Kate is her second year of the MA in Creative and Life Writing. She is working on a memoir which reflects on her career and challenges as a farm animal vet in the north east of Scotland and the challenges she later faced with the failing health of her father. Family and working relationships are key to her narrative, which are woven through the narrative.
IT WAS THE WAY most days started. I’d been qualified for five years. My bedroom was above the office of the veterinary practice, just off Aberdeen’s main street. My living room was above the waiting room. The flat was floored throughout with the same dark green leafy, industrial-grade carpet, as the office and waiting room downstairs. Archie, the vet who’d set up the practice in the ’50s, now retired, had a nose for a deal. He still appeared at the practice to collect drugs for his cattle. His buttonless, brown coat fastened with frayed, orange baler twine. After breakfast I walked downstairs, out of my front door and round to the staff entrance, at the back of the building.
In the office, Allison and Sarah were busy answering calls from farmers, writing the visits in the day book, open on the work surface behind Allison’s desk. Allison was petite and fair haired, Sarah tall and dark haired. Sarah’s desk was on the other side of the room, in front of the window. There was a rush of calls at half past eight, when the phones were transferred through from the night-duty vet.
‘Abel Veterinary Practice, can I help you?’ Allison said.
‘Yes, there will be someone out at two this afternoon,’ Sarah said, replacing her phone. She grabbed her note pad, before running across the room, to update the day book.
‘Yes, Kate will be there first thing,’ Allison said.
I viewed the flurry of activity through the glass window hatch, before walking down the narrow corridor to the dispensary. The corridor was dark, with a fusty, fishy smell. It was lined on one side, up to shoulder height, with 20kg red bags of dog food pellets, ‘Go Dog®,’ and green bags of ‘Go Cat®.’ The dispensary was a large shelved room, its window reinforced with steel mesh. Vets and nurses gathered there each morning, beside the antibiotics, antiseptics and other veterinary paraphernalia.
‘Morning. Kettle long boiled?’
‘No, Kate, just made my tea,’ Steph, one of the other vets said.
‘Anyone else for coffee?’ I looked round as I dug the coffee-encrusted teaspoon into the two kg tin of Nescafe®, beside the sink.
‘Fine thanks,’ said Hayley, one of the nurses.
As I filled my mug with hot water, five heat-sensitive flea images appeared on the thick ceramic surface, glowing bright pink. It was the Tiguvon® mug from the Bayer drug representative, promoting a new flea control product for dogs. All the mugs were freebies, advertising some drug or other.
‘That’s your favourite, isn’t it?’ Hayley said.
‘This, and the James Bond one, ‘Nuflor® licensed to kill.’’ I turned, to fire a pointed finger at her. I tipped some milk into the mug, dulling the fleas, and put the container back in the fridge, beside the vaccines and labelled specimens in plastic bags.
Half a cup of coffee later, I was in the office, looking through the list of visits in the day book. Allison had already initialled some with CC in her big, curly writing.
‘Clark’s phoned in and is going to do the Chickens and Altens,’ she said.
‘What does he do with the Korean pork bellies at Altens?’ I said.
Clark had completed the specialised two week meat inspection course at Bristol University. He supervised the daily processing of tens of thousands of chickens at Grampian Country Chickens and inspected plants that processed red meat for the UK and export markets.
Hugh was the other vet in the practice qualified to do meat work. After a few months he claimed he’d developed an allergy to chicken feathers. Going to the slaughter house made him wheeze. Clark asked me if I would do the course. I stuck to my farm work.
I looked down the un-initialled calls in the day book and wrote KR against three visits; a cow with a hung cleansing; some calf pneumonias and 20 calves to castrate. I finished my coffee and slid the mug into my tray, in the middle of the black plastic stack, beside the marble mantlepiece.
‘I’m off, Allison. Causeyfield first, then Portlethen and then Netherley,’ I said, as I pulled open the office door.
As I stepped into my car, parked behind the practice, she ran out of the building waving two small, white bottles high in the air.
‘Kate, can you drop off this penicillin to Angus, Newport when you’re passing?’
I wound down my window, enough to stick out my right hand while pinning down my Jack Russell on the passenger seat, with my left.
‘Thanks, I’ve booked it in,’ she said.
Driving out of the car park ended the daily routine.
Causeyfield was a dairy farm, five minutes south of the City, just off the dual carriageway. It was a well managed farm and they were always ready for me, the animals to be examined separated from the rest of the herd. Edward was waiting for me in the newly swept yard, impeccable in blue boiler suit and wellies. Sometimes his son was there too, but Jamie preferred tractor work.
‘Morning Edward, bit chillier today.’
I put on my waterproofs and wellies, taking the box of long blue plastic gloves, lubricating jelly and some antibiotic pessaries from the boot of my car. I followed Edward into the dairy and past the shiny bulk tank. The rotating paddle inside the cold steel container whirred, cooling that morning’s milk collection. Edward heaved the corrugated iron door across, the rusty rollers screeching, and we walked into the herring bone parlour. He ran the waiting cow into the left side of the parlour.
‘When did she calve, Edward?’
‘Aye, nae bother, Kate.’
I did not like examining cows in parlours though it was easiest for the dairymen. During milking, the bars of the herring bone held the cows neatly, diagonally side by side. Wedged against each other, the clusters attached to their udders systematically sucked and pulsed as the cows guzzled their allocated ration of cattle nuts. However, a single animal was able to move about freely. A swift movement of a cow’s hind quarters could easily break my examining arm inside her.
Number 12 however, was seasoned and stood still. She bashed her head repeatedly against the steel hopper above her. She’d learned that this could dislodge some extra nuts. I heard a few rattle down the chute, tumbling into the trough in front of her. She muzzled in, content. A trail of dark purple, placental membranes, her ‘cleansing’, hung from her vulva. I took her temperature, while Edward filled a white plastic pail with warm water, from the hose in the pit below me.
‘Aye, eatin’ fine.’
‘Temperature’s normal,’ I said.
Edward climbed the two steep steps out of the pit and handed me the pail. He pushed number 12 against the side bars, holding her tail out of my way. I washed her down, cleaning the dung from around her vulva. Next, I gently pushed in my gloved and lubricated arm, following the taut membranes forwards, into the dark, warm depths of her uterus.
The membranes were still attached to several placental cotyledons, or ‘buttons’ as the farmers called them. I held the neck of each cotyledon between my second and third fingers, then rolled my thumb gently over the domed surface, to peel off the dead tissue. It was a satisfying feeling, like peeling the skin off a tangerine. I rolled my thumb over the last cotyledon and the placenta plopped in a smelly, slimy heap onto my wellies. I slipped two pessaries into her uterus and rolled the plastic glove off my arm. A gentle start to a winter’s day.
I remembered last Christmas a friend had joined me on my rounds and we were at Edward’s brother’s dairy.
‘Ronald, would you mind if Sally has a feel?’ I said, with my arm in a cow for a post-calving check. Sally stared, only her eyes visible between hat and scarf.
‘She’s a midwife,’ I said.
Sally peeled off her woolly gloves, Puffa jacket and Fair Isle jumper, laying them carefully on the gate behind her. She took a long blue glove from the box and slithered her goose bumpy arm inside the thin plastic. I tipped a dollop of jelly into her outstretched palm. She slowly inserted her hand, forearm, elbow. She stood with her arm deep inside the cow, immobile, as I explained what she should feel.
‘It’s the warmest I’ve been all day,’ she said.
I washed down my oilskins while Edward chatted. I was his regular vet and knew the family well. His daughter was to marry an Aberdeen footballer. A winter wedding between fixtures. They’d blackened the lad on Sunday afternoon.
‘Whit a laugh it wis, covered fae head tae fit in tar an’ feathers he wis. He nivver saw it comin’,’ he said.
I pulled down my waterproof trousers over the top of my wellies before getting into the car, waving to Edward as I drove out of the yard. I was on the dual carriageway, heading south to Portlethen, when Allison came on the two-way radio.
‘A-vet base to A-vet four. Over.’
My call sign. I reached towards the handset, a palm-sized black speaker, attached to the base of the gearstick. I lifted it off and pulled hard on the twisted black cable.
‘A-vet four to A-vet base. Over.’ I tugged at the cable again, pulling the handset nearer to my mouth.
‘Kate, there’s a beast choking at Grant, Achiltie. Over.’
‘Ok, I’ve just finished at Causeyfield, I’ll head there now. Over and out.’
The cable curled back on itself, in a double helix, as I replaced the handset. Achiltie was on the way to Portlethen, the next exit off the dual carriageway. Turning off, I drove through a large estate, its fields bounded by immaculate drystane dykes and gates painted corporate green. I headed inland to Achiltie, a small tenanted family farm.
I’d dealt with several chokes since graduating. Farmers were so grateful when I dislodged, magician-like, the potato or piece of turnip that was blocking the oesophagus, with the deft poke of a long tube. Like potting a black, blindfold. It was much less satisfactory when I could not dislodge the obstruction, or the build up of gas was from another cause. This required the insertion of a six inch plastic cannula through the skin, directly into the rumen, which instantly relieved the deadly build up of gas. However, after cannulation, farmers tormented me.
‘Aye, Kate, ken thon beast wi’ the tube ye stitched in its belly? It ne’er did so well.’
Whatever the cause, a choked or bloated animal was an emergency, the trapped gas would kill.
I pulled up in the farmyard, beside a tumble of children’s bikes, balls and multi-coloured wellies. Several black and white dogs surrounded the car, barking frantically. Jock emerged from the byre, a stout man in oilskin trousers and a patched up donkey jacket. A few black curls stuck out from under his green woolly hat.
‘Quick vet, quick, she’s near burstin’.’
Stepping out of the car, I heard the beast roaring as I pulled up my waterproof trousers. I took my jacket from the boot of the car, my probang – a long leather-clad tube with a thin wooden rod in the middle – inherited from Archie, my Drinkwater gag and lubricating jelly.
‘What’s she been eating, Jock?’
‘I foun’ some ol’ tatties at t’ back o’ t’ shed. Thocht I’d use ’em up.’
I followed him, and the bellowing, into the byre. The heifer was chained up in a stall, her left side bulging, distended with gas. She was paddling, shifting her weight from left to right to left. Between bellows, her chin skimmed the ground, drooling into a growing puddle of saliva.
‘She’s probably got a potato stuck in her food pipe. If they’re old, they’ll be soft and squidgy,’ I said.
I felt down the outside of her neck. About three feet down, there was a hard lump, the size of a small potato.
‘That’s it there, Jock.’ I took his hand, guiding his calloused fingers over the lump. ‘Feel it?’
The surface of the probang was damaged from previous chokes. The leather was pitted with teeth marks and raised tags. I smoothed them over with a thick coating of jelly.
‘Right Jock, I want you to stand here, against her shoulder. Keep her back from the wall and hold her nose tight, while I push this down. She won’t like it mind.’
Jock stood facing me, with his back pushing against her, his thumb and middle finger in her nostrils, to keep her still. I stood in front, ready to jump out of the way if she lurched forward. Jock was a big man but I had no idea if he could, or would, hold on to her if her half tonne suddenly propelled him towards the byre wall behind me.
Wedged between the cow and the wall, with the metal hayrack above my head, I slowly fed the heavy brass end of the probang into her mouth. She tried to wriggle her head, but Jock had a good hold of her nostrils. His face mottled with the effort. The leather tube moved slowly down her oesophagus, then came to a halt, three feet down. I jiggled the central wooden rod of the probang, poking at the potato, trying to break it up. The spongy substance absorbed all pokes. The dry skin of the wizened potato stuck fast to the wall of the oesophagus.
‘Push harder,’ Jock said.
‘I might damage the food pipe, it’s delicate. I’ll have to put in my arm. See if I can reach it,’ I said, as I gently pulled out the probang.
‘Where’s your cattle crate, Jock? That’d be much safer than putting my arm down her throat in here.’
‘It’s at Big Alec’s, vet’s cuttin’ his calves this morning.’
‘I’ll have to do it in here then, there’s no time.’ I pulled the aluminium gag from my pocket. ‘I’m going to put this gag in, to hold her mouth open, then put in my arm. I need you to hold her head really still.’
I pushed the gag in, wedging it between her upper and lower molars. Then I slowly eased my right arm between her teeth, and down, over the back of her throat.
‘Hold tight, Jock,’ I said, as she tried to throw up her head, my fingers sliding down her oesophagus. Jock grunted, wedging his tackety boots against the stone floor. His hobnails sparked and clattered on the cobbles. I pushed my arm down, as far as I could, up to my armpit in cow.
‘Ye’ve fine wee arms,’ he said.
‘I can just about touch it.’
On my toes, I gently eased the soft wall of the oesophagus away from the potato, with the tip of my middle finger. The lubricating jelly and pooled saliva oozed into the space, coating the dry potato skin. Once I’d loosened it as much as I could, I quickly pulled out my arm, relieved I just had a few teeth marks on my skin. Immediately, the pressure of gas ejected the potato with such force, it bounced off the byre wall behind me. My face was bathed in methane. Deflated, the cow quickly returned to normal. I picked the rubbery potato off the cobbles and handed it to Jock.
‘You need to throw away these old tatties.’
‘Aye vet,’ he said. His gnarled fingers turned it over in his weatherbeaten hands, before shoving it deep into his pocket.
After washing myself down I negotiated the dogs in the yard to reach the car.
‘A-vet four to A-vet base. Over.’
‘A-vet base. Over.’
‘Allison, I’ve finished at Achiltie. I’ll head to Portlethen now. Over.’
‘That’s fine, Kate, I’ll phone Ronald to tell him you’re on your way. Mind and drop off that penicillin. Over.’
‘Will do, over and out.’
‘Dad’s in hospital, he choked at lunch,’ my brother, Sam, called to tell me on Sunday. ‘The Care Home left me a voicemail and it doesn’t sound serious. Would you mind phoning them back? We’re off to France, need to leave now to catch the ferry.’
Dad had suffered a major stroke a year before. He was now in a Care Home, near Sam’s house, in Stirling. I had left veterinary practice and was working as a Civil Servant in London.
‘Tony choked on a chop. The hospital will phone you later, they’ll tell you about it,’ Lorna, the Care Home manager, said.
I thought this an over-reaction to choking, but perhaps it was right to be cautious. Dad could still shuffle around and have short conversations, but he was becoming increasingly frail. He tired quickly. I spent the rest of the afternoon getting ready for work the following day. It was around eight o’clock when I phoned the Care Home again. I had not heard from the hospital.
‘The hospital will phone you. Have they not phoned?’
Lorna gave me the number of the hospital. It was the switchboard number. Eventually I was transferred to a nurse who knew about Dad.
‘Do you know what happened?’ she said.
‘Yes, Dad choked on a chop at lunch and was taken to hospital,’ I said, expecting a quick update and that he would be back in the Care Home by the following morning.
‘Well, yes, Tony did choke, but they couldn’t dislodge the chop. They tried everything. He collapsed and lost consciousness. They kept trying. He had a cardiac arrest and the ambulance crew had to resuscitate him. It took several attempts. He’s in critical care.’
I thought Dad had had a minor incident with a chop. My fingers tightened round my mobile phone, pushing it harder against my ear.
‘I’m in London, should I come to the hospital?’
‘If it was my Dad, I would,’ she said.
I grabbed a bag, throwing in a change of clothes, toothbrush and a book and ran down to Euston, 20 minutes from my flat. Why it was so difficult to dislodge a piece of meat? How far down had it stuck? Couldn’t someone have fished it out? I’m sure I could have removed it if I’d been there.
I bought a ticket for the Caledonian Sleeper and boarded straight away. I texted work to tell them I’d not be in the next day. I lay in the bunk, dozing fitfully through the night, as the rolling stock slowly shunted north.
After his stroke Dad could not even lie straight in bed. His right leg would wriggle his body diagonally across it, his paralysed left side was unable to compensate. The nurses had to straighten him, before his head and shoulders fell off one side and his legs, the other. After months of physiotherapy, fighting exhaustion in his determination to walk again, he regained some mobility. His speech and concentration were limited. He was discharged to the Care Home but became increasingly frustrated. The anger he felt at his loss of liberty was acute. He hammered his new three-pronged walking stick repeatedly on the floor,
‘Get me out of this prison. Get me out of here. Can’t you do something?’ he’d say to me.
I tried bringing photos and his favourite books but could provide no pleasure, or even moments of respite. Visits often ended with Dad inarticulate with anger. I’d leave defeated by our inability to communicate.
He wore through several sets of rubber ferrules. The walking stick disappeared after holes appeared in the carpet.
‘We’re waiting for mair o’ they endy bits,’ the staff said.
Without this prop, he spent more and more time in his upstairs room, too scared to use the stair lift and staff too busy to help him, apart from collecting him for meals. When I visited him outside the protected meal times, he was always lying in bed, sometimes fully dressed, sometimes in pyjamas. Yet, till that stroke, this was a man who, since retirement, had lived in a remote highland cottage, shooting red deer for the pot, enjoying the Times crossword and reading. His retirement gift, after 35 years of teaching English at Glasgow Academy, had been a new telescopic sight for his .303 rifle.
I was woken with a metallic tap on the door at six in the morning. I leaned over to open the door from my bunk, sitting up to take the tray loaded with a cup of boiling water, tea bag, wooden stirrer, five paper napkins and sachet of milk.
‘We’re on time, should be in Edinburgh for seven thirty,’ the tartanned attendant said.
I dressed and stepped onto the platform to wait in the penetrating cold for the Inverness train. An hour later I arrived in Larbert, the station closest to the new Forth Valley Hospital. No taxi rank. I found a damp taxi business card, wedged in the frame of the train timetable noticeboard on the deserted platform. The cab driver dropped me off at the hospital, where Sam worked. But he was in France.
I found a nurse. She found Dad. He was asleep with tubes attached to his chest, head and arm. I covered his right hand with mine. My arm soon numbed over the bed’s high side rail. I sat down to read, but turned few pages. Two hours later he opened his eyes, I leaned over.
He lifted his lip and drifted off again. At lunchtime, I sat on one of the wooden benches in the chilly spring sunshine. I’d left Dad with the physiotherapist. His chest was so bruised from the CPR, he was struggling to cough up the pooled fluid. I left Sam a voicemail. I watched a bus drop off people at the stop before the turning circle. Young saplings boasted small puffs of pink blossom. A young couple, in matching grey sweats, shared a cigarette before their ante-natal class.
Back beside Dad, he opened his eyes.
His eyes found mine.
‘Would you like me to read to you?’
‘Ah, ah,’ he raised his good right hand a few inches off the bed.
An eloquent and articulate man, his stroke had impaired the function of his tongue and swallow reflex. The choking incident had compromised these functions still further.
‘Aaaah,’ his tongue lay limply in his mouth.
Frustrated and tired, even by this effort, he nodded almost imperceptibly, closing his eyes and allowing his head to sink into the pillow. I read to him from my book, it was a recent gift and had been on top of my reading pile on the bookcase. It was about Parliament burning; flames, panic and water. When I stopped, he opened his eyes and reached out to me with his right hand. I reached over the rail and held it. It was warm, the knuckles hard and pointy. I sat down to read out loud again, and then to myself as he slept.
When the nurse appeared for the evening ward round, I left. Boarding the bus at the turning circle, I returned to Sam’s empty house in Stirling, along every windy desolate back road it was possible to drive a single decker.
‘Thanks, driver,’ I said, as I alighted at the roundabout.
The next day Dad was sitting up, supported by several pillows. He held out his hand as I entered the room.
‘He’s out of danger,’ the doctor said. ‘He’ll be back in the Care Home in a couple of days.’
I read to him in the morning and then packed up, ready to catch the train back to London. Dad became anxious, holding out his right hand, his green eyes searching mine.
‘Would you like me to read some more?’
He relaxed, closing his eyes. I looked around for something else to read. There was a printed card on his bedside table. I picked it up.
‘We have left you this card as we know how important your loved one is to you,’ I swallowed.
‘We want your loved one to feel secure and happy, when you cannot be at their bedside.’
Dad would not like this. Far too sentimental. However, it was not the words, it was the sound of my voice that mattered. That’s what they said, didn’t they?
‘We will reassure your loved one so they don’t feel alone, just contact us and someone will sit beside your loved one.’
I put the Butterfly Scheme postcard back on the bedside table. Dad lay still. He opened his eyes.
I kissed his forehead, my tears soaking his face. Dad was still Dad.