“I’ll drop you off and then come back when she phones.” Even as they rode to the shopping centre, Mason had to ride in a different car. Mrs Porter took her limousine with a temporary driver, as usual, and Mason was driven to the centre by Sam in the SUV. They had just pulled up at the front and Mrs Porter was already exiting her limousine. Eventually Mason would not have to take the SUV because he would be driving the limousine. But, until he learned to do it, he would have to be driven by Sam. Mason didn’t mind this because it still meant Sam could stay employed. As soon as Mason learned how to do everything Sam was doing then Sam would be thrown out onto the streets like the heaps of food they scraped into the bins that morning. It had only been a day but he couldn’t bare the idea of Sam being thrown out because of him. No matter how much he tried to convince himself that it wasn’t his fault, he was essentially brought in to replace Sam, so if Sam got thrown out then in a way it would be result of Mason turning up.
Mason got out of the car and made his way to Mrs Porter. She didn’t say anything to him and they just walked into the huge towering shopping centre in front of them.
This had been one of the huge glass buildings Mason saw on his drive through town. From the outside it didn’t look much different to a lot of the other buildings, with blacked out windows that were significantly larger than they had to be. But inside they weren’t office buildings. Inside was a large open courtyard with hundreds of shops branching off in different directions.
In Ashdale there were no shops, only the market that was held whenever people had wares they wanted to sell. Mason had bought everything he owned from the market, including all his clothes that were now possession of the Liberty government. It hadn’t been a lot but it had been his and he had worked hard for every penny he made so that he could buy that stuff. Now he didn’t need to work for money. Everything he needed would be bought for him. This was because he didn’t need anything. All he needed was basic food, a roof and a place to sleep. Aside from that he didn’t have any money to spend and no one was going to buy him any sort of luxuries. This was fine with Mason as he had learned to live without luxuries on the farm. But there was a twinge of envy when he saw people coming out of stores with arms full of bags and sparkling gold watches and rings and necklaces.
Even Mrs Porter, in her tight black pencil skirt, purple blouse – open at the top to display her shiny necklace – and high heeled shoes, was overdressed for a simple shopping trip. But this, to her, wasn’t overdressed. To Mrs Porter, this was shopping attire. Shopping was just another chance to show off how much you could spend, or had earned.
“I need a new outfit for tonight.” She, like Tallulah had been all morning, wasn’t really talking to Mason, more just giving him a direction in which she would be walking so he could follow. They walked into a ladies clothes shop and Mason was overwhelmed by the amount of clothes he saw. Not only were there so many, there were needless clothes too. There were scarves and gloves and hats of all styles and shapes and colours. If someone were wearing a scarf or a hat in Ashdale then they had obviously had a good month on the farm. But Ashdale was the place where gloves and scarves were needed. The temperature was so controlled in Liberty that they didn’t need winter clothes. But still, as with all the people in Liberty, there were people wearing scarves tied loosely around their necks. Mason wondered, if the people did really need them, how tying them that loosely was actually going to keep their neck warm. The only conclusion he could draw was that the people wearing the scarves didn’t need them. If he was allowed to maintain contact with anyone in Ashdale then he would have tucked a few scarves under his perfectly ironed black jacket and walked out the store with them. But that, given the position he was in, would be fruitless.
He followed Mrs Porter to one of the changing rooms and waited outside holding all the clothes she wished to try on. When she wanted a new one she would just reach out and take one, handing the previous one back to him with a “yes” or a “no” answer. Depending on the answer, Mason would have to fold up and put the garment on the chair, or hang it back up on the hanger and be prepared to take it back to whichever hanger she pulled it from. This went on for what felt like hundreds of dresses. Some were too tight, some were too loose. Some weren’t showy enough, some were too gaudy. Some showed too much skin, some showed not enough skin. Mrs Porter eventually settled on five dresses, each one costing more than Mason had ever seen in his entire life. Mrs Porter paid for them and Mason questioned, internally of course, how she was going to wear all five that night. She had, of course, only gone in for clothes for the party. The bag of dresses was handed to Mason without so much as a word.
Next they moved onto the accessories. “The right outfit needs the right accessories.” Mrs Porter mumbled to herself as she rummaged through handfuls of rings and pendants and brooches. Mason had only ever seen his mother wear one ring, a plain band that his father had given her when they were married. It had taken everything he had to trade it with a shady man from Ashdale market and, as it turned out, left a green band on his mother’s finger whenever she wore it. She never complained though, the green became as much a symbol of their marriage as the ring was. But she had been reluctant to take it, knowing how much Mason’s father had spent on it. She was a woman who needed very little and would have been appalled to see Mrs Porter sifting through the gold accessories as if they were grains of wheat on the farm.
Eventually Mrs Porter settled on a few. To her, anyway, it was just a few. To Mason it was enough jewellery to decorate the entire town of Ashdale twice over. If he had been at the market carrying that much jewellery he would have made a quip about a bag not having a secure enough bottom for the weight of the jewellery and perhaps a bucket was better suited. However, he wasn’t at the market and any such remark there would earn him a clip around the ear or significantly worse should Mr Porter find out. Mrs Porter walked away from the counter without even picking up the bag. She wasn’t leaving it though, this was Mason’s job after all. He grabbed the handle of the bag and felt the weight of it cut into the palm of his hand.
“Shoes.” Mrs Porter dashed off in another direction and Mason was still expected to follow, despite being weighed down like a pack mule. They got to the shoe store and Mrs Porter was ushered inside, given a comfortable chair and treated to a glass of Champagne. Mason was not even addressed and was made to stand behind a large display people walking past couldn’t see him inside. Apparently shoppers were put off by shopping in the same place an Underclassman was. Mason found this curious as he wasn’t actually shopping there, but he was forbidden from touching any of the stock so he figured it must have had something to do with falling prices should he be seen touching them. No one wanted shoes an Underclassman had touched.
The rule seemed fickle, almost as fickle as the people shopping there, for earlier that day he had been handling Mrs Porter’s dresses without her complaining about it. That’s when it occurred to Mason that rules weren’t written down on paper, or in stone somewhere, they were all just subjective. When it suited the owner then Underclassmen were allowed to handle their stuff, otherwise Mrs Porter would have to handle her own dresses and carry her own accessories. But, when they saw an opportunity to make life difficult then they could, like making sure the Underclassman couldn’t touch anything without protective gloves on.
When they left the shoe shop, with yet another bag full of three pairs of shoes – after all Mrs Porter couldn’t be expected to decide which shoes went with which dress while they were in the store – then Mrs Porter seemed confused. She stopped for a moment, directly in the middle of the courtyard. People bustled their way past, making sure to avoid Mrs Porter but not caring if they barged or shoved Mason. A couple of times Mason nearly spilled the entire contents of the bags onto the floor but managed to right himself in time. He could not even imagine the scene Mrs Porter would cause should her garments be strewn across the floor and then be picked up by an Underclassman. That would be, in her eyes, the epitome of humiliation.
“Delilah, how are you?” Another woman, around the same age and with skeletal features, had approached Mrs Porter. The two of them had beaming broad smiles and were hugging and kissing each other’s cheeks. Back in Ashdale, regardless of who you were, a greeting would be a handshake or a quick embrace. Nobody had time to waste on kisses on both cheeks or that high pitched squeal whenever Mrs Porter noticed someone she knew. “I do hope you shall be attending my party tonight?”
Delilah, the woman that Mrs Porter seemed to know, had a severe brown fringe like Mr Porter but her hair was much longer and looked disproportionate to her body. She appeared to have more hair than muscle and the bones all the way up her could be seen stretching her skin.
“Of course Marie, I shan’t miss it for the world.” It was at that point that Mrs Porter remembered what she had previously forgotten.
“We need food.” She directly the comment at Mason. Her eyes bored into Mason as if she were expecting him to know where to go and what to get. Mason didn’t know what to do. Sam hadn’t prepared him for this. Was this supposed to be like at breakfast? Was he supposed to know what food to get and which foods not to get because no one would eat them? What if he got the wrong food? “What are you waiting for?” Mason couldn’t answer because he didn’t have an answer. There was nothing he could say that wouldn’t make him seem like a complete idiot. On the other hand he couldn’t just walk off and gather lots of food because he had no money and didn’t know what to be getting. “Here.” Mrs Porter reached into the top of her blouse and pulled out a list. She shoved it into Mason’s palm, which were still being cut up by the handles of the bags, and sent him on his way.
“But Ma’am, how can I pay for it?” He had managed to get the question out without feeling too inferior. Of course, in the uniform he was wearing with the matching black cap, it was difficult not to feel inferior to these women.
“If you are trying to extort money from me then you are mistaken, Mason.” She added his name as emphasis that he was her property. She owned him and she owned his name as well, or at least she acted like it. “You shall take the goods to the counter and fill out a slip of paper telling the proprietor that you are owned by The Porter’s. You shall sign it with your name also so that we know which Underclassman is responsible. We shall pay the company later. The supermarkets are on the second floor.”
“You just cannot get good Underclassman these days.” Delilah, the bony woman, had been looking directly at Mason when she said it.
Mason, not wanting to be judged any more than he had been already, bowed his head to the women quickly and then dashed off up the stairs onto the second floor. That, since arriving in Liberty, had been the most embarrassing experience. For a second he wished that Sam had been around to help him out. If Sam had been there then he would have been able to tell him all of that in a more friendly manner, rather than him being chewed out by two women in the middle of a shopping centre.
Mason had not expected such a variety of food when he found the supermarket. He stood in the doorway, unaware that such a place had existed until that moment. There were freezers keeping cold food cold and tin cans to keep things preserved longer. Some of the food came in tightly sealed little plastic bags to keep it fresh and Mason found the idea of tight plastic being a preservative simply mind blowing.
He fished the list out of the pocket of his uniform and unfolded it, trying not to drop the bags of clothes in the other hand. Had Mrs Porter been there the whole situation would have been considerably easier. He grabbed a wire basket from the front of the store and hooked it over his free arm so he could easily pick up the foods and drop them into the basket, still being able to look at the list.
A moment briefly flashed through his mind where he realised his situation. Here he was in the middle of a supermarket, a place that sold such a variety of food that his mind could not comprehend it, and he was alone. There was no Mrs Porter to tell him he was not allowed to do something or to cringe every time his hand came within a thirty centimetre radius of hers. He could, if he wanted to, open all the food and touch them all before replacing them. No one would know the difference. But he couldn’t do it. He wanted to open various tins and pop-caps, dip his hand in and grab a few, and then seal them back up again. Mason didn’t have much, but he did have pride in what he did. So, as he was instructed, he simply placed the food into the basket and any food without a basket he only handled with plastic gloves on.
The list was full of things that Mason had never even heard as words let alone food products: daikon, fennel, basil. The list went on. Back in Ashdale, Mason was lucky to be allowed to eat an apple that had been grown by a neighbour. Mostly he and his family lived off of the meat they got from the animals – the cows, pigs and sheep – with some plain bread. The list that he held was split into different sections such as “for seasoning” and “for jus” which would then just list another load of ingredients underneath it. Mason queried for a second who wrote the list. Had Mrs Porter written the list? If she had then it would not have been as helpful as it was being. Mason was managing to find a lot of things under the categories they were listed. He found preserves in the corresponding aisle and he found all the seasoning ingredients under the seasoning aisle. The meat was all kept in the chilled section which was a novelty for Mason as most of his meat was just kept in salt to keep it fresh. This often resulted in it affecting the taste of the food and he wondered if keeping food chilled was a more effective way of making it last longer. But that would require electricity, which still amazed him because he didn’t understand it and wanted to, and Ashdale didn’t have enough electricity to power supermarket size freezers.
The idea of just taking everything you needed up to a counter struck Mason as peculiar as well. He had grown accustomed to the idea of buying food from families and you would have to know which family grew which product to know which stall you could go to. He knew the Miller’s were good with their eggs so they could be relied upon for dairy, but Miss Johnson grew the best fruit. The suggestion that all these foods could be kept in one place, just under different sections, took him by surprise. But his surprise, and curiosity, was short lived because he began to realise it was pointless to wonder about anything. He would never get to suggest the idea of this to the people back in Ashdale.
“Excuse me, Sir?” Mason was stood at the front of the store by the counter. It was relatively empty which Mason was thankful for. A man in a green uniform stood on the other side of the counter although was a few feet away dealing with someone else at the time.
“How can I help-” The man cut his sentence short and Mason wondered if it was because he recognised the uniform. How many times had Sam been in here, in the exact same uniform, and had to say he was an Underclassman in order to buy the food. Or how many times had Mrs Porter accompanied him into the store and paraded him around like he was some sort of shopping machine she had recently purchased. “Yes?” His relatively friendly greeting had become a single terse word.
“I’ve been told I have to buy these.” He placed the basket up onto the counter and the man, without saying anything else, just slid a piece of paper across to him. Mason picked the pen up and filled out the paper, including who his owner was, his name and the time the goods were purchased. The man then snatched the crumpled shopping list out of Mason’s hand and stapled it to the top of the form. He slid the form back across to him and Mason knew he had to sign it. He tried to mimic the same scribble he had done that morning although it wasn’t as close as he would have liked. The man then took the form back, placed it under the desk and walked away. Mason didn’t think he would ever get used to not being greeted or the miss the niceties of someone saying goodbye, but he would have to because it wasn’t going to happen again. Had Mason just taken his life on the farm for granted?
Once he had purchased the groceries needed for the party that night Mason made his way back the stairs, carrying Mrs Porter’s dresses, accessories and shoes in one hand while his other arm bared the weight of the food. When he arrived at the bottom he could see Mrs Porter, still in the same place, had now been joined by a whole gaggle of people. What caught Mason’s eye, more than the enormous number of people, was that they were all female with one exception.
As Mason walked closer he expected Mrs Porter to turn around to welcome him back, introduce him to some of the people and then to make her excuses and call for the drivers. She did no such thing and Mason remembered who he was. He was an Underclassman, technically he didn’t exist to these people unless they wanted him to do something. So there he stood, beside Mrs Porter, while she chatted on about the party that evening and how it was going to be “marvellous” and “splendid”, all of which Mason was going to have to make come true.
The only man, aside from Mason of course, looked equally as bored by the frivolous chatter and instead of participating came round to where Mason was standing. The moment was awkward as Mason didn’t really know what to say. Was he allowed to talk to this person because he didn’t own him? Did he have to wait for permission to talk to anyone and, if so, would Mrs Porter stop talking long enough to realise it?
“I’m Xavier.” He offered his hand out for Mason to shake. So many things crossed Mason’s mind at that moment. Was he allowed to shake his hand? Xavier had offered so he was giving permission for it to happen, what would Mrs Porter say though? Why was he talking to him? Surely he would have been more at home socialising with the ladies, the people who had lived in Liberty their entire life. Why was he paying more attention to Mason?
But the thing that struck Mason most, above all those questions dashing through his head, were Xavier’s eyes. They were a dark black with a piercing jade circle encompassing it. For once, since arriving in Liberty, Mason felt like he was being looked at, not through. On top of that, Xavier didn’t look like he belonged in Liberty. He had long blond hair that was tied back in a ponytail and Mason couldn’t remember ever seeing a man in Liberty with long hair. Also, everyone he had seen so far had been dressed up to the nines; so much so that they wouldn’t even come down the stairs in the morning without looking perfect. Mrs Porter, that morning, had plastered her face with make-up and even made sure Tallulah was made-up before they even considered leaving their rooms. Xavier stood in front of Mason in a pair of black denim jeans and a basic red t-shirt. Mason hadn’t seen anyone wear a t-shirt in the whole day he had been in Liberty. It was shirts or nothing. Xavier didn’t apply by this rule though. Just peaking out of the bottom of Xavier’s jeans, Mason could see boots. He remembered his old working boots from the farm, how comfortable they had been, and could the big clumpy boots that Xavier had on.
“Mason.” He reached out, ready to shake Xavier’s hand, when it was harshly slapped away. Mason recoiled, dropping a few of the shopping bags in the process, before he could even understand what had happened. Mrs Porter stood beside him, her eyes boring into his and her severe haircut framing her face into what appeared to be a very angry picture.
“What do you think you are doing?!” Mason couldn’t apologise quick enough. He was down on his knees, stuffing food back into grocery bags and accessories back into their rightful bags. He also knew he wasn’t supposed to answer the question. No answer would be good enough. Even an apology would just be damage limitation.
“Xavier!” Delilah wheeled round and glared at the other man. But, and Mason felt a small admiration for this, Xavier didn’t care. He looked back at Delilah, who Mason had now deduced must have been his mother, with shock that she would treat him like that.
“I was introducing myself.” There was a bitterness to his voice, like he was genuinely upset that their handshake had been prevented. “I’m eighteen, you can’t tell me who I can and can’t shake hands with.” Mason sensed this probably wasn’t the first time they had this conversation.
“You don’t shake hands with it!”
“It is not the same as you or I, it is an Underclassman!” Even Mrs Porter had joined in berating Xavier.
When Mason had finally picked up all of the goods they had bought, he dusted himself down and wanted to leap to Xavier’s defence. But he couldn’t. Anything he had to say would either fall on deaf ears or make the situation a whole lot worse. On top of that, Mason would be throwing himself into serious trouble just be talking to Mrs Porter without her first addressing him. It was okay for Sam to do it, like he had that morning, because he had worked for them for fifty years and knew his time with them was short. There wasn’t anything they could do to him that hadn’t already been done or that he couldn’t live with until they threw him out. For Mason though they could make the next fifty years of his life a nightmare. Instead of saying anything Mason just lowered his head and tried to block out the sound of shouting by admiring how shiny his shoes were. He had never had shiny shoes before.
The drive home had been fairly painless since Mrs Porter was in a separate car. Sam asked what had happened because there had been obvious tension in the air when he had arrived to pick them up. That was the power of an apology though, it defused any remaining tension. But, since Mason wasn’t allowed to apologise unless Mrs Porter asked for one, the tension just lingered around like an unwanted guest.
“Some people have different attitudes towards Underclassmen. To the majority of people we’re not actual people. We’re just things that are around to do their bidding. But to some we exist. There aren’t many though. I’ve only encountered three or four in my lifetime that would be willing to shake my hand in public. But most of them understand the rules, most of them know shaking hands with an Underclassman in public would bring embarrassment on their family, so even if they want to they still don’t do it.” Mason liked having Sam around. They didn’t always get along, what with Sam sticking by the rules rigidly and Mason liking to know why things had to be done, but Sam had lived and knew more about the world than he did. “What that man did would have been embarrassing for his mother. Everyone who saw it would think she didn’t bring him up properly.” As much as Mason disagreed with it, it was still present. Xavier shaking his hand would have been a mistake and Mason knew, or should have known it, and should not have offered his hand back. It was Mason’s fault. He had encouraged Xavier to shake his hand.
When they got home Mason and Sam had been allowed no time to rest as they were whisked into the kitchen and told to get started on the food. Mr Porter must have been upstairs and Mason prayed he would not find out about what had happened at the shopping centre.
“Ma’am, Mason has never had to handle any of these ingredients before.” Mrs Porter was stood in the doorway wondering why Mason was just looking at the food with a blank expression. Sam’s answer was half right but also Mason couldn’t believe the amount of food in front of him.
“So there is nothing he is good at then?” Her eyes darted over at Mason who knew better than meet her gaze. He put his head down, picked up a carrot and started peeling it. He didn’t know why, or even if it were necessary, but at least this way he could look at the carrot and not at the judging eyes of Mrs Porter.
“If you will allow me to, Ma’am, I can teach him.” Mason could hear her huff and sigh from the other side of the kitchen but tried to ignore it. This conversation didn’t involve him. Sure, it was about him, but he was not involved in it.
“Fine.” She was halfway out of the door when she froze, turning back to them with a smirk spreading across her face. “The more you teach him now, the less time we have to keep you around.” Mason wondered if there was a line. Would he be able to keep Sam on by messing things up? Surely if he was not learning then Sam would have to stay on longer to teach him? But that would involve a lot of punishments, a lot of burning and a lot of awkward encounters like that morning. “Just do what you must to make sure tonight goes perfectly.” With that she swept out of the room, leaving just the two Underclassmen in the kitchen preparing food.
“So what’s going to happen is you are going to greet people when they arrive. You get to make up for your previous transgression that way and hopefully people will see how good you are. When everyone has arrived you can come and help me in the kitchen and then I’ll help you through the plating and serving.” It wasn’t a question, but Mason knew it had his best interests at heart. This was the difference between Sam telling him what to do and the Porter’s telling him what to do.
“Ma’am, may I take your coat?” Mason was enjoying being the greeter. He was allowed to speak to people, although it was only to offer to take their coats or offer them a drink. But he still got to talk to people. Not many responded, in fact most of them just dumped their coats and bags onto him before he had finished his question. As for the drink, some of them thought it rather foolish that he would even have to ask.
He still couldn’t do anything right though. For Mrs Black the drink was not brought quick enough and for Mr Black he was brought the wrong kind of drink, despite being very specific in the kind of drink he had requested. For the McAllister sisters, both eighty years old very little could go right. Mason would be too in their face one moment and then too absent the next. They even found it too ungentlemanly when he had to help them between chairs. This was another exception to the rule. If an eighty year old McAllister sister wished to switch chairs because she was in too much direct sunlight, despite the sun being set, then Mason would have to be the one to take an arm and help them across to another. He did, however, make sure to see that all coats were on separate hooks to the bags and that all the bags hung evenly with the strap being of equal length on both sides. He still did not understand why, and wanted to ask any of the guests if they even noticed, but was forbidden.
As it turns out, Mrs Porter did need to go shopping that morning because everyone seemed to appreciate the fact that her dress was brand new and they had never seen it before. Mason was less impressed with the various jingles and jangles that she had on her clothes because he had been the one carrying them around all day. Had Mrs Porter come down the stairs in some overalls and work boots then Mason would have been much more impressed. However, this kind of thinking just made it easier for him to concentrate on his job and not be distracted by the various guests and their gold jewellery or diamond spotted dresses and tiara’s – Mason had thought it rather presumptuous of Hannah McAllister to turn up to a party in a tiara, but none of the guests thought that.
“I do not need you to take my coat.” Mason hadn’t recognised the man at first but then, when he smiled upon seeing Mrs Porter, he saw the way the smile stretched at the sides of his face. It was Mayor Lambert. “Camille, how now to see you.” He leaned in and kissed Mrs Porter on both cheeks. “You look stunning by the way. Is that a new dress?”
“Bought it today.” For the first time Mason saw Mrs Porter blush. Mayor Lambert, from what Sam had told him, had a way with words. “Do come in and take a seat, the other guests should be here soon.” The room was already fairly busy, with dozens of people milling around and socialising, but it didn’t seem to make the room seem any smaller.
“I wish I could, my dear, but I am late for a prior engagement. You know how I adore your parties. I only came by to apologise for my absence. You know I always believe it is better to do these sort of things in person. I shall definitely pop by to see you and Reginald in a few days though. We must catch up.” He kissed her again on the cheeks and bid the rest of the room goodbye as he swept out of the door. He was there for only a moment but he had been the focus point of the room and had managed it with confidence. Mason understood now how the tests worked, Mayor Lambert was clearly the right person for the job because the whole room fawned over him and he loved it.
Mason was busy fulfilling requests for drinks when Delilah came in. He had learned by now that she did have a surname, Atherton, but he was just to address her as he would everyone else: Ma’am.
“Does your Underclassman not take coats?” She was stood by the door in a large fur lined monstrosity with buckles hanging off in needless places. Mason dashed out of the kitchen, placing a glass of champagne onto the table on his way through, and took her coat off of her.
“I apologise, Ma’am.” For this evening he was allowed to apologise at will, but he could not have excuses. If he apologised then he must not follow it up with a reason because, as Mrs Porter had put it, no reason is ever good enough. Mason realised, at this point, that Sam had it easier. He was able to stay in the kitchen and avoid any sort of judgement and ridicule should he mess up. But Mason didn’t envy him for this for he had probably worked numerous parties on his own, working as both the chef and the butler.
“Thought I’d see you again.” Mason’s head whipped around when he heard the voice. The voice that he had spent all afternoon trying to block out. Xavier.
“I’m sorry, Sir?” Mason was not sure what to do. He wasn’t used to people not giving him orders. It had only been just over a day but the only person who spoke to him normally was Sam, and even then that was rare. To everyone else he was only present when they wanted something.
Mason, upon seeing Xavier, wondered if he had received the dress code for the party. He had turned up in a plaid shirt, over the top of a plain white t-shirt, with either the same or a matching pair of black denim jeans. His hair was still unusually long, although Mason wasn’t sure if he wanted it cut or not, and was still tied back in a ponytail. To top off the whole look, he was still wearing the boots. Mason wanted his boots back.
“I’m not ‘Sir’. Call me Xavier.” Mason didn’t have time to think this through because the attention of the entire room was soon swept towards the stairs and directed at Tallulah plodding down in some sort of pink gown. Tallulah, judging by the smile on her face, loved the attention. She milked every step she took and even waved her had gently half way down like she was royalty. In all fairness to her, the whole room was watching her. Most were watching her because they actually thought she looked beautiful, with her rosy red plump cheeks and her little pink evening gown. Mason was watching her because he didn’t know how to respond to Xavier.
“We shall have to eat soon, Tallulah cannot possibly stay up too late, she has choir practice tomorrow morning.” Mrs Porter glanced across to Delilah when she said it, like she was trying to rub it in that Tallulah had choir.
“Excuse me.” Mason disappeared into the kitchen and then realised what had happened: he hadn’t called Xavier ‘Sir’. It had been an accident, but the more Mason thought about it the more he wondered if it had been. Xavier had told him not to address him as ‘Sir’.
“Are you okay serving? I’m having trouble getting this duck to cook and might take some vigilance so it doesn’t burn.” Sam was knelt down by the oven door, watching the bird inside like a hawk.
“Sure.” Mason had grown slightly more confident, although he didn’t know why. He was still going to be serving food that he helped prepare to a group of people who knew he couldn’t do anything right. And Xavier.
Mason picked up a selection of plates and made his way back through to the living room. He followed it through and everyone was sat at the dining room table. This room had been introduced to Mason earlier and had previously been tucked away behind two large folding screens.
“The whole world doesn’t need to know you eat.” Was the way that Sam had put it. It was a long way away from the kitchen in Ashdale that served as living room, dining room and kitchen to Mason and his family.
Mason places the plates down on the table. As Sam had instructed, he simply lifted the covers off of the plates and then stood back. If he was busy then he would return to the kitchen but if all the food was out then he should just stand by the table and wait for people to tell him what they want.
“I do hope you enjoy the meal, I put a lot of effort into this menu.” Mrs Porter was sat next to her husband, who sat at the head of the table, and Mason stood behind him. He felt it rather insulting that Mrs Porter was taking responsibility for the food despite only constructing the menu. “It is a shame to not have some music playing while we eat.” Mason began to pick up on the subtle hints and dashed across to the stereo. He had been told by Sam to just press play, since he had never had to work one before. He pressed the button labelled play and it filled the air with the sounds of violins and piano. It was soft and gentle and actually eased the tension Mason was feeling at having to work the entire party by himself.
Mason never had music to work to on the farm, just the songs he would overhear as people worked on their own farms. There would never be music though, the songs he knew were just words carried through the air over a fence. He realised now why the people sang on their farms, it made the work more tolerable. As Mason found out, the night went quicker when he could ignore people’s barrage of thinly veiled insults and just listen to the gentle sounds coming from the stereo.
“They been playing that crap for ages.” The music seeped through the kitchen doors and it hadn’t been turned off since Mason turned it on when he first served food. “I don’t get it, it’s just sounds, shouldn’t music have words?” He started chopping things faster and harder than before, like the music had taken over and was causing him to do irrational things.
“It’s emotive.” Mason had grown so comfortable with Sam that he didn’t mind voicing his opinion to him. It actually made the whole situation more bearable if he had someone to talk to like normal. He never had anyone on the farm after his father had passed away. He used to talk to his father while they worked and the jobs seemed to get harder once he left. It hadn’t been that the work itself had increased in difficulty though, the conversation that was absent had made the work seem easier. That’s why Mason was glad to have conversation with Sam, it made the whole thing easier.
“No more, apparently.” As Mason returned to the kitchen with dozens of empty plates and bowls a cloud of dark grey smoke followed him.
“So it’s cigars now.” Mason pushed the door open slightly and noticed that most of the men had adjourned to the living room and were smoking cigars while the women were still sat at the table gossiping. There were a few exceptions as one of the McAllister sisters was asleep in an armchair and Xavier was absent from the whole picture.
Mason cursed the fact that he hadn’t taken the opportunity to talk with Xavier more while he was allowed. He was a guy that allowed him to omit the ‘Sir’ from his vocabulary and spoke to him like a normal person.
“Is this where the drinks are?” As if on cue, Xavier opened the kitchen door and presented an empty glass to the two Underclassman.
“I will get you another one and bring it out to you. I’m sorry you felt it necessary to come out here.” Mason opened up the fridge and grabbed a bottle of champagne. He popped the top off of it and began pouring Xavier a glass.
“Yeah you can drop that now, everyone else is too far gone to even realise if you’re keeping up with formalities or not.”
“I’m sorry?” Xavier pushed the kitchen door open and Mason could see then the real picture. Sure the men were smoking cigars, but most of them were just sat quietly staring out of the window or admiring pieces of furniture. The women, still sat at the table, were just chatting nonsense and cackling at random intervals without any sort of logic to it.
