What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare… {W.H. Davies}

When did life get so busy? I’ve been thinking back over the past few years and I really can’t remember the last time I was bored. Properly, totally, “I’ve got nothing to do” bored. When I was a kid, I was always bored, because, to be honest, my life was boring. Stuck out in a village with nothing to do and no real friends, books were my only escape and it explains why I developed a lifelong passion for reading. But gradually as I got older, spare time became rarer and more precious until now, if ever I do sit down for a few minutes, I instantly feel guilty and think about all the other things I should be doing.

The truth is, I no longer have the energy I used to have, and think longingly of the days I used to be able to clean my house thoroughly, top to bottom, in a day. Now it takes a day just to clean the kitchen – and it’s not even very thoroughly. So there always seems to be a long list of stuff that has to be done, with me the only person able to do it, and sometimes I’m so stressed and frazzled I’m convinced I will meet myself coming backwards.

The past few weeks life has kicked things up a notch, as Miss F has now got herself a part-time job a 20-40 minute driveaway (depending on time of day and traffic) and so Mum’s Taxi is even more in demand and I’m spending hours ferrying her around. I don’t mind, of course I don’t, but… it is hours of my time spent in a car when that to-do list is getting forever longer and the time in which to do it is getting shorter.

“Put it on the list” has become something of a catchphrase in my house. “Mum, there’s a cobweb in the corner” – put it on the list. “Mum, can you get more cheese strings next time you’re shopping” – put it on the list. “The windows all need sanding down and re-staining” – put it on the list. “I need to find a way to promote and market my books more efficiently” – put it on the list. You get the picture?

I should list my occupation as firefighter, because that’s all I seem to be doing at the moment. Dealing with one situation after another and barely getting that blaze under control before trying to tackle another one. And I know this all sounds like I’m having a fit of the “poor little me’s” and you’re right, I probably am, but I’m not alone. Chatting to friends, both actual and on social media, and reading the posts and comments of others, a common thread has crept into them all this past couple of years – when did my life get so busy? I don’t mean to be negative and “glass is half empty”, but to quote the fabulous Catherine Tate – “not only is my glass half empty, but it isn’t what I ordered.”

I don’t remember my parents or their friends being this stressed about time and life. Or maybe they were, and I was too young to realise it, but I can’t help feeling that modern life is too busy, too stressful, too lived at full on, breakneck speed. Why are we all so busy now? We have far more labour-saving devices than our grandparents or even our parents. I have a whole kitchen of appliances designed to make my life easier, and they do, yet still I never have time to sit down and read a book. It all seems to be about juggling and making the time up elsewhere.

Take yesterday for example, I ran Miss F out to her work placement and got back to town at 9.30am. I went straight to Halfords – for non-UK people that’s a vehicle store that sells everything you need for your car and also offers a little checking service for a small fee. Like most people, I don’t have a clue what goes where under the bonnet of my car. In the past it’s not been a problem, I drove so few miles that the car went from yearly service to yearly service with me never having to do anything other than put petrol in. But I’m honking though the miles now and was worried about things like oil and water and other such substances that the car needs not to blow up.

I dropped the car off at Halfords and was told it would be about 45 minutes. Luckily, I only live a 5-minute walk away, so I rushed home doing a little essential shopping on the way. Once home, I stripped off the beds, got the washing machine and the dishwasher on, and caught up on social media, then rushed back to get the car and drive it home and park it. Then I rushed to the post office, the chemists to get some more iron pills and just made it to the café for 11am where I was meeting the other Suffolk Authors for a coffee and get together.

I love our fortnightly chats, it’s great to simply sit and talk to likeminded people who totally understand what you’re going through. I know from experience if I try to talk books to family and “normal” friends I see their eyes glaze over and their smile grow fixed. Dashing back from the coffee morning, I had to jump straight into the car and drive back out to pick up Miss F from work placement. Once home, I prepared her lunch and then caught up on ironing, sorted laundry, unloaded the dishwasher and posted on social media whilst she had a shower. Then it was back in the car to drive her to work. It was rush hour traffic, so it took over an hour to do the round trip.

Home, I had dinner and allowed myself a 45-minute break to eat it whilst watching an episode of Marvel Agents of Shield – yes, I’m a geek #sorrynotsorry. Then, because I’d had two hours off in the morning to go for coffee, that meant I had to make two beds, tidy and vacuum the ground floor, clean the bathroom and kitchen (well, it was more of a lick and a promise, but at least I cleaned up the biggest chunks), empty the bins, talk to my mother on the phone and then jump in the car to go and pick Miss F up again. Any time off I have, there’s always a price to be paid, a backlog to try and clear. They say the poor are always with us, well so are household chores.

So that was my day off. On the go from 6am to midnight and a massive five hours clocked up in the car, but what’s the alternative? Well, there is a bus that leaves town at 4.30pm and stops right outside Miss F’s place of work. I’ve told her on a Friday she can take that bus as it will save me a frustrating hour sitting in traffic when I could be doing other things. It’s not much, but it will help and will save me an hour of precious time.

And that’s what it’s all about isn’t it, saving time, or rather, utilising what time you have to maximum efficiency. Something I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not very good at. I also have a strong suspicion that someone has speeded up time. I remember when I was a child a year was an incredibly long time and the space between Christmases was vast and infinite. Now, blink and it’s upon us again. The years flickering between Christmas, chocolate eggs, Christmas, chocolate eggs, with alarming regularity. I can’t be the only one who thinks this. Have you noticed how fast time is passing now? The end of one month arrives and we get paid, then the next day it’s the end of the next and payslips are dropping into our in-boxes again.

Tomorrow it’s the first day of December, and, as any woman will tell you, December is the shortest month of the year. It’s true, it’s the first week and you think you still have plenty of time before the Big Day, then bam, one nativity play, a kids carol service and a staff Christmas do later and it’s Christmas Eve and you’re left wondering precisely where the other 24 days of the month went.

In contrast, January is officially the longest month of the year and has a whopping total of 135 days. Of course, it hasn’t really, but doesn’t it feel like it does? And surely there is no longer period of time than that between December’s pay (generally received before Christmas) and January’s? Weeks and weeks of eating leftovers and praying for the end of the month before your overdraft implodes.

I’ve been in denial about Christmas, fooling myself it’s not really happening, or, if it is, then in a galaxy far far away and a time far far away in the future. But of course, it’s not, it’s upon us. Our tree will be going up next week and tonight I must make a start writing cards, especially those that need to be posted abroad.

Miss F and I arranged not to do presents, well, not major presents. I’ve got a few little bits and pieces for her to open but was determined not to spend the vast sums I have on Christmases past which have left me with crippling debts to pay. But, last week, her phone died. Now, this has quite annoyed me because I bought her that phone two Christmases ago. It wasn’t cheap – well, not by my consideration – £250, and yet it’s lasted less than two years. I’m being told I can’t expect things to last forever. I don’t expect things to last forever, but in my opinion a £250 phone should last a bit longer than two bloody years!

Perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me in this consumer driven age to want things to last. And it makes sense that manufacturers will build their products to fall apart after a certain amount of time. After all, a phone that lasted for years wouldn’t be good for business, but still, it irks me. So, as she cannot be without a phone – apparently a teenager will lose all use of their hand if there isn’t a phone welded to it and will curl up and die of isolation issues if not in immediate contact with everyone they know on SnapChat – we had to get her a new phone.

Obviously, she couldn’t afford to buy one herself, she’s only been in work three weeks and has spent all of her wages so far on Christmas presents for friends and family, so, my trusty store card was dusted off – I’d finished paying off last Christmas at the beginning of November so at least there was nothing on it. The phone she wanted was over £300 which had me spluttering with disbelief – my last phone cost £10 – and a compromise was reached. We bought it and put it on the store card using the six-month interest free option. I will pay £200 of it and she will pay the rest, so I ended up buying her an expensive Christmas present after all. Sigh.

Then something happened last week, a moment of stillness that had a profound impact on me, even though it was inconsequential. I was driving out to collect Miss F from work last Saturday evening and was going quite slowly. I was tired from being at the Fayre all that day and as dark, lonely country roads aren’t conducive to keeping you awake, I was taking it easy. There were no other cars about, and it was pitch dark other than the patch extending a few feet from my headlights. I slowed to navigate a particularly sharp bend and there, in the middle of the road, I saw it. A fox. A big fox. It was standing in the middle of the road, frozen in my car’s headlights.

I stopped the car and for a second we stared at each other. This beautiful wild creature and I. He had a large rabbit dangling from his mouth and his eyes glinted in the light. Then he ran to the side of the road and disappeared into the hedgerow, dropping his rabbit at the side of the road as he did so. I sat for a moment, wondering if he’d come back for it, then drove away, looking in my rear-view mirror, hoping he would. That once the sound of my engine had died away, he’d come back for his dinner. I mean, of course, I was sorry for the bunny, but it was dead, so hey, waste not, want not, and Mr Fox might as well have it.

It has made me think all week about the country I live in, it’s wildlife and the way it interacts with us. Growing up in a small village, the daughter of practical people who’d both had hard childhoods that necessitated living close to nature and taking advantage of all it had to offer, means I am a pragmatic and resourceful sort. I’m thrifty, a trait learnt from my parents and my grandparents, and although I love all animals, am very aware that in times past it didn’t pay to be too sentimental about them. That pigs were kept to be butchered and eaten, chickens went in the pot once they stopped laying and rabbits were there to be quietly caught in the dead of night.

The villages where my grandparents used to live were microcosms of society, where everyone knew everyone else and everyone knew everyone else’s business. There was a sense of timelessness and isolation to them, and a feeling that none of the inhabitants ever left. I carried those impressions into my adulthood and eventually they culminated in The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ my most popular novel to date. The village of Wykenwode in the book is undoubtedly based on those communities of my childhood, complete with a dark and cramped shop full of a random assortment of things to buy, a church and a pub which vied to be the heart of the village, and a wonderful collection of quirky and eccentric characters, ranging from Miss Iris and Violet Peabody who run the shop, to Amos and Dorcas Blunt who own the pub, to old Wally Twitchett the shepherd. Those of you who’ve read the book though, know that although on the surface village life appears idyllic, the reality is that if something in life seems too perfect to be true, it usually isn’t. There is a darkness at the heart of Wykenwode. Anyone who hasn’t read the book and is intrigued, then go to My Books and click on the link there.

Speaking of animals, I have some sad news to share. We are pretty sure now that Queenie Ant is dead. After a lot of confusion about whether she had died or was merely hibernating, the worker ants have now moved her body out of the nest to the furthest chamber away and have left her alone. Every now and then, one of them will visit the body and wave their antennae at it, almost like a mourning ritual. Miss F has done some research and all sources seem to agree that this means she is dead. It’s such a shame and Miss F is devastated. There is now the problem of what to do with the workers. Without a queen there is no purpose to their lives so they will eventually die. We can’t put a new queen in there because they will know she’s not “their” queen and will kill her, neither can we simply let the workers go to find a new colony as they will be killed by the ants in that colony. So, all we can do is make their final days as happy as possible with lots of honey. Nature can be a bit brutal at times.

And now I need to go. Chores are calling. We need to visit Miss F’s grandparents and I need to sort yet more laundry – I swear I don’t know where it all comes from. Thank you for joining me, as usual I would love to hear your comments and I look forward to chatting with you again next Sunday.

All the best

Julia Blake

All the Fun of the Fayre… plus Cherry Brandy!

Friday… This will definitely be the briefest blog I’ve ever written for which I apologise, but this week has been crazy busy and there simply hasn’t been the time to write anything in-depth. I’ve spent all day on a stall at the Bury St Edmunds Fayre, and as you can imagine, I’m now so tired I’m struggling to type. Tomorrow I shall be on the stall again from 10am to 5pm so will be even more tired. Add to that the fact I have to turn out at 9.30pm tonight to go and collect Miss F from work and you’ll begin to see why blog writing has had to take a bit of a backseat this week.

As you know, this week it’s the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre, and I and four other local authors had a stall together on which to sell our books and associated merchandise. The third biggest Christmas market in the country, the town is always packed to capacity with locals and tourists alike and we were hoping that maybe a few of them would like to buy a wonderful personally signed paperback.

Preparing for the Fayre has taken every spare moment – plus quite a few that weren’t spare – and I even had beautiful bespoke scented candles made to complement my books in the hope of tempting a few more sales. Originally, we were going to have a stall in the lobby of the local Guildhall, so we’d be nice and prominent when people walked in. However, there were some issues with the placement of our stall and so we ended up in the Guildhall café.

Now first thought is that this would be a good thing, a captive audience of people desperate for tea, cake and a chance to sit down, but because the café is tucked away at the back of the building across a courtyard, it meant that only the truly dedicated seeker of cake found us, and then they were more interested in the cake than books by local authors.

The weather didn’t help, a persistently wet and cold day, it may have put people off coming to the Fayre altogether and as the morning ticked by with barely any browsers let alone sales, we all began to despair. We had a brief flurry of people at lunchtime and a few elusive sales ensued, but not the amount we’d all hoped for. Still, these things are a learning curve and it was wonderful being with the others. A great group of very talented authors, it is such a relief to be able to talk books to someone with no fear of boring them and having them on the stall as well made the hours fly by. It’s really no fun doing these sorts of thing alone, as I know from numerous car boot sales in the past.

The temptation of the gorgeous looking home baked goods on offer in the café eventually proved too much for my rumbling stomach, and I treated myself to a hot chocolate and a sausage roll the size of my head. It was very good and much appreciated.

The afternoon wore on and we spoke to a few more people. I sold another couple of copies of The Forest and one of Eclairs for Tea. Most people were buying for themselves, although I did gift wrap a copy of The Forest that a young lady had bought as a Christmas present for her brother.

But I won’t lie to you. Friday wasn’t great. The people who came into the café were, in general, elderly, wet and grumpy. They just wanted a cup of tea, a sit down and a piece of cake. They weren’t particularly interested in writers, local or otherwise, or even books in general.

By the end of the day we were all tired and a little dispirited, and then the administrator informed us that our stall would have to be moved again. To an even less salubrious location. Under the stairs in the back corridor leading to the café courtyard. We went to investigate. It was freezing cold there by the back door. It was cramped and inconvenient. If anybody did risk catching pneumonia by stopping to talk to us, they’d be trampled on by all the other people pushing to get by. Finally, it was right by the toilets. Not nice.

Negotiations commenced. A compromise was reached, and our stall was moved, but only to a different side of the café. As soon as the last straggler had gone at 5pm, we set to and relocated ourselves a few feet over and tried to put our stall back to rights,

Making my way home at almost 6.30pm, I was so exhausted it was like I’d forgotten how to walk, and I reeled about like a drunk at kicking out time. Turning into my street, I was alarmed to see my front window lit up like Blackpool illuminations. I knew Miss F would be at work and wouldn’t have gone out and left the lounge light on, so I hurried down the road. It was a weird light, sort of harsh and blue. Letting myself in, I discovered Harry the Tortoise had had a bit of an accident.

I’d better explain, we’re babysitting a friend’s tortoise just while she moves. Harry had seemed amiable enough, sitting in his cardboard box and munching on lettuce, and I’d been reassured that as tortoises were not known for their athleticism, he’d be fine and dandy in there until she came to pick him up that evening. But he’d obviously got a bit bored and decided to explore, because when I went in, he’d manage to half knock the box onto its side. This had knocked over his heat lamp, so the bulb was practically on his head. His water bowl had gone over, so everything was wet, and poor Harry himself was scrabbling pathetically at the sides of the box, stuck in the corner, unable to move and getting more of a tan than he’d bargained for.

I sorted him out, fed my screaming cat, then realised I’d forgotten that I’d stripped the beds off in a mad flurry of energy in the morning so they both still had to be made. I wasn’t hungry although I knew I should be. I hadn’t really eaten anything other than that sausage roll, but as we were packing up, a plate of freebie cheese and veggie pastries came around for free, so I ended up cramming one down my throat as we were re-arranging the stall and sadly it wasn’t sitting too well, if you know what I mean.

So now I’m trying to stay awake because at 9.30pm I have to put my shoes and coat back on and drive the thirty minutes to pick Miss F up from her part-time job waitressing at a pub in one of the villages. I don’t feel particularly safe to drive, but I expect the freezing cold night will wake me up.

