‘Ya have ta get a bit higher,’ said Jack who was looking up from the ground. Jack was wearing a heavy Guinness polo shirt, which he probably got free in some bar tucked over his beer belly into faded black jeans. And a sort of hunter’s hat with furry earflaps folded upwards. ‘Go on.’
‘I can’t.’ Liam, body firmly pressed against it looked up along the ladder. Then he quickly put his cheek against it again and looked sideward.
‘Come on, will ya?’
Liam bounced gently on the ladder to check its stability. He slowly put his right foot on the next rung and pushed his body along the metal of the ladder, he brought his left foot alongside its partner.
‘Good man,’ said Jack.
‘It’s not secure.’
‘It is, it’s grand.’
Liam exhaled loudly and looked up along the ladder again. The top rung was hooked on a thick stub of a branch and the rest of it was flat against the tree. It probably was secure enough, but it was really high. Below the ladder, directly below, right in Liam’s fall zone was a wall made of thin horizontal concrete beams, thick and thin branches of another previously chopped tree, the four legs and frame of an old park bench, some hard stone infused soil and a brick path.
Liam was about half Jack’s age. He wore a grey cotton hoody over and an open grey cotton zippy with a fleecy kind of lining. Darker grey cotton track pants that were too short and too baggy for him which made them look not unlike parachute pants. His white socks were on show and he had very small, unsuitable shoes that were not unlike slippers on his feet.
‘Now, try from there,’ Jack called up to Liam.
Between his hand and the frame of the ladder, Liam was crushing a length of blue rope. Hanging just a few inches below that was a sawn off bit of tree. It was a weight. Liam looked up along the ladder at the branch just above it. It was the thick part at the top of the trunk where it separated and went in in two different directions. He let the weight slide down through his hand a bit so there was some distance between the part of the rope he was holding and the small log. He swayed it back and forth to try get some momentum on it and then looped it over his head, but he missed the target impressively, panicked and hugged the ladder tight again. The smells of cedar, moist pine and sap comforted him, he thought of them as ‘soft smells’. He was glad of not being able to smell concrete.
‘You’re gonna have ta do better than that, Liamo.’ Jack looked at his feet, took off his hat, scratched what was left of his grey hair and rolled his neck, which was getting stiff from looking upwards for so long.
‘I can’t do it.’
‘Come on, now.’
‘Can I come down?’
‘Ya won’t, you’re grand. Go on.’
Liam looked up at the branch again. He threw the log but it went nowhere near the branch and the rope slung over his forearm on its way down. He took one more timid step up the ladder and swung the log at the branch. This time it went through. He pulled the log around the thickness of the trunk and through the loop in the rope. He pulled it tight and started to make his way down the ladder. He went steadily at first, never committing to a rung until he was confident his foot was firm on it. He moved quicker as he got further down the ladder until eventually he jumped off the second lowest rung. His arms went up in the air as he jumped and his rising hoodies revealed a large stomach.
‘Wasn’t so bad, was it?’ Jack asked winking at Liam.
The wink nearly made him sick. ‘Did he wink at my mother?’ Liam thought. He looked up at the tree. ‘Pretty up-there though, isn’t it?’
‘Ah yeah. Now,’ Jack held the blue rope in his hard-skinned hands. ‘Where will we go with this?’ He started to walk backwards, tugging at the rope and watching it interact with the tree. The tree didn’t budge.
‘It might need more pull than that.’
‘Sure, it will.’
Liam looked beyond Jack at the opening between the house and the shed. ‘We can’t get the truck in here.’
They both looked up at the tree. Liam lit a cigarette and blew out a very defined puff of smoke on the cold air. The smell of burning tobacco and tar covered the woody smells and took some of the crispness out of the air.
A few months ago, before Liam had started working with Jack, his mother had been at him to get out of the house and get a job. He’d thought it was strange that Jack rang him up from out of the blue and offered him work gardening and maintaining a large apartment complex. He knew now that it wasn’t so out of the blue.
‘We can pull the truck up on that road over the wall there,’ Jack said.
