A magical and mysterious Christmas tale

I was a young doctor, just finished hospital training and agreed to do a Christmas locum in the Peak district in Derbyshire, for an old friend of my GP trainer. The wild summer beauty of the priceless English Pennines has an infernal flip-side, in the snow scoured, remote and impassable wilderness of its winter. I was assured though that the patients would nurse their overnight fevers and, most likely, not call at all. I settled into my cottage, log fire lit, in the absolute black of a Christmas Eve that will live long in my memory.

The phone pulled me from sleep at midnight, an old farmer with sudden chest pain. He detailed an impenetrable maze of roads to his house, which I sketched hopelessly as a map, and he asked me to come quickly. He would leave a light burning in his porch visible, he said, for miles. I set out in a battered Land Rover with only the vaguest idea of where I was going. The snow was so solid that I could barely see through the windscreen and after hours of driving, was utterly lost. I retraced and rerouted in ever more frantic circles, when suddenly, through a gap in two small hillocks, I saw a faint flicker in the distance and hastened to it. There I found an ancient farmhouse and pounded the door with its massive iron knocker, frozen ridged on rusty hinges. There was no reply, so I entered by flashlight, calling out, and came eventually to the kitchen. There, wrapped in a blanket, sitting beside a fire, inside a cavernous limestone hearth, that was the size of a room itself, was a very sickly old man. Across from him was a tethered sheep and beside the table a forlorn Friesian. “Are you Mr Bennett?”, I asked. “Are you the vet?” he replied. The answer to both, unfortunately, was no. He had never heard of Mr Bennett and had no phone in his house to call me. I examined all three patients.

The sheep and cow both had pneumonia, as had he; along with a probable heart attack. I took all the Penicillin I had and injected each of them, gave him some morphine and helped him to bed with the promise I would fetch a bale of hay and left them alone. I drove back to my cottage for more Penicillin and called the local police. They said there had been a Bennett’s farm nearby, but no one had lived there for decades. I never did find him. As dawn broke the following day, I returned to my new ward. They were all much better. After medicating them again and watering the animals, I cooked two frozen dinners. I had brought in an old gas oven and celebrated Christmas in a manger with my new friends. I still do not know what ghostly voice had sent me to them, but in my quieter moments, I wonder about the sheer magic of Christmas.

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