James herriots dog stori.., p.25
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       James Herriot's Dog Stories, p.25

           James Herriot

  Wes’s greatest triumph was undoubtedly the time he removed the grating from the coal cellar outside Skeldale House. It was on the left of the front steps and underneath it was a steep ramp down which the coalmen tipped their bags.

  I don’t know whether it was inspired intuition but he pinched the grating on the day of the Darrowby Gala. The festivities started with a parade through the town led by the Houlton Silver Band, and as I looked down from the windows of our bed-sitter I could see them all gathering in the street below.

  ‘Look, Helen,’ I said, ‘they must be starting the march from Trengate. Everybody I know seems to be down there.’

  Helen leaned over my shoulder and gazed at the long lines of boy scouts, girl guides, ex-servicemen, with half the population of the town packed on the pavements, watching. ‘Yes, it’s quite a sight, isn’t it? Let’s go down and see them move off.’

  We trotted down the long flights of stairs and I followed her out through the front door. And as I appeared in the entrance I was suddenly conscious that I was the centre of attention. The citizens on the pavements, waiting patiently for the parade to start, had something else to look at now. The little Brownies and Wolf Cubs waved at me from their ranks and there were nods and smiles from the people across the road and on all sides.

  I could divine their thoughts. ‘There’s t’young vitnery coming out of his house. Not long married, too. That’s his missus next to him.’

  A feeling of wellbeing rose in me. I don’t know whether other newly married men feel the same, but in those early days I was aware of a calm satisfaction and fulfilment. And I was proud to be the ‘vitnery’ and part of the life of the town. There was my plate on the wall beside me, a symbol of my solid importance. I was a man of substance now, I had arrived.

  Looking around me, I acknowledged the greeting with a few dignified little smiles, raising a gracious hand now and then rather like a royal personage on view. Then I noticed that Helen hadn’t much room by my side, so I stepped to the left to where the grating should have been and slid gracefully down into the cellar.

  It would be a dramatic touch to say I disappeared from view; in fact I wish I had, because I would have stayed down there and avoided further embarrassment. But as it was I travelled only so far down the ramp and stuck there with my head and shoulders protruding into the street.

  My little exhibition caused a sensation among the spectators. Nothing in the Gala parade could compete with this. One or two of the surrounding faces expressed alarm but loud laughter was the general response. The adults were almost holding each other up but the little Brownies and Wolf Cubs made my most appreciative audience, breaking their ranks and staggering about helplessly in the roadway while their leaders tried to restore order.

  I caused chaos, too, in the Houlton Silver Band, who were hoisting their instruments prior to marching off. If they had any ideas about bursting into tune they had to abandon them temporarily because I don’t think any of them had breath to blow.

  It was, in fact, two of the bandsmen who extricated me by linking their hands under my armpits. My wife was of no service at all in the crisis and I could only look up at her reproachfully as she leaned against the doorpost dabbing at her eyes.

  It all became clear to me when I reached street level. I was flicking the coal dust from my trousers and trying to look unconcerned when I saw Wesley Binks doubled up with mirth, pointing triumphantly at me and at the hole over the cellar. He was quite near, jostling among the spectators, and I had my first close look at the wild-eyed little goblin who had plagued me. I may have made an unconscious movement towards him because he gave me a last malevolent grin and disappeared into the crowd.

  Later I asked Helen about him. She could only tell me that Wesley’s father had left home when he was about six years old, that his mother had remarried and the boy now lived with her and his stepfather.

  Strangely, I had another opportunity to study him quite soon afterwards. It was about a week later and my feathers were still a little ruffled after the grating incident when I saw him sitting all alone in the waiting-room. Alone, that is, except for a skinny black dog in his lap.

  I could hardly believe it. I had often rehearsed the choice phrases which I would use on this very occasion but the sight of the animal restrained me; if he had come to consult me professionally I could hardly start pitching into him right away. Maybe later.

  I pulled on a white coat and went in.

  ‘Well, what can I do for you?’ I asked coldly.

  The boy stood up and his expression of mixed defiance and desperation showed that it had cost him something to enter this house.

  ‘Summat matter wi’ me dog,’ he muttered.

  ‘Right, bring him through.’ I led the way along the passage to the consulting room.

  ‘Put him on the table please,’ I said, and as he lifted the little animal I decided that I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. While I was carrying out my examination I would quite casually discuss recent events. Nothing nasty, no clever phrases, just a quiet probe into the situation. I was just about to say something like ‘What’s the idea of all those tricks you play on me?’ when I took my first look at the dog and everything else fled from my mind.

  He wasn’t much more than a big puppy and an out-and-out mongrel. His shiny black coat could have come from a Labrador and there was a suggestion of terrier in the pointed nose and pricked ears, but the long string-like tail and the knock-kneed fore limbs baffled me. For all that he was an attractive little creature with a sweetly expressive face.

  But the things that seized my whole attention were the yellow blobs of pus in the corners of the eyes, the mucopurulent discharge from the nostrils, and the photophobia which made the dog blink painfully at the light from the surgery window.

  Classical canine distemper is so easy to diagnose but there is never any satisfaction in doing so.

  ‘I didn’t know you had a dog,’ I said. ‘How long have you had him?’

  ‘A month. Feller got ’im from t’dog and cat home at Harrington and sold ’im to me.’

  ‘I see.’ I took the temperature and was not surprised to find it was 104°F.

  ‘How old is he?’

  ‘Nine months.’

  I nodded. Just about the worst age.

  I went ahead and asked all the usual questions but I knew the answers already.

  Yes, the dog had been slightly off colour for a week or two. No, he wasn’t really ill, but listless and coughing occasionally. And of course it was not until the eyes and nose began to discharge that the boy became worried and brought him to see me. That was when we usually saw these cases – when it was too late.

  Wesley imparted the information defensively, looking at me under lowered brows as though he expected me to clip his ear at any moment. But as I studied him any aggressive feelings I may have harboured evaporated quickly. The imp of hell appeared on closer examination to be a neglected child. His elbows stuck out through holes in a filthy jersey, his shorts were similarly ragged, but what appalled me most was the sour smell of his unwashed little body. I hadn’t thought there were children like this in Darrowby.

  When he had answered my questions he made an effort and blurted out one of his own.

  ‘What’s matter with ’im?’

  I hesitated a moment. ‘He’s got distemper, Wes.’

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘Well, it’s a nasty infectious disease. He must have got it from another sick dog.’

  ‘Will ’e get better?’

  ‘I hope so. I’ll do the best I can for him.’ I couldn’t bring myself to tell a small boy of his age that his pet was probably going to die.

  I filled a syringe with a ‘mixed macterin’ which we used at that time against the secondary invaders of distemper. It never did much good and even now with all our anti­biotics we cannot greatly influence the final outcome. If you can catch a case in the early viral phase then a shot of hyperimmune serum is curative, but people rarely
bring their dogs in until that phase is over.

  As I gave the injection the dog whimpered a little and the boy stretched out a hand and patted him.

  ‘It’s awright, Duke,’ he said.

  ‘That’s what you call him, is it – Duke?’

  ‘Aye.’ He fondled the ears and the dog turned, whipped his strange long tail about and licked the hand quickly. Wes smiled and looked up at me and for a moment the tough mask dropped from the grubby features and in the dark wild eyes I read sheer delight. I swore under my breath. This made it worse.

  I tipped some boracic crystals into a box and handed it over. ‘Use this dissolved in water to keep his eyes and nose clean. See how his nostrils are all caked and blocked up – you can make him a lot more comfortable.’

  He took the box without speaking and almost with the same movement dropped three and sixpence on the table. It was about our average charge and resolved my doubts on that score.

  ‘When’ll ah bring ’im back?’ he asked.

