28. It never rains…


“Geoffrey, let the teeth do the work,” beckoned Brian Clough, who had relaxed his managerial backside into the damp nook of a bare branch. Jabs of crazed lightning made the wet bark of the twisted, monstrous-looking tree seem snake-like and waiting, while its stretched crocodile head towered towards the turmoil of shifting clouds. Clough smiled at the thought of gardening so many miles from home and once again, the two-man sawing operation burst into life.

“Damp’s not ’elpin’ much, Bri,” Geoff Boycott complained, a derby lace-up pushed hard against the bow to gain better purchase with the tricky cutting implement. “It keeps gettin’ fast in wood.”

“We could do with a drop of kerosene as a lubricant,” Clough admitted. “It’d soak into the logs and give a lovely flame later on.”

Thlump. Another stubby wooden extremity fell to the earth and the saw musically wobbled.

A buffoonish smirk drifted across Clough’s face. “Tie me kangaroo down, sport,” he sang with an Aussie burr.

“Tying kangaroos down,” Boycott shook his head. “What on earth were that all abart?”

“Bloody well beats me!” Clough grinned. “If it was in this country, you’d be bloody prosecuted!”

A vast, illuminated railway sidings of fork lightning lit up the rainswept blackness beyond Hangingbrow Hall and the air ripped from horizon to horizon before a furious thunderblast cannon assault was unleashed.

“We had a storm like this last summer!” Boycott wailed. “I was like Ducky Lucky – I thought sky were fallin’ down!”

Mark E Smith, Tony Wilson and Tim Healy shuffled below, Healy resembling one of Santa’s helpers with his makeshift sack of booze clanking down from his shoulder.

“What yer doing, conkering?” Smith called up.

“You’ll get conkered in a minute!” Clough shouted back.

Smith, wearing Boycott’s suit jacket, looked like he’d had a pot of Post Office pillar-box red paint thrown across his midriff during a particularly raucous edition of Saturday-morning anarchic kids TV show Tiswas. Wilson’s long studenty LA-bought overcoat was matted like Manchester United CEO Martin Edwards’s butcher’s apron. Healy, in sodden bike leathers, was muddied from ankle to waist but was practically spick and span on his upper half and this made Clough subconsciously believe that he wasn’t putting in the required effort.

“Eh, shitheads, pick that lot up!” Clough directed, pointing towards the harvested timber scattered at the foot of the tree. “Every last bit!”

Healy squinted and gazed upwards. “Can you not put a boot in it for just a few minutes, man, Cloughie? We may have had a few problems of our own, y’knaa!”

“You can ’ave your minutes and your seconds, your clocks and your watches, your pots and your pans, when you’ve got your feet up by the fire with a mug of booze in your mitts!” Clough fired back. “And I’ll wait on you hand and foot!”

“Aye, while being attacked by 17th century vagabonds flurting aboot the cornicing and breaking oot the cracked plarster,” Healy followed.

“Just close your eyes – what you can’t see won’t hurt you,” Clough scalded.

Smith and Wilson blankly collected twigs and cuttings in their arms. Clough glared with bewilderment at the vague faces of his staff and halted his busy pushing and pulling of the saw. “What’s wrong wi’ you lot?” he rollocked. “You look like you’ve missed the last bus home!”

Boycott shifted to prevent pins and needles prickling his damp bottom-cheek, bedtime screaming to him. “One more bit and I reckon we’ll have enough for tonight,” he summarised hopefully.

“Well, if we lop off that big branch near your foot, we can always break it in pieces once we get inside,” Clough suggested.

Boycott camouflaged his disdain: he supposed an extra 10 minutes on the day was no great hardship in what was the most difficult weekend of his life.

The double-handled saw resumed its amputation, biting through bark and crunching deep into wood. As they grafted, the storm intensified, its blustery blasts clanking ears and howling through the bare branches to play enraged recorder tones. Voices trailed as instructions were passed from one alpha male to the other.

Raaaaah-raahh, raaaaah-raahh the blade relentlessly intoned until a gunky gooey liquid bubbled from the slit followed by flabby splashing on the ground below.

“Bleedin’ tree’s bleedin’!” the observant Smith confirmed.

“I’m just a Catholic grammar-school boy,” Wilson explained, hand over face, as if in confession. “I’m now wondering if I’d bought Martin Hannett that Fairlight, as he’d wanted, as he’d begged me, would I be here now, watching Brian Clough and Geoff Boycott give a Chelsea Flower Show topiary display?”

