Why is being a grown-up so hard?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How was it?”

“Fine.”

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

“Nothing. There wasn’t any pizza.”

“Oh? Why not?”

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

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

“Didn’t play any.”

“Oh, why not?”

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

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

“Yep, he seemed really pleased with it.”

“Good, what did you get?”

“Nothing.”

“What?!”

“Yep, I got nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best

Julia Blake

A Library is for Life…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mummy,”

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care and have a great week.

Julia Blake

That was the Year that was…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

Julia Blake

An Apology…

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

See you all in 2020.

Julia Blake

It's the Thought that Counts…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve bought me foundation?”

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

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

“Well, that’s alright isn’t it?”

“No, Mum, it’s for black skin.”

“Can’t you still use it?”

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

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

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

“Umm, why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why have you bought me these?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas

Julia Blake

Tis the Season for… Presents, Party Frocks and Panic!

Another week closer to Christmas and I’ve been on holiday this week, but, as usual, my crazy busy life doesn’t allow for much in the way of resting, and this week has been purely for me to catch up on Christmas preparations, as I only get three days off over Christmas itself.

I am just about ready now. Monday was spent getting those last few presents for the people I am buying for. An aunt and uncle who always buy for Miss F and for whom I always struggle to buy. What do you get for people you don’t know very well, who have no interests or hobbies you know about and don’t seem to want or need anything? Answer, a delightful set of four placemats and matching coasters in duck egg blue with adorable funny ducks on. I mean, who wouldn’t want them?

Tuesday, I had to go into my freelance job for a few hours in the morning, then I went to the supermarket and did THE shop. It wasn’t too crowded, but it still took me almost two hours. Considering that was a normal weekly shop, the contents of a couple of hampers, all the drinks and food we’ll need over the Christmas period and a mega cheeseboard which is my contribution to Christmas dinner, I didn’t think that was too bad.

Wednesday, I went to visit an author friend of mine who lives nearby and had a lovely long lunch and chat with her. Then Thursday morning I went shopping for an outfit for my works Christmas do which was on Saturday night and also find something for Christmas Day. Now, I’m not great with clothes shopping. Well, when you’re (a) only 5’ and (b) have womanly curves and (c) no money, trying to find something that (a) fits (b) looks alright, and (c) doesn’t cost a fortune, is a real challenge. I hate the whole process as well, the trailing around in overheated shops, picking things off the rails and looking at them, clueless as to whether they’ll suit you and wondering if it’s worth the bother of queuing for a changing cubicle and then having the hassle of stripping to try it on.

I tend to look all round the shop first and then try on a great armful of all the potential candidates. Seriously, I only want to do this once! I really wanted to look nice for my staff Christmas do, I wear a uniform for work and the rest of the time look like a bag lady who got dressed in the dark, so for once, I wanted to look and feel feminine and, well, put together.

I had my heart set on a dress. Now, dresses and I are not really a thing – see points (a) (b) and (c) above, but this year I wanted to wear something different from my usual trousers and top combo. Then, in almost the first shop I tried, I found it. A sleeveless shift dress, fully lined, in a lovely velvety material. It was subtle and pretty, with a softly muted pattern of blue, burgundy, reds and yellows, the overall effect of which was like an old, worn Turkish rug.

With a bubble of excitement rising inside me, I took it to the changing room. To my delight it fitted, but I wasn’t sure if it FITTED, if you know what I mean. It’s so hard to make a rational decision cramped into a cubicle with your hair a windblown bird’s nest, no make-up on and your jeans yanked down to your knees. I thought it looked okay, it was beautiful, so I decided to take a chance. Buying a long-sleeved burgundy body to wear underneath – my days of going out with bare arms being a thing of the past – I hurried home in time to meet another friend for our pre-Christmas lunch.

Friday, I ran Miss F out to her work placement, answered a few emails, booked a taxi for Christmas Eve (£15 to get us home at 11.30pm, bargain!) and then dashed to Marks & Spencer to grab a pair of burgundy tights to go with my beautiful new Christmas frock. Rushing through the ladieswear department, I spotted a rack of new in jeans and stopped to have a quick look.

Now, there are only four different types of jeans I can wear – bootcut, slouch, boyfriend and sometimes slim, depending on the cut. Forget all the others, and especially forget the torture of skinny fit jeans. Why, oh why, are they called that? When they neither fit nor make you look skinny. But the stores have decided skinny and super skinny (really?! Have they seen the size of the average British woman?!) are the style of jeans we all want and so the shops are full of them. Seriously, I mean rammed with them, to the extent it’s as if the other cuts no longer exist.

I glanced over the racks. Sure enough, skinny, skinny, super skinny, ankle grazer skinny, high rise skinny, low rise skinny, mid-rise skinny – you get the point. But then suddenly, one lone rack of slim fit tucked away right at the end. They’d already been plundered. Desperate women like me had clearly descended on them like a plague of locusts and ransacked the choicest sizes. With a sinking heart I rattled through them. Nope. My size wasn’t there. Slowly I went through again, this time ignoring the size on the hanger and checking the sizes inside the jeans themselves. It’s rare, but it does happen that sometimes a size will be incorrectly put back on the wrong hanger. Yes! I crowed with delight. I was in luck, there was one pair of slim fit jeans in my size lurking on a size 20 hanger.

What to do? I was on my way to a coffee morning with the Suffolk Authors and didn’t have time to try them on. Luckily, Marks & Spencer have a brilliant returns policy, so I knew there’d be no issue with bringing them back if they didn’t fit. I grabbed them, just as another woman who looked about my size suddenly discovered the rack, and, with a gasp of hope, began rattling the hangers.

I legged it towards the nearest till, just in case it ended in a smackdown. On the way, I passed a rack of gorgeous “going out” blouses. Silky soft, with a bright red base colour and a pattern of large golden dahlias, they were beautiful. The pair of jeans I was holding were a dusky black and the blouse would go perfectly with them. Not stopping to think, I grabbed one my size, figuring having two outfits for the whole Christmas period was not too extravagant, not really.

Friday was its usual busy frantic rush, so I didn’t get time to try on the fruits of my shopping expeditions until Saturday morning. Miss F was home getting ready to go to work, so I asked if she’d have a look and pass judgement, on which one I should wear that evening for the staff Christmas do. Carefully, without removing any of the tags, I tried on the dress first. Burgundy body suit underneath, burgundy tights smoothed on, knee high boots zipped up. Nervously, I went down to get her approval.

She looked at me. Her eyebrows went up and her mouth pursed. She was silent.

“Well?”

“Umm, perhaps if you wore a pair of spanx underneath?”

“I am wearing a pair of spanx underneath,” I informed her through gritted teeth.

She paused and pulled another face, and I could see her urge to be honest warring with her desire to be kind.

“It makes me look fat, doesn’t it?”

“Well, not so much fat, as… chunky.”

And that was it, with that one word – chunky – she’d completely killed any love I had for the dress. Dispirited, I trailed back upstairs to change into Plan B. The jeans fitted perfectly, good quality ones, they hugged where they should, held in what I wanted them to, and flattened what I needed them to, but the blouse… it was ridiculously large and billowy and the sleeves flapped halfway down my hands!

Duly, I went to show Miss F and another face was pulled.

“You look like a kid dressing up in her mother’s clothes.”

Better than chunky, I suppose, but still not good and I was now left in the terrible position of having gone from having two outfits, to having none! Something had to be done. Assessing the situation, I felt if I merely went down a size in the blouse that would solve all the problems and have the added bonus of making me feel better. There had been dozens of blouses in Marks & Spencer only the morning before, so I was confident of being able to simply swap one size for the next one down.

Quickly, I got changed and put the dress and blouse in a bag, along with the appropriate receipts, and scuttled up town – thankful that we only lived a couple of minutes walk away – and took the dress back first, no problem.

Fully committed to the jeans and blouse outfit now, I trawled the shops and found black ankle boots with gold zips, a black belt with a gold buckle, a very useful sized black bag with gold trimmings and amazing dangly black and gold earrings. Then I reached Marks & Spencer and hurried to where two racks of those blouses had hung just the day before. They weren’t there. Quickly searching, my heart rising in panic, I finally located a few tucked behind a horrible brick red shirt. There were only four left. A size 6, a size 8, a size 20 and the same size I’d already bought.

Bugger! Now desperate, I located an assistant, who got panicky with me when I explained the situation and set off to check the stock levels, just in case one was left hanging outside a changing room somewhere. There wasn’t. We looked at each other. A lady about my age, she was clearly feeling my pain and that helped a bit, misery really does love company. Trying to be helpful, she set off on a scavenger hunt around the shop, suggesting lots of different tops but none of them were what I wanted, and the few that were, the sizes had been picked through so I was left with two choices – either lose, or gain, half my body weight by that evening!

I’d like to take this opportunity to send a plea to women’s clothing stores. You know which are the most popular sizes, so please, stock up on those ones! Let’s face it, even if you do have stock left to go into the after Christmas sales, you’re more likely to sell items in the sizes most women are, than the freakishly small and large ones.

Finally, we found a blouse very similar in cut and look to the red and gold one, but in black and gold. Again, only stupid sizes were left but there was one in the exact same size as the blouse I was still clutching. We looked at each other again.

“It’s the same cut as the original one, so will that mean it won’t fit either?”

“I don’t know, but it’s worth a try.”

She was right, it was worth a try, so into the changing room I trotted. Was it a perfect fit? Not particularly. Will it do? Yes, I bought it. Time was ticking by and I didn’t have the luxury of being picky. The same price as the original blouse, it was a straight exchange, Funnily enough, on the way out of the shop I passed the racks of jeans and noticed of the slim fit ones there were only a scant few left – sizes 6, 8, 20 and 24.

On the way home, I found a gold and black choker style necklace to complete the look, and I’ve even been to the hairdressers and had my hair styled into an elaborate up-do. But it’s blowing a force ten gale out there and it fell apart a bit just on the walk home. Rain is threatened for the evening and it’s a ten-minute walk to the restaurant. Will my hair survive? I very much doubt it, but there’s nothing I can do about it other than give it a good blast of hairspray and hope for the best. And, by the time I’ve had a couple of glasses of free prosecco, I probably won’t give a damn.

Why is it that clothes shopping gets so much harder the older you get? Is it because our bodies let us down? We get saggy bits and our tummies bulge, our bottoms droop and our bingo wings flap. Our skin tone changes and colours that once looked great, are now deeply unflattering. I also think we get fussier the older we get. When we’re young we can get away with wearing almost anything, relying on our youth to make us beautiful, but, as age takes its toll, we rely more and more on clothes to be our armour against the judgemental gazes of others.

Women, especially, have it the hardest. We want to dress youthfully, but there’s always the fear of being “mutton dressed as lamb”, that overwhelming dread of appearing ridiculous. For women of my age, we’re caught in that hinterland where skinny fit is no longer an option, but we’re still resisting the siren call of elasticated waistbands. Where the much-loved brighter coloured clothing can clash badly with menopausal hot flushes, yet we don’t want to give in and wear beige.

There is a serious gap in the clothes available to us that a clever clothing manufacturer could fill. After all, most women my age have money to burn and would be more than happy to spend it on well cut, nice quality clothes that are fresh, youthful and, crucially, fit. Clothes that make allowances for bumpy bits, and sticky out bits, and the fact that not all women are 5’7” stick insects. In short, clothes that boost our flagging self-confidence and make us feel good about ourselves. Now, what woman wouldn’t pay a little extra for that? I know I would.

Anyway, it’s now gone 4pm on Saturday afternoon and I need to start getting ready. I’ve suddenly realised that stupidly I wore a jumper this morning, and now have to try and negotiate it over the gazillion hair pins it took to tame my hair into a posh, grown up style.

This wasn’t the blog I set out to write, I had intended to have a light-hearted ramble through the Christmas presents – good, bad and downright hilarious – that I’ve received over the years, but that can be a blog for another week.

Take care of yourselves, and I really hope you all have a great week. As usual, I would love to hear from you, so please drop any comments here or you can contact me on Facebook and Instagram. See you next week, the last blog before Christmas, when hopefully, I will be able to tell you I’m ready and waiting for Christmas to do its worst.

All the best

Julia Blake

Deck the Halls! Christmas Bling ding-a-ling-ling

We put our Christmas tree up on Monday. A little early for us, but due to staff holidays and sickness I’m pulling a lot of overtime right now and am working all weekend (think of the money) so it was really the only day we had spare. Now normally we have a whopping 8 to 9-foot tree – being a Victorian property we have ridiculously high ceilings – but this year decided to restrain ourselves to a 6’ one instead. We also changed where we put it.

Traditionally, it has stood in the corner by the window which means I have to dismantle and move my writing deck upstairs and store it in my bedroom. Well, this year I just couldn’t face that. There’s also the financial side of it. Real trees aren’t cheap. 9’ real trees definitely aren’t cheap, and as we’re aiming for a low-cost Christmas this year, a smaller tree seemed more sensible all around.

So, early Monday morning I loaded Miss F and her best friend Miss A into my tiny Nissan Micra and were on the doorstep of Blackthorpe Barn where we buy our trees every year. Those of you who’ve been following my blog since the beginning, will remember that’s where Miss F had her prom. Going that early on a Monday morning meant the place was deserted and we had the pick of the freshly cut trees.

Restraining ourselves to only looking in the 5-6’ section was harder than I thought it would be, but I stood firm, despite all Miss F’s entreaties. Then we spotted a pretty little tree that really stood out from all the others due to the odd lime green colour of some of its branches. The Christmas tree guy had no explanation for it, other than it might have grown on a mineral deposit of some kind, but assured us it was perfectly healthy, just… different. Being perfectly healthy just different myself, that settled it.

Then we had to get it home. One adult, two teenagers and a six-foot tree in a Nissan Micra was an interesting challenge, but luckily it’s only a ten-minute drive home and I was able to see through the foliage – just. The girls then went to college and I was left to heave the wet, muddy tree into the house, locate where I’d put the pot last year and attempt to set it up myself. I thought it would be easier than most years when I manhandle a nine-footer into submission, but it was harder. It was going to be stood on top of a pair of storage boxes that stand by the sofa and act as a side table. I tried putting the pot on the table first then lifting the tree into it. No go. I simply couldn’t see the pot to manoeuvre the tree trunk into it. Eventually, I had to put the tree in the pot on the ground, fasten it securely and then lift the whole thing, pot and all, into position. It’s a good thing I’m as strong as an ox and was also stubbornly determined that I would get it up there.

Then I had to play that ever popular game of “do the lights work”? Yes, they did. I then had to play the even more popular game of untangling them. Why is it, no matter how carefully you put them away one year, they’re always tangled the next. Usually we have two strings of 200 lights each, but this little tree only needed one. I filled the pot with cold water, put the tree skirt on and positioned the angel on top of the tree. Our angel is a very grand affair, bought over twenty years ago, it has real feathers sprayed gold for wings, porcelain face and hands and real fur lining its velvet robes.

Then I stopped and went no further, until the girls came home from college (somehow Miss A had ended up being invited to stay for dinner and help decorate) and we lit the fire, put on cheesy Christmas tunes and I heated up some mulled wine.

I couldn’t help but remember all those Christmases past when I was a child. My dad never really had any part of the Christmas decorating rituals, other than going up into the loft to bring all the boxes and bags of ornaments and tinsel down and, of course, the desperately fake Christmas tree. In the seventies, I don’t really remember anyone having a real tree. I suppose people must have done – posh people – but not the likes of us. Nope, plastic was fantastic and never mind about all that fire-retardant nonsense, if one of those babies went up in flames in the night, it would have been death by chemical inhalation all the way.

The tree we had all through my childhood was a shade of green unknown to nature, straight up it loomed with dead straight green tinsel branches sticking out at angles. No attempt had been made to make it look natural, this tree flaunted its fakery with pride. Looking back, I shudder, but as a child I didn’t care. It was a tree and it was pretty, and when it was all lit up in a darkened room, I felt it had been transported here direct from fairyland.

My mother too played the “do the lights b****y work” game every year as well. Back then, Christmas lights were expensive, and you really expected them to last a lifetime. We had big, brightly coloured bulbous ones – tasteful white lights were unthought of – and I remember her borrowing the next door neighbours soldering iron to weld wires back together on the tiled hearth, before my father came home and lost his temper about lights that had broken down a mere ten years after purchase. Nowadays, I’m thrilled if my lights last two Christmases. They don’t make them the way they used to.

I don’t know if other people do it differently, but for my family the lights always go on first. That way you can push them into the heart of the tree and hide wires along the branches. Then the tinsel goes on. Back in the seventies, it was always a case of how much tinsel can one tree hold? That and a bit more. Shimmering ropes of gold and silver, blue, red and green, we put them all on until the tree was blinged out more than a number one rap artist.

Then came the ornaments. Looking back, I remember my parents having some lovely ones, all glass of course, although towards the end of my childhood I do remember the odd plastic one creeping in. Year after year, the same ornaments would come out and my brother and I would greet each one with cries of joyful recognition. They seemed like old friends to us and we would fight over who put on which favoured ones. I once knew someone who threw away all her ornaments after Christmas each year and then the next would pick a new theme and buy all new to match. My horror knew no bounds, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her kids. Part of the joy of Christmas decorating is that sense of tradition and familiarity. You haven’t seen these ornaments all year and it gives a feeling of continuity when they are carefully unwrapped and lovingly placed.

There was a trio of yellow, plastic teddy bears sporting little gold bow ties which were particularly loved. We would each take one – mum, my brother and I – and carefully pick three perfect places for them to go. Several years ago, at a family lunch, my mother announced she was getting rid of all her old and rather tired ornaments and would be buying new. My brother and I looked at each other in horror.

“What? Not the teddy bears?”

“Yes, those old things can go.”

“No! You can’t throw the teddy bears away!”

“Well, you can have them if you’ve that fond of them.”

My brother and I looked at each other.

“There’s only three,” I said. “How do we split them?”

“Oh, I don’t want those tatty old things on my tree,” he replied. “I just didn’t want mum to throw them away.”

So, I inherited all three. The little trio that has been together for fifty years has stayed together. Both Miss F and I love them, their appearance each year is greeted with happy recognition, and although we had a much smaller tree this year and many hard decisions had to be made about which ornaments to use and which not, there was never any question that the yellow teddy bears would not once again sport their gold bow ties this Christmas.

The first Christmas after I’d left home, I was so poor I only managed to scrape together enough money to buy a small tree and a string of lights, but friends came to the rescue. Coming around one evening they sat and made a variety of decorations out of popcorn, tissue paper, the inside of cigarette packets, beer bottle lids punched through and strung on string, ring pulls threaded together and a very impressive star made from an old cereal box and tinfoil. It was an unusual tree, but I still have very fond memories of it, and even fonder memories of the friends who gathered around it to help me celebrate my first Christmas of independence.

The following year I was again a bit hard up after buying presents but bought a job lot of cheap plastic baubles and some tinsel. Then I splurged the last of my pennies on a pair of beautiful golden glass twisted ornaments. Hellishly expensive, they stood out on my tree like thoroughbreds at a donkey sanctuary and I loved them. They were gorgeous and special, and it made me determined to bring the rest of my tree up to match. So, every year since that first one all those decades ago, I have treated myself to one beautiful ornament.

Then tragedy struck. One Christmas Eve eighteen years ago, my then husband and I were laying up the table in the dining room ready for lunch the next day. Everyone was coming to us for Christmas, so we were determined that everything had to be perfect. Suddenly, there was a loud bang from the lounge, rushing through we found the door blocked and had to force our way in only to find, much to our absolute horror, that the Christmas tree had fallen over. One of the supporting legs on the plastic pot it was in had snapped and the whole lot had gone down with force into the fireplace.

Luckily, the fire wasn’t alight otherwise it could have been very nasty, but as it was, shattered ornaments lay all around, the pot was destroyed and the water it had contained was now seeping all over the carpet. Worse, all the presents that had been carefully piled up underneath ready to hand out next day, were soaked in green, scummy, pine scented water.

It was an absolute emergency. Not what you want to happen on any day, but on Christmas Eve! Thinking fast and looking at the clock, I realised that B&Q – a big hardware store only minutes away from us – would be open for another twenty minutes. I sent my husband off with orders to not come back without a new pot. Then I tried to assess the damage. First thing: rescue the presents. I quickly unwrapped the affected ones. Some packaging was soggy but otherwise the contents were okay, these I put to one side to be re-wrapped. People would simply have to understand.

But my ornaments, my beautiful, expensive, lovingly purchased over the years’ ornaments, hadn’t been so lucky. Some were amazingly still intact. Landing into the tree, they had survived the “timber” and were okay. My first golden twists were both alright, but a crystal fairy was shattered as was a star and several golden and orange twisted glass baubles. Sadly, I got a bag and picked out the broken ones.

My husband got back, and we managed to right the tree, fixing it securely into its new stout pot. The rest of Christmas Eve was spent painstakingly picking all the shards of glass out of the rug, spreading out the remaining ornaments on the tree to cover the gaps and re-wrapping the now slightly soggy presents. It made for a good story on Christmas Day, but I still remember the victims of the tree crash with a pang. One offs, I’ve never been able to replace them.

Then Miss F was born. For her first Christmas she was given a beautiful Wedgewood bell, and every year since I have bought her one lovely tree ornament of her choice. This means when she finally has a home of her own, her first tree won’t have to be decorated with ring pulls and popcorn, although if she has friends as good as mine gathered around her tree, she will be very blessed indeed.

As soon as Miss F was old enough, she began “helping” me to decorate the tree and was very proud of how beautiful our tree always was. It wasn’t until years later that I let her into a secret. After she’d gone to bed, I would take everything off the tree and start again. Because she was so little, she’d place all the ornaments at her own height in the centre of the tree, so it looked very odd. I’d make all the right noises, my OCD screaming at the sight, then thankfully rearrange everything once she was safely asleep. She never realised, and everyone was happy.

Each ornament on our tree has a story. Each has an origin tale that as we unwrap and place it on the tree we remember. Being a small family of two, these traditions help bind us together and give a sense of continuity going forward into the years. There’s the glass ballerina bought when I took Miss F to York on holiday and we saw her first ballet, Cinderella.

There are my gorgeous Venetian glass droplets, five of them of ever-increasing length, they came from the small glass making island of Murano in Venice and were so-o-o-o expensive it made my eyes water paying for them. But I love them and was so relieved they survived the great tree disaster of 2001.

I have three red glass ornaments given to me by a friend when she was learning how to make glass decorations, and as she now lives very far away, they are a lovely reminder of her. One year, Miss F had a bit of a craze for penguins – I think it was the year “Happy Feet” came out – so when she spotted a penguin tree ornament, she just had to have it. Same with the reindeer in a bell and the glass stag.

For a few years’ birds were her passion, and she collected an entire family of birds which she assembled into what she calls her “bird nativity” – I don’t ask, I just go along with it. A peacock feather bauble, golden fruit, a tiny mirror fit for a Lilliput Versaille and a grand Snow Princess were all yearly acquisitions.

A Bird Nativity apparently

There is my frog prince ornament, bought on that same trip to York from an amazing shop there called Christmas Angels that sells all things festive all year round. If ever you go to that fabulous city, be sure and pay it a visit. As soon as I saw this, I had to have it. And there is a mini disco ball, because what tree doesn’t need one of those?

Apart from the falling tree tragedy, there have been other victims over the years. A rather sweet rocking horse was knocked off the tree when a very heavy cookie dough Santa above fell onto it. Santa’s black shiny boots were knocked off and the poor horse lost his tail, but we simply turn his back to the wall, so it doesn’t notice.

And then there is the gherkin. A bone of contention between Miss F and I, in that I hate it, whilst she loves it. Every year I try to lose it amongst the other decorations, but every year she finds it and insists on displaying it in pride of place. But this has also become traditional, and maybe if it did actually get lost one year, I would miss it. Or maybe not.

Every year I end up trimming lots of branches from the “ugly” side of the tree to make it fit into the corner of our small lounge, but those branches aren’t wasted. We have original fireplaces in both our reception rooms which simply cry out to be “Christmassed” and I always go to town on them, piling on the sparkly things and the bling and ending up with something I think looks amazing and, even if I do say so myself, really quite professional.

We have an old nativity set that is decades old and is really beginning to show its age. Perhaps some would have thrown it away by now and replaced it with a shiny new one, but its flaws are what make it familiar and loved. It doesn’t matter that the stable roof has been condemned, that Mary has a chip in her cloak and the donkey has lost his tail. They’re family, and you don’t throw away family for the sake of a few imperfections.

Goodness, what a long blog this has been. Sorry about being so wordy and I hope you were interested enough to stick with me to the very end. At least there were lots of pretty pictures to keep you amused.

I am working all weekend and then I have a whole seven days off! Only getting three days off over the Christmas period, I always make sure I get in first with my holiday request and get a week off in December to not only prepare for Christmas, but also to have a rest and brace myself for the madness that working in retail brings during peak time.

Hopefully, you will join me next week and I wish you all a peaceful and happy Sunday. If you are decorating your own trees, then enjoy. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, then allow me to extend to you, warm wishes anyway, in the hope you will accept them in the spirit in which they are given.

All the best

Julia Blake