"Arthur," Martin asked, pausing in Gertie's entryway, "what are you doing?"
"Hoovering," Arthur replied, brightly, suiting action to word.
"No, I mean - what are you doing here?"
Arthur switched off the vacuum cleaner, leaning against it thoughtfully. "Well. I thought it was the best thing, really. I could have gone to uni - well, no, not really, not with my... those really low things... you know... grades. And I thought mum could use the help, and it's just awful fun, so..."
"If I may," Douglas interrupted, removing his coat, "I believe Martin's question lies somewhere between these two extremes, to wit - why you are on this flight at all? It's a cargo flight, after all, and crates of oranges require very limited in-flight service."
"Oh, mum didn't tell you? The manager of the company decided to come. She said she always wanted to see Lapland. So we need a steward, and so... I'm coming along!" Arthur's grin, Martin was sure, would connect in the back of his head and take the whole top half off. "Lapland! Santa and reindeer and Christmas and..."
"And you won't be seeing any of it," Carolyn breezed in from the cockpit, clipboard in hand. "You'll be there this afternoon, and you'll fly back first thing tomorrow morning. I have no desire to fly any farther north and freeze my skirts any more than they will be frozen in England."
"But... mum..." Arthur's face fell. "Santa, and reindeer..."
"There will be Yule logs and sugar mice and turkey and far too many presents when you get back," she replied, placatingly. "This is a business trip, however, and I expect it to be conducted as such."
"We will not allow any men in funny red suits to take our ground clearance," Douglas murmured.
"Unless it's the fire brigade. Arthur - you missed a spot in the back."
"Afternoon!" The woman's voice was so loud and booming that it made Martin cringe - despite the fact that it had to travel around a corner and through a closed cockpit door.
"Ah, Americans." Douglas leaned back in his chair. "You just have to love them. They'll shoot you otherwise."
Martin couldn't hear Arthur's response to their passenger, but not one minute later, the cockpit door flew open. "Oh, look! Santa and his little helper! Mizz Caroline Lestra, of Lestra's Luscious Oranges. When are we flying out?"
"As soon as is physically possible," Douglas replied, his voice even. Once she belted out a donkey's bray of a laugh, turned, and left, he added, "And if there were any justice in this world, we'd air-drop you and the oranges, turn around, and fly right back."
"Santa's litte helper??" Martin shook his head, trying to wrap his brain around the idea. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Come, now, Martin, forget one of the many sleights about your height you surely face on a daily basis, and come back to the more important issue. She implied that I am white-haired and portly!"
"You do have some grey hair," Martin replied, stung.
"Grey, yes! I have some streaks of grey; it's part of my gravitas."
"And a pot belly."
"This?" Douglas pulled open his shirt. "This is not a pot belly! This is muscle..." he looked down at it. "With a bit of padding, yes, but hardly a pot belly, and hardly a jiggling bowl of jello!"
"Gentlemen..." Carolyn said, sharply, and both turned. "I won't ask why Douglas is performing a striptease; I will just ask you both to keep your clothes on if our guest decides to tour the flight deck."
"She said I looked like Santa Claus," Douglas protested.
"It's not my fault that all of the cheese trays are going to your stomach. Give Martin some, I can practically see through him. I filed your flight plan - you're welcome - and now, I'm leaving. See you tomorrow afternoon." Carolyn closed the cockpit door, and Martin heard her voice, followed by the passenger's much louder voice barking, "I'm sure I will!"
"Oh, god," Martin sighed.
"Santa Claus." Douglas snorted, buttoning his shirt. "Some nerve, an American calling me fat."
The airfield manager was a stoic man with a name Martin hadn't a chance of pronouncing, but fortunately, he answered to 'Lars' if Martin mumbled it a bit.
"We're fully unloaded,” Martin told him, gesturing to the workmen who were driving off in a Transit full of oranges, “and we're almost refueled."
"Yes. I can tell."
"Er, yes. So - well, I wanted to file my flight plan, so we can be going?"
The manager looked up at the sky, a position that surely couldn’t be comfortable, given the cold wind. Martin couldn't understand why the man spent any more time in the frigid air outside than was necessary, considering the alternative of a nicely warm office. "No."
"No... no what? We can't be going? Why?"
"It’ll take ten minutes to file it."
"Yes," Martin replied through his teeth, "We can wait."
"Weather can't," the manager grunted, pointing.
Martin looked in the direction indicated, at what seemed to be very heavy clouds indeed. "Oh, b... bother..."
"Snow," Douglas noted, wandering over. "Not terribly uncommon, in the Arctic circle..."
"Blizzard," the Lars-like man replied. "If you fly in that, you're stupider than you look."
Martin felt his face flush. "I thought we could turn the plane around before the weather arrived."
"Well, it looks like we'll be spending the night in town," Douglas sighed.
"All transit stops with a blizzard. You can walk. Or you can stay here. We have a spare crew room attached to hanger." The man spoke like every word had a fee attached.
"What about you?" Martin asked.
"I live in the office," the airfield manager replied, turning back and walking back towards the office in question.
"I can believe that," Douglas replied. "Well, shall we...?"
Douglas was interrupted by an excited shout. "Reindeer!"
Martin and Douglas turned to look at Arthur, who was running towards them, pointing at four straggly animals who were trotting across the tarmac. They paused to take interested looks at Gertie.
"Yes... another thing you get around here, along with the snow," Douglas replied.
"But... reindeer! I'd never seen them before, not in person! They're brilliant!"
"They're not going to fly, you know," Martin replied.
"No, but... look at them! They're all alive, and shaggy, and antlered, and... brilliant! Look, one is marking Gertie!"
"Oh, god," Martin sighed.
Douglas clapped Arthur on the shoulder. "We have a greater concern than the scent of reindeer piss on Gertie's landing gear. We do have one thing in common with the reindeer, actually."
"Oh, really? What?" Arthur said, eagerly.
"We - like them - will not be flying tonight."
The blizzard was every bit as bad as Martin feared a blizzard might be. They had gotten Gertie in the hanger just as the first gusty blasts of snow had started to come down, and the weather was now a bona fide whiteout. Martin could barely see the crew quarters from the manager's office, and the trek from the latter to the former had been wind-battered, freezing cold, and had involved his socks rapidly becoming completely sodden with slush. His dress shoes were not at all designed for this kind of work, and he hoped desperately that they would survive this outing. He hadn’t a chance of affording a new pair.
Martin blundered into the crew quarters, standing and blinking the snow out of his eyes. Someone closed the door behind him. "Hey, skip!" the someone in question said. "Find anything?"
"Hoo... sort... aghhh... sort of..." Martin huffed out breaths, inhaling blissfully warm air, clutching the box he was carrying to his chest. The snow started to melt out of his eyebrows and eyelashes, running down his cheeks. An Arthur-shaped blob pulled the box out of his hands. "That's all he had to spare," Martin said, apologetically. "A care package from his mum. He said he never likes what she sends him..."
"Chocolate!" Arthur enthused. "And chestnuts! We can roast them over the fire!"
Martin scrubbed the water out of his eyes. There was indeed a roaring fire going in the fireplace, the source of all of the warmth in the room. Douglas kneeled next to it, eyeing it carefully. "Don't tell me you learned to do that in the Scouts," Martin said, feeling a little irritated. Was there anything Douglas couldn't do well?
"You don't need to be a Scout to set things on fire," Douglas replied. "Take off your socks."
Martin noticed that two other pairs of socks were hanging on hooks above the fireplace, drying out; one pair would make serviceable canoes, and were surely the ones meant to go on Arthur’s massive feet. Martin sat, kicking off his shoes, removing his socks, and sticking his feet towards the fire with a happy sigh. He leaned back on his arms, watching Caroline help Arthur sort through the manager's care package. A bit of an oddity, that one. Martin was sure he would be in for some stomping and swearing when he informed her (he had lost three rounds of rock, paper, scissors to Douglas) that they would be staying in very basic quarters indeed, with no electricity, and had tried to play up the idea that the weather was out of his control. But she had nodded, asked a few basic questions, then worked with Arthur to set up makeshift beds with pillows and blankets from Gertie. She had distributed the oranges from her 'personal use' box, and sat on that box now as a makeshift chair, arranging chestnuts on the hearth for roasting. Martin wondered if she were feeling well. This was not in character for heads of business, Americans, or anything he had seen of the woman up until that point. Well, people changed in a crisis, and unlike Martin, they did not always change into a useless blubbering mess.
"Can we sing some Christmas songs?" Arthur asked, brightly.
"We have nothing in here sufficiently sharp to slit my wrists, so - no," Douglas replied.
"Oh," Martin sighed, looking at the dancing fire, "let the fellow have a song or two? We've ruined his Christmas, after all." Well, more specifically, Martin had ruined his Christmas. It was his fault that they had the delay leaving - with the fueling misunderstanding, and all - and if Martin hadn't had two missed approaches at the landing, as well, they probably could have beaten the weather.
"Ruined?" Arthur looked up at Martin, baffled. "What do you mean, skip? This is a brilliant Christmas!"
"It is?" Martin asked, startled.
"Well, yeah! I mean, look around. Snow and reindeer outside! And a Yule log," he pointed at the roaring blaze that Douglas had made of the spare table in the room, "and stockings hanging above the fireplace, and chestnuts roasting, and chocolate, and Christmas oranges! And when we get home tomorrow - prezzies!"
"Well..." Martin wiggled his now-warm toes, "I suppose it could be worse...."
"It surely can't compare to your Swiss chalet, though, can it, Ms. Lestra?" Douglas asked. Perhaps, Martin considered, the other man was equally baffled by her transformation.
The American looked up at Douglas, and something in the warmth of the firelight changed her face - it was softer, somehow, more childlike, and the firelight danced in her eyes. "Please," she said, her booming voice subdued, "call me Carol."
The reindeer raised their heads, startled, and trotted away from the caterwauling that erupted from the crew quarters. They, unlike some, were sensible creatures.