Let sleeping vets lie, p.8
Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.8James 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
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
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."
"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
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.
Let Sleeping Vets Lie by James Herriot / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes