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

Wheels on Fire!

This week I want to talk about the cars I’ve owned over the years. Now, don’t get me wrong, I can look at a nice car and go “mmm” just as much as the next person, but pay out three years wages to buy a status symbol car? Nope. Never. Even if I had that kind of cash lying around, I doubt very much, I’d ever waste it on what is basically just a mode of transport, one step up the evolutionary ladder from a pony and cart. And I don’t understand those who do. It’s a car, get over yourself, and telling me straight away what type of car you drive and what horsepower it is, well, to quote Shania Twain – “That Don’t Impress Me Much”.

Of course, cars need to be a comfortable ride, reliable, safe and economical, but you can get all of those things without paying out a small fortune, and as for those people who get caught in the sticky web of finance deals and pay hundreds of pounds every month just to have the latest version – well, a fool and his money are soon parted.

Over the years I have owned precisely six cars, which considering I’ve been driving since I was 19 is not bad. It took me a while to pass my driving test, four attempts to be honest, and that wasn’t because I found it hard to learn, but because I fell apart in the test. Quaking with nerves, I’d do stupid things that would have my lovely driving instructor shaking his head with disbelief when I got back clutching yet another fail notification. Finally, on the fourth attempt, I took the test with a raging temperature, a throat that felt like sandpaper and a head that was threatening to explode. I didn’t care if I passed or failed, I just wanted to get it over and done with so I could go back to bed. Of course, taking the pressure of myself meant I passed with flying colours.

My first ever car was a Ford Escort Mk1 1300 four door saloon in metallic bronze. Built like a tank, it was in immaculate condition and had hardly any mileage on the clock despite being reasonably old. The engine was as clean as a whistle, as was the paintwork, and I cut my teeth in that car. It cost £600 which back in the 1980’s was a lot of money for such an old car. My dad bought it because of its pristine condition, low mileage and because he knew its provenance. The deal was, my parents would have use of it while I was learning to drive. During that time, I would make monthly payments to pay off £300 of its cost. Once I’d passed my test, the car would become mine completely. As it took me almost two years to pass my test, my parents had a second car for that long for only £300, so a pretty good deal for everyone.

It was a clunky though sturdy car, with a face only a mother could love. There was no power assisted steering, if you took it over sixty miles per hour the force threatened to shake your arms from your sockets, and there were no rear seat belts. But I loved that car. It didn’t matter that I felt like I’d done an aerobic workout on my arms every time I drove it, it offered me freedom and independence. Living out in a small village with an irregular bus service, having my own transport was gold.

The Shed – Much loved

That car went everywhere, I drove it to Kent on holiday and up to Hull to visit my boyfriend’s family, and it took it all in its stride. Maybe it wasn’t the quickest mode of transport in the world, but it was certainly the most reliable and the most economic.

As it was brown and usually full of crap, my friends christened my car the Shed and teased me about its old-fashioned appearance, and the fact it was so noisy when travelling at speed the radio had to be cranked up to full blast to hear it. It became habit that the passenger would automatically turn the volume down as we slowed down, in order to save our eardrums from being shattered when the engine noise suddenly dropped, and the full force of the music would hit us. Once, the rear door locks broke and the doors wouldn’t open, so my friends had to climb over the front seats to get in, clutching mini skirts to thighs and shrieking with laughter – much to the interest of my elderly neighbour who I suspect had to have a little lie down afterwards to recover from the sight.

But all good things come to an end, that little car last me from 1985 to 1997. When I got married my husband used it to get to and from work, and although I could never prove it, I think he thrashed it a little too hard and the engine blew. And that was the end of the Shed.

After the Shed, my husband decided he wanted a status symbol car, something more in keeping with the ace guy he thought he was, and he bought himself some kind of Ford turbo thing – please don’t expect any more details from me, other than it was silver and low and sleek and growled like a bear on heat when you stepped on the accelerator. Totally impractical for town – we have a lot of speed bumps around here and having to baby your car over them in case you rip your undercarriage off is a complete pain – and no good for country lanes, I hated this car with a passion.

Technically, it was supposed to be my car as well. I had paid for half of it after all, but my husband snipped and criticised me the whole time I was driving it and, in the end, made me so nervous about it that I flatly refused to drive it anymore. We had the beast for about nine months and then my husband’s parents offered us a lovely Ford Mondeo as my father-in-law was getting something smaller and easier for him to handle.

Reluctantly, my husband agreed it was too good an offer to turn down, especially as we were thinking of starting a family and the beast was a complete no-no as far as car seats and fitting a buggy in the boot were concerned. So, the beast was sold, and the nice sensible Ford Mondeo joined the family.

I didn’t mind the Mondeo. It was comfortable and practical, a nice smooth ride which behaved itself very well over the next couple of years, including managing two holidays in Cornwall with lots of driving about on very twisty steep roads. However, I always felt it was a little too big for the road we live on. There’s residential parking up our street and spaces are extremely limited and purely on a “first come, first served” basis. On numerous occasions we’d try our hardest to get into the last space available, before having to give up and watch in seething frustration as our neighbour’s mini side stepped into it.

Time ticked by, I had Miss F in 2003 and the Mondeo was the perfect family car, roomy enough to fit all the paraphernalia one small baby seems to need just to be taken seven miles down the road to visit her grandparents. Then my marriage fell apart and I was left with a one-year old baby and a mountain of debts.

My ex-husband was struggling to pay any child maintenance and I accepted the Mondeo in lieu of two months maintenance, despite the fact it had been a gift to us both, was now in dire need of repairs and that he’d also left with me a pile of other debts. This was in September 2004. The following January I was driving Miss F home from a birthday party in a nearby town when the car suddenly slowed to ten miles an hour on the motorway. Nothing I did would convince it to go any faster, so I limped home with my foot flat on the floor and other cars speeding past me on the motorway honking their annoyance. I got home and phoned my mechanic, who told me it sounded like the clutch, and that once the clutch goes in an automatic that was it, the car was done for.

So, I went to bed that night feeling a bit grim. I couldn’t afford a new car, and as it was natural wear and tear, I wouldn’t be able to claim on the insurance. In the middle of the night, I was awoken by the sound of a car roaring at speed down our road and then a very loud crunch, like metal on metal, before the car revved up and roared off into the night. Next morning, when I went to get my daughter’s pushchair from the boot of the car, I discovered the whole driver’s side had been removed from boot to bonnet – that must have been the sound I heard in the night. I telephoned the insurance company, who sent an inspector and wrote the car off on the spot. I didn’t get much in the way of insurance – it was an old car after all – but anything was better than the nothing I was expecting.

My next car was a dear little Vauxhall Astra hatchback in a sort of metallic peachy pink bronze colour. I bought that early in 2004 and it was a good and faithful workhorse for us. It was reliable, sturdy, nippy and very cost effective. Requiring hardly any repairs, it sailed from MOT to MOT costing me very little in between. I have very fond memories of that car, although its demise has gone down in family history as being the most spectacular car exit ever.

It was early one Monday morning in 2012. I was rudely awoken at 5am by the sound of someone pounding frantically on my front door. Pulling on my dressing gown, I stomped irritably downstairs and threw open the front door to find my neighbour from across the street standing there clad only in a flimsy nightie. I blinked at her in surprise. Not what I’d been expecting, I must say, and she grabbed my arm yelling at me to look at my car!

I looked at my car. My car was on fire! Yellow flames were licking at its insides and fire was oozing out of the bonnet. For a moment, my neighbour and I had a completely girlie moment on the step, where we just shrieked and did a little panicky dance. Then I pulled myself together and rushed to phone the fire brigade. Now, I’ve never had to call an emergency service before and must admit, despite the severity of the circumstances, it was very exciting but a bit daunting and the conversation with the operator went a bit like this.

“What is the nature of the emergency?”

“Fire! There’s a fire!”

“Where is the fire please?”

“In my car.”

Sigh. “Where is your car please?”

“Outside my house!”

Eventually, I calmed down enough to give them my address which is literally five minutes around the corner from the fire station. By this point, fireballs were ballooning inside the car and we could feel the heat from it. My neighbour ran to get something more covering on as lights began to snap on up and down the street and people were coming out to see what was happening.

My lodger sleeps in the basement and his window looks out onto the street, so I was concerned about smoke and fumes going into his room and ran to bang on his door. Very excited, he of course grabbed his phone and started posting updates to his Facebook page. By now the fire engine had arrived and lots of chunky men in fire breathing apparatus were tackling the blaze which was pretty impressive and very scary.

I ran to get Miss F up and we all huddled on the front step to watch, united with the rest of the street in excitement. Finally, it was over, and the fire was out. My poor car was a smoldering blackened wreck and the smell of acrid smoke and burning plastic was horrendous, making the whole house reek for days afterwards.

Wheels on Fire!

Of course, it was a write off, there was nothing left to salvage from the car and the insurance company paid me a few pennies. Again, it was an old car and unfortunately the way insurance works is they pay you what the car is worth, not what it will cost to replace it.

