Every living thing, p.1
Every Living Thing, p.1James Herriot
To my revered and elderly friends,
Polly and Bodie
A Biography of James Herriot
Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
I AM NEVER AT my best in the early morning, especially a cold morning in the Yorkshire spring with a piercing March wind sweeping down from the fells, finding its way inside my clothing, nipping at my nose and ears. It was a cheerless time, and a particularly bad time to be standing in this cobbled farmyard watching a beautiful horse dying because of my incompetence.
It had started at eight o’clock. Mr. Kettlewell telephoned as I was finishing my breakfast.
“I ’ave a fine big cart-’oss here and he’s come out in spots.”
“Oh, really, what kind of spots?”
“Well, round and flat, and they’re all over ’im.”
“And it started quite suddenly?”
“Aye, he were right as rain last night.”
“All right, I’ll have a look at him right away.” I nearly rubbed my hands. Urticaria. It usually cleared up spontaneously, but an injection hastened the process and I had a new antihistamine drug to try out—it was said to be specific for this sort of thing. Anyway, it was the kind of situation where it was easy for the vet to look good. A nice start to the day.
In the fifties, the tractor had taken over most of the work on the farms, but there was still a fair number of draught horses around, and when I arrived at Mr. Kettlewell’s place I realised that this one was something special.
The farmer was leading him from a loose box into the yard. A magnificent Shire, all of eighteen hands, with a noble head that he tossed proudly as he paced towards me. I appraised him with something like awe, taking in the swelling curve of the neck, the deep-chested body, the powerful limbs abundantly feathered above the massive feet.
“What a wonderful horse!” I gasped. “He’s enormous!”
Mr. Kettlewell smiled with quiet pride. “Aye, he’s a right smasher. I only bought ’im last month. I do like to have a good ’oss about.” He was a tiny man, elderly but sprightly, and one of my favourite farmers. He had to reach high to pat the huge neck and was nuzzled in return. “He’s kind, too. Right quiet.”
“Ah, well, it’s worth a lot when a horse is good-natured as well as good-looking.” I ran my hand over the typical plaques in the skin.
“Yes, this is urticaria, all right.”
“Sometimes it’s called nettle rash. It’s an allergic condition. He may have eaten something unusual, but it’s often difficult to pinpoint the cause.”
“Is it serious?”
“Oh, no. I have an injection that’ll soon put him right. He’s well enough in himself, isn’t he?”
“Aye, right as a bobbin.”
“Good. Sometimes it upsets an animal, but this fellow’s the picture of health.”
As I filled my syringe with the antihistamine I felt that I had never spoken truer words. The big horse radiated health and well-being.
He did not move as I gave the injection, and I was about to put my syringe away when I had another thought. I had always used a proprietary preparation for urticaria and it had invariably worked. Maybe it would be a good idea to supplement the antihistamine, just to make sure. I wanted a good, quick cure for this splendid horse.
I trotted back to my car to fetch the old standby and injected the usual dose. Again the big animal paid no attention and the farmer laughed.
“By gaw, he doesn’t mind, does ’e?”
I pocketed the syringe. “No, I wish all our patients were like him. He’s a grand sort.”
This, I thought, was vetting at its best. An easy, trouble-free case, a nice farmer and a docile patient who was a picture of equine beauty, a picture I could have looked at all day. I didn’t want to go away, though other calls were waiting. I just stood there, half listening to Mr. Kettlewell’s chatter about the imminent lambing season.
“Ah, well,” I said at length, “I must be on my way.” I was turning to go when I noticed that the farmer had fallen silent.
The silence lasted for a few moments, then, “He’s dotherin’ a bit,” he said.
I looked at the horse. There was the faintest tremor in the muscles of the limbs. It was hardly visible, but as I watched, it began to spread upwards, minute by minute, until the skin over the neck, body and rump began to quiver. It was very slight, but there was no doubt it was gradually increasing in intensity.
“What is it?” said Mr. Kettlewell.
“Oh, just a little reaction. It’ll soon pass off.” I was trying to sound airy, but I wasn’t so sure.
With agonising slowness the trembling developed into a generalised shaking of the entire frame, and this steadily increased in violence as the farmer and I stood there in silence. I seemed to have been there a long time, trying to look calm and unworried, but I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This sudden, inexplicable transition—there was no reason for it. My heart began to thump and my mouth turned dry as the shaking was replaced by great shuddering spasms that racked the horse’s frame, and his eyes, so serene a short while ago, started from his head in terror, while foam began to drop from his lips. My mind raced. Maybe I shouldn’t have mixed those injections, but it couldn’t have this fearful effect. It was impossible.
