James herriots dog stori.., p.20
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       James Herriot's Dog Stories, p.20

           James Herriot
 

  There you are, then, funny fellow,’ she said to the dog.

  I laughed. ‘Has he ever barked since that day?’

  Mrs Wilkin shook her head. ‘No, he hasn’t, not a sound. I waited a long time but I know he’s not going to do it now.’

  ‘Ah well, it’s not important. But still, I’ll never forget that afternoon at the trial,’ I said.

  ‘Nor will I!’ She looked at Gyp again and her eyes softened in reminiscence. ‘Poor old lad, eight years old and only one woof!’

  One of those quirks of animal behaviour which are delightful but inexplicable. I will never know how it happened, and if I had not witnessed the whole thing I would have found it difficult to believe. Many children write to me about my books and this story is one which particularly seemed to capture their imagination. As a result, it has been specially adapted for my young readers and illustrated by Peter Barrett. This story of a dog who gave one single bark throughout his long life just had to be called Only One Woof. It was published last September.

  20. The Dimmocks

  A full surgery! But the ripple of satisfaction as I surveyed the packed rows of heads waned quickly as realisation dawned. It was only the Dimmocks again.

  I first encountered the Dimmocks one evening when I had a call to a dog which had been knocked down by a car. The address was down in the old part of the town and I was cruising slowly along the row of decaying cottages looking for the number when a door burst open and three shock-headed little children ran into the street and waved me down frantically.

  ‘He’s in ’ere, Mister!’ they gasped in unison as I got out, and then began immediately to put me in the picture.

  ‘It’s Bonzo!’ ‘Aye, a car’ it ’im!’ ‘We ’ad to carry ’im in, Mister!’ They all got their words in as I opened the garden gate and struggled up the path with the three of them hanging on to my arms and tugging at my coat; and en route I gazed in wonder at the window of the house where a mass of other young faces mouthed at me and a tangle of arms gesticulated.

  Once through the door which opened directly into the living-room I was swamped by a rush of bodies and borne over to the corner where I saw my patient.

  Bonzo was sitting upright on a ragged blanket. He was a large shaggy animal of indeterminate breed and though at a glance there didn’t seem to be much ailing him he wore a pathetic expression of self-pity. Since everybody was talking at once I decided to ignore them and carry out my examination. I worked my way over legs, pelvis, ribs and spine; no fractures. His mucous membranes were a good colour, there was no evidence of internal injury. In fact the only thing I could find was slight bruising over the left shoulder. Bonzo had sat like a statue as I felt over him, but as I finished he toppled over on to his side and lay looking up at me apologetically, his tail thumping on the blanket.

  ‘You’re a big soft dog, that’s what you are,’ I said and the tail thumped faster.

  I turned and viewed the throng and after a moment or two managed to pick out the parents. Mum was fighting her way to the front while at the rear, Dad, a diminutive figure, was beaming at me over the heads. I did a bit of shushing and when the babel died down I addressed myself to Mrs Dimmock.

  ‘I think he’s been lucky,’ I said. ‘I can’t find any serious injury. I think the car must have bowled him over and knocked the wind out of him for a minute, or he may have been suffering from shock.’

  The uproar broke out again. ‘Will ’e die, Mister?’ ‘What’s the matter with ’im?’ ‘What are you going to do?’

  I gave Bonzo an injection of a mild sedative while he lay rigid, a picture of canine suffering, with the tousled heads looking down at him with deep concern and innumerable little hands poking out and caressing him.

  Mrs Dimmock produced a basin of hot water and while I washed my hands I was able to make a rough assessment of the household. I counted eleven little Dimmocks from a boy in his early teens down to a grubby-faced infant crawling around the floor; and judging by the significant bulge in Mum’s midriff the number was soon to be augmented. They were clad in a motley selection of hand-me downs, darned pullovers, patched trousers, tattered dresses, yet the general atmosphere in the house was of unconfined joie de vivre.

  Bonzo wasn’t the only animal and I stared in disbelief as another biggish dog and a cat with two half-grown kittens appeared from among the crowding legs and feet. I would have thought that the problem of filling the human mouths would have been difficult enough without importing several animals.

  But the Dimmocks didn’t worry about such things; they did what they wanted to do, and they got by. Dad, I learned later, had never done any work within living memory. He had a ‘bad back’ and lived what seemed to me a reasonably gracious life, roaming interestedly around the town by day and enjoying a quiet beer and a game of dominoes in a corner of the Four Horse Shoes by night.

  I saw him quite often; he was easy to pick out because he invariably carried a walking stick which gave him an air of dignity and he always walked briskly and purposefully as though he were going somewhere important.

  I took a final look at Bonzo, still stretched on the blanket, looking up at me with soulful eyes, then I struggled towards the door.

  ‘I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,’ I shouted above the chattering which had speedily broken out again, ‘but I’ll look in tomorrow and make sure.’

  When I drew up outside the house next morning I could see Bonzo lolloping around the garden with several of the children. They were passing a ball from one to the other and he was leaping ecstatically high in the air to try to intercept it.

  He was clearly none the worse for his accident but when he saw me opening the gate his tail went down and he dropped almost to his knees and slunk into the house. The children received me rapturously.

  ‘You’ve made ’im better, Mister!’ ‘He’s all right now, isn’t he?’ ‘He’s ’ad a right big breakfast this mornin’, Mister!’

  I went inside with little hands clutching at my coat. Bonzo was sitting bolt upright on his blanket in the same attitude as the previous evening, but as I approached he slowly collapsed on to his side and lay looking up at me with a martyred expression.

  I laughed as I knelt by him. ‘You’re the original old soldier, Bonzo, but you can’t fool me. I saw you out there.’

  I gently touched the bruised shoulder and the big dog tremblingly closed his eyes as he resigned himself to his fate. Then when I stood up and he realised he wasn’t going to have another injection he leaped to his feet and bounded away into the garden.

  There was a chorus of delighted cries from the Dimmocks and they turned and looked at me with undisguised admiration. Clearly they considered that I had plucked Bonzo from the jaws of death. Mr Dimmock stepped forward from the mass.

  ‘You’ll send me a bill, won’t you?’ he said, with the dignity that was peculiar to him.

  My first glance last night had decided me that this was a no-charging job and I hadn’t even written it in the book, but I nodded solemnly.

  ‘Very well, Mr Dimmock, I’ll do that.’

  And throughout our long association, though no money ever changed hands, he always said the same thing – ‘You’ll send me a bill, won’t you?’

  This was the beginning of my close relationship with the Dimmocks. Obviously they had taken a fancy to me and wanted to see as much as possible of me. Over the succeeding weeks and months they brought in a varied selection of dogs, cats, budgies, rabbits at frequent intervals, and when they found that my services were free they stepped up the number of visits; and when one came they all came. I was anxiously trying to expand the small animal side of the practice and increasingly my hopes were raised momentarily then dashed when I opened the door and saw a packed waiting-room.

  And it increased the congestion when they started bringing their auntie, Mrs Pounder, from down the road with them to see what a nice chap I was. Mrs Pounder, a fat lady who always wore a greasy velour hat perched on an untidy mound
of hair, evidently shared the family tendency to fertility and usually brought a few of her own ample brood with her.

  That is how it was this particular morning. I swept the assembled company with my eye but could discern only beaming Dimmocks and Pounders; and this time I couldn’t even pick out my patient. Then the assembly parted and spread out as though by a prearranged signal and I saw little Nellie Dimmock with a tiny puppy on her knee.

  Nellie was my favourite. Mind you, I liked all the family; in fact they were such nice people that I always enjoyed their visits after that first disappointment. Mum and Dad were always courteous and cheerful and the children, though boisterous, were never ill-mannered; they were happy and friendly and if they saw me in the street they would wave madly and go on waving till I was out of sight. And I saw them often because they were continually scurrying around the town doing odd jobs – delivering milk or papers. Best of all, they loved their animals and were kind to them.

  But as I say, Nellie was my favourite. She was about nine and had suffered an attack of ‘infantile paralysis’, as it used to be called, when very young. It had left her with a pronounced limp and a frailty which set her apart from her robust brothers and sisters. Her painfully thin legs seemed almost too fragile to carry her around but above the pinched face her hair, the colour of ripe corn, flowed to her shoulders and her eyes, though slightly crossed, gazed out calm and limpid blue through steel-rimmed spectacles.

  ‘What’s that you’ve got, Nellie?’ I asked.

  ‘It’s a little dog,’ she almost whispered. ‘’E’s mine.’

  ‘You mean he’s your very own?’

  She nodded proudly. ‘Aye, ’e’s mine.’

  ‘He doesn’t belong to your brothers and sisters, too?’

  ‘Naw, ’e’s mine.’

  Rows of Dimmock and Pounder heads nodded in eager acquiescence as Nellie lifted the puppy to her cheek and looked up at me with a smile of a strange sweetness. It was a smile that always tugged at my heart; full of a child’s artless happiness and trust but with something else which was poignant and maybe had to do with the way Nellie was.

  ‘Well, he looks a fine dog to me,’ I said. ‘He’s a Spaniel, isn’t he?’

  She ran a hand over the little head. ‘Aye, a Cocker. Mr Brown said ’e was a Cocker.’

  There was a slight disturbance at the back and Mr Dimmock appeared from the crush. He gave a respectful cough.

  ‘He’s a proper pure bred, Mr Herriot,’ he said. ‘Mr Brown from the bank’s bitch had a litter and ’e gave this ’un to Nellie.’ He tucked his stick under his arm and pulled a long envelope from an inside pocket. He handed it to me with a flourish. ‘That’s ’is pedigree.’

  I read it through and whistled softly. ‘He’s a real blue-blooded hound, all right, and I see he’s got a big long name. Darrowby Tobias the Third, My word, that sounds great.’

  I looked down at the little girl again. ‘And what do you call him, Nellie?’

  ‘Toby,’ she said softly. ‘I calls ’im Toby.’

  I laughed. ‘All right, then. What’s the matter with Toby anyway? Why have you brought him?’

  ‘He’s been sick, Mr Herriot.’ Mrs Dimmock spoke from somewhere among the heads. ‘He can’t keep nothin’ down.’

  ‘Well I know what that’ll be. Has he been wormed?’

  ‘No, don’t think so.’

  ‘I should think he just needs a pill,’ I said. ‘But bring him through and I’ll have a look at him.’

  Other clients were usually content to send one representative through with their animals but the Dimmocks all had to come. I marched along with the crowd behind me filling the passage from wall to wall. Our consulting-cum-operating room was quite small and I watched with some apprehension as the procession filed in after me. But they all got in, Mrs Pounder, her velour hat slightly askew, squeezing herself in with some difficulty at the rear.

  My examination of the puppy took longer than usual as I had to fight my way to the thermometer on the trolley then struggle in the other direction to get the stethoscope from its hook on the wall. But I finished at last.

  ‘Well I can’t find anything wrong with him,’ I said. ‘So I’m pretty sure he just has a tummy full of worms. I’ll give you a pill now and you must give it to him first thing tomorrow morning.’

  Like a football match turning out, the mass of people surged along the passage and into the street and another Dimmock visit had come to an end.

  I forgot the incident immediately because there was nothing unusual about it. The pot-bellied appearance of the puppy made my diagnosis a formality; I didn’t expect to see him again.

  But I was wrong. A week later my surgery was once more overflowing and I had another squashed-in session with Toby in the little back room. My pill had evacuated a few worms but he was still vomiting, still distended.

  ‘Are you giving him five very small meals a day as I told you?’ I asked.

  I received emphatic affirmative and I believed them. The Dimmocks really took care of their animals. There was something else here, yet I couldn’t find it. Temperature normal, lungs clear, abdomen negative on palpation; I couldn’t make it out. I dispensed a bottle of our antacid mixture with a feeling of defeat. A young puppy like this shouldn’t need such a thing.

  This was the beginning of a frustrating period. There would be a span of two or three weeks when I would think the trouble had righted itself, then without warning the place would be full of Dimmocks and Pounders and I’d be back where I started.

  And all the time Toby was growing thinner.

  I tried everything: gastric sedatives, variations of diet, quack remedies. I interrogated the Dimmocks repeatedly about the character of the vomiting – how long after eating, what were the intervals between, and I received varying replies. Sometimes he brought his food straight back, at others he retained it for several hours. I got nowhere.

  It must have been over eight weeks later – Toby would be about four months old – when I again viewed the assembled Dimmocks with a sinking heart. Their visits had become depressing affairs and I could not foresee anything better today as I opened the waiting-room door and allowed myself to be almost carried along the passage. This time it was Dad who was the last to wedge himself into the consulting room, then Nellie placed the little dog on the table.

  I felt an inward lurch of sheer misery. Toby had grown despite his disability and was now a grim caricature of a Cocker Spaniel, the long silky ears drooping from an almost fleshless skull, the spindly legs pathetically feathered. I had thought Nellie was thin but her pet had outdone her. And he wasn’t just thin, he was trembling slightly as he stood arch-backed on the smooth surface, and his face had the dull inward look of an animal which has lost interest.

  The little girl ran her hand along the jutting ribs and the pale, squinting eyes looked up at me through the steel spectacles with that smile which pulled at me more painfully than ever before. She didn’t seem worried. Probably she had no idea how things were, but whether she had or not I knew I’d never be able to tell her that her dog was slowly dying.

  I rubbed my eyes wearily. ‘What has he had to eat today?’

  Nellie answered herself. ‘He’s ’ad some bread and milk.’

  ‘How long ago was that?’ I asked, but before anybody could reply the little dog vomited, sending the half-digested stomach contents soaring in a graceful arc to land two feet away on the table.

  I swung round on Mrs Dimmock. ‘Does he always do it like that?’

  ‘Aye he mostly does – sends it flying out, like.’

  ‘But why didn’t you tell me?’

  The poor lady looked flustered. ‘Well . . . I don’t know . . . I . . .’

  I held up a hand. ‘That’s all right, Mrs Dimmock, never mind.’ It occurred to me that all the way through my totally ineffectual treatment of this dog not a single Dimmock or Pounder had uttered a word of criticism so why should I start to complain now?

  But I knew what Toby’
s trouble was now. At last, at long last, I knew.

  And in case my present-day colleagues reading this may think I had been more than usually thick-headed in my handling of the case, I would like to offer in my defence that such limited text books as there were in those days made only a cursory reference to pyloric stenosis (narrowing of the exit of the stomach where it joins the small intestine) and if they did they said nothing about treatment.

  But surely, I thought, somebody in England was ahead of the books. There must be people who were actually doing this operation . . . and if there were I had a feeling one might not be too far away . . .

  I worked my way through the crush and trotted along the passage to the phone.

  ‘Is that you, Granville?’

  ‘Jim!’ A bellow of pure unalloyed joy. ‘How are you

  ‘Very well, how are you?’

  ‘Ab-so-lutely tip top, old son! Never better!’

  ‘Granville, I’ve got a four-month-old spaniel pup I’d like to bring through to you. It’s got pyloric stenosis.’

  ‘Oh lovely!’

  ‘I’m afraid the little thing’s just about on its last legs – a bag of bones.’

  ‘Splendid, splendid!’

  ‘This is because I’ve been mucking about for four weeks in ignorance.’

  ‘Fine, just fine!’

  ‘And the owners are a very poor family. They can’t pay anything, I’m afraid.’

  ‘Wonderful!’

  I hesitated a moment. ‘Granville, you do . . . er . . . you have . . . operated on these cases before?’

  ‘Did five yesterday.’

  ‘What!’

  A deep rumble of laughter. ‘I do but jest, old son, but you needn’t worry, I’ve done a few. And it isn’t such a bad job.’

  ‘Well that’s great.’ I looked at my watch. ‘It’s half past nine now. I’ll get Siegfried to take over my morning round and I’ll see you before eleven.’

  Granville had been called out when I arrived and I hung around his surgery till I heard the expensive sound of the Bentley purring into the yard. Through the window I saw my colleague, in an impeccable pin-striped suit which made him look like the Governor of the Bank of England, paced majestically towards the side door.

 

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