Let sleeping vets lie, p.21
Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.21James Herriot
Inside the tiny living room of the cottage I was ushered to the best
chair by the fireside where two rough logs blazed and crackled.
"Bring cake out for Mr. Herriot, mother," the farmer cried as he
rummaged in the pantry. He reappeared with a bottle of whisky at the
same time as his; wife bustled in carrying a cake thickly laid with
icing and ornamented with coloured spangles, toboggans, reindeers.
Mr. Kirby unscrewed the stopper. "You know, mother, we're lucky to have
such men as this to come out on a Christmas mornin" to help us."
"Aye, we are that." The old lady cut a thick slice of the cake and
placed it on a plate by the side of an enormous wedge of Wensleydale
Her husband meanwhile was pouring my drink. Yorkshiremen are amateurs`
with whisky and there was something delightfully untutored in the way he
was sloshing it into the glass as if it was lemonade; he would have
filled it to the brim if I hadn't stopped him.
Drink in hand, cake on knee, I looked across at the farmer and his wife
who were sitting in upright kitchen chairs watching me with quiet
benevolence. The two faces had something in common - a kind of beauty.
You would find faces like that only in the country; deeply wrinkled and
weathered, clear-eyed, alight with a cheerful serenity.
I raised my glass. "A happy Christmas to you both."
The old couple nodded and replied smilingly. "And the same to you, Mr.
"Aye, and thanks again, lad," said Mr. Kirby. "We're right grateful to
you for runnin" out here to save awd Dorothy. We've maybe mucked up your
day for you but it would've mucked up ours if we'd lost the old lass,
wouldn't it, mother ?"
"Don't worry, you haven't spoiled anything for me." I said. "In fact
you've made me realise again that it really is Christmas." And as I
looked around the little room with the decorations hanging from the
low-beamed ceiling I could feel the emotions of last night surging
slowly back, a warmth creeping through me that had nothing to do with
I took a bit of the cake and followed it with a moist slice of cheese.
When I had first come to Yorkshire I had been aghast when offered this
unheard-of combination, but time had brought wisdom and I had discovered
that the mixture when chewed boldly together was exquisite; and,
strangely, I had also found that there was nothing more suitable for
washing it finally over the tonsils than a draught of raw whisky.
"You don't mind "'wireless, Mr. Herriot?" Mrs. Kirby asked. "We always
like to have it on Christmas morning to hear t'old hymns but I'll turn
it off if you like."
"No please leave it, it sounds grand." I turned to look at the old radio
with its chipped wooden veneer, the ornate scroll-work over the worn
fabric; it must have been one of the earliest models and it gave off a
tinny sound, but the singing of the church choir was none the less sweet
... Hark the Herald Angels Sing - flooding the little room, mingling
with the splutter of the logs and the soft voices of the old people.
They showed me a picture of their son, who was a policeman over in
Houlton and their daughter who was married to a neighbouring farmer.
They were bringing their grand-children up for Christmas dinner as they
always did and Mrs. Kirby opened a box and ran a hand over the long row
of crackers. The choir started on Once in Royal David's City, I finished
my whisky and put up only feeble resistance as the farmer plied the
bottle again. Through the small window I could see the bright berries of
a holly tree pushing through their covering of snow.
It was really a shame to have to leave here and it was sadly that I
drained my glass for the second time and scooped up the last crumbs of
cake and icing from my plate.
Mr. Kirby came out with me and at the gate of the cottage he stopped and
held out his hand.
"Thank ye lad, I'm right grateful," he said. "And all the very best to
For a moment the rough dry palm rasped against mine, then I was in the
car, Starting the engine. I looked at my watch; it was still only half
past nine but the first early sunshine was sparkling from a sky of
Beyond the village the road climbed steeply then curved around the rim
of the valley in a wide arc, and it was here that you came suddenly upon
the whole great expanse of the Plain of York spread out almost at your
feet. I always slowed down here and there was always something different
to see, but today the vast chequerboard of fields and farms and woods
stood out with a clarity I had never seen before. Maybe it was because
this was a holiday and down there no factory chimney smoked, no lorries
belched fumes, but the distance was magically foreshortened in the
clear, frosty air and I felt I could reach out and touch the familiar
landmarks far below.
I looked back at the enormous white billows and folds of the fells,
crowding close, one upon another into the blue distance, every crevice
uncannily defined, the highest summits glittering where the sun touched
them. I could see the village with the Kirbys" cottage at the end. I had
found Christmas and peace and goodwill and everything back there.
