Any Questions?

I’m late posting the blog this week – and it will be shorter – because, when you’re in lockdown the days merge and blur into one another and before you know it – boom, it’s Saturday evening and you haven’t even thought about the blog and, to be honest, what are you going to write about anyway, because nothing has happened, and you’ve done nothing.

Well, that’s not strictly true, of course I’ve done something. I’ve breathed, and ate, and moved around, and slept – I have done a lot of sleeping. I’ve been working a lot on my books and, yes, I know I only just did that, but this is a final final polish where I’m changing fonts and adding dropped capitals and other twiddly bits and going through each book word by word to ensure it’s as perfect as it can be. It’s time-consuming and whole days can go by without me really being aware of them. But then, the only day I must keep a handle on is bin day, and then I rely on hearing the neighbours putting their bins out.

There doesn’t seem an end in sight for lockdown yet. Although they are distributing the vaccine as quickly as possible – about five million done so far – when you consider the UK population is almost 68 million it is only a drop in the bucket. To get everyone vaccinated is going to take years if they ever manage to get around to everyone. And I guess that is the issue. Yes, vaccinate the old, the vulnerable, and the key workers. Of course, they should be done first. But the new strains of the virus now cropping up are attacking younger and younger members of the population and are more contagious. When we come out of lockdown, which I guess must be soon because of the economy, the majority of people actually out there – in the shops, the factories, on the streets, and in the schools – won’t have been vaccinated so will be vulnerable to the new strains, and the whole cycle will start up again.

I received an email from my company this week informing me that they are clawing back one week of holiday off every employee. My company are very generous with holidays and even though I only work part-time I do still get six weeks paid holiday a year – so giving up one week in exchange for at least two, possibly three, months paid time off seems a fair deal. Last year they took two weeks off me and in exchange I had four months off. The week’s holiday is to commence on the 22nd of February, so it seems my company, at least, fully expect us to be in lockdown until March.

Miss F is stressed at the moment, because no decision has been reached yet as to whether they will be taking their vocational exams or not in March. The Board of City and Guilds who are responsible for making the decision were supposed to have made an announcement two weeks ago. They made the announcement this week that the decision they made during those two weeks was to give themselves another two weeks to make their minds up.

This is a big deal for the thousands of students due to take their vocational exams in March. If they are cancelled and grades are going to be assessed on coursework and teachers reports, then at least the students know where they stand – that their future and whether they get into university or not will be decided on the work they have done to date and any they do between now and March. However, if they decide to go ahead with the exams – which seems unfair seeing as GCSEs and A’Levels which aren’t due until the summer have already been cancelled – then those thousands of students will effectively have been thrown under the bus.

They haven’t had any proper education since last February. Relying on shoddy, lackadaisical and sporadic online teaching, the hours of tuition they require to pass their exams have simply not happened. Miss F is doing her best, spending hours each day on self-directed study, she struggles to make sense of the poorly worded assignments the teachers give them. Very often, the teachers simply don’t bother to turn up for online lessons – leaving Miss F and her classmates staring at a blank screen for 45 minutes wondering where their teacher is. I have looked at the assignments, presentations, and lesson plans, the teachers have given her, and even I can see they are lacking in structure, information, and guidance.

Then, of course, being a vocational course, they have all missed out on the practical, hands-on, side of the tutoring. Part of her vocational exam will require hours of practical demonstration – how is that going to be possible online? The vocational students are being treated appallingly compared to the academic students taking their GCSE’s and A’Levels. They should be given the same consideration. Their exams need to be cancelled and control of grades handed over to the teachers – to the people who have taught them throughout their course – to those who know each individual student, have interacted with them, marked their coursework, and know what they are capable of so can confidently give them the appropriate grade.

The extended two weeks the City and Guilds Board took to make their minds up will be over next week, and I really hope they make the fair and logical decision to cancel the exams. If they don’t, I think another petition will be in order, as the one raised to cancel BTEC exams worked so well.

I will keep you all posted.

Life in lockdown has jogged on smoothly. I have left the house precisely three times since last Sunday morning. I drove to the supermarket in the afternoon to collect all my shopping which was there waiting for me – gotta love click and collect. Then on Friday morning I finally went to collect my hayfever medication.

Normally, I don’t need to begin taking it until late February, but this year my allergies seem to have kicked in earlier – of course they have – so I telephoned the doctor’s surgery the week before and requested a repeat prescription. They were due to be collected Wednesday, but somehow the days slipped by and it was Friday morning before my itchy eyes and runny nose became too much to bear and I went to collect them.

I had been warned that my doctor’s surgery was the only place locally that was giving the Covid-19 vaccination, so be prepared for a long queue, and it was true that when I drove into the carpark it was unusually packed. But as I parked and got out of my car, I realised each car was full of elderly people all clutching their phones.

The only space left for me was right at the end of the carpark, so I had to walk past all the parked cars, feeling all eyes watch me as I went up to the door. Now, my surgery has its own pharmacy attached and when I reached the doors, a big notice informed me the surgery was closed and was appointment only, and that if someone were there to see their doctor or have a Covid-19 vaccination, they were to telephone to let the receptionist know and then wait in their car to be summoned. That explained all the phones clutched tightly in all those wrinkled hands. If I wanted to go to the pharmacy, I was to walk straight in.

I walked straight in. Two minutes later I walked back out with my medication and had to do the long walk all the way back to my car, passing all those cars and feeling the eyes watch my progress. I was very pleased to have my meds, I hadn’t realised how much my allergies were affecting me until I started taking them again.

The only other place I have been was a quick, ten-minute car journey last night, to run Miss F around to drop off a congratulations card and present on the doorstep of her best friend. She had just received a conditional offer from her university of choice and Miss F wanted to mark the occasion. It’s the same university Miss F has applied for, so now she is anxiously waiting and hoping for a similar email.

You may remember before Christmas I told you that Miss F had the exciting opportunity of doing work experience at a local zoo for one day a week? Well, unfortunately, that has been cancelled. I did have a feeling it would be. It’s such a shame, it would have been wonderful experience for her and something worthwhile to include on her resume, but it is what it is.

Because we have effectively been almost constantly home for a year now, I think we’ve triggered separation anxiety in our cat. She has always been a sweet-natured and friendly little thing but was very used to being alone – what with me working three days a week and Miss F either at college or work placement – there were many days when she would be alone for long hours. She never seemed to mind, in fact, I think she just slept through them – oh, to be a cat! But recently we have both noticed a personality change in her. She’s become very clingy and very needy. During the day she must be with one or the other of us – scrapping at doors and crying until she is let in. She barely goes out anymore, although it is freezing cold out there, so that’s not surprising. Instead, she simply must be where we are.

If I’m in the bathroom, she’ll be right outside, scrapping at the door and letting out the occasional mournful squeak. The second I emerge she’s under my feet begging to be picked up and cuddled. We’ve begun to carry her around from room to room with us, like a baby. In the evenings when we relax in the front room, she’ll climb into my lap and go to sleep, and I can’t move until she awakes. And so, I sit, in numb leg, full bladder misery, until finally I must move, and I gently, carefully try to lift her and lay her on the sofa. But she always wakes and stares at me reproachfully. If I leave the room without her noticing, Miss F says the moment she realises I’m not there she panics and stares intently at the door until I come back.

What have we done to her? I think we’ve broken our cat. When this all ends – which eventually it must – and we all go back to college and work, how is she going to cope? Will she adopt dog behaviour and we’ll come home to find our sofa shredded and that she’s pooped on the floor? I hope not.

I do have some exciting news for you all. I have been asked to guest on the podcast of the lovely author and book blogger, Sarina Langer. The interview is being recorded Monday morning and will be aired sometime in early February. The main topic of the podcast is being a multi-genre author and if you have any questions you wish to ask me on that subject, then please either post it in the comments, email it to me, DM me on my Instagram page, or you can send it to me by Messenger. If you have a question that is author or book related, but not specifically about multi-genres, then ask it anyway and we’ll try to fit it in.

For many of you, it will be the first time you hear what I sound like – apparently, so British you can almost taste the tea – and I’m really looking forward to it. I love giving interviews, but this will only be the second podcast one I’ve given so I’m nervous as well. I will post the link to the interview in the next blog after it has been aired, so if you missed it you can catch up then, and don’t forget to leave any questions you want to ask today so I can pass them onto Sarina ready for inclusion in the interview tomorrow.

Right, it’s now 9:30am and the six people who read my blog – although I have been reliably informed it’s now up to eight, ooh – will be wondering where it is and if I’ve forgotten again, or simply couldn’t be bothered. I will post this immediately and hope to receive lots of lovely questions from you, but keep it clean folks, this will be a family friendly interview.

So, that’s all she wrote for now, and remember, wherever you are and however your life is going, stay safe and stay well.

Julia Blake

Never Give Up!

So, here we are in the second weekend of lockdown – and it’s pretty much the same as last week. Things are jogging along here at Blake Hall, and as I peer out of the window at the wet cold world – actually a snowy world today – there is no incentive to go outside at all. Between the last lockdown and this one, I had a strong suspicion that our freedom was short-lived so hustled my pants and managed to get me and Miss F dentist appointments, optician appointments, and took the cat to the vets for her overdue annual jabs. Very pleased I did as we went back into lockdown just after Christmas and getting non-essential check-ups is impossible again.

Miss F had to have new glasses as her eyesight has changed again. Poor girl, it seems so unfair that she inherited such bad vision from somewhere. But we managed to get her new glasses in that brief window of opportunity during December so at least she has the correct prescription now. I need reading glasses for close work and because I’m so heavy on them and my eyesight isn’t that bad – I only use 1:25 magnification – I tend to buy a whole batch from Poundland and have them all over the house, at work, and in different handbags.

So, I trot in for my appointment and sit there in my mask whilst the optician puts that big contraption on my face and gets me to read the board on the wall at the far end of the office. Mightily surprised when I was able to read the email address of the board’s manufacturer at the very bottom of the board, she pronounced that my distance vision was remarkable, beyond remarkable actually. Then she tested my close vision. Uh oh. Not so good. But I know this and have got used to the inconvenience of having to find my glasses every time I want to read a text, or the cooking instructions on the back of a packet. Although, to be fair I usually thrust it at Miss F with a cry of – “Oh for heaven’s sake, read this for me!”

“What glasses are you using now?” The optician asked. I fished a pair of my £1 specials out of my bag and showed them to her. Her mouth pursed.

“Are they no good for me?” I asked, concerned by her silent accusing scrutiny of them.

“Well, they’re okay I suppose,” she grudgingly admitted.

“They’re 1:25 strength,” I tell her. “What should I have?”

“1:25.”

“So, these are all right then?”

“Well, for a cheap pair, I suppose so. But you really need to have a better pair than that for long term use. You can have a free pair on the NHS with your credit voucher.”

I shrugged – after all, free is free and I tend never to turn down anything if it’s free. So, she wrote out a prescription and I went out into the reception to choose the frames. It turned out that to keep within the “freeness” part of the deal I had to choose from a certain range which comprised of about ten frames – three of which were for children, and five of which were for men so way too big for my small face. I tried on the two that were available for me, and picked the least awful pair, which, to be fair weren’t bad. They wrote the number down on the form and promised to call me when they ready to be collected.

“Don’t forget,” I told them. “Phone me on my landline or text me. Don’t try and leave a voicemail on my mobile like before. It will let you leave a message, but it won’t tell me you’ve left one, and I have no way of retrieving messages even if I do think to check my missed calls log.”

“We won’t,” they promised. “It’s down on your contact form.”

So, I came home and waited. Three weeks passed and I heard nothing, but they had warned me that their turnaround was slow what with the current situation, so I didn’t think anything of it. Then there was the busyness of Christmas, the lodger leaving, and going back into lockdown, so I forgot about it to be honest, until Wednesday, when I get a rather curt call from the optician saying that my glasses had been sitting there awaiting collection for ages and they had tried unsuccessfully to contact me.

“Did you phone my mobile?”

“Yes.”

“And I suppose you left a voicemail?”

“Yes.”

“Well, why did you do that? I told you I can’t retrieve voicemails. You even wrote it down on my contact form.”

“Oh, well, you need to come and collect the glasses now.”

“It’s not exactly essential, and we are in lockdown. Can I not wait until things are a bit settled?”

“No, because there’s an NHS credit attached to them, they must be collected immediately.”

“Okay, I’ll see about popping in when…”

“No, you have to make an appointment.”

So, I made an appointment for 2pm on Thursday, and for the first time since the beginning of the month ventured into the outside.

It was bitterly cold and pouring with a nasty rain that was desperately trying to turn into snow. And it was like a GHOST TOWN out there. Seriously, it was like Armageddon had occurred. Empty streets. Closed shops and restaurants. I barely saw anyone, and the few people who scurried by were masked and gloved and huddled into great coats. Not making eye contact or even looking at me, they hurried by as if the virus were floating in the air and the longer you were out, the more chance there was of it settling on you.

All around was abandoned plant and heavy machinery and almost every road was closed off with signs warning of construction and closure. Now, I can see the sense of carrying out vital road maintenance during the lockdown. There is very little traffic and hardly any pedestrians about to get in the way. But ALL the roads? All at the same time? And where were the workmen? Hurrying across town to the optician I passed site after site, all eerily deserted, the large yellow diggers just abandoned crazily across the road. Was it a simultaneous lunchbreak? Or had everyone decided it was too wet to work? Or had the zombies got them?

