Vets Might Fly, page 3
tray with a pint mug of steaming coffee and two thick slices of bread
and honey. He placed it on a bale of straw and pulled up an upturned
bucket as a chair before hopping on to a meal bin where he sat like a
pixie on a toadstool with his arms around his knees, regarding me with
"The servants are still abed, old chap," he said.
"So I made this little bite for you myself."
I sank on to the bucket and took a long pull at the coffee. It was
black and scalding with a kick like a Galloway bullock and it spread
like fire through my tired frame. Then I bit into the first slice of
bread; home made, plastered thickly with farm butter and topped by a
lavish layer of heather honey from the long row of hives I had often
seen on the edge of the moor above. I closed my eyes in reverence as I
chewed, then as I reached for the pint pot again I looked up at the
small figure on the bin.
"May I say, sir, that this isn't a bite, it's a feast. It is all
His face lit up with impish glee.
"Well, dash it . . . do you really think so?
I'm so pleased. And you've done nobly, dear boy. Can't tell you how
grateful I am."
As I continued to eat ecstatically, feeling the strength ebbing back,
he glanced uneasily into the pen.
"Herriot . . . those stitches. Don't like the look of them much . .
"Oh yes," I said.
"They're just a precaution. You can nick them out in a couple of
"Splendid! But won't they leave a wound? We'd better put something on
I paused in mid chew. Here it was again. He only needed his
Propamidine to complete his happiness.
"Yes, old chap, we must apply some of that Prip ... Prom . . . oh hell
and blast, it's no good!" He threw back his head and bellowed,
The foreman appeared in the entrance, touching his cap.
"Morning, Charlie. See that this sow gets some of that wonderful cream
on her. What the blazes d'you call it again?"
Charlie swallowed and squared his shoulders.
The little man threw his arms high in delight.
"Of course, of course!
Propopamide! I wonder if I'll ever be able to get that word out?" He
looked admiringly at his foreman.
"Charlie, you never fail I don't know how you do it."
Charlie bowed gravely in acknowledgement.
Lord Hulton turned to me. "You'll let us have some more Propopamide,
won't you, Herriot?"
"Certainly," I replied.
"I think I have some in the car."
Sitting there on the bucket amid the mixed aroma of pig and barley meal
and coffee I could almost feel the waves of pleasure beating on me. His
lordship was clearly enchanted by the whole business, Charlie was
wearing the superior smile l ..... .
which always accom panied his demonstrations of lingual dexterity, and
as for myself I was experiencing a mounting euphoria.
I could see into the pen and the sight was rewarding. The little pigs
who had been sheltered in a large box during the operation were back
with their mother, side by side in a long pink row as their tiny mouths
enclosed the teats. The sow seemed to be letting her milk down, too,
because there was no frantic scramble for position, just a rapt
She was a fine pedigree pig and instead of Lying on the butcher's slab
today she would be star ting to bring up her family. As though reading
my thoughts she gave a series of contented grunts and the old feeling
began to bubble in me, the deep sense of fulfilment and satisfaction
that comes from even the smallest triumph and makes our lives worth
And there was something else. A new thought stealing into my
consciousness with a delicious fresh tingle about it. At this moment,
who else in the length and breadth of Britain was eating a breakfast
personally prepared and served by a marquis?
Chapter Three I am afraid of dentists.
I am particularly afraid of strange dentists, so before I went into the
RAF I made sure my teeth were in order. Everybody told me they were
very strict about the air crews' teeth and I didn't want some unknown
prodding around in my mouth. There had to be no holes anywhere or they
would start to ache away up there in the sky, so they said.
So before my call-up I went to old Mr Grover in Darrow by and he
painstakingly did all that was necessary. He was good at his job and
was always gentle and careful and didn't strike the same terror into me
as other dentists.
All I felt when I went to his surgery was a dryness of the throat and a
quivering at the knees, and providing I kept my eyes tightly shut all
the time I managed to get through the visit fairly easily.
