Let sleeping vets lie, p.16
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       Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.16

           James Herriot


  :d .)

  ~.] ~3 :l f~

  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

  Highland-Canadian voice.

  "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

  stupefied me.

  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

  caress me.

  "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 embryotome I want "Embryotome ?"

  "That's right. Remember you were telling me what a wonderful instrument

  it was."

  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

  like this."

  "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

  a bit."

  Ewan looked with compassion at my sweating face and sagging jaw, at the

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