Finally, December. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, put up a tree or decorations for another two weeks. The days weren’t far enough drawn in for that. But her own tight skein of traditions—some of them inherited as dimples and hairline, others wilfully assumed through travels and friendships—now allowed for one thing: the calendar could be opened.
This year’s was an elaborate setup of cardboard, flimsy plastic—the sort that crackles when folded, leaving stretched white scars along each bent line—and cheap electronica. Sourced months beforehand via Amazon’s Mexican subsidiary, its triptych structure, festooned with FELIZ NAVIDAD, PRÓSPERO AÑO and FELICIDAD, celebrated chocolates white, brown, and near black. Baked somewhere in the packaging, a tinny speaker was pre-set to play what sounded like trumpets, before José Feliciano’s tones—or a garbled low-fi rendering of them, at least—began to sound. The speaker, though, was not to be touched until Christmas Day. For all those who did so before then, a printed Spanglish warning foretold, ‘the nuevo año is not prospero.’
Caroline paid no heed to such nonsense, or so she told herself, although she would certainly wait until Christmas Day before playing it, girding herself with a more rational reason: even Latinophiles find it annoying after the first few plays, for which reason, this year, the song would be rationed out. Better still, she thought, perhaps she wouldn’t play it at all until the 25th had come. The awful quality of the calendar’s version would give everyone a good excuse to hear the proper version in all its glory, at least once.
For now, though, the first chocolate. December had begun.
Her nail moved firmly around the seam of the first square, trying carefully to follow its lines and join its dots without spoiling the cardboard. The spaces between them, though, were too wide and the edge of her nail too thick: her first try had already left an awkward tear, in the process relieving a cherub of its plump right foot. Wishing to do no further damage to the churrigueresque heavenly host, she used a Stanley knife to cut the rest, leaving clean lines that could be pushed back together more or less seamlessly.
The first chocolate: a smooth dark brown, like a square of black birch. Eyes closed, she held it under her nose, depriving herself of one sense to enjoy its aroma more pointedly. Then, the first bite. She opened her eyes again, looking at the half-eaten morsel now softening in her grip, and stopped. Marked on its surface, although in a scribbled sort of way, was what looked like the upper half of the letter T. It didn’t look like a mark that was supposed to be there. If anything, it looked like someone had drawn it with a fingernail. Hers, she thought—stomach now starting to churn—was not the first nail to bear down towards this chocolate.
Who could she complain to? She couldn’t send the box back—the shipping cost alone had been more expensive than the calendar—and her holiday chit chat Spanish was far too limited to complain with any conviction to some Amazon seller in Central America. She didn’t intend to throw the box out though. Hopefully, the rest of the chocolates were otherwise untouched. Maybe whoever had clawed the T into number 1—if indeed that was what had happened—was having a bad day. Maybe it was his final act on a miserable last day in the factory.
The next morning, armed with that mantra of maybe, Caroline opened box number 2, her Stanley knife cutting sharp lines through the stable’s straw roof. With the tip of its blade, she lifted the cardboard. The second chocolate was off-white, creamy, and run through with black flecks—like pepperdust to the eye and rum to the nose. In the middle, awkwardly carved but indubitably present, was another letter. R.
What did it mean? TR. The T had been placed under an angel’s legs, and the R, above the lowly stable. No obvious connection came to her. Then her mind turned to news stories about people in forced labour who had left hidden messages in their products, which had then ended up on British high streets: years before, she thought, had she read about someone in a factory in Bangladesh who had sewn Please help, not free inside a Primark t-shirt? Why, though, would someone be forced to make chocolates for advent calendars in Latin America? Should she report it to the police? Maybe, she thought, she should tweet about it. It made little sense. By this point, though, it was 8.34—time to hurry out the door and think about other things.
By the morning of the third, she had lost all desire to eat the chocolates. Nothing from that kind factory would pass her lips—a place where a worker could sink a fingernail into more than one chocolate, all unseen by any kind of hygiene or quality control process. And yet, the strangeness of the letters had gripped her. She had told a colleague about it, whose suggestion was simply that she open them all when she got home. “I can’t do that,” she told him. “Why on earth not?” “You’re meant to open them one by one.” “Says who?” What she mumbled about the nuevo año and prospero was lost on him, and her own commitment to the idea—whatever it meant—was no less surprising to her. She would open the next square tomorrow.
That morning, she was unshocked—almost relieved, in fact—to find a clumsy, but unmistakable A in the middle. TRA. By this point, she hadn’t even registered the colour of chocolate. Her mind had already filled in the remainder. TRAPPED. Somewhere in Central America, someone was being forced to pour chocolates into moulds for advent calendars.
