Let sleeping vets lie, p.8
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       Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.8

           James Herriot

  dumpy little figure and walnut face among the spectators, the darting,

  black-button eyes. taking everything in. And always, on the end of its

  lead, her terrier dog.

  When I say 'old", I'm only guessing, because she appeared ageless; she

  seemed to have been around a long time but she could have been anything

  between fifty-five and seventy-five. She certainly had the vitality of a

  young woman because she must have walked vast distances in her dedicated

  quest to keep abreast of events. Many people took an uncharitable view

  of her acute curiosity but whatever the motivation, her activities took

  her into almost every channel of life in the town. One of these channels

  was our veterinary practice.

  Because Mrs. Donovan, among her other widely ranging interests, was an

  animal doctor. In fact I think it would be safe to say that this facet

  of her life transcended all the others.

  She could talk at length on the ailments of small animals and she had a

  whole armoury of medicines and remedies at her command, her two

  specialities being her miracle working condition powders and a dog

  shampoo of unprecedented value for improving the coat. She had an

  uncanny ability to sniff out a sick animal and it was not uncommon when

  I was on my rounds to find Mrs. Donovan's dark gipsy face poised

  intently over what I had thought was my patient while she administered

  calf's foot jelly or one of her own patent nostrums.

  I suffered more than Siegfried because I took a more active part in the

  small animal side of our practice. I was anxious to develop this aspect

  and to improve my image in this field and Mrs. Donovan didn't help at

  all. "Young Mr. Herriot," she would confide to my clients, 'is all right

  with cattle and such like, but he don't know nothing about dogs and


  And of course they believed her and had implicit faith in her. She had

  the irresistible mystic appeal of the amateur and on top of that there

  was her habit, particularly endearing in Darrowby, of never charging for

  her advice, her medicines, her long periods of diligent nursing.

  Older folk in the town told how her husband, an Irish farm worker, had

  died many years ago and how he must have had a 'bit put away" because

  Mrs. Donovan had apparently been able to indulge all her interests over

  the years without financial strain. Since she inhabited the streets of

  Darrowby all day and every day I often encountered her and she always

  smiled up at me sweetly and told me how she had been sitting up all

  night with Mrs. So-and-so's dog that I'd been treating. She felt sure

  she'd be able to pull it through.

  There was no smile on her face, however, on the day when she rushed into

  the surgery while Siegfried and I were having tea.

  "Mr. Herriot!" she gasped. "Can you come? My little dog's been run


  I jumped up and ran out to the car with her. She sat in the passenger

  seat with her head bowed, her hands clasped tightly on her knees.

  "He slipped his collar and ran in front of a car," she murmured. "He's

  Lying in front of the school half way up Cliffend Road. Please hurry."

  I was there within three minutes but as I bent over the dusty little

  body stretched on the pavement I knew there was nothing I could do. The

  fast-glazing eyes, the faint, gasping respirations, the ghastly pallor

  of the mucous membranes all told the same story.

  "I'll take him back to the surgery and get some saline into him, Mrs.

  Donovan," I said. "But I'm afraid he's had a massive internal

  haemorrhage. Did you see what happened exactly?"

  She gulped. "Yes, the wheel went right over him."

  Ruptured liver, for sure. I passed my hands under the little animal and

  began to lift him gently, but as I did so the breathing stopped and the

  eyes stared fixedly ahead.

  Mrs. Donovan sank to her knees and for a few moments she gently stroked

  the rough hair of the head and chest. "He's dead, isn't he?" she

  whispered at last.

  "I'm afraid he is," I said.

  She got slowly to her feet and stood bewilderedly among the little group

  of bystanders on the pavement. Her lips moved but she seemed unable to

  say any more.

  I took her arm, led her over to the car and opened the door. "Get in and

  sit down," I said. "I'll run you home. Leave everything to me."

  I wrapped the dog in my calving overall and laid him in the boot before

  driving away. It wasn't until we drew up outside Mrs. Donovan's house

  that she began to weep silently. I sat there without speaking till she

  had finished. Then she wiped her eyes and turned to me.

  "Do you think he suffered at all?"

  "I'm certain he didn't. It was all so quick - he wouldn't know a thing

  about it."

  She tried to smile. "Poor little Rex, I don't know what I'm doing to do

  without him. We've travelled a few miles together, you know."

  "Yes, you have. He had a wonderful life, Mrs. Donovan. And let me give

  you a bit of advice - you must get another dog. You'd be lost without


  She shook her head. "No, I couldn't. That little dog meant too much to

  me. I couldn't let another take his place."

  "Well I know that's how you feel just now but I wish you'd think about

  it. I don't want to seem callous - I tell everybody this when they lose

  an animal and I know it's good advice."

  "Mr. Herriot, I'll never have another one." She shook her head again,

  very decisively. "Rex was my faithful friend for many years and I just

  want to remember him. He's the last dog I'll ever have."

  I often saw Mrs. Donovan around the town after this and I was glad to

  see she was still as active as ever, though she looked strangely

  incomplete without the little dog on its lead. But it must have been

  over a month before I had the chance to speak to her.

  It was on the afternoon that Inspector Halliday of the RSPCA rang me.

  "Mr. Herriot," he said, "I'd like you to come and see an animal with me.

  A cruelty case."

  "Right, what is it?"

  "A dog, and it's pretty grim. A dreadful case of neglect." He gave me

  the name of a row of old brick cottages down by the river and said he'd

  meet me there.

  Halliday was waiting for me, smart and business-like in his dark

  uniform, as I pulled up in the back lane behind the houses. He was a

  big, blond man with cheerful blue eyes but he didn't smile as he came

  over to the car.

  "He's in here," he said, and led the way towards one of the doors in the

  long, crumbling wall. A few curious people were hanging around and with

  a feeling of inevitability I recognised a gnome-like brown face. Trust

  Mrs. Donovan, I thought, to be among those present at a time like this.

  We went through the door into the long garden. I had found that even the

  lowliest dwellings in Darrowby had long strips of land at the back as

  though the builders had taken it for granted that the country people who

  were going to live in them would want to occupy themselves with the

  pursuits of the soil; with vegetable and fruit growing, even stock

  keeping in a small way. You usually
found a pig there, a few hens, often

  pretty beds of flowers.

  But this garden was a wilderness. A chilling air of desolation hung over

  the few gnarled apple and plum trees standing among a tangle of rank

  grass as though the place had been forsaken by all living creatures.

  Halliday went over to a ramshackle wooden shed with peeling paint and a

  rusted corrugated iron roof. He produced a key, unlocked the padlock and

  dragged the door partly open. There was no window and it wasn't easy to

  identify the jumble inside; broken gardening tools, an ancient mangle,

  rows of flower pots and partly used paint tins. And right at the back, a

  dog sitting quietly.

  I didn't notice him immediately because of the gloom and because the

  smell in the shed started me coughing, but as I drew closer I saw that

  he was a big animal, sitting very upright, his collar secured by a chain

  to a ring in the wall. I had seen some thin dogs but this advanced

  emaciation reminded me of my text books on anatomy; nowhere else did the

  bones of pelvis, face and rib cage stand out with such horrifying

  clarity. A deep, smoothed out hollow in the earth floor showed where he

  had lain, moved about, in fact lived for a very long time.

  The sight of the animal had a stupefying effect on me; I only half took

  in the rest of the scene - the filthy shreds of sacking scattered

  nearby, the bowl of scummy water.

  "Look at his back end," Halliday muttered.

  I carefully raised the dog from his sitting position and realised that

  the stench in the place was not entirely due to the piles of excrement.

  The hindquarters were a welter of pressure sores which had turned

  gangrenous and strips of sloughing tissue hung down from them. There

  were similar sores along the sternum and ribs. The coat, which seemed to

  be a dull yellow, was matted and caked with dirt.

  The Inspector spoke again. "I don't think he's ever been out of here.

  He's only a young dog - about a year old - but I understand he's been in

  this shed since he was an eight-week-old pup. Somebody out in the lane

  heard a whimper or ... .. he'd never have been found." ..

  I felt a tightening of the throat and a sudden nausea which wasn't due

  to the smell. It was the thought of this patient animal sitting starved

  and forgotten in the darkness and filth for a year. I looked again at

  the dog and saw in his eyes only a calm trust. Some dogs would have

  barked their heads off and soon been discovered, some would have become

  terrified and vicious, but this was one of the totally undemanding kind,

  the kind which had complete faith in people and accepted all their

  actions without complaint. Just an occasional whimper perhaps as he sat

  interminably in the empty blackness which had been his world and at

  times wondered what it was all about.

  "Well, Inspector, I hope you're going to throw the book at whoever's

  responsible," l said. ~

  Halliday grunted. "Oh, there won't be much done. It's a case of

  diminished responsibility. The owner's definitely simple. Lives with an

  aged mother who:hardly knows what's going on either. I've seen the

  fellow and it seems he threw in a bit of food when he felt like it and

  that's about all he did. They'll fine him and stop him keeping an animal

  in the future but nothing more than that."

