It’s No Laughing Matter!

My daughter asked me an interesting question last night. She challenged me to name three personality traits that are intrinsically hers. I believe she thought I would struggle to name even that many and was surprised when I reached at least eight with no signs of stopping. See, I have been paying attention the last sixteen years.

Some of the traits were hers and hers alone – like the way she always finds something of no significance whatsoever to do every time I am up against the clock and need her help. That trait she, unfortunately, gets from her father. We would have six of his friends expected for Sunday lunch at 1pm. He promised faithfully to help, but at 11am that morning decided to completely clean out the shed!

And like the way she gets obsessed with something for a short while, then gets bored with it and moves on to the next thing. Again, inherited from him.

One trait I listed however, is one that we both share, and that is a hatred of seeing anyone being humiliated or embarrassed to the point of fast-forwarding a programme in an unspoken mutual agreement to bypass the “car crash” moment. And it’s not confined to real people, but fictional characters in films or TV shows that are being shown up and belittled also has one or both of us diving for the remote.

I know some find it funny, watching people squirm, but I can’t stand seeing others subjected to pranks, jokes in bad taste, or basically being shamed in any way.

I hate practical jokes as well – you know, the “let’s make someone look an arse and then laugh at them” ones – and don’t find them funny in the slightest. Apparently, I have passed this trait onto my daughter, which I consider no bad thing.

Why do others find humour at other people’s expense? Sometimes it is okay. A friend turns up in mismatched shoes and laughs at themselves, of course you join in. But to deliberately set them up to be the butt of a mean joke? No, that’s never acceptable.

I remember back in the 1980’s there used to be an awful programme on British TV called “Beadle’s About” – although I’m sure there have been versions of this worldwide. Hosted by an obnoxious knobhead called Jeremy Beadle, each week we would witness “hilarious” gags played on unsuspecting members of the public.

Every week, millions would tune in to watch the ritualistic sacrifice of people’s pride, dignity, and respect in themselves, at the hands of this evil joker. The worst part being that it was their own family and friends who had volunteered them for the honour.

I hated this programme, but my parents found it hysterically funny, so every Saturday night it was on. I think the worst prank I ever saw, at least the one that really sticks out in my mind, was an incident involving a man, and a van full of his life’s savings in stock, that he was moving from one location on one side of the harbour to another location on the other side.

Quite why he was doing this, I can’t remember, but in order to take his van across on the ferry, he had to go and purchase a ticket from the harbour master.

Whilst this poor, unsuspecting sap was in there, those cunning tricksters swapped his van for another that looked exactly like his, even down to the jaunty logo on the side. So, this man exits the harbour master’s office just in time to see the van that he totally believes is his, roll slowly down the slipway and into the water – where it sank without trace.

Bear in mind, it has already been explained to us several times that the contents of this van represent thousands of pounds worth of stock. That this poor sod has sunk every penny he has into this venture and losing it will mean bankruptcy, destitution, his kids begging on the streets, and generally bad things for him.

So, what did he do when he saw what he firmly believed to be his van disappearing under the water?

Did he laugh?

No, he didn’t. Would any of us?

This poor man simply fell to his knees, screaming out in horror. Totally oblivious to the stares of the people passing by, he cried. And I don’t mean a single tear slipped down his chiselled face as he manfully contained his feelings. I mean he cried. He proper cried. Like a toddler who has lost their favourite toy. Like a teenage girl who has been dumped for the first time. He wailed and sobbed, and kept yelling a single word over, and over, again.

“No!”

To the soundtrack of raucous laughter from the studio audience, this devastated, broken man simply knelt there and looked into the abyss of his bleak future, unaware that he was being watched and was providing “entertainment” for millions of cackling, insensitive hyenas out in TV land.

Of course, eventually Jeremy Beadle, who had been in disguise watching the whole proceedings, popped up and put the poor sod out of his misery, and he was vastly relieved and felt much better about life. Although whether he would ever go back to feeling as good as he had felt before it happened, is debatable.

Sitting in the studio afterwards and watching the blow-by-blow action replay of his ordeal, seeing his soul stripped bare for everyone to laugh at, there was a certain emptiness in that man’s eyes. To my mind though, the final nail in his devastation was finding out it was his wife of twenty years who had set it all up. That the one person who was supposed to love him more than anybody else had felt it was okay to do this to him. I always wondered if that marriage was forever on shaky foundations after that. I mean, how could anyone trust their spouse after they had subjected them to that?

I later asked my mother if she would ever set my father up like that? She laughed and said no, because the bleep machine would explode – back then expletives would be bleeped out to protect the innocent ears of any children and elderly spinsters who might happen to be watching. My father was never one for handling situations like that quietly.

I know my parents read my blog every week, so sorry, Dad, but you know it’s true.

So, when my daughter asked her question and we went over my replies, it made us wonder about the type of person who is okay with this kind of humour. Who think, all is fair in laughs and comedy? I like to think I have a broad sense of humour, and there isn’t much I won’t laugh at. Anti-religious, political, sexual, sure bring it on – if it’s truly funny, I’ll laugh at it. But, laughing AT other people, instead of WITH them, no, there I draw the line.

Since last week when I blogged about the knife incident that occurred down my road, I have been inundated with messages of concern and support, for which I would like to say thank you. I am yet to go into the station to give my statement as the officer in charge is away on holiday – how very nice for him.

Solicitors have got involved, as an injunction is being raised against this individual, however, a snag has been reached which highlights the ludicrous state of the Western world. This person will be protected every step of the proceedings and will be left where he is until the situation is resolved, but if I and my other neighbours make an honest statement to the solicitors listing everything that we saw and heard, then he will be given copies of our statements including our names and addresses!

In what way is this sensible or fair? He is the one who went on the prowl with a knife in the middle of the night threatening to kill us all, yet if we do the right thing and give a statement, he will then be aware of exactly who is giving evidence against him and where they live!

My neighbour is elderly, lives alone, and is terrified by this whole turn of events. We have been told if we do not put our names to our statements then we might as well not give them because they will carry no weight, but if we do give them then a dangerously unstable individual with a violent criminal record who is known to own a large knife, will know precisely who we are and can come and knock on our doors at any time. We live literally feet away from him, he can see our houses from his balcony, he knows the backway around into our gardens!

I am left not knowing what to do for the best. Of course, I want to give a statement, but am not oblivious to the possible consequences not only for myself, but for my teenage daughter as well. This is an appalling state of affairs. How can he be protected yet the victims are not? And how can the police and other bodies of authority expect normal members of the public to come forward and give statements to help them combat crime, when we are thrown under the bus in exchange?

As my neighbour says, normal people are being treated as merely collateral damage. It is cheaper and easier all round – rather than preventing a nasty incident to simply let it happen, let the violent individual stab one of us then he’ll go to jail and the problem will be solved. As for the poor victim, well, there will be an outcry for a few days, then it will all be swept under the rug and forgotten about.

I really want to believe she’s wrong, but this latest turn of events has made me question everything I ever believed about law and order in this country. I am also wondering if the police hold the same “share everything with the perpetrator” policy that these solicitors do, and if I should rethink my plan to make a statement to them. Leaving it so long to obtain our statements is also indicative of how little the police care about this incident – as my neighbour was told on the phone by the police officer she spoke to when she called next day to make a statement – “he didn’t actually stab anyone, so why are you making such a fuss about it?”

Moving on from such an upsetting and unsettling matter, I have also had lots of people enquire how I am finding my return to work is going? It’s going well, thank you. We are incredibly busy and that has surprised me. Maybe I was judging everyone by how I would react in the middle of a pandemic, but sales have reached January sales levels with people piling into the shop, and a lot of them seemingly oblivious to the fact that Corona hasn’t gone away, that it is still here, and if they keep piling into public places like this, it will be coming back with a vengeance.

I have also found it hard to adjust to being with so many people again. After three months of it being only my daughter and myself, to once again be coping with dozens of people every day has been a difficult realignment, and I am coming home from work exhausted and stressed.

However, I only have another four shifts at work and then I will have a whole two weeks off. It is pre-booked holiday that the company are honouring, and I am really looking forward to it, especially as during those two weeks my birthday will occur.

Normally, I make a bit of a fuss about my birthday and go out for a nice brunch or lunch with my friends, but what will happen this year is anyone’s guess. With pubs and restaurants only tentatively re-opening it remains to be seen whether an “away from home” celebration of some kind can be managed, or whether it will have to be a prosecco in the garden kind of affair. Either is good, so long as I mark the passing of yet another year in some way, I will be happy.

Speaking of the year, does anyone else feel it is galloping by so fast that it will be only a few more sleeps until Christmas is upon us! Looking back on isolation, although logically I know I did get a lot of jobs done, I am feeling annoyed at myself that I didn’t manage more.

I re-published “Erinsmore” in April but fully expected to have also re-published “Lost & Found” and “Fixtures & Fittings” by now, along with the brand new, book three of the series, but everything took a lot longer to do than I expected, so here I am in July with them still unpublished. I am only awaiting one beta reader’s feedback before book three can go off to the formatter and then it will be all systems go for a simultaneous launch of all three. I must be inspired or mad to be attempting to publish all three at the same time!

While waiting for the feedback, I have begun work editing and formatting “The Book of Eve” which I will receive copyright back for at the end of July. I haven’t read or even thought about this book in almost three long years, and re-reading it now I’m realising that it is actually quite good. No, it’s better than good, it’s really very good. Now it’s had a professional edit and will have a beautiful professional formatting job done on it, and have a gorgeous new cover, this book will finally be worthy of the Julia Blake brand and can take its place alongside my other nine published books.

My two-year long mission to re-visit, renovate, upgrade, and republish all my books will then be at an end and I will be able to move onto the next project…

And what is that, I hear you say, well, I’m not giving away too many spoilers, but let’s just say if you think you know the Snow White story, think again!

In other news, my decorators will be back Monday morning to start work on my front of house. They will be completely sanding down and repainting the front door in gorgeous pale grey and painting all the door furniture black. The front porchway will be cleaned and repainted, together with my front railings which will be brushed down and painted with black metal paint.

It will really smarten up the front of my home – just in time for the Bury in Bloom judges who will be inspecting our street on the 13th of July!

I would also like to wish all my American friends Happy Independence Day for yesterday. Having watched the recording of Hamilton on Friday, I have more of an understanding of the whole tangled, complicated, and downright dangerous process the gaining of independence was, and that the creation of this mighty nation was not without serious birthing pains.

And that is this week’s ramble at an end. It has been a strange week, with many ups and downs, and I don’t know if the pandemic is over (as most people seem to think), going away, or merely biding its time and waiting to return with a vengeance. So please, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, stay safe, stay healthy, and stay happy.

Julia Blake

I have the right not to be afraid in my own home!

There was quite a serious incident down my road Friday night/Saturday morning, which has left myself and my neighbours angry, scared, and frustrated. I live in a very nice street. It’s a short, no-through road made up of early Edwardian houses. My neighbours are lovely, kind, law-abiding people who disturb no one and do nothing but contribute to the road and the town I live in. I’ve lived in my house a very long time, I moved in September 1991 so almost thirty years. I love my home, I love the road, and I love my town, and up until a few years ago everything was fine.

Then a large block of very ugly flats was built at the bottom of our road and things started to go wrong. Now I’m sure most of the residents in these flats are perfectly nice, peaceful people who are as sick of the ever escalating situation as we are, but, it only takes one bad apple to rot the whole barrel, and there are individuals who have been placed in social housing accommodation within these flats who – to put it bluntly – do not give a damn about anyone and seem incapable of basic empathy and respect for anyone else but themselves.

These individuals do not work, so don’t mind being awake until the small hours partying in the street with loud music, shouting, and bad language. Why should they care? They can sleep in next day. It’s only people like me who have to be up at 6am for work in the morning – that lay there, wide-eyed and angry, until the party goers decide to go to bed at 4am and switch off their music – who pay the price. Dragging yourself out of bed after a scant two hours of sleep and then having to go and do a full day’s work is no joke.

Then there are the loud arguments conducted at the tops of their voices on their balconies or even in the street. Truly epic encounters worthy of the Jerry Springer Show in which every tiny, sordid detail is shared with one and all. And yes, Britney, I think your mum is right, you can do better than him and he is a prick for sleeping with your best friend, and frankly, my dear, I think you should take a long hard look at your life choices.

There were the catcalls, leers, and inappropriate comments made to my teenage daughter as she walked past in her in her school uniform!

But just lately the episodes have escalated in seriousness. During lockdown, we were all out on our doorsteps in our dressing gowns watching in open-mouthed disbelief as someone in the flats proceeded to throw all of his belongings out of his second floor window to smash on the pavement below, culminating in him throwing half full pots of paint at the house opposite. The police came. He pulled a knife on them and was hurriedly restrained and carted away. Good, we thought, that’s him gone, there’s no way the council will send a clearly deranged individual back to live amongst innocent citizens. We were wrong. Not three days later he was back. To say we were concerned would be an understatement, especially when we were informed, he is a convicted drug dealer.

Then last night happened. We’ve been experiencing a heatwave these last few days, so sleeping is difficult and people are on edge, to say the least. Everyone has their windows wide open and of course sounds travel further at night. At about 11:30pm I heard very loud music, shouting, and laughter coming from the flats. I rolled my eyes and ignored it. To be honest, I’m used to it. There was a lot more shouting, then a very noisy departure in a taxi accompanied by cries of “night babe”, and I assumed that was an end to it. About midnight as I was just about to go to bed there came a knock at my front door. Alarmed, I inquired who it was – “police” – came the reply. I quickly opened the door to find a big burly chap in uniform standing there saying there had been a fight of some kind at the flats and had I seen or heard anything? I told him I’d heard the sounds of a party but hadn’t witnessed a fight of any kind. He thanked me, apologised for disturbing me at such a late hour, and left.

I thought that was an end to it, but the night was still young.

It was too hot to sleep, so I lay on my bed reading and wishing it would cool down. Both my bedroom windows were wide open trying to catch any breeze there was. About 12:30am I heard a strange sound. You know when you’re a child and you run a stick along railings to make that lovely clack, clack, clack sound? Well, it was like that. Then a heard a voice outside my house, in the street below, shouting – “come out to play!”

Seriously freaked out, I put my book down and listened. He said it again – it was proper clown in the sewer time – and I slipped out of bed and peered around the edge of my curtain. There was a young man in the street below, roaming up and down the road, peering into the gardens of the houses opposite. He went to the large gate that leads into the flats and ran something along it, producing that clack, clack sound I’d heard earlier, then he turned and in the glare from the streetlight I saw he had a knife.

I was stunned. Not what you expect to see on a nice street in a sleepy little rural market town. He prowled – there’s no other word for it – up and down the road some more, tossing the knife from hand to hand. I got the feeling he was looking for someone. I quickly hurried downstairs to get a phone, but by the time I got back up to my window and peered out again, I could hear my next door neighbour at her window on her phone talking to someone in a low voice and giving an account of what was happening. Plainly she was talking to the police. I thought there was no point both of us calling, so I watched to see what would happen next.

And what happened next was truly appalling. By the time the police came, he had of course hidden the knife somewhere. The police spoke to him for five minutes telling him to calm down – never, in the history of time, has anyone calmed down by being told to – he got right in their faces, denied having a knife, and kept screaming that he would f*****g kill all the neighbours who kept calling the police on him. He’d kill them all! And what did the police do? Absolutely nothing. They sent him back into his flat and went away.

