This is the road to Hell…

I’ve been on holiday all this week and I must say it’s been wonderful. Not having to get up early, although of course I haven’t exactly had lay ins, I’m afraid my ability to sleep in was destroyed by having a baby and I’ve never got back into the habit. Nevertheless, it was nice not having to be up and out of the house but being able to take things a little easy.

I was determined during this holiday to forget about catching up with housework or all the other things I tend to waste my time on during my precious days off, instead I was going to concentrate on writing book ten. Apart from blogging, I haven’t written anything original since last April and like most things, the longer you let things slide, the harder it is to get back into it.

Monday, I struggled to start. My main character was refusing to play ball and wouldn’t give me any clues about herself, so I did all the bits and pieces I really had to get done during the week, including a massive pile of ironing that had been glaring at me for days. Finally, early Tuesday morning, she whispered one line to me – My life is small. And that was it, that was all I needed, because with an opening line of – Her life was small – I was able to ask the question why? Why was her life small, and from that point I was off and running. I won’t bore you with too many details, but at the time of writing this blog on Saturday, I had written almost 30,000 words of the book. Not bad going, and considering the Blackwood family saga of which this will be book three, are all books of about 50,000 it means I’m a good chunk of the way through. I must say, this book is turning out to be very exciting and I don’t think I’ve ever written such an action led book before.

So that’s been my holiday, and it may sound boring to you, but to me it was bliss. Not only time to write, but time to read and time to cook a nice meal every evening for me and Miss F. It was Valentine’s Day on Friday, and even though I don’t hold with such nonsense and Miss F was working anyway, I still made us a lovely three course meal on Thursday evening to celebrate.

It was funny though, in the week leading up to my time off, every time I happened to mention to someone that I had a weeks holiday coming up, their immediate reaction was – “oh, how nice, where are you going?” – and it’s interesting how most people don’t consider it a holiday unless you’ve actually packed your bags, left your home and traipsed off somewhere where you probably won’t be as comfortable or as relaxed as you are at home.

I love being home and I love being home with nothing major to do. It’s so relaxing to be able to just chill out and read a book, or catch up on a TV series, or have friends round for coffee or lunch, and in the summer why would I want to get into a sweaty car and sit in a traffic jam for hours to sit somewhere that isn’t as nice as my own garden?

We haven’t really had that many holidays over the years, Miss F and I. For a start, funds have rarely been available, and as holidays are so expensive there has always been the tussle between wasting money on an experience that will be over and done with in a week, or spend it on essential improvements to our home which we’ll appreciate for years to come. Also, there was just Miss F and me, and when she was younger and going to bed early in the evening, that meant I’d be left sitting on my own in a hotel room or holiday cottage, having to be quiet because I didn’t want to wake her up. Not much of a holiday for me. It’s also exhausting, being the sole adult and the one responsible for all the packing, the driving and the decision making, the few holidays we did take, I came back needing a holiday to get over it.

I remember one particularly bad time we had when we were going to stay with friends down near Portsmouth for three days, before then travelling on to stay with other friends for a couple of days who lived in Gosport.

Things didn’t get off to a good start when we were sitting in a fully packed car and I turned the key, only for the engine to go clunk. Panicking, I turned it again. Nothing. I could not believe it. This was our holiday. We hadn’t ever really had one before, and the fecking bloody car wouldn’t start. I tried again, muttering curses under my breath, aware of little ears strapped into a car seat behind me. On the tenth go, the ignition caught, and the car flew into life. Phew. We drove onto the A14, only ten minutes behind schedule, so that was fine.

We’d barely gone five miles, when I had to slam on my brakes and ending up bumping into the central reservation to avoid an accident literally two cars ahead of me. Shaken, I checked that Miss F was okay and then got out to see what had happened. A car had slid into the side of a lorry. Luckily, no one seemed hurt, but the road was blocked. Two other lorries had stopped, and their drivers got out and between them shoved the slightly damaged car over to the side. Producing brooms from the back of their lorries, they swept all the broken glass off the road and then waved us through. Phew, I thought again. That was lucky.

We drove on another five miles, then from the back of the car came those words that no parent wants to hear at the beginning of a long drive to go on holiday. “Mummy, I don’t feel very… bleeuugggh!!” Vomit erupted from my child all over herself and the back seat of the car. Now, she’d had blackberry porridge for breakfast, so you can imagine what that was like.

Now edging into full blown panic, I desperately wondered what on earth I could do? Turn around, go back, abandon the holiday? Plainly, the gods were telling me something and the universe quite clearly didn’t want me to have this holiday. I saw the turn off to Exning approach and remembered that’s where my aunt and uncle lived, so took the turning.

Driving through the village, my phone clamped recklessly to my ear, I shrieked out the situation to my mother and begged her for directions because I couldn’t for the life of me remember where they lived.

“White gates, look for some white gates.”

“There are no white gates!”

“Turn right by the butchers.”

“I have no butchers, I have a bakers and possibly a fecking candlestick makers, but no bloody butchers.”

By this point I had passed through the town of full-blown panic and was approaching the suburbs of mild hysteria.

Eventually, I found them and bless them, they rose magnificently to the challenge of their niece and her small, seven-year-old daughter arriving unannounced on their doorstep one Monday morning, with a car covered in purple vomit.

My uncle manfully volunteered to deal with the car and my aunt hustled us up to the bathroom, where I stripped Miss F and hosed her down in their shower and helped her clean her teeth, whilst my aunt quickly washed her clothes and poor Teddy. Being held in her lap I’m afraid he’d borne the brunt of it and wasn’t looking very happy about the situation.

All this took time, of course, and I phoned my friend who’d been expecting us for lunch, warning her it would be more likely mid-afternoon by the time we reached them. Then we got back in the thankfully now freshened up car and set out once more on what was rapidly becoming a quest of almost Tolkien proportions.

Now, I’d been given strict instructions what route to take and they were taped to my dashboard for easy reference. I knew I had to stay on the M25 until I reached the M something or other to Portsmouth and after that it would be plain sailing. I sat on the M25 for what felt like hours, and suddenly saw a sign proclaiming that Watford was ahead. What?! I thought, isn’t Watford on the North side of London? Had I missed the turning? Had I almost done a complete lap of the capital?

Panicking. When the next junction announced it was the A something or other going to Portsmouth, I automatically took it, assuming I’d stupidly written down the instructions wrong, and, to be honest, so thankful to see a sign pointing in the right direction I didn’t stop to think. Just as I turned off the M25 and was fully committed to taking this road, I saw the next sign along – it was the M something or other to Portsmouth.

Too late, this was the road I was on, so this was the way I was going. I drove for another thirty minutes, desperately wondering how badly I’d screwed up and how much time I’d added to this road trip from hell. I saw a sign for a Wimpy roadside café – I hadn’t realised they still existed – and took it. I was starving hungry and desperate for a wee and a cup of coffee.

We parked and got out, both incredibly relieved to be out of the car. The facilities were before you entered the main restaurant, so we used those first, then went in to get something to eat and drink and it was as though we’d stepped through a time-warp and ended up in the 1970’s. Seriously. Orange and brown flock wallpaper, brown lino on the floor. Brown Formica tables with orange padded bench seats and those big ceramic lamps hanging overhead. There was waitress service – I kid you not – and the menu had all the things I remember there being when stopping at a Wimpy was an occasional, longed for, holiday treat.

I just ordered burger and fries for myself, with coffee, water and some toast for Miss F. She said she wasn’t hungry and was still looking a bit green about the gills, so I didn’t want to risk putting anything more exciting into her. My aunt had given us an old ice cream container, which Miss F had clutched like the Holy Grail all the way, but I really didn’t want any more incidents in the car.

While we waited on our food, I phoned my friend to fill her in with what had happened. She seemed a little annoyed at my ineptness but gave me fresh instructions and assured me I’d only added about twenty or so minutes to my trip which was now reaching epic proportions. We’d left home at 9:30am, thinking to reach theirs by midday at the latest. It was now 1:30pm and we still had at least half the journey still to go.

After lunch, we reluctantly climbed back into the car and set off. For two pins I would have turned around and gone home, but not only were people expecting us, I was quite looking forward to catching up with friends. Maybe I wasn’t so desperate to see the first friend we were staying with again, but I was definitely looking forward to staying with the second couple.

The rest of the journey seemed to pass uneventfully, but I went wrong somehow navigating her complicated instructions around various villages and suburbs. Peering at road signs, trying to make sense of it all, there was a sound from the back seat. Yep. The toast had made a reappearance and we now had a full ice cream container of vomit in the car with us.

I pulled over, there was a woman working in her garden with a little girl helping her and I shamelessly threw myself completely on her mercy.

“Please help me, my little girl’s just been sick in the back of the car.”

“Oh, you poor darlings.”

I kid you not, that was what she said, and then she just kind of took us under her wing and sorted everything out. She got Miss F out of the car and disposed of the vomit down a handy nearby drain. I fished Miss F’s toothbrush out of the case, again, and her daughter who was about ten, took Miss F inside to help her clean her teeth and wash her face and hands.

Our lovely saviour helped me clean up the little bit that had splattered on the seatbelt, and she then looked at my instructions and drew me a handy little map with a clear and precise route marked on it. Seriously, she was like an angel who’d been sent to earth to help other mum’s when their offspring had barfed in the car. I never got her name, and of course I never saw her again, but I’ll never forget how amazingly kind she was. People like her totally restore my faith that there is still good in the world.

Finally, we reached my friend’s house at almost 5:00pm. We’d been travelling for over seven hours. I think I could have flown to Kief in the time it took us to get there. But we were there. Surely now I could relax and enjoy our holiday? Wrong. In the couple of years, it had been since I’d last seen this person, her snobby pretentiousness had got worse. Before, it had been funny. Now, it was so pronounced that it made me very uncomfortable and I was livid at the way she treated my child.

Now, I’ve had parents with small children come to stay before and always I check with the parents what kind of stuff they like to eat and make sure I get that in, together with some fairly safe standbys such as fishfingers, oven chips and spaghetti bolognaise. Bearing in mind, Miss F was only seven-years-old and also bearing in mind I’m not the richest person in the world, so our normal diet isn’t too extravagant most of the time, also bearing in mind she knew how sick Miss F had been on our trip there, I was a bit taken aback to find out our meal that night was going to be squid in a really rich red wine sauce. For a seven-year-old.

Now, I would hesitate to offer squid to a grown up unless I knew they really liked it, let alone expect a child to eat it. I knew Miss F would (a) refuse to put the slimy heap of tentacles in her mouth (b) wouldn’t like it even if I could persuade her to eat some, and (c) probably throw it up everywhere. I managed to persuade my friend that as Miss F was still feeling sick, could she possibly just have some toast and an early night, and then I was sure she’d be a lot better in the morning.

Things went downhill from then on. Now, I’m not a slob, but when someone immediately plumps the cushion you’ve been sitting on as you stand up, and hoovers up under you every five minutes and snaps “Shoes” at you the second you walk in the front door, then I begin to get a bit twitchy. And when every single meal comprises of ludicrously expensive, rich and over the top fish dishes that your child has had no experience with and simple won’t eat, then things start to get a bit tense between the grown-ups.

There were whispered conversations about me in the kitchen, which of course I could hear. There was forced politeness, and sympathy for me for being saddled with such a “fussy” child. I wanted to slap her for that one. Miss F was no worse and a hell of a lot better than most of my other friends’ kids, but we didn’t inhabit the type of world where having squid and crab and lobster was a normal, everyday occurrence. I just wanted to grab my child and go. Her brat of a child who was the same age as Miss F also didn’t help. Totally spoilt and presumably spoon fed squid with his mother’s milk, he was simply foul to my daughter and actually hit her so hard around the head with his lightsabre that it raised a bump the size of an egg and I wondered whether I should take her to A&E.

At last, it was Wednesday morning and we could go. I packed up the car as quickly as I could and then there were polite hugs and promises to stay in touch. Her son really put the cherry on the top though, as we were heading out the door, I heard him say.

“I’m so glad they’re leaving, mummy.”

Yeah, you and me both, kid.

We got in the car and drove to the top of the road to turn around, and as we drove back past the door where they were standing ready to wave, I muttered through clenched teeth to Miss F.

“Right, big smiles, wave goodbye.”

We waved goodbye until we turned the corner and could no longer see them, when the smiles and the waves abruptly stopped.

“Don’t worry, darling,” I promised. “We are never going back there again.”

And we never did. I also never contacted my friend again and she never contacted me. Which, I guess is a shame, we had been friends for several years and had had some good times together, but she’d broken the universal code of friendship, which is never, ever criticize somebody else’s child to their face. Sure, Miss F could have her moments, and maybe she didn’t know what a mussel was and really didn’t want to try one, thank you very much, but then I know a lot of adults who won’t even try seafood either and she was only a little girl.

I knew why my friend had behaved like that. She was one of those people for whom appearances was absolutely everything. An immigrant from Ukraine, she’d worked very hard to get what she called the “nice things” in life and cared passionately about them. She could never understand why I didn’t give a hoot about my home being glossy magazine perfect. It was home, and so long as it was clean, tidy and warm, then I didn’t care about having co-ordinated cushions which exactly matched the rug and exactly matched the picture frames.

She was what my mother used to call “showing off”. Look at me, I have all these things and earn all this money. Aren’t I wonderful? In a word, no. I’ve never cared about what my friends have or how much money they make, only what they’re like. Furthermore, if any guest in my house had ever been made to feel that uncomfortable then I would have been ashamed of myself.

So, did our week get any better? I hear you ask. Oh yes it did. We made it to my old friends, where I fell on their necks with relief at being there. They had a log burning stove going, with a big comfy sofa in front of it, with Willo-the-Wisp DVDs for Miss F to watch and fishfingers, mash and beans for her tea. It was heaven. They were renovating an old house and things were a bit chaotic, but that didn’t matter a bit, because it was warm and homey, and they were pleased to see us and made us feel so welcome.

And that, at the end of the day, is how it should be.

My, how I’ve run on. I was going to tell you about the best holiday we ever had, but I’ll obviously have to save that for another day. I hope you all have a wonderful Sunday, and I am going to celebrate my last day off work with an enormous roast dinner and a glass or two of wine.

See you next week

Julia Blake

Slow and Steady Wins The Race

First of all, I’d like to apologise for this week’s blog coming to you a little later than normal. When you read about the kind of week I’ve had, you’ll understand why. For a start, my shifts this last month or so have been all over the place. When I first started at my current job, my shifts used to change every week and I never knew where I was, but my boss did try to ensure I had chunks of days off in a row. I only work three days a week, so he’d try to make it so they were sensibly proportioned with days off. Sometimes this wasn’t easy, as we were a team member down for the first six months after my start date, so I pulled a lot of overtime during that period.

Then the other part-time lady started, and things settled down a bit. Gradually, it seemed to shake down that I would work Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and the other lady would work Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Ok, it meant we both had to work a day at the weekend, but at least you always knew where you were and could plan things well in advance. Besides, with Miss F having Thursday off the same as me, it wasn’t so important having the weekend off. I only work 10am to 4pm on Sunday’s, so not too long, and Miss F tended to catch up on her sleep in the morning and get her college coursework done in the afternoon.

Then my boss went a bit crazy and suddenly I was doing day on, day off, day on, day off, which I absolutely HATED. Ask any woman if she wants a shift pattern like that and she’ll tell you no. Working like that, it meant I’d get up on my one day off with household chores to be done, shopping, ironing, running errands and catching up on social media, then it’d be back to work next day. Then the next day off it would be more of the same so I never got a chance to have any downtime or time to just relax or read, let alone do any writing.

I knew the other part-time lady was also getting fed up with it, she has a long-term medical situation going on, so knowing exactly what days she has off is essential for her when booking her various hospital and consultant’s appointments. So, we confronted our boss together and demanded he put our shifts back to how they were. He seemed genuinely shocked that we weren’t “thrilled” that our working days were – as he put it – “mixed up to make it interesting”. For a start – no. Middle aged, hard-working women do not want things “mixed up”. We like to know precisely where we are and having those four days off in a row are a godsend.

Having the Friday off, at least, is important to me. I have to get Miss F to her work placement by 9am and while that gives me plenty of time to get to work by before ten, it means I can’t go and pick her up at 2pm and have to ask my mother to do it. I don’t like having to do that, not only because I don’t want to put her out, after all it’s a nasty long drive there and back on twisty country lanes, but also because my mother is such a terribly, dangerous driver she scares the living daylights out of whoever is unfortunate enough to get in the car with her. Miss F has pleaded with me to get my shifts back to normal so I can pick her up, even offering to phone my boss and cry, if that’s what it took to make him agree.

But she didn’t have to resort to that, faced with our united determination my boss capitulated and I’m happy to report that from next week things will be back to normal. But, getting back to this week, and me explaining why the blog is a little late this morning. I had the Sunday off, but had a ton of laundry and housework to tackle in the morning, then in the afternoon took Miss F to get her tortoise. As you know, she was trying to decide what to do as the Indian Star Tortoise she wanted was proving impossible to source locally. Yes, she’d tracked down some dealer called Gary who lived in Guildford and had some for sale but, to be frank, the whole thing smelt a bit fishy.

All the experts agree that buying a hatchling that’s under two years old is cruel and unethical. They are too young to be removed from their mothers, so any dealer offering babies under two is clearly not that concerned about the creature’s welfare and happiness. Gary offered her a 2019 hatchling, so alarm bells were ringing all over the place. It was also such a long way to go, he wanted paying up front and that’s always worrying, plus there seemed no comeback if the tortoise turned out to be sickly or damaged in some way.

I employed my usual method when Miss F has to make a decision and a choice between what her heart wanted, and what her head knew to be right. We sat and discussed all the factors and then I left her to it. A couple of days later she came to me with a decision made. She’d done more research and decided to get a West Hermann Tortoise instead. Now, these are very small tortoises so won’t outgrow the tortoise table she’d already bought for at least twenty years. Best of all, Swallow Aquatics – a local reptile and fish showroom only a thirty-minute drive away – sold two-year-old hatchlings.

This seemed a much better prospect, safer and more ethical, and I was relieved it was a decision she’d reached with minimal prompting from me. We drove to Swallow Aquatics after first calling them to make sure they had them in stock, they did, lots of them. After some umming and ahhing, Miss F chose a little one that came to the very front of the tank to check us out.

You can just see him at the front bottom right

We filled in all the paperwork – buying a tortoise is a bit like adopting a baby, and I’d had no idea how much was involved. Miss F handed over £175 of her hard-earned cash and received a certificate of birth and registration, and a teeny tiny tortoise in a clear plastic box that had live crickets written on the side.

So small…

We got him home and into a warm bath to wash all the dust and other substances off him, then introduced him to his new, spacious home. Honestly, this tortoise is living the dream, his own swimming pool, food on demand and a cosy warm bed section filled with fresh timothy grass for him to snuggle down in at night.

West Hermann Tortoises come from the South of France and as this guy seems to have a proper little man syndrome, he’s been called Napoleon. Now, I didn’t think I’d get very excited about a tortoise, but I have to admit he’s actually very sweet and has a proper personality. He likes his head being stroked, he loves chin rubs and adores his bath, where he splashes about ankle deep in warm water, enjoying having his shell gently washed with cotton buds.

He’s funny too and I have a strong suspicion he has a quirky sense of humour. One morning, for some reason he decided to dump a ton of dirt into his swimming pool and turn it into a mud bath. Quite how he managed to do it given the size of him, I have no idea. He then sat there and looked at it, then looked at us, then back at the mess he’d made, as if to say – “I did this, fix it.” Miss F picked him up and he sat on her palm blinking his tiny eyes at us. “What did you do?” she asked him, and his reply was to open and close his mouth several times at us, almost as if he was laughing.

What you smiling at?

Monday, I had off, so spent the day catching up on shopping, chores and housework, and I also managed to get a couple of hours in sourcing illustrations for Erinsmore. It sounds like it should be a fun and easy job, but it’s quite hard work. I want the illustrations to obviously have the same vibe throughout and match a general aesthetic for the whole book, and I want each chapter illustration to reflect something that happens in the following chapter. It’s time consuming, but it is fun.

Tuesday, I had to do my last two hours of work ever for my freelance job. This marks the end of an era. I first started working for Mr G way back in 1987 when I was running a secretarial agency from my parents dining room. He had just gone it alone as an accountant and needed a freelance secretary. Right from the word go we clicked, having the same sense of humour, and I enjoyed doing his work. Over the years, his practice went from strength to strength and he always promised that if ever he needed someone full-time, I would get first refusal of the job.

The nineties came and home computers became more popular, gradually, the need for the services my business offered dwindled, until eventually I closed my doors in 1996 and had to look for a proper job. I worked for Allied Carpets for two years as a full-time sales consultant. Although I enjoyed the work and the pay was phenomenal, it was the type of job that could consume you if you let it. I worked long hours, sometimes all weekend, and of course I no longer had bank holidays off. At the same time, I was still doing Mr G’s work, having transferred some of my equipment to my newly converted office basement. People told me I was crazy, to still be struggling to do his work on top of such a demanding “proper” job. My response was always – “Jobs may come, and jobs may go, but Mr G’s work is always there.”

Eventually, the inevitable happened, I realised I’d reached burnout. I was working too hard. The job was taking over my soul. Yes, I was earning good wages, but most of that was going on much needed alcohol, along with meals out, takeaways and ready meals, because I was too beaten up to cook most evenings and the first thing I reached for when I got home was the vodka bottle. Something had to give, and then came my day off. Much longed for, I’d planned to spend it with my fiancé just having some us time. My boss had already telephoned three times by 10am. I turned off my phone. He called my fiancé. We turned off his phone. He called me on the landline. We put the phone on answerphone and switched off the ringer. Then he resorted to faxing me. Enough was enough! This was my day-off, I was outraged he felt he had the right to disrupt it so much. We had a blazing row over the phone, where I basically told him to f***k off, and that if he wanted me to come back to work the next day, he needed to leave me alone to enjoy what was left of my precious day off.

Ten minutes later, my phone rang again, about to scream my resignation down it I saw from caller ID that it was Mr G. He was wondering if I could call in for a minute, he had something very important to ask me. Intrigued, I popped around the corner to his office where he sat me down and offered me a job. A nice, calm, civilised job, away the shark eats shark atmosphere of the sales floor, where I would only work weekdays, never weekends and certainly never bank holidays. Ok, he couldn’t offer me such a high salary as I was getting from Allied Carpets, but still, what did I think?

What did I think? I burst into tears and accepted on the spot.

I worked full-time for Mr G from 1998 until Miss F was born in 2003. Going back after my maternity leave, I went back flexi, part-time, three days a week. I was very happy; he was a kind and thoughtful boss. A father of three children himself, he understood about things like having to suddenly dash off to pick up a child who’d fallen in the playground or was ill. Without his support, flexibility and sympathetic understanding, my life would have been a lot harder when my marriage exploded in 2004 and I was abruptly left a single mother trying to raise a child completely unaided.

In 2016 though, he decided to partially retire and although there would still be a few hours a week work from him, it certainly wouldn’t be enough to support me. I had to find another job. It was so hard. Being on the unemployment scrapheap at 48 was really hard. I suddenly realised how cushy I’d had it working for Mr G, how well he’d paid me, and how much I’d come to count on being able to change my working hours as I needed to. I began job hunting. It was awful. I hated it. Mr G had reassured me that he wouldn’t make me redundant until I’d found somewhere else, but still, I knew he was keen to take a step back and enjoy his retirement.

For the next year, I bounced about from job to job, never finding anything that quite fitted. During that time, I was also diagnosed with a long-term, serious medical condition which necessitated medication and surgery, so that didn’t help, and I did have to use some of my small redundancy pay-out to get by.

Finally, in September 2017 I started the job I have now, and life settled down a little. However, I still continued work freelance for Mr G as and when required on my days off. But now, even that has come to an end and I’ve done my last piece of work for him. It truly is the end of an era. I have very mixed feelings about it. Yes, it was easy work and the generous salary he paid me will be sorely missed, but it did eat into precious time off and was sometimes very hard to fit it. But time never stands still, so I guess all I can do is accept and move on.

After my final bout of filing for Mr G on Tuesday morning, I spent two hours trailing around every single charity shop in town trying to find an outfit for a 1920’s Speakeasy party I’ve been invited to. Going home empty handed, I did what I should have done right from the word go and logged onto eBay and bought something off there. I also accidentally bought a dress from Hong Kong which wasn’t going to get here until long after the party, but luckily, I managed to cancel that and get a refund. The dress I bought has arrived and it fits, but I’m convinced it makes me look fat. However, I’m convinced everything makes me look fat, so hey. And that was Tuesday.

Wednesday, I’d sold a few things on eBay so had to parcel them up and drive to the post office to send them off. Then I drove the thirty minutes to spend the day with my friend and formatter Becky Wright of Platform Publishing House, to brainstorm about Erinsmore and sort out what was happening with it. On the way home, I swung round the supermarket to collect the week’s shopping I’d ordered the night before. And that was Wednesday.

Back to work Thursday. I know a lot of people write and do things on their books in the evenings, but I honestly don’t know how they do it. I was aware I still needed to write my blog. Normally, on my usual shifts, I have time to write it during the day on Thursday, Friday or even Saturday, but I was working all three days this week so wasn’t sure when I would get around to it. I knew it wouldn’t happen Thursday evening, Miss F was home, the house would be noisy, she’d want the TV on in the room where my desk is, so it would be impossible to construct a blog under those circumstances.

I’ll write it Friday, I thought, after all, I would be home just after five and would have the evening to myself.  Miss F always catches the 5:40 bus to work and is gone until I have to leave to pick her up at 9:40. Plenty of time to write at least half the blog, then I could finish it when I got home from work Saturday as she’d be at work again.

Well, you know what they say about best laid plans. I had a customer walk in five minutes before I was due to go home. They then proceeded to waste my time for almost an hour before leaving without buying anything. Grinding my teeth in hungry frustration, I drove home an hour later thinking at least the house would be quiet and empty, so I could just have a quick dinner and then get on with the blog.

I walked into a wall of sound. Music playing. Miss F in her PJ’s noisily unstacking the dishwasher in the kitchen. I stopped and stared at her.

“What are you doing here?”

“I couldn’t get to work, there’s a telegraph pole down on the road and the buses have all been cancelled, I’ve called work, they’re ok with it.”

“Oh.”

“Nana dropped off a ton of wood for you that Grandad’s sawn up.”

I looked. Three, large dumpy bags were standing in the middle of the kitchen full of logs and kindling. I groaned. That meant I needed to lug them outside to the log box and stack them all, in the dark, in the rain.

“I was hoping, as I’m home, we could have a fire tonight.”

I groaned again. That meant the fire had to be cleaned out and re-laid.

“Did you remember you stripped off all the beds this morning?”

I groaned. No, I hadn’t, so they had to be remade.

“Oh, and the cat’s just been sick on the bathroom floor!”

By the time I finally sat down to eat my dinner it was gone eight o’clock. The only silver lining to the evening being that as I now didn’t have to drive to pick Miss F up from work, I could have a glass of wine with dinner, or maybe two. But of course, no blog got written that evening.

Next day, Saturday, because I’d worked an hour longer on Friday, my boss said so long as we weren’t busy, I could leave off at four. Good, I thought, because I must get my blog written before I went to pick up Miss F from work at 9:40.

I was home just after four and did all the essential things I had to do in terms of feeding livestock and putting laundry on, and had an early dinner as I was hungry. I promised myself a ten-minute rest then I’d tackle my blog, so I laid my head back and shut my eyes, only to be jerked awake by the cat leaping on me. Completely disorientated, I blinked around, it felt late, it felt really late. I peered at the clock, it was 9:30pm, I’d been asleep for over three hours! Quickly, I pulled myself together and went to get Miss F, so obviously nothing was written on the blog last night.

And now it’s Sunday morning. I really meant to get up super early and get it written and posted by the usual time, but once again, my body had other plans. I didn’t wake up until gone 8:30am so it was already too late to pretend I’d got the blog all written beforehand in the normal way. Sorry. I think my body is trying to tell me something. Luckily, even though I’m back to work tomorrow and Tuesday, I then have three days off, I’m working Saturday, and then I have a whole glorious eight days holiday in a row. Bliss. But I know it will go by in a flash, because days off always do.

Anyway, I need to get a move on. It’s now 10am and I’m meeting a fellow local author for coffee at 11am and I still need to get ready and have breakfast. Busy day, as usual, but at least I’ve had lots of sleep.

Things will be back to normal next week, I promise, and I hope you can forgive me for making you wait for A Little Bit of Blake and I hope your coffee didn’t go cold waiting for me.

Have a great week, as usual, I’d love to hear any thoughts or comments.

All the best

Julia Blake

The Trip of a Lifetime… maybe

Earlier this week I received two letters from the college that Miss F attends, both about upcoming educational trips. One was fairly standard, a day trip to a nearby animal facility where there would be a chance for students to participate in animal related activities and listen to experts in the field blah blah blah. All perfectly normal and necessitating nothing more strenuous than paying a small sum of money and making sure Miss F reaches college on time and takes either a packed lunch or money to buy something there. But the other letter…

Well, the other letter I had to read twice because I couldn’t quite believe it the first time. Your child is being offered a unique opportunity – ok, that’s nice – to travel to a world class animal observation and experimental field study site – ooh, that sounds exciting – where they will get the chance to study a wide range of animals in their natural environment – brilliant – and work alongside experts who have been conducting long term observation and interactive studies – amazing, where do I sign her up – the trip is for two weeks – wow, that’s a long time – and will take place during the summer holiday in 2021 – umm, that’s a bit of a wait and it’s technically after she’s left college but I suppose that doesn’t matter – to show interest in your child going on the field trip to Honduras – ok, that’s… wait… what… where?! – please complete the attached form and enclose a non-refundable deposit of £150 to be deducted from the total cost of the trip which is £2700 – how much?!

Yep, that’s right, £2700. Ok, that does cover all travel, accommodation, food and activities, but that is a huge sum of money however you look at it, and then there will be her shots, clothes and spending money on top of that. I thought about this trip for the rest of the day until Miss F got home from college. I’ve always been a firm believer in trying to send her on as many school trips as I could possibly manage. When she was in primary school, of course, they were much simpler, tending to be day trips to somewhere local and only costing a nominal sum. In her last year of primary school, at age ten, she went away for four days to a youth centre place where they all slept in dorms and their days were filled with activities. It cost about £150, if I remember rightly, and she was desperate to go so the money was found and off she went.

I quite enjoyed my four days alone, and while she was gone I completely gutted her bedroom, redecorated it and transformed it from a Barbie pink hell to a grown up girls room complete with the birdcage wallpaper she’d seen in a local shop and fallen in love with. I think she enjoyed that trip, apart from being homesick and not liking the food.

In middle school, the trips got more complicated, more expensive and more fraught with tension. Who would she sit with on the coach? If it was for longer than a day, what would the sleeping arrangements be like? Who would she be sharing a room with? Would it be her friends? Would they all still be friends at the end of trip? What would the food be like? I remember a four-day trip to Cromer – a seaside town not too far away – that all ended in tears when a friendship group exploded under pressure and everyone got hit by the shrapnel.

One February, when I think Miss F was probably about twelve or so, an email came through from her school on a day I happened to be at home. There were an unexpected four seats available for a trip to see Mathilda in the West End and were any children in her year interested in going? It was for the year above hers, but there had been four last minute cancellations and as the trip was in two-days-time, it would literally be the first four parents to get to the bursar’s office next day with cash who would get the tickets. The cost was for £40, this would cover travel and tickets. Not bad for a West End show, but it left me in a quandary.

I knew Miss F would love to go and I really wanted her to go, BUT I didn’t have £40 cash I could lay my hands on before the next morning. I was up to the max on my overdraft limit and although I was being paid the next day, it wouldn’t be in time for me to get the cash out and beat the other parents to school to get a ticket.

Miss F came home from school, apparently it had been announced in assembly as well, but she’d resigned herself to not being able to go because she knew that money was really tight for us. We ate dinner and every time I looked at her, I felt so guilty. I wanted her to go on that trip and desperately racked my brains trying to think where I could get the money from. Cursing my bastard of an ex-husband who never contributed a penny to his daughter’s upkeep, I went sadly upstairs to put away laundry, leaving Miss F to have an ice lolly in front of the TV – my rather pathetic way of making it up to her.

Putting away my underwear, I found that the drawer wouldn’t shut properly and realised something had probably fallen down the back, so took the whole drawer out and found the rogue pair of knickers. Deciding to quickly tidy the drawer while I was at it, I started going through my underwear and suddenly found a plastic bank money bag tucked away at the back with money inside, £40 to be precise. I sat on the bed and stared at it, at that moment believing in heaven and guardian angels, until I suddenly remembered an indoor sale I’d done back in December, when I’d loaded all our unwanted stuff in the car and tried to flog it in a nearby village hall. These were the proceeds from that sale, I’d obviously tucked them in the drawer for safekeeping and then forgotten about them, what with Christmas and everything.

How weird is that? I once had a lodger who used to claim that you had to “put it out into the universe what you needed, and the universe would reply”, well, it certainly replied that day, and how coincidental was it that the sum I found was exactly the sum I needed. But I guess what you all want to know is, did Miss F get a ticket and go on the trip? The answer is, yes, of course she did. When I make up my mind to go for something, I go for it at 7.30am in the morning before the school is even open. We parked outside the school and sat in the car and ate breakfast watching the door like a hawk. We followed the first teacher in and sat outside the bursar’s office waiting for them to arrive. We were the first by a good thirty minutes and she got one of the four tickets. She had a simply amazing time and was left with a wonderful memory of a magical show, all thanks to her mother’s bad memory and a lucky find in a knicker drawer!

In the last year of middle school there was the big one, the annual trip to the South of France to stay in an activity centre where they would all participate in a week of full on activities such as kayaking, catamaran sailing, water skiing, mountain biking, swimming and diving. Miss F really wanted to go, and it did look amazing, but it was pricy – £800 – and then of course there would be clothes, spending money and a sleeping bag to add to that. The school had divided up the £800 into a deposit of £150 and then four even amounts spread out over the year. It would be tight, but it was doable, especially as Miss F’s grandparents offered to pay the deposit and give her some spending money. So, we signed the forms and paid the non-refundable deposit (it’s always non-refundable) and then we were committed and had to find the rest of the money.

We managed the way we’ve always managed to pay for things we wanted, we tightened our belts even further, we both went though all our belongings and did a couple of car boot sales, we sold a lot on eBay, we saved every spare penny we could to make the quarterly payments and we managed it. But, during this period, Miss F learnt a very valuable life lesson.

There was this girl she was friendly with, I’ll call her Miss C. Now, I wasn’t too keen on this friendship, Miss C, probably through no fault of her own, was a bit rough around the edges and not in a good way. She was hardnosed and a taker, and I was concerned that she was not only taking advantage of Miss F’s generosity but was undermining the “work hard to get what you want” ethic that I’ve always tried to instil in Miss F. I didn’t like her lazy, sponging attitude to life and her belief that it owed her a living and it would be up to the government to support her when she left school. However, I’m not stupid, and I knew banning this friendship would make it all the more attractive to Miss F, so I kept quiet and hoped it would run its course.

Anyway, Miss C would wait for Miss F at the top of our road and the two girls would walk to school together, and on the way, Miss C would buy herself a rather unhealthy breakfast of either McDonalds or some other such thing, with the £5 her mother would give her every day to buy breakfast. Now, this caused some friction in my household as Miss F has never left this house without a breakfast inside her, and other than high days and holidays, I would never even consider going to a fast food outlet for breakfast, and I certainly wouldn’t give a child £5 each morning in lieu of a decent breakfast at home.

Miss F didn’t see it quite this way, in her eyes the fact Miss C’s mother gave her such a princely sum of money every day quite possibly… maybe… meant that Miss C’s mother loved Miss C more than I loved Miss F. That assumption hurt me, I must admit, but I swallowed it down and simply waited. And then, the trip to France came about and Miss C desperately wanted to go. Very excitedly the two girls chatted about it on the way home from school and made plans to sit together and share a tent – as you can imagine, I was thrilled about this. However, next day all their plans came crashing about their ears. Miss C wasn’t going on the trip because her mother claimed, and I quote “I can’t afford £800 for you to ponce off on holiday.”

Miss F was disappointed, and for the next couple of days swung between being elated that she was going and being upset that her friend wasn’t. Then at dinner one night, we had the following conversation.

“Mum.”

“Yes?”

“Miss C’s mum gives her £5 every day to buy breakfast,”

“Yes, she does, what of it?”

