Sync or swim

John Brennan

Part 1

John Brennan |

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At 8.10am, beyond the scrum of black Mercedes around its gates, St Jude's International School was gearing up for a new week.

In 3C, the immaculately-dressed students gossiped in groups, one eye always on the screens of their gleaming smartphones. Behind them, their designer bags lay strewn across all but one of the desks.

There, in a corner of the room, wearing his second-hand uniform, Ethan Tai Sui-man sat at his laptop, perplexed. A jab at the delete key erased all the code he'd just written.

"I got your text."

Absorbed, Ethan didn't look up at the sound of the girl's British accent. "Shh."

Bemused, she tried again, "I said ..."

Ethan, his eyes glued to the screen, cut her short: "What's the matter with you? Can't you see, I've got a problem."

The girl looked away and took a deep breath. "You're telling me."

Ethan just got his fingers out in time as she slammed the laptop lid shut. "Why the hell did you do that ... Maya," said Ethan, looking up and realising who he'd been ignoring.

"Because you sent me a text saying you wanted to ask me something. Now."

Oh, no, Ethan thought. Probably the most nerve-wracking thing he'd had to do in his whole life had got off to a calamitous start. But, he reminded himself, he did have a plan for avoiding death by embarrassment. First, apologise.

"Look I'm sorry. I did ... I do want to ask you something. I just got caught up in this ... er ... er ..."

"This, what?"

"Shhhh," hissed Sam Peterson, appearing from out of nowhere. "It's his top secret project. If he told you, I'd have to kill you both."

Ethan rolled his eyes. He realised now was the moment to be masterful and take control. "Maya. Sam and I are going to the free gig in Victoria Park on Wednesday, and ..."

She waited for the end of the sentence. "And ... what?"

But words, his courage, and possibly soon also his breathing, were failing Ethan.

"And ...," she teased, "you're not sure if somewhere so busy is right for your first date with Sam?

With Ethan floundering, Sam stepped in. "And do you want to come with us?" he asked Maya.

Gosh, Ethan thought, that didn't sound too bad.

"Of course," Sam continued to Maya, "when you turn up, I won't be there."

"Sam." Ethan winced. With a best friend like this, who needed ...

"Hold on, Maya," called Gilbert Chan, striding across the room, his expression as oily as his hair. "I know it sounds perfect - you like music and Ethan likes anything that's free. But, Ethan, are you really sure you can afford the MTR fare from Sham Shui Po to Causeway Bay?"

Ethan, however, wasn't thrown by this; he felt much more comfortable taking on the staff of Morons-R-Us than asking Maya out on a date.

"Gilbert, you do realise the reason you and your sister have a driver to bring you to school is because your dad doesn't think you're smart enough to find your way here on your own," he replied.

A crowd had gathered in the anticipation/hope that this could get nasty. Elbowing her way through, Gilbert's twin sister, Charlotte, joined the fray. "Shut up, Ethan. You're only here because of, like, a scholarship."

"Terrible isn't it?" Maya interjected. "Letting someone into a good school because they're smart and talented, not just because their parents are rich."

Ethan turned to look at Maya. Smart? Talented? Should he take that as a yes? Things were looking ...

"At least we've got two parents."

As if in slow motion, Ethan turned to Gilbert. "What did you say?"

"I said ..."

Sam got to Ethan before he got to Gilbert. Clutching Ethan's lapels in one hand, he shoved Gilbert away with the other.

"Remember, he's an idiot, and you're not," Sam told Ethan, as he struggled to hold him back.

"Ethan!" The whole class turned to see Mr Hemmings, their form teacher, standing in the doorway. "Head's office. Now."

As Ethan left, behind him Gilbert and Charlotte high-fived in triumph.

Taking a deep breath, Ethan knocked and opened the heavy wooden door. As he prepared to launch into his excuse, the headmistress put up her hand.

"Ethan, I had a call. It's your mother and ..."

Ethan gulped. His mum was a much scarier prospect than anyone in the school heirarchy. "Is it about the old pizza under my bed?"

"No, Ethan, I'm afraid it's more serious than that. There's a taxi waiting to take you to the hospital."

Bursting through the doors of the Intensive Care ward, Ethan found his grandad and his older sister, Sophie, at his mother's bedside.

As she lay there ashen-faced and unconscious, wired up to drips and solemnly beeping monitors, Ethan could barely recognise her.

He looked at Sophie. "What happened?"

"She's had a heart attack."

"A big one," added Grandad. While he never spoke any English, he understood every word.

"Sui-man?" Ethan spun round at the mention of his name. His mother, her eyes barely open, was struggling to sit up.

"Mum, lie down," Sophie urged, as Grandad hurried off to get medical staff.

Ethan's mother had a desperate look in her eyes. "But I've got to get to work."

"No, it's ok, Mum, you don't have to do anything but rest," Ethan said, taking her hand.

"What do you mean, it's ok? Where's the money going to come from for our rent and our food? And I have to help Sophie pack."

As a nurse began to calm Mum down, Ethan turned to the doctor. "How serious is this?"

The physician paused before answering. "As I told the rest of your family, your mother needs to avoid all, and I mean absolutely all, stress. Otherwise ..." He shook his head and left the grim consequences unspoken as he went to her bedside.

Ethan looked from his grandfather to his sister. "I can't believe this is happening."

"No?" Grandad asked. "Since your father died she's been doing three jobs and taking all the overtime she can get."

"But how are we going to make sure she doesn't get stressed now?" Ethan asked.

Sophie looked at them. "I've decided. I'm not going to Australia, I'm not going to uni. I'm going to get a job."

"Are you crazy?" Grandad said. "If your mother found out either of you had given up on school that would surely kill her off."

"Then it's impossible," Ethan said. "Mum's going to freak out if we don't have money and she'll freak out if we don't carry on with our education." He looked from his sister to his grandfather, confusion and terror in his eyes. "So, what are we going to do?"

To be continued next week

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