The Doctor will see you now

It’s been a busy week, not helped by the fact that I haven’t been very well, so this week’s blog will probably be shorter than normal. I awoke Monday morning with a pain in my back lower molar and a swollen jaw. Oh heck, I thought, here we go again. About seven or eight years ago I had exactly the same thing and it turned out to be a pretty severe infection which required two doses of live antibiotics to clear it up. I was back to work Monday and Tuesday, so there wasn’t really much I could do about it, other than pop pain meds and hope for the best.

My boss asked if I’d phoned my dentist to make an appointment, but I was reluctant to do so, knowing exactly how that conversation would go.

“Hi, I think I have an infection and I’m in a lot of pain.”

“Right, the dentist can see you later today.”

“Well, actually I’m at work so can we make it Wednesday?”

“Hmm, if you can wait it’s obviously not that bad, so let’s say that the dentist can see you a week next Tuesday.”

Like most people, I don’t get paid for having time off work sick so couldn’t afford to have an appointment during working hours. Instead, I walked to the dentist first thing Wednesday morning and threw myself onto the mercy of the receptionist, hoping that the fact the whole of the left side of my face was now swollen like a bullfrog would arouse her sympathies. After all, it’s harder to say no to someone who’s standing in front of you and is clearly in pain, than it is a faceless voice on the other end of the phone.

I was in luck, I only had to wait ten minutes before the dentist squeezed me in between patients. I was in his chair for precisely thirty seconds. I opened my mouth as far as I could, he looked, pulled a face, confirmed it was the same situation as previously, and gave me a prescription for two different sorts of antibiotics with the same warnings as before.

Now, doctors always tell you not to drink at all when on antibiotics, but the truth is the odd glass won’t hurt you because 95% of antibiotics prescribed are inert, dead. However, that wasn’t the case with these ones, and both the dentist, and the pharmacist who filled the prescription, stressed the important of abstinence. Last time I was a good girl and not a drop passed my lips the whole time I was taking them, except… I went for dinner at my parents’ house and mum had made a sherry trifle for dessert and I just didn’t think. I mean, it wasn’t in a glass, so it didn’t count as alcohol, right? Wrong. It so counted, and one tiny bowlful made me as sick as a dog. An experience I wasn’t keen to repeat, so until I’ve finished the course, I’m a teetotaller.

I also have to take a couple of probiotic drinks a day. The live antibiotics are so strong that they will strip all the bacteria from my body and won’t make any distinction between the good guys and the bad, thus leaving my immune system wide open for infection.

I left the dentist clutching my prescription and popped around the corner to my doctor’s surgery – I had to call in to pick up my hayfever pills anyway so hoped the dispensary there could also fill my prescription. They could, but not until next week and I really needed to start them immediately.

I walked back into town. Now, Wednesday is market day in the small town where I live and the place was heaving with people wandering around, stopping right in front of me, and generally being annoying.

I was tired and hungry. My whole face had throbbed with pain the entire night before, so I hadn’t really had any sleep, and my jaw was so sore that eating solid food was also an issue. I really wasn’t in the mood to deal with people, especially people who continuously got in my way and were just generally there!

Boots the Chemist was on my direct route home and I knew it was my best bet for getting my prescription filled immediately. Whilst I was there, I’d also be able to get the probiotic drinks I needed and the teatree oil shampoo and conditioner that Miss F had requested I pick up next time I was in town.

Brilliant, I thought. One shop and I could get it all, and then I could go home to take my first dose, pop another paracetamol and hibernate from the world. I reached the shop and dropped off my prescription at the pharmacy. Five minutes, I was promised, so grabbed a basket and went looking for the other items on my list. Endless aisles of haircare products, any teatree oil shampoo and conditioner? No, of course there wasn’t. I tracked down an assistant, who confirmed they didn’t sell it, but Holland & Barrett (all the way over on the other side of town) might. Probiotic drinks, I looked in the chiller cabinet, everything but. If I’d been in the mood for a Dr Pepper or a Diet Coke, then I could have drowned myself in it. Sandwiches, mini pots of pasta salad and falafel wraps galore, but actual healthy probiotic drinks… nope! My bad, the word “Chemist” tagged on the end of “Boots the” had plainly confused me.

By now, I was hot and dizzy and could feel my irritability rising. I’m a bit like a bear when I’m either unwell, tired, hungry, frustrated and need to pee – add all of those factors together and it makes for a very unpleasant Julia who had to go home before she bit someone.

I went home. Had some porridge with honey and then took my first dose. After a rest, I felt revived enough to walk to Waitrose which did sell probiotic drinks, hooray.

And then the fun began. If you’ve never taken live antibiotics you have no idea what they do to you. Completely stripping your body of all bacteria, it results in gastro combustion which can erupt at any moment and is highly unpleasant. Is it possible to pass internal organs? Asking for a friend.

But, needs must, and if it will get rid of the infection and stop the pain, then I’ll put up with the violent stomach cramps and the frequent bathroom visits.

Having a holiday off work last week was wonderful. Exhausted from the Christmas season and the January sales, it was nice to have a break, and I was determined to make the most of my eight wonderful days off. Usually, I waste my holiday frantically trying to catch up on housework, but I’ve come to the conclusion it is a complete and utter waste of time because I will never catch up. There will always be something that needs doing, so I might as well accept this and instead do something else with my time off, such as write.

I haven’t written an original word since last April, when I finished writing Chaining Daisy. Okay, I’ve blogged every week, but I’m not sure that counts, so I was determined that during my week off I would write, and only write.

Monday, I couldn’t get started. Begging the main character to give me a clue about her life, she remained stubbornly silent, so I pressed on and did the few chores I needed to get done in the week all in one day.

Tuesday morning, as I was eating breakfast, that obstinate Miss whispered in my head – “My life is small”. That was it, just one line, but it was enough. With rising excitement, I sat down at my laptop and typed the opening line – Her life was small. And from then on it was easy. Why was her life small? That was ten days ago, and I’m happy to report that to date I’ve managed to write 40,000 words. This is book three in the Blackwood Family Saga and as they all run to about 50,000 words each, this is a massive chunk of the novel written.

I’m very excited about this one. It’s completely different from the plot I had in my head, but I’m happy with the direction it’s taken, although, if anyone looks at my browser history I’m going to be in trouble. With searches covering the topics of burner phones, habits of serial killers, police safehouses, what is the range of an assault rifle and how much damage would a bullet do to a body if fired from such and such a distance, it’s enough to raise eyebrows in my direction. I’m a writer, honest, it’s all research.

I hate being ill. I’m the world’s worst patient. Hopeless at all this self-love nonsense, I push myself too far, refuse to rest, forget to take my medication at the right time, and generally drive myself crazy with my refusal to simply give in and admit that I’m not well.

I think it’s because for most of my life I have had to struggle on however sick I’ve been. Single parents have no one to tag in and take over to give them a rest. I could be bleeding from the eyeballs and Miss F would still need feeding and picking up from work.

Different story when she’s ill, of course, then it’s a constant chorus of – “Mum, can I have a drink,” “Mum, my bed’s all messed up,” “Mum, I can’t find Teddy,” “Mum, I feel… bleuughh… Mum, I’ve been sick again.”

Funny story, when she was a little one, about five or six, I noticed that she was very rosy cheeked one day, I mean, glowing, like a painted Dutch Doll. She also had a slight rash on her torso and was off her food. I took her to the doctor. Our normal doctor – who knew me and was used to my slightly off kilter sense of humour – was on holiday, so we had to see someone else. An elderly, very correct, doctor, he examined her.

“She has slapped cheek syndrome,” he told me.

“That’s impossible,” I replied.

“Oh, and why is that?” His eyebrows rose at my impudence in doubting his diagnosis.

“Because I never slap her where it shows.”

My usual doctor would have just laughed, understanding it was a joke, but this one looked at me in utter horror and scribbled something in his notes. Probably putting me on a list of some kind.

Over the years, Miss F has had the usual childhood ailments. She caught chicken pox off her cousin, and whilst she barely had any spots at all, poor Miss F was completely covered with them. They were everywhere. In her ears, up her nose and on her eyelids. Strapped into cotton mittens so she wouldn’t scratch and scar herself, for a week she was daily subjected to oatmeal baths, Calomine lotion and drops in her eyes – which were distressing for both her and me. Afterwards, I daily rubbed bio oil into her scars and they mostly cleared up, except one nasty one which has left a permanent spot in her left eyebrow where no hair will ever grow. Barely noticeable, I think she quite likes it, leastways even now that she is a teenager with access to eyebrow pencils, she never fills it in.

When she was ten, she came down with a virulent and rather nasty viral infection which settled in her joints and left her bedbound for a week. The doctor told me she had to have utter bedrest, and that too much exertion could leave her permanently afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis. Of course, I phoned the school as soon as I had this diagnosis and spoke to them at length about it. Absolutely, Ms Blake, they reassured me. We completely understand, keep her at home as long as necessary. Please just keep us updated as to her progress.

Duly, I telephoned them every day, letting them know how she was and that sadly she still wasn’t well enough to come back, but please could they email me some of her coursework for us to go over so she didn’t fall too far behind. I mean, obviously her education was and still is very important to me, but the doctor had terrified me with his grim warning, and, quite frankly, her long-term health seemed far more important than missing a few days of school at age ten.

Five days into her illness I received a letter from the school. Miss F had missed a lot of school, they said. They were concerned she might be truanting. Was I aware of quite how much time she’d had off and how that would impact on her future exam success? It was with regret, they said, that they were planning on starting legal proceedings against me!

Absolutely furious, I was going to telephone them, but this kind of anger had to be vented face to face. I did telephone my doctor though, who was horrified at the school’s attitude and again warned that under no circumstances was she to be moved yet. In fact, so adamant was he how detrimental to her health this would be, he sent me a very strongly worded email to print out and take to the school with me.

My mother drove in to sit with Miss F whilst I went to confront the school. Now, I’m normally a mild-mannered, let the waves wash over my head, kind of parent when it comes to schools. Trying not to be that parent – the one always making a fuss – I never had time to anyway, I firmly believed in keeping my head below the ramparts and not getting noticed. But this was different. I’d been in daily contact with them, keeping them informed at every step about her condition and the doctor’s diagnosis. To have received a letter like this, well, it was beyond belief!

I drove round there, girded my loins, and invaded the headmaster’s office. No appointment, no warning, I marched through his receptionist as if she wasn’t there and slapped the letter down on his desk. I’ve always felt that if you have a serious issue with an organisation, don’t waste time talking to the monkey, go straight to the organ grinder.

I talked. He listened. Once he realised what the issue was, he was horrified. Dragged the receptionist in demanding an answer. Why had this poor parent been dragged away from her child’s sickbed and threatened with legal action for merely obeying the doctor’s very strict instructions – here he waved the email under the woman’s face.

I did actually feel sorry for her by this point as, red faced, she scuttled away to see what had happened, confirming that she knew precisely what the situation with Miss F was because it was her I’d been reporting to each day. Turns out, there was an automated gremlin lurking at the heart of their computer system. Crouching there, it kept a record of all pupil attendance and, when a certain number of days had been missed, spat out this offensive letter, which was automatically posted with no one bothering to check or confirm its accuracy.

The issue was resolved, and no real harm done, but it did get me to thinking. What about if Miss F’s condition had been even more serious than it was? What if she was lying in hospital with a potentially terminal illness? How distressing would it have been to have received a letter like that?

Talking about receiving distressing letters, I received an odd one this week that I don’t know whether to laugh at or be offended by. After ten long years of Miss F’s father not contributing a penny to her upkeep and the Child Maintenance Agency proving worse than useless at getting anything out of him – apparently, the poor love is not earning anything and is filing nil tax returns. Really? So, the company he owns and the racehorse he’s just bought and splashed all over his Facebook page are just Scotch mist, are they? – Anyway, I gave up expecting any support from him years ago, be it financial, emotional or any other kind, but each year the Child Maintenance Agency send me a long letter, at the end of which they inform me that the child maintenance I can expect to receive that year amounts to £0.00 and what bank account would I like that paying into?

So, you can imagine my surprise when this year there was a change. He is going to finally contribute something to his daughter’s upkeep – wait for it, a whole £6.51 per week! Like I said, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, although on reflection, I think I’ll just shrug my shoulders and accept that it is what it is.

Anyway, I said this blog wouldn’t be a long one and here it is at almost 3000 words. It’s gone 8pm on Friday evening, and I will soon have to turn out on this cold and windy night to do the twenty-minute drive to pick Miss F up from work.

I’m glad I’ve managed to write this tonight. I have one more day off tomorrow before going back to work on Sunday and I’m desperate to get back to my story. My hero and heroine were left in a very precarious position and I really want to know how things worked out for them. Anyone know how quickly chloroform works? Asking for a friend, honest.

Take care, and I’ll catch up with you all next week.

Julia Blake

This is the road to Hell…

I’ve been on holiday all this week and I must say it’s been wonderful. Not having to get up early, although of course I haven’t exactly had lay ins, I’m afraid my ability to sleep in was destroyed by having a baby and I’ve never got back into the habit. Nevertheless, it was nice not having to be up and out of the house but being able to take things a little easy.

I was determined during this holiday to forget about catching up with housework or all the other things I tend to waste my time on during my precious days off, instead I was going to concentrate on writing book ten. Apart from blogging, I haven’t written anything original since last April and like most things, the longer you let things slide, the harder it is to get back into it.

Monday, I struggled to start. My main character was refusing to play ball and wouldn’t give me any clues about herself, so I did all the bits and pieces I really had to get done during the week, including a massive pile of ironing that had been glaring at me for days. Finally, early Tuesday morning, she whispered one line to me – My life is small. And that was it, that was all I needed, because with an opening line of – Her life was small – I was able to ask the question why? Why was her life small, and from that point I was off and running. I won’t bore you with too many details, but at the time of writing this blog on Saturday, I had written almost 30,000 words of the book. Not bad going, and considering the Blackwood family saga of which this will be book three, are all books of about 50,000 it means I’m a good chunk of the way through. I must say, this book is turning out to be very exciting and I don’t think I’ve ever written such an action led book before.

So that’s been my holiday, and it may sound boring to you, but to me it was bliss. Not only time to write, but time to read and time to cook a nice meal every evening for me and Miss F. It was Valentine’s Day on Friday, and even though I don’t hold with such nonsense and Miss F was working anyway, I still made us a lovely three course meal on Thursday evening to celebrate.

It was funny though, in the week leading up to my time off, every time I happened to mention to someone that I had a weeks holiday coming up, their immediate reaction was – “oh, how nice, where are you going?” – and it’s interesting how most people don’t consider it a holiday unless you’ve actually packed your bags, left your home and traipsed off somewhere where you probably won’t be as comfortable or as relaxed as you are at home.

I love being home and I love being home with nothing major to do. It’s so relaxing to be able to just chill out and read a book, or catch up on a TV series, or have friends round for coffee or lunch, and in the summer why would I want to get into a sweaty car and sit in a traffic jam for hours to sit somewhere that isn’t as nice as my own garden?

We haven’t really had that many holidays over the years, Miss F and I. For a start, funds have rarely been available, and as holidays are so expensive there has always been the tussle between wasting money on an experience that will be over and done with in a week, or spend it on essential improvements to our home which we’ll appreciate for years to come. Also, there was just Miss F and me, and when she was younger and going to bed early in the evening, that meant I’d be left sitting on my own in a hotel room or holiday cottage, having to be quiet because I didn’t want to wake her up. Not much of a holiday for me. It’s also exhausting, being the sole adult and the one responsible for all the packing, the driving and the decision making, the few holidays we did take, I came back needing a holiday to get over it.

I remember one particularly bad time we had when we were going to stay with friends down near Portsmouth for three days, before then travelling on to stay with other friends for a couple of days who lived in Gosport.

Things didn’t get off to a good start when we were sitting in a fully packed car and I turned the key, only for the engine to go clunk. Panicking, I turned it again. Nothing. I could not believe it. This was our holiday. We hadn’t ever really had one before, and the fecking bloody car wouldn’t start. I tried again, muttering curses under my breath, aware of little ears strapped into a car seat behind me. On the tenth go, the ignition caught, and the car flew into life. Phew. We drove onto the A14, only ten minutes behind schedule, so that was fine.

We’d barely gone five miles, when I had to slam on my brakes and ending up bumping into the central reservation to avoid an accident literally two cars ahead of me. Shaken, I checked that Miss F was okay and then got out to see what had happened. A car had slid into the side of a lorry. Luckily, no one seemed hurt, but the road was blocked. Two other lorries had stopped, and their drivers got out and between them shoved the slightly damaged car over to the side. Producing brooms from the back of their lorries, they swept all the broken glass off the road and then waved us through. Phew, I thought again. That was lucky.

We drove on another five miles, then from the back of the car came those words that no parent wants to hear at the beginning of a long drive to go on holiday. “Mummy, I don’t feel very… bleeuugggh!!” Vomit erupted from my child all over herself and the back seat of the car. Now, she’d had blackberry porridge for breakfast, so you can imagine what that was like.

Now edging into full blown panic, I desperately wondered what on earth I could do? Turn around, go back, abandon the holiday? Plainly, the gods were telling me something and the universe quite clearly didn’t want me to have this holiday. I saw the turn off to Exning approach and remembered that’s where my aunt and uncle lived, so took the turning.

Driving through the village, my phone clamped recklessly to my ear, I shrieked out the situation to my mother and begged her for directions because I couldn’t for the life of me remember where they lived.

“White gates, look for some white gates.”

“There are no white gates!”

“Turn right by the butchers.”

“I have no butchers, I have a bakers and possibly a fecking candlestick makers, but no bloody butchers.”

By this point I had passed through the town of full-blown panic and was approaching the suburbs of mild hysteria.

Eventually, I found them and bless them, they rose magnificently to the challenge of their niece and her small, seven-year-old daughter arriving unannounced on their doorstep one Monday morning, with a car covered in purple vomit.

My uncle manfully volunteered to deal with the car and my aunt hustled us up to the bathroom, where I stripped Miss F and hosed her down in their shower and helped her clean her teeth, whilst my aunt quickly washed her clothes and poor Teddy. Being held in her lap I’m afraid he’d borne the brunt of it and wasn’t looking very happy about the situation.

All this took time, of course, and I phoned my friend who’d been expecting us for lunch, warning her it would be more likely mid-afternoon by the time we reached them. Then we got back in the thankfully now freshened up car and set out once more on what was rapidly becoming a quest of almost Tolkien proportions.

Now, I’d been given strict instructions what route to take and they were taped to my dashboard for easy reference. I knew I had to stay on the M25 until I reached the M something or other to Portsmouth and after that it would be plain sailing. I sat on the M25 for what felt like hours, and suddenly saw a sign proclaiming that Watford was ahead. What?! I thought, isn’t Watford on the North side of London? Had I missed the turning? Had I almost done a complete lap of the capital?

Panicking. When the next junction announced it was the A something or other going to Portsmouth, I automatically took it, assuming I’d stupidly written down the instructions wrong, and, to be honest, so thankful to see a sign pointing in the right direction I didn’t stop to think. Just as I turned off the M25 and was fully committed to taking this road, I saw the next sign along – it was the M something or other to Portsmouth.

Too late, this was the road I was on, so this was the way I was going. I drove for another thirty minutes, desperately wondering how badly I’d screwed up and how much time I’d added to this road trip from hell. I saw a sign for a Wimpy roadside café – I hadn’t realised they still existed – and took it. I was starving hungry and desperate for a wee and a cup of coffee.

We parked and got out, both incredibly relieved to be out of the car. The facilities were before you entered the main restaurant, so we used those first, then went in to get something to eat and drink and it was as though we’d stepped through a time-warp and ended up in the 1970’s. Seriously. Orange and brown flock wallpaper, brown lino on the floor. Brown Formica tables with orange padded bench seats and those big ceramic lamps hanging overhead. There was waitress service – I kid you not – and the menu had all the things I remember there being when stopping at a Wimpy was an occasional, longed for, holiday treat.

I just ordered burger and fries for myself, with coffee, water and some toast for Miss F. She said she wasn’t hungry and was still looking a bit green about the gills, so I didn’t want to risk putting anything more exciting into her. My aunt had given us an old ice cream container, which Miss F had clutched like the Holy Grail all the way, but I really didn’t want any more incidents in the car.

While we waited on our food, I phoned my friend to fill her in with what had happened. She seemed a little annoyed at my ineptness but gave me fresh instructions and assured me I’d only added about twenty or so minutes to my trip which was now reaching epic proportions. We’d left home at 9:30am, thinking to reach theirs by midday at the latest. It was now 1:30pm and we still had at least half the journey still to go.

After lunch, we reluctantly climbed back into the car and set off. For two pins I would have turned around and gone home, but not only were people expecting us, I was quite looking forward to catching up with friends. Maybe I wasn’t so desperate to see the first friend we were staying with again, but I was definitely looking forward to staying with the second couple.

The rest of the journey seemed to pass uneventfully, but I went wrong somehow navigating her complicated instructions around various villages and suburbs. Peering at road signs, trying to make sense of it all, there was a sound from the back seat. Yep. The toast had made a reappearance and we now had a full ice cream container of vomit in the car with us.

I pulled over, there was a woman working in her garden with a little girl helping her and I shamelessly threw myself completely on her mercy.

“Please help me, my little girl’s just been sick in the back of the car.”

“Oh, you poor darlings.”

I kid you not, that was what she said, and then she just kind of took us under her wing and sorted everything out. She got Miss F out of the car and disposed of the vomit down a handy nearby drain. I fished Miss F’s toothbrush out of the case, again, and her daughter who was about ten, took Miss F inside to help her clean her teeth and wash her face and hands.

Our lovely saviour helped me clean up the little bit that had splattered on the seatbelt, and she then looked at my instructions and drew me a handy little map with a clear and precise route marked on it. Seriously, she was like an angel who’d been sent to earth to help other mum’s when their offspring had barfed in the car. I never got her name, and of course I never saw her again, but I’ll never forget how amazingly kind she was. People like her totally restore my faith that there is still good in the world.

Finally, we reached my friend’s house at almost 5:00pm. We’d been travelling for over seven hours. I think I could have flown to Kief in the time it took us to get there. But we were there. Surely now I could relax and enjoy our holiday? Wrong. In the couple of years, it had been since I’d last seen this person, her snobby pretentiousness had got worse. Before, it had been funny. Now, it was so pronounced that it made me very uncomfortable and I was livid at the way she treated my child.

Now, I’ve had parents with small children come to stay before and always I check with the parents what kind of stuff they like to eat and make sure I get that in, together with some fairly safe standbys such as fishfingers, oven chips and spaghetti bolognaise. Bearing in mind, Miss F was only seven-years-old and also bearing in mind I’m not the richest person in the world, so our normal diet isn’t too extravagant most of the time, also bearing in mind she knew how sick Miss F had been on our trip there, I was a bit taken aback to find out our meal that night was going to be squid in a really rich red wine sauce. For a seven-year-old.

Now, I would hesitate to offer squid to a grown up unless I knew they really liked it, let alone expect a child to eat it. I knew Miss F would (a) refuse to put the slimy heap of tentacles in her mouth (b) wouldn’t like it even if I could persuade her to eat some, and (c) probably throw it up everywhere. I managed to persuade my friend that as Miss F was still feeling sick, could she possibly just have some toast and an early night, and then I was sure she’d be a lot better in the morning.

Things went downhill from then on. Now, I’m not a slob, but when someone immediately plumps the cushion you’ve been sitting on as you stand up, and hoovers up under you every five minutes and snaps “Shoes” at you the second you walk in the front door, then I begin to get a bit twitchy. And when every single meal comprises of ludicrously expensive, rich and over the top fish dishes that your child has had no experience with and simple won’t eat, then things start to get a bit tense between the grown-ups.

There were whispered conversations about me in the kitchen, which of course I could hear. There was forced politeness, and sympathy for me for being saddled with such a “fussy” child. I wanted to slap her for that one. Miss F was no worse and a hell of a lot better than most of my other friends’ kids, but we didn’t inhabit the type of world where having squid and crab and lobster was a normal, everyday occurrence. I just wanted to grab my child and go. Her brat of a child who was the same age as Miss F also didn’t help. Totally spoilt and presumably spoon fed squid with his mother’s milk, he was simply foul to my daughter and actually hit her so hard around the head with his lightsabre that it raised a bump the size of an egg and I wondered whether I should take her to A&E.

At last, it was Wednesday morning and we could go. I packed up the car as quickly as I could and then there were polite hugs and promises to stay in touch. Her son really put the cherry on the top though, as we were heading out the door, I heard him say.

“I’m so glad they’re leaving, mummy.”

Yeah, you and me both, kid.

We got in the car and drove to the top of the road to turn around, and as we drove back past the door where they were standing ready to wave, I muttered through clenched teeth to Miss F.

“Right, big smiles, wave goodbye.”

We waved goodbye until we turned the corner and could no longer see them, when the smiles and the waves abruptly stopped.

“Don’t worry, darling,” I promised. “We are never going back there again.”

And we never did. I also never contacted my friend again and she never contacted me. Which, I guess is a shame, we had been friends for several years and had had some good times together, but she’d broken the universal code of friendship, which is never, ever criticize somebody else’s child to their face. Sure, Miss F could have her moments, and maybe she didn’t know what a mussel was and really didn’t want to try one, thank you very much, but then I know a lot of adults who won’t even try seafood either and she was only a little girl.

I knew why my friend had behaved like that. She was one of those people for whom appearances was absolutely everything. An immigrant from Ukraine, she’d worked very hard to get what she called the “nice things” in life and cared passionately about them. She could never understand why I didn’t give a hoot about my home being glossy magazine perfect. It was home, and so long as it was clean, tidy and warm, then I didn’t care about having co-ordinated cushions which exactly matched the rug and exactly matched the picture frames.

She was what my mother used to call “showing off”. Look at me, I have all these things and earn all this money. Aren’t I wonderful? In a word, no. I’ve never cared about what my friends have or how much money they make, only what they’re like. Furthermore, if any guest in my house had ever been made to feel that uncomfortable then I would have been ashamed of myself.

So, did our week get any better? I hear you ask. Oh yes it did. We made it to my old friends, where I fell on their necks with relief at being there. They had a log burning stove going, with a big comfy sofa in front of it, with Willo-the-Wisp DVDs for Miss F to watch and fishfingers, mash and beans for her tea. It was heaven. They were renovating an old house and things were a bit chaotic, but that didn’t matter a bit, because it was warm and homey, and they were pleased to see us and made us feel so welcome.

And that, at the end of the day, is how it should be.

My, how I’ve run on. I was going to tell you about the best holiday we ever had, but I’ll obviously have to save that for another day. I hope you all have a wonderful Sunday, and I am going to celebrate my last day off work with an enormous roast dinner and a glass or two of wine.

See you next week

Julia Blake

Are you sitting comfortably children? Let's talk about TV.

I was talking to Miss F last night about the television programmes she remembered watching when she was a kid. That led onto ones I remembered watching even further back, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a child. Before I knew it, she was pulling up clips on YouTube and we were laughing and reminiscing about favourites and remembering theme songs that we’d loved.

Some forty years ago there wasn’t the choice of children’s programmes that there are now, and we certainly didn’t have channels dedicated to them. We were relegated to that time between getting home from school at 3:20pm to the time our fathers got home, and tea was on the table at 6:00pm. I remember in the mornings there would be programmes for school on, and many a sick day was happily spent watching “Stop, Look, Listen” and “How We Used to Live”. There were maybe a few programmes for young, pre-school kids on at lunchtime, but us older kids had to be content with the two hours and forty minutes we got in the afternoon.

It always started with Play School – and which window were we going through today? BBC had only British made programmes, but ITV had imported American ones, and my brother and I would be jumping up and down like jack-in-the-boxes switching channels to get our favourite shows. This could cause friction – in the days before catch-up TV and even video recorders, if your show clashed with someone else’s then you’d missed it for good – but we muddled along somehow, compromising and making deals.

Saturday mornings was also strictly for kids. And back in the day we had a choice between Swap Shop on BBC and Tiswas on ITV. Now, my mother preferred that we watched Swap Shop, thinking it was a much nicer show because it was sedate and was hosted by that nice Noel Edmonds and lovely Keith Chegwin and sweet Maggie Philbin. As opposed to Tiswas, which was anarchy incarnate with characters like Spit the Dog and the Phantom Flan Flinger, and its steady diet of farts, custard pies, buckets of water and sheer silliness. Needless to say, us kids loved it and would watch it sneakily, always poised to jump up and turn over if we heard my mother coming in.

Swap Shop vs Tiswas

During the school holidays there would be telly just for kids in the morning, and bizarrely enough it always seemed to be black and white foreign imports with subtitles, which were repeated each and every holiday for what seemed the whole of my childhood. But I didn’t care. I would watch them over and over, and I still have very fond memories of Robinson Crusoe, the Singing Ringing Tree and White Horses – on white horses let me ride away…

White Horses, Robinson Crusoe and the fabulous
Singing, Ringing Tree

There were programmes that were supposed to educate children, but we even loved them and lapped up shows like Play School, Blue Peter, Jackanory, John Craven’s Newsround, Vision On, Magpie and the unlikely named Why Don’t You Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something More Interesting Instead?

Play School, Blue Peter, Magpie, Jackanory, Why Don’t You, John Cravens Newsround, Vision On

For me though, two bears ruled the airwaves – Paddington and Rupert the Bear. I loved them, I don’t know why, but there was simply something about talking bears that got me. I took Miss F to see the newest incarnation of Paddington at the cinema and loved it, happy they kept the essence of the stories but made him even more personable.

Paddington and Rupert the Bear

I can even just about remember really old black and white shows like The Flowerpot Men, Andy Pandy, Lambchop and the Romper Room, but the era I remember the most probably spanned 1972 to 1980, when I was five to thirteen years old. Apart from books, TV was our only form of indoor entertainment, and we were fortunate to have such quality shows as Bagpus, The Clangers, Crackerjack, Rainbow, Pipkins, Grange Hill and Dangermouse.

Bagpus, Grange Hill, Andy Pandy,
Crackerjack, Dangermouse

Then there was Captain Pugwash. A rumour has gone around that the pirates aboard this ship all had rather suggestive names – Seaman Stains, Master Bates, One Eyed Jack and First Officer Dick, with Roger the cabin boy, all aboard the Black Pig. Now, I’m pretty sure I remember the cabin boy being called Tom and have no memory of the other names. I’ve been told it’s an urban myth, that the names of the other pirates were all perfectly respectable pirate names with nothing rude or suggestive about them. I suppose I could check, a moment on Google will give me the truth, but I don’t want to know. It’s a wonderful story and one I rather want to be true, so please don’t comment about it and spoil the fun.

Captain Pugwash

But it wasn’t all British, we had American shows as well. A lot were pretty awful, but there were some that I really enjoyed. Shows such as the Banana Splits (that theme song has been stuck in my head since the early 1970s – Google it and you’ll see what I mean), Deputy Dawg, Top Cat, Thunderbirds, He Man, Scooby Doo, Bugs Bunny and Little House on the Prairie, which I absolutely adored.

Thunderbirds, He-Man, Bugs Bunny, Little House on the Prairie, Deputy Dawg, Banana Splits, Top Cat

As I said, at about 6:00pm children’s TV ended, and screen time was handed over to the adults again, but there was always a little five minute short programme to end the day with before the boring news came on. In those last five minutes we had programmes like Fred Bassett, Crystal Tips and Alastair, Ludwig, Noah and Nelly, Ivor the Engine, Willo-the-Wisp, and of course, the wonderful Magic Roundabout. Everyone loved the Magic Roundabout, well, what wasn’t there to love? A permanently stoned rabbit, a mad cow that seemed to be on happy pills, an OCD dog and some weird spring like creature called Zebedee. Once, the BBC in its wisdom, shifted the showing time of the Magic Roundabout to earlier and were stunned at the countrywide outcry it caused. Most adults made it home in time to catch it and were not amused that due to its earlier time slot they were missing their daily hit of psychedelic madness. Giving in to rather heated demands, the BBC swiftly moved it back to its 5:55pm time.

Willo-the-Wisp, Fred Bassett, Ludwig, Ivor the Engine,
Noah and Nelly, The Magic Roundabout,
Crystal Tips and Alastair

Then I grew up. Life got busy and I had no time for children’s programmes anymore, not until I had a baby of my own and Miss F became old enough to begin watching them. To my surprise, some of the shows were the same although updated, but there was also a whole batch of new shows to enjoy or suffer. There were dedicated channels just for children, some on 24/7 although quite why they’d be on long after children should be in bed, I never did understand, and a lot, more American shows.

There were the Teletubbies that she loved, but vaguely worried me as I feared it might have a negative impact on her vocabulary, but it didn’t seem to. When she was a little older, she really loved a show called Wynx about a fairy school. I didn’t let her watch excessive amounts of TV and it always went off an hour before bedtime so we could snuggle down and read some stories, but she was allowed to watch pretty much whatever she wanted on children’s channels such as CBeebies and Milkshake, as I knew there’s be nothing inappropriate on them.

Wynx and the Teletubbies

One day I was busy cleaning and Miss F was watching something on the BBC children’s channel, CBeebies. Passing through the lounge I glanced at the screen and noticed that one of the female presenters was quite clearly pregnant.

“Oh, how lovely, she’s going to have a baby.”

Miss F stared at me.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, see how big her tummy is? That’s because there’s a baby in there.”

Miss F stared at the screen curiously, then seemed to shrug and dismiss the matter. I carried on and gave it no more thought, until 3:00am that morning when I was ripped from sleep by Miss F having the screaming ab dabs. She’d had a nightmare about a witch that ate babies and thought it was coming to eat her. Of course, my throw away comment which I’d instantly forgotten about had sunk down into her mind where it had brewed and bubbled. A baby in her tummy? Well, as far as Miss F was concerned, there was only one way anything got into someone’s tummy and that was through their mouth!

I soothed and comforted, and explained that no, she hadn’t eaten a baby, but instead was keeping her baby safe and warm and fed in a special place inside her so that it could grow and be strong. And that, when it was big enough, it would come out and be her darling little son or daughter that she’d love very, very much, just as I loved Miss F. She thought about this, then gave me a look and said.

“So, how does the baby get in there then?”

I was stumped and so not ready for THAT conversation. Thinking rapidly, I replied.

“God put it there.”

And to be honest, at age three and at 3:00am, that was as good as she was going to get.

One of her favourite programmes was Lazy Town, and for those of you who don’t know what that was, Lazy Town was exactly that – a town full of lazy, slothful people who have their lives transformed by the arrival of Sportacus, a six foot, Icelandic, Olympic gymnast who dressed top to toe in blue Lycra and would spend each episode flexing his quite considerable muscles, and bouncing energetically around the screen, much to the secret joy of every bored mummy who happened to be watching.

One day, I had a funny conversation with Miss F where she meant one thing, and I, bad mummy that I was, meant something completely different.

“Mummy?”

“Yes?”

“Sportacus is really fit, isn’t he?”

“Oh yep, he certainly is.”

“Is he fitter than Fireman Sam?”

I considered the question.

“Well, Sportacus is all athletic and stuff, but Sam has the whole fireman and uniform thing going for him. I mean, he’s used to slinging women over his shoulder and carrying them away.”

“Well, what about Bob the Builder?”

“What about him?”

“In a fitness contest, who do you think would win? Sportacus, Fireman Sam or Bob the Builder?”

“That’s a tough one, like I said, Sportacus works out every day and he’s really got the body to show for it, and Sam, well, he’s a fireman, need I say more, but Bob, he’d put up shelves for you and fix things around the house, and that’s always… handy.”

Naughty mummy.

Battle of the hotties – Sportacus, Bob the Builder
and Fireman Sam

There were the Fimbles, Rosie and Jim, Mister Tumble, Come Outside and Peppa Pig – an especial favourite was Peppa Pig, and I remember whilst shopping in our local supermarket, Miss F had a complete meltdown upon the discovery of a pack of Peppa Pig sausages in the chiller cabinet!! Who thought that was a good idea?!

Most of the programmes that I saw with Miss F I quite enjoyed, I especially liked one voiced by Stephen Fry that I cannot for the life of me remember the name of. Stephen Fry was delightfully sarcastic in a way that children completely missed but bored adults really appreciated. And then there was In the Night Garden…

Oh, good lord! In the Night Garden! Has ever a more turgid, soul sucking, mind melting programme been created? Millions of parents were forced to watch it, slumped on the sofa, slack jawed, their eyes glazing over and their brains leaking out of their ears. For those of you lucky enough to have escaped this torture, it was set in a bizarre, psychedelic garden somewhere, full of odd characters that did nothing but run around repeating their names. And that was it. There was no plot, no story, nothing to explain what the heck was going on.

There was a weird blue thing called Iggle Piggle that danced about clutching a red blanky, an even weirder big bottomed, rock collecting creature called Packa Macka, the Tumblyvors who never had on any underwear, and a girl character called Upsa Daisy who wore a very short skirt that kept flipping up and spent most of her time in bed – I’m saying no more, you make your own judgement.

Then there were spaced out birds that made funny noises, and rather scary big balloons with googly eyes that moved creepily through the trees. There was the Ninky Nonk – a train thing with different sized carriages that tore through the garden like it had a ton of cocaine up its funnel, and the Pinky Ponk – an airship type thing that farted its way through the sky. I may have the names of those last two mixed up, but really, who cares?

Every parents nightmare

Finally, there were these two little families that live in adjoining houses under a big tree. Both families comprised of a dad, a mum and then eight children that all looked about the same age. One family dressed in identical red robes and I think were called the Ponty Pines and the other family all dressed in identical blue robes and I can’t remember what they were called. They were odd. There’s no other word for it. Well, other than cultish, I guess. They didn’t go out much, the papa’s in both these families seemed to rule the roost, and they all slept together in the same room! None of the kids went to school, had healthy relationships outside the immediate family or were encouraged to express their individuality at all. Obviously, Social Services never visited the Night Garden, otherwise all those kids would have been taken into the care.

The absolute worse thing about this programme though? It was on every single fricking night and lasted for thirty minutes! Thirty minutes of people dressed in costumes running about going “Iggle Piggle” and “Packa Macka Wacka Do” and “Upsa Daisy!” It was enough to drive any parent to drink.

But now Miss F is sixteen and the programmes she wants to watch are more along the lines of Love Island, The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars, so clearly her standards have lowered. My time watching kid’s programmes is once again over, and I suppose I won’t start watching them again until when/if I ever become a grandmother. I wonder what programmes will be around then? How much will they have changed?

Anyway, that’s it for another week. I hope you’ve enjoyed my trip down memory lane and I wonder if it jogged any memories of programmes you used to watch and enjoy yourself, either as a child or maybe as a parent.

Take care of yourselves and have a great week.

Julia Blake

Slow and Steady Wins The Race

First of all, I’d like to apologise for this week’s blog coming to you a little later than normal. When you read about the kind of week I’ve had, you’ll understand why. For a start, my shifts this last month or so have been all over the place. When I first started at my current job, my shifts used to change every week and I never knew where I was, but my boss did try to ensure I had chunks of days off in a row. I only work three days a week, so he’d try to make it so they were sensibly proportioned with days off. Sometimes this wasn’t easy, as we were a team member down for the first six months after my start date, so I pulled a lot of overtime during that period.

Then the other part-time lady started, and things settled down a bit. Gradually, it seemed to shake down that I would work Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and the other lady would work Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Ok, it meant we both had to work a day at the weekend, but at least you always knew where you were and could plan things well in advance. Besides, with Miss F having Thursday off the same as me, it wasn’t so important having the weekend off. I only work 10am to 4pm on Sunday’s, so not too long, and Miss F tended to catch up on her sleep in the morning and get her college coursework done in the afternoon.

Then my boss went a bit crazy and suddenly I was doing day on, day off, day on, day off, which I absolutely HATED. Ask any woman if she wants a shift pattern like that and she’ll tell you no. Working like that, it meant I’d get up on my one day off with household chores to be done, shopping, ironing, running errands and catching up on social media, then it’d be back to work next day. Then the next day off it would be more of the same so I never got a chance to have any downtime or time to just relax or read, let alone do any writing.

I knew the other part-time lady was also getting fed up with it, she has a long-term medical situation going on, so knowing exactly what days she has off is essential for her when booking her various hospital and consultant’s appointments. So, we confronted our boss together and demanded he put our shifts back to how they were. He seemed genuinely shocked that we weren’t “thrilled” that our working days were – as he put it – “mixed up to make it interesting”. For a start – no. Middle aged, hard-working women do not want things “mixed up”. We like to know precisely where we are and having those four days off in a row are a godsend.

Having the Friday off, at least, is important to me. I have to get Miss F to her work placement by 9am and while that gives me plenty of time to get to work by before ten, it means I can’t go and pick her up at 2pm and have to ask my mother to do it. I don’t like having to do that, not only because I don’t want to put her out, after all it’s a nasty long drive there and back on twisty country lanes, but also because my mother is such a terribly, dangerous driver she scares the living daylights out of whoever is unfortunate enough to get in the car with her. Miss F has pleaded with me to get my shifts back to normal so I can pick her up, even offering to phone my boss and cry, if that’s what it took to make him agree.

But she didn’t have to resort to that, faced with our united determination my boss capitulated and I’m happy to report that from next week things will be back to normal. But, getting back to this week, and me explaining why the blog is a little late this morning. I had the Sunday off, but had a ton of laundry and housework to tackle in the morning, then in the afternoon took Miss F to get her tortoise. As you know, she was trying to decide what to do as the Indian Star Tortoise she wanted was proving impossible to source locally. Yes, she’d tracked down some dealer called Gary who lived in Guildford and had some for sale but, to be frank, the whole thing smelt a bit fishy.

All the experts agree that buying a hatchling that’s under two years old is cruel and unethical. They are too young to be removed from their mothers, so any dealer offering babies under two is clearly not that concerned about the creature’s welfare and happiness. Gary offered her a 2019 hatchling, so alarm bells were ringing all over the place. It was also such a long way to go, he wanted paying up front and that’s always worrying, plus there seemed no comeback if the tortoise turned out to be sickly or damaged in some way.

I employed my usual method when Miss F has to make a decision and a choice between what her heart wanted, and what her head knew to be right. We sat and discussed all the factors and then I left her to it. A couple of days later she came to me with a decision made. She’d done more research and decided to get a West Hermann Tortoise instead. Now, these are very small tortoises so won’t outgrow the tortoise table she’d already bought for at least twenty years. Best of all, Swallow Aquatics – a local reptile and fish showroom only a thirty-minute drive away – sold two-year-old hatchlings.

This seemed a much better prospect, safer and more ethical, and I was relieved it was a decision she’d reached with minimal prompting from me. We drove to Swallow Aquatics after first calling them to make sure they had them in stock, they did, lots of them. After some umming and ahhing, Miss F chose a little one that came to the very front of the tank to check us out.

You can just see him at the front bottom right

We filled in all the paperwork – buying a tortoise is a bit like adopting a baby, and I’d had no idea how much was involved. Miss F handed over £175 of her hard-earned cash and received a certificate of birth and registration, and a teeny tiny tortoise in a clear plastic box that had live crickets written on the side.

So small…

We got him home and into a warm bath to wash all the dust and other substances off him, then introduced him to his new, spacious home. Honestly, this tortoise is living the dream, his own swimming pool, food on demand and a cosy warm bed section filled with fresh timothy grass for him to snuggle down in at night.

West Hermann Tortoises come from the South of France and as this guy seems to have a proper little man syndrome, he’s been called Napoleon. Now, I didn’t think I’d get very excited about a tortoise, but I have to admit he’s actually very sweet and has a proper personality. He likes his head being stroked, he loves chin rubs and adores his bath, where he splashes about ankle deep in warm water, enjoying having his shell gently washed with cotton buds.

He’s funny too and I have a strong suspicion he has a quirky sense of humour. One morning, for some reason he decided to dump a ton of dirt into his swimming pool and turn it into a mud bath. Quite how he managed to do it given the size of him, I have no idea. He then sat there and looked at it, then looked at us, then back at the mess he’d made, as if to say – “I did this, fix it.” Miss F picked him up and he sat on her palm blinking his tiny eyes at us. “What did you do?” she asked him, and his reply was to open and close his mouth several times at us, almost as if he was laughing.

What you smiling at?

Monday, I had off, so spent the day catching up on shopping, chores and housework, and I also managed to get a couple of hours in sourcing illustrations for Erinsmore. It sounds like it should be a fun and easy job, but it’s quite hard work. I want the illustrations to obviously have the same vibe throughout and match a general aesthetic for the whole book, and I want each chapter illustration to reflect something that happens in the following chapter. It’s time consuming, but it is fun.

Tuesday, I had to do my last two hours of work ever for my freelance job. This marks the end of an era. I first started working for Mr G way back in 1987 when I was running a secretarial agency from my parents dining room. He had just gone it alone as an accountant and needed a freelance secretary. Right from the word go we clicked, having the same sense of humour, and I enjoyed doing his work. Over the years, his practice went from strength to strength and he always promised that if ever he needed someone full-time, I would get first refusal of the job.

The nineties came and home computers became more popular, gradually, the need for the services my business offered dwindled, until eventually I closed my doors in 1996 and had to look for a proper job. I worked for Allied Carpets for two years as a full-time sales consultant. Although I enjoyed the work and the pay was phenomenal, it was the type of job that could consume you if you let it. I worked long hours, sometimes all weekend, and of course I no longer had bank holidays off. At the same time, I was still doing Mr G’s work, having transferred some of my equipment to my newly converted office basement. People told me I was crazy, to still be struggling to do his work on top of such a demanding “proper” job. My response was always – “Jobs may come, and jobs may go, but Mr G’s work is always there.”

Eventually, the inevitable happened, I realised I’d reached burnout. I was working too hard. The job was taking over my soul. Yes, I was earning good wages, but most of that was going on much needed alcohol, along with meals out, takeaways and ready meals, because I was too beaten up to cook most evenings and the first thing I reached for when I got home was the vodka bottle. Something had to give, and then came my day off. Much longed for, I’d planned to spend it with my fiancé just having some us time. My boss had already telephoned three times by 10am. I turned off my phone. He called my fiancé. We turned off his phone. He called me on the landline. We put the phone on answerphone and switched off the ringer. Then he resorted to faxing me. Enough was enough! This was my day-off, I was outraged he felt he had the right to disrupt it so much. We had a blazing row over the phone, where I basically told him to f***k off, and that if he wanted me to come back to work the next day, he needed to leave me alone to enjoy what was left of my precious day off.

Ten minutes later, my phone rang again, about to scream my resignation down it I saw from caller ID that it was Mr G. He was wondering if I could call in for a minute, he had something very important to ask me. Intrigued, I popped around the corner to his office where he sat me down and offered me a job. A nice, calm, civilised job, away the shark eats shark atmosphere of the sales floor, where I would only work weekdays, never weekends and certainly never bank holidays. Ok, he couldn’t offer me such a high salary as I was getting from Allied Carpets, but still, what did I think?

What did I think? I burst into tears and accepted on the spot.

I worked full-time for Mr G from 1998 until Miss F was born in 2003. Going back after my maternity leave, I went back flexi, part-time, three days a week. I was very happy; he was a kind and thoughtful boss. A father of three children himself, he understood about things like having to suddenly dash off to pick up a child who’d fallen in the playground or was ill. Without his support, flexibility and sympathetic understanding, my life would have been a lot harder when my marriage exploded in 2004 and I was abruptly left a single mother trying to raise a child completely unaided.

In 2016 though, he decided to partially retire and although there would still be a few hours a week work from him, it certainly wouldn’t be enough to support me. I had to find another job. It was so hard. Being on the unemployment scrapheap at 48 was really hard. I suddenly realised how cushy I’d had it working for Mr G, how well he’d paid me, and how much I’d come to count on being able to change my working hours as I needed to. I began job hunting. It was awful. I hated it. Mr G had reassured me that he wouldn’t make me redundant until I’d found somewhere else, but still, I knew he was keen to take a step back and enjoy his retirement.

For the next year, I bounced about from job to job, never finding anything that quite fitted. During that time, I was also diagnosed with a long-term, serious medical condition which necessitated medication and surgery, so that didn’t help, and I did have to use some of my small redundancy pay-out to get by.

Finally, in September 2017 I started the job I have now, and life settled down a little. However, I still continued work freelance for Mr G as and when required on my days off. But now, even that has come to an end and I’ve done my last piece of work for him. It truly is the end of an era. I have very mixed feelings about it. Yes, it was easy work and the generous salary he paid me will be sorely missed, but it did eat into precious time off and was sometimes very hard to fit it. But time never stands still, so I guess all I can do is accept and move on.

After my final bout of filing for Mr G on Tuesday morning, I spent two hours trailing around every single charity shop in town trying to find an outfit for a 1920’s Speakeasy party I’ve been invited to. Going home empty handed, I did what I should have done right from the word go and logged onto eBay and bought something off there. I also accidentally bought a dress from Hong Kong which wasn’t going to get here until long after the party, but luckily, I managed to cancel that and get a refund. The dress I bought has arrived and it fits, but I’m convinced it makes me look fat. However, I’m convinced everything makes me look fat, so hey. And that was Tuesday.

Wednesday, I’d sold a few things on eBay so had to parcel them up and drive to the post office to send them off. Then I drove the thirty minutes to spend the day with my friend and formatter Becky Wright of Platform Publishing House, to brainstorm about Erinsmore and sort out what was happening with it. On the way home, I swung round the supermarket to collect the week’s shopping I’d ordered the night before. And that was Wednesday.

Back to work Thursday. I know a lot of people write and do things on their books in the evenings, but I honestly don’t know how they do it. I was aware I still needed to write my blog. Normally, on my usual shifts, I have time to write it during the day on Thursday, Friday or even Saturday, but I was working all three days this week so wasn’t sure when I would get around to it. I knew it wouldn’t happen Thursday evening, Miss F was home, the house would be noisy, she’d want the TV on in the room where my desk is, so it would be impossible to construct a blog under those circumstances.

I’ll write it Friday, I thought, after all, I would be home just after five and would have the evening to myself.  Miss F always catches the 5:40 bus to work and is gone until I have to leave to pick her up at 9:40. Plenty of time to write at least half the blog, then I could finish it when I got home from work Saturday as she’d be at work again.

Well, you know what they say about best laid plans. I had a customer walk in five minutes before I was due to go home. They then proceeded to waste my time for almost an hour before leaving without buying anything. Grinding my teeth in hungry frustration, I drove home an hour later thinking at least the house would be quiet and empty, so I could just have a quick dinner and then get on with the blog.

I walked into a wall of sound. Music playing. Miss F in her PJ’s noisily unstacking the dishwasher in the kitchen. I stopped and stared at her.

“What are you doing here?”

“I couldn’t get to work, there’s a telegraph pole down on the road and the buses have all been cancelled, I’ve called work, they’re ok with it.”

“Oh.”

“Nana dropped off a ton of wood for you that Grandad’s sawn up.”

I looked. Three, large dumpy bags were standing in the middle of the kitchen full of logs and kindling. I groaned. That meant I needed to lug them outside to the log box and stack them all, in the dark, in the rain.

“I was hoping, as I’m home, we could have a fire tonight.”

I groaned again. That meant the fire had to be cleaned out and re-laid.

“Did you remember you stripped off all the beds this morning?”

I groaned. No, I hadn’t, so they had to be remade.

“Oh, and the cat’s just been sick on the bathroom floor!”

By the time I finally sat down to eat my dinner it was gone eight o’clock. The only silver lining to the evening being that as I now didn’t have to drive to pick Miss F up from work, I could have a glass of wine with dinner, or maybe two. But of course, no blog got written that evening.

Next day, Saturday, because I’d worked an hour longer on Friday, my boss said so long as we weren’t busy, I could leave off at four. Good, I thought, because I must get my blog written before I went to pick up Miss F from work at 9:40.

I was home just after four and did all the essential things I had to do in terms of feeding livestock and putting laundry on, and had an early dinner as I was hungry. I promised myself a ten-minute rest then I’d tackle my blog, so I laid my head back and shut my eyes, only to be jerked awake by the cat leaping on me. Completely disorientated, I blinked around, it felt late, it felt really late. I peered at the clock, it was 9:30pm, I’d been asleep for over three hours! Quickly, I pulled myself together and went to get Miss F, so obviously nothing was written on the blog last night.

And now it’s Sunday morning. I really meant to get up super early and get it written and posted by the usual time, but once again, my body had other plans. I didn’t wake up until gone 8:30am so it was already too late to pretend I’d got the blog all written beforehand in the normal way. Sorry. I think my body is trying to tell me something. Luckily, even though I’m back to work tomorrow and Tuesday, I then have three days off, I’m working Saturday, and then I have a whole glorious eight days holiday in a row. Bliss. But I know it will go by in a flash, because days off always do.

Anyway, I need to get a move on. It’s now 10am and I’m meeting a fellow local author for coffee at 11am and I still need to get ready and have breakfast. Busy day, as usual, but at least I’ve had lots of sleep.

Things will be back to normal next week, I promise, and I hope you can forgive me for making you wait for A Little Bit of Blake and I hope your coffee didn’t go cold waiting for me.

Have a great week, as usual, I’d love to hear any thoughts or comments.

All the best

Julia Blake

The Trip of a Lifetime… maybe

Earlier this week I received two letters from the college that Miss F attends, both about upcoming educational trips. One was fairly standard, a day trip to a nearby animal facility where there would be a chance for students to participate in animal related activities and listen to experts in the field blah blah blah. All perfectly normal and necessitating nothing more strenuous than paying a small sum of money and making sure Miss F reaches college on time and takes either a packed lunch or money to buy something there. But the other letter…

Well, the other letter I had to read twice because I couldn’t quite believe it the first time. Your child is being offered a unique opportunity – ok, that’s nice – to travel to a world class animal observation and experimental field study site – ooh, that sounds exciting – where they will get the chance to study a wide range of animals in their natural environment – brilliant – and work alongside experts who have been conducting long term observation and interactive studies – amazing, where do I sign her up – the trip is for two weeks – wow, that’s a long time – and will take place during the summer holiday in 2021 – umm, that’s a bit of a wait and it’s technically after she’s left college but I suppose that doesn’t matter – to show interest in your child going on the field trip to Honduras – ok, that’s… wait… what… where?! – please complete the attached form and enclose a non-refundable deposit of £150 to be deducted from the total cost of the trip which is £2700 – how much?!

Yep, that’s right, £2700. Ok, that does cover all travel, accommodation, food and activities, but that is a huge sum of money however you look at it, and then there will be her shots, clothes and spending money on top of that. I thought about this trip for the rest of the day until Miss F got home from college. I’ve always been a firm believer in trying to send her on as many school trips as I could possibly manage. When she was in primary school, of course, they were much simpler, tending to be day trips to somewhere local and only costing a nominal sum. In her last year of primary school, at age ten, she went away for four days to a youth centre place where they all slept in dorms and their days were filled with activities. It cost about £150, if I remember rightly, and she was desperate to go so the money was found and off she went.

I quite enjoyed my four days alone, and while she was gone I completely gutted her bedroom, redecorated it and transformed it from a Barbie pink hell to a grown up girls room complete with the birdcage wallpaper she’d seen in a local shop and fallen in love with. I think she enjoyed that trip, apart from being homesick and not liking the food.

In middle school, the trips got more complicated, more expensive and more fraught with tension. Who would she sit with on the coach? If it was for longer than a day, what would the sleeping arrangements be like? Who would she be sharing a room with? Would it be her friends? Would they all still be friends at the end of trip? What would the food be like? I remember a four-day trip to Cromer – a seaside town not too far away – that all ended in tears when a friendship group exploded under pressure and everyone got hit by the shrapnel.

One February, when I think Miss F was probably about twelve or so, an email came through from her school on a day I happened to be at home. There were an unexpected four seats available for a trip to see Mathilda in the West End and were any children in her year interested in going? It was for the year above hers, but there had been four last minute cancellations and as the trip was in two-days-time, it would literally be the first four parents to get to the bursar’s office next day with cash who would get the tickets. The cost was for £40, this would cover travel and tickets. Not bad for a West End show, but it left me in a quandary.

I knew Miss F would love to go and I really wanted her to go, BUT I didn’t have £40 cash I could lay my hands on before the next morning. I was up to the max on my overdraft limit and although I was being paid the next day, it wouldn’t be in time for me to get the cash out and beat the other parents to school to get a ticket.

Miss F came home from school, apparently it had been announced in assembly as well, but she’d resigned herself to not being able to go because she knew that money was really tight for us. We ate dinner and every time I looked at her, I felt so guilty. I wanted her to go on that trip and desperately racked my brains trying to think where I could get the money from. Cursing my bastard of an ex-husband who never contributed a penny to his daughter’s upkeep, I went sadly upstairs to put away laundry, leaving Miss F to have an ice lolly in front of the TV – my rather pathetic way of making it up to her.

Putting away my underwear, I found that the drawer wouldn’t shut properly and realised something had probably fallen down the back, so took the whole drawer out and found the rogue pair of knickers. Deciding to quickly tidy the drawer while I was at it, I started going through my underwear and suddenly found a plastic bank money bag tucked away at the back with money inside, £40 to be precise. I sat on the bed and stared at it, at that moment believing in heaven and guardian angels, until I suddenly remembered an indoor sale I’d done back in December, when I’d loaded all our unwanted stuff in the car and tried to flog it in a nearby village hall. These were the proceeds from that sale, I’d obviously tucked them in the drawer for safekeeping and then forgotten about them, what with Christmas and everything.

How weird is that? I once had a lodger who used to claim that you had to “put it out into the universe what you needed, and the universe would reply”, well, it certainly replied that day, and how coincidental was it that the sum I found was exactly the sum I needed. But I guess what you all want to know is, did Miss F get a ticket and go on the trip? The answer is, yes, of course she did. When I make up my mind to go for something, I go for it at 7.30am in the morning before the school is even open. We parked outside the school and sat in the car and ate breakfast watching the door like a hawk. We followed the first teacher in and sat outside the bursar’s office waiting for them to arrive. We were the first by a good thirty minutes and she got one of the four tickets. She had a simply amazing time and was left with a wonderful memory of a magical show, all thanks to her mother’s bad memory and a lucky find in a knicker drawer!

In the last year of middle school there was the big one, the annual trip to the South of France to stay in an activity centre where they would all participate in a week of full on activities such as kayaking, catamaran sailing, water skiing, mountain biking, swimming and diving. Miss F really wanted to go, and it did look amazing, but it was pricy – £800 – and then of course there would be clothes, spending money and a sleeping bag to add to that. The school had divided up the £800 into a deposit of £150 and then four even amounts spread out over the year. It would be tight, but it was doable, especially as Miss F’s grandparents offered to pay the deposit and give her some spending money. So, we signed the forms and paid the non-refundable deposit (it’s always non-refundable) and then we were committed and had to find the rest of the money.

We managed the way we’ve always managed to pay for things we wanted, we tightened our belts even further, we both went though all our belongings and did a couple of car boot sales, we sold a lot on eBay, we saved every spare penny we could to make the quarterly payments and we managed it. But, during this period, Miss F learnt a very valuable life lesson.

There was this girl she was friendly with, I’ll call her Miss C. Now, I wasn’t too keen on this friendship, Miss C, probably through no fault of her own, was a bit rough around the edges and not in a good way. She was hardnosed and a taker, and I was concerned that she was not only taking advantage of Miss F’s generosity but was undermining the “work hard to get what you want” ethic that I’ve always tried to instil in Miss F. I didn’t like her lazy, sponging attitude to life and her belief that it owed her a living and it would be up to the government to support her when she left school. However, I’m not stupid, and I knew banning this friendship would make it all the more attractive to Miss F, so I kept quiet and hoped it would run its course.

Anyway, Miss C would wait for Miss F at the top of our road and the two girls would walk to school together, and on the way, Miss C would buy herself a rather unhealthy breakfast of either McDonalds or some other such thing, with the £5 her mother would give her every day to buy breakfast. Now, this caused some friction in my household as Miss F has never left this house without a breakfast inside her, and other than high days and holidays, I would never even consider going to a fast food outlet for breakfast, and I certainly wouldn’t give a child £5 each morning in lieu of a decent breakfast at home.

Miss F didn’t see it quite this way, in her eyes the fact Miss C’s mother gave her such a princely sum of money every day quite possibly… maybe… meant that Miss C’s mother loved Miss C more than I loved Miss F. That assumption hurt me, I must admit, but I swallowed it down and simply waited. And then, the trip to France came about and Miss C desperately wanted to go. Very excitedly the two girls chatted about it on the way home from school and made plans to sit together and share a tent – as you can imagine, I was thrilled about this. However, next day all their plans came crashing about their ears. Miss C wasn’t going on the trip because her mother claimed, and I quote “I can’t afford £800 for you to ponce off on holiday.”

Miss F was disappointed, and for the next couple of days swung between being elated that she was going and being upset that her friend wasn’t. Then at dinner one night, we had the following conversation.

“Mum.”

“Yes?”

“Miss C’s mum gives her £5 every day to buy breakfast,”

“Yes, she does, what of it?”

“Well, that’s £25 a week she’s spending just on breakfast. Does it cost you that much to buy breakfast for us to have at home?”

“Sweetheart, I spend about £40 a week on our shopping, and that’s for all our food for all our meals, plus the cats, and all our cleaning and toiletries, so, what do you think?”

“Oh.”

“Why do you ask?”

“I was just thinking, if Miss C’s mum gave her breakfast at home and saved the £25 a week instead, would she be able to afford for Miss C to go to France?”

“You do the maths, love, and tell me what you think?”

She did the maths.

“Mum?”

“Yes?”

“Is this what you mean when you say that you don’t waste money on stupid stuff, you save it for what’s really important?”

“Yes, it absolutely is.”

A valuable lesson was learnt that day, that it’s all too easy to fritter your money away on silly, inconsequential things and then not have it for things you really, really, need or want. Being on such a tight budget has taught me that, if nothing else. In fact, I even sometimes look at the cost of something and calculate how many hours I have to work to pay for it – that tends to help me decide if it’s a priority or not.

And in case you’re wondering – yes, she did go to France and yes, she did have an amazing time. And yes, the friendship with Miss C had fizzled out by the time the following year came around and Miss F went to France on the trip.

In upper school the trips became less frequent, there was the odd trip to the theatre if a play they were studying in English or Drama happened to be showing, or the odd geography or history trip, nothing really expensive or that involved staying away from home, so this letter about Honduras was like a bolt from the blue. I don’t really know anything about the country, other than it’s rough geographical location, so was unsure how stable it was – after all, there are so many horror stories about drug cartels and uprisings happening with depressing regularity in Central and South America – so how safe would it be for my 17 year old daughter to go there. It was far away, so very far away, and she suffers from travel sickness, and, of course, my mind kept circling back to the main obstacle, that it would cost almost £3000 to send her there. Almost four months wages. It was such a lot of money.

Miss F came home from school, already knowing that I’d received the letter. We talked. I basically told her that I appreciated what an amazing opportunity it was and that it would be a fantastic life experience, and that if she really, really, wanted to go, between us we would find a way to make it happen. She hesitated, then explained that although part of her was intrigued by the chance and realised it was potentially a once in a lifetime chance, the other part of her, the practical side which she totally gets from me – could see a number of drawbacks.

Number one was the cost. Yes, because she’s now working, between us we could probably meet each payment as it became due, but, if £3000 was to be spent on anything, wouldn’t it be better spent on driving lessons and a car? The university she’s looking at attending is a four-hour drive away, having a car is going to be an essential, and driving lessons are helluva expensive, as is buying a car, and as for insuring it…! There will also be the expense of renting a place to live whilst she’s at university – there will be deposits and upfront payments and every day living expenses to be met and she may not find a job straightaway.

Then there’s her travel sickness to consider, it is such a long way away and she’s never been on a plane before, how badly would it affect her? How ill would she be from such a long flight? Then there were the sanitary arrangements – I shuddered at the idea of her having to poop in a hole in the ground being watched by a bunch of monkeys. Apparently, one of her teachers who has done the trip before, said it was the most relaxing thing she’d ever done. Oka-a-ay, this must be some strange definition of the word “relaxing” I hadn’t previously been aware of. Miss F is quite anal (no pun intended) about her bathroom time and she was really not keen on the whole set up.

Finally, and this was not mentioned in the letter but was explained to the students at the meeting, the deposit of £150 and first payment of £650 would be due and payable before the students take their end of year exams this June. The trip is only available for level three students, and if any of the students fail their exams they will be relegated down to a level two or even level one so will be unable to go, but that payment is non refundable so it would be £800 down the pan. As Miss F quite sensibly said, “I’m confident about passing my exams, mum, but do I really want to put that kind of pressure on myself?” And I had to admit, that was a very good point.

So, she’s not going. And a part of me is sad, because it IS a fantastic opportunity, but, she’s only 16, she’s has a whole lifetime ahead of her to experience all that the world has to offer, and I’m sure she will, in time. But right now, she is correct in that there are other things we need to spend our money on, and £3000 is a LOT of money. I am aware, that there might be a few reading this who will now be scoffing in disbelief that we consider it to be an incredible amount of money, but to us it is.

And that, ultimately, is what life is all about, having to make the hard decisions and sometimes having to wear your sensible head when making them. I know that life experiences are priceless, but sometimes you do have to look at the bigger picture and choose what’s more important – a trip to a faraway country that you may, or may not enjoy, or use the money to pay for what you absolutely need right here and right now?

I feel Miss F made the right, the only decision, and once again I am relieved that I’ve somehow managed to raise such a level-headed and practical young woman.

This is me, signing out for another week, as always, I would love to hear your comments, and you can always contact me on social media or leave a comment below.

Have a good week and take care of yourselves.

Regards

Julia Blake

Why is being a grown-up so hard?!

It’s been a funny old week, one that started with me having the mother of all migraines. Now, I used to get these quite a lot during my teenage years, but then hormones settled down and I seemed to shake loose of them and never really suffered from them again, until last year. Then I had one that necessitated me being sent home from work. It was horrible, that sick pounding in my skull and the wonky vision but spending the day in a darkened room with no stimulation, seemed to do the trick and I haven’t had one since.

But last Sunday morning I awoke with a strange throbbing in my brain, I got up and ready for work, managed some breakfast, but all the time could feel this headache getting worse. I decided to go to work anyway. Like most British people, I don’t get paid for taking a day off sick so always have to drag myself in. Driving to work, I was aware of the pain in my skull increasing and the pressure growing across my forehead – it was like a steel band was being tightened about my head – then suddenly, a sharp pain stabbed right through my right eye and my vision went blurry.

I managed to get to work and open up the shop as I was the first one there, but by now I was feeling really sick and dizzy, and my brain was pushing on my skull to be let out. My two male colleagues turned up, took one look at me, pulled faces and made disgusted shrieks like little girls and asked what was wrong with my eye. What was wrong with my eye? I went to look and found it was now completely bloodshot and swollen. The boss turned up, looked at me and sent me home. I think he was afraid I’d scare the customers away. Honestly, I think men are more squeamish than women.

I made it home, just, before the migraine really kicked in and I was vomiting every time I turned my head. It lasted two days, during which I lay very still in a dark room and kept my eyes shut. I have no idea what caused it. I have been under quite a bit of stress lately, so maybe that was a factor. I do know I didn’t like it. I hate being ill; and being ill and completely immobilised is even worse – at least if it’s a cold or a dicky tummy you can still read or watch TV – but this rendered me incapable of doing anything!

It was Miss F’s works Christmas do this week, and I’m afraid to say she learnt a hard lesson about how adult life can completely and utterly suck. She was so excited about it, Domino pizza was to be purchased for all the staff, there was to be drinks of both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety, games and just general fun. I was dubious about this last. In my experience, a party for adults with unlimited access to booze doesn’t usually include staid games of Monopoly and Mario Cart, more the type of games I didn’t want my 16-year-old to be part of. But I kept quiet and merely told her to text me when she wanted collecting, and to make sure it wasn’t too late as she did have college next day.

There was to be a Secret Santa and she’d drawn out the name of one of the male kitchen staff she hadn’t really had any contact with before. She was panicking about what to buy, and with a budget of less than £10 was stuck for ideas. So, mum stepped in. I bottled him up a small bottle of my homemade cherry brandy, bought a red waxed truckle of extra mature cheddar, a pack of posh oatcakes, a box of Guiness infused truffles and a bar of Guiness flavoured salted caramel chocolate (the pub where Miss F works has the name Guiness in the title, so it seemed appropriate). I made a nice little hamper with a box, thick brown paper, green cellophane and a big red bow and arranged everything in. It looked great and I thought anyone would be happy to get that and would be able to see that a lot of thought had gone into it.

The day came, Miss F got herself all gussied up in her best clothes, spent ages on hair and make-up and caught to 5:30pm bus out to her workplace clutching her present for the Secret Santa. I settled down to an evening alone, looking forward to catching up with my book and maybe an episode or two of Poldark. I wasn’t really expecting to hear from her much before ten and was prepared to extend her pick up time until eleven, appreciating that sometimes you just have to say “oh to hell with the early start tomorrow, I’m having fun.”

So, you can imagine how surprised I was to get a text at 8:40pm saying – “Pick me up! Now!” Oh crap, I thought, what’s happened. Quickly, I jumped in the car and made the twenty-minute drive imagining the worst. Perhaps the “games” had got out of hand, or they were putting pressure on her to drink, well, you can imagine what I was thinking. I got there and parked, sending her a quick text that I was in the carpark, and waited. The front door of the pub suddenly burst open and a couple of leggy blondes staggered out. One backed the other up against the wall and proceeded to snog the face off the other. Now, I’m no prude, live and let live I say, but this was inches away from the bonnet of my car and there was nowhere else for me to look. Awkward. The temptation to roll the window down and yell “get a room” was overwhelming, and I was very relieved when Miss F came out and got in the car.

Thankfully, we left the two blondes to their business and began to drive home. She was silent. I looked at her, waiting for her to say something. She said nothing. So, I did.

“How was it?”

“Fine.”

“Was your pizza nice? What sort did you get?”

“Nothing. There wasn’t any pizza.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“Everyone got so pissed so quickly no one bothered to order any and then they all said they weren’t worried about food.”

“Oh no, that’s a shame. What about the games then?”

“Didn’t play any.”

“Oh, why not?”

“Everyone was too pissed, and nobody wanted to play any.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Did the guy like his Secret Santa present?”

“Yep, he seemed really pleased with it.”

“Good, what did you get?”

“Nothing.”

“What?!”

“Yep, I got nothing.”

“But… but… how is that possible? I thought everyone was taking part?”

“So did I. But it seems two people didn’t agree with doing Secret Santa so me and one of the waitresses got nothing.”

Now over this I am livid. You don’t want to take part in a Secret Santa, ok, that’s fine. But don’t put your name in the hat to receive a present, because that’s just mean and so unfair. Miss F paid out good money to buy someone a gift. Ok, it was only £10, but that equals an hour and a half of hard work for her, and then not to receive a gift in return. I really don’t understand how some people think, or even if they think at all. Miss F wasn’t going to say anything about it but the other girl who didn’t receive anything, did. What is going to happen about it, I don’t know. I think at the very least the managers should compensate them with something, but I will keep you posted.

On my twice weekly trips to collect Miss F from work, I often see my fox disappearing into the hedgerow, or a pair of a eyes and a bushy tail running along the ditch. Last night he was in the middle of the road again. Silly creature, instead of jumping sideways into the hedge he ran along in front of the car for a few yards with me crawling behind him before vanishing into the fields. I think it must be a sign of middle age that I call him “my fox”, he’s not mine, of course he isn’t, but I’m like that with birds as well, I have a robin and a blackbird who visit my garden regularly and who are familiar enough with me to sit and listen when I talk to them.

Miss F went to her work placement as usual on Friday, and about mid-morning I received a text asking if I could go to pick her up a few minutes early so I could have a tour of the stables and kennels. I got covered in mud, but it was worth it for the chance to cuddle so many puppies. They were everywhere! So many squirming, adorable, loving little scraps, all desperate for attention and love. There were a pair of little runts whose own litters had bullied them, so they were now in together and had become best buds. Big cuddles with them and as I was being licked to death by the smallest one, Miss F came back from shutting the door and looked very surprised. Apparently, this little chap hadn’t let anybody else pick him up, just me. I felt very honoured.

People think because I have a cat and not a dog that I don’t like dogs. That’s simply not true, I love dogs, I love most animals, but I have a cat because that’s the pet that suits my current lifestyle. We live in a small house with a small garden in the middle of a town. I’m at work a lot, Miss F is at college, work placement and her part time job, neither of us have the time or energy to give a dog the care and attention it would need. Let’s face it, a cat is a low maintenance, easy care pet. Mine has a cat flap so attends to her own personal needs, if I’m late home it’s not the end of the world. She doesn’t need to be walked and I don’t need to follow her about to pick up her poo – ask not what your neighbours garden can do for you, rather where your cat has done it!

Mind you, mine is being a particularly lazy little article right now. It’s been quite wet, cold and windy these past couple of months, so Skittles has practically turned herself into an indoor cat, only popping outside for the briefest of essential visits. This means that she’s not running around on the slate paving in the garden, she’s not climbing the pergola or up the trees, and she’s not sharpening her claws on the edge of the wood box. Consequently, her claws are now registered as a lethal weapon. They are so long she could disembowel someone with them, and frequently tries to give me a belly piercing every time she gets on my lap. Miss F has suggested taking her to the vets for a pedicure, but I’m afraid of how much that will cost and think we should just wait a few more weeks until the weather is warmer, and she ventures outside again. I have to spend some time in the garden myself soon, as it’s almost time for the trees to have their annual haircut and to tidy up the beds, and she always comes outside to play when I go out, so I’ll chase her around the patio a few times and maybe that will blunt her finger daggers.

I posted the above on Instagram this week and it must have touched a nerve, because so many people have commented on it. Do you hate it when your supermarket moves stuff around so you can’t find it? It drives me mad. I write my shopping list according to the aisles and know exactly what I need. I want to get in, do my shopping, and get out as quickly as possible. The weekly food shop is not my favourite chore and the quicker I can get it done, the better. But sometimes, you know how it goes, you dash in and go to pick something off the shelf only to find it’s not there. You scan the shelves and realise everything like the item you want has been moved as well. Yep, they’re playing their favourite game of “make the shopper have to hunt all over the f*****g shop for something”.

We all know why they do it. They’re not stupid, they realise that most of us buy the same things, week in, week out. By mixing up the aisle configurations it makes us really look at stuff and maybe, just maybe, we’ll spot something we’d never noticed before and buy it. Well, that’s their theory. The reality is we just get mad because we can’t find what we’re looking for and even madder when we can’t find an assistant to ask. Why is it that when you don’t need any help, assistants are everywhere with those big trolleys, parking them right in front of the item you want to pick up and clogging up the aisles, but the moment you actually need help, they scatter, like rabbits spotting a fox.

I have sometimes got so irate I’ve marched up to an assistant – when I finally mange to track one down – and demanded, “Ok, I give in! Where have you hidden the teabags this time?!” One follower even commented on my post that they’ve said to a supermarket assistant – “When people say they like playing hunt the sausage, this isn’t what they had in mind!”

Sometimes you understand the reason for the change, the “free from” section has now got so big it practically needs a whole aisle to itself, so the crisps were relocated to a new section of their own, ok, it’s pretty obvious where they’ve gone to – the socking great sign hanging from the ceiling hanging stating crisps, nuts and snacks here – is a bit of a giveaway, it’s when they move something and leave you no clues as to where it might have gone, or even if it’s been discontinued altogether. And yes, I am looking at you, Tesco. Bring back the coleslaw dressing, it was delicious in potato salad and on French fries and I miss it. And no, mayo is not the same at all!

Following her disappointing first staff Christmas do (get used to it, Miss F, cos they don’t get any better), she’s also in a bit of a quandary about a tortoise. Ok, bit of backstory here, Miss F has always loved tortoises. For some reason they were her favourite animal to go and see at the zoo, and while the other kids were oohing and ahhing about the meercats and admiring the lions and tigers, she would make a beeline to the tortoise house and spend ages just watching them wander about.

We recently babysat a friend’s little tortoise while she moved, and this only made Miss F more determined to get one of her own. She did all the research. Looked into which ones required the least looking after, how big the various species get, how best to look after each type and the different food they require. She even took into consideration the fact that she’s off to university in a year and a half. Hopefully she’ll be able to take the tortoise with her, but, in case she can’t, she wants the most easy-care one there is, so I’ll have no problems looking after it. Gee, thanks a lot.

Now, when I was a kid back in the seventies, lots of my friends had tortoises. They lived in the garden and just sort of crawled about, eating stuff. If you had more than one, then you’d paint your name or something on its shell so you could tell them apart. They’d hibernate in the winter and you always had to make sure they didn’t hibernate under the bonfire. Girl at school had that happen to her tortoise – not nice. They’d mooch about, living their best life, eating your mum’s flowers and sometimes getting into the strawberry patch where they’d stuff their faces and come out looking like something from a horror film.

But things have changed since then, and tortoises are now big business. For a start they’re no longer a few quid each, instead, depending on the species, they’re more likely to set you back over £200! Yep, you did read that right, £200+. For a tortoise. I know!

However, it’s Miss F’s money and so long as she puts money in her savings account each week, contributes towards the petrol I use running her around, and leaves herself enough to pay for whatever else she needs, then what she chooses to spend it on is up to her, and, to be fair, she has wanted a tortoise for a very long time. So, after extensive research, she has decided that an Indian Star Tortoise ticked all the boxes and is the one best suited for her.

One small problem. Indian Star Tortoises are not a commonly bred or sold tortoise in this country. Nowhere local sells them. We’ve looked everywhere. The closest we can find is a breeder in Guildford who seems ok, but, really, how can you tell? All the advice says don’t pay an upfront deposit for the tortoise without inspecting it to check it’s healthy, but if we want this guy to courier the tortoise to us, then he wants a £50 deposit, which is fair enough, although it is all a bit worrying. I guess I could always drive to Guildford, but it’s quite a long way and I really don’t want to do a six-hour round trip on my day off. Besides the petrol, there’s wear and tear on my poor little car to consider, and my time of course.

If we were talking about smaller sums of money then it wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s over £200 of Miss F’s hard got wages and I don’t want her to be scammed or cheated in any way. But she really wants this tortoise. And he’s the only guy even vaguely local selling them. And so, we go on, round and round, in circles. I’ll keep you posted as to what decision we make and how it turns out.

Finally, other bookish news. I mentioned in last weeks blog how I’d decided to buy back the copyright for The Book of Eve rather than wait until November, when the contract expires and I automatically get it back. Well, I decided to go ahead and emailed the publisher that I did wish to buy copyright back. I finally got a reply from them early this week, stating that if I did it would be six months from now before I could republish, because apparently that’s how long they take to remove it from the various sales platforms it’s on and recover all my royalties. Six months?! So, I wouldn’t be able to publish until July.

The publisher has offered me a discounted buy-back, £90 instead of £120, but I still wondered if it was worth buying back the right to publish in July 2020, when if I held on until November I could republish for free. However, there’s a bit more to it than a case of waiting four months. Sure, if I do nothing I can republish in November/December 2020. But, do I want to? I’ve learnt through experience that the period from mid-November to mid-March is a really bad time to publish a book anyway, and over the Christmas period is a definite no-no, unless you’re publishing a festive cookery book or your novel has a title like “Christmas Hearts at Mistletoe Cottage”.

If I do nothing and get copyright back in November 2020, I realistically should wait to republish until March/April 2021, so we’re not talking about waiting four months, we’re talking about waiting eight. That makes it worthwhile paying the £90 and getting my book back to republish in July. Looking on the bright side, I guess that gives me plenty of time to get the book ready and I’ve already booked the excellent services of Platform House Publishing to make the cover and ensure the formatting is a beautiful as it can be. Should any authors out there need covers, formatting, promo material and book trailers, hop over to their website. They’re very reasonably priced and offer a top-notch service.

http://www.platformhousepublishing.co.uk/

So, that has been my week. No real crisis for a change and I did actually get some down time, which was a lovely change. Hope you’ve had a good week and that you’re enjoying your Sunday – sadly I’m at work, of course I am.

All the best

Julia Blake

A Library is for Life…

There was a post on my Facebook feed this week stating that more libraries were to be closed across the UK, and that set me thinking about how important the library in Bury St Edmunds has been to me over the years. Originally based in an old building right in the centre of town, my mother used to drop me off there early on a Saturday morning when she went into town to do her shopping. I couldn’t have been much more than eight or nine, and you certainly wouldn’t be allowed to treat the library like a creche these days, but she knew that I’d been looking forward to this all week and no way in hell would I leave the hallowed space of the library and go elsewhere.

It was staffed by steely eyed, large bosomed, prematurely aged matrons, who wouldn’t allow any nonsense in their library and would certainly have intervened if anyone had bothered me, so that was our routine every Saturday. My mother would see me in and then I knew I had at least an hour, sometimes longer, to browse the books and decide which six I was going to take home for the week. Once that important job was settled, I would snug down on one of the old window seats they had and pick the thinnest book to make a start on. Very often before my mother returned, I would have finished that one and put it back on the shelf, picking another one to replace it.

To me, the library was a magical place, stuffed to the ceiling with all these amazing portals to distant worlds that I could just pluck off the shelf and not only read, but take home with me. Bear in mind, this was before the days of the internet and kindles, instant streaming and endless amusements at your fingertips. No, back then, it was books or TV. Well, TV was restricted to an hour or so after school and a few hours on a Saturday morning, whereas books… ah, books were available any time of the day or night.

I read all the time. A complete bookworm, there was always a book or two in my bag (the one I was reading and a back-up one in case I finished it quicker than expected), and I would read anywhere. At school in breaks and lunch, on the bus, waiting in queues, even walking between classes I would somehow manage to read a few lines. It’s a wonder I didn’t destroy my eyesight with the amount of torchlight reading under the covers I did, and my mother knew if she wanted to punish me for anything all she had to do was forbid me to read.

I left school, started work, got married and had a place of my own. Suddenly, my reading time was seriously curtailed, sandwiched in around work and married life. I still read a lot, just not quite so much as before, and my life filled with other, more grown up, pursuits.

Then my marriage began to disintegrate and suddenly I had time, lots of time, on my hands and I was deeply unhappy. Once again, the library became my refuge. Unable to concentrate on serious literature, I would fill my bag with as many trashy novels as I was allowed to check out in one go. Craving escapism but lacking the attention span to stomach anything weighty and unwilling to read anything that didn’t have a guaranteed happy ending, Mills & Boon and Harlequin became my go to books.

I always get cross when people belittle a genre, claiming it to be trite or unworthy, and maybe it’s true that some genres don’t require as much effort to write or read. But all literature has its place, and during that year those bags of chick lit I would guiltily carry home and consume were lifesavers. Never let anyone shame you for your reading choices, the world is large, and we are all different, there is room for every style of book and reader, and different books fit different times of your life. Perhaps that is why I’m a multi-genre author, because I recognise that the story is the thing. It really doesn’t matter what genre it is, if the tale is a page turner then that’s all that matters.

So, back then, libraries were a sacred and important feature of any town or city and were used by all ages and by people from all walks of life. Students checking out factual books to use for school and college assignments, people borrowing how-to manuals and cookery books, bored housewives looking for an escape from their humdrum life and people simply enjoying the written word.

Then the world changed. Information became available at the touch of a button in the comfort of your own home – there was no need to make the trek into the library and spend precious time scanning the shelves and wading through books. Kindles became a thing and suddenly a world of literature and non-fiction was available without ever having to leave the house. People got busier and had no time to read, and for a while it looked like the library was going to go the way of the bathhouses of old.

But then something happened, in that most libraries realised they were going to have to evolve and evolve fast, if they wanted to survive. Suddenly, your local library was where you went for so much more than just books, you could borrow films and music and even artwork. You could go there to use the internet and to photocopy things. Groups were started using the spaces in the library. When Miss F was young we used to attend the Music and Nursery Rhyme group plus a Children’s Reading Hour in our local library, which, by now had been relocated from the draughty and rather daunting old building in the town centre to a smart, purpose built building a few minutes away.

The rule used to be strictly no food or drink in the library, but suddenly every library had a coffee shop, where you could meet friends and buy tea and cake. Our library also has a number of conference and meeting rooms that can be hired for local events, and I myself have both attended and given an author talk in one of them.

When Miss F was little, we would visit the library at least two or three times a week. Children’s books are thin and quickly read, so a bagful wouldn’t last us very long and the promise of a slice of cake in the café was always an incentive for good behaviour. I remember once, a long time ago, when Miss F was still in her pushchair, we were wandering around Woolworths – which hadn’t yet closed – when we spotted the most wonderful fancy dress outfit hanging on the wall. It was that of a pirate queen with a fabulous layered purple and black skirt, a velvety black waistcoat with white frilly sleeves and collar, a proper pirate hat and a cutlass.

We looked at it. We looked at each other. I could see that Miss F really, really, wanted it and I really, really, wanted to buy it for her. But it was £10, and I simply didn’t have the money in my purse to pay for it. Back then, things were tough for us and money to waste on luxuries scarce. Reluctantly, we left the shop and wandered to the library, where the entertainment was free, and I could buy her a gingerbread man for 40p. Engrossed in the important task of selecting her books to take home, Miss F suddenly tugged on my sleeve in great excitement.

“Mummy,”

“Yes?”

“That lady has dropped her handbag down behind the shelf.”

It took me a few moments to locate which shelf she was talking about. From her lower vantage point she’d been able to see the bag wedged down behind the shelf where it had fallen, and by the time I’d crawled under and pulled it out, the lady had gone. I picked up the bag, which was open, and noticed it was full to the brim with money. I mean, seriously bulging with cash. Carefully closing it so it wouldn’t open again, I took it to the reception desk and explained what had happened. They locked it in the desk and thanked me for being honest and we carried on looking at books. Ten minutes later there was a huge kerfuffle at the reception desk when a lady ran into the library crying hysterically, closely followed by a white-faced man who looked like he’d just received the worse news ever.

Curious, I watched as the receptionist patted the lady on the arm and took the handbag we’d found out of the desk drawer and gave it to her, before pointing in our direction and explaining something to the obviously relieved couple. They hurried over, falling over themselves to thank us and telling us how they were going on a cruise the very next day, their first one ever, and the lady had been to collect their visas, holiday cash and travellers cheques, putting them all in her bag. Loaded down with last minute shopping, she’d popped in to use the photocopier and hadn’t realised she was without her bag until she’d reached the next shop. Panicking, she’d phoned her husband who’d rushed up town and ordered her to retrace her steps.

I laughed and told them it was my little girl they should be thanking, as it was her who’d spotted the bag and not me. The gentleman then forced a crisp £20 note into my hand and despite my protests that we didn’t expect any payment for simply finding it, he was insistent. Some might not have been so honest, he said, and they wanted Miss F to know that doing the right thing would be rewarded.

So, what did we buy with our £20? You’ve guessed it, we went back to Woolworths and bought the pirate queen outfit and, on the way home, bought ourselves something nice for dinner.

I have very happy memories of our library, and, when I’ve needed it, it’s always been there. But I must confess, I’ve neglected it of late. A published author myself, I don’t have time to read the books I already have, let alone wish to borrow anymore, and my kindle is bursting with books that I need to read. I know I should make an effort to use it more, after all, use it or lose it is very true and I would be devastated should it close.

My own books are on its shelves, available for all to borrow, and it gives me all kind of thrills every time I see them there. It reinforces my belief that I am a proper author, honest, because look, there are my books in the library with all the other proper books.

Libraries also seem to be popping up in the strangest of places now as well. The iconic old red telephone boxes, mostly redundant with the mass use of mobile phones, have enjoyed a new lease of life fulfilling a wide range of roles ranging from defibrillator stations to, you’ve guessed it, mini libraries. There’s one in the village where my parents live, and I’ve donated a few of my books to it.

Ever since man created books – in whatever form they took – there have been libraries to keep them in, and you can judge the sophistication of a culture by how they treat their libraries. A society that venerates and cares for their libraries, is usually progressive and forward thinking, and destroying a library is usually an indication of a society gone wrong.

Did you use the library a lot when you were a child? How about now? Do you even have a local library, and, if you do, is it still a thriving hub of the community, or is it in danger of being closed?

The rest of this week has been uneventful, I’ve worked a lot of overtime, but it has been surprisingly quiet at work seeing as this is supposed to be our busiest time of year, which is worrying. Only receiving less than the legal minimum wage per hour, we all rely on our commission to pay our bills and when people blatantly come into the store merely to use our expertise and waste our time, then freely admit they’re going home to order online, well, it makes us wonder if we should start looking for other employment.

I had to do a massive food shop on Monday. In spite of all the money spent on food before Christmas, we didn’t actually have any in the house. Well, correction, we had stuff like crackers and nuts and chutney, but no actual food. To my joy, the reduced to clear section was full to bursting with meat and fish all at crazy low prices because they were on the cusp of going out of date. Gleefully, I filled my trolley but overestimated how much I’d be able to fit in my tiny freezer and ended up playing some sort of freezer Tetris, transferring stuff from bulky packaging into bags so I could squish them in the corners. I now have a freezer which is packed full of food and this has made me very happy. I wonder, is it a sign of being a grown up that I got so excited about a reduced to clear section? Seriously though, it has set the benchmark for all reduced to clear sections from now on.

Today I also made a couple of quite important bookish decisions. I emailed my publishers and confirmed that I do wish to buy back the copyright for The Book of Eve, and I unpublished my books Erinsmore, Lost & Found and Fixtures & Fittings. This last wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I’m not really selling them because I’ve stopped promoting or advertising them. There is much that needs to be fixed with them and by unpublishing them it will give me a proverbial kick up the backside to get them done.

So, that’s it for another week, thank you for patiently bearing with me through yet another ramble and if you have something you’d like to comment about libraries, or indeed anything, then please do so either below or on my Facebook or Instagram page.

Finally, I’d like you to think about the following…

I think mine would have to be – “She knew it was a bad idea but she did it anyway!”

Take care and have a great week.

Julia Blake