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Authors: James Herriot

cat stories (5 page)

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And Mr. Bond was always there, always in his shirt sleeves and reading his paper, a lonely little island in a sea of cats. I had heard of the Bonds, of course. They were Londoners who for some obscure reason had picked on North Yorkshire for their retirement.

People said they had a “bit o” brass” and they had bought an old house on the outskirts of Darrowby where they kept themselves to themselves—and the cats. I had heard that Mrs. Bond was in the habit of taking in strays and feeding them and giving them a home if they wanted it and this had predisposed me in her favour, because in my experience the unfortunate feline species seemed to be fair game for every kind of cruelty and neglect. They shot cats, threw things at them, starved them and set their dogs on them for fun. It was good to see somebody taking their side. My patient on this first visit was no more than a big kitten, a terrified little blob of black and white crouching in a corner. “He’s one of the outside cats, ” Mrs. Bond boomed. “Outside cats?” “Yes. All these you see here are the inside cats. The others are the really wild ones who simply refuse to enter the house. I feed them, of course, but the only time they come indoors is when they are ill.” “I see.” “I’ve had frightful trouble catching this one. I’m worried about his eyes-there seemed to be a skin growing over them, and I do hope you can do something for him. His name, by the way, is George.” “George? Ah yes, quite.” I advanced cautiously on the little half-grown animal and was greeted by a waving set of claws and a series of openmouthed spittings. He was trapped in his corner or he would have been off with the speed of light. Examining him was going to be a problem. I turned to Mrs. Bond. “Could you let me have a sheet of some kind? An old ironing sheet would do. I’m going to have to wrap him up.” “Wrap him up?” Mrs. Bond looked very doubtful but she disappeared into another room and returned with a tattered sheet of cotton which looked just right. I cleared the table of an amazing variety of cat feeding dishes, cat books, cat medicines and spread out the sheet, then I approached my patient again. You can’t be in a hurry in a situation like this and it took me perhaps five minutes of wheedling and “pusspussing” while I brought my hand nearer and nearer. When I got as far as being able to stroke his cheek I made a quick grab at the scruff of his neck and finally bore George, protesting bitterly and lashing out in all directions, over to the table. There, still holding tightly to his scruff, I laid him on the sheet and started the wrapping operation. This is something which has to be done quite often with obstreperous felines and, although I say it, I am rather good at it. The idea is to make a neat, tight roll, leaving the relevant piece of cat exposed; it may be an injured paw, perhaps the tail, and in this case of course the head.

I think it was the beginning of Mrs. Bond’s unquestioning faith in me when she saw me quickly enveloping that cat till all you could see of him was a small black and white head protruding from an immovable cocoon of cloth. He and I were now facing each other, more or less eyeball to eyeball, and George couldn’t do a thing about it.

As I say, I rather pride myself on this little expertise and even today my veterinary colleagues have been known to remark: “Old Herriot may be limited in many respects but by God he can wrap a cat.

” As it turned out, there wasn’t a skin growing over Alfred’s eyes.

There never is. “He’s got a paralysis of the third eyelid, Mrs. Bond.

Animals have this membrane which flicks across the eye to protect it.

In this case it hasn’t gone back, probably because the cat is in low condition—maybe had a touch of cat flu or something else which has weakened him. I’ll give him an injection of vitamins and leave you some powder to put in his food if you could keep him in for a few days. I think he’ll be all right in a week or two.” The injection presented no problems with Alfred furious but helpless inside his sheet and I had come to the end of my first visit to Mrs. Bond’s.

 

It was the first of many. The lady and I established an immediate rapport which was strengthened by the fact that I was always prepared to spend time over her assorted charges; crawling on my stomach under piles of logs in the outhouses to reach the outside cats, coaxing them down from trees, stalking them endlessly through the shrubbery. But from my point of view it was rewarding in many ways. For instance there was the diversity of names she had for her cats. True to her London upbringing she had named many of the toms after the great Arsenal team of those days. There was Eddie Hapgood, Cliff Bastin, Ted Drake, Wilf Copping, but she did slip up in one case because Alex James had kittens three times a year with unfailing regularity. Then there was her way of calling them home.

The first time I saw her at this was on a still summer evening. The two cats she wanted me to see were out in the garden somewhere and I walked with her to the back door where she halted, clasped her hands across her bosom, closed her eyes and gave tongue in a mellifluous contralto. “Bates, Bates, Bates, Ba-hates.” She actually sang out the words in a reverent monotone except for a delightful little lilt on the “Ba-hates.” Then once more she inflated her ample rib cage like an operatic prima donna and out it came again, delivered with the utmost feeling. “Bates, Bates, Bates, Ba-hates.” Anyway it worked, because Bates the cat came trotting from behind a clump of laurel. There remained the other patient and I watched Mrs. Bond with interest. She took up the same stance, breathed in, closed her eyes, composed her features into a sweet half-smile and started again. “Seven-times-three, Seven-times-three, Seven-times-three-hee.

” It was set to the same melody as Bates with the same dulcet rise and fall at the end. She didn’t get the quick response this time, though, and had to go through the performance again and again, and as the notes lingered on the still evening air the effect was startlingly like a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. At length she was successful and a fat tortoiseshell slunk apologetically into the house. “By the way, Mrs. Bond,” I asked, making my voice casual.

“I didn’t quite catch the name of that last cat.” “Oh, Seven-timesthree?” She smiled reminiscently. “Yes, she is a dear. She’s had three kittens seven times running, you see, so I thought it rather a good name for her, don’t you?” “Yes, yes, I do indeed. Splendid name, splendid.” Another thing which warmed me towards Mrs. Bond was her concern for my safety. I appreciated this because it is a rare trait among animal owners. I can think of the trainer, after one of his racehorses had kicked me clean out of a loose box, examining the animal anxiously to see if it had damaged its foot; the little old lady dwarfed by the bristling, teeth-bared Alsatian saying: “You’ll be gentle with him, won’t you, and I hope you won’t hurt him— he’s very nervous”; the farmer, after an exhausting calving which I feel certain has knocked about two years off my life expectancy, grunting morosely: “I doubt you’ve tired that cow out, young man.” Mrs. Bond was different. She used to meet me at the door with an enormous pair of gauntlets to protect my hands against scratches and it was an inexpressible relief to find that somebody cared. It became part of the pattern of my life; walking up the garden path among the innumerable slinking, wild-eyed little creatures which were the outside cats, the ceremonial acceptance of the gloves at the door, then the entry into the charged atmosphere of the kitchen with little Mr. Bond and his newspaper just visible among the milling furry bodies of the inside cats. I was never able to ascertain Mr.

Bond’s attitude to cats—come to think of it he hardly ever said anything—but I had the impression he could take them or leave them.

The gauntlets were a big help and at times they were a veritable godsend. As in the case of Boris. Boris was an enormous blue-black member of the outside cats and my bete noire in more senses than one. I always cherished a private conviction that he had escaped from a zoo; I had never seen a domestic cat with such sleek, writhing muscles, such dedicated ferocity. I’m sure there was a bit of puma in Boris somewhere. It had been a sad day for the cat colony when he turned up. I have always found it difficult to dislike any animal; most of the ones which try to do us a mischief are activated by fear, but Boris was different; he was a malevolent bully and after his arrival the frequency of my visits increased because of his habit of regularly beating up his colleagues. I was forever stitching up tattered ears, dressing gnawed limbs. We had one trial of strength fairly early. Mrs. Bond wanted me to give him a worm dose and I had the little tablet all ready held in forceps. How I ever got hold of him I don’t quite know, but I hustled him on to the table and did my wrapping act at lightning speed, swathing him in roll upon roll of stout material. Just for a few seconds I thought I had him as he stared up at me, his great brilliant eyes full of hate.

But as I pushed my loaded forceps into his mouth he clamped his teeth viciously down on them and I could feel claws of amazing power tearing inside the sheet. It was all over in moments. A long leg shot out and ripped its way down my wrist, I let go my tight hold of the neck and in a flash Boris sank his teeth through the gauntlet into the ball of my thumb and was away. I was left standing there stupidly, holding the fragmented worm tablet in a bleeding hand and looking at the bunch of ribbons which had once been my wrapping sheet. From then on Boris loathed the very sight of me and the feeling was mutual.

 

But this was one of the few clouds in a serene sky. I continued to enjoy my visits there and life proceeded on a tranquil course except, perhaps, for some legpulling from my colleagues. They could never understand my willingness to spend so much time over a lot of cats.

And of course this fitted in with the general attitude because Siegfried didn’t believe in people keeping pets of any kind. He just couldn’t understand their mentality and propounded his views to anybody who cared to listen. He himself, of course, kept five dogs and two cats. The dogs, all of them, travelled everywhere with him in the car and he fed dogs and cats every day with his own hands—wouldn’t allow anybody else to do the job. In the evening all seven animals would pile themselves round his feet as he sat in his chair by the fire. To this day he is still as vehemently anti-pet as ever, though another generation of waving dogs” tails almost obscures him as he drives around and he also has several cats, a few tanks of tropical fish and a couple of snakes. Tristan saw me in action at Mrs. Bond’s on only one occasion. I was collecting some long forceps from the instrument cupboard when he came into the room. “Anything interesting, Jim?” he asked. “No, not really. I’m just off to see one of the Bond cats. It’s got a bone stuck between its teeth.” The young man eyed me ruminatively for a moment. “Think I’ll come with you. I haven’t seen much small animal stuff lately.” As we went down the garden at the cat establishment I felt a twinge of embarrassment.

One of the things which had built up my happy relationship with Mrs.

Bond was my tender concern for her charges. Even with the wildest and the fiercest I exhibited only gentleness, patience and solicitude; it wasn’t really an act, it came quite naturally to me.

However, I couldn’t help wondering what Tristan would think of my cat bedside manner. Mrs. Bond in the doorway had summed up the situation in a flash and had two pairs of gauntlets waiting. Tristan looked a little surprised as he received his pair but thanked the lady with typical charm. He looked still more surprised when he entered the kitchen, sniffed the rich atmosphere and surveyed the masses of furry creatures occupying almost every available inch of space. “Mr. Herriot, I’m afraid it’s Boris who has the bone in his teeth,” Mrs. Bond said. “Boris!” My stomach lurched. “How on earth are we going to catch him?” “Oh, I’ve been rather clever,” she replied. “I’ve managed to entice him with some of his favourite food into a cat basket.” Tristan put his hand on a big wicker cage on the table. “In here, is he?” he asked casually. He slipped back the catch and opened the lid. For something like a third of a second the coiled creature within and Tristan regarded each other tensely, then a sleek black body exploded silently from the basket past the young man’s left ear on to the top of a tall cupboard. “Holy Moses!” said Tristan. “What the hell was that?” “That,” I said, “was Boris, and now we’ve got to get hold of him again.” I climbed on to a chair, reached slowly on to the cupboard top and started “puss-pusspussing” in my most beguiling tone. After about a minute Tristan appeared to think he had a better idea; he made a sudden leap and grabbed Boris’s tail. But only briefly, because the big cat freed himself in an instant and set off on a whirlwind circuit of the room; along the tops of cupboards and dressers, across the curtains, careering round and round like a wall-of-death rider. Tristan stationed himself at a strategic point and as Boris shot past he swiped at him with one of the gauntlets. “Missed the bloody thing!”

he shouted in chagrin. “But here he comes again … take that, you black devil! Damn it, I can’t nail him!” The docile little inside cats, startled by the scattering of plates and tins and pans and by Tristan’s cries and arm wavings, began to run around in their turn, knocking over whatever Boris had missed. The noise and confusion even got through to Mr. Bond because, just for a moment, he raised his head and looked around him in mild surprise at the hurtling bodies before returning to his newspaper. Tristan, flushed with the excitement of the chase, had really begun to enjoy himself. I cringed inwardly as he shouted over to me happily, “Send him on, Jim, I’ll get the blighter next time round!” We never did catch Boris. We just had to leave the piece of bone to work its own way out, so it wasn’t a successful veterinary visit. But Tristan smiled contentedly as we got back into the car. “That was great, Jim. I didn’t realise you had such fun with your pussies.” Mrs. Bond, on the other hand, when I next saw her, was rather tight-lipped over the whole thing.

“Mr. Herriot,” she said, “I hope you aren’t going to bring that young man with you again.”

 

Olly and Ginny Two Kittens Who Came to Stay “Look at that, Jim! Surely that’s a stray cat. I’ve never seen it before.” Helen was at the kitchen sink, washing dishes, and she pointed through the window. Our new house in Hannerly had been built into a sloping field. There was a low retaining wall, chest high, just outside the window and, behind, the grassy bank led from the wall top up to some bushes and an open log shed perched about twenty yards away. A lean little cat was peering warily from the bushes.

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