James herriots dog stori.., p.39
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       James Herriot's Dog Stories, p.39

           James Herriot

  When I look back on the whole episode my feeling is of thankfulness. All sorts of things help people to pull out of a depression. Mostly it is their family – the knowledge that wife and children are dependent on them – sometimes it is a cause to work for, but in Andrew Vine’s case it was a dog.

  I often think of the dark valley which closed around him at that time and I am convinced he came out of it on the end of Digger’s lead.

  This is a glorious contrast with the other story and a good example of the therapeutic benefit of owning a pet. I know beyond doubt that just being with a dog and talking to it has a cheering and soothing effect – my morning chat with my own dog sets me up for the day – and when Andrew had the responsibility of looking after Digger it was a lifesaver. This story also gave me the opportunity of recording a case of a dog going blind. It is a heartbreaking thing to observe and, in a way, worse for the owner. I hope that I have been able to point out that animals can adjust in a miraculous way to this affliction, because it is a great comfort to people to realise that their pet can still be very happy in its way.

  40. The Great Escape

  I poised my knife over a swollen ear. Tristan, one elbow leaning wearily on the table, was holding an anaesthetic mask over the nose of the sleeping dog when Siegfried came into the room.

  He glanced briefly at the patient. ‘Ah yes, that haematoma you were telling me about, James.’ Then he looked across the table at his brother. ‘Good God, you’re a lovely sight this morning! When did you get in last night?’

  Tristan raised a pallid countenance. His eyes were bloodshot slits between puffy lids. ‘Oh, I don’t quite know. Fairly late, I should think.’

  ‘Fairly late! I got back from a farrowing at four o’clock and you hadn’t arrived then. Where the hell were you, anyway?’

  ‘I was at the Licensed Victuallers’ Ball. Very good do, actually.’

  ‘I bet it was!’ Siegfried snorted. ‘You don’t miss a thing, do you? Darts Team Dinner, Bellringers’ Outing, Pigeon Club Dance, and now it’s the Licensed Victuallers’ Ball. If there’s a good booze-up going on anywhere you’ll find it.’

  When under fire Tristan always retained his dignity and he drew it around him now like a threadbare cloak.’

  ‘As a matter of fact,’ he said, ‘many of the Licensed Victuallers are my friends.’

  His brother flushed. ‘I believe you. I should think you’re the best bloody customer they’ve ever had!’

  Tristan made no reply but began to make a careful check of the flow of oxygen into the ether bottle.

  ‘And another thing,’ Siegfried continued. ‘I keep seeing you slinking around with about a dozen different women. And you’re supposed to be studying for an exam.’

  ‘That’s an exaggeration.’ The young man gave him a pained look. ‘I admit I enjoy a little female company now and then – just like yourself.’

  Tristan believed in attack as the best form of defence, and it was a telling blow, because there was a constant stream of attractive girls laying siege to Siegfried at Skeldale House.

  But the elder brother was only temporarily halted. ‘Never mind me!’ he shouted. ‘I’ve passed all my exams. I’m talking about you! Didn’t I see you with that new barmaid from the Drovers’ the other night? You dodged rapidly into a shop doorway but I’m bloody sure it was you.’

  Tristan cleared his throat. ‘It quite possibly was. I have recently become friendly with Lydia – she’s a very nice girl.’

  ‘I’m not saying she isn’t. What I am saying is that I want to see you indoors at night with your books instead of boozing and chasing women. Is that clear?’

  ‘Quite.’ The young man inclined his head gracefully and turned down the knob on the anaesthetic machine.

  His brother regarded him balefully for a few moments, breathing deeply. These remonstrations always took it out of him. Then he turned away quickly and left.

  Tristan’s facade crumbled as soon as the door closed.

  ‘Watch the anaesthetic for a minute, Jim,’ he croaked. He went over to the basin in the corner, filled a measuring jar with cold water and drank it at a long gulp. Then he soaked some cotton wool under the tap and applied it to his brow.

  ‘I wish he hadn’t come in just then. I’m in no mood for the raised voices and angry words.’ He reached up to a large bottle of aspirins, swallowed a few and washed them down with another gargantuan draught. ‘All right then, Jim,’ he murmured as he returned to the table and took over the mask again. ‘Let’s go.’

  I bent once more over the sleeping dog. He was a Scottie called Hamish and his mistress, Miss Westerman, had brought him in two days ago.

  She was a retired schoolteacher and I always used to think she must have had little trouble in keeping her class in order. The chilly pale eyes looking straight into mine reminded me that she was as tall as I was and the square jaw between the muscular shoulders completed a redoubtable presence.

  ‘Mr Herriot,’ she barked, ‘I want you to have a look at Hamish. I do hope it’s nothing serious but his ear has become very swollen and painful. They don’t get – er – cancer there, do they?’ For a moment the steady gaze wavered.

  ‘Oh that’s most unlikely.’ I lifted the little animal’s chin and looked at the left ear which was drooping over the side of his face. His whole head, in fact, was askew, as though dragged down by pain.

  Carefully I lifted the ear and touched the tense swelling with a forefinger. Hamish looked round at me and whimpered.

  ‘Yes, I know, old chap. It’s tender, isn’t it?’ As I turned to Miss Westerman I almost bumped into the close-cropped iron-grey head which was hovering close over the little dog.

  ‘He’s got an aural haematoma,’ I said.

  ‘What on earth is that?’

  ‘It’s when the little blood vessels between the skin and cartilage of the ear rupture and the blood flows out and causes this acute distension.’

  She patted the jet-black shaggy coat. ‘But what causes it?’

  ‘Canker, usually. Has he been shaking his head lately?’

  ‘Yes, now you mention it he has. Just as though he had got something in his ear and was trying to get rid of it.’

  ‘Well, that’s what bursts the blood vessels. I can see he has a touch of canker, though it isn’t common in this breed.’

  She nodded. ‘I see. And how can you cure it?’

  ‘Only by an operation, I’m afraid.’

  ‘Oh dear!’ She put her hand to her mouth. ‘I’m not keen on that.’

  ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ I said. ‘It’s just a case of letting the blood out and stitching the layers of the ear together. If we don’t do this soon he’ll suffer a lot of pain and finish up with a cauliflower ear, and we don’t want that because he’s a bonny little chap.’

  I meant it, too. Hamish was a proud-strutting, trim little dog. The Scottish Terrier is an attractive creature and I often lament that there are so few around in these modern days.

  After some hesitation Miss Westerman agreed and we fixed a date two days from then. When she brought him in for the operation she deposited Hamish in my arms, stroked his head again and again, then looked from Tristan to me and back again.

  ‘You’ll take care of him, won’t you?’ she said, and the jaw jutted and the pale blue eyes stabbed. For a moment I felt like a little boy caught in mischief, and I think my colleague felt the same because he blew out his breath as the lady departed.

  ‘By gum, Jim, that’s a tough baby,’ he muttered. ‘I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of her.’

  I nodded. ‘Yes, and she thinks all the world of this dog, so let’s make a good job of him.’

  ‘After Siegfried’s departure I lifted the ear which was now a turgid cone and made an incision along the inner skin. As the pent up blood gushed forth I caught it in an enamel dish, then I squeezed several big clots through the wound.

  ‘No wonder the poor little chap was in pain,’ I said softly. ‘He
ll feel a lot better when he wakes up.’

  I filled the cavity between skin and cartilage with sulphanilamide, then began to stitch the layers together, using a row of buttons. You had to do something like this or the thing filled up again within a few days. When I first began to operate on aural haematomata I used to pack the interior with gauze, then bandage the ear to the head. The owners often made little granny-hats to try to keep the bandage in place, but a frisky dog usually had it off very soon.

  The buttons were a far better idea and kept the layers in close contact, lessening the chance of distortion.

  By lunch time Hamish had come round from the anaesthetic and though still slightly dopey he already seemed to be relieved that his bulging ear had been deflated. Miss Westerman had gone away for the day and was due to pick him up in the evening. The little dog, curled in his basket, waited philosophically.

  At tea time, Siegfried glanced across the table at his brother. ‘I’m going off to Brawton for a few hours, Tristan,’ he said. ‘I want you to stay in the house and give Miss Westerman her dog when she arrives. I don’t know just when she’ll come.’ He scooped out a spoonful of jam. ‘You can keep an eye on the patient and do a bit of studying, too. It’s about time you had a night at home.’

