Out of my Comfort Zone

Firstly, so sorry there was no blog last week. I signed up to do the five-day Amazon Ad Course and it turned out to be more time consuming than I thought. As to how it’s going, well it’s very intense and there is a lot to try and absorb and understand. Learning new things is not my strongest point, and I’m not very good with technology either, so it’s taken me a while to pluck up the nerve to even attempt the course.

The course is free, although, of course, you must pay for any ads you place that a potential buyer clicks on. How it works is they email you a 45-minute video each of the five days. It’s a good idea to take plenty of notes when you’re watching the video because there is a lot to take in. Then they set you homework which is estimated to take 30-60 minutes a day.

The first two days were relatively straightforward, and I even managed to make my first ever two Amazon ads. They’re for Lost & Found, book one of the Blackwood Family Saga because the consensus was that the first book of a series is a good idea to promote because then it might lead to read-throughs. So far, I haven’t seen any activity on the ads, but it is early days.

So far, so good, I thought. Then Friday came around. I knew I was going to have trouble fitting in the video on Friday because I had a busy morning of essential life stuff and my local authors zoom meeting in the afternoon and, in the end, I didn’t have the time. The videos can be watched any time though, so I wasn’t too worried.

Saturday simply got away from me. I had housework I couldn’t leave any longer. I was running out of clothes, so laundry and ironing was now a priority, and there was the final read-through of book thirteen that has been consuming my time this last week.

So, the upshot is, I didn’t get around to Friday’s video on Saturday and then Sunday I was at work. No problem, I thought, I’ll watch Friday’s video on Monday morning and do the homework, then I’d do Monday’s video in the afternoon – they had given us the weekend off.

All fired up, I watched the video first thing. A lot more involved than the first two, I frantically scribbled notes and tried to keep up. In the end, I sat and stared at the homework assignment and my brain simply froze. We had to research keywords to use in a complex targeted ad for our book.

For those unsure what a keyword is, it is a word that makes you think of something else. For example, if you’re British and I say the word Tardis, you will probably think of Dr Who. Same if I said the word Dalek. Tardis and Dalek are therefore keywords for Dr Who, as are Time Lord, bigger on the inside, Cybermen etc.

Our assignment was to go through the kindle category on Amazon and find 100 keywords for our book. My mind imploded. It’s not that I didn’t understand the task or think I couldn’t do it, I just didn’t want to. It was like my brain took one look and went – nope. So, I did other things for the rest of Monday. I didn’t even watch Monday’s video because I didn’t want to fog my mind with yet more information when it was having issues digesting what it had.

I’m cross with myself for being so feeble but understand how my brain works. Sometimes, things daunt me with their impossibility, and I freeze. Like a computer with too many tabs open at once, I glitch, and the only way to get me going again is to switch everything off and start again.

So, I took the rest of Monday off the course and worked on the editing.

Now it’s Tuesday morning and this thing must be faced, but first I must write my blog. Due to the wonderful randomness of my shift pattern, this week I am working Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, which will give me no time to blog at all – and I don’t want to miss two weeks in a row. So, I will try to write a big chunk of the blog today and finish it tomorrow so I can then relax and not have to worry about it. I also have a book review to write ready for Friday – the day I always try to post a review for an indie book I have read and can honestly award four or five stars to.

Hopefully, later in this blog, I will be able to report that my brain glitch sorted itself out and the homework was done, along with the video for at least Monday.

Now then, what other news is there? Well, I’m sticking to Dry January and nary a drop has passed my lips since New Year’s Eve. Why am I doing it for the second year in a row? Several reasons really. One is it saves me money. Buying even the paltry two bottles of wine a week that I do is still £10 a week which is over £40 a month. Right now, that’s £40 I can’t afford – money that can be spent on ads instead. Two, it gives my body a chance to recover from the alcoholic excesses of Christmas. Three, as I’ve started a diet this month it gives it a bit of a kick start. As we all know, alcohol contains lots of delicious calories. And four, it proves to my mother that I’m not an alcoholic!

I planned to start the diet two weeks ago today (Sunday) and had even bought smart new scales to chart my progress. They were the first scales I’d owned in over ten years so I assumed they would work the same way scales used to – you know, you step on, the scales shriek “no coach parties please”, then a needle goes around a dial of numbers and shows you a weight that makes you want to cry – and that’s it. Easy.

But no, technology has moved on for scales as well because when I unboxed my new scales on Sunday morning it was to find some fancy arse things that were analyser scales. They needed batteries. I put the batteries in and stepped on them. They told me I weighed 74lbs. Now, being British and old-school, that meant nothing to me, so I Googled it. 74lbs is approximately 5 stone. I don’t think so. I looked at the scales in disbelief.

Mate, I told them, I hate to break it to you, but I haven’t weighed five stone since I was five years old!

The scales sat there. I tried again. Same result. With a sigh, I retrieved the instructions from the bin and read the bit in English. If you would like your weight in stones and ounces instead of pounds, it said, press the converter button on the bottom of the scales. I flipped the scales over. No button. I put my glasses on and minutely examined every inch of the blasted things. No button. There were three buttons on the side of the scales, none of which were labelled.

I returned to the instructions, surely there would be a handy little diagram with arrows pointing to various bits of the scales telling you what each thing was. There was no diagram. You had to guess what the buttons did. I read all the instructions that were in English. They were in teeny-tiny print that even with my glasses on I struggled to make out.

I had to set the scales up first, it said. Tell them my sex, age, and height. Okay, fair enough. How do I do that? The instructions were supremely unhelpful and assumed you already knew that, I mean, duh, what kind of dummy was I that didn’t know how to do that? I mean, come on!

I fiddled and farted about with the scales for twenty minutes, my impatience growing, and my frustration reaching boiling.

Oh, for f**ks sake, I just want to weigh myself! Why is it so bloody complicated!

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I managed to set them up. Unfortunately, my expensive new scales are now convinced I am a 30-year-old man who weighs five stone and therefore needs urgent medical attention.

I boxed the damn things up and slung them in a cupboard, then went onto Amazon and ordered myself a cheap set of basic scales that do not require batteries or setting up, or a degree in IT to use. They couldn’t come until Wednesday because I was at work Monday and Tuesday, but they were delivered Wednesday afternoon. I took them out of the box, set them to zero and left them in the bathroom.

Thursday morning, I stepped on them with some trepidation. It’s been a very long time since I last weighed myself, at least ten years, and I was fully aware that weight had crept on quite considerably over the last five years. So, I got on and looked down. The numbers swam in a faraway blur. I got off, put my glasses on and tried again. And no, I’m not going to tell you what the numbers were. Let’s just say at only five feet tall I have some work to do.

But I’ve been on the diet for two weeks now and I’m sticking to it. I had forgotten how easy this diet is and it’s surprised me how readily I’ve slipped back into the dieting every other day habit. I thought dieting on the days I’m at work would prove difficult, but it’s easier than when I’m at home. The yoghurt and fruit I have for breakfast see me through quite nicely until lunch, then I eat the large salad I’ve packed for myself, and it is nice knowing when I’m coming home after a long shift that all I must do for dinner is heat up a tin of soup. I will let you know next week if the diet is working.

In writing news, work on book thirteen is going well. I am in the final stages of the editing process when I read the whole book right the way through, out loud. Yep, I basically read my book to myself. It may sound silly, but it’s an invaluable editing tool. By reading out loud I can hear which bits work and which bits don’t. If dialogue flows or gets stuck. If I’ve put an “as” instead of an “at” then reading it out loud will find it. I tend to love my long sentences, believing things like commas and full stops are for the weak. Wheezing to a stop because I’ve run out of breath reading aloud that mile-long sentence, will make me look at it and apply punctuation.

I’m over halfway through, and then the book will go to its final beta reader. A rather wonderful fellow indie author, she is eagle-eyed and tends to spot any bits that have managed to elude rigorous editing, two other beta readers, and a read through.

And then the book will be ready for publication. Well, the paperback contents will be. There is still the cover to be made. The paperback version will need to be converted into an eBook – and that will have to be checked, checked, and checked again that the formatting is correct. There is a short promotional video to think about and liaise with the wonderful James at Platform House Publishing about. And there is the dreaded blurb to write.

A novel of 180,500 words – no problem. Try to condense into 150 words the salient points of that novel and make it entice but give no spoilers – nightmare. I don’t know one author who enjoys writing the blurb.

Once the eBook version is ready that can be uploaded to KDP in draft form with the cover and it will be available for people to pre-order at a slightly reduced price. I do this not only because it’s a way to ensure a few sales on launch day, but it means I will have the Amazon link for the book’s listing to go onto Goodreads and my website before publication, which makes life so much easier.

I wonder it took me several books to realise this, but then in this business, you are constantly learning and evolving as a writer.

Finally, before I go and tackle the homework, I thought I’d share with you this wonderful picture Miss F sent me of her in one of her university classes handling a snake – apparently, it’s called Candy and is very cuddly. Hmm, not sure about that, but it was lovely to see how happy my daughter looks with her eyes beaming over the top of her mask.

Sorry, it’s a shorter blog this week, but as you can appreciate I have lots to do. Take care, and I will fill you in next time on how the course, and the diet, have gone.

UPDATE** I threw myself upon the mercies of a fellow local author who has done to Amazon Ad Challenge before, to see if how I thought the homework should be done was correct. She confirmed I was heading in the right direction and helped me brainstorm my keywords until I had enough. On Wednesday, I set up another two ads – one for Black Ice and another for Lost & Found – and watched the video for Monday.

It was truly terrifying, all about data scraping and downloading various apps and plug-ins and none of it really made any sense at all. Feeling very overwhelmed and a big bit stupid, I have had to remind myself that getting as far as I did is a huge achievement for me. That I fully expected not to understand everything the first time around, and that this is okay. I can do the course again in March and again In June if I want. It’s free and easy to sign up to.

In the meantime, I have a basic understanding of how ads work now, I even have five ads up and running which, I can monitor for performance and try to analyse why they work or don’t, and learn from for next time. Because there will be a next time.

It’s all good. I will watch the last two videos on Sunday and make notes, then over the next couple of months, I can try to pick my way through the phraseology and learn what it all means. Next time the course comes around I will be better prepared for it.

Julia Blake

Dreams, Decorations and Diets

Thursday night I had the strangest dream. Now usually I don’t dream, or, if I do, I don’t remember them. But this dream was so vivid I can still recall every detail. It went like this. I was on stage and appearing in a play. It seemed to be set in a restaurant and I was sitting at a small table by myself towards the back of the stage. All around me were small tables with groups of two or four people, all miming eating dinner. I was the only one sitting alone and had nothing on my table but a menu.

A gauze drape was down between us and the audience and at the front of the stage before this drape was a table with a couple who were acting out a scene – I assume they were the main characters. I couldn’t make out what they were saying as their voices were muffled and I couldn’t see the audience, but I was aware they were there. Now and then, the couple would fall silent and someone at one of the tables around me would loudly say something that seemed to fit into the couple’s dialogue in a funny way because it would cause a ripple of laughter in the audience.

I remember that I had no idea why I was there or what I was supposed to do. I looked around at the people on the other tables, but they all ignored me, and no one would catch my eye. Suddenly, the couple fell silent again but nobody else spoke. The silence stretched on and on and I became horribly aware that it was my turn to say something, but I had no idea what. Desperately I searched the menu for a clue, but it was blank. I tried to ask the others for help, but they all ignored me.

