What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare… {W.H. Davies}

When did life get so busy? I’ve been thinking back over the past few years and I really can’t remember the last time I was bored. Properly, totally, “I’ve got nothing to do” bored. When I was a kid, I was always bored, because, to be honest, my life was boring. Stuck out in a village with nothing to do and no real friends, books were my only escape and it explains why I developed a lifelong passion for reading. But gradually as I got older, spare time became rarer and more precious until now, if ever I do sit down for a few minutes, I instantly feel guilty and think about all the other things I should be doing.

The truth is, I no longer have the energy I used to have, and think longingly of the days I used to be able to clean my house thoroughly, top to bottom, in a day. Now it takes a day just to clean the kitchen – and it’s not even very thoroughly. So there always seems to be a long list of stuff that has to be done, with me the only person able to do it, and sometimes I’m so stressed and frazzled I’m convinced I will meet myself coming backwards.

The past few weeks life has kicked things up a notch, as Miss F has now got herself a part-time job a 20-40 minute driveaway (depending on time of day and traffic) and so Mum’s Taxi is even more in demand and I’m spending hours ferrying her around. I don’t mind, of course I don’t, but… it is hours of my time spent in a car when that to-do list is getting forever longer and the time in which to do it is getting shorter.

“Put it on the list” has become something of a catchphrase in my house. “Mum, there’s a cobweb in the corner” – put it on the list. “Mum, can you get more cheese strings next time you’re shopping” – put it on the list. “The windows all need sanding down and re-staining” – put it on the list. “I need to find a way to promote and market my books more efficiently” – put it on the list. You get the picture?

I should list my occupation as firefighter, because that’s all I seem to be doing at the moment. Dealing with one situation after another and barely getting that blaze under control before trying to tackle another one. And I know this all sounds like I’m having a fit of the “poor little me’s” and you’re right, I probably am, but I’m not alone. Chatting to friends, both actual and on social media, and reading the posts and comments of others, a common thread has crept into them all this past couple of years – when did my life get so busy? I don’t mean to be negative and “glass is half empty”, but to quote the fabulous Catherine Tate – “not only is my glass half empty, but it isn’t what I ordered.”

I don’t remember my parents or their friends being this stressed about time and life. Or maybe they were, and I was too young to realise it, but I can’t help feeling that modern life is too busy, too stressful, too lived at full on, breakneck speed. Why are we all so busy now? We have far more labour-saving devices than our grandparents or even our parents. I have a whole kitchen of appliances designed to make my life easier, and they do, yet still I never have time to sit down and read a book. It all seems to be about juggling and making the time up elsewhere.

Take yesterday for example, I ran Miss F out to her work placement and got back to town at 9.30am. I went straight to Halfords – for non-UK people that’s a vehicle store that sells everything you need for your car and also offers a little checking service for a small fee. Like most people, I don’t have a clue what goes where under the bonnet of my car. In the past it’s not been a problem, I drove so few miles that the car went from yearly service to yearly service with me never having to do anything other than put petrol in. But I’m honking though the miles now and was worried about things like oil and water and other such substances that the car needs not to blow up.

I dropped the car off at Halfords and was told it would be about 45 minutes. Luckily, I only live a 5-minute walk away, so I rushed home doing a little essential shopping on the way. Once home, I stripped off the beds, got the washing machine and the dishwasher on, and caught up on social media, then rushed back to get the car and drive it home and park it. Then I rushed to the post office, the chemists to get some more iron pills and just made it to the café for 11am where I was meeting the other Suffolk Authors for a coffee and get together.

I love our fortnightly chats, it’s great to simply sit and talk to likeminded people who totally understand what you’re going through. I know from experience if I try to talk books to family and “normal” friends I see their eyes glaze over and their smile grow fixed. Dashing back from the coffee morning, I had to jump straight into the car and drive back out to pick up Miss F from work placement. Once home, I prepared her lunch and then caught up on ironing, sorted laundry, unloaded the dishwasher and posted on social media whilst she had a shower. Then it was back in the car to drive her to work. It was rush hour traffic, so it took over an hour to do the round trip.

Home, I had dinner and allowed myself a 45-minute break to eat it whilst watching an episode of Marvel Agents of Shield – yes, I’m a geek #sorrynotsorry. Then, because I’d had two hours off in the morning to go for coffee, that meant I had to make two beds, tidy and vacuum the ground floor, clean the bathroom and kitchen (well, it was more of a lick and a promise, but at least I cleaned up the biggest chunks), empty the bins, talk to my mother on the phone and then jump in the car to go and pick Miss F up again. Any time off I have, there’s always a price to be paid, a backlog to try and clear. They say the poor are always with us, well so are household chores.