“Well, that’s £25 a week she’s spending just on breakfast. Does it cost you that much to buy breakfast for us to have at home?”

“Sweetheart, I spend about £40 a week on our shopping, and that’s for all our food for all our meals, plus the cats, and all our cleaning and toiletries, so, what do you think?”

“Oh.”

“Why do you ask?”

“I was just thinking, if Miss C’s mum gave her breakfast at home and saved the £25 a week instead, would she be able to afford for Miss C to go to France?”

“You do the maths, love, and tell me what you think?”

She did the maths.

“Mum?”

“Yes?”

“Is this what you mean when you say that you don’t waste money on stupid stuff, you save it for what’s really important?”

“Yes, it absolutely is.”

A valuable lesson was learnt that day, that it’s all too easy to fritter your money away on silly, inconsequential things and then not have it for things you really, really, need or want. Being on such a tight budget has taught me that, if nothing else. In fact, I even sometimes look at the cost of something and calculate how many hours I have to work to pay for it – that tends to help me decide if it’s a priority or not.

And in case you’re wondering – yes, she did go to France and yes, she did have an amazing time. And yes, the friendship with Miss C had fizzled out by the time the following year came around and Miss F went to France on the trip.

In upper school the trips became less frequent, there was the odd trip to the theatre if a play they were studying in English or Drama happened to be showing, or the odd geography or history trip, nothing really expensive or that involved staying away from home, so this letter about Honduras was like a bolt from the blue. I don’t really know anything about the country, other than it’s rough geographical location, so was unsure how stable it was – after all, there are so many horror stories about drug cartels and uprisings happening with depressing regularity in Central and South America – so how safe would it be for my 17 year old daughter to go there. It was far away, so very far away, and she suffers from travel sickness, and, of course, my mind kept circling back to the main obstacle, that it would cost almost £3000 to send her there. Almost four months wages. It was such a lot of money.

Miss F came home from school, already knowing that I’d received the letter. We talked. I basically told her that I appreciated what an amazing opportunity it was and that it would be a fantastic life experience, and that if she really, really, wanted to go, between us we would find a way to make it happen. She hesitated, then explained that although part of her was intrigued by the chance and realised it was potentially a once in a lifetime chance, the other part of her, the practical side which she totally gets from me – could see a number of drawbacks.

Number one was the cost. Yes, because she’s now working, between us we could probably meet each payment as it became due, but, if £3000 was to be spent on anything, wouldn’t it be better spent on driving lessons and a car? The university she’s looking at attending is a four-hour drive away, having a car is going to be an essential, and driving lessons are helluva expensive, as is buying a car, and as for insuring it…! There will also be the expense of renting a place to live whilst she’s at university – there will be deposits and upfront payments and every day living expenses to be met and she may not find a job straightaway.

Then there’s her travel sickness to consider, it is such a long way away and she’s never been on a plane before, how badly would it affect her? How ill would she be from such a long flight? Then there were the sanitary arrangements – I shuddered at the idea of her having to poop in a hole in the ground being watched by a bunch of monkeys. Apparently, one of her teachers who has done the trip before, said it was the most relaxing thing she’d ever done. Oka-a-ay, this must be some strange definition of the word “relaxing” I hadn’t previously been aware of. Miss F is quite anal (no pun intended) about her bathroom time and she was really not keen on the whole set up.

Finally, and this was not mentioned in the letter but was explained to the students at the meeting, the deposit of £150 and first payment of £650 would be due and payable before the students take their end of year exams this June. The trip is only available for level three students, and if any of the students fail their exams they will be relegated down to a level two or even level one so will be unable to go, but that payment is non refundable so it would be £800 down the pan. As Miss F quite sensibly said, “I’m confident about passing my exams, mum, but do I really want to put that kind of pressure on myself?” And I had to admit, that was a very good point.

So, she’s not going. And a part of me is sad, because it IS a fantastic opportunity, but, she’s only 16, she’s has a whole lifetime ahead of her to experience all that the world has to offer, and I’m sure she will, in time. But right now, she is correct in that there are other things we need to spend our money on, and £3000 is a LOT of money. I am aware, that there might be a few reading this who will now be scoffing in disbelief that we consider it to be an incredible amount of money, but to us it is.

And that, ultimately, is what life is all about, having to make the hard decisions and sometimes having to wear your sensible head when making them. I know that life experiences are priceless, but sometimes you do have to look at the bigger picture and choose what’s more important – a trip to a faraway country that you may, or may not enjoy, or use the money to pay for what you absolutely need right here and right now?

I feel Miss F made the right, the only decision, and once again I am relieved that I’ve somehow managed to raise such a level-headed and practical young woman.

This is me, signing out for another week, as always, I would love to hear your comments, and you can always contact me on social media or leave a comment below.

Have a good week and take care of yourselves.

Regards

Julia Blake

It’s the Thought that Counts…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve bought me foundation?”

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

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

“Well, that’s alright isn’t it?”

“No, Mum, it’s for black skin.”

“Can’t you still use it?”

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

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

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

“Umm, why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why have you bought me these?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas

Julia Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?”

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

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

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

“It makes me look fat, doesn’t it?”

“Well, not so much fat, as… chunky.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know, but it’s worth a try.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best

Julia Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Not the teddy bears?”

“Yes, those old things can go.”

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

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

My brother and I looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bird Nativity apparently

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best

Julia Blake

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