These Things Are Sent to Annoy You!

Firstly, apologies for not blogging last week. Let’s just say intentions were good, but time and motivation were severely lacking. Now my shifts have changed and some weeks I’m working Thursday, Friday, Saturday, it means I don’t have time to write my blog on a Saturday as I used to, and Wednesday feels too early in the week to even think about writing it, and how can I chat about the happenings in my week when the week has barely started?

Anyway, I’m here now, and after the couple of weeks I’ve had, boy do I feel a nice big rant a-brewing, so grab your Sunday beverage of choice and fasten your seatbelt.

Okay, so as you know I returned to work on the 15th of April, and oh my goodness, went straight back into madness. No gradual easing in, no dipping of the toe in the water. Nope. Waterbomb straight into the deep end. It was manic. Like Boxing Day and New Year’s Day sales, all rolled into one. I seriously don’t know where the people came from, but came they did, all with money they were desperate to spend. Which is good, I guess, both for the company and my pay packet, but a little spacing between the hoards would have been nice.

I’ve found it quite hard going back and I’m stressed and struggling to deal with the sheer people-ness of it. Going from living quiet days at home with only Miss F for company, to suddenly being plunged into having to put my people face on for eight hours at a time has been quite a culture shock. Also, there’s the whole charging around aspect again, as I dash from work and out to collect Miss F from her work, then home and trying to sort and cook dinner whilst unloading the dishwasher, fetching in washing, feeding a whinging cat, and trying to lay and light a fire, before collapsing on the sofa at seven with a plate of dinner and no intention of moving, or even thinking about moving, until I drag my weary carcass up to bed – now do you understand why I didn’t blog last week?

I know millions of people are in the same boat, and I bet I’m not the only one thinking wistfully of the gently paced days of lockdown. Still, it is what it is, so one must adapt and adjust. I’m working today and Monday, then I have four days off, then I’m working all weekend because the other part-timer is on holiday and then I’m on holiday. Yippee. A whole seven days off. So much planned, but I already know that the week will whizz by like a gazelle on speed.

Now, what’s been happening? Well, firstly, the insurance issue has raised its ugly head again. Yep, I thought that was all done and dusted as well, but nope. I received a letter from the underwriters, an identical letter, and a claim form to complete as the one I submitted at the beginning of February, stating that I needed to complete it to process my claim.

Huh? I thought, what are they drivelling on about? This is all done, finished, car fixed and paid for. So, I wrote that on the letter, stuck it in the pre-paid envelope and posted it back. Then thought no more of it until I got home from work on Thursday evening and Miss F said someone from the insurance company had left a message saying that they’d been trying to get in touch with me and that if I didn’t give them the information they needed, then my claim would be voided. Huh?! What?! Checking my phone, I saw that a text had come from them between my lunch break and me getting home. There was a link they wanted me to click on. Well, I don’t have a smartphone so good luck with that. I decided to call them in the morning. I generally find in situations like this it’s better to speak to an actual human being.

Friday was busy, but I managed to give them a call back on the number left on the answerphone and got through to Rory, who, judging by the noises off stage, was still working from home. Yes, I had already completed the form, he patiently explained, but I had completed it for the brokers, and they hadn’t passed it onto them, the underwriters. Well, why not? I demanded. Surely when they passed my case over to them, the brokers had included all information pertaining to it? He sighed, you’d think, wouldn’t you, was his comment, but no, it had to be done again so they could go after the Yodel delivery driver’s insurance company with as much information as possible. Apparently, the other company are being arses about it. My neighbour, who was a witness, didn’t actually SEE the collision. He answered the door and took the delivery, closed the door, thirty seconds later heard the big bang, and ran to the window to see the van reversing down the road at speed with me in hot pursuit, and the wing of my car hanging off. But the company are claiming that in the split seconds in-between another very large white van could have come from nowhere and smashed into the side of my car and then, just as mysteriously, disappeared.

Absolute horse crap!

So, Rory is going to send me another form which I must complete with as much detailed information as possible. Oh, I’ll give them details all right. I asked if I could use a separate page and was told I could use as many pages as I deemed necessary and draw as many pictures and take as many photos as possible to illustrate why I believe the accident was in no way my fault, and why I believe this toerag of a man should cough up the £250 it cost to mend my car. Talk about being cheap. You were careless mate; you damaged someone else’s property. Be a man about it, fess up to what you did, agree to let your insurance pay out and then we can all move on! Jeez, why do some people have to be like this? Isn’t there enough stress and angst in the world without this?

I asked Rory what the worst-case scenario was if the driver refuses to admit fault and his insurance company won’t pay. Well, it seems I won’t get the £100 policy excess back, which won’t be the end of the world, and I will lose my no claims bonus status, which is appalling. I was in my house, my car was parked, in what fair or sane world can blame be pinned on me?! Life is all buggery bollocks sometimes.

Next thing on the crapola list – I’ve had to buy a new washing machine. Yes, my old one was about seven or eight years old, and I know they don’t make things to last anymore, but it’s yet one more niggling annoyance. Over the past month, my washing machine has been getting noisier and noisier. During the lockdown, I couldn’t do much about it, and it was still functioning, just … being a bit vocal about it. But now it sounds like a pneumatic drill is being used in the kitchen and when it hits the spin cycle the Challenger space shuttle taking off is quiet in comparison. My previous machine did the same thing, so I called in my appliance fixer guy. He looked at it, sucked in the air over his teeth, and told me it was the restraining bolts that hold the drum in place. Over the years and constant use, they become compromised until finally they snap, and nothing is restraining the drum, hence the noise. Once they go, he said, there is nothing to be done but replace the whole machine. He then packed up his box of toys, charged me a call-out fee and left.

So, when this machine began to do the same thing, I knew what it was. I also knew there was no point wasting my money on a call-out fee so I’ve been on the Argos website and ordered a new washing machine and it will be here next Thursday. Until then, we’ll need to wear noise-cancelling headphones every time I put a load on. The last time I bought a washing machine from Argos, they were offering a disposal and installation package for £50 which I thought wasn’t bad, so I took advantage of it. I do remember my dear old dad’s penny-pinching soul being outraged that I was paying £50 for someone to take my washing machine away. But when I asked if he was going to come and do it, there was silence down the phone. Guessing that’s a no then, dad.

I was hopeful they were offering the same service and was even prepared for it to cost more, after all, it had been eight years. But no, still £50, so I clicked on the button and added it to my order. Now, my washing machine is in an awkward position, so I am hoping that the delivery team who come this time are as obliging as the last ones. The machine is located in a cupboard in a narrow passageway so getting it out is difficult. I mean, washing machines aren’t exactly light and having to walk one out of a very confining space and manhandle it out of the passageway is hard enough. Then there is the whole issue of unplugging it, unhooking it from the pipes behind it and installing the new one. Above the washing machine is a sturdy shelf on which sits the tumble drier. Both machines are plugged in behind the drier, so it must be eased forward enough to get an arm in, and the washing machine plug pulled out and dropped down through the hole in the shelf. And then, of course, when installing the new one, the drier has to be eased forward again, and the washing machine plug fed up through the hole – all whilst holding a drier on your chest. Are you beginning to understand why I think it’s worth £50 of anyone’s money? They will also test the machine and take away all the packaging. Why would you not say yes to this service?

All in all, the whole situation was a niggle, but not a particularly annoying one, unlike the ongoing one I have with my utility supplier. A couple of months ago, they emailed me informing me that they were putting my monthly direct debit up from £88 to £155! A huge jump and an unnecessary one. Yes, I was in debt to them by about £150, but we were coming out of winter and I’m always in debt at that time of year. The debt is then cleared in the spring, and credit builds up in the account over the summer to help carry me through the winter which is the most expensive time for gas and electricity. Every utility company I’ve ever been with has understood this but not Green Supplier. Instead, I get a somewhat hysterical email acting as if I were thousands of pounds in debt with no way of ever clearing it.

I immediately contacted them through the chat option on their website – couldn’t find a customer helpline number, my preferred mode of communication – and explained the situation to them. Not only are we coming into warmer weather, I typed, when the heating is going on less frequently, but with drier weather, I wouldn’t be using the tumble drier as much. Nights were drawing out, so lights were going on later. Plus, as the lockdown was over and we had returned to work, we were no longer home all day using devices. I received a somewhat confusing email back stating that all direct debits were calculated to ensure their customers never ended up in debt, but they would take on board my comments and investigate it. I heard nothing further, but when my next direct debit came out, I checked my account and, sure enough, I was now over £100 in credit with them.

I assumed that the company would see this, acknowledge that I had been correct, and keep my direct debit at its normal rate. That was very stupid of me. Upon checking my bank statement earlier in the week, I found to my horror that they had whipped £155 out, so now I’m almost £300 in credit with them. I’m annoyed about this, why didn’t they listen to me? I can’t afford to be paying so much each month unnecessarily, and it means they will owe me hundreds of pounds, and yes, I know I will probably get that back, but that could take weeks, and now I have to go through the whole rigmarole of contacting them again, explaining the whole situation again, and hoping this time I will connect with someone whose brains aren’t located in their anal region and will LISTEN to me and see the logic in what I’m saying. My contract with this company expires in August, I have no plans to stay with them because of this, so I want this sorted now. The last thing I want is to be chasing a company I’m no longer with for money they owe me – I have a feeling that’s a chase I might not win.

And now we come to Sky. We have a Sky account but only have the most basic TV package you can have with them. What with having Netflix, Amazon Prime, Now TV, and Disney Plus, we don’t need Sky TV – and besides, they are seriously behind in the quality of programmes they offer. So, I pay £35 a month for the basic package, unlimited broadband, plus use of landline but I do get charged for any calls I make on there so I tend not to call anyone if I can possibly help it. I also pay an extra £10 a month for Miss F’s mobile phone to be with them. So, £45 in all. This has been the situation for years. But, when I checked my bank account, I saw that for no reason whatsoever, Sky had doubled my monthly payment to £75! No warning, no discussion, no negotiation, no reason given. Nope, they just plundered my bank account and took what they wanted, probably hoping I wouldn’t notice.

Not on Sky, not bloody on. But it means I now must try and contact them, and I know it’s an absolute ball-ache trying to get hold of anyone in customer services in Sky, I know it’s going to take time I don’t have, and patience I no longer possess. And I know that I’m going to have to throw all my toys out of my pram, pout, stamp my feet, threaten to leave and really mean it, before they will probably play ball and put the monthly rate back down to something sensible.

If they don’t play ball, I will leave, but that will be a pain in the arse as well. Having to find another broadband provider, having to change my email address everywhere!! Having to shift Miss F’s mobile account to another company, and the whole cockamamie hoops we’ll have to jump through to move her number. Yes, it’s doable, and yes, I will do it, if I must, rather than bow to Sky bully boy tactics and stay with them if they don’t reduce the payment, but oh, I don’t want to. It’s yet more time, more stress, more phone calls, more headache-inducing angst. Why is life never simple? You get straight, you think – right, that’s everything sorted – then two seconds later, bam, the shit hits the fan again and you grind your teeth in sheer bloody frustration at how buggery bollocking annoying everything is.

Then, we’ve had the whole thorny issue of student finance. As you know, Miss F has been accepted at her dream university. It’s what she desperately wants, it’s all she’s been dreaming of for years and I really want it for her. But it’s expensive and without the very generous student loan she is entitled to, it would be an impossible dream. So, as soon as applications for the upcoming year were allowed, we carefully went through the form online, completed it all, sent them whatever bits of paper they needed, and considered it done. Because I earn diddly squat, she is entitled to her tuition fees paid in their entirety and almost £10,000 a year in living expenses. Which, as I told her, if she can’t live on that then she seriously has a problem, as I’m paying a mortgage, running a whole house, and feeding two of us plus a cat on not much more.

We thought it was all done and going through the system. Then Miss F was invited to take part in an online discussion and information forum on her new university, and one of the subjects they talked about was student finance. Our ears pricked up at the news that there is a small bursary that she would be entitled to of £1000 per year. It’s for students from low-income households and will automatically be awarded so long as she has ticked the box on the form giving the Student Finance people permission for her details to be shared with her university.

Miss F pulled a panicked face. She had seen no such box on her form, and she had gone through it minutely so was confident if it had been there, she would have seen it and ticked it. She typed the question about it. The tutor said it should have been on the form, but she was to phone student finance and speak to them about it.

So, yesterday, Miss F settled down with the phone number, her application number, and what she needed to ask and called Student Finance. We timed how long she was on hold. 56 minutes! Almost an hour of nonstop elevator, do your head in, shopping made easy muzak, and reassurances that her call was important to them, but had she looked on their website for any answers to any queries she might have? She hung on and hung on until finally, the call was answered. Miss F explained the situation. At first, the guy seemed unable to grasp the problem but then said there was a sliding button on the form that she needed to switch to grant sharing permission. Miss F said she hadn’t seen it, was he sure it was on there? Oh yes, he assured her, it was there, she had obviously missed it. But, whilst she was on, he was looking at her application and could see it was on the verge of being rejected because there was a discrepancy between the amount of income I had stated, and the amount of income H.M. Revenue & Customs had confirmed.

WTF?! I grabbed the phone from her, told the guy I was her mother, and what exactly did he mean? After much discussion and toing and froing, we think we’ve figured out what happened. I had to insert my income figure from the P60 issued on 6 April 2020, which I did, but my total income figure wasn’t a round number, there was a rogue 25p. We tried to enter the whole amount, but it wouldn’t accept the pence so all we could do was put the pounds. But of course, this doesn’t tally exactly with what H.M. Revenue & Customs have on their form, so the figures are out by 25p.

