It’s Not Me, It’s You!

Good morning everyone. It’s shaping up to be a very sunny day here in Suffolk which will end a week of gorgeous hot sunny days – well, all except Friday afternoon and evening, when the sky turned black, the temperature plummeted, and we had torrential rain. Hopefully, the weekend will stay fine as I have the whole two days off and lots of laundry to dry outside – don’t want to use any energy drying it, do I.

Thank you to everyone who contacted me about my energy supplier and the whole stressful scenario. During the week, I received two emails. One from Look After My Bills saying how sorry they were I’d had such a bad experience and that they promised to remove Green Suppliers from the list of energy providers they would switch me to. Umm, no. I emailed them back – as per my very extensive email, I said – not only did I want nothing more to do with Green Suppliers, but I wished to cancel my account with LAMB as well. To be honest, I wrote, I have been very disappointed with the service they had provided. I was promised big savings which simply didn’t happen, they put me with Green so are partially responsible, plus their customer services were a joke. Following advice from Martin Lewis, I was switching to Octopus and a fixed rate deal to avoid suffering from the severe anxiety and stress that this situation had caused me. Plus, I would be filing a complaint against Green with Ofgem.

Twenty minutes later, back came a hasty email. Your account with us has been cancelled, it said. Goodbye and good luck. Yeah, thought the mention of Ofgem and Martin Lewis might make them ditch me super quick!

The other email was from Green Suppliers, and it made me snort with disbelief. We’re so sorry you’re leaving us, it said, is it something we’ve done?

Something you’ve done?!

How long do you have?

I was furious. It felt like they were royally taking the pee out of me, but reading the email again, I realised from the generalised and robotic tone that it was merely a standard response generated because they’ve been contacted by Octopus and informed that I wish to leave them. It was clear no one had bothered to look at my account and what was going on. I would be wasting my breath going back all guns blazing yet. Save my strength for when I need it.

We will investigate your account, the email continued, to see if we can allow you to go.

Allow me to go?!

Try stopping me.

Look, I want to break up and FYI, it’s not me, it’s you.

So, now we wait. I have a note of my last meter reading given on the 17th of May, and of course, I will be giving them a final meter reading. It will be interesting to see what final bill they come up with. I have a direct debit due to go to them on that day of £88. As the heating is now off and most washing is being line dried, I am expecting my energy consumption to be very low, so assume that £88 will be ample to cover the final few weeks of use plus clear up the so-called “debt” of £19 I allegedly still owe them.

I hope they will see sense and not try to hit me with another trumped-up, falsified bill because then I will have no choice but to file a complaint about them with Ofgem, plus send an email to Martin Lewis and any other consumer rights body I can find. The way they have treated me is appalling. I mean, what about if I were elderly and less able to fight back? I wonder how many vulnerable people they are stealing money from. It’s not right. There should be more control over these companies.

I have also received an email from Octopus today stating that the switchover is all going ahead as planned, so fingers crossed, and I will keep you all posted.

The beginning of the week was busy. I worked Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and although the shop was busy, once again it was timewasters.

Thursday, I had my second jab first thing in the morning. The actual jabbing bit hurt more than it did the first time, and I bled, which surprised me. I was prepared for anything, but other than a funny taste in my mouth for a couple of days – like I’d been licking old pennies – I had no side effects at all. I spent the day clearing the decks and ticking yet more things off my to-do list. We chased up the Etsy seller about my watch again – did I tell you about that? Miss F bought me a lovely steampunk watch last Christmas to celebrate the launch of my fantasy steampunk retelling of Snow White, “Black Ice”. As we went straight into lockdown on Boxing Day, I didn’t get a chance to wear the watch and it wasn’t until I returned to work that I realised it didn’t work. I would set the time and it would tick for about ten minutes before stopping. Assuming the battery was possibly out of juice, I changed it for the spare battery it had come with. Nope, the same problem. So, we messaged the Etsy seller last Thursday and heard absolutely nothing. That’s about par for the course though, isn’t it?

So, this Thursday morning we messaged them again and this time they responded. So sorry, they said, a new batch of those watches are arriving in two weeks, and they would immediately despatch one to me as soon as they arrived, and they hoped that was okay. Yes, that’s fine, so long as one is sent. It’s annoying we had to chase them, but hopefully, that is sorted.

Talking of getting things sorted, we at last set up our new Sky router box and what a palaver that was! I had to take everything off the storage box in the corner and heave it out so we could get to the sockets and phone socket in the corner, and then it was a struggle getting it to work – because nothing is EVER straightforward and easy – but we managed it at last. Haven’t noticed any difference to Sky TV or the internet in general though.

Miss F has been given an old guitar as a present. It belonged to my dad, and I remember him being given the guitar as a birthday gift from my mother when I was ten or eleven, so about forty years ago – and it was second-hand then. Did he ever learn to play the guitar? Nope. So, the poor thing has been sitting in their loft ever since. Anyway, a couple of months ago I happened to mention to my parents that Miss F would love to learn to play the guitar, so when my parents came for lunch last week, they brought the guitar with them. Miss F was delighted with it.

One of my colleagues at work plays guitar in a group, so I took it to work and showed it to him. The strings are rusty, he advised, and need replacing, but other than that it’s in good condition. Nice guitar, certainly suitable for her to learn on. Heartened by this, we took it to our local music shop on Thursday. To replace the strings and the bridge, plus tune it will cost £25 they told us, so we left it with them. Miss F has also bought a case and a strap for it, a stand plus some picks. I hope she has more luck learning how to play it than my dad ever did.

Friday, I had to do a bit of judicious pruning of my silver birch tree as the branches were drooping so low, they were bashing me on the head plus blocking out a lot of light from the garden. It was a gorgeous morning, and it was nice being outside for a change. After that, we walked uptown as Miss F needed to get a passport photo taken. She needs two forms of photo ID before going to university and her old passport has expired so she decided to be proactive and get it renewed sooner rather than later. After all, as the world opens up a bit more for holidays, I guess there might be a delay in getting it through. Once her passport has been received, she can use the information on it to apply for her provisional driving licence and she’ll be sorted.

She made sure her hair was nice, and she was happy with her appearance, then we went to Sneezums – a shop in town that takes professional photos for passports and ID. But why is it, that no matter how great you look in real life, on any photo like this you end up looking like stunned livestock?

Miss F looked like a little ghost in the picture. A pale waif who hadn’t had a hot dinner in months.

But it’s done, and when we got back, she filed for her passport online.

Whilst we were uptown, we got a birthday present for my mum. She’s going to be away on holiday for her birthday, so we plan to see her next Wednesday and give it to her then. I also called into Next to enquire if I could bring back a top I’d bought the week before. When I first tried it on, I thought it fitted just fine, so I ripped the labels off, but then when I put it on to wear it, I realised that the buttons started halfway down my chest, so I was rather exposed. Yes, I was assured, so long as you have the tags and the receipt, we can exchange or refund.

Back home, I just had time to make a quick coffee before my fortnightly virtual chat with my local author group. And that, together with catching up with housework, was Friday done.

And now it’s Saturday again and I’m sitting here writing this to you. Miss F popped up to the music shop this morning and collected her newly strung guitar which certainly sounds a lot better than it did, and I finally transferred all my phone numbers off my old SIM onto my new one and completed a survey from my local council about residential parking.

I almost missed the survey, but the Chairman of the Residents Association sent around an email reminding everyone to fill it in because we all must have our say. Survey, I thought, what survey? Then I remembered a whole wedge of junk mail that had been pushed through the door Friday morning and went to look in the bin. Sure enough, stuck to fliers for skip hire, a local estate agent who apparently wants to buy my house, and a menu from a Chinese takeaway, there was the leaflet with a link to complete the survey online.

Parking is a bit of a joke in my hometown. We’re an old town – there’s been a settlement of some kind here since Anglo Saxon times – so it wasn’t designed with car parking in mind. There are a lot of historic homes crammed into a small area and there aren’t enough places for residents to park. The situation isn’t helped by the fact they keep building new blocks of flats and don’t provide enough parking spaces for the people who live in them – if they provide any – so we have people illegally parking in the spaces reserved for residents who have paid a lot of money for a permit to park there. And it can be very frustrating when someone has illegally parked in your paid-for bay, so you must park on double yellow lines and then you get a ticket but the person who stole your space doesn’t. Something must be done about it, but I’m not sure what.

I do have a general feeling of things coming to completion this week. It’s quite satisfying as all the outstanding jobs are ticked off one by one and I’m beginning to think I may be able to start writing again next week. Because I do need to begin book thirteen soon. It’s going to be a big book I know that already. Being the third book in The Perennials Trilogy I have a rough idea of how much story there is still left to tell – and all those loose ends must be tied up as it’s the last book. It’s not only going to take a lot longer to write than say, one of the Blackwood books, but it will take longer to edit, beta read, and format. I have already booked my slot with Platform House Publishing in November to get the cover and video made, plus the final formatting. I know November sounds like a long way away, but, considering we’re into June already and other than the title I have nothing down, it’s really not.

Oh well, I wrote and published Black Ice which is 150,000 words in three and a half months and that was a lot more complex with over forty pages of illustrations, so let’s hope this one is as cooperative.

Another thing I need to do is try and get another lodger, and I have one last job to do before I can put the room back up for let. That is to make the little desk more in keeping with the decor. I’ve decided to decoupage it as I already have everything I need to do that – and painting furniture white can be very hit and miss. At the same time, I promised Miss F I would decoupage her a wooden tray to take away to university with her, plus I have a small, outdoor table to make weatherproof.

I bought this table off Amazon as it was advertised as an outdoor table, but when it came it was more like those little fold-up tables people use to eat their dinner off in front of the TV. I stood it outside and, sure enough, we had a week of monsoonal rain at the end of which the whole veneer top had peeled away. So, I bought it back in and have dried it out thoroughly. Then I went to a local DIY store and tore off lots of wallpaper samples in the colours of my garden ready to decoupage it. Dozens of coats of clear yacht varnish will make it waterproof and at least it will be something unique.

So, I have three items to decoupage and figure I might as well do them all at the same time whilst I have the room in the empty basement to work on them without them being in the way. Of course, I will take pictures to share with you.

It’s now three o’clock and if I want to at least get them sanded down today, I had better go and do it now as I only have an hour and a half before I must fetch Miss F from work. On the way back, we’ll swing around and collect our shopping and then this evening, after dinner, we’ll sit down in front of Netflix and cut up all the images we need from the wallpaper samples I have collected ready for me to paste them on tomorrow. We’re also going to visit Miss F’s other grandparent’s tomorrow afternoon as well. We haven’t seen them since February 2020 so it will be wonderful to finally be able to visit with them.

And that will be my week over and done with. It’s been less stressful – a lot less stressful – than normal, for which I’m thankful. Who knows, maybe life is done being horrible to me for a while. I can only hope so.

Take care of yourselves and wherever you are in the world stay safe and stay happy.

Julie Blake

Turn Out That Light!

And another week has rolled by and here we are at the weekend again. The beginning of the week was taken up solely by work – my new shifts that don’t end until 6pm at the earliest fill the whole day, especially if I’m collecting shopping after work as I did on Monday. By the time I got home, unpacked, and put it all away, fed a bitterly complaining and starving cat (you could see the ribs, honestly), got changed, cooked eaten and cleared away my dinner, unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher, put on laundry, and checked all my social media notifications, it was 9:30pm and time to collect Miss F from work.

Tuesday wasn’t much better, in that a customer came in at five minutes before the end of my shift and then proceeded to waste 45 minutes of my time just faffing and farting about with no indication that they had any intention of buying something, and then they left. That’s 45 minutes of my time that I will not be paid for nor receive back at some future date. My company consider that if there is a customer, then you must stay no matter that you are technically off the clock or that you have shopping or a child to collect.

And that is something I want to ask all non-retail people. Why? Why do you do it? Why do you wander around shops at anti-social hours when the staff have been on their feet since early that morning and just want to go home? If you have a genuine need to buy something, fine, we’ll quite happily be late going home and so long as you ignore the rumbling of our stomachs because we’re staving hungry, we will help you if we get a sale out of it. But to amble about a shop with no purpose or goal but just because… that is selfish and unfair.

Okay, maybe you have nothing else to do and you hate your home and family so much you don’t want to go back there, and maybe you are so fed up with being trapped in the house due to various lockdowns that you are now desperate to be in a shop – any shop – and wander and touch and look and ask the staff stupid questions, but that doesn’t mean the sales consultant feels the same way.

If it’s a normal shop with normal opening times, at least the staff can ask you to leave because the shop is about to close, but many stores – mine included – can’t close until the last customer has left, so that’s you. Maybe think about that next time you have thirty minutes to kill so you wander into a shop at five minutes to seven. Maybe look for store opening times or ask a member of staff what time they close, rather than thinking you are so important that all the staff must work unpaid overtime to please you.

After all, would you like it? If you’ve been on your feet for ten solid hours, you had a quick sandwich at midday and it’s now almost seven, so you’re faint with hunger, but you still must turn around and cook a meal for yourself and maybe your family when you eventually get home. Maybe a child is standing in a dark and wet school car park waiting to be collected from an after-school club. There could be any number of reasons on top of simply wanting to go home on time why the sales staff want to close the shop and go home, and then you wander in – just looking. You waste everyone’s time, including your own, before ambling off without buying anything and the staff are left to mutter curses behind their masks and hurry to lock the door before any other braindead idiot can come in.

Sorry for the rant, but it does annoy me and everyone else who works in retail that people are so inconsiderate and rude and plain don’t think about the sales staff. I truly believe many don’t think we are human, that we have no needs or rights.

Anyhoo, my day was like that on Tuesday. Lots of idiots all “just looking” but not actually buying anything. They crowded into the shop, no social distancing, and most not wearing their masks correctly – OVER the nose, you plank, otherwise don’t bother! And then, five minutes before I was due to go home, I get a time-waster, so I don’t get home until almost seven. I must cook dinner, get changed, so we don’t sit down until almost eight to eat dinner.

Wednesday my parents came for lunch, so that was a very busy day that went by in a flash. It was lovely to see them, and we had a nice time, but I’d forgotten what it’s like preparing and cooking a meal that isn’t just a simple, everyday meal for two.

Thursday, I went to visit my favourite cousin for the first time since December 2019. It was amazing to see her, but it felt like no time at all had gone by since we last met. I spent a very pleasant morning with her – it’s her daughter’s birthday on Monday so I took over her present and we had a real catch up on all our news.

In the afternoon, I telephoned my local council. Now, I’ve never been able to claim a sole occupancy discount on my council tax because we’ve always had a lodger, but it suddenly occurred to me that we have been alone since the end of December so that’s five months discount I could have claimed. Could I claim retrospectively, I wondered. Turns out, yes, I can. The very nice lady gave me an email address to send my request to, so I did that. I’m not sure how much I should get back, but it will be somewhere in the region of £150 to £200 so definitely worth applying for. After all, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

I have my second jab coming up on the 3rd of June and the NHS had emailed me a pre-jab form to complete. By the time I had run about the house finding all the various reference and NHS numbers they wanted, that took up a good thirty minutes. A few days earlier, I had received a text from the NHS inviting me to have my jab earlier than the 3rd, but to be honest, it’s only next week and I have already arranged my days off work around it – just in case, it makes me as ill as the first one did – so it hardly seems worth bothering. Also, I’ve heard the horror stories of people who have tried to bring their jab forward, only to find instead of having a local appointment they suddenly have a hundred-mile round trip for a jab that’s only a week earlier than their original appointment. Best leave be, I thought.

This and a few other chores filled my Thursday afternoon, including going through everything that Miss F already has for university and making a very comprehensive list of items still to buy, and that was the second day of my four days off done with.

Friday morning, I forced a reluctant Miss F to contact Amazon again. Regular followers will know the headache we’ve been having with them. My new tablet that was a Christmas present from Miss F suddenly stopped working at the beginning of May. We contacted customer services, no problem, they told us, we’ll send you a return label and as soon as the faulty product comes back to us, we’ll arrange a replacement. So, the tablet was photographed to prove the uncracked nature of the screen and was sent back using the Royal Mail track and trace service – thank heavens we did. Mind you, it did take about three increasingly irate chats with their customer services before they eventually sent us the pre-paid label, but finally, it was emailed to us and we posted the tablet back to them on the 7th of May.

Two weeks went by, no sign of a replacement tablet. We checked the parcel’s status on the Royal Mail website and could see that it had been received and signed for by someone at Amazon on the 9th of May. Back onto customer services we went. Yes, yes, they said, we are so sorry you are experiencing this problem. We will sort it out immediately for you. A week went by. Nothing. Back we went again, this time the tone of our “live chat” was definitely on the tetchy side. So sorry, they said, give us 48 hours and we will sort it out for you.

That was last Saturday. By Friday morning we had still heard nothing. I told Miss F we had to chase them again. I don’t want to, she said, I’m going to work this afternoon and I don’t want the stress and hassle that chasing them always is. You must, I told her because you’re going to work even earlier tomorrow, then I’m at work Sunday through to Wednesday so can’t do it until Thursday and that will be another week gone by.

So, reluctantly, she contacted them again. This time there was no mistaking the stroppiness in her messages. I am sick of this, she wrote, this has dragged on for almost a month. Where is the replacement tablet? You’ve had plenty of time to sort this out, and no, I won’t give you 48 hours to investigate it because last time I did that, no one contacted me for a week and we’re having to chase you up, yet again! I want it sorted and I want it sorted now!

Back and forth, the chat went. Her email address was given and checked. She took a picture of our track and trace receipt which clearly showed the parcel going to them on the 7th. Oh, so we are going to repair it for you, came back the reply. No, demanded Miss F, the time for repairing it is long gone. You promised us a replacement – I have screenshots of the conversation where she said this – so I want a replacement now!

Give us 1-2 hours, they begged, we just need that time to check our systems and sort it out. Okay, Miss F reluctantly conceded. So long as it is only 1-2 hours and that you don’t disappear for another week because I’m fed up with chasing you. We won’t disappear, they promised, 1-2 hours maximum and we’ll leave this chat thread open.

An hour went by, two hours, another forty-five minutes. Chase them, I told Miss F, so back onto the chat she went. Well? She asked. You asked for 1-2 hours and it’s now been two hours and forty-five minutes, what’s happening? Yes, yes, they said, so sorry, it took a little longer than we anticipated, but we can now assure you that the replacement is on its way and will be with you tomorrow.

So now, we wait. We’ve had a delivery notification that it will be coming today – I only hope it’s not during the twenty minutes it will take me to go and collect the shopping and get petrol, or the forty minutes this evening when I collect Miss F from work – so fingers crossed, a brand-new working tablet will be delivered and this whole frustrating and stressful issue will be resolved.

