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JAMES HERRIOT: My Christmas lie-in was shattered by the phone

That Christmas Eve night, I had fallen asleep to the sound of the great bells in the church tower down the street pealing for midnight mass — but the ringing that woke me just a few hours later was a sharper, shriller sound.

Last night, before going to bed and just as the church bells began, I had closed the door of Skeldale House behind me and walked into the market place.

Nothing stirred in the white square stretching smooth and cold and empty under the moon, and there was a Dickens look about the ring of houses and shops put together long before anybody thought of town planning; tall and short, fat and thin, squashed in crazily around the cobbles, their snow-burdened roofs jagged and uneven against the frosty sky.

As I walked, the snow crunching under my feet, the bells clanging, the sharp air tingling in my nostrils, the wonder and mystery of Christmas enveloped me in a great wave.

Peace on earth, goodwill towards men; the words became meaningful as never before and I saw myself suddenly as a tiny particle in the scheme of things; Darrowby, the farmers, the animals and me seemed for the first time like a warm, comfortable entity. I hadn’t been drinking but I almost floated up the stairs to bed.

James Herriot practised as a veterinary surgeon in the Yorkshire Dales for 50 years, treating everything from cows in labour to pampered domestic pets. Always on duty, even festive celebrations were regularly interrupted by emergency call-outs to treat animals great and small in all weathers…

Helen was asleep and as I crawled between the sheets beside her I was still wallowing in my Yuletide euphoria. We’d have a long lie in — maybe till nine — and then a lazy day, a glorious hiatus in our busy life.

As I drifted into sleep it was as though I was surrounded by the smiling faces of my clients looking down at me with an all-embracing benevolence . . .

But now there was this bell which wouldn’t stop. Must be the alarm. But as I pawed at the clock the noise continued and I saw that it was only six o’clock. It was the phone of course. I lifted the receiver.

A metallic voice, crisp and very wide awake, jarred in my ear. ‘Is that the vet?’

‘Yes, Herriot speaking,’ I mumbled.

‘This is Brown, Willet Hill. I’ve got a cow down with milk fever. I want you here quick.’

‘Right, I’ll see to it.’

‘Don’t take ower long.’ Then a click at the far end.

I rolled on to my back and stared at the ceiling. It was Christmas Day, and I hadn’t bargained for this fellow jerking me brutally back to reality. And not a word of regret or apology.

That Christmas Eve night, I had fallen asleep to the sound of the great bells in the church tower down the street pealing for midnight mass — but the ringing that woke me just a few hours later was a sharper, shriller sound. Pictured: The Yorkshire Dales

That Christmas Eve night, I had fallen asleep to the sound of the great bells in the church tower down the street pealing for midnight mass — but the ringing that woke me just a few hours later was a sharper, shriller sound. Pictured: The Yorkshire Dales 

No ‘sorry to get you out of bed’ or anything else, never mind ‘Merry Christmas’. It was just a bit hard.

Mr Brown was waiting for me in the darkness of the farmyard. He was a gingery man of about 40 with high cheekbones set in a sharp-featured, clear-skinned face. Red hair peeped from under a check cap.

He didn’t say good morning but nodded briefly then jerked his head in the direction of the byre. ‘She’s in there’ was all he said.

He watched in silence as I gave the injections and it wasn’t until I was putting the empty bottles into my pocket that he turned towards me to speak. Could it be that he was going to ask me in for a nice hot cup of tea?

‘You know,’ he said, as I stood ankle deep in the snow, the frosty air nipping at my ears, ‘I’ve had a few of these cases lately. Maybe there’s summat wrong with my routine. Do you think I’m steaming up my cows too much?’

‘It’s quite possible.’ I hurried towards the car. One thing I wasn’t going to do was deliver a lecture on animal husbandry at this moment.

My hand was on the door handle when he said, ‘I’ll give you another ring if she’s not up by dinner time. And there’s one other thing — that was a hell of a bill I had from you fellers last month, so tell your boss not to be so savage with ’is pen.’ Then he turned and walked quickly towards the house.

Well, that was nice, I thought, as I drove away. Not even thanks or goodbye, just a complaint and a promise to haul me away from my roast goose if necessary. A sudden wave of anger surged in me.

Bloody farmers! There were some miserable devils among them. Mr Brown had doused my festive feeling as effectively as if he had thrown a bucket of water over me.

As I mounted the steps of Skeldale House the early morning darkness had paled to a shivery grey. Helen met me in the passage. She was carrying a tray.

‘I’m sorry, Jim,’ she said. ‘There’s another urgent job. It’s old Mr Kirby. He’s very worried about his nanny goat.’

‘Nanny goat!’

‘Yes, he says she’s choking.’

‘Choking! How the heck can she be choking?’ I shouted.

‘I really don’t know. And I wish you wouldn’t shout at me, Jim. It’s not my fault.’

In an instant I was engulfed by shame. Here I was, in a bad temper, taking it out on my wife. It is a common reaction for vets to blame the hapless person who passes on an unwanted message but I am not proud of it. I held out my hand and Helen took it.

As I mounted the steps of Skeldale House the early morning darkness had paled to a shivery grey. Helen met me in the passage. ‘I’m sorry, Jim,’ she said. ‘There’s another urgent job. It’s old Mr Kirby. He’s very worried about his nanny goat' (stock photo)

As I mounted the steps of Skeldale House the early morning darkness had paled to a shivery grey. Helen met me in the passage. ‘I’m sorry, Jim,’ she said. ‘There’s another urgent job. It’s old Mr Kirby. He’s very worried about his nanny goat’ (stock photo)

‘I’m sorry,’ I said sheepishly. My feeling of goodwill was at a very low ebb.

Mr Kirby was a retired farmer, but he had sensibly taken a cottage with a bit of land where he kept enough stock to occupy his time — a cow, a few pigs and his beloved goats.

He had always had goats, even when he was running his dairy herd; he had a thing about them.

The cottage was in a village high up the Dale. Mr Kirby met me at the gate.

‘Ee, lad,’ he said. ‘I’m right sorry to be bothering you this early in the morning and Christmas an’ all, but I didn’t have no choice. Dorothy’s real bad.’

He led the way to a stone shed which had been converted into a row of pens. Behind the wire of one of them a large white goat peered out at us anxiously and as I watched her she gulped, gave a series of retching coughs, then stood trembling, saliva drooling from her mouth.

Mr Kirby turned to me, wide-eyed. ‘You see, I had to get you out, didn’t I? If I left her till tomorrow she’d be a goner.’

‘You’re right, Mr Kirby,’ I replied. ‘You couldn’t leave her. There’s something in her throat.’

We went into the pen and as the old man held the goat against the wall I tried to open her mouth. She didn’t like it very much and as I prised her jaws apart she startled me with a loud, long-drawn, human-sounding cry.

As the sharp back teeth tried to nibble me, I poked a finger deep into the pharynx.

There was something there all right. I could just touch it but I couldn’t get hold of it. Then the animal began to throw her head about and I had to come out; I stood there, saliva dripping from my hand, looking thoughtfully at Dorothy.

I turned to the farmer. ‘You know, this is a bit baffling. I can feel something in the back of her throat. I’d been expecting to find a bit of twig in there — it’s funny what a goat will pick up when she’s pottering around outside. But it’s soft — like cloth.’

There's Christmas, and then there's Christmas in Skeldale, the Yorkshire idyll that is home to vet James Herriot (played by Nicholas Ralph) and the squabbling Farnon brothers in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small

There’s Christmas, and then there’s Christmas in Skeldale, the Yorkshire idyll that is home to vet James Herriot (played by Nicholas Ralph) and the squabbling Farnon brothers in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small

‘Aye, it’s a rum ’un, isn’t it?’ The old man ran a gentle hand along the animal’s back. ‘Do you think she’ll get rid of it herself? Maybe it’ll just slip down?’

‘No, it’s stuck fast. And I’ve got to get it out soon because she’s beginning to blow up. Look there.’ I pointed to the goat’s left side, bulged by the tympanitic rumen, and as I did so, Dorothy began another paroxysm of coughs which seemed almost to tear her apart.

Mr Kirby looked at me with a mute appeal, but just at that moment I didn’t see what I could do. ‘I’m going to get my torch from the car. Maybe I can see something to explain this.’

The old man held the torch as I once more pulled the goat’s mouth open and I noticed something under the tongue — a thin, dark band.

‘I can see what’s holding the thing now,’ I cried. ‘It’s hooked round the tongue with string or something.’ Carefully I pushed my forefinger under the band and began to pull.

It wasn’t string. It began to stretch as I pulled carefully at it … like elastic. I kept up a gentle traction and very slowly the mysterious obstruction came sliding up over the back of the tongue and into the mouth, and when it came within reach I let go of the elastic, grabbed the sodden mass and hauled it forth.

It seemed as if there was no end to it — a long snake of dripping material nearly two feet long — but at last I had it out on to the straw of the pen.

Mr Kirby seized it and held it up, then he gave a sudden cry.

‘God ’elp us, it’s me summer drawers!’

‘Your what?’

‘Me summer drawers. Ah don’t like them long johns when weather gets warmer and I allus change into these little short ’uns. Missus washed them at t’finish and Dorothy must have got ’em off the line.’

He held up the tattered shorts and regarded them ruefully. ‘By gaw, they’ve seen better days, but I reckon Dorothy’s fettled them this time.’

He gave a great shout of laughter and I joined in as I watched him. He went on for quite a long time and when he had finished he was leaning weakly against the wire netting.

Inside the tiny living room of the cottage I was ushered to the best chair by the fireside where two rough logs blazed and crackled

Inside the tiny living room of the cottage I was ushered to the best chair by the fireside where two rough logs blazed and crackled

‘Me poor awd drawers,’ he gasped, then leaned over and patted the goat’s head. ‘But as long as you’re all right, lass, I’m not worried.’

‘Oh, she’ll be OK.’ I pointed to her left flank.

‘You can see her stomach’s going down already.’ As I spoke, Dorothy belched pleasurably and began to nose interestedly at her hay rack.

The farmer gazed at her fondly. ‘Isn’t that grand to see! She’s ready for her grub again.’

‘It’s amazing what ruminants can carry around in their stomachs’, I said. ‘I once found a bicycle tyre inside a cow when I was operating for something else. The tyre didn’t seem to be bothering her in the least.’

‘I see.’ Mr Kirby rubbed his chin. ‘So Dorothy might have wandered around with me drawers inside her for years.’

‘It’s possible. You’d never have known what became of them.’

‘By gaw, that’s right,’ Mr Kirby said, and for a moment I thought he was going to start giggling again, but he mastered himself and seized my arm. ‘I don’t know what I’m keeping you out here for, lad. You must come in and have a bit o’ Christmas cake.’

Inside the tiny living room of the cottage I was ushered to the best chair by the fireside where two rough logs blazed and crackled.

‘Bring cake out for Mr Herriot, mother,’ the farmer cried as he rummaged in the pantry. He reappeared with a bottle of whisky at the same time as his wife bustled in carrying a cake thickly laid with icing and ornamented with coloured spangles, toboggans and reindeers.

Mr Kirby unscrewed the stopper. ‘You know, mother, we’re lucky to have such men as this to come out on a Christmas mornin’ to help us.’

‘Aye, we are that.’ The old lady cut a thick slice of the cake and placed it on a plate by the side of an enormous wedge of Wensleydale cheese.

Her husband meanwhile was pouring my drink, sloshing it into the glass as if it were lemonade; he would have filled it to the brim if I hadn’t stopped him.

Drink in hand, cake on knee, I looked across at the farmer and his wife who were sitting in upright kitchen chairs watching me with quiet benevolence.

‘Bring cake out for Mr Herriot, mother,’ the farmer cried as he rummaged in the pantry. He reappeared with a bottle of whisky at the same time as his wife bustled in carrying a cake thickly laid with icing and ornamented with coloured spangles, toboggans and reindeers

‘Bring cake out for Mr Herriot, mother,’ the farmer cried as he rummaged in the pantry. He reappeared with a bottle of whisky at the same time as his wife bustled in carrying a cake thickly laid with icing and ornamented with coloured spangles, toboggans and reindeers

The two faces had something in common — a kind of beauty. You would find faces like that only in the country; deeply wrinkled and weathered, clear-eyed, alight with a cheerful serenity. I raised my glass. ‘A happy Christmas to you both.’

The old couple nodded and replied smilingly. ‘And the same to you, Mr Herriot.’

‘Aye, and thanks again, lad,’ said Mr Kirby. ‘We’re right grateful to you for runnin’ out here to save awd Dorothy. We’ve maybe mucked up your day for you but it would’ve mucked up ours if we’d lost the old lass, wouldn’t it, mother?’

‘Don’t worry’ I said. ‘You haven’t spoiled anything for me. In fact you’ve made me realise again that it really is Christmas.’

And as I looked around the little room with the decorations hanging from the low-beamed ceiling I could feel the emotions of last night surging slowly back, a warmth creeping through me that had nothing to do with the whisky.

I took a bite of the cake and followed it with a moist slice of cheese. When I had first come to Yorkshire I had been aghast when offered this unheard-of combination, but time had brought wisdom and I had discovered that the mixture when chewed boldly together was exquisite; and, strangely, I had also found that there was nothing more suitable for washing it finally over the tonsils than a draught of raw whisky.

‘You don’t mind t’wireless, Mr Herriot?’ Mrs Kirby asked. ‘We always like to have it on Christmas morning to hear t’old hymns but I’ll turn it off if you like.’

‘No, please leave it, it sounds grand.’ I turned to look at the old radio with its chipped wooden veneer, the ornate scroll-work over the worn fabric; it must have been one of the earliest models and it gave off a tinny sound, but the singing of the church choir was none the less sweet . . . ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ — flooding the little room, mingling with the splutter of the logs and the soft voices of the old people.

As the choir started on ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, I finished my whisky and put up only feeble resistance when the farmer plied the bottle again. Through the small window I could see the bright berries of a holly tree pushing through their covering of snow.

It was really a shame to have to leave here and it was sadly that I drained my glass for the second time and scooped up the last crumbs of cake and icing from my plate.

Mr Kirby came out with me and at the gate of the cottage he stopped and held out his hand.

‘Thank ye lad, I’m right grateful,’ he said. ‘And all the very best to you.’

For a moment the rough dry palm rasped against mine, then I was in the car, starting the engine. I looked at my watch; it was still only half past nine but the first early sunshine was sparkling from a sky of palest blue.

Beyond the village the road climbed steeply then curved around the rim of the valley in a wide arc, revealing the great expanse of the Plain of York before me.

I always slowed down here —there was always something different to see — but today the vast chequerboard of fields and farms and woods stood out with a clarity I had never seen before.

Maybe it was because this was a holiday and down there no factory chimney smoked, no lorries belched fumes, but the distance was magically foreshortened in the clear, frosty air and I felt I could reach out and touch the familiar landmarks far below.

I looked back at the enormous white billows and folds of the fells, crowding close, one upon another into the blue distance, every crevice uncannily defined, the highest summits glittering where the sun touched them.

I could see the village with the Kirbys’ cottage at the end. I had found Christmas and peace and goodwill and everything back there.

Farmers? They were the salt of the earth.

Taken from All Things Bright And Beautiful by James Herriot, published by Pan Macmillan at £9.99. © James Herriot. To order a copy for £8.49 (offer valid to 12/1/21), go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.


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