“This is your first party, isn’t it?” Mason nodded and handed Xavier the drink. For a brief seconds their hands touched and it shocked Mason so much he nearly dropped the glass. He hadn’t been expecting it and, earlier that day, contact like that would have had Mason yelled at. “You’ll learn. They just drink until they can’t remember the night. You’ll probably find them still down here in the morning, passed out over a table or something. That’s why I’m here anyway, someone’s got to take mother home when she’s had too much.” He rolled his eyes as if it were not the first time he’s experienced it. Mason could imagine all the parties he had been dragged along to just so that his mother could drink herself stupid and then still wake up in her own bed the next morning.
“I’ll put Tallulah to bed.” Sam exited the kitchen and took Tallulah upstairs. She obviously hadn’t been drinking but knew when her parents weren’t going to be able to put her to bed. That meant Sam would have to do it and, in the future, Mason would take over that role too. Knowing Tallulah she wasn’t going to be pleased about it and Sam could be there for hours trying to explain to her that she had to go to bed. Still, he would have even more trouble the next morning if Tallulah was too tired for choir practise.
“So, you’re new here? Mason, right?” Mason wasn’t sure what to do with himself now that the evening had finished. He wasn’t used to having time spare. He assumed that his day wouldn’t finish until he went to bed and he would be working right up until the moment he dropped off to sleep.
“Yeah. Started yesterday.” He took a seat on one of the kitchen stools and Xavier pulled one up next to him.
“You from Ashdale?” It felt wrong, the words coming from his mouth. No one in Liberty ever mentioned Ashdale. “I’ve known people from there.” Obviously, he would have had Underclassmen from there. Mason wondered if it would be anyone he knew.
“Yeah. I owned a farm out there. Well…my father did.”
“And you took over when he died?” Mason never really spoke of his father. There wasn’t much to say other than he worked the farm and married his mother. They spoke during their work time but that was pass the time talk, it wasn’t anything informative or in depth. He had known that his father wanted to leave the farm to him, so it would stay in the family, and Mason would learn all the skills needed so that when he sat the exams the lowest he could be was a farmer. A farmer for Mason would have been fine, but as it turned out he got Underclassman. “So, how did you end up here?”
“How does anyone end up here, you fail the exams. I’m assuming you passed them?”
“Lawyer.” Of course. No one in Liberty ever failed. Think of the humiliation it would bring a family if your son or daughter then had to go off to work for another family. “Any family?”
“Mother. And a brother, Thomas. Had to teach him everything I knew about the farm and saving money before I came here.”
“How does someone save money on a farm?” Xavier sipped his drink and Mason worried whether he should tell him or not.
If anyone had walked in they would have mistaken the roles. Mason was dressed in a pressed shirt and black jacket with shiny black shoes and matching trousers while Xavier was wearing clothes that wouldn’t have been out of place on the farm.
Mason looked at the food on the table in front of them. He really wanted something; just a strawberry or a section of an apple. It wouldn’t be anything anyone could trace, it would just be something people wouldn’t even remember being there. Who was to say that there had been that apple section there? A person can easily think they see something and it turn out not to be there.
“Help yourself, I won’t tell anyone.” Xavier picked up a piece of apple, the same piece Mason had been staring at, and popped it into his mouth with a smirk. “Go on.” His smile was too intoxicating, it could make Mason do all sorts of things he shouldn’t. But, he figured, everyone else was too far gone in the other room so the risks were fairly reduced. He picked up another apple slice and took a bite.
His mouth was immediately flooded with flavour. More flavour than he could comprehend. It was sweet, the sweetest thing he had ever tasted. It might have been that all he had eaten that day was porridge, but the apple was like touching heaven. It took him back to the first time his father had given him an apple section and he took that very first bite. All those memories, being a child and being on the farm again. He felt comfortable and it felt right: and it was all because of Xavier.
“You skim.” He had nothing to lose. How much further could someone get? He couldn’t see his family and he was serving people whose idea of fun was to get drunk and pass out on tables. Xavier cocked an eyebrow and Mason smirked, the first time he had felt more knowledgeable than someone since he boarded the train to Liberty. “You hide food in places so when The Colls” Xavier’s eyebrow, which had returned to its usual place, cocked once again at the word ‘Colls’. Mason laughed and realised he hadn’t for a while. It felt strange and unnatural but somewhat welcome. “The Collectors. When The Collectors come round they can search as much of your house as they like, they won’t find anything.” Mason felt like a traitor, giving out his secrets for a simple apple core.
“Really? Who taught you to do that?” Mason and Xavier were picking at various pieces of food as they talked. No longer was Mason feeling guilty about the apple. The state of the party in the other room meant that the next morning the party-goers wouldn’t know what food they had and hadn’t eaten.
“No one.” Mason was between mouthfuls of apple and strawberry, mixing with it some of the chicken from earlier. He had learned, from serving, that sweet and savoury courses should not be mixed, but there was too much food and not enough time to worry about that. He was helping himself to chicken, dipping it in gravy and wrapping some bacon around it before following it up with some cheese or some plums. The whole platter of food was his for choosing and he was going to have as much as he could before it got thrown away. “I taught myself.”
“I’m impressed. Not often you meet an Underclassman with such ingenuity.” Mason smiled and covered his mouth, trying not to let the chicken-gravy-bacon combination fall out or become visible. He may have been raised on a farm but he knew manners.
