Vet in harness, p.4
Vet in Harness, p.4James Herriot
Only rarely did his control snap. I witnessed one of these occasions
when he rushed screaming from his doorway, laying about him with a
walking stick; and I noticed that the polished veneer slipped from him
and his cries rang out in broadest Yorkshire.
"Gerrout, ye bloody rotten buggers! Gerrout of it!'
He might as well have saved his energy because the pack scattered only
for a few seconds before taking up their stations again.
I felt for the little man but there was nothing I could do about it. My
main feeling was of relief that the tumour was going down but I had to
admit to a certain morbid fascination at the train of events across the
Percy's walks were fraught with peril. Mr Partridge always armed
himself: with his stick before venturing from the house and kept Percy
on a short lead, but his precautions were unavailing as the wave of dogs
swept down on him. The besotted creatures, mad with passion, leapt on
top of the little animal as the artist beat vainly on the shaggy backs
and yelled at them; and the humiliating procession usually continued
right across the market place to the great amusement of the inhabitants.
At lunch time most of the dogs took a break and at nightfall they all
went home to bed, but there was one little brown spaniel type who, with
the greatest dedication, never left his post. I think he must have gone
almost without food for about two weeks because he dwindled practically
to a skeleton and I think he might have died if Helen hadn't taken
pieces of meat over to him when she saw him huddled trembling in the
doorway in the cold darkness of the evening. I know he stayed there all
night because every now and then a shrill yelping-~ wakened me in the
small hours and I deduced that Mr Partridge had got home" on him with
some missile from his bedroom window. But it made no difference;] he
continued his vigil undaunted.
I don't quite know how Mr Partridge would have survived if this state of
affairs had continued indefinitely; I think his reason might have given
way. But mercifully signs began to appear that the nightmare was on the
wane. The mob began to thin as Percy's condition improved and one day
even the little brown dog reluctantly left his beat and slunk away to
his unknown home.
That was the very day I had Percy on the table for the last time. I felt
a thrill of satisfaction as I ran a fold of the scrotal skin between my
"There's nothing there now, Mr Partridge. No thickening, even. Not a
The little man nodded. "Yes, it's a miracle, isn't it! I'm very grateful
to you for all you've done. I've been so terribly worried.'
"Oh, I can imagine. You've been through a bad time. But I'm really as
pleased as you are yourself - it's one of the most satisfying things in
practice when an experiment like this comes off.'
But often over the subsequent years, as I watched dog and master pass
our window, Mr Partridge with all his dignity restored, Percy as trim
and proud as ever, I wondered about that strange interlude.
Did the Stilboestrol really reduce that tumour or did it regress
naturally? And were the extraordinary events caused by the treatment or
the condition or both?
I could never be quite sure of the answer, but of the outcome I could be
happily certain. That unpleasant growth never came back .. . and neither
did all those dogs.
This was the real Yorkshire with the clean limestone wall riding the
hill's edge and the path cutting brilliant green through the crowding
heather. And, walking face on to the scented breeze I felt the old
tingle of wonder at being alone on the wide moorland where nothing
stirred and the spreading miles of purple blossom and green turf reached
away till it met the hazy blue of the sky.
But I wasn't really alone. There was Sam, and he made all the
difference. Helen had brought a lot of things into my life and Sam was
one of the most precious; he was a Beagle and her own personal pet. He
would be about two years old when I first saw him and I had no way of
knowing that he was to be my faithful companion, my car dog, my friend
who sat by my side through the lonely hours of driving till his life
ended at the age of fourteen. He was the first of a series of cherished
dogs whose comradeship have warmed and lightened my working life.
Sam adopted me on sight. It was as though he had read the Faithful Hound
Manual because he was always near me; paws on the dash as he gazed
eagerly through the windscreen on my rounds, head resting on my foot in
our bedsitting room, trotting just behind me wherever I moved. If I had
a beer in a pub he would be under my chair and even when I was having a
haircut you only had to lift the white sheet to see Sam crouching
beneath my legs. The only place I didn't dare take him was to the cinema
and on these occasions he crawled under the bed and sulked.
Most dogs love car riding but to Sam it was a passion which never waned
even in the night hours; he would gladly leave his basket when the world
was asleep, stretch a couple of times and follow me out into the cold.
He would be on to the seat before I got the car door fully open and this
action became so much a part of my life that for a long time after his
death I still held the door open unthinkingly, waiting for him. And I
still remember the pain I felt when he did not bound inside.
And having him with me added so much to the intermissions I granted
myself on my daily rounds. Whereas in offices and factories they had tea
breaks I just stopped the car and stepped out into the splendour which
was always at hand and walked for a spell down hidden lanes, through
woods, or as today, along one of the grassy tracks which ran over the
This thing which I had always done had a new meaning now. Anybody who
has ever walked a dog knows the abiding satisfaction which comes from
giving pleasure to a loved animal, and the sight of the little form
trotting ahead of me lent a depth which had been missing before.
