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Pets on Parade
By Malcolm D. Welshman
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Malcolm D. Welshman
All rights reserved.
FINDING A HAPPY MEDIUM
When Madam Mountjoy walked into my consulting room that January morning with a black cat sitting benignly on her shoulder, and stated he was the reincarnation of an Inca emperor, I knew it was going to be one of those days.
Mind you, the morning had already got off to an uncertain start – and that was entirely my fault. It stemmed from the fact that I'd sent a Christmas email to our receptionist, not dreaming she was then going to brood about it all over the festive period, and still allow it to rankle now that we were into the New Year. Dear, oh dear. Where was your sense of humour, Beryl?
It had been an Internet card of a jolly Father Christmas standing on a red-tiled roof next to a chimney, going 'Ho, ho, ho'. Very seasonal, I thought. Very Christmassy. You clicked on the sack he was carrying over his shoulder and he suddenly became animated – he actually sprang over to the chimney pot. I expected him to pop down it. Wrong. He started to urinate down it instead. It tickled my juvenile sense of humour but it didn't tickle our receptionist's at Prospect House when I emailed it to her. I must admit I'd had an anxious moment when I clicked the 'Send' button, thinking perhaps Beryl might not see the funny side of it. Too right. She didn't.
It was apparent the moment I bounded into reception, full of good cheer, a smile on my face, ready to greet her with a chirpy 'Good morning'. That didn't cut any ice with her. Oh, no. Her frosty expression and the Arctic glare from her good eye – the other, as usual, just gave out its customary artificial glint of glass – were enough to freeze my bonhomie as if I'd just plunged through a walrus's blowhole.
My 'Good morning, Beryl ... how are things?' instantly froze on my lips as I swiftly saw that 'things' were definitely not good.
Beryl pulled at the sleeve of the black cardigan draped, shawl-like, over her shoulders. It was an exaggerated gesture which spoke of a thousand grievances. But one was sufficient. 'Why don't you grow up, Paul? That email of yours wasn't funny.'
Uh oh. Seems my peeing Santa had a lot to answer for.
Beryl had turned back to the computer and was tapping away at the keyboard, her long, red nails flying across the keys. 'Which reminds me,' she went on, her face remaining impassive as she spoke, 'Mr Digby wants some more tablets. His Labrador's bladder is playing up again.'
I was tempted to say, 'Good job it wasn't his reindeer's ...' but thought better of it. After all, I wasn't that much of a wit and, to judge from Beryl's icy look, she already considered me half of one.
Having re-established a fragile line of communication with Beryl by way of Mr Digby's bladder problems – an appointment to be made before further medication was prescribed – I breezed on down the corridor to do my usual ward round before starting morning consultations.
I met Mandy, our senior nurse, clip-clopping in her highly polished, black brogues up the corridor. As ever, I felt like jumping to one side and giving her a salute. She'd evoked that reaction in me ever since my initial run-in with her over the anaesthetic machine last June – when I was being interviewed for the post of assistant vet. A memory which actually still causes me to giggle ('Oh, do grow up, Paul,' my girlfriend would say), although, at the time, my squeaky giggling had been induced by the escape of nitrous oxide. As Mandy drew level, I tentatively raised my hand in a gesture of greeting while she sailed by accompanied by the crackle of her crisply starched uniform. A galleon at full stretch. Her prow plunging forward ... well, at least her ample bosom was. Her head barely turned as my 'Good morning' was acknowledged with a brisk nod and a curt 'Morning, Paul,' before her keel turned to starboard and she disappeared into the dispensary. Blimey. What had got into her bulwarks? So much for New Year festive feelings. Here, in Prospect House, they seemed to be festering fast.
Mind you, things hadn't been exactly a bed of roses back at Willow Wren first thing. My girlfriend, Lucy, the junior nurse at the practice, had had to get up ahead of me for the early shift and had been distinctly thorny.
'Don't know why you're so cheerful,' she muttered in response to my 'Morning, sweetheart,' as she pulled on her uniform, lights blazing, while I ducked back under the duvet and then listened to her downstairs crashing about getting herself some breakfast. Who's been peeing on your patch? I wondered. Not that Father Christmas again?
It was no better down in the ward.
'Hi,' I said as I walked along to where Lucy was scrubbing out a kennel. I was greeted with the suck of a squeegee mop, the slurp of it being shoved along the concrete floor, and a kick, accidental or otherwise, of the bucket of disinfectant. Right ... OK. There was something in the air – apart from the smell of dog dirt. Things that had to be said ... stuff to be sorted. But this was certainly not the right time or place, so I left Lucy to it.
There were only two in-patients to check. A pair of Golden Retrievers that, true to their name, had retrieved the carcass of a turkey while their owners had been out, and had then proceeded to demolish it jointly. The resulting haemorrhagic gastroenteritis had precipitated a frantic evacuation in every sense of the word. The owners had sought emergency help two nights back. The Retrievers had been hospitalised and, in the intervening period, their bowel functions had slowly returned to normal. Much to my relief. And to theirs, no doubt. Isn't it funny how the sight of perfectly formed crap can often provoke jubilation? Well, in me it can. Bit sad really. Anyway, the sight of theirs, waiting to be scooped up, did just that. The fact that Lucy would be doing the scooping up made it even more satisfactory. Now, now, Paul. Less of that.
I bent down and scratched the dogs' ears through the bars of the kennel door, telling them what a good job they'd done. They responded with a grizzle of pleasure and furious wags of their tails, no doubt eager to tell me it was none of my business. Just theirs.
'Well, at least someone's pleased to see me,' I said, loud enough for Lucy to hear. All I heard, in response, was a suck and a slurp. In a different situation, such as under a duvet, such sounds may have been far more welcome. But here, emanating from that dirty kennel, their erotic charge was a little dampened.
I walked back up to reception, determined not to buckle under the pervading gloom that seemed to have seeped into Prospect House that morning. Perhaps the sight of one of my bosses, Eric Sharpe, bouncing in would have helped to cheer everyone up. But that wasn't going to happen today. Wednesdays always saw Eric up on the golf course attempting to reduce his handicap. He was a small, balding vet who jounced around the hospital in a white coat far too big for him. But it covered a man of generous spirit who was always ready for a laugh and was usually able to lift everyone's mood. Beryl, though, her mind still flooded with the image of a urinating Santa, would have been a major challenge today.
'Don't think the heating can be working properly,' Beryl was saying. 'It's bloody freezing in here.' She was hunched forward on her swivel chair, pulling her cardigan up round her scrawny neck, looking very carrion crow-like.
Stone them, Beryl, I thought, she being the first crow I'd take a pot shot at. No, that was uncharitable. It seemed the mood in the place was beginning to affect me too. One thing I could be sure of – it wouldn't be affecting Eric's wife, Crystal, who was the other partner in the practice. She was out visiting one of her 'specials' as Beryl would put it – Lady Derwent, who always insisted that Dr Sharpe should be her Labradors' preferred vet.
'So,' I said, rubbing my hands together and mustering up as much enthusiasm as I could to face the glacier (Beryl). 'What have you got for me today?'
'The usual,' she muttered coldly, casting her good eye at me while the glass one did its customary robotic scan of the ceiling. It was a habit of hers that had unnerved me the minute I'd first set my own eyes on it last June.
'Right,' I said, rubbing my hands even more vigorously, before parting them to clench my fists.
Beryl continued to give me the eye – her good one – and, observing my hand movements, said, 'Told you it was cold in here, didn't I?'
I pictured my hands rapidly flying over the computer to settle round her neck, but restrained myself with a 'Let's get on with it then.'
Beryl was quite right about the 'usual'. There was a string of standard consultations: three booster injections in a row. Very routine stuff. Jab – jab – jab. Hang on a minute. I pulled myself up, reminding myself that it might be routine for me but certainly not for the dogs involved, as it wasn't every day they got hauled into the surgery to be confronted by Paul Mitchell (BVSc, MRCVS), qualified last year. Prospect House my first job. Been here just over six months. Still a relatively new boy but a wee bit jaded by all the routine stuff.
'Now, Dandy, there's a good lad,' I muttered as I raised the scruff of the Cairn on the consulting table and slipped the needle under the skin of his neck. He didn't so much as whimper or flinch. 'What a good boy,' I added, trying to sound encouraging, as I rubbed his scruff once the booster vaccination had been given.
'Now what can I do for Bertie?' I asked, as I tackled the next case, still attempting to muster some enthusiasm. Goodness, what on earth was happening to me? My spirits definitely seemed to be flagging.
'Bertie's anal glands are giving him gyp again,' said his owner, giving me a quizzical look. 'Needs them emptying.' Yippee. Just the fillip I needed!
I suppose I must have been about halfway through the morning's list when the atmosphere suddenly changed in quite a dramatic fashion.
It was the appearance of Madam Mountjoy that did it. I saw from the details on the computer screen in the consulting room that she was a new client and was bringing in a cat named Antac. Good start. Made a change from all the Flossies, Cuddles, Blackies and Sooties. Cripes, this cynicism had really set in.
So in wafted Madam Mountjoy with her Antac. I use the word 'wafted' deliberately as this woman seemed to float into the consulting room and hover in front of the consulting table as if inches off the ground. Not that she had anything particularly angelic about her, and there was certainly nothing fairy-like. True, she was swathed in layers of calico in the form of a white kaftan which could have lent her a sylph-like appearance had she not been so fat that no amount of loose clothing could have concealed the mountains of flesh heaving beneath it. She resembled a large wedding cake whose tiered layers had collapsed and folded in on one another. Her hair was silver-grey, and haloed her face in a wild tangle to stream down over her shoulders. That face had an element of the moon about it. Full, white and cratered with acne scars. From her ear lobes dangled silver broomsticks, a silver pentangle hung between her breasts, while her wrists tinkled with the myriad of silver bangles that enclosed them. If all that wasn't striking enough, she had the most disconcerting eyes. Huge, slanting eyes with troubling grey irises, surrounded by thick, black layers of mascara which could have out-kohled Cleopatra.
The look she gave me seemed to bore into me, as if wishing to strip me naked and expose my soul. Wow. This was suddenly intensely unnerving. Still, I had been moaning about how mundane the morning had been so far so I shouldn't have been complaining if it was about to change, should I?
With difficulty, I averted my eyes from hers and turned my attention to her cat.
'So this is Antac?' I enquired as an opening gambit.
Even her cat had an air of the unreal about him. Not for him transportation in a routine cat basket. Nor, indeed, was he attached to a collar and lead like some cats presented to me in surgery. No, Antac was on Madam Mountjoy's left shoulder, unrestrained, looking every bit an Egyptian pharaoh's deity. Gleaming black fur ... piercing yellow eyes ... sitting bolt upright, motionless.
'He's not Egyptian,' said Madam Mountjoy, as if she'd been reading my mind. Spooky. That's when I learnt he was a reincarnation of an Inca emperor. The statement was made without her batting an eyelid, a feat which would have been difficult to achieve anyway due to the heavy encrustations of mascara that gummed up her lids.
'Right ... yes ... well ... So, what's the problem with Antac?'
'He needs his toenails cutting.'
'OK. Claws then.' Madam Mountjoy shrugged and raised her eyebrows. 'They keep digging into my shoulder. It's upsetting my Akasha.'
'It's the world's energy source. It's how I fuel my magic.'
'No need for British Gas then,' I was tempted to say, but resisted, as I suspected this lady considered herself some sort of witch or mystic and the last thing I needed was for her to suddenly magic up a wand from beneath her kaftan and turn me into a frog. Not that I thought of myself as a prince, charming as I might appear to be. Instead, I gave her a wan smile and explained that it would be best if the toenail ... er ... claw trimming was done on the table.
'Did you hear that, Antac?' said Madam Mountjoy, swivelling her head rapidly round to face the cat. For an instant, I was reminded of that possessed girl in The Exorcist and wondered if Madam Mountjoy was about to throw up. Instead, she spewed out the words, 'You're being summoned onto the table.'
I had picked up the nail clippers and was casually waving them in front of her, in cool dude mode. My heart sank as I heard her address the cat in that way. 'Well, it would be easier all round,' I said, my voice a touch whiny.
'Antac quite understands, even though we're not speaking in his native tongue,' said Madam Mountjoy, sharply.
That unnerving feeling returned.
As she spoke, the cat sprang down onto the consulting table, sniffed the surface, his tail a ramrod, and then sat, his tail sweeping round to curl over his front paws.
'He commands that you now proceed,' said Madam Mountjoy.
'I might need to restrain him,' I warned, my voice still wavering a little.
Madam Mountjoy waved a dismissive hand. 'He's had to endure far greater ordeals in his past life, I can tell you.'
Not wishing her to embark on a tale of his heroics, I lifted Antac's front left paw, squeezed it gently to unsheathe the claws and clipped each one back a fraction. To my amazement, the cat sat there impassively, with scarcely a twitch of his whiskers, and continued to do so as I tackled the claws on his other paws.
Once I'd finished, Antac got to his feet, turned and leapt back onto Madam Mountjoy's shoulder, where he settled himself back into his former stance.
'Ah, that feels much better,' sighed Madam Mountjoy, rotating her shoulder, causing Antac to sway a bit although he managed to keep his balance. 'Yes. I can now tune in more clearly, with no interference.'
Long wave or medium wave? I wondered. Now, now, Paul, don't tempt fate.
Madam Mountjoy suddenly took a deep breath and crossed her bangled arms over her breasts. They shook ... the bangles, that is. She closed those kohl-lined eyes of hers, the lashes whipping together, and began to emit a sing-songy sort of hum rather like a kettle starting to whistle. Oh Lord, was she falling into a trance? That could spell trouble, especially as she hadn't paid for her consultation yet.
Then, in a falsetto whisper, she spoke. 'The aura in here is very unpleasant.' The silver broomsticks in her ears swivelled from side to side and her mouth dropped open, her tongue darting out to expose a silver stud embedded in its tip. 'Very unpleasant. Very off-putting,' she added, her tongue rattling back behind her teeth.
Hark who's talking, I thought, rattled myself by her peculiar turn. Mind you, I had to admit there was quite an atmosphere in the consulting room. Quite pongy, in fact. But I put that down to the nervous Alsatian who'd earlier defaecated on the spot where Madam Mountjoy was now standing.
She fanned her long black nails in front of her face and her eyelids snapped open again. 'It's very strong,' she added. 'You should let me cast a spell. Cleanse the place.'
I didn't know about casting spells or not. If anything, she could have put in a spell of cleaning, but I couldn't see her knuckling down with her broomstick to give the place a clean sweep. Of course, I kept mum for fear of frog-induced repercussions.
It was at that point that Antac gave a loud miaow. I must admit, it made me jump a bit as he'd been so quiet up to then. Madam Mountjoy seemed unperturbed. She turned to him and bent her head down so that her ear was almost touching his nose. 'What's that, Antac?' she asked. There was another, more muted miaow.
Madam Mountjoy straightened up and stared at me with those laser-like grey eyes of hers. Very unnerving. 'Antac informs me that many feline spirits have departed from here. Posses of them are at this very moment circling above us. You need to be exorcised.'
Posses of pussies, eh? I bridled. What a nerve. OK, I might not be the most competent of vets and I admit the occasional cat had slipped beyond its ninth life through my fingers. But posses of them? Come on. I wasn't that bad. This old crone was out of her head.
Excerpted from Pets on Parade by Malcolm D. Welshman. Copyright © 2012 Malcolm D. Welshman. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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