The Greenhouse

www.susanshirley.myorganogold.com

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My friend Paul and I save regularly to go to good restaurants, places we wouldn’t normally be able to afford.  We’ve been to Gordon Ramsey at Royal Hospital Road a couple of times (absolutely incredible) but this time we went to The Greenhouse in Hays Mews, Mayfair.  It takes us quite a while to save for this type of restaurant, but we think it’s worth it and the Greenhouse was no exception..

Hays Mews is a funny little road, it runs straight with another road adjacent, also called Hays Mews, so we walked down the wrong part first, but that didn’t matter, we had plenty of time.

Once we found the right part of the road, we could see the restaurant clearly, it has huge plants visible outside from the end of the road.  Don’t ask me what they are, I’m not that good at botany.

As you enter the restaurant, you walk through a decked garden.  Just green plants, no flowers, but maybe that’s just the time of year.  Still, it was lovely to walk through it.

It was raining when we arrived, and the young man at reception opened the door for us and quickly took our wet umbrellas away.  Coats away, and we were shown to our table.  They very kindly brought me a little table for my handbag, telling me it was bad luck to put it on the floor.  And then, a trolley appeared in front of us with a variety of champagnes.  Paul and I both like Veuve Cliquot, so we started with a glass each.  We also ordered some water.  One of the things I liked was that we were given time to relax before any menus were brought up, and relax we did, whilst sipping our champagne.

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Paul’s olive bread roll

Then we were brought up fresh bread, gluten free for me, with two butters, one of which had seaweed and Maldon sea salt in it.  I’ve never had that before but will definitely try to get hold of some, it was so delicious.

We were given a lunchtime set menu as well as the A La Carte.  I always like to look at the set menus, just to see whether I’m missing anything, but generally tend to order from the A La Carte, and so it was on this occasion, for both of us.  Our waitress, if that is the correct term to use here, she may have been the maitre d’, checked the food allergies of which they’d been informed, and told us we could order anything from the menu and they’d let us know if they couldn’t cater for us.  Fortunately, we both ordered things that didn’t require any changes.

Orders for food placed, we were brought the first of two amuse bouche.  I honestly can’t remember what they were, except that there was a slight hitch with mine because they had gluten in them (no big deal, and I know I’m quite difficult, so I quite understand if restaurants don’t always get it exactly right as long as I don’t actually eat anything that will cause me a problem).

First amuse bouche out of the way, Paul studied the very comprehensive wine list and found a white for me (my favourite Chablis) and a red for him.

Second amuse bouche.  We both had one that was called harissa, and tasted very much like houmous, but they were all lovely and very different flavours.  Each of us tried both wines, and we were very happy with them both, so all was well with the world.

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Native Lobster

Paul had ordered the native lobster with watermelon, peanut satay and lime.  It looked absolutely gorgeous, with the watermelon and the lobster being almost the same colour and size, placed decoratively around the plate.

Orkney scallops
Orkney scallops

I had Orkney Scallop with verbena, green zebra tomato and samphire.  It came up in a jelly, which worried me a bit because I’m not a fan of jelly, but actually it was lovely.  The verbena gave it a very interesting flavour, and I’m not using interesting in my usual euphemistic sense; it really was lovely just not what I’d been expecting.  My only other experience of jellied seafood is jellied eels and I don’t like them at all, but once I’d put them out of my mind, I was fine.

For the main course, Paul had chosen the Welsh organic lamb from the Rhug Estate, with houmous, kombu (a type of kelp) and lemon, which Paul loved.  I chose the wild sea bass with celeriac, coconut, wasabi and cos lettuce (that’s twice in the space of a week that I had cooked lettuce and it was lovely both times, better than raw.  A new vegetable for me to prepare at home.)

I don’t know about the rest of you, but whenever I go to these “designer” restaurants, I always think I’m going to come away hungry, because the portions look small (but then they do always put them on ridiculously large plates, which doesn’t help) but I end up at the end of the meal wishing someone would tuck me up in a ball so I can roll home…

Notwithstanding the fact that I was doing nicely by this point, I still managed several different cheeses from the trolley….  With more of the lovely bread.  Paul had a fennel dessert with lemon and Agoureleo olive oil.  They actually brought a little jug of olive oil up and poured it over the dessert before Paul ate it, which was novel.  He said it was unusual but rather lovely.

At the end, when we had tea and coffee, we were brought some jellied fruits and chocolates.

The whole meal was delicious but different, in as much as the flavours were just a bit different, with what seemed to me to be quite a strong Moroccan influence.  It’s no surprise to me that the restaurant has two Michelin stars.  The chef is Armaud Bignon, a Frenchman who has previously worked in Paris and Greece, where he took his restaurant Spodi to be the only two Michelin starred restaurant in Greece.

 

© Susan Shirley 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Hellfire!

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og_logo_finalizeLast weekend was busy.

On Friday, I went, with Bro and Little Sis, to the V & A, to see the Shoes: Pleasure and Pain Exhibition. I’d finished my other jobs early, so had about an hour before they arrived to sit in the garden, relax with a cup of tea and read my book.

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We had planned to meet at 1pm so that we could have lunch before we went to the exhibition. I’ve never eaten there before and was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the Garden Café is. The windows are stained glass and there are patterned tiles depicting the months of the year and the seasons on the walls. Surprisingly, the V & A website makes little mention of the architecture and design of the café. (There is information about the design of the building, but it does take a little searching for. Maybe that’s not what most people are interested in when they visit the V & A but I would like to see more information about it.)

The food in the Garden Café is reasonably priced, so we thought we’d made a good choice eating there. It’s one of those places that also does an afternoon tea deal (but check, it may not apply every day) so when you consider that entry to the museum is free, it can be a very really reasonably priced day out. We were all happy with our choice of venue.

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We finished lunch with plenty of time to spare so looked around on the ground floor before going into the Shoe exhibition. I wanted to go to this exhibition because, like so many women, shoes are my big passion. My tastes have changed over the years, they are more diverse now, but I still love them all. I saw some that were very similar to shoes I used to own, it was like being in seventh heaven. I didn’t take any photographs at the exhibition because I thought they said that we weren’t allowed to, but I did see other people snapping away. It probably didn’t matter, I was drooling too much most of the time to have been able to hold the camera steady.

There were shoes from ancient Chinese cultures, Iraq, Egypt; more recent history and the modern day. I learned something very interesting about pole dancing shoes… Even my brother enjoyed this exhibition, which is going some for a man.

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Then I went to stay with the boys, Paul and Paul, on Saturday night. One of the Paul’s is a very good cook, so Saturday night dinner was at home. Very relaxing for me but maybe not so much for Paul. Delightful meal though, Indian themed, which is a big favourite with me. On Sunday, we all slept late, but had decided that we were going out for the day, and the Hellfire Caves at West Wycombe were the chosen destination.

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The caves extend for about a quarter of a mile underground, excavated between 1748 and 1752. They are below St Lawrence’s Church and Mausoleum; all of these were excavated or built by Sir Francis Dashwood (I always thought when Jane Austen referred to the Dashwood’s in Sense and Sensibility it was a fictional name, but maybe not).

The local area had been used for open-cast quarrying since way back, the chalk being used for roads and the foundations of houses. Sir Francis decided that he would extend the quarry to ease the local unemployment problem, caused by three years of successive harvest failures. It also doubled as a way of obtaining materials for a new road between High Wycombe and West Wycombe. What is not clear is why Dashwood did not just extend the existing quarry, as opposed to having the excavations done as caves… Perhaps there was an ulterior motive…

The Hellfire Club was not an exclusive name, it was used by a number of clubs frequented by upper class gents in the 18th century. The one in question here was more commonly known by the catchy little title of the Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe! Members of the club dressed up as monks and addressed each other as brother. Female guests dressed as nuns. Word spread that satanic rituals took place, I suspect it was far less sinister than that, just somewhere that the well-heeled could enjoy some undisturbed drinking, feasting and whoring, not necessarily in that order.

After the death of Sir Francis, and the demise of these Hellfire clubs (I guess everything goes out of fashion), the caves were not maintained and started to become dangerous. It wasn’t until 1951 that they were opened to the public for a small fee (one shilling a visit, along with a candle to light the way, which, I think would be about £1.50 in today’s money. It’s £6 to get in today.)

The caves have been cleaned up (and shored up in places) and electric lights have been installed – but don’t run away with the idea that the caves are lit up like the Blackpool illuminations, there are places where a torch would be very useful. There have been reported sightings of bats in the caves, although fortunately, I didn’t see any (I’m not great with anything flying close to my head); there are also reports that the caves are haunted. I have to be honest, I didn’t get any sense of that either but don’t let that stop you from visiting.

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We walked up to the church and mausoleum afterwards – what a fantastic view, and good exercise. The church (St Lawrence) is beautiful and definitely worth a visit. They do afternoon teas there too, on a Sunday.

All in all, a lovely day, and lovely weekend.

© Susan Shirley 2015

Royal London Walking Tour

www.susanshirley.myorganogold.com

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I was at a loose end on Sunday, hadn’t planned anything, but it was a beautiful day, if a bit chilly (first thing, anyway) so I thought I’d get myself off on one of my London walks.  I usually plan and book in advance, but I just hadn’t organised myself that much this time.  I did a little search online and came across a free walking tour of Royal London.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t even notice the name of the company, I liked the look of it and so I booked it.  I can tell you now though, it’s

www.weareundiscovered.com

The meeting place was Green Park Station, by the statue of Diana, the huntress.  I must have been walking around with my eyes closed for the last however many years because I didn’t even know where this statue was!  Of course I do now.  It’s not my favourite piece of art work, so maybe that’s why I didn’t notice it before.

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Diana is the Roman name for this goddess, daughter of Jupiter and Latona, twin sister of Apollo.  Her Greek name is Artemis, parents Zeus and Leto.  Interestingly, her brother is called Apollo in Greek mythology too.

Anyway, I was there early and did a bit of people watching whilst I waited for the tour to start.  Then I saw the orange umbrella referred to in my booking email so checked in for the tour and had a little chat to the company rep and tour guide while we were waiting for other tour visitors.  I found out quite a lot about the tour company and liked what I heard.  It seems a very friendly company.

When we were all assembled, our guide introduced herself to us as Morgane (bit of Arthurian legend going on there methinks…) and took us off to a less crowded area of the park.  As there were only ten of us, Morgane got us all to do a quick intro – we were quite a varied group, we had a Japanese lady, a couple from San Francisco who were over here for a year to work, a Spanish-Indian lady who is married to a South African, to name but a few.

I’m not going to pretend that everything I was told on this tour was new to me, but even if you’ve read it here before, it’s worth repeating.  I’m guessing that the non-natives didn’t know it all anyway and I can honestly say that I never come away from a tour without learning something new.

Morgane told us that London was founded about 2000 years ago by the Romans, but further east, over in what we now call the City, and it was called Londinium in those days.  Green Park used to be a swamp (most of Central London was little more than a swamp, or at the very least, marshland, back then) and the bodies of lepers were thrown in it… What is now the site of St James’ Palace used to be a hospital for lepers so that makes perfect sense.  Who wants to be dragging those dead bodies too far?  I rather think those few hundred yards were far enough.

Sometime later, the land became a private park for the King, Charles II, and subsequently a public park.  Back in the 18th century, when it first became a public park, it was actually on the outskirts of London, and was home to robbers and ne’er do wells, so the rich chaps who walked along here, perhaps on their way back from their liaisons with the ladies of the night down the road in St James’ Park (which was a red light region before it all went up market) were often robbed.  It was ever thus: one part of London goes up, another down, and you just have to have your wits about you and get your horse-drawn carriage to pick you up to get you home safely.

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Front of Buckingham Palace

From here, we walked down to Buckingham Palace, built in 1705 by the Duke of Buckingham.  If you’ve never taken a good look at the Palace, I’d urge you to do so.  It’s a stunning building and there is way more to it than the frontage that we all see in the photographs.  This is a newer addition to the building, the rear being built in sandstone.  Better still, go on one of the tours.  The time is nearly up for this year, but it’s open annually from the end of July to the end of September, and the state rooms are a sight to behold.

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Opposite the palace, at the bottom of Green Park is the beautiful Canada Gate, a memorial to the one million Canadians who served with the British Forces during the first and second World Wars.

Next we walked along the Mall.  As you walk along this road, take a look at the street lights – they are gas operated on the side of St James’ Palace, which was the original road, and electric on the other side.  There are other gas-lit lamps in London, too.

We stopped off outside Clarence House, which is another place that is well worth a visit.  It was built 200 years ago by John Nash and is now home to the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles. There were a couple of guardsmen on duty outside but they were too far away for me to see which regiment they were.  Morgane told us a bit about the guards too, while we were on our walk.

Then we turned off and stopped outside St James’ Palace, built by Henry VIII.  Morgane went into full theatrical mode here, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.  These tour guides have to cater for all tastes so by involving their attendees, it makes it more interesting.  She chose her actors well, too, going through Henry’s wives and assigning individuals a role.  There were only a couple of men in the group but Morgane got one to play the part of Anne of Cleves, who reputedly looked like a man!  This was a really fun history lesson about how Henry became king, right through to a potted history of his offspring.  And then, Morgane threw in a fact that I rather think I ought to have known but didn’t – all the bricks used to build St James’ Palace came from Brick Lane, in East London.

We made our way along Pall Mall and stopped off at the site of a house where Nell Gwynne used to live, and then at the RAC Club, to have a peer in to see the latest car.  Apparently, they have a different car in there every week.  Being a Sunday, it was a bit difficult for us to see it as the doors were closed, but it we got a bit of a look.  Then up to Waterloo Place to gaze upon the beauty that is the Athenaum Club, designed by Decimus Burton when he was only 24 years old.  The club, a private members club, houses one of the largest private libraries in London.

From here we went to Trafalgar Square, and who can fail to notice Nelson’s Column, erected to celebrate the English victory at the Battle of Trafalgar?  Morgane told us a lot about Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish at Trafalgar in 1805.  Trafalgar was the most important Naval Battle in the Napoleonic Wars, with 22 of the Franco-Spanish fleet of 33 ships being lost.  England lost none of her ships.  Morgane went on to tell us about the National Gallery and St Martins in the Fields, where classical music concerts are held daily.  There is also a lovely little cafeteria in the basement, very reasonably priced and worth a visit.

Then along to Admiralty Arch, which was the home to the administration of Britain’s armed forces until 2012, when, in it’s bid to make a bit of money, the government leased it to a property developer for 120 years, so that it can become a luxury hotel.  At least they didn’t sell it….  Next stop was just around the corner, to the Admiralty Citadel which was built in 1940 as the bomb proof operations centre for the admiralty.  Right opposite this is the National Police Memorial, where there is a roll of honour in memory of about 1600 police officers killed in the line of duty.

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Admiralty Citadel

 

National Police Memorial
National Police Memorial

We moved a little further on to Horse Guards Parade, and the site of Whitehall Palace, which was largely destroyed by fire in 1698 (the Banqueting House on the opposite side of Whitehall still remains).  I believe that below the government buildings that now stand along Whitehall, there are still Henry VIII’s original tennis courts and some other historical remains, but most of us will never get to see them.

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We stopped off to take some photographs of the Lifeguards on duty, and then walked past Downing Street.  I remember actually being outside number 10 as a child on a school trip, but unfortunately, since the IRA bombings of the late 1980’s, that doesn’t happen anymore.

Morgane pointed out Churchill’s favourite pub – The Red Lion, which is not a bad little boozer, although I’ve not been in there for a few years.  She recounted the tale of an encounter he is reputed to have had with Labour MP Bessie Braddock.  The exchange went something like this:

“Winston, you are drunk and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk.”

“Madam, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly.  But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.”

There are variations on what was said, and I suppose we will never know for sure, but it’s an oft repeated story, and always makes me smile.

From here we moved down to Westminster Abbey where Morgane told us about some of the famous people buried there.  The tour ended between the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, with Morgane telling us about Guy Fawkes and the lovely process of execution we English used to employ back then in the 13th to 17th centuries.

All in all, a lovely tour, I really enjoyed it.  Thank you all at weareundiscovered.com and thank you Morgane.

 

© Susan Shirley 2015

 

 

 

 

Homage to Tigger Jenkinson

www.susanshirley.myorganogold.com

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 I wrote this last weekend whilst I was staying at my friends’ house last weekend.

“It feels strange sitting here alone, in someone else’s house.  I feel safe, it’s a friendly house.  (Actually it’s a bungalow but let’s not split hairs).  I’m here because Kate and Geoff are going to their nephew’s wedding for the weekend.  I’m alone because they aren’t here, and nor is little Tigs, their cat.  Their lovely little cat.  If you aren’t a cat person, read no further, it will make no sense.

“Even as I write this, I know it’s not what I had planned to write this week’s blog about, I had wanted all happy and friendly, but life catches you unexpectedly sometimes, and recording it is what being a writer is all about.

“Ok, let me start from the beginning, it will be easier for you all to understand.

“Tigger was 21 years old, and had lived with my friends Kate and Geoff for about 14 years.  I remember that it was a short while after I got my first cat, my lovely boy Titan, whom I had to have euthanised six years ago on 31 August – Bank Holiday Monday.

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“Kate, Geoff and I had always been dog people.  Even before he met Kate, Geoff had been an Alsatian man – I remember meeting one of his boys, Benny (Benson) when they were first going out together.

“I had had dogs on and off since I was 16.  My Mum wouldn’t allow it when we were kids, she said that she would have been the one who always ended up walking them, so we weren’t allowed anything that didn’t come in a cage or a tank full of water.  When I was 16, someone that my parents knew had a dog who had pups, so I was allowed my first dog.

“He came home, some cross between a lab, a poodle and something else, this little black creature who sat on my lap and immediately pee’d over my (then) favourite skirt.  (Which was, fortunately, washable.)  I was horrified and called him Barney.  Rather, my Mum called him Barney.  There was a boy I knew and she thought it was appropriate.

“Barney and I had teething troubles.  I now understand my Mum’s reservations.  Animals and children are not dissimilar, but animals have stronger teeth and chew on their owners’ best shoes; babies don’t have teeth early enough to do that, nor are they big enough.  Barney thought all my shoes were game on.  I disagreed.  It was tough.

“Barney and I were together until I got married, then I couldn’t have him in Naval married quarters, so my Mum and Dad looked after him.  When I started running a pub, Barney came back to me.

“Poor little Barnes didn’t stay long.  He clearly didn’t like it, ran off one day and I never saw him again, despite my best efforts to find him.  He wasn’t wearing a collar (he used to scratch a lot and the collar seemed to irritate it so I left the collar off when he was indoors.  We didn’t have micro-chipping in those days).  One charming officer from Essex police (where we lived when he went missing) told me it was an offence to allow a dog out without a collar.  I have to tell you that at the time of writing, I wanted to say something very offensive about that, but at the time, I just mumbled something and tried not to aggravate him because I hoped he might help me.  Anyway, I never saw poor little Barney again.  I don’t know what happened to him.  It doesn’t haunt me anymore, not until something brings it back to me, like today.

“I was sad, very sad, and a couple of weeks later, I went to an RSPCA rescue centre and found my lovely Gemma, the most wonderful dog in the world.  I do have photographs of her, but they aren’t digital, and I haven’t converted them yet.  She was a black collie retriever cross, with a partly black tongue.  She was lovely. Beautiful.   Again, not all a bed of roses.  I remember a notable occasion when I was entertaining a gentleman friend, after my marriage had ended, and she was outside in the garden.  It started to thunder and Gemma did a runner.  That was the first time, but not the last, that I ran out in the rain, without a coat, trying to retrieve a pet.  We eventually reunited and Gemma and I were together for about 11 years (not bad for her size of dog) until she was diagnosed with cancer.  The surgery was not a success so eventually I had to have her euthanised (we still called it putting them to sleep, which, I have to say, I think is preferable).  There were lots of things about Gemma that were so funny, they need to go into a book.  She was my best friend.

“I was distraught, but the man of the moment told me not to get another dog straight away.  He said that I spent too long out of the house, and my little Gems had got used to it but another dog wouldn’t find it so easy.  He was right.  I was without a pet for ten years.  A lonely ten years in many ways.

“I lived in a third floor flat and I found I had mice.  How?  Who knows?  I did find out later but that’s a story for another day.  I got a cat, my first cat.  My little Titan.  I went to Battersea Home for Cats and Dogs.  I found little T and took him home on a mainline train and a couple of tubes.  I think you may not be surprised to learn that, yet again, it was not all a bed of roses…   Maybe I am just a commitment phobic.  My paternal grandmother had a cat, but my mother didn’t like them.  At all.  Me, I generally like all animals, at least until they try to bite me.  That usually tends to put me off a bit.

“However, there is something about living with a cat when you have never lived with one before.  They are wilful.  So am I.  So there was a battle of the wills.  Mine and his.  They say that the first year of a marriage is the hardest and I think that is the same when you get a cat for the first time.  I don’t remember it being so hard with dogs, but then they are more eager to please.  Cats don’t give a flying….

“So, this dog person had a cat.  Kate and I always spoke (still do) frequently on the ’phone and she rang one day to tell me she had a rescue cat whom they had called Tigger.  He was a lovely little boy, much like my little Titan.  They were both black, except that my little boy had a white locket.  (A little white spot on his chest.)

“Over the years, we compared notes and always asked about how our boys were.  Six years ago, exactly six years ago on 31 August, I had my little boy put to sleep.  I was a wreck.  I was lonely.  I left it for six weeks and went to Battersea again to get more cats – two girls, sisters.  Kate understood my pain and she and Nicola came with me.  I wasn’t trying to replace Titan, I just couldn’t be without a pet again.

“Meanwhile back on the ranch, Tigger went on and on, way outliving my little Titan.  Kate and Geoff did everything that responsible people would do for a cat, but far more than that, they loved him and made a fuss of him.  I think my girls are pretty well spoiled, but nowhere near little Tigs.  But all good things, however painful, must come to an end.  Despite all the love, care and medication, Tigs had stroke.

“He was 21 years old when he passed; about 91 in human years.  I had a bad feeling when I said that I’d come up to look after him while Kate and Geoff went to a wedding.  Was it because it was six years earlier, on the Bank Holiday Monday, that I had to have my little boy put to sleep?  Maybe but I didn’t think so.  Notwithstanding that, I came up, on Friday evening.  All well and good, we had a nice meal, and Tigs was on form.

“I woke early on the Saturday morning, tossing and turning, too hot, too cold.  Nothing unusual about any of that.  At about a quarter to five, I heard Tiggy out in the hallway.  I thought he was struggling to breathe so I got up and went to him.  He was staring into the dining room.  Maybe he was looking the Angel of Death in the face, anyway, I touched him, and it was clear that he hadn’t heard me come up to him. I’d distracted his attention, but he let me pick him up and we had a little cuddle, but he wasn’t himself.

“Kate got up a few minutes later; she and the boy had a cuddle, I made the tea.  All I can say to you is that little Tigs was ok until he went outside.  But he didn’t come back in the usual timeframe (if you know anything about cats, you will know that they are creatures of habit, even more than humans).

“I had just got out of the shower when Kate came back in with him.  He had been lying in the next-door-neighbour’s garden.  All I’m going to say here is that he was not in a good way.  We couldn’t get him to local vet so we took him to the Beccles branch, where, fortunately, we saw his usual vet, Lotte.

“The rest, as they say, is history.  Tigger breathed his last breath today.”

 

© Susan Shirley 2015