Let sleeping vets lie, p.13
Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.13James Herriot
trust him an inch."
"And how," I asked without enthusiasm, 'am I supposed to get a sample of
blood from him?"
"Oh I'll trap his head in yon corner." Harry pointed to a metal yoke
above a trough in an opening into the yard at the far side of the box.
"I'll give him some meal to 'tice him in." He went back down the passage
and soon I could see him out in the yard scooping meal into the trough.
The bull at first took no notice and continued to prod at the wall with
his horns, then he turned with awesome slowness, took a few unhurried
steps across the box and put his nose down to the trough. Harry, out of
sight in the yard, pulled the lever and the yoke crashed shut on the
"All right," the farmer cried, hanging on to the lever, "I have 'im. You
can go in now."
I opened the door and entered the box and though the bull was held fast
by the head there was still the uneasy awareness that he and I were
alone in the t small space together. And as I passed along the massive
body and put my hand on the neck I sensed a quivering emanation of pent
up power and rage. Digging my fingers into the jugular furrow I watched
the vein rise up and poised my needle. It would take a good hard thrust
to pierce that leathery skin.
The bull stiffened but did not move as I plunged the needle in and with
relief I saw the blood flowing darkly into the syringe. Thank God I had
hit the vein first time and didn't have to start poking around. I was
withdrawing the needle and thinking that the job had been so simple
after all when everything started to happen. The bull gave a tremendous
bellow and whipped round at me with no trace of his former lethargy. I
saw that he had got one horn out of the yoke and though he couldn't
reach me with his head his shoulder knocked me on my back with a
terrifying revelation of unbelievable strength. I heard Harry shouting
from outside and as I scrambled up and headed for the box door I saw
that the madly plunging creature had almost got his second horn clear
and when I reached the passage I heard the clang of the yoke as he
finally freed himself.
Anybody who has travelled a narrow passage a few feet ahead of about a
ton of snorting, pounding death will appreciate that I didn't dawdle. I
was spurred on by the certain knowledge that if Monty caught me he would
plaster me against the wall as effortlessly as I would squash a ripe
plum, and though I was clad in a long oilskin coat and Wellingtons I
doubt whether an olympic sprinter in full running kit would have
bettered my time.
I made the door at the end with a foot to spare, dived through and
crashed it shut. The first thing I saw was Harry Sumner running round
from the outside of the box. He was very pale. I couldn't see my face
but it felt pale; even my lips were cold and numb.
"God, I'm sorry!" Harry said hoarsely. "The yoke couldn't have closed
properly - that bloody great neck of his. The lever just jerked out of
my hand. Damn, I'm glad to see you - I thought you were a goner!"
I looked down at my hand. The blood-filled syringe was still tightly
clutched there. "Well I've got my sample anyway, Harry. And it's just as
well, because ;
it Would take some fast talking to get me in there to try for another.
I'm afraid you've just seen the end of a beautiful friendship." Y aye,
the big sod!" Harry listened for a few moments to the thudding of
Monty's horns against the door. "And after all you did for him. That's
gratitude for you.
I suppose if it hadn't been for the Tuberculin Testing scheme I'd never
have come to know Ewan and Ginny Ross.
Siegfried broached the matter to me one morning as I was making up some
colic mixture in the dispensary.
"All this extra testing work is a bit much for a one-man practice,
especially when it's an older man. Ewan Ross has been on the phone
asking me if I could help him and we've thrashed out a plan which could
benefit us both. But it depends on you."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, would you be willing to go up to Scarburn and do his testing say
three days a week? Ewan and I would split the proceeds and you'd get a
little cut too."
I screwed a cork into the last bottle. "It's all right with me. I'd
enjoy a bit of fresh country. It's real wild up there - about
twenty-five miles away isn't it?"
"Just about. It is a bit bleak, but it's beautiful in fine weather. And
I'm sure you'll get on with Ewan."
"I've heard quite a lot about him." I laughed. "They say he'd rather
settle down with a bottle than work.", Siegfried turned a level gaze on
me. "They say a lot things but he's a good friend of mine and just about
the best veterinary surgeon I've ever seen." He paused for a moment then
went on. "I want you to go up there tomorrow to meet him, then you can
judge for yourself."
