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

MY daughter came home from work the other day and told me of a minor discomfort at work involving her boss, who’d enjoyed a visit to the cake department during his morning break.

“He was talking to me about a surgery scheduled for that morning and all I could think about was the crumb of cream donut stuck to his chin,” she laughed.

It got me to thinking of my own tales and one in particular came to mind, a moment of such sheer, terrifying social difficulty that everything else before and since pales into insignificance.

One of our customers is a rural type who owns a static caravan site nearby. He really is one of the nicest chaps you’ll ever wish to meet; polite, well-mannered and interesting to talk to. I’m not sure when it was, but I was on site with him talking firstly about trees, for about 20 minutes, and then twice as long discussing shooting, motorbikes and tractors, but eventually I had to leave.

“I must be off, Mr Hart,” I said. “I’ll send the quote on.”

I departed and headed for the van. I often ate my lunch while on the move and had been enjoying a bag of Chipsticks prior to my meeting. I like the snack – salty, vinegary, starchy things – but they are a bit messy.

Arriving back at the Land Rover, notepad in one hand and phone in the other, I opened the driver’s side door and spotted the carnage resulting from the meal.

There were fragments of crisps all over my seat, the dashboard and footwell.

Not wanting to sit in the mess and for some obscure reason not wanting to put down the items in my hand, I simply bent down and started hoovering up the fragments with my mouth. This is fine, acceptable behaviour – if nobody is watching. It isn’t alright if somebody is and it is infinitely worse if you have for some bizarre and unknown reason decided to make exaggerated, piggy grunting noises while doing so.

But Mr Hart was right behind me, having followed to add some amendment to the works plan, so that when I eventually stood up he was standing politely in the afternoon sun, patiently waiting for me to finish.

“Crisps,” I exclaimed, wiping my mouth and pointing at the seat.

I don’t remember the customer’s reaction or his final parting comments, but he still employs the business regularly so it can’t have done any harm. However, that and various tales of customers who have unashamedly broken wind repeatedly in my company are nothing compared to the incident I alluded to at the beginning. 

Early in 2002 business was good, according to the diary and the accounts, which I still have. Winter was fading into spring and the usual last-minute rush of pruning apple trees was in full swing; customers oblivious to my assurances that such pruning would have very little ill effect if carried out later in the year.

My son doesn’t like it, I suppose because he is 22 and still enjoys the adrenaline rush of 100-ft poplars, cranes and rigging. Pruning trees doesn’t quite cut it (forgive the pun) but I always liked the work and the accolades afterwards.

“We’ve never had so much fruit since you pruned our orchard,” they’d say. At no time did I tell anyone that it was probably as much down to the weather as my skills – why would I?

Anyway, with men suitably employed somewhere else in Wiltshire I set off in the watery sunshine of a pleasant late winter’s day to one of my favourite villages – a sort of chocolate box mixture of thatch, white cottages and rural loveliness.

My customer was famous, high up and well known in a field I daren’t mention, despite him being long dead now. He lived in a large manor house, with gravel driveways, lawns, topiary and gentle opulence and we were standing in an orchard waiting for Mrs X to join us.

Eventually she appeared, zig-zagging up the garden path and drawing up in front of me, swaying slightly. There was a distinct smell of alcohol, probably sherry, but worse than that was her dishevelled post-nap appearance.

Her hair was untidy and her lipstick so hastily applied and with so little skill that she had the look of a clown, enhanced a bit by some sort of eyeshadow and that powder stuff that makes people pale.

“Hello, Mr Oliver,” she slurred, holding out a shaky hand and giggling.

I shook her hand and looked at Mr X, hoping he might help me out. It was then that I realised the wife wasn’t alone in her enjoyment of a lunchtime drink. Mr X was grinning madly and appeared to be not only slightly cross-eyed but also rather unsteady on his feet, clutching onto a high bough of the tree to support himself.

It was a bit surreal, but the pantomime had barely begun and things were going to get considerably more uncomfortable. Meanwhile, I launched into a professional fact-based sales gambit.

