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In the grotto

Longlisted Furious Fiction Competition December 2020

‘Not good enough!’   Words bellowed into my face as I sit at my work bench on the en`d of the production line.  It is freezing, my shoulders are hunched and my back aches.  We are well behind schedule and have toiled day and night for the past week.  With each exhale I see my misty breath rising around me.  The noise is deafening, clunking machinery, cheery Christmas songs and above it all comes a regular roar ‘Idiot!’ , ‘Wake Up!’.  One of my cheeks is ablaze, rose red, smarting from a slap delivered as my eyelids started to droop.  An unexpected and brutal slap that knocked me off my stool.  I feel broken, my normally nimble fingers have stiffened from the relentless task of attaching felt Santa hats onto the heads of cats.  Not real cats you understand – I am not a taxidermist or a vivisectionist.  These are Grotto Gift cats, compliant, clawless, cuddly plush fur, matching expressions and glass-eyes.  We work long hours in the Grotto and are given just enough food and water to keep us alive, just enough sleep to ensure that we can still produce these high quality gifts.

We came by invitation from the big man himself buoyed by tales of camaraderie and the opportunity to participate in a project to make the world a better place.  We would work at Grotto Gifts located in Siberia, right next to the North Pole.  We jumped at the chance to work with that cheery red-faced man, clean white beard, soft plump hands, all kindness, warmth and generosity.   How shocked we were to see high fences, barbed wire and heavily guarded gates when we arrived.  Immediately rounded up into work teams, separated from friends, our every-day clothes taken away and replaced by our prison uniforms, green tunics and pointed green caps.  Unable to walk outside, our movement restricted by felt boots with slippery soles and long curled up toes.

So here we are incarcerated in Santa’s sweat shop.  We shuffle from factory floor to dorm room, work without pay and receive regular beatings from Santa and his cronies.  The man is a fraud, his image fashioned by the marketing men of a multi-national company and spruced up once a year for public appearance.  He is, indeed, rotund and he does have a beard, but it is a filthy and foul-smelling, and his nose and cheeks are reddened by his copious consumption of brandy.   We are trying to resist, writing small handwritten notes, stashing them in our tunics, passing them palm to palm when no-one is looking.  Each day as we work we tuck them into those cuddly cats.   ‘Please help us! We elves are enslaved’, ‘Made by elf slave-labour’.   Every day we send out these entreaties and hope that one day someone will see our message, start to ask questions, and that we will be freed from this tyrant.