It’s the Little Things…

This week will be a brief catch up as I am inundated with things to do and, as usual, I don’t have enough time to do it all in. After an incredibly busy two days at work Monday and Tuesday, during which we had non-stop customers and I smashed my week’s sales target out of the park. The temperature began to climb and another heatwave was predicted for the UK – just to remind all my non-UK friends – we don’t have air conditioning so a heatwave here is a real heatwave that we all suffer without the respite of having air-conditioned homes and work places.

By Tuesday afternoon it was becoming unbearably hot at work and we were all suffering in the masks that the company now makes us wear. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to walk out of the shop and rip that damn mask off so I could breathe properly.

Wednesday, Miss F was going for a full day’s try out at the doggie day care centre she had applied to for a work placement for college. As she is training to be a zookeeper and is currently halfway through a two-year animal management course at our local college, she has to find so many hours voluntary work in an animal-based environment in order to complete her course.

This is harder than it sounds. We only live in a small town and the number of suitable placements available is sparse. Bear in mind there are over 150 other students on similar courses all looking for exactly the same placement, and you can see how it’s a nerve-wracking time trying to find something.

She got lucky last year. Someone she knew at college happened to mention that there was a space going at the stable and dog breeding farm she had her placement at. Miss F telephoned the farmer, was interviewed over the phone, and a week later was invited to go for a day’s trial.

She got the position, and we were very relieved she had. The only downside was that it was in the village of Keddington which is about a 45 minute drive away and as Miss F of course isn’t old enough yet to drive, that meant that I was having to drive her out there for a nine o’clock start every Friday, then driving myself home. She needed picking up at 2pm, so of course that was another double journey for me. So, for almost a year, I was spending three hours of my precious day-off in the car running her about.

But it had to be done, and that’s what you do when you’re a parent, and I was prepared to do it for another year. However, the farm decided to scale back its operation and no longer needed volunteers so that left us trying to find her somewhere else.

I was quite keen for us to beat the rush and get something settled before the long summer holidays, so back at the beginning of March I was urging her to press her placement officer at the college to give her some suggestions of where she could apply.

He gave her the name and email address of a doggie creche in town where people can drop off their dogs for the day while they are at work. With me urging her, Miss F reached out to them by email and had a lovely reply congratulating her on her forward thinking and inviting her for an interview a couple of weeks later.

But fate, or rather Corona, intervened. We went into lockdown a week later and she was unable to attend the interview. Of course, emails went back and forth about this and she was told to get back in touch when the quarantine period was over.

Mid-June, when things were beginning to open back up again, I advised her to send a little re-connection email just reminding them of who she was and that she was still around and still interested in a placement. Again, emails went back and forth and it was agreed they would let her know when it was possible to go for an interview but if she hadn’t heard from them by mid-July to email and remind them.

My birthday is the 17th of July, so it was easy for me to remember to remind Miss F to contact them when my birthday came and went with nothing from them. They invited her for an interview the last week of July, and then she went for a day long try out this Wednesday to see how she liked it, and I suppose, more importantly, to see how they liked her and to show them that she was up for the job.

She had to be there by 7:45am, which considering she has spent the last four months bumming around in the house with no need to be up before midday, came as a bit of a shock. I had made her lay out her clothes and pack her lunch the night before, but it was still a heavy eyed and grouchy teenager whom I drove across town and dropped off, with promises to be there at 4pm to collect her.

When I got home and closed the front door behind me, it suddenly struck me that I had the whole house to myself for the first time since early March!! Silence enveloped me and I could hear the voices in my head yelling to be heard. There was nothing else to do but switch on my laptop and write furiously on my latest work in progress which is now standing at a very respectable 35,000 words. Given that I’m aiming for a final count of about 100,000 words this puts me at a third of the way through, which I’m very happy about.

When I went to collect Miss F, it was a very sunburnt, grubby, and over the moon girl who jumped into the car. She’d had a wonderful day caring for 30 dogs, had got on with everyone, and, best of all, had been offered the placement.