Round the curve of the path I came to where the tide of heather lapped
thickly down the hillside on a little slope facing invitingly into the
sun. It was a call I could never resist. I looked at my watch; oh I had
a few minutes to spare and there was nothing urgent ahead, just Mr
Dacre's tuberculin test. In a moment I was stretched out on the springy
stems, the most wonderful natural mattress in the world.
Lying there, eyes half closed against the sun's glare, the heavy heather
fragrance around me, I could see the cloud shadows racing across the
flanks of the fells, throwing the gulleys and crevices into momentary
gloom but trailing a fresh flaring green in their wake.
Those were the days when I was most grateful I was in country practice;
the shirt sleeve days when the bleak menace of the bald heights melted
into friendliness, when I felt at one with all the airy life and growth
about me and was glad that I had become what I never thought I would be,
there, thrashing round the practice and Tristan his student brother
would probably be studying in Skeldale House. This latter was quite a
thought because I had never seen Tristan open a text book until lately.
He had been blessed with the kind of brain which made swotting
irrelevant but he would take his finals this year and even he had to get
down to it. I had little doubt he would soon be a qualified man and in a
way it seemed a shame that his free spirit should be shackled by the
realities of veterinary practice. It would be the end of a luminous
A long-eared head blotted out the sunshine as Sam came and sat on my
chest. He looked at me questioningly. He didn't hold with this laziness
but I knew if I didn't move after a few minutes he would curl up
philosophically on my ribs and have a sleep until I was ready to go. But
this time I answered the unspoken appeal by sitting up and he leaped
around me in delight as I rose and began to make my way back to the car
and Mr Dacre's test.
"Move over, Bill!' Mr Dacre cried some time later as he tweaked the big
Nearly every farmer kept a bull in those days and they were all called
Billy or Bill. I suppose it was because this was a very mature animal
that he received the adult version. Being a docile beast he responded to
the touch on his tail by shuffling his great bulk to one side, leaving
me enough space to push in between him and the wooden partition against
which he was tied by a chain.
I was reading a tuberculin test and all I wanted to do was to measure
the intradermal reaction. I had to open my calipers very wide to take in
the thickness of the skin on the enormous neck.
"Thirty,' I called out to the farmer.
He wrote the figure down on the testing book and laughed.
"By heck, he's got some pelt on 'im.'
"Yes,' I said, beginning to squeeze my way out. "But he's a big fellow,
Just how big he was was brought home to me immediately because the bull
suddenly swung round, pinning me against the partition. Cows did this
regularly and I moved them by bracing my back against whatever was
behind me and pushing them away. But it was different with Bill.
Gasping, I pushed with all my strength against the rolls of fat which
covered the vast roan-coloured flank, but I might as well have tried to
shift a house.
The farmer dropped his book and seized the tail again but this time the
bull showed no response. There was no malice in his behaviour - he was
simply having a comfortable lean against the boards and I don't suppose
he even noticed the morsel of puny humanity wriggling frantically
against his rib-cage.
Still, whether he meant it or not, the end result was the same; I was
having the life crushed out of me. Pop-eyed, groaning, scarcely able to
breathe, I struggled with everything I had, but I couldn't move an inch.
And just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, Bill started to
rub himself up and down against the partition. So that was what he had
come round for; he had an itch and he just wanted to scratch it.
The effect on me was catastrophic. I was certain my internal organs were
being steadily ground to pulp and as I thrashed about in complete panic
the huge animal leaned even more heavily.
I don't like to think what would have happened if the wood behind me had
not been old and rotten, but just as I felt my senses leaving me there
was a cracking and splintering and I fell through into the next stall.
Lying there like a stranded fish on a bed of shattered timbers I looked
up at Mr Dacre, waiting till my lungs started to work again.
The farmer, having got over his first alarm, was rubbing his upper lip
vigorously in a polite attempt to stop himself laughing. His little girl
who had watched the whole thing from her vantage point in one of the hay
racks had no such inhibitions. Screaming with delight, she pointed at
"Ooo, Dad, Dad, look at that man! Did you see him, Dad, did you see him?
Ooo what a funny man!' She went into helpless convulsions. She was only
about five but I had a feeling she would remember my performance all her
At length I picked myself up and managed to brush the matter off
lightly, but after I had driven a mile or so from the farm I stopped the
car and looked myself over. My ribs ached pretty uniformly as though a
light road roller had passed over them and there was a tender area on my
left buttock where I had landed on my calipers but otherwise I seemed to
have escaped damage. I removed a few spicules of wood from my trousers,
got back into the car and consulted my list of visits.
And when I read my next call a gentle smile of relief spread over my
face. "Mrs Tompkin, 14, Jasmine Terrace. Clip budgie's beak.'
Thank heaven for the infinite variety of veterinary practice. After that
bull I needed something small and weak and harmless and really you can't
ask for much better in that line than a budgie.
