David R Ewens

Leylandii

21st August 2014

The pub looked much like Jason Thompson’s local. He was from the next town along the coast and did not feel out of place. At this pub, little flecks of paint were peeling off the façade at the front. It looked as though the pansies in the hanging baskets could do with some watering. There was a hang-dog air. In the car park, a pink stretch Cadillac, probably used for drug binges as much as for weddings, blocked three parking spaces. The little ‘No smoking’ sign in the back passenger window might have been the hirer’s idea of a joke. A sparrow swooped busily down to peck at something next to a puddle by the front door, and swooped back up to the eaves almost immediately.

As usual, Jason was meeting a man in a pub. The contact was through a friend of a friend, as usual. The man he was meeting would be ‘acting’ for some third or even fourth party. This was the way Jason earned a living. It suited him. He had a reputation as a ‘bit of a chancer’, a risk-taker, ‘up for it’, but he saw himself more as a fee-charging community do- gooder; someone who sorted things out; someone enterprising. In no way did he believe he was a petty criminal; he just didn’t mind breaking the law if he had to. What was in store was exactly the kind of shady arrangement he always got involved in.

In the pub, there was the usual tired smell of stale beer and stained carpet. At the bar, a beer mat for Bombardier bitter had someone’s betting calculations in the light spaces between the soldier and his cannon. Jason had a half pint; he’d do his proper drinking in his local. He leaned with his back to the bar, elbows resting on the pitted surface, and surveyed the room. He and his contact identified each other straight away. The nods were barely visible. Taking his drink, Jason gravitated to the corner table.

‘Mikey,’ he said. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘Andy,’ said the man, taking a pull of his own bitter.

They didn’t use their real names. They didn’t shake hands. It wasn’t going to be big deal and it wasn’t going to be a long association. The man looked to be in his late fifties. His suit wasn’t new or old, clean or dirty, chic or old-fashioned. His face was entirely ordinary. Everything about him suggested one word: nondescript. There was no small talk. Jason and the man opposite had been through all the preliminaries with their contacts, friends of friends and go-betweens.

‘There’s a big tree,’ said Andy, ‘a Leylandii to be technical. It’s grown from nothing to something huge in a few short years. Those trees quickly become nightmares. The one I’m talking about is causing loads of disputes. It’s all turned very bitter. The owner has become totally unreasonable, completely out of order. It’s driving his neighbours barmy. The council has no power to do anything. The long and the short of it is that it needs chopping down, and in a way that can’t be connected to the people complaining. Interested?’

The proposition appealed to Jason’s do-gooding instincts. It was only a tree, and more people wanted it down than wanted it to stay. There would be no violence, except to the tree of course.

‘Happy to do that,’ said Jason, ‘if we can agree a price.’

Andy leaned forward. It might have been possible to spot a slight sparkle in his eyes. ‘Your mission, should you decide to accept, is to cut down the Leylandii half way up Plympton Drive, Grangehead. There’s £100 as an advance payment, with £500 on completion. You just cut it down. Someone else of course will clear it away, probably the council. Good luck, Jim.’

Jason stared back. He understood, he thought, what he was being asked to do, but his cultural horizons did not stretch so far as the opening scene of the 1980s series of Mission Impossible.

‘So you want me to fell the tree half way up Plympton Drive, and you’ve given me the price. What was all that other stuff about?’

‘Never mind, son. How long do you need? A week? I’ll pay you the balance here next Thursday.’

‘Fair enough, squire.’ Jason downed his half-pint and made for the old banger he’d borrowed for the afternoon from his sister Dawn. He had to fix a few things. His mate Ricardo was a tree surgeon. He needed a chainsaw for the job and Ricardo could get him that. He also needed a moped or something to get to the location. Dawn’s boyfriend had one he could borrow. Dawn would never let him have the car for what she called his ‘nefarious activities’. It would be an idea to identify the tree beforehand. He could do that while he was in Grangehead.

It wasn’t difficult to find Plympton on the dog-eared street map in the car, but when he looked there were so many variants – Plympton Drive, Plympton Rise, Plympton Close, Plympton Park, a profusion of Plymptons. What he had to do was find the right district. Ten minutes later, and across to the western side of Grangehead, the maze of Plymptons was exactly as the map indicated. He no longer fully remembered the address he’d been given. He thought he would drive round and rely on his usually accurate instincts. After only a few moments of driving up and down and back and forth, there was the tree. Alan, or Andy, or whatever name he had given, was right: it was a monster. He slowed down. On the pavement, two young men were walking, a girl between them. One of them flicked a screwed up crisp packet at the girl while she wasn’t looking. She pretended to bridle, not at all convinced by the mock denial in his raised eyebrows and little smile.

As they approached the tree, they couldn’t remain three abreast as its branches stuck out beyond the fence. Clearly, that tree had to come down. A little later, with the car parked up the road, Jason strained over the fence and noted that the trunk was reasonably slender. He’d need to work quickly, but getting through that wouldn’t take long.

Back in his home town, Jason made a careful note of the tree’s location, marking the map with a little red ‘x’. In the pub, Ricardo, affable as ever, agreed to lend him the chainsaw. They had been friends from school. There was no need for questions. Dawn’s boyfriend was just as co-operative about the moped. As he remarked: ‘What harm can Jason do with that?’ Jason was careful to keep the equipment lenders apart. That way they would not confer and get suspicious.