Farmers? They were the salt of the earth."
Marmaduke Skelton was an object of interest to me long before our paths
crossed. For one thing I hadn't thought people were ever calledmarmaduke
outside of books and for another he was a particularly well known member
of the honourable profession of unqualified animal doctors.
Before the Veterinary Surgeons" Act of 1948 anybody who fancied his
chance at it could dabble in the treatment of animal disease. Veterinary
students could quite legally be sent out to cases while they were seeing
practice, certain members of the lay public did a bit of veterinary work
as a sideline while others did it as; a full time job. These last were
usually called 'quacks".
The disparaging nature of the term was often unjust because, though some
of them were a menace to the animal population, others were dedicated
men who did their job with responsibility and humanity and after the Act
were c brought into the profession's fold as Veterinary Practitioners.
But long before all this there were all sorts and types among them. The
one I knew best was Arthur Lumley, a charming little ex-plumber who ran
a thriving small animal practice in Brawton, much to the chagrin of Mr.
Angus Grier MRCVS. Arthur used to drive around in a small van. He always
wore a white coat and looked very clinical and efficient, and on the
side of the van in foot-high letters which would have got a qualified
man a severe dressing down from the Royal College was the legend,
"Arthur Lumley MKC, Canine and Feline Specialist." The lack of letters"
after their name was the one thing which differentiated these men from
qualified vets in the eyes of the general public and I was interested to
see that Arthur did have an academic attainment. However the degree of
about it; I did find out eventually what it stood for; Member of the
Marmaduke Skelton was of a vastly different breed. I had been working
long enough round the Scarburn district to become familiar with some of
the local history and it seemed that when Mr. and Mrs. Skelton were
producing a family in the early 1900s they must have thought their
offspring were destined for great things; they named their four sons
Marmaduke, Sebastian, Cornelius and, i i .
incredibly, Alonzo. The two middle brothers drove lorries for the
Express Dairy and Alonzo was a small farmer; one of my vivid memories is
the shock of surprise when I was filling up the forms after his
tuberculin test and asked him for his first name. The exotic appellation
pronounced in gruff Yorkshire was so incongruous that I thought he was
pulling my leg; in fact I was going to make a light comment but
something in his eye prompted me to leave it alone.
Marmaduke, or Duke as he was invariably called, was the colourful member
of the family. I had heard a lot about him on my visits to the Scarburn
farms; he was a 'right good hand" et calving, foaling and lambing, and
'as good as any vitnery" in the diagnosis and treatment of animals"
ailments. He was also an expert castrator, docker and pig-killer. He
made a nice living at his trade and, of course, in Ewan Ross he had the
ideal professional opposition; a veterinary surgeon who worked only when
he felt like it and who didn't bother to go to a case unless he was in
the mood. Much as the farmers liked and in many cases revered Ewan, they
were often forced to fall back on Duke's services.
If Duke had confined his activities to treating his patients I don't
think Ewan would ever have spared him a thought; but Skelton liked to
enliven his farm visits with sneers about the old Scotch vet who had
never been much good and was definitely getting past it now. Maybe even
that didn't get very far under Ewan's skin but at the mention of his
rival's name his mouth would harden a little and a ruminative expression
creep into the blue eyes.
And it wasn't easy to like Duke. There were the tales you heard about
his savage brawls and about how he knocked his wife and children around
when the mood was on him. I didn't find his appearance engaging either
when I first saw him swaggering across Scarburn market place; a black
bull of a man, a shaggy Heathcliffe with fierce, darting eyes and a hint
of braggadocio in the bright red handkerchief tied round his neck.
But on this particular afternoon I wasn't thinking about Duke Skelton,
in fact I wasn't thinking about anything much as I sprawled in a chair
by the Rosses" fireside. I had just finished one of Ginny's lunches;
something with the unassuming name of fish pie but in truth a magical
concoction in which the humble haddock was elevated, to unimagined
heights by the admixture of potatoes, tomatoes, eggs, macaroni and
things only Ginny knew. Then the apple crumble and the chair close to
the fire with the heat from the flames beating on my face.
The thoughts I had were slumbrous ones; that this house and the people
in it had come to have a magnetic attraction for me; that if this had
been a big successful practice the phone would have been ringing and
Ewan would be struggling into his coat as he chewed his last bite. And
an unworthy thought as I glanced through the window at the white garden
and the snow-burdened trees; that if I didn't hurry back to Darrowby.
Siegfried might do double the work and finish the lot before I got home.