“We must’ve tapped sap,” Boycott helpfully commentated. “It’ll ’elp get fire going, any road. It’s flammable. Smells like a knacker’s yard, though.”

“It’s like tripe,” Clough blared.

“Dead pigs,” Boycott sniffed. “Off offal. The Devil’s black puddin’.”

Slowly, timber began to creak and groan in the fashion of a Georgian sailing ship crossing a gale-churned ocean in search of faraway fortunes, and for a second, Clough and Boycott felt as if they were riding the high seas wearing 1800s Admiral’s hats. Clough grabbed tight hold of a bare branch to steady himself and then glanced across at his fellow Yorkshireman in order to weigh up the seriousness of the situation. A bass growl rattled abdomens. Wrwrwrrrrrrrr…

“Bloody thing’s moving!” hollered Wilson from the ground. “It’s alive! Has nobody brought a VHS camera to record this?”

“All to be expected,” Smith answered. “It’s that sort of weekend.”

Stiff wood cracked and strained while the throaty ululations grew in resonance, the reverberation travelling from the upper section where the “neck” of the tree stretched to the heavens. The two-man saw that Clough and Boycott had been wielding woppled and fell from their hands, bloinging down the expanse of the trunk and flonking onto the grass. There followed an almighty whining and the stiffened skull of the tree grinded into a more manageable work-a-day position. Its body squirmed and stretched, then wooden arms flailed in search of its human tormentors. Boycott’s baker-boy cap toppled, much to his consternation because it wasn’t cheap, which brought a lower-case “b” pushed at 90 degrees scowl. Clough decided it was time to abandon ship and began his descent, feet stretching, tapping for a sure footing amid the swaying branches. It was while contemplating his rapid escape that he felt the tight grip of twisted nature wrap around his midriff.

Clough drifted silently through the night air, a not unpleasant sensation, and found himself being lowered like a Mattessons sausage towards the opened jaws of the deranged tree. Straitjacketed by sticks, Clough’s legs involuntarily entered the agape beak-like maw and, unable to manoeuvre, he slid silently into the oily hole, shoes first. The tree let out a contented mmmmmm. Boycott watched with misunderstanding eyes before urgently clambering upwards like a Congo chimp through the fronds. Using the most precarious of twigs for leverage, he was able to grasp Clough’s wrist just as his friend was dipping towards a gruesome Venus flytrap slow death.

“No, Brian!” Boycott roared. ‘No!”

Boycott pulled with all his force using muscle-bound batting arms and, for a short time, Clough’s terrifying plunge into the throat of the man-eating plant halted, but then the downwards trajectory started afresh and there seemed no degree of tugging and pulling that could prevent Clough’s progression towards the tree’s monstrous gullet.

Calmly, Clough peered upwards at his old friend and remarked, “I wouldn’t say this is the most frightened I’ve ever been, but I’d say it’s in the Top 1.”

Boycott, smiling, tugged at Clough’s wrist but he was no BA Baracus. The Yorkshire cricketer nodded at the football chief and uttered, “Viv Richards once said to me – and it were one of wisest things I ever ’eard – ‘Test matches are caviar as far as I’m concerned. Having ability and constitution to triumph over five days is what it’s all about.’ Me and Viv are long-game players – and you are too, Brian. So shape thee-sen, motivate your resources and think of a way to get yoursen back in tie. James Bond would’ve managed it, and ’e ’asn’t got your nous. You always told me you ’ad biggest mouth in business but this thing’s puttin’ you to shame. It’s got a bigger gob than you – and you’re acceptin’ it wi’out a struggle.”

Clough appeared confused: Do your eyes deceive you, Geoffrey? – but then he thought better of responding and instead began to plan.

Another electrical crackle zipped across the sky and a sonic thud was felt like the concussion-causing blast of a military field gun. Clough wriggled but began to contemplate that his plight might be doomed. “Smith!” he screamed. “Get up here and give me a swig of some of that booze, quick sharp! I may as well get bloody pissed if I’m going to be consumed in the stomach of a Dutch elm over the space of the next five to six weeks!”

From the ground, the sound of sawing commenced and Clough began to realise a rescue mission was already afoot and that he might be saved eventually. He relaxed; he was with thinking people, team players. Mark E Smith should be a goalkeeper; Healy and Wilson midfield maestros! Precious moments passed with Clough wondering if there was much point plotting in his head the upcoming season of new signing Jim McInally in the English First Division, then the humorous grin of Mark E Smith arrived, clinking and clanking as he dragged the haul of heavy bottles to altitude.

