Vets might fly, p.11

Vets Might Fly, page 11


Vets Might Fly

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  "You can't? Why, "'barn's good enough to see, isn't it?"

  "The bare?" I pointed a shaking finger at the heights.

  "You mean that building

  The heifer's surely not in there!"

  "Aye, she is. Ah keep a lot o'me young beasts in them spots."

  "But . . . but . . ." I was gabbling now.

  "We'll never get up there! That snow's three feet deep!"

  He blew smoke pleasurably from his nostrils.

  "We will, don't the worry. Just hang on a second."

  He disappeared into the stable and after a few moments I peeped inside.

  He was saddling a fat brown cob and I stared as he led the little

  animal out, climbed stiffly on to a box and mounted.

  Looking down at me he waved cheerfully.

  "Well, let's be goin'. Have you got your stuff?"

  Bewilderedly I filled my pockets. A bottle of bloat mixture, a trochar

  and cannula, a packet of gentian and nux vomica. I did it in the dull

  knowledge that there was no way I could get up that hill.

  On the other side of the road an opening had been dug and Mr.Stokill

  rode through I slithered in his wake, loo king up hopelessly at the

  great smooth wilderness rearing above us.

  Mr Stokill turned in the saddle.

  "Get haud on "'tail," he said.

  "I beg your pardon?"

  "Get a haud of 'is tail."

  As in a dream I seized the bristly hairs.

  "No, both 'ends," the farmer said patiently.

  "Like this?"

  "That's grand, lad. Now 'ang on."

  He clicked his tongue, the cob plodded resolutely forward and so did I.

  And it was easy! The whole world fell away beneath us as we soared

  upwards and leaning back and enjoying it I watched the little valley

  unfold along its twisting length until I could see away into the main

  Dale with the great hills billowing round and white into the dark


  At the barn the farmer dismounted.

  "All right, young man?"

  "All right, Mr Stokill." As I followed him into the little building I

  smiled to myself. This old man had once told me that he left school

  when he was twelve, whereas I had spent most of the twenty-four years

  of my life in study. Yet when I looked back on the last hour or so I

  could come to only one conclusion.

  He knew a lot more than I did.

  Chapter Ten I had plenty of company for Christmas that year. We were

  billeted in the Grand Hotel, the massive Victorian pile which dominated

  Scar borough in turreted splendour from its eminence above the sea, and

  the big dining room was packed with several hundred shouting airmen.

  The iron discipline was relaxed for a few hours to let the Yuletide

  spirit run free.

  It was so different from other Christmases I had known that it ought to

  have remained like a beacon in my mind, but I know that my strongest

  memory of Christmas will always be bound up with a certain little


  I first saw her when I was called to see one of Mrs Ainsworth's dogs,

  and I looked in some surprise at the furry black creature sitting

  before the fire.

  "I didn't know you had a cat," I said.

  The lady smiled.

  "We haven't, this is Debbie."

  "Debbie ?"

  "Yes, at least that's what we call her. She's a stray. Comes here two

  or three times a week and we give her some food. I don't know where

  she lives but I believe she spends a lot of her time around one of the

  farms along the road."

  "Do you ever get the feeling that she wants to stay with you?"

  "No." Mrs Ainsworth shook her head.

  "She's a timid little thing. Just creeps in, has some food then flits

  away. There's something so appealing about her but she doesn't seem to

  want to let me or anybody into her life."

  I looked again at the little cat.

  "But she isn't just having food today."

  "That's right. It's a funny thing but every now and again she slips

  through here into the lounge and sits by the fire for a few minutes.

  It's as though she was giving herself a treat."

  "Yes ... I see what you mean." There was no doubt there was something

  unusual in the attitude of the little animal. She was sitting bolt

  upright on the thick rug which lay before the fireplace in which the

  coals glowed and flamed.

  She made no effort to curl up or wash herself or do any thing other

  than gaze quietly ahead. And there was something in the dusty black of

  her coat, the half-wild scrawny look of her, that gave me a clue. This

  was a special event in her life, a rare and wonderful thing; she was

  lapping up a comfort undreamed of in her daily existence.

  As I watched she turned, crept soundlessly from the room and was


  "That's always the way with Debbie," Mrs Ainsworth laughed.

  "She never stays more than ten minutes or so, then she's off."

  She was a plumpish, pleasant-faced woman in her forties and the kind of

  client veterinary surgeons dream of; well off, generous, and the owner

  of three cosseted Basset hounds. And it only needed the habitually

  mournful expressions of one of the dogs to deepen a little and I was

  round there post haste. Today one of the Bassets had raised its paw

  and scratched its ear a couple of times and that was enough to send its

  mistress scurrying to the 'phone in great alarm.