Playing with the soothing picture of the muffled figure of my boss
battling round the farms I watched Ginny placing a coffee cup by her
husband's elbow. Ewan smiled up into her face and just then the phone
Like most vets I am bell-happy and I jumped, but Ewan didn't. He began
quietly to sip his coffee as Ginny picked up the receiver and he didn't
change expression when his wife came over and said, "It's Tommy Thwaite.
One of his cows has put its calf bed out."
These dread tidings would have sent me leaping round the room but Ewan
took a long swallow at his coffee before replying.
Thank you, dear. Will you tell him I'll have a look at her shortly."
He turned to me and began to tell me something funny which had happened
to him that morning and when he had finished he went into his
characteristic laugh - showing nothing apart from a vibration of the
shoulders and a slight popping of the eyes. Then he relaxed in his chair
and recommenced his leisurely sipping.
Though it wasn't my case my feet were itching. A bovine prolapsed uterus
was not only an urgent condition but it held such grim promise of hard
labour that I could never get it over quickly enough. Some were worse
than others and I was always in a hurry to find out what was in store.
Ewan, however, appeared to be totally incurious. In fact he closed his
eyes and I thought for a moment he was settling down for a post prandial
nap. But it was only a gesture of resignation at the wrecking of his
afternoon's repose and he gave a final stretch and got up.
"Want to come with me, Jim?" he asked in his soft voice.
I hesitated for a moment then, callously abandoning Siegfried to his
fate, I nodded eagerly and followed Ewan into the kitchen.
He sat down and pulled on a pair of thick woollen over-socks which Ginny
had been warming by the stove, then he put on his Wellingtons, a short
overcoat" yellow gloves and a check cap. As he strolled along the narrow
track which had been dug through the garden snow he looked
extraordinarily youthful and debonair.
He didn't go into his dispensary this time and I wondered what equipment
he would use, thinking at the same time of Siegfried's words: "Ewan has
his own way of doing everything."
At the farm Mr. Thwaite trotted over to meet us. He was understandably
agitated but there was something else; a nervous rubbing of the hands,
an uneasy giggle as he watched my colleague opening the car boot.
"Mr. Ross," he blurted out at last, "I don't want you to be upset, but
I've summat to tell you." He paused for a moment. "Duke Skelton's in
there with my cow.
Ewan's expression did not flicker. "Oh, right. Then you won't need me."
He closed the boot, opened the door and got back into the car.
"Hey, hey, I didn't mean you to go away!" Mr. Thwaite ran round and
cried through the glass. "Duke just happened to be in "'village and he
said he'd help me out."
"Fine," Ewan said, winding down the window, "I don't mind in the least.
I'm sure he'll do a good job for you."
The farmer screwed up his face in misery. "But you don't understand.
He's been in there for about an hour and a half and he's no further
forward. He's not doin'a bit o" good and he's about buggered an" all. I
want you to take over, Mr. Ross."
"No, I'm sorry." Ewan gave him a level stare. "I couldn't possibly
interfere. You know how it is, Tomm
let him finish." He started the engine.
"No, no, don't go!" shouted Mr. Thwaite, beating the car roof with his
hands. "Duke's whacked, I tell ye. If you drive away now ah'm going to
lose one of ma best cows. You've got to help me, Mr. Ross!" He seemed on
the verge of tears.
My colleague looked at him thoughtfully as the engine purred. Then he
bent forward and turned off the ignition. "All right, I'll tell you what
- I'll go in there and see what he says. If he wants me to help, then I
I followed him into the byre and as we paused just inside the door Duke
Skelton looked up from his work. He had been standing head down, one
hand resting on the rump of a massive cow, his mouth hanging open, his
great barrel chest heaving. The thick hair over his shoulders and ribs
was matted with blood from the huge everted uterus which dangled behind
the animal. Blood and filth L~
streaked his face and covered his arms and as he stared at us from under
his shaggy brows he looked like something from the jungle.
"Well now, Mr. Skelton," Ewan murmured conversationally. "How are you
Duke gave him a quick malevolent glance. "Ah'm coin" all right." The
words rumbled from deep down through his gaping lips.
Mr. Thwaite stepped forward, smiling ingratiatingly. "Come on, Duke,
you've done your best. I think you should let Mr. Ross give you a 'and
"Well ah don't." The big man's jaw jutted suddenly. "If I was lookin"
for help I wouldn't want "IM." He turned away and seized the uterus.
Let Sleeping Vets Lie by James Herriot / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes