Written in my first term as a teacher back in 1992 this rather unseasonal story derived from a conversation I had with someone while we were on a ten hour drive from Norfolk to Oban. As is often the case our talk gradually meandered into increasingly bizarre byways. So it was that we began to discuss Christmas and the realities behind this annual orgy of consumption. Don't get me wrong, I love a good Christmas, but there's a lot more to the process than we think, and not all of it is attractive or good-willed. And all those toys have to come from somewhere...
There was a chorus of shouts as the door to block twelve banged open and the snow flecked wind howled into the wooden shed. A line of heavily muffled figures wearily entered and stomped the snow from their ragged boots, before the last one turned to push the door back in place and secure the catch. Abruptly the noise of the wind outside was cut off and there was a moment's stillness before the workers who had just come off shift peeled away their grimy coverings and shuffled over to the stove that glowed warmly in the middle of the large shed. A few of the more exhausted ignored the stove and just collapsed onto the bunks vacated by workers making ready for the next shift. It was a sensible strategy; although the stove was much warmer than a recently slept in bunk it was much harder to get near to, and one had to stand - not an easy prospect after twelve hours in the factory.
The shed was packed while the two shifts swapped over. The snow and ice that had formed on the recent arrivals during their trek over from the production line was melting; wispy twists of steam clogged the fetid air. The door opened again as the next shift hurried out into the darkness to make their way across the compound to the factory gates. They were joined by more groups of workers from the other barracks and before the door shut those inside caught one last glimpse of the shadowy column sullenly picking its way through the blizzard towards the giant wrought iron gates looming in the distance. Then the door shut again and the stove slowly restored warmth to the room.
Once some of the workers had begun to feel their fingertips they began to help the cook prepare a meal. Wrinkled and grubby vegetables were picked out of the splintered ration crate in a far corner and carefully diced into a large pot on the stove, in which scoops of snow rapidly melted. After a while the shed filled with the scent of vegetables and other ingredients stewing and there was a comforting bubbling sound from the top of the stove. More than one belly was rumbling and the workers waited in eager anticipation of their portion of stew. When the barrack cook announced that it was ready the others quickly formed an orderly line by the stove, battered mess tins held ready. The line shuffled forward as the cook ladled out the stew and handed each worker a dark lump of bread from a hessian sack at his feet.
"Here! What's this?" One asked loudly as he held up the bread accusingly. "Where's the rest of it?"
"Ration cut." The cook grunted as he reached out with the next ladle of stew. "Orders from the boss. Until the New Year we're on half a loaf a day."
"Until the New Year?" The worker repeated angrily. "We're already starving as it is."
"Ain't my fault." The cook answered. "You got a complaint then you take it up with Claws, not me. Now out the way, I got others to feed."
At mention of Claws the worker shrank away, muttering as he clutched his mess tin and went off in search of place to sit down and eat.
Over on the bunks the exchange had been heard by a young worker and he swore softly at the news of the reduction in the bread ration. It was mid December and that meant going hungry for over three more weeks - going hungrier he corrected himself. Joey had only been at the production camp for a few months and was still in reasonably good shape. The twelve hour shift was exhausting to be sure but it had not broken him as it had so many others. In recent weeks the workers had been driven hard to produce more and more toys for the Christmas market. It was the same every year he had been told. And when he had heard that Joey had decided to leave the camp as soon as he could. The trouble with that, he learned soon enough, was he had heard that no-one ever left the camp, alive that is. All the promises of high wages and good living conditions the recruiters had seduced them with had proved to be shallow lies. In the camp you worked until you died, and workers did die - he had seen it with his own eyes. The exhausting work ground down even the strongest until they were no more than unthinking, glassy eyed zombies toiling over an endless production line. Death was the only mercy in the camp.
With a sigh Joey raised himself up off the bunk and trudged over to the end of the meal line. By the time he was given his ration there would not be much left in the pot and there was a good chance that he would get most of the solids that had sunk to the bottom. It was a trick he had learned from one of the older workers. The dregs might not be piping hot but there was more nourishment in them, sufficient to keep the body just strong enough to resist the worst effects of the freezing climate and back-breaking toil. Joey reached into his coat and extracted his mess-tin. His body had warmed it so that it was comfortable to hold in his fingerless mittens. Joey followed the line as it shuffled forward.
"Cold night, eh Joey?"
Joey turned to see that he was no longer the last in line. An older worker had joined them, a squat round faced individual who offered him a smile.
"Hello Kramer." Joey said. "Yes, it is cold. Coldest I've known."
"You're new here, just you wait until January. That's what I call cold. You wait till then - the older ones will start dropping like flies. I've seen it happen, every January the same thing."
"I thought the workload eased off after Christmas."
"Ha!" Kramer snorted. "That's what they tell everyone when they first get here."
"But what happens?" Joey persisted. "Once Christmas is over there's nothing left to do."
Kramer looked at him pityingly. "You don't know much do you? Once this Christmas is over the next one begins. No break for us. The boss is already planning the new product line for next year and new toys means new designs, new machines. We'll be lucky if we finish the refit by summer."
Kramer felt a twinge of guilt at the youngster's crestfallen expression and gently nudged him. "Joey, the line's moved up. Should be some good pieces in the bottom of the pot by now, eh?"
There were only a few workers ahead of them and Joey could see that each ladle was thick with diced vegetables. He licked his lips and his stomach groaned in keen anticipation. Then he was standing in the warm comforting glow of the stove. The cook swung the ladle into the pot and scraped a portion from near the bottom. Up it came in a fine wisp of steam and Joey held out his mess tin. He breathed in the aroma of the stew - the taste of it tingling on the edge of his tongue. Making sure that the mess tin was kept level Joey bent down towards the sack and thrust his hand inside, groping for his bread ration. His fingers searched anxiously and then closed on a lump of the hard bread. It felt stale but Joey knew that he could break it into pieces and mix it with the stew - that would soften it enough.
Then, as he withdrew his hand from the sack, Joey felt a sick feeling well up inside him - it was the last piece of bread. He quickly glanced up over his shoulder and saw the cook pour out the stew into Kramer's mess tin. The bright light of hunger glinted in the old man's eyes. Joey quickly stuffed the last hunk of bread inside his pocket and straightened up. He said nothing as he watched Kramer reach for the empty folds of the sack.
Joey thought quickly. Kramer had not seen him pocket the bread, he was sure of that. He could say there was none left for either of them - he could lie. Or he could just accept that someone had to miss out on the bread and just be thankful that it wasn't him. That was camp life - someone always suffered, you just had to make sure it wasn't you.
Kramer slowly squatted down by the sack. The glint in his eye disappeared and was replaced by a look of horror as his hand move frantically inside the sack.
"There's no bread left!" He whined. "No bread!"
He glared accusingly at the round full face of the cook. The latter just shrugged his shoulders as he dropped the ladle into the pot and using a old rag he heaved the heavy iron container off the stove.
"I want my bread!" Kramer said through clenched teeth.
"There isn't any more." The cook puffed. "You saw for yourself."
"But I want my bread." Kramer made to lower his mess tin as he took a step toward the cook.
The cook lowered his cauldron and stood his ground.
"Listen to me!" He growled. "There ain't no more bread, got it? Now, if you give me any trouble, any at all - I'll break you in half. Now back off!"
For a moment it looked to Joey as if the old worker was going to lunge at the cook and with a curse at his weakness he pulled the old man back by his elbow.
"Here, you can share my bread."
Kramer glanced quickly at Joey, then back to the cook, a muscle twitching in his cheek. Then Joey felt him slowly relax and with a gentle tug he pulled Kramer away from the cook towards the bunks. The cook grinned and was about to say something when he caught sight of Joey's warning look. Then he shrugged and made his way back through the room with the heavy pot swinging from his two handed grip.
Joey steered Kramer to an empty bunk and they sat down on the soiled blanket. Joey took out his hunk of bread and broke it in two, giving the larger piece away. He was angry with himself for the noble gesture. The first step towards weakness of character - compassion - something no worker in the camp could afford.
"Thanks." Kramer muttered.
Joey was too embarrassed to think of a reply as he broke his remaining piece of bread in two and tucked half in his pocket for later.
"And thanks for stopping me."
"I thought you were going to go for him."
"I was. I'm ashamed of myself."
"Ashamed?" Joey raised his eyebrows. "What's there to be ashamed of? He was stronger than you. There's no shame with avoiding a fight you're bound to lose."
"Oh, it's not that." Kramer replied as he broke the dried bread into his stew. "It's that I lost control. I actually gave in to anger and hate.... I sinned."
"Well don't worry about it," said Joey, slurping some stew from his mess tin. "In this place the very idea of sin has lost its place, if you get what I mean."
Kramer paused to stare at him. "Sin is always sin Joey. Nothing changes that, ever."
"Perhaps, but it doesn't make any difference here."
Kramer carefully sipped his soup before continuing. "You've been listening to them again."
"The Underground.Leon and those friends of his." Kramer spat out the words but Joey did not react and finished chewing a piece of turnip wondering how a simple vegetable could have so much flavour, for some reason it seemed to have more flavour than usual. He was beginning to get annoyed at Kramer for distracting him from enjoyment of the meal. Unfortunately Kramer was in no mood to let the matter drop.
"You shouldn't mix with them Joey, they're evil."
"They seem to make a great deal of sense to me."
"I tell you they're evil," insisted Kramer. "I've heard them justify the use of violence in changing things here."
"That's what they say."
"But Joey - violence? How can violence be right? It's against the word of God. We must pray for our oppressors, so that they see the evil of their ways. We must help them."
"Oh sure," Joey responded dryly. "We must help them. That's all we ever do - help them to help themselves. I tell you what the real evil is Kramer. The fact that we let it happen to us. It doesn't matter that we're always hungry, that we have to work until we drop, that the older workers die like dogs. None of that matters, as long as we produce the toys in time for Christmas. Toys for God's sake!"
"Joey!" The blasphemy had shocked the older worker. "Joey...I never thought I'd hear-"
"Yes? Well you were wrong then." Joey felt his rage burning inside. His meal had been ruined and Kramer was to blame. Damn him... and damn those like him. Couldn't they see what was really going on? Claws and his overseers were just laughing at them. As long as they had Kramer and the other elders to preach their ways then nothing would ever change. An endless tide of suffering for what - the promise of a better world in the after life? It was pathetic he reflected, quite pathetic. At least the Underground saw things for what they were and were determined to want a solution in the here and now. More workers were beginning to listen to them now, secret meetings were being held in the barracks between shifts. Minds were being changed....
Joey was suddenly aware that Kramer had not said anything or moved for a while and he glanced round. The older worker was staring fixedly into his stew. It had cooled so much that a scum was forming on the thickening surface.
"Eat it up Kramer." He said gently. "Look, I'm sorry for what I said. I didn't really mean it, alright?.... C'mon, eat it up."