“Have to do whatever you can to save money.”
“Not around here.” Xavier gestured to the amount of food that, had they not been eating it, would just be thrown away.
“She’s not going down.” Sam took Mason by surprise as he entered the kitchen. Halfway through a mouthful Mason was afraid to chew any more, just in case he noticed. “Go ahead, they don’t come in here at this time anyway.” Sam started making up some warm milk and Mason thought of Thomas, how he had never had problems sleeping. Mason couldn’t remember a time, apart from when Thomas was very young and caught a fever, that he had to tend to Thomas because he refused to sleep. Tallulah wasn’t sleeping because she didn’t have to. She knew she was in charge, even over Sam, and could still get whatever she wanted even when her parents were passed out on the dining room table.
“Try this.” Xavier reached across the table and grabbed some salmon off of a plate. He handed it to Mason who looked at it with slight disgust.
“It smells awful.”
“Getting picky now, are we?” Xavier joked and Mason smiled, took a deep breath and pretended he was on the farm where he didn’t have a choice about food. He threw the salmon into his mouth and chewed, savouring the new fishy flavour he was experiencing. It wasn’t too strong, he thought to himself as he chewed, but it wasn’t a taste he took to immediately. His face contorted during the moments of real flavour because he hadn’t been exposed to anything that fishy in his life. He didn’t have time to consider anything else because Xavier handed him another piece of food that he couldn’t identify. Mason, feeling the same as before, took a deep breath and threw it into his mouth.
Feeling like he was being the guinea-pig and wanting Xavier to blind taste something for once, picked up a handful of foods from various plates and tried to form them together with strips of bacon and lettuce leaves. At the end he had something that equalled a hamburger made up of chicken, beef, salmon and lamb wrapped in bacon and then wrapped in a lettuce leaf.
“No way.” Xavier shook his head adamantly but couldn’t hold back the smile that stayed on his face. “The stuff I gave you was at least food.”
“I’ll show you how we do it on the farm. Close your eyes.” Xavier reluctantly closed one but kept one squinted open, not that Mason noticed. “Open your mouth.” Xavier opened his mouth slightly but Mason didn’t have time to even attempt to make him eat the food.
“Daddy!” Xavier’s eyes snapped open and he and Mason both looked at the door.
In the doorway stood Tallulah, in her little pink bunny pyjama’s, staring directly at the two of them. It wasn’t long before Mr Porter was behind her, wondering what had made his little princess scream. Then he saw it too.
“What the hell is going on here?!” Mason quickly dropped the hamburger and got to his feet, rushing out every variation of an apology he could think of. None of them washed with Mr Porter though. “Explain yourself, boy!” He was no longer Mason, now he was back to being ‘boy’.
“It was my fault.” By now a crowd had formed by the kitchen door and Xavier was also on his feet.
“What do you think you were doing?!” Mr Porter grabbed Mason by the arm and dragged him into the living room where the stench of cigar smoke still stained the air. It was heavy and Mason coughed a few times when thrown into the cloud. “I asked you a question!”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” They were the only words Mason could think of. He had been told excuses weren’t good enough and so there was no point in explaining everything. How do you explain a need for food to people who throw away tonnes of it every day?
“Sorry?! You’re sorry?!” The crowd had moved back to the living room now and Xavier was trying to get between Mr Porter and Mason. He was trying to take the blame for the whole situation but Mr Porter had his eyes directly locked onto Mason. His grip on Mason’s arm tightened and Mason felt the blood almost being cut off. He didn’t have time to wonder about the pain though as Mr Porter slung him across the living room leading him to crash onto the coffee table. Mason felt his back arch too much as he landed on the table and it sent a sharp pain through him, he wasn’t sure if he would be able to get up again. Once again this wasn’t an issue as Mr Porter picked him up and slung him over onto one of the sofas. Mason’s back cracked against the wooden arm and he considered briefly that it might be broken. He couldn’t feel anything any more and just prayed for it to be over. All his energy was spent on trying not to cry in front of that many people.
“Stop it!” Xavier grabbed hold of Mr Porter’s arm but the larger man easily shoved him away.
Mason clambered to his feet, feeling a bruising already forming on his back, but barely got his balance before Mr Porter slapped him across the face. It stung like when the wind whipped him on a cold winter morning. Within seconds a red hand-print formed on the side of his face and Mason felt it begin to burn.
“I knew you were up to something! You wretched little thing.” Mr Porter reached back and this time, with a closed fist, caught Mason across the cheek and the side of his nose. Mason didn’t move after that, he just lay on the floor trying to breath normally again. He knew if he stood up then he would just get punched down again and he knew when it was best to just stay down. A large part of him wanted to get up and start throwing punches back, but that would lead to more trouble. At least this way he only had to deal with Mr Porter’s fury and not the fury of the government and the police force for hitting his owner.
When Mason was sure Mr Porter had gone to bed he reached a hand up to his nose and gently pushed it from side to side. He was relieved when it didn’t cause him unbearable agony. At least he hadn’t broken his nose.