Let sleeping vets lie, p.17
Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.17James Herriot
caked dirt and slime and bits of straw sticking to my chest. "Right,
Jim," he said. "That sounds like a good idea."
I didn't enjoy my visit out to the car. Standing stripped to the waist
in total darkness in the teeth of a north wind is an overrated pastime
but it made a change from the cobbles. I fumbled a pump and rubber tube
from the boot and returned to the byre at a trot.
Ewan operated the pump as I pushed the tube forward over the dried-out
legs, playing the water from side to side and especially into that bend
in the neck.
When I had finished I came out of the cow quickly, dropped, the tube
and, slightly breathless, soaped my arm again. This was really it this
time. That water would give me more room, but only for a few seconds.
Lying down again I inserted my arm and it was like a different world
lots of space, everything moist and moveable. My fingers trembled as
they inched forward under that neck and'hallelujah, the weight was
there, the smooth, metallic, beautiful edge of the thing just projecting
from among the hair. I could twiddle it with the end of my fingers and I
felt it gradually coming down till the hole was within reach and I
thrust my finger through it with savage relief and lay like that for a
few moments smiling stupidly down at the wet stones and knowing I had
The rest was routine. Joining the cord to the wire and pulling it round
the neck; threading the wire through the shining steel tubes of the
embryotome which protected the vaginal wall from the cutting edge; the
few minutes of steady sawing till the sudden lack of resistance told
that the head was off and the obstruction removed.
After that, Ewan and I took a leg apiece and delivered the calf without
difficulty, the head followed and the job was done. Swilling myself down
with the last of the water I looked at the cow, she had had a long
tussle but nothing to do her any harm; no hard pulling, no internal
damage. She should be all right And as though trying to reassure me she
hunched her hind legs under her, gave a heave and got to her feet.
"By Gaw, that's a good sign," Mr. Hugill said.
The cow turned her fine white face towards me for a moment, straddled
her legs, strained a couple of times, and the placenta welled in
multi-coloured entirety from her vulva and plopped into the channel.
"And that's a better sign," Ewan murmured. He looked at his watch.
"Nearly three o'clock." Then he turned to the farmer. "Is your missus
up, Mr. Hugill?"
The old man didn't seem surprised at the question, in fact he seemed to
be expecting it. "Aye, she's up, right enough, Mr. Ross?"
"And is the fire on?"
"Aye, there's a real good fire, Mr. Ross," he replied eagerly.
"Splendid!" Ewan said, rubbing his hands. "Well, I think we'll have some
boiled eggs." He looked over at me. "Boiled eggs all right for you,
"Boiled eggs?" The concept was difficult to grasp at this hour.
"Yes, just the thing for you after your hard work."
"Oh well, right, just as you say."
Ewan became very brisk. "Fine, we'll have boiled eggs, Mr. Hugill, and
some tea of course, and maybe a little toast." He rubbed his chin
thoughtfully like a diner at his favourite restaurant pondering over the
menu. "Oh and a few scones would be very nice."
"Very good, Mr. Ross, I'll go in and tell t'missus." The farmer nodded
happily and scuttled away.
Ten minutes later, walking into the farmhouse kitchen, I felt strangely
disembodied. Maybe it was because my physical state had progressed from
mere exhaustion to something like coma, but the whole thing seemed
unreal. The brasses of hearth and mantelpiece glinting in the flames
from a crackling wood fire, the table under a hissing tilly lamp laden
with its burden of scones, crusty bread, ham and egg pie, curd tarts,
fruit cake; it all looked like something from a dream. And it was funny,
but the most incredible objects of all were the boiled eggs, brown and
massive, top heavy in their china cradles, two for Ewan at the top of
the table and two for me down the side.
Mrs. Hugill, stout and beaming, poured our tea, then she and her husband
sat down on either side of the fire and waited with evident interest for
us to go into action. Ewan with total lack of self consciousness began
busily to knock the tops off his eggs and slap butter on the toast. I
followed mechanically, noting even through the mists that the eggs had a
creamy savour which you maybe only found when the hens spent their lives
pecking around a 1500 foot high farmyard, and that the tang of yeast was
strong in the home made bread even though I mumbled it with a dry mouth
and numb lips. The tea, too, would have been excellent but for the fact
that I added salt to it instead of sugar; just sat and watched myself
pouring salt from the little spoon first on to my egg plate then into my
tea. It tasted different, but I don't recommend it.