“Superman appears… his face in penance.” Smith voiced. “Sat next to Captain Caveman’s sweaty family.”

Smith reached inside the sack and brought out a bottle of Jägermeister. Playfully he removed the cap and took a life-affirming swig. “Aaahh,” he smiled. “Does the job, this. Juju dandelion & burdock.” He poured a few finger’s-worth into Clough’s grateful mouth; Boycott declined. Clough beckoned for more but Smith waved a finger.

“No, not too greedy Cloughie,” spoke Smith. “I’ve got an idea. Just try and stay alive long enough and I reckon we can get you out of this omnishambles not of our making. Nah then, Mr Tree, drink up, drink up. I want you to drink all of this.”

Smith poured the entire contents of the Jägermeister past Clough’s shoulders, lobbed the bottle into the chasm, then reached into his bag and brought out another bottle.

“Schnapps. One for the ladies.”

Smith poured, glug, glug, glug, into the hole.

“Now, let’s try this clear stuff.”

Glug, glug, glug.

“Brown booze – serious hangover material. You go steady with this, Mr Tree. Don’t want you yackin’ up in the cab home, showin’ me up. They have a tough job them drivers, you know. You hadn’t thought of that, had you?”

Glug, glug, glug.

Bottle after bottle after bottle after bottle after bottle, all poured into the chasm of the crocodile-esque tree’s throat.

“Last orders, please!” Smith called out amid the lightning flashes, thunder booms, timber-creaking and guttural belching, all the while the sound of sawing drifting from the ground as Wilson and Healy back-and-forthed on the two-man blade against the gnarled trunk.

Clough maintained his gaze upwards from the throat of the wooden monster, an arm still raised, his wrist held by the now overstretched Boycott.

“OK fellas, it’s a lock-in,” Smith declared and tore off the screw cap of yet another devilishly potent alcoholic beverage from wartime Central Europe. Just when it seemed that Brian Howard Clough might never see the bright lights of the East Midlands again, the tree began to shake violently. Bwooooorrrrr! The tremor rose so fiercely that Boycott was unable to hold his grip on Clough’s wrist.

“Brian, fight, damn it, fight, man,” Boycott urged.

“What’s that, Mr Tree, you want one more?” Smith cackled. “You’re a bugger you, aren’t you? Go on then – as I don’t you see that often. You’ll be a wreck tomorrow, mind. Are you workin’?”

The clapper-jaw beak of the possessed perennial opened to its maximum apex, allowing Clough to edge his elbows over its wooden lips to prevent his conversion to vegetative nutrients. A silvery grey compound began seeping from the vast interior of the tree’s throat, giving the Forest functionary an acrid buoyancy. It was like being immersed in liquid metal.

From the base of the tree came a delighted shriek as Wilson and Healy’s sawing struck more rich, red sap and a spurt of sticky jam had them both running to escape a full-body drenching.

The tree swayed and swung, its branches rattled and from deep within its bark came earthquake shockwaves. Like Freddie Mercury about to sing the chorus from a particularly raucous Queen number, the tree arched its creaking back. With violent force, it swung forward and sprayed a vicious viscous ectoplasmic spray of green and yellow gloop in a bizarre umbrella fan. Clough shot out as a circus cannon daredevil might, and came to rest 20 feet away in the safety of moorland heather. Stunned, he instantly sat up and spun his head. There came another blinding flash of lightning, in which Clough was able to see Boycott and Smith leaping for their lives from the lower sections of the tree.

There followed an incredible roar and a wild fury of sucking air. A swirling grey vortex descended from the clouds and began hoovering up the surface of the ground. It rumbled like a freight train carrying tons of coal to a power station and as confusion rose, the demonic tree was ripped from the soil, spiky roots and all, and was carried above the heads of the five. It hovered, resembling a military jump jet over the surface of the unkempt grounds, then was lifted above a wing of the hall and vanished out of sight.

“It’s a tornado!” Wilson excitedly shouted. “Never seen one before – it was incredible!”

“Well, I never,” Healy stood open-mouthed. “I thought they were just in America, like.”

“Tree must have been rotten,” Boycott added. “There’s not a trace of damned thing left. Just ’ole.”

Clough, dripping with bright-coloured ectoplasm, waddled to the edge of the cavity and started chuckling.

“What so funny, Bri?” Boycott prompted.

“Look,” Clough pointed towards his feet. “After all that carry on, I’m still wearing my slip-on shoes.”

Go to Chapter 29: Ve do not undershtand Ze Krankies.