I first met Olwen Carmichael on a grey murky day in October when I had been into the village of Upper Oakham to buy some essentials, milk and bread etc.
It had been sunny and bright when I left Honeysuckle Cottage that morning so I decided to walk the two miles into the village and took one of the many paths through the woods.
However by the time I was leaving the village store with my essential purchases it was raining, and it was that fine drizzly rain that soaked you in an instant and from a distance it gave the illusion of being a mist.
In fact due to its inherent ability to obscure landmarks it was to all intents and purposes a mist.
My name is John Gallen and I’m a writer although no one in the Oakham’s would have heard of me, but under my nom de plume of Neil K Fitzgerald you would be hard pressed to find anyone who hadn’t.
For under that name I had written a series of successful thrillers, six in all and a seventh was now well over due.
I was recently divorced, though not my choice but my darling wife had cheated on me, with my best friend to boot so it couldn’t be avoided.
But since the divorce I had struggled with the latest book in the series, it didn’t even have a title yet and I was fast approaching a crucial deadline.
I decided the best thing to do was to get away, right away where no one knew me and where there were no distractions.
So I rented a house in the country, a holiday cottage in fact almost two miles from the nearest neighbour.
As it was out of season I managed to book it from October to March though I only planned to stay until I completed the book which I thought I would manage in a month, away from all the everyday distractions of a town.
So that was why I found myself living in the nauseatingly named Honeysuckle Cottage.
Which was as the name might suggest a pretty little cottage.
It would have originally have been a two up two down but it now had a single story extension which housed the kitchen
Upstairs was a small bedroom and the bathroom which was equipped with a good old fashioned man sized bath. While downstairs in addition to the kitchen there was a sitting room and another bedroom.
Well I had been walking back towards the cottage with my head down to protect my face from the slanting rain and making slow progress on the woodland path in my unsuitable shoes.
When I eventually lifted my head up I didn’t recognise a single tree and was completely disorientated and as I wasn’t that familiar with the woods I didn’t recognise anything.
As the rain continued to fall I was starting to panic when a voice behind me said
“Are you alright?”
I turned around and saw a little creature of indeterminate age in a parka with a fur trimmed hood.
“I am embarrassed to say it but I appear to be lost” I said
The figure stepped forward and pushed the hood back from her face to reveal a young woman in her mid-twenties no more than five foot tall.
“You’re lost?” she asked in disbelief and smiled broadly
“Yes” I said even more embarrassed
“Where were you going?” She asked
“Honeysuckle Cottage” I replied
“Oh you’re the writer” she said
“Yes” I said “John Gallen”
“I’m Olwen Carmichael, and we’re neighbours”
“Are we?” I asked
“Yes” She replied “I live in Cherry Tree House, just along the lane from you”
“Well I am pleased to meet you Olwen” I said
“Come on I’m going your way” She said and she walked with me all the way to the cottage, she wasn’t the chattiest person I had ever met but I rather liked her.
“Here you are, safe home” she said smiling.
“Thank you for rescuing me and for walking me home” I said “come in for a coffee”
“I can’t I have to be somewhere” she replied
“Another time perhaps” I suggested
“Yes” she replied and hurried off.
A few days later I had to drive into Northchapel to do a more substantial shop to stock the cupboards.
I had exhausted the meagre supplies I brought with me when I moved in plus I need some more appropriate footwear for the country.
Instead of going in the direction of Upper Oakham I drove the opposite way down the lane which would take me to Lower Oakham and I drove past Cherry Tree House where my nearest neighbour lived.
It was roughly two miles from my cottage and despite being called a house it was also a cottage though it was much bigger than mine.
I drove slowly as I passed it and I was surprised to find myself disappointed that there was no sign of life.
Beyond that were another three houses before the lane reached the Northchapel road, one of which was the home of my landlady, or at least the woman I was renting the Cottage from, Sandra Brown, who right on cue came out of her front door and waved.
I slowed down and waved back and I was about to drive on when she flagged me down.
“How are you settling in?” Sandra said
“Fine” I replied “I’m just going into Northchapel to stock up on groceries”
“I won’t keep you then, but Pop in for tea on the way back” she said
With a boot full of Tesco’s finest tinned and dried goods I returned to Upper Oakham and didn’t really feel like stopping for tea with Mrs Brown but she had invited me and I thought it would have been rude not to, so I pulled up outside The Villa.
As we sat in her lounge drinking from her best China I related the story of my getting lost in the woods and being rescued by a young woman called Olwen.
“Oh she’s my niece” Sandra said with a mixture of pride and a little sadness “I worry about her”
“She seemed very sound when I met her” I said
“Oh she is but the poor girl is an insomniac, she hasn’t slept properly for four years or so” she said “She only ever cat naps”
“Why is that?” I asked
She was thoughtful for a moment and then she said
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to pry” I said
“It’s ok Mr Gallen” she said “It just makes me sad”
“I understand but please call me John”
She nodded and went all thoughtful again before she said
“Olwen always had a small problem with sleeping after her grandmother died in her sleep when she was 12, but she seemed to grow out of that in time” She paused to take a sip of her tea.
“Then when she was at university her best friend Gina suffered an embolism and died one night.
Olwen was absolutely devastated but I think she would have come out the other side had it not been for the Kirby’s”
“The Kirby’s?” I asked
“Yes they were a family from the village who died in a house fire.
It happened in the early hours as they slept, five of them, it was so tragic.
Olwen knew the family very well and she had even baby sat the children.
It was the final straw for her and ever since that night Olwen has had a morbid fear of sleeping”
As I arrived home, or at least my temporary home I reflected on how candid Sandra had been, after all she could just have said she suffered from insomnia and left it at that.
I suppose not being honest might have failed to explain her irregular hours and her habit of walking the woods at all hours of the day and night.
I could relate to that in some ways as I was prone to keeping irregular hours myself.
But I was pleased Sandra had told me everything as a writer I was naturally nosy but there was something about Olwen that struck a chord with me.
I continued to see Olwen walking the lane or one of the many woodland paths though she never stopped to talk but she did occasionally wave.
I did wonder what on earth she did with herself.
There must be more to her life than walking the woods.
One day towards the end of October I was in the Upper village on a milk and bread run when I bumped into Sandra again.
“John” she said “how’s the book?”
“Hello Sandra, slowly I’m afraid”
“Well I won’t keep you from it then” she said and laughed
“Don’t worry I need to rest my brain for a bit” I replied “in fact why don’t you pop in later and I will return your hospitality, I have cake”
“Well in that case I would love to”
On the way back to the cottage I wasn’t sure if I had given Sandra the wrong impression and my invite might have been misconstrued.
She was an attractive woman some ten years my senior but nonetheless attractive. And a ten year age gap wasn’t unheard of after all.
There was a knock at the door about 3 o’clock that afternoon and when I opened the door I saw it was Sandra in a grubby Berber jacket, dirty wellies and mud spattered jeans which put my mind at rest.
She was hardly in the mode of dress for a woman who thought she had been invited for a tryst.
“Is it alright if I leave the dog in the porch?” she asked as she slipped off her wellies.
“Bring him in” I said
“Are you sure?” she asked “there is nothing worse than the smell of wet dog”
“Nonsense bring him in” I said
“Come on Skipper” she called
Skipper was an American Cocker Spaniel, very wet, very muddy and very friendly.
He paused briefly for a stroke and then went straight to the hearth.
I made the tea and took it into the sitting room.
“No china cups I’m afraid” I said
“That’s good I prefer a mug” she responded
I gave her a look because she had served tea to me on her best china.
“I know” she replied to my unasked question “I blame my mother”
We both laughed, my mother was like that as well.
As we drank our tea I found myself quizzing her about Olwen again.
The nosy writer again I supposed,
“I see her in the woods or on the Lane a lot” I said
“Yes she has a lot of time on her hands” Sandra replied
“She can’t hold down a job because she doesn’t sleep regularly but she is prone to nodding off from time to time”
It seemed that financially she was set, her house was hers out right and she had an annuity from her parent’s estate which was enough for her to live on,
She led a very modest existence.
“So what does she do to fill her days?” I asked
“She’s an avid reader” she replied “She’s reading all of yours at the moment”
“Really?” I said
“Olwen is also a bit of a movie buff especially classics” Sandra said “and of course she likes to walk”
“It’s silly isn’t it that she feels safer walking the woods in the middle of the night that she does in her bed”
“It is” I agreed
“She doesn’t eat properly either” she added with a lump in her throat and I thought how wonderful it was to have someone care about you that much.
It was Halloween and that time of the day when in my home town there would be a constant stream of expectant children knocking on the door.
Due to the remoteness of the cottage and the foulest weather I had seen for many a day, so I wasn’t expecting even one.
So imagine my surprise when there was indeed a knock at my door.
I opened the door and the sight that greeted me was as fearful a sight as you could imagine on any Halloween night.
It was a drowned rat, caked in mud, and looking very sorry for itself.
“Hello Olwen” I said “what on earth are you doing out in this?”
“It wasn’t this bad when I started” she replied
She looked like she had been on manoeuvres with the SAS.
“Come in, come in” I said “what happened?”
“Don’t laugh” she said “but I fell in a ditch”
“My God you are actually squelching” I said “get your coat and boots off”
I left her and went to get a towel when I came back she was walking towards the warmth of the fire and she was still squelching.
She stood in front of the fire in her squelchy socks and shivered.
I went upstairs and started the bath running and put fresh towels on the rail and went downstairs again.
“Right you need to get out of those wet things” I said in a fatherly tone
“I’ll be fine I just need to warm up a bit” she said
“Well you won’t warm up if you’re wearing wet clothes” I said “so do as you’re told, the bath is running”
Olwen tried to protest but I wouldn’t let her
“Throw your wet things on to the landing and I’ll put a change of clothes in the spare room for you”
“Ok Mr Gallen” she said like she was addressing a teacher.
I went downstairs again and turned my attention to my dinner.
I tended to only cook from scratch once a week but I always made more than I needed and the extra would be frozen and ready to use whenever.
On that particular day I was cooking lamb stew.
I gave it a stir and went to the airing cupboard in the spare room and looked for something that would be suitable for Olwen.
It wasn’t easy choosing from a selection of clothes made for a six foot tall fifteen stone man and find something that would do for a tiny girl barely 5 foot tall and less than seven stone soaking wet.
The only thing I could find was a rugby shirt that was a bit long even on me so it would be like a dress on her and a pair of football sock that would reach her thighs.
I lay them on the bed and picked up the pile of wet clothes and carried them down stairs with me.
Once downstairs I set up the clothes drier in front of the fire and draped her things over it and almost immediately steam started to emanate from her socks.
Her boots were already on the hearth and her coat was draped over the back of a chair.
About half an hour later Olwen appeared in her oversized Harlequins Rugby shirt and black football socks fiddling with her tousled damp hair.
“Do you feel better now?” I asked
“Much better thank you” she replied
“I’m sorry about the wardrobe” I added “it was the best I could do”
“Its fine at least I won’t get cold” she said and laughed
“Well sit yourself down and I’ll get you some food”
“No don’t worry I’m really not hungry” she said
I gave her a look
“Ok I’ll have a little bit” she said
“A wise decision” I said and went out to the kitchen.
I returned a few minutes later with a steaming bowl on a tray.
“Lamb stew” I said
I thought back to the conversation I had with Sandra about Olwen not eating properly and Olwen’s own statement not half an hour previously when she said
“I’m really not hungry”
Well for someone who wasn’t really hungry she did extremely well to polish off three bowls of Lamb stew.
While we ate we watched an old Cary Grant movie called “Holiday” and when it was finished she said
“Well thank you for looking after me and entertaining me but I’d better Change my clothes and get home”
I got up and went to the front door and when I opened it the rain was still coming down like stair rods.
“Just put your coat and boots on and I’ll run you home” I said
“No you’ve been too kind already” she replied
“I’m not having you getting soaked to the skin again” I insisted
“You’re very bossy” she said with a smile
“I know” I said “That’s probably why I’m divorced”
I drove her the two miles up the lane to her cottage and she thanked me again and got out but before she closed the door she said
“Don’t get lost on your way home”
Then she laughed like it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard in her life.
It was a day later when Olwen “popped in” for the first time and for the first of many times over the coming weeks we shared a conversation and a drink of coffee across the kitchen table.
The “pop ins” happened at any time of the day or night partly because of her insomnia and in part because I was a writer and kept irregular hours myself.
Sometimes when the muse was with me I would just carry on writing until I couldn’t see straight, so I had no set time to go to bed or to get up in the morning.
According to my ex-wife it was one of the things that contributed to the breakup of our marriage.
As we moved slowly through November the “pop ins” increased exponentially as we raced headlong towards December and I was disappointed on the days when I didn’t see her.
Once we got into December I was no longer disappointed as I saw her every day.
It began on the 1st of the month when she helped me to put up the Christmas decorations and as we were hanging the last of the garlands she said
“I love Christmas decorations”
“Me too” I said “I’ll help you put yours up when we’re done here”
“No thanks” Olwen replied
“Why not?” I asked
“I never put decorations up at home” she said
“I don’t know really” she mused “it makes me sad I suppose, it reminds me of a happier time and I suppose that makes me sad”
“But you love decorations?” I said
“You love these decorations?” I asked
“Do they make you sad? I asked
“Because I wasn’t a child in this cottage” she replied
“That’s nuts” I said
“I know” Olwen said “what can I say”
Anyway Olwen came to the cottage every day to enjoy the decorations, watch classic Christmas movies and eat my stew.
But we had kept most of her visits during normal hours until Christmas Eve.
I was burning the midnight oil because I was stuck on a tricky chapter the first of three chapters which needed to be submitted to my publishers by New Year’s Day.
It was partly Olwen’s fault I had gotten behind but she was such a pleasant distraction.
But to be perfectly honest she had become more of a distraction when she wasn’t there.
So it was just after eleven o’clock on Christmas Eve and rewriting the same section for the umpteenth time when Olwen knocked on the door.
I could tell it was her before I opened the door by her unique knock.
“Hey” I said
“Do you mind me popping in on Christmas Eve, I don’t want to upset your artistic flow” she said
“No flow to interrupt at the moment I’m afraid, this chapter is giving me a lot of trouble” I replied
“What is it, writers block?” Olwen asked
“No I’m not blocked, I’m writing ok, it’s just not very good” I said and laughed
“I could use a break” I lied
We sat on the sofa watching an old movie on cable, we chose it because of the title, “the Dream of Olwen”.
About half an hour into it she yawned and rested her head on my shoulder
I assumed it must me one of her infamous cat naps.
Half an hour later she was still sleeping.
I could tell by her breathing, even though I couldn’t see her, that she was properly asleep.
So I placed a cushion on my lap and gently lowered her head onto it.
Her legs were already on the sofa as she had been sitting in that side saddle fashion that girls have.
So I dragged the edge of the throw from the back of the sofa and draped it over her slender body.
I watched the end of the movie and then switched off the TV.
Olwen was still sleeping so I reached for the A4 note pad I kept on the end table and resting it on the arm of the sofa I began writing and the words flowed from my pen like an inexhaustible stream and after three hours of furious writing I had put the troublesome chapter to bed.
I looked firstly at the sleeping girl with her head on my lap and saw she was still sleeping soundly and then up at the clock which told me it was 6.45am,
Not that the time was relevant but I desperately needed to pee.
I slowly extricated myself, being careful not to wake Olwen and settle her onto the sofa and then tucked the throw around her.
As soon as I was up I realised the temperature had dropped so before I went to the loo I revived the fire in the grate and put some more wood on.
I then partly closed the door, I didn’t want her to wake up in a strange place and panic.
After having a much needed pee I went into the kitchen to make a drink
Which was when there was a knock at the door
I couldn’t imagine who would be knocking on the door at 7 am on Christmas morning.
I opened the door to find Olwen’s aunt, Sandra standing there.
“Happy Christmas Sandra” I said
“Happy Christmas John” Sandra said but without any real conviction.
“Have you seen Olwen?” she asked “I saw her coming this way last night when I was walking the dog”
“I went to the cottage to wish her happy Christmas and there’s no sign of her and her bed hasn’t been disturbed” she continued pacing the small hall way.
“All the lights are still on but there’s no sign of her and I’m really worried”
“Shhh” I said putting a finger to my lips “Come here Sandra, she’s asleep in the lounge”
She crept to the door and had a glance through gap into the sitting room.
“How long?” she asked
“Over six hours” I replied
“She obviously feels safe with you” Sandra said
“I won’t wake her” I said
“I’m sorry you have been disturbed like this” she added
“Nonsense, I enjoy having a beautiful girl for company at Christmas”
“You think she’s beautiful?” she asked
“Of course, doesn’t everybody?” I asked
Sandra smiled at me and kissed my cheek “happy Christmas John” she said
“Christmas Dinner is at 3 o’clock”
After Sandra had left I finished my drink and the lack of sleep suddenly caught up with me and I knew I had to sleep.
I didn’t want to leave Olwen to wake up on her own but I was too tired to sleep in an armchair.
I thought for a moment and then went into the bedroom and got out the spare duvet before returning to the lounge.
I carefully drew back the throw from around her small frail frame and then picked her up.
“Hmmm” she murmured as I held her, then I carefully carried the beautiful featherweight little creature into the bedroom.
I laid her on top of the duvet and covered her with the spare.
I then went out and turned off the lights and locked the front door before returning to the bedroom and gently slipping between the duvets to lay down beside Olwen.
“Hmmm” she murmured as she snuggled in against me, so I put my arm around her and drifted off into a contented sleep.
It was remarkable how life can surprise you, when I rented Honeysuckle Cottage it was only ever intended as a short let.
But I knew when I woke up in bed next to a smiling Olwen on Christmas morning I knew I would never leave the village.
The book was well under way now and I could easily have moved back to civilization.
But while I had struggled with a particularly troublesome chapter she had become my muse and my love.
And for Olwen who had for so long held the world at arm’s length and avoided forming emotional attachments of any kind for fear they might lead to her heart being broken again.
Never imagined the course events would take after she rescued the panicky man lost in the woods.
She certainly never imagined she would wake up in his bed three months later or that she would have fallen in love with him.
When we woke up we just lay beneath the cosy comforting warmth of the duvet and talked for an hour, all the unsaid things we had wanted to say in the weeks preceding Christmas when we had lost our hearts.
Before we reluctantly agreed that we needed to move as we couldn’t disappoint Aunt Sandra.
I got up first and showered shaved and dressed then Olwen showered while I warmed up the car.
When she had redressed I drove her to her house where she finished getting ready and I waited in the house.
It was the first time I had been in there and it had an almost museum feel to it, no wonder she was always wandering.
Then we left the car outside Olwen’s house and prepared to walk the hundred yards or so to Aunt Sandra’s when it began to snow.
“This is the best Christmas ever” she said and took hold of my hand
“It’s a perfect Christmas” I concurred and kissed her
The moment we walked in through the front door of the Villa I realised the wisdom of leaving the car at Olwen’s because I would not be using it anymore that day as Uncle Norman thrust a cocktail of gargantuan proportions and indeterminate strength into my hand and I had no reason to suppose it wasn’t to be the first of many.
Oh I almost forgot I finally decided on the title for the latest book.
“The Girl Who Never Slept”