As I drove out next morning I reflected on the snippets which had come
through to me about Ewan Ross. I didn't know all that much about him;
twenty-five miles was enough to make him remote from my own working area
and in any case hard drinking and wild behaviour were the norm among the
older members of the profession. The more recent graduates were a
different type altogether; more scientifically orientated, more
conscious of professional standards; but the men who had been on the go
for twenty years or more, many of them ex-servicemen, were a
hard-bitten, rugged lot of characters. Most of them had had a hell of a
life, working single-handed through the years when times were hard,
money short and the work at its roughest and I suppose they just had to
erupt now and then.
Ewan Ross, it was said, would incarcerate himself in some village pub
and go on a bender lasting days on end until his wife finally managed to
winkle him out and entice him back to his practice. People said, too,
that he liked to challenge big farm men in bars to 'take a hold" - to
shake hands with him and have a test of grip which usually finished with
the big man on the floor. There were tales, too, of brushes with the
police - he'd lost his licence for a while for being drunk m charge of a
car - and other things.
The scene beyond my car windows was changing all the time as I drove.
The Dales country around Darrowby was softened by the trees which lined
the valley floors and by the lush, level pastures by the rivers where
they wandered among leisurely shallows. But this was the high Pennines,
the harsh, wind-blown roof of England, almost treeless with only the
endless miles of dry stone walls climbing and cries-crossing over the
And, driving into Scarburn, it occurred to me that this was just the
sort of place some seedy character would want to hole up. It was only
too easy to picture the broken-down vet and his harassed, blowsy wife. I
had always thought Darrowby was quiet and a bit rough-hewn but it was a
sophisticated metropolis compared to Scarburn.
On this windy, sunl
around the steeply sloping market place seemed in danger of sliding down
the high fell on which it was perched. I drove past the ironmonger's,
the Methodist Chapel, a draper's with a few dowdy clothes in the window,
the Temperance Hotel; there was no attempt at adornment or softness
anywhere and apart from a few muffled women battling against the wind
the streets were empty.
I found the veterinary surgeon's plate on a small modern house about two
hundred yards beyond the market place and knocked at the door. I had a
fairly clear mental image by now of my colleague within; needing a
shave, running to fat, the smell of whisky about him, and as the door
opened I drew in my breath in anticipation.
A tallish, heavy-shouldered man stood there. The face, ruddy and
handsome with pale blue friendly eyes, could have been that of a young
man but for the swathes of silver in the sandy hair above it. The suit
of soft brown tweed hung gracefully on his lean frame. He held out his
"You'll be James Herriot. Come away in." The voice had the lilt of the
Scottish Highlands with something else in it.
He led the way into the kitchen where a woman was standing by the stove.
"Ginny," he called. "Come and meet Siegfried's right hand man, young Mr.
Virginia Ross turned her head and looked at me.
"Hello," she said. "You're just in time for coffee." And she gave me a
crooked smile with one eyebrow slightly raised which had an
extraordinary effect. Over the years I knew her she always looked at me
like that - as though I was a quite pleasant but amusing object - and it
always did the same thing to me. It's difficult to put into words but
perhaps I can best describe it by saying that if I had been a little dog
I'd have gone leaping and gambolling around the room wagging my tail
She would be about ten years younger than Ewan - somewhere in her early
forties - but she had the kind of attractiveness that was ageless. She
filled three mugs with coffee and I sat down at the table with the
feeling that I was with friends. I couldn't count the times I have sat
in that kitchen since that first day, drinking tea or coffee or if I
happened in around lunch time, eating Ginny's delectable food. She was a
cook with the magic touch; in fact as time went on I found she could do
just about anything. She spoke several languages, had read everything,
she painted and embroidered and as I said, she could cook. How she could
cook! She must have had to work on a very tight budget but she managed
to make a poem out of the simplest materials.
Ewan pushed away his mug and stood up. "I've got to operate on a colt
for umbilical hernia. Would you care to come along?"
"Yes," I said. "I'd like that very much."
We went out to a small building alongside the house which was the
surgery and dispensary. There is a fascination in seeing another man's
set-up and I browsed happily along the shelves and tables. There isn't
nearly so much fun in doing this nowadays because vets all use the same
drugs - a narrow variation in the range of antibiotics, sulphonamides
and steroids - but back there in 1939 we were still using the countless
mystical remedies of the dark ages.
And Ewan's selection was even more primitive than ours at Darrowby,
Physic balls, electuaries, red blister, stimulant draught, ammonia
powders, cooling lotions" alterative mixture, Donovan's solution; and a
lot of Ewan's own pet ideas with a whiff of black magic about them; like
his paste of arsenic and soft soap which you smeared on a length of
twine and tied round the necks of tumours where it was supposed to eat
its way through.
As I wandered round I watched him preparing for the operation. He didn't
seem to have a steriliser but he was methodically boiling the
instruments in a saucepan on a gas ring. Then he took them out with
forceps and carefully wrapped them one by one in sheets of clean brown
paper. He was a picture of unhurried calm.
It was the same when we got to the farm. Ewan paced about the field till
he found a perfectly level spot where the grass was long and soft, then
he pottered along" peering closely at the ground, throwing aside a few
small stones which were lurking there. When he was satisfied he made a
table out of a couple of straw bales, covered it with a clean sheet and
laid out his instruments on it meticulously. Next to the bales he
stationed a bucket of hot water, soap and towel and finally produced a
beautiful soft white rope tied in a neat coil. Only then did he allow
the colt to be led out.
I must have looked a bit open-mouthed because he grinned and said, "I
never start anything till I've set my stall out properly."
What struck me was the difference from my boss in Darrowby. Siegfried
would never have had the patience to go through all this procedure; his
system was based on Napoleon's dictum of "On s'engage et puis on volt"
and it usually involved a lot of yelling and rushing about. I had to
admit that this was more peaceful.
But I really saw what Ewan was made of when he started to do the job. He
was using the old-fashioned method of casting the horse by sidelines and
trussing him up before administering the chloroform but he did it as I'd
never seen it done before.
The patient was a shaggy little animal with the beginnings of feathers
round his hooves; he was typical of the hundreds of cart colts we had to
deal with every year and he trembled nervously as he looked around him.
Ewan seemed to pacify him immediately with a few soft words as he placed
the rope around his neck then between the hind legs and back through the
neck loop; and when the farm men pulled on the rope he stood by the head
still talking so that the colt collapsed easily on to his grassy bed.
It was an education for me to watch him then, deftly tugging and
knotting till the animal was positioned on his back with his legs tied
together fore to hind and the operation area exposed. Once more Ewan had
set his stall out properly.
He gave me the job of looking after the chloroform muzzle while he
incised the skin, tucked away the hernia and neatly sutured the wound.
He did it all with the firm, almost rough movements of the expert
surgeon and as I watched the strong fingers at work I was reminded again
of the tales of take a hold".
Even when he was finished and had thoroughly cleared away the last drop
of blood and debris from the operation site he still was in no hurry. He
washed and dried his instruments with great deliberation, wrapped them
up again in the sheets of brown paper then sat down on the straw bales
to wait for the colt to come round from the anaesthetic. As he sat
there, perfectly relaxed, he pulled a cigarette paper from his pocket,
tipped a stream of dark brown dusty tobacco into it from a little pouch,
rolled the paper effortlessly with one hand, licked it, screwed up one
end and thrust it into his mouth.
soft Highland voice.
"Now just pull him on to his chest will you. That's right, put your knee
behind his shoulder and let him rest there for a while. Don't hurry him,
now, he'll get up when he's ready."
He didn't leave for another twenty minutes when the colt gave a final
effort and heaved himself to his feet where he stood shakily, looking
around him in some bewilderment.
"Let him stand there awhile till he's steady on his legs," Ewan said
"Then you can walk him back to his box."
He turned to me. "Well now, there's not a bad little pub in this
village. How about a beer before lunch?"
There was nobody but ourselves in the bar. Ewan took a contented sip of
his half pint then pulled the small pouph again from his pocket. I
watched him again as he rolled another cigarette with one hand.
I laughed. "You know, I've only seen that done by cowboys on the
pictures. Where did you learn the art?"
"Oh that?" Ewan gave his shy smile, "In Canada, a long time ago. It was
the only way I had of getting a smoke for years and I've never got out
of the way of it."
He obviously found difficulty in talking about himself but as we sat I
was able to build a picture of his history. He was a farmer's son from
West Sutherland and even as a small boy he had worked with horses and
been fascinated by them. On leaving school he had, like many other
restless Highlanders, sailed away to seek his fortune. First he tried
Australia where he took a job riding the rabbit fences, then he moved to
Canada and worked on a ranch for years, more or less living in the
Let Sleeping Vets Lie by James Herriot / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes