Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Tales from the Finchbottom Vale – (36) The Insomniac Muse

(Part 01)

Alex Farrell first met Gloria Barber on a grey murky day in October when he had been into the village of Highfinch to buy some essential supplies, coffee, milk and bread amongst other things.
He was staying in the sleepy hamlet of Kingfisherbridge which sat quietly between Purplemere and Sharpington nettled comfortably on the edge of the Pepperstock Hills.
It had been sunny and bright when he had left Honeysuckle Cottage that morning so he decided to walk the two miles or so into the village and he took one of the many paths through the Hawks Wood, which separated Highfinch and Kingfisherbridge.
However by the time he was leaving the village store with his 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 heavy mist.
In fact due to its inherent ability to obscure landmarks it was to all intents and purposes a mist.

His name was Alex Farrell and he was a writer, although no one in the Finchbottom Vale would have heard of him, but under his nom de plume of Harold Kloser he would have been hard pressed to find anyone who hadn’t, because under that name he had written a series of very successful thrillers, six in all and a seventh was now well over due.
He was recently divorced, though not by his own choice however, but his darling wife had cheated on him, with his best friend to boot so divorce couldn’t be avoided.
But since the divorce he had struggled with the seventh book in the series, it didn’t even have a title at that point and he was fast approaching a crucial deadline.
So he decided that the best thing to do was to get away, right away where no one knew him and where there were no distractions such as the constant nagging from his publishers and his agent demanding another chapter, and another and another.
So he rented a house in the country, a holiday cottage in fact almost a mile from the nearest neighbour.
As it was out of season he managed to book it from October to March although he only planned to stay there until he completed the book, which he thought he would manage in a month, two at the most, away from all the everyday distractions of a town.
So that was why he found himself living in the sickly sweet 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.
It was absolutely perfect for his needs and should it turn out that he would have to stay there until the spring then that would be no hardship.
Alex thought he would be very happy there, providing of course he could find his way back to Honeysuckle Cottage through the mist and the murk of Hawks Wood which he was very eager to do.

(Part 02)

Alex had been walking back towards the cottage with his head down to protect his face from the slanting rain and was making slow progress on the woodland path in his totally unsuitable shoes.
When he eventually lifted his head up he didn’t recognise a single tree and he was completely disorientated and as he wasn’t that familiar with the woods in the first place he didn’t recognise anything.
So as the rain continued to fall and the mistiness showed no sign of clearing, he was starting to panic and thought he would wander the woods until exhaustion over took him and he died, such was a writers imagination.
Then he had a “Deliverance” moment and imagined he could hear banjo music and thought he would end up being brutalised by hillbillies.
His mind was about to go off on another scenario of doom when a voice behind him asked
“Are you alright?”
He turned around and saw a small figure of indeterminate age in a parka with a fur trimmed hood.
“I am embarrassed to say it but I appear to be lost” Alex 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” he said even more embarrassed when he saw his saviour
“Where were you going?” She asked
“Honeysuckle Cottage” he replied
“Oh you’re the writer” she said
“Yes that’s right” he said “Alex Farrell”
“I’m Gloria Barber, and we’re neighbours”
“Are we?” he asked
“Yes” She replied “I live in Cherry Tree House, just along the lane from you”
“Well I am very pleased to meet you Gloria” Alex said
“Come on I’m going your way” She said and she walked with him all the way to the cottage, she wasn’t the chattiest person he had ever met but he rather liked her.
“Here you are, safe home” she said smiling.
“Thank you for rescuing me and for walking me home” he said “come in for a coffee”
“I can’t I have to be somewhere” she replied
“Another time perhaps” he suggested
“Yes” she replied and hurried off.

A few days later after he had been rescued he had to drive into Purplemere to do a more substantial shop to stock the cupboards as he had exhausted the meagre supplies he brought with him when he moved in, plus he needed some more appropriate footwear for the country if he was going to walk into Highfinch again.
When he drove away from Honeysuckle Cottage, Instead of going in the direction of Highfinch he drove the opposite way down the lane which would eventually take him to Lily Green and as he did he drove past Cherry Tree House, where his nearest neighbour lived.
It was roughly two miles from his cottage and despite being called a house it was very much a cottage though it was much bigger than his, and as he drove slowly by it he found that he was surprised to find himself disappointed that there was no sign of life.
Beyond Cherry Tree House were another three houses before the lane reached the Hollows road, one of which was the home of his landlady, or at least the woman he was renting the Cottage from, Kate McEwan, who right on cue came out of her front door and waved.
He slowed down and waved back and Alex was about to drive on when she flagged him down.
“How are you settling in?” Kate asked
“Fine” he replied “I’m just going into Purplemere to stock up on groceries”
“I won’t keep you then, but Pop in for tea on the way back” she said

(Part 03)

With a boot full of Stephenson’s Supermarkets finest tinned and dried goods he returned to Kingfisherbridge and didn’t really feel like stopping for tea with Mrs McEwan but she had invited him and he thought it would have been rude not to, so he pulled up outside The Villa.
As they sat in her lounge drinking from her best China, Alex related the story of his getting lost in the woods and being rescued by a young woman called Gloria.
“Oh Gloria! She’s my niece” Kate said with a mixture of pride and a little sadness “I worry about her”
“She seemed very sound when I met her” he 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?” he asked
She was thoughtful for a moment and then she said
“More tea?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to pry” he said
“It’s ok Mr Farrell” she said “It just makes me sad”
“I understand but please call me Alex”
She nodded and went all thoughtful again before she said
“Gloria has always had a small problem with sleeping as a result of her grandmother dying in her sleep when she was 12, but she seemed to grow out of that in time” She said and then paused to take a sip of her tea.
“However when she was at University her best friend Gina suffered an embolism and died in her sleep one night.
Gloria was absolutely devastated but I think she would have come out the other side had it not been for what happened to the Newman’s”
“The Newman’s?” he asked
“Yes they were a family from Lily Green who died in a house fire”
Kate said
“It happened in the early hours as they slept, five of them, it was so tragic.
Gloria 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 Gloria has had a morbid fear of sleeping”
He had noticed her passing the Cottage a few times since he had been there, at different times of the day and night and hadn’t until that moment appreciated the reason for her wanderings.

When Alex arrived home, or at least his temporary home he reflected on how candid Kate had been about her niece, after all she could just have said she suffered from insomnia and left it at that.
But he supposed 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.
He could relate to that in some ways as he himself was prone to keeping irregular hours.
But he was pleased Kate had told him everything, as a writer he was naturally nosy but there was something about Gloria that struck a chord with him.

Alex continued to see Gloria walking the lane or one of the many woodland paths but she never stopped to talk although she did occasionally wave.
In one of his many blocked moments he wondered what on earth she did with herself.
To his mind there had to be more to her life than walking the woods.

(Part 04)

One day towards the end of October Alex was in Highfinch on another milk and bread run when he bumped into his landlady Kate once again.
“Alex” she said “how’s the book coming along?”
“Hello Kate, very 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” he 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” she said amiably

On the way back to the cottage he wasn’t sure if he might have given Kate the wrong impression and his invite might have been misconstrued.
She was an attractive woman some ten years his senior but nonetheless she was still 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 he opened the door he saw it was Kate in a grubby Berber jacket, dirty wellies and mud spattered jeans which instantly put his 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” he said
“Are you sure?” she asked “there is nothing worse than the smell of wet dog”
“Nonsense bring him in” Alex insisted
“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 and made himself comfortable.

Alex made the tea and took it into the sitting room where Kate had made herself comfortable in an armchair.
“No china cups I’m afraid” he said
“That’s good I prefer a mug” she responded and Alex gave her a look because she had served tea to him on her best china.
“I know” she replied to his unasked question “I blame my mother”
“My mother was like that as well” he confided and they both laughed.
As they drank their tea he found himself quizzing her about her niece Gloria again, doubtless the nosy writer in him coming to the fore again.
“I see her in the woods or on the Lane a lot” he said
“Yes she has a lot of time on her hands” Kate replied
“She can’t hold down a job because she doesn’t sleep regularly and she is prone to nodding off from time to time”
Kate went on to say 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, and she led a very modest existence.
“So what does she do to fill her days?” he asked
“She’s an avid reader” she replied “She’s reading all of yours at the moment”
“Really?” he said
“Yes, and Gloria is also a bit of a movie buff especially classics” Kate said “and of course she likes to walk”
“Yes indeed” he agreed
“It’s silly isn’t it that she feels safer walking the woods in the middle of the night that she does in her own bed”
“It is” he said
“She doesn’t eat properly either” she added with a lump in her throat and he thought how wonderful it was to have someone care about you that much.

(Part 05)

It was Halloween and that time of the day when in his home town there would be a constant stream of expectant children knocking on the door.
But due to the remoteness of the cottage and the foulest weather he had seen for many a day, he wasn’t expecting even one.
So imagine his surprise when there was indeed a knock at his front door.
He opened the door not knowing what to expect on the other side of it and the sight that greeted him 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 Gloria” he said “what on earth are you doing out in this?”
“It wasn’t this bad when I left home” she replied
She looked like she had been on manoeuvres with the SAS in the wilds of Herefordshire.
“Come in, come in” he said “what on earth happened?”
“Don’t laugh” she said “but I fell in a ditch”
“My God you are actually squelching” he said “get your coat and boots off”
And while she followed his instructions he left her and went to get a towel and when he came back she was walking towards the warmth of the fire and she was still audibly squelching.
She stood in front of the fire in her squelchy socks and shivered which was Alex’s signal to go upstairs and start the bath running, then he put fresh towels on the rail and went downstairs again.
“Right you need to get out of those wet things” he 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” he said “so do as you’re told, the bath is running”
Gloria tried to protest but he wouldn’t let her and then followed the squelching girl up the stairs.
“Throw your wet things on to the landing and I’ll put a change of clothes in the spare room for you”
“Ok Mr Farrell” she said like she was addressing a teacher.
He went downstairs again and turned his attention back to his dinner.
Alex tended to only cook from scratch once a week but he always made more than he needed and the extra would be frozen and ready to use whenever.
On that particular day he was cooking lamb stew, he gave it a stir and went to the airing cupboard in the spare room and looked for something that would be suitable for Gloria to wear.
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 he could find was a rugby shirt that was a bit long even on him so it would be like a dress on her and a pair of football sock that would reach her thighs.
He lay them on the bed and picked up the pile of wet clothes and carried them down stairs with him.
Once downstairs he 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.

(Part 06)

About half an hour later Gloria appeared in her oversized Purplemere Diamonds Rugby shirt and black football socks fiddling with her tousled damp hair.
“Do you feel better now?” he asked
“Much better thank you” she replied
“I’m sorry about the wardrobe” he added “it was the best I could do I’m afraid”
“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 and he gave her a look
“Ok I’ll have a little bit” she said
“A wise decision” he said and went out to the kitchen.
He returned a few minutes later with a steaming bowl on a tray.
“Lamb stew” he said

He thought back to the conversation he had with Kate about Gloria not eating properly and Gloria’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 they ate they 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”
Said Gloria
He got up and went to the front door and when he opened it the rain was still coming down like stair rods.
“Just put your coat and boots on and I’ll run you home” he said
“No you’ve been too kind already” she replied
“I’m not having you getting soaked to the skin again” he insisted
“You’re very bossy” she said with a smile
“I know” I said “That’s probably why I’m divorced”

She put her coat and boots on while Alex put her clothes in a carrier bag and then he drove her the two miles up the lane to her cottage and she thanked him 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 Gloria “popped in” to Honeysuckle Cottage for the first time and which was to be the first of many times over the following weeks when they 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 he was a writer and kept irregular hours himself, and if she saw a light on she would knock.
Sometimes when the muse was with him he would just carry on writing until he couldn’t see straight, so he had no set time to go to bed or to get up in the morning.
According to his ex-wife it was one of the things that contributed to the breakup of their marriage, the other thing being her infidelity.

As they moved slowly through November the “pop ins” increased exponentially and as they raced headlong towards December he was disappointed on the days that he didn’t see her.

(Part 07)

Once they got into December he was no longer disappointed as he saw her every single day.
It began on the 1st of the month when she helped him to put up the Christmas decorations and as they were hanging the last of the garlands she said
“I love Christmas decorations”
“Me too” he said “I’ll help you put yours up when we’re done here”
“No thanks” Gloria replied
“Why not?” he asked
“I never put decorations up at home” she said
“Why ever not?”
“I don’t know really” she mused “it makes me feel sad I suppose, it reminds me of a happier time and I suppose it’s that which makes me sad”
“But you love decorations?” Alex said
“Oh yes, very much”
“And you love these decorations?” he asked
“Absolutely, Yes”
“Do they make you feel sad?” he asked her
“No not at all”
“Why not?”
“Because I wasn’t a child in this cottage I suppose” she replied
“That’s nuts” he said
“I know” Gloria said “what can I say I’m nuts”

Gloria visited him at the cottage every day after that to enjoy the decorations, watch classic Christmas movies and eat his stew, bolognaise, Chilli, shepherd pie or hot pot whatever was on the menu.
But she had made most of her visits during normal hours until Christmas Eve.
He was burning the midnight oil because he was stuck on a tricky chapter the first of three chapters which needed to be submitted to his publishers by New Year’s Day.
It was partly Gloria’s fault he had gotten behind but she was such a pleasant distraction he didn’t want to deter her from visiting.
But if he was 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 he was rewriting the same troublesome section for the umpteenth time when Gloria knocked on the door.
He could tell it was her even before he opened the door by her unique knock.
“Hey” he said
“Hi, 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” he replied
“What is it, writers block?” Gloria asked
“No I’m not blocked, I’m writing ok, it’s just not very good” he said and laughed
“I could really use a break” he lied

They sat on the sofa watching an old movie that they found on cable, they chose it because it was a James Stewart classic, “The Philadelphia Story”.
About half an hour into it she yawned and rested her head on his shoulder and Alex assumed it must be one of her infamous cat naps but half an hour later she was still sleeping and he could tell by her breathing, even though he couldn’t see her, that she was properly asleep.
So he placed a cushion on his 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 only girls can achieve.
Alex then dragged the edge of the throw from the back of the sofa and draped it over her slender body.

(Part 08)

He watched the end of the movie and then switched off the TV.
Gloria was still sleeping so he reached for the A4 note pad he kept on the end table and resting it on the arm of the sofa he began writing and the words flowed from his pen like an inexhaustible stream and after three hours of furious writing he had put the troublesome chapter to bed.
He looked firstly at the sleeping girl with her head on his lap and saw she was still sleeping soundly and then up at the clock which told him it was 6.45am,
Not that the time was particularly relevant but he desperately needed to pee.
So he slowly extricated himself, being careful not to wake Gloria and settled her onto the sofa and then tucked the throw around her then he kissed her forehead and said
“Happy Christmas”
As soon as he was up he realised the temperature had dropped considerably so before he went to the loo he revived the fire in the grate and put some more wood on.
He then partly closed the door, he didn’t want her to wake up in a strange place and panic, but he didn’t want to disturb her either.
After having a much needed pee he went into the kitchen to make a drink which was when there was a knock at the door.

He couldn’t imagine who would possibly be knocking on his front door at 7 am on Christmas morning, apart from Gloria of course but she was already there.
So he opened the door and was surprised to find Gloria’s aunt, Kate standing there instead.
“Happy Christmas Kate” he said
“Happy Christmas Alex” Kate said but without any real conviction.
“Have you seen Gloria?” she asked with real concern “I saw her coming this way last night when I was out walking the dog”
“But 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” he said putting a finger to his lips and she looked confused
“Come here Kate” he said and led her to the lounge door
“She’s asleep on the sofa”
So she crept to the door and had a glance through gap into the sitting room.
“She’s asleep” she said in amazement “Properly asleep”
“Yes she is” he said proudly
“How long?” she asked
“Over six hours” he replied
“Six hours? That’s amazing” Kate said “She obviously feels safe with you”
“Do you think so?” he asked
“Definitely” Kate replied
“I won’t wake her” he said and pulled the door to
“I’m sorry you have been disturbed like this” Kate added
“Nonsense, I’ve enjoyed having a beautiful girl for company at Christmas”
“You think she’s beautiful?” she asked
“Of course, doesn’t everybody?” he asked
Kate smiled at him and kissed his cheek
“Happy Christmas Alex” she said
“Christmas Dinner is at 3 o’clock”

(Part 09)

After Kate had left he finished his drink and the lack of sleep suddenly caught up with him and he knew he had to sleep.
But he didn’t want to leave Gloria to wake up on her own, but he was too tired to sleep in an armchair.
So he thought for a moment and then went into the bedroom and got out the spare duvet before returning to the lounge.
Alex then carefully drew back the throw from around her small frail frame and then picked her up.
“Hmmm” she murmured as he held her, then he carefully carried the beautiful featherweight young woman into the bedroom where he laid her on top of the duvet and covered her with the spare one.
He 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 Gloria.
“Hmmm” she murmured as she snuggled in against him, so he put his arm around her and drifted off into a contented sleep.

It was remarkable how life can surprise you, when he rented Honeysuckle Cottage it was only ever intended as a short term let.
But he knew when he woke up in bed next to a smiling Gloria on Christmas morning that he would never leave the village.
The book was well under way and he could easily have moved back to civilization to complete it but while he had struggled with a particularly troublesome chapter she had become his muse and his love.
And for Gloria, 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 they woke up they just lay beneath the cosy comforting warmth of the duvet and talked for an hour, all the unsaid things they had wanted to say in the weeks preceding Christmas when they knew they had lost their hearts.
Before they reluctantly agreed that they needed to move as they couldn’t disappoint her Aunt Kate.
Alex got up first and showered, shaved and dressed then Gloria showered while he warmed up the car.
When she had redressed he drove her to her house where she finished getting ready and he waited in the house.
It was the first time he had been in there and it had an almost museum feel to it, no wonder she was always wandering.

When she was ready they left the car outside Gloria’s house and prepared to walk the hundred yards or so to Aunt Kate’s when it began to snow.
“Wow this is the best Christmas ever” she said and took hold of his hand
“It’s a perfect Christmas” he concurred and kissed her

The moment they walked in through the front door of the Villa Alex realised the wisdom of leaving the car at Gloria’s because he knew he would not be using it anymore that day as Uncle Henry thrust a cocktail of gargantuan proportions and indeterminate strength into his hand and he had no reason to suppose it wasn’t to be the first of many.

It was a wonderful Christmas, the best one either of them had ever known and the one that set the benchmark for every subsequent Christmas that they were to share.
The following December his 7th Novel was published under the title “The Insomniac Muse”

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