The door closed behind him with a heavy thud, a sound his over active imagination likened to a coffin lid being closed. It was loud, but not loud enough to drown out the phantom voice and the snide comment.
“That’s going to be a quick interview.”
Liam heard it clearly, as if someone had said it just inches from his ear. He wasn’t stupid enough to believe that the comment was aimed at anyone else. It was directed at him. He knew it, and yet, it didn’t bother him. In fact, it was a true reflection of how he felt.
He followed the two Bodyguards, his feet moving as if his shoes were weighted with lead. They escorted him down a wide hallway that was decorated with row after row of po-faced portraits, none of whom Liam recognised. He only gave them scant attention anyway, disliking the way their eyes looked down on him, their disapproval paramount in their countenances.
You don’t belong here, those disapproving faces seemed to be saying.
I know, Liam retorted, from the confines of his mind.
There was another door at the end of the passageway, which the Bodyguards held open for him. This was not done as a courtesy, but to shepherd the boy deeper within that inner sanctum. Beyond the door was an antechamber with three other doors at the other points of the compass. One of these doors would lead outside and to freedom. Another, into the actual interview room. The final door would lead... well... Liam didn’t know and didn’t care. If he had the balls, he’d ask right now which door was the exit, bid the Bodyguards a fond adieu, and would skulk away and enjoy the rest of his afternoon.
Take the easy way out, in other words.
Liam sighed, a deep inhalation and exhalation that could have been seen, by a casual observer, as someone preparing to take a big plunge. Psyching himself up. If only.
“This way,” one of the Bodyguards announced. There was no fanfare. Just the rough voice and an arm turning a door handle and pulling open the door. There was not even a “good luck” or something similar as Liam strode between the duo and into the next chamber.
The meeting room was a huge, high ceilinged chamber designed to make the interviewee feel small and insignificant. To further the sense of powerlessness, the dominating feature of the room was a massive wooden desk shaped like a crescent. Around the outer curve of the crescent were three high backed chairs occupied by the three interviewers. These sat facing the door so that the three interviewers could watch the boy carefully as he walked towards them. His own chair, which the interviewer in the middle of the trio bade he deposit his sorry arse into with a gesticulation, was much smaller, and was without arms or soft cushions. Sitting in it, Liam felt the back of the chair conspiring to hold his spine straight, to force him to actually sit up, and look directly at the men across from him.
“Good afternoon, Liam,” the tutor in the middle crowed. The chamber amplified his voice, deep and mellifluous, so that it filled the entire room seemingly without effort. “My name is Peter Osborne. To my left is Elias Clough and to my right... Gerard Lucas.”
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Liam replied, his voice sounding tiny and hesitant, pitched a little too high. He hated that sound, hated the tremulous quality he heard coming from his own mouth.
“So... Liam,” Osborne said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “You want to become an apprentice?”
For a split second, Liam was sorely tempted to answer honestly. Instead, he pictured his father at the moment he announced in his usual brusque manner that he’d nominated Liam as a candidate. There was no sarcasm in his father’s voice, just a dead certainty that whatever Liam said this afternoon mattered little. His place was all but assured. Therefore, what passed in these few minutes was a farce, and it was in Liam’s best interests to simply play along and bring the formality to a speedy conclusion.
“Yes,” he lied. “There is nothing more I want than to become an apprentice.”
He watched with satisfaction as all three tutors blanched. The fellow who posed the question coughed, and shuffled at the papers set out on the desk before him. Liam glanced at these but briefly. They were all blank, there for show, each sheet adding a layer of lead around his rapidly beating heart.
“You’re aware of the requirements for the apprenticeship?” Clough asked.
“Yes, sir,” he replied, diligently.
He even allowed himself to sound excited by the prospect of being force-marched around the training yard, of having boys nearly twice his size pummelling him with wooden swords and fists clad in boxing gloves. Just yesterday, he had been the only boy to put the wrong foot in the stirrup and to mount the horse backwards, eliciting howls of derision from his peers. Yes sir, he thought. I am ready for twelve months of humiliation and pain.
“Can you write?” Lucas demanded.
“Yes, sir,” Liam said. Sure, he could write, but his handwriting was like most other things he did. It was awkward, uncoordinated, a slow process. It didn’t help that he was left handed and that if ever a tutor caught him using his pen in that hand, they’d rap him over the knuckles with whatever device of torture was in their possession and force him to use his right hand.
“It’s only proper,” they would quip. That or some other trite expression. What they said didn’t matter. Liam’s cheeks would burn with humiliation regardless of what they said, and so too the offensive left hand.
“Can you read?”
At first, the question seemed daft. I can write, why wouldn’t I be able to read? Liam was tempted to say. But thankfully, he stopped himself. The two skills weren’t mutually exclusive, he realised. Any monkey could copy the symbols onto a piece of paper. But not every monkey could read those same symbols back. There was a tale he remembered his father telling him about how ancient priests with precious secrets would hire waifs from the slums and get them to simply copy the scripts from one parchment to another. Because they couldn’t read, the secrets were safe. And once the waifs had served their purpose, they’d be given a few coins as payment and sent on their way.
“I can read,” Liam said. Then, after a pause, added, “My father made sure I learned that skill.”
The trio nodded in unison. Whether they approved of Liam’s literary skills or the fact that his father insisted he acquire them was largely immaterial. Until mention of his father, the trio looked about as excited to be here as Liam. He might have been naïve about much, but Liam knew boredom when he saw it. And until his last remark, boredom was scrawled across the faces of his interviewers like an exquisitely detailed map. Now, the faintest glimmer of interest arose in their eyes.
“Your father is a good man,” Osborne said. “Would you agree with that, Liam?”
“It would be unwise to disagree with that, I think, sir.”
The tutors smiled at this remark, cold smiles barely touched with mirth. “Indeed, it would be,” Osborne commented. On either side of him, his companions nodded silently, dutifully. “Tell me... what line of work is your father in?”
“Trade, sir. My father is a merchant.”
“A quite successful merchant, too, from what I have heard,” Clough murmured.
“That is true,” Osborne replied.
“So the matter of... certain donations... wouldn’t be beyond his means, then?” Clough wondered aloud.
Osborne shook his head slowly. “Not at all.” He turned his gaze back to Liam, his cold smile still firmly in place. “I’m fairly certain that he’d meet any charitable need to ensure that young Liam here is made an apprentice. Isn’t that right, Liam?”
In that moment, Liam felt his heart lurch inside his chest. But, like the good boy he was, the good boy that his father always required him to be, he simply nodded. “Yes, sir,” he said.