Slow and Steady Wins The Race

First of all, I’d like to apologise for this week’s blog coming to you a little later than normal. When you read about the kind of week I’ve had, you’ll understand why. For a start, my shifts this last month or so have been all over the place. When I first started at my current job, my shifts used to change every week and I never knew where I was, but my boss did try to ensure I had chunks of days off in a row. I only work three days a week, so he’d try to make it so they were sensibly proportioned with days off. Sometimes this wasn’t easy, as we were a team member down for the first six months after my start date, so I pulled a lot of overtime during that period.

Then the other part-time lady started, and things settled down a bit. Gradually, it seemed to shake down that I would work Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and the other lady would work Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Ok, it meant we both had to work a day at the weekend, but at least you always knew where you were and could plan things well in advance. Besides, with Miss F having Thursday off the same as me, it wasn’t so important having the weekend off. I only work 10am to 4pm on Sunday’s, so not too long, and Miss F tended to catch up on her sleep in the morning and get her college coursework done in the afternoon.

Then my boss went a bit crazy and suddenly I was doing day on, day off, day on, day off, which I absolutely HATED. Ask any woman if she wants a shift pattern like that and she’ll tell you no. Working like that, it meant I’d get up on my one day off with household chores to be done, shopping, ironing, running errands and catching up on social media, then it’d be back to work next day. Then the next day off it would be more of the same so I never got a chance to have any downtime or time to just relax or read, let alone do any writing.

I knew the other part-time lady was also getting fed up with it, she has a long-term medical situation going on, so knowing exactly what days she has off is essential for her when booking her various hospital and consultant’s appointments. So, we confronted our boss together and demanded he put our shifts back to how they were. He seemed genuinely shocked that we weren’t “thrilled” that our working days were – as he put it – “mixed up to make it interesting”. For a start – no. Middle aged, hard-working women do not want things “mixed up”. We like to know precisely where we are and having those four days off in a row are a godsend.

Having the Friday off, at least, is important to me. I have to get Miss F to her work placement by 9am and while that gives me plenty of time to get to work by before ten, it means I can’t go and pick her up at 2pm and have to ask my mother to do it. I don’t like having to do that, not only because I don’t want to put her out, after all it’s a nasty long drive there and back on twisty country lanes, but also because my mother is such a terribly, dangerous driver she scares the living daylights out of whoever is unfortunate enough to get in the car with her. Miss F has pleaded with me to get my shifts back to normal so I can pick her up, even offering to phone my boss and cry, if that’s what it took to make him agree.

But she didn’t have to resort to that, faced with our united determination my boss capitulated and I’m happy to report that from next week things will be back to normal. But, getting back to this week, and me explaining why the blog is a little late this morning. I had the Sunday off, but had a ton of laundry and housework to tackle in the morning, then in the afternoon took Miss F to get her tortoise. As you know, she was trying to decide what to do as the Indian Star Tortoise she wanted was proving impossible to source locally. Yes, she’d tracked down some dealer called Gary who lived in Guildford and had some for sale but, to be frank, the whole thing smelt a bit fishy.

All the experts agree that buying a hatchling that’s under two years old is cruel and unethical. They are too young to be removed from their mothers, so any dealer offering babies under two is clearly not that concerned about the creature’s welfare and happiness. Gary offered her a 2019 hatchling, so alarm bells were ringing all over the place. It was also such a long way to go, he wanted paying up front and that’s always worrying, plus there seemed no comeback if the tortoise turned out to be sickly or damaged in some way.

I employed my usual method when Miss F has to make a decision and a choice between what her heart wanted, and what her head knew to be right. We sat and discussed all the factors and then I left her to it. A couple of days later she came to me with a decision made. She’d done more research and decided to get a West Hermann Tortoise instead. Now, these are very small tortoises so won’t outgrow the tortoise table she’d already bought for at least twenty years. Best of all, Swallow Aquatics – a local reptile and fish showroom only a thirty-minute drive away – sold two-year-old hatchlings.

This seemed a much better prospect, safer and more ethical, and I was relieved it was a decision she’d reached with minimal prompting from me. We drove to Swallow Aquatics after first calling them to make sure they had them in stock, they did, lots of them. After some umming and ahhing, Miss F chose a little one that came to the very front of the tank to check us out.

You can just see him at the front bottom right

We filled in all the paperwork – buying a tortoise is a bit like adopting a baby, and I’d had no idea how much was involved. Miss F handed over £175 of her hard-earned cash and received a certificate of birth and registration, and a teeny tiny tortoise in a clear plastic box that had live crickets written on the side.

So small…

We got him home and into a warm bath to wash all the dust and other substances off him, then introduced him to his new, spacious home. Honestly, this tortoise is living the dream, his own swimming pool, food on demand and a cosy warm bed section filled with fresh timothy grass for him to snuggle down in at night.

West Hermann Tortoises come from the South of France and as this guy seems to have a proper little man syndrome, he’s been called Napoleon. Now, I didn’t think I’d get very excited about a tortoise, but I have to admit he’s actually very sweet and has a proper personality. He likes his head being stroked, he loves chin rubs and adores his bath, where he splashes about ankle deep in warm water, enjoying having his shell gently washed with cotton buds.

He’s funny too and I have a strong suspicion he has a quirky sense of humour. One morning, for some reason he decided to dump a ton of dirt into his swimming pool and turn it into a mud bath. Quite how he managed to do it given the size of him, I have no idea. He then sat there and looked at it, then looked at us, then back at the mess he’d made, as if to say – “I did this, fix it.” Miss F picked him up and he sat on her palm blinking his tiny eyes at us. “What did you do?” she asked him, and his reply was to open and close his mouth several times at us, almost as if he was laughing.

What you smiling at?

Monday, I had off, so spent the day catching up on shopping, chores and housework, and I also managed to get a couple of hours in sourcing illustrations for Erinsmore. It sounds like it should be a fun and easy job, but it’s quite hard work. I want the illustrations to obviously have the same vibe throughout and match a general aesthetic for the whole book, and I want each chapter illustration to reflect something that happens in the following chapter. It’s time consuming, but it is fun.

Tuesday, I had to do my last two hours of work ever for my freelance job. This marks the end of an era. I first started working for Mr G way back in 1987 when I was running a secretarial agency from my parents dining room. He had just gone it alone as an accountant and needed a freelance secretary. Right from the word go we clicked, having the same sense of humour, and I enjoyed doing his work. Over the years, his practice went from strength to strength and he always promised that if ever he needed someone full-time, I would get first refusal of the job.

The nineties came and home computers became more popular, gradually, the need for the services my business offered dwindled, until eventually I closed my doors in 1996 and had to look for a proper job. I worked for Allied Carpets for two years as a full-time sales consultant. Although I enjoyed the work and the pay was phenomenal, it was the type of job that could consume you if you let it. I worked long hours, sometimes all weekend, and of course I no longer had bank holidays off. At the same time, I was still doing Mr G’s work, having transferred some of my equipment to my newly converted office basement. People told me I was crazy, to still be struggling to do his work on top of such a demanding “proper” job. My response was always – “Jobs may come, and jobs may go, but Mr G’s work is always there.”

Eventually, the inevitable happened, I realised I’d reached burnout. I was working too hard. The job was taking over my soul. Yes, I was earning good wages, but most of that was going on much needed alcohol, along with meals out, takeaways and ready meals, because I was too beaten up to cook most evenings and the first thing I reached for when I got home was the vodka bottle. Something had to give, and then came my day off. Much longed for, I’d planned to spend it with my fiancé just having some us time. My boss had already telephoned three times by 10am. I turned off my phone. He called my fiancé. We turned off his phone. He called me on the landline. We put the phone on answerphone and switched off the ringer. Then he resorted to faxing me. Enough was enough! This was my day-off, I was outraged he felt he had the right to disrupt it so much. We had a blazing row over the phone, where I basically told him to f***k off, and that if he wanted me to come back to work the next day, he needed to leave me alone to enjoy what was left of my precious day off.

Ten minutes later, my phone rang again, about to scream my resignation down it I saw from caller ID that it was Mr G. He was wondering if I could call in for a minute, he had something very important to ask me. Intrigued, I popped around the corner to his office where he sat me down and offered me a job. A nice, calm, civilised job, away the shark eats shark atmosphere of the sales floor, where I would only work weekdays, never weekends and certainly never bank holidays. Ok, he couldn’t offer me such a high salary as I was getting from Allied Carpets, but still, what did I think?

What did I think? I burst into tears and accepted on the spot.

I worked full-time for Mr G from 1998 until Miss F was born in 2003. Going back after my maternity leave, I went back flexi, part-time, three days a week. I was very happy; he was a kind and thoughtful boss. A father of three children himself, he understood about things like having to suddenly dash off to pick up a child who’d fallen in the playground or was ill. Without his support, flexibility and sympathetic understanding, my life would have been a lot harder when my marriage exploded in 2004 and I was abruptly left a single mother trying to raise a child completely unaided.

In 2016 though, he decided to partially retire and although there would still be a few hours a week work from him, it certainly wouldn’t be enough to support me. I had to find another job. It was so hard. Being on the unemployment scrapheap at 48 was really hard. I suddenly realised how cushy I’d had it working for Mr G, how well he’d paid me, and how much I’d come to count on being able to change my working hours as I needed to. I began job hunting. It was awful. I hated it. Mr G had reassured me that he wouldn’t make me redundant until I’d found somewhere else, but still, I knew he was keen to take a step back and enjoy his retirement.

For the next year, I bounced about from job to job, never finding anything that quite fitted. During that time, I was also diagnosed with a long-term, serious medical condition which necessitated medication and surgery, so that didn’t help, and I did have to use some of my small redundancy pay-out to get by.

Finally, in September 2017 I started the job I have now, and life settled down a little. However, I still continued work freelance for Mr G as and when required on my days off. But now, even that has come to an end and I’ve done my last piece of work for him. It truly is the end of an era. I have very mixed feelings about it. Yes, it was easy work and the generous salary he paid me will be sorely missed, but it did eat into precious time off and was sometimes very hard to fit it. But time never stands still, so I guess all I can do is accept and move on.

After my final bout of filing for Mr G on Tuesday morning, I spent two hours trailing around every single charity shop in town trying to find an outfit for a 1920’s Speakeasy party I’ve been invited to. Going home empty handed, I did what I should have done right from the word go and logged onto eBay and bought something off there. I also accidentally bought a dress from Hong Kong which wasn’t going to get here until long after the party, but luckily, I managed to cancel that and get a refund. The dress I bought has arrived and it fits, but I’m convinced it makes me look fat. However, I’m convinced everything makes me look fat, so hey. And that was Tuesday.

Wednesday, I’d sold a few things on eBay so had to parcel them up and drive to the post office to send them off. Then I drove the thirty minutes to spend the day with my friend and formatter Becky Wright of Platform Publishing House, to brainstorm about Erinsmore and sort out what was happening with it. On the way home, I swung round the supermarket to collect the week’s shopping I’d ordered the night before. And that was Wednesday.

Back to work Thursday. I know a lot of people write and do things on their books in the evenings, but I honestly don’t know how they do it. I was aware I still needed to write my blog. Normally, on my usual shifts, I have time to write it during the day on Thursday, Friday or even Saturday, but I was working all three days this week so wasn’t sure when I would get around to it. I knew it wouldn’t happen Thursday evening, Miss F was home, the house would be noisy, she’d want the TV on in the room where my desk is, so it would be impossible to construct a blog under those circumstances.

I’ll write it Friday, I thought, after all, I would be home just after five and would have the evening to myself.  Miss F always catches the 5:40 bus to work and is gone until I have to leave to pick her up at 9:40. Plenty of time to write at least half the blog, then I could finish it when I got home from work Saturday as she’d be at work again.

Well, you know what they say about best laid plans. I had a customer walk in five minutes before I was due to go home. They then proceeded to waste my time for almost an hour before leaving without buying anything. Grinding my teeth in hungry frustration, I drove home an hour later thinking at least the house would be quiet and empty, so I could just have a quick dinner and then get on with the blog.

I walked into a wall of sound. Music playing. Miss F in her PJ’s noisily unstacking the dishwasher in the kitchen. I stopped and stared at her.

“What are you doing here?”

“I couldn’t get to work, there’s a telegraph pole down on the road and the buses have all been cancelled, I’ve called work, they’re ok with it.”

“Oh.”

“Nana dropped off a ton of wood for you that Grandad’s sawn up.”

I looked. Three, large dumpy bags were standing in the middle of the kitchen full of logs and kindling. I groaned. That meant I needed to lug them outside to the log box and stack them all, in the dark, in the rain.

“I was hoping, as I’m home, we could have a fire tonight.”

I groaned again. That meant the fire had to be cleaned out and re-laid.

“Did you remember you stripped off all the beds this morning?”

I groaned. No, I hadn’t, so they had to be remade.

“Oh, and the cat’s just been sick on the bathroom floor!”

By the time I finally sat down to eat my dinner it was gone eight o’clock. The only silver lining to the evening being that as I now didn’t have to drive to pick Miss F up from work, I could have a glass of wine with dinner, or maybe two. But of course, no blog got written that evening.

Next day, Saturday, because I’d worked an hour longer on Friday, my boss said so long as we weren’t busy, I could leave off at four. Good, I thought, because I must get my blog written before I went to pick up Miss F from work at 9:40.

I was home just after four and did all the essential things I had to do in terms of feeding livestock and putting laundry on, and had an early dinner as I was hungry. I promised myself a ten-minute rest then I’d tackle my blog, so I laid my head back and shut my eyes, only to be jerked awake by the cat leaping on me. Completely disorientated, I blinked around, it felt late, it felt really late. I peered at the clock, it was 9:30pm, I’d been asleep for over three hours! Quickly, I pulled myself together and went to get Miss F, so obviously nothing was written on the blog last night.

And now it’s Sunday morning. I really meant to get up super early and get it written and posted by the usual time, but once again, my body had other plans. I didn’t wake up until gone 8:30am so it was already too late to pretend I’d got the blog all written beforehand in the normal way. Sorry. I think my body is trying to tell me something. Luckily, even though I’m back to work tomorrow and Tuesday, I then have three days off, I’m working Saturday, and then I have a whole glorious eight days holiday in a row. Bliss. But I know it will go by in a flash, because days off always do.

Anyway, I need to get a move on. It’s now 10am and I’m meeting a fellow local author for coffee at 11am and I still need to get ready and have breakfast. Busy day, as usual, but at least I’ve had lots of sleep.

Things will be back to normal next week, I promise, and I hope you can forgive me for making you wait for A Little Bit of Blake and I hope your coffee didn’t go cold waiting for me.

Have a great week, as usual, I’d love to hear any thoughts or comments.

All the best

Julia Blake

The Trip of a Lifetime… maybe

Earlier this week I received two letters from the college that Miss F attends, both about upcoming educational trips. One was fairly standard, a day trip to a nearby animal facility where there would be a chance for students to participate in animal related activities and listen to experts in the field blah blah blah. All perfectly normal and necessitating nothing more strenuous than paying a small sum of money and making sure Miss F reaches college on time and takes either a packed lunch or money to buy something there. But the other letter…

Well, the other letter I had to read twice because I couldn’t quite believe it the first time. Your child is being offered a unique opportunity – ok, that’s nice – to travel to a world class animal observation and experimental field study site – ooh, that sounds exciting – where they will get the chance to study a wide range of animals in their natural environment – brilliant – and work alongside experts who have been conducting long term observation and interactive studies – amazing, where do I sign her up – the trip is for two weeks – wow, that’s a long time – and will take place during the summer holiday in 2021 – umm, that’s a bit of a wait and it’s technically after she’s left college but I suppose that doesn’t matter – to show interest in your child going on the field trip to Honduras – ok, that’s… wait… what… where?! – please complete the attached form and enclose a non-refundable deposit of £150 to be deducted from the total cost of the trip which is £2700 – how much?!

Yep, that’s right, £2700. Ok, that does cover all travel, accommodation, food and activities, but that is a huge sum of money however you look at it, and then there will be her shots, clothes and spending money on top of that. I thought about this trip for the rest of the day until Miss F got home from college. I’ve always been a firm believer in trying to send her on as many school trips as I could possibly manage. When she was in primary school, of course, they were much simpler, tending to be day trips to somewhere local and only costing a nominal sum. In her last year of primary school, at age ten, she went away for four days to a youth centre place where they all slept in dorms and their days were filled with activities. It cost about £150, if I remember rightly, and she was desperate to go so the money was found and off she went.

I quite enjoyed my four days alone, and while she was gone I completely gutted her bedroom, redecorated it and transformed it from a Barbie pink hell to a grown up girls room complete with the birdcage wallpaper she’d seen in a local shop and fallen in love with. I think she enjoyed that trip, apart from being homesick and not liking the food.

In middle school, the trips got more complicated, more expensive and more fraught with tension. Who would she sit with on the coach? If it was for longer than a day, what would the sleeping arrangements be like? Who would she be sharing a room with? Would it be her friends? Would they all still be friends at the end of trip? What would the food be like? I remember a four-day trip to Cromer – a seaside town not too far away – that all ended in tears when a friendship group exploded under pressure and everyone got hit by the shrapnel.

One February, when I think Miss F was probably about twelve or so, an email came through from her school on a day I happened to be at home. There were an unexpected four seats available for a trip to see Mathilda in the West End and were any children in her year interested in going? It was for the year above hers, but there had been four last minute cancellations and as the trip was in two-days-time, it would literally be the first four parents to get to the bursar’s office next day with cash who would get the tickets. The cost was for £40, this would cover travel and tickets. Not bad for a West End show, but it left me in a quandary.

I knew Miss F would love to go and I really wanted her to go, BUT I didn’t have £40 cash I could lay my hands on before the next morning. I was up to the max on my overdraft limit and although I was being paid the next day, it wouldn’t be in time for me to get the cash out and beat the other parents to school to get a ticket.

Miss F came home from school, apparently it had been announced in assembly as well, but she’d resigned herself to not being able to go because she knew that money was really tight for us. We ate dinner and every time I looked at her, I felt so guilty. I wanted her to go on that trip and desperately racked my brains trying to think where I could get the money from. Cursing my bastard of an ex-husband who never contributed a penny to his daughter’s upkeep, I went sadly upstairs to put away laundry, leaving Miss F to have an ice lolly in front of the TV – my rather pathetic way of making it up to her.

Putting away my underwear, I found that the drawer wouldn’t shut properly and realised something had probably fallen down the back, so took the whole drawer out and found the rogue pair of knickers. Deciding to quickly tidy the drawer while I was at it, I started going through my underwear and suddenly found a plastic bank money bag tucked away at the back with money inside, £40 to be precise. I sat on the bed and stared at it, at that moment believing in heaven and guardian angels, until I suddenly remembered an indoor sale I’d done back in December, when I’d loaded all our unwanted stuff in the car and tried to flog it in a nearby village hall. These were the proceeds from that sale, I’d obviously tucked them in the drawer for safekeeping and then forgotten about them, what with Christmas and everything.

How weird is that? I once had a lodger who used to claim that you had to “put it out into the universe what you needed, and the universe would reply”, well, it certainly replied that day, and how coincidental was it that the sum I found was exactly the sum I needed. But I guess what you all want to know is, did Miss F get a ticket and go on the trip? The answer is, yes, of course she did. When I make up my mind to go for something, I go for it at 7.30am in the morning before the school is even open. We parked outside the school and sat in the car and ate breakfast watching the door like a hawk. We followed the first teacher in and sat outside the bursar’s office waiting for them to arrive. We were the first by a good thirty minutes and she got one of the four tickets. She had a simply amazing time and was left with a wonderful memory of a magical show, all thanks to her mother’s bad memory and a lucky find in a knicker drawer!

In the last year of middle school there was the big one, the annual trip to the South of France to stay in an activity centre where they would all participate in a week of full on activities such as kayaking, catamaran sailing, water skiing, mountain biking, swimming and diving. Miss F really wanted to go, and it did look amazing, but it was pricy – £800 – and then of course there would be clothes, spending money and a sleeping bag to add to that. The school had divided up the £800 into a deposit of £150 and then four even amounts spread out over the year. It would be tight, but it was doable, especially as Miss F’s grandparents offered to pay the deposit and give her some spending money. So, we signed the forms and paid the non-refundable deposit (it’s always non-refundable) and then we were committed and had to find the rest of the money.

We managed the way we’ve always managed to pay for things we wanted, we tightened our belts even further, we both went though all our belongings and did a couple of car boot sales, we sold a lot on eBay, we saved every spare penny we could to make the quarterly payments and we managed it. But, during this period, Miss F learnt a very valuable life lesson.

There was this girl she was friendly with, I’ll call her Miss C. Now, I wasn’t too keen on this friendship, Miss C, probably through no fault of her own, was a bit rough around the edges and not in a good way. She was hardnosed and a taker, and I was concerned that she was not only taking advantage of Miss F’s generosity but was undermining the “work hard to get what you want” ethic that I’ve always tried to instil in Miss F. I didn’t like her lazy, sponging attitude to life and her belief that it owed her a living and it would be up to the government to support her when she left school. However, I’m not stupid, and I knew banning this friendship would make it all the more attractive to Miss F, so I kept quiet and hoped it would run its course.

Anyway, Miss C would wait for Miss F at the top of our road and the two girls would walk to school together, and on the way, Miss C would buy herself a rather unhealthy breakfast of either McDonalds or some other such thing, with the £5 her mother would give her every day to buy breakfast. Now, this caused some friction in my household as Miss F has never left this house without a breakfast inside her, and other than high days and holidays, I would never even consider going to a fast food outlet for breakfast, and I certainly wouldn’t give a child £5 each morning in lieu of a decent breakfast at home.

Miss F didn’t see it quite this way, in her eyes the fact Miss C’s mother gave her such a princely sum of money every day quite possibly… maybe… meant that Miss C’s mother loved Miss C more than I loved Miss F. That assumption hurt me, I must admit, but I swallowed it down and simply waited. And then, the trip to France came about and Miss C desperately wanted to go. Very excitedly the two girls chatted about it on the way home from school and made plans to sit together and share a tent – as you can imagine, I was thrilled about this. However, next day all their plans came crashing about their ears. Miss C wasn’t going on the trip because her mother claimed, and I quote “I can’t afford £800 for you to ponce off on holiday.”

Miss F was disappointed, and for the next couple of days swung between being elated that she was going and being upset that her friend wasn’t. Then at dinner one night, we had the following conversation.

“Mum.”

“Yes?”

“Miss C’s mum gives her £5 every day to buy breakfast,”

“Yes, she does, what of it?”

“Well, that’s £25 a week she’s spending just on breakfast. Does it cost you that much to buy breakfast for us to have at home?”

“Sweetheart, I spend about £40 a week on our shopping, and that’s for all our food for all our meals, plus the cats, and all our cleaning and toiletries, so, what do you think?”

“Oh.”

“Why do you ask?”

“I was just thinking, if Miss C’s mum gave her breakfast at home and saved the £25 a week instead, would she be able to afford for Miss C to go to France?”

“You do the maths, love, and tell me what you think?”

She did the maths.

“Mum?”

“Yes?”

“Is this what you mean when you say that you don’t waste money on stupid stuff, you save it for what’s really important?”

“Yes, it absolutely is.”

A valuable lesson was learnt that day, that it’s all too easy to fritter your money away on silly, inconsequential things and then not have it for things you really, really, need or want. Being on such a tight budget has taught me that, if nothing else. In fact, I even sometimes look at the cost of something and calculate how many hours I have to work to pay for it – that tends to help me decide if it’s a priority or not.

And in case you’re wondering – yes, she did go to France and yes, she did have an amazing time. And yes, the friendship with Miss C had fizzled out by the time the following year came around and Miss F went to France on the trip.

In upper school the trips became less frequent, there was the odd trip to the theatre if a play they were studying in English or Drama happened to be showing, or the odd geography or history trip, nothing really expensive or that involved staying away from home, so this letter about Honduras was like a bolt from the blue. I don’t really know anything about the country, other than it’s rough geographical location, so was unsure how stable it was – after all, there are so many horror stories about drug cartels and uprisings happening with depressing regularity in Central and South America – so how safe would it be for my 17 year old daughter to go there. It was far away, so very far away, and she suffers from travel sickness, and, of course, my mind kept circling back to the main obstacle, that it would cost almost £3000 to send her there. Almost four months wages. It was such a lot of money.

Miss F came home from school, already knowing that I’d received the letter. We talked. I basically told her that I appreciated what an amazing opportunity it was and that it would be a fantastic life experience, and that if she really, really, wanted to go, between us we would find a way to make it happen. She hesitated, then explained that although part of her was intrigued by the chance and realised it was potentially a once in a lifetime chance, the other part of her, the practical side which she totally gets from me – could see a number of drawbacks.

Number one was the cost. Yes, because she’s now working, between us we could probably meet each payment as it became due, but, if £3000 was to be spent on anything, wouldn’t it be better spent on driving lessons and a car? The university she’s looking at attending is a four-hour drive away, having a car is going to be an essential, and driving lessons are helluva expensive, as is buying a car, and as for insuring it…! There will also be the expense of renting a place to live whilst she’s at university – there will be deposits and upfront payments and every day living expenses to be met and she may not find a job straightaway.

Then there’s her travel sickness to consider, it is such a long way away and she’s never been on a plane before, how badly would it affect her? How ill would she be from such a long flight? Then there were the sanitary arrangements – I shuddered at the idea of her having to poop in a hole in the ground being watched by a bunch of monkeys. Apparently, one of her teachers who has done the trip before, said it was the most relaxing thing she’d ever done. Oka-a-ay, this must be some strange definition of the word “relaxing” I hadn’t previously been aware of. Miss F is quite anal (no pun intended) about her bathroom time and she was really not keen on the whole set up.

Finally, and this was not mentioned in the letter but was explained to the students at the meeting, the deposit of £150 and first payment of £650 would be due and payable before the students take their end of year exams this June. The trip is only available for level three students, and if any of the students fail their exams they will be relegated down to a level two or even level one so will be unable to go, but that payment is non refundable so it would be £800 down the pan. As Miss F quite sensibly said, “I’m confident about passing my exams, mum, but do I really want to put that kind of pressure on myself?” And I had to admit, that was a very good point.

So, she’s not going. And a part of me is sad, because it IS a fantastic opportunity, but, she’s only 16, she’s has a whole lifetime ahead of her to experience all that the world has to offer, and I’m sure she will, in time. But right now, she is correct in that there are other things we need to spend our money on, and £3000 is a LOT of money. I am aware, that there might be a few reading this who will now be scoffing in disbelief that we consider it to be an incredible amount of money, but to us it is.

And that, ultimately, is what life is all about, having to make the hard decisions and sometimes having to wear your sensible head when making them. I know that life experiences are priceless, but sometimes you do have to look at the bigger picture and choose what’s more important – a trip to a faraway country that you may, or may not enjoy, or use the money to pay for what you absolutely need right here and right now?

I feel Miss F made the right, the only decision, and once again I am relieved that I’ve somehow managed to raise such a level-headed and practical young woman.

This is me, signing out for another week, as always, I would love to hear your comments, and you can always contact me on social media or leave a comment below.

Have a good week and take care of yourselves.

Regards

Julia Blake

Why is being a grown-up so hard?!

It’s been a funny old week, one that started with me having the mother of all migraines. Now, I used to get these quite a lot during my teenage years, but then hormones settled down and I seemed to shake loose of them and never really suffered from them again, until last year. Then I had one that necessitated me being sent home from work. It was horrible, that sick pounding in my skull and the wonky vision but spending the day in a darkened room with no stimulation, seemed to do the trick and I haven’t had one since.

