It was an unusually hot weekend in mid-June and sweat pooled along Luke Hadley’s spine as he lay on his stomach on a blanket in the front garden. He was staring blankly at a spread of textbooks. The screaming was distracting, and had been going on for a while now.
If it had been Abigail trying to revise, Daisy and her pals would never have been allowed to make such a racket. But Mum had inexplicably gone into overdrive for Daisy’s birthday, which had turned into the party of the century. Luke’s little sis and her friends were careering round behind the house shrieking at the tops of their voices, while some unforgivably awful C-pop boyband blared through the living room window.
Luke stuffed his earbuds in as deep as they’d go without rupturing anything, and turned up the volume on his own music. It didn’t work. The catchy beat of ‘Happy Panda’ was backed by the delirious vocals of ten-year-old girls massacring the Chinese language. Moaning, he let his face fall forwards onto the books spread out on the grass in front of him. He knew who he’d be blaming when he failed History and Citizenship.
Beside him, her own exams long since completed, Abi was lost in one of her favourite trashy novels. Luke gave it the side-eye and cringed at the title: Her Master’s Slave . She was nearly finished, and had another pastel-covered horror lined up. The Heir’s Temptation . How someone as smart as his big sister could read such rubbish was beyond him. Still, at least it kept her distracted. Uncharacteristically, Abi hadn’t nagged him once about revision, even though this term’s tests were the most important until he finished school in two years’ time. He turned back to the mock exam paper. The words swam before his eyes.
Describe the Equal Revolution of 1642 and explain how it led to the Slavedays Compact. Analyse the role of (i) Charles I, the Last King, (ii) Lycus Parva, the Regicide, and (iii) Cadmus Parva-Jardine, the Pure-in-Heart.
Luke grunted in disgust and rolled onto his back. Those stupid Equal names seemed designed to confuse. And who really cared why the slavedays had begun, hundreds of years ago?
All that mattered was that they’d never ended. Everyone in Britain except the Equals – the Skilled aristocrats – still had to give up a decade of their life. Those years were spent confined to one of the grim slavetowns that shadowed every major city, with no pay and no respite.
Movement caught his eye and he sat up, scenting distraction. A stranger had walked up the driveway and was peering through the windows of Dad’s car.
This wasn’t unusual. Luke jumped up and went over.
‘Brilliant, isn’t it?’ he told the guy. ‘It’s an Austin-Healey, more than fifty years old. My dad restored it. He’s a mechanic. But I helped. It took us more than a year. I could probably do most of it myself now, he’s taught me so much.’
‘Is that right? Well, I reckon you’ll be sorry to see it go, then.’
‘See it go?’ Luke was nonplussed. ‘It’s not going anywhere.’
‘Eh? But this is the address in the advert.’
‘Can I help?’ Abi had appeared at Luke’s shoulder. She nudged him gently. ‘You get back to your revision, little bro. I’ll handle this.’
Luke was about to tell her not to bother, that the man had made a mistake, when a stampede of small girls hurtled around the house and thundered towards them.
‘Daisy!’ Abi yelled repressively. ‘You’re not to play round the front. I don’t want anyone tearing into the road and getting run over.’
Daisy trotted over to join them. She wore a large orange badge with a sparkly ‘10’ on it, and a sash across her chest bearing the words ‘Birthday Girl’.
‘Honestly.’ Daisy folded her arms. ‘It was only for a minute, Abi.’
The man who’d come about the car was looking at Daisy intently. He’d better not be some kind of pervert.
‘Birthday girl, is it?’ he said, reading the sash. ‘You’re ten? I see . . .’
His face went funny for a moment, with some expression Luke couldn’t work out. Then he looked at the three of them standing there. It wasn’t a threatening look, but it made Luke put his arm round his little sis and draw her closer.
‘Tell you what,’ the man said. ‘I’ll give your dad a call some other time. You enjoy your party, young lady. Have your fun while you can.’ He nodded at Daisy, then turned and ambled off down the driveway.
‘Weird,’ said Daisy expansively. Then she gave a war-whoop and led her pals in a prancing, cheering conga back round the rear of the house.
‘Weird’ was the word, Luke thought. In fact, the entire day had felt not quite right. But it wasn’t until he lay awake in bed that night that it all came together. Selling the car. The fuss over Daisy’s birthday. The suspicious absence of nagging over his own exam revision.
When he heard hushed conversation floating up from the kitchen, and padded downstairs to find his parents and Abi sat at the table studying paperwork, Luke knew he was right.
