Let sleeping vets lie, p.3
Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.3James Herriot
tied-on skin in a non-committal way, then after a few seconds she gave a
few quick licks and the merest beginning of the familiar deep chuckle.
I began to gather up my gear. "I hope he makes it," I said. "Those two
need each other." As I left the pen Herbert, in his new jacket, was
still working away.
For the next week I hardly seemed to have my coat on. The flood of sheep
work was at its peak and I spent hours of every day with my arms in and
out of buckets of water in all corners of the district - in the pens, in
dark nooks in farm buildings or very often in the open fields, because
the farmers of those days
didn't find anything disturbing in the sight of a vet kneeling in his
shirt sleeves for an hour in the rain.
I had one more visit to Rob Benson's place. To a ewe with a prolapsed
uterus after lambing - a job whose chief delight was comparing it with
the sweat of replacing a uterus in a cow.
It was so beautifully easy. Rob rolled the animal on to her side then
held her more or less upside down by tying a length of rope to her hind
legs and passing it round his neck. In that position she couldn't strain
and I disinfected the organ and pushed it back with the minimum of
effort, gently inserting an arm at the finish to work it properly into
Afterwards the ewe trotted away unperturbed with her family to join the
rapidly growing flock whose din was all around us.
"Look!" Rob cried. "There's that awd ewe with Herbert. Over there on
ttright!in the middle of that bunch." They all looked the same to me but
to Rob, like all shepherds, they were as different as people and he
picked out these two effortlessly.
The were near the top of the field and as I wanted to have a close look
at them we manoeuvred them into a corner. The ewe, fiercely possessive,
stamped her foot at us as we approached, and Herbert, who had discarded
his woolly jacket, held close to the flank of his new mother. He was, I
noticed, faintly obese in appearance.
"You couldn't call him a runt now, Rob," I said.
The farmer laughed. "Nay, t'awd lass has a bag like a cow and Herbert's
gettin" the lot. By yaw, he's in clover is that little youth and I
reckon he saved the ewe's lifeshe'd have pegged out all right, but she
never looked back once he came along."
I looked away, over the noisy pens, over the hundreds of sheep moving
across the fields. I turned to the farmer. "I'm afraid you've seen a lot
of me lately, Rob. I hope this is the last visit."
"Aye well it could be. We're getting well through now ... but it's a
hell of a time, lambin" isn't it?"
"It is that. Well I must be offi'll leave you to it." I turned and made
my way down the hillside, my arms raw and chafing in my sleeves, my
cheeks whipped by the eternal wind gusting over the grass. At the gate I
stopped and gazed back at the wide landscape, ribbed and streaked by the
last of the winter's snow, and at the dark grey banks of cloud riding
across on the wind followed by lakes of brightest blue; and in seconds
the fields and walls and woods burst into vivid life and I had to close
my eyes against the sun's glare. As I stood there the distant uproar
came faintly down to me, the tumultuous harmony from deepest bass to
highest treble; demanding, anxious, angry, loving.
The sound of the sheep, the sound of spring.
"Them masticks," said Mr. Pickersgill judicially, 'is a proper bugger."
I nodded my head in agreement that his mastitis problem was indeed
giving cause for concern; and reflected at the same time that while most
farmers would have been content with the local word 'felon" it was
typical that Mr. Pickersgill should make a determined if somewhat
inaccurate attempt at the scientific term.
Sometimes he got very wide of the mark as one time long after this when
Artificial Insemination or AI was gaining a foothold in the Dales he
made my day by telling me he had a cow in calf to the ICI.
However he usually did better than this - most of his efforts were near
misses or bore obvious evidence of their derivation - but I could never
really fathom where he got the masticks. I did know that once he
fastened on to an expression it never changed; mastitis had always been
'them masticks" with him and it always would be. And I knew, too, that
nothing would ever stop him doggedly trying to be right.
Because Mr. Pickersgill had what he considered to be a scholastic
background. He was a man of about sixty and when in his teens he had
attended a two week course of instruction for agricultural workers at
Leeds University. This brief glimpse of the academic life had left an
indelible impression on his mind, and it was as if the intimation of
something deep and true behind the facts of his everyday work had
kindled a flame in him which had illumined his subsequent life.