‘Oh yeah, that’ll do.’
‘Come on and we get the rope over the wall.’
‘Getting it over those conifers will be the hard part.’ Liam took the log that was still tied in the rope and swung it up high over the wall. It got caught in the wide cypress tree that was about half as high as the tree they were tackling. He pulled the log back.
Jack took the log and rope and swung it up into the air. It went high directly upwards but landed lower in the cypress tree than Liam’s attempt. Liam took it back and threw it aggressively at the tip of the tree like he was throwing a ball at a tin in a carnival. It went just over the top but clearly not very far on the other side.
‘That’ll be grand,’ Liam said.
‘I’m not sure.’
They walked around to the front of the house where the truck was in the driveway. Liam got into the passenger seat, Jack took the keys out of his pocket and climbed into the driver’s seat. He groaned and seemed to be out of breath from the small exertion. Liam thought about his mother. He put his hand up to the side of his face to block Jack out.
The truck was a few years old but driving well, it had a good engine, which grumbled proudly. There was a large trailer at the back and a mechanical arm that rested above it. There were floodlights and a horn on the roof of the cabin. The cabin, and the mechanical arm were an oily red. The trailer, which was basically a skip, was coloured by whatever the terrain or the weather decided, presently it was deep, heavy grey.
Jack put the truck into gear and drove out of the driveway, down the road to the right, took the right at the end of the road and then went right again into the long tree-lined driveway of the convent. Jack stopped the truck a few metres away from the tree. He had tried to talk to Liam on a serious note on the short journey and he tried to again when they stopped but Liam got out and took a rake from the section between the cabin and the trailer where they kept the rake and the brush and the shovel and other similarly shaped items. He put it over his shoulder and walked towards the cypress tree that caught the log. He reached up with the rake and tried to loosen the log. He bashed the cypress and he dragged the log and he shoved the branches and he swept across the blue rope until eventually the log and rope became loose from the tree and tangled in the rake. He brought it down gently.
‘Good man. Make it tight now,’ Jack called from the truck.
Liam gave a thumbs-up at the windscreen. He put the rake back between the cabin and the trailer and he tied the blue rope tightly to the front bumper of the truck. He took the chainsaw from the back of the cabin. ‘I’ll give you a shout.’
Liam walked through the passageway back to where the ladder was. He climbed up the ladder with the chainsaw in his left hand. He stopped just above the concrete wall. He put his right foot one rung higher than his left and leaned the side of his body against the ladder. He pulled the cord on the chainsaw and it roared into life and filled his nostrils with a mechanical, petroly smell. He brought it up to the tree and held it the full arm’s length away from himself, elbows straight and shoulders urged forward. He bared all his teeth and squinted his eyes. He seemed to turn his head away from his work and his surprising jowls shook. He pulled the chainsaw back, gave a shout to Jack and descended the ladder.
Jack put the truck into reverse. It beeped as he slowly tightened the rope and then pulled against the strength of the tree. He moved the trucked forward.
Liam climbed the ladder again and sawed at the tree in the same place, in the same uncomfortable manner. Then he stopped, gave a shout to Jack and went down the ladder again.
Again, Jack reversed the truck beep, beep, beep and again the tree held firm. He pushed his foot harder to the accelerator and the engine grumbled louder and there was a loud crack. The rope went loose and Jack moved the truck forward. He got out to examine the damage. The rope had snapped right at the bumper. Liam came around through the passageway.
‘You’re alright,’ Jack said. ‘I’m tyin’ it back on.’
When Jack bent down to tie the rope back on Liam was presented with the ‘Jack Ass Crack’. Amazing, Liam thought, how you can tuck your shirt in so carefully and still show ass crack every time you bend over. Disgusting. Liam thought of his mother and he felt sick. He walked back around to the ladder and he heard a shout from Jack:
‘Away ya go.’
Liam scaled the ladder again, pushed hard at the tree with the chainsaw and he sawed a bit around the sides of the cut in the tree. ‘Try that,’ he shouted through the trees.