"I understand your anger Joey," said Kramer. "I was like that at your age, before He found me and became my comfort in this terrible place. Then I knew I was no longer forsaken." He suddenly looked up at Joey with fire in his eyes. "And I want to help Him find you too Joey."
Joey sighed. There was no point in prolonging the discussion and he quickly wiped up the final remnants of the stew with his last fragment of bread before tucking the mess-tin away.
"Well, I have to go and see someone." He said as he rose from the bunk. Kramer darted a suspicious glance at Joey.
"Oh it's alright - not some secret meeting or anything. I'm just going to the stables."
"To see Rudi?" asked Kramer, and Joey nodded.
"He hasn't been well lately. A cold or something. I found a length of old sacking he can use as a blanket."
Kramer placed a hand gently on Joey's arm. "You're a good one Joey, always have been as long as I've known you."
"Yes...well I...." The youth blushed. "Look, I must go. I have to get some sleep later on before the next shift."
"I'll pray for you... and Rudi."
As soon as he shut the door behind him all light and warmth was extinguished and a harsh wind blew flurries of snow into Joey's face. Pulling the hood tight around his head with one hand Joey started down the well trodden path that led from the barracks to the factory gates. Under his other arm he carried the bundle of sacking for Rudi. The pressure of thousands of weary feet had hardened the surface to a glassy sheen and only the fresh flakes of snow gave him any kind of footing. The path was cleared once in a while and the snow was shovelled onto high banks rising up on either side, providing some shelter from the wind. Even so Joey had to lean into the wind as he steadily made his way across to the main factory gate. The shutter of the porter's room momentarily flicked open and Joey saw an overseer glance at him and nod permission to enter before sliding the shutter back.
Passing under the dark iron barbs that protected the gate Joey turned away from the path leading to the inner compound where the long low workshops stretched into the night. Even above the howl of the wind he could hear the sounds of machines endlessly turning. Light fell out of windows onto the snow in dull yellow streaks, and thick black smoke billowed from tall chimneys to fall back as grey snow that covered everything.
To one side of the outer compound stood a grim squat mansion built in the gothic style, tall towers stood at each corner. In the furthest tower a light burnt high up near the battlements where Claws had his study, surveying the factory and the barracks that stretched out on all sides beyond the compound. Opposite the mansion stood a coach-house and stables and Joey made his way over towards them. Through the dark windows of the coach-house Joey could make out the looming hulk of a vast vehicle. He had seen it before, many times - a giant wooden sledge with sharp steel runners almost four inches wide. The sides were ornately carved and gilded with gold leaf, and a vast seat at the front was padded with the finest eider feathers and covered in the softest of leather. He passed on quickly and slipped in through the small door at the side of the stables, tugging the door shut behind him.
Immediately the warm animal smell from the stalls wafted into his nose and he breathed it in deeply - one of the only scents that gave him pleasure these days. The floor was covered with a thick layer of straw which rustled under his feet as Joey walked down the line of wooden stalls each with a stencilled plaque bearing the name of the animal within. The reindeer moved restlessly as he passed each stall, except for one which was still and silent. He stopped at the last stall and stood on tiptoes so that his chest reached the top of the stall door and he could reach over it with both arms.
"Rudi!" He called softly. "Rudi, it's me Joey."
In the darkness at the back of the stall he could hear his friend stirring and Joey reached over to slip the catch. The door swung open and he stepped slowly inside and shut it behind him. In the gloom he could see the reindeer warily raise its head at Joey's approach, nostrils flaring. Then as it recognised the young worker the beast relaxed and gently nuzzled the gloved hand that was stretched out towards it.
"That's my boy." Joey said soothingly. "That's my boy. Here, look, this will keep you warm."
He unbundled the sacking and laid it over the beast's side and then lowered himself down into the straw beside Rudi and patted the long neck with one hand while the reindeer licked the fingers of the other.
"Hey!" Joey smiled. "Alright then! I've got something for you. Just let me get it out for you. Retrieving his hand he rummaged into his coat pocket for the morsel of bread he had saved. He broke it into small pieces which Rudi ate out of the palm of his hand. Every move the reindeer made was clearly a strain and when it had finished eating Rudi gratefully rested his head in Joey's lap. Faint plumes of steam puffed out of his delicate nostrils and mingled with the breath of the worker.
Joey shook his head. "You're not much better, are you?... You must get better Rudi, you have to.... It's Christmas in a few days. If you aren't well...."
His voice died away as his mind began to imagine the terrible rage that Claws would unleash on any reindeer who failed to give a satisfactory performance. It was not as if there was no precedent for Claws' cruelty. A few weeks earlier a worker on the doll assembly line had struck an overseer. The punishment had been immediate and effective - the offender had been stripped and beaten to death in front of the entire shift. The body had been suspended from a great iron hook high above the factory floor as a warning to others.
The ranks of the Underground had swelled after that and behind the studied attitude of unquestioning obedience whispers of revolution trickled through the work force. Only the fervent believers among the camp elders refused to have any sympathy for the Underground. Their faith sustained them even through the harshest conditions and cruellest treatment - and Claws just laughed at them. The evening after the worker had been killed Joey had even overheard one of the elders say that the offender had brought it on himself by not turning the other cheek. It had taken Joey some effort to restrain himself....
Rudi gently nudged his hand, Joey had become so lost in thought he had stopped stroking. He smiled and resumed his gentle caressing and the dark eyes of the reindeer slowly closed in bliss. For a moment Joey felt the warmth of contentment, the happiness of knowing his affection was returned and he half-closed his own eyes and inhaled the warm scent of his friend. For some minutes he let his mind waft as he recalled the simple forest village where he had been raised....
The bang of the stable door abruptly recalled his mind to reality and Rudi started from his lap, eyes wide an nostrils flaring. They both heard someone strolling down the line of stalls.
"Joey! Joey! You still here?"
He recognised the voice - it was Smithy, one of the overseers, a large ruddy faced individual with a hearty laugh and a questionable sense of humour. He was nice enough to Joey and to the reindeers in his charge, but in all other respects Smithy was truly an overseer.
"I'm in here with Rudi sir!"
"Thought you might be." Smithy replied as leaned up against the door frame. "How's he doing?"
"No better then yesterday - worse maybe." Joey wondered just how much care Smithy had been giving Rudi.
"That's too bad. He's got to be ready in time for the Christmas run."
"He won't be sir." Joey shook his head. "You can see he's not up to it."
Smithy moved closer to examine the reindeer and Joey felt the soft hide flinch at the overseer's approach.
"Hmmm...." Smithy looked down at Rudi and pursed his lips forcefully. "You're right - he ain't looking too good...."
"He needs rest."
"Maybe....Maybe, but he has to do the Christmas run. There's no avoiding that. We've already lost one of the team."
"How's that?" Joey asked in alarm, "What's happened?"
"Vixen." Smithy nodded in the direction of the empty stall. "He broke a leg while Claws was exercising the team yesterday. The boss had to do the merciful thing." Smithy drew his finger slowly across his throat with a clicking sound.
Joey felt sick.
"Claws cut...cut his throat?"
"Had to in the end. Claws tried to drive him on after he stumbled but there's no way Vixen was going to get far on a broken leg. Claws went mad, kept on whipping him to drive the beggar back onto his feet but there was no moving him...."
Joey's gazed down into the frightened eyes glistening in Rudi's delicate face and felt a tremor of dread. What would happen if Rudi didn't recover in time?
"Still, as I always say," Smithy leaned back and slapped a broad palm against his stomach. "One's loss is another's gain. It's been a long time since the overseers have eaten fresh meat."
Smithy misunderstood Joey's tone. "Oh, it wasn't just us - you got some too. After we'd finished the carcass was boiled up for stock and put into the workers' stew."
"No." Joey shook his head with revulsion. "It's not true...."
"Honestly. We didn't eat it all." Smithy laid a kindly hand on the young worker's shoulder and Joey's disgust and rage burned under it. Smithy sensed that his gesture was not welcome and withdrew his hand. "Suit yourself then. Now I've got to get back to the overseers' mess. Make sure you shut the door properly when you leave."
Smithy stomped out of the stable and left Joey alone with his friend. The stew in his stomach which had felt so comforting before now felt like a stone weighing him down with guilt and disgust. He was almost too ashamed to look Rudi in the eye and it was only fear for the reindeer's future and a desire to protect him that stayed Joey from running out into the darkness to throw up. What could he do? What could he do to save Rudi? Christmas was only a few days away and Rudi would never recover in time. In desperation he began to think of escape, if only he and Rudi could could make it out of the compound they could get away from the camp - flee into the wilderness.
There was nothing out there, no shelter, no settlements for a thousand miles - nothing but freezing white desolation. They would both be dead in a matter of hours. For a moment Joey pictured himself and Rudi huddled together in death - a final gesture of friendship cheating the cruel world that had caused them so much suffering. No - that wouldn't happen. He had to be strong. He had to do something... Anything.
"Have to go now Rudi. Have to get some sleep, you need some too."
The reindeer looked up at him wide-eyed, with an expression of such despair that Joey could no longer face him and quickly scrambled to his feet. "I-I must go. I'll be back as soon as I can - I promise. I've got to help you get better."
Rudi lay silent and still, watching him.
"I...." The words would no longer come to his lips and Joey turned and left the stall, a tight, hot lump burning in his throat. He knew Rudi would never be fit in time, and when Claws harnessed him to the sledge his life was as good as over. But there was still a little time left, some days to go before Christmas. Joey still had time to think, to plan, there was still time to find a way out for Rudi.
But there was no time. The next morning Claws ordered the sledge to be readied for a trial run. Joey knew nothing of it until he entered the compound with the rest of his shift. Although he could not see anything over the heads of the column of workers shuffling ahead of him Joey heard the jingling of harness bells and a icy wave of fear coursed through him. He pushed through the column until he reached the edge and could see what was going on.
Outside the stable stood the sledge and Smithy and some other overseers were attaching leather harnesses to the reindeer and easing them into position ahead of the sledge. They seemed to be a bit frisky this morning and pounded their hooves into the fresh snow as their steamy breath swirled around them in the pale dawn light. Joey looked for Rudi and then saw him, stumbling from the stable block as an overseer pulled impatiently on his halter. The small reindeer could hardly stay on his feet as the overseer roughly hauled him into the traces.
Joey stood at the edge of the column watching the scene with a growing sense of desperation and helplessness. He was jostled by other workers as the column passed by glancing at him with curiosity. One of the overseers in charge of the shift caught sight of him and was hurrying over to drive Joey back into line when the door of the mansion creaked open. A wave of fear rippled along the column as hundreds of pairs of eyes glanced sidelong at the source of the sound.
A huge figure emerged from the shadow of the doorway and stepped into the light. Claws stood well over six feet in height and was almost as broad. No-one knew quite how old he was and the whiteness of his beard only served to conceal any tell-tale wrinkles in the skin beneath. Claws was swathed in a thick blood red cloak which came down to his knees and he wore a pair of black boots with steel buckles. Dark, deep-set eyes glared at the world from beneath his bushy brow and his gaze swept along the column of workers trudging wearily past. He sniffed with contempt and strode over to the sledge where an overseer stood ready with a small stool to help his master up into the driving seat. The overseer that had been making for Joey stopped to bow low as Claws swept by.