So that was my day off. On the go from 6am to midnight and a massive five hours clocked up in the car, but what’s the alternative? Well, there is a bus that leaves town at 4.30pm and stops right outside Miss F’s place of work. I’ve told her on a Friday she can take that bus as it will save me a frustrating hour sitting in traffic when I could be doing other things. It’s not much, but it will help and will save me an hour of precious time.

And that’s what it’s all about isn’t it, saving time, or rather, utilising what time you have to maximum efficiency. Something I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not very good at. I also have a strong suspicion that someone has speeded up time. I remember when I was a child a year was an incredibly long time and the space between Christmases was vast and infinite. Now, blink and it’s upon us again. The years flickering between Christmas, chocolate eggs, Christmas, chocolate eggs, with alarming regularity. I can’t be the only one who thinks this. Have you noticed how fast time is passing now? The end of one month arrives and we get paid, then the next day it’s the end of the next and payslips are dropping into our in-boxes again.

Tomorrow it’s the first day of December, and, as any woman will tell you, December is the shortest month of the year. It’s true, it’s the first week and you think you still have plenty of time before the Big Day, then bam, one nativity play, a kids carol service and a staff Christmas do later and it’s Christmas Eve and you’re left wondering precisely where the other 24 days of the month went.

In contrast, January is officially the longest month of the year and has a whopping total of 135 days. Of course, it hasn’t really, but doesn’t it feel like it does? And surely there is no longer period of time than that between December’s pay (generally received before Christmas) and January’s? Weeks and weeks of eating leftovers and praying for the end of the month before your overdraft implodes.

I’ve been in denial about Christmas, fooling myself it’s not really happening, or, if it is, then in a galaxy far far away and a time far far away in the future. But of course, it’s not, it’s upon us. Our tree will be going up next week and tonight I must make a start writing cards, especially those that need to be posted abroad.

Miss F and I arranged not to do presents, well, not major presents. I’ve got a few little bits and pieces for her to open but was determined not to spend the vast sums I have on Christmases past which have left me with crippling debts to pay. But, last week, her phone died. Now, this has quite annoyed me because I bought her that phone two Christmases ago. It wasn’t cheap – well, not by my consideration – £250, and yet it’s lasted less than two years. I’m being told I can’t expect things to last forever. I don’t expect things to last forever, but in my opinion a £250 phone should last a bit longer than two bloody years!

Perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me in this consumer driven age to want things to last. And it makes sense that manufacturers will build their products to fall apart after a certain amount of time. After all, a phone that lasted for years wouldn’t be good for business, but still, it irks me. So, as she cannot be without a phone – apparently a teenager will lose all use of their hand if there isn’t a phone welded to it and will curl up and die of isolation issues if not in immediate contact with everyone they know on SnapChat – we had to get her a new phone.

Obviously, she couldn’t afford to buy one herself, she’s only been in work three weeks and has spent all of her wages so far on Christmas presents for friends and family, so, my trusty store card was dusted off – I’d finished paying off last Christmas at the beginning of November so at least there was nothing on it. The phone she wanted was over £300 which had me spluttering with disbelief – my last phone cost £10 – and a compromise was reached. We bought it and put it on the store card using the six-month interest free option. I will pay £200 of it and she will pay the rest, so I ended up buying her an expensive Christmas present after all. Sigh.

Then something happened last week, a moment of stillness that had a profound impact on me, even though it was inconsequential. I was driving out to collect Miss F from work last Saturday evening and was going quite slowly. I was tired from being at the Fayre all that day and as dark, lonely country roads aren’t conducive to keeping you awake, I was taking it easy. There were no other cars about, and it was pitch dark other than the patch extending a few feet from my headlights. I slowed to navigate a particularly sharp bend and there, in the middle of the road, I saw it. A fox. A big fox. It was standing in the middle of the road, frozen in my car’s headlights.