Now, wouldn’t you think someone would have the sense to realise that the form doesn’t accept pence, look at the two figures and go, okay, it’s only 25p. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t make an iota of difference. The household income must be below £25,000 per year to qualify for this level of finance and my income is well below that, so it’s not as if that 25p would push me over some sort of band. No, as usual, it is red tape, algorithms, and people being unbelievably petty and creating yet more angst, stress, worry, and work for everyone involved. So, following the guy’s advice we have now uploaded my P60 for the period required to them, and, as per his further advice, uploaded my P60 for the 6 April 2021 as well, just in case.

I hope this has sorted the issue. If they reject her Student Finance, I will kick up such a stink they’ll be able to see it from space. Miss F qualifies on every level so there is no reason for such a thing to happen. Don’t worry, the guy reassured us, this happens all the time. Well, if it happens all the time, fix the buggery bollocking issue! Either change the income box on the form to include any pence or put a little line explaining that if there are any pence it is crucial to round the sum up to the nearest pound, not down (as we did).

Hopefully, by manually submitted the actual P60s we have sorted the issue. I’ll keep you posted.

So, then Miss F went back onto the Student Finance website, pulled up her application form and together we scrutinised it inch by smegging inch, and you know what, she was correct, there is no box, button, or slider that we must click to allow sharing permission. It’s simply not there. We spent an hour going over and over the form. By this time, Miss F was stressed out of her head and sporting the beginnings of an anxiety migraine so bad she had to call off work. The only option we have is to call Student Finances again and get them to stay on the line whilst they tell us whereabouts on this bloody form this mythical, non-existent button is! But by now it was late Friday afternoon, and neither of us fancied another hour sitting on the phone feeling our brains leak from our ears as we listened to that never-ending, soul-destroying muzak.

Why is life so hard? Miss F howled at one point. And what could I say? Welcome to the world of adulting, honey, it’s shite and it only gets shittier the older you get. It’s an endless round of petty inconveniences that in themselves don’t amount to much but piled on top of all the other shitty things you must deal with daily, add up to a constant barrage of annoying buggery bollocks that will slowly drive you demented and drain the will to live from your soul.

Right, I think that’s it for my whining and ranting … let’s see … work, insurance, washing machine, utilities, Sky, Student Finance … yep, I think that’s it. Thank you for putting up with my rant.

Okay, so let’s try to end on a positive note. Kiss & Tell, book four of the Blackwood Family Saga is scheduled to be published on Wednesday and everything is looking set for a smooth, hitch free launch – but, this is life, and, as we all know, life can be a bit shite, so I’m braced for problems. To celebrate the launch of my twelfth book I’ve decided to do something I’ve never done before and offer one of my books as a free download.

That’s right, this is an exclusive heads-up for the nine of you who read my blog. On the 12th, 13th, and 14th of May, book one of the Blackwood Family Saga, Lost & Found, will be free to download. That’s right, completely, and utterly free! Not only that, but book two in the saga, Fixtures & Fittings, will be only 99p (or local currency equivalent). What with Kiss & Tell currently only being £2.99 (or local currency equivalent) to pre-order that means if you wish to snag the first four books of the Saga, instead of it costing you £15.96, it will cost you only £7.97. What an absolute bargain! So why not click on the Kiss & Tell link on my books page and book your pre-order at the sale price, then look out on the 12th and grab the other three books in the series. At these prices, you’d be crazy not to.

But hurry, on the stroke of midnight on the morning of the 15th all prices will go back up to their normal levels and this amazing deal will be over.

As most of you know, I have never run a free offer on any of my books before and I have never run a sale at 99p and, depending on how many downloads it generates, I may never do it again, so this may be your only chance to grab four Julia Blake books at a remarkable cut-throat price.

Now I need to go, there is laundry to do, beds to make, a fire to lay, shopping to do, and a dinner to prep. At least, you got a nice girthy blog to make up for missing last week, which I hope you enjoyed even though is was mainly a good grumble and a rant.

Take care and try not to let life grind you down.

Julia Blake

Back to the Rat Race!

So last week I returned to work, Miss F returned to her part-time job, and we re-joined the rat race. I think I had forgotten, in the almost four months of this lockdown, how tiring it is to be constantly on the go. To be juggling so many things at one time, and to be trying to cram too much into too few hours.

The shop re-opened on the Monday, but I didn’t have my first shift until the Thursday. I walked in not really knowing how things were going to be, but I should have known after what happened last June how it would go. The place was heaving with customers, right from the get-go, people have swarmed to spend their money and we had an incredibly busy week.

Once again, I was rushing from work to pick up shopping, then dashing out to collect Miss F from work, then home again to try and simultaneously cook dinner, put away the shopping, feed the cat, and all the other things you need to do upon arriving home from work.

It’s amazing how quickly the benefits of four months resting, sleeping, and living to a quieter rhythm disappear once you’re plunged back into the chaos of your normal, everyday life. I do miss having time. Obviously, I wanted the situation to resolve itself and I wanted the figures to stop rising, but I would be lying if I said I haven’t enjoyed this past year for the luxury of time it gave me.

So, what did I achieve this lockdown? Well, I formed my own notional publishing company, Sele Books, and had a logo made and placed on the spines of all my books. I wrote book twelve. Kiss & Tell is book four of the Blackwood Family Saga and will be published on the 13th of May. The eBook version is now available for pre-order at a discounted price of £2.99 (or your local currency equivalent). It will stay at this price until it’s launch, when it will go back to the normal price of £3.99. The universal link to the book is on my books page, if you would like to take advantage of the sale price and order your copy to be delivered to your kindle on the stroke of midnight on launch day.

And I finally got around to the long-awaited task of completely overhauling my website. It is something that has been on my to-do list for years, but I never quite got around to it – lack of funds, time, and energy being the main reasons why. But during this last lockdown I certainly had the time, the royalties from book sales had been building up in my account so the money was there to do it, and, probably crucially, I wanted to do it.

Andrew, my website designer, has been on at me for years to get it done, so at the start of March we began brainstorming ideas for the new site. It wasn’t easy, my ideas didn’t always translate into practicable solutions, and, in the end, poor Andrew ended up constructing from scratch three completely different versions of the site – one for the desktop, tablet, and mobile – depending on which device you were viewing from. I had no idea you could even do that, it’s a bit clever, isn’t it?

The new website was finally revealed the day before I returned to work and I invited all my friends and followers to go and have a look and report back any issues and teething problems. Of which there were quite a few. For some reason, all the universal book links were taking people to the Amazon listing of Becoming Lili, and not the book they were intended to go.

Gradually though, Andrew and I picked through all the issues, resolving them as we went, and now the website is perfect. I am so happy with it, and thrilled I finally have a website I can be proud of. If you would like to have a look for yourself, then please click on the link at the top of the My Books page. Oh, and if you find any issues, please let me know.

Miss F has almost finished with college forever. I think she has mixed feelings about this. Yes, she will be relieved when her final exams are finished and she can take a deep breath, and of course, she is looking forward to university in September. But she has enjoyed college. It has been something of a transitional period between the environment of school and the one of college. An airlock if you like, between, childhood and young adulthood.

All day Wednesday, she was cutting and sticking and painting as she constructed her to-scale model of a zoo enclosure for a giant tortoise. I was relegated to giver of advice, washer of brushers, cutting out of acetate for the glass windows, maker of tea, and just general all-round dogsbody. Luckily, it was all completed by the evening and dry enough – just about – to load into the car Thursday morning so I could run her to college. No way was she going to attempt to carry it. Could you imagine if she dropped it crossing the road? She has two small assignments to finish at college next week, then, once her tutors have marked them, she will be signed off and will no longer be a college student. That chapter of her life will be over, and it will be time to look forward to the adventure that university will be.

And it will be an adventure. A wonderful one. I must admit to being envious of the opportunities that lie before her. The university she is going to looks amazing. A Facebook chat has been set up amongst all the potential students for the course she will be on and they spend hours chatting to each other. I think it’s wonderful that when she finally gets to university, she will already know her fellow students and the people she is going to be sharing accommodation with.

It will be a new stage of life for me as well. For the first time in eighteen years, I will have no one dependent on me. I will be able to do whatever I please. It’s an odd thought. I’m not sure what I will do with this newfound freedom yet. Whatever I choose is the obvious answer, but what will I choose? I guess, in a way, it’s an exciting new start for me as well. I think I will write more, that’s a given. And maybe I will even get back into amateur dramatics. Who knows? I shall have to see what happens in September.

Going back to work was even harder than it was last June. I’m not sure why. Maybe because this has been dragging on for so long now, maybe because I spent more time indoors because of the colder weather, but it was harder. Being so incredibly busy for the first three days I was back, left me drained and exhausted. Only have one day off, the Sunday, didn’t help. During that day I had to do a week’s worth of washing and ironing, clean house, cook meals, and generally catch up, before it was back to work on Monday and Tuesday. I know I will adjust, but I am struggling a little to deal with late nights and early mornings, getting by on six hours sleep, never managing to catch up, and that constant feeling that there’s something I need to do, but I can’t remember what.

Of course, having the launch of a new book on the horizon is always a stressful and demanding time, even more so this time as I’m spreading my wings a little and trying new things such as learning Amazon coding to create more eye-catching listing for my books. I’m also going to be offering book one of the series, Lost & Found, for free over the two days of launch, and the second book, Fixtures & Fittings, for 99p (or your local currency equivalent) so have had to learn all about how to do that, plus looking into global promotion of the free book and the discounted one.

When I think about how much I have learnt this past year, and how far I’ve come, it’s astounding. I am constantly learning new things and am always discovering ways to make my books better and the way I present them more professional.

Hopefully, once Kiss & Tell is launched safely, I can relax a little. The next book I intend to write will be book three in The Perennials Trilogy. I have a week’s holiday booked for the week after the launch, so I intend to make a start on it then. It will be nice to complete the trilogy, and I know lots of people are eagerly awaiting the final book to discover what happens with Lili and all her friends. Hopefully, we will be looking at a summer launch for that, and then it will be onto the next, and the next.

I’m afraid it’s a shorter blog this week. I sat down to work as usual on Saturday morning, only to find my laptop was being a bit of a nuisance. It kept glitching on me, freezing, locking me out, and spinning the never-ending blue doughnut of doom every time I tried to do anything. So that meant all the tasks I had to do Saturday on the laptop took four times as long, which left less time to write my blog. Also, the internet was up and down like a pair of kangaroos in the mating season which didn’t help. I hadn’t realised how much I work online until it was disconnected. It’s a bit worrying how much I rely on it now.

I hope wherever you are in the world that you are well and keeping safe and I will chat to you again next week.

Julia Blake

Back to the Rat Race!

So last week I returned to work, Miss F returned to her part-time job, and we re-joined the rat race. I think I had forgotten, in the almost four months of this lockdown, how tiring it is to be constantly on the go. To be juggling so many things at one time, and to be trying to cram too much into too few hours.

The shop re-opened on the Monday, but I didn’t have my first shift until the Thursday. I walked in not really knowing how things were going to be, but I should have known after what happened last June how it would go. The place was heaving with customers, right from the get-go, people have swarmed to spend their money and we had an incredibly busy week.

Once again, I was rushing from work to pick up shopping, then dashing out to collect Miss F from work, then home again to try and simultaneously cook dinner, put away the shopping, feed the cat, and all the other things you need to do upon arriving home from work.

It’s amazing how quickly the benefits of four months resting, sleeping, and living to a quieter rhythm disappear once you’re plunged back into the chaos of your normal, everyday life. I do miss having time. Obviously, I wanted the situation to resolve itself and I wanted the figures to stop rising, but I would be lying if I said I haven’t enjoyed this past year for the luxury of time it gave me.

So, what did I achieve this lockdown? Well, I formed my own notional publishing company, Sele Books, and had a logo made and placed on the spines of all my books. I wrote book twelve. Kiss & Tell is book four of the Blackwood Family Saga and will be published on the 13th of May. The eBook version is now available for pre-order at a discounted price of £2.99 (or your local currency equivalent). It will stay at this price until it’s launch, when it will go back to the normal price of £3.99. The universal link to the book is on my books page, if you would like to take advantage of the sale price and order your copy to be delivered to your kindle on the stroke of midnight on launch day.

And I finally got around to the long-awaited task of completely overhauling my website. It is something that has been on my to-do list for years, but I never quite got around to it – lack of funds, time, and energy being the main reasons why. But during this last lockdown I certainly had the time, the royalties from book sales had been building up in my account so the money was there to do it, and, probably crucially, I wanted to do it.

Andrew, my website designer, has been on at me for years to get it done, so at the start of March we began brainstorming ideas for the new site. It wasn’t easy, my ideas didn’t always translate into practicable solutions, and, in the end, poor Andrew ended up constructing from scratch three completely different versions of the site – one for the desktop, tablet, and mobile – depending on which device you were viewing from. I had no idea you could even do that, it’s a bit clever, isn’t it?

The new website was finally revealed the day before I returned to work and I invited all my friends and followers to go and have a look and report back any issues and teething problems. Of which there were quite a few. For some reason, all the universal book links were taking people to the Amazon listing of Becoming Lili, and not the book they were intended to go.

Gradually though, Andrew and I picked through all the issues, resolving them as we went, and now the website is perfect. I am so happy with it, and thrilled I finally have a website I can be proud of. If you would like to have a look for yourself, then please click on the link below. Oh, and if you find any issues, please let me know.

Miss F has almost finished with college forever. I think she has mixed feelings about this. Yes, she will be relieved when her final exams are finished and she can take a deep breath, and of course, she is looking forward to university in September. But she has enjoyed college. It has been something of a transitional period between the environment of school and the one of college. An airlock if you like, between, childhood and young adulthood.

All day Wednesday, she was cutting and sticking and painting as she constructed her to-scale model of a zoo enclosure for a giant tortoise. I was relegated to giver of advice, washer of brushers, cutting out of acetate for the glass windows, maker of tea, and just general all-round dogsbody. Luckily, it was all completed by the evening and dry enough – just about – to load into the car Thursday morning so I could run her to college. No way was she going to attempt to carry it. Could you imagine if she dropped it crossing the road? She has two small assignments to finish at college next week, then, once her tutors have marked them, she will be signed off and will no longer be a college student. That chapter of her life will be over, and it will be time to look forward to the adventure that university will be.

And it will be an adventure. A wonderful one. I must admit to being envious of the opportunities that lie before her. The university she is going to looks amazing. A Facebook chat has been set up amongst all the potential students for the course she will be on and they spend hours chatting to each other. I think it’s wonderful that when she finally gets to university, she will already know her fellow students and the people she is going to be sharing accommodation with.

It will be a new stage of life for me as well. For the first time in eighteen years, I will have no one dependent on me. I will be able to do whatever I please. It’s an odd thought. I’m not sure what I will do with this newfound freedom yet. Whatever I choose is the obvious answer, but what will I choose? I guess, in a way, it’s an exciting new start for me as well. I think I will write more, that’s a given. And maybe I will even get back into amateur dramatics. Who knows? I shall have to see what happens in September.

Going back to work was even harder than it was last June. I’m not sure why. Maybe because this has been dragging on for so long now, maybe because I spent more time indoors because of the colder weather, but it was harder. Being so incredibly busy for the first three days I was back, left me drained and exhausted. Only have one day off, the Sunday, didn’t help. During that day I had to do a week’s worth of washing and ironing, clean house, cook meals, and generally catch up, before it was back to work on Monday and Tuesday. I know I will adjust, but I am struggling a little to deal with late nights and early mornings, getting by on six hours sleep, never managing to catch up, and that constant feeling that there’s something I need to do, but I can’t remember what.

Of course, having the launch of a new book on the horizon is always a stressful and demanding time, even more so this time as I’m spreading my wings a little and trying new things such as learning Amazon coding to create more eye-catching listing for my books. I’m also going to be offering book one of the series, Lost & Found, for free over the two days of launch, and the second book, Fixtures & Fittings, for 99p (or your local currency equivalent) so have had to learn all about how to do that, plus looking into global promotion of the free book and the discounted one.

When I think about how much I have learnt this past year, and how far I’ve come, it’s astounding. I am constantly learning new things and am always discovering ways to make my books better and the way I present them more professional.

Hopefully, once Kiss & Tell is launched safely, I can relax a little. The next book I intend to write will be book three in The Perennials Trilogy. I have a week’s holiday booked for the week after the launch, so I intend to make a start on it then. It will be nice to complete the trilogy, and I know lots of people are eagerly awaiting the final book to discover what happens with Lili and all her friends. Hopefully, we will be looking at a summer launch for that, and then it will be onto the next, and the next.

I’m afraid it’s a shorter blog this week. I sat down to work as usual on Saturday morning, only to find my laptop was being a bit of a nuisance. It kept glitching on me, freezing, locking me out, and spinning the never-ending blue doughnut of doom every time I tried to do anything. So that meant all the tasks I had to do Saturday on the laptop took four times as long, which left less time to write my blog. Also, the internet was up and down like a pair of kangaroos in the mating season which didn’t help. I hadn’t realised how much I work online until it was disconnected. It’s a bit worrying how much I rely on it now.

I hope wherever you are in the world that you are well and keeping safe and I will chat to you again next week.

Julia Blake

Reviews – the cold hard facts.

I went to check something on Goodreads this week and noticed that somebody had dropped a one-star rating on one of my books. Now, for those not familiar with the process, on Goodreads, you can leave a star rating for a book without saying anything. Unlike Amazon, where as well as a star rating you must write something – even if it’s only one word – and that is exactly what some people do. I kid you not, I have a one-star review on Amazon for my exciting fantasy book, Erinsmore, that simply says “Disappointing”. Precisely what they found disappointing they don’t elaborate on. For all I know, it could be that delivery took a day longer than usual or they didn’t like the colour of the cover. Not that I’m too concerned, it’s the only rating lower than four stars that Erinsmore has ever received, so let them be disappointed. Maybe their whole life is one big disappointment, but because they couldn’t be bothered to write any more, we will never know.

Anyway, to get back to this one-star rating on Goodreads. No clue is given as to why they felt they had to leave such a low star rating because they didn’t choose to share this knowledge with me, the author, so, if you think about it, this defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. Yes, they’ve registered their dislike or disapproval, or even disappointment of the book, but I have no idea what the problem was. And that takes us to the whole thorny issue of reviews.

Once they have finished a book, readers can communicate directly with the author their thoughts, feelings, and impressions of it. Many don’t bother to take advantage of this, either because they are unsure how to review or even because they are afraid, they won’t do it right. It got me thinking about reviews, about how obsessed many authors become with them. Below is an image that I frequently see popping up on social media that many authors quote as being gospel. But is it?

You do not have to have purchased a book on Amazon to leave a review there.

Well, this isn’t strictly true. Amazon has many rules about who can and cannot leave a review, and one of their stipulations is that you must have spent a limit of £50 that year on Amazon. So, if you haven’t met that criteria, then regardless of whether you have purchased the book or not, they won’t let you review it. Even if you have spent the required amount and they let you review the book, it won’t be marked as a verified purchase and therefore, won’t be considered as important. Amazon regularly cull reviews from authors that they consider might have been acquired by nefarious means, and sadly non-verified purchase reviews often fall victim to this practice.

Amazon is like most retailers; they want you to review products you have bought from them. In the same way that Tesco would be annoyed if you left a stinky review on their site for a product you bought from Sainsbury’s, that’s how Amazon feel about it. Now, I buy, read, and review a lot of books. I also buy many other products from them – especially during this year of lockdown – so if I sneak the odd review through on a book that maybe I won in a giveaway or was a gift – they tend to turn a blind eye because I’m a good customer. But, if you rarely, if ever, buy from them why should they extend this courtesy to you? It makes sense when you think about it.

You do not have to read the whole book to leave a review.

No, you don’t have to have read the whole book, but honestly, wouldn’t it be better if you had? It would be like switching off a film halfway through and then thinking you could make a judgement on its merits. And besides, the book may have an ending that completely changes your perception of it – for the better or even the worse – so unless you have read it all, how can you possibly review it?

Reviews can be as simple as “Loved this one so much! Can’t wait for the next!” THEY DON’T EVEN HAVE TO BE SPELLED CORRECTLY.

It’s true – authors would rather have a one-line review than no review at all – but they would also appreciate slightly more than that. If you loved the book but felt there was one area that maybe let it down, then a helpful critique may alert the author to the issue. Especially if it is mentioned in several reviews. But a single line saying – I quite enjoyed this – doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help the author improve the book and it certainly doesn’t help any other potential readers.

Because that is the main purpose of reviews. They aren’t just to help the author; they are to tell other people whether this book is worth reading or not. In this respect, a one-line review is no help at all, and if you’ve gone to all the trouble of rating the book and writing a single line, then really, how much more effort is it to say a little more. Why did you like/or even not like the book? How did the book make you feel? Was it a satisfying read? Remember, your comments could influence someone to buy or not buy this book, so be fair but also try to be impartial. Just because the heroine’s name was Daphne and you were bullied at school by someone called Daphne so it put you off the book, not everyone else will feel the same way. Because you didn’t enjoy the book, for whatever reason, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone else won’t love it. That is why a one-line review doesn’t mean anything because you’re not expanding on why the book was “great” or even “disappointing”.

As for the not having to be spelt correctly part, well, no, nobody is a perfect speller and autocorrect and predictive text are friends to no one, but it wouldn’t hurt to just cast a critical eye over your review before you hit publish. After all, many authors share their reviews on social media, and you don’t want the world and his wife to know you can’t spell.

Authors need reviews on Amazon to get better placement in the algorithms. (And a crazy amount of other things you wouldn’t believe.)

I can’t comment too much on this because nobody seems to know if it’s true or not. I think it is true to an extent, that the more reviews on a book, the more Amazon will take notice of it. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the algorithms take more notice of book sales than reviews.

Algorithms are not reading and grading your reviews. They just look at numbers.

Now, this I do believe. An algorithm isn’t capable of personally assessing the quality of your review and it’s certainly not going to take away points for bad spelling and grammar.

But are there unwritten rules to writing reviews?

Well, yes, I would say there are. For a start, don’t give any spoilers. This is unfair, unnecessary, and is guaranteed to make the author’s blood boil. If the whole point of their book is the shocking plot twist in the penultimate chapter and you go and blurt it out in the review, you have effectively said “Don’t bother buying this book, because here’s what happens.” It would be like going to your local cinema and walking up and down the queue waiting to go in and see the latest blockbuster, shouting out the plot twists and the ending. It would soon get you punched, or at the very least, asked to leave by the management.

It is possible to write a concise and illuminating review of the book without revealing that Debbie has a secret twin, the demon isn’t dead but comes back in chapter nine, or that the butler did it. Write what you liked about the book, without blabbing that you loved the ending because Sam and Delilah get together or that the ring is recovered, and the quest is a success. Think about how much enjoyment you got from finding these things out for yourself, and don’t spoil that enjoyment for other readers.

Don’t simply quote the whole blurb as your review. There’s not much point in doing that. The blurb is there already, the potential reader can see it and read it for themselves, they don’t need you to reproduce it. What they need is for you to tell them why they should or shouldn’t read the book. For example, you wish to purchase a new vacuum cleaner and you’ve narrowed it down to two brands. Both are equal in price and spec, so you go to read the reviews to see what people who have already bought them think. Imagine how you would feel if instead of reviews telling you how the vacuum performs on a thick carpet, picking up pet hair, or on lino, every single review is the product description repeated over, and over, again. Is that useful to you? Of course not.

Do not say you know or are related to the author in any way. Amazon has very strict and rather draconian rules about this. Personally, I think if your Great Aunt Nelly has spent her pension money and bought a copy of your book, then she should be allowed to review it, but Amazon sees it in quite a different way. The name of the game as far as they are concerned is impartiality. If you have friends and family reviewing your book, the odds are they are going to give you a nice review, and that’s not what Amazon want.

So, if you are reviewing the book of someone you know or are related to, for heaven’s sake KEEP QUIET ABOUT IT! Oh, and don’t fill your review with endless gush. Not only will it make Amazon suspicious, but it also doesn’t add to the book’s credibility. Yes, you can say how much you enjoyed it and why, but paragraph after paragraph of how this book is wonderful, fantastic, superlative, and generally the best thing since sliced bread, will simply make the person reading the review wonder if Great Aunt Nelly had been at the sherry before writing it, and they will probably dismiss it as not worth taking any notice of.

Be careful about asking family members who are linked to your Amazon account in any way to review your books. Have they ever bought off a wish list attached to your Amazon account? Have you had packages delivered to them? Is their address listed anywhere in your details? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then don’t let them review, it’s simply not worth it. Not only will Amazon probably pull the review, but, once their interest in your account has been aroused, they may go on to pull any other reviews they think look suspicious – even if they are perfectly genuine. It may seem unreasonable, but I’m afraid it’s their house, their rules. I do not even state if I received the book as an ARC (A Readers Copy) from an author, because Amazon is sometimes funny about this as well. In their opinion, if a free copy of a book has been given in exchange for a review, then that review has been purchased and is against their rules.

And that leads us to the whole thorny issue of paying for reviews. Is it possible to do this? Yes. Should you do it? No, never. Any author who has been on social media for more than five minutes will find his or her inbox bombarded with offers to review their book – for a small fee – although, beware, that fee is usually not small, I have been quoted £70 for one review! Now, if Amazon considers giving away a book free in exchange for a review a breach of rules, just imagine how they feel about authors buying them. If you are caught buying reviews, you risk having that review pulled, other reviews pulled, and even being banned from selling on Amazon. This is too serious a punishment to risk for the sake of a single review. It’s not worth it, don’t do it.

Of course, there are a few reputable review sites where you can purchase reviews which Amazon will grudgingly allow, but they are expensive and, at the end of the day, not worth it.

What you need to remember, is that Amazon keep a track of dodgy reviewers and will know if they post a review for one of your books on your account. It could raise a red flag over your account, which you don’t want. My answer to the myriad offers I get to review my books for a very reasonable fee, of course, is that I NEVER pay for reviews. They usually go away then. Strangely, 90% of the time these reviewers come from India and their message is always so badly spelt and full of grammatical errors that, to be honest, I wouldn’t want them to review any of my books.

It goes without saying, you are not allowed to review your books on Amazon, although you can on Goodreads. They mark it as the author’s review and it doesn’t count towards your ranking or star rating, but it’s a wonderful chance to give background information about the book, if it’s in a series maybe a quick overview of the series. I wish Amazon allowed authors to do this too, but they don’t. Their house, their rules, remember.

So, what should you say in a review then? If you are going to write a positive review, and if you obey the guidelines we’ve already discussed, it honestly doesn’t matter. Don’t gush, don’t give spoilers, be impartial, but most of all, be fair. Remember, authors are people, sensitive, and creative people. Their books are their babies. They have taken months, years even, to create them. They have helped them develop from rough ideas into fully-fledged books ready to take their first steps in the big, wide world, and if you come along and stomp all over their precious baby, it can crush them.

I’ve seen authors so demoralised by a bad review they’ve been on the point of chucking it all in, likewise, a kind review can lift an author and fill them full of renewed optimism, so think carefully about what you’re going to say. So many times, I’ve seen reviews that are mean, and spiteful for no reason. It’s not necessary to be cruel. Okay, you didn’t like a book, but there are ways of getting across your dissatisfaction without ripping to shreds both the book and the author.

Be sensible. What exactly are you criticising? Believe it or not, I have seen low star reviews complaining that the book took three days to be delivered, or that it had been damaged in transit. Issues like this are not the poor author’s fault and should be taken up with Amazon. Venting your spleen in a review this way will not be seen by the real culprit – Amazon – but instead will hurt the author significantly. And really, is it fair to make the author suffer over something that is not their fault?

Be realistic. If the book is simply not to your taste, then state in the review that this is the case because it may very well be someone else’s favourite read. I received a one-star review on Black Ice – my fantasy steampunk retelling of Snow White – that ripped the book to shreds because, and I quote, “I hate all retellings, even song covers are theft.” If this person hates retellings that much, I wish she hadn’t bothered reading mine. It’s a bit like someone who hates curry ordering it in a restaurant, then complaining because their meal tasted like curry.

Above all, when writing a review, be kind. When writing reviews, I tend to work on the principle of if I can’t say something nice, I don’t say anything at all. And remember how important this review will be to the author. Would you criticise a child to its parent? No, of course, you wouldn’t. Likewise, remember that this book is the author’s child, so try to be tactful if you’re going to say anything less than stellar about it.

I’m sorry if this has been a boring blog for all non-authors and non-readers, but I return to work this week and will be working three long days – Thursday, Friday, and Saturday – so I won’t be having any time to write my normal ramble about the week. But my shift patterns change weekly so I will have time next week to fill you in on how going back to work after nearly four months off went.

To everyone in the UK who is emerging from lockdown and attempting to resume normal life, good luck. Be sensible, stay safe, keep your mask on and your distance from one another.

Julia Blake

Making the Best of it.

So, here I am, my last weekend in lockdown before I return to work next week. After this, I will be back to working at least one day at the weekend unless I’m on holiday, and once again will be trying to squeeze in writing my blog around long days working. Next week, I am working Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, so honestly have no idea when my blog will get written. Miss F is also returning to work next week and has been asked to work 5-10 on Friday, and 12-5 on Saturday.

The Saturday shift doesn’t present any problems as there is an 11:30am bus which will get her there in plenty of time, and as I finish work at 4:30pm I can drive straight out to pick her up. But I’m not quite sure how Friday is going to work. She is at college until 4:15 so will have to run as fast as she can the moment her class ends to try and make it to the bus station to catch the 4:30 bus. I can’t help her this week because I will be at work until 6pm. Also, I’m not sure when she’s going to eat. Luckily, she only has another couple of weeks at college before her exams will be over and she will be finished for this academic year and will be off until she goes to university in September.

Imagine that – over four months off over the summer with nothing to do but whatever takes your fancy? Yes, I’ve had nearly four months off work in lockdown, but I still had a lot to do every day. I’ve told her to enjoy it because this will probably be the last time ever in her life that she can simply kick back and do nothing.

Her exam is creeping ever closer. Gradually, she has been working her way through all her assignments, I believe there is only another two to hand in. These assignments are what her tutors will be grading her on, but Miss F is quietly confident. She has worked incredibly hard this past year under very strange and difficult circumstances, and it shows in the quality of her work. Plus, rather than take the Easter holidays off she chose to crack on with her assignments and get the bulk of them done so now she is well ahead of schedule.

I am proud of her for making that decision – and with no prompting from me. I’m not in any way a helicopter parent and have very much let her set her own pace and work schedule. I have provided an environment in which she can work with the turning of the small back bedroom into her own office space, and I have been very lenient when it comes to household chores. Yes, she does a little to help around the house and I do expect her to tidy up after herself, but to be honest, I would rather keep on top of the cleaning myself and have her get the grades she needs to go to university, than pile a long list of chores onto her.

You never know, hopefully, when I’m old and infirm she will remember this and look after me in my dotage. Well, I can hope…

Today (Saturday) Miss F has gone down to the park for a socially distanced picnic to meet with her friends. It’s been a hard year for most teenagers. Denied the socialisation that had been taken for granted, they’ve probably spent far more time at home with their parents than they would otherwise have. Maybe that is a good thing, who knows, but I’m guessing most young people are desperate for the world to open back up so they can spend time with their peers again. The weather today is sadly not picnic weather, but she has wrapped up warmly and has taken the plastic-lined picnic blanket to counteract the damp grass as there’s a very high possibility it’s going to rain later. They’re all going to take their own picnics so no sharing of food will occur, and I know they are sensible enough to stay apart.

As for me? I’m sitting here chatting to you guys and thinking about all the things I still need to get done before returning to work next Thursday. One thing I must do is try on my uniform just to make sure it still fits. I’m pretty sure the top will as it’s a little on the large side and I don’t feel I’ve put any weight on up top. But I’ve been living in baggy, comfy old jeans since Christmas – and they would have me believe all is well in the kingdom – but all the same, I’d better check. In the worst-case scenario of buttons not doing up I still have time to buy another, slightly larger, pair.

There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the attention and make you whizz through your to-do list. My website is almost complete – a few last-minute tweaks and I will be ready to unveil it in all its glorious, technicolour splendour – so at least that will be one thing achieved. I have written a book – Kiss & Tell – book four in the Blackwood Family Saga. It has been edited, beta read, formatted, uploaded to KDP, and the proof copy received. All I must do now is read it all the way through to try and spot any last-minute snags. There is a lot to do when launching a book, so Sunday and Monday are earmarked to get as prepared as I possibly can, whilst getting completely up to date with all the laundry and ironing.

Tuesday has been designated a self-care day. There is a box of hair dye that has been sitting in the cupboard since Christmas; I have face and hair packs ready to deploy; a brand-new shaver ready for a mammoth deforestation project, and a manicure and pedicure will be attempted.

Wednesday, I need to sort out meals for the following three days I will be at work. It was bad enough getting home from work at 5pm tired, hungry, and with no clue what to cook for dinner. It’s going to be even worse now I won’t be getting home until gone 6pm, and I have a feeling the first week or so are going to come hard. Physically, I’ve got used to a gentler, slower pace of life. My body has adapted to eight hours of sleep each night and more time during the day for resting, it’s going to be a shock to the system going back to getting by on six hours of sleep a night and being on the go all day with no time to draw breath, let along sit down and rest. Ah well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I must work to pay the mortgage and the bills, so that’s that.

Those of you who read last week’s blog will know I finally gave up on the cumbersome and next to worthless VAX vacuum cleaner I had and splurged out on a new Henry Hoover. He is performing excellently, thank you for all the enquiries, but that meant I was left with the old vacuum standing about the house like a mournful ghost. I also had the old printer to get rid of, a bag of Miss F’s clothes and shoes which were now surplus to requirement, a cracked plastic storage box that’s been sitting in the garden all year, and a length of metal that came with her new bed a couple of years ago but was the wrong size, so they had to send a new piece. What to do? I wanted them gone from the house – not having a garage or a shed to store miscellaneous stuff in means rubbish is seriously in the way.

Anyway, after writing my blog last Saturday, I went online and did the week’s grocery shopping at Tesco and grabbed the next available collection slot which was 12-1 on Wednesday. I had been told that you now must book an appointment to take rubbish to the recycling centre, but that it was easy to do. So, I investigated the website, and it was easy, really, easy. I put in my car’s make, colour, and registration number then looked at the available timeslots and picked one. The next available slot was 12:00-12:15 on Thursday so I booked it. Then sat there and thought about things. Hmmm. I went back onto the Tesco site. Could I change my collection time from 12-1 on Wednesday to 12-1 on Thursday? Yes, I could, so I did. Finally, I telephoned my surgery and booked to collect the repeat prescription of my hayfever meds Thursday lunchtime and felt well-satisfied with my organisational skills.

Thursday dawned. I realised it was also my niece’s birthday so popped £20 in a card and was going to put it through the door of her grandparents because I knew as their carer, she was there almost every day. I had carefully estimated how long I thought everything was going to take and set off at 11:35am precisely. First stop, the card through the letterbox. Then I drove to my surgery. A bit shocked when I got there to discover there was a fun game of “How many old people can you get in a car park in one go?” taking place. I pulled into the road leading to the small business park where the surgery is located, and it was chaos! Cars everywhere, trying to park, parking very badly and straddling two spaces, or cars just pulling up in the middle of the road to disgorge elderly people who took forever to climb out and totter unsteadily across the car park. In the end, I illegally parked in the spaces designated to the dance studio opposite. Big signs warned that clamping was in operation, but given the studio was shut due to lockdown and I was up against the clock, I decided to risk it.

There was a never-ending queue of oldies at the surgery door, and I suddenly realised they must all be there for their second jabs. I had to go through the same door to get to the separate pharmacy, so shamelessly queue jumped and marched straight to the door where a rather large and hatchet-faced lady had planted herself in the opening and was glaring at me with a “you shall not pass” expression. Excuse me, I said, very politely. I’m not going to the surgery, I need to get to the pharmacy, so could you possibly step out of the way? She stared at me over her mask and for a moment I thought she was going to give me trouble. I raised my eyebrows and coughed, very loudly. She moved. I slipped by and into the pharmacy, grabbed my prescription and a minute later was back out to find her still there, right in the middle of the doorway. We looked at each other over our masks – don’t make me cough again, missus, because I will – but then she moved and I was back in the car which thankfully hadn’t been clamped, and I was off on the next stage of my quest.

I’d never been to the new recycling centre but had been told it was a doddle to find, and it was. It was now 11:55am so I was spot on for my midday appointment and joined the queue of cars waiting to go in. A little guy was perched on a folding stool in a mask looking very officious with a clipboard and pen. He was peering at each car and ticking them off on his list. I wondered if anyone ever had the audacity to turn up without a booking, what level of authority he had to deal with them. I mean, if you’d said your car was green but he felt it was bluer, would you be turned away?

Luckily, my car passed inspection and as soon as I saw another car pull out of one of the docking bays I drove forward and reversed into it. I had to chuck the vacuum and the printer into the same ‘small appliances’ skip which looked like it had not long been emptied. Oh, the satisfaction of carrying them up the steps and then heaving them over the side to hear them smash down below. Very cathartic. The other few things were quickly disposed of and then I was back in the car and heading into town.

A glance at the clock, it was 12:15pm. My grocery slot was until 1pm so I had time for the next part of the quest. At the end of January, my old Nokia phone finally gave up the ghost at about the same time it ran out of credit. It wasn’t worth doing anything then because I was always home so if anyone wanted to get hold of me, they could call the landline, email, or message me through social media. But now I would be going back to work and driving out on country lanes at night to pick up Miss F, so I figured it was sensible to get a new phone.

I parked outside the front of Tesco’s and joined the queue waiting to get in. I had hoped there would be no one in the tiny mobile phone shop at the front of the store, but there was a Tesco’s employee discussing phones with the staff member on duty. He was thinking long and hard about which phone to go for and took an absolute age debating the pros and cons of every single phone they sold until I was ready to scream with frustration. They could both see me standing there. Yes, I know he was technically a customer, but he was a Tesco employee so surely, I took precedence over him? Twenty minutes ticked by; I could see my shopping being taken back to the store if I didn’t get a move on; and in the end, sheer desperation forced me to do something I would never normally do.

I butted in.

Yes, I stepped forward and interrupted them. Starting by saying ‘I’m really sorry’ a couple of hundred times, I politely explained my predicament. That my click and collect slot expired at 1pm, it was now fifteen minutes until that time and was really sorry but I only wanted to buy a phone – THAT phone – I pointed to the one I’d selected in the twenty minutes they’d been faffing about. That was all I needed, just to buy that phone, and I didn’t want to have to go through the whole rigmarole of having to try and come back into the store with a car full of frozen stuff that I needed to get home.

The customer was nice about it. Sure, he said, no problem. He wanted to think some more about it anyway. But the actual staff member was very unpleasant. Glaring at me over the mask that kept slipping down under her nose, she icily informed me that even though he was a member of Tesco’s he was STILL a customer, whom she was currently serving, I would simply have to wait. Fine, I said, and put my purse back into my bag, I’ll get a phone elsewhere and stop using the Tesco mobile phone service, because I seriously didn’t have the time to wait any longer, nor did I want to hang around in a crowded shop for a minute longer than I had to. At that point, the other customer pointedly told the staff member again that it was really, honestly, absolutely fine if she served me, while he looked at the options again.

Glaring daggers at me, she got the phone I wanted from the locked cupboard, snappily confirmed that yes, the sim card from my current phone would fit and yes, I could use my Clubcard vouchers to pay for some of it, rang it through and gave me the phone. The whole transaction took three minutes – half the time it had taken her to tell me I would have to wait – and then I was out, back in the car, and hurtling over to the collection spot with ten minutes to spare. Leaving it almost to the very end of the time slot meant everyone else had already collected all their shopping so I didn’t have to queue at all – note to self, maybe do this in future – and I was home and unpacking all the shopping by 1pm, congratulating myself on for once not only knowing where all my ducks were but successfully lining them up in a row.

New phone flip-top so pocket dialing it will stop

I like my new phone, but Miss F laughed at it and called it names. It’s a farmer’s phone, she said. It’s a flip-top one so at least I’ll no longer pocket or handbag dial people, and according to Miss F that’s the type of phone farmers use so they don’t get pig shit on the screen. Okay, I don’t care. She also says it’s an old person’s phone because of the size of the buttons. Well, I am old, and I’m tired of peering at tiny buttons and saying the wrong thing. All I care about is that it cost me £30, I got £30 of credit with it, it works, it’s sturdy and reliable, and it still fits into my pocket.

I neither want nor need a smartphone so it would be a waste of money buying myself one, and besides, they’re so big! I just want a little phone I can carry with me for emergency calls and the odd text, and that’s it, that’s all I need. I don’t care about status symbols, or how trendy something is. I want what I want, and so long as something is practical and suits my needs, I honestly couldn’t give a pair of fetid dingo’s kidneys about how it looks or what other people think of me. More fool them for spending hundreds of pounds, I’m happy with my £30 bargain basement phone because you know what, if I drop this phone on the floor, it will bounce – can you say the same about your phone?

Look at the size of those buttons!

Rummaging around in the freezer earlier in the week, I discovered a lone bag of cherries leftover from last summer’s harvest. Now, most people would probably have made a cherry pie. Me? Well, I put a bottle of vodka on the shopping list and last night made a bottle of cherry vodka to drink in the summer. Lockdown liqueur, it will be a memento of the strange start to the year and hopefully, we’ll be able to drink to better things and a brighter and more hopeful future.

Take care, my friends, and I hope you have a great week. If, like me, you are emerging from lockdown, blinking in the light, and anxiously worrying about life, the universe and everything, then stay safe and stay away from idiots.

There will be a blog next week, I promise. I’m not sure how and when I will write it, but one will be written, so until then, cheers.

Julia Blake

Happy Easter!

It’s Easter Sunday – yet another one spent in lockdown here in the UK. For everyone for whom Easter means something, I wish you peace and contentment. To everyone else, enjoy the long weekend and try not to overdose on chocolate. I asked Miss F if she would like me to buy her a lactose-free Easter egg this year? She thought about it, then announced she’d rather I buy her a new mouse for her laptop because her old one was on the way out. I shrugged, she sent me the Amazon link, I bought it for her, and that was that. Although I am cooking one of her favourite meals tonight – barbecued pork belly with fat chips. Everyone is now aware that Miss F can’t eat dairy, luckily, so she received very nice vegan Easter eggs from my brother and her godmother. My parents bought her the black enamel cookie tin off her university wish list, which she was grateful for. It’s a very large cookie tin, which is probably a good indication of her anticipated university diet.

She didn’t buy me chocolate either. To be honest, I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth and chocolate can make my slightly lactose intolerant system quite ill, so instead, she bought me a very interesting book which I’d never heard of and I’m looking forward to reading it. And that’s it as far as Easter goes for us.

I have finally received my back to work date and will be returning to work on the 15th of April. Whilst we’ve been in lockdown our pay structure and working hours have changed, in that yes – we have received a pay rise to finally bring our hourly pay up to the minimum for the UK. I was receiving less per hour than my 16-year-old daughter and it was only my commission on top that made it bearable. But, to balance this they are now no longer giving me a paid 20-minute lunch break, but instead are forcing me to take an unpaid hour-long break in the middle of my shift. There’s nothing I can do about this, but it is a real pain in the arse as it means that instead of getting home from work soon after five every evening, I won’t be getting home until after six.

Twenty minutes used to suit me just fine. It was long enough to eat my lunch and read a few pages on my kindle, which is all I needed. But now I will be wasting a whole hour of my day that I won’t be paid for. I will have to sit in a tiny, smelly kitchen for an hour in which I could be doing other things – like being at home. And before anyone asks, no, I can’t go home in that hour. It’s a good fifteen-to-twenty-minute drive – possibly more if the traffic and the lights are against me – so by the time I got home, I’d have about fifteen minutes and it would be time to go back to work (panicking the whole time I’m going to be late).

I’m stuck on an industrial and retail park, so there is nothing there to do but go shopping, which I don’t want to do. There is a park about a ten-minute drive away, but bear in mind I’ll be in my work shoes and uniform, so don’t want to be trouncing around a muddy park. I guess the company must claw back our pay increase somehow, so no longer giving me a paid twenty-minute break is one way of doing it. The full-time workers are losing their hour-long paid lunch break and are having to work an extra hour as well to make up for it, so I’m fortunate compared to them. There’s nothing to be done about it, it is what it is, so I just have to suck it up, but still, it’s annoying.

Talking about annoying, I have had to buy yet another vacuum cleaner this week. This will be the fourth one we’ve had over the past two years, so I hope we’ve got it right this time. Up until two years ago, we had a beast of a VAX. It was a carpet shampooer as well as a vacuum cleaner and it was okay – in shampooer mode, it couldn’t be faulted, but let’s be honest, how often does the normal person shampoo their carpets? As a vacuum, it was very big, heavy, and cumbersome. Storing it was a nightmare – Victorian houses are not known for having ample storage – so I had to try to keep it in the same cupboard where I kept the ironing board and the bin, which meant pulling everything out and hauling the beast out every time I needed to vacuum. Miss F hated it and refused to use it, claiming it was too heavy for her and just too awkward to get out of the cupboard.

For my birthday in 2019, my parents bought me one of those little light vacuum cleaners that weigh practically nothing and are easy to use. They took the VAX and stored it in their garage for whenever anyone in the family wished to shampoo their carpets. Miss F loved the new vacuum and quite happily used it – but we are a very hairy household. What with both Miss F and I having long hair, the cat, and the occasional lodger, this is a home that is in permanent moult. After about seven months the little vacuum cleaner literally fell apart and I knew I had to buy something with a bit more guts.

I looked on Argos, I was drawn to VAX again simply because they are such an established brand and I hadn’t had any problems with my old VAX, other than the fact it was the wrong shape and was too heavy. I picked one that claimed to be able to cope with hair no problem, it was an upright so storage would be easier, and the reviews were good. At £99 it wasn’t a bad price, so I bought it, it came about a week later, and for a while everything was fine.

Then problems began to creep in. For a start, it was one of those bagless things and I have always had mixed views about those. Sure, it means you don’t have to empty the bag and there shouldn’t be any loss of suction, but the ones I’ve had experience with seem to need emptying a lot more times than traditional bag vacuums, and they are a great deal messier to empty. With a bag vacuum, you open the top, carefully lift out the bag, dump it in the bin, insert a new bag, and Bob’s your uncle. But with a bagless thing it always seemed to involve having to get your hands inside the cylinder to yank out the clogged dust and hair, and sometimes even involved the use of skewers to try and hook out stubborn clumps. All of which is a very messy and dirty enterprise, leaving hands filthy and usually dust everywhere.

The new VAX had a tiny dust chamber that needed emptying every single time I went to use it, so that was annoying. Then it was incredibly heavy again, so heavy that again Miss F refused to use it – claiming it hurt her back to do so. It also had a really, really, really, long cable, which sounds like it should be a good thing, but wasn’t. It got tangled onto everything, pulling over chairs and tying in big knots under and around things, so I was forever on my hands and knees trying to unknot the wretched thing.

Finally, it couldn’t cope with the sheer amount of hair it was being asked to deal with. Neither Miss F nor I have had a haircut in over a year. We have a lot of hair! This hair falls onto the carpet and then the vacuum cleaner – which is supposed to have been designed with this purpose in mind – struggled to suck it up properly. Instead, it got snagged all around the roller and proved impossible to remove. The head is a sealed unit, you can’t get to the roller inside, so the hair built up and up until finally the roller wouldn’t turn at all so the suck rate of the vacuum cleaner tanked, until, honestly, I could suck harder than the wretched thing.

In vain, I tried poking scissors and skewers through the tiny opening trying to unclog it but couldn’t remove enough to make a difference. Although, it would periodically barf up great clumps of hair every time I vacuumed, which was fun. It got so bad, that I would have a run over the carpet with the vacuum first, then would have to get down on my hands and knees with a brush and dustpan to do the rest.

Great, £99 spent to have to clean my carpet the way a Victorian housemaid did! So not what I wanted. In the end, I was grumpily forced to admit that the vacuum was only suitable for someone bald, whose entire family was bald, any visitors they had were bald, and they owned a Sphinx cat. The breaking point was reached on Thursday when I was trying to vacuum the stairs, there was a weird whistling sound from deep inside it and what little suction was left abruptly ceased. Back onto the Argos website, I went, and this time did what I should have done in the first place and spent the extra money on buying a good old reliable Henry hoover. It has a large capacity bag and is cordless. Hundreds of five-star reviews that raved about it, plus I have used Henry’s in the past – they are wonderful, sturdy, and hardworking.

At the same time, I ordered us a new printer as ours stopped working a couple of months ago and no amount of changing the fuse or unplugging and plugging it back in again, would even get the lights to come on, plus a new chair to go in the lodger’s room. I had an old desk in the corner of my bedroom which wasn’t being used, so that got moved down to the basement, the wicker armchair that was in the basement got moved up to my bedroom instead, and, with the addition of the smart new grey office chair, any future lodger now has a great workspace.

They were all scheduled to be delivered on Saturday – any time between 7am and 8pm, gee thanks, Argos – so I made sure I was up and showered by 7am and waiting. It wasn’t too bad, a big white van pulled up and the doorbell went at 9:30am, and by the time I opened the door two big parcels were standing on the doorstep – the chair and Henry – and the driver was climbing back into his cab to drive away. I dashed out into the street and waved at him. He looked petrified but cautiously wound down his window.

HIM: Yes? Yes?

ME:  You’ve only delivered two parcels, there should be three.

HIM: No, no, only two.

ME:  No, there should be a printer as well. It’s on the same order.

HIM: I don’t know, it’s not on the list. Maybe later. Sorry. Goodbye.

ME:  But wait, couldn’t you check…

It was no use, he was gone. But as he pulled away at speed, I saw his number plate. It was him! The infamous Yodel delivery driver who smashed into the side of my car at the end of January and drove away without stopping. For those who haven’t read my blog since then, I did manage to get his number plate when he tried to stealthily deliver to my neighbour early one Sunday morning, so the insurance claim has been sorted and my car fixed, but I’m betting he thought I was chasing after him to have a go at him about it.

So, I had to try and telephone Argos to discover where the printer was and when it was going to be delivered if indeed, it was coming at all. They have been known to simply cancel part of any order due to stock issues with no prior warning to the customer. It took a good thirty minutes of hanging on the phone, listening to dodgy “shopping made easy” muzak, and then repeatedly bellowing my order number to a stupid bot who kept cheerily informing me that they – hadn’t quite got that and please could I repeat it – until I was grinding my teeth in frustrated rage. Why is everything so niggly and annoying and just a downright pain in the arse these days? Anyway, I finally got through to the lovely Lucy, who had a look on her system and perkily reassured me that the printer was coming sometime that day and that I was not to worry.

Why didn’t they deliver the whole order in one go, as they were supposed to, and why, if that was impossible for some reason, didn’t they simply email or text me to let me know that the rest of my order would be coming later? Instead of sending me a Yodel delivery satisfaction survey to complete – hmmm – so it looked like what I received was all I was getting.

I wonder which delivery driver will come back with the printer. I wonder if it will be him. That would be interesting. Should I say something? Or is there no point? Once upon a time, I would have gone out there all guns blazing, but the older I get, the less I can be arsed with confrontation, because, really, what purpose will it serve? At the end of it, the Yodel delivery driver won’t be any less of a cockwomble, he won’t have a “road to Damascus” moment and become a better person merely because a pissed-off middle-aged woman has had a moan at him.

Anyway, as I said, the clock is now counting down to an end to my lovely long time at home. Over the past year, I have spent almost eight months of it at home, which, I’m not going to lie, has been wonderful. Not once have I been bored or frustrated, and not once have I suffered from cabin fever. Maybe it’s because I have so much to fill my days with that there simply hasn’t been time to be bored. My to-do list is still so long, I could do with another eight months off to catch up on all I want to do – but that’s not going to happen. The death and infection rates are radically dropping here in the UK, so unless something happens, I cannot see us ever going back into lockdown. No, I think this weird period of history is over – at least for the UK, although I know many other countries are going back into quarantine because they haven’t been maybe as efficient as us at vaccinating their population.

Finally, I do have the wonderful news that after two months of being blocked from it, I got my original Instagram account back. To be honest, I had given up on it, but I needed to decide which Instagram account I was going to tag on my new website and in the front of my books so decided to have one last try and was stunned when I was let back in. So now I have two Instagram accounts. My main account and my back-up one, I’m trying to encourage people to follow me on both as I don’t want to give up the second account – after all, Instagram giveth and it taketh away – but neither do I have the time to run both full-time.

Additional update: the printer has been delivered, by a lady Yodel delivery driver this time, so, no confrontation needed. Also, we have had a panic-stricken ten minutes because when I went to save this blog, Word put up the blue spinning doughnut of death, then gave a hiccup and I lost the whole lot into the fifth dimension, or the nether regions, or wherever it is unsaved documents disappear to. I was gutted, it had taken almost two hours to write it and of course, I hadn’t saved it yet, and I couldn’t remember what I’d said – something about vacuum cleaners and lunch hours? Shaking with panic, I went to ask the IT Department, who was cooking her lunch and not best pleased at being interrupted.

Anyway, after a few minutes of searching through the computer, she crossly ordered me to go away because apparently me heavy breathing over her shoulder was annoying her. I skulked off to the kitchen to make myself a coffee and a sandwich, desperately hoping that somehow, she could perform a techie miracle and find it for me and cursing my own stupidity for not saving it. I’d no sooner finished making a ham salad sarnie and a cup of frothy coffee when she called me back. She’d managed to recover 90% of it and saved it for me and my gratitude was boundless. I’m cooking meatballs for dinner, so that might go some small way to saying thank you.

So that was my week. I really don’t know how I’ve managed to write so much, when very little has happened. Enjoy your long weekend, if you get one, and I hope you have a calm and restful week.

Look forward to chatting with you next Sunday.

Julia Blake

Time Goes By … So Quickly!

I have exactly two weeks left before I will probably have to return to work. It’s not enough, I need more. I had so much planned for this lockdown, and although have been busy every single day, I still didn’t manage to achieve all that I wished to.

During January, I went through my books with a fine toothcomb, finding a few elusive typos, tweaking, and adjusting to make them sharper and better. Formatting was looked at, and I changed the font. This all took a very long time, with most of the month being spent on it.

In February, I wrote a book – the fourth in the Blackwood Family saga – it has been edited, formatted, and is now with my beta reader. I had hoped to make a start on the next book, but that doesn’t seem very likely now.

During March I worked on my website. My website has been sadly neglected since I first had it made five years ago. Back then, it suited a need and I thought it was all right. But I’ve learnt a lot during the years, and I now see how it can be made so much better. Luckily, I have a wonderful website guy – the Adorable Andrew – and he has been nagging at me for years to update it, so he’s pleased I’ve finally got around to it.

But it’s taking more time than I thought it would. It seems there is a vast chasm between what I want and what is possible. The problem is that websites are viewed from different devices and what looks great on a desktop will look rubbish when viewed on a phone, or a tablet. Andrew is convinced he can find a way around it, but progress is hampered by the fact that Andrew is in Germany, so everything must be done via email.

The plan is to have a page for each of my books so we’ve been working together to create a page for Becoming Lili – the first book in the alphabet – because once we have that page perfect, it will provide a template for all the other books. But … it is taking time. Andrew thinks he has figured out a solution. If he has, then the rest of the book pages will be easy to put together. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

This website represents a huge investment of time and money for me, but I plan for it to work harder for me by use of carefully chosen tag words which will help people find my website when they search Google for a specific thing. So, for example, if someone searches for Snow White … the Seven Dwarves … steampunk … airships … there is a good chance they will find the page for Black Ice on my website. If they search for coming-of-age … ugly duckling … stories set in the 1990s … friendship tales … then they might find the page for Becoming Lili … and so on.

A stunning, visually appealing, and interesting website can only increase my standing as an author. At least … that’s the hope.

I’ve installed Grammarly on my computer which has recently been upgraded to work within a Word document and again I’m going through all my books. I’m happy to say I haven’t found much wrong – the odd repetitive word, the even odder missing Oxford comma. I’m also making use of the Read Aloud function on Word. This is an incredibly useful editing tool, and I can’t believe I haven’t made use of it before. Basically, it will read aloud any document saved in Word so I can listen to my books read back to me. Okay, the voice is robotic, so it doesn’t exactly read with feeling, but it does read precisely what is written.

I have read my books aloud before, but the problem with that is the human brain is a very clever piece of machinery and it will automatically read what it believes should be there. For example, read the sentence below:

It is not uncommon for the the human mind to rearrange words the in order it believes is the correct order.

Did the sentence make sense? If it did, it’s because your brain sorted it out for you. This is very clever, but not very helpful when you’re trying to edit a book. Listening to the books being read by a computer means I hear exactly what I wrote so can pick up any errors.

As you can imagine though, it takes a very long time to listen to a whole book read aloud and stay alert to catch any mistakes. So far, I have only done just over three books – and they are the shortest three – so I don’t think I will get all eleven done by the time I return to work. Although, it will be interesting to hear certain … fruity scenes … in some of my books read aloud by a robot.

So, that is what has kept me so busy these past three months. I do wonder if I hadn’t been in lockdown how much progress I would have made? Would I be at the same point? I don’t think so, and it’s comforting that I have achieved something.

This week I had to try and telephone my energy provider. I’m with the company Look After My Bills who search for the cheapest energy deals and switch my provider accordingly. Currently I’m with a company called Green Supplier Limited and pay £88 a month for my gas and electricity. This is not enough to cover my consumption during the winter months, but ample to cover the summer months and clear any outstanding debt leftover from the winter.

So, I was a little surprised to receive a rather snippy email from Green informing me that as I was £120 in debt, they were going to change my direct debit. Now, this is not a lot to be in debt coming out of winter, and as the weather gets milder and my heating is used less, this debt will be paid off and by the time we go into winter again I will be in credit. But maybe Green was being pedantic and wished to clear the debt quicker so were going to slightly up my monthly payment.

This email was quickly followed by another telling me my direct debit of £88 had been cancelled. Then another came hot on its heels, informing me that a new direct debit has been set up for £155! This is ludicrous. To almost double my payment means they will owe me money in a couple of months. I decided to call Look After My Bills – after all, they are supposed to always ensure I have the cheapest deal and £155 per month for two people living in a tiny, terraced house was not the cheapest deal. I’m not heating Buckingham Palace.

There was no way to contact LAMB online, only a telephone number. I dialled it. An automated system told me to select option one if I were an existing customer. I selected option one. Then pan pipe music started up and a voice told me I was number twenty in the queue! I sat and waited, listening to this awful music that had no beginning and no end. It was interrupted frequently by a robotic voice telling me how important my call was – clearly not that important or they’d not leave me hanging on so long – and informing me of my position in the queue.

Eventually, about twenty minutes later, I was number two and was hopeful … and then they hung up on me and I was left listening to the disconnected tone. Swearing, I phoned again. This time I was told I was number eighteen in the queue. I waited. More pan pipe music. Again, I was reassured of how important my call was.

Whilst I was waiting, I searched again for an email address for LAMB and managed to find one. I sent them a quick message explaining the issue and asking for help. Back came a reply. My email was very important to them, and they promised to respond within 5-7 working days. They obviously have a strange definition of “important” that I hadn’t previously been aware of.

I was number thirteen in the queue. More dodgy pan pipes. I was number fourteen … wait! What? Somebody queue jumped?

Eventually, I got through to a human being – Raphael – really, oka-a-ay. I explained the situation to him. He sympathised but told me he couldn’t help; I’d need to speak to Green directly. Great, nearly an hour of my life wasted listening to pan pipes. Raphael helpfully emailed me a link to direct chat with them.

I got through quite quickly, but I don’t think it was a human being on the other end. The answers felt mechanical and a bit too well-rehearsed. I again explained the issue and waited. The live chat feed disappeared and a few minutes later I received an email giving the standard reply that they carefully considered the direct debits they charged their customers and were satisfied they were all correct.

Right, so absolutely no bloody help whatsoever. I gave up at this point. Monday I will try to telephone Green and will hang on – listening to whatever dreadful elevator music they play at me – until I get through to a human being. However long it takes.

Why does everything have to be so annoying and take so long? I feel it’s a symptom of modern life that nothing is ever easy. All these systems we have in place to make life run more smoothly seem to have precisely the opposite effect.

And now it’s Saturday again and I am once more writing my blog and wondering what on earth to tell you about when really, nothing much has happened this week. The days have jogged along blending one into another.

The only thing we did this week out of the ordinary was that Tuesday morning we drove to a local park so that Miss F could carry out a nature study for one of her college assignments. Strictly relegated to the roles of chauffeur, pack mule, and holder of the other end of the string, I assisted as she measured out a ten-metre line on the ground and surveyed how many different species of plant life were to be found along it. This is March in the UK, so not a lot was the answer. She wasn’t allowed to include grass, so that left us with stinging nettles, dock leaves, a couple of daffodils, scilla, primroses, a lone cowslip, and several small yellow flowers that looked like buttercups, but I knew weren’t. I hazarded a guess that they were celandine, and she took photos to identify them when we got home. Much to my surprise, I was right, they were.

Given it was during school time, I was surprised by how many people were in the park. There were also lots of dogs, who were all very interested in what we were doing, and I even had to chase after one cheeky little spaniel who ran off with the ball of string. There were several mothers with pushchairs and babies in those sling things across their chests. I tried Miss F in one of those when she was a baby and thought my spine was going to snap in half.

It was a bright, dry, sunny day but only about ten degrees so a bit on the nippy side. It was nice to see somewhere different, and the swathes of daffodils were a sight to behold.

Apart from that, we have done nothing. You’d think that time would drag, but the truth is both Miss F and I have so much to do that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. She is busy with the piles of assignments she has, and of course, I’m busy with all my author business.

Speaking of which, a notification has flashed up that the Adorable Andrew has sent me an urgent email about the website. I suppose I had better go and see what that is all about.

Sorry, it’s only a shorter blog today, but aside from website emergencies I also must go and collect a big shopping order in an hour.

Take care everyone.

Julia Blake

A Dose a Day…

I had my first dose of the Corona vaccine this week. Here in the UK, they seem to be romping through the age groups at quite a giddy pace. Last week the 55 to 60 age group were all done. This week it was the turn of the 50- to 55-year-olds. Tuesday evening my mother texted Miss F asking if I had booked my jab as my brother – three years younger than me – had already got an appointment booked for the coming Saturday. I hadn’t heard anything, but went to check my mobile, and, sure enough, there was a text from the NHS telling me it was “my turn” and that I needed to book my appointment now.

Wednesday morning, we went onto the website and put in my details to book an appointment. Now, I knew my GP surgery was giving the vaccine, so I fully expected to go there and was a bit surprised to be told my nearest vaccine centre was in a former school on the other side of town. But, whatever, perhaps my surgery was fully booked, and this was an overspill unit or something. Or maybe, because I hadn’t ticked any of the boxes stating I had any kind of special needs, they had figured I could get to this slightly more out of the way location more easily. Perhaps my GP, being a town centre location, was reserved for people living more locally who had stated they would have issues going elsewhere.

Whatever the reason, I have my car back, so it wasn’t a problem, and we booked me in for the first appointment Thursday morning which was 8:55am. I planned to make a list, take my bags, and pop to Waitrose afterwards which was on the drive back, thus killing two birds with one stone.

I wasn’t too sure where the centre was located but bombing down the ring road there were socking great yellow signs saying Vaccine Centre, so I simply followed those. I have to say, it was all very well organised. Men in yellow vests directed me where to park. I followed the arrows and gave my booking number to various people in yellow vests and masks on the way before ending up inside the centre, where a very nice lady took my details, medical history, and checked I was all okay health-wise before having the jab.

Then I followed yet more arrows through the building and socially distanced queued to wait my turn to be stabbed. Going to the indicated cubicle, I was a bit taken aback to discover the doctor overseeing my jab was my neighbour from across the road. Regular readers of my blog will know him already. He was the person the Yodel delivery driver was delivering to. The same driver who then drove into the side of me. We exclaimed how it was a small world, he ticked a box, and they stuck the needle in.

It didn’t hurt, I only felt a small scratch on my arm. I’ve had worse from the rose bush in my garden. Then I was told to go and sit in my car for ten minutes, leave my doors unlocked, and if I got into difficulties, summon help my sounding my horn. Or, I guess, if I passed out, I would sound the horn as my head hit the steering wheel.

I sat for ten minutes, a bit bored. I was going to listen to the radio but seemed to be parked in a bad reception area so only got static. After ten minutes, I went to do my shopping then went home and assumed that was that. I’d heard that the side effects from the jab could be quite nasty, so I made sure I’d cleaned out and laid the fire, lugged in all the coal and wood for the evening, and prepped dinner – just in case. The day wore on and I still felt fine, until about mid-evening, when my arm began to ache like billy ho.

If you went to the kind of school I did, then on the first day of every month, the sadistic bullies – of which there were quite a few – would go around nipping all the other kids and then punching them hard in the shoulder shouting “pinch, punch, first of the month, or tell us your sweethearts name” and then running away. It was years until I discovered that they were supposed to give you a choice in the matter – whether you wanted a pinch or a punch, or would offer up the name of the person you were sweet on – no, these little sods just delivered the pain and then left. For the rest of the day, you would walk around with a dead arm wondering if the feeling would ever return to it.

Anyway, the point of my ramble is that this was how my arm was beginning to feel, plus a nagging headache was spreading across my forehead and I was suddenly incredibly tired. I went to bed at ten, which is early for me, hoping that a good night’s sleep would sort me out.

It didn’t. I woke the next morning to a world of pain. I ached all over, especially in my knee and hip joints, my arm felt like a whole class of ten-year-old bullies had been pummelling on it, I was drained, and my stomach couldn’t make up its mind if it was empty or about to void itself, and I was freezing cold. I mean seriously cold. I could not get warm.

It got worse as the day went on and by that evening, I felt rough. Too rough to even think about dinner so I asked Miss F to do the honours. She disappeared into the kitchen and thirty minutes later emerged with chicken nuggets, fries, and baked beans. It was fine. It was hot, comfort food and did make me feel a lot better. Another early night, and then Saturday morning I felt much better. My arm still felt stiff, but not as bad as it had been.

But the odd thing is since I had the jab, I have received three texts and a letter from my GP’s surgery and the NHS telling me that I’m entitled to my vaccine, and not to forget to book my appointment. Umm, hello? Kind of thought I already had. I’m beginning to wonder now exactly what was injected into my arm Thursday morning if it wasn’t the corona vaccine? Or, more, likely, it’s the NHS not knowing its arse from its elbow as usual.

It’s my parent’s wedding anniversary today. 57 years. I mean, 57 years!! That’s like three life sentences each! I always think buying gifts for people gets harder the older they get. I mean, people reach a point where they have everything they need or want and simply don’t want any more stuff! As we’re all still in lockdown, buying them vouchers to have a nice meal out somewhere isn’t possible, so instead I put together a dine-in hamper for them.

My parents are very plain eaters, and a shop-bought hamper would probably contain things they didn’t like, so I simply bought two sirloin steaks, a pack of button mushrooms, beer-battered onion rings, hand-cut chunky chips, a big cherry pie, a pot of custard, and a bottle of rosé wine, together with a nice card and a small bunch of tulips to have on the table. A lockdown anniversary dinner on us. We went over Saturday afternoon and had a very socially distanced visit in their garden to give them their hamper.

Other than that, it’s been a very quiet week. We had a virtual presentation from Miss F’s future university about student accommodation and facilities which was very interesting. There is a student village on campus with three-storey townhouses. The student gets a very nice room with a small double bed, a huge desk and lots of storage. They share a large shower room with one other room and can even request whom they share with – so if Miss F’s best friend does decide to go to university with her, they can share a bathroom, which is lovely.

There were a couple of things we found out in this talk that made me very happy and reassured me a lot. One is that there are plenty of jobs on campus for the students should they wish to supplement their student finance. It is nice to think Miss F can work on campus and not be trying to get back to her university after a late shift in one of the local towns. In this day and age, the thought of my teenage daughter on public transport or even having to walk on dark roads late at night is scary.

Secondly, the university lay on minibuses several evenings a week to transport students to various local towns and amenities, including a shopping special one on a Monday evening for any student who wishes to go to the nearest supermarket and do their weekly shop. I don’t know of any other university that looks after its students so much. It shows the perks of her attending a small university that can offer so much to its students, as opposed to a massive one that has thousands of students so can’t cater for them in quite the same way.

I’ve been asked by a few people what Miss F bought me for Mother’s Day. Well, it was three pairs of pyjamas because she said, and I quote, “your pyjamas are so threadbare and faded mum, they’re not going to survive many more washes, and they are too embarrassing to hang out to dry.” She’s not wrong, I’ve been thinking for ages that all my PJ’s needed replacing, and now I have three lovely new pairs coming tomorrow.

And that is all my news for the week. My latest book has been edited through the new editing software I downloaded, and I made use of the read-aloud facility on Word to have the whole thing read out loud to me. It was like being read a bedtime story by Robbie the Robert and it didn’t exactly do it with feeling, but it was a good way of picking up those niggly errors that my eyes had missed because your brain reads what it expects to be there. Robbie, of course, read exactly what was there, which was handy. The book has now gone off to my beta reader, and, hopefully, she won’t find too much wrong with it.

I’ve also been busy completely overhauling my website, so that has kept me occupied. As I’m incapable of doing it myself, I have a lovely man called Andrew who’s doing it for me. Although, I think he’s getting a bit cheesed off with how much I keep changing my mind.

Sorry, it’s a shorter blog this week, but lockdown life just jogs along with not a lot happening. If the roadmap out of lockdown is adhered to, I will be back to work mid-April, so I need to try and make the most of these last three weeks at home and get stuff done.

Hope you’re all well and taking care of yourself and I look forward to chatting with you all next week.

Julia Blake

Happy Mother’s Day

To everyone in the UK, Happy Mother’s Day. To everyone else, Happy Sunday, and I hope you have a wonderful day. Firstly, an apology for not blogging last week. That weird head cold thing and general feeling of ickiness I was suffering from the last time we spoke developed into a very nasty infection under my back molar. By the following Wednesday, the pain was creeping into my jaw, throat, and ear, and by Friday I’d spoken to the dentist, picked up a prescription for two sets of live antibiotics, and had picked up the meds from my doctor when I went to collect my hayfever meds.

What a lot of people don’t realise, is 95% of all antibiotics are inert, but 5% – the strong stuff – are live. The thing with being on live antibiotics is yes, they are very effective and very fast working, but they also have their own side effects. One of them is that not even a whiff of alcohol must pass your lips or else you will be as sick as a dog. The other is that they strip all the bacteria from your body – good and bad – the antibiotics make no distinction between them but kills them all.

Now, there is only one way for all the dead bacteria to leave your body, but I will leave that one to your imagination. This means that you must take a lot of probiotics to put the good bacteria back into your body. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem for me, but as I have become quite lactose intolerant over the past year and probiotics are dairy, I was worried this might further add to my misery. Luckily, I found dairy free probiotics in Waitrose so that was all right. Yes, they tasted foul, but I chugged down a pot twice a day and hoped they were doing the trick.

So, by the time last Saturday rolled around and it was time to write my blog, the meds hadn’t yet kicked in and I was in a lot of pain. The tooth was wobbly in my jaw causing shooting pains to go down my throat – which was swollen – deep in my ear canal and even up into my temple. I was cross, tired, and very out of sorts. I’m afraid writing the blog just wasn’t going to happen. All I wanted to do was rest, so that’s what I did.

Since then, I’m happy to report that the meds seem to have done the trick. I was given only enough for five days and wondered if I’d need a repeat prescription, but so far so good. This is the third time I’ve suffered the same infection in the same place. I think this time the fact I was able to spot the warning signs early and get myself onto the antibiotics, meant it was dealt with quicker. I just hope it doesn’t come back again as my dentist was making noises about removing the tooth and I’m not keen on the idea.

It’s been a fortnight of slowly getting things back onto an even keel, and generally just good news all around. Firstly, my car is fixed. The insurance company coughed up the money, only holding back the £100 policy excess which apparently will be refunded to me once the money has been fully claimed from the Yodel delivery driver’s insurance company. I have seen him in my road a further two times since, both times delivering to neighbours, so he’s clearly still working for Yodel. Each time he has driven past my house staring at it and scanning the parked cars – maybe realising that the car he smashed into is not there.

The garage telephoned me Tuesday to say the car was ready. Now, normally, I would have asked my dad to give me a lift there, but since Miss F is now back at college (more about that later) and is being exposed to the infection, we weren’t comfortable about risking it. I decided there was nothing for it, I would have to walk the two miles to retrieve it and planned to go Wednesday.

Wednesday dawned, torrential rain that lashed at the windows and didn’t let up all day, plus strong gusting winds. I wasn’t going out in that! Especially not as I was still recovering from a jaw and ear infection. Thursday, I had to go to the post office and the bank – I had some cash that’s been kicking around the house since the first lockdown and wanted to use it to help pay for the car, but wasn’t sure if the garage were accepting cash, so had decided to pay it into the bank. I left the bank at 11:13am and looked at the weather. The forecast had said rain all day but at that time in the morning it was dry and bright, although the gale force winds were still gusting. I made the snap decision to go there and then to fetch the car. After all, I was surely about a third of the way there already. So, I set out walking.

I walked, and I walked, and I walked. By the time I was about two-thirds of the way there – and too far to even think about coming back – I had remembered just how much I hate walking and I was exhausted. The wind had taken on a raw edge and was blasting straight into my ear. My legs ached and I needed to pee, but I had to keep going.

Eventually, I reached the garage and there was my little car! With a brand-new wing, looking ever so dapper. They had warned me that they might not be able to match the paint colour exactly, but if there is a difference, I can’t see it. Delighted, I paid the bill and drove home, very happy to have my little car back.

It’s lucky we were in lockdown and I didn’t need a car to get to work. My garage is opposite my place of work and I have sometimes wondered if in the warmer months I might be able to occasionally walk to work. My experience this week has shown me that no I couldn’t. It’s just too far. Sorry if that makes me sound a right weakling, but the thought of doing an hour’s walk and arriving at work drenched in sweat and exhausted. Then having to do a seven-hour shift on my feet all day, and then having to walk an hour back home – nope, just nope.

So, Basil my dear little car is safely home. Although, I have decided I will always try to park him with the mended side facing safely into the kerb. With the way that Yodel delivery driver has been bombing up and down our road, if he does decide to smash into me again – at least it will be the old, rusty side.

Before
After

As you know, my insurance policy was up for renewal last week and I had determined not to use the same broker because they hadn’t been particularly efficient with my claim. However, when the quote arrived from them, I had to put my glasses on to check I wasn’t reading it wrong. Then I called Miss F into the room.

ME:  Look at this.

HER: What is it?

ME:  The quote from the insurance brokers for this year’s car insurance.

HER: You’re not using them this year, right?

ME:  Take a look.

She looked, her eyebrows shot up and she took another look.

HER: So, I guess we’re staying with them after all, then?

I had been expecting my premiums to go up after all the shenanigans. I had been warned they probably would. I was paying £16 per month for my insurance. Thirty years accident-free driving, an unblemished no claims bonus, my age, the age of my car, and the fact I drive less than 2000 miles a year all combining to keep my premiums low. But I was still expecting a few pounds to have crept onto the quote.

The quote was for £14.54 per month! That’s fully comprehensive, including homestart, breakdown recovery, courtesy car, windshield, foreign travel, and legal. I honestly don’t think I could get cheaper anywhere else, so I’m staying with the brokers. The underwriters are still the lovely company who were very efficient and honest with me, so there’s that.

Having my car back meant I was able to go online and place our first Tesco click and collect order since the last week of January. Such a relief. Yes, we had managed to get one delivery slot where we bulk bought as much as we could and living in the middle of town meant I was able to shop on foot. But there is a limit to how much I can carry in one go – let’s face it, milk, cat food, a bale of toilet rolls and a carton of juice and that’s me done!

Delivery slots to have your groceries brought to your door have to be booked a month in advance but click and collect slots are freely available. I went online Thursday afternoon and managed to book a slot for 3pm Saturday afternoon, and then Friday we sat down and took an hour placing a large and very comprehensive shopping list. Now all I must do is drive to our local Tesco, go to the collection spot in the car park, open my boot and pile the shopping in. It’s so easy and avoids having to go into a plague infested supermarket where people’s masks are more off than on and they seriously don’t understand how far apart 2m really is!

More good news re Miss F and her exams. The actual written portion of the exams have been cancelled and tutors will be awarding grades based on assignments completed by the students. As Miss F has worked very hard and kept on top of her assignments, scoring merits and distinctions all the way, she is quietly confident about the outcome of this.

The practical synoptic which makes up 60% of the final mark was causing her stress as they were scheduled to commence the week they returned to college (so, this week), but no preparation had been done for them and the tutors had no clue as to what was happening about them. The good news is that although the synoptics are still going ahead, they have been postponed to about six weeks in the future, so the students have some time to prepare for them, plus I believe they won’t be as intense as last year’s – maybe acknowledging the fact that the students have not received the level and quality of education this last year that they should have had.

Miss F returned to college on Monday. She was very worried about going. Not so much for her own safety, but in case she carries the contagion home to me. We are taking every precaution. She has good quality masks that she wears from the moment she leaves home to moment she returns. She has lots of hand sanitiser in her bag that she uses frequently. There isn’t much in the way of social distancing at the college, and students are being crammed into small classrooms sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with their classmates. But Miss F and her best friend Miss T are sticking closely together and not mingling or mixing with any of the other students. We know that Miss T has been obeying lockdown laws, and of course, Miss F has, so there’s minimal chance of them already being infected. They go to college, have their classes, then go directly home.

Sadly, most of the young people at the college are not being so sensible. Huge crowds of them are gathering outside the college at break and lunchtimes. There is nowhere open in the college for them to eat lunch, so they are all piling onto the large grassy area outside. No masks, no social distancing. It will be interesting to see what happens to infection rates, and even death rates, over the next two weeks.

Finally, on the good news front, I am delighted to report that I have finished writing book twelve! Yep, I started writing it on the 22nd of February and sixteen days later I wrote the end. I did my usual tunnel vision, being so completely absorbed in the story I was telling that everything else went to pot. When I lifted my head from the book and looked around, it was to find my garden was a mess; the cupboards, fridge, and freezer were all empty; the house was a tip; and my poor daughter was beginning to think she was an orphan.

It’s always the way with me. I’m such a binge writer in that I don’t write a word for months, then bam, 52,000 words pour out of me in two weeks. Still, it’s written and I’m very pleased with it. Book four in the Blackwood Family Saga, this is the story of the mysterious and kickass character Isabella. If you’ve read the first three books in the series, you’ll know that Isabella is a law unto herself. In Sugar & Spice, Sullivan hazarded a guess that she was MI5 or MI6, or maybe something else. Well, in this book all her secrets are exposed, and the resulting tale is a non-stop exciting chase through the world of international drug smuggling, kidnapping, and revenge. Moving from the streets of London to the alleys of Kandahar, Isabella must fight for her life – even though her heart may be broken in the process.

The first three books in the Blackwood Family Saga

I edited as I went – yes, I know I’m not supposed to, but I do – I also formatted as I went. This is the fourth book in the series, so how it’s going to be presented is already dictated by the previous three books. It made sense to insert it into the template right from the get-go. I have done two further line-by-line read throughs and now it is sitting and stewing for a few days. Then I’ll run it through the Grammerly editing programme to see if I missed anything and will make use of the read-back facility on my laptop – whereby it will read the story back to me and I will be able to hear how it flows. This is a wonderful way of catching those hard-to-spot typos and any grammatical errors. After that, it will be off to my wonderful beta reader, and then publication.

I can’t believe that will be twelve books out there. I’m hoping to get a chance to write a good-sized chunk of book thirteen before lockdown ends in mid-April, but we’ll see how timing goes. I’ve already decided I will write the third book of the The Perennials Trilogy next and as that’s going to be a big book, having words down already will give me the impetus to continue writing even once I’m back into the madness of work.

Whilst book twelve is stewing, I must work on my website. I’ve been faffing about with it over the past month, but because my attention has been solely focused on writing I haven’t been giving it the attention I should be. But now I must, the Adorable Andrew – the clever chap who is working on it for me – has been pressuring me to send him the material I want included, and now I have no more excuses. It must be done, and it will be. I’ll just go tunnel vision on it in my normal way and will probably get it completed within the week.

Today is Mother’s Day – or Mothering Sunday as it should properly be called – here in the UK. A centuries old tradition, it dates to when young people left home at an early age and went away to work. Most went into service – being servants for the local gentry – and some worked the land. Once a year, on the second Sunday of March, there was a special service held in all churches across the land. Everyone was given leave to return to their “mother” church if it was possible, to celebrate their connection with the place of their birth and the church that had nurtured them. Initially, it had nothing to do with their actual mothers, but instead was all about their mother church.

Gradually, though, as this visit home would also allow the young people to be able to see their own mothers, the concepts became combined, and it was traditional to take a small posy of primroses to your mother on that Sunday as a little gift of appreciation.

Nowadays, of course, it has become ALL about your mother and nothing to do with the church, and cards and gifts are a lot more elaborate than a simple posy of wildflowers. All around the world, other nations copied and initiated their own Mother’s Days. But as these weren’t ecclesiastical events there was no obligation to stick to the British date, so every country chose which date suited them best.

I have bought plants for my mother and for my ex-mother-in-law – Miss F’s grandma – along with cards. My father made a doorstep delivery of wood on Saturday afternoon, so was able to take my mum’s card and plant away with him. The card and plant for Grandma we will doorstep deliver on Sunday. As she is bedbound and cannot come to the door, the only way we will be able to see her is through the window. But it’s better than nothing, and hopefully will brighten her day.

There is a real sense this week of things looking up and chores being ticked off my to-do list. Pleased beyond belief I have at least achieved one of the tasks I set for myself this lockdown – that of writing book twelve – if I can only get the other task completed and relaunch my new website before returning to work, at least I will feel I spent the time profitably.

Anyway, that’s all my news for this week. Take care of yourselves and try to stay safe. The vaccine is rolling out across the UK and they are working their way down through the ages. They had reached the high 50s this week, so at 53 my turn may be coming up sooner than I expected.

Chat soon.

Julia Blake

Garden Ramble

Short blog this week. One because I really don’t have very much to tell you, and two because I’m not feeling very well. And no, before you ask, it’s not Corona. I’ve managed to pick up a head cold from somewhere so have a raging sore throat, and a snotty grotty nose. Isn’t it ironic – wearing facemasks, staying indoors, avoiding contact with people, and constantly sanitising my hands is apparently enough to protect me from a virulent global pandemic – but it couldn’t stop the common cold!

So, I’m sniffy and drippy and feeling a bit sorry for myself. It’s affecting my sleep as well, because every time I lay down it seems to make my sinuses swell even more to the point of being unable to breathe. I’ve also been having dreams, well, more nightmares really. Normally, I don’t dream at all, or if I do, I don’t remember them. But the last few nights I have been plagued with very unsettling dreams of death and disaster, and deadly situations and danger that have me jerking awake, drenched in sweat, and reluctant to go back to sleep again.

I’m hoping it’s all connected to the cold and the general swollen state of my nose – perhaps not being able to breath properly is alarming my subconscious to the state of inducing these “life in danger” dreams and making me constantly wake up to change position in an attempt to breathe.

It’s been a busy week despite not feeling so good. Monday morning, I made the decision to start writing book twelve. After all, the government have announced that all non-essential shops will re-open by mid-April, so that means I have six more weeks at home before plunging back into the rat race of trying to juggle my work, home, and writing lives, so I figured I had better try and get as many words down as possible over the next six weeks.

I’ve made a good start. I’m writing book four of the Blackwood Family Saga, my short and pacey romantic suspense series. I am aiming to write a minimum of 3000 words a day and so far, have managed 13,000. Given that the books are generally around 52,000 words long that means I’ve written a quarter of the book. If I stay on track, I should finish the book in two weeks’ time. I then intend to plunge straight into writing the final book of the Perennials Trilogy. Now, this will be a lot longer book and will probably average out at about 160,000. I know there isn’t much chance of me writing the whole book in four weeks, but if I get a goodly portion of it down then the impetus will be there to carry on once I’m back at work.

The news about my car is all good. The underwriters have agreed the costs of repairing the car and have already placed the money into my account. The new wing is with my mechanic, so they are working on the car even as we speak. Probably over the next couple of weeks I will have my car back – certainly before I need to collect another big shop, and certainly long before lockdown ends, and I need it for work.

Miss F has received a text from the restaurant where she works part-time advising her to be on standby to potentially return to work mid-April as well. Restaurants are opening offering outdoor table service only, so I guess this re-opening will be very much good weather related. No point opening if it’s miserable weather and all you can offer your customers is a soggy table in a wet and slippery underfoot garden.

College wise, she has been told that she will probably be returning on the 8th of March, but there seems a great deal of confusion about it all. At first, the college announced that masks would be mandatory in the whole college – about blinking time – but now they are saying that they won’t be, so I guess that will be the virus being spread about again. Yes, children don’t tend to catch the virus and, if they do, they don’t suffer from it the way most adults do. But they can carry it home to their family who will mostly still be in lockdown. Children in households with severely compromised family members who are sheltering and vulnerable have been told they will not be exempt. They MUST come to school/college or their parents risk fines or even prison sentences.

It’s a tough decision. Definite fine or possible death from a nasty contagious virus. Which one would you choose?

The news about her exams is even more confusing. They have finally been told that the written portion of their exams have been cancelled, and that teachers will be grading them based on coursework, assignments, and mock exam results – so as a straight distinction student, Miss F doesn’t have any worries there. But these written exams only constitute 40% of her grade, and they still haven’t informed students how they are supposed to take their practical synoptics that make up 60% of the total grade. Time is ticking by – students return to college in two weeks’ time and many have no idea if they are taking exams or not, and what sort of preparation there are supposed to be making.

It is a very confusing, stressful, and worrying time for many young people. I only wish the governing bodies could understand this and announce clearly defined and fair solutions to help ease their minds and reduce the pressure a little bit.

I am concerned about the fact that when lockdown ends for most of us in mid-April and we are all forced back into our shops, offices, and factories, that most of the work force will not have been vaccinated yet. With at least three new, even more contagious strains of the virus now in the UK, it is worrying that so many of us will be back out there, unprotected, and extremely vulnerable to these new strains. Despite all that has happened over the past year, there are still so many who flout the rules, who don’t wear masks, who don’t follow basic guidelines, and who appear blissfully ignorant of how far apart 2m actually means. With the highest death rate per capita in the world, the UK needs to start learning a few lessons here, or I can see the whole thing kicking off again.

But anyway, all I can do is obey the rules, stay home, and try to keep myself and other people as safe as possible. The weather seems to have taken a turn for the better, which is nice, and I have been making a real effort to spend some time each day in my garden. Whilst I am very happy with the hard landscaping, I don’t feel I’ve yet got the planting right. It is tricky, in a very small garden, to hit that right balance of there being enough plants to make it feel alive, and having plants take over and completely overwhelm the space.

I pulled down an old tree on Tuesday, and before you ask if I’ve started a new career as a lumberjack, it was only an old and very dead olive tree. A few good yanks and the whole thing came down. Riddled with woodworm and bone dry, it was only fit for sawing up and burning on my fire. It’s a job I’ve been meaning to do for years but never had the time, so it’s one more item ticked off my to-do list. I also pulled out some rather rampant lavender which had thuggishly invaded the whole of one bed and established dominance over everything else in it. Taller than me, although lovely in the summer it was simply too much, so out it came. I will buy some dwarf lavender and have it in a pot, so it is confined and controllable.

Someone bought Miss F a rose for her christening. Bit of a strange present, I thought at the time, given that it had wicked long thorns all over it, and I have never found the right spot in the garden for it. Over the past seventeen years it has been tried in no less than four places, but each time ran wild and choked anything that got in its way. Defying all attempts to prune it or keep it in check, I have lost count of the number of times I have cleaned the deep scratches gouged from my arms by the vicious thing. If it produced beautiful and sweet-smelling blooms, I might have forgiven it and put up with its cantankerous ways, but the lacklustre and rather pitiful yellow flowers it puts out are so not worth the pain, and I have secretly planned its demise. However, it was technically Miss F’s rose and as such, I was unable to murder it.

However, a compromise has finally been reached. The damn thing is going, and in return she is going to pick the rambling rose of her choice – preferably one with pretty, scented blooms – and it will be planted to climb up the pergola and over the bathroom roof so she can see, and maybe smell it, from her office window.

So now the rose is on death row, I have hacked it down to the ground and when I’m next in the garden will attempt to pull it up completely. This will leave the whole large bottom bed completely empty and ready for new plants. First to go in will be my wisteria. I’ve always wanted one, but never really had anywhere to put it, but bought one anyway and stuck it in my woodland raised bed in the hopes that it would manage to scramble its way up out of the gloom to the sunshine on top of the pergola where it could ramble and bloom to its heart’s content. But it never did. It put out a few sickly, straggly runners that clung for dear life to the trellis but never progressed any further and certainly never produced any of those iconic purple drooping flowers. Wisteria likes a lot of sunshine and needs unlimited space to climb. Now that the old olive tree is gone and the rose’s days are numbered, I have the perfect sunny spot available to move the wisteria to. It’s right at the bottom of the garden which does get quite a lot of sunshine. There is a trellis for it to scramble up, and then bow shaped trellis toppers on the fence that runs the whole length of the garden for me to train it to scramble along – if it is so inclined.

I’m also pulling down all the honeysuckle. It was a nice idea, but I think it is too thirsty a plant for my garden and again was in the wrong place. It never looked very attractive – all that brown crunchy foliage just made it look dead, it never produced any flowers, and all it does is rain dead leaves down onto the table and chairs under the pergola which I am constantly having to clean up or they rot and go mulchy underfoot.

The only plant I have ever managed to grow successfully over my pergola was a passionflower. It was a pity purchase years ago from a local garden centre. Tiny, battered, and looking distinctly dead in a cracked plastic pot, it had been reduced to £1.50 and Miss F’s soft heart was touched by its plight. Begging me to buy it, she wasn’t even put off when I told her we were probably just giving it a nice place to die, so we brought it home and planted it in the woodland bed where it could scramble up the trellis and onto the pergola.

Personally, I thought its scrambling days were well and truly over, but boy was I proved wrong. This thing thrived, and I mean thrived! By the end of the summer, it had reached the top of the pergola and was busy exploring its new world. But the following spring it was halfway across, and by the following year it had achieved almost total domination of the whole of the pergola. It bloomed profusely – gorgeous big cream and purply blue flowers that looked almost alien in their weirdness – and even the odd fruit. Much to Miss F’s disappointment these weren’t edible but still, they were fun to look at.

I would give it a bit of a prune every now and then, and it would grow back more vigorously than ever. Nothing seemed to phase it – no matter what the weather was, it kept on growing – and I began to believe it was indestructible, but I was to be proved wrong.

The pergola needed repainting. A difficult enough job it was made almost impossible by the passionflower being all over it. Carefully, I pruned back enough so that I could get to the wooden uprights and crossbeams and start painting. One day, I happened to mention to our then lodger that I was going to prune the passionflower back a bit more so I could get to the trellis it was entwined about and repaint it.

When I returned from work that day, it was to find a sweaty lodger who proudly informed me that he had pruned the passionflower for me so I could get straight on with painting that evening. Heart sinking, I followed him out into the garden to find that he had hacked it almost down to the ground. He had cut deeply into the old wood leaving just a stump and I knew he had killed it. That no matter how robust the plant was, there was no coming back from this. Sadly, I was proved right. I left the corpse in the ground hoping it would recover, but for five years it has sat there doing nothing.

Yesterday, I gave a gentle pull on the stump and the whole thing disintegrated in my hands. Pulling it from the ground I discovered no root system left at all on it, so I sawed the trunk up into small logs and tossed them into the wood box.

But life is all about coincidences. I had to go to our local general shop at the bottom of our road for some essential cleaning products and a month’s worth of greetings cards, and on my way back out of the shop I stopped to look on the rack of garden plants they had for sale. To my surprise there was a passionflower there, but not the normal blue one, this one was a gorgeous deep pink. I think I will go back today and buy one. The last passionflower did so well I am hopeful this new one will prove as successful – and you can rest assured I will keep any future lodgers away from it.

Today we have a virtual “Meet the Tutor” thing with Miss F’s university, so I need to close here and wake her up as it’s happening in less than an hour and she’s still asleep – I envy her ability to be able to sleep till noon. I used to be able to, but now a combination of too many things to do dragging me out of bed, and a less accommodating bladder – my sleeping in days are a thing of the past.

Looking at the word count, this blog turned out longer than I thought it would, and I’m sorry for boring you all with my ramble about my plans for the garden.

Hope you are all well, and wherever you are, please stay safe and stay happy.

Julia Blake