‘When were you planning on telling me and Daisy?’ he said from the doorway, deriving a grim satisfaction from their confusion. ‘At least you let the poor kid blow out the candles on her cake before your big reveal. “Happy Birthday, darling. Mummy and Daddy have a surprise: they’re abandoning you to do their slavedays.”
The three of them looked back at him in silence. On the tabletop, Dad’s hand reached for Mum’s. Parental solidarity – never a good sign.
‘So what’s the plan? That Abi’s going to look after me and Daisy? How will she do that when she’s at med school?’
‘Sit down, Luke.’
Dad was an easy-going man, but his voice was unusually firm. That was the first alarm.
Then as he stepped into the room Luke noticed the documents Abi was hastily shuffling into a pile. A suspiciously large pile. The uppermost sheet bore Daisy’s date of birth.
Understanding slid into Luke’s brain and lodged its sharp point there. ‘It’s not just you, is it?’ he croaked. ‘It’s all of us. Now that Daisy’s turned ten, it’s legal. You’re taking us with you. We’re all going to do our slavedays.’
He could hardly say the last word. It stole the breath from his chest. In an instant, the slavedays had gone from being a dull exam question, to the next decade of Luke’s life. Ripped away from everyone and everything he knew.
Sent to Manchester’s filthy, unforgiving slavetown, Millmoor.
‘You know what they say.’ Luke was unsure whether he was berating his parents or begging them.
“Do your slavedays too old, you’ll never get through them. Do your slavedays too young, you’ll never get over them.” What part of that don’t you understand? Nobody does days at my age, let alone Daisy’s.’
‘It’s not a decision your mother and I have taken lightly,’ Dad replied, keeping his voice steady.
‘We only want the best for you all,’ Mum said. ‘And we believe this is it. You’re too young to appreciate it now, but life is different for those who’ve done their days. It gives you opportunities – better opportunities than your father and I had.’
Luke knew what she meant. You weren’t a full citizen until you’d completed your slavedays, and only citizens could hold certain jobs, own a house, or travel abroad. But jobs and houses were unimaginably far off, and ten years of servitude in exchange for a few weeks of foreign holidays didn’t seem much of a trade.
His parents’ reasonableness knifed Luke with betrayal. This wasn’t something his parents just got to choose, like new curtains for the living room. This was Luke’s life. About which they’d made a huge decision without consulting him.
Though they had, apparently, consulted Abi. ‘As she’s eighteen,’ Dad said, following Luke’s gaze, ‘Abigail is of age to make up her own mind. And obviously your mum and I are delighted that she’s decided to come with us. In fact, she’s done rather more than that.’ Dad put his arm round Abi’s shoulders and squeezed proudly.
What had the girl wonder done now?
‘Are you serious?’ Luke asked his sister. ‘You’ve been offered places at three different medical schools, and you’re turning them down to spend the next decade saying nin hao every five minutes in Millmoor’s Bank of China call centre? Or maybe they’ll put you in the textiles factory. Or the meat-packing plant.’
‘Cool it, little bro,’ Abi said. ‘I’ve deferred my offers. And I’m not going toMillmoor. None of us are. Do what Dad says: sit down, and I’ll explain.’
Still furious, but desperate to know how you could do days without going to Millmoor, Luke complied. And he listened with a mixture of admiration and horror as Abi told him what she’d done. It was insane. It was terrifying.
It was still slavedays, and because he was under eighteen it wasn’t like Luke had a choice one way or the other. His parents could take him wherever they wanted. But at least they weren’t taking him to the hellhole that was Millmoor.
Mum and Dad told Daisy the next morning, and she accepted the news with a stoicism that made Luke ashamed. For the first time he allowed himself to think that maybe his parents’ plan was the right one, and that they’d all get through their days just fine, as a family. A few days later, once it had all sunk in, he told his best friend, Simon.
Si let out a low whistle at the big reveal.
‘There’s a department within the Labour Allocation Bureau called Estates Services, where the Equals go for their house-slaves,’ Luke said. ‘Abi made an application for us there. We’re being sent south to Kyneston.’
‘Even I’ve heard of Kyneston.’ Si was incredulous. ‘That’s the Jardines. The top of the lot. Lord Jardine is the scary dude who was Chancellor when we were little. What on earth do they want you for?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ Luke admitted. The paperwork had detailed roles for Mum, Dad and Abi: as the estate nurse, Kyneston’s vehicle mechanic, and something secretarial. But no assignment was specified for Luke or Daisy – presumably because they were minors, Abi explained. They might not have a particular job, but simply be required to do tasks on an as-needed basis. Luke had caught himself imagining what those things could be. Scrubbing the mansion’s gold-plated toilets, perhaps? Or how about waiting on the Equals at dinner, hair combed and white gloves on, spooning peas from a silver tureen? None of it appealed.
‘And Daisy,’ Si continued. ‘What use do the Jardines have for a kid that little? What use have they got for a nurse, come to that? I thought the Equals used their Skill to heal themselves.’
Luke thought the same, but Abi, ever willing to clarify and correct, pointed out that nobody really knew what the Equals could do with their Skill, which was why it was particularly exciting to be going to an estate.
Daisy had nodded so hard in agreement it was a wonder her head hadn’t fallen off. Luke doubted even the Equals could fix that. The summer crawled by.
Some time mid-July, Luke thumped downstairs to find an estate agent showing prospective tenants around the house. Soon after, the hallway filled up with boxes so their possessions could be taken to storage.
Early August, he went into town with a few friends from the school soccer team and broke the not-so-happy news. There’d been shock, sympathy, and the suggestion of a valedictory visit to a pub where the barman was known to be a poor judge of age. But in the end, they’d just had a kick-around in the park.
They hadn’t made any plans to meet up again. With twelve days to go, the bloke who’d turned up asking about the car came back. Luke watched his father hand over the keys and had to turn away, blinking. He was not going to start crying over a car, of all things. But he knew it wasn’t the vehicle he was mourning, so much as what it represented. Bye-bye, driving lessons in the autumn. So long, independence. Won’t be seeing you in a hurry, best years of my life.
Abi tried to cheer him up, but a few days later it was his turn to see her silhouetted in the kitchen doorway, her head bowed and shoulders shaking. She held a torn envelope in her hand. It was her exam results. He’d forgotten all about them. At first he thought she hadn’t achieved the grades she had hoped for. But when he hugged her, Abi showed him the slip of paper. Perfect marks, granting her admission to every university to which she’d applied.
Luke realized then how much his big sister was giving up by coming with them. Departure Day minus two was open house for friends and family to say their farewells, and Mum and Dad threw a subdued party that evening.
Luke spent the day hunkered down with the console and his favourite games, because there’d be no more of those either, where they were going. (How did slaves entertain themselves at Kyneston? Playing charades round the piano? Or maybe there was no downtime. Maybe you worked until you dropped, then slept, then got up and did it all over again, every day for a decade.)
Then the day itself arrived, sunny and beautiful, of course. Luke sat on the garden wall, watching his family going about its last bits of business.
Mum had emptied the fridge and gone round to the neighbours with an offering of leftovers. Dad was dropping off a final box of essentials with a friend a few streets away, who would take it to the storage depot to join the rest of the family’s possessions. The girls sunbathed on the grass, Daisy pestering her sister with questions and repeating back the answers.
Lord Whittam Jardine, Lady Thalia, Heir Gavar,’ Daisy parroted. ‘Jenner. And I can’t remember that last one. His name’s too silly.’
‘You’re halfway there,’ said Abi, smiling. ‘It’s Silyen – that’s Sill -yun. He’s the youngest, somewhere between me and Luke. There’s no Jardine as little as you. And it’s Jar- deen and Kye -neston, like “lie”. They won’t want to hear our northern vowels down south.’
Daisy rolled her eyes and threw herself back down on the grass. Abi stretched out her long legs and tucked the bottom of her T-shirt underneath her bra to catch some sun. Luke devoutly hoped she wouldn’t be doing that at Kyneston.
‘I’m gonna miss that fit sister of yours,’ Si said in Luke’s ear, startling him. Luke turned to look at his friend, who’d come to see him off.
‘You make sure your lords and masters don’t go getting any funny ideas about their entitlements.’
‘I dunno,’ Luke muttered. ‘You’ve seen the books she reads. I reckon it might be them that need protecting.’ Simon laughed.
They exchanged an awkward shoulder-bump and backslap, but Luke stayed sitting on the wall, Si standing on the pavement.
‘I hear the Equal girls are hot,’ he said, elbowing Luke.
‘Got that on good authority, have you?’
‘Hey, at least you’ll get to see some girls. My Uncle Jim says all the workplaces are single sex at Millmoor, so the only women you hang out with are your own family. It’s a right dump, that place.’ Si spat expressively.
‘Jimmy got back from there a few weeks ago. We’ve not told anyone yet, because he’s not leaving the house and doesn’t want folk coming round. He’s a broken man. I mean, literally. He was in an accident and now his arm—’ Simon folded up one elbow and flapped his wrist. The effect was ridiculous, but Luke didn’t feel like laughing.
‘He got hit by a forklift or something. He’s not said much about it. In fact, he hardly says anything at all. He’s my da’s little brother but he looks about ten years older. Nah, I’m staying out of Millmoor as long as I can, and I reckon you’ve scored a right cushy number.’ Si looked up and down the street.
Looked anywhere but at Luke. His best friend had run out of things to say, Luke realized.
They’d hung out together for nearly twelve years, playing, pranking and copying homework off each other since their first week at primary school. And all that ended here.
‘Don’t go thinking those Equals are folk like us,’ Si said, with one last effort at conversation. ‘They’re not. They’re freaks. I still remember our field trip to that parliament of theirs, that House of Light. The guide banging on about what a masterpiece it was, all built by Skill, but it gave me the creeps.You remember those windows? Dunno what was going on inside, but it didn’t look like “inside” any place I’ve ever seen. Yeah, you watch yourself. And that sister of yours.’ Si managed a half-hearted wink at Abi, and Luke cringed.
His friend was a complete liability. Luke wouldn’t see him for an entire decade. Abi wouldn’t hear Si’s innuendo ever again, because he’d probably be married with kids by the time they all made it back to Manchester. He’d have a job. New friends. He’d be making his way in the world. Everything that made up Luke’s universe right now would be gone, fast-forwarded ten years, while Luke himself had stayed still.
The unfairness of it all made him suddenly, violently, furious and Luke smashed his hand down on the wall so hard he took the skin off his palm. As he yelped, Si finally looked at him, and Luke saw pity in his eyes. ‘Awright, then,’ Si said. ‘I’ll be off. You have a quick ten years.’
Luke watched him go, the last part of his old life, walking away round the corner and out of sight. Then, because there was nothing else left to do, he went and joined his sisters, stretching out on the lawn in the sun. Daisy lolled against him, her head resting heavily on his ribs as he breathed in and out. He closed his eyes and listened to the noise of the TV from the house on the other side; the rumble of traffic from the main road; birdsong; Mum telling Dad that she wasn’t sure whether she’d packed enough sandwiches for the five-hour journey to Kyneston.
Something small crawled out of the grass and crept across his neck until he swatted it. Luke wondered if he could sleep away the next ten years, like someone in a fairy tale, and wake to find that his days were over and done with.
Then Dad’s voice, officious, and Mum saying, ‘Get up, kids. It’s time.’ The Jardines hadn’t sent a chauffeur-driven Rolls for them, of course. Just a plain old silver-grey saloon car.
Dad was showing their papers to its driver, a woman whose sweater was embroidered with ‘LAB’, the Labour Allocation Bureau’s initials.
‘Five of you?’ the lady was saying, frowning at the documents. ‘I’ve only got four names here.’ Mum stepped forward, wearing her most reassuring face.
‘Well, our youngest, Daisy, wasn’t quite ten when we did the paperwork, but she is now, which is probably—’
‘Daisy? Nope, I’ve got her down.’ The woman read from the top sheet on her clipboard. ‘HADLEY, Steven, Jacqueline, Abigail and Daisy. Collection: 11 a.m. from 28 Hawthornden Road, Manchester. Destination: Kyneston Estate, Hampshire.’
‘What?’ Mum snatched the clipboard, Abi craning over her shoulder to look at it.
Anxiety and a mad kind of hope knotted their fingers in Luke’s guts and pulled in opposite directions. The paperwork had been botched up. He had a reprieve. Maybe he wouldn’t have to do his days at all.
Another vehicle turned into the street, a bulky black minivan with an insignia blazoned across the bonnet. They all knew that symbol, and the words curled underneath: ‘ Labore et honore ’. Millmoor’s town motto.
‘Ah, my colleagues,’ said the woman, visibly relieved. ‘I’m sure they’ll be able to clarify.’ ‘Look,’ hissed Abi, pointing to something in the papers.
The van pulled up in front of the house and a thickset man, hair buzzed almost to his scalp, got out. He wasn’t wearing the LAB outfit, but something that looked more like a police uniform. A truncheon hung from his utility belt and knocked against his leg as he walked over.
‘Luke Hadley?’ he said, stopping in front of Luke. ‘Guess that’s you, sonny. Grab your bag, we’ve got another four to pick up.’
‘What does this mean?’ Abi asked the LAB woman, thrusting the clipboard under her face. Several sheets were curled back and Luke recognized the face in the photo now uppermost as his own. The page was scored by a thick red line, with two words stamped across it.
‘What does it mean?’ The woman laughed nervously. ‘Well, “Surplus: reassign” explains itself, surely? Kyneston Estate has been unable to find any useful activity for your brother, so his file was returned to us for reassignment. As an unqualified solo male, there’s really only one option.’
Anxiety had won the tug-of-war, and was hauling Luke’s guts out length by length, helped along by fear. He wasn’t needed at Kyneston. They were taking him to Millmoor.
‘No,’ he said, backing away. ‘No, there’s been a mistake.
We’re a family.’ Dad stepped protectively in front of him. ‘My son comes with us.’
‘The paperwork says otherwise,’ the LAB woman piped up.
‘Stuff your paperwork,’ Mum snarled.
And then it all happened horribly quickly. When the uniformed guy from Millmoor reached round Dad to grab Luke’s arm, Dad swung a fist at his face. It connected with the man’s jaw and he swore, stumbling backwards, his hands scrabbling at his belt.
They all saw the truncheon come down and Daisy screamed. The baton whacked Dad round the side of the head and he fell to his knees on the driveway, groaning. Blood trickled from his temple, reddening the little patch where his hair was going grey.
Mum gasped and knelt beside him, checking the injury. ‘You animal,’ she yelled. ‘Blunt-force trauma can kill if the brain swells.’
Daisy burst into tears. Luke wrapped his arms round her, pressing her face against his side and holding her tight.
‘I’ll report you,’ said Abi, jabbing a finger at the Millmoor man. She peered at the name emblazoned on his uniform. ‘Who do you think you are, Mr Kessler? You can’t just assault people.’
‘How right you are, young lady.’ Kessler’s lips drew back across a wide, teeth-filled grin. ‘But I’m afraid that as of 11 a.m.’ – he checked his watch ostentatiously, rotating his wrist outwards so they could all see the dial, which showed 11.07 – ‘you all began your slavedays and entered a state of legal non-personhood. You are now chattels of the state. To explain for the little one here,’ he said, looking at Daisy, ‘that means that you are no longer “people” and have no rights at all. At. All .’
Abi gasped and Mum made a low moan, pressing her hand to her mouth.
‘Yes,’ the man continued, with that thin-lipped smile. ‘People don’t tend to think about that when they’re making their arrangements. Particularly not when they think they’re something special, too good to slave alongside the rest of us. So you have a choice.’
His hand went to the belt and unclipped something. It looked like a child’s drawing of a gun: blocky and intimidating. ‘This fires 50,000 volts and can incapacitate each one of you. Then we load you into the car, along with your bags. You four in there, and you’ – he pointed to Luke, then to the van – ‘in there. Or you can all just get in the correct vehicle. Simple.’
You could appeal these sorts of things, couldn’t you? Abi had got them all into Kyneston. She’d be able to get him out of Millmoor. Of course she would. She’d wear down the labour bureau by force of paperwork alone. Luke couldn’t let anyone else in his family get hurt. He loosened his arms from around Daisy and gave her a gentle push away.
‘Luke, no!’ his little sis yelled, trying to cling more tightly.
‘Here’s what we’ll do, Dozy,’ Luke told her, kneeling down and wiping the tears from her cheeks.
‘I’m going to Millmoor. You are going to Kyneston, where you’ll be so super-special-amazing that when you tell them you’ve got a brother who’s even more awesome, who somehow got left behind, they will send their private jet to come and fetch me. You understand?’ Daisy looked too traumatized to speak, but she nodded.
‘Mum, Dad, don’t worry.’ Dad made a choking noise and Mum broke out in noisy sobs as he embraced them both. ‘It’s just for now.’ He couldn’t keep up this act much longer. If he didn’t get in that van quickly, he’d completely lose it. He felt empty inside, just bitter black terror washing around like dregs in the bottom of his stomach. ‘I’ll see you all soon,’ he said, with a confidence he didn’t feel. Then he picked up his duffel bag and turned towards the minivan.
‘Aren’t you the little hero,’ sneered Kessler, slamming open the vehicle side. ‘I’m weeping here. Get in, Hadley E-1031, and let’s get going.’
The baton hit Luke hard between the shoulder blades and he sprawled forward. He had the presence of mind to pull up his feet before the door banged shut, then was thrown back against the seat legs as the van pulled away. Face down on the filthy vehicle floor, pressed against strangers’ stinking boots, Luke didn’t see how anything could be more awful than what had just happened.
Millmoor would prove him wrong.