I stopped the car and for a second we stared at each other. This beautiful wild creature and I. He had a large rabbit dangling from his mouth and his eyes glinted in the light. Then he ran to the side of the road and disappeared into the hedgerow, dropping his rabbit at the side of the road as he did so. I sat for a moment, wondering if he’d come back for it, then drove away, looking in my rear-view mirror, hoping he would. That once the sound of my engine had died away, he’d come back for his dinner. I mean, of course, I was sorry for the bunny, but it was dead, so hey, waste not, want not, and Mr Fox might as well have it.

It has made me think all week about the country I live in, it’s wildlife and the way it interacts with us. Growing up in a small village, the daughter of practical people who’d both had hard childhoods that necessitated living close to nature and taking advantage of all it had to offer, means I am a pragmatic and resourceful sort. I’m thrifty, a trait learnt from my parents and my grandparents, and although I love all animals, am very aware that in times past it didn’t pay to be too sentimental about them. That pigs were kept to be butchered and eaten, chickens went in the pot once they stopped laying and rabbits were there to be quietly caught in the dead of night.

The villages where my grandparents used to live were microcosms of society, where everyone knew everyone else and everyone knew everyone else’s business. There was a sense of timelessness and isolation to them, and a feeling that none of the inhabitants ever left. I carried those impressions into my adulthood and eventually they culminated in The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ my most popular novel to date. The village of Wykenwode in the book is undoubtedly based on those communities of my childhood, complete with a dark and cramped shop full of a random assortment of things to buy, a church and a pub which vied to be the heart of the village, and a wonderful collection of quirky and eccentric characters, ranging from Miss Iris and Violet Peabody who run the shop, to Amos and Dorcas Blunt who own the pub, to old Wally Twitchett the shepherd. Those of you who’ve read the book though, know that although on the surface village life appears idyllic, the reality is that if something in life seems too perfect to be true, it usually isn’t. There is a darkness at the heart of Wykenwode. Anyone who hasn’t read the book and is intrigued, then go to My Books and click on the link there.

Speaking of animals, I have some sad news to share. We are pretty sure now that Queenie Ant is dead. After a lot of confusion about whether she had died or was merely hibernating, the worker ants have now moved her body out of the nest to the furthest chamber away and have left her alone. Every now and then, one of them will visit the body and wave their antennae at it, almost like a mourning ritual. Miss F has done some research and all sources seem to agree that this means she is dead. It’s such a shame and Miss F is devastated. There is now the problem of what to do with the workers. Without a queen there is no purpose to their lives so they will eventually die. We can’t put a new queen in there because they will know she’s not “their” queen and will kill her, neither can we simply let the workers go to find a new colony as they will be killed by the ants in that colony. So, all we can do is make their final days as happy as possible with lots of honey. Nature can be a bit brutal at times.

And now I need to go. Chores are calling. We need to visit Miss F’s grandparents and I need to sort yet more laundry – I swear I don’t know where it all comes from. Thank you for joining me, as usual I would love to hear your comments and I look forward to chatting with you again next Sunday.

All the best

Julia Blake

All the Fun of the Fayre… plus Cherry Brandy!

Friday… This will definitely be the briefest blog I’ve ever written for which I apologise, but this week has been crazy busy and there simply hasn’t been the time to write anything in-depth. I’ve spent all day on a stall at the Bury St Edmunds Fayre, and as you can imagine, I’m now so tired I’m struggling to type. Tomorrow I shall be on the stall again from 10am to 5pm so will be even more tired. Add to that the fact I have to turn out at 9.30pm tonight to go and collect Miss F from work and you’ll begin to see why blog writing has had to take a bit of a backseat this week.

As you know, this week it’s the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre, and I and four other local authors had a stall together on which to sell our books and associated merchandise. The third biggest Christmas market in the country, the town is always packed to capacity with locals and tourists alike and we were hoping that maybe a few of them would like to buy a wonderful personally signed paperback.

Preparing for the Fayre has taken every spare moment – plus quite a few that weren’t spare – and I even had beautiful bespoke scented candles made to complement my books in the hope of tempting a few more sales. Originally, we were going to have a stall in the lobby of the local Guildhall, so we’d be nice and prominent when people walked in. However, there were some issues with the placement of our stall and so we ended up in the Guildhall café.

Now first thought is that this would be a good thing, a captive audience of people desperate for tea, cake and a chance to sit down, but because the café is tucked away at the back of the building across a courtyard, it meant that only the truly dedicated seeker of cake found us, and then they were more interested in the cake than books by local authors.

