Vets might fly, p.9

Vets Might Fly, page 9


Vets Might Fly

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  The incident came back to me as I sat in my room in St John's Wood

  reading Black's Veterinary Dictionary. It was a bulky volume to carry

  around and my RAF friends used to rib me about my 'vest pocket

  edition', but I had resolved to keep reading it in spare moments to

  remind me of my real life.

  I had reached the letter

  "C' and as the word

  "Castration' looked up at me from the page I was jerked back to Rory.

  I was castrating pigs. There were several litters to do and I was in a

  hurry and failed to notice the Irish farm worker's mounting

  apprehension. His young boss was catching the little animals and

  handing them to Rory who held them upside down, gripped between his

  thighs with their legs apart, and as I quickly incised the scrotums and

  drew out the testicles my blade almost touched the rough material of

  his trouser crutch.

  "For God's sake, have a care, Mr Herriot!" he gasped at last.

  I looked up from my work.

  "What's wrong, Rory?"

  "Watch what you're doin' with that bloody knife! You're whip pin' it

  round between me legs like a bloody Red Indian. You'll do me a

  mischief afore you've finished!"

  "Aye, be careful, Mr Herriot," the young farmer cried.

  "Don't geld Rory instead of the pig. His missus ud never forgive ye."

  He burst into a loud peal of laughter, the Irishman grinned sheepishly

  and I giggled.

  That was my undoing because the momentary inattention sent the blade

  slicing across my left forefinger. The razor-sharp edge went deep and

  in an instant the entire neighbour hood seemed flooded with my blood.

  I thought I would never staunch the flow. The red ooze continued,

  despite a long session of self-doctoring from the car boot, and when I

  finally drove away my finger was swathed in the biggest, clumsiest

  dressing I have ever seen. I had finally been forced to apply a large

  pad of cotton wool held in place with an enormous length of three-inch


  It was dark when I left the farm. About five o'clock on a late

  December day, the light gone early and the stars beginning to show in a

  frosty sky. I drove slowly, the enormous finger jutting upwards from

  the wheel, pointing the way between the headlights like a guiding

  beacon. I was within half a mile of Darrow by with the lights of the

  little town beginning to wink between the bare roadside branches when a

  car approached, went past, then I heard a squeal of brakes as it

  stopped and began to double back.

  It passed me again, drew into the side and I saw a frantically waving


  I pulled up and a young man jumped from the driving seat and ran

  towards me.

  He pushed his head in at the window.

  "Are you the vet?" His voice was breathless, panic-stricken.

  "Yes, I am."

  "Oh thank God! We're passing through on the way to Manchester and

  we've been to your surgery . . . they said you were out this way . .

  . described your car.

  Please help us!"

  "What's the trouble?"

  "It's our dog . . . in the back of the car. He's got a ball stuck in

  his throat. I ... I think he might be dead."

  I was out of my seat and running along the road before he had finished.

  It was a big white saloon and in the darkness of the back seat a

  wailing chorus issued from several little heads silhouetted against the


  I tore open the door and the wailing took on words.

  "Oh Benny, Benny, Benny...!"

  I dimly discerned a large dog spread over the knees of four small


  "Oh Daddy, he's dead, he's dead!"

  "Let's have him out," I gasped, and as the young man pulled on the

  forelegs I supported the body, which slid and toppled on to the tarmac

  with a horrible limpness.

  I pawed at the hairy form.

  "I can't see a bloody thing! Help me pull him round."

  We dragged the unresisting bulk into the headlights' glare and I could

  see it all. A huge, beautiful collie in his luxuriant prime, mouth

  gaping, tongue lolling, eyes staring lifelessly at nothing. He wasn't


  The young father took one look then gripped his head with both hands.

  "Oh God, oh God...." From within the car I heard the quiet sobbing of

  his wife and the piercing cries from the back.

  "Benny ... Benny...."

  I grabbed the man's shoulder and shouted at him.

  "What did you say about a ball?"

  "It's in his throat . . . I've had my fingers in his mouth for ages

  but I couldn't move it." The words came mumbling up from beneath the

  bent head.

  I pushed my hand into the mouth and I could feel it all right. A

  sphere of hard solid rubber not much bigger than a golf ball and jammed

  like a cork in the pharynx, effectively blocking the trachea. I

  scrabbled feverishly at the wet smoothness but there was nothing to get

  hold of. It took me about three seconds to realise that no human

  agency would ever get the ball out that way and without thinking I

  withdrew my hands, braced both thumbs behind the angle of the lower jaw

  and pushed.

