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.

WHATEVER you think of COVID and the consequential worldwide reaction to it, there is no denying that it existed, albeit alongside dozens of other viruses that weren’t honoured with their own names.

I’m not sure whether I had it in 2021. I felt pretty poorly for a couple of weeks and ordered a test – just because that was the done thing at the time.

“What does it mean if nothing happens at all?” I asked my wife, showing her the stick thing which had no indication that I even existed.

“Dunno,” she said, unhelpfully. “You’ve probably done something wrong.”


I knew I’d get the blame and pointed out that slobbering onto a stick was well within my capabilities.

“Did you add the solution?”

I affirmed that I had, wondering what solution she was talking about and spotting the small unopened phial at the same time. In the end I decided I didn’t care whether I had COVID or not. It was Christmas, I wasn’t meeting anyone and the festive season had been banned by the government (along with my birthday), so I watched some old Terry-Thomas films and wished it was still the 1960s.

The point is that I’ve been much more poorly in the past, particularly in the early 2000s.

It was around Easter. I remember looking forward to a few days off to celebrate Christianity by eating chocolate eggs and drinking beer and the whole thing being spoiled by a bizarre disease from a bygone era. It being spring, I’m sure we were winding down a bit, but the phone rang just prior to the long weekend.

“My husband has died and I want to plant a memorial tree to him on the hills above Pewsey,” the lady said, introducing herself as Mrs Rumbelow – a woman I knew already and a good customer. “Can you help at all, Mr Oliver?”

Well, of course I wasn’t about to say no, despite a slightly odd feeling in the back of my throat that felt like I’d half swallowed a golf ball and a headache. Both those symptoms are unheard of for me. I never get headaches and rarely suffer throat infections, much preferring arthritis-based problems and minor accidents.

I offered some condolences and reluctantly agreed that I’d meet her and the local farmer on the Saturday of the long weekend to find a spot on his land where she might be permitted to plant a tree.

I struggled through the week – golf ball throat, headache and all – and by the weekend I felt awful. The oddest thing of all was the drooling. It was quite disconcerting and I’m sure not very endearing, especially combined with sunken black eyes and being as white as a sheet.

“You don’t look well, Dave,” said Winnie. “You should cancel your appointment and go to bed.”

Undoubtedly, but that’s no way to carry on, not with a mortgage and a family.

“The chaps working on the Burma railway as POWs in the war didn’t get a day off when they were poorly,” I pointed out, pulling on a jacket and wondering why it was so cold.

My wife’s protestations fell on deaf ears – literally. My ears felt blocked and every time I moved my head it hurt. By the time I’d driven the few miles to the site my coat was soaked in saliva and I was shivering uncontrollably. 

It was bad – not as unpleasant as malaria or tropical diseases I’ve read about on the aforementioned railway – but worse than the time I tried a day’s planting with some sort of norovirus.

Mrs Rumbelow appeared not to notice that I might be on my last legs. Presumably she had enough woes of her own with the recently departed Mr R and his tree. We stood sheltering from a cold spring drizzle under a sycamore and waited for the arrival of the farmer.

By the time the man showed up I was shaking with cold and the drizzle had turned to wet sleet. There were introductions and a few general items of polite chatter which seemed interminable. I just wanted to go home. Eventually it was time to discuss the matter in hand and it turned out we were in the wrong place.

“I was hoping the tree could go at the top of the hill. It was Stan’s favourite spot.” Mrs Rumbelow pointed up a steep, muddy incline that was now coated with a thin, slightly depressing white slush.

I shivered, not wanting to ascend any sort of hill at all other than the wooden one back to bed, but resigned myself to the task and without saying anything started to walk up the slope. But the farmer had a better idea – better for him, as it turned out, but not quite so perfect for me.

“We can take the Land Rover.” He pointed at his short wheelbase truck, which was sporting a centre console and only two potential indoor seats. “Hop in.” 

His finger was suggesting that someone needed to get into the open back and his eyes verified the social convention that it should be the healthy, outdoor young man, not a recently bereaved elderly lady.

I looked longingly at my own Land Rover, but knew it wasn’t to be. It was long wheelbase, heavy and would struggle on a steep, icy slope even more than the shorter version, which I had doubts about anyway.

Clambering in, I was delighted to find some old fertiliser sacks covered in iced manure. These really would make for excellent bedding, far more conducive to my frail and frozen condition than a duvet. 

Now, I’m not the sort of chap who ever baulked at hardship. Tree surgery and forestry are certainly not for the fainthearted. But I very nearly bailed out. I dearly, dearly wanted to tell the farmer that his apparent disregard for my comfort was unacceptable, that I was almost certain to die and necessitate an additional memorial tree and that I was going home.

But of course I didn’t, and to add to my woes it turned out I was in charge of gates.

“Hop out!” Jones the farmer shouted from his lovely warm cab as we approached the first barrier. “Shut it behind and catch up quickly! I’m not going to stop,” he added as

I trudged past the window, which was only open an inch lest he lose too much heat.

Ah, I thought. I’m going to have to run to catch up with the moving truck and leap in.

That’s exactly what I feel like doing at the moment.

Slamming the gate back onto the latch I dragged my leaden limbs into a slithering canter, drooling at full capacity, I caught up with the fishtailing Land Rover in a hail of flying mud which splattered me from head to foot.

Settling in with the fertiliser sacks, I wasn’t sure whether I could see Jones laughing into the rearview mirror and I started to dislike him even more. Sleet and wet snow poured down and I felt a crushing desire to sleep, despite my discomfort.

The dismal journey continued. There were two more gates and two more gruelling catch-ups of the speeding truck, but eventually we slewed to a halt on top of the coldest place on earth.

“I thought this would be a good spot,” Jones said, indicating an area that had an admittedly stunning view of the Pewsey Vale. I couldn’t help feeling that it would be wasted on Mr R, but I understand the reasons why it matters to the survivors of bereavement, so I didn’t say anything.

Jones wasn’t finished though. “Mr Oliver will need to build a fence around the tree. The cattle will destroy it otherwise.”

Yes, good old mud-soaked, wet, frozen Mr Oliver, he can add fencing to the act of kindness that he couldn’t possibly charge for. I nodded my agreement, too weak to argue and pretty certain by now that I wouldn’t actually survive long enough to fulfil my obligations.

There was a bit of faffing around, fussing over the exact location and so forth, but eventually we were jolting back down the hill, me on gates again but without the need for a pursuit after the Land Rover each time, it being downhill.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to go to bed. It wasn’t even midday and I don’t think I could have moved even if the house was on fire, but I couldn’t really sleep either, not with the pain, the delirium and the drooling which made the pillows wetter than Jones’s pick-up.

At least I managed to get a doctor’s appointment on the following Tuesday – remember those days?

“It’s odd, Mr Oliver,” said a kindly nurse type. “You haven’t got flu and your symptoms are unusual.” She nodded towards my drooliness, which I’d taken to mopping up with a tea towel. The nurse said she’d need to consult with a doctor and made to leave the room.

“Wait a minute,” I mumbled. “Can you ask the doctor if I might have quinsy?”

Astonishingly the nurse didn’t question how or why I’d given myself a Victorian era ailment; indeed, she affirmed my suspicions with her own. “I did wonder, you really are very ill.”

This was all pre-Google, or at least pre-me-having-Google, so I’d managed to diagnose myself from an ancient book that I still have called The Home Doctor, published around 100 years ago.

Perhaps the nurse had a copy, and the doctor – or more likely they just know stuff, I suppose that is their job. But the doctor confirmed it and I went home armed with a proper name for my ailment and some more 21st-century antibiotics. 

To be honest, and slightly boastful, I think I had the ailment beaten anyway, because I was already feeling marginally better long before the 14 hours the drugs were supposed to take. Perhaps having a name for the disease helped, or maybe I’m just more durable than I think, but I was back at work later that week and the drooling was a thing of the past, which must have been a relief for my wife.

The only hangover from the thing is that I now suspect Victorian influence in every passing affliction: typhus, cholera, consumption? I’ve had them all!
The tree was planted in due course and I did the fencing as well, all free of charge because bereavement and primary schools are on my relatively short list of ‘charitable kindness’.

The cold spring turned into a roasting hot summer and it dawned on me one morning that nobody would be able to water the newly planted Scots pine and that it would surely perish if left unattended.

With this in mind I set off in the scorching heat with the intention of driving up the slope with a couple of five-gallon jerry cans of water. I arrived at the bottom of the hill with a slight feeling of foreboding – memories of that awful sleet-soaked day still too fresh.

I hadn’t told Mrs Rumbelow what I was going to do and I certainly hadn’t asked Jones, who I had a bit of an unreasonable grudge against. Sometimes actions just need to be taken and involving other people just hinders such. But of course the gate was locked.

And so, a few months after my journey into hell, I started another one. With 10 gallons of water, a couple of collie dogs and gritted teeth I set off on a mile-long uphill trek into the shimmering July heat. Unpleasant as it was, sweating and panting up the steep slope, it didn’t match the first ascent for sheer misery.

I haven’t been back to that hill for a while. There’s so much beautiful landscape around here and so many places to go that somehow I haven’t returned there, but perhaps I will now that this story has jogged my memory.

I’m waiting for an operation on my back though, so I think I’ll wait a while and take on that hill when I’m fully fit. No point in tempting fate for a third time.