And that leads me to the other major headache in my life – my energy supplier. As you know, I thought it had been sorted. I had telephoned them and spoken to the oh so obliging Nicole, who agreed that I couldn’t possibly owe the amount they were claiming I did, that she could see my meter readings on there and not the made-up smart meter readings, and that she would change my direct debit back to what it was, get my statement reassessed and refund any credit to me.

Well… I received an email from them, my new statement was available to view, so off I trot to view it. To my stunned disbelief my meter readings had once again been deleted and a long list of fictional readings from this mythical smart meter I’m supposed to have had been reinstated. They are claiming I used £283 of energy in May, plus I’m still in debt to them by £19!!

This is unbelievable. As you can see by the attached screengrab according to them, I used twice as much energy in May as I did in December or January! Not possible. Yes, it’s been a chillier Spring than normal, but it’s not been as cold as December or January, plus with lockdown over both Miss F and I are back to work so are no longer in the house all day and every day. Fewer appliances and devices are being used. Besides, £283 on energy in one month for a two-up, two-down terraced house in the south of England with just two people living in it is a ridiculous amount. I have friends with four people in their family who live in massive five-bedroom houses who don’t spend that much!

Look at May! No way did we use twice as much energy as in the Winter!

Clearly, this company are standing by their decision to raid my bank account. This is the hill they are prepared to die on.

It’s unbelievably frustrating and frightening just how much power companies like this have. They have our bank details so can simply take what they want, and we usually can’t fight back. They can falsify information on our accounts and then lie about it. They can refuse to return our emails and suspend live chat whenever they feel like it. They act like gods.

Obviously, I have been looking into energy companies and the whole energy bill situation in detail over the past month, and all the experts seem to agree that things are set to get worse here in the UK. I don’t know if it’s because of Brexit, or Corona, or is a combination of the two, but it looks like energy prices across the board are due to take a massive hike.

I knew I needed to sort this out immediately. I sent an email to Look After My Bills – the energy switch company that put me with Green Suppliers Limited. I held nothing back. I told them everything that had happened and attached screengrabs of the ever-changing status of my account and the stupid amount of energy they are claiming I used in May. I told them that I do hold them partially responsible, after all, they are the ones who switched me to this company of liars and scam artists, I had no say in the matter. Also, when the whole ugly issue first arose, I did telephone them and ask them for help. Only to be fobbed off and told there was nothing they could do, and I had to talk to the supplier direct.

This email went off yesterday morning. I have yet to receive a reply. I wonder if I ever will.

Then I telephoned another energy company called Octopus. Now, during all my extensive research I kept coming back to this company. They were voted the number one energy supplier in two consecutive years by Which magazine – although that means nothing. Most people are not aware that the companies with the deepest pockets can buy this status on Which because it is not an impartial or unbiased organisation and is wholly up for sale to the highest bidder. But, a lot of other independent assessors have rated them, including a few people I know and trust.

Unlike Green Suppliers Limited, Octopus have a very user-friendly website and a helpline number that was answered within fifteen minutes, so we were off to a good start. I spoke to a lovely girl and told her my tale of woe. Horrified, she was quick to assure me that Octopus were not like that at all – that they would never treat a customer so badly – and that transparency and openness were how they preferred to operate.

Ah, but what about a fixed-rate deal? It seems likely that energy prices will be taking a massive leap upwards in the next couple of months and I wanted to protect myself, and my bank account. Absolutely, she replied, she could give me a quote based on what I had told her and my average energy consumption over the past year (not including May, obviously). I braced myself. I was prepared to pay more than my usual £88 per month just for peace of mind but didn’t want to go too high. The quote came back at £90 per month fixed for two years and renegotiable at any time by me. If I wanted to use purely renewable energy from sustainable sources, then it would be £91.12 per month. Aww, heck, for the sake of £1.12 per month let’s save the planet.

So, it’s arranged, I am leaving the dark side – Green Suppliers Limited and their shady practices – and joining the light side – the transparent and allegedly honest Octopus. Now the race is on, can they move me before Green get a chance to plunder my bank account again or make up yet more fabled smart meter readings? It takes approximately fourteen days, and my next meter reading won’t be due until the 17th of June. Of course, there will be a final bill to pay to Green, but I have taken a photo of the last meter reading I gave them on the 17th of May and will photograph the final reading I take for them. I’ve also told Miss F that we need to be very mindful of our energy consumption over the next few weeks as I don’t want to give a penny more to Green Suppliers than I absolutely must. It really will be a case of – Turn That Light Out!

I honestly don’t know how it’s going to go, but until I am out of their clutches and have cancelled the direct debit, there is nothing I can do but wait and hope that they won’t turn around and try to claim I have used another £283 worth of energy. Especially, as the warmer weather looks like it’s finally here and the heating is off permanently.

I will keep you posted.

And now it’s 11:30am on Saturday. It’s a beautiful day out there, the sun is shining, and little birds are chirping outside my window. Miss F has just left to catch the bus to work and informed me on the way out that my tablet is being delivered between 2:30pm and 5pm. Oh great, I must go and get petrol and collect the shopping between 3pm and 4pm – what’s the betting they try and deliver in the twenty minutes I’m gone! Miss F is working late tonight and won’t need picking up until 8pm. She’ll be famished after being on her feet since midday – I know I will be – so there will be a nice big dinner already cooked and in the hot trolly ready for when we get home.

The rest of my Saturday is busy – I must write the copytext for the video that’s being made for my novel The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ and email it to the wonderful James and Becky Wright over at Platform House Publishing. They really are incredible, and I already know the video will be amazing. For all your formatting, cover design, promotional images, interior illustrations, and videos check out their website and don’t forget there is a discount code for them on my website – link on the contacts page on here.

I have two beds to strip and remake, laundry to do, and Miss F’s work shirts to iron. Now she’s no longer at college she has picked up more shifts at the restaurant, which is great but does mean I struggle to keep her supplied with clean white shirts.

Speaking of Miss F, thank you to everyone who contacted me asking how she got on with her exam and expressing your disgust at the shabby and underhand way she and her fellow students were treated. The exam took place on Monday morning and she thinks she did okay – managed to scrape a pass – although I am confident, she probably did better than she thinks. It was unfair but at least now it is over and her time as a college student is finished.

Ahead of her lies a summer of fun and work as she picks up as many shifts as she can to get money for university, driving lessons, and ultimately a car. It’s a very exciting time for her.

Gosh, I have rambled on a lot more than I thought I would, and this blog is now simply enormous! Sorry about that, but doesn’t that always happen when we sit down to chat?

Anyway, take care of yourselves and wherever you are in the world and whatever you’re doing, stay safe and stay healthy.

Julia Blake

So that was my Holiday. Not.

I had a much-needed week off work this week, and many people commented how it would be nice for me to have a break. To rest after all the stresses of returning to a busy work environment and the trauma that life has been throwing my way lately. All I can say to that is – chance would be a fine thing.

I worked a double shift last weekend as the other part-timer was on holiday and the store is too busy now to be manned by only three people at the weekend. So, I worked a very long day Saturday and then all-day Sunday as well. Consequently, Monday I was already exhausted. But I had a to-do list that was bigger than my future, so I took a deep breath and psyched myself up to work my way through the whole list until it was done.

The first item was to contact my utility company and try to sort them out. There is no telephone number listed on their website so live chat it had to be and I duly typed my account number and name and told them what the issue was. Namely, that they had doubled my monthly payments and as a result, I was now in credit to them by £240. I would like my payments returned to a sensible level and a refund of the credit, please.

Four hours ticked by before I received a reply. They were very sorry I was experiencing difficulties, but they had looked at my account and could see that I was now in debt to them to the tune of £25. What?! I went back into my account and couldn’t believe what was there. Instead of the credit of £240 that had been showing on 18th April, it was now showing that as of 17th May I was in debt by £25. So, what they were trying to make me believe was that in one month I had chewed through the £240 credit, plus the £155 they took from my account, and another £25 on energy! Umm, I don’t bloody think so. I live in a tiny, terraced house in the UK and it’s Spring – not the Winter Palace in Russia in the depths of Winter. Looking at the bar graph, I could see they were claiming I had used more energy in one month than I had in the whole of the Winter!

Absolutely livid I went back to the live chat. Not possible, I furiously typed. I have never used over £400 of energy in one month. It was not possible, not even if I had the heating on full-blast 24/7 and switched on every single device we owned. Their calculations were wrong. In fact, from where I was sitting it looked very much like they were lying. Where had the £240 credit gone?

Another four hours ticked by before the reply came. Oh, it’s because we were using the readings from your smart meter instead of the meter readings you were giving us each month, and clearly, you are now saying they were wrong, so we’ve had to readjust your bill. What?! What bloody smart meter? I don’t have a smart meter! I used to have one about ten years ago, but it developed dementia and started claiming we were using 1.2 million pounds worth of energy in one day, then it started flashing error messages and then it died, so it was unplugged and slung in a drawer about eight years ago where it is still lying – so good luck getting any readings from that. And as for my actual gas and electricity meters, well, they are both a good twenty years old so certainly aren’t smart and don’t have Wi-Fi capabilities so again, have fun trying to get readings from them.

By this point, I was beyond angry. Luckily, I had taken screen grabs of my account showing the credit plus my meter reading history which clearly showed my meter readings duly given every single month – readings which exactly matched the readings jotted down in my notebook from where I had read them off the meters and written them down. Furiously – my typing at this point all over the place – I told them all this. You are lying! I stated. You have taken money from my bank account without my permission, you have falsified information on my account to justify stealing my money and clawing back my credit, and now you have invented some mythical smart meter to cover your arses. I want to speak to somebody higher up the food chain, please. Give me the organ grinder, because clearly, the monkey doesn’t know anything!

This exchange took all day because they were taking four to six hours to respond to my messages. I’m sorry, that’s not a “live chat” – that’s a séance.

Eventually, it got to 4pm and it was plain they were ignoring me. One of those headaches that feel as if a skewer is being shoved through your eye was brewing and I knew if I didn’t do something to lower my blood pressure it was going to develop into a full-blown migraine. The sun had come out, so I walked away from the situation and spent a couple of hours sweeping and tidying my garden and let the fresh air and the mindless monotony of the task blow away the cobwebs – as my gran used to say – before coming in to cook dinner. And that was Monday.

Tuesday. I did not have the mental energy to attempt to deal with the utility company again, and besides, sorting out the insurance claim was a top priority. Again, it wasn’t raining so I was able to go out onto my road and take lots of pictures to back up my claim. I took pictures of the shallow gateway that the stupid Yodel delivery guy attempted a three-point turn in with his enormous van. I took pictures of the locked gates at the top of the road to prove that no other vehicle could have entered the road from that end. I even hung out of my bedroom window and took pictures from above because it perfectly showed the narrowness of the road and the sheer stupidity of the man to even attempt to turn around there. It also demonstrated how his van would have blocked all access to the road so no other van could have hit my car because he was in the way.

Whilst I was hanging out of my window, a large white van bombed up the road at speed. Yep, it was him, making a delivery to the top of the road. I took lots of pictures showing how his van filled the road, and how there was barely enough space to insert a sheet of toilet paper between the sides of his van and the residents’ cars parked down both sides of the road. I got his number plate again and for good measure a picture of him for identification purposes.

I then sat down and typed a four-page witness statement of the incident giving all the facts, dates, and times, and of his return visits when I managed to get his number plate and a good look at him so could give a physical description.

This took all of Tuesday morning, then after lunch, I tackled Sky. Luckily, they had a customer helpline number which I called. It took 56 minutes for the call to be answered, so I filled in the time catching up with my reading. A lot more success with Sky. A very nice young girl dealt with me and things were arranged to our mutual satisfaction in that I’m now paying a lot less and receiving a lot more. Sky is very much like a needy boyfriend – you threaten to leave them, and they promise you the earth and swear they’ll change, only please don’t leave me!

I had a few other housework and correspondence chores to complete and that was Tuesday over and done with.

Now, we had planned to have my parents over for lunch on Wednesday. Due to lockdown and the pandemic, they haven’t been to ours for well over a year and we were all looking forward to it. However, life had other ideas and once again put a turd in my teakettle, or rather in Miss F’s.

After handing in her final large assignment two weeks ago and receiving a grade for it, she was officially signed off college and was legally no longer a student there. She has her conditional offer from her university and has applied for student accommodation and finance. All she needs now is to pass her exams, but, as they were cancelled back in February and instead several complex and involved assignments were set which her tutors were going to grade the students on, and Miss F has passed them all with merits and distinctions on most, she was confident of a high mark on those.

Anyway, as she is no longer going to college or spending all her days on assignments, Miss F has increased her weekly hours at her part-time job to twenty and on Monday caught the bus out to the restaurant to do a 5pm to 10pm shift. At 7ish she rang me to ask me to pick her up at 9:30pm as it was quieter than expected. Twenty minutes later she rang me again and asked me to pick her up immediately.

I knew straight away from the tone of her voice that something was very wrong, so I jumped in my car and made the twenty-minute journey to the restaurant. With a face like a wet weekend in Bognor, Miss F climbed into the car and poured out her tale of woe. When she had gone to the staff room to call me to ask me to collect her early, she had noticed several unread messages from her friend. Had she seen the message on the college Facebook page, her friend wanted to know. The theory exam that had been cancelled back in February was going ahead, after all, next Monday! All the assignments they had worked so hard on had all been for nothing because they weren’t going to be considered at all! They had one week to cram a year’s worth of revision into.

Miss F was so devastated by this news that she had a literal meltdown at work and her manager told her to go home.

Once we reached home, she checked the Facebook message for herself. Yep, it was true. City & Guilds in their infinite wisdom had decided that the students hadn’t had a shitty enough year and that they should sit the exam after all. This is appallingly unfair. The students simply haven’t had the quality of tuition to take this exam and Miss F was certain they would all fail. After all, they had spent the past two months working hard on the assignments that City & Guilds had insisted they do so hadn’t had time to revise, and anyway, had not known they needed to. Lessons have been sporadic and patchy this past year. What with the tutors not having the technical know-how or even the aptitude to successfully handle online teaching, the students barely attending college in real life and the fear and stress of being in a lockdown in a global pandemic caused to our young people, it is criminally unjust to put this extra pressure on them.

I am also questioning the legality of the whole proceedings. The students have done everything that City & Guilds demanded of them, and more. They have worked extremely hard to complete several very complex and difficult assignments and I can personally witness how many hours Miss F spent on them and the quality of work she produced. These assignments were all handed in and marked two weeks ago, the students were signed out, and legally are no longer a part of that college. To now come back and force them to take the exam after all – an exam they are not prepared for when they have left the mindset of revising and learning behind them – is beyond belief. To further kick them in the teeth by informing them that all their hard work over the past two months has been a monumental waste of time … it defies belief!

I was angry for her but wasn’t sure what I could do. On the advice of a friend, I did send an email to our local MP, Jo Churchill, advising her of the situation. I got an email back from her aide advising me that Jo was going to email City & Guilds to gain more insight on the situation, but I have heard nothing since so assume she has not done anything about it. I guess it was naïve of me to expect a politician to give a damn about the people in their constituency.

Because they are no longer students at the college, they can’t even take the exam there, instead, they have to take it at home with their laptop camera turned on – which adds even more to the stress.

Six days is barely enough time to cram all that revision in, but luckily Miss F’s work was very understanding and told her not to come back until she was comfortable, she could. Sadly, we also had to postpone my parents visit for a week just to give Miss F an extra day to revise.

Wednesday, I got up bright and early and determined to sort out the buggery bollicking situation with the utility company. I was sick of everyone’s shit and was in no mood to be messed about by them anymore. I wrote down all my facts and figures, looked up the details of the utility ombudsman and managed to get an actual proper telephone number for my energy company by emailing Martin Lewis. For non-UK people, Martin Lewis is a journalist and TV presenter who runs a website called Money Supermarket. He is a staunch advocate in defence of people being ripped off by companies and his name carries a lot of clout. If a company is outed on his website or his TV programme, then it means a lot of bad press for the company. So, I sent a little email and twenty minutes later back came a reply giving me the telephone number of my energy company and wishing me luck.

I settled down with a drink, my Kindle, and a notepad and pen. Thirty minutes later, the phone was answered, and I was talking to a real live person. I kept calm. I knew the person I was speaking to is not the person who runs the company, they are not the one making the rules, they know nothing about me or what has been done. Coolly and calmly, I told her I was extremely angry with how I’d been treated and that this was her company’s last chance to sort the matter out. That I had the ombudsman’s details in front of me and had already contacted Martin Lewis and would not hesitate to pass the matter over to them if I didn’t get satisfaction. But I assured her, I would not get angry with her because I knew it wasn’t her fault.

Fair enough said Nicole, how can I help you. I told her what had happened. When I told her that according to her company, I had used over £400 of energy in the past month, she laughed and enquired if I lived in Buckingham Palace. When I had finished explaining everything, she agreed that my monthly payments were too high so she would immediately put them back to the level they were, if that was all right with me. Also, she could see that I had given a meter reading online every single month – she couldn’t see any smart meter readings on my record – and she could see that the meters I had were old, general meters and certainly weren’t sending information directly to the company. She couldn’t understand why I’d been told that smart meter readings had been used and would get my bill reassessed and any monies outstanding to me would be recredited to my account.

This is why I always prefer to speak to a human being rather than try and communicate via email or live chat. If you are talking to someone it’s harder for them to fob you off and lie to you and much more gets done. Sure enough, less than an hour after hanging up from Nicole I received an email informing me that my direct debit had been changed back to £88 per month.

And that was Wednesday.

Thursday, I did do something for myself. I went out to lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in months. It felt odd walking into a restaurant like normal, although the prices came as something of a shock. We shared a starter platter between us with a pot of fries and had a bottle of the house white. Then we had a dessert each. That was it and it came to £60. Lovely though it was, I don’t think I’ll be eating out too much in the future. When a small meal for two costs as much as a week’s grocery bill for two, it might be time to think carefully about what I spend my money on.

Friday morning, I had a lot of niggly chores to do, including having to chase after Amazon again about my tablet. They had promised that the moment it was scanned at the post office they would send me a replacement. It has been two weeks since I posted the faulty tablet back to them and no sign of the replacement so we tracked the parcel on the Royal Mail website and could see that it had been signed for on the 9th of May. So, back onto yet another customer live chat helpline we went. The operator we got seemed very confused by the whole situation so passed us onto someone else who also appeared bewildered. Replacement? What replacement is that? Anyway, they told us they would need at least 48 hours to investigate it and would get back to us.

Why does everything take such a long time? Life would run more smoothly and be a lot more pleasant if people just did their bloody job and got on with things. Why is it always up to us the customer to chase and chase and constantly enquire? Our time is precious, and most people don’t have enough of it to be always wasting it chasing after company’s and begging them to simply DO THEIR JOB! Come on Amazon, you promised me a replacement. The damn thing is faulty. It’s your product so there are no issues dealing with a third party. Simply do what you said you were going to do two weeks ago and send me another tablet.

Friday afternoon I did spend a very pleasant few hours chatting with my local author group via zoom. Miss F’s shift had been cancelled – whether that was due to low bookings or them simply not wanting her back until after her exam, I don’t know – but that meant I didn’t have to drive out late in the evening to collect her, so I cooked a lovely roast chicken dinner and opened the wine.

And now it’s the weekend and I have barely two days left of my holiday. Well, I say holiday, but as you can see, it’s not been much of a break for me. It’s coming up to 11am on Saturday and I’m sitting here chatting with you and beginning to think longingly about coffee. The rest of the weekend is already fully booked with things to be done. I have a book I need to start beta reading, there are beds to be stripped and laundry to be done. I want to have a go at making a lactose free cherry cake as Miss F has been seriously craving some. I also have some niggly author chores that I’d like to get done before returning to work.

Next week I am back to work for two long shifts on Monday and Tuesday. There will be shopping to collect after work on Monday and my parents will be coming to lunch on Wednesday. On Thursday I am visiting my favourite cousin whom I haven’t seen since December 2019, which I am hugely looking forward to, and then, oh yes, then, I have two days off on Friday and Saturday before returning to work on Sunday.

But there will be my blog to write. Plus, I need to sort the desk out in the basement ready to advertise the room again in June, and I’m sure there will be the usual round of housework, cooking, and laundry to be done.

Maybe one day I will have a day with nothing at all to do. Umm, maybe not.

Take care everyone and I look forward to chatting again next week.

Julia Blake

More Ranting!

Well, moments after I posted my blog last week there was a colossal bang from the kitchen! I ran through to find disgusting mouldy water flooding out from under the washing machine. The machine was officially dead. Luckily, it had managed to wash all the bedding and underwear for the week, so I wasn’t left trying to sort that out, but I still had to pay a quick visit to Mum and drop a couple of loads off for her to do – thanks Mum.

I hadn’t realised how many times the washing machine went on during the week until it died and over the four days before my new one was due to be delivered, the laundry baskets grew scarily full. Anyway, Thursday dawned, and Argos texted me again to let me know it would be delivered between 3:45pm and 7pm. Great, bang on dinner time. Book twelve was also being launched on Thursday so it was shaping up to be a busy day.

About 5pm a huge lorry pulled into our road. Thankfully, it made no attempt to try and get any further in, otherwise it may have had problems getting out. A masked guy rang the bell. Luckily, he looked nice and burly and like he’d had his Weetabix that morning, but he was alone – which was concerning.

I showed him where the machine was located. He pulled a face behind his mask but shrugged good naturedly and went to get his mate who thankfully was still in the lorry. His mate came in, also a fine strapping lad. He looked around the kitchen and frowned.

HIM: Did you buy your last machine from Argos?

ME:  Yes.

HIM: I thought so, I was the one who delivered it. I remember lifting out the tumble drier last time!

Anyway, bless them, they heaved the drier out, unplugged the washing machine, slid the drier back, and started to pull the washing machine out. There was a thunk and a crunch, and as they lifted it out a big concrete block was left behind. It was broken into several big chunks with smaller bits lying all around it.

My washing machine was indeed very, very broken they informed me with knowledgeable shakes of their head. Just as well I didn’t waste my money calling in the repair man. Whilst they took the old machine out and brought the new one in, I took the opportunity to quickly sweep up and wash the disgusting floor. I also found one of those cap things that you put laundry liquid in that had gone down the back of the machine. Now, these caps have recently become rarer than rocking horse poop. Once, you got one with every bottle of laundry liquid but over the last couple of years they have started rationing us in that only one in every four bottles will have one – I guess the reasoning being to force you to horde your precious cap and constantly reuse it.

I remember last year I went to buy more laundry liquid and I needed a cap because mine had cracked through overuse. Not a single bottle of the liquid I wanted had a cap on it. What was I supposed to do? I didn’t want to use a different liquid, neither did I want to pour the liquid directly into the drawer because that makes the drawer disgustingly manky. I looked along the shelves, and noticed that a different brand of laundry liquid had a cap on one of its bottles, hmm… I bet you’re wondering if I did, well, I’m ashamed to admit, yes, I did. That cap disappeared up my sleeve in a sleight of hand the Magicians Circle would have been proud of and I innocently took a bottle of my normal liquid, sans cap, to the till to pay for it. So, discovering one was a find akin to buried treasure and I fell on it with a cry of joy. It has been washed and put safely away as a back up when my current cap finally dies.

I’m also happy to report that the new washing machine works just fine, it’s quiet and doesn’t move, which is great. But I have a new problem in that the outside drain that the kitchen sink, the dishwasher, and the washing machine empty into is completely blocked. It’s flooding the path every time the appliances are used with soapy dirty water which is defacing the slate tiles. I’ve tried plunging it with a long, study stick but it seriously feels like cement has been poured down there and left to harden. I even bought a very expensive bottle of drain un-blocker – guaranteed to unclog even the most stubborn drain – well, I’m sorry, Mr Muscle, but I want my money back as it did absolutely nothing to help. I’ve called upon expert help – aka Dad.

Anyway, when Miss F read last week’s blog, she came through pulling a face and said – “You didn’t tell them about your tablet, Mum.” And she was right, in the long list of woes that I ranted about last week, I completely forgot to include the sorry tale about my tablet.

As regular readers and followers of me on Instagram will know, my wonderful daughter bought me a very expensive Kindle Fire Tablet for Christmas. It’s beautiful, has a large memory, and a fantastic battery capacity. It has some annoying little glitches including a very aggressive autocorrect that is convinced it’s right all the time, and it’s a little slow downloading my emails, but apart from that it’s great, or rather, it was great.

