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

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

Road Closures & Rats!

I don’t think it will be too long a blog this week. Life has been a needy, greedy bitch and I’m running on empty from an energy and time point of view. There’s a meme currently doing the rounds, which runs something along the lines of – Being a grown-up consists of saying “after next week things will get back to normal” every day until you die! – And although I’m not sure that’s strictly true, this week it has definitely felt like it.

To sum up all that has happened since we last chatted, well, for a start, I’ve decided to have a stall at the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fair this year. Yes, yes, I know I said I’d never do this type of thing again after the Literature Festival fiasco – for those of you who don’t know, in a nut shell I spent hundreds of pounds buying in stock, didn’t sell a single book, had to carry them all home, cried a bit.

How this decision to do a stall at the Christmas Fair came about, was a group of us Bury St Edmunds authors have found each other and formed a little group. We meet for coffee every other Friday to just talk books and encourage and support one another. One member of the group, the young one with all the zip and enthusiasm, eagerly suggested we do a stall between us. She’d researched the venue, got a price and basically arranged everything. What could I do? I was surprised how reasonably priced the stall was, and between the five of us, it was even cheaper. I really wanted to be a part of this and couldn’t help feeling if I wasn’t, I would seriously regret the loss of the experience, if nothing else. So, I said yes.

Becoming Lili

Although the stall itself is quite cheap, as always, it’s the cost of buying in books to sell on it that is the expensive bit, and then there’s the dilemma of which books do I sell and how many do I buy? In the end, I decided to stick to just four so have ordered ten each of Becoming Lili, Chaining Daisy and Eclairs for Tea and other stories, and fifteen of my most popular book to date, The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ which still comes to 45 books in total and a big chunk of savings gone.

Chaining Daisy

Why did I choose these four? Well, Becoming Lili and Chaining Daisy are the perfect pair to sell at a bargain price for Christmas, Daisy is my latest release so interest is still high in it and they just look so beautiful together, and will make an impact on the stall. The Forest, of course, with its iconic cover, is an obvious choice, and then Eclairs for Tea is the smallest and cheapest of the four and is perfect for readers who might be daunted by the bulk of the others, plus it also makes for a perfect Christmas gift.

Eclairs for Tea and other stories

The idea then struck me that it would be perfect to have individually scented candles to sell alongside the books, so I am currently in negotiations with a local candle maker and will keep you posted as to progress. I will bring plenty of exclusive Julia Blake bookmarks to give away with every book purchased, plus I will be personally signing every book and offering a beautiful gift-wrapping service free of charge.

The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~

So, if you are planning to attend the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fair this year, then why not call round to say hello. I and four other local authors – Jackie Carreira, Amy Warren, Rachel Churcher and Pauline Manders – will be in the Guildhall down Guildhall Street between the hours of 10am-4pm on the Friday to Sunday. (I personally will only be there the Friday and the Saturday as I have to work on Sunday, but the others will be there all three days). You can’t miss me. I’ll be the red headed one desperately trying to pretend she knows what she’s doing! It would be lovely to see you, so please do come along.

Aside from trying to arrange all of the above, I’ve of course been working as usual, both at my normal job and at my part-time job of “Mum’s Taxi – evening and weekend work, very reasonable rates”. Sadly, I receive no monetary reward for providing a taxi service to Miss F and her friends but do it out of the goodness of my heart. However, this week there’s been a few too many calls upon my time and petrol and it’s been a job fitting it in.

Wednesday, I received a request from Miss F, please could I run her and her friends out to a local pet shop a couple of miles out of town to pick up the two pet rats her friend was buying. Then could we run them out to another friend’s house on the other side of town to pick up a cage that had been promised to house these said rats in, and finally could I run everyone to the proud new rat mummy’s home. She asked me in front of them all, and I don’t know about you, but if someone asks me to do a favour for someone else actually in front of them, I find it very difficult to say no. It was also requested that I first run them all to Pets at Home to pick up supplies, but here I put my foot down.

It was coming up to school rush hour, to get all the way out to the retail park that Pets at Home is located on would take thirty minutes, then another forty minutes to fight our way back through traffic to the pet store where the rats were and then another thirty to get to the third friends home and another twenty to get everyone back. That added up to two hours of my time idling in traffic just because the bedding from Pets at Home was reputedly better than that of the store where the actual rats were. So, I said no, then felt guilty, but stuck to my guns. Being the only one of the party with driving experience, knowledge of the roads and location of everything, and just how hideous school run traffic is, I felt justified in saying no this time.

Off we went, me, three girls and a carry cage all crammed in my little car. We got to the store where the rats were. Now, I don’t like wild rats of course, and never really had an opinion on tame rats, but must admit the pair Miss F’s friend bought were very pretty and very cute. Miss F looked around at all the assorted squeaky, fluffy critters and pulled a pleading face at me, but I pretended not to see it and tried to hurry things up, very aware of time ticking on.

Bury St Edmunds is a small town at its heart, the infrastructure simply isn’t there to deal with high volumes of traffic so it’s best to avoid it whenever possible. Add to that, the fact that one of the main roads through the centre of town is currently blocked, as well as a few other smaller side ones, and the chaotic hell that is school going home time becomes even worse. I belted along the road, rats squeaking at every turn, desperate to drop off friend three and pick up the cage from her house before the school bell went and gridlock ensued. I’m happy to say we made it, but Miss F has been begging ever since to have rats. I’m sticking to my guns on this one as well, I don’t really want caged animals in the house, they smell, make a lot of mess, and I think my cat would have a very hard job restraining herself from murdering them.

Speaking of pets, a lot of you have messaged me asking how Queenie Ant is, well, I have to admit, we’re not sure. As you know, at first, we thought she was dead, then we thought she was alive but hibernating because all the worker ants piled in around her and seemed to settle down for a long nap as well. But now we’re not sure. They keep moving her body around the habitat, which is very odd. It’s almost as though they don’t know if she’s alive or dead either. We’re leaving them alone to do whatever they feel they must, but it’s a bit worrying. If Queenie is dead, then all those worker ants are basically dead ants walking. Although they can live without a queen, without a purpose to their lives they will eventually die. They can’t join another colony because they would be killed and it’s no good putting another queen in there, because they will kill her. Usually, Mother Nature’s systems work very well, but I can’t understand the reasoning behind this one.

I can’t remember if I mentioned it last week, but Miss F went for a job interview for a position as front of house staff in a newly opened, trendy gastro pub about a twenty-minute drive from Bury. Well, she went for a trial session Friday evening 5-9pm so again called upon the services of Mum’s Taxi. Bearing in mind on a Friday, I already run her and her friend out to their voluntary work placement for 9am (a round journey of about 1 hour and 20 minutes), then do the repeat journey to pick them up at 2pm, it doesn’t leave much time for us to get home, eat a late lunch, and for her to shower the stable off her and get ready, before we have to leave at 4.20pm to allow time in rush hour traffic to get out of town and reach the pub before 5pm.

Normally, it would be fine, but this particular Friday I decided to take my mother out on the pick-up journey so that she can see where she has to go, because when I’m busy at the Fair on that Friday, she is going to collect the girls, so I don’t have to take two hours out of my day to do it. Anyway, normally, it’s a simple matter to cut across country and reach the village where my parents live, and I’ve done it a couple of times before. It only adds a few minutes to the journey time and is a straight-forward route that I know very well.

But we all know how things go when you’re in a hurry. Driving back from dropping the girls off in the morning, the plan came to me to ask my mother to help on the day of the fair, so I cut across country to take the normal detour to their village. All was going well, until I hit the first of the road closed signs. Now, out in the countryside we all tend to ignore these signs, usually they mean there’s two bollards around a pothole and you can still get through, or the actual road closed is miles away from where you need to go. So, I bomb merrily along the road, Radio 2 blasting out, until suddenly there’s an actual barrier across the road and it’s clear I’m going no further.

Bugger it. Not being able to get through meant a long backtrack and then an even further cross-country detour to reach my parents. Driving back the way I came, I see a signpost to a village I know, not far from my parent’s village, if I can get to that then I’ll know the way from there. Making a snap decision, I turn off the main road and into what I can only describe as “here be dragons” territory. The road got smaller and smaller! I was totally off the map, lost and had no idea what to do except keep going. At one point, I think I went through a farmyard, and I kept expecting to hear the sound of banjos. Finally, after about twenty straight minutes of “where the f**k am I” driving, the road spat me out on a road I knew and I was able to make it to my parents house with my car looking like I’d been rally driving!

Oh yes, I hadn’t mentioned there was also torrential rain with mud being washed off the fields onto the roads. Big fun.