All the time the call of home and bed was getting stronger but Ewan was
in no hurry. Speaking through a mouthful of ham and egg pie he addressed
"Mrs. Hugill, now I know why you always win the prizes at Scarburn show
with your baking."
As the good lady giggled with pleasure I struggled to my feet. "I second
that, Mrs. Hugill, I've really enjoyed it, but it's time I was away.
I've a long way to go.
Ewan swallowed, wiped his lips and smiled across the table. "Well I
can't thank you enough, Jim. You've saved the situation. I couldn't have
done what you've done tonight even if I'd had your magic embryotome."
"Oh that's all right, it's been a pleasure." I made my way to the door
and took a last look back at the scene which I still could scarcely
believe; the farmer and his wife nodding and waving from the bright
fireside, Ewan, in lordly state at the head of the table, hacking
vigorously at a large Wensleydale cheese.
I hardly noticed the run back. In a comfortable state of suspended
animation I sat with half closed eyes fixed on the road ahead. There was
none of the apprehension of the journey out, none of the moaning and
griping, just the warm satisfaction that a good cow would be pulling hay
from its rack tomorrow instead :s , .
of hanging from the butcher's hook. Only a little thing, nothing
world-shaking about it, but good.
When I drove into the yard at Skeldale House the gale had blown itself
out leaving a deep litter of leaves shining brilliant gold in the
headlights and I scuffled my way through them, ankle deep, feeling the
still air cool on my face in the darkness Bed was an unbelievable haven
and as I floated away my last emotion was a feeling of wonder at the
things the farmers would do for Ewan Ross My clients had shown me many
kindnesses in the past and I had a lot of future still ahead of me, but
I doubted whether anybody would ever give me boiled eggs at three
o'clock in the morning.
It was the chance to start my public speaking career; a definite
"Oh I don't know," I said to the curate, "I've never done anything of
the sort before. Maybe you'd better look for somebody else."
The curate beamed on me. He was in his thirties and had always struck me
as being a saintly man since he obviously saw no evil in anything or
"Oh come now, Mr. Herriot. I'm sure you'd manage splendidly and the
youth club are longing to hear you. A lot of my young people are from
farming families and they'd be quite fascinated to have a vet speak to
"Well it's very nice of you to say so, Mr. Blenkinsopp." But I had a
mental image of the packed church hall, the rows of faces looking up at
me, and I began to sweat at the very thought. "I tell you what - if they
want to hear a vet I'll get Mr. Farnon to give them a talk. He's very
The curate squeezed my arm. "But Mr. Herriot, it's you I want. You are
very young and the boys and girls would have something in common with
you from the start. And you'd only have to speak for about half and hour
and then there would be questions and a lively discussion."
"Oh I don't think I'd better," I muttered though inwardly I writhed at
the shame of being scared to get up in front of an audience. "Maybe some
other time, but I really don't feel I could do it just at present."
Mr. Blenkinsopp sighed. "Ah well, just as you wish, but I know the club
members will be disappointed. And Miss. Alderson, too."
"Yes, Helen helps me run the club. In fact it was she who suggested you
as a speaker."
"She attends all the meetings, I suppose?" I said.
"Oh of course. I'm sure she was looking forward to seeing you at our
"Mm ... well ... I wonder. Maybe I'd better have a bash at it."
'splendid!" The curate's face shone with pleasure. "You have plenty of
time - it's not till three weeks on Tuesday."
"Well done, James." Siegfried said at lunch. "I'm glad you've grasped
the nettle. All professional men have to get used to public speaking and
the sooner: you begin the better. And it helps our image - one has to
wave the flag a little now and then."
"I suppose so." I fiddled with my napkin for a moment. "But I haven't
much idea about what to say. Have you any suggestions?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Hall, that looks wonderful." Siegfried said to our
housekeeper as she impassively placed-a large steak and kidney pie in
front of him. Then he turned to me again. "Well, James, you've been
asked to speak as a vet so you've got to deal with veterinary matters.
If they're farmers" sons and daughters they'll lap it up."
"Yes, but that's a big subject. What exactly do you mean?"
My employer attacked the pie resolutely and a heavenly steam escaped as
his knife pierced the crust. "Pass your plate, James." He mounded on
meat and ~; pastry then pushed a tureen of mashed potatoes towards me.
"I know it's a big subject so you've got to pick out some attractive and
"I don't think I'd know where to start," I said. "I wish you'd sort of
sketch something out for me."
