St. Maewyn’s Day

You may know this fellow better by his adopted name: Patrick.

Patrick was named Maewyn Succat when he was born circa 385 CE to a wealthy Roman family in either Wales or Scotland. At age 16, he was kidnapped by raiders and sold as a slave to Ireland, living there for six years as a shepherd and learning about its people until he managed to escape back to England. It was when he became a priest that he changed his name to Patricius. Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary, preaching and converting the pagans to Christianity. In the Catholic church, his feast day is the day of his death, traditionally believed to be on March 17, 416 CE.

Legend has it that Patrick used the three-leaved shamrock (Irish seamróg = “little or young clover”) as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity. He may also have chosen this plant because the number 3 was significant for Celtic pagans; it is the “number of everything”. It wasn’t until the 18th century, though, that the shamrock began to be used as an Irish symbol. The shamrock (several species of Trifolium) has traditional medicinal value and was a common Victorian motif. In the Language of Flowers, the red clover signifies the virtue of industry, white clover means “think of me”, and the four-leaved variety says “be mine”.

Wearing green today? When the chivalric Order of St. Patrick was founded in the 1700s, blue was adopted as its official colour, which led to that colour – not green, which was considered unlucky – being associated with the saint. The use of green to represent Irish nationalism stems from 17th and 18th century political movements.

It’s understandable that legend, cultures and customs meld over time. It’s still an odd thing to me, however, that folk worldwide suddenly become Irish for a day on March 17 – and celebrate it in some pretty outrageous ways. I don’t march in parades or look for leprechauns, but I have been known to wear green on the day – although I wear it often, as it, along with blue, is one of my favourite colours. I don’t drink beer, so the green Guinness is out. (But that would be an insult to Guinness aficionados, anyway!)

I do think of my paternal grandmother, though. I know very little about her; my father never said much, for the very reason that he wasn’t given the chance to know her, either, and now there is no one left to ask. What I did discover through genealogical research, however, was that she emigrated as a young woman from Belfast to Canada in the early 1900s. Why? To seek a new life: employment, better housing, a marriage? I don’t know whether she had known my English-born grandfather, who was already living in Toronto, before she set foot on that ocean-crossing steamer. Regardless, they married soon after she arrived – and soon after that, came my dad! Sadly, that little family’s hopes and dreams died along with her a couple of years later in childbed, after my father’s little sister was born. A heart-wrenching story of hardship, struggle and lost dreams – but then, historically speaking – doesn’t that make me so quintessentially Irish?

Detail, Book of Kells scarf – a treasured gift from a friend.

Spring Forward

“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”

20160309_180048 (3)At this time of year, my parents always quoted this old chestnut, no doubt learned from their parents before them. It’s a proverb possibly of English or Welsh origins (in Wales, it’s used more often for April); some say it comes from Pennsylvania. No matter where or how it started, it refers, of course, to quixotic March weather and the hope for a warm and gentle Spring. My mother has often told me that, on the day I was born in early March, she watched a brisk wind outside her hospital room window toss the willows in a chill and fitful dance. (Perhaps that presaged the highs and lows of my own nature, which can at times run to the tempestuous.) I’m sure as she gazed out at the pale and blustery landscape, that young mother had her own hopes and dreams for me, her third and youngest child.

Here in southern Ontario, we’ve enjoyed a little bit of everything weather-wise so far this month. A few warmer days, a bit of rain, some fog, and – finally – a few kinder, sunny afternoons. Last night, however, as I set out for home after work, a mini snowstorm hit, with biting winds that made the snow swirl smokelike across the road. Winter was back, but only temporarily. This morning dawned bright, still cold, but most of the snow has already melted. The sky is robin’s egg blue, and the sunlight pooling on our wooden floor feels warmer than it did last week.

In my part of the world, it is the eve of Springing Forward – changing our clocks to Daylight Saving Time. At 2:00 a.m. on the 12th (the second Sunday of March), we move our clocks ahead one hour. With that, our time zone abruptly changes from Eastern Standard Time (EST) to Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), and in November, it all changes back again. Some Canadian provinces, indeed some towns or regions, choose to opt out of this method of (supposedly) making better use of daylight and saving energy, i.e. moving an hour of daylight from the morning to the evening. Different countries have different change dates.

With every new season, I like to visit a local plant nursery for a bit of fresh air and a lot of browsing. I don’t have a garden (although I can grow herbs and vegetables in pots on the balcony), but I like to roam the aisles, breathing in the scent of rich potting soil and living, growing things. This particular nursery also has an extensive shop with giftware and accessories, all arranged in charming seasonal vignettes. Almost to this day last year, I went to see what they had on offer for Spring. Soft pastels, spring greens, eggs and rabbits were all there – and lambs!

20160309_180048 (6)My mother was also born in March, near the end of the month. Last year, I completed a cross stitch sampler featuring lambs, one of her favourite creatures. I didn’t have the funds at the time to get it framed, but maybe I can do it in time for her birthday this year. If I do, I’ll post a photo of it; it’s a lovely, bucolic design, perfect for a fresh, new season.

Here is more weather-related March lore:

“A dry March and a wet May? Fill barns and bays with corn and hay.”

 “March winds and April showers? Bring forth May flowers.”

 “So many mists in March you see / So many frosts in May will be.”

 “As it rains in March, so it rains in June.”

New Beginnings

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American Robin (Turdus migratorius) keeping an ear out for worms

I haven’t been on WordPress much lately, so I apologize for not making the rounds of all your wonderful posts, but I’ve been engaged in a much-needed and long overdue activity: job-finding. This was the number 1 item on my 17 for 2017 list, and I’m happy to report that, after a January-long search, several interviews and a couple of days of orientation, I started a new job last week! It is in a field I know well but have been away from for several years, so it’s good to get back to the familiar, where I can put my skills to good use. This new situation, however, will bring a learning curve, new challenges, and, no doubt, a fair deal of stress. I expect a surprise or two each day, but as I settle in, things will become easier.

For this blog, as February turned quickly to March, I didn’t have a clear vision for a monthly theme. I looked at the calendar. Yes, there’s St. Patrick’s Day; I’m one-quarter Irish, so I might give this a nod. The most significant event seems to be the Spring equinox, which graces us here in the Northern Hemisphere on Monday, March 20 at 6:28 a.m. EST. (It occurs at the same moment worldwide, despite differing time zones.) The first day of Spring, and all its fresh promises! Given the positive change in my working status, I finally had a theme for March: New Beginnings!

The word equinox comes from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). This is what The Old Farmer’s Almanac has to say: On the vernal equinox, day and night are each approximately 12 hours long (with the actual time of equal day and night, in the Northern Hemisphere, occurring a few days before the vernal equinox). The Sun crosses the celestial equator going northward; it rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west.

Meteorologically speaking, the official Spring season always begins on March 1 and continues through May 31. This is based on annual temperature cycles rather than the Earth’s position relative to the Sun. Planting is done according to the gradual increase of sunlight, warming temperatures and a thing called Phenology (Greek for science of appearances) – watching for nature’s signs. Did you know, for instance, that it is generally safe to plant radishes, parsnips and spinach once the crocuses have bloomed? Or that perennials can be planted when maple trees begin to leaf out?

I think we all practice a bit of phenology as we eagerly look for signs of the new season. In March, worms begin to emerge from the earth, giving rise to this month’s full moon name: the Full Worm Moon. Birds have already begun to migrate north, following the path of the Sun. Here in southern Ontario, red-winged blackbirds have been here for a week or two, to keep company with small pockets of hardy, overwintering robins. (The rest of the red-breasts will surge north to join their cousins – and pick off all those worms – any day now.) Song sparrows are usually the next to follow, and cardinals have been singing their exuberant heads off for quite some time. Birdsong is, in fact, triggered by the increasing sunlight; I’ve always thought that birds sound happier on warm, sunny days.

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The pale promise of Spring

Some trees and shrubs, such as pussy willows and forsythia, are setting out buds. Crocuses and snowdrops have been flowering in sheltered areas; tulips and daffodils won’t be far behind. Amphibians such Spring Peeper frogs and hibernating mammals are beginning to wake and stir from their cosy winter dens. Just yesterday, a friend who lives in the countryside remarked upon the annual re-emergence of George, a six-year-old female woodchuck, from her burrow beneath the deck. George, my friend is happy to report, looks sleek and well-rested and quite ready to face another sun-filled season grazing on clover, dandelions and all those freshly-planted crops!

While there is little historical evidence that ancient peoples of Britain and Europe honoured an equinoctial god or goddess, there is speculation that Xáusōs, a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, may have given rise to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon dawn goddess, and to Ostara, the neopagan moon goddess of Spring and fertility. Modern pagans celebrate Ostara at the vernal equinox, considering it one of the eight major festivals of the Wheel of the Year. Thousands gather at Stonehenge to mark the equinox sunrise through the ancient stones. In Japan, Vernal Equinox Day is a national holiday spent visiting family graves and holding family reunions.

Symbols of new life are starting to abound; soon there will be bunnies and egg-painting and baskets filled with improbably green “grass”. Folklore tells us that the Spring equinox is the only time of year when an egg can be stood on its end. While I’ve never tried it myself, I’ve read that this is just a myth. Clover and other three-leaved plants were considered gifts from the faeries to bring protection and good luck; they were co-opted into Christian symbolism, particularly associated with St. Patrick, as a representation of the Holy Trinity.

The practice of Spring cleaning stemmed from the desire to rid the home of old or negative energies accumulated over the dark winter months. Some people drink dandelion and burdock cordial as a rejuvenating, blood-cleansing tonic. In keeping with ancient tradition, I will most likely mark the equinox with fire – a symbol of the Sun. A pure beeswax candle, some fresh herbal incense, perhaps a few pretty purple amethyst stones to catch the light.

How will you celebrate this time of awakening, when the world seems young again and the air holds the promise of regeneration and new growth?

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Tulips at the local market – a glorious sight to behold!

The Courtesy of Cursive

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Clockwise from bottom left: Cross Aventura fountain pen in Starry Blue; botanical notepaper; Lotus India Ink for dip pens and brushes; modern postcards from France and Italy; lidded box for two rolls of stamps; vintage reading spectacles; antique postcards dated 1912; cream envelope with wax seal; vintage mother-of-pearl letter opener with gilt handle; all shown on an antique fall-front secretaire.

I’ve always hated my handwriting. Not the childlike printing that everyone seems to use these days, but the careful, flowing script we were taught in grade school. Oh, I learned how to do it, alright, but somehow I never developed a distinct style; I’ve never quite managed to put pen to paper with panache. (And don’t even mention my signature. Yuck.) This is, perhaps, why I’m such a procrastinator when it comes to tackling personal correspondence. I would much prefer to send off a quick (but always well-edited) e-mail than to handwrite a letter or thank-you note.

In Canadian schools, cursive writing is being phased out or has already been dropped from curricula. The other day, when I gave some handwritten notes to my youth archery class, I had to ask my students whether they could understand my cursive script! (Some of them could; some couldn’t.) I suppose the reasoning for the decision – if there is any, besides lack of classroom funding – is that in the Digital Age, people can communicate instantly with their thumbs (you don’t even have to learn how to type, for crying out loud) or even voice-activation, so handwriting is obsolete. Add to that the seeming abandonment of proper spelling and grammar, and you have, my friends, the downfall of civilization as we used to know it.

So perhaps, in reaction to these alarming things, I developed an interest in calligraphy and fine writing instruments. Murano glass dip wands and marbled fountain pens, silver nibs and inkpots filled with jet black India. Rosewood writing desks with secret drawers, crisp ivory parchment and red wax seals. Sepia postcards and lavender-scented billets doux, tied with a silk ribbon from a lover’s hair!

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A secretaire writing desk, with all its delicious cubbyholes, is the perfect place to store treasures such as antique books, postcards and this modern Jinhao fountain pen with rosewood barrel.

I’ve treasured a small collection of writing-related paraphernalia for many years, and I was fortunate to have been given, as a teenager, an old writing desk (shown here) to put it in. What fun it was using that desk, with all its pigeon holes and tiny drawers and two hidden compartments! It sat in a corner of my bedroom, lit by a Victorian-style lamp, its fall-front lid providing a sturdy surface to practice my calligraphy or hold the old Underwood upon which I tapped out all my school essays!

A particular interest of mine, if you haven’t already guessed, is the fountain pen. I love the great variety of styles, from filigreed antique ones to sleek, modern designs, available today. I have a couple of utilitarian examples from my youth and have recently added one or two (or three) more! (I’m waiting for the delivery of a plum-coloured Pilot right now.) Outward appearance aside, weight, proportion and balance in the hand are important factors in deciding which model to buy, as well as its ink delivery system (cartridge, piston, squeeze converter). And, of course, it’s hard to decide upon just the right ink from a dizzying selection of colours and effects: Diamine’s Shimmering Seas, Noodler’s Nightshade or Herbin’s Eclat de Saphir, anyone?

While I may never have the money to buy a 1920s Waterman sterling silver fountain pen, I do have a few items on my wish list. I’m saving up for a Platinum Plaisir fountain pen with rose gold-tone finish (I think I’ll fill it with a Diamine ink called Ancient Copper), a demilune rolling ink blotter, and a vintage cut glass inkwell.

Now, it’s time to lay down a fresh desk pad, dip my quill into that bottle of encre de Chine and put my head, and hand, to those long-neglected thank-you notes!

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This Speedball Classic B-style wooden nib holder in Gold & Black with Speedball 512 nib can be used with the India ink shown here or any fountain pen or drawing ink.

A Writer’s Life

“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.” – Beatrix Potter

dsc_5172-4My love of books, of language, of the power of words, started very early. From the time I was a tiny tot, my parents read me a bedtime story every night. My favourite books back then were the charming tales by Beatrix Potter. Who could resist the likes of Mrs. Tiggywinkle and Squirrel Nutkin? To help prolong the life of these beloved volumes, my mother made covers for them from purple-flowered wallpaper left over from my room. The beautifully-illustrated little hardcover books still wear those slipcovers and occupy a special place on my bookshelves to this day.

Perhaps because my parents instilled a love of books in me from such an early age, I became adept at reading and writing. (My mom also encouraged me to sing before I could read, which I believe helped develop my ear for music.) Spelling always came easily, and I was never confounded by the rules of grammar.

“let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences” – Sylvia Plath

I took typing classes in high school. Throughout those years and in university, I wrote all my papers on a manual Underwood typewriter similar to the one pictured here. (The circa 1912 machine in the photos belonged to my husband’s grandfather, a clergyman who likely used it to compose his sermons and prayers.) Our old typewriter was already a relic when it was handed down to me; frustratingly, the e (the most frequently-used letter in the English language) always got stuck. Imagine how pleased I was later on when, with the proceeds of a stint as a community college English teacher, I was able to purchase – wonder of wonders! – an electric typewriter! This was before personal computers became a household staple, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.dsc_5220-3Although my language skills were pretty polished, I didn’t yet have a firm understanding of punctuation. In a university Old English course, as we studied the Venerable Bede, the Great Vowel Shift and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, I learned a valuable lesson. My professor (we’ll call him Æthelbert) handed back a graded essay of mine. The first couple of pages were covered in red Xs; after that, there was one last acerbic note from the prof. He was thoroughly exasperated with my overuse of commas, he said, and would I, please, stop using them, before he acted on his desperate urge, to commit a rather, unfortunate, violent act. His plea was followed by about a dozen exclamation points.

I took the hint and cleaned up my grammatical act. Thanks in part to Professor Æthelbert, I went on to earn my degree in languages, literature and translation.

I’ve always found it easier to write my thoughts down rather than express them verbally, especially if I’m struggling with a decision or when I’m upset. The process of getting thoughts, feelings and frustrations down on paper is cathartic and therapeutic. And I’ll often think – hours later – of what I should have said: a biting response or a witty bit of repartee. Far too late, I know, but churning words over in my mind and writing them down helps me work through problems and see things more clearly. No one will ever read those scribblings, but I almost always feel better.

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Around 2010, I began work on a novel. It’s based on dreams I had when I was much younger, and the fantasy has been growing and morphing and causing agonizing self-doubt about my writing abilities ever since. There have been days and nights when I sit down at my laptop, forgoing food and drink, conversation and participation in real life for long stretches. Suddenly, I’ll look up to find that, whilst I’ve been lost in my dream world of words, testing phrases on my tongue and searching for le mot juste, a full eight hours have flown by. My characters have lived, loved, fought and sometimes died, and I’ve rejoiced, struggled and wept along with them. Nothing else exists for me during this time, and I’m at my happiest when I’m tapping away in this world, alone yet not alone.dsc_5211-4

That novel is far from finished. Sometimes I go great guns, writing pages and pages; other times, I feel the thing is complete rubbish. Certainly the story has strayed far from where it started, and that doesn’t sit right with me. I know I need to make major changes to its plot and structure, but for the last couple of years I’ve been stricken with a terrible case of writer’s block, an inability to see how it can be done. There are other big issues going on in my life which are undoubtedly damming the creative flow. Perhaps when I sort those out, I can get back to doing what I love most.

Angel Whiskers (Part 3)

The final installment of the story of Simone, or Simmy, Sim-sim, Simkin – whatever you want to call her. (Just don’t call her late for dinner.) If you missed the previous posts, click on Part 1 or Part 2.

10154663021600100-by-nancy-3Simmy the Travelling Cat was also a Wonder Cat. One day when I came to visit, she greeted me as usual but was clearly not herself. My mother wasn’t, either, but neither was about to tell me what was wrong. Then I noticed that the cat seemed disoriented and was bumping into things. My heart sank when I realized what my mother already knew  ̶  that Simone couldn’t see. A trip to the vet told us that Simmy had detached retinas and was completely blind. There was only a small chance of the condition reversing itself, perhaps in a matter of days or weeks. With great sadness, we brought Simmy home, resigned to the fact that our beloved cat would end her days in distress and darkness. Simmy did adapt admirably, navigating through the rooms tolerably well by whisker-feel, and, probably, sound and memory. But our lives – hers and ours – were just not the same.

But, lo! A couple of weeks later – just as the doctor had predicted – Simone was no longer colliding with chair legs or walls, and she seemed so much brighter and happier. Another veterinarian’s visit confirmed that, by some minor miracle, her retinas had spontaneously reattached, and she could see once again!10154663047545100-by-nancy-2

We enjoyed several more years with Simmy. (Gulliver, by the way, went back to my cousins when they returned from New Zealand; he was always their favourite and Simmy their least. They were delighted when my mother agreed to keep her for good.) But time and illness took its toll on the little Japanese Wonder Cat. She lived bravely with hyperthyroidism for the last years, her already petite frame growing increasingly thinner as the disease progressed. In the end, congestive heart failure, so common in old cats, was what claimed her. On that final, merciful visit to the vet, Simmy was courageous to the last. She ended in a purr, hearing how beautiful she was while accepting oh-so-gentle pit-pats on that bizarre yet beloved rear end.

That was about seven years ago. I still miss the ginger-headed little princess, sometimes expecting her to jump down to greet me when I arrive at the door, and to this day she reminds us of how she once graced our lives. Every once in a while, in my mom’s immaculately-kept home where Her Majesty reigned for so long, I still come across the occasional pure white, silky hair, or a long barbed whisker. It’s as if our lovely Sih-muh-nee, in her inscrutable wisdom, stashed them there on purpose, knowing one day we’d find these heart-wrenching yet beautiful souvenirs.by-nancy-simmy2-3

A huge thanks to my sister, Nancy Barrett of Nature’s Dance Photography, for supplying some of the photos for this series.

Angel Whiskers (Part 2)

Part Deux of L’histoire de Simone, the Van from Japan.

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Even house cats need a vacation: Simone spent an idyllic three weeks of every year playing Huntress in the great Muskoka wilderness.

Once the Japanese émigrés, Simone and Gulliver, were ensconced in my mother’s house (Do you think they speak English? Mom – bless her – asked), life took on a rather different slant for all of us. I began visiting Mom a bit more often. My mother was not fooled; she knew I had come to see the cats, a fact I cannot deny. The cat I’d grown up with was long gone. After I’d married a self-confessed cat hater (more on that later) and moved to a small apartment, I was destined to indulge my love of the beasts vicariously through other people’s pets, never my own. I’m the ultimate Cat Auntie – every cat I’ve come to know and love since then, I spoil rotten.

Although she was small, Simone was without a doubt Cat Number One in that household and asserted her royal prerogative over Gulliver accordingly. And when our entire family vacationed at our island cottage (an indoor cats’ paradise), she assimilated quite well with my sister’s older, more established cats, Mister and Missy. Perhaps because Simmy was so sure of herself and didn’t require heaps of attention, that excellent pair accepted her without a flick of a whisker, and life at the cottage hummed along quite harmoniously. They even went on safari in the woods together, sometimes led by their Humans. (Try navigating a narrow woodland path whilst three or four felines, intent on exploring the delicious scents ahead, choose the space between your feet as their primary lane of travel.) Meek and unsure Gulliver, on the other hand, (who, on his very first island visit cowered at the edge of the woods for three days, peering at us longingly with saucer eyes and a grumbling tummy from behind a pine tree) had to submit to Mister’s authoritative paw during several machismo-filled hiss- and growl-fests. Mister, a handsome tabby with a magnificently long, curling tail, made it crystal clear that this was his turf, not the young upstart’s. The two avoided each other quite judiciously after that.

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Brother and sister duo Mister and Missy look ready to rumble.

It was down at the dock, or when we took a dip in the lake, that Simone displayed another of the Van’s characteristic traits. Apparently, these cats love to swim, possibly due to their ancestors’ habit of fishing in Turkey’s Lake Van. Simmy never showed fear of the water; if anything, she enjoyed being around it. She’d hop readily into our gently-rocking moored boat. Once, we even found her underneath the wharf, exploring the rocks exposed by a low waterline. When we took the cats for walks, she was the one who jumped onto the half-submerged rocks farthest out in the lake, showing no distaste when her paws got wet. And, although we could never coax her to actually swim with us, she stayed as close as she could, looking for all the world as if she wanted to join in.

We had also read that Turkish Vans are rather more standoffish than most cats and dislike being held. Simone stayed true to her breed in that regard, to be sure, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t a sweet, loving cat. In her own way, she showed us great tenderness – but always on her terms. She refused to curl up on our laps and would tolerate being picked up for about 3.7 seconds, but absolutely adored snoozing beside me on the couch, an ever-so-convenient position for her most favouritest thing: the administration of endless “pit-pats” on her backside.

Once in a while, though, the Princess surprised us. Back at the cottage on a chilly summer evening, we caught her and my supposedly cat-hating husband nestled together by the fire. Heat-seeking missile Simmy had euphorically if temporarily suspended her “No laps” policy, while my husband was doing his best to maintain an air of complete indifference to this unlooked-for lap rug. The gig was up for both of them when we spied him sneaking out a hand to give the cat a few furtive yet clearly loving caresses. Busted!

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Not exactly a dignified position for Her Majesty, yet essential for soaking up that fireside heat!

During my mother’s move to a condo, Simone expressed bewilderment and grief at the (temporary) loss of her rightful Human when I took the cat home with me for safekeeping one night until the movers were done. She refused to eat, drink or use the litterbox, and prowled the apartment incessantly all night, crying pitifully for my mother. Naturally, I couldn’t sleep for all this caterwauling, either. I loved Simone, but I wasn’t impressed by this performance. Once settled into her new home, however, she happily ruled the roost once again, sleeping at the foot of Mom’s bed (something my mother vowed would never happen) and keeping her faithful company. Whenever I came to visit, she’d wake instantly from her afternoon snooze, hop down from the bed and trot cheerfully to the door to greet me. I wasn’t fooled, either; Simone knew perfectly well that she was in for a glorious few hours of silly talk and endless pit-pats; a task the One Who Fed Her left very happily to me.

~ To be continued ~