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

MALCOLM looked and looked again, screwing his eyes up at the bike-shaped hole before him. It was still missing. He looked all around the workshop, behind scaffolding poles and sheets of plywood, outside the workshop. He even did that stupid thing of wondering if he’d somehow left his only form of transport at another random location. There could be no denying it. Whatever scenario he envisaged, it all came down to the inescapable conclusion that his bike had been nicked. 

Malcolm warred against the reality presented to him. 

“It should be here! Here! In the workshop!” He ranted, as if that would somehow magically call it forth. 

READ MORE: Tree Gang Pt. 43: A journey up the ladder of council arb

He had assumed the garage was a safe place, occupied by colleagues (except, of course, for the fact it was empty for most of the day) and off limits to the general public (except, of course, for the massive double doors left wide open for any passing stranger to wander in).

Incensed that, despite the mass of expensive horticultural equipment on show, some lowlife scum had chosen to make off with his scrap of a bike, Malcolm raged. He stormed into the messroom, crying out in vain hope, “Has anyone here seen my bike?”

The resounding chorus of casual “nopes” from the men seeking nothing more than a peaceful lunch hardly came as a surprise. 

Malcolm finally calmed down when, out of a desire for a quiet life, Phil the mechanic supplied him with a replacement from the park’s stash of lost and found. If anything, the bike Phil gave him was better than the one he’d had taken.

Abandoned or stolen cycles turned up dumped around Hanbridge all the time. The lads would pick them up from waste ground and bushes and deliver them to the mechanics to be repaired. The mechanics, in turn, passed them on to anyone who needed one. It was simply a system of recycling.

John Emery, the parks team leader, gave Malcolm a section of chain from a playground swing and a spare park’s lock to keep his transport safe in future. Such was the curious way in which property moved around the parks department. Malcolm wondered idly if his own bike would enter this life-cycle of lost and found, appearing months, or maybe years, later in some other workshop.

Theft of one sort or another was a common part of Malcolm’s working life. Whether it be light-fingered passers-by snatching equipment while he was stuck 10 ft or more up a tree, or Vannie purloining supermarket trollies to turn into flower baskets. Malcolm pulled Vannie up on the latter on one occasion, only to find several trollies dumped, as a joke, in his front yard. Making good on his threat to transfer them to the supervisor’s office stopped any further shenanigans of that sort.

Chainsaws were a favourite target for thieves and, despite his best efforts, Malcolm had at least one or two stolen every year. He kept them locked in the van when not in use on site, but it only took a moment’s distraction for an opportunist tea-leaf to make off with one. Now and again, Malcolm and his team were able to chase down some lanky robber, but a lot of the time tools simply vanished.

At night, all equipment was kept locked in a store cupboard, in a locked cage within a locked workshop garage. Even then, every couple of months there was an attempted break-in. Being isolated and surrounded by trees, Hanbridge Park was a tempting target and an insurance nightmare. 

Thieves would chop through locks on the double doors, until metal covers were put over them. After that, they broke in through the messroom windows using a ladder, or else ripped the metal shutters off the lower supervisor’s office window. On one occasion, they even arrived in a tractor and used it to rip a hole through the garage wall. 

Guaranteed, once every few months burglar alarms would rent the night air and send messages direct to the police, but by the time anyone arrived the culprits were usually long gone. 

The threat wasn’t only external. A small number of council workers also had a flexible take on what was or wasn’t legitimate to acquire. At the lower end of the scale were things like bedding plants and turf, usually left over from jobs. Stepping up from that was weedkiller, wood, nuts, bolts, screws, and other consumables. Randal the joiner was particularly blatant in this regard. Every time he paid a visit to the local suppliers he would exploit a moment’s distraction to fill his pockets with any item left unattended.

“They can afford it,” he said, when Malcolm challenged him one day. “It’s all counted for in the price they charge.”

Malcolm tried putting the counterargument that if he didn’t nick stuff then perhaps they wouldn’t have to cover it, but it didn’t wash. Ironically, Randal would beat his newspaper each morning and rail about the disintegration of society into a cesspool of crime.

“String ‘em up. That’s the only language they understand,” he’d rant, discounting himself from their number.

From these morning tirades, Malcolm deduced that Randal thought stealing from hardware stores was fine if the opportunity presented itself but stealing in general was wrong, unless from careless people you didn’t know. Naturally, Randal thought anything belonging to the council was fair game.

“Are we ever actually going to get any new equipment?” said Ray to Malcolm, one day in early spring, as he wiped sweat off his brow, having spent the last 15 minutes pulling like mental to get their aged chainsaw to kick in. “I thought of leaving the damn thing out for someone to nick but they’d probably just bring it back.”

Malcolm sighed. “I was hoping. There was supposed to be an order coming through but I’ve not heard a thing.”

“There was a delivery last week. I saw a rep’s van in the yard Wednesday gone,” said Phil Drake.

Malcolm frowned. “Dave the boss never mentioned it when I asked him. He said he was still waiting on the order.”

“I think you’ll find that a certain joiner took delivery,” said Phil, tapping a finger to his nose.


“I’m not saying, but I did find this in the skip after they’d been in.” Phil handed Malcolm the delivery note and winked.
Malcolm looked at the signature and raised an eyebrow. “How interesting.”

A week later, the rumour went round there was going to be an audit. Apparently, some stocks didn’t tally with the records at the top office and they wanted to do a check on tools and equipment.

Malcolm and his team wrote up a list of what they had. Things like generators, chainsaws, hedge cutters, stump-grinders, etc, were stamped with a unique identifying number that was dutifully ticked off against the list from top office. Malcolm also kept a note in his diary of items lost, with the dates they went missing.

“Randal’s acting a bit suspicious around the old petrol store, don’t you think?” said Phil

Drake one morning. “There’s a new lock on the door and it ain’t parks regulation.”

“Cheers for that, Phil,” said Malcolm.

Forestry Journal:

Later that morning the auditors arrived. They checked Malcolm’s list against what he had and were happy. Then they went round the garage noting machine numbers. Dave Hulme, Malcolm’s boss, trailed after them looking concerned, but not half as concerned as Randal, who kept popping out from the joiner’s shop to see what was happening.

“We still have three Flymos, two hedge trimmers and a pair of chainsaws unaccounted for,” Malcolm overheard one of the auditors say to his boss.

Dave shrugged. “They should have been delivered over a week ago, but I’ve not seen hide nor hair of them.”

“Have you looked in the petrol store?” called out Phil, casually. “Maybe someone put them in there?”

“Why would anyone do that?” asked Dave.

Malcolm shrugged. “Dunno. Search me. Maybe the other stores were locked when the rep arrived. It’s worth a look.”

The auditors agreed, so they all trailed around the side of the garage to the old concrete petrol store and Randal watched them go with a worried frown.

“Huh! None of my keys fit,” said Dave, rattling the lock. “We’ll have to leave it.”

“Randal might have a key,” said Phil, with a wink to Randal, who reluctantly handed over his key, claiming it had been hanging up in the supervisor’s office and he’d just happened to recognise the make of lock. Lips as tight as a vice, he opened the door to the store.

“Looks like we’ve found our missing machines,” said an auditor.

READ MORE: Tree Gang Pt. 42: A journey up the ladder of council arb

“How did they get in here?” pondered Dave, as spanking new mowers and chainsaws were pulled into the light.

Randal was in like a shot. “You were after a chainsaw weren’t you, Malcolm? Could be one of your lads put them in here? Phil maybe? Or perhaps you took delivery and forgot to mention it?” He smirked.

“Oh I am sure I’d remember something like that, but Phil here found a delivery note by the skip. Someone must have dropped it.” Randal blanched as Malcolm produced the note.

“Who signed it then?” asked Dave.

Phil Drake looked over Malcolm’s shoulder. “Why it looks like you did, Randal. How strange. Perhaps you forgot?”

A veteran of shady deals, Randal eventually managed to wriggle his way out of a disciplinary hearing. No one had actually seen him put the machines in the store, so it could have been anyone and besides, all the missing items had now been accounted for.

Even so, he was a lot more cautious about what he squirrelled away in future.

“What did he want those tools for anyway? It’s not as if he does any gardening,” said Malcolm.

Vannie replied, “I’ll bet he had a buyer. Saving some shady bugger the trouble of breaking in.”

“Well at least we got a new chainsaw finally,” said Malcolm.

“Thank God,” said Ray. “I was about to throw the old one into the cut.”

At that moment a passing gardener said, “Speaking of which, Phil the mechanic’s got a surprise for you, Malcolm.”

Wondering what it was, Malcolm and the team headed into the mechanic’s workshop where he saw his old bike drying out by one of the radiators.

Phil leaned back on his workbench, grinning. “One of the lads working on the canal towpath brought it in. Says he found it sticking out of the water.”

“What goes around comes around,” said Malcolm with a grin. “It’s the cycle of life.”