The Story of a Coat

Once upon a time, I bought a coat. Now, clearly, I have purchased lots of coats in my time, but this was a very special coat. I can remember the year, it was 1996, and I can remember that it was from a shop in Norwich – although I can’t remember now which one. I do know that I had gone for a day out with an old friend. We travelled there on the bus – obviously, so we could have wine with lunch – and we rambled around the shops. I needed a winter coat, my old one had fallen apart, and I was looking for something to replace it.

We spent a very pleasant morning window shopping and picking up a few bits and pieces for Christmas, so I’m guessing it must have been this time of year. Our stomachs were beginning to tell us that we needed to feed them, and we were wandering towards our favourite restaurant on St. Benedict’s Street – when I saw the coat.

It was hanging in the window of a small boutique shop. It was long, charcoal grey, with three buttons down the front. It had a dark grey silk lining, and a fur collar. I hesitated outside the shop and my friend looked too, her eyes lighting up when she saw the coat.

HER: Ooh! It’s perfect!

ME:  I’m not sure.

HER: Why not? It’s everything you said you were looking for.

ME:  I’m not sure about the collar? I mean… fake fur?

HER: I bet it’s detachable. Let’s go in and take a look.

ME:  No, we’re on our way to lunch.

HER: It’ll only take a minute.

ME:  You said you were starving?

HER: I can wait. Let’s go in.

ME:  There’s no price. I probably can’t afford it.

HER: Let’s go in and see.

ME:  Umm.

By now I’d run out of excuses, so I followed her in. She was right, the collar was detachable, and there were lovely, classic shaped lapels underneath. There were three tiny buttons on each of the cuffs, and a long split up the back. It was beautifully shaped and cut, and it was gorgeous. BUT. It was £150. Back in 1996 this was a sizeable chunk of dosh to part with for a coat, no matter how lovely. A muttered conversation then ensued, as we were alone in the silent shop and being watched by a snooty looking assistant sitting at the till.

HER: Try it on.

ME:  It’s £150! I can’t afford that!

HER: Try it on. It might look horrible and then the price will be a moot point.

ME:  But…

HER: Try it on!! (hissed so loudly, the assistant raised her eyebrows at us)

ME:  Okay, okay…

I tried it on. It fitted to perfection. It was gorgeous. I loved it. My friend went all gooey – the way women do when another woman tries on something that is so, so, perfect on her it leaves them speechless.

HER: You HAVE to buy that coat.

ME:  I can’t afford it.

HER: Sure, you can afford it. You just can’t afford it. (This makes sense only if you’re a woman)

ME:  No, I mean, I really can’t afford it. I don’t have enough money in my account to pay for it.

HER: When do you get paid?

ME:  Next Tuesday (three days away)

HER: No problem, I’ll lend you the money until then.

ME:  I can’t do that.

HER: Yes, you can.

ME:  No, I can’t.

HER: Sure, you can, and you’re going to. This coat was meant for you. It was waiting for you.

She then turned to the assistant.

HER: We’ll take the coat, and my friend will wear it now. Please can we have a bag to put her old jacket in.

I left the shop wearing the coat and feeling like a million dollars. Suddenly, the cold wintry day I’d been shivering in meant nothing to me. I drew my shoulders back and walked tall, the coat swirling about my ankles – yes, it was that long – and we went to lunch. Our coats were hung on a coat rack inside the restaurant, and all through lunch my eyes kept wandering back to it. Afterwards, when we went to pay and put our coats back on, the jolly waitress who had served us, eyed up the coat with avaricious eyes.

“That is a gorgeous coat,” she said, and my friend beamed with satisfaction and gave me a – I am always right, please don’t doubt me again – look.

That coat lasted and lasted. I wore it, year in, year out, until about 2007. Due to a lovely pair of boots I owned which had sharp buckles on them, I had completely shredded the delicate lining. Sadly, I wondered if I should think about replacing the coat. After all, it had done eleven years, not bad for a coat. But … but … I loved that coat and the actual coat itself still looked as good as the day I bought it. It was just the lining that was ruined.

I took it into our local dry cleaners. They looked at it, oohed about the quality, and agreed it was worth trying to save it, if I could. They gave me the name and telephone number of a local seamstress called Helen. Apparently, Helen was “right handy” at repairs and alterations. I telephoned Helen and took the coat around for her inspection the next day.

Helen looked at it.  It’s a beautiful coat, she said, pure wool, and it’s cut and finished to a very high standard. To buy a coat like that nowadays would be upwards of £250 possibly even more. She measured it, to replace the lining would be £90 as it was such a labour-intensive job. I would have to buy what lining I wanted – she would tell me the type of fabric and how much we needed – and if I wanted to update it with some new buttons, she would happily sew them all on free of charge, again if I supplied them.

I went to our local haberdashery and gave them Helen’s note. They very helpfully took me to where the choices of suitable lining materials were piled up in big bolts, like rolls of carpet, and left me to have a browse – telling me to give Maureen a call when I’d chosen and she’d cut off the amount I needed.

It was such a hard decision. All concerned had agreed that this coat had years of life left in it, so the lining had to be in a colour that I’d be happy with in ten, twenty, or even thirty years, time. Should I go for a grey again? Hmm, no, I fancied a changed. Mustard? I liked it – but wasn’t sure. Hot pink? Gorgeous, and certainly eye-catching, but I felt it would date the coat. Scarlet? I lingered for a long time at the red end of the spectrum. I love red, I always have done, so was very tempted by the thought of a devilish red lining inside such a classic and stylishly simple coat.

Then, I saw it. And it was perfect. I was a dark, slightly iridescent green. It was the green of a male Mallard duck’s head. It was classy and timeless. It was the one.

Maureen was summoned. Approving of my choice, she called the other ladies to come and “take a look”. I think it was a quiet day in the shop. Once they all trooped up and voiced their approval, Maureen carefully cut off the required amount and wrapped it in rustling tissue paper sealed with tape.

Then I went to choose the buttons. Again, a big decision. I always think the devil is in the detail, and it’s those little touches such as buttons that can lift an ordinary piece of clothing and make it extraordinary.

Eventually, I found some dull silver twisted buttons that I really liked. The bonus was they came in two sizes, so I could have the small buttons on the cuffs, match the three big buttons down the front. Gleefully, I took my spoils around to Helen’s. She stroked the lining and smiled, so I took that to be a sign of her approval.

It took her about three weeks to do the work, and I can still remember how excited I was when I went to pick the coat up. It was so beautiful. Restored to its former glory, and given a new lease of life, I fell in love with it all over again as I put it on so Helen could check it fell right.

“It’s a lovely coat,” was all she said. And she was right. It IS a lovely coat.

Fast forward another thirteen years and the coat is still going strong. Looking brand new, the lining is intact and the buttons still sturdy. But I’ve changed. With age I’ve thickened a bit around the middle. The coat still fits, but it doesn’t hang, and fall true on my frame, the way it used to, so I don’t wear it that much anymore. Besides, my life has narrowed down to occasions that don’t much call for the wearing of a full-length classic coat, and I tend to wear my green hooded jacket instead.

As the coat neared its 25-year anniversary, it was spending most of its life hanging on a coat hook, which was a shame. A coat like that needs – deserves – to be worn and loved.

Last week, Miss F and I had a chat about clothes. She has been trying to find her “look” for the past year and told me she finally realised what it was.

ME:  What is it then? What look have you settled on?

HER: Dark Academia.

ME:  Umm … okay?

HER: Right, think the 1930’s … chunky ankle boots; thick woollen tights; neat, short, pleated skirts.

ME:  Okay.

HER: Muted neutral colours; knitwear; plaid trousers; checked blazers. Blacks, greys, and tweed.

ME:  Right, got you.

HER: Think old libraries; books; academia; quills; old stately homes. Long coats…

ME:  Long coats?

HER: Yes, long grey, or black coats that swirl around your ankles.

ME: What about my long coat? It’s really too small for me now, do you want to…

HER: No.

ME: I was only suggesting you try it on. Good quality coats are expensive.

HER: I’m so much taller than you, it won’t be long enough.

ME:  I think it will be, it was really a bit too long on me.

HER: No, honestly Mum, thanks for the offer, but it wouldn’t work.

ME:  Okay, it was just a suggestion.

The subject was dropped, and I thought no more of it, until yesterday morning, when, on a whim, Miss F brought the coat through into the lounge where I was sitting.

HER: Look, I’ll show you … you think this coat will fit me, well, look …

She pulled the coat on. It settled onto her shoulders, the length fell to her ankles, and the cut shaped itself snugly around her. She looked at me, looked down at the coat, then back up at me. Her hand smoothed down the lapel and brushed gently over the deep hip pockets.

I saw ownership of the coat pass from me to her.

ME:  That looks … bloody fabulous. I think the coat is now yours.

HER: Really?

ME:  Really. Go and look in the mirror.

She went and looked. She did up the buttons. She undid the buttons. She put her hands in the pockets and swirled in front of the mirror. She peered over her shoulder at herself.

HER: The only thing I’m not sure of is the buttons.

ME:  We can easily put new buttons on – that I can manage to do.

HER: Just plain black plastic ones, will be fine.

ME:  No, you can’t put ordinary buttons on this coat. Let me think about it.

I went onto Etsy – I have recently discovered Etsy and love it with a passion, the few Christmas presents I am buying this year have mostly come from there, and it’s nice to think I’m helping individual sellers.

I searched through buttons, then found a lot of thirty assorted 1920 vintage black glass and fabric buttons. I called down Miss F and showed them to her,

HER: They’re so gorgeous, but it’s £30 – so a £1 per button.

ME:  That’s okay, it’s part of your Christmas present, and they’re vintage and fabulous.

HER: But £30? For buttons?!

ME:  Trust me, it’s worth paying for unique things. It’s the detailing that people will notice.

HER: I don’t need thirty.

ME:  You might need buttons for other things you buy, to make them personal to you.

HER: If you’re sure.

ME:  I am sure. Now you will have a coat that nobody else can buy anywhere, and it will be yours and will reflect your personality. Be different.

So, the buttons were ordered. They are coming next week. Then together we will pick out the ones that are suitable for the coat and I will replace my twisted silver buttons – which were right for me in 2007 – with retro 1920’s ones – which are right for my daughter now, and the coat will pass down to her, and I actually love that.

Precious little gets handed down anymore, certainly not articles of clothing. I love the fact that my coat is getting a new lease of life. It will be going to university. It will have a stimulating and enjoyable life again – rather than festering away on a coat rack. It will keep my daughter warm and dry – being wool, it’s waterproof – and it will be like a little bit of me is going with her. I know, I know, it’s daft, and sentimental, neither of which are things I normally am, but it’s how I feel.

And the moral of the story, if there is one, is that if you buy cheap, you buy twice. Good quality costs, but most of the time it will be the most cost-effective choice in the long run. It’s like the wonderful author, Terry Pratchett, once explained in one of his novels.

A good quality pair of boots cost $50, but his character couldn’t afford that so had to buy the boots that cost $10. The cheaper boots were okay, for one winter, but then would let the water in and would never keep his feet warm. But, because he could never save up enough money to buy the better-quality boots, he just had to keep on buying the cheap ones, year after year. But the thing was, the $50 boots would last forever, so the rich man who could afford to buy them would not have to buy another pair for years, whereas the poor man would spend literally hundreds of dollars buying boots – yet would always have wet feet.

Now there seriously is a moral in that, and I think it’s always try to buy good quality. It’s like I always say to my customers – if you’re going to spend your money on anything, make it a mattress or shoe leather. Because if you’re not in one, you’re in the other – maybe I should now add a coat to that list.

In other news, this week has been one of organised panic as launch day for Black Ice crept closer and the list of last-minute things to do grew longer. Regular readers will know that the last five launches have been anything but smooth, with Amazon losing my listing, putting up the wrong paperback, taking ten days to list the eBook with the paperback, and even last time disabling the entire search engine function on the US Amazon site. Cheers Amazon, I know that one wasn’t aimed specifically at me, but boy, did it feel personal.

But this time – touch wood – everything seems to be going smoothly. For the first time I have put the eBook up for pre-order. I did this as I received so many requests from people keen to ensure that their copy is delivered at midnight on launch day – Monday 30th November. I have a feeling that the paperback is also up for sale already, three days early, but hey, better than ten days late, so thanks Amazon. If you are tempted to pre-order a copy for yourself, or even order a paperback, there is a handy universal link on the books page of this blog, which will take you directly to the listing for Black Ice on your local Amazon site from wherever you are in the world. I know, bit clever that, isn’t it?

Launch day is Monday, so that will be a busy, full-on day, where I basically jump around all my social media platforms promoting, pushing, and thanking people for their support.

It will be mental, and hectic, and exhausting, and wonderful, and that feeling as you watch the book climb the rankings is unbelievable. The highest I ever got was with Chaining Daisy – it reached the top ten in its category and peaked at #5 in hot new releases. But it was in a tiny category, so it stood a better chance.

Black Ice is sitting in the fantasy fairytales and myths category and I have no idea how big a category that is. Still, you never know, fingers crossed for high enough rankings to make Amazon sit up and take notice of it, because then they will start promoting and pushing the book themselves. Every sale makes a difference and can push the book up ten slots or more in the rankings. It is so ridiculous, and it’s all a numbers game, but it would be nice to see this book do well. I have poured my heart into this novel. It would be wonderful to have it rewarded with a respectable sales figure.

Then next Friday I am back to work. I’ve been given a tough shift for my first week back and will be working all weekend, so I’m unsure if I’ll have time to write a blog next week. But I promise I will do my best to get a few words down – even if it’s just to let you know how launch day went.

Take care of yourself, and if you are leaving lockdown then please remember that the virus hasn’t gone away – it’s still there, just as contagious as ever – so please stay apart and stay safe.

Julia Blake

It’s The Small Things That Matter

Good morning everyone. The theme of this week’s blog is the small things that make up most peoples lives. The little things we must do, so that the bigger things can happen.

 It is 7:45am on Sunday morning and I am writing this blog in real time. I’ve had all week to write it. Endless days – in which I could have got myself organised and written something ready to drop into your inbox early this morning – but, sadly, as we all know, it doesn’t work that way.

Why is it that the more time you have to do something, the longer it takes to do it? A simple task that would only take at most a couple of hours, assumes monumental proportions and becomes something I keep putting off. But then, I always was the queen of procrastination.

It is the end of the first full week of lockdown. In answer to your question, no, I didn’t have to go into work last Sunday. It was late last Saturday afternoon, and I still hadn’t heard from the boss what times he wanted me in the next day, so I text him. A few minutes later he phoned me to say that everyone else had been in all week basically preparing the store ready for the Christmas peak. Stock had been put out, beds rearranged, the store tidied and cleaned, and even a spot of painting had taken place. Because everyone had worked so hard there was nothing left to do, so the company had decreed that no one was to come in on the Sunday. Sounds great right? Well, yes and no. Okay, I was told not to go in, but then I was also told that meant I would either have to lose a day’s pay, work those hours as unpaid overtime, or lose a remaining day’s holiday. So… we shall see which option I have to go with when this lockdown finishes and we all go back, whenever that may be.

