James herriots cat stori.., p.3
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       James Herriot's Cat Stories, p.3

           James Herriot
 
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rigidly, eyes staring down at the mound of cloth from which the

  purring rose in waves of warm, friendly sound. At last he looked up

  at me and gulped. "I don't fancy this much, Jim. Can't we do

  something?" "You mean, try to repair all this?" "Yes. We could

  stitch the wounds, bit by little bit, couldn't we?" I lifted the

  blanket and looked again. "Honestly, Triss, I wouldn't know where to

  start. And the whole thing is filthy." He didn't say anything, but

  continued to look at me steadily. And I didn't need much persuading.

  I had no more desire to pour ether on to that comradely purring than

  he had. "Come on, then," I said. "We'll have a go." With the oxygen

  bubbling and the cat's head in the anaesthetic mask we washed the

  whole body with warm saline. We did it again and again but it was

  impossible to remove every fragment of caked dirt. Then we started

  the painfully slow business of stitching the many wounds, and here I

  was glad of Tristan's nimble fingers which seemed better able to

  manipulate the small round-bodied needles than mine. Two hours and

  yards of catgut later, we were finished and everything looked tidy.

  "He's alive, anyway, Triss," I said as we began to wash the

  instruments. "We'll put him on to sulphapyridine and keep our

  fingers crossed that peritonitis won't set in." There were still no

  antibiotics at that time but the new drug was a big advance. The

  door opened and Helen came in. "You've been a long time, Jim." She

  walked over to the table and looked down at the sleeping cat. "What

  a poor skinny little thing. He's all bones." "You should have seen

  him when he came in." Tristan switched off the steriliser and

  screwed shut the valve on the anaesthetic machine. "He looks a lot

  better now." She stroked the little animal for a moment. "Is he

  badly injured?" "I'm afraid so, Helen," I said. "We've done our best

  for him but I honestly don't think he has much chance." "What a

  shame. And he's pretty, too. Four white feet and all those unusual

  colours." With her finger she traced the faint bands of auburn and

  copper-gold among the grey and black. Tristan laughed. "Yes, I think

  that chap has a ginger tom somewhere in his ancestry." Helen smiled,

  too, but absently, and I noticed a broody look about her. She

  hurried out to the stock room and returned with an empty box. "Yes ..

  . yes ..." she said thoughtfully. "I can make a bed in this box for

  him and he'll sleep in our room, Jim." "He will?" "Yes, he must be

  warm, mustn't he?" "Of course, especially with such chilly nights."

  Later, in the darkness of our bed-sitter, I looked from my pillow at

  a cosy scene: Sam the beagle in his basket on one side of the

  flickering fire and the cat cushioned and blanketed in his box on

  the other. As I floated off into sleep it was good to know that my

  patient was so comfortable, but I wondered if he would be alive in

  the morning. ... I knew he was alive at 7:30 A.M. because my wife

  was already up and talking to him. I trailed across the room in my

  pyjamas and the cat and I looked at each other. I rubbed him under

  the chin and he opened his mouth in a rusty miaow. But he didn't try

  to move. "Helen," I said. "This little thing is tied together inside

  with catgut. He'll have to live on fluids for a week and even then

  he probably won't make it. If he stays up here you'll be spooning

  milk into him umpteen times a day." "Okay, okay." She had that broody

  look again. It wasn't only milk she spooned into him over the next

  few days. Beef essence, strained broth and a succession of

  sophisticated baby foods found their way down his throat at regular

  intervals. One lunch time I found Helen kneeling by the box. "We

  shall call him Oscar," she said. "You mean we're keeping him?" "Yes.

  " I am fond of cats but we already had a dog in our cramped quarters

  and I could see difficulties. Still I decided to let it go. "Why

  Oscar?" "I don't know." Helen tipped a few drops of chop gravy onto

  the little red tongue and watched intently as he swallowed. One of

  the things I like about women is their mystery, the unfathomable

  part of them, and I didn't press the matter further. But I was

  pleased at the way things were going. I had been giving the

  sulphapyridine every six hours and taking the temperature night and

  morning, expecting all the time to encounter the roaring fever, the

  vomiting and the tense abdomen of peritonitis. But it never happened.

  It was as though Oscar's animal instinct told him he had to move as

  little as possible because he lay absolutely still day after day and

  looked up at us--and purred. His purr became part of our lives and

  when he eventually left his bed, sauntered through to our kitchen

  and began to sample Sam's dinner of meat and biscuit it was a moment

  of triumph. And I didn't spoil it by wondering if he was ready for

  solid food; I felt he knew. From then on it was sheer joy to watch

  the furry scarecrow fill out and grow strong, and as he ate and ate

  and the flesh spread over his bones the true beauty of his coat

  showed in the glossy medley of auburn, black and gold. We had a

  handsome cat on our hands. Once Oscar had recovered, Tristan was a

  regular visitor. He probably felt, and rightly, that he, more than I,

  had saved Oscar's life in the first place and he used to play with

  him for long periods. His favourite ploy was to push his leg round

  the corner of the table and withdraw it repeatedly just as the cat

  pawed at it. Oscar was justifiably irritated by this teasing but

  showed his character by lying in wait for Tristan one night and

  biting him smartly in the ankle before he could start his tricks.

  From my own point of view Oscar added many things to our menage. Sam

  was delighted with him and the two soon became firm friends; Helen

  adored him and each evening I thought afresh that a nice cat washing

  his face by the hearth gave extra comfort to a room.

  Oscar had been established as one of the family for several weeks

  when I came in from a late call to find Helen waiting for me with a

  stricken face. "What's happened?" I asked. "It's Oscar--he's gone!"

  "Gone? What do you mean?" "Oh, Jim, I think he's run away." I stared

  at her. "He wouldn't do that. He often goes down to the garden at

  night. Are you sure he isn't there?" "Absolutely. I've searched

  right into the yard. I've even had a walk around the town. And

  remember," her chin quivered, "he ... he ran away from somewhere

  before." I looked at my watch. "Ten o"clock. Yes, that is strange.

  He shouldn't be out at this time." As I spoke the front door bell

  jangled. I galloped down the stairs and as I rounded the corner in

  the passage I could see Mrs. Heslington, the vicar's wife, through

  the glass. I threw open the door. She was holding Oscar in her arms.

  "I believe this is your cat, Mr. Herriot," she said. "It is indeed,

  Mrs. Heslington. Where did you find him?" She smiled. "Well, it was

  rather odd. We were having a meeting of the Mothers" Union at the

  church house and we noticed the cat sitting there in the room."

  "Just sitting ...?" "Yes, as t
hough he were listening to what we

  were saying and enjoying it all. It was unusual. When the meeting

  ended I thought I'd better bring him along to you." "I'm most

  grateful, Mrs. Heslington." I snatched Oscar and tucked him under my

  arm. "My wife is distraught--she thought he was lost." It was a

  little mystery. Why should he suddenly take off like that? But since

  he showed no change in his manner over the ensuing week we put it

  out of our minds. Then one evening a man brought in a dog for an

  inoculation and left the front door open. When I went up to our flat

  I found that Oscar had disappeared again. This time Helen and I

  scoured the market place and side alleys in vain and when we

  returned at half past nine we were both despondent. It was nearly

  eleven and we were thinking of bed when the door bell rang. It was

  Oscar again, this time resting on the ample stomach of Jack Newbould.

  Jack was leaning against the doorpost and the fresh country air

  drifting in from the dark street was richly intermingled with beer

  fumes. Jack was a gardener at one of the big houses. He hiccuped

  gently and gave me a huge benevolent smile. "Brought your cat, Mr.

  Herriot." "Gosh, thanks, Jack!" I said, scooping up Oscar gratefully.

  "Where the devil did you find him?" "Well, s'matter o" fact, "e sort

  of found me." "What do you mean?" Jack closed his eyes for a few

  moments before articulating carefully. "Thish is a big night, tha

  knows, Mr. Herriot. Darts championship. Lots of t"lads round at

  t"Dog and Gun--lotsh and lotsh of "em. Big gathering." "And our cat

  was there?" "Aye, he were there, all right. Sitting among t"lads.

  Shpent t"whole evening with us." "Just sat there, eh?" "That "e did.

  " Jack giggled reminiscently. "By gaw, "e enjoyed isself. Ah gave

  "im a drop o" best bitter out of me own glass and once or twice ah

  thought "e was going to have a go at chucking a dart. He's some cat.

  " He laughed again. As I bore Oscar upstairs I was deep in thought.

  What was going on here? These sudden desertions were upsetting Helen

  and I felt they could get on my nerves in time. I didn't have long

  to wait till the next one. Three nights later he was missing again.

  This time Helen and I didn't bother to search--we just waited. He

  was back earlier than usual. I heard the door bell at nine o"clock.

  It was the elderly Miss Simpson peering through the glass. And she

  wasn't holding Oscar--he was prowling on the mat waiting to come in.

  Miss Simpson watched with interest as the cat stalked inside and

  made for the stairs. "Ah, good, I'm so glad he's come home safely. I

  knew he was your cat and I've been intrigued by his behaviour all

  evening." "Where ... may I ask?" "Oh, at the Women's Institute. He

  came in shortly after we started and stayed till the end." "Really?

  What exactly was your programme, Miss Simpson?" "Well, there was a

  bit of committee stuff, then a short talk with lantern slides by Mr.

  Walters from the water company and we finished with a cake-making

  competition." "Yes ... yes ... and what did Oscar do?" She laughed.

  "Mixed with the company, apparently enjoyed the slides and showed

  great interest in the cakes." "I see. And you didn't bring him

  home?" "No, he made his own way here. As you know, I have to pass

  your house and I merely rang your bell to make sure you knew he had

  arrived." "I'm obliged to you, Miss Simpson. We were a little

  worried." I mounted the stairs in record time. Helen was sitting

  with the cat on her knee and she looked up as I burst in. "I know

  about Oscar now," I said. "Know what?" "Why he goes on these nightly

  outings. He's not running away--he's visiting." "Visiting?" "Yes," I

  said. "Don't you see? He likes getting around, he loves people,

  especially in groups, and he's interested in what they do. He's a

  natural mixer." Helen looked down at the attractive mound of fur

  curled on her lap. "Of course ... that's it ... he's a socialite!"

  "Exactly, a high stepper!" "A cat-about-town!" It all afforded us some

  innocent laughter and Oscar sat up and looked at us with evident

  pleasure, adding his own throbbing purr to the merriment. But for

  Helen and me there was a lot of relief behind it; ever since our cat

  had started his excursions there had been the gnawing fear that we

  would lose him, and now we felt secure. From that night our delight

  in him increased. There was endless joy in watching this facet of

  his character unfolding. He did the social round meticulously,

  taking in most of the activities of the town. He became a familiar

  figure at whist drives, jumble sales, school concerts and scout

  bazaars. Most of the time he was made welcome, but he was twice

  ejected from meetings of the Rural District Council--they did not

  seem to relish the idea of a cat sitting in on their deliberations.

  At first I was apprehensive about his making his way through the

  streets but I watched him once or twice and saw that he looked both

  ways before tripping daintily across. Clearly, he had excellent

  traffic sense and this made me feel that his original injury had not

  been caused by a car. Taking it all in all, Helen and I felt that it

  was a kind of stroke of fortune which had brought Oscar to us. He

  was a warm and cherished part of our home life. He added to our

  happiness.

  When the blow fell it was totally unexpected. I was finishing the

  morning surgery. I looked round the door and saw only a man and two

  little boys. "Next, please," I said. The man stood up. He had no

  animal with him. He was middle-aged, with the rough, weathered face

  of a farm worker. He twirled a cloth cap nervously in his hands. "Mr.

  Herriot?" he said. "Yes, what can I do for you?" He swallowed and

  looked me straight in the eyes. "Ah think you've got ma cat."

  "What?" "Ah lost ma cat a bit since." He cleared his throat. "We

  used to live at Missdon but ah got a job as ploughman to Mr. Horne

  of Wederly. It was after we moved to Wederly that t"cat went missing.

  Ah reckon he was trying to find "is way back to his old home."

  "Wederly? That's on the other side of Brawton--over thirty miles

  away." "Aye, ah knaw, but cats is funny things." "But what makes you

  think I've got him?" He twisted the cap around a bit more. "There's

  a cousin o" mine lives in Darrowby and ah heard tell from "im about

  this cat that goes around to meetin's. I "ad to come. We've been

  hunting everywhere." "Tell me," I said, 'this cat you lost. What did

  he look like?" "Grey and black and sort o" gingery. Right bonny "e

  was. And "e was allus going out to gatherin's." A cold hand clutched

  at my heart. "You'd better come upstairs. Bring the boys with you."

