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

The Trip of a Lifetime… maybe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mum.”

“Yes?”

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

“Yes, she does, what of it?”

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

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

“Oh.”

“Why do you ask?”

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

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

She did the maths.

“Mum?”

“Yes?”

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

“Yes, it absolutely is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a good week and take care of yourselves.

Regards

Julia Blake

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

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

Wheels on Fire!

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

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

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

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

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

The Shed – Much loved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is the nature of the emergency?”

“Fire! There’s a fire!”

“Where is the fire please?”

“In my car.”

Sigh. “Where is your car please?”

“Outside my house!”

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

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

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

Wheels on Fire!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best.

Julia Blake

Plague, Pack Rats and Puppies!

We’ve gone down with the plague in the Blake household, well, Miss F has got a nasty cough and cold and hasn’t been to college this week, which is unfortunate as it’s only her third week but couldn’t be helped. Always seems to happen after the long summer break, doesn’t it? The kids go back to school and bam, the ever-popular game of pass the pestilence begins. So, we’ve painted the red cross on the door, and I’ve been desperately hoping I don’t get it – I simply don’t have the time and can’t afford to be ill. But as she’s been coughing over absolutely everything and has been plagued with the most violent and unexpected sneezes that she seemed incapable of catching in a tissue, I suppose it was inevitable that I’d wake up Saturday morning with shaky legs and a throat that feels like it’s lined with razorblades.

Bugger. I hate being ill and I’m the world’s worst patient. I get so frustrated at all the stuff piling up around me that needs to be done. Usually, I’m incredibly robust when it comes to fighting off infection, so I’ve dosed myself up this morning with black tea and honey – my go to remedy for sore throats – increased my daily dose of Vitamin D (look it up, recent research shows it does more to prevent colds than the flu jab) and I’ve got lots of good hearty, healthy food to eat. Stuff a cold! Fingers crossed I mange to head this one off at the pass. Here in the UK most of us don’t get paid for the first three days of being off work sick, and even after that it’s only a miserly £3.50 per hour sick pay, so I really can’t afford the cost of being ill.

I’ve only once in recent years been ill enough to have time off work, and that was three years ago when I had to have some seriously scary abdominal surgery – during which we discovered I am very allergic to morphine – anaphylactic shock – nasty, really don’t recommend it, and necessitated three weeks strict rest lying down as much as possible. Beforehand, Miss F had been confident she could look after me, and for my first few days out of hospital she was puffed up with her role as chief Florence Nightingale. Never have pillows been plumped so much or so many cups of tea been made for one woman.

But she got real bored, real quick with this and by day four it was – “are you STILL not better?” – and it had to be gently explained to her, that no, mum was really, really, unwell. This was a completely foreign concept to her. Mum is never ill. Up until then, if I did ever feel under the weather, I just swallowed down an aspirin and soldiered on. As a consequence, Miss F believed me bulletproof, and the truth that I was just as vulnerable as anybody else shocked and scared her.

For the first time in her life, she learnt the hardship of duty and responsibility, that sometimes there are things you don’t want to do, but you have to, because there’s nobody else to do it. My mum helped out where she could, dad came around and vacuumed the house a couple of times. Having had plenty of warning, I’d blitzed the house from top to bottom and got up to date with all the laundry. I’d also had manic cooking sessions and filled the freezer full of home cooked meals ready to be pulled out and reheated. Everything to make it easier for Miss F had been done, but, the daily care of me was on her – and this shocking revelation hit her on day four.

To her credit, she pouted for a bit, then pulled herself together and accepted that for the next three weeks at least, this was simply the way it had to be. It had been explained to her that I wasn’t to move too much, that moving could rip my stitches inside and cause massive internal bleeding, that I could end up back in hospital, or worse, if I tried to do too much. I am proud to say she took this on the chin, took a deep breath and just did what had to be done.

Now, before you all start reporting me to social services, be aware that all she had to do was heat already cooked meals in the evening, load and unload a dishwasher, generally keep the place tidy, and put laundry into the washing machine and tumble dryer. I wasn’t exactly expecting her to sweep chimneys or re-tile the roof.

Halfway through the second week she had an epiphany moment. Coming into the lounge she perched on the end of the sofa and looked seriously at me.

“Mum?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t you ever get sick of it?”

“Sick of what?”

“Well, you know, everything. The constant having to load and unload the dishwasher, the fact there’s always washing, and that no matter how much you tidy up, there’s always something else to do, and then the whole having to think about what to cook for dinner every single evening! I mean, you do it one night, and that’s fine, but then there’s the next night, and the next, and the next, for like, forever! So, don’t you ever really, really, get sick of it?”

“Oh sweetheart, welcome to the world of being a woman.”

I think it did her good, this realisation of just how much I do everyday that goes unnoticed, unthought of and unappreciated. For the first time she realised there were no such thing as laundry fairies who magically took the dirty clothes from her basket (or the floor, whatever) and washed, dried and ironed them and then magicked them back into her drawers. That dinner always had to be thought of, and that someone had to keep on top of basic necessities like cat food and toilet rolls – ran out of those on evening seventeen, luckily there were boxes of tissues in the house!

A valuable lesson to learn at any age, I think.

So now I’m sipping another cup of tea with honey and hoping that if I pace myself today and eat and drink lots of good things, I will be well enough to return to work tomorrow. Actually, whether I’m well enough to go or not, I will be going. It’s crazy, they tell us all not to go to work when we’re ill because we spread infection to our co-workers, yet because we don’t get paid for being responsible, none of us can afford to be. Something to think about, government?

Anyway, this week has been another busy one. Taking advantage of the fact Miss F has been home, I’ve been able to tick another item off my perennial to-do list and have had a massive de-clutter of the entire house, including her bedroom and den – something I wouldn’t have been able to do without her being present to supervise. Three large bags have gone out to the bin, there’s a massive pile of stuff in the corner of my bedroom to eBay and four bags of stuff not good enough to sell but too good to throw away have been taken to the charity shop.

Now, I’m not particularly a pack rat. Sure, I have stuff, but I’m not one of those people who hoards useless clutter for years, and every now and then I do a major sweep through the house and ditch the unwanted, and, if I can, make a few pennies selling it. But this was the ultimate de-clutter, the real “hardening your heart and if you’ve not even thought about it in over a year, get rid of it” purge.

We used to go to a lot of fancy-dress parties and even the odd cosplay event, so as a consequence had drawerfuls of accessories and wigs and dress up stuff. But we haven’t done anything like that in years and, to be honest, a lot of the stuff simply wouldn’t fit us now anyway. So, out it all came and was sorted into three piles – bin, sell, donate – and I then spent almost a whole day putting it all on eBay, figuring now was the perfect time to try and sell it what with Halloween coming up.

I was a big Doctor Who fan back in the day and had a cupboard full of retro Dr Who VHS tapes I’d bought when at the height of my craze. I don’t even have a video player anymore, so why was I keeping them? Looking on eBay, I see they’re going for respectable amounts, so they’re all going as well.

Then there’s hundreds of DVDs, some still wrapped, and I’m actually shocked at the sheer waste of money, all those £10’s here and there spent on films I probably only watched once, if that. Adding it all up I can’t help but think if I’d kept my money in my bank account, I’d be a lot better off now. But what’s done is done, and all I can do is see how much I can get for them. Probably not much. In these days of Netflix, Sky and Amazon Prime, most films and TV series are available at the click of a button. No need to buy a physical copy to take up space when it’s all in cyber space.

Do we all do this? Be pack rats and acquire stuff for the first half of our lives, only to spend the second half trying to get rid of it all? But I do feel better for having had a bit of a life laundry, the house feels bigger and all the drawer and cupboard space we’ve freed up is useful, what with having a growing teenage girl in the house who needs more clothes for her ever developing life.

Speaking of Miss F and her ever developing life, remember how a couple of weeks ago I told you we were trying to find her 150 hours of unpaid work in an animal environment to run alongside her college course? Well, I was beginning to despair we’d ever find anywhere, but then a new friend she’s made at college told her she’d recommended her to the owners of the farm she’s doing her own 150 hours on. The outcome of this recommendation was that Miss F began yesterday at a farm about thirty minutes outside of town. She’ll be doing 9am to 2pm every Friday, so that means I spend two hours in the car ferrying her there and back, but hey ho, the things we do for our kids, right?

I’m beyond relieved she’s found something, and she seemed to really enjoy herself yesterday. Despite being full of cold, she was determined to go – not wanting to let them down on her first day – which I quite agreed with. Sometimes, a girl’s gotta do, what a girl’s gotta do. They are primarily a stable, so lots of equine experience, and they also breed border collie puppies, which is lovely, but at the same time a bit of a nuisance.

You see, Miss F loves dogs, so the chance to look after dozens of squirming adorable puppies is wonderful for her. But Miss F also badly wants a dog of her own, she has always wanted a dog, and every now and then carries out a renewed campaign of pressure to persuade me to let her have a dog. So being surrounded by squirming adorable puppies has reignited her desire to have one of her own.

Now, we live in a tiny house with a tiny courtyard garden in the middle of town. I’m quite poor (see above about selling all my goods and chattels) and I’m out at work a lot. None of these factors are conducive to having a dog. Also, there’s the fact I do not wish to pick up dog poo, ever, I just have no wish to do that. And I think that’s quite an important consideration, this burning desire not to have to scoop up dog poo and carry it in one of those disgusting squishy bags before depositing it in a stinking bin, in the decision whether to get a dog or not. Because, and let’s sensible about this, although the dog may technically belong to Miss F, it would be me who’d have to pay for its food, insurance and medication. It would be me cleaning up the house after it, and it would mostly be me having to take it for walks – and that brings us right back to my statement – I do not want to pick up dog poo.

Miss F knows this, and for the most part understands. There’s also now the fact that in less than two years-time she’ll be off to university and then onto her life, leaving me – and the dog – behind. So, I’d definitely have to pick up its poo then, and I don’t want to. Yet still, we occasionally have conversations that go something like this.

“Mum.”

“What?”

“Can I have a dog?”

“No.”

“Oh please, I really, really want a dog.”

“What sort of dog?”

“I want an Australian shepherd dog with beautiful blue eyes, and I’d call it Blue, or something like that, and I’d love it so much.”

“Blue is a stupid name for a dog, and Australian shepherd dogs are enormous and need an incredible amount of space and exercise. Be sensible, at least.”

“What would be sensible?”

“Well, if I was going to have a dog with the kind of lifestyle we live at the moment, I’d have a little chihuahua and I’d call it Betty.”

“Why Betty?”

“I like the name Betty. Betty is an awesome name for a dog.”

“So, if I said I wanted a little chihuahua and that I’d call it Betty, could I have a dog?”

“No.”

You get the drift? Driving her home after her first session there yesterday, the whole “Please may I have a dog” conversation restarted. To which the answer is still no, because, I really, really do not want to pick up dog poo.

And now it’s Saturday afternoon again, and I’ve just sneezed – twice – so it’s not looking good, but at least my blog is written and once again I’ve gone from not knowing what to say to actually talking quite a lot.

Hope you are all well, and that the coming week is a good one for you. As ever, I really do appreciate any comments you’d like to make either on here or on social media, and I look forward to our chat next week.

Best Regards

Julia Blake

Nice Work if You Can Get It

This week Miss F had her induction week at college, which I’m delighted to report she enjoyed enormously. Her course proper starts next week for her and I think she is going to have a simply marvellous two years. When I look at all the plans they have and all the amazing animals that will be available for her to care for and learn about, I must admit to being a little bit envious!

The only fly in the ointment is that we have to find her a one day a week unpaid work placement in the animal industry to run alongside her two-year course. You’d think it wouldn’t be a problem, after all, there are a few vets and pet shops around so surely someone must want a keen, bright, hardworking college student to do all the grunt work for free. Well, you’d think… but, looking into it, there aren’t actually that many places willing to take on under 18 years olds so spaces are rare, take into consideration there are another 120 students all looking for the same thing, and you begin to understand why it’s not that simple.

On Friday, I loaded her into the car clutching a folder containing copies of her very professional looking CV and references from her old Head of Year at her previous school, and the owner of the hedgehog hospital where Miss F has volunteered this past year. And before you ask, no, her work there doesn’t count, sadly it doesn’t meet the rather exacting criteria demanded by the college.

Gamely, we drove all over town visiting any animal-based workplace we could think of – which added up to four vets, one large pet store, one small pet shop, and one aquatic and reptile store. All were very kind to her, some took her details and promised to let her know, some gave her a name and email address to contact, which she did as soon as she got home. Now, we can only wait and hope, and try to think of other places further afield to try if these all come to nothing. A position within either walking distance, or close enough for me to drive her there before I have to be at work, is desirable. Any further afield and issues of transport and a practically non-existent bus service come into play.

It’s a really big deal. If she hasn’t managed to do at least 120 hours of voluntary work in an animal-based environment by next June, she’ll be kicked off the course. No ifs, buts or maybes, no consideration given as to how well she’s doing on the course, if she doesn’t have those hours under her belt, she’ll be given her marching orders. It seems really harsh, but we still have almost a year and I’m sure something will turn up somewhere, it always does.

As well trying to find a voluntary role in an animal workplace, she’s also trying to find a little part-time job to earn herself some spending money and take the pressure off me to always have to pay for everything she wants. The college course is only on three days of the week, her voluntary placement (should she get one) will only be for a few hours a week, so it leaves plenty of time for a Saturday job.

Unlike the voluntary placement, this job can be anything, so we had fun Friday afternoon going through all the “Help Wanted” adds and applying online (as it seems that’s how it’s done nowadays). Luckily, we live right in the middle of town and a minutes-walk away is a large shopping centre with lots of shops all looking for part-time assistants. She’s applied for about a dozen to start with in a wide range of retail establishments. We looked at waitressing work, but they all seemed to involve working until really late in the evening, which I wasn’t too keen on, and given Miss F’s ability to trip over thin air, we decided not to apply for any this go round.

Helping her apply, preparing her CV for her, and aiding in finding the right words to pad out her almost non-existent experience, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my first job, all those years ago. In 1981 I was 14 years old, and one Saturday my mother dragged me out of bed early, made me put on my smart skirt and jacket, drove us to town, then proceeded to march me all the way around it forcing me to go into every shop we passed enquiring if they had any need of a Saturday girl.

Scarlet with mortification, by the third or fourth shop I had gathered myself together enough to actually raise my voice above a mumble and look the shopkeeper in the eye when I enquired. Some said no, some took my details, some were dismissive, one or two were downright rude, but with my mother’s foot planted firmly on my backside, I persevered, until we’d enquired in some forty or so shops.

We drove home seemingly unsuccessful and I went to get changed, completely fed-up and convinced I was so useless that no one would ever employ me. However, later that afternoon the phone rang, and it was the manageress of a toyshop in town. Could I start next Saturday? I could and I did, and for the next three years until I left school, I worked at Dudley’s Toys at the corner of Hatter Street every Saturday and in the holidays.

I loved it. I can honestly say it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Marina and Cecily, the two delightful elderly ladies who worked there, were the sweetest and kindest women possible, and took me completely under their wing. I was the “young legs” in the shop, the one who climbed down the steep steps to the cellar to bring up stock, who braved ladders to reach the highest shelves, who ran to the bank and the post office, and unpacked and priced new stock that arrived twice a week off the back of a big lorry – oh that old-fashioned pricing gun, I loved using it. Trigger happy, I could price up a whole box of Sindy accessories in under twenty minutes, and I still remember the very satisfying thunk thunk noise it made as I lined up the packets and speed shot them with the little sticky price labels.

Working with toys and children, seeing the happy faces of the kids as they piled into the shop with their pocket money to either blow it all on something from the range of lower priced items, or maybe to spend birthday and Christmas money on something bigger, or maybe to show mum exactly what it was they were hoping Santa would bring that year. We also ran a savings club for children who were saving for something extra special, but maybe didn’t have the willpower to do it at home. A big red book was kept under the counter, satisfyingly large and important looking, it was solemnly brought out when a little saver came in clutching that week’s pocket money. Carefully, I’d write their name down in the first column, how much they were depositing in the next and how much further they still had to go, they would then sign it to agree. I remember the joy when they’d finally saved enough, and the toy was theirs

One adorable pair of twin sisters both desperately wanted the “real life” baby dolls we sold, complete with a bassinet, clothing, and feeding and changing accessories. They were expensive, and they wanted one each, so every week they would come in and hand me almost all their combined pocket money. Eventually, they’d saved enough for the first doll and had somehow worked out between them whose doll it would be – the other would be allowed to play with it but would always know they weren’t the real mummy. Eyes gleaming, they took the doll home, only to be back the following week to start saving for the other.

I was working in the shop when the Star Wars craze was at its height. I hadn’t seen the first two films, much to my disgust. My mother made it plain she had no interest in “stupid science fiction stuff” and I’d had no one else to take me. I think I was the only person in my school who hadn’t seen Star Wars and its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. However, the third film was out that summer and as I had a boyfriend by then and money of my own, nothing on earth was going to stop me seeing Return of the Jedi. Of course, the shop sold the figures and collectibles, as did the other two toyshops in town and quite a few places like Boots and WH Smiths as well. However, nowhere had anticipated quite how in demand these figures would be, and one week after the film opened in the tiny cinema in town – the queues stretched into infinity and as the cinema only seated about 150 a lot of people had to wait for the next showing – everywhere, including us, had run out. Not a single figurine was left, even the less popular ones had all been snapped up by kids desperate to buy anything related to the film.

It was the summer holiday, so I was working extra days and on the Friday afternoon, much to our surprise, three large boxes arrived that we hadn’t anticipated. Upon opening them, we discovered it was Star Wars figures, lots and lots of them, and not just the “third alien from the left” bog standard ones, but the main ones too. Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford, Princess Leia, Dath Vader – they were all there. Somehow, our order had got through and we got the last consignment in the warehouse. As far as we knew, we were now the only suppliers of these highly desirable collectables in town. Taking my trusty pricing gun in hand, I made short work of pricing them all up, and promised to get them all out on display as soon as I got to work in the morning,

Travelling into work on the bus the next day, it was packed with the usual hordes of children heading into town on a Saturday morning and looking forward to hanging around with their mates, going down the park to play on the swings or going to the cinema. Idly eavesdropping, my ears pricked up when I heard one young lad moaning to the others how he’d been saving all his pocket money to buy Star Wars figures but, of course, as they were currently rarer then hens teeth, he hadn’t been able to buy any.

“We’ve got some for sale,” I casually mentioned. There was an instant hush over the whole back seat as every boy stopped what they were doing and looked at me.

“What?”

“Yeah, I work at Dudley’s and we had three big boxfuls delivered yesterday. I’m going to put them on display as soon as I get to work today.”

“Really? You’ve got Star Wars figures?”

“Yep.”

“Ah, I bet you’ve only got the rubbish ones, that’s all anyone’s been able to get for weeks.”

“Nope, we have the good stuff, Luke, Leia, the droids, Yoda, ewoks, all of them.”

The bus then pulled into the station and I got off, dismissing the incident from my mind I hurried to work and proceeded to get all the figures up on the racks with a few minutes to spare before opening time. Letting up the door blind and turning the sign from “Closed” to “Open”, I heard Marina exclaim in surprise and hurried to see what was wrong.

There were hundreds of them!

Somehow, the jungle drums had been beating and it looked like every single kid in town was now in a queue outside our shop. Bearing in mind this is long before the advent of mobile phones, somehow the news had travelled that Dudley’s had Star Wars figures and here they all were, jingling their coins in their pockets, all patiently queuing and waiting for us to open.

By the time I went home that evening, every single figure – even the rubbish ones – had been sold. It was another two months before the supply problem was resolved and we all got Star Wars merchandise delivered again, but by then the impetus was over, the craze had abated and never again did we have such a morning as we did that Saturday – when we were the only shop in town with Star Wars figures.

I truly loved my first job, it set such a high standard that no job ever since has ever really reached it. But sadly, all good things must come to an end, I left school and had to find “proper” employment, which I did, but that was a whole different experience and one I’ll maybe save for another blog.

If anyone is wondering how launch day for book nine went, the answer is very well. Despite not having any money to spend on advertising and promoting, Chaining Daisy smashed into the top one hundred bestsellers in its category and reached number 51, which is an incredible achievement. It also ranked number six in the hot new releases chart.

After being published less than four days, Chaining Daisy has an impressive six 5-star reviews on Goodreads, and people seem to be really enjoying this gritty, heart-wrenching read.

But it’s getting late – both cat and child have appeared from nowhere plaintively demanding food which I must supply. Oh, and you’ll be pleased to hear Skittles seems to have recovered from her road trip hell as talked about in last week’s blog. Hopefully, she’s learnt her lesson.

Lovely chatting to you again, have a great week, and I’ll see you all next Sunday for another Little Bit of Blake.

Best wishes

Julia Blake