They had told her that usually they have between twenty to thirty applicants, but because Corona had happened so early in the year, no other students had thought to apply. It was only because I’d urged Miss F to badger her placement officer for likely places she could apply to, and then encouraged her to be proactive in asking for an interview, staying in touch, and building up a connection with them, that she got not only an interview but the offer of the placement as well.

It just goes to show, the early bird really does get the worm!

That night to celebrate her achievement and the 5605 words I had written, we had a takeaway from a new restaurant in town which was surprisingly delicious and tasted very fresh and well cooked.

Thursday, I worked some more on my story, caught up on laundry, and tackled my ironing pile which had been steadily growing in the corner of my room until it was practically waist high! I managed to get half of it done – better than nothing.

I had a bit of bad news last week – well, not so much bad news as annoying and inconvenient news. Our lodger of eighteen months handed in his notice. Apparently, he has a girlfriend he’s now very serious about and they wish to move in together. He has paid up until the end of August but says he will probably move out mid-month, and then I’ll have the usual arse ache of trying to replace him.

I hate looking for a new lodger. Honestly, you just get one house trained and then they’re off and you have to start all over again. The room will need to be freshened up and put into perfect order for viewings. I will need to re-activate my add on the letting website I use. Then there’s arranging viewings and vetting all the potential candidates.

It’s a painful and stressful process at the best of times, but quite how it’s going to work at the moment I’m not sure. I guess masks will need to be worn during viewings, which is awkward because I rely on lot on gut instinct when choosing whom should live in our home. If I can’t see their facial expressions that will make things harder.

It’s also financially stressful. I do rely on the rental income to pay my mortgage so when it takes several weeks to find someone suitable it can be a little worrying. But we have been taking in lodgers for over fifteen years now and have always managed to find someone, so I’m sure this time will be no different.

This particular lodger has been alright in some ways and a bit of a pain in the bum in others. I never normally accept night workers. I have no wish to be woken up at silly o’clock as they slam the front door coming home from work, and then having to keep the house completely silent for them all day because they’re sleeping. I did question him during the viewing and he reassured me he was an evening not a night worker, but either that was a lie or he considered an evening to extend to 3am, because from the moment he moved in he was working nights. He told us not to worry about keeping quiet because he was a heavy sleeper, so sometimes days would pass without us ever catching sight of him.

We had teething problems with him. Like the night I was woken up by him coming in, then thirty minutes later I heard him go back out again. Thoroughly awake and thirsty, I got up to get some water from the kitchen and discovered my front door standing wide open at 3am! Given that we are in the centre of town and are on the main route home from the clubs and pubs, I was not very impressed by this.

He brought a bike with him when he moved in, which has stood in my tiny garden the whole time he has lived here and hasn’t been touched once! Damn thing is so in the way! If I stand it at the bottom of the garden, then my washing on the line blows over it and picks up dirt from it. If I stand it higher up on the pathway down the side of the house, we are forever catching ourselves on the handlebar because it sticks out so far. I will be very relieved to see the back of that!

He also does an inordinate amount of washing! For a guy who goes to work in a pair of overalls, sleeps all day, and when he does go out is clad only in shorts and a t-shirt, he is forever washing clothes! He uses the machine more than we do, and puts it on at odd hours so instead of hanging the washing out on the line to dry during all the months of gorgeous weather we have had, puts in in the tumble drier which eats electricity. So, that’s annoying.

My experiences with him have only served to reinforce my determination not to have a night worker again, and I will make sure in future that I question the candidates carefully as to their working hours, because it does matter. If someone is going to be banging into the house in the middle of the night, it will wake me up. My bed is directly over the front porch so when the front door is slammed – which it invariably will be – my whole bed shakes and I am shocked awake. I then can’t go back to sleep and unlike the lodger – who can then snore the rest of the day away – I still have to be up early for work.

There is also the fact that this person is going to be living in our home, so they need to be compatible with us and our lives. Men, especially, need to be thoroughly vetted. There is a 17-year-old girl living in this house. Very often she is alone here, so I need to know the person I allow to live here is trustworthy and decent.

I need to like them as well. This is not a massive house. We will run across them frequently in the kitchen and the sitting room they have access to, so they must be agreeable to live with. This is my home. It is my refuge and my haven. I cannot allow it to be tainted by a person who’s a nightmare to live with.