So, there I was, car less again. I managed a few weeks without one and wondered if we could get by permanently relying on walking and public transport. After all, we lived in the middle of town, and both Miss F’s school and my work were within walking distance. But I quickly discovered it’s just too inconvenient not having a car. The whole having to have my shopping delivered or pay out for a taxi, not being able to visit family and friends when we wanted to and never being able to go anywhere on the spur of the moment. Nope, we needed a car, but I hadn’t got much money – the insurance pay-out had only been a few hundred and was not enough to buy anything reliable.

Then my parents stepped in with a small cash gift to my brother and I, and I used mine to buy a new car. I bought it off eBay, and it seemed like a good deal, but I really wouldn’t recommend you do it that way unless you are a trained mechanic or have access to one. The car was a bright red Citroen C3 which looked beautiful but was an absolute bitch to drive. It rattled alarmingly and every time we hit a bump in the road, things would shake and move around us. It felt like I was driving a tin can and if I went at any speed, I imagined the car was running away with me. It cornered like a cow, was a pig to park and was so delicate that if the temperature overnight dropped to the point where a light cardigan was needed, the car would refuse to start in the morning.

It was considered a higher performance car, so my insurance premiums doubled, it ate petrol like it was going out of fashion, and there was a funny smell in it that no amount of air fresh seemed able to get rid of. I stuck it for six months before deciding enough was enough, it had to go.

I traded it in through a local second-hand car company who I must admit were brilliant and very fair with me. Given all its faults I didn’t think I’d get much for it and was thrilled and delighted when I saw what they offered me. A 1996 Nissan Micra automatic in British racing green. Absolutely immaculate inside and out, and with only 26,000 miles on the clock, it had had only one owner, the anecdotal little old lady, and it had been kept in a garage all its life and serviced every two thousand miles. It was a gem. Lovely upholstery, it smelt nice and handled beautifully. A comfortable, sturdy and reliable little car that we took to right from day one. My daughter christened it Basil because of its colour, and for the past seven years it has served us faithfully.

Most years it sails through the MOT with minimal repair work necessary, but last time I was advised it needed about £150 worth of welding underneath to ensure it would pass the following year. I really did mean to get it done, I honestly did, but the year has flown by and I somehow never got round to it, and suddenly it was the beginning of October and my MOT was due at the end of the month and I still hadn’t got it done. Deciding I really needed to get it booked in, I found the folder where I keep all the car details and pulled out last year’s MOT paperwork, only to find my memory had let me down as usual. Far from being due the end of October, it had been due the day before! Panicked, I called my garage to see what they could do.

They could fit the car in for a MOT that afternoon, but there certainly wasn’t time to carry out any welding. But what about if it failed, which it probably would do, given their insistence last year it would without the welding. Well, then I would have ten days to affect the necessary work and submit it again for the MOT. Oh, right, well can I still drive the car in those ten days. No, it would have to be off the road. Now I was really panicking. Not only do I now need my car to get to work, I also had to get Miss F to her work placement nearly a 40-minute drive away. But there was no time to do anything else, so I took Basil to the garage and left him there, convinced when they called it would be to tell me the patient was terminal.

It was a long hour before they called with amazing news. Basil, bless his little spark plugs, had pulled through for us and sailed through the MOT needing nothing more than a new bulb. But what about the welding I asked? Well, they replied, he still needs it but because you haven’t done many miles it hasn’t deteriorated to the point where it has to be done. Maybe by next year though… yeah, well, next year is a long way away, a lot can happen between now and then.

You can imagine how relieved I was that instead of £150+ bill, it ended up only costing me £58 for another year’s worth of motoring. Thank you, Basil, I may even give you a wash to say thank you.

Thank you for joining me again this week, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my trip down automobile memory lane.

All the best.

Julia Blake

Surprise! Unexpected Guests and a Sleepover

I had four days off in a row this week. Four days in which there was nothing urgent that had to be done, so I planned a whole check list of those niggly little jobs I’ve been putting off for ages. It was quite a long list comprising of emails to answer, phone calls to make, and letters to respond to. Earlier in the week I’d received a letter from H.M. Revenue Customs & Excise informing me of a completely unexpected small tax refund! Whoop whoop! Which if I did nothing about, I’d receive in two months, but if I went onto the website and claimed it, I’d receive it straight into my bank account in five days. Hmm, which option shall I go for? So, I had that to attend to as well, because obviously I’d rather get that money in five days.

I also wanted to do a complete sweep of the house, going through every drawer, cupboard, storage basket and box dividing everything into three piles – rubbish, so throw it away; good enough to sell, so eBay it; and not good enough to sell but too good to chuck, so charity shop it.

