Let sleeping vets lie, p.6
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       Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.6

           James Herriot
 

  appreciatively observing me gawping at their sister.

  "That's enough, you two," Auntie Lucy reproved. "Anyway you can go now,

  we're going to clear the table."

  Helen and she began to move the dishes to the scullery beyond the door

  while Mr. Alderson and I returned to our chairs by the fireside.

  The little man ushered me to mine with a vague wave of the hand. "Here

  ... take a seat, er ... young man."

  A clattering issued from the kitchen as the washing-up began. We were

  alone.

  Mr. Alderson's hand strayed automatically towards his Farmer and

  Stockbreeder, but he withdrew it after a single hunted glance in my

  direction and began to drum his fingers on the arm of the chair,

  whistling softly under his breath.

  I groped desperately for an opening gambit but came up with nothing. The

  ticking of the clock boomed out into the silence. I was beginning to

  break out into a sweat when the little man cleared his throat.

  "Pigs were a good trade on Monday," he vouchsafed.

  "They were, eh? Well, that's (the - jolly good."

  Mr. Alderson nodded, fixed his gaze somewhere above my left shoulder and

  started drumming his fingers again. Once more the heavy silence

  blanketed us and the clock continued to hammer out its message.

  After several years Mr. Alderson stirred in his seat and gave a little

  cough. I looked at him eagerly.

  "Store cattle were down, though," he said.

  "Ah, too bad, what a pity," I babbled. "But that's how it goes, I

  suppose, eh?"

  Helen's father shrugged and we settled down again. This time I knew it

  was hopeless. My mind was a void and my companion had the defeated look

  of a man who has shot his conversational bolt. I lay back and studied

  the hams and sides of bacon hanging from their hooks in the ceiling,

  then I worked my way along the row of plates on the big oak dresser to a

  gaudy calendar from a cattle cake firm which dangled from a nail on the

  wall. I took a chance then an] stole a glance at Mr. Alderson out of the

  corner of my eye and my toes curled as I saw he had chosen that precise

  moment to have a sideways peep at me. We both looked away hurriedly.

  By shifting round in my seat and craning my neck I was able to get a

  view of the other side of the kitchen where there was an old-fashioned

  roll top desk Surmounted by a wartime picture of Mr. Alderson looking

  very stern in the uniform of the Yorkshire Yeomanry, and I was

  proceeding along the wall from there when Helen opened the door and came

  quickly into the room.

  "Dad," she said, a little breathlessly. "Stan's here. He says one of the

  cows is down with staggers." ~i Her father jumped up in obvious relief.

  I think he was delighted he had a sick cow and 1, too, felt like a

  released prisoner as I hurried out with him.

  Stan, one of the cowmen, was waiting in the yard.

  "She's at t'top of t'field, boss," he said. "I just spotted 'er when I

  went to get ~ them in for milkin"." .".!

  Mr. Alderson looked at me questioningly and I nodded at him as I opened

  the car door.

  "I've got the stuff with me," I said. "We'd better drive straight up."

  The three of us piled in and I set course to where I could see the

  stretched out form of a cow near the wall in the top corner. My bottles

  and instruments rattled and clattered as we bumped over the rig and

  furrow.

  This was something every vet gets used to in early summer; the urgent

  call to milk cows which have collapsed suddenly a week or two after

  being turned out to grass. The farmers called it grass staggers and as

  its scientific name of hypomagesaemia implied it was associated with

  lowered magnesium level in the blood. An alarming and highly fatal

  condition but fortunately curable by injection of magnesium in most

  cases.

  Despite the seriousness of the occasion I couldn't repress a twinge of

  satisfaction. It had got me out of the house and it gave me a chance to

  prove myself by doing something useful. Helen's father and I hadn't

  established anything like a rapport as yet, but maybe when I gave his

  unconscious cow my magic injection and it leaped to its feet and walked

  away he might look at me in a different light. And it often happened

  that way; some of the cures were really dramatic.

  "She's still alive, any road," Stan said as we roared over the grass. "I

  saw her legs move then."

  He was right, but as I pulled up and jumped from the car I felt a tingle

  of apprehension. Those legs were moving too much.

  This was the kind that often died; the convulsive type. The animal,

  prone on her side, was pedalling frantically at the air with all four

  feet, her head stretched backwards, eyes staring, foam bubbling from her

  mouth. As I hurriedly unscrewed the cap from the bottle of magnesium

  lactate she stopped and went into a long, shuddering spasm, legs stiffly

  extended, eyes screwed tightly shut; then she relaxed and lay inert for

  a frightening few seconds before recommencing the wild thrashing with

  her legs.

  My mouth had gone dry. This was a bad one. The strain on the heart

  during these spasms was enormous and each one could be her last.

  I crouched by her side, my needle poised over the milk vein. My usual

  practice was to inject straight into the bloodstream to achieve the

  quickest possible effect, but in this case I hesitated. Any interference

  with the heart's action could kill this cow; best to play safe - I

  reached over and pushed the needle under the skin of the neck.

  As the fluid ran in, bulging the subcutaneous tissues and starting a

  widening swelling under the roan-coloured hide, the cow went into

  another spasm. For an agonising few seconds she lay there, the quivering

  limbs reaching desperately out at nothing, the eyes disappearing deep

  down under tight-twisted lids.: Helplessly I watched her, my heart

  thudding, and this time as she came out of the rigor and started to move

  again it wasn't with the purposeful pedalling of, before; it was an

  aimless laboured pawing and as even this grew weaker her eyes slowly

  opened and gazed outwards with a vacant stare.

  I bent and touched the cornea with my finger, there was no response.

  The farmer and cowman looked at me in silence as the animal gave a final

  jerk then lay still.

  "I'm afraid she'd dead, Mr. Alderson," I said.

  The farmer nodded and his eyes moved slowly over the still form, over

  the graceful limbs, the fine dark roan flanks, the big, turgid udder

  that would give no more milk.

  "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm afraid her heart must have given out before

  the magnesium had a chance to work."

  "It's a bloody shame," grunted Stan. "She was a right good cow, that

  'un."

  Mr. Alderson turned quietly back to the car. "Aye well, these things

  happen," he muttered.

  We drove down the field to the house.

  Inside, the work was over and the family was collected in the parlour. I

  sat with them for a while but my overriding emotion was an urgent desire

  to be elsewhere Helen's father had been silent before but no
w he sat

  hunched miserably in an armchair taking no part in the conversation. I

  wondered whether he thought I had actually killed his cow. It certainly

  hadn't looked very good, the vet walking up to the sick animal, the

  quick injection and hey presto, dead. No, I had been blameless but it

  hadn't looked good.

  On an impulse I jumped to my feet.

  "Thank you very much for the lovely tea," I said, 'but I really must be

  off. I'm on duty this evening."

  Helen came with me to the door. "Well it's been nice seeing you again,

  Jim." She paused and looked at me doubtfully. "I wish you'd stop

  worrying about that cow. It's a pity but you couldn't help it. There was

  nothing you could do."

  "Thanks, Helen, I know. But it's a nasty smack for your father isn't

  it?"

  She shrugged and smiled her kind smile. Helen was always kind.

  Driving back through the pastures up to the farm gate I could see the

  motionless body of my patient with her companions sniffing around her

  curiously in the gentle evening sunshine. Any time now the knacker man

  would be along to winch the carcass on to his wagon. It was the grim

  epilogue to every vet's failure.

  I closed the gate behind me and looked back at Heston Grange. I had

  thought everything would be all right this time but it hadn't worked out

  that way.

  The jinx was still on.

  ;

  ;

  .~

  Chapter Six.

  "Monday morning disease" they used to call it. The almost unbelievably

  gross thickening of the hind limb in cart horses which had stood in the

  stable over the weekend It seemed that the sudden suspension of their

  normal work and exercise produced the massive lymphangitis and swelling

  which gave many a farmer a nasty jolt right at the beginning of the

  week.

  But it was Wednesday evening now and Mr. Crump's big Shire gelding was

  greatly improved.

  "That leg's less than half the size it was," I said, running my hand

  over the inside of the hock feeling the remains of the oedema pitting

  under my fingers. "I can see you've put in some hard work here.~

  "Aye, ah did as you said." Mr. Crump's reply was typically laconic, but

  I knew _ ~ _

  he must have spent hours fomenting and massaging the limb and forcibly

  exercising the horse as I had told him when I gave the arecoline

  injection on Monday.

  I began to fill the syringe for a repeat injection. "He's having no

  corn, is he?"

  "Nay, nowt but bran."

  "That's fine. I think he'll be back to normal in a day or two if you

  keep up the treatment."

  The farmer grunted and no sign of approval showed in the big, purple-red

  face with its perpetually surprised expression. But I knew he was

  pleased all right; he was fond of the horse and had been unable to hide

  his concern at the animal's pain and distress on my first visit.

  I went into the house to wash my hands and Mr. Crump led the way into

  the kitchen, his big frame lumbering clumsily ahead of me. He proffered

  soap and towel in his slow-moving way and stood back in silence as I

  leaned over the long shallow sink of brown earthenware.

  As I dried my hands he cleared his throat and spoke hesitantly. "Would

  you like a drink of ma wine?"

  Before I could answer, Mrs. Crump came bustling through from an inner

  room. She was pulling on her hat and behind her her teenage son and

  daughter followed, dressed ready to go out.

  "Oh Albert, stop it!" she snapped, looking up at her husband. "Mr.

  Herriot doesn't want your wine. I wish you wouldn't pester people so

  with it!"

  The boy grinned. "Dad and his wine, he's always looking for a victim."

  His sister joined in the general laughter and I had an uncomfortable

  feeling that Mr. Crump was the odd man out in his own home.

  "We're going down "'village institute to see a school play, Mr.

  Herriot," the wife said briskly. "We're late now so we must be off." She

  hurried away with her children, leaving the big man looking after her

  sheepishly.

  There was a silence while I finished drying my hands, then I turned to

  the farmer. "Well, how about that drink, Mr. Crump?"

  He hesitated for a moment and the surprised look deepened. "Would you ..

  . you'd really like to try some?"

  "I'd love to. I haven't had my evening meal yet - I could just do with

  an aperitif."

  "Right, I'll be back in a minute." He disappeared into the large pantry

  at the end of the kitchen and came back with a bottle of amber liquid

  and glasses.

  "This is ma rhubarb," he said, tipping out two good measures.

  I took a sip and then a good swallow, and gasped as the liquid blazed a

  fiery trail down to my stomach.

  "It's strong stuff," I said a little breathlessly, 'but the taste is

  very pleasant. Very pleasant indeed."

  Mr. Crump watched approvingly as I took another drink. "Aye, it's just

  right. Nearly two years old."

  I drained the glass and this time the wine didn't burn so much on its

  way down but seemed to wash around the walls of my empty stomach and

  send glowing tendrils creeping along my limbs.

  "Delicious," I said. "Absolutely delicious."

  The farmer expanded visibly. He refilled the glasses and watched with

  rapt attention as I drank. When we had finished the second glass he

  jumped to his feet.

  "Now for a change I want you to try summat different." He almost trotted

  to the pantry and produced another bottle, this time of colourless

  fluid. "Elderflower," he said, panting slightly.

  When I tasted it I was amazed at the delicate flavour, the bubbles

  sparkling and dancing on my tongue.

  "Gosh, this is terrific! It's just like champagne. You know, you really

  have a gift - I never thought home made wines could taste like this."

  Mr. Crump stared at me for a moment then one corner of his mouth began

  to twitch and incredibly a shy smile spread slowly over his face.

  "You're about just I've heard say that. You'd think I was trying to

  poison folks when I offer them ma wine - they always shy off but they

  can sup plenty of beer and whisky."

  "Well they don't know what they're missing, Mr. Crump." I watched while

  the farmer replenished my glass. "I wouldn't have believed you could

  make stuff as good as this at home." I sipped appreciatively at the

  elderflower. It still tasted like champagne.

  I hadn't got more than half way down the glass before Mr. Crump was

  clattering and clinking inside the pantry again. He emerged with a

  bottle with contents of a deep blood red. "Try that," he gasped.

  I was beginning to feel like a professional taster and rolled the first

  mouthful around my mouth with eyes half closed. "Mm, mm, yes. Just like

  an excellent port, but there's something else here - a fruitiness in the

  background - something familiar about it - it's ... it's ... '

  "Blackberry!" shouted Mr. Crump triumphantly. "One of t'best I've done.

  Made it two back-ends since - it were a right good year for it."

  Leaning back in the chair I took another dri
nk of the rich, dark wine;

  it was round-flavoured, warming, and behind it there was always the

  elusive hint of the brambles. I could almost see the heavy-hanging

  clusters of berries glistening black and succulent in the autumn

  sunshine. The mellowness of the image matched my mood which was becoming

  more expansive by the minute and I looked round with leisurely

  appreciation at the rough comfort of the farmhouse kitchen; at the hams

  and sides of bacon hanging from their hooks in the ceiling, and at my

  host sitting across the table, watching me eagerly. He was, I noticed

  for the first time, still wearing his cap.

  "You know," I said, holding the glass high and studying its ruby depths

  against the light. "I can't make up my mind which of your wines I like

  best. They're all excellent and yet so different."

  Mr. Crump, too, had relaxed. He threw back his head and laughed

  delightedly before hurriedly refilling both of our tumblers. "But you

  haven't started yet. Ah've got dozens of bottles in there - all

  different. You must try a few more." He shambled again over to the

  pantry and this time when he reappeared he was weighed down by an armful

  of bottles of differing shapes and colours.

  What a charming man he was, I thought. How wrong I had been in my

 
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