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Authors: James Herriot

cat stories (7 page)

BOOK: cat stories

“Olly, Ginny, what’s happened to you?” she cried softly. A remarkable thing then happened. At the sound of her voice, the cats hopped carefully from the wall and walked unhesitatingly through the door into the kitchen. It was the first time they had been under our roof. “Look at that!” Helen exclaimed. “I can’t believe it. They must be really ill. But what is it, Jim? Have they been poisoned?” I shook my head. “No, they’ve got cat flu.” “You can tell?” “Oh, yes, this is classical.” “And will they die?” I rubbed my chin. “I don’t think so.” I wanted to sound reassuring, but I wondered. Feline virus rhinotracheitis had a fairly low mortality rate, but bad cases can die and these cats were very bad indeed. “Anyway, close the door, Helen, and I’ll see if they’ll let me examine them.” But at the sight of the closing door, both cats bolted back outside. “Open up again,” I cried and, after a moment’s hesitation, the cats walked back into the kitchen. I looked at them in astonishment. “Would you believe it? They haven’t come in here for shelter, they’ve come for help!” And there was no doubt about it. The two of them sat there, side by side, waiting for us to do something for them. “The question is,” I said, “will they allow their bete noire to get near them?

We’d better leave the back door open so they don’t feel threatened.”

I approached inch by inch until I could put a hand on them, but they did not move. With a feeling that I was dreaming, I lifted each of them, limp and unresisting, and examined them. Helen stroked them while I ran out to my car which held my stock of drugs and brought in what I’d need. I took their temperatures; they were both over 104, which was typical. Then I injected them with oxytetracycline, the antibiotic which I had always found best for treating the secondary bacterial infection which followed the initial virus attack. I also injected vitamins, cleaned away the pus and mucus from the eyes and nostrils with cotton wool and applied an antibiotic ointment. And all the time I marvelled that I was lifting and handling these yielding little bodies which I hadn’t even been able to touch before apart from when they had been under the anaesthetic for the neutering ops. When I had finished I couldn’t bear the thought of turning them out into that cruel wind. I lifted them up and tucked them one under each arm. “Helen,” I said, “let’s have another try. Will you just gently close the door.” She took hold of the knob and began to push very slowly, but immediately both cats leaped like uncoiled springs from my arms and shot into the garden. We watched them as they trotted out of sight. “Well, that’s extraordinary,” I said.

“Ill as they are, they won’t tolerate being shut in.” Helen was on the verge of tears. “But how will they stand it out there? They should be kept warm. I wonder if they’ll stay now or will they leave us again?” “I just don’t know.” I looked at the empty garden. “But we’ve got to realise they are in their natural environment. They’re tough little things. I think they’ll be back.” I was right. Next morning they were outside the window, eyes closed against the wind, the fur on their faces streaked and stained with the copious discharge. Again Helen opened the door and again they walked calmly inside and made no resistance as I repeated my treatment, injecting them, swabbing out eyes and nostrils, examining their mouths for ulcers, lifting them around like any long-standing household pets.

This happened every day for a week. The discharges became more purulent and their racking sneezing seemed no better; then, when I was losing hope, they started to eat a little food and, significantly, they weren’t so keen to come into the house. When I did get them inside, they were tense and unhappy as I handled them and finally I couldn’t touch them at all. They were by no means cured, so I mixed oxytet soluble powder in their food and treated them that way. The weather was even worse, with fine flakes of snow spinning in the wind, but the day came when they refused to come inside and we watched them through the window as they ate. But I had the satisfaction of knowing they were still getting the antibiotic with every mouthful. As I carried on this long-range treatment, observing them daily from the kitchen, it was rewarding to see the sneezing abating, the discharges drying up and the cats gradually regaining their lost flesh.


It was a brisk sunny morning in March and I was watching Helen putting their breakfast on the wall. Olly and Ginny, sleek as seals, their faces clean and dry, their eyes bright, came arching along the wall, purring like outboard motors. They were in no hurry to eat; they were clearly happy just to see her. As they passed to and fro, she ran her hand gently along their heads and backs. This was the kind of stroking they liked—not overdone, with them continually in motion. I felt I had to get into the action and stepped from the open door. “Ginny,” I said and held out a hand. “Come here, Ginny.”

The little creature stopped her promenade along the wall and regarded me from a safe distance, not with hostility but with all the old wariness. As I tried to move nearer to her, she skipped away out of reach. “Okay,” I said, “and I don’t suppose it’s any good trying with you either, Olly.” The blackand-white cat backed well away from my outstretched hand and gave me a non-committal gaze. I could see he agreed with me. Mortified, I called out to the two of them. “Hey, remember me?” It was clear by the look of them that they remembered me all right—but not in the way I hoped. I felt a stab of frustration. Despite my efforts I was back where I started. Helen laughed. “They’re a funny pair, but don’t they look marvellous!

They’re a picture of health, as good as new. It says a lot for fresh air treatment.” “It does indeed,” I said with a wry smile, “but it also says something for having a resident veterinary surgeon.”


Emily and the Gentleman of the Road


As I got out of my car to open the gate to the farm, I looked with interest at the odd-looking structure on the grass verge; it was standing in the shelter of the dry-stone wall, overlooking the valley. It seemed as though sheets of tarpaulin had been stretched over metal hoops to make some kind of shelter. It was like a big black igloo, but for what? As I wondered, the sacking at the front parted and a tall, white-bearded man emerged. He straightened up, looked around him, dusted down his ancient frock coat and donned the kind of high-crowned bowler hat which was popular in Victorian times.

He seemed oblivious of my presence as he stood, breathing deeply, gazing at the heathery fellside which ran away from the roadside to the beck far below. Then after a few moments he turned to me and raised his hat gravely. “Good morning to you,” he murmured in the kind of voice which would have belonged to an archbishop. “Morning,”

I replied, fighting with my surprise. “Lovely day.” His fine features relaxed in a smile. “Yes, yes, it is indeed.” Then he bent and pulled the sacking apart. “Come, Emily.” As I stared, a little cat tripped out with dainty steps, and as she stretched luxuriously the man attached a leash to the collar round her neck. He turned to me and raised his hat again. “Good day to you.” Then man and cat set off at a leisurely pace towards the village whose church tower was just visible a couple of miles down the road. I took my time over opening the gate as I watched the dwindling figures. I felt almost as though I were seeing an apparition. I was out of my usual territory because a faithful client, Eddy Carless, had taken this farm almost twenty miles away from Darrowby and had paid us the compliment of asking our practice if we would still do his work. We had said yes even though it would be inconvenient to travel so far, especially in the middle of the night. The farm lay two fields back from the road and as I drew up in the yard I saw Eddy coming down the granary steps. “Eddy,” I said, “I’ve just seen something very strange.” He laughed. “You don’t have to tell me. You’ve seen Eugene.

” “Eugene?” “That’s right. Eugene Ireson. He lives there.” “What?”

“It’s true—that’s “is house. He built it himself two years ago and took up residence. This used to be me dad’s farm, as you know, and he used to tell me about “im. He came from nowhere and settled in that funny place with “is cat and he’s never moved since.” “I wouldn’t have thought he would be allowed to set up house on the grass verge.” “No, neither would I, but nobody seems to have bothered “im. And I’ll tell you another funny thing. He’s an educated man. He has travelled the world, living rough in wild countries and having all kinds of adventures, but wherever he’s been he’s come back to North Yorkshire.” “But why does he live in that strange erection?” “It’s a mystery. “He seems happy and content down there. Me dad was very fond of “im and the old chap used to come up to the farm for the odd meal and a bath. Still does, but he’s very independent. Doesn’t sponge on anybody. Goes down to the village regularly for his food and “is pension. “And always with his cat?” “Aye.” Eddy laughed again. “Allus with his cat.” We went into the building to look at his sick cow I had come to visit, but I couldn’t rid my mind of the memory of that odd twosome.


When I drew up at the farm gate three days later to see how the cow was faring, Mr. Ireson was sitting on a wicker chair in the sunshine, reading, with his cat on his lap. When I got out of the car, he raised his hat as before. “Good afternoon. A very pleasant day.”

“Yes, it certainly is.” As I spoke, Emily hopped down and stalked over the grass to greet me, and as I tickled her under the chin she arched and purred round my legs. “What a lovely little thing!” I said. The old man’s manner moved from courtesy to something more.

“You like cats?” “Yes, I do. I’ve always liked them.” As I continued my stroking, then gave her tail a playful tug, the pretty tabby face looked up at me and the purring rose in a crescendo. “Well, Emily seems to have taken to you remarkably. I’ve never seen her so demonstrative.” I laughed. “She knows how I feel. Cats always know-they are very wise animals.” Mr. Ireson beamed his agreement. “I saw you the other day, didn’t I? You have some business with Mr.

Carless?” “Yes, I’m his vet.” “Aah … I see. So you are a veterinary surgeon and you approve of my Emily.” “I couldn’t do anything else. She’s beautiful.” The old man seemed to swell with gratification. “How very kind of you.” He hesitated. “I wonder, Mr. .

.. er …” “Herriot.” “Ah, yes, I wonder, Mr. Herriot, if, when you have concluded your business with Mr. Carless, you would care to join me in a cup of tea.” “I’d love to. I’ll be finished in less than an hour.” “Splendid, splendid. I look forward to seeing you then.” Eddy’s cow was completely well again, and I was soon on my way back down the farm road. Mr. Ireson was waiting by the gate. “It is a little chilly now,” he said. “I think we’d better go inside.”

He led me over to the igloo, drew back the sacks and ushered me through with Old World grace. “Do sit down,” he murmured, waving me to what looked like a one-time automobile seat in tattered leather while he sank down on the wicker chair I had seen outside. As he arranged two mugs, then took the kettle from a primus stove and began to pour, I took in the contents of the interior. There was a camp bed, a bulging rucksack, a row of books, a tilly lamp, a low cupboard and a basket in which Emily was ensconced. “Milk and sugar, Mr. Herriot?” The old man inclined his head gracefully. “Ah, no sugar. I have some buns here, do have one. There is an excellent little bakery down in the village and I am a regular customer.” As I bit into the bun and sipped the tea, I stole a look at the row of books. Every one was poetry. Blake, Swinburne, Longfellow, Whitman, all worn and frayed with reading. “You like poetry?” I said. He smiled. “Ah, yes, I do read other things—the van comes up here from the public library every week—but I always come back to my old friends, particularly this one.” He held up the dog-eared volume he had been reading earlier. The Poems of Robert W. Service. “You like that one, eh?” “Yes. I think Service is my favourite. Not classical stuff perhaps, but his verses strike something very deep in me.” He gazed at the book, then his eyes looked beyond me into somewhere only he knew. I wondered then if Alaska and the wild Yukon territory might have been the scene of his wanderings andfora moment I hoped he might be going to tell me something about his past, but it seemed he didn’t want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about his cat.

“It is the most extraordinary thing, Mr. Herriot. I have lived on my own all my life but I have never felt lonely, but I know now that I would be desperately lonely without Emily. Does that sound foolish to you?” “Not at all. Possibly it’s because you haven’t had a pet before. Have you?” “No, I haven’t. Never seemed to have stayed still long enough. I am fond of animals and there have been times when I felt I would like to own a dog, but never a cat. I have heard so often that cats do not dispense affection, that they are selfsufficient and never become really fond of anybody. Do you agree with that?” “Of course not. It’s absolute nonsense. Cats have a character of their own, but I’ve treated hundreds of friendly, affectionate cats who are faithful friends to their owners.” “I’m so glad to hear you say that, because I flatter myself that this little creature is really attached to me.” He looked down at Emily, who had jumped onto his lap, and gently patted her head. “That’s easy to see, ” I said and the old man smiled his pleasure. “You know, Mr. Herriot, ” he went on, “when I first settled here,” he waved his hand round his dwelling as though it were the drawing room in a multi-acred mansion, “I had no reason to think that I wouldn’t continue to live the solitary life that I was accustomed to, but one day this little animal walked in from nowhere as though she had been invited and my whole existence has changed.” I laughed. “She adopted you. Cats do that. And it was a lucky day for you.” “Yes … yes … how very true. You seem to understand these things so well, Mr. Herriot. Now, do let me top up your cup.” It was the first of many visits to Mr.

Ireson in his strange dwelling. I never went to the Carless farm without looking in through the sacks and if Eugene was in residence we had a cup of tea and a chat. We talked about many things—books, the political situation, natural history, of which he had a deep knowledge, but the conversation always got round to cats. He wanted to know everything about their care and feeding, habits and diseases.

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