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

SOMEHOW, over the years writing this feature, I have managed to skip an alarming episode that happened in the autumn of 2000, the year that was briefly held up by a fuel shortage caused by striking tanker drivers. This tale isn’t about the fuel problem, but it played a significant part of an especially stressful day.

The headline advice of the moment was not to panic buy diesel and petrol because there wouldn’t be enough to go round, but I’d already stocked up on fuel a day or so before I was ordered not to.

“Fill all available jerrycans – petrol for the saws and diesel for the trucks,” I told Mark. I then fuelled up both Land Rovers and noted the queue at our local filling station was already five cars long (unheard of) so I sent the wife to top up her tank too. I don’t think she went against the regulation of the day, she wasn’t in a panic.

READ MORE: Tales from the Trees (April 2023): A jobsworth security guard

If it’s crossed your mind that I was on the ball, ahead of the game and a thoroughly forward-thinking businessman who was planning to work through the crisis with his forethought, then think again, because I didn’t label any of the fuel cans.

And so, after a few days of long queues and anger amongst the general public as they slowly ran out of fuel, I became almost the last man on the road – smug, free, able to carry on work and I hadn’t even broken the rules.

A couple of days into the crisis I had work for Neil, a regular and very skilled subcontractor who now runs his own successful business, and Mark, now a tree surveyor.

The two subbies were doing something straightforward to a lime while another employee pruned an oak tree seven miles away. It was fiddly, annoying and awkward work, over a hotel and surrounded by flower beds, so towards noon I was irritated and behind with the job. Consequently, when the mobile phone rang I wasn’t in the best of moods.

It was Mark. “Neil’s been stung by a wasp!”

“Poor thing,” I said, sitting back in my harness and wishing there wasn’t so much uncut oak all about me.

“He isn’t feeling well, Dave. He’s all pale and shaky.”

This didn’t sound much like the Neil I knew and I wondered what could possibly have been the cause of such a reaction. “Get him a can of something sweet, or a cup of tea.”

Mark hung up – sort of abruptly, I realised in retrospect, but I thought he was simply annoyed at my apparent lack of concern.

I managed about half an hour’s work, damaged a few garden plants, dislodged a gutter and was beginning to realise I was in for a long day when the phone rang again.

“I’ve called an ambulance. Neil’s passed out!”

It was time to investigate, so I told Mark I was on the way and reluctantly abseiled to the ground, glad I at least had enough fuel for what I assumed was a fool’s errand.

Being the only man driving for miles around meant I was on site in Marlborough in record time, to find Mark packing away kit and looking a bit out of sorts.

“Where’s Neil?” I asked, feeling foreboding and a slight nausea that I suffer when things start to go wrong.

“Ambulance took him. He’s completely unconscious.”

It was at this point I realised something awful was happening. I suspected anaphylactic shock, but a breakneck journey to the local hospital confirmed it.

“Have you picked up a tree surgeon from Marlborough?” I asked of an ambulance type who was re-packing his equipment.

The paramedic had, and went on to explain: “He’s got anaphylactic shock. The air ambulance is taking him to Salisbury and I’ve spoken to the doctor on board. There are no vital signs.”

I felt quite sick. “Is that bad?” I asked, causing the medical man to shake his head in disbelief, but confirming that, yes, it is quite bad if someone’s heart stops beating and they aren’t breathing.

After a few more questions and a bit of aimless wondering what to do, I decided to tell Neil’s girlfriend.

“Do you want me to pick you up and take you to see him in Salisbury?” I asked, not mentioning too much about the whole vital signs affair and hoping she wasn’t too far away as I was down to half a tank of diesel.

It turned out she was 15 miles in the opposite direction and somewhat alarmed.

“I’ll pick you up in half an hour,” I said, noting her address and jumping into my truck. I detoured home, grabbed a jerrycan and hurriedly tipped the whole lot into the tank.

Conversation was awkward by the time we reached the outskirts of town. I was struggling to keep the topic off Neil. Pointing out queues of impatient drivers at every fuelling station was getting a bit repetitive, so we settled into a bit of a mutual silence.

The journey was mercifully quick. Not only were there very few cars going anywhere, but my Land Rover seemed on good form, though a bit louder than normal. I was beginning to have worries about what was in the can I’d decanted, but it wasn’t the time.