He heard the reversing beep of the truck and leaned back on the ladder away from the tree. The entire top half of the tree was slanting towards the truck. He imagined it snapping off, flying through the air, landing on and crushing the truck. Then he imagined the shock he would sustain had that happened and him falling off the ladder and the chainsaw landing on and slicing all the way through his own neck. He closed his eyes and shook his head.
The beeping of the truck had stopped and Jack was calling, ‘Liam? Liam?’
‘Go on ahead there.’
‘You’re as dozy as your mother.’
Liam tugged the cord of the chainsaw hard and shoved it into the cut on the tree. He pulsed it in and out as if he was poking a fire. He stopped and called to Jack and went down one rung on the ladder and crouched out of the way.
He heard the beep, beep, beep of the truck reversing and then a very loud crack right beside his head as the tree began to lose the fight but then he heard a snap and the truck stopped beeping and the tree straightened itself up again. The tree was too proud to know when it was beaten. He reached a hand up and pushed at the tree above the cut. It didn’t budge. He heard the door of the truck slam shut and he tried to see Jack through the gaps in the trees. But he couldn’t see Jack. Liam pushed again, harder at the tree above the cut. ‘You alright down there?’ he shouted.
‘Yeah, go on ahead there, do another bit,’ Jack said.
Liam pulled the cord on the chainsaw and went at the cut until there were only a few inches connecting the bottom half to the top half. He turned off the chainsaw and went down the ladder to the ground. He shouted over the wall, ‘that should be it.’
The truck reversed and that was it; with a very loud crack and a plethora of smaller cracks and snaps and groans the great tree began to topple. But it didn’t follow the truck, instead it fell into the side of the wall that Liam was in. It hit the shed and the ground with a mighty crash.
‘Everything alright over there?’ Jack shouted over the wall.
There was no response.
Jack walked closer to the wall trying to see if he could hear anything. ‘Liam?’ he shouted.
‘All fine yeah, good work.’
Jack untied the blue rope from the bumper. The previous knots that had snapped were still there on the bumper like miserable Christmas decorations. He drove the truck back around to the front of the house. He got out, locked the door and went around the side to review the work they’d done.
Liam had cut the blue rope near the knot on the tree and pulled the rest of it through the trees. It was there in a pile on the ground. Now he was there cutting some of the higher, thinner branches easily off the tree with the chainsaw.
‘Some yoke, isn’t it?’ Jack took off his hat and assessed the damage.
‘Here, give’us that,’ Jack said gesturing to the chainsaw.
Liam held it, roaring in front of his body. He looked at Jack. Then he looked down at the chainsaw. He turned it off and handed it to Jack.
Jack pulled the cord and started to easily cut through some of the branches on the tree. He stopped every so often to examine the entirety of the tree and choose the next area to work on. He moved down along it and cut one of the thickest branches. The whole thing fell the to ground with a heavy thud. Then he sectioned it.
Liam had lit a cigarette and was carefully treading his way around Jack and the chainsaw picking up the bits that had been cut off. He was building a large, neat pile along the wall.
‘What way should I go at this?’ Jack asked Liam.
Liam stopped picking up branches and looked up at the bit of the tree that was leaning on the roof of the shed. He took a long drag of his cigarette. He blew out the smoke and walked back along the tree. ‘Cut that bit there.’ He pointed to a thick bit near where the trunk was.
‘How’s your mother?’
‘I don’t even want to think about it.’
‘And stop calling me that.’
Jack looked down at the ground. Sawdust soaking up the moisture from the grass, leafless branches of all sizes.
‘Look, just tell her I said-’
‘I will in my arse.’ Liam turned away from Jack and took a big drag out of the cigarette. He looked at the tree again. ‘So, you’re cutting there, but stay back,’ he mimicked what he would do with an imaginary chainsaw. ‘And jump out of the way, cos this bit is going to fall.’
‘Right you are.’
Liam went back to picking branches with the cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Jack cut the bit of tree a differently to the way Liam suggested. He cut it the way he was always going to cut it.
– Alan Bennett