I stuffed the keys of the Fiat 500 hire car into my pocket, picked up my holdall and exited the SpeedyCar rental cabin in search of parking lot 105. A single snowflake fell from the sky and dissolved on my cheek as I gazed into the darkness of the Christmas morning sky, searching for signs of the impending blizzard that had been forecast. Condensation from my breath obscured the panoramic view before me as though peering through frosted glass. Everything seemed grey and silent and mildly depressing. I sighed when I reached parking lot 105. A lime green 500; really?
Less than seventy-two hours earlier, I’d finished work in Toulouse three days before Christmas, and planned to settle down with my French girl-friend of two years in our cosy apartment for the duration of the festivities. Ok, so her rather eccentric parents were to descend upon us on Christmas Day, but for once I was looking forward to the seasonal merriment with relish; work had been very trying of late and I needed the break. However, a bizarre sequence of events led to a sudden change of plans. I’d had one drink too many with the lads after work, and arrived home later than anticipated, more than a little worse for wear. My indifferent attitude towards Christmas shopping the following morning, while nursing a hangover from hell, caused my girl-friend to storm out of the apartment to shop on her own. Her short fuse, no doubt attributed to her hot-blooded Latin heritage, played a decisive role upon her return. As a peace offering, I’d prepared her favourite meal, but she was having none of it. She threw my Christmas present across the room at me, packed a suitcase and announced she was spending Christmas at her parents. She’d pulled a similar stunt once before, so I watched on bemused as she paced the room, ranting and gesticulating while I tucked into her spinach and ricotta tortellini. The less concerned I appeared, the more aggressive she became, until at last she stormed out. Whether this was to be the end of our relationship, wasn’t clear to me at the time. However, part of me was thinking that maybe it was time to move on.
My own parents had long since decided to spend Christmas in Lanzarote, and my sister was otherwise engaged, hosting her in-laws for the first time. As much as I hinted at dropping by for a few days, she didn’t bite, insisting her stress levels were at breaking point. Knowing my sister, she had Christmas planned right down to the last Brussels sprout. Following a chance conversation with an old college friend called Peter, who took pity on my plight, I was duly invited to spend Christmas in the Yorkshire Dales, together with his wife Claire and their two daughters, Abigail and Polly, aged five and seven respectively.
And so Plan B was set in motion. A last minute flight was sourced to Stansted, landing in the early hours of Christmas Day, and a hire car arranged. I threw sufficient clothing into a holdall for a few days, and bought gift-wrapped Christmas presents for my hosts at Toulouse airport. I warned Peter I’d be arriving around seven in the morning, and was reassured that the girls would’ve already seen to it that they were up by then, eager to see what Santa had bestowed upon them.
Strolling through the arrivals lounge at Stansted, I’d been greeted by a skeleton staff of airport personnel and customs officials. Despite all attempts at festive décor, there was a sombre mood in the air. Maybe the sudden change of plans and the “misunderstanding” with my girl-friend had finally sunk in, now I had time to reflect.
Dumping my holdall into the tiny boot of the Fiat, I dusted the smattering of snowflakes from my shoulders and jumped into the car. Snow began falling quite heavily as I departed the airport and commenced my 250 mile journey north, aided by my portable sat nav. A light dusting was already settling on the roads, and with the wipers on full speed and the fan blaring away on maximum, I sensed I was in for one hell of an adventure.
The roads were unsurprisingly empty at this time of the morning, which was a mixed blessing. My journey was largely uninterrupted at junctions and roundabouts, but the lack of traffic meant that the falling snow had seized the chance to settle, which in turn restricted my speed. 150 miles into my journey and I was still wide awake, the sounds on my iPhone helping me keep my wits about me in the treacherous driving conditions. I’d realised soon into my journey that the Fiat’s fuel tank had been less than half full. This would’ve been noted on my hire documents and I would be expected to return the car with the same level of fuel. The low level warning light had been glowing for the last twenty miles, but all service stations I’d passed since had been closed. It wasn’t until the light began flashing that I began to panic; the thought of grinding to a halt in a snow storm, unable to keep warm did not appeal. Rather dramatically, I sensed a kindred spirit with Scot of the Antarctic.