  1 ) 1 r 1:

  r r "I see." I reached out and stroked the dog's head and he immediately

  responded by resting a paw on my wrist. There was a pathetic dignity

  about the way he held himself erect, the calm eyes regarding me,

  friendly and unafraid. "Well, you'll let me know if you want me in


  "Of course, and thank you for coming along." Halliday hesitated for a

  moment. "And now I expect you'll want to put this poor thing out of his

  misery right away."

  I continued to run my hand over the head and ears while I thought for a

  moment "Yes ... yes, I suppose so. We'd never find a home for him in

  this state. It's the kindest thing to do. Anyway, push the door wide

  open will you so that I can get a proper look at him."

  In the improved light I examined him more thoroughly. Perfect teeth,

  wellproportioned limbs with a fringe of yellow hair. I put my

  stethoscope on his chest and as I listened to the slow, strong thudding

  of the heart the dog again put his paw on my hand.

  I turned to Halliday, "You know, Inspector, inside this bag of bones

  there's a lovely healthy Golden Retriever. I wish there was some way of

  letting him out."

  As I spoke I noticed there was more than one figure in the door opening.

  A pair of black pebble eyes were peering intently at the big dog from

  behind the Inspector's broad back. The other spectators had remained in

  the lane but Mrs. Donovan's curiosity had been too much for her. I

  continued conversationally as though I hadn't seen her.

  "You know, what this dog needs first of all is a good shampoo to clean

  up his matted coat."

  "Huh?"said Halliday.

  "Yes. And then he wants a long course of some really strong condition


  "What's that?" The Inspector looked startled.

  "There's no doubt about it," I said. "It's the only hope for him, but

  where are you going to find such things? Really powerful enough, I

  mean." I sighed and straightened up. "Ah well, I suppose there's nothing

  else for it. I'd better put him to sleep right away. I'll get the things

  from my car."

  When I got back to the shed Mrs. Donovan was already inside examining

  the dog despite the feeble remonstrances of the big man.

  "Look!" she said excitedly, pointing to a name roughly scratched on the

  collar. "His name's Roy." She smiled up at me. "It's a bit like Rex,

  isn't it, that name?"

  "You know, Mrs. Donovan, now you mention it, it is. It's very like Rex,

  the way it comes off your tongue." I nodded seriously.

  She stood silent for a few moments, obviously in the grip of a deep

  emotion, then she burst out.

  "Can I have 'im? I can make him better, I know I can. Please, please let

  me have 'im!"

  "Well I don't know," I said. "It's really up to the Inspector. You'll

  have to get his permission."

  Halliday looked at her in bewilderment, then he said: "Excuse me,

  Madam," and drew me to one side. We walked a few yards through the long

  grass and stopped under a tree.

  "Mr. Herriot," he whispered, "I don't know what's going on here, but I

  can't Just pass over an animal in this condition to anybody who has a

  casual whim. The poor beggar's had one bad break already - I think it's

  enough. This woman doesn't look a suitable person ... '

  I held up a hand. "Believe me, Inspector, you've nothing to worry about.

  She's a funny old stick but she's been sent from heaven today. If

  anybody in Darrowby can give this dog a new life it's her."

  Halliday still looked very doubtful. "But I still don't get it. What was

  all that stuff about him needing shampoos and condition powders?"

  "Oh never mind about that. I'll tell you some other time. What he needs

  is .] lots of good grub, care and affection and tha
t's just what he'll

  get. You can take my word for it."

  "All right, you seem very sure." Halliday looked at me for a second or

  two then turned and walked over to the eager little figure by the shed.

  I had never before been deliberately on the look out for Mrs. Donovan:

  she had just cropped up wherever I happened to be, but now I scanned the

  streets of Darrowby anxiously day by day without sighting her. I didn't

  like it when Gobber Newhouse got drunk and drove his bicycle

  determinedly through a barrier into a ten foot hole where they were

  laying the new sewer and Mrs. Donovan was not in evidence among the

  happy crowd who watched the council workmen and two policemen trying to

  get him out, and when she was nowhere to be seen when they had to fetch

  the fire engine to the fish and chip shop the night the fat burst into

  flames I became seriously worried.

  Maybe I should have called round to see how she was getting on with that

  dog. Certainly I had trimmed off the necrotic tissue and dressed the

  sores before she took him away, but perhaps he needed something more

  than that. And yet at the time I had felt a strong conviction that the

  main thing was to get him out of there and clean and feed him and nature

  would do the rest. And I had a lot of faith in Mrs. Donovan - far more

  than she had in me - when it came to animal doctoring; it was hard to

  believe I'd been completely wrong.

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