But last Sunday morning I awoke with a strange throbbing in my brain, I got up and ready for work, managed some breakfast, but all the time could feel this headache getting worse. I decided to go to work anyway. Like most British people, I don’t get paid for taking a day off sick so always have to drag myself in. Driving to work, I was aware of the pain in my skull increasing and the pressure growing across my forehead – it was like a steel band was being tightened about my head – then suddenly, a sharp pain stabbed right through my right eye and my vision went blurry.

I managed to get to work and open up the shop as I was the first one there, but by now I was feeling really sick and dizzy, and my brain was pushing on my skull to be let out. My two male colleagues turned up, took one look at me, pulled faces and made disgusted shrieks like little girls and asked what was wrong with my eye. What was wrong with my eye? I went to look and found it was now completely bloodshot and swollen. The boss turned up, looked at me and sent me home. I think he was afraid I’d scare the customers away. Honestly, I think men are more squeamish than women.

I made it home, just, before the migraine really kicked in and I was vomiting every time I turned my head. It lasted two days, during which I lay very still in a dark room and kept my eyes shut. I have no idea what caused it. I have been under quite a bit of stress lately, so maybe that was a factor. I do know I didn’t like it. I hate being ill; and being ill and completely immobilised is even worse – at least if it’s a cold or a dicky tummy you can still read or watch TV – but this rendered me incapable of doing anything!

It was Miss F’s works Christmas do this week, and I’m afraid to say she learnt a hard lesson about how adult life can completely and utterly suck. She was so excited about it, Domino pizza was to be purchased for all the staff, there was to be drinks of both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety, games and just general fun. I was dubious about this last. In my experience, a party for adults with unlimited access to booze doesn’t usually include staid games of Monopoly and Mario Cart, more the type of games I didn’t want my 16-year-old to be part of. But I kept quiet and merely told her to text me when she wanted collecting, and to make sure it wasn’t too late as she did have college next day.

There was to be a Secret Santa and she’d drawn out the name of one of the male kitchen staff she hadn’t really had any contact with before. She was panicking about what to buy, and with a budget of less than £10 was stuck for ideas. So, mum stepped in. I bottled him up a small bottle of my homemade cherry brandy, bought a red waxed truckle of extra mature cheddar, a pack of posh oatcakes, a box of Guiness infused truffles and a bar of Guiness flavoured salted caramel chocolate (the pub where Miss F works has the name Guiness in the title, so it seemed appropriate). I made a nice little hamper with a box, thick brown paper, green cellophane and a big red bow and arranged everything in. It looked great and I thought anyone would be happy to get that and would be able to see that a lot of thought had gone into it.

The day came, Miss F got herself all gussied up in her best clothes, spent ages on hair and make-up and caught to 5:30pm bus out to her workplace clutching her present for the Secret Santa. I settled down to an evening alone, looking forward to catching up with my book and maybe an episode or two of Poldark. I wasn’t really expecting to hear from her much before ten and was prepared to extend her pick up time until eleven, appreciating that sometimes you just have to say “oh to hell with the early start tomorrow, I’m having fun.”

So, you can imagine how surprised I was to get a text at 8:40pm saying – “Pick me up! Now!” Oh crap, I thought, what’s happened. Quickly, I jumped in the car and made the twenty-minute drive imagining the worst. Perhaps the “games” had got out of hand, or they were putting pressure on her to drink, well, you can imagine what I was thinking. I got there and parked, sending her a quick text that I was in the carpark, and waited. The front door of the pub suddenly burst open and a couple of leggy blondes staggered out. One backed the other up against the wall and proceeded to snog the face off the other. Now, I’m no prude, live and let live I say, but this was inches away from the bonnet of my car and there was nowhere else for me to look. Awkward. The temptation to roll the window down and yell “get a room” was overwhelming, and I was very relieved when Miss F came out and got in the car.

Thankfully, we left the two blondes to their business and began to drive home. She was silent. I looked at her, waiting for her to say something. She said nothing. So, I did.

“How was it?”

“Fine.”

“Was your pizza nice? What sort did you get?”

“Nothing. There wasn’t any pizza.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“Everyone got so pissed so quickly no one bothered to order any and then they all said they weren’t worried about food.”

“Oh no, that’s a shame. What about the games then?”

“Didn’t play any.”

“Oh, why not?”

“Everyone was too pissed, and nobody wanted to play any.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Did the guy like his Secret Santa present?”

“Yep, he seemed really pleased with it.”

“Good, what did you get?”

“Nothing.”

“What?!”

“Yep, I got nothing.”

“But… but… how is that possible? I thought everyone was taking part?”

“So did I. But it seems two people didn’t agree with doing Secret Santa so me and one of the waitresses got nothing.”

Now over this I am livid. You don’t want to take part in a Secret Santa, ok, that’s fine. But don’t put your name in the hat to receive a present, because that’s just mean and so unfair. Miss F paid out good money to buy someone a gift. Ok, it was only £10, but that equals an hour and a half of hard work for her, and then not to receive a gift in return. I really don’t understand how some people think, or even if they think at all. Miss F wasn’t going to say anything about it but the other girl who didn’t receive anything, did. What is going to happen about it, I don’t know. I think at the very least the managers should compensate them with something, but I will keep you posted.

On my twice weekly trips to collect Miss F from work, I often see my fox disappearing into the hedgerow, or a pair of a eyes and a bushy tail running along the ditch. Last night he was in the middle of the road again. Silly creature, instead of jumping sideways into the hedge he ran along in front of the car for a few yards with me crawling behind him before vanishing into the fields. I think it must be a sign of middle age that I call him “my fox”, he’s not mine, of course he isn’t, but I’m like that with birds as well, I have a robin and a blackbird who visit my garden regularly and who are familiar enough with me to sit and listen when I talk to them.

Miss F went to her work placement as usual on Friday, and about mid-morning I received a text asking if I could go to pick her up a few minutes early so I could have a tour of the stables and kennels. I got covered in mud, but it was worth it for the chance to cuddle so many puppies. They were everywhere! So many squirming, adorable, loving little scraps, all desperate for attention and love. There were a pair of little runts whose own litters had bullied them, so they were now in together and had become best buds. Big cuddles with them and as I was being licked to death by the smallest one, Miss F came back from shutting the door and looked very surprised. Apparently, this little chap hadn’t let anybody else pick him up, just me. I felt very honoured.

People think because I have a cat and not a dog that I don’t like dogs. That’s simply not true, I love dogs, I love most animals, but I have a cat because that’s the pet that suits my current lifestyle. We live in a small house with a small garden in the middle of a town. I’m at work a lot, Miss F is at college, work placement and her part time job, neither of us have the time or energy to give a dog the care and attention it would need. Let’s face it, a cat is a low maintenance, easy care pet. Mine has a cat flap so attends to her own personal needs, if I’m late home it’s not the end of the world. She doesn’t need to be walked and I don’t need to follow her about to pick up her poo – ask not what your neighbours garden can do for you, rather where your cat has done it!

Mind you, mine is being a particularly lazy little article right now. It’s been quite wet, cold and windy these past couple of months, so Skittles has practically turned herself into an indoor cat, only popping outside for the briefest of essential visits. This means that she’s not running around on the slate paving in the garden, she’s not climbing the pergola or up the trees, and she’s not sharpening her claws on the edge of the wood box. Consequently, her claws are now registered as a lethal weapon. They are so long she could disembowel someone with them, and frequently tries to give me a belly piercing every time she gets on my lap. Miss F has suggested taking her to the vets for a pedicure, but I’m afraid of how much that will cost and think we should just wait a few more weeks until the weather is warmer, and she ventures outside again. I have to spend some time in the garden myself soon, as it’s almost time for the trees to have their annual haircut and to tidy up the beds, and she always comes outside to play when I go out, so I’ll chase her around the patio a few times and maybe that will blunt her finger daggers.

I posted the above on Instagram this week and it must have touched a nerve, because so many people have commented on it. Do you hate it when your supermarket moves stuff around so you can’t find it? It drives me mad. I write my shopping list according to the aisles and know exactly what I need. I want to get in, do my shopping, and get out as quickly as possible. The weekly food shop is not my favourite chore and the quicker I can get it done, the better. But sometimes, you know how it goes, you dash in and go to pick something off the shelf only to find it’s not there. You scan the shelves and realise everything like the item you want has been moved as well. Yep, they’re playing their favourite game of “make the shopper have to hunt all over the f*****g shop for something”.

We all know why they do it. They’re not stupid, they realise that most of us buy the same things, week in, week out. By mixing up the aisle configurations it makes us really look at stuff and maybe, just maybe, we’ll spot something we’d never noticed before and buy it. Well, that’s their theory. The reality is we just get mad because we can’t find what we’re looking for and even madder when we can’t find an assistant to ask. Why is it that when you don’t need any help, assistants are everywhere with those big trolleys, parking them right in front of the item you want to pick up and clogging up the aisles, but the moment you actually need help, they scatter, like rabbits spotting a fox.

I have sometimes got so irate I’ve marched up to an assistant – when I finally mange to track one down – and demanded, “Ok, I give in! Where have you hidden the teabags this time?!” One follower even commented on my post that they’ve said to a supermarket assistant – “When people say they like playing hunt the sausage, this isn’t what they had in mind!”

Sometimes you understand the reason for the change, the “free from” section has now got so big it practically needs a whole aisle to itself, so the crisps were relocated to a new section of their own, ok, it’s pretty obvious where they’ve gone to – the socking great sign hanging from the ceiling hanging stating crisps, nuts and snacks here – is a bit of a giveaway, it’s when they move something and leave you no clues as to where it might have gone, or even if it’s been discontinued altogether. And yes, I am looking at you, Tesco. Bring back the coleslaw dressing, it was delicious in potato salad and on French fries and I miss it. And no, mayo is not the same at all!

Following her disappointing first staff Christmas do (get used to it, Miss F, cos they don’t get any better), she’s also in a bit of a quandary about a tortoise. Ok, bit of backstory here, Miss F has always loved tortoises. For some reason they were her favourite animal to go and see at the zoo, and while the other kids were oohing and ahhing about the meercats and admiring the lions and tigers, she would make a beeline to the tortoise house and spend ages just watching them wander about.

We recently babysat a friend’s little tortoise while she moved, and this only made Miss F more determined to get one of her own. She did all the research. Looked into which ones required the least looking after, how big the various species get, how best to look after each type and the different food they require. She even took into consideration the fact that she’s off to university in a year and a half. Hopefully she’ll be able to take the tortoise with her, but, in case she can’t, she wants the most easy-care one there is, so I’ll have no problems looking after it. Gee, thanks a lot.

Now, when I was a kid back in the seventies, lots of my friends had tortoises. They lived in the garden and just sort of crawled about, eating stuff. If you had more than one, then you’d paint your name or something on its shell so you could tell them apart. They’d hibernate in the winter and you always had to make sure they didn’t hibernate under the bonfire. Girl at school had that happen to her tortoise – not nice. They’d mooch about, living their best life, eating your mum’s flowers and sometimes getting into the strawberry patch where they’d stuff their faces and come out looking like something from a horror film.

But things have changed since then, and tortoises are now big business. For a start they’re no longer a few quid each, instead, depending on the species, they’re more likely to set you back over £200! Yep, you did read that right, £200+. For a tortoise. I know!

However, it’s Miss F’s money and so long as she puts money in her savings account each week, contributes towards the petrol I use running her around, and leaves herself enough to pay for whatever else she needs, then what she chooses to spend it on is up to her, and, to be fair, she has wanted a tortoise for a very long time. So, after extensive research, she has decided that an Indian Star Tortoise ticked all the boxes and is the one best suited for her.

One small problem. Indian Star Tortoises are not a commonly bred or sold tortoise in this country. Nowhere local sells them. We’ve looked everywhere. The closest we can find is a breeder in Guildford who seems ok, but, really, how can you tell? All the advice says don’t pay an upfront deposit for the tortoise without inspecting it to check it’s healthy, but if we want this guy to courier the tortoise to us, then he wants a £50 deposit, which is fair enough, although it is all a bit worrying. I guess I could always drive to Guildford, but it’s quite a long way and I really don’t want to do a six-hour round trip on my day off. Besides the petrol, there’s wear and tear on my poor little car to consider, and my time of course.

If we were talking about smaller sums of money then it wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s over £200 of Miss F’s hard got wages and I don’t want her to be scammed or cheated in any way. But she really wants this tortoise. And he’s the only guy even vaguely local selling them. And so, we go on, round and round, in circles. I’ll keep you posted as to what decision we make and how it turns out.

Finally, other bookish news. I mentioned in last weeks blog how I’d decided to buy back the copyright for The Book of Eve rather than wait until November, when the contract expires and I automatically get it back. Well, I decided to go ahead and emailed the publisher that I did wish to buy copyright back. I finally got a reply from them early this week, stating that if I did it would be six months from now before I could republish, because apparently that’s how long they take to remove it from the various sales platforms it’s on and recover all my royalties. Six months?! So, I wouldn’t be able to publish until July.

The publisher has offered me a discounted buy-back, £90 instead of £120, but I still wondered if it was worth buying back the right to publish in July 2020, when if I held on until November I could republish for free. However, there’s a bit more to it than a case of waiting four months. Sure, if I do nothing I can republish in November/December 2020. But, do I want to? I’ve learnt through experience that the period from mid-November to mid-March is a really bad time to publish a book anyway, and over the Christmas period is a definite no-no, unless you’re publishing a festive cookery book or your novel has a title like “Christmas Hearts at Mistletoe Cottage”.

If I do nothing and get copyright back in November 2020, I realistically should wait to republish until March/April 2021, so we’re not talking about waiting four months, we’re talking about waiting eight. That makes it worthwhile paying the £90 and getting my book back to republish in July. Looking on the bright side, I guess that gives me plenty of time to get the book ready and I’ve already booked the excellent services of Platform House Publishing to make the cover and ensure the formatting is a beautiful as it can be. Should any authors out there need covers, formatting, promo material and book trailers, hop over to their website. They’re very reasonably priced and offer a top-notch service.

http://www.platformhousepublishing.co.uk/

So, that has been my week. No real crisis for a change and I did actually get some down time, which was a lovely change. Hope you’ve had a good week and that you’re enjoying your Sunday – sadly I’m at work, of course I am.

All the best

Julia Blake

A Library is for Life…

There was a post on my Facebook feed this week stating that more libraries were to be closed across the UK, and that set me thinking about how important the library in Bury St Edmunds has been to me over the years. Originally based in an old building right in the centre of town, my mother used to drop me off there early on a Saturday morning when she went into town to do her shopping. I couldn’t have been much more than eight or nine, and you certainly wouldn’t be allowed to treat the library like a creche these days, but she knew that I’d been looking forward to this all week and no way in hell would I leave the hallowed space of the library and go elsewhere.

It was staffed by steely eyed, large bosomed, prematurely aged matrons, who wouldn’t allow any nonsense in their library and would certainly have intervened if anyone had bothered me, so that was our routine every Saturday. My mother would see me in and then I knew I had at least an hour, sometimes longer, to browse the books and decide which six I was going to take home for the week. Once that important job was settled, I would snug down on one of the old window seats they had and pick the thinnest book to make a start on. Very often before my mother returned, I would have finished that one and put it back on the shelf, picking another one to replace it.

To me, the library was a magical place, stuffed to the ceiling with all these amazing portals to distant worlds that I could just pluck off the shelf and not only read, but take home with me. Bear in mind, this was before the days of the internet and kindles, instant streaming and endless amusements at your fingertips. No, back then, it was books or TV. Well, TV was restricted to an hour or so after school and a few hours on a Saturday morning, whereas books… ah, books were available any time of the day or night.

I read all the time. A complete bookworm, there was always a book or two in my bag (the one I was reading and a back-up one in case I finished it quicker than expected), and I would read anywhere. At school in breaks and lunch, on the bus, waiting in queues, even walking between classes I would somehow manage to read a few lines. It’s a wonder I didn’t destroy my eyesight with the amount of torchlight reading under the covers I did, and my mother knew if she wanted to punish me for anything all she had to do was forbid me to read.

I left school, started work, got married and had a place of my own. Suddenly, my reading time was seriously curtailed, sandwiched in around work and married life. I still read a lot, just not quite so much as before, and my life filled with other, more grown up, pursuits.

Then my marriage began to disintegrate and suddenly I had time, lots of time, on my hands and I was deeply unhappy. Once again, the library became my refuge. Unable to concentrate on serious literature, I would fill my bag with as many trashy novels as I was allowed to check out in one go. Craving escapism but lacking the attention span to stomach anything weighty and unwilling to read anything that didn’t have a guaranteed happy ending, Mills & Boon and Harlequin became my go to books.

I always get cross when people belittle a genre, claiming it to be trite or unworthy, and maybe it’s true that some genres don’t require as much effort to write or read. But all literature has its place, and during that year those bags of chick lit I would guiltily carry home and consume were lifesavers. Never let anyone shame you for your reading choices, the world is large, and we are all different, there is room for every style of book and reader, and different books fit different times of your life. Perhaps that is why I’m a multi-genre author, because I recognise that the story is the thing. It really doesn’t matter what genre it is, if the tale is a page turner then that’s all that matters.

So, back then, libraries were a sacred and important feature of any town or city and were used by all ages and by people from all walks of life. Students checking out factual books to use for school and college assignments, people borrowing how-to manuals and cookery books, bored housewives looking for an escape from their humdrum life and people simply enjoying the written word.

Then the world changed. Information became available at the touch of a button in the comfort of your own home – there was no need to make the trek into the library and spend precious time scanning the shelves and wading through books. Kindles became a thing and suddenly a world of literature and non-fiction was available without ever having to leave the house. People got busier and had no time to read, and for a while it looked like the library was going to go the way of the bathhouses of old.

But then something happened, in that most libraries realised they were going to have to evolve and evolve fast, if they wanted to survive. Suddenly, your local library was where you went for so much more than just books, you could borrow films and music and even artwork. You could go there to use the internet and to photocopy things. Groups were started using the spaces in the library. When Miss F was young we used to attend the Music and Nursery Rhyme group plus a Children’s Reading Hour in our local library, which, by now had been relocated from the draughty and rather daunting old building in the town centre to a smart, purpose built building a few minutes away.

The rule used to be strictly no food or drink in the library, but suddenly every library had a coffee shop, where you could meet friends and buy tea and cake. Our library also has a number of conference and meeting rooms that can be hired for local events, and I myself have both attended and given an author talk in one of them.

When Miss F was little, we would visit the library at least two or three times a week. Children’s books are thin and quickly read, so a bagful wouldn’t last us very long and the promise of a slice of cake in the café was always an incentive for good behaviour. I remember once, a long time ago, when Miss F was still in her pushchair, we were wandering around Woolworths – which hadn’t yet closed – when we spotted the most wonderful fancy dress outfit hanging on the wall. It was that of a pirate queen with a fabulous layered purple and black skirt, a velvety black waistcoat with white frilly sleeves and collar, a proper pirate hat and a cutlass.

We looked at it. We looked at each other. I could see that Miss F really, really, wanted it and I really, really, wanted to buy it for her. But it was £10, and I simply didn’t have the money in my purse to pay for it. Back then, things were tough for us and money to waste on luxuries scarce. Reluctantly, we left the shop and wandered to the library, where the entertainment was free, and I could buy her a gingerbread man for 40p. Engrossed in the important task of selecting her books to take home, Miss F suddenly tugged on my sleeve in great excitement.

“Mummy,”

“Yes?”

“That lady has dropped her handbag down behind the shelf.”

It took me a few moments to locate which shelf she was talking about. From her lower vantage point she’d been able to see the bag wedged down behind the shelf where it had fallen, and by the time I’d crawled under and pulled it out, the lady had gone. I picked up the bag, which was open, and noticed it was full to the brim with money. I mean, seriously bulging with cash. Carefully closing it so it wouldn’t open again, I took it to the reception desk and explained what had happened. They locked it in the desk and thanked me for being honest and we carried on looking at books. Ten minutes later there was a huge kerfuffle at the reception desk when a lady ran into the library crying hysterically, closely followed by a white-faced man who looked like he’d just received the worse news ever.

Curious, I watched as the receptionist patted the lady on the arm and took the handbag we’d found out of the desk drawer and gave it to her, before pointing in our direction and explaining something to the obviously relieved couple. They hurried over, falling over themselves to thank us and telling us how they were going on a cruise the very next day, their first one ever, and the lady had been to collect their visas, holiday cash and travellers cheques, putting them all in her bag. Loaded down with last minute shopping, she’d popped in to use the photocopier and hadn’t realised she was without her bag until she’d reached the next shop. Panicking, she’d phoned her husband who’d rushed up town and ordered her to retrace her steps.

I laughed and told them it was my little girl they should be thanking, as it was her who’d spotted the bag and not me. The gentleman then forced a crisp £20 note into my hand and despite my protests that we didn’t expect any payment for simply finding it, he was insistent. Some might not have been so honest, he said, and they wanted Miss F to know that doing the right thing would be rewarded.

So, what did we buy with our £20? You’ve guessed it, we went back to Woolworths and bought the pirate queen outfit and, on the way home, bought ourselves something nice for dinner.

I have very happy memories of our library, and, when I’ve needed it, it’s always been there. But I must confess, I’ve neglected it of late. A published author myself, I don’t have time to read the books I already have, let alone wish to borrow anymore, and my kindle is bursting with books that I need to read. I know I should make an effort to use it more, after all, use it or lose it is very true and I would be devastated should it close.

My own books are on its shelves, available for all to borrow, and it gives me all kind of thrills every time I see them there. It reinforces my belief that I am a proper author, honest, because look, there are my books in the library with all the other proper books.

Libraries also seem to be popping up in the strangest of places now as well. The iconic old red telephone boxes, mostly redundant with the mass use of mobile phones, have enjoyed a new lease of life fulfilling a wide range of roles ranging from defibrillator stations to, you’ve guessed it, mini libraries. There’s one in the village where my parents live, and I’ve donated a few of my books to it.

Ever since man created books – in whatever form they took – there have been libraries to keep them in, and you can judge the sophistication of a culture by how they treat their libraries. A society that venerates and cares for their libraries, is usually progressive and forward thinking, and destroying a library is usually an indication of a society gone wrong.

Did you use the library a lot when you were a child? How about now? Do you even have a local library, and, if you do, is it still a thriving hub of the community, or is it in danger of being closed?

The rest of this week has been uneventful, I’ve worked a lot of overtime, but it has been surprisingly quiet at work seeing as this is supposed to be our busiest time of year, which is worrying. Only receiving less than the legal minimum wage per hour, we all rely on our commission to pay our bills and when people blatantly come into the store merely to use our expertise and waste our time, then freely admit they’re going home to order online, well, it makes us wonder if we should start looking for other employment.

I had to do a massive food shop on Monday. In spite of all the money spent on food before Christmas, we didn’t actually have any in the house. Well, correction, we had stuff like crackers and nuts and chutney, but no actual food. To my joy, the reduced to clear section was full to bursting with meat and fish all at crazy low prices because they were on the cusp of going out of date. Gleefully, I filled my trolley but overestimated how much I’d be able to fit in my tiny freezer and ended up playing some sort of freezer Tetris, transferring stuff from bulky packaging into bags so I could squish them in the corners. I now have a freezer which is packed full of food and this has made me very happy. I wonder, is it a sign of being a grown up that I got so excited about a reduced to clear section? Seriously though, it has set the benchmark for all reduced to clear sections from now on.

Today I also made a couple of quite important bookish decisions. I emailed my publishers and confirmed that I do wish to buy back the copyright for The Book of Eve, and I unpublished my books Erinsmore, Lost & Found and Fixtures & Fittings. This last wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I’m not really selling them because I’ve stopped promoting or advertising them. There is much that needs to be fixed with them and by unpublishing them it will give me a proverbial kick up the backside to get them done.

So, that’s it for another week, thank you for patiently bearing with me through yet another ramble and if you have something you’d like to comment about libraries, or indeed anything, then please do so either below or on my Facebook or Instagram page.

Finally, I’d like you to think about the following…

I think mine would have to be – “She knew it was a bad idea but she did it anyway!”

Take care and have a great week.

Julia Blake

That was the Year that was…

It’s early January, all the Christmas decorations have come down. Christmas presents received have been absorbed into the house and all the leftovers have been eaten or binned. I must admit to a sense of relief that it’s all over for another year, and I don’t know whether it’s my advancing years or just a general feeling of grumpy discontent, but Christmas no longer does it for me. In fact, if I’m brutally honest, it hasn’t done it for me for quite a few years now.

Not to be too much of a Grinch, but it all seems a monumental waste of time, money and energy for what is merely one day. All that food and drink. All those presents. All the cards and wrapping paper, ribbons and bows. And then there’s the money that’s frittered away on stupid, useless things that don’t seem to cost much at the time, but, in the cold light of the New Year, when your bank account is weeping and the credit card bills are thudding onto the doormat, you do wonder what you were thinking of, wasting your hard earned cash on such tut.

For me, I think the main problem is Christmas underlines how alone I am. Now, I’m not looking for sympathy or any such nonsense, it is what it is and most of the time I’m fine. Too busy to stop and think about the fact I’ve been single for well over a decade, my life is lived at a hundred miles an hour and, if asked, I’d say I was too busy for a relationship. But, at Christmas, it is brutally hammered home to me that there is no one to share the burden of all the shopping and decorating, the cooking and planning, the stress and expense. There’s just me.

I used to love decorating the house and the tree, now it’s just one more chore on the to-do list. Dragging out the boxes of decorations, manhandling home a tree and struggling to get it into a pot, then putting up fake festive cheer – well, it all seems a bit forced, if you know what I mean. What, precisely, as an adult, do we get out of Christmas? Well, there’s giving presents, that’s always nice, and I do enjoy spoiling my daughter, but then there’s the consequential poverty paying off the debts. And to be frank, what I receive in gifts in no way equals all the time, money, effort and thought I put into gifts for others. Apart from a bracelet from my daughter, which I love, all I received this Christmas was seven bottles of wine.

There’s the Christmas meal itself. Again, a lot of expense, work and stress for what is basically only a roast dinner and could be had at any other time of the year. There’s the time off work, which I’m sure is lovely for others, but I only get three days off over Christmas – less time than I have off in a normal week – so not a bonus for me then. Parties and other such celebrations? I wasn’t invited to any, so no joy there either.

I think Christmas only really works if you have a reasonably sized family, have space to accommodate them without people getting ansty from being cramped together, and have a good mix of ages. My family is now tiny, my parents are getting older and were never very much into celebrating anyway, and now they get ill and tired at Christmas and just want to go home early.

That leaves me and Miss F desperately wanting something more from the festive season, but not sure how to achieve it without causing hurt and upset to others. We’ve promised ourselves next year will be different, a promise we make every year, but this time I’ve even written a letter to myself to be opened in October reminding my future self just how awful Christmas is. Because you do forget. Christmas is like childbirth, in that time softens the pain and you don’t remember how truly bloody it really was. But all that is months in the future and who knows what events will have transpired by then. Ever the optimist, I am always hopeful of something better.

And now it’s a new decade, the teens are behind us and the Roaring Twenties are upon us, and I can’t help pausing for a moment to look back at the year just gone. Was 2019 a good year for me? Well, it was a year much like any other, and although it felt like one of the busiest of my life, I didn’t achieve all I set out to.

In January 2019 I posted my resolutions on Instagram. Not an ambitious list, I felt. Mostly comprising of pledges to write and read more, make more time for myself, rest more and get all my existing books re-edited, formatted, illustrated and re-launched before the year was out.

So, how did I do? Well the write more part of the pledge started out well and I wrote a whopping 100,000 words to finish book two of The Perennials trilogy – Chaining Daisy – in April. Then it all ground to a halt. What non writers very often fail to appreciate is just how long it takes from writing “The End” to publishing a book. There are months of proofreading and editing and sending it out to beta readers and waiting for them to get back to you with feedback. There’s the sourcing of appropriate interior graphics and, of course, designing the perfect cover. It all takes such a long time, far longer than you ever allow for.

