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All Things Bright and Beautiful
By James Herriot
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1974 James Herriot
All rights reserved.
As I crawled into bed and put my arm around Helen it occurred to me, not for the first time, that there are few pleasures in this world to compare with snuggling up to a nice woman when you are half frozen.
There weren't any electric blankets in the thirties. Which was a pity because nobody needed the things more than country vets. It is surprising how deeply bone-marrow cold a man can get when he is dragged from his bed in the small hours and made to strip off in farm buildings when his metabolism is at a low ebb. Often the worst part was coming back to bed; I often lay exhausted for over an hour, longing for sleep but kept awake until my icy limbs and feet had thawed out.
But since my marriage such things were but a dark memory. Helen stirred in her sleep—she had got used to her husband leaving her in the night and returning like a blast from the North Pole—and instinctively moved nearer to me. With a sigh of thankfulness I felt the blissful warmth envelop me and almost immediately the events of the last two hours began to recede into unreality.
It had started with the aggressive shrilling of the bedside phone at one a.m. And it was Sunday morning, a not unusual time for some farmers after a late Saturday night to have a look round their stock and decide to send for the vet
This time it was Harold Ingledew. And it struck me right away that he would have just about had time to get back to his farm after his ten pints at the Four Horse Shoes where they weren't too fussy about closing time.
And there was a significant slurr in the thin croak of his voice.
"I'ave a ewe amiss. Will you come?"
"Is she very bad?" In my semi-conscious state I always clung to the faint hope that one night somebody would say it would wait till morning. It had never happened yet and it didn't happen now: Mr. Ingledew was not to be denied.
"Aye, she's in a bad way. She'll have to have summat done for 'er soon."
Not a minute to lose, I thought bitterly. But she had probably been in a bad way all the evening when Harold was out carousing.
Still, there were compensations. A sick sheep didn't present any great threat. It was worst when you had to get out of bed facing the prospect of a spell of sheer hard labour in your enfeebled state. But in this case I was confident that I would be able to adopt my half-awake technique; which meant simply that I would be able to go out there and deal with the emergency and return between the sheets while still enjoying many of the benefits of sleep.
There was so much night work in country practice that I had been compelled to perfect this system as, I suspect, had many of my fellow practitioners. I had done some sterling work while in a somnambulistic limbo.
So, eyes closed, I tiptoed across the carpet and pulled on my working clothes. I effortlessly accomplished the journey down the long flights of stairs but when I opened the side door the system began to crumble, because even in the shelter of the high-walled garden the wind struck at me with savage force. It was difficult to stay asleep. In the yard as I backed out of the garage the high branches of the elms groaned in the darkness as they bent before the blast.
Driving from the town I managed to slip back into my trance and my mind played lazily with the phenomenon of Harold Ingledew. This drinking of his was so out of character. He was a tiny mouse of a man about seventy years old and when he came into the surgery on an occasional market day it was difficult to extract more than a few muttered words from him. Dressed in his best suit, his scrawny neck protruding from a shirt collar several sizes too big for him, he was the very picture of a meek and solid citizen; the watery blue eyes and fleshless cheeks added to the effect and only the brilliant red colouration of the tip of his nose gave any hint of other possibilities.
His fellow smallholders in Therby village were all steady characters and did not indulge beyond a social glass of beer now and then, and his next door neighbour had been somewhat bitter when he spoke to me a few weeks ago.
"He's nowt but a bloody nuisance is awd Harold."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, every Saturday night and every market night he's up roarin' and singin' till four o'clock in the mornin'."
"Harold Ingledew? Surely not! He's such a quiet little chap."
"Aye, he is for the rest of t'week."
"But I can't imagine him singing."
"You should live next door to 'im, Mr. Herriot. He makes a 'ell of a racket. There's no sleep for anybody till he settles down."
Since then I had heard from another source that this was perfectly true and that Mrs. Ingledew tolerated it because her husband was entirely submissive at all other times.
The road to Therby had a few sharp little switchbacks before it dipped to the village and looking down I could see the long row of silent houses curving away to the base of the fell which by day hung in peaceful green majesty over the huddle of roofs but now bulked black and menacing under the moon.
As I stepped from the car and hurried round to the back of the house the wind caught at me again, jerking me to wakefulness as though somebody had thrown a bucket of water over me. But for a moment I forgot the cold in the feeling of shock as the noise struck me. Singing ... loud raucous singing echoing around the old stones of the yard.
It was coming from the lighted kitchen window.
"JUST A SONG AT TWILIGHT, WHEN THE LIGHTS ARE LOW!"
I looked inside and saw little Harold sitting with his stockinged feet extended towards the dying embers of the fire while one hand clutched a bottle of brown ale.
"AND THE FLICKERING SHADOWS SOFTLY COME AND GO!" He was really letting it rip, head back, mouth wide.
I thumped on the kitchen door.
"THOUGH THE HEART BE WEARY, SAD THE DAY AND LONG!" replied Harold's reedy tenor and I banged impatiently at the woodwork again.
The noise ceased and I waited an unbelievably long time till I heard the key turning and the bolt rattling back. The little man pushed his nose out and gave me a questioning look.
"I've come to see your sheep," I said.
"Oh aye." He nodded curtly with none of his usual diffidence. "Ah'll put me boots on." He banged the door in my face and I heard the bolt shooting home.
Taken aback as I was I realised that he wasn't being deliberately rude. Bolting the door was proof that he was doing everything mechanically. But for all that he had left me standing in an uncharitable spot. Vets will tell you that there are corners in farm yards which are colder than any hill top and I was in one now. Just beyond the kitchen door was a stone archway leading to the open fields and through this black opening there whistled a Siberian draught which cut effortlessly through my clothes.
I had begun to hop from one foot to the other when the singing started again.
"THERE'S AN OLD MILL BY THE STREAM, NELLIE DEAN!"
Horrified, I rushed back to the window. Harold was back in his chair, pulling on a vast boot and taking his time about it. As he bellowed he poked owlishly at the lace holes and occasionally refreshed himself from the bottle of brown ale.
I tapped on the window. "Please hurry, Mr. Ingledew."
"WHERE WE USED TO SIT AND DREAM, NELLIE DEAN!" bawled Harold in response.
My teeth had begun to chatter before he got both boots on but at last he reappeared in the doorway.
"Come on then," I gasped. "Where is this ewe? Have you got her in one of these boxes?"
The old man raised his eyebrows. "Oh, she's not 'ere."
"Nay, she's up at t'top buildings."
"Right back up the road, you mean?"
"Aye, ah stopped off on t'way home and had a look at 'er."
I stamped and rubbed my hands. "Well, we'll have to drive back up. But there's no water, is there? You'd better bring a bucket of warm water, some soap and a towel."
"Very good." He nodded solemnly and before I knew what was happening the door was slammed shut and bolted and I was alone again in the darkness. I trotted immediately to the window and was not surprised to see Harold seated comfortably again. He leaned forward and lifted the kettle from the hearth and for a dreadful moment I thought he was going to start heating the water on the ashes of the fire. But with a gush of relief I saw him take hold of a ladle and reach into the primitive boiler in the old black grate.
"AND THE WATERS AS THEY FLOW SEEM TO MURMUR SWEET AND LOW!" he warbled, happy at his work, as he unhurriedly filled a bucket
I think he had forgotten I was there when he finally came out because he looked at me blankly as he sang.
"YOU'RE MY HEARTS DESIRE, I LOVE YOU, NELLIE DEAN!" he informed me at the top of his voice.
"All right, all right," I grunted. "Let's go." I hurried him into the car and we set off on the way I had come.
Harold held the bucket at an angle on his lap, and as we went over the switchbacks the water slopped gently on to my knee. The atmosphere in the car soon became so highly charged with beer fumes that I began to feel lightheaded.
"In 'ere!" the old man barked suddenly as a gate appeared in the headlights. I pulled on to the grass verge and stood on one leg for a few moments till I had shaken a surplus pint or two of water from my trousers. We went through the gate and I began to hurry towards the dark bulk of the hillside barn, but I noticed that Harold wasn't following me. He was walking aimlessly around the field.
"What are you doing, Mr. Ingledew?"
"Lookin' for t'ewe."
"You mean she's outside?" I repressed an impulse to scream.
"Aye, she lambed this afternoon and ah thowt she'd be right enough out 'ere." He produced a torch, a typical farmer's torch—tiny and with a moribund battery—and projected a fitful beam into the darkness. It made not the slightest difference.
As I stumbled across the field a sense of hopelessness assailed me. Above, the ragged clouds scurried across the face of the moon but down here I could see nothing. And it was so cold. The recent frosts had turned the ground to iron and the crisp grass cowered under the piercing wind. I had just decided that there was no way of finding an animal in this black wasteland when Harold piped up.
And sure enough when I groped my way towards the sound of his voice he was standing by an unhappy looking ewe. I don't know what instinct had brought him to her but there she was. And she was obviously in trouble; her head hung down miserably and when I put my hand on her fleece she took only a few faltering steps instead of galloping off as a healthy sheep would. Beside her, a tiny lamb huddled close to her flank.
I lifted her tail and took her temperature. It was normal. There were no signs of the usual post-lambing ailments; no staggering to indicate a deficiency, no discharge or accelerated respirations. But there was something very far wrong.
I looked again at the lamb. He was an unusually early arrival in this high country and it seemed unfair to bring the little creature into the inhospitable world of a Yorkshire March. And he was so small ... yes ... yes ... it was beginning to filter through to me. He was too damn small for a single lamb.
"Bring me that bucket, Mr. Ingledew!" I cried. I could hardly wait to see if I was right. But as I balanced the receptacle on the grass the full horror of the situation smote me. I was going to have to strip off.
They don't give vets medals for bravery but as I pulled off my overcoat and jacket and stood shivering in my shirt sleeves on that black hillside I felt I deserved one.
"Hold her head," I gasped and soaped my arm quickly. By the light of the torch I felt my way into the vagina and I didn't have to go very far before I found what I expected; a woolly little skull. It was bent downwards with the nose under the pelvis and the legs were back.
"There's another lamb in here," I said. "It's laid wrong or it would have been born with its mate this afternoon."
Even as I spoke my fingers had righted the presentation and I drew the little creature gently out and deposited him on the grass. I hadn't expected him to be alive after his delayed entry but as he made contact with the cold ground his limbs gave a convulsive twitch and almost immediately I felt his ribs heaving under my hand.
For a moment I forgot the knife-like wind in the thrill which I always found in new life, the thrill that was always fresh, always warm. The ewe, too, seemed stimulated because in the darkness I felt her nose pushing interestedly at the new arrival.
But my pleasant ruminations were cut short by a scuffling from behind me and some muffled words.
"Bugger it!" mumbled Harold.
"What's the matter?"
"Ah've kicked bucket ower."
"Oh no! Is the water all gone?"
"Aye, nowt left."
Well this was great. My arm was smeared with mucus after being inside the ewe. I couldn't possibly put my jacket on without a wash.
Harold's voice issued again from the darkness. "There's some watter ower at building."
"Oh good. We've got to get this ewe and lambs over there anyway." I threw my clothes over my shoulder, tucked a lamb under each arm and began to blunder over the tussocks of grass to where I thought the barn lay. The ewe, clearly feeling better without her uncomfortable burden, trotted behind me.
It was Harold again who had to give me directions.
"Ower 'ere!" he shouted.
When I reached the barn I cowered thankfully behind the massive stones. It was no night for a stroll in shirt sleeves. Shaking uncontrollably I peered at the old man. I could just see his form in the last faint radiance of the torch and I wasn't quite sure what he was doing. He had lifted a stone from the pasture and was bashing something with it; then I realised he was bending over the water trough, breaking the ice.
When he had finished he plunged the bucket into the trough and handed it to me.
"There's your watter," he said triumphantly.
I thought I had reached the ultimate in frigidity but when I plunged my hands into the black liquid with its floating icebergs I changed my mind. The torch had finally expired and I lost the soap very quickly. When I found I was trying to work up a lather with one of the pieces of ice I gave it up and dried my arms.
Somewhere nearby I could hear Harold humming under his breath, as comfortable as if he was by his own fireside. The vast amount of alcohol surging through his blood stream must have made him impervious to the cold.
We pushed the ewe and lambs into the barn which was piled high with hay and before leaving I struck a match and looked down at the little sheep and her new family settled comfortably among the fragrant clover. They would be safe and warm in there till morning.
My journey back to the village was less hazardous because the bucket on Harold's knee was empty. I dropped him outside his house then I had to drive to the bottom of the village to turn; and as I came past the house again the sound forced its way into the car.
"IF YOU WERE THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WORLD AND I WERE THE ONLY BOY!"
I stopped, wound the window down and listened in wonder. It was incredible how the noise reverberated around the quiet street and if it went on till four o'clock in the morning as the neighbours said, then they had my sympathy.
"NOTHING ELSE WOULD MATTER IN THE WORLD TODAY!"
It struck me suddenly that I could soon get tired of Harold's singing. His volume was impressive but for all that he would never be in great demand at Covent Garden; he constantly wavered off key and there was a grating quality in his top notes which set my teeth on edge.
"WE WOULD GO ON LOVING IN THE SAME OLD WAY!"
Hurriedly I wound the window up and drove off. As the heaterless car picked its way between the endless flitting pattern of walls I crouched in frozen immobility behind the wheel. I had now reached the state of total numbness and I can't remember much about my return to the yard at Skeldale House, nor my automatic actions of putting away the car, swinging shut the creaking doors of what had once been the old coach house, and trailing slowly down the long garden.
But a realisation of my blessings began to return when I slid into bed and Helen, instead of shrinking away from me as it would have been natural to do, deliberately draped her feet and legs over the human ice block that was her husband. The bliss was unbelievable. It was worth getting out just to come back to this.
I glanced at the luminous dial of the alarm clock. It was three o'clock and as the warmth flowed over me and I drifted away, my mind went back to the ewe and lambs, snug in their scented barn. They would be asleep now, I would soon be asleep, everybody would be asleep.
Except, that is, Harold Ingledew's neighbours. They still had an hour to go.
Excerpted from All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot. Copyright © 1974 James Herriot. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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