Deck the Halls! Christmas Bling ding-a-ling-ling

We put our Christmas tree up on Monday. A little early for us, but due to staff holidays and sickness I’m pulling a lot of overtime right now and am working all weekend (think of the money) so it was really the only day we had spare. Now normally we have a whopping 8 to 9-foot tree – being a Victorian property we have ridiculously high ceilings – but this year decided to restrain ourselves to a 6’ one instead. We also changed where we put it.

Traditionally, it has stood in the corner by the window which means I have to dismantle and move my writing deck upstairs and store it in my bedroom. Well, this year I just couldn’t face that. There’s also the financial side of it. Real trees aren’t cheap. 9’ real trees definitely aren’t cheap, and as we’re aiming for a low-cost Christmas this year, a smaller tree seemed more sensible all around.

So, early Monday morning I loaded Miss F and her best friend Miss A into my tiny Nissan Micra and were on the doorstep of Blackthorpe Barn where we buy our trees every year. Those of you who’ve been following my blog since the beginning, will remember that’s where Miss F had her prom. Going that early on a Monday morning meant the place was deserted and we had the pick of the freshly cut trees.

Restraining ourselves to only looking in the 5-6’ section was harder than I thought it would be, but I stood firm, despite all Miss F’s entreaties. Then we spotted a pretty little tree that really stood out from all the others due to the odd lime green colour of some of its branches. The Christmas tree guy had no explanation for it, other than it might have grown on a mineral deposit of some kind, but assured us it was perfectly healthy, just… different. Being perfectly healthy just different myself, that settled it.

Then we had to get it home. One adult, two teenagers and a six-foot tree in a Nissan Micra was an interesting challenge, but luckily it’s only a ten-minute drive home and I was able to see through the foliage – just. The girls then went to college and I was left to heave the wet, muddy tree into the house, locate where I’d put the pot last year and attempt to set it up myself. I thought it would be easier than most years when I manhandle a nine-footer into submission, but it was harder. It was going to be stood on top of a pair of storage boxes that stand by the sofa and act as a side table. I tried putting the pot on the table first then lifting the tree into it. No go. I simply couldn’t see the pot to manoeuvre the tree trunk into it. Eventually, I had to put the tree in the pot on the ground, fasten it securely and then lift the whole thing, pot and all, into position. It’s a good thing I’m as strong as an ox and was also stubbornly determined that I would get it up there.

Then I had to play that ever popular game of “do the lights work”? Yes, they did. I then had to play the even more popular game of untangling them. Why is it, no matter how carefully you put them away one year, they’re always tangled the next. Usually we have two strings of 200 lights each, but this little tree only needed one. I filled the pot with cold water, put the tree skirt on and positioned the angel on top of the tree. Our angel is a very grand affair, bought over twenty years ago, it has real feathers sprayed gold for wings, porcelain face and hands and real fur lining its velvet robes.

Then I stopped and went no further, until the girls came home from college (somehow Miss A had ended up being invited to stay for dinner and help decorate) and we lit the fire, put on cheesy Christmas tunes and I heated up some mulled wine.

I couldn’t help but remember all those Christmases past when I was a child. My dad never really had any part of the Christmas decorating rituals, other than going up into the loft to bring all the boxes and bags of ornaments and tinsel down and, of course, the desperately fake Christmas tree. In the seventies, I don’t really remember anyone having a real tree. I suppose people must have done – posh people – but not the likes of us. Nope, plastic was fantastic and never mind about all that fire-retardant nonsense, if one of those babies went up in flames in the night, it would have been death by chemical inhalation all the way.

The tree we had all through my childhood was a shade of green unknown to nature, straight up it loomed with dead straight green tinsel branches sticking out at angles. No attempt had been made to make it look natural, this tree flaunted its fakery with pride. Looking back, I shudder, but as a child I didn’t care. It was a tree and it was pretty, and when it was all lit up in a darkened room, I felt it had been transported here direct from fairyland.

My mother too played the “do the lights b****y work” game every year as well. Back then, Christmas lights were expensive, and you really expected them to last a lifetime. We had big, brightly coloured bulbous ones – tasteful white lights were unthought of – and I remember her borrowing the next door neighbours soldering iron to weld wires back together on the tiled hearth, before my father came home and lost his temper about lights that had broken down a mere ten years after purchase. Nowadays, I’m thrilled if my lights last two Christmases. They don’t make them the way they used to.

I don’t know if other people do it differently, but for my family the lights always go on first. That way you can push them into the heart of the tree and hide wires along the branches. Then the tinsel goes on. Back in the seventies, it was always a case of how much tinsel can one tree hold? That and a bit more. Shimmering ropes of gold and silver, blue, red and green, we put them all on until the tree was blinged out more than a number one rap artist.

Then came the ornaments. Looking back, I remember my parents having some lovely ones, all glass of course, although towards the end of my childhood I do remember the odd plastic one creeping in. Year after year, the same ornaments would come out and my brother and I would greet each one with cries of joyful recognition. They seemed like old friends to us and we would fight over who put on which favoured ones. I once knew someone who threw away all her ornaments after Christmas each year and then the next would pick a new theme and buy all new to match. My horror knew no bounds, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her kids. Part of the joy of Christmas decorating is that sense of tradition and familiarity. You haven’t seen these ornaments all year and it gives a feeling of continuity when they are carefully unwrapped and lovingly placed.

There was a trio of yellow, plastic teddy bears sporting little gold bow ties which were particularly loved. We would each take one – mum, my brother and I – and carefully pick three perfect places for them to go. Several years ago, at a family lunch, my mother announced she was getting rid of all her old and rather tired ornaments and would be buying new. My brother and I looked at each other in horror.

“What? Not the teddy bears?”

“Yes, those old things can go.”

“No! You can’t throw the teddy bears away!”

“Well, you can have them if you’ve that fond of them.”

My brother and I looked at each other.

“There’s only three,” I said. “How do we split them?”

“Oh, I don’t want those tatty old things on my tree,” he replied. “I just didn’t want mum to throw them away.”

So, I inherited all three. The little trio that has been together for fifty years has stayed together. Both Miss F and I love them, their appearance each year is greeted with happy recognition, and although we had a much smaller tree this year and many hard decisions had to be made about which ornaments to use and which not, there was never any question that the yellow teddy bears would not once again sport their gold bow ties this Christmas.

The first Christmas after I’d left home, I was so poor I only managed to scrape together enough money to buy a small tree and a string of lights, but friends came to the rescue. Coming around one evening they sat and made a variety of decorations out of popcorn, tissue paper, the inside of cigarette packets, beer bottle lids punched through and strung on string, ring pulls threaded together and a very impressive star made from an old cereal box and tinfoil. It was an unusual tree, but I still have very fond memories of it, and even fonder memories of the friends who gathered around it to help me celebrate my first Christmas of independence.

The following year I was again a bit hard up after buying presents but bought a job lot of cheap plastic baubles and some tinsel. Then I splurged the last of my pennies on a pair of beautiful golden glass twisted ornaments. Hellishly expensive, they stood out on my tree like thoroughbreds at a donkey sanctuary and I loved them. They were gorgeous and special, and it made me determined to bring the rest of my tree up to match. So, every year since that first one all those decades ago, I have treated myself to one beautiful ornament.

Then tragedy struck. One Christmas Eve eighteen years ago, my then husband and I were laying up the table in the dining room ready for lunch the next day. Everyone was coming to us for Christmas, so we were determined that everything had to be perfect. Suddenly, there was a loud bang from the lounge, rushing through we found the door blocked and had to force our way in only to find, much to our absolute horror, that the Christmas tree had fallen over. One of the supporting legs on the plastic pot it was in had snapped and the whole lot had gone down with force into the fireplace.

Luckily, the fire wasn’t alight otherwise it could have been very nasty, but as it was, shattered ornaments lay all around, the pot was destroyed and the water it had contained was now seeping all over the carpet. Worse, all the presents that had been carefully piled up underneath ready to hand out next day, were soaked in green, scummy, pine scented water.

It was an absolute emergency. Not what you want to happen on any day, but on Christmas Eve! Thinking fast and looking at the clock, I realised that B&Q – a big hardware store only minutes away from us – would be open for another twenty minutes. I sent my husband off with orders to not come back without a new pot. Then I tried to assess the damage. First thing: rescue the presents. I quickly unwrapped the affected ones. Some packaging was soggy but otherwise the contents were okay, these I put to one side to be re-wrapped. People would simply have to understand.

But my ornaments, my beautiful, expensive, lovingly purchased over the years’ ornaments, hadn’t been so lucky. Some were amazingly still intact. Landing into the tree, they had survived the “timber” and were okay. My first golden twists were both alright, but a crystal fairy was shattered as was a star and several golden and orange twisted glass baubles. Sadly, I got a bag and picked out the broken ones.