No capped and gowned don ever looked back to his years among the spires
of Oxford with more nostalgia than did Mr. Pickersgill to his fortnight
at Leeds and his conversation was usually laced with references to a
godlike Professor Malleson who had apparently been in charge of the
"Ah don't know what to make of it," he continued. "In ma college days I
was allus told that you got a big swollen bag and dirty milk with them
masticks but this must be another kind. Just little bits of flakes in
the milk off and on neither nowt nor something, but I'm right fed up
with it, I'll tell you."
I took a sip from the cup of tea which Mrs. Pickersgill had placed in
front of me on the kitchen table. "Yes, it's very worrying the way it
keeps going on and on. I'm sure there's a definite factor behind it all
- I wish I could put my finger on it."
But in fact I had a good idea what was behind it. I had happened in at
the little byre late one afternoon when Mr. Pickersgill and his daughter
Olive were milking their ten cows. I had watched the two at work as they
crouched under the row of roan and red backs ,and one thing was
immediately obvious; while Olive drew the milk by almost imperceptible
movements of her fingers and with a motionless wrist, her father hauled
away at the teats as though he was trying to ring in the new year.
This insight coupled with the fact that it was always the cows Mr.
Pickersgill milked that gave trouble was enough to convince me that the
chronic mastitis was of traumatic origin.
But how to tell the farmer that he wasn't doing his job right and that
the only solution was to learn a more gentle technique or let Olive take
over all the milking?
It wouldn't be easy because Mr. Pickersgill was an impressive man. I
don't suppose he had a spare penny in the world but even as he sat there
in the kitchen in his tattered, collarless flannel shirt and braces he
looked, as always, like an industrial tycoon. You could imagine that
massive head with its fleshy cheeks, noble brow and serene eyes looking
out from the financial pages of The Times. Put him in a bowler and
striped trousers and you
I was very chary of affronting such natural dignity and anyway, Mr.
Pickersgill was fundamentally a fine stocksman. His few cows, like all
the animals of that fast-dying breed of small farmer, were fat and sleek
and clean. You had to look after your beasts when they were your only
source of income and somehow Mr. Pickersgill had brought up a family by
milk production eked out by selling a few pigs and the eggs from his
wife's fifty hens.
I could never quite work out how they did it but they lived, and they
lived graciously. All the family but Olive had married and left home but
there was still a rich decorum and harmony in that house. The present
scene was typical The farmer expounding gravely, Mrs. Pickersgill
bustling about in the back ground, listening to him with quiet pride.
Olive too, was happy. Though in her late thirties, she had no fears of
spinsterhood because she had been assiduously courted for fifteen years
by Charlie Hudson from the Darrowby fish shop and though Charlie was not
a tempestuous suitor there was nothing flighty about him and he was
confidently expected to pop the question over the next ten years or so.
Mr. Pickersgill offered me another buttered scone and when I declined he
cleared his throat a few times as though trying to find words. "Mr.
Herriot," he said at last, "I don't like to tell nobody his job, but
we've tried all your remedies for them masticks and we've still got
trouble. Now when I studied under Professor Malleson I noted down a lot
of good cures and I'd like to try this 'un. Have a look at it."
He put his hand in his hip pocket and produced a yellowed slip of
paper:~ almost falling apart at the folds. "It's an udder salve. Maybe
if we gave the bags a good rub with it it'd do "'trick."
I read the prescription in the fine copperplate writing. Camphor,
eucalyptus, ~ zinc oxide - a long list of the old familiar names. I
couldn't help feeling a hint.` of affection for them but it was tempered
by a growing disillusion. I was about to say that I didn't think rubbing
anything on the udder would make the slightest ~ difference when the
farmer groaned loudly. ~:
The action of reaching into his hip pocket had brought on a twinge of
his lumbago and he sat very upright, grimacing with pain.
"This bloody old back of mine! By yaw, it does give me some stick, and
doctor can't do nowt about it. I've had enough pills to make me rattle
but ah get no relief."
I'm not brilliant but I do get the odd blinding flash and I had one now.
"Mr. Pickersgill," I said solemnly, 'you've suffered from that lumbago
ever since I've known you and I've just thought of something. I believe
I know how to cure it."
The farmer's eyes widened and he stared at me with a childlike trust in
which there was no trace of scepticism. This could be expected, because
just as people place more reliance on the words of knacker men and meal
travellers than their vets" when their animals are concerned it was
natural that they would believe the vet rather than their doctor with
their own ailments.
