The odd thing is, when you combine some of the most wholesome and festive parts of Christmas (Santa, gift-giving, Steve McQueen etc), the result becomes somewhat, well, twisted. Join Nobby the elf on the Twistmas Eve shift at Santa's workshop...
The workshop was always frantic at this time of year; frantic but festive.
Someone, probably Linda, had cranked on some seasonally appropriate music. While there wasn't technically space for a Christmas tree in the workshop, efforts had been made to jolly things up a bit anyway. T'was the season, after all. Baubles dripped from anywhere hookable, tinsel had been tacked to the rails which criss-crossed the cavernous ceiling space and cookie-cutter tree decals had been stuck to every inch of wall which wasn't already covered by whiteboard or motivational signage.
Above Nobby's head, a gleaming silver claw zoomed along its be-tinseled track and deposited a white box with a green stripe on his workstation, just as he whipped a wrapped gift out of the way, turned and deposited it on a conveyor belt behind him.
A digital display started counting down from seventeen as Nobby reached under his workstation and, with experienced hands, tore off just enough shining blue paper with little footballs on it to wrap the gift. Next, he yanked on a reel of silver ribbon, snipped, wrapped, twisted, wrapped, twined into a bow & curled the ends with a deft double tug using a blunt blade. The little label printer was just spitting out the tags for the gift as he finished curling; he attached the first with more silver ribbon ('For Kyle, From Santa, Ho Ho Ho') and the second, bearing the QR code which contained all the shipping information, with a loose loop of paper thread which the delivery man would snap right before he left it under the tree. Nobby turned and deposited the box on the conveyor belt just as another claw dropped a jazzy stuffed unicorn on his counter and the digital display returned to seventeen, sixteen, fifteen…
All around him, from thousands more tiny cubicles, the same sounds rang out. Thump, rip, rustle, fold, screech of tape, ribbon reel, whirl of printer, thump. The most finely tuned yuletide symphony in existence.
Above the sounds of gift wrapping, Noddy Holder screamed "IT'S CHRISTMAS!" for the fourteenth time that shift and Nobby glowered as the other elves shot smirks in his direction; though activity never ceased. They insisted on calling him Nobby Holder, even though his last name was Thompson. Linda trundled past his workstation and winked knowingly. Bitch. Nobby used one finger to rub briefly under the shackle on his left ankle and left the finger surreptitiously and briefly out to salute her chubby back as he returned to wrapping the latest mobile telephone in pink paper with gold stars.
A series of rapid beeps trilled from Nobby's ankle as the next collective thump of gifts hitting conveyor belts echoed around the warehouse and the electronic shackle buzzed and snapped open. The digital display blinked and began a twelve minute countdown and the one hundred elves which composed workshop subsection 5d vacated their posts and sprinted for the canteen. Nobby joined them, the bell on his floppy green cap jingling merrily.
However, Nobby didn't go to the staff canteen, as he was supposed to.
The door to Sorting was maglock sealed from the inside. Nobby glanced fretfully up and down the sterile corridor, his heart thundering in his ears. This was mad. Someone tried it every year and they always got caught, and then… Nobby suppressed a shudder. He leaned against the heavy steel and rattled out the Jingle Bells melody with his knuckles. The door buzzed, opened and he stepped back into the restricted area.
Ralfie was an elderly elf, but tougher than an overcooked Christmas pudding. His forearms bulged with cords of muscle and his half moon spectacles were smudged. "You've got five minutes," Ralfie grunted, consulting a worn pocket watch. "And if you get pinched, you broke in here on your own, understand? Otherwise-" he broke off and delivered Nobby a simmering glare.
Nobby nodded meekly and accepted a small sack, squeaking out "Thank you Uncle Ralfie," as the old timer tossed his beard back over one shoulder, buzzed the door and disappeared in the direction of his lunch.
Above the door, another display informed Nobby that he had ten minutes and four seconds to put his plan into action and make it back to his workstation. He checked the sack, which was bulging with gingerbread; enough provisions to last several days. Excellent. Painted yellow lines bisected with little walking elf figures ran around acres of towering racking. There should be minimal personnel to interrupt him, as the workshop and sorting subsections logically took their break at the same time. Still, as Nobby ran along the yellow lines, he took care to poke his head around each row of racking before sprinting across the opening to the next one.
His hand shaking with adrenaline, Nobby pushed up the red cuff of his tunic and checked the digits he'd scrawled on his wrist. A sheen of anxiety sweat was starting to make the untidy loops of biro smear. '1225F'.
A gigantic 'F' board swung gently above his head and Nobby started counting along with the numbers stencilled on the front of each aisle until he found the correct one. He grabbed a clipboard out of its wire holder and hurried down the aisle, passing shelves upon shelves of plastic bins, each containing an unwrapped gift. His eyes flickered between the bin numbers and the clipboard. He arrived at bin 782 and peeked inside. Bingo.
Working quickly, and casting panicked glances up and down the aisle, Nobby heaved down bins 782 and 781. The dollhouse in 782 was vast. He removed the plastic monstrosity from its cardboard box which declared, in splashy letters, that it had real flushing toilets; foam and cardboard wedges flew into the air as Nobby hurriedly dumped the entire contents. Next, he removed the Pretty As A Princess Toddler Makeover Kit from bin 781 and dropped it into the empty box, along with his sack of provisions. Finally, he moved the dollhouse box from bin 782 to bin 781 and struggled everything back onto the shelves in its correct place. The discarded packing he kicked under the racking, along with the dollhouse which he broke into pieces, wincing at each impossibly loud plastic snap. It was December 24th; by the time they found the debris, it would be too late. He hoped.
The whole caper had taken Nobby just under four and a half minutes. Plenty of time to blend back in with the lunch crowd and return to his station. He set his feet on a yellow line and ran for it.
The first gifts of the post-lunch shift were ready and waiting as the elves returned to their stations. The twelve minute lunch timer zeroed to the metallic snap snap snap of shackles relocking and reset to seventeen seconds.
Nobby tore off a sheet of green paper covered in prancing reindeer and began to wrap a pair of rollerskates, keeping half an eye out for accusing stares and knowing glances. As far as he could see, everyone had their attention fixed on their work. A panicky tremor ran through his fingers and he swore, fumbling his roll of tape.
"That's not very festive language Nobby," cracked out a voice. Linda.
Nobby leapt and briefly met her steely eye. "Sorry Linda," Nobby said. He risked another glance up at her and she was still glaring at him, stoney faced. "I just really want to make sure I do a good job," he said contritely, adding "for the kids."
Linda shot him a final venomous stare and finally moved off to terrorise someone else. Nobby was sure the hammering of his heart must be loud enough to give him away. A bead of sweat escaped from the brim of his hat, rolled down his pointed nose and plopped onto the reindeer paper. It took him three tries to force the jolly purple ribbon into a bow and another six presents to calm down enough to find his rhythm again as the claws dropped item after item in front of him.
Somewhere around an hour from end of shift, a stentorian voice thundered across the workshop, booming out the ubiquitous three syllable corporate slogan. Nobby thought he might have actually licked his own heart, it had leapt so violently into his mouth. It was him.
Nobby's neighbour was jibbering quietly and he heard Linda's voice elsewhere in subsection 5d exclaiming with insincere delight. A terrified moan escaped Nobby as he tried to make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible behind his workstation. What possible reason could he have to make a last minute workshop visit this late on Christmas Eve? Only one, thought Nobby. They'd found out.
He caught a glimpse of a flash of scarlet, the shine of a polished black boot, a wisp of ermine. This was it. He was reindeer chow. The edges of his vision started to go grey as he hyperventilated and tugged fruitlessly at the electronic shackle.
And then the big man was gone.
Linda shot him a dirty look over her shoulder as the claw deposited a Tailor Tuckit Runway-Ready Barbie on top of an only half wrapped personal laptop computer. Nobby gripped the edge of the counter and physically sagged. They hadn't found out. Yet.
Noddy Holder screamed "IT'S CHRISTMAS" again and Nobby started frantically wrapping. This time, nobody laughed.
By the time the claw brought the dollhouse box, the final gift of his shift, Nobby was actually slightly ahead and had managed to have paper and ribbon ready. This would be the tricky bit, and he craned his neck, praying that Linda was busy bothering someone else.
The dollhouse box took up the entire workspace. Nobby flipped it on its side and opened the flaps; he used the prepared paper to wrap the Pretty As A Princess Toddler Makeover Kit inside the box and flung it onto the conveyor belt. A rapid beeping issued from his ankle as shackles all over the workshop clacked open. Nobby flipped the box back upright.
"Been one behind since the visit," Nobby lied to a passing colleague who was looking questioningly at the box with a raised eyebrow and sucking air through his teeth. The rubber-necker nodded at the timer, which was now counting down from sixty seconds, and passed by. Nobby waited nervously until he could see the backs of the last of his shift, cast one last paranoid glance over his shoulder and then clambered onto the workstation and into the box, pulling the flaps closed behind him.
Outside the box, the claws descended and dropped the first gifts for the next shift. No one noticed that the claw which descended to Nobby's station was empty. Nobby's replacement arrived and stuck his foot into the vacant shackle as the digital display reset to seventeen seconds. He grunted and struggled to wrap the bulky box in gleaming silver paper, the kind that doesn't tear, and secure it tightly with a hot pink ribbon. He attached the tags ('To Cecily, From Santa. Ho Ho Ho') and heaved the entire thing onto the conveyor belt, where it wound its way out of the workshop and off towards Distribution.
The team of reindeer touched down outside the grand old manor house on the outskirts of Harrogate with barely a whisper. The senior Santa docked the reins and jerked his thumb at the bulging sack of presents in the back, and his trainee scrambled around to grab the delivery: a somewhat large box wrapped in silver paper and a smaller box wrapped in blue paper with little footballs on it.
Between them, the Santas lugged the parcels to the back door and the trainee got to work with a set of lockpicks while his supervisor hovered over him, an index finger pushing back the lush red material of his sleeve so he could time him on his wristwatch.
"Not bad," murmured the senior Santa quietly, as the lock opened with an audible clunk.
"Can I drive the sleigh next?" whispered the trainee, as he scrambled to his feet and grabbed a box.
Senior Santa snorted. "Not likely Kevin. I don't know what land you're living in but I bet they have unicorns there."
The trainee had started high on purpose. "Well can I eat the mince pie then?" he said.
Senior Santa paused and mulled it over. "You can drink the milk," he conceded.
Stealthily they crept through the house, where nothing was stirring - not even a mouse. Or, more importantly, an alarm system.
When they located the tree, enormous and dripping with designer baubles, the senior Santa whipped out his scanner gun and aimed the beam at the QR code on the smaller box. He gave a thumbs up and the trainee snapped the paper string and slid the gift under the tree. He pointed the gun at the tracking label on the silver box.
"Boss?" asked the trainee, when the senior Santa frowned, his bushy white brows furrowing deeply.
"Last minute contender for the Naughty List," the senior Santa sighed. "We'd better get it back out to the sleigh. Almost made it too; so close."
"Great," groused the trainee, scowling. "This one weighs a tonne." He squatted and lifted with his knees, just like he'd been shown at orientation. "What happens to the ones that don't make it?" he asked, as his supervisor bent to relock the back door.
They heaved the box back into the sleigh and the senior Santa shrugged. "Incinerator," he said.
Cover image by Alexsander-777 via Pixabay