I get to the optician, and catch the only assistant guiltily sliding a book under the counter. She was all alone there, she explained. I sympathised with her – and I may have casually mentioned I was an author and given her my details. She made me try the glasses on to check they fitted, and then I came home.

On the way, as I was already out, I decided to pop to the convenience store at the bottom of our road to grab a few essentials. The dishwasher had been whining about needing salt, we were running low on matches, firelighters, and polish – yes, I polish during a lockdown. Don’t judge me, we have a fire most nights and that makes the place very dusty.

There weren’t many people in the store and again everyone was masked and keeping their distance – except one man. Openly strutting about with no mask on, he didn’t even have one of those yellow lanyard things the NHS issue to show you’re exempt from wearing a mask. As this is Britain, no one said anything, but he was given the stink-eye from everyone he passed, and eyes were rolled at one another over the tops of masks The staff did nothing. So, either they seriously don’t care about the rules, or they knew him and knew he had an exemption.

Now, wearing masks is unpleasant, I get it. None of us like it, and I also understand there are a few – a very few – individuals who are physically incapable of wearing a mask for the ten minutes they are in a shop. But why don’t they wear visors? Okay, they may not be as effective as a mask, but they are better than nothing. Surely, if you have such compromised lungs you can’t wear a mask then you seriously don’t want to run the risk of catching the virus because you would be dangerously ill from it – so why not do everything you can to protect yourself and wear a visor. I can’t think of any medical condition that prevents its sufferer from wearing one, except extreme agoraphobia perhaps. And if you were so agoraphobic a clear visor sent you into a panic, then you wouldn’t be out of the house and in a shop in the first place.

I made it home – to be greeted by Miss F as if we were living in the world of Mad Max and I’d made it back safely from a death-defying trip across the Badlands to get essential supplies. For the rest of the day, I tried out my new glasses. I have to be honest and say they are of the same quality as my £1 bargains I get from Poundland. In fact, they leave a really nasty groove over the top of my nose and give me a slight headache from wearing them.

It’s been a week of pet incidents. Firstly, our baby tortoise Napoleon was determined to prove he was not such a baby anymore and attempted a jailbreak out of his enclosure. Luckily, Miss F caught him before he managed to climb over the side and fall to his possible death and definite injury from the top of the chest of drawers his box is on. Stopping to snap the obligatory photo on her phone, the mesh lid of his box was placed firmly on and is staying on now. He doesn’t like it. He glares at it and huffs in annoyance, but it’s for his own good – so tough. I couldn’t believe he managed to scramble all the way up onto the top of his hide – it’s quite a climb for such a little chap.

Thursday evening, I got a pack of four chicken drumsticks out to defrost before I went to bed and put them on the side. I know, I know, you’re supposed to defrost things in the fridge, but seriously my fridge is so cold it would take a week to defrost fully and there would still be ice crystals in the middle. At night, my kitchen is cold enough to let the meat defrost slowly, and I’ve been doing it for years and never poisoned anyone yet.

Anyone, I suddenly woke up at about 5am convinced I’d forgotten to put them in the microwave to keep them out of the way. Sleepy and confused, I persuaded myself I must have, and went back to sleep. When I finally came downstairs a few hours later, it was to find the cat standing in the middle of the kitchen floor with a look of absolute guilt on her face.

“I did a thing.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

She glanced up at the counter. I looked. The bowl with the chicken in was upside down and the bag had been dragged out. Groaning, I switched on the light and had a closer look. She’d managed to rip a small corner of the bag open and expose a tiny piece of the skin of one of the legs. Then she’d either had a pang of conscience, or heard me coming, or the leg was still too frozen to get her teeth into, or she decided that raw cold chicken was not that nice after all, because that was as far as she’d got.

Carefully, I opened the bag and removed the piece she’d nosed. Sod germs, I thought. She hadn’t touched any of the other three and I was going to be cooking them thoroughly. Rummaging around in the bottom of the freezer, I found a bag with a single drumstick in and put that to defrost ready for dinner that night. Sometimes, the packs come with uneven numbers and I always bag up the single one – for just such emergencies as this. For the rest of the day, the cat kept making a fuss over me, as if she knew what she’d done and felt guilty. It was my fault though I guess, leaving such a tempting thing out for her to investigate.

During the week, a fellow author contacted me on Instagram to tell me the very sad story of a lovely Australian author she knows who has been given the worst news that anyone can ever get – that her cancer has metastasised, and she is down to mere weeks at best. This would devastate even the strongest of us, but what Aiki Flinthart decided to do was to finally realise her dream of seeing one of her stories in a collection with those of the finest names in the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. So, she contacted every big-name author she could think of with her request, and to her delight, many responded offering her a unique story to include in her collection. With the clock ticking, the book has been prepared and is now ready for pre-order from Amazon with a publication date of the 31st of January – it will also be available from many other on-line book sellers.

A stunning collection including stories from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Jasper Fforde, Garth Nix, Robert Silverberg, Juliet Marillier, and many others – this is an amazing chance to own a very special book, and help a young woman see her dream come true before her life is cruelly cut short. Plus, all proceeds from the book will be going to help fund a mentoring programme for young writers in Aiki’s home state of Queensland.

The book is called Relics, Wrecks and Ruins – and can be found on Amazon for pre-order, or will be available from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, and many other online book retailers. Why not check out Aiki’s website to learn more about this brave and inspirational Warrior Woman who refused to let cancer stop her from achieving her dream.

These are truly difficult times for us all, and I hope that wherever you are, you are coping with all that life is throwing your way. Remember, to stay smart and stay safe.

See you next week for a catch up.

Best Wishes

Julia Blake

Here We Go Again!

After a week that has been very eventful in the world – yet insignificant on a personal level – we are spending our first weekend back in lockdown. It feels the same as last weekend spent under tier four restrictions, and I am guessing it will feel much the same as the weekends going forward until it is considered safe enough for us to leave lockdown – whenever that may be.

This week saw the UK climbing to over 1300 deaths per day – the highest ever – and gaining us the dubious honour of being the country with the most deaths per capita in the world.

There was civil unrest in the USA, with a strange group of individuals dressed like the Village People storming the US Capitol and gaining admittance. I usually aim to keep this blog as non-political as possible, especially when it comes to other countries affairs, but will say that I am a writer and even I couldn’t make this stuff up.

America seems to be at a crisis moment, and I can only hope that sense will prevail and under its new management some sort of stability and level-headed leadership will be reached. Although it is slightly concerning that a man who has been banned from Twitter because he is so unstable, still has access to the nuclear codes.

Personally, it has been a draining and exhausting week for me. Normally, I am a practical and pragmatic sort of person, and during the last lockdowns soldiered on with the long list of household chores I always have and using the gift of time to work on my books. But somehow things feel different this time around.

Maybe because it is Winter, it’s dark and cold and the days are shorter. We can’t enjoy the beautiful weather and sit in our gardens the way we did before. Maybe because we’ve all been here before and did not expect to be here again almost one year later. It feels like the year we have all lived through was a waste of time – that all the lockdowns, restrictions, and self-denial that most people exercised was all for nothing – because here we are again. Still in lockdown. Still with a rising infection and death rate. Still with selfish idiots not obeying the rules and thinking the restrictions can’t possibly apply to them. One has to ask – is it because of such selfish idiots that the rest of us are in lockdown again – well, I think that is definitely a hard yes.

At least this time the government has finally seen sense and closed all the places of education to none but children of essential workers. Apparently – and this will shock you as much as it did me – the government have discovered that if you cram hundreds of people all together with no social distancing and no mask wearing and then let them mingle at will with family and friends –

IT WILL HELP SPREAD THE VIRUS!

Gosh. Are you shocked? I know I was. I mean, really, who would have thought it?

Even if they had stayed open my daughter would have returned over my dead body. If the country is in lockdown with a new, twice as contagious strain of a potentially lethal virus being carried by at least one in thirty people, then there was no way I was going to send my precious child into an unsafe environment to mix with hundreds of other strangers – none of them wearing masks.

But the college is closed so she is home safe and is busy studying online – wondering what the situation will be in March when it is time for her to take her exams.

All GCSE’s and A’Levels which were due to take place in the summer have already been cancelled to ease the pressure and stress on all the poor students due to take them. But all those students due to take their BTECs over the next three months were not offered the same consideration.

In a blatant and breath-taking example of elitism by our all Oxford educated parliament, they decreed that BTECs were obviously so easy that no such concessions needed to be offered. This effectively damned this year’s crop of potential nurses, vets, engineers, mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and many other trades – to taking exams under unsafe conditions. Exams they have not been adequately prepared for. In a lot of ways, BTEC students are worse off than those studying for GCSE’s and A’Levels, in that BTECs are for practical, hands-on trades which require practical, hands-on training – training it is impossible to gain online – whereas most A’Levels and GCSEs are for academic, desk bound jobs which can be learnt online.

In an extremely short-sighted move the government dismissed all BTEC students’ needs, to focus purely on the elite needs of the academic students. Precisely who they think is going to man the hospitals and construction sites of the country in the future, is puzzling. Without vets, plumbers, mechanics, bricklayers, nurses, plasterers and all the other hands-on trades, how exactly do they see this country being able to function? A nation cannot be run only with accountants, solicitors, and teachers – it needs people who make and do things.

A petition was immediately started as soon as the announcement was made – both Miss F and I signed it – and by that evening it had over 175,000 signatures. The very next day, the government did another massive U-turn, washed their hands of the whole affair and it was announced that each college would have autonomy over whether their students took the BTEC exams or not. So, some students are being forced to take exams in the middle of the worst of the pandemic, when infection rates are rising.

The exam conditions are shocking – there is no social distancing outside the exam rooms (the press have been full of pictures of students crammed into small hallways waiting to go in). There has also been no declaration about what will happen to those students who choose not to risk infection by taking the BTEC exams now. There could be many reasons why they do not wish to take the exam aside from personal fear of contagion. Perhaps they are in lockdown with a vulnerable person and are simply being responsible for family members. They are also afraid of what will happen if they don’t take the exam, afraid of what consequences that will have for them. Will their entire future be affected by this decision?

It is grossly unfair and hugely stressful for these young people. Let’s face it, taking exams is a colossal strain on them anyway – but factor in all these other conditions and the stress levels go off the scales.

There are also a huge number of students taking vocational exams which have been left in limbo. No consideration has been made for them at all. Their exams are due in March, but as yet no one seems to know if they will be cancelled – the way A’Levels and GCSEs have been – so thousands of young people have been left dangling.

With so much uncertainty, I feel deeply for all young people trying to study, take exams, or make any kind of sense of their educational life right now. It cannot be easy for them, and whilst I fully support the decision to close all places of learning for the foreseeable future to try and halt the spread of the virus, until the vaccine has been effectively administered to all and the death rates are falling, I think every effort should be made to help the students affected.

If only stricter measures had been imposed last March, if only clear and definite rules had been put in place and firmly enforced, maybe we wouldn’t all be here again, almost one year later, back in lockdown.

On the home front – this week I made an effort to start spring cleaning my kitchen. When I announced my intention to do so, Miss F commented – “didn’t you just do that?” Well, it may feel that way, but really it was last March, so guess what, it needs doing again. I pulled everything out on Wednesday, half-heartedly cleaned out a couple of cupboards, a-n-n-n-d, that’s as far as I got. Like I said, seriously lacking in the motivational department at the moment.

I’ve been working on my existing books as well. They are all fine, but I’ve discovered new formatting tricks and little things that can be done to make them even better, so am using the time at home to do that.

I’m sleeping for Britain. Normally, I am a six hour a night girl and have been for years, but for the last couple of weeks I’ve not been waking until nine o’clock and even later. You would think with all that sleep I would be feeling better and more alert, but weirdly I’m waking feeling muggy and disconnected, and it’s taking me ages to get going in the mornings. How I’m going to go back to getting up at 6am every morning when things eventually go back to normal, I don’t know.

Several of you have messaged asking about the lodger situation. Well, we still don’t have one. As you know, our young French lodger left last Saturday. In order to be allowed to return to France, he had to take a Covid test and he text me Sunday morning to let me know the test was negative – so that was a relief. Since then, I have washed all the bedding and aired the room. I did look on the spare room website to see if anyone suitable was looking for a room, but there were hardly any listings. Of those, most were not suitable – either smokers, couples, or owning pets they wished to bring – the rest all wanted the world, including a private bathroom and their own parking space, for £250 per month. Hmm, good luck with that.

I will wait another week, thoroughly clean the room and the public parts of the house, and then see about running the add again. Maybe I could specify that initial viewings will be conducted remotely. It would be one way to cut down the amount of people traipsing through our home potentially bringing the infection with them. So, I guess that means I need to go and finish cleaning the kitchen.

Is lockdown lethargy a thing? Asking for a friend.

We finished watching the latest season of “The Crown” this week, and I think it must be my favourite season to date. As it has now reached the eighties, it means that I remember the events they portrayed happening – the slow disintegration of Charles and Diana’s marriage, the fall of Margaret Thatcher – are all things I lived through. I wonder how the Royal Family feel about it. Apparently, they loved the early seasons but this one – not so much! It doesn’t show them in a very good light, in fact the only characters I liked this season were Princess Margaret and Princess Anne – and even they had moments of such out-and-out bitchiness it made my jaw drop. The acting in this is superb, especially that of the fabulous American actress Gillian Anderson – you may remember her as Scully in the X-Files – who managed such a convincing portrayal of Margaret Thatcher that we were several episodes in before I realised it was Ms Anderson behind the blue suit and the affected accent.

We started a new series last night – “The Queen’s Gambit” – as I had heard nothing but good things about it. The first two episodes were amazing and even Miss F put down her phone to watch it. Whoever would have though a series about chess could be so riveting.

Thank heavens for on tap entertainment throughout all of this – can you imagine what life would have been like without the many TV channels most of us now have access to.

It’s a shorter blog this week. I wasn’t even sure I would have enough to talk about, seeing as I haven’t left the house in over a week, but wanted to touch base with you all. I hope wherever you are, and whatever levels of restrictions you are living under, that you are keeping safe and well.

See you next week.

Julia Blake

When the Going Gets Tough – Keep Your Revs Up and Keep Going!

So, that’s it. Christmas, the New Year, and the whole bally lot of it is now over and done with. I apologise for not blogging last week, but it was a strange week which somehow got away from me. Fitting really, given how strange the whole year has been, that it ended with a week of mixed blessings. Last time we spoke, it was the weekend before Christmas, and I was unsure exactly what was going to happen. I knew I still had to work on the Sunday and the Monday, but really didn’t expect to be busy. Well, I was proved wrong. Sunday, we did see quite a few people – but they all said the same thing – we thought we had better place our order before Christmas, because we think you’ll be closed afterwards.

Why were they thinking that? Well, on Saturday afternoon at 4pm, our prime minister announced that London was going into a new tier – Tier 4 – a hitherto unheard-of tier, and that all non-essential shops would be closing that evening. Mass panic ensued, as shopper rushed to finish Christmas shopping in the scant couple of hours left before most shops closed. Now, yes, it was awfully short notice, but I have never understood people leaving their present buying until the weekend before Christmas. What about if you can’t find what you want? It is dangerously risky in a normal year, but during a global pandemic … I’m sorry, all my Christmas shopping had been done well and truly before then.

We heard the news on the car radio as I drove home from collecting Miss F from work. It caused us both no small concern because our young lodger had gone up to London only that morning to see his brother. I wasn’t very impressed when he told me he was going. Even before the announcement, London was a petri dish of infection, and this new, twice as infectious, strain of Corona seemed a very scary development. I just couldn’t understand why he was going. Sure, he wanted to see his brother, I do get that. But, to travel all that way on public transport, only to have to stay in a hotel and meet his brother in a park somewhere, stand 2m apart from each other, shout their greetings and then throw presents at each other – it all seemed risky and not worth the effort.

But I am not his mother nor his parole officer, ultimately, I could only express my concern at his plans – which he ignored and went anyway. Then came the news about London, and the stats about how the infection and death rates were rocketing in the capital. As soon as the announcement was made, thousands of concerned parents contacted their offspring attending colleges and universities in London and told them to get their arses home. So, they did. In their thousands. They crowded onto trains, buses, and fled the capital – bringing the virus and the new strain – home with them, to all corners of the country.

So, there we were at work on Sunday – all very concerned, and none of us knowing what was going to happen to us. With no other option, we soldiered on as planned, serving customers, and reassuring them that even if the shop were closed, we would still be able to deliver as arranged.

Monday came, and all members of staff were supposed to be in but when I got to work, one of my male colleagues was absent. His stepdad had died from Corona over the weekend, which he had contracted when he had gone into hospital a couple of weeks earlier for a non-related issue. Shocked, we discussed the matter at length, before my boss gave us tasks to do to clean the shop and put up all the promotional material ready for the big sale commencing on Boxing Day.

We didn’t see a customer all day but kept busy with our tasks. I am not sure any of us believed we would be open on Boxing Day, although I thought we would be. I imagined that the consequences of the mass exodus from London and the mixing and mingling over Christmas – now reduced from five days to one day only – would take a couple of weeks to affect us.

I came home at 4pm, expecting to find the lodger had arrived back from London. We had sent him a rather lengthy text expressing our concern at the latest developments, and requesting that when he arrived back, he use the sanitiser by the front door, put all his clothes in the wash, shower, and generally disinfect and clean everything he had touched on his way in, and everything that had gone to London with him. It was probably a futile effort, because if he had contracted the virus in London then just living in the same house as him, meant we were bound to catch it. But I thought if he were carrying in on his clothes or in his hair, at least these precautions might prevent it being passed onto us.

To my surprise when I got home from work though, he still hadn’t returned. I wondered if perhaps he was finding it hard to return – there had even been talk of preventing anymore people from leaving London, although this seemed like locking the stable door after the horse had well and truly bolted. As the evening wore on, I became more concerned so text him asking if he was still coming back that day? He replied that he had decided to stay another day. Hmm, would I choose to stay any longer in a plague city that was locking down fast? No, I would have returned Saturday afternoon as soon as the announcement had been made. But then, I wouldn’t have risked going at all.

Tuesday was a busy day, preparing for Christmas, then came a further announcement from the prime minister – other areas of the UK were going into tier 4, Suffolk included – and twenty minutes later my boss rang. It was official, my store was closing so we would not be going back on Boxing Day. He was unsure how long we would be shut for, but the government would be assessing the situation mid-January.

I had mixed feelings about it. Yes, I was concerned about my company, and annoyed that I would be missing out on all the overtime I had been booked to work and all the extra commission I would potentially earn. But I must admit, I was also relieved. I had been very concerned to the point of being scared about going back. Although many people would be sensible and not mix and mingle on Christmas Day, I knew a lot of people wouldn’t be. And that it was those people who had exposed themselves to the virus that would be piling into the shops to take advantage of the sales, potentially transmitting the virus to the sales staff.

Wednesday was our Christmas Eve, so we had a pleasant day relaxing and carrying out last minute preparations for the 24th – which was when we were celebrating Christmas due to Miss F having to work on the 25th – I laid up our Christmas table ready, and prepped dinner as much as I could. The lodger offered to buy us a Chinese takeaway as a thank you for inviting him to share our Christmas, which was an unexpected and lovely treat, and we ate it in front of the fire, watching films.

The 24th dawned, and Miss F came and got into my bed early in the morning so we could open stockings together. Then we went downstairs, and she ploughed her way through the huge pile of presents awaiting her. I think I did well this year, because she loved everything, and all “non-list” items I bought her were thankfully all okay.

After breakfast, I got the meat in the oven and then we skyped with my parents so they could watch Miss F open her presents from them, and we could watch them open ours. Thank heavens for modern technology. Just think how much harder this year would have been without Zoom and Skype and all the other ways of communicating with people that exist now. How much harder it would have been for parents, teachers, and children without online schooling, and how frantic with boredom we all would have been without Netflix and Sky and all the other entertainment that is available to us at the touch of a button.

We had lunch at 1:30pm, a full Christmas dinner with all the trimmings – although we had lamb, not turkey. Then we played lots of games, which was fun, and spent the evening watching films. It was a relaxing, peaceful, and very quiet Christmas which, after the year we’ve all had, was probably what we needed.

Next day was the real Christmas Day, we had breakfast and then I had to take Miss F to work at 11:30am. I think she had mixed feelings about work. Yes, she wanted to earn the double pay and receive the good tips, but she was anxious about the worsening situation with the virus. It had been raining steadily and heavily for two days, and the roads I take to get her to work are through very low-lying ground. Turning a corner just outside the village where the restaurant is located, we encountered a very large flood right over the road. Water was gushing from the adjacent fields and it looked deep – very deep.

Slowing, I drove into it. Halfway through I felt my engine stuttering but kept my revs up and kept going. I think that is a good motto for life – when the going gets tough, keep your revs up and keep going! The road was on a slope and as I drove through on the left-hand side, I could see that the flooding on the other side of the road was much more severe. Driving back after dropping her off, I slowed at the flood, waited until an oncoming car had driven through it, then carefully drove through on the wrong side of the road. I only have a little car and the flooding on the other side was now so deep, I honestly thought I would get stuck halfway if I attempted to drive through it. Behind me another car, bigger than me, almost sneered at my cowardly decision and plunged arrogantly into the flood on the correct side of the road.

The water had got deeper in the few minutes it had been since dropping Miss F off, so I slowed and just kept going, keeping as close to the right-hand side of the road as I could. Halfway through, I heard the car behind me splutter and rev its engine – next moment it sheepishly crept across the road and fell into line behind me. Obviously, the driver had found the flood a bit too deep even for his higher vehicle and had then realised the thinking behind my actions.

Home – I was facing the prospect of over four hours alone on Christmas Day. I tidied away Miss F’s presents and stacked them into less wobbly piles. There was a lot of roast lamb left over from the day before, and I had deliberately cooked way too much veg and made too much gravy. I boiled up a big pan of finely diced potatoes whilst I chopped the lamb into bite sized pieces and mixed in a large bowl with all the leftover veg, gravy and mint sauce. I drained the potatoes well, seasoned them, and then mixed them in as well. I had got some puff pastry out of the freezer the night before and had enough to make seven giant Cornish pasties. A complete meal in themselves stuffed as they were with roast lamb and mint sauce, potatoes, peas, carrots, and green beans, along with gravy and a few finely chopped roast potatoes and stuffing. I left one out for the lodger to have for his dinner, then froze the others in pairs for future meals.

Then I settled down for a nice long video chat with an author pal of mine who was also on her own on Christmas Day. I had to collect Miss F at 5pm, so planned to leave just after 4:30pm as I was concerned about the state of the roads – particularly the flood. At just gone three though, I had to cut my chat short when Miss F phoned. They had finished serving food, most of the diners had gone, and her boss had told her to leave off at four instead of five.

I was quite relieved to be collecting her an hour earlier though, especially when I reached the flooded part of the road and realised how much deeper it was now. Gingerly I crept through. The water was halfway up my hubcaps and I knew if it got much deeper, I wouldn’t be able to get through. I reached the other side, drove to the restaurant, and waited for Miss F to come out. The drive home was a little hairy, just in the ten minutes it had taken me to collect her and drive back to the flooded part, it had got significantly deeper. It was also dark now, the rain was lashing down, and it was windy as well. Halfway through, my engine tried to stall, but again I kept my revs up and managed to keep going. It was lucky I wasn’t doing this an hour later, as I’m sure it would have overwhelmed my little car.

Our treat for dinner on Christmas Day was sirloin steak and all the trimmings, which was delicious, then we flaked out in front of the TV until we went to bed.

Boxing Day – I was supposed to be at work, but of course I wasn’t. We decided to have a relaxing, chill out day. The lodger joined us for a late lunch of whatever we had in the fridge – and we all flopped in front of the TV and watched films until his phone rang and he went downstairs to take the call. I assumed it was his family, and thought nothing of it, until a bit later that day – when he dropped his bombshell that he was moving out on the 3rd of January!

Talk about a blow coming out of the blue. He only moved in at the end of October, and we had been confident of him staying for at least a year, probably longer. His parents were concerned about the worsening situation in the UK and wanted him to return to France – which I understand. They were afraid if he didn’t go now while the borders were still open, he might not be able to go home at all – which I understand. They also thought if he was going to be doing his course online, then what was the point of them paying board and lodgings when he could do the same course for free at home – which I understand.

I do understand their reasons – and in the same position might have made the same decision – but it has really left me in a very precarious position. Having a lodger move out just after Christmas any year is not ideal. I don’t go mad with spending, and I especially hadn’t this year, but it is still a very expensive time and a drain on my income. This year my company is closed, I’m not working so am only receiving my furlough pay and a percentage of estimated commission. Because I am not working in January – our busiest time of year – I will miss out on receiving at least 60 hours overtime in my pay packet, not to mention all the extra commission I would make from all the sales.

Add to that how hard it was to find a lodger last time and we weren’t then in tier four, with infection and death rates rising rapidly and facing another probable lockdown. I have a feeling finding a new lodger is going to be hard, if not impossible, and there is also the question of whether I should even be looking for one in the current circumstances. Do I really want a bunch of germ-ridden strangers trooping through my house? Then there is the fact that my lodger has paid up until the 28th of January so technically is entitled to come back if the Corona test that he must take before they will let him return to France comes back positive. It’s not a nice thought, but logically if he has Corona then he will have picked it up in London so by now we would have well and truly been exposed to it and will almost certainly have it.

I have decided to delay a decision until later in the month. There is an assessment being made mid-January, and if numbers are dropping and it is deemed safe to put us into a lower tier, then my shop will open and maybe the sales can be salvaged somehow. But I don’t think that’s very likely. In the meantime, I will scrub his room and get it viewing ready. I will look on the spare room website and see how the land lies. Are people looking for rooms right now? Perhaps if I see someone whom I really like the look of, I could email them and arrange a virtual viewing of the house and room.

I seem to be starting 2021 the way I lived most of 2020 – in a state of anxious uncertainty. I know things will work themselves out, because they usually do, but it is worrying, nonetheless.

New Year’s Eve – another quiet evening in with the lodger watching films. He is annoyed at being forced to go home, and I think he is very aware of the difficult situation he has left us in. He keeps apologising, even though it’s not his fault. Because it was sprung on him so suddenly, he had only just done a large shop-up, so we have inherited a lot of pate which was a present from his parents, and a few other grocery items. He left at 7:30am on Saturday morning. I gave him a lift to the station because he had a ridiculous amount of luggage and I seriously doubted his ability to carry it all, said goodbye, asked him to keep me posted re the test, and then he was gone.

And now I am sitting here, writing this, while my freezer is defrosting. I hate this job, there is no easy way to do it and however you do it, it’s always wet socks time. I am so, so bad about doing it as well, in that I leave it, and leave it, until suddenly I’m struggling to get the door shut, and so much ice has built up at the back that it’s pushed that flat plastic tray thing in the top so far forward I have to take it out. I have a collection slot booked for Sunday afternoon for a month’s worth of shopping, including loads of frozen food, so it had to be defrosted today – no more excuses.

I blasted it with Miss F’s hairdryer, but I am always a bit worried when I do that, in case I electrocute myself, and as the big chunks of Antarctica started to fall away from the top, there was a clunk – and something long and plastic was lying on the shelf. I took it out and examined it. It was a long plastic casing of some description. Getting down on my knees and peering into the frozen depths, I saw that where it had obviously come away, a coil of what looked like copper wiring was now exposed. Now, I’m not a mechanic, but I’m pretty sure that wires and water don’t mix, and I wondered how long it had been hanging off, and if maybe that was the reason why the freezer had iced up so drastically and so quickly – it wasn’t that long ago since I’d last done it, during the big lockdown at the beginning of last year.

There was a small hole at the thinner end of the casing, with a plastic plug thing pushed through. Looking in the freezer again I could see the hole where the plug was supposed to go in to fix the casing over the wires. Only trouble was, the end of the plastic plug was shredded – it wouldn’t even go into that tiny hole, let alone hold the casing up. I needed to replace it with something. That meant I had to pull everything out of the cupboard, drag out the toolbox and see if I had anything similar. I didn’t, the closest thing I had was a tiny rawl plug designed to go into plasterboard so that meant it had tiny spurs which might be enough to hold it in place. Worth a try. I crawled back into the freezer, fixed the casing in place, and threaded the rawl plug through the hole – and promptly dropped it. Could I see it anywhere? Of course not, so back into the toolbox I went.

This time I found another rawl plug that was smooth, and then I found a short, tiny screw that fitted into it. Back into the freezer I went. The plug went perfectly into the hole and I hoped this was going to work, because there was no way I would ever get it back out again. The screw fitted perfectly through the hole in the casing – only problem was, I didn’t have a screwdriver small enough to fit it. Much stomping around the house in frustration, tearing my hair out and moaning – “why is nothing ever easy!” – before I remembered a set of tiny screwdrivers that I had won in a cracker several Christmases before and thrown into a drawer somewhere. I was sure I still had it, well, pretty sure…

Much searching ensued, with pulling out of drawers, accompanied by much heavy breathing and muttered curses, before suddenly I found it. There was a teeny tiny phillips screwdriver in the kit which fitted the screwhead perfectly. Back into the freezer I went, kneeling on the floor – feeling the icy water that had sloshed out onto the kitchen floor seep up the knees of my jeans – and trying to see what I was doing. The top shelf was so close to the casing that I couldn’t look directly at the screwhead so had to fumble and fiddle by touch for ages before it finally clicked into the grooves and I was able to screw the casing back up flush with the top of the freezer! Yay! I’d fixed it! I was ridiculously proud of myself and when Miss F wandered into the kitchen in search of food, I boasted to her of my achievement.

She rolled her eyes, shook her head, and left without saying a word.

All the ice had by now melted – all over the floor, of course – and almost every towel we possessed was being used for mop-up duty, I cleaned and dried the inside and all the boxes that sit on the shelves, switched it back on, and packed all the food back into it. The kitchen was a mess, water everywhere, escaped peas all over the floor, and I had sopping wet socks and jeans, but it’s done. Now I can fill it with enough food to see us through the apocalypse.

Sunday is earmarked to take down all our Christmas decorations. I wasn’t feeling it when I put them up, and I’m definitely so over the festive season now. I want to pack it all away, clean the house, and move onto the New Year … whatever it may bring.

I hope wherever you are you managed to enjoy your Christmas, and that the New Year is a healthy and peaceful one for you and yours. Remember – when the going gets tough, keep your revs up and keep going.

Stay safe.

Julia Blake

Christmas and Corona

Well, there is no getting away from it. Both the big C’s are looming over our heads. By that I mean, of course, Christmas and Corona. It is the last weekend before Christmas and I am avoiding town and the shops like the plague, because … well, because of the plague.

The government have told us that between the 23rd and 27th of December we can basically do as we please – anyone else feel the way you did when you were a child? When your mother would throw her hands up in despair after telling you a trillion times that it’s too dangerous to even think about doing the something stupid you were hellbent on doing. “Go right ahead,” mine would eventually say. “Go right ahead and do it and see what happens. Then you’ll be sorry and wish you’d listened to me.”

My festive mantlepiece

I am getting that exact same feeling now, like the government have basically washed their hands of us. “Go right ahead,” they’re saying. “We’ve told you and told you to stay home, wear your masks, keep your distance, and wash your f*****g hands! But you’re all hellbent on having a “normal” Christmas so you just go right ahead and do it. See what happens. Then you’ll be sorry.”

And you must have the IQ of a gnat not to realise exactly what is going to happen. The R rate is already rising sharply. Deaths are on the increase, and that’s even before the madness of Christmas, when too many mince pies and mulled wine will befuddle people’s brains and they will mix, mingle, travel, touch, hug and kiss with no thought for the future. The expression – Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die – has never rung so true.

I anticipate another national lockdown in January or by February at the latest. It is known that the virus spreads best within the home environment – it’s a bit like me, it likes things warm and cosy. And because sadly, Christmas is slap bang in the middle of winter, no one is going to follow the government’s advice to meet outdoors and open lots of windows. Are you joking? It’s freezing cold, blowing a gale, and pouring with rain – everyone will be crammed into overheated houses, all snug in their Christmas jumpers, quaffing eggnog and kissing grandparents they haven’t seen since March.

I truly believe the government have washed their hands of us. Because they weren’t strict enough “parents” to exercise some tough love back in March and brutally enforce the lockdown. Because stern punishments were not given to those flouting the lockdown laws. Because people were allowed out whenever they wanted with no adequate policing of the streets, the first lockdown was ineffective at halting the virus in its tracks.

And I’ve heard the argument that the police simply couldn’t cope with the extra work, and I understand that, but what about the army? What about the military police from other forces? We’re not at war with anyone right now, so what the heck were they doing all through lockdown? And what about the Territorial Army? All those people who work normal jobs during the day, then at weekends dress up like soldiers and rush about the countryside pretending to be Rambo? I thought the whole point of the TA was that they were there to be called upon in times of national emergency. Yet, they were all cowering in lockdown with the rest of us.

I’m sorry, but if a global pandemic that’s ravaging the globe and killing millions doesn’t count as a national emergency, then I shudder to think what the government are keeping the TA in readiness for. Zombie apocalypse perhaps?

I’m just a simple, normal person sitting at home, and perhaps I am being a bit of a “Karen” about this, but I can see so many ways this could have been handled better. It could have been handled the way New Zealand and Melbourne in Australia handled it. Close all borders to everyone. Brutally strict lockdown laws that were strenuously enforced. Close monitoring of numbers. And no release of lockdown until there was a long-term infection rate of 0 per day. Britain – look and learn, that’s how you do it. That is true “parenting”. Sometimes you have to enforce rules that the kids don’t like, rules that make them hate you. But, at the end of the day, it’s not a parent’s job to make their kids like them, it’s their job to keep them safe – no matter what.

Anyway, rant over, and what was the point of it anyway – all the sensible people out there will already be planning safe, socially distanced, virtual Christmases, and you don’t need me to tell you it’s the right thing to do. As for the rest of you – well, you go right ahead and drive miles into infected areas just so you can hug granny and eat a dinner with her, but please, don’t then whinge and moan when infection rates soar, your arse is back in lockdown, and granny is on an incubator, because as my mother used to say when I’d gone ahead and done the stupid thing anyway and was crying over the consequences – “you were told what would happen, but you did it anyway, and now see what’s happened!”

Are you ready for Christmas? Not that it’s a particularly big one for us this year, just me and Miss F, and she’s working Christmas Day and I’m back to work on Boxing Day. But we have a Christmas fridge and freezer right now, a few decorations up, and big piles of mysterious looking presents for each other heaped in our respective bedrooms. I think I’ve overspent on her, and I know she’s overspent on me – see last week’s blog! – but I’m not spending money on anyone else really, and it has been a tough year for her. She’s coped really well, and I’m proud of how hard she has worked, so I feel totally justified in spoiling her.

We will do all our presents on Christmas Eve in the morning, hopefully via Skype or Zoom with my parents – so long as my mother hasn’t managed to somehow uninstall them – and then we have an enormous Christmas lunch planned which our lodger will be joining us for. Poor lad is staying here this Christmas as he’s afraid if he goes back to France he may not be allowed back into the country. It’s also a long way to go just for a couple of days. So, he will be sitting down at our Christmas table with us, and then we have a day of games and films planned. So, it should be a nice relaxing and fun day. One of Miss F’s favourite desserts is treacle tart, but she can’t have it now because of the butter in the pastry, so I’m going to have a go at making a lactose free version for her to have with the fantastic vegan Ben & Jerry’s ice cream we have.

Miss F is working on Christmas Day between midday and 5pm. I’ve been asked what I will do during that time. Well, there will be lots of lamb leftovers from the day before, so I will make a whole batch of Cornish pasties to go in the freezer ready for when I’m working long hours of overtime during January. I have books I would like to read – and you never know, I may even write my Christmas blog! In the evening on Christmas Day, I have two beautiful steaks in the fridge which we will have with all the trimmings as our special treat.

Then, of course, I’m back to work on Boxing Day. My company seem to think we’re going to be mega busy, but I’m not so sure. People only have five days truce over Christmas when they can travel to see family and friends and mix and mingle at will. Are they really going to waste those days going shopping? Also, most of the other shops on our retail park will be shut on Boxing Day this year, so many people won’t bother coming out until all of the shops are open. But we’ll see. Reading between the lines, I think my company believes we’re all going to be back in lockdown soon, so maybe that is why they are so desperate to stay open for as long as possible.

The restaurant where Miss F works part-time is closing again on the 28th and all the staff will be going back onto furlough. It simply isn’t viable for them to stay open with the reduced number of customers they are allowed to have. There has been no announcement as to how long it will remain shut, but probably quite a long time to allow the virus to either abate, or for the vaccine to be administered.

The college have not contacted me about Miss F returning to classes and, as it is now closed for Christmas, I suppose I won’t hear from them until next year. If possible, I would like her to continue to study at home. She is a hardworking and very self-disciplined person, and she is so much happier in an environment where she feels safe. But no one seems too sure exactly what is happening with schools and other places of education next year. The government tried keeping them all open, and infection and death rates shot up off the charts. All Welsh schools are now going to be online for the duration of the virus, so will the UK follow suit? Again, no one seems to know.

This week I finally bowed to pressure and put some decorations up. Nowhere near as many as usual – instead of it taking me two days to decorate, it only took a couple of hours – but our mantlepieces are looking very festive. We didn’t bother with a tree this year, instead I dug out a tiny tabletop tree that we’ve had for years and usually stands in Miss F’s room. I had a tiny string of battery-operated red holly berry lights and wound a thin piece of tinsel around it and put on a few of our smallest baubles, and that was it.

Usually, our tree is an eight-foot blue spruce or a Norwegian fir, costing £60, which takes a whole day to select, lug home, get up and decorate, and involves dismantling my writing desk and storing it in my bedroom over Christmas. This tiny tree took barely fifteen minutes to sort and is standing on the corner of my desk making it look very festive. Who knows? I may never go back to the bother of a giant real tree again.

It does feel strange, to be this close to Christmas and be this stress free. I have three more gifts to drop off on people’s doorsteps before Christmas, and one small trip to Waitrose to get some fresh veg, the stuffing, and any other last-minute bits and bobs we can think of. Our lodger received a surprising Christmas present from his parents this week of a hamper filled with about a dozen lengths of continental sausage and pot after pot of pate. He has begged us to have whatever we want from it – so for tea on Christmas Eve I will get some crusty French bread, olives, a dip of some kind that Miss F can eat, and we will have a nibbles board. After such a big lunch it will be all I think we will want!

I’m looking forward to it. I only have four days off – well, I say they are days off, but the truth is I normally work three days a week and next week I am working Monday, Saturday, and Sunday, so I am still working three days. Technically, I have no time off at all other than my normal, non-shift days, but those four days off are very much looked forward to.

Four days of just relaxing, eating, drinking, present opening, game playing and film watching. I do have to run Miss F to and from work on Christmas Day, but hopefully, the roads will be empty so it’s a 40-minute round trip each way.

I really can’t wait for her to open her presents. I can’t say too much because she sometimes reads my blog, but I am quietly confident I have got it right this year. There are some beautiful, thoughtful things, some useful things, and a whole bunch of downright silly things – which hopefully she will see the funny side of.

New buttons on an old coats and a green silk lining
sleeve buttons

Right, it’s getting late on Saturday afternoon and I still need to post this and schedule it ready for the morning, plus I have a heap of other things to do before returning to work tomorrow. By the next time I chat with you Christmas will be over for another year, so please have a happy, peaceful, and most of all, safe, festive season.

Best Wishes and Love

Julia Blake

Is it Christmas Yet?

I am thinking this might be a shorter blog this week. I returned to work on Wednesday, after four weeks of lockdown, then a week’s pre-booked holiday which my company honoured after all. For some reason I am finding it harder to adjust myself back into a work routine than I did after the first lockdown. I don’t know why, but I fell into the habit of sleeping in a little later than usual so instead of my normal six hours sleep a night, I was getting eight or even nine hours. This was lovely during lockdown when there was no urgent rush to be up and out of bed at silly o’clock, but now I’m having to fit work into my busy routine as well, it’s not so great. For the first time in forever, I’m having to set my alarm clock to make sure I’m up in time.

I was unsure how busy we would be at work. When we re-opened in mid-June after the first national lockdown, we hit the ground running and from then until the start of the second lockdown at the end of October, it was like a permanent January sale we were so busy. I didn’t believe it would be like that this time round. After all, people had more money back then. No one had been on holiday, or out for meals, or days out, so savings accounts were very healthy. Everyone had taken advantage of three months at home and had decorated. By the time shops re-opened, people had money to burn and a desire to buy new stuff to put in their newly decorated homes. There was also the sense that we’d cracked the virus – I’m not sure anyone really believed we’d be going back into lockdown later in the year.

This time it’s different. It was only a month-long lockdown, so less people decorated. Any money that had been saved for a holiday has already been spent. And, of course, Christmas is just around the corner, so any spare cash is being spent on that.

There’s also the feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. We’re less naïve this time around. Sure, we’re out of lockdown now, but for how long? How long will it be before the numbers start to rise and we’re all confined to barracks again?

As far as I can see, the country seems split down the middle. With half believing there is no way we are out of the woods yet, that until this vaccine has been distributed and is seen to be effective, this virus will keep on doing what it is doing. This group snort with incredulous laughter when the government blithely announce a five-day break from Corona over the Christmas, because obviously the virus won’t be so unsporting as to infect people over the festive season. It’s Christmas, for heaven’s sake, surely the virus will understand and respect that?

The other half of the country are jumping up and down with excitement and making all sorts of wonderful plans to see parents, and their nan, and their friends, and Uncle Tom Cobbly and all! Because the government has said it is fine for them to mix and mingle and travel as much as they like over that five-day period. Because they can’t possibly get infected at Christmas. And when they’re bending over Nan handing her that lovely mince pie that they rubbed shoulders with other shoppers in the supermarket to get last week, they can’t possibly infect her with a virus she might not be strong enough to survive – because the government has said it’s safe, so therefore it is.

Frankly, if this government told me it was raining, I would open my back door to check, and the blind naivety of some people has left me open-mouthed. Yes, it is a bummer not to be able to see family and friends this Christmas. I’m as annoyed as the next person by doorstep swaps of cards and presents, and planning to Skype present opening and not being able to share a big festive meal with my family. But it is only that – presents, cards, a meal – is that worth risking your own or someone else’s life for?

You can probably gather which half of the country I am in. I will be spending Christmas alone with my daughter, and we will Skype my parents so they can watch her open her presents.

This year I am actually spending most of Christmas Day totally alone. Miss F was asked by the restaurant she has a part-time job at if she could work midday to 5pm on Christmas Day. They will be paying her double wages and she’ll get a share of guaranteed 20% tips. I said I didn’t mind. I understand she needs to get the money when she can. She’s saving for driving lessons, a car, and university. None of these are cheap things, so this chance to earn some serious cash is one she can’t refuse.

I’m not sure yet what days I will be working over Christmas. On my rota it says I have four days off – the 22nd to the 25th, then am back to work Boxing Day. However, Marks & Spencer have announced that they will not be opening Boxing Day. Due to it being a long and hard year for their employees, they are giving them an extra day off at Christmas to be with their families.

Quick to jump onto the caring bandwagon, Waitrose and other large stores swiftly made the same announcement. This is lovely, and well done, Marks & Spencer, for acknowledging that your staff should come first and that nobody needs to be bloody shopping on Boxing Day! Now, we are waiting to see which other shops follow suit. Will my company shut for the first time in years on Boxing Day? I would like to think so. The tiny corner of my heart that believes in the spirit of Christmas is saying yes, they will. But the rest of my cynical, realistic heart is saying no, of course they won’t. In fact, because everywhere else will be shut, I’m thinking they’ll be rubbing their hands together with glee at the thought of all those people desperate to shop and spend money with nowhere else to go but into our stores. I know, I’m being a bit of a Grinch here, but I will be very surprised if they close.

Back to right now though, and have we been busy? Well yes, surprisingly we have been busier than I thought we would be. We do still have a few things we can deliver before Christmas, and we’ve had people coming in to buy new beds for the spare room to accommodate family and friends who are taking advantage of that five day “virus free” break.

There is going to be an announcement on Wednesday as to whether Suffolk will be moving down into tier one or going up to tier three. If we move up then restrictions will tighten even further, so I have been making a real effort to get all essential shopping done, cards written, presents wrapped, and whatever needs to be posted or delivered done. Obviously, it’s all doorstep deliveries only – no popping for a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie – which is a shame, but it’s better than risking infection. If we move into tier three, then the restaurant where Miss F works will close again, and she’ll be back on furlough. Apparently, my store will still stay open though.

There’s no doubt it is a very strange Christmas this year. Normally by the second week of December my stress levels are off the chart. I am a frenzied list maker, and over the festive season there tend to be lists scattered about the house. Lists of presents still to buy, people to contact, and food and drink to buy. I would be charging home from work to frantically spend each evening wrapping the mountains of presents I’ve bought. My calendar would be full of people to go and see, people dropping in to see us, and other festive happenings.

But this year I am weirdly stress free. So many friends and family requested not to worry about gifts this year – which was fine by me – that the only people I had to buy for were my niece, my daughter’s godmother, and of course, Miss F. I’m not doing any entertaining at all, so no massive shopping lists to carefully construct. It’s just going to be the two of us for Christmas dinner, so it’s basically a Sunday roast with a few extra nice bits. Christmas the easy way. There’s a lot to be said for it.

Talking of presents, I did manage to spoil Christmas a little for Miss F – accidentally, I hasten to add. Monday morning my tablet suddenly died on me. The screen froze and it wouldn’t let me do anything, then it went completely black and no matter what I did, I couldn’t switch it back on. Panicking I went upstairs to wake up the IT Department, who grumpily came down to take a look. She poked and prodded at it, then announced that in her expert opinion it was fecked. Now I really did panic. I rely completely on my tablet for all my social media platforms and for networking and promoting my books. I loudly announced that I’d have to go up town that morning and buy a new one, and Miss F abruptly left the room – I assumed to go to the bathroom.

Staring at the tablet, I suddenly remembered that it had done this once before, and I’d found if I kept my finger on the power button for a really long time it would jiggle loose something inside and switch back on. I tried it. To my joy, it worked.

“It’s okay,” I cried, as I heard Miss F re-enter the room, “I’ve got it working again.” I looked up, to find her standing there holding out a large box to me and an annoyed look on her face. “What’s the matter? What’s that?”

Now, if she’d thought a bit quicker on her feet and given me any excuse, she might have got away with it, but she didn’t. She spluttered, looked speechless, then said – “It’s your Christmas present, you might as well have it now.” And she thrust the box into my lap.

Shocked, I looked at it, then looked at her.

“Go on, open it,” she said.

I opened it. Inside was a rather gorgeous Amazon Fire Tablet in a fantastic case plus an extra fast charging wire. She had been saving for months to buy it for me because she knew my old tablet could die at any minute. When I ranted that I had to go and buy a new one, she panicked and ran straight upstairs to grab it – figuring she’d rather give me my present early, than risk me buying another tablet for myself.

Now, I’m the kind of person who needs to be prepared to receive a present. Christmas Day, I know there are going to be gifts of some kind to open, I am ready for this, and can arrange my features accordingly. But out of the blue, on a normal Monday morning, I was far from being prepared and instead was too shocked to give the appropriate reaction, so I think Miss F felt cheated in the gift giving department. After all, the best part about Christmas is the giving of presents and watching people’s reaction when they open them. I was of course very grateful for the present, and stunned by her thoughtfulness, and mindful of how expensive a gift it was and how much of her wages it represented – I just didn’t show it very well.

So now I feel guilty. I feel that I have somehow ruined Christmas for her because she was so looking forward to giving me this amazingly thoughtful present and seeing my face when I opened it, and by being too surprised to react appropriately, I spoiled that moment for her. I felt so guilty and shocked at how much she had spent on me, that I took her up town next day and bought her a pair of gorgeous black, lace-up, ankle boots, new black jeans for work, and two pairs of trousers, to try and make it up to her.

Talking of clothes – a few of you have enquired about the coat, and I’m pleased to say that the buttons arrived and have been successfully sewn on. I would have taken a picture of them, but she wore the coat to work today so I can’t. I will endeavour to get a picture for next week.

I can’t believe that Christmas is less than two weeks away. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas. But then, for all of my adult life Christmas has felt like a stressful, overhyped, commercialised, colossal waste of time, energy, and money – so maybe this “relaxed, taking it one day at a time and not worrying” feeling is actually what Christmas is supposed to feel like and I just never knew.

Anyway, I must go, it’s gone 3pm on Saturday afternoon. I have the rest of Miss F’s presents to wrap and hide before I leave to pick her up at 4:30pm. If we go into tier three and her restaurant shuts, this will be the last time I am alone in the house until it reopens again, so wrapping her presents will be more awkward.

Have a good week everyone, I hope wherever you are and whatever restrictions you’re living under, that you can still find ways to connect with your family and friends.

Best wishes

Julia Blake

Cats, Coats, and Christmas!

It has been a busy week, and I still haven’t returned to work. I was supposed to go back on Thursday, but rather unexpectedly, my company decided to honour my pre-booked holiday rather than claw it back to offset the extra furlough pay I received. I had resigned myself to losing it, so this was a much-appreciated surprise, and the bonus time at home has been wonderful.

Of course, the week kicked off on Monday with the launch of my eleventh book, the fantasy steampunk retelling of Snow White – Black Ice. For once, Amazon behaved themselves beautifully. Both the eBook and paperback version were listed in plenty of time, and they were linked correctly. I had figured out how to use universal links, so with just one click people were taken to their local Amazon listing of the book where they could purchase it.

The support I received was staggering, all day my promotional posts were shared and boosted. People were posting pictures of the book they’d just downloaded, and ever more inventive stories were posted on Instagram with friends finding wonderful steampunk and Snow White related images and music.

My videos were received very well, and it was generally a fantastic day. The book was listed in the fairytale category, which is a reasonably large one with over 250,000 books listed on the UK site alone. Black Ice peaked on launch day at number 141 in the category and reached number 19 in hot new releases. For an unknown indie author with a zero advertising budget this is remarkable. By the end of the week, when I checked my sales figures, I was quietly happy with how I had done. Particularly gratifying is that I sold almost as many paperback versions as eBooks. Again, this is almost unheard of for an indie author, and I think it shows that readers appreciated the effort that had gone into the book. They wanted the paperback because they knew it would be beautiful and something to put on their shelf and treasure.

My author copies all turned up on Saturday, and I spent a very pleasant afternoon signing and parcelling up all those copies that are going to my team, and those that have been bought by readers keen to have a copy signed by the author – no matter what the postage costs.

The UK came out of lockdown on Tuesday, and Thursday morning I had to go into town to complete some chores. I had to go to the Post Office to get all my foreign Christmas cards safely sent in plenty of time. I’d managed to book a check up at the opticians, and I wanted to drop off Miss F’s new coat – well, new to her, it’s one she inherited from me – at the dry cleaners.

When I was walking around, I noticed something strange. The couple of times I ventured out during lockdown, the town had always seemed busy and, apart from inside the shops, no one was wearing a mask. However, on Thursday everyone seemed to be wearing masks, even though lockdown was now over. It’s a bit strange, that during the lockdown no one seemed to care, yet the moment it’s lifted everyone is suddenly very mask conscious. Maybe people think by finally being sensible and obeying the rules it will mean they will be able to mingle at Christmas.

We are having an extremely quiet Christmas this year. The new rules mean we can’t have anyone in our house at all. We can’t meet other households in a restaurant, so can’t even go out to dinner with family and friends to swap cards and presents. You can meet outside, but quite frankly the weather doesn’t really allow that. So, we’re down to leaving things on people’s doorsteps, which sort of detracts from the joy of present giving.

So far, there is not a single decoration up in the Blake household. There seems little point even bothering. If no one is allowed in our house, Miss F is now working Christmas Day, and I’m working Boxing Day, it all seems a bit pointless.

I know the government are saying there will be a five-day relaxation of the rules over Christmas where you can meet and mingle at will, but that seems a silly and dangerous thing to do. There seems to be this unspoken assumption that the virus couldn’t possibly be so unsporting as to infect someone over Christmas. Sadly, I don’t think the virus got the memo, or if it did, it really won’t care. It will be interesting to see how the infection and death rates are in January. My suspicion is that they will rise sharply, and then we will all be back in lockdown again. Maybe it’s me being unfeeling, but I simply cannot see the point of risking infecting your friends and family – or indeed, getting infected yourself – for the sake of a dinner!

Miss F and I will celebrate our Christmas simply and quietly on Christmas Eve. We will exchange gifts and Skype with my parents so they can watch Miss F open her presents. We will have a nice dinner and watch movies and play games.

On Christmas Day itself, I have to drive Miss F to work for midday, and then pick her up again at 5pm. She asked me if it was okay if she worked at Christmas, and to be honest, so long as we get one day together, I wasn’t too fussed which day it was. Working on actual Christmas Day means she’ll get double her hourly wage rate, plus the tips will be incredible. Also, I am back to work on Boxing Day, so it made more sense to make Christmas Eve my day for drinking and eating to excess, because then I’ll have a clear day to get over it before returning to the madness of work and the Boxing Day sale.

I am almost finished all my Christmas shopping. Only one or two more presents to get and then I’m done. Most of my cards are written and either posted or delivered. Our Christmas dinner is in the freezer already. There is no point having a whole turkey between just the two of us, and anyway, neither of us particularly like it. So instead we have a leg of lamb which we will have with all the trimmings. I have bought for myself the world’s smallest Christmas pudding, and a teeny tiny Christmas cake – Miss F doesn’t like either of these. For her, we have spent a stupid amount of money on two tubs of Ben & Jerry’s dairy free ice cream.

I can’t believe how unstressed I am about Christmas this year. Normally by this time I am worrying myself silly about presents – what shall I buy? How much should I spend? Can I afford it? When are we going to see these people to swap presents with them? I’d be wondering when I was going to find the time to decorate. When could we go and get the tree? Where would we stand it this year? Normally, I dismantle my writing desk and store it in my bedroom over the festive period, so I have nowhere to put my laptop and nowhere to work.

And then there’s the expense. Not doing it this year has really highlighted just how expensive Christmas can be. All those presents to be bought! Well, this year I’m buying for hardly anyone. All that food and drink. We’re not seeing anyone this year, so I’m not hosting any Christmas get togethers or putting together a four-course meal for a dozen people – which I have frequently done over Christmas. And then there’s all those little things that individually don’t seem much, but which add up to quite a lot. The festive napkins and table decorations, the wrapping paper and bows and ribbons, the little gifts to put on the Christmas dinner table, the candles… it all goes on and on.

Who knows, maybe this year will see a move away from the sheer consumerism of Christmas. Maybe people will realise that you don’t need all of that extra stuff to enjoy what is supposed to be a simple day of giving with your loved ones. Maybe. Or maybe next year people will spend to excess to make up for not doing it this Christmas.

My poor cat has not had a particularly good week, bless her. Tuesday, she sat on my lap and something jumped on her. Yep, she’d picked up fleas from somewhere. Then the stupid creature decided to pay a visit to the log basket, where she got absolutely filthy. There was nothing for it – we were going to have to give her a bath. Now, we’ve tried bathing her before. It did not end well. She fought like a thing possessed, scratched my arms to pieces, and fled the bathroom. So, we had to come up with a cunning plan.

We have a couple of those collapsible crates which I use as laundry baskets because when not in use they can be folded and put away. We took the unsuspecting cat into the bathroom, put her in the bottom of the bath, and then placed a crate upside down over her. Miss F held it down whilst I adjusted the shower hose attachment on the tap to the correct temperature. Then I sprayed the cat through the holes in the crate until she was soaked. She did not like it one little bit and let us know – loudly and violently. Then I lathered up my hands with cat flea shampoo, pushed down one of the end flaps of the crate, and went at her.

I felt a bit like a vet with my arms up the bum of a cow trying to birth a calf. I couldn’t tell which end of her was which, so just had to grab and soap randomly. She squirmed and tried to push past me to get out. But I was determined. I’d taken off my socks and rolled up my jeans and was squatting in the bath with my arms in the crate up to my elbows. I kept going. Rubbing and scrubbing at her! I found her tail and soaped that up and down. Then I found her neck so did all around that – it’s a favoured spot for fleas to lurk.

She cursed at me. She thrashed around like a tormented soul. I suppose I’m lucky she didn’t bite me. But I kept on going until I was sure every inch of her had been thoroughly lathered. Then I retreated and quickly put the flap back up. With Miss F leaning determinedly on the top of the crate to stop it’s pissed off occupant from fighting her way free, I turned the shower hose back on her through the holes and kept spraying until the water ran clear from the crate.

We turned off the water. Gave her a moment to calm down. Then quickly lifted the crate, scruffed her, and rolled her in a big towel with her head sticking out the end – like a burrito. We took her into the front room where a warm fire was already blazing and sat before it, cuddling her in the towel, and trying to soothe her.

She shook with rage – or fear, it was hard to tell which – in the towel. Eyes slitted, she stared at us in betrayed anger. I kept speaking to her. For some weird reason, even though it was mostly me who had performed this indignity on her, she seemed to calm at my voice and get more agitated at Miss F’s. Eventually, we began to rub her dry, then we unfolded the towel and sat her in front of the fire with a big pile of Dreamies cat treats to show her how sorry we were for water boarding her.

She ate the treats and began to groom herself. It was a cold and wet night, so we weren’t going to let her out for several hours, so she had her dinner in front of the fire – which she seemed to enjoy. Once she finished licking herself, I put the flea treatment on the back of her neck, and I’m hoping it’s done the trick. Fleas are notoriously difficult to get rid of, so the next day I took all the sofa and cushion covers off and washed them. I vacuumed the sofa and chairs and gave the carpet a good vacuum as well. Finally, I sprayed the whole ground floor with flea killer.

The poor cat had barely got over her awful experience, before I was bundling her in her pet basket and taking her to the vet for her yearly jabs. Honestly, you’d have thought I was taking her to her execution the way she carried on in the car. Lurching about her basket and uttering death threats the whole way there. But it had to be done.

As well as sorting the cat, and having my optician’s appointment, I finally managed to book dental appointments for Miss F and myself. We usually go every six months for a check-up, but our appointment in April was cancelled because of Covid. It had been over a year since our last check-up and I was worried if we didn’t get in soon, then we might all be back in lockdown in January. Luckily, we got a cancellation for next Tuesday afternoon.

On Friday, I had my usual fortnightly zoom chat with my local authors group, which is always wonderful. Being able to talk to like minded people is so wonderful, and not seeing their eyes glaze over when you talk about your books is a relief. The session was almost at an end, when Miss F burst into the room all wild-eyed and panicked.

HER: Did you take my new coat to the dry cleaners?

ME:  Yes, I told you I was going to.

HER: I know, but I didn’t think you already had!

ME:  I took it yesterday, why, what’s the matter?

HER: You didn’t think to check the pockets! My house keys and work mask were in there!

Oops. No, I hadn’t thought to check the pockets. I only gave her the coat last Saturday so didn’t think she’d actually worn it enough to start carrying possessions in the pockets. I’d forgotten she’d popped to the local shop in it earlier in the week, and obviously had needed her mask and had taken her keys to let herself back in.

Quickly, I said goodbye to the others and rushed across to the dry cleaners. Luckily, they had the keys in a bag under the counter, but there was no sign of the mask. They claimed it wasn’t in the pocket, even though it was as it was wrapped around the keys. I’m wondering if whoever pulled it out of the pocket simply threw it in the bin. It’s a shame, because it was a really nice cloth one that matched her work uniform and fitted her face properly. I’ve ordered her another one – as it is kind of my fault – but it won’t be here until next Tuesday. So when she went to work last night she had to wear a spare mask we have. It’s a russet tweed coloured one and suits her, but it’s enormous and almost covers her eyes. So, she’s not happy with me.

Finally, we awoke to a quite respectable fall of snow Friday morning, which is very surprising for the UK in December. I can’t remember the last time it snowed before Christmas – and as for a white Christmas, well, we’ve not had one of them since I was a child. It looked very pretty for an hour or so, then the temperature rose, it stopped snowing and it all turned into muddy slush puddles. Luckily, it didn’t freeze so I wasn’t slipping about on icy country roads when I went to collect Miss F from work that evening.

I can’t believe this year is almost over, or that I’ve had over four months paid holiday from work. I tried to make good use of that extra time, and I don’t think I would be in the same position I am now if I’d been working as normal. Writing and publishing a book takes an enormous amount of time and energy, and this year I’ve published two original books, and re-edited and re-released four existing ones. I honestly believe I’d still be working on them if lockdown hadn’t happened. So, silver linings are there – you just have to look for them.

Speaking of books, I have updated the books page on this blog so if you wish to purchase any of my books there are now fully working universal links which will take you to the books listing on your local Amazon. All my books are available in eBook and paperback format, and they are now all free to read in Kindle Unlimited.

As we go into the final month of 2020, please try to stay safe and look after not only yourself and your family, but everyone else around you. Please maintain social distancing and continue to wear masks. The vaccine is apparently close, but it’s not here yet, so we all need to be sensible.

See you next week.

Julia Blake

The Story of a Coat

Once upon a time, I bought a coat. Now, clearly, I have purchased lots of coats in my time, but this was a very special coat. I can remember the year, it was 1996, and I can remember that it was from a shop in Norwich – although I can’t remember now which one. I do know that I had gone for a day out with an old friend. We travelled there on the bus – obviously, so we could have wine with lunch – and we rambled around the shops. I needed a winter coat, my old one had fallen apart, and I was looking for something to replace it.

We spent a very pleasant morning window shopping and picking up a few bits and pieces for Christmas, so I’m guessing it must have been this time of year. Our stomachs were beginning to tell us that we needed to feed them, and we were wandering towards our favourite restaurant on St. Benedict’s Street – when I saw the coat.

It was hanging in the window of a small boutique shop. It was long, charcoal grey, with three buttons down the front. It had a dark grey silk lining, and a fur collar. I hesitated outside the shop and my friend looked too, her eyes lighting up when she saw the coat.

HER: Ooh! It’s perfect!

ME:  I’m not sure.

HER: Why not? It’s everything you said you were looking for.

ME:  I’m not sure about the collar? I mean… fake fur?

HER: I bet it’s detachable. Let’s go in and take a look.

ME:  No, we’re on our way to lunch.

HER: It’ll only take a minute.

ME:  You said you were starving?

HER: I can wait. Let’s go in.

ME:  There’s no price. I probably can’t afford it.

HER: Let’s go in and see.

ME:  Umm.

By now I’d run out of excuses, so I followed her in. She was right, the collar was detachable, and there were lovely, classic shaped lapels underneath. There were three tiny buttons on each of the cuffs, and a long split up the back. It was beautifully shaped and cut, and it was gorgeous. BUT. It was £150. Back in 1996 this was a sizeable chunk of dosh to part with for a coat, no matter how lovely. A muttered conversation then ensued, as we were alone in the silent shop and being watched by a snooty looking assistant sitting at the till.

HER: Try it on.

ME:  It’s £150! I can’t afford that!

HER: Try it on. It might look horrible and then the price will be a moot point.

ME:  But…

HER: Try it on!! (hissed so loudly, the assistant raised her eyebrows at us)

ME:  Okay, okay…

I tried it on. It fitted to perfection. It was gorgeous. I loved it. My friend went all gooey – the way women do when another woman tries on something that is so, so, perfect on her it leaves them speechless.

HER: You HAVE to buy that coat.

ME:  I can’t afford it.

HER: Sure, you can afford it. You just can’t afford it. (This makes sense only if you’re a woman)

ME:  No, I mean, I really can’t afford it. I don’t have enough money in my account to pay for it.

HER: When do you get paid?

ME:  Next Tuesday (three days away)

HER: No problem, I’ll lend you the money until then.

ME:  I can’t do that.

HER: Yes, you can.

ME:  No, I can’t.

HER: Sure, you can, and you’re going to. This coat was meant for you. It was waiting for you.

She then turned to the assistant.

HER: We’ll take the coat, and my friend will wear it now. Please can we have a bag to put her old jacket in.

I left the shop wearing the coat and feeling like a million dollars. Suddenly, the cold wintry day I’d been shivering in meant nothing to me. I drew my shoulders back and walked tall, the coat swirling about my ankles – yes, it was that long – and we went to lunch. Our coats were hung on a coat rack inside the restaurant, and all through lunch my eyes kept wandering back to it. Afterwards, when we went to pay and put our coats back on, the jolly waitress who had served us, eyed up the coat with avaricious eyes.

“That is a gorgeous coat,” she said, and my friend beamed with satisfaction and gave me a – I am always right, please don’t doubt me again – look.

That coat lasted and lasted. I wore it, year in, year out, until about 2007. Due to a lovely pair of boots I owned which had sharp buckles on them, I had completely shredded the delicate lining. Sadly, I wondered if I should think about replacing the coat. After all, it had done eleven years, not bad for a coat. But … but … I loved that coat and the actual coat itself still looked as good as the day I bought it. It was just the lining that was ruined.

I took it into our local dry cleaners. They looked at it, oohed about the quality, and agreed it was worth trying to save it, if I could. They gave me the name and telephone number of a local seamstress called Helen. Apparently, Helen was “right handy” at repairs and alterations. I telephoned Helen and took the coat around for her inspection the next day.

Helen looked at it.  It’s a beautiful coat, she said, pure wool, and it’s cut and finished to a very high standard. To buy a coat like that nowadays would be upwards of £250 possibly even more. She measured it, to replace the lining would be £90 as it was such a labour-intensive job. I would have to buy what lining I wanted – she would tell me the type of fabric and how much we needed – and if I wanted to update it with some new buttons, she would happily sew them all on free of charge, again if I supplied them.

I went to our local haberdashery and gave them Helen’s note. They very helpfully took me to where the choices of suitable lining materials were piled up in big bolts, like rolls of carpet, and left me to have a browse – telling me to give Maureen a call when I’d chosen and she’d cut off the amount I needed.

It was such a hard decision. All concerned had agreed that this coat had years of life left in it, so the lining had to be in a colour that I’d be happy with in ten, twenty, or even thirty years, time. Should I go for a grey again? Hmm, no, I fancied a changed. Mustard? I liked it – but wasn’t sure. Hot pink? Gorgeous, and certainly eye-catching, but I felt it would date the coat. Scarlet? I lingered for a long time at the red end of the spectrum. I love red, I always have done, so was very tempted by the thought of a devilish red lining inside such a classic and stylishly simple coat.

Then, I saw it. And it was perfect. I was a dark, slightly iridescent green. It was the green of a male Mallard duck’s head. It was classy and timeless. It was the one.

Maureen was summoned. Approving of my choice, she called the other ladies to come and “take a look”. I think it was a quiet day in the shop. Once they all trooped up and voiced their approval, Maureen carefully cut off the required amount and wrapped it in rustling tissue paper sealed with tape.

Then I went to choose the buttons. Again, a big decision. I always think the devil is in the detail, and it’s those little touches such as buttons that can lift an ordinary piece of clothing and make it extraordinary.

Eventually, I found some dull silver twisted buttons that I really liked. The bonus was they came in two sizes, so I could have the small buttons on the cuffs, match the three big buttons down the front. Gleefully, I took my spoils around to Helen’s. She stroked the lining and smiled, so I took that to be a sign of her approval.

It took her about three weeks to do the work, and I can still remember how excited I was when I went to pick the coat up. It was so beautiful. Restored to its former glory, and given a new lease of life, I fell in love with it all over again as I put it on so Helen could check it fell right.

“It’s a lovely coat,” was all she said. And she was right. It IS a lovely coat.

Fast forward another thirteen years and the coat is still going strong. Looking brand new, the lining is intact and the buttons still sturdy. But I’ve changed. With age I’ve thickened a bit around the middle. The coat still fits, but it doesn’t hang, and fall true on my frame, the way it used to, so I don’t wear it that much anymore. Besides, my life has narrowed down to occasions that don’t much call for the wearing of a full-length classic coat, and I tend to wear my green hooded jacket instead.

As the coat neared its 25-year anniversary, it was spending most of its life hanging on a coat hook, which was a shame. A coat like that needs – deserves – to be worn and loved.

Last week, Miss F and I had a chat about clothes. She has been trying to find her “look” for the past year and told me she finally realised what it was.

ME:  What is it then? What look have you settled on?

HER: Dark Academia.

ME:  Umm … okay?

HER: Right, think the 1930’s … chunky ankle boots; thick woollen tights; neat, short, pleated skirts.

ME:  Okay.

HER: Muted neutral colours; knitwear; plaid trousers; checked blazers. Blacks, greys, and tweed.

ME:  Right, got you.

HER: Think old libraries; books; academia; quills; old stately homes. Long coats…

ME:  Long coats?

HER: Yes, long grey, or black coats that swirl around your ankles.

ME: What about my long coat? It’s really too small for me now, do you want to…

HER: No.

ME: I was only suggesting you try it on. Good quality coats are expensive.

HER: I’m so much taller than you, it won’t be long enough.

ME:  I think it will be, it was really a bit too long on me.

HER: No, honestly Mum, thanks for the offer, but it wouldn’t work.

ME:  Okay, it was just a suggestion.

The subject was dropped, and I thought no more of it, until yesterday morning, when, on a whim, Miss F brought the coat through into the lounge where I was sitting.

HER: Look, I’ll show you … you think this coat will fit me, well, look …

She pulled the coat on. It settled onto her shoulders, the length fell to her ankles, and the cut shaped itself snugly around her. She looked at me, looked down at the coat, then back up at me. Her hand smoothed down the lapel and brushed gently over the deep hip pockets.

I saw ownership of the coat pass from me to her.

ME:  That looks … bloody fabulous. I think the coat is now yours.

HER: Really?

ME:  Really. Go and look in the mirror.

She went and looked. She did up the buttons. She undid the buttons. She put her hands in the pockets and swirled in front of the mirror. She peered over her shoulder at herself.

HER: The only thing I’m not sure of is the buttons.

ME:  We can easily put new buttons on – that I can manage to do.

HER: Just plain black plastic ones, will be fine.

ME:  No, you can’t put ordinary buttons on this coat. Let me think about it.

I went onto Etsy – I have recently discovered Etsy and love it with a passion, the few Christmas presents I am buying this year have mostly come from there, and it’s nice to think I’m helping individual sellers.

I searched through buttons, then found a lot of thirty assorted 1920 vintage black glass and fabric buttons. I called down Miss F and showed them to her,

HER: They’re so gorgeous, but it’s £30 – so a £1 per button.

ME:  That’s okay, it’s part of your Christmas present, and they’re vintage and fabulous.

HER: But £30? For buttons?!

ME:  Trust me, it’s worth paying for unique things. It’s the detailing that people will notice.

HER: I don’t need thirty.

ME:  You might need buttons for other things you buy, to make them personal to you.

HER: If you’re sure.

ME:  I am sure. Now you will have a coat that nobody else can buy anywhere, and it will be yours and will reflect your personality. Be different.

So, the buttons were ordered. They are coming next week. Then together we will pick out the ones that are suitable for the coat and I will replace my twisted silver buttons – which were right for me in 2007 – with retro 1920’s ones – which are right for my daughter now, and the coat will pass down to her, and I actually love that.

Precious little gets handed down anymore, certainly not articles of clothing. I love the fact that my coat is getting a new lease of life. It will be going to university. It will have a stimulating and enjoyable life again – rather than festering away on a coat rack. It will keep my daughter warm and dry – being wool, it’s waterproof – and it will be like a little bit of me is going with her. I know, I know, it’s daft, and sentimental, neither of which are things I normally am, but it’s how I feel.

And the moral of the story, if there is one, is that if you buy cheap, you buy twice. Good quality costs, but most of the time it will be the most cost-effective choice in the long run. It’s like the wonderful author, Terry Pratchett, once explained in one of his novels.

A good quality pair of boots cost $50, but his character couldn’t afford that so had to buy the boots that cost $10. The cheaper boots were okay, for one winter, but then would let the water in and would never keep his feet warm. But, because he could never save up enough money to buy the better-quality boots, he just had to keep on buying the cheap ones, year after year. But the thing was, the $50 boots would last forever, so the rich man who could afford to buy them would not have to buy another pair for years, whereas the poor man would spend literally hundreds of dollars buying boots – yet would always have wet feet.

Now there seriously is a moral in that, and I think it’s always try to buy good quality. It’s like I always say to my customers – if you’re going to spend your money on anything, make it a mattress or shoe leather. Because if you’re not in one, you’re in the other – maybe I should now add a coat to that list.

In other news, this week has been one of organised panic as launch day for Black Ice crept closer and the list of last-minute things to do grew longer. Regular readers will know that the last five launches have been anything but smooth, with Amazon losing my listing, putting up the wrong paperback, taking ten days to list the eBook with the paperback, and even last time disabling the entire search engine function on the US Amazon site. Cheers Amazon, I know that one wasn’t aimed specifically at me, but boy, did it feel personal.

But this time – touch wood – everything seems to be going smoothly. For the first time I have put the eBook up for pre-order. I did this as I received so many requests from people keen to ensure that their copy is delivered at midnight on launch day – Monday 30th November. I have a feeling that the paperback is also up for sale already, three days early, but hey, better than ten days late, so thanks Amazon. If you are tempted to pre-order a copy for yourself, or even order a paperback, there is a handy universal link on the books page of this blog, which will take you directly to the listing for Black Ice on your local Amazon site from wherever you are in the world. I know, bit clever that, isn’t it?

Launch day is Monday, so that will be a busy, full-on day, where I basically jump around all my social media platforms promoting, pushing, and thanking people for their support.

It will be mental, and hectic, and exhausting, and wonderful, and that feeling as you watch the book climb the rankings is unbelievable. The highest I ever got was with Chaining Daisy – it reached the top ten in its category and peaked at #5 in hot new releases. But it was in a tiny category, so it stood a better chance.

Black Ice is sitting in the fantasy fairytales and myths category and I have no idea how big a category that is. Still, you never know, fingers crossed for high enough rankings to make Amazon sit up and take notice of it, because then they will start promoting and pushing the book themselves. Every sale makes a difference and can push the book up ten slots or more in the rankings. It is so ridiculous, and it’s all a numbers game, but it would be nice to see this book do well. I have poured my heart into this novel. It would be wonderful to have it rewarded with a respectable sales figure.

Then next Friday I am back to work. I’ve been given a tough shift for my first week back and will be working all weekend, so I’m unsure if I’ll have time to write a blog next week. But I promise I will do my best to get a few words down – even if it’s just to let you know how launch day went.

Take care of yourself, and if you are leaving lockdown then please remember that the virus hasn’t gone away – it’s still there, just as contagious as ever – so please stay apart and stay safe.

Julia Blake

It’s The Small Things That Matter

Good morning everyone. The theme of this week’s blog is the small things that make up most peoples lives. The little things we must do, so that the bigger things can happen.

 It is 7:45am on Sunday morning and I am writing this blog in real time. I’ve had all week to write it. Endless days – in which I could have got myself organised and written something ready to drop into your inbox early this morning – but, sadly, as we all know, it doesn’t work that way.

Why is it that the more time you have to do something, the longer it takes to do it? A simple task that would only take at most a couple of hours, assumes monumental proportions and becomes something I keep putting off. But then, I always was the queen of procrastination.

It is the end of the first full week of lockdown. In answer to your question, no, I didn’t have to go into work last Sunday. It was late last Saturday afternoon, and I still hadn’t heard from the boss what times he wanted me in the next day, so I text him. A few minutes later he phoned me to say that everyone else had been in all week basically preparing the store ready for the Christmas peak. Stock had been put out, beds rearranged, the store tidied and cleaned, and even a spot of painting had taken place. Because everyone had worked so hard there was nothing left to do, so the company had decreed that no one was to come in on the Sunday. Sounds great right? Well, yes and no. Okay, I was told not to go in, but then I was also told that meant I would either have to lose a day’s pay, work those hours as unpaid overtime, or lose a remaining day’s holiday. So… we shall see which option I have to go with when this lockdown finishes and we all go back, whenever that may be.

Miss F has also been at home in lockdown with me. I telephoned the college and spoke to the student pastoral care teacher. We spoke at length about how Miss F was coping with the stresses of coming into an environment she did not feel safe in and how that was impacting on her mental wellbeing. Eventually, we both concluded that studying at home for the duration of the lockdown was a practical solution, and then we would reassess the situation in a month’s time.

She agreed with me that whereas many students don’t deal well with online tutoring, Miss F actually thrives on it. Once the fear and panic that going into college causes has been removed, then she can relax and totally focus on her work. I have looked through her notes – they are awesome. So neat and organised and colour coded to subjects. I wonder sometimes whose child she is – because my schoolwork never looked like that!

We’ve tried it for just over a week now, and so far, it’s working out very well. Every day she vanishes into her office for four or five hours and diligently works on whatever lessons and assignments she has. I know she does miss her best friend, but every day they facetime and go over the work together, so she is still getting that interaction.

Our young lodger, Mr M, is currently doing the coursework that Miss F did last year, and he admitted to me that he is struggling with online learning, so on Friday when neither of them had any lessons I suggested to Miss F that she dig out her old notes and maybe go over them with him. She leapt at the chance and it was good to see the pair of them sitting at the table with a pile of books between them. It was a constructive use of time. It helped Miss F in that it refreshed last year’s lessons in her mind, and, of course, it helped Mr M enormously. He said afterwards that it really helped fix the information in his head going over it with her.

Speaking of Mr M, I am glad to report that he has settled in really well and already feels part of the family. He has spent a few evenings with us watching TV, and last night because I had cooked an enormous amount of pulled pork, he joined us for dinner.

I’ve only had reason to speak to him about one thing, and that is his annoying habit of leaving doors and drawers open. It’s a small thing, I know, but it really annoys me to turn into the bathroom and walk smack into his glass fronted cupboard door that he’s left open. Likewise, to fall over the dishwasher door because he’s forgotten to close it is also annoying. I hurt myself a little when I did that and exclaimed a bit crossly over it, so I think in future he’ll be remembering just to shut things behind him.

I really don’t get people who do that though. I’ve had lodgers before who’ve left things wide open all the time, then claim they just keep forgetting to shut them. What the heck…? You opened the cutlery drawer to take out a knife, just close it again, it’s not rocket science!

And as this blog has the theme of small things, we found out Mr M’s hobby this week – it’s assembling and painting those tiny toy soldiers that you buy from Warhammer. Hours and hours, he sits still at the dining room table painstakingly gluing these teeny tiny figures together, then carefully painting them. Although when we call them toy soldiers, he does get a bit purse-lipped about it.

ME:  They’re toy soldiers.

HIM: They’re not.

ME:  But they’re tiny soldiers.

HIM: Well, yes, but they’re a bit more than that.

ME:  So, when you’ve finished assembling and painting them, then what do you do with them?

HIM: I play with them.

ME:  Oka-a-a-y.

But each to their own, and as hobbies go it’s pretty non invasive – I mean, it’s not playing loud music, it’s not playing an instrument, it’s not spending hours online hogging all the WiFi – and it is kind of nice, seeing how dedicated and engrossed a person can be in something.

He is still going to the odd lesson that he has at college, but he has told us how half of the students are simply not turning up, and that the teachers have given up even bothering to mark them absent or present. Miss F says a lot of people she knows who are supposed to actually be at college, are turning up in the online classes, so I think I was not alone in feeling unhappy about sending my child into a situation deemed too dangerous for me to go into. And yet, when we drove past the college on Tuesday to doorstep deliver my niece’s birthday present, we saw hordes of students all congregating outside the college – no masks were being worn and there was no social distancing at all.

Then there are the missing teachers. All of the art teachers have suddenly been given “medical leave” and disappeared from college. Medical leave? Really? Who do they think they’re fooling with that one? There is only one reason why a whole department of teachers would suddenly be absent and that’s because Covid is in the college.

So, what have I been up to this week? As you know, I have been frantically working on getting my new novel “Black Ice” ready for publication. Monday and Tuesday were spent making all the amendments that my wonderful proof-reader found. Boy, talk about small things. She literally went over the manuscript with a fine toothcomb. I am a pretty accurate typist, and for all my faults, I can spell, so thankfully it wasn’t a question of her highlighting all the spelling mistakes and typos I’d made, no, it was more the punctuation and grammar side of things she was checking.

I know the basic rules of punctuation, but some of the finer points escape me. I mean, I understand what an Oxford comma is, but I’m not always sure where the blasted thing is supposed to go. And as for the difference between hyphens, em dashes and en dashes – well, that was a closed book. But she patiently explained the difference until I got it. Then I had a minor panic because my keyboard didn’t seem to have an en or an em dash key on it! But after googling it, I discovered how to get the dash I needed – for anyone else wondering, it’s control and the minus symbol on the numerical keypad.

She also found a few tiny plot holes that in themselves aren’t the end of the world, but, once she had questioned them, it got me thinking about them. So, Wednesday was spent writing the few lines necessary to tweak the story to make it completely watertight. Initially, I did pout at her pointing them out – all writers think that their work is perfect – but as I made the small changes that explained something more clearly, or made the plot hang together better, I could see how much stronger it made my book, and then I was incredibly grateful to her for having the courage to speak up. And it does take courage to tell a writer than although their book is wonderful, it could be a little more wonderful if only they changed certain aspects of it.

Once these had been written, checked, and inserted into the story, the whole book was sent to the wonderful Becky Wright over at Platform House Publishing. She double checked all the illustrations and fixed them in place, then sent me back a PDF print ready copy and a cover that had been resized to fit perfectly the 499 page brick this book has become.

It’s been uploaded to KDP now and the physical proof copy ordered. While waiting for that to be delivered late next week, the manuscript has gone to my beta reader, Caroline, for her to read it through. I know there will probably be yet more alterations, and normally I wouldn’t upload the book until after I’d received it back from the beta and made all their amendments as well. But I’m up against the clock on this one, so it made sense to get the proof copy ordered and then send it to the beta while waiting for it to be delivered.

After all, the physical copy is more about checking the cover – KDP have a habit of slightly changing the colour tones in a cover, so that wonderful burnt umber colour you’d chosen actually comes out a tomato soup orange in real life. It’s also about checking the interior formatting – the spacing, the illustrations etc. This time we’re experimenting with having the borders on the chapter title pages bleed right to the very edge of the page – so need to make sure that has worked out okay. Then there was some doubt that the illuminated capitals at the beginning of each chapter might not be clear enough!

All these small details that make a book special are the things that take the most time to do. But then everything that’s worth having is worth working extra hard on. The devil is in the detail, and I’ve found it’s these little touches that make many of my readers prepared to spend the extra money and buy a paperback rather than an eBook version. I mean, sure, the eBook version has all the twiddly bits, but they lose impact when they’re not in a printed form. I work really hard to make my books beautiful, and I appreciate everyone who understands and acknowledges that effort by buying the paperback.

I think tomorrow I will begin to get feedback from my beta reader – the book is so big, I had to email It to her in four chunks so she could open it on her phone – and then the final stages of publication will be underway. Going through the manuscript and looking at everything she has found is the next step. I do know of some authors who seem to totally ignore what their betas suggest, but I’m not like that at all. Generally, it works out that 90% of their suggestions I go with. 5% I look at it and realise they haven’t understood what I was trying to get across in that sentence, so it’s down to me to make it clearer. The last 5% is my little author heart stubbornly refusing to change because that’s what I meant, so it stays!

My deadline of publishing by the end of November is now looking very achievable, so baring any major issues with the proof copy, I’m looking at a publication date of the beginning of the last week of the month. I know it’s dreadful that we’ve all had to go back into lockdown because of the soaring infection rates, but this time at home came at the absolute perfect moment and is very useful indeed. I will keep you posted on progress.

During the week, Miss F received an amazing offer. Her course tutor group-chatted her class to let them know that the college had been approached by our local zoo, Banham. They have put together a package to give those students who chose the zoo route in their second year at college a chance at gaining work experience at the zoo! This is an astonishing opportunity and seems almost too good to be true. A small group of students will be spending one day a week at Banham Zoo learning everything there is to know about looking after the animals and zoo management in general. I was a little concerned about transportation – Banham is almost an hour’s drive from here, so that would mean a double journey for me and four hours of my day taken up with driving Miss F there and back – but the college have said they will provide a mini bus both ways!

This will count as her voluntary work placement, so unfortunately does mean she would have to give up her place at the doggy day care centre – which she already knows will upset the owners as they’ve told her repeatedly how great she is, and how training up new people is always a pain – but this is a chance to work in an actual zoo!

Even more excitingly, at the end of the work placement, some of the students may be offered a paid apprenticeship at the zoo.

I am in two minds about this. Yes, it would be a fantastic “foot in the door” for Miss F. Finding employment in a zoo can be extremely difficult, so this would be a way into the industry she really wants to work in. But it could mean giving up her dream of university, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing as I really want her to have the university experience.

We have discussed it at length. Of course, she is going on the work experience placement, because that really is too fantastic an opportunity to miss. Then we will simply take it one step at a time. As Miss F pointed out, if they offer her an apprenticeship then it doesn’t mean university is off the table forever. The apprenticeship will give her a very useful diploma plus invaluable hands-on experience. At the end of the one, or two, year apprenticeship she can then assess her situation and decide whether to try for a job within a zoo, or then go to university. Banham Zoo might even offer her a place.

Who knows, maybe delaying going to university for a year or so might not be a bad thing. It would give the world a chance to settle down after Corona. The vaccine should then be in effect and life approaching normality. Plus, she could live at home, continue to do her part-time job at the restaurant maybe, and have a chance to save some money. She could also use that time to learn how to drive.

One step at a time though. Concentrate on the small things and let the big stuff figure itself out – that’s usually how it works.

Saturday morning, I slipped to the local supermarket early to grab a few items to make dinner with. To my surprise it was heaving with people. Apart from the masks, it was like business as usual, and you never would have guessed by the way people were barging by each other and reaching for things over other people, that we are all supposed to be in lockdown. I even saw one elderly couple stand in the middle of an aisle and take off their masks to have a facetime chat with a grandchild on their phone! So, it’s not just the young people who aren’t sticking to the rules.

While I was there, I treated myself to a delicious cherry and almond Danish pastry and a box of frothy coffee sachets to take home for a treat for breakfast. It really is the small things that make the difference.

That’s all my news for now. It’s gone 9am and I need to shower and have breakfast. We are having a zoom meeting with the family at midday to watch my niece open the present we dropped off earlier in the week, so I need to be ready for that.

Take care everyone, and no matter where you are in the world, stay safe, and stay well.

Julia Blake

Here We Go Again!

I want to say thank you to all the people who contacted me or commented on my post, after last week’s blog – in which I ranted at the Government and the situation in schools during this second lockdown. It was gratifying to realise that every single one of you feels the same way. That you are as disgusted as I am at the greedy, self-serving actions of our politicians – who would quite happily let families starve while taking a hefty sum each day out of taxpayers money to buy food for themselves.

Worried about my daughter, I contacted her college and spoke to the head of pastoral care there. I am relieved to report that they shared my concerns, and because Miss F has proven to be such a diligent and hardworking student – one who is more than capable of home-schooling herself to a very satisfactory level – they have agreed that she can self-isolate for a month with me.

One major problem with keeping all the schools and colleges open – well, apart from the obvious one of the students and teachers spreading the virus far and wide – is the fact that they have closed all the canteens and gathering places where the students used to go to eat their lunch. Sometimes, the lunch break between morning and afternoon classes can be incredibly long – up to four hours on some days, and the students now have nowhere to go.

You used to see and hear great hordes of them walking up town, but now, of course, with all the fast-food restaurants and coffee shops closed, they have nowhere to buy lunch, or eat one brought in from home. So, they hang about the town centre in great groups. If it were summer, this wouldn’t be too bad. There are parks and benches where they could sit and eat. But we’re coming into winter now, it’s getting colder, and the likelihood of rain is growing.

Where are they supposed to go for four hours on a freezing cold and wet day? Not all students live within easy walking distance of their places of education. Some have to take long bus journeys to get to and from their homes, so it’s simply not possible for them to go home for lunch. No one seems to have thought about this, or, if they have, no one seems to care.

It is a strange lockdown. Very different from the first one when there was very much the sense that we were all in this together, and people mostly obeyed the rules. This time, what with all places of education remaining open, and many companies not having to close, it does not feel like a lockdown at all.

My store has closed, but I am still being expected to go into work on Sunday to fulfil my contracted hours for the week. Quite what I will be expected to do in a shut and empty shop that has already been cleaned from top to bottom, I have no idea. I shall take my kindle with several books already downloaded, just in case there is literally nothing else for me to do.

I think I will only be expected to go in for this week. Furlough pay doesn’t begin until Monday, and I shouldn’t imagine my company will be able to claim furlough, at the same time as forcing employees to break lockdown laws and congregate in a shut shop – but who knows. I have been given no further information, and I am hoping more will be forthcoming when I go into work.

Our new lodger has been living here for just over a week now, and so far, it’s working well. He is actually nineteen, not the seventeen I believed him to be, and seems to be a responsible and respectful young man. Our cat loves him, so that’s always a good sign. He has fitted in well. He cooks decent meals for himself and is very tidy about the house.

There was the slight concern about him still going to college, but I appreciate he doesn’t know many people there, so is not one of those hordes of students hanging about in great groups. He goes to his lessons, and because he now lives so close to the college, is able to come home for his breaks. He has assured me that he is taking all precautions at college, and the moment he gets home he immediately goes to change his clothing and wash his hands. Obviously, I do not do his washing, nor do I have any occasion to enter his room. We do not get that close to him, so I think the risk of any contamination is minimal.

It has been a strange week. I worked as normal on Monday and Tuesday. They were two very busy days, as customers previously undecided about whether to go ahead with placing their orders, all rushed to do so before lockdown. On my way home Tuesday evening, I collected a month’s worth of shopping from the supermarket and once again, my home feels as if it is prepared for a siege. With bags of groceries and supplies tucked away in every cupboard and under beds, we won’t have to leave the house for a good month.

Wednesday, I dashed to the local store for a few things that I had missed off the list, and entered into a scene of last minute, panic buying. Customers with trolleys crammed to capacity with supplies struggled around the aisles. Queues at the checkouts were huge, and I was thankful I only had a small basketful so could go through the ten items or less till.

There was a definite air of stress, and from the little I overheard, it’s clear that people are preparing for a longer lockdown than the month-long one the Government have promised. I even saw people buying Christmas provisions – just in case!

I don’t know what will happen. My personal feeling is this light lockdown won’t work. That the infection still has too many ways available for it to spread. Through schools, colleges, and universities. Through the many companies that are still open, and from the crowds of people still out on the streets and congregating in each other’s homes.

But we shall see. All each individual can do is protect themselves, their families, and their community as best they can.

For the past four days, it has been a relief to be able to immerse myself in the world of The Five Kingdoms that I have created. My Snow White retelling – “Black Ice” – is shaping up to be a big, beautiful, chunk of a book, and at over 460 pages will be one of the longest I’ve ever published.

I am busy working my way through the feedback of my proof-reader, who so very kindly volunteered over a week of her time to check it for typos and punctuation errors. I am over halfway through her amendments, and I’m stunned at how meticulous she has been. All of her suggestions will help to make this book so much better.

The illustrations have all been inserted, and they have been set firmly in place by the wonderful Becky Wright over at Platform House Publishing. This is essential so that when I am editing, the images stay put and don’t move around as I add or subtract text.

The video is being made, and I’m very excited to announce that the cover has been made for me by Becky’s very clever husband, James Wright. As a reward to my faithful blog readers, you are getting an exclusive first look at the beautiful cover they have made for me, I think you will agree that it is spectacular. It contains all the elements of the tale – the ice which will play a key role, the cogs and pipes that reflect the steampunk genre it is set in, the mirror which is crucial to the plot, and, of course, the famous red apple – without which no Snow White story would be complete.

I hope you like it. I absolutely love it, and I can’t wait to see the video that James is now making to accompany the launch of “Black Ice” later this month.

It is a short blog this week. Although there are currently momentous events occurring all around the world, my life has once again narrowed to my home and what occurs within its four walls. That sense of pulling up the drawbridge and battening down the hatches that gripped me in March, is once again prevalent. I am thankful for my home – which shelters us from the oncoming storm – and for my writing – which keeps me sane.

Wherever you are, and whatever is happening in your life – stay safe and stay well.

Julia Blake