  I looked at him doubtfully for a moment. All I could do was repeat the injections, but was it going to make the slightest difference?

  The boy misread my hesitation.

  ‘Ah can pay!’ he burst out. ‘Ah can get t’money!’

  ‘Oh I didn’t mean that, Wes. I was just wondering when it would be suitable. How about bringing him in on Thursday?’

  He nodded eagerly and left with his dog.

  As I swabbed the table with disinfectant I had the old feeling of helplessness. The modern veterinary surgeon does not see nearly as many cases of distemper as we used to, simply because most people immunise their puppies at the earliest possible moment. But back in the thirties it was only the few fortunate dogs who were inoculated. The disease is so easy to prevent but almost impossible to cure.

  The next three weeks saw an incredible change in Wesley Binks’s character. He had built up a reputation as an idle scamp but now he was transformed into a model of industry, delivering papers in the mornings, digging people’s gardens, helping to drive the beasts at the auction mart. I was perhaps the only one who knew he was doing it for Duke.

  He brought the dog in every two or three days and paid on the nail. I naturally charged him as little as possible but the money he earned went on other things – fresh meat from the butcher, extra milk and biscuits.

  ‘Duke’s looking very smart today,’ I said on one of the visits. ‘I see you’ve been getting him a new collar and lead.’

  The boy nodded shyly then looked up at me, dark eyes intent. ‘Is ’e any better?’

  ‘Well, he’s about the same, Wes. That’s how it goes – dragging on without much change.’

  ‘When . . . when will ye know?’

  I thought for a moment. Maybe he would worry less if he understood the situation. ‘The thing is this. Duke will get better if he can avoid the nervous complications of distemper.’

  ‘Wot’s them?’

  ‘Fits, paralysis and a thing called chorea which makes the muscles twitch.’

  ‘Wot if he gets them?’

  ‘It’s a bad lookout in that case. But not all dogs develop them.’ I tried to smile reassuringly. ‘And there’s one thing in Duke’s favour – he’s not a pure bred. Cross-bred dogs have a thing called hybrid vigour which helps them to fight disease. After all, he’s eating fairly well and he’s quite lively, isn’t he?’

  ‘Aye, not bad.’

  ‘Well then, we’ll carry on. I’ll give him another shot now.’

  The boy was back in three days and I knew by his face he had momentous news.

  ‘Duke’s a lot better – ’is eyes and nose ’ave dried up and he’s eatin’ like a ’oss!’ He was panting with excitement.

  I lifted the dog on to the table. There was no doubt he was enormously improved and I did my best to join in the rejoicing.

  ‘That’s great, Wes,’ I said, but a warning bell was tink­ling in my mind. If nervous symptoms were going to super­vene, this was the time – just when the dog was apparently recovering.

  I forced myself to be optimistic. ‘Well now, there’s no need to come back any more but watch him carefully and if you see anything unusual bring him in.’

  The ragged little figure was overjoyed. He almost pranced along the passage with his pet and I hoped fervently that I would not see them in there again.

  That was on the Friday evening and by Monday I had put the whole thing out of my head and into the category of satisfying memories when the boy came in with Duke on the lead.

  I looked up from the desk where I was writing in the day book. ‘What is it, Wes?’

  ‘He’s dotherin’.’

  I didn’t bother going through to the consulting room but hastened from behind the desk and crouched on the floor, studying the dog intently. At first I saw nothing, then as I watched I could just discern a faint nodding of the head. I placed my hand on the top of the skull and waited. And it was there: the slight but regular twitching of the temporal muscles which I had dreaded.

  ‘I’m afraid he’s got chorea, Wes,’ I said.

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘It’s one of the things I was telling you about. Sometimes they call it St Vitus’ Dance. I was hoping it wouldn’t happen.’

  The boy looked suddenly small and forlorn and he stood there silent twisting the new leather lead between his fingers. It was such an effort for him to speak that he almost closed his eyes.

  ‘Will ’e die?’