Cara (possibly not her name) was crying, so I patted her shoulder and said something soothing about it all being alright and how I expected Neil was by now enjoying the company of nurses rather than angels. This may or may not have helped, but as we pulled into the hospital car park Cara was out the door and gone, so I parked up, retched a couple of times and steeled myself for the worst.

As I navigated the corridors heading for an emergency room, various signs told me of the departments I was passing. None of them said ‘morgue’ which was where I was worried my contractor might now be, but he wasn’t in resuscitation either.

“He’s on the ward, love. His girlfriend’s just gone there,” I was told by a nurse.

“Is he okay?” I half whispered. I’m no expert but even I know the NHS doesn’t send people to bed if they’re dead.

“Oh yes, he’s fine. Just a bit woozy from the adrenaline.” 

I eventually found Neil, who wasn’t unwell at all, not unless ‘woozy’ means ‘bright, cheerful and holding hands with a relieved girlfriend’.

“Hello Dave. I’ve had a hell of a day!”

I didn’t say he should have tried mine. His probably had been a bit worse, but he’d still had a helicopter ride, a half day off and now seemed to be enjoying tea, biscuits and the attention of several nurses.

I’m absolutely certain medical staff love tree surgeons, especially wounded ones. Neil was getting a lot of attention and I was strangely jealous and slightly aggrieved that I’d used up so much precious diesel just to watch him having a nice high tea at the taxpayer’s expense.

“I died twice in the air ambulance,” he said, biting into a chocolate digestive and looking very much alive. “They pumped me full of adrenaline and I feel great now.”

I wondered what I’d write in the accident book under the column which asked what had happened and made a mental note to amend my risk assessments for the future. I hadn’t considered insects a hazard in an industry so full of potential harm.

I travelled home alone, leaving Neil with his biscuits and happy girlfriend. I told all the relevant people the patient was well, thanked Mark for preventing a tragedy and then spoke to a mechanic called Wayne (they all are) about my truck.

By now I’d realised I’d topped up the tank with unleaded petrol, not diesel, but apart from the new high-speed performance (which was quite helpful), the Land Rover showed no visible signs of distress – a bit like Neil, I guess.

The fuel crisis lasted long enough for me to try running Stihl chainsaws on diesel (they didn’t) and enjoy the freedom of having all the tarmac in Wiltshire to myself for a bit.

One can of unused fuel is still in my shed, marked with a question mark as I have no idea what it is (probably a hybrid piesel or detrol by the smell of it). It might come in handy, post bird-flu/world war/vegetable famine/cost of living crisis or whatever, or I might just hang onto it as a keepsake from that horrid day.

Neil filled in the accident book himself a few days later when he was next in work with me. The hospital released him the same day and his report simply said he’d been stung by a wasp and gone to hospital. Being temporarily dead has had no long-term effect on him. He now has a good business, a family (not Cara) and apart from being robbed every few months is doing well.

I texted him to ask if he minded being in the story and was alarmed to learn he’d been stung again recently. Apparently, a queen wasp had waited until he was asleep, then crept into bed and stung him three times in the back! An ever-present EpiPen helped keep him from drama this time, and several more times before, but it does beg the question as to what wasps have got against us.

It’s fair enough to get a bit bolshy if a tree surgeon invades your tree and starts inflicting potential harm on your home and family, but why wait until a man is asleep and then assault him for no reason?

I’ve had my share of run-ins with the evil sods, been stung on the eyelid, inside my mouth, up a nostril and, like Neil, suffered an attack while in bed. One summer’s morning I was lying in bed on a Sunday innocently thinking about nothing when a wasp flew in through the open window.

I watched as it buzzed about, getting the lay of the land and having evil wasp thoughts, when it finally made up its mind and landed on my duvet, where it assumed my legs would be. The rotter then started trying to sting the cover, just out of malice I think.

Anyway, I won that battle and even if I hadn’t and the wasp had got to me, I don’t think I would have ended up in hospital – not unless a hip gave way while I was chasing it or something finally retired forever in my lower back and I fell out of the window. 

Even if that happened, I don’t have to fill in the accident book or tell the HSE. It’s nice being a stress-free normal civilian.