It shouldnt happen to a.., p.24
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       It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, p.24

           James Herriot
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transition was almost violent as the trees and bushes thinned out and

  gave way to the bare, rocky hillside and the miles of limestone walls.

  And though the valley had been rich with the fresh green of the new

  leaves, up here the buds were unopened and the naked branches stretched

  against the sky still had the look of winter.

  Tim Alton's farm lay at the top of the track and as I pulled up at the

  gate I wondered as I always did how the man could scrape a living from

  those few harsh acres with the grass flattened and yellowed by the wind

  which always blew. At any rate, many generations had accomplished the

  miracle and had lived and struggled and died in that house with its

  outbuildings crouching in the lee of a group of stunted, wind-bent

  trees, its massive stones crumbling under three centuries of fierce


  Why should anybody want to build a farm in such a place? I turned as I

  opened the gate and looked back at the track threading between the walls

  down and down to where the white stones of the river glittered in the

  spring sunshine. Maybe the builder had stood here and looked across the

  green vastness and breathed in the cold, sweet air and thought it was


  I saw Tim Alton coming across the yard. There had been no need to lay

  down concrete or cobbles here; they had just swept away the thin soil

  and there, between house and buildings was a sloping stretch of fissured

  rock. It was more than a durable surface - it was everlasting.

  "It's your pig this time, then, Tim," I said and the farmer nodded


  "Aye, right as owl yesterday and laid flat like a deed 'un this morning.

  Never looked up when I filled his trough and by gaw when a pig won't

  tackle his grub there's summat far won"." Tim dug his hands inside the

  broad leather belt which encircled his oversized trousers and which

  always seemed to be about to nip his narrow frame in two and led the way

  gloomily into the sty. Despite the bitter poverty of his existence he

  was a man who took misfortune cheerfully. I had never seen him look like

  this and I thought I knew the reason; there is something personal about

  the family pig.

  Smallholders like Tim Alton made their meagre living from a few cows;

  they sold their milk to the big dairies or made butter. And they killed

  a pig or two each year and cured it themselves for home consumption. On

  the poorer places it seemed to me that they ate little else; whatever

  meal I happened to stumble in on, the cooking smell was always the same

  - roasting fat bacon.

  It appeared to be a matter of pride to make the pig as fat as possible;

  in fact, on these little wind-blown farms where the people and the cows

  and the dogs were lean and spare, the pig was about the only fat thing

  to be seen.

  I had seen the Alton pig before. I had been stitching a cow's torn teat

  about a fortnight ago and Tim had patted me on the shoulder and

  whispered: "Now come along wi' me, Mr. Herriot and I'll show the summat.

  "We had looked into the sty at a twenty-five-stone monster effortlessly

  emptying a huge trough of wet meal I could remember the pride in the

  farmer's eyes and the way he listened to the smacking and slobbering as

  if to great music.

  It was different today. The pig looked, if possible, even more enormous

  as it lay on its side, eyes closed, filling the entire floor of the sty

  like a beached whale. Tim splashed a stick among the untouched meal in

  the trough and made encouraging noises but the animal never stirred. The

  farmer looked at me with haggard eyes.

  "He's bad, Mr. Herriot. It's serious whatever it is."

  I had been taking the temperature and when I read the thermometer I

  whistled. "A hundred and seven. That's some fever."

  The colour drained from Tim's face. "Oh 'elf! A hundred and seven! It's

  hopeless, then. It's ower with him."

  I had been feeling along the animal's side and I smiled reassuringly.

  "No, don't worry, Tim. I think he's going to be all right. He's got

  erysipelas. Here, put your fingers along his back. You can feel a lot of

  flat swellings on his skin - those are the diamonds. He'll have a

  beautiful rash within a few hours but at the moment you can't see it,

  you can only feel it."

  "And you can make him better."

  "I'm nearly sure I can. I'll give him a whacking dose of serum and I'd

  like to bet you he'll have his nose in that trough in a couple of days.

  Most of them get over it all right."

  "Well that's a bit o' good news, any road," said Tim, a smile flooding

  over his face. "You had me worried there with your hundred and seven,

  clang you."

  I laughed. "Sorry, Tim, didn't mean to frighten you. I'm often happier

  to see a high temperature than a low one. But it's a funny time for

  erysipelas. We usually see it in late summer."

  "All right, I'll let ye off this time. Come in and wash your hands."

  In the kitchen I ducked my head but couldn't avoid bumping the massive

  side of bacon hanging from the beamed ceiling. The heavy mass rocked

  gently on its hooks; it was about eight inches thick in parts - all pure

  white fat. Only by close inspection was it possible to discern a thin

  strip of lean meat.

  Mrs. Alton produced a cup of tea and as I sipped I looked across at Tim

  who had fallen back into a chair and lay with his hands hanging down,

  for a moment he closed his eyes and his face became a mask of weariness.

  I thought for the hundredth time about the endless labour which made up

  the lives of these little farmers. Alton was only forty but his body was

  already bent and ravaged by the constant demands he made on it; you

  could read his story in the corded forearm the rough, work-swollen

  fingers. He told me once that the last time he missed a milking was

  twelve years ago and that was for his father's funeral.

  I was taking my leave when I saw Jennie. She was the Altons' eldest

  child and was pumping vigorously at the tyre of her bicycle which was

  leaning against the wall just outside the kitchen door.

  "Going somewhere?" I asked and the girl straightened up quickly, pushing

  back a few strands of dark hair from her forehead. She was about

  eighteen with delicate features and large, expressive eyes; in her wild,

  pinched prettiness there was something of the wheeling curlews, the wind

  and sun, the wide emptiness of the moors.

  "I'm going down to "'village." She stole a glance into the kitchen. "I'm

  going to get a bottle of Guinness for dad."

  "The village! It's a long way to go for a bottle of Guinness. It must be

  two miles and then you've got to push back up this hill. Are you going

  all that way just for one bottle."

  "Ay, just one," she whispered, counting out a sixpence and some coppers

  into her palm with calm absorption. "Dad's been up all night waiting for

  a heifer to calve - he's tired out. I won't be long and he can have his

  Guinness with his dinner. That's what he likes." She looked up at me

  conspiratorially. "It'll be a surprise for him."

  As she spoke, her father, still sprawled in the chair, turned h
is head

  and looked at her; he smiled and for a moment I saw a serenity in the

  steady eyes, a nobility in the seamed face.

  Jennie looked at him for a few seconds, a happy secret look from under

  her lowered brows; then she turned quickly, mounted her bicycle and

  began to pedal down the track at surprising speed.

  I followed her more slowly, the car, in second gear, bumping and swaying

  over the stones. I stared straight ahead, lost in thought. I couldn't

  stop my mind roaming between the two houses I had visited; between the

  gracious mansion by the river and the crumbling farmhouse I had just

  left; from Henry Tavener with his beautiful clothes, his well-kept

  hands, his rows of books and pictures and clocks to Tim Alton with his

  worn, chest-high trousers nipped in by that great belt, his daily,

  monthly, yearly grind to stay alive on that unrelenting hilltop.

  But I kept coming back to the daughters; to the contempt in Julia

  Tavener's eyes when she looked at her father and the shining tenderness

  in Jennie Alton's.

  It wasn't so easy to work out as it seemed; in fact it became

  increasingly difficult to decide who was getting the most out of their

  different lives. But as I guided the car over the last few yards of the

  track and pulled on to the smooth tarmac of the road it came to me with

  unexpected clarity. Taking it all in all, if I had the choice to make,

  I'd settle for the Guinness.

  Chapter Thirty-one.

  Tristan was unpacking the UCM's. These bottles contained a rich red

  fluid which constituted our last line of defence in the battle with

  animal disease. Its full name, Universal Cattle Medicine, was proclaimed

  on the label in big black type and underneath it pointed out that it was

  highly efficacious for coughs, chills, scours, garget, milk fever,

  pneumonia, felon and bloat. It finished off on t ~

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  a confident note with the assurance: "Never Fails to Give Relief' and we

  had read the label so often that we half believed it.

  It was a pity it didn't do any good because there was something

  compelling about its ruby depths when you held it up to the light and

  about the solid camphor-ammonia jolt when you sniffed at it and which

  made the farmers blink and shake their heads and say "By yaw, that's

  powerful stuff," with deep respect. But our specific remedies were so

  few and the possibilities of error so plentiful that it was comforting

  in cases of doubt to be able to hand over a bottle of the old standby.

  Whenever an entry of Siegfried's or mine appeared in the day book

  stating "Visit attend cow, advice, I UCM' it was a pretty fair bet we

  didn't know what was wrong with the animal.

  The bottles were tall and shapely and they came in elegant white

  cartons, so much more impressive than the unobtrusive containers of the

  antibiotics and steroids which we use today. Tristan was lifting them

  out of the tea chest and stacking them on the shelves in deep rows. When

  he saw me he ceased his labours, sat on the chest and pulled out a

  packet of Woodbines. He lit one, pulled the smoke a long way down then

  fixed me with a noncommittal stare.

  "You're taking her to the pictures then."

  Feeling vaguely uneasy under his eye, I tipped a pocketful of assorted

  empties into the waste basket. "Yes, that's right. In about an hour."

  "Mm." He narrowed his eyes against the slowly escaping smoke. "Mm, I


  "Well what are you looking like that for?" I said defensively. "Anything

  wrong with going to the pictures."

  "No-no. No-no-no. Nothing at all, Jim. Nothing, nothing. A very

  wholesome pursuit."

  "But you don't think I should be taking Helen there."

  "I never said that. No, I'm sure you'll have a nice time. It's just that

  ..." He scratched his head. "I thought you might have gone in for

  something a bit more ... well ... enterprising.

  I gave a bitter laugh. "Look, I tried enterprise at the Reniston. Oh,

  I'm not blaming you, Triss, you meant well, but as you know it was a

  complete shambles. I just don't want anything to go wrong tonight. I'm

  playing safe."

  "Well, I won't argue with you there," Tristan said. "You couldn't get

  much safer than the Darrowby Plaza."

  And later, shivering in the tub in the vast, draughty bathroom, I

  couldn't keep out the thought that Tristan was right. Taking Helen to

  the local cinema was a form of cowardice, a shrinking away from reality

  into what I hoped would be a safe, dark intimacy. But as I towelled

  myself, hopping about to keep warm, and looked out through the fringe of

  wisteria at the darkening garden there was comfort in the thought that

  it was another beginning, even though a small one.

  And as I closed the door of Skeldale House and looked along the street

  to where the first lights of the shops beckoned in the dusk I felt a

  lifting of the heart. It was as though a breath from the near-by hills

  had touched me. A fleeting fragrance which said winter had gone. It was

  still cold - it was always cold in Darrowby until well into May - but

  the promise was there, of sunshine and warm grass and softer days.

  You had to look closely or you could easily miss the Plaza, tucked in as

  it was between Pickersgills the ironmongers and Howarths the chemists.

  There had never been much attempt at grandeur in its architecture and

  the entrance was hardly wider than the average shop front. But what

  puzzled me as I approached was that the place was in darkness. I was in

  good time but the show was due to start in ten minutes or so and there

  was no sign of life.

  I hadn't dared tell Tristan that my precautions had extended as far as

  arranging to meet Helen here. With a car like mine there was always an

  element of doubt about arriving anywhere in time or indeed at all and I

  had thought it prudent to eliminate all transport hazards.

  "Meet you outside the cinema." My God, it wasn't very bright was it? It

  took me back to my childhood, to the very first time I had taken a girl

  out. I was just fourteen and on my way to meet her I tendered my only

  half-crown to a bloody-minded Glasgow tram conductor and asked for a

  penny fare. He vented his spleen on me by ransacking his bag and giving

  me my change entirely in halfpennies. So when the cinema queue reached

  the pay box I had to stand there with my little partner and everybody

  else watching while I paid for our shilling tickets with great handfuls

  of copper. The shame of it left a scar - it was another four years

  before I took out a girl again.

  But the black thoughts were dispelled when I saw Helen picking her way

  across the market-place cobbles. She smiled and waved cheerfully as if

  being taken to the Darrowby Plaza was the biggest treat a girl could

  wish for, and when she came right up to me there was a soft flush on her

  cheeks and her eyes were bright.

  Everything was suddenly absolutely right. I felt a surging conviction

  that this was going to be a good night - nothing was going to spoil

  After we had said hello she told me that Dan was running about like a

  puppy with no trace of a limp and the news was another wave on the high

  tide of my euphoria.

  The only thing that troubled me was the blank, uninhabited appearance of

  the cinema entrance.

  "Strange there's nobody here," I said. "It's nearly starting time. I

  suppose the place is open."

  "Must be," Helen said. "It's open every night but Sunday. Anyway, I'm

  sure these people are waiting too."

  I looked around. There was no queue as such but little groups were

  standing here and there; a few couples, mostly middle-aged, a bunch of

  small boys rolling and fighting on the pavement. Nobody seemed worried.

  And indeed there was no cause. Exactly two minutes before the picture

  was due to start a figure in a mackintosh coat pedalled furiously round

  the corner of the street, head down, legs pistoning, the bicycle Lying

  over at a per~.ous angle with the ground. He came to a screeching halt

  outside the entrance, inserted a key in the lock and threw wide the

  doors. Reaching inside, he flicked a switch and a single neon strip

  flickered fitfully above our,heads and went out. It did this a few times

  and seemed bent on mischief till he stood on tiptoe and beat it into

  submission with a masterful blow of his fist. Then he whipped off the

  mackintosh revealing faultless evening-dress. The manager had arrived.

  While this was going on a very fat lady appeared from nowhere and wedged

  herself into the pay box. The show was ready to roll.

  We all began to shuffle inside. The little boys put down their

  ninepences and punched each other as they passed through a curtain into

  the stalls, while the rest of us proceeded decorously upstairs to the

  one-and-sixpenny seats in the balcony. The manager, his white shirt

  front and silk lapels gleaming, smiled and bowed with great courtesy as

  we passed.

  We paused at a row of pegs at the top of the stairs while some people

  hung up their coats. I was surprised to see Maggie Robinson the

  blacksmith's daughter there, taking the tickets, and she appeared to be

  intrigued by the sight of us. She simpered and ~,i~led. darted glances

  at Helen and did everything but dig me ~ r~ 0 oo ~ ~

  in the ribs. Finally she parted the curtains and we went inside.

  It struck me immediately that the management were determined that their

  patrons wouldn't feel cold because if it hadn't been for the

  all-pervading smell of old sofas we might have been plunging into a

  tropical jungle. Maggie steered us through the stifling heat to our

  places and as I sat down I noticed that there was no arm between the two


  "Them's the courting seats," she blurted out and fled with her hand to

  her mouth.

  The lights were still on and I looked round the tiny balcony. There were

  only about a dozen people dotted here and there sitting in patient

  silence under the plain distempered walls. By the side of the screen the

  hands of a clock stood resolutely at twenty-past four.

  But it was all right sitting there with Helen. I felt fine except for a

  tendency to gasp like a goldfish in the airless atmosphere. I was

  settling down costly when a little man seated in front of us with his

  wife turned slowly round. The mouth in the haggard face was pursed

  grimly and he fixed his eyes on mine in a long, challenging stare. We

  faced each other for several silent moments before he finally spoke.

  "She's dead," he said.

  A thrill of horror shot through me. "Dead."

  "Aye, she is. She's dead." He dragged the word out slowly with a kind of

  mournful satisfaction while his eyes still stared into mine.

  I swallowed a couple of times. "Well, I'm sorry to hear that. Truly

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