Vets of the heart, p.1

Vets of the Heart, page 1


Vets of the Heart

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Vets of the Heart


  in love

  cathy woodman



  For Tamsin and Will

  Chapter One

  Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit

  I’m on the early shift so there’s nobody about when I turn up for work at Otter House, which isn’t unusual. What is out of the ordinary is the large cardboard box on the step in front of the glass doors at the side of the practice, which wasn’t there when I locked up the night before. I take a closer look. The top is taped shut and pierced with holes, and someone has scrawled the words ‘sorry, can’t cope any more’ along the side in pink felt-tip pen.

  I let myself into reception and return for the box, struggling to carry it into the consulting room. It isn’t particularly heavy, but it only just fits through the door. I lower it onto the table, when whatever it is inside starts to scrabble about. I tear off the tape and open the lid very carefully.

  One, two . . . no, six pairs of eyes look up at me. I stare back at six of the cutest baby rabbits I’ve ever seen: two cinnamon, three orange and one white, with pricked ears and manes of fluff.

  ‘Oh, you are gorgeous,’ I say, picking the white one out and cuddling it against my cheek. ‘It must be my birthday.’

  ‘Hello, Shannon. Did I hear someone say it’s their birthday?’ Frances joins me, placing her handbag on the table and lifting out one of the orange babies, which matches the colour of the nest of false hair on top of her head, and clashes with her purple and lime-green tunic. She’s in her late sixties, too old to update her look and redefine her style, I suspect. She’s been on the verge of retiring from her position as practice receptionist for a while now. In fact, she reduced her hours and even left for a couple of months, but she’s always come back. I can’t imagine her not being here. She’s like part of the furniture.

  ‘How sweet,’ she sighs, as she strokes her baby rabbit between the ears with the tip of her finger. ‘This must be a vet nurse’s dream.’

  ‘It is, but I don’t understand how anyone could bring themselves to abandon them. They can’t be more than four or five weeks old.’

  ‘Where did they come from?’

  ‘I was hoping you might have some idea.’

  ‘I’ll keep an ear to the ground,’ Frances says. ‘On the subject of news, is it true that your mum is putting Petals up for sale?’

  ‘I’m sorry?’ My forehead tightens into a frown as she continues, ‘Only several people have spotted, one of the estate agents from Talymouth – Smith and Ryder-Cole – parked outside the shop.’

  ‘When was this?’

  ‘Yesterday afternoon.’

  ‘There’s no way she’d ever put it on the market. Floristry is her life. And, given it’s also our family home, I think I’d know if my mother was planning to sell the shop. I guess even estate agents – with their reputation for outrageous descriptions and dodgy dealings – have occasion to buy flowers, just like everyone else’. Smiling, I return to the rabbits. ‘I’d better take these little guys through to isolation – they’ll be better off in there than in Kennels with the dogs and cats. Please can you call Jack from Animal Welfare when you have five minutes? He should look into this.’

  ‘I don’t understand why the person responsible didn’t contact the Sanctuary direct. That’s what Talyton Animal Rescue is for – to take in and rehome unwanted animals without judging the owners.’

  ‘It’s easier to say than do,’ I point out. ‘Everyone knows that rabbits breed like rabbits, and I’d be pretty embarrassed at having to admit that I hadn’t thought about contraception. They don’t appear to have been badly treated; they have food and it wasn’t cold last night. Do you think you’d be able to take a couple of them on?’

  ‘I couldn’t.’ Frances puts her rabbit back in the box with the rest. ‘I have three very messy hedgehogs at home already. How about you?’

  ‘I couldn’t have them, not with the dog. I wouldn’t trust Seven with a small furry . . .’ The lining of my nose starts to prick and I pop my baby back before I sneeze. I make a mental note to take some antihistamines as soon as I can for the rabbit allergy I acquired a couple of years ago.

  The phone rings in reception and Frances goes to answer it, taking up her post behind the desk, while I carry the box of baby bunnies out the back to isolation, where I make sure they have plenty of hay, food and fresh water. I put them all inside the stainless-steel cage and close the door. The sound makes them skitter about, scattering hay across the floor.