Book one in the trilogy – Becoming Lili – had gone to my editor in March and then gone out to beta readers in April. Already published, it was basically fine, but I wanted it to be even better. Sharper formatting, a smart new font and, most importantly, beautiful illustrations throughout. Now, both Lili and Daisy are big girls – 175,000 and 155,000 words respectively – so of course everything to do with them takes longer than a shorter book. It was late June before Becoming Lili was finally republished and Chaining Daisy wasn’t released until early September.

It did well. Reaching number 51 in the Amazon rankings in its category and number 6 in hot new releases. To date, Daisy has gained nothing but rave reviews and there was even a Daisy Challenge started. A real tearjerker, the challenge is to read the whole book without choking up at least once. So far, no one has managed to pass. The new edition of Becoming Lili also did well, gaining some lovely reviews along the way.

Then we were into October and we began to be busy at work. I could have begun writing another book, but I still wanted to get the rest of my books freshened up and re-released. The Forest was already as good as it was going to get and in late 2018, I’d already updated and re-released Lifesong and Eclairs for Tea and other stories. That left Erinsmore, Lost & Found, Fixtures & Fittings and The Book of Eve.

Now, of all my books, The Book of Eve is the only one not self-published and I was eagerly awaiting regaining my copyright in December 2019. I decided that needed to be the book I tackled next, so went through it with a fine toothcomb until I was happy with it and sent it to my editor for her to work her magic on it. But, at the beginning of December I received a devastating blow. Copyright had been signed over to the publishers for six years, not the five I thought, and so I wouldn’t be getting Eve back until December 2020.

I was gutted. Five years ago, I was totally clueless as to how a book should be edited and presented and I now know there is much that needs to be fixed with Eve. Looking forward to getting it back and being able to bring it in line with all my other books, I’d even started to look at new cover designs, so this news was crushing. I immediately contacted the publisher again. Was there any way I could buy copyright back early? Yes, there was, for the sum of £120. That’s a sizeable amount of money to find, but it is doable and find it I must, because I can’t bear for my book to languish in the state it’s currently in for another year. So, I will be buying back copyright and am hoping for a re-release date of March or possibly April. That will leave just three books left to do. Fairly short, they have none of the girth of Lili and Daisy, and my editor and I are confident we can get them all out during the course of the year.

I must start writing again though, no matter that I wanted to have a clean slate before going forwards, I need to publish one if not two original pieces of work this year. For an indie writer, the old adage you’re only as good as your last performance, is achingly accurate. It’s not that I’m short of ideas either. Currently, I have the plots or partial plot lines of at least a dozen books whirling around in my imagination. It’s just a case of picking which one I write next and being brutally strict with myself about actually sitting my bum down in a chair and bloody well writing it!

What else did 2019 bring? Well, it was a very eventful and satisfying year for my daughter, Miss F. Her year kicked off with all the stress of revising for her GCSE’s and then having the hell of sitting over twenty exams during April, May and June. She did very well and kept cool under tortuous conditions and I’m very pleased to report that she sailed through them with outstanding grades – high enough to enable her to take up the place she’d been conditionally offered at our local college. Wanting to study animal management, we were very keen for her to get a coveted place on their diploma course because going to college locally would make life so much easier for both of us.

There was her prom to prepare for and those of you who’ve followed my blog from the beginning will remember the triumph of finding THE perfect dress at THE perfect price, much to her joy and my relief. Her prom went very well, a magical evening that she will remember for the rest of her life.

Turning sixteen in August, she decided to have a retro birthday party complete with games, balloons and party food that brought back memories of parties I’d attended in the seventies, complete with iced gems, sandwiches with the crusts cut off and cheese and pineapple hedgehogs. A beautiful sunny day, the whole of the house and garden rang with the sound of happy laughter and a good time was had by all.

Starting college in the September, she quickly found her feet and made two good friends. Adjusting to the pace of her new life, it has been wonderful watching her stretch her wings and grow in confidence, revealing the woman she is going to be. Loving her college course, I also enjoy hearing all her tales of the myriad of different animals she now looks after. From chinchillas to snakes, hamsters to goats, spiders to lizards, she has tackled each new task with enthusiasm.

Gaining an essential work placement in a livery stable and puppy breeding centre a forty minute drive away, I’ve found my own time seriously eaten into with all the driving around I now do, but as she must have this work placement in order to be able to continue her course, it’s something I’ve had to accept. She’s also got a part-time job in a trendy gastro pub just outside town, where she works two shifts a week and is enjoying having her own money for the first time in her life.

In October, I also had the thrill of meeting friends I’d previously only known through Instagram and I really enjoyed the change in my routine when an Australian author came to stay with me for a few days. During the Autumn, I also met several other indie authors who live locally and now love meeting once a fortnight with them for coffee and chat. I hadn’t realised how wonderful if is to be able to talk about books with someone and not have their eyes glaze over.

Then in November it was the Bury Christmas Fayre. The third biggest festive fair in the country, I and four other local authors decided to run a stall together selling our books in an attempt to connect with local people and perhaps build a following in our hometown. Thoroughly enjoyable, the outcome wasn’t perhaps as successful as we had all hoped, but I think that was more due to the poor position of our stall. Tucked away as it was, it took real dedication or blind luck to find us, and I think we were all slightly disappointed with our sales. However, there is talk of trying again next year in a more visible position, so who knows.

Then we were into December. The shortest and busiest month of the year, even though I tried not to let Christmas completely steal the month, it was inevitable that it would.

So, that was 2019. As you can see, a busy year full of challenges and new experiences. Yes, I didn’t achieve all I set out to do, but maybe those goals were a little unrealistic. One thing I am proud of though is this blog. I made a promise to myself that come hell or high water, I would blog every week and I’m glad to report that with the exception of Christmas week, this is a promise I have managed to keep. I won’t lie, sometimes it is a bind, and there are many weeks when I reach Saturday evening with no clue what to blog about, but, somehow, inspiration always strikes, and I find something to ramble about.

I think I have people following me. I don’t tend to look at or even understand the stats that WordPress kindly supply to me, so I’m not sure how many of you there are. Not many of you comment, but that’s alright, this blog is more for me than any of you. With such a busy year there has been little time for writing, so at least by being forced to write a couple of thousand new words every week I am stretching my writing muscle, so to speak. Or at least that’s the theory.

How has your year been? Did you achieve everything you set out to or did you fall by the wayside? Was 2019 a year you will remember fondly, or is it one you wish to draw a line under and move on from? Do you have big plans for 2020? Or are you content to let things take their natural course? Whatever your situation, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you a fulfilling and satisfying 2020, filled with love, hope and happiness.

Happy New Year.

Julia Blake

An Apology…

Due to Christmas and then the fact that I had to return to work on Boxing Day and have worked every day since, there will be no A Little Bit of Blake this week. I do apologise and assure you that things will be back to normal next week. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and that the New Year brings you peace, happiness and prosperity.

See you all in 2020.

Julia Blake

It’s the Thought that Counts…

By the time you read this on Sunday morning, there will only be three more sleeps until Christmas Day. Are you ready? Or are you the sort who likes to live dangerously and leave everything until the last minute? I’m more or less ready. Sadly, I have to work today but only until 4pm and then I’ll be off for a whole three days! Ooh, being spoilt here, the joys of working in retail.

As I work Boxing Day, the decision was made to bring everything forward a day, so therefore Monday is our Christmas Eve, Tuesday is our Christmas Day and Wednesday will be our Boxing Day. It just makes Christmas a bit nicer for me. I’ve had to work the last two Boxing Days and it really puts a serious crimp in the festive revelry. To be constantly checking my watch, to be aware that I have to turn up at work next day on time and sober, ready for one of the busiest days in our retail year. By shifting everything forward a day, I can enjoy myself as much as I want on Christmas Day (Tuesday) and still have Boxing Day (Wednesday) to rest and recover.

We’ve tried to cut down on presents this year. Last year I went totally overboard with everyone and ended up with a debt I didn’t finish paying off until this November. Which is ridiculous and a bit obscene, so my parents and Miss F all agreed we’d not buy presents at all, although obviously I would buy some little things for Miss F to open on Christmas Day. But then her phone broke, as regular readers of my blog will know, so we got her a new phone on my Argos interest free card and I will be paying £200 towards it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Christmas presents this week, about things I’ve given and received over the years. About the great presents I’ve had, the not so great and the downright bizarre. Buying presents is something I pride myself on being particularly good at, in that I try hard to think about what the person would really like. If you know someone, then it should be easy to imagine what would give them joy to receive and then buy that. Of course, the absolute best presents are those that the recipient had no idea they wanted until they open it, and then they love it. Sadly, all too often, people give what they would like to receive, not what the person they’re giving to wants.

I’ve lost count of the smelly body lotion sets, scented candles which smelt like furniture polish, tins of biscuits, slippers and other such stuff I’ve received over the years, all of which I’ve politely said thank you for and then put away ready to be regifted. It is particularly galling when you’ve invested a lot of time, money and effort in a wonderful gift for someone that they love, and in return you receive a tin of biscuits! Speaking of giving and not receiving, are Christmas cards now a thing of the past? This year I’ve handed out all my cards to the normal people and a large number of them have turned around and said “Oh, we’re not doing cards this year”.

Not that long ago, I needed four of those long card holders to contain all the Christmas cards I received, this year I’m down to barely filling two. I don’t know if that’s a reflection of the waning popularity of Christmas cards or perhaps the waning popularity of me. Either way, it is a little sad. I love giving and receiving cards, but, as I save all my cards until the next year and use them as a guide as to who gets a card from me, it means all those who didn’t bother giving me a card this year won’t get one from me next Christmas.

And then there’s presents. Always a tricky subject, the buying and giving of presents. When clear budgets are set and stuck to it helps to alleviate inequality in spending, so long as all parties stick to the budget. I have on occasion been told a £10 budget which I have rigidly stuck to, only to have a gift clearly worth a lot more than that presented to me, making me feel cheap, mean and ultimately resentful I’ve been made to feel that way. I know that’s not the spirit of Christmas, but it is the spirit of most of us.

And of course, I’ve also experienced it the other way around, when I have given a lovely gift which is smack on the nose, or maybe a little over, budget wise, only to receive a gift in return that is clearly lacking in thought and value. I’m not that hard to buy for and if you’re really stuck, then a book voucher to spend on new books is always a winner.

Sometimes, I wonder if my friends and family know me at all, based on some of the gifts I have received. I remember one Christmas, a very long time ago, I had a big Christmas Eve party and all my friends had brought their gifts to me and each other to open by the tree. Lovely, thoughtful, wonderful gifts came out of brightly packaged boxes and we were all thrilled, until I opened the present from one of my closest friends.

You know when you’re opening a present and someone says “Oh, it’s nothing special” but it is and it’s lovely, well, this wasn’t one of those times. She said, “it’s nothing special” and it really, really, wasn’t. It was a basket of an assortment of Mrs Bridges pickles, jams and chutneys – for your 25 year old best friend? Bearing in mind, my gift to her had been tickets to see a West End Show in London, it seemed a little unbalanced and lead to a rather awkward moment, and, I won’t lie, a cooling of our friendship. It wasn’t so much the disparity in spend, although she earned a lot more than me so could well afford the pre-agreed budget, it was more the lack of thought that hurt.

Another friend for every birthday and Christmas for ten years, always insisted on buying me an article of clothing. Now, clothing is a tricky thing to buy for someone. You need to be very, very sure of sizes, tastes and fit before attempting to buy anything more complicated than socks or a scarf for someone, and always make sure you give them the receipt. But this friend was confident she knew me well enough after all our years of friendship. She didn’t.

Every time a soft, squishy parcel was handed to me my heart would sink, wondering what awful thing she’d got me this time. A teeny tiny denim mini skirt that would barely cover my arse. A dreadful white frilly blouse that looked like your Great Aunt Nelly’s net curtains and was so itchy no one could wear it longer than two minutes. A tarty, off the shoulder, black sequin top that made me shudder to look at it. A peach chiffon top that washed all the colour from my skin.

All clothes that she would wear, but not clothes that I would ever even give wardrobe space to. She was making the classic mistake of buying what she liked, rather than thinking about all the clothes she’d seen me wear over the years and realising that white isn’t my colour and I don’t do short, tarty apparel, it’s just not me. There was never a receipt included and usually she’d ripped all the tags off so I couldn’t even exchange. On the rare occasions a tag was left intact, I would take it back to the shop in question only to find that she’d bought it in the sale, and it had an exchange value of £1.50.

All too often with buying presents for people, it’s the “what the heck do we buy them” that causes problems, not the actual buying and wrapping. Most people nowadays have enough money to buy themselves whatever they want, so Christmas is no longer a chance to give people things they really need but couldn’t justify buying themselves. Now more than ever, presents are about the thought you have put into them. My ex-in-laws (the outlaws) are a good example of this. They live in a tiny retirement flat, crammed in with all their belongings they simply cannot give houseroom to “stuff”. There is nothing they want, need or desire, so buying presents for them was always a challenge.

Then, a few years ago, I hit upon the idea of making them a hamper and wondered why I hadn’t thought about it sooner. Now, you can of course, buy hampers ready-made, but they are always hellishly expensive and always contain a ton of stuff that you know the recipient won’t like or want. So, what I do is simply go around the supermarket and buy about £30 worth of food and drink I know they will use and enjoy, but I buy a nice version of it – Twinings English Breakfast tea instead of a value pack – that sort of thing. I then make a hamper from an old, sturdy box and arrange everything neatly. It looks great and is full of things they will use, things that won’t clutter their flat, well, not for long. It was a huge success and ever since that’s what I’ve done.

My mum, bless her, has had one or two spectacular fails with present buying over the years. When Miss F was young obviously my mother would buy her things to give to me for Christmas, and Miss F would run into my room on Christmas morning, her stocking clutched in one hand and her present to me in the other. More excited about watching me open mine, she would eagerly wait with quivering anticipation as I tore the paper off. One year, I opened the beautiful package to find a tube of foundation for coloured skin tones.

I was stunned. So stunned, I had to phone my mother there and then.

“You’ve bought me foundation?”

“Yes, I knew you were running short and it’s so expensive.”

“Ok, so nice thought, but Mum, this foundation is for coloured skin tones.”

“Well, that’s alright isn’t it?”

“No, Mum, it’s for black skin.”

“Can’t you still use it?”

“Have you seen the colour of me, Mum? I’d look like the lovechild of Judith Chalmers and David Dickinson!”

For those of you unfamiliar with this pair, they were TV presenters well known for their love of fake tan and the rather alarming tangerine colour of their skin. After Christmas, I related the tale to a friend of mine who is black, she roared with laughter and offered to buy it off me. In the end we did a swap, she gave me the bottle of rather nice red wine her work had given her which she didn’t want, and I gave her the foundation.

Another year I was very excited to see three, book shaped presents with my name on under my parents’ tree. In excitement, I ripped the paper off the first one to find a book on hedgerow foraging. Surprised, I looked at it, then opened the second parcel, only to find another book on hedgerow foraging. Sensing a theme, I wasn’t too surprised when I opened the third parcel to find yet another book on hedgerow foraging. I looked at my mum.

“Umm, why?”

“Well, I know you’re into that sort of thing.”

“I go blackberry picking once a year and I don’t need three books to tell me how to do it.”

I sold all three books on eBay in the new year and bought something I actually wanted, but are you beginning to see why I don’t get very excited about Christmas presents?

My ex-husband always bought me things he wanted himself, and although he did stop short of buying me a power drill, there was a camera I didn’t want or need that he then took as his own, DVD boxsets of shows I’d never heard of, and things for the kitchen I didn’t want that then languished in the cupboard after one use when he found it wasn’t as much fun to use as the ads had suggested.

One year, in desperation, I sat down and wrote a very long and comprehensive list of things I really wanted and needed. Even that didn’t work. Whilst most people did buy off list, my mother is a free spirit who won’t be told what to do so instead bought me frumpy slippers (I hate slippers, they make my feet too hot) and a large gift pack of Marks & Spencer Magnolia body stuff (it smells like cat pee on me and makes me itch).

One year, she gave me two tops, two lovely tops, perfect for me, there was just one problem.

“Why have you bought me these?”

“Well, when I saw them, I could just see you in them.”

“There’s a reason for that. You have! I already own these exact same tops.”

Then there was the year my poor mum forgot to tag any presents. That was an interesting Christmas Day. Like some kind of festive Russian roulette, we’d all choose a tag-less present from under the tree, shake it, squeeze it, and try to guess what might be in it. I ended up with a tie, an XXL hoody and a cordless screwdriver. Once all the presents were opened, we then had a Swap Shop session.

One year, we had a party the week before Christmas. A lovely evening, it was all very festive and a huge success and, as a friend was leaving, she put her arm around me, thanked me for a wonderful evening and told me she’d slipped us a little something under the tree. I thanked her, we wished each other Merry Christmas and she left. For the rest of that week we couldn’t figure out what on earth the disgusting smell was in the house. I bleached bins, we cleaned drains, we moved furniture to see if the cat had left a dead mouse anywhere, but no matter what we did this foul smell prevailed.

Then it was Christmas Day, and I lit scented candles everywhere to drown out the smell. We opened our gifts, including the one from my friend, only to discover it was the ripest, stinkiest, smelliest piece of Stilton cheese! In a box, under our tree, in a warm lounge, for a week! Needless to say, it went straight in the bin. I asked her what on earth she’d been thinking of. Yes, lovely present for my ex-husband (I don’t like Stilton, so again, lack of thought) but it needed to go into the fridge, not be slipped under the tree for a week. She got quite shirty at my lack of gratitude.

Did anyone make cherry brandy as I showed you a few weeks ago? Well, if you did, then you need to be bottling it up this week. It’s really simple. All you need to do is strain the fruit infused brandy through a linen or muslin lined sieve into a large jug and then pour them into clean, screw top bottles. You can use the bottles you fermented it in but obviously you’ll need to rinse them out first. The four 75cl bottles I made was enough to decant back into one 75cl bottle and then three 40cl bottles which I then labelled and gave as Christmas presents. I had a sneaky taste and it’s lovely, very warm and Christmassy.

By the time I blog next week it will all be over. All the work, expense, stress and preparation that goes into one day will be done for another year. I hope you all have an amazing Christmas Day, and if you don’t celebrate Christmas then please let me extend well wishes to you and your family.

Thank you for once again taking the time to read my ramblings, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Merry Christmas

Julia Blake