Decades ago, I drove airport shuttle buses and limousines, in various towns and cities. Depending on bookings and flights, I might wait hours at the airport. During one long wait, shortly before Christmas, I read the local paper someone had left in the bus, and saw 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 required a Christmas theme, and could be no more than 500 words. There were no other rules, but I made a few assumptions: For a small town paper, they don’t want anything unusual or experimental, and for a Christmas Eve printing they want something positive, with a touch of pathos. With those assumptions, and my job experiences, I dashed off a little story.
I didn’t win – The winning entry was about neighbours helping a family struggling through their first Christmas after the the mother had died – but writing it killed a little time at the airport. Every few years I come back to this story and make a few
changes improvements adjustments. Someday I’ll get it right. In hindsight, I’m amused that, like my fanfic, my genre choice was romance. Last updated December 2021.
“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, but I also answer to Driver.” I have one passenger in the van, in the seat beside me. I sold her a cash ticket ten minutes earlier. The booked passengers I had been expecting were on a delayed flight and would get a later van. I continue in a lower voice, this time speaking directly to her. “Company policy to make that announcement.”
“Thanks Andrew. I’m Janet.” Her age, roughly the same as mine, and her worn backpack, suggest a university student coming home for the holidays. Like most people passing through Toronto airport, she looks tired. She also looks familiar. Perhaps I have given her a ride before.
“Comfortable? Warm enough?”
We travel in silence through the airport access roads and onto the 401. It is a cold moonless night, with stars shining between thin clouds, and Christmas lights twinkling here and there on the sides of the road. My passenger is wide awake, watching the road, turning her head to look at the lights.
“It’s nice of them to decorate for people on the highway. Makes the ride more interesting at night than it is during the day.”
“Yes, it does. You should enjoy it while it lasts. Once we’re past Milton it’s mostly dark.”
“Do you mind working 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.” Maybe I should have said my wife. That would have sounded better. We pass the last Milton exit and start climbing the escarpment. For a while we both stare ahead at the road. It snowed this afternoon, delaying flights, but now the road is dry, and gray from the salt. The fresh coating of snow in fields beside the road sparkles like the foil wrapping paper I could never afford, not that I need to wrap gifts for anyone.
I did not notice her eyes at the airport, but I imagine they are blue, and I imagine the stars reflected in her eyes, looking brighter than they do in the sky. Concentrate, I remind myself. I check the dash gauges. The black box unit below the dash shows my speed more accurately than the speedometer, and I am keeping it between 95 and 100. Cruise control is disabled for the winter. The road is dry, but the company enforces the speed limit. I’ve seen deer jump out, I’ve see wrong-way drivers – I’m happy with the speed. The occasional car races past us.
I hope she wants to talk. It was a long wait at the airport, and while there’s a can of cola in the cup holder, talking makes the drive go faster. Some people sit up front thinking there is more leg room, but between the engine and the wheel-well it’s the worst spot in the van for that. Some like the view, or worry about motion sickness. Some want to talk.
She’s still awake, still watching the road. The tiredness she showed at the airport has vanished. That’s odd. People tend to be energetic when they get off the plane, then quickly fade once seated in the warm dark van, lulled by the rumble of the winter tires. “Did you have a good flight?” I ask.
“There was turbulence, from the storm. Then we were delayed, and had to circle a while before landing. I came from Calgary, to visit my family here. Couldn’t get any flights until today though.” She sounds nervous, as if my question has unleashed something she does not want to talk about, and can manage best by talking more. She carries on, explaining that she moved out west five years ago, to go to school and then work, 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. “Christmas is when it is all supposed to come together. As Dickens said, it is time of year when want is most keenly felt. And he wasn’t just talking about money. But we are so ashamed of want, we spend money we don’t have, post our decorations online, pretend our lives are going well…”
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, by corner donut shop standards. It is almost eleven, but I do not feel like going back to my apartment yet. I’m not tired enough to sleep.
I sign out, trading my van keys for my apartment key. We have to leave our own keys to pick up van keys, to prevent us taking van keys home. That has not stopped me from walking home with a set of van keys instead of my apartment keys. The dispatcher mumbles “Merry Christmas.” They took him off driving when passengers complained about his drinking.
As I leave, I see Janet sitting on a bench outside. “Someone coming to pick you up?” I ask. She nods, stands up, and swings her backpack over one shoulder. Then she pulls some of her long hair out from under the strap. “I’ll be fine.”
I realize why she looks familiar. I saw her earlier today, boarding the bus in front of mine while I was doing my circle check. I remember movement catching my eye, and seeing her pull her hair out from under the strap. In the daylight it was brown, but closer, and under the terminal lights, it’s auburn. I know how she spent Christmas Day. I walk over to her.
“They make a decent hot chocolate there.” I wave at the doughnut shop. “Can I buy you one?”
“What about your special dinner, and your girlfriend?”
Our frosty breaths mingle. “We could continue our conversation about Christmas pressure and pretense. Or play tic-tac-toe.”
“I’d like that.” Her eyes are blue, like the winter sky at dawn, and in them the reflected terminal lights are sparkling.
Copyright © by Tim Covell, 1998, All Rights Reserved.