It shouldnt happen to a.., p.18
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       It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, p.18

           James Herriot
 
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he was trying to find something good to say.

  "Well, I reckon she's about "'same."

  "But dammit," I shouted, 'she should be much better! Let's have a look

  at her."

  The cow wasn't just the same, she was worse. And on top of all the other

  symptoms she had a horribly sunken eye - the sign, usually, of

  approaching death in the bovine.

  We both stood looking at the grim wreck of the once beautiful cow, then

  Dick broke the silence, speaking gently. "Well, what do you think? Is it

  Mallock for The sound of the knacker man's name added the final note of

  despair. And indeed, Strawberry looked just like any of the other broken

  down animals that man came to collect.

  I shuffled my feet miserably. "I don't know what to say, Dick. There's

  nothing more I can do." I took another look at the gasping staring head,

  the mass of bubbling foam around the lips and nostrils. "You don't want

  her to suffer any more and neither do I. But don't get Mallock yet she's

  distressed but not actually in pain, and I want to give her another day.

  If she's just the same tomorrow, send her in." The very words sounded

  futile - every instinct told me the thing was hopeless. I turned to go,

  bowed down by a sense of failure heavier than I had ever known. As I

  went out into the yard, Dick called after me.

  "Don't worry, lad, these things happen. Thank ye for all you've done."

  The words were like a whip across my back. If he had cursed me

  thoroughly I'd have felt a lot better. What had he to thank me for with

  his cow dying back -there, the only good cow he'd ever owned? This

  disaster would just about floor Dick Rudd and he was telling me not to

  worry.

  When I opened the car door I saw a cabbage on the seat. Mrs. Rudd, too,

  was still at it. I leaned my elbow on the roof of the car and the words

  flowed from l me. It was as if the sight of the cabbage had tapped the

  deep well of my frustration and I directed a soliloquy at the unheeding

  vegetable in which I ranged far over my many inadequacies. I pointed out

  the injustice of a situation where kindly people like the Rudds, in dire

  need of skilled veterinary assistance, had called on Mr. Herriot who had

  responded by falling flat on his face. I drew attention to the fact that

  the Rudds, instead of hounding me off the place as I deserved, had

  thanked me sincerely and started to give me cabbages.

  I went on for quite a long time and when I had finally finished I felt a

  little better. But not much, because, as I drove home I could not detect

  a glimmer of hope. If the walls of that abscess had been going to

  collapse they would have done so by now. I should have sent her in - she

  would be dead in the morning anyway.

  I was so convinced of this that I didn't hurry to Birch Tree next day. I

  took it in with the round and it was almost midday when I drove through

  the gates. I knew what I would find - the usual grim signs of a vet's

  failure; the box door open and the drag marks where Mallock had winched

  the carcass across the yard on to his lorry. But everything was as usual

  and as I walked over to the silent box I steeled myself. The knacker man

  hadn't arrived yet but there was nothing surer than that my patient was

  Lying dead in there. She couldn't possibly have hung on till now. My

  fingers fumbled at the catch as though something in me didn't want to

  look inside, but with a final wrench I threw the door wide.

  Strawberry was standing there, eating hay from the rack; and not just

  eating it but jerking it through the bars almost playfully as cows do

  when they are really enjoying their food. It looked as though she

  couldn't get it down fast enough, pulling down great fragrant tufts and

  dragging them into her mouth with her rasp-like tongue. As I stared at

  her an organ began to play somewhere in the back of my mind; not just a

  little organ but a mighty instrument with gleaming pipes climbing high

  into the shadows of the cathedral roof. I went into the box, closed the

  door behind me and sat down in the straw in a corner. I had waited a

  long time for this. I was going to enjoy it.

  The cow was almost a walking skeleton with her beautiful dark roan skin

  stretched tightly over the jutting bones. The once proud udder was a

  shrivelled purse dangling uselessly above her hocks. As she stood, she

  trembled from sheer weakness, but there was a light in her eye, a calm

  intensity in the way she ate which made me certain she would soon fight

  her way back to her old glory.

  There was just the two of us in the box and occasionally Strawberry

  would turn her head towards me and regard me steadily, her jaws moving

  rhythmically. It seemed like a friendly look to me - in fact I wouldn't

  have been surprised if she had winked at me.

  I don't know just how long I sat in there but I savoured every minute.

  It took some time for it to sink in that what I was watching was really

  happening; the swallowing was effortless, there was no salivation, no

  noise from her breathing. When I finally went out and closed the door

  behind me the cathedral organ was really blasting with all stops out,

  the exultant peals echoing back from the vaulted roof.

  The cow made an amazing recovery. I saw her three weeks later and her

  bones were magically clothed with flesh, her skin shone and, most

  important, the magnificent udder bulged turgid beneath her, a neat

  little teat proudly erect at each corner.

  I was pretty pleased with myself but of course a cold assessment of the

  case would show only one thing - that I had done hardly anything right

  from start to finish. At the very beginning I should have been down that

  cow's throat with a knife, but at that time I just didn't know how. In

  later years I have opened many a score of these abscesses by going in

  through a mouth gag with a scalpel tied to my fingers. It ~was a fairly

  heroic undertaking as the cow or bullock didn't enjoy it and was

  inclined to throw itself down with me inside it almost to the shoulder.

  It was simply asking for a broken arm.

  When I talk about this to the present-day young vets they are inclined

  to look at me blankly because most of these abscesses undoubtedly had a

  tuberculous origin and since attestation they are rarely seen. But I can

  imagine it might bring a wry smile to the faces of my contemporaries as

  their memories are stirred.

  The post-pharyngeal operation had the attraction that recovery was

  spectacular and rapid and I have had my own share of these little

  triumphs. But none of them gave me as much satisfaction as the one I did

  the wrong way.

  It was a few weeks after the Strawberry episode and I was back in my old

  position in the Rudds' kitchen with the family around me. This time I

  was in no position to drop my usual pearls of wisdom because I was

  trying to cope with a piece of Mrs. Rudd's apple tart. Mrs. Rudd, I

  knew, could make delicious apple tarts but this was a special kind she

  produced for "lowance' time - for taking out to Dick and the family when

  they were working in the fields. I had chewed at the two-inch pastry

  till
my mouth had dried out. Somewhere inside there was no doubt a

  sliver of apple but as yet I had been unable to find it. I didn't dare

  try to speak in case I blew out a shower of crumbs and in the silence

  which followed I wondered if anybody would help me out. It was Mrs. Rudd

  who spoke up.

  "Mr. Herriot," she said in her quiet matter-of-fact way, "Dick has

  something to say to you."

  Dick cleared his throat and sat up straighter in his chair. I turned

  towards him expectantly, my cheeks still distended by the obdurate mass.

  He looked unusually serious and I felt a twinge of apprehension.

  "What I want to say is this," he said. "It'll soon be our silver wedding

  anniversary and we're going to 'ave a bit of a do. We want you to be our

  guest."

  I almost choked. "Dick, Mrs. Rudd, that's very kind of you. I'd love

  that - I'd be honoured to come."

  Dick inclined his head gravely. He still looked portentous as though

  there was something big to follow. "Good, I think you'll enjoy it,

  because it's going' to be a right do. We've got a room booked at ""King's

  Head at Carsley."

  "Gosh, sounds great."

  "Aye, t'missus and me have worked it all out." He squared his thin

  shoulders and lifted his chin proudly.

  "We're having a 'ot dinner and entertainers."

  Chapter Twenty-four.

  As time passed and I painfully clothed the bare bones of my theoretical

  knowledge with practical experience I began to realise there was another

  side to veterinary practice they didn't mention in the books. It had to

  do with money. Money has always formed a barrier between the farmer and

  the vet. I think this is because there is a deeply embedded, maybe

  subconscious conviction in many farmer."

  ;

  minds that they know more about their stock than any outsider and it is

  an admission of defeat to pay somebody else to doctor them.

  The wall was bad enough in those early days when they had to pay the

  medical practitioners for treating their own ailments and when there was

  no free agricultural advisory service. But it is worse now when there is

  the Health Service and NAAS and the veterinary surgeon stands pitilessly

  exposed as the only man who has to be paid.

  Most farmers, of course, swallow the pill and get out their cheque

  books, but there is a proportion - maybe about ten per cent - who do

  their best to opt out of the whole business.

  We had our own ten per cent in Darrowby and it was a small but constant

  irritation As an assistant I was not financially involved and it didn't

  seem to bother Siegfried unduly except when the quarterly bills were

  sent out. Then it really got through to him.

  Miss Harbottle used to type out the accounts and present them to him in

  a neat pile and that was when it started. He would go through them one

  by one and it was a harrowing experience to watch his blood pressure

  gradually rising.

  I found him crouched over his desk one night. It was about eleven

  o'clock and he had had a hard day. His resistance was right down. He was

  scrutinising each bill before placing it face down on a pile to his

  left. On his right there was a smaller pile and whenever he placed one

  there it was to the accompaniment of a peevish muttering or occasionally

  a violent outburst.

  "Would you believe it?" he grunted as I came in. "Henry Bransom - more

  than two years since we saw a penny of his money, yet he lives like a

  sultan. Never misses a market for miles around, gets as tight as an owl

  several nights a week and I saw him putting ten pounds on a horse at the

  races last month."

  He banged the piece of paper down and went on with his job, breathing

  deeply. Then he froze over another account. "And look at this one! Old

  Summers of Low Ness. I bet he's got thousands of pounds hidden under his

  bed but by God he won't part with any of it to me."

  He was silent for a few moments as he transferred several sheets to the

  main pile then he swung round on me with a loud cry, waving a paper in

  my face.

  "Oh no! Oh Christ, James, this is too much! Bert Mason here owes me

  twenty-seven and sixpence. I must have spent more than that sending him

  bills year in year out and do you know I saw him driving past the

  surgery yesterday in a brand new car. The bloody scoundrel."

  He hurled the bill down and started his scrutiny again. I noticed he was

  using only one hand while the other churned among his hair. I hoped

  fervently that he might hit upon a seam of good payers because I didn't

  think his nervous system could take much more. And it seemed that my

  hopes were answered because several minutes went by with only the quiet

  lifting and laying of the paper sheets. Then Siegfried stiffened

  suddenly in his chair and sat quite motionless as he stared down at his

  desk. He lifted an account and held it for several seconds at eye level.

  I steeled myself. This must be a beauty.

  But to my surprise Siegfried began to giggle softly then he threw back

  his head and gave a great bellow of laughter. He laughed until he seemed

  to have no strength to laugh any more, then he turned to me.

  "It's the Major, James," he said weakly. "The dear old gallant Major.

  You know, you can't help admiring the man. He owed my predecessor a fair

  bit when I bought the practice and he still owes it. And I've never had

  a sou for all the work I've done for him. The thing is he's the same

  with everybody and yet he gets away with it. He's a genuine artist these

  other fellows are just fumbling amateurs by comparison ~

  He got up, reached up into the glass-fronted cupboard above the

  mantelpiece and pulled out the whisky bottle and two glasses. He

  carelessly tipped a prodigal measure into each glass and handed one to

  me, then he sank back into his chair, still grinning. The Major had

  magically restored his good humour.

  Sipping my drink, I reflected that there was no doubt Major Bullivant's

  character had a rich, compelling quality. He presented an elegant,

  patrician front to the world, beautiful Shakespearean actor voice,

  impeccable manners and an abundance of sheer presence. Whenever he

  unbent sufficiently to throw me a friendly word I felt honoured even

  though I knew I was doing his work for nothing.

  He had a small, cosy farm, a tweed-clad wife and several daughters who

  had ponies and were active helpers for the local hunt. Everything in his

  entire menage was right and fitting. But he never paid anybody.

  He had been in the district about three years and on his arrival the

  local tradesmen, dazzled by his facade, had fallen over each other to

  win his custom. After all, he appeared to be just their type because

  they preferred inherited wealth in Darrowby. In contrast to what I had

  always found in Scotland, the self-made man was regarded with deep

  suspicion and there was nothing so damning among the townsfolk as the

  darkly muttered comment: "He had nowt when he first came 'ere."

  Of course, when the scales had fallen from their eyes they fought back,

  but ineffectually. The local garage impounded the M
ajor's ancient Rolls

  Royce and hung on to it fiercely for a while but he managed to charm it

  back. His one failure was that his telephone was always being cut off;

  it seemed that the Postmaster General was one of the few who were immune

  to his blandishments.

  But time runs out for even the most dedicated expert. I was driving one

  day through Hollerton, a neighbouring market town about ten miles away,

  and I noticed the Bullivant girls moving purposefully among the shops

  armed with large baskets. The Major, it seemed, was having to cast his

  net a little wider and I wondered at the time if perhaps he was ready to

  move on. He did, in fact, disappear from the district a few weeks later

  leaving a lot of people licking their wounds. I don't know if he ever

  paid anybody before he left but Siegfried didn't get anything.

  Even after his departure Siegfried wasn't at all bitter, preferring to

  regard the Major as a unique phenomenon, a master of his chosen craft.

  "After all, James," he said to me once, 'putting ethical considerations

  to one side, you must admit that anybody who can run up a bill of fifty

  pounds for shaves and haircuts at the Darrowby barber's shop must

  command a certain amount of respect."

  Siegfried's attitude to his debtors was remarkably ambivalent. At times

  he would fly into a fury at the mention of their names, at others he

  would regard them with a kind of wry benevolence. He often said that if

  ever he threw a cocktail party for the clients he'd have to invite the

  non-payers first because they were all such charming fellows.

  Nevertheless he waged an inexorable war against them by means of a

  series of letters graduated according to severity which he called his

  PNS. system (Polite, Nasty, Solicitor's) and in which he had great

  faith. It was a sad fact, however, that the system seldom worked with

  the real hard cases who were accustomed to receiving threatening letters

  with their morning mail. These people yawned over the polite and nasty

  ones and were unimpressed by the solicitor's because they knew from

  experience that Siegfried always shrank from following through to the

  limit of the law.

  When the PNS system failed Siegfried was inclined to come up with some

  unorthodox ideas to collect his hard-earned fees. Like the scheme he

  devised for Dennis Pratt. Dennis was a tubby, bouncy little man and his

  high opinion of himself showed in the way he always carried his entire

  five feet three inches proudly erect. He always seemed to be straining

  upwards, his chest thrust forward, his fat little bottom stuck out

  behind him at an extraordinary angle.

  Dennis owed the practice a substantial amount and about eighteen months

  ago had been subjected to the full rigour of the PNS system. This had

  induced him to part with five pounds 'on account' but since then nothing

  more had been forthcoming Siegfried was in a quandary because he didn't

  like getting tough with such a cheerful, hospitable man.

  Dennis was always either laughing or about to laugh. I remember when we

  had to anaesthetise a cow on his farm to remove a growth from between

  its cleats Siegfried and I went to the case together and on the way we

  were talking about something which had amused us. As we got out of the

  car we were both laughing helplessly and just then the farmhouse door

  opened and Dennis emerged.

  We were at the far end of the yard and we must have been all of thirty

  yards away. He couldn't possibly have heard anything of our conversation

  but when he saw us laughing he threw back his head immediately and

  joined in at the top of his voice. He shook so much on his way across

  the yard that I thought he would fall over. When he arrived he was

  wiping the tears from his eyes.

 
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