To call this a blizzard was to do it a disservice. The volume and speed of snowflakes had turned the air into the visual equivalent of a milkshake and although Eira’s was the only car on the road she had still slowed to a walking pace, in an attempt not to slide into a hedgerow or – judging from the weather – a passing polar bear.
Each corner in the road was a sharp lesson in the physics of momentum and traction, and the last T-junction had almost resulted in the unfortunate loss of a startled weasel. Country roads were probably not the best place to be on a night like this but Eira’s family had always lived in the back of beyond and as her Dad always said, “it’s good practice for when the zombie apocalypse comes!” So, as ever, she was making her annual festive visit back to the place where she had grown up, before becoming a car mechanic and moving somewhere that didn’t think staring at trees was an enjoyable way to spend your Friday nights.
Her parent’s house was in the middle of nowhere and took up enough space for three normal houses, which meant that it was the terminus for the entire clan to meet up on special occasions. She knew without doubt that there would be several uncles and aunts who had imbibed a little too much sherry, a number of nieces and nephews who would be either shouting, laughing at inappropriate volumes or crying, and numerous multi-generational, cross-family arguments which had started in the mists of time and lost any and all meaning – without losing any of their original vim and vigour.
She estimated that it would take another fifteen minutes to reach ground zero and was just about to turn onto the small lane which led into the big forest where the house was when she noticed a vehicle at the side of the road. There was a figure standing next to it scratching their head. Being skilled in the arts of car repairs, and with Dad’s jokes looming in the immediate future, she decided it would be churlish to leave someone stranded in the snow on Christmas Eve. She gently pressed the brake pedal and her car snaked across the road and slid to an eventual stop five metres past where she had wanted to end up and facing in the wrong direction.
She put on the hazard warning lights then, having come prepared, she reached into the back and grabbed several layers of clothing, pulling them on one at a time until she looked like a furry sumo wrestler, finally a pair of gloves finished the wintery protection and she pushed the door open and shuffled out of the car.
Having been too busy attempting to keep the car under control, Eira hadn’t really noticed what the vehicle was as she glided serenely past, but now, through the haze of snowflakes, she realised that it wasn’t a truck and trailer as she had first suspected. She called out through the snow induced silence, ‘Are you okay? Can I help you at all?’
There was a bump as of someone hitting their head on the underside of their vehicle, followed by some muted but noisy exclamations of discomfort. Eira was about to apologise for surprising the poor person when several things happened at once.
The first thing that happened was that the snow stopped or, to be more precise, it was stopped. She stepped across some kind of threshold between a place where it was snowing and a place where the snow was not there, although she could still see it blasting against the edges of some kind of invisible barrier.
The second thing that happened was she saw the “vehicle” which actually turned out to be some sort of sledge, painted red and with a massive runner under each side that rested softly on the snow as if the whole contrivance was as light as a feather.
The third thing that happened was a noise like eight heavily built mammals with ostentatious antlers snorting and turning to look directly at her, which turned out to actually be what the noise was.
Last but not least was the emergence of a man, who in any other circumstances would almost certainly be described as “jolly”, from beneath the sled. He was dressed in a red velour outfit, complete with a dangly hat bearing a white pom-pom. His feet were protected by heavy, fur lined, dark-black boots which exactly matched the colour of his eyes. His face was mostly hidden by a beard which was whiter than the snow. The picture was only slightly spoiled by the streaks of oil and grease which were on every available surface. ‘ACTUALLY, I COULD DO WITH A HAND IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT MECHANICAL ENGINEERING?’
Before Eira’s brain could come to any reasonable conclusions her mouth switched to auto-pilot and said, ‘Actually I normally fix cars, so I might be able to help you,’ and next thing she knew she found herself laying underneath an impossible vehicle, next to a figure whose job title was probably “Seasonal Logistics Distributor”, and looking up into an engine which seemed to inhabit more than the regular number of dimensions.
But even though the engine was of an entirely otherworldly design she seemed to have an annotated blueprint of it hidden deep in her cerebellum. She heard the words come out of her mouth – ‘I think your temporal actuator is interfering with your sublimation valve. That seems to be causing some kind of block in your Angstrom manifold. I think if we just uncouple the amorphous interchanger for a moment it’ll allow the neutrino carburettor to push out the stored antigravity and you’ll be up and running again.’
The imposing old gentleman smiled, ‘HOW CAN I POSSIBLY REPAY YOU, EIRA?’
She thought for a moment, ‘Well, there is one thing…’
There had been the usual ruckus of greetings as she arrived which slowly tailed off into the regular background white noise of family quarrels. Eira found herself a comfortable seat on the outskirts of the sitting room and set about drinking the cocoa her mum had pushed into her hand with a vengeance. She normally found these gatherings incredibly stressful but, for once, she seemed to be the most relaxed person there.
If any of Eira’s relatives had paused in their disagreements long enough to look in her direction they might have noticed that she was sporting a rather snazzy pair of earmuffs, what they wouldn’t have known was that these aural protectors were supernatural in origin and meant that she was unable to hear a single thing which wasn’t said directly to her.
This was, she concluded, going to be the best Christmas ever.