Friday, most of my day was spent doing an emergency proofread of a friend and fellow indie author’s new book. It’s due to be released next week and she’d asked me to arc read it, but I’d only got a couple of chapters in when I realised there were quite a few issues that she and her editor had missed. I was unsure what to do, but I figured she’d rather find out now from me, than publish and have readers tell her in reviews, so I contacted her and offered to read the rest as quickly as I could. In between reading, I wrote a book review, went to collect my hayfever meds, went to the PO, did some shopping, and wrote a few more words on my book. So, another busy day.

It continued to get hotter, and Friday and Saturday have been unbelievably hot and muggy. Stupidly, I had promised Miss F we would completely spring clean her bedroom, so for most of Saturday we were trapped in a small, hot room heaving furniture about, de-cobwebbing, dusting, sorting out, vacuuming, and rearranging. It was long overdue, and she really wanted it done before her birthday next week when she has friends coming over, but I seriously could have done without it. It also didn’t help that while I was sweating my nads off, she kept being distracted by her phone and finding any excuse not to help.

But it’s done, the room is at least now tidy and more importantly clean. What is it about teenagers? Why do they want their bedrooms to look like pigsties? I swear it must be a year since she last dusted in there, cobwebs were draped over everything and dust was an inch thick on every surface. Apart from looking disgusting, I’m sure it was a health risk.

And now it’s Saturday evening. I’ve showered, prepared dinner, and am finally able to sit down with a glass of wine and finish writing this. I have a real sense of catching up with things, of long-overdue jobs being finally ticked off the list. From the kitchen I can smell lamb kebabs grilling, and the fresh scent of mint from the pepper, pea, and potato salad I’ve made to go with them.

Yes, I’m back to work tomorrow, but I’m already through my target so that always eases the stress enormously. My blog is written. I’m up to date with my book reviews. I’ve written almost 10,000 words this week on my new book which I’m loving and am very excited about. I’ve received the first beta readers feedback on The Book of Eve ready to go through next Wednesday. And this week I have received a 4+ star review on at least one of my books every single day. I have wine, oh, and did I tell you that dinner is smelling really good.

Sometimes, it really is the little things.

Take care, and I look forward to chatting to you next week.

Julia Blake

It’s actually our fault but we’re going to blame you!

I didn’t blog last week for which I’m sorry, I have no excuses, it just didn’t happen. To be fair, last week was a busy and stressful one. I was supposed to be on the second week of my holiday, and I was supposed to be publishing the first three books of the Blackwood Family Sage all in one big triple hit. Mad? Possibly.

Anyway, for those of you familiar with the whole hell that is trying to upload to Amazon’s publishing house KDP, bear with me while I try to explain it to those in blissful ignorance. If an author publishes through Amazon, then it can be great and there are many benefits. It’s free, you don’t have to pay for an ISBN number, and they will help you make your cover if you need them to. But, being an indie author means you have to do everything yourself including formatting your precious book not only into a version suitable for publishing as an eBook, but even harder, you have to produce a version suitable to go into a paperback as well.

The eBook version is pretty straight forward. Don’t page number it, KDP will do that for you. Make sure your page breaks are in place otherwise your chapters will bleed into each other. Make sure your chapter headings aren’t so big they will break in odd places and add hyperlinks to your contents page so people can jump to wherever they want to in the book when they’re reading it.

The paperback is trickier. You are charging more for a physical book, so it must be perfect, well, in my humble opinion it does. The chapter endings need to be sensible – one of my pet hates is a chapter ending with just one or two lines at the top of a page then a ton of white space underneath, so I will always tweak the paragraphs to either pull them back so the chapter ends neatly at the bottom of a page, or push them out so there’s a sensible amount of text on the last page of the chapter. I also like to start all my new chapters on the right-hand side, the top side of a page, but that is a whole other OCD issue which could take up an entire blog.

The pagination must be accurate, and that can be problematic especially in a book like Erinsmore or The Forest. Those books contain section breaks and chapter title pages which you don’t want page numbers on but you do want the pagination to count them, so the numbering picks up again on page one of the next chapter. Unbelievably complicated! I have no idea why the designers of Word made it so arse-achingly hard to do. It was like there was a committee meeting and a proposal was put forward to make pagination simple and straight forward, but they all looked at it, chuckled evilly, and decided no, they’d make it so twisty, complex, and downright impossible that any author attempting it would end up clawing their own eyes out and sobbing quietly in a corner.

Anyway, after ten books I can handle pagination. It may take me a while, there may be much cursing and some tears, but I do eventually get it right. I can even insert all my own illustrations, illuminated capitals, and chapter graphics – or rather my IT department (aka Miss F) – can do it. Then my paperback draft goes off to the wonderful Becky Wright at Platform House Publishing, and she performs some kind of arcane wizard magic spell over it which ensures that all those extra twiddly bits stay exactly where they are and she then sends it back to me in a version called a PDF. This ensures that when I upload it to KDP it will be exactly as it should be and will stay that way.

Anyway, this had been done to all three of the Blackwood Family Saga books – paperbacks were perfect, the eBook versions were perfect and those had all been converted into MOBI files so they would also upload to KDP exactly as they were – all I was waiting for were the final tweaks to be made to the covers for the paperbacks and I was good to go.

I had planned for a three-day launch programme running from Wednesday to Friday. The books would all be on at special sale prices for those three days and I had a ton of promo material ready plus a video teaser for each one. I got my final paperback covers back from Platform House on Monday afternoon, so I was cutting it fine, but being a more established author and because I upload a PDF for the paperbacks and a MOBI for the eBooks, my books never take as long in the review stage as they would if I was a newbie author trying to upload a sloppily formatted Word document.

Confident this will be the work of half an hour, max, I log into KDP Monday afternoon and begin uploading my books. For some reason it seems to take a lot longer than usual, but eventually I get them up and try to check them in the preview facility. This is a way you can look at your books on the screen and check them page by page just to ensure all is well. According to KDP no such feature existed, even though it’s a feature I’ve used dozens of times before and was there on the screen. But every time I clicked on it, I received a very strange error message.

Hmm, I thought, that’s odd, so I bypassed that stage and tried to upload my book covers. Nope. KDP did not want to know. Insisting that I hadn’t uploaded a compatible file, when I knew damn well, I had. These shenanigans went on for almost two hours before I gave up and went to bed. I did send KDP an email informing them of these problems but knew it would take at least 24 hours before any answer was forthcoming.

Tuesday morning there was a message in my inbox from KDP informing me they had no glitch their end and it must be my device. Perhaps it was too old to cope with uploading such complex documents to KDP? Well, it was only three months older than the last time I published a book through them, so, hmm. Anyway, I decided to try again and despite my device being a whole thirteen hours older than the last time I had tried, all three books uploaded perfectly this time, as well as the covers.

Brilliant, I thought. There was a chance they would all still be up by Wednesday morning, but even if they weren’t, I could run the launch Thursday to Saturday instead. So, I waited. And waited. And waited! Wednesday afternoon I receive an email that the eBook versions of Lost & Found and Fixtures & Fittings are up. Good. Then that evening, Sugar & Spice eBook version is up. Thursday morning the paperback versions of Lost & Found and Sugar & Spice are up, but no sign of Fixtures & Fittings. I email KDP again asking if they have any idea where it’s gone or how long it’s going to take.

Then I notice something else, they’ve listed the eBook version of Fixtures & Fittings with the listing of a second-hand seller who is flogging old paperback copies of the book for stupid money, but it looks like it’s the official paperback, so I’m scared if I launch that people will buy it by mistake.

Thursday afternoon, the actual paperback version of Fixtures & Fittings goes up. But it still shows the old cover. I’m pretty sure if anyone orders a copy, they will get the new one. But I don’t want to take any chances so reluctantly decide I must delay launch until the following week. I email KDP again, and in the meantime order myself one copy of each of the books to see for myself what actually turns up.

Friday morning. Fixtures & Fittings is still showing the old cover, and Lost & Found – which had been perfect – is now also showing the old cover. I am now at a state of wanting to take a machete to my laptop. The frustration caused by waiting around for three days was unbearable, so Wednesday afternoon I sat down and started furiously hammering out words for my next book!

Friday lunchtime I received an email from KDP very politely informing me that they had looked into my various issues and that because I hadn’t uploaded my books until that morning, then that was why they weren’t up entirely and some of the covers hadn’t uploaded yet. Excuse you, KDP! They were all uploaded Tuesday morning and there is a timestamp on my account to prove it. I sent back a politely blistering email pointing this fact out to them. Nothing came back.

Saturday morning, way too late to even think about launching because I was back to work Monday morning, I received notification that all my books were up on KDP. I went and checked and yes, there were all three books up on all the sites with the correct covers, and the new paperback editions linked to the proper eBook versions. Thank you KDP, finally.

What got me was the customer service. If they had come back with a prompt email saying, yes, we can see there are issues. We have a glitch our end which we are working to correct, and we will keep you posted, then fine. Glitches happen. In a massive organisation like Amazon I would imagine they happen all the time. I would have accepted that. It would have been annoying but at least I would have known precisely where I stood and what was happening. But to blame me and my laptop, to blatantly lie just to avoid taking responsibility? Well, that’s not a good example of outstanding customer service, KDP.

As a footnote, Sunday morning I received yet another email from customer support gleefully informing me that they’ve resolved my issues and are delighted to inform me that my book “Liam” was now listed on Amazon. Thinking what the hell, I clicked on the link and discovered that some Italian author had successfully managed to publish his book called Liam on the European Amazon site as it’s all in Italian! Go home KDP, you’re drunk.

There were some silver linings to this cloud of frustration. Because I had three days of waiting around that had been earmarked for launching, I did actually manage to write 25,000 words of book number eleven, so there was that! And my three copies of the books turned up Tuesday – all perfect, of course – so I was able to use them in promo pictures during the launch. Pick out the positives, right?

Beautiful Paperbacks!

And how did the launch proper go? Very well thank you. I think a few people took advantage of the introductory low prices to snag all three books, but sales figures are never as high as you think they’re going to be and quite a few people plainly lied about having bought the books, when the figures didn’t back these claims up. But it is what it is.

In other news, a few of you asked about my car and I’m happy to say I now have it back and its rusty bottom has been fixed. The garage pushed it to the wire though. I dropped my car off to them at 8am on the Monday of my first week off. I heard nothing all week, but didn’t expect to, and living in the centre of town with no plans to go anywhere, I didn’t need the car anyway.

The second week of my holiday rolled around, and I began to anticipate their phone call any day saying that the car was finished and please could I go and collect it. I had managed to get a click and collect slot at Tesco for 10-12 on the Thursday, but it was fine, because it was bound to be done by then, wasn’t it? After all, they knew I needed the car by the following Monday morning because I was back to work, and as they are closed at the weekends the car was bound to be finished by Thursday morning at the latest.

Wednesday morning dawned and I still hadn’t heard anything, so I called them. No, the car still wasn’t finished, and it wouldn’t be ready for Thursday morning. But it will be ready for me to collect Friday, right? As you know, I must have it for Monday morning because I’m back to work. There was a hesitation the other end, the sound of a muffled conversation, then I’m told yes, it will be ready Friday, but could I please leave it until the end of the day to collect it, say 5pm?

That left me in a bit of a pickle about collecting a month’s worth of shopping from Tesco Thursday morning with no car, but luckily Mum was able to run me round, so that was okay.

So, I trotted across to the garage Friday at 5pm, then had to sit for a good twenty minutes until the garage was almost closing before a mechanic roared up outside in my little car. Careful how you get in, he warned me, the sills are still wet. They hadn’t even done the bill for me and promised to put it in the post – which, a whole week later, I’m still waiting for – and I really got the impression that my car had been forgotten about until my phone call Wednesday morning, then mass panic ensued to get it done on time. Oh well, I have it, it’s been fixed, and I’ve been assured not only will it pass this coming MOT but the next two years as well, at least. And that was all I wanted.

I returned to work Monday to find in my two weeks absence that a lot of changes had been implicated. For a start, it’s now compulsory for all customers to now wear face coverings and even though shop assistants don’t have to, my company has decided that all of us also have to wear face coverings of some description.

