Vets might fly, p.7

Vets Might Fly, page 7


Vets Might Fly

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  temporal muscles which I had dreaded.

  "I'm afraid he's got chorea, Wes." I said.

  "What's that?"

  "It's one of the things I was telling you about. Sometimes they call

  it St Vitus' Dance. I was hoping it wouldn't happen."

  The boy looked suddenly small and forlorn and he stood there silent,

  twisting the new leather lead between his fingers. It was such an

  effort for him to speak that he almost closed his eyes.

  "Will'e die?"

  "Some dogs do get over it, Wes." I didn't tell him that I had seen it

  happen only once.

  "I've got some tablets which might help him. I'll get you some."

  I gave him a few of the arsenical tablets I had used in my only cure. I

  didn't even know if they had been responsible but I had nothing more to


  Duke's chorea pursued a text book course over the next two weeks. All

  the things which I had feared turned up in a relentless progression.

  The twitching spread from his head to his limbs, then his hindquarters

  began to sway as he walked.

  His young master brought him in repeatedly and I went through the

  motions, trying at the same time to make it clear that it was all

  hopeless. The boy persisted doggedly, rushing about meanwhile with his

  paper deliveries and other jobs, insisting on paying though I didn't

  want his money. Then one afternoon he called in.

  "Ah couldn't bring Duke," he muttered.

  "Can't walk now. Will you come and see 'im ?"

  We got into my car. It was a Sunday, about three o'clock and the

  streets were quiet. He led me up the cobbled yard and opened the door

  of one of the houses.

  The stink of the place hit me as I went in. Country vets aren't easily

  sickened but I felt my stomach turning. Mrs Bin ks was very fat and a

  filthy dress hung shapelessly on her as she slumped, cigarette in

  mouth, over the kitchen table.

  She was absorbed in a magazine which lay in a clearing among mounds of

  dirty dishes and her curlers nodded as she looked up briefly at us.

  On a couch under the window her husband sprawled asleep, open-mouthed,

  snoring out the reek of beer. The sink, which held a further supply of

  greasy dishes, was covered in a revolting green scum. Clothes,

  newspapers and nameless rubbish littered the floor and over everything

  a radio blasted away at full I strength.

  The only clean new thing was the dog basket in the corner. I went

  across and bent over the little animal. Duke was now prostrate and

  helpless, his body emaciated and jerking uncontrollably. The sunken

  eyes had filled up again with pus and gazed apathetically ahead.

  "Wes," I said.

  "You've got to let me put him to sleep."

  He didn't answer, and as I tried to explain, the blaring radio drowned

  my words. I looked over at his mother.

  "Do you mind turning the radio down?" I asked.

  She jerked her head at the boy and he went over and turned the knob. in

  the ensuing silence I spoke to him again.

  "It's the only thing, believe me. You can't let him die by inches like


  He didn't look at me. All his attention was fixed desperately on his

  dog. Then he raised a hand and I heard his whisper.

  "Aw right."

  I hurried out to the car for the Nembutal.

  "I promise you he'll feel no pain," I said as I filled the syringe. And

  indeed the little creature merely sighed before Lying motionless, the

  fateful twitching stilled at last.

  I put the syringe in my pocket.

  "Do you want me to take him away, Wes?"

  He looked at me bewilderedly and his mother broke in.

  "Aye, get 'im out. Ah never wanted "'bloody thing 'ere in t'first

  place." She resumed her reading.

  I quickly lifted the little body and went out. Wes followed me and

  watched as I opened the boot and laid Duke gently on top of my black

  working coat.

  As I closed the lid he screwed his knuckles into his eyes and his body


  I put my arm across his shoulder, and as he leaned against me for a

  moment and sobbed I wondered if he had ever been able to cry like this

  like a little boy with somebody to comfort him.

  But soon he stood back and smeared the tears across the dirt on his


  "Are you going back into the house, Wes?" I asked.

  He blinked and looked at me with a return of his tough expression.

  "Naw!" he said and turned and walked away. He didn't look back and I

  watched him cross the road, climb a wall and trail away across the

  fields towards the river.

  And it has always seemed to me that at that moment Wes walked back into

  his old life. From then on there were no more odd jobs or useful

  activities. He never played any more tricks on me but in other ways he

  progressed into more serious misdemeanours. He set barns on fire, was

  up before the magistrates for theft and by the time he was thirteen he

  was stealing cars.

  Finally he was sent to an approved school and then he disappeared from

  the district. Nobody knew where he went and most people forgot him.

  One person who didn't was the police sergeant.

  "That young Wesley Bin ks," he said to me ruminatively.

  "He was a wrong 'un if ever I saw one. You know, I don't think he ever

  cared a damn for anybody or any living thing in his life."

  "I know how you feel sergeant," I replied,

  "But you're not entirely right. There was one living thing. .".

  Chapter Six ~; Tristan would never have won any prizes as an exponent

  of the haute cuisine.

  We got better food in the RAF than most people in wartime Britain but

  it didn't com pare with the Darrow by fare. I suppose I had been

  spoiled; first by Mrs hall, then by Helen. There were only brief

  occasions at Skeldale House when we did not eat like kings and one of

  those was when Tristan was installed as temporary cook.

  It began one morning at breakfast in the days when I was still a

  bachelor and Tristan and I were taking our places at the mahogany

  dining table. Siegfried bustled in, muttered a greeting and began to

  pour his coffee. He was unusually distrait as he buttered a slice of

  toast and cut into one of the rashers on his plate, then after a

  minute's thoughtful chewing he brought down his hand on the table with

  a suddenness that made me jump.

  "I've got it!" he exclaimed.

  "Got what?" I enquired.

  Siegfried put down his knife and fork and wagged a finger at me.

  "Silly, really, I've been sitting here puzzling about what to do and

  it's suddenly clear."

  "Why, what's the trouble?"

  "It's Mrs Hall," he said.

  "She's just told me her sister has been taken ill and she has to go and

  look after her. She thinks she'll be away for a week and I've been

  wondering who I could get to look after the house."

  "I see."

  "Then it struck me." He sliced a corner from a fried egg.

  "Tristan can do it."

  "Eh?" His brother looked up, startled, from his Daily Mirror.


  "Yes, you! You spend a lot of time on your arse. A bit of useful

ity would be good for you."

  Tristan looked at him warily.

  "What do you mean useful activity?"

  "Well, keeping the place straight," Siegfried said.

  "I wouldn't expect perfection but you could tidy up each day, and of

  course prepare the meals."

  "Meals ?"

  "That's right." Siegfried gave him a level stare.

  "You can cook, can't you?"

  "Weller yes . . . I can cook sausage and mash."

  Siegfried waved an expansive hand.

  "There you are, you see, no problem.

  Push over those fried tomatoes, will you, James?"

  I passed the dish silently. I had only half heard the conversation

  because part of my mind was far away. Just before breakfast I had had

  a phone call from Ken Billings, one of our best farmers, and his words

  were still echoing in my head.

  "Mr Herriot, that calf you saw yesterday is dead. That's the third

  'un I've lost in a week and I'm flummoxed. I want ye out here this

  morn in' to have another look round."

  I sipped my coffee absently. He wasn't the only one who was


  Three fine calves had shown symptoms of acute gastric pain, I had

  treated them and they had died. That was bad enough but what made it

  worse was that I hadn't the faintest idea what was wrong with them.

  I wiped my lips and got Up quickly.

  "Siegfried, I'd like to go to Billings' first' Then I've got the rest

  of the round you gave me."

  "Fine, James, by all means' My boss gave me a sweet and encouraging

  smile balanced a mushroom on a piece of fried bread and conveyed it to

  his mouth t': He wasn't a big eater but he did love his breakfast. -"

  On the way to the farm my mind beat about helplessly. What more Could

  I L do than I had already done? In these obscure cases one was driven

  to the] .

  conclusion that the animal had eaten something harmful. At times I had

  spent; hours roaming around pastures loo king for poisonous plants but

  that was pointless with Billings's calves because they had never been

  out; they were babies of a month old.

  I had carried out post mortem examinations of the dead animals but had

  found only a non-specific gastro-enteritis. I had sent kidneys to the

  laboratory for lead estimation with negative result; like their owner,

  I was flummoxed.

  Mr Billings was waiting for me in his yard. i "Good job I rang you!"

  he said breathlessly.

  "There's another 'un star tin'."

  I rushed with him into the buildings and found what I expected and


  a small calf kicking at its stomach, get ting up and down, occasionally

  rolling on its straw bed. Typical abdominal pain. But why?

