The continuing story of Malcolm Brown and his transition from art student to arb expert on the local parks department.

IT was a full five months before Malcolm was able to return to work even though he wasn’t yet right. He had had physiotherapy from several different sources. The council was able to give him four free sessions, which helped … marginally. The NHS gave him acupuncture, which didn’t, and told him to contact them in six weeks if nothing improved. Finally, he had dug into his own pocket and coughed up for a once-a-week session with a private physio at £20 a throw. He kept this up until he felt some improvement, though it was quite possible that this was merely in psychosomatic response to his dwindling finances.

He still undertook the daily stretching and flexing exercises he’d been given over the past few months and downed ibuprofen and paracetamol like they were Smarties, even though he knew he shouldn’t. When they failed he went onto red wine and beer. It was clear to Malcolm, even through his fog of agony, that this regime was not good for his long-term health. The biggest motivator to get well and return to work, however, was the prospect of dropping to half pay, which happened automatically after someone had been off for six months.

So, a week and five months after twisting his back, Malcolm staggered back into work to be greeted by an outpouring of heartfelt indifference and piss-taking from his colleagues, as was only to be expected. The thing was, bad backs were endemic on the parks department, both as a common complaint and a common excuse for ‘swinging the lead’, as some liked to put it.

“You always remember your first bad back,” said one of the older employees, grinning at Malcolm as he sweated with the effort of walking from his car to the depot doors. “Wait till you get your first hernia.”

“Thanks. I can hardly wait,” muttered Malcolm breathlessly and desperately clinging to the rails as he negotiated the steps up to the messroom. Malcolm was 37 but at that moment he felt as if he should be drawing his pension.

Another delight he’d discovered over the course of his sojourn was that even the simplest of tasks could take on epic proportions when you added in a back injury. Those proportions being the more pain an action caused, the more likely it was that you would have to repeat it. He experienced one of those examples as he dropped his work gloves three times in succession on the way to the van. The depot rang out with his pain-induced expletives each time he descended to the ground like a slow-motion falling tree to retrieve them.

“He’s like the tin man out of Wizard of Oz, somebody give him some oil,” said Phil Drake.

Cursing, Malcolm stumbled towards the van like a rusty robot.

“He’d be better off with a litter picker,” said Tim Kelly.

Grimacing, Malcolm replied, as his gloves once more slipped from his treacherous fingers: “That’s not half a bad idea. At least then I won’t have to stoop every five minutes to pick the bloody things up.”

He was beginning to think his hands did it to spite him.

His new boss, Dave Hulme, had already given him his back to work pep talk.

“We’re here to help you get back into the swing of things,” he said, cheerfully ticking said box on Malcolm’s return to work sheet and thus promptly dismissing the prospect of any such help in any meaningful way.

For Malcolm, it had been hard enough to motivate his team when he was fit and able to gee them up. Trying to organise them when he could barely move was, well, a back-breaking task. It didn’t help that Malcolm wanted to work and found his enforced inability to function frustrating in the extreme, especially when it came to driving.

Malcolm liked to drive, it gave him some modicum of control over how things got done but now not even that was possible. He had tried of course, thinking, if I can drive a mini I can drive a van. However, the vans they had at the time were not the best of vehicles for someone with a bad back. They had no power steering and turning the wheel took muscles of Hercules. As for the clutch you had to practically jump on it to depress it. 

Malcolm gritted his teeth as another bolt of pain shot up his left leg, while he hauled on the steering wheel like a sailor in a storm. It wasn’t long before he gave up and pulled over for Phil to take the helm. If he carried on he was more likely to give himself another injury on top of his existing one and that he most certainly didn’t want.

However, with Phil in control Malcolm had an even harder task exerting his influence.

“Take the next lane,” he said to Phil, as they sat stuck in traffic on the ring road.

Phil was having none of it. “No this is the lane we want to take for the town centre, dunna worry, we’ll turn left soon.”

“We’ve been turning left for the past 15 minutes. Take the other lane and come in via the top end of town.”

“I prefer it this way,” Phil replied, meaning he was going to be stopping at the computer shop en route and see what new games they had in. As Malcolm had yet to buy his first computer he didn’t get the appeal, but he was getting frustrated by Phil’s continual diversions from depot to site.

Eventually he muddled through his first few weeks back without too much trouble.

Though “work” was stretching the point as it mostly involved a lot of sitting and pointing, standing and pointing and a good deal of grunting and grimacing. However, to his relief he found that the very act of moving around within a work setting actually helped. By the end of his second week he’d even managed to carry the odd tiny bit of branch to the van or chipper. It wasn’t an instant cure though and sitting, standing or walking for any length of time still caused his back to seize up like a pair of rusty lopers, but at least he was making progress. The lads eventually became quite used to him suddenly dropping to the ground to do his stretching exercises. Though Malcolm’s jerky slow-mo descent to the ground was anything but “sudden”.

“He’s off again doing the dying fly,” said Vannie, watching in amusement as Malcolm hissed and groaned whilst flat on his back he swung his legs first to one way and then the other, hoping to release his rigid spine.

Phil shook his head sadly. “He’ll have to be put down. There’s no other way.”

“I promise I’ll drop him off at the vets on the way home. Now can we get this last shrub out?” said Eddie. 

The team were in Eastwood Park rooting up old privets and flowering currants in preparation for a revamp. It was the sort of job they often got given in summer, when tree work dropped off and they were conscripted to bolster the reduced gardening staff. These shrubs were the remnants of Hanbridge’s industrial age, when the main criterion was a plant’s ability to survive the smoky poisonous fug of air pollution. 

It was nearing the end of the day and most of the job was done but for one last privet. On the face of it it didn’t look a difficult job. The shrub came up to no more than chest height but these were old privets with old tough roots.

“Probably planted by the Victorians,” said Phil, leaning on his spade.

“I hate Victorians,” said Vannie, hacking away with his spade. It repeatedly bounced back off the iron roots like a kid on a trampoline.

“My turn,” said Eddie, picking up the axe and swinging it.

And so it went. Spade, bounce, axe, chop, pruning saw … well, you get the idea, and all the time the only thing Malcolm could do was stand around like a tailor’s dummy, feeling useless.

Forestry Journal:

And so, after much bashing, digging and swearing, when it seemed as if the stump was at last free of its moorings, Malcolm stepped up to do his bit. He was confident this would be his moment.

While the others stood around sweating he clambered into the hole and announced: “I’ll just roll it out of the way.”

What could be simpler?

So, he settled into position with legs bent and back straight. Then gripping the remaining stumps of branches firmly, he gently pulled. The stump rolled towards him and Eddie helped him to lift it over the hole. As it hung poised on the ridge of the crater Malcolm pulled, unaware that one root still remained connected. The heavy mass of soil and roots toppled over the lip of soil then sprung back suddenly as the errant root yanked it back into the hole. Still holding on, Malcolm was jerked forward and pain hit him like a lightning strike. He screamed and his back cracked like a gun going off.

“Holy hell! Are you okay?” cried Tim, shocked at Malcolm’s outcry.

Malcolm lay stunned across the dark earth like a casualty in a war movie.

Eddie was first to come to his aid. “Bloody hell, Malcolm. Does it hurt? Can you move?”

Tentatively, Malcolm pushed himself up from the ground and grinned. “Actually, no, it doesn’t hurt. And yes, I can move.”

It was a miracle. By some weird trick the sudden tension had released Malcolm’s spine. It wasn’t quite true that his back no longer hurt, it still ached a lot, but he found he had a range of movement not experienced in months.

After that incident his back steadily improved and eventually gained some semblance of normality. Malcolm was never the same though afterwards and was evermore cautious in the way he did things. As the old gardener said, you never forget your first bad back.