James herriots dog stori.., p.11
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       James Herriot's Dog Stories, p.11

           James Herriot

  Leaving my measuring stick there, I looked around for a while.

  A country show is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Riding horses of all kinds from small ponies to hunters were being galloped up and down and in one ring the judges hovered around a group of mares and their beautiful little foals.

  In a corner four men armed with buckets and brushes were washing and grooming a row of young bulls with great concentration, twiddling and crimping the fuzz over the rumps like society hairdressers.

  Wandering through the marquees I examined the bewildering variety of produce from stalks of rhubarb to bunches of onions, the flower displays, embroidery, jams, cakes, pies. And the children’s section: a painting of ‘The Beach at Scarborough’ by Annie Heseltine, aged nine; rows of wobbling copperplate handwriting – ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’, Bernard Peacock, aged twelve.

  But my attention was jerked away as a group of people walked across on the far side of the band. It was Helen with Richard Edmundson and behind them Mr Alderson and Richard’s father deep in conversation. The young man walked very close to Helen, his shining, plastered-down fair hair hovering possessively over her dark head, his face animated as he talked and laughed.

  There were no clouds in the sky but it was as if a dark hand had reached across and smudged away the brightness of the sunshine. I turned quickly and went in search of Tristan.

  I soon picked out my colleague as I hurried into the marquee with ‘Refreshments’ over the entrance. He was leaning with an elbow on the makeshift counter of boards and trestles, chatting contentedly with a knot of cloth-capped locals, a Woodbine in one hand, a pint glass in the other. There was a general air of earthy bonhomie. Drinking of a more decorous kind would be taking place at the president’s bar behind the stewards’ headquarters with pink gins or sherry as the main tipple but here it was beer, bottled and draught, and the stout ladies behind the counter were working with the fierce concentration of people who knew they were in for a hard day.

  ‘Yes, I saw her,’ Tristan said when I gave him my news. ‘In fact there she is now.’ He nodded in the direction of the family group as they strolled past the entrance. ‘I’ve had my eye on them for some time – I don’t miss much from in here you know, Jim.’

  ‘Ah well.’ I accepted a half of bitter from him. ‘It all looks pretty cosy. The two dads like blood brothers and Helen hanging on to that bloke’s arm.’

  Tristan squinted over the top of his pint at the scene outside and shook his head. ‘Not exactly. He’s hanging on to HER arm.’ He looked at me judicially. ‘There’s a difference, you know.’

  ‘I don’t suppose it makes much difference to me either way,’ I grunted.

  ‘Well don’t look so bloody mournful.’ He took an effortless swallow which lowered the level in his glass by about six inches. ‘What do you expect an attractive girl to do? Sit at home waiting for you to call? If you’ve been pounding on her door every night you haven’t told me about it.’

  ‘It’s all right you talking. I think old man Alderson would set his dogs on me if I showed up there. I know he doesn’t like me hanging around Helen and on top of that I’ve got the feeling he thinks I killed his cow on my last visit.’

  ‘And did you?’

  ‘No, I didn’t. But I walked up to a living animal, gave it an injection and it promptly died, so I can’t blame him.’

  I took a sip at my beer and watched the Alderson party who had changed direction and were heading away from our retreat. Helen was wearing a pale blue dress and I was thinking how well the colour went with the deep brown of her hair and how I liked the way she walked with her legs swinging easily and her shoulders high and straight when the loudspeaker boomed across the show ground.

  ‘Will Mr Herriot, Veterinary Surgeon, please report to the stewards immediately.’

  It made me jump but at the same time I felt a quick stab of pride. It was the first time I had heard myself and my profession publicly proclaimed.

  A glow of importance filled me as I hurried over the grass, my official badge with ‘Veterinary Surgeon’ in gold letters dangling from my lapel, A steward met me on the way.

  ‘It’s one of the cattle. Had an accident, I think.’ He pointed to a row of pens along the edge of the field.

  A curious crowd had collected around my patient which had been entered in the in-calf heifers class. The owner, a stranger from outside the Darrowby practice, came up to me, his face glum.

