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James Herriot


Let Sleeping Vets Lie


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 going 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 one.“
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 would 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 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, blonde 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 oe 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 lowlest 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 an a small way. You usually found a big 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 tha 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 tok 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 sternums 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 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 are going to throw the book at whoever´s responsible,“ I 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 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.“
„I see,“ I reached out and stroked the dog´s head and he immeadiately 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 court.“
„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 continue to run my hand over the head and ears while I thought for a moment. „Yes... yes, I suppose so. We´d never found a home for him in this state. It´s the kindest thing to do. Anyway, push the door wide openwill you so that I can get a proper look at him.“
In the improved light i examined him more thoroughly. Perfect teeth, well-proportioned 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 dogs 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 powders.“
„What´s that? The Inspector look 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 powerfull enough, I mean.“ I sighted and straightened up. „ Ah well, I suppose there´s nothing else for it. I´d beter 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 mentioned 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 a grip of a deep emotion, than 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 bewilderement, 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 that´s just what he´ll get. You can take my word for it.“
„All right, you seem very sure.“ Halliday looked at me very for a second or two then turned and walked over to the eager little figure by the shed.

I had never been deliberately on the look out for Mrs. Donovan: she has 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.
It must have been nearly three weeks and I was on the point of calling at her home when I noticed her stumping brisky along the far side of the market place, peering closely into every shop window exactly as before. The only difference was that she had a big yellow dog on the end of the lead.

I turned the wheel and sent my car bumping over the cobbles till I was abreast of her. When she saw me getting out she stopped and smiled impishly but she didn´t speak as I bent over Roy and examined him. He was still a skinny dog but he looked bright and happy, his wounds were healthy and granulating and there was not a speck of dirt in his coat or on his skin. I knew then what Mrs. Donovan had been doing all this time: she had been washing and combing and teasing at that filthy tangle till she had finally conquered it.
As I straightened up she seized my wrist in a grip of surprising strenght and looked up into my eyes.
„Now Mrs. Herriot,“ she said. Haven´t I made a difference to this dog!“
„You´ve done wonders, Mrs. Donovan,“ I said. „And you´ve been at him with that marvellous shampoo of yours, haven´t you?“
She giggled and walked away and from that day I say the two of them frequently but at a distance and something like two months went by before I had a chance to talk to her again. She was passing by the surgery as I was coming down the steps and again she grabbed my wrist.

„Mr. Herriot,“ she said, just as she had done before. „Haven´t I made a difference to this dog!“

I looked down at Roy with something akin to awe. He had grown and filled out and his coat, no longer yellow but a rich gold, lay in luxuriant shining swathes over the well-fleshed ribs and back. A new, brightly studded collar glittered on his neck and his tail, beautifully fringed, fanned the air gently. He was now a Golden Retriever in full magnificence. As I stared at he reared up, plunked his fore paws on my chest and looked into my face, and in his eyes I read plainly the same calm affection and trust I had seen back in that black, noisome shed.
„Mrs. Donovan,“ I said softly, „he´s the most beautiful dog in Yorkshire.“ Then, because I knew she was waiting for it. „It´s those wonderful condition powders. Whatever do you put in them?“
„Ah, wouldn´t you like to know!“ She bridled and smiled up at me coquettishly and indeed she was nearer being kissed at that moment than for many years.

I suppose you could say that that was the start of Roy´s second life. And as the year passed I often pondered on the beneficent providence which had decreed that an animal which has spent his first twelve months abandoned and unwanted, staring uncomprehendingly into that unchanging, stinking darkness, should be whisked in a moment into an existence of light and movement and love. Because I don´t think any dog had it quite so good as Roy from then on.


(c) 2005 Through the rain
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