When it came time to do the reverse journey it started out so well. Mum had come into Bury to do some shopping, so we were able to go straight from there out to the farm to pick up both the girls. I’d looked at the map and figured out another route to get her back to her village without having to go all the way to the ends of the world and back again. I told her the route I planned to take, she agreed – initially. We picked up the girls, we’re on our way back, when mum springs a surprise on me.

“Take this turning.”

“What?”

“Take this turning, it’s quicker.”

 “Mum,” this was Miss F in the back. “I’ve got Google maps up, there is another way if you turn left there and then right at the end of the road.”

“Ok.”

“No,” says my mother. “Don’t go that way, you can’t get through.”

“Google maps says you can, Nana.”

“Well, Google maps is wrong, because I know you can’t get through. Trust me.”

Now, you’d think I’d have learnt by now. Which option should I have gone with? Miss F and Google maps. Or, my mother with her vague recollections of a road she hasn’t been down in forty years? Yep, you’ve guessed it, stupidly I went with my mother. The road went on and on and on. It got smaller and smaller and smaller. Finally, we found a signpost telling us we’re heading in completely the wrong direction. We turn around, take another road.

This road also goes on and on and on. Time is ticking by. I’m very aware that we have to get home. Miss F is honking from shovelling horse poo all morning. She has to have a shower and wash her hair, we have to eat, she has to get ready for her all-important job trial. My eyes meet those of Miss F in the mirror and I see the panic in hers.

Then about a quarter of a mile down the road we see it. A massive hedge trimmer. It’s taking up the entire width of the road. No room even for my tiny car to squeeze through and I know from experience there’s no way this thing will back up to a passing place and let me through. There’s nothing for it, we turn back around. By now, we’re so disorientated from all the turns we’ve made we are well and truly lost. My mother, who up until this point has been very vocal with her local knowledge suggestions, has suddenly gone silent on the matter. Picking a road at random, we creep along it until suddenly I’m back on the tiny lane I’d found myself on that morning. We’re saved. I know where we are, but we’ve wasted thirty minutes of precious time and we’re still thirty minutes from home.

Finally reaching home, Operation Panic Stations swings into motion. We quickly gobble down the pasta bake I’d thankfully already made that morning ready and Miss F shoots off to have her shower. She’s upstairs getting dressed, it’s now 4.15pm so we’re up against the clock, when suddenly there’s a howl of disbelief and a pair of black jeans land at the bottom of the stairs. The pub had requested that she dress in plain black jeans and a white shirt for the job trial, and as she had neither, we’d had to go shopping for them the day before. Now I’m looking at the new jeans in horror, more specifically I’m looking at the socking great security tag still attached to their waistband! We’d paid for the jeans, of course we had, but somehow the cashier had forgotten to take the tag off and somehow we hadn’t set the alarms off when we left. What can we do? She can’t wear them with this giant metal disc attached to them. Miss F had now left the small town of panic and was heading into the suburbs of meltdown so I sent her back upstairs to finish getting ready whilst I took the jeans into the kitchen to see what could be done. Stores attach these tags to prevent shoplifting because they are impossible to remove without the correct in-store device. Wrong. A desperately determined woman armed only with a blunt pair of secateurs can get one off in under three minutes. So the tag was off, but we were now running ten minutes late!

What I know you’re all wanting to know is did Miss F make it in time for her job trial and how did she get on? Well, it was tight, she was about a minute late. I’d planned for us to leave at 4.20pm to allow for the increased leaving college traffic, but because we didn’t get away until ten minutes later it put us slap bang in the middle of it. I had to push the car to its limits where I could, and we screeched into the pub car park at 5.01pm by the car clock. She rushed in and I then had to face all that traffic again to fight my way back into town. Only now it’s worse, because now all the people leaving work have joined the fun. Back home, I had to wait and try not to fall asleep on the sofa, before having to turn out at 8.30pm to go and pick her up again. This time the journey took 17 minutes, clocking up to a massive five hours total I’d been driving around that day. The things we do for our kids!

But the important thing is she loved it and feels that she did very well. She seems pretty confident they will be offering her a job, and even despite the inconvenience and extra petrol, I hope they do. It’s a nice job, in a lovely working environment, and the pay is very good considering she’s only 16. More than enough for her to save for university, driving lessons and to compensate me for all the petrol I’m now going through.

And that’s been my week. Once again, there’s been no time to write or read or relax. I’m back to work tomorrow, so maybe I can rest then. It’s now 4pm Saturday, the fire is laid, I’ve just about done all my chores and a nice dinner with a glass or two of wine is planned. Let’s just hope I stay awake long enough to enjoy my evening off.

Thank you as usual for joining me, and I hope you all have a great week.

Julia Blake

Beautiful Bury St Edmunds! My week in a Nutshell

It’s been a busy but fun week because I have been entertaining company from the other side of the world. Australia, to be precise. A fellow author with whom I’ve been friends with on Instagram for the past three years messaged me a few weeks ago that she was coming to the UK. How exciting, I answered. Was she coming to my neck of the woods at all? She was, she replied. Could I recommend a decent hotel or B&B. A hotel or B&B? Absolutely not! She’d come and stay at Blake Manor for the four days she planned to stay in Bury St Edmunds – so long as she didn’t mind bunking down in a single bed in quite a small spare room. She didn’t mind. In fact, claimed she’d rather be in a single bed in a friend’s home than in an impersonal hotel or B&B.

So, our plans were laid, and I duly spruced up our tiny spare room and made it as comfortable as possible with my best bedding, flowers and new towels. But as the hour of her arrival ticked ever closer, the nerves began to bite. What would she be like? Would she be happy with our tiny house or would she wish she’d picked classier accommodation after all? Would she be easy to feed, or turn out to be fussier than my daughter? Would I like her? More importantly, would she like me?

The beautiful Angel Hotel where Charles Dickens stayed and wrote The Pickwick Papers

Tuesday morning rolled around and I went to collect her from the train station. My carefully laid plans to be waiting on the platform for her with a big welcoming smile were instantly scuppered by the fact there wasn’t a single parking space to be had. Desperately circling the station over and over again, I anxiously scanned the tiny full car park on each circuit, but it was no good. Eventually, I hitched up onto the pavement and sent a desperate text informing her of the situation, then went for another couple of goes around the one-way system until finally I saw someone come out of the station dragging a case bigger than herself and looking around helplessly.

It could only be her! Once again breaking the law with carefree abandon, I parked in a no stopping area and jumped out, waving frantically and calling her name. Her face breaking into a relieved smile, she rushed over and there was only time for a quick hug before I threw her case in the boot and we hurried back to Blake Manor as quickly as lunchtime traffic would allow.

The Atheneum – where many a 17th century ball took place

After settling in, a restorative cup of tea and a quick “getting to know each other chat” we went for a tour of the sights in Bury St Edmunds. Now, although I love the little market town I live in and am fully aware of how lucky I am to reside in place that is so rich in history, it’s not until I’m showing someone else around that I really appreciate what a very special place it is. To tourists, especially those from younger countries such as Australia and the US, it is an architectural marvel, with houses from all periods rubbing shoulders.

We paid a visit to one of the oldest buildings in town – Moyses Hall. Originally, a 12th century town house belonging to a wealthy merchant, it is now a small museum stuffed full of local memorabilia. Pride of place among the exhibits is the rather macabre death mask of convicted villain, William Corder, and a book which was made from his skin!

Accused of murdering his lover and the mother of his illegitimate children, Maria Marten, in the infamous Red Barn Murder. Corder was executed in Bury St Edmunds in 1828 and the grisly souvenirs as mentioned above were made.

It is quite an incredible building and it’s possible to see the original brickwork, fireplaces and doorways. Wandering about and looking at the exhibits, my friend kept exclaiming over the age of it and it made me realise that yes, a building dating back to the mid-12th century that is still intact and still being used for something is actually quite incredible.

Then we wandered around the town itself. Bury is a charming and eclectic mix of old and new, with roads such as St. John’s Street winding away from the town centre chock full of individual artisan shops all housed in ancient buildings.

There is a new part of the town as well, a large shopping complex called the Arc with its brand-new buildings and rather space age looking Debenhams department store. I don’t hate the new part, it’s not as offensive as some I’ve seen, and I guess it serves a purpose.

Bury is also home to the country’s smallest pub, the rather aptly named Nutshell, and my friend was very keen to pay a visit and have a drink in it. We squeezed inside and ordered a G&T each. It is really tiny. Seven people constitutes a crowd, anymore and it’s a crush, yet every square inch of its walls and even the ceiling are filled with quirky and funny knickknacks and memorabilia.