My husband got back, and we managed to right the tree, fixing it securely into its new stout pot. The rest of Christmas Eve was spent painstakingly picking all the shards of glass out of the rug, spreading out the remaining ornaments on the tree to cover the gaps and re-wrapping the now slightly soggy presents. It made for a good story on Christmas Day, but I still remember the victims of the tree crash with a pang. One offs, I’ve never been able to replace them.

Then Miss F was born. For her first Christmas she was given a beautiful Wedgewood bell, and every year since I have bought her one lovely tree ornament of her choice. This means when she finally has a home of her own, her first tree won’t have to be decorated with ring pulls and popcorn, although if she has friends as good as mine gathered around her tree, she will be very blessed indeed.

As soon as Miss F was old enough, she began “helping” me to decorate the tree and was very proud of how beautiful our tree always was. It wasn’t until years later that I let her into a secret. After she’d gone to bed, I would take everything off the tree and start again. Because she was so little, she’d place all the ornaments at her own height in the centre of the tree, so it looked very odd. I’d make all the right noises, my OCD screaming at the sight, then thankfully rearrange everything once she was safely asleep. She never realised, and everyone was happy.

Each ornament on our tree has a story. Each has an origin tale that as we unwrap and place it on the tree we remember. Being a small family of two, these traditions help bind us together and give a sense of continuity going forward into the years. There’s the glass ballerina bought when I took Miss F to York on holiday and we saw her first ballet, Cinderella.

There are my gorgeous Venetian glass droplets, five of them of ever-increasing length, they came from the small glass making island of Murano in Venice and were so-o-o-o expensive it made my eyes water paying for them. But I love them and was so relieved they survived the great tree disaster of 2001.

I have three red glass ornaments given to me by a friend when she was learning how to make glass decorations, and as she now lives very far away, they are a lovely reminder of her. One year, Miss F had a bit of a craze for penguins – I think it was the year “Happy Feet” came out – so when she spotted a penguin tree ornament, she just had to have it. Same with the reindeer in a bell and the glass stag.

For a few years’ birds were her passion, and she collected an entire family of birds which she assembled into what she calls her “bird nativity” – I don’t ask, I just go along with it. A peacock feather bauble, golden fruit, a tiny mirror fit for a Lilliput Versaille and a grand Snow Princess were all yearly acquisitions.

A Bird Nativity apparently

There is my frog prince ornament, bought on that same trip to York from an amazing shop there called Christmas Angels that sells all things festive all year round. If ever you go to that fabulous city, be sure and pay it a visit. As soon as I saw this, I had to have it. And there is a mini disco ball, because what tree doesn’t need one of those?

Apart from the falling tree tragedy, there have been other victims over the years. A rather sweet rocking horse was knocked off the tree when a very heavy cookie dough Santa above fell onto it. Santa’s black shiny boots were knocked off and the poor horse lost his tail, but we simply turn his back to the wall, so it doesn’t notice.

And then there is the gherkin. A bone of contention between Miss F and I, in that I hate it, whilst she loves it. Every year I try to lose it amongst the other decorations, but every year she finds it and insists on displaying it in pride of place. But this has also become traditional, and maybe if it did actually get lost one year, I would miss it. Or maybe not.

Every year I end up trimming lots of branches from the “ugly” side of the tree to make it fit into the corner of our small lounge, but those branches aren’t wasted. We have original fireplaces in both our reception rooms which simply cry out to be “Christmassed” and I always go to town on them, piling on the sparkly things and the bling and ending up with something I think looks amazing and, even if I do say so myself, really quite professional.

We have an old nativity set that is decades old and is really beginning to show its age. Perhaps some would have thrown it away by now and replaced it with a shiny new one, but its flaws are what make it familiar and loved. It doesn’t matter that the stable roof has been condemned, that Mary has a chip in her cloak and the donkey has lost his tail. They’re family, and you don’t throw away family for the sake of a few imperfections.

Goodness, what a long blog this has been. Sorry about being so wordy and I hope you were interested enough to stick with me to the very end. At least there were lots of pretty pictures to keep you amused.

I am working all weekend and then I have a whole seven days off! Only getting three days off over the Christmas period, I always make sure I get in first with my holiday request and get a week off in December to not only prepare for Christmas, but also to have a rest and brace myself for the madness that working in retail brings during peak time.

Hopefully, you will join me next week and I wish you all a peaceful and happy Sunday. If you are decorating your own trees, then enjoy. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, then allow me to extend to you, warm wishes anyway, in the hope you will accept them in the spirit in which they are given.

All the best

Julia Blake

What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare… {W.H. Davies}

When did life get so busy? I’ve been thinking back over the past few years and I really can’t remember the last time I was bored. Properly, totally, “I’ve got nothing to do” bored. When I was a kid, I was always bored, because, to be honest, my life was boring. Stuck out in a village with nothing to do and no real friends, books were my only escape and it explains why I developed a lifelong passion for reading. But gradually as I got older, spare time became rarer and more precious until now, if ever I do sit down for a few minutes, I instantly feel guilty and think about all the other things I should be doing.

The truth is, I no longer have the energy I used to have, and think longingly of the days I used to be able to clean my house thoroughly, top to bottom, in a day. Now it takes a day just to clean the kitchen – and it’s not even very thoroughly. So there always seems to be a long list of stuff that has to be done, with me the only person able to do it, and sometimes I’m so stressed and frazzled I’m convinced I will meet myself coming backwards.

The past few weeks life has kicked things up a notch, as Miss F has now got herself a part-time job a 20-40 minute driveaway (depending on time of day and traffic) and so Mum’s Taxi is even more in demand and I’m spending hours ferrying her around. I don’t mind, of course I don’t, but… it is hours of my time spent in a car when that to-do list is getting forever longer and the time in which to do it is getting shorter.

“Put it on the list” has become something of a catchphrase in my house. “Mum, there’s a cobweb in the corner” – put it on the list. “Mum, can you get more cheese strings next time you’re shopping” – put it on the list. “The windows all need sanding down and re-staining” – put it on the list. “I need to find a way to promote and market my books more efficiently” – put it on the list. You get the picture?

I should list my occupation as firefighter, because that’s all I seem to be doing at the moment. Dealing with one situation after another and barely getting that blaze under control before trying to tackle another one. And I know this all sounds like I’m having a fit of the “poor little me’s” and you’re right, I probably am, but I’m not alone. Chatting to friends, both actual and on social media, and reading the posts and comments of others, a common thread has crept into them all this past couple of years – when did my life get so busy? I don’t mean to be negative and “glass is half empty”, but to quote the fabulous Catherine Tate – “not only is my glass half empty, but it isn’t what I ordered.”

I don’t remember my parents or their friends being this stressed about time and life. Or maybe they were, and I was too young to realise it, but I can’t help feeling that modern life is too busy, too stressful, too lived at full on, breakneck speed. Why are we all so busy now? We have far more labour-saving devices than our grandparents or even our parents. I have a whole kitchen of appliances designed to make my life easier, and they do, yet still I never have time to sit down and read a book. It all seems to be about juggling and making the time up elsewhere.

Take yesterday for example, I ran Miss F out to her work placement and got back to town at 9.30am. I went straight to Halfords – for non-UK people that’s a vehicle store that sells everything you need for your car and also offers a little checking service for a small fee. Like most people, I don’t have a clue what goes where under the bonnet of my car. In the past it’s not been a problem, I drove so few miles that the car went from yearly service to yearly service with me never having to do anything other than put petrol in. But I’m honking though the miles now and was worried about things like oil and water and other such substances that the car needs not to blow up.

I dropped the car off at Halfords and was told it would be about 45 minutes. Luckily, I only live a 5-minute walk away, so I rushed home doing a little essential shopping on the way. Once home, I stripped off the beds, got the washing machine and the dishwasher on, and caught up on social media, then rushed back to get the car and drive it home and park it. Then I rushed to the post office, the chemists to get some more iron pills and just made it to the café for 11am where I was meeting the other Suffolk Authors for a coffee and get together.

I love our fortnightly chats, it’s great to simply sit and talk to likeminded people who totally understand what you’re going through. I know from experience if I try to talk books to family and “normal” friends I see their eyes glaze over and their smile grow fixed. Dashing back from the coffee morning, I had to jump straight into the car and drive back out to pick up Miss F from work placement. Once home, I prepared her lunch and then caught up on ironing, sorted laundry, unloaded the dishwasher and posted on social media whilst she had a shower. Then it was back in the car to drive her to work. It was rush hour traffic, so it took over an hour to do the round trip.

Home, I had dinner and allowed myself a 45-minute break to eat it whilst watching an episode of Marvel Agents of Shield – yes, I’m a geek #sorrynotsorry. Then, because I’d had two hours off in the morning to go for coffee, that meant I had to make two beds, tidy and vacuum the ground floor, clean the bathroom and kitchen (well, it was more of a lick and a promise, but at least I cleaned up the biggest chunks), empty the bins, talk to my mother on the phone and then jump in the car to go and pick Miss F up again. Any time off I have, there’s always a price to be paid, a backlog to try and clear. They say the poor are always with us, well so are household chores.