Crawling to the top of a brow in the road, I was relieved to spy the glow of petrol station lights through the blizzard. Triumphantly, I pulled up on the forecourt, next to one of the pumps. Reluctantly, I stepped out of the car and proceeded to fill up. My hands became red raw with cold within seconds as the sound of the pump churned in the frosty air. I glanced over to the station kiosk and shop, and discerned a solitary figure sitting at the cash desk. The kiosk was dimly lit and the shape of the silhouette suggested that the occupant was female, judging by the long wavy hair. The figure was also jostling from side to side; possibly she was listening to music, I thought.
Having filled the belly of the small Fiat, I crossed the forecourt under heavy snow fall, coating my head and shoulders. The door to the shop was locked, which initially surprised me, until I realised it was four o’clock in the morning and the sole occupant was a young woman. I therefore strolled over to the night window and smiled.
The face behind the grill smiled back. “It looks cold out there,” she said.
“It certainly is,” I replied. “If it keeps snowing like this, I’ll be spending Christmas in some layby!”
She laughed. “That’s £30 please.”
Handing over my credit card, I spied a coffee machine on the far wall of the shop. “I don’t suppose I could grab a cup of coffee?” I asked, nodding at the machine.
“Ah, sorry, no. I’m not allowed to let anyone in at night time.” She sighed. “Besides, it’s not even switched on.”
“That’s a shame. Never mind.” I caught the faint sound of music emanating from inside the kiosk, which made me smile; not the usual Christmas tune that filled the air as is so often the case at this time of year. “Great choice in music,” I mused.
“I love ‘em,” she affirmed. “Morrissey is my God.”
I beamed back at her. “Mine too!”
“Really?” She seemed genuinely intrigued.
“Well, listen,” I started. “You have a good Christmas. A shame you’ve got to work on Christmas Day, but if you weren’t I’d never have met a fellow Smiths’ fan!”
I turned to head back to my car when she called out. “Hey, listen…”
I spun round and gazed at her sweet smiling face through the falling snow. “Yes?”
She hesitated, as if pondering. “There’s a small kitchen out the back and I’ve just boiled the kettle. I was just about to make a coffee as you arrived. Umm…” She laughed. “Why am I telling you this?”
“Because you’re the ghost of Christmas Past, and you want to leave me with the thought of you sipping on your hot beverage while I continue on my weary way.”
“I’m not that heartless,” she pleaded. “I was wondering if you’d like to join me.”
“But I thought you were under strict instructions not to unlock the shop?”
“I am. But you don’t look like an axe murderer!”
“Hmmm, but how can I be sure you’re not? You might have a collection of festive bodies back there.” I stole a glance around the forecourt. “I wonder where you’re hiding all the cars?”
“She laughed. “There’s a small lake behind those trees. I’ve driven them all in there. She nodded towards my Fiat. “Plenty of room for a little one!”
I laughed, hesitantly; this girl certainly gives as good as she gets, I thought.
“Still want that coffee then?” she asked.
“Of course, I’m bloody freezing!”
She disappeared from the kiosk and re-appeared in the shop area and unlocked the door.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m Alex.”
“Becky,” she replied. “Hurry up! It’s bloody freezing out there.”
I studied the vision before me as I stepped over the threshold and stamped my feet on the vast expanse of matting to remove as much snow from my shoes as possible. She was five foot five, maybe six, with shoulder length auburn hair, green eyes and pale freckled skin. I gauged her as being in her early twenties, possibly five to six years younger than myself. She wore an open faded paisley shirt over what appeared to be a white sting T-shirt, torn faded denim jeans and red Converse baseball boots.
“Pleased to meet you, Becky,” I said, extending a hand.
She laughed at my attempt at formalities and turned. “Come through to the back office. There’s a heater on if you want to get warmed up.”
I followed Becky into her sanctuary, gazing at her pert backside as we passed through the shop area, its aisles adorned with tinsel, a forlorn attempt to create a festive atmosphere. An artificial Christmas tree stood to the right of the coffee machine and microwave oven, laden with yet more tinsel, lights and baubles. It was the first tree I’d seen up close this Christmas and I suddenly felt my spirits rise. Fair play to the tinsel after all, I thought.
“It’s very kind of you to take pity on a weary traveller,” I mocked.
“Truth be told, I was lonely. It’s usually a lot busier, but I guess it’s because it’s Christmas.”
“It probably has something to do with it,” I laughed.
Ignoring my flippancy, Becky set about preparing two mugs of coffee. “Milk and sugar?”
“Just milk, please.”
“Would you like some of this in it?” she asked, producing a small bottle of cinnamon syrup. “Only mildly alcoholic but it packs a punch and livens up this shit!” She pointed to a large catering tin of instant coffee.
“Why not?” I replied. “Live life on the edge, I say!”
The sound of The Smiths continue to fill the room as we awkwardly sipped our coffees.
“It’s delicious,” I said, trying to force a conversation.
“OK, I admit it’s no Starbucks or Costa, but it’s the best you’re going to get around here at this time of the morning!”
“No, seriously, it’s delicious,” I reaffirmed.
I glanced around at the dingy back office, the messy kitchenette area, the pile of crap on a tatty table with a couple of equally tatty chairs.
“I can think of better places to spend Christmas Day,” I said, without thinking. I shot Becky an apologetic look. “Sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“I’m not working Christmas Day,” she explained. “I finish at nine, heading straight over to my parents for scrambled eggs and salmon, and as many glasses of Bucks Fizz as I can!”
I smiled at her. “Well that sounds just fabulous.”
“Anyway, this is just a temporary job. I’m saving to travel round Europe with my boyfriend.”
“Oh,” I replied, trying to hide a hint of disappointment. “When are you off then?”
She sighed. “I dunno. When we’ve saved enough I suppose.” She paused a while, as if reflecting the situation; she seemed a little sad.
“I live in Europe,” I beamed.
“Really?” she shrieked, seeming to perk up immediately. “Where?”
“France. Toulouse. I work in computers.”
“Really?” she repeated, excitedly.
“Yeah, really,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “I know, boring as shit.”
“No, not at all. I’ve always wanted to travel.”
We spent the next twenty minutes discussing all the places we’d visited between us and destinations that intrigued us. Becky seemed impressed with the various cities throughout Europe I’d plied my IT trade, claiming I put to shame her summer holiday trips to Spain and Portugal with her family, and a school trip to Belgium when she was thirteen. I finally explained my reason for being back in England and my trip to stay with friends for Christmas.
“It’s a shame you can’t be with your family on Christmas Day though,” She said.
“I know, my fault. I was late making plans,” I half explained. But there’s always next year.” I stared out of the window at the continuing blizzard. “If I don’t make a move soon, I’m going to get snowed in and you’ll never get rid of me.”
“She laughed. “I can think of worse situations.”
“I bet your boyfriend can’t!” There was a sudden silence as my words seemed to cut the air like a knife. “Can I just use the loo before I go?” I asked, quickly changing the subject.
“Sure,” she said. “It’s back out into the shop, on the right.”
I was gone no more than a couple of minutes, but when I returned, Becky was standing by the tree, the glow from the flashing lights illuminating her pretty face seductively. Her hands were behind her back and she was smiling, mischievously.
I found myself drawn towards her as if she were mine. As I drew close, she stepped back, causing my heart to sink. However, she extended one hand towards me and presented a Christmas cracker she’d apparently taken from the tree.
“Happy Christmas,” she said.
“Aw, you shouldn’t have,” I mocked. I took the cracker and smiled. “My first present!”
I looked up at her and she raised her other hand high above her head, in which she clasped a small bunch of mistletoe. Slowly, she stepped towards me.
“Happy Christmas,” she repeated, planting a gentle kiss on my cheek.
I was completely blown away by her action, but I wasn’t complaining. Turning towards her, I kissed her tenderly on the lips. I watched as she closed her eyes and released a gentle sigh. With reluctance, we broke our embrace, as if both woken from a winter wonderland trance.
“I hope you make it to your friend’s place and have a really lovely time,” she said, rather sheepishly.
“Thanks, Becky… And thanks for letting me in… And thanks for the coffee.”
“And thanks for not butchering you with my axe, eh?”
I laughed. “Yes, special thanks for sparing me that. And thanks for my cracker… You cracker!”
Becky laughed. “My pleasure, sir!”
We kissed once more, less intimately than before, more a gesture of farewell. Becky unlocked the door, and reluctantly I returned to my car, now cocooned in a thick layer of snow. I turned on the wipers and slowly drove out of the service station, waving to the silhouette in the kiosk on my way out.
The remainder of my journey was slow in arctic conditions, but I made good progress and arrived at my friend’s house around 7:30 in the morning. I was exhausted from the drive through the night, but the warm greeting from the household of two adults and two very excitable children lifted my weary spirits. Throughout the journey, thoughts of Becky filled my head. Many a what-if situation piqued my imagination, but as the saying goes, we were merely ships in the night. Although there had been an immediate attraction, I knew nothing about her, save for the fact that she had a boyfriend. I laughed; that really bothered me, didn’t it?
Peter and his family made me very welcome and once I’d settled myself into the spare room and taken a shower, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast before exchanging presents. The Christmas drinks flowed early on, and as we were about to sit down to the traditional serving of roast turkey with all the trimmings, I was more than merry. The table was adorned with the most amazing spread, and each place setting had its own decorative Christmas cracker. It was only then that I remembered Becky’s present.
“What is it, Uncle Alex?” screamed Abigail as I returned from my room, Becky’s cracker in hand.
“It’s my special Christmas cracker,” I said. “Will you help me pull it?”
“Yes please!” she squealed as Polly came rushing to help.
Offering one end of the cracker out to the girls, they each took a firm hold between them and pulled. The cracker exploded with a loud bang and the contents poured onto the floor. The girls dived to the ground in search of the spoils.
“Look, Uncle Alex,” exclaimed Polly. “You’ve won a Ferrari!” She handed me a red miniature sports car. “And don’t forget to wear your hat,” screamed Abigail. I sank to my knees and allowed the small child to ram the paper tissue hat onto my head.
“Read the joke, Uncle Alex… Read the joke!” they both screamed.
“OK, where is it then?” I laughed. The girls rummaged amongst the debris of the cracker and handed me the traditional poor taste in humour. I read the joke to myself and inwardly groaned. “Right,” I started. “How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizzas?”
“Who?” asked Abigail with a blank expression on her face.
“Wenceslas was a king… In Bible times,” I endeavoured to explain. “And he was good… Apparently.”
“Why was he good?” asked Polly.
I hesitated, looking around for either Peter or Claire to come to my rescue. “Because he made the most amazing pizzas.”
“In Bethlehem?” quizzed Abigail.
“Yes!” I cried, trying to contain a smile. “He ran the world famous Bethlehem Pizzeria.”
“So how did he like his pizzas then, Uncle Alex?”
“Wait for it,” I teased, but any sense of anticipation was lost on the girls. “Deep pan, crisp and even!”
Totally unimpressed, Abigail and Polly ran off screaming into the kitchen, both hungry and wanting to know when lunch would be served. I shook my head at the poor quality of the joke, imaging that Becky herself may well have written it. Turning the small slip of paper over in my hand, my heart skipped a beat. Hand written was a note:
“I’m working New Year’s Eve if you’re around and fancy some more cinnamon treats… Becky x”
I beamed. What a wonderful Christmas this was turning out to be after all.
A S Wilkins