Jason decided to do the chopping down on Monday night. It would be quiet and few people would be out after the weekend. At half past one in the morning, he got up quietly as his mother and sister slept. Black jeans, pullover and jacket would make him inconspicuous. He thought he might need his balaclava, but the boyfriend’s motorcycle helmet would be good enough. Wheeling the moped out from the back yard, he hitched the chain saw onto his back using the harness. Local wide boy became bandolero.

It took three quarters of an hour to get to the Plympton labyrinth from his own house in the neighbouring town. He went by the back roads at a slow and steady pace, not wanting any police interest and spending much of the journey thinking up a cover story in case he was pulled over. He wasn’t successful with that. What legitimate purpose could there be for transporting a chainsaw on a moped in the early hours? He turned the lights and engine off as he approached the huge tree, cruising the final few metres.

He set up the moped on its stand so that it pointed back down the hill. If for some reason the engine wouldn’t kick-start, he could bump it. Still carrying the chainsaw across his back, Jason scaled the fence. He was agile and he’d had plenty of practice, though the heavy tool bumped and chafed. Something appeared at the edge of his vision and he started. A young fox’s baleful eyes looked incuriously his way before sloping off. Its head turned once before it disappeared through a hedge. Scrambling upright and slipping off the harness, Jason brought the chainsaw round and peered down at the trunk. Yes, it was as slender as he remembered. He wanted to be out of there in a few seconds. He breathed in deeply. His damp hand closed in a fist over the pull-string grip of the saw. It was time.

In his short health and safety spiel, Ricardo had told Jason what to do and what to expect, but it was still a shock. After a couple of pulls and splutters, the saw erupted into a violent, urgent buzzing noise, wrecking the silence of the night. The racket was three times louder than Jason expected. Worse, the chainsaw had changed from passive ammunition belt to spitting, whirling dervish. He found himself desperately trying to control the waving blade as it juddered and whined.

‘Bloody hell,’ he muttered. Sweat prickled his brow and ran down his face under the crash helmet. He had even less time than he thought. He trained the blade of the saw on the trunk, struggling to get a purchase. Then it took. The high pitched whirr changed down a note and grew steady. White sawdust fragments spat from the bottom of the tree, slapping occasionally at the visor of the helmet. Now the blade was almost halfway through. He wished he had listened more attentively to Ricardo. There was a tearing and screeching as the tree began to topple – right on top of him. He fought frantically to free the blade. A second after he leapt aside, with the blade back to its unruly higher pitch and slashing the sky, the tree began to crash with a series of groans and creaks. On his back, Jason just managed to turn off the saw before impending amputation.

That should have been close to the end of the job, and in a way it was. But the adventure wasn’t over yet. A tree knocking over a bit of fencing wouldn’t do much harm, but as Jason lay looking at the slowly toppling tree, the tip of it caught the power lines between the telegraph poles. A crackling firework shower of sparks illuminated Plympton, and Jason’s moped, in a kind of fleeting floodlit show. The momentum of the tree carried the power lines into a car on the opposite side of the road. A moment or two later, this was the scene: a tree like a Paris Commune blockade across the road denting the top of a car tangled with power lines, and the staccato hissing, fizzing and sparking of live electricity. It was more Gaza than Grangehead.

‘Time to go,’ Jason muttered. Dazed and shaken, he stumbled through the jagged new gap in the fence, harnessing the chainsaw as he went. An upstairs light went on in the house next door to the felled tree. He trembled as he slung his leg over the saddle of the moped. The chainsaw motor was uncomfortably hot against his jacket. The moped behaved better than the saw and started with the first kick. Jason screeched and swerved away down the hill, struggling to control the machine as it weaved back and forth across the road, his adrenaline-fuelled body and the saw banging on his back. Even then the excitement wasn’t finished. As he sped up the opposite incline, there was a ‘crump’, and a fireball rose into the night air. One of the power lines had made contact with the car’s fuel tank.

Jason went home the same way as he’d come, and even more carefully. It was much darker. Where were all the streetlights? First he was thinking ‘God, what a night.’ Then relief and exultation flooded through him. He threw back his head and laughed. ‘Job done,’ he shouted into the wind. There had been no mention in the ‘contract’ about penalties for ‘collateral damage’. In his mind, he started spending the £500 he had just earned.

*

The next Thursday Jason sauntered into the pub. Ricardo had taken back the chainsaw with no questions asked, Dawn’s boyfriend the moped. No one even knew he’d been out on the Monday evening. Andy was waiting for him. He should have looked pleased, but he was scowling into his pint.

‘Alright, mate?’ said Jason. ‘Mission accomplished. Got the balance?’

Andy looked up. His lip curled. ‘Do you know the havoc you caused? That car burnt out, half of Grangehead blacked out till midday, live cable all over the road, the police swarming everywhere asking questions. It was lucky no one was killed. Not that any of that matters.’ He looked gloomily back into his pint.

Jason bridled. ‘You got what you wanted. Nobody got hurt. I took risks. Where’s my cash?’

‘You aren’t getting any. I told you the tree in the middle of Plympton Drive. You chopped down one in Plympton Rise. You prat.’

David R Ewens

 

Download PDF