James herriots dog stori.., p.45
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       James Herriot's Dog Stories, p.45

           James Herriot

  In an attempt to alleviate the pain I began to chatter with an edge of hysteria in my voice.

  ‘How is – ouch – Venus going on?’

  ‘Oh fine, fine.’Josh smiled at me tenderly in the mirror. ‘She was neither up nor down after that job.’

  ‘Well – ooh, aah – I really didn’t expect any trouble. As I said, it was – ow – just a trifling thing.’

  The barber whipped out another tuft with that inimitable flick of his. ‘The thing is, Mr Herriot, it’s a grand thing to ’ave faith in your vet. I knew our little pet was in good ’ands.’

  ‘Well, thank you very much, Mr Anderson, it’s — aaah – very nice to hear that.’ I was gratified, but that guilt feeling was still there.

  I got tired of trying to speak while watching my twitching features in the mirror, so I tried to concentrate on something else. It is a trick I adopt at the dentist’s and it doesn’t work very well, but as the little man tugged away I thought as hard as I could about my garden at Skeldale House.

  The lawns really did want mowing and there were all those weeds to get at when I had a minute to spare. I had got round to considering whether it was time to put some fertiliser on my outdoor tomatoes when Josh laid down the clippers and lifted his scissors.

  I sighed and relaxed. The next part was only mildly uncomfortable and who knows, he may have had the scissors sharpened since last time. My mind was wandering over the fascinating subject of tomatoes when the barber’s voice pulled me back to reality.

  ‘Mr Herriot.’ He was twiddling away at a wisp of my hair with his fingers. ‘I like gardening, too.’

  I almost jumped from the chair. ‘That’s remarkable. I was just thinking about my garden.’

  ‘Aye, ah know.’ There was a faraway look in his eyes as he rolled and rolled with finger and thumb. ‘It comes through the hair, ye know.’


  ‘Your thoughts. They come through to me.’


  ‘Yes, just think about it. Them hairs go right down into your head and they catch summat from your brain and send it up to me.’

  ‘Oh really, you’re kidding me.’ I gave a loud laugh which nevertheless had a hollow ring.

  Josh shook his head. ‘I’m not jokin’ nor jestin’, Mr Herriot. I’ve been at this game for nearly forty years and it keeps happenin’ to me. You’d be flabbergasted if I told ye some of the thoughts that’s come up. Couldn’t repeat ’em, I tell ye.’

  I slumped lower in my white sheet. Absolute rubbish and nonsense, of course, but I made a firm resolve never to think of Venus’s anaesthetic during a haircut.

  One of my most enjoyable pieces of writing, because there are so many unusual things in it. For instance, you don’t find barbers like Josh Anderson any more. One thing I omitted to mention in the story was that Josh was also a tobacconist, and it was a regular thing for him to put down his clippers in the middle of a haircut to serve a customer with cigarettes and return unabashed after a long conversation about the weather, cricket and other matters. Also, Venus was a dog of most unusual appearance; in fact I’ve never seen one like her before or since. And what about my thoughts going through my hair? Preposterous, but I still wonder about it . . .

  46. Amber

  ‘This is Amber,’ Sister Rose said. ‘The one I wanted you to examine.’

  I looked at the pale, almost honey-coloured shading of the hair on the dog’s ears and flanks. ‘I can see why you’ve given her that name. I bet she’d really glow in the sunshine.’

  The nurse laughed. ‘Yes, funnily enough it was sunny when I first saw her and the name just jumped into my mind.’ She gave me a sideways glance. ‘I’m good at names, as you know.’

  ‘Oh yes, without a doubt,’ I said, smiling. It was a little joke between us. Sister Rose had to be good at christening the endless stream of unwanted animals which passed through the little dog sanctuary which lay behind her house and which she ran and maintained by organising small shows, jumble sales, etc., and by spending her own money.

  And she didn’t only give her money, she also gave her precious time, because as a nursing sister she led a full lifeof service to the human race. I often asked myself how she found the time to fight for the animals, too. It was a mystery to me, but I admired her.

  ‘Where did this one come from?’ I asked.

  Sister Rose shrugged. ‘Oh, found wandering in the streets of Hebbleton. Nobody knows her and there have been no enquiries to the police. Obviously abandoned.’

  I felt the old tightening of anger in my throat. ‘How could they do this to such a beautiful dog? Just turn it away to fend for itself?’

  ‘Oh, people like that have some astonishing reasons. In this case I think it’s because Amber has a little skin disease. Perhaps it frightened them.’

  ‘They could at least have taken her to a vet,’ I grunted as I opened the door of the pen.

  I noticed some bare patches around the toes and as I knelt and examined the feet, Amber nuzzled my cheek and wagged her tail. I looked up at her, at the flopping ears, the pronounced jowls and the trusting eyes which had been betrayed.

  ‘It’s a hound’s face,’ I said. ‘But how about the rest of her? What breed would you call her?’

  Sister Rose laughed. ‘Oh, she’s a puzzle. I get a lot of practice at guessing, but this one beats me. I wondered if a Foxhound had got astray and mated with something like a Labrador or Dalmatian, but I don’t know.’

  I didn’t know, either. The body, dappled with patches of brown, black and white, was the wrong shape for a hound. She had very large feet, a long thin tail in constant motion, and everywhere on her coat the delicate sheen of gold.

  ‘Well,’ I said. ‘Whatever she is, she’s a bonny one, and good-natured, too.’

  ‘Oh yes, she’s a darling. We’ll have no difficulty in finding a home for her. She’s the perfect pet. How old do you think she is?’

  I smiled. ‘You can never tell for sure, but she’s got a juvenile look about her.’ I opened the mouth and looked at the rows of untainted teeth. ‘I’d say nine or ten months. She’s just a big pup.’

  ‘That’s what I thought. She’ll be really large when she reaches full size.’

  As if to prove the sister’s words, the young bitch reared up and planted her fore feet on my chest. I looked again at the laughing mouth and those eyes. ‘Amber,’ I said, ‘I really like you.’

  ‘Oh, I’m so glad,’ Sister Rose said. ‘We must get this skin trouble cleared up as quickly as possible and then I can start finding her a home. It’s just a bit of eczema, isn’t it?’

  ‘Probably . . . probably ... I see there’s some bareness around the eyes and cheeks, too.’ Skin diseases in dogs, as in humans, are tricky things, often baffling in origin and difficult to cure. I fingered the hairless areas. I didn’t like the combination of feet and face, but the skin was dry and sound. Maybe it was nothing much. I banished to the back of my mind a spectre which appeared for a brief instant. I didn’t want to think of that and I had no intention of worrying Sister Rose. She had enough on her mind.

  ‘Yes, probably eczema,’ I said briskly. ‘Rub this ointment well into the parts night and morning.’ I handed over the box of zinc oxide and lanoline. A bit old-fashioned, maybe, but it had served me well for a few years and ought to do the trick in combination with the nurse’s good feeding.

  When two weeks passed without news of Amber I was relieved. I was happy, too, at the thought that she would now be in a good home among people who appreciated her.

  I was brought back to reality with a bump when Sister Rose phoned one morning.

  ‘Mr Herriot, those bare patches aren’t any better. In fact they’re spreading.’

  ‘Spreading? Where?’

  ‘Up her legs and on the face.’

  The spectre leaped up, mouthing and gesticulating. Oh not that, please. ‘I’ll come right out, Sister,’ I said, and oh my way to the car I picked up the microscope.

  Amber gree
ted me as she had before, with dancing eyes and lashing tail, but I felt sick when I saw the ragged denudation of the face and the naked skin staring at me on the legs.

  I got hold of the young animal and held her close, sniffing at the hairless areas.

  Sister Rose looked at me in surprise. ‘What are you doing?’

  ‘Trying to detect a mousy smell.’

  ‘Mousy smell? And is it there?’


  ‘And what does that mean?’


  ‘Oh dear.’ The nurse put a hand to her mouth. ‘That’s rather nasty, isn’t it?’ Then she put her shoulders back in a characteristic gesture. ‘Well, I’ve had experience of mange before and I can tackle it. I’ve always been able to clear it up with sulphur baths, but there’s such a danger of infection to the other dogs. It really is a worry.’

  I put Amber down and stood up, feeling suddenly weary. ‘Yes, but you’re thinking of sarcoptic mange, Sister. I’m afraid this is something rather worse.’

  ‘Worse? In what way?’

  ‘Well, the whole look of the thing suggests demodectic mange.’

  She nodded. ‘I’ve heard of that – and it’s more serious?’

  ‘Yes . . .’I may as well bite the bullet. ‘Very often incurable.’

  ‘Goodness me, I had no idea. She wasn’t scratching much, so I didn’t worry.’

  ‘Yes, that’s just it,’ I said wryly. ‘Dogs scratch almost non-stop with sarcoptic mange and we can cure it, but they often show only mild discomfort with demodectic which usually defeats us.’

  The spectre was very large in my mind now and I use the word literally, because this skin disease had haunted me ever since I had qualified. I had seen many fine dogs put to sleep after the most prolonged attempts to treat them.

  I lifted the microscope from the back of the car. ‘Anyway, I may be jumping the gun. I hope I am. This is the only way to find out.’

  There was a patch on Amber’s left fore leg which I squeezed and scraped with a scalpel blade. I deposited the debris and serum on a glass slide, added a few drops of potassium hydroxide and put a cover-slip on top.

  Sister Rose gave me a cup of coffee while I waited, then I rigged up the microscope in the light from the kitchen window and looked down the eyepiece. And there it was. My stomach tightened as I saw what I didn’t want to see – the dread mite, Demodex cards: the head, the thorax with its eight stumpy legs and the long, cigar-shaped body. And there wasn’t just one. The whole microscopic field was teeming with them.

  ‘Ah well, that’s it, Sister,’ I said. ‘There’s no doubt about it. I’m very sorry.’

  The corners of her mouth drooped. ‘But . . . isn’t there anything we can do?’

  ‘Oh yes, we can try. And we’re going to try like anything, because I’ve taken a fancy to Amber. Don’t worry too much. I’ve cured a few demodex cases in my time, always by using the same stuff.’ I went to the car and fished around in the boot. ‘Here it is – Odylen.’ I held up the can in front of her. ‘I’ll show you how to apply it.’

  It was difficult to rub the lotion into the affected patches as Amber wagged and licked, but I finished at last.

  ‘Now do that every day,’ I said, ‘and let me know in about a week. Sometimes that Odylen really does work.’

  Sister Rose stuck out her jaw with the determination which had saved so many animals. ‘I assure you I’ll do it most carefully. I’m sure we can succeed. It doesn’t look so bad.’

  I didn’t say anything and she went on, ‘But how about my other dogs? Won’t they become infected?’

  I shook my head. ‘Another odd thing about demodex. It very rarely spreads to another animal. It is nothing like as contagious as the sarcops, so you have very little cause for worry in that way.’

  ‘That’s something, anyway. But how on earth does a dog get the disease in the first place?’

  ‘Mysterious again,’ I said. ‘The veterinary profession are pretty well convinced that all dogs have a certain number of demodex mites in their skins, but why they should cause mange in some and not in others has never been explained. Heredity has got something to do with it because it sometimes occurs in several dogs in the same litter. But it’s a baffling business.’

  I left Sister Rose with her can of Odylen. Maybe this would be one of the exceptions to my experiences with this condition. I had to hope so.

  I heard from the nurse within a week. She had been applying the Odylen religiously but the disease was spreading further up the legs.

  I hurried out there and my fears were confirmed when I saw Amber’s face. It was disfigured by the increasing hairlessness and when I thought of the beauty which had captivated me on my first visit the sight was like a blow. Her tail-wagging cheerfulness was undiminished, and that seemed to make the whole thing worse.

  I had to try something else, and in view of the fact that a secondary subcutaneous invasion of staphylococci was an impediment to recovery, I gave the dog an injection of staph toxoid. I also started her on a course of Fowler’s solution of arsenic which at that time was popular in the treatment of skin conditions.

  When ten days passed I had begun to hope, and it was a bitter disappointment when Sister Rose telephoned just after breakfast.

  Her voice trembled as she spoke. ‘Mr Herriot, she really is deteriorating all the time. Nothing seems to do any good. I’m beginning to think that . . .’

  I cut her off in mid-sentence. ‘All right, I’ll be out there within an hour. Don’t give up hope yet. These cases sometimes take months to recover.’

  I knew as I drove to the sanctuary that my words were only meant to comfort. They had no real substance. But I had tried to say something helpful because there was nothing Sister Rose hated more than putting a dog to sleep. Of all the hundreds of animals which had passed through her hands I could remember only a handful which had defeated her. Very old dogs with chronic kidney or heart conditions which were in a hopeless plight, or young ones with distemper. With all the others she had battled until they were fit to go to their new homes. And it wasn’t only Sister Rose – I myself recoiled from the idea of doing such a thing to Amber. There was something about that dog which had taken hold of me.

  When I arrived I still had no idea what I was going to do, and when I spoke I was half-surprised at the things I said.

  ‘Sister, I’ve come to take Amber home with me. I’ll be able to treat her myself every day, then. You’ve got enough to do, looking after your other dogs. I know you have done everything possible but I’m going to take on this job myself.’

  ‘But . . . you are a busy man. How will you find the time?’

  ‘I can treat her in the evenings and any other spare moments. This way I’ll be able to check on her progress all the time. I’m determined to get her right.’

  And, driving back to the surgery, I was surprised at the depth of my feeling. Throughout my career I have often had this compulsive desire to cure an animal, but never stronger than with Amber. The young bitch was delighted to be in the car with me. Like everything else she seemed to regard this as just another game, and she capered around, licking my ear, resting her paws on the dash and peering through the windscreen. I looked at her happy face, scarred by the disease and smeared with Odylen, and thumped my hand on the wheel. Demodectic mange was hell, but this was one case which was going to get better.

  It was the beginning of a strangely vivid episode in my life, as fresh now as it was then, more than thirty years ago. We had no facilities for boarding dogs – very few vets had at that time – but I made up a comfortable billet for her in the old stable in the yard. I penned off one of the stalls with a sheet of plywood and put down a bed of straw. Despite its age the stable was a substantial building and free from draughts. She would be snug in there.

  I made sure of one thing. I kept Helen out of the whole business. I remembered how stricken she had been when we adopted Oscar the cat and then lost him to his rightful owner, and I knew sh
e would soon grow too fond of this dog. But I had forgotten about myself.

  Veterinary surgeons would never last in their profession if they became too involved with their patients. I knew from experience that most of my colleagues were just as sentimental over animals as the owners, but before I knew what was happening I became involved with Amber.

  I fed her myself, changed her bedding, and carried out the treatment. I saw her as often as possible during the day, but when I think of her now it is always night. It was late November, when darkness came in soon after four o’clock, and the last few visits were a dim-sighted fumbling in cow byres, and when I came home I always drove round to the yard at the back of Skeldale House and trained my headlights on the stable.

  When I threw open the door Amber was always there, waiting to welcome me, her fore feet resting on the plywood sheet, her long yellow ears gleaming in the bright beam. That is my picture of her to this day. Her temperament never altered and her tail swished the straw unceasingly as I did all the uncomfortable things to her, rubbing the tender skin with the lotion, injecting her with the staph toxoid, taking further skin scrapings to check progress.

  As the days and the weeks went by and I saw no improvement I became a little desperate. I gave her sulphur baths, and derris baths, although I had done no good with such things in the past, and I also began to go through all the proprietary things on the market. In veterinary practice every resistant disease spawns a multitude of quack ‘cures’ and I lost count of the shampoos and washes I swilled over the young animal in the hope that there might be some magic element in them despite my misgivings.

  These nightly sessions under the headlights became part of my life, and I think I might have gone on blindly for an indefinite period until one very dark evening with the rain beating on the cobbles of the yard I seemed to see the young dog for the first time.

  The condition had spread over the entire body, leaving only tufts and straggling wisps of hair. The long ears were golden no longer. They were almost bald, as was the rest of her face and head. Everywhere her skin was thickened and wrinkled and had assumed a bluish tinge. And when I squeezed it a slow ooze of pus and serum came up around my fingers.


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