So that was my day off. On the go from 6am to midnight and a massive five hours clocked up in the car, but what’s the alternative? Well, there is a bus that leaves town at 4.30pm and stops right outside Miss F’s place of work. I’ve told her on a Friday she can take that bus as it will save me a frustrating hour sitting in traffic when I could be doing other things. It’s not much, but it will help and will save me an hour of precious time.

And that’s what it’s all about isn’t it, saving time, or rather, utilising what time you have to maximum efficiency. Something I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not very good at. I also have a strong suspicion that someone has speeded up time. I remember when I was a child a year was an incredibly long time and the space between Christmases was vast and infinite. Now, blink and it’s upon us again. The years flickering between Christmas, chocolate eggs, Christmas, chocolate eggs, with alarming regularity. I can’t be the only one who thinks this. Have you noticed how fast time is passing now? The end of one month arrives and we get paid, then the next day it’s the end of the next and payslips are dropping into our in-boxes again.

Tomorrow it’s the first day of December, and, as any woman will tell you, December is the shortest month of the year. It’s true, it’s the first week and you think you still have plenty of time before the Big Day, then bam, one nativity play, a kids carol service and a staff Christmas do later and it’s Christmas Eve and you’re left wondering precisely where the other 24 days of the month went.

In contrast, January is officially the longest month of the year and has a whopping total of 135 days. Of course, it hasn’t really, but doesn’t it feel like it does? And surely there is no longer period of time than that between December’s pay (generally received before Christmas) and January’s? Weeks and weeks of eating leftovers and praying for the end of the month before your overdraft implodes.

I’ve been in denial about Christmas, fooling myself it’s not really happening, or, if it is, then in a galaxy far far away and a time far far away in the future. But of course, it’s not, it’s upon us. Our tree will be going up next week and tonight I must make a start writing cards, especially those that need to be posted abroad.

Miss F and I arranged not to do presents, well, not major presents. I’ve got a few little bits and pieces for her to open but was determined not to spend the vast sums I have on Christmases past which have left me with crippling debts to pay. But, last week, her phone died. Now, this has quite annoyed me because I bought her that phone two Christmases ago. It wasn’t cheap – well, not by my consideration – £250, and yet it’s lasted less than two years. I’m being told I can’t expect things to last forever. I don’t expect things to last forever, but in my opinion a £250 phone should last a bit longer than two bloody years!

Perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me in this consumer driven age to want things to last. And it makes sense that manufacturers will build their products to fall apart after a certain amount of time. After all, a phone that lasted for years wouldn’t be good for business, but still, it irks me. So, as she cannot be without a phone – apparently a teenager will lose all use of their hand if there isn’t a phone welded to it and will curl up and die of isolation issues if not in immediate contact with everyone they know on SnapChat – we had to get her a new phone.

Obviously, she couldn’t afford to buy one herself, she’s only been in work three weeks and has spent all of her wages so far on Christmas presents for friends and family, so, my trusty store card was dusted off – I’d finished paying off last Christmas at the beginning of November so at least there was nothing on it. The phone she wanted was over £300 which had me spluttering with disbelief – my last phone cost £10 – and a compromise was reached. We bought it and put it on the store card using the six-month interest free option. I will pay £200 of it and she will pay the rest, so I ended up buying her an expensive Christmas present after all. Sigh.

Then something happened last week, a moment of stillness that had a profound impact on me, even though it was inconsequential. I was driving out to collect Miss F from work last Saturday evening and was going quite slowly. I was tired from being at the Fayre all that day and as dark, lonely country roads aren’t conducive to keeping you awake, I was taking it easy. There were no other cars about, and it was pitch dark other than the patch extending a few feet from my headlights. I slowed to navigate a particularly sharp bend and there, in the middle of the road, I saw it. A fox. A big fox. It was standing in the middle of the road, frozen in my car’s headlights.

I stopped the car and for a second we stared at each other. This beautiful wild creature and I. He had a large rabbit dangling from his mouth and his eyes glinted in the light. Then he ran to the side of the road and disappeared into the hedgerow, dropping his rabbit at the side of the road as he did so. I sat for a moment, wondering if he’d come back for it, then drove away, looking in my rear-view mirror, hoping he would. That once the sound of my engine had died away, he’d come back for his dinner. I mean, of course, I was sorry for the bunny, but it was dead, so hey, waste not, want not, and Mr Fox might as well have it.

It has made me think all week about the country I live in, it’s wildlife and the way it interacts with us. Growing up in a small village, the daughter of practical people who’d both had hard childhoods that necessitated living close to nature and taking advantage of all it had to offer, means I am a pragmatic and resourceful sort. I’m thrifty, a trait learnt from my parents and my grandparents, and although I love all animals, am very aware that in times past it didn’t pay to be too sentimental about them. That pigs were kept to be butchered and eaten, chickens went in the pot once they stopped laying and rabbits were there to be quietly caught in the dead of night.

The villages where my grandparents used to live were microcosms of society, where everyone knew everyone else and everyone knew everyone else’s business. There was a sense of timelessness and isolation to them, and a feeling that none of the inhabitants ever left. I carried those impressions into my adulthood and eventually they culminated in The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ my most popular novel to date. The village of Wykenwode in the book is undoubtedly based on those communities of my childhood, complete with a dark and cramped shop full of a random assortment of things to buy, a church and a pub which vied to be the heart of the village, and a wonderful collection of quirky and eccentric characters, ranging from Miss Iris and Violet Peabody who run the shop, to Amos and Dorcas Blunt who own the pub, to old Wally Twitchett the shepherd. Those of you who’ve read the book though, know that although on the surface village life appears idyllic, the reality is that if something in life seems too perfect to be true, it usually isn’t. There is a darkness at the heart of Wykenwode. Anyone who hasn’t read the book and is intrigued, then go to My Books and click on the link there.

Speaking of animals, I have some sad news to share. We are pretty sure now that Queenie Ant is dead. After a lot of confusion about whether she had died or was merely hibernating, the worker ants have now moved her body out of the nest to the furthest chamber away and have left her alone. Every now and then, one of them will visit the body and wave their antennae at it, almost like a mourning ritual. Miss F has done some research and all sources seem to agree that this means she is dead. It’s such a shame and Miss F is devastated. There is now the problem of what to do with the workers. Without a queen there is no purpose to their lives so they will eventually die. We can’t put a new queen in there because they will know she’s not “their” queen and will kill her, neither can we simply let the workers go to find a new colony as they will be killed by the ants in that colony. So, all we can do is make their final days as happy as possible with lots of honey. Nature can be a bit brutal at times.

And now I need to go. Chores are calling. We need to visit Miss F’s grandparents and I need to sort yet more laundry – I swear I don’t know where it all comes from. Thank you for joining me, as usual I would love to hear your comments and I look forward to chatting with you again next Sunday.

All the best

Julia Blake

All the Fun of the Fayre… plus Cherry Brandy!

Friday… This will definitely be the briefest blog I’ve ever written for which I apologise, but this week has been crazy busy and there simply hasn’t been the time to write anything in-depth. I’ve spent all day on a stall at the Bury St Edmunds Fayre, and as you can imagine, I’m now so tired I’m struggling to type. Tomorrow I shall be on the stall again from 10am to 5pm so will be even more tired. Add to that the fact I have to turn out at 9.30pm tonight to go and collect Miss F from work and you’ll begin to see why blog writing has had to take a bit of a backseat this week.

As you know, this week it’s the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre, and I and four other local authors had a stall together on which to sell our books and associated merchandise. The third biggest Christmas market in the country, the town is always packed to capacity with locals and tourists alike and we were hoping that maybe a few of them would like to buy a wonderful personally signed paperback.

Preparing for the Fayre has taken every spare moment – plus quite a few that weren’t spare – and I even had beautiful bespoke scented candles made to complement my books in the hope of tempting a few more sales. Originally, we were going to have a stall in the lobby of the local Guildhall, so we’d be nice and prominent when people walked in. However, there were some issues with the placement of our stall and so we ended up in the Guildhall café.

Now first thought is that this would be a good thing, a captive audience of people desperate for tea, cake and a chance to sit down, but because the café is tucked away at the back of the building across a courtyard, it meant that only the truly dedicated seeker of cake found us, and then they were more interested in the cake than books by local authors.

The weather didn’t help, a persistently wet and cold day, it may have put people off coming to the Fayre altogether and as the morning ticked by with barely any browsers let alone sales, we all began to despair. We had a brief flurry of people at lunchtime and a few elusive sales ensued, but not the amount we’d all hoped for. Still, these things are a learning curve and it was wonderful being with the others. A great group of very talented authors, it is such a relief to be able to talk books to someone with no fear of boring them and having them on the stall as well made the hours fly by. It’s really no fun doing these sorts of thing alone, as I know from numerous car boot sales in the past.

The temptation of the gorgeous looking home baked goods on offer in the café eventually proved too much for my rumbling stomach, and I treated myself to a hot chocolate and a sausage roll the size of my head. It was very good and much appreciated.

The afternoon wore on and we spoke to a few more people. I sold another couple of copies of The Forest and one of Eclairs for Tea. Most people were buying for themselves, although I did gift wrap a copy of The Forest that a young lady had bought as a Christmas present for her brother.

But I won’t lie to you. Friday wasn’t great. The people who came into the café were, in general, elderly, wet and grumpy. They just wanted a cup of tea, a sit down and a piece of cake. They weren’t particularly interested in writers, local or otherwise, or even books in general.

By the end of the day we were all tired and a little dispirited, and then the administrator informed us that our stall would have to be moved again. To an even less salubrious location. Under the stairs in the back corridor leading to the café courtyard. We went to investigate. It was freezing cold there by the back door. It was cramped and inconvenient. If anybody did risk catching pneumonia by stopping to talk to us, they’d be trampled on by all the other people pushing to get by. Finally, it was right by the toilets. Not nice.

Negotiations commenced. A compromise was reached, and our stall was moved, but only to a different side of the café. As soon as the last straggler had gone at 5pm, we set to and relocated ourselves a few feet over and tried to put our stall back to rights,

Making my way home at almost 6.30pm, I was so exhausted it was like I’d forgotten how to walk, and I reeled about like a drunk at kicking out time. Turning into my street, I was alarmed to see my front window lit up like Blackpool illuminations. I knew Miss F would be at work and wouldn’t have gone out and left the lounge light on, so I hurried down the road. It was a weird light, sort of harsh and blue. Letting myself in, I discovered Harry the Tortoise had had a bit of an accident.

I’d better explain, we’re babysitting a friend’s tortoise just while she moves. Harry had seemed amiable enough, sitting in his cardboard box and munching on lettuce, and I’d been reassured that as tortoises were not known for their athleticism, he’d be fine and dandy in there until she came to pick him up that evening. But he’d obviously got a bit bored and decided to explore, because when I went in, he’d manage to half knock the box onto its side. This had knocked over his heat lamp, so the bulb was practically on his head. His water bowl had gone over, so everything was wet, and poor Harry himself was scrabbling pathetically at the sides of the box, stuck in the corner, unable to move and getting more of a tan than he’d bargained for.

I sorted him out, fed my screaming cat, then realised I’d forgotten that I’d stripped the beds off in a mad flurry of energy in the morning so they both still had to be made. I wasn’t hungry although I knew I should be. I hadn’t really eaten anything other than that sausage roll, but as we were packing up, a plate of freebie cheese and veggie pastries came around for free, so I ended up cramming one down my throat as we were re-arranging the stall and sadly it wasn’t sitting too well, if you know what I mean.

So now I’m trying to stay awake because at 9.30pm I have to put my shoes and coat back on and drive the thirty minutes to pick Miss F up from her part-time job waitressing at a pub in one of the villages. I don’t feel particularly safe to drive, but I expect the freezing cold night will wake me up.

Saturday… I didn’t sleep particularly well – stress insomnia is a thing – so was back up by 6am trying to sort out everything that needed to be done before I went back to the Fayre for 9am. I’d had what I thought was a brilliant idea for a better way to make our stall more reader browser friendly so needed to quickly make new signs, but, the best laid plans of mice and Julia are all filed away somewhere, so of course, that was the time the printer decided to have a meltdown. Much panicking and calling upon the IT Department (aka Miss F) ensued and a stressful twenty minutes later – during which time a grumpy teenager gave me a lecture on not repeatedly pressing buttons when something doesn’t work – it finally spat out my two signs and I hurriedly snatched them up and ran to the Guildhall.

We rearranged our stall so that people could have a chance to browse the books without being intimated by a “panel” of five authors all staring at them, desperation oozing from every pore, and braced ourselves for whatever the day would bring. And to our delight it brought people. Well, more people than the day before, and a more assorted age range. We had some lovely chats with avid readers, sold a few books and generally felt much happier with life.

I gift wrapped a few of the books purchased, so had a chance to show off my prowess with decorated cellophane, curling ribbon and fake holly, and I resisted the temptation to have another sausage roll. The one I’d had the day before and the ill-fated pasty having more than filled my pastry quota for the week. People came in waves, mid-morning, lunchtime and mid-afternoon being the busiest, and everyone seemed very happy to have found such a calm little oasis to escape to from the madness of the Fayre.

In the afternoon we were informed that if we wanted to we could move to our original spot by the front door, so we went to investigate it thoroughly, but after much intense debate decided the advantages of being by the front door were outweighed by the disadvantages of being crushed for space, in the way of access into the rest of the building and also the thought of having to move the stall again was just too daunting, so, we decided to stay where we were.

At the end of the day I’d almost sold out completely of The Forest, and I’d sold about half my stock of Becoming Lili. Eclairs for Tea and Chaining Daisy hadn’t sold so well, but it’s almost impossible to predict what will and won’t sell. I’m at work on Sunday so am leaving what books I have left on the stall as the other authors have kindly offered to try and sell them for me.

The candles didn’t fare as well, and I sold hardly any. Maybe people were just unable to make that connection between books and candles, which is a shame, because they are lovely and smell divine. They were made for me by the lovely Maria at Casa Angelica and the four different scents match the four books. Lili – floral, fresh and youthful. Daisy – still floral but a deeper, more sophisticated scent. The Forest – earthy with a touch of spice and smoke. Eclairs for Tea – Christmas red with cloves and cinnamon. If you have any candle needs then why not check out her website.

When the Guildhall closed, we tidied up and made sure everything was ready for the morning, then I and another of the authors, Rachel Churcher, decided to go for an early dinner and a much needed glass of wine – but just the one for me, because I had to turn out again at 9.30 to pick up Miss F from work, of course. It’s now coming up to midnight and I’m beyond tiredness so I’m going to stop now and will hopefully have a chance to write a bit more in the morning before heading off to work.

Sunday morning… awake at 5:30am and painfully aware of all I have to get done before leaving for work at 9:30am, I’m up and clutching a mug of strong tea as I try to finish this blog. I’ve suddenly remembered that I have 4lbs of cherries sitting in the fridge waiting to be turned into Christmas Cherry Brandy, and if I don’t want to have to throw them away – and I don’t – then I need to make that now! So, I thought I’d share with you my easy peasy lemon squeezy recipe for perfect Cherry Brandy to impress your friends and family with this Christmas.

Blake’s Easy Cherry Brandy

To make, you will need – 2 bottles of brandy (not the most expensive, but not the cheapest either). White sugar. 4lbs of cherries (I’m using Morello cherries from the tree in my garden but you can use any sort). Two extra wine bottles with screw top lids. A funnel. A large jug.

Pour the brandy into the jug, then divide the cherries evenly between the four bottles.

Using the funnel, slowly pour sugar into each of the four bottles. This isn’t an exact science, but you do need quite a lot, so up to roughly where you can see in the picture. It’s useful to have a skewer on hand to poke the sugar through the funnel when it gets stuck.

Carefully divide the brandy between the four bottles using the funnel. Screw on the lids really tightly, turn upside down and shake until the sugar that has settled on the bottom has shifted. It will look horrible at this point, but don’t worry.

Finally, stand the bottles in a warm place. An airing cupboard is perfect, failing that, by a radiator or on a sunny window sill. Shake them vigorously two or three times a day and a bit closer to Christmas I’ll tell you the next step. There, see, easy peasy.

And now it’s 8.30am and you’ll all be wondering where this week’s blog is. This is officially the closest I’ve ever pushed it to the wire and I apologise, but I think you’ll all understand why.

And now I must go, I’ve suddenly remembered I need to quickly iron Miss F’s work shirt – yes, I know, she should iron it herself but she’s absolutely exhausted after two very long shifts and will be working another nine hours today, so I’ll do it for her this once. And yes, I know, I work far longer hours, most of it unpaid and unappreciated, but hey ho, that’s the lot of a single mum.

Take care of yourselves and I hope you have a good week. I look forward to chatting next Sunday, and you never know, next week might not be so busy. What? Why are you laughing?

Julia Blake

The Goose is Getting Fat… Christmas Past & Present (or possibly no presents)

This week I’m going to be using the C word a lot. I apologise for using the C word and know that halfway through November it is still way too early to be using the C word, but, events have occurred that have left me with no choice but to think about and say the C word a lot. Christmas. Sorry, I know most of you don’t want to hear it yet, but there’s no escaping from it. Christmas is coming whether we like it or not.

