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Authors: James Herriot

cat stories (11 page)

BOOK: cat stories


It very soon became clear that my stock had fallen to new depths, because I had only to step out of the back door to send Olly scurrying away into the fields. The situation became so bad that I began to brood about it. “Helen,” I said one morning, ‘this thing with Olly is getting on my nerves. I wish there was something I could do about it.” “There is, Jim,” she said. “You’ll really have to get to know him. And he’ll have to get to know you.” I gave her a glum look. “I’m afraid if you asked him, he’d tell you that he knows me only too well.” “Oh, I know, but when you think about it, over all the years that we’ve had these cats, they’ve hardly seen anything of you, except in an emergency. I’ve been the one to feed them, talk to them, pet them, day in day out. They know me and trust me.” “That’s right, but I just haven’t had the time.” “Of course you haven’t. Your life is one long rush. You’re no sooner in the house than you’re out again.” I nodded thoughtfully. She was so right.

Over the years I had been attached to those cats, enjoyed the sight of them trotting down the slope for their food, playing in the long grass in the field, being fondled by Helen, but I was a comparative stranger to them. I felt a pang at the realisation that all that time had flashed past so quickly. “Well, probably it’s too late. Do you think there is anything I can do?” “Yes,” she said. “You have to start feeding them. You’ll just have to find the time to do it. Oh, I know you can’t do it always, but if there’s the slightest chance, you’ll have to get out there with their food.” “So you think it’s just a case of cupboard love with them?” “Absolutely not. I’m sure you’ve seen me with them often enough. They won’t look at their food until I’ve made a fuss of them for quite a long time. It’s the attention and friendship they want most.” “But I haven’t a hope.

They hate the sight of me.” “You’ll just have to persevere. It took me a long time to get their trust. Especially with Ginny. She’s always been the more timid one. Even now if I move my hand too quickly, she’s off. Despite all that’s happened, I think Olly might be your best hope—there’s a big well of friendliness in that cat.”

“Right,” I said. “Give me the food and milk. I’ll start now.” That was the beginning of one of the little sagas in my life. At every opportunity, I was the one who called them down, placed the food on the wall top and stood there waiting. At first I waited in vain. I could see the two of them watching me from the log shed—the blackand-white face and the yellow, gold and white one observing me from the straw beds—andfora long time they would never venture down until I had retreated into the house. Because of my irregular job, it was difficult to keep the new system going and sometimes when I had an early morning call they didn’t get their breakfast on time, but it was on one of those occasions when breakfast was over an hour late that their hunger overcame their fear and they came down cautiously while I stood stock still by the wall. They ate quickly with nervous glances at me, then scurried away. I smiled in satisfaction. It was the first breakthrough. After that, there was a long period when I just stood there as they ate until they became used to me as part of the scenery. Then I tried a careful extension of a hand. To start with, they backed away at that but, as the days passed, I could see that my hand was becoming less and less of a threat and my hopes rose steadily. As Helen had prophesied, Ginny was the one who shied right away from me at the slightest movement, whereas Olly, after retreating, began to look at me with an appraising eye as though he might possibly be willing to forget the past and revise his opinion of me. With infinite patience, day by day, I managed to get my hand nearer and nearer to him, and it was a memorable occasion when he at last stood still and allowed me to touch his cheek with a forefinger. As I gently stroked the fur, he regarded me with unmistakably friendly eyes before skipping away.

“Helen,” I said, looking round at the kitchen window, “I’ve made it!

We’re going to be friends at last. It’s a matter of time now till I’m stroking him as you do.” I was filled with an irrational pleasure and sense of fulfilment. It did seem a foolish reaction in a man who was dealing every day with animals of all kinds, but I was looking forward to years of friendship with that particular cat. I was wrong. At that moment I could not know that Olly would be dead within forty-eight hours. It was the following morning when Helen called to me from the back garden. She sounded distraught. “Jim, come quickly! It’s Olly!” I rushed out to where she was standing near the top of the slope near the log shed. Ginny was there, but all I could see of Olly was a dark smudge on the grass. Helen gripped my arm as I bent over him. “What’s happened to him?” He was motionless, his legs extended stiffly, his back arched in a dreadful rigor, his eyes staring. “I … I’m afraid he’s gone. It looks like strychnine poisoning.” But as I spoke he moved slightly. “Wait a minute!” I said. “He’s still alive, but only just.” I saw that the rigor had relaxed and I was able to flex his legs and lift him without any recurrence. “This isn’t strychnine. It’s like it, but it isn’t. It’s something cerebral, maybe a stroke.” Dry-mouthed, I carried him down to the house where he lay still, breathing almost imperceptibly. Helen spoke through her tears. “What can you do?”

“Get him to the surgery right away. We’ll do everything we can.” I kissed her wet cheek and ran out to the car. Siegfried and I sedated him because he had begun to make paddling movements with his limbs, then we injected him with steroids and antibiotics and put him on an intravenous drip. I looked at him as he lay in the big recovery cage, his paws twitching feebly. “Nothing more we can do, is there?”

Siegfried shook his head and shrugged. He agreed with me about the diagnosis—stroke, seizure, cerebral haemorrhage, call it what you like, but certainly the brain. I could see that he had the same feeling of hopelessness as I had. We attended Olly all that day and, during the afternoon, I thought for a brief period that he was improving, but by evening he was comatose again and he died during the night. I brought him home and as I lifted him from the car, his smooth, tangle-free fur was like a mockery now that his life was ended. I buried him just behind the log shed a few feet from the straw bed where he had slept for so many years. Vets are no different from other people when they lose a pet, and Helen and I were miserable. We hoped that the passage of time would dull our unhappiness, but we had another poignant factor to deal with. What about Ginny? Those two cats had become a single entity in our lives and we never thought of one without the other. It was clear that to Ginny the world was incomplete without Olly. For several days she ate nothing. We called her repeatedly but she advanced only a few yards from the log house, looking around her in a puzzled way before turning back to her bed. For all those years, she had never trotted down that slope on her own and over the next few weeks her bewilderment as she gazed about her continually, seeking and searching for her companion, was one of the most distressing things we had ever had to witness. Helen fed her in her bed for several days and eventually managed to coax her on to the wall, but Ginny could scarcely put her head down to the food without peering this way and that, still waiting for Olly to come and share it. “She’s so lonely,” Helen said. “We’ll have to try to make a bigger fuss of her now than ever. I’ll spend more time outside talking with her, but if only we could get her inside with us. That would be the answer, but I know it will never happen.” I looked at the little creature, wondering if I’d ever get used to seeing only one cat on the wall, but Ginny sitting by the fireside or on Helen’s knee was an impossible dream. “Yes, you’re right, but maybe I can do something.

I’d just managed to make friends with Olly—I’m going to start on Ginny now.” I knew I was taking on a long and maybe hopeless challenge because the tortoiseshell cat had always been the more timid of the two, but I pursued my purpose with resolution. At meal times and whenever I had the opportunity, I presented myself outside the back door, coaxing and wheedling, beckoning with my hand. For a long time, although she accepted the food from me, she would not let me near her. Then, maybe because she needed companionship so desperately that she felt she might as well even resort to me, the day came when she did not back away but allowed me to touch her cheek with my finger as I had done with Olly. After that, progress was slow but steady. From touching I moved week by week to stroking her cheek, then to gently rubbing her ears, until finally I could run my hand the length of her body and tickle the root of her tail.

From then on, undreamed-of familiarities gradually unfolded until she would not look at her food until she had paced up and down the wall top, again and again, arching herself in delight against my hand and brushing my shoulders with her body. Among these daily courtesies one of her favourite ploys was to press her nose against mine and stand there for several moments looking into my eyes. It was one morning several months later that Ginny and I were in this posture—she on the wall, touching noses with me, gazing into my eyes, drinking me in as though she thought I was rather wonderful and couldn’t quite get enough of me—when I heard a sound from behind me. “I was just watching the veterinary surgeon at work, ” Helen said softly. “Happy work, too,” I said, not moving from my position, looking deeply into the green eyes, alight with friendship, fixed on mine a few inches away. “I’ll have you know that this is one of my greatest triumphs.”


Buster The Feline Retriever


Christmas will never go by without my remembering a certain little cat. I first saw her when I was called to see one of Mrs.

Ainsworth’s dogs, and I looked in some surprise at the furry black creature sitting before the fire. “I didn’t know you had a cat,” I said. The lady smiled. “We haven’t, this is Debbie.” “Debbie?” “Yes, at least that’s what we call her. She’s a stray. Comes here two or three times a week and we give her some food. I don’t know where she lives but I believe she spends a lot of her time around one of the farms along the road.” “Do you ever get the feeling that she wants to stay with you?” “No.” Mrs. Ainsworth shook her head. “She’s a timid little thing. Just creeps in, has some food, then flits away.

There’s something so appealing about her but she doesn’t seem to want to let me or anybody into her life.” I looked again at the little cat. “But she isn’tjust having food today.” “That’s right.

It’s a funny thing but every now and again she slips through here into the lounge and sits by the fire for a few minutes. It’s as though she was giving herself a treat.” “Yes … I see what you mean.

” There was no doubt there was something unusual in the attitude of the little animal. She was sitting bolt upright on the thick rug which lay before the fireplace in which the coals glowed and flamed.

She made no effort to curl up or wash herself or do anything other than gaze quietly ahead. And there was something in the dusty black of her coat, the half-wild scrawny look of her, that gave me a clue.

This was a special event in her life, a rare and wonderful thing; she was lapping up a comfort undreamed of in her daily existence. As I watched she turned, crept soundlessly from the room and was gone.

“That’s always the way with Debbie,” Mrs. Ainsworth laughed. “She never stays more than ten minutes or so, then she’s off.” She was a plumpish, pleasant-faced woman in her forties and the kind of client veterinary surgeons dream of; well off, generous, and the owner of three cosseted basset hounds. And it only needed the habitually mournful expressions of one of the dogs to deepen a little and I was round there post haste. Today one of the bassets had raised its paw and scratched its ear a couple of times and that was enough to send its mistress scurrying to the phone in great alarm. So my visits to the Ainsworth home were frequent but undemanding, and I had ample opportunity to look out for the little cat which had intrigued me.

On one occasion I spotted her nibbling daintily from a saucer at the kitchen door. As I watched she turned and almost floated on light footsteps into the hall, then through the lounge door. The three bassets were already in residence, draped snoring on the fireside rug, but they seemed to be used to Debbie because two of them sniffed her in a bored manner and the third merely cocked a sleepy eye at her before flopping back on the rich pile. Debbie sat among them in her usual posture; upright, intent, gazing absorbedly into the glowing coals. This time I tried to make friends with her. I approached her carefully but she leaned away as I stretched out my hand. However, by patient wheedling and soft talk I managed to touch her and gently stroked her cheek with one finger. There was a moment when she responded by putting her head on one side and rubbing back against my hand but soon she was ready to leave. Once outside the house she darted quickly along the road, then through a gap in a hedge, and the last I saw was the little black figure flitting over the rain-swept grass of a field. “I wonder where she goes,” I murmured half to myself. Mrs. Ainsworth appeared at my elbow.

“That’s something we’ve never been able to find out.”


It must have been nearly three months before I heard from Mrs.

Ainsworth, and in fact I had begun to wonder at the bassets” long symptomless run when she came on the “phone. It was Christmas morning and she was apologetic. “Mr. Herriot, I’m so sorry to bother you today of all days. I should think you want a rest at Christmas like anybody else.” But her natural politeness could not hide the distress in her voice. “Please don’t worry about that,” I said.

“Which one is it this time?” “It’s not one of the dogs. It’s …

Debbie.” “Debbie? She’s at your house now?” “Yes … but there’s something wrong. Please come quickly.” Driving through the market place I thought again that Darrowby on Christmas Day was like Dickens come to life; the empty square with the snow thick on the cobbles and hanging from the eaves of the fretted lines of roofs; the shops closed and the coloured lights of the Christmas trees winking at the windows of the clustering houses, warmly inviting against the cold white bulk of the fells behind. Mrs. Ainsworth’s home was lavishly decorated with tinsel and holly, rows of drinks stood on the sideboard and the rich aroma of turkey and sage and onion stuffing wafted from the kitchen. But her eyes were full of pain as she led me through to the lounge. Debbie was there all right, but this time everything was different. She wasn’t sitting upright in her usual position; she was stretched quite motionless on her side, and huddled close to her lay a tiny black kitten. I looked down in bewilderment. “What’s happened here?” “It’s the strangest thing,” Mrs. Ainsworth replied. “I haven’t seen her for several weeks, and then she came in about two hours ago—sort of staggered into the kitchen, and she was carrying the kitten in her mouth. She took it through to the lounge and laid it on the rug and at first I was amused. But I could see all was not well because she sat as she usually does, but for a long time—over an hour—then she lay down like this and she hasn’t moved.” I knelt on the rug and passed my hand over Debbie’s neck and ribs. She was thinner than ever, her fur dirty and mud-caked. She did not resist as I gently opened her mouth. The tongue and mucous membranes were abnormally pale and the lips ice-cold against my fingers. When I pulled down her eyelid and saw the glazing eye a knell sounded in my mind. I felt the abdomen with a grim certainty as to what I would find and there was no surprise, only a dull sadness as my fingers closed around a hard solid mass. Terminal and hopeless. I put my stethoscope on her heart and listened to the increasingly faint, rapid beat, then I straightened up and sat on the rug looking sightlessly into the fireplace, feeling the warmth of the flames on my face. Mrs. Ainsworth’s voice seemed to come from afar. “Is she ill, Mr. Herriot?” I hesitated. “Yes … yes, I’m afraid so. She has a malignant growth.” I stood up. “There’s absolutely nothing I can do. I’m sorry.” “Oh!” Her hand went to her mouth and she looked at me wide-eyed. When at last she spoke her voice trembled. “Well, you must put her to sleep immediately. It’s the only thing to do. We can’t let her suffer.” “Mrs. Ainsworth,” I said, ‘there’s no need.

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