I hate wearing the masks, and before those mask Nazis start jumping up and down shrieking hysterically that I have to and if I don’t then it’s akin to me going on a shooting spree and I should be charged with murder, YES, I KNOW I have to wear them and I will, all I’m saying is I hate wearing them.

They make me sweat buckets, they give me spots, they’re too big for me and end up over my eyes, they make my glasses steam up, I can’t breathe in them, and they make me cough. All things considered, I decided to try the visors we’d been issued with instead. And they have their own set of problems. They make my hair stand on end, the plastic fogs up, it’s difficult getting my glasses on underneath, and they leave me with a nasty red welt across my forehead.

It’s all very well for someone popping into a shop to do a spot of shopping having to wear them but try being in either a mask or a visor for eight solid hours. And again, before those mask Nazis start leaping again, I KNOW that nurses and surgeons and the like wear them for much longer, but I am not a nurse or a surgeon, I’m a sales assistant and I didn’t sign up for this. Also, I’m not dealing with sick people or performing surgery, I am trying to sell to people. You try selling to someone when they can’t see your smile or even your face properly, when they can’t see your mouth and read your facial expressions.

So, Monday I tried the visor and found all the drawbacks listed above. I also found out that because my company had obviously bought the cheapest ones they could, the Perspex is not great quality and is all blurry, so it’s really hard to see through them.

Tuesday, I wore a mask all day, and have never been so pleased to leave work in all my life! As soon as I got home, I ordered myself a pack of cotton masks off the internet. They feel much cooler and more comfortable and have adjustable straps. The two sorts we have at work either constantly slip down or threaten to pull my ears from my head. I will take my own mask into work today and see how I do, but I wish this were all over. I wish masks had been made compulsory from day one of lockdown because this whole making them mandatory five months into a pandemic is seriously like taking condoms to a baby shower – too little, too late.

Anyone else think the black face masks look like men’s underpants?

Anyway, we’re now into August and I am wondering what happened to July? Seriously, anyone else feel that something has been done to time because there just doesn’t seem to be as much of it as there used to be? Another busy month looms. The Blackwood books may have been launched, but now I have to concentrate on getting The Book of Eve out there. It’s been extensively edited and is now with my beta readers. It’s basically formatted, just needs all the chapter graphics and fancy fonts inserting, and Becky and I have already started brainstorming about the cover, promo images, and the video trailer for it. I can’t say too much at this stage about the cover but think Great Gatsby and you’ll be in the right area.

Really need an August launch date for this, but I know how long this final stage can take, so am prepared for it to slip into September. I’ve also got to get my backside down in my chair and write until my little fingers are reduced to bloody stubs. I want this new book to be launched around Halloween time and although that may sound like a long way off, it’s not, it’s really not. So alongside writing it and preparing Eve for publication, I will also be sourcing images and working on the cover for this one as well. And I really can’t say anything about this latest book yet, but I promise I will keep you posted.

Old cover. I didn’t choose it and it doesn’t reflect the story inside

August is also Miss F’s birthday and I’m really not sure what she will be doing to celebrate her 17th birthday – I have a seventeen-year old daughter? How? How?! – so no doubt we will be busy doing something to mark the occasion.

She hasn’t been at college since the beginning of March and obviously now won’t be going back until at least September, and no one seems too sure what form their return will take. I really hope she can get some practical, hands on experience, because this is a crucial year for them. They are preparing for their finals and need to be applying to universities, all of which they ideally need proper, face to face, classroom time with their tutors to do.

Miss F is also still on furlough from the pub where she works part-time. They have re-opened but at a greatly reduced level and all the full-time staff were called back first, although she is still receiving furlough pay, but again no one seems to know when she’ll be returning to work. On Wednesday, I took her for an interview for a new work placement position to commence in September and replace the position she had last year at the stables and kennels in Keddington which is a good 45 minute drive away. This position is in a doggy day care centre right here in Bury and is so perfect for her that we’re both crossing everything she gets it.

