The cold front

2013-05-29 00:00

THEY stand huddled under the umbrella, appropriately dressed for the occasion. Black gumboots with red trimming, long pants and a number of layers of windcheaters and raincoats, collars turned up against the frosty cold. Michelin man is skinny in comparison. Fred, the Labrador, who normally delights in this weather, has had enough and is attempting to squeeze between the two. The scene will remind an interested observer of Ernie Els and his caddie, planning his next shot during a Carnoustie blizzard. The vista in front of them, however, is not of a well-manicured golf course. Neither is their umbrella one of the large, garish, golfing variety. Somewhat bigger than the parasols used by high-class women to avoid the hot African sun, it offers just enough shelter from the cascading cold, the first front of the season. The pattern is faded tartan, vaguely consistent with the masculine farmyard environment. The city is occasionally just visible in the distance, through the rain, over undulating pastures. Come to think of it, the occupants of the mud-splattered bakkies sliding over the nearby district road behind them might be forgiven for thinking it is a shepherd and the gamekeeper discussing the flock on a damp Scottish highland.

But there are no sheep, just cows. Big and brown and lots of them. And Maritzburg is a long way from Scotland. They are on a grassy patch, above the cattle-handling facility.

“You okay, Hamish?” Rob inquires of his colleague.

“Not too bad,” comes the retort. “My nose is cold and the tips of my ears might be suffering from a bit of frostbite. Could do with a cup of tea, though.”

“Sounds good. With scones. Next to the heater.” Rob is laying it on thick.

They speak loud enough for me to hear, but too soft for me to pick up the giggle in their throats. But, should I glance in their direction, I would no doubt notice the glint in their eyes and a faint smile on their lips. Their voices come and go as I attempt to concentrate on my toil and I concede that I might misinterpret some of their utterances. My malleus is frozen to my eardrum anyway, so I can be forgiven for not hearing right. But I know them well-enough to know that even if they are not saying it, they are thinking it. “Do you think he is cold?” Hamish asks, nodding in my direction.

“I don’t know. His left arm, the one inside that big cow, is probably alright. I guess it’s like an immersion heater, you know. The rest of his flabby body looks a bit wrinkled though. Should his right arm be blue like that?”

Yeah, right. Good thing my clients have become my buddies and I can take their ribbing, but it is no fun out there. The cows are crushed in the race, all in a line, heads to the left, tails to the right. I insert my arm into the rectum of each animal, searching for the vital feel of life growing in the uterus. Rob is right. My left arm is as warm as a koeksister fresh out of the oven, but the rest of me is wet through with freezing cow debris. It is a job that can’t be done dressed for the environment, the work apparel being a flimsy overall with cut-off sleeves. I have renewed respect for my colleagues who practise in colder climes. They, no doubt, have more appropriate gear. I again reflect how thankful I am that I am rarely exposed to these weather conditions and am sympathetic towards those who are.

“Heard that Sani Pass is closed. Must be cosy in that little pub on top. With a sherry in the hand, or gluwein, around that roaring fire.” I try to ignore them. “In calf, five months. In calf, four months.” I shout out for their records, making sure I don’t touch the freezing poles of the crush through which I work. Eventually, we are done. Only one cow is not pregnant. A gogo, 16 years old. She has produced 12 calves in her life. Her race is finally run. In a beef herd, longevity is dependent on fertility. Her daughters should have inherited her capacity for survival. I am not sure if I have, so job complete, I rush off to the kitchen. A cup of coffee and the company of the womenfolk. They are bound to be more sympathetic.

• The author is a practising vet with a passion for his profession and a giggle in his heart.

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