"You know how to put me right?" he said faintly.
"I think so, and it has nothing to do with medicine. You'll have to
"Stop milking! What the 'elf ... ?"
"Of course. Don't you see, it's sitting crouched on that little stool
night and morning every day of the week that's doing it. You're a big
chap and you've got to bend to get down there - I'm sure it's bad for
Mr. Pickersgill gazed into space as though he bad seen a vision. "You
really think ... '
"Yes, I do. You ought to give it a try, anyway. Olive can do the
milking. She's always saying she ought to do it all."
"That's right, Dad," Olive chimed in. "I like milking, you know I do,
and it's time you gave it up - you've done it ever since you were a
"Dang it, young man, I believe you're right! I'll pack it in, now - I've
made my decision!" Mr. Pickersgill threw up his fine head, looked
him and crashed his fist on the table as though he had just concluded a
merge. between two oil companies I stood up. "Fine, fine I'll take this
prescription with me and make up the udder salve. It'll be ready for you
tonight and I should start using it immediately."
It was about a month later that I saw Mr. Pickersgill. He was on a
bicycle pedalling majestically across the market place and he dismounted
when he saw me.
"Now then, Mr. Herriot," he said, puffing slightly. "I'm glad I've met
you. I've been meaning to come and tell you that we don't have no flakes
in the milk now.
Ever since we started with t'salve they began to disappear and milk's as
clear as it can be now."
"Oh, great. And how's your lumbago?"
"Well I'll tell you, you've really capped it and I'm grateful. Ah've
never milked since that day and I hardly get a twinge now." He paused
and smiled indulgently. you gave me some good advice for me back, but we
had to go back to awd Professor Malleson to cure them masticks, didn't
My next encounter with Mr. Pickersgill was on the telephone.
"I'm speaking from the cossack," he said in a subdued shout.
"From the what?"
"The cossack, the telephone cossack in "'village."
"Yes, indeed," I said, 'and what can I do for you?"
"I want you to come out as soon as possible, to treat a calf for
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'ave a calf with semolina."
"Aye, that's right. A feller was on about it on "'wireless the other
"Oh! Ah yes, I see." I too had heard a bit of the farming talk on
Salmonella infection in calves. "What makes you think you've got this
"Well it's just like that feller said. Me calf's bleeding from the
"From the ... ? Yes, yes, of course. Well I'd better have a look at him
- I won't be long."
The calf was pretty ill when I saw him and he did have rectal bleeding,
but it wasn't like Salmonella.
"There's no diarrhoea, you see, Mr. Pickersgill," I said. "In fact, he
seems to be constipated. This is almost pure blood coming away from him.
And he hasn't got a very high temperature."
The farmer seemed a little disappointed. "Dang, I thowt it was just same
as that feller was talking about. He said you could send samples off to
"Eh? To the what?"
"The investigation labrador - you know."
"Oh yes, quite, but I don't think the lab would be of any help in this
"Aye well, what's wrong with him, then? Is something the matter with his
"No, no," I said. "But there seems to be some obstruction high up his
bowel which is causing this haemorrhage." I looked at the little animal
standing motionless with his back up. He was totally preoccupied with
some internal discomfort and now and then he strained and grunted
And of course I should have known straight away - it was so obvious. But
I Suppose we all have blind spells when we can't see what is pushed in
front of our eyes, and for a few days I played around with that calf in
a haze of ~ignorance, giving it this and that medicine which I'd rather
not talk about.
But I was lucky. He recovered in spite of my treatment. It wasn't until
Mr. Pickersgill showed me the little roll of necrotic tissue which the
calf had passed that the thing dawned on me.
I turned, shame-faced, to the farmer. "This is a bit of dead bowel all
telescoped together - an intussusception. It's usually a fatal condition
but fortunately in this case the obstruction has sloughed away and your
calf should be all right now."
"What was it you called it?"
Mr. Pickersgill's lips moved tentatively and for a moment I thought he
was going to have a shot at it. But he apparently decided against it.
"Oh," he said "That's what it was, was it?"
"Yes, and it's difficult to say just what caused it."
The farmer sniffed. "I'll bet I know what was behind it. I always said
this one 'ud be a weakly calf. When he was born he bled a lot from his
Mr. Pickersgill hadn't finished with me yet. It was only a week later
that I heard him on the phone again.
Let Sleeping Vets Lie by James Herriot / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes