I spent many wakeful hours throughout December 1980 trying to come to terms with the irrefutably crazy idea that I could just swan nonchalantly into this little town in Galloway, set up my brass plate and overnight create a respected and thriving veterinary surgery.
Instead, I found that waiting for that blessed bell to ring became a complete obsession. In fact, every member of the family (except for baby Victoria) collectively leapt up from whatever activity they were engaged in the very instant when that doorbell rang! Lego was scattered, finger painting pots sloshed all over the dubious-smelling carpet, toast burnt, and baby Victoria bundled into her pram as we all rushed to the door. Even the dogs joined in with the ridiculous, frantic excitement, barking and scrabbling for first place in the queue.
More often than not, however, it was the postman, as we hadn’t managed to locate a handy person to sort out a letter box. Poor chap, I am sure the recurrent vision of a bunch of crestfallen faces and barking dogs did nothing for his self-esteem. But delightful man that he was, he appeared to take it all in his stride, and, so I gather, developed a sort of soft spot for this strange little band of newcomers in his town.
Our baby had arrived, the first client had been through the door, but ‘Christmas’ was almost upon us! There was just no escape as our ‘been here before’ (several times) young Andrew, reminded us at every available opportunity. We were beginning to regret the decision to start this four-year-old at preschool nursery. For three mornings during the week before Christmas, Judy’s mum, ‘Nanny Heather’, walked through the town with him on the nursery run as we basked in a little bit of down time from his insatiable energy – which could be likened to a spinning Catherine wheel which has become disengaged from its post. At precisely 12.40pm, he would burst back in through the kitchen door galloping at top speed into our 5×4 metre living space, clutching his little crumpled bundle of paintings. Two-year-old Steve and baby Victoria, both happily slumbering through an afternoon nap, would be instantly woken, and catapulted into ‘oh blimey, “Andrew’s home” mode’:
‘Mummy, Santa is coming next week, but the lady, who sometimes gets cross with me and makes me sit in the front row when we are singing, says I must be very good all week, or he might not come. So, I’m going to be really good today!’
The ‘lady’ would probably be reported to the educational authorities these days for coming out with such a remark, and Andrew’s promise was made in great earnest, but its fruition was short lived!
It was perfectly clear to us that his arrival into the preschool nursery was presenting the staff with a little bit of a challenge! Now almost forty-five Andrew is working as a GP in the Highlands. I don’t think the ‘lady’ in the nursery could ever have predicted such a responsible caring career for the spinning Catherine wheel who descended upon them amid the pre-Christmas hype that December!
On the Sunday before Christmas, Nanny Heather bundled the two boys off to the local church to join in the carol service with a large bag of jelly babies in her bag. Taking the boys into a church without ‘bribe treats’ wasn’t an option!
The church was festooned with twinkling lights and tinsel as Nanny Heather shepherded her excited little grandsons down the aisle. Immediately clocking a lady with a small boy about Andrew’s age sitting halfway down the church, she subtly engineered herself and the boys into the pew directly behind this unsuspecting mother and very well-behaved son. Andrew was already revving up by clambering up on the pew for a better view of the nativity scene at the front of the church.
‘Is baby Jesus really in that box of straw Nanny?’
Before she could gather herself to answer, the small, well-behaved (but clearly a little more worldly) boy turned round towards Andrew and totally shattered his illusion.
‘Naw, dinnae be silly, it’s just a doll all dressed up, and the angels and shepherds are just pretend too.’
Andrew climbed back down, somewhat crestfallen, as reality kicked in.
‘But does that mean Santa isn’t real?’
‘Aw naw, I know for sure that Santa IS real’ he answered reassuringly.
‘Aw, that’s ok then.’ After a short pause and some deep thought Andrew whispered,
‘My nanny has jelly babies in her bag, would you like one?’
Jelly babies were shared, and the friendship with the well-behaved boy began.
As they were making their way out of the church Andrew rather boldly invited the well-behaved boy, whose name was Ian, around to play after nursery the next day.
By this time, he had somehow gained possession of the bag with the remaining jelly babies and in between offering the odd one to his new friend, he began stuffing the remainder into his own mouth. Despite squawks and pleas from his little brother, the poor wee guy got none! Nanny was so busy buttering up the nicely turned-out lady that she did not notice the manic jelly baby consumption that was taking place by her side.
‘My daddy is a vet,’ piped up Andrew, sooking up streams of jelly baby juice which were dribbling down his chin as he spoke. ‘A poor dog came in the other day with his eye all over the place and my daddy had to do a big operation on it. What does your daddy do?’
Nanny and Ian’s mummy were now listening to the boys’ introductory chatter, both smiling benignly with Nanny quietly hoping that she would be suitably impressed and hopefully regard this somewhat effervescent young newcomer and his tag-along small brother as suitable playmates for her son.
‘My daddy is a dentist,’ chirped Ian.
Poor Nanny just about tipped herself into the baptismal font in her frantic attempt to remove the bag with the few remaining jelly babies which were tightly clutched in Andrew’s sticky little fist.
She glanced at the well-turned-out lady, only to catch her laughing to herself.
‘We won’t tell the dentist, I promise,’ she chuckled.
Her name was Agnes. She and Nanny were laughing together as they ventured out into the crisp December night, with the three small boys by their side. Another lifelong friendship had begun.
I was just starting to feel that the little town was warming to us and beginning to appreciate that having a vet, bang in the middle of town, on call 24/7, was a good thing. The town folk were beginning to recognise us, especially Nanny as she trailed up and down to nursery. They would smile and sometimes stop to chat. The chats, however, didn’t usually last long with young Andrew in tow!
The day after the Christmas service and the ‘new friendships’, young Ian came to play. Nanny Heather had the wonderful idea of moving the box of Lego and the brio train track up to the boys’ bedroom. (This was a decision she later regretted.) I was commissioned to set up the track which would hopefully keep the three boys entertained for at least an hour. I even got stuck in for a short while, pushing the little wooden carriages round the track and making appropriate ‘whooooo whooo’ noises as I guided them under the bridge.
But I had shelves to fill in the new surgery and other laborious stuff to do, so as soon as I felt that they were absorbed in their play, I quietly crept downstairs. Dear wee Nanny was busying about making coffee for Judy who was enjoying a short interval when she could feed baby Victoria in peace.
We decided not to disturb the boys in their play. Big mistake.
We could hear lots of giggles and laughter and some unidentified scampering noises, but we just put it down to the new friendships gaining momentum!
Ah . . . The doorbell. As I was already in the surgery sorting out the medicine shelves, I was able to answer the door almost immediately with only the dogs in pursuit. Too late for the postman so I felt optimistic that this must surely be a new client.
On opening the door with a welcoming ‘good afternoon’ I was immediately taken aback by the state of the elderly gentleman standing before me. On this bright sunny December day, the unfortunate fellow was dripping wet. He was taking off his spectacles to wipe away the water dripping down from his tweed cap. I was speechless and confused. My confusion was short lived as the elderly gentleman exploded into an exceedingly ungentlemanly tirade.
‘There are three small boys at your upstairs window, and they are tipping mugs of water over unsuspecting passers-by, and, as you can see the little blighters got me.’
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! And to be perfectly honest, I was within an inch of exploding into laughter, but my inner instinct of survival saved me, just. Enough damage had already been done and it was essential that I did not contribute to it by daring to convey the little blighters’ exploits were in any way funny.
I managed to express my sincere apologies while maintaining a straight face. The elderly gentleman had perhaps recalled some incident from his own distant childhood, as his expression softened, and he raised his cap, dispelling the last of the unexpectant deluge and shook my hand. ‘No harm done young man, but you had better get up those stairs before they drown anyone else.’
And yes, following the stuff of good fairy tales, that same elderly gentleman did become one of my loyal clients, finding it easier to trot his arthritic old Labrador round to the ‘high street vet‘ instead of taking him by bus over to the nearest vet in Castle Douglas. And he always asked after the boys!
As soon as I closed the door, I bolted up the stairs, offering no explanation to Judy, Nanny or the dogs, who nevertheless sensed that some sort of calamity had occurred.
At the top of the stairs, I just about flattened wee Stevie who was scampering at full trot out of the bathroom, nappy almost round his knees, earnestly clutching a large mug of water. He just ignored me as he was obviously carrying out strict instructions from the two bigger boys. Stevie was the runner; he had an important job to do and nothing and nobody was going to get in his way!
Andrew and Ian, standing on the toy box with the window down just enough to allow them just enough room to surreptitiously tip the mug of water out at the appropriate moment. They were highly organised in their crime with Stevie as the water collector and runner, the well-behaved boy, Ian, as look-out for potential targets and Andrew as the ‘tipper‘!
They were so absorbed in collecting, watching and tipping that they did not hear or see me.
‘What exactly do you boys think you are doing?’
They simultaneously tumbled off the play box down to the floor in a tangled heap, looking very sheepish. The well-behaved boy looked as though he was about to start crying.
‘We were just looking out of the window Daddy’ Andrew spluttered, chubby wee face reddening by the second.
Andrew has always been a hopeless fibber and still is. He knew, without a doubt, that their cover was blown.
‘But it’s okay Daddy, we didn’t get anybody.’
‘OH YES YOU ABSOLUTELY DID, you little monkeys.’
Poor wee Stevie didn’t really know what all the fuss was about as he scampered off to refill his mug which he had inadvertently spilt en route once he clocked the expression on my face.
Andrew’s expression changed in a second from guilty remorse to glowing pride.
‘We did it Ian, WE GOT ONE!’
I had to turn away and once again resist the temptation to dissolve into inappropriate laughter!
I watched helplessly as Ian’s almost-tears broke into a large grin, and I knew the era of the ‘well behaved boy’ was coming to an end and the era of the ‘naughty boys’ had just begun.