Special Mention - Owen Townend
The Boxing Day Grotto
By Owen Townend
Richard loved being Father Christmas. It was the highlight of his year to don the red
velvet suit with white cotton trim, to squeak around in weighty black boots and
assume the light-adorned seat in the local mall grotto. Unfortunately this period of
work lasted for only two thirds of December before ending rather abruptly on the 24th.
Of course, Richard didn’t do it for the money. He had received a decent
retirement package from his years working focus groups at Ruddlesden Superstore;
plenty to live on in his dotage. A solid three decades of older folk squabbling over
free samples of fresh produce and how honestly these were advertised. It was just
lovely to be able to listen to what kids wanted for a change. They certainly had a
better grasp of such things than adults.
Regardless Christmas Eve soon came around again and he found himself
pensive. One thing that had always bothered Richard was why nobody ever followed
up on these kids, checked that they got what they wanted or else were happy with
what they received. Perhaps it was his old business brain working overtime but he
saw a definite opportunity here.
So he set up a new grotto in the communal field round the back of his cottage,
just far enough away so that the local kids didn’t get too suspicious. After Christmas
dinner, he set out to redecorate an old wooden shelter there, covering its flaking
green exterior with gold and silver tinsel and the damp interior with old red curtains.
He even carried his comfortable green armchair outside. Richard waited till Boxing
Day morning before opening for business.
The first person he saw was Aneesa, the nice girl from two doors down. He
had mentioned to her what he was thinking of doing when they crossed paths in the
park and she was keen to help out. Seeing her jingle across the grass, adjusting her
pointy elf ears was a sight to behold.
“Excellent elf costume, dear,” Richard said, gesturing at a chair beside his.
“Hope you didn’t go to too much trouble?”
Aneesa shook her head. “My brother leant me these ears. He’s a big Trekkie.
As for the costume, I improvised with one of Mum’s old dresses.”
Richard regarded the rather vibrant red and green swirls that came to a
glittery halt at the hem of a rather short skirt.
Aneesa shrugged her shoulders. “She wore this stuff in the 60’s.”
Richard nodded, wondering if his electric pink bell bottoms were still
somewhere in the back of his own wardrobe. “I’m not sure what to expect today.
Could be nobody comes. If you get bored, feel free to head back home.”
“Thanks but Dad’s on with making enough Peshwari Naan for the whole
neighbourhood. Trust me, it’s better to be out of the house.”
“Right.” Richard said, putting on his Santa hat. “Let’s see who turns up.”
The first two hours were incredibly quiet. Their only visitor was Mrs Ashcroft from
Hogarth Lane, dressed in an orange Mackintosh while exercising her fox terriers.
Aneesa flinched at the sudden appearance of a furry snout so Richard moved
between them. As soon as she saw him in his outfit, Mrs Ashcroft chuckled.
“You do know what day it is, don’t you, Richard?” She spoke slowly though
this was mostly to tease.
The fairer terrier, Sandy, scratched at the toe of Richard’s boot.
“Yes I do, Imelda. Did you not receive the note I posted through everyone’s
“I did. Our Wesley is a bit too old for this sort of thing now.”
“Really? He came to Ruddlesden last year.” Richard squinted as he
remembered. “Asked for the latest Barbie doll if I’m not mistaken.”
Mrs Ashcroft’s eyes shined with surprise. “You’ve got a good memory.”
“I do my best. And did he get it?”
She sniffed. “Certainly not.”
Richard wasn’t surprised by this: Mrs Ashcroft was a staunch traditionalist
with her parenting. Still, it did seem cruel to deprive the lad of his wish.
Sandy had now taken to sniffing the behind of her darker brother, Brody.
Richard thought the intensity with which she did this was a bit indecent but Mrs
Ashcroft wasn’t at all fazed. She just tucked a stray lock of white hair back beneath
her hood and chuckled again. “So what is this then? Customer feedback?”
“In a way.”
“Well, I suppose if any Santa can ask the right questions, it would be you.”
She winked. “I’ll remind the Fosters and the Brickleys.”
Richard smiled. “Thank you.”
Mrs Ashcroft set out again, pulled by both Sandy and Brody, who apparently
wanted to investigate a nearby fencepost. “I’ll look forward to your eventual in-depth
presentation at the next town meeting.”
She might be snarky and in denial about her son but Mrs Ashcroft did have a
kind streak. Though she obviously didn’t believe in his project, she wouldn’t see
Richard sat out in the cold for nothing. Once she and the dogs had disappeared, he
returned to the grotto. Aneesa was watching from the window.
“Poor Wesley,” she muttered. “He can’t move out fast enough.”
Richard nodded. “You not a dog person then?”
“I know it’s silly.” she grimaced. “Mum loves dogs but Dad still doesn’t trust
“I suppose he panics when a dog gets near?”
Richard nodded. “Parents give a lot of themselves to their kids. Good and
With a reassuring pat on her shoulder, Richard got his portable kettle boiling.
They both had their tea strong, fingers wrapped around thick mugs.
Not long after the steam had dissipated, Richard set his tea down and
answered a small but firm knock on the left wall. Little Tommy Brickley stood in the
doorway, eight years old and scowling. Richard gave his loudest ho, ho, ho but the
belly laugh did nothing to appease the stiff-lipped lad.
“Hello, Tommy. How are you this chilly Boxing Day?”
Tommy ripped off his black bobble hat and stuffed it into the pocket of his
silver puffer jacket. “A Snottyhead.”
Richard adjusted his half-moon spectacles. “Pardon?”
“I asked for a Snottyhead,” Tommy spoke slowly, a rumble to his voice. “You
gave me a Grinspan.”
Richard glanced at Aneesa for help.
“Father Christmas, aren’t Snottyhead and Grinspan from the same line of
action figures? The ones with green goopy hair?”
After a moment Richard nodded. “Yes. I believe Snottyhead is the goodie and
Grinspan is the baddie.”
“No,” Tommy snapped. “Grinspan is Snottyhead’s partner! Grinspan has a big
smile but no bogey hair. He’s smaller, too.”
Richard locked eyes with Aneesa but she just shrugged. With a huff, he
kneeled down to the boy’s level.
“Oh, I am sorry, Tommy. Unfortunately Snottyhead didn’t have any toys to
spare me this year. However Grinspan was kind enough to pass on one of his.”
Tommy grunted. “Snottyhead and Grinspan aren’t real. They’re on TV.”
“Is that what they tell you, eh?” Richard tried a wink but he had the feeling this
wouldn’t quite work. The boy was now shaking with anger. “I am sorry, my boy. We’ll
see what we can do next year, eh?”
“You’re Santa!” Tommy shouted. “You’re supposed to make the toys yourself!”
With that he stormed back out onto the frosty grass, crunching all the way
“Blimey,” Richard said, sinking back into his grotto chair.
“Not sure what Elaine was playing at there,” Aneesa replied. “Snottyhead
figures are in all the supermarkets as well as the toy shops. I even saw one on
“Yes. Dad needed me to pick up some ingredients.”
Richard was downcast for some time after that. Of course, it wasn’t his fault
that Tommy’s Mum didn’t buy the right action figure but Tommy didn’t know that. He
honestly thought Santa handled the entire arrangement himself. Like all the times
focus group members accused him of writing the misleading copy on Ruddlesden
The more Richard thought about this current scenario, the more bizarre it
seemed. Food for thought but certainly not the kind he had hoped for. There was his
mistake: a focus group leader shouldn’t project a desired outcome.
Fortunately there was another half an hour or so of quiet. Aneesa got up to
stretch her legs and when she returned, it was with Mr Foster and his twin daughters
Ophelia and Katie in tow.
Richard did his best to perk up, even pinching his cheeks to add colour.
The girls went silent when they saw him so Mr Foster tousled their long black
hair to get them to talk. Instead Katie burst into tears. Her father looked helpless,
glancing at Richard as if he might be able to fix the mistake.
“Now, now, petal,” he said. “What’s wrong?”
Katie sniffed and wiped her cheek with the sleeve of her woolly overcoat. She
then turned to Ophelia, lifting one white fluffy ear warmer to whisper.
Once she was done, Ophelia cleared her throat. “You forgot our puppy,
Richard locked eyes with Mr Foster who shook his close-shaven head.
“I see,” Richard replied. “Well, there’s a funny story about that. You see, the
elves and I were about to make you the cutest puppy ever but unfortunately we ran
out of stuff. We had plenty of lovely soft fur but couldn’t fetch the right sparkle for the
“Silly me,” Aneesa added. Richard smiled his thanks for sharing the
“But puppies aren’t made,” Ophelia said. “We saw one being born.”
Richard paused. “You did?”
Richard wasn’t quite sure what to say. He could stick to his story but then that
might complicate the life lessons the girls had already been taught. Judging from the
wide-eyed look on Mr Foster’s face, even he had no idea how much they already
“That must be where we’re going wrong then,” Richard replied
conversationally to Aneesa. He then turned back to the girls. “We’ll see what can be
Ophelia gawped at them while Katie set off crying again. At last Mr Foster
took the initiative to lead them both out before any further damage could be done. A
fine thing, Richard thought, bringing your kids to blame Santa. Mr Foster should
really have apologised himself rather than using Richard as an unsuspecting
scapegoat. Then again, this was all supposition. The girls may well have dragged
their dad out to the grotto. They were so incensed.
Richard reached for a handkerchief and mopped his creased brow. “My
goodness. It’s all go today, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid so.”
He turned to Aneesa now who was still watching the Fosters from the window,
biting her lip.
“Do you think this was the right idea?” he asked.
“Well, Santa does have a lot of explaining to do. All those kids asking for
things their Mum and Dad can’t give them.”
“I never say yes.” Richard straightened up. “It’s always been my
understanding that Santa only ever says ‘I’ll see what I can do’.”
Aneesa wrinkled her nose. “Doesn’t he also talk about them being good?”
“I hope you’re not suggesting I indulge in emotional blackmail.”
“Not you.” Aneesa chuckled. “Santa. One way or another, Father Christmas
has always been about giving gifts to only good kids. Still, it all comes down to what
their Mum and Dad can afford or are willing to do. The whole philosophy runs the risk
of good kids feeling punished for trying their best but not quite succeeding.”
Richard massaged his temples. “I’ll agree it’s not a perfect system. I just try
my best to represent the better part of Father Christmas. The listening ear.”
“And you do.” Aneesa cleared her throat. “Which begs the question, why
check up on what kids got or didn’t get when the answer is taking such a toll on
Richard needed a moment to think about this. It was dawning on him that the
grotto idea might have been a little selfish. He was hoping for satisfied customers or
customers who recognised the efforts he had personally gone to. Really, years of
focus group work should have taught him that you needed to take the rough with the
smooth. There are many reactions to even the simplest transaction. He couldn’t
overlook the danger in pretending to be responsible for a moral decision that really
comes down to money.
He fell quiet for a while. Aneesa didn’t pressure him for an answer, giving him
some space and making them both another cup of tea. As the kettle began to hiss
behind him, Richard raised himself to his feet and began peeling the fairy lights off
his grotto chair.
“There’s really no point carrying on with all this,” he declared.
Aneesa said nothing.
His reaction may be childish but he was done. Enough disappointment.
Richard didn’t notice that the girl had wandered in till he turned around. He
gasped, clutching his chest. “Deary me! You’re light on your feet!”
The girl giggled. Something told Richard he was on a good wicket here. The girl
looked about eleven, tall for her age and rubbing her pink mittens together.
Aneesa grinned at her. “Hello, Kelly!”
“Ah yes. Kelly,” Richard said. “How are you?”
“I’m okay,” she said. “Just want to say thank you.”
“Thank you?” Richard couldn’t disguise the shock in his voice.
“Yes.” Kelly pulled the toggles on her red trapper hat. “I got what I wanted.”
Richard smiled carefully. “I’m glad to hear it.” Unfortunately he could not recall
what ‘it’ was precisely. That was one of the other issues of doing this, he was
accepting thanks for other Santa impersonators.
“Okay,” Kelly replied, turning back towards the door. “Have a nice day, Father
“Before you go...” Richard began. He was going to ask what she had got for
Christmas. His desperation wanted him come right out with it. Then again that would
have shown that Santa did not know what he had gifted Kelly with. It would
completely dispel this girl’s already fragile belief system, just like the other kids. In a
year she might not believe. Did he really have it in him to set that in motion so early?
No. To hell with customer service appraisal or whatever this was. For now,
Richard was Father Christmas, one who had apparently delivered. Better to leave
the dream alone.
“Merry Boxing Day, Kelly,” he said.
Kelly giggled again. “Thank you. You too.”
“See you, love,” Aneesa added.
Once the girl had gone, Richard turned to Aneesa. “Well, that was something,
Aneesa patted him on the shoulder. “End on a high note?”
He took in a slow, shuddering breath of air. “God, yes.”
There were no further visitors as they stripped the shelter of decorations.
Though Richard still pondered Kelly’s wish, he was ultimately relieved. A
presentation at the town hall was very unlikely now but he had satisfied his curiosity,
or rather learned better. Next year he would only be Santa at Christmas.