This has left everyone in the street reeling in shock. We feel vulnerable, let down, and scared. There is a knife wielding, drug dealing, abusive and aggressive individual living mere feet away from where we live with our families. He has threatened to kill us, and the response of the police to our complaints – “he has rights as well”. Of course, he has rights, we all have rights, but surely, he forfeits those rights by behaving this way. Does he have the right to carry a knife in a public street? Does he have the right to sell drugs on our road bringing all kinds of undesirables knocking on our doors trying to find him – I kid you not, this happens frequently – does he have the right to threaten to harm others?

What about our rights? Do we not have the right to undisturbed nights? Do we not have the right to not be subjected to violent behaviour and threats of personal harm? Do we not have the right to be able to live peacefully in our own homes without feeling vulnerable or scared? Do we not have the right to feel our children are safe?

Whose rights are the greater here?

Below is a poem taken from “Eclairs for Tea and other stories”. It was written many years ago, but I feel reflects the mood.

Domestic Bliss

There’s a domestic at number 21.

This is a quiet street, a nice street,

Implacable in its middle-class restraint

Until the raised voices, the slamming doors,

The language, become too much

Even for its normally apathetic residents,

And the lights go on, up and down the street.

***

There’s a domestic at number 21.

Roused from sleep, windows are raised,

And women peer, clutching nighties to chests.

Their husbands going one step further,

Letting down their individual drawbridges,

They lurk in uncertain belligerence on doorsteps,

And comments are made, up and down the street.

***

There’s a domestic at number 21.

Like a pebble thrown into a pond its ripples spread,

As for the briefest of moments

The street is shaken from its normal façade,

Its everyday sameness, to bond

In mutual, nightwear-clad outrage,

And residential unrest, up and down the street.

***

There was a domestic at number 21.

When the police finally arrived,

As usual twenty-three minutes too late,

All had settled into an uneasy peace.

Slowly, reluctantly, people retreated indoors,

The moment over, nothing more to see,

And the kettles went on, up and down the street.

***

This aside, it has been a strange, stressful, and generally frustrating week. Work has been interesting. I truly thought we wouldn’t be busy, that because we are still in the grip of a pandemic and supposedly having to be sensible and limit trips out to essential ones only, buying a new bed would be the last thing on people’s minds. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They have been crowding into our shop, and sales have been on a par with our busiest periods in the January sales. It is surreal and stressful, having to deal with so many people after three months of being quiet at home with only Miss F for company.

I’d forgotten what it’s like as well, trying to juggle things and fit everything into days off. During lockdown, if I didn’t get something done one day there was always the next, and the next, and the next, there was so much time to be squandered. Now, I’m back to time being a precious and finite commodity.

On Monday I came home to find an official looking letter from H.M. Revenue & Customs. Oh ho, I thought, now what?! But I opened it to find I had a totally unexpected tax refund to come. Not huge, only £195, it is nevertheless a lovely surprise. Eagerly, I read the letter. I had two choices. Do nothing and a cheque would be sent to me in two to three months. Hmm. And the other choice? Apply online using their simple service and have it paid into my account within five days. Okay, no brainer really, I’ll do that.

Only, it wasn’t simple, of course it wasn’t. To start with, I had to log on using my Gateway User ID and password. You what? Yep, apparently just answering a heap of security questions to prove my identity isn’t good enough anymore, you have to be registered to use this service the once to claim the money that they owe you. I went through the whole rigmarole, which involved me running all over the house finding my latest P60, my national insurance number, my bank account details, the exact amount of my last tax credit payment – agghh, just give me my fecking money! Eventually, after over forty-five minutes of hair pulling frustration, I made it through to the final screen and clicked claim. The screen blinked at me, then a message flashed up – “unfortunately, you cannot use the online claim system at the moment”. What?! Do you mean to tell me I went through all of that and I still can’t claim?!

Disgusted with life, I logged out and left it a day. I tried again Wednesday and again Friday. Both times I got through the process quickly – being a pro at it now – but each time got the same message. Finally, I googled it and found that HMRC has a serious technical issue at the moment, meaning that no one can claim their tax refunds. It’s been like that for months apparently. Umm, just a suggestion HMRC, well, a couple of suggestions actually, put a message on the first screen telling people this so we don’t waste our lives going through a process that’s doomed to failure from the outset. And, secondly, pull your finger out and get this fixed!

I have a sneaking suspicion that HMRC have spent all our money on gloves and masks, so the kitty is empty and they’re stalling for time. Oh well, I’ll keep trying to claim and I’m sure I’ll eventually get the money, but sooner rather than later would have been nice.

It’s my dad’s birthday today and I spoke to my mother Wednesday morning trying to establish what he would like for a present, and what, if anything, we would be doing to celebrate it. Something outdoors obviously, because although I’m allowed to spend all day indoors in close proximity to dozens of germ-infested strangers, I’m not able to be indoors with my parents. Although, I guess the fact that I AM spending all day in close proximity to germ-infested strangers is a very good reason why I SHOULDN’T get too close to my parents!

I was informed he needed new jeans. I was given his waist and leg measurements. I was instructed to make sure I bought a pair that “had a bit of stretch in the seating area” – in other words, dad jeans – and we decided a BBQ would be the safest option. I suggested Saturday as that gave me time to prepare for it. One look at the weather forecast made us realise that neither Saturday nor Friday were good choices as it was set to pour down with rain both those days. That left Thursday, the next day!

The rest of Wednesday was spent tidying the garden, cleaning the barbecue, scrubbing the kitchen and downstairs toilet so they could use it if necessary, and writing a shopping list. Next day I hit Tesco at 8:30am. I was lucky, I got straight in and whizzed about the one-way system, only getting it a little bit wrong this time. Flew home, unpacked the shopping, then shot up to Marks & Spencer which is THE place to buy dad jeans from.

I was against the clock. My parents were coming at 3pm but I also had to take Miss F to college for an 11:40am appointment to clear out her locker of all her belongings prior to the summer break. Bearing in mind its contents have been sitting in there for over three months, in a heatwave, and that the contents consisted of goat pee and poop splattered tunic and work boots, the situation was kind of urgent.

I reached Marks & Spencer – a huge queue snaked away from the door. Bugger, I thought. I wasn’t even sure if their clothing department was open yet, and seeing an assistant supervising crowd control, I asked her. Absolutely, she replied, and if you only want the clothing department you don’t have to join this queue, which is for the food hall, but can go straight in the side door and up the stairs. I thanked her and bypassed all those patiently queuing, feeling the eyes and the suppressed mutters as I apparently queue-jumped.

Upstairs in the men’s department it was like the Marie Celeste, not a soul in sight, which suited me just fine. Rummaging through the piles of jeans on display I found a pair in classic pale blue denim, the right size, and with stretch easy-fit which meant they wouldn’t be too snug where you didn’t want them to be. I’d also been told that he needed more talc, which was downstairs in the ladieswear department – of course it was, after all it would be too sensible to have gents toiletries with menswear – so down the stairs I trotted. Found his talc and went to pay. The queue for the tills was enormous, stretching back past the shoe department. Ah ha, I thought, let’s be clever and quickly pop back upstairs and pay there, because I really don’t have the time to waste. Mindful of the clock ticking, and Miss F’s five-minute appointment that she couldn’t, under any circumstances, miss.

I dashed back up the stairs. But you know what it’s like, sometimes you can be too clever for your own good. There wasn’t a single till open in menswear. Instead signs helpfully informed me I would have to go downstairs to ladieswear to pay. Gritting my teeth against a sudden, inexplicable urge to scream and bang my forehead on the counter, I rushed back downstairs. Only to find in the two minutes I’d been gone, the queue had grown from enormous to ginormous and now stretched all the way to the escalators! Damn, I really should tell myself to shut up sometimes.

Leaving Marks & Spencer, I had a few minutes left on the clock and a few pennies left in the birthday budget so popped into a little artisan beer shop that has just re-opened. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shopkeeper so happy to see me. The shop was deserted, and he practically fell on me as I rushed in and explained I needed a couple of bottles of birthday beer for my dad who loves mild beer. He had two bottles of mild left in the whole shop and explained they’d been having problems getting supplies in.

Presents all bought, I dashed home and threw them at Miss F with terse orders to quickly wrap them whilst I put steaks into marinade, then we jumped in the car and made the two minute drive to college so she could collect her stuff. I waited outside as instructed, and when she came out with the bag, I could smell her belongings before she even got in the car.

“Where shall I put these?” she asked.

“In the garden,” I growled, trying to breathe through my mouth and winding down the window.

Why do people think barbecues are an easy meal? They’re not. The amount of food prepping involved makes them very labour intensive, but everything was done in time, and the afternoon went well – apart from the barbecue filling the garden with smoke! Dad loved his presents and drank both the bottles of beer.

So now it’s Saturday morning and another week has rolled around. After a very fraught night when I’ll be honest, I didn’t get much sleep, I dragged myself out of bed and came downstairs to find a pile of cat puke in the middle of the dining room carpet, and not one, but two, cat turds on the kitchen floor complete with a garnish of cat litter and a belligerent cat glaring at me.

That was it! I’d had enough. I cleaned everything up, took the recovery vest off her, put her collar back on, and unlocked the cat flap. The wound is more-or-less healed, and I simply can’t tolerate it anymore. I know some people keep their cats in by choice and my question to them is how do you bear it? The stink of cat shit and piss, the disgusting job of cleaning out litter boxes, of having to keep doors and windows shut fast in a heatwave, and the whole having to deal with an angry cat who is extremely frustrated at being a prisoner and gets claw happy with the furniture (and us) by way of protest.

We opened the door. She was free after four weeks of lockdown! Out she bounded. Prowled around the garden twice, then promptly came back inside and went to sleep on the floor. I think there was a principle involved.

And now, I just want to have a precious, few hours of my days off to actually rest. Although the kitchen needs cleaning, again, there’s a week’s worth of ironing to do, and dinner needs sorting. Sigh. A woman’s work is never, ever done!

That’s all my news for the week, so wherever you are – stay safe, stay healthy, and stay happy.

Julia Blake

Welcome to the new normal!

When we chatted last week, I told you how I was on borrowed time. My company were re-opening their stores on Monday, but I had been told by my boss that they would assess the situation on a fortnightly basis. The way he spoke implying as a part-timer I would be amongst the last to go back, so would probably be off until mid-July, maybe even until August. Either way, I would be given at least five days-notice to return to work.

Well, that didn’t happen. I was telephoned late Tuesday afternoon. The company had assessed the situation after just one day of trading and I was being given barely one days-notice to return to work on Thursday morning. This was also a surprise. My usual shift pattern is three days on – Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday – then four days off, so I never work Thursdays. But no, everything had changed, and I had to work Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday.

To be honest, I wasn’t very impressed with this scenario. To only get one day’s notice after three months off was bad enough, but to then be working five days straight with only Sunday off in the middle was going to come hard. Like most people on furlough, I had settled into a more relaxed pace of life. To suddenly go from ambling through my days to being thrown full-on back into the rat race was going to be a culture shock, to say the least.

But there was nothing I could do about it. Wednesday, as you can imagine, was completely taken up with preparations to return to work and be absent from the house during the day again. I had tucked away an emergency box of hair dye so that was dug out first thing Wednesday morning and the silver streaked hair was made uniformly auburn again. There was nothing I could do about the growing-out fringe, but I found if I blow dried it in a sort of Farah Fawcett-Majors flick, it didn’t look too bad.

As you know, I’ve been doing my shopping on foot at local shops close enough to walk to and have been avoiding the large, out-of-town, supermarkets, but as I sat there writing my shopping list Wednesday morning, I quickly realised that a car was going to be needed to cart this lot home. I decided to bite the bullet and return to Tesco, in fact, don’t overthink and procrastinate about it, let’s do it, now!

I grabbed my bags and my list and went before I could change my mind. The carpark was reasonably empty, and I hoped this was a good sign. That by hitting the store at 10am on a mid-week morning I would miss most of the crowds. I grabbed a trolley and joined the very short queue to get in, sanitising the handle at the useful cleaning station by the door.

Inside, I realised all my fears were groundless. The store looked clean and wasn’t crowded. There were 2m markers on the floor and a complicated arrow route you were supposed to follow. This sometimes meant I was left aimlessly going up and down aisles trying to get back to where I needed to be because I’d forgotten something.

One huge shop later and I was home by 11am, dumping it all in the house for Miss F to unpack and put away, whilst I shot to the post office and sent off all the birthday cards and presents that needed to be posted. The market was back in the middle of the town and people were milling about all over the place. Was social distancing being observed? No. Quite the opposite in fact, people were acting like “pandemic? What pandemic is that?”

The rest of my day was spent cleaning the house and making meal planners with Miss F because she was going to be in charge of dinner the days I had to work. This time off has given me plenty of time to assess what stresses me the most and try to take measures to prevent it. On the days I work, I’m up early to make sure that everything gets done, so when I leave for work my house is immaculate. It then stresses me out to get home and find it now looking like a bomb has hit it. It’s unfair. I didn’t make the mess, yet as soon as I get home from a long and usually fraught day at work, I’m the one who has to start cleaning up, or start shouting at Miss F to pick her crap up.

It gets the evening off to a bad start – I mean, who wants a yelling mum the second she walks in the door? I’ve had long conversations with Miss F about this and I think it’s finally sunk in how such a small thing as tidying up after herself will cut the stress levels in the house and generally make life more pleasant for both of us.

Another thing that stresses me when I get home is that I’m usually starving hungry. I only get a 20-minute lunchbreak at work and that’s barely enough time to stuff a sandwich and an apple in my face, consequently, by the time I get home I’m ravenous and desperate to eat. I’m one of those people whose blood sugar levels can crash drastically if I’m hungry and then I get angry.

Now, Miss F is one of those people who can’t be bothered to eat in the morning, and on days she’s not at college has an annoying habit of eating nothing until about 2pm then suddenly being desperately hungry and cooking herself a huge bowl of pasta. So, when I get home at 5:15pm wanting to eat – NOW! – she’s not hungry and makes us wait until 6:30pm or even later to eat dinner.

That leaves me prowling about the house, unable to think about anything other than how hungry I am. And as my headache grows ever worse and the dizziness increases until I feel I’m about to pass out, I get snappier and more irritated. When we finally eat, I am so famished I inhale my food far too quickly and end up with indigestion, which then leads to an even more unpleasant mum and more chance of silly arguments erupting over petty matters.

This is an easily fixable problem. Miss F now understands she is not to eat any later than 1pm during the day. If ever she is eating later than that, then rather than pork up on what is basically a main meal, she is to simply have a sandwich or something light. On days I am working, she is also going to be in charge of cooking our evening meal, and I have stressed to her that that does not mean I walk in at 5:15pm to find a kitchen looking like a hand grenade was tossed in there, or worse, nothing going on in the kitchen at all and a teenage daughter having a nap planning to start doing dinner when Mum gets home. No! Meals take longer to prepare and cook than you think, and if I walk in to find no dinner, I am going to get angry and start making it myself, and then we’re right back to pissed off mummy time – and that’s no fun for anyone.

We actually have one of those wonderful 1970’s inventions called a hostess trolley. For those of you who are clueless, it’s an amazing closed-in trolley with a heating element in the bottom and plenty of space in the main cabinet for dishes of food to be placed, plus four glass dishes in the top for vegetables etc. You simply plug it in, give it twenty minutes to heat up, then it will keep food warm for ages. When I have dinner parties it’s invaluable and at Christmas it’s a godsend. You can cook the meal well in advance and then have time to clean the kitchen down and get yourself freshened up and be ready to greet your guests with a smile and a glass of wine in hand.

No more sweating away in the kitchen whilst everyone else is chatting and laughing in another room. No more demanding that people sit down at the table now, NOW, because dinner is cooked and getting cold. No more the kitchen looking like a bombsite with you desperately trying to clean up between courses. And no more trying to get everything cooked at exactly the same time. I once kept a roast dinner plus the gravy piping hot in there for five hours! And it tasted perfect.

Anyway, we have agreed between us that Miss F will make use of the hot trolley and ensure dinner is in there by 4:30pm at the latest. That will give her plenty of time to clear the kitchen down before I get home, and, best of all, when I step into the house it will be to the enticing aroma of a hot, cooked meal, and the sight of a clean kitchen. Bliss.

Well, that’s the plan, we’ll see how it goes.

So, I returned to work Thursday morning. I will be honest here I was apprehensive and concerned about how it would be. I am struggling to understand why it is okay for me to be in a shop with dozens of germy strangers, but I’m not allowed to sit in my mum’s kitchen. I’m also curious as to why it’s okay for you to have your cleaner back – if you are lucky enough to have such a creature – but likewise my mum can’t set foot in my house! Question: if I gave my mum £1 and asked her to flick a duster around, would she be allowed in then?

 I was also curious to see my colleagues’ hairstyles and wondered what they’d think of my new “no fringe” look. Two other staff members were in that day. My boss and another colleague. My boss had plainly had a go at his hair himself and looked like a shorn lamb. My other colleague hadn’t bothered and was sporting a very impressive pair of emo hair curtains.

After exchanging greetings, we were straight into the return-to-work training and spent an hour or so watching videos that taught us how to wear a mask and gloves and how to avoid getting too close to people. Hmm, okay.

I must admit, the company had done its best to ensure staff and customer safety and had provided plenty of masks, gloves, hand sanitiser, wipes, cleaning solution for all the surfaces, a sneeze guard at the desk, face visors, single use pillow slips for when customers laid on the beds, and even disposable paper sheets to go over the mattress. That last item was not so successful. Have you ever laid on a paper towel? It creases and rips immediately. Imagine a big piece of that – place it on a bed and lay on it, now move around into different sleeping positions. You can see how non-workable this was. The customers ended up carrying little scraps of paper about the shop and very carefully constructing a paper patchwork quilt every time they wanted to lay down.

I had been there about three hours, when my boss looked at me.

Boss: Have you done something different to your eyebrows?

Me: My eyebrows? I don’t think so, why?

Boss: They look different, have you plucked them, or something?

Me: Mate, I haven’t had to pluck my eyebrows since I waxed them to death in the 1990’s.

Boxx: Oh, right, they just look… different, I don’t know.

Me: I no longer have a fringe so you can now actually SEE my eyebrows. Would that be it?

Boss: Oh yeah, that’s it.

Me: I’ve been here three hours and you’ve only just noticed that? Observant, much.

But then, I guess he is a man, bless him, so what did I expect?

I didn’t know if we’d have customers or not, after all, tentatively coming out of a pandemic with a daily death rate that is still unacceptably high, the last place I will be going is into a bed shop, but, we did have customers. Quite a few of them. Some of them were fine with the safety protocols now in place, and sanitised their hands, stayed 2m away from me, and used the paper mattress sheets like good little boys and girls.

Some customers though, didn’t seem to care. They declined the offer of gloves or masks, even refused to sanitise their hands, and then proceeded to wander about touching everything. Seemingly oblivious to the fact us staff were then having to follow them about desperately trying to spray and clean stuff behind them. And then they’d leave, without buying anything – “we’re just looking” – really? Seems silly to risk spreading infection for the sake of just looking at something, but then my belief in the intelligence of some British people has been severely shaken these past few months.

The day passed quickly, but it was surreal and strange, and I could feel my stress levels rising with every customer I dealt with. It’s going to take a long time to get used to this “new” normal. One good thing though, my boss decided to put us all back to our old shift pattern, so that meant I didn’t have to go to work Friday and Saturday, but instead will be in Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and that is why I have been able to write this blog after all.

Driving home from work that first day, I was hungry, thirsty, and had a pounding tightness in my sinuses and behind my eyes. Stress? Yeah, I thought so too. Luckily, when I got home, dinner was in the hot trolley, the house was as I’d left it, and Miss F was hungry enough to eat reasonably quickly. Perfect. Wonder how long it will last for though.

I’ve had a few messages enquiring about how Skittles the cat is doing. Is she still in her recovery vest and does she still hate it? The answer is yes, and oh so much! The wound is much better though, maybe next Monday we can leave the vest off and unlock the cat flap again and let her be free to come and go as she pleases. I won’t be sorry to get rid of the litter tray either. Horrible thing, and it seems every time I’m preparing food or we’re about to eat, that’s the time she picks to climb into the tray and drop the biggest, most stinky poo she can manage. I think it’s a protest poo at her incarceration. How people who keep their cats indoors all the time manage is beyond me. During the hot days we’ve had recently, it’s been a nightmare having to keep doors and windows shut, and every time we go out having to be mindful of where she is in case she tries to escape. We’ll all be relieved when this is over.

It’s Father’s Day on Sunday in the UK, but of course I’m at work, so we’ll be doing the present and card run Saturday afternoon. Miss F hasn’t seen or heard from her father in eight years, so obviously he doesn’t figure into the equation, and when she was at school, Father’s Day – with all its resulting “let’s make a card for our father” shenanigans – was fraught with tension. But she does have two wonderful grandfathers who have always been there for her, so we make a fuss over them instead.

One set of grandparents – my ex-husband’s parents, whom I call the outlaws – are extremely vulnerable and are in deep lockdown. We haven’t seen them since late February which has been hard for Miss F. We’re now allowed to talk to them at a distance though, so will drop a gift bag on their doorstep then stand well away to exchange greetings. Not perfect, but better than nothing. Then we’ll drive over and sit in my parents’ garden to give my father his present. Thank heavens it’s been such lovely weather during isolation, the amount of sitting in gardens we’ve all had to do.

So that’s it, my wonderful long time at home is officially over, and looking back at the past thirteen weeks I wonder where all that time went to. Did I get done everything I planned? No. But the house is the cleanest and most sorted it’s ever been. I painted the kitchen, and even did such time-consuming tasks as washing windows and shampooing carpets. My garden has been tidied up and I’ve painted all the fences – a Herculean task that I’ve been putting off for years! I even found a fabulous husband and wife team of decorators who live locally and have been doing outside jobs all during lockdown. They came Wednesday and started work sanding down and painting my fascia boards and are now working on all the windows. Again, a job I knew was getting more urgent by the minute and it’s such a relief that it’s being done!

Going forward into the future I am feeling more positive. My decks are cleared, metaphorically speaking, and I’m hopeful that with Miss F now taking a more “hands-on” role in the house with regards to cleaning and cooking, that my days off will be free to concentrate on writing and working on my books. I have an idea for a dark and twisty retelling of a classic fairy tale that is scratching at the inside of my brain and demanding to be set free. A perfect book to publish at Halloween, if I can get it written and prepared in time.

Wherever you are in the world, and whatever stage of isolation or re-integration you are at, please stay safe, stay well, and stay happy, and hopefully, I will be back next week.

Julia Blake

Welcome to My Garden!

Another week has gone by and we’re deep into June. 2020 seems to be becoming the year that wasn’t – well, in terms of normal life, that is. Here in the UK we’re still in lockdown, although tentative steps are being taken to re-open society up again. Shops like IKEA and DFS have re-opened and were jammed solid with hordes of people who decided the chance to buy furniture and knickknacks was more important that staying safe and maintaining social distancing.

I’m afraid I can’t fathom why shops like this are considered essential and yet safari parks still remain closed. Surely the fact that you stay in your own car and drive around the park looking at animals from behind firmly sealed windows makes it the perfect isolation visit? I know the actual drive around bit is only one component of a safari park, but surely there is less chance of catching anything in an open-air park, so long as sensible measures were put in place, than crammed into the narrow aisles of an IKEA with dozens of other people? But mine is not to wonder why…

Primary school children were all set to return to school, then the government did a major U-turn and now nobody knows precisely what is happening. As for me, well, my store re-opens tomorrow, but only for the full-time staff. The company is assuming that the store won’t be busy enough in the beginning to justify a full complement of staff so will be assessing the situation on a fortnightly basis. But, if the state of IKEA and DFS are anything to go by, I have a feeling I will be returning sooner rather than later. I have mixed feelings about this. Yes, I want companies to be able to open and hopefully pull themselves back to pre-virus levels – if that’s possible – and of course I want people to stop getting sick and for the death rate to drop. But I can’t help wondering if we’re rushing to get back to normal a little too fast. Again, I am not the one making the decisions and I suppose we will just have to wait and see, and I will keep you posted about my own personal circumstances.

Several of you have contacted me about Skittles the cat. Enquiring if she is alright now and if she’s grown to love her recovery vest. I’m afraid she’s still not loving the vest, although she has stopped falling over each time we put her in it. I wish they made this vest in human size, because it seems to induce a state of sleepiness in her. I know she’s a cat, and sleeping is what cats do, but she sleeps now all the time. We put the vest on her first thing in the morning, and wham, she instantly curls up and goes to sleep on the sofa and that’s where she stays all day.

What’s new Pussy Cat?

We remove the vest last thing at night and use the antibacterial wash on the wound to slow down her frenzied licking of it. We dare not leave her in the vest unattended, as she’s already managed to catch her jaw in the sleeve and got her leg stuck in the opening at an awkward angle. The wound is definitely starting to heal and there’s signs of new skin growing over the abrasion. I think we’ll all be relieved when she’s healed and we no longer have to worry about putting vests on her, or have a cat litter tray in the kitchen, which I find totally gross.

June is officially the first month of summer, so of course it’s not stopped raining all week and the temperature has plummeted from the gorgeous hot sunny days of April and May, to damp, overcast and chilly days that turn into evenings cold enough to justify lighting a fire.

I have managed to do a few more bits and pieces in the garden, and as promised, below is a tour of my tiny plot. There is still a lot to be done, including buying more plants, but during these difficult times it has been hard to get what I wanted so some of it will have to wait.

Gardens are so intensely personal. To me, my garden is like an outdoor room – I can only fit at most six people around my tiny dining room table, but can fit up to ten people around my outdoor table – so it’s a wonderful space for entertaining (weather allowing). When I first moved in thirty years ago, the garden was the site of many a party and barbecue. Back then, most of my friends either still lived with their parents or, if they had moved away from home, lived in tiny, garden-less flats or even in single, rented rooms.

I remember towards the end of one barbecue, I was in the kitchen with some other girls attempting to clear away the aftermath when a friend came in and asked where I kept my coal, wood, and kindling. Confused, I told him down the cellar and watched as he and a couple of other guys bombed down there and came up with armfuls each. Now very curious, we followed them out into the garden and found that a campfire had been started in an old, large, galvanised metal bucket I’d put out there and half-filled with sand for the smokers to put their cigarette remains in. Back then, quite a few of my friends still smoked and I didn’t want butts all over my garden.

Apparently, in an attempt to be helpful, those left in the garden had gathered up the old greasy paper napkins and thrown them into the bucket, where they promptly caught fire from a still smouldering cigarette end. Hey presto, a make-do firepit had been created. Brilliant, they thought, then trooped in to get more combustible material to get a proper fire going.

Pulling our chairs around the flames, we sat there for hours in the gathering darkness, feeding the fire until it blazed up and warmed our faces, while I quickly ran inside and gathered up blankets, shawls, and jumpers to pull around us to keep out backs warm. It was magical and that bucket campfire quickly became a tradition. At the end of every party and barbecue – and we had quite a few back then – everyone would help me clear away and then we’d pull our chairs into a circle around it and sit there and drink and toast marshmallows, swapping stories and telling jokes. I wonder what happened to that old bucket, I think in the end all those fires probably took their toll and it had to be thrown away. Such a simple thing, yet what great memories I have of those long ago, summer evenings.

Anyway, on with tour, and we’ll start by walking out of the back door. Like most Victorian and Edwardian properties, my house has what is called a return running down the side of the kitchen to the garden at the back. It’s a small area, basically just a path, but with a bit of imagination it can still be an attractive place.

Looking out of my dining room window, you can see my freshly painted blue fences. Yes, blue. There are a whole range of fabulous fence and shed paints around now and no law that says fences can only be a shade of brown. That’s boring. Have fun, don’t be afraid to splash out with a bit of colour. And look how amazing the herbs on the window sill look against the blue backdrop.

Looking back at the back door, herbs on the dining room window sill so they’re nice and handy – parsley, thyme, and chives.
And a basket of mint – as you can see, it’s raining
I love having quirky – even kitsch – things in my garden
The world’s tiniest water feature – but it sounds wonderful on a summer’s day
I’ve always wanted a Green Man plaque, and over the water feature is the perfect home for him

Turn the corner at the bottom of the return and you’ll find my pergola which was built for me by my brother. I’ve always wanted a round table as I think they’re a lot friendlier and everyone can be included in the conversation that is bouncing around.

I can fit up to ten people around this table if we all squeeze in a bit.

I found these three screens at a junk yard. They are an ongoing project and I’m waiting for the plants to die down in the autumn so I can take them down, wire brush them and then paint them with a cream metal paint and pick out the leaves in a blue metal paint. I love how they stand at the bottom of the return and you can see hints through them of the garden beyond.

Looking out from under the pergola into the garden and my tiny shed. Those planter boxes are actually made of poured concrete designed to look like driftwood. They will never rot and need no maintenance. They cost a lot but were totally worth it.

Is this the world’s smallest shed?
Looking towards the bottom corner of the garden
This is my favourite place in the garden to sit
Gate leading to the back alley out of my garden. That wall is over 100 years old!
Look how the plants stand out against the blue fence
Built in BBQ to save space
There’s even room for a large garden bed – the bottom swivels out and there’s a huge cushion that goes on top
I’ve had my stone cat for over twenty years! See the “grain” in the concrete planter
I love hares! So when I saw this moon gazing hare I had to have him.
Fill your garden with oddities that make you happy
I trampled my ferns down when painting the fence, but I’m sure they’ll bounce back up
Looking back at the seating area under the pergola
This is the silver birch tree when I planted it in 2006 – with Miss F posing in front of it
This is it in about 2010
Look at it now!

As you can see, it’s a tiny space but boy have I crammed a lot in there. Those of you who read my blog of two weeks ago know how many transformations the garden has been through to reach this stage. I’m finally on the home straight, a few more touches and it will be finished.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my photographic tour of my garden and that maybe it’s given you a few ideas how to make your own outdoor space special, and a reflection of your personality.

A shorter blog this week, but hopefully all the pictures make up for that. Take care of yourselves. Stay safe and stay healthy and I look forward to chatting with you all next Sunday.

Regards

Julia Blake

Life can be so hard!

It has been a week of two halves, weather-wise. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were beautiful. Gorgeous, hot, sunny days which I spent outdoors in the garden with a paintbrush in hand – wondering how much lighter my hair could possibly be bleached and happy that the grey was blending in. I know I was going to take you on a tour of my garden this week and show you what it looks like now, but by Wednesday evening the dark clouds were rolling in, the wind was getting up and the temperature was dropping, so I haven’t been able to take some decent pictures. The weather should improve next week, so I will have some ready for next Sunday, I promise.

Here in the UK we are now allowed to have friends and family come to our garden, so long as social distancing is observed, and I’d arranged for an old friend to come around after lunch on the Thursday for a bottle (or two) of something sparkly in the garden. The weather forecast was doubtful, and when I got up Thursday morning it was a good ten degrees colder than the day before, a chill wind was gusting, and there was a hint of rain.

Garden centres have also all recently re-opened, so I decided to take the car to my nearest B&Q which is only five minutes up the road, to buy a nice assortment of plants to go in my pots and hanging basket, plus some herbs. My friend wouldn’t arrive until 1:30pm so I had plenty of time to buy them and maybe even get them potted up.

The carpark of the garden centre was reasonably empty, and after going through the whole complicated procedure of which door did I go in, and sanitising my trolley handle at the cleaning station set up just inside the shop, I hurried right through to the garden centre bit outside the back of the shop. I grabbed a bottle of super-strength paint remover from a shelf as I passed, because although I tried to be careful when I was painting the fences, I splodged paint on the slate tiles and haven’t been able to get it off. I did try with “Patio Magic” but as far as I can see, the only magic involved with that seems to be how much they can charge for a bottle of something that does absolutely diddly squat to your patio, let alone clean it.

Anyway, I quickly went through the shop and out the back into the outdoor plant area and to say I was a bit disappointed is putting it mildly. Normally, this area is bursting with a colourful array of bedding and perennial plants, shrubs, and climbers. This time it was practically bare. Literally. Row upon row of empty shelves greeted me and I wondered if anything had been left for me to buy.

I pushed my trolley – which had a squeaky wheel – slowly down the rows looking for plants – any plants – to buy. I found a couple of trailing white geraniums. I like geraniums, so that was fine. There were some begonias – again in white, then I found some white petunias – hmm, at this rate my garden was going to look like a knock-off of the white garden at Sissinghurst. Then I found some purple petunias, something called Nemestia – which seemed to have small white flowers, then a whole tray of purple and white striped trailing something or other! There was one tray of lobelia left in the colours of, you’ve guessed it, purple and white. Looks like my garden has a colour theme this year of purple and white!

Not a big assortment

Hanging on a rack nearby were a few ready-made hanging baskets. Again, these had been picked over, but I did find one quite nice one for £10 so into the trolley that went. And that was literally all the plants they had. Figuring I had enough, and if I didn’t, that was tough, I went back through the shop. On the way, I managed to get myself a new laundry basket as I’d broken mine. I reached the check-out. There was no one else in the queue and the usual barricade of plastic around the assistant greeted me, as well as the cheery smile of the young guy behind it.

I was asked to push my trolley to the end, then step well away so he could scan everything into the till. We exchanged pleasantries as he did so, and I commented how sparse their plant stocks were. He rolled his eyes. They’d only re-opened on the 1st of June and the hordes had descended on them like a plague of locusts, stripping the shelves of almost everything they had in stock. Their deliveries simply weren’t coming in fast enough to renew stocks and I’d been lucky to find what I had. He looked a bit worried at this point. Had I been wanting compost for this lot, he asked, only there wasn’t any of that to be had, not for love nor money. Luckily, I’d bought a large bag just before lockdown, so I was good.

It came to £68 so I put my card into the machine and put in my PIN. Card Declined. What? Try again, he said, they’d been having issues with the card machines all week. I tried again. Card Declined. Has this ever happened to you? It is one of the worst feelings in the world. I stood there, feeling myself go brick red, desperately trying to think what state my bank account was in. Reassuring myself that I was absolutely fine. I’d only just been paid, and anyway, I’d been spending so little the last few months I was better off than normal.

I didn’t know what to do. It was the only way to pay that I had on me. The young man was very sympathetic and helpful. Don’t worry, he reassured me, he’d transfer it to another till and try and take the payment there. He did that, and this time the payment went through first time – much to my relief – and I was able to load my plants into the car and go home.

My phone pinged as I was carrying the plants through to the garden. It was a text from my bank. Someone had maybe fraudulently used my card and please could I call them. I called them. Spent five minutes going through layers of security to reach a human being, assured them it had been me, and asked why my card had been declined?

Bank: Well, it was an unusual transaction.

Me: Why? It’s my local garden centre and it was only £60 pounds. What’s so unusual about that?

Bank: It was an instore purchase and not online.

Me: But I’ve been using my card instore at least once a week for the past two months.

Bank: Yes, but not in B&Q. Is there a reason why you haven’t been using it in there?

Me: Are you kidding?

Bank: …….

Me: Do you hear what you’ve just said?

Bank: …….

Me: ……….

Bank: Oh….

Me: Yes?

Bank: Ok, sorry, our bad.

By the time I’d gone through this rigmarole and had lunch, it was time for my friend to arrive and the weather had got worse. There is a back entrance to my garden, so she came that way and it was lovely to see her again and chat, but my word, it was cold out there. We were both layered up, but still we got colder and colder as the afternoon progressed.

It’s so unfair. For weeks now we’ve had amazing weather. Day after day, week after week, of scorching hot sun, blue skies, and not a drop of rain in sight. The second we’re allowed to have a visitor in our gardens, bam, the temperature drops a good ten to fifteen degrees, the wind picks up, and it starts to rain.

Gamely, we stuck it out. We are British after all, so clutched our glasses of Prosecco tighter and huddled further into our layers as a brief rain shower drenched us, then the wind blew us dry. By the time she left at 5ish, I was cold to my core. Even after having a hot meal and being indoors, I still couldn’t get warm.

Friday, it rained all day and the wind blew a gale. It was too cold and wet to work in the garden, so I mooched about the house doing small chores. And now here we are at Saturday afternoon. It’s been raining heavily all day. It’s so cold I have laid a fire for this evening, and this is why us Brits talk about the weather all the time. If we had the kind that was pretty much always the same, day in, day out, then we’d probably not mention it at all, but the fact that we can be sweating up a storm with doors and windows open until midnight because it’s so hot at the beginning of the week, then be lighting a fire because it’s so blessed cold by the end of the week, that there is proper weather and is worth commenting on and moaning about.

In other news, do you remember me telling you that my cat has a wound on her back she won’t leave alone so it’s not healing? Well, the stuff from the vets had proved very ineffective and hasn’t stopped her licking it at all. Finally, in desperation, we bought her what is referred to as a medi-vest but is really a sleeveless onesie for cats. The idea is she wears it and it will stop her licking the wound and will give it time to heal.

We bought one online, they came in a variety of colours including hot pink, cupcake blue and chick yellow, but we were kind to her and bought her the cool army camo one – well, we didn’t want the other cats to laugh at her – and when it was delivered, we tried it on her.

Sulking

Now, I was expecting her to make a bit of a fuss. After all, cats don’t like being dressed up, so we were prepared for some sulks and resentful looks, but oh my word! Talk about a diva. We put it on her. She immediately pretended that her whole centre of gravity had been misaligned and collapsed onto her side with her legs straight out. We picked her back up. She fell over again. We picked her up. She tottered backwards as if her legs no longer worked properly, then fell over her own tail and lay on her side, mewling pathetically.

We hardened our hearts. This was for her own good. She scrabbled about, looking all small and helpless and I must admit, it did upset me a bit. I hate seeing animals distressed and she was really stressing over the whole affair. Obviously, we couldn’t let her out in the vest as it would not only get dirty, but also might get caught on something. So, the cat flap was locked, and I bought in her old litter tray and some litter left over from when we first had her as a kitten. She looked at the tray in disgust, scooped out some litter and threw it all over the kitchen floor, then tottered off into the lounge.

For the rest of the day she was clingy and needy, reverting to mopey toddler mode, demanding non-stop attention and hugs. She didn’t show any signs of learning to love her onesie, but she did settle down a bit with it, and didn’t fall over anytime she stood up. Then it got late, and it was time to go to bed. Normally, that’s when she pops out through the catflap for her evening ablutions, but of course, this evening it was locked.

She bashed at it with her paw, she bashed at it a bit more. Then she charged at it head-on and somehow managed to pop the lock and she was out. I’d just been going upstairs to bed when I heard all the commotion and came running back down to find the catflap ajar and no cat. She had to be found, so we were out in the pitch-black garden stumbling around, shaking the treats bag, and loudly whispering her name.

Luckily, she hadn’t gone far – I think she fell over in the onesie – so I was able to scoop her up and bring her back in. We examined the catflap. Miss F had been the one to lock it and she hadn’t quite clicked the catch into place so a really determined onslaught by the cat had been enough to force it open. We re-locked it again, making sure it was secure this time, and went to bed.

Within minutes we were back down again. The frenzied bashing on the catflap could be heard all over the house, as could the pitiful screaming and yowling. It was no good. We had to admit defeat and take the onesie off, put her collar back on, and unlock the catflap.

A compromise has been reached. She is indoors and in the onesie from the moment I get up in the morning, to the moment I go to bed in the evening, and I just have to hope that will give the wound a chance to heal. If not, it may have to be the cone of shame – and she really won’t like that!

Shorter blog this week, but I promise I will dodge the raindrops during the next few days and take lots of pictures of my garden ready to post next week. Have a great Sunday, whatever you’re doing, and I hope wherever you are that you’re staying safe and staying healthy.

All the best

Julia Blake

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Are you a garden person? You see I think there are different degrees of garden people. There are those who quite like walking around public parks and gardens and appreciate a barbecue or a glass of wine in a friend’s garden, but really couldn’t care less about having one themselves. Then there are those who make do with a balcony or a small patio area, or even just window boxes. There are those who are full-out, full-on gardeners, whose patches are little pieces of heaven right here on earth. They always seem to be beavering away on some project or other and are forever spouting the Latin names of the plants they are planning to create an herbaceous border with.

There are those whose garden more resembles a football pitch, with kids toys and swing sets dominating the space, and everything reduced to practical, low-maintenance functionality. Then there are those like me. We have a garden, albeit small, and we wouldn’t want to be without a garden, but we don’t really want to have to do much with it or expend too much time, money and energy, all of which we have in short supply. Also, we’re not really a hundred percent sure we know what we’re doing most of the time.

I didn’t have a garden until I moved into my current house in 1991. Before that I lived with my parents and of course, they had a garden, quite a large one. But it wasn’t mine, it was theirs, or rather it was my mother’s, so I had zero input into its design or style. It was just there. Something I played in as a kid and we had the occasional barbecue or party in. I moved away from home when I got married in 1988 into a tiny, two-bedroomed flat. It didn’t have a garden of course, although it did have a wooden balcony leading to the front door which I filled with troughs, pots, and hanging baskets of plants.

I have very fond memories of that little flat. It was the first space that was truly mine and I loved and cherished it. We used the balcony a lot, especially in summer, when we would open the front door wide and all the windows and let the summer air flood through. Like a lot of cheap, modern builds it wasn’t terribly well insulated or ventilated so a heatwave could be brutal. Having the shaded balcony was a godsend and we used to pile cushions out there and lay on them, gasping in the heat and gulping down ice cold drinks. The balcony was also great for parties, when our friends would pile out there and annoy the neighbours with drunken laughter and chatting – although if I remember rightly it was mostly young people who lived in the flats so they tended to be invited to the parties anyway.

Back then, several of my friends still smoked so were firmly sent outside to do so. The balcony had a wooden roof above it as it led to the stairs down to the carpark so even if it was raining or snowing, they had some shelter.

Then in 1991 I moved to a three-bedroom Edwardian house in the middle of town. I remember coming to view it and the estate agent, who was a good friend of mine, saying that there was a small enclosed garden at the back of the house. Duly we trooped through the house and out the back door to take a look. Walking down the return – the narrow path that runs down the side of the house to the garden at the back – we were met with an impenetrable jungle of foliage.

Clearly, the garden hadn’t been touched in years and the hollyhocks and roses were up over ten foot, towering above us like Triffids. The photos below show the garden looking left and right from the upstairs, back bedroom window – you can see the corner of the bathroom roof below!

Looking left from the upstairs window
The old shed is under the washing line

It was ridiculously overgrown, with a tumbledown shed at the bottom full of rubbish and no less than three old metal dustbins littered about the small space. One of the bins was full of glass, unwashed milk bottles – that was a lovely discovery!

The only thing to be done was machete everything down to ground level and see what we had. Sadly, there wasn’t a lot that was worth salvaging. The only thing I still have from that original garden is a beautiful old peony bush that blooms for a few brief days of the year. Huge creamy white flowers with a splash of raspberry ripple, they smell divine and I can’t imagine how old this plant must be, at least fifty years old and still going strong.

Looking right – ten foot high hollyhocks and roses

I had so much to do within the actual house – including putting in a kitchen (there wasn’t one) and installing central heating (it only had open fires) – that I simply didn’t have the time or money to do much with the garden. My father and I cleared it and removed old stumps and plants that were so far gone there was nothing to be done but pull them out and start again.

The pictures below show Garden Mark I. Basic and functional, it had a lawn, a shed, new fencing, and a gate. It was an outdoor space and did for a few years while I focused all my efforts indoors. One rather disgusting thing happened though when I was clearing the garden and I still shudder just thinking about it, even though it was thirty years ago. Because it had been untouched for at least a decade, the garden was a paradise for snails. They were everywhere, millions of them, and I knew that they would munch their way through anything I tried to plant.

Looking left from upstairs window

They had to be got rid of. So, I trotted to the nearest garden centre and explained my predicament to a very nice man there. He sold me some extra strength slug and snail pellets, told me to wear gloves when handling them, and make sure I kept my cat indoors until it next rained, as they were so strong it could make the cat sick if he licked them.

The instructions said sprinkle liberally all over the garden. I sprinkled liberally, very liberally. By the time I’d finished it looked like it had been snowing and I went to bed hopeful that my snail problem had been solved. When I got up next morning though, I was greeted with an horrific sight. What the man had failed to mention, and it didn’t say on the bottle, was that the snails would all come to the surface to die. It was like the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme out there. Bodies piled on bodies everywhere I looked.

Feeling guilty about being the cause of such genocide, I got a metal bucket and a shovel and set about trying to clear them up. I had almost filled the bucket with snail bodies when I suddenly realised to my horror that some of them weren’t yet dead! They were writhing and moving around and crawling up the sides of the bucket towards me. I panicked. I put the hose in the bucket and filled it to the top. But of course, snails are aquatic and can swim, and that’s what they did. Now seriously freaked out by this tide of snails crawling over their dead comrades and emerging from the water to seek their revenge, I panicked some more.

Now, I am not proud of what I did next and have no defence except I was freaking out about these creatures that just wouldn’t die! I grabbed a bottle of strong bleach and poured it into the bucket. They exploded into balls of green frothy scum which floated on the top of the water and smelled like nothing I’d ever smelled before! The snails were now all dead, but I had a bucket full of slimy green bodies to dispose of. Just the thought of it still makes me feel sick and is the reason why I won’t ever try snails in a restaurant.

Looking right from upstairs garden

Gradually, over the years, I softened the outlines of the garden. I dug some side beds and planted lots of plants. I bought pots and ornaments and the garden matured and developed nicely.

Left side of garden
right side of garden
Looking down the return into the garden

Then my husband and I decided the garden wasn’t trendy enough for us, it didn’t have a wow factor. So, we both took a week off work and slaved non-stop to create something a little more exciting. The lawn went, to be replaced with pink gravel. The boring patio slabs were dug up. All the fences, the gate and the shed were painted blue.

Left hand side

We painted our table and chair set blue and relocated it further down the garden. We bought a garden fire and introduced different heights into the garden with plant obelisks and wooden shelving for my husband’s collection of bonsai trees. We built raised beds with blue painted wooden edging and painted the back wall of the house cream. We installed a mill stone water feature to get the sound of running water in the garden and bought a ton of new plants.