Inside the Nutshell Pub

We went to the Abbey Gardens, the beautiful and well laid out park surrounding the ruins of the medieval monastery. Once one of the largest and most important monasteries in Britain, it was a complete world unto itself. The monks grew all their own food and provided for themselves with livestock, fisheries, beehives and an orchard. They also had a hospital and were the only form of healthcare most people had access to.

Located on the banks of the river, boats would sail up from the North Sea and sell their wares from Europe, Scandinavia and even further afield. Sadly, the river silted up over time and it became too shallow for boats to traverse. Add to this the devastating effects of Henry VIII and his dissolution of religious institutions across the British Isles, and it spelled the end of Bury St Edmunds being one of the most important towns in the country.

There are quite a few ruins to explore, as well as the magnificent cathedral and the lovely St Mary’s Church which was commissioned by Henry himself as a fitting final resting place for his favourite sister, Mary, who had married the local lord Charles Brandon.

Coming home after a few hours being seeped in history, there was just time for a nice relaxed dinner and chat, before quite understandable exhaustion after travelling over 24 hours from the other side of the world caught up with my poor friend and she toddled off to bed.

Wednesday, day two of her visit, and we went to visit another local author who has also been friends with my Oz visitor for several years. We had a wonderful lunch and a lovely long chat about all things bookish. The really great thing about spending time with other writers is that you can talk until you’re blue in the face about books and their eyes don’t glaze over. Try doing that with non-writing friends and it soon becomes apparent that they really want you to shut up.

Despite the weather forecast being for solid rain all week it only spotted in places and so on Thursday we drove the 30 minutes or so to a nearby stately home and garden, Anglesey Abbey. Totally beautiful, we toured the very well-preserved house in the morning and then treated ourselves to a cream tea. Curious to resolve an age-old question, I conducted an experiment and put the clotted cream first on one half of my scone and then the jam and vice versa on the other half.

My verdict? Well, obviously, both were delicious, but I found spreading the clotted cream on the scone first literally ripped the scone to pieces and it was also very hard to then spread the jam on top. The half I spread the jam on first worked better as the jam seemed to cement the scone together so I could then smear the cream on top.

Enjoying the beautiful Autumn sunshine, we ambled about the grounds and woodlands looking at the plants and giggling at the fact that every statue was male, naked and sporting very unimpressive “parts” – those that hadn’t snapped off, that was. It did rain a little, okay quite a bit, but the downpour was short-lived, and we had hoods on our jackets, so it was all fine.

Driving home, we just missed the rush hour traffic and rounded off a perfect day with traditional fish and chips and a film – “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” – very appropriate for a pair of authors – in front of the fire.

Friday, the last day of my friends stay, and I’d arranged for us to meet four fellow indie authors who all live in and around Bury St Edmunds for brunch. First thing in the morning I had to run Miss F out to her work placement while my friend packed her bags and prepared for her departure later that day, then we wandered to a nearby restaurant that does an excellent brunch menu including veggie, vegan and foods for people with special dietary requirements.

We all took our books for a group photo and a fine time was had by all. I couldn’t help reflecting how much talent was seated around that table, drinking coffee and discussing all things bookish. Very diverse, practically every genre was represented, and it was fascinating to hear each other’s stories of how they came to be published and what their plans were for the future.

Brunch over, there was just time to bid my friend a fond farewell with promises to stay in touch, then it was back out to collect Miss F from her work placement in the middle of nowhere, followed by a hectic afternoon of arranging the printing of flyers, housework, laundry, shopping and preparing for a long weekend of work.

And now it’s Saturday morning and I’m trying to finish writing this blog before heading off to work for a full-on day of people and attempting to stay perky and awake! It doesn’t help that my body likes to play mean little tricks on me and the nasty cold I thought I’d managed to get rid of a fortnight ago is back with a vengeance. So, I’m sipping black tea with honey to soothe my poor throat and hoping this cold isn’t here to stay.

I wish I could say my life is going to get less mad next week, but it isn’t. Due to the long term sickness of a colleague I will be pulling a lot of overtime and on Monday – my one day off next week – I have to drive Miss F all the way to Ipswich to meet some dodgy sounding person at the train station in order to buy some ants off him. Yes, you did read that right, but more on that next week.

Time is ticking by and I really do need to go, once again, thank you for joining me this Sunday morning for a coffee and a chat, and I wish you a more peaceful and relaxing week than the one I am facing.

Take care of yourselves.

Julia Blake