I always think that nothing illustrates the law of diminishing returns better than Christmas. Think about it. When you’re a kid you do absolutely nothing to contribute towards Christmas – except throw a strop on Christmas Day because you got Barbie Princess, and not the Barbie Diamond Princess you actually wanted but your poor, harassed mother didn’t realise was completely different from plain, boring Barbie Princess. Or by helpfully puking your guts up with excitement on Christmas morning. Or by refusing to go to sleep until gone midnight on Christmas Eve, thus meaning your exhausted parents are falling asleep on the sofa they’re so tired, but can’t go to bed until after you’re well and truly down – well, they have to sneak into your room and quietly fill the stocking at the foot of your bed.

Tip to all new parents, start the tradition on the first Christmas of hanging up their stockings either downstairs or on the handle of their bedroom door – so much easier for sneaky Santa shenanigans. If they really insist on having the stocking in their bedroom, then buy two identical stockings. Hang one up in their room, the other one is hidden in your room already filled to the brim with their presents. Then the moment their little peepers are firmly closed, it’s a simple case of creeping in and doing a switch. You’re welcome. This has been a Public Service Announcement by Julia Blake.

Anyway, as I was saying, when you’re a kid you do NOTHING to help with Christmas, yet you get EVERYTHING. Christmas plays, parties, carol services, lunches and trips to Santa in his grotto to give him a list of your demands. Your excitement levels ratchet higher with every door you open on your chocolate stuffed advent calendar. You enjoy decorating the tree, without giving a thought to the poor parent who’s had to tramp around a muddy field picking the “perfect” tree, wrestle it into a car too small to take it, manhandle it into the house and into a suitable pot and then play the ever popular game of “will the lights work this year”? Even if your parents opted for a plastic tree, they’ve still had to climb into the loft to find it, risking life and limb crawling over a year’s worth of stuff that’s been shoved in front of the boxes of Christmas decorations.

As you get older, maybe you start to contribute a little more – you have to write the cards for your school friends, maybe mum makes you write cards to family members, perhaps you even have to help choose and wrap presents. As teenagers, yes, you do a little more, actually buying presents for your family and maybe helping a bit on Christmas day with food preparation and serving. But as kids grow, so the things on their wish list grow smaller and more expensive – iPhones, PlayStation games and money – being the most asked for teenage things.

Once you get beyond the teenage years then it’s all downhill, and as soon as you get a place of your own, Christmas begins to gobble down your money like an ever-hungry festive fledging. Suddenly, all the things that mum and dad bought and you always took for granted, you’ve got to buy for yourself – and you’re starting from scratch having to not only buy a tree, but all the ornaments, lights and other Christmassy bits and bobs to make your new nest a Noel ready retreat. Every Christmas since Miss F was born, I have bought her one beautiful tree ornament, so she now has fifteen plus a few others she’s acquired over the years. That means by the time she eventually leaves home, at least she’ll have enough to make a good show on her very first Christmas tree.

For a brief while, before kids come along, Christmas is still fun. But the moment you become a parent then that’s it, you’ve reached the bottom of the pile in that you do EVERYTHING to make Christmas happen and in return get NOTHING! Most women are sole co-ordinator and cook over the Christmas period. We’re the ones who make the present list, think of what to get for everyone, buy it, wrap it and usually arrange distribution of it. We’re the ones who plan menus and write endless shopping lists.

Going around the supermarket doing the big Christmas shop one year, I looked around at all the other women doing the same, frantically grasping their precious lists, muttering under their breath, eyes glazed with stress and exhaustion. A near fight broke out in aisle seven over the last packet of sage and onion premade stuffing balls. Husband’s – completely failing to understand the severity of not being able to find the right jar of caramelised red onion chutney to go on a cheese board everyone will be too full to eat – trailed miserably after their wives, and wondered just how much trouble they’d get into if they slipped away and went to the pub. And over it all, the strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” floated down from the store’s radio onto the heads of women who every year swear Christmas won’t be the stressful, exhausting, disappointing hot mess it always turns into, yet know with a sinking sense of inevitability, that it will be.

I think we’re all in love with an ideal image of Christmas that simply doesn’t exist. An image created and fed by films, TV shows and magazines, by the longing inside us all to have the perfect Christmas that sadly, most of us never have. The reality being a group of exhausted, stressed out, disappointed people being forced to sit in an overheated room together, exchanging gifts they don’t want, and having to fake gratitude at getting yet another scented candle and bath bomb set that smells like primary school toilets, and for him, deep joy, socks and a mini car maintenance kit.

Why do we do it to ourselves? Especially, why do us women do it to ourselves? I have a sneaking suspicion that if it were left to men, Christmas would comprise of a pie and a pint down the pub, then falling asleep in the armchair in front of the TV. It’s us women who make it such hard work. Before Miss F came along, I used to almost collapse from exhaustion and stress trying to make it the perfect Christmas. Hundreds of pounds spent on presents that all had to be wrapped just so, handmade Christmas crackers and individually wrapped beautiful and thoughtful little table presents for everyone to open before Christmas lunch. Handmade place settings. And enough food and drink purchased to keep a small, third world village going for a month.

Every year it was the same. Every year I’d vow not to do so much, to not spend so much, to not stress so much, but every year I’d get swept up in the Christmas tide and every year I’d run myself ragged. Every Christmas Eve, I’d finally sink into an armchair with a sigh of exhausted relief, glass of something festively alcoholic in hand, with everything done, every card written and delivered, every present perfectly wrapped, all the vegetables prepped for the next day and the house a shimmering, shining homage to Christmas, and then I’d feel it – the ominous, scratchy tickle in the back of my throat which by Christmas morning was a fully-fledged throat infection – every single year, I’d be ill for Christmas Day purely because of the amount of needless stress I’d put myself under.

Then my marriage fell apart and suddenly everything changed. I had neither the money, time, energy or inclination to make everything absolutely perfect. I had a small child, and obviously her needs came first, but children don’t care if the tag on their present is handmade and they don’t care if the paper is responsibly sourced, fully recyclable and handcrafted – all they care about is that there are presents, a big heap of plastic crap under the tree for them to rip apart in a feeding frenzy of excitement.

Gradually, over the years, I’ve looked for ways to make life just that little bit easier for myself – cut down on the amount of food bought. It’s a family of four you’re feeding, not the whole of the Welsh Rugby team – you don’t need a 20lb turkey, make do with a turkey crown, bought all ready to go in the oven pre-stuffed and wrapped in bacon and in its own handy baking tin. The busy woman’s friend, it’s considerably cheaper than buying a whole turkey, fits in the oven, cooks quicker, doesn’t tend to dry out so much and doesn’t leave you with a carcase to try and cope with on Christmas evening. Cut down on the veg. One Christmas dinner spent at my brother’s house, my then sister-in-law had prepared fifteen different vegetables! Fifteen! A truly ridiculous and unnecessary amount of extra work, fuss and worry. Buy the Christmas pudding ready-made. Trust me, no one will ever know the difference.

Don’t be a martyr. Delegate jobs. If you’re hosting Christmas dinner this year, then get all the family in the kitchen Christmas Eve on veggie prepping duty, open a bottle of wine, put on cheesy Christmas music, arrange funny guessing games to play whilst peeling the mountain of potatoes, Brussels sprouts and parsnips. If you can, lay the table days in advance. Don’t worry about a starter, trust me, the amount of food there is, no one is going to be getting a takeaway on the way home. Or if you simply must have a starter, have plates of beautiful bite size canapes to serve with Prosecco before dinner instead.

Above all, do everything you can to make life a little easier for yourself. After all, this is your Christmas as well. No one is going to be happy if you’re too ill to enjoy yourself because you insisted on being a martyr and doing it all yourself. Ask for help. Demand help if needs be. This is everyone’s Christmas, so EVERYONE should chip in. Many hands make light work is at no time as true as it is at Christmas.

This year, Miss F and I have taken the ultimate step, in that we are having a practically present free one. It has taken me almost a whole year to pay off what I spent on Christmas Day last year. Think about that. Eleven months to pay off one single day. Looked at in the cold light of day, it’s ridiculous and a bit obscene. So, we discussed it, and jointly decided no presents. After all, as Miss F rightly stated, that’s not what Christmas should be about. It should be about family and friends, being together, enjoying good food and spending a stress-free time away from work and life. For me, it’s even more important that Christmas is a relaxing time because working in retail means I only get three days off over Christmas. The 23rd, 24th and 25th.

For the past two years I’ve had to look at my watch all Christmas Day, thinking how I have to be at work by 9am the following morning – and trust me, that puts a real crimp on things. So, this year, we’re doing things a little differently. The 23rd will be our Christmas Eve, the 24th will be our Christmas Day and the 25th will be our Boxing Day. At first a bit sceptical how this would work, my family are now fully on board as things have slotted nicely into place. My brother will be spending proper Christmas Day with his girlfriend and her family but can spend the 24th with us. The village my parents live in have a beautiful “carols by candlelight” concert at the church every Christmas Eve at 6pm. Usually, we’re all too busy getting ready for Christmas Day to even think of attending, but this year we will have eaten Christmas dinner and be quite up for a stroll to the church for a bit of drunken carolling. Then on Christmas Day proper, I can relax and enjoy a completely stress-free day before plunging back into work and the madness of after Christmas sales. Oh, the joys of working in retail.

So that’s our Christmas sorted, and do you know, I have noticed immediately a difference between this year and last year. Not having to worry about what I’m buying for everyone and how I’m going to afford it has lifted an enormous weight off my shoulders.

It was the grand switching on of the Christmas lights in Bury St Edmunds this week – and I hope you’re liking all the photos, sorry they’re a bit blurry but I have a rubbish camera – I wasn’t able to go this year as I had to go to a college thing with Miss F, but it’s always well attended whatever the weather. And then of course, next week is the actual Christmas Fayre. The third biggest in the country, it is a massive event with practically the whole town closed off and busloads of tourists coming in from all four points of the compass. I remember last year, chatting to a couple of girls I was queuing for something with, they told me they’d travelled all the way up from Devon just to come to the Fayre for the day!

As I told you last week, myself and four other local authors are having a stall on which we will be selling our personally signed books. I am excited about it and also worried, I have invested quite a lot of money into this event – not only the cost of buying a good supply of my books to sell, I’ve also had lovely little scented candles made to match my books, I’m buying lots of gift wrap supplies to offer a free gift wrapping service and I’ve had to invest in a card reader as most people don’t carry cash with them, and the ability to take card payments should hopefully mean more people will buy my books. It’s just as well I’m not buying any Christmas presents this year! Fingers crossed my gamble pays off.

If there’s anyone local reading this (or perhaps you’re bussing in from the West Country), then why not pop in and say hello. We will be in The Guildhall down Guildhall Street from 10am to 5pm Friday and Saturday, then the others will be there 10am to 4pm on Sunday – sadly I have to work, so I won’t be there on the Sunday. It would be lovely to see you. I may even be wearing a Christmas jumper and if you’re looking for some unique and personalised gifts for Christmas then there will be a wonderful collection of books on offer, all personally signed by local authors, along with bookmarks and candles. Very importantly, there is also a café and toilet facilities in the Guildhall.

What do you think about Christmas? Are you an Elf or a Grinch? Do you love all things Christmassy or do you bah humbug at the whole shenanigans? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. As usual, you can comment here or contact me on Facebook or Instagram.

Finally, many of you have contacted me asking about Queenie Ant. Thank you, it’s so sweet of you all to be concerned. I am happy to report that we think she’s still alive as earlier in the week Miss F is convinced she saw one of her legs uncurl then curl back up again so we’re hopeful that come the Spring she will wake up and we’ll have lots of little ant babies running about all over the place. Imagine that.

Anyway, once again it has been great chatting with you and I hope you enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Take care.

Julia Blake

Road Closures & Rats!

I don’t think it will be too long a blog this week. Life has been a needy, greedy bitch and I’m running on empty from an energy and time point of view. There’s a meme currently doing the rounds, which runs something along the lines of – Being a grown-up consists of saying “after next week things will get back to normal” every day until you die! – And although I’m not sure that’s strictly true, this week it has definitely felt like it.

To sum up all that has happened since we last chatted, well, for a start, I’ve decided to have a stall at the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fair this year. Yes, yes, I know I said I’d never do this type of thing again after the Literature Festival fiasco – for those of you who don’t know, in a nut shell I spent hundreds of pounds buying in stock, didn’t sell a single book, had to carry them all home, cried a bit.

How this decision to do a stall at the Christmas Fair came about, was a group of us Bury St Edmunds authors have found each other and formed a little group. We meet for coffee every other Friday to just talk books and encourage and support one another. One member of the group, the young one with all the zip and enthusiasm, eagerly suggested we do a stall between us. She’d researched the venue, got a price and basically arranged everything. What could I do? I was surprised how reasonably priced the stall was, and between the five of us, it was even cheaper. I really wanted to be a part of this and couldn’t help feeling if I wasn’t, I would seriously regret the loss of the experience, if nothing else. So, I said yes.

Becoming Lili

Although the stall itself is quite cheap, as always, it’s the cost of buying in books to sell on it that is the expensive bit, and then there’s the dilemma of which books do I sell and how many do I buy? In the end, I decided to stick to just four so have ordered ten each of Becoming Lili, Chaining Daisy and Eclairs for Tea and other stories, and fifteen of my most popular book to date, The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ which still comes to 45 books in total and a big chunk of savings gone.

Chaining Daisy

Why did I choose these four? Well, Becoming Lili and Chaining Daisy are the perfect pair to sell at a bargain price for Christmas, Daisy is my latest release so interest is still high in it and they just look so beautiful together, and will make an impact on the stall. The Forest, of course, with its iconic cover, is an obvious choice, and then Eclairs for Tea is the smallest and cheapest of the four and is perfect for readers who might be daunted by the bulk of the others, plus it also makes for a perfect Christmas gift.

Eclairs for Tea and other stories

The idea then struck me that it would be perfect to have individually scented candles to sell alongside the books, so I am currently in negotiations with a local candle maker and will keep you posted as to progress. I will bring plenty of exclusive Julia Blake bookmarks to give away with every book purchased, plus I will be personally signing every book and offering a beautiful gift-wrapping service free of charge.

The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~

So, if you are planning to attend the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fair this year, then why not call round to say hello. I and four other local authors – Jackie Carreira, Amy Warren, Rachel Churcher and Pauline Manders – will be in the Guildhall down Guildhall Street between the hours of 10am-4pm on the Friday to Sunday. (I personally will only be there the Friday and the Saturday as I have to work on Sunday, but the others will be there all three days). You can’t miss me. I’ll be the red headed one desperately trying to pretend she knows what she’s doing! It would be lovely to see you, so please do come along.

Aside from trying to arrange all of the above, I’ve of course been working as usual, both at my normal job and at my part-time job of “Mum’s Taxi – evening and weekend work, very reasonable rates”. Sadly, I receive no monetary reward for providing a taxi service to Miss F and her friends but do it out of the goodness of my heart. However, this week there’s been a few too many calls upon my time and petrol and it’s been a job fitting it in.

Wednesday, I received a request from Miss F, please could I run her and her friends out to a local pet shop a couple of miles out of town to pick up the two pet rats her friend was buying. Then could we run them out to another friend’s house on the other side of town to pick up a cage that had been promised to house these said rats in, and finally could I run everyone to the proud new rat mummy’s home. She asked me in front of them all, and I don’t know about you, but if someone asks me to do a favour for someone else actually in front of them, I find it very difficult to say no. It was also requested that I first run them all to Pets at Home to pick up supplies, but here I put my foot down.

It was coming up to school rush hour, to get all the way out to the retail park that Pets at Home is located on would take thirty minutes, then another forty minutes to fight our way back through traffic to the pet store where the rats were and then another thirty to get to the third friends home and another twenty to get everyone back. That added up to two hours of my time idling in traffic just because the bedding from Pets at Home was reputedly better than that of the store where the actual rats were. So, I said no, then felt guilty, but stuck to my guns. Being the only one of the party with driving experience, knowledge of the roads and location of everything, and just how hideous school run traffic is, I felt justified in saying no this time.

Off we went, me, three girls and a carry cage all crammed in my little car. We got to the store where the rats were. Now, I don’t like wild rats of course, and never really had an opinion on tame rats, but must admit the pair Miss F’s friend bought were very pretty and very cute. Miss F looked around at all the assorted squeaky, fluffy critters and pulled a pleading face at me, but I pretended not to see it and tried to hurry things up, very aware of time ticking on.

Bury St Edmunds is a small town at its heart, the infrastructure simply isn’t there to deal with high volumes of traffic so it’s best to avoid it whenever possible. Add to that, the fact that one of the main roads through the centre of town is currently blocked, as well as a few other smaller side ones, and the chaotic hell that is school going home time becomes even worse. I belted along the road, rats squeaking at every turn, desperate to drop off friend three and pick up the cage from her house before the school bell went and gridlock ensued. I’m happy to say we made it, but Miss F has been begging ever since to have rats. I’m sticking to my guns on this one as well, I don’t really want caged animals in the house, they smell, make a lot of mess, and I think my cat would have a very hard job restraining herself from murdering them.

Speaking of pets, a lot of you have messaged me asking how Queenie Ant is, well, I have to admit, we’re not sure. As you know, at first, we thought she was dead, then we thought she was alive but hibernating because all the worker ants piled in around her and seemed to settle down for a long nap as well. But now we’re not sure. They keep moving her body around the habitat, which is very odd. It’s almost as though they don’t know if she’s alive or dead either. We’re leaving them alone to do whatever they feel they must, but it’s a bit worrying. If Queenie is dead, then all those worker ants are basically dead ants walking. Although they can live without a queen, without a purpose to their lives they will eventually die. They can’t join another colony because they would be killed and it’s no good putting another queen in there, because they will kill her. Usually, Mother Nature’s systems work very well, but I can’t understand the reasoning behind this one.

I can’t remember if I mentioned it last week, but Miss F went for a job interview for a position as front of house staff in a newly opened, trendy gastro pub about a twenty-minute drive from Bury. Well, she went for a trial session Friday evening 5-9pm so again called upon the services of Mum’s Taxi. Bearing in mind on a Friday, I already run her and her friend out to their voluntary work placement for 9am (a round journey of about 1 hour and 20 minutes), then do the repeat journey to pick them up at 2pm, it doesn’t leave much time for us to get home, eat a late lunch, and for her to shower the stable off her and get ready, before we have to leave at 4.20pm to allow time in rush hour traffic to get out of town and reach the pub before 5pm.

Normally, it would be fine, but this particular Friday I decided to take my mother out on the pick-up journey so that she can see where she has to go, because when I’m busy at the Fair on that Friday, she is going to collect the girls, so I don’t have to take two hours out of my day to do it. Anyway, normally, it’s a simple matter to cut across country and reach the village where my parents live, and I’ve done it a couple of times before. It only adds a few minutes to the journey time and is a straight-forward route that I know very well.

But we all know how things go when you’re in a hurry. Driving back from dropping the girls off in the morning, the plan came to me to ask my mother to help on the day of the fair, so I cut across country to take the normal detour to their village. All was going well, until I hit the first of the road closed signs. Now, out in the countryside we all tend to ignore these signs, usually they mean there’s two bollards around a pothole and you can still get through, or the actual road closed is miles away from where you need to go. So, I bomb merrily along the road, Radio 2 blasting out, until suddenly there’s an actual barrier across the road and it’s clear I’m going no further.

Bugger it. Not being able to get through meant a long backtrack and then an even further cross-country detour to reach my parents. Driving back the way I came, I see a signpost to a village I know, not far from my parent’s village, if I can get to that then I’ll know the way from there. Making a snap decision, I turn off the main road and into what I can only describe as “here be dragons” territory. The road got smaller and smaller! I was totally off the map, lost and had no idea what to do except keep going. At one point, I think I went through a farmyard, and I kept expecting to hear the sound of banjos. Finally, after about twenty straight minutes of “where the f**k am I” driving, the road spat me out on a road I knew and I was able to make it to my parents house with my car looking like I’d been rally driving!

Oh yes, I hadn’t mentioned there was also torrential rain with mud being washed off the fields onto the roads. Big fun.

When it came time to do the reverse journey it started out so well. Mum had come into Bury to do some shopping, so we were able to go straight from there out to the farm to pick up both the girls. I’d looked at the map and figured out another route to get her back to her village without having to go all the way to the ends of the world and back again. I told her the route I planned to take, she agreed – initially. We picked up the girls, we’re on our way back, when mum springs a surprise on me.

“Take this turning.”

“What?”

“Take this turning, it’s quicker.”

 “Mum,” this was Miss F in the back. “I’ve got Google maps up, there is another way if you turn left there and then right at the end of the road.”

“Ok.”

“No,” says my mother. “Don’t go that way, you can’t get through.”

“Google maps says you can, Nana.”

“Well, Google maps is wrong, because I know you can’t get through. Trust me.”

Now, you’d think I’d have learnt by now. Which option should I have gone with? Miss F and Google maps. Or, my mother with her vague recollections of a road she hasn’t been down in forty years? Yep, you’ve guessed it, stupidly I went with my mother. The road went on and on and on. It got smaller and smaller and smaller. Finally, we found a signpost telling us we’re heading in completely the wrong direction. We turn around, take another road.

This road also goes on and on and on. Time is ticking by. I’m very aware that we have to get home. Miss F is honking from shovelling horse poo all morning. She has to have a shower and wash her hair, we have to eat, she has to get ready for her all-important job trial. My eyes meet those of Miss F in the mirror and I see the panic in hers.

Then about a quarter of a mile down the road we see it. A massive hedge trimmer. It’s taking up the entire width of the road. No room even for my tiny car to squeeze through and I know from experience there’s no way this thing will back up to a passing place and let me through. There’s nothing for it, we turn back around. By now, we’re so disorientated from all the turns we’ve made we are well and truly lost. My mother, who up until this point has been very vocal with her local knowledge suggestions, has suddenly gone silent on the matter. Picking a road at random, we creep along it until suddenly I’m back on the tiny lane I’d found myself on that morning. We’re saved. I know where we are, but we’ve wasted thirty minutes of precious time and we’re still thirty minutes from home.

Finally reaching home, Operation Panic Stations swings into motion. We quickly gobble down the pasta bake I’d thankfully already made that morning ready and Miss F shoots off to have her shower. She’s upstairs getting dressed, it’s now 4.15pm so we’re up against the clock, when suddenly there’s a howl of disbelief and a pair of black jeans land at the bottom of the stairs. The pub had requested that she dress in plain black jeans and a white shirt for the job trial, and as she had neither, we’d had to go shopping for them the day before. Now I’m looking at the new jeans in horror, more specifically I’m looking at the socking great security tag still attached to their waistband! We’d paid for the jeans, of course we had, but somehow the cashier had forgotten to take the tag off and somehow we hadn’t set the alarms off when we left. What can we do? She can’t wear them with this giant metal disc attached to them. Miss F had now left the small town of panic and was heading into the suburbs of meltdown so I sent her back upstairs to finish getting ready whilst I took the jeans into the kitchen to see what could be done. Stores attach these tags to prevent shoplifting because they are impossible to remove without the correct in-store device. Wrong. A desperately determined woman armed only with a blunt pair of secateurs can get one off in under three minutes. So the tag was off, but we were now running ten minutes late!

What I know you’re all wanting to know is did Miss F make it in time for her job trial and how did she get on? Well, it was tight, she was about a minute late. I’d planned for us to leave at 4.20pm to allow for the increased leaving college traffic, but because we didn’t get away until ten minutes later it put us slap bang in the middle of it. I had to push the car to its limits where I could, and we screeched into the pub car park at 5.01pm by the car clock. She rushed in and I then had to face all that traffic again to fight my way back into town. Only now it’s worse, because now all the people leaving work have joined the fun. Back home, I had to wait and try not to fall asleep on the sofa, before having to turn out at 8.30pm to go and pick her up again. This time the journey took 17 minutes, clocking up to a massive five hours total I’d been driving around that day. The things we do for our kids!

But the important thing is she loved it and feels that she did very well. She seems pretty confident they will be offering her a job, and even despite the inconvenience and extra petrol, I hope they do. It’s a nice job, in a lovely working environment, and the pay is very good considering she’s only 16. More than enough for her to save for university, driving lessons and to compensate me for all the petrol I’m now going through.

And that’s been my week. Once again, there’s been no time to write or read or relax. I’m back to work tomorrow, so maybe I can rest then. It’s now 4pm Saturday, the fire is laid, I’ve just about done all my chores and a nice dinner with a glass or two of wine is planned. Let’s just hope I stay awake long enough to enjoy my evening off.

Thank you as usual for joining me, and I hope you all have a great week.

Julia Blake

Ghosts and Goblins and Things That Go Bump in the Night! What Scares You?

Well, we had Halloween this week and Miss F and I duly carved pumpkins, put them on our front doorstep and waited for the three trick or treaters we had. We live in the centre of a small UK town, so Halloween isn’t particularly big here, in fact, the only reason we bother at all is for the delightful American family who live at the top of our road. They have two small children so the whole street puts out pumpkins and gets in candy so they can toddle up and down the road trick or treating.

It got me to thinking what an odd custom it is. When I was a child it had only just crept across the pond from the US and my mother hated it. We put out no pumpkins or Halloween decorations of any sort, and if any trick or treater dared to ring our doorbell they’d be sent away with a flea in their ear and sternly told to stop begging on people’s doorsteps. This is an attitude she still has even to this day.

But I know a lot of people cherish it as their favourite time of the year and while it does nothing for me, I can understand its appeal. For one night, you can dress up as something wicked and evil and release the inner demon inside – a very attractive proposition. And of course, there is the fact that most people love to be scared.

It’s not something I enjoy myself and I can’t understand the appeal of horror films and books, but I think I was scared off them at a very young age when a baby sitter – who really should have known better – let me watch the film Poltergeist. It absolutely terrified me. Not just while watching it, although that was bad enough, but for weeks afterwards I was unable to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I would see the images from the film creeping across my bedroom floor and would jerk bolt upright in bed, sweat sticking my nightie to my back and my skin literally crawling off my body. Refusing to tell my parents what was wrong – I liked that particular babysitter and was old enough to understand if I told on her I’d in all likelihood never see her again – I suffered in silence until eventually the immediacy of my terror passed and I was able to sleep again. Yet, I still remember how it felt.

People claim kids love to be scared, and whilst that may be true, I think there are limits. I used to love Doctor Who and yes, I was scared by the monsters, but it was a different kind of scared. The action usually involved aliens on far away planets so I knew they weren’t real, also the special effects in classic Doctor Who episodes were creaky to say the least, and when you can see the zip in the back of the monster’s suit it somewhat diminishes the effect it has on you.

The only exception was the Cybermen. Now they did bother me. Completely devoid of emotion, their one aim was to make you just like them and that terrified me a lot more than the Daleks. The Daleks only wanted to kill you and back then they had a serious issue with climbing, so my childish self would imagine escaping them by means of going upstairs and again that took away their impact. Nowadays, of course, they have this whole steam elevation thing going on so stairs no longer bother them – not sure how that would have made me feel as a kid.

Lots of things scared me as a child. I remember when I was very young, I didn’t like flushing the toilet, although I’m not too sure why, perhaps I thought something was coming out to get me. I used to wash my hands, open the door and stretch back as far as I could, flush, then run like the devil himself was after me – and perhaps he was.

There’s a funny story involving toilet flushing, well, I think of it as funny now, but at the time I’d never been so scared in all my life. I must have been about ten and awoke one day a bit under the weather and managed to convince my mum a day off school was in order. She fell for it and sent me back to bed, where I dozed for a bit listening to the far-off sounds of the rest of the family departing for school and work, before getting up and wandering through to the kitchen to investigate the contents of the cake tin. Settling down with a plateful to watch the school programmes that were on daytime TV back then and believing myself to be utterly alone in the house, I was just about to take a mouthful of cake when I heard the toilet flush. Now, my parents lived (in fact, still do) in a bungalow so everything was on one floor. I got up and stared at the door that led through to the bedrooms and the bathroom. To my absolute horror, I saw the door handle begin to turn and I completely lost it. Letting out a bone chilling scream, I collapsed to the floor – scaring the shit out of my mother who’d also decided she wasn’t feeling well so had gone back to bed instead of going to work. Apparently, it took ages to calm me down and even longer for me to convince my mother that the massive plateful of cake was me self-medicating.

I was afraid of my bedroom during the day and was convinced it was haunted. At night it wasn’t much better, for a while my parents kept a tall, metal, cylindrical laundry basket in my built-in wardrobe and I was convinced it was a Dalek coming to get me. In the end, it caused so many nightmares and disturbed my sleep so much, it was disposed of.

Getting into bed itself was also terrifying, braced in the doorway I would take a running jump into the middle of my bed and quickly clamber under the covers. The mere thought of standing next to the bed and simply climbing in reduced me to a quivering wreck, because of the hand I was convinced would come out from under the bed and grab me by the ankle. Let’s be honest, I think that’s a fear most of us had as children, and let’s be brutally honest, I think it’s a lingering fear most of us subconsciously have as adults.

I was also afraid of the dark. Now, I know most children are and I know most of them grow out of it. I must confess, I never have. I’m a light sleeper and tend to partially wake many times in the night. If it’s pitch dark and I can’t see where I am, then I get disorientated and confused and I wake up fully, groping for the lamp and then lying awake for hours trying to go back to sleep. However, if there’s even just the smallest glimmer of light, enough for my semi-asleep self to recognise my surroundings, then I instantly fall asleep again. So, I’ve always slept with a dim night light. Judge me all you like, it doesn’t make me a coward, it just helps me to sleep.

It’s hard to tell though, what will scare a child. Some things leave the callous little devils untouched and unmoved, but then something inconsequential will bother them. I remember when Miss F was a little one, we settled down one Christmas to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that much loved and popular kid’s film. All was well, she was loving it… Until… the child catcher appeared and that was it.

Turned. Her. Mind. As in, totally freaked her out. The film had to be abandoned for the fluffiness of a Care Bear video, with many cuddles, before she calmed down enough to go to bed. For weeks afterwards she would suddenly think of him and the whole cycle would repeat itself. I’m not sure she ever really got over it and it put her off anything even vaguely spooky.

As a big brave adult, not much scares me anymore. My fears now tend to be of a more practical nature, such as money and health issues, and my days of worrying about things that go bump in the night are pretty much over – I appreciate now that things that go bump in the night are usually other people enjoying themselves! But there is one thing that still has the power to freeze me to the spot with terror and turn my insides to water… Snakes.

I hate them, as in really, really, hate them. I can’t even look at a picture of one without experiencing a knee-jerk, primitive, instinctive recoil of terror and disgust. I also don’t like eels – I mean, all that thrashing about, what the hell is that all in aid of? And I’m not even that keen on worms – although I think that’s more to do with Sharon Kirk dropping one down my dress and then slapping me on the back when I was five, than anything else.

Now, I don’t mind lizards, in fact I quite like geckos, so it’s not a reptilian thing, and I’m not afraid of mice, rats or insects, any of the things that usually freak people. It’s just snakes, and they absolutely make me lose all control.

The closest I’ve ever really got to one was way back when Miss F was four or five. We’d gone to one of those farm/zoo places where they have a petting session when the kids can play with bunnies and goats and guinea pigs etc. I was having a bonding session with an enormous fluffy bunny and thoroughly enjoying myself when Miss F called to me to look at her. I looked at her. My child was completely draped with the biggest custard yellow python I’d ever seen.

I was practically torn in half by two equally strong urges. That of – run away, it’s a f*****g big snake – and – save my child from the f*****g big snake. A zookeeper was standing beside her with a big grin on his face and I had to fight hard not to slap him into next Tuesday for putting my child (and me) in this situation. Edging slightly closer and trying hard not to vomit on the bunny I was still clutching, I casually enquired.

“What are you doing, sweetheart? Why don’t you come and cuddle this lovely bunny?”

“Don’t want to, bunnies are boring. I’ve got a snake. I love snakes.”

“Oh, that’s nice, but why don’t you give him back to the nice man and let’s go and get some cake.”

“Come and stroke him, mummy.”

“No, that’s alright love, mummy has this bunny.”

“Put the bunny down, bunnies are boring. Come and stroke my snake.”

By now the bunny was struggling due to me squeezing him so hard, so I gently put him down and watched him hop away, wishing I could go with him. The zookeeper, sensing my reluctance, tried to be helpful.

“Perhaps mummy is too afraid to stroke the snake.”

By now, we’ve attracted quite a crowd of other parents and their offspring, and I can feel the sympathy oozing off the other mums who are also staring at this huge snake in horror.

“My mummy isn’t afraid of anything!” declared Miss F loudly, and that was it, wasn’t it, I had to touch the bloody thing now. No choice in the matter. Forcing my legs to move, I sidled closer. The snake lifted a head the size of a dinner plate and looked at me. There was a nasty look in its eye that suggested it knew precisely how scared I was. Perhaps it could smell the fear rolling off me in waves of perspiration, or perhaps it could hear the terrified pounding of my heart, or perhaps it just saw me as prey. Whatever it was thinking, I didn’t want to stick around any longer than necessary and tapped it lightly on its head and backed away.

“Right, I touched the snake, now come on honey, give the man back his snake and let’s go and get some lunch.”

I think by now the zookeeper had picked up that I was genuinely petrified and close to either puking on his shoes, breaking down into wild sobs, passing out, or possibly all three, because he took the damn thing off my baby and we were able to leave. Years later when I talked about it to Miss F, she remembered me touching the snake, but thankfully had no realisation of just what it had taken me to do so. Us mums are unsung superheroes sometimes.

One other thing that bothers me, and it’s such a ridiculously stupid thing that I feel an idiot even confessing to it, is I don’t like maps. Specifically, when a TV programme or something zooms down from a great height onto the landscape and you can see geographical features getting bigger and bigger. It makes me uncomfortable. Don’t ask me why, I can’t explain it. And it’s not exactly that I’m scared of it, it just bothers me a bit.

Weird, I know, but then people’s fears are sometimes totally irrational but still completely to be respected because they are their fears. I’ve known people be scared of birds, cats, dogs, hedgehogs, grasshoppers and dragonflies. Ferris wheels, roundabouts, buttons and elevators. Some of these fears make sense, others don’t, but hey, it’s a big old world and we’re all different.

What’s your fear?

So, what scares you? Is it something common like snakes or spiders, or is it something more bizarre like paperclips or doorknobs? I’d love to hear what it is and if you know why you’re afraid of that particular thing.

I think that’s about it for this week, and to those of you who noticed I got ahead of myself last week and posted Saturday morning instead of Sunday I apologise, but sometimes life… you know.

Take care and have a great week.

Julia Blake