  I went over it as with the others. Temperature normal, lungs clear,

  only rumen al atony and extreme tenderness as I palpated the abdomen- :

  As I was putting the thermometer back in its case the calf suddenly

  toppled .

  over and went into a frothing convulsion. Hastily I injected

  sedativeS' calcium, magnesium, but with a feeling of doom. I had done

  it all before.

  "What the hell is it?" the farmer asked, voicing my thoughts.

  I shrugged.

  "It's acute gastritis, Mr Billings, but I wish I knew the cause. I

  could swear this calf has eaten some irritant or corrosive poison."

  "Well, dang it, they've nob but had milk and a few nuts." The farmer

  spread his hands.

  "There's nothing they can get to hurt them."

  Again, wearily, I went through the old routine; ferreting around in the

  calf pen, trying to find some clue. An old paint tin, a burst packet

  of sheep dip.

  It was amazing, the things you came across in the clutter of a farm

  building. :: , But not at Mr Billings's place. He was meticulously

  tidy, particularly with : his calves, and the window sills and shelves

  were free from rubbish. It was the.

  same with the milk buckets, scoured to spotless cleanliness after every


  Mr Billings had a thing about his calves. His two teenage sons were

  fanatically keen on farming and he encouraged them in all the

  agricultural skills; but he fed the calves himself.

  "Feeding them calves is t'most important job in stock rearing," he used

  to say.

  "Get 'em over that first month and you're half-way there."

  And he knew what he was talking about. His charges never suffered from

  the normal ailments of the young; no scour, no joint ill, no pneumonia.

  I had often marvelled at it, but it made the present disaster all the

  more unbearable.

  "All right," I said with false breeziness as I left.

  "Maybe this one won't be bad. Give me a ring in the morning."

  I did the rest of my round in a state of gloom and at lunch I was still

  preoccupied that I wondered what had happened when Tristan served the


  I had entirely forgotten about Mrs Hall's absence However, the sausage

  and mash wasn't at all bad and Tristan was lavish with his helpings.

  The three of us cleaned our plates pretty thoroughly, because morning

  is the busiest working time in practice and I was always famished by


  My mind was still on Mr Billings's problem during the afternoon calls

  and when we sat down to supper I was only mildly surprised to find

  another offering of sausage and mash.

  "Same again, eh?" Siegfried grunted, but he got through his plateful

  and left without further comment.

  The next day started badly. I came into the dining room to find the

  table bare and Siegfried stamping around.

  "Where the hell is our breakfast ?" he burst out.

  "And where the hell is He pounded along the passage and I heard his

  shouts in the kitchen



  I knew he was wasting his time. His brother often slept in and it was

  just a bit more noticeable this morning.

  My boss returned along the passage at a furious gallop and I steeled

  myself for some unpleasantness as the young man was rousted from his

  bed. But Tristan, as usual, was master of the situation. Siegfried

  had just begun to take the stairs three at a time when his brother

  descended from the landing, knotting his tie with perfect composure. It

  was uncanny. He always got more than his share of sleeping time but

  was rarely caught between the sheets.

  "Sorry, chaps," he murmured.

  "Afraid I overslept."

  "Yes, that's all right!" shouted Siegfried.

  "But how about our bloody breakfast?

  I gave you a job to do!"

  Tristan was contrite.

  "I really do apologise, but I was up late last night, peeling


  His brother's face flushed.

  "I know all about that!" he barked.

  "You didn't start till after closing time at the Drovers!"

  "Well, that's right." Tristan swallowed and his face assumed the

  familiar expression of pained dignity.

  "I did feel a bit dry last night. Think it must have been all the

  clean ing and dusting I did."

  Siegfried did not reply. He shot a single exasperated look at the

  young man then turned to me.
  "We'll have to make do with bread and marmalade this morning James.

  Come through to the kitchen and we'll . . ."

  The jangling of the telephone cut off his words. I lifted the receiver

  and listened and it must have been the expression on my face which

  stopped him in the doorway.

  "What's the matter, James?" he asked as I came away from the 'phone.

  "You look as though you've had a kick in the belly."

  I nodded.

  "That's how I feel. That calf is nearly dead at Billings's and there's

  another one ill. I wish you'd come out there with me, Siegfried."

  My boss stood very still as he looked over the side of the pen at the

  little animal.

  It didn't seem to know where to put itself, rising and Lying down,


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