  So my visits to the Ainsworth home were frequent but undemanding, and I

  had ample opportunity to look out for the little cat which had

  intrigued me. On one occasion I spotted her nibbling daintily from a

  saucer at the kitchen door.

  As I watched she turned and almost floated on light footsteps into the

  hall then through the lounge door.

  The three Bassets were already in residence, draped snoring on the

  fireside rug, but they seemed to be used to Debbie because two of them

  sniffed her in a bored manner and the third merely cocked a sleepy eye

  at her before flopping back on the rich pile.

  Debbie sat among them in her usual posture; upright, intent, gazing

  absorbedly into the glowing coals. This time I tried to make friends

  with her. I approached her carefully but she leaned away as I

  stretched out my hand. However, by patient wheedling and soft talk I

  managed to touch her and gently stroked her cheek with one finger.

  There was a moment when she responded by putting her head on one side

  and rubbing back against my hand but soon she was ready to leave. Once

  outside the house she darted quickly along the road then through a gap

  in a hedge and the last I saw was the little black figure flitting over

  the rain-swept grass of a field.

  "I wonder where she goes," I murmured half to myself. ~] Mrs Ainsworth

  appeared at my elbow.

  "That's something we've never been able to find out."

  It must have been nearly three months before I heard from Mrs

  Ainsworth, and in fact I had begun to wonder at the Bassets' long

  symptom less run when she came on the 'phone.

  It was Christmas morning and she was apologetic.

  "Mr Herriot, I'm so sorry to bother you today of all days. I should

  think you want a rest at Christmas like anybody else
." But her natural

  politeness could not hide the distress in her voice.

  "Please don't worry about that," I said.

  "Which one is it this time?"

  "It's not one of the dogs. It's . . . Debbie."

  "Debbie? She's at your house now?"

  "Yes . . . but there's something wrong. Please come quickly."

  Driving through the market place I thought again that Darrow by on

  Christmas Day was like Dickens come to life; the empty square with the

  snow thick on the cobbles and hanging from the eaves of the fretted

  lines of roofs; the shops closed and the coloured lights of the

  Christmas trees winking at the windows of the clustering houses, warmly

  inviting against the cold white bulk of the fells behind.

  Mrs Ainsworth's home was lavishly decorated with tinsel and holly, rows

  of drinks stood on the sideboard and the rich aroma of turkey and sage

  and onion stuffing wafted from the kitchen. But her eyes were full of

  pain as she led me through to the lounge.

  Debbie was there all right, but this time everything was different. She

  wasn't sitting upright in her usual position; she was stretched quite

  motionless on her side, and huddled close to her lay a tiny black


  I looked down in bewilderment.

  "What's happened here?"

  "It's the strangest thing," Mrs Ainsworth replied.

  "I haven't seen her for several weeks then she came in about two hours

  ago sort of staggered into the kitchen, and she was carrying the kitten

  in her mouth. She took it through to the lounge and laid it on the rug

  and at first I was amused. But I could see all was not well because

  she sat as she usually does, but for a long time over an hour then she

  lay down like this and she hasn't moved."

  I knelt on the rug and passed my hand over Debbie's neck and ribs. She

  was thinner than ever, her fur dirty and mud-caked. She did not resist

  as I gently opened her mouth. The tongue and mucus membranes were

  abnormally pale and the lips ice-cold against my fingers. When I

  pulled down her eyelid and saw the dead white conjunctive a knell

  sounded in my mind.

  I palpated the abdomen with a grim certainty as to what I would find

  and there was no surprise, only a dull sadness as my fingers closed

  around a hard lobulated mass deep among the viscera. Massive

  lymphosarcoma. Terminal and hopeless. I put my stethoscope on her

  heart and listened to the increasingly faint, rapid beat then I

  straightened up and sat on the rug loo king sightlessly into the

  fireplace, feeling the warmth of the flames on my face.

  Mrs Ainsworth's voice seemed to come from afar.

  "Is she ill, Mr Herriot?"

  I hesitated.

  "Yes . . . yes, I'm afraid so. She has a malignant growth." I stood


  "There's absolutely nothing I can do. I'm sorry."

  "Oh!" Her hand went to her mouth and she looked at me wide-eyed. When

  at last she spoke her voice trembled.

  "Well, you must put her to sleep immediately.

  It's the only thing to do. We can't let her suffer."

  "Mrs Ainsworth," I said.

  "There's no need. She's dying now in a coma far beyond suffering."

  She turned quickly away from me and was very still as she fought with

  her emotions. Then she gave up the struggle and dropped on her knees

  beside Debbie.

  "Oh, poor little thing!" she sobbed and stroked the cat's head again

  and again as the tears fell unchecked on the matted fur.

  "What she must have come through.

  I feel I ought to have done more for her."

  For a few moments I was silent, feeling her sorrow, so discordant among

  the bright seasonal colours of this festive room. Then I spoke


  "Nobody could have done more than you," I said.

  "Nobody could have been kinder."

  "But I'd have kept her here in comfort. It must have been terrible out

  there in the cold when she was so desperately ill I daren't think about

  it. And having kittens, too I . . . I wonder how many she did


  I shrugged.

  "I don't suppose we'll ever know. Maybe just this one. It happens

  sometimes. And she brought it to you, didn't she?" : "Yes . . .

  that's right . . . she did . . . she did." Mrs Ainsworth reached out

  and lifted the bedraggled black morsel. She smoothed her finger along

  the muddy fur and the tiny mouth opened in a soundless miaow.

  "Isn't it strange? She was dying and she brought her kitten here. And

  on Christmas Day."

  I bent and put my hand on Debbie's heart. There was no beat.

  I looked up.

  "I'm afraid she's gone." I lifted the small body, almost feather

  light, wrapped it in the sheet which had been spread on the rug and

  took it out to the car.

  When I came back Mrs Ainsworth was still stroking the kitten. The

  tears had dried on her cheeks and she was bright-eyed as she looked at


  "I've never had a cat before," she said.

  I smiled.

  "Well it looks as though you've got one now."

  And she certainly had. That kitten grew rapidly into a sleek handsome

  cat with a boisterous nature which earned him the name of Buster. In

  every way he was the opposite to his timid little mother. Not for him

  the privations of the secret outdoor life; he stalked the rich carpets

  of the Ainsworth home like a king and the ornate collar he always wore

  added something more to his presence.

  On my visits I watched his development with delight but the occasion

  which stays in my mind was the following Christmas Day, a year from his


  I was out on my rounds as usual. I can't remember when I haven't had

  to work on Christmas Day because the animals have never got round to

  recognising it as a holiday; but with the passage of the years the

  vague resentment I used to feel has been replaced by philosophical

  acceptance. After all, as I tramped around the hillside barns in the

  frosty air I was working up a better appetite for my turkey than all

  the millions lying in bed or slumped by the fire, and this was aided by

  the innumerable aperitifs I received from the hospitable farmers.

  I was on my way home, bathed in a rosy glow. I had consumed several

  whiskies the kind the inexpert Yorkshire men pour as though it was

  ginger ale - and I had finished with a glass of old Mrs Earnshaw's

  rhubarb wine which had seared its way straight to my toenails. I heard

  the cry as I was passing Mrs Ainsworth's house.

  "Merry Christmas, Mr Herriot!" She was letting a visitor out of the

  front door; and she waved at me gaily.

  "Come in and have a drink to warm you up."

  I didn't need warming up but I pulled in to the kerb without

  hesitation. In the house there was all the festive cheer of last year

  and the same glorious whiff of sage and onion which set my gastric

  juices surging. But there was not the sorrow; there was Buster.

  He was darting up to each of the dogs in turn, ears pricked, eyes

  blazing with devilment, dabbing a paw at them then streaking away. :

  Mrs Ainsworth laughed.

  "You know, he plagues the life out o
f them. Gives them no peace."

  She was right. To the Bassets, Buster's arrival was rather like the

  intrusion of an irreverent outsider into an exclusive London club. For

  a long time they had led a life of measured grace; regular sedate walks

  with their mistress, superb food in ample quantities and long snoring

  sessions on the rugs and armchairs.

  Their days followed one upon another in unruffled calm. And then came


  He was dancing up to the youngest dog again, sideways this time, head

  on ~ ari ~ ~ h ~ Wh~ bc scarred boxing with both paws it was too much]

  even for the Basset. He dropped his dignity and rolled over with the

  cat in a brief wrestling match "I want to show you something." Mrs

  Ainsworth lifted a hard rubber ball from the sideboard and went out to

  the garden, followed by Buster. She threw the ball across the lawn and

  the cat bounded after it over the frosted grass, the muscles rippling

  under the black sheen of his coat. He seized the ball in his teeth,

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