“We’ll be fine!” I assured him. “We have thermals and bobble hats and I’ve even packed some of those hand warmers – you know those little sachets you jiggle to activate-”
“It’s not the cold,” he cut me off. “It’s us!”
“What do you mean?” I still didn’t get it.
So he spelled it out for me.
“You can’t break up with me on Christmas Eve!” I protested. “Isn’t there a law against that kind of thing?”
When he first began walking away, I was too stunned to move. I was just lost to the hubbub, jostled this way and that by people humping oversized rucksacks.
But then I came back to my senses and went chasing after him, just in time to see him step into the car of Denise from Human Resources. I couldn’t believe it – she’d actually been bragging about her “hot new romance” a few days earlier but had refused to reveal his identity. No prizes for guessing who’s in her stocking now.
So there I was in a daze again, losing count of the number of suitcase wheels that rolled over my feet.
There was no car waiting to whisk me away. No trains running that could take me to my parents’ where I could suck the brandy out of the Christmas pud. It was either take the flight or spend Christmas at Heathrow airport. The wretchedness of that scenario suited my mood, but then I thought of all that glistening snow, it’s shimmering purity, the freshness of the pine-sprigged landscape...
Plus, I had been reading that the local dessert specialty was Maple Syrup Pie.
“Oh, Quebec City!” The girl on the Air Canada desk swooned as she scanned my ticket. “There’s no more romantic place in the world at this time of year! Are you meeting someone there?”
I could’ve told her the truth – that I’d just been dumped and was severely regretting not packing my hot water bottle – but then why ruin her Christmas too? So I gave a secret smile and said:
“Does he speak French?” she gurgled.
“Oui!” I nodded.
“Oh!” she swooned. “Enjoy! Enjoy every second!”
So now I’m in my hotel room with the faux fire on full blast, desperately trying to enjoy myself but not quite knowing how.
I decide to try and revive my senses by wrenching back the balcony door and stepping out into the zinging chill.
“Ice, ice baby!” I gasp. That wind is laceratingly cold.
And noisy. Less of a whistle and more of a whine. Almost like the howl of a wolf.
That is when I look down and see a Husky dog. At least I hope it’s a dog.
His immaculate monochromatic fur is being ruffled by the swirling snow, but his piercing opal-blue eyes are fixed on me with laser-like intensity.
“H-hello?” I call down.
His jaw jolts upright, then he turns towards the road and looks expectantly back at me.
“Are you trying to tell me something?”
He repeats the motion.
“You want me to follow you?”
Oh gosh! What if someone is trapped in the snow and this is his Lassie-like cry for help?
The dog yelps again. No time to waste!
“Well, I’m really not familiar with the area, I’m not prepared...” I say this to myself, but I’m still pulling on my Puffa coat, winding my scarf around my neck, donning hat and gloves and boots...
At the very least I can ask at Reception – perhaps he’s a local dog, perhaps they’ll know what to do?
Of course there’s a long line of people checking in, and I can see my friend outside getting ever-more impatient.
I’d like to say that it’s my naturally adventurous spirit that leads me outside, but actually it’s another kind of spirit, or spirits – namely the brandy, vodka, sherry and port that make up the Caribou cocktail they drink here. It seems so festive, just like mulled wine, but the effects are far more intense. For example, right now, although I feel like I’m on some kind of Polar Expedition, I don’t feel cold. I also don’t feel afraid. Maybe because some part of me thinks, “That’ll show Adrian! Think how bad he’ll feel when my frozen corpse is discovered in the morning, possibly with a half-gnawed leg.”
We round a corner, and then I come to a stunned halt.
There before me is a building unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s low and long with three main arcs and – get this – it’s entirely made of ice.
I scuttle forward and place my hands on the translucent bricks and then peer at a sign saying Hôtel De Glace.
“Ice hotel,” I translate. “This is where you wanted to bring me?” I check with my canine companion.
His tail starts wagging.
“I like your style.”
He whines again.
“You want to go inside?”
He pants eagerly.
Now this really is incredible – there are beautiful etchings in the compacted snow and a neon throb of lights turning the ice from pink to green to violet. I follow the sound of pumping club music into the bar.
This has to be one of the most surreal sights I’ve ever seen - everyone is mummified for warmth, all woolly layers and down-stuffed coats, cheerfully drinking from glasses made from hollowed out ice.
The husky trots over to a square-jawed guy at the bar. He’s got good taste, I’ll give him that.
“There you are!” Square jaw brightens, removing a glove to rumple his head and revealing a wedding ring.
Oh well, that was a bit much to hope for.
I’m just wondering if I should introduce myself or retreat, but the dog gives me no choice, running excitedly between the two of us.
“Oh Dini!” the guy tuts. “Have you been picking up women again?”
My eyes narrow at the dog. “I thought I was special!”
The man, who introduces himself as Ryan, laughs.
“I’m sure you are. It’s just that ever since Laurent’s girlfriend left, Dini has been bringing round all manner of women.”
“Like a series of old chew toys?”
“Well, a few of them haven’t been supermodels, but I wouldn’t go that far...”
Now it’s my turn to laugh.
“Where did he find you?”
“Over at the Hotel Chill.”
“So you’re not staying here?”
I look around me. “How exactly would one do that? I mean, are the beds made of ice too?”
“As a matter of fact they are.”
As Ryan explains that the mattresses are real and you sleep in Arctic-strength sleeping bags, preferably after a dunking in the hot tub, I realize I am starting to get curious about Laurent – I mean he has a nice dog and a nice friend and he’s just been dumped, which obviously I can relate to. Although I think I’m going to view it as being liberated - there’s really nothing positive about the word dumped. Besides, Adrian’s the one in Neasdon right now while I’m in, well, Narnia...
“There he is!” Ryan points through an archway, back out into the snow. “Laurent! Ici!” He calls and then shakes his head. “He can’t hear us. We have to go to him.”
Snowflakes are catching on my eyelashes, blurring my vision, so at first it’s hard for me to make out the details of the figure in the bulky coat heading towards us. Even now that he is beside us, the bottom half of his face is shrouded in a fleecy scarf, until he pulls it down to speak. In French...
There is a gentleness behind his stubbly ruggedness, the way he interacts with Dini, giving him a “You little tyke!” look one minute and then a full body hug the next. It makes me want to be next in line...
And then he reaches for my hand...
“I’m Laurent,” he husks. “I’m so sorry my dog dragged you here!”
“Don’t be - I’m just relieved I didn’t have to rescue anyone from a ditch!” I confess, though as I speak, I realize I might have been the one who just got rescued. “Does Dini mean anything in French?” I’m curious.
“It’s actually short for Houdini. He’s quite the escape artist.”
“As well as matchmaker!” I say and then immediately blush.
Laurent looks awkward. I can see he’s a little shy. After Adrian’s cockiness, this is a welcome trait.
“May I offer you a ride back to your hotel?”
I go to be terribly British and say, “No, no, I’ll be fine!” when I realize I absolutely wouldn’t be. Not least because I can’t even remember which direction I came from – was it this wall of white or that one?
“We’re just around the corner here...” Laurent leads the way.
We? I frown to myself.
And then I spy the team of sled dogs awaiting us. There’s five of them, all a-fluster to see us, clearly all raring to go, except for one who is chomping at the snow like she’s enjoying a flavourless Slush Puppy.
Wait! “Is this our mode of transport?”
“Is that okay?” he falters. “You can go with Ryan in his truck if you prefer-”
“No, no,” I gasp. “I just can’t quite believe it - I’ve never done this before...”
I look around the sled itself. “Does it have jingle bells?”
Laurent laughs. “I really should have thought of that!” And then he beckons Dini to the front harness.
“He’s the lead dog?”
“Don’t worry. He’ll stay put for the duration.”
“Well, at least he knows the way,” I concede. “Shall I get in?”
Laurent nods and helps me ease into the sled. It’s low to the ground and less substantial than I was expecting, but I’m soon distracted from the flimsiness of the wood by the fact that Laurent is tucking a check blanket around me. He smells so good, like a cedar fire with a dash of nutmeg.
“Warm enough?” he asks me.
Looking back into the hazel glow of his eyes, it’s all I can do to manage a nod. Something about him gives me a toasty feeling, on the inside. I know I’m in good hands. And paws.
And we’re off!
The sky is so black, the stars blazingly bright, as is the moon globe. It’s so quiet out here. All I can hear is the swish of the sled through the snow, the padding of paws and panting of jaws.
“Ca va?” Laurent asks.
“More than ca va. I’m wonderful!”
“I love it!”
Frankly, I’d be game for the thousand-mile Iditarod right now, but already we’re approaching the hotel.
“I wanna go again!” I whine as I clamber up from the sled.
Laurent pauses, peering at me through his dark lashes. “Tomorrow, are you busy?”
“Not remotely,” I shrug.
Dini gives a little bark as if to encourage his master.
“Would you like to ride with us at sunrise, with you mushing?”
My eyes widen at the prospect. “Really?”
“I think Dini would like to run for you.”
I expel a frosty breath. “I can’t think of a nicer way to start the day!”
“Bon!” Laurent grins back at me. “I’ll see you here at 6am?”
“I’ll be here.”
He gives me a little wink. “With bells on!”
I’m all but squeaking with glee as I wave him off.
Suddenly, I feel like writing my Christmas thank you notes early – at least the one to Adrian.
I keep it simple, telling it like it is:
“Dear Adrian, thank you so much for my Christmas gift. I have to say: this is the best present I've ever had.”
This story first appeared in My Weekly