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James Herriot

The Calving Outfit
(from All Creatures Great and Small - Chapter 22)

As I came into the operating room I saw that Siegfried had a patient on the table. He was thoughtfully stroking the head of an elderly and rather woebegone border terrier.

‘James,’ he said, ‘I want you to take this little dog through to Grier.’


‘Vet at Brawton. He was treating the case before the owner moved into our district. I’ve seen it a couple of times - stones in the bladder. It needs an immediate operation and I think I’d better let Grier do it. He’s a touchy devil and I don’t want to stand on his toes.’

‘Oh, I think I’ve heard of him,’ I said.

‘Probably you have. A cantan­kerous Aberdonian. Since he practises in a fashionable town he gets quite a few students and he gives them hell. That sort of thing gets around.’ He lifted the terrier from the table and handed him to me. ‘The sooner you get through there the better. You can see the op and bring the dog back here afterwards. But watch yourself - don’t rub Grier the wrong way or he’ll take it out of you some­how.’

At my first sight of Angus Grier I thought immediately of whisky. He was about fifty and something had to be responsible for the fleshy, mottled cheeks, the swimmy eyes and the pattern of purple veins which chased each other over his prominent nose. He wore a permanently insulted expression.

He didn’t waste any charm on me; a nod and a grunt and he grabbed the dog from my arms. Then he stabbed a finger at a slight, fairish youth in a white coat. ‘That’s Clinton - final-year student. Do ye no’ think there’s some pansy-lookin’ buggers coming into this profession?’ During the operation he niggled constantly at the young man and, in an attempt to create a diversion, I asked when he was going back to college.

‘Beginning of next week,’ he replied.

‘Aye, but he’s awa hame tomorrow,’ Grier rasped. ‘Wasting his time when he could be gettin’ good experience here.’

The student blushed. ‘Well, I’ve been seeing practice for over a month and I felt I ought to spend a couple of days with my mother before the term starts.’

‘Oh, I ken, I ken. You’re all the same - canna stay away from the titty.’

The operation was uneventful and as Grier inserted the last stitch he looked up at me. ‘You’ll no’ want to take the dog back till he’s out of the anaesthetic. I’ve got a case to visit - you can come with me to pass the time.’

We didn’t have what you could call a conversation in the car. It was a mono­logue; a long recital of wrongs suffered at the hands of wicked clients and predatory colleagues. The story I liked best was about a retired admiral who had asked Grier to examine his horse for soundness. Grier said the animal had a bad heart and was not fit to ride, where­upon the admiral flew into a fury and got another vet to examine the horse. The second vet said there was nothing the matter with the heart and passed the animal sound.

The admiral wrote Grier a letter and told him what he thought of him in fairly ripe quarter-deck language. Having got this out of his system he felt refreshed and went out for a ride during which, in the middle of a full gallop, the horse fell down dead and rolled on the admiral who sustained a compound fracture of the leg and a crushed pelvis.

‘Man,’ said Grier with deep sincerity, ‘man, I was awfu’ glad.’

We drew up into a particularly dirty farmyard and Grier turned to me. ‘I’ve got a cow tae cleanse here.’

‘Right,’ I said, ‘fine.’ I settled down in my seat and took out my pipe. Grier paused, half-way out of the car. ‘Are you no’ coming to give me a hand?’

I couldn’t understand him. ‘Cleansing’ of cows is simply the re­moval of retained afterbirth and is a one-man job.

‘Well, there isn’t much I can do, is there?’ I said. ‘And my Wellingtons and coat are back in my car. I didn’t realise it was a farm visit - I’d probably get messed up for nothing.’

I knew immediately that I’d said the wrong thing. The toad­skin jowls flushed darker and he gave me a malevolent glance before turning away; but half-way across the yard he stopped and stood for a few moments in thoughts before coming back to the car. ‘I’ve just remember­ed I’ve got some­thing here you can put on. You might as well come in with me - you’ll be able to pass me a pessary when I want one.’

It sounded nutty to me, but I got out of the car and went round to the back. Grier was fishing out a large wooden box from his boot.

‘Here, ye can put this on. It’s a calving outfit I got a bit ago. I haven’t used it much because I found it a mite heavy, but it’ll keep ye grand and clean.’ I looked in the box and saw a suit of thick, black, shining rubber. I lifted out the jacket; it bristled with zip-fasteners and press studs and felt as heavy as lead. The trousers were even more weighty, with many clips and fasteners. The whole thing was a most imposing creation, obvious­ly designed by some­body who had never seen a cow calved and having the disadvantage that any­body wearing it would be pretty well immobilised.

I studied Grier’s face for a moment but the watery eyes told me nothing. I began to take off my jacket - it was crazy but I didn’t want to offend the man.

And, in truth, Grier seemed anxious to get me into the suit because he was holding it up in a helpful manner. It was a two-man operation. First the gleaming trousers were pulled on and slipped up fore and aft, then it was the turn of the jacket, a wonderful piece of work, fitting tightly around the waist and possessing short sleeves about six inches long with powerful elastic gripping my biceps.

Before I could get it on I had to roll my shirt sleeves to the shoulder, then Grier, heaving and straining, worked me into it. I could hear the zips squeak­ing into place, the final one being at the back of my neck to close a high, stiff collar which held my head in an attitude of suppli­ca­tion, my chin pointing at the sky.

Grier’s heart really seemed to be in his work and, for the final touch, he produced a black rubber skull cap. I shrank away from the thing and began to mouth such objections as the collar would allow, but Grier insisted. ‘Stand still a wee minute longer. We might as well do the job right.’

When he had finished he stood back admiringly. I must have been a gro­tesque sight, sheathed from head to foot in gleaming black, my arms, bare to the shoulders, sticking out almost at right angles. Grier appeared well satisfied. ‘Well, come on, it’s time we got on wi’ the job.’ He turned and hurried towards the byre; I plodded ponder­ous­ly after him like an au­toma­ton.

Our arrival in the byre caused a sensation. There were present the farmer, two cowmen and a little girl. The men’s cheerful greeting froze on their lips as the menacing figure paced slowly, deliberately in. The little girl burst into tears and ran outside.

‘Cleansing’ is a dirty, smelly job for the operator and a bore for the onlooker who may have to stand around for twenty minutes without being able to see anything. But this was one time the spectators were not bored. Grier was working away inside the cow and mumbling about the weather, but the men weren’t listening; they never took their eyes away from me as I stood part of the outfit in turn, wonderingly. I knew what they were thinking. Just what was going to happen when this formidable unknown finally went into action? Anybody dressed like that must have some tremendous task ahead of him.

The intense pressure of the collar against my larynx kept me entirely out of any conversation and this must have added to my air of mystery. I began to sweat inside the suit.

The little girl had plucked up courage and brought her brothers and sisters to look at me. I could see the row of little heads peeping round the door and, screwing my head round painfully, I tried to give them a reassuring smile; but the heads disappeared and I heard their feet clattering across the yard.

I couldn’t say how long I stood there, but Grier at last finished his job and called out, ‘All right, I’m ready for you now.’ The atmosphere became suddenly electric. The men straightened up and stared at me with slightly open mouths. This was the moment they had been waiting for.

I pushed myself away from the wall and did a right turn with some difficulty before heading for the tin of pessaries. It was only a few yards away but it seem­ed a long way as I approached it like a robot, head in the air, arms extended stiffly on either side. When I arrived at the tin I met a fresh difficulty; I could not bend. After a few contortions I got my hand into the tin, then had to take the paper off the pessary with one hand; a new purgatory. The men watched in fascinated silence.

Having removed the paper, I did a careful about turn and paced back along the byre with measured tread. When I came level with the cow I extended my arm stiffly to Grier who took the pessary and inserted it in the uterus.

I then took my old position against the wall while my colleague cleaned himself down. I glanced down my nose at the men; their expressions had changed to open disbelief. Surely the mystery man’s assignment was tougher than that - he couldn’t be wearing that outfit just to hand over a pessary. But when Grier started the complicated business of snapping open the studs and sliding the zips they realised the show was over; and fast on the feeling of let-down came amusement.

As I tried to rub some life back into my swollen arms which had been strangulated by the elastic sleeves, I was surrounded by grinning faces. They could hardly wait, I imagined, to get round to the local that night to tell the tale. Pulling together the shreds of my dignity, I put on my jacket and got into the car. Grieg stayed to say a few words to the men, but he wasn’t holding their attention; it was all on me, huddling in the seat. They couldn’t believe I was true.

Back to the surgery the border terrier was coming out of the anaesthetic. He raised his head and tried bravely to wag his tail when he saw me. I wrapped him in a blanket, gathered him up and was preparing to leave when I saw Grier through the partly open door of a small store room. He had the wooden box on a table and he was lifting out the rubber suit, but there was something peculiar about the way he was doing it; the man seemed to be afflicted by a kind of rigor - his body shook and jerked, the mottled face was strangely contorted and a half-stifled wailing issued from his lips.

I stared in amazement. I would have said it was impossible, yet it was happen­ing right in front of me. There was not a shadow of a doubt about it - Angus Grier was laughing.






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