Abandoned in a forest in a swirling snow storm, a band of brave university staff struggle to find the pub yet still encounter some festive spirit in John Gilbey's seasonal short story
The vice-chancellor of the University of Rural England dropped his rucksack on the platform and angrily zipped up his fleece to the neck.
Beyond the reach of the yellowed station lights, the grainy dimness of a December afternoon was slowly fading from sight. As the two-carriage train muttered away into the distance, a chill wind rattled dry leaves past his booted feet. He resisted the temptation to crush the leaves into powder and turned to his colleague instead.
"Remind me," he said to the registrar, who was rolling a brightly coloured ski hat onto his bald pate. "Remind me why I am standing on some godforsaken bloody railway station, freezing my bits off, surrounded by what I will laughingly call the senior management team? Is this the act of a sane man?"
The registrar sighed a deep, administrative sigh. "If you will recall, Peter," he began, in measured tones, "that last consultant convinced senate that there were - how did he put it? - ah yes, 'serious unresolved issues of personal conflict that impact on the ability of the team to deliver a quality, flexible, proactive response to key management foci' - or words to that effect."
"Consultant?" muttered the vice-chancellor, "I thought he was selling something - snake oil maybe..."
"Nothing so respectable, it was another expensive team-building course."
The vice-chancellor looked at his watch. "Well, where are they? Isn't someone supposed to pick us up and take us to the hotel?"
Fiona, resplendent in orange wool, held up a large envelope with "Open ONLY on arrival at Westbridge Road station" emblazoned on it. "I guess it's time we opened this." As the others gathered round, she edged it open and eased out paper and a map.
"Welcome travellers. You have begun the path to self-discovery. Beware, the way is crooked and there are many pitfalls - so follow your guide with care!" She looked up in despair. "Who wrote this crap?" Fiona read on. "Oh no! We've got to find our own way to the pub - it's four miles!" The vice-chancellor let loose an expletive that ionised the air around him.
"Well it's a bloody good job we sent the luggage on with the Whale," he muttered. "Why did she wimp out, anyway?" Fiona pursed her lips. "Being six months pregnant isn't wimping out - and I'd be grateful if you wouldn't call Alice that."
"Come on," commanded the vice-chancellor, in tones of seething resentment, "the sooner we get there the sooner I can shout at them. Which way do we go?"
"Leave the station and turn right. Cross the river bridge and climb the gate on your left into the woodland. Follow the path uphill - and don't be surprised by anything that happens..."
"Marvellous," grated the vice-chancellor. "We're dealing with a bunch of weekend bloody elves. It's classic psychology - they'll get us buried in the woods, then put the frighteners on us. There'll be headless sodding horsemen or something, you mark my words."
Beyond the pool of light on the platform, the darkness was now complete.
The path was, indeed, crooked - and steep - and muddy. The vice-chancellor led the party - cursing roundly. Then came Trevor, the registrar, helped by the occasional shove from human resources director Fiona. To the rear, glancing uneasily over his shoulder, wandered Eric - information guru and sometime philosopher - trying unsuccessfully to get a signal on his phone.
The track wound upwards through dense stands of wind-ravaged trees, starkly illuminated by the rising moon.
"What do you think they've got lined up for us?" Trevor asked, his voice blown by the rising wind. "They've got a river," Fiona volunteered, "so I bet it'll be raft-building and stuff - that's always fun."
"Rafts? In this weather?" Eric exclaimed with concern, "We'll catch our deaths! Anyway - we've all done that dozens of times. Surely they must have some new gag?" Peter's reply was a grunt of dismissal that closed the matter, and they trudged on wordlessly. Unsettlingly rustic sounds surrounded them - along with the fearful, primal sensation of pursuit, felt even by the sensitivity-challenged vice-chancellor.
Eric cracked first. "Look people, I'm sure there's someone behind us." A twig snapped nearby and they took an involuntary step closer together.
"Oi!" yelled the vice-chancellor, staring into the gloom. "Who the hell are you? Come out here, I want a word with you." There was a sound that might have been laughter, or perhaps the cry of wind-tortured branches. "You know that thing about them trying to frighten us?" Eric murmured. "Just to let you know it's working..."
The wind was much stronger now - with fragments of snow embedded in it. The moon became buried behind hostile storm clouds and the flakes became bigger and more tightly packed, until swirls of white hid their view. Only one thing remained clear - ahead of them the track divided.
Huddled together they fought to stop the map being blown into the night.
"Hasn't anyone got a torch?" demanded the vice-chancellor. Trevor held up a lighter and clicked it into life - the wind immediately blew it out. He held it up again in the shelter of the map. The map burst into flames.
Peter stamped out the fire - the lighter succumbing under his boot with a scrunch.
In the sudden darkness, the sense of manic pursuit was overwhelming.
"Bloody great! No map, no lighter! Now what do we do?" stormed Peter.
Trevor, stuttering apologies, offered his advice.
"I think we need to turn right, and quickly!" As one, they fled down the track, feeling every feral forest sound like a jab in the ribs - seeing bestial shapes in each swirl of snow and foliage. Then, suddenly, the track stopped.
Behind them, deeply unpleasant sounds began to filter through the snow-damped air. Gravel scrunched, twigs cracked and taunting, wordless voices moved slowly forwards out of the gloom. Peter realised that the hair on his broad neck was beginning to stand on end.
It was Trevor who first glimpsed the light. It hung, lamp-like and flickering, between the trees an indeterminate distance off. Tempting them, beckoning to them.
"It must be the pub," stated the vice-chancellor imperiously. No one doubted him for a moment. On that subject, unlike many others, he was never wrong.
Eric stumbled towards the light. There was an anguished cry of horror, and the sound of a long, rapid, painful descent through tangled undergrowth.
After a heavy, tumultuous splash only the sound of the wind remained.
"Come on!" yelled Fiona, wriggling out of her rucksack straps. "We've got to find him!" Feeling their way downhill between gnarled tree trunks, their hands and faces raked by brambles, the remaining three managed to find a marginally less precipitous route to the bottom of the slope. A river, perhaps 20ft across, tumbled over slippery boulders and around fractured fallen trees. A groan from just downstream led them to a battered figure lying, Ophelia-like, in the icy water. "Hello, glad you could make it,"
mumbled Eric, then passed out.
Lugging 12 stone of unhelpful, bearded, wringing wet, semiconscious manager up a muddy slope in a blizzard is generally enjoyable only in retrospect.
The group - despite acting with a bizarre degree of co-operation and cohesion - took fully half an hour to haul, yank and scrape Eric back up to the end of the track. "Well done, chaps!" said Peter as they lowered Eric onto the snow, but the sense of menace and threat from the unseen company was undimmed. He looked across at Fiona and Trevor - covered in mud, wet from the waist down, shaking with cold - and a familiar look solidified across his face. He turned to the unknown crowd and used the voice known to cause alimentary distress.
"Come here and face me, you sneaky bastards! We've got an injured man here - we've got to get him to shelter." He shook one fist high into the night.
"I'm not afraid of you, you know - I've been in front of the Public Accounts Committee!"
Suddenly, the snow reduced itself to a few decorative flurries and the wind dropped enough for them to hear a new noise. Familiar almost at cellular level, it was the sound of a horse and cart approaching - led by a man wrapped tightly against the bitter cold. He beckoned them towards the cart.
As they lugged Eric towards it, they felt a euphoric sense of relief.
The White Hart, reflected the vice-chancellor, was everything an English country pub ought to be. Dark wooden beams at neck height, brass ornaments reflecting the flames of a roaring log fire and an encouraging smell of steak and chips wafting in from the kitchen. Peter sighed with satisfaction and tried to make the impossible choice between Wadworths 6X and Flowers Original for his next pint. The registrar wandered into the bar and peeled off his hat with a vaguely disconcerting gesture. "How is he?" Peter asked.
"Eric? Oh, he'll be fine I think. The local vet had a look at him and said he had borderline hypothermia, but he's being cosseted by Fiona and that nice young waitress. I think it's improving his circulation no end."
"Vet?" Peter exclaimed. "Yes, odd village," remarked the registrar, "a vet but no doctor. Still, he seems sound enough."
Trevor sat down and stared into the fire. "Odd in all sorts of ways, actually. Do you remember us actually arriving here?"
"Well," mused the vice-chancellor, "not really. I mean, we were on that cart - then we were standing outside the pub. And bloody glad I was to see it too."
The registrar leaned across and lowered his voice. "Thing is, once we got Eric inside I nipped back out to slip that bloke a few quid - only, there was no sign of him. Not even any tracks in the snow. What on earth happened?"
He was interrupted by the barman. "Excuse me gents, is one of you a professor? I've got some bloke on the phone wants to talk to you."
The vice-chancellor took the instrument. "Yes? Yes, this is he. Who? Oh yes, I've been wanting to talk to you! Sorry? You're where? For how long? Ah. Yes, yes, I suppose that would be the best idea. No, we're fine, thanks. No problem... Yes, get in touch next week and we'll sort it out.
There was a moment's silence, then a log shifted noisily in the grate.
Trevor had never seen the vice-chancellor lost for words before - but it was a while before he spoke.
"That was the consultant chappy. He and his merry men are in a van on the hard shoulder of the M42 in about a foot of snow. It seems that they have been there for some hours..."
"Then whoI?" began the registrar - then thought better of it. Even in the warmth and safety of the pub there were some things best left unsaid.
The vice-chancellor took a long pull at his drink. "I think," he concluded, "that we had better keep this to ourselves." He eased back in his chair and swirled his pint. "Bloody odd business. Still, some good has come of it."
Trevor looked up and smiled, anticipating profound insight.
"At least," the vice-chancellor smiled back, "we won't have to pay the buggers."
John Gilbey is a computer science lecturer. He writes in a private capacity.