Oops. What happens next? I was hoping he might fall, but there's no doubt that the danger of what he was doing piqued my interest. Photo / File
Some years ago I was MC for an anarchic variety show. A young man rang offering to juggle chainsaws. I hired him on the instant for $100. Photo / Getty Images
The Linesman, a story by Janet Frame, used to be popular with kids I was preparing for English exams, not because it was particularly well written, nor yet because it was exciting, but because it was short. It comes in at under a page.
Frame describes spending a morning watching a linesman work up a pole outside her house and her feeling reluctant to leave the window. "You see," she says in the kicker of the last line, "I was hoping that he might fall."
The story comes to mind because I've spent most of this morning watching a tree-feller at work on a neighbour's pine.
Few professions have been subject to greater name inflation than tree fellers. The plumbers of my youth are still called plumbers, the bricklayers bricklayers, but the tree fellers are now arborists, or, and even more wonderfully, tree surgeons, (though the only operation they ever perform is amputation.)
I don't blame them, of course. Both names raise the tree-feller's implicit status, and the fees they can charge, and we're all out for what we can get in this pretty world.
The tree feller spent the morning 20 metres up the pine in a web of ropes and harness. I don't think, even in my subconscious, I was hoping he might fall, but there's no doubt that the danger of what he was doing piqued my interest. No one goes to the circus to watch a low-wire act. And then he fired up the chainsaw.
Twenty years ago I was MC for an anarchic variety show. A young man rang me offering to juggle chainsaws. "When they're going?" I said. "You bet ya"' he said. I hired him on the instant for $100.
He arrived at the theatre with two medium-sized chainsaws and a more nervous look than I'd expected. My introduction of his act was drowned out by the revving of the chainsaws backstage and the smell of two-stroke. He came on with a saw in each hand like a western gunslinger. The crowd roared. I withdrew to the wings to watch.
It turned out that juggling consisted of throwing a chainsaw into the air with the right hand and catching it again with the right hand and then doing the same with a saw in the left hand. This seemed to me to be chainsaw tossing rather than juggling, but the audience didn't seem bothered.
It took the lad a while to find the courage to toss the first saw, despite the audience urging him on and oohing at each of his false starts. Then he tossed it and, to his own very evident relief, and possibly surprise, caught it.
Encouraged he tossed the second saw a little higher. It struck the low ceiling, shot off at an angle, fell to the floor, bit a chunk out of the stage, went spinning murderously on its side towards the audience, then stalled.
The juggler, ashen of mien, killed the other chainsaw, turned to the audience and bowed. The applause was thunderous. There is something about chainsaws that a crowd just loves.
So when this morning the young man started the chainsaw 20m up and set about shaving the tree of its boughs and letting them fall it was compulsive viewing. Nothing went wrong but oh how it could have done. For I couldn't help recalling what happened the last time the neighbour had the arborists in.
Back then it was also a pine that needed felling and just as now a young man winched himself up the tree and pruned it till it stood like an ice-block stick 20m tall.
Then he came down and in the traditional manner he cut the wedge to steer the falling trunk into the desired zone, the gap between the neighbour's house and mine. Then he went at the other side with the chainsaw.
Naturally I was watching. We all love to see big things fall.
The big thing fell. But it fell at 90 degrees to the intended direction. Somehow it missed the back of the neighbour's house but it emphatically failed to miss his outdoor spa bath.
I still remember the thrill of the moment I realised it had all gone wrong. And I remember the luscious noise of a spa bath being crushed.
But I remember more vividly still the profile of the young man responsible. In a matter of seconds he went from proudly muscled tree surgeon to slump-shouldered victim of horror.
It was cruelly beautiful to watch. Janet Frame would have made something of it.