  I sweep up the mess, catching sight of the reflection of a skinny young woman of twenty-six, with a naturally pale complexion, blue-green eyes ringed with black lashes and a couple of sets of studs in each ear. I have long straight hair, dyed a reddish-brown shade of Irish setter and pulled back from my face with a French plait. I strike a pose with the broom. Some people say I remind them of Kristen Stewart, but I’m not as pretty as her, I think, as Frances calls me away to admit two cats for neutering. I dispense a repeat prescription before I set up theatre ready for the morning’s ops.

  Later, I get to help one of the partners with a collie who’s under sedation for X-rays of his elbow. Keeping an eye on the dog, who’s snoring lightly on the prep bench, I watch my favourite vet dithering over the X-rays. Maz is in her late-thirties, tall and slim with light blonde hair tied back with an elastic band. She’s wearing black combat trousers with a top printed with cartoon dogs and cats. She holds the film up against the light of the viewer on the wall and is wondering aloud if the dog would really benefit from what the owner is pushing for – joint replacement surgery at a specialist hospital – when Frances appears, looking flustered.

  ‘I’m afraid there’s been a mix-up. Jennie’s brought Lucky in for his investigations today instead of tomorrow. I’ve told her you’re busy, but she won’t budge.’

  ‘That’s just what I need when we’re a man down.’ Maz turns to me. ‘I can manage here while you go and have a word with her. Looking on the bright side, though, if we do it today, we’ll have a spare slot tomorrow.’

  I join Frances in reception. A middle-aged woman dressed in a spotted summery dress, woollen cardigan and wellies is standing there with a scruffy dark grey terrier on a lead. Jennie is married to one of the local farmers and has a flourishing business baking cakes. Lucky has become what Izzy – our head nurse – calls a ‘frequent flier’ over recent months, attending the practice with various niggling problems from arthritis to a runny nose.

  ‘Hello,’ I say, before bending down to stroke the dog, who turns his back on me and faces the exit.

  ‘Thank goodness you’re here, Shannon,’ Jennie says. ‘I’m hoping you can make sense of the situation. According to Frances, Lucky isn’t booked in, but she definitely told me to bring him today.’

  ‘I’ve looked and he isn’t on my list.’ Frances scans her monitor with her glitter-framed glasses perched on the end of her nose.

  ‘I don’t like to make a fuss but, in my business, the customer is always right.’

  I smile to myself. My mum follows the same principle – the customer is always right, except when they’re wrong.

  ‘I’ve just remembered.’ Jennie pulls one of our appointment cards out of her bag. ‘Look, Frances printed it out and told me to bring him in starved.’ She hands it to me. ‘I feel so mean – he’s had no breakfast and he’s been hanging around Reuben’s highchair, waiting for a cornflake or some scrambled egg to fall from the sky.’

  I check the date and time on the card as she continues, ‘Please, don’t tell me you have to rebook. I can’t stand the stress. I just want this over with. I need to know what’s wrong with him.’ I notice how her dark brown hair is streaked with grey and ther
e are shadows beneath her eyes. ‘I’m so worried, I can’t sleep.’

  ‘Jennie is right.’ I look to Frances. She does make mistakes – we all do – but it’s becoming a habit.

  ‘I must have had a moment,’ she says, apologising.

  ‘It’s all right anyway because Maz says she can fit him in this morning.’

  ‘That’s brilliant, thank you.’ Jennie’s voice softens. ‘I’m sorry for being so sharp, but this is a stressful time. Adam, my oldest, is very upset. He loves this little dog.’

  I show her into the consulting room.

  ‘Maz will go through the consent form with you as soon as she’s free, and give him an injection of sedative.’

  ‘I think it’s me who needs the sedative,’ Jennie says dryly, picking Lucky up while I collect the consent form that Frances has printed off at reception.

  ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ she says sadly.

  ‘Never mind. These things happen.’

  ‘I know, but why do they have to keep happening to me?’

  ‘Have you contacted Jack about the rabbits?’ I ask to divert her.

  ‘I have indeed. He’s collecting them later. There’s space for them at the Sanctuary until they find new homes.’

  I’m pleased because with a bit of luck their new owners will register them with us for veterinary treatment and I’ll get to see them again.

  When Maz is ready, I fetch Lucky from his cage in Kennels.

  ‘You wouldn’t think there was anything wrong to look at him,’ I observe as he tries to wriggle out of my arms.

  ‘He’s a typical terrier. They fight to the end.’ Maz frowns as I utter three sneezes in a row, making the dog jump.

  ‘I’m sorry. It’s the rabbits.’ I lift Lucky onto the prep bench and stroke his neck to calm him down, finding several lumps and bumps that shouldn’t be there. I glance up.

  ‘He has generalised lymphadenopathy,’ Maz explains, drawing up some sedative. ‘All his glands are up.’

  I hug the dog tight to keep him still for her to administer the injection into the vein in his front leg, at which he grows limp in my arms and drops off to sleep. I lay him down on his side, check his heartbeat and the colour of his gums, and make sure his tongue is pulled forwards so he can breathe freely.

  ‘Is everything all right?’ Maz asks over the sound of the clippers that I’ve left clean and oiled on the bench.

  ‘He’s gone very deep.’ I pinch his paw, but there’s no reaction. The sedation has hit him unusually hard. I grab a mask from the drawer, attach it to a breathing circuit and slip it over his muzzle to give him some oxygen. ‘He’s breathing and his pulse is okay, but he’s a bit blue.’ After a couple of breaths, I check his gums again and they’ve turned pink, like litmus paper dipped in acid. ‘That’s better.’

  Maz clips the hair from one of the lumps in Lucky’s neck. I vacuum up the loose fur and scrub his skin while she prepares to take a biopsy. She also takes blood, X-rays his chest and tummy, and goes on to take some bone marrow to send off to the lab. Eventually, she injects the drug to reverse the sedation, but Lucky remains out for the count. We stand together, watching and waiting for him to wake up.

  ‘I’m afraid he’s sicker than I thought,’ Maz says.

  ‘Is it cancer?’ I stroke the sleeping dog’s ears.

  ‘I’m hoping against hope that it’s some kind of infection. I was going to set up the microscope to see if I could give Jennie an answer today, but it’s packed away ready for the builders to start, so we’ll have to wait for the path lab to come back to us. I’ll ask Frances to organise a courier. If this is what I think it is, the sooner we start treatment the better. Wakey, wakey, poppet.’ Maz sounds like she’s talking to one of her children – she has three under seven: George, Henry and baby Olivia. ‘It’s coffee time.’

  ‘You go. I’ll stay with him,’ I offer.

  ‘Thanks, Shannon. You’re a star.’ She washes her hands and disappears through the swing doors into the corridor. I clear up, rinsing the used surgical instruments and soaking them in hot bubbles of detergent, keeping an eye on the patient at the same time. When I approach him again, he manages to lift his head.

  ‘Another ten minutes and I could have missed this week’s practice meeting altogether,’ I grumble lightly. I lift him up and put him back in his cage under a blanket to keep him warm. He responds with a wag of his tail. Smiling, I leave him to join the rest of the team in the staff room.

  Tripod, the black and white practice cat who helps me and Izzy run this show, is perched on the back of the sofa. He’s called Tripod on account of him having three legs. Maz amputated the fourth one when Alex Fox-Gifford ran him over in the middle of the night and brought him to Otter House. According to Frances, he could easily have done the op himself at his practice at Talyton Manor, but at the time he was looking for any excuse to see Maz. It doesn’t seem like a terribly romantic idea to me, but that’s vets for you. They’re a breed apart.

  Tripod reaches across and taps my shoulder with his paw as I sit down. Eventually I relent, and he hops down and settles on my lap, purring and gently kneading my leg with his prickly claws while I take a jam doughnut from the plate that Izzy holds out to me. Our head nurse has been forty-two for a few years now; she looks younger, with her freckled skin and short hair that has turned to silver. She’s like Marmite – you either love or hate her.

  ‘Have I missed anything?’ I ask.

  ‘We’re discussing the plans for when the new vet arrives.’ Emma, who set the practice up in the first place and persuaded Maz to join her as a partner later on, brushes some sugar from her cheek and grins. ‘So much for the diet.’ She’s short and curvaceous, with dark brown hair cut into a geometric bob, and dressed in a blue and red patterned dress with a tie waist and navy Mary Jane’s. ‘It isn’t so much that I wanted a second doughnut – it’s more that I can’t bear to see food go to waste.’

  ‘It’s still going to waste,’ Izzy says lightly. ’Your waist.’

  ‘Very witty,’ Emma says with a touch of sarcasm.

  ‘I hope the new boy is going to fit in,’ Frances says. ‘He seemed very . . .’ It takes her a while to find an appropriate description, which is a little worrying ‘. . . pleasant when he came for his interview.’

  ‘Is that the best you can do? He’s all right. Emma asked him all the right questions . . .’ Maz pauses and Emma finishes the sentence for her: ‘Does he like doughnuts, for example?’

  ‘It’s an icebreaker, the first thing I ask at every interview.’ Emma chuckles.

  ‘I’m not bothered about his dietary preferences,’ Izzy goes on. ‘His suit was too small and his ego far too big. He seemed a bit raffish to me.’

  ‘What do you mean by that?’ I ask. ‘I wasn’t here when you interviewed him.’

  ‘Well, if you must swan off to Ibiza with your boyfriend,’ Izzy says.

  ‘Ex-boyfriend,’ I point out quickly, wanting there to be no confusion about my status as a single woman.

  ‘I’m sorry, I forgot you broke up with him when you came back. What I mean is that I thought that Mr Curdridge seemed a little unconventional compared with Will. In fact, I wanted to book him in for a dematt . . .’

  ‘Maz and I have taken a lot of trouble to find the right vet for the job.’ Emma sounds slightly hurt at the criticism, even though she really should be used to it by now, due to Izzy’s tendency to suffer from bouts of foot-in-mouth syndrome.

  ‘The length of his hair has no bearing on his ability’. Maz says. ‘He’ll be fine. Don’t you remember how long it took for you nurses to break Will in?’

  ‘He wanted to refer everything – even the simplest, most straightforward stitch – up for an MRI scan,’ Izzy says, ‘and he was an expert in what we called “foreverectomies”, because it took him so long to do any surgery as he was scared of cutting too much out.’

  ‘Better that way than the other,’ Maz says wryly. ‘It’s a pity he decided to leave, although I can
imagine him teaching vet students.’

  ‘He’ll be very good at it,’ Emma says.

  ‘Except he’ll train another load of new vets his way, and we’ll have to start all over again with them,’ Izzy sighs.

  ‘Will was amazing,’ say in defence of our assistant vet, who left to take up a post at one of the vet schools last week.

  ‘In the end,’ Izzy agrees. ‘Is there any other business?’

  ‘Yes, but it won’t take long. Two minutes at most,’ Maz says. ‘The builders are starting on Monday next week and we’re hoping—’

  ‘Against hope, I think,’ Izzy cuts in. ‘I don’t know why you’ve given DJ and his cowboys the contract to convert the flat.’

  ‘Better the devil you know,’ Emma murmurs.

  ‘I’m hoping’. Maz begins again, ‘that they’ll finish the work within two weeks as planned. I know we’ve had issues with DJ and his merry band before, but they’ve given us a reasonable estimate and were available to do the work as soon as Will moved his exotic pets out of the flat. DJ knows that if he messes up, I’ll be on his tail like a shot.

  ‘Anyway,’ she continues, ‘although moving the lab and office onto another floor frees up space elsewhere, our client list continues to grow. People are travelling from further afield, which means we have to make plans for further expansion. As far as I can see we have three options: to move out of Otter House and set up in one of the barns up at Talyton Manor, to take on one of the industrial units at the end of town, or to keep Otter House and buy or rent a building as a branch surgery.’

  ‘Move out of Otter House? No way,’ Izzy says, and I can see from Emma’s expression that this option isn’t acceptable to her either.

  ‘We are Otter House,’ Frances chips in.

  ‘I know that, but with more space, we could have a fourth vet and more support staff. We could increase the range of services we offer, like adding a hydrotherapy pool for our orthopaedic cases. We could attract veterinary specialists for patients like Merrie with her chronic skin.’

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