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Authors: James Herriot

cat stories (8 page)

BOOK: cat stories

While I was agog to hear about his world travels which he referred to only in the vaguest terms, he would listen with the wide-eyed interest of a child to my veterinary experiences. It was during one of these sessions that I raised the question of Emily in particular.

“I notice she is either in here or on the lead with you, but does she ever go wandering outside by herself?” “Well, yes … now that you mention it. Just lately she has done so. She only goes up to the farm—I make sure she does not stray along the road where she may be knocked down.” “I didn’t mean that, Mr. Ireson. What I was thinking about was that there are several male cats up there at the farm. She could easily become pregnant.” He sat bolt upright in his chair.

“Good heavens, yes! I never thought of that—how foolish of me. I’d better try to keep her inside.” “Very difficult,” I said. “It would be much better to have her spayed. Then she’d be safe—you couldn’t do with a lot of kittens in here, could you?” “No … no … of course not. But an operation …” He stared at me with frightened eyes. “There would be an element of danger …?” “No, no,” I said as briskly as I could. “It’s quite a simple procedure. We do lots of them.” His normal urbanity fell away from him. From the beginning he had struck me as a man who had seen so many things in life that nothing would disturb his serenity, but now he seemed to shrink within himself. He slowly stroked the little cat, seated, as usual, on his lap. Then he reached down to the black leather volume of The Works of Shakespeare with its faded gold lettering which he had been reading when I arrived. He placed a marker in the book and closed it before putting it carefully on the shelf. “I really don’t know what to say, Mr. Herriot.” I gave him an encouraging smile. “There’s nothing to worry about. I strongly advise it. If I could just describe the operation, I’m sure it would put your mind at rest.

It’s really keyhole surgery—we make only a tiny incision and bring the ovaries and uterus through and ligate the stump. …” I dried up hurriedly because the old man closed his eyes and swayed so far to one side that I thought he would fall off the wicker chair. It wasn’t the first time that one of my explanatory surgical vignettes had had an undesirable effect and I altered my tactics. I laughed loudly and patted him on the knee. “So, you see, it’s nothing-nothing at all.” He opened his eyes and drew a long, quavering breath. “Yes … yes … I’m sure you’re right. But you must give me a little time to think. This has come on me so suddenly.” “All right.

I’m sure Eddy Carless will give me a ring for you. But don’t be too long.”


I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear from the old man. The whole idea obviously terrified him and it was over a month before I saw him again. I pushed my head through the sacks. He was sitting in his usual chair, peeling potatoes, and he looked at me with serious eyes.

“Ah, Mr. Herriot. Come and sit down. I’ve been going to get in touch with you—I’m so glad you’ve called.” He threw back his head with an air of resolution. “I have decided to take your advice about Emily.

You may carry out the operation when you think fit.” But his voice trembled as he spoke. “Oh, that’s splendid!” I said cheerfully. “In fact, I’ve got a cat basket in the car so I can take her straight away.” I tried not to look at his stricken face as the cat jumped on to my knee. “Well, Emily, you’re coming with me.” Then, as I looked at the little animal, I hesitated. Was it my imagination or was there a significant bulge in her abdomen? “Just a moment,” I murmured as I palpated the little body, then I looked up at the old man. “I’m sorry, Mr. Ireson, but it’s a bit late. She’s pregnant.”

His mouth opened, but no words came, then he swallowed and spoke in a hoarse whisper. “But … but what are we going to do?” “Nothing, nothing, don’t worry. She’ll have the kittens, that’s all, and I’ll find homes for them. Everything will be fine.” I was putting on my breeziest act, but it didn’t seem to help. “But Mr. Herriot, I don’t know anything about these things. I’m now terribly worried. She could die giving birth—she’s so tiny!” “No, no, not at all. Cats very rarely have any trouble that way. I tell you what, when she starts having the kittens—probably around a month from now—get Eddy to give me a ring. I’ll slip out here and see that all is well.

How’s that?” “Oh, you are kind. I feel so silly about this. The trouble is … she means so much to me.” “I know, and stop worrying.

Everything will be absolutely okay.” We had a cup of tea together and by the time I left he had calmed down.


I did hear from him at last one stormy evening. “Mr. Herriot, I am telephoning from the farm. Emily has not yet produced those kittens, but she is … very large and has lain trembling all day and won’t eat anything. I hate to trouble you on this horrible night but I know nothing about these things and she does look … most unhappy.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I tried to sound casual. “I think I’ll just pop out and have a look at her, Mr. Ireson.”

“Really—are you sure?” “Absolutely. No bother. I’ll see you soon.”

It was a strange, almost unreal scene as I stumbled through the darkness and parted the sacks forty minutes later. The wind and rain buffeted the tarpaulin walls and by the flickering light of the tilly lamp I saw Eugene in his chair stroking Emily, who lay in the basket by his side. The little cat had swollen enormously—so much as to be almost unrecognisable and as I kneeled and passed my hand over her distended abdomen I could feel the skin stretched tight.

She was absolutely bursting full of kittens, but seemed lifeless and exhausted. She was straining, too, and licking at her vulva. I looked up at the old man. “Have you some hot water, Mr. Ireson?”

“Yes, yes, the kettle has just boiled.” I soaped my little finger.

It would only just go into the tiny vagina. Inside I found the cervix wide open and a mass beyond, only just palpable. Heaven only knew how many kittens were jammed in there, but one thing was certain. There was no way they could ever come out. There was no room for manoeuvre. There was nothing I could do. Emily turned her face to me and gave a faint miaow of distress and it came to me piercingly that this cat could die. “Mr. Ireson,” I said, “I’ll have to take her away immediately.” “Take her away?” he said in a bewildered whisper. “Yes. She needs a caesarean operation. The kittens can’t come out in the normal way.” Upright in his chair, he nodded, shocked and only half comprehending. I grabbed the basket, Emily and all, and rushed out into the darkness. Then, as I thought of the old man looking blankly after me, I realised that my bedside manner had slipped badly. I pushed my head back through the sacks.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Ireson,” I said, “everything’s going to be fine.”

Don’t worry! Brave words. As I parked Emily on the back seat and drove away, I knew I was damn worried, and I cursed the mocking fate which had decreed that after all of my airy remarks about cats effortlessly giving birth I might be headed for a tragedy. How long had Emily been lying like that? Ruptured uterus? Septicaemia? The grim possibilities raced through my mind. And why did it have to happen to that solitary old man of all people? I stopped at the village kiosk and rang Siegfried. “I’ve just left old Eugene Ireson.

Will you come in and give me a hand? Cat caesar and it’s urgent.

Sorry to bother you on your night off.” “Perfectly all right, James, I’m not doing a thing. See you soon, eh?” When I got to the surgery Siegfried had the steriliser bubbling and everything laid out. “This is your party, James,” he murmured. “I’ll do the anaesthetic.” I had shaved the site of the operation and poised my scalpel over the grossly swollen abdomen when he whistled softly. “My God,” he said, “it’s like opening an abscess!” That was exactly what it was like. I felt that if I made an incision the mass of kittens would explode out in my face and, indeed, as I proceeded with the lightest touch through skin and muscle, the laden uterus bulged out alarmingly.

“Hell!” I breathed. “How many are in here?” “A fairish number!” said my partner. “And she’s such a tiny cat.” Gingerly, I opened the peritoneum which, to my relief, looked clean and healthy; then, as I went on, I waited for the jumble of little heads and feet to appear.

But with increasing wonderment I watched my incision travel along a massive coal-black back and, when I finally hooked my finger round the neck, drew forth a kitten and laid it on the table, I found that the uterus was otherwise empty. “There’s only one!” I gasped. “Would you believe it?” Siegfried laughed. “Yes, but what a whopper! And alive, too.” He lifted the kitten and took a closer look. “A whacking great tom—he’s nearly as big as his mother!” As I stitched up and gave the sleeping Emily a shot of penicillin, I felt the tension flow away from me in happy waves. The little cat was in good shape. My fears had been groundless. It would be best to leave the kitten with her for a few weeks, then I’d be able to find a home for him. “Thanks a lot for coming in, Siegfried,” I said. “It looked like a very dodgy situation at first.” I could hardly wait to get back to the old man, who, I knew, would still be in a state of shock at my taking away his beloved cat. In fact, when I passed through the sacking doorway, it looked as though he hadn’t moved an inch since I last saw him. He wasn’t reading, wasn’t doing anything except staring ahead from his chair. When I put the basket down by his side, he turned slowly and looked down wonderingly at Emily, who was coming round from the anaesthetic and beginning to raise her head, and at the black newcomer, who was already finding his private array of teats interesting. “She’s going to be fine, Mr. Ireson,” I said, and the old man nodded slowly. “How wonderful. How simply wonderful,” he murmured.


When I went to take out the stitches ten days later, I found a carnival atmosphere in the igloo. Old Eugene was beside himself with delight, while Emily, stretched in the back with her enormous offspring sucking busily, looked up at me with an expression of pride which bordered on the smug. “I think we ought to have a celebratory cup of tea and one of my favourite buns,” the old man said. As the kettle boiled, he drew a finger along the kitten’s body.

“He’s a handsome fellow, isn’t he.” “He certainly is. He’ll grow up into a beautiful cat.” Eugene smiled. “Yes. I’m sure he will, and it will be so nice to have him with Emily.” I paused as he handed me a bun. “But just a minute, Mr. Ireson. You really can’t do with two cats here.” “Why not?” “Well, you take Emily into the village on a lead most days. You’d have difficulty on the road with two cats, and anyway you don’t have room in here, do you?” He didn’t say anything, so I pressed on. “A lady was asking me the other day if I could find her a black kitten. Many people ask us to find a specific pet for them, often to replace an older animal which has just died, and we always seem to have trouble obliging them, but this time I am delighted that I was able to say I knew the very one.” He nodded slowly, and then, after a moment’s cogitation, said, “I’m sure you’re right, Mr. Herriot. I hadn’t really thought about it enough.”

“Anyway,” I said, ‘she’s a very nice lady and a real cat lover.

He’ll have a very good home. He’ll live like a little sultan with her.” He laughed. “Good … good … and maybe I’ll hear about him now and then?” “Absolutely. I’ll keep you posted regularly.” I could see I had got over the hurdle nicely and as I took a sip at my tea I thought I’d change the subject. “I must say, Mr. Ireson, you do seem to be a remarkably happy person. Very content with life. Maybe it’s something to do with Emily.” “Very true! In fact I was about to say that but I thought you might think me silly.” He threw back his head and laughed. A merry, boyish laugh. “Yes, I have Emily, the allimportant thing! I’m so glad we agree about that. Come now, do have another bun.”


Olly and Ginny Settle In


As a cat lover, it irked me that my own cats couldn’t stand the sight of me. Ginny and Olly were part of the family now. We were devoted to them and whenever we had a day out the first thing Helen did on our return was to open the back door and feed them. The cats knew this very well and were either sitting on the flat top of the wall, waiting for her, or ready to trot down from the log shed which was their home. We had been to Brawton on our half-day and they were there as usual as Helen put out a dish of food and a bowl of milk for them on the wall. “Olly, Ginny,” she murmured as she stroked the furry coats. The days had long gone when they refused to let her touch them. Now they rubbed against her hand in delight, arching and purring and, when they were eating, she ran her hand repeatedly along their backs. They were such gentle little animals, their wildness expressed only in fear, and now, with her, that fear had gone. My children and some from the village had won their confidence, too, and were allowed to give them a careful caress, but they drew the line at Herriot. Like now, for instance, when I quietly followed Helen out and moved towards the wall. Immediately they left the food and retreated to a safe distance where they stood, still arching their backs but, as ever, out of reach. They regarded me without hostility but as I held out a hand they moved further away. “Look at the little beggars!” I said. “They still won’t have anything to do with me.” It was frustrating since, throughout my years in veterinary practice, cats had always intrigued me and I had found that this helped me in my dealings with them. I felt I could handle them more easily than most people because I liked them and they sensed it. I rather prided myself on my cat technique, a sort of feline bedside manner, and was in no doubt that I had an empathy with the entire species and that they all liked me. In fact, if the truth were told, I fancied myself as a cats” pin-up. Not so, ironically, with these two—the ones to whom I had become so deeply attached. It was a bit hard, I thought, because I had doctored them and probably saved their lives when they had cat flu.

Did they remember that, I wondered? If they did it still didn’t give me the right apparently to lay a finger on them. And, indeed, what they certainly did seem to remember was that it was I who had netted them and then shoved them into a cage before I neutered them. I had the feeling that whenever they saw me, it was that net and cage which was uppermost in their minds. I could only hope that time would bring an understanding between us but, as it turned out, fate was to conspire against me for a long time still. Above all, there was the business of Olly’s coat. Unlike his sister, he was a longhaired cat and as such was subject to constant tangling and knotting of his fur. If he had been an ordinary domesticated feline, I would have combed him out as soon as trouble arose, but since I couldn’t even get near him I was helpless. We had had him about two years when Helen called me to the kitchen. “Just look at him!” she said.

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