One afternoon about a week before Christmas I was waiting for a late flight at the airport. This was my job–I was an airport shuttle van driver. I found a local paper, read it thoroughly, and noticed an ad for the paper’s Christmas short story contest. The winning entries would be published Christmas eve, and the deadline was the next day.
The story had to have a Christmas theme, and be no more than 500 words. There were no other rules, but I made a few assumptions: For a small town paper, they probably don’t want anything too unusual or experimental, and for a Christmas eve printing they probably want something positive, but maybe with a touch of sentimental sadness. Given those assumptions, and my job experience, the story wrote itself quite easily. I didn’t win–the winning entry had a family focus and a dead mother–but I writing it killed a little time at the airport.
“Welcome aboard Wilson’s Airbus Service to London. The drive is about two hours. If you have any questions along the way, let me know. My name is Andrew.” I only have one passenger on the van, in the seat beside me. Her age and backpack suggest a university student heading home for the holidays. Like most people passing through Toronto airport, she looks tired.
“Thanks Andrew. I’m Janet.”
We travel in silence through the airport access roads, and onto the 401. It is a cold, clear, moonless night, with stars overhead and Christmas lights here and there in the distance. My passenger is wide awake, watching the road.
“Do you mind working today, on Christmas Day?” she asks.
“Well, I get paid overtime. Traffic is light.” She does not reply, and I feel I should say more. “My girlfriend complains about it, but she’s preparing a special late supper for us.” We pass the Milton exits and start climbing the escarpment. For a while we both stare ahead at the road, a silver ribbon on a white present, decorated with trees. I did not notice her eyes at the airport, but I imagine they are blue, and imagine the stars reflected in her eyes, looking brighter than they do in the sky. Concentrate, I remind myself. Dash gauges — all okay. Dry road ahead. I hope she wants to talk.
“I just came from Calgary, to visit my family. Couldn’t get any flights until today though.” She explains that she moved out west five years ago, but always comes back for Christmas. She talks about her parents, her brother, his annoying wife, their new baby, and all the family traditions. We agree that presents should be opened Christmas Day and not Christmas Eve, and that the stores decorate too early.
“Too much phoniness, ” she declares. I glance at her, meet her eyes. Blue? The van is too dark to tell. “It’s like we are forced to be happy, no matter what is happening in our lives or with our families–if we have one.” I agree.
The stars fade into the streetlights of London. Minutes later I turn into the terminal, drop off Janet, park, and wonder where to go next. The corner donut shop is always open and the sandwiches are good. It is almost eleven, but I do not feel like going back to my empty apartment yet. No one is here to meet Janet, and I offer to call her a cab, but she declines. “My apartment is near here.”
“Oh, ” I say, suddenly realizing what she did for Christmas Day. Our frosty breaths mingle. “Want a hot chocolate? My treat?”
“What about your girlfriend?”
She knows I know there is no family, and I know she knows there is no girlfriend. “I’ll explain. Let’s go somewhere warmer.”
“Good idea.” Her eyes are blue, like the winter sky at dawn, and the reflected store lights are stars in that sky full of promise.
Copyright © by Tim Covell, 1998, All Rights Reserved.