Hayfever, Buses, and Hamsters!

And just like that, we’re into July and the year is halfway over. Life has been hectic since we last chatted, so I’ll try to bring you up to date with everything that’s happened. Firstly, I know you’re probably wondering what’s transpired to my car. Well, it’s still up north. After asking for help on social media, a friend spoke to a family member who lives near Nantwich and came back with the name and telephone number of a garage there. I phoned and spoke to Dave, who then passed me on to his son – Dave was off on holiday the next day – so Chris arranged to collect the car from the university so at least it was off-campus. I’ve not heard anything since. The plan was that Chris would take whatever had any value off the car and scrap the rest. They would make what they could on the salvaged items, deduct their expenses, and then if there is anything left over I might get a few pennies back. I’m not holding my breath, but so long as it doesn’t cost me to get the car scrapped that’s all I’m worried about.

I’ve been two weeks without a car and to say it’s inconvenient is an understatement. I blithely assumed I’d be able to take the bus to and from work. After all, it is only about three miles away on a popular retail park where there are several shops, so lots of shoppers and workers want to get there and back again. It turns out I was only half right. Getting to work – not a problem. Getting home from work – not so easy.

There is a bus going out to the retail park at two minutes past every hour all day. So, if my shift starts at 9:30 I catch the 9:02 bus which gets me to work at about 9:17. If my shift is 10:30, I catch the 10:02 bus. It’s a pain if my shift starts at 10:00 because then I must still catch the 9:02 bus which gets me there forty minutes sooner than necessary, but I can deal with that. No, it’s the end of the day and getting home that has caused major problems.

If I leave off at 5:00, there isn’t a bus until 5:40, so I must hang around at work for forty minutes and then still have the bus ride home. If I leave off at 6:00 there isn’t a bus until 6:50. If I leave off at 4:30 then I just miss the 4:28 bus! And, of course, there are no buses to or from work on a Sunday.

The first day I had to get to work after getting back from up north happened to be a Sunday, but a neighbour very kindly offered to give me a lift there and back, which was fabulous. The next day, Monday, I got the bus to work but because my shift ended at 5:00 my neighbour couldn’t give me a lift home. I didn’t fancy hanging around for forty minutes waiting for a bus, so I decided to walk home. I mean, how hard could it be? I wasn’t that out of shape.

I knew there was a bridlepath I could take which would lead me over the fields and bring me back into town through the Abbey Gardens. It was a beautiful summer evening, so I thought I’d take it and maybe enjoy my walk home.

And it was a very pretty walk. There was a small stream running alongside the path which at one point I crossed over on a charming, wooden bridge. There were birds, butterflies and insects zooming about. Trees were overhanging the path and eight-foot-high banks of cow parsley and wild thistle lined the walk. Yeah, turns out my hayfever doesn’t like cow parsley. I mean, seriously dislikes it.

As I marched along my eyes began to itch and run, my nose gushed like a broken tap, and I could taste pollen in the back of my throat. Heck, I could see it floating in the air! I kept on walking. My eyes flooded with itchy tears which poured down my face. I did get funny looks from the few people I passed. It went beyond annoying to painful as I tried to not touch my eyes, knowing from bitter experience that it would only make things worse.

I finally left the bridlepath and walked through the Abbey Gardens. By now, I’m sobbing, and my eyes are burning as if chilli sauce had been rubbed into them. It was another twenty minutes from the Gardens to home and when I finally staggered in the front door, Franki took one look at me and recoiled in horror.

What’s the matter with your face?!

I went into the bathroom. My eyes had puffed up to three times their normal size and were an angry reddish-purple colour. Tears had washed every scrap of makeup off, and I had a grubby nose where I’d permanently been wiping it. Bright yellow pollen was seeping from the corners of my eyes. I was a complete mess. It took another hayfever pill, a good wash in clean water, eye spray, plus a couple of squirts of my steroid nasal spray to calm things down.

I decided not to take the pretty “shortcut” again. It had taken fifty minutes to get home, so I wasn’t convinced it was a shortcut anyway.

The next day I had to walk home again, so this time I played it safe and walked through town. I was still exhausted, hot, and sweaty by the time I got home, but at least my face hadn’t blown up, plus it only took forty-five minutes.

On Friday, I was working 10-4 so decided to catch the 4:28 bus. Typically, a customer walked in a few minutes before I was due to leave off. Time ticked by. It was now 4:15. The thing I’ve learnt about buses is that it may say on the schedule that they’re not supposed to leave the stop until 4:28, but if the bus is running early it won’t wait. It WILL leave without you, so I was keen to get to the stop. My boss knew the score, so when he’d finished with his customer, he stepped in and took over for me so I could leave.

I rushed to the stop, it was 4:18. Sure enough, a minute later the bus turned up. I got on and off we went. Now, the journey to work on the bus takes about fifteen minutes so I was expecting the journey home to take the same. We trundled off to the nearby suburban residential estate, Moreton Hall. Now, this estate is massive! Years of expansion mean it’s now the size of a village and is a complete rabbit warren of roads and cul-de-sacs. We whizzed by the pub – it looked very inviting, with lights twinkling around the large garden and people already sprawled at the tables outside enjoying a Friday after-work drink. Then we went into parts of the estate I was unfamiliar with. Round and round we went. Back past the pub garden – it was even fuller now – surely, we’d now head back into town? Nope, off we went again, almost to the next village, then back again. Down twisting roads and back onto the estate ­– Tassel Road, I was sure we’d been here before – we turned down a different road.

I was hopelessly lost by this point. I had no choice but to trust that the driver knew where he was going and that I would eventually get back to the town – or at least to somewhere I recognised.

If you’ve ever travelled by bus, you’ll know it’s an unwritten law there must always be one old crazy person on it. Hunched in a seat and muttering away to themselves, regular bus riders know to avoid them, but of course, I managed to sit down behind the crazy old man on this bus route. He mumbled into his sleeve the whole ride. His opinions about the houses and gardens we passed, the weather, the other people on the bus – all whispered into his sleeve like a crackpot secret service agent.

I looked out of the window and avoided eye contact.

We whizzed by the pub again. By now it was 4:40. If I’d known, I could have asked to be dropped off there the first time by, had a drink, and then caught the bus the third pass by. We reached an area I recognised and turned onto the main road. Surely not? Were we about to pass the bus stop I originally caught the bus at? Yep. Some thirty minutes after I got on the bus, we stopped at the identical stop to let people on and off. What the heck?!

Finally, we headed into town. But I didn’t end up at the bus station, which is a minute’s walk from my home, nope, he dropped us in the centre of town which is an eight-minute walk. I walked through my front door at 5:12. It had taken an hour and twelve minutes to make a ten-minute car drive home!

Looking at the bus timetable, I realised what had happened. There was an earlier bus from the stop outside my work, the 4:11 one. I think that bus was running late so I caught it at 4:19 believing it to be the 4:28 running early. So, when we stopped again at the same bus stop at 4:40, that was the 4:28 bus running very late. Think I’d rather walk home than sit for an hour on a hot bus seeing parts of the Moreton Hall I never knew existed.

The following week my neighbour very kindly picked me up from work on Monday, I walked home on Tuesday, and then my neighbour picked me up on Wednesday and Thursday. I have one more week at work until I’m on my two-week holiday. Maybe I will have a car by the time I go back – I hope so. One funny thing happened on my walk home through town on Tuesday. Crazy guy from the bus was walking up the road ahead of me, shouting into his sleeve – which looked even more peculiar than before as he was wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt so was yelling into his wrist. I crossed the road and avoided him. It was hot, I was tired, and I didn’t need the hassle.

I am guessing the other thing regular readers want to know is – did I evict the lodger? And how did he take it? To which the answers are yes, and surprisingly well. As you know, I left him a very tactfully worded letter explaining how due to personal circumstances and mindful of all the building work that was due to take place in the house over the summer, I had decided not to let the room for the foreseeable future.

When he finally spoke to me about it on Sunday, he shrugged his shoulders and said he’d guessed which way the wind was blowing and already had viewings lined up for other rooms. I gave him a month’s notice, which meant he had to be out by the 18th of July (the day after my birthday) but was kind of hoping he’d leave sooner. His rent was paid until the 30th of June, so any days he stayed after that would either be paid for or deducted from his damages deposit.

It has been more of a strain than I realised it would be, having four adults in a reasonably small house with only one bathroom! I want to enjoy having Franki and Rys home for the summer, and it is stressful worrying about disturbing the lodger – although he doesn’t care about disturbing us. Also, the youngsters are very keen to move into the basement as soon as he moves out. It makes sense. It’s a much bigger room than Franki’s old one they are currently occupying. A bigger bed that can be accessed from either side, instead of a small double against the wall. There’s tons more storage plus being a basement room it’s deliciously cool. Franki’s room is in the middle of the house and is small, so it gets hot in there.

The hamster will be going down into the basement with them, which I’m very pleased about. Noisy little sod has been waking me up at night with all the noise she makes.

Don’t get me wrong, she’s sweet, but I need my sleep.

The stupid creature managed to get the cork lining off her wheel last night and pouched most of it. It was quite impressive how much she managed to stuff into her cheeks. She went from being a small streak of black and white fur to a round tubby ball of fluff. There was an hour of concern until finally, she decided to un-pouch the lot so it could be removed from her enclosure.

When the hamster goes down into the basement, not only will I be able to sleep better at night, but it will free up the office for me to use if Franki and Rys are using the lounge so I can’t get to my desk there. It will just be nicer and more practical all-around to let them have the basement for the summer. Come September when they return to university, I will have to seriously think about my options. I might try Airbnb. There are pros and cons to it. The pros are a lot more money, plus flexibility. I can block out dates I don’t want someone in the house, for example, when Franki is home, or I have friends staying, or at Christmas. The cons are having strangers in my house without even the reassurance of holding a large damages deposit.

We shall see. Right now, I have two months where I don’t have to think about it.

I’m writing this on Saturday. So far, I’ve had a very early start and have cleaned and swept both the front and back garden and watered and fed all my pots. The neighbour across the road – the husband of the lady who has been giving me lifts – saw me pruning the Red Robin tree by my front door and offered to trim the hedge with his trimmer. He cut whilst I swept and bagged all the bits. It’s amazing how much light is now flooding into the lounge with the hedge at a more respectable height. I do need to go out there though with a bucket of soapy water and scrub the windowsill and the basement hatchway. The judges of the Bury in Bloom contest will be coming around any day and I want to win another certificate.

Talking of gardens, tomorrow is the Hidden Gardens of Bury. It’s the first time it’s happened since the pandemic and Franki and Rys are very keen to go. It’s good fun, you pay a small sum and get a yellow lapel sticker and a map showing which houses are participating. Then you wander about town looking for the yellow signs showing where the entrances to the gardens are and gloriously peer, snoop, and explore other people’s gardens. Most of the gardens are behind houses or high walls so are truly hidden, and this is the only opportunity to see them. I’ve done it before and have always been staggered at how amazing they are. It’s a fun day, joining the hundreds of people wandering up and down the streets, clutching their maps, and looking for the gardens. Some garden owners set up stalls to sell refreshments. One house even had homemade ice cream, which was delicious. Hopefully, the beautiful weather will hold. I will take lots of photos and share them in the next blog.

Anyway, that’s about it for now. Final news is that Pitch & Pace will be released in eBook format on the 11th of July. It is available to pre-order now at the low sale price of just £1.99 (or local currency equivalent) but that will go back up to its normal retail price on launch day.

Only £1.99 to pre-order

Between the 1st and the 4th of July, the eBook version of Sugar & Spice – book three of the Blackwood Family Saga – is on sale at only 99p (or local currency equivalent).

Only 99p 1-4 July

The paperback version of Pitch & Pace is already available to buy at the low pre-launch price of just £6.99 – as are Lost & Found, Fixtures & Fittings, Sugar & Spice, and Kiss & Tell!

ALL paperbacks only £6.99

That’s right! The paperback versions of all five books in the Blackwood Family Saga are available for £6.99 for the week before the launch date. All are available from Amazon and universal purchase links are on the books page of this blog.

Take care and I look forward to chatting in two weeks.

Julia Blake

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Day from Hell!

Where do I start? I truly think the events I’m about to relate to you resulted in one of the worst – certainly one of the most stressful – twenty-four hours I have ever had.

Anyway, good morning. Although a few other things have happened in the fortnight since we last spoke, I will only have time to talk about this one particular day.

As most of you know, I was due to drive to Miss F’s university on Thursday, 16th of June. In the back of my tiny car was a replacement mattress for the one I’d bought her before Christmas that is now faulty. Although I left a little later than intended – due to being woken up by a murder of crows having a cawing competition right outside my bedroom window at four in the morning. They went on for over twenty minutes before a winner was declared, they all buggered off and I fell asleep again, only to wake up thirty minutes later than planned. Still, I was on the road by ten past seven, it was a gorgeous day, and I was confident of making up the time.

The trip up was smooth and uneventful, and I was driving onto the university campus at ten, thinking it should only take two or three hours to take the faulty mattress to the Dreams store in nearby Crewe, pack all Miss F’s belongings into the storage pod I’d rented nearby, have some lunch, and then be on the road going home.

 The car park was full, but there was a single space left and I began to pull into it when my car stopped. Stopped dead. Puzzled, I took it out of gear and put it back into reverse. Nothing. I turned the engine off and tried to restart it. Dead. But every single light on the dashboard came on. All of them.

Panicked, I got out of the car and banged long and loudly on the door to Miss F’s student house. No answer and the door was locked. I phoned Miss F. It went to voicemail. I left a terse message. Hung up. Tried again. This time she answered and came down to let me in.

Trying hard not to sound as concerned as I felt, I told her about the car. We went out to it, I tried again. One of Miss F’s friends, Charlie, came out and told me to pop the hood. They knew a little something about cars, so looked, but were none the wiser.

Meanwhile, I phoned my insurance company’s breakdown recovery number. A few months ago, I beefed up my breakdown insurance and was now very pleased I had. They took all my details and promised to get a recovery vehicle out within two hours. Two hours?!

Charlie saw my distress and offered the services of their car to at least take the old mattress to Dreams in Crewe and then begin the mammoth task of ferrying all Miss F’s belongings to the storage pod. Only problem? Charlie’s car was a tiny KA even smaller than my Nissan Micra.

Never mind, where there’s a will, there’s a way. With all Miss F’s flatmates now up and willing to help, we wrapped and bent the mattress in half and tied it with string as tightly as possible and somehow managed to get it in the back of Charlie’s car. Of course, the back seats had to be down.

I went with Charlie, and we found the Dreams store and lugged the mattress in. That bit was easy as my boss had prepared the way. They knew it was coming and arrangements had been made for it to be collected for recycling from their store. Then Charlie drove us to the storage company – they had done the same thing the previous year so knew where it was.

The storage company were concerned about what had happened and asked if I needed the number of a local garage, then showed us our pod, and when I said I’d left our padlock back at the university, gave us one for free.

We drove back to the university and began packing Miss F’s stuff – oh, sooooo much stuff – into Charlie’s car. Then Charlie and their girlfriend, Sara, did the first trip to the pod whilst Miss F, Mx R (Formerly Miss C), and I quickly had something to eat and drink, then carried on with the packing.

Charlie came back. We loaded up their car again – there was still quite a bit left, but we estimated one more trip after that would do it. Off to the storage pod – this time I went along – we went and piled all the boxes into it. On the drive back to the university, my mobile went, and it was Gordon, the recovery breakdown guy, who was lost and had no idea where he was. The satnav had taken him to the wrong entrance to the university. Tell him to stay put, Charlie said, I know where that is and we’re only five minutes away. We’ll come and find him, and he can follow us. I relayed this all to Gordon. Righty oh, he said, I’ll look out for you.

By now I’m a hot sweaty mess. It’s a sweltering hot day and what with that, plus stress, I was not nice to be near.

ME:  Have you ever got to the point where you can smell yourself?

CHARLIE: Yep.

We found Gordon and he followed us back to the university. I did feel for him as we drove onto the campus. There are some brutal speedbumps and unless you crawl over them, then it’s whoops, where did my suspension go?

Gordon looked at the car. He tutted and sighed.

GORDON: I think it’s the alternator.

ME: Umm, okay. Is that bad?

GORDON: Well. It’s not good.

ME: How much roughly to replace it?

GORDON: About £300.

ME: But it can be replaced?

GORDON: Oh, yes.

At this point, my only concern is getting us home.

GORDON: Let me put the jump leads on and let’s see what happens.

I leave him to it, surrounded by a group of interested students, and go back into the house to see if any more progress has been done on the packing front. Going up to Miss F’s room, I help organise the final bits and get them downstairs so Miss F can give her room a quick clean.

Down in the kitchen, the final boxes I had posted up to Miss F the week before had all been used. Luckily, I’d bought three more up with me, plus some soft zip-up bags for the bedding.

Gordon called me out to the car.

GORDON: I don’t think it is the alternator now.

ME: Okay. What do you think it is?

GORDON: I think your battery is completely gone and you need a new one.

ME: Oh. Umm, is that good?

GORDON: Well, it’s better than the alternator.

ME: And the cost to replace it?

GORDON: About £60.

ME: Cool!

I phone the insurance company again to explain what the verdict was. Find a local KwikFit garage, they ordered, and we’ll get the car there. We found one, I phoned it, spoke to the lovely Harry, and told him my tale of woe.

He made all the right sympathetic noises. I handed him over to Gordon who had a quick chat with him. It was arranged that Gordon would take the car, whilst Charlie and I made the final trip to the storage pod and got the last things in there.

Helped by a gaggle of obliging students, Gordon managed to get the car onto the back of his recovery vehicle and off they went. Harry promised to ring me the moment he’d had a chance to assess the vehicle. We piled all the remaining stuff into Charlie’s little car and off we went again.

There was AC in the storage facility. I wanted to stay there. I wondered if things got desperate, whether they’d let me sleep there. I was so hot by this point. A sweltering, sweaty mess of stress and angst.

We drove back to the university. At least all of Miss F’s stuff was now safely in storage until September. Back at the university, we guzzled water and piled all the stuff that was coming home to Suffolk with us in a big heap. I eyed it nervously. There was A LOT of stuff to fit into my little Nissan, plus me, Miss F, Mx R, and the little hamster, Miss Moo, who was getting a bit stressed in her small carrying case.

A long hour ticked by.

Harry from Kwikfit phoned. The battery had been replaced but due to the age of the car, they’d had to get a battery couriered over specially. Instead of being £60, it was £100. By this point, I didn’t care, I just wanted to go home. Then, my mate, Harry dropped his bombshell. There’s a problem with the gearbox, he said. In fact, it looks like it’s on its last legs.

I got into Charlie’s car again and we drove to Kwikfit.

I paid for the battery and the work, and then Harry and another mechanic who was reassuringly elderly took me out to the car.

OLD MECHANIC: The gearbox is basically knackered, and when a gearbox goes in an automatic it’s Good Night, Vienna, as far as the car is concerned.

ME: Will it get me home?

That was the million-dollar question. They looked at each other.

OLD MECHANIC: The gearbox is confused. You can’t start in park anymore, only in neutral. Reverse is now in park, and neutral is somewhere between neutral and reverse.

ME: And where is drive?

OLD MECHANIC: Oh, that’s in drive, except when it’s not.

ME: Umm, okay.

OLD MECHANIC: I wouldn’t risk it, personally, but I know you must get home. My advice would be don’t go motorway. It’s dangerous and the worst place to break down. Go back roads, I know it will take longer but at least it will be safer. And minimise the weight in the car.

Charlie and I looked at one another, both thinking of the mountains of stuff to go in my car for the return journey, the three adults plus a hamster that would add to the weight.

CHARLIE: I’m following you home so I can put all the stuff in my car, plus Miss F and Mx R.

ME: I can’t ask you to do that.

CHARLIE: You’re not asking, I’m offering.

They would not be swayed, and apart from having a stand-up fight on KwikFit forecourt – which I’m not sure I would have won anyway – there was nothing I could say to change their mind. And to be honest, I was too relieved by the offer to fight it very hard.

We left KwikFit to get petrol in both our cars for the return journey. Charlie led and I gingerly followed them. I’m not sure what I was expecting but the car handled fine. I followed Charlie to an Esso garage where we both filled up. £50 in my car and almost £60 in Charlie’s. I paid for both lots – well, it seemed only fair.

There was a hairy moment when I had to reverse because it wasn’t in park but back in reverse, then I followed Charlie back to the university, and again the car seemed fine. Maybe, I thought, once I got home and dropped the car off at my mechanic – I had already spoken to them and arranged to do this – they could patch it up enough to do one more month. If I restricted all car journeys to home and work, then come my birthday when I had planned to draw down only 25% of my pension, I would have to take more and buy a new car.

Yes, I thought, I would do that.

Feeling happier about life, I once again drove into the university car park and the car died.

I mean, it really died, and then the gear stick came out completely in my hand.

At that point, I knew there would be no driving this car anywhere, ever again. It was officially, properly dead. RIP Basil.

With the help of the students, we managed to push it into the parking space. The steering wheel was almost impossible to turn and took all my strength to yank it down to steer. Then we regrouped in the house, and I once again phoned the insurance company.

Oh dear, they said, that’s unfortunate.

What are my options? I asked.

We will reimburse £100 per person in the car to go towards either train or bus tickets to get you home. A hotel for the night, or a rental vehicle.

We went over those options. We had a lot of stuff to get home, plus a hamster. Public transport wasn’t an option. There certainly wouldn’t be a bus and as for the train. We googled train times. We would have to travel into London, sit on a railway platform for hours, and we wouldn’t get home until 8am the following morning. Not doable.

Hotel? What use was that? We would still have to get home the next morning and I only had the sweaty clothes I stood up in. Plus, no hotel would take the hamster and we had to get her somewhere we could set up her normal habitat. She couldn’t stay in a tiny carrier all night. So, that was a no to the hotel option.

Car rental? We looked at a couple of local car rental firms. There were no vehicles of any description available.

In desperation, I phoned my brother. He would come and get us but could only fit himself and one other person in his van. By now it was almost 7pm, even if he left straight away he wouldn’t reach us until gone ten, and it still left the problem of the other person.

Then Charlie – who is now officially renamed Saint Charlie – spoke up and offered to try and get all of us into their car, plus all the stuff, and drive us all home.

We eyed the mountain – was it possible we could get it all into Charlie’s KA?

The biggest thing was Miss Moo’s habitat. Imagine a large 138L stacker box with a wire mesh lid. It had been emptied and cleaned out and things had been thrown into it. We carried the box out to the car – it would fit, but only if the back seats were down. We carried it back into the house. Take everything out, I said. We emptied it, then I turned it onto its side and began repacking it. Like a game of Tetris, I stacked that box with precision engineering. Denser things that couldn’t be damaged on the bottom. Carefully, I layered it up, leaving no inch of space wasted. We tipped it back over and tied the lid on with stout string. We carried it back out to the car. It wasn’t a square container but tapered down so the widest bit was the top. We tipped it back over and angled it into the car on its side with the top facing in, so the smallest side was against the back windscreen.

Would it go in? Yes. Would the back seats go up? Yes, but they didn’t quite click into place. Never mind.

The next biggest thing was Miss F’s large solid shell suitcase. Sara had one of those vacuum bags left. We took all Miss F’s clothes out of the case and all Mx R’s out of their bulging backpack. All the clothes went in the bag, we sucked all the air out, and then carried the stiff board of clothes out to the car. There was room for Miss F’s handbag down the side of the stacker box then the clothes went on top. The back seat headrests had to come out, we’d have to keep our heads bent slightly forward the whole way home because the clothes bag jutted out, but never mind.

Mx R got in and belted up. We piled a bag on their feet and another on their lap. Miss F squeezed into the middle – there was no belt because technically it wasn’t a seat. We put a bag on her feet and a lamp on her lap. I squeezed in and belted up. My bag went on my feet, the large cool bag went on my lap, and Miss Moo in her travel case went on top. Sara got in the front with two bags on her feet, and then Charlie got in.

The car dipped alarmingly, but we were in and off we went.

Driving up it had taken three hours, but I’d had an empty car and was able to drive very fast. Charlie’s car was smaller and so loaded down it would be dangerous to go any faster than 50mph. It was going to be a long journey.

About 45 minutes in, I suggested before we hit the motorway and before it got properly dark, that we stop for something to eat. We were all tired and hot and thirsty, and I was very aware Charlie had eaten nothing all day.

We stopped at a service station that had a nice, wooded area with picnic benches. Although still warm the fierce sweltering heat had gone from the day and it was pleasantly cool. We got McDonald’s for us and a fruit salad for Miss Moo.

She tried melon and grape for the first time and liked them both very much judging by how quickly she ate them.

We used the facilities, then reluctantly packed ourselves back into the car and we off.

I can’t describe that journey. We were squished in like sardines. We were all uncomfortable, hot, and sticking to each other with sweat. I honestly felt like I’d been born in that car – I felt like I was probably going to die in it as well. On and on we drove. It got dark. In the back, I fell into a sort of fugue state where I wasn’t asleep – that wasn’t possible – but my brain was shutting down from being on an adrenalin high all day. It seemed the drive would never end, that this was my existence now, but of course, it did, and finally, at midnight, we got home.

We tried to be quiet unpacking, but that damn great heavy box had to be lugged up the stairs. A picture got knocked off the wall, so that made a noise. Of course, Charlie and Sara were grabbing a few hours’ kip before heading back – Charlie had a hospital appointment they couldn’t miss at 11am in Hull – so they’d have to be on the road by 6:30am at the latest. I pulled out the sofa bed in the lounge which also made a thump, despite my trying to be quiet. Then there was the noise of five people trying to use one bathroom and up and down the stairs – all over the lodger’s room in the basement and yes, I can appreciate how annoying that must have been, but it does not excuse his attitude next morning.

Anyone would have been put out at being woken up at midnight, but upon learning the circumstances behind the disturbance, what a horrific, nightmarish day we’d all had, and that I was now without a car – any “normal” person would have put aside the petty inconvenience of being woken up and said “oh my goodness, that’s terrible, is everyone okay? Thank heavens you finally got home.”

Was this how my lodger reacted?

Was it hell.

He grumped and moaned about being woken up, then stomped off to work.

It is the final straw for me as far as he is concerned. Such lack of empathy is unnerving and a mouldy cherry on top of a long list of grievances I have against him. I will be giving him a month’s notice when I see him later today (Saturday) and the sooner he moves out of my house, the better.

After all, if I will now be taking all my pension I can afford to be without a lodger for a month or two. It means Miss F and Mx R can use the basement room for most of their stay – which will be so much nicer and more convenient for them, and when they have returned to university I will look at restructuring how I let the room out.

Maybe short-term lets of a month or so at a time is a better idea. Then I can arrange for the room to be empty during the longer university holidays so it can be used by my family, and we can have our home to ourselves. With only one bathroom currently in the house, it is a struggle when there are four adults all wanting to use it.

I could even look at Airbnb, although would have to explore all the angles of that from a tax point of view.

There are lots of possibilities and things to think about, but for the immediate future, I want the summer with my family to be as relaxed and enjoyable as possible. And with all the building work planned for the bathroom plus the hassle of changing the boiler, it will make it a lot easier not having to accommodate the needs of a very unpleasant and inflexible lodger.

I think that is the basic reason why I wish him gone. I don’t like him. And sharing your home with someone you don’t like is never a good plan.

So, that is what I will be doing when I have finished writing this blog. Constructing a carefully worded eviction letter. I only hope he doesn’t react as belligerently as I suspect he’s going to, although I honestly can’t believe he’s happy here. Given how untidy, anti-social and moody he is, sharing a house with someone who is the complete opposite cannot be fun for him either.

Oh well, it must be done, and I will let you know next time how well it goes.

This has been an incredibly long blog and all about a single day. I hope you didn’t find it too boring and that wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you are happy and well.

Take care everyone.

Julia Blake

Jubilee!

It’s the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee this weekend and the whole country is caught up in a frenzy of union jack celebrations. It’s lovely to see all the flags, bunting, and other such decorations adorning shops and homes around town. The Queen very graciously gave the nation an extra bank holiday to help her celebrate – sadly she didn’t specify that ALL her subjects were to benefit from the day off, so only those working in offices and schools are allowed to not work. Anyone who works in retail, or the catering and leisure industries will still be slaving away. Unfair? Yes, it is, but there’s nothing to be done about it.

We originally thought that we would be forced to all work all weekend in my shop, but my boss quite sensibly made the executive decision that we wouldn’t be that busy – duh, everyone is going to be at parties and barbecues – so said as there were four days and four of us, we would all work two days and have two days off. These are counting as our normal days so none of us is getting an extra day off.

My two days were Thursday and Sunday. On Sunday, as you may remember, my street has gained permission to close and is holding a big street party. Everyone has worked hard to make it a wonderful day, but the weather forecast is not looking great. Very unfairly, the weather so far – I am writing this Friday morning – has been beautiful. Thursday, my first day off, was a gorgeous hot sunny day and I spent the day at a nearby stately home with friends visiting from America, but more about that later.

So, what have I been up to over the past fortnight? Mostly what I normally get up to. Work, home, beavering away at my current work in progress to get it ready for publication. In case you don’t follow me on Instagram where I revealed the cover and title last week, below is a picture of the cover for the eBook.

The book is called Pitch & Pace and is book five in the popular romantic suspense series the Blackwood Family Saga. It’s an exciting read all right, and it is the turn of the youngest sibling, Kristina Blackwood, to step into the limelight and tell her story. Set on the wild Yorkshire moors, it’s a tale of music, murder, and a mysterious stranger. The eBook is now available to pre-order from Amazon at a special sale price of £1.99, and it will be launched on the 11th of July – although it may happen earlier if everything comes together. The paperback will be available to buy at a slightly discounted price a week before the eBook launch date.

