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  • Writer's pictureJuliette Wills

'It's Been A Long Time...

I shouldn't have left you without a strong rhyme to step to'

In the words of Erik B & Rakim (look it up on YouTube, kids) it's true, I should have written loads more posts than I have but the truth is, I just didn't feel like it. When lockdown kicked off I was full of beans for this blog, had loads of nice little sitcom-style stories and intended to update on a weekly basis, a bit like an extension of my Facebook posts which, if not about how much I love various footballers and F1 drivers, are about what goes on in my magic street. Then the reality of being two hours away from my family in Kent during lockdown, three hours away from my friends in Brighton, and Gautier unable to get back to France, things just got, well, pretty unbearable. Work dropped off the radar as businesses tightened their belts (try being a freelance journalist for a national newspaper when half the staff have just been made redundant) and all I did was write occasional pieces about the monotony and politics of being a vulnerable, shielding person during a pandemic.

I've had to get used to not seeing my friends. More than two years in the middle of France and four years in Peterborough mean trips to Brighton are few and far between, and even more so (ie. never) since that Chinese bat bit Patient Zero back in 2019 and f*cked everything up. Thank god, then, for my neighbours. I've already explained that there's a close-knit bunch of us who are in and out of each other's houses (or rather gardens, since March 2020) as though we had already been friends for years, and had bought a share in a street so we could all live together. It's mad. I've got Jola, Chris, Carol, Jayne and Sandy in the girls' night group. Gautier (my French other half) went for drinks with the men - Neil, Geoff, Robin, Stephen and Gary - when they were doing garden drinks, but now they're back at the pub he doesn't go as he really doesn't want to bring COVID back with him. Usually, the men get plastered and wander back to whomever is hosting girls' night, and go on to ruin it. This evening I'm hosting the girls ('girls' - ha!) and the men are banned. I've got my snacks ready, the house is sort of clean and I'll change into my new pink flared jeans (really) before they arrive. Look at my freakin' JEANS, aren't they the bomb? Shortly after this photo was taken I had a massive accident, more on that another time, it was a weird one.

We've discovered we have an abundance of Aperol in the cupboard so it's spritz's all round and we just have to pray that the wind dies down because our garden is more exposed to the elements than Mount Everest. Sadly one got pinged by Track and Trace and can't come and the other was too hungover from our lunch the day before (lightweight) but we'll manage (more crisps for the rest of us).

On my birthday in July I went to a restaurant for the first time since February 2020 (The Slanted Door) and although the food was truly wonderful (see below) and the company off the charts fabulous, I was mega anxious throughout because there were actual people reasonably near us (not really near at all, to be honest) and in a bid to curb my anxiety, Jayne suggested a pre-lunch cocktail. That, on top of the glass of Champagne we'd had at this stunning place The George Hotel before we arrived (drinking at 11.30am no less!), meant I soon relaxed a bit. Still, I'm not going inside a restaurant again until 2056 unless Tottenham's Ben Davies asks me on a date, in which case I'd risk spending all night in a service station McDonald's just to meet him (to be fair, I think on his wages he'd probably take me somewhere nice).

Here's me (left) looking like an apparition with my lovely pal Jayne who is so glamorous and I always feel like a bedraggled child next to her (mainly because I am)

Then there's Neil, he's brilliant. He helps me with my gardening:

Neil's answer to everything: 'Cut it back and it'll grow again' (I follow the same advice with my hair, too) He's so nice that while Gautier was in France for the month in July - yes, he finally got to see his friends and family after 18 months of shielding with me) he came round with his lawnmower and cut the grass. Not once, but three times. What a gent! He's now landscaping the garden right opposite ours so we can wave to each other every time I go out to feed the ducks, crows, magpies and pigeons (and as of today, a newly-discovered hedgehog!) which on average is around 78 times a day. During lockdown this bunch has been the best bunch of friends you could wish for. We've baked for each other (Chris is the no.1 baker, I am not very good at it at all), we've swapped plants (I had 12 courgette plants on the go last year and everyone got one), we look after each other's gardens (and any animals) when we're not around and I'm in charge of feeding the fish and wildlife at Carol's when they go away. I also do stuff like turn off the dishwasher, put their post in a nice pile, put the bins out and in and chuck out all their junk mail. It means I get to sit in their garden and watch the little birds eating their peanuts, the moorhens making nests and the flowers being flowers. It's my proper happy place; if I got run over tomorrow I'd suggest (via being a ghost) that my ashes go in a plant pot and a pink rose bush (I love pink) be planted in my memory. Knowing my luck I'd get consumed by slugs and aphids within my first summer.

We borrow so many things from each other it's a wonder we remember to give things back. Onions, milk, tins of coconut milk, red Thai curry paste, carrots, waders (we live on the river, sometimes Gautier needs waders), Wellington boots (he has a pair of Robin's which he wears to do the power-washing), ropes for boats, tyre pumps and even bikes. I've got Carol's bike (she's never used it) and it saw me right through lockdown since I couldn't do anything but go out on my bike in the middle of nowhere or go out on my feet in the middle of nowhere.

I've felt VERY down, though, through all this. I know most of us have struggled but I was about to launch a business and couldn't, since companies weren't spending any money. I have only seen my best friend once since November 2019. I don't want to get on a train now that people aren't wearing masks, and I have to be so careful as I pretty much don't have an immune system thanks to a) all my shitty illnesses and b) the biological treatment I take for them. Even with two vaccines, I don't feel safe - nobody is safe. The stress has exacerbated my conditions so that hasn't helped, and I just miss my friends and family. I've seen my niece a handful of times; she's two so I'm missing a lot right now, mainly gently pinching her chubby cheeks and exclaiming too loudly how beautiful she is. Those 'rule of six' gatherings didn't apply to me and my friends since 170 miles separates us. Being ill means missing out on so much even in 'normal' times; stick a pandemic in the mix and I'm well and truly screwed (as was poor Gautier who of course had to shield with me, and couldn't get back to France to see his very poorly dad and everyone else he's fond of). I've got quite good at photographing and taming swans, though. They eat out of my hand and let their babies do the same, best feeling in the WORLD. Sometimes they eat my hair, I don't mind but my hairdresser suggests it's not the best way to get a trim (pffft, what does she know?)

Wait, I forgot, we did go out last summer. We stayed with my parents in Kent and went to Hastings one day, Folkestone another and Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Margate and Sandwich (only because it's funny) another day. That's Gautier in Broadstairs (super lovely) and me in Folkestone below (loved some of it, didn't like other bits of it). Check out the floating pink house art installation thing in my pic, flipping LOVED that, I want to live in it.

We didn't go inside restaurants at all, but managed lunch on a terrace in Margate (the only nice thing about Margate, it was an absolute armpit of a place and we couldn't get out of their more quickly if we'd been under threat of an incoming RPG). I took this classic photo of the Lido; what you don't see is the decaying crap that it sits upon.

I fell in love with Hastings and both of us cried with joy when faced with the most incredible fresh fish taco and fries from Goat Ledge on the seafront, because if Peterborough is famous for anything other than its cathedral, it's its inability to provide us with decent food. Here's the best thing about St Leonard's, it's a SHARK bin, I love him SO much Gautier had to drag me away because I was talking to him and hugging him and playing with his teeth for ages and people were trying to throw their empty cans in him.

This summer we had a day out at Heyes Farm near Stilton (ha ha, always gets me) where I convinced Gautier to join me on an alpaca walk. This is me with Inca. He and I chatted all the way through the meadows, me saying stuff like, 'Does it do your head in, having idiots like me talking to you?' and he'd go: 'Nnngh' in response. I loved him so much that the nice lady who owns them invited me back a few weeks later to take part in the annual shearing session. I actually HELPED WITH SHEARING! Honestly, it was one of the best days of my life. I'm obviously an expert now, so if you have an animal that needs shearing, give me a shout. I know what bits of wool go in which bags and can leap back and forth over fences like Spiderman, too.



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