Let sleeping vets lie, p.16
Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.16James Herriot
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The arrangement with Ewan Ross had worked out very well. It meant a lot
of driving for me; twenty-five miles to Scarburn, then a full day round
the farms in that area followed by the run back to Darrowby at night,
but I enjoyed working up there on the airy summit of Yorkshire and
meeting a fresh community of farmers who, like all hillmen, seemed to
vie with each other in hospitality. In their rough, flagged kitchens I
ate superb meals which belied their modest description of 'a bit o"
dinner" and it was almost routine for me to bring home a parcel of
butter, a few eggs, sometimes an exquisite piece of spare rib.
Of course I realise I was lucky. At the commencement of the Tuberculin
Testing Scheme there was a nice incentive bonus on the milk or on the
numbers of cattle and I appeared on the farms almost as a bringer of
bounty. In later years when attestation became universal the stock
owners came to regard the tests as a necessary nuisance, but, as I say,
I was lucky - I was in on the honeymoon period.
The arrangement suited Siegfried, too. Certainly he had to work hard on
the days when I was away but it brought in some welcome revenue to the
And best of all it suited Ewan, because without doing a single thing or
even thinking about it he had a Ministry cheque on his breakfast table
every quarter. This was absolutely tailored to his personality because
nothing would ever have induced him to spend hours in routine work, then
go home and fill in forms with long columns of descriptions and ages and
When he had to do a job he did it magnificently. And he did it with such
care - always boiling up before he left the house and wrapping syringes
and instruments in his strips of clean brown paper of which he must have
had an endless supply. But if he could get away with it he stayed at
home. In fact, after lunch every day he took off his shoes, put on his
slippers and got down by the fireside. Once he was there it took
something spectacular to shift him.
I have seen him sitting there smoking while Ginny answered the phone to
farmers who wanted his services.
"Och, it'll do tomorrow," he would say.
Not for him the sweat of fighting the clock, the panic of urgent calls
coming in from opposite directions, the tightening ball of tension in
the stomach when the work began to pile up. No, no, he put on his
slippers, rolled cigarettes, and let it all flow past him.
He had only a mild interest in the work we did in Darrowby but he was
fascinated by the funny things that happened to us. He dearly loved to
listen to my accounts of the various contretemps at Skeldale House and,
strangely, he wanted to hear them again and again almost as a child
would. Often, as he lay back in his chair with the smoke rising from his
twisted little cigarette he would say suddenly in his soft
"Tell me about the rubber suit."
I must have told him that tale twenty times before but it made no
difference. He would gaze fixedly at me as I went through the story
again and though his expression hardly changed his shoulders would begin
to shake silently and the pale blue eyes to brim with tears.
Looking back I often wonder who was right - Ewan or all the successful
vets who gave themselves ulcers dashing round in circles. I do know that
he enjoyed a deference from his clients which I never encountered
elsewhere. Perhaps there is a lesson somewhere in the fact that he
received grateful thanks if he went to an animal the same day he was
called, whereas Siegfried and I who tried to get to a case within twenty
minutes were greeted with 'what kept you?" if we took half an hour.
There was another advantage to Ewan in having me to do his testing; he
was able to pass on occasional private jobs to me while I was on the
farms and as the weeks passed he began to use me more and more as a
general assistant. It became commonplace for the farmers to say, "Oh,
and Mr. Ross said would you take some nanberries or a stirk's belly
while you're here," or "Will you inject some calves for scour? Mr. Ross
rang and said you were coming." One morning I was startled to find a
couple of strapping two-year-old horses waiting for me to castrate
standing before I commenced the day's work.
If the farmers had any objection to a young stranger doing their work
they never voiced it. Whatever Ewan did or arranged was right with them;
in fact there didn't seem to be much they wouldn't do for him.
This was brought home to me forcibly one night. I had had a particularly
rough day in the Scarburn district. Herds which I thought had about
twenty animals turned out to have fifty or sixty and these were
scattered around in little buildings miles apart on the fell-sides.
There was only one way to get to them - you walked; and while this might
have been enjoyable in good weather it had been a lowering late autumn
day with a gusting wind scouring the flattened grass and almost piercing
my bones like the first quick gleam of winter's teeth. It had almost
And on top of that I had had a wider than usual selection of Ewan's
private jobs; a couple of cleansings, a farrowing, a few pregnancy
diagnoses; all jacket-off jobs which left my arms raw and painful. I
must have tested about four hundred unyielding bovines, elbowing and
squeezing between their craggy bodies, and it seemed almost too much
that just when I was turning away from the very last cow of the day she
should kick me resoundingly just behind the knee. This farewell gesture
dropped me in a moaning heap on the byre floor and it was some minutes
before I was able to hobble away.
The journey back to Darrowby had seemed interminable and it didn't help
at all when I got home and found that Siegfried was out and there were a
few more calls left for me in our own practice. When I finally crawled
into bed I had nothing left to offer.
It was just after midnight when the bedside phone rang. With a feeling
of disbelief I recognised Ewan's voice - what the devil could he
possibly want with me at this hour?
"Hello, Jim, sorry to disturb you." The words seemed to reach out and
"That's all right, Ewan, what can I do for you?" I said trying to sound
casual but gripping the sheets tightly with my free hand.
Ewan paused for a moment. "Well now I'm in a wee bit of bother here.
It's a calving."
The window rattled as the wind buffeted the glass. "A calving?" I
"Yes, a big cow with a great long pelvis and the calf's head is back.
I've been trying for an hour but I'm damned if I can reach it - my arm's
not long enough."
"Ah yes, I've a very short arm myself," I babbled. "I know just how you
feel. I'm no good when it comes to jobs like that."
A soft chuckle came over the line. "Oh I don't want your arm, Jim, it's
"That's right. Remember you were telling me what a wonderful instrument
Why couldn't I keep my big mouth shut? My mind began to hunt round
desperately for a way of escape.
"But Ewan, you'd kill the calf. An embryotome isn't indicated in a case
"This calf's dead and stinking, Jim. All I want is to get its head off
to save the cow."
I was trapped. I didn't say anything more but lay quivering, waiting for
the terrible words which I knew were coming.
They came all right. "Just slip out here and do it for me will you,
As I tottered from my bed I became aware immediately that the knee where
I had been kicked had stiffened up and I could hardly bend it. In the
darkness of the garden the dead leaves crunched softly under my feet and
when I reached the yard the wind roared in the elms, tearing the last
leaves from the branches and hurling them past my face like driven snow
Huddled over the wheel, my head nodding with weariness, I drove out of
the town. My destination was Hutton House, a farm about five miles on
the other side of Scarburn, and I muttered feebly to myself as I peered
through the windscreen.
"Just slip out here!" he says. "Just slip out thirty bloody miles over
narrow twisting roads and get down on your belly and knock your guts
out!" Damn Ewan Ross, and damn his Highland charm and his Highland
indolence. I was like a bloody little shuttlecock - back and forth, back
and forth. And I was absolutely whacked and my arms were sore and my
knee ached. Almost whimpering with self pity I bemoaned my lot. This
country vetting was a mug's game. I should have been a doctor, my mother
always wanted me to be a doctor, and I wouldn't have to drive thirty
miles to a cold cow house but just pop round the corner into a nice warm
bedroom and pat the hand of some sweet old lady and dole out a few pills
then back within minutes to my bed - my deep, deep, soft, soft bed ...
I lurched suddenly into wakefulness as the car careered straight for the
roadside wall. Gripping the wheel tightly, feeling the wind pulling
against the steering, I decided that the main thing was not to fall
asleep. It wasn't easy; there was a numbing sameness about the miles of
walls, the endless strip of road rolling out before me, but finally,
after about an hour, I chugged into Scarburn and for a few moments my
headlights swept across the unheeding tight-shut face of the little
town. Then the last five miles with the engine fighting against the
rising ground before I drew up outside the gate of Hutton House.
I should say the first gate because there were four along the track
leading to the pin point of light high on the fellside. And at each gate
the wind, whipping straight from the north, tugged fiercely at the car
door as I got out and each time as I turned away from the headlights the
fields were lost in the blackness and there was only the cold glitter of
stars in a clean-swept sky.
At last the huddle of farm buildings lay before me and I drove up to the
chink of brightness which came from the byre door. Even here in the yard
the wind tore at me as I wrestled with the boot. Gasping, I lifted out
my wellingtons, bottle of antiseptic and the accursed embryotome and
hurried over to the low building.
Inside, all was peace; a delicious warmth rising from the long row of
somnolent cows, my patient propped on her chest between two bales, Mr.
Hugill, the stooping, wrinkled farmer and Ewan sitting comfortably
cross-legged, smoking one of his funny cigarettes. He was sitting in a
chair, too - they had even brought a chair out here for him - and in the
light of the big oil lamp he looked across at me without speaking for a
moment then he gave me his shy smile.
"Jim, it's good of you to come. I've had a damn hard try but I know when
I'm beat. I can tell you you're a sight for sore eyes walking in that
Mr. Hugill chuckled. "Aye, we're badly in need of a bit o'young blood on
Suddenly I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I didn't care about the
long journey, about being winkled from my delectable bed. But I didn't
feel much like young blood as I stripped off, knelt down gingerly on my
stiff knee and thrust an arm, chaffed red and tingling from the
antiseptic, into the cow.
I realised straight away what Ewan meant. This cow did have a hell of a
long pelvis. The calf's feet were in the passage and the head was tucked
away back . along the ribs somewhere. I had to surmise this because at
full stretch I could just reach the cleft made by the flexion of the
neck. There was no chance of straightening it out, so my task was clear;
I had to get an embryotomy wire down that cleft and round the neck so
that I could cut off the head.
This was one of those carvings without the true savour; without the
rewarding sight of a new living creature at the finish. But sometimes it
happened like this. The calf I was feeling had been dead for about
twenty-four hours judging by the sweetish smell and the emphysematous
crackling under the skin, and had to be regarded simply as a piece of
inanimate tissue which had to be removed or the mother would surely die
of septicaemia or have to be slaughtered. As though divining my thoughts
the cow laid her head along her side, looked at me and moaned softly.
She had the bonny white face of the Hereford Cross and she looked sick;
she wanted rid of that thing inside her more than anybody.
The usual procedure is to pass a cord round the part to be cut off and
then pull the wire through; but it isn't as easy as that. It is one
thing pushing it into a tight space but quite another thing finding it
at the other side. Fortunately some intelligent chap who clearly knew
what calving was all about had come ~ up with a simple invention - a
heavy lead weight with a small hole at one end j for the cord and a
bigger one at the other end for your finger.
I fished my weight out now and again pushed an arm alongside the dry
legs and up to the cleft in the neck. By straining to the limit I
managed to force the weight forward and felt it fall down into the
cleft. I came out of the cow now i and carefully soaped my arm. This was
the moment of truth. If I could get hold of the weight on the underside
of the neck and pull it through with the cord attached the rest was
easy. The job was over in fact. If I couldn't reach it all was lost.
Again down on the cobbles and again the long reach between the calf's
legs and the clinging vaginal wall right forward beneath the twisted
neck where my lead weight just had to be. It wasn't there. Digging my
toes between the stones on the floor I fought for another inch and
managed to pass my fingers up into the cleft. Still nothing. The weight
hadn't fallen through - it was stuck up there, probably a fraction above
my groping fingers; and my hopes were stuck with ~t.
I went back to the bucket and soaped the other arm. Sometimes t
worked. But the result was the same; a desperate fumbling at nothing.
Not for the first time I cursed the accident of anatomy which had given
me a short arm. Siegfried with his slender build and long reach would
have been putting his jacket on by now, all ready to go home.
But there was nothing else for it but to fight on - and I wasn't in
shape for fighting. Even a man in peak condition can't spend much time
inside a cow L ~Without having the blood squeezed relentlessly from his
arm by the uterine Contractions" but when he starts as I did from a
point of maximum fragility it is really no contest. It took only about a
minute for my arm to be reduced to something like a stalk of asparagus
with useless twitching fingers on the end. I had to keep changing round
faster and faster till I was flopping on the cobbles like a stranded
fish. And all the time it was getting worse in there; drier, more
clinging, everything closing down till I could hardly move, never mind
get my hand on that precious lead weight.
I must have gone on like this for the best part of an hour before the
futility of it became plain. I had to try something else. Hoisting
myself on to my knees I turned round.
"Mr. Hugill, would you please bring me some warm water in another
As the farmer hurried from the byre I turned to Ewan.
"It's that bloody weight," I said. "I expected it to fall straight down
but it hasn't. The bend in the neck must be so tight the thing can't get
through. I'm going to pump some water in to see if it'll open things up
Ewan looked with compassion at my sweating face and sagging jaw, at the
Let Sleeping Vets Lie by James Herriot / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes