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Authors: James Herriot

cat stories (9 page)

BOOK: cat stories

“He’s a dreadful sight!” I peered through the window. Olly was indeed a bit of a scarecrow with his matted fur and dangling knots in cruel contrast with his sleek and beautiful little sister. “I know, I know. But what can I do?” I was about to turn away when I noticed something. “Wait a minute, there’s a couple of horrible big lumps hanging below his neck. Take these scissors and have a go at them—a couple of quick snips and they’ll be off.” Helen gave me an anguished look. “Oh, we’ve tried this before. I’m not a vet and anyway, he won’t let me do that. He’ll let me pet him, but this is something else.” “I know that, but have a go. There’s nothing to it, really.” I pushed a pair of curved scissors into her hand and began to call instructions through the window. “Right now, get your fingers behind that big dangling mass. Fine, fine! Now up with your scissors and—” But at the first gleam of steel, Olly was off and away up the hill. Helen turned to me in despair. “It’s no good, Jim, it’s hopeless—he won’t let me cut even one lump off and he’s covered with them.” I looked at the dishevelled little creature standing at a safe distance from us. “Yes, you’re right. I’ll have to think of something.” Thinking of something entailed doping Olly so that I could get at him, and my faithful nembutal capsules sprang immediately to mind. This oral anaesthetic had been a valued ally on countless occasions where I had to deal with unapproachable animals, but this was different. With the other cases, my patients had been behind closed doors, but Olly was outside with all the wide countryside to roam in. I couldn’t have him going to sleep somewhere out there where a fox or other predator might get him. I would have to watch him all the time. It was a time for decisions, and I drew myself up. “I’ll have a go at him this Sunday,” I told Helen. “It’s usually a bit quieter and I’ll ask Siegfried to stand in for me in an emergency.” When the day arrived, Helen went out and placed two meals of chopped fish on the wall, one of them spiked with the contents of my nembutal capsule. I crouched behind the window; watching intently as she directed Olly to the correct portion, and holding my breath as he sniffed at it suspiciously. His hunger soon overcame his caution and he licked the bowl clean with evident relish. Now we started the tricky part. If he decided to explore the fields as he often did I would have to be right behind him. I stole out of the house as he sauntered back up the slope to the open log shed and to my vast relief he settled down in his own particular indentation in the straw and began to wash himself. As I peered through the bushes I was gratified to see that very soon he was having difficulty with his face, licking his hind paw then toppling over as he brought it up to his cheek. I chuckled to myself. This was great. Another few minutes and I’d have him. And so it turned out. Olly seemed to conclude that he was tired of falling over and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a nap. After gazing drunkenly around him, he curled up in the straw. I waited a short time, then, with all the stealth of an Indian brave on the trail, I crept from my hiding place and tiptoed to the shed. Olly wasn’t flat out—I hadn’t dared give him the full anaesthetic dose in case I had been unable to track him—but he was deeply sedated. I could pretty well do what I wanted with him. As I knelt down and began to snip away with my scissors, he opened his eyes and made a feeble attempt to struggle, but it was no good and I worked my way quickly through the ravelled fur. I wasn’t able to make a particularly tidy job because he was wriggling slightly all the time, but I clipped off all the huge unsightly knots which used to get caught in the bushes, and must have been horribly uncomfortable, and soon had a growing heap of black hair by my side. I noticed that Olly wasn’t only moving, he was watching me. Dazed as he was, he knew me all right and his eyes told me all. “It’s you again!” he was saying. “I might have known!”

When I had finished, I lifted him into a cat cage and placed it on the straw. “Sorry, old lad,” I said, “but I can’t let you go free till you’ve wakened up completely.” Olly gave me a sleepy stare, but his sense of outrage was evident. “So you’ve dumped me in here again.

You don’t change much, do you?” By teatime he was fully recovered and I was able to release him. He looked so much better without the ugly tangles but he didn’t seem impressed, and as I opened the cage he gave me a single disgusted look and sped away. Helen was enchanted with my handiwork and she pointed eagerly at the two cats on the wall next morning. “Doesn’t he look smart! Oh, I’m so glad you managed to do him, it was really worrying me. And he must feel so much better.” I felt a certain smug satisfaction as I looked through the window. Olly indeed was almost unrecognisable as the scruffy animal of yesterday and there was no doubt I had dramatically altered his life and relieved him of a constant discomfort, but my burgeoning bubble of self-esteem was pricked the instant I put my head round the back door. He had just started to enjoy his breakfast but at the sight of me he streaked away faster than ever before and disappeared far over the hill-top. Sadly, I turned back into the kitchen. Olly’s opinion of me had dropped several more notches. Wearily I poured a cup of tea. It was a hard life.


Moses Found Among the Rushes


It was going to take a definite effort of will to get out of the car.

I had driven about ten miles from Darrowby, thinking all the time that the Dales always looked their coldest not when they were covered with snow but, as now, when the first sprinkling streaked the bare flanks of the fells in bars of black and white like the ribs of a crouching beast. And now in front of me was the farm gate rattling on its hinges as the wind shook it. The car, heaterless and draughty as it was, seemed like a haven in an uncharitable world and I gripped the wheel tightly with my woollen-gloved hands for a few moments before opening the door. The wind almost tore the handle from my fingers as I got out but I managed to crash the door shut before stumbling over the frozen mud to the gate. Muffled as I was in heavy coat and scarf pulled up to my ears I could feel the icy gusts biting at my face, whipping up my nose and hammering painfully into the air spaces in my head. I had driven through and, streamingeyed, was about to get back into the car when I noticed something unusual. There was a frozen pond just off the path and among the rime-covered rushes which fringed the dead opacity of the surface a small object stood out, shiny black. I went over and looked closer.

It was a tiny kitten, probably about six weeks old, huddled and immobile, eyes tightly closed. Bending down I poked gently at the furry body. It must be dead; a morsel like this couldn’t possibly survive in such cold … but no, there was a spark of life because the mouth opened soundlessly for a second and then closed. Quickly I lifted the little creature and tucked it inside my coat. As I drove into the farmyard I called to the farmer who was carrying two buckets out of the calf house. “I’ve got one of your kittens here, Mr. Butler. It must have strayed outside.” Mr. Butler put down his buckets and looked blank. “Kitten? We haven’t got no kittens at present.” I showed him my find and he looked more puzzled. “Well, that’s a rum “un, there’s no black cats on this spot. We’ve all sorts o” colours but no black “uns.” “Well, he must have come from somewhere else,” I said. “Though I can’t imagine anything so small travelling very far. It’s rather mysterious.” I held the kitten out and he engulfed it with his big, work-roughened hand. “Poor little beggar, he’s only just alive. I’ll take him into t”house and see if the missus can do owt for him.” In the farm kitchen Mrs. Butler was all concern. “Oh, what a shame!” She smoothed back the bedraggled hair with one finger. “And it’s got such a pretty face.” She looked up at me. “What is it, anyway, a him or a her?” I took a quick look behind the hind legs. “It’s a tom.” “Right,” she said. “I’ll get some warm milk into him but first of all we’ll give him the old cure.

” She went over to the fireside oven on the big black kitchen range, opened the door and popped him inside. I smiled. It was the classical procedure when newborn lambs were found suffering from cold and exposure; into the oven they went and the results were often dramatic. Mrs. Butler left the door partly open and I could just see the little black figure inside; he didn’t seem to care much what was happening to him. The next hour I spent in the byre wrestling with the overgrown hind feet of a cow. Still, I thought, as I eased the kinks from my spine when I had finished, there were compensations. There was a satisfaction in the sight of the cow standing comfortably on two almost normal-looking feet. “Well, that’s summat like,” Mr. Butler grunted. “Come in the house and wash your hands.” In the kitchen as I bent over the brown earthenware sink I kept glancing across at the oven. Mrs. Butler laughed. “Oh, he’s still with us. Come and have a look.” It was difficult to see the kitten in the dark interior but when I spotted him I put out my hand and touched him and he turned his head towards me. “He’s coming round,” I said. “That hour in there has worked wonders.” “Doesn’t often fail.” The farmer’s wife lifted him out. “I think he’s a little tough “un.” She began to spoon warm milk into the tiny mouth.

“I reckon we’ll have him lapping in a day or two.” “You’re going to keep him, then?” “Too true we are. I’m going to call him Moses.”

“Moses?” “Aye, you found him among the rushes, didn’t you?” I laughed. “That’s right. It’s a good name.”


I was on the Butler farm about a fortnight later and I kept looking around for Moses. Farmers rarely have their cats indoors and I thought that if the black kitten had survived he would have joined the feline colony around the buildings. Farm cats have a pretty good time. They may not be petted or cosseted but it has always seemed to me that they lead a free, natural life. They are expected to catch mice but if they are not so inclined there is abundant food at hand; bowls of milk here and there and the dogs” dishes to be raided if anything interesting is left over. I had seen plenty of cats around today, some flitting nervously away, others friendly and purring.

There was a tabby loping gracefully across the cobbles and a big tortoiseshell was curled on a bed of straw at the warm end of the byre; cats are connoisseurs of comfort. When Mr. Butler went to fetch the hot water I had a quick look in the bullock house and a white tom regarded me placidly from between the bars of a hay rack where he had been taking a siesta. But there was no sign of Moses. I finished drying my arms and was about to make a casual reference to the kitten when Mr. Butler handed me my jacket. “Come round here with me if you’ve got a minute,” he said, “I’ve got summat to show you.” I followed him through the door at the end and across a passage into the long, low-roofed piggery. He stopped at a pen about halfway down and pointed inside. “Look “ere,” he said. I leaned over the wall and my face must have shown my astonishment because the farmer burst into a shout of laughter. “That’s summat new for you, isn’t it?” I stared unbelievingly down at a large sow stretched comfortably on her side, suckling a litter of about twelve piglets, and right in the middle of the long pink row, furry black and incongruous, was Moses. He had a teat in his mouth and was absorbing his nourishment with the same rapt enjoyment as his smooth-skinned fellows on either side. “What the devil …?” I gasped. Mr. Butler was still laughing. “I thought you’d never have seen anything like that before; I never have, any road.” “But how did it happen?” I still couldn’t drag my eyes away. “It was the missus’s idea,” he replied. “When she’d got the little youth lapping milk she took him out to find a right warm spot for him in the buildings. She settled on this pen because the sow, Bertha, had just had a litter and I had a heater in and it was grand and cosy.” I nodded. “Sounds just right.

” “Well, she put Moses and a bowl of milk in here,” the farmer went on, “but the little feller didn’t stay by the heater very long-next time I looked in he was round at t’milk bar.” I shrugged my shoulders. “They say you see something new every day at this game, but this is something I’ve never even heard of. Anyway, he looks well on it—does he actually live on the sow’s milk or does he still drink from his bowl?” “A bit of both, I reckon. It’s hard to say.”

Anyway, whatever mixture Moses was getting he grew rapidly into a sleek, handsome animal with an unusually high gloss to his coat which may or may not have been due to the porcine element of his diet. I never went to the Butlers” without having a look in the pig pen. Bertha, his foster mother, seemed to find nothing unusual in this hairy intruder and pushed him around casually with pleased grunts just as she did the rest of her brood. Moses for his part appeared to find the society of the pigs very congenial. When the piglets curled up together and settled down for a sleep Moses would be somewhere in the heap, and when his young colleagues were weaned at eight weeks he showed his attachment to Bertha by spending most of his time with her. And it stayed that way over the years. Often he would be right inside the pen, rubbing himself happily along the comforting bulk of the sow, but I remember him best in his favourite place; crouching on the wall looking down perhaps meditatively on what had been his first warm home.


Frisk The Cat with Many Lives


Sometimes, when our dog and cat patients died, the owners brought them in for us to dispose of them. It was always a sad occasion and I had a sense of foreboding when I saw old Dick Fawcett’s face. He put the improvised cat box on the surgery table and looked at me with unhappy eyes. “It’s Frisk,” he said. His lips trembled as though he was unable to say more. I didn’t ask any questions, but began to undo the strings on the cardboard container. Dick couldn’t afford a proper cat box, but he had used this one before, a homemade affair with holes punched in the sides. I untied the last knot and looked inside at the motionless body. Frisk. The glossy black, playful little creature I knew so well, always purring and affectionate and Dick’s companion and friend. “When did he die, Dick?” I asked gently. He passed a hand over his haggard face and through the straggling grey hairs. “Well, I just found “im stretched out by my bed this morning. But … I don’t rightly know if he’s dead yet, Mr. Herriot.” I looked again inside the box. There was no sign of breathing. I lifted the limp form on to the table and touched the cornea of the unseeing eye. No reflex. I reached for my stethoscope and placed it over the chest. “The heart’s still going, Dick, but it’s a very faint beat.” “Might stop any time, you mean?”

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