Within minutes, her tweet—a photograph of the first three chocolates, T R A, and a 140-character summary of her theory about a trapped man in a chocolate factory—was making its way across the internet. Unprepared for attention, she read none of the comments. Some, she would have read, were horrified. Others asked for proof that she hadn’t made the nail marks herself. Most demanded that she video herself opening the other boxes immediately. Faced with this flood of retweets and unread comments, she found herself even more locked into the order of days. A strange mix of the fixity of a season (“advent,” she found herself thinking, “cannot be rushed”) and superstition (‘the nuevo año is not prospero’) paralysed her for a moment. She would give it one more day, at least. What if whoever wrote the letters intended an entire message to be read day by day, across the month? And what the whole thing was just some unhygienic, but otherwise innocent, prank?
It was only on day four that she realised that the reddish-brown of yesterday’s chocolate—the A—had yet to register with her senses. The last person to savour its air of sharp, dry chilli had seen good reason to emboss his (she assumed) A in its centre. Why had he done so? What did it mean to him, trapped, to work with such fine ingredients? Did he despise them, or see their beauty?
This time, as she carefully cut three sides of a square containing the arms of a wise man—Frankincense in hand—she would try to notice what this trapped man had made, before leaving his own ungainly mark upon it. The chocolate, she reasoned, had given his message its medium. Had she disrespected him, and his labour—forced as it might have been—in ignoring that part of his work?
Try as she might, though, the noble intention to appreciate the medium, to put herself in his shoes, faded instantly. For upon lifting the cardboard flap—adding an extra bend to the magus’s arms—she saw and smelled no chocolate. Her gaze, which was transfixed on the letter P, overwhelmed her every other sense.
“He’s trapped. He’s letting me know.”
Within an hour, her TRAP tweet had been relayed by thousands of others. Your tweet is attracting a lot of attention, the notification read. Her phone began to ping with messages from friends, and soon from journalists. The Daily Mail was set to run a piece on the advent calendar, and was keen to talk to her (and above all, to gain permission to use her photograph).
By the time the following day’s social media frenzy had reached fever pitch, a journalist from the Daily Mail had taken control of the situation, arranging for Caroline to open the remaining squares in a live online broadcast, together with journalists from the major Mexican daily newspapers, and some media experts on Latin American economics and politics. When the broadcast began, she was too nervous to open the squares carefully. One of the journalists took the Stanley knife from her. “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful, and I’ll try not to damage the box”. Caroline was in no doubt, and also hoped firmly, that if justice was to be done, the box would end up as part of the evidence that would set this man free and bring down whoever held him captive. When the Daily Mail had first floated the prospect of an online live reveal, they had spoken directly to her sense of justice: for all the unpleasantness of a media circus, they said, this might just be the thing that saves an innocent man.
Box five, amidst the lowly shepherds, was opened. E.
TRAPE. Caroline felt her breathing become fast and shallow. “Is that Spanish for trapped?” she asked.
“Please wait, madam.”
Box six, R. Box seven O. “What does TRAPERO mean? Is it someone who’s trapped?” she asked one of the Spanish journalists. He said nothing, his face suddenly inscrutable to her.
Within a few minutes, the season of advent had been rushed to its close. Twenty-five chocolate letters had been excised with craftsmanlike, albeit not surgical, precision. The Hispanophones reacted with emotion. Lost in a sea of unsought attention, Caroline couldn’t interpret them. It was cacophonous—an overflow of sounds and feelings that she could not distinguish. Her mind was caught in a swell, abandoned by whatever she once knew of their language.
Those who couldn’t speak Spanish turned to translation apps.
Caroline tried to speak, but what came out was more like a scream. “IS A MAN TRAPPED? WHERE IS HE?”
Finally, the blur of Latino emotions became clear. Now, she saw, they were laughing. “No, madam.” The Latino voice that spoke was quivering on the cusp of hilarity. “You do not have to worry. A man is not trapped. The Spanish for trapped is atrapado. But there is a man who is making movies, and there is also a man who does not like those movies. TRAPERO HACE MAL PELÌCULAS. The grammar is wrong. Maybe he changed to malas to mal to fit 25 letters? But it means, ‘Trapero makes bad movies’. I think it is Pablo Trapero, from Argentina. He is very big in Latin American cinema. Do you know him?”
Dazed, her scream had become a whisper: “What do you mean?”
“I also don’t think it makes sense, madam. I mean, Trapero’s movies are really good.”