  ‘She tripped coming off the cattle wagon and went ’ead first into the wall. Knocked one of ’er horns clean off.’

  The heifer, a bonny little light roan, was a pathetic sight. She had been washed, combed, powdered and primped for the big day and there she was with one horn dangling drunkenly down the side of her face and an ornamental fountain of bright arterial blood climbing gracefully in three jets from the broken surface high into the air.

  The broken horn was connected to the head only by a band of skin and I quickly snipped it away with scissors; then, with the farmer holding the heifer’s nose, I began to probe with my forceps for the severed vessels. In the bright sunshine it was surprisingly difficult to see the spurting blood and as the little animal threw her head about I repeatedly felt the warm spray across my face and heard it spatter on my collar.

  It was when I was beginning to lose heart with my ineffectual groping that I looked up and saw Helen and her boyfriend watching me from the crowd. Young Edmundson looked mildly amused as he watched my unavailing efforts but Helen smiled encouragingly as she caught my eye. I did my best to smile back at her through my bloody mask but I don’t suppose it showed.

  I gave it up when the heifer gave a particularly brisk toss which sent my forceps flying on to the grass. I did what I should probably have done at the beginning – clapped a pad of cotton wool and antiseptic powder on to the stump and secured it with a figure-of-eight bandage round the other horn.

  ‘That’s it, then,’ I said to the farmer as I tried to blink the blood out of my eyes. ‘The bleeding’s stopped, anyway. I’d advise you to have her properly de-horned soon or she’s going to look a bit odd.’

  Just then Tristan appeared from among the spectators.

  ‘What’s got you out of the beer tent?’ I enquired with a touch of bitterness.

  ‘It’s lunch time, old lad,’ Tristan replied equably. ‘But we’ll have to get you cleaned up a bit first. I can’t be seen with you in that condition. Hang on, I’ll get a bucket of water.’

  The show luncheon was so excellent that it greatly restored me. Although it was taken in a marquee the committee men’s wives had somehow managed to conjure up a memorable cold spread. There was fresh salmon and home-fed ham and slices of prime beef with mixed salads and apple pie and the big brimming jugs of cream you only see at farming functions. One of the ladies was a noted cheese-maker and we finished with some delicious goat cheese and coffee. The liquid side was catered for too with a bottle of Magnet Pale Ale and a glass at every place.

  I didn’t have the pleasure of Tristan’s company at lunch because he had strategically placed himself well down the table between two strict Methodists so that his intake of Magnet was trebled.

  I had hardly emerged into the sunshine when a man touched me on the shoulder.

  ‘One of the dog show judges wants you to examine a dog. He doesn’t like the look of it.’

  He led me to where a thin man of about forty with a small dark moustache was standing by his car. He held a wire-haired Fox Terrier on a leash and he met me with an ingratiating smile.

  ‘There’s nothing whatever the matter with my dog,’ he declared, ‘but the chap in there seems very fussy.’

  I looked down at the terrier. ‘I see he has some matter in the corner of his eyes.’

  The man shook his head vigorously. ‘Oh no, that’s not matter. I’ve been using some white powder on him and a bit’s got into his eyes, that’s all.’

  ‘Hmm, well let’s see what his temperature
says, shall we?’

  The little animal stood uncomplaining as I inserted the thermometer. When I took the reading my eyebrows went up.

  ‘It’s a hundred and four. I’m afraid he’s not fit to go into the show.’

  ‘Wait a minute.’ The man thrust out his jaw. ‘You’re talking like that chap in there. I’ve come a long way to show this dog and I’m going to show him.’

  ‘I’m sorry but you can’t show him with a temperature of a hundred and four.’

  ‘But he’s had a car journey. That could put up his temperature.’

  I shook my head. ‘Not as high as that it couldn’t. Anyway he looks sick to me. Do you see how he’s half closing his eyes as though he’s frightened of the light? It’s possible he could have distemper.’

  ‘What? That’s rubbish and you know it. He’s never been fitter!’ The man’s mouth trembled with anger.

