Authors: James Herriot
At this point, the rush of spring lambing and post-lambing troubles overwhelmed me as it did every year, and I had little time to think about my other cases. It must have been three weeks before I visited the sweet shop to buy some chocolates for Helen. The place was packed and as I pushed my way inside all my fears came rushing back and I looked anxiously at man and cat. Alfred, massive and dignified again, sat like a king at the far end of the counter. Geoff was leaning on the counter with both hands, gazing closely into a lady’s face. “As I understand you, Mrs. Hird, you are looking for something in the nature of a softer sweetmeat.” The rich voice reverberated round the little shop. “Could you perhaps mean a Turkish Delight?”
“Nay, Mr. Hatfield, it wasn’t that. …” His head fell on his chest and he studied the polished boards of the counter with fierce concentration. Then he looked up and pushed his face nearer to the lady’s. “A pastille, possibly …?” “Nay … nay.” “A truffle? A soft caramel? A peppermint cream?” “No, nowt like that.” He straightened up. This was a tough one. He folded his arms across his chest and as he stared into space and took the long inhalation I remembered so well I could see that he was a big man again, his shoulders spreading wide, his face ruddy and well fleshed. Nothing having evolved from his cogitations, his jaw jutted and he turned his face upwards, seeking further inspiration from the ceiling.
Alfred, I noticed, looked upwards, too. There was a tense silence as Geoff held this pose, then a smile crept slowly over his noble features. He raised a finger. “Madam,” he said, “I do fancy I have it. Whitish, you said … sometimes pink … rather squashy. May I suggest to you … marshmallow?” Mrs. Hird thumped the counter. “Aye, that’s it, Mr. Hatfield. I just couldn’t think of t”name.” “Ha-ha, I thought so,” boomed the proprietor, his organ tones rolling to the roof. He laughed, the ladies laughed, and I was positive that Alfred laughed, too. All was well again. Everybody in the shop was happy-Geoff, Alfred, the ladies and, not least, James Herriot.
Oscar The Socialite Cat
One late spring evening, when Helen and I were still living in the little bed-sitter under the tiles of Skeldale House, Tristan shouted up the stairs from the passage far below. “Jim! Jim!” I went out and stuck my head over the bannisters. “What is it, Triss?” “Sorry to bother you, Jim, but could you come down for a minute?” The upturned face had an anxious look I went down the long flights of steps two at a time and when I arrived slightly breathless on the ground floor Tristan beckoned me through to the consulting room at the back of the house. A teenage girl was standing by the table, her hand resting on a stained roll of blanket. “It’s a cat,” Tristan said. He pulled back a fold of the blanket and I looked down at a large, deeply striped tabby. At least he would have been large if he had had any flesh on his bones, but ribs and pelvis stood out painfully through the fur and as I passed my hand over the motionless body I could feel only a thin covering of skin. Tristan cleared his throat.
“There’s something else, Jim.” I looked at him curiously. For once he didn’t seem to have a joke in him. I watched as he gently lifted one of the cat’s hind legs. There was a large gash on his abdomen and innumerable other wounds. I was still shocked and staring when the girl spoke. “I saw this cat sitting in the dark, down Brown’s yard. I thought “e looked skinny, like, and a bit quiet and I bent down to give “im a pat. Then I saw “e was badly hurt and I went home for a blanket and brought “im round to you.” “That was kind of you,”
I said. “Have you any idea who he belongs to?” The girl shook her head. “No, he looks like a stray to me.” “He does indeed.” I dragged my eyes away from the terrible wound. “You’re Marjorie Simpson, aren’t you?” “Yes.” “I know your dad well. He’s our postman.”
“That’s right.” She gave a half smile, then her lips trembled. “Well, I reckon I’d better leave “im with you. You’ll be going to put him out of his misery. There’s nothing anybody can do about … about that?” I shrugged and shook my head. The girl’s eyes filled with tears. She stretched out a hand and touched the emaciated animal, then turned and walked quickly to the door. “Thanks again, Marjorie, ” I called after the retreating back. “And don’t worry—we’ll look after him.” In the silence that followed, Tristan and I looked down at the shattered animal. Under the surgery lamp it was all too easy to see. The injuries were very serious and the wounds were covered in dirt and mud. “What d”you think did this?” Tristan said at length.
“Has he been run over?” “Maybe,” I replied. “Could be anything. An attack by a big dog or somebody could have kicked him or struck him.
” All things were possible with cats because some people seemed to regard them as fair game for any cruelty. Tristan nodded. “Anyway, whatever happened, he must have been on the verge of starvation.
He’s a skeleton. I bet he’s wandered miles from home.” “Ah well,” I sighed. “There’s only one thing to do, I’m afraid. It’s hopeless.”
Tristan didn’t say anything but he whistled under his breath and drew the tip of his forefinger again and again across the furry cheek. And, unbelievably, from somewhere in the scraggy chest a gentle purring arose. The young man looked at me, round-eyed. “My God, do you hear that?” “Yes … amazing in that condition. He’s a good-natured cat.” Tristan, head bowed, continued his stroking. I knew how he felt because, although he preserved a cheerfully hardboiled attitude to our patients, he couldn’t kid me about one thing; he had a soft spot for cats. Even now, when we are both around the sixty mark, he often talks to me over a beer about the cat he has had for many years. It is a typical relationship—they tease each other unmercifully—but it is based on real affection. “It’s no good, Triss,” I said gently. “It’s got to be done.” I reached for the syringe but something in me rebelled against plunging a needle into that pathetic body. Instead I pulled a fold of the blanket over the cat’s head. “Pour a little ether onto the cloth,” I said. “He’ll just slip away.” Wordlessly Tristan unscrewed the cap of the ether bottle and poised it above the head. Then from under the shapeless heap of blanket we heard it again; the deep purring which increased in volume till it boomed in our ears like a distant motor cycle.
Tristan was like a man turned to stone, hand gripping the bottle rigidly, eyes staring down at the mound of cloth from which the purring rose in waves of warm, friendly sound. At last he looked up at me and gulped. “I don’t fancy this much, Jim. Can’t we do something?” “You mean, try to repair all this?” “Yes. We could stitch the wounds, bit by little bit, couldn’t we?” I lifted the blanket and looked again. “Honestly, Triss, I wouldn’t know where to start. And the whole thing is filthy.” He didn’t say anything, but continued to look at me steadily. And I didn’t need much persuading.
I had no more desire to pour ether on to that comradely purring than he had. “Come on, then,” I said. “We’ll have a go.” With the oxygen bubbling and the cat’s head in the anaesthetic mask we washed the whole body with warm saline. We did it again and again but it was impossible to remove every fragment of caked dirt. Then we started the painfully slow business of stitching the many wounds, and here I was glad of Tristan’s nimble fingers which seemed better able to manipulate the small round-bodied needles than mine. Two hours and yards of catgut later, we were finished and everything looked tidy.
“He’s alive, anyway, Triss,” I said as we began to wash the instruments. “We’ll put him on to sulphapyridine and keep our fingers crossed that peritonitis won’t set in.” There were still no antibiotics at that time but the new drug was a big advance. The door opened and Helen came in. “You’ve been a long time, Jim.” She walked over to the table and looked down at the sleeping cat. “What a poor skinny little thing. He’s all bones.” “You should have seen him when he came in.” Tristan switched off the steriliser and screwed shut the valve on the anaesthetic machine. “He looks a lot better now.” She stroked the little animal for a moment. “Is he badly injured?” “I’m afraid so, Helen,” I said. “We’ve done our best for him but I honestly don’t think he has much chance.” “What a shame. And he’s pretty, too. Four white feet and all those unusual colours.” With her finger she traced the faint bands of auburn and copper-gold among the grey and black. Tristan laughed. “Yes, I think that chap has a ginger tom somewhere in his ancestry.” Helen smiled, too, but absently, and I noticed a broody look about her. She hurried out to the stock room and returned with an empty box. “Yes ..
. yes …” she said thoughtfully. “I can make a bed in this box for him and he’ll sleep in our room, Jim.” “He will?” “Yes, he must be warm, mustn’t he?” “Of course, especially with such chilly nights.”
Later, in the darkness of our bed-sitter, I looked from my pillow at a cosy scene: Sam the beagle in his basket on one side of the flickering fire and the cat cushioned and blanketed in his box on the other. As I floated off into sleep it was good to know that my patient was so comfortable, but I wondered if he would be alive in the morning. … I knew he was alive at 7:30 A.M. because my wife was already up and talking to him. I trailed across the room in my pyjamas and the cat and I looked at each other. I rubbed him under the chin and he opened his mouth in a rusty miaow. But he didn’t try to move. “Helen,” I said. “This little thing is tied together inside with catgut. He’ll have to live on fluids for a week and even then he probably won’t make it. If he stays up here you’ll be spooning milk into him umpteen times a day.” “Okay, okay.” She had that broody look again. It wasn’t only milk she spooned into him over the next few days. Beef essence, strained broth and a succession of sophisticated baby foods found their way down his throat at regular intervals. One lunch time I found Helen kneeling by the box. “We shall call him Oscar,” she said. “You mean we’re keeping him?” “Yes.
” I am fond of cats but we already had a dog in our cramped quarters and I could see difficulties. Still I decided to let it go. “Why Oscar?” “I don’t know.” Helen tipped a few drops of chop gravy onto the little red tongue and watched intently as he swallowed. One of the things I like about women is their mystery, the unfathomable part of them, and I didn’t press the matter further. But I was pleased at the way things were going. I had been giving the sulphapyridine every six hours and taking the temperature night and morning, expecting all the time to encounter the roaring fever, the vomiting and the tense abdomen of peritonitis. But it never happened.
It was as though Oscar’s animal instinct told him he had to move as little as possible because he lay absolutely still day after day and looked up at us—and purred. His purr became part of our lives and when he eventually left his bed, sauntered through to our kitchen and began to sample Sam’s dinner of meat and biscuit it was a moment of triumph. And I didn’t spoil it by wondering if he was ready for solid food; I felt he knew. From then on it was sheer joy to watch the furry scarecrow fill out and grow strong, and as he ate and ate and the flesh spread over his bones the true beauty of his coat showed in the glossy medley of auburn, black and gold. We had a handsome cat on our hands. Once Oscar had recovered, Tristan was a regular visitor. He probably felt, and rightly, that he, more than I, had saved Oscar’s life in the first place and he used to play with him for long periods. His favourite ploy was to push his leg round the corner of the table and withdraw it repeatedly just as the cat pawed at it. Oscar was justifiably irritated by this teasing but showed his character by lying in wait for Tristan one night and biting him smartly in the ankle before he could start his tricks.
From my own point of view Oscar added many things to our menage. Sam was delighted with him and the two soon became firm friends; Helen adored him and each evening I thought afresh that a nice cat washing his face by the hearth gave extra comfort to a room.
Oscar had been established as one of the family for several weeks when I came in from a late call to find Helen waiting for me with a stricken face. “What’s happened?” I asked. “It’s Oscar—he’s gone!”
“Gone? What do you mean?” “Oh, Jim, I think he’s run away.” I stared at her. “He wouldn’t do that. He often goes down to the garden at night. Are you sure he isn’t there?” “Absolutely. I’ve searched right into the yard. I’ve even had a walk around the town. And remember,” her chin quivered, “he … he ran away from somewhere before.” I looked at my watch. “Ten o”clock. Yes, that is strange.
He shouldn’t be out at this time.” As I spoke the front door bell jangled. I galloped down the stairs and as I rounded the corner in the passage I could see Mrs. Heslington, the vicar’s wife, through the glass. I threw open the door. She was holding Oscar in her arms.
“I believe this is your cat, Mr. Herriot,” she said. “It is indeed, Mrs. Heslington. Where did you find him?” She smiled. “Well, it was rather odd. We were having a meeting of the Mothers” Union at the church house and we noticed the cat sitting there in the room.”
“Just sitting …?” “Yes, as though he were listening to what we were saying and enjoying it all. It was unusual. When the meeting ended I thought I’d better bring him along to you.” “I’m most grateful, Mrs. Heslington.” I snatched Oscar and tucked him under my arm. “My wife is distraught—she thought he was lost.” It was a little mystery. Why should he suddenly take off like that? But since he showed no change in his manner over the ensuing week we put it out of our minds. Then one evening a man brought in a dog for an inoculation and left the front door open. When I went up to our flat I found that Oscar had disappeared again. This time Helen and I scoured the market place and side alleys in vain and when we returned at half past nine we were both despondent. It was nearly eleven and we were thinking of bed when the door bell rang. It was Oscar again, this time resting on the ample stomach of Jack Newbould.
Jack was leaning against the doorpost and the fresh country air drifting in from the dark street was richly intermingled with beer fumes. Jack was a gardener at one of the big houses. He hiccuped gently and gave me a huge benevolent smile. “Brought your cat, Mr.