" Siegfried chewed thoughtfully for a few moments. "Everybody has their
own ideas about these things, of course, but if I were you I'd start off
with something to catch their attention - some provocative remark or
question - then I'd paint I a broad tapestry of the profession,
including its history, and in between I'd shove in some practical
things, maybe about first aid in animals."
"First aid, eh?" .
"Yes, that's right." My employer was warming to his subject. "How to
stop . haemorrhage, how to deal with emergencies when the vet isn't
available. How about puncturing the rumen in a bloated cow? That would
make them sit up."
"It would, wouldn't it? Yes, I think I'll do that." I made a few mental
notes. "But how about the opening remark you mentioned? Any ideas about
Siegfried carefully transported an extra boiled leek from its bed of
white sauce on to his plate. For perhaps a minute he stared ahead of him
in silence then 3 without warning he crashed his fist down on the table,
making me bite my . tongue painfully.
"I've got it, James! Not a shadow of a doubt about it." He held up a
finger and intoned, "WHAT DOES MRCVS MEAN TO YOU ? There's your opening
line - how about that?"
"Gosh, it's good!" I gazed at him admiringly. "What does MRCVS mean to
you? I really like that."
"There you are, then," he said, chewing smugly, 'and you must deliver it
in loud, ringing tones. You'll have them on the edge of their seats
right from the start, and gasping to hear more. A good beginning is
"Well thanks, Siegfried, you've been a big help. I think I can get the
material I together now but the only thing is, can I put it over? I've
never spoken in public - what if I dry up as soon as I get on my feet?
What if I can't remember a thing ?"
"Oh there's no possibility of that, but I know how you feel and I'll
give you one more piece of advice." He pointed solemnly at me with his
fork. "Since it's your first time you ought to get the whole thing word
perfect. Practise it day by day till you can recite it like poetry, then
you'll be all right."
"OK," I said. "I'll do that, too."
Siegfried leaned back and laughed. "Good lad! And in the meantime, stop
worrying. You're going to knock 'em cold, James, I just know you are."
I took his advice literally and over the next three weeks as I drove
along the frost-bound roads my lips were continually moving as I
harangued my imaginary audience Several times I saw roadside workers
look up in surprise as my declamations boomed out at them through the
open windows, and I got to the stage where every syllable, every
inflection tripped effortlessly off my tongue in perfect order.
In fact, it all began to sound so good to me that in a fearful sort of
way I began to look forward to the big night. How many would be there to
Fifty? Sixty? Maybe even a hundred? Well, let 'em all come. And Helen
would be there. Maybe my stock wasn't so high in that direction but it
wouldn't do any harm if she were to see me hold the mass of young people
in my thrall, the youthful faces upturned eagerly to me, drinking in. my
My confidence grew steadily as the days passed and when the fateful
Tuesday evening finally arrived I was in a state of pallid resolution.
No panic. A certain tension and dryness of the mouth, but above all a
cold determination to make good.
Before I left for the church hall I bathed, put on my best suit and
inspected my face carefully in the mirror. It wouldn't do if I had a
piece of cow muck sticking on an eyebrow in front of all that throng.
I was glad I didn't have far to walk because there had been a fall of
snow that morning followed by a few hours of icy rain and the streets
curate met me with a radiant smile.
"Ah, Mr. Herriot, here you are! So kind of you to come. Our young people
can hardly wait to hear you."
We were in a narrow lobby with doors on either side and from somewhere I
could hear music and laughter. But I didn't pay much attention because
Helen was coming down the stairs at the far end.
She laughed and for a moment her eyes held mine with that warm,
interested, kind look which was part of her. It was a funny thing but
whenever I met Helen she looked at me like that. I hadn't had a lot of
luck in my contacts with her but afterwards there was no difference; it
was always the same calm, friendly smile. , Of course she was a kind
girl, Helen, that was it. This was probably the way she looked at
everybody - with that soft flame kindling in her eyes" blue depths and
the full lips parted over the white teeth. And there was the way her
mouth went into little upturned folds in the corners ... and how her
dark hair fell softly across the white of her cheek ... But Mr.
Blenkinsopp was giving a series of little coughs. I dragged my attention
back to him.
"Come in and see our club room before you start," he said, opening one
of the doors. "I think you'll agree that it's a pleasant place for them
to come on these wintry evenings."
Let Sleeping Vets Lie by James Herriot / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes