The Girl Who Never Slept
First published in Material magazine, and again in Icasm.
(This is quite an old story, slightly edited, of which I am still very fond so please be kind.)
Up in some corner of Northumberland, one of those villages where everyone is everyone’s cousin, there lived a farmer’s daughter who never slept.
Though she cost her dad a great deal in lightbulbs and heating, she paid her way through the work she did in lonely hours while her family rested. The girl never wanted for things to do with her abundant time, others were always happy to pass some task or other, that otherwise would have fallen to them.
When her mam got up, before first light, the breakfast would be done, the kitchen clean, and the dogs fed. When her brother appeared, at first light, the troughs were full, the milking machine was ready, and the animals were out. When her dad arose, after first light, the tractor was ready, the lad’s rotas were done, and his bacon was waiting.
Nor was that it. She washed, scrubbed and cleaned; she mended clothes and farm equipment with equal skill; she single-handedly saw to the birth or deaths of any animal at an inconvenient hour; she fetched the wood and fiddled the books ... all night, every night, aside from the short stretch of the evening she allowed herself to read.
She had been doing this since she was four when - increasingly mystified by the idea of sleep, and deciding not to go in for such nonsense - she first picked up one of the old books in the attic.
But these had proved to be few and simplistic, always feature some smug and gung-ho boy who did such unlikely things as fly planes, drink whisky, or journey to distant and magical lands to free its grateful populace with the help of a crotchety goat, a compliant female, and a magical slipper.
Soon outgrowing this, the girl began to visit the library. In secret of course, her one private hour, the rest of her unsleeping time belonging to family and farm.
Word got out, and some local boys took note. The girl was known to be quiet, and a little shy, was decently pretty, was the daughter of a well-off farmer, and allegedly never stopped working.
Quite the prize.
And so they tried to woo her.
First came William ‘Wills’ Avers, whose family were from up past Hexham. The lads who worked for his dad reckoned she would like ‘a real man’. So, terrified, he gave it a go when he found her stitching a shirt round the back.
-Morning pet! Been seeing you about, like. I reckon you could handle a neet oot, and there’s not many birds I’d say that tee.
He’d never tried the accent before, but he thought he’d done a good job of it, though maybe ‘neet oot’ was a bit much. He was sure he’d heard one the lads say it before.
The girl smiled, and said she would indeed handle him, if he could only guess her favourite book.
-Book? he sneered. -Haddaway and shite man, we’re not deed yet!
As the girl lost her temper - strangling the uncouth youth, and heaving his body to the pig trough - Wills reflected he should probably have mentioned that his Big Nanna once boasted she had outdrank five of the Mitford sisters.
Next to approach was Abdul ‘Abz’ de Smet, whose family were considered ‘not from these parts’. His dad, who was quite old and from Ghent, advised that to woo an English girl he should act like the gentleman in the Jane Austen programmes, and charm his way into her affections with a friendly smile and some choice words.
-Good morning Miss Handler, Abz was wearing his best jacket and his shiniest trainers when he approached her outside the Post Office. -What a fine day this is. Would you care to take a turn about the graveyard? Tis uncommonly pretty since the litter-pick.
The girl smiled, and said she would indeed take a turn with him in the graveyard, if he could only guess her favourite book.
-Why, he said after some thought, -for a genteel lady such as yourself, I would assume the fine romances of Mrs Stephanie Meyers.
As the girl was caving in the back of his head - using the hardback of ‘The Tales of the Late Ivor Peterovich Belkin’ which she kept in her handbag for emergencies, before depositing his twitching body in the freshly dug flower-bed of the vicarage - Abz reflected that he probably should have listened to his mother, who had grown up in Bradford and had a better idea what white girls liked.
The third boy to try his luck was little James ‘Jammy D’ Atkinson, whose family were local, and had been local as long as anybody cared to be reminded, as they often were. He decided that honesty was the best policy, and felt that if he told her exactly why he would like them to plan a life together, then she would be his.
-Hi, he said, watching her untangle the remains of a sheep from the wire fence that bordered the gorge that separated their farms. -So, me dad thinks I should get married, and I reckon your dad would want you to marry me. Bring the two farms together, sort of thing... How’s that sound?
The girl smiled, and said she would marry him for his massive endowment, if he could only guess her favourite book.
-Ahhh... the Bible? he managed, after considerable thought had failed to provide the name of anything he had ever read, back when he was required to do such things.
As the girl whipped the boy who didn’t even pretend to like reading to death - with a length of barbed wire, before allowing his mutilated body to sink into the bogs on the far side of the gorge - little Jammy wondered if he should have just lied.
For a time, the girl who never slept was left alone. The village was too interested in the myriad disappearances to care, so the girl continued as she always had. Deep at night, making a tentative foray into the unexplored terrain of the Russian pre-Petrine classics, and otherwise just generally working.
But, eventually, there came attention from another boy. The slightly drippy boy, the boy who was on a caravan holiday with his parents despite being a little too old to be doing so.
Rumour had it the three of them shared a bed.
She caught him staring intensely at her, one afternoon in the library. His HP Lovecroft anthology was bedecked in counterfeit black leather, and embossed with a silver skull. Her collection of Alan Bennett’s diaries was coloured in shades of green and brown, and published by Faber & Faber.
She felt his gaze on her neck, such attention was not unwelcome, but she did not want to risk word reaching her family that she wasted time in the library. They became uneasy when she idled, in case disease became terminal.
He was determined, for the first time in his life, to ask a girl out. The way she fondled her folios, he may have been able to resist. Though her handling of her hardbacks left him wide-eyed and panting, he still may not have dared. But to see her paw her paperbacks, well, that was just that bit too much.
The girl smiled, and told him she would indeed go round the back and fuck like bunnies, if only he could tell her what her favourite book was.
He wrinkled his brow, confused -You mean you have a favourite? That’s weird.
And that was it, she was in love.
She was not a girl to wait, and he was not a boy to blow such a chance. Seventeen minutes later they were engaged, and slightly out of breath, though neither family was made happy by the news.
His mother wailed and screamed and mourned the passing of her baby who was not dead to her because death would have been the preferable option. Her dad shouted and raged and asked who would strangle the unwanted kittens now.
Their dilemma was brought to an unaccountably fast end by the execution of Operation Straw Dogs, and the storming of the farm by armed police.
The bodies had been located, they had heard the missing boys all planned to court the peculiar girl with the bags under her eyes. Her dad was not known to be a gun-shy man, nor the kind of man who would allow a daughter do something as selfish as choose her own husband.
Also, he did kill those cyclists that one time.
So the police came with what numbers they could, and they came loudly.
Their cars had flashing lights and rattling engines. Her father was raised on a diet of Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now. He was also sure the government were planning to stop Brexit and come for its voters.
The bang of a faulty exhaust completed the relapse and out came the shotgun, with which he retreated to a barricade consisting of the fridge, the dresser, two sofas and the kitchen table. From that spot he peppered the invading filth with antique lead, accompanied only by a succession of equally matured terms of abuse.
In the ensuing gun battle the girl’s mam and brother were killed, and her dad subdued and arrested, after a good seeing-too in the police van. The two lovers escaped, and soon reached his caravan.
Having planned this for years, the boy placed a sheep’s head in the vehicle’s small fridge, causing his mother to panic and smother her quiet husband in her comically large bosoms. She then killed herself, thoughtfully saving her son the effort, though the effort of weighting their corpses for disposal in a nearby reservoir still remained.
The young and literate lovers then departed in the blissful passion of first romance, and planned their life together. They found themselves opposite enough to be interesting, and similar enough to be compatible. He did sleep, but mostly through the day, which was ideal for her because she was never lonely when it was light. More importantly he did not call her pet, he had never seen the appeal in shiny trainers, and had no intention of ever owning a farm.
Instead he had a caravan all of his own, and with it the open road.
The marriage could not last, he was a genre boy and she was a lit-fic girl, to their deaths, but it was certainly fun while it lasted.
Copyright John Conway - January 2021