Right hand side – blue shed

It looked great. Everyone went wow. But it was the most impractical garden ever! Walking on gravel is not great at the best of times, and I’d been in the habit of wandering out into the garden barefoot. Not any more I didn’t. Those stones could really bruise. They also made the wearing of heels impossible, and many a female friend saw her brand-new heeled shoes ruined. Trying to sit in the chairs was also problematic as the legs would simply sink down into the gravel, and the chair would then become impossible to move. But it looked pretty.

Mill stone water feature

We still had a bit of a snail problem, and as my husband was really keen to grow hostas – which snails love – it meant a permanent war was being waged between him and the slimy terrorists, with the snails usually winning. I remember one day he went out there at dawn with a bucket and a torch. It had just been raining all night, so the snails were out in force, and he was determined to gather up as many as he could.

An hour later he triumphantly showed me a bucket full of snails. I asked him what he intended to do with them all, and before I could stop him, he had tossed the entire lot over the flint wall at the bottom of the garden. Now, there used to be a bank there and our garden backed onto their carpark. Luckily, that hour in the morning, I knew no bank employees would be parked there. But, at that time I was working for an accountant based at the bottom of our road who used to park his car early in the morning in – yep, you’ve guessed it – the bank’s carpark.

I went to work to find my boss waiting for me. We were paying a visit to one of the pubs we used to do the books for, as their records were all on their computer system and it was easier to do the monthly wages there. We walked around the corner into the carpark and there was his car. Parked exactly opposite where our house would be on the other side of the wall, completely covered with smashed snails and birds having a fabulous breakfast.

Oh no! My boss exclaimed. Look at that! Look at all those snails those birds have dropped all over my car. I kept my mouth firmly shut but told my husband that evening he would have to find some other way to dispose of the victims of the snail war!

Looking back at the house

Then I had a baby, and suddenly the mildly inconvenient garden became hugely unsuitable. It wasn’t too bad while Miss F was a baby and the only time she really went out into the garden was to nap in her pram, but as she grew older and began crawling and walking, it became obvious that the gravel would have to go.

By this point I was divorced and no longer had to take my husband’s wishes into consideration when planning my garden. So, once again my father came to help, and together we made the garden a more suitable place for a young child to play in. He built me a restraining wall to protect my plants, provide extra seating, and the restraining wall could be used as a play surface for toy cars and animals. Some of the gravel was used to create a pathway down to the new, high, sturdy, and lockable gate to keep little people contained. A lawn was put back in to provide a soft play area, and for her second birthday we all chipped in and bought Miss F a cute little wooden playhouse.

Miss F posing in front of her playhouse
and newly planted silver birch sapling 2006

And it was fine. While Miss F was growing up and using the garden as much as she was, it was fine. A little boring, not really what I wanted, but when you’re a parent it isn’t always about what you want, rather it’s what your child needs. The lawn was always scattered with toys and dolls, plastic animals lurked in the undergrowth and in the summer months a small, pink, paddling pool was a permanent fixture turning the grass underneath yellow and giving the cats a handy giant water bowl.

One drawback to the garden was how hot it got in summer. My garden faces East to West, with the sun rising on my bedroom windows at the front of the house, travelling down the fence all day and setting over the flint wall at the bottom of the garden in the evening. From midday onwards when the sun pulled itself over the top of the house, that garden cooked! I mean, seriously cooked.

I remember having friends and family around and us all trying to squeeze under the table parasol to get out of the intense sun. The metal table and chairs would merrily heat up to several thousand degrees and would then inflict third degree burns on any bare flesh that was foolish enough to touch them. Some lovely summer days I didn’t dare let Miss F play out there as it was far too hot for a little person, and I was afraid she’d get heatstroke or serious sunburn.

I needed shade of some kind. So, I bought a tree. Well, I bought two trees to be precise. A small Morello cherry tree to go in the side raised bed, and a Himalayan dwarf silver birch to be planted next to Miss F’s playhouse in the hope it would provide some much-needed shade to it. (See the photo above) The temperature inside her house reached scary levels and again there were many days when she simply couldn’t go into it.

Morello cherry tree in blossom

People said at the time – and still say it now – that I was mad to even consider planting one tree in such a small garden, let alone two. I always replied that even in the smallest garden there is no limit on up. So long as you buy a slow growing, dwarf variety, and crop it vigorously every winter, there is no reason why every garden can’t have at least one tree.

Over the years, both trees have thrived. The cherry tree provides over 50lbs of fruit each year, but we do have to give it a brutal haircut each year to prevent it taking over the garden. The tiny silver birch has also grown quite considerably and is now a beautiful young tree providing dappled shade and movement in the garden on even the hottest days.

Silver birch 2011

The garden served a purpose during the years Miss F needed it to be a safe, practical place for her to play, but it was never my dream garden. That, I had to wait for. Next week, I will take you on a tour of what my garden looks like now, and talk you through all the changes that have occurred to make it the pretty little haven it is now.

Take care everyone, wherever you are and whatever stage of isolation or emergence you are at, stay safe and stay well. Below is a poem from my book Eclairs for Tea and other stories (available from Amazon) which was written during the period of child-friendly garden, when plants were left to grow, and grass was rarely cut.

Julia Blake

~ This is Heaven ~

Where the birds sing and the bees hum,

And the afternoon sun catches and stays

Baking paths and metal chairs

Until they bite at unwary flesh.

Where I learn how to breathe again.

Where she creates a fantasy land,

A world peopled with little folk.

Where flowers nod and blossom drifts

From an over-fertile cherry tree,

Thick with promise of dark, sweet fruits to come,

The delights of jam, pies, and cherry brandy.

Here, now, this is heaven.

A red tin watering can inexpertly plied

As she waters with careless abandon

Plants, lawn, paths, and feet all thoroughly soaked.

A slumbering cat, bonelessly sprawled in a plant pot,

Flecks of sun-hardened soil sprinkling its soft belly.

An indignant, shocked protest

As it too is watered in hopes it may grow.

An Englishman’s home may be his castle,

But for this Englishwoman it is her garden.

This tiny, non-descript plot of land

Bound on all sides by house and fence,

Yet, look up, look up,

Above is ten thousand acres of sky.

A bowlful of water for the making of mud pies,

Long grass for a jungle, home to so many animals,

That on the rare occasions I mow

A thorough search must be mounted

To ensure no loss of plastic life.

I am reliably informed fairies inhabit our garden.

Drawn by its disordered unruliness and wild abandon.

And sometimes, eyes half-closed against the sun,

Senses tuned into the busy thrum of nature,

I fancy I see them, quick and jewel like,

Darting and weaving,

Their wings incandescent blurs of movement.

She makes a snail farm.

Suppressing shudders, I watch as she searches

Dark secret places for livestock,

Confidently plucking each up by its shell

Displaying green frilly underskirt.

Delighting when one ventures probing horns

From its tawny home.

She finds a green beetle, carapace hexagonal.

Watching for what seems hours

Its patient scrambling over the obstacle course

She has built for its amusement,

And I sympathise with its frustration,

Its forever climbing of twigs and leaves.

Antennae vibrating in questioning bafflement

It scurries in endless circles,

Before she finally grows bored and sets it free.

I’m given cups of delicious mud tea,

My plate piled high with gourmet delights

Such as twig soup and dandelion cake,

Which I eat with appreciative relish

Until she is satisfied, and I can return with relief

To my glass of Chardonnay.

Droplets of cold condense on my palm,

The shock of icy tartness on my tongue.

I tip my head back, eyes shut,

Feel the caress of sun warm on my face.

Where time stands still

And an afternoon lasts forever,

Where a child can imagine; and an adult forget.

Where secrets are whispered; and promises made.

Here, now, this is heaven.

Where I’m a little bit cross and have a rant!

I had to block someone on Instagram this week. Well, I didn’t have to, but I wanted to. Usually when I block someone it’s a stupid man sending me inappropriate messages, or it’s someone trying to sell me something (I don’t even know what a bitcoin is, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want one). This time, however, it was someone I’ve known on there for a very long time. She’s not part of my inner circle but was close enough. This person – let’s call her Karen because everyone else will – always did have an astringent side to her. Every now and then, she’d bitch slap me on one of my own posts, take a jokey meme way too seriously and get stroppy about it, or lecture me about my life choices. I’ve always let it ride up until now. But not this time.

I don’t know what your feelings are about this Corona thing, but I think we can all agree it’s not a good situation. So, when she stated on my post that it’s a big fuss over nothing, and we shouldn’t all be under house arrest, I was annoyed. Then she went on to state that her immune system was strong and healthy, she didn’t know anyone who’d even had it, let along died from it, so it was all a load of nonsense as far as she was concerned – and she’d done her research, so she should know. It’s no worse than the flu, she claimed.

When I pointed out that over 40,000 deaths in the UK alone was a bit more than just the flu, she retorted with the remark that all those who’d died had underlying health issues so were clearly going to die anyway.

First of all, shut up. Anyone who states on social media that they know more than the world’s medical and scientific experts needs to be prepared to show qualifications in those fields before I will pay them any attention.

Secondly, could you be any more callous if you tried? Those people would have died anyway?! I beg to differ, and I expect their families and friends would be shocked to the core to be told that it didn’t matter their loved one had died of Corona, because X, Y or Z would have killed them anyway. Her statement was also inaccurate because thousands of those poor souls who have died did not have any underlying health conditions, and even if they did, that doesn’t mean they were expendable.

Thirdly, that “I’m alright Jack, sod anybody else” attitude really offends me. Okay, so maybe you are fit and strong and healthy, maybe you do think it’s wrong to be in isolation. That’s your opinion, and we are all entitled to them. Maybe you do decide to take your family down the road to see Auntie Madge. Fine, that’s your decision, and it isn’t really endangering anyone else except you, your family, and Auntie Madge. And maybe you and your friends do decide to congregate in your garden and have a barbecue, because it’s a lovely sunny day and why should you be forced to give up your social life for a bunch of weak people who are probably going to die anyway – herd immunity, that’s what it’s all about. Again, that isn’t really endangering people outside your social circle.

But when you decide to crowd into shops and outdoor spaces, refuse to stay away from others who are obeying the rules and social distancing, and think it’s fun to scare people by coughing in their faces, then that’s no longer you being a dick and making a choice to endanger just yourself and your family – that is you taking away other peoples right to make a choice to stay safe.

Sure, you may not give a hoot about your own well-being, but you should still respect that other people are very scared about the whole situation. That although people may look healthy on the outside, you have no idea what their medical condition is. Maybe, and I know this might be a strange concept for you to grasp, they don’t want to be the one to carry this virus home to a loved one who is vulnerable to it and be the reason why they die. Because whether the effects of this virus are just like a bad dose of flu to the vast majority who catch it, one thing everyone is agreed on is the sheer contagiousness of this virus. And that is why we are in isolation and social distancing. Not because we will probably die if we catch it, but because we will almost certainly become a carrier and pass it on down the line to others who are not so fit and healthy – and whatever Karen might have to say about the matter, no one deserves to die before their time simply because someone else couldn’t be bothered to keep their distance and thought it didn’t matter.

So, that’s why I blocked her. She is gone from my life forever – if only it had been that easy in school – and I don’t have to put up with her tactless comments anymore.

Anyway, rant over, but I’m sure you have come across the same and not just on social media. Here in the UK we are still in the grip of it, the daily death rate is in its hundreds, and it’s too soon to be planning big parties. That was another thing Karen lectured me on, not supporting local businesses because I happened to mention that I’m not getting takeaways whilst this virus is still so virulent. Apparently, not being willing to risk my health and that of my family, for a Starbucks coffee or a McDonald’s makes me a terrible person. I never bought those things anyway, so why I would suddenly want to now is a mystery. Again, if someone wants to get takeaways that is their choice, but I’ve had many friends who’ve worked in the catering industry over the years, and I’ve heard enough horror stories about what goes on in restaurant kitchens to put me off eating out and getting takeaways at the best of times, let alone when a virulent global pandemic is raging.

Okay, the rant really is over now.

So, what has everyone been up to in the two weeks since I last blogged – and I would like to apologise for being Missing in Action last week. The truth was I simply had nothing to say about anything – I know! Imagine that! – and furthermore was becoming very stressed about it. All last Saturday morning, I fretted and worried because time was ticking on and I still hadn’t written a word. Then it suddenly struck me that the world wouldn’t end just because I missed a week. That the six people who read my blog (hello there) would forgive me.

Again, the week has flown by and every day has been busy, although I know I go at a much more relaxed pace now, and I think it’s doing me good. I’m sleeping better and for longer. I’m calmer and happier. I don’t think I had fully appreciated how much my non-stop life was exhausting me, and that trying to cram too much into too few hours was taking its toll. This unique opportunity to slow down, relax, and even come to a complete stand-still now and then, has done me good. To be honest, I am going to find it hard to go back to how things were, and know I need to explore ways to take the stress out of my life and try to carry some of this present calmness into the future. To not allow myself simply to be sucked back into the madness so all these weeks will have been for nothing.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way either.

Last Sunday I did a major shop, and I mean major. Up until now, I’ve been dashing to the local shop on foot once a week and foraging for what I could get. Just before going into lockdown I had done two large shops and stocked up with food and other essential items, but those had all gone. I needed to do another big shop, so took the car to Waitrose first thing Sunday morning before it had even opened. Usually, by going to the store at this time on a Sunday, I’m practically the first one there and have the shop almost to myself. But this time the queue was already stretched around the carpark, with people clutching the handles of large trolleys with the anticipation of battle in their eyes.

When I finally got in it was the most crowded the shop has ever been, which made me a little tense. With a two-sided A4 list instead of a few items scribbled onto the back of an envelope, this shopping experience was very different from what I had become accustomed to, and it was with relief that I started loading my purchases onto the till. The lady on the till was very helpful, giving me time to pack my bags one end, before rolling more stuff towards me.

I happened to mention how busy they were, and she rolled her eyes at me. She didn’t know why, she said, but the last three days had been manic. Double the normal amounts of customers, and most seemed to be doing really big shops, like mine. Not what they had become used to over the weeks since lockdown commenced.

I wondered why this might be. It could be because everyone did a month’s shop before the commencement of lockdown and so their supplies were running low, as mine were. Or perhaps they had the same gut feeling that they needed to stock up ready. Ready for what, I’m not sure. But we are well supplied now and have no need to go shopping again for quite some time.

In other news, the weather here has been gorgeous this week, so I finally started painting the garden fences. This is a job that has been outstanding for years, but because it’s such a massive task I have done my usual procrastination and put it off. To be fair though, when I’m working it’s absolutely the last thing that I want to do on my days off. But now I have no more excuses.

Thursday dawned nice and sunny, so I put on my painting clothes and opened the paint. Now, my garden has the colour theme of blue and cream and the fences down the right-hand side have already had a coat of blue paint, as has my tiny shed, the pergola, and the gate. But the fence down the left-hand side hasn’t been painted at all. Then I have quite a few trellis panels dotted around, and they have all been painted cream, Although, my garden is only small, there are a lot of fences. From the back door down the left-hand side of the garden to the boundary at the bottom, it’s about a 30’ stretch, and the right-hand fence is about 18’. That’s a lot of fence to be painted. Much of it is difficult to get to as well, involving squeezing behind plants and a cherry tree, dismantling a water feature, and moving two coal bunkers and a log store. You can see why I’ve been putting it off.