The weather didn’t help, a persistently wet and cold day, it may have put people off coming to the Fayre altogether and as the morning ticked by with barely any browsers let alone sales, we all began to despair. We had a brief flurry of people at lunchtime and a few elusive sales ensued, but not the amount we’d all hoped for. Still, these things are a learning curve and it was wonderful being with the others. A great group of very talented authors, it is such a relief to be able to talk books to someone with no fear of boring them and having them on the stall as well made the hours fly by. It’s really no fun doing these sorts of thing alone, as I know from numerous car boot sales in the past.

The temptation of the gorgeous looking home baked goods on offer in the café eventually proved too much for my rumbling stomach, and I treated myself to a hot chocolate and a sausage roll the size of my head. It was very good and much appreciated.

The afternoon wore on and we spoke to a few more people. I sold another couple of copies of The Forest and one of Eclairs for Tea. Most people were buying for themselves, although I did gift wrap a copy of The Forest that a young lady had bought as a Christmas present for her brother.

But I won’t lie to you. Friday wasn’t great. The people who came into the café were, in general, elderly, wet and grumpy. They just wanted a cup of tea, a sit down and a piece of cake. They weren’t particularly interested in writers, local or otherwise, or even books in general.

By the end of the day we were all tired and a little dispirited, and then the administrator informed us that our stall would have to be moved again. To an even less salubrious location. Under the stairs in the back corridor leading to the café courtyard. We went to investigate. It was freezing cold there by the back door. It was cramped and inconvenient. If anybody did risk catching pneumonia by stopping to talk to us, they’d be trampled on by all the other people pushing to get by. Finally, it was right by the toilets. Not nice.

Negotiations commenced. A compromise was reached, and our stall was moved, but only to a different side of the café. As soon as the last straggler had gone at 5pm, we set to and relocated ourselves a few feet over and tried to put our stall back to rights,

Making my way home at almost 6.30pm, I was so exhausted it was like I’d forgotten how to walk, and I reeled about like a drunk at kicking out time. Turning into my street, I was alarmed to see my front window lit up like Blackpool illuminations. I knew Miss F would be at work and wouldn’t have gone out and left the lounge light on, so I hurried down the road. It was a weird light, sort of harsh and blue. Letting myself in, I discovered Harry the Tortoise had had a bit of an accident.

I’d better explain, we’re babysitting a friend’s tortoise just while she moves. Harry had seemed amiable enough, sitting in his cardboard box and munching on lettuce, and I’d been reassured that as tortoises were not known for their athleticism, he’d be fine and dandy in there until she came to pick him up that evening. But he’d obviously got a bit bored and decided to explore, because when I went in, he’d manage to half knock the box onto its side. This had knocked over his heat lamp, so the bulb was practically on his head. His water bowl had gone over, so everything was wet, and poor Harry himself was scrabbling pathetically at the sides of the box, stuck in the corner, unable to move and getting more of a tan than he’d bargained for.

I sorted him out, fed my screaming cat, then realised I’d forgotten that I’d stripped the beds off in a mad flurry of energy in the morning so they both still had to be made. I wasn’t hungry although I knew I should be. I hadn’t really eaten anything other than that sausage roll, but as we were packing up, a plate of freebie cheese and veggie pastries came around for free, so I ended up cramming one down my throat as we were re-arranging the stall and sadly it wasn’t sitting too well, if you know what I mean.

So now I’m trying to stay awake because at 9.30pm I have to put my shoes and coat back on and drive the thirty minutes to pick Miss F up from her part-time job waitressing at a pub in one of the villages. I don’t feel particularly safe to drive, but I expect the freezing cold night will wake me up.

Saturday… I didn’t sleep particularly well – stress insomnia is a thing – so was back up by 6am trying to sort out everything that needed to be done before I went back to the Fayre for 9am. I’d had what I thought was a brilliant idea for a better way to make our stall more reader browser friendly so needed to quickly make new signs, but, the best laid plans of mice and Julia are all filed away somewhere, so of course, that was the time the printer decided to have a meltdown. Much panicking and calling upon the IT Department (aka Miss F) ensued and a stressful twenty minutes later – during which time a grumpy teenager gave me a lecture on not repeatedly pressing buttons when something doesn’t work – it finally spat out my two signs and I hurriedly snatched them up and ran to the Guildhall.

We rearranged our stall so that people could have a chance to browse the books without being intimated by a “panel” of five authors all staring at them, desperation oozing from every pore, and braced ourselves for whatever the day would bring. And to our delight it brought people. Well, more people than the day before, and a more assorted age range. We had some lovely chats with avid readers, sold a few books and generally felt much happier with life.

I gift wrapped a few of the books purchased, so had a chance to show off my prowess with decorated cellophane, curling ribbon and fake holly, and I resisted the temptation to have another sausage roll. The one I’d had the day before and the ill-fated pasty having more than filled my pastry quota for the week. People came in waves, mid-morning, lunchtime and mid-afternoon being the busiest, and everyone seemed very happy to have found such a calm little oasis to escape to from the madness of the Fayre.

In the afternoon we were informed that if we wanted to we could move to our original spot by the front door, so we went to investigate it thoroughly, but after much intense debate decided the advantages of being by the front door were outweighed by the disadvantages of being crushed for space, in the way of access into the rest of the building and also the thought of having to move the stall again was just too daunting, so, we decided to stay where we were.

At the end of the day I’d almost sold out completely of The Forest, and I’d sold about half my stock of Becoming Lili. Eclairs for Tea and Chaining Daisy hadn’t sold so well, but it’s almost impossible to predict what will and won’t sell. I’m at work on Sunday so am leaving what books I have left on the stall as the other authors have kindly offered to try and sell them for me.

The candles didn’t fare as well, and I sold hardly any. Maybe people were just unable to make that connection between books and candles, which is a shame, because they are lovely and smell divine. They were made for me by the lovely Maria at Casa Angelica and the four different scents match the four books. Lili – floral, fresh and youthful. Daisy – still floral but a deeper, more sophisticated scent. The Forest – earthy with a touch of spice and smoke. Eclairs for Tea – Christmas red with cloves and cinnamon. If you have any candle needs then why not check out her website.

When the Guildhall closed, we tidied up and made sure everything was ready for the morning, then I and another of the authors, Rachel Churcher, decided to go for an early dinner and a much needed glass of wine – but just the one for me, because I had to turn out again at 9.30 to pick up Miss F from work, of course. It’s now coming up to midnight and I’m beyond tiredness so I’m going to stop now and will hopefully have a chance to write a bit more in the morning before heading off to work.

Sunday morning… awake at 5:30am and painfully aware of all I have to get done before leaving for work at 9:30am, I’m up and clutching a mug of strong tea as I try to finish this blog. I’ve suddenly remembered that I have 4lbs of cherries sitting in the fridge waiting to be turned into Christmas Cherry Brandy, and if I don’t want to have to throw them away – and I don’t – then I need to make that now! So, I thought I’d share with you my easy peasy lemon squeezy recipe for perfect Cherry Brandy to impress your friends and family with this Christmas.

Blake’s Easy Cherry Brandy

To make, you will need – 2 bottles of brandy (not the most expensive, but not the cheapest either). White sugar. 4lbs of cherries (I’m using Morello cherries from the tree in my garden but you can use any sort). Two extra wine bottles with screw top lids. A funnel. A large jug.

Pour the brandy into the jug, then divide the cherries evenly between the four bottles.

Using the funnel, slowly pour sugar into each of the four bottles. This isn’t an exact science, but you do need quite a lot, so up to roughly where you can see in the picture. It’s useful to have a skewer on hand to poke the sugar through the funnel when it gets stuck.

Carefully divide the brandy between the four bottles using the funnel. Screw on the lids really tightly, turn upside down and shake until the sugar that has settled on the bottom has shifted. It will look horrible at this point, but don’t worry.

Finally, stand the bottles in a warm place. An airing cupboard is perfect, failing that, by a radiator or on a sunny window sill. Shake them vigorously two or three times a day and a bit closer to Christmas I’ll tell you the next step. There, see, easy peasy.

And now it’s 8.30am and you’ll all be wondering where this week’s blog is. This is officially the closest I’ve ever pushed it to the wire and I apologise, but I think you’ll all understand why.

And now I must go, I’ve suddenly remembered I need to quickly iron Miss F’s work shirt – yes, I know, she should iron it herself but she’s absolutely exhausted after two very long shifts and will be working another nine hours today, so I’ll do it for her this once. And yes, I know, I work far longer hours, most of it unpaid and unappreciated, but hey ho, that’s the lot of a single mum.

Take care of yourselves and I hope you have a good week. I look forward to chatting next Sunday, and you never know, next week might not be so busy. What? Why are you laughing?

Julia Blake