Standing by the window, Philip could feel the corkscrew beat of his heart. Should he call? The chances of success were slim. But the operation: they had given him the all clear. Instead of a death sentence, they had handed him life. With a deep breath, he lifted the receiver and dialled. Far away, at the other end of the country, the telephone was ringing.
‘Veterinary surgeon.’ The rasping Belfast tone warped his eardrum.
‘Mr Lindsay?’ His voice was creaking. He exhaled slowly and started again. ‘It’s Philip Brannigan. I came for an interview in the summer.’ There was a long pause: no acknowledgement. ‘I know the position went to someone else… but I’m still looking for a job with large animals.’ He had imagined this moment and now it was here, and though he had gone through it in his head a hundred times, the words, spoken aloud, seemed preposterous. For a second he thought of clattering the receiver back into the cradle. He could settle for Gerald and Lawrence and the sneering Maddy. And for Rachel who seemed, despite everything, to care for him. There was no sound on the line. Should he begin again?
‘Philip Brannigan?’ Despite the heaviness of the vowels, Alf’s voice was as friendly as it had been in September. ‘I do indeed remember you. Funnily enough, I think your timing might just be perfect.’
Philip quelled the shudder that ran through his frame; he mustn’t get carried away. The man knew of a vacancy. It could be a million miles from Strathballoch. He made a conscious effort to unclench his teeth as the silence stretched. When it finally came, the voice was so abrupt that his shoulders jerked.
‘The other candidate didn’t work out. We’re looking for someone. I was going to advertise, but if you’d still like to work in Strathballoch, the job is yours.’
And there it was. For a long moment, Philip stood.
‘Of course,’ the voice on the other end went on, ‘if you need some time to think…’
Into his head came an image. A golden girl with a lopsided smile and crazy red hair. She hadn’t spoken to him, had never acknowledged his presence, but she had been there through these miserable months, insinuating herself into the deepest corners of his mind.
‘I’ll take it,’ he said.
Catherine Gray stood beside her boss looking at the day-book. Most of the morning’s work was done. It was quiet for the first time in weeks.
‘Could you go to Ryder’s to get the cleansing?’ Alf asked. “I need to redress that horse’s foot at Martin’s.’
‘Okay.’ Catherine kept her voice level. Despite her weariness, a wave of satisfaction ran through her. Alf’s eyes were still on the book.
‘After that, there’s the dog to be x-rayed if you can get that too.’ Alf straightened his back, scattering a general smile, then strode off, closing the door behind him.
Ever since she had seen the book this morning, Catherine had been hoping she would be sent to Balmore. Cleansing a cow: removing the afterbirth following a calving wasn’t an arduous task, though it could be on the whiffy side, but of all the farmers on their books, Adam Ryder was the most gorgeous. Single too. He must be lonely, Catherine thought as she skittered out to the car. Her best friend from college had recently married a farmer. His request for her hand hadn’t so much been a romantic gesture, down on one knee, as an outline of the assets of the farm he would inherit, his intentions for the future and the potential for profit. Catherine wasn’t afraid of that kind of practicality. Not if it meant she could have someone like Adam. She checked her face in the car mirror. Not bad, she thought, though her hair was standing on end. Closing her eyes, she could see his face in her mind’s eye, the rough blond hair over those twinkling blue eyes, the elongated jaw that lent his face a humorous look. Thrusting away the image, she slipped the car into gear.
Balmore was north of the practice along the coast road. Catherine opened the window as she drove. The sea was smooth beneath a glorious sky. Flowers had begun to appear on the verges, and a wave of green was sliding over the sward as the grass began to grow. There were lambs in the fields. She slowed the car to watch a group of them gambolling and kicking their heels as the sun warmed their backs. Lucky lambs having so much eagerness for life. How lovely to join them and frolic in the brightness. Speeding up, she drove on. Time enough for cavorting once she had persuaded Adam Ryder she was his kind of animal.
The farmhouse stood back from the road, up and over a long rise. Catherine drove into the neatly painted yard and pushed open the car door. Carefully casual she walked to the back of her car and started donning her overalls, sliding on the long gloves, tucking them into the elasticated sleeves. Pity to hide her assets, she thought looking down at the billowing gown, but better than having her torso smeared in afterbirth. Adam appeared, ducking his head as he came out of the calf-shed. He looked as tired as she felt. It made her want to gather him into her arms, but he kept his distance as he nodded at her.
‘She’s in here.’
Catherine followed him into the holding area where the cows stood when they were waiting to be milked. The concrete was clean.
‘I’ll just get her into the crush.’ He picked up a length of blue plastic piping and walked behind Catherine’s patient. With a jump, the animal twisted her head, eyes wide, then she turned and trotted forwards as he guided her into the chute. Catherine stood back, giving them plenty of room and as the cow pushed her head forward into the yoke, moved smoothly to pull the bar, trapping the neck so that backing out was impossible. Despite her tiredness she could still be efficient, she thought. It was important to make a good impression.
Swapping places with Adam, her eyes were drawn as he walked past. Even in his boiler-suit he looked good. He turned as she reached the hind end of the cow, opening his mouth to say something. How lovely he was, she thought as she reached out. She was a moment too late. As her hand grasped the air, the cow’s tail whipped sideways catching her squarely in the face. Cold and slimy, it was rancid: covered in rotten afterbirth. Attention fully engaged, she made her grab as the putrid thing slashed back, and capturing it, she pushed it to the side. The stench regaled her nostrils as she tried to wipe the debris from her cheek onto her shoulder, but the waterproof material merely scraped the mess, smearing it upwards.
Adam was trying not to laugh. Catherine could feel herself growing hot, even as she tried to assume a look of disdain.
‘I’m sorry, it’s not funny, but she did the same to me in the milking parlour this morning,’ Adam said. ‘I could smell it afterwards all through my cornflakes, and I was thinking it added a whole new meaning to the words cereal slasher.’ He suddenly roared with laughter, and despite her embarrassment, Catherine couldn’t help but giggle at his awful joke. Sliding her hand inside the cow, she took hold of the afterbirth and began to pull, smoothly separating it from the uterine horn where it had been trapped. It came away and slid to the floor with a muted slop. A sigh of relief escaped her. At least something had gone right.
‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘I’ll put some pessaries in.’ Having done so, she stripped off the gown, peeling the plastic gloves from her arms. Holding the smelly bundle at arm’s length, she followed Adam round to the tank room, where he opened the bin for the gloves and then switched on the taps over the big plastic sink.
‘Here.’ He handed her a wad of paper-towel and she cleaned her face as best she could, though as ever, the smell clung, even after washing.
‘Thanks,’ she said.
‘All done?’ he asked, and when she nodded, opened the door and followed as she walked slowly to her car. The hope was there, it always was, that he would invite her in for a coffee as so many farmers did.. To her frustration, he strolled to the car, smiled that devastating smile as she climbed in, and turned on his heel, not looking back as she started the engine.
It was warm in the byre and aromatic with a fragrance Philip found comforting. Ever since he had begun working weekends on a dairy farm, back when he was living with his parents, he had loved the feeling of togetherness it instilled. He would return home filled with the peace the cows brought him, their earthy scent insinuating through his clothes and hair. Not that the dirt was allowed into the house. His mother’s mouth puckered into a pout at the first hint of ‘manure’. His carefully hosed boots had to be discarded in his father’s garden shed. If it hadn’t been for the rampant glass in the irreproachable porch, she would probably have made him strip before he crossed the threshold. As it was, he’d been whipped to the bathroom, clothes in a plastic bag, head under the shower: all traces to be removed until the next weekend. In a couple of months his time as a student would be over. This would be his life.
He surveyed the scene in the byre. Bevan St Aker stood before him, one long plastic-clad arm inserted to the shoulder inside his patient. His head turned, catching Philip’s gaze.
‘There isn’t enough room to bring this calf out the back way,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to do a Caesar.’ He spoke directly to the farmer. ‘If you can get us some water, I’ll get everything else sorted out.’ He bounded towards the car at his usual gallop. Philip followed at a more leisurely pace.
By the time Philip arrived, half the contents of the boot were strewn on the ground, and Bevan was stirring through the detritus.
‘Can’t find my kit,’ he muttered, and for the first time, Philip could see a frown creasing the sunny countenance. ‘Where on earth did I…’
‘Pants!’ he exploded so suddenly that Philip was startled. ‘I leant it to Dave before the weekend because his was dirty. It’ll be in the surgery. He said he’d clean it and I forgot to pick it up.’ He shook his head, rolling his eyes. ‘It’s a fifteen minute drive from here. Thirty minutes there and back. That’s far too long.’ He stared at Philip, frantic appeal in his eyes and Philip stared back, his mind blank.
There was a long moment, and then the clouds in Bevan’s face disappeared. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘You could drive back to the surgery. You’ve got a licence haven’t you?’ Philip nodded. ‘Well that’s it then. You pop back and grab the kit and I’ll get the cow clipped and scrubbed.’ He waved an airy hand. ‘By the time we’re done, you’ll be back.’ He began shovelling equipment back into the car, slammed the boot and tossed the keys in the air. Philip caught them neatly. ‘You know the way don’t you?’ Without waiting for an answer he disappeared back into the byre, pulling the door to behind him, leaving Philip alone beside the car.
Philip felt pleased as he climbed into the driver’s seat. He was not yet qualified as a vet, though he hoped to pass his finals this summer. His opportunities for driving had been limited to a few lessons and the occasional spin in a friend’s car. That had been an ancient 2CV. Bevan’s car was a nice little Astra. As he turned the key and let in the clutch, the vehicle pulled away with a satisfactory surge of speed.
A few moments later he was cruising along the main road. Not so far into the future, he could have a car like this. A whole life was opening in front of him. No more flat-sharing. Maybe a west coast town. The farmers seemed a nice bunch. As the car entered Strathballoch, he was lost in this pleasant dream and he drove the car down the steep slope to the door of the practice, parking close to the wall. It was almost lunchtime. The place seemed deserted and when he pushed the handle of the sliding door into the calf-pens, it was locked.
He retrieved the keys from the ignition and selected the most likely one, a rusted iron thing, which nonetheless slid into the keyhole and turned without a squeak. The steriliser was in the small room off the operating theatre which served as both lab and kitchen. He found the kit easily enough, marked as it was with the words ‘Bevan’s Caesar Kit’ in large blue letters. Clutching it, he slid the outer door back into position and climbed into the car.
Starting the engine, he did a quick mental check. He hadn’t had to turn anything on or off, the door was locked, he had the kit. He put his foot on the clutch and turned the key in the ignition. Where was reverse? A quick inspection showed it lay to the far left beyond first. Confidently he pushed the stick over and thrust it forwards. It wouldn’t go. Handbrake on, car in neutral he released the clutch, pressed it back and tried a second time, pushing down on the gearstick in case pressure was the key. Still the lever clunked. Maybe it was in, even though it didn’t feel like it. He revved the engine and lifted the clutch, but there was no bite and he had to slam his foot on the brake as the vehicle lurched forward another inch. He was starting to panic. Why wouldn’t the car go into reverse? He tried one last time, a little more firmly. Nothing. He took his foot off the clutch and got out to survey the situation. The nose of the vehicle was almost against the door and there was no way to swing it round. No room for manoeuvre at all.
He took a deep breath, trying to think laterally. Was there a way he could contact someone? There was a radio in the car. The vets could speak to one another when they were out and about. He climbed back in and wrested it from its cradle. Looked at it. Pressed the button on the side.
‘Hello?’ he called, feelings of foolishness mixing with increasing panic. ‘Hello, is there anybody there?’
There was a crackle as he released the button and then silence.
He closed his eyes. Bevan was on a farm waiting. And here was he, Philip, stuck against the surgery wall with a car that wouldn’t go into reverse. There was a tight feeling across his forehead.
The phone. There was one inside. Taking a deep breath Philip turned off the ignition and pulled out the keys. Retracing his steps, he unlocked the door and rushed into the calf hospital. There was a phone on the wall but he had no idea of anyone’s number. His eyes roved frantically for a book or list but there was nothing. It had to be in the main office. He scuttled through the inner door, back through the lab-kitchen and came up against another locked door. This time there was no keyhole, only a keypad with numbers to press, and Philip, temporary incumbent as he was didn’t have the code. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head on the door-jamb, wondering whether he should kick the door down or merely beat his head against the wall. He glanced at his watch. The half hour was up. Bevan must be wondering where he had got to.
He walked back through the premises, closing doors behind him. Locking the sliding door for the last time, he opened the car. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Bracing his back against the door frame and his feet on the sloping tarmac, he reached precariously into the centre of the vehicle and let in the handbrake. To his relief, he found that he could, with difficulty take its weight. Head still inside, steering with his left hand, inch-by-inch, he forced the car up the incline. He had to do this. Bevan was waiting. Teeth gritted, he ground his way backwards another inch. Not enough space. The front of the car needed to be clear. It was getting easier. The slope eased off further from the doorway and suddenly the car was moving more freely. Panting he reached over, and with a hand that was trembling, pulled the brake on. Wiping sweat from his forehead, he stood a moment, letting the worst of the shudders subside, then climbed in, wiping the palms of his hands on his trousers before turning the wheel to full lock.
‘The cows’ll be outside soon, won’t they?’
Hands in pockets, a worried look in his eyes, the farmer acknowledged Bevan’s comment with a side to side movement of his head. ‘Soon I suppose.’
‘It’s peas you grow isn’t it? This year’s crop coming on okay?’
‘And the calves?’
The farmer turned to look straight at Bevan. ‘Do you need to phone the surgery to check everything’s alright with your assistant?’
‘I’m sure Philip will be along,’ he said, and looking at the farm road, pointed. ‘There he is now.’ The farmer let out a sigh of relief.
Philip jumped out of the car, sweat still prickling between his shoulder blades.
‘Thanks,’ said Bevan brightly as he handed over the kit. ‘Everything go okay?’ Philip shoved down a river of words and nodded. It was better, he thought, in front of the farmer.
‘Right, let’s get on with it.’ They walked back to where the cow was still tied. Philip could see her flank had been shaved. He watched as Bevan set out his kit, emptying everything onto a sterile drape placed on an old table the farmer had brought.
‘You want to scrub in?’ Bevan asked. Philip nodded. At this stage, he needed all the experience he could get. Scrubbing-up complete, Bevan picked up a scalpel from the table and held it out.
‘Want to make the incision?’
Philip took a deep breath, and reached for the knife. What was it Professor Burton was always telling them? A good firm cut.
‘From about there to there,’ Bevan indicated. Philip held his breath and slid the blade down the length Bevan had shown him.
‘A bit deeper.’ Bevan said and trying to ignore a groan from the farmer, Philip, concentrating fiercely, cut again, penetrating the skin and searing into the fat layer underneath.
‘Fantastic,’ said Bevan. Philip felt the tension in his shoulders relax infinitesimally. ‘Now the muscle.’ Tentatively, he cut through the layers, a little at a time. As he neared the bottom third, the cow jumped convulsively and flicked a leg towards him. He felt the foot whistle past.
‘Just the nerve,’ Bevan smiled. ‘She’ll be fine now.’ With a sucking of air, Philip cut through the final layer and the internal organs of the cow lay before him, shiny and pink.
‘Well done.’ Bevan’s voice was encouraging. ‘Put the scalpel on the table.’ Philip did as he said. ‘Now you want to have a feel inside. See if you can find the uterus. You should be able to feel the calf through the wall.’ Philip did as he said, and to his surprise, his hand closed immediately upon what was obviously a small foot.
‘Yes.’ He managed to keep the amazement out of his voice.
‘Get a good hold of it, and try to pull it up so we can see it. We want the bottom part of the leg, from the hock to the foot.’ Philip reached both hands inside the cow. Following Bevan’s instructions, he worked his fingers until he had located the hock and gently pulled the leg towards himself. ‘Perfect,’ said Bevan, ‘now I’m going to give you the scalpel back. I want you to make an incision in the uterus. Start at the hock and cut along the whole length right to the foot. That way the hole should be big enough to get the calf out without tearing. Careful you don’t cut too deep. The calf’s only millimetres away.’
‘Okay.’ Scalpel back in hand, he cut with care over the hock and down to the foot, and to his pleasure, the hoof slid into his hand, slippery and soft.
‘Hold onto that leg, nice and tight.’ Bevan cautioned. ‘Now have a feel inside, and see if you can get the other one.’ It was astonishingly warm in there. Philip found the second foot with ease, and between the two of them, they lifted the calf up and out, drawing the hind legs followed by tail and belly and shoulders. Finally the head slid clear and they lowered the calf to the ground. Bevan ran his hand over the muzzle, clearing fluid from the nose, and the small body gave a convulsive jerk, and shook its head before taking its first snuffly breath.
‘Fabulous.’ It was over so quickly Philip thought. Had it always been that fast? He looked up. The cow was unperturbed, though as the next breath came and the calf shook its head, damp ears flapping noisily, she turned and gave the newcomer an encouraging moo.
‘We’d better get her stitched up so she can tend to the little fellow,’ said Bevan, and reluctantly, Philip left the newborn and they set to the longer task of sewing everything together.
‘There we go,’ said Bevan at last, and cut the final suture. The wound looked neat and to finish he grabbed a can and sprayed a bright purple line over the cut. ‘That should do it,’ he said to the farmer, who nodded, looking more cheerful and started to untie the cow’s head.
‘Now then,’ said Bevan. ‘Let’s get tidied up and we can go grab some lunch.’ As Bevan threw his kit back into the box, Philip watched as the cow shook her ears free of the halter and moved towards her calf. She sniffed, gazed for a moment and put her head down and started to lick him clean, little grunts of pleasure escaping as the newborn responded, lifting its head and nuzzling her.
‘Okay Philip?’ Bevan called. Packing complete, he strode away carrying the box under his arm. With a final glance at the unfolding scene, Philip turned and followed.
‘You’re very quiet,’ Bevan said a few minutes later, flicking a look towards Philip then back to the road. ‘How did you feel the operation went?’
‘It was good practice. I haven’t done so much before.’
‘That’s good then.’
He did feel good. Sooner or later, he would be faced with doing the same thing alone. Much better when you had a bit of experience under your belt. But the silence extended as his mind kept flicking to an earlier scene.
‘How on earth do you get this car into reverse?’ he said eventually.
Bevan glanced at him, eyebrows raised. ‘Well it’s over to the left. You pull up that little cuff below the knob and push it in. Why?’
‘Oh.’ Philip’s voice rose and fell over the syllable as the realisation hit him. So simple really. Or maybe not so simple when you were trying to deal with full scale panic at the same time.
‘Why?’ Bevan repeated, the mystified tone filling the small space.
Philip reddened. ‘I couldn’t get it into reverse. When I came back to get your kit. I was parked right down beside the door.’
‘And did nobody help you out?’
‘There was nobody there.’
Bevan gave Philip a long glance. Philip wished he would keep his eyes on the road. Bevan drove the same way he worked, with a kind of cheery disregard for danger that Philip found captivating and terrifying in equal measure.
‘Nobody there? So….’ there was a long pause. ‘How did you get back then?’
‘I pushed it out.’
Bevan slammed on the brakes so hard that the car skidded before coming to a standstill in the middle of the road. ‘You did what?’
‘I pushed it out.’
‘Up that steep hill?’
‘On your own?’ Bevan was staring at him.
‘Good grief.’ There was an even longer pause. ‘You’re lucky it didn’t career down the hill and through the door. You are one crazy student.’
There was a squealing noise from behind and a horn blared as another driver topped the hill.
Philip raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m crazy? I’m not the one parked in the middle of a public highway.’
Bevan grinned and slid the car back into gear.