  The ball shot forth, bounced on the frosty road and rolled sadly on to

  the grass verge. I touched the corneal surface of the eye. No reflex.

  I slumped to my knees, burdened by the hopeless regret that I hadn't

  had the chance to do this just a bit sooner. The only function I could

  perform now was to take the body back to Skeldale House for disposal. I

  couldn't allow the family to drive to Manchester with a dead dog. But I

  wished fervently that I had been able to do more, and as I passed my

  hand along the richly coloured coat over the ribs the vast bandaged

  finger stood out like a symbol of my helplessness.

  It was when I was gazing dully at the finger, the heel of my hand

  resting in an intercostal space, that I felt the faintest flutter from


  I jerked upright with a hoarse cry.

  "His heart's still beating! He's not gone yet!" I began to work on

  the dog with all I had. And out there in the darkness of that lonely

  country road it wasn't much. No stimulant injections, no oxygen

  cylinders or intratracheal tubes. But I depressed his chest with my

  palms every three seconds in the old-fashioned way, willing the dog to

  breathe as the eyes still stared at nothing. Every now and then I blew

  desperately down the throat or probed between the ribs for that almost

  imperceptible beat.

  I don't know which I noticed first, the slight twitch of an eyelid or

  the small lift of the ribs which pulled the icy Yorkshire air into his

  lungs. Maybe they both happened at once but from that moment

  everything was dreamlike and wonderful. I lost count of time as I sat

  there while the breathing became deep and regular and the animal began

  to be aware of his surroundings; and by the time he started to look

  around him and twitch his tail tentatively I realised suddenly that I

  was stiff jointed and almost frozen to the spot.

  With some difficulty I got up and watched in disbelief as the collie

nbsp; staggered to his feet. The young father ushered him round to the back

  where he was received with screams of delight.

  The man seemed stunned. Throughout the recovery he had kept muttering

  "You just flicked that ball out . . . just flicked it out. Why didn't

  I think of that . . . ?" And when he turned to me before leaving he

  appeared to be still in a state of shock.

  "I don't . . . I don't know how to thank you," he said huskily.

  "It's a miracle."

  He leaned against the car for a second.

  "And now what is your fee? How much do I owe you?"

  I rubbed my chin. I had used no drugs. The only expenditure had been


  "Five bob," I said.

  "And never let him play with such a little ball again."

  He handed the money over, shook my hand and drove away. His wife, who

  had never left her place, waved as she left, but my greatest reward was

  in the last shadowy glimpse of the back seat where little arms twined

  around the dog hugging him ecstatically, and in the cries, thankful and

  joyous, fading into the night.

  "Benny ... Benny ... Benny...."

  Vets often wonder after a patient's recovery just how much credit they

  might take. Maybe it would have got better without treatment it

  happened sometimes; it was difficult to be sure.

  But when you know without a shadow of a doubt that, even without doing

  any thing clever, you have pulled an animal back from the brink of

  death into the living, breathing world, it is a satisfaction which

  lingers, flowing like balm over the discomforts and frustrations of

  veterinary practice, making everything right.

  Yet, in the case of Benny the whole thing had an unreal quality. I

  never even glimpsed the faces of those happy children nor that of their

  mother huddled in the front seat. I had a vague impression of their

  father but he had spent most of the time with his head in his hands. I

  wouldn't have known him if I met him in the street. Even the dog, in

  the unnatural glare of the headlights, was a blurred memory.

  It seemed the family had the same feeling because a week later I had a

  pleasant letter from the mother. She apologised for skulking out of

  the way so shamelessly, she thanked me for saving the life of their

  beloved dog who was now prancing around with the children as though

  nothing had happened, and she finished with the regret that she hadn't

  even asked me my name.

  Yes, it had been a strange episode, and not only were those people

  unaware of my name but I'd like to bet they would fail to recognise me

  if they saw me again.

  In fact, loo king back at the affair, the only thing which stood out

  unequivocal and substantial was my great white-bound digit which had

  hovered constantly over the scene, almost taking on a personality and

  significance of its own. I am sure that is what the family remembered

  best about me because of the way the mother's letter began.

  "Dear Vet with the bandaged finger. . ."

  ;5 Chapter Eight My stint in London was nearing its end. Our

  breaking-in weeks were nearly over and we waited for news of posting to

  Initial Training Wing.