  ‘Some dogs do get over it, Wes.’ I didn’t tell him that I had seen it happen only once. ‘I’ve got some tablets which might help him. I’ll get you some.’

  I gave him a few of the arsenical tablets I had used in my only cure. I didn’t even know if they had been respon­sible but I had nothing more to offer.

  Duke’s chorea pursued a text book course over the next two weeks. All the things which I had feared turned up in a relentless progression. The twitching spread from his head to his limbs, then his hindquarters began to sway as he walked.

  His young master brought him in repeatedly and I went through the motions, trying at the same time to make it clear that it was all hopeless. The boy persisted doggedly, rushing about meanwhile with his paper deliveries and other jobs, insisting on paying though I didn’t want his money. Then one afternoon he called in.

  ‘Ah couldn’t bring Duke,’ he muttered. ‘Can’t walk now. Will you come and see ’im?’

  We got into my car. It was a Sunday, about three o’clock, and the streets were quiet. He led me up the cobbled yard and opened the door of one of the houses.

  The stink of the place hit me as I went in. Country vets aren’t easily sickened but I felt my stomach turning. Mrs Binks was very fat and a filthy dress hung shapelessly on her as she slumped, cigarette in mouth, over the kitchen table. She was absorbed in a magazine which lay in a clearing among mounds of dirty dishes and her curlers nodded as she looked up briefly at us.

  On a couch under the window her husband sprawled asleep, open-mouthed, snoring out the reek of beer. The sink, which held a further supply of greasy dishes, was covered in a revolting green scum. Clothes, newspapers and nameless rubbish littered the floor, and over everything a radio blasted away at full strength.

  The only clean new thing was the dog basket in the corner. I went across and bent over the little animal. Duke was now prostrate and helpless, his body emaciated and jerking uncontrollably. The sunken eyes had filled up again with pus and gazed apathetically ahead.

  ‘Wes,’ I said, ‘you’ve got to let me put him to sleep.’

  He didn’t answer, and as I tried to explain, the blaring radio drowned my words. I looked over at his mother.

  ‘Do you mind turning the radio down?’ I asked.

  She jerked her head at the boy and he went over and turned the knob. In the ensuing silence I spoke to him again.

  ‘It’s the only thing, believe me. You can’t let him die by inches like this.’

  He didn’t look at me. All his atten
tion was fixed desperately on his dog. Then he raised a hand and I heard his whisper.


  I hurried out to the car for the Nembutal.

  ‘I promise you he’ll feel no pain,’ I said as I filled the syringe. And indeed the little creature merely sighed before lying motionless, the fateful twitching stilled at last.

  I put the syringe in my pocket. ‘Do you want me to take him away, Wes?’

  He looked at me bewilderedly and his mother broke in.

  ‘Aye, get ’im out. Ah never wanted t’bloody thing ’ere in t’first place.’ She resumed her reading.

  I quickly lifted the little body and went out. Wes followed me and watched as I opened the boot and laid Duke gently on top of my black working coat.

  As I closed the lid he screwed his knuckles into his eyes and his body shook. I put my arm across his shoulders, and as he leaned against me for a moment and sobbed I wondered if he had ever been able to cry like this – like a little boy with somebody to comfort him.

  But soon he stood back and smeared the tears across the dirt on his cheeks.

  ‘Are you going back into the house, Wes?’ I asked.

  He blinked and looked at me with a return of his tough expression.

  ‘Naw!’ he said and turned and walked away. He didn’t look back and I watched him cross the road, climb a wall and trail away across the fields towards the river.

  And it has always seemed to me that at that moment Wes walked back into his old life. From then on there were no more odd jobs or useful activities. He never played any more tricks on me but in other ways he progressed into more serious misdemeanours. He set barns on fire, was up before the magistrates for theft, and by the time he was thirteen he was stealing cars.

  Finally he was sent to an approved school and then he disappeared from the district. Nobody knew where he went and most people forgot him. One person who didn’t was the police sergeant.


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