Saturday… I didn’t sleep particularly well – stress insomnia is a thing – so was back up by 6am trying to sort out everything that needed to be done before I went back to the Fayre for 9am. I’d had what I thought was a brilliant idea for a better way to make our stall more reader browser friendly so needed to quickly make new signs, but, the best laid plans of mice and Julia are all filed away somewhere, so of course, that was the time the printer decided to have a meltdown. Much panicking and calling upon the IT Department (aka Miss F) ensued and a stressful twenty minutes later – during which time a grumpy teenager gave me a lecture on not repeatedly pressing buttons when something doesn’t work – it finally spat out my two signs and I hurriedly snatched them up and ran to the Guildhall.

We rearranged our stall so that people could have a chance to browse the books without being intimated by a “panel” of five authors all staring at them, desperation oozing from every pore, and braced ourselves for whatever the day would bring. And to our delight it brought people. Well, more people than the day before, and a more assorted age range. We had some lovely chats with avid readers, sold a few books and generally felt much happier with life.

I gift wrapped a few of the books purchased, so had a chance to show off my prowess with decorated cellophane, curling ribbon and fake holly, and I resisted the temptation to have another sausage roll. The one I’d had the day before and the ill-fated pasty having more than filled my pastry quota for the week. People came in waves, mid-morning, lunchtime and mid-afternoon being the busiest, and everyone seemed very happy to have found such a calm little oasis to escape to from the madness of the Fayre.

In the afternoon we were informed that if we wanted to we could move to our original spot by the front door, so we went to investigate it thoroughly, but after much intense debate decided the advantages of being by the front door were outweighed by the disadvantages of being crushed for space, in the way of access into the rest of the building and also the thought of having to move the stall again was just too daunting, so, we decided to stay where we were.

At the end of the day I’d almost sold out completely of The Forest, and I’d sold about half my stock of Becoming Lili. Eclairs for Tea and Chaining Daisy hadn’t sold so well, but it’s almost impossible to predict what will and won’t sell. I’m at work on Sunday so am leaving what books I have left on the stall as the other authors have kindly offered to try and sell them for me.

The candles didn’t fare as well, and I sold hardly any. Maybe people were just unable to make that connection between books and candles, which is a shame, because they are lovely and smell divine. They were made for me by the lovely Maria at Casa Angelica and the four different scents match the four books. Lili – floral, fresh and youthful. Daisy – still floral but a deeper, more sophisticated scent. The Forest – earthy with a touch of spice and smoke. Eclairs for Tea – Christmas red with cloves and cinnamon. If you have any candle needs then why not check out her website.

When the Guildhall closed, we tidied up and made sure everything was ready for the morning, then I and another of the authors, Rachel Churcher, decided to go for an early dinner and a much needed glass of wine – but just the one for me, because I had to turn out again at 9.30 to pick up Miss F from work, of course. It’s now coming up to midnight and I’m beyond tiredness so I’m going to stop now and will hopefully have a chance to write a bit more in the morning before heading off to work.

Sunday morning… awake at 5:30am and painfully aware of all I have to get done before leaving for work at 9:30am, I’m up and clutching a mug of strong tea as I try to finish this blog. I’ve suddenly remembered that I have 4lbs of cherries sitting in the fridge waiting to be turned into Christmas Cherry Brandy, and if I don’t want to have to throw them away – and I don’t – then I need to make that now! So, I thought I’d share with you my easy peasy lemon squeezy recipe for perfect Cherry Brandy to impress your friends and family with this Christmas.

Blake’s Easy Cherry Brandy

To make, you will need – 2 bottles of brandy (not the most expensive, but not the cheapest either). White sugar. 4lbs of cherries (I’m using Morello cherries from the tree in my garden but you can use any sort). Two extra wine bottles with screw top lids. A funnel. A large jug.

Pour the brandy into the jug, then divide the cherries evenly between the four bottles.

Using the funnel, slowly pour sugar into each of the four bottles. This isn’t an exact science, but you do need quite a lot, so up to roughly where you can see in the picture. It’s useful to have a skewer on hand to poke the sugar through the funnel when it gets stuck.

Carefully divide the brandy between the four bottles using the funnel. Screw on the lids really tightly, turn upside down and shake until the sugar that has settled on the bottom has shifted. It will look horrible at this point, but don’t worry.

Finally, stand the bottles in a warm place. An airing cupboard is perfect, failing that, by a radiator or on a sunny window sill. Shake them vigorously two or three times a day and a bit closer to Christmas I’ll tell you the next step. There, see, easy peasy.

And now it’s 8.30am and you’ll all be wondering where this week’s blog is. This is officially the closest I’ve ever pushed it to the wire and I apologise, but I think you’ll all understand why.

And now I must go, I’ve suddenly remembered I need to quickly iron Miss F’s work shirt – yes, I know, she should iron it herself but she’s absolutely exhausted after two very long shifts and will be working another nine hours today, so I’ll do it for her this once. And yes, I know, I work far longer hours, most of it unpaid and unappreciated, but hey ho, that’s the lot of a single mum.

Take care of yourselves and I hope you have a good week. I look forward to chatting next Sunday, and you never know, next week might not be so busy. What? Why are you laughing?

Julia Blake

The Goose is Getting Fat… Christmas Past & Present (or possibly no presents)

This week I’m going to be using the C word a lot. I apologise for using the C word and know that halfway through November it is still way too early to be using the C word, but, events have occurred that have left me with no choice but to think about and say the C word a lot. Christmas. Sorry, I know most of you don’t want to hear it yet, but there’s no escaping from it. Christmas is coming whether we like it or not.

I always think that nothing illustrates the law of diminishing returns better than Christmas. Think about it. When you’re a kid you do absolutely nothing to contribute towards Christmas – except throw a strop on Christmas Day because you got Barbie Princess, and not the Barbie Diamond Princess you actually wanted but your poor, harassed mother didn’t realise was completely different from plain, boring Barbie Princess. Or by helpfully puking your guts up with excitement on Christmas morning. Or by refusing to go to sleep until gone midnight on Christmas Eve, thus meaning your exhausted parents are falling asleep on the sofa they’re so tired, but can’t go to bed until after you’re well and truly down – well, they have to sneak into your room and quietly fill the stocking at the foot of your bed.

Tip to all new parents, start the tradition on the first Christmas of hanging up their stockings either downstairs or on the handle of their bedroom door – so much easier for sneaky Santa shenanigans. If they really insist on having the stocking in their bedroom, then buy two identical stockings. Hang one up in their room, the other one is hidden in your room already filled to the brim with their presents. Then the moment their little peepers are firmly closed, it’s a simple case of creeping in and doing a switch. You’re welcome. This has been a Public Service Announcement by Julia Blake.

Anyway, as I was saying, when you’re a kid you do NOTHING to help with Christmas, yet you get EVERYTHING. Christmas plays, parties, carol services, lunches and trips to Santa in his grotto to give him a list of your demands. Your excitement levels ratchet higher with every door you open on your chocolate stuffed advent calendar. You enjoy decorating the tree, without giving a thought to the poor parent who’s had to tramp around a muddy field picking the “perfect” tree, wrestle it into a car too small to take it, manhandle it into the house and into a suitable pot and then play the ever popular game of “will the lights work this year”? Even if your parents opted for a plastic tree, they’ve still had to climb into the loft to find it, risking life and limb crawling over a year’s worth of stuff that’s been shoved in front of the boxes of Christmas decorations.

As you get older, maybe you start to contribute a little more – you have to write the cards for your school friends, maybe mum makes you write cards to family members, perhaps you even have to help choose and wrap presents. As teenagers, yes, you do a little more, actually buying presents for your family and maybe helping a bit on Christmas day with food preparation and serving. But as kids grow, so the things on their wish list grow smaller and more expensive – iPhones, PlayStation games and money – being the most asked for teenage things.

Once you get beyond the teenage years then it’s all downhill, and as soon as you get a place of your own, Christmas begins to gobble down your money like an ever-hungry festive fledging. Suddenly, all the things that mum and dad bought and you always took for granted, you’ve got to buy for yourself – and you’re starting from scratch having to not only buy a tree, but all the ornaments, lights and other Christmassy bits and bobs to make your new nest a Noel ready retreat. Every Christmas since Miss F was born, I have bought her one beautiful tree ornament, so she now has fifteen plus a few others she’s acquired over the years. That means by the time she eventually leaves home, at least she’ll have enough to make a good show on her very first Christmas tree.

For a brief while, before kids come along, Christmas is still fun. But the moment you become a parent then that’s it, you’ve reached the bottom of the pile in that you do EVERYTHING to make Christmas happen and in return get NOTHING! Most women are sole co-ordinator and cook over the Christmas period. We’re the ones who make the present list, think of what to get for everyone, buy it, wrap it and usually arrange distribution of it. We’re the ones who plan menus and write endless shopping lists.

Going around the supermarket doing the big Christmas shop one year, I looked around at all the other women doing the same, frantically grasping their precious lists, muttering under their breath, eyes glazed with stress and exhaustion. A near fight broke out in aisle seven over the last packet of sage and onion premade stuffing balls. Husband’s – completely failing to understand the severity of not being able to find the right jar of caramelised red onion chutney to go on a cheese board everyone will be too full to eat – trailed miserably after their wives, and wondered just how much trouble they’d get into if they slipped away and went to the pub. And over it all, the strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” floated down from the store’s radio onto the heads of women who every year swear Christmas won’t be the stressful, exhausting, disappointing hot mess it always turns into, yet know with a sinking sense of inevitability, that it will be.

I think we’re all in love with an ideal image of Christmas that simply doesn’t exist. An image created and fed by films, TV shows and magazines, by the longing inside us all to have the perfect Christmas that sadly, most of us never have. The reality being a group of exhausted, stressed out, disappointed people being forced to sit in an overheated room together, exchanging gifts they don’t want, and having to fake gratitude at getting yet another scented candle and bath bomb set that smells like primary school toilets, and for him, deep joy, socks and a mini car maintenance kit.

Why do we do it to ourselves? Especially, why do us women do it to ourselves? I have a sneaking suspicion that if it were left to men, Christmas would comprise of a pie and a pint down the pub, then falling asleep in the armchair in front of the TV. It’s us women who make it such hard work. Before Miss F came along, I used to almost collapse from exhaustion and stress trying to make it the perfect Christmas. Hundreds of pounds spent on presents that all had to be wrapped just so, handmade Christmas crackers and individually wrapped beautiful and thoughtful little table presents for everyone to open before Christmas lunch. Handmade place settings. And enough food and drink purchased to keep a small, third world village going for a month.

Every year it was the same. Every year I’d vow not to do so much, to not spend so much, to not stress so much, but every year I’d get swept up in the Christmas tide and every year I’d run myself ragged. Every Christmas Eve, I’d finally sink into an armchair with a sigh of exhausted relief, glass of something festively alcoholic in hand, with everything done, every card written and delivered, every present perfectly wrapped, all the vegetables prepped for the next day and the house a shimmering, shining homage to Christmas, and then I’d feel it – the ominous, scratchy tickle in the back of my throat which by Christmas morning was a fully-fledged throat infection – every single year, I’d be ill for Christmas Day purely because of the amount of needless stress I’d put myself under.

Then my marriage fell apart and suddenly everything changed. I had neither the money, time, energy or inclination to make everything absolutely perfect. I had a small child, and obviously her needs came first, but children don’t care if the tag on their present is handmade and they don’t care if the paper is responsibly sourced, fully recyclable and handcrafted – all they care about is that there are presents, a big heap of plastic crap under the tree for them to rip apart in a feeding frenzy of excitement.

Gradually, over the years, I’ve looked for ways to make life just that little bit easier for myself – cut down on the amount of food bought. It’s a family of four you’re feeding, not the whole of the Welsh Rugby team – you don’t need a 20lb turkey, make do with a turkey crown, bought all ready to go in the oven pre-stuffed and wrapped in bacon and in its own handy baking tin. The busy woman’s friend, it’s considerably cheaper than buying a whole turkey, fits in the oven, cooks quicker, doesn’t tend to dry out so much and doesn’t leave you with a carcase to try and cope with on Christmas evening. Cut down on the veg. One Christmas dinner spent at my brother’s house, my then sister-in-law had prepared fifteen different vegetables! Fifteen! A truly ridiculous and unnecessary amount of extra work, fuss and worry. Buy the Christmas pudding ready-made. Trust me, no one will ever know the difference.

Don’t be a martyr. Delegate jobs. If you’re hosting Christmas dinner this year, then get all the family in the kitchen Christmas Eve on veggie prepping duty, open a bottle of wine, put on cheesy Christmas music, arrange funny guessing games to play whilst peeling the mountain of potatoes, Brussels sprouts and parsnips. If you can, lay the table days in advance. Don’t worry about a starter, trust me, the amount of food there is, no one is going to be getting a takeaway on the way home. Or if you simply must have a starter, have plates of beautiful bite size canapes to serve with Prosecco before dinner instead.

Above all, do everything you can to make life a little easier for yourself. After all, this is your Christmas as well. No one is going to be happy if you’re too ill to enjoy yourself because you insisted on being a martyr and doing it all yourself. Ask for help. Demand help if needs be. This is everyone’s Christmas, so EVERYONE should chip in. Many hands make light work is at no time as true as it is at Christmas.

This year, Miss F and I have taken the ultimate step, in that we are having a practically present free one. It has taken me almost a whole year to pay off what I spent on Christmas Day last year. Think about that. Eleven months to pay off one single day. Looked at in the cold light of day, it’s ridiculous and a bit obscene. So, we discussed it, and jointly decided no presents. After all, as Miss F rightly stated, that’s not what Christmas should be about. It should be about family and friends, being together, enjoying good food and spending a stress-free time away from work and life. For me, it’s even more important that Christmas is a relaxing time because working in retail means I only get three days off over Christmas. The 23rd, 24th and 25th.

For the past two years I’ve had to look at my watch all Christmas Day, thinking how I have to be at work by 9am the following morning – and trust me, that puts a real crimp on things. So, this year, we’re doing things a little differently. The 23rd will be our Christmas Eve, the 24th will be our Christmas Day and the 25th will be our Boxing Day. At first a bit sceptical how this would work, my family are now fully on board as things have slotted nicely into place. My brother will be spending proper Christmas Day with his girlfriend and her family but can spend the 24th with us. The village my parents live in have a beautiful “carols by candlelight” concert at the church every Christmas Eve at 6pm. Usually, we’re all too busy getting ready for Christmas Day to even think of attending, but this year we will have eaten Christmas dinner and be quite up for a stroll to the church for a bit of drunken carolling. Then on Christmas Day proper, I can relax and enjoy a completely stress-free day before plunging back into work and the madness of after Christmas sales. Oh, the joys of working in retail.

So that’s our Christmas sorted, and do you know, I have noticed immediately a difference between this year and last year. Not having to worry about what I’m buying for everyone and how I’m going to afford it has lifted an enormous weight off my shoulders.

It was the grand switching on of the Christmas lights in Bury St Edmunds this week – and I hope you’re liking all the photos, sorry they’re a bit blurry but I have a rubbish camera – I wasn’t able to go this year as I had to go to a college thing with Miss F, but it’s always well attended whatever the weather. And then of course, next week is the actual Christmas Fayre. The third biggest in the country, it is a massive event with practically the whole town closed off and busloads of tourists coming in from all four points of the compass. I remember last year, chatting to a couple of girls I was queuing for something with, they told me they’d travelled all the way up from Devon just to come to the Fayre for the day!

As I told you last week, myself and four other local authors are having a stall on which we will be selling our personally signed books. I am excited about it and also worried, I have invested quite a lot of money into this event – not only the cost of buying a good supply of my books to sell, I’ve also had lovely little scented candles made to match my books, I’m buying lots of gift wrap supplies to offer a free gift wrapping service and I’ve had to invest in a card reader as most people don’t carry cash with them, and the ability to take card payments should hopefully mean more people will buy my books. It’s just as well I’m not buying any Christmas presents this year! Fingers crossed my gamble pays off.

If there’s anyone local reading this (or perhaps you’re bussing in from the West Country), then why not pop in and say hello. We will be in The Guildhall down Guildhall Street from 10am to 5pm Friday and Saturday, then the others will be there 10am to 4pm on Sunday – sadly I have to work, so I won’t be there on the Sunday. It would be lovely to see you. I may even be wearing a Christmas jumper and if you’re looking for some unique and personalised gifts for Christmas then there will be a wonderful collection of books on offer, all personally signed by local authors, along with bookmarks and candles. Very importantly, there is also a café and toilet facilities in the Guildhall.

What do you think about Christmas? Are you an Elf or a Grinch? Do you love all things Christmassy or do you bah humbug at the whole shenanigans? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. As usual, you can comment here or contact me on Facebook or Instagram.

Finally, many of you have contacted me asking about Queenie Ant. Thank you, it’s so sweet of you all to be concerned. I am happy to report that we think she’s still alive as earlier in the week Miss F is convinced she saw one of her legs uncurl then curl back up again so we’re hopeful that come the Spring she will wake up and we’ll have lots of little ant babies running about all over the place. Imagine that.

Anyway, once again it has been great chatting with you and I hope you enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Take care.

Julia Blake

Road Closures & Rats!

I don’t think it will be too long a blog this week. Life has been a needy, greedy bitch and I’m running on empty from an energy and time point of view. There’s a meme currently doing the rounds, which runs something along the lines of – Being a grown-up consists of saying “after next week things will get back to normal” every day until you die! – And although I’m not sure that’s strictly true, this week it has definitely felt like it.

To sum up all that has happened since we last chatted, well, for a start, I’ve decided to have a stall at the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fair this year. Yes, yes, I know I said I’d never do this type of thing again after the Literature Festival fiasco – for those of you who don’t know, in a nut shell I spent hundreds of pounds buying in stock, didn’t sell a single book, had to carry them all home, cried a bit.

How this decision to do a stall at the Christmas Fair came about, was a group of us Bury St Edmunds authors have found each other and formed a little group. We meet for coffee every other Friday to just talk books and encourage and support one another. One member of the group, the young one with all the zip and enthusiasm, eagerly suggested we do a stall between us. She’d researched the venue, got a price and basically arranged everything. What could I do? I was surprised how reasonably priced the stall was, and between the five of us, it was even cheaper. I really wanted to be a part of this and couldn’t help feeling if I wasn’t, I would seriously regret the loss of the experience, if nothing else. So, I said yes.

Becoming Lili

Although the stall itself is quite cheap, as always, it’s the cost of buying in books to sell on it that is the expensive bit, and then there’s the dilemma of which books do I sell and how many do I buy? In the end, I decided to stick to just four so have ordered ten each of Becoming Lili, Chaining Daisy and Eclairs for Tea and other stories, and fifteen of my most popular book to date, The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ which still comes to 45 books in total and a big chunk of savings gone.

Chaining Daisy

Why did I choose these four? Well, Becoming Lili and Chaining Daisy are the perfect pair to sell at a bargain price for Christmas, Daisy is my latest release so interest is still high in it and they just look so beautiful together, and will make an impact on the stall. The Forest, of course, with its iconic cover, is an obvious choice, and then Eclairs for Tea is the smallest and cheapest of the four and is perfect for readers who might be daunted by the bulk of the others, plus it also makes for a perfect Christmas gift.

Eclairs for Tea and other stories

The idea then struck me that it would be perfect to have individually scented candles to sell alongside the books, so I am currently in negotiations with a local candle maker and will keep you posted as to progress. I will bring plenty of exclusive Julia Blake bookmarks to give away with every book purchased, plus I will be personally signing every book and offering a beautiful gift-wrapping service free of charge.

The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~

So, if you are planning to attend the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fair this year, then why not call round to say hello. I and four other local authors – Jackie Carreira, Amy Warren, Rachel Churcher and Pauline Manders – will be in the Guildhall down Guildhall Street between the hours of 10am-4pm on the Friday to Sunday. (I personally will only be there the Friday and the Saturday as I have to work on Sunday, but the others will be there all three days). You can’t miss me. I’ll be the red headed one desperately trying to pretend she knows what she’s doing! It would be lovely to see you, so please do come along.

Aside from trying to arrange all of the above, I’ve of course been working as usual, both at my normal job and at my part-time job of “Mum’s Taxi – evening and weekend work, very reasonable rates”. Sadly, I receive no monetary reward for providing a taxi service to Miss F and her friends but do it out of the goodness of my heart. However, this week there’s been a few too many calls upon my time and petrol and it’s been a job fitting it in.

Wednesday, I received a request from Miss F, please could I run her and her friends out to a local pet shop a couple of miles out of town to pick up the two pet rats her friend was buying. Then could we run them out to another friend’s house on the other side of town to pick up a cage that had been promised to house these said rats in, and finally could I run everyone to the proud new rat mummy’s home. She asked me in front of them all, and I don’t know about you, but if someone asks me to do a favour for someone else actually in front of them, I find it very difficult to say no. It was also requested that I first run them all to Pets at Home to pick up supplies, but here I put my foot down.

It was coming up to school rush hour, to get all the way out to the retail park that Pets at Home is located on would take thirty minutes, then another forty minutes to fight our way back through traffic to the pet store where the rats were and then another thirty to get to the third friends home and another twenty to get everyone back. That added up to two hours of my time idling in traffic just because the bedding from Pets at Home was reputedly better than that of the store where the actual rats were. So, I said no, then felt guilty, but stuck to my guns. Being the only one of the party with driving experience, knowledge of the roads and location of everything, and just how hideous school run traffic is, I felt justified in saying no this time.

Off we went, me, three girls and a carry cage all crammed in my little car. We got to the store where the rats were. Now, I don’t like wild rats of course, and never really had an opinion on tame rats, but must admit the pair Miss F’s friend bought were very pretty and very cute. Miss F looked around at all the assorted squeaky, fluffy critters and pulled a pleading face at me, but I pretended not to see it and tried to hurry things up, very aware of time ticking on.

Bury St Edmunds is a small town at its heart, the infrastructure simply isn’t there to deal with high volumes of traffic so it’s best to avoid it whenever possible. Add to that, the fact that one of the main roads through the centre of town is currently blocked, as well as a few other smaller side ones, and the chaotic hell that is school going home time becomes even worse. I belted along the road, rats squeaking at every turn, desperate to drop off friend three and pick up the cage from her house before the school bell went and gridlock ensued. I’m happy to say we made it, but Miss F has been begging ever since to have rats. I’m sticking to my guns on this one as well, I don’t really want caged animals in the house, they smell, make a lot of mess, and I think my cat would have a very hard job restraining herself from murdering them.

Speaking of pets, a lot of you have messaged me asking how Queenie Ant is, well, I have to admit, we’re not sure. As you know, at first, we thought she was dead, then we thought she was alive but hibernating because all the worker ants piled in around her and seemed to settle down for a long nap as well. But now we’re not sure. They keep moving her body around the habitat, which is very odd. It’s almost as though they don’t know if she’s alive or dead either. We’re leaving them alone to do whatever they feel they must, but it’s a bit worrying. If Queenie is dead, then all those worker ants are basically dead ants walking. Although they can live without a queen, without a purpose to their lives they will eventually die. They can’t join another colony because they would be killed and it’s no good putting another queen in there, because they will kill her. Usually, Mother Nature’s systems work very well, but I can’t understand the reasoning behind this one.

I can’t remember if I mentioned it last week, but Miss F went for a job interview for a position as front of house staff in a newly opened, trendy gastro pub about a twenty-minute drive from Bury. Well, she went for a trial session Friday evening 5-9pm so again called upon the services of Mum’s Taxi. Bearing in mind on a Friday, I already run her and her friend out to their voluntary work placement for 9am (a round journey of about 1 hour and 20 minutes), then do the repeat journey to pick them up at 2pm, it doesn’t leave much time for us to get home, eat a late lunch, and for her to shower the stable off her and get ready, before we have to leave at 4.20pm to allow time in rush hour traffic to get out of town and reach the pub before 5pm.

Normally, it would be fine, but this particular Friday I decided to take my mother out on the pick-up journey so that she can see where she has to go, because when I’m busy at the Fair on that Friday, she is going to collect the girls, so I don’t have to take two hours out of my day to do it. Anyway, normally, it’s a simple matter to cut across country and reach the village where my parents live, and I’ve done it a couple of times before. It only adds a few minutes to the journey time and is a straight-forward route that I know very well.

But we all know how things go when you’re in a hurry. Driving back from dropping the girls off in the morning, the plan came to me to ask my mother to help on the day of the fair, so I cut across country to take the normal detour to their village. All was going well, until I hit the first of the road closed signs. Now, out in the countryside we all tend to ignore these signs, usually they mean there’s two bollards around a pothole and you can still get through, or the actual road closed is miles away from where you need to go. So, I bomb merrily along the road, Radio 2 blasting out, until suddenly there’s an actual barrier across the road and it’s clear I’m going no further.

Bugger it. Not being able to get through meant a long backtrack and then an even further cross-country detour to reach my parents. Driving back the way I came, I see a signpost to a village I know, not far from my parent’s village, if I can get to that then I’ll know the way from there. Making a snap decision, I turn off the main road and into what I can only describe as “here be dragons” territory. The road got smaller and smaller! I was totally off the map, lost and had no idea what to do except keep going. At one point, I think I went through a farmyard, and I kept expecting to hear the sound of banjos. Finally, after about twenty straight minutes of “where the f**k am I” driving, the road spat me out on a road I knew and I was able to make it to my parents house with my car looking like I’d been rally driving!

Oh yes, I hadn’t mentioned there was also torrential rain with mud being washed off the fields onto the roads. Big fun.

When it came time to do the reverse journey it started out so well. Mum had come into Bury to do some shopping, so we were able to go straight from there out to the farm to pick up both the girls. I’d looked at the map and figured out another route to get her back to her village without having to go all the way to the ends of the world and back again. I told her the route I planned to take, she agreed – initially. We picked up the girls, we’re on our way back, when mum springs a surprise on me.

“Take this turning.”

“What?”

“Take this turning, it’s quicker.”

 “Mum,” this was Miss F in the back. “I’ve got Google maps up, there is another way if you turn left there and then right at the end of the road.”

“Ok.”

“No,” says my mother. “Don’t go that way, you can’t get through.”

“Google maps says you can, Nana.”

“Well, Google maps is wrong, because I know you can’t get through. Trust me.”

Now, you’d think I’d have learnt by now. Which option should I have gone with? Miss F and Google maps. Or, my mother with her vague recollections of a road she hasn’t been down in forty years? Yep, you’ve guessed it, stupidly I went with my mother. The road went on and on and on. It got smaller and smaller and smaller. Finally, we found a signpost telling us we’re heading in completely the wrong direction. We turn around, take another road.

This road also goes on and on and on. Time is ticking by. I’m very aware that we have to get home. Miss F is honking from shovelling horse poo all morning. She has to have a shower and wash her hair, we have to eat, she has to get ready for her all-important job trial. My eyes meet those of Miss F in the mirror and I see the panic in hers.

Then about a quarter of a mile down the road we see it. A massive hedge trimmer. It’s taking up the entire width of the road. No room even for my tiny car to squeeze through and I know from experience there’s no way this thing will back up to a passing place and let me through. There’s nothing for it, we turn back around. By now, we’re so disorientated from all the turns we’ve made we are well and truly lost. My mother, who up until this point has been very vocal with her local knowledge suggestions, has suddenly gone silent on the matter. Picking a road at random, we creep along it until suddenly I’m back on the tiny lane I’d found myself on that morning. We’re saved. I know where we are, but we’ve wasted thirty minutes of precious time and we’re still thirty minutes from home.

Finally reaching home, Operation Panic Stations swings into motion. We quickly gobble down the pasta bake I’d thankfully already made that morning ready and Miss F shoots off to have her shower. She’s upstairs getting dressed, it’s now 4.15pm so we’re up against the clock, when suddenly there’s a howl of disbelief and a pair of black jeans land at the bottom of the stairs. The pub had requested that she dress in plain black jeans and a white shirt for the job trial, and as she had neither, we’d had to go shopping for them the day before. Now I’m looking at the new jeans in horror, more specifically I’m looking at the socking great security tag still attached to their waistband! We’d paid for the jeans, of course we had, but somehow the cashier had forgotten to take the tag off and somehow we hadn’t set the alarms off when we left. What can we do? She can’t wear them with this giant metal disc attached to them. Miss F had now left the small town of panic and was heading into the suburbs of meltdown so I sent her back upstairs to finish getting ready whilst I took the jeans into the kitchen to see what could be done. Stores attach these tags to prevent shoplifting because they are impossible to remove without the correct in-store device. Wrong. A desperately determined woman armed only with a blunt pair of secateurs can get one off in under three minutes. So the tag was off, but we were now running ten minutes late!

What I know you’re all wanting to know is did Miss F make it in time for her job trial and how did she get on? Well, it was tight, she was about a minute late. I’d planned for us to leave at 4.20pm to allow for the increased leaving college traffic, but because we didn’t get away until ten minutes later it put us slap bang in the middle of it. I had to push the car to its limits where I could, and we screeched into the pub car park at 5.01pm by the car clock. She rushed in and I then had to face all that traffic again to fight my way back into town. Only now it’s worse, because now all the people leaving work have joined the fun. Back home, I had to wait and try not to fall asleep on the sofa, before having to turn out at 8.30pm to go and pick her up again. This time the journey took 17 minutes, clocking up to a massive five hours total I’d been driving around that day. The things we do for our kids!

But the important thing is she loved it and feels that she did very well. She seems pretty confident they will be offering her a job, and even despite the inconvenience and extra petrol, I hope they do. It’s a nice job, in a lovely working environment, and the pay is very good considering she’s only 16. More than enough for her to save for university, driving lessons and to compensate me for all the petrol I’m now going through.

And that’s been my week. Once again, there’s been no time to write or read or relax. I’m back to work tomorrow, so maybe I can rest then. It’s now 4pm Saturday, the fire is laid, I’ve just about done all my chores and a nice dinner with a glass or two of wine is planned. Let’s just hope I stay awake long enough to enjoy my evening off.

Thank you as usual for joining me, and I hope you all have a great week.

Julia Blake

Ghosts and Goblins and Things That Go Bump in the Night! What Scares You?

Well, we had Halloween this week and Miss F and I duly carved pumpkins, put them on our front doorstep and waited for the three trick or treaters we had. We live in the centre of a small UK town, so Halloween isn’t particularly big here, in fact, the only reason we bother at all is for the delightful American family who live at the top of our road. They have two small children so the whole street puts out pumpkins and gets in candy so they can toddle up and down the road trick or treating.

It got me to thinking what an odd custom it is. When I was a child it had only just crept across the pond from the US and my mother hated it. We put out no pumpkins or Halloween decorations of any sort, and if any trick or treater dared to ring our doorbell they’d be sent away with a flea in their ear and sternly told to stop begging on people’s doorsteps. This is an attitude she still has even to this day.

But I know a lot of people cherish it as their favourite time of the year and while it does nothing for me, I can understand its appeal. For one night, you can dress up as something wicked and evil and release the inner demon inside – a very attractive proposition. And of course, there is the fact that most people love to be scared.

It’s not something I enjoy myself and I can’t understand the appeal of horror films and books, but I think I was scared off them at a very young age when a baby sitter – who really should have known better – let me watch the film Poltergeist. It absolutely terrified me. Not just while watching it, although that was bad enough, but for weeks afterwards I was unable to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I would see the images from the film creeping across my bedroom floor and would jerk bolt upright in bed, sweat sticking my nightie to my back and my skin literally crawling off my body. Refusing to tell my parents what was wrong – I liked that particular babysitter and was old enough to understand if I told on her I’d in all likelihood never see her again – I suffered in silence until eventually the immediacy of my terror passed and I was able to sleep again. Yet, I still remember how it felt.

People claim kids love to be scared, and whilst that may be true, I think there are limits. I used to love Doctor Who and yes, I was scared by the monsters, but it was a different kind of scared. The action usually involved aliens on far away planets so I knew they weren’t real, also the special effects in classic Doctor Who episodes were creaky to say the least, and when you can see the zip in the back of the monster’s suit it somewhat diminishes the effect it has on you.

The only exception was the Cybermen. Now they did bother me. Completely devoid of emotion, their one aim was to make you just like them and that terrified me a lot more than the Daleks. The Daleks only wanted to kill you and back then they had a serious issue with climbing, so my childish self would imagine escaping them by means of going upstairs and again that took away their impact. Nowadays, of course, they have this whole steam elevation thing going on so stairs no longer bother them – not sure how that would have made me feel as a kid.

Lots of things scared me as a child. I remember when I was very young, I didn’t like flushing the toilet, although I’m not too sure why, perhaps I thought something was coming out to get me. I used to wash my hands, open the door and stretch back as far as I could, flush, then run like the devil himself was after me – and perhaps he was.

There’s a funny story involving toilet flushing, well, I think of it as funny now, but at the time I’d never been so scared in all my life. I must have been about ten and awoke one day a bit under the weather and managed to convince my mum a day off school was in order. She fell for it and sent me back to bed, where I dozed for a bit listening to the far-off sounds of the rest of the family departing for school and work, before getting up and wandering through to the kitchen to investigate the contents of the cake tin. Settling down with a plateful to watch the school programmes that were on daytime TV back then and believing myself to be utterly alone in the house, I was just about to take a mouthful of cake when I heard the toilet flush. Now, my parents lived (in fact, still do) in a bungalow so everything was on one floor. I got up and stared at the door that led through to the bedrooms and the bathroom. To my absolute horror, I saw the door handle begin to turn and I completely lost it. Letting out a bone chilling scream, I collapsed to the floor – scaring the shit out of my mother who’d also decided she wasn’t feeling well so had gone back to bed instead of going to work. Apparently, it took ages to calm me down and even longer for me to convince my mother that the massive plateful of cake was me self-medicating.

I was afraid of my bedroom during the day and was convinced it was haunted. At night it wasn’t much better, for a while my parents kept a tall, metal, cylindrical laundry basket in my built-in wardrobe and I was convinced it was a Dalek coming to get me. In the end, it caused so many nightmares and disturbed my sleep so much, it was disposed of.

Getting into bed itself was also terrifying, braced in the doorway I would take a running jump into the middle of my bed and quickly clamber under the covers. The mere thought of standing next to the bed and simply climbing in reduced me to a quivering wreck, because of the hand I was convinced would come out from under the bed and grab me by the ankle. Let’s be honest, I think that’s a fear most of us had as children, and let’s be brutally honest, I think it’s a lingering fear most of us subconsciously have as adults.

I was also afraid of the dark. Now, I know most children are and I know most of them grow out of it. I must confess, I never have. I’m a light sleeper and tend to partially wake many times in the night. If it’s pitch dark and I can’t see where I am, then I get disorientated and confused and I wake up fully, groping for the lamp and then lying awake for hours trying to go back to sleep. However, if there’s even just the smallest glimmer of light, enough for my semi-asleep self to recognise my surroundings, then I instantly fall asleep again. So, I’ve always slept with a dim night light. Judge me all you like, it doesn’t make me a coward, it just helps me to sleep.

It’s hard to tell though, what will scare a child. Some things leave the callous little devils untouched and unmoved, but then something inconsequential will bother them. I remember when Miss F was a little one, we settled down one Christmas to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that much loved and popular kid’s film. All was well, she was loving it… Until… the child catcher appeared and that was it.

Turned. Her. Mind. As in, totally freaked her out. The film had to be abandoned for the fluffiness of a Care Bear video, with many cuddles, before she calmed down enough to go to bed. For weeks afterwards she would suddenly think of him and the whole cycle would repeat itself. I’m not sure she ever really got over it and it put her off anything even vaguely spooky.

As a big brave adult, not much scares me anymore. My fears now tend to be of a more practical nature, such as money and health issues, and my days of worrying about things that go bump in the night are pretty much over – I appreciate now that things that go bump in the night are usually other people enjoying themselves! But there is one thing that still has the power to freeze me to the spot with terror and turn my insides to water… Snakes.

I hate them, as in really, really, hate them. I can’t even look at a picture of one without experiencing a knee-jerk, primitive, instinctive recoil of terror and disgust. I also don’t like eels – I mean, all that thrashing about, what the hell is that all in aid of? And I’m not even that keen on worms – although I think that’s more to do with Sharon Kirk dropping one down my dress and then slapping me on the back when I was five, than anything else.

Now, I don’t mind lizards, in fact I quite like geckos, so it’s not a reptilian thing, and I’m not afraid of mice, rats or insects, any of the things that usually freak people. It’s just snakes, and they absolutely make me lose all control.

The closest I’ve ever really got to one was way back when Miss F was four or five. We’d gone to one of those farm/zoo places where they have a petting session when the kids can play with bunnies and goats and guinea pigs etc. I was having a bonding session with an enormous fluffy bunny and thoroughly enjoying myself when Miss F called to me to look at her. I looked at her. My child was completely draped with the biggest custard yellow python I’d ever seen.

I was practically torn in half by two equally strong urges. That of – run away, it’s a f*****g big snake – and – save my child from the f*****g big snake. A zookeeper was standing beside her with a big grin on his face and I had to fight hard not to slap him into next Tuesday for putting my child (and me) in this situation. Edging slightly closer and trying hard not to vomit on the bunny I was still clutching, I casually enquired.

“What are you doing, sweetheart? Why don’t you come and cuddle this lovely bunny?”

“Don’t want to, bunnies are boring. I’ve got a snake. I love snakes.”

“Oh, that’s nice, but why don’t you give him back to the nice man and let’s go and get some cake.”

“Come and stroke him, mummy.”

“No, that’s alright love, mummy has this bunny.”

“Put the bunny down, bunnies are boring. Come and stroke my snake.”

By now the bunny was struggling due to me squeezing him so hard, so I gently put him down and watched him hop away, wishing I could go with him. The zookeeper, sensing my reluctance, tried to be helpful.

“Perhaps mummy is too afraid to stroke the snake.”

By now, we’ve attracted quite a crowd of other parents and their offspring, and I can feel the sympathy oozing off the other mums who are also staring at this huge snake in horror.

“My mummy isn’t afraid of anything!” declared Miss F loudly, and that was it, wasn’t it, I had to touch the bloody thing now. No choice in the matter. Forcing my legs to move, I sidled closer. The snake lifted a head the size of a dinner plate and looked at me. There was a nasty look in its eye that suggested it knew precisely how scared I was. Perhaps it could smell the fear rolling off me in waves of perspiration, or perhaps it could hear the terrified pounding of my heart, or perhaps it just saw me as prey. Whatever it was thinking, I didn’t want to stick around any longer than necessary and tapped it lightly on its head and backed away.

“Right, I touched the snake, now come on honey, give the man back his snake and let’s go and get some lunch.”

I think by now the zookeeper had picked up that I was genuinely petrified and close to either puking on his shoes, breaking down into wild sobs, passing out, or possibly all three, because he took the damn thing off my baby and we were able to leave. Years later when I talked about it to Miss F, she remembered me touching the snake, but thankfully had no realisation of just what it had taken me to do so. Us mums are unsung superheroes sometimes.

One other thing that bothers me, and it’s such a ridiculously stupid thing that I feel an idiot even confessing to it, is I don’t like maps. Specifically, when a TV programme or something zooms down from a great height onto the landscape and you can see geographical features getting bigger and bigger. It makes me uncomfortable. Don’t ask me why, I can’t explain it. And it’s not exactly that I’m scared of it, it just bothers me a bit.

Weird, I know, but then people’s fears are sometimes totally irrational but still completely to be respected because they are their fears. I’ve known people be scared of birds, cats, dogs, hedgehogs, grasshoppers and dragonflies. Ferris wheels, roundabouts, buttons and elevators. Some of these fears make sense, others don’t, but hey, it’s a big old world and we’re all different.

What’s your fear?

So, what scares you? Is it something common like snakes or spiders, or is it something more bizarre like paperclips or doorknobs? I’d love to hear what it is and if you know why you’re afraid of that particular thing.

I think that’s about it for this week, and to those of you who noticed I got ahead of myself last week and posted Saturday morning instead of Sunday I apologise, but sometimes life… you know.

Take care and have a great week.