“Over-pruning will result in a flush of non-productive water shoots,” I said in response to a request to reduce the tree’s height. “We would be better off with a careful reduction to good fruiting buds …”

It was all lost on Mr X, who was happily smiling but not actually aware of what was going on at all, the aperitif obviously really taking its toll. I persevered anyway.


“These lower branches could be nipped back lightly to form the framework for the fruit,” I said, pointing expertly with my quoting pen.

It was then I noticed Mrs X seemed to have found something incredibly funny in what I had said. She was almost crying with laughter, bent at the middle and shaking with barely controlled mirth. 

Thinking I might be in some sort of 1980s prank film I looked around for hidden cameras but saw only wildlife and trees. Embarrassed and a bit puzzled, I had little choice but to press on, addressing all my attention to the befuddled man of the house who was only tipsy, as opposed to outright drunk.

“Err, umm, yes, well that’s what we’d do,” I ploughed on, valiantly trying not to look at the wife who was still doubled up at something I didn’t understand. Until I did. 

Lost for words somewhere along the ‘disposal of arisings’ section of my sales talk, I noticed Mrs X was pointing at something. Breathless and still shaking, she had given up even the feeblest attempts to hide her amusement.

I followed her finger, which was pointing at her oblivious husband, still standing upright but with both hands clinging to a branch of the tree about eight feet off the ground, in the manner of someone who is about to swing, or at least has a bad back and needs to stretch. And then I saw it. 

Mr X had failed to secure his flies, which were gaping open beneath a semi-untucked shirt to reveal something that would make any man proud. This being a forestry/arboriculture-based magazine the best analogy would be ‘trunk’ as opposed to ‘twig’ and I won’t elaborate beyond that. The chap was blissfully unaware, although he did continue grinning, presumably enjoying his wife’s humour but at the same time remaining stretched out and exposed.

With Mrs X in paroxysms of laughter I tried desperately to keep a straight face, though I’m not sure why – nobody else seemed to be bothering. The thing is, though, it is impossible. Laughter is, after all, as contagious as fear and we humans can’t help ourselves.

Worse than that, I now had nowhere to look, combined with a magnetic and impossible-to-resist need to stare at what was on display. It’s that old thing, if someone says ‘don’t look’ you just have to look, and I was saying that exact same thing inside my head.

Turning away, I stifled a laugh with the age-old trick of stuffing my knuckles into my mouth and scrunching my eyes shut.

There was no sign of the couple moving on, apparently frozen in time in their respective mirth and inane grinning, so it was left to me to make the next move.

“This branch is about as thick as we’d want to cut,” I ventured, almost gagging and unable to look either of the customers in the eye, instead staring up at the tree and grabbing a limb. Unfortunately, the unintentional pun proved too much for the wife, who now reached new levels of laughter.

“Shall we move onto the next tree?” I asked, pointing at a pear and hoping the movement might cause a rush of cold air to the exposed customer’s body and bring the problem to his attention. But no, it only made matters worse.

Looking back over my shoulder I led the party to the pear, onto a cherry and finally came to rest at a plum, frantically trying not to alternately laugh or add to the double-entendre-soaked conversation.

From tree to tree we’d moved, Mrs X barely able to walk, being so doubled up with laughter, me biting my knuckles and sweating under the strain whilst Mr X’s parts swung freely. In the end it was the gardener who saved the day, an old fellow I’d known a while called Brian.

Standing at the base of a walnut tree, I was glad to see the old chap approach and immediately appraise and resolve the problem in a typically blunt and concise way.

“Yer tackle’s ’anging out, Sir,” Brian said, with no more ado than had he been talking about the weather.

“Ah! Thank you, Brian,” replied Mr X, zipping himself up and spoiling his wife’s day.

“Are you working on the roses today?”

Talking about it a few minutes later with the down-to-earth gardener back at the Land Rover, it turned out that my suspicions were right about the midday imbibing of alcohol.

“They loves a tipple around now. There’s always summit ’appens, but at least they let me get on with my work.”

And that was it for Brian – no drama and no interference with his running of the gardens and estate.

A few weeks later we carried out the work and nothing worth mentioning happened, but I did make sure not to tell the men, not so much out of respect and decency but more that I knew when they met Mr X they wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye!