Tuesday, 21 July 2015


Siegfried came away from the telephone; his face was expressionless. "That was Mrs Pumphrey. She wants you to see her pig."

"Peke, you mean," I said.

"No, pig. She has a six-week-old pig she wants you to examine for soundness."

I laughed sheepishly. My relations with the elderly widow's Peke was a touchy subject. "All right, all right, don't start again. What did she really want? Is Tricki Woo's bottom playing him up again?"

"James," said Siegfried gravely."It is unlike you to doubt my word in this way. I will repeat the message from Mrs Pumphrey and then I shall expect you to act upon it immediately and without further question. The lady informed me that she has become the owner of a six-week-old piglet and she wants the animal thoroughly vetted. You know how I feel about these examinations and I don't want the job scamped in any way. I should pay particular attention to its wind -- have it well galloped round the paddock before you get your stethoscope on it and for heaven's sake don't miss anything obvious like curbs or ringbones. I think I'd take its height while you're about it; you'll find the measuring stick in ..."

His words trailed on as I hurried down the passage. This was a bit baffling; I usually had a bit of leg-pulling to stand ever since I became Tricki the Peke's adopted uncle and received presents and letters and signed photographs from him, but Siegfried wasn't in the habit of flogging the joke to this extent. The idea of Mrs Pumphrey with a pig was unthinkable; there was no room in her elegant establishment for livestock. Oh, he must have got it wrong somehow.

But he hadn't. Mrs Pumphrey received me with a joyful cry. "Oh, Mr Herriot, isn't it wonderful?I have the most darling little pig. I was visiting some cousins who are farmers and I picked him out. He will be such company for Tricki -- you know how I worry about his being an only dog."

I shook my head vigorously in bewilderment as I crossed the oak-panneled hall. My visits here were usually associated with a degree of fantasy but I was beginning to feel out of my depth.

"You mean you actually have this pig in the house?"

"But of course." Mrs Pumphrey looked surprised. "He's in the kitchen. Come and see him."

I had been in this kitchen a few times and had been almost awestruck by its shining spotlessness; the laboratory look of the tiled walls and floors, the gleaming surfaces of sink unit, cooker, refrigerator. Today, a cardboard box occupied one corner and inside I could see a tiny pig; standing on its hind legs, his forefeet resting on the rim, he was looking round him appreciatively at his new surroundings.

The elderly cook had her back to us and did not look round when we entered; she was chopping carrots and hurling them into a saucepan with, I thought, unnecessary vigour.

"Isn't he adorable!" Mrs Pumphrey bent over and tickled the little head. "It's so exciting having a pig of my very own! Mr Herriot, I have decided to call him Nugent."

I swallowed. "Nugent?" The cook's broad back froze into immobility.

"Yes, after my great uncle Nugent. He was a little pink man with tiny eyes and a snub nose. The resemblance is striking."

"I see," I said, and the cook started her splashing again.

For a few moments I was at a loss; the ethical professional man in me rebelled at the absurdity of examining this obviously healthy little creature. In fact I was on the point of saying that he looked perfectly all right to me when Mrs Pumphrey spoke.

"Come now, Nugent," she said. "You must be a good boy and let your Uncle Herriot look at you."

That did it. Stifling my finer feelings I seized the string-like tail and held Nugent almost upside down as I took his temperature. I then solemnly auscultated his heart and lungs, peered into his eyes, ran my fingers over his limbs and flexed his joints.

The cook's back radiated stiff disapproval but I carried on doggedly. Having a canine nephew, I had found, carried incalculable advantages; it wasn't only the frequent gifts -- and I could still taste those glorious kippers Tricki had posted to me from Whitby -- it was the vein of softness in my rough life, the sherry before lunch, the warmth and luxury of Mrs Pumphrey's fireside. The way I saw it, if a piggy nephew of the same type had been thrown in my path then Uncle Herriot was going to be the last man to interfere with the inscrutable workings of fate.

The examination over, I turned to Mrs Pumphrey who was anxiously awaiting the verdict. "Sound in all respects," I said briskly. "In fact you've got a very fine pig there. But there's just one thing -- he can't live in the house."

For the first time the cook turned towards me and I read a mute appeal in her face. I could sympathise with her because the excretions of a pig are peculiarly volatile and even such a minute specimen as Nugent had already added his own faint pungency to the atmosphere in the kitchen.

Mrs Pumphrey was appalled at the idea at first but when I assured her that he wouldn't catch pneumonia and in fact would be happier and healthier outside, she gave way.

An agricultural joiner was employed to build a palatial sty in a corner of the garden; it had a warm sleeping apartment on raised boards and an outside run. I saw Nugent installed in it, curled up blissfully in a bed of clean straw. His trough was filled twice daily with the best meal and he was never short of an extra titbit such as juicy carrot or some cabbage leaves. Every day he was allowed out to play and spent a boisterous hour frisking round the garden with Tricki.

In short, Nugent had it made, but it couldn't have happened to a nicer pig; because, though most of his species have an unsuspected strain of friendliness, this was developed in Nugent to an extraordinary degree. He just liked people and over the next few months his character flowered under the constant personal contact with humans.

I often saw him strolling companionably in the garden with Mrs Pumphrey and in his pen he spent much of the time standing upright with his cloven feet against the wire netting, waiting eagerly for his next visitor. Pigs grow quickly and he soon left the pink baby stage behind, but his charm was undiminished. His chief delight was to have his back scratched; he would grunt deeply, screwing up his eyes in ecstasy, then gradually his legs would start to buckle until finally he toppled over on his side.

Nugent's existence was sunny and there was only one cloud in the sky; old Hodgkin, the gardener, who's attitude to domestic pets had been permanently soured by having to throw rubber rings for Tricki every day, now found himself appointed personal valet to a pig. It was his duty to feed and bed down Nugent and to supervise his play periods. The idea of doing all this for a pig who was never ever going to be converted into pork pies must have been nearly insupportable for the old countryman; the harsh lines on his face deepened whenever he took hold of the meal bucket.

On the first of my professional visits to his charge, he greeted me gloomily with "Hasta come to see Nudist?" I knew Hodgkin well enough to realise the impossibility of any whimsical wordplay; it was a genuine attempt to grasp the name and throughout my nephew's long career he remained "Nudist" to the old man.

There is one memory of Nugent I treasure. The telephone rang one day just after lunch; it was Mrs Pumphrey and I knew by the stricken voice that something momentous had happened; it was the same voice that had described Tricki Woo's unique symptoms of flop-bott and crackerdog.

"Oh Mr Herriot, thank heavens you are in. It's Nugent! I'm afraid he's terribly ill."

"Really? I'm sorry to hear that. What's he doing?"

There was a silence at the other end for gasping breathing then Mrs Pumphrey spoke again. "Well, he can't manage...he can't do...do his little jobs."

I was familiar with her vocabulary of big jobs and little jobs. "You mean he can't pass his urine?"

"Well...well..." she was obviously confused. "Not properly."

"That's strange," I said. "Is he eating all right?"

"I think so, but..." then she suddenly blurted out: "Oh Mr Herriot, I'm so terribly worried! I've heard of men being dreadfully ill...just like this. It's a gland isn't it?"

"Oh you needn't worry about that. Pigs don't have that trouble and anyway, I think four months is a bit young for hypertrophy of the prostate."

"Oh, I'm so glad, but something is...stopping it. You will come, won't you!"

"I'm leaving now."

I had quite a long wait outside Nugent's pen. he had grown into a chunky little porker and grunted amiably as he surveyed me through the netting. Clearly he expected some sort of game and, growing impatient, he performed a few stiff-legged little gallops up and down the run.

I had almost decided that my visit was fruitless when Mrs Pumphrey, who had been pacing up and down, wringing her hands, stopped dead and pointed a shaking finger at the pig.

"Oh God," she breathed. "There! There! There it is now!" All the colour had drained from her face leaving her deathly pale. "Oh, it's awful! I can't look any longer." With a moan she turned away and buried her face in her hands.

I scrutinised Nugent closely. He had halted in mid gallop and was contentedly relieving himself by means of the intermitted spurting jets of a normal male pig.

I turned to Mrs Pumphrey. "I really can't see anything wrong there."

"But he's...he's..." she still didn't dare to look. "He's doing it in...in fits and starts."

I had had a considerable practice at keeping a straight face in Mrs Pumphrey's presence and it stood me in good stead now.

"But they all do it in that way, Mrs Pumphrey."

She half turned and looked tremblingly out of the corner of her eye at Nugent. "You mean...all boy pigs...?"

"Every single boy pig I have ever know has done it like that."

"Oh...Oh...how odd, how very odd." The poor lady fanned herself with her handkerchief. Her colour had come back in a positive flood.

To cover her confusion I became very business-like. "Yes, yes indeed. Lots of people make the same mistake, I assure you. Ah well, I suppose I'd better be on my way now -- it's been nice to see the little fellow looking so well and happy."

Nugent enjoyed a long and happy life and more than fulfilled my expectations of him; he was every bit as generous as Tricki with his presents and, as with the little Peke, I was able to salve my conscience with the knowledge that I was really fond of him. As always, Siegfried's sardonic attitude made things a little uncomfortable; I had suffered in the past when I got the signed photographs from the little dog - but I never dared let him see the one from the pig.

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