She must have made a reasonably good impression because they’ve invited her back for a day’s try out next Wednesday, so please send lots of good luck wishes and I’ll keep you posted. I think one definite thing in her favour is that because we live in town there will never be any issue with her getting there. There are numerous buses that whizz around town that she can catch, if she gets either a Thursday or a Friday (which I believe are the only two days they’re offering) then they are both my days off so I don’t mind running her up there – compared to the 1.5 hours run I had to do twice a day, every Friday, all last year, a 20 minute round journey to the other side of town and back is nothing! If all else fails, she can always walk it. It’s a good 50-minute walk but it’s doable in an emergency.

So that’s you caught up with all of my news, and I apologise again for not blogging last week. To be honest I was so caught up in my new book that I couldn’t bear to tear myself away from it. I hope you all have a great week and wherever you are, stay safe, stay well, stay happy.

Regards

Julia Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me:  How much?

Him: A lot.

Me:  Yes, but how much is a lot?

Him: I’m not sure, a lot.

Me:  Worst case scenario?

Him: About £500.

Me:  ….

Him: ….

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

Him: Well, no, you couldn’t.

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

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

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

Him: Yes, you would.

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

Him: Hardly anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My beautiful hanging basket

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

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

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

Few cherries left to pick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care.

Julia Blake

No Blake Today!

Just a short blog today to explain why there isn’t going to be a blog this week! Monday and Tuesday were two full-on days at work which left me depleted of energy each evening, and thankful that Miss F is now on kitchen duty the days I work. It’s crazy, the level of sales the store is doing. Comparable to the January sales, the shop has been reopened since the 15th of June and the craziness is showing no signs of abating. Where are all these people coming from? And why are they all so desperate for a new bed? Some have redecorated so want a new bed to fit the new decor. Some have been spending longer in bed so have discovered how uncomfortable it is. And I think a few believe that we’ll all be going back into lockdown soon, so they better do it now while they still can. Whatever the reason, we are just riding this wave for as long as it lasts!

Wednesday I spent nine hours with my reading glasses on staring at my laptop screen as I went through the Blackwood Family Saga books one last time, making all the final amendments, checking page lengths and pagination, and generally having one last go through to check that everything was perfect. Finally, I sent it to my wonderful formatting team at Platform House Publishing for them to work their magic and fix everything in place.

Thursday I worked on “The Book of Eve”, although I haven’t yet got copyright back it will be very soon and I want to be ready. The book has been edited and is now in the correct format. I have gone through it line-by-line, checking and obsessively rechecking, I want to get it to my beta reader asap so she has time to read through it. I’m looking for an August publication for this, and I know from past experience that everything takes longer than you think it’s going to, so I’m trying to get ahead of the game here.

Friday morning I braved Waitrose for supplies. I was on a tight clock because I had a Zoom meeting with my local author group at 11am and I didn’t leave home to go shopping until 10:15am. This was a lot later than I’d planned, but I’d had a restless night and had sat reading a book from 3am to 4:30am, before dropping back off to sleep, only to then be woken at 6:30am by the sound of a jaunty little tune playing somewhere. It wasn’t a tune I recognised and was plainly someone’s phone. Annoyed, I got out of bed and went out onto the landing. Yes, it was definitely coming from inside the house. I finally tracked it down to Miss F’s office and realised it was coming from a pile of rubbish on her shelves.

By this point I was wide awake and mad. I hadn’t planned to be awake quite this early, hoping to sleep a bit longer to make up for the missed sleep during the night. And it’s true what they say, misery really does love company and after all, it was her phone that was apparently making all the racket. So, I went and hammered on her door, dragged her out of bed, and demanded that she find the source of the constant music, which by now had reduced me to a snarling wreck, and turn the bloody thing off!

She stumbled into the office, confused, and started pulling things off the shelf. Turns out, it was her old phone which has been sitting in that exact spot for eighteen months, uncharged, and forgotten about. For some reason known only to its own little micro circuits, it decided that morning that it was going to sound its little alarm, over and over again, just for the hell of it! I swear our devices are possessed!

I fell back into bed, meaning only to rest for a moment and then get back up, but… yep, you’ve guessed it, I only closed my eyes for a second and then suddenly it was gone 9:30am and I was running late.

So, instead of being on the shop’s doorstep when they opened, I didn’t make it there until mid morning and the queue was snaked back and around the car park and up to the trolley park!