My fear of dentists dates back to my earliest experiences in the
twenties. As a child I was taken to the dread Hector McDarroch in
Glasgow and he did my dental work right up to my teens. Friends of my
youth tell me that he inspired a similar lasting fear in them, too, and
in fact there must be a whole generation of Glaswegians who feel the
Of course you couldn't blame Hector entirely. The equipment in those
days was primitive and a visit to any dental practitioner was an
ordeal. But Hector with his booming laugh, was so large and
overpowering that he made it worse.
Actually he was a very nice man, cheerful and good-natured, but the
other side of him blotted it all out.
The electric drill had not yet been invented or if it had, it hadn't
reached Scotland, and Hector bored holes in teeth with a fearsome
There was a great wheel driven by a leather belt and this powered the
drill, and as you lay in the chair two things dominated the outlook;
the wheel whirring by your ear and Hector's huge knee pistoning almost
into your face as he pedalled furiously.
He came from the far north and at the Highland games he used to array
himself in kilt and sporran and throw cabers around like matchsticks.
He was so big and strong that I always felt hopelessly trapped in that
chair with his bulk over me and the wheel grinding and the pedal
thumping. He didn't exactly put his foot on my chest but he had me all
And it didn't worry him when he got into the sensitive parts with his
drill; my strangled cries were of no avail and he carried on
remorselessly to the end.
I had the impression that Hector thought it was cissy to feel pain, or
maybe he was of the opinion that suffering was good for the soul.
Anyway, since those days I've had a marked preference for small frail
soft spoken dentists like Mr Grover. I like to feel that if it came to
a stand-up fight I would have a good chance of victory and escape.
Also, Mr Grover understood that people were afraid, and that helped. I
remember him chuckling when he told me about the big farm men who came
to have their teeth extracted. Many
across the room for his instruments and turned back to find the chair
I still don't enjoy going to the dentist but I have to admit that the
modern men are wonderful. I hardly see mine when I go. Just a brief
glimpse of a white coat then all is done from behind. Fingers come
round, things go in and out of my mouth but even when I venture to open
my eyes I see nothing.
Hector McDarroch, on the other hand, seemed to take a pleasure in
showing off his grisly implements, filling the long-needled syringe
right in front of my eyes and squirting the cocaine ceiling wards a few
times before he started on me.
And worse, before an extraction he used to clank about in a tin box,
producing a series of hideous forceps and examining them, whistling
softly, till he found the right one.
So with all this in mind, as I sat in a long queue of airmen for the
preliminary examination, I was thankful I had been to Mr Grover for a
A dentist stood by a chair at the end of the long room and he examined
the young men in blue one by one before calling out his findings to an
orderly at a desk.
I derived considerable entertainment from watching the expressions on
the lads' faces when the call went out.
"Three fillings, two extractions!" "Eight fillings!" Most of them
looked stunned, some thunderstruck, others almost tearful.
Now and again one would try to expostulate with the man in white but it
was no good; nobody was listening. At times I could have laughed out
loud. Mind you, I felt a bit mean at being amused, but after all they
had only themselves to blame. If only they had shown my foresight they
would have had nothing to worry about.
When my name was called I strolled across, humming a little tune, and
dropped nonchalantly into the chair. It didn't take the man long. He
poked his way swiftly along my teeth then rapped out,
"Five fillings and one extraction!"
I sat bolt upright and stared at him in amazement.
"But . . . but . . ." I began to yammer,
"I had a check up by my own . . ."
"Next, please," murmured the dentist.
"But Mr Grover said . . ."
"Next man! Move along!" bawled the orderly, and as I shuffled away I
gazed appealingly at the white-coated figure. But he was reciting a
list of my pre molars and incisors and showed no interest.
I was still trembling when I was handed the details of my fate.
"Report at Regent Lodge tomorrow morning for the extraction," the WAAF
girl said Tomorrow morning! By God, they didn't mess about! And what
the heck did it all mean, anyway? My teeth were perfectly sound. There
was only that one with the bit of enamel chipped off. Mr Grover had
pointed it out and said it wouldn't give any trouble. It was the tooth
that held my pipe surely it couldn't be that one.
But there came the disquieting thought that my opinion didn't matter.
When my feeble protests were ignored back there it hit me for the first
time that I wasn't a civilian any more Next morning the din from the
dustbin lids had hardly subsided when the grim realisation drove into
my brain. I was going to have a tooth out today!