  The air was thick with rum ours. We were going to Aberystwyth in

  Wales; too far away for me, I wanted the north. Then we were going to

  New quay in Cornwall; worse still. I was aware that the impending

  birth of AC2 Herriot's child did not influence the general war

  strategy but I still wanted to be as near to Helen as possible at the


  The whole London phase is blurred in my memory. Possibly because

  everything was so new and different that the impressions could not be

  fully absorbed, and also perhaps because I was tired most of the time.

  I think we were all tired.

  Few of us were used to being jerked from slumber at 6 a.m. every

  morning and spending the day in continual physical activity. If we

  weren't being drilled we were being marched to meals, to classes, to

  talks. I had lived in a motor car for a few years and the rediscovery

  of my legs was painful.

  There were times, too, when I wondered what it was all about. Like all

  the other young men I had imagined that after a few brisk preliminaries

  I would be sitting in an aeroplane, learning to fly, but it turned out

  that this was so far in the future that it was hardly mentioned. At

  the ITW we would spend months learning navigation, principles of

  flight, morse and many other things.

  I was thankful for one blessing. I had passed the mathematics exam. I

  have always counted on my fingers and still do and I had been so

  nervous about this that I went to classes with the ATC in Darrow by

  before my call-up, dredging from my school days horrific calculations

  about trains passing each other at different speeds and water running

  in and out of bath tubs. But I had managed to scrape through and felt

  ready to face any thing.

  There were some unexpected shocks in London. I didn't anticipate

  spending days mucking out some of the dirtiest piggeries I had ever

  seen. Somebody must have had the idea of converting all the RAF waste

  food into pork and bacon and of course there was plenty of labour at

  hand. I had a strong feeling of unreality as, with other aspiring

  pilots, I threw muck and swill around hour after hour.

  There was another time I had the same feeling. One night three of us

  decided to go to the cinema. We took pains to get to the front of the

  queue for the evening meal so that we would be in time for the start of

  the picture. When the doors of the huge dining room at the zoo were

  thrown open we were first in, but a sergeant cook met us in the

  entrance with: "I want three volunteers for dishwashing you, you and

  you," and marched us away.

  He probably had a kind heart because he patted our shoulders as we

  climbed miserably into greasy dungarees.

  "Never mind, lads," he said.

  "I'll see you get a real good meal afterwards."

  My friends were taken somewhere else and I found myself alone in a kind

  of dungeon at the end of a metal chute. Very soon dirty plates began

  to cascade down the chute and my job was to knock the food remains off

  them and transfer them to a mechanical washer.

  The menu that night was cottage pie and chips, a combination which has

  remained engraved on my memory. For more than two hours I stood at bay

  while a nonstop torrent of crockery poured down on me; thousands and

  thousands of plates, every one bearing a smear of cottage pie, a blob

  of cold gravy, a few adhering chips.

  As I reeled around in the meaty steam a little tune tinkled

  repetitively in my mind; it was the song Siegfried and I were forever

  singing as we waited to enter the RAF, the popular jingle which in our

  innocence we thought typified the new life ahead.

  "If I only had wings Oh what a difference it would make to things, All

  day long I'd be in the sky, up on high Talking to the birdies that pass

  me by."

  But in this reeking cavern with my hands, face, hair and every pore of

  my skin impregnated with cottage pie and chips, those bird
ies seemed

  far away.

  At last, however, the plates began to slow down and finally stopped


  The sergeant came in beaming and congratulated me on doing a fine job.

  He led me back to the dining hall, vast and empty save for my two

  friends. They both wore bemused, slightly stunned expressions and I am

  pretty sure I looked the same.

  "Sit down here, lads," the sergeant said. We took our places side by

  side in a corner with the bare boards of the table stretching away into

  the distance.


  told you you'd get a real good meal, didn't I? Well, here it is." He

  slid three heaped platefuls in front of us.

  "There yare,"he said.

  "Cottage pie and chips, double help in's!"

  The following day I might have felt more disenchanted than ever, but

  news of the posting blotted out all other feelings. It seemed too good

  to be true I was going to Scar borough. I had been there and I knew it

  as a beautiful seaside resort, but that wasn't why I was so delighted.

  It was because it was in Yorkshire.

  Chapter Nine As we marched out of the station into the streets of Scar

  borough I could hardly believe I was back in Yorkshire. But if there

  had been any doubt in my mind it would have been immediately resolved

  by my first breath of the crisp, tangy air. Even in winter there had


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