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28 March 2014

The day I treated H G Wells’s poodle (without the need for a time machine)

It is always an enormous bonus when a doppelgänger – artistic, philosophical, sporting, political – walks into the practice.

By john Brooke

I first met H G Wells at two o’clock in the morning on Boxing Day a decade ago. He had called me apologetically with the news that his dog was vomiting repeatedly and that its stomach was as hard as a drum. This, to a vet, is one of the nightmare calls in the early morning. The dog has eaten too much, too quickly, and the stomach and intestines dilate and twist: gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV). It often happens in the deep-chested dog breeds over Christmas. It requires immediate surgery to deflate the stomach, remove the contents and then twist everything back into place. Mortality is common.

The owner and his black poodle were in a bad way. However, I was more struck by the owner’s trilby, his battered tweed suit and his moustache and when he gave me the name of his dog, Kipps, I was beside myself with joy. The name filtered through my memory and there materialised before me the remarkable author of Tono-Bungay. My initial resentment at the early-morning call-out gave way to a desire to do everything I could for Kipps and his guardian. First things first: “Mr Wells, I might be able to save Kipps but it’s going to cost around £500 and I’ll need to call the nurse in.” Oddly, he almost burst out laughing, before coughing and replying: “I have £300. Do not call the nurse  in. I’ll be the nurse, cut all corners that you can. If Kipps dies, I’ll pay £300 and hold all responsibility.”

His calm persuasion moved me. Still thrilled by this apparition, I acquiesced: “Mr Wells, do you mind blood and guts?” I asked him, a question that translates as, “Please do not pass out or throw up during surgery. I need your help.” He smiled.

Throughout the whole procedure, he continued to smile, although sweat dripped from his brow on to his moustache. I emptied the stomach of a mangled turkey carcass, Brussels sprouts, carrots and gravy. It had twisted around the spleen, which had to be removed: a bloody job facilitated by Mr Wells holding up the spleen while I ligated all the blood vessels. At every stage, he whistled in fascination and approval; he was delighted to hold the stomach in place for the gastropexy – the stitching of the stomach wall to the abdominal wall to prevent further torsion.

“Kipps is going to be fine!” he exclaimed. “I’ll take him straight home with his drip, if you don’t mind. You look exhausted, Mr Brooke, and I’ll be surprised if you don’t go straight back to bed.” He was right. He took Kipps home. I’d never seen a client so happy. He was still trying not to laugh.

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When I consulted the computer records, there was no H G Wells, of course. There was one Kipps. His owner was Mr Skeoch. No wonder the man had been trying to suppress his mirth. Mr Skeoch did bear a remarkable resemblance to the photos I have seen of H G Wells but I had taken the extraordinary step of addressing him as such.

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It is always an enormous bonus when a doppelgänger – artistic, philosophical, sporting, political – walks into the practice. I have had a number of such encounters: Jorge Luis Borges and his oriental cats, Virginia Woolf and her Yorkshire terrier, Denis Healey and his rats, James Hunt and his donkey. But I liked none so much as H G Wells.

Kipps recovered quickly. In the following years, I often saw him walking with his owner past the cricket ground on Chester-le-Street. If he saw me, Mr Skeoch would raise his trilby and wave. He wore a three-piece tweed suit in all weathers; his thick hair was immaculately parted, his moustache finely barbered; and his poodle’s locks were equally beautifully trimmed.

Kipps lived untroubled until he suffered a series of strokes this year. I put him to sleep at Mr Skeoch’s home. I was thrilled to see him again last week with a new pup. His name? Mr Skeoch’s smile stretched across his face. “Dr Moreau,” he said, “and I hope you look after him as well as you did Kipps!”