I was quite looking forward to it, finally decluttering the house would make my mind feel more at ease, I thought. And, of course, I had my blog to write, so would leisurely put that together over the four days. Pacing my few tasks nicely, it would leave me with lots of time to pootle about in the garden, read and spend time with Miss F.

I should have known really, shouldn’t I?

Have you ever been in that situation when you grandly make the statement – “Oh, if ever you’re in my neck of the woods, do drop in” – and then they do! Well, that kind of happened this week. Obviously, being an author with public social media sites I have a lot of friends and followers on both Instagram and Facebook. Some stay mere acquaintances, whereas others become more than that, they become friends, even though you’ve never actually met them, and they tend to live on the other side of the world. One such friend has been following me on Instagram for I guess two years now and when she announced that her and her husband would be touring the UK and Europe for a year, I uttered the above statement.

A few weeks into their trip, she messaged saying they might be passing by at some point but would let me know. Then a week ago we had quite a long discussion about the possibility of them staying locally, but prices for accommodation in the South of England are quite high, so there was a question about whether her visit would happen or not, and she ended with promising to keep me informed. She then vanished off radar for a week, and despite a couple of enquiry messages from me, remained MIA.

Sadly, I concluded that the cost of staying had rendered their visit impossible, and assumed I’d hear from her at some point when they’d left the UK and were touring Europe. So, I made my plans as above, and got home from work Tuesday evening looking forward to my long weekend and enjoying a much-needed glass of wine as I relaxed with Miss F after dinner watching Netflix and chilling.

So, you can imagine my surprise, when a notification pinged, and it was my friend. Surprise surprise! They were staying in the AirBnB next door and were at that moment having dinner at a restaurant just around the corner and when could we meet up?! Gulp!

For a moment I panicked. Like most of us oldies, once my plans are made, I dislike anything that upsets them. But I rallied my Dunkirk spirit and issued an invite for coffee next morning, thinking we’d figure everything out then.

And it was fine. Of course, it was fine. I really liked them, they were a delightfully kind and quirky couple. I hope they liked me. I took them on a tour of Bury St Edmunds, we had lunch in the cathedral garden and the weather was on its absolute best behaviour. It was beautifully warm and sunny, and my town put on its best “company” face. Wednesday evening, I cooked a traditional English roast dinner for them, and a fun evening was had by all.

Thursday the weather was even hotter, with skies of the bluest blue, more than enough to make several sailors several pairs of trousers! So I loaded them into my tiny car and took them to Ickworth Park, which is a lovely stately home and garden only a five-minute drive away.

It’s a beautiful place, with acres of parkland, ornamental gardens, a café and a stumpery, and of course there’s the house itself. Built in the Regency period, it has a stunning rotunda which sadly is being renovated at the moment so is covered with a very impressive amount of scaffolding, but still gave hints of how magnificent it is.

We got “lost” in the woods, picked and ate wild blackberries as we walked, had a very large lunch in the orangery and I introduced my friend to sticky toffee pudding, which judging by the happy noises she made whilst eating it, she enjoyed very much.

We wandered around the inside of the house, looking at all the fabulous artwork and antiques, and finished with a stroll about the garden and stumpery. Before clambering back into my car and trundling home after a full day of walking which had left us all exhausted.

Amazing fungi seen in the woodland

Thursday morning, I ran them to the station, and we said goodbye with promises to stay in touch and meet up again. The staying in touch bit I’m sure we will, but as to whether we’ll ever meet again, who knows if they’ll ever be in my “neck of the woods” again, or if I’ll ever be in theirs. But, like I said, who knows. Life is large and full of surprises.

Talking of surprises, this is the conversation I had with Miss F on Wednesday afternoon as I was cooking the meal for us all.

“It’s lucky they’re coming tonight and not Friday.”

“Not really, why? It wouldn’t have made any difference.”

“Sure, it would, I mean, it would have been awkward, what with having all my friends over for a sleepover.”

“Wait! What? Sleepover? What sleepover?”

“The one I’m having Friday night.”

“Well, when were you going to run it past me?”

“Mum, I did, ages ago, and you said it was fine.”

Now, Miss F is always doing this to me, springing a surprise on me and claiming we’ve already discussed it at some length, and I’ve agreed to it. And whilst it’s true I do have vague memories of chatting about a possible sleepover, nothing had been concretely agreed and it hadn’t been written on the calendar. My calendar, which hangs in the kitchen, is like the Bible to me. If something is written down on the calendar then it is real, it is actually going to happen. If it’s not, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s still only a vague concept liable to the whims of life.

like something out of pre-history – the stumpery at Ickworth Park

So, Friday rolls around, I run my friends to the station and then immediately have to start thinking sleepover. How many girls? What time are they coming? Where are they all going to sleep? We had to rush up town to buy a new blow up mattress as our old one had sprung a leak and kept deflating. Miss F’s old sleeping bag had finally been thrown away the year before, so a new one of those had to be purchased as well. Then there was the question of food, like most parents of teenagers I’ve given up on the trying to get healthy food into them all the time shenanigans, so I just gave Miss F £15 and sent her to Iceland (cheap frozen food shop for all non UK residents – I mean, I didn’t send her to the actual country of Iceland – it would have cost a lot more than £15 for a start) to buy all the pizzas, ice cream, fizzy drinks and snacks she felt one small group of girls could possibly consume in one evening.

Then we were occupied with blowing up a reluctant mattress, trying to find enough pillows for everyone and clean bed linen. Miss F’s suggestion that they occupy all the bedrooms and leave me on the sofa bed downstairs, I nipped firmly in the bud. It’s not very comfortable, and I didn’t fancy the chronic backache sleeping on it would cause, also, as I had no idea what time they’d finally hit the sack, the thought of not being able to go to bed until they did was not an appealing one.

So, a compromise was made, I would sacrifice my bedroom. Two of the girls could bunk down in my big bed, with a third on the now blown up mattress – luckily numbers had been whittled down to just four including Miss F, so that would leave her in her own room, and me on the day bed in the office. It’s actually a really sweet and cosy little room at the back of the house. It’s overlooking the garden so it’s quiet, and as it’s over the kitchen and set back from the other bedrooms, I was hopeful I wouldn’t be disturbed too much. The day bed turns into a proper single bed with a very comfortable mattress, so I felt I’d be better off in there and could go to bed whenever I wanted to.

Dragon bones?

It all seemed to work out very well. They completely trashed the kitchen putting extra toppings on the basic cheese pizzas Miss F had bought and cooking them, and I then cleared it all up once they’d vanished back into the lounge to stuff their faces, watch films and play games. I made it until midnight, curled up on the sofa in the dining room so out of their way, but on hand if needed. Happily settled with my kindle and my tablet, I finished a book and caught up on notifications on social media until the clock struck twelve, my coach turned into a pumpkin and I toddled off to my little bed, which looked very inviting in the lamplight. I read for a few moments, but the excitement and exertions of the past few days finally caught up with me and I fell asleep, not hearing a thing until I woke next morning at 8.30am, an unbelievably late hour for me! The length of my sleep proving just how exhausted I was.

Nobody else emerged until an hour later, and it transpired they hadn’t gone to bed until almost 3am! This made me doubly glad I’d turned down the offer of the sofa bed!

Question: Why is it called a sleepover when nobody actually gets any sleep?

But they all seemed to have had a good time, eating enough carb crap food to clog their systems for a week, and drinking enough fizzy to launch the Hindenburg!

Fabulous antique desk used by the housekeeper in days gone by

And now it’s Saturday afternoon again, and I am writing my blog at the last minute, again! One day I will get organised and write my blog earlier in the week, maybe even prepare several blogs in advance. This is not that day.

And what about the tax refund claim, I hear you cry. Next on the list, my friends, next on the list.

Slightly shorter blog this week, but at least I’ve made up for it with some pretty pictures of Ickworth Park, which I hope you enjoyed seeing.

And don’t forget, if you’re ever in my neck of the woods, we really must meet up!

All the best

Julia Blake

I have a very good reason why there’s no blog this week – honest!

It’s been a really busy week. As many of you may know, book nine, Chaining Daisy, is being released next Wednesday, and those of you who understand a little about the life of a writer will know that means manic and frenzied preparations are going on all around.

I did have every intention of still blogging, I even had a subject matter in mind, but as the days crept by I’ve been caught up in a tsunami of interviews, prepping promo posts, setting up the eBook for pre-order on Amazon, checking one last time that everything is perfect, arranging for reviews to be posted on launch day and generally soliciting help and support from whomever is prepared to offer it, time got away from me and suddenly it was Saturday afternoon and the blog was still unwritten. No problem, I thought, I know what I’m writing about so it’ll only take an hour or so to hammer out my words of wisdom and upload it onto the blog site.

I should have known really, shouldn’t I?

At about 2.45pm Saturday the phone rang, and a conversation ensued that went something like this:

“Hello, is that Ms Blake?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, good. Tell me, has your cat gone missing?”

I paused to think about this, because the word missing is very subjective. True, our dear little black moggy Skittles had been missing in action since the previous day, but she did sometimes do this. She’d worry us silly by not appearing at mealtimes and have us searching the street and the neighbours gardens, only to saunter in without a hair out of place and declining to answer when we asked where she’d been.

“Well, we haven’t seen her since last night. Why? Have you found her?”

“Yes, she got into the bonnet of a car and went for a little ride.”

“Oh, ok, where exactly did she go for a ride to?”

“Ely.”

Now Ely is a town about a 50 minute drive from us and Skittles had ended up a fair way from home. So, Miss F and I pulled on our shoes, got down the cat basket and went on an hour and a half round trip to collect our nomadic feline from the vets where she’d ended up.

Needless to say, Skittles was VERY pleased to see us, and the vet told us some of the tale. The rest was filled in by the delightful lady whose car it was our kitty had hitched a lift in – the vets gave me her number so I could phone and thank her. Apparently, she’d come to Bury St Edmunds on Friday to do some shopping and had parked in the car park at the top of our street.

Leaving Bury late Friday afternoon, she’d driven home to Ely, then had driven to Wisbech, then home to Ely again – a round trip of approximately 100 miles. Saturday morning, the lady noticed the bulb in one of her headlights was gone, so went to replace it and was very surprised to find a little pair of dark eyes looking back at her. Help was summoned as Skittles was well and truly wedged in and showed no signs of coming out – whether she was trapped or just so frightened she couldn’t move, I don’t know. Bits of the engine were removed and hey presto, the cat was free.

But this lovely kitty guardian angel didn’t just let her run off, she phoned her local vet who told her to bring this little black hitchhiker in to be checked for injuries and to see if she was microchipped.

Luckily, very luckily, Skittles is, so the vet then made the telephone call I recounted above.

When I think of how this tale could have ended my heart goes into my mouth. There are a lot of moving parts in an engine, so Skittles is very lucky she wasn’t ripped to shreds. Being driven at 70mph down the motorway, she is also extremely fortunate she didn’t fall out onto the road and get run over by the cars following. She’s lucky the lady who found her didn’t just release her – so far from home there’s no knowing what would have happened to her. She might have been found and taken to a vet or the local RSPCA, but then again she might not have been. Finally, she’s very lucky that we had her microchipped so the vet simply scanned her and found our contact details.

But she’s home now, and has been cuddled, fed and watered. We’re going to keep her in for a couple of days to make sure she’s not too traumatized by her experience, so I’ve had to go and buy a litter tray which she eyed with disgust, before bashing at the locked cat flap and plaintively demanding her release.

Will she learn from this? I hope so! Heaven only knows where she might end up next time.

I’m sorry this is such a short blog, but under the circumstances I think I can be forgiven. If anyone is interested, Chaining Daisy will be released as a stunning paperback, an ebook and will be on Kindle Unlimited next Wednesday.In the meantime, it is available to pre-order at a special introductory price.

The sequel to Becoming Lili, it reduced one editor, three beta readers and two arc readers to floods of tears, and even made me cry when I was writing it, so if you have read Becoming Lili and want to know how the story continues for Lili and her friends, then why not buy yourself a copy.

Chaining Daisy – Book Two of the Perennials Trilogy and
the beautiful sequel to Becoming Lili

I hope you have a great Sunday and I’ll see you as usual next week, when I promise things should be back to normal – well, normal for me!

Best Wishes

Julia Blake

Passes, Paperbacks and Parks….. A typical week for Julia Blake

It’s been a busy and stressful couple of weeks since we last chatted, and there were moments when I was literally ripping my hair out in chunks. I’m in the final stages of publishing book nine, and as any author knows, it can be a frustrating, arse ache of a process, in which the Law of the Sod definitely applies – in that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong!

Also, in my news, exam results were released, and Miss F went back to her school to collect them last week. Full of trepidation, convinced she’d managed to stuff the lot, her heart was in her mouth as she opened the envelope which contained her future. I never really had any doubts that she would pass and pass well. Anyone who has worked as hard as she has over the past two years and put as much effort into revision as she did, can’t possibly have failed. And of course, she didn’t. I’m happy to report that she passed all eleven subjects, with a mix of mostly As and Bs, and a couple of Cs in Physics and Chemistry – “we hates them!”

Now, a lot of parents expect the absolute best from their children, and at least one set of parents we know are paying for papers to be re-graded because their little darling got a B+ instead of the A they felt they deserved. I’ve never put that kind of pressure on Miss F. Now, don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I didn’t expect her to work and work bloody hard to get good grades. But I asked her to do HER best, not be THE best. At the end of the day, I think that’s all you can reasonably expect from anyone, that they do the best they can.

We’re all different and we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Miss F’s nemesis is physics, and over the years I’ve seen her struggle to understand what to me seemed absolute gibberish, but she persevered. Come revision time, our house was covered with little post it notes with physics formula and equations on. Much to the complete bafflement of our little Romanian lodger, who came home from work late one night to find one stuck on his door and thought it was a note from me – “I am not understanding what this is.”

When exams finally hit, she was an absolute shaking bundle of nerves and was convinced she’d failed physics. Even though I was confident she’d done well, her own low self-confidence told her otherwise. That’s why there was much celebrating in the Blake household when she opened that envelope and found a C+ for physics. Vindication of all her hard work, and we were as pleased about that result as we were about the As in history and English, and the clutch of Bs for her other subjects. The important thing is she’s passed, with grades high enough to take up the college place she’s been offered and do the highest level of the diploma in her subject that she can.

And for those of you would like to know, Miss F wishes to be a zookeeper so is starting a Level 3 Animal Management and Care Diploma next week. She wishes then to specialise in entomology and specifically myrmecology – which isn’t the study of mermaids although oh how I wish it was, wouldn’t that be the coolest thing – but is in fact the study of ants.

As I said, I’ve been trying to publish a new book. Chaining Daisy is the sequel to Becoming Lili and is book two of the Perennials Trilogy. It’s been two years in the making, two very long years of writing, revising, amending, editing, rewriting and proofing. Non authors probably think when the words The End are written on a manuscript it’s all done and dusted. Not a bit of it. I once saw a meme of an iceberg floating in water, the tip of the iceberg was the finished book that the reader buys, but under the water the rest of the iceberg was made up of all the long, tedious process the author has to endure to get that book to that point.

So, I’m in the final stages now, that frustrating time when you’re so close to having the book ready to launch, but so many annoying, niggly, painful little snags keep leaping up to slap you round the face, that at times you’re tempted to just give up. Every book is different, some books come together so easily you dare to think you’ve cracked this getting published lark and are a professional. Other books are more feral, refusing to be caught and heartlessly laughing as they throw up problem after problem. Chaining Daisy has been the latter, so much so that I began to think it was cursed. Instead of a publisher I needed a priest equipped with bell, book and candle.

It’s a big book, just like its predecessor, it has illustrations and pretty little daisy icons on the chapter headings. Any of these can cause issues when trying to publish, all of them together – well, that’s a plan doomed to failure. For those unfamiliar with the process, you have to upload your beautifully prepared document to Amazon, who then place it into the relevant paperback setting using a template that you originally downloaded from them to prepare your document in. Now, one would think that would mean that what you see in your document is exactly what will appear in the Amazon preview. One would think…

Nope, for some reason Amazon narrow the margins ever so slightly when they get their grubby mitts on your perfect manuscript. This squeezes your paragraphs so sometimes instead of being, for example, six lines long, a rogue word or two sneaks onto a seventh line. Now, this probably doesn’t sound too big a deal, but imagine it happening several times in a chapter. It will push the pages over so instead of your chapter being ten pages long, it’s now eleven. That means instead of chapter two beginning on page eleven as it states on your contents page, it now starts on page twelve. Multiply this by the fifty or so chapters there are in the book and you begin to see the problem.

Over and over and again I had to upload the file, check it, nope still not right. Go back to my original document, go through it with a fine toothcomb tweaking the paragraphs to pull those rogue words back. Upload it again, check it, nope, still not right. Over and over until you lose the will to live.

I also had problems with the daisy icons. Most were fine. Most were well-behaved, good little daisies who did what they were told and stayed put. But there’s always one, isn’t there. One who decides to plough their own furrow and refuse to conform.

Days of my life were sacrificed to polishing this book, to making it the best I could. A lot of indie authors don’t bother. They write hard and fast, churning out books of only 50,000 words or so, barely editing them and certainly not giving them time to mature before bam, they’re on Amazon and the writer has started the next. Of course, indie authors do need to be prolific. Never has the phrase “you’re only as good as your last show” been as relevant as it is to us. A new book creates a buzz, it lifts your profile, increases your visibility, improves sales and generates fresh interest in existing titles. This is all good, but, at what price does such productivity come? Unless you are some kind of superhuman writing and editing machine who never makes a mistake, then the quality of your books will be doubtful.

Books are like fine wines or a good cheese, they need to mature. No manuscript ever suffered for being set to one side for a few weeks, or even months. When an author has first finished writing a new book they’re caught up in a frenzied whirl of relief. Reading it through straight away the rose-coloured glasses are firmly in place and it’s impossible to see through its magnificence to the flaws lurking beneath. And there will be flaws. Typos, punctuation and bits that just don’t flow. Continuity errors, plot holes and timeline problems. They will be there. It’s almost impossible to proof your own work. You know what it’s supposed to say, so that is what your brain will see. Letting the manuscript sit for a while will give you some much needed distance and allow you to view it with less prejudiced eyes.

It is my humble opinion that if you are expecting people to pay good money for your book, then it needs to be as perfect as it is possible for you to get it. I’m afraid indie authors have something of a bad reputation for producing books of poor quality, and it’s true that there are a few authors guilty of this. The sad thing is though, those few pull down and tarnish the good name of the majority of indie authors, myself included, who work tirelessly to publish books as professionally finished as traditionally published ones.

I like to make bookmarks to go with all my books and last week I sat down to produce the ones to accompany Chaining Daisy. My usual website had changed the way they operated though, as usual turning a reasonably simple process into a complicated and fiddly rigmarole that had me grinding my teeth and squinting at tiny preview images on my laptop. Finally, it was done, 250 bookmarks ordered and paid for, one more thing successfully ticked off my list.

I should have known though, should have suspected that life would stick another turd in my tea kettle. Three days later they arrived. All 250 of them. I eagerly opened the package, and for a split second I thought they were fine, before I put my glasses on and realised the black of the background behind the daisy icon was a slightly different black to the black background of the bookmark. Bugger, I thought, but it’s liveable with and one of those things that no one else will probably notice.

Then Miss F wandered in with her young, sharp eyes, picked one up and said, “why does it say – body text here – under the daisy?” I snatched it back, examined it and cursed. Yep, she was right, in black letters on the black background were the words “body text here”! Just as I was wondering how noticeable that was, I spotted the third, deal breaker error. I’d left the letter R off the word author. So, that settled that, although the irony of an author who can’t spell author, is one I can appreciate, the whole lot had to go in the bin, and I had to start again.

Finished product – front and back of new bookmarks now perfect!

As you can imagine, after all that I was a quivering pile of stress, so went to a local park with Miss F for some much-needed exercise. Nowton Park is a wonderful, sprawling park on the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds. With several tennis courts, a football pitch, a kid’s playground, a maze and a café, it’s a popular destination, but as there are over 200 acres of it you can spend hours there and never see another soul. There was just one problem though, the UK had another mini heatwave last week so after twenty minutes of walking in 35C we were both drenched in sweat and feeling the strain.

Still – stiff upper lip, never give in because we’re British and the “Dunkirk spirit” – and all that, meant neither of us were prepared to admit defeat so we did the whole circuit, before crawling home in a hot, sweaty puddle of regret, about ready to peel our own skins off and fighting over who’d be first in the shower.

And now it’s Saturday and once again it’s time to sit down and write my blog. Is it getting any easier? Maybe, certainly the whole technical side of uploading any photos and scheduling the blog I’m now more familiar with, but it’s the knowing what to talk to you about that still gives me concern. Despite the lovely messages I’ve had from so many people saying how much you all enjoy it when I simply “chat” I’m still worried that it’s not interesting enough. Although over 2000 hits so far is encouraging, as are the wonderful comments you leave.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed my round up of what for me is a fairly typical week. Oh, and I also managed to squeeze work into that lot as well, and there’s a little funny anecdote to share with you all before I sign off. Monday was a bank holiday in the UK, so most people had the day off work, not us poor retail workers though and the day was incredibly busy, with people piling into the shop to buy. However, as most places are shut by 4pm on a bank holiday, by 3:30pm it was dead. No one was coming in and we were tidying up. All day I’d been convinced it was Sunday. It felt like a Sunday, and the customers had had that Sunday shopper vibe about them. So, at 3:55pm I washed up all the cups we’d used throughout the day, picked up my bag, clocked myself out and went home. Letting myself in the front door, Miss F raised her eyebrows at me.

“You’re home early.”

“No, it’s 4:15, I’m always home at 4:15 on a Sunday.”

“Mum, it’s Monday.”

“Shit! Give me the phone!”

I phoned work; my boss answered. Apparently, nobody had even realised I’d gone.

“Hi, it’s me.”

“Where are you calling from?! The toilet?”

“No, I’m home.”

There was a beat, then…

“Why are you home?”

“I thought it was Sunday, so I left.”

“Oh, what are you like?!”

Luckily, he saw the funny side of me blithely leaving work an hour early and as no customers had come in after I’d gone, in the grand scheme of things it didn’t really matter. However, I did have to work an extra hour on Wednesday to make up for it.

So, that’s me signing out. Hopefully next week will be less eventful, but hey, this is me, so I seriously doubt it. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

All the best

Julia Blake