I wrote the book incredibly quickly, but as usual, all the other stuff that must be done has taken me by surprise. The editing, beta reading, formatting, etc is time-consuming, and then there’s the blurb for the back page, the review to write for Goodreads, the page to create for the website, promo images to source and make, the video trailer to create, the list goes on and on.

If you would like to place your order, then there’s a handy direct link in my bio on Instagram, or you can go directly to Amazon and search for Pitch & Pace in books. It’s the only one with that title so it’s at the top of the list. Or you can wait until after Miss F is home and has put the cover and link on here. I don’t know how to do it myself.

If you haven’t yet discovered the Blackwood Family Saga and would like to, then for today only book one in the series – Lost & Found – is on sale at the tiny price of just 99p (or local currency equivalent). That’s right, this is your chance to meet the Blackwood Family and find out how it all begins for half the price of a cup of coffee. Go to the books page on here, click on the link under the book, and it will take you to the book’s listing on your local Amazon site. Within a minute you could be reading the book!

What’s next, I hear you ask. Well, I need to start writing book fifteen soon. I want to finally write the next book in the Erinsmore Chronicles, and it will be a longer, more complicated book than Pitch & Pace. It will also be illustrated so I need to begin sourcing images and laying out how the book will appear. I am looking forward to writing it. It’s been in my head for almost fifteen years so it will be a relief to finally get it out.

As you know, I’m driving up North soon to collect Miss F from university and bring her home for the long summer break. It’s quite a trek for my poor little car so I always take it into the garage for a bit of a “dad” service. This is when they check my tyres, my water, oil, screenwash, bulbs etc and just generally make sure nothing is going to fall off the car when I’m belting up the M6. I always do this before a long journey, and it usually costs about £40 which I consider money well spent. This time, however, they phoned me.

THEM: There’s a problem.

ME: Problem? What sort of problem?

THEM: Your handbrake cable is snapped on one side and stretched almost to breaking point on the other.

ME: Oh, umm, is that serious?

THEM: …….!

ME: Okay, I guess you better replace it then.

Instead of the anticipated £40, it cost me £175 – so that’s all my overtime for the past three months gone in one hit. Not a happy bunny.

I must sort out getting some packing boxes shipped up to Miss F. I need all her packing to be completed by the time I arrive at the university on the 16th of June. It’s going to be a long enough day as it is without having to do that when I get there as well. As it is, I must make the journey up there and that’s the bit I don’t like – driving long distances by myself, especially as my radio is rubbish. Then we must roll up her old, damaged mattress and bag it, get it into the car and take it to Dreams in Crewe where they will take it in for me and arrange collection by the disposal team from their store. We then must make as many trips as it takes to get all Miss F’s stuff into the storage pod, then load up the car with Miss F, Miss C, two suitcases and anything else they’re bringing home for the summer. Oh, and Miss Moo – the hamster – and make the long journey home. All in one day.

Think I will need a jolly good rest the next day – luckily, I do have that day off.

I turn 55 this July and am allowed to draw down some, or indeed, all, of the little pension I’ve had since the age of 21. It’s not a huge amount, only about £17,000 but I was thinking to take half of it. I couldn’t take it all because it would push my earnings over the limit that Miss F would be entitled to student finance for. Buggered if I’m going to have paid into a pension all this time only to see it all go on paying for her education!

Anyway, I talked to the pension provider and discovered to my horror that even though I have already been taxed on this pension, if I draw down more than 25% of it, I will be taxed again! This seems monumentally unfair and it’s a wonder H.M. Revenue & Customs are allowed to get away with such outright thievery. So now my plans have changed. If I can only have 25% then I must plan and budget extremely carefully what I’m going to use it for.

A new boiler is top of the list. My current one is about 25 years old. I have been warned by the company I have the service plan with that it will become harder to get parts for it and keep it going. I know it’s not very energy efficient and, with utility bills set to double again in October, I need to do whatever it takes to get my energy use down. An appointment has been made for next week for a consultant to pay a visit and advise and quote me for the most energy-efficient combi boiler I can afford.

I’ve also had a builder come round to look at giving me a quote for bricking up the old 1950s window and replacing it with a mirror and a smaller window that won’t rattle in its frame every time there’s a puff of wind. Honestly, the window is only a single pane and I know I’m leaking heat out through it. If you put your hand to the window you can feel the cold air pouring through. I think replacing it will also help cut down on energy bills. I had two skylights put in three years ago so there’s plenty of light in the bathroom – the new, double glazed, much smaller window will be for ventilation only.

I’m having new lights put in the bathroom ceiling, and the builder will quote for making good around the skylights and reskimming the ceiling.

Not sure if there will be anything left from my £4000 after that, but, if there is, then I desperately need a new dishwasher. Mine is nineteen years old, and although it was a good make – hence why it’s lasted nineteen years – it is on its last legs. It will no longer wash the dishes on the lower temperature settings, so everything must go through at sixty degrees, it’s noisy, and not good at its job.

I also had to buy a new kettle this week as mine was so scaled up and going rusty that quite frankly I didn’t want to drink the water that came out of it. Whilst I was at it, I bought a toaster. I’ve had toasters in the past and they’ve never been too successful – with everything coming out either a burnt offering or a bloody sacrifice, I did wonder if there was some religious significance to them? I don’t toast things that often, and when I do, I use the grill feature on the oven. However, I’ve noticed that the lodger toasts things for breakfast almost every day – be it bread, waffles, crumpets, or muffins – the grill is on every morning and my thinking was, it must be using a lot more electricity than a simple, quick toaster would.

I bought the one that matched the grey kettle, but, when I opened it at home I found it was too enormous to fit on my work surface. I’d bought a four-slot one thinking that would be more economical but had to take it back and replace it with a two-slot, smaller version. They didn’t have one to match the kettle, so I had to get a basic chrome one, but that doesn’t matter.

I only hope all the measures I’m taking this summer to get energy consumption down make any kind of difference to my bills. Probably not, but all I can do is try.

It’s been a busy week. An American friend on Instagram whom I met before back in 2019 when she and her husband were touring the UK, had messaged earlier this year to say they would be hopefully in my vicinity sometime in May or June and could we meet up again. Of course, I said, yes, then heard nothing more until suddenly she messaged that they were arriving at the train station at 2:30pm on Tuesday! Luckily, I had the day off so was able to collect them and all their baggage and take them to the rather charming room they had reserved at a local pub. Leaving them to settle in, I walked back later that evening and met them for dinner, which was a surprising treat for me.

I had to work Wednesday – a very quiet day again. Where have all the customers gone?

Thursday looked set to be a gorgeous day, so I suggested I take them to Kentwell Hall for the day. This is a beautiful Tudor manor house out in the countryside and is well worth a visit anyway to see the stunning house and extensive gardens. However, once a year they hold a historical extravaganza when actors dress up in costume from different periods of British history and there are all sorts of activities going on. Coincidentally, this was happening on the day we planned to go.

It was a gorgeous day, warm and sunny with a brilliant blue sky overhead. We spent almost five hours wandering around the house and grounds. The time periods stretched from the Neolithic right up to the 1980s and everywhere in-between. A lovely lady in the kitchen talked us through rationing during WWII, a charming Regency lady showed us her silk patchwork and talked about the revolution in the colonies and the South Sea Bubble. We saw crude but efficient looms in the Bronze Age period and learnt how to smelt bronze to make arrowheads and axes. We watched an exhibition about using a British longbow and found an eccentric Tudor alchemist deep in the woods who performed magic for us and told us how amazing chameleons are.

All told, it was a lovely day, and I dropped off my friends at almost four that afternoon back in town to go to their room to rest and freshen up. I shot home and cooked an entire roast lamb dinner in under two hours before walking to collect them from the pub, so they’d know the way back.

We relaxed in the garden before we ate with a glass of chilled wine, and it was a relief to sit down and rest my aching feet. I’d been on the go since 5:30am that morning – when the cat woke me up banging on my bedroom door to be let in. I know I shut her downstairs last night, so can only assume the lodger didn’t close the door properly when he left to go to work at silly o’clock that morning.

We ate dinner and chatted before they left at about ten. They had a long journey the next day by train to Salisbury, so didn’t want too late a night. I emptied the dishwasher, reloaded it, cleared down the kitchen and the table, and then fell into bed exhausted. Two hours later I awoke, my brain sparking for some reason, and couldn’t get back to sleep for the rest of the night.

I wish I slept as well as my cat does.

I’ve included some pictures of Kentwell for you to see how great it was. I did take more, but for some reason, they didn’t come out.

Wherever you are in the UK, and whatever you’re doing to celebrate the Jubilee, I hope you had a fantastic weekend. I have my flags out already and have some pretty bunting to put up on Sunday morning. It’s fabric, not plastic so I don’t want to put it out until the last minute. Rather than wasting money on union jack bunting, which I wouldn’t use again, I bought some pretty fabric bunting in the colours of my garden so once Sunday is over I can reuse it.

I hope the weather forecast is wrong and that it stays dry for Sunday. Of course, a warm sunny day like Thursday would be perfect, but may be too much to ask for – this is Britain, after all.

Happy Weekend, everyone!

Julia Blake

Spring Has Sprung!

Hello Everyone! How have you been? The past two weeks have flown by and I’m not sure what I’ve done at all. Work. I have done a lot of work. Although several interviews have been conducted we are still no closer to finding another part-timer and so the overtime continues. That is good from an “extra pennies in my pay-packet” point of view, but, as my company are tediously slow at paying overtime – seriously slow, the overtime I did in March won’t be paid until the end of June – I’m not feeling any benefits yet.

I’ve seen a few of the applicants and I can’t say too much about them, or indeed, anything at all, but I am wondering quite when dressing with some semblance of smartness for an interview became obsolete? Am I hopelessly old-fashioned, or is rocking up in skin-tight leggings, a t-shirt that doesn’t hide your muffin top, unbrushed hair, chipped nail varnish, scruffy trainers, and too much make-up now acceptable when you want to impress potential employers – and that was just the blokes!

I remember when I applied for this job I arrived for the interview on time, wearing smart black trousers, a grey blouse, a fitted grey jacket, and clean shoes. No wonder I was offered the job practically on the spot.

The weather has been a bit weird as well, veering from bitterly cold, grey, and raining, to gorgeous hot sunny days where you can taste the pollen as soon as you step outdoors. I think we’re heading in the general direction of summer, but it’s like Mother Nature is dragging her feet and looking longingly over her shoulder at winter.

I think the threat of frost is over though, so last week my mother and I went plant shopping for some pretties to go into the three beds on the right side of my garden. These beds are almost constantly in the sun or dappled shade so I can grow almost anything I want there. The beds were empty apart from a rose climbing up the pergola, a small clematis scrambling up a willow wigwam, and my wisteria that has decided to completely forgive my brutal treatment of it when relocating it and has burst into leaf and even dark purple buds!

Anyway, we trundled off to Dobies which is a large and well-stocked garden centre on the other side of town. There were a lot of lovely plants to look at, but I had to be sensible and not choose things that would establish world domination over the garden and bully the other plants. I needed perennials that would come back year after year, plants that would be self-sufficient, and I wanted pretty, long-flowering plants that were bee-friendly.

Trying to stick to the colour palette of lilac/purple, cream/white, and lemon/yellow, I threw in a couple of pops of orange to liven things up. A white bleeding heart was a definite, as were white daisies and yellow daisies. Purple clematis to climb the trellis panels, and a white passionflower to scramble up the pergola and keep the rose company. Three lupins – purple, white, and orange. Poppies, snapdragons, scabius, pennestons, verbena, and a few other things I can’t remember the names of but trust me, are pretty.

Although I was selective it was still £100 that first trip, and then I returned the following day and spent another £70 on plants plus potting compost ready for my pots and hanging basket. Yes, it’s a lot of money, but it’s the final push on a garden that has been fifteen years in the making. And, let’s face it, without plants there’s not much point to a garden. They are perennials so will return year after year, they will enrich my life, add value to my property, help the environment, and provide food for bees and other essential insects.

I must admit, buying the plants and seeing how good they look has fired me up to keep going. I’m now looking around the garden to see where else I can fit plants in. On the left side of my garden – the side that’s so permanently in shade it is a woodland environment – I’m planning to plant more ferns and other shade-loving plants. When we visited Ickworth Park last month, I was fascinated by the stumpery they had and although I can’t do anything on the scale they have, I may be able to replicate it in a mini form in my little patch of woodland.

Ideas are bursting in my head. I could create something magical in what I’d always dismissed as a rather boring part of the garden. I will keep you posted.

Talking of being creative. My latest book has now been to two of my beta readers, who couldn’t find anything wrong with it and both loved it. It’s now with my third and final beta reader, she of the eagle-eyes and ninja punctuation skills. I’m hoping she won’t find too much; I have done my best with this one, and I feel with every book I write I learn and improve. The covers have been made and when I get five minutes I will need to write the copy for the video trailer and think about how I want it to look.

I’ve written the blurb, which was done in under ten minutes when I received a message from Becky at Platform House Publishing saying James has a slot tomorrow morning to make your covers, if you want them done before next month get the blurb to us NOW! Gulp. Nothing like a deadline to make the ideas flow. So, everything is falling into place with this book and I’m hoping for a June launch date.

So much is happening in June. Not just the book being launched, but it is both my parents’ birthdays, and I will be driving back up North on the 16th to collect Miss F and Miss C from university. Regular readers will remember I said last time I would be booking a storage pod close to the university because Miss F must completely clear all her belongings from the campus for the long summer break. Not only could I not fit everything in my car but storing everything in our tiny house would also be a problem. I searched the area around the university and got a few quotes, then in the end settled with a local company offering a special student deal of £1 for the first month. For the three months, we need the storage unit it’s going to cost £205 plus £45 insurance. It sounds a lot, but when you factor in hiring a van or even paying my brother for his time and petrol to make the return journey twice, plus the sheer inconvenience of having everything piled up at home, it is the only solution.

Miss F contacted me this morning – there’s an issue with the new mattress I bought her before Christmas! Two of the springs are broken and are poking through. She sent me a photo and it does look bad. They have punched holes in the mattress topper, the protector, and the sheet. There is nothing I can do about it until Monday when my boss is back from holiday, and he can advise me on the best way to go about getting it replaced.

Why is my life constantly one pain-in-the-arse issue after another?!

I’m currently looking after two kittens for my new American neighbours who live at the top of my road. They were let down at the last minute by their house sitter, so I offered to pop in night and morning to feed and clean out the critters for the ten days they’re away. I love cats so I’m happy to help, but they are sphinx cats which has taken a little getting used to. They’re sweet and very friendly, but there’s no denying they are odd little things. You don’t realise how small cats are under all that fluff so it’s strange seeing them naked. With their crinkled little faces and big floppy ears, there is a startling resemblance to Dobbie the house-elf from the Harry Potter films. They were wary of me when I first went in, but they quickly realised I was the bringer of food, and then last night I took them a few Dreamies cat treats and now I’m their favourite auntie.

Remember the building site at the bottom of my garden with the huge crane? Well, to add to our misery they have now closed off the street at the bottom of my road which means I can no longer get to work that way. Instead, I’m having to drive across town, get onto the A14, bypass town, get off the A14 and then head into work that way. I thought it would take me ages, but surprisingly I think it might be a quicker route. Going through town I hit a total of eleven traffic lights and if they are all against me it can add ten minutes to my commute. Going via the motorway there is only one set of pedestrian lights. The other night it took me six minutes to get home – I’m not going to grumble about that – and even when the road is opened again, I might stick to the new route. But still, my town is a nightmare right now. There is barely one road anywhere that doesn’t have roadworks, temporary traffic lights, single-lane traffic, or is closed completely. I honestly don’t know which braindead idiot oversees planning this, but I can only assume he or she does not live in town, work in town, nor have any reason to come to town at all, and dislikes the poor bloody residents of Bury St Edmunds!

I have good news regarding the Queen’s Jubilee weekend. Do you remember I told you that my street has been given permission to close on the Sunday and will be holding a street party? I feared I wouldn’t be able to attend because although Queenie has granted the nation a four-day weekend to help her celebrate the occasion, it only applies to schools and people who work in offices – so will cause mega childcare problems for parents who work in retail with school-age kids! Anyway, as my shop will be staying open for the whole weekend, it looked like we were all going to have to work despite the fact we don’t anticipate being very busy. None of us was happy about it and sat there kicking our chairs like petulant children and muttering under our breath how unfair it all was.

My boss spoke to our regional manager who shrugged his shoulders in a “see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya” attitude because the whole “you have to work rule” only applies to us shop staff, not those at higher levels. Of course, it doesn’t.

Anyway, the upshot is the regional manager told my boss to rota his staff as he wished over the four-day weekend. There are four of us, so all of us will work two days and have two days off. My boss knew I wanted the Sunday and nobody else was that fussed about which days off they had – they just wanted some time off. So, the boss and I are having Thursday and Sunday off, and the other two are having Friday and Saturday. It does mean I have to sacrifice my local authors’ meeting that week, but as it’s a bank holiday and some people are away or doing other things, it might have been cancelled anyway. I don’t care. If it’s the price tag for having Sunday off then that’s fine.

I can’t believe how quickly this year is passing. There are only three weeks before Miss F will be home for the summer. It’s a long stay this time – three months in total – because they have such a long summer break. It will be nice to have so much time together. When she visited at Easter we were trying to cram so much into such a short period it was exhausting. With so many people to visit and trips and treats to fit in, it meant we never really had any downtime.

That doesn’t mean the summer won’t be busy though. Whilst Miss F is home we will be celebrating both my parents’ birthdays, my niece’s, Miss F’s, and mine. Miss F will still want to visit friends and family and go for outings, but because it will be spread out over three months it won’t be so frantic. I think that’s another reason why I’m determined to sort the garden out. It will be nice for us to have the outdoor space to chill out in, to be able to eat outside and to have games evenings under the pergola. That is if the British weather decides to be kind to us.

Miss C, Miss F’s girlfriend, will be coming home with us for the first couple of weeks of summer, before heading back to Wales to spend time with their own family. They will be returning for a long visit later in the summer before they head back to Chester to settle Miss C in their new student accommodation ready for the new academic year.

I think the plan may be for Miss F to pick up some shifts at her old place of employment. I know she vowed never to return there, but Miss F is sensible enough to realise that they need money and finding a temporary part-time job that pays as well as the restaurant does will be hard, if not impossible.

I have two full weeks’ holiday from work coming up in July – the two weeks over my birthday – which I’m very much looking forward to. I won’t be able to celebrate my birthday on the actual day though because I will be at a book fair in St Albans. But there are thirteen other days which I have no doubt will be filled with birthday shenanigans.

Hard to imagine I will be 55 this year. I don’t feel that old. Well, scratch that, some days I feel twice that age what with bits of me creaking when I bend and the fact I now make noises getting up. As for my memory … does anyone else have that weird thing when they walk into a room, stop, and then wonder why the heck you’ve gone in there? Mind you, I don’t want to boast, but the other day I did walk into a room and remember why I was there. It was the bathroom, but still …

This week has been a nice week – both from a weather and personal point of view. Monday I had to work, and it was so quiet it was a relief to get home with two days off to look forward to.

Tuesday a fellow author whom I’m following on Instagram contacted me to say they were visiting friends in a nearby town and would I be free to meet up that afternoon for coffee. He is new to the author world and would like to ask me some questions about indie publishing and the various forms that can take. I managed to round up a couple of my fellow local authors and we met him in the rather lovely cathedral garden café. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, so we sat outside for hours chatting about all things bookish. It’s great meeting fellow authors, there’s always so much to talk about.

On Wednesday I went to visit my bookish bestie, the lovely Becky Wright, at her charming little house in a tiny village about thirty minutes away. It was my turn to provide lunch, so I took some mozzarella stuffed meatballs in a cheesy, tomato sauce and some gnocchi and salad. Becky provided wonderful coffee and a box of eclairs. I am ashamed to say we scoffed the lot. I think her young son was hoping for a nibble of one when he got home from school. Sorry, Master A, but a pair of piggy authors ate every crumb.

The last time we met in person had been at the beginning of December, and regular readers will remember it was whilst I was parked outside Becky’s that an Amazon delivery driver threw up a stone which shattered my back windscreen. I will never forget that drive home as long as I live. With several binbags taped over the gaping hole where my windscreen used to be, in the dark, with the wind whistling through the car, an ever-increasing line of impatient traffic growing behind me because I dare not drive too fast, and the tinkle of broken glass falling playing on repeat in my ear, it was truly terrifying. This time I went prepared with a bamboo mat which I secured to my rear windscreen – just in case.

Thursday I had a short six-hour shift, during which I saw hardly anyone and only made one tiny sale. Business is a bit slow now, which makes for long boring days at work.

Friday (today) has been frantic – what with the video chat with Miss F about her mattress, going to pick up my shopping, feeding and cleaning out the cats, writing a couple of book reviews, phoning my pension company about possibly drawing down some of my pension this year, and going on Zoom with my local author group, there hasn’t been much time to do anything else other than try to prepare my blog. I’m working all weekend and know from experience that when I get home from work late Saturday evening, the last thing I will feel like doing is writing it.

And now it’s gone five. I will finish this, then pop over and make sure the cats are happy, clean, fed, and watered. After that, I will fix myself a sneaky gin and tonic and see if any of my neighbours are about for our usual happy hour chat. Then it will be dinner and Netflix before an early night ready for work tomorrow.

What an exciting life I live.

I guess that’s it for now! I hope you enjoyed the pictures of my new plants. I will try to take more later in the summer so you can see how much they’ve grown. Have a great weekend and I look forward to chatting with you in a fortnight.

Best Wishes.

Julia Blake

A Sore Throat, A Hamster, and Lots of Writing!

Hello everyone! What a busy couple of weeks it’s been since we last chatted. As I told you last time, I began writing book fourteen – book five of the Blackwood Family Saga – and am delighted to report that I finished writing it two days ago. Standing at 52,000 words, it took me exactly two weeks to write it and I’m pleased with how it’s turned out. I tend to write directly into the appropriate size paperback template, format as I go, and page number it. I also run each chapter through spellchecker and Grammarly as I go. I find it saves so much time at the end of writing the first draft if it’s already done.

Sitting down to begin writing, I only had the vaguest idea of what the book was going to be about. I did know it was going to be Kristina (Kit) Blackwood’s tale, I knew it would involve music and singing, and that there is a brutal killer at large on the Yorkshire Moors. But that was it. The plot revealed itself gradually as I wrote and hopefully fans of the series will enjoy reading the book as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Once finished, I went through with the Find feature on Word and checked all my crutch words. These are fattening and filling words that maybe the sentence can do without. My crutch words tend to be – really, just, suddenly, had, and felt – so I went through eliminating all the unnecessary uses of those words.

On Saturday I listened to the whole book read back to me using the Read Aloud feature on Word. This is such a useful editing tool. Listening to the story being read out loud helps me to pick up all those niggly typos that are hard to spot – it inside of in, an instead of as, women instead of woman – and so on. Once I’m happy the book is as perfect as I can get it, I will send it to the wonderful Becky Wright at Platform House Publishing. She will make the interior title pages for me and check all the chapter icons and dropped capitals are correct and will stay in place. She may even read it through herself if she’s not too busy and look for anything I may have missed.

When it comes back from Becky, it will then be sent to my eagle-eyed proof-reader, Caroline, for her to work her magic on. No matter how perfect I think it is, she always manages to find something.

Whilst Caroline has the book, I will be writing the blurb, my author review for the book to go on Goodreads, the copy for the book’s page on my website, plus sourcing all the images I will need for the cover, the video trailer, images for the website, and promo images. I will also be liaising with James Wright at Platform Horse Publishing about the video trailer. As you can see, there is still a lot to be done. I often think writing a book is the easy part.

Having worked Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday after I last spoke to you, meant I had six days off in a row which I was looking forward to. I intended to put everything else on hold and just write. I was determined to get a sizeable chunk of the book under my belt.

Saturday evening, I started to feel unwell. A dry itchy throat was making me cough and my nose was congested. Thinking it to be a simple summer head cold caused by stress and tiredness, I self-medicated with honey and lemon, rest, Ibuprofen, and over-the-counter medication. As the cough worsened, I did test for Covid, but I was negative. I didn’t think it was Covid – let’s face it, after having it twice and having bad reactions to my jabs and the booster, I’m very familiar now with how it feels, and this felt different.

I was due to return to work on Thursday, and then have one day off on Friday, before returning to work for the three-day bank holiday weekend. By Wednesday though, I was not feeling at all well and phoned work to report there was a chance I may not make it in. Thursday morning, I awoke to glands so swollen in my throat that I looked like Jabba the Hutt, with a croaky gruff voice, and a bright yellow tongue.

Seriously alarmed, I took another Covid test – negative – then I phoned my surgery at 7:15am. Knowing I wouldn’t get through to a human being, I thought they might at least have an automated appointment booking system I could use. The way I was feeling, I knew it had gone beyond self-medication and I probably needed antibiotics.

The phone was answered, and an automated message told me that if I was phoning to make an appointment, then I really should go on their website where I could leave a message, and someone would call me back 48 hours later!

What the heck! That would make it Saturday morning when I’d be needing to go to work. It would also be the start of the bank holiday weekend when I would have two hopes of getting an appointment – one of which was Bob, and he was dead!

I held on. The phone kept ringing. Sporadically the automated voice would cut in pleading with me to use their website. I held my nerve and stayed on the line. Eventually, almost ten minutes later, the phone was answered by a real, live human being!

“How can I help?” she asked.

“I need to make an appointment to see a doctor,” I managed to croak, my voice so gravelly I sounded like Bonnie Tyler with a forty a day habit.

“What seems to be the problem?”

Really? She had to ask, wasn’t my rather sexy growl a big enough clue. I refrained from making any sarcastic comments though, afraid she might tell me to try their website.

“I think I have a throat infection, my glands are very swollen, and I have a bright yellow tongue.”

Yes, that delightful symptom had also appeared Thursday morning.

“Right, I see. What doctor do you normally see?”

“Any, all of them, I don’t care!”

Yeah, lady, I have no loyalty. I’ll see whoever is free.

“I need to ask, have you…”

“Taken a Covid test? Yes, I have, twice, both times negative.”

“Fine, Dr B can see you at 9:50am.”

“Thank you, I’ll be there.”

And that was that!

An actual appointment, face to face, with a real live doctor. If I’d given up and gone to their website as they’d tried their darndest to make me do, heaven only knows when I would have been seen.

I got ready to go to the doctor and phoned work to tell them the good news that I wouldn’t be in. I was proud of myself for being sensible for once.

Knowing me, how this would have usually gone down is I’d have dragged my pestilent carcass into work Thursday morning, made myself really really ill and probably infected everyone else, then been off work for days. No, I thought, see a doctor, and get the antibiotics I knew I needed Thursday morning – that way I’d have two days’ worth which would make me well enough to work all weekend.

Dr B was lovely, and peered down my throat, shaking her head in sympathy.

“That’s a nasty infection you’ve got there.”

“Oh, I thought it was just a cold. I’ve been trying to heal it with honey.”

“You have laryngitis, there’s not enough honey in the world to cure that.”

“Not even manuka honey?”

“No, not even manuka.”

She gave me a prescription for antibiotics and a steroid nasal spray to clear the congestion. Filling the prescription at the pharmacy, I hurried home. I was eager to take the first dose as quickly as possible and continue writing.

It was amazing how quickly the medication worked. By Friday morning my glands had returned to normal size, and by the evening my tongue was pink again. I decided unless I took a turn for the worse overnight, I would be well enough to work the three-day weekend and was proud of myself for being so sensible about it.

The weekend was busy – being a bank holiday we had sales running and people piled into the shop to buy. If people had money worries we didn’t see much sign of it – although we have all noticed there has been an increase in people using interest-free credit to purchase. Perhaps people still want and need stuff, but don’t have the ready money they used to have or are concerned about blowing all their savings on a big-ticket item.

I had Tuesday off and had to thoroughly scrub the kitchen and bathroom. It had been my turn to clean them that weekend, but because I worked it all I hadn’t had time, and besides, I felt they needed a bit of a deeper clean than normal. It’s all very well giving things a lick and a promise, sooner or later you must make good on that promise.

Every spare moment I had I was writing. I was even squeezing in an hour before going to work, which I never normally do because I’m worried about losing track of time and being late. I don’t know what got into me. I was over halfway through the book and desperate to keep writing to find out what happened.

The usual scenario happened. I aim to make all the Blackwood Family Saga books an even length of between 50,000 to 52,000 words. I had reached about 30,000 words and was fretting that I didn’t have enough plot to fill the remaining 20,000 words. I wrote more, then when I had reached 46,000 words, I fretted that I’d have too much plot. But, of course, I should know by now to trust the process because the book clocked in at 52,000 which is the perfect length.

Last week, I was video chatting with Miss F and Miss C when they sheepishly admitted they had something to tell me.

“What?”

All sorts of scenarios were playing out in my head – none of them good.

They then embarked on a long and convoluted tale of illegal hamsters being kept in the university – even though it’s against the rules, everyone did it and honestly, what did the powers-that-be expect? It is a university for animal studies, after all.

One of their friends, they explained, had a lot of hamsters and someone told on her, so there was a mad scramble to hide the hamsters before their room was checked. Miss F and Miss C ended up hiding one in their wardrobe. The hamster hoarding friend then decided to leave the university and took most of the hamsters with them except – you’ve guessed it – the hamster Miss F was harbouring.

The upshot of this tale of woe was that I was now grandmother to a hamster who would be coming home with Miss F for the summer.

Umm. A hamster? Here? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not scared of any rodent, but to have one in a house where a cat already lives seems like a plan doomed to tragic failure. Okay, Skittles is a lazy, old lump, but she will still chase and catch things that cross her path and having a tempting little furry morsel living under the same roof as her, is pushing temptation under her nose.

I’m not sure it’s a good idea, I said, determined to stay firm about this.

Miss F then bombarded me with video after video of this little scrap of black and white fur cleaning its whiskers, nibbling at food, scampering about its cage, running on its wheel … and, well, the upshot is … we are now a one hamster family.

One, it stops at one!

It is a cute little thing, with black and white patches. It’s called Miss Moo, both because of her markings and because she is a right moo. Okay, great.

I can’t believe how soon Miss F will be coming home for the long summer break. I was thinking it wouldn’t be until mid-end July, but I’ve been told I will need to drive up and collect her sometime in mid-June. Before then I will need to rent a storage pod as close to the university as possible. Miss F has a lot of stuff, including a 4’ mattress, and there’s no way I can fit it all into my tiny car. If I rented a van it would be expensive and cumbersome for me to drive, plus even if I did bring all her stuff home, where on earth would we store it all? Yes, it could fill the spare room, but if Miss F has friends come to stay over the summer, or even if I do, that will mean we’d have nowhere for them to sleep. Then I would have the added expense of renting a van again to get Miss F and all her stuff back to the university in September.

Being an agricultural and animal university, it runs various residential courses during the summer so needs the students’ rooms available to house the summer interns. It’s a complete pain in the backside, but at least if I’ve rented a storage pod close by we’ll be able to make several trips to put all Miss F’s things into storage for the long summer break. I am confident the mattress will fit in my car if I put all the seats down. Well, I’m pretty sure. Let’s put it this way, it either fits in the car or I’m strapping it to the roof, but either way, it will have to be transported somehow.

Reading through this blog, even though I said it had been a busy two weeks, it looks like I haven’t done much. I guess my time has all been eaten up with writing the book and I suppose if you think about it, to write a 52,000-word novel in two weeks is not bad – especially as it’s also formatted, paginated, and has had a basic edit.

Anyway, that’s all my news for now. I hope wherever you are that life is being good to you and look forward to chatting again in two weeks.

Julia Blake

A Very Peoply Time

Hello Everyone! It’s two weeks since my last blog and what a busy couple of weeks they’ve been. After working the whole weekend, I had Monday off and Miss F and I went grocery shopping for food for the week. Miss C, her girlfriend, was arriving on the 6:30pm train and we needed more supplies. Miss C is a vegetarian so after the carnivore binge of the previous week, I was quite looking forward to having a few meat-free meals – although they were eating out a lot so I wouldn’t be cooking many meals at home.

The rest of Monday was taken up with laundry, making beds, and tidying the house. In anticipation of Miss C’s arrival, I made a creamy garlicky potato gratin for dinner, which I cooked veggie sausages to go with plus veg.

After a very long train journey from Wales, Miss C arrived safely, and we all had dinner together. For dessert, Miss F had bought a Cadburys cream egg ice cream dessert which they ate. I’m not keen on cream eggs – I find them very sickly – and besides, I was full, so I didn’t have any.

The rest of the week was rather full-on, perhaps a little too full-on. I honestly can’t remember what happened on Tuesday. Something did, I’ve no doubt, and looking at my calendar I can see it wasn’t a workday, but as for what we did, I am clueless. It must be old age creeping up on me that’s making me so forgetful.

On Wednesday we were going to visit a stately home called Kentwell Hall which is about a 40-minute drive away. However, confusion about whether the house was open as well as the gardens, plus concerns over using that much petrol, and a weather forecast of rain that afternoon, had us staying closer to home and visiting Ickworth Park instead.

A beautiful regency building with a glorious rotunda, Ickworth is only a 10-minute drive away, so we collected my friend on route and arrived there just before eleven. Wandering around the beautiful grounds, it was a lovely day. The sun was shining and there were lots of others out enjoying the fine spring weather.

After exhausting the grounds, we joined the long queue to have lunch, which was nice, but like most of these kinds of places, very pricey for what it was. After lunch, we viewed the parts of the house the public is allowed into. Lots of red and gold abounded in every room and eventually, we found ourselves in the little second-hand bookshop they have. To my great surprise, a copy of The Book of Eve was on the shelves! I have no idea how it got there and sadly it was the old edition. Now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t contact them and offer to swap it with a copy of the newest edition with its gorgeous new cover.

Driving back into town, the skies were darkening and as I dropped my friend off it began to rain. Undaunted, we then went to the next village along and visited some antique and vintage barns there which are fun to wander about and look at all the old things for sale. I didn’t buy anything, but Miss F bought some books.

That evening, Miss F’s godmother dropped in for a drink and a chat. Normally, we’d pop open a bottle of Prosecco, but as she was driving and I was exhausted and had work the next day, we decided to stick to coffee.

The following day I had to work until 6pm and Miss F and Miss C caught the bus to the restaurant Miss F used to work at and treated themselves to lunch there. Afterwards, they caught the bus to the village where my parents live and visited with them until I collected them after I’d finished work.

The next day was Good Friday but of course, I had to work. Since the other part-timer left I’ve had to work all the bank holidays as we used to share the minor ones between us. Luckily, it was only until 4:30pm and rushing home for a quick turnaround, we were standing out on the road having a drink with my neighbours at 6:30pm when my parents, my brother, my niece, and her boyfriend turned up ready to go out for dinner.

I’d chosen where we were going and decided the pub that my friend and I always have dinner at before going to the theatre would be best. I’ve always had great meals there and the menu is extensive enough to please even the pickiest of eaters in our group.

Have you ever eaten somewhere and it’s really good, so you recommend it, and then when you go back in a bigger group it’s not so good? This was what happened Friday. The pub was crowded and noisy – Covid, what Covid is that then? Our food was brought out promptly enough, but it was cold. I’d chosen the roast chicken, but it was so dry I could barely choke it down. My mother had gone for lasagne which came with a watercress garnish that looked like it had been out of the bag and dead for a week!

My brother offered to pay on his card, get the receipt, then we’d all figure out what we owed him later. So, I didn’t see the receipt until we were drinking coffee back at mine when it was too late to do anything about it. We’d pre-ordered our meals, and they were all listed correctly on the receipt, along with all our drinks. But, on the bottom of the receipt, it listed six extra portions of fries at £3.19 each which we hadn’t had.

Don’t worry about it, my brother said, but I did worry about it. It was almost £20 extra we’d been charged for food we didn’t have, add that to the general dissatisfaction with our meals, and I was not a happy bunny.

I was working again the next day so couldn’t do anything about it. Getting home at almost five and expecting guests at 6:30pm, I was annoyed to find the two things I’d messaged Miss F to do – namely, empty all the bins and get the washing in – had not been done. The kitchen was trashed with their pizza things from lunch, the place needed a vacuum, and, to add insult to injury, Miss F and Miss C sloped off back to bed for a nap because they were tired.

Fuming angrily at the general unfairness of life, I changed out of my uniform and set to with a vengeance.

It’s amazing what one woman can do when she’s up against the clock and spitting feathers mad. By the time our guests arrived at 6:30pm, I’d not only got the laundry in, folded it, and put it away, but I’d emptied all the bins, tidied and cleaned the kitchen, scrubbed the bathroom, vacuumed the whole ground floor, and put on the dishwasher.

Miss F’s excuse for her laziness? She didn’t see my message. Hmm, funny that. Given that she’d answered the message.

Our guests were another niece and her new boyfriend. We had a rather raucous evening of games complete with gin, wine, and an enormous Chinese takeaway. Thank heavens I had Easter Sunday off!

Although the forecast had said the Sunday wouldn’t be a great day, it dawned bright and sunny and I stripped my bed, did a whites wash and got it all out on the line before Miss F and Miss C even poked their noses out of the bedroom. I’d bought bags of mini chocolate eggs which I hid all around the garden, and then I prepared a picnic of all the veggie snacks and nibbles left in the fridge and freezer, which we took to Nowton Park which is a lovely big country park a short drive away.

Being such a lovely day and Easter, the park was packed with families having picnics and lots of people walking dogs of every size, shape, and colour. Being animal lovers, of course, we had to say hello to every single dog we encountered.

It was so nice being out in the fresh air. I don’t do it nearly enough. I ambled along behind the others, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my face, and looking at the plants and the birds. I should get out more, but there never seems the time, and it all feels a bit of an effort when there’s only me.

Mind you, it felt like we were on a route march the speed at which those two went! They were constantly having to stop and wait for me.

Returning home, I made a coffee and took it into the garden, then watched in amusement as they scurried about trying to find all the eggs. Then we chilled out for the rest of day watching old films and I made cheeseburgers and fries for dinner – veggie and otherwise.

It was a nice relaxing day which I hadn’t realised I needed as badly as I did. What with all the overtime I’ve been doing, plus the stress and full-on intensity of having Miss F home, I was in danger of overdoing things.

Monday being another bank holiday, of course, I was back to work, but it was a short shift of six hours which meant I only got a twenty-minute lunch break – not long enough to phone the pub about the extra fries. There had been enough Chinese left to make one lunchtime portion which I took to work on Monday and heated in the microwave. It made a tasty change from sandwiches but stank the staffroom out. Sorry, everyone.

Miss F and Miss C made burritos for dinner, and they were delicious, but of course, they hadn’t bothered to pack a single thing during the day, so I didn’t get to spend the last evening with them. Instead, they were frantically trying to fit everything into their cases, and stomping all over the house searching for things they’d lost or forgotten about.

Early start Tuesday. I dropped them both at the station to catch the 10:20am train and then went straight to work for an 11-7 shift. Arriving at work almost thirty minutes before my shift started meant I was able to phone the pub. I spoke to the manager himself and he was horrified that we’d been charged for food we hadn’t had. But was the meal okay, he asked, and I hesitated. I hate complaining about things, but, he had asked, so I told him the truth. It was cold, my chicken was dry, and the watercress garnish was dead.

He couldn’t have been more apologetic. He would, of course, refund the money for the fries with a little extra for our disappointment. The only problem was as it was my brother who had paid, he needed my brother’s card to refund back onto. Would my brother be going to the pub any time soon? Knowing the answer to this was probably no, I suggested a gift card. This pub is part of a local brewery chain with pubs everywhere, including the pub in the village where my brother lives.

Of course, the manager agreed happily. A card for £30 would be behind the bar waiting for someone to collect it – that someone being me. At least the pub was obliging about the issue and this way my brother can use the card at his local pub for drinks and food.

Now I have to find the time and energy to walk all the way down there myself to collect the card.

Miss F texted that they’d arrived safely home after a smooth and uneventful train journey, and I came home to an empty and quiet house. Which was quite nice. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s been lovely having them here, but it was so frantic and full-on and so very peoply that it’s a relief to have some time alone.

I also worked Wednesday and Thursday, and by the time I crawled home Thursday evening I was exhausted and completely drained, and very much looking forward to my six days off.

Friday I allowed myself to have a lazy start to the day. Oh, I didn’t sleep in. That is too much to ask of my body and bladder, but I did make myself a cup of tea and take it back to bed. Lolling about like a sloth, I picked up my book Black Ice and began to read it. I’d forgotten how good it is and how much I enjoy the story. The rest of the day was taken up with shopping, laundry, more resting and a lot more reading. Later in the afternoon I popped out onto the street for a drink with the neighbours, then fixed myself a delicious dinner and had an early night.

And now it’s Saturday. I’ve been writing for most of the day and am very happy with the 5800 words I’ve managed to get down of my new project. Book five of the Blackwood Family Saga, this will be my fourteenth book published and I’m hoping to get a solid chunk of it written over the next few days.

Today has also been the first day of my renewed diet. Whilst Miss F was home it seemed pointless even trying to diet. There were so many nice meals at home and meals out planned I knew I wouldn’t be able to stick to the diet, so called a hiatus on it for the three weeks of the visit.

With trepidation, I stepped onto the scales this morning. I knew I’d put weight on, I could feel it in the way my clothes were fitting, but the question was – how much damage had I done to myself? Luckily, not too much. I’ve only put back on 4lbs. Not good, but so much better than it could have been.

So today, it’s back to yoghurt and fruit for breakfast, a big salad for lunch, and soup for dinner. Hopefully, a week of this might be enough to shift those rapidly gained few pounds and then I can seriously diet to get the weight off before summer.

And that’s it, you’re up to date with all my news, I think. Take care of yourselves, and I look forward to chatting with you next time.

Julia Blake

Life’s Essentials – Food & Fuel

Hello everyone! Happy Sunday. Now, before we start I need to print a formal apology for an error I made in my last blog. I stated that my parents had been married for 54 years. That was in fact incorrect, as my mother rather sniffily pointed out in a phone call. They have been married for 58 years.

Mum: How old will you be next birthday?

Me:    Umm, 55.

Mum: Exactly!

Okay, point taken Mum, so it’s 58 years they’ve been married, NOT 54. Did everyone get that?

Right, where did I leave off last time? Yes, I was waiting for the delivery of Miss F’s new bed and hoping it was the earlier side of the two-hour time slot of 2:30 to 4:30. In fact, they phoned me and asked if they could deliver it at 1:30, which was fine.

They took it up to Miss F’s room and I set to unwrapping and figuring out how to assemble it. I didn’t find the instructions until after I’d sussed it out myself, but it was an easy bed to build so that was okay. The bed is lovely, sturdy, and attractive, and will be able to take the weight of the heavy mattress much better than the flimsy metal bed. So that’s fine. The problem was the packaging. There was so much of it! Honestly, how much Styrofoam does one wooden bed need?! And as I pulled it out of the box it shredded into little balls that were so full of static they stuck to everything!

And I mean everything!

I couldn’t get the damn stuff off me. In the end, I had to fetch the vacuum cleaner and hoover myself down with the nozzle! The copious amounts of cardboard weren’t an issue. I flattened it, rolled it up, and secured it with string. The recycling bin men were coming the next morning, so I simply put it out for them and bless them, they took it. That left me with eight bin bags of Styrofoam and plastic to get rid of.

I don’t have the largest bin in the world, and it’s only emptied once a fortnight so it would take two months to get rid of all the bags of packaging. I thought about it. Then filled my car with the bags and went onto the local recycling centre website and booked a slot for 11am on Friday. I was collecting a large grocery order from Tesco between 11am-and noon and as the recycling centre is only five minutes away from the store, it made sense to combine one trip and at least the stuff would be gone!

So that was Miss F’s room all ready for her return the following week.

That weekend it was Mother’s Day in the UK. I had posted a card to my mother and as I would be working all weekend and Miss F wasn’t home yet, we planned to all go to lunch together the week after Miss F got home. Friday, I was getting dressed when I heard something come through the letterbox like a bomb. Wondering what on earth it could be, I ran downstairs and found the postman had somehow managed to shove a long flat box through the small slot.

Picking it up, I wondered if it was for the lodger, but it was addressed to me, so I opened it. Inside, were what appeared to be a bunch of dead flowers! Umm, what …? There was also a tube of very nice hand cream and a Mother’s Day card from Miss F.

I looked at the pile of dead plants in concern. I hoped she hadn’t paid too much for it and I wondered what to say to her. Looking through the instructions which had come with the bouquet, they claimed that if I put the plants in a vase with the special food sachet included, they would perk up and bloom.

Not hopeful – they really did look deceased – I did as ordered, praying they would revive enough to take a decent picture to send to Miss F with my thanks. To my surprise and delight, within two days a lovely exhibit of tulips and other flowers had lifted their heads and bloomed into a beautiful display.

As you know, I’ve been picking up a lot of overtime lately because of staff shortages and holidays, so I worked all weekend plus Monday and Tuesday the following week. The day Miss F was coming home was Wednesday and luckily I did have that day off ­– well, I told my boss I was having that day off, so that was that.

Miss F’s train was due in at 4:30 so I spent the day cleaning the house, making her bed, picking up yet more groceries – seriously, how much food does one teenager eat? The day was cold and overcast, so I lit a fire in the lounge in preparation for her return, thinking it would cheer her up after her long journey.

Standing on the platform waiting for her train to arrive, I was surrounded by youngsters all travelling home after college and school, including one young lady with an orange face and false eyelashes that were so long it looked like she’d stuck caterpillars on her eyelids! It took a few moments to find Miss F in the crush after the train pulled in and everyone rushed to get on board. But there she was, looking small and cold and dragging a case almost as big as her.

It was so good to see her again. Hugging her, I took her case, and we came home to a roaring fire with a cat stretched out in front of it ready for love and cuddles. Disappearing into the bathroom to have a much-needed shower after eight hours on a train, I prepared a slap-up dinner of thick steaks, fat chips, onion rings and peas, which we ate in front of the fire watching the first episode of season two of Bridgerton – so good!

I had to work on Thursday but only until 4:30. Miss F was still asleep when I left for work, and I assumed she’d probably spend the day resting and settling back in. Dinner that night was meatballs and spaghetti.

Friday was a day off and we had planned a lovely day at the local plant nursery picking out some flowering perennials for the garden and treating ourselves to a cake and coffee in the café. However, the best-laid plans of Julia are all filed away somewhere, because when I woke up it was to find big fat snowflakes whirling past the window and a heavy frost sparkling on every surface. Way too cold to be poking about the garden centre, and certainly too cold to be working in the garden and putting in plants.

Instead, we wandered uptown together to carry out a few chores, but it was so cold! The wind was bitter and went through my coat as if I wasn’t wearing anything. Hurrying home, I lit the fire and planned a nice dinner of chicken in a white wine and tarragon sauce, accompanied by more Bridgerton – I’m not addicted, you are.

Saturday, yep, you’ve guessed it, I had to work again so I planned an easy dinner of king prawns in white wine, creamy, garlic sauce over pasta with salad and garlic bread. Yum.

Sunday, another day off – I hate these on/off shifts, they’re so tiring – and we’d invited my parents over for a traditional roast dinner. I had a joint of pork which I was determined to cook the right way and get the crackling perfect. Something I’ve never managed to do before.

After much googling, I settled on this method which I’ve listed below if you’re interested. This was for a joint weighing just over 2kg.

  1. Make sure the skin has been scored all over with a sharp blade.
  2. The night before, place a wire rack in the sink skin side up and boil a large kettle full of water. Pour the water over the pork and watch the skin go white.
  3. Thoroughly dry the joint with paper towel.
  4. Rub salt into the skin, pushing it into the slits.
  5. Wrap the joint in a clean tea towel and place it on a plate in the fridge overnight.
  6. Next morning, remove the joint from the fridge an hour before cooking to warm up. Put the tea towel straight in the wash!
  7. Rub a little softened butter all over the skin.
  8. Place in a cool oven – 160C fan for three hours.
  9. Remove and slice the crackling from the joint making sure a layer of fat is still on the crackling.
  10. Wrap foil around the joint and keep warm.
  11. Pour off meat juices and retain them for making gravy.
  12. Place crackling in oven, skin side up, for approx. 20 mins.
  13. The crackling should snap in half when perfect.

And there you go! Perfect pork and crackling.

I was back to work Monday and Tuesday. Work hasn’t been too bad the last couple of weeks. I’ve had some lovely customers and even lovelier sales. We’ve been given another pay rise of 59p an hour, which isn’t huge but every little helps, right? All this overtime will certainly help as well, although I won’t be paid for it until the end of April and even the end of May because of the stupid overtime hours reporting system they use. I’m not sure how long the overtime will last although we’ve had no success finding a replacement for the other part-timer who left. Only four people have applied so far and none of them was even remotely suited for the job.

Speaking of extra money, something very strange happened the week before Miss F arrived. I came home from work on Thursday to discover an envelope lying on the table for me with an EDF energy company logo on it. Wondering what sales pitch it would contain, I opened it and a cheque for £106 fell out!

Now, it’s unusual for an energy company to give money back but not unheard of. However, to my knowledge, I’ve never been a customer of EDF energy. Or, if I have, it was over a decade ago which is how far back my utility records go.

I did think about calling them to find out what was going on. But honestly, just the thought of sitting on the phone for however long it took to get through to the right department exhausted me, so instead I banked it. If they ever come back to me about it – cheque, what cheque was that then? – I’ll argue that they sent it to me unasked for, so, tough, I’m not paying it back.

After all, maybe I was an EDF customer fifteen years ago and I did overpay slightly, and it’s taken them all this time to process the cheque. I guess fifteen years is about right for an energy company to raise a refund.

Wednesday we went for lunch with my mum as a belated Mother’s Day celebration. Mum was due to arrive at ours at 12:30 so in the morning, Miss F and I drove to Waitrose to buy a few bits and some flowers, then we drove to see her other grandparents and visited with them for a while. After that, we went to buy petrol stopping at my surgery on the way to pick up another month’s supply of my hayfever meds.

Now, when I’d been at work the day before we’d had some customers mention how the petrol shortage malarky was happening again and it had worried me a bit because my tank was almost empty. The needle was on red, so I was running on fumes and a prayer.

Pulling into Tesco service station with my fuel gauge indicator now flashing red, it was to find a big sign saying No Unleaded Fuel. Bugger! Thinking rapidly, I pulled onto the motorway and bypassed the town to exit on the east side where Sainsbury’s is, along with another three petrol stations figuring one of them MUST have fuel. Pulling onto the forecourt at Sainsbury’s, I was relieved to see that although many of the pumps were shut, a couple did still seem to be working.

I filled up to the top, thankful that I don’t drive much so a full tankful would last me quite a while. Also, thankful Miss F would be getting the train back to university so I wouldn’t be needing petrol for a long double trip up north.

Then we went to lunch at a lovely restaurant just outside Bury. It’s a large restaurant but it was crowded even though it was only a Wednesday. I had one glass of wine because I was driving later, but it tasted of mouldy onions which I know wasn’t the wine but my Covid tastebuds rearing their ugly head again. Thanks, Covid, you really are the gift that keeps giving.

Although Mum had driven us to the restaurant and back again, I would be driving later that day as our little tortoise, Poe, had an appointment to get his beak and talons trimmed. It was the first time he’d been out of the house since we’d bought him, but he behaved himself beautifully. Sticking his little head out curiously in the waiting room, he seemed very interested in the new sounds and smells around him.

The vet we were seeing was one experienced in exotics – although he didn’t see many – so he was very excited to see our little boy. He pronounced him perfect in every way. Excellent physical condition, good muscle tone, and lovely shell. So that’s all good. He behaved himself whilst his beak and nails were trimmed and seemed chilled about the whole experience. As a reward, he had tomatoes for his dinner that night.

And now it’s Thursday morning and I’m writing to you whilst Miss F watches some true-crime programme at full blast in the same room. We both have separate social occasions today. She is meeting a friend for lunch then going to the cinema. I am going for dinner with a friend and then going to the theatre to see the comedian Reginald D. Hunter (the D is for delicious). So, we’re both looking forward to that.

I’m having to write this today. On Friday I have my usual fortnightly meeting with my local authors’ group and then I’m working again all weekend. My life right now consists of planning meals in advance!

Anyway, that’s about it for this chat! In the next A Little Bit of Blog I will be able to tell you how the rest of Miss F’s visit went and what we did the week her girlfriend came to stay.

Take care everyone! Hope you manage to find petrol and stay clear of Covid.

Julia Blake

And so to Bed!

Good morning everyone! Although it’s Sunday for you I am writing this week’s blog on the Wednesday before. Due to overtime and mad shift patterns, I’m working all weekend and won’t have time to write anything. So, I’m sitting here, coffee in hand, trying to gather my thoughts about what has happened since we last chattered, and waiting for Miss F’s new bed to be delivered.

Regular followers of me on Instagram will know that I only bought her a new bed three years ago when we upsized her from a single to a four-foot small double. Working for a bed store I receive quite a nice discount so took Miss F to work on a day off to try out mattresses. Of course, she fell in love with one of the most expensive in the shop but with my discount and putting it on interest-free credit, it was doable. When it came to the bed though, she didn’t like any of the small double beds we sold. Being a non-standard size there wasn’t so much choice.

Adamant she didn’t like any of them, I gave up and we looked online for a bed that she did. She chose a white painted metal bed on eBay that had crystal knobs and a twisty patterned head and foot end. It was cheap, I must admit, at just over £100 delivered, so we ordered it.

And then the fun began.

They gave us a delivery date. I waited in all day. No show. I messaged them. So sorry, they said, there was a stock issue. They gave us another delivery date. I waited in again. This time half the bed turned up. Frantic messages were sent. Eventually, they gave me another delivery date of 2am! Not believing this could possibly be correct, I tried in vain to confirm this with the company, but they’d gone off the radar. I waited up until 2am, but of course, it was a no show.

Now getting seriously annoyed. I fired off several terse emails, all of which were ignored. I then phoned them and sat on the phone and let it ring for almost forty minutes before eventually it was answered by the manager of the company. Holding in my temper, I explained the situation.

He was very sorry, he said, it was the delivery company they used which had seriously let them down. The other half of the bed would be delivered in two days. So long as it is, I snapped.

Meanwhile, Miss F had been sleeping in the spare room and her very expensive mattress – which had been delivered hassle-free by my company exactly when they said it would be – was leaning up on its side on the landing. Not a good thing for a mattress.

True to their word though, the other half of the bed was delivered two days later. Thankful the whole saga was at an end, I started putting the bed together – only to discover that the crossbeam to connect across the bottom was clearly for a single bed and not a small double!

More emails ensued. Eventually, two days later, an email came saying they were having trouble tracking down the correct piece so would send me a completely new bed, and please could I have the faulty one all packed up ready to be collected.

Fuming and unable to believe this latest turn of events, I dismantled the bed it had taken me a good couple of hours to put together, packaged it all back up as best I could, and awaited this mythical delivery.

They’d given me a time of 3pm. Again, a no show. Again, I tried emailing them to no avail. Accepting that I’d been rooked of over £100 for a faulty product, I decided to start proceedings against them through eBay as soon as I got home from work the next day and went to bed seriously fed up with the whole situation.

The next morning, I was about to leave the house for work when there was a knock at the door. It was the delivery man who’d delivered all the other bits of the bed.

Have you come to collect a faulty bed? I asked.

No, he scratched his head and looked puzzled. I’ve just come to give you this.

He handed me a four-foot bottom crossbeam and then wondered why I had a meltdown on the doorstep and threw a few choice words out into the street.

Yes, I was happy I finally had the missing piece, but it meant I had to re-assemble the bed I had dismantled, so I was an annoyed and very frustrated bunny and left a one-star review on eBay stating this. Two days later I received an email from the company expressing their dismay at my feedback and asking if it was something they’d done?!

Words failed me at that point.

Anyway, Miss F finally had the bed she wanted, and yes, it was a very pretty bed and for a year or so all was well. But it was a very cheap bed and the mattress she’d chosen a very heavy one. The bed started to creak alarmingly. Taking off the mattress, I tightened all the bolts and noticed that cracks had appeared in the main metal beam running down the centre of the frame.

We braced the bed with old author copies of my books secured with much duct tape. Over the next couple of years, the legs began to resemble bananas and the crack in the main beam grew until over Christmas, when Miss F came home for a visit, the bed was visibly showing the strain and I knew something had to be done about it.

So, I’m now sitting here, drinking coffee, chatting with you, and awaiting the delivery of the solid wooden bed that I originally wanted to buy her three years ago, and I think the upshot of this tale is – IF YOU BUY CHEAP YOU BUY TWICE!

Lol, when I told Miss F I was buying her a new bed she asked if she had any input into which one? Umm, no. Tried that last time, and look how well that turned out!

What else has happened? The stats from the launch of Rambling Rose are in and they’re not bad. It wasn’t the most successful launch I’ve ever had, but neither was it the worst. Interestingly, sales of paperbacks were almost as high as those for eBooks, which is unusual for an indie author. It’s nice to see that my readers wanted Rose as a physical book, rather than merely reading it on a screen.

Feedback so far has also been lovely. With Rose barely a week old she has already received half a dozen five-star reviews on Goodreads.

I was invited to take part in a couple of online interviews which were fun. One was broadcast live on Instagram and was on the topic of what to do when your account is hacked or blocked for some reason. The other was with a book blogger who let me ramble on for over two hours about all things bookish and life in general. That one won’t be aired until May sometime.

I also enjoyed another dinner and theatre evening last Saturday. This time it was to see a play called Home, I’m Darling and was a peculiar piece about a young couple who love the Fifties so much they try to recreate it in their own home, with the husband going out to work in full fifties garb and a hat, and the wife staying home and being a domestic goddess in vintage dresses and a lot of red lipstick. All seems idyllic until financial hardships cause cracks in their perfect arrangement, and they realise that modern life is unsustainable on a single income.

There was one particularly poignant moment when the young wife is confronted by her mother with a few harsh truths about the Fifties – that they were not the golden era the young couple perceived them to be – but were difficult and grey. A time when food was still scarce and bland, and women had no rights at all, and their husbands could treat them any way they pleased.

I didn’t fight and protest as hard as I did for your freedom, just for you to throw it all away on some nostalgic nonsense!

Before the theatre, we had an early dinner at our usual pub, and I know the food was delicious because it always is, but sadly my taste buds are still not functioning properly and all I can taste is mouldy mushrooms. Thanks, Covid, you really are the gift that keeps on giving.

That Saturday was certainly a busy one. In the morning, my dad called around to help me dismantle Miss F’s old bed – although, in fairness, I think one good kick would have done that! He also removed the hood from the wicker sofa in the garden. We never put that hood up because being under a tree the sofa is in the shade as it is. Over the years, the hood has become disgusting with green algae, bird poop, squashed cherry juice from the tree above, and it’s full of cobwebs and creepy crawlies.

The day before dad was due to come, I put the hood up and took a broom to it to sweep all the nasties off. A couple of freaky spiders dropped out and sat on the ground staring at me. Large, with short thick legs and a shiny black bulbous bottom with a thick brown stripe around it, they were menacing and horrible. I’m afraid I crushed them under a brick because they scared me. Then I went in and googled them and discovered that they were False Widows. Nasty venomous spiders that have invaded the UK in recent years. Big shudder!

So, the bed and the hood, plus an old printer that has been sitting in the corner of my bedroom for a year, a load of solar lights that stopped working ages ago, and the old metal shelves from the bathroom, were all loaded into the back of my dad’s van, and we trundled off to the new recycling centre. He hasn’t been since it has been relocated and updated, but I’d been once so know the way plus it was very well signposted.

It’s ever so posh there now. You must book an appointment time and everything. There’s number plate recognition at the gate, and if your number’s not on the list, you’re not coming in! Only the correct number of cars to parking bays are allowed in, and it’s all very efficient. We were done there in a matter of minutes, then went back to mine to chill out in the sun at the bottom of the garden, drinking latte, and watching as the giant crane on the building site on the other side of the garden wall swung about in the sunshine.

After dad left, I decided to pop uptown and see about buying a new top to wear that evening. I’m lacking in the clothes department – especially after the Great Plague of Moths 2020 – so thought I’d treat myself. As I’d had such success in Monsoon at Christmas buying a top for the festive season, I decided to walk through Next and see if there was anything there, but ultimately end up in Monsoon and hang the expense.

I walked through Next. Not sure who they are aiming their clothes at, but certainly not women in their fifties who just want a nice top to wear out in the evening in the UK in March. There was lots of beachwear. Okay, nice if you can afford a holiday somewhere far away and hot. Lots of gym and workout wear. Hmm, shall I wear spandex to dinner? I think not. Racks of chunky knitwear leftover from winter. I don’t think so. Then racks and racks of flimsy, floaty summer dresses, skirts, and tops – none of which were suitable for a sunny but still briskly chilly day in March.

I left Next and turned left to go into Monsoon. It had gone. The doors were locked. The shop was empty, and a sign on the door informed me the nearest branch of the store could be found in Colchester – a good hour’s drive away! Not only that, but Accessorize, the fun shop next door was also gone.

So that’s two more shops gone from my local high street. It’s a worrying trend and I wonder where it will end. In ten years or so will our towns and cities have no shops at all – only endless coffee shops and charity shops? Will all shopping be done online? Now, I love online shopping for the convenience and choice it offers, but there are certain things I cannot buy online, clothes being one of them.

Like most women, I am not a standard size. Being only five feet tall means I really must hunt for things that fit correctly. A shopping trip for me usually comprises of dozens of things being taken into the changing room, a mass try-on when I look in the mirror and am brutally honest about whether an item fits and, more importantly, looks nice. Over the years, I’ve learnt what suits and what doesn’t, and I’ve also learnt the answers to the following questions:

Maybe if I lost weight? Maybe you won’t, so don’t buy it.

Maybe if I had make-up on? Nope.

Maybe with different shoes? Nope.

Unless you look in the changing room mirror and absolutely love the item – even with no make-up, the wrong shoes, and carrying a few extra pounds – then it’s a hard no.

Oh, and never go shopping when you’re in a hurry, hungry, thirsty, or need a wee. Try to avoid shopping for clothes for yourself with small children in tow – that never ends well. And don’t go shopping drunk either – that can lead to some spontaneous purchases that are either sheepishly returned the next day or hang in your wardrobe with the labels on for years until it finally goes to charity.

Stymied by the closure of the one shop I’d depended on finding something in, I wandered across to New Look and looked in there. Aimed at the younger market, it is still possible to sometimes find things that will work for us older ladies. Rummaging through the sales rack, I found a lovely silky soft, thin knit sweater top in a pearly grey colour, with three-quarter length sleeves that were slightly batwing, and a turtleneck collar. I tried it on. I still liked it. It was in the sale for £15. Bargain!

Pleased with my find, I hurried home and rummaged through my jewellery box until I found a silver and grey metal chunky necklace that was the right length with the collar and finished it off nicely. With my best black bootcut jeans and black ankle boots, I reckoned I’d do.

I had an hour or so before needing to get ready to go and collect my friend, so settled on the sofa with a drink and a book and rested from the morning’s exertions, before scrubbing up and popping around to collect her.

The delivery company have just texted me. They will deliver the new bed between 2:30pm and 4:30pm. I hope it’s the earlier end of that time slot. I want to assemble the bed and get the mattress back on today so it’s all ready for Miss F when she arrives next Wednesday. Due to overtime, I only have today and Friday off between now and then. Friday is pretty much taken up with dying my hair, my usual virtual chat with my local author’s group, and collecting an enormous shopping order of food for the twelve days Miss F is home before her girlfriend, Miss C, arrives for a visit.

Miss C is a vegetarian, so Miss F has been eating a lot of veggie food. When asked if there were any special food requests for the fortnight she’ll be home before Miss C turns up, the answer came back – MEAT! So, as requested, my shopping list has ribs, pork belly, a joint of pork with crackling, a half shoulder of lamb, sausages, prawns, bacon, chicken, burgers, meatballs, and steak! Along with lactose-free ice cream, cheese, cream, butter, and milk. Honestly, it came to three times more than my normal weekly bill!

Speaking of steak, it was my parents’ wedding anniversary last week. Happy Anniversary, Mum and Dad! They’ve been married fifty-four years – or three life sentences – so I wanted to buy them something nice but knew they didn’t want any more stuff. So, instead, I took a trip to Waitrose and got them a card, a bunch of flowers, a bottle of rose wine, two steaks, chunky chips, button mushrooms, giant beer-battered onion rings, a damn fine cherry pie, and posh vanilla custard. Have dinner on me, you’re welcome.

I know they enjoyed it because when I got home from the theatre Saturday evening there was a message on my answerphone from Mum saying how delicious it had been, so that’s nice.

Anyway, I think that’s about it for news and this blog has now reached epic proportions. The sun is shining here, and it seems Spring has decided to stay. I hope it sticks around whilst the girls are home from university as they have so much planned that’s outdoors and it’s always nicer if the sun is shining.

Take care everyone, and I look forward to our next chat in a couple of weeks.

Julia Blake

It’s my job to serve you, but I’m not going to!

So sorry the blog is a little late. I fully intended to write it yesterday, but I launched book thirteen – Rambling Rose – and should have known that it would be a crazy, full-on, stressful day. After all, it’s not like it’s my first rodeo.

So, how did the launch go? About as well as can be expected given the state of the world right now. I know I’m not the only author who has noticed a drop off in sales across the board. Maybe it’s because people are struggling financially, maybe it’s the worrying news coming out of Ukraine, maybe it’s a hangover from the pandemic, or maybe it’s all these things.

It’s hard to know exact figures yet because Amazon can be a little slow collating and reporting, and I know from people’s comments that a lot of paperbacks were purchased. These don’t register as a sale until they’ve been delivered so it will be a week before a true picture can be seen.

It was certainly a busy day, and I was touched and overwhelmed by the amount of support I got. Dozens of feeds shared my posts and congratulations flooded in. I spent nearly all day jumping from social media site to social media site, sharing posts and thanking people. In fact, it got to gone 5pm and I realised I was starving as I hadn’t had time to eat since breakfast. Daunted by the thought of trying to cook, I sent a message of help to Miss F. Twenty minutes later a large portion of fish and chips was delivered by Just Eat which was very much appreciated.

One thing I did want to do was film me reading a short extract from Rambling Rose and post it on Instagram. Now, I don’t have the greatest technology but my Kindle Fire tablet is relatively new so I thought it would probably record okay. I have found if I open my laptop to its normal level and prop the tablet against the screen when I’m sitting at my desk, the tablet is at the perfect height and angle to record me.

I sat with my copy of Rambling Rose and read a non-spoiler extract from the book; I watched the video back. It wasn’t bad for me, well, it was as good as it was going to get. I tried to upload it to Instagram. It posted it, but to my horror, only the first still of the video was shown with my voice talking away in the background. I tried again, perhaps I’d done something wrong. Nope. I tried uploading to reels – that played for a minute before cutting off. I messaged my friend and fellow author, Becky Wright. She had done readings the last time she released a book just before Christmas. Together we researched why it seemed no longer possible. Yep, you’ve guessed it. Instagram deleted this function a couple of months ago.

Taking deep breaths through my nose, I tried to upload it to Facebook. Nope, it stuck for twenty minutes trying to upload then crashed the site. The only option I had was to upload it to my YouTube channel then tell people the link was in my bio if they wanted to watch it. The only trouble was, the video was on my tablet, and I needed to get it onto my laptop to upload it. Could I email it? Nope, the attachment was too big. In the end, desperate, I tried sending it to Becky on Messenger. Despite taking fifteen minutes to load, it did eventually, and she was able to share it as an email attachment on her smartphone, email it back to me, then I downloaded it onto my laptop and uploaded it to YouTube.

Right, now it’s on my YouTube channel. I could just tell people it was there, but it would involve time and effort for them to find it and I knew most people wouldn’t bother. I copied the video link on YouTube and posted it onto my linktree. For those who don’t know, linktree is an app you download that you can set up with links to all your sites – Goodreads, Facebook, Instagram, a website, YouTube, plus book listings on Amazon – then you post the linktree link and anyone clicking on it is presented with all the other links neatly listed. Linktree is particularly useful for sites like Instagram that only allow one link in your bio. With linktree, anyone clicking on this link then has immediate access to everywhere else. Anyway, I wondered if I could put the link to the reading video on linktree. I could. I labelled it Rambling Rose reading one and put it at the top of the list. This way when someone clicked on it they would be taken immediately to the YouTube clip. I did this, and a little message popped up from linktree. Would I like the video to be viewable on my linktree? Why yes, I would, thank you very much. I had no idea linktree could do this. Very excited, I let Becky know about this new turn of events. This serendipitous discovery means that we can put videos on our linktree and when someone clicks on the link in our bio the video is there, ready to play, with no need to go to YouTube or search for it. Amazing.

What else has happened since we last spoke? Well, lots of hard work to get Rambling Rose ready for publication. I must say, it’s been the smoothest most trouble-free launch I’ve ever had. Everything came together perfectly, and I was even able to bring the publication date forward from the 25th of March to the 12th of March. The book was good to go so there seemed no point waiting any longer, plus it means the book is out before Mother’s Day.

I had a week’s holiday off work which I desperately needed. I hadn’t realised how tired I was from Christmas, all the overtime I did in January, plus all the hard work I’d done on the book. I didn’t do much during my days off. I rested a lot and read. I did go out for lunch with a friend on Shrove Tuesday – for Americans, this is the last Tuesday before Lent when traditionally any food leftover in the house, typically eggs, milk, and flour, were used to make stacks of pancakes. This was to ensure that the food didn’t go bad over the fasting time of Lent, and maybe to remove temptation. Anyway, we went to Prezzo for lunch because we both had vouchers to use there.

We’ve been there quite often, usually having their burger and fries, because it’s delicious and good value for money at £11. This time though I was determined to have something different. After all, Prezzo is an Italian restaurant so I really should have something Italian. We sat at our table and perused the menu, having already consumed a bottle of prosecco between us we needed food to mop it up. My friend chose the burger, I went for a pasta dish which at £15 was more expensive but I thought being pasta, would be more filling.

Our meals came. She had the glorious thick burger with all the trimmings in a brioche bun with a big pile of string fries and a pot of homemade ketchup. As for my pasta, well, I think I could have picked it up in one hand and not dropped any. The portion size was tiny, and it came with nothing. Does anyone else hate this modern trend that you must order your veggies or salad separately because they no longer come with the meal? I think it’s appalling. Veg or salad is part of a meal, not an optional, payable extra.

We finished our meals. My friend was happy. I was not. I was still hungry. The pasta had barely touched the sides. We looked at the dessert menu. Walking to the restaurant my friend had mentioned how another one close by was offering an all-you-can-eat pancake special that day. So, we paid our bill in Prezzo, went to the other restaurant, and ate all the pancakes. They were nice, but they weren’t proper British pancakes which are tissue-thin and usually drenched in lemon and sugar. These were American pancakes so very thick and stodgy.

But I’ll tell you this, next time I go to Prezzo I’m having the burger!

I also had a haircut during my time off. Quite a radical one. All the hair I’d grown during two years of lockdowns has been hacked to the nape of my neck. The hairdresser convinced me to embrace the natural curl of my hair and when I left I had a bouffant that Shirley Temple would be proud of. I wasn’t sure about it but decided to reserve judgement until I’d tried to do it myself.

I couldn’t do it myself, so instead rejected the curl and blow-dried it straight with a quick smooth after with the straightening iron. I like it. If you want to see it for yourself, watch the video of my reading which can be found on my YouTube channel or in the bio of my Instagram account.

The week off went by way too fast. I wish days at work went by that quickly. When I returned to work last week, the other part-timer had left so my boss was ready to wheedle and negotiate about overtime. I have such mixed feelings about overtime. On the one hand, cha-ching, I need the money. But on the other hand, it makes for long weeks, and I wind up exhausted. The few applicants for the job they’ve had have not been suitable so I might be doing overtime for a while. I only hope they eventually find someone. Whilst I don’t mind helping for a few weeks I don’t want my twenty hours a week job to suddenly become a thirty or even forty hour a week one.

I had to go to the local post office on Friday to send off signed copies of Rambling Rose to my beta readers and to a couple of people who had bought copies off me. There wasn’t too long a queue, a couple of people were waiting in the business and travel money queue, and there were about three people ahead of me in the general counter queue.

I stood there and stood there, and it dawned on me that nobody was serving on the counter. All the tills were empty. I looked around. One assistant was on the business and travel counter, then there were two members of staff floating about the floor, talking to one another, but not going anywhere near the tills to serve the ever-growing line of customers. Then one assistant disappeared out the back, leaving a guy faffing about straightening shelves, aimlessly picking up a box from one place and putting it down somewhere else.

The mood of the queue grew ugly.

ME:  Excuse me. Is anybody actually serving?

HIM: No.

ME:  So, do we need to go and queue over there?

I pointed to the shorter queue for the business and travel money counter.

HIM: No, that’s the business and travel money queue only.

ME:  What? But what about all of us in this queue? Are you saying we’re never going to get served?

HIM: You will be served when there’s no one waiting in the business queue.

ME:  Why do they get priority?

HIM: They just do.

ME:  But that’s terrible. Get someone on the general counter.

HIM: I can’t, there is no one to serve.

ME:  Well, why don’t you get on a till and at least clear this line?

By now, people are muttering and chiming in with comments about how long they’ve been waiting and what a bloody disgrace it was.

HIM: I can’t, that’s not my job today.

Apparently, his job was to wander about in jeans and a scruffy jumper picking up boxes.

ME:  But this is ridiculous. Where are all the staff?

HIM: We don’t have any, no one applied for the job.

ME:  So why not just have one queue so at least we all have a chance of being served.

HIM: We can’t, business and travel money get priority.

ME:  Why?

HIM: They just do. Look, you’re shouting at the wrong person, it’s not my fault.

ME:  Then bring the manager out here, let them explain why you can’t serve us.

HIM: Can’t, they’re not here.

ME:  Oh, for heaven’s sake!

I realised this was going nowhere fast, so I marched to the end of the business and travel money queue where a delightful pair of American ladies had been listening to this. You go ahead of us, they urged, honestly, we don’t mind, and you’ve been here a lot longer than us.

Thanking them profusely, I went to the business and travel money till.

ME:  I’m an author, that’s my business, and these are copies of my books I need to send.

The girl said nothing, merely started putting my parcels through. Meanwhile, the mood of the queue had gone from ugly to downright grotesque.

Is anyone ever going to come to these tills? One woman was asking. Or are we standing here for nothing?

You will be served eventually, the male assistant said. I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do about it.

He could get on a till and start serving customers, I commented to the girl serving me.

She peered at me from over the top of her mask, but stayed silent, putting my items through as quickly as possible so she could get rid of the nasty shouty lady.

Yes, I appreciate they probably are horrendously short-staffed, but maybe if they offered a better wage they would have more applicants. And there was absolutely no apparent reason why he couldn’t have got on a till and served us. He was standing there doing nothing! All he was doing was taking parcels off the people putting them through on the self-service machine – which they could have put on the counter by themselves – and justifying why he wasn’t prepared to do his job and serve customers.

When did customer service get so crap in this country? I work in retail myself, and if I ignored customers, refused to serve them, and spoke to them like that, I’d be sacked.

I wanted the copies of my books to arrive by the next day if possible – it was launch day and it would be wonderful if my beta readers had their copies so they could make posts about the book – but it was going to be £16 each! Umm, no, so I sent them first class which was £3.99 so a bit more reasonable, and guess what, they all arrived Saturday morning anyway!

It’s now Sunday morning, I’ve drunk my tea whilst chatting to you and am thinking about breakfast. Quite a busy day ahead. There are still launch shenanigans going on, plus I must collect my shopping, and my mum is calling round later. I have treated myself to a big joint of beef which I will slow cook for a delicious roast dinner tonight. The rest will be made into beef, potato, and veggie pasties which will go in the freezer ready for quick and filling dinners after a long shift. I will also slice some beef and freeze it in portions for more roast dinners in the future. At £15 the joint was expensive, but I should get about twenty meals out of it which makes it very cost-effective.

Anyway, take care everyone and I hope you have a wonderful Sunday.

Julia Blake

Say Hello to Rambling Rose

Hello everyone! Goodness, hasn’t two weeks flown by? I’m trying to think about what has happened and the answer is, not a lot. My Dad came as arranged and we gave the cherry tree a short back and sides and then spent most of the day cutting up the branches to shove them in bags ready to dispose of. Just in time, as hurricane Eunice descended on the British Isles a day later and made a bit of a mess of things. My road was covered with broken branches and rubbish that had been blown up from goodness knows where. There were also several roof slates lying in pieces and I only hope they weren’t from my roof.

I got off lightly, apart from debris in my garden and the outdoor sofa being blown out of place, I didn’t suffer any damage from the hurricane, but I know others weren’t so lucky. Many lost power for days and images were shown on TV of great trees lying across roads with their roots in the air. The weather seems to have calmed down now and unless we have a late cold snap we seem to be creeping into spring. I’m hopeful that it will be nice and warm when Miss F and her girlfriend come to stay over Easter. They have a lot of outings and trips planned and although bad weather won’t stop them, everything is so much nicer if the sun is shining.

There is a small local museum in the centre of town, and I happened to notice there was to be an exhibition of costumes from the Marvel film the Black Panther whilst they were visiting, so I sent to link to Miss F and she has already booked their tickets. She has also requested that we go to Kentwell Hall whilst her girlfriend, Miss C, is visiting. This is a gorgeous Tudor manor house about thirty minutes away which has been preserved in keeping with the period. There are extensive grounds with lots to look at. Sometimes, they have wonderful history days where volunteers dress up in Tudor costumes and enact activities in the house and gardens.

I’ve been to quite a few of these days, both when I was at school and as an adult, and they are fantastic fun. The actors stay totally in character and even when you try to talk to them with 21st-century lingo, they will only reply with Tudor expressions and language. The big kitchens are open with women baking and cooking with traditional ingredients in the style of the period. Out in the gardens, people are working the land and various craftsmen making objects relevant to the period.

The last time I went to Kentwell Hall was back in 2014. I went with Miss F and our then lodger. Keen to see everything, we attended a display of Tudor firearms which was all going well, until there was a mishap with an old musket and the poor man handling it was hurt. Not sure how bad it was, but they bundled him away sharpish, and the purity of the Tudor enactment was ruined by the presence of a modern ambulance tearing through the gates and up the driveway.

We also had a run-in with a rather large and angry peacock whom we came face-to-face with on a path. He was determined that it was his path, and we could not pass. As I said, he was a very big angry bird, so we fled the other way.

There’s a nice restaurant there where we had lunch. They grow all their fruit, salad, and veg so everything on the menu was the freshest it could be. I think I had a pea and ham quiche which was delicious.

We’re planning to go to the restaurant again, although instead of it being just me, Miss F, and Miss C, a close friend of mine is also coming. I felt four was a better number than three. If Miss F and Miss C want to wander off on their own they can, without me either being abandoned or having to trail after them like a big gooseberry. It also works well having a large lunch because Miss F’s godmother is coming over in the evening for drinks and nibbles. Having already eaten during the day I won’t have the worry of trying to get a big meal cooked, eaten, and cleared away before she arrives.

It’s not an enactment day when we’re going, unfortunately, but there’s still enough there to make it a very pleasant day out – especially if the weather is nice. If you’re interested, Google Kentwell Hall, Suffolk, UK, and look at it yourself.

With the restrictions caused by Covid now lifted, the two book events I originally intended to attend back in 2020, and which have been postponed for the past two years, are now going ahead so plans need to be made for those. The first one is at St Alban’s on the 17th of July and is a Sci-Fi and Fantasy book sale. My local authors’ group have a couple of tables booked for it and hopefully, it will be going ahead this year. It’s a one-day event so will entail driving up to St Alban’s and back in one day. Not sure how far that is, but certainly not as far as driving to collect Miss F from university and back in one day.

I have no idea what it will be like or how large an event it is. But it will be nice to be able to do something bookish again. The last time I attempted anything like this was way back in November 2019 when we had a stall in the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre. At least being in July it should be a great deal warmer than that was.

The second event is the Norwich Sci-Fi and Fantasy Convention in the last weekend of September – which is a much bigger deal. When we booked our tables back in 2020 I also booked the week off work. Then it was postponed until 2021 but things were still very uncertain so most of us felt it was too soon to be in such a crowded public venue. Then this year rolled around, the convention is definitely on, and our postponed tables were offered to us again.

However, I had a problem. When I tried to book the week off work I couldn’t. Despite the fact it was still only January, and I wanted the last week of September off, somebody else had beaten me to it. I was in despair. The convention is on for the whole weekend and there is no point spending all that money on a table just for one of the days. But I work in retail, it is in my contract that I must work at least one day at the weekend.

I spoke to my boss about, throwing himself on his mercy and begging him to let me have the weekend off. I’m very sorry, he said, but it’s the other part-timer who has booked that week off. So, not only can I not let you have the whole weekend off, but I may have to ask you to work both days instead of just the one.

I fumed and fretted, desperately wanting to do the convention but not seeing how I would be able to. Then I went to work a couple of Mondays ago and had this conversation with my boss.

HIM: Just to keep you informed, Mrs J, the other part-timer has handed in her notice.

ME:  Oh, really? Why?

HIM: Not sure, fed up with working weekends and bank holidays, I think.

ME: Okay.

Thirty seconds later.

ME:  Does that mean I can have that week in September off then?

HIM: Bloody hell! Talk about dead man’s boots.

ME:  Sorry.

HIM: ……

ME:  But does it though?

HIM: I suppose so.

So, yippee! That week is now officially booked as annual leave so I’m going to the Norwich convention. As for St Albans, well it’s on the 17th of July which is a Sunday and is also coincidentally my birthday. When booking my annual leave I wanted a week off over my birthday – I have never worked on my birthday and don’t intend to start now – and was in a dilemma whether to (a) book the week of my birthday off, but then have to go to work the day after it (not a good plan), or (b) book the week after it off and request that Sunday the 17th be one of my days off the week before.

I decided to go with plan (b) and requested the week commencing the 18th off. Nope. Again, somebody else had beaten me to it so I had to revert to plan (a). But, yep, you’ve guessed it, the person who’d beaten me to it was the other part-timer and as she’s leaving in two weeks it meant that week was up for grabs again. So, I grabbed it. That means I have the whole glorious two weeks off with my birthday slap bang in the middle. Course, I will be at St Alban’s at a book fair on my birthday but have thirteen other days to celebrate it on, so that’s fine.

As they are both Fantasy and Sci-Fi conventions I’m limited to which books I can take. Obviously Black Ice, Erinsmore, and The Forest, but I’m also going to take some copies of Lifesong with me. Depending on how much KDP charge me for author copies of them, I’m going to sell them for £1 with any other book bought.

I had to buy myself a new pair of shoes last Sunday. I had an old pair of flat, black, patent leather loafers which I wore exclusively for work. The leather had so shaped to my feet that they were very comfortable, and I’d been putting off buying a new pair. But then the soles on both shoes cracked in half, the heel on one crumbled, and the patent leather was badly scuffed. There was nothing for it. I was going to have to go shoe shopping.

I hate shopping for clothes. I get so frustrated and angry at how expensive everything is and how nothing fits me. Shoe shopping is marginally better than clothes but still annoying. Sunday was my day off, so I popped uptown mid-morning. The winds had died down slightly, but the sky was the colour of an old bruise and heavy rain was forecast for the afternoon.

I was looking for a pair of flat, comfortable shoes. I’m on my feet all day and running up and down stairs, so heels aren’t practicable. Not a big ask for a pair of shoes. Except, they had to be blue. During the four years I’ve worked there, our uniform has gone from black trousers/skirt with a blue and white striped blouse, to blue from head to toe. Even my socks are blue, so my old black shoes stood out and I’d decided to replace them with a pair of blue ones. And that was where the problems began.

No blue shoes at all in the first shop I tried. Well, none except trainers and I can’t wear them for work. This put a crimp in my plan. This shop is cheap and cheerful, and I’d thought I’d be able to simply walk in, pick up a pair, and that would be it.

Try Mark’s and Spencer, the helpful assistant advised. I tried Mark’s and Spencer, and yes, they had a perfect pair. They were also £45. Yes, they were proper soft suede leather and were comfortable. Yes, they looked smart. And yes, they would last years. But they were £45, and they would only ever be worn for work, and I died a little inside at the thought of spending a week’s grocery money on a pair of shoes.

I went to another shop. No blue shoes. I went to another. They had some, but they had six-inch heels. Umm, I don’t think so. I trailed around town getting more and more frustrated as the sky grew darker above me and the wind gusted me along the road.

Eventually, I crept back to Mark’s and Spencer and bought the £45 pair I’d first seen. Going back down to the food hall, I decided to pick up some milk and celery from there. I was tired and fed up and couldn’t face the crush I knew there’d be in Tesco Express. Reaching up to get down a pint of skimmed milk there was a ping, and I felt something drop past my hand down into the fridge. I looked. Lying there at the bottom of the fridge, just out of my reach, was one of the fancy buttons from my coat. Bugger.

I stretched my hand down. Nope. Not going to be able to reach it no matter how far down I groped. I looked helplessly about. People bustled past me with baskets and trolleys, tutting in annoyance at this stupid woman standing in front of the milk. I was too afraid to move, I thought if I took my eye off where I could just about see the edge of the button sticking out I’d never find it again.

I waited. Eventually, an assistant bustled past the end of the aisle.

ME:  Excuse me.

HER: Yes?

She stopped and waited where she was, clearly expecting me to go to her.

ME: Umm, could you help me, please?

HER: Of course.

Again, she waited. When it became apparent I wasn’t going to move she raised her eyebrows then came over to me.

HER: Is everything all right?

ME: No, one of the buttons on my coat came off when I was reaching for the milk, and it’s gone right down into the fridge. Look, there, you can just about see it.

HER: Oh no, has it. Where?

She peered doubtfully into the fridge. Being even shorter than me it was harder for her to get the sight angle just right.

HER: You sure it went into the fridge? Maybe it fell on the floor.

ME: No, it’s definitely in there. Look, tip your head sidewise, down by that grill thing. Follow it along…

HER: Oh yes! (In excitement) I see it. Ooh, not sure how we’re going to get that out.

ME:  Well, I need it. I can’t do my coat up without it.

HER: Do you have a spare button?

ME:  That was the spare button.

HER: Oh dear. Right, I’ll fetch help. You stay here.

Off she bustled full of importance at her mission. I waited. Minutes ticked by. Eventually, she returned with a stool and a very gangly youth with long arms. Freakishly long arms, seriously Mr Tickle in a uniform. Carefully, he climbed onto the stool, reached way way down into the fridge. By now, we had attracted an interested crowd with people calling out encouragement.

Down he stretched, his fingers groping for the errant button, until bingo! With a grunt of triumph, he grabbed it and managed to pull himself back up. Handing me the button, I thanked them both profusely, paid for the milk and celery (remember that) then hurried from the shop. It was spitting cold raindrops by now and the gale pushed me down the street until I turned the corner and then it was full blast in my face stinging tears from my eyes and nipping at my cheeks.

And that was my exciting Sunday.

The next day I went to work to discover my boss was off with Covid. His daughter had brought it home from school and infected the entire family, bless her. Luckily, it had been a week since I’d been on shift with him, but I still did a flow test and I’m fine. Bloody NHS track and trace though keeps pinging me three or four times a day telling me I must now self-isolate. No, I bloody mustn’t. I haven’t got it, so I don’t have to do anything, and anyway, are you going to pay my wages? No, I thought not.

Monday and Tuesday were two nice days at work. It was just me and my favourite colleague and we were busy with nice customers who bought from us, which is always a bonus. Then I had four days off, during which I worked on the final amendments to Rambling Rose, held a three-day sale on Becoming Lili and Chaining Daisy, and premiered the beautiful video trailer for the Perennials Trilogy made as usual by Platform House Publishing. It’s really lovely. If you haven’t seen it yet and would like to, then it can be viewed on my YouTube channel or my website.

The Perennials Trilogy – finally completed

Finally, Rambling Rose was uploaded to Amazon on Saturday afternoon, and I’ve ordered a proof copy of the paperback. This is essential because it’s not until you read it as an actual book that any final tweaks can be found. I don’t think there will be too many. It’s been edited and proofread to the nth degree, but I know from bitter experience there will always be something!

If you would like the eBook version of Rambling Rose, then it’s available now to pre-order and the link to it can be found on my website, my Instagram bio, or simply go to Amazon and search for Rambling Rose by Julia Blake. The special-pre-order price is just £2.99 for this beautiful big book and the launch date is the 25th of March. On this day the price will go up and your copy will automatically appear on your kindle at the stroke of midnight – Rose is like Cinderella in reverse.

And that’s it. My fun-packed fortnight in a nutshell. As I said, I’m on holiday next week and for once don’t have too much planned. Lunch with a friend. Maybe a haircut. If the proof copy of Rose turns up I will spend some time going over it with a fine-tooth comb. Other than that, I have no plans so you never know, I might start writing book fourteen! Imagine that – book fourteen.

So, take care, everyone, I hope wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, that you stay safe and stay happy.

Julia Blake