The audience began to boo and frantically I tried to think of something appropriate to say but my mind was empty. The others on the stage stood up and began shouting at me that I’d ruined everything, that it was all my fault, that it was always my fault. I think I began to cry and tried to explain that I didn’t know what my line was, that I’d never seen a script, but they shouted that it was no excuse, and all crowded angrily towards me. Then I woke up.

What the heck was that all about? If any of you know anything about dreams, I would appreciate an explanation because it has me stumped.

Anyway, what has been happening to me since Christmas Day? The day itself was nice, my parents came over for dinner, we played games afterwards and that was it. I was so exhausted from all the preparation that I was in bed and asleep by 9:30 – on Christmas Day, living the high life I am – but then I woke up at 2am and stayed awake until 4:30am, drifted back to sleep and then woke at 6am ready to get up and go to work. I’d left quite a bit of clearing up so did that, put on my uniform and was at work by 10:30am.

It was not as busy as I think the company hoped it would be and was far from being the busiest day of the year for us. Perhaps the past two years have taught people that being with their family the day after Christmas is more important than shopping, and with several big-name stores now remaining closed on Boxing Day maybe we are seeing a move away from avarice, greed, and consumerism. It would be nice to think so.

I worked five straight days after Christmas which left me drained and utterly exhausted. I did have New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day off, but both Miss F and I were too tired to do anything other than eat a nice meal, watch Dune and the new Disney film, then see the New Year in with some Prosecco.

Monday I worked again and that was very busy, being a bank holiday and the last day before most people went back to work. Tuesday we were up and taking lateral flow tests at 5am then packing up the car and getting ready to go. We hit the petrol station to top up with petrol, briefly stopped at my parent’s house to collect the bag of Miss F’s food from their freezer and were on the motorway by 6:30am.

The three driving conditions I am not keen on are motorway driving, driving in the dark, and driving in the rain, well, on Tuesday I had all three. It was pitch black and hammering down with heavy torrential rain. The motorway was busy and in parts was down to one lane only due to roadworks. Big lorries threw muddy puddles over my car and by the time we reached our destination it looked like I’d been rally driving my poor little car was so muddy.

Still, we made very good timing and reached the town nearest her university by 9:30am where we stopped off at the local Sainsburys to refill with petrol, go shopping for Miss F, and pick up lunch. Expecting someone to stop us as we drove onto campus to check our flow tests results, we were surprised to find it practically deserted and parked in an empty car park outside her townhouse.

Deciding to get as much put away as possible before we ate, Miss F unpacked all her food and kitchen bits and pieces, whilst I lugged all her luggage up three flights of stairs – I get all the fun jobs. You may remember I bought her a new mattress for Christmas and took it up with me when I collected her before Christmas. We had opened it before coming home so it had sat for two weeks growing to its final size and shape. It was higher than I thought it would be and we realised our original plan to leave the university supplied mattress underneath wasn’t practical, so we lugged the old mattress out onto the wide landing and propped it up against the wall, then made up the bed.

Then we ate, said our goodbyes, and I was on the road by 12:30. It was a much nicer journey back, the sun was shining, and the rain had stopped, and I even thought I might be able to wash my car when I got back. But, but the time I got home even though it was only 3pm, the skies had darkened again, it had begun to rain and, to be honest, I was exhausted.

I unpacked the car of the things I’d brought back that Miss F had decided she wasn’t using so could send them home, put on a load of laundry, took the clothes I’d bought her for Christmas which she didn’t like back to the shop for a refund, and made dinner, I was so exhausted all I wanted was an hour of mindless TV and an early night.

Back to work Wednesday and Thursday for two very quiet but long days at work, and now it’s Friday – my one day off before I’m back to work tomorrow for another long day. Am I relaxing today? Not bloody likely.

There is laundry – of course, there is – laundry is the one thing that is always there for you. I must collect shopping because I have no proper food in the house and I’m tired of eating cheese and biscuits, dried fruits, and Christmas cake! There is a book review and my blog to write.

And then there are the Christmas decorations. They need to all be taken down and I am not looking forward to it. The decorations on the mantlepieces and sides aren’t so bad. Sure, they’ll drop a bit of tinsel and sparkly stuff will glitter on the carpet for a few weeks until I manage to get it all, but they are easy to take down and put away. It’s the tree that causes the biggest problems. I always have a real tree, I know, making a rod for my own back, and because I bought a cheap, not so freshly cut one this year, it is already dropping needles like no one’s business. Every time the door is shut, or I cough in its general vicinity there is the gentle sound of needles falling. Not to mention the steady thud of ornaments slipping off drooping branches and landing on the carpet. I dread to think how many needles it will shed when I start undecorating it. Then I must cut all the branches off and store them in my kindling box to use next year and the trunk must be heaved out into the garden to store for next winter ready to be chopped up into little logs for the fire.

I know the vacuum cleaner will clog if I try and use it on the mammoth pile of needles, so that will be me on my hands and knees like a Victorian scullery maid sweeping them up with a brush and dustpan. As I said, I get all the fun jobs.

I have a massive pile of ironing I need to do this evening, plus dinner, and I’d like to paint my nails because one of my New Year resolutions is to try and take better care of myself. To that end, I have bought a pair of scales – and I don’t mean the ones you use to weigh out ingredients for a cake, I mean the ones you use to assess how much damage you’ve done to your body after eating said cake.

Because I am going on a diet.

Yes, I know you gulped then, but it’s true and so long overdue. It’s been at least ten years since I last weighed myself, I’ve always gone by whether my clothes fitted or not, but over the years the size jeans I can wiggle into has increased and now I’ve reached the point where I know something must be done. Either I accept that my fate is to be a barrage balloon, or I seriously change my eating habits.

Ten years ago, I went on a simply amazing diet called the “Every Other Day” diet. Now, I can’t diet, it is physically impossible for me to diet owing to my complete lack of willpower and the fact I am always hungry. And believe me, I have tried them all – the Cabbage Soup diet which you lose a lot of weight on but the minute you start normally eating again it all piles back on – Weightwatchers which did work but it’s expensive and a time commitment and once you can no longer afford to buy all the special Weightwatcher meals the weight creeps back on – the juice diet (seriously? Who comes up with these?) – the Atkins diet (bad breath and constipation) – and so many others I have forgotten the name of. None of them worked, at least none of them worked long term or were sustainable.

Then I hit upon the EOD diet, and the simpleness of it appealed right away. You diet for one day, every other day, and that’s it. Yes, it really is that simple. One day you eat normally, the next you brutally restrict your calorie intake by only eating fresh fruit, salad, veggies, and plain yoghurt, with a big bowl of soup for dinner. Then the next day you eat normally, then the next you diet, and so on and so on.

This diet was perfect for me because it didn’t feel like I was dieting, I was just having one day of not eating much and the weird thing was on those days I didn’t even feel hungry. If I did have a craving for something naughty on my diet day, I knew I only had to wait until tomorrow and I could have it, although usually, the craving had gone by then. Great for people with no willpower who are no good at denying themselves food. There is no weighing of food, no calculating of calories, no expensive diet foods or shakes – you save money because let’s face it, soup is cheap – and it is very healthy for you because it gives your digestive system every other day to detox and unclog itself which is a good thing.

What I loved about this diet though was its flexibility. Say for example Thursday is an eating day and I had planned to diet on Friday, but Thursday evening I receive an invite to a friend’s birthday dinner Friday evening. No problem, simply make Friday another eating day then pick up the diet day on Saturday.

Once you reach the weight or size you want, go from dieting every other day to maybe two days a week knowing that should the weight start to creep back on simply switch to every other day again. And that’s it. Seriously easy. Honestly, if you can’t manage this diet then there really is no hope for you.

The diet starts Sunday. Then I will weigh myself for the first time in a decade, probably cry hysterically, then pull myself together and prepare myself a big breakfast of Greek yoghurt, fresh fruit, a drop of honey, and an unsweetened cup of tea to start my day right.

It was easy before and the weight fell from me, but I’m older now, pre-menopausal, and don’t walk as much as I used to. I am aware all these factors will make dieting harder and slower, but that’s okay. I have time and so long as I’m heading in the right direction it doesn’t matter how small my steps are. I have a new diary and am planning to weigh myself once a week on a Sunday and note down my weight. I am experienced enough with diets to know it could take a week or two to start to see results because it takes a while for your body to catch up with what you are doing, so weekly is the best way to track your progress. How many times have you dieted for a day, not lost weight overnight, so given up? It’s important to be gentle with yourself and not expect a quick fix solution because this diet is more a lifestyle change than a fad diet which is unsustainable.

It may not work this time around, but unlike many faddy diets, it can’t do me any harm and won’t cost me anything. I know when I did it ten years ago I felt the healthiest I ever have, so even if it only does that for me at least that’s something.

I will keep you posted and if any of you are embarking on a diet and need some encouragement or even a stern talking to when you’re standing in front of the fridge, message me.

And now I must go, my shopping must be collected before midday and it’s now 11:15am. Can’t miss my slot, I need the food – especially the soup.

I hope the first week of 2022 has been kind to you and look forward to chatting with you next week.

Lots of love

Julia Blake

It’s New Year’s Day. Traditionally a time for reflecting on the year just gone and that to come. By any standards, 2021 has been an odd year, one that feels it was full of doom and gloom. But was it? In this week’s A Little Bit of Blake, I’m doing a round-up of the last twelve months and deciding whether the year has truly been one of unremitting bad luck and rain, or whether good luck and sunshine showed their face occasionally?

January: The year kicked off to a bad start when the UK was put into tier four restrictions on Boxing Day, quickly followed by a total lockdown again the first week of January. Instantly triggering deja-vu and memories of the lockdown of early 2020, the country braced itself for long days fighting cabin fever and boredom.

More bad news followed for me when my lodger moved out and returned to his family in France leaving us without any rental income. As we were then in a lockdown it seemed unwise to try and find another one, so we hunkered down for however long this siege would last.

Miss F was in a state of exam limbo as the government made the decision all students due to take their exams that March would be marked on performance, assignments, and the judgement of their teachers. All students except those taking vocational exams like Miss F. Weeks of frustrating indecision followed before it was finally announced that exams would be cancelled for these students as well.

On the very last day of January, a careless Yodel delivery driver in an extremely large van making a delivery to a neighbour smashed into the side of my little car and half ripped the front wing off. Not stopping to give me his details, instead, this toad of an individual roared away at speed with me in hot pursuit. Only getting a partial number plate, this incident triggered months of wrangling with my insurance company and the police.

February: For some reason, my Instagram account was blocked, and I was unable to access it at all. Devastated at the loss of over four years of posts and almost 6k followers, I had to start again from scratch with a backup account and pray that Instagram would eventually give me back my account. It being impossible to contact them direct all I could do was wait and hope.

Shenanigans continued with my insurance company over the damage to my car. Because the driver hadn’t stopped and I hadn’t got his number plate, it looked like blame was going to be assigned to me and all the insurance would offer me was the price of the car in scrap metal. Mid-month the same driver made a delivery to another neighbour, and I did manage to get his number plate on that occasion, however, because he refused to admit fault it meant proceedings continued to drag.

Still in lockdown, I had the time to start work on updating my website which consumed most of my free time during the month.

Finally, I wrote book four of the Blackwood Family Saga – Kiss & Tell – in two weeks.

March: At the beginning of the month, I went down with a nasty tooth infection that spread to my ear and jaw. Luckily, I was able to secure a prescription for live antibiotics from my dentist which cleared up the problem within a week or so.

I also had my first vaccination for Covid which left me very ill for three days.

Energy prices in the UK shot up and I became embroiled in a dispute with my then utility company who claimed I had suddenly started using four times my normal amount of energy and doubled my monthly bill.

One of the residents of the block of flats at the bottom of my road went on a rampage with a knife in the middle of the night, threatening to cut anyone he came across. The police took him away but a couple of days later he was back.

My vacuum cleaner broke down and I had to buy another one.

Then at the end of the month, two months after they blocked all access to it, I was finally allowed back onto my Instagram account. No apology or explanation was ever given.

April: My new website was launched, then mid-month I returned to work. Incredibly busy, the weeks I’d spent resting during lockdown seemed for nothing as I was quickly run-down and stressed again after being plunged headfirst back into the rat race.

May: Kiss & Tell – my twelfth book – was published.

Miss F struggled with her student finance application – with red tape and misinformation causing problems all around which took hours on the phone to sort out. Finally, all was settled, and she received the full amount.

I had issues with Sky whom we use for our internet, landline, TV, and Miss F’s mobile when they doubled the monthly bill with no word of warning. It took long hours on the phone and threatening to leave before this was settled to my satisfaction.

The issue with my utility company reared its ugly head again, with them taking an unbelievable amount of money from my bank account. Again, long hours were spent on the phone to change providers before the situation got ridiculously out of hand.

My washing machine died in a loud explosion heard by the neighbours, so I had to buy a new one.

The car insurance fiasco continued to rumble on resulting in me having to take many comprehensive photos of my street to show how narrow it was and that locked gates were at the end of it, so when the huge delivery van was trying to do a three-point turn next to my car it would have been physically impossible for any other vehicle to have entered the road and hit my car.

The Amazon Fire tablet that Miss F had bought me for Christmas stopped working. We sent it back to be replaced but it took weeks of chasing Amazon before they finally sent me a replacement one.

Miss F and all the other students on her course were thrown under the bus when the exams they had been told were cancelled were suddenly reinstated – with six days warning!

June: The watch Miss F bought me for Christmas which I hadn’t worn because I’d been in lockdown had never worked. Although we had contacted the Etsy seller and been promised a replacement – nothing had ever been received. More time wasted chasing them up.

I went to buy some much-needed clothes and discovered I’d completely forgotten my PIN. Ordered a reminder which took over a week to turn up. In the meantime, I forgot I had forgotten my PIN and ended up phoning Miss F early on a Sunday morning to come and rescue me in the shop as I had no way to pay for my purchases.

I commenced writing book thirteen – the final instalment of The Perennials Trilogy. Although knowing it would be a big book, I was confident of a November publication date.

July: Miss F and I took a road trip up North to tour her new university and treated ourselves to a night’s stay in a local hotel plus dinner. The room was lovely but sadly the beds were rock hard and neither of us slept at all. We toured the university the following morning and drove home in the afternoon happy with her choice.

It was my 54th birthday and I had a week off work which was full of lunches, treats, and presents.

The UK was hit with a brutal heatwave that lasted ten days over my birthday and sadly proved to be the only summer we Brits would get that year.

The insurance claim on my car was finally sorted, the other insurance company admitted blame, and I was refunded my £100 policy excess. It took over seven months to sort even though the cost of fixing my car was only £260.

August: The house was infested with a plague of moths which ate holes in most of my new clothes and destroyed areas of the carpet.

Miss F celebrated her 18th birthday modestly not wanting a large party or any extravagance other than getting her first tattoo. A week later she received the wonderful although not surprising news that she had passed her exams with flying colours so her place at the university was secured.

The same resident of the flats who had run amok with a knife in the middle of the night decided to go postal and throw all his belongings out of his second storey flat one afternoon – including a washing machine! Again, the police took him away. This time he didn’t come back.

September: Miss F moved away to university and the house was suddenly very quiet, albeit tidy. Out of the blue, my replacement watch turned up long after we had given up on it.

For no reason, Amazon unpublished my novel Becoming Lili because they said I didn’t have copyright on the cover image – of course, I did – but it took over three weeks, forty-seven emails, and four phone calls before they re-published it. Again, no explanation or apology was offered.

A petrol crisis hit the UK and it was impossible to buy petrol with long queues at garages and some garages even being forced to close.

Once Miss F had left for university, I advertised for a new lodger and found one within two days who moved in at the end of the month.

October: My car passed its MOT even though I got the dates muddled and drove around for three weeks without one! Luckily, I didn’t get stopped by the police and it only cost £65 to get it through.

I had two theatre trips during the month – one to see the comedian Ed Byrne and one to see Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the local theatre. I enjoyed both trips very much.

Miss F came home from university for six days over the half-term holiday. Busy week, we packed in a lot, saw friends and family, and she returned on the Friday before Halloween.

I went to a fancy dress party on Halloween. It was a late night and rather a lot of Prosecco was drunk so when I didn’t feel too clever the next day I assumed it was tiredness and a hangover.

November: Over the first three days of November which were my days off work, I developed what I thought was a nasty chest infection and a brutal cough. However, my lodger came to me on Tuesday with the news he had tested positive for Covid. I took a test, I was positive. I called Miss F; she was positive as well even though she had no symptoms. She was placed in isolation in the university. I had to isolate for almost two weeks. In the end, because of the severity of my symptoms, I had three weeks off work and did not return until the last week of November.

During the three weeks I was off work sick I finished writing book thirteen, all 181,500 words of it. I also began editing it, and then sent the first draft to two of my beta readers.

December: At the beginning of the month, I had the Covid booster jab which made me very ill and caused me to have another three days off work.

The rest of the month was taken up with work, preparations for Christmas, and getting ready for Miss F to come home for the Christmas holidays.

The Friday before she was due home on the 15th, I went to spend the day with a friend and when I left was horrified to discover the back windscreen of my car was completely shattered! Phoning my insurance company, they were unable to do anything until the following Monday, so my friend and I had to tape lots of bin bags over the back of my car and I had to drive carefully home.

On the 15th I drove to Miss F’s university with a rolled-up mattress in the back of my car – it was my Christmas gift to her as the one in her university dorm was horrible and was giving her backache because it was so hard.

Then it was Christmas. I had to return to work on Boxing Day and worked five very long and stressful days until New Year.

And now it’s New Year’s Day and I’m writing this before going to the shop to buy something delicious for dinner because Miss F will be returning to university in two days.

So, that was my year. Did the bad outweigh the good? Or did it break even? I think, on reflection, if you discount the lockdown which affected everyone, not just me – and, to be honest, I quite enjoyed anyway – it appears an even split between nice and nasty. Although, I do wonder if my poor car is cursed because I’ve had more issues with it in one year than in the whole ten I’ve owned it put together.

Facing the year to come I feel there will be more issues with Covid – it doesn’t seem to be going away – and as the cost of living in the UK continues to soar I think some serious belt-tightening will be in order.

On a more positive note, book thirteen looks set to be published in February and I will then start work on book five of the Blackwood Family Saga. That will be a much shorter book, so I am hopeful of writing and publishing at least another one, if not two, books in 2022.

I’m not making any resolutions this year or fixing any goals other than working to write and publish as many books as possible. I am planning to publish some of my books as hardbacks and explore the possibility of bringing some of them out as audiobooks – but we will see what the year brings, and these plans aren’t set in stone.

I am hopeful of a better year for us all because at the end of the day hope is all we can do.

So let me wish you all a very Happy, Healthy, and Peaceful New Year, and I will chat with you next week.

Julia Blake

Merry Christmas!

I’m afraid there will be no A Little Bit of Blake until January due to lack of time. I return to work on Boxing Day – that’s the day after Christmas for my American readers – and will be working right through to New Year’s Eve. I would like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas, and let’s hope that 2022 is a better year for us all.

Julia Blake

Road Trip, Home for Christmas, and the usual shenanigans!

Afraid it will probably be a shortish blog this week. Not because I have nothing to tell you about, but simply because I’ve got a full-on day ahead of me so don’t physically have the time to write much. As I told you last week, I’ve had a week off work but sadly that didn’t mean seven days of lazing about, watching Christmas films and eating mince pies.

Last Sunday was my final day at work before my holiday and, as expected, it was reasonably quiet. The only things I sold were several ready to take away mattresses and bedding. We can’t deliver anything now this side of Christmas and people are waiting for the sales so instant mattresses for guests and new bedding was all customers wanted.

Monday was a busy day comprising of finishing my Christmas present shopping, delivering cards, and waiting for the auto glass man to come and replace the shattered rear windscreen in my car. I must admit, I was very impressed with the service. He came exactly when he said he would and the whole operation took under thirty minutes. He even vacuumed up all the broken glass in the car that he could find, although every time I open and close the boot now I still hear the tinkle tinkle of glass falling inside the car. He showed me a tiny chip on one side of the windscreen and how the fracture marks in the glass all radiated out from that point. It was a small stone thrown up and hitting the glass at just the right angle and speed which caused total devastation. He also said that because my car is so old and the glass was the original, that it was probably quite brittle and ready to go at any moment.

Tuesday I did have a nice relaxing day. First thing in the morning, I assembled everything I was going to need to take with me on Wednesday – the day I was driving oop North to collect Miss F – then at 11:30 I collected my friend ready for our lunch. Back at mine, we had some time to spare as our table wasn’t booked until 12:30 and we fancied a drink, but I didn’t want to open a whole bottle of prosecco. Luckily, in the advent calendar, Miss F had given me there was a mini bottle of prosecco that I was supposed to wait and drink on Christmas Day. Weeelll, there will be plenty of drink around on Christmas Day, so I mutilated the box Monday evening, got the bottle out and put it in the fridge ready. It was perfect, yielding just enough bubbly for a glass each.

Lunch was also lovely. We claimed our free bottle of prosecco when we arrived so that was our drinks paid for, then we both had the handmade burgers with fries and trimmings which was delicious. Afterwards, we ambled back to mine for coffee and a chat, before my friend headed off for home before it got dark. After she left, I sat down at the laptop and completed my online Tesco shopping order ready to collect in the morning, finished packing, then tried to have a restful evening and an early night.

Wednesday morning was organised chaos as I got ready for my long trip and overnight stay, dashed to Tesco to pick up my shopping order and fill up the car with petrol. Not so long ago, it cost me £45 to fill an empty tank. Now it costs £35 to fill half a tank! Back home, I just about managed to squeeze all my freezer stuff into our tiny freezer, then it was a final check that I had everything, and I was off, detouring via my parents’ house to load the new mattress for Miss F into the back of the car and then I was off.

It was an uneventful trip and I made good timing. The only hairy moments were when twice big lorries attempted to change into the lane I was in and almost crushed me against the concrete safety barrier. I’m so small they don’t see me – or don’t bother to look – and I had to lean on my horn hard to alert them to the fact a little green Nissan was sandwiched in beside them and if they continued to lane change they would squash me like a bug.

Other than that, it was a good trip with clear roads so I could pick up speed and I made it in three hours. I went to the university first and unloaded the mattress and the suitcase and various bags and boxes I’d taken up for Miss F to pack all her belongings in, then I set off to find my hotel.

Google route finder had said it was a seven-minute journey and that it was easy to find. Google route finder lied. In the gathering gloom of an early dusk, on roads I was unfamiliar with and navigating my way over dozens of roundabouts, with a stream of cars up my backside so couldn’t slow down and peer at every turning, I couldn’t find the blasted place. On and on I drove, beginning to panic somewhat. Before I knew it, I was back at the M6 and knew if I got onto the motorway then I’d be halfway home again before I could get off and come back. Now seriously concerned I went all the way around the roundabout and started back the way I’d come.

This time I found it, but with no thanks to Google route finder as the road number they claimed I needed didn’t appear to exist and the only reason I found it was because I knew the restaurant next to the hotel that we had a table booked at that evening was called Peacocks, so when a sign announced I was approaching the Peacocks roundabout I put two and two together, prayed it added up to four and turned left at the roundabout and there was my hotel!

A 7-minute journey had taken 47 minutes and caused me to stress mightily and turn the air in the car blue with my swearing. Still, at least I was there with plenty of time to spare. I checked in and went to my room. It was my first time in a Premier Inn and when the check-in clerk gave me my room card he failed to mention that I would need to insert it into a slot beside the door in the room to make the lights work. Because it would have been handy if he had. Several long, puzzling, frustrating minutes later I finally figured it out through a process of elimination and then I could relax on the bed for an hour or so before having to get ready for dinner and drive back to the university to pick up Miss F and go to dinner. A taxi was planned for the return journey to the university so at least I was able to relax and have a drink, safe in the knowledge I didn’t have to get back into that wretched car until the next day. As you can imagine, I was heartily sick of driving.

The restaurant was all decorated for Christmas with a tree and twinkling lights and was beautiful. The meal was nice, and it was a relief to be able to take a deep breath and relax. Not wanting too late a night, I was in bed by 10:30 where I read for a bit then attempted to go to sleep. Now, regular readers will know I haven’t had a lot of luck with hotels but the bed in the Premier Inn was amazing. However, there was a generator or an air conditioning unit or something of that sort running somewhere so all I could hear was a low, monotonous droning noise that went on all night. Used to a quiet room, I couldn’t blank it out, so despite the super comfy bed I tossed and turned and had a restless night of fitful, unsatisfying sleep which left me heavy-eyed and with a headache early next morning.

Thursday, we packed up everything Miss F was bringing home with her – which seemed an awful lot for two weeks and included her PlayStation AND a Wi. Not sure when she’s going to have time to play with either, but oh well. There had been a bit of a panic because a message had gone out from Student Support that all fridges and freezers would be turned off over the Christmas break. The fact fridges were going off wasn’t news and the students had eaten down their fridges, thrown away food that wouldn’t last or couldn’t be taken home, and were generally prepared for that. The news that the freezers were going off as well had caused widespread panic though.

When I arrived back at the university it was to find frozen food being thrown away by students who simply couldn’t take it home for the holidays – either due to lack of space in their parents’ freezer or being unable to carry it home, or even because they were going abroad. I knew we had no room in our freezer at home, but we packed it all into the cool bag I’d brought to put Miss F’s fridge stuff in and hoped there’d be room in my parents’ big chest freezer. No way was I letting Miss F throw away a freezer drawer full of food!

Anyway, we had a big brunch and then we were on the road by midday-ish. Not such a quick trip this time as there’d been a big accident on the M6 which we got caught in the tailback off and the three lanes had been reduced to one, so it meant slow-moving traffic and queues for thirty minutes or so, but eventually we were through and heading for home.

We reached my parents’ house at four, and yes, there was plenty of room in their chest freezer, so we took Miss F’s fridge stuff out and dumped the whole bag of freezer food in there ready to take back to university on the 4th of January.

Finally getting home, we still had to unpack the car and sort out dinner. By now I was beyond exhausted and too tired to cook but didn’t fancy a takeaway. Instead, I walked to Waitrose and bought some pate, crusty bread, anchovies, and a selection of Italian meats, and made an antipasto board for us to nibble on which was delicious.

Friday and Miss F slept in till gone eleven, but I didn’t sleep at all – think I was still too churned up from the journey. When she emerged we just had time to go and select our tree before I had my author zoom chat in the afternoon. We’ve gone for a much smaller tree this year, neither of us is feeling the Christmas vibe yet and it all seemed too much effort to have to move my desk up to my bedroom and struggle with a massive seven-foot tree as usual. So, this year we went for a small four-footer instead and it’s standing on a side table, so it still looks quite impressive. The star is on the top and the lights are on, but that was as far as we got.

Saturday, the penultimate day of my holiday and there was a lot to do. We had to pay a visit to one set of grandparents to drop off cards and presents for the extended family. I had one last present to buy, and I wanted to finish wrapping. We have a tree to decorate and my last grocery shopping order before Christmas to place. I managed to get the last collection slot before the New Year for tomorrow between 1-2pm so will need to take my time this afternoon making sure everything I want is on that order. Last-minute fresh items I will buy on foot from Waitrose – it’s handy living in the middle of town.

And that has been my week, super busy and stressful as usual. Tomorrow apart from collecting shopping I’m hoping to have some downtime. What I’d like is to veg out with Miss F, eating, drinking, and watching corny Christmas movies. Maybe that would put us in the festive spirit.

Next week the store is open on Monday, but I am only working from 10:30am to 3:30pm. Tuesday I’m working the same hours, but the shop is closed. All five members of staff will be in though as we must prepare the shop ready for Boxing Day and the sales. Then I am off for four days, which I am so looking forward to. I think I need a break before the madness of working overtime and the hell of sales shoppers.

I will post a blog next week but I’m not sure yet how long it will be, so I would like to take the opportunity to wish everyone who reads this blog – all eight of you – a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Lots of love

Julia Blake

Breaking Glass

I’m having to write my blog early this week because I’m working all weekend. It’s a busy week, so I’m going to try and write it like a diary and chat to you daily about what is happening in the usual craziness that the run-up to Christmas always descends into.

Sunday: As readers of last week’s blog will know, I had my Covid booster jab last Saturday afternoon. As I hadn’t had any side effects from my second jab – other than a weird taste in my mouth – I was hopeful the booster would not cause any issues either. By the time I went to bed Saturday evening, it all seemed fine. Apart from a sore arm which I thought a good night’s sleep would cure, I felt okay. Sunday morning, however, was a very different story.

I awoke to a world of pain. A dry hacking cough, a splitting headache, aching limbs, nausea, an arm that felt like painful lead, plus I couldn’t get warm. Yep. I had Covid again. Struggling to get ready for work, I thought about phoning in sick but simply didn’t dare. I had three weeks off in November and my pay packet at the end of the month reflected this – I couldn’t afford to lose any more pay. Plus, I knew my boss was off so if I called in sick there would only be two members of staff on which isn’t ideal at the weekend.

I dragged my sorry carcass into the shop, where my colleagues were thrilled to see me and hear the wonderful cough I brought with me. We were dead. The nature of our business means that no one is rushing in to buy before Christmas – what with us being unable to deliver many things before Christmas and people deciding to wait until the after Christmas sales – unlike many retail outlets before Christmas is the quietest time of year for us.

The day crept by, I felt more and more ill. The cough grew worse, and I couldn’t stop shaking with cold. Eventually, at about two, a colleague texted my boss that he was concerned about how unwell I was and that if I didn’t go home now he was unsure I’d be fit to drive by the time it was the end of my shift at 4:30. Back came the bosses reply – tell her to go home now.

I went home, secretly very relieved the decision had been made for me. Reaching home, I got into my warm PJ’s, lit the fire, made a cup of tea, and broke into the mini-Christmas cake I’d bought. Lying in a semi-coma on the sofa, I switched on Netflix and let it choose something for me. It came up with possibly the worst Christmas movie I have ever seen. Called A Castle for Christmas, it was so truly dreadful I couldn’t stop watching it.

Starring Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes (who really should have known better), the plot was a predictable one of a burnt-out bestselling American romance novelist escaping to Scotland to explore her family’s roots and falling in love with a castle and its gruff and broke Duke – yes, you’ve guessed it, Cary Elwes attempting a dire Scottish accent. Now, I remember Brooke from the film the Blue Lagoon, that beautiful child star with impressive eyebrows. Well, now those eyebrows are scary, and Brooke was plastered with so much make-up she looked like a drag queen. As for Elwes, let’s just say Mr Time has not been too kind to him either.

The film was the worst possible pastiche of everything America believes to be true about Scotland and contained some of the hammiest acting ever. Too ill to move or change channels, I was sucked into the vortex of its cheesiness and felt my brains leaking out of my ears. What is it about Christmas that brings out the worst in American film producers?

Monday: Woke up feeling worse, my arm was like concrete and worrying painful lumps had developed in my armpit. I assumed they were something to do with my lymph nodes but honestly wasn’t too sure what they were. I rested all day, doing only a little light editing and social media work. In the late afternoon, I decided I needed to at least get all my Christmas cards written – I tend to receive quite a few so must reciprocate, plus I wasn’t sure when the last posting dates were abroad so needed to get those cards written and addressed if nothing else. Attempting to get myself in the mood, I put on another Christmas film – The Christmas Chronicles with Kurt Russell – and started writing.

The film finished, I was still writing cards, so I let Netflix choose another film. Bizarrely it went from a family-friendly feel-good film to a potty-mouthed, 18+, Jennifer Aniston film called The Christmas Party, which was entertaining enough to provide company, but not so engrossing that I’d lose the plot attempting to write cards. So, I guess, well played Netflix. By the time I went to bed, nearly all my cards were written, addressed, and sorted into piles.

Tuesday: I felt much better about things. True, my arm still hurt but all the other symptoms seemed to have gone away. Eating breakfast, I wondered what to do with the day and got my calendar completely up to date with all my work shifts, appointments, and other shenanigans happening over the festive season. To my horror, I realised that today was the only day I had clear to put up Christmas decorations before Miss F came home from university. There was nothing for it, I was going to have to sparkle and twinkle up!

I used to love decorating the house, now it feels like a chore. Is that a sign of getting older, I wonder? When things that weren’t hard work at all become energy-sapping, time sucks. The lodger had gone to work, so at least he was out of the way, so I pulled out all the decorations from their various hiding places, turned on the radio in the lounge and the dining room and got to work.

With a few slight variations each year I tend to put the decorations in the same place so at least I knew what I was doing, and I was surprised how quickly I got things up. By three I was vacuuming up all the sparkly bits from the carpets. Slipping across the road to Wilkes, I realised that it was pouring down with cold miserable rain, and judging by how much water there was everywhere, had been doing so all day.

I only needed a few bits from Wilkes – some special cards, batteries, crackers, some toiletries – so it was a shock when it came to £40. And that right there is the problem with Christmas. The expense sort of creeps up on you. It’s only a few bits, you think, and individually those few bits don’t cost much. But add them all together, and bam, £40 gone. Looking at the pile of cards to post it’s probably going to cost me another £40 in stamps – especially for America! I needed to buy a 2022 calendar before they all disappeared and was thrilled to find a gin one with a different gin cocktail recipe each month. It’s the little things that make you happy and keep you sane.

Dashing about Wilkes – trying to avoid the idiots not wearing masks – the store radio was claiming that it was The Most Wonderful Time of the Year – is it? Is it really? Looking around at all the wet, exhausted, miserable-looking people I would seriously question that claim.

Quiet evening, simple dinner in front of the TV, then I finished writing my cards with four cards to spare. Only hope I haven’t forgotten anyone – well, it’s okay so long as it’s only four people, any more than that and I’m stuffed. Then I had an early night because I knew Wednesday would be uber busy.

Wednesday: Up early and beat the lodger to the shower. Ha-ha, too slow sucker, you snooze you lose. Then put on a load of laundry and posted on social media. I’m waiting for one last present to be delivered from Amazon this morning, but they’ve promised it will be here before ten so that’s all right. Going to have a decent brunch because I won’t have time to stop and eat at lunchtime.

It’s 10:30, still no sign of Amazon. Typical. Now about to have brunch and I need to go out at 12:30 so hope they deliver before then.

Trying to keep the momentum up, I put away the laundry as soon as it came out of the drier, wrote a book review, made some social media posts ready for the busy days ahead, then had an email from Amazon rescinding the promised 10pm delivery and changing it to 3:30pm onwards. Great, thanks for that Amazon, still at least there’s a chance I will be home by 3:30 so I suppose it’s better than it could have been.

At 12:30 I jumped in the car and drove to work to pay for and collect the mattress I’m buying Miss F for Christmas to go on top of the wooden board the university have provided for her to sleep on. They loaded it into my car, and I zoomed off to Tesco to collect my shopping order and go to the bottle bank to destroy the evidence … ahem, help the planet by recycling all my jars and bottles … There were quite a few bits and pieces for Christmas in this week’s shop, including another Christmas cake because I ate all the last one already. #sorrynotsorry The assistant brought the crates out to my car, and I must confess, it didn’t look very much. It seems £80 buys you very little grocery wise nowadays.

I’m loading it into my car and suddenly think – hang on, where’s my fricking gin? As my Christmas treat I’d ordered myself a bottle of pink cherry gin and some tonic water. The tonic water was there, but no sign of the gin. I beckoned the assistant back, showed him the gin on my shopping list which means I will be charged for it, then gestured to my gin-less shopping.

Oh, he said, would you like me to go and see if I can get some from the shop for you?

Umm, let me think about that … yes, please!

So off he lopes whilst I finish loading my shopping then sit in the car to wait for him, thinking how I didn’t have time for this, but sympathising because I know it’s not his fault. As usual, it’s because someone else hasn’t done their job properly, also how shit it is to work in retail. Anyway, five minutes later back he comes with my gin and I’m away.

I roar home, grab the shopping from the boot and quickly put it away, grab the cards I need to take to my parents and the big pile that need to be posted, jump back in the car and head out of town with the mattress bumping about in the back. And before anyone asks, it was a rolled-up one which had been vacuum packed to within an inch of its life and I’d put down one of the back seats, so it just fitted in.

On route to my parents’ village, I made a very brief stop at the discount supermarket Audi, ran in, found the freezers, and bagged myself one of their turkey crowns. Already prepared with stuffing and bacon and in a cooking container, it serves eight and cost £18. Bargain! No point in spending £30+ on a whole turkey just for four or five of us when this will do nicely and has already been prepped for me. It also saves buying stuffing – although I may buy some extra anyway because we’re all pigs over stuffing.

Back in the car, I jump on the motorway and zoom to my parents’ village and enter from the other end so I can hit their local post office. After the hour-long wait, I experienced in the post office in town the last time I had to post something it made sense to use the rather wonderful little village post office whilst I was out there anyway.

It was empty apart from one lady sending a couple of things to the States and another very frail old dear who tottered in with a walking frame after me. Eyeing the single small parcel, she was clutching I asked if she’d like to go before me because I had quite a lot to do and I was very afraid she might fall over if had to stand for too long. Shakily she wobbled past me – seriously unsteady on her pins – and upon being told it was going to be over £6 to send her parcel to the States she nearly expired on the spot. It’s more expensive than what’s inside, she complained. Yep, no surprise there, grandma, postage prices have skyrocketed as well.

Then it was my turn – I was sending off cards – one to Germany, one to Australia, two to Canada, five to America, one first-class to the UK, and eleven second class UK – £21. Not as bad as I was expecting, to be honest.

Done in the post office in super quick time – in your face, town centre post office – I then went to my parents where Dad helped me heave the mattress out of the car. He was surprised how heavy it was despite it only being a four-foot mattress, but it is a proper mattress with springs and everything and will certainly be a lot more comfortable than what she’s currently sleeping on. The plan is for it to sit at my parent’s house until the morning of the fifteenth when I will swing around on my way up north to collect Miss F and Dad will help me load it back into the car. I only hope I don’t forget and merrily bomb off up the motorway and only remember when I hit Birmingham!

There was just time for a very quick coffee with my folks before it was back in the car and head back to town to miss the school run traffic and be home before the 3:30 deadline. I knew Amazon probably wouldn’t turn up bang on 3:30 if I was there. But also knew if I wasn’t there they definitely would. Reaching home at 3:20, I put the car seats back to rights, dragged the bin out ready for the morning – heavy rain is forecast again and there’s nothing worse than fighting a dirty great bin in the rain when you’re dressed ready for work.

I’d written cards for many of my neighbours so ran around and popped those through letterboxes, then swept up all the dead leaves from my front steps before the rain started and they all got wet and soggy again.

Still trying to keep the momentum going – I know if I stop and sit down then it’s hard to get going again – I stood and did a whole basketful of ironing and put it away. And now I’m sitting here writing this and Amazon have finally delivered the parcel – it’s 5:45 – so at least I can wrap that last present and think about dinner. It’s been a good day; everything has gone like clockwork. I’m suspicious, nothing usually goes that smoothly, so what’s going to go wrong? Am I an old cynic? Probably.

Thursday: It was a workday, so there’s not much to say about it other than it was a very quiet day – well, apart from the bloody lodger making as much noise as he possibly could trying to get out of the house at 5:45 this morning! He must have forgotten something because he left the house slamming the front door behind him, then a second later was letting himself back in, stomping down the hallway and slamming a few more doors just in case the first round hadn’t woken me up!

 Unlike many retailers, before Christmas is not our busy period. After all, we have very few things we can still deliver this side of Christmas and people are waiting until the Boxing Day and January sales to buy. I did manage to pop to Dunelm next door in my lunch break and pick up another Christmas present though. Getting home, I was tired, hungry, and cold so treated myself to fish and chips for dinner, which were lovely and exactly what I needed.

Friday: I was woken early again this morning by the lodger trying to get out of the house at silly o’clock. Seriously, dude, it’s not that complicated! Close the doors quietly, don’t slam them. Don’t stomp down the hallway in your big boots. Don’t make so much noise unlocking the front door. Don’t slam it. Don’t decide to have a major coughing fit on the front doorstep because that’s right under my bedroom window. And finally, please please please, do not shut the cat in the hallway so she slinks upstairs and jumps on my head!

After lying there muttering obscenities about him for ten minutes, I decided I might as well get up and get ready. I’m off to my dear friend and fellow author Becky Wright for lunch today. It was so wonderful to see her for real again after so long of relying on messages and the odd video chat. We had coffee and cake, then a lovely lunch, and we sat in her conservatory and chatted away for hours about all things bookish.

Becky lives in a very quiet little village, and I had parked my car on the private, no through lane at the back of her house. The only vehicle we saw at all the whole time I was there was a large Amazon delivery van that dropped off a parcel at her neighbours. So, you can imagine my shock and horror when I went to leave at 3pm and discovered my back windscreen was shattered with a huge hole in one side of it and glass everywhere!

I couldn’t believe it! The only explanation is that the Amazon van must have thrown up a stone when he roared off down the lane which struck my windscreen and shattered it. I phoned my insurance company who registered the claim and told me the auto glass repair people would be in touch about replacing the windscreen. That was all well and good, but it didn’t solve the problem of how I was going to get home.

Very gingerly, Becky and I taped copious amounts of bin bags over the whole back end of the car to try and stabilise it a little and ensure that when the glass fell – which, first bump in the road, it was going to – it wouldn’t fall out onto the road behind. Then I got in the car, tried to shut the door gently, cringed at the sound of falling glass behind me, then carefully set off for home.

I will never forget that journey, it was an absolute nightmare. Almost completely dark by now, it was that weird greyish black that makes vision difficult and blurs ongoing headlights in your eyes. Not daring to go very fast, I crept along at 30 miles an hour and in my wing mirror, I could see the headlights of the long tailback I was causing strung out on the road behind me stretching back for miles. I felt guilty because although the car immediately behind would be able to see the taped-up windscreen and realise that was the problem, everyone else in the queue must have just thought I was an arse.

The road is a busy one but is only single lane and there is nowhere for anyone to overtake. Big lorries thunder along the road and every time one of those giants roared past me the bin bags would snap and rustle like mad and I was terrified they would be ripped off. Even going slowly and doing my best to avoid any potholes I saw; my whole journey home was accompanied by the sound of great chunks of glass dropping down into the car. It sounded like when you are defrosting the freezer and big chunks of ice drop down.

It felt like the drive home lasted forever and I have never been so relieved in all my life to reach home and park the car outside my house.

Saturday: I must work all weekend because a colleague is on holiday, so I was up early and preparing for work when all I wanted to do was stay in bed. Making my packed lunch in the kitchen, I heard my mobile phone ringing in the lounge so ran to grab it, thinking it might be the auto glass repair people. My stupid cat, who was crouched munching up her breakfast biscuits in the corner of the kitchen, got all excited at my sudden movement and decided she wanted in on the action. Racing me down the hall, she charged into the lounge in front of me, doubled back between my feet and sent me flying onto the sofa. Grabbing at the phone that was on the arm, I flipped it open and gasped out a hello – forgetting the phone was still plugged into the charger – so it was ripped out of my hands and fell on the floor. Picking it up, I could hear a woman’s voice going hello, hello down the line. It was the glass people.

Sadly, because of the age of the car, they’d had to order the glass specially and it wouldn’t be arriving until Sunday evening. Great, so that meant I’d have to drive to work two days with the car in that state and park it in a busy public car park. They were wondering, she continued, would I be able to drive the car to my nearest repair shop which was in Cambridge? Cambridge?! A good forty-minute drive away on a fast and busy motorway. Absolutely no bloody way!

Explaining to the woman what a dangerous and stupid idea that was, she said she thought given the severity of the incident that it seemed a bit off, so she’d put me down for a home repair. Umm, yes, I should think so. So, they’re coming Monday which is the best day for them to come as I’m out Tuesday and going to get Miss F on Wednesday, so at least it will be fixed by then. The lady couldn’t give me a time but told me the repair team would text me early Monday morning with a time slot so at least I can plan my day around it. Monday is my last chance to shop for presents for Miss F and collect a few more things from town, so I didn’t want to be stuck in the house all day waiting for them.

Work was quiet – as I expected it to be – and all we seemed to be selling were rolled up mattresses which people could take away with them, bedding, and pillows. The day did drag a bit, especially as I was on a long shift until six. Typically, we had people walk into the shop five minutes before closing time. But they only wanted a mattress to take away, so it wasn’t too bad, and I only did twenty-five minutes of unpaid overtime and at least got a sale out of it – even if it was only a small one.

And now it’s early Sunday morning and I’m writing these last few words before posting the blog for you to read with your Sunday coffee (or tea). As the madness of Christmas descends, I hope you all stay safe, well, and calm. Remember, it’s only a day and most of what you think is important really isn’t. So long as you are with your loved ones, are warm, and have enough to eat and drink, then that’s all that matters.

Speak to you next week.

Julia Blake

Happiness is a new top and free Prosecco

I’m having my booster jab Saturday afternoon – at least, I think I am. The information from the NHS is somewhat confusing as to how long after having the virus I’m allowed to have the booster. The text I received said four weeks, so I’m just about all right, but then other sources have said as long as six months. I’m not sure which to believe, so I will make sure I tell them before they stick the needle in and be guided by them. I hope I have no side effects this time, I have work tomorrow and can’t afford any more time off as my paycheck at the end of November was on the sick side.

It’s been a week of highs and lows. I worked Monday and Tuesday and it’s always quite nice getting the bulk of my hours over and done with at the beginning of the week. It means I can relax and enjoy my days off. Work was work. It is what it is. I envy those who have careers they enjoy. It must be nice to wake up in the morning and be happy to go to work. I’ve never had that. I’ve always had a job. The thing I had to do to earn money to pay the bills, but then I guess that’s true for most people. Thinking about it, I don’t know anyone who loves their work. I am hopeful for Miss F though. She is training to do what she loves and if she manages to find employment in the animal industry then she will never work a day in her life.

Wednesday was a day of shopping. There was the usual Tesco weekly shop and I picked up a few bits and bobs for Christmas whilst I was there. I was nudged into doing this because Tesco had very kindly sent me a load of vouchers to earn extra points on food and drink, so I picked through what I was going to buy anyway and made sure I remembered to take the vouchers with me. But … Yep, you’ve guessed it, remembering to take the vouchers is no guarantee of remembering to use the fricking things. Just as I swiped my card to pay, my brain very helpfully reminded me of the wedge of vouchers tucked in my purse. Bugger! I asked the assistant if there was any way to apply them retrospectively. No, she said. And that was that. Hate it when that happens.

I wandered about Wilkes which is a kind of mini-Target store and is handily located at the bottom of my road and picked up bits and pieces for Miss F’s stocking as well as cards and wrapping paper, then I went to Waterstones and bought the books that I’d been told my cousin’s son wanted for his birthday.

I was quite chuffed with myself about making a start on Christmas, but then looking at my calendar which is filling up already I realised how close it is and how very little time I have between now and then. I’ve set myself a deadline of trying to have everything done before I collect Miss F from the university on the 15th. We won’t get back until the 16th and the 17th will be mostly taken up with collecting our tree and decorating it. Every other day between then and Christmas I’m either at work or wish to spend the time with Miss F, not rushing around shopping and wrapping.

My mother invited me out to lunch on Thursday, and as she has loads of Tesco Clubcard vouchers we decided to choose a restaurant in town that still takes them – there used to be several but over the years they’ve either stopped accepting them or have closed. We selected Prezzo, a nice Italian chain of restaurants that have a varied enough menu for us both to find things we like.

Wednesday, I was sitting at my desk having a final look through book thirteen before sending it to the first beta reader when my mother phoned in a bit of a flap. She’d managed to order and download the Tesco vouchers onto her phone but was having problems booking us a table. Prezzo never answer their phone, she said. and although she’d left a message on their answerphone they had yet to get back to her. So, she’d gone online and tried to book, but there were no tables available for Thursday. I was surprised by this because it’s a big restaurant and it was only a Thursday, not a weekend, and still far enough away from Christmas that it shouldn’t be fully booked.

Are you sure there are no tables for Thursday? I asked.

Yes, she huffily told me. I’m looking at the days I can book and they’re only giving me the choice of today, tomorrow, Friday, then the weekend or next week.

Umm, so what’s the problem? I asked, now really puzzled.

Well, where’s Thursday? If they’re only offering today, tomorrow, or Friday, what about Thursday?

Mum, tomorrow is Thursday.

What? Are you sure?

Pretty sure, Thursday has a habit of following Wednesday and today is Wednesday.

Oh, right.

It doesn’t matter, I’ve booked it.

Whilst I’d been talking to her. I’d gone to the Prezzo website, found our local restaurant and booked a table for two for 12:30 for the Thursday – tomorrow.

Thursday was something of a red-letter day. Not only was I going out to lunch with my mother – something we hadn’t done in years, but I was getting my haircut in the morning. It’s been exactly two years since my last haircut, so I figured it was about time. Sitting having breakfast Thursday morning, I looked out of the window to see white stuff swirling by, quite a lot of white stuff. Within ten minutes it was coming down thickly and even settling. Now, I’m not one of those people who are very impressed by snow. Yes, it looks pretty in films and on Christmas cards, but I utterly fail to understand why people get so excited about it.

If it’s snowing it means it’s cold, very cold – and I don’t like the cold. It also means it will be treacherous to walk on and if it settles will turn into ice which makes it even more dangerous. Driving conditions will be hazardous and all the idiots will forget how to drive. Plus, here in the UK, everything grinds to a halt when more than a few flakes fall. We are simply not geared up to cope with it. Roads become impassable because there aren’t enough gritting lorries, and they tend to only do the cities and towns. Small villages become cut-off; their roads too blocked to even think about attempting to drive on. Public transport stops, with trains being cancelled due to the wrong type of snow on the rails – one wonders what the right kind of snow is. Schools are closed and parents are left unable to go to work because their children are at home with no one to care for them.

How can anyone think any of this is amazing, marvellous, and worth begging Santa for is beyond me. I think the people who whitter on about how wonderful snow is and how much they want it, either live in very hot countries where it never snows so it’s a novelty to them or in places where there is so much snow their whole infrastructure has been built around coping with the horrible stuff.

As I drove to the hairdressers it was coming down thick and my car’s ancient heating system was struggling to stop my windscreen from condensing up on the inside. This was the first time I’d used this hairdresser – I’d decided to not go back to my old one because she is too expensive, so I was switching to my mother’s hairdresser who charges half the price – mostly, I think because she’s not running a trendy saloon in town and employing people but has a little salon in her home. I’d never been to her before, well, maybe once a very long time ago, so couldn’t remember how to get there and was crawling along trying to peer at road signs through the snow – much to the annoyance of the people driving behind me.

The haircut went well, I am very pleased with it, and was relieved that she didn’t have to cut too much off because I’d feared my hair was dead up to my ears. Leaving the hairdressers, the snow was still belting down, so I drove back to town worrying about my nice new haircut surviving the walk to the restaurant for lunch.

Luckily, by the time my mother arrived, and we set off for the restaurant the snow had stopped, the sun had come out, and the weather was busy pretending it hadn’t misbehaved and tried to snow – snow? What snow was that then?

When we arrived at the restaurant, mum made sure the waiter knew we were using Tesco Clubcard vouchers because apparently that entitled us to a free glass of prosecco each. Why using vouchers warranted preferential treatment, I have no idea. I had heard that the hospitality industry is still suffering though. Christmas is usually their busiest time of year with all the celebrating and work Christmas dos that take place, but this year because of Covid and the fears over the latest variant to hit the UK, many companies aren’t holding Christmas parties or going out for meals. Which is sensible but is yet another kick in the teeth for restaurants. Perhaps by encouraging the use of vouchers and offering little freebie treats they hope to make people eat out more.

The restaurant was crowded so we wore our masks until we were safely seated at our table. They brought the prosecco which was a very unexpected treat and we looked at the menu. Now, I like pasta, but I always find the portions are too big for me in restaurants, so I end up bloated on carbs and don’t want a dessert, which is no fun. So, I chose the slow-cooked beef in chianti with tender stem broccoli and buttered potato rosti, which was utterly delicious and exactly the right size for me to eat it all and still have room for a slice of delicious tiramisu and another glass of prosecco. Mum had the chicken spaghetti carbonara which she said was delicious, but she struggled to eat even half of it and was too full for dessert.

Afterwards, we went looking round the shops looking for a new top for me. I have a few special occasions and treats coming up over Christmas and absolutely nothing to wear to them, so I needed a new top. I have a smart pair of black jeans and black boots which can go pretty much anywhere, but I was seriously lacking for something nice to wear with them – especially after the moths had decimated my wardrobe.

We tried Marks & Spencer. Hmm, I honestly don’t know who they are trying to sell to, but I think even grannies in their eighties would take one look and pronounce their winter collection as “frumpy”. We tried Next. Now normally I am successful in Next, and I like their clothes. Not this time. There was no in-between. The clothes were either too casual – thick jumpers and t-shirts – or way over the top bling. Gold lame shirts and sparkly beaded tops that any game show host would be proud to wear.

Disappointed, we wandered out of the shop and into Monsoon next door. I have never ever bought anything from Monsoon. Not only are their clothes a bit beyond my budget, but I’ve always found them too old for me and usually too long – Monsoon only cater for women of 5’6” and over. They also seem passionately fond of paisley and dresses, usually both. As I said, I’ve never bought anything from there before – oh, correction, we bought Miss F’s prom dress from there over two years ago.

This time, however, I found four tops that I liked the look of, so I went and tried them all on, and it was down to a long line dark green blouse with a thick black lace collar and nice buttons, or a blue thin silky knit evening sweater with a scattering of beads across the front. I liked them both, but felt the blouse was more an “all year round” top – beading is a bit Christmas only, well, in my book it is. It was expensive. That one top cost me the same as a week’s grocery shopping, but it is the only thing I am buying for Christmas, and it will cover at least five or six outings so it will more than earn its keep. I’ve hung it in my wardrobe surrounded by mothballs and I’m crossing my fingers that the moths are all gone now.

Sometimes, you simply have to say oh sod it, and get what you want.

I was so full of lunch that I didn’t want any dinner. Since then, Prezzo has very kindly sent me a code for a free bottle of prosecco when bought with £20 of food, so I’ve texted a friend to see if she’d like to do lunch sometime to help me drink it. She seemed very keen on the idea.

Friday morning, my landline rang. Now, the only people who call me on my landline are my mum, cold callers, and my boss because he knows I’m rubbish at answering my mobile, so I answered it with trepidation.

Hello, trilled a very perky female voice. How are you?

Umm, I’m fine. Who is this?

It’s me.

Me?

Yes, me.

I’m sorry, I’m going to need a few more clues than that.

There was a brief silence as the unknown caller thought about that.

Is this not Dale?

No, I’m not Dale.

Are you sure? It’s his number I dialled.

So convinced was she that I was Dale, that for a split second I wondered myself.

No, I’m not Dale, you have the wrong number.

Wrong numbers seem rare now, back in the days before mobiles and having everyone’s numbers remembered by them for us, I was always having people phone convinced they were talking to their friend, mother, gran, or even the lingerie department of Marks and Spencer! Once one old dear phoned me seven times over the course of one evening convinced I was her great-niece Caroline. We had ever such a nice chat and I’m not sure the last few times weren’t because Caroline the great-niece hadn’t been in, and the old lady was lonely.

Random phone calls nowadays are always boringly predictable. It’s usually someone trying to sell me solar panels, loft insulation, or trying to tell me my internet is about to be disconnected unless I phone this number now. Nice try, mate, I wasn’t born yesterday though.

I’m back to work tomorrow, then my shifts next week are weird. I’m working Thursday then sadly working the whole weekend to cover for a colleague being on holiday. Then I’m on holiday for seven days during which I will drive oop North to collect Miss F. Going back to work the week of Christmas, I’m working Monday and Tuesday, but only 10:30 to 4:30, then I’m off until Boxing Day when I’ll be working five days on the trot. Brilliant. Not.

Speaking of Christmas, the paperback versions of three of my books – Lost & Found, Lifesong, and Eclairs for Tea and other stories – are available at a special festive season sale price. Lost & Found and Eclairs for Tea have both been reduced from £8.99 to £5.99, and Lifesong is up for the tiny price of £3.99 – or local currency equivalent.

If you are stuck for ideas for stocking fillers, table presents, or even little extra gifts to go under the tree, then these would be perfect and at these prices won’t break the bank. The sale is on until Christmas so hurry and grab your copies while there’s still time to receive them before Christmas. Links are all on the book page.

Right, I’ve just got back from having my booster jab and so far so good. They gave me a great big list of possible side effects which I’m hoping I don’t get, but this time it didn’t even hurt my arm going in. Fingers crossed! I’m a bit fed up with Covid now.

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Take care everyone and try not to stress too much about Christmas.

Julia Blake

It All Seems a Bit Unnecessary

And so, another week has turned and it’s Saturday again. A cold and wet Saturday, there was even a sprinkling of the white stuff on top of cars parked in the street this morning. There’s no doubt that winter is coming, and I’ve even had to reluctantly admit that Christmas is dangerously close, so I suppose I’d better do something about it. Miss F and I have agreed to only do stockings for one another his year, although I am buying her a new mattress for her university room so technically I guess that is a present as well. On Wednesday, I spent a couple of hours going around the shops and finding bits and pieces to fill her stocking with. I even bought Christmas cards and wrapping paper and had a discussion with my mother about Christmas Day and food.

It’s not that many years ago that by the end of November I would have finished all my Christmas shopping. Indeed, shopping for Miss F would have been started the moment her birthday celebrations in August were over. Plans would have been drawn up, lists written, and complicated schedules worked out and mapped out. Back then, I seemed to have more people to buy for, more money to spend, and more events planned for the festive period. But now. I find it hard to bring myself to care. I’ve always believed that Christmas is the ultimate in diminishing returns. When you’re a child, it seems such a magical time of year. There’s the tree and all the decorations, mysterious parcels appearing under the tree, parties and gatherings, carol services, and the school Nativity play, the pantomime and family visits. None of which, as a child, you need to do anything about because they all just happen.

Then there was the day itself, and again, it just happened with minimum input from you. Lovely food and drink, presents, and games, and special TV programmes and films. All fun, and all magical.

Then you get older, and year by year, you are expected to do more to contribute to the festivities. Presents are no longer bought for you to give to friends and family, you must shop and pay for them yourself. You are expected to help with food preparation and clearing up afterwards. But it’s still fine, the bulk of the work falls upon your mum’s shoulders – who, strangely enough, doesn’t seem to care that much about Christmas.

Then you become a grown-up, with a place of your own, but still, for a few years, it’s okay because you go home for Christmas, even split the days between your family and your partner’s family. Then you have children of your own and the number of presents you must select, buy, and wrap explodes out of all proportion. You decide to hold Christmas at your home because it will be easier with the kids, and that’s when it all goes pear-shaped. Because you hadn’t realised quite how much hard work Christmas is.

For most busy working women with families who expect them to simply make Christmas happen, the planning begins in September when the kids go back to school and from then on it’s three months of unrelenting work, worry, and preparation. Who is coming on what day? What food and drink do you need to buy? What presents are you buying? How are you going to deliver them? What’s the last posting date for Auntie Sue in Australia and Cousin Karen in America? What colour theme will the table be this year? Will you be able to find napkins in just the right shade? And on and on and on, until by the week of Christmas most women are exhausted, gibbering wrecks, desperately ferrying kids around from the school party to the carol service and the Nativity play. Tiredness is your constant companion, yet you lie awake at night muttering shopping lists under your breath and wondering if you shouldn’t get up and go and do the shopping at 3am. At least no one else would be in the shop. So, you do, and the shop is packed because every other woman had the same idea.

I remember Miss F and I hitting Tesco two weeks before Christmas to do the big shop one year. We had a hot chocolate in the restaurant first to keep our strength up, then chose a big trolley and worked our way around the aisles trying to find everything on our list.

It was chaos. Frazzled looking women were having muttered arguments with bewildered husband’s who just couldn’t seem to understand that NO, that stuffing will not do, and YES, it does bloody matter. A fight broke out in the chiller section over the last pack of pigs in blankets and whilst the two women were oh so politely offering it to one another, the tone in their voices indicating if the other woman took it then all hell would rain down, I sent little Miss F in like a skinny ninja to sneak the pack from off the shelf and it was in our trolley and we were gone before anyone caught onto what had happened.

It took two hours and cost over £200 and looking back, I wonder the heck I was thinking of. It’s just one day! I didn’t need all the treats and sweets and enough cheese to build a wall that I ended up buying. I remember a friend of mine once saying that during the run-up to Christmas she was always saying – don’t touch that, it’s for Christmas – then after Christmas plaintively saying – will someone please eat that up before it goes bad!

I remember I always used to be ill at Christmas. Right up until Christmas Eve I wouldn’t have time to be sick, too busy running myself ragged planning, shopping, wrapping, cooking, charging around visiting and delivering presents, to even contemplate the idea of being ill. Then on Christmas Eve I would finally sit down with a little drink in hand, look about the picture-perfect Christmas I had created and think – yes, it’s all done, everything is perfect, now I can relax and enjoy Christmas after all my hard work. But my body would say – okay, about that, now you’ve stopped here’s a nasty cold for you or a chest infection, or a sore throat, or even all three! Enjoy! Oh, and Merry Christmas.

So much excess, so much food, and drink, and money wasted on stuff you don’t need. For several years now, I’ve been scaling Christmas down to the point where I don’t buy for anyone other than nearest and dearest. Last year, we didn’t even bother having a tree. There seemed little point. Miss F was working Christmas Day and then I was working Boxing Day, we were barely going to be home. Of course, things didn’t quite work out that way with the UK going into tier four restrictions on Boxing Day so no work for me, and then the country going back into lockdown in early January.

We are having a tree this year because Miss F has requested one. But unlike most of the rest of the planet who seem to be competing as to who can get their decorations up the soonest, our tree won’t be going up until the 17th of December. Miss F doesn’t come home from university until the 16th and would never forgive me if I decorated the tree without her. I have a week’s holiday from the 13th of December onwards, so I will probably decorate the house before I go to collect Miss F from university though, just to get it done.

The plan was for me to drive up on the 16th, taking Miss F’s new mattress with me, pack up the things she wished to bring home for the holidays, then drive back the same day. But it is a long drive and with it getting dark so early I wasn’t keen on motorway driving in dark, potentially bad weather, conditions. Looking at hotels close to the university, I found a Premier Inn less than a mile away which will only cost me £50 for the night. I have booked myself a room for the 15th which is Miss F’s last day of university. The plan is I will drive up early afternoon, go to the university and somehow manage to heave a four-foot rolled heavy mattress up four flights of stairs, and leave the boxes and suitcase I’ll be taking for her to pack her stuff in. Then I’ll go to the hotel, check-in, rest, and relax, and freshen up before popping back to the university to collect Miss F and her best friend she wants me to meet. A table has been booked at the restaurant next to the hotel for seven that evening for the three of us to have a relaxed dinner. The girls will then either walk back to the university if the weather is fine, or we’ll get them a taxi.

Neither the hotel, nor the restaurant does breakfast, so I will have to throw myself on the mercy of Miss F to provide sustenance when I go back to the university the next morning to pack up her things and then head on back home. Hopefully not get stuck in too much holiday traffic and make it back before dark.

We then have three days together to collect our tree, relax, and do Christmas things, before I am back to work for two short days on Monday and Tuesday, then I have four days off over Christmas before going back to work on Boxing Day.

I hate working Boxing Day. It’s one of the worst things about my job and it seems so unnecessary. It’s not even as if we are that busy, but because our competition is open on Boxing Day, and many of the other stores in our retail park are, then we will be open as well so all those people who hate being home for longer than one day and absolutely must go shopping the day after Christmas can pile into our shop – and never spare a thought for the poor bloody staff who would love to be able to stay home with their family.

I have my parents coming for Christmas Day, possibly my brother as well, and an invitation has been extended to the lodger to join us because I honestly don’t think he has anywhere else to go. Whether he accepts the invitation or not is entirely up to him. It has been given because the thought of someone being alone at Christmas is sad, not when they don’t have to be.

So, that’s Christmas planned. Low key, not going crazy, and certainly not wasting money I don’t have – especially as my pay packet at the end of November was a bit light due to having three weeks off with Covid.

Speaking of which, my booster jab is booked for the 4th of December, and I hope my reaction to it is mild this time.

I returned to work on Monday after my three weeks off and had two very long days which left me exhausted and going to bed at nine on Tuesday evening and sleeping for twelve hours – unheard of for me – and very relieved I then had four days off to rest. This virus wiped the floor with me, and I still don’t feel right. I’m tired, congested, and my sense of smell and taste have yet to return. Hope they do before Christmas or it will be a bland and boring one, foodwise.

One last item of news – to celebrate Black Friday and the fact that it was published exactly one year ago – Black Ice, my fun and fast-paced retelling of Snow White, can be bought for the super low price of £1.99 or local currency equivalent, eBook version obviously. The sale ends at midnight on the 30th of November, so why not click on its link on the books page and snag yourself a copy for Christmas.

That’s it for now. Sorry about my demented ramblings about Christmas – it’s this time of year, it always makes me go a little peculiar.

Take care.

Julia Blake

Busily Doing Nothing

Sorry for the blog being so late today, but I ran out of time yesterday and didn’t have time to write it. Well, that’s not strictly true. After all, this week I have had nothing but time, but I was engrossed doing something else all day Saturday and time got away from me.

But first, a health update. As you know, I was due to return to work last Sunday after my two weeks off with Covid. I thought I’d be okay, I was feeling better, so I figured I’d manage a short six-hour Sunday shift with no problems. I thought wrong.

For a start, the sheer physical logistics of getting up, showered, and ready to leave the house for work exhausted me. I was opening the shop and trying to remember everything I was supposed to do gave me a headache. The shop was very busy and just so peoply. I found myself feeling stressed and anxious. I began to cough. I coughed a lot. My colleagues were not very happy with me – but weirdly the customers didn’t seem to care. The day dragged on. The headache got worse, as did the cough. Constant nausea that has been one symptom of the Covid ramped up a notch until I was gritting my teeth convinced I was going to hurl any second, but at the same time, I was ravenously hungry. And I was exhausted, utterly drained physically, mentally, and emotionally, all I wanted to do was crawl home and fall asleep on the sofa.

My boss had the day off as it was his daughter’s birthday, but I think someone must have told tales out of school because at 3pm – an hour before I was due to leave – the phone rang, and it was him.

HIM:  You’re still coughing, aren’t you?

ME:  Umm, only a little bit.

I then proceeded to have a monumental coughing fit down the phone that left me wheezing tearfully at the end of it.

HIM: Right, go home, now!

ME:  I’ve only got an hour left.

HIM: Doesn’t matter, go home now.

ME:  Oh, but…

HIM: NOW!

ME:  Okay. (actually quite pleased about it)

HIM: Don’t come in tomorrow until I’ve phoned you.

ME:  What?

HIM: I need to speak to head office about this, so stay home tomorrow and wait for my call.

I went home, wondering what the outcome would be of his consultation with the powers that be. Sunday evening, I couldn’t stop coughing and I knew I’d overdone it. My joints were aching and although I was hungry and wanted dinner, the feeling I was going to throw it back up again was horribly persistent.

Monday morning. I had no idea what was going to happen. Would I be going in at my normal time? Would it be a later start for me? Would I be going in at all? Uncertain, I got ready for work anyway even making my packed lunch and putting it in the fridge. I figured if I didn’t go to work at least my lunch was already made. At 10:30 my boss phoned me. We had a conversation. During which he expressed his own and the company’s concerns that I had come back too soon. That for the physical and mental well-being of my colleagues it was felt that I needed more time off. I had already come to this conclusion myself. Waking up on Monday the very thought of having to summon up the energy to drag myself back into work made me want to burst into tears so the offer of another week off filled me with absolute relief. Yes, the lack of pay was going to be a bitch, but sometimes you must put your health first. So little is known about this virus, but with any virus – not allowing sufficient recovery time can store up problems for the future.

We chatted and it was agreed I would take another week off and return to work the following Monday. Technically, I was supposed to telephone my boss every day but as he was going to be on holiday he requested that I didn’t, and really, what would be the point of me disturbing him just to cough down the phone.

So, Monday morning I stood down and contemplated another week at home.

It has been a week of doing absolutely nothing beyond the barest minimum to stay clean, fed, and the dishes and laundry done. I focused on getting better and because there was nothing else I could do; I threw myself wholeheartedly into finishing book thirteen.

I started to write on Monday with a word count of 153,781 and by the time I wrote The End on the manuscript on Thursday, it stood at a whopping 181,476 words. This means I wrote 27,695 words over those four days. That is not too shabby, even by my standards.

I thought I had finished it on Wednesday afternoon. I wrote an ending. Walked away. Then it niggled at me that the ending didn’t satisfy, that more was needed. I went back. I wrote another short chapter. This one tied up some more loose threads, but I still wasn’t happy with it. Over 500,000 words spread over three big books I have asked the readers to come on a journey with me. And now the journey was ending, it needed to end in a way that would make people happy. I went to bed Wednesday night still pondering. Waking Thursday morning the idea for a fiendish little twist in the tale suddenly occurred to me. Something that would jerk the reader awake. They would think the story was over, then this last chapter would be thrown at them, and their emotions would be thrown back up in the air and hopefully, their heart rate would increase.

I wrote that chapter. Was I now done? Yes, it was a solid ending, but … I felt Lili and her friends deserved better, so I sat down and wrote a little four-page encore that is actually called that – Encore. It’s a sort of where is everyone so many years down the road kind of thing and I love it.

And then the book was done.

I can’t believe it’s finished, that The Perennials Trilogy is finally done. The idea for this set of books about three women called Lili, Daisy, and Rose first came to me about fifteen years ago. In a flash, I saw the whole path these women would take. I wrote the first book Becoming Lili fifteen years ago but told no one other than a few close friends that I had plans for it to be a trilogy. Then life got in the way, I wrote other books, and although writing the rest of the trilogy was always on the cards, it got relegated to someday.

In 2016 I finally started writing Chaining Daisy but broke halfway through it to edit and publish other books I’d written over the fifteen years since I wrote Becoming Lili and write book two in the Blackwood Family Saga – Fixtures & Fittings.

Early 2018 I picked it back up again and Chaining Daisy was published in the summer of that year. It was well-received, and I had to finally confess that it was book two of a proposed trilogy so there would be a book three coming along, sometime. Then I got busy with other books and my busy author life and didn’t even think about starting the third book until summer 2021.

And now it’s done, the trilogy is complete, and I must confess to mixed emotions. On the one hand, I’m happy and relieved the tale is finally told and that I have one complete series in my portfolio. But on the other hand, Lili and her group have been my friends and even my family for fifteen years. That’s a long time to walk around with the lives of characters buzzing about your brain. I will miss them. Will there be more Lili in the future? Possibly, or maybe their children will carry on the torch for them. After all, Becoming Lili starts in the 1990s so the next generation will be the right age to feature in any contemporary novels I write so who knows. Never say never.

Friday morning, I sat down at my laptop and with the very useful Word find feature I went through the manuscript looking for crutch words. These are words such as just, suddenly, really, felt, moment, immediately, definitely etc … words that sneak in but aren’t absolutely necessary and can drag the writing down. (An example of this is in that last sentence – absolutely wasn’t necessary – the sentence would have made as much sense without it.)

Pleasantly surprised how few crutch words I had used – really used only eighty times in a 181,476-word document is not too bad – I whizzed through and sharpened up the book and removed about 500 words in the process.

Friday afternoon was my zoom authors meeting and it was great chatting with everyone. This group of women have saved my sanity during the weird times we are all living through, and it’s so wonderful to have other authors to talk to.

Saturday morning, I was awoken at 6am by the lodger very noisily leaving the house to go to work. I’ve concluded there’s no point saying anything to him about it. He’s just one of those men who are noisy and don’t even realise they are being so. Luckily, it’s only once or twice a week and I’m an early bird anyway.

I lay in bed and realised that I was wide awake. Not only that, but my book was calling to me. Other than going back over the chapter I’ve just written; I haven’t read the whole book at all whilst writing it. I needed to do a complete read through from beginning to end to see how it all hung together. Did it make sense? Did the plot flow? Do the characters maintain the same voices all the way through? Most of all, is it any good?

When I was writing it I honestly didn’t know. I was too close and couldn’t see the wood for the trees. But reading it through yesterday – I read the whole 180,697 words of it tweaking it in places and sharpening it still further – I’ve realised it is good. Well, I think it is anyway.

Then I tackled pagination. Page numbering a Word document is something that is either incredibly easy or incredibly hard. If it’s a simple thing and you want it to start with page one and work its way through to the end with a number on every page then it’s easy. But, if you have section breaks with an illustration at the start of each section that you don’t want a page number on then it becomes a whole lot harder. I know how to do it but sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Taking a deep breath, I made sure I’d saved the document everywhere first, then I started.

After a few sticky bits and me swearing at Word, it was all going swimmingly – until I hit the last section – that little four-page encore bit, and there the computer said No. It didn’t matter what I did I could not get that bit to paginate without it either sticking page numbers on the pages I didn’t want it to or, even more annoying, deleting all the page numbers it had managed to insert correctly.

Finally, I gave up. It’s 90% done so when the lovely Becky Wright at Platform House Publishing goes through to tidy up my illustrations she will no doubt see in a flash what the problem is and will fix it for me.

Struggling with the page numbering, I suddenly realised it had got very dark, and that I was hungry, and when I looked at the time it was almost six and I’d been sitting at my laptop almost without moving for twelve hours! I’d had a bacon sandwich for breakfast at nine, but that now felt a very long time ago and my stomach was protesting.

Switching on lights and the oven, I searched for something quick and easy. I had a mushroom and camembert pie in the freezer, plus some fat chips. With some peas or something that would do. I was too hungry, and my brain was too buzzed to bother with anything else. Waiting for the oven to warm, I started going back through the book to check that inserting the page numbers hadn’t thrown everything out of alignment. It had, so I had to tweak paragraphs to make the chapters the right lengths again.

Obviously, when you put in a page number it takes up a space at the bottom of the page that might previously have contained the last sentence, so it pushes that sentence to the next page. That might not sound like a big deal, and if your chapter ends near the top of a page or even halfway down, then usually it’s fine, there’s room for the chapter to spread. But if the chapter finished near the bottom of the page then that line being pushed could mean that suddenly your chapter ends with one or two lines at the top of a blank page. Which I don’t like. It’s messy and looks unprofessional.

Engrossed in checking the book and tweaking where necessary, I did remember the putting it in the oven part of my dinner but sadly forgot about the taking it out part. By the time I thought about it my chips were on the crunchy side and the pie had a very blackened crust. Forgetting about the peas – I didn’t have time to wait for them – whilst my ruined dinner cooled down enough to eat I had one last look through the manuscript then saved it and sent it to Becky. She has a window in her busy schedule to beta read it for me next week so she will be the first person other than me to read it.

And now there is nothing more I can do about it until the feedback comes back from Becky. My other two beta readers have said they will be ready by mid-December to have the book sent to them to read over the Christmas period and I will be realistically looking for feedback from them next January. Making amendments, and a final readthrough and then writing the blurb will all happen during that month and then I will be looking at possibly a February publication.

And what’s next? Book five of the Blackwood Family Saga. Being such short books of only 50,000 words means I can produce one of those in a fraction of the time it took with this latest book, so I’m hopeful of writing that between working on the edits and publishing the third Perennials book so will be looking for an April publication for that. I try to publish a Blackwood book each spring. After that, I plan to write the sequel to Erinsmore as it’s long overdue and I know readers are waiting for it. But after that, who knows…

And now it’s Sunday morning and I am very aware it’s gone nine and my blog still hasn’t been posted. I am sorry, but writing a book is a bit like being pregnant in that your mind is distracted and everything else gets forgotten about.

Today I need to bathe the tortoise and clean out his box and I need to touch base with my boss at some point. There is my bed to strip, laundry to do, and I must ensure all is ready for my return to work tomorrow. To my surprise I’ve sold a video that has been sitting on eBay unnoticed for almost a year now, so I need to get that ready to be posted and try and figure out the new system of being paid that eBay has installed since the last time I sold anything on there. It’s annoying that the buyer chose to buy on a Saturday evening when the post office is shut on a Sunday, and I must go to work Monday, but I’m sure I’ll sort something out.

Take care everyone, sorry this has been a bit of a boring, book-obsessed blog, but it’s been a book-obsessed week. Hopefully, what with going back to work, I’ll have more to chat to you about next week.

Julia Blake

Out of Quarantine

No blog this week, because to be honest, what with being at home under strict quarantine I don’t have very much to talk about. I have spent the week writing, which was wonderful, and coping with the symptoms of Covid, which was not so wonderful.

I am feeling much better, but the cough is lingering and sadly I appear to have lost my sense of smell and taste. I’m hopeful they will come back, especially my taste. As you know, I love food and not being able to taste anything is dreadful. To not be able to smell bacon frying or taste it is grim, and one morning I had tea with off milk in it because I couldn’t smell the milk had turned, nor taste it had. It wasn’t until I was halfway down the cup and realised that the texture of the milk was odd that I recognised what had happened.

Everything tastes beige now.

I’m back to work on Sunday for three long days, which is a shame. I think I’m going to be very tired after two weeks of not doing very much, and the virus has wiped the floor with me, leaving me drained and fatigued. Today (Saturday) I have concentrated on making sure I’m ready for three days at work, so have arranged three easy cook meals and made sure the house is up to scratch. I’m not sure I’m ready to go back but have already sacrificed half a month’s pay to this virus, I can’t afford to lose any more.

Apart from feeling so ill, it has been wonderful being able to write all day and every day, and over the two weeks, I’ve been in isolation I have written almost 50,000 words which is incredible. The book is almost finished. Maybe another 20,000 words or so and it will be done.

My lodger doesn’t appear to have the inner resources I have and has been climbing the walls to get out. I thought he would want to be a little more sociable because we were trapped in the house together, but he seemed to want to be left alone and refused my offer to watch a film together or play cards or something, so I let him get on with it. The second the quarantine was lifted yesterday he was out of the house and didn’t come back for a couple of hours. He’s also back to work today which he was excited about.

Miss F was released from her quarantine at midnight, and I think she’s very happy to be back in her room surrounded by her friends and able to cook her own food. The food the university supplied her with – when they remembered to feed her, that is – wasn’t very appealing.

Am I weird that I enjoy being home so much? Maybe if I wasn’t a writer and didn’t have such a rich and varied online life, then I would feel the effects of cabin fever as well. It’s not even as if I sat and watched TV all day because I was too busy to even think about turning on the TV until I sat down to eat my dinner in the evening. No, what with frantically writing, reading, and spending time on social media, I didn’t have time to even think about whether I was lonely or bored.

Having Covid again, especially after being double jabbed, has made me afraid though. I think like many people I had grown a little complacent but being so ill from it this time around has made me extremely cautious. I will continue to wear my mask at work and if I go into shops. I will go back to collecting my shopping instead of going into the store. I will stay away from people because I don’t know where they’ve been. This whole sorry experience has taught me that even though I’m vaccinated it is possible to catch the virus again and be very ill with it.

Please take care everyone and apologies for the shortness of my chat. See you next week.

Julia Blake