  Helen was laying the table for lunch in our little bed-sitter.

  "Helen," I said. "This is Mr.--er--I'm sorry, I don't know your name.

  " "Gibbons, Sep Gibbons. They called me Septimus because ah was the

  seventh in family and it looks like ah'm going that'same way "cause

  we've got six already. These are our two youngest." The two boys,

  obvious twins of about eight, looked up at us solemnly. I wished my

  heart w
ould stop hammering. "Mr. Gibbons thinks Oscar is his. He

  lost his cat some time ago." My wife laid down the plates. "Oh ...

  oh ... I see." She stood very still for a moment, then smiled

  faintly. "Do sit down. Oscar's in the kitchen, I'll bring him

  through." She went out and reappeared with the cat in her arms. She

  hadn't got through the door before the little boys gave tongue.

  "Tiger!" they cried. "Oh, Tiger, Tiger!" The man's face seemed lit

  from within. He walked quickly across the floor and ran his big

  work-roughened hand along the fur. "Hullo, awd lad," he said, and

  turned to me with a radiant smile. "It's "im, Mr. Herriot, it's "im

  awright, and don't "e look well!" "You call him Tiger, eh?" I said.

  "Aye," he replied happily. "It's them gingery stripes. The kids

  called "im that. They were broken-hearted when we lost "im." As the

  two little boys rolled on the floor our Oscar rolled with them,

  pawing playfully, purring with delight. Sep Gibbons sat down again.

  "That's the way "e allus went on wi" the family. They used to play

  with "im for hours. By gaw we did miss "im. He were a right

  favourite." I looked at the broken nails on the edge of the cap, at

  the decent, honest, uncomplicated Yorkshire face so like the many I

  had grown to like and respect. Farm men like him got thirty

  shillings a week in those days and it was reflected in the thread-

  bare jacket, the cracked, shiny boots and the obvious hand-me-downs

  of the boys. But all three were scrubbed and tidy, the man's face

  like a red beacon, the children's knees gleaming and their hair

  carefully slicked across their foreheads. They looked like nice

  people to me. I turned towards the window and looked out over the

  tumble of roofs to my beloved green hills beyond. I didn't know what

  to say. Helen said it for me. "Well, Mr. Gibbons." Her tone had an

  unnatural brightness. "You'd better take him." The man hesitated.

  "Now then, are ye sure, Missus Herriot?" "Yes ... yes, I'm sure. He

  was your cat first." "Aye, but some folks "ud say finders keepers or

  summat like that. Ah didn't come "ere to demand "im back or owt of

  that'sort." "I know you didn't, Mr. Gibbons, but you've had him all

  those years and you've searched for him so hard. We couldn't

  possibly keep him from you." He nodded quickly. "Well, that's right

  good of ye." He paused for a moment, his face serious, then he

  stopped and picked Oscar up. "We'll have to be off if we're going to

  catch the eight o"clock bus." Helen reached forward, cupped the

  cat's head in her hands and looked at him steadily for a few seconds.

  Then she patted the boys" heads. "You'll take good care of him,

  won't you?" "Aye, missus, thank ye, we will that." The two small

  faces looked up at her and smiled. "I'll see you down the stairs, Mr.

  Gibbons," I said. On the descent I tickled the furry cheek resting

  on the man's shoulder and heard for the last time the rich purring.

  On the front door step we shook hands and they set off down the

  street. As they rounded the corner of Trengate they stopped and

  waved, and I waved back at the man, the two children and the cat's

  head looking back at me over the shoulder. It was my habit at that

  time in my life to mount the stairs two or three at a time but on

  this occasion I trailed upwards like an old man, slightly breathless,

  throat tight, eyes prickling. I cursed myself for a sentimental fool

  but as I reached our door I found a flash of consolation. Helen had

  taken it remarkably well. She had nursed that cat and grown deeply

  attached to him, and I'd have thought an unforeseen calamity like

  this would have upset her terribly. But no, she had behaved calmly

  and rationally. You never knew with women, but I was thankful. It

  was up to me to do as well. I adjusted my features into the

  semblance of a cheerful smile and marched into the room. Helen had

  pulled a chair close to the table and was slumped face down against

  the wood. One arm cradled her head while the other was stretched in

  front of her as her body shook with an utterly abandoned weeping. I

  had never seen her like this and I was appalled. I tried to say

 
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