And very soon, too. I passed the intervening hours in growing
apprehension; morning parade, the march through the darkness to
breakfast. The dried egg and fried bread were less attractive than
ever and the grey day had hardly got under way before I was approaching
the forbidding facade of Regent Lodge.
As I climbed the steps my palms began to sweat. I didn't like having
my teeth drilled but extractions were infinitely worse. Something in
me recoiled from the idea of having a part of myself torn away by
force, even if it didn't hurt.
of course, I told myself as I walked along an echoing corridor, it
never did hurt nowadays. Just a little prick, then nothing.
I was nurturing this comforting thought when I turned into a large
assembly room with numbered doors leading from it. About thirty airmen
sat around wearing a variety of expressions from sickly smiles to tough
bravado. A chilling smell of antiseptic hung on the air. I chose a
chair and settled down to wait.
had been in the armed forces long enough to know that you waited a long
time for everything and I saw no reason why a dental appointment should
be any different.
As I sat down the man on my left gave me a brief nod. He was fat, and
greasy black hair fell over his pimpled brow. Though engrossed in
picking his teeth with a match he gave me a long appraising stare
before addressing me in rich cockney.
"What room you goin' in, mate?"
I looked at my card.
"Blimey, mate, you've 'ad it!" He removed his matchstick and grinned
"Had it . . . ? What do you mean?"
"Well, haven't you 'eard? That's The Butcher in there."
"The . . . The . . . Butcher?" I quavered.
"Yeh, that's what they call the dental officer in there." He gave an
"He's a right killer, that bloke, I'll tell yen' I swallowed.
"Butcher . . . ? Killer . . . ? Oh come on. They'll all be the
same I'm sure."
"Don't you believe it, mate. There's good an' there's bad, and that
bloke's pure murder. It shouldn't be allowed."
"How do you know, anyway?"
He waved an airy hand.
"Oh I've been 'ere a few times and I've heard some bleed in, awful
screams com in' out of that room. Spoken to some of the chaps
afterwards' too. They all call 'im The Butcher."
I rubbed my hands on the rough blue of my trousers.
"Oh you hear these tales. I'm sure they're exaggerated."
"Well, you'll find out, mate." He resumed his tooth picking.
"But don't say I didn't tell you."
He went on about various things but I only half heard him. His name,
it seemed, was Simkin, and he was not an air crew cadet like the rest
of us but a regular and a member of the ground staff, he worked in the
kitchens. He spoke Scornfully of us raw recruits and pointed out that
we would have to 'get some Service in' before we were fit to associate
with the real members of the Royal Air Force. I noticed, however, that
despite his own years of allegiance he was still an AC2 like myself.
Almost an hour passed with my heart thumping every time the door of
number four opened. I had to admit that the young men leaving that
room all looked a bit shattered and one almost reeled out, holding his
mouth with both hands.
"Cor! Look at that poor bugger!" Simkin drawled with ill-concealed
"Strike me! He's been through it, poor bleeder. I'm glad I'm not in
your shoes, mate."
I could feel the tension mounting in me.
"What room are you going into, anyway?" I asked.
He did a bit of deep exploration with his match.
"Room two, mate. I've been in there before. He's a grand bloke, one
of the best. Never 'urts you."
"Not lucky, mate." He paused and stabbed his match at me.
"I know my way around, that's all. There's ways and means." He
allowed one eyelid to drop briefly.
The conversation was abruptly terminated as the dread door opened and a
WAAF came out.
"AC2 Herriot!" she called.
I got up on shaking limbs and took a deep breath. As I set off I had a
fleeting .t glimpse of the leer of pure delight on Simkin's face. He
was really enjoying himself.
As I passed the portals my feeling of doom increased. The Butcher was
another Hector McDarroch; about six feet two with rugby forward
shoulders bulging his white coat. My flesh crept as he unleashed a
hearty laugh and motioned me towards the chair.
As I sat down I decided to have one last try.
"Is this the tooth?" I asked, tapping the only possible suspect.
"It is indeed!" boomed The Butcher.
"That's the one."