Let sleeping vets lie, p.6
Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.6James 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The jinx was still on.
"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
But it was Wednesday evening now and Mr. Crump's big Shire gelding was
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
Let Sleeping Vets Lie by James Herriot / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes