Basil, Books, Birthday Shenanigans, and Bury in Bloom!

It has been a long, busy week – do I ever have any other kind – I hear you mutter, and the answer is no, I probably don’t. It was the first week of my two-week break from work and is the first time I’ve taken a fortnight off in at least twenty years. My reasons for doing so this time are because it was my birthday this week and I traditionally always take a week’s holiday over my birthday, and then, because I was booked to do a book fair today in St. Albans, I also booked the following week off so I wouldn’t be rushing back to work on Monday after a very long day.

But, of course, Covid came along. All my book fairs and conventions that I had booked to do this year have been postponed to next year, so that left me with a two-week holiday. Brilliant, you’re probably thinking, so why not make a start on that new book you’ve been promising us? Well, I really did plan to, but life took a turn this week and presented me with its usual long list of demands that I had to fulfil before I could even think about sitting down at my laptop.

As many of you know, I drive a really, old car. A wonderful old banger of a Nissan Micra called Basil. Now, Basil barely scraped through his MOT last October, with an advisory note that he would not pass this year unless the rust on his bodywork and underneath was attended to. Since then, I’ve watched the rust spread at an alarming rate and knew I had to get it fixed or else I would have no car come October.

The problem is I need my car all the time for work and I knew fixing the rust problem was going to take them quite some time, plus it was going to be expensive. Then Covid hit, we all went into lockdown, and my car sat on the side of the road, rusting quietly away to itself, and barely being driven at all. I mean, I put £40 of petrol in at the beginning of March and didn’t put anymore in until the end of June!

During lockdown, like many people I took advantage of the mortgage holiday that most mortgage providers were offering, so because I wasn’t making any mortgage payments – along with not spending money on things like petrol, takeaways, entertainment, and clothes shopping – it meant that I had a few pennies surplus in my savings account. Not a huge amount, but enough I felt to get Basil fixed. Add to that the fact I was going to be off work for two weeks with no real need of a car, and it seemed the perfect opportunity to get Basil into the garage and get him sorted.

So, an appointment was made for him to be assessed and a quote prepared at 8am on Monday morning. I know, first day of my holiday and I had to be out of the house by 7:45am, I must be mad! Anyway, I drove him to the garage and had a quick chat with the mechanic. They have been dealing with all my cars for at least twenty years, so I was completely honest with him. I need this car to get me through another two years, I said. Just two more years. Then, a tiny pension policy will mature, and I will get enough money to buy myself a nice new car. But I must have these two years, as I can’t afford to buy a new car now.

He told me he would have a look and would call my mobile when he finished, probably in about an hour’s time. So, I wandered back up into town looking for somewhere to get a coffee and a bit of breakfast, as there hadn’t been time before leaving the house. It was still only just gone eight so nowhere was open, then I came across a Café Nero I had forgotten was there and was able to buy a nice cup of coffee and a Danish pastry to takeaway. Then I wandered back down to the Abbey Gardens to have my breakfast. Regular readers of my blogs will know that this is the beautiful park built around the ruins of a 12th century abbey that was once the largest in England.

I probably hadn’t been in the park since last year, and I wondered if there had been any changes, but it was as peaceful and as beautiful as ever. It was a gorgeous morning, there was hardly anyone around and those people who were out and about were keeping their distance from each other. I easily found a bench with a beautiful view of the cathedral and settled down to eat my pastry – much to the interest  of the tame squirrels who live in the park – who frolicked about my feet begging for crumbs.

I’d had the foresight to take my kindle with me, so was able to get in almost at hour’s guilt-free reading before my mobile rang and it was the mechanic – “can you come back in? We need to talk!”

He sounded very serious. In my head I had fixed the figure of £500, in that I had a feeling this was the amount he was going to quote me to keep Basil on the road for the two years I needed. I have no idea where that figure came from, but it was in my head as I walked back to the garage.

When I got there, he looked at me sorrowfully and sucked all the air in over his teeth, the way mechanics do when they’ve got bad news for you.

Him: It won’t last another two years, I’m sorry, but it just won’t.

Me:  Oh, really? Not even if we do some work on it?

Him: Well, we could sort it out, but it’s going to cost a lot of money.

Me:  How much?

Him: A lot.

Me:  Yes, but how much is a lot?

Him: I’m not sure, a lot.

Me:  Worst case scenario?

Him: About £500.

Me:  ….

Him: ….

Me:  Okay, let me ask you a question. In your professional opinion, would I be able to buy another car for under £500 that has an engine in the condition of mine? With only 41,000 miles on the clock like that one? And one that has a known history of reliability?

Him: Well, no, you couldn’t.

Me:  So, what choice do I have? The work has to be done.

Him: I suppose so, when you put it like that.

Me:  If I buy a car for under £500 will I just be paying for somebody else’s problems?

Him: Yes, you would.

Me:  And you’ve done all the work on this car since I bought it in 2013 so you know how much it’s cost me to date.

Him: Hardly anything.

Me: So, add this £500 onto what I’ve spent already and then spread it over the ten years I will have the car. Does it make it a cheap and cost-effective drive?

Him: Yes, well, when you look at it that way…

Me:  There’s no other way I can look at it.

Him: Right, the MOT isn’t until October so when do you want to book it in?

Me:  Now. I’ve got two weeks off work, this is my last holiday until December, so you might as well do it now.

Him: Oh, okay, leave the keys then and we’ll give you a call when it’s done.

So, I walked home, leaving poor Basil in the garage to get his rusty bottom fixed, and hoping that after spending so much money on him he will go the distance and last the next two years. Just two more years, my trusty steed, and then you can rest in peace.

My beautiful hanging basket

Once home, I swept and tidied up my front steps and pathway as there was rumour that the Bury in Bloom judges would be passing down our road sometime soon, and I wanted everything to be perfect. I fed and watered the plants to perk them up and made sure there were no cobwebs anywhere.

Then I went out into the garden to pick some cherries and sweep up all the split ones that the birds had dropped everywhere. I had only been out the back about ten minutes when Miss F came running out in great excitement – a certificate of merit had been pushed through our door! It’s only the second one I’ve ever received, and I’m cuffed to bits with it.

Along with a few other chores and cooking dinner, that was more or less Monday finished with. Tuesday, I had the house to clean, more cherries to pick, long overdue correspondence to respond to, bills to pay, and laundry to do, and that was day two of my holiday.

Few cherries left to pick

Wednesday, another early start, my old boss called round at 8:30am with a card and a bottle of wine for my birthday and we sat in the garden for over an hour chatting. I worked for him for over thirty-four years in one capacity or another but hadn’t seen him since he retired in January of this year and I left his employ for good, so it was nice to catch up.

He left, and one of my best friend’s turned up. Again, we sat in the garden and drank a bottle of prosecco. I’ve seen her once since lockdown eased – we sat in the garden that time as well – and again the weather was horrible, growing colder and colder as we shivered into our cardigans and clutched our champagne flutes.

We had decided to risk going out for lunch so wandered into town to Edmundos Lounge Bar. We had to wait for a server to escort us to a suitably sanitised table with single use menus. The tables were spaced 2ms apart and the servers wore gloves when bringing us our food. I felt safe there, but also very odd. It was the first time I’d been out to eat since the beginning of the year, and I couldn’t help feeling I was doing something wrong. But it was nice to eat a meal I hadn’t had to cook myself.

Thursday, day four of my holiday, and the paperback proof copies of the three Blackwood series books which I’m hoping to publish next week, turned up. I sat down and had one last critical go through them, and as I expected, there were a couple of silly, minor things that leapt out at me. Probably no one else would even notice them, but I know they’re there, so they had to be corrected.

I had a facetime meeting scheduled that morning with another best friend, the lovely Becky Wright. A fellow local author, we have been friends for over thirteen years, and it was going to be her birthday the day after mine. Our facetime chat was to watch each other open our presents to each other, and to have a professional consultation about the books. Along with her husband, Becky runs Platform House Publishing which offers printing and publishing services to indie authors. They had made the covers for me, so she was keen to get a look at them and assess whether any tweaks needed to be made.

We finally finished chatting at lunchtime, then I had just under four hours to go through the three books and make all the amendments and send them off to Becky, before my parents turned up to celebrate my birthday with a meal delivered from a nearby pub that does nice food. We had more prosecco and wine, I opened my presents, and we chatted. It was the first time my parents had been in my house since the start of lockdown. They are in our bubble so are allowed in, although I must admit to finding all the new rules about what you can and can’t do a bit confusing.

I have been forced back to work to mingle in close proximity with four work colleagues and deal with hundreds of germ-ridden strangers, yet one of my closest friends isn’t allowed in my house – but I can go and sit in a restaurant with her and be inches apart at a small table! And then there’s the new legislation that from the 24th July no one will be allowed into a shop without a mask on, yet you can sit in a restaurant and eat food without one on. You can go and get a facial, a tattoo, or a piercing, but you can’t go to your dentist and good luck getting a doctor’s appointment.

There’s a real sense of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted, about the whole mask situation. And enforcing the wearing of masks four months into a pandemic is rather like taking condoms to a baby shower – too little, too late! Why weren’t masks enforced from the word go? If they have now decided that they are essential, why weren’t we all wearing them every time we left the house all through lockdown? What would the death rate be at now if there had been simple, tough, no arguing with rules right from the word go? I am worried about what the situation will be like at work when I return after my break. If all customers are being forced to wear masks for the duration of their time in our shop, then I don’t think that’s going to be particularly good for business.

The fact is that people hate wearing them. They are hot, itchy, and uncomfortable. If you wear glasses, then they steam them up. If you’re a woman, then they wipe all your make-up off leaving you red-faced and shiny underneath. And if, like me, you suffer from hayfever or asthma, they make it very difficult to breath and cause you to constantly hack up with a dry cough that scares everyone around you. That’s not very conducive to wanting to wear a mask for long and will maybe deter people from shopping in stores altogether. Good news for online shopping, a further kick in the nuts for the high street.

I’m also worried that I’ll be expected to wear a mask all day as well. I hate wearing them for all of the above reasons and also because when you work in sales, you rely so much on customers being able to see your face and your smile, to be reassured by your facial expressions and trust your words. It’s really hard to connect with someone when you’re wearing a mask. We do have visors at work, so maybe I could wear one of those instead. They’re annoying and leave me with a red angry welt across my forehead, but at least I can breathe in them, people can see my face, and, most importantly, they don’t make me cough.

Oh well, I have another week in which I don’t have to worry about it, and who knows, maybe things will have changed again by the time I go back!

I am hopeful of being able to finally publish the first three books in the Blackwood series next week. It was planned for Tuesday, but an unforeseen tiny hitch in getting the covers tweaked means it will probably be more likely Wednesday now. It’s fine, so long as they’re launched before I go back to work, I’ll be happy.

I’ve almost finished editing The Book of Eve now as well. A couple of hours work on it today and then it will be off out for beta reading and we’ll be on the final stage of having that ready for republication the moment I receive back copyright, which should be the end of July or the beginning of August at the latest. And then I will be completely up to date. All my books will be as perfect as I can make them, and it will be time to move on with fresh new stories. It’s been a long, two year project, and now the end is in sight I can look back and say it was worth it, even though two years of non-stop editing, formatting, and cover designing did at times reduce me to despair that it would never end.

Friday was my actual birthday, and following all the rush and busyness of the week so far, it was nice to simply kick back, relax, and spend the day eating and watching films with Miss F. As it was my birthday, everything was my choice, so I chose to watch “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café” and “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” – two films I watched back in the nineties and remember enjoying, although I hadn’t seen them since.

It was wonderful seeing Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy act together in the first film, I love Jessica Tandy, she was one of those actresses who seemed to be permanently old. I mean, did she even act as a young woman? Or did she not get into acting until she was white haired with dignified wrinkles? The Ya-Ya sisterhood was also good fun, and I’d forgotten it was one of Sandra Bullock’s very early films, and that the marvellous Maggie Smith was in it.

Miss F gave me her presents, which were thoughtful and rather wonderful. She knows I’ve always wanted a clicky-clacky keyboard so she bought me a Bluetooth one with a wireless mouse which links to my laptop so I have a keyboard with proper chunky keys that go down when you press them and actually make a noise like a typewriter.

She also bought me a chart of what are considered the 100 most influential books. The idea is you scratch away the circle of the books that you’ve read. I would argue with some of the choices, but it did surprise me how many of the books on there I’d never even heard of, let alone read. She also bought me a proper writer’s mug with the opening lines of dozens of books all over it, a pair of slate coasters bearing the Game of Thrones logo and the words “Mother of Wine”, and a big box from Whittards containing an assortment of nine different coffees from around the world. A thing of beauty, it will keep me in coffee until the next millennium, and I have a sneaking suspicion probably cost more than all my other gifts from her put together.

I’d like to take this opportunity as well to thank everyone on social media for all the birthday wishes and messages, the cards, and even the presents they sent. Thank you. I was incredibly touched at the thoughtfulness. I did try to respond individually to each and every message, but when the numbers reached hundreds, I realised it was a task with no end.

Saturday, a quiet day. I’m writing my blog, thankful for once I have quite a lot to tell you. I won’t lie, some weeks I do struggle to have anything fresh to talk about, and I wonder just how much I can ramble on about my quiet little life before you all get bored with me and go and read the blogs of people who do extreme sports, or travel the world…

More cherries have ripened on the tree, so later today I’ll put on old clothes and go out there to pick some more. So far, I’ve taken 26lb off the tree, which isn’t actually a lot compared to most years, but I haven’t really had the time to seriously harvest the tree and climb to reach the highest fruit laden branches. The birds have been stuffing their little beaks full as well, then pooping purple splatters all over the garden, or worse, all over my washing! Red stains on your white bed sheets – so not what you want!

I really want to make a start writing my new book during my holiday, but time is running out. What with all the normal household and garden chores, plus more birthday shenanigans next Monday, then launching three books simultaneously and all that entails, time will be scarce. The rest of today is taken up with chores, but maybe tomorrow I can shut myself away somewhere with my new keyboard and let the story that has been buzzing around my head for two years, finally have a voice. At least with this new keyboard, Miss F will be able to hear if I am actually writing, or just staring dumbly at a blank screen.

So, that’s it for this week. I hope wherever you are you are safe and well, and I look forward to chatting with you next Sunday. In the meantime, look out for the launch of “Lost & Found”, “Fixtures & Fittings”, and “Sugar & Spice” next week. To celebrate their launch, all three books will be available at special publication sale prices, and there will even be money off the paperback versions as well as the eBooks! So why not treat yourself to all three.

Take care.

Julia Blake

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