  I looked down at the little dog. He was crouching on the grass miserably. Occasionally he shivered, he had a definite photophobia, and there was that creamy blob of pus in the corner of each eye. ‘Has he been inoculated against distemper?’

  ‘Well no, he hasn’t, but why do you keep on about it?’

  ‘Because I think he’s got it now and for his sake and for the sake of the other dogs here you ought to take him straight home and see your own vet.’

  He glared at me. ‘So you won’t let me take him into the show tent?’

  ‘That’s right. I’m very sorry, but it’s out of the question.’ I turned and walked away.

  I had gone only a few yards when the loudspeaker boomed again.

  ‘Will Mr Herriot please go to the measuring stand where the ponies are ready for him.’

  I collected my stick and trotted over to a corner of the field where a group of ponies had assembled: Welsh, Dales, Exmoor, Dartmoor – all kinds of breeds were represented.

  For the uninitiated, horses are measured in hands which consist of four inches, and a graduated stick is used with a cross piece and a spirit level which rests on the withers, the highest point of the shoulders. I had done a fair bit of it in individual animals but this was the first time I had done the job at a show. With my stick at the ready I stood by the two wide boards which had been placed on the turf to give the animals a reasonably level standing surface.

  A smiling young woman led the first pony, a smart chestnut, on to the boards.

  ‘Which class?’ I asked.

  ‘Thirteen hands.’

  I tried the stick on him. He was well under.

  ‘Fine, next please.’

  A few more came through without incident, then there was a lull before the next group came up. The ponies were arriving on the field all the time in their boxes and being led over to me, some by their young riders, others by the parents. It looked as though I could be here quite a long time.

  During one of the lulls a little man who had been standing near me spoke up.

  ‘No trouble yet?’ he asked.

  ‘No, everything’s in order,’ I replied.

  He nodded expressionlessly and as I took a closer look at him his slight body, dark, leathery features and high shoulders seemed to give him the appearance of a little brown gnome. At the same time there was something undeniably horsy about him.

  ‘You’ll ’ave some awkward ’uns,’ he grunted. ‘And they allus say the same thing. They allus tell you the vet at some other show passed their pony.’ His swarthy cheeks crinkled in a wry smile.

  ‘Is that so?’

  ‘Aye, you’ll see.’

  Another candidate, led by a beautiful blonde, was led on to the platform. She gave me the full blast of two big greenish eyes and flashed a mouthful of sparkling teeth at me.

  ‘Twelve two,’ she murmured seductively.

  I tried the stick on the pony and worked it around, but try as I might I couldn’t get it down to that.

  ‘I’m afraid he’s a bit big,’ I said.

  The blonde’s smile vanished. ‘Have you allowed half an inch for his shoes?’

  ‘I have indeed, but you can see for yourself, he’s well over.’

  ‘But he passed the vet without any trouble at Hickley,’ she snapped, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the gnome nodding sagely.

  ‘I can’t help that,’ I said. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to put him into the next class.’

  For a moment two green pebbles from the cold sea bed fixed me with a frigid glare, then the blonde was gone taking her pony with her.

  Next, a little bay animal was led on to the stand by a hard-faced gentleman in a check suit and I must say I was baffled by its behaviour. Whenever the stick touched the withers it sank at the knees so that I couldn’t be sure whether I was getting the right reading or not. Finally I gave up and passed him through.

  The gnome coughed. ‘I know that feller.’

  ‘You do?’

  ‘Aye, he’s pricked that pony’s withers with a pin so many times that it drops down whenever you try to measure ’im.’


  ‘Sure as I’m standing here.’

  I was staggered, but the arrival of another batch took up my attention for a few minutes.

  The last pony in this group was a nice grey led by a bouncy man wearing a great big matey smile.

  ‘How are you, all right?’ he enquired courteously. ‘This ’un’s thirteen two.’

  The animal went under the stick without trouble but after he had trotted away the gnome spoke up again.

  ‘I know that feller, too.’


  ‘Not ’alf. Weighs down ’is ponies before they’re measured. That grey’s been standing in ’is box for the last hour with a twelve-stone sack of corn on ’is back. Knocks an inch off.’

  ‘Good God! Are you sure?’

