The drive from her home in the south east, to her family in the south west, had been a horror for Jess. Leaving just the sun was going down on Christmas Eve, she had presumed that most of the traffic would have already cleared. She had been wrong. The M25 was hell, bumper to bumper before and after each junction; the M3 was full of idiot drivers, cutting in on her, or blocking lanes while driving at less than fifty; there was an accident on one of the single lane sections on the 303, congesting the heavy traffic for more than seven miles, and again on the brief section of the M5 along which she had driven. The packed roads had only started to clear once she had finally made it onto the A30: Her homeward stretch. The drive to Cornwall would usually have taken her less than six hours, and sometimes, on a good run, only just over five. Jess calculated that she had already been on the roads for over eight hours.
And then, before she had even crossed the Tamar, her fuel light had lit up.
Normally Jess could drive her old Nova the entire way on a single tank. The stop-start nature of her torturous journey had burned through her fuel like never before. A part of her, now that she was on a clear run, was tempted her to try it, to finish off her drive without having to stop. But the needle was dropping quickly through the red. The major Cornwall Services was still more than ten miles away, and she couldn’t recall if it was open twenty-four hours. If she discovered that the fuel stop just off the road ahead was closed – showing up as an icon on her wonky Sat Nav (which had been dropping off the misty windscreen for most of the journey) – she’d try her luck at the major service station instead, and then each one after. A bird in the hand, and all that.
Since the open road had been peeling easily away in front of her headlights, Jess had almost started enjoying the Pirate FM Christmas Countdown, a tradition of her lonesome drive. Almost. She would have preferred it much more if it wasn’t approaching midnight. Having spoken to the rest of them an hour ago, they would now be back home from the pub, getting ready for bed. It was nearly Christmas Day, and she was still out on the bloody road.
The icon on the Sat Nav was still indicting that the fuel stop was further up the road, but this must be the place, she guessed, pulling in. Fuelled You! It didn’t look like a petrol station. The service station itself looked more like a gingerbread house, with a steeply pitched roof, lined with big and bright multi-coloured bulbs. Two large spotlights were directed into the centre of the forecourt, two large circles, as if they were waiting for a singing exchange between the two main characters of a musical. Or a pantomime, she thought. The shop inside, lit with cheerful yellow light, looked more like a countryside farm shop. In fact, come to think of it, there weren’t even any pumps on the forecourt.
Just as Jess was turning the ignition back on, deciding to drive on to the Cornwall Services after all, a youngish guy wearing a Father Christmas outfit came out of the shop, smiling at her, heading for her car – for where else would he be headed? What’s more, he was kind of handsome, in the rugged way that Cornish county boys are: Unshaven, bright-eyed, shaggy and rugged, with a slightly weathered-looking perma-tan. As he came closer, Jess noticed that his smile was as white as the fake (fake?) snow atop the gingerbread service station.
From the corner of her eye – a fleeting distraction from her transfixion on the handsome man dressed as Father Christmas – she thought that she saw a small figure dart back in behind the side of the building. It must have been a deer, something like that. A small deer.
‘Alright?’ he said, leaning on the roof of the Nova, looking down at Jess through her open window. ‘Merry Christmas. Ho-ho-ho, and all the rest of it.’
‘Merry Christmas,’ Jess replied with a slightly flustered laugh. ‘I’m sorry. I was just looking for somewhere to fill up.’
‘We can fill you up,’ the man said, still smiling. ‘Pumps are beneath the station here.’
‘Beneath the station? Oh . . . right.’
‘Yep, if you just want to pull her round the side, you’ll see the ramp. Just head down that way,’ he said, indicating with a bob of his Santa hat the side of the service station that the small creature had just disappeared. ‘I’ll meet you down there.’
Watching him breeze away back towards the sparkling gingerbread house, Jess hesitated. It was all a bit odd. The Sat Nav was still showing the fuel icon as being a brief way further along the road, even though she was surely sitting in its forecourt. But she was weary, and now, having not eaten since the Fleet services, well over four hours ago, quite fancied a snack, too.
Perhaps, Jess thought, I could just break a bit off the side of the building. The thought of a piece of gingerbread was suddenly quite enticing. With some icing on top.
Jess found the concrete slope heading down beside and underneath the building, just as she had been told that she would. A warm and welcoming glow was breathing out of the opening; more twinkling fairy lights illuminating the surrounding countryside. Even though the swell of the dark landscape hid the A30 from her view, Jess saw the twin bulge of a truck’s headlights passing along it through the deeper blackness. Just before she turned off the radio, she saw that the time had, indeed, just passed over midnight.
It was now Christmas Day.
Not just light, Christmas music was chirpily piping out of the underground garage, as if she was passing the entry into some crazed funfair ride. Entering slowly inside, what Jess saw was not the greasy and grubby interior that could be expected of a usual garage. There were a pair of pumps, but those were the only things that were almost usual. A trail of purple lights chased around the edges of them, as lively as an arcade machine. With each lap that they took, the tone of the colour changed: From purple to pink; now green; then yellow. Easing forwards, she could feel that the car was lightly bouncing, as if the pastel floor was made of marzipan. Rather than just plain brick or block, the sides of the garage were wallpapered with the imagery of a gleaming forest, so vivid that it created the illusion that the room really didn’t have walls, but instead travelled to Narnian impossibilities of wonder. It was perhaps because of the movement in the forest – the leaves and branches moving beyond the warmth of the garage, however they had created such an effect that the forest could seem to be truly alive, rather than static –, there seemed a much greater space than Jess could have possibly expected beneath the gingerbread petrol station. Except for the two pumps and the rows of dome lights – which were the shape of alien spaceships, hanging from a deep blue ceiling dotted with stars – there was nothing else in the garage.
Through a side door, hidden in the fabric of the forest walls, the young man appeared. He pushed a large, doughy button on the wall and spoke something into it. Opening her car door, Jess stepped out onto what definitely was a spongy floor. The Christmas music was not like anything that Jess had heard before. There was no singing, just the regular jingling of sleigh bells and the bright twangling, joyous noise that comes with all Christmas music.
A door began to slide down through the opening that Jess had driven through, the forest upon it already in movement. Now that Jess was out of the car, she could hear that there was birdsong seemingly coming from the forest. And upon the ceiling, they weren’t just stars. Snow was falling, melting as it passed the spaceship lights. But it was somehow beginning to settle in the forest, a thin white floor developing over the mossy ground.
‘I only want you to fill up the car,’ Jess called over to the handsome man in the Father Christmas costume. He turned to her, still smiling his friendly smile. ‘It’s getting late, and I really need to get going soon.’
‘They’re doing it for you now!’ he replied, opening out his arms.
A dozen little people, not taller than the height of the Nova’s wheels, sped out of the forest. Within a flash, they were jumping on each other’s shoulders, with teamwork passing the hose from the pump to another pair of little people clambering up the side of Jess’ car. Looking deeper into the forest, Jess saw more of them, all busily rushing around through the deepening snow, passing a chain of presents along a line, or carrying them in their arms, on their heads and their shoulders. She saw another two somehow pumping the pedals of a bicycle, one either side of the frame, speeding along perilously between the trees. They were all wearing green dungarees over a black and red striped pullover, each with three-cornered pirate hat upon their heads.
‘What is . . . ?’
There was nothing particularly elflike about their appearances. Each of them had the faces and features of normal people – women and men, teenagers and some that were even smaller children. They were just tiny. And very, very busy.
From deeper within the forest, whooshing noises were whistling out into the garage, plumes of snow fluttering into the room, into the puddles at the edges.
‘Today is your lucky day!’ the young man said, approaching Jess.
She whirled around, looking everywhere around her, at the garage door that had seamlessly merged into the forest.
‘What is going on?’ she exclaimed. ‘I want to go.’
‘You can,’ he replied. ‘But first you may choose from one of our free gifts! As it is Christmas now, you can select anything that you wish. Consider it a Christmas treat. From us, to you.’
He handed Jess a sheet of glass with rounded edges, the size of an electronic tablet. Holding it, Jess could see grids of all kinds of moving images. In each one of the videos was herself! Beneath one that said Eternal Life, the gilded lettering shimmering and wavering as if floating on water, she is floating on a bed of clouds. Another, Eternal Love, in which the most perfect man is carrying her through a rain of falling rose petals. Never-ending Wealth: Jess is walking across the immaculate lawn in front of a huge golden palace that would make the Taj Mahal look like a conservatory on the back of a terraced house. Eternal Happiness. Eternal Beauty. Unimaginable Power. Herculean Strength. To Fly. To Walk on Water. Whatever You Wish For, Whenever You Want It. Some of them seemed to blur edges: As if having one of the gifts could create another. Love & Happiness. Power & Strength. The list continued, more options to choose from The Greatest . . . Writer, Dancer, Actress, Singer, Musician, Scientist, Philosopher, Inventor, Sportsperson . . . of All Time, with Jess depicted before crowds, accepting awards, or on podiums, being strung with medals. There was one included that simply said, Create Your Own. And then, right at the bottom of the list, Jess saw a final option that actually made her laugh: A Free Christmas Pen – It never runs out of ink!
‘How can you grant me this? What the hell is this place? I really want to just pay you and leave.’
‘Without accepting a Christmas treat? That’s your choice. Your car is full up now.’
All of the little elves had disappeared back into the forest. The car was sparkling, shiny as new. It even looked as though the scrapes and the dents had all gone. Peering closer, Jess saw that indeed they had.
‘But what’s the catch. None of this makes any sense. I must have, I don’t know, crashed and died or something.’
‘Then choose Eternal Life, if that concerns you. It’s right at there at the top of the list.’
‘I don’t want eternal life. I want to know how you can promise to give me any of these things?’
The young man brushed his hands down the front of the outfit. ‘Does this not give it away at all? You have heard of Father Christmas, right? Or Santa, Saint Nick, whatever you choose to call me.’
‘So . . . now you’re telling me that you’re Father Christmas?’ Jess asked, smiling as anyone would a friendly, handsome goon.
‘No, I’m not telling you. I am showing you! Of course, again, you don’t have to accept. You can just leave.’
‘O-kay, in that case I choose Time Travel.’ She was humouring the man, of course; this Father Christmas. Yet . . . just like when she checked her Lottery numbers, always the What if . . . ?
While scanning the list, Jess had surmised that travelling to any point and place of time would bring the most of the options together, even to the point of eternal life, if that’s what she found that she wanted. Other people would always be able claim to have entitlement to the other things on the list, to some extent. But the ability to time travel would be exclusively hers. What she could learn, see, witness first-hand; the people she could save from disaster, the bets that she could win, the appalling decisions made throughout even her personal history that she could correct . . . the possibilities were endless. In part, she had been sold by the video that showed her landing on the moon in ’69, and then standing in a room with Winston Churchill as he spoke into a microphone in his Chartwell office, and then watching Cleopatra and Mark Antony walking together along a corridor, and then, and then, and then.
She would be able to determine, once for all, what had really happened at Golgotha.
‘Just press the glass, Time Travel, and it will be yours,’ Father Christmas said.
‘What will this cost me?’ Jess asked, her finger hovering over the video of King John signing the Magna Carta, Jess handing him the quill.
‘Once you choose your Christmas treat, you will have to sign for the fuel. The current cost is one-hundred-and-seventeen pence per litre. For your little car, it won’t come to more than about thirty-odd pounds, I’d guess? An invoice for the cost of the fuel will arrive to you in the post; nothing to pay today.’
‘And for the time travel?’
‘How many gifts that you’ve received have you ever had to pay for?’
That was very, very true.
‘How many people choose the free pen?’ Jess asked after signing on the glass with her finger, the fuel and the Time Travel in her bag to checkout.
‘That’s just a little joke,’ Father Christmas replied. ‘You’re right. No one. Yet!’ he laughed. ‘Okay!’ he continued, taking the glass back from Jess. ‘Let’s just have a look here . . .’
As Jess looked around at what was happening in the forest, a couple of the little elves leading a pony through the trees, others still flipping parcels quickly along their line, Father Christmas read over Jess’ choice and checked where she had signed.
‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘Why, oh why, does everyone do this? Still . . .’
‘Oh dear? Oh dear, what?’ Jess asked.
‘Did you read the Terms and Conditions?’ Father Christmas was looking at Jess with a look of mock pity.
She hadn’t noticed before the grey hairs in his beard, and those peeking out from beneath his red hat. The more that she looked at him, in fact, it seemed as though his hairs were visibly growing before her eyes, just as the illusion of the forest had morphed into reality. His face was filling out, very slowly, from fine and structured to jolly and jowly.
‘Oh dear,’ he repeated. ‘There really are so few T and Cs to read through, too.’
‘What are in the Terms and Conditions?’ Jess asked. ‘Let me see that.’
Swiping the glass tablet from Father Christmas, Jess scanned the document that she had signed. Sliding the screen further up, she found there the Terms and Conditions, just beneath where she had signed. Had it been there before? She could remember there being something, but the images of what she would behold as she time travelled back into history and further into the future had somewhat blurred her vision and thoughts. Neither had she noticed the small check box, next to the image of a piece of holly and berries.
Jess tapped on the Terms and Conditions, opening up a new page.
- The signee promises to pay back the total cost of the fuel, as indicated on the invoice. (We accept all major credit cards, banker’s draft, PayPal or Bitcoin. *No cash or cheques, unless they are received inside a Christmas card.)
- Any free gift chosen will only be granted once payment has been received in full.
- Alternatively, in lieu of payment, the signee can choose to work as a Christmas elf for 100 years. (Please place a cross the check box if you do not wish to become a part of our friendly and enthusiastic team!)
- If the signee chooses to join our team (by not placing a cross in the check box), any free gift will be forfeited.
- Have a very Merry Christmas!
Nota Bene: Once this form is signed, all terms are binding. Should the signee choose to work as a part of our team (by not placing a cross in the check box), but then die of old age, or from any other illness, accident or medical complication, before their 100 years are complete, any payments owed will be waived.
‘You’ve tricked me,’ Jess said, looking up from the document sealed within the glass screen, at the very merry avuncular face smiling back at her, who had at some point slipped on a pair of bifocals. She quickly swiped back to the main page, tapped on the checkout screen, and frantically tried to press the check box. Each time she pressed on it, answered by:
Error FC-3: Function cannot be completed. Too late 🤪
‘You can’t do this,’ she said. ‘This is kidnapping. You can’t kidnap me. Let me out of here now. Right now!’ With a stamp of the foot, Jess threw the glass tablet onto the floor of the garage. The marzipan-softness of it cushioned the tablet’s fall, bobbling gently beneath it until the tablet came to rest.
‘Oh, here’s your post now,’ said Father Christmas, looking up into the starry, snowy night at the envelope that was floating down beneath a Christmassy parachute, and then stooping to pick up the tablet.
Father Christmas plucked the letter out of the air, removed the parachute – stuffing it into the pocket of his coat – and handed Jess her post. Jess opened the envelope and pulled the letter out. There was not much written on it at all.
A gang of elf workers skipped out of the forest over to Jess’ car and began to push it towards the trees. Looking down, she saw another elf, a pretty little thing with blonde pigtails, holding out to her a set of dungarees and a black and red striped pullover, a pirate hat placed on top. With a smile and a shrug, the elf placed the bundle at Jess’ feet and sashayed off into the forest. All of a sudden, a whole crowd of elves had a hold of Jess. They flipped her up and caught her on a wave of tiny hands. Another pair of elves – one a slightly chubby and long-haired man with a spiky goatee beard; the other a lady with black hair and bulbous lips and nose – picked up the piled clothes and followed Jess, screaming and yelling and cursing as she was carried away.
‘Thank you for agreeing to join our team of hard-working elves!’ Father Christmas called after her. ‘You’ll find that you have a very merry time!’
He watched her journey all the way to the shrinking tree. Saw it open up, a huge smile in its trunk, and his trusted elves carry her into it until she was gone.
The lights on the petrol pumps continued to snake around and around, changing from lilac, to mauve, to red and to orange. The Christmas music played on.
Outside, another gift whizzed away, fizzing out of the gingerbread house, past the Fuelled You! sign, and off into the night.