"Good morning sir!"
His greeting was met with a fierce glare and then Claws was heaving his huge frame up over the side of the sledge onto the leather seat. As soon as he was settled he was handed a whip and the reins.
"They all ready?" He barked at Smithy.
"No malingerers today I hope." Claws snarled. "Or it'll be the worse for you!"
Joey saw Smithy wither with fear as he glanced to where Rudi stood shivering in the team of reindeer. "They're fine sir."
"We'll see." Claws said sourly. Then he leaned forward and cracked the whip with a well-practised hand. "Move!"
The team responded at once and strained into their harnesses to take up the weight of the huge sledge. Slowly their straining muscles broke the runners free from the ice, then they took a few faltering steps before the sledge had picked up enough speed for them to break into an even pace. Claws cracked the whip once again and tugged hard on the reins as he steered the sledge straight at the column of workers. A gap opened as workers rushed to avoid the pounding hooves and the vicious steel runners. Claws laughed as the sledge swept through and he whipped left and right at the fleeing forms of his workers. Then he was through the column and heading towards the far side of the compound where he turned the ponderous sledge round and headed back towards the morning shift.
And that was when it happened. Rudi slipped and fell, dragging the harness down causing two other reindeer to stagger and the whole team slewed to a halt right in front of the column.
"What the bloody hell is going on?" Claws roared, rising to his feet. He caught sight of Rudi struggling weakly to get back onto his feet, and failing.
"On your feet you lazy bastard!Right now!"
Rudi made one more effort on trembling legs... and collapsed onto the snow gasping for breath as his flanks heaved with exhaustion.
"Oh you would, would you?" Claws extended his whip arm as far back as it would go and then threw it forward with all his might. The whip end snaked forward and struck Rudi on the hind quarter. The reindeer bleated in pain and the noise of it brought the column to a halt as they gazed at the spectacle with dread.
"Up I said! Get up, you idle bastard!"
The whip flew through the air again, and this time Rudi slumped forward into the snow, his soft furry neck outstretched, all energy spent. The whip landed a dozen more times and the column watched in sick disbelief as blood flowed from the welts on the reindeer's back. Joey could see that Rudi no longer had the strength to do any more than lie there and take it, his eyes glazing over - stupefied with exhaustion and pain. On the driver's seat Claws was livid, face white as his beard as rage drained the blood from his visage. Again and again he whipped, to no avail. Finally he dropped the whip and jumped down from the sledge and snatched an overseer's cudgel from beneath the seat. He strode down the team of reindeer and stood towering over Rudi.
"This is your last warning! You get up on your feet right now!" He shouted at the petrified reindeer. When Rudi refused to move Claws swung his boot as hard as he could into the animal's ribs. Still no reaction.
The column of workers slowed to a halt, gazing in horror at the scene before them as a succession of kicks landed in the reindeer's side. Claws paused, breathing heavily, and hefted the club in his hand. He stood above the animal, eyes blazing and lips twisted back against his bared teeth. Then with terrible deliberation he raised the club high above his head.
"Oh God!" Joey whispered. "Please no...."
The club arced powerfully down towards the prone animal, there was a sickening crack and crunch. Rudi's legs struck out to one side in a violent spasm, jerked, and the body was still.
Claws raised the club, his face spattered with blood and brains - eyes gleaming with hatred as he stared down at the shattered skull and red-flecked snow beneath him. His hoarse breathing was the only sound in the compound as every other living thing shrank back from him. Joey slowly turned away and crept from the edge of the crowd, fell to his knees and vomited into the snow.
Behind him he heard Claws bellow with rage. "Another brute dead? What the bloody hell is going on here? Smithy! Smithy! You get this mess cleared up right now! Get these other bastards back to their stalls and clean this mess up. Then you feed the others up, you rest 'em. You get 'em strong and you make sure they're ready when I need 'em, or I'll gut you myself. Clear?"
"Y-yes sir." Smithy replied.
"Good!...good.... What the hell do the rest of you think this is, a holiday?" Claws raged. "Move!"
There was a subdued spirit throughout the camp that evening. Everyone had come to hear of the morning's events and a bitter feeling of hatred towards Claws was evident in every barrack building. In block twelve the workers had eaten in silence. Now the lights were out they lay sleeplessly on their hard wooden bunks. Joey had been unable to eat, the vision of Rudi sprawled out on the snow always in his mind's eye. Kramer had tried to comfort him earlier but Joey had brushed him away and warned Kramer not to come anywhere near him. Rudi was dead. Rudi was a carcass, even now being butchered in the overseers' kitchen - flesh hacked from bones as the once bright eyes looked on, dulled by death.
What was there to live for?.... What? Kramer had told him that the suffering of this world would be compensated for by happiness in the hereafter, that Rudi was with God now.
"But I want Rudi here!" He cried out. "Here...with me."
With a convulsive heave of his chest the grief broke loose and bitter tears pricked out of his eyes and soaked into the pillow. Those on the bunks around him stirred momentarily at the noise before their weary heads dropped back down and drifted off to sleep.
Someone was shaking him. Joey started up from his pillow.
"Shhhh! Keep quiet." A voice whispered. Joey was aware of dark shapes moving in the darkness around him.
"What's going on?"
"Just get your coat and go to Block One - Leon's holding a meeting, he wants all of us to meet in the hall."
Rising quickly from his bunk Joey pulled on his coast and boots and followed several others outside into the night. They silently passed through the shadows towards the biggest of the barracks. As they went more workers from the other blocks joined them until there was a dark tide of shadows crunching across the snow. Block One was the first building constructed in the camp and was originally intended to accommodate all the workers but over the years production had expanded and new blocks had been added. But all were dwarfed by Block One and it loomed over Joey and the others as they made their way through the darkened entrance into the huge hall inside. Many hundreds were already there, waiting with silent expectation around a platform that had been hastily improvised from several trestle tables. A candle flickered at each corner of the platform.
Joey pushed himself as near as he could to the platform and found that he was standing close to Kramer and a group of the elders. They were talking in low voices and he could just hear snatches of their conversation.
"What does Leon want with us?" One was asking.
"No-one knows." Kramer replied. "At least no-one will tell me why he's called us here."
At that moment he saw Joey and was about to say something but Joey quickly shoved himself away from them, until the elders were out of sight. The crowd had now filled the hall in a tight mass and the last few arrivals were crammed into the entrance. A hush fell over them as a way opened for a small group who had entered the hall through a side door.
"Leon! It's Leon." A young worker said excitedly, and was quickly hushed by those around him.
The group progressed to the platform where only one of them climbed up on the tables. Leon was young and strong with dark features and he had a way of moving that suggested full control over every aspect of his existence. He moved to the centre of the platform and slowly raised a hand to bring them all to complete silence. The flickering light of the candles cast a pale glow on his already pale cheeks and made his eyes into deep pools of darkness. He stared out over the heads of the crowd for perhaps as much as a minute before he spoke, and all the while they stood in silence, waiting.
"Until now, I had hoped that one day we might be able to put our grievences in front of Claws, and ask for better conditions. Then this morning I saw - you all saw - the true darkness of the heart of the monster who runs this place. Not that this is anything new. How many of us have died in this camp? Who can even guess at the number? When the work hasn't done for us the starvation ration has. How long can we last living like this? How long? And if we try and protest does he listen? You saw what happened to Dewberry - clubbed to death, in front of us all!" Leon paused to let the freshly recalled horror linger in front of his audience's eyes. "So, what then do we do?"
He gazed round the audience as if searching for an answer. "I said, what then do we do? Nothing? Is that it? We just sit tight and let him work us into the ground, after having squeezed every last drop of our strength out of us? Is that how you want to go? I refuse to take it any more. The Underground refuses to take it any more. It's time we all refused to take it - every single one of us. It's time we told him we've had enough."
"He'll kill us!" A voice called out. "If we do what you say he'll kill us."
"He's killing us already." Leon replied immediately. "Slowly but surely. The choice is simple - we oppose him now or he kills us later."
"What do you mean by oppose?" Another voice called out, and Joey instantly recognised it as Kramer's.
"We take the factory and dictate our terms to him in his own office."
That brought on a small cheer from sections of the crowd and Kramer had to speak louder to be heard above the crowd. "Are you saying we use force?"
"Yes - just as he has all these years."
"But now?At this time - when we are celebrating the Lord's birth - the very hour of our saviour?"
"Saviour!" Leon snorted. "Where's your saviour now, when we need him most? Where is he?"
"Don't blaspheme!" Kramer replied angrily. "How dare you use his name like that! I warn you - if you want violence then you abandon God. The eternal fires of Hell await anyone who strikes back at any tyrant, however evil. We must have faith that God has a reason for things being the way they are."
"We are already in Hell!" Leon blazed back. "And we need not be. We can make our own lives, or let Claws take them from us. All we need is the will to act. One moment of courage and our lives becomes our own. We don't need your God."
The elders shouted out their disgust and anger at this remark and Kramer waved his fist at Leon. "As God is my judge you'll burn for eternity! You and all these other heretics!"
Leon raised a hand and tried to speak but the outburst from the elders made it impossible for him to be heard. He tried again and again and gradually the crowd turned on the elders and demanded they be silent.
When the shouting had subsided Leon addressed them again. "We do not need the elders - it's time for a new generation to take power into their hands, and the time is now!"
He thrust his arm out in the direction of the compound and the crowd cheered the unmistakable signal to move. Almost as one they surged towards the entrance and burst into the night. Joey was one of the last to make his way from the meeting and made to follow his comrades. In their wake stood a small knot of elders, crestfallen, and glaring down from the platform stood Leon.
"You can come with us if you want, or remain here until it's over - as you will. Only make no attempt to step in our way, I won't guarantee your safety."
He jumped down to the floor and marched after the crowd as Kramer called out to him. "Stop them! Stop them before it's too late. You don't know what you're doing! One drop of spilt blood and you're all damned!"
But the pleas fell without any effect upon the broad back of The Underground's leader as he strode away to lead the assault on the compound.
Joey was running through the night surrounded by silent black shapes. The only sound was the crunching of snow and ice beneath their feet. He stayed by Leon's side, wanting to be close to the centre of the action. He wanted to be there when they confronted Claws - to avenge Rudi. Streams of workers from the outlying blocks joined the ever thickening main current as it surged through the compound. Then at last they were running across the bare ground between the accommodation blocks and the factory gates and only now did they begin to shout. Shouts of anger and excitement - quickly taken up by others until the entire dark tidal wave sounded deafeningly.