  ‘Don’t worry, I’ve seen ’im at it.’

  My mind was beginning to reel just a little. Was the man making it all up or were there really these malign forces at work behind all this innocent fun?

  ‘That same feller,’ continued the gnome, ‘I’ve seen ’im bring a pony to a show and get half an inch knocked off for shoes when it never ’ad no shoes on.’

  I wished he’d stop. And just then there was an interruption. It was the man with the moustache. He sidled up to me and whispered confidentially in my ear.

  ‘Now I’ve just been thinking. My dog must have got over his journey by now and I expect his temperature will be normal. I wonder if you’d just try him again. I’ve still got time to show him.’

  I turned wearily. ‘Honestly, it’ll be a waste of time. I’ve told you, he’s ill.’

  ‘Please! Just as a favour.’ He had a desperate look and a fanatical light flickered in his eye.

  ‘All right.’ I went over to the car with him and produced my thermometer. The temperature was still a hundred and four.

  ‘Now I wish you’d take this poor little dog home,’ I said. ‘He shouldn’t be here.’

  For a moment I thought the man was going to strike me. ‘There’s nothing wrong with him!’ he hissed, his whole face working with emotion.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, and went back to the measuring stand.

  A boy of about fifteen was waiting for me with his pony. It was supposed to be in the thirteen two class but was nearly one and a half inches over.

  ‘Much too big, I’m afraid,’ I said. ‘He can’t go in that class.’

  The boy didn’t answer. He put his hand inside his jacket and produced a sheet of paper. ‘This is a veterinary certificate to say he’s under thirteen two.’

  ‘No good, I’m sorry,’ I replied. ‘The stewards have told me not to accept any certificates. I’ve turned down two others today. Everything has to go under the stick. It’s a pity, but there it is.’

  His manner changed abruptly. ‘But you’ve GOT to accept it!’ he shouted in my face. ‘There doesn’t have to be any measurements when you have a certificate.’

  ‘You’d better see the stewards. Those are my i

  ‘I’ll see my father about this, that’s what!’ he shouted and led the animal away.

  Father was quickly on the scene. Big, fat, prosperous-looking, confident. He obviously wasn’t going to stand any nonsense from me.

  ‘Now look here, I don’t know what this is all about but you have no option in this matter. You have to accept the certificate.’

  ‘I don’t, I assure you,’ I answered. ‘And anyway, it’s not as though your pony was slightly over the mark. He’s miles over – nowhere near the height.’

  Father flushed dark red. ‘Well let me tell you he was passed through by the vet at . . .’

  ‘I know, I know,’ I said, and I heard the gnome give a short laugh. ‘But he’s not going through here.’

  There was a brief silence, then both father and son began to scream at me. And as they continued to hurl abuse I felt a hand on my arm. It was the man with the moustache again.

  ‘I’m going to ask you just once more to take my dog’s temperature,’ he whispered with a ghastly attempt at a smile. ‘I’m sure he’ll be all right this time. Will you try him again?’

  I’d had enough. ‘No, I bloody well won’t!’ I barked. ‘Will you kindly stop bothering me and take that poor animal home.’

  It’s funny how the most unlikely things motivate certain people. It didn’t seem a life and death matter whether a dog got into a show or not but it was to the man with the moustache. He started to rave at me.

  ‘You don’t know your job, that’s the trouble with you! I’ve come all this way and you’ve played a dirty trick on me. I’ve got a friend who’s a vet, a proper vet, and I’m going to tell him about you, yes I am. I’m going to tell him about you!’

  At the same time the father and son were still in full cry, snarling and mouthing at me, and I became suddenly aware that I was in the centre of a hostile circle. The blonde was there too, and some of the others whose ponies I had outed, and they were all staring at me belligerently, making angry gestures.

  I felt very much alone because the gnome, who had seemed an ally, was nowhere to be seen. I was disappointed in the gnome; he was a big talker but had vanished at the first whiff of danger. As I surveyed the threatening crowd I moved my measuring stick round in front of me; it wasn’t much of a weapon but it might serve to fend them off if they rushed me.


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