James Herriot

All Creatures Great and Small

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allsafehas quoted9 months ago
I particularly enjoyed, too, our very first morning when I took Helen to do the test at Allen’s. As I got out of the car I could see Mrs. Allen peeping round the curtains in the kitchen window. She was soon out in the yard and her eyes popped when I brought my bride over to her. Helen was one of the pioneers of slacks in the Dales and she was wearing a bright purple pair this morning which would in modern parlance knock your eye out. The farmer’s wife was partly shocked, partly fascinated but she soon found that Helen was of the same stock as herself and within seconds the two women were chattering busily. I judged from Mrs. Allen’s vigorous head-nodding and her ever widening smile that Helen was putting her out of her pain by explaining all the circumstances. It took a long time and finally Mr. Allen had to break into the conversation.

“If we’re goin’ we’ll have to go,” he said gruffly and we set off to start the second day of the test.

We began on a sunny hillside where a group of young animals had been penned. Jack and Robbie plunged in among the beasts while Mr. Allen took off his cap and courteously dusted the top of the wall.

“Your missus can sit ’ere,” he said.

I paused as I was about to start measuring. My missus! It was the first time anybody had said that to me. I looked over at Helen as she sat cross-legged on the rough stones, her notebook on her knee, pencil at the ready, and as she pushed back the shining dark hair from her forehead she caught my eye and smiled; and as I smiled back at her I became aware suddenly of the vast, swelling glory of the Dales around us, and of the Dales scent of clover and warm grass, more intoxicating than any wine. And it seemed that my first two years at Darrowby had been leading up to this moment; that the first big step of my life was being completed right here with Helen smiling at me and the memory, fresh in my mind, of my new plate hanging in front of Skeldale House.

I might have stood there indefinitely, in a sort of trance, but Mr. Allen cleared his throat in a marked manner and I turned back to the job in hand.

“Right,” I said, placing my callipers against the beast’s neck. “Number thirty-eight, seven millimetres and circumscribed,” I called out to Helen. “Number thirty-eight, seven, C.”

“Thirty-eight, seven, C,” my wife repeated as she bent over her book and started to write.
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
So I drove out of Darrowby with a feeling of swelling pride because I knew what the plate meant—I was a partner, a man with a real place in the world. The thought made me slightly breathless. In fact we were both a little dizzy and we cruised for hours around the countryside, getting out when we felt like it, walking among the hills, taking no account of time. It must have been nine o’clock in the evening and darkness coming in fast when we realised we had gone far out of our way.

We had to drive ten miles over a desolate moor on the fell top and it was very dark when we rattled down the steep, narrow road into Ellerthorpe. The Wheat Sheaf was an unostentatious part of the single long village street, a low grey stone building with no light over the door, and as we went into the slightly musty-smelling hallway the gentle clink of glasses came from the public bar on our left. Mrs. Burn, the elderly widow who owned the place, appeared from a back room and scrutinised us unemotionally.

“We’ve met before, Mrs. Burn,” I said and she nodded. I apologised for our lateness and was wondering whether I dare ask for a few sandwiches at this time of night when the old lady spoke up, quite unperturbed.

“Nay,” she said, “it’s all right. We’ve been expecting you and your supper’s waiting.” She led us to the dining-room where her niece, Beryl, served a hot meal in no time. Thick lentil soup, followed by what would probably be called a goulash these days but which was in fact simply a delicious stew with mushrooms and vegetables obviously concocted by a culinary genius. We had to say no to the gooseberry pie and cream.

It was like that all the time at the Wheat Sheaf. The whole place was aggressively unfashionable; needing a lick of paint, crammed with hideous Victorian furniture, but it was easy to see how it had won its reputation. It didn’t have stylish guests, but fat, comfortable men from the industrial West Riding brought their wives at the weekends and did a bit of fishing or just took in the incomparable air between the meal times, which were the big moments of the day. There was only one guest while we were there and he was a permanent one—a retired draper from Darlington who was always at the table in good time, a huge white napkin tucked under his chin, his eyes gleaming as he watched Beryl bring in the food.

But it wasn’t just the home-fed ham, the Wensleydale cheese, the succulent steak and kidney pies, the bilberry tarts and mountainous Yorkshire puddings which captivated Helen and me. There was a peace, a sleepy insinuating charm about the old pub which we always recall with happiness.
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
Siegfried shook his head decisively. “No, James, I won’t hear of it. In fact you’re beginning to make me feel guilty. I’ll get through the work all right so forget about it and go away and have a good time.”

“No, I’ve made up my mind. I’m really beginning to like the idea.” I scanned the list quickly. “I can start testing at Allen’s and do all those smaller ones around there on Tuesday, get married on Wednesday and go back for the second injection and readings on Thursday and Friday. I can knock hell out of that list by the end of the week.”

Siegfried looked at me as though he was seeing me for the first time. He argued and protested but for once I got my way. I fished the Ministry notification cards from the desk drawer and began to make the arrangements for my honeymoon.

On Tuesday at 12 noon I had finished testing Allen’s huge herd scattered for miles over the stark fells at the top of the Dale and was settling down with the hospitable folk for the inevitable “bit o’ dinner.” Mr. Allen was at the head of the scrubbed table and facing me were his two sons, Jack, aged about twenty, and Robbie, about seventeen. The young men were superbly fit and tough and I had been watching all morning in something like awe as they manhandled the wild, scattered beasts, chasing and catching tirelessly hour after hour. I had stared incredulously as Jack had run down a galloping heifer on the open moor, seized its horns and borne it slowly to the ground for me to inject; it struck me more than once that it was a pity that an Olympic Selector was unlikely to stray into this remote corner of high Yorkshire—he would have seen material to beat the world.

I always had to stand a bit of leg-pulling from Mrs. Allen, a jolly talkative woman; on previous visits she had ribbed me mercilessly about being a slowcoach with the girls, the disgrace of having nothing better than a housekeeper to look after me. I knew she would start on me again today but I bided my time; I had a devastating riposte up my sleeve. She had just opened the oven door, filling the room with a delectable fragrance, and as she dumped a huge slab of roast ham on the table she looked down at me with a smile.

“Now then, Mr. Herriot, when are we going to get you married off? It’s time you found a nice girl, you know I’m always at you but you take not a bit o’ notice.” She giggled as she bustled back to the cooking range for a bowl of mashed potatoes.

I waited until she had returned before I dropped my bombshell. “Well, as a matter of fact, Mrs. Allen,” I said airily, “I’ve decided to accept your advice. I’m getting married tomorrow.”
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
The good woman, mounding mashed potatoes on to my plate, stopped with her spoon in mid air. “Married tomorrow?” Her face was a study in blank astonishment.

“That’s right. I thought you’d be pleased.”

“But … but … you’re coming back here on Thursday and Friday.”

“Well of course. I have to finish the test, haven’t I? I’ll be bringing my wife with me—I’m looking forward to introducing her to you.”

There was a silence. The young men stared at me, Mr. Allen stopped sawing at the ham and regarded me stolidly, then his wife gave an uncertain laugh.

“Oh come on, I don’t believe it. You’re kidding us. You’d be off on your honeymoon if you were getting married tomorrow.”

“Mrs. Allen,” I said with dignity, “I wouldn’t joke about a serious matter like that. Let me repeat—tomorrow is my wedding day and I’ll be bringing my wife along on Thursday to see you.”

Completely deflated, she heaped our plates and we all fell to in silence. But I knew she was in agony; she kept darting little glances at me and it was obvious she was dying to ask me more. The boys, too, seemed intrigued; only Mr. Allen, a tall, quiet man who, I’m sure, wouldn’t have cared if I’d been going to rob a bank tomorrow, ploughed calmly through his food.

Nothing more was said until I was about to leave, then Mrs. Allen put a hand on my arm.

“You really don’t mean it, do you?” Her face was haggard with strain.

I got into the car and called out through the window. “Goodbye and thank you. Mrs. Herriot and I will be along first thing on Thursday.”

I can’t remember much about the wedding. It was a “quiet do” and my main recollection is of desiring to get it all over with as soon as possible. I have only one vivid memory; of Siegfried, just behind me in the church booming “Amen” at regular intervals throughout the ceremony—the only time I have ever heard a best man do this.

It was an incredible relief when Helen and I were ready to drive away and when we were passing Skeldale House Helen grasped my hand.

“Look!” she cried excitedly. “Look over there!”

Underneath Siegfried’s brass plate which always hung slightly askew on the iron railings was a brand new one. It was of the modern bakelite type with a black background and bold white letters which read “J. Herriot M.R.C.V.S. Veterinary Surgeon,” and it was screwed very straight and level on the metal.

I looked back down the street to try to see Siegfried but we had said our goodbyes and I would have to thank him later.
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
CONSIDERING WE SPENT OUR honeymoon tuberculin testing it was a big success. It compared favourably, at any rate, with the experiences of a lot of people I know who celebrated this milestone in their lives by cruising for a month on sunny seas and still wrote it off as a dead loss. For Helen and me it had all the ingredients; laughter, fulfilment and cameraderie, and yet it only lasted a week. And, as I say, we spent it tuberculin testing.

The situation had its origins one morning at the breakfast table when Siegfried, red-eyed after a bad night with a colicky mare, was opening the morning mail. He drew his breath in sharply as a thick roll of forms fell from an official envelope.

“God almighty! Look at all that testing!” He smoothed out the forms on the tablecloth and read feverishly down the long list of farm premises. “And they want us to start this lot around Ellerthorpe next week without fail—it’s very urgent.” He glared at me for a moment. “That’s when you’re getting married, isn’t it?”

I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”

Siegfried snatched a piece of toast from the rack and began to slap butter on it like an exasperated bricklayer. “Well this is just great, isn’t it? The practice going mad, a week’s testing right at the top of the Dale, away in the back of beyond, and your bloody wedding smack in the middle of it. You’ll be drifting gaily off on your honeymoon without a care in the world while I’m rushing around here nearly disappearing up my own backside!” He bit a piece from the toast and began to crunch it savagely.

“I’m sorry, Siegfried,” I said. “I didn’t mean to land you in the cart like this. I couldn’t know the practice was going to get so busy right now and I never expected them to throw all this testing at us.”

Siegfried paused in his chewing and pointed a finger at me. “That’s just it, James, that’s your trouble—you don’t look ahead. You just go belting straight on without a thought. Even when it comes to a bloody wedding you’re not worried—oh no, let’s get on with it, to hell with the consequences.” He paused to cough up a few crumbs which he had inhaled in his agitation. “In fact I can’t see what all the hurry is—you’ve got all the time in the world to get married, you’re just a boy. And another thing—you hardly know this girl, you’ve only been seeing her regularly for a few weeks.”

“But wait a minute, you said …”

“No, let me finish, James. Marriage is a very serious step, not to be embarked upon without long and serious thought. Why in God’s name does it have to be next week? Next year would have been soon enough and you could have enjoyed a nice long engagement. But no, you’ve got to rush in and tie the knot and it isn’t so easily untied you know.”
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
“Oh hell, Siegfried, this is too bad! You know perfectly well it was you who …”

“One moment more. Your precipitate marital arrangements are going to cause me a considerable headache but believe me I wish you well. I hope all turns out for the best despite your complete lack of foresight, but at the same time I must remind you of the old saying: ‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure.’ ”

I could stand no more. I leaped to my feet, thumped a fist on the table and yelled at him.

“But damn it, it was your idea! I was all for leaving it for a bit but you …”

Siegfried wasn’t listening. He had been cooling off all the time and now his face broke into a seraphic smile. “Now, now, now, James, you’re getting excited again. Sit down and calm yourself. You mustn’t mind my speaking to you like this—you are very young and it’s my duty. You haven’t done anything wrong at all; I suppose it’s the most natural thing in the world for people of your age to act without thinking ahead, to jump into things with never a thought of the morrow. It’s just the improvidence of youth.” Siegfried was about six years older than I but he had donned the mantle of the omniscient greybeard without effort.

I dug my fingers into my knees and decided not to pursue the matter. I had no chance anyway, and besides, I was beginning to feel a bit worried about clearing off and leaving him snowed under with work. I got up and walked to the window where I watched old Will Varley pushing a bicycle up the street with a sack of potatoes balanced on the handlebars as I had watched him a hundred times before. Then I turned back to my employer. I had had one of my infrequent ideas.

“Look, Siegfried, I wouldn’t mind spending my honeymoon round Ellerthorpe. It’s wonderful up there at this time of the year and we could stay at the Wheat Sheaf. I could do the testing from there.”

He looked at me in astonishment. “Spend it at Ellerthorpe? And testing? It’s impossible—what would Helen say?”

“She wouldn’t mind. In fact she could do the writing for me. We were only going off touring in the car so we haven’t made any plans, and anyway it’s funny, but Helen and I have often said we’d like to stay at the Wheat Sheaf some time—there’s something about that little pub.”
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
When he did manage to place me it seemed to remind him of his duties as a host. But as he reached again for the bottle he caught sight of the clock on the wall.

“Well dang it, it’s four o’clock. We’ve been here long enough. It’s hardly worth goin’ to bed, but I suppose we’d better have an hour or two’s sleep.” He tipped the last of the whisky down his throat, jumped briskly to his feet, looked around him for a few moments in a business-like sort of way then pitched head first with a sickening clatter among the fire irons.

Frozen with horror, I started forward to help the small figure scrabbling on the hearth but I needn’t have worried because he bounced back to his feet in a second or two and looked me in the eye as if nothing had happened.

“Well, I’d better be off,” I said. “Thanks for the drink.” There was no point in staying longer as I realised that the chances of Mr. Alderson saying “Bless you, my son,” or anything like that were remote. But I had a comforting impression that all was going to be well.

As I made my way to the door the farmer made a creditable attempt to usher me out but his direction was faulty and he tacked helplessly away from me across the kitchen floor before collapsing against a tall dresser. From under a row of willow pattern dinner plates his face looked at me with simple bewilderment.

I hesitated then turned back. “I’ll just walk up the stairs with you, Mr. Alderson,” I said in a matter-of-fact voice and the little man made no resistance as I took his arm and guided him towards the door in the far corner.

As we creaked our way upstairs he stumbled and would have gone down again had I not grabbed him round the waist. As I caught him he looked up at me and grunted “Thanks, lad,” and we grinned at each other for a moment before restarting the climb.

I supported him across the landing to his bedroom door and he stood hesitating as though about to say something. But finally he just nodded to me a couple of times before ducking inside.

I waited outside the door, listening in some anxiety to the bumps and thumps from within; but I relaxed as a loud, tuneless humming came through the panels. Everything most certainly was going to be all right.
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
“Mind you,” he said, “a night’s rain would do a lot o’ good.”

I gave my opinion that it undoubtedly would and the silence fell again. It lasted even longer this time and my host kept drinking his whisky as though he was getting used to it. And I could see that it was having a relaxing effect; the strained lines on his face were beginning to smooth out and his eyes were losing their hunted look.

Nothing more was said until he had replenished our glasses, balancing the amounts meticulously again. He took a sip at his second measure then he looked down at the rug and spoke in a small voice.

“James,” he said, “I had a wife in a thousand.”

I was so surprised I hardly knew what to say. “Yes, I know,” I murmured. “I’ve heard a lot about her.”

Mr. Alderson went on, still looking down, his voice full of gentle yearning.

“Aye, she was the grandest lass for miles around and the bonniest.” He looked up at me suddenly with the ghost of a smile. “Nobody thought she’d ever have a feller like me, you know. But she did.” He paused and looked away. “Aye, she did.”

He began to tell me about his dead wife. He told me calmly, without self-pity, but with a wistful gratitude for the happiness he had known. And I discovered that Mr. Alderson was different from a lot of the farmers of his generation because he said nothing about her being a “good worker.” So many of the women of those times seemed to be judged mainly on their working ability and when I had first come to Darrowby I had been shocked when I commiserated with a newly-widowed old man. He had brushed a tear from his eye and said “Aye, she was a grand worker.”

But Mr. Alderson said only that his wife had been beautiful, that she had been kind, and that he had loved her very much. He talked about Helen, too, about the things she had said and done when she was a little girl, about how very like her mother she was in every way. He never said anything about me but I had the feeling all the time that he meant it to concern me; and the very fact that he was talking so freely seemed a sign that the barriers were coming down.

Actually he was talking a little too freely. He was half way down his third huge whisky and in my experience Yorkshire-men just couldn’t take the stuff. I had seen burly ten-pint men from the local pubs keel over after a mere sniff at the amber fluid and little Mr. Alderson hardly drank at all. I was getting worried.

But there was nothing I could do, so I let him ramble on happily. He was lying right back in his chair now, completely at ease, his eyes, alight with his memories, gazing somewhere above my head. In fact I am convinced he had forgotten I was there because after one long passage he dropped his eyes, caught sight of me and stared for a moment without recognition.
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
­hind him, rocking backwards and forwards on his heels, obviously enchanted by the scene. Any time now, I thought. And I was right; the toneless humming broke out, even louder than usual, like a joyful paean.

I stiffened in my Wellingtons. There would never be a better time. After a nervous cough I spoke up firmly.

“Mr. Alderson,” I said and he half turned his head. “I would like to marry your daughter.”

The humming was switched off abruptly and he turned slowly till he was facing me. He didn’t speak but his eyes searched my face unhappily. Then he bent stiffly, picked up the buckets one by one, tipped out the water and made for the door.

“You’d better come in the house,” he said.

The farmhouse kitchen looked lost and forsaken with the family abed. I sat in a high-backed wooden chair by the side of the empty hearth while Mr. Alderson put away his buckets, hung up the towel and washed his hands methodically at the sink, then he pottered through to the parlour and I heard him bumping and clinking about in the sideboard. When he reappeared he bore a tray in front of him on which a bottle of whisky and two glasses rattled gently. The tray lent the simple procedure an air of formality which was accentuated by the heavy cut crystal of the glasses and the virgin, unopened state of the bottle.

Mr. Alderson set the tray down on the kitchen table which he dragged nearer to us before settling in the chair at the other side of the fireplace. Nobody said, anything. I waited in the lengthening silence while he peered at the cap of the bottle like a man who had never seen one before then unscrewed it with slow apprehension as though he feared it might blow up in his face.

Finally he poured out two measures with the utmost gravity and precision, ducking his head frequently to compare the levels in the two glasses, and with a last touch of ceremony proffered the laden tray.

I took my drink and waited expectantly.

Mr. Alderson looked into the lifeless fireplace for a minute or two then he directed his gaze upwards at the oil painting of the paddling cows which hung above the mantelpiece. He pursed his lips as though about to whistle but appeared to change his mind and without salutation took a gulp of his whisky which sent him into a paroxysm of coughing from which it took him some time to recover. When his breathing had returned to normal he sat up straight and fixed me with two streaming eyes. He cleared his throat and I felt a certain tension.

“Aye well,” he said, “it’s grand hay weather.”
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
“And it’s a simple little cure, isn’t it!” I shouted. “No money, no home, but leap into matrimony with a happy cry. There’s not a thing to worry about!”

“Ah-ah, you see, there you go again, looking for difficulties.” He gave a light laugh and gazed at me with pitying affection. “No money, you say. Well one of these days you’ll be a partner here. Your plate will be out on those railings in front of the house, so you’ll never be short of your daily bread. And as regards a home—look at all the empty rooms in this house. You could set up a private suite upstairs without any trouble. So that’s just a piffling little detail.”

I ran my hand distractedly through my hair. My head was beginning to swim. “You make it all sound so easy.”

“But it IS easy!” Siegfried shot upright in his chair. “Go out and ask that girl without further delay and get her into church before the month is out!” He wagged a finger at me. “Learn to grasp the nettle of life, James. Throw off your hesitant ways and remember”—he clenched his fist and struck an attitude—“there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood …”

“O.K., O.K.,” I said, rising wearily from my chair, “that’s enough, I get the message. I’m going to bed now.”

I don’t suppose I am the first person to have had his life fundamentally influenced by one of Siegfried’s chance outbursts. I thought his opinions ridiculous at the time but he planted a seed which germinated and flowered almost overnight. There is no doubt he is responsible for the fact that I was the father of a grown-up family while I was still a young man, because when I brought the subject up with Helen she said yes, she’d like to marry me and we set our eyes on an early date. She seemed surprised at first—maybe she had the same opinion of me as Siegfried and expected it would take me a few years to get off the ground.

Anyway, before I had time to think much more about it everything was neatly settled and I found I had made a magical transition from jeering at the whole idea to making plans for furnishing our prospective bedsitter at Skeldale House.

It was a blissful time with only one cloud on the horizon; but that cloud bulked large and forbidding. As I walked hand in hand with Helen, my thoughts in the air, she kept bringing me back to earth with an appealing look.

“You know, Jim, you’ll really have to speak to Dad. It’s time he knew.”
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
“Now roll her,” I gasped, and the men pulled the legs round in a clockwise direction. I held fiercely to the little foot as the cow flopped on to her other side. Nothing seemed to be happening inside.

“Push her on to her chest,” I panted.

Stan and Bert expertly tucked the legs under the cow and rolled her on to her brisket and as she settled there I gave a yell of pain.

“Get her back, quick! We’re going the wrong way!” The smooth band of tissue had tightened on my wrist in a numbing grip of frightening power. For a moment I had the panicky impression that I’d never get out of there again.

But the men worked like lightning. Within seconds Candy was stretched out on her original side, the pressure was off my arm and we were back where we started.

I gritted my teeth and took a fresh grip on the calf’s foot. “O.K., try her the other way.”

This time the roll was anti-clockwise and we went through 180 degrees without anything happening. I only just kept my grasp on the foot—the resistance this time was tremendous. Taking a breather for a few seconds I lay face down while the sweat sprang out on my back, sending out fresh exotic vapours from the bath salts.

“Right. One more go!” I cried and the men hauled the cow further over.

And oh it was beautiful to feel everything magically unravelling and my arm lying free in a wide uterus with all the room in the world and the calf already beginning to slide towards me.

Candy summed up the situation immediately and for the first time gave a determined heaving strain. Sensing victory just round the corner she followed up with another prolonged effort which popped the calf wet and wriggling into my arms.

“By gum, it was quick at t’finish,” Mr. Alderson murmured wonderingly. He seized a wisp of hay and began to dry off the little creature.

Thankfully I soaped my arms in one of the buckets. After every delivery there is a feeling of relief but in this case it was overwhelming. It no longer mattered that the loose box smelt like a ladies’ hairdressing salon, I just felt good. I said good night to Bert and Stan as they returned to their beds, giving a final incredulous sniff as they passed me. Mr. Alderson was pottering about, having a word with Candy, then starting again on the calf which he had already rubbed down several times. He seemed fascinated by it. And I couldn’t blame him because it was like something out of Disney; a pale gold fawn, unbelievably tiny with large dark limpid eyes and an expression of trusting innocence. It was a heifer, too.

The farmer lifted it as if it were a whippet dog and laid it by its mother’s head. Candy nosed the little animal over, rumbling happily in her throat, then she began to lick it. I watched Mr. Alderson. He was standing, hands clasped be
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
So it was always a relief when I got out of the house with Helen. Everything was right then; we went to the little dances in the village institutes, we walked for miles along the old grassy mine tracks among the hills, or sometimes she came on my evening calls with me. There wasn’t anything spectacular to do in Darrowby but there was a complete lack of strain, a feeling of being self-sufficient in a warm existence of our own that made everything meaningful and worthwhile.

Things might have gone on like this indefinitely but for a conversation I had with Siegfried. We were sitting in the big room at Skeldale House as we often did before bedtime, talking over the day’s events, when he laughed and slapped his knee.

“I had old Harry Forster in tonight paying his bill. He was really funny—sat looking round the room and saying, ‘It’s a nice little nest you have here, Mr. Farnon, a nice little nest,’ and then, very sly, ‘It’s time there was a bird in this nest, you know, there should be a little bird in here.’ ”

I laughed too. “Well, you should be used to it by now. You’re the most eligible bachelor in Darrowby. People are always having a dig at you—they won’t be happy till they’ve got you married off.”

“Wait a minute, not so fast.” Siegfried eyed me thoughtfully. “I don’t think for a moment that Harry was talking about me; it was you he had in mind.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, just think. Didn’t you say you had run into the old boy one night when you were walking over his land with Helen? He’d be on to a thing like that in a flash. He thinks it’s time you were hitched up, that’s all.”

I lay back in my chair and gave myself over to laughter. “Me! Married! That’ll be the day. Can you imagine it? Poor old Harry.”

Siegfried leaned forward. “What are you laughing at, James? He’s quite right—it’s time you were married.”

“What’s that?” I looked at him incredulously. “What are you on about now?”

“It’s quite simple,” he said. “I’m saying you ought to get married, and soon.”

“Oh come on, Siegfried, you’re joking!”

“Why should I be?”

“Well, damn it, I’m only starting my career, I’ve no money, no nothing. I’ve never even thought about it.”

“You’ve never even … well tell me this, are you courting Helen Alderson or aren’t you?”

“Well I’m … I’ve been … oh I suppose you could call it that.”

Siegfried settled back comfortably on his chair, put his fingertips together and assumed a judicial expression. “Good, good. You admit you’re courting the girl. Now let us take it a step further. She is, from my own observation, extremely attractive—in fact she nearly causes a traffic pileup when she walks across the cobbles on market day. It’s common knowledge that she is intelligent, equable and an excellent cook. Perhaps you would agree with this?”
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
“Of course I would,” I said, nettled at his superior air. “But what’s this all about? Why are you going on like a high court judge?”

“I’m only trying to establish my point, James, which is that you seem to have an ideal wife lined up and you are doing nothing about it. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, I wish you’d stop playing around and let us see a little action.”

“But it’s not as simple as that,” I said, my voice rising. “I’ve told you already I’d have to be a lot better off, and anyway, give me a chance, I’ve only been going to the house for a few weeks—surely you don’t start thinking of getting married as soon as that. And there’s another thing—her old man doesn’t like me.”

Siegfried put his head on one side and I gritted my teeth as a saintly expression began to settle on his face. “Now old lad, don’t get angry, but there’s something I have to tell you for your own good. Caution is often a virtue, but in your case you carry it too far. It’s a little flaw in your character and it shows in a multitude of ways. In your wary approach to problems in your work, for instance—you are always too apprehensive, proceeding fearfully step by step when you should be plunging boldly ahead. You keep seeing dangers when there aren’t any—you’ve got to learn to take a chance, to lash out a bit. As it is, you are confined to a narrow range of activity by your own doubts.”

“The original stick-in-the-mud in fact, eh?”

“Oh come now, James, I didn’t say that, but while we’re talking, there’s another small point I want to bring up. I know you won’t mind my saying this. Until you get married I’m afraid I shall fail to get the full benefit of your assistance in the practice because frankly you are becoming increasingly besotted and bemused to the extent that I’m sure you don’t know what you’re doing half the time.”

“What the devil are you talking about? I’ve never heard such …”

“Kindly hear me out, James. What I’m saying is perfectly true—you’re walking about like a man in a dream and you’ve developed a disturbing habit of staring into space when I’m talking to you. There’s only one cure, my boy.”
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
Stewie struggled out, dragged open the passenger door and inclined his head with modest pride. He motioned towards a pile of sacks which lay on the bare boards where the passenger seat should have been; there were no seats in the back either, only a couple of rough wooden boxes bearing coloured labels with the legend “Finest American Apples.” From the boxes peeped a jumble of medicine bottles, stethoscopes, powders, syringe cases.

“I thought,” said Stewie. “If we put the sacks on top of the boxes …”

The general didn’t let him finish. “Dammit, is this supposed to be a joke?” His face was brick red and the veins on his neck were swelling dangerously. “Are you tryin’ to insult me friend and these ladies? You want horsewhippin’ for this afternoon’s work, Farnon. That’s what you want—horsewhippin’!”

He was halted by a sudden roar from the Rover’s engine. The colonel, a man of resource as befitted his rank, had shorted the ignition. Fortunately the doors were not locked.

The ladies took their places in the back with the colonel and I slunk miserably on to my little seat. The general had regained control of himself. “Get in! I’ll drive!” he barked at Siegfried as though addressing an erring lance corporal.

But Siegfried held up a restraining hand. “Just one moment,” he slurred. “The windscreen is very dirty. I’ll give it a rub for you.”

The ladies watched him silently as he weaved round to the back of the car and began to rummage in the boot. The love light had died from their eyes. I don’t know why he took the trouble; possibly it was because, through the whisky mists, he felt he must re-establish himself as a competent and helpful member of the party.

But the effort fell flat; the effect was entirely spoiled. He was polishing the glass with a dead hen.

It was a couple of weeks later, again at the breakfast table that Siegfried, reading the morning paper with his third cup of coffee, called out to me.

“Ah, I see Herbert Jarvis M.R.C.V.S., one time Captain R.A.V.C., has been appointed to the North West Circuit as supervisory veterinary surgeon. I know Jarvis. Nice chap. Just the man for the job.”

I looked across at my boss for some sign of disappointment or regret. I saw none.

Siegfried put down his cup, wiped his lips on his napkin and sighed contentedly. “You know, James, everything happens for the best. Old Stewie was sent by providence or heaven or anything you like. I was never meant to get that job and I’d have been as miserable as hell if I had got it. Come on, lad, let’s get off into those hills.”
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
We all stood up and I was mildly surprised by a slight swaying and blurring of my surroundings. When things came to rest I had another surprise; the big bar was nearly empty. The beer machines were hidden by white cloths. The barmaids were collecting the empty glasses.

“Stewie,” Siegfried said. “The meeting’s over. Do you realise we’ve been nattering here for over two hours?”

“And very nice, too. Far better than giving the hard-earned coppers to the bookies.” As Stewie rose to his feet he clutched at the table and stood blinking for a few seconds.

“There’s one thing, though,” Siegfried said. “My friends. I came here with a party and they must be wondering where I’ve got to. Tell you what, come and meet them. They’ll understand when they realise we haven’t seen each other for years.”

We worked our way round to the paddock. No sign of the general and company. We finally found them in the car park grouped unsmilingly around the Rover. Most of the other cars had gone. Siegfried strode up confidently, his dented bowler cocked at a jaunty angle.

“I’m sorry to have left you but a rather wonderful thing happened back there. I would like to present Mr. Stewart Brannon, a professional colleague and a very dear friend.”

Four blank stares turned on Stewie. His big, meaty face was redder than ever and he smiled sweetly through a faint dew of perspiration. I noticed that he had made a lopsided job of buttoning the navy nap overcoat; there was a spare button hole at the top and a lack of alignment at the bottom. It made the straining, tortured garment look even more grotesque.

The general nodded curtly, the colonel appeared to be grinding his teeth, the ladies froze visibly and looked away.

“Yes, yes, quite,” grunted the general. “But we’ve been waitin’ here some time and we want to be gettin’ home.” He stuck out his jaw and his moustache bristled.

Siegfried waved a hand. “Certainly, certainly, by all means. We’ll leave right away.” He turned to Stewie. “Well, goodbye for now, my lad. We’ll get together again soon. I’ll ring you.”

He began to feel through his pockets for his ignition key. He started quite slowly but gradually stepped up his pace. After he had explored the pockets about five times he stopped, closed his eyes and appeared to give himself over to intense thought. Then, as though he had decided to do the thing systematically, he commenced to lay out the contents of his pockets one by one, using the car bonnet as a table, and as the pile grew so did my conviction that doom was very near.
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
It wasn’t just the key that worried me. Siegfried had consumed a lot more whisky than I had and with its usual delayed action it had begun to creep up on him. He was swaying slightly, his dented bowler had slid forward over one eyebrow and he kept dropping things as he pulled them from his pocket and examined them owlishly.

A man with a long brush and a handcart was walking slowly across the car park when Siegfried grabbed his arm. “Look, I want you to do something for me. Here’s five bob.”

“Right, mister.” The man pocketed the money. “What d’you want me to do?”

“Find my car key.”

The man began to peer round Siegfried’s feet. “I’ll do me best. Dropped it round ’ere, did you?”

“No, no. I’ve no idea where I dropped it.” Siegfried waved vaguely. “It’s somewhere on the course.”

The man looked blank for a moment then he gazed out over the acres of littered ground, the carpet of discarded race cards, torn up tickets. He turned back to Siegfried and giggled suddenly then he walked away, still giggling.

I stole a glance at our companions. They had watched the search in stony silence and none of them seemed to be amused. The general was the first to explode.

“Great heavens, Farnon, have you got the blasted key or haven’t you? If the damn thing’s lost, then we’d better make other arrangements. Can’t keep the ladies standing around here.”

A gentle cough sounded in the background. Stewie was still there. He shambled forward and whispered in his friend’s ear and after a moment Siegfried wrung his hand fervently.

“By God, Stewie, that’s kind of you! You’ve saved the situation.” He turned back to the party. “There’s nothing to worry about—Mr. Brannon has kindly offered to provide us with transport. He’s gone to get his car from the other park.” He pointed triumphantly at the shiny back of the bulging navy overcoat navigating unsteadily through the gate.

Siegfried did his best to keep a conversation going but it was hard slogging. Nobody replied to any of his light sallies and he stopped abruptly when he saw a look of rage and disbelief spread over the general’s face. Stewie had come back.

The car was a tiny Austin Seven dwarfed even further by the massive form in the driver’s seat. I judged from the rusted maroon paintwork and cracked windows that it must be one of the very earliest models, a “tourer” whose hood had long since disintegrated and been replaced by a home-made canvas cover
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
“Different?” queried Siegfried, swallowing his whisky as if it had stopped tasting of anything a long time ago. “I’m sure you’re wrong there, Stewie.”

“Don’t worry your head about it,” Stewie said, and reached across the table to thump his friend on the shoulder. But his judgement was way out and instead he swept Siegfried’s bowler from his head. It rolled to the feet of the man at the next table.
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
Siegfried called over to Merryweather. “Will you give my apologies to my friends when you go back? There’s a chap here I have to see—I’ll only be a few minutes.”

Merryweather waved, got into his car and drove back up the course as we ducked under the rails.

Siegfried seized the bulky figure by the arm. “Come on, Stewie, where can we get a drink?”
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
“Hensfield, eh?” Siegfried said. I pictured the grim West Riding town. A wilderness of decaying brick bristling with factory chimneys. It was the other Yorkshire. “Mainly small animal, I suppose?”

“Oh yes. I earn my daily bread almost entirely by separating the local tom cats from their knackers. Thanks to me, the feline females of Hensfield can walk the streets unmolested.”

Siegfried laughed and caught the only waitress in the place lightly by the arm as she hurried by. She whipped round with a frown and an angry word but took another look and smiled. “Yes, sir?”

Siegfried looked into her face seriously for a few moments, still holding her arm. Then he spoke quietly. “I wonder if you’d be kind enough to bring us three large whiskies and keep repeating the order whenever you see our glasses are empty. Would you be able to do that?”

“Certainly, sir, of course.” The waitress was over forty but she was blushing like a young girl.

Stewie’s chins quivered with silent laugher. “You old bugger, Farnon. It does me good to see you haven’t changed.”

“Really? Well that’s rather nice, isn’t it?”

“And the funny thing is I don’t think you really try.”

“Try? Try what?”

“Ah, nothing. Forget it—here’s our whisky.”

As the drinks kept coming they talked and talked. I didn’t butt in—I sat listening, wrapped in a pleasant euphoria and pushing every other glassful unobtrusively round to Stewie who put it out of sight with a careless jerk of the wrist.

As Siegfried sketched out his own progress, I was struck by the big man’s total absence of envy. He was delighted to hear about the rising practice, the pleasant house, the assistant. Siegfried had described him as plump in the old days but he was fat now, despite his hard times. And I had heard about that overcoat; it was the “navy nap” which had been his only protection through the years at college. It couldn’t have looked so good then, but it was a sad thing now, the seams strained to bursting by the bulging flesh.

“Look, Stewie.” Siegfried fumbled uncomfortably with his glass. “I’m sure you’re going to do well at Hensfield but if by some mischance things got a bit rough, I hope you wouldn’t hesitate to turn to me. I’m not so far off in Darrowby, you know. In fact.” He paused and swallowed. “Are you all right now? If a few quid would help, I’ve got ’em here.”

Stewie tossed back what must have been the tenth double whisky and gazed at his old friend with gentle benevolence. “You’re a kind old bugger, Siegfried, but no thanks. As I said we’re clearing the housekeeping and we’ll be O.K. But I appreciate it—you always were kind. A strange old bugger, but kind.”

“Strange?” Siegfried was interested.

“No, not strange. Wrong word. Different. That’s it, you were as different as hell.”
allsafehas quoted9 months ago
Sometimes, when the mood was on us, Siegfried and I would sit up nearly till dawn over a bottle in the big room at Skeldale House chewing over old times and recalling the colourful characters we had known.
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