A couple of weeks ago, it suddenly and rather rudely, switched itself off mid-post. Annoyed, I tried to switch it back on. No go. Had the battery drained, I wondered, and plugged it in. I left it a few minutes and tried again, nope, black screen with the Amazon logo continuously flashing. I waited until the IT Department got out of bed and showed it to her. Let it drain completely of power, she advised, then charge it up. Sometimes tablets do this, but that should sort it. I left it alone for days, then tried charging it up. Nope. Black screen. Flashing Amazon logo. We tried connecting it to my laptop. What tablet? Asked my laptop. I can’t see anything there.

A bit upset, after all it was her Christmas present to me and was not cheap, Miss F contacted Amazon customer services. After a bit of toing and froing they informed us, they would repair it and would email me a return label within a few hours. This was Wednesday evening, by Friday morning we still hadn’t heard anything so back onto customer services we had to go. How may I help you? We explained the issue, they went to find the previous messages then came back and tried to convince us that we had said the screen was badly cracked. Umm, no, the tablet is in perfect condition, it just won’t switch on. Oh, they said. Are we sure the screen isn’t cracked? Yes, absolutely sure, the screen is black apart from the Amazon logo that continuously flashes.

At this information, customer services went very quiet for a few moments, then informed us that they would replace it, not even attempt to repair it. Ah ha, I thought, this is a common glitch then that you know isn’t fixable. We will email you a return label, they promised. Will you? We asked. Will you really? Because you said that last time and yet, three days later, here we are again. Yes, yes, they promised, it will be with you soon. True to their word, an hour later, yes it was. So, I printed it out, found the original box and wrapped the tablet in lots of bubble wrap, but I made sure we took several photos first showing the perfect and uncracked state of the screen – just in case. I then took it to the post office and sent it tracked and traced.

Now, they had assured us that the moment the post office scanned the label, a replacement would be sent to us. But here we are, a week later, and still no sign of it. I only hope we don’t have to chase up customer services again because it all takes time, precious time that I don’t have an endless source of. Plus, I really need my tablet. I’m managing with my old one but it’s slow and glitchy, and has the memory capacity of a gnat to the extent that I now leave it on charge 24/7 yet it will still abruptly close down with no warning.

This week has been a busy one as well because I launched my twelfth book – Kiss & Tell, book four of the Blackwood Family Saga. For once, Amazon behaved themselves, the book was published exactly when it was supposed to, and the paperback linked like a dream to the eBook version. The first book, Lost & Found, ran its free promotion exactly when scheduled, and book two Fixtures & Fittings was on for 99p at the same time.

It is a total experiment offering one of my books for free and one for 99p. It’s too soon yet to tell if it’s one that will bear fruit, people certainly downloaded the book, but it remains to be seen if it will result in an increase in reviews and purchases of the other books in the series. It did mean that Lost & Found shot up the Amazon rankings, as I’m writing this it’s sitting at no 16 in family drama and no 80 in romantic suspense. Considering how huge a category that is it’s a bit of a result. Being in the top 100 of its category also means that Amazon will start promoting the book as well, so, there’s that.

I’m working all weekend to cover the other part-timer who is on holiday this week. I’m expecting to be busy, but as I’m already through my target I can relax and count every extra sale as a cherry on top. This is why I’m sitting here writing my blog on a Friday afternoon instead of on a Saturday, and I must make sure I schedule it for Sunday morning and not Saturday morning by mistake. Once the weekend has been survived, then I have a whole week off. I had planned to start writing book thirteen, but the week has already quickly filled up with other things, so I have a suspicion that not much writing will happen.

If the weather is fine, there is a lot to do in the garden. The weather so far has been appalling. When I remember what it was like this time last year, long hot days spent pottering around the garden painting and tidying it up and then compare it to now when I’m still having to light a fire in the evening because it’s so cold. We have my parents coming for lunch on Wednesday and it will be the first time they’ve properly been in our house for over a year, so there’s shopping and prepping for that to do. Thursday I’m out for lunch with a friend whom I haven’t seen since last November. It will be nice to go into a restaurant again – I’ll need to try and remember how to eat in polite society. Friday afternoon is my zoom meeting with my local author group, and there will be the usual housework and laundry etc. So, as you can see, time to write is rapidly diminishing.

We have been without a lodger since the beginning of January and as we are now allowed into other people’s houses, I am beginning to think about advertising for a new one. The room is basically ready, I just need to dust and hoover. Also, I moved the little desk that I wasn’t using from the corner of my bedroom down to the basement. One thing everyone who comes to view the room seems to ask is – can I put a desk down here – and I suppose that’s only to be expected in these days of people homeworking and all having laptops. I think what with having a nice desk and a proper office chair, plus the TV we put in the room, it will increase the rooms desirability. But the desk is currently a very pretty shade of green which is completely wrong for the room, so it needs to be sanded down and repainted to match. So, there’s that to do as well.

I also need to repaint the bench that I bought last year for the garden. It’s a lovely big bench and very comfortable, but the paint job on it was awful and less than a year lately the white paint has almost completely rubbed away. I’m going to have a go at shabby chic and have the same pale blue I painted the fences with to use. It needs a cushion, but when I looked them up online, I was shocked at how expensive a simple bench cushion was with even the cheapest being over £70. For a piece of foam with a cover on it? I think not, there must be a cheaper way of doing it. I had a look on Amazon, I could get a piece of upholstery foam the exact size for £10, then found a pale blue gingham waterproof garden tablecloth which was twice the size of the foam. Surely, I can make that into a cover and because it’s waterproof and mould proof it can be left out all the time. At a total cost of under £30 I’m hoping it will work, but that’s something else on the list for next week.

As you can see, the days are rapidly filling up.

And now, I must go. There are posts to make, a book review to post, and a large late lunch to make because Miss F must catch the 4:30pm bus to work and will need to eat before she goes. Life is so busy.

Anyway, take care of yourselves and I look forward to chatting next week and telling you all how my week went.

Julia Blake

These Things Are Sent to Annoy You!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolute horse crap!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Blake

Back to the Rat Race!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Blake

Back to the Rat Race!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Blake

Reviews – the cold hard facts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But are there unwritten rules to writing reviews?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Blake

Making the Best of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I butted in.

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

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

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

New phone flip-top so pocket dialing it will stop

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

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

Look at the size of those buttons!

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

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

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

Julia Blake

Happy Easter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HIM: Yes? Yes?

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

HIM: No, no, only two.

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

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

ME:  But wait, couldn’t you check…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look forward to chatting with you next Sunday.

Julia Blake