The Polish Veterinarian

"The Polish Veterinarian" was originally published in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of The Southampton Review.

Inside the Moniack Moor Inn, the Polish vet sat at the bar, waiting for the policeman. She tried to stop the ice cubes rattling whenever she brought the glass to her lips. Her vodka tasted of raw potatoes and straw. The cigar smoke from the farmers by the fire caught at the vodka in her throat and sent her straight back to Poland and priests.

That priest had it coming, she thought. I didn’t realize how hard I was pressing.

Another sip of vodka. 

Whenever she heard the door, she looked into the mirror behind the bar to see who it was. 

Brenda, the barmaid, set another vodka in front of Zofija.

—On your own, Zofi?

—Yes. There is a thing I need to do tonight.

—Manage to get your papers? 

Zofija took a plum from the fruit bowl on the bar and tested her thumbnail against it. How much pressure before the skin gave?

—Nope. Have to present myself back at the police station again next week. 

—What a nightmare having to go and plead with that Pole-hating policeman, Brenda said.

The plum skin gave way and Zofija’s fingernails filled with orange-yellow fruit flesh.

—Brenda, she said, squeezing until she reached hard stone, you have no idea. 

Brenda took the plum away and washed Zofija’s hand with a warm cloth.

Every week, Zofija attempted to collect her papers from the police station, but every week she left empty-handed. That morning, the policeman had done something different, turning the day from average to exceptional.

She had pinged the bell on the station counter, then knocked on the frosted sliding window. She could see the policeman bite the sandwich his mother had made, place it on the brown paper bag, and swipe his mouth with the back of his hand. Swinging around on his stool, he opened the top drawer of the filing cabinet and pulled out his ferret. He slid the window partially open, revealing a rectangular slice of himself holding his ferret under his chin. 

—Our little Polish immigrant. What is it we can do for you today? 

—Same as always. My papers. She stretched out her hand.

The policeman cradled the ferret against his stomach, stroking its length with his forefinger. 

—You know you want to stroke him. He’s not been himself lately. Could you take a look? 

He plopped the ferret into her hand. 

—Need lots of loving, ferrets, he said. They can die of loneliness.

The ferret puffed out musk while the policeman breathed out tuna fish. Zofija held the ferret away from herself, remembering their carpet-tack teeth. She spilled it onto the counter.

—Can’t examine your ferret without my papers. Weeks ago I was told they were in the mail. 

—Mother won’t have him in the house. Malodorous little rodent, she calls him. Have to keep you here at the station, don’t I? You’re not a rodent, he said into the ferret’s fur. You munch on rodents for breakfast. We’ll never have rats in our jail, will we?

He popped the ferret back into the drawer, squeezing a raisin flat before inserting it between the ferret’s pointy teeth. Opening the second drawer, he stooped down, stopping at each file to read its label. 

—Still mopping the floors, Zoefeeyaah? Bit of a comedown for you, cleaning up after the vet. He addressed this to the filing cabinet while he picked out a file, his body blocking it from Zofija.

—The second I get those papers, she said, I’ll have my scalpel back in my hand.

—Until then, a proper British vet will suffice, the policeman said.

His neck bulged over his collar. Pig, Zofija thought. What expressions would move over his face if she pressed her thumbs below his earlobes, and let him drop, slowly, into unconsciousness?  

He leaned down to open the bottom drawer with his foot, showing half moons of, Zofija assumed, unexplored flesh. 

—Nope. He straightened up. File’s empty. See you next week. 

Zofija leaned over the counter, into tuna fish and ferret-musk.         

—You know I only have one week left on my permit. Please check again.

—I shouldn’t be dealing with paperwork for people like you. I have detective work of serious gravity to be getting on with.

He paused, sucking half his lower lip under his teeth, forcing the other half into a rawish protrusion.

—I’m detecting a terror of being sent back to Poland. Did you run away? Something fishy about you. I could have you deported tomorrow, you little Polish bitch.

Turning to leave, she gave the skirting board a kick. 

—I’d rather be a little Polish bitch than a middle-aged virgin living with his mother. 

He squeezed himself around the counter with his mouth open, panting, and grabbed her arm. There was shaving cream in the crease below his earlobe. Right where she could press her thumbs.

He steered her into the only cell and locked the door. A concrete bed hung from the wall. The toilet reeked of stale urine. He pushed her against the back wall.

—I could lock you up in here for as long as I liked. Nobody would come and get you.

With her head back against the wall Zofija remembered the cold stone in her church in Poland. That priest. Told me it brought him closer to God and salvation. I would be doing my duty to God.

She covered her face with her arm and kicked unsuccessfully at his groin.

—Let’s see how tough Polish girls really are, he said, unfastening his belt. 

And now, it was evening at the bar, Brenda was wiping plum juice from Zofija’s hands, as she waited. The door opened, bringing Zofija back to the task in hand. She saw who had come in.

—Brenda. Another double please.

The policeman heaved himself up onto a barstool. Brenda kept her back to him. 

—My usual, pet. Whenever you’ve a minute. 

Brenda slapped down a pint of beer in front of him.

—I’m not your pet. Stick to your ferrets, she said.

He threw a crumpled ten pound note in her direction.

—One for yourself. Poppet. He nodded in Zofija’s direction. And one for your little foreign friend over there. 

Brenda looked at Zofija, who rolled her eyes upwards until they hurt.

The policeman slid off his barstool and hoiked himself up on the one next to Zofija. 

—We had fun this morning.

 Beer mingled with fish and musk on his breath.

—It wasn’t that bad, Zofija said.

—Fancy another go? Plenty more where that came from.

—Let’s try the office this time.

—One for the road, then, Brenda. Poppet.

In the surgery, Zofija poured whisky.

—Drink first?

He wiped his palms on his trousers then reached both hands out for the drink, slurping it like milk.

—Take off your belt and trousers and lie on the operating table, Zofija said.

He handed her his belt then folded his trousers onto the chair, as his mother had made him do, every day of his 40 years. He lay on the table and turned his cheek to the steel, half closing his eyes. 

—Look at me now, Mummy. Not so worthless as you thought, am I? he said, into the table.

—What did you say? Zofija asked.


Zofija buttoned her white vet’s coat, then switched off the lights. She fastened his belt around his arms into the unused tightest hole, then flicked on the overhead surgery light. 

—Laser or scalpel? She held up both instruments.

—Doctors and nurses?

—Just a little surgery. 

A hint of fear crept across his face. He struggled to get up off the table. She pushed him down. 

—This will hurt a little. 

He tried to reach out for whatever pointy instrument she was holding, but his arms were pinned by his belt.

—You can’t. They’ll get you.

—After what you did to me? You won’t have the balls to tell them.

—You’ve had your game. We’re even. I’ll hand over your papers.

She held some gauze over his face.

—We’ll be even before the sun’s up.

 He floated far away, somewhere deep.

Zofija hummed a Chopin Nocturne as she worked. She pressed the scalpel until his skin gave way, muttering to herself in time to the music. I didn’t want that priest to die in the church. Priests and policemen. Chose the wrong girl, didn’t you both? 

As the policeman floated up from his faraway place, disinfectant burned his nostrils and heat seared his groin. He moved his hands to explore. No trousers. Fat bandages. What had she taken? She can't have. She wouldn't dare. How was he going to explain this to his mother?

He looked around. No Zofija.

Outside in the dark, milk bottles clinked, then the milkman’s electric van whirred into the distance. His mother would be wondering where he had been all night.

His trousers hung from a hook, a limp ferret peeping out of the crotch. A note was pinned to his trouser leg: 

Your ferret will come round. Got my papers from your file-cabinet. I’m your vet now. You report me, I’ll report you. 

He would tell his mother he’d been with a woman all night: a first. And that she had been demanding in the bedroom, leaving him tender in the groin area.

Zofija sat at Brenda’s kitchen table watching the sun paint the tops of houses all the colors of morning. Brenda put warm floury buns on the table and poured coffee.

—Why didn’t you kill him? I would have.

—Enjoyed it too much the first time. I was worried I would get a taste for it.

—So did you leave him intact? 

—He’ll think I didn’t. 

Brenda stroked her finger over the flour on Zofija’s upper lip. Zofija opened her mouth a little, letting Brenda’s finger fall onto her bottom lip.

—Let’s have him over for dinner, then, Brenda said. Scottish meatballs in Polish sour cream.

SHEENA COOK grew up on her family farm in the north of Scotland, has a law degree from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and an MFA in Literature and Writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars in Vermont. She divides her time between Baltimore and Edinburgh. Her short stories and novel extracts have appeared in Two Serious Ladies, Literary Orphans, and The Southampton Review. She is a 2018 Hawthornden Fellow and a member of the BookEnds class of 2019. Her debut novel, In the Secret Places of the Stairs, set on a Greek island and in a Scottish village, is forthcoming from Giulio Einaudi Editore (Italy).