Julia Blake

Beautiful Bury St Edmunds! My week in a Nutshell

It’s been a busy but fun week because I have been entertaining company from the other side of the world. Australia, to be precise. A fellow author with whom I’ve been friends with on Instagram for the past three years messaged me a few weeks ago that she was coming to the UK. How exciting, I answered. Was she coming to my neck of the woods at all? She was, she replied. Could I recommend a decent hotel or B&B. A hotel or B&B? Absolutely not! She’d come and stay at Blake Manor for the four days she planned to stay in Bury St Edmunds – so long as she didn’t mind bunking down in a single bed in quite a small spare room. She didn’t mind. In fact, claimed she’d rather be in a single bed in a friend’s home than in an impersonal hotel or B&B.

So, our plans were laid, and I duly spruced up our tiny spare room and made it as comfortable as possible with my best bedding, flowers and new towels. But as the hour of her arrival ticked ever closer, the nerves began to bite. What would she be like? Would she be happy with our tiny house or would she wish she’d picked classier accommodation after all? Would she be easy to feed, or turn out to be fussier than my daughter? Would I like her? More importantly, would she like me?

The beautiful Angel Hotel where Charles Dickens stayed and wrote The Pickwick Papers

Tuesday morning rolled around and I went to collect her from the train station. My carefully laid plans to be waiting on the platform for her with a big welcoming smile were instantly scuppered by the fact there wasn’t a single parking space to be had. Desperately circling the station over and over again, I anxiously scanned the tiny full car park on each circuit, but it was no good. Eventually, I hitched up onto the pavement and sent a desperate text informing her of the situation, then went for another couple of goes around the one-way system until finally I saw someone come out of the station dragging a case bigger than herself and looking around helplessly.

It could only be her! Once again breaking the law with carefree abandon, I parked in a no stopping area and jumped out, waving frantically and calling her name. Her face breaking into a relieved smile, she rushed over and there was only time for a quick hug before I threw her case in the boot and we hurried back to Blake Manor as quickly as lunchtime traffic would allow.

The Atheneum – where many a 17th century ball took place

After settling in, a restorative cup of tea and a quick “getting to know each other chat” we went for a tour of the sights in Bury St Edmunds. Now, although I love the little market town I live in and am fully aware of how lucky I am to reside in place that is so rich in history, it’s not until I’m showing someone else around that I really appreciate what a very special place it is. To tourists, especially those from younger countries such as Australia and the US, it is an architectural marvel, with houses from all periods rubbing shoulders.

We paid a visit to one of the oldest buildings in town – Moyses Hall. Originally, a 12th century town house belonging to a wealthy merchant, it is now a small museum stuffed full of local memorabilia. Pride of place among the exhibits is the rather macabre death mask of convicted villain, William Corder, and a book which was made from his skin!

Accused of murdering his lover and the mother of his illegitimate children, Maria Marten, in the infamous Red Barn Murder. Corder was executed in Bury St Edmunds in 1828 and the grisly souvenirs as mentioned above were made.

It is quite an incredible building and it’s possible to see the original brickwork, fireplaces and doorways. Wandering about and looking at the exhibits, my friend kept exclaiming over the age of it and it made me realise that yes, a building dating back to the mid-12th century that is still intact and still being used for something is actually quite incredible.

Then we wandered around the town itself. Bury is a charming and eclectic mix of old and new, with roads such as St. John’s Street winding away from the town centre chock full of individual artisan shops all housed in ancient buildings.

There is a new part of the town as well, a large shopping complex called the Arc with its brand-new buildings and rather space age looking Debenhams department store. I don’t hate the new part, it’s not as offensive as some I’ve seen, and I guess it serves a purpose.

Bury is also home to the country’s smallest pub, the rather aptly named Nutshell, and my friend was very keen to pay a visit and have a drink in it. We squeezed inside and ordered a G&T each. It is really tiny. Seven people constitutes a crowd, anymore and it’s a crush, yet every square inch of its walls and even the ceiling are filled with quirky and funny knickknacks and memorabilia.

Inside the Nutshell Pub

We went to the Abbey Gardens, the beautiful and well laid out park surrounding the ruins of the medieval monastery. Once one of the largest and most important monasteries in Britain, it was a complete world unto itself. The monks grew all their own food and provided for themselves with livestock, fisheries, beehives and an orchard. They also had a hospital and were the only form of healthcare most people had access to.

Located on the banks of the river, boats would sail up from the North Sea and sell their wares from Europe, Scandinavia and even further afield. Sadly, the river silted up over time and it became too shallow for boats to traverse. Add to this the devastating effects of Henry VIII and his dissolution of religious institutions across the British Isles, and it spelled the end of Bury St Edmunds being one of the most important towns in the country.

There are quite a few ruins to explore, as well as the magnificent cathedral and the lovely St Mary’s Church which was commissioned by Henry himself as a fitting final resting place for his favourite sister, Mary, who had married the local lord Charles Brandon.

Coming home after a few hours being seeped in history, there was just time for a nice relaxed dinner and chat, before quite understandable exhaustion after travelling over 24 hours from the other side of the world caught up with my poor friend and she toddled off to bed.

Wednesday, day two of her visit, and we went to visit another local author who has also been friends with my Oz visitor for several years. We had a wonderful lunch and a lovely long chat about all things bookish. The really great thing about spending time with other writers is that you can talk until you’re blue in the face about books and their eyes don’t glaze over. Try doing that with non-writing friends and it soon becomes apparent that they really want you to shut up.

Despite the weather forecast being for solid rain all week it only spotted in places and so on Thursday we drove the 30 minutes or so to a nearby stately home and garden, Anglesey Abbey. Totally beautiful, we toured the very well-preserved house in the morning and then treated ourselves to a cream tea. Curious to resolve an age-old question, I conducted an experiment and put the clotted cream first on one half of my scone and then the jam and vice versa on the other half.

My verdict? Well, obviously, both were delicious, but I found spreading the clotted cream on the scone first literally ripped the scone to pieces and it was also very hard to then spread the jam on top. The half I spread the jam on first worked better as the jam seemed to cement the scone together so I could then smear the cream on top.

Enjoying the beautiful Autumn sunshine, we ambled about the grounds and woodlands looking at the plants and giggling at the fact that every statue was male, naked and sporting very unimpressive “parts” – those that hadn’t snapped off, that was. It did rain a little, okay quite a bit, but the downpour was short-lived, and we had hoods on our jackets, so it was all fine.

Driving home, we just missed the rush hour traffic and rounded off a perfect day with traditional fish and chips and a film – “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” – very appropriate for a pair of authors – in front of the fire.

Friday, the last day of my friends stay, and I’d arranged for us to meet four fellow indie authors who all live in and around Bury St Edmunds for brunch. First thing in the morning I had to run Miss F out to her work placement while my friend packed her bags and prepared for her departure later that day, then we wandered to a nearby restaurant that does an excellent brunch menu including veggie, vegan and foods for people with special dietary requirements.

We all took our books for a group photo and a fine time was had by all. I couldn’t help reflecting how much talent was seated around that table, drinking coffee and discussing all things bookish. Very diverse, practically every genre was represented, and it was fascinating to hear each other’s stories of how they came to be published and what their plans were for the future.

Brunch over, there was just time to bid my friend a fond farewell with promises to stay in touch, then it was back out to collect Miss F from her work placement in the middle of nowhere, followed by a hectic afternoon of arranging the printing of flyers, housework, laundry, shopping and preparing for a long weekend of work.

And now it’s Saturday morning and I’m trying to finish writing this blog before heading off to work for a full-on day of people and attempting to stay perky and awake! It doesn’t help that my body likes to play mean little tricks on me and the nasty cold I thought I’d managed to get rid of a fortnight ago is back with a vengeance. So, I’m sipping black tea with honey to soothe my poor throat and hoping this cold isn’t here to stay.

I wish I could say my life is going to get less mad next week, but it isn’t. Due to the long term sickness of a colleague I will be pulling a lot of overtime and on Monday – my one day off next week – I have to drive Miss F all the way to Ipswich to meet some dodgy sounding person at the train station in order to buy some ants off him. Yes, you did read that right, but more on that next week.

Time is ticking by and I really do need to go, once again, thank you for joining me this Sunday morning for a coffee and a chat, and I wish you a more peaceful and relaxing week than the one I am facing.

Take care of yourselves.

Julia Blake