Number 14 was one of a row of small mean houses built of the cheap
bricks so beloved of the jerry builders after the First World War. I
armed myself with a pair of clippers and stepped on to the narrow strip
of pavement which separated the door from the road. A pleasant looking
red-haired woman answered my knock.
"I'm Mrs Dodds from next door,' she said. "I keep an eye on t'old lady.
She's over eighty and lives alone. I've just been out gettin' her
pension for her.'
She led me into the cramped little room. "Here y'are, love,' she said to
the old woman who sat in a corner. She put the pension book and money on
the mantelpiece "And here's Mr Herriot come to see Peter for you.'
Mrs Tompkin nodded and smiled. "Oh that's good. Poor little feller can't
hardly eat with 'is long beak and I'm worried about him. He's me only
companion, you know.'
"Yes, I understand, Mrs Tompkin.' I looked at the cage by the window
with the green budgie perched inside. "These little birds can be
wonderful company when they start chattering.'
She laughed. "Aye, but it's a funny thing. Peter never has said owl
much. I think he's lazy! But I just like havin' him with me.'
"Of course you do,' I said. "But he certainly needs attention now.'
The beak was greatly overgrown, curving away down till it touched the
feathers of the breast. I would be able to revolutionise his life with
one quick snip from my clippers. The way I was feeling this job was
right up my street.
I opened the cage door and slowly inserted my hand.
"Come on, Peter,' I wheedled as the bird fluttered away from me. And I
soon cornered him and enclosed him gently in my fingers. As I lifted him
out I felt in my pocket with the other hand for the clippers, but as I
poised them I stopped.
The tiny head was no longer poking cheekily from my fingers but had
fallen loosely to one side. The eyes were closed. I stared at the bird
uncomprehendingly for a
motionless on my palm. He was dead.
Dry mouthed, I continued to stare; at the beautiful iridescence of the
plumage, the long beak which I didn't have to cut now, but mostly at the
head dropping down over my forefinger. I hadn't squeezed him or been
rough with him in any way but he was dead. It must have been sheer
Mrs Dodds and I looked at each other in horror and I hardly dared turn
my head towards Mrs Tompkin. When I did, I was surprised to see that she
was still nodding and smiling.
I drew her neighbour to one side. "Mrs Dodds, how much does she see?'
"Oh she's very short-sighted but she's right vain despite her age. Never
would wear glasses. She's hard of hearin' too.'
"Well look,' I said. My heart still pounding. "I just don't know what to
do. If I tell her about this the shock will be terrible. Anything could
Mrs Dodds nodded, stricken-faced. "Aye, you're right. She's that
attached to the little thing.'
"I can only think of one alternative,' I whispered. "Do you know where I
can get another budgie?'
Mrs Dodds thought for a moment. "You could try Jack Almond at t'town
end. I think he keeps birds.'
I cleared my throat but even then my voice came out in a dry croak. "Mrs
Tompkin, I'm just going to take Peter along to the surgery to do this
job. I won't be long.'
I left her still nodding and smiling and, cage in hand, fled into the
street. I was at the town end and knocking at Jack Almond's door within
"Mr Almond?' I asked of the stout, shirtsleeved man who answered.
"That's right, young man.' He gave me a slow, placid smile.
"Do you keep birds?'
He drew himself 'up with dignity. "I do and I'm t'president of the
n~r,~why and Houlton Cage Bird Society.'
"Fine,' I said breathlessly. "Have you got a green budgie?'
"Ah've got Canaries, Budgies, Parrots, Parakeets, Cockatoos .. .
"I just want a budgie.'
"Well ah've got Albinos, Blue-greens, Barreds, Litinos .. .'
"I just want a green one.'
A slightly pained expression flitted across the man's face as though he
found my attitude of haste somewhat unseemly.
"Aye .. . well, we'll go and have a look,' he said.
I followed him as he paced unhurriedly through the house into the back
yard which was largely given over to a long shed containing a
bewildering variety of birds.
Mr Almond gazed at them with gentle pride and his mouth opened as though
he was about to launch into a dissertation then he seemed to remember
that he had an impatient chap to deal with and dragged himself back to
the job in hand.
"There's a nice little green 'un here. But he's a bit older than
"'others. Matter of fact I've got 'im talkin'.'
"All the better, just the thing. How much do you want for him?'
"But .. . there's some nice 'uns along here. Just let me show you .. .'
I put a hand on his arm. "I want that one. How much?'
He pursed his lips in frustration then shrugged his shoulders.
"Right. Bung him in this cage.'
As I sped back up the road I looked in the driving mirror and could see
the poor man regarding me sadly from his doorway.
Mrs Dodds was waiting for me back at Jasmine Terrace.
"Do you think I'm doing the right thing?' I asked her in a whisper.
"I'm sure you are,' she replied. "Poor awd thing, she hasn't much to
think about and I'm sure she'd fret over Peter.'
"That's what I thought.' I made my way into the living room.
Mrs Tompkin smiled at me as I went in. "That wasn't a long job, Mr
Vet in Harness by James Herriot / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes