…I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men…
Emily had never been so far north before, and her friends’ warnings about wights, dragons, witches and other creatures of the netherworld still rang in her ears like bells. But she was more than accustomed to traffic jams, so when the motorway traffic slowed to a crawl she changed the album on her iPod instead of panicking, foot easing on and off the clutch as the cars ahead of her juddered forwards in fits and starts. When the queue stopped entirely, she heaved a sigh, pulled irritably on the handbrake, and unwrapped a chocolate bar. Christmas carols played through her speakers, tinny and bright, and the empty space where her wedding ring used to be gleamed in the lights from her dashboard.
The warning bells rang on, but faintly, like an unheard alarm clock, and Emily didn’t stir until a policeman banged on the window. She jumped, choked on a mouthful of chocolate, and wound down the window.
“Can I help you, officer?” she said, with as much dignity as possible for a woman with milk chocolate smeared all around her mouth. In the background, Mariah Carey was cajoling Santa into giving her a fur coat.
The policeman looked frost-bitten and unimpressed. “Ma’am, there’s some slight damage to the road ahead, we’re going to have to ask you to leave your car and join everyone else in the service station. Don’t worry about the petrol, it’s well away from the café. And the fuel lines are off, anyway.”
The policeman remained impassive. “Because there’s a dragon up there and it’s going to take a bit to shift him.”
“Dragon?” Emily repeated feebly, and then remembered exactly where she was. “Oh God.”
The policeman said nothing, and Emily scrambled into her warm boots and her coat, slung across the backseat, before grabbing her handbag, dropping her driving loafers on the passenger seat and climbing out of the car. The wind chill hit her like shards of ice, and she shuddered against it, flipping up her hood as she locked her car. A roar in the distance, audible now she was outside, drowned out the feeble bleep and click of her doors closing; she jumped, but the policeman remained still and stolid, all grim face and fluorescent weatherproofs.
“That way,” the policeman said, pointing to a garish red and yellow petrol station, lights blazing in the darkness. “Mind your feet. We’ll come and tell you when it’s safe to return to your car.”
“Thank you,” Emily said, tucking her infinity scarf tighter against her neck, and began to trudge towards the petrol station. At the corner of her eye she saw a sudden flash and lick of flame, and she gasped, fumbling for her phone and calling up the camera, pressing the button to record as fire arced across the sky. In the distance, somebody’s car alarm went off, and Emily ignored it, squinting to make out the scaled and shadowy contours of something moving just outside the light – the camera would never catch it, but she could see it.
“Move along please,” shouted a policewoman.
Emily lowered her phone. “Sorry. It’s just we don’t have dragons where I’m from.”
“I know,” the policewoman said, her northern accent as strong as her colleague’s had been. “If you did, we’d have less of you lot trying to Instagram them.”
By the time she reached the petrol station, Emily was feeling very cold and very small, the useless shadow of herself she had been when she had opened the package on the kitchen table six months ago and it had been a silken kimono in scarlet and silver, too bright for her colouring and two sizes too small. All Richard had said when she’d confronted him with it, at first half joking, never believing that bland, dull Richard could have – would have –
Well, at least not so publically –
And she’d been part wrong because he had chosen to leave her for another woman, and part right because all he’d said, all that bloody bastard had said, had been “Let’s talk about this calmly; I don’t want a lot of fuss.”
That bloody bastard, Emily thought, and it carried her through the doors of the petrol station, and over the stinging memory of finding out the other woman’s name, what she looked like, who she was: taller, slimmer and more handsome than Emily, with a career and opinions about things in the further reaches of the Financial Times. Apparently she was interesting.
The door slammed behind her, ripped from her hands by a gust of wind, and Emily cringed before realising that nobody in the crowded petrol station, browsing trashy magazines and sad-looking food under halogen light, had paid her the slightest bit of attention. She pushed her hood back and her fingers through her hair, shook her head, and reassessed her priorities. Nobody here cared, she reminded herself. That was why she’d come north, where nobody pitied bitter divorced middle-aged women spending Christmas alone, because they all had bigger problems. Like dragons.
Emily bought a cup of coffee from a Costa and a pastry from the sad, curling selection in the glass cabinet. She stalked over to one of the few tables that wasn’t besieged, a tall spindly metal one with high chairs and only one occupant. She put her coffee and plate down with a clatter of cheap ceramic and eyed the other person, a woman her own age or a little older with a blue polo neck jumper on and a heavy tweed coat draped over the back of her chair.
“Is this seat taken?” Emily demanded.
“No,” the other woman said, glancing up from the book she was reading and annotating.
“Thank you,” Emily said, and dropped her handbag aggressively on the table next to her coffee, which shook but did not spill.
The woman raised her eyebrows, mopping up her own drink, which had spilled. “Nice handbag,” she observed, and this time Emily caught the same northern accent the policemen had had, smoothed and accentuated by elegant diction.
Emily blinked, and looked at her handbag again. Wine-dark Mulberry, old and rather battered, but she liked the shape and size and colour. Richard had bought her more expensive, newer bags, and she’d carried them to please him, but for everyday use she always came back to her own choice.
“Thank you,” she said again. “It’s my favourite.”
“Mm,” the woman said, sipping at her remaining coffee. She held out a hand. “Janice.”
They shook hands. Janice’s grip was firm, her hand warm and dry, and Emily caught her ironic eyes and felt suddenly, hotly ashamed of her temper, of the way she’d stormed into the petrol station, of her failure to treat a fire-breathing dragon with more insouciant calm.
Emily shifted in her seat and tugged at her cashmere jumper, twisted the gold earrings Richard had given her once and she liked too much to throw back in his face. She wished she didn’t look and sound like such an outsider, wrong for this place and time. She remembered when her children were younger she felt confident of everything in a way she could no longer be: not that it wasn’t hard, being a stay-at-home-mother, not that she hadn’t occasionally wanted to lock herself in her bedroom and scream because too many things were going wrong, but at least there was a script. There were things she was meant to do, standards she was meant to live up to, and even when they seemed impossible Emily had found that comforting.
“I like your hair,” Janice said off-handedly.
Emily smoothed a hand self-consciously over the thick burgundy streak in her dark hair, standing out just enough in the harsh light. “Thank you. My daughter suggested pillar-box red, but I thought that would be a little much.” Bitterness entered her tone. “My ex-husband calls it my midlife crisis hair.”
“Surely true midlife crisis hair would be more drastic.” Janice took a gulp of her drink. “A mohawk would suit your face, if you’re looking for suggestions.”
Emily’s laugh was startled out of her. “I like your hair, too,” she said, waving her hand at Janice’s elaborate coronet braid, silver from tip to root. “I’ve always wished I had the courage to grow my greys in, but… I just look so silly.”
Janice smiled. “I went grey early. I got used to it. I find it lends me gravitas, which is useful, in my line of work.”
“What do you do?” Emily asked, out of polite habit.
“I’m a social worker.”
“Wow,” said Emily, who hadn’t encountered anyone resembling a social worker since the nurse had stopped visiting her at home with her newborns. Even the custody arrangements for her youngest – though Hugo hardly needed them, at seventeen, and Emily was positive that all Richard would have done if he’d got primary custody would have been to hire a cook to go with the cleaner and gardener – had been worked out by batteries of lawyers and a professional mediator. “That must be very challenging.”
Janice merely smiled, and focused her attention on her book. Emily tried to read it upside down. Once, she’d been capable of instantly digesting entire paragraphs of semi-confidential information unwisely exposed at awkward angles, but she seemed to have lost the knack.
Emily ate her pastry, lukewarm already despite the blast in the microwave it had received, and waited in silence for a while. When she’d picked the last crumbs off her plate with the pad of her finger, she sipped at her coffee and checked her phone as if someone was probably dying to get in contact with her. They weren’t, she knew. Most of her friends were wrapped in their own Christmas plans, sympathetic though they were, and she had been carefully avoiding her family, sympathetic as they weren’t. Of her three children, Iona had elected to spend the New Year with her boyfriend in New York, Sophia had leapt precipitously into a Dalston recording studio at the news of her parents’ divorce and refused to emerge, and Hugo had taken one look at the phalanx of lawyers preparing to do battle over where he spent Christmas and announced that he would be staying with his godparents.
As for her ex-husband – Emily preferred to hear as little as possible from Richard.
The silence of their small table, surrounded by people ringing the Highways Agency for updates and talking knowledgeably about dragons’ patterns of roosting in this part of the country, grew unbearable. Emily shifted and cleared her throat. “So. Do you live near here? How did you get stuck in this… mess?”
Janice glanced up, and laid down her biro. “No. I was at a conference.” A sort of kindness coloured her eyes. “I suppose you aren’t used to this sort of thing.”
“Dragons? No.” Emily ran a finger around the edge of her cup, collecting the residual fluff of her rapidly cooling cappuccino. “I’ve never been further north than Norwich. Richard always said if I wanted to go north he could take me skiing.”
“My – oh.” Emily felt deeply silly and self-conscious. “My ex-husband. We, er… We separated this year.”
“I see.” Janice looked down, and ran a finger down the margins of her book.
“Do you think we’ll be here long?” Emily asked, desperately trying to change the subject.
“Probably not too long. The policeman said it was only a young one. Which accounts for why it came down on the motorway – probably confused, poor thing.” Janice finished her coffee and set the cup down. “The adolescents don’t know to stay away from the shiny lights, and their parents are no longer caring for them, of course, so they can’t intervene. There is a reserve near here, I think.”
“It was breathing fire,” Emily said.
“Most species do.”
Emily summoned every scrap of social grace she’d ever worn and tried not to look appalled. “Isn’t that – dangerous?”
“No, not really, not unless you annoy one or you get between parents and their young. They aren’t interested in humans.” Janice smiled. “Maybe if we tasted better with barbecue sauce.”
It was clearly a joke, so Emily laughed. But she looked down quickly and rooted through her handbag a bit, as if she were searching for something instead of hiding her face. A small glossy book stared reproachfully back at her. A Southerner’s Guide to the Frozen North, the title on the spine read. Emily had bought it at the Watford Gap five hours ago, meaning to read it when she stopped for lunch, and hadn’t done so; suddenly, she realized that she knew nothing about this foreign environment beyond the directions to her rented cottage and a few knock-knock jokes. In the face of a fire-breathing dragon, this seemed inadequate, and she felt grossly naïve.
She cleared her throat and looked up again. “Have you got any plans for Christmas?”
“My family celebrates the solstice,” Janice said. Emily must have looked surprised, because Janice added: “Most people do, once you get into the borders. Anyway, yes, my boys are coming home tomorrow for a few days, and my parents will be coming over for dinner on the actual solstice.”
“How lovely,” Emily said. “When is that? The solstice, I mean?”
“Tomorrow,” Janice said. “The boys are flying in to Edinburgh in the morning, so that’ll be a fun wake-up call for my wife.” She grinned. “I take it your plans are for a quiet Christmas away from home.”
“Yes, that’s – the general idea.” Emily took a gulp of her coffee, which was now stone cold. “My children are – well, they’re adults now. You know how it is. They’re young, they don’t want to – they don’t…”
She fell silent for a long moment. A child started screaming for chocolate in another corner of the petrol station, and Emily found her words again. “Christmas with their old mother is hardly their idea of fun.”
“It can happen,” Janice said easily. “Luckily Aidan and Douglas are old enough to appreciate their aged parents and young enough to see the virtues of somebody else cooking solstice dinner. Are you planning to stay near here?”
“A couple of hours further north,” Emily said, and sighed. “If I ever get back on the road.”
“It shouldn’t be much longer now.”
Emily ran her hands through her hair. “I don’t know. How long does it take to shift a dragon?”
“Depends on whether they’ve got a warlock on staff or not.”
Emily almost fell off her chair. “What?”
Janice was laughing, and Emily felt her cheeks heat. “Sorry. Couldn’t resist. Warlocks aren’t real, that one’s a story for the children. Like drop bears, in Australia.”
“Drop bears? Wait – no. Never mind.” Emily ran her hands over her face and through her hair, not caring if she wrecked her makeup. “I’ve found a very nice cottage, a rental place, not very big, but I don’t need that much space and it looks very comfortable. It’s just such a pretty village, too. There’s a Nine Lessons and Carols service in the church, and fireworks on New Year’s Eve, and the lady who rents it out says she’s left a casserole in the oven for me. Look.” She fished out her phone, and showed Janice the glossy photographs the owner had put online, which bore a frankly remarkable resemblance to the Skype tour the owner had given Emily before she’d put down the deposit.
“It does look beautiful,” Janice said. “You said you’d never been north before?”
“That’s right.” Emily hesitated. “I was going to, once. I had a job offer in Edinburgh.”
“What do you do?”
“These days, nothing,” Emily said, more sharply than she meant to, and then she deflated. “When the children were born I didn’t want to go back to work, and there just – with the three of them there never seemed to be time, there was always more I wanted to do with and for them. I never missed working. Believe me, mother of three was a full-time job, especially considering Richard’s life needed so much… home organising. But now they’re all grown and the divorce is complete, I really ought to find something else to do with my time.” She sighed again. “You didn’t need to hear all that, I’m sorry.”
“I’m a social worker.”
“I’m not your client!”
“Certainly not,” Janice said coolly. “I meant to say I’m used to it.”
“Of course,” Emily said hollowly, and then gathered herself together. “I used to work in PR. I had a job offer in London as well as one in Edinburgh, and I was going to take the one in Edinburgh, but then I met Richard. I always wanted to see the north, but other things happen, and time gets away from you. Do you know what I mean?”
“Oh, yes,” Janice said. There was a wistful sort of look on her face, and then she shook herself and was all practicality again. “I was just wondering how much you know about life up here. Your rented cottage will be up to code, but did you bring iron to carry? You’d be all right without in a city, but that’s not a city.”
“My keyring is a torch,” Emily said, alarmed now, career moves nearly thirty years old gone from her mind. “That’s – that’s sort of the same thing.”
“That’s good, yes, but stainless steel doesn’t count.” Janice fished in the pockets of her tweed coat and pulled out a small flat plastic bag with two little gunmetal grey studs in. “Here. We give these to people who don’t have iron to carry on them, they’re small and hard to lose and they work. Wear your earrings and don’t flinch from the local coven, and you ought to be just fine.”
Emily stared at the little packet and fingered one of the gold knots in her ears. They’d been a Christmas present, not one of the first ones he’d given her or they’d have been too painful to wear, and not so recent that they felt like a gift out of guilt. “Are these for the wights? What about dragons?”
“Give them their space and you’ll be absolutely fine.” Janice looked expectant.
Emily took her gold earrings out and replaced them with the iron ones, slowly, as if she didn’t quite know what she was doing. The gold looked alien on the table, too polished, too slick, and she was uncomfortably reminded of how pleased she’d been with them that Christmas all those years ago, when Richard first gave them to her. She put the gold earrings neatly into the packet and tucked it into her handbag next to her lipstick and makeup mirror, then took out the mirror to examine the effect. A stranger stared back at her, as they had every day since she’d unwrapped that kimono, but this time the stranger looked a little more self-assured.
“They’re very nice, thank you,” she said slowly. “This is extremely kind of you.”
“Not at all,” Janice said. “I have hundreds lying around at home, they’re part of a programme I spearhead in my department. Simple, cost-effective protective magic for vulnerable individuals. Kelpies in particular were doing a number on our children in care – of course, they look harmless, and most children like ponies.”
“Fortunately I’m not a child and I don’t ride.” Emily patted her hair over her ears. “Thank you anyway.”
“You’re welcome.” Something buzzed, and Janice reached for her coat again, pulling out her phone.
“Excuse me, I should take this,” she said, and Emily nodded and gestured as if to say yes, of course, please do.
Emily watched her refracted reflection in the chequered mirror of the petrol station table, and toyed with her phone for a minute, listening as Janice explained her delay to someone. After a moment, she picked her phone up and took a selfie as Sophia had taught her, one happier day, and sent it to her son on WhatsApp. Look, Hugo, I’m going native, she wrote. Iron earrings to ward off the wights! Give my love to Jim and Padma. Then she hesitated a second, and opened her conversation with Iona. Hope New York is beautiful, darling. Stuck in dragon-related traffic here, very exciting. What would you think if I moved north?
She looked at her messages from Sophia. The last one was four months old.
Emily closed her eyes for a moment and breathed slowly out. When she opened her eyes again, they were no longer watering, and her phone had just beeped with two fresh messages.
Pretty metal, Hugo wrote, very promptly for a boy his age. Jim and Padma say hi.
Change of scene sounds great, Iona wrote. Love you Mum. Don’t get crisped.
Janice came off the phone, and Emily almost jumped.
“Sorry about that,” Janice said.
“Not at all,” Emily said. “I hope all this hasn’t spoiled your evening.”
“Not really. I didn’t have much in the way of plans.”
There was a long silence. Emily tapped her fingers on the table restlessly, then turned and spoke before she could think better of it. “I was quite good at PR, before I stopped to have the children, and I’ve helped out with the odd charity or two and the children’s schools – things they were involved in. I’m not in a position to re-enter the job market yet, but I want to, and that initiative you described, the one with the earrings – it sounds very intriguing. If you hear of anything like that that could use some free labour, while I build up my CV again, well. I’d be very interested.” She tore a page from her diary and scribbled down her name and email address, then handed it to Janice.
Janice looked at it for a second, and then accepted it, a faint smile on her face. “I’ll see if anything comes up.”
“I’d appreciate that.” Emily felt almost defiant, like she was performing for an audience.
“It’s not a problem.” Janice tucked the slip of paper away in one of those capacious pockets. “I’m sure I could think of a project or two.”
There was a kerfuffle at the door, and both women looked up; a blast of fresh, frozen air and a chilly policeman had both blown into the petrol station at the same time.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to announce that you can now return to your cars,” he said in stentorian tones, and the entire petrol station started to move at once. He raised his voice. “If the owners of the following licence plates could please speak to me first, though –“ He reeled off a list of letters and numbers, and Emily was relieved to realise that her car’s plate was not among them.
“Well,” she said, putting her coat back on and slinging her handbag over her shoulder. “It was lovely to have met you, Janice. Happy C- I mean, Happy Solstice.”
“Merry Christmas,” Janice said gravely, with only the tiniest quirk at her lips. “I hope you have a nice holiday. I’ll see if I’ve got anything for you in the New Year.”
“Thank you,” Emily said again, and started the long, cold trudge back to her car. When she got back in she sat down on her still-unfinished chocolate bar by accident, but after some cursing and rearrangement she managed to get herself settled again and ready to drive on.
Her iron earrings gleamed dully in her ears; Emily adjusted her mirror, to have a better excuse to look at them, and smiled.
They suited her better than the gold ones, she thought.
“Happy Christmas,” she said aloud, and put her car in gear.
M.J. Jones is not sure when she started writing, but has no intention of stopping now