  Tristan nodded. ‘Right, I’ll do that.’ But I could see he wasn’t enthusiastic.

  When Siegfried had driven away Tristan rubbed his chin and gazed reflectively through the french window into the darkening garden. ‘This is distinctly awkward, Jim.’


  ‘Well, Lydia has tonight off and I promised to see her.’ He whistled a few bars under his breath. ‘It seems a pity to waste the opportunity just when things are building up nicely. I’ve got a strong feeling that girl fancies me. In fact she’s nearly eating out of my hand.’

  I looked at him wonderingly. ‘My God, I thought you’d want a bit of peace and quiet and an early bed after last night!’

  ‘Not me,’ he said. ‘I’m raring to go again.’

  And indeed he looked fresh and fit, eyes sparkling, roses back in his cheeks.

  ‘Look, Jim,’ he went on, ‘I don’t suppose you could stick around with this dog?’

  I shrugged. ‘Sorry, Triss. I’m going back to see that cow of Ted Binns – right at the top of the Dale. I’ll be away for nearly two hours.’

  For a few moments he was silent, then he raised a finger. ‘I think I have the solution. It’s quite simple, in fact it’s perfect. I’ll bring Lydia in here.’

  ‘What! Into the house?’

  ‘Yes, into this very room. I can put Hamish in his basket by the fire and Lydia and I can occupy the sofa. Marvellous! What could be nicer on a cold winter’s night. Cheap, too.’

  ‘But Triss! How about Siegfried’s lecture this morning? What if he comes home early and catches the two of you here?’

  Tristan lit a Woodbine and blew out an expansive cloud. ‘Not a chance. You worry about such tiny things, Jim. He’s always late when he goes to Brawton. There’s no problem at all.’

  ‘Well, please yourself,’ I said. ‘But I think you’re asking for trouble. Anyway, shouldn’t you be doing a bit of bacteriology? The exams are getting close.’

  He smiled seraphically through the smoke. ‘Oh, I’ll have a quick read through it all in good time.’

  I couldn’t argue with him there. I always had to go over a thing about six times before it finally sank in, but with his brain the quick read would no doubt suffice. I went out on my call.

  I got back about eight o’clock and as I opened the front door my mind was far from Tristan. Ted Binns’s cow wasn’t responding to my treatment and I was beginning to wonder if I was on the right track. When in doubt I liked to look the subject up, and the books were on the shelves in the sitting room. I hurried along the passage and threw open the door.

  For a moment I stood there bewildered, trying to reorientate my thoughts. The sofa was drawn close to the bright fire, the atmosphere was heavy with cigarette smoke and the scent of perfume, but there was nobody to be seen.

  The most striking feature was the long curtain over the french window. It was wafting slowly downwards as though some object had just hurtled through it at great speed. I trotted over the carpet and peered out into the dark garden. From somewhere in the gloom I heard a scuffling noise, a thud and a muffled cry, then there was a pitter-patter followed by a shrill yelping. I stood for some time listening, then as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness I walked down the long path under the high brick wall to the yard at the foot. The yard door was open as were the big double doors into the back lane, but there was no sign of life.

  Slowly I retraced my steps to the warm oblong of light at the foot of the tall old house. I was about to close the french window when I heard a stealthy movement and an urgent whisper.

  ‘Is that you, Jim?’

  ‘Triss! Where the hell have you sprung from?’

  The young man tiptoed past me into the room and looked around him anxiously. ‘It was you, then, not Siegfried?’

  ‘Yes, I’ve just come in.’

  He flopped on the sofa and sunk his head in his hands. ‘Oh damn! I was just lying here a few minutes ago with Lydia in my arms. At peace with the world. Everything was wonderful. Then I heard the front door open.’

  ‘But you knew I was coming back:’

  ‘Yes, and I’d have given you a shout, but for some reason I thought, “God help us, it’s Siegfried!” It sounded like his step in the passage.’

  ‘Then what happened?’