I made it home just on 11am, and quickly made a coffee while the laptop was warming up – it’s getting old, so it takes a while now – and dumped a giant lemon and sultana Danish pastry on a plate for a delayed breakfast to eat during the meeting.

I’m getting used to these virtual meetings now, and it’s going to be so odd when we can actually meet up in the flesh, whenever that will be, but at least we have been able to chat. Just think if this had all happened twenty years ago, or even ten? How much harder would it have been without the access to Zoom, Messenger and the other methods of group chat that exist now. It would have been a long and lonely isolation for most of us, and I don’t think we would have coped so well. No homeschooling for our children, no working from home, no ordering things online! No Netflix, Sky or Amazon Prime, no Disney channels, we would literally have been reliant on whatever was on terrestrial TV and making our own entertainment. To be honest, I think most of us would have ended up basket cases.

Friday afternoon my three books came back from the formatter and were ready to upload to Amazon. There were a couple of snags – there always are – but nothing that couldn’t be easily tweaked – and I’m happy to report that all three paperback versions are safely saved, the printed proof copies have been ordered and will be here sometime next week. Yes, I was able to view the books on the website and they look fine, but nothing beats actually holding the printed copies in your hand and sitting down to read them right the way through. It’s also essential for checking that the colour of the cover is correct. Amazon have a nasty habit of messing with the colour palette, so you may think your cover is a beautiful sharp orange, but when it actually arrives it’s been changed into a sludgy mustard colour!

I’m really desperate to get these three books launched now. It’s taken much longer than I ever thought it would. The two previously published books “Lost & Found” and “Fixtures & Fittings” have been unpublished since November 2019, and that’s a long time for books to be unavailable. However, they are completely revamped now and look amazing. They’ve both had another edit and have been given smart new covers, together with a clearer font and better formatting, they are now books to be proud to put my name to.

The third book in the series had its grand unveiling on social media yesterday, when its title, blurb, and cover were shared with everyone. The third book is called “Sugar & Spice” and continues the tale of the Blackwood Family with Susannah Blackwood. I totally had a blast writing this book as it’s non-stop action from beginning to end and I’ve never written such an exciting book.

As soon as the proof copies are received, checked and approved, then the countdown to a simultaneous launch of all three books will commence. I must be either inspired or mad to be even be attempting to launch three books at once, but because it’s a series the promos all link up and there is a lot of shared advertising for all three books, so it makes sense to do them all in one hit.

I’m also planning a special sale price on both ebooks and paperbacks for the three launch days, so again it’s easier to do them all together.

Once they have safely left the nest it will be the turn of “The Book of Eve” and then my two year mission to renew, rejuvenate, and relaunch all of my books will be complete and I can move on, happy that the Julia Blake brand is represented by books that are the best I can possibly make them.

I planned to write the blog yesterday afternoon, but a weird headache struck me down and even keeping my eyes open and focused was a struggle, let alone wearing my reading glasses and staring at a screen for a couple of hours! This headache was excruciating and was centred in my right temple, the back of my right hand jaw, and deep with the canal of my right ear. The only way I can describe it is that it felt like someone was driving an ice pick through my head. I googled it, and found that there are indeed what are called ice pick headaches and that they are more common in women than men, and only really happen in women over the age of 40. Like we don’t have enough to contend with. They’re not really sure what causes them, but if they start happening regularly I will need to get it checked out.

As any computer work was a complete no-no, instead I went into the garden and made a half-hearted effort to pick cherries. I managed to get off 12lbs before my head told me to stop being an idiot and go inside and rest, before my brains exploded! There are more cherries on the tree but given that the birds were actually cheekily eating them whilst I was picking them, and going by the state of my garden from where the birds have deposited little pink splattered piles everywhere, I’m not sure if there will be any left by the time I get back out there!

And now it’s Sunday morning and I’m writing this blog to explain why there isn’t going to be a blog, but have a feeling it’s actually turned out to be a blog after all! I have work today, which to be honest, I could do without. But then I have two weeks off which I’m really looking forward to. It’s my birthday next Friday and there are all sorts of shenanigans planned, so at least I will have lots to tell you all next week.

In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, and stay happy.

Julia Blake

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.