Joey was no more than five yards back when they reached the gate. It was locked and the foremost workers in the crowd shook it in frustration. A large wooden beam that rested against the rear of the gate, it was operated by a sliding mechanism in the porter's lodge. A few began to climb the ironwork when Joey had a better idea and thrust his way over to the tiny window of the porter's lodge. It was shut and he tried to force it but the wooden shutter held firm.
"Over here!" He called out. "Help me with this!"
Other hands attempted to push open the shutter without effect, then a burly worker with a hammer pushed his way to the front and swept the others to one side warning them to keep clear. He swung his hammer arm back and then struck at the shutter with all his force. With a splintering crack it began to give and a few more blows caved it in. Even so the gap was too small for anyone to get inside fully clothed. Joey immediately began to strip, taking off his cloak, jacket and leggings until he only had his boots and thin under clothes on. The freezing night air bit into his body numbing all the exposed flesh at once. As Joey looked up he saw lights burning in the upper levels of the mansion and in the windows of the overseers' block. A door was opened and light flooded into the compound as several overseers spilled out carrying cudgels. A quick glance at the gate was enough and they charged towards it beating down the handful of workers that had managed to scale the gate.
Joey was lifted to the window by the worker with the hammer and reaching through with both arms he gripped the edge of the table inside and pulled himself through. He felt splinters tearing through the thin material of his underclothes and gouging his skin but he ignored it and pulled harder. His head and shoulders were through but his hips caught in the opening. He strained hard but gained little ground, then all of a sudden he felt his thighs being gripped and thrust forward.
He fell over the edge of the table and landed on the floor, but was on his feet in a second. The room was small and snug, the ashes of a recent fire smouldered in the grate and two small battered armchairs faced the fire. On the wall above a row of coat pegs a lantern glowed yellow and Joey glanced around in the light that it cast. The beam lay on a series of rollers at one end of the room, secured in place by an iron bar that ran through one end. A large spoked wheel stood beside the beam where it went through the wall to the gate outside. Joey wrenched the bar free and heaved at one of the spokes. Slowly the wheel began to turn and the beam trundled back on the squeaking rollers. Outside he could hear a sudden roar of triumph and moments later felt a blast of freezing air as the lodge door was wrenched open.
"Get away from there!" Smithy bellowed at him. "Get away!....Joey!"
For a moment the overseer paused, then as a fresh shout reached his ears he charged at Joey, fists clenched. Joey thrust at the spoke with all his might and then a pair of hands grabbed him by the throat and tore him away from the wheel. Smithy threw him to the far side of the room and then snatched up a poker from the grate.
"You little bastard!" He snarled. "And to think I even liked you...."
He lunged and Joey twisted to one side, into the corner. The poker crashed down sending sparks across the stone floor. Then Smithy loomed over Joey and raised the poker again.
"Now I've got you."
Smithy bared his teeth and made to swing. Then his face abruptly turned into a grimace and the poker dropped from his hand and clanged to the floor. He turned and Joey saw a red smeared chisel handle sticking out of Smithy's back, and beyond that Leon. Smithy dropped to his knees coughing blood, Leon ignored him and helped Joey to his feet.
"Well done! We're in. Nothing can stop us now!" Leon smiled grimly. "Now let's find Claws...."
Joey snatched a coat off the peg and followed Leon outside. The gates had been flung back and the workers were racing across the compound towards the mansion. Here and there an overseer tried to stem the tide but was quickly overwhelmed and disappeared from view. Several bodies, workers and overseers, lay by the open gates, trampled by the waves passing over them. Leon ran to catch up with those at the front and Joey struggled to stay near him. Ahead they could see the last few overseers squeezing through the entrance to the mansion and then it was slammed shut before the first workers reached it and began to beat on it with their fists. The others caught up and hammered on the ground floor shutters and soon the entire frontage of the mansion was besieged by a crowd of wild shouting workers thirsting for blood.
"This is no good." Leon said. "We have to get in somehow."
He looked around and stared back at the gate. "The beam! We can use the beam as a battering ram!"
He began to pull people from the crowd and was starting to shout his plan to them when they all heard a loud rattling noise. The shutters of the mansion suddenly swung open. For a second the crowd was silent. Then a row of dark tubes filled every window and the crowd shrank back.
"Guns!" Someone shouted. "They've got guns!"
Every barrel spat out a jet of flame and a terrible rippling crash of gunfire deafened the crowd. Those at the front had no chance and were swept away by the volley. Surprise was complete and the crowd stood still with shock - until the second volley. In an instant everything changed. Gone were the cries of rage and desire to avenge. Now there were the screams of the wounded and shouts of terror as everyone fought blindly to get away, filled with one thought - escape.
Joey saw Leon raise a hand and try to stop them before he was bodily carried back away from the house leaving Leon and a dwindling band of followers to charge the mansion and fall at the ends of the overseers' weapons. At the gate the mob paused for a moment to look back. With horror they saw the space in front of the mansion covered with bodies, some dead, some trying to crawl away. Then the front door opened and Claws led the overseers outside where they formed a line across the yard. When they were ready the overseers were given the order to fix bayonets to their guns and then the line advanced, pausing here and there to finish off the wounded.
"Run!" Someone near Joey screamed. "Run! Back! Get back!"
The crowd melted, flowing away into the night, fleeing from the terrible line of death that paced towards them. As if to crush any lingering spirit of resistance the overseers paused to fire another volley and scores more workers fell at the gate. Joey ran, ran for his life, as fast as his body would take him away from the compound. Behind him he heard Claws shout the order to charge. The workers poured back to the blocks, some taking shelter inside - hiding under bunks, in cupboards and in the roof-spaces, others hurrying out of the camp into the night, away from Claws only to die of cold in the icy wasteland.
All night the overseers patrolled the camp shooting anyone they found outdoors. Inside the nearest block he could find Joey was hunched down behind a bunk, eyes clenched shut and muffled hands clasped tightly against his ears. He winced at the sound of gunfire and distant screams....
As the night wore on into dawn the sounds diminished and pale light filtered through the small windows to reveal other terrified faces hiding around him. No-one moved, they were all afraid to in the terrible atmosphere of uncertainty the new day brought. What would Claws do to them? Were they all to be killed?
The answer came soon enough.
The door of the block was kicked in and a pair of overseers entered and bellowed Claws's proclamation. He wanted the names of all the ringleaders within the hour. If none were forthcoming the overseers would enter every block and kill every tenth person. Then they were left alone to consider the demand. For a while no-one spoke - no-one knew what to say. The only name they all knew was Leon and that was what they decided to say when the overseers came back.
When the hour was up and the overseers returned they already had a list of names which they read out.
"Alfred Jones, David Willets, Joey Tressel...."
He didn't hear the rest of the list but stared in horror at the floor, motionless. The next thing he was aware of was an overseer grabbing him roughly by the arm.
"You're Joey aren't you? I've seen you with Smithy. Bet you were the little bastard that did for him."
Joey shook his head in terror. "No!"
"Too bad." The overseer shoved him towards the door. "Outside with the others.Now!"
He did as he was told and found a small column of workers outside the hut. Their hands had been tied behind their backs and they stood with heads bowed, silent. Joey was pushed into place, his hands wrenched back and then he felt the rope being wound round and knotted on his wrists. When the other workers on the overseers' list had been put in line the column moved off to the next hut and the process was repeated. By the time the list was complete there were nearly fifty of them and the column trudged off towards the compound. As they passed through the gates a ripple of horror passed down the column. All the bodies had been cleared from in front of the mansion and around the entire perimeter of the compound stood roughly hewn stakes. On each stake was a head, and in the corner by the stables stood a huge mound of bodies. Even a fresh fall of snow during the early hours had failed to completely cover them, or the smears of pink that still showed through here and there. Some of the prisoners exchanged anxious whispers.
"Quiet!" An overseer shouted, and he kicked one of his prisoners in the shin to enforce his order. The prisoner almost collapsed but just managed to stay on his feet as the column moved towards the far side of the compound - a high, featureless wall of smoke-grimed brick. The column was halted and the prisoners were arranged along the length of the wall, one prisoner every ten feet. They were told to stand still and be silent.
Joey and the others waited for what seemed like hours, and then the front door of the mansion opened and two overseers emerged carrying a worker between them. As they approached Joey could see that it was Leon - shot through his left arm and leg, face purple and black and bleeding. The overseers dropped him to the ground close to Joey.
"Leon!" Joey whispered. "What happened?"
Leon looked up and tried to smile, but winced with agony instead. "Claws wanted a word...with me." He said with difficulty.
"Quiet!" An overseer shouted. "No talking!"
So they waited, cold and terrified.
At midday there was a commotion over at the gate and then they saw the head of a line of workers being led into the compound. Block by block they were brought in and herded into the centre of the enclosed area, ringed on all sides by armed guards. Joey could see Kramer and the elders at the front of the crowd, silent like the others but with heads bowed as if in prayer.
When all were present Claws finally came out of the mansion, a sneer on his face. He stopped before them, placed his hands on hips and gazed contemptuously at the silent faces before him. None dared meet his eyes.
"Thought you'd be rebels did you?" He jeered. "Thought you'd get rid of me eh? Well it isn't that easy - as you've found out. And I aim to make sure that you don't repeat the mistake. I want you to see what happens to all those who make such mistakes." He waved his hand round the perimeter of heads and then turned to the line of prisoners by the compound wall. "I want you all to see this, and not forget it."
He pulled out a knife and went over to the first prisoner in the line. Yanking the prisoner's head back by the hair Claws slashed the knife across his throat. A sheet of red leapt from the prisoner's neck and as Claws released his grip on the hair, the body sagged to one side on the ground and the body writhed weakly before it was still.
"I must say." Claws continued speaking as he repeated the action on the next prisoner. "I'm grateful that some of you at least had the sense to co-operate and turn these ones over to me...."
Another throat was cut.
"That's the deal from now on.... You co-operate with me.... or you die...."
"Who sold us out?" Leon whispered. "Who gave him our names?"
"Who do you think?" Joey replied. "Kramer. Look at him."
With an effort Leon raised his head and stared over towards where the group of elders huddled. He sucked in a deep breath and called out. "Why Kramer? Why?" He called out.
Kramer looked up, shocked.
"Why did you do it? Why?"
Kramer shook his head hopelessly. "It was God's will."
"God's will?" Joey said incredulously. "God's will....This is God's will?"
"SILENCE!!!" Claws swung around from his latest victim. "Let's have some decorum here please.... I'll have no bad-mouthing of religious men."
Claws steadily worked his way down the line. Joey stared straight ahead trying to shut the events out of his head as icy terror slowly clenched round his heart. He sensed that Claws was near him and out of the corner of his eye he saw the huge red-clad figure finishing off the prisoner beyond Leon.
"Joey!" Leon called softly, his voice catching. "Joey.... I just wanted to say.... I just... Merry Christmas Joey."
Then he was dead. Joey heard him die, he heard the ice crunch under Claws' feet, felt the warmth of Claws' breath on his cheek, sensed the cold terror like a fist squeeze tight on his heart.
And then it was Joey's turn...