packaged programme. However, when faced with the message ‘doing this may impact on the functionality of your computer, do you wish to proceed? Yes/no’, he chickened out and called Lister.

Thankfully,  this time the mmm’s were reduced to a minimum and by 10 pm Lister had wiped the glitch-ridden anti-virus and installed a free one of his own. Finally Malcolm could kill zombies till dawn came. And so he did.

It was a very bleary-eyed Malcolm who turned up for work the following day. His head was fuzzy and his right wrist ached like crazy from click-firing at monsters. After a few more hours on the chainsaw his ache had flared up into a burning agony. By the end of day he could barely drive the van.

“I don’t think we’ll be seeing you in tomorrow,” said Vannie.

“If he doesn’t kill us all before then,” said Phil, as Malcolm tried to change gear and steer with his left hand while his right throbbed like a radioactive generator about to go critical.

“I’ll be all right,” he said, through gritted teeth.

READ MORE: Tree Gang Pt. 42: A journey up the ladder of council arb

Phil leaned over from the back. “You want to put some ice on that. Get it strapped up.”

“Carpal tunnel damage, I reckon. He’ll have to have surgery,” said Vannie, far too eagerly for Malcolm’s liking.

Malcolm eventually pulled over and let Phil drive, but said: “I just need to rest it overnight.”

The next day his wrist was still no better and reluctantly Malcolm had to take yet another week off work. This time he couldn’t while away the hours playing computer games. As he lay on his bed waiting for the millennium clock to strike midnight and hoping no passenger jets were going to crash through his ceiling, he wondered if all this computer business was just a phase. Lister said it would soon be possible to send photos on your phone. Malcolm couldn’t imagine what use that would be to anyone.