Now, the paint I bought when I painted the shed, pergola etc was a colour called Boathouse Blue from the company Wilks. However, when I went to buy some more in early March that colour had been discontinued and replaced with a colour called Beach Hut Blue, which looked exactly the same. At least according to the little round colour spot on the tin it did.

I did a little googling, and it turned out that another company also did a fence and shed paint called Boathouse Blue, and I wondered if Wilks had been forced to change the name of theirs because the other company had it first.

I bought two large tins, after all – Boathouse/Beach Hut – how different a blue could they be? The answer, very different. I opened the tin. Far from the lovely bluebell blue I was expecting it was a sickly, creamy colour with a bluish tinge. Hmm. I thought, stirring it vigorously. Not quite what I was expecting, but I was sure it would be fine. So, I took it down to the bottom of the garden and made a start. One fence panel in and I was not sure about it AT ALL. It went on like an undercoat of paint and dried up like dirty dishwater.

By the time I stopped on Thursday I was still very unsure. But I’d started and had two large tins of the stuff, which of course I no longer had the receipt for, so I had no choice but to plough on. Never mind, I thought, I’ll do a coat and see how it dries up. If I still hate it, then I’ll simply buy a different colour and do the second coat in that.

By Friday morning however, the paint had had overnight to dry and was beginning to look better. It’s still not as vivid as the Boathouse Blue colour I was expecting, instead it’s a silvery greyish blue, but I think it might actually work better on the fence it’s going on. The left-hand side of my garden never gets any sun and after years of trying to make conventional plants grow there, I eventually had to give up and do my research about what plants thrived in shade. So, I now have a small Morello cherry tree which always provides a good 50lbs of cherries every summer. There are numerous different fuchsias and ferns, plus hellebores, Solomon Seal, and hardy geraniums. Basically, it’s a shady woodland garden and I think this lighter blue with its slightly pearlescent finish will work very well to brighten up a rather gloomy side of the garden. I have even bought a 49’ string of solar powered twinkling star-shaped lights to drape all along the fence and up into the tree. They come with eight different mood settings, including one called fireflies, which sounds very exciting.

I have a small water-feature in my garden which is as charming as it’s tiny. It creates a lovely sound but because it is so small the water tends to disappear quite quickly and it’s important to remember to turn it off when not in the garden. However, a couple of years ago I forgot, and when I next went out into the garden it was to find that I’d burnt the pump out. I’ve been meaning to buy a new one, so over the next week I will pull the old one out and buy a new one online.

The ivy has also been rampaging all over it completely unchecked, so I’ve pulled all the ivy off and laid it down on the ground. I need to get behind the feature to paint the fence, so I might as well tidy up all the old leaves and mulch that have accumulated, clean and repaint the piece of trellis from behind the feature which is what the ivy was supposed to be growing up. When all the painting has been done I will reattach the trellis to the fence, trail the ivy back up it, thread my twinkling firefly lights all through it and get the newly cleaned and restored water feature in working order again.

As many of you know, one of my most popular books is called The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ and its cover is a stunning, atmospheric picture of the Green Man of legend. Well, I have always wanted a Green Man of my own, so this morning I ordered myself a wonderful one which I will hang from the trellis above the water feature. I mean to half hide it in the ivy so he will peer out at you.

These past two months have made me appreciate my garden, and maybe fall in love with it all over again. It is small, but it’s a really sweet, peaceful and safe haven. It’s my garden, so I can do with it what I please. If I want to have blue fences, I can. Cream trellis work, why not? Twinkling star lights everywhere, bring it on. I love quirky and odd little curios in my garden. People’s gardens are so personal to the kind of person they are. If they have plants all lined up like a battalion of soldiers, each the exact same distance from the next, then that says quite a lot about what that person wants from life. Order. But if someone’s garden is a little tangled, a touch overgrown with plants rambling where they will, then that person welcomes a little chaos and natural disorder in their world.

In other news, my poor cat has a nasty place on the bottom of her back which she will not leave alone. I think she’s been in a fight or rather, judging by where the wound is, has run away from a fight. She’s licked and licked and licked herself bald in that spot, and it’s very unpleasant to look at. I left it for a bit, hoping it would heal by itself, but it doesn’t seem to be going away, so Friday morning I telephone the vet to find out what the protocol was.

I felt it couldn’t be considered an emergency, and the vet agreed. Instead we took pictures of the wound which the vet examined and agreed it was mildly infected and the important thing was to stop her licking it and give it a chance to heal. Saturday morning, I drove to the vets and parked in the carpark. I then had to telephone a special number to let them know I was there. A moment later the door opened, a hand came through the gap and a bottle was placed on the ground. The door then firmly shut, and I was able to retrieve the bottle.

Regular, long term readers of my blog will know dodgy dealings in carparks is a bit of a thing with me!

And now it’s Saturday evening, whilst writing this I’ve been cooking one of my favourite meals of chicken in a creamy tarragon sauce with crunchy roasted new potatoes and carrots. The sauce contains about 2oz of white wine, so that means a whole bottle has been opened. Hmm. Wonder what I can do with the rest. You have to look for the small pleasures in life.

Stay safe and stay healthy everyone, and hopefully, I will be back next week and maybe I’ll even remember to take some photos of the garden,

Julia Blake

The Most Boring Blog Ever!

It’s 8am on Sunday and another week has rolled by so quickly I’m not sure where it went. I’ve been busy all week editing the first three books of the Blackwood family saga ready for republication soon, and my eyes are tired of wearing glasses and looking at a screen.

All day yesterday I kept thinking – “I must write my blog” – but the sun was shining so I pootled about the garden instead, I had breakfast out there with Miss F and I made six bookstack challenge posts for Instagram next week.

In short, I did everything but write my blog.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy my blog, because I do. And I know there are people who read it religiously every Sunday and I certainly didn’t want to let them down – all six of them. It was more I was tired. Tired of looking at my glowing laptop screen and tired of words. So tired of words. In fact, after a whole week of moving words around, taking them out, putting them back in again, and looking for the bad words that I’ve used one too many times, and yes, I am looking at you – just, suddenly, really and only – there was a real reluctance to look at any more.

As any author will tell you, editing sucks. Oh, not in the beginning, it doesn’t. In the beginning when you’re still in love with your story and it’s all fresh and shiny and new, it’s great fun. Polishing and perfecting it. But. When you’ve gone through it a gazillion times and you’re still finding things to fix, then it’s not fun anymore. In fact, you are so sick of looking at your story that the temptation to just forget the whole thing is immense. And you know, no matter how many times it’s edited, no matter how many editors, beta readers and arc readers look at it, there will always be that one mistake that is missed by everyone. Like a cockroach behind the skirting board it will lurk, waiting until the book is published and you hold your beautiful paperback copy in your hands for the first time. You open it up to feast your eyes on this masterpiece you have created and wham – that’s when it hits you between the eyes – the error on page 56.

Usually it’s not a massive error, it’s a missing full stop or a too instead of a to, no one else will probably even notice it’s there. But you know it’s there, and yes, it is possible to change it and republish it, but is it worth all the hassle of having to get another pdf made simply for that?

So, that’s what I was doing all this week. And sorting out new covers with my cover designing team and trying to write blurbs – which as any author will tell you is the hardest thing about writing a book – an 80,000 word story which all ties together and has a beginning, a middle and an end – no problem. A succinct blurb of under 200 words that effectively sums up the story without giving away any spoilers, and that tempts the reader to buy the book without putting the entire plot on the back cover – impossible. I’ve seen many a writer reduced to tears by writing the blurb. And I’ve had three of them to do this week.

I was also rather stuck for what to write this week. After all, it’s not like I’ve gone anywhere or done anything exciting. I’m sure you don’t want to hear about my single trip to the post office where a man in front of me in the queue couldn’t stop coughing and everyone in the queue, as one entity, moved back to give him and his possibly germ infested breath, lots of room.

Or how I went shopping and did my usual forage of whatever I could find on the shelves before scuttling home again, so relieved to be able to close my front door on the world for another week.

Maybe you would be interested to hear that the previous week I spent a very long day deep cleaning my bathroom? I managed to remove the shower screen and propped it up into the bath and spent hours simply going at it again and again with some very powerful limescale remover I’d bought and some mould remover. ** note, do not mix these two together. Trust me on this one. Unless you want to be forced from the bathroom wheezing, with your eyes tearing and your lungs feeling like you’ve just inhaled acid, keep these two far apart! **

When I’d finally finished, Miss F came in for an inspection.

“The shower screen!”

“What about it?”

“You can see through it! I didn’t know it was supposed to do that!”

I told you it was powerful limescale remover. It took several applications and much scrubbing and even chipping at the layers, but I finally got off stuff that I think pre-dated the Jurassic period. Oh, the joys of living in a very hard water area.

On a depressing note, I think my dishwasher is finally kaput. It’s been getting more unreliable over the past few years. There are certain “dead zones” in there, that I know if I put things in that zone they won’t be cleaned, but now it’s like I forgot to switch the machine on at all. Stuff is coming out as dirty as it went in. So yesterday I once again took the filter apart and thoroughly cleaned it, I topped it up with salt and rinse aid, and I used an expensive dishwasher cleaner on it. Has it made a difference? I don’t know. We’ll find out when we next use it.

I hope it can be salvaged. Although it is seventeen years old it was a very expensive, top of the range model, and I have looked after it, to replace it is going to cost me a lot of money. As well, it’s one of those built into the cupboard ones so that limits the models I will be able to choose from. Once I’m allowed to, I will get Rob my trusty appliance man, to take a look at it. It’s possible there’s a problem that can be fixed and keep the machine going for a little while longer.

Miss F got her college results back for the year. Luckily, she and most of her class, had managed to complete the majority of their exams before lockdown. There were a couple of presentations she had to complete at home and submit via the internet, and one rather interesting practical demonstration she had to do via Skype involving our long-suffering cat and a towel which left the cat a bit traumatised. I am happy to say though, that pending additional points that will be awarded once her work placement report is finalised, she has passed this year’s exams with at least a merit and possibly a distinction.

It’s all she needs to be able to move up to the next level in September – if the colleges are all open again by then, that is. She has now completely finished with her college work for this school year, and even if schools reopen for the summer term, I don’t think she will be going back to college as there wouldn’t be much point. Although, who knows?

That seems to be the underlying theme at the moment. Nobody knows what is going to happen. We’re definitely in lockdown for another three weeks at least, which I must admit I’m relieved about. But all around me I can feel how frustrated and agitated people are becoming. On my weekly trip up town I have noticed there seem more people out each time. Most are obeying social distancing rules, but many are not.

My own neighbours in my road are all displaying signs of cabin fever and are clutching at any excuse to linger for chats in the street. They begin by religiously obeying the 2m apart rule, but as they gossip you can see them drifting closer and closer together. They are also in and out of each other’s gardens and again not adhering strictly to the rules of 2m apart and don’t share food from each other’s kitchens. I can understand it, I can, but at the same time it makes me uncomfortable.

It was VE Day on Friday and the Government sent out very mixed messages about coming together to celebrate but still obeying social distancing rules from your front garden. Well, I live in a Victorian street where the houses don’t have front gardens, not really. A short path and steps up to the front door, is all you get.

We hung out whatever flags and bunting we could get hold of, there was wartime music being played from someone’s house and people stood outside their houses with a drink of something and called out to each other, and that was nice. But then, after a while and as I expected, people began to drift up and down the street chatting to each other, and again, the 2m rule began to be bent, ever so slightly. At that point, I said goodnight and went indoors. They are lovely people, but at the end of day, I don’t know where they’ve been or who they’ve been in contact with.

The weather has been very changeable, after all those weeks of gorgeous sunny days and balmy evenings, it suddenly changed to cold, wet and windy, and the sheer weight of water knocked a piece of my guttering loose at the front of my house. This caused much consternation amongst my neighbours who all rushed to tell me that I must get it fixed or it would cause major problems. Yeah, no kidding? Easier said than done though in the middle of a lockdown. Luckily, the problem has been fixed without too much effort on my part. The neighbour opposite to me has had decorators re-painting all his exterior windows this week. They are a local firm who have carried on working but only on exterior jobs. They are a husband and wife team in isolation together and live in the town so can pop home whenever necessary for lunch and toilet breaks.

Anyway, I was in the garden on Friday collecting in the washing, when Miss F came running out to tell me that there was a man at the front door asking to speak to her mum. Curious, I went to see, and it was the painter from across the road asking if while he was there with his extra long ladder, would I like him to fix the gutter for me?

I was delighted and offered to pay him, but he refused to take anything, scuttled up his ladder and pushed the gutter back into position. But, I did ask him to give me a quote for sanding down and re-painting my fascia boards as they haven’t been done since about 1909 – certainly not in the thirty years I’ve been living her – and they look terrible and desperately need doing. So, they will be coming back next week, weather allowing, to get this job finally done.

Speaking of finally getting things done, we at last have a working doorbell. After at least twenty years of mine not working and having to stick a little note over it ordering people to KNOCK, Miss F ordered us a wireless one from Amazon. With brute force and ignorance, I managed to prise the old one off the front door – the screw had corroded into place – and screwed the new one on.

It’s really fancy – with two receivers that you can plug in anywhere in the house and about fifty different ring tones! It will be useful to be able to take one of the receivers outside and plug it into the outside socket in the garden. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been out there and heard the phone ringing indoors, so have come running in to answer it, only to find it’s someone standing on my front doorstep unable to make me hear their frantic knocking.

What will happen in three weeks-time, I don’t know. I work for a company selling beds and mattresses, which in the short term can in no way be considered essential. Indications are that lockdown will be eased gradually, with the more essential businesses opening up first. Like I said, beds aren’t immediately essential, so I don’t know if that means we’ll be left in lockdown for longer. I’ve heard nothing from my firm, other than the odd reassuring text from my manager checking that we’re all okay and still alive, so all I can do is wait to be given instructions.

The temperature is due to drop next week, but still remain dry, so I’m thinking I should begin on the mammoth task of painting my garden fences. I know me. If I go back to work and I haven’t even started the job, then that paint will remain in the shed for another year or two. But, if I have at least made a good start, then the impetus will be there to finish the job. I’ve dusted off my old iPod which I can listen to the radio on, together with a pair of lightweight headphones. Painting fences is such a boring job that I’ll need something to stop me going insane. If I can do even just a couple of hours a day then perhaps over the next three weeks, I’ll make real inroads into the job, maybe even finish it. I will keep you all posted.

This is not the most exciting blog I’ve ever written, but at least I’ve written something. I was reluctant to break the habit as I’ve managed to produce a blog every single week (with the exception of Christmas) for almost a year now.

I hope you all enjoy your Sunday – as most of you know, it’s sofa Sunday for me and Miss F, when we slob on the sofa and binge watch films with snacks and drinks, and there’s pizza for dinner. We’re now watching our way through all the Marvel films in the correct viewing order. We’re up to Thor 1 and also Avengers Assemble, if there’s time. I enjoy these Sundays when we completely relax and do nothing but watch movies all afternoon, but I wouldn’t want to do it every day. That would very quickly become boring.

My tea is long gone and somehow, I’ve dredged up 2400 words. I’m now going to make coffee and breakfast and get this day started, so, stay home, safe safe, stay healthy.

Julia Blake

The Show Must Go On!

A couple of weeks ago I chatted about the inspiration behind my fantasy novel Erinsmore. How it was a trip to see The Lord of the Rings musical in the West End of London that sparked the idea that would sprout into my own epic fantasy tale. Since then, several of you have messaged me to say how much you enjoyed that memory, and did I have any more like it? Well, I do, so because I’m bored of talking about isolation and the current situation, I thought I’d take you all with me on a trip down memory lane.

Lord of the Rings

When did my love of musicals begin? Well, it must have been when I was about 14 and went on a fabulous school trip to London. This was in 1981 and we all piled onto a coach very early one morning and went to London Zoo for the day. It was a zoo so it was great, although I had stupidly decided to wear new summer sandals that day without breaking them in first and by the end of the first hour walking around looking at all the animals, I was in real trouble. What we did about food I have no recollection, probably we’d been ordered to take pack up so we would have been carrying that around with us as well.

In the evening, we went to see the brand-new Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical “Cats” which had only been open a few weeks but already had received rave reviews. How our drama teacher had managed to get us tickets, I have no idea. I do remember our seats were quite high up, but it didn’t matter, because the whole stage was spread out below us. None of us had ever been to a West End show before, so had no idea what to expect. Back in the late seventies/early eighties travelling all the way up to London to see a show was almost unheard of and was something other people did.

Anyway, there we all were, about 60 of us and several teachers, spread over several rows, fidgeting and whispering with excitement as the lights went down and it crashed into those opening bars of that now iconic music.

I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, I’d begged to be allowed to go more for the zoo than for some strange show in the evening, and besides, by now my feet were just ten screaming blisters where my toes used to be and I had a strong suspicion when I took my socks off that night they’d be full of my own blood. But when that music started, I forgot everything and was instantly carried away to the back alleys and streets where the cats lived.

We were extremely fortunate, although we didn’t grasp it then, but the cast we saw were the original and the best, filled with stars and soon-to-be-stars, and it was extraordinary. How about this for a cast list – Elaine Paige, Brian Blessed, Wayne Sleep, Sarah Brightman, Paul Nichols and Bonnie Langford.

Cats

Totally spellbound, we all sat glued to our seats bursting into wild applause at the end and jumping to our feet with excitement when a very familiar figure walked onto the stage carrying that famous red book. Yes, it was Eamon Andrews from This is Your Life, come to take Wayne Sleep straight away to film the show. It was the cherry on the top of an amazing cake and that was it. I was bitten by the West End bug that night and it’s never really left me.

Being only 14, living in a small town and always being permanently broke, I didn’t have another chance to take in a West End show for several years. Although I did see various other productions performed locally. Shows such as Fiddler on the Roof and Oliver Twist that deepened my love of the grand musical.

It wasn’t until I had left home and was earning my own money that I entered into a “show” period in my life, when I was going up to London to see a show at least once a year and sometimes more often. A local coach company offered very good deals on theatre excursions where you’d pay one price and get designated coach seats right to the theatre and back again, plus excellent seats at a London show – they could buy in bulk in advance so the seats were generally extremely good. Not having to worry about driving to London or trying to park was also a huge advantage. It meant that I and whoever I’d gone with could find a fabulous restaurant to have an amazingly long and boozy lunch in, then fall into the show secure in the knowledge that at the end of it the bus would be waiting outside for us. We generally did the matinee as it meant not such a late homecoming, especially if it was a work night.

I remember going to see The Lion King with my favourite cousin on one of those coach trips. We fell into a Loch Finn restaurant both starving hungry and ordered smoked salmon for starters and their huge sharing seafood platter between us for the main course. This thing was astonishing. A large, three-tiered metal contraption was placed on the table between us. The bottom tier simply held an empty bowl, for the rubbish, we were informed. The middle tier was a massive platter of chipped ice containing tiger prawns, cockles, mussels, razor clams, crab, lobster, crayfish, and edible seaweed. The top tier was a bowl containing hot mussels in a white wine and garlicky creamy sauce. All served with hot, salty, thick cut chips plus tons of bread and butter to mop it all up with, it was easily the most delicious thing we’d ever had, and we ate it all.

We’d gone into the restaurant at eleven and the matinee didn’t start until three, so we had plenty of time. Unlike all the others on the bus who’d travelled up with us, we had no desire to fight our way to Oxford Street to go shopping. No, food was much more important and such food! We ordered another bottle of wine. They cleared our table and we just chatted and drank and relaxed for a good hour before deciding we didn’t want dessert, but we would have cheese. So, we split a cheeseboard.

Another hour passed, we’d had coffee, and both used their facilities a couple of times. We still had ample time bearing in mind the theatre was next door and our seats were obviously pre-booked.

I think the staff had grown quite fond of these two funny, happy people who kept ordering wine and sat there as all the other lunchtime diners came and went. We still had 30 minutes to go when we waved them over and said that yes, actually we would like dessert now and the bill please. Finally, at 2:55pm, we staggered out of there and found our seats – third row from the stage, if you please – and settled back not knowing what to expect and wondering how much like the Disney film it would be. The answer was, just like it, but a hundred times better.

Have you ever seen the show live? If you get a chance to, then I highly recommend you do. It is astonishing. As we sat in our seats, only a little bit blurry around the edges from all that lunch, the lights went out, a giant sun arose over the back of the stage, and that all too familiar African cry resounded over the theatre. Gradually the sun came up and there were animals all around us. Monkeys climbing down from the boxes, birds flying overhead, jaguars prowling onto the stage, an elephant parading down the aisle. Of course, we knew they were humans dressed up and operating puppets, but it’s so cleverly done and so beautiful that you simply forget that and believe in what you are seeing.

I have since seen The Lion King again, this was in 2007. Miss F was about three years old, certainly pre-school age. I’d always said I would take her to see it when she was old enough to appreciate it, but then a rumour went around that it was closing. I panicked, I really wanted to take her, so I booked tickets and I and my friend Becky went up on a coach trip to London.

We found a lovely friendly Italian restaurant right next to the theatre where they made such a fuss of Miss F and had a nice lunch. Pasta was and still is her favourite food. Poor Becky had a mishap though when a big dollop of red pasta sauce escaped her fork and landed straight on her chest. Unluckily she was wearing a white silk polo neck sweater and it was pretty obvious, but she just laughed and arranged her scarf to cover the stain.

The Lion King

Sadly, our seats were nowhere near as good as my original ones, and we were way up in the gods so the whole opening scenes with all the animals were almost completely lost on Miss F, in fact the whole experience is one she barely has any memory of except eating pasta in a smart restaurant and Auntie Becky spilling her lunch down her white top.

Literally a month later, I was taken to London by friends for the weekend to see Phantom of the Opera – for full details of that trip please look at my blog from three weeks ago “Should Old Acquaintance be Forgot” where Becky and I reminisce all about that trip.

I have seen Phantom of the Opera three times now. The first time was in 1997 when I was taken as a birthday treat by my then husband. Our seats weren’t great, in fact, if I’d had a tin of paint I could have painted the theatre’s ceiling for them while I was up there, and it was a little hard to follow what was going on. The second time was for my 40th birthday when I went with three friends and our seats were in the third row from the stage and that was a whole different experience. Sitting there, my heart in my mouth, as the orchestra crashed into that iconic music and that huge crystal chandelier swung up inches over our heads, we all looked at each other in thrilled awe.

A funny thing happened in the interview though. We had booked ourselves a bottle of rose wine to share between the four of us. We all liked rose wine, and it was a lot cheaper to buy a bottle than buy four individual drinks. They told us that the bottle and four glasses would be on table one ready for us in the interval. This is standard practice in pretty much every theatre in the UK. So, the interval was coming up. Our seats were right by the door that led to the bar and the toilet area. The curtain swished down, two of our party were desperate for the loo and two of us could wait. So, the cross-legged pair hurtled off to be first in the queue for the ladies and myself and another friend legged it into the bar.

We were the first people in there. We spotted our bottle of rose and four glasses on table one, plonked ourselves down and dumped coats and bags on the other two seats to hold them for our friends. The plan being when they got back, we would then visit the ladies ourselves. We were sitting there chatting, when a very annoyed looking elderly lady approached us.

“Excuse me!”

“Yes?” I said.

“I think you’ll find that’s ours!”

“I’m sorry? What?”

My friend and I looked at each other in horrified confusion. In our haste to get a drink, had we inadvertently grabbed somebody else’s? No, I pulled the slip of paper out from under the bottle.

“No, look, it definitely says Blake, this is definitely our bottle of wine.”

“Not the wine! The table!”

Now we really were confused.

“The table? What do you mean the table is yours?”

“Well, when we ordered our drinks, they told us they’d leave them on table one for us, and look…” she gestured to a collection of drinks that were also standing on the table. “There are our drinks, on our table, that you are sitting at, So, move please!”

I stared at her, unable to believe her arrogant rudeness. Normally, in a situation like this, I would have been polite. But what the hell? I smiled, patronisingly.

“Oh dear,” I purred. “First time at a theatre is it? They merely meant your drinks would be left on the table, not that the table was reserved for you. There simply aren’t enough tables for everyone in the theatre so it really is a case of first come, first served.”

I paused and took a sip of my wine.

“And in this case, we’re younger and had quicker legs, so the table is ours.”

“Yeah,” drawled my friend. “Nice try, love.”

The woman turned a very unattractive shade of puce and hastily gathered up her drinks and scuttled off back to her friends, who then proceeded to spend the rest of the interval staring daggers at us.

The Phantom of the Opera

My third visit to the show was much later in about 2013/2014 when my mother gave myself and my then sister-in-law tickets to take Miss F and my niece to see the show, plus enough lunch vouchers for a slap up meal at Bella Italia. Again, we had brilliant seats and a great time was had by everyone.

You’d think that Phantom of the Opera would be my favourite musical, you’d think wrong. My absolute favourite is Les Miserables. I don’t know why, but something about that musical reduces me to tears and stirs my heart. I first went to see it in 1996 with my new boyfriend who would later become my husband. My favourite cousin had bought tickets to see the show, together with an early bird dinner at a nearby restaurant to treat her then boyfriend for his birthday. Only, he somehow became not her boyfriend a couple of weeks before the birthday, so she was stuck with the tickets. I offered to buy them off her, not making the connection with the date. I was at college at the time taking two A’Levels and one of my exams was on the same day. The exam finished at 4:00pm in Suffolk. The table was booked for 6:00pm in the West End. Could it be done? My boyfriend was waiting outside the college with his engine running by 3:50pm. I’d explained to the examiner what was happening, and she’d said I could leave as soon as I’d completed the exam, so long as I turned my paper over on my desk and left as quietly as possible.

By 3:50pm I was in the car and we were on our way to London. Managing to struggle out of jeans and a jumper and into a smart dress, and tights, in the front of a fast moving car is no mean feat, but I managed it, and freshened up my make-up and redid my hair. We made it with two minutes to spare and had a lovely dinner before hurrying to the theatre to find our seats. Again, I had no idea what to expect. I’d bought the tickets off my cousin to help her out of a financial sticky situation, so this was very much unplanned and “off map”.

I loved the show. Anyone who’s seen it will know how breathtakingly good, it is, the scenery, the music, the singing are all stunning, and the story of course is rip your heart out and stomp on it sad from beginning to end.

Since then, I have seen it again with my then sister-in-law back in probably 2008, or something like that. She loved it as well, and I know in turn took her mother to see it at least once.

Les Miserables

Then there is Chicago. Now this I’ve seen three times in all. Once in my little local theatre, once in the much bigger Norwich Theatre Royal and once in the West End. But do you know, the version that is my favourite is believe it or not, the version I saw in my local theatre. One of my friends was a student and was registered with the student saver scheme at the theatre. This is where students can phone up the theatre literally an hour before that evening’s performance and if there are any tickets left, can buy them at half price so long as they are registered on the scheme and can produce a valid student card.

Chicago

She’d been round mine for lunch and was talking about this scheme and the things she’d seen, and how great it was that she sometimes went to see things you would never in a million years have normally watched, but had thoroughly enjoyed. Well, by this point we’d had a bottle of wine and it was decided that she’d call the theatre and see what was on that evening and if she could get a pair of tickets, Duly she called them, something called Chicago was on. She looked at me and I shrugged my shoulders. I’d never heard of it, but I was up for anything – this was obviously long before the arrival of Miss F when spontaneous evenings out were still something I could do.

She reserved the tickets and we went. It was amazing. They were a professional touring theatre company who were all incredibly talented. They could all act, sing, dance and play a multiple of instruments – all at the same time. Our seats were in a box right in front of the stage and we loved it. There was something about being right there, almost in the middle of the show, that made it intensely exciting.

Some years later I bought tickets to go and see the show in the West End as a surprise birthday present for my husband. He had no idea we were going to London that day when I handed him an envelope with his birthday breakfast, and an hour later we were on our way to the capital. The show was marvellous, of course it was, it’s a great extravaganza and the music is memorable, but… I must be honest here, it wasn’t as good as the production I’d seen at my local theatre five years earlier.

The last occasion I saw Chicago was about 2010 when I went to Norwich to see it with my sister-in-law. Again, a great performance which we both really enjoyed, but again, it still wasn’t as good as the first time I’d seen it performed.

Chess

Another musical I really enjoyed was Chess, although I never got to see that in the West End, but instead saw it in the Theatre Royal in York where I was on a weekend jolly with my favourite cousin. We hadn’t particularly wanted to see Chess, but it happened to be on the weekend we were in York, so we bought tickets and went to see it. It’s a good fun musical, if a little confusing, and I defy anyone to listen to One Night in Bangkok without wanting to sing along.

During this same period, I went to see Riverdance twice. Originally taking a friend to see it as a birthday treat, we loved it so much we then arranged for a large party of us to go back a few months later and see it. Looking back, I wonder that we all had the time not to mention the money, to take such regular trips to London for shows. Even back then you would still expect to pay £50 or even more for the coach and theatre ticket. But then, we were young so had boundless energy and could laugh at the thought of late to bed on a work night, none of us were married or had children so could go where we wanted without worrying about babysitters or getting back for school runs.

Riverdance

Also, life wasn’t so expensive back then. Utilities and food were cheaper and as these were the days before mobile phones, WiFi and things like Netflix and Amazon Prime, we did seem to have more money to spend on ourselves. We were a big group of friends who really enjoyed spending time together and having fun. Anyone who has read my novel Becoming Lili may be thinking that this sounds familiar and you’d be right. Lili and her gang of friends are very much based on the wonderful group I used to hang with back then.

As a birthday treat for me one year, my then husband bought tickets to take me to see Mamma Mia which had just opened in the West End. We went with one of his work colleagues and his wife, who was a real pain in the bum. Now, as you’ve probably gathered by now, a nice lunch or dinner somewhere is always part of a trip to London. ALWAYS. And it was my birthday, so, surely, my wishes should have been considered. Oh no, turns out his wife had this peculiar eating thing where she took dislikes to the look of a restaurant and flatly refused to even consider eating in it. Okay, fine, if she’d done it to just one or two restaurants. But she did it to every single restaurant we saw! Every. Fricking. One.

I was getting annoyed and somewhat desperate. I was starving hungry. It was my birthday and time was ticking on. We had one hour left before curtain-up, we were on the opposite side of London from the theatre so still had to get there. I’d been promised champagne with my lunch, but that was looking less and less likely to happen.

I shot my husband a look that quite plainly let him know what I thought of the situation, which I think his colleague saw, because he suddenly told his wife they were going to go to the theatre and she’d bloody well eat at the first restaurant we saw close by. But of course, it took us ages to get there leaving us no time to eat in a proper restaurant, so we ended up having a hasty meal in a McDonalds. A McDonalds? For my birthday. Took me a while to forgive my husband for that one, although to be fair to him he had no idea the wife was going to be like that.

Mamma Mia!

I don’t know whether this experience coloured my opinion of the show, after all, sitting there still hungry, no champagne, stone cold sober on my birthday, suffering from indigestion and not particularly keen on the company I was with, would have left me justifiably in a bad mood. But I really didn’t rate the stage show that much. Since then, of course, the film has been made and that I really did enjoy.

Other shows I’ve seen in London include Singing in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Woman in White. All very enjoyable shows, but The Woman in White was a strange one. Now, I’ve read the classic novel by Wilkie Collins several times, and have seen various TV adaptations so I know the story really well, which is just as well. My then sister-in-law was also a big fan of the story, so when we saw our local coach company were doing an excursion to see the newly opened West End version of it, we were both very keen to go.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

I remember it was a gorgeous sunny day, we found a beautiful Italian restaurant a short walk from the theatre that had large windows open onto the street. We were there just on midday so had the pick of the tables and chose a lovely one in the window where we could chill, drink wine, enjoy a wonderful lunch and watch London saunter by in the hot sun.

We went to see the show, our seats were two rows back in the dress circle, so not bad. An elderly couple I recognised from the coach sat beside us, and as soon as the lights went down, they proceeded to unpack an entire lunch from lots of plastic bags and Tupperware boxes. I’m not kidding, and we are not talking about a couple of sandwiches consumed stealthily here, we’re talking boiled eggs and ham, crunchy celery and egg salad, tomatoes – which spluttered onto my bare arm when she tried to slice them. Even packets of crisps which they noisily crunched their way through. All topped off with a thermos of tea.

Completely oblivious to the incredulous stares of everyone around them, they merrily chomped down their lunch, while the rest of us tried to focus on the show. Lunch finally over, she packed it all away into the bags with much clicking back on of lids, then decided that all that food had made her hot and fished one of those mini, handheld, battery operated fans out of her bag.

By now, I was engrossed in the show and only vaguely aware of the annoying old couple next to me, until she decided I looked hot and shoved the fan in my face. Shocked, I jerked back, and the bloody thing tangled in my hair.

The Woman in White

After the interval, when I’d had a stiff drink to fortify me against whatever shenanigans they’d get up to in the second half – pudding, maybe a hot and steaming apple pie and custard would come out of those bottomless bags – but I needn’t have worried. After all, they were elderly and had had a lovely big lunch so were a bit sleepy. They fell asleep as soon as the curtain went up on the second half and gently snored their way through the rest of the show until the sounds of applause awoke them from their slumber. With the coach and show tickets coming in at £50 each, that was a very expensive nap!

I’ve just noticed from the word count at the bottom of the page that I’ve been rambling on for over 4000 words. Oops, but once I get started down memory lane it’s kind of hard for me to stop. I really hope you’ve enjoyed coming with me and that you’ll join me again next week on A Little Bit of Blake. In the meantime – stay home, stay safe, stay well.

Julia Blake

How Are You?

Hi there and how are you all? It’s another Sunday, and another week has simply flown by. I thought these days in isolation would drag, but instead they are slipping by so fast it doesn’t seem possible it’s seven days since I last spoke to you. What have I been up to this week? Well, you’ll be pleased to hear I completely spring cleaned my lounge, thankfully – there were still mounds of pine needles behind the sofa and coffee table from our Christmas tree. I’d been meaning to get around to moving the furniture and clearing them up, but somehow, I never had the time. Well, now I have the time, so furniture was duly moved from one side of the room to the other, the carpet was thoroughly swept by hand and then shampooed. Once it was dry, I heaved the furniture back and did the other side.

I found a couple of old tins of Brasso at the back of the cleaning cupboard, with just enough left in them to clean the brass on my fireplace fenders – now this Miss F DID notice had been done, and that they were all “lovely and shiny” but she still refuses to see the difference in all the freshly shampooed carpets and rugs. It doesn’t matter. I saw the colour of the water that came off them, was properly ashamed of my slovenly housewife skills, and know how much cleaner and fresher they are. I also located a tube of Zeebo which still had a tiny amount left in it. For those of you who don’t know, Zeebo is a very old-fashioned product that you blacken your fire grates with. I had just enough to re-blacken the grate in the lounge fire. What with that, cleaning the brass fenders and sweeping my carpets by hand with a stiff bristled brush, I felt like a Victorian scullery maid.

I managed this week as well to get my repeat prescription of hayfever meds, which was a huge relief. I was down to my last two and trust me, you really don’t want to see me not on my meds, especially in the middle of high pollen season. Hayfever affects people in different ways. I don’t sneeze and, apart from a slight irritation, I barely feel it in my nose at all. No, it’s my eyes and to a lesser extent, my throat where I suffer the most. Without the meds (even with them on some particularly bad days) I have a dry, annoying tickle in the back of my throat that makes me cough, a lot. So, don’t want to be doing that in the middle of Waitrose on my weekly shopping trip! But worse is my eyes. This time of year, without the powerfully strong medication I’m on, my eyes are an oozy, swollen, itchy mess and I’m constantly worrying at them with my fingers. Again, not what you want to be doing at the moment.

I had picked up a month’s worth of pills just before we all went into lockdown, so I hadn’t needed to try and navigate the minefield that was getting a repeat prescription until now. Last time I was in town doing my essential shopping, I’d asked at Boots the Chemist if they could fill the prescription. No, they couldn’t, apparently my doctor had to. Try their website, they advised. I went onto my surgery website. No mention of the corona virus at all, other than to tell me to call the NHS helpline if I was concerned about anything. Okay. Thanks.

Then I found a tab labelled ordering online. Brilliant. I went to it. I needed a password and a log in name. Huh? Apparently, I had to be already registered to be able to order a repeat prescription online. Great. How do I get registered? Phone the surgery, the website helpfully informed me. I phoned the surgery. Got a very long-winded telephone message basically telling me not to waste their time but stay at home and either get better or die. And certainly, DO NOT waste valuable staff member’s time answering the phone about repeat prescriptions. They MUST be done online. I went back online, wondering if I’d missed something. Nope. I definitely had to be registered to use the online ordering service and the only way I can register is to call the surgery. I called again. Waited through the whole sermon again and then left a tentative and very apologetic message that I was very sorry I was disobeying orders, but that I really, really, needed my hayfever meds and unfortunately, wasn’t registered to order them online.

I then waited three days. Heard nothing. Had no idea what was going on. Had my desperate plea for drugs been heard by anyone? Had they all rolled their eyes in disgust at the inconsiderate sod wasting valuable staff time by phoning for a repeat prescription?

By this time, I’m completely out of meds so things are a bit desperate. I telephone again. This time I’m almost in tears when I leave my message. I’ve also spotted a couple of email addresses in the small print at the bottom of their website. One to general enquiries and one to the practice manager. Sod it, they both get an impassioned plea.

Finally, after about the sixth time of calling, someone in the dispensary answered the phone. Yes, they’d got my message. Yes, my meds were there waiting for me. And yes, I am now registered to order online. I jump in my car and drive around to the surgery. The carpark is deserted except for a large marquee thing that has been erected, with a rather terse notice on the side telling me NOT to park inside the tent unless I have an urgent, pre-arranged appointment with a doctor. I don’t park inside the tent.

I wander over to the surgery building. It’s all locked up but there’s a window open into the pharmacy with a very homemade barrier erected a good 2m between me and the open window through which, by standing on tiptoe, I can see the dark head of one of the dispensing clerks.

“Hello?”

The head turned and peered out at me suspiciously.

“Yes?”

“Umm, I’ve come to pick up my hayfever meds?”

“Name?”

“Julia Blake.”

“One moment.”

The head disappeared. A long few minutes later it was back.

“Address?”

I gave my address.

“Date of birth?”

I gave my date of birth.

“Very good. Now, catch!”

And she threw the packet of pills out of the window. Luckily, I caught them, but was relieved it wasn’t a bottle of cough syrup or something like that, because I know I would have butterfingered that onto the tarmac! But I have another’s months supply, thank heavens, and who knows what the situation will be like in a month’s time. Will we be out? Or will we be even tighter into lockdown due to all those idiots who refuse to take it seriously and keep insisting on having picnics on Brighton Beach? Either way, at least now I am registered and know the system for ordering a repeat prescription.

After last week’s blog where I mentioned the difficulties of finding flour, any flour, I had a fantastic isolation emergency rations pack left on our doorstep by the fabulous Nicky. She is my daughter’s godmother and an old friend of many years standing. This amazing human being had not only managed to find flour from somewhere – I suspect the Black Market, but maybe she has contacts in the mafia – but also a salted caramel and chocolate cake mix, a net of fresh lemons, bags for making ice cubes in and a beautiful bottle of strawberry and lime gin, which is hands down the nicest gin I’ve ever tried. Now, I know Nicky reads “A Little Bit of Blake” every week so I want to say a massive “thank you” to her. You are a star my love, and there will be a signed set of the first three books in the Blackwood Family Saga that are being released next month, ready for you when we meet up after this weird situation is over.

Along with the carpet shampooer, I’ve also had the loan of my dad’s stepladder for the past three weeks so have been doing all those “up high” jobs whilst I had it. The pergola roof has been patched up where the cat fell through it. My light fittings have been cleaned and bulbs replaced where necessary – we have thirteen-foot-high ceilings in our bedrooms, and it makes it a little hazardous doing anything ceiling connected. I’ve cobwebbed all the high up places, washed all the windows inside and taken down the curtains and washed them. We only have muslin hanging in the windows on the street side of the house, so I took those down, washed them and then re-hung them. Even Miss F noticed that they were now white and not the rather sickly yellow they’d been before. Luckily, it’s been a week of absolutely gorgeous weather here in the UK, so perfect for drying heavy things such as curtains and sofa covers.

I’m almost finished with the spring cleaning. One more push next week and it’ll be done. Monday I will make a start on the bathroom, and then it’s the turn of Miss F’s room. Initially very unenthusiastic about the whole notion, she’s now a bit more interested after we cleared a really high shelf in her room – the stepladder went back Saturday afternoon so all “high up” jobs had to be done by then – and she unearthed a lot of things she’d forgotten she had. She had several of those creepy ornamental dolls that her father had given her up on this shelf, and not only were they draped in thick cobwebs, but she’d decided she really didn’t want them looking at her anymore – which I completely understood. So down they came, had a good clean, and went into a spare suitcase under her bed. Her old childhood books all then moved up a couple of shelves, which left her with a spare shelf.

She was been buying a few bits and pieces for her accommodation at university before lockdown, so decided to keep them on this now empty shelf. There was also room for the pet carrier that Napoleon Tortoise goes into when his little house is being cleaned out, instead of it being on the floor. Miss F’s room isn’t the largest in the world, so any floor space we can clear for her is handy. Just these few little improvements to her room have made her keener to do the rest, so that’s what next week will be dedicated to – the bathroom and Miss F’s room. And then indoors will be done and the week after, weather allowing and if we’re still in lockdown, I will start painting the garden fences.

This will be a mammoth task and is not one I am looking forward to. Although I have quite a small garden, there is a lot of fence – a 20’ length at least down one side, a 15’ length down the other, plus several bits of trellis – all needing at least two coats of paint. The job is made harder by the fact the man who owns the house next door to me is a very unpleasant and unfriendly man. He has warned me that if any of my paint drips through to his side – ANY – I can expect a solicitor’s letter suing me for damages to his property. So that means I have to be really, really, careful and not overload my brush but have to paint practically dry, which takes twice the time. And I certainly can’t use a paint spray gun which would get the job done in hours, rather than the weeks it is going to take. Oh well, it needs to be done, so I might as well do it now when I have the time.

I am pleased at the amount I am getting done during this enforced time of being at home. I know a lot of people are complaining about being bored and stressed, and I would imagine it really depends on what kind of conditions you are isolated in and the company you are forced to keep. Cramped in a small flat with no outdoor space and small children that need to be either home-schooled or kept entertained 24/7, I can only imagine how difficult that must be. I am so aware and thankful how lucky I am that I am living in a lovely home, that is large enough for Miss F and I to lose each other in throughout the day. That we have a pretty and safe garden to get fresh air and exercise in, and that I’ve found enough projects in my home and garden to keep me occupied and happy. I’m also lucky that my daughter is 16, for the most part is self-sufficient and wants to be left alone to talk to her friends and play virtual games online with them during the day, but is still good company in the evening, when every night we sit down at 6pm to have dinner together then an evening of Netflix, films and chat – in front of a fire if the evening turns chilly. I know many are not so fortunate and my heart goes out to those trapped in frustrating, lonely or maybe even dangerous situations.

I know everyone is different and everyone reacts to stressful situations differently. But, and this is just me personally, I know if I simply sat on my backside all day, comfort eating and obsessively watching the news and worrying about what is happening in the world outside and the worst case scenarios of what might happen, then I would go a little bit crazy and I’d be depressed and probably piling on the pounds. I have accepted that there is absolutely nothing I can do about what is happening on the other side of my own front door, but, and it’s a very big but, I do have total control about what is happening on this side of it. So, I choose not to constantly be listening to the news and worrying. Instead, I have made a list of all those jobs I have been wanting to get done for years and I’m doing them! Okay, maybe it won’t make a blind bit of difference in the long run, but at the end of it all, I will have a totally ticked off to-do list and a sparkling clean house. Furthermore, will look back on isolation as a busy and productive time. Whereas all those stressy, sat on their arses doing nothing people, will look back on isolation as merely empty days full of wasted time and will have nothing to show for it. Again, this is only my personal belief, but I think my way is the healthier and saner option.

These are very strange times we are living in, and it seems odd to think that we are part of history in the making. That future generations will look back at this time and maybe even study it in school. I wonder what they will say about our behaviour. Did the human race react to the threat in a sane and sensible manner, doing the right thing not only for ourselves and our families, but also considering the needs of others and restricting our trips outside our homes? And yes, I am looking at you, all those people who crowd onto the beaches and into the parks.

As you know, by the time you read this it will be Sofa Sunday, the one day of the week I allow myself some time off to veg out. I go shopping first thing in the morning as I’ve found there are less people out at that time. I do a few essential chores. Then at midday we both stop whatever we’re doing, meet in the lounge and relax on the sofa with snacks and binge watch films. I chose first and over the past few weeks we’ve watched all of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, then Miss F chose and we’re now working our way through all of the Harry Potter films. Nothing else happens that Sunday except films and relaxing and pizza for tea. We both look forward to it all week and it’s fun, because it is a once a week treat, but if I did it all day and every day then it wouldn’t be fun, it would be boring.

Finally, the book fairs I had planned for later in the year have been cancelled so I have a few copies of some of my books left over. I’ve been selling them on social media so have less now than shown in the picture, but if anyone would like a paperback copy of either Chaining Daisy, The Forest or Eclairs for Tea then please let me know. I will of course sign them and include a bookmark with each purchase. The books are available at cost price plus postage and packaging. The price for Chaining Daisy and The Forest is £10 each and Eclairs for Tea are £6 each. Second class UK postage will be £3.50. Although I am prepared to post abroad, be aware that overseas postage is a lot higher. Payment is by PayPal, it’s on a first come, first served basis, and once they are gone, they are gone.

Right, it’s getting late on Saturday evening and there is laundry to bring in off the line and dinner to sort, I’m also out of things to tell you so will wrap it up for the week. Hope you will all join me again next week for “A Little Bit of Blake” but in the meantime,

Stay safe and stay well.

Julia Blake