Miss F has also been at home in lockdown with me. I telephoned the college and spoke to the student pastoral care teacher. We spoke at length about how Miss F was coping with the stresses of coming into an environment she did not feel safe in and how that was impacting on her mental wellbeing. Eventually, we both concluded that studying at home for the duration of the lockdown was a practical solution, and then we would reassess the situation in a month’s time.

She agreed with me that whereas many students don’t deal well with online tutoring, Miss F actually thrives on it. Once the fear and panic that going into college causes has been removed, then she can relax and totally focus on her work. I have looked through her notes – they are awesome. So neat and organised and colour coded to subjects. I wonder sometimes whose child she is – because my schoolwork never looked like that!

We’ve tried it for just over a week now, and so far, it’s working out very well. Every day she vanishes into her office for four or five hours and diligently works on whatever lessons and assignments she has. I know she does miss her best friend, but every day they facetime and go over the work together, so she is still getting that interaction.

Our young lodger, Mr M, is currently doing the coursework that Miss F did last year, and he admitted to me that he is struggling with online learning, so on Friday when neither of them had any lessons I suggested to Miss F that she dig out her old notes and maybe go over them with him. She leapt at the chance and it was good to see the pair of them sitting at the table with a pile of books between them. It was a constructive use of time. It helped Miss F in that it refreshed last year’s lessons in her mind, and, of course, it helped Mr M enormously. He said afterwards that it really helped fix the information in his head going over it with her.

Speaking of Mr M, I am glad to report that he has settled in really well and already feels part of the family. He has spent a few evenings with us watching TV, and last night because I had cooked an enormous amount of pulled pork, he joined us for dinner.

I’ve only had reason to speak to him about one thing, and that is his annoying habit of leaving doors and drawers open. It’s a small thing, I know, but it really annoys me to turn into the bathroom and walk smack into his glass fronted cupboard door that he’s left open. Likewise, to fall over the dishwasher door because he’s forgotten to close it is also annoying. I hurt myself a little when I did that and exclaimed a bit crossly over it, so I think in future he’ll be remembering just to shut things behind him.

I really don’t get people who do that though. I’ve had lodgers before who’ve left things wide open all the time, then claim they just keep forgetting to shut them. What the heck…? You opened the cutlery drawer to take out a knife, just close it again, it’s not rocket science!

And as this blog has the theme of small things, we found out Mr M’s hobby this week – it’s assembling and painting those tiny toy soldiers that you buy from Warhammer. Hours and hours, he sits still at the dining room table painstakingly gluing these teeny tiny figures together, then carefully painting them. Although when we call them toy soldiers, he does get a bit purse-lipped about it.

ME:  They’re toy soldiers.

HIM: They’re not.

ME:  But they’re tiny soldiers.

HIM: Well, yes, but they’re a bit more than that.

ME:  So, when you’ve finished assembling and painting them, then what do you do with them?

HIM: I play with them.

ME:  Oka-a-a-y.

But each to their own, and as hobbies go it’s pretty non invasive – I mean, it’s not playing loud music, it’s not playing an instrument, it’s not spending hours online hogging all the WiFi – and it is kind of nice, seeing how dedicated and engrossed a person can be in something.

He is still going to the odd lesson that he has at college, but he has told us how half of the students are simply not turning up, and that the teachers have given up even bothering to mark them absent or present. Miss F says a lot of people she knows who are supposed to actually be at college, are turning up in the online classes, so I think I was not alone in feeling unhappy about sending my child into a situation deemed too dangerous for me to go into. And yet, when we drove past the college on Tuesday to doorstep deliver my niece’s birthday present, we saw hordes of students all congregating outside the college – no masks were being worn and there was no social distancing at all.

Then there are the missing teachers. All of the art teachers have suddenly been given “medical leave” and disappeared from college. Medical leave? Really? Who do they think they’re fooling with that one? There is only one reason why a whole department of teachers would suddenly be absent and that’s because Covid is in the college.

So, what have I been up to this week? As you know, I have been frantically working on getting my new novel “Black Ice” ready for publication. Monday and Tuesday were spent making all the amendments that my wonderful proof-reader found. Boy, talk about small things. She literally went over the manuscript with a fine toothcomb. I am a pretty accurate typist, and for all my faults, I can spell, so thankfully it wasn’t a question of her highlighting all the spelling mistakes and typos I’d made, no, it was more the punctuation and grammar side of things she was checking.

I know the basic rules of punctuation, but some of the finer points escape me. I mean, I understand what an Oxford comma is, but I’m not always sure where the blasted thing is supposed to go. And as for the difference between hyphens, em dashes and en dashes – well, that was a closed book. But she patiently explained the difference until I got it. Then I had a minor panic because my keyboard didn’t seem to have an en or an em dash key on it! But after googling it, I discovered how to get the dash I needed – for anyone else wondering, it’s control and the minus symbol on the numerical keypad.

She also found a few tiny plot holes that in themselves aren’t the end of the world, but, once she had questioned them, it got me thinking about them. So, Wednesday was spent writing the few lines necessary to tweak the story to make it completely watertight. Initially, I did pout at her pointing them out – all writers think that their work is perfect – but as I made the small changes that explained something more clearly, or made the plot hang together better, I could see how much stronger it made my book, and then I was incredibly grateful to her for having the courage to speak up. And it does take courage to tell a writer than although their book is wonderful, it could be a little more wonderful if only they changed certain aspects of it.

Once these had been written, checked, and inserted into the story, the whole book was sent to the wonderful Becky Wright over at Platform House Publishing. She double checked all the illustrations and fixed them in place, then sent me back a PDF print ready copy and a cover that had been resized to fit perfectly the 499 page brick this book has become.

It’s been uploaded to KDP now and the physical proof copy ordered. While waiting for that to be delivered late next week, the manuscript has gone to my beta reader, Caroline, for her to read it through. I know there will probably be yet more alterations, and normally I wouldn’t upload the book until after I’d received it back from the beta and made all their amendments as well. But I’m up against the clock on this one, so it made sense to get the proof copy ordered and then send it to the beta while waiting for it to be delivered.

After all, the physical copy is more about checking the cover – KDP have a habit of slightly changing the colour tones in a cover, so that wonderful burnt umber colour you’d chosen actually comes out a tomato soup orange in real life. It’s also about checking the interior formatting – the spacing, the illustrations etc. This time we’re experimenting with having the borders on the chapter title pages bleed right to the very edge of the page – so need to make sure that has worked out okay. Then there was some doubt that the illuminated capitals at the beginning of each chapter might not be clear enough!

All these small details that make a book special are the things that take the most time to do. But then everything that’s worth having is worth working extra hard on. The devil is in the detail, and I’ve found it’s these little touches that make many of my readers prepared to spend the extra money and buy a paperback rather than an eBook version. I mean, sure, the eBook version has all the twiddly bits, but they lose impact when they’re not in a printed form. I work really hard to make my books beautiful, and I appreciate everyone who understands and acknowledges that effort by buying the paperback.

I think tomorrow I will begin to get feedback from my beta reader – the book is so big, I had to email It to her in four chunks so she could open it on her phone – and then the final stages of publication will be underway. Going through the manuscript and looking at everything she has found is the next step. I do know of some authors who seem to totally ignore what their betas suggest, but I’m not like that at all. Generally, it works out that 90% of their suggestions I go with. 5% I look at it and realise they haven’t understood what I was trying to get across in that sentence, so it’s down to me to make it clearer. The last 5% is my little author heart stubbornly refusing to change because that’s what I meant, so it stays!

My deadline of publishing by the end of November is now looking very achievable, so baring any major issues with the proof copy, I’m looking at a publication date of the beginning of the last week of the month. I know it’s dreadful that we’ve all had to go back into lockdown because of the soaring infection rates, but this time at home came at the absolute perfect moment and is very useful indeed. I will keep you posted on progress.

During the week, Miss F received an amazing offer. Her course tutor group-chatted her class to let them know that the college had been approached by our local zoo, Banham. They have put together a package to give those students who chose the zoo route in their second year at college a chance at gaining work experience at the zoo! This is an astonishing opportunity and seems almost too good to be true. A small group of students will be spending one day a week at Banham Zoo learning everything there is to know about looking after the animals and zoo management in general. I was a little concerned about transportation – Banham is almost an hour’s drive from here, so that would mean a double journey for me and four hours of my day taken up with driving Miss F there and back – but the college have said they will provide a mini bus both ways!

This will count as her voluntary work placement, so unfortunately does mean she would have to give up her place at the doggy day care centre – which she already knows will upset the owners as they’ve told her repeatedly how great she is, and how training up new people is always a pain – but this is a chance to work in an actual zoo!

Even more excitingly, at the end of the work placement, some of the students may be offered a paid apprenticeship at the zoo.

I am in two minds about this. Yes, it would be a fantastic “foot in the door” for Miss F. Finding employment in a zoo can be extremely difficult, so this would be a way into the industry she really wants to work in. But it could mean giving up her dream of university, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing as I really want her to have the university experience.

We have discussed it at length. Of course, she is going on the work experience placement, because that really is too fantastic an opportunity to miss. Then we will simply take it one step at a time. As Miss F pointed out, if they offer her an apprenticeship then it doesn’t mean university is off the table forever. The apprenticeship will give her a very useful diploma plus invaluable hands-on experience. At the end of the one, or two, year apprenticeship she can then assess her situation and decide whether to try for a job within a zoo, or then go to university. Banham Zoo might even offer her a place.

Who knows, maybe delaying going to university for a year or so might not be a bad thing. It would give the world a chance to settle down after Corona. The vaccine should then be in effect and life approaching normality. Plus, she could live at home, continue to do her part-time job at the restaurant maybe, and have a chance to save some money. She could also use that time to learn how to drive.

One step at a time though. Concentrate on the small things and let the big stuff figure itself out – that’s usually how it works.

Saturday morning, I slipped to the local supermarket early to grab a few items to make dinner with. To my surprise it was heaving with people. Apart from the masks, it was like business as usual, and you never would have guessed by the way people were barging by each other and reaching for things over other people, that we are all supposed to be in lockdown. I even saw one elderly couple stand in the middle of an aisle and take off their masks to have a facetime chat with a grandchild on their phone! So, it’s not just the young people who aren’t sticking to the rules.

While I was there, I treated myself to a delicious cherry and almond Danish pastry and a box of frothy coffee sachets to take home for a treat for breakfast. It really is the small things that make the difference.

That’s all my news for now. It’s gone 9am and I need to shower and have breakfast. We are having a zoom meeting with the family at midday to watch my niece open the present we dropped off earlier in the week, so I need to be ready for that.

Take care everyone, and no matter where you are in the world, stay safe, and stay well.

Julia Blake

Here We Go Again!

I want to say thank you to all the people who contacted me or commented on my post, after last week’s blog – in which I ranted at the Government and the situation in schools during this second lockdown. It was gratifying to realise that every single one of you feels the same way. That you are as disgusted as I am at the greedy, self-serving actions of our politicians – who would quite happily let families starve while taking a hefty sum each day out of taxpayers money to buy food for themselves.

Worried about my daughter, I contacted her college and spoke to the head of pastoral care there. I am relieved to report that they shared my concerns, and because Miss F has proven to be such a diligent and hardworking student – one who is more than capable of home-schooling herself to a very satisfactory level – they have agreed that she can self-isolate for a month with me.

One major problem with keeping all the schools and colleges open – well, apart from the obvious one of the students and teachers spreading the virus far and wide – is the fact that they have closed all the canteens and gathering places where the students used to go to eat their lunch. Sometimes, the lunch break between morning and afternoon classes can be incredibly long – up to four hours on some days, and the students now have nowhere to go.

You used to see and hear great hordes of them walking up town, but now, of course, with all the fast-food restaurants and coffee shops closed, they have nowhere to buy lunch, or eat one brought in from home. So, they hang about the town centre in great groups. If it were summer, this wouldn’t be too bad. There are parks and benches where they could sit and eat. But we’re coming into winter now, it’s getting colder, and the likelihood of rain is growing.

Where are they supposed to go for four hours on a freezing cold and wet day? Not all students live within easy walking distance of their places of education. Some have to take long bus journeys to get to and from their homes, so it’s simply not possible for them to go home for lunch. No one seems to have thought about this, or, if they have, no one seems to care.

It is a strange lockdown. Very different from the first one when there was very much the sense that we were all in this together, and people mostly obeyed the rules. This time, what with all places of education remaining open, and many companies not having to close, it does not feel like a lockdown at all.

My store has closed, but I am still being expected to go into work on Sunday to fulfil my contracted hours for the week. Quite what I will be expected to do in a shut and empty shop that has already been cleaned from top to bottom, I have no idea. I shall take my kindle with several books already downloaded, just in case there is literally nothing else for me to do.

I think I will only be expected to go in for this week. Furlough pay doesn’t begin until Monday, and I shouldn’t imagine my company will be able to claim furlough, at the same time as forcing employees to break lockdown laws and congregate in a shut shop – but who knows. I have been given no further information, and I am hoping more will be forthcoming when I go into work.

Our new lodger has been living here for just over a week now, and so far, it’s working well. He is actually nineteen, not the seventeen I believed him to be, and seems to be a responsible and respectful young man. Our cat loves him, so that’s always a good sign. He has fitted in well. He cooks decent meals for himself and is very tidy about the house.

There was the slight concern about him still going to college, but I appreciate he doesn’t know many people there, so is not one of those hordes of students hanging about in great groups. He goes to his lessons, and because he now lives so close to the college, is able to come home for his breaks. He has assured me that he is taking all precautions at college, and the moment he gets home he immediately goes to change his clothing and wash his hands. Obviously, I do not do his washing, nor do I have any occasion to enter his room. We do not get that close to him, so I think the risk of any contamination is minimal.

It has been a strange week. I worked as normal on Monday and Tuesday. They were two very busy days, as customers previously undecided about whether to go ahead with placing their orders, all rushed to do so before lockdown. On my way home Tuesday evening, I collected a month’s worth of shopping from the supermarket and once again, my home feels as if it is prepared for a siege. With bags of groceries and supplies tucked away in every cupboard and under beds, we won’t have to leave the house for a good month.

Wednesday, I dashed to the local store for a few things that I had missed off the list, and entered into a scene of last minute, panic buying. Customers with trolleys crammed to capacity with supplies struggled around the aisles. Queues at the checkouts were huge, and I was thankful I only had a small basketful so could go through the ten items or less till.

There was a definite air of stress, and from the little I overheard, it’s clear that people are preparing for a longer lockdown than the month-long one the Government have promised. I even saw people buying Christmas provisions – just in case!

I don’t know what will happen. My personal feeling is this light lockdown won’t work. That the infection still has too many ways available for it to spread. Through schools, colleges, and universities. Through the many companies that are still open, and from the crowds of people still out on the streets and congregating in each other’s homes.

But we shall see. All each individual can do is protect themselves, their families, and their community as best they can.

For the past four days, it has been a relief to be able to immerse myself in the world of The Five Kingdoms that I have created. My Snow White retelling – “Black Ice” – is shaping up to be a big, beautiful, chunk of a book, and at over 460 pages will be one of the longest I’ve ever published.

I am busy working my way through the feedback of my proof-reader, who so very kindly volunteered over a week of her time to check it for typos and punctuation errors. I am over halfway through her amendments, and I’m stunned at how meticulous she has been. All of her suggestions will help to make this book so much better.

The illustrations have all been inserted, and they have been set firmly in place by the wonderful Becky Wright over at Platform House Publishing. This is essential so that when I am editing, the images stay put and don’t move around as I add or subtract text.

The video is being made, and I’m very excited to announce that the cover has been made for me by Becky’s very clever husband, James Wright. As a reward to my faithful blog readers, you are getting an exclusive first look at the beautiful cover they have made for me, I think you will agree that it is spectacular. It contains all the elements of the tale – the ice which will play a key role, the cogs and pipes that reflect the steampunk genre it is set in, the mirror which is crucial to the plot, and, of course, the famous red apple – without which no Snow White story would be complete.

I hope you like it. I absolutely love it, and I can’t wait to see the video that James is now making to accompany the launch of “Black Ice” later this month.

It is a short blog this week. Although there are currently momentous events occurring all around the world, my life has once again narrowed to my home and what occurs within its four walls. That sense of pulling up the drawbridge and battening down the hatches that gripped me in March, is once again prevalent. I am thankful for my home – which shelters us from the oncoming storm – and for my writing – which keeps me sane.

Wherever you are, and whatever is happening in your life – stay safe and stay well.

Julia Blake

“Let Them Eat Cake!”

So, here we go again. As we sat and listened to the Prime Minister’s announcement last night it felt like time had been rewound to March. The country is heading back into lockdown. All precautions and safety measures have failed, and Corona infection rates and death rates are back to the levels they were in April. Am I surprised? No, of course not.

During the original lockdown from mid-March to mid-June, we saw repeated instances of people ignoring the rules with little or no consequences to themselves. This made me angry because I felt it was unfair on the rest of us who were doing what we were told. To those of us staying home, only venturing out once a week for essential supplies, not seeing our friends and families, and coping as best we could with house arrest – the fact that so many treated it as one great paid holiday was disgusting and immoral. Yet they got away with it.

There aren’t enough police to manage the situation, we were told. Fine, I can understand that. So where were the army? Where were the TA? Weren’t the TA formed for exactly such situations as this? Hell, call out the military police from the air force if need be. The lockdown needed to be reinforced – severely reinforced – but it wasn’t. In my opinion, anyone caught breaking the rules should have had their furlough pay or benefits suspended. Maybe it’s hard line of me, but I felt my furlough was pay for obeying the rules, taking care, and STAYING AT HOME. It wasn’t so you could swan off to the beach, have vast barbecues and invite all your friends, or congregate in each others houses.

And now, surprise surprise, we’re all heading back into lockdown for at least a month, possibly longer. But once again the government is half-arsing it. Instead of a total and strictly reinforced lockdown of all but essential and key workers, it is vague and fluffy around the edges. Work from home, unless you can’t, in which case go to work. How are most firms supposed to interpret that? I fear most will take it to mean business as usual so public transport – especially in the cities, will be crammed as workers commute and spread the virus.

All schools, colleges, and universities to remain open. My jaw dropped at that one, and I simply looked at Miss F in disbelief. The places that we know to be absolute petri dishes for this contagion are places where children and young people are gathering in great numbers. Miss F comes back shaken and scared every time she has to go into her college. Although her and her friend wear masks and regularly sanitise their hands, not many others do, and there’s no reinforcing of the mask rule. There’s precious little hand washing, and absolutely no social distancing. The children are crammed into classrooms and are shoulder to shoulder in the public areas.

Then when they leave their places of education, you see them crowded together on the streets. There’s no social distancing, just bunches of young people hanging out together the way they always have done – all close to one another, touching, and in some cases, hugging each other.

So, tell me, BoJo, how is this supposed to work? The children go to their places of education. They mix and mingle with hundreds of other children, who in turn have mingled with hundreds of others. They pick up the infection on their skin, clothes, and hair. They then bring it back to their families sheltering at home. They infect them with the virus. The young person probably won’t get sick, or if they do, mildly. But the family member they infect may not be so lucky. And what about if that family member is the primary carer for an elderly or vulnerable family member, or their job is being a carer to sick, elderly, and vulnerable members of society?

Once again, the government don’t seem to have thought this through. If the lockdown isn’t going to be for all non-essential members of the society, then why bother doing it at all? Why not just leave us to take our chances?

After the announcement we discussed it. Miss F is afraid to go back to college and I one hundred percent support her decision. She is mostly homeschooling now anyway, so it seems pointless risking infection for the three hours or so a fortnight she has to go to college – only to find that her teacher couldn’t be bothered to turn up for class so the kids are crammed into another class, breaking all the social distancing rules.

Miss F’s feeling is that she would rather lose one month of lackadaisical and substandard education than risk losing me, or, at the very least, bringing home the infection and making me very ill. This is something I do have to seriously consider. At 53 I am not old, but neither am I that young. I’m not vulnerable, but this virus seems no respecter of how healthy or fit a person is. I am also the only captain of this ship. If I get sick, then there is no one else to do what I do. I cannot afford to contract a virus that could potentially affect my ability to work and support us for the rest of my life. I also do not want to die and leave my daughter alone. So, am I being selfish keeping her at home? Maybe. Do I believe it is justified and the right thing to do? Absolutely.

So, this is a message to the Prime Minister and all those other selfish, overpaid, idiots in power. OUR CHILDREN ARE NOT CANNON FODDER. IF IT IS UNSAFE FOR ADULTS TO BE OUT THERE, IT IS UNSAFE FOR THEM TO BE OUT THERE. END OF STORY!

I am already beyond disgusted at how this government has acted recently. Voting themselves a massive pay rise in a time when many are struggling to keep body and soul together is such a blatant slap in the face to those parents who cannot afford to feed their children. Many have lost their jobs due to the pandemic or have been left too ill to work. So many small businesses and industries have closed with the loss of jobs and income. So many in the entertainment industry have had their lives destroyed by this.

In New Zealand, all politicians voted to take a pay cut in solidarity of their people and in recognition of their suffering. That is true leadership. That is putting the needs of your people first. Did our politicians follow this sterling example? No, they did not. They greedily and selfishly demanded a large pay increase. As a reward for handling the situation so well, presumably!

On top of that, it has recently come to light that all politicians receive a £25 a day food allowance. £25 a day, every single day of the year!

I’ll give you a moment to process that. £25 a day! Each. Apparently, the poor dears can’t manage to feed themselves from their £80k+ a year salary. This is the same government that then voted against ensuring that no child is starving in the UK. Again, I’ll give you a moment to process that. They sat on their well-fed and well-padded backsides and said no to allocating £2.50 a day to give a free school dinner to every child that needed it during the half term holiday. They said no, whilst receiving a £25 a day allowance paid to them from OUR tax money to pay for their nom noms!

This is beyond disgusting. This is unethical and criminal. That a government can put themselves so far above their people is shocking in the extreme. I wonder, when someone informed BoJo that the people could not afford to buy bread, did he respond with “Let them eat cake”?

It took companies like McDonalds, Papa John’s, and other high street food chains to step in and offer free food to children. Across the country, food retailers heard the call and answered. And all I can do is shake my head in despair and say to the government, shame on you. Shame on you for so blatantly demonstrating that our lives mean nothing to you, our children mean nothing to you. And how dare you. How dare you take our tax money to pay for your three course lunches whilst others go hungry. You can afford to feed yourself and your families. On the money you earn you can afford to stop the £25 a day food allowance and direct it to a more worthwhile cause. Because at the end of the day, if I can afford to live, pay my bills, and feed my family on less than £13,000 a year – I know that you can do it on £80k+.

It is rare that I rant about anything as controversial as this. And I know that there are many out there who will not hear a bad word against the government. Who are staunch supporters and cannot see anything wrong with how the government has handled the situation. I agree, it is an unprecedented scenario. I agree, no one should have to deal with it. I agree, many difficult and hard decisions had to be made, and I wouldn’t have wanted the job. But this is the job they wanted. They wanted to be the leaders of our country. So, all I am saying is LEAD US WELL.

Even the most ardent supporter must look at their recent behaviour and begin to doubt that the government has our best interests at heart. Surely, anyone who is a grandparent or has children in their family must have listened to the announcement last night that all places of education were to remain open and despaired. And even the most hard-hearted and uncaring individual must agree the unfairness of a government that would quite happily leave children to starve whilst sipping a cheeky little Bordeaux wine over their slap-up, paid for lunch. Paid for by us, don’t forget.

I am sorry if I have offended anyone. But this is something I feel needed to be said. We are living in dark and strange times, and these are the days we should be all pulling together. Yet the gap between wealthy and poor has never yawned so widely.

I am late writing this blog because I was in two minds whether to post it or simply delete it and post something light and inconsequential. I am an author, and as such have never felt I have the right to use my social media standing as a platform to air my views – be they political, religious etc – but, I am also a mother and a tax-paying resident of this country. I am directly affected by the events that are happening around me and I cannot stay silent on this.

I am not an extremist. I am not a radical. I am simply a person who wants everyone to be treated equally and fairly. Sure, let the politicians keep their £25 a day food allowance – but only if we ALL get that same allowance. I manage to feed two of us and a cat on £50 a week, so that would amply pay for all our food and all our other bills. And as for the argument that politicians work long, hard hours – so do doctors and nurses and retail staff and construction and factory workers – but they are expected to pay for their own meals. The average nurse earns less than £18,000 a year and yet still have to pay the vastly inflated prices in the hospital canteen if they want a hot meal in the middle of a twelve-hour shift.

There is so much that is rotten and unfair in our country. Many of us work hard for little pay, and struggle with ever increasing food prices and utilities. Just keeping the lights on and food on the table can sometimes consume almost a whole monthly wage and it is a constant struggle. What else can you cut down on? Turn off the heating, put on an extra jumper, do without breakfast so your child can have something to eat, work extra shifts, all just to get by. And all the time, those who are at the top of the food chain squeeze even harder, desperate to wring every last penny from us to pay for their own luxurious and indulgent lifestyle.

It is wrong. So very wrong.

But I do not see change coming anytime soon.

I apologise to those of you who tuned in expecting the usual A Little Bit of Blake, and I promise that normal service will be resumed next week. But I had to get this off my chest, and I thought the six of you who read my blog wouldn’t mind if this once I used you to let off steam.

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, keep your families close and please stay safe.

Julia Blake

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Firstly, my apologies for not blogging last week. Regular followers will know I have been frantically busy trying to finish my steampunk epic fantasy retelling of Snow White which has been consuming most of my free time lately. Added to that, my shift pattern was abruptly changed last week, and I suddenly found myself having to work Thursday, Friday, and Saturday which left no time at all to write the blog either.

I am delighted to report that I finished writing the book last Friday evening. Coming in at a whopping 148,00 words it is approximately the same length as The Forest and Chaining Daisy and is 28,000 words longer than Erinsmore. But as it is an epic fantasy the word length is appropriate for the genre. It is also a very quick read. The chapters are short, there will be over forty pages of illustrations, and I like to think it’s a real page turner, so the length of the book is not a problem. Apart from the fact that it takes longer to edit, format and upload, of course.

I think it’s good. Upon reading it all through from start to finish for the first time, I actually think it’s very good. It’s exciting and thrilling, and funny and touching, and there are some romantic moments in it that made my bones melt with the sweetness. I have spent the past week doing my own edits and now it is in the hands of my proof-reader. Initial feedback from her is very positive, which is encouraging. While it’s with her, I shall begin the Herculean task of formatting it – which is always fun – not.

I know many of you will be wondering what is happening on the lodger front. Well, I tweaked the ad yet again, uploaded some fresh photos, and relisted it last Saturday morning. Almost straight away I had a response from a young woman asking if she could come to view it on Sunday. Later that day, I had another likely sounding response from an older man asking for a viewing Tuesday evening. Then another from someone with a name I was unfamiliar with so wasn’t sure if it was male or female asking to view Wednesday at midday.

It all seemed to be going the right way at last. Sunday arrived. The young woman came to view. Initially, she seemed keen, but then I saw the exact moment she decided she didn’t want the room. It was when she discovered she didn’t get a lovely private bathroom all to herself. I honestly don’t know why people expect every house has umpteen bathrooms – enough for one each – or that the room would be as cheap as it is if you got a private bathroom as well. She left promising to let us know, but I already knew what her answer was going to be. Sure enough, Monday afternoon she messaged me. Thanks, but no thanks.

Then Tuesday morning I had a message from the man scheduled to view that evening. He’d driven by the previous evening and seen how problematic parking is, so he wasn’t even going to bother to come and view the room. So, that was that.

That left us with the person of unknown gender coming on Wednesday. Midday came, the doorbell rang. I opened the door and there stood the tallest young man I’d ever seen! Easy 6’7” possibly taller. At only 5’ I felt positively Hobbit-like. A bit concerned he would be too tall to even be able to stand upright in the basement, I took him down to look at it. Luckily, he cleared the ceiling by a scant inch, no more.

He looked around. Didn’t say much. I showed him the kitchen, the bathroom, the living space he could use. Talked a little about the house and the area, cleaning routines, etc. He seemed very nice, but shy, and oh so young. It then turned out he was only 17 and on the same animal management course at the college that Miss F is on!

A little concerned, I tactfully asked if he would be able to afford the rent – I know Miss F would never have been able to afford it and she has a reasonably well-paid part-time job. Oh yes, he replied. His parents were going to pay it. I asked where they were, expecting him to name a nearby village or town, stunned when he replied France.

I must admit, I admire his courage. To relocate to a completely new area to continue his education, to have to search for accommodation, learn his way around, and begin at a new college all without his family and all at only 17 – that does take guts.

Maybe I was an idiot, but we offered him the room. To be honest, I don’t have much choice in the matter. He is the only person after running the ad for a full three weeks to want it, he seems quiet and nice mannered, no matter what happens with Corona his parents will be paying the rent, and he has no car or even a bike for us to try to accommodate. I assume that he will be staying at least until next August when presumably he will be off to university, so it buys me some time.

He has already completed and signed the contract, and is planning on moving in on the 30th of October, so long as the rent and deposit are paid before then, which I think they will be. Although I have a feeling, I may have adopted another teenager, that’s possibly not such a bad thing. We shall see how it goes.

We have an old TV in Miss F’s office which she never uses, so I am going to put it in the basement and see if we can get it working for him. I know he is going to be looking for a part-time job, but I have the feeling he’s not one for going out and socialising much, so a TV of his own might be nice for him. It’s also a DVD player and I will tell him to help himself to our quite extensive DVD library if ever he’s bored. See, I’m already thinking of myself as a motherly figure.

Work has been incredibly quiet this week. So far, I have worked Monday and Tuesday and both days were utterly dead. I am next in today, Sunday, 9:30am to 3:30pm. The first hour of that is training and the shop won’t even be open, so I have an enormous target to meet in just five hours!

Then I have Monday and Tuesday off, which will be completely taken up with formatting the book, then back to work Wednesday and Thursday – usually the two quietest days of the week – Friday off, and then I’m working on Halloween.

Is anyone bothering with Halloween this year? I am in the UK and it’s never much of a deal here anyway, but this year I’m expecting it will be even less of one. If Miss F was still of an age where she liked to be taken trick or treating, I really don’t think I would want her receiving candy from the homes of total strangers in the middle of a pandemic. That being said, we do have a lovely American family at the top of our road with young children. Maybe we should carve a pumpkin and get some individually wrapped candy just for them.

Likewise, Christmas is looming. As I’ve said in previous blogs, I am not a Christmas person at all. I find it boring, stressful, and generally an expensive waste of time. This year I don’t think we’re even going to bother with a tree. Maybe I will feel differently as we get closer to the festive season, but I honestly don’t think I will. A quiet and low-cost Christmas this year sounds like such a blessed relief.

All around us, areas of the UK are going into lockdown. Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are all having “circuit breaker” lockdowns of varying lengths and severity, and the North is lost altogether. To be honest, I am surprised our government hasn’t announced a general mini lockdown for us all, although I suppose they are trying to balance peoples lives with the damage to the economy – never an easy thing to do.

If we go into lockdown I am prepared. For the past month I have been squirreling away extra provisions every time I do a weekly shop. We could survive a couple of weeks, maybe even longer, without having to leave the house. I just wish they’d get on with it and make a decision one way or the other. All this uncertainly is taking its toll on everyone.

On Monday, when things were so quiet, we were simply sitting there looking at each other, we were teasing one of my male colleagues – who is a little bit on the hairy side – that he needed a good haircut. Another male colleague suggested he get a “crack, back, and sack” wax while he was at it, and then I added that he might as well go the whole hog, and get them to do an anal bleach while they were down there.

Jaws dropped as they swivelled to stare at me.

“That’s a thing?!”

“You’re making it up! What the heck is anal bleaching?!”

“Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like, they bleach your anus.”

In disbelief, they googled it and gawped in horror at what they found. Faces paling at the thought, they loudly speculated as to why ANYONE would want to have that done to such a … tender … part of the body. From that, the conversation veered onto other disgusting things that people did to their bodies, and then onto the gross TV programme “The Pimple Doctor.”

And that, my friends, is what working with men is like. Although to be fair, I would rather have conversations like that than endless discussions about what happened in last night’s soaps.

I’m afraid it’s a shorter blog this week. I am up against the clock with the book and every spare moment I have, I am working away on it. It’s lucky that we change the clocks tonight, so I get an extra hour to work on it tomorrow morning.

Hopefully, next week I will be about to report that young Mr M moved in successfully and we’re back on an even keel. I don’t think there will be an issue. If I were his parents, I would be very happy to know that he’s moving into an actual home with someone he’s at college with and a responsible (well, responsible-ish) adult in the house to deal with all the grown up stuff that needs to be done to keep a home running, such as boiler maintenance and insurance. I did take the precaution of asking him to supply me with contact details for his parents though – just in case. Don’t want the unpleasant situation of him being seriously ill or injured and no way to contact them.

I hope you all have a great week, and if you’re still going to celebrate Halloween that it goes safely and smoothly for you.

Take care.

Julia Blake

Stormy Waters Ahead

Since last week’s blog, a lot of you have been enquiring about the situation re a new lodger. Well, I am afraid it’s not good news. When we spoke last week, I had offered the young chef the room and he had come back saying he couldn’t afford all of the deposit in one go, and would it be okay if he paid half with the rent before moving in, and then half the following month?

After much thought, I had decided to accept his compromise and messaged him back that it was fine to do this, on the strict understanding that it was a one-off arrangement and in no way meant I would be lenient with rental payments in the future. In the viewing he had indicated that he was able to move in straight away, so I asked when he would like to pick up contracts and my details so we could get things organised.

He took ages to get back to me, then messaged saying that as he didn’t actually want the room until the end of October there was plenty of time for him to collect the paperwork. I was stunned. He was expecting me to hold the room for him for a month on a vague promise that he might be moving in without any kind of firm commitment from him.

I messaged back that I had been under the impression he wished to move in straight away. No, I have a very busy month ahead, came the reply. The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I felt about the whole situation. So, I messaged back that if he wished me to hold the room for him then he would need to sign the contracts stating an exact moving in day and pay the £500 deposit. After all, this would be beneficial to us both. He would have the peace of mind of knowing that the room was his, that I would be deactivating the ad and not showing it to anyone else. The deposit would also have been paid, so by the time he moved in at the end of the month he would presumably have been paid again and could then just pay the first month’s rent without any need to split pay the deposit.

It would also mean that I would have assurances he was serious about moving in. After all, if I held the room for him and then during the month he changed his mind or found somewhere else, it would leave me with no rental income for yet another month and having to start all over again. I felt it was a sensible and fair arrangement for us both.

Back came a furious message. No, he was not going to pay me anything until the end of the month, and then it would only be half the deposit and the first months rent, so I wouldn’t get the second half of the deposit until the end of November – as I’d agreed. Well, for a start I hadn’t agreed to such a delay in payments, and secondly, I really didn’t like the way he was talking to me.

I told him no letting agency or landlord would hold a room or property for that amount of time without a deposit being paid and contracts being exchanged. It was unfair of him to expect me to do so, and it was strange that he couldn’t see it this way.

A stream of furiously angry messages came back at me, one after the other, all sent within minutes of each other. I was being greedy. I was being unreasonable. I had agreed to his terms and now I was going back on my word. He would give me £750 at the end of October and then move in. He would give me another £750 at the end of November. He was not going to budge on that. Take it or leave it.

I left it. I also didn’t answer any of his messages. I had no desire to engage with someone who was clearly unreasonable and quite possibly deranged. Miss F rolled her eyes about the whole affair and asked, what did I expect from a chef, that this is what most of them behave like. Nice as pie when you first meet them, but cross them in anyway, and it’s a knife being waved in your face as they morph into a Gordon Ramsey wannabe.

So, that was the end of that. By this time, a whole weekend had been wasted on this individual, so I didn’t reactivate the ad until Monday morning. No problems, I thought, someone much better will come along. But they haven’t. At the time of writing this on Saturday morning we haven’t had a single enquiry. Not one. This is unheard of and worrying. Normally, even if response is sluggish, we have a few. But all this week my inbox has remained empty – not even the usual time wasters asking for the impossible.

Is it because no one looks for rooms except at the weekends? Is there something wrong with my ad or the look of my room? Or, and I think this is more likely, is it because suddenly the very real probability of going back into some kind of lockdown is looming and people are holding off on relocating until either we all know what’s actually happening or lockdown is over?

I think a lockdown of some kind is going to happen. On last night’s news, it was announced that the furlough scheme is being restarted. Mortgage providers are offering more mortgage holidays, and Scotland are going into an emergency total lockdown for two weeks over the half-term holiday. I think it is not a question of if, but rather when.

This has left me with a dilemma. Should I press on regardless for my search for a lodger, or wait and see what happens? If a short-term lockdown is imminent, then maybe I should hold fire. After all, we don’t want to be stuck in our home for however long the lockdown is with a total stranger. If we are careful, if the furlough payment is as generous as before, and if I extend my mortgage holiday then we would be okay-ish financially.

But if the lockdown went on for as long as it did before, things could get a little tight. Winter is a more expensive time, energy bills are higher, you seem to eat more, and then, of course, there’s Christmas.

Christmas has increasingly become the most stressful and least favourite time of year for me. Working the hours that I do, means I don’t even get that wonderful long break over the festive season that I used to get. I do miss those days of working in an office when we would break for Christmas around about the 20th of December and not go back until the first week of January. Now, I get three days off before going back on Boxing Day and plunging into the January sales and our peak period.

But the world is standing on its head this year. The pandemic and social distancing mean that hordes of shoppers piling into our shop to spend spend spend simply can’t happen, so what will that mean for us? What will it mean for any business that relies on those few brief weeks at the beginning of the year to make most of their profit?

I’ve had messages from family members asking if it’s okay if we don’t do presents this year, and my reply is a heartfelt “YES”. I used to spend an absolute fortune on presents for family and friends, but gradually it has been whittled down until it is literally immediate family and closest friends. Having little money to waste, the Christmas season itself is an expensive time what with the tree, festive food and drink, cards and all the other miscellaneous bits and bobs that don’t seem to cost much individually but added together come to a frightening waste of money.

It is ridiculous how much one, usually quite boring day, costs. The amount of stress that is involved and sheer hard bloody work. I used to love decorating the house until it looked like a Victorian Christmas card. Now it’s a chore, just one more thing on an ever-increasing to-do list. I’m not sure if it’s my age, if it’s the final realisation that the perfect dream of Christmas we all have is simply that – a dream – one based in nostalgia and fantasy and bearing no resemblance to the reality of cost, stress, exhaustion, overeating, and bickering families.

I know this all makes me sound like a terrible Grinch, a real Scrooge who is bah humbugging the whole “magical joy that is Christmas”, but I think I’m only speaking aloud the true feelings of most women. Ask any woman over the age of thirty if she likes Christmas – hook her up to a lie detector first – and ask for an honest answer about how she really feels about it. Most will be forced to admit that it’s a disappointing drain on finances, time, strength, and mental wellbeing.

Maybe we all expect too much. Perhaps lowering those expectations is the way to cope with it. After all that has happened this year, and facing the very real possibility of a Christmas spent in lockdown or at the very least, restricted as to who we can see and where we can go, perhaps being forced to have a low key Christmas will help people to sift out what is important and what is just glitter.

Being with family and friends is important, but not if it’s going to risk their health or yours, so accept gratefully having the time with the family you can be with, and set up zoom meetings with those you can’t. We are lucky that technology exists so that grandparents sheltering or not allowed to come into your home can watch your children open their presents on Christmas Day. You can carry your mum off into the kitchen for a long chat online whilst you prepare the sprouts and baste the turkey. You can even set up the laptop at one end of the dining table and share your Christmas dinner with family.

Fun fact, apparently turkey breeders are one step ahead of everyone and are breeding their turkeys smaller this year. No point having a bird that can feed twenty if you’re only allowed six people in your house.

Learn to appreciate the small things. Being safe in your home – a lot of people don’t have that basic right. I cannot begin to imagine how people living in toxic and violent relationships coped being locked up all these months with their abusers. Having your family around you – think about those poor university students who’ve been told they’re not allowed to go home for Christmas but must stay in their dorms! Having access to clean water and good food – again, many across the world don’t have this. Technology – as I said above, this isn’t the 1970’s! We can communicate with each other in so many wonderful ways now and even the elderly who had no time for the internet before, are now appreciating that it can be a tool for good.

So, what am I doing for Christmas this year? I honestly have no idea. Being so uncertain as to what the situation will be, I have put even the merest thought of Christmas to one side. Talking with Miss F about it, we have made the decision not to worry about a tree this year and keep other decorations to a minimum if we even bother with them at all. Christmas will happen, and it will be a simple affair – and maybe that won’t necessarily be a bad thing.

One tiny silver lining from the pandemic is that the works Christmas Roadshow has been cancelled. Oh, I am devastated. However, shall I get over it? …… Oh wait, I just did. Again, call me a Grinch, but having to be up at 5am to squish into a car with my work colleagues and drive for three hours to attend a frenzied, evangelical like event where the Head Office Team on stage consistently scream “Are we having fun!?!?!” at the heaving mass of nearly 2000 employees sweating in mandatory Christmas sweaters, who have to scream back with ever increasing fury. The terrible food, the long motivational speeches in the afternoon, and then that long drive home. No, it’s one thing I can quite happily do without this year.

So, that brings me back to the original question. What should I do about finding a new lodger? Should I wait until after lockdown, but that could be a long time in the future if lockdown even happens at all. Should I reactivate the ad this week and hope someone wonderful comes along? Even if I do put up the ad again though, it’s no guarantee that anyone will respond to it. I am at a loss what to do for the best, so I’m doing nothing. Much like Christmas, I have put the problem to one side to concentrate on things I can fix, like finishing my current book and getting it off to my editor.

It is now standing at over 120,000 words and I can’t believe how quickly I have hammered this one out. The original notion of this story first sprouted in my mind over two years ago when another author I was following on Instagram was putting together a collection of re-imagined myths, legends, and fairy tales. I was invited to take part and an idea for a retelling of a classic, much loved fairy tale popped into my head. I had written about 3000 words of it and had a sneaking suspicion that some serious cutting would be needed if I were to trim it down to the required 7000 words or under, when suddenly the project was at an end.

The author in question disappeared from Instagram forever. I am still not entirely sure what happened, there were rumours of illness and even of intense cyber harassment, but as I never did get the full story it’s not something I can comment on. Anyway, for a few days the idea was kicked about that maybe all the authors involved could still publish the book. But there was too much hard work involved and none of us really had the time or the inclination, so the project was shelved.

Fast forward over two years to this summer. I had been working hard during that time publishing three original books and re-publishing all my others. The Book of Eve had been successfully launched in early August and it was time to turn to a new project. Looking through all the various started but never completed stories I had still saved on my laptop I came across this funny little take on an old fairy tale and ideas began to pop.

I began to write furiously in mid-August and by anyone’s standards to have managed over 120,000 in just six weeks is astonishing. The story has poured out of me like water through a breached dam. The original 3000 words were eventually deleted as they no longer fitted the plot that was weaving itself under my fingertips. The notion to make it steampunk occurred early on and it’s given the story a crisp edginess that I love.

I have sourced images for all my main characters and have been posting a character aesthetic board each week on Instagram and Facebook to raise interest in the book. It seems to be working, and so far, no one has guessed which fairy tale I am retelling. But that will all change next Wednesday when I introduce the main character and then the cat will be well and truly out of the bag.

There is even a map for it. Miss F discovered a fantastic map-making website that is only £4 a month. In her element, she has been translating my rough doodle into a wonderful map that will help all the readers to visualise this fantastic new world I have created.

And a funny thing happened with one of my characters. Originally a tiny, barely even there, character, he is the aide to one of the main villains. He sits at his desk outside the door and checks in the weapons of anyone going to see his boss. And that was it. That was the extent of his participation. Until one day last week he strolled into my head and sat himself down. The conversation with him then proceeded something like this.

HIM: I’m not happy with my role within this story. I feel I have more to offer.

ME:  What? No, go away, you’re the doorkeeper and that’s it.

HIM: But I could be so much more. I AM so much more.

ME:  No, you’re not, now bugger off.

But he wouldn’t. He kept buzzing in my head like an annoying brain mosquito until a few days later when I hit a snag in the plot. There was information that the villains had, that I somehow had to make sure the heroes found out about. But how? Round and round the problem went in my brain, until a cough from the corner interrupted my thoughts.

HIM: I could help you with this problem.

ME:  You? How could you help?

HIM: Because what you don’t realise is, I’m not just a doorkeeper, I am actually a spy. A long term, undercover operative for the good guys who has been feeding information back to them for years.

ME:  ………

HIM: ……..

ME:  Keep talking.

HIM: How about if I learn this information and pass it onto the good guys?

ME:  That could work… deep sigh … okay, what’s your backstory?

He tells it to me. It takes a while. It involves going back and making one tiny tweak in the story, but nothing major and the annoying thing is it totally fits. It not only makes complete sense, but it solves my plot snag and quite a few other issues in one fell swoop. Dammit, he was right. I did need him.

ME: But I haven’t even given you a name.

HIM: I don’t want a name. I just want a bigger part.

And that’s how it goes when I am writing. My characters basically do what they want, and I merely write it all down. When I told Miss F what had happened, she looked at me as if I was mad. But can’t you make them do what you want them to do. You ARE the author, after all. I snort laughed until I cried. I may be the author, but I have zero control over my characters who are all a bit feral, very headstrong, and likely to bite if provoked.

Anyway, the book is nearly complete. I must start sending it to my editor on the 15th of October if she is to have any chance of editing it in time. I am really up against a deadline here and maybe that’s why I’ve been inspired to write as fast as I have. There’s nothing like a clock ticking to focus the mind. I will keep you posted.

In other news, my work has gone very quiet. I think anyone who had the money and the intention to replace their bed has now done so, and people are holding onto whatever savings they have. Fearful of what the future holds, they are choosing to spend their pennies on toilet rolls and pasta again. Seriously, did we not learn last time? Or maybe we did all learn only too well that if we didn’t lay in a few extra supplies for ourselves, greedy bugger Joe over the way would clear the shelves of bog rolls and buy enough pasta to build a mountain!

Miss F has done a few shifts at the restaurant where she works, but more of her shifts have been cancelled than she has worked. Expecting to be cancelled yesterday, she was relieved when they confirmed they wanted her in and when I picked her up at ten the carpark was full of people all leaving. Apparently, they had been crammed to capacity, and again I think that’s because everyone is expecting to be locked down again soon, so eat, drink, and be merry while you can.

Her lovely work placement at the doggy day care centre has sadly been postponed due to the pandemic and the fact that the local colleges and schools are proving to be shockingly bad at social distancing, enforcing the wearing of masks, and generally coping with the situation. It was feared that she might contract the infection at college and pass it onto the owners of the dogs through handling the animals. I can understand the reasoning, and she has been assured that once it is considered safe to do so, her place will still be there. Hopefully, she will manage to clock up enough hours to meet the college requirements once some sort of normality has been achieved, if it ever is.

Her hours at college have been seriously cut, and the rest of the time she is supposed to be learning online. However, once again the college is not coping with the situation very well. Teachers not turning up for virtual lessons, so the entire class sit before blank computer screens for 45 minutes. Miscommunication between teachers which leaves the students unsure where they are supposed to be going, what they are supposed to be doing, and even if they have a class or not. Faulty or missing equipment, or the teachers simply not understanding how to use it, has caused major disruptions to lessons. This complete ineptness is seriously impacting on Miss F’s education and I worry for all this year’s students.

Anyway, it is now almost eleven on Saturday morning. I must go and have some coffee and look up how to make pulled barbeque pork. I picked up some pork fillet going cheap whilst shopping yesterday, and Miss F has requested that I try to make pulled pork with it. I think she needs cheering up and she will be hungry after a long shift at work this afternoon, so I’m going to try. After all, how hard can it be? It’s just pork, pulled, right? And it certainly can’t be any harder than the completely lactose free lemon meringue pie I made from scratch yesterday. That turned out pretty good, a little runnier than usual but dairy free products do tend to have that effect. At least it tasted delicious and you would never guess there was no dairy in it at all.

Take care everyone. I feel there are stormy waters up ahead again so batten down the hatches and make sure your own lifeboat is warm and safe, and I will chat to you all again next week.

Julia Blake

Lodgers, Life, and the Perfect Pair of Jeans!

Shorter blog this week. I had forgotten that my shifts have changed. I have to work Saturday, and as it’s now late Friday afternoon it doesn’t give me long to write something.

As you know, I reactivated the ad last Saturday and have had a few responses and seen a few people. The first came Sunday morning, a nice older lady who was being forced to leave her current rental due to the owners selling it. She was nice. Very nice. But there were a few things that put us off. To begin with she is retired, and, of course, all the activities that usually filled her days have all been cancelled or put on hold. That would mean she would be in the house all the time! Now, don’t get me wrong, we like our lodgers and want them to feel comfortable and at home, but to have one that was there all of the time, that never went to work, or indeed never really went anywhere is a bit of a daunting prospect. It would mean no time alone for me and Miss F, and no alone time for me. Also, she not only has a car that would need to be parked on the street – where parking is already a serious issue – but she also has a bike that would need to be accommodated. Having only just got rid of the last lodger and his bike which cluttered up our tiny garden and basically got in the way, I’m not so keen on the idea of taking on another one.

We told her we’d let her know and waited for the next candidate. He was an older man. He was alright, but then it turned out he was the father of a boy who bullied Miss F unmercifully at school and she was understandably uncomfortable with the thought that this boy would be able to come into her home to visit his father. The guy also started work at 4am every morning, and the thought of being woken at that hour every day as he slammed the door on his way out to work is not tempting. He also had both a car and a bike to be accommodated.

Then another young man came along. He was nice. We liked him. So much so, that baring anyone super fantastic coming along we decided we would offer him the room at the end of the week. In his early twenties, he’s a chef at a local restaurant and his working hours of midday to 10pm are perfect. He won’t be needing the bathroom first thing in the morning, and it means we will have the house to ourselves in the evening. He also has neither a car not a bike, which makes life a lot easier.

Monday, a lovely young girl came along to view the room. Initially, she seemed perfect, but as she talked little alarm bells began to ring in my mind. She’s an undergraduate student at Cambridge University, but will be working virtually at home for the year – my home, obviously. She has no job to go to either, so again it is someone who will be in the house all the time. Then she asked me if I did short-term lets, and quickly backpedalled when I said not really. Changing lodgers is such a stressful and worrying time that I really want to avoid doing it all that often, and her comment made me wonder if two months down the line she’ll be off again.

I do wish people would be honest about their needs. After all, if I know for definite that the lodger wants a rental of only six months, I might consider it, because at least I’d know exactly where I stood. She also told me that she’s an ardent activist for a lot of different causes, frequently attending marches and protest rallies. Now, that’s all well and good, and each to their own. But, during a pandemic I’m not comfortable with having someone living in my house who is mixing regularly with large crowds of people and then bringing possible infection back to us. Also, if she is registered on some sort of list as an activist, is there a chance my address will be linked to her?

And on top of this, I have been receiving endless email enquiries about the room which sometimes beggar belief. Would I consider renting it to someone’s teenage son who only ever smokes in the garden? No. No smokers, means, no smokers. Would I consider letting the room to a young couple with a baby? Definitely not. It’s not that big a house, with only one bathroom. Having four people plus a baby trying to use it doesn’t bear thinking about. Plus, I’ve done the whole baby thing and I really don’t want to have my house once again cluttered up with pushchairs, highchairs, and all the other paraphernalia that comes with a baby. It made me a little sad though, that a young family are so desperate they would even consider all cramming into one room in someone else’s house.

Several night workers have enquired, and I’ve told all of them no. Been there, done that, got the eyebags to prove it. Several people who work from home have also enquired, and again I’ve turned them down. If we go into lockdown again and our lodger must temporarily work from home, or is on furlough, then that is one thing. It would be an extraordinary situation that would pass and then things would return to normal. But, to take on someone who permanently works from home? I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Then there have been the usual crop of idiots telling me they can’t afford that much rent, and will I accept less, or that they can’t pay the deposit as well and would I consider waiving it. Umm, no.

So, we decided on the young chef, and Wednesday I messaged him saying if he was still interested in the room then it was his. Hours went by, then he finally replied. He has a problem paying all the deposit in one go, would I consider him paying half the deposit before he moves in? Then the second half with the second month’s rent? My initial reaction was hell no. I’ve been lenient with people before about the deposit and they have then taken that to mean I’m a pushover if the rent isn’t paid in full and on time.

I asked him what the problem was as he had not said anything about being unable to afford the deposit during the viewing. It’s because he’s currently renting with someone else, he explained, and didn’t want to leave them in the lurch so abruptly with this month’s rent looming. If I could accept a split payment of the rent, then it would mean he could help this person out by contributing towards the rent for this month.

I didn’t know what to think. We had really liked him, the fact he goes to work at all is good, and his hours are perfect for us. No car or bike to accommodate is a bonus, and he did seem a well-mannered and respectful young man. Yes, he was now messing me about re the deposit, but, as Miss F pointed out, it was to help out a friend and said a great deal about his character.

I told him I would think about it and would let him know by Friday afternoon. I had one more viewing lined up Friday morning, an older man who was a firefighter and looking for somewhere to live as he’d split up from his partner and had been crashing at friends and at his mother’s house ever since. I was unsure about him. He seemed nice, but someone who’s used to having a place of his own and being the alpha male within that place is always problematic. We have experienced trouble with just such a man before. He would freely hog the bathroom with no thought to other people needing to use it, he was untidy, rude, and seemed to think he lorded it over me because of his sex and age.

Wrong. I am the only alpha in this house. This guy, although seeming genuine and pleasant was older than me. That will change the dynamic of the house in a way I’m not sure about. And again, he had a car and a bike that would be coming with him.

So, after discussing the matter with Miss F, I messaged the young chef back and told him I was prepared to accept his offer of half the deposit money before he moved in, and the other half with the next months rent. This was on the clear understanding that it is a one-off thing and that going forward the rent must always be paid in full and on time. It seems a small concession to make to get the lodger we want. I have yet to hear from him, so maybe he’s had a think about it and decided to go elsewhere. If he has, then I will simply run the ad for a second week as I don’t really want any of the other candidates, and I will keep you all posted.

In other news, my car went in for its MOT on Thursday and luckily passed with nothing needing doing. It’s a relief to know I have at least another year’s motoring and am left with only needing to get the car through one more MOT next year before a small pension I have matures and I will be able to afford to buy myself a new car, if I need to. But who knows? If my current little car is still running as well as it is, then I will simply keep driving it until it starts to cost me a lot of money.

After I dropped the car off, I wandered back through town in search of jeans. Now, I live in jeans. I have a uniform that I wear for work, but the rest of the time it’s jeans. Finding that perfect pair of jeans is an ongoing mission. When you are only 5’1” and a little pudgy around the middle it can seem like Mission Impossible, and the only shop in town I stand a hope of finding them in is Marks & Spencer. They alone out of all the high street clothing stores acknowledge that not all women are 5’7” and above. Sure, a few shops do a petite range, but there’s never a great selection and there’s never enough sizes.

Adding to the problem is the fact that we cannot try clothes on in store now but have to buy what we think might fit. Take them home. Try them on. Look in the mirror. Cry. Take them back. Start all over again. Regular readers of my blog will know the trauma I experienced simply finding a smart dress to wear to Miss F’s birthday lunch in August. Over £300 spent and five trips back and forth to the shops later, I ended up spending £70 on one dress and two tops!

I was not looking forward to it. I went upstairs to the ladies’ department. To my joy there was rack after rack of jeans in all the lengths and all the sizes. Best of all, there were different cuts and not just skinny fit. I hate skinny fit. I consider it the worst thing that has happened to most women, especially those of us who are shorter than average. Back in the last nineties, bootcut was the main style and I loved it. It fitted and flattered those of us with shorter legs making them appear longer. But then it went out of fashion and everywhere began to sell skinny fit and super skinny fit only. Skinny fit? Huh. That’s a misnomer if ever there was one. Why are they called skinny fit when they neither fit, nor make you look skinny? For several years I have struggled to find jeans that fit me around the waist, over the hips, and are the right length.

So, you can imagine my joy when I walked into the jeans department and found it full of different cuts. Sure, there were a lot of skinny and super skinny fits, but there were also slim, straight, flared, cigarette, ankle grazer, slouch, comfy, mum, boyfriend, and, ooh, bootcut fit!! Like a child let loose in a sweetshop I wandered around in a daze. Selecting carefully, I found a pair of slim-cut, mid-rise, stone washed denim. Then a pair of soft, dark blue denim in a wonderful slouch cut, and finally, a pair of velvety black ones for best in a bootcut style.

I paid for them all – £80, for three pairs of jeans – then went downstairs to the food hall. A few weeks back, my mum gave Miss F a £10 M&S gift card as a reward for doing so well in her exams, and she had passed it onto me with orders to use it to get us something extra special for dinner one night. We both love steak, and £10 was exactly the amount needed to buy two big sirloin steaks and a bag of massive beer battered onions rings which we had for dinner Thursday evening. Thanks Mum! They were delicious.

Then I popped to the local health and wellbeing shop to buy a bottle of eucalyptus oil. Not for me, but rather to train my cat with. It’s a fact that cats tend to go wherever they want to, and my cat loves being up as high as she can and unfortunately has a habit of sleeping at night on either the top of the cooker, or on my lovely white porcelain draining board. Obviously, this is a habit I’m keen to break. Having to clean and bleach my cooker top every single morning to get all the hairs, mud, dust, whiskers, and the odd claw or two off is not something I enjoy. And as for the mess she makes on the draining board, well, you can imagine. It’s unsanitary, and when you consider where cats go and what they do, to have them then shed that all over the places where I wash, prepare, and cook food, it’s not really on.

I had trained her not to do this by use of the eucalyptus oil several years ago, but it appeared a refresher course was in order and as I had run out of it, I had to buy some more. Cats hate the smell of eucalyptus. It’s such a strong scent that they really can’t bear it, so, in order to train your cat to stay away from places you don’t want them to go, sprinkle the eucalyptus oil generously over some cotton pads and place several in those locations – I use five on the cooker top and another four on the draining board. The smell is so repugnant to most cats that they will stay well away. I lay these pads out every night before I go to bed, as overnight is the only time she gets up there. In the morning I simply place all the pads in a tightly sealed glass jar. Every now and then I refresh them with more eucalyptus oil. It’s a simple trick that works with most cats and is perfectly harmless to them.

So, I got home, put away the steaks and went to try on the jeans. First pair – fitted perfectly and looked good, and, most importantly, were comfortable. Great start. I tried on the second pair. Same result. So far, so good. I tried on the last pair, the black bootcut ones. They were also perfect. I couldn’t believe it. To have selected by eye three pairs of jeans that were just right was astounding. I had planned to take at least one pair back, but do you know, I kept all three pairs. They’re all different and will work for different occasions and like I said, I live in jeans, and having achieved the impossible not once, but three times, it seemed daft to miss this opportunity.

So, that was a good day. My car passed its MOT, I found three new pairs of jeans, there was steak and chips and a very nice Cabernet Sauvignon dinner, and I managed to write almost 5000 words on my current project. Is this the gods smiling on me for once? I think so.

I have work tomorrow, then Sunday off. I haven’t worked a Saturday for ages, so it will be interesting to see how it goes. It used to be that Saturday was our busiest day, but the world has turned on its head and nothing is as it used to be. It will be nice to have Sunday off though.

Right, as usual, my short blog has turned into a long one but at least it’s now written, and I won’t be panicking all day at work tomorrow because it still has to be written.

Take care of yourselves, and I look forward to chatting with you all again next Sunday.

Julia Blake

All the Comforts of Home

I finally finished decorating and cleaning the basement room this week. The new mattress was delivered Friday and the bed dressed in all brand-new bedding. The finishing touches are all done – an attractive art poster in the stairwell, a peg rack for the lodger to hang coats and bags on, and a new bedside lamp. The room is all ready for occupation, so I edited and reactivated the ad Saturday morning. Now, we wait, and see what response we get.

Poster of Times Square to add some character

When I was on the website I had a quick look through the list of people looking for rooms locally and it seemed to me that the list was shorter than usual – but this is only people who have registered with the website. A lot of people simply use it to search for rooms and they do not want potential landlords bombarding them with details of their rooms, so there could be many more people out there looking for a beautiful double room right in the heart of town.

Of those that were looking, one or two seemed promising, so I sent them the link to my ad. There were a couple of people who initially seemed okay, but on closer inspection were either smokers (hard no from me), had pets or children they wanted to bring along (also a no), or wanted more than I’m offering – private bathroom, balcony, own parking space – for £500 a month all in, good luck with that! But then this is what’s happened before, I’ve seen someone who looks okay, but they want the moon all wrapped up with a pretty bow on top, so I don’t bother contacting them and then they contact me anyway, so we’ll have to wait and see.

It made me think back to all those people who have trooped through my home looking to maybe live in it that I, for one reason or another, have said no to. Way back in the early days, a young man contacted me about the room because his sister had just moved back to the area and was looking for somewhere. We had a lovely chat on the phone, and he was so amiable and jolly that I almost offered his sister the room on the spot.

Almost, but not quite – luckily.

It was arranged they would come around at the weekend to view it but as soon as I opened the door to them, I knew it was a no. Despite him assuring me she wasn’t a smoker, she absolutely reeked of cigarettes! Why do people do this? The ad states quite clearly, no smokers, yet still they try. I think smokers genuinely have no clue how much they stink to non-smokers. Don’t try to deny it mate, I could smell you through the door.

Anyway, not only that but she was so old! And I don’t mean in years because she might have been younger than me in that respect, no, I mean in attitude and outlook. From the greying hair in a bun, down to the sensible shoes, the pursed disapproving mouth and the deep frown lines on her brow and around her mouth, I knew this was someone who would be no fun to share with. She looked around the place and nodded in approval.

Yes, she stated in a heavy German accent – apparently that’s where she’d been living for twenty years – This will suit me very nicely, I’ll take it!

As if it was her choice. I cleared my throat.

Umm, there is the small matter of the fact I quite clearly stated in the ad no smokers, your brother assured me you weren’t a smoker, and yet I can smell cigarettes on you. So…

She fixed me with a baleful glare.

I promise you, I will always smoke in the garden, so you will never smell cigarettes in the house.

No, I won’t, I thought, because you are never coming in again!

Making use of dead space – a peg rack for coats and bags

That’s another thing with smokers, they sometimes assume that although the ad states No Smokers, what it really means is No Smoking in the house. Nope. I mean NO SMOKERS, as in you! You smell. If you smoke then it permeates your clothes, your hair, your skin. Even if you never light up in the house, you’ll still make it stink with your own odour.

Also, if I’m not here, and it’s freezing cold and pouring with rain are you seriously going to go out into the garden to smoke? No, of course you’re not, you’re going to sneakily smoke in the room and hope I never find out. And that will make the room stink, will discolour the ceiling, and is also a fire risk. So, sorry guys, but no smokers, means you!

I wonder how many will try and sneak under the wire this time!

There’s also the no pets’ clause. As you know, I love animals, but I don’t particularly want other peoples pets in the house. Possibly a goldfish in a small bowl might be acceptable but other than that, no. Again, it states clearly in the ad no pets, but either people can’t read or assume that it must only apply to other people, because nobody in their right minds could possibly object to their little furry, feathered, scaled buddy.

There was the girl who wanted to bring a cageful of rats. No. The one who had a pet python – absolutely not! Any number of people who wanted to bring cats with them. It wouldn’t be fair on my poor little cat who is terrified of other felines, and also, I don’t know how clean and housetrained other people’s cats might be. Really don’t want to find the furniture shredded, hairballs everywhere, and cat wee on the carpet.

Pretty lamp and nice new bedding

One of the funniest was the woman who telephoned me – back in the days when I had to advertise in the local paper and put my phone number down for method of contact. The conversation went something like this.

HER: I just wanted to check that there would always be someone in the house during the day?

ME:  Umm, not really, why?

HER: Well, I have to go to work, and my little dog will need letting out three times a day.

ME:  Your dog, but…

HER: Yes, it’s absolutely essential this is done otherwise he will pee in the house.

ME:  But the ad clearly states no pets.

HER: Yes, I know, but he’s a dog!

ME:  …….

HER: …….

ME:  I’m really sorry, but no pets, means, no pets. Goodbye.

And then there’s the no couples’ clause. It’s not a huge house. There is only one bathroom to be shared between us and the lodger. An extra person would put an unbearable strain on the facilities. Although I don’t mind the odd stayover of a regular partner or friend, I’m firm on the no couples living here permanently. Once or twice in the past, I’ve had lodgers who have been nice, respectful, and considerate people – until they got serious about someone – and then they changed into selfish, inconsiderate sods who couldn’t understand why I didn’t love this person as much as they did and not want them in my house ALL THE TIME.

I got sick of never being able to use the bathroom because the girlfriend was having yet another epic shower. Of her clothes always being in the washing machine. Of not being able to cook our dinner because the lodger is making a special candlelit meal for her honey bunny, oh, and if I could keep out of the way all evening that would be wonderful! Well, seeing as I do need to get to the bathroom and the kitchen, that’s not really possible.

No matter how nice the couple are, nor how friendly, the dynamics of the house shift when there’s a couple in residence, in that their needs and wants seem to outweigh the needs and wishes of the single person – me! Many is the time I’d find myself apologising for going through to use my own kitchen. Which is not really on. There is also the financial consideration – a couple use twice the utilities for the same rent as a single person is paying.

Lots of storage!

But still whenever I advertise the room, I am inundated with requests from couples. The best one I ever had occurred a few years ago when there was a surfeit of people looking for rooms, and not enough lodgings to go around, so I basically had my pick of lodgers. This couple saw my ad and sent me an e-mail. Now, you tell me why I didn’t want them.

Both Polish, both only 19, both unemployed, she was five months pregnant so in four months time there was going to be a new-born squeezed into a room intended for sole occupancy. Imagine that! A baby screaming the place down. The washing machine constantly in use. Nappies everywhere. The ripe smell of baby sick and poo. A kitchen cluttered with all the detritus that goes with a baby.

It gets better. At the time I was only charging £350 per month which was a fair and reasonable rate for everything you got with the room. But they didn’t consider this a fair amount, and told me so, in no uncertain terms. You are being a greedy capitalist, they informed me. We will pay you £190 a month and you should consider that plenty. £190 a month? For rent, rates, utilities, insurance, TV licence and unlimited broadband, plus all your cleaning products. What planet are you living on? Furious, I had enormous fun composing a blistering email, then deleted it and instead sent them one merely stating that the rent was £350, the room was for sole occupancy, I did not wish to have a baby living in my home, and if they could find somewhere to rent for only £190 a month, then please let me know where it is and I will move in there myself!

They did not reply, and I often wonder what happened to them.

Then there have been no end of creepy guys that made me very uncomfortable and I certainly didn’t want them anywhere near me, let alone my young daughter. A guy who had such bad body odour that my eyes were watering, and the house reeked of him for hours afterwards. Any number of young Asian men who stunk of stale curry – not how I want my house to smell. A very odd nurse who asked if she could have a fridge and hotplate in her room so she could cook and eat all her meals in it, so she could absolutely minimise the contact she had with us as she liked to be left alone. Oka-a-ay. Not planning on pushing my company on the lodger, but living in close quarters you need someone you can exchange pleasantries with when you bump into them in the kitchen, and as for cooking in the basement, umm, no!

There was a rather desperate middle-aged man who wanted the room so badly he bombarded me with texts and emails for a whole week, even sending me pictures of himself in various poses. Umm, please stop doing that or I will call the police!

It’s a spacious and comfortable room

There have been people who thought it was up to them whether they got the room or not. Afraid not, sunshine, this is our home and if we are made to feel uncomfortable by you, or we don’t believe we will get along with you, then I’ll run the ad for another week rather than settle for someone who simply isn’t right.

Am I being too fussy?

Well, I look at it this way. If we weren’t living in the house, if this was a rental property that wasn’t also our home, then other than a no smoking clause and higher damages deposit to cover any possible pet destruction, I wouldn’t be so picky about a lodger.

But this is our home. This is where we live and sleep. This is where my teenage daughter is left alone for hours on end. I must be able to trust the lodger. I have her safety at stake, and that of myself. We also have to like the person, share a few common interests, and have the same levels of cleanliness. At the end of the day, I am this person’s landlady. I am not their servant or their slave, and I’m certainly not their mum. It is not my job to pick up after them, clean up after them, or have to scrub the toilet after them, or pick their hairs out of the bath.

Really love this poster!

I’ve been taking in lodgers for sixteen years now, and although in the beginning I found it awkward discussing matters such as rent, cleaning schedules, and toilet habits, now I get it all said in interview. One lodger commented how impressed they were by my business-like, matter of fact approach. This is the rent. This is what you get for it. This is what I expect from you. These are the basic rules of the house. Be clean. Tidy up after yourself. Don’t take anyone else’s bathroom time. Make sure you secure the front door every time you come in or go out. No loud noise after midnight. Wake me up and I’ll kill you, and, if you’re a bloke put the bloody loo seat down. Because although you may not always feel like sitting down, we never feel like standing up!

I think it pays to get all these matters out in the open and stated clearly right from the word go, then if someone has any issues with the rules, they can look for somewhere else to live.

So, the room is ready, the advert has been tweaked and reactivated, so now we wait. I have stated in the ad that the room has been empty for over a month and during that time it has been thoroughly cleaned and redecorated. That the mattress, pillows, and duvet are all brand new, as is all the bedding. I think if I were looking to rent a room in someone else’s house during a global pandemic then I would be reassured by this. I am also going to insist that masks be worn during initial interviews and I have placed a bottle of hand sanitiser by the front door, because it pays to be careful.

Speaking of masks, rules have now changed, and I and my work colleagues have to wear our masks for the whole time we are at work unless we are in the toilet or are alone in the canteen. Although we had to wear them before, because we work in a large shop and our desks are over six foot apart, so long as we abided by social distancing we could take our masks off when there were no customers in the shop. Now, there is no respite at all apart from a scant twenty-minute lunch break. It’s horrible. I hate having to wear a mask all day. I do it because I have to, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. Leaving the shop at night, that mask is ripped off as I’m walking out the door, yet it takes over an hour for the feeling of it to leave my face.

No matter how nice the mask, wearing it for eight hours is no fun!

I wish we knew what was going to happen. I have a feeling we’ll be back into some sort of lockdown soon, and I’ve begun adding a few extra items onto each week’s shop – not stockpiling, just sensibly stocking up on essential goods.

The mad rush of sales seems to have died down at work, and I suspect it’s because everyone is uncertain of what the future might hold. If we go back into lockdown, will the furlough be as generous? Will there even be a furlough, or will we all be thrown under the bus? Will food prices go up again? We’re coming into winter so energy bills will be higher. Will businesses survive another lockdown, or will there be a depression with many losing their jobs? All these concerns I think are making people think twice about spending that holiday money sitting in their accounts. Better to keep it there – just in case.

This downturn in the economy is hitting close to home as well. Although the restaurant where Miss F works part-time has reopened and she has done the odd shift, usually they contact her at the last minute to tell her there simply haven’t been the bookings, so they don’t need her. She was the last to be hired, is on a zero hour’s contract, and lives the furthest away – so it’s always her they cancel first. Which is fair enough. Most of her colleagues are older and rely on their wages, whereas they know she still lives at home and is supported by me. Yes, she’s saving the money for driving lessons and university next year, and it’s nice to have her own income to buy what she wants. But she doesn’t need her wages to live on.

Both her evening shift on Friday and her lunchtime shift on Saturday were cancelled, but to be honest, we were a little relieved about this. It’s blowing a gale here and the country roads I have to take to reach the restaurant aren’t pleasant in this kind of weather.

My shifts have also all been changed this month, and after over a year of working Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, they have been mixed up all over the place. But at least that means I have today and Monday off, which is nice. As I’m now caught up with the basement and all my other household chores, I am going to try and dedicate both those days to some pretty intensive writing. As I explained last week, time is running out and if I wish to publish book eleven this year, I seriously need to get a wiggle on.

Anyway, that’s you up to date with the week’s events and I look forward to chatting with your again next Sunday. You never know, I may have a new lodger by then, so fingers crossed.

Take care.

Julia Blake

I Don’t Have Time For This!

It’s going to be a short blog this week. Time is even more my enemy than normal, and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get done everything that has to be done. Sometimes though, I really feel a bit like my old laptop. If I open too many tabs on it at once, it will freeze, I’ll get the spinning blue doughnut and there’s nothing else I can do but close everything down and start again. My life is a like this, I have so much to do that sometimes I freeze just thinking about it all and end up doing nothing!

On top of the normal duties like work and home, there is the stress of trying to prepare the basement room ready to reactivate my add for a new lodger. As you all know, my last lodger left some very unsightly brown stains all over the mattress and I put in a claim with the insurance company. I had taken out the service plan on the mattress when I purchased it. Well, they came out to inspect and ummed and ahhed quite considerably about it.

They felt there were simply too many stains and that clearly a mattress protector had not been used. Well, two protectors are provided with the room and there was one on there when the lodger moved in, but as to whether he used it all the time or not, I don’t know. When did these stains occur, they asked, and I had to be honest and confess that I didn’t know. They could have happened the night after he moved in and have been sitting there ever since. What caused the stains they asked. Again, I couldn’t answer because I don’t know.

The lodger denied that he had done it but then immediately offered to buy me a new mattress – not the action of an innocent person. It plainly was him, not only was the mattress practically brand new when he moved in, but of course I inspect the mattress carefully between each lodger and I’m the one who dresses the bed between each one, so I would have noticed massive brown stains all over it.

Personally, I think it’s cola. He was in the habit of eating lots of takeaways in his room – judging by the amount of packaging that came out of it, that was pretty much all he ate. So, I think he upended a carton of cola in bed, washed the sheet and mattress protector, and thought he’d get away with not mentioning it to me. Perhaps he thought I wouldn’t notice, or care that a pristine white mattress now looked like a painting by Jackson Pollock. I can get my nose right up to the stains, so they’re not anything radically unpleasant. Sweat stains yellow, so it’s not that either. Plus, the stains are on the side of the bed he freely admitted was the side he slept on and the stains are in the pattern of a body – you can plainly see the outline. I think what happened was he fell asleep in bed eating his dinner and dropped a carton of cola onto himself.

Anyway, the insurance company weren’t having any of it and have refused my claim. So, I’ve had to resort to Plan B. My own mattress is an old cheap one bought many years ago. It’s really thin and you can feel the springs sticking out of it. Even with the brown stains, the mattress in the lodger’s room is still a far superior one. So, once the insurance company said “no” I had a go at the stains myself with a fabric cleaner and most of them have come out. Then Miss F and I nearly killed ourselves getting that mattress up two flights of stairs and onto my bed, and propping my old mattress up against the wall on the landing. I have now slept on it for two nights and it’s a great deal more comfortable than my old mattress so I’m keeping it.

Meanwhile, I have ordered a new mattress from work and it’s being delivered next Friday. The lodger should think himself lucky that I get really good staff discount so instead of losing all his damages deposit buying a new one, he only lost half. When the new mattress is delivered, they will take away my old one.

So that’s sorted, but there’s still the room itself to turn around. I borrowed a big dehumidifier from a friend and every time the window isn’t open, that has been churning away drawing any moisture out of the room. After over a week of this all trace of damp has gone and the air is fresh again. We’ve made a start scrubbing out drawers, and yesterday I put another quick coat of cream paint all over the actual room – nothing like the smell of paint to make a room smell clean.

I also decided to paint the stairwell leading down to the basement. Now, this was last painted several years ago, and I can’t remember who did it. But I know it wasn’t me. Painting the room itself wasn’t a problem, the ceiling is reasonably low, and I can reach the top of the walls by standing on a small stool. However, the stairwell is a different matter. It goes up to quite a considerable height and I can’t use a stepladder because there’s nowhere to stand it, there not being enough room at the top of the stairs.

I can’t leave it any longer either. Up until now there hasn’t been a light in the stairwell, the lodger depending on the light in the actual room itself to see to go downstairs, and because the stairwell was obviously a little gloomy, it had been painted a bright shiny white to compensate. Well, I decided to have a light installed in the stairwell to make it more welcoming, so my brother who is an electrician came round and fitted a light at the top of the stairs.

Big mistake! With the stairwell now lit up like a football stadium, the bright shiny white paint burns out your retinas and illuminates the dodgy paintwork and grubby marks. It had to be painted, and a colour other than stark white. No problem, I thought, I still have that soft butter yellow paint left over from doing the kitchen, that will be warm and inviting. So, yesterday I painted the lower half of the walls in this yellow.

Another big mistake! The butter yellow which in the kitchen is soft and warm, in the stairwell has turned onto a dayglo, neon, high vis jacket yellow which lights up the stairwell alarmingly. I wasn’t sure about it at all! So, I went and bought some soft grey paint to maybe tone it down, and that’s when it struck me – how the heck am I going to reach the top parts of the stairwell?! I’m only little – 5’1” – so there’s only so far up I can paint, and like I said, nowhere to stand steps or a chair or anything.

So, this morning I am going back to the shop to buy a roller tray and a telescopic roller. I hate painting with a roller, I much prefer a brush. Yes, I know it takes slightly longer, but I don’t think rollers are much cop unless you’re painting vast amounts of flat, straight surfaces. In a small old house like mine, that is all curves and corners and awkward bits, you spend more time cutting in with a brush than you do actually painting anything. Also, roller painting makes such a mess. It tends to splatter everywhere, so that means I’ve got to mask and tape everything up. And using the roller method to paint means you use twice as much paint as you do with a brush.

But I have no other option. A telescopic roller is the only way I stand any hope of reaching the high bits, and that’s always supposing this grey looks okay. As to what to do with the bits I have already painted yellow – I’ve decided to do the grey bits first and then see what it looks like. It might be that I will then have to paint over the yellow bits with the grey, but as the yellow is so aggressive it could take several coats to cover it – and I’m running out of time. I’m back to work tomorrow for three days, so really there is only today to do it, and as it’s now 11:30am half the day is almost gone and I still haven’t even been to the shop to buy the roller, let alone covered everything up, let alone started painting, and…. agghhh… the blue doughnut is spinning!!

Time is always against me. I look at other people, and they seem to have the whole time-thing figured out. On my social media accounts, I see the pictures they post of them relaxing, cup of coffee in one hand and a book in the other, and I am left stunned with admiration that they have time to sit down and do nothing! The only time I ever sit down is in the evening when I eat dinner and maybe watch an hour of TV with Miss F. The rest of the day is a constant race against time to get everything done. And as for having nothing to do! Please tell me what that feels like because I genuinely have no idea.

On top of my usual anxiety about lack of time, there is the feeling that I must get the basement finished and a new lodger installed as quickly as possible. The news in the UK isn’t good. The second wave of Corona is upon us and the infection rate is over 4000 cases per day again which is comparable to May’s rates when the country was in deep lockdown. And that’s just the people they’ve been able to test, because the testing system is shambolic. Nothing is accurate or up to date.

I have that feeling again. The same feeling, I had mid-March the week before we all went into lockdown. That sensation of waiting for the other shoe to drop, that something is going to happen soon, but no one is quite sure what. Medical experts are urging us to go back into a nationwide lockdown and do it right this time, but the government is resistant. The truth is the country simply cannot afford another lockdown. They cannot afford to pay us furlough again. And if people aren’t receiving wages or furlough, and presumably won’t be entitled to any kind of benefits or compensation, then it will be a hard, cold Winter for us all.

Most people, me included, do not have the savings to last more than a month without any kind of income. People will go into serious debt, they will be unable to pay their mortgages and rents, utilities, and insurances. They will be unable to buy food and other essential supplies. People will panic. Parents unable to buy food for their children will be desperate enough to do whatever it takes to get by. There could even be the case that people are forced to put their homes on the market, but if enough do that, then that could cause the housing market to crash, and so on.

It’s a scary scenario, and one that I desperately hope it won’t come to. Despite the rising infection rates, the death rates are still low – at the moment – and it still seems very geographically based – at the moment. But who knows what the colder weather will bring? When the flu and cold season is upon us, what impact will that have on the virus? Will it make people more susceptible to catching it? If you have a cold and corona and you’re sneezing more, then surely that increases the chances of spreading it?

Now do you understand why it’s important I get the basement room finished and advertise for a new lodger? Although, I never would have thought this time last year, that the next time I was letting the room again, one of the questions I would be asking during the interviews would be – “During a global pandemic, if we go into lockdown, what will it mean for you? Will you still be able to pay your rent?” Because the truth is, I cannot afford to have anyone live here rent free. And if the potential lodger does not have a good enough answer to that question, then it will be a case of – Thank you for coming. Next candidate please.

I’m also trying to beat the clock with my latest book. I have made a really good start, at present the word count is over 80,000 which is excellent. But I haven’t had time to write a single word this week, and I probably won’t have time to write next week either. And then we’ll be at the end of September with the book still unfinished.

I really want to publish this year, and to all you non authors out there it probably seems ridiculous that I’m panicking because there are still over three months left of this year. But I have less time that you would think. December is a no-no for trying to publish any book not entitled “How to Plan the Perfect Christmas” or “Christmas Cooking for the Family” or maybe “Frozen Hearts at Mistletoe Cottage”. I have learnt from experience that it is pointless trying to publish a fictional, non-Christmas themed novel anywhere between the 30th of November and the 1st of March.

During December people are all tied up with the holiday season and have neither the time nor money to bother with buying new books unless they are for gifts. Then during January, everyone is broke, and depressed and so many people are on book buying bans. February is dank, dark, and depressing, so don’t even bother thinking about publishing then. It’s not until Spring hits, the nights start pulling out, and people have had a couple of pay packets to get over Christmas, that there’s any point to publishing a novel.

So that takes the time I have left down to just a shade over two months. I haven’t even finished writing the book yet, and although I’m close, I will need at least two weeks of intensive writing to finish it. Okay, so say by some miracle I do manage to get the book finished by early October, then it ideally needs to sit for a week or so before I go back in and start making my own edits. These could take weeks of reading it over and over, picking apart every single line, going over it backwards and forwards until I am sick of the sight of it.

Then it has to go to my editor, and depending on her other commitments she could take weeks, maybe even a month to get it back to me, and then I have to go through all her suggested amendments with a fine toothcomb. Then it goes to my beta readers for them to go through and give me feedback. This could also take weeks, depending on how busy they are. I then have to go through all their suggested amendments.

On top of that, the novel has to be formatted into paperback and eBook versions, which takes time, especially in a book like this one that will have at least thirty chapter title page illustrations to insert, and illuminated capitals at the start of each chapter to be inset. Then there is the cover to sort out. And it all takes so much time. And the clock is ticking. And… there’s the blue spinning doughnut again!

That was the one good thing about lockdown. I had time. For the first time in forever, I wasn’t constantly chasing my own tail and juggling all the things that needed to be done. There was time to do them all, because if I didn’t finish a task one day, why then it didn’t matter, there was always the next day and the next. I have never felt so healthy and relaxed as I did in lockdown. I was sleeping longer, because there was no need to be up at 6am to try and cram everything in before going to work. I was still up by 8am, but those extra two hours sleep made me feel so much better. I wasn’t stressing about anything during the day, I was able to set my own pace and work to my physical limitations, instead of until I drop, which is my usual practice.

But ever since I went back to work my life has been lived at a hundred miles an hour again, and all the good that lockdown did me now counts for nothing. It only made me realise how much I want to retire, but unless anything drastically changes – like I suddenly start selling enough books to actually live on – this is how my life will be for the next twenty years!

But, as a wise person once said – suck it up, buttercup. So, I’m going to make a cup of coffee, then go to the shop and buy a roller tray and a telescopic roller, get Miss F to help me start covering and masking everything up, and then I will make a start on the painting. Oh, but I need to upload and schedule this first, oh and then I have to unload the dishwasher, sort out the laundry, and iron my uniform for tomorrow, and think about what we’re having for dinner tonight, and make my posts for Instagram ready for tomorrow… and, yep, there’s the blue spinning doughnut again.

Have a great week everyone and I look forward to chatting with you next Sunday.

Julia Blake

Life with Lodgers… part three

As you will have realised, I didn’t write a blog last week – what with it being launch week for The Book of Eve, and because of all the problems I had with Amazon glitching out for the whole of the launch weekend so that no one in America could find my book – I simply ran out of time and energy. I apologise for this.

This week, I will try to complete my story of all the lodgers I have had over the years. We had reached March 2013, Creepy Liver Guy had thankfully moved out and I had reactivated the add for the room, hoping for more choice this time.

The add went live on the Saturday morning, by the afternoon there were at least twenty applicants, some of which looked possible contenders. I began to make appointments and things were looking good. A few days later, I received a request to come and view the room from a young Canadian teacher. He even sent me a photo with his application – a very smiley guy wearing a bobble hat. I liked him already.

He came to view the room a couple of days later and the moment I opened the front door, I knew he was the one. You get a feel for it, an instinct that you are going to be able to co-exist with this person just fine. I showed him the room. Now, being a basement room, the ceiling is not the highest and he was a very tall young man, so as he was walking around the top of his bobble hat was brushing against it.

We went into the kitchen to chat, and he asked me what I thought of a certain character in Dr Who, and that was it really. He did ask if we had Sky. Now, at the time we didn’t, but I had been thinking about getting it, and as he was explaining it was because he was a huge Game of Thrones fan, I decided that I would see about getting it as soon as possible.

A week later, Mr B moved in. I remember it was a shocking day weather-wise, snow was belting down and all the in and out tracked grimy slush all over the carpet – but it couldn’t be helped.

Right from the word go, I got on incredibly well with Mr B. An awkward and gangly young man, he was shy and diffident, but our shared love of sci-fi, fantasy, and documentaries soon made us fast friends.

He was a Maths and English teacher over here for two years because there was a real lack of work for teachers in Canada at the time. He was polite and sweet, liked tea, and baked muffins and cakes, knitted me a coffee pot warmer, and was just a nice person to live with.

Most evenings he would watch TV with us. He introduced me to Game of Thrones, which I loved. I introduced him to the wonderful historian Lucy Worsley and we avidly watched everything she did on BBC4. We also enjoyed watching Only Connect – the hardest quiz on British TV – and would feel ridiculously smug if we managed to get a single question right.

And then of course, there was Dr Who. At the time we were passionate about that show in my house. We never missed an episode, and we watched old episodes whenever we could find them. In 2013, the show was at the peak of its popularity and as it was its fiftieth anniversary, the BBC pushed the boat out with many anniversary features, including a special film that was going to be shown at the cinema – so of course, we all went.

As Christmas approached, I discovered Mr B had never been to a Pantomime. In fact, had never even heard of that staunch British festive tradition. We bought tickets for the three of us to go and beforehand I tried to prepare him for what was in store.

ME:  Right, it’s a fun show for all the family usually based on a traditional fairy tale or story. This year it’s Aladdin, but it could be Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Dick Whittington, Mother Goose, anything like that.

HIM: Okay, I see.

ME:  Hold on, I’m easing you in gently here. There are lots of songs and lots of dancing. There may be explosions on stage, and sweets – or possibly slime – will be randomly hurled at the audience.

HIM: Right.

ME:  There will be a character who talks to the audience, and will usually ask them to warn him every time the monster/bear/beast of some kind comes onto the stage by shouting IT’S BEHIND YOU as loudly as they can. He will then creep slowly round and the monster will creep around him at the same time – thus necessitating frequent screaming of IT’S BEHIND YOU.

HIM: I see.

ME:  You probably don’t, but you will.

HIM: ??

ME:  There will be an over the top villain, and every time they appear on the stage, the audience has to boo and hiss as loudly as possible.

HIM: Boo and hiss?! At the actor?!

ME:  Trust me, he’ll be very upset if you don’t.

HIM: Oka-a-ay.

ME:  Halfway through the show, they will stop and call out the names of children in the audience who have birthdays. More sweets will be thrown, and happy birthday will be sung.

HIM: Ahh, that’s nice.

ME:  They usually get a pair of kids up on stage at some point to lead the audience in a sing off against each other – this is because some big set change is happening behind the curtain.

HIM: A sing off?

ME:  That’s when one half of the audience have to sing a song as loudly as possible. Then the other half have to sing, and they judge who sang the loudest.

HIM: Does everyone have to sing?

ME:  YES! (eye him beadily) EVERYONE must sing. It is the law!

HIM: (Gulps) Okay. Does the side that sings the loudest win anything?

ME:  Glory – and maybe more sweets thrown at them, or possibly slime. Although the kids on stage get given gift bags.

HIM: Okay.

ME:  Oh, and the principal boy – so in this case Aladdin, will be played by a woman.

HIM: Why?

ME:  He just is!

HIM: I see.

ME:  And there will always be an elderly female character – in Aladdin it will be Widow Twanky, his mother – but it could be Snow’s White’s elderly nurse, the cook in Dick Whittington, someone like that, in Cinderella there are two such characters, the Ugly Sisters. Anyway, this is a comedic character played by a man to comic effect. He will wear ridiculous clothes, including huge comedy breasts, garish make-up, big funny bloomers that will be flashed to the audience at every opportunity, and will make numerous saucy and inuendo laden jokes and comments. This is the Pantomime Dame and they are crucial to the show.

HIM: But why…?

ME:  Don’t ask. It’s traditional. So, that’s pantomime.

HIM: …..

ME:  …..

HIM: And this is what passes for entertainment in this country?

ME:  Trust me. You’ll love it.

And he did! Right from the clash of the first cymbal as the curtains drew back and dozens of brightly dressed characters pranced onto the stage and tried to convince us that we were in old Peking, right through to the triumphant wedding scene finale where Aladdin marries his Princess Jasmin, he loved every single funny moment of it.

He laughed, he clapped, he caught sweets, he joined in with the singing and produced a very impressive baritone voice from somewhere within his skinny frame, he yelled IT’S BEHIND YOU with the rest of us, and booed and hissed every time the evil wizard slithered on stage. It was a brilliant evening.

Any British readers will probably now be experiencing a moment of nostalgia for all the pantomimes they were taken to in the past. Traditionally held only at Christmas, I always used to take Miss F at the beginning of December. It kicked off the festive season nicely, and got me in the right mindset that yes, Christmas was coming. Sadly, with the current situation, pantomimes will not be happening this year.

To all my non-UK readers, if ever you are in Britain and you get the chance to go to a pantomime, go! The bigger productions in the larger cities are very swish and are usually packed with stars from TV. But the shows that are put on in the smaller towns and even villages are not without their charm. In fact, I’ve always found that in a smaller theatre it’s more intimate. The characters come down from the stage and mingle and interact with the audience much more than in a massive theatre seating thousands. Plus, in a smaller theatre, you’re more likely to catch some of those sweets I told you about!

Mr B lived with us for about eighteen months, and I grew very fond of him. In fact, we are still in touch on social media, sometimes chat through messenger, and the odd parcel and card occasionally wings its way over the Atlantic at Christmas time.

One very funny thing that happened during his stay though, involved Miss F. She was ten when he moved in and was at that age of no filter and blurting out whatever was in her head. Anyway, one evening we were sitting there watching TV together with Mr B, when out of nowhere, Miss F turns to me and asks.

MISS F: Mummy, what’s a wanker?

I nearly spat out my drink. I felt my eyes go huge as I stared at my innocent child.

ME:       Umm, where did you hear that word, darling?

MISS F: Oh, some of the boys at school were shouting it at each other in the playground. I’ve never heard of it before, so I wondered what it meant.

ME:        Umm, oka-a-ay.

Out of the corner of my eye I could just see Mr B’s knees, they were shaking and I’m sure I heard a snort of barely suppressed laughter coming from his corner. Carefully picking my words, I said.

ME:       I’ll explain it to you later, when you go up to bed.

So, we finished watching the programme and then I took her upstairs, tucked her up in bed, sat down and told her exactly what that word meant. She was silent for a while thinking about it, then she went bright red all over.

MISS F: I said that word in front of Mr B.

ME:      Yes, you did. (I cheerfully agreed) Maybe in future, instead of blurting things out in front of other people, you’ll ask me when we’re alone.

And from that day on, she always did!

We were very sad when Mr B left, but he was returning to Canada and that is the way of lodgers – just when you manage to housebreak one, they leave, and you have to start all over again. So, up went the add again, and this time we went with a sweet young girl called Miss E.

She was a wedding dress seamstress at a studio in town, she was polite and quiet and loved Disney. She went home to her parents every Friday and didn’t come back until Sunday evening. She was perfect. She stayed until mid-July and then suddenly, out of the blue, announced she was leaving. Her best friend was moving to the area and had asked her to share a flat with her, so that was it, she was off.

It did leave me in a bit of a quandary though. Because I had assumed she was staying for at least a year – as she had told me she was on many occasions – I had actually arranged for Miss F and I to go away on a very rare holiday mid-August believing that Miss E would be still living with us. She was a very sensible and trustworthy person and I had no qualms about leaving her in charge of the house and the cat whilst we were gone.

That was less than a month away – it didn’t seem long enough to find a new lodger and establish that same level of trust to go away and leave them for a week alone in our house. But there was nothing I could do about it, other than activate the add again and hope.

We ran it for a week. We had a few viewings. I didn’t click with any of them. We ran it for another week. This second crop of potential lodgers were even worse. I neither liked nor felt I could trust any of them.

In despair on the third Saturday, I activated the add again. Less than thirty minutes later, I had a reply. A very cheery and personable sounding lady sent me a message.

Love the sound of the room. Please can I come and have a look?

Of course, when?

Now?

Oh, okay!

Quickly, I dashed about and tidied up. The room had been viewing ready for two weeks now, so it was fine. My phone rang, she was walking up the road, which house were we? So, I went outside and saw a shock of bright red hair walking up the street pushing a bike and beaming from ear to ear. She waved vigorously when she saw me, as if she’d known me all my life, and the grin grew broader.

And so, Miss S came into our lives.

Slightly older than me, this was no scatterbrain teenager who would be incapable of following basic security and safety protocols whilst in charge of the house, and as we chatted, I knew I’d found the right one. Two days later she moved in. A week later we went on holiday.

She lived with us for nine months, during which time I was introduced to the weird and wonderful world of totally organic, free range, vegan cooking. Some of it looked great, some, not so great. A haphazard and messy cook, she would take over the kitchen with abandon and create great piles of washing up. She never did learn how to stack a dishwasher properly, and I was always going to unload it only to find upturned bowls floating with some sort of veggie broth.

Then there was the time she dropped a large bag of turmeric in the kitchen and for weeks we were finding bright yellow stains in unexpected places.

But, on the whole, she was one of our more successful lodgers and I was genuinely sorry when she met someone and within a couple of months was moving in with him. I really did wish her well, and wanted her to be happy, but there was something about this man that didn’t sit right with me. Maybe it was something about the eyes, maybe it was the way he was with her, maybe it was some sort of instinct, who knows.

So, Miss S moved out and we were once again looking for a lodger. The add was activated, and an American in his thirties moved in. He had separated from his wife and needed a safe and peaceful space to gather his thoughts and sort out his life. I felt sorry for him, and he seemed okay, but within three days of moving in I knew I had made a dreadful mistake.

Used to being the alpha male in his own home, he simply couldn’t adjust to the fact that living in shared accommodation with only one bathroom between three of us meant that strict morning bathroom slots had to be established and adhered to. He would go into the bathroom whenever he damn well pleased and take as long as he wanted, with no thought to us waiting outside. He made us late for school and work three times, before I sat him down and tried to drum it into his head that he had to stick to the slot he’d requested, that he couldn’t take our slots and hog the bathroom for almost an hour every morning!

He was incredibly untidy in the bathroom and the kitchen. Bristles and toothpaste all around the sink for me to clean up. All his washing up simply left on the draining board for me to put in the dishwasher because he “hadn’t had time before he went to work”! Well, guess what buddy, neither do I!

He was incapable of closing cupboards and drawers. Now, I only have a small kitchen, so if someone has left all the cupboards and drawers wide open it’s not only untidy to look at, but it reduces space in the kitchen drastically. I would walk into the kitchen after he’d been there and start kicking them shut. It was intensely annoying.

He would stink out the bathroom every day, and frequently left nasties in the toilet which I had to take a stick to, in order to try and get rid of it! Heaven only knows what he was eating to produce things of that size and density!

It just wasn’t working. I like to think I can get on with most people, and years of taking in lodgers has taught me to tolerate most behaviour. But he and I clashed personality wise right from the get-go.

I remember when I was trying again to get it through his selfish skull that he simply couldn’t steal my bathroom slot in the morning, because it was making Miss F late for school and me late for work. He looked at me, and said…

“If you would only open your heart to Jesus and let him live in there. You would be a much calmer and happier person. You seem such a stressed and even violent person to me.”

Seriously, if I’d had a gun, I would have shot him!

Eventually, things got so bad he left me note asking that I conduct any future contact with him as written correspondence. So, I wrote him a letter politely giving him one month to get the hell out of my house. He was gone by the end of the week.

So, the add was activated again. Things weren’t so desperate this time. My long-term boss had retired and made me redundant, so I’d received a small redundancy pay-out. Not a massive amount, but enough so we could take our time finding a lodger and be choosey this time.

But life has a funny way of turning. Within two days we had a lovely young teacher come to view the room. Mr V was personable, funny, and clicked with both Miss F and I straight away. Just one problem. It was April when he came to view the room, but he wouldn’t need it until the middle of August just before the new school year began.

Miss F and I discussed it. We really liked him, so we decided that we’d rather wait for him. I could just about afford to go rent free for a few months. It would be tight, but worth it to get just the right lodger. So, it was arranged. Mr V signed a contract and paid a deposit to secure the room that he would forfeit if he reneged on the deal.

A week went by, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the room lying empty, not producing any rent for us. Then I wondered if a short term let would be possible. I went onto the website and searched. Yes, short term lets were not only possible, but apparently very desirable for some people.

I reworded the add and reactivated it as a short term let for three months. Four hours later we had a new lodger!

Mr K was a businessman who was relocating to the area as he was taking over the local branch of the company he worked for. He would be moving into his own property, but it was going to take about three months to sort things out. He didn’t really want to live in a hotel – too impersonal and too expensive. What I was offering was perfect.

And he was perfect. I have seriously never before had a lodger who had such a low carbon footprint in the house. He was hardly ever here. He rose early – before even I was up – showered and was gone. He ate all of his meals out, didn’t come home until late in the evening, and was gone all weekend visiting his family in Essex.

Occasionally, when he got home from work, I’d make us a cup of tea and we’d chat. He was a nice guy, just worked way too hard, and didn’t seem to have much of a personal life. But, because I hadn’t expected to receive any rent money for that period, what he paid was extra and covered the cost of landscaping my garden.

Mid-August came around all too quickly. Mr K moved out on the Sunday morning, I cleaned the room although it barely needed it, and Mr V moved in on the Monday. Right from the word go he became like a member of the family. He was funny and obliging. He cleaned up after himself. Liked the same films and shows that we did, and lived with us for almost two years, before, of course, he met the love of his life and moved out.

Now, remember Miss S? The turmeric spilling lady who had moved out to live with the guy I had concerns about. Turns out I was spot on. He revealed his true colours soon after they moved in together, and that relationship quickly soured and poor Miss S was forced into renting rooms in not very nice houses. Anyway, we had remained friends and she had often popped round for a coffee or even a glass of wine. The last time she had visited, she had told me how unhappy she was in her current lodgings, so when Mr V handed in his notice I sent her a message inviting her for coffee and a “chat”.

Coincidentally, we had booked to go on holiday again assuming that Mr V would still be there to look after the house and feed the cat. But he moved out three weeks before our holiday date, so I was stuck with the same problem of finding a trustworthy lodger in a short space of time.

Yep, you’ve guessed it. Mr V moved out and Miss S moved back in. It was only going to be for eight or so months, I knew that from the start. She was going travelling the following year and would be leaving the UK for good. But that was fine, it bought me eight months and meant we could go on holiday with an easy mind that someone we trusted was in our home.

Eight months later, as arranged, Miss S moved out and we reactivated the add. Now, it had been over three years since I’d last looked for a lodger, and this time hardly anyone applied for the room. Eventually, we took on a young Romanian man who seemed okay. He told me he worked evenings, but as I told you about in my last blog – that turned out to be a lie.

In many ways, Mr D was an unsatisfactory lodger – we barely ever saw him, and he certainly made no attempt to become part of the family. But he always paid his rent on time, and perhaps it was nice to be separate from the lodger for a change.

And now he is gone. I am left with a basement room that needs airing out and redecorating. He has ruined the mattress and I have a strong suspicion that the insurance company are not going to clean or replace it. When the agent came to inspect the mattress, he was shocked at the sheer amount of stains there were and asked if I was sure that a mattress protector had been used? Well, I said yes, because two mattress protectors are provided with the room, but whether Mr D used them all the time or not is a mystery. The agent asked what the stains were and how old they were, but of course, I couldn’t answer those questions either.

He then went away to write his report and I have to wait a week or so for them to let me know whether they will clean it, or whether a new mattress will be coming out of Mr D’s damages deposit. Luckily, I get excellent staff discount, so it won’t cost him as much as it normally would.

The smell and feel of damp have gone from the room – two weeks of having the window open at every opportunity and having a dehumidifier on has certainly done the trick. All that is left for me to do is a deep clean, give the whole room a coat of paint, and await the decision about the mattress. Then the add will be reactivated, and the whole cycle will start all over again.

I wonder who we’ll get next.

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Take care of yourselves and I’ll catch up with you all next Sunday.

Julia Blake