James herriots dog stori.., p.44
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       James Herriot's Dog Stories, p.44

           James Herriot
 

  Sitting there in his shop I looked at him as he worked. He was a tiny man in his fifties with a bald head which made a mockery of the rows of hair restorer on his shelves, and on his face rested the gentle smik which never seemed to leave him. That smile and the big, curiously unworldly eyes gave him an unusual attraction.

  And then there was his obvious love of his fellow men. As his client rose from the chair, patently relieved that his ordeal was over, Josh fussed around him, brushing him down, patting his back and chattering gaily. You could see that he hadn’t been just cutting this man’s hair, he had been enjoying a happy social occasion.

  Next to the big farmer, Josh looked smaller than ever, a minute husk of humanity, and I marvelled as I had often done at how he managed to accommodate all that beer.

  Of course foreigners are often astonished at the Englishman’s ability to consume vast quantities of ale. Even now, after forty years in Yorkshire, I cannot compete. Maybe it is my Glasgow upbringing, but after two or three pints discomfort sets in. The remarkable thing is that throughout the years I can hardly recall seeing a Yorkshireman drunk. Their natural reserve relaxes and they become progressively jovial as the long cascade goes down their throats, but they seldom fall about or do anything silly.

  Josh, for instance. He would swallow around eight pints every night of the week except Saturday, when he stepped up his intake to between ten and fourteen, yet he never looked much different. His professional skill suffered, but that was all.

  He was turning to me now. ‘Well, Mr Herriot, it’s good to see you again.’ He warmed me with his smile and those wide eyes with their almost mystic depths caressed me as he ushered me to the chair. ‘Are you very well?’

  ‘I’m fine, thank you, Mr Anderson,’ I replied. ‘And how are you?’

  ‘Nicely, sir, nicely.’ He began to tuck the sheet under my chin, then laughed delightedly as my little Beagle trotted in under the folds.

  ‘Hullo, Sam, you’re there as usual, I see.’ He bent and stroked the sleek ears. ‘By gum, Mr Herriot, he’s a faithful friend. Never lets you out of ’is sight if he can help it.’

  ‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘And I don’t like to go anywhere without him.’ I screwed round in my chair. ‘By the way, didn’t I see you with a dog the other day?’

  Josh paused, scissors in hand. ‘You did an’ all. A little bitch. A stray – got ’er from the Cat and Dog Home at York. Now that our kids have all left home, t’missus and I fancied gettin’ a dog and we think the world of her. I tell ye, she’s a grand ’un.’

  ‘What breed is she?’

  ‘Eee, now you’re askin’. Nobbut a mongrel, I reckon. I can’t see any pedigree about her but money wouldn’t buy ’er.’

  I was about to agree with him when he held up a hand. ‘Hang on a minute and I’ll bring ’er down.’

  He lived above the shop and his feet clumped on the stairs as he returned with a little bitch in his arms.

  ‘There you are, Mr Herriot. What d’you think of that?’ He stood her on the floor for my inspection.

  I looked at the little animal. She was a light grey in colour with very long crinkled hair. In fact at a quick glance she looked like a miniature Wensleydale sheep. Definitely a hound of baffling lineage, but the panting mouth and swishing tail bore witness to her good nature.

  ‘I like her,’ I said. ‘I think you’ve picked a winner there.’

  ‘That’s what we think.’ He stopped and fondled his new pet and I noticed that he kept picking up the long hairs and rubbing them gently between finger and thumb again. It looked a little odd, then it occurred to me that was what he was used to doing with his human customers. ‘We’ve called her Venus,’ he said.

  ‘Venus?’

  ‘Aye, because she’s so beautiful.’ His tone was very serious.

  ‘Ah yes,’ I said. ‘I see.’

  He washed his hands, took up his scissors again and grasped a few strands of my hair. Again I saw that he went through the same procedure of rubbing the hairs between his fingers before cutting them.

  I couldn’t understand why he did this but my mind was too preoccupied to give the matter much thought. I was steeling myself. Still, it wasn’t too bad with the scissors – just an uncomfortable tug as the blunt edges came together.

  It was when he reached for the clippers that I gripped the arms of the chair as though I were at the dentist. It was all right as long as he was running the things up the back of my neck; it was that jerk at the end, plucking the last tuff from its roots, which set my face grimacing at me in the mirror. Once or twice an involuntary ‘Ooh!’ or ‘Aah!’ escaped me but Josh gave no sign of having heard.

  I remember that for years I had sat in that shop listening to the half-stilled cries of pain from the customers, but at no time had the barber shown any reaction.

  The thing was that, although he was the least arrogant or conceited of men, he did consider himself a gifted hairdresser. Even now as he gave me a final combing, I could see the pride shining from his face. Head on one side, he patted my hair repeatedly, circling the chair and viewing me from all angles, making a finicky snip here and there before holding up the hand mirror for my inspection.

  ‘All right, Mr Herriot?’ he enquired with the quiet satisfaction which comes from a job well done.

  ‘Lovely, Mr Anderson, just fine.’ Relief added warmth to my voice.

  He bowed slightly, well pleased. ‘Aye, you know, it’s easy enough to cut hair off. The secret is knowin’ what to leave on.’

  I had heard him say it a hundred times before, but I laughed dutifully as he whisked his brush over the back of my coat.

  My hair used to grow pretty fast in those days, but I didn’t have time to pay another visit to the barber before he arrived on my front door step. I was having tea at the time and I trotted to the door in answer to the insistent ringing of the bell.

  He was carrying Venus in his arms but she was a vastly different creature from the placid little animal I had seen in his shop. She was bubbling saliva from her mouth, retching and pawing frantically at her face.

  Josh looked distraught. ‘She’s chokin’, Mr Herriot. Look at ’er! She’ll die if you don’t do summat quick!’

  ‘Wait a minute, Mr Anderson. Tell me what’s happened. Has she swallowed something?’

  ‘Aye, she’s ’ad a chicken bone.’

  ‘A chicken bone! Don’t you know you should never give a dog chicken bones?’

  ‘Aye, ah know, ah know, everybody knows that, but we’d had a bird for our dinner and she pinched the frame out of the dustbin, the little beggar. She had a good crunch at it afore I spotted ’er and now she’s goin’ to choke!’ He glared at me, lips quivering. He was on the verge of tears.

  ‘Now just calm down,’ I said. ‘I don’t think Venus is choking. By the way she’s pawing, I should say there’s something stuck in her mouth.’

  I grabbed the little animal’s jaws with finger and thumb and forced them apart. And I saw with a surge of relief the sight familiar to all vets – a long spicule of bone jammed tightly between the back molars and forming a bar across the roof of the mouth.

  As I say, it is a common occurrence in practice and a happy one, because it is harmless and easily relieved by a flick of the forceps. Recovery is instantaneous, skill minimal and the kudos most warming. I loved it.

  I put my hand on the barber’s shoulder. ‘You can stop worrying, Mr Anderson, it’s just a bone stuck in her teeth. Come through to the consulting room and I’ll have it out in a jiffy.’

  I could see the man relaxing as we walked along the passage to the back of the house. ‘Oh, thank God for that, Mr Herriot. I thought she’d had it, honest, I did. And we’ve grown right fond of the little thing. I couldn’t bear to lose ’er.’

  I gave a light laugh, put the dog on the table and reached for a strong pair of forceps. ‘No question of that, I assure you. This won’t take a minute.’

  Jimmy, aged five, had left his tea and trailed after us
. He watched with mild interest as I poised the instrument. Even at his age he had seen this sort of thing many a time and it wasn’t very exciting. But you never knew in veterinary practice; it was worth hanging around because funny things could happen. He put his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels, whistling softly as he watched me.

  Usually it is simply a matter of opening the mouth, clamping the forceps on the bone and removing it. But Venus recoiled from the gleaming metal and so did the barber. The terror in the dog’s eyes was reproduced fourfold in those of its owner.

  I tried to be soothing. ‘This is nothing, Mr Anderson. I’m not going to hurt her in the least, but you’ll just have to hold her head firmly for a moment.’

  The little man took a deep breath, grasped the dog’s neck, screwed his eyes tight shut and turned his head as far away as he could.

  ‘Now, little Venus,’ I cooed, ‘I’m going to make you better.’

  Venus clearly didn’t believe me. She struggled violently, pawing at my hand, to the accompaniment of strange moaning sounds from her owner. When I did get the forceps into her mouth she locked her front teeth on the instrument and hung on fiercely. And as I began to grapple with her, Mr Anderson could stand it no longer and let go.

  The little dog leaped to the floor and resumed her inner battle there while Jimmy watched appreciatively.

  I looked at the barber more in sorrow than in anger. This was just not his thing. He was manually ham-fisted, as his hairdressing proved, and he seemed quite incapable of holding a wriggling dog.

  ‘Let’s have another go,’ I said cheerfully. ‘We’ll try it on the floor this time. Maybe she’s frightened of the table. It’s a trifling little job, really.’

  The little man, lips tight, eyes like slits, bent and extended trembling hands towards his dog, but each time he touched her she slithered away from him until with a great shuddering sigh he flopped face down on the tiles. Jimmy giggled. Things were looking up.

  I helped the barber to his feet. ‘I tell you what, Mr Anderson, I’ll give her a short-acting anaesthetic. That will cut out all this fighting and struggling.’

  Josh’s face paled. ‘An anaesthetic? Put her to sleep, you mean?’ Anxiety flickered in his eyes. ‘Will she be all right?’

  ‘Of course, of course. Just leave her to me and come back for her in about an hour. She’ll be able to walk then.’ I began to steer him through the door into the passage.

  ‘Are you sure?’ He glanced back pitifully at his pet. ‘We’re doing the right thing?’

  ‘Without a doubt. We’ll only upset her if we go on this way.’

  ‘Very well, then, I’ll go along to me brother’s for an hour.’

  ‘Splendid.’ I waited till I heard the front door close behind him then quickly made up a dose of pentothal.

  Dogs do not put on such a tough front when their owners are not present and I scooped Venus easily from the floor on to the table. But her jaws were still clamped tight and her front feet at the ready. She wasn’t going to stand for any messing with her mouth.

  ‘Okay, old girl, have it your own way,’ I said. I gripped her leg above the elbow and clipped an area from the raised radial vein. In those days Siegfried or myself were often left to anaesthetise dogs without assistance. It is wonderful what you can do when you have to.

  Venus didn’t seem to care what I was about as long as I kept away from her face. I slid the needle into the vein, depressed the plunger and within seconds her fighting pose relaxed, her head dropped and her whole body sagged on to the table. I rolled her over. She was fast asleep.

  ‘No trouble now, Jimmy, lad,’ I said. I pushed the teeth apart effortlessly with finger and thumb, gripped the bone with the forceps and lifted it from the mouth. ‘Nothing left in there – lovely. All done.’

  I dropped the piece of chicken bone into the waste bin. ‘Yes, that’s how to do it, my boy. No undignified scrambling. That’s the professional way.’

  My son nodded briefly. Things had gone dull again. He had been hoping for great things when Mr Anderson draped himself along the surgery floor, but this was tame stuff. He had stopped smiling.

  My own satisfied smile, too, had become a little fixed. I was watching Venus carefully and she wasn’t breathing. I tried to ignore the lurch in my stomach, because I have always been a nervous anaesthetist and am not very proud of it. Even now when I come upon one of my younger colleagues operating, I have a nasty habit of placing my hand over the patient’s chest wall over the heart and standing wide-eyed and rigid for a few seconds. I know the young surgeons hate to have me spreading alarm and despondency, and one day I am going to be told to get out in sharp terms, but I can’t help it.

  As I watched Venus I told myself as always that there was no danger. She had received the correct dose and, anyway, you often did get this period of apnoea with pentothal. Everything was normal, but just the same I wished to God she would start breathing.

  The heart was still going all right. I depressed the ribs a few times – nothing. I touched the unseeing eyeball – no corneal reflex. I began to rap my fingers on the table and stare closely at the little animal and I could see that Jimmy was watching me just as keenly. His deep interest in veterinary practice was built upon a fascination for animals, farmers and the open air, but it was given extra colour by something else: he never knew when his father might do something funny or something funny might happen to him.

  The unpredictable mishaps of the daily round were all good for a laugh, and my son, with his unerring instinct, had a feeling that something of the sort was going to happen now.

  His hunch was proved right when I suddenly lifted Venus from the table, shook her vainly a few times above my head, then set off at full gallop along the passage. I could hear the eager shuffle of the little slippers just behind me.

  I threw open the side door and shot into the back garden. I halted at the narrow part – no, there wasn’t enough room there – and continued my headlong rush till I reached the big lawn.

  Here I dropped the little dog on to the grass and fell down on my knees by her side in an attitude of prayer. I waited and watched as my heart hammered, but those ribs were not moving and the eyes stared sightlessly ahead.

  Oh, this just couldn’t happen! I seized Venus by a hind leg in either hand and began to whirl her round my head. Sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but attaining a remarkable speed as I put all my strength into the swing. This method of resuscitation seems to have gone out of fashion now, but it was very much in vogue then. It certainly met with the full approval of my son. He laughed so much that he fell down and sprawled on the grass.

  When I stopped and glared at the still immobile ribs he cried, ‘Again, Daddy, again.’ And he didn’t have to wait more than a few seconds before Daddy was in full action once more with Venus swooping through the air like a bird on the wing.

  It exceeded all Jimmy’s expectations. He probably had wondered about leaving his jam sandwiches to see the old man perform, but how gloriously he had been rewarded. To this day the whole thing is so vivid: my tension and misery lest my patient should die for no reason at all, and in the background the helpless, high-pitched laughter of my son.

  I don’t know how many times I stopped, dropped the inert form on the grass, then recommenced my whirling, but at last at one of the intervals the chest wall gave a heave and the eyes blinked.

  With a gasp of relief I collapsed face down on the cool turf and peered through the green blades as the breathing became regular and Venus began to lick her lips and look around her.

  I dared not get up immediately because the old brick walls of the garden were still dancing around me and I am sure I would have fallen.

  Jimmy was disappointed. ‘Aren’t you going to do any more, Daddy?’

  ‘No, son, no.’ I sat up and dragged Venus on to my lap. ‘It’s all over now.’

  ‘Well, that was funny. Why did you do it?’

  ‘To make the dog breathe.’
r />   ‘Do you always do that to make them breathe?’

  ‘No, thank heaven, not often.’ I got slowly to my feet and carried the little animal back to the consulting room.

  By the time Josh Anderson arrived, his pet was looking almost normal.

  ‘She’s still a little unsteady from the anaesthetic,’ I said. ‘But that won’t last long.’

  ‘Eee, isn’t that grand. And that nasty bone, is it . . . ?’

  ‘All gone, Mr Anderson.’

  He shrank back as I opened the mouth. ‘You see?’ I said. ‘Not a thing.’

  He smiled happily. ‘Did ye have any bother with her?’

  Well, my parents brought me up to be honest rather than clever and the whole story almost bubbled out of me. But why should I worry this sensitive little man? To tell him that his dog had been almost dead for a considerable time would not cheer him nor would it bolster his faith in me.

  I swallowed. ‘Not a bit, Mr Anderson. A quite uneventful operation.’ The whitest of lies, but it nearly choked me and the after-taste of guilt was strong.

  ‘Wonderful, wonderful. I am grateful, Mr Herriot.’ He bent over the dog and again I noticed the strange rolling of the strands of hair between his fingers.

  ‘Have ye been floatin’ through the air, Venus?’ he murmured absently.

  The back of my neck prickled. ‘What . . . what makes you say that?’

  He turned his eyes up to me, those eyes with their unworldly depths. ‘Well . . . I reckon she’d think she was floatin’ while she was asleep. Just a funny feeling I had.’

  ‘Ah, yes, well, er . . . right.’ I had a very funny feeling myself. ‘You’d better take her home now and keep her quiet for the rest of the day.’

  I was very thoughtful as I finished my tea. Floating . . . floating.

  A fortnight later I was again seated in Josh’s barber’s chair, bracing myself for the ordeal. To my alarm he started straight in with the dread clippers. Usually he began with the scissors and worked up gradually, but he was throwing me in at the deep end this time.

 

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