Authors: James Herriot
“Ah, Mrs. Dawson, how very nice to see you. And what is your pleasure this morning?” The lady, obviously delighted, beamed at him.
“I’d like some of them fudge chocolates I “ad last week, Mr.
Hatfield. They were lovely. Have you still got some?” “Indeed I have, madam, and I am delighted that you approve of my recommendation.
Such a deliciously creamy flavour. Also, it so happens that I have just received a consignment in a special presentation box for Easter.
” He lifted one from the shelf and balanced it on the palm of his hand. “Really pretty and attractive, don’t you think?” Mrs. Dawson nodded rapidly. “Oh, aye, that’s real bonny. I’ll take a box and there’s summat else I want. A right big bag of nice boiled sweets for the family to suck at. Mixed colours, you know. What “ave you got?” Mr. Hatfield steepled his fingers, gazed at her fixedly and took a long, contemplative breath. He held this pose for several seconds, then he swung round, clasped his hands behind him, and recommenced his inspection of the jars. That was my favourite bit and, as always, I was enjoying it. It was a familiar scene. The tiny, , crowded shop, the proprietor wrestling with his assignment and Alfred sitting at the far end of the counter. Alfred was Geoff’s cat and he was always there, seated upright and majestic on the polished boards near the curtained doorway which led to the Hatfield sitting room. As usual, he seemed to be taking a keen interest in the proceedings, his gaze moving from his master’s face to the customer’s, and though it may have been my imagination I felt that his expression registered a grave involvement in the negotiations and a deep satisfaction at the outcome. He never left his place or encroached on the rest of the counter, but occasionally one or other of the ladies would stroke his cheek and he would respond with a booming purr and a gracious movement of the head towards them. It was typical that he never yielded to any unseemly display of emotion.
That would have been undignified, and dignity was an unchanging part of him. Even as a kitten he had never indulged in immoderate playfulness. I had neutered him three years earlier—for which he appeared to bear me no ill will—and he had grown into a massive, benevolent tabby. I looked at him now, sitting in his place. Vast, imperturbable, at peace with his world. There was no doubt he was a cat of enormous presence. And it had always struck me forcibly that he was exactly like his master in that respect. They were two of a kind and it was no surprise that they were such devoted friends.
When it came to my turn I was able to reach Alfred and I tickled him under his chin. He liked that and raised his head high while the purring rumbled up from the furry rib cage until it resounded throughout the shop. Even collecting my cough drops had its touch of ceremony. The big man behind the counter sniffed gravely at the packet and then clapped his hand a few times against his chest. “You can smell the goodness, Mr. Herriot, the beneficial vapours. These will have you right in no time.” He bowed and smiled and I could swear that Alfred smiled with him. I squeezed my way out through the ladies and as I walked down the alley I marvelled for the umpteenth time at the phenomenon of Geoffrey Hatfield. There were several other sweet shops in Darrowby, big double-fronted places with their wares attractively displayed in the windows, but none of them did anything like the trade of the poky establishment I had just left.
There was no doubt that it was all due to Geoff’s unique selling technique and it was certainly not an act on his part, it was born of a completely sincere devotion to his calling, a delight in what he was doing. His manner and “posh” diction gave rise to a certain amount of ribald comment from men who had left the local school with him at the age of fourteen, and in the pubs he was often referred to as ‘the bishop,” but it was good-natured stuff because he was a well-liked man. And, of course, the ladies adored him and flocked to bask in his attentions.
About a month later I was in the shop again to get some of Rosie’s favourite liquorice all-sorts and the picture was the same-Geoffrey smiling and booming, Alfred in his place, following every move, the pair of them radiating dignity and well-being. As I collected my sweets, the proprietor whispered in my ear. “I’ll be closing for lunch at twelve noon, Mr. Herriot. Would you be so kind as to call in and examine Alfred?” “Yes, of course.” I looked along the counter at the big cat. “Is he ill?” “Oh, no, no … but I just feel there’s something not right.” Later I knocked at the closed door and Geoffrey let me into the shop, empty for once, then through the curtained doorway into his sitting room. Mrs. Hatfield was at a table, drinking tea. She was a much earthier character than her husband. “Now then, Mr. Herriot, you’ve come to see t”little cat.”
“He isn’t so little,” I said, laughing. And indeed, Alfred looked more massive than ever seated by the fire, looking calmly into the flames. When he saw me he got up, stalked unhurriedly over the carpet and arched his back against my legs. I felt strangely honoured. “He’s really beautiful, isn’t he?” I murmured. I hadn’t had a close look at him for some time and the friendly face with the dark stripes running down to the intelligent eyes appealed to me as never before. “Yes,” I said, stroking the fur which shone luxuriantly in the flickering firelight, “you’re a big beautiful fellow.” I turned to Mr. Hatfield. “He looks fine to me. What is it that’s worrying you?” “Oh, maybe it’s nothing at all. His appearance certainly has not altered in the slightest, but for over a week now I’ve noticed that he is not quite so keen on his food, not quite so lively. He’s not really ill … he’s just different.” “I see. Well, let’s have a look at him.” I went over the cat carefully.
Temperature was normal, mucous membranes a healthy pink. I got out my stethoscope and listened to heart and lungs—notothing abnormal to hear. Feeling around the abdomen produced no clue. “Well, Mr.
Hatfield,” I said, ‘there doesn’t seem to be anything obviously wrong with him. He’s maybe a bit run down, but he doesn’t look it.
Anyway, I’ll give him a vitamin injection. That should buck him up.
Let me know in a few days if he’s no better.” “Thank you indeed, sir.
I am most grateful. You have set my mind at rest.” The big man reached out a hand to his pet. The confident resonance of his voice was belied by the expression of concern on his face. Seeing them together made me sense anew the similarity of man and cat—human and animal, yes, but alike in their impressiveness. I heard nothing about Alfred for a week and assumed that he had returned to normal, but then his master telephoned. “He’s just the same, Mr. Herriot. In fact, if anything, he has deteriorated slightly. I would be obliged if you would look at him again.” It was just as before. Nothing definite to see even on close examination. I put him on to a course of mixed minerals and vitamin tablets. There was no point in launching into treatment with our new antibiotics—there was no elevation of temperature, no indication of any infectious agent. I passed the alley every day—it was only about a hundred yards from Skeldale House—and I fell into the habit of stopping and looking in through the little window of the shop. Each day, the familiar scene presented itself; Geoff bowing and smiling to his customers and Alfred sitting in his place at the end of the counter. Everything seemed right, and yet … there was something different about the cat. I called in one evening and examined him again. “He’s losing weight,” I said. Geoffrey nodded. “Yes, I do think so. He is still eating fairly well, but not as much as before.” “Give him another few days on the tablets,” I said, “and if he’s no better I’ll have to get him round to the surgery and go into the thing a bit more deeply.” I had a nasty feeling there would be no improvement and there wasn’t, so one evening I took a cat cage round to the shop.
Alfred was so huge that there was a problem fitting him into the container, but he didn’t resist as I bundled him gently inside. At the surgery I took a blood sample from him and X-rayed him. The plate was perfectly clear and when the report came back from the laboratory it showed no abnormality. In a way, it was reassuring, but that did not help because the steady decline continued. The next few weeks were something like a nightmare. My anxious peering through the shop window became a daily ordeal. The big cat was still in his place, but he was getting thinner and thinner until he was almost unrecognisable. I rang the changes with every drug and treatment I could think of, but nothing did any good. I had Siegfried examine him, but he thought as I did. The progressive emaciation was the sort of thing you would expect from an internal tumour, but further X-rays still showed nothing. Alfred must have been thoroughly fed up of all the pushing around, the tests, the kneading of his abdomen, but at no time did he show any annoyance.
He accepted the whole thing placidly as was his wont. There was another factor which made the situation much worse. Geoff himself was wilting under the strain. His comfortable coating of flesh was dropping steadily away from him, the normally florid cheeks were pale and sunken and, worse still, his dramatic selling style appeared to be deserting him. One day I left my viewpoint at the window and pushed my way into the press of ladies in the shop. It was a harrowing scene. Geoff, bowed and shrunken, was taking the orders without even a smile, pouring the sweets listlessly into their bags and mumbling a word or two. Gone was the booming voice and the happy chatter of the customers, and a strange silence hung over the company. It was just like any other sweet shop. Saddest sight of all was Alfred, still sitting bravely upright in his place.
He was unbelievably gaunt, his fur had lost its bloom and he stared straight ahead, dead-eyed, as though nothing interested him any more.
He was like a feline scarecrow. I couldn’t stand it any longer. That evening I went round to see Geoff Hatfield. “I saw your cat today,”
I said, “and he’s going rapidly downhill. Are there any new symptoms?” The big man nodded dully. “Yes, as a matter of fact. I was going to ring you. He’s been vomiting a bit.” I dug my nails into my palms. “There it is again. Everything points to something abnormal inside him and yet I can’t find a thing.” I bent down and stroked Alfred. “I hate to see him like this. Look at his fur. It used to be so glossy.” “That’s right,” replied Geoff, “he’s neglecting himself. He never washes himself now. It’s as though he can’t be bothered. And before, he was always at it—lick, lick, lick for hours on end.” I stared at him. His words had sparked something in my mind. “Lick, lick, lick.” I paused in thought. “Yes … when I think about it, no cat I ever knew washed himself as much as Alfred.
…” The spark suddenly became a flame and I jerked upright in my chair. “Mr. Hatfield,” I said, “I want to do an exploratory operation!” “What do you mean?” “I think he’s got a hair-ball inside him and I want to operate to see if I’m right.” “Open him up, you mean?” “That’s right.” He put a hand over his eyes and his chin sank onto his chest. He stayed like that for a long time, then he looked at me with haunted eyes. “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve never thought of anything like that.” “We’ve got to do something or this cat is going to die.” He bent and stroked Alfred’s head again and again, then without looking up he spoke in a husky voice. “All right, when?”
“Tomorrow morning.” Next day, in the operating room, as Siegfried and I bent over the sleeping cat, my mind was racing. We had been doing much more small-animal surgery lately, but I had always known what to expect. This time I felt as though I was venturing into the unknown. I made an incision and in the stomach I found a large, matted hair-ball, the cause of all the trouble. Something which wouldn’t show up on an X-ray plate. Siegfried grinned. “Well, now we know!” “Yes,” I said as the great waves of relief swept over me.
“Now we know.” I found more, smaller hair-balls, all of which had to be removed and then the incision stitched. I didn’t like this. It meant a bigger trauma and shock to my patient, but finally all was done and only a neat row of skin sutures was visible. When I returned Alfred to his home, his master could hardly bear to look at him. At length he took a timid glance at the cat, still sleeping under the anaesthetic. “Will he live?” he whispered. “He has a good chance,” I replied. “He has had some major surgery and it might take him some time to get over it, but he’s young and strong. He should be all right.” I could see Geoff wasn’t convinced, and that was how it was over the next few days. I kept visiting the little room behind the shop to give the cat penicillin injections and it was obvious that Geoff had made up his mind that Alfred was going to die.
Mrs. Hatfield was more optimistic, but she was worried about her husband. “Eee, he’s given up hope,” she said. “And it’s all because Alfred just lies in his bed all day. I’ve tried to tell “im that it’ll be a bit o” time before the cat starts running around, but he won’t listen.” She looked at me with anxious eyes. “And, you know, it’s getting him down, Mr. Herriot. He’s a different man. Sometimes I wonder if he’ll ever be the same again.” I went over and peeped past the curtain into the shop. Geoff was there, doing his job like an automaton. Haggard, unsmiling, silently handing out the sweets.
When he did speak it was in a listless monotone and I realised with a sense of shock that his voice had lost all its old timbre. Mrs.
Hatfield was right. He was a different man. And, I thought, if he stayed different, what would happen to his clientele? So far they had remained faithful, but I had a feeling they would soon start to drift away. It was a week before the picture began to change for the better. I entered the sitting room, but Alfred wasn’t there. Mrs.
Hatfield jumped up from her chair. “He’s a lot better, Mr. Herriot,”
she said eagerly. “Eating well and seemed to want to go into t’shop.
He’s in there with Geoff now.” Again I took a surreptitious look past the curtain. Alfred was back in his place, skinny but sitting upright. But his master didn’t look any better. I turned back into the room. “Well, I won’t need to come any more, Mrs. Hatfield. Your cat is well on the way to recovery. He should soon be as good as new.
” I was quite confident about this, but I wasn’t so sure about Geoff.