As the seconds passed, I felt I couldn’t stand much more of this. The blood hammered in my ears. Surely he would start to recover soon—he couldn’t get worse.
I was wrong. Almost imperceptibly the huge animal began to sway. Only a little at first, then more and more till he was tilting from side to side like a mighty oak in a gale. Oh, dear God, he was going to go down and that would be the end. And that end had to come soon. The cobbles shook under my feet as the great horse crashed to the ground. For a few moments he lay there, stretched on his side, his feet pedalling convulsively, then he was still.
Well, that was it. I had killed this magnificent horse. It was impossible, unbelievable, but a few minutes ago that animal had been standing there in all his strength and beauty and I had come along with my clever new medicines and now there he was, dead.
What was I going to say? I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Kettlewell, I just can’t understand how this happened. My mouth opened, but nothing came out, not even a croak. And, as though looking at a picture from the outside, I became aware of the square of farm buildings with the dark, snow-streaked fells rising behind under a lowering sky, of the biting wind, the farmer and myself, and the motionless body of the horse.
I felt chilled to the bone and miserable, but I had to say my piece. I took a long, quavering breath and was about to speak when the horse raised his head slightly. I said nothing, nor did Mr. Kettlewell, as the big animal eased himself onto his chest, looked around for a few seconds and got to his feet. He shook his head, then walked across to his master. The recovery was just as quick, just as incredible, as the devastating collapse, and he showed no ill effects from his crashing fall onto the cobbled yard.
The farmer reached up and patted the horse’s neck.
“You know, Mr. Herriot, them spots have nearly gone!”
I went over and had a look. “That’s right. You can hardly see them now.”
Mr. Kettlewell shook his head wonderingly. “Aye, well, it’s a wonderful new treatment. But I’ll tell tha summat. I hope you don’t mind me sayin’ this, but”—he put his hand on my arm and looked up into my face—“ah think it’s just a bit drastic.”
I drove away from the farm and pulled up my car in the lee of a dry-stone wall. A great weariness had descended upon me. This sort of thing wasn’t good for me. I was getting on in years now—well into my thirties—and I couldn’t stand these shocks like I used to. I tipped the driving mirror down and had a look at myself. I was a bit pale, but not as ghastly white as I felt. Still, the feeling of guilt and bewilderment persisted, and with it the recurring thought that there must be easier ways of earning a living than as a country veterinary surgeon. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, rough, dirty and peppered with traumatic incidents like that near catastrophe back there. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes.
When I opened them a few minutes later, the sun had broken through the clouds, bringing the green hillsides and the sparkling ridges of snow to vivid life, painting the rocky outcrops with gold. I wound the window down and breathed in the cold, clean air, drifting down, fresh and tangy, from the moorland high above. A curlew cried, breaking the enveloping silence, and on the grassy bank by the roadside I saw the first primroses of spring.
Peace began to steal through me. Maybe I hadn’t done anything wrong with Mr. Kettlewell’s horse. Maybe antihistamines did sometimes cause these reactions. Anyway, as I started the engine and drove away, the old feeling began to well up in me and within minutes it was running strong; it was good to be able to work with animals in this thrilling countryside; I was lucky to be a vet in the Yorkshire Dales.
THERE IS NO DOUBT that a shock to the system heightens the perception, because as I drove away from Mr. Kettlewell’s with my heart still fluttering to begin the rest of my morning round it was as though I was seeing everything for the first time. In my daily work I was always aware of the beauty around me and had never lost the sense of wonder that had filled me when I had my first sight of Yorkshire, but this morning the magic of the Dales was stronger than ever.
My eyes strayed again and again over the towering flanks of the fells, taking in the pattern of walled green fields won from the yellow moorland grass, and I gazed up at the high tops with the thrill of excitement that always came down to me from that untrodden land.
After visiting one isolated farm I couldn’t resist pulling my car off the unfenced road and climbing with my beagle, Dinah, to the high country that beckoned me. The snow had disappeared almost overnight, leaving only runnels of white lying behind the walls, and it was as though all the scents of the earth and growing things had been imprisoned and were released now by the spring sunshine in waves of a piercing sweetness. When I reached the summit I was breathless and gulped the crystal air greedily as though I could never get enough of it.
Here there was no evidence of the hand of man, and I walked with my dog among miles of heather, peat hags and bog pools with the black waters rippling and the tufts of rushes bending and swaying in the eternal wind.
As the cloud shadows, racing on the wind, flew over me, trailing ribbons of shade and brightness over the endless browns and greens, I felt a rising exhilaration at just being up there on the roof of Yorkshire. It was an empty landscape where no creature stirred and all was silent except for the cry of a distant bird, and yet I felt a further surge of excitement in the solitude, a tingling sense of the nearness of all creation.
As always, the siren song of the lonely uplands tempted me to stay, but the morning was wearing on and I had several more farms to visit.
It was with a lingering feeling of fulfilment that I finished my last call and headed for my town of Darrowby. Its square church tower pushed above the tumbled roofs of the little town as I came down the dale and soon I was driving through the cobbled market-place with the square of fretted roofs above the shops and pubs that served its three thousand inhabitants.
In the far corner I turned down Trengate, the street of our surgery, and drew up at the three storeys of mellow brick and climbing ivy of Skeldale House, my work place and happy home where my wife, Helen, and I had brought up our children.
The memories came back of the unforgettable times when my partner, Siegfried, and his inimitable brother, Tristan, had lived and laughed there with me in our bachelor days, but now they were both married and with their families in their own homes. Tristan had joined the Ministry of Agriculture, but Siegfried was still my partner, and for the thousandth time I thanked heaven that both the brothers were still my close friends.
My son, Jimmy, was ten now and daughter, Rosie, six, and they were at school, but Siegfried was coming down the steps, stuffing bottles into his pockets.
“Ah, James,” he cried. “I’ve just taken a message for you. One of your most esteemed clients—Mrs. Bartram. Puppy is in need of your services.” He was grinning as he spoke.
I smiled ruefully in reply. “Oh, fine. You didn’t fancy going there yourself, did you?”
“No, no, my boy. Wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the pleasure.” He waved cheerfully and climbed into his car.
I looked at my watch. I still had half an hour before lunch and Puppy was only walking distance away. I got my bag and set off.
The heavenly aroma of fish and chips drifted out on the spring air and I felt a quick stab of hunger as I looked through the shop window at the white-coated figures with their wire scoops, lifting out the crisply battered haddocks and laying them out to drain by the golden mounds of chips, those enticing morsels lovingly known in America as “French-fried potatoes.”
The lunch-time trade was brisk and the queue moved steadily round the shop, gathering up the newspaper-wrapped parcels, some customers hurrying home with them, others shaking on salt and vinegar before an alfresco meal in the street.
I always had my gastric juices titillated when I visited Mrs. Bartram’s dog in the flat above the fish and chip shop, and I took another rewarding breath as I went down the alley and climbed the stairs.
Mrs. Bartram was in her usual chair in the kitchen; fat, massive, deadpan, the invariable cigarette dangling from her lips. She was throwing chips from a bag in her lap to her dog, Puppy, sitting opposite. He caught them expertly one after the other.
Puppy belied his name. He was an enormous, shaggy creature of doubtful ancestry and with a short temper. I always treated him with respect.
“He’s still rather fat, Mrs. Bartram,” I said. “Haven’t you tried to change his diet as I advised? Remember I said he shouldn’t really be fed solely on fish and chips.”
She shrugged and a light shower of ash fell on her blouse. “Oh, aye, ah did for a bit. I cut out the chips and just gave ’im fish every day, but he didn’t like it. Loves his chips, ’e does.”
“I see.” I
In fact, as I looked at the two, they had a great similarity sitting there, bolt upright, facing each other. Both huge, immobile, but giving an impression of latent power.
Often fat dogs were lazy and good-natured, but a long succession of postmen, newsboys and door-to-door salesmen had had to take desperate evasive action as Puppy turned suddenly into a monster baying at their heels, and I had one vivid memory of a brush vendor cycling unhurriedly down the alley with his wares dangling from the handlebars, slowing down outside the flat, then, when Puppy catapulted into the street, taking off like the winner of the Tour de France.
“Well, what’s the trouble, Mrs. Bartram?” I asked, changing the subject.
“It’s ’is eye. Keeps runnin’.”
“Ah, yes, I see.” The big dog’s left eye was almost completely closed, and a trickle of discharge made a dark track down the hair of his face. It made his appearance even more sinister. “There’s some irritation there, probably an infection.”
It would have been nice to find the cause. There could be a foreign body in there or just a spot of conjunctivitis. I reached out my hand to pull the eyelid down but Puppy, without moving, fixed me with his good eye and drew his lips back from a row of formidable teeth.
I withdrew my hand. “Yes…yes…I’ll have to give you some antibiotic ointment and you must squeeze a little into his eye three times a day. You’ll be able to do that, won’t you?”
“Course I will. He’s as gentle as an awd sheep.” Expressionlessly she lit another cigarette from the old one and drew the smoke down deeply. “Ah can do anything with ’im.”
“Good, good.” As I rummaged in my bag for the ointment I had the old feeling of defeat, but there was nothing else for it. It was always long-range treatment with Puppy. I had never tried anything silly like taking his temperature, in fact I’d never laid a finger on him in my life.
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