  He churned his hair around with his fingers. ‘Oh, I panicked. I was whispering lovely things into Lydia’s ear, then the next second I grabbed her, threw her off the couch and out of the french window.’

  ‘I heard a thud . . .’

  ‘Yes, that was Lydia falling into the rockery.’

  ‘And then some sort of high-pitched cries . . .’

  He sighed and closed his eyes. ‘That was Lydia in the rose bushes. She doesn’t know the geography of the place, poor lass.’

  ‘Gosh, Triss,’ I said, ‘I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have burst in on you like that. I was thinking of something else.’

  He rose wearily and put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Not your fault, Jim, not your fault. You did warn me.’ He reached for his cigarettes. ‘I don’t know how I’m going to face that girl again. I just chucked her out into the lane and told her to beat it home with all speed. She must think I’m stone balmy.’ He gave a hollow groan.

  I tried to be cheerful. ‘Oh, you’ll get round her again. You’ll have a laugh about it later.’

  But he wasn’t listening. His eyes, wide with horror, were staring past me. Slowly he raised a trembling finger and pointed towards the fireplace. His mouth worked for a few seconds before he spoke.

  ‘Christ, Jim, it’s gone!’ he gasped.

  For a moment I thought the shock had deranged him. ‘Gone . . . ? What’s gone?’

  ‘The bloody dog! He was there when I dashed outside. Right there!’

  I looked down at the empty basket and a cold hand clutched at me. ‘Oh no! He must have got out through the open window. We’re in trouble.’

  We rushed into the garden and searched in vain. We came back for torches and searched once more, prowling around the yard and back lane, shouting the little dog’s name with diminishing hope.

  After ten minutes we trailed back to the brightly lit room and stared at each other.

  Tristan was the first to voice our thoughts. ‘What do we tell Miss Westerman when she calls?’

  I shook my head. My mind fled from the thought of informing that lady that we had lost her dog.

  Just at that moment the front door bell pealed in the passage and Tristan almost leaped in the air.

  ‘Oh God!’ he quavered. ‘That’ll be her now. Go and see her, Jim. Tell her it was my fault – anything you like – but I daren’t face her.’

  I squared my shoulders, marched over the long stretch of tiles and ope
ned the door. It wasn’t Miss Westerman, it was a well-built platinum blonde, and she glared at me angrily.

  ‘Where’s Tristan?’ she rasped in a voice which told me we had more than one tough female to deal with tonight.

  ‘Well, he’s – er – .’

  ‘Oh, I know he’s in there!’ As she brushed past me I noticed she had a smear of soil on her cheek and her hair was sadly disarranged. I followed her into the room where she stalked up to my friend.

  ‘Look at my bloody stockings!’ she burst out. ‘They’re ruined!’

  Tristan peered nervously at the shapely legs. ‘I’m sorry, Lydia. I’ll get you another pair. Honestly, love, I will.’

  ‘You’d better, you bugger!’ she replied. ‘And don’t “love” me – I’ve never been so insulted in my life. What did you think you were playing at?’

  ‘It was all a misunderstanding. Let me explain . . .’ Tristan advanced on her with a brave attempt at a winning smile, but she backed away.

  ‘Keep your distance,’ she said frigidly. ‘I’ve had enough of you for one night.’

  She swept out and Tristan leaned his head against the mantelpiece. The end of a lovely friendship, Jim.’ Then he shook himself. ‘But we’ve got to find that dog. Come on.’

  I set off in one direction and he went in the other. It was a moonless night of impenetrable darkness and we were looking for a jet-black dog. I think we both knew it was hopeless but we had to try.

  In a little town like Darrowby you are soon out on the country roads where there are no lights, and as I stumbled around peering vainly over invisible fields the utter pointlessness of the activity became more and more obvious.

  Occasionally I came within Tristan’s orbit and heard his despairing cries echoing over the empty landscape. ‘Haamiish! Haamiish! Haamiish . . . !’

  After half an hour we met at Skeldale House. Tristan faced me and as I shook my head he seemed to shrink within himself. His chest heaved as he fought for breath. Obviously he had been running while I had been walking and I suppose that was natural enough. We were both in an awkward situation but the final devastating blow would inevitably fall on him.


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