Let sleeping vets lie, p.18
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       Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.18

           James Herriot

  We went inside. A gramophone was playing and some pretty teenage girls

  were fox-trotting together to the music. A few lads lounged about while

  two others were playing billiards on a miniature table in the corner.

  The curate gazed fondly at the scene, the music stopped, the record was

  changed for a waltz and the dancing began again. It struck me as strange

  that it didn't seem to occur to any of the boys to dance with those

  attractive girls.

  I looked at the two billiard players. They would be about fifteen or

  sixteen and were obviously devotees of the cinema. There was something

  of the Bowery pool room in their scowling attitude, the cigarettes

  dangling from their lips, the way they squinted through the smoke as

  they bent to play a shot, the tough, deadpan chalking of the cues, the

  contemptuous gangsterish disregard of the other occupants of the room.

  , .

  The curate clapped his hands. "Come now, boys and girls, it's time you

  joined the others in the hall Mr. Herriot is ready to talk to you now."

  The room emptied rapidly as the young people went through a door in the

  far corner. Soon there only remained the gangsters at the billiard

  table; they didn't appear to have heard. The curate called on them

  several times more but they took no notice. Finally Helen went over and

  whispered tensely at them and at length they threw down their cues and

  with a single malevolent glance in my direction they slouched from the


  This then was the moment of truth when I would face my audience after

  the weeks of preparation. I took a deep breath and followed the others

  into the hall and on to the platform. Perched on a shaky chair between

  Helen and Mr. Blenkinsopp I surveyed the scene.

  It wasn't a big hall - it would probably have held a hundred if it had

  been full. But it wasn't full tonight, in fact the main feature about it

  was space. I made a quick count of the audience; there were twelve. They

  were disposed in little knots among the empty chairs. Half way up

  clustered the six teenage girls then a few rows behind, a very fat boy

  holding a bag of potato crisps and near him a thin, dispirited-looking

  youth with sleepy eyes. Right on the back row, against the wall, the two

  gangsters lounged in attitudes of studied boredom. What surprised me

  most, however, was the sight of two tiny girls, mere tots of about four,

  right in the middle of the front row, a long way from anybody else. One

  sported a big pink bow in her hair while the other wore pigtails. Their

  little legs swinging, they looked up at me incuriously.

  I turned to Helen. "Who are those two?"

  "Oh, they like to come with their big sisters now and again,"-she

  replied. "They love it and they're very good. They won't be any


  I nodded stupidly, still trying to adjust my mind to the fact that these

  were the people who were going to receive my searching exposition on

  veterinary science. None of them seemed to be showing the slightest

  interest in me except for one very pretty little thing in the centre of

  the teenage group who gazed up at me with shining eyes as though she

  couldn't wait for me to begin.

  Mr. Blenkinsopp stood up and made a charming introductory speech. As he

  spoke, the gangsters at the back giggled, wrestled and dug at each

  other's ribs; the girls, with the exception of the little darling in the

  centre peeped back at the fighting pair in admiration.

  At last I heard the curate's final words. "And now I have great pleasure

  in asking Mr. Herriot to address you."

  I got slowly to my feet and gazed over the twelve. The gangsters were

  still wrestling, the fat boy put a crisp in his mouth and began to

  crunch it loudly, down in the front, tot number one was sucking her

  thumb while the other, rocking her head from side to side, appeared to

  be singing to herself.

  I felt a moment of wild panic. Should I change the entire plan and just

  talk casually about a few trivial points? But I couldn't. I had the

  whole thing o if parrot-like and I'd have to deliver it as I had learned

  it. There was no way out.

  With an effort I steadied myself and cleared my throat. "What does MRCVS

  mean to you?" I cried.

  It seemed to startle Mr. Blenkinsopp because he jumped slightly in his

  chair, but the audience remained totally unmoved. MRCVS appeared to mean

  not a thing to them. I ploughed ahead, sketching out the history of the

  Royal College, painstakingly illustrating its development from the early

  days of farriery. Nobody was listening except the little pet in the

  centre but I was in the groove and couldn't stop.

  "A supplemental Royal Charter was granted in 1932," I pronounced after

  about ten minutes" hard going and just then the thin boy yawned. I had

  labelled ."

  him as an ineffectual sort of lad but he certainly could yawn; it was a

  stretching, groaning, voluptuous paroxysm which drowned my words and it

  went on and on till he finally lay back, bleary and exhausted by the

  effort. His companion munched his crisps stolidly By the time I had been

  holding forth for twenty minutes I seemed to be standing listening to

  myself with a kind of wonder. "After qualification," I was saying" 'the

  main avenues open to the new graduate are general practice and work

  under the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. The latter is mainly

  concerned with preventive medicine and with the implementation of the

  laws governing the notifiable diseases."

  The gangsters punched each other fiercely with stifled laughter, the fat

  boy had another crisp, tot one drew ecstatically on her thumb while her

  other hand fondled a lock of her hair. Tot two stuck her legs straight

  out and admired her little white socks and red shoes. Only the dear girl

  in the middle paid any attention.

  I began to break out in a light perspiration. The thing was taking a lot

  longer than I had thought to get through, and I had the growing

  conviction that I must be looking more and more of a chump in Helen's

  eyes as time went on.

  I had rehearsed a few light sallies designed to send my audience into

  convulsions of laughter as a contrast to the absorbing, serious stuff,

  but even those who were listening failed to change expression at my

  shafts of wit. Except, of course, for the little treasure in the middle

  who pealed back at me sweetly every time.

  But I stuck to it grimly. Surely I'd get through to them when I came to

  the practical bit about first aid.

  "All right," I said, 'you've got a calf with a nasty cut on its leg. The

  blood is pouring out and you can't get hold of a vet. If you just leave

  it the blood will all run out and the calf will die. What are you going

  to do?"

  Nobody seemed to care much either way except for tot two. She obviously

  didn't like the turn things were taking and she stared up at me, her

  lower lip protruding and trembling.

  I went on to explain about tourniquets and pressure pads and then moved

  on to a discussion of bloat.

  "This cow is blown up ready to burst," I proceeded. "You'
ve got to do

  something or she could drop down dead any second."

  I glanced apprehensively at tot two. Her lip was sticking out more every

  second and was now like a soup plate, but it was no good, I had to go


  "You must get a knife like a carving knife and stick it straight into

  the stomach," I declaimed desperately. "Now I'll tell you just where to

  stick it in ... '

  But tot two had had enough. She threw back her head and bawled heartily

  till her big sister hurried down a few rows and led her away in floods

  of tears, her pig tails dangling forlornly. Tot one was undisturbed,

  utterly engrossed as she was with her thumb and the wisp of hair she was


  Anyway I was getting towards the last lap now.

  "The future of the profession, I am convinced, will be less and less

  involved with the problems of the individual animal," I went on,

  addressing myself now exclusively to the little sweetheart in the centre

  who kept her eyes fixed on me with open admiration. The thin boy went

  into another of his mighty yawns while his companion finished his last

  crisp and crumpled the bag noisily.

  We must also consider the emergence of small animal work in any of our

  plans for the future. Over the past few years the increase in this field

  has been ... '

  But I had to pause as there was a major disturbance at the back. The

  jolly feud between the gangsters had flared into ugly warfare. Fists

  flew, blood streamed, a few ripe.oaths rocketed over the company. After

  a couple of minutes the combatants drew apart and sat glaring and

  snarling at each other as they dabbed their wounds.

  "Whatever the uncertainties and despite the depressed state of

  agriculture I feel there will always be a place for the veterinary

  surgeon in our national economy." that was it. I sat down and Helen, the

  curate and the little charmer in the middle applauded enthusiastically.

  Mr. Blenkinsopp rose, beaming delightedly around him. He congratulated

  me on my splendid talk and said how much they'd all enjoyed it and

  finished by saying he would now throw the meeting open for questions.

  I settled back in my chair. So this was to be the lively discussion he

  had talked about. I hunted around anxiously from face to face but my

  audience stared back, dead-eyed; for the first time all evening there

  was dead silence.

  The minutes ticked away and I felt the tension building in me, but at

  last there was a stirring in the middle of the hall. It was my darling

  girl; God blest and keep her, she was going to say something. I felt a

  sudden glow at the knowledge that my words had stimulated a response in

  at least one young mind.

  She sat up in her seat, moistened her lips and smiled at me, bright

  eyed. She was indeed going to ask a question and as it turned out it was

  the only one of the evening. I leaned forward expectantly as she began

  to speak.

  "Mr. Herriot, I 'ave a little dog what's moultin". What can I do for


  C:hapter Fifteen t Probably the most dramatic occurrence in the history

  of veterinary practice was the disappearance of the draught horse. It is

  an almost incredible fact that this glory and mainstay of the profession

  just melted quietly away within a few years. And I was one of those who

  were there to see it happen.

  When I first came to Darrowby the tractor had already begun to take

  over, but tradition dies hard in the agricultural world and there were

  still a lot of horses around. Which was just as well because my

  veterinary education had been geared to things equine with everything

  else a poor second. It had been a good scientific education in many

  respects but at times I wondered if the people who designed it still had

  a mental picture of the horse doctor with his top hat ~ and frock coat

  busying himself in a world of horse-drawn trams and brewers", drays.

  We learned the anatomy of the horse in great detail then that of the

  other animals much more superficially. It was the same with the other

  subjects; from animal husbandry with such insistence on a thorough

  knowledge of shoeing that we developed into amateur blacksmiths - right

  up to medicine and surgery where it was much more important to know

  about "landers and strangles than canine distemper. Even as we were

  learning, we youngsters knew it was ridiculous, with the draught horse

  already cast as a museum piece and the obvious potential of cattle and

  small animal work.

  Still, after we had absorbed a vast store of equine lore it was a

  certain comfo that there were still a lot of patients on which we could

  try it out. I should thin4

  in my first two years I treated farm horses nearly every day and though

  I never was and never will be an equine expert there was a strange

  thrill in meeting with the age-old conditions whose names rang down

  almost from mediaeval times. Quittor, fistulous withers, poll evil,

  thrush, shoulder slip - vets had been wrestling with them for hundreds

  of years using very much the same drugs and procedures as myself. Armed

  with my firing iron and box of blister I plunged determinedly into what

  had always been the surging mainstream of veterinary life.

  And now, in less than three years the stream had dwindled, not exactly

  to a trickle but certainly to the stage where the final dry-up was in

  sight. This meant, in a way, a lessening of the pressures on the

  veterinary surgeon because there is no doubt that horse work was the

  roughest and most arduous part of our life.

  So that today, as I looked at the three-year-old gelding, it occurred to

  me that this sort of thing wasn't happening as often as it did. He had a

  long tear in his flank where he had caught himself on barbed wire and it

  gaped open whenever he moved. There was no getting away from the fact

  that it had to be stitched.

  The horse was tied by the head in his stall, his right side against the

  tall wooden partition. One of the farm men, a hefty six footer, took a

  tight hold of the head collar and leaned back against the manger as I

  puffed some iodoform into the wound. The horse didn't see to mind, which

  was a comfort because he was a massive animal emanating an almost

  tangible vitality and power. I threaded my needle with a length of silk,

  lifted one of the lips of the wound and passed it through. This was

  going to be no trouble, I thought as I lifted the flap at the other side

  and pierced it, but as I was drawing the needle through, the gelding

  made a convulsive leap and I felt as though a great wind had whistled

  across the front of my body. Then, strangely, he was standing there

  against the wooden boards as if nothing had happened.

  On the occasions when I have been kicked I have never seen it coming. It

  is surprising how quickly those great muscular legs can whip out. But

  there was no doubt he had had a good go at me because my needle and silk

  was nowhere to be seen, the big man at the head was staring at me with

  wide eyes in a chalk white face and the front of my, clothing was in an

  extraordinary stat
e. I was wearing a gaberdine mac and it looked as if

  somebody had taken a razor blade and painstakingly cut the material into

  narrow strips which hung down in ragged strips to ground level. The

  great iron-shod hoof had missed my legs by an inch or two but my mac was

  a write-off.

  I was standing there looking around me in a kind of stupor when I heard

  a cheerful hail from the doorway.

  "Now then, Mr. Herriot, what's he done at you?" Cliff Tyreman, the old

  horseman, looked me up and down with a mixture of amusement and


  "He's nearly put me in hospital, Cliff," I replied shakily. "About the

  closest near Miss. I've ever had. I just felt the wind of it."

  "What were you tryin" to do?"

  "Stitch that wound, but I'm not going to try any more. I'm off to the

  surgery to get a chloroform muzzle."

  The little man looked shocked. "You don't need no choloform. I'll haud

  him and you'll have no trouble."

  I m sorry, Cliff." I began to put away my suture materials, scissors and

  powder. "You're a good bloke, I know, but he's had one go at me and he's

  not getting another chance. I don't want to be lame for the rest of my


  The horseman's small, wiry frame seemed to bunch into a ball of

  aggression. He thrust forward his head in a characteristic posture and

  glared at me. "I've never heard owl as daft in me life." Then he swung

  round on the big man who was still hanging on to the horse's head, the

  ghastly pallor of his face now tinged with a delicate green. "Come on

  out o" there Bob! You're that bloody scared ~ you're upsetting t'oss.

  Come on out of it and ;et me have 'im!" l Bob gratefully left the head

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