It shouldnt happen to a.., p.9
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       It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, p.9

           James Herriot
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Siegfried's veterinary friend who always took a pint sample from the

  healthiest udder he could find to go with his lunchtime sandwiches.

  I labelled the bottle and put it into the car. We had a little electric

  centrifuge at Skeldale House and tonight I would spin this milk and

  examine the sediment on a slide after staining by Zichl-Neelsen.

  Probably I would find nothing but at times there was the strange

  excitement of peering down the microscope at a clump of bright red,

  iridescent TB bacilli. When that happened the cow was immediately

  slaughtered and there was always the thought that I might have lifted

  the death sentence from some child - the meningitis, the spinal and lung

  infections which were so common in those days.

  Returning to the byre I finished the inspection by examining the wall in

  front of each cow.


  The farmer watched me dourly. "What you on with now."

  "Well, if a cow has a cough you can often find some spit on the wall." I

  had, in truth, found more tuberculous cows this way than any other - by

  scraping a little sputum on to a glass slide and then staining it as for

  the milk.

  The modern young vet just about never sees a TB cow, thank heavens, but

  'screws' were all too common thirty years ago. There were very few in

  the high Pennines but in the low country on the plain you found them;

  the cows that 'weren't doing right', the ones with the soft, careful

  cough and slightly accelerated breathing. Often they were good milkers

  and ate well, but they were killers and I was learning to spot them. And

  there were the others, the big, fat, sleek animals which could still be

  riddled with the disease. They were killers of a more insidious kind and

  nobody could pick them out. It took the tuberculin test to do that.

  At the next four places I visited, the farmers had got tired of waiting

  for me and had turned their cows out. They had all to be brought in from

  the field and they came slowly and reluctantly; there was nothing like

  the rodeo I had had with Mr. Kay's heifers but a lot more time was lost.

  The animals kept trying to turn back to the field while I sped around

  their flanks like a demented sheep dog; and as I panted to and fro each

  farmer told me the same thing - that cows only liked to come in at

  milking time.

  Milking time did eventually come and I caught three of my herds while

  they were being milked, but it was after six when I came tired and

  hungry to my second last inspection. A hush hung over the place and

  after shouting my way round the buildings without finding anybody I

  walked over to the house.

  "Is your husband in, Mrs. Bell?" I asked.

  "No, he's had to go into "'village to get the horse shod but he won't be

  long before he's back. He's left cows in for you," the farmer's wife


  That was fine. I'd soon get through this lot. I almost ran into the byre

  and started the old routine, feeling sick to death of the sight and

  smell of cows and fed up with pawing at their udders. I was working

  along almost automatically when I came to a thin, rangy cow with a

  narrow red and white face; she could be a crossed Shorthorn-Ayrshire. I

  had barely touched her udder when she lashed out with the speed of light

  and caught me just above the kneecap.

  I hopped round the byre on one leg, groaning and swearing in my agony.

  It was some time before I was able to limp back to have another try and

  this time I scratched her back and cush-cushed her in a wheedling tone

  before sliding my hand gingerly between her legs. The same thing

  happened again only this time the sharp-edged cloven foot smacked

  slightly higher up my leg.

  Crashing back against the wall, I huddled there, almost weeping with

  pain and rage. After a few minutes I reached a decision. To hell with

  her. If she didn't want to be examined she could take her luck. I had

  had enough for one day - I was in no mood for heroics.

  Ignoring her, I proceeded down the byre till I had inspected the others.

  But I had to pass her on my way back and paused to have another look;

  and whether it was sheer stubbornness or whether I imagined she was

  laughing at me, I don't know, but I decided to have just one more go.

  Maybe she didn't like me coming from behind. Perhaps if I worked from

  the side she wouldn't mind so much.

  Carefully I squeezed my way between her and her neighbour, gasping as

  the craggy pelvic bones dug into my ribs. Once in the space beyond, I

  thought, I would be free to do my job; and that was my big mistake.

  Because as soon as I had got there the cow went to work on me in

  earnest. Switching her back end round quickly to cut off my way of

  escape, she began to kick me systematically from head to foot. She

  kicked forward, reaching at times high on my chest as I strained back

  against the wall.

  Since then I have been kicked by an endless variety of cows in all sorts

  of situations but never by such an expert as this one. There must be

  very few really venomous bovines and when one of them uses her feet it

  is usually an instinctive reaction to being hurt or frightened; and they

  kick blindly. But this cow measured me up before each blow and her

  judgement of distance was beautiful. And as she drove me further towards

  her head she was able to hook me in the back with her horns by way of

  variety. I am convinced she hated the human race.

  My plight was desperate. I was completely trapped and it didn't help

  when the apparently docile cow next door began to get into the act by

  prodding me off with her horns as I pressed against her.

  I don't know what made me look up, but there, in the thick wall of the

  byre was a hole about two feet square where some of the crumbling stone

  had fallen out. I pulled myself up with an agility that amazed me and as

  I crawled through head first a sweet fragrance came up to me. I was

  looking into a hay barn and seeing a deep bed of finest clover just

  below I launched myself into space and did a very creditable roll in the

  air before landing safely on my back.

  Lying there, bruised and breathless, with the front of my coat thickly

  patterned with claw marks I finally abandoned any lingering illusions I

  had had that Ministry work was a soft touch.

  I was rising painfully to my feet when Mr. Bell strolled in. "Sorry ah

  had to go out," he said, looking me over with interest, "But I'd just

  about given you up. You're 'ellish late."

  I dusted myself down and picked a few strands of hay from my hair. "Yes

  sorry about that. But never mind, I managed to get the job done."

  "But ... were you havin' a bit of a kip, then."

  "No, not exactly. I had some trouble with one of your cows." There

  wasn't much point in standing on my dignity. I told him the story.

  Even the friendliest farmer seems to derive pleasure from a vet's

  discomfiture and Mr. Bell listened with an ever-widening grin of

  delight. By the time I had finished he was doubled up, beating his

  breeches knees with his hands.

  "I can just imagine it. That Ayrshire cross! She's a right bitch. Picked

  her up cheap at market last spring and thought ah'd got a bargain, but

  ah soon found out. Took us a fortnight to get bugger tied up."

  "Well, I just wish I'd known," I said rather tight lipped.

  The farmer looked up at the hole in the wall. "And you crawled through .

  .." he went into another convulsion which lasted some time, then he took

  off his cap and wiped his eyes with the lining.

  "Oh dear, oh dear," he murmured weakly. "By yaw, I wish I'd been here."

  My last call was just outside Darrowby and I could hear the church clock

  striking a quarter past seven as I got stiffly out of the car. After my

  easy day in the service of the government I felt broken in mind and

  body; I had to suppress a scream when I saw yet another long line of

  cows' backsides awaiting me. The sun was low, and dark thunder clouds

  piling up in the west had thrown the countryside into an eerie darkness;

  and in the old-fashioned, slit-windowed byre the animals looked

  shapeless and ill-defined in the gloom.

  Right, no messing about. I was going to make a quick job of this and get

  off home; home to some food and an armchair. I had no further ambitions.

  So left hand on the root of the tail, right hand between the hind legs,

  a quick feel around and on to the next one. Eyes half closed, my mind

  numb, I moved from cow to cow going through the motions like a robot

  with the far end of the byre seeming like the promised land.

  And finally here it was, the very last one up against the wall. Left

  hand on tail, right hand between.legs ... At first my tired brain didn't

  take in the fact that there was something different here, but there was

  ... something vastly different. A lot of space and instead of the udder

  a deeply cleft, pendulous something with no teats anywhere.

  I came awake suddenly and looked along the animal's side. A huge woolly

  head was turned towards me and two wide-set eyes regarded me

  enquiringly. In the dull light I could just see the gleam of the copper

  ring in the nose.

  The farmer who had watched me in silence, spoke up.

  "You're wasting your time there, young man. There's nowt wrong wi' HIS


  Chapter Twelve.

  The card dangled above the old lady's bed. It read "God is Near' but it

  wasn't like the usual religious text. It didn't have a frame or ornate

  printing. It was just a strip of cardboard about eight inches long with

  plain lettering which might have-said "No smoking' or "Exit' and it was

  looped carelessly over an old gas bracket so that Miss Stubbs from where

  she lay could look up at it and read "God is Near' in square black


  There wasn't much more Miss Stubbs could see; perhaps a few feet of

  privet hedge through the frayed curtains but mainly it was just the

  cluttered little room which had been her world for so many years.

  The room was on the ground floor and in the front of the cottage, and as

  I came up through the wilderness which had once been a garden I could

  see the dogs watching me from where they had jumped on to the old lady's

  bed. And when I knocked on the door the place almost erupted with their

  barking. It was always like this. I had been visiting regularly for over

  a year and the pattern never changed; the furious barking, then Mrs.

  Broadwith who looked after Miss Stubbs would push all the animals but my

  patient into the back kitchen and open the door and I would go in and

  see Miss Stubbs in the corner in her bed with the card hanging over it.

  She had been there for a long time and would never get up again. But she

  never mentioned her illness and pain to me; all her concern was for her

  three dogs and two cats.

  Today it was old Prince and I was worried about him. It was his heart

  just about the most spectacular valvular incompetence I had ever heard.

  He was waiting for me as I came in, pleased as ever to see me, his long,

  fringed tail waving gently.

  The sight of that tail used to make me think there must be a lot of

  Irish Setter in Prince but I was inclined to change my mind as I worked

  my way forward over the bulging black and white body to the shaggy head

  and upstanding Alsatian ears. Miss Stubbs often used to call him "Mr.

  Heinz' and though he may not have had 57 varieties in him his hybrid

  vigour had stood him in good stead. With his heart he should have been

  dead long ago.

  "I thought I'd best give you a ring, Mr. Herriot," Mrs. Broadwith said.

  She was a comfortable, elderly widow with a square, ruddy face

  contrasting sharply with the pinched features on the pillow. "He's been

  coughing right bad this week and this morning he was a bit staggery.

  Still eats well, though."

  "I bet he does' I ran my hands over the rolls of fat on the ribs. "It

  would take something really drastic to put old Prince off his grub."

  Miss Stubbs laughed from the bed and the old dog, his mouth wide, eyes

  dancing, seemed to be joining in the joke. I put my stethoscope over his

  heart and listened, knowing well what I was going to hear. They say the

  heart is supposed to go "Lub-dup, lub-dup', but Prince's went

  'swish-swoosh, swishswoosh'. There seemed to be nearly as much blood

  leaking back as was being pumped into the circulatory system. And

  another thing, the 'swish-swoosh' was a good bit faster than last time;

  he was on oral digitalis but it wasn't quite doing its job.

  Gloomily I moved the stethoscope over the rest of the chest. Like all

  old dogs with a chronic heart weakness he had an ever-present bronchitis

  and I listened without enthusiasm to the symphony of whistles, rales,

  squeaks and bubbles which signalled the workings of Prince's lungs. The

  old dog stood very erect and proud, his tail still waving slowly. He

  always took it as a tremendous compliment when I examined him and there

  was no doubt he was enjoying himself now. Fortunately his was not a very

  painful ailment.

  Straightening up, I patted his head and he responded immediately by

  trying to put his paws on my chest. He didn't quite make it and even

  that slight exertion started his ribs heaving and his tongue lolling. I

  gave him an intramuscular injection of digitalin and another of morphine

  hydrochloride which he accepted with apparent pleasure as part of the


  "I hope that will steady his heart and breathing, Miss Stubbs. You'll

  find he'll be a bit dopey for the rest of the day and that will help,

  too. Carry on with the tablets, and I'm going to leave you some more

  medicine for his bronchitis." I handed over a bottle of my old standby

  mixture of ipecacuanha and ammonium acetate.

  The next stage of the visit began now as Mrs. Broadwith brought in a cup

  of tea and the rest of the animals were let out of the kitchen. There

  were Ben, a Sealyham, and Sally, a Cocker Spaniel, and they started a

  deafening barking contest with Prince. They were closely followed by the

  cats, Arthur and Susie, who stalked in gracefully and began to rub

  themselves against my trouser legs.

  It was the usual scenario for the many cups of tea I had drunk with Miss

  Stubbs under the little card whic
h dangled above her bed.

  "How are you today?" I asked.

  "Oh, much better," she replied and immediately, as always, changed the


  Mostly she liked to talk about her pets and the ones she had known right

  back to her girlhood. She spoke a lot, too, about the days when her

  family were alive. She loved to describe the escapades of her three

  brothers and today she showed me a photograph which Mrs. Broadwith had

  found at the bottom of a drawer.

  I took it from her and three young men in the knee breeches and little

  round caps of the nineties smiled up at me from the yellowed old print;

  they all held long church warden pipes and the impish humour in their

  expressions came down undimmed over the years.

  "My word, they look really bright lads, Miss Stubbs," I said.

  "Oh, they were young rips!" she exclaimed. She threw back her head and

  laughed and for a moment her face was radiant, transfigured by her


  The things I had heard in the village came back to me; about the

  prosperous father and his family who lived in the big house many years

  ago. Then the foreign investments which crashed and the sudden change in



  "When t'owd feller died he was about skint," one old man had said.

  "There's not much brass there now."

  Probably just enough brass to keep Miss Stubbs and her animals alive and

  to pay Mrs. Broadwith. Not enough to keep the garden dug or the house

  painted or for any of the normal little luxuries.

  And, sitting there, drinking my tea, with the dogs in a row by the

  bedside and the cats making themselves comfortable on the bed itself, I

  felt as I had often felt before - a bit afraid of the responsibility I

  had. The one thing which brought some light into the life of the brave

  old woman was the transparent devotion of this shaggy bunch whose eyes

  were never far from her face. And the snag was that they were all


  There had, in fact, been four dogs originally, but one of them, a truly

  ancient golden Labrador, had died a few months previously. And now I had

  the rest of them to look after and none of them less than ten years old.

  They were perky enough but all showing some of the signs of old age;

  Prince with his heart, Sally beginning to drink a lot of water which

  made me wonder if she was starting with a pyometra. Ben growing steadily

  thinner with his nephritis. I couldn't give him new kidneys and I hadn't

  much faith in the hexamine tablets I had prescribed. Another peculiar

  thing about Ben was that I was always having to clip his claws; they

  grew at an extraordinary rate.

  The cats were better, though Susie was a bit scraggy and I kept up a

  morbid kneading of her furry abdomen for signs of lymphosarcoma. Arthur

  was the best of the bunch; he never seemed to ail anything beyond a

  tendency for his teeth to tartar up.

  This must have been in Miss Stubbs' mind because, when I had finished my

  tea, she asked me to look at him. I hauled him across the bedspread and

  opened his mouth.

  "Yes, there's a bit of the old trouble there. Might as well fix it while

  I'm here."

  Arthur was a huge, grey, neutered Tom, a living denial of all those

  theories that cats are cold-natured, selfish and the rest. His fine

  eyes, framed in the widest cat face I have ever seen, looked out on the

  world with an all-embracing benevolence and tolerance. His every

  movement was marked by immense dignity.

  As I started to scrape his teeth his chest echoed with a booming purr

  like a distant outboard motor. There was no need for anybody to hold

  him; he sat there placidly and moved only once - when I was using

  forceps to crack off a tough piece of tartar from a back tooth and

  accidentally nicked his gum. He casually raised-a massive paw as if to

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